It’s that time again. You’ve waited patiently a whole year for it, I’m sure, and it’s finally here … the 2nd annual rundown of my favorite books. So, for this first day of 2022, I’m writing about some of the books I read in 2021 that were the most meaningful and enjoyable for me. Last year I did a countdown, from 10 to 1. This year, I couldn’t contain myself to ten, so I’m listing them by category and theme. And there’s so much to include that I’m dividing it into two posts. Tomorrow, I’ll share Part 2.
Maybe you’ll find a book here that piques your interest. Or maybe you read a book this year that you love and I should know about. Either way, I hope you don’t just read a blog about reading — but that you read, and share what you are reading.
My first entry is a person who is a category all to himself: C.S. Lewis. I finished my list last year with him, so I’ll start with him this year. Besides, as a writer of children’s works, letters, fiction, theology, and fictional theology, Lewis is a library all to himself. This year, I encouraged someone to read Lewis’s Great Divorce — not because this person was having marriage struggles, but worries about hell. So I picked it up again myself. Despite its title, this book deals with Lewis’s imaginative take on eternity. It is a fascinating, thoughtful, challenging-yet-very-accessible read. No doubt you have images that come to mind when you think of heaven and hell. Read Lewis and see if his imagination expands your understanding of eternity.
This year, I also read (or listened to) the 3 books of Lewis’s space trilogy. For me, the best is the third – That Hideous Strength. In it, Lewis paints a picture of what the world might look like when those in power attempt to use technology to remake society. It’s a good read – and a tale that sounds just as timely today as when Lewis wrote it.
Next up: history & biography. Two eras have grabbed me of late: Civil War times and World War 2. Early this year, I finished reading David Herbert Donald’s biography of Lincoln. With the benefit of hindsight, it might seem as if Lincoln and his leadership were inevitable. DHD shows clearly the challenges he faced every step of the way – and the way he responded to them, not for personal gain, but for the sake of the country. As late as August of 1864, with his re-election looming, Lincoln told a friend: “You think I don’t know that I am going to be beaten, but I do and unless some great change takes place badly beaten.”
Even so, he did not use the Civil War and the turmoil of the country as a reason to change the fall elections. He said, “We can not have free government without elections, and if the rebellion could force us to forego or postpone a national election it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.” Likewise, he didn’t try to rush through statehood for the territories of Colorado or Nebraska — electoral votes he likely would have won. At the same time, he didn’t force the readmission of Louisiana and Tennessee into the Union, even though they were partially “reconstructed” and were under Northern military control. In sum, when it came to the election that would certainly make or break his legacy, and possibly the Union, he stated emphatically: “Except it be to give protection against violence, I decline to interfere in any way with any presidential election.”
Timely, and timeless words.
Prior to the Civil War, Frederick Douglass wrote his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. In D.H. Dilbeck’s autobiography of Douglass, he describes how Douglass is treated by his church-going slave masters. On one occasion, Douglass collapses in the harvest field, suffering from heat stroke. His overseer, Edward Covey, beats him, leading Douglass to escape to his “owner,” Thomas Auld. When Auld forces him to go back, Covey immediately attempts to tie Douglass up for a severe whipping. Douglass flees again. Early the next day — a Sunday — Douglass returns once again to Covey’s farm, where he finds Covey and his wife on their way to church. Covey looks kindly on Douglass, and asks how he is doing.
Douglass determines his actions are due to the Sabbath. “He had more respect for the day than for the man, for whom the day was mercifully given, for while he would cut and slash my body during the week, he would not hesitate, on Sunday, to teach me the value of my soul, or the way of life and salvation by Jesus Christ.” In fact, as he looked back over the whole of his experience as a slave, Douglass decided, “I have found (religious slaveholders), almost invariably, the vilest, meanest and basest of their class.”
We look back and wonder how men like Covey could not see how their actions belied their beliefs, and harmed others made in the image of God — many of whom worshiped that same God. But hindsight is always clearer. What in our day do we not see so clearly, that would cause others to wonder why our actions don’t match our beliefs?
From World War 2, I heartily recommend Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken — an amazing story centered around the life of Louis Zamperini. From rebellious teen to high school star to Olympian to lost-at-sea bombardier to brutalized POW, Zamperini’s story reads like something out of Hollywood. So much so, that Angelina Jolie took Zamperini’s true tale and put it on the big screen. The movie is engaging, but misses much of the detail that makes Zamperini’s story so compelling – like his transformation after the War from an angry and traumatized veteran to a man who learned the power of forgiveness and healing. Zamperini is a testament to the ability grace has to change us, and those around us.
Speaking of World War 2, I’ve never really understood how Hitler could come to power, and then completely take over a country – and almost a continent. Wolfgang Benz’s A Concise History of the Third Reich gives some insight. Certainly, Germany was still reeling from World War 2 when Hitler took the reins in 1933. German national pride had taken quite a hit, and Germans were ready for someone to restore it. Hitler was able to tap into that passion and pride, and in six years start a war for control of the world. For sure, not everyone joined in; but sadly, most did or, at least, went along or looked the other way. Names of those who joined Hitler’s blitz are well-known: Goring, Rommel, Eichmann, Mussolini. Names of those who stood athwart history are often forgotten.
Names like Otto & Gertrud Morike. Otto was a pastor in Germany in the 1930s, and originally supported Hitler. But Hitler’s tactics soon turned Morike into an opponent, especially when Hitler attempted to “nazify” German Protestant congregations by constituting them into the National Reich Church. This effort specified that “the Christian Cross must be removed from all churches, cathedrals and chapels … and it must be superseded by the only unconquerable symbol, the swastika.”
One day in 1933, Morike arrived at his church to see the Nazi flag flying from the steeple. He took it down, and then went to the Gestapo headquarters in Stuttgart, where he calmly gave it to them, and said, “The swastika does not belong on the steeple of a church.” Amazingly, they took back the flag, and let Morike leave. The next year, he preached a sermon from Joshua, where he compared Jericho to the Nazi Party. They demanded a copy of the sermon, which he gladly gave them — hoping any Nazi who read it might be converted.
In April 1938, Hitler held a referendum on the annexation of Austria and his leadership. The ballot had a large “yes” and a tiny “no” — and votes were closely scrutinized by the Nazis. Not surprisingly, 99% voted yes. But not Otto & Gertrud. In addition to voting no, Otto wrote on his ballot: “I deplore the degradation of morality and justice in Germany and the destruction of the church by the de-Christianization of our people.” Gertrud, who was pregnant, also voted no. Like her husband, she included words to describe her decision: “As a Christian, I must reject National Socialism as an ideology inasmuch as it leads to the curse and eternal damnation of our people.”
When this clear defiance reached Nazi supporters, around 30 storm troopers led an angry mob to the Morike home. Gertrud watched, horrified, as they dragged Otto from his bed, dragged him into the street, and beat him nearly to death. He got out of harm’s way when the Confessing Church movement transferred him to another area — where he promptly joined other pastors to set up an Underground Railroad to get Jews out of the country. When the war started and fleeing Germany became nearly impossible, Morike and his network began hiding Jews in more than a dozen safe houses — known as the Parsonage Chain. Eventually, they hid Jews in plain sight — as Germans in the country began hosting those escaping the war in urban areas, and the Jews could blend in. They helped one couple, Max & Karoline Krakauer, who had been forced into slave labor, but had escaped. The Krakauers stayed for a time with the Morikes — one of 66(!) different places they would stay to survive the war. WW2 ended without the Nazis uncovering the Morikes’ Parsonage Chain.
The story of Otto & Gertrud is found in what I think is my favorite book of 2021: Rod Gragg’s My Brother’s Keeper: Christians Who Risked All to Protect Jewish Targets of the Nazi Holocaust. In this book, Gragg tells the stories of 30 individuals, couples, families, and churches who stood against the Nazi death machine – in Germany, France, Belarus, and many other places. The book references some better-known heroes (such as Corrie & Betsie Ten Boom and Andre & Magda Trocme), but most are not household names. Like Roddie Edmonds, an American POW who refused, at gunpoint, to give up his Jewish soldiers, and Anton Schmid, a German soldier who helped Jews and was killed by his own Army. Gragg covers faithful people who stood up to Hitler’s “Jewish solution.” In 30 stories, he shows how these faithful few lived out Jesus’ command to love our neighbors — sometimes, like Schmid and Betsie Ten Boom, dying for their efforts. It’s a powerful book, one that takes a heavy subject and a very difficult time and gives numerous engaging examples that will challenge you to consider how you might better love your neighbors.
It’s a book I think everyone should pick up. And once you’ve read one story, you’ll likely want to read them all. And learn more. For they are all reminders that for followers of Jesus, love of God always leads to love neighbor. Always.