Alright. I know I’m about a week late, but here are the books I read this last year. We’ve all heard the expression, “You are what you eat”, well I think it’s true of what we read as well. I’m not sure what comes first though. Do I read because of who I am? Or do I become what I read? Either way it’s been interesting to look back at the books I read last year. As I survey the titles, it’s pretty clear that I’m drawn to Contemplative Spirituality in the vein of a certain first century Jewish teacher, but there are also a few works in the category of Comedic Reflection.
I’m posting this list not to brag by any means, but as a way to mark some of the things I’ve learned in the past 12 months so that I’m less likely to be amnesiac about it all and to keep me motivated to continue my literary adventures on into the future. The truth is I’m not a fast reader and I actually don’t have the best retention- I’ve had to work really hard at it. Some of the books come from contemporary voices, others from ancient mystics. All of them spoke to me in some way. Also, about half of the books I read via audiobook, so some folks might not think that counts as reading. Whatever. My hope is that as you read this list you might find some new kindling for your journey.
Without any further delay, here are the books I engaged with last year in no particular order. I’ll do my best to summarize what I liked in a sentence or two, and provide a link to the book. Also, I put a few asterik’s next to books that I strongly recommend.
***Accidental Saints: Finding God in all the wrong people, Nadia Bolz-Webber.
This is one of my favorite reads last year. Nadia does a great job getting to the heart of the Christian faith with some of the most sincere writing in this genre as of late. I won’t go into too much detail, because I wrote an entire blog about this book a while back. Def one of the best books of 2015 in my opinion.
Pastrix, Nadia Bolz Webber
Before Accidental Saints, there was Pastrix. It’s in the same vein and is essentially a catalog of stories and reflections from Nadia, a recovered addict, and a female Lutheran Pastor. One of my favorite things about Nadia is that she puts grace into such powerful terms. If you’re looking for some musings on just that, grace, without any religious fluff- she’s awesome. You check out some of her sermons here. She’s also a pretty good tweeter.
Thoughts on Solitude, Thomas Merton
The title sums up this book well. Essentially, it’s Thomas Merton reflecting on the spiritual journey of contemplation, solitude, and listening for the voice of the divine all around. In a busy and hectic world like ours, I find that voices like Merton act like long overdue antidotes to our chaotic conditions. If you’re curious about any of these themes, Merton is a great place to start.
The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton
Before you get into Merton, it might be worth checking out his memoir. I loved reading his reflections on his life, especially as he grew up during the great wars, and I also cherished his own self reflection as he entered the monastic life.
***Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohamed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-faith World, Brain Mclaren
Brian is one of my favorite authors. He comes across as incredibly wise, yet humble and sincere. This book is a great exploration of what it means to hold fast to the exclusive claims of Christ yet practice inclusiveness towards our friends of different faiths or no faith. In a wold as polarized as ours when it comes to religion (think Donald Trump), we need more voices like this. Of all the books in this list, this is probably the most pertinent to current global events.
A Generous Orthodoxy, Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed- yet hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian, Brian Mclaren
I had to put the entire title in this summary because it tells the story of this book. A Generous Orthodoxy is a thoughtful exploration of what Christianity looks like for many of us today. In this work Brian summarizes well what it means to follow Christ sincerely while being able to question the denominational divides in Christianity in a way that is hopeful, positive, and proactive. For anyone who has history with Christianity and finds Jesus compelling but has issues with his followers, this is a great book. I had read it a few years back but decided to pick it up again, and it spoke to me just as much in 2015 as it did in 2006.
Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and finding the Church, Rachel Held-Evans
Along with Accidental Saints, this was my second favorite new book of 2015. With authenticity and a knack for storytelling, Rachel chronicles her faith journey from Evangelical roots, through seasons of doubt, towards a more liturgical religious expression. For folks who are more familiar with American evangelicalish church (worship band and preaching), this book is a great introduction and a fresh portrayal of more historic forms of Christian spiritual practice, namely some of the sacramental and liturgical traditions. After reading the book I felt more connected to the deep, wide, and rich community of Jesus-followers that transcends continents and centuries.
Food: A Love Story, Jim Gaffigan
As a follow up to his earlier work, Dad is Fat, this book is just plain awesome. Basically it complies Jim’s thoughts of food and living in narrative form and is completely and totally hilarious. Alie and I listened to this on a road trip after buying it for my dad. After each time reading it I had this strange desire to eat bacon. I strongly recommend listening to this via audio book.
Yes Please, Amy Poeher
With hilarious and honest stories and self reflections, Amy captures her humor and personality well in this book. Essentially it’s a memoir of sorts that tells the story of her time on Saturday Night Live and what it’s like to be a female comedian in a male dominated industry. We really liked this one, and again- I’d recommend listening to it instead of reading it.
Scary Close: Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy, Donald Miller
Donald Miller is a great story teller, and I’ve got a few friends who know him personally, so I sometimes feel like I do too. I think that’s a result of how he writes in a self reflective manor in a way that opens you up and gets you thinking. This book chronicles one of Don’s life struggles, namely being vulnerable with others in a way that fosters intimacy. As an author and public figure, it’s easy for him to put on a show and hide behind his brand, but he’s trying his hardest to put down the masks and be fully known. This was a quick read that actually brought up some relationship stuff for me personally, and I think it would help anyone think through having authentic and intimate relationships.
Slow Church, Cultivating the Patient Way of Jesus, Christopher Smith & John Pattison
The basic premise of Slow Church is that fast church (kind of like fast food) is not always the best way to do church. In American culture we want things fast and affordable. We go to box stores and franchised out eateries. This pattern can be seen in American Christianity with mega-churches, franchised programs and brands, satellite feed church services, etc. Slow church is the opposite: patient, neighborhood oriented, and valuing relationships over marketing. I loved this book because I think it’s a great picture of what I think church is moving towards. At our church, Oak Life, our leadership team is in the process of reading it right now, and has started some great conversation for what it means to be the church in 2016.
The Gift of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, Thomas Cahill
With vivid storytelling and historical context, The Gift of the Jews tells the unlikely story of “how a tribe of…” and changed the world. I was reading this book alongside my own personal study of the Hebrew Scriptures and found Cahill’s writing excellent and a great commentary on those ancient texts. This is a perfect book for anyone who doesn’t quite get why the God of the Old Testament is so tribal and warmongering. Essentially, Cahill argues that understood in context, the Old Testament actually tells a radically progressive story of justice compared to the cultures around, that for their time, even the most brutal accounts in books like Judges and Joshua are giant steps forward for humanity. That the Bible is essentially a library of progressive texts telling the story of God’s constant movement towards freedom and liberation for humanity.
***What We Talk About When We Talk About God, Rob Bell
Rob Bell has an uncanny ability to capture his audience’s imagination, and in this book he does a great job framing the notion of God within new and expansive language and thinking. Drawing on stories, logic, some pretty incredible science, astronomy, and theology, Rob invites readers into a deeper sense of mystery towards the divine and the universe. This was one of my more enjoyable reads last year and I recommend it to anyone who’s interested in a fresh take on some of the biggest questions of our existence- whether you’re a person of faith or not, I think you’d find this book compelling and intriguing. I also find Rob’s other works (podcast, twitter, etc.) enriching. You can check them out here.
How (Not) to Speak of God, Peter Rollins
Peter is one crazy Irish dude. If you get the chance, you should definetly read some of his work. He’s a Christian philosopher that thinks way outside the box and seems to always blow my mind. This book is split into two parts. The first is an new exploration of what church could look like, and the second are descriptions of a experimental Christian gatherings in Belfast Ireland. I love how Peter is able to tap into great thinkers from inside and outside of Christianity and re-imagine what Jesus following communities and language might look like in the future.
A Letter to My Congregation: An Evangelicals Path to Embracing People Who Are Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Into the Community of Jesus, Ken Wilson
This book is one of many books I’ve read on this subject over the last few years and influenced a blog I wrote a while back that surprisingly caused a stir. Basically, it’s Ken Wilson’s explanation of how he embraced an inclusive and affirming stance towards the LGBT community in his church. What separates this book from some of the other popular books on this subject is that it was written by a heterosexual, middle aged, white man who Pastors what at the time was a mega-church. Unfortunately, after the book was published his denomination kicked their church out. I’m afraid that this issue will continue to polarize the Christian community but I’m grateful to be a part of a community that is and will continue to be a safe place for our LGBT friends– and I hope and pray for many more.
Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich
As one of the first female authors this book is significant on many levels. Julian of Norwhich was a 14th century Christian mystic, and in this book she documents her “visions” from God which are profound and thought provoking portrayals of the nature of the divine and the human condition. I found this book both mysterious and encouraging. I also found myself needing to look up many words because some of the language comes from hundreds of years ago and has fallen out of use. If you’re into Christian mysticism- this is a great and classic read.
The Wisdom of Eachother, Eugene Peterson
Eugene is one of my favorite authors. This book is a series of letters between Peterson and a friend of his who was a beginning to engage with the spiritual journey. I won’t get into it too much because I wrote a blog about it earlier in the year.
***Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, Eugene Peterson
Like I said, Eugene is one of my favorite authors and that’s probably because I relate to him as a Pastor. Not everyone will find the same connection that I have with him. That said Working the Angles is an awesome take on what being a Pastor is all about. Namely that, prayer, spiritual direction, and theological reflection come before the more visible duties of speaking, organizing, and leading. This goes contrary to a lot the current wisdom in church leadership / pastoral circles. Often times Pastors try to build their brand by focusing on the more visible aspects of the job and measure success through their fame, church attendance, etc. Peterson is adamantly opposed to this way of understanding and this book is a great framework for pastoring- at least one I strongly relate to. I gave this a few asterisks, but if you’re not a pastor, you might not enjoy it as much as I did.
***In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, Henri Nouwen
Henri is one of the great Christian voices of recent times. This book is a lot like the one right above it (Working the Angles), but has a Nouwen flair that’s one of a kind. It was probably my 2nd favorite read of the year. Instead of trying to summarize it, I’ll share one quote that captures the essence of the book: “I am telling you all this because I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.(17)” Good stuff. If you’re in ministry of some sorts, I totally recommend this, especially alongside Peterson’s work.
The Next Generation Leader: 5 Essentials that Will Shape the Future, Andy Stanley
Oddly enough, following Nouwen and Peterson with Andy Stanley is some what paradoxical. Nouwen and Peterson would probably find Stanleys megachurch leadership models superficial and over simplified, but that’s actually what made this book a good conversation partner. Though totally different from my personality, I found Stanley to be incredibly helpful and practical. I would recommend this book to anyone in any form of leadership.
Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, Richard Foster
I loved this book. I took my time with this book. It’s written in the early 1990’s and I’m pretty sure I read it a long time ago- but it stands the test of time for sure. In Prayer Foster provides an remarkably thoughtful and extensive overview of the Christian practice of prayer that is both encouraging and practical. As I worked through the book I found myself often times more drawn to the mystery of God and prayer. I would recommend this book to any Jesus-follower, but especially some one who’s interested in an introduction to prayer, contemplation, and mysticism.
In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers, and Mothers, John Chryssavgis
Like I mentioned earlier, I’ve got an affinity for Christian mystics, and a lot of Christian mysticism and monasticism finds it’s origins in who we’ve affectionately named the Desert Fathers and Mothers. These individuals left the trappings of society and headed to the desert in order to live lives of simplicity and prayer. In the Heart of the Desert is a great introduction to some of these fascinating characters who in reality shaped Christianity in many ways. Essentially this book is a collection of sayings from various Abbas (Fathers) and Ammas (Mothers) broken into different topics and narrated by John Chryssavgis. I found this book full of truth nuggets and thought provoking anecdotes about reality, God, and the self.
How bout you? What were your favorite reads of 2015?