Thursday, January 7, 2010

Twelve Best of Last Year

For the last few years I have been keeping a list of the books I have read in a given year.  Nearly every year I discern a pattern.  I find a new author and track down everything she or he has ever written.  I get fascinated with a particular topic or issue and scour used books stores and for additional titles and authors addressing my pet obsession of the year.  Going over the list at the end of the year I discover that certain books made almost no impression on me.  Others have been pivotal in my thinking.  In this post I am going to share twevle books or authors that I particularly enjoyed.  These were not necessarily the best books of 2009.  They were not necessarily the most important books I read.  Rather they were books that gave me pleasure, pricked my conscience, or gave me a new angle of vision on the world.  So here they are, in no particular order.

1.  Empire of Illusion, Chris Hedges

Hedges is a favorite of mine.  A Harvard Divinity School graduate who went on to be a journalist, he is known for his powerful reflection on modern warfare in War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.  In Empire of Illusion he critiques the American addition to illusion, fantasy, and misinformation.  It is a gripping and disturbing book.

2. The Case for God, Karen Armstrong

I have not been a big Armstrong fan, but this book surprised me.  It was one of a series of books taking on the foolishness of the so-called "new athiests."  She argues that the god the new atheists attack bears little relationship to the God of the Bible, of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  It is readable, engaging, and intellectually challenging.

3.  Patience with God, Frank Schaeffer

If you haven't read Frank Schaeffer lately, you haven't really read him at all.  This is not the foaming at the mouth Franky Schaeffler of the 1980s.  His earlier autobiographical work Crazy for God described his move from being the darling of the Christian right to becoming a member of the Orthodox Church.  In the process he became a severe critic of the very people who hailed him and his father.  His latest volume is an entertaining critique of both the new atheists and the political Christian right. 

4.  Atheist Delusions, David Bently Hart

Hart's latest is also a spirited attack on the new atheists.  It is the most scathing and the most provocative of the volumes cited.  It is not only a critique of the new atheists, but a critique of popular misconceptions of Christian and European history. He eviserates the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and David Dawkins.  It is entertaining, intellecutally rigorous, and savagely funny.

5.  Leavings, Wendell Berry

Berry's latest collection of poetry is gentle, lyrical, somber, and joyful.  This poetry, unlike most modern poetry, is clear, direct, and understandable.  I find a good deal of modern poetry pompous, pretentious, and needlessly obscure.  Not so with Wendell Berry.  If you are new to his poetry I recommend A Timbered Choir, an earlier collection of his Sabbath Poems.

6.  Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor, David Gooch

I am a fan of biography.  David Gooch has produced the first full biography of one of our most important American writers and American Christians.  It is a wonderful volume, full of insight, pathos, and humor.  O'Connor was one of a kind.  If you haven't read her novels or short stories, you need to get started!

7.  The Blue Parakeet, Scot McKnight

My colleague Scot McKnight continues to produce works of biblical and theological scholarship that are clear, engaging, and of sufficient rigor and thoughfulness to engage both scholar and lay reader.  Scot shows that scholarship does not need to be ponderous or dull.  I thoroughly enjoyed his "rethinking how to read the Bible"--perhaps because I found myself in significant agreement!  His book A Community Called Atonement deserves a shout-out as well.

8.  Erasmus,  Stefan Zweig

Stefan Zweig was a novelist, biographer, and chronicler of European intellectual life.  He flourished during the early decades of the 20th century. 
A Jew, he fled his native Austria at the beginning of World War II.  In 1942 he committed suicide as Hitler tightened his grip on his beloved Europe.  I found this volume in a used bookstore in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  I had heard of Zweig, but never read anything of his.  This is a bittersweet and fascinating study of one of the great European intellects--a man with whom Zweig identified in powerful ways.

9.  The Next Evangleicalism,  Soong-Chan Rah

Soong-Chan's critique of the "white captivity" of American evangelicalism makes painful but necessary reading.  The volume has been highly praised and is being read widely.  This is only the first of many important pieces of cultural and religious critique that I expect from my colleague and friend.

10.  God Battalions,  Rodney Stark

In recent years Stark has produced a number of works challenging the popular assumptions about the Christian past held by both Christians and their critics.  In this volume he takes on the challenging task of defending the Crusades!  He scoffs at the popular notion that Europe was a Christian intellectual backwater in comparison to the enlightened Islamic east.  Great fun!

11. and 12  Henning Mankell and Steig Larsson

Perhaps I am cheating a bit, but rather than books I want to cite authors.  These Swedish novelists gave me a good deal of pleasure in the last year.   Their detective fiction is a notch above most of the genre.  Mankell's Wallander is the classic depressed Swede in a glorious and somber countryside.  The late Steig Larsson's Lizbeth Salander is one of the most intriguing character is detetive fiction.



  1. Jay, I'm a fan of biography too, and a huge-r fan of Flannery. I didn't read Gooch because not long ago I read Nash's more academic approach to her life. Still a tragedy to me she didn't so young.

  2. Jay, thanks for the list. I always find it fun to learn what OTHERS are reading. So many books, so little time. And I agree with you and Scot, Flannery is one of a kind.

  3. Hi Jay! Nice to find your blog...

    I posted my favorite reads of the last year on my blog here:

    I really appreciated Scot's and Soong-Chan's books. I didn't read Schaeffer's book, but I really enjoyed his earlier book you referenced, "Crazy for God." I'll have to check out his new one.