2009 was a good year for reading. In spite of the global recession now in its second year, and the predictions of the end of the publishing industry as we have known it, there were lots of books published. Some of them pretty good although most of my reading for the year was not in new books. I am still trying to catch up with years of neglected reading. C. S. Lewis, and more recently, Eugene Peterson have convinced me to read old books, which because they are old, and still in print, are called classics. I did not read many old books in the sense they are talking about but I read older books, and one or two that I would put on my personal classics list. Book lists are obviously personal. What I might like, you might not. In fact, one of the difficulties in reading good books, is finding them. Especially older ones that are worth your time. Eugene Peterson has a good book of book lists arranged by topic, entitled, Take and Read. I have taken many of them and read them and found him to be a very good guide. On the other hand, I often read book reviews in the New York Times and have not found the Times to be a particularly good guide. Early in 2009 I came across a book recommendation page for pastors that Calvin Theological Seminary published. Given the name you might think it would be heavy on theological books, especially Calvin's. But, you won't find many theology books on the list and none by Calvin! Calvin Seminary believes pastors should read widely in many genres, including, fiction and poetry. I know some pastors who think reading fiction is a waste of precious time. I don't agree. I think fiction can be very good theology as it shows us how doctrines like those of sin, grace, salvation are worked out in daily life. I find myself reading more fiction, less theology as I get older. So, once I discovered this list of good recommended fiction (not just for pastors, but especially for pastors) I dug in with enthusiasm. And I read a lot of fiction this year.
One of my favorite works of fiction is A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving and I read a book this year that I liked every bit as much. It was The Miracle of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall. Set in Arizona, Edgar begins life with much adversity but he finds his purpose and pursues it with determination. Great story. On my classics list.
Another book I would add to my classics list was by E.P. Jones who wrote a story of historical fiction set in Virginia just before the civil war. It is called, The Known World, and its a powerful story about Black slaves and Black slaveowners who are making their way in an unknown White world where power shifts precariously, and suddenly. Jones is a wonderful writer.
I happened on David James Duncan this year. I was put onto it by my son Mark who was in a group at college where it was read and discussed. Later on in the year he would read (and so would I) Duncan's earlier book, The River Why. It really was a Duncan year. After I mentioned Duncan's book, Brothers K, in a sermon, a man at church told me I had to read, The River Why, which he said was better than Brothers K. After I read The River Why, I could see why he said that. He is a fisherman and that's the setting of The River Why. I loved Brothers K. It is a great bouillabaisse of a book (a phrase I heard first used by Eugene Peterson describing The Brothers Karamazov which Duncan models his book after). It's about baseball, family, Christianity, the Viet Nam war - its about life and making one's way through it. On my classics list, as well.
Two books were more personal because they dealt in very thoughtful ways with pastors and their lives. Come Sunday by Isla Marley is about a pastor's wife who loses and then regains her faith after a family tragedy. Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout is about a pastor who loses his wife, retains his faith through a church community that, while unsure of him at first, grew to love him.
There was more fiction but I read other things, as well. Two history books by Tim Egan were winners. One was The Worst Hard Time which told the story of the dustbowl years in the West. Egan tells the story from the point of view of people who were there. Makes our own hard times look pretty easy in comparison. In The Big Burn he tells the story of Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot and the beginnings of the US Forest Service. It took a terrible fire burning through Washington, Idaho and Montana to get people to catch Roosevelt's and Pinchot's vision. Great first person stories. Good insights into Roosevelt and Pinchot, too.
Two books that should be read together were Mark Noll's The New Shape of World Christianity and Soong - Chan Rah's The New Evangelicalism. In case you haven't looked the face of Global Christianity is changing. It is looking much more Asian, Hispanic and Black. The fantastic growth of Global Christianity is having a profound impact on the US. Most of the growing churches in the US today are non-white.
I read some sports books: a Yankee fan who is morphing into a Mariners fan after living ten years in the West, I read Joe Torre's book and the book on A-Rod by Selena Roberts. Nuff said.
N.T. Wright continues to put out some very important books for Christians who value the study of God's word. Surprised by Hope, about our glorious hope of resurrection - and Justification which is about the foundation of our relationship with God through the life and death of Christ, are both important books to study and discuss.
Eugene Peterson is working on his five volume spiritual theology. This year I read volume four, Tell It Slant. Peterson feeds my soul.
A final book I would mention is Donald Miller's A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. I had not been a Miller fan. My college aged friends and family members love this guy. Blue Like Jazz was a best seller among young Christians. I thought I was too old to get it. Then, I picked up this latest book and I got it. Here's a quote: " We get robbed of the glory of life because we aren't capable of remembering how we got here. When you are born, you wake up slowly to everything. Your brain doesn't stop growing until you turn twenty six, so from birth to twenty six God is slowly turning the lights on, and you are groggy, and pointing at things saying, circle, and blue, and car, and then sex, and job, health care. The experience is so slow you could easily come to believe life isn't that big of a deal, that life isn't staggering. What I am saying is I think life is staggering and we are just used to it. We are all like spoiled children no longer impressed with the gifts we're given - it's just another sunset, just another rainstorm moving in over the mountains, just another child being born, just another funeral" Miller's book will awaken in you a profound gratitude for the Story you are in.