I thought I would share with you my top reads for 2013 and why I liked them so much. You will see that they fall into three basic categories, History, Novels and Church related. I read other genres but these are the three streams that keep me energized throughout the year. I have included portions of the book descriptions from the publisher to give you a better idea of what the book is about.
1. Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson
In 1956, toward the end of Reverend John Ames’s life, he begins a letter to his young son, an account of himself and his forebears. Ames is the son of an Iowan preacher and the grandson of a minister who, as a young man in Maine, saw a vision of Christ bound in chains and came west to Kansas to fight for abolition: He “preached men into the Civil War,” then, at age fifty, became a chaplain in the Union Army, losing his right eye in battle. Reverend Ames writes to his son about the tension between his father–an ardent pacifist–and his grandfather, whose pistol and bloody shirts, concealed in an army blanket, may be relics from the fight between the abolitionists and those settlers who wanted to vote Kansas into the union as a slave state. And he tells a story of the sacred bonds between fathers and sons, which are tested in his tender and strained relationship with his namesake, John Ames Boughton, his best friend’s wayward son.
This is also the tale of another remarkable vision–not a corporeal vision of God but the vision of life as a wondrously strange creation. It tells how wisdom was forged in Ames’s soul during his solitary life, and how history lives through generations, pervasively present even when betrayed and forgotten.
Gilead is the long-hoped-for second novel by one of our finest writers, a hymn of praise and lamentation to the God-haunted existence that Reverend Ames loves passionately, and from which he will soon part.
It is rare to find such powerful prose, good enough to win the Pulitzer Prize, that puts faith in general and pastors in particular in such an honorable light. I took my time reading and soaking in this novel. I suspect, like I Heard the Owl Call My Name, I will make this an annual read for the rest of my life. It is that good.
2. Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, by Parker Palmer
With wisdom, compassion, and gentle humor, Parker J. Palmer invites us to listen to the inner teacher and follow its leadings toward a sense of meaning and purpose. Telling stories from his own life and the lives of others who have made a difference, he shares insights gained from darkness and depression as well as fulfillment and joy, illuminating a pathway toward vocation for all who seek the true calling of their lives.
My favorite section is when he describes discerning God’s will for his vocation and asks a wise and older Quaker woman about the “way opening” before him without success. She responded, “I’ve never had way open before me. But a lot of way has closed behind me, and that’s had the same guiding effect.”
3. Soul Custody: Choosing to Care for the One and Only You, by Stephen W. Smith
Every day, inner and outer violence ravages the soul, leaving us weak, fearful, and malnourished. In Soul Custody, Stephen W. Smith presents eight choices to help readers reclaim custody of their one and only life—choices about silence, community, vocation, honoring the body, finding one’s true self, and more. As Smith reminds readers, allowing God to shape the soul leads to the deep, full, and satisfying life that God had in mind all along.
This is not a self-help book. It is not a book of easy steps to a happy life. It is an invitation to the life God dreams for each of His children. It is a call to start living—to let the soul wake up to life as God intended.
I read this when I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail last summer and it so moved me that it made me want to shift the focus of my ministry to writing and soul care. It was like all my life has been moving towards both of these new adventures. I got to meet Steve and spend some time with him on a Soul Care retreat last fall and found him to be as real and wise as his book.
4. The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell
Emilio Sandoz is a remarkable man, a living saint and Jesuit priest who undergoes an experience so harrowing and profound that it makes him question the existence of God. This experience – the first contact between human beings and intelligent extraterrestrial life – begins with a small mistake and ends in a horrible catastrophe. Sandoz is a part of the crew sent to explore a new planet. What they find is a civilization so alien and incomprehensible that they feel compelled to wonder what it means to be human. The priest is the only surviving member of the crew and upon his return he is confronted by public inquisition and accusations of the most heinous crimes imaginable. His faith utterly destroyed, crippled and defenseless, his only hope is to tell his tale. Father John Candotti has been charged with discovering the truth, but the truth may be more than Earth is willing to accept.
What a remarkable book. The theological discussions in this novel were wonderful. I found myself thinking about this book long after I finished reading it. It is filled with provocative questions about theology and how our faith works itself out in our lives. Don’t think of this as Christian fiction. It is not. But it is a wonderful book about faith.
5. Mariette in Ecstasy, by Ron Hansen
In this quiet and forceful study of religious passion, Hansen ( The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford ) places an extraordinary spiritual experience in the center of a deftly evoked natural world, namely, rural upstate New York just after the turn of the century. At summer’s end, when she is 17, Mariette Baptiste, educated daughter of the local doctor, enters the cloistered convent of Our Lady of the Afflictions as a postulant. Her religious fervor, understated but determined, makes an impact on the small community of nuns whose days and nights are measured in a round of prayer and farm work changing only with the seasons. Their ordered life is disrupted, however, as Mariette begins to fall into a series of trances from which she awakens with stigmata, which heal as spontaneously as they appear. The feelings of skepticism, jealousy and adoration evoked in the nuns, Mariette’s own response and that of the Mother Superior are delicately, indelibly drawn in Hansen’s authoritative prose.
I loved this book. I couldn’t put it down. As a lifelong Southern Baptist I am not very familiar with the culture of the Catholic tradition. This was an exploration of that culture and also a provocative study about what the unusual or miraculous would do to a closed community. How it would distract or disrupt the rhythms of daily life. And I have not been as moved by and ending of a novel like this one since Grapes of Wrath. Powerful.
6. Lincoln’s Battle with God: A President’s Struggle with Faith and What It Meant for America, by Stephen Mansfield
Abraham Lincoln is the most beloved of all U.S. presidents. He freed the slaves, gave the world some of its most beautiful phrases, and redefined the meaning of America. He did all of this with wisdom, compassion, and wit.
Yet, throughout his life, Lincoln fought with God. In his early years in Illinois, he rejected even the existence of God and became the village atheist. In time, this changed but still he wrestled with the truth of the Bible, preachers, doctrines, the will of God, the providence of God, and then, finally, God’s purposes in the Civil War. Still, on the day he was shot, Lincoln said he longed to go to Jerusalem to walk in the Savior’s steps.
So much myth has grown up around this president. What I like about this book is that he doesn’t assert definitively that Lincoln was a Christ-follower. But he does leave open the possibility and does a remarkable job showing the theological growth of this complicated man.
7. Longing for God: Seven Paths of Christian Devotion, by Richard Foster
Think of the moment you last experienced God. Do you know him that closely in this moment?
Truly experiencing the love of God gives us a taste of his goodness and his love for us, but often those moments are fleeting. We get distracted by life. Our awareness and understanding fade while our longing to experience him that way again increases.
In these pages you can begin to fill that longing by developing your capacity to receive and respond to God’s love. Spiritual formation is the process through which one’s inner self is opened to the work of the Holy Spirit, who forms us into the image of the Son. Here Richard Foster and Gayle Beebe, both experienced leaders in spiritual formation, introduce you to people from the past who have known God deeply. Each person helps you to grasp one of the seven primary paths to intimacy with God that have been developed throughout Christian history. Chapters are divided into sections, each segment surrounding a key figure and concluding with a reflection and prayer.
Richard Foster gives a tremendous sketch of the important traditions that have come down to us since the birth of the Church. From John Calvin to John Wesley and many less known saints of God, this book was inspirational as well as informative for me.
8. The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller
I love dystopian stories. Surviving a pandemic disease that has killed everyone he knows, a pilot establishes a shelter in an abandoned airport hangar before hearing a random radio transmission that compels him to risk his life to seek out other survivors.
This is set in my home state of Colorado and the prose are sparse as the eastern planes of that state. A quick and entertaining read.
9. Jesus the Pastor: Leading Others in the Character and Power of Christ, by John Frye
For decades, Paul has been the model for today’s pastors. But Pastor John Frye says we must instead look to Jesus as our model. ‘While we may lift Christ up as Savior, as we bow down to him as Lord, as we marvel at his offices of Prophet, Priest, and King, as we walk with him as Friend, we seem to ignore him as the supreme Senior Pastor.’
Sharing thought-provoking, biblical insights and personal experiences, Frye calls other pastors to become apprentices to Jesus himself. He is the One who invites pastors to watch him in action and draw close so he can shape who they are and how they fulfill their ministry.
I’ve come to love my vocation late. A couple of years ago I read Eugene Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor and fell in love with or remembered with affection my call; my calling to be a pastor. This book is in that vein. Yet it looks at the life and lifestyle of Jesus a the beta pastor for all of us to emulate. I really liked this book.
10. West with the Night, by Beryl Markham
Beryl Markham’s life was a true epic, complete with shattered societal expectations, torrid love affairs, and desperate crash landings. A rebel from a young age, the British-born Markham was raised in Kenya’s unforgiving farmlands. She learned to be a bush pilot at a time when most Africans had never seen a plane. In 1936, she accepted the ultimate challenge: to fly solo across the Atlantic. Her successes and her failures—and her deep, lifelong love of the “soul of Africa”—are all chronicled here with wrenching honesty and agile wit. Hailed by National Geographic as one of the greatest adventure books of all time, West with the Night is the sweeping account of a fearless and dedicated woman.
Some of the best writing I’ve laid eyes on in years.
Now, a word as to why I read so much fiction. I believe that the deepest wisdom we learn is through stories. We think in narratives. We remember in narratives. We speak in narratives. We make meaning of our lives by telling stories.
To only read non-fiction is to feed the mind and yet leave the soul without the proper nutrients that will make growth a possibility. I think of the mind as seed and the heart/soul as soil. What good is all the best seed planted in shallow and bland soil? Fiction ploughs the soil of the soul and prepares it for the seed of non-fiction books.
The reading preacher will discover that great writers know the road to the human heart and, once at their destination, know how to move our hearts.~~Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Reading for Preaching
Besides, the greatest short story ever told was by none other than our own Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
It starts out like this: “A certain man had two sons…”