This year I didn’t get to read as much as I wanted to and consequently didn’t make it to a few of the books I planned to read. “The best laid plans of mice and men” etc etc. I was doing a 14 week study on Revelation and another one on Song of Songs with some guys that ended taking up a lot of my reading time and filled it with prep time. Of course that involved a lot of reading, but it was mainly skimming cream and not actually milking the cow (not sure if that analogy works). In other words I was using a lot of books for those studies, not technically reading them. So they don’t appear in the final tally. (The Song of Songs study ended up being incredible, for which I have no regrets.)
Overall, I still managed to read some amazing books this year. And despite not getting through my list, I take great comfort in this quote from a man who worked for Encyclopedia Britannica and wrote his own classic on reading entitled (rather prosaically), How to Read a Book:
In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you. –Mortimer J. Adler
Top 5 books I read in 2018
1. The World to Come by Dara Horn
A simple, organizing plot about a stolen painting becomes the basis for a poignant, imaginative, and meandering meditation on art, meaning, love, loss, birth, time, and the world to come. The story telling is engrossing as it jumps back and forth between time and place—past and present, Soviet Russia, America and Vietnam, and this life and the next. Yiddish parables and spiritual folklore pepper the story, providing some of the most moving and memorable moments of the book. The ending is a brilliant, kaleidoscopic image of a child’s preparation for world to come (which may not be what you’re expecting) and how we are to live in light of it. Best line: “Time is created through deeds of true kindness” (139).
2. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
An old, dying pastor writes a letter to his 7 year old son, leaving him “certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am” (162). And also for the reason that, “I don’t want to be the tremulous coot you barely remember” (141). For John Ames, the slow and certain advent of death puts everything into perspective and jolts him into noticing the “sacred beauty of Creation” (245) in all its detail (93). It also prompts a writing project. Writing becomes a form of praying (21), an attempt to be known by what one has chronicled as significant. One of the paradoxes the book highlights is that, though writing provides a means by which we can judge another’s life, a judgment hangs over the very act of writing—its communicative inadequacy—that renders our judgements dubious. Ames’ captures this numerous times: “I felt the poverty of my remarks” (20); “my sermon was like ashes on my tongue” (21); “so often I have known, right there in the pulpit, even as I read the words, how far they fell short of any hopes I had for them” (69); “you must not judge what I know by what I find words for” (114). All the same, Ames’ furious determination to keep writing implies that, although “you never do know the actual nature of your own experience” (95), it is eternally significant and worthy of recording, however inadequately. This leads me to one of the best lines of the book: “In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely” (57). This book is slow, contemplative, and powerful. It’s full of aged wisdom, conversational theological musings, and a childlike wonder in the simple fact of existence.
3. Silence by Shusaku Endo
The story of a 17th century Catholic priest (Father Rodrigues) seeking out his former mentor in Japan who is rumored to have apostatized. A powerful look at what faithfulness requires when a political regime wants to snuff out Christianity and you are the lone burning candle and the smoke of your prayer rises to a silent God. Despite my disagreements with Rodrigues’ ultimate choice, the book is a potent template for personal reflection on grand questions like: the cost of faithfulness, the silence of God in face of suffering (57), betrayal and forgiveness (124), the difference between the strong and the weak (82), and what theologians have called the “scandal of particularity” that necessitates sending missionaries all over the earth and how (and if) in those very different cultures, like different soils, the tree of Christianity can flourish (116-117).
4. History and Spirit by Henri de Lubac
A 500 page defense and rehabilitation of Origen’s legacy. The master and early pioneer of the allegorical method is given a fair hearing and is justified in all his essentials. Direct quotes from Origen are served up on every page as de Lubac sets out an all-you-can-eat buffet of source material and then comments on every dish’s exotic flavors. Contrary to popular opinion, Origen is not the mad allegorist smuggling Plato into the Scriptures to destroy the literal sense and substitute for it his own extravagant ravings. He was a man of the church, constantly overawed by the density and grandeur of the mysteries buried in the Bible and seeking to bring them out for the church’s admiration. Origen displays the freshness and enthusiasm of the early Christian thinkers who sought for Christ everywhere. The modern church needs to recover and reappropriate this method and free itself from the rational restraint of the historical-critical method. Thankfully this is happening.
5. Atheist Delusions by David Bentley Hart
Three words describe DB Hart: erudite, eloquent, and occasionally caustic. When directed at the bold claims of the popular new atheists this is the perfect storm. Hart debunks and dissolves many of the old canards parroted about Christianity—religion is the cause of all wars, faith historically blockaded science, faith is irrational and brought in the dark ages, Christianity is a kill-joy, unearthly religion that spoiled the noonday zest of paganism, etc. Hart then reminds us and demonstrates just how radically profound the triumph of Christianity was, how it was “a truly massive and epochal revision of humanity’s prevailing vision of reality, so pervasive in its influence and so vast in its consequences as actually to have created a new conception of the world, of history, of human nature, of them, and of the moral good” (xi). This isn’t an apologetics textbook for memorizing some bullet points for debate; Hart takes the scenic route and shows us a compelling view of the beauty of Christianity in comparison to its alternatives.
The Complete List
- The World to Come by Dara Horn
- Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
- Silence by Shusaku Endo
- History and Spirit by Henri de Lubac
- Atheist Delusions by David Bentley Hart
- You are What You Love by James K. A. Smith
- Evangelical Theology by Karl Barth
- The Pastor as Public Theologian by Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan
- The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton
- The Coming of God by Maria Boulding
- The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks
- Life-Study of Leviticus by Witness Lee
- Life and Building in the Song of Songs by Witness Lee
- Enjoying Christ as the Word and the Spirit Through Prayer by Witness Lee
- The New Testament: A Translation by David Bentley Hart
Books I didn’t Get To
- Praying the Bible by Donald Whitney
- Why Read Moby Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick
- The Deep Things of God by Fred Sanders
- The Ministry of God’s Word by Watchman Nee
- Retrieving Eternal Generation edited by Fred Sanders and Scott R. Swain