Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Books of the year

It's that time of year where best-of lists come out. I'm a sucker for such lists. I doubt anyone noticed, but I never actually posted my top book of 2006. And I’ve decided not to for the moment. I’ll keep that in reserve for the day when I might actually write about it.

I’ve been fortunate that my Masters has surprisingly afforded me with a lot of free time this year. I doubt I’ll ever have as much time to read ever again. Rather than do a top 10 this year though, I thought I’ll just list, as far as I can remember, all the books I’ve read (or skim-read) this year with short comments.

Shining Like Stars by Lindsey Brown is the gripping story of the IFES movement and a testimony to God’s goodness and faithfulness. You could say it’s the unofficial sequel to Howard Guinness’ Sacrifice. Clinton Arnold’s 3 Crucial Questions about Spiritual Warfare is a balanced treatment of an often sensationalised topic. He believes Christians can be harassed and influenced by demons although not possessed, and argues for the existence of territorial spirits, with the caveat that we are not told to engage directly with them, and therefore a lot of talk in some charismatic circles of “spiritual mapping” (to use one eg.) and the like is misguided. Chris Wright’s Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament is a helpful book both about Jesus in light of the OT, and the OT in light of Jesus, looking at Jesus in relation to OT mission, identity, promise and so on. What Jesus Demands from the World is a devotional book from the pen of John Piper as he systematically works through all the commands of Jesus found in the Gospels.

Immanuel in our Place by world-renowned OT scholar Tremper Longman III is a book for the layperson on various aspects of Israel’s worship, such as temple worship, sacrifices, priesthood and the Sabbath and how they apply to Christians today. I’ve only read portions of Eugene Peterson’s classic A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, on the Songs of Ascents (Psalm 120-134), but as you’d expect from Peterson, it is thoroughly refreshing. I also got through his Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, his tour de force on Christian spirituality, way too quickly, just enough to get a vague idea of the overall shape of the book – it really needs to be read slowly and savoured, and his words need time and space to reflect upon. Spirit of Truth by David Jackman is a back-to-basics exposition of the person of the Holy Spirit. Anyone who has heard Jackman knows that he is a fantastic preacher, but for some reason, his writing style was a bit dry here. Graham Beynon’s Experiencing the Spirit, which covers similar ground, is written in a more conversational style which perhaps appeals to below 30s like me.

Tom Wright’s Simply Christian is a warm introduction to Christianity, both for believers and non-believers alike, although comparisons to C.S Lewis’ Mere Christianity are definitely overblown. Bruce Milne’s Dynamic Diversity will unfortunately probably not be widely known, but he presents a compelling vision of a church which in its diversity of gender, race and socio-economic status will be able to show that in Jesus they are one people. John Stott’s The Message of 2 Timothy is the most enjoyable commentary I have ever read, and should be your first stop if you’re looking for a popular level commentary on that particular letter. I wish he treated 2:24-26 in detail though...William Taylor’s exposition on Philippians: Partnership, published by Christian Focus, is clear and encouraging. I finally read George Eldon Ladd’s classic The Presence of the Future. Since it’s an old academic book, it is a little dated and hard-going in places and most of the detail will be forgotten by me. Nonetheless, I remember having my eyes opened by some of his discussion on the prophetic/apocalyptic dimension. I have written a more in-depth review of Brian McLaren’s The Secret Message of Jesus. It’s a good book on the Kingdom of God, although it seems to have an overrealised eschatology and has a provocative appendix.

I have not finished Ida Glaser’s The Bible and Other Faiths, and am thinking of starting over and making a blog series out of it. T.M Moore’s I Will Be Your God, a book on covenant aimed at laypeople, was surprisingly dull and would definitely have benefited from better editing. I just couldn’t get into it and might give it away. Peter Jensen’s At the Heart of the Universe, on the other hand, was a very pleasant surprise. Picked up on the cheap, this is a good book on basic Christian doctrine that does so without using the template of a textbook. It is now the second book I will turn to (the first being the Bible of course!) if I’m looking for Christianity 101. Richard Tiplady’s book World of Difference? is quite interesting as it explores globalization and the need for fresh paradigms for both missions and mission agencies. I quite enjoyed Tim Chester and Steve Timmis’ Total Church, a “missional” book stressing the twin priorities of gospel and community, although I also appreciated the critique given by a good friend of mine on this book, who found it overly prescriptive in places.

Possibly the best book I read this year was the magisterial Pierced for Our Transgressions by Mike Ovey, Steve Jeffrey and Andrew Sachs. N.T Wright, who wrote a very critical review of the book, even calling it sub-biblical, got it wrong on this count. It defends the doctrine of penal substitution, showing the exegetical, historical, theological and pastoral underpinnings of it, but in a warm and charitable way without ever sounding defensive. The only thing that would have made this book better was if they had showed in detail how the motifs of victory and penal substitution complement one another, but that would be a book for another day. Ben Cooper’s little book Just Love is a book I’m sure I’d go back to again and again to clarify my thinking on the necessity of punishing sin. A book that would be at odds with the two above is Steve Chalke and Alan Mann’s controversial The Lost Message of Jesus. It is similar to McLaren’s book in many respects and has many good things to say (for eg. I’m glad he brought attention to the fact that the Ten Commandments are framed within the context of God’s grace, shown in the rescuing of his people out of Egypt), but seems to me to fail to take sin seriously enough. I was willing to give Chalke a generous berth, but his final chapter was disappointingly inadequate and contrary to his defenders, does not merely attack a caricature of penal substitution. In any case, I hope this dialogue continues in the spirit of love.

Esther Meek’s Longing to Know is subtitled The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People, and she does so by drawing on the insights of Michael Polanyi (without ever mentioning him by name outside the Intro!) as well as deconstructing Enlightenment notions of certainty and doubt. I thought she was convincing! Turning Points by Mark Noll is a potted introduction to key events in church history. It’s very readable, although invariably some events might be more fascinating than others depending on people’s interests...I have already raved about Alister McGrath’s Christianity’s Dangerous Idea...Graham Cray’s Disciples and Citizens had a misleading title, as I thought it was a book explicitly about a Christian approach to politics. Its subtitle A Vision for Distinctive Living sums up the contents of the book better, and is fairly insightful, especially in the British context. I read big chunks of David Wells’ God in the Wasteland partly for my thesis. 5 Paths to the Love of Your Life (ed. Alex Chediak) sounds like a cheesy New Age book, but actually lays out the 5 different viewpoints on the courtship/dating/relationship debate amongst Christians. It’s also got one of the worst written blurbs I’ve ever seen. I’m probably closest to Rick Holland’s Guided Path, although his position overlaps significantly with Lauren Winner’s well written chapter (Countercultural Path) and Doug Wilson’s Courtship Path. The other two positions are a little more off. A book to get if you’re looking beyond Josh Harris.

I only dipped in and out of R. Paul Steven’s Doing God’s Business, a book on marketplace theology, that is about work, business, vocation and the Christian life. John Dickson’s A Spectator’s Guide to World Religions is a superb succinct introduction to the world’s major religions. Although Dickson is a Christian, this is not an apologetic work; rather, he allows each religion to speak on its own terms. Dean Flemming’s Contextualization in the New Testament is, as far as I am able to evaluate, a sane and admirable exegetical treatment which is restrained in its conclusions. Great book for anyone involved in cross-cultural ministries, and that’s probably virtually everyone these days! I have read a little of Kevin Vanhoozer’s First Theology: God, Scripture and Hermeneutics. This one is not for the faint-hearted! I got through his first essay, more of a survey on hermeneutics, alright, but his chapter on effectual grace defeated me. Andrew Perriman’s Faith, Health and Prosperity is a comprehensive evaluation of Word of Faith teaching.

I can’t quite remember if I finished Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day before or after the New Year, but whatever – it’s a great book! I also read his moving Never Let Me Go, where he explores an alternative future where cloning is possible. Jennifer Donnelly’s A Gathering Light won the Carnegie in 2003 and is the best young adult fiction I’ve read in years. It’s set at the tailend of 19th century America, featuring both a coming-of-age tale and a murder mystery. One of those books which can be enjoyed by all ages...Christian fiction gets a lot of bad press, much of it deserved, for being hackneyed and generally poor, but there are signs that it is improving. I tried Karen Hancock’s series Legends of the Guardian-King this year and it was moderately entertaining. The first two books are well-plotted and there is adequate characterization, but the last two books were definitely weaker. Still some way to go then...The graphic novel is a genre that deserves to be taken seriously. I previously read Craig Thompson’s Blankets on growing up in fundamentalist Christianity and was similar enthralled by Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a memoir of growing up in Iran (hmmm, maybe this doesn't belong in fiction). Scott Turow, known for his legal thrillers, has written Ordinary Heroes, a touching World War II novel. Ian McEwan’s Atonement is seen as his masterpiece – reading it did not give me any cause to dispute that. George Pellecanos’ The Night Gardener was described as the best crime novel of 2006, and it certainly did transcend the genre. Anne Tyler’s Saint Maybe and Digging to America are lovely, lovely slice-of-life books on oddball characters; the former is better than the latter.

My favourite space opera Star Wars returned to form this year with a projected 9 book series, Legacy of the Force. So far six books have been released, and it’s a welcome relief from the X-Wing wreck that was the Dark Nest Trilogy. How in the world did Troy Denning, who also wrote Star by Star, considered by many to be in the upper echelon of the many Star Wars books, manage to conjure up that mess? Still, he has redeemed himself, especially with Inferno, the latest. It’s sad to see one of my favourite characters, Jacen, go dark though...I finally got round to reading Shusaku Endo’s classic, Silence. A lifelong Catholic who struggled with his faith, Endo has his characters endure the silence of God and does not offer a way out at the end. The longest book I read this year was the epic Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, which clocked in at over a 1000 pages. It certainly was different and I did find it enjoyable, although I struggled to keep track of the main threads of the plot. Neil Gaiman’s Stardust is old-fashioned fairytale storytelling at its best, without ever toning its more adult elements down. I’ve only read two of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories so far, after spotting it at a second-hand bookstore. A devout Catholic, she stands in the tradition of the American gothic south, and her stories are known for both its brutality and grotesqueness, as well as its unflinching portrayal of grace. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was satisfying overall, even if I wish one or two things were done differently.

Zadie Smith’s prize-laden On Beauty is delightful, even though I have ever only read the first 40 pages of Howard’s End, the E.M Forster book to which she pays tribute. Anyone who is in the humanities will surely recognise some of the characters in the book. I’m not sure if non-humanities people will get it though. Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories is a detective novel that nevertheless easily transcends the genre, with its meditation on memory and the frailty of the human condition. It’s also pretty funny. Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto is a bit too slow-moving in places, but overall she really makes you feel for her characters, especially when you know the enforced utopia in which her characters dwell could never last forever. Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know is a clever, if more conventional crime thriller. Lippman is a good writer and is not adverse to showing her more “literary” side by occasionally alluding to various classics. Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, the first in His Dark Materials trilogy, was ok. It could be confusing at times and is not that exciting. His anti-Christian leanings start to show by the end of the book. I am currently in the middle of Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip, a 2007 fan favourite which made the Booker shortlist.

Jonathan Wolff’s An Introduction to Political Philosophy is touted as the best book of its kind. Its conversational style is both a strength and a weakness – it means that you can follow through arguments in depth but also means that looking up something for quick reference is difficult. Stephen Tomkins’ biography of William Wilberforce is good, focusing on the parliamentary battles and his friendship with William Pitt. He prefaces each chapter with a real-life account of slavery. It’s appreciative without being hagiographic. This bio is shorter than either Kevin Belmonte’s or William Hague’s. TIME journalist Pico Iyer’s travelogue, The Global Soul, is a great anecdotal read about the global village we live in, although he occasionally overreaches in his usage of analogy when trying to make a particular point. Kua Kia Soong’s May 13 was an unexpected gift and an important read on this watershed event in contemporary Malaysian history. Thomas De Zengitota’s Mediated is a good introductory look at a postmodern and media-saturated society written in a journalistic style, although his name-dropping is at times infuriating and seems to betray a certain smugness (look, I know Baudrillard! Heidegger! All the shamans of cool!). Paul Johnson’s Creators, which I have not finished, looks at famous creators such as Shakespeare, Bach etc. and muses on aspects of creativity. His sketches tend to be fairly conservative; I had a look at some of his endnotes for his chapters on Shakespeare and Chaucer and I know my tutors would likely have considered the books he references old-fashioned. I found Jan Greenwood’s Protestant Evangelical Literary Culture and Contemporary Society, which I gather is a revision of her dissertation quite interesting. It was useful for my thesis anyhow! But I think I’m in the minority of one here.

I was hoping to read a missionary biography this year but just never got round to it. I was also thinking of reading a couple of older Christian books (by which I mean anything that pre-dates C.S Lewis), like Chesterton or Ryle. Oh well. I had my eye on a couple of non-fiction books to do with sports. Yasmina Khadra’s The Attack was meant to be my summer purchase but other books kept distracting me. And now I’m wondering if it’s worth reading Khaled Hosseini’s follow-up to The Kite Runner as it appears to be one of the biggest sellers of the year.

Here are New York Times's 100 Notable Books of 2007
The books of the year according to various writers
The Village Voice's list
Sharon Bakar has more links and a useful breakdown
IVP editor Al Hsu's list

What were your top/favourite books of the year?

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Blogger Stephen said...

I really enjoyed Total Church too - would love to hear the critique you heard though (maybe you can email me the main thrust of the critique). Otherwise I'm in the middle of Mark D. Thompson's 'A Clear and Present Word'. The book has got me completely gripped - I think the subject he is tackling, the clarity of scripture, is such a key subject, if not the key subject, in postmodern times.

One of my biggest reading highlights though came right at the beginning of this year when I read Donald Miller's 'Blue Like Jazz' - I loved it - it was just different to anything I'd read before.

7:55 pm  
Blogger BK said...

Hi Stephen,

I have to sheepishly admit that I don't remember it exactly. I think it had to do with my friend's expectations of the book, i.e the word "Total" led him to expect a full-orbed ecclesiology. And so while he loved Part 1, I think he felt a little provoked by some of its emphases. For instance, he felt the chapter on theology was condescending and promoted anti-intellectualism. I'm sure Chester and Timmis would disagree, but that was what he thought came across in the book. My friend would say that there's enough books promoting a theology/praxis divide already.

Another example is the chapter on pastoral care. Although I don't remember it being explicitly stated, it's obvious Timmis and Chester take their cue from the biblical counselling school. However, if you don't buy into that approach, you might think of this chapter as being a little irresponsible. Also, I think he did feel that even if Chester and Timmis didn't mean to be prescriptive, there were some moments where he felt they were pushing quite hard for a particular church model that he didn't see as being workable in many settings.

I was actually quite surprised that my friend reacted as strongly to the book as he did. He did admit that the book might have pushed some buttons and he had to think about why that was.

I agree with you that where fresh thinking is most urgently needed is in the area of the authority and clarity of Scripture.

I own Don Miller's "To Own a Dragon", which are his reflections on growing up fatherless. It's really good in some places, trite in others. I got the impression that was how all his other books were like!

Thanks for stopping by btw. I feel honoured. :) For others, go and read Stephen's blog daylight, which is on my blogroll.

12:06 am  

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