Four Favorite Books from 2014

I read about 70 books this year, including a little over 50 new books. Most of the new books were non-fiction (for my PhD studies), while the majority of my re-reads were fiction (e.g. Narnia, LOTR, Harry Potter, Pride and Prejudice, the Brothers Karamazov).

After a year spent sifting through words, here are the four books that stood out in 2014.

whengodtalksback

Book that Made Me Think the Most: 

When God Talks Back by Tanya Luhrmann

This was one of the first books I read this year, a book on evangelical spirituality by a non-Christian sociologist. If you’ve ever wondered how a “relationship with God” looks like to a sympathetic outsider who embeds herself deeply in evangelical culture, this is the book to read. While reading Luhrmann’s account, I often felt an ache in my stomach. Occasionally I felt patronized, but more often I felt known, as if I was reading my own story. I have written a full review here.

lilith_macdonald

Best Work of Fiction: Lilith by George MacDonald

MacDonald is best known as the writer who “baptized” C.S. Lewis’ imagination, and Lewis’ guide to heaven in The Great Divorce. Thus most people come to MacDonald through Lewis, who is simultaneously MacDonald’s greatest advocate and greatest albatross. Lilith is MacDonald’s greatest work; it is The Great Divorce on steroids. While Lewis’s preference is to lead readers along with his clear and incisive prose, MacDonald plunges the reader into a fantastical world with all the haziness and poignancy of a dream. The final pages brought me to tears and stirred my hope as few books have ever done.

secularBest Academic-Type Book for Ministry: 

How (Not) to Be Secular by Jamie Smith

Smith’s book is a synopsis of a much larger book, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. That book is IMHO the most important book for understanding modern secularity, but is so dense and imposing that few will read it. Thankfully, in just over 100 pages, Smith has managed to make Taylor accessible for a wider audience. While no substitute for reading Taylor, Smith offers the very next best thing. I have recommended it countless times and we are using it for a class I’m assisting with in January. Essential reading, especially for those in ministry.

Death-by-LivingBest Book for Living Well: 

Death by Living by N.D. Wilson

Having loved Wilson’s earlier Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl, I set out to read Wilson’s newer volume last year. I set it down, but when I picked it up again halfway through the year, I could not put it down. The subtitle summarizes its argument: “Life is meant to be spent.”It it will be particularly meaningful for people who are over 30 and who feel like life is moving too quickly. Chapter eight, The (Blessed) Lash of Time, is worth the price of the book; reading that chapter was a numinous experience.

In 2015, I’m hoping to read more new fiction. I also am planning to take my major comprehensive PhD exams, so it may be a banner year for books!

What was the best book you read this year?

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Book Review: When God Talks Back by Tanya Luhrmann

whengodtalksback

The subtitle of Tanya Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back describes the book as an attempt to understand “the American Evangelical Relationship with God”. Luhrmann’s focus on “relationship with God” means that she is not trying to understand evangelicalism as a social-political movement or theological system, but as a particular way of being in the world, a theory of mind. Luhrmann is particularly interested in that section of evangelicalism that takes seriously the claim that Christianity is “a relationship, not a religion”, people who are actually trying to cultivate a conversational relationship with a God who is inaccessible to the senses. What she gives us in the end is a phenomenology of Christian prayer.

It is fitting that she immerses herself in the Vineyard Church, a group known for its focus on the Holy Spirit, tangible signs of God’s work, and above all, “intimacy with Jesus”. Though the Vineyard Church is more doctrinally charismatic than most evangelical churches, I felt as though she could have been writing about any number of the churches that I’ve worked with, in and around during the last 12 years as a pastor and retreat speaker: Baptist, Presbyterian, , Evangelical Free Filipino, Nondenominational Korean, to name just a few.

Indeed, while reading Luhrmann’s account, I often felt an ache in my stomach. Occasionally I felt patronized, but more often I felt known, as if I was reading my own story. I felt an ache because I am one of those who long for the tangible experience of God, one who has spent years trying to learn and lead people to apprehend God’s unseen presence, one who longs for God far more often than I experience God. Yet I have had a handful of moments of what Luhrmann describes as sensory override, where God seems more-than-real, moments that have left me breathless. (Upon such breathless moments hang so many sermons, and my current academic pursuits!)

Luhrmann argues that evangelical Christianity is an attempt to develop a theory of mind wherein people are trained “to experience a part of their mind as the presence of God” (xxi). This is not a statement of ontology but of phenomenology. If God is supernatural, she argues, then surely his overtures would come within the natural human processes: “if God speaks, God’s voice is heard through human minds constrained by their biology and shaped by their social community” (xxiv). The identification of God’s presence and voice amidst the whir of everyday life then sets the stage for a conversational relationship with God, which Luhrmann understands through the rubric imaginative play. This kind of prayer requires the cultivation of imaginative absorption. Here I wish that Luhrmann was a bit more explicit about what theory of imagination she was working with (the Platonic fanciful imagination is much different, than Coleridge’s generative imagination, or Merleau-Ponty’s bodily imagination) though I suspect that the tension was intentional. The bottom line here is that a person must learn to relate to God “as if” God were a being in this world. The goal of the relationship is ultimately therapeutic: to experience God’s unconditional love.

What is amazing about Luhrmann’s outsider perspective is the way that she defends the evangelical theory of mind against cheap dismissals. This is particularly pronounced when she refutes the idea that evangelical spirituality is merely individualistic. While there is undoubtedly a (modern) individualism at work in evangelical spirituality, the worshipping community actually plays a critical, almost sacramental role in making the evangelical theory of mind tangible and believable. She writes: “It is the church that confirms that the invisible being is really present, and it is that church that reminds people week after week that the invisible being loves them, despite all the evidence of the dreary human world.” (131)

Luhrmann’s work leaves me with many questions. She operates on the assumption that we are living in a disenchanted world, to use Charles Taylor’s term, an “immanent frame”. The self in modern times is private, buffered, no longer porous to unseen agencies as it was 500 years ago. I think she is right, and I wonder if the evangelicals in her story have found God outside of the immanent frame or within it. The answer to this has implications for how we conceive of the role of worship. Can we really rewire a social imaginary through worship? If so, how? Is our goal in worship to point people to a reality that exists on a different plane than their ordinary, immanent experience? Or is there a possibility of somehow alerting them to God’s presence within the immanent frame, within the ordinary? And if we can, will that apprehension resemble what Luhrmann describes in this book?

Unquestionably, Luhrmann does not capture the whole story. Her focus is narrowly on “relationship with God” and thus fundamental markers of evangelicalism like conversion, theology, mission and historicity (“that which we have seen with our eyes and our hands have handled”) are ignored. Yet I believe that she has thrown her dart very near the center. The strength of Luhrmann’s work is its empathy and compassion; you get the sense that she really understands. If this is the case, it is because she has actually thrown herself headfirst into evangelical prayer practices and tried to learn how to pray. And yet, one wonders how it was possible for her to give herself wholly to prayer while also trying to analyze it as an anthropologist. As another reviewer put it (drawing from C.S. Lewis), it is “like looking through a window and at a window at the same time.” I read the book wanting to flip to the final page to see if she had a conversion experience; when I arrived I found that though she does not call herself a Christian, indeed something like a conversion seems to have taken place.

Why Study Philosophy and Theology? A Gem from John Caputo

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Now that I am knee-deep in a second masters degree in theology, I sometimes ask myself why. Why not study something more pragmatic, more practical, something with more “cash value” than systematics? Does all of this matter? Does anyone else even care?

And then I stumbled across this quote from John Caputo’s Philosophy and Theology (which I devoured today in one sitting):

Philosophy and theology are for wounded souls. Indeed those of us who take up the study of any of the humanities, of language and literature, history and art, philosophy and theology, or any of the natural sciences, have been pierced to the heart by something precious, beautiful, deep, and enigmatic that leaves us reeling. We know that the doctors are not telling us everything, the the wound will not heal, that we are not going to recover.We have suffered a blow that has destroyed our equilibrium; we have been shaken by a provocation, by something that has left us breathless, pursued by questions that we cannot still. We have been visited by some affliction that results in tremors… but also has this other oddity about it— this disorder induces an affection for our affliction, that the patients have no wish to be healed, to close this wound over, to arrest the tremors. For we live and breathe in the tremulousness of our lives, exposed to the questionability of things, made vulnerable to love’s wounds, visited in the night by questions of elemental power, shaken to the core by voices that will not be stilled.

Indeed. There is a deeper layer of reality beyond sense and science, and it haunts us. I plunge in, because I cannot do otherwise.

What I’m Reading: June 2011

1) The Modern Scholar: Philosophy of Religion by Peter Kreeft.  I am teaching a class this summer on philosophy of religion at my church, and this is my primary text.  Kreeft is a philosopher (at Boston College) whose favorite thinkers are Jesus, Socrates, Aquinas, Lewis and Tolkien.  That’s a pretty good list.

2) The Pose Method of Running by Nicholas Romanov.  I got turned onto Dr. Romanov through a couple of videos on the CrossFit main site.  Romanov argues that running is universally practiced but almost never taught as a skill.  With the advent of modern (padded) running shoes, most people have horrifically bad running technique that lead to injuries. Even switching to minimalistic shoes (like I have) doesn’t cause you to un-learn bad technique and leaves you susceptible to injury.  So maybe instead of just changing my shoes I should work on my technique.  That’s why I ordered this book.

3) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling.  Actually listening to this as an Audiobook.  It is narrated by the inimitable Jim Dale: I don’t know how he keeps the voices straight.  A very enjoyable experience of a great story where the world is saved by courage, sacrifice and friendship.  And the movie is coming out in July, duh.

4) Summer Wakes the Bear Who Sleeps by Aaron Youngren.  My sister and brother-in-law loaned this book to me.  It is a book of poetry, fairy tale, one act plays all surrounding a few common themes.  Reading it evokes a bit of Chesterton, at least the sense that the writer is much more brilliant than I am and is seeing things that are shocking and  beautiful and trying to help me see them too.

5) The Book of Isaiah by Isaiah.  I am taking this slowly, reading one chapter a day.  It’s amazing that a book written thousands of years ago still speaks so powerfully to my life.  Today I read about how much God hates religion when it doesn’t lead to personal integrity and public justice.  Something I need to hear.

Question: What are you reading?

The 30 Most Important Books I’ve Ever Read (2): Fiction

The 30 Most Important Books I’ve Ever Read (2): Fiction

By “most important” I simply mean the books that I have enjoyed the most.  These are the books that reward endless re-reading.  Here we go:

16. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – voted the book of the 20th century by 4 separate polls, the most epic example of modern myth-making.  Filled with holiness. Can’t say enough about it.  The movies don’t do it justice.

17. Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky – Dostoevsky paints the most beautiful and haunting characters I’ve ever encountered.

18. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky – see above.

19. The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis – my current favorite book by Lewis, his story of a field trip from hell to heaven.

20. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis – by far my favorite books growing up.  I have read each of the seven books at least 20-30 times.  Somehow Lewis makes you feel towards Aslan what you feel towards Christ.

21. Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling – just read this series last summer.  Could not put it down. Wonderful storytelling. (I know it’s cheating to put the whole Narnia and HP series here, but it’s my list.)

22. Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis – Classic retelling of the Cupid/Psyche myth, Lewis’ best answer to the problem of God’s apparent absence in the world.

23. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – Best inter-character dialogue in print.  Don’t you wish every conversation was this witty?

24. Hard Times by Charles Dickens – my favorite book by Dickens, an expose of what happens when we begin to worship efficiency.

25. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas – Story of revenge and redemption, of learning to wait and hope.

26. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo – I love the book, the musical, and the movie because all of them absolutely drip with grace.

27. Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan – I first read this as a child and didn’t catch the allegorical significance, even though the main character was named Christian.

28. Paradise Lost by John Milton – Brilliant re-telling of the Genesis story.  Could talk about this one for awhile too.

29. The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton – the kind of mystery that only Chesterton could have written.  The last 30 pages are astounding.

30. A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor – shocking, Christ-haunted stories with endings that hit you like a train.

The 30 Most Important Books I’ve Ever Read (1): Non-Fiction

When I say most important, I don’t mean the most well written, most popular or most intellectually deep.  I simply mean the 30 books that had the greatest impact on me at whatever stage of life I was in when I read them, as well as the ones that continue to shape the way I see the world.

I will post 15 non-fiction books today and 15 fiction books tomorrow. Here’s the first half of the list, in no particular order:

1. The Holy Bible – 66 books, God-breathed.

2. The Institutes by John Calvin – Huge in scope, deep in beauty.

3. Drama of Doctrine by Kevin Vanhoozer – One of the foundational theological texts in the way I put the world together, always inviting me to faithfully improvise my very minor (but significant!) scenes in God’s great theodrama.

4. Poetic Theology by William Dyrness – The book that ultimately led me to my PhD mentor and doctoral program.

5. Faith, Hope and Poetry by Malcolm Guite – One of the most beautiful books about the poetic imagination that I have ever read.

6-7. Desiring the Kingdom  and Imagining the Kingdom by Jamie Smith – While I don’t agree with everything in these two books, the parts that I do agree with are absolutely central to the way that I think about imagination, education and theological anthropology.

 

8. The Calvinistic Concept of Culture by Henry Van Til – My first exposure to dutch Calvinism, the theological system that undergirds my understanding of culture and God’s work in the world.

9. When the Kings Come Marching In by Richard Mouw – When I was looking for a way out of Calvinism, Mouw invited me into a different kind of Calvinism. I could list any of Mouw’s books here (Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport, He Shines in All That’s Fair, Uncommon Decency), but this one is my favorite.

10. God Crucified by Richard Bauckham – revolutionized my view of God in my early 20s, especially in reference how God defines himself by self-giving.

11. Desiring God by John Piper – gave me a huge vision of God while I was in college.  I’m not as excited about Piper these days, but he definitely left his mark on me during that time in my life.

12. Notes From a Tilt-A-Whirl by N.D. Wilson – this book filled me with more wonder than any non-fiction book I’ve ever read.

13. Searching for God Knows What by Don Miller – foundational to my relational understanding of the world.

14. Emotionally Healthy Church/Spirituality by Peter Scazzero – required reading in a world full of “grown-up” emotional infants.

15. Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis – unbelievable book fusing imagination and reason to explain the basics of Christian faith.

Honorable Mentions:

Abba’s Child by Brennan Manning – helped me understand what it looks like to define myself by God’s love instead of my performance.

Mystery of Marriage by Mike Mason – the only book on marriage that I’ve read or need to read.

Reason for God by Tim Keller – Keller at his best, the product of years of compassionate reasoning and thinking.

Lent 2011

I have a few other posts in the hopper that I’m working on, but I’ve just felt swamped lately and haven’t been able to make time to crank them out.  So I thought I would write a quick post about how I am attempting to observe the Christian season of Lent.

For those who don’t know, Lent represents the 40 days of preparation for Easter.  Not all Christians observe the season, but for those who do, Lent is supposed to be the time when we review our spiritual lives, think about what it means to be a follower of Jesus, reset the compass of discipleship and train our hearts to press on after Christ.

One of the things that I love about Lent is the self-examination and intentionality that the season invites.  I encourage my students to either subtract something from their life or add a practice that will disorient their normal routine and create space for change.

This year I decided that for Lent that I would expand my mind and deepen my heart through reading six books, one for each week of Lent (not necessarily a book a week).  Each one relates to a different sphere of my life.

Spiritual: The King’s Cross by Tim Keller – Keller’s exposition of the life of Jesus via the Gospel of Mark. My aim in reading this book is to spend concentrated time looking at Jesus.

Vocation: Love Wins by Rob Bell – A very controversial book in which a popular mega-church pastor questions the traditional doctrine of hell.  I’d rather read the book itself than the reviews.  My aim in reading this book is to wrestle with the personal and pastoral implications of believing in hell.


Generosity: Hole in Our Gospel by Richard Stearns – This book, by the president of World Vision, the world’s largest relief and development organization, calls Christians to reclaim our essential commitment to pursue justice in the world.  My aim in reading this book is to re-ignite my passion for justice as a central implication of the gospel of Jesus.


Fitness: Born to Run by Christopher McDougall – A book about running.  I am toying with the idea of training for a marathon this year, and this book has been highly recommended.  My aim in reading this book is to find inspiration and motivation to become a more serious runner.


Productivity: Getting Things Done by David Allen – It’s a book about personal productivity (no duh).  People swear by it.  I actually read the first half of this book before, but didn’t implement it into my life and promptly forgot most of it.  I consider myself a pretty productive person, but I feel like I am in a season where I am having so many ideas, projects and dreams that I need a better system to keep things from falling through the cracks.


Imagination: The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien.  This is a re-read for me.  But it’s so good.  And I need something to nourish my imagination.  Plus, my friend James just got me a nice hardback copy.

Following Jesus for me means becoming more intentional in each of these areas.

So that’s my plan.  We’ll see how it goes.

Question: Any Lent commitments to share?  Any thoughts on Lent in general? Anyone read any of the above books?