This is my annual best of 2016 list. (Way late I know.) This is my list of the books that at the end of the year I still think about. They are not all from 2016 (most are not) and they may not be the ‘best’ books that I have read. Some years my best list has been more heavily fiction oriented. And some years I have split it up into a fiction list and a non-fiction list. But this year I am going to keep it all together (fiction is at the bottom). This is my list, roughly in order. I am not sure how you really compare books of widely different genres. So think of it as an approximation.
Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering by Makoto Fujimura The new Martin Scorsesee movie Silence, based on the novel by Shusaku Endo goes into wide release next weekend. You theoretically have time to read the original Endo novel and then this book, which is Fujimura’s reflection on the novel and his reflections his and Endo’s Christian faith and the culture of Japan. Silence is not for the faint of heart. It is a novel about Christians that renounce their faith in the face of persecution. I think it is an important book and I think Fujimura’s book is the best book I have read this year. I am in the middle of re-reading it right now.
Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah is the most unexpected book on the list. I have liked Noah when I watched The Daily Show, but I don’t watch it often. And I tend to not pick up many celebrity memoirs, so if this has not been offered for free on audiobook I would not have picked it up. But it is very well written and a fascinating look at a culture and country that I do not know much about. Growing up in post-apartheid South Africa is not a particularly funny subject. But Noah handle it with humility, appropriate weight for the subjects and with lots of humor. I will pre-order anything else that he writes.
The March Trilogy by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin with illustrator Nate Powell deserves it accolades (National Book Award and Goodreads Graphic Novel of the Year among others.) I have read a number of comic book/graphic novels this year. I have become acquainted with Seth Hahne who is behind the Goodokbad blog. He has shown me that there is so much more than traditional superhero or Manga. A lot of history is particularly well suited to graphic novel format. And the story of the Civil Rights movement through the biography of John Lewis, hits all the right notes.
Another very good graphic novel is Vision by Tom King. Vision is a member of the Avengers, but this is more a comic book about his family and what it means to love in difficult situations than about superheroes.
As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes was my light pick of the year. I tend toward heavy fiction and lots of non-fiction. But I can’t only read those. I need funny books and lighters books as well. I am a huge fan of the Princess Bride movie and book. But I had not picked it up until it was on sale several years after I heard about it. This is a book that should be listened to. Elwes is not only an excellent narrator, who does great impressions of the other stars in the movie, but many of the others involved in the movie participated in reading their sections of the book as well.
Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Soon-Chan Rah is the best biblical book I read this year. It is both a commentary on the book of Lamentations and a call to bring the concept of lamentations back to Evangelical worship and a commentary on how Christians should think about social issues. Soon-Chan Rah is a former pastor/church planter and now a professor at Northpark Seminary. He is a prime example of why we need more diversity not only in our seminaries, but in our reading and thinking about scripture as well. Diversity is not simply about making minority Christians feel represented but about becoming the whole body of Christ. Also related and worth reading is The End of White Christian America by Robert Jones. It is a book about demographics and polling more than theology, but it just serves to reenforce the need for a more diverse understanding of the church.
The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion by NT Wright is of on the more important general theology books I read this year. In many ways this is a sequel to Surprised by Hope and attempts to do similar things in regard to the crucifixion as Surprised by Hope was doing with the end times. Some of Wright’s traditional weaknesses are present here, but this is solid evangelical theology that affirms why we need good academic theologians like Wright who also can write in a way that lay people can also understand.
I continue to think that history is extraordinarily important to understand current events. The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief by George Marsden is a prime example of why history is important. This is a brief book, but the parallels between the 1950s and today are particularly striking. Especially since this is not a brand new book. But history is worth reading for history’s sake and for the good reminder of the blind spots of each generation.
You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James KA Smith is a good book to read as people are making New Year’s resolutions. I read it twice last year. If you have not read any of Smith’s previous more academic books, this is a good place to start. Essentially, Smith is arguing for a conscious attention to what we do in our lives. Not just with worship or exercise or eating habits, but with all of life. What we do forms us in ways that we do not always pay attention to. At the same time, we are not solely intellectual beings. Emotion and precognitive leanings are important to how we make decisions. And because of that we need formative habits (liturgies) that shape those parts of our being. For Smith, as a Christian, this is about becoming like Christ and being formed into the person God wants us to become.
Tangentially related, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt supports some of the ideas of Smith’s book through an evolutionary psychology perspective. Haidt is presenting Moral Foundations Theory. It suggests that different people, through a combination of genetics, culture, upbringing and other factors value different combinations and levels of six broad moral values. Especially in a divided political world that we are currently living in, this is a helpful presentation.
Finally I have three fiction books that I am really enjoyed this year. The latest book in the Inspector Gamache series, A Great Reckoning is one of the best of the series so far. It is odd that a book so deep into a series (12) is still so strong.
I subscribed to Christ and Pop Culture magazine just over a year ago. As part of the subscription I have access to a private Facebook group, which in addition to looking at pictures of other people’s kids, is the only real reason to stay on Facebook. The group is filled with authors and readers and the next two books were recommendations from the group.
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell and The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber are two very different books about the same general concept, taking the Christian gospel to an alien world. The Sparrow is broadly concerned with the problem of evil. I am still recovering from the book, but I will read the sequel early this year. The Book of Strange New Things is more concerned with what it means to be a missionary (and how that impacts family) and how Christianity is impacted by contact with a new culture.