My goal this year was to read 60 books, and I did it! Thanks to Harry Potter and grad school, meeting my goal was not that difficult, and my book spread is all over the place. I added books to my “bookshelf” if I completed at least 75% of it (we don’t always read the entire book for class), and I’m in the middle of 3 or 4 books right now that did not make the shelf.
I have organized what I read loosely by genre below and will highlight my recommendations and favorites of the year. Now, to be sure, I found most of my readings to be good reads this year, so if I don’t highlight a particular book, it doesn’t mean that I don’t recommend it. The ones I do highlight in this post are the ones that I would wave in the air enthusiastically if you asked, “What should I read next?”
• Making a Way Out of No Way: A Womanist Theology by Monica Coleman
• Theologies of Religion by Paul Knitter
• The Holy Spirit and the Christian Life: The Theological Basis of Ethics by Karl Barth
• The New Testament: Methods and Meanings by Warren Carter and Amy-Jill Levine
• They Were All Together in One Place? Toward Minority Biblical Criticism By Randall Bailey, Tat-Siong Liew, and Fernando Segovia
• Models of the Church by Avery Dulles
• Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay by James Alison
Favorites: They Were All Together, Faith Beyond Resentment, Theologies of Religion
They Were All Together in One Place?
This book was a paradigm-shifter. I read it for my Bible in the Public Square: #blacklivesmatter class this past spring, and it helped me to engage the Bible critically without feeling like I’m giving in to or ignoring oppressive structures. Each chapter is written by a Biblical scholar engaging a text from their minority context. For example, one chapter, written by Gale Yee, engaged Ruth as the “perpetual foreigner” in light of her own experience as an Asian-American. Reading this book was like opening a door to many different doors. I remember making the comment in class near the end of the semester that this book is teaching me how to make peace with the Bible by fighting with it. I recommend this for any preacher, teacher, or student of the Bible.
Faith Beyond Resentment
We read this book for my ethics class this past semester, and while it is a dense read (hello, British English!), it is worth it. I thought this book was going to be memoir-ish, but really it was an engagement of Biblical texts in light of being an outsider in the church world. Alison spent considerable time breaking down some of the interactions with Jesus to illustrate “true Yawhist living” as opposed to following a set of rules or getting the exact right theology. I recommend this for any preacher, teacher, or student of the Bible, particularly for those invested in ministering to members who are LGBTQ+.
Theologies of Religion
Growing up conservative Evangelical, I was taught that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and by Jesus, I have come to learn, we meant our understanding and interpretation of Jesus and Christianity, which was (though not explicitly stated) heteronormative, Western, and post-Enlightenment. And white. Very white. I thought that the only way to be a true Christian was to believe that those who did not pray the sinner’s prayer and denounce all other religions were going to hell. But alas! You can love Jesus and the Church and believe (responsibly! critically! beautifully!) that “everyone else” is not going to burn in eternal torment. It’s possible. I know I sound like a salesman here, but this discovery was a game-changer for me. It helped me breathe easier as I continue to say yes to Christianity. Knitter presents various theologies of religion in which Christianity engages other religions from where I used to be to the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s not a difficult read, and Knitter gives various examples of Christian scholars who believe and engage each theology of religion. I recommend this for pastors and Christians alike (particularly those uncomfortable with an incredibly exclusive interpretation of Jesus’ words).
• Opening to God: Lectio Divine and Life as Prayer by David Benner
• Spirituality: A Brief History by Philip Sheldrake
• In God’s Presence: Theological Reflections on Prayer by Marjorie Suchocki
• Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life by Thomas Moore
• Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich
• No Greater Love by Mother Teresa
• Studying Christian Spirituality by David Perrin
• The Enneagram by Richard Rohr
• Forged in the Fiery Furnace: African American Spirituality by Diana Hayes
• Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L’Engle
Favorites: Opening to God, In God’s Presence, Care of the Soul
Opening to God
We spent a few weeks on prayer this past semester in my spirituality class, and this book and the next were our primary focus (foci?). Benner talks about the purpose of prayer (God) and contemplative practices (namely lectio divina and centering prayer) to form one’s prayer life. But Benner is very careful to talk about how prayer is not a formal sitting communion with God, but rather a way of being, in which many of our actions constitute as important prayer. This book is both instructive and theological. If you’re looking for a primer on prayer, this book is not really that. But if you’re looking for an open-ended discussion on Christian prayer, this book is a good start.
In God’s Presence
This is one of the books that I keep thinking about. Suchocki explores the idea of prayer and agency, particularly our own, in relation to God. She returns again and again to the metaphor of water shaping something subtly over time and being directed by landscape and geography as a way to describe prayer. Most importantly for me, she confronts the false dichotomy that is often implied in our understanding of God and prayer: that God is either a wimp or a tyrant based on his (lack of) answer to prayer.
Care of the Soul
I’m not sure how to describe this book—it’s psychology meets spirituality meets literature/mythology. I read this book really slowly, one small section at a time partly because I was learning how to read it. Moore explores how to welcome the sacred in the deep parts of our lives, considering love, family relationships, work, rest, etc. He draws on psychology, spirituality, and mythology to articulate his points. This is a book I want to reread multiple times.
• A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master” by Rachel Held Evans
• Of Mess and Moxie: Wrangling Delight Out of This Wild and Glorious Life by Jen Hatmaker
• Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy by Anne Lamott
• Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott
• Pastoral Care: Telling the Stories of Our Lives by Karen Scheib
• Hearing Beyond the Word: How to Become a Listening Pastor by Emma Justus
• Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community by Leah Gunning Francis
• Bonhoeffer and King: Their Legacies and Import for Christian Social Thought by Willis Jenkins and Jennifer McBride
• Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God by Kelly Brown Douglas
• America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America by Jim Wallis
• Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology by Pamela Lightsey
• The Trinitarian Self: The Key to the Puzzle of Violence by Charles Bellinger
• The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear by Reverend Barber
• Feminism and Christian Ethics by Susan Parsons
Stand Your Ground
Within the context of Trayvon Martin’s murder and the “Stand Your Ground” law that protected George Zimmerman, Douglas traces the history and development of white supremacy, particularly the “Stand Your Ground” ethos, from Anglo-Saxon culture to today. This book was a paradigm-shifter for me, and I recommend it to anyone involved in racial justice. So much of this history is internalized in white narratives, and it’s important for white people to educate themselves in order to continue (or start) the work of battling racism within ourselves and within the dominant systems from which we benefit.
• Love Warrior: A Memoir by Glennon Doyle
• Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Brene Brown
• The ZimZum of Love: A New Way of Understanding Marriage by Rob and Kristen Bell
• Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant
ZimZum of Love
JD and I listened to this on audiobook, and it’s the first non-complementarian marriage book I’ve read. It was really good because besides the usual address of bad marital habits (keeping score, shame, etc,), the Bells also talk about how the relationship is it’s own dynamic entity. There’s not just two separate people making up a unit, but rather a living entity between them that needs tending to. It changed the way I thought about marriage from static or linear (“This is how we are. This is where we have come.”) to dynamic and fluid.
I bought this book after hearing Sheryl Sandberg on the On Being podcast. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. She writes about living through her grief after her husband’s unexpected death, and with the help of a friend and statistics/research on resilience, she has journeyed on honestly and meaningfully. For anyone who has suffered from loss, I recommend this book.
• The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
• The Man Without a Shadow by Joyce Carol Oates
• Children of the Jacaranda Tree by Sahar Delijani
• Home by Marilynne Robinson
• Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave
• Little Bee by Chris Cleave
• The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
•The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
• Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
• Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
• Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
• Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
• Harry Potter and Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
• Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling
• Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
• Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling
• Happy Birthday by Dr. Seuss
I don’t think this really needs explanation, especially considering how late to the game I was in reading this series.
The Handmaid’s Tale
With the arrival of the Hulu series, I reread this book. Atwood is a genius, and this book felt eerily poignant in the wake of legislation this past year. I loved the dystopian novel, and the Hulu series was incredible. Reader and viewer discretion is advised.
Man without a Shadow
I am a fan of Joyce Carol Oates’s writing, and I picked up this book on a whim at the library. The main character is a neuroscientist studying a handsome subject with short-term memory loss. He remembers his life before his accident, but cannot sustain new memories more than 90 seconds. The main character falls in love with her subject, but this is not a romantic novel—it’s more sad and tragic. Obviously, he cannot love her back, and the story traces over 30 years of their time together. The most incredible part of this book was that it felt like nothing really happened, that Oates was presenting the story in a way that we experience no time passing in the same way the subject does.
This was a reread for me. Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors, and I had read The Poisonwood Bible back in college as my introduction to her. Rereading it after reading more of her novels (which are all very different) made me appreciate this story even more. It follows the Price family as Baptist missionaries to Belgian-occupied Congo right as Belgium was pulling out. The story is told from the perspectives of the four daughters and the mother and rejects the fundamentalist colonization of the father and preacher. It’s a sweeping story of loss in its various forms.
Children of the Jacaranda Tree
Delijani was born in the Elvin prison in Tehran herself, and she writes from the various perspectives of people affected by the prison—mothers, fathers, lovers, children. She jumps back and forth between the perspectives from 1983 to 2011. I ordered this book years ago because of a deal on Amazon, and I saw that it had been reviewed by Khaled Hosseini, another favorite author of mine. Delijani writes beautiful prose—there are sentences in every chapter that make me put down the book in a moment of reverence. And her stories, though not prolonged treatments of characters, are intricate and intimate. Though so much of the broader story of the prison is tinged by tragedy and loss, I enjoyed reading this book and look forward to more of Delijani’s work.
I wept throughout this book. It follows two sisters during World War II in German-occupied France, and they both are heroines, though they don’t share their work with one another. This story is beautifully written.
• Hope Deferred: Heart-Healing Reflections on Reproductive Loss by Nadine Pence Frantz
• Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin
• Nurture: A Modern Guide to Pregnancy, Birth, Early Motherhood, and Trusting Yourself and Your Body by Erica Chidi Cohen
I posted about this book on Instagram a few months ago. It’s a collection of theological reflections on reproductive loss (miscarriage, infertility, etc.) written by theologians. I have resisted many books and Christianese insights on my miscarriages because they fall short in addressing some of my most existential grief and questions. But this book addresses this grief and doesn’t offer quaint answers or Bible verses or even hope, except in the form of companionship and solidarity and you-are-not-alone-ness. I have read and reread these essays and have found camaraderie.
Ina May’s Guide
This book is written from the perspective of a renown midwife about birth, advocating for unmedicated birth, or what she calls “natural birth.” There are practical things in here, but a lot of the book is the theory behind her work. Not everyone cares for this, but I have really enjoyed this book. She talks about how powerful and mysterious and incredible the female body is, and it makes me feel like Wonder Woman.
This book came out this year and is written by a doula, Erica Chidi Cohen. I follow her on Instagram, and I feel both that I want to be friends with her and also that she is too cool for me to do anything except trip over my own words and feet in front of her. Her book is comprehensive—it talks about pregnancy, birth, postpartum care, and early baby care. She approaches these stages from physical, mental, and emotional wellness for the mom, constantly affirming women for the amazing work they do in growing and birthing a baby. She offers mantras, mindfulness techniques, reflection exercises as well as natural remedies and recipes for health and the work of pregnancy and birth. Her premise is that all birth is natural—the fact that a woman grows and births a baby, no matter how that is achieved, is incredible and natural. She repeats that there is no room for shame in pregnancy and birth—whatever we decide is best for us and our baby. It was really freeing, and I have multiple sections tabbed for reference.
• Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver
• House of Light by Mary Oliver
• Letter to My Daughter by Maya Angelou
• The Gift by Hafiz
I received this book as a book award for theology in the spring, and I was thrilled. Mary Oliver is one of my favorite poets, and this is a collection of essays on writers and nature. For fans of Poe and Wordsworth and the like, this is a good read because she reflects on their writings. In one of her essays, she writes about staying in a friend’s house for a few weeks and watching a spider weave her delicate and haphazard web in the basement over the course of her stay, trapping bugs and spinning them, and laying her eggs. I personally hate spiders, but this essay was so thoughtful and considerate of this little life in a way that only Mary Oliver can make romantic and beautiful.
I have long been a fan of Rumi, so I was excited to start reading Hafiz. All I can say is yes! I have dogeared many poems to come back to—Hafiz says beautiful things about God and life and love. Even if you are not much of a poetry person, Hafiz is a good place to start because his poems are short and to the point.
• The Stone-Campbell Movement: A Global History by Newell Williams and Doug Foster
I don’t know what reading will be like with a newborn, so I have set the bar very low for 2018: 5 books. 5! In the words of a woman I admire, I will be learning to read my baby this year, so books will be secondary for awhile.