Continuing my attempted trend of blogging about the books I read each year (here’s 2017 . . . that’s it so far), here’s how 2018 shaped up – and it was a pretty good one.
First of all, in 2017 I managed 10 books; this year I was somehow able to bring it up to 15 – though some of them, true, had been started earlier, and one of them I *technically* haven’t read all the way through. But I’m sort of counting it as finished for now.
I’ve included Amazon links for everything below in case you think it’s time you got into any one of these. I’ve been brief with some of the titles where I think a review is unnecessary or I intend to review properly at a later date.
1. On The Road – Jack Kerouac
Continuing my quest to find the Great American Novel (I’ve read The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow, Moby Dick by Herman Melville, and . . . well that’s it so far) I jumped in Kerouac’s beat-up (that’s a pun) old Cadillac and took a roaring ride back and forth across late-40s America. If you haven’t read any Beat literature, there’s nothing else quite like it; not quite the continuous, wandering train of thought of James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, this sounds more like jazz music; improvisation on a theme. Like a Great American Novel should, it has adventure, wit and intelligence, and grandeur.
2. Jesus Journey – Trent Sheppard
I heard Trent (brother of Soul Survivor songwriter Tré) speak at a songwriting conference in late 2017 and immediately bought his book. Trent has a pastoral heart, and is a great communicator. This book, subtitled ‘Shattering the Stained Glass Superhero and Discovering the Humanity of God’ is a 40-day devotional walk through the life of Jesus, written to help the reader think deeply about the oh-so-human aspects of Jesus’ life. Who were his relatives? What did he do for work? What did his encounters with people show about his humanity? Why were the stories he told so down-to-earth?
This is a wonderful approach to the study of the Gospels; in its unapologetically humanity-focused approach we discover things about the nature of God we glossed over in proving his divinity. Trent’s point at the outset of the book is sorely needed: In Christian discipleship today, we often start with ‘Jesus-is-God’, then add that he is the Messiah, then look at his life to discover how this is so. Jesus’ own disciples experienced it precisely the opposite way around: in walking with Jesus day-to-day, they eventually came to the conclusion that he was their Messiah – and not only that, but their God.
3. The Bible In The Contemporary World – Richard Bauckham
This book caught my attention in a bookshop once so it was bought on little more than a whim, but it didn’t disappoint; I don’t think any title from Bauckham would. He is a rare breed in scholarship – a scholar both of the Bible and theology. Alongside his famous work on the Gospels and Revelation, he has in particular studied the work of Jürgen Moltmann, and written on a great many other things beside. Here, it’s not just his biblical scholarship which comes into play, but his assessment of critical issues in the western world today. Particularly memorable are a few chapters on ecology, and the challenge that came through I think one chapter in particular, for me to live a God-oriented life, instead of, as the modern mind would, a self-oriented life. As expected, a deep, erudite and well-informed reflection on the Bible’s message to the contemporary world.
4. The Street Lawyer – John Grisham
A little less erudite. Written too quickly.
5. God With Us – Rowan Williams
The shortest title this year according to Goodreads, this book is trendily subtitled with two sentences: ‘The meaning of the cross and resurrection. Then and now.’ I’d not previously read anything by Rowan Williams; this popular-level book is perhaps only a glimpse behind the curtain of his mind before the lights dim and the show really starts; and that said not a lot of it has stuck in my mind. I had to review the contents page to refresh my memory: three chapters on the cross (sign, sacrifice and victory); two on the resurrection (then; now); and an epilogue on new creation. A good primer probably for a young Christian keen to explore the central moment of the Christian faith in its basic theological outlines, but I don’t think there was anything especially enlightening for me in there.
6. The Second World War – Antony Beevor
Gruelling. Necessary. And very well-written history. But I’m not sure I want to dwell on it.
7. A Heart To Listen – Michael Mitton
I heard Mitton speak at a conference a few years ago and obtained this book as a Christmas gift last year. Coming from the director of the Acorn trust – a retreat centre devoted to giving time to listen to Christian workers who need to talk – there were many wonderful things to reflect on here. Though as a classic introvert I don’t need help staying quiet, I found I did still need help listening, and listening well, and have carried with me since reading this book some of the principles of giving the gift of an open ear, and asking the right questions. A lovely book for anyone involved in any kind of pastoral or friendship ministry. Which is probably most of us.
8. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos – Jordan B. Peterson
Instead of attempting to rule on the intellectual figure that everyone on the internet currently loves or loves to hate, I’ll instead point you to my (perhaps slightly less profound) 6 rules for life. But you do probably have to read this book.
9. God Of Surprises – Gerard W. Hughes
I’ve written about this elsewhere. A lot of people love this book; I certainly found it helpful but some of the terminology perhaps needlessly awkward. But if you only read one work by a Jesuit priest this year . . .
10. Gold, Silver and Precious Stones: The Doctrine of Rewards and Losses – Roger Forster
This year’s title from Ichthus leader Roger Forster, I’m often on the publisher’s consultancy team for these titles. This time around I just knew it was on its way; after over five decades of ministry, much of it driven by and spent teaching this doctrine, Roger has finally got down on paper what he has always believed concerning the doctrine of rewards and losses in the Bible.
I was excited by this teaching when I heard it 10 years ago; I found it refreshingly, deeply biblical and yet challenging to many of the prevailing theological assumptions in church teaching today (predominantly the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith, which would prefer to leave out works altogether in any formulation of our future destiny). Roger shows that rewards, and indeed losses, can incurred in the Christian life, and that this is demonstrated from every book of the New Testament bar two of the shortest books of all. It certainly demands the attention of anyone reading the New Testament and wanting to live the Christian life seriously.
That said, this time I felt a little uncomfortable reading it; perhaps it sounds a little like it’s from another time; or that I’ve had my own struggles and adjustments to come to terms with: I’ve been trying to juggle a committed Christian work (and for me that’s employed work too) with the challenges that come with having a growing family, and I’ve had to weigh up what my priorities are here and now – the need to feed hungry mouths, not just store up a reward in heaven! (There’s a bitesize chunk of some mammoth existential questions for you.) Either way, I wonder if this book will have quite the impact I know many who follow Roger’s teaching on this would like it to have; some of the arguments might be able to use a great deal more contextualising for Christians in all sorts of walks of life.
Still, buy it if you want to challenge yourself as to whether you have blinkers on when you read the New Testament!
11. Nostromo – Joseph Conrad
Readers of Conrad might suggest one start with his most famous title, Heart of Darkness, which I indeed haven’t read yet; for me Nostromo was the first because I bought it in a charity shop years ago when I was going through a small literature binge.
Ok, I was doing English Literature A-level. So I probably should have read it then. Anyway, I finally got around to it.
And gosh, it’s a good one. It started out a little slow, for me. Not that I didn’t enjoy Conrad’s incredible word-pictures which get painted throughout the novel (his style has been labelled ‘poetic prose’ for good reason), but that I found the threads of the plot few and far between at first.
Not so come the end, which seemed to race through the final two hundred pages-or-so at breakneck speed, as revolution descended on Conrad’s brilliantly-imagined fictional South American country Costaguana.
Conrad’s mastery of style and vocabulary is the more remarkable because he was writing in his second or third language. Born to Polish parents in Ukraine, he moved to France still a young man, before joining the British Merchant Navy, during which time he, presumably, mastered the English language (I would expect beyond most of its native speakers) and gained much of his sea-fairing experience which no doubt informed the many great nautical and political themes of his novels. Nostromo was truly brilliant.
12. Echoes of Exodus: Tracing Themes of Redemption Through Scripture – Alistair J. Roberts and Andrew Wilson
A short but fantastic exegetical work, expounding the repeated theme of Exodus throughout Scripture (even in Genesis) in friendly prose that would suit lay audiences and would probably work well even for group study (‘Review’ and ‘Thought’ questions are included at the end of each chapter).
13. A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years – Diarmaid MacCulloch
This is the one that I *technically* haven’t finished because I skipped a whole section on the Russian Orthodox church.
I’ll read that bit some time. For the rest, I found it useful in filling in some holes, but I felt it a little skewed in its description of some of history’s famous characters; perhaps I couldn’t help that, reading as a Christian, and knowing that it was written by someone who isn’t, however charitable he might be in outlook sometimes.
14. The Rest of God: Restoring your soul by restoring sabbath – Mark Buchanan
This was a wonderful find. Bought on a whim (actually, I asked for my birthday) after I decided I really needed to think about rest and sabbath a bit more, this might have been the best thing I could have landed on.
I had no idea who Mark Buchanan was. Before opening the book I had a momentary pause of worry that he might be just another American pastor with gifts in areas other than writing; I might have faced blocky prose, basic exegesis and sloppy argumentation.
How glad I am that I needn’t have worried. To begin with, Mark is Canadian; secondly, he is a true writer’s writer. He can’t help spending a couple of pages spinning tales about his parents’ cats, or about daredevil antics with a friend of his, swimming in the treacherous rivers of British Columbia. He does so with incredible style, and in service of some wonderfully challenging and thought-provoking points. This book brought me home to sabbath well and truly; indeed, I think it was God who led me there, with Buchanan’s help.
I’m going to be reading it again. And you know what? You need to read it too.
15. The Etymologicon – Mark Forsyth
Subtitled ‘A circular stroll through the hidden connections of the English language’, this book is just that – fabulous for logophiles like me. Did you know that a Viking named Starbucks – yes, the coffee chain? Did you know that ‘Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do’ originally came from a hymn to John the Baptist? Did you know that California is in fact the only existing successful Caliphate – etymologically speaking? There are hundreds of fascinating connections hidden here in witty prose from a great writer.