One of the reasons I write is it gives me an opportunity to process what I’m thinking. And one of the best ways to get something to think about it is to read what others are thinking.
With that in mind, I thought I would put down the 10 books I most enjoyed reading this year – books that gave me something to think about. These books aren’t necessarily new – they are simply 10 that I picked up this year, roughly in the order of the impact and the impression they made on me. So, here they are:
10. I’ll start with the one I most recently finished: A.J. Cronin’s The Keys of the Kingdom. I have no memory of how this book of fiction came across my radar, but I’m glad it did. It’s the story of a priest, Father Francis Chisholm – his life, his loss, his faith, his difficult choices, and his tenacity through all of it. Chisholm’s story reminds me that the truly faithful life will be difficult. And we never know what tomorrow may require; we simply trust, seeking the wisdom to meet it faithfully when it shows up.
9. George Orwell’s Animal Farm. What a timeless reminder that words matter. In the hands of manipulative people, words can be manipulated and used against good & ordinary folk who often don’t look hard enough to see what is right in front of them.
8. Anatomy of the Soul by Dr. Curt Thompson. A psychiatrist and Jesus-follower, Thompson gives helpful insight into how faith and our brains interact. He reminds us that spiritual formation covers all elements of the human life, including what we think and how we think. Following Jesus isn’t simply a matter of believing the right things; it also involves disciplines that shape and form us. Or, as Dr. Thompson would say, they literally re-wire our brains for spiritual and mental growth.
7. Einstein by Walter Isaacson. After finishing this book, I don’t understand much better the complicated theories that came from Einstein’s mind, but I think I better understand the complicated realities of Einstein’s life. And apparently his intellect didn’t help him much as a husband and a dad. As his first marriage was crumbling, he had his wife sign a “contract” which required her to, among other things: “renounce all personal relations with me insofar as they are not completely necessary for social reasons.” Not surprisingly, Einstein ending up leaving her … for his cousin. Okay, so Einstein was more complicated than most of us – and even messier. In all of this is a reminder that being smart and being wise aren’t the same things. And that’s a lesson you don’t need an advanced physics degree to grasp.
6. You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy. Really helpful book on the importance of listening, even to – especially to – those on the other side of an issue. I am a big believer that listening – deep & welcoming listening – has healing potential. It applies to marriage, to parenting, to friendship, to “enemyship,” and everywhere in between. Listening is needed in our churches, in Congress, and on the street corner. This book is a very helpful guide for the journey of listening – one we all need to take if we are going to work through what ails us. (For a taste of Murphy’s insight, listen to this interview with her.)
5. A Familiar Wilderness by Simon J. Dahlman. The author takes us along for a hike on the Wilderness Trail pioneered by Daniel Boone – the path from east Tennessee to central Kentucky, through the Cumberland Gap. Part travel journal, part jaunt through history, I found this book a challenge to me: What trail do I want to tackle? It also invited me to learn more about the early colonial years in the state where I live. And, like all historical reflection, it reminds us that history is always complicated – and we learn best from history when we learn from it the good, the bad, and the nuanced.
4. Death’s Acre by Bill Bass & Jon Jefferson. I purchased this at a used book store, maybe 10 years ago – and promptly stuck it on my shelf, where it promptly sat, gathering dust. For some reason, I pulled it out and read it this year. It was delightful. Death’s Acre tells the story of the Body Farm – the first (only?) place in the U.S. dedicated to studying the decay of human bodies for the sake of forensic and legal research. But the book ends up being less about the Body Farm, and more about Bass’s journey through his life and work. Along the way, he touches on all kinds of loss – of his dad at an early age, of marriages, of faith, and, of course, death itself. Death is all throughout this book; but don’t be fooled. Ultimately, this book is about life – and one man’s attempt to live it fully, surrounded by death. And isn’t that the challenge for all of us?
3. N.T. Wright’s Paul & the Faithfulness of God, book 1. When I was a preacher, I did a series on Leviticus. I remember getting push-back from a couple of people – one of whom was my late friend Horace. One Sunday, we stood talking in the aisle in the sanctuary, between services. He essentially asked: Why do we need to study the OT? We have everything we need in the gospel. I’m sure my answer wasn’t very eloquent, or as gentle as it should have been. In his writing, Tom Wright provides a better & longer answer to Horace – very much longer, in fact – where he essentially says: The gospel is the culmination of the work God began in the OT. Jesus is the embodiment of Adam, Israel, and all of God’s plans for His creation. The Church is Israel redefined. Therefore, if we are to understand the person of Jesus and the work of the Church, we have got to see how the whole story fits together. Wright does it better than anyone else I have read. I think that every thoughtful believer should get at least a taste of Wright, the best theologian of our age. A great place to start is this podcast. If that whets your appetite for one of his books, I highly recommend Surprised by Hope.
2. I struggled with what to put at #1 – which means I had to decide what would fall just below it. For this penultimate spot, I decided on The Body by Bill Bryson. By placing this book at #2 (and hence choosing Lewis as my #1), I may be cheating in an effort to look more spiritual – because I essentially read The Body twice. It was that good, with such rich insight into what makes us tick. Bryson is a great writer, with a curiosity that takes him down many fruitful paths. So, in this work, we not only learn how the body functions, but we also learn stories of many of the characters in history who showed us how our bodies work – or failed trying. Truly enlightening reading, with insight on nearly every page.
And Number 1: Yours, Jack by C.S. Lewis. This collection of spiritual letters by Lewis is both encouraging and amazing. He offers encouraging wit and wisdom in each letter – sometimes to people he doesn’t really know. At the same time, it’s truly amazing how pithy & profound this man can be just by sitting down and picking up a pen. In one letter, he writes how challenging it is just to do the physical act of writing: “I can’t type: you could hardly conceive what hundreds of hours a year I spend coaxing a rheumatic wrist to drive this pen across paper.” Despite his limitations and his limited time to write to those who sought his counsel, he still offered timeless insight, such as these:
- On temptation: “Like motoring – don’t wait till the last moment before you put on the brakes but put them on, gently and quietly, while the danger is still a good way off.”
- On another writer: “Poor boob! – he thought his mind was his own! Never his own until he makes it Christ’s: up till then merely a result of heredity, environment, and the state of his digestion. I become my one only when I gave myself to Another.”
- On disagreeable people, which he says often comes from “inner insecurity – a dim sense that one is Nobody, a strong determination to be Somebody, and belief that this can be achieved by arrogance.”
- On emotions and the divine: “God’s presence is not the same as the feeling of God’s presence and He may be doing most for us when we think He is doing least.”
- On emotions themselves: “The whole lesson of my life has been that no ‘method of stimulation’ are of any lasting use. They are indeed like drugs – a stronger dose is needed each time and soon no possible dose is effective. We must not bother about thrills at all. Do the present duty – bear the present pain – enjoy the present pleasure – and leave emotions and ‘experiences’ to look after themselves. That’s the program, isn’t it?”
Yes, Jack, I think that is the program. And I’m grateful for the opportunity to read your mail – as well as the other books I savored in 2020. Here’s to more good words for the journey in 2021….