This walk through the majority of my nonfiction reads is something of an experiment. I tried to walk through my reads and track through my experiences of these books as a kind of story that defines the major themes of my year. I note the unintentional bookends that frame my first and final reads. I note questions that inspire me to read certain books, and subsequent questions that surface through specific reads. I note some key learnings relating to Christian Ethics, the biblical world and history, and particular readings of history. I note an appeal to Beauty.
In any case, I found this helpful in mapping where, and in some sense who i was at the beginning of 2022 and where/who I am at the end. The one thing I left out here was my journey through Pauls letter to the Romans. I did a deep dive around the summer and finished 17 commentaries and books. I hope to compile my learnings from that elsewhere . It was a very eye opening process relating to how we understand Biblical justice.
Beauty: The Invisible Embrace By John O’ Donohue, Where The Light Fell: A Memoir By Phillip Yancey
The very first book I finished in 2022 was Phillip Yancey’s wonderful Memoir Where The Light Fell. In it he unfolds his personal journey through struggle and doubt towards a new sort of faith in God and life that is able to leave room for mystery and questions while also retaining a conviction in the most important facets of that faith- love, hope, grace and beauty. Rooting this in his childhood experiences and his upbringing, complicated family dynamics and all, really helps to personalize his journey and give the evolution of his larger body of work some real and important context.
Beginning the new year in 2022, looking back on my own writings and reflections, found me occupying a place of longing to turn certain insecurities and exhaustion with the world at large found into an opportunity to recover some sense of those key facets in my own engagement with the world. Having this book as a light to sort of navigate a helpful way forward was a blessing, and as I fast forward to the last book I read in 2022, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace By John O’ Donohue, a book I now have desperate plans to purchase, own, and revisit often, I found myself struck by this full circle movement back to beauty, hope, love and grace. O Donohues book has quickly cemented itself as an all timer, and it has reignited a passion for the imagination in a big way.
Introducing Christian Ethics: Core Convictions for Christians Today By David Gushee
It wouldn’t be too long after finishing Yancy’s book when one of the perennial hosts of the Fear of God Podcast released a sort of passion project by way of a set of two interviews with David Gushee (Here and Here) which discusses the release of his older book (After Evangelicalism) and his new book (Christian Ethics). It wouldn’t be until later in the year that I would be able to devote the necessary time to finishing the newer book (it is an academic work), but the conversation planted the seeds for what would inevitably follow. The necessary reenchantment I sought in Yancy and later fully experienced in Donohue was continued in Gushee, someone who offered such longings a real world and highly practical tool and a boots on the ground/hands on approach to fleshing out such core tenants of the Christian imagination by way of proper Christ centered justice. This would go on to shape an important and key learning in my next book as I transitioned into lent. What better time to imagine the practical and life giving way of justice making as a Jesus centered ethic.
Fight Like Jesus: How Jesus Waged Peace Throughout Holy Week By Jason Porterfield, The Serpent in Samuel: A Messianic Motif By Brian A. Verrett
A book with the title Fight Like Jesus isn’t exactly something I would pick up on a whim. Questionable marketing to be sure, but thankfully an interview with the author compelled me to pick it up as an accompanying source to help me engage with Lent, and inparticular appraising Holy Week. The book functions somewhat as a week long devotion, although dense chapter long devotionals actually might be better suited to the weeks leading up to Holy Week, perhaps doing two at a time culminating in the final chapter of the 7 day journey of Holy Week itself. In truth, I have come to recommend this book to everyone I can as it has the power to reform one’s engagement with Holy Week. You will never look at it the same way again, and far more than a simple appeal to pacifism, irony of the title duly noted, it’s an intelligent, accessible and deeply researched walk through what Holy Week is, what it means, and what it can teach us about embracing a Jesus centered justice making ethic.
Reaching somewhat broader in terms of its interest in biblical motifs, the other book I read during this period was Verett’s meticulously drawn and argued thesis on the Serpent motif. While his thesis is rooted in Samuel, part of his purpose is helping to break open the ways this motif relates to the whole of the scriptural narrative. What we find in the opening pages of Genesis can help us make sense of how the biblical writers understood and made sense of Jesus. Rooting Jesus’ justice making ways depends much on being able to locate Evil as an oppressive and enslaving agency in the world. This allows us to locate Jesus as a contrasting agency in the world rather than seeing the Christian fight as being between Jesus and humanity or Jesus and creation. These are not the Evils that God opposes, rather they are the Evil that God in Jesus frees creation from. This is the inference of the promise of the seed to crush the Serpents head, which lies at the heart of the covenantal interest of the text. This is what frees us then to participate as image bearers, witnessing to a different way of being in this world as image bearers and as part of God’s good creation.
The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity By David Graeber , How Iceland Changed The World: The Big History of a Small Island by Egill Bjarnason
In the book The Dawn of Everything Graeber builds a case for a new understanding of the history of humanity, one that flies in the face of some of the common assumptions we find in voices like Pinker and Harari. Rather than seeing humanities development, and therefore evolution, as a linear movement from less civilized to more, less intelligent to more, less moral to more, etc, etc, the overwhelming consensus of the evidence is of a history of humanity that is not linear but contextual. Why does this matter? Because, as the book points out, many of the problems we face in society are rooted in the sort of othering that comes from believing we as modern society are better than the ancients. Translate that into the different relationships operative today, be it between East and West, country versus country, politics versus politics, immigrants versus residents, etc etc, and we can see how this interpretation of history translates as an operative way of thinking and acting in the world. Assumptions do matter, and as I was reading this book I was seeing all sorts of parallels between religious assumptions regarding human depravity and the assumptions and Pinkers assumptions regarding the depravity of the ancients.
I wonder how this might challenge certain religious expressions that see the emergence of humanity built on depravity rather than an internet goodness, and how that might help define the way we see a christlike justice making ethic? Later on in the year, a book I tpuch on below, I would take a similar journey with a book called The Bright Ages, which challenges given assumptions about the Dark Ages on a similar premise (taken together it would seem that viewing the Dark Ages as dark flows from wrong understandings of early humanity as less than).
In keeping with this theme, I also read another reinterpretation of history, this time through the lens of Iceland. How Iceland Changed The World: The Big History of a Small Island by Egill Bjarnason helps us to imagine world history as being shaped in a particular direction the moment an ancient Viking ran “aground” this north Atlantic island all those years ago. We can play a similar line from almost anything of course, but given the strictly contextualized nature of history and humanity these sorts of stories provide an important window into how certain geographical and political realities come to be. It’s a fascinating exercise that helps in growing one’s understanding of the shape of this world and its challenges.
Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics By Tim Marshall, How Art Made the World: A Journey to the Origins of Human Creativity By Nigel Spivey
Little more broke my understanding of the cyclical nature of human history wide open than this perspective shaping look at geopolitics and the role borders and calculated international relations play in the never ending drive for wealth and power. The book demonstrates how looking at international realities, especially when it comes to defining the enemy, is often shaped by our own limiting context and fostered by narratives which serve greater political interests lying underneath the surface. The rise and fall and constant jostling for the position of Empire is as real today as it was thought ancient history, proving that this cyclical reality remains its own beast,, especially with the rise of globalism
If this sounds dire and helpless (it kind of is), while the political powers that be do their thing How Art Made The World reminded me of the essential humanity that persists underneath that. It sheds light on how the need to create and to express through art has shaped history as much, if not more, as borders and geopolitical powers. In fact, the former is what allows us to converse with the latter, making sense of things we can’t control and perhaps living differently in the face of it. If geopolitics tells history as one kind of story, art tells the story of history from the light of the person’s who occupy it.
We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland By Fintan O’ Toole, Maeve Binchy: A Biograohy By Piers Dudgeon
Along the same lines, my next reads would take that perspective shaping window and turn it towards Ireland. Following a deep rooted interest in Ukraine, given the present struggles and the fact that the summer celebrates the different anniversaries of our adoption journey (we left for Ukraine in August). A chance to visit Jen’s family village and connect with extended family while in Ukraine inspired me to start thinking more deeply about my own Irish roots. If I see the world from my own particular context, then that context owes itself to certain Irish particularities. While my readings on Ireland included more than this, these two books started what was a bit of a reflective process on how my life is shaped by history. We Don’t Know Ourselves was particularly poignant given the way it locates a certain crisis of identity. Knowing what it means to be Irish feels as important as knowing what it means to be human, as these realities are interconnected
Metropolis: A History of the City, Humankind’s Greatest Invention By Ben Wilson, Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age By Dennis Duncan, Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern By Jing Tsu
It was fascinating then for me to read in these three books about the connection between language and the voice of the City as a conduit or bridge between these two realities- the geopolitical and the art. It’s within the Metropolis that these stories are embedded, contained as they are within language, and further, as the history of the index would show, ordered language. From order comes the inevitable organizing movements of language and culture, and through the rise of the index language becomes information. The way we process and organize this information might look different today, and if modern society demonstrates anything its a deeply rooted problem of information detached from and operating apart from story (the ultimate expression of language). It also becomes a way into a larger discussion of why story matters. And there is no better space through which to understand this then the ultimate organizing principle of modern humans- the city.
Father of Route 66: The Story of Cy Avery By Susan C. Kelly, The Women Who Built Omaha: A Bold and Remarkable History By Eileen Wirth
Speaking of the city, over the waning days of summer my wife and I had a chance to get away and visit some new cities and hear their stories. Both of these books were excellent opportunities to engage the world from a slightly different perspective than our own. Avery’s role in shaping the landscape of America becomes crucial for understanding the organizing principle of American society, something we were able to imagine while exploring the historic route 66, while reading about the women of Omaha, an unassuming Midwest city of modest size, became a way to know its own creative voice. We would carry this with us into the particularities of Oklahoma City as a boomtown and Tulsas racial history.
Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God By J, Richard Middleton, The Sacrifice of Jesus: Understanding Atonement Biblically By Christian A Eberhart
Moving out of summer and into the fall I found myself involved in certain conversations about the nature of sacrifice in the Bible, or within the Biblical story. These two books have since become formative for me on this topic, with Middleton breaking down one of the most difficult and highly charged (read: divisive) passages in scripture (Abrahams sacrifice of Isaac) and Eberhart digging deep into the sacrificial system of Israel and later Jewish expressions. Both of these things become important for understanding the language NT author employ in order to make sense of Jesus, and these books helped me when it comes to understanding the ways this language is used to tell a story, and ways certain segments of Christianity have perhaps misunderstood and misapplied it, a story that becomes a hugely important part of the larger conversation between the creative forces (art) and the Powers (geopolitics)m especially relatimg to the hopeof the Gospel. Hearing the language of sacrifice expressed in their world and seeing how it invites them to see their world differently than the one which the Powers and their cycles hold enslaved, goes a long way in helping to shed light on the true nature of God, humanity and creation.
As Middleton supposes, if God revealed His true name (meaning Gods true image revealed through the way God acts in and for the world) by breaking into history and dwelling with and within His creation, then we should expect that such a God would be understood within the limiting parameters of language, At the same time, language is the very thing that transcends such limited capacities by setting us in conversation with a greater story. Thus it is by constantly asking how the revealed name might relate to our context that our language can begin to be shaped within our context towards a greater and truer story.
Delivered Out of Empire: Pivotal Moments in the Book of Exodus Part 1 By Walter Bruegemman; Moses: A Human Life By Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg
The place to begin with shaping the Christian story in its world is with its Jewish roots. One cannot understand the story of Jesus without understanding the story of the Exodus, and for that matter the “righteous” figure of Moses. Not only do the Gospel writers write Jesus’ story as a new exodus, they place Him within the story of Moses, raising Him up then as the essential Mediator between heaven and earth. Bruegemman does a masterful job locating the essential force of the Exodus story as a clash of kingdoms, and Zoenberg is simply wonderful in unpacking such an enigmatic figure from within his own Jewish context.
For The Love of All Creatures: The Story of Grace in Genesis By William Greenway, Bearing God’s Name: Why Sinai Still Matters By Carmen Joy Imes
Suffice then to say that Carmen’s newest work, Bearing Gods Name, helped to flesh out this story even more, moving us from the Exodus to Sinai by way of the sacred story of the Torah. This is attached to the pivotal moment- the revealing of God’s true name as He comes down the mountain to dwell in the Creation, establishing the covenant that the continued sharing of this moment through the story of the Torah would hold on to as the formative image of their hope in God making all things new. The book For The Love of All Creatures served as a welcome compliment to Carmen’s articulated plea to keep Sinai at the center of the Gospel, as it fleshes out this covenant as a cosmic concern for the whole of creation, with Sinai’s call to faithful participation setting us in relationship to this truth,
What Saint Paul Really Said By N.T. Wright, Acts By Scott McKnight
If the Exodus and Sinai, framed as they are by the language of the NT writers, operate as a way of telling Jesus’ own story, then understanding how Paul understood Jesus in these terms becomes crucially important to knowing what these stories are trying to say, given how much of the NT is compromised of Pual’s voice. Two prominent academics in the field of Pauline studies are Wright and McKnight, with McKnight taking a more pastoral approach. Both are really helpful in shaping the voice and letters of Paul according to his very Jewish convictions, fleshing out the larger story of New creation and covenant promise within that. If a christ centered justice making ethic is concerned with both the Powers of Sin and Death as a real, oppressive agency, and subsequently the Powers of this world, or the oppressive realty of Empire at the same time, then this picture that Paul presents of heaven coming to earth becomes palpable in its real world concern for social issues and a practical Christian Ethic. Seeing this in Paul can help to counteract the harmful tendencies that come from spiritualizjng Pauls words into some progression of salvation happening within an individual, and it can help open us up to the true force of the covenant promise for the whole of creation.
It’s worth noting here that along with these two books I also did a deep dive into Paul’s letter to the Romans, reading 17 commentaries and books. I hope to reflect on those learnings in this space elsewhere.
When Everything’s On Fire: Faith Forged From The Ashes by Brian Zahnd, Wholehearted Faith By Rachel Held Evans
As with any rethinking and challenging of older paradigms, such ideas can at times present a point of crisis. A crisis of faith. A crisis of belief. A crisis of hope. A crisis of meaning. I have been there, and in many ways will continue to be there as I seek a more honest and robust faith built on hearimg the Biblical story in its world rather than from the world I create for it, and then allowing that to be recontextualized into my own.
Two wonderful and wise voices who have navigated this space as dedicated Christ followers are Zahnd and the recently departed Evans. Both understand the difference between questioning the viability of God because it failed to attend to me, and questioning the viability of God because it failed to attend to the world around us. The first sense flows from what is often the first thing to get sacrificed in an interest towards reconstruction- the self, or the individual. The second is where our genuine crisis of faith should get fleshed out. For as long as that is where our uncertainties and our questions are pointed, our struggles will pull us in this same direction. This is, not inconsequentially, where we are most likely to encounter Christ as well. This reminds me of those earlier reads above which point out that how we see creation and humanity matters a lot. If we are to find Christ in these things we will need to learn to see it in the light of Christ’s image, recognizing the Evil instead as the systems which oppress and cloud this image. These two books gave me the freedom to do that while reclaiming a more hopeful imagination in the biblical story as my primary conviction,
How and How Not To Be Happy By J. Budziszewski, The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe By Matthew Gabriele
I have already noted the Bright Ages above, a complimentary read to some of my earlier endeavors. What is slightly unconventional for me is picking up a book that feels even remotely connected to self help. I did so with How To Be Happy based on a recommendation, and I was actually surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It might seem like such a book would take the grander story that has been shaping me above and shift it to a heavy focus on the individual, but the author goes to great lengths to tie true happiness to our life in the world. Who and what we are is shaped by these external realities, thus finding happiness, which gets defined through the multiple uses of the word (such as contentment or joy), is something we should expect to find in relationship to the external. In its own way then this becomes helpful in building a Christ-centered justice making ethic. To see this in light of a renewed sense of the darkness at play in history and the light that often gets obscured by ways of our thinking about humanity and creation, becomes a way of reclaiming beauty and hope as a healing agency in the world.
Abuelita Faith: What Women on the Margins Teach Us about Wisdom, Persistence, and Strength By Kat Armas, A Hermeneutic of Wisdom: Recovering the Formative Agency of Scripture By J. De Waal Dryden
Nearing the end of the year I decided to pair a couple books on the subject of wisdom, one which challenges conventional approaches by broadening definitions of what wisdom literature is and what qualifies as wisdom, literature, and then affording it a proper hermeneutic. The other locates wisdom in the voices of those whom have played a role in seeding, growing, and encouraging our faith, and further uses a cultural touchpoint to locate the women who play such roles in our world and in our lives, moving then to uncover the wisdom of such women’s stories prevalent throughout Scripture. One is about the formative voice of wisdom in scripture, the other is about the formative voices that we find carrying such wisdom in scripture, and further in our world as marginalized voices. If we are to think about what it looks like to embody a better story, this wisdom becomes important in fleshing that out in an embodied fashion. Wisdom and ethics are closely entwined.
Two seminal voices of our present age, two of its most vital artists. These two books provided a perfect pathway towards my (unintentional) full circle reading of Yancys Where The Light Falls and Donohue’s Beauty. They both tell the stories of their respective journeys from the lens of their personal experiences as successful musicians. Both carry and describe a very particular spiritual outlook and experience of this world and existence I relationship to God.. Both use art as a way to speak about problems in the world and both image Christ by allowing their own struggles to move them out into the world. Equally fascinating and illuminating and inspiring .