One of my favorite lunchtime pastimes is sitting down and thumbing through one of the magazines I get in the mail each week. I look forward to reading my Christian Century, for example, which is always thought-provoking. I love Biblical Archaeology Review because it touches the historian in me. Mental Floss is an absolute hoot, filled with facts and origin stories of the stuff that makes the world tick. My favorite, however, has to be the The Week magazine which comes, well, every week. Inside every issue is a summary of the previous week’s news, which is perfect for our over-saturated, 24 hour news cycle lives. Reading The Week provides me with an overview of everything important that has happened in the world, along with summaries of commentary by people with different perspectives on the news. The editors do a great job of balancing summaries of columns from such divergent news outlets as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The National Review and a variety of others. You’re not getting polemic in these pages, just the news.
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Here's my addition to all the year-end retrospectives on this last day of 2011–the top ten books that I read this year. Not all were published in 2011, but all had my full attention.
10. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K.A. Smith (Baker Academic, 2009). Smith turns conventional wisdom about Christian education on its ear, saying that what we practice and love forms us more than what we learn cognitively. The practice of worship is the primary way in which the worldview of the Gospel is formed in us. This is an excellent read that challenged my whole approach to worship and preaching.
9. The Pastor: A Memoir by Eugene Peterson (HarperOn, 2011). I usually like the first half of Eugene Peterson's books, but the second halves have a tendency to drag. This one was interesting throughout, particularly because this memoir contains a practical theology of pastoral ministry that is sorely lacking in our megachurch/celebrity pastor culture. Drawing from his own life in ministry, Peterson paints a picture of ministry that involves staying where you are in order to bloom where you are planted and to help a congregation blossom as well. This is a good cautionary tale for those who would see church growth as the ultimate aim of ministry. It's not–disciple-making is!
8. Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marantes (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010). I rarely read fiction anymore, mostly because I find real life to be much more interesting. This novel, however, combines great storytelling with deep perspective on the life of a combat soldier. Marlantes' novel is based loosely on his own experience as a Marine platoon leader in Vietnam, and yet this is not your typical blood and guts military novel. Marlantes takes us into the heart of the moral and spiritual ambiguity of war in a way that few others have captured. His non-fiction book What It's Like to Go to War explores the themes raised in the novel more deeply, but this beautifully written and grippingly told story will stick with you long after you finish it.
7. Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne et. al. Best devotional book I've found. Common Prayer combines prayers, Scripture readings, and quotes from Christian leaders throughout history into a daily rhythm for people on the way to discipleship.
6. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand (Random House, 2010). This illustrates my truth is better than fiction approach to books. This is an incredible story of survival on the open sea, survival in a POW camp, and survival at home. I couldn't put this book down, and I'm guessing you won't either!
5. John's Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel by Ben Witherington III (Westminster/John Knox, 1995). Normally I read a commentary like a reference book, just picking out the relevant pieces for studying a particular biblical text. This commentary, however, begs to be read sequentially. Witherington does a masterful job of addressing the unique character of the Fourth Gospel as a treatise on Jesus as the Logos or wisdom of God. This book put into place some of the questions I have long had about this very different Gospel in the New Testament canon.
4. The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South by Philip Jenkins (Oxford University Press, 2008). Jenkins introduces western and Global North readers to the explosive Christian movement in Africa and Latin America–a movement that has shifted the geographical center of Christianity. Where the missionary movement of the late 19th and early 20th century sent missioners from the West to Africa, now the movement is more toward missional partnership rather than patronage. We have much to learn from our brothers and sisters in Africa, and this book is a start.
3. The Mystery of God's Word by Fr. Raneiro Cantalamessa (Liturgical Press, 1995). This is the best book on preaching that I have ever read (and I've read a lot). Cantalamessa is the preacher to the Papal Household at the Vatican, and he has written a gem on the relationship between the preacher, the Scripture, and the Holy Spirit. Every preacher should read this book!
2. Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters by N.T. Wright (HarperOne, 2011). No one, in my humble opinion, combines biblical theology, history, and scholarship like N.T. Wright. This book is the culmination of much of the work he's been doing for the last 15 or so years about Jesus. Wright is convinced, as am I, that an inadequate biblical and contextual understanding of Jesus has contributed to a divide between conservatives and liberal–both of whom have a truncated, extrabiblical, and gnostic understanding of what Jesus was really about. This book offers an alternative (and thoroughly biblical) vision of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection that, if embraced by Christians everywhere, could radically change the direction of our faith in ways that Jesus himself actually called us toward.
1. The Christ of the Mount: A Working Philosophy of Life by E. Stanley Jones (Abingdon Press, 1931 – reprint by Kessinger Publishing). I discovered the writing of E. Stanley Jones while a student at Asbury Theological Seminary, and his classic work still continues to shape my understanding of Jesus and the kingdom. Jones died in 1973, but his work is still wonderfully fresh in the 21st century. This book on the Sermon on the Mount is in my list of the best and most influential books I've ever read. Jones, a longtime missionary to India in the early 20th century, challenges the prevailing evangelical worldview that Christian faith is primarily about what one thinks or believes, over and against one's actions. Jones rightly points out that the creeds are great, but that they're framers missed an important aspect of believing in Christ–that is, in following him in deed as well. Jones' treatise on the Sermon on the Mount reveals this seminal teaching of Jesus as "the only practical way to live."
Here's to 2012 and another year of reading great books!
For all the biographies of John and Charles Wesley out there (Roy Hattersley's non-apologetic biography of John is my favorite) very few historians have tackled the life of Francis Asbury, the prolific and tenacious leader of early American Methodism. As a graduate (and current doctoral student) at a seminary that bears his name, I must confess that my own knowledge of Asbury's life was confined to the fact that he rode a lot on horseback and that his statue in Wilmore, KY, was controversial in that the horse's butt faced toward Asbury College while the head faced more toward the seminary…but I digress.
John Wigger, himself a prolific Methodist historian, has written what should prove to be the definitive work on Asbury's life. American Saint reveals an Asbury that was not a gifted preacher and was a bit of an autocrat in his leadership style, yet no one was more responsible for the religious character of early pre and post Revolution America than the pious, disciplined, and dedicated preacher who spent 45 years of his life riding more than 130,000 miles across the colonies/states planting churches and ordaining preachers.
The secret of Asbury's success, unlike the kind of success enjoyed by today's celebrity preachers and promoted in books that want to make pastors into corporate leaders, was more about relationships than skill. While shaky in the pulpit and reticent to engage in direct conflict, Asbury was the consummate one-to-one relational leader. His time spent with different families in his travels, his association with people in nearly every colony, his easy laughter and good storytelling, endeared him to many. Wigger says that, in his day, Asbury's face would have been recognized by more people in the new United States than that of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson.
Wigger's storytelling is wonderful and his research very thorough. This is an entertaining read as well as an informative one, and anyone with interest in Methodism or early American religious history will find it fascinating.
As a Methodist preacher, however, it's even more revealing. Wigger's description of the kind of life expected of those early circuit riders is challenging and most clergy today (as then) probably wouldn't handle it for very long–rising at 4AM, studying Scripture for an hour in both morning and evening, and reading for at least five hours every day on some aspect of ministry or theology (actually, I could handle that part!). The asceticism of low pay, long hours, and hard work are not what most of us hope for when we think about ministry, but our itinerancy and discipline are still part of what we're to be about. I'm wondering, for example, what it would be like to do an A.J. Jacobs-like experiment and live strictly by the rules for early Methodist preachers for a year and see what that would do to life and ministry. My guess is that it would be life-changing and church-changing. Hmmm–is there a book in the making, here?
Wigger's biography is a great read and I highly recommend it to my clergy peers and to laypersons who want to know a little more about why Methodists do what we do and how we might recapture some of the fire and zeal for once again bringing the Gospel to America.