Saturday, January 7, 2017

Large and Small Favorite Books Read in 2016

Above are pictured the books I most loved reading in the year just passed. Instead of mentioning them in order of preference or order read, I will mention them in order of size. At church, our choir lines up by size; we lined up by size in elementary school. So - size order.

1. The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
Lewis is not without his mental blocks, prejudices, opinions, and quirks, but I loved this little fantasy about people trying to decide between heaven or hell. It's a short read and it kept me smiling. Warning: Heaven might make you uncomfortable; it's just so darn loving!

2. A Testament of Devotion by Thomas R. Kelly
Thomas Kelly knew how to pray! Few people do and fewer can talk or write about it. His understanding of God is breathtaking and simple. EG "The God-blinded self sees naught of personal degradation or of personal eminence, but only the Holy Will working impersonally through him."

3. Prayer and Contemplation by Robert Llewelyn
I am called out repeatedly in this, as Llewelyn seems to know all my bad habits. But equally I am encouraged and nourished as he seems to know all my highest intentions. "The one great enemy of prayer [is} subjectivity - those sideways glances at ourselves to see how we are getting along." And then. "Offerings [of prayer] were never meant to help or strengthen or do anything except be offered."

4. Secrets in the Dark by Frederick Buechner
This is a collection of some of Buechner's most famous and beloved sermons. Being sermons, they will sound a bit conversational, a bit less formal than you would expect from a writer. There is often a sense of place and time that seem unnecessary as one reads, are some of the most brilliant and moving calls to Christ that I have ever read...or heard. In one chapter he digs so deeply into the story of Jairus' daughter that I thought I could hear the sheets rustle as she got up from her bed.

5. Winter by Adam Gopnik
This is the only "secular" title on my list from 2016. Last Christmas, a wonderful friend gave me this book after I'd confessed to her that I love winter. The author also loves it and we spent a toasty companionable couple of weeks together in such contexts as Christmas, polar explorations, literature and philosophy and, not surprisingly as Gopnik is a Canadian, hockey. Every moment was enjoyable and full of brilliant writing and loads of information.

6. The Complete Julian of Norwich by Father John Julian
Father John Julian, scholar, poet and translator, is the founder of the Order of Julian of Norwich, so it stands to reason that his Complete Julian would be the quintessential translation and commentary about this magnificent work. And it is. Besides the most careful and studied translation of the Revelations of Divine Love, there is a helpful introduction and an engaging appendix. No stone is left un-turned in this exploration of Julian's life and writing. If you are "new" to Julian, this is the way in.

7. God's Funeral by A.N. Wilson
The title derives from a poem by Thomas Hardy in which people sadly acknowledge the death of God, or at least of the worship of God and God's work in our world. One by one, mourners gather to say goodbye to their faith. Lastly, and with profound regret, Hardy joins them.

God's Funeral traces humankind's increasing distance from belief in God, from the Age of Enlightenment onwards. Wilson is no stranger to lost faith, and he is no stranger to a return to faith, but he keeps himself out of the debate for as long as he can. As a work of the history of ideas, this book is informative and readable. As a history of the role faith plays in human endeavor, it is beyond magnificent. Wilson is also a novelist so he can entertain as well as inform. He can keep a reader guessing and can make a reader laugh or cry.

8. Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright
If your idea of salvation, kingdom of God, or eternal life is simply that you will go to heaven when you die, please read this book. When we pray, "may they rest in peace and rise in glory," do we mean a spiritual glory, a shining soul? Or do we mean that we partake in Christ's same glory when he bodily rose from the dead? Wright seems to imply that he was surprised by the concepts in this book. They certainly surprised me.

9. The David Story by Robert Alter
I admit I am irresistibly drawn to this problem child of the Old Testament. I blame Michelangelo, William Faulkner and Leonard Cohen The hero with the five smooth stones becomes the adulterous predator, becomes the target of an evil "king,"  becomes the wild dancing lover of God, becomes the moody head of a dysfunctional family, becomes the tormented and grieving father, becomes the stately man of God's own heart who gently goes to sleep with his fathers. The Old Testament is a mash up of literary device, holy narrative and God-driven wisdom, and there is no better one to illumine its many dark alleyways than Robert Alter.

In this book, we have the complete text of 1 and 2 Samuel as well as the first 2 Chapters of 1 Kings - word for word, with an exhaustive foot-noted commentary by the author. Alter is a famous scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures and a wonderful writer. David walks right off the page.

10. The Theology of the Old Testament by Walter Brueggeman
Brueggemann takes a very new, for me, approach to the Old Testament. He sees the writings as voices, as rhetoric. Many voices, many points of view come together to describe the One we call God and hint, strongly hint, how we should live as God's people. Brueggemann finds a God that has many roles, many personnae, many ways of reaching us. He takes the term "testament" at face value, presenting these many voices as testimonies, such as are found in courtrooms. Here is a generous, scholarly, and devout way of approaching these writings. Brueggemann, while keeping mostly to an Old Testament point of view, sheds some Christian light on the readings and how they are received by Christians like himself.

 I found my copy at Half Price Books one day and scooped it up. Inside is written the name of its previous owner and the name also of a Divinity School that the owner presumably attended. This is the perfect MDiv book, and I can't help wondering if the individual continued on with the studies, became a minister and, most of all, I wondered why would anyone let this marvelous book get away?