The Complete Stories – Flannery O’ConnorI really cannot recommend this collection of short stories enough. Honestly, I would highly recommend you read anything by Flannery O’Connor. Perhaps my whole reason for writing this post is so that I can recommend you read something by Flannery O’Connor. I had never read anything by her until this year, and once I started I have devoured everything I can get my hands on of hers. Before reading her, I had read dozens of other books by authors I really enjoyed that kept referencing “Flannery” and how influential her work was to them – so I finally decided I should read something by her. One of the best decisions I’ve made. This is her full collection of short stories (for which she is most well known, such as A Good Man is Hard to Find). Reading this book was the first time that I had finished a story and could not tell you why I enjoyed it so much. Typically, I had read to get sermon material, or to write papers, or to learn how to be a preacher/pastor/teacher/etc. But finishing Flannery’s stories, I could articulate no “moral” of the story – but I loved the stories. Then, as I read more and more, I began to see what O’Connor was doing with her stories, and I have since gone back to them time and time again. Cannot highly recommend enough.
Wise Blood: A Novel – Flannery O’Connor
After reading some of O’Connor’s short stories, someone suggested I read her novel, Wise Blood. She is a Catholic writer, writing to the Christian South, and I think this book encapsulates what she is trying to communicate. In one of her essays (Mystery and Manners), she says that the South is not “Christ-centered,” but is definitely what she calls “Christ-haunted.” What she means is that Christ is almost certainly a part of everything that goes on in the South, but rather than being the center, he merely is added onto anything because that’s what “good Christians” do in the South. So this novel is about a man who starts the “Church of Christ without Christ.” What follows is a story that attacks the Christian South where it needs to be attacked. For me, growing up in the Christian South, and living in Dallas (where you can see nearly 5-10 churches from every street corner), this story strikes at the heart of the issue here. Reading this novel (and O’Connor’s other short stories) has been transformative in the way I see Christianity and the South – all for the better. I think it’s a book that every Christian in the South should read. Please read this, and then email or call me and we’ll talk about it. I’m very serious.
The Old Man and The Sea – Ernest Hemingway
I can’t believe I’ve never read anything by Hemingway until now. What I enjoyed about this book is that the majority of it takes place in the old man’s head alone, which allows Hemingway to explore his thoughts and feelings when he is isolated from the boy and other fishermen (this is what I love best about Dostoevsky’s writing – he deals with man’s thoughts masterfully). Then, there is a contrast between what is important to the old man when he is alone, and what he values at the beginning and end of the story when he’s with the boy – almost like bookend commentary on his isolated thoughts out at sea. It’s a short read that can be finished in a single sitting, and there’s a lot going on below the surface of what appears to be a simple fishing story.
Jayber Crow – Wendell Berry
Wendell Berry writes mostly about a fictional community in Kentucky called Port William, and each of his books follow a different character’s life in this small rural town. Jayber Crow follows a young man who began studying to become a pastor, but eventually becomes the town barber for Port William. By the end of the book you feel like you know Jayber, as if he were a real person with all of his virtues and vices giving him a life of his own. Berry has a way with words that really endears the reader to the simple way of life in the Port William farming community. He uses Jayber’s story to wrestle with doubts about Christianity, the modern idolatry of progress and production, and the messiness of relationships. The content in chapter 5, 23, and the end of the book is worth reading the entire novel for alone. I plan on reading some of his other books in the Port William series.
On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature – C.S. Lewis
This is a fascinating collection of Lewis’s essays on stories – both reading them and writing them. It contains his thoughts on other people’s stories (Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, as well as others), his thoughts on how he wrote his stories (like the Chronicles of Narnia), and then essays on different types of stories (science fiction, fantasy, etc.) for different people (like children, or adults). Honestly, these essays have gotten me more interested in reading fiction and re-reading stories and have changed the way I view fiction. As a lifelong writer and a teacher of english and medieval literature, Lewis has really thought through both reading and writing stories, and his insights are all profound and helpful for the way I read stories today. They also give valuable context for the way Lewis went about writing his various books, and why he gave them the setting he did. If you like reading (or writing) stories, then you’ll enjoy what Lewis has to say in this book.
Leaf by Niggle – J.R.R. Tolkien
There was a time when Tolkien got frustrated with his writing of The Lord of the Rings and nearly stopped writing it altogether because he was so focused on the details and not ruining any part of the story and backstory. He feared he would never complete his life’s work. It was during this time that he wrote a short story to work out this fear – that short story is called Leaf by Niggle. It’s another quick read that you could probably finish in about an hour, but it is a beautiful story about the significance of work – even work that is incomplete (or that we think is incomplete). You’ll have to get a collection of his short stories to read it, as I have yet to find a physical copy of the story by itself. I found out about the story when Tim Keller mentioned it in his book on work called Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work – which is also another book I would recommend if you want an introduction to doing work as a Christian.
The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness – Tim Keller
This is a rather short book by Keller (only about 50 pages) based off one of his sermons, but was a rather impactful for me. It is essentially an exposition of 1 Corinthians 3-4, and addresses how Paul uses “self-forgetfulness” to find true freedom and joy in Christ. If you have wrestled with being too self-aware and self-conscious, or are constantly comparing yourself to others (either by thinking you are so much better than others, or so much worse), then this is a great book to read. Without using more words or space than needed, Keller takes a gospel-centered and Christ-centered approach to how we view ourselves and how that affects the way we live. As typical of Keller, he demonstrates his ability to synthesize a wide array of sources and present the gospel as the solution to our problem of joy and self-identity. I do not think you will regret the time spent reading this book.
Disclaimer: These last three books appeal to me primarily as they relate to pastoral ministry, but I do believe some of them will be helpful to read for those not intending to go into pastoral ministry of any sort. If nothing else, they can be helpful aids for the challenges faced by your pastor(s) in your local church, and perhaps something you can recommend for them to read. Each book has been very helpful as I’ve wrestled with my entrance into the pastoral world.
The Pastor as Minor Poet – Craig Barnes
This book is about redefining how we think about pastors and pastoral ministry. I really enjoyed reading this book and found Barnes’ discussion of pastoral identity very helpful, informative, and formative for my own understanding of my pastoral identity. His writing was very fittingly, poetic, and greatly added to my enjoyment of this book. I also really appreciated that his own experience as a pastor bled through into the pages and informed his own writing – so he was not simply writing a book on a topic that he had not wrestled with and spend a lot of time thinking through in its entirety in his own life. His thesis is that we ought to see pastors primarily as “minor poets” who read the text (Scripture) and subtext (ourselves, our congregation, etc.) and attempt to provide a bridge between these two in our churches.
The Contemplative Pastor – Eugene Peterson
This is another book about what it means to be a pastor in today’s culture. Peterson primarily argues that the role of the pastor is not to “run the church” or “get things done” in the lives of the people. The most transformative idea for me from this book was Peterson’s notion that we (primarily as pastors, but as Christians in general) do not “start a work” in people’s lives – we don’t get things rolling spiritually by the way we counsel or preach or teach. God is already moving and doing something in everyone’s life – our job is not to start God working, but rather to discover what God is already doing in our church and then point it out, rejoice in it, and join in if we are able. For me, reading this book and understanding that notion really freed me of a burden I had as I began to look into pastoral positions. I no longer was responsible for people’s growth – God was, and is, by his Spirit. I merely am what another author called a “midwife of grace,”who joins in with what God is already accomplishing. This book and Barnes’ Pastor as Minor Poet complement each other really well. A real must read for seminary students and those going into (or already in) pastoral ministry.
Dangerous Calling – Paul Tripp
This is another book that I would say is a must-read for seminary students and pastors. Essentially, by retelling his own story as a pastor, Tripp addresses the major dangers inherent in pastoral ministry today. I read this book as I was beginning to really wrestle with my adequacy in doing pastoral ministry, and it hit on nearly everything that I was wrestling with at the time. He addresses what leads to pastoral burnout or failure, and more than that – the deeper heart issues that are at stake in the pastor’s heart. What I really appreciated is that Tripp does all this without condemning pastors (because he is one), and he is strikingly honest with his own failures and mistakes in pastoral ministry – so it felt like the book was not an angry rant but a genuine plea for others not to go through the same difficulties he did. Further, Tripp (as a counselor) gets to the heart issues, and does his best to apply the gospel to the issues that really are the root of the problem for pastors. Again, I would highly recommend this book for pastors to read, and perhaps even for elders or the congregation to read to really understand how they can encourage and love their pastor(s)
What books did you enjoy in 2013 that you’d recommend I read in 2014?