I’m not a big New Year’s resolution guy, but as the year came to a close I noticed that my stack of “books to read” had gotten pretty large. So, I made a resolution to read the stack. Mostly, I succeeded. There were a few books that I started to read and then decided they weren’t worth the time. I apologize to those authors, because I know putting your writing out there is an incredibly brave thing to do. I also made some substitutions on the pile. Overall, I made it! I’m pretty proud of that considering that my reading time these days is limited to the amount of time I can keep my eyes open in bed at night. Occasionally, people ask me what I’m reading or if I’ve read anything good. This post is for you. If nothing else, it is to celebrate the fact that I can actually remember what my resolution was at the end of the year. And, yes. I do have a whole new stack of books to read in 2015.
Here’s what I read:
The Odyssey, Homer: I’m sure I read this at some point during my education, but it made no lasting impact on my memory. So, I thought I’d try it again. I was surprised at how emotionally real and raw it was on occasion. I was especially moved early in the book by the real feeling of despair from young Telemachus as he watches his father’s wealth consumed by others. Perhaps this initial connection is what kept me reading through Odysseus’ lengthy (and often tedious and boring) journey home. I’m glad I endured because the moment of utter triumph and celebration (for Odysseus and Telemachus) and surprised terror (for almost everyone else) when Odysseus strings his war bow thus revealing himself as returned is one of the finest literary moments I’ve yet stumbled across.
The Keeper’s Son, Homer Hickam: I initially picked this up as a book on tape for my wife while she was laid up injured in bed, and then decided to read it myself. It is the story of a rag-tag group of Outer Banks islanders who work on a US Coast Guard cutter, mainly because they get paid to fish. That’s until the US enters the Second World War and their “fishing grounds” become the hunting grounds of German U-boats. In the midst of the battle, some remarkable connections are made between the enemies. Overall, this was a good beach read. Some of the characters are a little flat, and the plot is occasionally a little ambitious, but it was an enjoyable read.
The Ambassador’s Son, Homer Hickam: The sequel to The Keeper’s Son. The rag-tag band of Coast Guarders is sent to the South Pacific to observe the taking of the Solomon Islands on behalf of the Secretary of the Navy. Their unique position as outsiders makes them the perfect crew to investigate when an extremely well connected officer goes missing. Their mission takes them throughout the islands, rubbing shoulders with some of history’s greats (maybe before they were so great) along the way. Another fun read.
Holmes on the Range, Steve Hockensmith: Another hand-off from my wife. What happens when two cowboy brothers (one of whom is illiterate) stumble across a Sherlock Holmes novel? They roam the old west solving mysteries, of course! This is the first of four novels by an award winning short story mystery writer. It is a mixture of two disparate genres into an enjoyable read.
Master and Commander, Patrick O’Brian: One of my all-time favorite novels. This was at least my third time through it. It is the dawn of the 19th century as England is at war with France. A young naval officer, Jack Aubrey, is given his first command. By chance encounter, he invites an unemployed physician, Stephen Maturin, to come aboard as ship’s surgeon. That friendship will keep readers on board for another nineteen books. In this case, we stay with the two just long enough to see them take their ship against an enemy frigate five times their size. O’Brian is known for his exemplary prose and thorough historical research. This book is worth multiple reads.
How Children Raise Parents, Dan Allender: At the start, Allender admits that he isn’t writing as an expert parent. Rather, he writes as one who has failed repeatedly and still been blessed with wonderful children. He argues that every child, and therefore person, needs to know the answers to two questions: Am I loved? and Can I do whatever I want? He goes on to explain the dangers of answering these questions poorly, and the way that answering them well ultimately shapes and matures the parent more than the child. The last chapter alone makes the entire book worth the time.
Teaching the Bible through Popular Culture and the Arts, Mark Roncace and Patrick Gray: I have to admit, I pretty much skimmed this one. This is a reference book in which each chapter deals with how to teach the Bible through a specific form of media. The chapters begin with brief essays on each form and are followed by lengthy lists of specific works with suggestions for their use. It’s a good resource, but not a page turner.
After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity, Miroslav Volf: Probably the work that put Volf on the map (he’s a world famous theologian at Yale). I had to read a portion of this while in seminary and had wanted to return to it for some time. I the first section, Volf selects two representative theologians from the Catholic and Orthodox traditions and analyzes their theology of church as informed by their understanding of the Trinity. He then finishes by presenting his own understanding of the church and Trinity while critiquing and utilizing insights from the previous section. This is one of those books where you find yourself reading some passages three or four times just to grasp their meaning, but are never sorry that you invested the time. This is a highly technical work and the English translation doesn’t do it any favors. I would actually read a chapter and then read a “lighter” book before returning for the next chapter. Regardless, it has challenged and shaped my thinking.
Bold Love, Dan Allender and Tremper Longman III: What is love? How do we love others? A psychologist and an Old Testament expert (who happen to be best friends) team up to answer the question. In the process, they reveal an image of love that is far harder and more disturbing that we typically acknowledge. As soon as I finished this book, I loaned it to a friend. When I get it back, I plan to read it again.
Spiritual Theology, Simon Chan: This is another book I started in seminary and am now finishing off. It is an attempt to systematize a Christian understanding of spirituality. As such, it does a fine job. Chan lives and teaches in Singapore and approaches his writing from a “non-western” approach. This brings some interesting and challenging observations to his work. My problem is Chan’s use of the systematic approach. I’ve read a few systematic theologies over the years and something about them just doesn’t connect with my brain. I remember that this was a good book, as I flip through it I see my usual underlinings and comments, but for the life of me I can’t remember one significant take-away from it.
A Book of Voyages, Patrick O’Brian: Well known for his historical fiction, Patrick O’Brian compiled a collection of his favorite factual voyages. The book is literally a series of journal entries from real people on real trips several hundred years ago. Some went quite well. Others ended with starvation and the fighting of polar bears with sharp sticks. Depending on the author of a given journal, the reading can be a little difficult.
A Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster: This is a Christian classic that I just never got around to reading before. It is very good. In the 1970s, Foster set out to discover and share ancient spiritual disciplines which he felt the church had lost (our Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters might disagree). Foster created a wonderful, accessible, and brief guide to practices like prayer, submission, and confession. It is an excellent starting point for anyone looking to deepen his/her spiritual practice.
Never the Same, Steven James: James is one of my favorite authors because of his random and rambling approach to devotional writing. In this book he selects a series of biblical characters and explores their world, perspective, and encounters with Jesus. It is good, but easy. It would be right on pace for a high school student. That isn’t to say that it lacks depth. The chapter on the boy about to stone the woman caught in adultery was sufficiently convicting to make me think twice.
Money Well Spent? Michael Grabell: Grabell is a reporter for ProPublica who found himself at ground zero of the Great Recession. In this book he looks at the largest economic stimulus package in history. He simultaneously tells the story of how the package was put together and administered while also asking if it was worth it. Ultimately he ends up with a strong maybe. He concludes that the package certainly bolstered the economy and helped to shorten the recession, but was also poorly managed, sometimes shockingly so. Grabell’s style is easy to read. I appreciated that while he certainly falls on one side of the political divide, he isn’t afraid to point out the failings of those who may be his friends, or even heroes.
Psalms, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Bonhoeffer has quite the reputation. As a pastor and theologian who was hung for speaking out (and maybe a bit more) against Hitler, he deserves that reputation. Yet, he didn’t earn it with this book. It is a very quick overview of the Psalms, specifically the use of the Psalms in prayer. If you want a quick read on this topic you can finish this in a few hours. I just didn’t find it very engaging.
Experiencing God, Henry and Richard Blackaby and Claude King: I’m going to ruffle some evangelical feathers with this one. I have heard so much about how wonderful this book is. I’ve heard it lauded from pastors’ pulpits and professors’ podiums. I’ve had friends tell my how it changed their lives. I had a mixed experience. I should say that I read the 2008 revised and expanded edition, and I think much of the material I took issue with was part of the expansion. So, keep that in mind. In a very general way, this is a great book. It gives some very helpful guidance for how to seek God when facing a decision or uncertainty. On the other hand, the author(s) come from a very specific religious context and can’t seem to see beyond that. The material itself was mostly sound, but at some point (the expansion?) they added case studies of what happened to people who followed the stated principles. Almost without exception, every person became a missionary, pastor, church planter, or just gave a bunch of money to one of those causes. Does God not call people to cure cancer, fight crime, build homes, or raise families (unless you are a woman raising your children while your husband pastors)? And if these authors have never seen God call people to do any of these things, what does it say about their methodology and theology? I could go on, but won’t. In the end, if you are going to read this book, find an early edition.
War, Politics, and Power, Karl Von Clausewitz. Edited by Col. Edward M. Collins: This book sat on my shelf for years and I never really had any interest in it. Sometimes I am quite the fool. Clausewitz was a Prussian military officer who fought against Napolean and later in life wrote a massive book, On War, which delineated the lessons he had learned in that struggle. In 1962, Col. Collins edited and translated key portions of On War, thus creating War, Politics, and Power. Today, the US military describes itself as “calusewitzian.” Regardless, this is a wonderful book. While Clausewitz maybe wasn’t the clearest communicator, his clarity of thought and insight is amazing. With a little effort, one can take his insights on war and apply them to most human endeavors. The effort is well worth the time. In fact, I enjoyed this so much that I placed On War on my 2015 reading pile. This is a must read for any organizational leader.
Please Understand Me II, David Keirsey: This is one of the classics on personality type. Keirsey puts his own twist on Jungian type theory (commonly marketed as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator). Rather than focus on the sixteen types of the MBTI, Keirsey looks at four broad categories or “temperaments” into which each of the sixteen types fit. He argues, pretty convincingly, that these four temperaments have been recognized going at least as far back as Plato. Indeed, he names his four temperaments, the Artisan, Guardian, Idealist, and Rational after the types delineated by Plato. He then looks at how these types have been viewed throughout history and delves into the unique skills, attitudes, motivations, and desires of each. I especially appreciate his insight that everyone carries intelligence in some area. No one is stupid. Rather, different cultures value different types of intelligence and suffer for neglecting others. It is an informative read, but Keirsey’s style can be blunt and difficult. I’ve used his approach when working with others on personality type. More than once a client has referred to him as a “jerk.” I prefer to call him honest.