Here’s a roundup of my favorite books I read in 2017, in no particular order. To give you a picture of each book, I’m going to add one of my favorite sections or quotes (or two/three) from each book below my summary:
Laurus – Eugene Vodolazkin
Laurus is a captivating story about a 15th-century village healer in Russia named Arseny. But it is not your typical novel – it feels medieval even though it is written by a contemporary writer. In fact, the book is largely a story about time and our varied perceptions of it, told through the life of someone who seems to be timeless. The unique mix of archaic and contemporary language fits the story beautifully, and even though I often had no idea what exactly was going on at points – I couldn’t stop reading because of the characters and beauty of the writing. It is a profound and simple story, which I will come back to again for sure. If I could recommend one novel to read, I’d highly suggest this one. Plus, I think the cover is perhaps my favorite book cover ever – it captures the archaic and modern nature of the story with beauty and simplicity.
“He remembered the words of Arsenius the Great: I have often regretted the things I have said, but I have never regretted my silence.”
“For what you have tamed, you become responsible forever, Christofer said, stroking the wolf.”
“I am going to tell you something strange. It seems ever more to me that there is no time. Everything on earth exists outside of time, otherwise how could I know about the future that has not occurred? I think time is given to us by the grace of God so we will not get mixed up, because a person’s consciousness cannot take in all events at once. We are locked up in time because of our weakness.”
Spiritual Direction – Henri Nouwen
As you may have noticed, Henri Nouwen has become one of my favorite spiritual writers recently. This is actually a posthumously collected series of his lectures, sermons, and unpublished articles, compiled by a few of his students to resemble a sort of masterclass in Spiritual Direction. That said, it’s not so much a book to read through, but rather a book to slowly walk through, with exercises for each chapter to begin the process of spiritual direction with Henri Nouwen as your director (as it were). As is typical of Nouwen, he has an ability to get at the heart of the matter and express what is going on spiritually with great simplicity. If you want an introduction to spiritual direction, this is a great place to start.
“The goal of spiritual direction is spiritual formation–the ever increasing capacity to live a spiritual life from the heart….The greatest call of a spiritual director is to open the door to the opportunity for spiritual growth and sometimes provide a glimpse of the great mysterious light behind the curtain of life and of the Lord who is the source of all knowing and the giver of life. To receive spiritual direction is to recognize that God does not solve our problems our answer all our questions, but leads us closer to the mystery of our existence where all questions cease.”
Lonesome Dove – Larry McMurtry
I think I finally started reading Lonesome Dove because I was overseas in Scotland, and it reminded me of my home in West Texas. It is a story of grace and law, where you get to follow two different men as they travel North across the United States. The wonderful thing about this book is the depth of the characters – you feel like you know them at the end of the story – as if they are real people. Initially, I disliked one character and liked another, but by the end of the book I’d begun to see each character for who they were and found that I had grown fond of each in a different way because I had seen them. It is an incredible story, perhaps the quintessential Western, and there’s a reason it won the Pulitzer Prize.
“It ain’t dying I’m talking about, it’s living. I doubt it matters where you die, but it matters where you live.”
“I’m glad I’ve been wrong enough to keep in practice. . . You can’t avoid it, you’ve got to learn to handle it. If you only come face to face with your own mistakes once or twice in your life it’s bound to be extra painful. I face mine every day–that way they ain’t usually much worse than a dry shave.”
Preaching – Tim Keller
Tim Keller is probably the preacher who has most influenced my understanding and practice of preaching, so when he finally released a book on preaching I pre-ordered it right away. It did not disappoint, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who is serious about the business of preaching. Keller does a great job of emphasizing the need to preach the gospel every time and preach Christocentrically, while also helping preachers to be aware of the culture and preach to the heart of their particular audience – all in the power of the Spirit.
“Every time you expound a Bible text, you are not finished unless you demonstrate how it shows us that we cannot save ourselves and that only Jesus can. That means we must preach Christ from every text, which is the same as saying we must preach the gospel every time and not just settle for general inspiration or moralizing.”
“Resist ending your sermon with “live like this,” and rather end with some form of “You can’t live like this. Oh, but there’s one who did! And through faith withhim you can begin to live like this too.” The change in the room will be palpable as the sermon moves from primarily being about them to being about Jesus. They will have shifted from learning to worship.”
The Chosen – Chaim Potok
Chaim Potok is slowly becoming one of my favorite fiction authors to read, having already very much enjoyed his book My Name is Asher Lev, which deals with art and faith from a Jewish perspective. The Chosen is largely about fathers and sons and the difficulties that arise between the two in the context of religion. I read this book at the suggestion of someone because I was wrestling with my own relationship to my late father, as well as my relationship to God as my father. It was a wonderful suggestion, as the story hits on many of my own struggles with my father(s), specifically wrestling with the silence of a father. The way Potok addresses a father’s silence spoke to me as I wrestle with my own father’s silence because of his death, and also with the silence of God, my heavenly father.
“You can listen to silence, Reuven. I’ve begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own. It talks to me sometimes. I feel myself alive in it. It talks. And I can hear it.
You have to want to listen to it, and then you can hear it. It has a strange, beautiful texture. It doesn’t always talk. Sometimes – sometimes it cries, and you can hear the pain of the world in it. It hurts to listen to it then. But you have to.”
You are What You Love – James K.A. Smith
Jamie Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom transformed the way I think about worship and spiritual formation, and You are What You Love is his attempt to take the same content and make it accessible to the average layperson, not just academics. His basic thesis is essentially the title: you are what you love, and you become what you love. Another way of putting it is that you become what you worship, and sometimes you don’t really know what you are worshipping. But we’re all worshiping something, we’re all loving something, whether we know it or not. And whatever it is will transform and shape us – so we need to be aware of the transformative power of love, affection, and worship, and then rightly direct that to be properly transformed into the image of God (and not false images). There’s a reason it was perhaps the best-selling book for Christians in 2017. In all honesty, I think I prefer Desiring the Kingdom, but if you don’t read that one, read You are What You Love.
“You need to curate your heart. You need to worship well. Because you are what you love. And you worship what you love. And you might not love what you think.”
“In short, if you are what you love, and love is a habit, then discipleship is a rehabituation of your loves. This means that discipleship is more a matter of reformation than of acquiring information.”
The Little Prince – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
The Little Prince is a wonderful story about a little prince that lives on a planet the size of a house. It is a story about grown-ups who are too serious to really enjoy life, loneliness and the joys of friendship, and how to become like a child again and care about what matters. It is a children’s book, but it is also a grown-up book. Some people will read it and think that it is a silly story that doesn’t explain anything properly and is not worthwhile, but as the little prince always says about his extinct volcano: “You never know.”
“Please—tame me!” he said.
“I want to very much,” the little prince replied. “But I have not much time. I have friends to discover, and a great many things to understand.”
“One only understands the things that one tames,” said the fox. “Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things already made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends anymore. If you want a friend, tame me…”
“…You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed…”
“…One runs the risk of crying a bit if one allows oneself to be tamed.”
Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates
Between the World and Me is a letter from a father to a son, wherein he tries to explain what it is like to be a person of color growing up in America. Coates is a talented writer, and the book bristles with his emotion for his son as he describes what he will have to experience as a young African-American man in the cultural climate we live in today. You may not agree with everything he says, in fact much of it may get under your skin, but reading Between the World and Me will give you a glimpse into why there is such racial uproar in our country right now. [As an aside: Coates also wrote a critically-acclaimed run in Marvel’s Black Panther comic book series, so now would be a great time to read that and Between the World and Me – since the Black Panther movie releases today (I’ve seen it, and it is an amazing celebration of African culture).]
“But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”
“But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.”
Tables in the Wilderness – Preston Yancey
I could have written this memoir – it is scary how close it parallels my life. The first chapter is titled “Silence” and it basically describes my dark night of the soul. I wonder if Preston is my doppelgänger: he is born in Dallas, grows up a low church Protestant, goes to a conservative/Christian school where he falls in love with liturgy, icons, and the high church, wrestles with the silence of God, then starts to see Christ in cathedrals, the forest, and the Eucharist. It’s not a perfect book, by any means, and at times I feel like Yancey is trying to be too poetic and lyrical and comes off more arrogant and pretentious, but he described much of experience in a beautiful way. Plus, the suggested reading list at the back of the book is gold.
“Liturgy means the work of the people. It means the labor we are to do. Liturgical formation, the work that shapes us, is this: praying the prayers we otherwise wish we could skip over, embodying them, posturing ourselves to be transformed by them, so that we can keep that posture and that work when we walk back out into the world. It is the way we learn the vocabulary of what we have seen, or maybe the promise of what we will see someday again. Maybe for the first time. We bring heaven in.”
When the Heart Waits – Sue Monk Kidd
I started reading When the Heart Waits because I felt like I was in a frustrating place of spiritual waiting, sort of still stuck in my dark night of the soul – and it appeared that Sue Monk Kidd’s book addressed that same issue. The main image she uses is that of the cacoon, the place between a caterpillar and a butterfly – the place that, if we’re all honest, none of us wants to be very long – dark, immobile, doing nothing and going nowhere. She described exactly what was going on in my heart and just reading about someone else going through the same process was helpful for me in my own season of spiritual waiting. But more than that, she gave me hope and eyes to see what beautiful things were being birthed in this holy darkness, when the heart waits.
“It takes courage to become who you are.”
“Then it hit me: darkness. Everything incubates in darkness. And I knew that the darkness in which I found myself was a holy dark. I was incubating something new. Whenever new life grows and emerges, darkness is crucial to the process. Whether it’s the caterpillar in the chrysalis, the seed in the ground, the child in the womb, or the True Self in the soul, there’s always a time of waiting in the dark… The minister pointed out that the most significant events in Jesus’ life took place in darkness: his birth, his arrest, his death, his resurrection.”
What books are you enjoying right now?
What books should I add to my 2018 Reading List?
[Here is what I already have on my 2018 Reading List]