three books

This entry was posted by on Wednesday, 31 December, 2014 at

I’m going to ignore all division into fiction and non-fiction, new and old, Christian and whatever, and just tell you about three books that have deeply impacted me this year by making me laugh or cry or think in some new way…

Lila (Marilynne Robinson): I only finished this one today but it would have made the list no matter when I read it. I’m hesitant to even try to describe it. I often found myself almost holding my breath as I read it. I found myself slowing down, not wanting it to end. The writing is just beautiful, a kind of miracle in itself, a gift, a means of grace. It struck me when I finished that this is a book about the most painful and difficult of themes – the story of someone who was neglected as a child, and then lived a life of bare survival, punctured by moments of horror and brutality, and about how hard it is for someone wounded in those ways to ever recover, to heal, to trust, to find peace. But unlike so many modern writers who like to rub our noses in the grime, Marilynne Robinson writes about these hard things with gentleness and grace, somehow writing a beautiful book about the hardness of life. Oh, and how many other novels contain profound reflections on the book of Ezekiel? Buy it quickly, read it slowly.

God at War (Greg Boyd): This is a long book, and a serious one –¬† a sustained and systematic exploration of the theme of “spiritual conflict” in the Bible. I know that doesn’t sound like fun bedtime reading! But I found this to be, honestly, a thrilling page-turner of a book. I was carried along by the force of Boyd’s argument and his conviction that these things really matter. In a nutshell, his argument is that when we think about suffering only in relation to “providence” and “the will of God,” we end up creating an unsolvable moral and intellectual problem and tying ourselves in knots trying to resolve it. But when we remember that we live in a war-zone, in the midst of a cosmic war with real powers of darkness, a war which intersects with life here on earth – then suffering and evil become a practical problem to be overcome, not an intellectual problem to be solved. He’s a bold thinker and I didn’t agree with all of his conclusions, but I found his basic argument totally persuasive. I don’t want to learn to “accept” the evil in the world as part of a mysterious divine blueprint. I want to be part of the resistance and fight against it with every weapon God has given me – weapons of prayer and faith, as well as love and compassion and hard thinking and hard work. This is a book that has changed my thinking in a profound way about some of the biggest questions we can ask.

Crossing to Safety (Wallace Stegner): This autumn I read two novels, one after the other, which were both set mostly in the world of academics teaching at a small-town college – this one and Stoner by John Williams. While Stoner, like its name, was kind of hard and cold (though well written), Stegner’s novel was the very opposite. He takes us into a world most of us don’t know, and one that could easily seem dull or pretentious or too far removed from real life. And he makes us care about these people and their lives, their hopes and fears and failures and small victories. And that’s about as much as you can hope for in a good novel. Stegner is a classic American novelist with more than a dozen novels to his name, so discovering him now feels like finding a seam of gold I can spend the next few years excavating. Wonderful stuff.

Other books I really enjoyed this year included Thinking, Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahneman), We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Karen Joy Fowler), The Shock of the Fall (Nathan Filer), The Spinning Heart (Donal Ryan), Tinkers (Paul Harding), American Gods (Neil Gaiman) and lots of bits of Eugene Peterson.

I’d love to hear about your favourite reads from this year. We read to know we’re not alone.

5 Responses to “three books”

  1. PJ

    Again, another great list here.

    I didn’t read much fiction this year, just didn’t have the energy. That said, I did finally finishing ‘The Dog Stars’ by Peter Heller. Another entry into the ever-expanding and tired genre of American post-apocalyptic, which has already reached its peak with Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’. In some ways, ‘The Dog Stars’ is clich√©: mystery illness wipes out most of the population, the government and societal structures collapse, and the wretched survivors go feral — except for a spark of hope protected by our protagonists. Why us Americans are so currently obsessed with this need to unveil our inherent violence and essential animal nature is probably worth more reflection (as is our obsession with the vigilante justice narrative). I digress. Heller’s book draws obvious comparisons with McCarthy’s, but it’s a different animal despite their shared universe. Much of the story is spent in memory and even dwells on the necessary pointlessness of things like enjoying wild spaces, fishing, and dogs. The prose is sparse, strange, and surprisingly engaging. Nothing groundbreaking, but it contained more substance that the usual page-turner.

    I liked these lines:

    So I wonder what it is this need to tell. To animate somehow the deathly stillness of the profoundest beauty. Breathe life in the telling.

    As for non-fiction:

    In my studies last year, I came across this wonderful author Sydney Griffith and read as much of his stuff as I could. He’s a remarkable scholar who really should be better known. His book ‘The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque’ is a fantastic introduction to early Arabic Christianity. Aesthetically his writing is a joy to read while maintaining academic credibility. There is so much focus on the persecution of Arabic Christian communities right now, and while no doubt well intentioned, these campaigns often fail to listen and in doing so creates other Christians in our own image. I think it’s a disservice. The sense of exile early Arabic Christian communities experienced from the ‘mother churches’ and dislocation with the expansion of Islam, I think, has a lot to say to the contemporary church about living in a post-Christendom context, the challenge of ecumenism, and communicating in ways that transcend church walls whilst maintaining a distinctive identity.

    On a similar theme, Mark Beaumont’s ‘Christology in Dialogue with Muslims’ is an excellent piece of work and way more engaging than an adapted PhD thesis should be. It has a more niche focus on early Arabic Christian apologists, but touches on the issues mentioned above. I found the sophistication and relevance of these early Arabic Christian theologies surprising, which betrays my own ignorance.

    (Worth saying here:, Martin Accad and the work of IMES are a crucial and challenging contemporary voice from the Middle East on these issues.)

    I’m aware that many people might find this one boring, but ‘Closer to the Ground’ by Dylan Tomine is a lovely read. It’s about parenting and being connected to the environment. I found a great resonance with many of the issues Tomine writes about, especially his insistence on living a good life that eschews the sensible conventions of convenience and economic security. It’s surprising, as our family are urban dwellers who couldn’t be more removed from the nearly self-sustaining existence of the Tomines. His chapter on ‘Prius Envy’ is an refreshingly take on trying to live sustainably: “when faced with the everyday realities of life, I rationalize [sic]. It’s the only way to get a good night’s sleep… You push the green boulder up the hill and the force of reality rolls it right back down… I can only hope that somehow, through participating in the natural world, our need to protect it becomes more urgent.” Honest, but ultimately hopeful, his take on environmental care is one that is fuelled by joy rather than doomsday scenarios. It’s a good approach. I wonder if herein lies a lesson about how we theologise?

    PJ.

  2. jaybercrow

    Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts PJ. “The Dog Stars” sounds like one I might enjoy. I loved “The Road” and sat up into the small hours one night to read it in one sitting.

    I’m full of determination to read more non-fiction this year, and I appreciate your recommendation of some books on Christian-Muslim issues. It seems like we could do with some deep and serious (and non reactionary) thinking on those themes at the minute. I’ll check out Sydney Griffith. Have you read Miroslav Volf’s book on “Allah”? It looks interesting.

    “Closer the Ground” doesn’t sound boring at all, and as a bit of an “armchair environmentalist” it sounds like one that might do me some uncomfortable good. I’m drawn to the vision of writers like Wendell Berry and find it both beautiful and persuasive – but it’s a whole other thing to actually start to make changes to our habits as a suburban family. Debbie and I both loved Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” as a positive and joyful exploration of all things relating to food, creation-care, family, community and feasting.

    Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts on the new blog.

    JM

  3. PJ

    I’ve read bits and pieces of Volf’s “Allah” out of sequence, most of it I think. I think he makes a fairly strong argument. However, it is the book that put the final nails in the coffin, according to those who always doubted Volf’s cred as an evangelical. It is interesting that Volf’s approach — though not theologically articulated — was fairly common until 9/11, after which there was an explosion of apologetic literature emphasising what sociologist Richard Cimino says is a theme of “no God in common.” Cimino traces the general angst about Islam is really rooted in the fear of relativism and/or syncretism; I would add to that the difficulty of coming to terms with a post-Christendom context. I’ll betray my own biases when I say that I think the anabaptist rejection of the posture of control offers a way forward. Volf is always worth reading on this topic — especially his contribution to “The Common Word” dialogue, if you have less time (and a offers counterpoint to those who wrongly charge him with ignoring the cross).

    This is as awful admission: I’ve never read Kingsolver or Berry — apart from the brilliant quotes that appear in other books. I’ll try get on to that soon enough!

    PJ

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