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Good Reads for the Soul

December 19, 2015
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booksThis lovely holiday season also coincides with the close of another year, and it has me reflecting a bit. I feel like I’ve been doing some stretching and growing spiritually over the past 12 months—a more blessed and joyful kind of growth than I experienced in the prior couple of years.

Along with attending a new church, I read some challenging books this year, all of which I highly recommend. I thought I would share some of my 2015 book list with you, in case you are looking for some reading to expand your thinking.

Nonfiction

Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels
 by Richard Bauckham

This book takes a definite scholarly tone, but Bauckham presents some great in-depth examinations of a few gospel women. My favorite chapters covered both Luke’s inclusion of women in his gospel, in general, and the disciple Joanna, in particular. The book gave me lots of interesting new fodder for my writing and speaking on the topic of Jesus and women.

Quotable: “There is a good deal of evidence that in the Greco-Roman world in general women were thought by educated men to be gullible in religious matters and especially prone to superstitious fantasy and excessive in religious practices.”

Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity
by Dianna E. Anderson

This book changed my thinking about ways the church talks to women about modesty, virginity and sex. It definitely made me regret some of the things I said to my daughters when they were teenagers. You might be left dissatisfied with Anderson’s refusal to insist on a biblical injunction against sex outside of marriage, but she makes some really important points about the church’s near obsession with sex, as well as its double standard and the toxicity of its sexual shaming.

Quotable: “Women in evangelical culture bear the brunt of modesty teaching. The vast majority of this teaching goes in one direction only. Women do not have sexual desires—we are not ‘visually stimulated’ in the ways men are. Therefore, the burden of modesty falls on our shoulders because ‘men are wired that way.’ We are considered much more able to control ourselves and our thoughts than men, creating a dynamic in which we are responsible for both ourselves and our brothers. …A woman’s responsibility extends beyond her own body and into the minds of the men around her—she is held responsible for their sins.”

A New Kind of Christianity
by Brian D. McLaren

McLaren addresses the problem that “something isn’t working in the way we’re doing Christianity anymore.” He presents some thought-provoking answers for questions like “What is the overarching story line of the Bible? “How should the Bible be understood?” “Is God violent?” and “Why is Jesus important?” Honestly, sometimes I have struggled for a while with the way the Western evangelical church has taught and applied scripture. This book gave me some alternative ways to think about God that give me hope and have helped me hang on to my faith.

Quotable: “Jesus is not intended merely to fit into those predetermined categories [of the Old Testament]; he is intended instead to explode them, transform them, alter them forever and bring us to a new evolutionary level in our understanding of God. …This is why we cannot simply say that the highest revelation of God is given through the bible. …Rather we can say that, for Christians, the Bible’s highest value is in revealing Jesus, who gives us the highest, deepest, and most mature view of the character of the living God.”

I followed up this book with McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy, which is also a thought-provoking read.

Disarming Scripture
by Derek Flood

This book confronts the violence contained in scripture, especially in the Old Testament. Flood argues that unquestioningly obeying every literal teaching of the Bible is a mistake. If our interpretation of scripture leads us to harm others (whether it’s beating our children or burning heretics at the stake or shaming women in miniskirts), then our interpretation is probably wrong. If doing what you believe God demands of you hurts your conscience, that should be a red flag—a signal to use your intellect, compassion and good sense and dig deeper to understand God’s true will.

Quotable: “When there are no means by which to evaluate which interpretations are good and which are hurtful because of an a priori assumption that the Bible overrides conscience, the inevitable result of pervasive interpretive pluralism is that some of those interpretations will be abusive. …The Bible has a long history of people endorsing things like slavery, child abuse, and genocide—all in the name of an ‘infallible’ Bible. To read the Bible in an unquestioning way invariably leads to acts of violence and abuse.”

Waking Up White: and Finding Myself in the Story of Race
by Debby Irving

I read this book along with the rest of my work community at the UVA Curry School. Irving describes the radical evolution in her understanding of race, privilege and power that began when she took a college course on racial and cultural identity. Irving begins with describing her own privileged, upper-middle class New England upbringing and the assumptions about race she developed in that setting. Her humble, personal approach makes the book very accessible to us White people who unconsciously share many of her perspectives. Most of her points were not new to me, but she provided lots of powerful examples to support them. Although she doesn’t come at this topic from a Christian perspective, many of us white Christians need to be more aware of how our assumptions and privilege are affecting the lives of our Black brothers and sisters.

Quotable: “The game, it turns out, offers different rules and different starting points for different people. It’s a drastically uneven contest in which I am among the more advantaged players. …Nowhere, as far as I can see, is any advantage as hard-hitting and enduring as skin color. My white skin, an epidermal gold card, has greased the skids for a life full of opportunities and rewards that I was sure were available to everyone. My notions that American offered a level playing field disintegrated. I thought of how hypocritical my belief in small government was, now that I understood how well big government had served me through programs and policies such as those entwined in the GI Bill.”

When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself
by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert 

I read this book after I heard co-author Brian Fikkert give a keynote talk at the Love in the Name of Christ National Meeting in September. My favorite thing about the authors’ approach is that they start by helping us well-meaning Christian do-gooders see that in our own position of power and prosperity we are every bit as broken as people living in poverty. Because the authors position our helping from a place of humility, we can back away from our “obvious” and “easy” answers to need (usually in the form of giving people stuff or doing stuff for them). Instead, they encourage us to ask questions, listen, learn, and then open up spaces for people to find their own solutions, not only to their material need but to their poverty of spirit as well. If you care about people living in poverty either here or abroad, this book is a must read.

Quotable: “It is important to note that the Great Reversal preceded the rise of the welfare state in America. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty did not occur until the 1960s, and even FDR’s relatively modest New Deal policies were not launched until the 1930s. In short, the evangelical church’s retreat from poverty alleviation was fundamentally due to shifts in theology and not—as many have asserted—to government programs that drove the church away from ministry to the poor. While the rise of government programs may have exacerbated the church’s retreat, they were not the primary cause. Theology matters, and the church needs to rediscover a Christ-centered, fully orbed perspective of the kingdom.”

Fiction

I also want to recommend some good fiction books I read this year. None are overtly Christian stories but they were written by Christian thinkers who are excellent writers.

The Tears of Dark Water
by Corban Addison

Corban is a young new writer, who happens to go to the same church I do. This is his third novel, and he’s good! He sets his stories in the context of some of today’s most pressing human rights issues. This one features Somali pirates but with an unexpected compassion for the circumstances that drove his characters’ actions. I also recommend his first novel, A Walk Across the Sun, which was an Oprah Book Club selection.

Jayber Crow
by Wendell Berry

A lovely story set in mid 20th century small-town Kentucky about an orphaned boy who over the course of his life finally learns to love. Berry’s prose sings like poetry.

Till We Have Faces
by C.S. Lewis

I had never heard of this book, but was captivated from the first page. It is a retelling of the Cupid-Pyche myth, and I read that Lewis considered it his most mature novel.

Lila
by Marilyn Robinson

A sad but beautifully written story about a life scarred by the extreme poverty of the Depression years and the incredible kindness and grace of an old preacher. This is the third novel in Robinson’s series set in Gilead, Iowa. I loved the first book, titled Gilead, but now I need to go back and read Home to catch up on what I missed about these dear people!

 

Have blessed and beautiful Christmas!

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