The best 7 books I read this year* — 2015 edition

I have eight categories in my reading rotation (see that whole neurotic system here). Here’s the best book I read in each category this year.**

Literature

My book club had a selection from Young Adult (YA) books, and we chose I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak (best known for The Book Thief). This was a delightful read. I wonder if the YA genre would do better with a different name, or if more people realized that these books aren’t just good for young adults. It was probably our book club’s most-enjoyed book of the year.

The structure of the book was enjoyable, the protagonist was real and likable, it made me laugh out loud several times, and it was hard to put down. A fun book with lots to discuss.

Two Honorable Mentions:

Mosquitoland by David Arnold — David is a good friend, so I wasn’t sure I could give this my honest, unbiased “best book.” But I can say it was the most fun and funny book I read this year, yet also gets into several serious issues. Since I’m biased, check out the gushing reviews from the likes of USA TodayWall Street JournalEntertainment Weekly, and lots of Best-of 2015 accolades. (Though it’s called a YA book, read a bit before you run get it for your 12 year old.)

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde — The rest of my book club loathed this book, but I enjoyed it. Wilde’s irony makes me smile. Even though they didn’t like it, we had a lot to discuss because the book is packed with important themes. You can see why it’s considered a classic.

Bible

I under-appreciate the psalms and was looking for some help. The Psalter Reclaimed by Gordon Wenham was an excellent solution.

If you’re not familiar with canonical reading of Scripture, you should be. That kind of reading has opened a different and better world for my approach to the Bible. Wenham focuses on a canonical reading of the psalms. He gives penetrating insights to difficult psalms, like the psalms of lament and imprecatory psalms (all those psalms that sound like bitter complaints or that even call down curses on others).

This book should deepen your appreciation for the psalms and also provide an easy entry for anyone interested in canonical interpretation.

Philosophy, Psychology, and Other Religions

I interviewed Stanley Hauerwas earlier this year about his newest book, The Work of Theology. It goes here because most of Hauerwas’s books go in the broader “ethics” category. I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

Hauerwas reflects on, defends, and extends a lot of the work he has done. When I’m able to follow him, Hauerwas makes brilliant points and is very funny. For someone looking for an intro to Hauerwas, this could be a good start. His chapter on theology and ministry was outstanding. I wish more pastors would understand the points he’s making about ministry and the essence of the church. His chapter on retirement was also very good.

Honorable mention: The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley — Rarely do you find a book where the author (or person featured, in this case) has a serious change of beliefs near the end, and yet preserves most of the book with their previous belief system intact. This was a fascinating account.

center-churchPractical Theology

Tim Keller is so good. He’s an excellent writer and an excellent thinker. Center Church puts all of that on display with a systematic approach to ministry in cultural contexts.

Keller is great at providing categories. He gives helpful handholds for considering theology, church and culture interactions, and the tensions between movement and institution. His calls to the city and church-planting are compelling.

Keller’s Reformed influence comes out occasionally. This can tinge or water down some of his perspectives. His version of “sanctification” is weak, and I think he could see cities with more positive eyes if he were working with a solid doctrine of prevenient grace. Regardless, I’ve recommended this widely.

Denominational Works

Another great introduction to canonical and theological reading is Wesley, Wesleyans, and Reading Bible as Scripture, edited by Joel Green and David Watson.

John Wesley revered Scripture as “a man of one book” but never laid out a clear doctrine of Scripture. Because of that, some people hijack his approach to make him a fundamentalist––affirming a modern version of inerrancy and a sola scriptura that rejects all other sources for the church’s belief and practice. Others make him a liberal by misunderstanding and overstating his use of “experience.”

This book provides a better and multifaceted perspective on Wesleyan reading of Scripture. It helps to understand Wesley’s approach in context and also suggests belief and practice for Wesleyans today. Even if you’re not a Wesleyan, read it for its take on canonical and theological reading. It’s uneven, as all essay books are, but worth reading.

starfish-spiderSocial Sciences

I chose social sciences for my special category this year (next year: biographies). The list this year included several excellent books on leadership. The most interesting and useful was The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom.

What happens when you cut off a spider’s head? It dies. Cut off a starfish’s leg, and it grows a new one––and the leg likely grows a whole new starfish. The book helped me think about movements vs. institutions, especially in an age of new possibilities thanks to the networking power we have now. I wrote “The Rise and Fall of the Great Denomination” largely based on insights from here.

Most clear: creating a starfish organization requires letting go of some control. But it also has greater spreading power. This is a great systems-thinking book for people in business, ministry, or movement-making.

Other

This category covers a broad range of books that don’t fit anywhere above. I decided to reread Mortimer Adler’s classic, How to Read a Book.

Adler says that if we walk away from a practical book and don’t do anything different, either it was a bad book or we were bad readers. I was a bad reader the first time––thinking it interesting, but not implementing much. This time, I decided to read books the way Adler suggests. My quick testimonial: that change has upgraded the quality of my reading tremendously. It may not be too much to say that it has doubled my comprehension and retention.

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See my 2013 edition and 2014 edition here

* Okay, technically this isn’t the best eight books I read. It’s the best book in each of eight categories. That title didn’t have the same ring, though.

** I only listed seven books for this year. I decided not to include anything from Doctrinal Theology. I thought about including Pelikan’s The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100–600), volume 1 of his esteemed series on The Christian Tradition. There were some brilliant parts, but just too many parts that I had to trudge through, or where I couldn’t follow his prose. I know I’ve already lost credibility in some of your eyes. Sorry. I’m still planning to read volume 2 next year.

Next year’s reading list will be about half from this category because of a research focus. So I’ll surely have something to recommend here then.

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