Several years ago, I was meeting with one of my favorite authors and told him his writing had been life-changing for me. “Isn’t it something,” he said, “How we read just the right book at just the right time, meet just the right person at just the right time, have just the right conversation at just the right time?” It is “something” indeed, something I would call “the providence of God.”
That’s why compiling this list is one of those things I look forward to doing, each year. Whether any of you benefit from this list or not, I don’t know, but I have to do it, no matter what, because it helps me to trace back what I needed to learn, or to be reminded of, in a given year.
As always, these are in no particular order other than where I found them on the shelf as I was writing this. As is my habit, there are twelve (twelve days of Christmas, twelve tribes of Israel, twelve apostles, just makes sense to me).
1.) Wendell Berry, What I Stand On: The Collected Essays of Wendell Berry, 1969-2017, ed. Jack Shoemaker (The Library of America).
We might as well start with the author who told me those wise words I started this piece with above: the Kentucky poet and novelist and sage Wendell Berry. This is not, strictly speaking, a new work, but a collection of old essays, set in a beautiful two-volume edition.
The title of this set is taken, of course, from Mr. Berry’s agrarian manifesto, “What I Stand for Is What I Stand On.” And in these essays, spanning a near half-century, there he stands, he can do no other. Re-reading all these essays that I’ve read over the years, all together, was a reminder of the sort of consistency and integrity that can show up in one life’s work. I was also reminded, as I read back through these essays, about particular ones that hit me with special force when I read them originally, such as Berry’s essay in Life Is a Miracle on why the fundamental challenge of the modern age is whether to see oneself as a creature or as a machine. I read that essay, again at just the right time, and it opened up a way of thinking that re-shaped, and reshapes even now, everything for me.
There are other essays in here that I’m sure I read before, but which maybe I read too early for them to really land with force for me. One of those is about parenting, back in the essay “Family Work” in the 1981 volume, The Gift of Good Land. Here’s what he writes:
“According to my observation, one of the likeliest results of a wholesome diet of home-raised home-cooked food is a heightened relish for cokes and hot dogs. And if you ‘deprive’ your children of TV at home, they are going to watch it with something like rapture away from home. And obligations, jobs, and chores at home will almost certainly cause your child to wish, sometimes at least, to be somewhere else, watching TV.”
“Because, of course, parents are not the only ones raising their children. They are being raised also by their schools and by their friends and by the parents of their friends. Some of this outside raising is good, some is not. It is, anyhow, unavoidable.”
“What this means, I think is about what it has always meant. Children, no matter how nurtured at home, must be risked to the world. And parenthood is not an exact science, but a vexed privilege, and a blessed trial, absolutely necessary and not altogether possible.”
2.) Jeffrey Munroe, Reading Buechner: Exploring the Work of a Master Memoirist, Novelist, Theologian, and Preacher (InterVarsity Press).
Another writer whose work came along at just the right time for me was the subject of this next book. For years, I’ve contemplated writing a book on Frederick Buechner. Now I don’t have to do that, because there’s this new book. As I mentioned in a review of this book, when I saw the announcement of publication by InterVarsity, my first thought was, “I hope it’s good, because evangelicalism needs Buechner, maybe now more than ever.”
My worries were baseless. The book is good—thoughtful, engaging, comprehensive, from an author who knows the Buechner corpus and is thoroughly competent to wrestle with the spiritual and theological questions Buechner raises. Moreover, the book provides a helpful resource for newcomers to Buechner to discern where to start—in the novels, the memoirs, the sermons, and the essays.
Plus, there’s that photograph on the cover, of Buechner staring out at the reader, almost as though he could see who is holding this volume. In my case, he could. In almost every Buechner book, it was as though he had listened to my life as well as to his own, and he was there to help me make sense of the alphabet of grace being spelled out there.
3.) Timothy Larsen and Keith L. Johnson, eds., Balm in Gilead: A Theological Dialogue with Marilynne Robinson (InterVarsity Press).
Here’s another exploration of an author who was, and is, life-altering to me. This lively and life-giving book is multiple theologians and scholars interacting with the Christian themes in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead novels. These are well worth your time, though the highlight of the book is Robinson herself, especially in the conversation we have transcribed here of her and the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. As always, she is full of insight, saying, for instance: “We have a habit of thinking that only cynicism is honest—and this is a terrible blindness.”
The best gift of this book is that it brings back to memory all those delightful scenes and moments and conversations from the Gilead novels. Recently, I was speaking in Iowa City, Iowa, and was overjoyed to have a tour of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where Robinson teaches, and to wonder as I looked around if some places in those inauspicious rooms were the origin stories of aspects of Rev. Ames or Lila, people who’ve come to live in my imagination, and from whom I long to hear again.
If you’d like to hear a conversation I had recently with Marilynne Robinson, you can find it here.
4.) Andrew Blauner, ed., The Peanuts Papers: Writers and Cartoonists on Charlie Brown, Snoopy, & the Gang, and the Meaning of Life (Library of America).
I’ve written here about how, in a way Charlie Brown rescued my ministry, twice. This book, another collection of essays, reminds me just how evocative those little characters by cartoonist Charles Schulz actually are. Several analyze Linus as, in the words of one, “a Pascalian intellectual,” contrasting the Great Pumpkin scenario with that powerful recitation of Luke 2 in the Christmas special. In the Pumpkin cult, Linus tries to work up “sincerity”—that which the Great Pumpkin rewards. In the Luke narrative, he simply points to something—a light dawning in great darkness. The first is a transaction; the second is something else altogether.
This book prompted me to laugh out loud several times, and, more than once, to wipe a tear away from my eye. The subject here is only superficially about the Peanuts; deeper down these conversations are about the last item on the title’s list: the meaning of life.
Here’s a sample, from Chuck Klosterman’s essay on why Charlie Brown keeps trying to kick that football:
“It doesn’t matter how many times this sort of thing has happened before. It will never stop happening. Like I said—Charlie Brown knows he’s doomed. He absolutely knows it. But a little part of his mind always suggests, ‘Maybe not this time, though.’ That glimmer of hope is his Achilles’ heel. It’s also the attribute that makes him so imminently relatable. The joke is not that Charlie Brown is hopeless. The joke is that Charlie Brown knows he’s hopeless but he doesn’t trust the infallibility of his own insecurity. If he’s always wrong about everything, perhaps he’s wrong about this too.”
5.) Mary Miller, Biloxi: A Novel (W.W. Norton)
A few years ago, I was preaching in north Mississippi, and someone there asked what part of Mississippi I’m from. I answered, “Biloxi,” and his eyes lit up. “Oh, the fun part,” he said. Some would say “fun;” some would say “sinful.” My hometown is a gambling town, and was long before it was legal—a majority Catholic immigrant community on the seacoast of a Baptist state. And as you who know me will know, I’m fond of my hometown.
That’s why I expected to hate this novel, written by an author not from the Coast but from Oxford (as in Ole Miss, not as in Merry Olde England). I was accustomed, growing up, to north Mississippians calling us “coast trash” and “beach rats.” And yet, I loved this book, and not just because it is filled with the landmarks of my life (here’s the lighthouse, there’s the pharmacy on Pass Road, etc.). The book is a penetrating look at questions of loneliness and connection and, yes, meaning in life.
“This was the tragedy of families, summed up in its entirety: you wanted to be known and loved for yourself and you also wanted to be someone who might be capable of living another life altogether.”
“Laurel was getting the hang of the jump rope by that point, counting out Mississippis, which pleased me. Even in Mississippi the children counted Mississippis—we had the river and the measurement of seconds. We had a lot of other stuff, too, stuff that others would never know about because they only wanted to rehash the bad things.”
And the last paragraph was so moving that I found myself unable to shut the book, re-reading it over and over again:
“I sat in the car with the windows down, Layla patiently beside me as I watched the lights in their house go off and others turn on. I wanted to pause my life, remember everything about this moment. The chill in the air indicating the arrival of a new season at last, the feel of whatever substance Laurel had transferred to my cheek, and Maxine’s house, behind the doors and windows of which my daughter and her family prepared for bed. They were my family, too, and had been all along. Everything going forward was up to me. I could continue down the road I’d been on. I knew exactly what that road held. It wouldn’t offer any surprises and I had never liked surprises, or this was the story I’d told myself all these years, but the story could change. It already had.”
6.) Andrew Peterson, Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making (B&H).
Every year, I resolve not to include any books by friends, mostly because if I keep that rule other friends won’t be offended if their books aren’t here. But sometimes I can’t help it, and this is one of those times. It’s hard to describe this book. It’s part guidance for people to use their creative gifts in line with the gospel, part memoir about a life in songwriting and all other forms of creativity, and part a meditation on, again, the meaning of life.
But none of that really sums it up, so here’s how I would describe it, from my point of view.
One of the most important things in my life these days are the nights spent at Andrew’s house, where a group of five or six of us gather, sometimes to read a little T.S. Eliot poetry and something else to discuss, and sometimes just to talk. Those evenings are hard to schedule because almost all of us have callings that keep us on the road. My wife knows that, usually, when a social gathering is canceled, my introverted self is delighted—more time reclaimed. But whenever this gathering is postponed, I grieve. I suppose that’s because that’s a place where, around the fireplace, no one is pretending or performing. I can say things there I can say nowhere else. And Andrew, whether there or elsewhere, always leaves me pondering anew the mercies of God and what it means to have the great gift of getting to image just a glimmer of that.
I say all that to say that this is what this book is like. You are sitting there in the Chapter House at the Warren, getting some counsel and encouragement and inspiration from one of the most brilliant creators I know.
And I don’t just say that because he’s my friend. If I didn’t think it, I would just obey my “no books from friends” rule. This book motivated me to get back to work on the book I’m writing now, and I’ll bet it will spark in you the same sort of motivation to plunge into whatever God has called you to create.
7.) John F. Desmond, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Walker Percy, and the Age of Suicide (Catholic University of America Press).
Going from grace and creativity to suicide and Russian literature is sort of a turn to the dark, I know. But this book is much more hopeful than it sounds, especially if you, like me, have been shaped by the writing of this Russian and this Louisianan. Desmond knows the full scope of both writers’ work upside and down, and shows the influence Dostoevsky had on Percy. Likewise, he expertly analyzes the theology behind both, and how it contrasts with an age of malaise.
I ordered the book as soon as I knew of it, because among the top three influential non-canonical books of my life would be Brothers Karamazov and The Moviegoer, as well as Percy’s essays Signposts in a Strange Land. The book challenged me to ask along with the author why “the prevalence of suicide in western culture, especially among the youth, has increased to near epidemic proportions.” The answer is one of an incoherent and unsustainable vision of the self. There’s an alternative way, and this book points to it.
8.) Thomas S. Kidd, Who Is An Evangelical?: The History of a Movement in Crisis (Yale University Press).
For many years, the number one topic I would be asked about on university campuses was always connected to cultural debates on human sexuality. Now the first question is usually about a word: “evangelical,” and why on earth anyone would want to claim it anymore. I understand that frustration completely, and wrote in the Washington Post that I didn’t want to use it anymore myself. The crisis is even greater now. When prosperity gospel proponents are “in,” and those who are orthodox to the iota but not all aboard on some political movements are “out,” it’s hard to make the case that evangelicalism is about a theology of the gospel.
But I’ve concluded that I’m not ready to give up on the word. This book helps to explain why. Thomas Kidd (another friend; sorry) is one of the most respected historians of our time. I read everything he writes, even when it’s about something that doesn’t interest me (Benjamin Franklin, for instance) because I know that by the time I finish the book, I am interested. In this book, he traces the history of evangelicalism as a renewal movement within the bigger framework of mere Christianity. Kidd pulls no punches about our problems, but he also points beyond the reality television tendency of our age to see everything in terms of conflict and drama, what abides and what can be revived. Reading this book reminded me why I loved the word “evangelical” in the first place, and why I think that word, and our movement it describes, are worth saving.
9.) Peter J. Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels? (Crossway).
The word “evangelical” is, of course, rooted in “the evangel,” the gospel of good news. And, of course, the word also points to the Gospels, the four witnesses to the life and mission of Jesus of Nazareth. I remember several years ago hearing the conversion testimony of a Christian who had come to Christ not at a revival meeting but in a university class on comparative religion. That doesn’t happen often, so I was intrigued. He said that what did it for him was reading his class assignment, the Gospel of Mark. “There was just something about Jesus, just as a literary character,” he said. “He was like no other literary character I had ever read. It was like he was there, speaking right to me.” And, of course, he was.
This book is about why those four books are reliable accounts that we can trust. At first glance, you might think this book is not for you–maybe because you don’t like books on historical-critical studies. If so, this book is not what you think it is. Far from a dry rejoinder to skeptical dismissals to the authenticity of the Gospels, this book takes you through the text itself, showing how the Evangelists, to use his words, “knew their stuff.” The best chapter, by far, is “Who Would Make All This Up?” which includes a compelling argument for the historicity of precisely what is most often dismissed by moderns as mythical—the miracles. One of Williams’ points is that miracles are not, in fact, a disruption of the orderliness of scientific explanations. “They are presented not as random disturbances of an otherwise orderly universe but as events that actually form an orderly pattern pointing to God’s meaningful action in the world. Reports of miracles surrounding Jesus are not disruptions of order but signs pointing to who he is.”
The book is fascinating as a scholarly exercise. Short and to the point, it aims to help struggling people with their questions. But, more than all that, the book did just what it claimed is the point of the miracles—pointed back to who He is. I smiled when I finished this book, and all I could say was, “Oh how I love Jesus.”
Read this book and then, immediately, go read Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.
10.) Justin Whitmel Earley, The Common Rule (InterVarsity) and Akiko Busch, How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency (Penguin).
I only had room for one of these, and I couldn’t decide between them, because I loved them both. So I decided to bundle them together into one (“This is our house; we make the rules”- T. Swift). And the more I thought about it, the more sense that made.
The Busch volume is a surprisingly hopeful work for what amounts to a jeremiad against the reigning culture of winning and displaying, rooted in the idea that “the rewards of life are public and that our lives can be measured by how we are seen rather than what we do.” But just as most of the universe is made up of imperceptible dark matter, the same is true with the person. As a Christian, I would argue that much of what Busch is arguing for here is actually answered in a doctrine the age finds just as uncomfortable as the thought of obscurity: Judgment Day. If God really sees us, and knows us, really discerns the narrative integrity of our lives, or lack thereof, then why are we in such slavery to all the little judgment days we put ourselves through every day, whether through social media consumption or in our constant evaluations of our work achievements?
The Earley volume, on the other hand, is hardly a jeremiad but is instead a guide. What I loved about this book is that the author seems well acquainted with vulnerability. Only one who had come to exhaustion would know how to write such a wise book on how to find rest. This book gives advice on how to structure a day, a week, and a year, such that certain habits (of prayer, quiet, Scripture reading, and so on) get built into the rhythm of a life. That includes examples of what that could look like. But the book never veers off into legalism. The tone of this book is not “Thus saith the Lord” or “This is what a real Christian life looks like,” but rather, “This is what worked for me; think about how you can build habits into your life.” Along the way, he discusses all the obstacles to this sort of habituation toward rest (including social media). Like Busch, Earley recognizes that the most important parts of life are not the iceberg tip above the water, visible to all, but the part that is submerged.
11. Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, Country Music: An Illustrated History (Knopf).
If you happened to see the PBS documentary series on country music by Ken Burns, you know that this is one of the best of Burns’ works, and that’s saying something. As much as I liked the series, I think I enjoyed this book, a big colorful coffee table volume, even more. Maybe that’s because I could linger over the incredible array of pictures, and the exhaustive and insightful analysis in the text.
The book, like the series, surveys from the fiddlers of early Appalachia all the way through the death of Johnny Cash (which, some would say, was the death of country music itself). Throughout this book is a story—of the ups and downs of American culture—and of a people seeking to sing about things as complicated as what Cash said all his music was about: “Love. God. Murder.”
Finding a place to start in explaining this book would be hard to do, so I just flipped it open to see some of the places I highlighted while reading. The section was about George Jones, and there’s a powerful quote from Brenda Lee:
“Well, I think the trials and tribulations that George went through had everything to do with his music. I think when he was hurting you could hear it in a song. I always say George didn’t sing country songs; George was a country song.”
And, a few pages over, is probably my favorite quote from the series and the book, by Jeannie Seely: “One amusing thing to me about Tammy and Loretta,” she said, referencing Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn:
“Tammy’s songs were always about standing by your man and treating your man right, and being there for him, and yet she divorced several times. Loretta was always threatening, ‘Don’t come home drinking, don’t do this, or I’ll do that,’ and she always stayed with her man. So I always kind of thought they wrote each other’s songs.”
12.) Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, Doomsday Clock (DC Comics)
Almost four years ago now, Geoff Johns started off a mysterious storyline in his one-shot Rebirth special about what was happening in the DC universe, with hope and legacy struggling to re-emerge in an overly-dark “New 52” world. The concluding panel of the main story was a shocker to those who know their comic books, with Bruce Wayne holding up a blood-stained smiley-face button, worn by the Comedian in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen series of the 1980s.
Watchmen was, almost no one disputes, one of the greatest graphic novels ever written, and can stand on its own as a piece of fiction, regardless of the medium. The series was also a bleak picture of the superhero genre, with the has-been heroes consumed with lust, envy, self-exaltation, and violence in a world in which Richard Nixon is always president and nuclear annihilation is just around the corner.
The Watchmen series, though, ended up initiating endless imitators, none of which could stand in comparison to Watchmen.
As I’ve written elsewhere, for me, the problem with unmitigated darkness in superhero stories is the mirror image of the problem with saccharine lightness in earlier versions of such stories. Neither rings true to our deepest intuitions. We live in a cosmos that is both enlightened by grace and fallen into horror, that both groans at the reign of death and is amazed by the presence of grace. When stories present both of those realities we see something of what is already familiar, but unexpressed, within each of us. We see, as Flannery O’Connor put it about her own work: “the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil.”
That’s why I think the Watchmen deconstruction of superhero utopianism was necessary but cannot be the last word. That’s the reason, I suppose, that I enjoy Geoff Johns’ and Gary Frank’s unofficial Watchmen sequel, Doomsday Clock, in which the nihilistically powerful Dr. Manhattan comes face to face with Superman as the symbol of hope. Throughout the pages of Doomsday Clock is an unrelenting critique of the darkening turn in superhero stories. That critique is welcome, even if the story unnecessarily bends to some “proving its Watchmen authenticity” with some, again, overly salty language and overly-edgy violence.
Still, the story is riveting, and the themes are thought-provoking, as, like Watchmen, a kind of police procedural is working itself out (in part literally, as the story-within-the-story, another Watchmen homage, is of a noir detective film) as to who is manipulating what in a world that seems to be going crazy. The series ends this month, and I’m willing to venture that Watchmen purists will complain all the way to the end that no one should use Moore’s characters, and that I won’t be among them. I will also predict that the series will end with a metaverse bending toward hope, which is, of course, in Kryptonian, spelled like an “S.”
You can find last year’s books of the year here.