Bob on Books Best Books of 2020

This has been a weird year in the book world as the pandemic has affected our reading habits (for better or worse), bookselling, publishing schedules and authors’ efforts to promote their books. Yet books have been there to inspire, to comfort, and divert. Many of the books here were published in 2020, but a few were such outstanding reads from earlier years I needed to include them. One difference this year is the inclusion of Ohio authors, not only in their own category, but in a few others.

Best of the Year:

A Promised Land, Barack Obama. New York: Crown Publishing, 2020. I delayed this post to finish this book. Whether you agreed with his politics or not, the disciplined and flowing prose offers insight not only into the events of his rise and presidency but his thought processes, his conception of and respect for the office, his vision for the nation, as well as insights into his family life. Review

Best Memoirs:

Sex and the City of God, Carolyn Weber. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. I wrote about this book: “This skillfully written narrative, punctuated with poetry and Augustine, invites us into the the aching wonder of human love shaped by the growing pursuit of the City of God. We are left wondering if God has something better on offer, even when it comes to human sexuality.” Review

Answering the CallNathaniel R. Jones. New York: The New Press, 2016. Nathaniel R. Jones was a U.S. Court of Appeals judge and former general counsel of the NAACP. His memoir reflects a single vision to answer the call to use the law to fight for equal rights for Blacks. Jones was not only an Ohio author but from my home town of Youngstown. He died this year. Review

Best Biography:

His Truth is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of HopeJon Meacham (Afterword by John Lewis). New York: Random House, 2020. Meacham gives us an account not only of the events of the late Congressman John Lewis’s life but also the faith that sustained his efforts and the non-violent methods of his resistance. Review

Best History:

City on a Hill: A History of American ExceptionalismAbram C. Van Engen. New Haven: Yale University Press, Forthcoming, February 25, 2020. Van Engen traces the history of John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon that included the phrase “city on a hill” and how this became a metaphor for American exceptionalism. Review

To Think ChristianlyCharles E. Cotherman (Foreword by Kenneth G. Elzinga).  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. This is a well-researched and written account of the Christian study center movement beginning with Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri. I wrote: “It also reminds me of the great debt of gratitude I owe to the places and people Cotherman chronicles–from Francis Schaeffer and how he first helped me think Christianly, to Jim Houston and the influence he and Regent had on a close ministry colleague, to the vision of the doctrine and life that I acquired through Ligonier, and the vision of campus engagement Ken Elzinga and the Center for Christian Study has given so many of us.” Review

Best Graphic non-fiction:

Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio, Derf Backderf. New York: Abrams Comicarts, 2020. Backderf is an Ohio native and in this graphic novel, he traces the last days of the four students who died at Kent State on the fiftieth anniversary of the shootings. He captures the setting, the swirl of events and the tragic moments on May 4, 1970, as well as any I’ve seen. Review

Best Ohio Authors: (In addition to those elsewhere in this list)

Goshen RoadBonnie Proudfoot. Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press, 2020. Bonnie Proudfoot is a first time author from southeast Ohio whose lean yet descriptive prose narrates the lives of two sisters, their husbands and families making a go at life in rural Appalachia. Review

Barnstorming Ohio To Understand AmericaDavid Giffels. New York: Hachette Books, 2020. Akron native spent a year traveling around Ohio, which he describes as “an All-American buffet.” He proposes that Ohio is a political microcosm of the U.S. political landscape, with which I would agree. His rendering of Ohio is one I recognized as ringing true. Review

Best Books on Race:

The Cross and the Lynching TreeJames H. Cone. Maryknoll: Orbis, 2013. Black theologian James Cone’s reflection on the parallel between the cross and the lynching tree, the perplexing reality that this has been missed within the white community, and how an understanding of this connection and the meaning of the cross has offered hope for the long struggle of the African-American community. Probably one of the most powerful books I read in 2020. Review

Brown Church: Five Centuries of Latina/o Social Justice, Theology, and IdentityRobert Chao Romero. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. A study of the five hundred year of Latina/o Christianity and its resistance and response to colonialism, dictatorships, U.S. imperialism, and oppression toward farm workers and immigrants. The author refutes the idea that the Latina/o church was an instrument of oppression, but rather sustained the resistance to oppression of the Latina/o community. An interview I did back in June with the author was one of the highlights of this year. Review

Best Essays:

UpstreamMary Oliver. New York: Penguin, 2016. These are exquisitely written essays on both nature and literary figures by poet Mary Oliver. Oliver is another Ohio-born author, growing up in Maple Heights, Ohio, where we also lived for nine years. Review

Make A ListMarilyn McEntyre. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2018. McEntyre explores the human phenomenon of why we make and like lists, how we can turn lists into a life-giving practice, and a plethora of ideas for lists we might create. Review

Best Theology:

Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of CreationGavin Ortlund. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. Ortlund discusses how Augustine approached the Genesis accounts of beginnings and suggests his approach may be helpful in our present day origins controversies. Review

Best Books on Existential Issues:

Companions in the DarknessDiana Gruver (Foreword by Chuck DeGroat). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. Biographies of seven Christians in history who experienced depression and the hope we can embrace from how they lived through their struggle. The author skillfully interweaves her own experience with depression with those of whom she writes.

The Lost Art of DyingL. S. Dugdale. New York: Harper One, 2020. Dugdale is a physician on the front line of treating COVID patients. She challenges our over-medicalized treatment of the dying, advocating a recovery of the “art of dying,” which also makes it possible to live well. She draws on ancient texts known as the Ars Moriendi and recovers their wisdom at a time when it is greatly needed. Review

Best Fiction:

The Great AloneKristen Hannah. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018. A family moves to the wilderness of Alaska, hopefully for a new start for Ernt Allbright, a former POW in Vietnam, only to discover that in a beautiful and dangerous wilderness, the greatest danger may lay in their own cabin. Hannah evokes the terrible splendor of the Alaskan wilderness and the fine line between love and peril in this troubled family. Review

A Tree Grows in BrooklynBetty Smith. New York: Harper Perennial, 2018 (originally published in 1943). A coming of age story told through the eyes of Francie Nolan, about a girl’s life and ambitions in a struggling family in Brooklyn. I finally got around to reading a classic which was among the most popular books among soldiers in World War II. Smith draws us into a Brooklyn setting of the past to tell an ageless story. Review

I realize this is a bit different list than some years. More books that touch in some way on the experiences of people of color. It has been that kind of year. Books on serious questions like depression and death. I have less fiction than usual. I did read other fiction, more in the diverting rather than great category. The exception perhaps is that I began reading the Chief Inspector Gamache books by author Louise Penny. I’m only three books in but am taken with Gamache and the people of Three Pines and the deeply insightful writing of Penny on the human condition. I’ve begun reading some Octavia Butler and Georges Simenon. All have been quite good but somehow didn’t fit this list. At any rate I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my choices, and feel free to let me know your “best books” choices as well. So many good books!

The Month in Reviews: October 2020

With the cooler weather, I think I’m catching up on the books I didn’t read early in the pandemic. In this month’s reads, there are a couple books about relationships and marriage, a senator’s conversion to activism against gun violence, an exciting rescue, Marilynne Robinson’s latest, some good theology, a profound book on suffering, and a wonderful book about political and civic engagement that renewed my hope.

Sex and the City of God, Carolyn Weber. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. A story of how the decision to choose “the city of God” transformed love, sexuality, and relationships for the author. Review

The Violence Inside Us, Chris Murphy. New York: Random House, 2020. A Connecticut Senator describes his own awakening to the scourge of gun violence after Newtown, and explores the causes and remedies for this uniquely American problem. Review

Sarah’s Laughter, Vinoth Ramachandra. Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Langham Global Library, 2020. An exploration of suffering, whether through illness or physical decline, human or natural evil, and the embrace of grief, lament, doubt, questioning and more, and what it means to hope amid our struggle. Review

The Lost Get-Back BoogieJames Lee Burke. New York: Pocket Star, 2006 (first published 1986). On release from prison, Iry Paret leaves Louisiana for Montana for a new start with his prisonmate, Buddy Riordan, only to find he has landed in the midst of new troubles. Review

God in Himself: Scripture, Metaphysics, and the Task of Christian TheologySteven J. Duby. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. A study of what may be known of God in God’s self rather than in God’s external relations to the world and the role that scripture, metaphysics, natural and supernatural theology, and the use of analogy all play in forming this understanding. Review

Compassion (&) ConvictionJustin Giboney, Michael Wear, and Chris Butler, Foreword by Barbara Williams-Skinner. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. A handbook for better political and civic engagement, overcoming the highly polarized character of our current discourse and the unhealthy assimilation of the church into politics. Review

All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer TeamChristina Soontornvat. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2020. An account of the rescue of the Wild Boars boys soccer team describing the engineering and diving efforts, and how the boys endured this experience. Review

Good ManNathan Clarkson. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2020. Goes beyond the stereotypes of what a “real man” is to explore the character of a good man and the journey of discovery this involves. Review

Friends DividedGordon S. Wood. New York: Penguin Books, 2018. An account of the sometimes troubled and unlikely friendship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Review

JackMarilynne Robinson. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2020. The story of an inter-racial love affair between Jack Ames Boughton and Della Miles, and Jack’s struggle to find grace. Review

Blessed Are The NonesStina Kielsmeier-Cook. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. A memoir of a Christian woman coming to terms, with the help of some Catholic nuns, with her husband’s de-conversion. Review

Tales of the Jazz Age, F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York, Open Road Media, 2016 (first published in 1922). A collection of eleven short stories, the most famous of which is “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Review

Leading Lives That Matter (Second Edition), Edited by Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2020. An anthology on what the well-lived life looks like exploring four important vocabularies and six vital questions through a range of religious and secular readings. Review

Love, Zac: Small-Town Football and the Life and Death of an American Boy, Reid Forgrave. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2020. The account of Zac Easter, who grew up in the football culture of small town Iowa and his family, played hard, until he began to experience the consequences of repeated concussions, when his life began to unravel. Review

Best Book of the Month: Compassion (&) Conviction is a timely primer on practical and effective political and civic engagement built on a biblical framework that moves beyond the binaries that have so deeply divided us. It was so refreshing to read a book taking both a strong pro-life stance and a strong social justice stance.

Best Quote of the Month: Carolyn Weber is a gifted writer whose work I’ve previously enjoyed, but I thought she soared to new heights in Sex and the City of God, a book on singleness, courtship, and marriage as a young Christian. This quote is one of many I could have pulled:

Sex as the template for genealogy is important because sexuality is a reflection of God’s relationship with us. Our relationship to sex speaks of our relationship to God. And because our relationship to God must precede our relationship with everything else, including our own selves, working from this first relationship changes everything. As a result, more often than not in a culture that neglects our dignity as spiritual beings, pursuing this foundational relationship can feel countercultural, though it is God’s norm, for in becoming children of God we become who he intended us to be (p. 63).

What I’m Reading: I have three books ready for review this coming week. Rhythms for Life helps connect spiritual practices to the kind of person you are. Live Not By Lies is Rod Dreher’s sequel to The Benedict Option. Having studied the Communist governments of eastern Europe and talked to Christians who bore faithful witness under totalitarian regimes, he offers a warning of the coming of a soft totalitarianism, and what Christians must be prepared for. Nicholas A Basbanes A Gentle Madness was written in the 1990’s and tells the stories of those obsessed with book collecting, a very different group, I found, from those who love reading.

I’m in the middle of several other books right now. All I Did Was Shoot My Man is my first dip into the crime fiction of Walter Mosley, the dean of Black crime fiction writers. Olive Kittredge is an older work, a collection of stories set in a coastal New England town around the formidable title character. Craig S. Keener’s Between History and Spirit collects a number of journal articles by Keener on the book of Acts. on which Keener wrote a four volume exegetical commentary. Finally, Aida Besancon Spencer’s Commentary on James is just that–a careful exegetical commentary that draws out James on faith and works, money and speech.

Writing from the United States, it appears with the spike in COVID-19 cases that I will be sheltering in place for a good while yet. I’m fortunate to be able to work from home, collaborating with colleagues and connecting with friends via video technology. I’m also quite grateful for the literary companions with whom I have the chance to keep company. I hope this time affords you that opportunity as well. Stay safe, my bookish friends!

Go to “The Month in Reviews” on my blog to skim all my reviews going back to 2014 or use the “Search” box to see if I’ve reviewed something you are interested in.

Bob on Books Best Books of 2019

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.indd

With a few weeks left in the year I’ve reviewed 175 books in 2019. The list that follows is my judgment of the best of many good books I read during 2019. Many of these were published in 2019 but some in earlier years. One unusual category I included this year is books on writing because of two standout books I read in this category. With that, here is my list:

Best of the Year:

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.indd

The CrucifixionFleming Rutledge. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017. Fleming Rutledge wrote a long, deep book on the meaning of the death of Christ that I read through the season of Lent this year. She distills it to two critical truths: 1. God’s definitive action in making vicarious atonement for sin and 2. God’s decisive victory over the alien Powers of Sin and Death. This book is both one of the most well-written and theologically profound books I’ve read in the last ten years.

Literary Fiction:

The dearly beloved

The Dearly BelovedCara Wall. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019. This was a debut work reminiscent of the writing of Marilynne Robinson about two pastors and their wives who share in the ministry of a New York City during the turbulent Sixties, the different ways each approaches their faith, and the challenge of coming to terms with their differences. Review

a world lost

A World Lost, Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2008. (no publisher’s webpage available). I’ve long been a Wendell Berry fan, and this book only confirmed my appreciation for his work, as he explores how a family, including a young boy, comes to terms when a family member is suddenly and violently taken away from them. Review

Crime Fiction:

This was the year I discovered writers of crime fiction I really liked: James Lee Burke, and C.J. Box, and their characters Dave Robicheaux and Joe Pickett. Different characters, vastly different settings, but great reads.

wolf pack

Wolf Pack (Joe Pickett #19), C. J. Box. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019. A pack of four contract killers from a Mexican drug cartel threaten to take over Pickett’s town in pursuit of a former kingpin now in witness protection. Review

robicheaux-9781501176869_lg

Robicheaux (Dave Robicheaux #21), James Lee Burke. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018. Robicheaux tries to navigate his way through grief from the tragic death of his wife, his friend’s debt issues, a mobster wanting to make a movie, a demagogic politician and a serial murderer, while trying to clear himself of suspicion in the death of the man who killed his wife. Review

Memoirs:

Educated

Educated, Tara Westover. New York: Random House, 2018. In last year’s version of this list, I predicted that this would be on the 2019 list. Like many others, I found riveting Westover’s memoir of growing up with survivalist Mormon parents in rural Idaho, suffering abuse from other family members, and her passion to learn that took her ultimately to Cambridge. Review

perfectly human

Perfectly HumanSarah C. Williams. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2018. A professor and her husband face a pre-natal diagnosis of fatal birth defects, decide to carry their daughter to term, describe their discussions with family and friends, and the larger issues their decision raised for them. Review

Biographies:

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of FreedomDavid W. Blight. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018. This was a magnificent biography of an escaped slave who relentlessly fought for the freedom of his people. Review

the good neighbor

The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred RogersMaxwell King. New York: Abrams Press, 2018. After reading this account of Fred Rogers, I wrote: “King’s book, and this story in particular, suggests to me that Rogers was a modern St. Francis. He came from wealth, and yet lived simply. He pursued a calling, a ministry with a singleness of vision that seemed strange to some at times, and yet had its own peculiar power to form the character and self-worth of children. He sang and spoke through puppets, fed fish, and met us on screen in homely cardigans. To read about him is to be elevated, and to ask oneself, ‘am I a good neighbor?’ ” Review

History:

the impeachers

The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just NationBrenda Wineapple. New York: Random House, 2019. Wineapple’s careful historical account of the impeachment of Andrew Johnson demonstrates why impeachment is as yet unproven as a remedy for removing presidents accused of abusing the powers of their office. Review

indianapolis-9781501135941_lg

Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent ManLynn Vincent and Sara Vladic. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018. This is a wonderfully told story of the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis by a Japanese submarine at the end of World War Two, the five day struggle for survival that took the lives of nearly two-thirds of those who made it into the water, and the fifty-year effort to exonerate her court-martialed captain. Review

Science-related:

Yancey

Fearfully and Wonderfully: The Marvel of Bearing God’s Image (Updated and combined edition), Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019. Brand explores the wonders of the human body, and parallels these wonders with the body of Christ. Review

Losing Earth

Losing Earth: A Recent HistoryNathaniel Rich. MCD/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2019. Nathaniel Rich reminded me that we’ve long known the science of climate change, that at one time political parties agreed on the need for action, but allowed fossil fuel interests to polarize the parties and the country. Rich traces that history. Review

Higher Education:

religion in the university

Religion in the University, Nicholas Wolterstorff. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019. Wolterstorff proposes a cogent argument that in a pluralist university public square, religious perspectives ought be welcomed along with others. Review

fundamentalist u

Fundamentalist U: Keeping Faith in American Higher EducationAdam Laats. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. A study of eight flagship fundamentalist/evangelical institutions over the last century, their evolution, and the outsized influence they have had on American society. Review

Writing:

Write Better

Write BetterAndrew T. LePeau. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019. A former editor describes the craft, art, and spirituality of writing well, or at least better with wit, examples, and practicality. Review

Working

Working: Researching, Interviewing, WritingRobert A. Caro. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019. A writer of magnificent biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson describes his practices of research and writing. Review

Theological Works:

the violence of the biblical god

The Violence of the Biblical GodL. Daniel Hawk, foreword by John Goldingay. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2019. Hawk takes on the hard question of the involvement of God in violence, listening to the different voices in scripture to arrive at a singular proposal. Review

the gospel according to eve

The Gospel According to EveAmanda W. Benckhuysen. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019. Benckhuysen collects the writing of sixty women from the fourth century to the present on Genesis 1-3, and some of the distinctive contributions they make on how women and men ought live together. Review

Devotional Works: 

Inexpressible

InexpressibleMichael Card. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018. Card studies the use of the Hebrew word hesed, often translated as lovingkindness. In my review, I wrote:

To read this book was to allow God to thaw my heart, reminding me of the everything I have so undeservingly received. To read this book was to clear the fog from my eyes, to give me at least a glimpse of the inexpressible beauty of the God of hesed. Finally, to read this book was to stir my will, my hands, my feet, to think about the places where I might repair the world through the loving-kindness of hesed.  Review

Three Hours

Three Hours: Sermons for Good FridayFleming Rutledge. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019. Seven short sermons on the seven last words of Christ on the cross. I read this on Good Friday of this year, a profound reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ last words on the cross. Review

So there is my list. It reflects that I work in collegiate ministry, write, love history and biography, and a good story. I think those of you who follow this blog have similar, but not identical interests. Picking these out of the 175 was a challenge. I could have included so many others. Even the 175 is but a tiny fraction of the books published this year. I’m aware that there were a number of other outstanding works. These were works I found life-giving, informative, and diverting by turn. I think you will as well.

Overwhelmed with Booklists?

Booklists2An hazard of being a bibliophile is being overwhelmed with booklists. I confessing to contributing to this feeling for those who follow my blog and social media. This time of the year is the best, or worst, depending on your perspective, as a number of outlets publish their “best of the year” lists. In the next weeks, I’ll be doing this myself. And I’ll be posting others.

Today, I came across a most impressive list–all the books NPR has reviewed since 2013, organized as NPR’s Book Concierge, which is quite elegant as a book site. The list is tabbed by years, with access to their reviews by cover images or lists. You can search by your favorite genre. In all, there are over 2,000 reviews.

So how do I avoid being overwhelmed? Here are some things I find helpful:

  1. I pay attention to what sparks curiosity or interest. It might be a favorite author, or a cover, or a subject I’m interested in.
  2. I notice books that keep coming up in genres I’m interested in.
  3. I look for lists in subjects I’m interested in. I like Five Books because they post five books by an informed expert on a variety of subjects. Some awards, like the Hugo Awards (science fiction and fantasy) are genre specific.
  4. I read a number of religious books, and Christianity Today’s Book Awards each year is one list I pay attention to. If there is a topical area you are interested in, finding out what the flagship publication in that area is, and learning if they publish a list of books helps.
  5. Some of the most famous lists also reflect a particular literary culture. If you like the reviews you see in a particular outlet, the list may be helpful. If you tend to check out when you read the reviews, the list might not do much for you either. I don’t feel compelled to read what the literati think I should read.
  6. On the other hand, some lists may be useful if you want to branch out and read in an area different from what you usually read. For example, if you want to read more books by international authors, searching international book award lists may be helpful. Wikipedia, has a great list of these.
  7. Often, these lists have a latent effect on me. I may notice a book, perhaps multiple times and move on. Then I come across the book in a book store, and it just seems the right moment to pick it up.
  8. A special form of booklist is a bibliography, usually in more academic books. Sometimes, when I’m researching a topic, there will be a reference to another book, sometimes multiple ones, that tell me that the referenced book is really the one to read on the topic.
  9. Some of the best book lists come from other bloggers who are readers. One from the Modern Mrs. Darcy site is a compilation of 52 lists this blogger has posted over the years.
  10. Finally, when I’m tempted to become overwhelmed and shriek “so many books; so little time,” it helps to remember that most books are actually meant for others, and that the joy of perusing lists is looking for that book that was meant for you.

For me, the “Best Books” lists are my adult equivalent to the release of the Sears Christmas catalog, the “Wish Book,” when I was kid and I could leaf through the pages and make my Christmas wish list. Those are long gone. We bibliophiles are more fortunate. I suspect these lists will be around as long as there are books.

Readers Choice: Bob on Books Top Ten Reviews of 2018

CanoeingLast week I posted my list of “best” books of the year. It is always fascinating to me that rarely is there a relationship between my “best” books and the books followers of this blog are most interested in. Of the 174 books reviewed to this point in the year, here are the top ten according to the number of views their reviews received on the blog (as of 12/19/2018–some were close). The choices were heavily weighted on the religious end of spectrum, which reflects the following of the blog. I do hope those who read theological books also explore other genres! I think this enriches our imagination, our understanding of the world, and of what others who may or may not share our beliefs are thinking. So, here is the list:

Canoeing the Mountains

  1. Canoeing the MountainsTod Bolsinger. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press – Praxis, 2015. This book explores leadership in uncharted territories using the journeys of Lewis and Clark. This didn’t get a huge number of initial views, but steady traffic throughout the year. ReviewLittle Fires Everywhere
  2. Little Fires EverywhereCeleste Ng. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. This was on my “best books” list as best literary fiction. Here’s my synopsis: “When Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl rent a duplex apartment from Elena Richardson, the matriarch of a successful Shaker Heights, Ohio family, it sets in motion a series of events, “little fires” that culminate in a fire that burns down the Richardson home, and transforms the lives of both families.” This has been neck and neck with #1 all year. Reviewwhite fragility
  3. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About RacismRobin DiAngelo. Boston: Beacon Press, 2018. Robin DiAngelo coined the term “white fragility” in 2011 to describe the discomfort whites often experience in discussions of racial issues. She both describes this, and better ways to engage. ReviewTwelve Lies
  4. Twelve Lies That Hold America CaptiveJonathan Walton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, Forthcoming January 8, 2019. This book hasn’t even come out yet! It discusses twelve cultural myths that form a kind of American folk religion that are in conflict with the hope we find in the gospel and the vision of the kingdom of God. ReviewThe Lost World of the Flood
  5. The Lost World of the FloodTremper Longman III & John H. Walton (with a contribution by Stephen O. Moshier). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018. One of the “Lost World” series of books, all of which seem tremendously popular, this one on the flood narratives of Genesis 6-9. ReviewHusband Wife Father Child Master Slave
  6. Husband, Wife, Father, Child, Master, Slave, Kurt C Schaefer. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2018. The author argues that the household codes in 1 Peter are actually a subtle satire opposing the norms of the Greco-Roman culture of the day. ReviewWater at the Roots
  7. Water at the Roots, Philip Britts (edited by Jennifer Harries, foreword by David Kline). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2018. This also was on my best books list as an account of the extraordinary life and the writings and poetry of Philip Britts, a leader of the Bruderhof community that migrated to Paraguay. Reviewwashed and waiting
  8. Washed and Waiting (revised with new Afterword), Wesley Hill. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016 (originally published in 2010). This is the narrative of a celibate, gay Christian man, including thoughts about the recovery of the place of celibacy and the importance of spiritual friendship in the church. Dr. Wesley Hill is a professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA. Reviewbiblical leadership
  9. Biblical Leadership: Theology for the Everyday LeaderBenjamin K. Forest and Chet Roden, eds. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2017. This is a study of leadership in the Bible, book by book. Reviewthe lost world of the israelite conquest
  10. The Lost World of the Israelite ConquestJohn H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017. The second “Lost World” book to make this list. It explores the Canaanite conquest and argues that this was not a divinely commanded genocide or Holy war. Review

Looking over the list, several of these books were “near misses” on my best list and two made it. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me, but a number have an element of controversy, dealing with issues of race, Christianity and American culture, social roles, sexuality, the Flood narratives, and the Conquest narratives. It is also striking to me that two deal with the issue of leadership, including the book that was tops in views.

Looking over these statistics reminds me that each of these views represented a real person interested enough to visit my blog and read at least some portion of the review. TI love connecting people and good books, but that only works when people visit as you did this year. Thank you!

Bob on Books Best Books of 2018

Grant

It’s the time of the year when numerous publications post their best books of the year. That has been a tradition at Bob on Books as well. A friend I was meeting with the other day described my reading tastes as “eclectic” and I suspect you will find that true of this list. It spans quite a number of categories, and probably leaves out categories you might find on other lists. Many but not all of these works were published in 2018. What qualifies them for this list is that I read and reviewed them in 2018. You will find that I have divided my list into two broad categories: books for general audiences and books primarily for Christian audiences. As always, I’ve included a link to the publisher’s website in the title of the book, and a link to the full review.

First of all, though, my Best Book of the Year:

Grant

GrantRon Chernow. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. This was also the longest book I read this year. I wrote: “It is rare to come to the end of 960 pages and wish there were more.” Grant was a bundle of contradictions, who could identify battlefield opportunities and frame grand strategy, yet who made poor choices in his closest associates and struggled with depression and alcoholism. Chernow captures all of this in flowing prose. Review

Best Books: General Audiences

Little Fires Everywhere

Best Novel: Little Fires EverywhereCeleste Ng. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. I wrote, “I was drawn into this book with its interesting portrayal of people trying to do good, to keep the rules, to find and make homes and do good work, to make their way in life, and the catalytic moments when it all goes awry.” A bonus for me was that this was written by an Ohio author! Review

Leonardo

Best Biography: Leonardo da Vinci, Walter Isaacson. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018. I loved everything about this book from the quality of the paper to the generous quantity of images of Leonardo’s work to Isaacson’s portrayal of da Vinci’s insatiable curiosity. Review

Leadership

Best Leadership Book: Leadership in Turbulent TimesDoris Kearns Goodwin. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018. Doris Kearns Goodwin went back to all her work on four presidents (Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, and Lyndon Johnson), and drew out what we might learn from how they led in pivotal moments of American history. This is not a rehash of earlier work but a different lens on these four men. Review

On Reading Well

Best Book on Books: On Reading Well, Karen Swallow Prior. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2018. As a bibliophile, I love books on books and reading and Karen Swallow Prior gives us a great one that not only explores great books, but how reading them can be transformative in our lives. Review

race on campus

Best Higher Education Book: Race on CampusJulie J. Park. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2018. Because I work in collegiate ministry, I read books related to higher education studies. This one uses data to dispel a number of myths about race on campus. Review

The Cloud of Unknowing

Best Translation: The Cloud of Unknowing, Anonymous (translated by Carmen Acevedo Butcher). Boulder: Shambala Publications, 2018. I commented that “Butcher’s translation strives for a simplicity and informality of conversation between a spiritual director and a directee, and this is one of the most winsome aspects of this work.” Review

Educated

I still have Tara Westover’s Educated on my “to read” pile. I had the chance to read some preview passages and from these and other reviews, this would probably have been my choice of “Best Memoir.” I’ll let you know when I read it.

Best Books: Christian Audiences

love big be well

Best Christian Fiction: Love Big, Be Well, Winn Collier. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2017. A fictional dialogue in letters between a pastor and congregation, ending with “Love Big, Be Well.” I found myself again and again catching my breath at the beauty Collier sees in “ordinary” church life freed of “flaming visions.” Review

Best Theology Books: There are two works that are a “tie” in my mind, so good I have to include both.

delivered from the elements of the world

Delivered From the Elements of the World, Peter J. Leithart. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016. This was actually written a couple years back and is a refreshing exploration of why Christians claim the death and resurrection of Jesus is the decisive event in human history. Review

Dying and the Virtues

Dying and the VirtuesMatthew Levering. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2018. Levering explores nine virtues in scripture and contemporary scholarship, and their relevance to living and dying well. Review. Interview with Matthew Levering: Part One; Part Two

The Lord is Good

Best Biblical Theology Book: The Lord is Good: Seeking the God of the Psalter (Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture), Christopher R. J. Holmes. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018. This is a study of what we mean when we say that the Lord is “good” focused in the Psalms. I noted that “Holmes is a pastor-theologian and brings to his readers both the carefulness of a scholar and the passion to lead us to more deeply love the good and beautiful God.” Review

Darkness Visible

Best Biblical Studies Book: Darkness Visible (Princeton Theological Monograph Series), Karlo V. Bordjadze (Foreword by R. W. L. Moberly). Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2017. A study of Isaiah 14:3-23 considering the history of interpretation of this passage as portraying the fall of Satan, or a Babylonian king. I summarized this work “as a delightful model of rigorous biblical and theological scholarship in service of God’s people.” Review

The Kingdom of God Has No Borders

Best Christian History: The Kingdom of God Has No BordersMelani McAlister. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. A study of the American evangelical missions movement over the past fifty years and the important questions that international missions raised for evangelicalism in the United States. Review

Invitation to Retreat

Best Spiritual Formation Book: Invitation to RetreatRuth Haley Barton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press/Formatio, 2018This is perhaps the most helpful book I’ve ever read on the why and how of taking retreats, full of practical wisdom. Review

Best Spiritual Biography Books: Two books, both published by Plough Publishing rose to the top, for their subjects, the judicious choice of writings, and artistic excellence characteristic of the graphical work in each book.

Water at the Roots

Water at the Roots, Philip Britts (edited by Jennifer Harries, foreword by David Kline). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2018. Brits was a kind of British Wendell Berry, who helped lead the Bruderhof community in Paraguay. The work narrates his life, incorporating verse and essays. Review

the scandal of redemption

The Scandal of RedemptionOscar Romero (edited by Carolyn Kurtz, Foreword by Michael Lapsley). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2018. We glimpse the courageous life and death of El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero through nine homilies, and the prayer spoken at a funeral mass, moments before his assassination. Review

the myth of equality

Best Book on Justice or Social Issues: The Myth of Equality, Ken Wytsma. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017. A white pastor addresses the need for an honest conversation about white privilege in America. Review

If you’ve made it this far, I commend you for perusing a long list. One of the things about reviewing is that it has given me an appreciation for the magnificent writing, thoughtful commentary, and careful scholarship that I encounter in so many of the books I read. Hopefully, there is something you can put on your own wishlist, or give to someone you care about this holiday season.

 

The Month in Reviews: October 2018

Paul

October was the month I spent nearly the whole month (and the latter part of September) reading The Origins of Totalitarianism. Perhaps it is no wonder I had to read a book on the aging brain! In biographies, my reading spanned from the biblical era (Paul) to current politics (Elizabeth Warren). A couple of books explore the ways we self-deceive and are deceived. I read a couple good books in Christian history, on American Revivalism (1740-1840), and on the history of evangelicalism from 1900 to 1940. There were a few scholarly works in there on the oral tradition behind the New Testament, on the Wisdom literature, and the theology of middle knowledge. Both Quit Church and Healing Our Broken World explored practices that renew the church and make a difference in the world. Finally, I reviewed a recent book by Parker J. Palmer on aging. No fiction this month (although I spent a good part of the month reading Cloud Atlas).

The aging brain

The Aging BrainTimothy R. Jennings, MD. Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2018. A discussion of the causes of aging and brain deterioration and the lifestyle measures that can be taken to avert or delay dementia. Review

Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth WarrenAntonia Felix. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2018. A biography of the Democrat U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, from the financial struggles of her family, her academic life and the research that changed her life, and her work protecting consumers that led to her Senate run. Review

On the Brink of Everything

On the Brink of EverythingParker J. Palmer. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2018. A series of reflections on aging, living with grace and vitality as we age, and facing our deaths. Review

interpreting old testament wisdom literature

Interpreting Old Testament Wisdom Literature, Edited by David G. Firth and Lindsay Wilson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017. A collection of articles on the wisdom literature of the Bible, discussing each book as well as recent developments in Wisdom literature scholarship. Review

From Good News to Gospels

From Good News to Gospels David Wenham (Foreword by Donald A. Hagner). Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2018. Explores the role of oral tradition as a source for the written gospels. Review

Twelve Lies

Twelve Lies That Hold America CaptiveJonathan Walton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, Forthcoming January 8, 2019. Discusses twelve cultural myths that form a kind of American folk religion that are in conflict with the hope we find in the gospel and the vision of the kingdom of God. Review

Paul

Paul: A Biography, N. T. Wright. New York: Harper One, 2018. Wright translates his scholarship that gives a “new account” of Paul’s life into a popular biography, tracing the life and thought of the apostle through the letters he wrote and narrative of his journeys. Review

theologies of the american revivalists

Theologies of the American Revivalists, Robert W. Caldwell III. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017. A study, not so much of the history, as the theologies underlying the different revival movements in America from 1740 to 1840. Review

Quit Church

Quit ChurchChris Sonksen (Foreword by Dave Ferguson). Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018. A challenge to quit a half-hearted commitment to church for lives of discipleship in six areas. Review

Democracy Hacked

Democracy HackedMartin Moore. London: Oneworld Publications, 2018. An inquiry into the ways individuals and states have influenced democratic governments, how web-based platforms have made it possible, and some of the alternatives for the future. Review

middle knowledge

Middle KnowledgeJohn D. Laing. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2018. An exposition and defense of the doctrine of middle knowledge, also known as Molinism, and arguments for why this best addresses other theological issues. Review

Healing our Broken Humanity

Healing Our Broken World, Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Graham Hill (Foreword by Willie James Jennings). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018. In a world with deep racial, gender, national, and political divides, the authors propose nine formative practices churches can pursue enabling the church to have a healing presence in the world. Review

the origins of totalitarianism

The Origins of  TotalitarianismHannah Arendt. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1968. A work tracing the rise of totalitarian governments in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany to their origins in racism and class warfare, reactions to imperialism, and the mechanics that distinguish totalitarian states from other kinds of states. Review

the disruption of evangelicalism

The Disruption of Evangelicalism (History of Evangelicalism Series, Volume 4) Geoffrey R. Treloar. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017. Countering the existing narrative of evangelicalism at its zenith before World War I followed by a great reversal, this work argues a more positive assessment of evangelical response to the disruptions of war. Review

Best of the Month: This month the award goes to N. T. Wright’s Paul. Wright has been studying Paul’s life and work for decades and distilled all this scholarship into a biography that is at once engaging, concise (for Wright), and full of fresh insights about the apostle, his ministry, and his writings.

Quote of the Month: Parker J. Palmer’s wonderful little collection of essays on aging, death, and living generatively had this quote that I have been musing on most of the month:

“What can we do with our pain? How might we hold it and work with it? How do we turn the power of suffering toward new life? The way we answer those questions is critical because violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.” 

This has been especially on my mind this past week as we witnessed a spate of mail bombs, the random killing of two blacks in a Kroger’s and the killing of eleven Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue. It makes me wonder and pray about the pain of those who perpetrated these acts, and how the families of victims will hold and work with the pain they bear.

Current reads: I’ve just finished a delightful book on reading, I’d Rather Be Reading, by Anne Bogel, a kindred spiritI’m nearly through Cloud Atlas, a chiasm of linked stories, and a better read than I expected. I’m reading a couple of science and faith books, Cosmology in Theological Perspective by Olli-Pekka Vanio, and Creation Care by a father and son team, Douglas and Jonathan Moo. I’m just starting in on Ashley Hales’ Finding Holy in the Suburbs and am intrigued to see how she will address the realities of suburban life. Soon to come are The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, and Julie J. Park’s new work, Race on Campus. I also will be reading a modern classic, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart with my reading group this month.

If you have read any of the books I mentioned here, or read them as a result of my reviewing them, I’d love to know what you think. Reading is social, as we share the good we find in books with others. I’d love to hear what you are finding.

The Month in Reviews: May 2018

Water at the Roots

Eighteen books. Apart from the last, which encompassed one hundred stories, none were particularly long.  They span quite a breadth from texts on Exodus and the Wisdom books, to discussions of neuroscience and how we think about the body. I read about prayer and wonder, as well as the earthier concerns of Kerouac and Boccaccio. I read about Tibetan refugees in Nepal and India, and a Bruderhof community in Paraguay. Toward the end of the month, I threw in a couple of mysteries, one involving bookselling.   And there is a lesser know work of C. S. Lewis! Don’t know how else to introduce this list except to note that as always, the link in the title takes you to the publisher’s page for the book. The link that says “Review” at the end will take you to my full review, in case you missed it or want to know more about the book.

interpreting the wisdom books

Interpreting the Wisdom Books: An Exegetical HandbookEdward M. Curtis. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2017.A handbook offering step by step help in moving from text to sermon exegeting and expositing the Wisdom books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. Review

demanding liberty

Demanding Liberty: An Untold Story of American Religious FreedomBrandon J. O’Brien. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018. Looks at the history of the struggle for religious freedom in America through a study of the efforts of Reverend Isaac Backus to secure a religious freedom that negotiated a third way between established religion and secularism. Review.

blessings from beijing

Blessings from BeijingGreg C. Bruno. Lebanon, NH: ForeEdge (UPNE), 2018. An exploration of how China is using “soft power” to undermine the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan refugee community he represents. Review

winsome persuasion

Winsome PersuasionTim Muelhoff and Richard Langer (Foreword by Quentin J. Schultze). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017. Explores how Christians might effectively engage a dominant public culture by understanding the nature of counterpublics and the elements that go into effective communication and engagement. Review

Queen of Glen Eyrie

Queen of Glen EyrieCeleste Black. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2008. (Book link is to ABEBooks since book appears to be out of print and not available at publisher’s site). The story of “Queen” Palmer, her love affair with General William Palmer, the castle home she inspired, life in frontier Colorado Springs and her later life in England. Review

neurotheology

NeurotheologyAndrew Newberg. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. A survey of the field of neurotheology, arguing for its viability as a field of inquiry, exploring the various research studies on religious and spiritual experience and practice and correlates of activity and changes in various brain structures, and what might be learned at the intersection of religion and neuroscience that may help us understand the most profound questions of our existence. Review.

Water at the Roots

Water at the Roots, Philip Britts (edited by Jennifer Harries, foreword by David Kline). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2018. The collected poems and essays of Philip Britts, a farmer and pastoral leader of a Bruderhof community in Paraguay, where he died in 1949 at the age of 31. Review

On the Road

On the RoadJack Kerouac. New York: Penguin, 2016 (originally published 1957). Kerouac’s classic account of Sal and Dean’s travels across America, laced with jazz, elicit drugs, sexual encounters, and jazz clubs, and the searching for “IT” that defined the “Beat Generation.” Review

love thy body

Love Thy BodyNancy R. Pearcey. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018. Traces how a two story view of reality has led to a dualistic way of viewing human beings, splitting body and person, and traces the working out of this around our understanding of human life, sexuality, orientation, gender, and marriage. Review

teach us to pray

Teach Us To PrayGordon T. Smith. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018. A concise guide to prayer based on the Lord’s prayer, with a central focus on the coming of the kingdom and a dependence upon the Spirit expressed in thanksgiving, confession, and discernment. Review

iron Valley

Iron ValleyClayton J. Ruminski. Columbus: Trillium (an imprint of The Ohio State University Press), 2017. A history of iron-making in the Mahoning Valley during the nineteenth century from the earliest blast furnace to the advances in furnaces and other technology, leading to the transition to steel-making. Review

The God Who Makes Himself Known

The God Who Makes Himself Known (New Studies in Biblical Theology), W. Ross Blackburn. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012. A study of the theology of the book of Exodus contending that it reflects God’s missionary purpose to make himself known to the nations through Israel. Review

the personal heresy

The Personal HeresyC. S. Lewis, E. M. W. Tillyard. New York: Harper One, 2017 (originally published 1939). A discussion of whether the personality of the author should enter into the criticism of a work of poetry. Review

The Bookman's Tale

The Bookman’s TaleCharlie Lovett. New York: Viking, 2013. Peter Byerly, a recently bereaved bookseller living in a small English village, comes across a hundred year old watercolor that is a striking image of his deceased wife, a find that sets him on a trail leading to what could be a major literary discovery,  but also to danger and murder. Review

BAM Global Movement

BAM Global MovementGea Gort & Mats Tunehag, Foreword by Albert M. Erisman. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2018. A compendium of short chapters on the theology and theory of the Business as Mission movement combined with thirty stories of practitioners. Review

Gods of Gotham

The Gods of GothamLindsay Faye. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2012. The first in the author’s Timothy Wilde series, in which Wilde, a newly installed New York Policeman in 1845, encounters a blood-covered girl, whose story leads to the discovery of twenty dead children and an assignment to find the killer before anti-Irish rage consumes the city. Review

Recapturing the Wonder

Recapturing the WonderMike Cosper. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017. Explores the disenchantment many Christians experience living in a modern secular age and the practices that may “re-enchant” our world with the supernatural presence of God. Review

Decameron

The DecameronGiovanni Boccaccio (translation by Wayne A. Rebhorn). New York: W. W. Norton, 2013 (originally published 1353). A classic collection of one hundred stories told for amusement over ten days by seven women and three men escaping the plague of 1348 in Florence. Review

Best Book of the Month: I have to go with Water at the Roots. The life, poetry, and essays of Philip Britts form an integral whole in which his pursuit of pacifism, his life as a farmer, and his life of faith weave together in a beautiful, seamless garment.

Best Quote of the Month: Gordon T. Smith has recently published a wonderful, slim but rich guidebook to prayer, Teach Us to Pray. He writes:

When we pray “thy kingdom come,” should not our prayer be an act of recalibration? Could our praying be an act of intentional alignment and realignment? That is, in our prayer our vision of the kingdom purposes of God will be deepened and broadened; we will be drawn into the reality of Christ risen and now on the throne of the universe. And thus through our prayers we not only pray for the kingdom but come to increasingly live within the kingdom, under the reign of Christ. (p.11)

Current Reads: I have long, since hearing John R. W. Stott preach as a student, had a commitment to expository preaching. Right now I happen to be reading a couple books on the subject: R. Scott Pace’s Preaching by the Book and John Piper’s Expository Exultation. I don’t always agree with Piper but this book is spot on. I’m reading A. J. Swoboda’s Subversive Sabbath, which from the first 60 pages may be the best Christian book I’ve read of sabbath, reserving pride of place for Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book. John Walton’s latest book on the flood explores the flood narrative, and how it might be understood in its ancient Near East context. And for fun, I’m reading Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman–the true story of how one of the most significant contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary lived in an insane asylum!

Hope there is something here that you will find an enjoyable and edifying read this summer. And I always like to hear suggestions of books you’ve enjoyed!

The Month in Reviews: April 2018

love big be well

As I review the list of books from this month, I feel like I am coming away from a banquet. For appetizers, there were collections of essays by Madeleine L’Engle and Marilynne Robinson. For a savory, rich soup, you might taste Suzanne Stabile’s newest book on the Enneagram seasoned with Anthony Graves prison memoir. You have a choice of meaty main course items ranging from biblical studies in Isaiah and John and the Ten Commandments, to theological works on God’s providence, and the church as a political assembly, and Matthew Levering’s book on the virtues that the reality of death call forth, that help us live well. For those whose love is history, there is a masterpiece of battlefield history and an exploration of the years between Washington the general and Washington the president. Finally for dessert we have Winn Collier’s delightful fictional collection of letters of a pastor to his congregation, and Celeste Ng’s exquisite novel set in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights. You may not think the metaphor works, but I hope this month’s reviews give you a sense of the rich fare that one may find at one’s local bookseller.

The Irrational Season

The Irrational SeasonMadeleine L’Engle. New York: Open Road Media, 2016 (first published in 1976). The third in a four book collection titled The Crosswicks Journals consisting of reflections shaped around the church year, and memories of different season’s in the author’s life. (Review)

Darkness Visible

Darkness Visible (Princeton Theological Monograph Series), Karlo V. Bordjadze (Foreword by R. W. L. Moberly). Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2017. A study of Isaiah 14:3-23, considering textual and interpretive issues, and focusing on how this passage may be read as Christian scripture today. (Review)

What are we doing here

What Are We Doing Here?Marilynne Robinson. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018. A collection of essays based on talks given, mostly at universities, between 2015 and 2017, questioning what she sees as a surrender of thought to ideology. (Review)

Farewell Discourse

The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of JesusD. A. Carson. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1980, repackaged edition 2018. A study of John 14-17, based on expository messages on these texts. (Review)

the uncontrolling love of God

The Uncontrolling Love of GodThomas Jay Oord. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015. Proposes a way of addressing God’s goodness and providence in the light of randomness, pointless suffering, and genuine evil by arguing for uncontrolling love as the cardinal attribute of God. (Review)

No Other Gods

No Other GodsAna Levy-Lyons. New York: Center Street, 2018. A liberal, progressive reading of the Ten Commandments, moving beyond personal morality to the social and political implications of the commands. (Review)

Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires EverywhereCeleste Ng. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. When Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl rent a duplex apartment from Elena Richardson, the matriarch of a successful Shaker Heights, Ohio family, it sets in motion a series of events, “little fires” that culminate in a fire that burns down the Richardson home, and transforms the lives of both families. (Review)

The Path Between Us

The Path Between UsSuzanne Stabile. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press – Formatio, 2018. Using the tool of the Enneagram, this explores how each “number” interacts with the other numbers, how each number relates in stress, and security, and what is helpful for other “numbers” to understand about relating to a person with this number. (Review)

Dying and the Virtues

Dying and the VirtuesMatthew Levering. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2018. An exploration of scripture, theological resources, and contemporary writing that considers the virtues that help the Christian believer to both live and die well. (Review)

Infinite Hope

Infinite HopeAnthony Graves. Boston: Beacon Press, 2018. A first person account of an innocent black man wrongly found guilty of murder, leading to eighteen years in prison and twelve on death row until he was found innocent and released. (Review)

love big be well

Love Big, Be Well, Winn Collier. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2017. Letters written through the seasons of the church year by Jonas McAnn to the people of Granby Presbyterian Church on the varying facets of believing and living as a church, the warmth of friendship and the dark nights of doubt, each ending with the words “love big, be well.” (Review)

the return of george washington

The Return of George WashingtonEdward J. Larson. New York: Morrow, 2014. An account of the life of George Washington, between his retirement as General of the Continental Army in 1783 until his inauguration as the first president under the new U.S. Constitution. (Review)

Political Church

Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s RuleJonathan Leeman. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016. Explores the nature of the church, arguing that it is a political institution that serves as an embassy of the kingdom of God, with implications for both its internal life and its engagement with the nations and governments of the world. (Review)

Gettysburg

Gettysburg: The Last InvasionAllen C. Guelzo. New York: Knopf, 2013. An account of the three day battle at Gettysburg, the personalities, key turning points, battlefield topography, and movement by movement narratives that both zoom out and come up close in describing the unfolding of the battle. (Review)

Best Book: I could have chosen almost any book from this list. In the end, I choose Love Big, Be Well by Winn Collier. I’ve been blessed on a couple occasions to know pastors like Jonas McAnn and they are a treasure. The letters he (and a few of his congregants) write take us into the nature of pastoral work, the meaning of the church, and the journey of souls with God with all the joys and vicissitudes that life brings.

Best Quote: There are some great quotes in Love Big, Be Well. Go check out my review for a few of them. I’m coming up on forty years of marriage, and I thought Madeleine L’Engle captured something of the essence of what this is like for so many of us who have kept loving for a long time:

“It takes a lifetime to learn another person. After all these years I still do not understand Hugh; and he certainly does not understand me. We’re still in the risky process of offering ourselves to each other, and there continue to be times when this is not easy, when the timing isn’t right, when we hurt each other. It takes a lifetime to learn all the varied ways of love, including intercourse. Love-making is like a Bach fugue; you can’t go to the piano and play a fugue the first time you hold your hands out over the keys.”

Current Reads: Look for reviews later this week on a handbook for exegeting Wisdom literature and a study of the life of Isaac Backus, an eighteenth century Baptist who played a pivotal role in advocating for religious liberty before and after the War of Independence. I’ve been reading a fascinating account of the field of “neurotheology,” which explores the intersection of neuroscience and religion. I’ve appreciated the care shown of not trying to “explain away” religion as nothing more than brain structure and chemistry while noting the interaction of religious experiences and physical processes. I’ve just begun reading a book on how we might engage in a better public discourse–I wonder if that’s possible. Blessings From Beijing explores the tension between China and the Tibetan Buddhism represented by the Dalai Lama. Our reading group continues to work through The Decameron by Boccaccio and we plan to finish later in the month. Glen Eyrie is a retreat center developed around a castle near Colorado Springs. I’ve been there and came across Queen of Glen Eyrie in the discount bin of a local Half Price Books. It’s the story of the woman who inspired the building of the Glen Eyrie. Water at the Roots is a collection of essays by Philip Britts who is touted as a British Wendell Berry. I’ll let you know!

Happy reading, and if you find something you really like, shoot me a line!

The Month in Reviews: February 2018

Grant

Looking over the list of books I reviewed in February, I once again had the sense of “so many good books; so little time.” From James K. A. Smith’s Awaiting the King at the beginning of the month to Ron Chernow’s magnificent Grant at the end, there were a number of works I found myself the better for reading. Washed and Waiting helped me understand what it was like for a Christian young man to come to terms with a gay orientation and choose to live a celibate life. Still Evangelical? explored a painful question many of us who have identified as evangelical wrestle with. Do we continue to do so, and if so, how? Delivered from the Elements of the World explores how Christians can make the audacious claim that the death and resurrection of Jesus changes everything. The Myth of Equality is a challenging look at the idea of race in America and white privilege by a white pastor. The Greater Trumps concerns not our first family but a Charles Williams (one of the Inklings) supernatural thriller. Those are just some of the good things I read this month.

awaiting the king

Awaiting the King (Cultural Liturgies, Volume 3), James K. A. Smith. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017. A theology of public (and not just political) life exploring both how public life is “liturgical” and the church “political” and the possibilities and limits on engagement in the life of the “city of Man” for those who identify their hope and citizenship with the “city of God.” (Review)

washed and waiting

Washed and Waiting (revised with new Afterword), Wesley Hill. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016 (originally published in 2010). An updated narrative of a celibate, gay Christian man, including thoughts about the recovery of the place of celibacy and the importance of spiritual friendship. (Review)

The Reckoning

The Reckoning (Welsh Princes #3), Sharon K. Penman. New York: Ballantine Books, 1991 (Link is to a different edition). Brings to a close the struggles between Wales and England under Edward I, the complicated relationship between brothers Llewellyn and David ab Gruffyd, and tells the story of the women who loved them–a true tale of love and loss. (Review)

4537

Still Evangelical? Mark Labberton ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018. Ten ethnically diverse evangelical “insiders” explore whether to still identify as “evangelical” and what that means in light of the 2016 election. (Review)

delivered from the elements of the world

Delivered From the Elements of the World, Peter J. Leithart. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016. An exploration of why Christians claim the death and resurrection of Jesus is the decisive event in human history, because it is the “delivering verdict” of God against human systems to control sinful human flesh, hence an act with socio-political significance for all peoples. (Review)

the good retirement guide 2018

The Good Retirement Guide 2018, Allan Esler Smith, ed. London: Kogan Page, 2018. A wide-ranging guide exploring everything from financial planning to housing to health to business and personal pursuits for residents of the UK approaching retirement. (Review)

resurrecting religion

Resurrecting ReligionGreg Paul. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2018. In an era when religion has a bad name, the author proposes that what we need is not “no religion” but the kind of religion that James writes about, and that his church is trying to live out. (Review)

the myth of equality

The Myth of Equality, Ken Wytsma. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017. A white pastor explores the reality of white privilege from the perspectives of both American history and the gospel of the kingdom and how white Christians might pursue justice. (Review)

Called to create

Called to CreateJordan Raynor. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017. A view of creative, entrepreneurial work as a good calling from God, and the challenges and opportunities of pursuing entrepreneurial work for the glory of God. (Review)

The Greater Trumps

The Greater TrumpsCharles Williams. New York: Open Road Media, 2015 (originally published in 1932). An legacy of a singular pack of tarot cards that correspond to images of the Greater Trumps arranged in a dance on a platform of gold in the retreat of a gypsy master drives his grandson to risk love and life to uncover the powers of the cards. (Review)

Essential Writings of Meredith G Kline

Essential Writings of Meredith G. KlineMeredith D. Kline (Foreword, Tremper Longman II; Biography, Meredith M. Kline; Introduction, Jonathan G. Kline). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2017. A collection of articles by Meredith Kline spanning Genesis to Revelation, and the author’s academic career characterized by biblical insight and theological integrity within a Reformed perspective. (Review)

Grant

GrantRon Chernow. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. A biography on the life of Ulysses S. Grant from his Ohio childhood, his years of failure in business, his rise during the Civil War, his presidency, and later years, including the completion of his memoirs as a dying man. (Review)

Favor

FavorGreg Gilbert. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017. An exploration of experiencing God’s favor on our lives, far greater than we can conceive, utterly dependent upon Christ, and leading us into the joyful worship of God. (Review)

Best Book: Hands down the nod goes to Ron Chernow’s Grant. Grant was a person worthy of a big book, which this is. Yet I wish Grant would have lived longer, if for no other reason than Chernow may have needed to write an even longer book. The text itself was 960 pages and yet I felt that it never dragged, that there was never too much. Chernow gives the lie to Grant as a butcher in the Civil War, and a more nuanced perspective on a presidency often associated with corruption. And we learn that perhaps the most heroic thing Grant did was write his Memoirs, winning the battle to finish this work while dying painfully of mouth and throat cancer.

Best Quote: I deeply appreciated this passage from Washed and Waiting as speaking of the journey all of us, and not simply those who are LGBT, are on in the life of faith:

“More and more, I have the sense that what many of us need is a new conception of our perseverance in faith. We need to reimagine ourselves and our struggles. The temptation for me is to look at my bent and broken sexuality and conclude that, with it, I will never be able to please God, to walk in a manner worthy of his calling, to hear his praise. But what if I had a conception of God-glorifying faith, holiness, and righteousness that included within it a profound element of struggle and stumbling? What if I were to view my sexual orientation, temptations, and occasional failures not as damning disqualifications for living a Christian life but rather as part and parcel of what it means to live by faith in a world that is fallen and scarred by sin and death.”

What I’m Reading:  I’m reading several books on science and faith. One is Charles Hummel’s The Galileo Connection, which has sadly fallen out of print but is marvelous both for demonstrating that science and Christian faith are really not at war, and how that is possible. A brand new book that covers similar ground but explores cutting edge issues of cognitive science and technology is Greg Cootsona’s Mere Science and Christian Faith. I’ve had the privilege of getting to know Greg through a Fuller Seminary-funded program that seeks to promote a better conversation about science and Christian faith among emerging adults, and I think he is one of the most thoughtful writers and speakers on this subject. Evolution and Holiness also touches on this theme in a novel way, exploring the research on altruism in sociobiology and considering Wesleyan practices that promoted holy living and how these might intersect–a connection I would never have considered. American Academic Cultures surveys the history of higher education in the United States, suggesting it might be understood in terms of seven “cultures” that have succeeded one another. The Kingdom of God Has No Borders is an exploration of evangelical missions over the last seventy or so years. It is always fascinating to see how a researcher narrates a history you’ve been a part of. Later this month I plan to dig into Biblical Leadership (Kregel), a study of leadership throughout scripture to which a number of scholars contribute, including several friends!

Friends of mine once wrote a book titled Read for Your Life. I find my life immeasurably enriched and enlarged through books like these, and indeed, that reading is a spiritual practice. I hope some of the books you’ve learned about here will be enriching and enlarging to you as well!