Photo by Stanislav Kondratiev
By Joe LaGuardia
I have made it a habit, as other pastors have, of publishing an annual reading list. It is made up of books that we long to read, hope to read, want to read, need to read. I have fun reading the lists of others, and I hope that people have fun reading mine. This year I want to do it differently. In years past, I viewed my list as a challenge–if it is listed, then I should read it. So, this year I am going to take the fun out of the list and only add books that I read.
1. God Underneath, by Edward Brock. I found this memoir by a Catholic priest in the shadowy (not seedy!) corner of my local used book store. When I visit the store, I don’t spend much time in the religion section; just enough to see what Bibles are in stock. This one particular day, a worker a who knows me and is in charge of the religion section told me that a large donation of Catholic books came in. Brock’s moving book, of his upbringing to his discernment in the priesthood and eventual ministry, was among them. His contention is that whatever comes our way, we can find God underneath it all if we only have the spiritual awareness to see the Spirit at work! As one who loves memoirs, I really enjoyed this book.
2. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, by Eugene Peterson. This book by the famed (and now late) Message Bible translator is said to be a classic. I thought it was a memoir. It is a classic to many pastors, but it certainly isn’t a memoir. It is, instead, a book on the Psalms of Ascent. Peterson’s writing is concise and spiritually uplifting; his exegesis and care in interpreting the text more so, but I would not call it a classic. I have to admit, I ran out of gas before I finished the book. Its not that it isn’t good; its just not what I expected.
3. Philosophy of History, by William Dray. This was yet another find at the used book store. I have gotten into the habit of picking up quirky books that are easy or slim reads, and Dray’s concise introduction to the philosophy of history is no different. This subject is not a first for me; I took a philosophy of history course in college as part of my history major (I remember well: the great, late Dr. Hembree was an amazing teacher, gone to be with the Lord at too young an age). The book was wordy and not very well-written, but helped me remember some of those hold history philosophy debates we had back in the day.
One thing I did learn: Arnold Toynbee, who wrote a mutlivolume work called A Study of History, concluded perhaps naively, that the one unifying factor in the downfall of civilizations was the eventual decline of creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit–kind of like the first step towards an “idiocracy.” Toynbee is on to something. Might there be something for the church to learn–that once a church ceases to be creative, missional, and entrepreneurial, death is imminent?
4. A Preface to Scripture, by Solomon Freehof. Yet another used-book store find, but a treasure if there ever was one. This is among one of my favorites so far in the past year (I started this book last year and have been slowly, deliciously making my way through it). It is an introduction to the Old Testament written from a Jewish, rabbinic point of view (Freeman is a reputable Reformed rabbi of rabbis), written specifically for Christians.
His historical portraits and commentary on all the books of the First Testament are traditionally rabbinic, but provide fresh and creative readings along the way. I am learning (1) where some of our own (Christian) interpretations of scripture come from and their Jewish roots; and (2) how rabbis have read scripture–and can contribute to our reading of scripture–before we, as a religious tradition, were even using the word “scripture” to begin with. Every page is a learning experience–and I’m learning things new about the Bible along the way, not something that can be said often from a bookish nerd like me.
5. I will Lift up Mine Eyes, by Glenn Clark. Our church inherited a small theological library from one of our missions-minded powerhouses. The deceased, Ms. Ouida, was an amazing person–one time school principal and active in the church. Her passing has created a vacuum in our congregation, and particularly my life– every Sunday Ouida and I would greet parishioners to our worship service at the front door. Everyone who passed Ouida received a warm handshake and an “I’m glad you’re here this morning!”
Her library included several books by Glenn Clark, also a teacher, who turned writer of all things prayer and spirituality. His book, I Will Lift up Mine Eyes, came on the heels of his bestselling book A Man’s Reach. It is a moving devotional on prayer, although I believe it to be a forerunner to the Prosperity Gospel movement of recent decades. Nevertheless, it is one of the best books on prayer because of its specificity in instructing readers on prayer and also admonishing us to remember that, as a believer, we are Christ’s very own, God’s children–and that truth should shape our courage and conviction in our conversations with God.
Published in 1937, its language is beautifully written and anecdotes timeless. I really do enjoy reading these older books; there is something about their syntax and wealth of words that moves the spirit. A great read!
6. The Gentleman in the Parlor, by W. Somerset Maugham. I am half-way through this memoir of prolific author Maugham’s travels through Thailand and Burma. His story is not as detailed as most travel narratives, but rather embodies short collections of his experiences along the way. Nor is the writing born of research into local lore and history, but a tale told from the position of one who “sits idly” with time to let the mind wander.
I found this book in the classics section of our used book store. I don’t know what attracted me to it other than the back cover mentioned it was a travel memoir, and the picture on the front looked captivating. The year of publication was in that window I adore so much–around 1930–and the language was rich upon first glance.
I have come to enjoy Maugham’s writing, although it is a bit arrogant at times and wistful at others (I read somewhere along the way that he wasn’t the most pleasant man, quite infamous in fact– his self-identification of a “gentleman” not withstanding). But you can’t blame him–his parents passed when he was 10 years old and he had several rocky romances along the way. I discovered too that he wrote a memoir on his writing, A Writer’s Notebook, which I hope to purchase and read sometime over the summer.
7. The Prophets, by Abraham Heschel. I am on a roll this past season with the First (Old) Testament. I have published my own book of essays on it, and I have read two textbooks–one by James West and another by Solomon Freehof (see above). Now, not three months into the new year, I picked up a classic by Jewish mystic and scholar Abraham Heschel, The Prophets.
This would not have been my first choice as my first Heschel book, but I made a commitment to get whatever I find at the local used book store. The edition is a good one, from 1969, a revision about 7 years after its original publication date; but the writing and notes are remarkably timeless.
This is an introduction, however, so it is not as spiritually intuitive as I would have hoped; but it does not disappoint, for Heschel stands as a forefather to contemporary First Testament studies, not just for Jewish folks but for us Protestants too. Have doubts? Just ask Walter Brueggemann!
8. A Long Retreat: In Search of a Religious Life, by Andrew Krivak. I’m getting used to writing, “I found this treasure in our used bookstore,” so just assume that if there is a book on this list not published in the last year, it is from the used bookstore. Recently, however, I discovered some gems in the Catholic section of the store, including this book signed by the author, Krivak’s memoir of his discernment process for entering the Society of Jesus (AKA the Jesuits).
The set of values for which Jesuits are known — poverty, chastity, and obedience — (and of Krivak’s spiritual wrestling match with each), plays an interesting subtext throughout the memoir. It is not so much a spiritual memoir, therefore, as a secular memoir with sacred themes.
What is the difference? A spiritual memoir, I would argue, is one in which the author searches for God and writes with the Holy Spirit in mind–a sort of extended prayer to which readers are privy. This memoir, on the other hand, focuses on Krivak’s movement through his vocation and career not so much in search of God as it is a search for the true self — a self torn ultimately between the priesthood and the challenges of wanting a family.
Anyone with a family knows that poverty, chastity, and obedience shifts in these two poles — so this makes the drama of Krivak’s story, and the writing which is excellent, all the more…dramatic. I am finding that I have to pray after reading so many pages because while these values confront Krivak, so too do they confront readers. I am not called the priesthood, but how are poverty (the need of letting go of things that gets in God’s way), chastity (moral purity and single-minded devotion to Christ), and obedience (following Christ even when it costs something) playing out in my own life as a Christ-follower? That’s the question to ponder in this fascinating read.
9. The Age of Reform, by Richard Hofstadter. What I thought would be a comprehensive sweep of political and cultural history of the Progressive Era turned out to be a too-deep-in-the-weeds critique of the economic patterns associated with the Populist and Progressive movement roughly at the turn of the century. Although the subtitle states that it is a history (and a Pulitzer prize winner at that!) from W. J. Bryan to F.D.R., only the last part of the last chapter covered the New Deal.
The most compelling part of this book was Hofstadter’s insistence on busting the myths surrounding the Progressive Era. While we look at the Era ideally, (and have certainly inherited that high-minded view from our forebears because this book was published in 1955), Hofstadter proves that much of the politics of the time were merely pragmatic. Even the New Deal was a “legislation of experimentation”, and much of the reforms that took place between 1890 and 1948 were the result of people trying to muddle through industrialism, conflicting theories of economics, and vastly shifting currency rates. Sounds boring? It was.
I am grateful, regardless of the content, of having a better view of Progressivism, my own particular heritage of choice. I would have preferred more time on T. Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, but–as mentioned–this was more economic portrait than political history.
10. St. Patrick: His Confessio and Other Writings. For a guy who prides himself on knowing the saints, I sure fall short when it comes to having read primary sources of the saints. I knew that St. Patrick had prayers out there–his shield prayer and several others–but I had no idea that he wrote of his history and theology in a confession. Certainly, St. Patrick is not one of the more prolific of saints; in fact, at least one of his letters is questionable as to its source, but the language and theology are just as meaningful.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of St. Patrick’s writing was his heart for the lost “pagans” of Ireland. Many of us Protestants think that Catholics do not emphasize evangelism. Read St. Patrick, and you will be proven wrong! He was concerned for souls as well as justice, as many of his writings advocated for those who were enslaved or exploited at the hands of growing Roman conquest in the British isles.
11. Trauma-Sensitive Theology, by Jennifer Baldwin. A recently published book by an old seminary colleague on the significance of trauma in the lives of Christians, churches, and community. Although Baldwin’s prescription for trauma-sensitive theology is better suited for clinicians and pastoral counselors, her call to put it on the radar of every church is a breath of fresh air.
Consider our current culture, which is often shaped by fear, agitation, and grief. We fear losing our identity (political or otherwise); we fear of the other, and we grieve that things in our society will never be the same. When we go to church, we expect a normalcy that reminds us of yesteryear; but, even in church, times are a’changin’. New models of leadership, reduced budgets and attendance, and a shift in church ministry hasn’t helped in our current milieu.
Baldwin’s call to a new theological paradigm is a response to the trauma that these changes bring, and it would do well for clergy to pay attention to how trauma, including PTSD, shapes community and church. We are called to recognize it, and also to bring about healing and reconciliation that embodies shalom (wholeness, holiness, and peace). Her take on the work of ministry is clear:
The role of religious care…is not to adjudicate the ‘facts’ of trauma; it is to advocate for safety, to support and facilitate the repair of traumatic injury, and to promote recovery and resiliency” (p. 9).
Christ sits squarely in this realm of trauma and grief, a Risen Savior who knows the suffering of the cross, who confronts change in the future, and comes to his people not as a strong lion but as a “lamb as though slaughtered” (Rev. 5)–one who prizes empathy in a world in which empathy is becoming a limited resource. Baldwin’s work on trauma is a wake-up call to churches in the throes of monumental change.
12. The Nature and Mission of the Church, by Donald Miller. There is nothing better to read while you’re in bed with strep throat for a week than something simple, encouraging, and thoughtful. Miller’s short treatise on the church, published in 1957, is just that. It is a good reminder what the church is, as well as what the church is not. The church, of course, can be a building or an institution. But, ultimately, it is a people of God, commissioned by Christ, and empowered by the Spirit.
Each chapter moves to a different aspect of church, beginning with a theology of humanity in which Miller places people in direct relationship with God: We are created for fellowship, and God’s call to be a people is about fellowshipping with God and neighbor, of joining God at work in the world, and fulfilling the mission and ministry of the Body of Christ.
I particularly like how Miller examines the Bible’s emphasis on ministry in the Body–we have created a hierarchy with the pastor or priest on top; but in the New Testament, everyone is a part of the ministry, and not such hierarchy exists. Rather,
The office of priesthood, therefore, is shared by all Christians. Consequently, the official ministry of the church has no different status from that of the layman. The difference is one of function only” (p. 89).
As we seek to do church, we need to remember that Christ is head and we are family. There is no such thing as “just a layman” or “just a Christian,” according to Miller (p. 89).
13. The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton. It has been nearly a decade since I graduated with my doctorate in the field of spiritual formation, and I finally got around to reading Merton’s classic spiritual autobiography. I believe that God dictates things according to his timing, so perhaps I wasn’t ready to read it before now–regretting not reading it sooner is futile and a waste of time: But, that said, it is one of the best spiritual autobiographies I have read.
Merton follows his journey of faith from childhood, which includes his travels across Europe with his artist father, to his career as perpetual student and English professor. His writing provides a good snapshot of that kind of collegiate life in the 1930s, as well as a fresh, contemporary take on the Spirit’s leadership in drawing him to the monastic life.
Merton has been a mainstay in my ministry. Minutes away from a Cistercian monastery in Conyers, I did much of my doctoral writing–and contemplating–at that monastery in my spare time when not working. Merton popularized the idea of monasteries in general and the contemplative life in particular. I stumbled upon Henri Nouwen first, however, and so much of my influence draws from him. I have heard all about Merton through the years, however.
One of the biggest things that impressed me about Merton’s writing was his ability to weave prayer and gratitude in his memoir. He mentions grace often, noting where God gifted him with direction, insight, and discernment. His prayers that erupt every few chapters is a great wonderment to behold. His writing is rich; his prayers divine.
14. “Essays on the American Revolution”, ed. by Stephen Kurtz and James Hutson. I purchased this book at the used bookstore for one reason only: An essay in it entitled “Violence and the American Revolution,” by Richard Maxwell Brown, caught my attention, and for a dollar it was hard to let go.
Brown’s essay did not disappoint as it argued that the undercurrent of violence in the Revolution neither began during the revolution nor ceased after it. In fact, violence was not merely a force for liberation, but a part of our national history that continues to haunt us:
American violence owes much to the dead weight of unsolved problems hanging over from the past. The negative features of American history — abysmal relations between whites and people of other color and the brutal and brutalizing processes by which the frontier was extended and our economic industrialized — have long been known to us as violent chapters in the story of our development, but it has been difficult for us to accept that the most noble event in our history, the Revolution, was entwined with a civil violence that was often ignoble.”
The Revolution not only added to our national inheritance of violence, it “sanctified it”, giving rise to the self-righteous application of just war, vigilantism, and (at one point) the oppression of other people and nations (Jim Crow, and the like). Throughout the history of the United States, violence is encapsulated in our literature and legislation, be it in the extreme defense of the Second Amendment to the massive spending in our Defense budget, and all this in the name of “freedom” or “liberty”. Brown contends in the last quarter of the essay that,
Long after 1776 the symbols of the Revolution continued to be used with frequency and sincerity by violent movements to enfold themselves in its sanctifying mantle” (emphasis mine).
Brown’s essay was worth the price of a dollar and, for me, framed a new look into the narrative of our national gun debate. We need to divorce our Second Amendment rights and legislation away from the lofty ideals of “freedom” that costs us our national souls. There is nothing sanctifying about making the amendment mean what it never intended to mean, and to protect the very weapons of mass destruction that it never intended to protect–all in the name of liberty at the cost of the lives of our school children.
I did go on to read another essay in this book entitled, “The Role of Religion in the Revolution,” by William McLoughlin. It was nowhere near as well written as the essay on violence, but it was a good snapshot into the complexity of debates surrounding religious liberty in the formation of our country. It was an interesting read, especially for this Baptist so concerned about the separation of church and state.
15. Introducing the Bible, by William Barclay. Barclay is a household name for most pastors. His commentary on the New Testament is legend, and you can find them in most church basements. They are informative and, actually, still very relevant. I still use them because they are among the most practical commentaries and they are very well-written. Barclay has something to teach every preacher about information and pithy writing.
I came across this book somewhere–perhaps inherited from one of our late senior saints who donated books before she passed. Although it is an introduction, I figured Barclay’s writing will go quick and it will be interesting. And it did, and it was! The book is recommended for anyone who is interested in the Bible, from seasoned minister to lay reader. His information on the formation of scripture is compelling, and some of his anecdotes are moving. It is a fun read!
16. Cujo, by Stephen King. A golden oldie by horror master Stephen King. This, one of his earliest books, holds some family folklore for me. I’ve never read the book before now (or seen the movie), but Cujo was a household name for us. Everytime my father met a dog that came up to him–no matter the size–he would say, “Watch out! Cujo! Killer dog!” I thought it was corny, and we would follow it up with a big eye-roll. But the book was good. Classic King.
17. Leadership: A Very Short Introduction, by Keith Grint. This year, one of my staff objectives is to learn more about leadership. I didn’t want any books about how to be a leader, however–enough with the “laws or leadership” or “virtues of leadership” or “habits of highly effective leaders.” I wanted nuts and bolts. A friend, who is getting a doctorate in public administration, offered me this book–and it hit the spot and helped me articulate questions that I didn’t know how to ask.
Not only does the book go through various models of leadership and leadership styles, it also emphasizes the importance of context (that place in which leaders either thrive or die) and of followers. A short read, but worth the time!
18. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving. If you like to read spooky books around Halloween, this classic is a must. The best part about it: No movies or adaptations I’ve seen comes close to the storytelling prowess and historical description of northern New York than the unabridged version of this early 18th-century short story. It is descriptive, it is evocative, it is scary, and its funny. Irving shows his hand as a brilliant writer of satire but also travel narrative. It was really good!
19. Holy Envy, by Barbara Brown Taylor. Taylor’s new memoir is on lessons learned from her religion class at Piedmont College. She takes a personal view of various faiths and states how she has fostered a “holy envy” of each one. Although the book is helpful in engaging interfaith work, it is more personal reflection than educational. I appreciate her reflection in the epilogue, in which she admits that writing about other faiths runs the risk of “replacing negative stereotypes with positive stereotypes.” That is putting into words the one nagging feeling that I had while reading the book. As usual, Taylor is a great writer–and she remains my #1 favorite author of all time.
20. Revelation as Social Disobedience, by Thomas Slater. Hot off the press is this short monograph by one of the leading Revelation scholars in the nation. Slater (and my one-time Old Testament professor at Mercer) is candid in his argument for an early dating and the “slain Lamb as christology” reading of the text.
This contributes two aspects to Revelation studies: First, an early date (he dates it in the late 60s leading up to the tensions surrounding Rome destruction of the Temple) implies that violence to Christians happened from local authorities, Jewish communities, and within the church itself as it grappled with theological and identity politics.
Second, the slain Lamb image used for Christ throughout the text implies that Christians will overcome this violence the same way as Christ: In giving witness and testimony to the sovereignty of Israel’s God even unto death. Jesus came to John’s community not as a warrior king who is Lion of Judah, but as slain Lamb whose sacrifice and death was victorious. Revelation is a thoroughly pro-life book: Christians are to bear witness to the persistence of God’s kingdom in the face of oppression and tyranny; Christians are not called to bear arms or weapons of war.
Nowhere in Revelation does God condone revenge or violence; rather, justice and judgment are God’s alone. This supports the rest of Jesus’ non-violent ethic: We are to pray for enemies and be witness to Christ’s presence on earth through the Holy Spirit. Reconciliation–the forgiving of enemies–breaks cycles of violence and is the way towards the heavenly call of Christ Jesus.
21. Introduction to a Devout Life, by St. Francis de Sales. This book is exactly as the title implies: Sixteenth-century French saint, Francis de Sales wrote this instruction manual to his monastic communities as the way to begin a “devout life” to Christ. It contains five parts that moves Christians from desire of living for Christ, to penance and prayer, to virtuous living, and, finally, to the practice of regular exercises and rules that order one’s life religious. His process is (typical during the Counter Reformation), intentional:
The soul that rises from sin to devotion may be compared to the dawning of the day, which at its approach expels the darkness not instantly but little by little.”
I read this slowly and carefully, and its insights bring both challenge and conviction. It is thoroughly Catholic (as Bishop of Geneva, St. Frances faced constant opposition from John Calvin), but it is encouraging and leads to a great deal of reflection. This, for instance, challenged me: “You must not only cease to sin but eliminate all affections to sin in your heart…” For the last few months I’ve been reading this, this notion of desire–for either Christ or for sin (similar to the “two roads” of St. Ignatius) has led to wrestling and contemplation in my prayer life. The book is not for the faint of heart.
22. The Spiral Staircase, by Karen Armstrong. I have heard of K.A. before, but never read her books. This, my first read, is her memoir of moving from a convent to secular life as interfaith advocate. It is good writing and good reading. I appreciate especially her insights on faith from a European (or British, at least) point of view, noting some of the things that have led to Christianity’s demise on European soil. By reading her own journey of faith, I have become more cognizant of my own. My only wish is that I can express mine as eloquently as she does hers.