Book Review: Delivered Out of Empire: Pivotal Moments in the Book of Exodus By Walter Brueggemann

It has been a while since I’ve read anything from Water Breuggemann, a celebrated scholar and theologian specializing in Old Testament texts. An interview awakened me to his new book Delivered Out of Empire: Pivotal Moments in the Book of Exodus and it is truly paradigm shifting inthe way it breaks open the Exodus story and offers fresh reflection and insight when it comes to how to read the story well from within our present context. As Christians it is often easy to forget just how central the Exodus story is to our understanding of the Gospel, and the Exodus narrative plays through all of scripture as a forming motif.

There are a few particularly memorable moments fromt the book that stood out for me, beginning with his sharp articulation of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. Here is an excerpt from one of the chapters discussing this relationship

“The company that left Egypt must have included “all sorts and conditions of men”1 and women who had been shackled both by their own economic necessity and by the aggressive economic requirements of the empire. The nicety of identity could not prevail amid the haste of such a rush to freedom. The phrase that is translated “mixed multitude” conjures a disordered or confused array of folk without ethnic or linguistic identity. That phrase, moreover, suggests a large host of them, so that we witness the contest between the ordered, no doubt limited army of Pharaoh and the mass of ill-identified people who rush to freedom, even while the army pursues them. The contrast attests to the sociological reality that the lower one descends on the socioeconomic scale, the less there is identifiable genealogy or pedigree that can be offered. While that mixed company may have had a variety of known and valid identifications, they are not the kind of identifications that are known or valued from above. (Thus the community might remember the names Puah and Shiphrah [1:15], but those names are surely not known by the company of Pharaoh). It may be for that reason that the anticipation of a newly ordered community provided at the very outset a great equalizer: “There shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you” (Exodus 12:49). That remarkable and radical provision runs directly and immediately roughshod over what must have been, in Egypt, a hierarchy of values and access. Such social differentiations could not be afforded in the company of the escapees and would not be countenanced in their future. The accent is on commonality that precludes such differentiation. In what follows in the exodus narrative, it is all of them—all ex-slaves, all departing, all going into wilderness, all entered into a new future with no social distinctions. The issues are economic. They are ex-slaves. But because YHWH intervenes, the matter is theological, this God against the gods of Egypt (12:12). Thus economics is joined to theology. That theo-economic eruption can have no patience with social differentiation. This new future will focus otherwise.

As long as “Israel” was a refugee people on the outside looking in, such commonality could prevail. As soon as Israel was settled into a relative security and affluence, however, social differentiation began to appear. The juxtaposition of “Israelite” and “mixed multitude” disappeared, and Israel took on all the trappings of an identifiable people with a heritage, a land claim, a genealogy, and a pedigree. Former slaves became owners, possessors, and administrators—and such social functions mandate credentials. Those credentials in Israel took the form of holiness rules and purity guidelines, so that religious merit went easily along with economic clout. Thus over time, there was a push to specialness that eventuated in being a “holy people” distinct from all other peoples, belonging solely to YHWH. Thus in Exodus 19:5–6 the specialness is stated at Sinai as the ex-slaves become “my treasured possession,” “a priestly kingdom,” “a holy nation.” That special status, however, is not yet cast as ethnic identity but is based simply on obeying YHWH’s voice—that is, the voice of Torah—and keeping the covenant. But the notion of “holy nation” over time triggered a zeal for purity, a practice of ritual cleanness, and a claim of holiness that was not defined as a relation with YHWH but as a substantive essence that came to be expressed in ethnic categories. This perspective came to regard being “mixed” (as in Exodus 12:38) as a dangerous and offensive violation of holiness. Thus in 1 Kings 8:53 the intent of the future of Israel is to be “separated” from “among all the peoples of the earth.” Centuries later, amid the Persian Empire, when the community was reconstituted after the exile, the formation and sustenance of the community required discipline of an intentional kind: Then those of Israelite descent separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their ancestors. (Nehemiah 9:2) When the people heard the law, they separated from Israel all those of foreign descent. (13:3)

Thus one may trace the articulation of Israel all the way from “mixed multitude” to “holy seed,” all the way from ready inclusiveness that was not preoccupied with matters of holiness to an exclusion based on bloodlines. We may surmise, moreover, that the more the memory of slavery emancipation remained palpable, the more the inclusion could be embraced. Conversely, the more remote the memory of slavery and emancipation became, the tighter the lines might be drawn on holiness. We must not, however, imagine that the stream from “mixed multitude” to “holy seed” was a linear or unilateral development from early inclusion to later exclusion. Rather the tension and debate about inclusion or exclusion must have been alive and contested in every phase of Israel’s history as a question about the constitution of Israel by the relational reality of covenant or an “essentialist” view of God’s people as substantively identifiable. The question must, perforce, be left contested and unresolved. But Exodus 12:38 attests that at the very outset the reality of YHWH’s emancipatory impulse was the defining mark of Israel then codified into Torah.

The more the Torah is kept in proximity to the emancipatory narrative of the exodus, the more fully is the notion of “mixed multitude” definitional for Israel. The tension between the inclusiveness of “mixed multitude” and the exclusiveness of “holy seed” remained unresolved in ancient Israel and in emerging Judaism. That same tension, moreover, spilled over into the Christian tradition as well”

Another point of perspecive that I found thought provoking and even potentially controversial is his insight on the peoples relationship to Yahweh within the story. As he suggests, it is the cries of the people that elicits a response from Yahweh whom up until this point has been absent from the story. He sees these cries as having actual agency to set the story in play, going so far as to suggest that Yahweh responds and is changed by these cries, moved towards compassion. As he writes,

“It is no wonder that such an assertion changes everything in the narrative. Pain brought to voice in public speech so that it is heard out loud promptly rearranges all power realities that are thought to be settled. The cry changes circumstance for the slaves, for the shut-down slaves have been displaced by voiced possibility. The cry changes matters for Pharaoh, because now the reductionisms of manageable technology and administrable labor have been altered by the fresh insistence that the slaves are not mere statistics but are named historical agents. But most of all, the cry changes YHWH. It is astonishing that for two full chapters at the beginning of the book of Exodus, chapters filled with abuse and violence, YHWH has not yet made a narrative appearance. The cry changes that. The cry is not addressed to YHWH—or to anyone else. It is a cry addressed to no one—and to anyone who would listen. But it “rose up to God.” The cry not addressed to YHWH arrived there anyway. It arrived there because YHWH, the God of the narrative, is like a magnet for the cries of the abused.

YHWH, for whatever reason, has not until now taken any initiative. The initiative, rather, has been taken by the Israelites who have found their voice. It is the cry that begins the narrative of rescue and salvation. We are free to imagine that if Pharaoh had been able to sustain his imposed silence, there would have been no exodus narrative. That imposed silence, however, cannot finally refuse or resist the insistence of human bodies that refuse to bear pain in silence. Such voiced pain will finally break the force of Pharaoh. The Bible that follows from this cry is, among other things, a collage of episodes in which the cry sounds and a response is evoked:”

He also goes on to describe this in relationship to the idea of blessings and curses.

“In all such uses blessing is a top-down act—from God or from God’s human agents—because those who occupy the top have resources for life to share. This top-down commonsense perspective transfers into ordinary life in which power people—political leaders, bankers, celebrities, sports stars—give the appearance of having more life force and a capacity to bestow that life force on those who have less of it. All of this was operative in Pharaoh’s Egypt. Pharaoh had all the power, all the wealth, all the food, all the prestige, all the effective apparatus of priests and “magicians.” Pharaoh had a monopoly on life force, enough to bless all those who lived in conformity with his enterprise. From Pharaoh, moreover, it is easy enough to generalize that the political-economic pyramid of social power in every society assumes a top-down flow of blessing that is shared by those “below” according to their conformity. Except, of course, that there is a countertheme of blessing moving up from below. Such a notion is profoundly counterintuitive, for it is easy enough to think that those below have no such capacity. That countertheme is repeatedly expressed in Psalms in the formula “bless the Lord”:

Perhaps not too much should be made of such a familiar formula. And yet the formula, for all of its familiarity, is astonishing. It suggests that adherents to YHWH, the ones who have received life from YHWH, can respond by the bestowal of life force upon YHWH. This is an articulation of a dialogical transaction with God that does not assume God’s all-sufficiency; rather, God can have added to God’s own life by the act of the psalmist or of Israel, or of “all flesh.” The phrase “bless the Lord” may mean nothing more than “praise.” But the rhetoric itself suggests more than that, even concerning God’s own life.”

Lastly, one deeply affecting point of perspective flows from his observations on Miriams song, a song that is then given context in Moses’ song.

“Slaves do not sing and dance much, except for an occasional respite allowed by coercive masters. For the most part they work and work, making bricks and meeting production schedules. But ex-slaves are a different matter. When they are emancipated from work, brick making, and production schedules, they may sing and dance…

“Miriam and the other women sing and dance (Exodus 15:20–21). They “went out” with tambourines. The verb is an exodus word. They “went out” from Egypt. They “went out” of bondage. They “went out” of silence. They found with their tambourines a voice of freedom. Miriam found words and summoned the other women to sing. They sang “to the LORD.” Now they use their boisterous voices to name the name of YHWH. They had been all this time getting to “know the LORD.” Now they know! They know that YHWH is allied with them. They know that YHWH comes with active, partisan verbs. They sing the most succinct victory song.”

I have long been fascinated with Miriam’s song for a few reasons. First, it is recognized as the oldest text within the Hebrew Bible. Second, it finds its recontextualizing in the song of Moses as a way of applying it directly to the story of Israel, which only emphasizes the powerful realization of the woman’s voice informing it’s original context. Not unlike women being the first witnesses to the Gospel story here they stand expressing the earliest witness to Yahweh in a culture where they would not have had a voice.

What caught my attention though with its reference here is how Brueggemann weaves this into a simple truth about how emancipation and restoration works. In outlining the Exodus story he locates important threads. One of those is the nature of the voice. It is the “cries” of the people which is initially heard and which compels response. As Yahweh emancipates the “mixed multitude”, who’s commonality emerges from their enslavement, the fear that the experience in leaving Egypt elicits leads to the call to “fear not” by being silent, allowing the liberation to speak for itself. What follows then with Miriam’s song is a breaking of the silence through the call to then “fear the Lord” and the ushering in of a new reality.

This underscores this basic truth about emancipation in the first quote above- a time for genuine singing and dancing comes with liberation. We cannot pretend that the cries would stop or the silence be commanded until the promise of liberation is observed and celebrated and declared.

A second thread Brueggemann explores Is how the Exodus story reads in line with the creation and the flood narrative. The symbolism is stark and clear, right up to the collapsing of the waters of chaos once separated to reflect right order. One important feature of these narratives is locating the imagery of the righteous one patterned in Noah, Abraham (who’s story functions as a replay of the Garden narrative in line with Noah) and Moses. The intention here is clear when set within the creation narrative- as the story replays it is bringing to light the question of hope in a world patterned after Empire (symbolized through Babylon imagery as it is with Egypt, as it is with a freed and eventually exiled Israel). This hope, expressed as it is through the language of the righteous one, is replayed through the story of Jesus as the full embodiment of this story of Israel, defined as it is by the mixed multiple and framed through the story of enslavement and promised emancipation. This stands in contrast to the language of Empire. This is where the true twist in the plotline comes, one which we can see was the point of the story all along- in Christ as the righteous one we all become the righteous one, not in moral terms- that is the great misconception of a term which has been co-opted by a moralizing Gospel- but in its functional sense. That is, a people called to make right what is wrong in this world as image bearers.

From this emerges a third thread, which is the partnering theme of Exodus and Exile. This becomes the framework through which we approach the difficult already-not yet paradigm of the Gospel story, something which has fueled so much of our modern theological discourse in response. How is it that we make sense of a context that is both liberated and yet is not. We spiritualize the exodus story, we individualize it in soteriological terms, we diminish it by catapulting it into the future as a future promise rather than a historical reality. In truth, it is through the pattern of participation in liberation theology that we arrive at the idea of the exodus story as a liturgical practice. As this story is shared with young and old through the generations it speaks the truth of the story by turning our ears to hear the cries of the enslaved and looking to recognize the sounds of the song as a sign that liberation has in fact arrived. Where we hear the cries we become compelled to act. Where we hear the song we become compelled to hope.

Sadly what often happens when we divorce our theologies from this story is we erase the commonality of the mixed multitude, we redefine it in terms of the individual (read: total depravity), and we get suspicious of the cries and the constant calls towards needed liberation imagining this to be disruptive and antithetical to the true Gospel. It cannot be about them because it must be about us, and the easiest way to uphold this is to spiritualize our enslavement so that there is no us and them. This misses entirely what was common to the mixed multitude, and what makes this even more ironic is that it creates exclusive theologies that are all about upholding an us and them mentality. We undermine the cries, we expect and demand silence where enslavement persists, and then we move to celebration even as things remain the same, neglecting the fact that those celebrations are our own voices, not the songs of the mixed multitude.

What the Exodus story calls us to is the expectation that we are each called to bear witness to possible liberation by working to see it actualized in the here and now. By hearing the cries we empower those cries to be exchanged for silence through the enabling of the enslaved and the oppressed to move through the parted waters and into a new reality. This is how we participate in the new creation together now. This is how we anticipate a vision of what is to come.

As Brueggemann puts it,

“This remarkable legacy of the kingship of YHWH—rule, reign, governance—is, to be sure, awkward because of the masculine, paternal tone of the rhetoric that is reflective of hierarchy. That problematic is not to be ignored, yet perhaps the greater affront is that the lyric speaks of genuine transformation of the power that pertains in the world. Such rhetoric is inherently subversive and often has proved to be too much for the church. We have two characteristic strategies for evading such dangerous utterance. On the one hand, we readily make the claim eschatological and so push it outside of and beyond social reality. Nobody committed to the status quo worries too much about end-time transformation, as long as we are left alone for now. On the other hand, we may reduce the historical claim to privatized spirituality, so that there is no public face to the claim. Both of these propensities are visible in the hymns of the church used at Christmas and Easter. Either way, the danger of Moses’ utterance is toned down.

But of course, the Song of Moses and the women with tambourines will have none of that. It is for us always a question of how we will reperform the text, whether with tambourines in solidarity or in safer ways that leave us mostly still in bondage with brick quotas. The song of Moses invites us to tell a different story of the world, one that begins in cries (Exodus 2:23–24) but that culminates in wondrous exultation, a wonder voiced in song but deeply felt in our bodies and in the body politic.”

Circle (2015, Aaron Hann, Mario Mslcone): A Game of Life and Death, Winners and Losers and How Faith Disrupts the Rules of the Game

This is a really interesting concept that potentially gets bogged down by the weight of a few uncertain parts. I found that it’s far more interesting to ponder after the fact than to experience in the moment, and this is due to the fact that there isn’t a whole lot of mystery or even necessary set up to the premise. We know that this group of people who find themselves standing in a circle have been submitted to a game by unseen aliens, so this isn’t about figuring out what’s going on. This is worth noting because it becomes easy to anticipate that this film is building up to some big reveal or development in the plot, and easy to be left a little bit wanting when the film most aasuredly does not. It is literally all about the game itself where each of these people are given a vote and each round, determined by a timeclock, (seemingly) demands a vote, with the person who gets the most votes being the one to die. Last one standing is the survivor.

This, however, is where the game itself gets interesting. Looking back on the film and thinking about how the game unfolded is an opportunity to see how the circle is essentially a microcosm of a developing society. It looks at how it is that we form these societes by forming majorities and creating minorities. It also looks at how it is that we formulate governing systems, social norms and moral expectations. The way it plays this out round by round proves a very interesting way of examining the building blocks of a given society, which are arguably universal in nature.

In examining this the film is also of course also about human nature. The circle presents this nature as a necessary cycle, one which repeats itself in any different direction with, perhaps, slightly different results from game to game but always with the same rules and the same motivations in play. There inevitably must be hierarchies and majorities and minorites, and these social systems demand some level of survival and competition in order to exist. This is the uncomfortable truth the film desires to communicate and wrestle with, demonstrating that even the most idealistic versions of society demonstrate the same truths about our reality when pared back to their most basic, instinctual drive. Morals after all are simple and basic constructs that allow a society to survive, but only where they coexist with the greater instinctual drive of one’s or a groups thriving. Life cannot function without winners and losers and the game is designed so that once you whittle the system down to its most basic form this becomes immediately clear and undeniable.

What this does of course is beg the question of how it is that we judge something to be good or bad, one of the defining elements of the social constructs that emerges within the game. We do so in order to define insiders and outsiders, to distinguish who we are in relationship to another, and to some degree there is benefit to operating by that which we determine to be good on a functional level. But within a discussion of the natural order goodness must be defined by that which is beneficial, and as the game suggests this is a fluid and always evolving definition within the rules of the game. It is true then to suugest that we are naturally wired towards certain responses that we, as a developing society, can determine to be good, but goodness itself does not actually exist outside of its necessary function, which is to form this society according to insiders and outsiders so that it can survive and thrive. This is why this becomes so pertinant a question within the game. When they are forced to choose who must die, on what basis to they justfy a person’s perceived and inherent goodness to be more beneficial and necessary to society than the other? This is why we create both good and bad so as to define insiders and outsiders, and as the game shows this shifts constantly depending on a mix of need and desire. As the game unfolds we see the definition of goodness evolving not as a static moral but within the moral construct necessary to organize these microcosms of society. Remember, morals are simple societal constructs that emerge from the necessary organizing structure. They must be agreed upon and their only true measure is what is most beneficial. And whats important to remember and what the game underscores is that what is most beneficial to the group will never be most beneficial for the whole. It can’t be when we are speaking about the survival of a species.

We of course don’t like to think about human nature in this way. We don’t like to think about the world we live in as operating in this fashion. In fact, it would seem that human nature is designed to see our groups as functioning by a higher order and principle. This is a survival mechanism and it requires us to base our lives on the illusions that free us to see that we are participating in this world in a meaningful way even though it is in reality a game with necessary winners and losers. Despite the one character who insists that there are no winners (perhaps the true existential crisis) we live with the unconscious conviction that there are. This is, it would appear, what makes life worth living.

Of course with winners there must be losers, and this is what often disrupts the system. This is especially the case when it comes to minorities binding togther to defeat a majority in power, which is what we see in the organizing principle of the game. These constantly shifting allegiances in response to being in the minority, to being on the losing side. This of course results in shifting notions of what it means to win, something that the resulting chaos which forms from this clash of winners and losers encourages, but this is also challenged by the fact that this is in fact a game that needs leaders and followers. Knowing this inspires certain parts of our nature, our brains, to kick in regardless of these moral systems in play, similar to what happens when we realize how it is that life actually works. Our illusions, be it belief in God, belief in certain moral actions as good in and of themselves, belief in family systems, belief in a greater cause, are in fact shaky foundations precisely because we know them to be illusions. We intuitively know them to be this even as our brains are wired to convince us otherwise. Thus circumstance has a way of unsettling these things within our consciousness when we find we aren’t on the right side of the game, which can be described as whatever allows us to feel like we are worthwhile (as one player suggests), like we are necessary or useful or needed in this existence. This is why when we aren’t on the right side we tend to fight (or give up) and resist (or concede). The ones on the bottom are needed to keep the balance of order and give the ones on top meaning. And round and round it goes, all resting on this simple truth that we are designed to think of this in the moment as more than just a game. In truth we are all part of a system, we are all formed by these systems, we are all easily manipulative and manipulable creatures, we are all predictable and highly irrational. And we all live in a world that is built to remind us that we are on the top or on the bottom, that we are the winners or the losers, even if those defintions shift with circumstance and our response. We could not live without such structures. And being winners or losers can be descrihed as simply as whatever a successful life looks like, be it through things within our control or outside of our control.

A confession here. My assessment of the Circle game is something I believe to be true in one sense. As a person of faith I do believe we also have this inherent intuition that even though this is how life works and what life is there is a way to imagine a world and a life that looks differently, one that is not given to the rules of this game. Of course many critics of faith might contend that such a notion is little more than wishful idealism that brings comfort in the moment, and might wonder whether such a world could even be described as living at all. What would be the meaning of the game if not motivated by winners and losers? Others will contend faith is unecessary because we can achieve this same reality through our own means without God. I would contend that such persons are thinking too narrow and remain far too dependent on the illusion to appeal to the larger rational argument. Critics of faith do so by upholding their own illusions about this world and about their place in it. If you are on the bottom what informs our drive to resist? The conviction of our idealism. And what is this idealism? Is it a world where there are no winners and losers? Is it a world where there is no suffering and death and competition?That begs the question of what a world with no suffering would look like or perhaps what suffering in fact is. Such a world can only exist where there are no winners and losers.

What then informs our drive from the bottom is our conviction in an illusionary concept that can never actually be achieved, or which critics of faith might argue should not be achieved. We are better off attending for reality and rationalism, which is what? An awareness of what life really is (a game) and an awareness of how our natures work (survival), because this can enable us a greater chance to be successful by whatever measure a successful life or society looks like. An appeal to rationalism as the graeter good simply means the aiding of this success.

Here is the thing. Such success still demands insiders and outsiders. Rationalism must appeal to this truth. In an increasingly global world we must still operate according to nationalistic prinicpals for the system to work, as we have throighout human history, and if, from the vantage point of our present circumstance and chaos, we decide to believe in some ideal where we do not function according to these principles rationalism and reason forces us to accept that this is merely an illusion, not reality. It is a way of convincing oursleves that we are working towards something, with the irony being that such a world might satisfy the desires on the bottom but would never satisfy the desires of those on the top. This is why the great experiment of American western liberalism remains a falsehood, an illusonary concept that only works as an organizing principle that ensures there will always be people on the top and the bottom. It appears as though it hinges on progress, but only in certain defintions of success not in inherent principle. What this form of society underscores is that such an organizing principle can only exist within necessary hierarchies. The idea that each person is a truly liberated one is of course the grand illusion upon which this construct is based, which of course cannot and will never correlate to reality. In truth it is designed to reward the winners and feed the illusion that we are liberated and in control and that we are on the winning side of this game.

Socialism on the other hand believes that success is dependent on meeting base level needs. What it struggles to answer though is what happens when this reality is achieved. It cannot define what living means when base level needs are met. Socialism makes sense for those on that bottom. Some might say it’s designed to reward the losers, which of course they would claim goes against the very rules and nature of the game. Yet it cannot attend for how our base line natures operate when we are then given the pieces necessary to enter the game. At best it can appeal to a certain kind of happiness that comes from maintaining the status quo, but this is only one form of happiness and a very limited version of it at that, and it does not attend for the true base of our natures when the opportunity to participate in the game presents itself. Take someone from this space and put them in the game and as the circle underscores we are suddenly forced to participate according to the rules precisely because it triggers that nature that responds to the need for necessary hierarchies.

Similar to socialism is liberation efforts. We can always liberate from, which is part of the human drive from the bottom and can be beneficial to societal structures as a whole. But the question of what we are liberating to is much harder to answer, because that’s when we are thrown right back into the game.

So where does faith fit into the picture? I think faith underscores that this is the truth of our reality and that if faith is an illusion all of life then is. Faith underscores that for as much as our nature resists the kind of idealism that imagines we might actually be freed from the circle, from the cycle, we also need this idealism to drive us forward. The question then is if we know this intuitively, that we desire to be freed from the trappings of the game, and that at the same time our nature bind us to the game, by what means do we locate this idealism as not merely an illusion but as a possible and given truth, a tenable and desired outcome of our efforts. A way to break the cycle. This is where I find faith to be compelling. It breaks into the game and imagines the rules differently. It breaks into the game and offers us a spiritual imagination, a way to image a different outcome. It breaks into the game and challenges our idealism. It breaks into the game and gives suffering and death a redemptive course.

And here’s the thing. The Circle recognizes that on some level this requires humility and sacrifice, the two possibilities that history shows to be antithetical to the game, the true disrupters. But it doesn’t employ these things as simply a way to reposition us back into the circle. That is the problem of our social systems no matter how moral we see our more progressive societies. If our only measure is less violent societies then in some respects we can see examples of this having been achieved (and in other respects having utterly failed). Many popular thinkers and philosophers use this to show that we as humans have changed the game on our own. That is a grand fallacy though, an illusion. It’s simply set up the pieces to play again with the only true possibility being that suffering is measured differently. Same rules, different context.

The real question is how do we actually imagine a world where we change the game? Where the rules are different? Where our human intuiton of what this game called life must be (necessary competition and progess in order to be successful) meets with our intuition that we desire to be freed from the cycles? That, in my mind, requires something revelatory. Something that breaks into the patterns and demonstrates a different way of being in this world. It also requires something that is able afford us a vision of such an idealistic aim (life without the game) while also demonstrating how such a reality is in fact a greater life than we know now. The freedom to see in such idealism the hoped for living without the struggle, without the competition, without the heiarchies, without the suffering, without the death. This I think informs our deepest longings. It allows us to see death and suffering as the true enemy rather than oursleves, and to see our societal structures and systems based on power as the enemies truest expression. It allows us to see this and declare this to be true while also declaring a different reality to be true as well, the one afforded to us by faith in one who has and is breaking into the game, one who actually has the power to say that death and suffering can be redemptive possibilities. This is how the enemy is defeated. It is the only way it can be defeated. It is the only way way the circular cycle can be broken. Otherwise the death that we see as meaning something remains merely an illusion. That can be enough for the winners, but only if we adhere to the illusions and neglect the reality of the game, which our nature allows us to do It will never be enough to satisfy the game and imagine a world without losers though.

This is the true irony of progress and of the game designed to feed this progress by our nature. Death and suffering become our primary measure, and that measure is based on achieving longer lives and more properous living for the insiders, the winners within the illusion that the ones at the top can then change the reality for the ones at the bottom, the vision many employ as ethical reasoning for a balanced system. What fails to be attended for is that the necessary balance flows both ways, towards our idealism and against it. We convince ourselves that we live in a more enlightened age, a more properous age, a more ehtical age simply on the basis that we are less violent and more inclusive. Dig underneath these organizing principles though and they quickly emerge as power systems, simply with different ways of locating suffering, winners and losers, and success. The game is the same and death remains the great leveler. There is no magic number by which we can say a life lived has been a meaningful one, merely our current frame of reference noted by longer life spans and the question of whether or not we are on the winning side (according to the above definition). The game doesn’t end, it simply resets the pieces for our modern age with the primary question being still, how do we defeat death, because death is the one thing that renders the game meaningless precisely because it renders us all equal. As the Circle reminds is though, even if we find a way to defeat death itself on our own terms, the game doesn’t end. It continues by the same rules reminding us of what it took to defeat it in the first place and of who benefits from being on the winning side of such an endeavor.

This is why death, which in its broadest sense is simply a definition of our true reality which encompasses struggle and suffering and loss and decay, lies at the core of faith as the great enemy. This is why faith demands a player from the outside in order to defeat it. This is why humilty and sacrifice, ingrained as they are in the universal stories of humanity as we inspire to imagine the nature of the gods, are so necessary. It is also why forgivness becomes the key to all of this and the most scandalous part of that revelatory message. Locate forgivness and you find the truest expression of faith and the answer to the problem of the game.

The real question that remains then sounds silly but is so vital- are we actually brave enough to imagine that idealistic future becoming a reality? Are we actually brave enough to imagine a reality without death and suffering? This sounds silly, but what the Circle reminds me of is that this question remains the single greatest obstacle to embracing faith precisely because, as it turns out, we like the game too much.

Looking Ahead: My Most Anticipated Films of 2022

It’s the first Friday of the new year which means the first official releases of 2021, beginning with the female led action film from Simon Kingerg, The 355 out today.

As the pandemic goes so does the constantly evoloving slate of movie releases. Production delays, films getting bumped from their release schedule as theatre attendence continues to inspire more questions and concerns, the constant push and pull of streaming and experimental/unpredictable release patterns that continue to make personal investment a frustrating game of cat and mouse. As it was last year and the year before, attempting to weigh in on potential releases remains a roll of the die.

That said, at least a portion of 2021 saw a glutten- argubly too much if you ask me, which I say as someone who frequented the theater sometimes up to 3 times a week and still couldn’t keep up- of releases as studios started to pile their titles in on top of one of another after theaters re-opened. I have been basking in the glory of it all to say the least, as I don’t anticipate this lasting. Things will slow down, and the systems probematic addiction to box office numbers continues to turn every headline into a controversy and a matter of concern. The disruption of the pandemic which arguably perpetuated and fast tracked a problem that already existed continues to have a grip on the industry and the uncertain economics of theater and streaming continues to occupy the minds of studios, creatives, theaters and services. How they figure this mess out is a story yet to be told, with the only real certainty being that things will look different moving forward and, for the time being, will remain inconsistent.

As it stands though there remains much to anticipate and to wonder about in the coming year, beginning of course with the usual onslaught of entries into the superhero genre, including new D.C. entries with Batman, Flash and Aquaman 2, the second entry in the Spiderverse, and of course a return to Wakanda, Waititi’s return to the world of Thor, and a delving into the multiverse with Doctor Strange. Along with the quintessential holdovers from 2021 awaiting wide release- Drive My Car, Benediction, Cyrano, Flee, Worst Person in the World, A Hero, and Belle– Here are some of the titles that I am most excited about:

1. Peter Pan & Wendy (David Lowry)

I consider Lowry to be one of the best Directors working today, and given my affection for his adaptation of Pete’s Dragon his return to the realm of cherished childrens stories has me very excited. Sure, this story has been done many times before, not least of which was the recent Wendy by Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild), one of my favorite films of that year. That doesn’t bother me. With someone like Lowry re-imagining this classic for our modern day this has all of the potential to formulate into a bonafide modern classic.

2. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (Tom Gormcan)

In case you missed it this is where Nicholas Cage plays Nicholas Cage. Yep, you heard that right. If that isn’t enough to blow ones mind the fact that this appears to be telling the story of Cage attempting to live up to his own legendary status makes this the film I always knew I needed but never knew how to express. No need for words because we now have the film. Give it to me now.

3. Showing Up (Kelly Reichardt)

From the mind who brought us the brilliantly subversive and challenging indie First Cow comes a story about the relationship between art, articstic creation, and life. The synopsis contains shadows of The Truth, the captivating and intellecually centered drama by master Hirokazu Kore-eda, and given Reichardts eye for detail and penchant for context I find myself hopeful for a similarly thought provoking exercise.

4. Lightyear (Angus MacLane)

In my review for Toy Story 4 I referred to it as the ending to the story I never knew I needed but in some ways always knew I wanted. I unabashedly have noted it as my favorite of the series and I loved how it took some of the lingering questions of Toy Story 3 and formulated it into such a grand vision of hope and resloution. Early shots of this film appear not only to anchor it in a stunning sense of realism, but Lightyears backstory appears to be represented as a genuine character study. Given the humanity on display in Toy Story 4 this is a film that I remain as curious about as I am excited for.

5. Nope (Jordan Peele)

I’m actually not quite as high on Get Out as some others, but Peele’s Us is a film that continues to grow and evolve in my imagination the more I see it and ponder it. So much so that I consider it one of the greatest horror films ever made. Very little is known about Nope but Peele’s name and his track record for fusing horor with hard hitting social commentary has this one high up on my most anticipated list

6. The Killers of the Flowers Moon (Martin Scorsese)

I was public enough with my less than favorable response to Scorsese’s The Irishman, a film that I felt gave in to the trappings of the bloated budget and its unnecessary run time, both of which I felt betrayed real problems in the editing department. I felt like Scorsese put himself in to the story to a degree that made it feel self absorbed. The film represents a misstep in what has otherwise been a stellar career for someone who is undeniably one of the all time greats. What is curious to me about this next venture, which releases exclusively to Apple TV+, is not just the fact that once again we might not get to experience one of the true cinematic artists honing his craft for the big screen (I’m hoping Apple takes a more open approach than Netflix), but that once again the story surrounding this one is his stubborn allegiance to a bloated budget, something that feels all the more aware when you consider how sparse the source material is. I’ll be honest, I’m actually not the biggest fan of the source material either. It is a compelling and important story but told with too narrowed a focus. However, in Scorsese I continue to trust, and I imagine that his approach to this story is going to see him digging in deep and breaking open the historical context. If he can manage that and perhaps contain some of that budget by investing it in the practical set piece, this could formulate into a true historical epic.

7. Everything Everywhere All at Once (Daniel Scheinert, Daniel Kwan)

Sure, 2022 has Doctor Strange breaking open the multiverse for the MCU, but not to be undersold is this slightly less visible sci-fi hopeful about an aging Chinese immigrant who gets swept up into the infinite possibilities of the multiverse as she finds herself trying to save the world. Starring Michelle Yeoh this one definitely has my interest.

8. Asteroid City (Wes Anderson)

When we throw Ari Aster and Olivia Wilde in the mix it would seem all of the big name directors are in the game in 2022. The story behind the latest film by Wes Anderson is both that it represents the second of three films in three years and that this film was made and finished before the release of the French Dispatch, one of my favorites from 2021. It also reflects another opportunity to see him in theaters before he heads to Netflix in 2023. I know I will be there ready to celebrate his unique narrative style and soaking in his sharp eye for finding wonder in the quirky and unusual spaces of this world.

9.Strange World (Don Hall, Qui Nguyen)

With the release of Raya and the Last Dragon and Encanto this past year Disney is proving that their original fare can still shine well beyond the Pixar label. The premise, which includes an adventure into uncharted territory, a family of explorers, and fantastical creatures, feels like it has all the makings of a success story. This is a strange new world I’m excited to visit.

10. Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (David Yates)

Sure, I could have easily thrown Jurassic World: Dominion into the mix here. Call it a cautionary move given how much I enjoyed Fallen Kingdom and how much it got slammed. Even Trevorrows return after getting pulled from the series remains a question mark as his turn with The Book of Henry, another film I loved that got desperately slammed, seems to have this next in the series set up to succumb to some already well entrenched cynicism. To avoid all of that I figured I would give some love to an equally maligned franchise. I continue to quietly embrace the Fantastic Beasts series even as I remain shocked we are getting more. They’ve weathered the storm of naysayers, and for my money the previous entry, even with some serious issues on the editing front, represented some of the most exciting visuals and some of the most intriguing filmmaking of that year. I’m hopeful, even with all of the hoopla surrounding Depp, that this will return to the magic of the first while retaining the expansive visual flourish of the second.

Honorable Mention: Death on the Nile (Kenneth Branagh)

Throw this with Avatar 2 and Top Gun: Maverick into the “I’ll believe it when I see it released” pile. With Branagh’s lovely love letter to Ireland placing high on my list in 2021 and with his ability to turn Murder on the Orient Express into such a lovely, atmospheric mystery, this return to the mystery genre with its rich cast and contained setting has remained eagerly anticipated. The one saving grace of such a long delay is that it has resisted getting sold off to streaming. This is a film I desperately need (okay, maybe want is the better word) on the big screen.

2021 Retrospective: Favorite Non-Fiction Reads

For those interested I walked through my most important reads in 2021 in this space over the last 10 days. They included the following:

10. The Nolan Variations: The Movies, Mysteries, and Marvels of Christopher Nolan by Tom Shone

9. Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant

8. The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold Warby Louis Menand

7. In Pursuit of Disobedient Women: A Memoir of Love, Rebellion, and Family Far Away by Dionne Searcey

6. Dominion: How the Chrsitian Revolution Remade the World by Tom Holland

5. 21 Lessons For The 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

4. The Mysteries of Cinema: Movies and Imagination by Peter Conrad

3. Work: A Deep History From the Stone Age to the Age of Robots by James Suzman

2. Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason by Justin E.H. Smith

1. History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology by N.T. Wright

Having put together that list i also felt compelled to make a ditinction between my most important reads and my favorite reads. There would certainly be overlap, but I figured I would give some space to some additional picks with an emphasis on my “favorite” non-fiction reads in 2021.

My year started with Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra which was quickly followed by Survival of the Friendliest: Understanding Our Origins and Rediscovering Our Common Humanity by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods. Mishras’ hard hitting critique of modernism and its promise to lead us to a kind of liberating global identity underscores the sort of societal and political forms that have led to a new kind of anger, one as rooted in the past as it is expressive of the present. Which is what makes Hare and Wood’s book such an interesting complimentary read. If, as they suggest, it is our penchant for “friendliness” that explains the sudden explosion of humanity, cast as it is, ironically, against the subsequent and necessary extinction of other human-like species, then friendliness has a really difficult time attending for attempts to mine from modernism a greater ethic of a largely undefined definition of love in a global age. This reflects the authors own difficulty in reading the data that we have into a better (read sanitized) narrative of where they believe we should be heading according to the evolutionary story. For as good as the book is, its appeal against the primary problem of dehumanization, and as Misha suggest the necessary creation of binaries and polarties as necessary for progress, and progress is itself the measure of the good, then we are stuck unabe to attend for the correlation of natural and cultural evolution at the same time. As these books underscore, these are hardly seperable when attending towards a sensible reading of history leading us towards a bit of a conundrum. Where that conundrum leads us is a different question, but acknowledging this problem is the first step in reconciling anger and friendliness as mutual parts of the same story.

I read some outstanding memoirs, biographies and autobiographies in 2021, and two that stand out is Jim Henson; The Biography by Brian Jay Jones and the lovely Kindness and Wonder: Why Mister Rogers Matters Now More Than Ever by Gavin Edwards, two films that dig deep into personas who occupied this untenable space between childhood wonder and the potential cynicism of their adult experiences, leading to two of the most affectionate and compelling stortytellers and voices of recent history. Along these same lines, its also worth mentioning Enchanted Hunters:The Power of Stories in Childhood by Maria Tatar, which presents the fascinating thesis that storytelling finds its truest exprsession at this intersection between child and adult perspectives, something made most readily visible in the stories that adutls and children read together, and likewise the stories that we read as children and revisit as adults. Something emerges from this intersection that can teach us about precisely how it is that we are shaped and formed by stories and the power of the imagination.

Other autobiographies/memoirs that I thought were really entertaining were The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music by Dave Grohl, Broken Horses: A Memoir by Brandi Carlile, and Will by Will Smith. All three are deeply spitual works in their own unique way, telling of how it is that art intersects with matters of faith and the spirit. Grohl’s descriptive of the auditorium as his cathedral and music as his worship, Carliles deeply compelling testimony and witness of reconciling God from within the LBGTQ+ community, and Smiths own reconciling of a life of success with a life of spiritual formation certainly kept me engaged and invested.

Given how opportunity for travel has been disrupted by the pandemic, travelling the world through books has been something of a necessary tonic for the weary. Northland: A 4,000 Mile Journey Along Americas Forgotten Border by Porter Fox was a fun romp through one of the worlds longest borders. Given how it navigates both Canada and U.S., which as a Canadian left me a bit wanting in terms of how much time it spends necessarily north of the often undefined border while giving very little attention to the Canadian side of the story, the history itself becomes especially robust when it uncovers the mutuality of this space. In a different way At Home in the World: Reflections on Belonging While Wandering the Globe by Tsh Oxenreide follows the personal story of Oxnreide as she finds heailng for her own struggle with mental illness in broadening her sense of the world. I know not everyone was a fan of how she keep this journey internalized desiring less of her story and more of the stories that surround her, but for what the book desired to be it resonated with some of my own struggles longings. Perehaps traversing this line between self and other was captured more astutely in World Travel by Anthony Bourdain, a book that recognizes how food shapes our travels, our togetherness and our exploration. That this becomes a stepping stone into his ownlife as a chef is part fo the books power.

For the pure thrill of exporation, City Squares: Eighteen Writers on the Spirit and Significance of Squares around the World and For the Love of Europe: Musings on 45 Years of Travel by Rick Steves were two excellent reads for growing my cultural awareness and experiencing the world in a practical and enlivened sense through the experiences of the stories. On a more unique train of thought, The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons From Dead Philosophers by Eric Weiner is both a fascinating romp through the places and spaces that make up this world through the development of philosophy. It provides a great summary of the history of philosophy by loacating it in its time and place.

I can also speak of the spiritual journey. Jesus: A Pilgrimage by James Martin was an amazing pick for the Lenten period as it follows the story of Jesus through the footsteps of his life and ministry with a unique eye given to the land, the history and the culture as it would have been and as we experience it today. A Rhythm of Prayer: A Collection of Meditations for Renewal by Sarah Bessey and Lent For Everyone by N.T. Wright were both devotions that helped shape my journey through similar periods with intention.

Also shaping that spiritual journey on a larger level was Invasion of the Dead: Preaching Resurrection by Brian K. Blount, a book that presents a revelatory look at how it is we see understand death and life fom a more ancient vantage point, seeing in the Gospel certain assumptions about what it means to be truly alive and dead. In a similarly perspective shaping way This Hallelujah Banquet: How the End of What We Were Reveals Who We Can Be by Eugene Peterson, based on a series of sermons he gave early in his pastoring days and formulated by his life long interest in the subject of Revelation, really helped me to see both this present reality and our future hope in a fresh way. Same with the invigorating The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of the Atonement by Mchael J. Gorman, which does the same with the subject of Christs death and resurrection by forming it against covenant theology.

On a slightly shared by different spiritually concerned front, The Good News of the Return of the King; The Gospel in Middle Earth by Michael T. Jahosky and J.R.R. Tolkiens The Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle Earth by Bradley J. Birzer are two reads that tapped into a curious cultural phenomenon, which is the tendency for society to demonize Lewis while wholly embracing LOTR even though they wrote from similar points of perspective and shaped their stories from a shared worldview. Both books help to underscore how to read LOTR and Tolkien at large appropriately rather than recontextualizing the story out of its contextualized intention. Bringing to light the idea of the true myth that makes sense of all the worlds story was deeply ingrained in Tolkien and his passionate desire for these stories.

When it came to history I was especially captivated by Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror by W.Scott Poole, which is a must read for any fans of horror. It helps to underscore how it is our modern landscape remains deeply formed by the Great War and how horror continues to operate as a universal language that attempts to make sense of this shaping through its questions, fears and hopes. It is quite brilliant as it calls out our dangerous neglect of this historical event through consecutive generations, as is Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder, a book that dares to call out the ways we have narrowed the defining event of the second world war to a very small point of what is in fact a much larger and more encompassing history. Of special interest to me was how this played into the history of the middle lands, the blood lands, of Ukraine. It makes sense of how they find themselves where they are today and helps to reshape our undersanding of the second world war as a gradual and unfolding movement between powers east and west. Speaking of East and West, I love the ocean. If I could live anywhere it would be not in the mountains but on the waterfront. Something about the wide open space and its sense of comfort and danger draws me in. Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms and A Vast Ocean of a Million Stories by Simon Winchester is a book that tells the captivating story of the Atlantic Ocean from its creation to its imagined future with an eye turned towards its symbolic positioning between east and west as it functions as the point of barrier and connction for humanities westward movement. I found it thrilling if a little long.

Equally interested in the complexities of a historical event was the ridiculously entertaining The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France by Eric Jager, a book that helps us to embrace the nuances of a significant historical event we likely hadn’t heard of (the last duel of this kind used to determine justice) while also pulling from this an interest in our own context when it comes to the ongoing challenge women face in being heard. In an equally fascinating look at the nuances of histor, This is the Voice by John Colapinto takes a look at the broader history of humanities development by suggesting that the reason we exploded on the scene the way we did is because of our unique ability to connect sound to the nuances of tonal and physical expression. There are plenty of theories out there, many contained in similarly minded books as a propos “narrative” This one I found really captivating, especially where the author presents the data but also leaves room for mystery. That’s rare in books like these.

The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transfmed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History by Nathalia Holt, The Lady From the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick by Mallory O’Meara, and The Monster She Wrote: The Women Who Pionered Horror and Speculative Fiction by Lisa Kroger are a wonderful mix of history, biography, cultural interest (in horror and animation) and social concern.

Lastly, three books inspired me towards goodness and hope like few others this year- This Beautiful Truth: How God’s Goodness Breaks Into Our Darkness by Sarah Clarkson, He Saw That It Was Good: How Your Creative Life Can Change a Broken World by Sho Baraka and Art and Faith: A Theology of Making by Makoto Fujimura. The first is a challenging call to think differently about the darkness by allowing goodess to inform it and allowing the illumination to call us into a more fully formed picture of this world as one where beauty can be declared as truth. The second locates the same sentiment within the call to partipcate in the creative process of bringing this beauty to light and life. Taking an even deeper dive into this same process of being and creatiing as witness to the beauty the third book breaks open precisely how it is that our creativity captures the power of the creative act in a world where both beauty and the darkness coexit.

2021 Retrospective: Favorite Fiction Reads

The Princess and the Goblin by George Macdonald

A lovely and simple old world fantasy that remains influential for the ways it helped establish a genre and set the stage for others to shape its landscape. It’s about characters and the paths they travel as lives intersect, offering characters who exist beyond caricatures of good and evil while existing within a world where good and evil is nevertheless a reality.

The Giver by Lois Lowry

A classic that explores the nature of identity and how it is that choices shape us, how memory shapes these choices into a narrative, and how these narratives fit in a world where choice is an illusion. It’s a deftly written critique of modernism that is steeped in spiritual concern while also reflecting a beautiful portrait of childlike quesitons meeting adult cynicism and being called back into the wonder of mystery.

The Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker

The first book explored the nature of individual human will in relationship to the creator, bringing togteher a mix of real world setting and grand mythology to ask big questions about what it is to exist in this world. This book takes the somewhat rushed conclusion of the first that in my opinion failed to capatilize on the books really strong premise and intriguing questions and catapults us straight back into the world that informed these main characters, adding some cast members, locating the story well within points of actual history and mythology as it expands such questions of the relationship between human and the divine into how this then works within the messiness of this earthly reality. It’s the stronger of the two books using its magical realism to challenge and broaden our view of reality and digging deeper into some of the allegorical subtext such as the immigration theme along with exploring the nature of the human will in relationship to the creator which is its source.

The Orchard by David Hopen

That a big part of this films story is shaped by a philosophy class at a religious school is certainly part of what made this book so cumpulsively readable to me. It’s one of the few this year that I legitimtaely could not put down. As it follows this Jewish girl from a humble, conservative family as they move to an upper class liberal Jewish community and school the book begins to unpack the kind of questions that might emerge from such a culture clash. This is simply the stepping off point for the books deep dive into the sorts of religious and philosophical challenges that inform our lives at these sorts of intersectinos between faith and doubt, demonstrating the idea of God as a persistant and intruding force that pushes back on our materialist nature. Faith and doubt are upheld as necessary parts of the process, allowing this book to really challenge our assumptions of what is true, what it means to exist, and what it means to live in relationship to an oter.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab

Does a life still have meaning if it is forgotten? This existential concern informs this narrative which sees its central character spanning the normal constricting boundaries of space and time in search of an answer. This question has been asked many times over in numerous likeminded stories of course, but the premise does contain an edge of uniqueness as it weighs the balance of our finiteness with the notion of immortality. Full points to the book for restisting oft temptations to sentimentalize the struggle by romanticizing death and the idea of our finiteness in less than honest ways- this idea that we will be forgotten poses real challenges to how we see and experience life. It takes the struggle seriously while never deviating into easy answers, instead carrying the tension forward into an exploration of its possibiilties, consistently trying to point us outwards beyond ourselves in order to offer us greater perspective on those deepest struggles and unquenched longings.

Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

I fell in love with this book the minute I picked it up with its deeply formed philsophical and spiritual interest wrapped up in a childrens story about recovering wonder and mystery in our lives. That this comes through the relationship between a girl and a super hero squirrel makes it that much more profound.

The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

McMahon shows a real handle on the horror genre, employing a deliberate pacing and a compelling backstory to draw out the growing terror of the mystery. There is a necessary moral and emotional core that is waiting to be teased out as well, and McMahon uses the final third of the book to bring this to surface. It’s a bit expositional at this point, but it fits with the developed characters in a way that makes their collective experiences and their journies extremely worthwhile.

The Never Ending Story by Michael Ende

The film was an important one from my childhood. I never knew it was based on a book until recently, and so I was super excited to check this one out. I was blown away by how much more the source material breaks open this world and the ideas contained with it that we find in the film. The film is still perfect in its own way in my opinion, but the experience of reading the book takes the questions and wraps them up in a journey worthy of an epic, delving deep into the darkness in order to recover the light and accentuating this sense of childhood wonder set alonsgsde our adult cynicism.

Faye, Faraway by Helen Fisher

It is a bit heavy on the exposition but what I love about the story, and what made it a book I had a hard time putting down, was its sense of heart, its sense of adventure, and the way the author uses these two things to bring us in on a story that is as embedded in the real world struggle and experience of its characters as it is in the creative and poetic interest of the working metaphor about the intersection of spiritual revelation. Even if it stumbles a bit getting there, the way the author structures the story and brings the different threads together was quite brilliant and exciting. I probably could have guessed some of the twists if I had thought about it hard enough, but I was too busy enjoying the ride to really care to think about it. So it actually caught me by surprise. This is a book that if you go in cold you will likely get the most from it, because its a bit unconventional, even if it is in a slightly conventional way. Its the unconventional parts that play the biggest role in the books success. Simply go in expecting a bit of magic and wonder, some real struggle and doubt, some family dynamics, a tightly focused personal story, and a working mystery that will take you as a reader on an unexpected journey into the souls longing to be made whole.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Took me back to being tweleve and absorbing books like The Westing Game, an apt comparison. Its a quick and breezy, hard to put down read with memorable characters that more than make up for any possible over wrought elements some might find in the films theoretically rich premise. Its a story you are simply meant to go with and let take you into its relatable and grounded yet imaginative world. And if you do find yourself quibbling with the theoretical elements (in a “its trying to be too smart for its own good” kind of way… similar I suppose to the way people quibble with Christopher Nolan films), be assured that the book is self aware enough to write that conflict straight into the story. Checked off a number of boxes for me when it comes to personal loves.

Born To Battle by D.A. Stewart

This was recommended to me by someone who knew I loved Stephen Lawhead (my favorite author), and I was privileged enough for the author to have caught wind of this and send me an advanced copy to review. As a fan of Lawhead I loved it. It tells the story of Saint Illtyd, the 6th century abbot teacher from the Wales village Llanilltud Fawr. Author D.A. Stewart leads us into his story by way of famed historian Gildas, who pens, recounts and then retells Illtyd’s story to us in the form of the pages of this book. As it is with Celtic history, the world Illtyd inhabits is vast, full of unrest and filled with stories of warrior peoples, tales and adventures. This is one story that stands important in history for founding one of the ealiest centres for learning, and as Stewart underscores in his wonderfully researrched take on the legend, this notion of school and learning plays a vital role in his own journey. Gildas actually emerges from this place of learning.

One of the things I noted early on this book is how author D.A. Stewart makes the choice to take what is a broad story and narrow the focus to the intimacy of Illtyd’s personal journey. This is unusual in this field and genre, as typically these stories have a sprawling presence that intersects with the activity of all the people groups that intersect with these particular stories in different ways. Stewart writes a story that is linear, concise, simple and fluid, making this small in scope by very easy to read. The stuff that surrounds Illtyd’s story stays generally out of sight and on the periphery’s, realities that are alluded to but which don’t clutter the story. I imagine the mileage will vary on this approach. I would say it bears out much reward in the first half, and it’s when we start into the final third that the lack of scope threatens to hold this back, if only slightly. If you are someone craving the big battles, the massive stakes, and building depictions of a world far removed and yet rich in intrigue, you might find this element of the book frustrating. For myself it was actually the element of the story I appreciated the most. I’ve read enough books in this genre to know that the world building often takes center stage. Stewart’s take represents a fresh approach with its emphasis on character and their spiritual and deeply human journey and it resonated for me personally.

Beautiful Joes Paradise by Marshall Saunders

What a pleasant surprise to hear that a childhood favorite has a beloved sequel. I reread Beautiful Joe, which reminded me of why that book was so forming for me growing up. This book uses the character of Joe to imagine the creatures of this world as part of the life that is bing restored, using Joe as our guide through the new creation world and the new cast of characters as a way of commenting on the ongoing battle between the cruelties of nature and the redmptive possibilities of a true nature emerging through the use of what is a Christian imagination (to borrow from Lewis). A wonderful treat and a real blessing

My Most Important Reads of 2021: #1- History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology by N.T. Wright

My Most Important Reads of 2021:

#1- History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology by N.T. Wright

It’s no secret that Wright has been a formative voice in my life. This is one of a handful of new books released in the last year or two, a few of which could be included in this list (I haven’t finished the dense and richly rewarding new entry in his grand trilogy, The New Testament in its World, but his new commentary on Galatians, along with its mix of academic and pastoral concern, functions as a wonderful summary of some of his big ideas). It is based on his collection of Gifford Lectures which are available via podcast and at its heart is an appeal to Christians to reclaim the long neglected role of history within the larger field of theological study and scholarship. Not unlike common resistance to philosophy, this resistance to history, or the proper discipline of good history, has led to problematic theology and dangerous cultural expression, and reclaiming history as a discipline that functions in relationship to theology can help us gain a clearer sense of this trajectory.

Of particular concern is the recovering of the promise of “natural theology”. If history is predicated on understanding how it is that God dwells within the created order, and the ensuing struggles that come with this, a neglect of natural theology, which comes in our resistance to history, forces us to then relegate God as an entity that exists somewhere “out there”, a thread of history that binds concerns for locating Jesus within history itself. What natural theology does is it allows us to reframe our questions in the way of the historical text so as to allow it to challenge our present assumptions in a more properly re-contextualized sense, awakening us to this idea of the marriage of heaven and earth in a historical and eschatological sense, and likewise to the goodness of the created order and the call to participate within it.

I do imagine that skeptics of Wright’s ability to operate as both a historian and a theologian effectively, which ironically frames pushback on either side of the divide between religious and non-religious, might leave some resistant to Wrights conclusions (which includes the initial frame of thought that would become his book Broken Signposts, the idea that intuition locates things like love, beauty and goodness in this world while also intuitively recognizing that these things are not quite as they should be in their fullness… the question then being how does an eschatological hope shape this reality in a particular way). That is unfortunately part of the fallout of a world raised to see these disciplines as incompatible. Wright does retain a certain skepticism towards particular claims of modernity as the answer to the historical witness, and to be fair he does retain a bit of an old fashioned appeal. That is part of what endears me to his work to be honest. But I think he fairly articulates and demonstrates with intellectual vigor how modernity demonstrates itself as the cyclical process of history, claiming nothing new nor revolutionary in terms of its central questions and certainly it’s navigating of religious identity and truths. He astutely reflects on a time in history that has been uniquely shaped by and which continues to exist in the shadow of the Holocaust; a piece of history which also perhaps stands in danger of being forgotten by consecutive generations. In many ways this has become the newest measure of moral concern; as long as we aren’t “that” then we are on the “right side of history”, a phrase he deftly takes to task and deconstructs). This is of course where history becomes vital and necessary, especially when it comes to locating Jesus within this history.

To be clear, this book is not an apologetic. It is an academic treaties that wrestles with natural theology as necessary for understanding and expressing Christian beliefs about this world. It just might be my new favorite book by him towards this end, and for me I found it illuminating, entertaining and inspiring.

My Most Important Reads of 2021: #2, Irrationality: A History of the Dark side of Reason by Justice E. H. Smith

My Most Important Reads of 2021:

#2- Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason by Justin E. H. Smith

Without a doubt the book I have recommended and cited the most in 2021. The brilliance of its central thesis is the way it operates as a foundation through which to engage all else in this complicated world. With a demonstrable understanding of history and an ongoing engagement with philosophy Smith suggests that one of the grand failures of the age of reason is its hard headed resistance to irrationality. By ignoring the fact that we all rely on irrational premises in order to reason well we actually end up becoming more irrational in our thinking and our actions. Not to mention inevitably divided and resistant to reason. This simple truth underlays our biggest problems, our biggest disputes, our adherence to binaries and polarities, and our ignorance.

I might be overplaying just how accessible this book is in my enthusiastic endorsement of it. I suppose that happens when a book you love happened to be transformative. You want to get it’s ideas into the hands of others regardless of how well it sells. Its not the easiest read and it does demand your attention, but for me it remains profoundly simple in its application. We need not fear irrationality. It is part of how we make sense of and find meaning in this world. Irrational beliefs don’t make us less reasoned people. That is the lie of the enlightenment project. It in fact helps make us more reasoned people togther. To ignore this is to play into the destructiveness of our appeals to reason that we find leaving it’s mark throughout modern history, where reason becomes associated with power, status and exclusivity, hallmarks of the kind of subtle and deceptive anti- intellectualism that has gradually creeped its way into modern secular society, and by nature of its assimilation and association, religious society.

There is another word that aptly sums this up- humility. A lost virtue in what might be the least reasoned society in all of history. As a sidenote, just look at the recent release of Don’t Look Up for a perfect example of this cultural force in play. A film that encourages the dark side of reason by empowering us with a sense that we are the only ones in the room who know the truth and everyone else is the ignorant fool. It’s no surprise that, in the American landscape anyways, you will find Trumpists and Leftists equally claiming the other is the butt of this films satire and that they are the ones with exclusive access to the truth. That’s precisely how the dark side of reason works, leaving us as divided and immune to rationalism as ever.

My Top 10 Most Important Reads in 2021: #3 Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots by James Suzman

My Top 10 Most Important Reads in 2021:

#3- Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots by James Suzman

If you’ve ever wondered about how it is that our society with its 5 day work week and economic/social expectations came to be this is a wonderful book that tracks the history from the Stone age to an educated guess on an imagined future. History gives context and the context raises questions you might have and never ever realized you had.

More than this though this book hit on some interesting philopshical concerns when it comes to seeing this history as a bit of a complicated beast. For me it actually completely reoriented my sense of how and why we work and what work means. One point of perspective that I found especially interesting was Suzmans interest in the discovery of fire as the key transitional point in moving from a view of abundance to the dominant view of scarcity, transforming our relationship to work in ways that life, in its largest sense, had never known before. Whereas our relationship to work before this was determined by an equation of energy taken and energy given, the discovery of fire was the first time life outsourced that energy to something external to itself. This was of course a precursor to the industrial and technological revolutions where out sourcing our spent energy to something external to oursleves has become a mark of humanity’s progress. How we parse through this complicated reality is part of what this book sets out to do.

These historical and evolutionary/adaptive truths are intricately tied then to how we understand the development of human societies with our relationship to work remaining a key part of this equation. This means that understanding what work is and why we work is crucial to our understanding of larger systemic and social realities. This book offers a way into those conversations from a unique angle. For me it also turned me inwards forcing me to ask hard questions of myself as well, especially when it comes to how I operate, even if subconsciously, according to a rule of scarcity rather than abundance, and also in terms of how difficult it actually is to reform ones relationship to work in a society where a particular view of work is so integrated and bound to life itself. Living differently and making changes comes with all sorts of challenges and risks and obstacles.

In any case, this has probably been my 2nd most cited book of 2021 and I’ve found myself talking about its ideas quite a bit, which makes it an easy pick for this slot.