As the holidays are upon us, end-of-year "best of" lists begin to proliferate. Here is my list of my five favorite books for 2014. This list is of books that I read this year that had the greatest impact on me. They were not necessarily published in 2014, however. Some were, but some are older.
- Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint
Nadia Bolz-Weber is the pastor (er, pastrix) of Denver's House for All Sinners and Saints
, a thriving Evangelical Lutheran church that describes itself as "..a group of folks figuring out how to be a liturgical, Christo-centric, social justice-oriented, queer-inclusive, incarnational, contemplative, irreverent, ancient / future church with a progressive but deeply rooted theological imagination."
Bolz-Weber is easily recognizable for her lanky frame, punk rock hair, clerical collar, copious tattoos and sharp sense of humor. She has a real pastoral heart for marginalized and outcast people. I have visited HfASaS and found it to be as advertised: radically inclusive, egalitarian, worshipful, liturgical, fun, a little bit messy, deeply spiritual and very much a loving community. Pastrix
is primarily a memoir of how a wild teen who grew into a crude, substance-abusing comedienne ended up becoming a Lutheran pastor (hint: Grace). This is also a memoir of how the community of HfASaS came into being and how it functions--how they live out their Christ-centered values. Like Bolz-Weber herself, this memoir is challenging, honest, thought-provoking, encouraging and funny (literally, the very first word in the very first chapter caused me to laugh out loud).
- Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian
Paul F. Knitter is a theologian's theologian: He graduated from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in 1966 and then earned his doctorate in theology from the University of Marburg, Germany, where he studied under Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Rahner, Knitter was for many years Emeritus Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio and is now Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Much of Knitter's scholarly work over the decades has been in the field of interfaith dialogue. For all of his lofty academic credentials, Knitter's writing in Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian
is remarkably humble and personal and self-deprecatingly humorous. He is willing to explore challenging and risky questions with an attitude of honest and open inquiry. He shares transparently about his own faith struggles. In his introduction, Knitter writes, "I've come to be convinced that I have to do my theology--and live my Christian life--dialogically. Or in current theological jargon: I have to be religious interreligiously. I've tried to practice and understand my Christian life through engagement with the way other people--Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Native Americans--have lived and understood their religious lives. Though I have found my conversations with all the other religious traditions to be fruitful, my deepest, most enjoyable, most difficult, and therefore most rewarding conversations have been with Buddhism and Buddhists. ... Over the years I have realized that this conversation with Buddhism has really been one of the two most helpful--really indispensable--resources for carrying on my Christian and theological task of trying to mediate between my religious heritage (the Bible and tradition) and the culture that has marked my humanity. ... My conversation with Buddhism has enabled me to do what every theologian must do professionally and what every Christian must do personally--that is, to understand and live our Christian beliefs in such a way that these beliefs are both consistent with and a challenge for the world in which we live. Buddhism has allowed me to make sense of my Christian faith so that I can maintain my intellectual integrity and affirm what I see as true and good in my culture; but at the same time, it has aided me to carry out my prophetic-religious responsibility and challenge what I see as false and harmful in my culture."
- Walking the Bridgeless Canyon: Repairing the Breach between the Church and the LGBT Community
Kathy Baldock is a heterosexual Evangelical Christian and mom of two adult straight children who several years ago began showing up at Gay Pride parades wearing a T-Shirt that said “Hurt by Church? Get a Straight Apology Here."
What followed were hundreds of grace-filled conversations with LGBTQ persons and a life-mission
for Kathy to repair the breach between the LGBTQ community and the Evangelical church. Kathy's background as an engineer is reflected in the way her book is meticulously organized, researched and footnoted. Her book is divided into sections on History and Culture
, Religion and Politics
, The Bible
, and LGBT Christians and Their Allies
. Within each section are chapters that thoroughly explore pertinent topics. What Baldock particularly excels at is providing panoramic context. She devotes chapters to the history of views regarding sexual orientation in Western culture, the development and evolution of scientific and psychological understandings about homosexuality, the rise of the Moral Majority and American fundamentalist attitudes towards gay people, the tragic saga of the HIV/AIDS crisis, the beginnings and growth of gay pride movements, the ins-and-outs of the now discredited reparative therapy fad, the often overlooked reality of "mixed orientation marriages", the Biblical passages associated with same-sex behavior, etc., etc. I learned so much from this book.
- The Bible Tells Me So...: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable To Read It
Peter Enns has Master's degrees from Westminster Theological Seminary and Harvard and also a Ph.D. from Harvard in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. He has taught at Westminster Theological Seminary, Harvard University, Princeton Theological Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, Lutheran Theological Seminary, Biblical Theological Seminary, Temple University and Eastern University on subjects dealing with Biblical Theology (Old and New Testament, Second Temple literature, etc., etc.). He belongs to the Society of Biblical Literature and the Institute for Biblical Research. He has been a major contributor to several Bible dictionaries, Bible commentaries and Bible study guides. In other words, Enns knows his Bible and, if need be, can write dense and weighty theological tomes backed up by rigorous scholarship. But The Bible Tells Me So...
is neither dense or weighty (though it is built on a solid foundation of Biblical, theological, linguistic and historical expertise). I can't recall the last time a book by a world-class theologian caused me to repeatedly laugh out loud and turn each page with relish. Imagine humorist Dave Barry as a Biblical scholar. The Bible Tells Me So...
is a brilliant little book of about 250 pages broken into bite-sized chapters. In spite of its brevity and wit Enn's book manages to provide a deep and relevant overview of the entire Bible and a guide for how to appropriately read it. His central point is that we need to read the Bible on its own terms and not try to impose our expectations upon it. As he puts it, "This book is really about having an attitude adjustment concerning the Bible and God in light of how the Bible actually behaves."
Enns not only knows the Bible well, he loves it and respects it and has devoted his life to understanding it. "Hold on to the time-tested wisdom that in order to know God better, we should keep reading and wrestling with the Bible. It's God's Word and that's what he wants,"
says Enns. But, he adds, "The Bible is not, never has been, and never will be the center of the Christian faith. ... That position belongs to God, specifically, what God has done in and through Jesus. The Bible is the church's nonnegotiable partner, but it is not God's final word: Jesus is."
- Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation
Martin Laird is an Augustinian monk and professor of Early Christian Studies at Villanova University. He specializes in the history of Christian contemplative practice: from Pseudo-Dionysius to the Desert Mothers and Fathers to the Cappadocian Fathers to Evagrius to Augustine to Benedict to Aquinas to Meister Eckhart to Julian of Norwich to Teresa of Avila to John of the Cross to Thomas Merton and all points in between. Laird writes in a lyrical, winsome style and often references poetry in ways that bring clarity and depth to his expositions. This little book (142 pages) is rich and expansive and inspiring and deeply spiritual and utterly practical. It is not just the best book I've read all year, it is one of the best books I have ever read, and one I expect to re-read many times over the remainder of my life. I only wish I had discovered it sooner. Here is an edited excerpt: "There are two contemplative practices of fundamental importance in the Christian tradition: the practice of stillness (also called meditation, still prayer, contemplative prayer, etc.) and the practice of watchfulness or awareness. These contemplative skills are not imports from other religious traditions, and the Christian contemplative tradition has a lot to say about them. ... [T]he foundational assumption [is] that union with God is not something we are trying to acquire: God is already the ground of our being. It is a question of realizing this in our lives. ... [M]ost of us spend most of our lives more or less ignorant of this. It is precisely this noisy, chaotic mind that keeps us ignorant of the deeper reality of God as the ground of our being. ... The grace of salvation, the grace of Christian wholeness that flowers in silence, dispels this illusion of separation. For when the mind is brought to stillness, and all our strategies of acquisition have dropped, a deeper truth presents itself: we are and have always been one with God and we are all one in God (Jn 17:21)."
A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness, and Contemplation
by Martin Laird (the companion volume to Into the Silent Land
The Civil War as a Theological Crisis
by Mark A. Noll
God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships
by Matthew Vines
Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate
by Justin Lee
Discernment Matters: Listening with the Ear of the Heart
by Sister Mary Margaret Funk
Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed
by Bruce G. Epperly
God, Power and Evil: A Process Theodicy
by David Ray Griffin