This might seem like a strange place to start but one of the books I read this year was The Art of Dying by Rob Moll. It is a very wise and necessary book. You might think we would talk more about dying because we are all doing it but we don't. We act like we are going to live forever. When you pass a milestone like I did this past year - a 60th birthday - you are bound to get a bit more realistic about life. You have your limits in clearer perspective. Maybe not as clear as they need to be, but you are getting closer. You are not going to accomplish all those things that were options in your 20's. Probably no PH.D, and travel to far flung places, and all the money you were going to save by now - all these things as well as a host of others are out of reach now. You cannot physically do what you could even ten years ago. You stopped playing church softball so long ago it seems like another lifetime. Now, this is not morbid thinking. It is realistic. Limits. Deal with them. Recognizing our creaturely limits seems like a prerequisite for knowing God. We are dependent creatures. No matter what we think when we are younger.
Limits was a theme in many of the books I read this year. Probably that has been a theme in other years as well but I was more attuned to it this year. The Warmth of Other Suns has to be at the top of my list of books this year. Isabel Wilkerson spent years researching this book about the northern migration of Blacks in the Jim Crow years. She follows three main figures in their migration north to find a life that was their own. A life of freedom, and dignity, and opportunity. What they found was too often more of the same kind of limited life they knew in the South. There was job discrimination, housing discrimination, educational discrimination and a whole lot of racism hidden under the surface of life. In New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, they learned to make a life within those limits. As she follows those three lives, she also traces how a whole country changed during the era of increasing awareness of civil rights and greater freedom for all.
Eliza Griswold told a gripping story of religious limits as she traced the fault line between Christians and Muslims in places like Sudan, Nigeria, Indonesia and the Philippines - along the tenth parallel. Most of the Muslim world is not in the Middle East but in these parts of the world. Here, there is an often violent clash of civilizations and cultures. Here, is where Christians and Muslims are fighting out their territorial claims and in some cases trying to see if they can work together for peace and to solve the larger social problems, ie poverty, the growing gap between the rich and poor, religious freedom, and terrorism. Here, is a part of the world that is volatile - and how these conflicts are dealt with will shape our world in the future.
Paul Among the People by Sarah Ruden is one of the most stimulating books of Bible interpretation I have read in years. She is a scholar in the Classics and she takes what she knows and interprets the Bible in the context of Greek and Roman literature and culture. In doing so she sheds much light on Paul's teaching regarding women, slavery, and sex and marriage. In recent times Paul has been criticized for being out of touch with these issues and not having a word to say for more modern times. In giving Paul another look against his culture, Ruden gives us a very different look at how far ahead of his times Paul really was.
History is a favorite subject of mine. I enjoyed reading about the years leading up to our civil war in Daniel Walker Howe's book What God Hath Wrought. Another special historical interest of mine is the early church. Peter Leithart's book Defending Constantine brings alive the fourth century and the impact of Constantine upon the Church and of his policies to Christianize the empire. Much has been written of Constantine and much of it assumes Constantine used the Church for his own purposes. When he made everyone Christian it is said he diluted the faith and vitality of Christianity. He made Christianity too easy and at the same time made it worth less. A shallow, commitment phobic, Christian Church today is the result of his policies or so it is said. Leithart says Not So Fast in many ways in a well researched and well written book that will give the reader many reasons to rethink Constantine and his impact on church and culture.
Jean Edward Smith does much the same for U.S Grant that Leithart does for Constantine. Grant has an unremarkable reputation as a drunk and corrupt politician who happened to be in the right place at the right time in the Civil War. From there he parlayed his fame as a Civil War hero to a two terms in the White House, an office he kept through an unscrupulous use of patronage. Smith takes these charges head on and in a highly readable style restores Grant's reputation as not only a great Civil War general but one of our better presidents, too.
Of course, I read "in my field" too. I enjoyed Ed Dobson's book The Year of Living Like Jesus. Dobson was a cohort of Jerry Falwell one time, long ago. He has since gone on to other pursuits. This one involved reading the Gospels and actually doing what Jesus said to do. Another book about a man learning to live like Jesus is Wisdom Chaser by Nathan Foster. His father is the reluctantly famous Richard Foster who has written several books on spiritual growth and formation. One was called Celebration of Discipline. Foster's son grew up knowing his dad was famous but not what for. He had no aptitude for what his dad was doing or teaching. He felt like his famous father's work took him away from home too much. He grew up rebellious and it took him until his 20's to get it. The way he got to know his dad and what his dad was all about was through climbing mountains with him. Reading this book gives us a chance to get to know Father and Son better too. James Davison Hunter wrote an important book that was reviewed all over the place. It was titled To Change the World. Christians are always about coming up with plans and slogans to change the world. Hunter demonstrates very clearly why this is so hard to do.
I always enjoy fiction for its insights into what makes us tick. This year I especially enjoyed Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese and Noah's Compass by Ann Tyler and Olive Kittredge by Elizabeth Strout.
I have a weakness for sports biographies. This year I bypassed one on my boyhood hero Mickey Mantle because it dished out so much trash on his life and I prefer to remain ignorant of the details and remember him as I thought of him as a boy. Willie Mays is arguably the best centerfielder of Mantle's era and his biography sends you to a world when players played for the love of the game and didn't play for the highest bidder. Mays was no A-Rod whose bio also came out. That's a good thing.
Hannah's Child is a memoir written by theologian Stanley Hauerwas who is hard to classify. He is anabaptist, Methodist, pacifist and catholic. He taught at Notre Dame and Duke. He is a prolific writer who bares his personal soul telling about a hard marriage and professional disappointments. He writes well and comes across as someone you would like to meet at the coffee shop and talk theology.
There were other books like Robert Webber's Divine Embrace which I wish I had read years ago and Rediscovering Values by Jim Wallis who was probably trying to figure out who the heck is Glenn Beck and why does he hate me. The Big Short tried to help me figure out what the heck is wrong with the economy but I'm afraid to admit I still don't get it and I sure hope someone does. Custer's Last Stand by Nathan Philbrick convinced we made the wrong man a hero. Too Small to Ignore is a moving memoir by the president of Compassion and a compelling challenge to continue to sponsor children around the world. Something we all can do right from where we live.
There is a limit to the number of books you can read in a year. And a limit to the number you can write about. I have reached mine.