It always feels much harder to pick my favorite non-fiction books. I feel like I read a lot more non-fiction than fiction, but this year it was 73 fiction and 80 non-fiction, so very close. The difference is that non-fiction is primarily about ideas. So when I review non-fiction and talk about non-fiction I tend to have something to hang onto, a hook that either sticks with me, or it doesn’t. I initially put together a list, then wiped my computer and rebuilt it again and forgot to back up the list first (the only thing I think I lost in the computer transition.)
So when I put the list together again, there were several different books on it than what I had initially. (And this list is longer than initially.) With the extra books in every category, I am mentioning 17 books that are really in five different categories of how I have been moved by my reading this year. (All links are to my reviews, which if you are interested, have purchase links for the books.)
The Fall of Interpretation, Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic by James KA Smith – The last couple years I have really been grappling with the idea of what the normal Christian life is supposed to look like. For some authors it seems that every Christian is supposed to become a leader, or a great prayer warrior, or an activist, or evangelist, or something else that is great. Toward the end of this year it seems there have been a number of books that have come out that are more about what it means to be ordinary. (The God of the Mundane was the first of this movement and I think well worth reading.) James KA Smith’s Fall of Interpretation really gave theological meat to my thoughts on living as limited creatures, not because we are limited by sin (although we are) but because we are limited because we are created creatures. This book is dense, but as with pretty much everything I read by Smith, I am thinking about it long, long after I finish.
I also read How (Not) to be Secular, which I think it an excellent book about Charles Taylor’s reimagining of the story of secularization. And I read Letters to a Young Calvinist, which almost (but not quite) makes me want to become a Calvinist (at least Smith’s version of Calvinism), but really it is primarily about discipleship and belongs in a category below.
Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense by Francis Spufford – This was on a number of Best of 2013 book lists and it was one of the later books I read this year. I think it was overhyped a bit and I think there are places it got off track, but I think it is a good example of the change in books about the reasonableness of Christianity away from the ‘Evidence that Demands a Verdict’ type of book and more toward a post-modern style of apologetics that is about story and emotion rather than rationalism. Maybe the rationalism works for others, but it doesn’t work for me. While I think I am still to rationally focused on how I process my faith, faith is not primarily about knowing but about a relationship with God (and the church). Unapologetic is primarily focused on telling a story of how Spufford’s faith ‘works’ for him emotionally. It is not really written to a North American Evangelical audience, so not everyone will really latch on to the whole thing, but in spite of some weaknesses, I think it is a book is reminds us that Grace is the center of Christian faith not because it is a doctrine that is important (although it is) but because it is the center point of how we must relate to God. We are forgiven, so we forgive, we are given grace, so we give grace, we are changed people, so we seek to help others be changed as well.
I think that there were also some problems with Philip Yancey’s Vanishing Grace, but the central idea in the first section of that book really hit a lot of the same points for me. Grace, not only as a doctrine, but as a method of interacting with the world, has to be the center point of our Christian Faith.
The Anglican Way: A Guidebook by Thomas McKenzie – Several books could have easily been the leader in this category of my changing theology. But this is the most clear. Theologically, I am becoming more Anglican all the time. McKenzie’s early chapters about what Anglicans believe and how they hold a number of doctrines in tension felt like I could have written it (although he did better than I would have.) I am increasingly focused on the theological importance of sacraments, of the holding of diverse theology in tension within a single denomination (although this is really being tested among worldwide Anglicans today), a de-emphasis on pastor as preacher (instead a focus of pastor as head celebrant) and a increased emphasis on the church as a place of long term spiritual formation.
Justin Holcomb’s Know the Heretics and Know the Creeds both fit into this because I think modern statements of faith are too individualistic and too focused on minor exclusionary points and that we need to go back to a focus on the ancient creeds as our main statements of faith. One final point in this area is that I flirted with the house church movement for a while theologically (never really attended a house church) and while I think there is much to commend about it, and I certainly don’t want to to broadly paint the movement as a whole, for me, submitting to a big C church that is more than just a local body is theologically important.
Becoming Who You Are: Insights on the True Self from Thomas Merton and Other Saints by James Martin – I think it is because he is not writing from an Evangelical background that moves this to the top of my spiritual formation category, but James Martin’s short book I think is a good illustration of why Evangelical work on spiritual formation often needs a tweak of emphasis. God created us as individuals with gifts and weaknesses. The gifts are often weaknesses when taken too far and vice versa. But spiritual formation, while paying attention to habits and sin and making sure we are in a faith community, etc., has to be more about becoming who God created us to be than becoming a perfect person or a Christian ideal.
I think Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ by Dallas Willard verged on being just as good if not better, but was more dense. And Jonathan Martin’s Prototype: What Happens When You Discover You’re More Like Jesus Than You Think? is not directly about spiritual formation, like Willard’s but equally as good as James Martin’s and does a great job at communicating theological depth without much of the traditional theological language that can be intimidating for many.
James Bryan Smith’s Good and Beautiful Life and Good and Beautiful Community and John Ortberg’s Soul Keeping are all worth reading and I really encourage more Evangelicals to pay attention to spiritual formation, but they feel a bit more cliché to me, although the content of them is still important and worth reading.
While the World Watched: A Birmingham Bombing Survivor Comes of Age during the Civil Rights Movement by Carolyn Maull McKinstry – This did not make my first list (nor did this whole category) but as I thought about it the second time, stories like these are important. Not only for the importance of the Civil Rights movement and the fact that this is living history, but because much of the power of the movement was a result of average people’s work. Without the average people that came to marches, suffered retribution, lived in fear during times of crisis, and as this book illustrates so well, lived with the negative repercussions of the movement long after.
Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henreatta Lacks is somewhat similar. Not because of her own story as much as how much little people that really get no credit are important. And the story of the poverty of her family and how much medicine has changed is also well worth reading.
Karen Swallow Prior’s Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More–Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist is also well worth reading. And it is really the addition of this book that made this a category of Women’s biography. Women have always been a part of great movements. But often it was the men that got the main credit. Hannah More was in many ways just as important as William Wilberforce in the abolition movement, but where many have heard of Wilberforce, almost no one prior to this biography had heard of More. It is fashionable to not be a fan of ‘great man history’. I am not opposed to understanding and reading about great men. But I am glad that there are at least some that are writing about some of the lesser known people, often women, that played important but less public roles in many of the great movements of history.