Friday, January 02, 2009

My Favorite Books of 2008

Okay, another list. These are not books that were published in 2008. They are books that I read in 2008 and found to be particularly enjoyable, enriching, thought-provoking and, in some cases, life-changing.

1. The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium - Walter Wink
This book is a distillation of Wink's "Powers Trilogy" books (Naming the Powers, Unmasking the Powers and Engaging the Powers). Wink begins by identifying the systems of domination that have existed throughout mankind's history. He goes on to point out and explain the pervasive "myth of redemptive violence" in our cultures. I will never look at cartoons the same way again. Next Wink explores how Jesus interacted with the domination systems of His day and deconstructed the lie which says that violence can be constructive and redemptive. The book then moves into a practical discussion of how the spiral of violence and oppression can be broken by non-violent resistance (and explains why non-violent resistance is very different from pacifism). This book was a joy to read. It was eye-opening, paradigm-shifting and personally challenging. I previously posted an excerpt from The Powers that Be here. I intend to re-read the book soon in order to further cement the powerful ideas that Wink brings forth.

2. Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope - Brian McLaren
I read this book immediately after reading The Powers That Be, which was like receiving a combination punch to the psyche. McLaren was clearly influenced by Wink (to the point of citing him repeatedly and using some of Wink's terminology) and builds on the foundation that Wink has laid. Everything Must Change is a challenge to rethink what the Gospel of Jesus Christ means and then to act upon it. Here's an excerpt, which also explains how the book got its title:

"The second day of our gathering in Bujumbura came to an end. As the group dispersed for some free time before dinner, I noticed Justine, a Burundian currently living in Rwanda, sitting alone at a table. Her head was on the table, sheltered in her arms, and she was completely motionless. At first I wondered if she was asleep or maybe sick. I asked another woman who could translate to come with me to see if she was okay. The woman put her hand on Justine's shoulder, and Justine slowly raised her head. "Are you okay?" we asked.
She replied, "I'm okay, but I'm shaken up. I don't know if anyone else here sees it, but I do. I see it. Today, for the first time, I see what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God. I see that it's about changing this world, not just escaping it and retreating into our churches. If Jesus' message of the kingdom of God is true, then everything must change. Everything must change."

This book may cause you to have a similar reaction. And that is probably a good thing.

3. The Shack - William P. Young
I resisted reading this book for a long time, assuming it was just another mediocre work of hack Christian fiction. I finally broke down and bought a copy. As I began to read, my assessment seemed to be correct until the book took an unexpected turn. To my surprise, it blossomed into an emotionally moving, deeply spiritual and theologically profound tale. Not bad for a $10.00 paperback. I think The Shack is the Pilgrim's Progess of our time.

In no particular order:

Friends for 350 Years
- Howard H. Brinton
Considered a classic amongst Quakers, and I can see why. It is more than just a history of the Quakers and an explanation of Quaker distictives. It is perhaps the closest thing to a Quaker Systematic Theology that I have seen. Observe Brinton's insightful description of what an individual encounters during a Quaker silent Meeting for Worship:
The worshiper sits down in silence. He seeks to compose his wandering thoughts. How shall he begin in order that his worship may not become a dreamy reverie? Perhaps by repeating a prayer, or a verse of scripture or poetry. As he progresses, he may be able to offer a prayer of his own which merges with thoughts which have to do with the routine problems of his daily life. He must not fear to express selfish desires, for, above all, he must be sincere. He may then find that these desires, when expressed before God, assume a different form, proportion and direction. After a time something may come before his mind, a past event, a future possibility, a saying or occurrence in the Bible or elsewhere on which his attention becomes fixed. This focus of attention is now seen, not in a secular, but in a religious context. It is viewed in its eternal rather than its temporal aspect.

The will and feelings of the worshiper become stirred as the thought before him glows with life and power. He no longer feels that he himself is searching, but that he is being searched through. There is a growing sense of divine Presence. Truth is not thought about, but perceived and enjoyed. It may be that a point is reach at which the worshiper finds that he must communicate to the meeting what has come to him. Or, he may resolve to act at some time in the future in accordance with the Light which he has received. If he waits quietly and expectantly with the windows of his soul open to whatever Light may shine, he may lose all sense of separate existence and find himself aware only of the greater Life on which his own is based. The sense of union with God may come unexpectedly. This occurs more often than is generally supposed for it is frequently not recognized for what it is. Such complete self-forgetfulness of sleep which cannot be remembered at all, and there is, at the opposite pole, the higher self-forgetfulness in which every faculty of the soul is intensely awake, with the result that consciousness is widened to include that which is beyond thought and memory."

A Quaker of the Olden Time, A Memoir of John Roberts - by his son, Daniel Roberts
I have been unable to find a hardcopy of this book, but have read through the online version a couple of times this year. The book was originally published in 1746. The online version contains a prefatory letter written by Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1883. Holmes summed it up well when he wrote, "I have read the Memoir of John Roberts with very great interest and real delight. It is so comforting to meet, even in a book, a man who is perfectly simple-hearted, clear-headed, and brave in all conditions. The story is so admirably told, too, dramatically, vividly -- one lives the whole scene over and knows the persons who appear in it as if they had been his townsmen."

But I Tell You: Jesus Introduces a Better Way to Live
- Karen Oberst
This book was used by our Meeting for Learning (Sunday School) as a basis for discussion. Each time we gathered we would read a chapter (all of which are very short) and then reflect and dialogue upon it. The book, in which each chapter looks at a verse from the Sermon on the Mount, is perfectly suited to group discussion.

The Story of My Experiments with Truth - Mohandas K. Gandhi
This is not your typical autobiography. Gandhi was very selective about what he chose to describe in this work. As he explains in the Introduction:
" is not my purpose to attempt a real autobiography. I simply want to tell the story of my numerous experiments with truth, and as my life consists of nothing but those experiments, it is true that the story will take the shape of an autobiography. But I shall not mind, if every page of it speaks only of my experiments. I believe, or at any rate flatter myself with the belief, that a connected account of all these experiments will not be without benefit to the reader. My experiments in the political field are now known, not only to India, but to a certain extent to the "civilized" world. For me, they have not much value, and the title of "Mahatma" that they have won for me has, therefore, even less. Often the title has deeply pained me, and there is not a moment I can recall when it may be said to have tickled me. But I should certainly like to narrate my experiments in the spiritual field which are known only to myself, and from which I have derived such power as I possess for working in the political field. If the experiments are really spiritual, then there can be no room for self-praise. They can only add to my humility. The more I reflect and look back on the past, the more vividly do I feel my limitations."

What come across is a man who was exceptionally humble yet who also possessed a will of iron. He is unabashedly honest and freely admits his errors and shortcomings, including admitting how often providence or circumstance played a roll in events that involved him. Gandhi's great motivator was the Love of God. I can't help but think that Gandhi, Paul of Tarsus and George Fox would have liked each other immensely. The book can drag in places, especially when Gandhi describes in excruciating detail his various meetings with various Indian politicians and personalities. Overall though Gandhi's recollections affected, enriched and encouraged me.

Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America - Mel White
Mel White was an Evangelical insider who ghost-wrote books for Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, Pat Robertson and others while simultaneously traveling on a soul-wrenching journey of resisting and ultimately accepting his homosexual orientation. This book is harrowing, challenging and, at last, affirming. If you are gay, it will give you hope. If you are not gay, it will give you understanding and empathy. It certainly puts to rest the question of whether or not gay people can be Christians. The answer is yes, they can.

The Greek Word Aion-Aionios Translated Everlasting-Eternal in the Holy Bible Shown to Denote Limited Duration - Rev. John Wesley Hanson, A.M.
This is not so much a book as a lengthy and detailed tract, written in 1875, in which Hanson tackles the question of whether or not the Bible really teaches the doctrine of Eternal Punishment by examining the Hebrew and Greek words used in the Bible which are typically translated as "Eternal". This tract is as fascinating and provocative now as it was in 1875. See also The Inescapable Love of God by Thomas Talbott.


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