Inspired by my friend Jeff’s recent blog post (translation: stole his idea), I thought it worth sharing my favorite reads from this past year, to think back to my recent influences. There’s also a chance one of these books catches your eye. Since I’m not listing any books I didn’t enjoy here, I recommend them all!
Without further ado…
10) What is the What? by Dave Eggers. I might be including this above a couple other better books. It’s a slightly fictionalized story centered on the real experiences and recollections of one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. The glimpse into history was great, the story both fun at times and horrifying at others. And it’s the closest thing to fiction I read this past year, so I felt I should include it. Hopefully 2011 fares better for fiction for this Literature major. Or people will start thinking I take life way too seriously.
9) The Hauerwas Reader by Stanley Hauerwas. It was the year of Hauerwas for me, as indicated by the fact that three of his books made my top ten. This book is a hefty collection of lectures and speeches from arguably one the most important American theologians writing today. His reflections on narrative theology, ethics, the importance of character in the Christian life, and nonviolence have all been hugely influential in my recent thinking (and hopefully acting).
8) It’s Really All About God: Reflection of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian by Samir Selmanovic. A provocative, challenging call to interfaith dialogue, to expecting to find God in the faith and actions of those with little concern for Jesus, and to recognize along with the writer of James how lacking and empty a “faith” or “religion” is that doesn’t include practical, tangible actions of love by those claiming such a faith. Nice mix of narrative and theology.
7) Sheet Music by Dr. Kevin Leman. I had to include this book here, not necessarily because it was an excellent read, as much as a sort of rite of passage book for me, seeing as the window of time in which I think I’d actually have much interest in reading such a book was pretty brief. It’s a sex book. And to some extent, it really was pretty fun and helpful. As much as I’d like to arrogantly say most of its’ content was pretty intuitive for me, it contained a few helpful insights. Unfortunately, the author sort of lost me part way through the book when he opted to begin using the term “Mr. Happy” instead of the more technical, and in my mind, appropriate name for that particular body part. A renowned sex psychologist seemed to all of the sudden feel a bit sheepish about his terms. That annoyed me and brought the book down a few notches.
6) Justification by N.T. Wright. This may be the least accessible book of all that I’ve listed here, though an important contribution to the scholarly work that’s been done on “The New Perspective.” Wright makes a case that we misinterpret Paul by assuming that in his writings on salvation and justification he was rejecting good works as having relevance to our salvation. Wright argues that many since Luther (though not necessarily including Luther) have been too rash in rejecting “works” in the Christian life and in so doing the Church has not been as mindful as it could be of its calling to be God’s covenant community—like the Jewish people who preceded the Christian Church—a community that by its Christ-inspired works and deeds (or whatever you want to call them) gives people a sign and a foretaste of what God has done and will do. If you like John Piper, you might not like the book (much of Wright’s work in a response to attacks, er, “critiques” from Piper).
5) The Genesee Diary by Henri Nouwen. An essential Nouwen book I hadn’t yet acquired. This has acted as a morning devotional for me for some time now, as Nouwen’s raw recollections of the kind of ugly truths he discovers about himself when removed from the comforts of his profession and fame have challenged me to prayerfully consider my own ugly tendencies, especially the ways that I, like Nouwen, am a very needy individual desperately seeking validation in ways that can cause me to do more harm than good in the lives of others.
4) In the End—The Beginning: The Life of Hope by Jurgen Moltmann. I was interested in this book because I felt like I was missing out on something having never read Moltmann. I was. I have another of his books on my “to-read” list in the new year. This seems like it’s probably one of his more accessible books on a prominent theme of his: hope. Moltmann, among others, has been helpful in showing me how important eschatology is in understanding how we are to live now as a Christian community, orienting our lives toward that final end in a way that brings life and hope to the world now. Eschatology, that is, not as in pointless speculation about exactly how the world’s going to go to hell in the last days but as in the promised end of humankind, a restored and reconciled humankind foreshadowed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. And, I can’t resist…a Shawshank quote: “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things…and no good thing ever dies.”
3) The Peaceable Kingdom by Stanley Hauerwas. This seems like a good starting point for someone wanting to delve into Hauerwas, much like I often recommend The Gospel in a Pluralist Society for someone searching for Newbigin’s (the focus of my master’s thesis) most thematically comprehensive work. Hauerwas writes so compelling about the church’s responsibility, as he sees it, to take seriously our call to live virtuously, ethically, peaceably with one another, because—others are watching, and because it’s our call—to be a community of people that give the world a glimpse of what God’s Kingdom will one day look like. But beware—this is the kind of theology that can make the Christian life seem more difficult, less comfortable. Though without such an approach to following Jesus, I’d say the Christian life is not that qualitatively different from non-Christian life, other than in the sense that we do more churchy things.
2) Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf. Volf is probably my favorite go-to on matters of reconciliation. This was a great critique of our all-too-common failures to appropriately respond to what is “other” to us. On our problem: “We exclude because we are uncomfortable with anything that blurs accepted boundaries, disturbs our identities, and disarranges our symbolic cultural maps” (78). On one part of the solution: “We move into the world of the other temporarily…we use imagination to see why their perspective about themselves, about us, and about our common history, can be so plausible to them whereas it is implausible, profoundly strange, or even offensive to us.” (252).
1) Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir by Stanley Hauerwas. I ended the year with this book, and I really have to fight idolizing this brilliant, baseball-loving, running, humble, direct and honest old man. I’m hoping to initiate some kind of correspondence with him, especially since he teaches at Duke Divinity School, where I think I have a fool’s chance of actually getting accepted to for a PhD (but will apply nonetheless). This was a whole other side of him, a bit more transparent than his more academic work. A sample, on childhood: “The family loved to tell the story of how Billy Dick, my six-year old cousin, reacted to the story of the crucifixion at Sunday School by shouting out, ‘If Gene Autry had been there the dirty sons of bitches wouldn’t have gotten away with it.’ Of course, we knew you should not say “sons of bitches,” particularly in Sunday School…” (6).
Already devouring several new books for 2011!