Favorite Reads of the Year
12. The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
11. Howls Moving Castle by Diana Jones
10. The Girl Who Drank The Moon by Kelly Barnhill
9. The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
8 . The World To Come by Dara Horn
7. The Institute by Stephen King
6. News of the World by Paulette Jiles
5. The Golden Key and the Day Boy and the Night Girl by George McDonald
4. Children of Men by P.D. James
3. The Kingdom of All Tomorrows
2. Pans Labyrinth by Guillermo Del Toro
1. Anxious People and A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
Honorable Mentions: Storybound by Marissa Burt and Babyteeth by Zoje Stage
12: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi’
11. Reading While Black: Esau McCaulley
10. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
9. Seven Storey Mountain By Thomas Merton
8. Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey
7. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez6. How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind by Thomas Oden
5. The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge
4. The Non Violent Atonement by J. Deny Weaver
3. Becomming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan
2. Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible by Rachel Evans
1. Broken Signposts: How Christianity Makes Sense of the World by N.T. Wright
Honorable Mentions: On The Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey and At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson
Every year I make a reading goal through my Goodreads account. I don’t like to plan what I’m going to read, so usually what I do is pick a few options for books as my starting point and then I let it play out naturally from there, seeing where it takes me. The best way to do that is to have a sense of where my reading took my in the previous year, as usually that can give me a good sense of a helpful starting point. To that end, I thought it would be a fun exercise to look at my past reading year as a “narrative” journey, seeing where 2020 took me. And then list some books that I have chosen for a possible starting point in 2021.
A Narrative Journey Through 2020: A Year in Books
I started the year with three books, Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, Pan’s Labyrinth by Guillermo del Toro, and P.D. James’ Children of Men, three spiritually driven narratives with a strong, existential concern for human worth and human purpose against the backdrop of real struggle and darkness of the internal and external kind. I picked these books because the word I had given myself to help shape my year in 2019 was “perspective”. These books related to three films that had inpired me to think differently about living in a world filled with both joy and struggle and helped carry that over into 2020.
I had gotten a gift card for Chapters book store for Christmas, which led to a chance encounter of a book called Becoming Mr. Lewis by Patti Callahan. I picked it up because it looked like an interesting way into the familiar story of C.S. Lewis from a slightly different perspective. It quickly became one of my favorite books not only of the year, but of all time. As it follows Joy Davidman on her own journey through points of existential crisis towards a humble but impassioned belief, the beauty that Joy begins to find in the world of her own struggles dug deep into my own spirit. This is especially true as Callahan gives her story the weight and focus that it deserves, shedding light on Joy’s poetry, writings and reflections.
This notion of beauty started to find a common theme as I moved from the tear inducing redemptive final picture of Pans Labyrinth and Joy Davidman’s life and began to work my way through Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved By Beauty and Lisa Gungor’s autobiographical work The Most Beautiful Thing I’ve Seen. Both of these books take an honest look at life through their own questions and struggle and at times very real tragedy. Together, the perspective of these women offered me a way to consider and reflect on the early weeks of those cold, dark, January/February Days.
It is fitting then that in the closing days of 2020 I would eventually come to N.T. Wright’s latest work, Broken Signposts: How Chrsitianity Makes Sense of the World, in which one of the dominant signposts of faith is this very notion of beauty, something we know is present even as it can be a struggle at time to see it in a struggling world. This was of course well after Covid had hit and changed the world as we knew it. In looking back on the idea of now learning to find beauty in the death, isolation and turmoil that Covid has caused, I am struck by the beauty that I found in these works, a beauty that continued to surface in books like Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom, Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, and Bradley Jersak’s A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel.
From Beauty to Recapturing a Biblical Vision For the World
It was actually Jersak’s book that branched me off into rediscovering and reclaiming the Christian narrative as one that can, as Wright’s book so aptly suggests, try and make sense of a world that often doesn’t make a lot of sense. The way Jersak walks through the narrative of the Biblical story from creation to the hoped for Kingdom come, the New Heavens and the New Earth helped bring the Biblical narrative alive in a fresh way, reminding me of N.T. Wright’s call to Kingdom participation as witnesses to the beauty of this narrative truth. However, to reclaim scripture as a source of beauy also meant facing some of the harder truths, and there were four books that really helped me to able to enter into a genuine reflecting on the darkness over the Easter season and beyond, expanding my perspective of the Christian narrative especially where it had to do with the Cross and atonement theories, something I found myself wresting with quite a bit over 2019. In Rutledge’s classic treatment on the Cross, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus, she works through this darkness by asking the question, why did Jesus have to die. Or more specifically, why did He have to die on a Cross. In my mind she brilliantly and passionately draws out the cruxifixion within its context, shedding light on some of the ways long held beliefs here in the West have clouded the narrative and have missed both the darkness and likewise the beauty of the Cross, especially in terms of the Exodus story that informs it. From a slightly different vantage point, Joseph Blenkinsopp’s Abraham: The Story of a Life offered me a new way of seeing his story in light of the broader Judeo-Christian story. As Blenkinsopp suggests, the best way to understand the Abraham story, and thus the story of Israel and the Cross, is to recognize the original narrative as that of Jacob and Moses framed around the Exodus narrative, with Abraham and the entire thrust of Genesis leading back to the Creation story best read backwards as a way of giving an origins for their current circumstance in this oppressed-oppressor paradigm. The story that would have informed these origins is this picture of Moses up on the mountain establishing a covenant relationship and the the people down below making an idol out of God’s very name, with the Adam and Eve and Cain and Able stories starting the patterned history that flows through this divided picture of the world that the Biblical narrative is looking to heal and bring back together.
With this in mind I came to two books that kind of blew my perception of the Biblical narrative wide open, Thomas Oden’s How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Chrsitianity and J. Denny Weaver’s The Non Violent Atonement. With Oden, my common perception of the essential Christian divide existing across East and West shifted towards considering more appropriately a South-East-West divide, shedding light on how my understanding of the Christian narrative here in the West has played a large role in the continue oppression of the African people and the rich heritge and legacy of the African Christian Tradition. Weaver’s book tackles a similar topic but narrows in on the relationship between this common Western narrative and violent atonement theories as the fuel for this oppression. This would fit well with the book Paul: A New Covenant Jew, which gave me a new way to consider Paul within this larger conversation of the relationship between the great Tradition of the faith and the Western Protestant movement.
Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez would follow later on in the year, proving to be an excellent and eye opening journey through our more modern and very American (and in some sense Canadian) history. With the larger perspective of these other books in tow, Du Mez’s book was able to find some very real context for me as I continued to reflect on some of my own assumptions of the Biblical narrative that desperately needed reform. This journey led me to another one of my favorite reads of 2020 in finally getting to check off Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible by Rachel Held Evans. Evens has a way of circumventing the academic parts of this journey, although her wealth of knowledge is very evident, and speaking as someone who has very ordinary and very common questions and struggles. And she is so very hopeful in the way she imagines reconstructing a faith and a love for scripture in the face of these questions. Building a bridge between a genuine faith while making room for the questions.
This picture of a bridge emerged again on a narrative level in the book The World To Come by Dara Horn. Immersed in Jewish mythology and Jewish belief, it follows the story of individuals bound by time and conditioned through faith over the storied history of this God-Human narrative. There is a literary device that she employs to establish a unique narrative concept, a unique way into the Biblical narrative and the human story, one I won’t spoil here but will simply say the book has a lot to say about coming to see our life as a story, a story in perspective and one that enfolds us in it as Children of God, allowing us and giving us the freedom to navigate that space between two worlds, or as it says in Shane Wood’s wonderful book Between Two Trees: Our Transformation from Death to Life, living life between two trees, an idea that came alive to me in reading Storybound from the perspective of a life lived within the world of the pages.
From darkness to light, from struggle to beauty.
Given that I read three books that take place within a pandemic, The Pull of the Stars, The Lost Monkey God, and the Year of Wonders, thinking about this difficult space inbetween is something that has very much occupied my mind in 2020 and the neverending pandemic. Embracing the darkness of the Biblical narrative and the human experience, especially as we approach the Cross, becomes a necessary and important part of the journey. This is partly why I enjoy horror as a genre. It reminds me of both the darkness and the hope that is able to come from wrestling with the darkness. I got to read two new books by one of my favorite horror authors, Stephen King, The Outsiders and the The Institute, two books that look at darkness and hope from slightly different angles. What binds them together though is their focus on the struggle as a collective reality.
A new author from the horror genre that I encountered this year was Zoje Stage, who wrote Wonderland and Babyteeth, two books that looked at this idea of the darkness and the struggle from the perspective of family, while the classic Something Wicked This Way Comes, an imaginative and poetic work of horor fiction brings both this personal and collective reality to a kind of meeting point in a vision for a world that can emerge from the darkness of its reality in a more informed way, more attuned to the beauty.
The kind of beauty that I found in the simple yet profound story of News of the World, following this man delivering this news from around to world to places willing to hear it, broadening their perspective of the world even as his world gets broadened by this new found relationship. The kind of beauty I found in getting to be whisked away to the grand imagination of that rich Celtic past with my favorite author Stephen Lawhead. His final book in hs most recent trilogy, The Kingdom of All Tomorrows, offers a profound vision of a new world emerging from struggle and oppression. Or the fantastical The Girl Who Drank the Moon and Howl’s Moving Castle, stories that infuse its narrative with the necessary magic to awaken that childlike spirit of hope and renewal and broaden our perspective and awarness of the world, the same magic that envelops Tolkien’s Letters From Father Christmas.
What wrestling with the darkness also does is give us a foundation of hope through which to then attend to the darkness and struggle in the lives of others. This lies at the heart of reclaiming the Biblical narrative. This is what Thomas E. Ricks sees in his book First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country, a call for Americans to retrieve the true narrative of the past that has been coopted by the West much in the same way as Christianity. A concern for the oppressed-oppressor paradigm once sat at the heart of both the American and Canadian origins story as well as the Christian narrative, and this is something that is anchored in matters of socialist concern. Unlike one of the worst books on both Country and Christianity that I read this year, Live Not By Lies by Rod Dreher, to reclaim this means looking past the enlightenment and into the foundational realities of the human condition that formed the ancient world’s view of both darkness and beauty. We see this in the story of The Crucible by Arthur Miller, a powerful story about oppression being brought to light against two competing visions of the world and social response. We see this in Esau McCaulley’s Reading While Black, which talks about how to reclaim this oppressor-oppressed paradigm in the biblical narrative so as to find liberation for POC’s, and in Coates’ Between the World and Me, a beautiful and hope filled longing that echos the cries of persons of colour hoping for a new world. I even saw it in a less exciting but equally interesting book like Mary and Early Chrsistian Women: Hidden Leadership, which walks through how this persistant push Westward essentially muddied and covered up the powerful witness of women in scripture who took on deeply rooted liturgical traditions and which, as Abraham: The Story of a Life points out, looks all the way back to the one humanity in Adam (literally rendered “humanity”) made known in its diversity through the covenant promise equally given to both Abraham and Sarah. How often we bypass this similtaneous covenant that arrives without gender lines, and how quickly that leads to darkness and oppression.
I find myself then reflecting back on George Macdonald as this narrative comes full circle. There is magic to be found within the pages of The Golden Key. As one reviewer put it, “this is sort of a cross between a religious allegory and Plato’s ‘parable of the cave’, where “two innocents, one of whom finds a golden key at the end of the rainbow, go on a quest to find the ‘land from whence the (sublimely beautiful) shadows come.’ Out of the shadows we find hope, and hope is what sets us on this journey together, reminding ourselves of this shared journey called life. In my favorite book of the year, Anxious People, there is an equally powerful story about people finding their way out of the anxieties of this world into the power of relationship with one another. This is where they find hope. In one of my most unexpected thrills this year, The One and Only Ivan, a childlike perspective, one willing to imagine the possibilities of a world reframed by beauty, is able to wrestle with the darkness by entering into the struggle together, helping to create a new vision of their world.
A powerful truth indeed. And as one who loves to travel, and who dreams of expanding my view of the world once again, I echo the sentiment in the two Bill Bryson books I read this year. In At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson, he walks us through the history of our personal stories, our movement from a shared world to a walled off existence. This isn’t bad in and of itself, but one of the effects that this does have is narrowing our perspective of the world, something he blows wide open in On The Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey by Bill Bryson, a road trip he embarked on at a time when he thought he was done with travel and writing and which totally reframed his perpective of both the struggle and the hope of this long road along the American-Mexican border.
Here is to 2021 continuing to broaden perspectives and bring new hope and wonder and stability in the midst of a long year of struggle and darkness. A new world is being established, ready to be uncovered and brought to light, this is the promise of my reading year.
LOOKING AHEAD TO 2021
Given my 2020 narrative journey, the word I chose for 2021 is “story”. A personal research project on the topic of faith, memory and collective and personal identity in shaping our stories has led me to put a couple books on my potential to read list that I am still filtering through:
Lost Time: Remembering and Forgetting in Late Modern Culture by David Gross
A Theology of the Old Testament: Cultural Memory, Communication, and Being Human by J.W. Rogerson
The Shadow of God: A Journey Through Memory, Art, and Faith by Scribner Charles 3
As I Recall: Discovering the Place of Memories in Our Spiritual Life by Casey Tygrett
The Persistance of Memory: A Faith Interpretation of Art Forms by Ragsdale William Sr.
On allowing the darkness to put hope into practice:
A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture That Resists Absuses of Power and Promotes Healing
Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Chrsitian FaithWinsome Conviction: Disagreeing Without Dividing the ChurchHope In Disarray: Piecing Our Lives Togther in FaithThe Supper: New Creation, Hospitality, and Hope in Christ by Ronald Hesselgrave
On Living the imagination and reclaiming the wonder of living between the two worlds:
The Space Betwen Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
Be: the Journey of Rol
Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac NewtonThe Little Shop of Happy Ever After by Jenny Colgan
The Night of Wishes by Michael Ende
Adoring the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making
Honest Advent: Awakening to the Wonder of God With Us Then, Here, and Now by Scott Erickson
On the power of Story:
Opening The Covenant: A Jewish Theology of ChristianityArt and Faith: A theology of making by Makoto FujimuraThe Neverending Story by Micheal EndeThe Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan GottschallThe Storyteller: Tales out of Lonliness
How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories by Holly Black
On expanding my view of the world:
The Orchard by David HopenTheology of the Womb by Angelie BaumanThe Library at Mount Char
Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason by E.H Smith
Accidentally Wes Anderson by Wally Koval
The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
Blood Meridian by Cormac Mcarthy
Continuing with George MacDonald
Hope of the Gospel
The Gifts of the Child Christ: Fairytales and Stories for the Childlike
The Princess and the Goblin
The Light Princess
The Diary of An Old Soul
Continuing with Thomas Oden
A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir
The Transforming Power of Grace
The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity
After Modernity… What? Agenda for Theology
Life in the Spirit
The African Memory of Mark: Reassessing the Early Church Tradition
John Wesley’s Scriptural Christianity
Johon Wesley’s Teaching