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My Best Books of 2015

December 30, 2015 — Leave a comment

At the end of each year I write a post about my favorite things that year, including my favorite book. However, with all the books I tend to read each year, it seems a little unfair to peg just one book. Often I’ll cheat by breaking it up into a couple different categories (e.g., ministry, fiction). This year, with the number of books I read, I thought I’d dedicate an entire post to my favorite books of 2015. Here goes…

Best Biblical Studies BookThe Lost World of Adam and Eve by John Walton. Walton’s previous book The Lost World of Genesis One was in my best of 2014, so I was excited to see his follow up book in 2015. I couldn’t put it down. Indeed, I read it the first evening I got it. Walton’s attempt to understand the account of human origins as recorded in Genesis 2-3 is thought-provoking to say the least. There may be many assertions readers disagree with; however, I found Walton incredibly expositional in biblical support and winsome in presentation. The fact that Dr. Walton is committed to the full inspiration of Scripture and a Wheaton professor should give those who are apprehensive at his conclusions at least some modicum of comfort with his personal devotion and intellectual integrity. This book received Christianity Today‘s ‘Award of Merit’ in their 2016 Book Awards.

Best Theology Book The Confessions by Augustine of Hippo. Periodically I try to read a Christian classic for several reasons. The first deals with what C.S. Lewis once noted as “chronological snobbery.” He said a generation can develop a way of thinking whereby it considers inferior any old or ancient way to its own. Reading old books by the the Church Historical helps deliver us from the bubble of thinking our own way is the best or right way. A second reason I wanted to read this book, written from AD 397-400, is because I didn’t want to be someone who always quoted classics without at least attempting to read some of them. Augustine’s work helped me more deeply realize the passion ancient believers had for Jesus and the importance of personal holiness. It also reminded me why it’s good to read the church fathers but not replace the Scriptures with them. At the risk of displaying my own chronological snobbery, I found myself disagreeing with some of Augustine’s assertions (e.g., that baptism is salvific and literally cleanses one’s sins). This deepened my appreciation for historical theology and the witness of the Church Historical. Augustine also would’ve likely failed my homiletics and biblical exegesis classes in seminary. The latter part of his book deals with his take on Genesis where metaphor takes on a life of its own. I was also surprised how philosophical The Confessions is. Frankly, there were times I had to discipline myself to just keep reading because of the abstract nature of Augustine’s content.

Best Ministry BookThe Imperfect Pastor by Zach Eswine. I appreciated Eswine’s transparency about what he believed ministry would be in his life and what it actually became – and how the real latter was better than the imagined (or idolized) former. It enlarged my heart for the weighty things of pastoring while causing me to look in the mirror about my current ministry as pastor. Eswine is a gifted writer. There are many parts of the Eswine’s work that felt novel-esque giving a richer, more colorful sense to the pastor/reader. Ultimately, The Imperfect Pastor was a needed journey for my heart as much as my head. Maybe the best compliment I can give The Imperfect Pastor is that the more I read, the more I repented.

Best Fiction –  The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor. Sorry, but this is a three-way tie. I read all three on my month-long break this summer and each one was fantastic in its own way. O’Brien’s book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Gilead won it (2005), and O’Connor’s work is considered by The Guardian as one of the top 100 novels of all time. The Things They Carried is full of pathos about the Vietnam War and, more importantly, what happens to human beings who went through it. Robinson’s work deals with the legacy of an aging pastor and how he sees the world and grace within it. Wise Blood is a book I’ve written about this year: here and here. O’Connor’s sense of what divides true faith from false is so spot on that I kept wondering how she reached her conclusions in the life she lived. All three are written with their own sense of beauty and artistry. O’Brien will make you weep, Robinson will make you wonder, and O’Connor will make you wise.

Best Nonfiction –  Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace. There are fewer people I’ve developed an intrigue for than David Foster Wallace (or DFW). Considered a genius, DFW is a man whose insight into the human condition has almost an eerie quality about it. This collection of essays is mesmerizing. I don’t know how one person can not only think as deeply (an accurately) as Wallace but communicate those thoughts as precisely and effectively as well. Consider the Lobster is DFW’s time of show-and-tell about his genius. This guy can make talking about the dictionary engrossing. I’m not kidding! I stole this book from a friend and didn’t give it back until I finished it a few days later.

Best Book I’m Still Trying to Digest – Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Well, you’ve heard about DFW already but Infinite Jest is his gargantuan novel 1 about a teenager who is a student at a tennis academy, a drug treatment center, and a video which renders people invalid. All of this occurring in a dystopian United States. Weird? Well, I’ll put it this way, I felt like I was engaging the literary version of a Terry Gilliam film. Surreal. Strange. But also something you felt you needed to experience in order to ask better questions about life and reality. Maybe one of the reasons I like Infinite Jest is because I don’t exactly know what to do with it. I can see why people continue to re-read Wallace’s work in order to find new answers and insights.

Best Just for Fun Book Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. While it could have excised some explicit sexual language, Flynn’s work was a true page-turner. I think I put down this book twice before finishing it. Just twice. Her twists and turns were well-crafted and left me wanting to read more of her work. Slick, smart, and super. Gone Girl is an outstanding “summer” read with an ending I appreciated although some did not.

Most Overrated Just for Fun BookThe Martian by Andy Weir. Maybe I felt nonplussed by Weir’s book because I was recuperating from surgery and on painkillers but The Martian felt like many movies people push: over-hyped but underwhelming. I had the sense I was reading more screenplay than novel. But give credit where it’s due, Weir, a software engineer, originally self-published his novel and it won popular acclaim (and a book deal) on its own merit.

Notes:

  1. 1079 pages with a serious amount of lengthy, at times short-story length, footnotes

My last post shared that I recently read Flannery O’Connor’s first novel, Wise Blood, which tells the story of a young man’s attempt to convince others why they don’t need Christ as their Savior. The novel is rich in many ways, not the least of which is how O’Connor presciently exposes the modern-day consumer approach to Christianity we find today in America. 1 In the story a man named Hoover Shoats, a huckster peddling himself as Onnie Jay Holy, preaches to the public about a brand new kind of Christianity he believes people will want to buy into…literally. 2 Shoats, in his homespun Southern drawl, gives three reasons why the masses “can trust this [new kind of] church“:

#1: It’s a church where there’s no mystery
and you have everything figured out.

 “…you don’t have to believe nothing you don’t understand and approve of. If you don’t understand it, it ain’t true, and that’s all there is to it. No jokers in the deck, friends.” 3

#2: It’s a church where you get to interpret
the Bible however you feel.

“…It’s based on your own personal interpritation of the Bible, friends. You can sit at home and interprit your own Bible however you feel in your heart it ought to be interprited. That’s right, just the way Jesus would have done it.” 4

#3: It’s a church where you are the expert
and no one knows better than you.

“…This church is up-to-date! When you’re in this church you can know that there’s nothing or nobody ahead of you, nobody knows nothing you don’t know, all that cards are on the table, friends, and that’s a fack!5

The desire for Shoats’ new brand of Christianity is alive and well today. I hear it from people every so often, if not with their words, at least in spirit:

  • I want a Christianity where I can figure it all out and nothing troubles me about following Jesus.
  • I want a Christianity that agrees with my moral sensibilities and endorses the things I endorse.
  • I want a Christianity that keeps me where I am spiritually and protects me from others telling me what I should believe or practice.

Fortunately, Shoats has just the church for them. He calls it “the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ.”

Did you catch that? It’s pretty straight-forward.

O’Connor wants readers to understand that not only is this type of Christianity one which finds great appeal to our modern, consumerist, Western sensibilities but, more importantly, that it isn’t Christianity. In other words, if this is the kind of Christianity you want, then you don’t really want Christianity. Why? Because Shoats’ brand of faith appeals to people who, ultimately, want what Jesus offers but don’t want Jesus…really. They like the Savior part of who Jesus is but pass on the whole “Lord” thing because it would demand they submit to Christ, link arms with his community (the local church), and willing be led by others (e.g., pastors/shepherds/elders/etc.). But to do this one would have to choose Jesus over his love for individualism, consumerism, and isolationism. He would have to choose the way of repentance and obedience. He would have to embrace Jesus as Savior and Lord. Simply put, he would have to embrace Jesus as Jesus.

If he doesn’t want to do that.

  • If he wants to never struggle with the demands of following Jesus…
  • If he wants to embrace certain parts of the Bible because it reinforces his worldview while rejecting (or reinterpreting) the parts of the Scripture that contradict it…
  • If he wants to be free from a community where people can speak into his life, character, and conduct for the sake of personal holiness; or the idea of anyone telling him what to do, period…

…he can go to church, it just won’t be the one where Jesus is.

It will be the church of Christ without Christ.

Notes:

  1. Wise Blood was published more than 60 years ago (1952).
  2. $1 according to Shoats. “Not too much to pay to unlock that little rose of sweetness inside you!” (O’Connor, Wise Blood, 86-87)
  3. Flannery O’Connor, Collected Works, ‘Wise Blood’, 86.
  4. Ibid, 86-87.
  5. Ibid, 87.

I’ve sinned and I am so confused. And I am a wicked child. I’m am devil’s son. I walk a crooked mile. I wish I could be you. If I could’ve kept on the straight and narrow.
Wicked Child by Radiohead

Over my brief sabbatical I had the opportunity to read several books, one of which was Flannery O’Connor’s Collected Works. I’d previously read several stories from it (e.g., Revelation, A Good Man is Hard to Find, The Life You Save May Be Your Own), but thought my break would grant me the chance to continue reading one of America’s most distinctive and distinguished authors. O’Connor, a devout Catholic from Georgia, wrote during the 1950-60’s in a style described as Southern Gothic. Think Cormac McCarthy meets Marilynne Robinson. There’s going to be some beautiful prose, amazing philosophical/theological content, and someone’s probably going to die (in a shocking way). Interesting to say the least.

I chose to read O’Connor’s first novel (1952), Wise Blood, about a spiritually disgruntled young man named Hazel Motes (“Haze”) on a mission to preach people away from thinking Christ must redeem them from their sins. His is an anti-gospel message proclaiming Jesus isn’t true, sin isn’t real, and, consequently, one’s felt need for redemption is illusory. Indeed, Haze views all the guilt of his past iniquities as simply a figment of his past religious upbringing, believing now he’s matured and evolved beyond those imaginary ideas and primitive hopes for salvation in Jesus. Haze believes his justification (if one even needs one) is his own success.

Haze’s confidence in his plan to save himself by himself is symbolized by the trust he places in his car, which is an old, broken-down Essex only costing $45. In young Mr. Motes’ estimation, the vehicle represents his self-salvation and freedom from the need for a Savior in Christ. As he confidently claims, “Nobody with a good car needs to be justified.” 1 The Essex is not only symbolic of his newfound “faith” but becomes the locus for its propagation. It is his pulpit whereby he stands upon the hood preaching his anti-gospel to all who will hear, often rebuking the Christian faith saying “it was not right to believe anything you couldn’t see or hold in your hands or test with your teeth.” 2 Throughout the novel, however, the Essex continually gives Haze problems. Sometimes it won’t start. It often sputters and coughs when it does drive. It even quits on him periodically. Nevertheless, for all its obvious problems, Haze believes his car, like his anti-redemption message, is unassailable.

The comical irony of Essex as Vehicle for Haze’s Quest to Rid the World of Their Need for a Savior comes to a head when Motes takes his car to a filling station for a tune up. A young attendant, after giving the Essex the once-over, delivers bad news telling Haze “there was a leak in the gas tank and two in the radiator and that the rear tire would probably last twenty miles if he went slow.” 3 Motes corrects the young boy saying, “Listen, this car is just beginning its life. A lightening bolt couldn’t stop it!” 4 Here is a mechanic who “sees things as they are,” his job depends upon what he can hold and touch – core tenets of Haze’s anti-religion – yet Haze, instead of complimenting the young boy on living by values Motes desires to share with the world, refuses to believe himself when it comes to his car. For Motes, his car represents his pulpit, his mission, his message. The gospel of being your own savior cannot fail!

Haze confidently flies down the road in his Essex but notices he is passing the same scenery again and again. O’Connor notes, “He had known all along that there was no more country but he didn’t know that there was not another city.” 5 Could it be that he is ultimately going nowhere? His next encounter confirms the answer. Soon a patrolman stops Haze and discovers the driver of the Essex doesn’t have a driver’s license. The officer asks a recalcitrant Mr. Motes to drive to an embankment with a 30-foot drop. After Haze exits the car, the patrolman pushes the vehicle over the edge. The Essex, being in obviously such poor condition, literally falls apart upon impact. The patrolman concludes with dark humor, “Them that don’t have a car, don’t need a license.” 6

It’s this moment of clarity where Haze realizes the failure of his quest – that the road to self-justification without the work of Jesus is a fool’s errand. Both his Essex and the “you-don’t-need-a-savior” faith it represents are destroyed. Both lie in ruins not because of what Haze couldn’t see, but what he refused to see. The reality was that both Haze’s car and his soul were in deep need of repair. None of us can escape the truth of Romans 1:18-20,

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

No inspirational kind of self-talk or flat-out denial can erase the truth that sinners must be justified before a Holy God. Romans says it’s too clear to us, in us no matter how much we, like Hazel Motes, “suppress the truth.” We have a sin problem that must be taken care of and why, when the patrolman asks a very silent Haze, “Was you going anywhere?” Motes, realizing he can’t suppress that truth anymore, merely replies a defeated, “No.” 7 O’Connor wants us to realize that any plan for salvation that rests upon us (to any degree) is, like the Essex, incapable of getting us where we need to go. Our sin causes our lives to choke, sputter, and break down from achieving the self-justification we so desperately desire. To believe we can do it is to be blinded like Haze where it will only be a matter of time until we’re proven wrong. 8

For O’Connor, there isn’t another way to deal with our sins but through the shed blood of Christ. His life, freely given, in our place. The Cross becomes the confession of those who want to be justified before God. As Romans 3:23-25 says,

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.

This good news of grace in Christ feels scandalous to many because we want something to do with our own salvation. We’re offended by the fact that spiritually we appear so impotent in resolving our problem. But we are. Everyone walks the crooked mile. That’s why the grace God gives us in Jesus has been, is, and always will be our only hope. Anything else is just an old, broken-down Essex.

Notes:

  1. O’Connor, Collected Works, Library of America, 64.
  2. Ibid, 116.
  3. Ibid, 117.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid, 118.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Hebrews 9:27, “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.”