I enjoy reading and writing. However, I have not written about reading in a while. Beginning in 2022 I anticipate writing helpful summaries of the insights I gain from the many books I consume every year. The format of these upcoming articles will not be to provide formal reviews but simply share the most helpful insightful or challenging aspects of the book and let you decide if you want more from them. If a publisher or author friend would like me to write a formal review of a book or other project, contact me via my bio page.
To launch this new writing exercise, I thought it would be fun to write my top insights from books I read in 2021. These are some of the books I read in 2021, not necessarily books released this year.
My Top Reads of 2021
A Burning in My Bones by Winn Collier
Few authors have shaped me like Eugene Peterson. This gentle and honest biography by Winn Collier only enhanced my appreciation of his ministry and his humanity. We sometimes forget authors, pastors, leaders, and other public figures are people too. Peterson was not a perfect man or pastor but he exemplified a “long obedience in the same direction.” This book reminded me again of the importance that a holistic faith journey must encompass every rhythm of life. Nobody is just one thing. We all require good familial and social networks, good work, good play, and good restful reflection. It is a well written narrative with a wonderful eulogy at the end that left me in tears.
Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristen Kobez Du Mez
This work walks through the last 75-years of how elements of white evangelicalism merged with political power fostering an environment of Christian Nationalism. This specific evangelical subculture theological and political views were bolstered through radio, television, publishing, large gathering events, music, and merchandise. Kobez Du Mez works through the historic timeline revealing how one event led to another eventually leading to the election of Donald Trump supported by second generation evangelical leaders likes of Franklin Graham, Jerry Fallwell Jr, and Robert Jeffress. It is an eye opening read, that put lots of my evangelical childhood into perspective. I highly recommend this book.
Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr
Historian Beth Allison Barr explains how modern complementarianism developed and how it has very little to do with orthodox Biblical theology or the historical church. This book has a compelling and engaging narrative. Much like Jesus and John Wayne it helped explain some of my evangelical youth experiences and assumptions. But more importantly it breaks down the problems with complementarianism from a historical and theological perspective.
Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood by Aimee Bird If Making of Biblical Womanhood identifies the roots and problems, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood helps create first steps toward undoing the damage caused by complementarianism by reflecting on the many women in the biblical narrative.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelly
A few years back, I decided I would read a classic “monster book” every October. I have since read classics like Legend of Sleepy Hallow, Dracula, and Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but not one of them blew my mind like Frankenstein. The biggest lesson for me is just how different film and popular Halloween adaptations of the nameless monster are from the book. Driven by grief and scientific curiosity Dr. Victor Frankenstein seeks to study the possibility of reanimating the dead. Instead he creates a whole new being that never gets a name and is simply referred to as the creature or monster. The monster is a sensitive, fast, strong, loquacious, and a self-taught survivalist who is wounded by being abandoned by his creator the moment he is animated. He seeks to live in peace and harmony in a world that is afraid of his grotesque physical appearance. After spending an entire winter caring for a family without their knowledge, the monster seeks out his maker to force him to create another monster so he can have at least one companion in life. Dr. Frankenstein who is in a constant state of anxiety and fear at what he has wrought, at first refuses then agrees to make a second, then sabotages his efforts at the final moment. The monster begins murdering Frankenstein’s family members in retribution for being created and mercilessly uncared for by his creator. As both monster and maker die in final pages, you are left wondering who is the bigger monster, the creation or the creator? It is a gripping tale of morality and nature verse nurture concepts. It forced me to consider how extending more grace to those in my life might change both our lives for the better.
The Celtic Way of Prayer: The Recovery of the Religious by Esther De Waal
This introduction to the religious life of Celtic prayer is a great survey. The biggest help was the idea that God is present in every aspect of life. It reminded me to look for God in everyday ordinary stuff of life from nature to labor to family. It is filled with lots of good contemplative practices and prayers.
Imagining Abundance by Kerry Alys Robinson
I took a two month course on non-profit fundraising through the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving. The course had a list of required reading that included Imagining Abundance. It is mix of autobiography and basic how to concepts of fundraising Kerry uses as part of her work as a fundraiser. Helpful insights include: always focus first on the mission of your non-profit not its need of support; donors are to a non-profit like congregants are to a pastor therefore find ways to connect their hearts with missions that match, even if it is not your non-profit; be willing to say no to gifts with strings attached; and constantly celebrate even the smallest successes. The biggest gift Kerry Robinson provided me was a prayer she utilizes several times a day, that I adapted for my ministry context. Here is the version I now use daily in my context.
“Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, empty me of all that stands between You and me that I might be filled with Your imagination, desire, love, and will. Help me see all the ways You’re actively working in this world. Give me the courage to say yes and join you in your mission.”
Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church, and What the Bible has to Say by Preston Sprinkle
LBGTQI+ identity is a complex conversation that requires great sensitivity and reflection. Preston Sprinkle draws on his pastoral leadership, fellowship, and friendships with transgendered people along with a host of experts from medical and theological communities to craft a helpful book. Embodied provides helpful definitions to the fluid identities across the gender and sexual spectrum and how our identity as made in the image of Christ matters most. This book is filled with personal stories and well presented data. Transgender conversations are difficult and are often dismissed in church circles with quick answers given with even less compassion. Embodied helps introduce readers to this complex world in a loving compassionate way.
Tempered Resilience: How Leaders are Formed in the Crucible of Change by Tod Bolsinger
Tempered Resilience is the ongoing reflective work Bolsinger began in Canoeing the Mountains. Bolsinger uses the metaphor of a blacksmithing tempering process of repeatedly heating and cooling as a way to develop leaders and systems with the strength and endurance necessary to work through big changes and inevitable sabotage. Two quick insights: 1. His image that metal is not hot enough it cannot be shaped into anything useful, no matter how many times you hit it with a hammer. Too many leaders and organizations are hot to the touch but not hot enough to be shaped into anything new or useful. 2. He utilizes the life of Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of a resilient leader. Rev. Dr. King’s I Have Dream speech references Isaiah’s image of hewing stones. Hewing is different from smashing or blowing up, instead it is about shaping stone with purpose. To have the ability to hew the stones of adaptive challenges requires intentionally practicing all the attributes of a resilient leader working in harmony over time and distance. Meet Tod Bolsinger and hear more about Tempered Resilience on my podcast Mission in 5
How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey toward Racial Justice by Jemar Tisby
So much has been written and reflected on this book, I will defer to others with better insights than me to share its corporate importance. The most insightful element for me personally was developing basic tools to begin identifying systemic racism and injustice and how I am part of systems and can thus be part of the solution. As daunting as they may be.
Subversive Witness: Scriptures Call to Leverage Privilege by Dominique Dubois Gilliard
Much like Tisby, Gilliard has some painful truths as well as hope filled solutions through purposeful work that has been thoroughly analyzed by more qualified people than me. However, learning to be more aware of one’s privilege and utilizing it at times while laying it down for the sake of others at other times for the kingdom of God is meaningful work. This book help me create biblical frameworks to recognize the scale between those options and how to lean into love of neighbor more meaningfully by leveraging or laying down privilege based on contextual justice needs in my community.
The Three Pines Series by Louise Penny
Still Life, A Fatal Grace, The Cruelest Month, A Rule Against Murder, The Brutal Telling, Bury Your Dead, A Trick of the Light, The Beautiful Mystery, How the Light Gets In, The Long Way Home, The Nature of the Beast, A Great Reckoning, Glass Houses, Kingdom of the Blind, A Better Man, All The Devils Are Here, The Madness of Crowds.
Fiction is as important as non-fiction, sometimes more so because it sneaks its way into our hearts better than straight facts do. I think this is one of the reasons Jesus’ parables are so important. I really enjoy this fictional series with protagonist Armand Gamache. It is the perfect blend of a well crafted novel with the fun of a who done it mystery. Each book has wise insights on life and filled with wisdom. I have read the entire series the past few years and read the final two this year. With 17 books in the series, this is not the place to provide a summary. I simply recommend that you look into them. I plan on writing more reflections on this series in the next year or two I will call “Thursdays in Three Pines”
Pursuing God’s Will Together by Ruth Haley Barton
Released nearly a decade ago I just now availed myself to this great book of wisdom. As a leader of institutional decision making I am often guilty of assuming that when I am in a meeting with Christians making choices about the direction of ministry that we are in a discernment process in partnership with the leading of the Holy Spirit. Ruth Haley Barton points out that just because you open a meeting with prayer does not mean the group is discerning together. She goes on to provide guidelines for long meaningful discernment process for individuals and groups.
The collected works of Willa Cather
I spent a good part of the summer reading through Nebraska native Willa Cather’s catalogue. Her novels are insightful reflections on the human experience. I could see and smell the Nebraska fields in My Antonia. I felt the longing to have a faith that is shaped by time and context like Father Jean Marie Latour in Death of the Archbishop. I particularly connected with Professor Godfrey St. Peter in The Professors House as he tried to navigate his way forward into an ever changing life. It seemed very much like our present experience as we journey our way from what was a way life before COVID and the new world we are walking into even as the pandemic continues to ebb and flow with new variants, forever changing life. Many of us, like Professor Godfrey, have great difficulty letting go of what once was, to embrace what is, and will be.
Books on the theme of Vocation
During a haircut this past spring, a conversation with my stylist Rachel began about the importance our vocations are to participating in the kingdom of God. She asked me to tell her more and you can read about our conversation on this blog and at Word&Way.
It inspired me to do more research on the topic and I read through these works:
God at Work: Live Each Day with Purpose by Ken Costa
Every Good Endeavor by Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf
The Seamless Life by Steven Garber
Visions of Vocation by Steven Garber
God at Work: Your Vocation in All of Life by Gene Edward Veith Jr.
Each of these volumes contributes to recognizing that our vocations are part of our connection to the Divine and that ‘what we do’ matters to God. Taken cumulatively I was encouraged to continue to point out how the work we do everyday is more than labor in exchange for money. It can be reflections of how God intentionally crafted the world to give us purpose and value in continuing to be co-creators with him.
Lead Like it Matters to God by Richard Stearns
Richard Stearns is the CEO of World Vision. This book reminds us that who we are is as important that what we do. How we do things is more important than commercially successful results. In other words, values matter. Stearns is not against success, in fact he encourages success, but only when accomplished through Christ centered values. As someone who puts a lot of energy on outcomes, it was good for me to be reminded the process matters too.
What if Jesus was Serious series by Skye Jethani
Skye Jethani’s What If Jesus was Serious series are helpful quick reads filled with deep insights. Two books in the series are currently available, one on the sermon on the mount, the other on prayer. A third book on church is set to launch in 2022. He uses short devotional like chapters with quirky drawings to illustrate big ideas and share important biblical concepts. If my 13-year old likes it, you have my attention and he should have yours as well.
The Nones: Where they Came From, Who They Are, and Where They are Going
by Ryan Burge
Ryan is an American Baptist pastor and a professor and researcher of political science and religion. He has a gift for analyzing large swaths of data and creating helpful charts and graphs that tell the story of how the worlds of religion and politics merge in our lives. Very helpful resource. Meet Ryan and learn more about The Nones on this Mission in 5 podcast episode.
Shameless Plug…Join me at the Table
Table Life: An Invitation to Everyday Discipleship by Greg Mamula
Released in March 2021, Table Life is my contribution to the conversation around the disciplines that foster holistic faith. Meals are a catalyst that bring people into community. When we gather to read scripture, listen, tell stories, and share communion, we are engaged in basic disciplines that give us the strength and foundation necessary to participate in the mission of God in our community. As the books above indicate, there are a great many areas of life God is still putting to rights. Racial injustice, gender inequality, leadership failures, greed, selfishness, and all the other sins our current prophets and biblical prophets point towards and cry out for God to do something. As the authors and books above remind us, God is doing something about these issues and he wants us to join him. Table life disciplines are foundation work and gathering place for being present with others, hearing their stories in context, and praying together for a way toward peace, justice, and equality.