Here's my end-of-the-year roundup of the best books I read this year. They are not all 2013 books (though most of them are), but they're all books I found especially meaningful this year. They are in no particular order (other than the random pile sitting in front of me).
1. The Reason Why I Jump: The Inner Vice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism, Naoki Higashida Those of us who love someone on the autism spectrum know that sometimes we wonder, “Why do you do that?” This book drove me to tears dozens of times, as this remarkable, autistic young man answers questions such as “Why don’t you make eye contact when you’re talking?” and “Why do you ask the same questions over and over?” Beyond the helpful insider’s glance from the autistic point-of-view, there’s a larger vision here. “Us kids with autism would like you to watch out for us, meaning, ‘Please never give up on us,’” he writes. “When we sense you’ve given up on us, it makes us feel miserable. So please keep helping us, through to the end.” Man. Don’t we all need that? This book made me resolve, all the more, not to give up on someone, through to the end.
2. Flannery O’ Connor: Writing a Theology of Disabled Humanity, Timothy J. Basselin I normally read quickly. This book took a long time, because I would stop and ponder. The author contends that we have a hard time with disability because we have a hard time with limitation, especially in an American Dream culture that says our possibilities are endless. He argues that O’Connor’s limitations, lupus and the resulting need to stay at home in Georgia, made her who she was. This book made me think quite differently about suffering, about God’s mercy, about those we see as “broken” or “odd.” This book is the perfect antidote to the prosperity gospel, both the gauche ones we see on TV and the subtler shades of Baalism we find in our own hearts.
3. Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry, Gregory Alan Thornbury How could I not love this book? The subject is a man I came to know in his elderly years, and whose theology, especially in his tract The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism changed my whole life. The author is my friend since the days we were neighbors in Southern Seminary housing and fellow research assistants in the basement of the President’s home. But even if I didn’t know anything about either, this book is right on point. Thornbury shows that Henry’s biblical orthodoxy matched with philosophical savvy and cultural mission wasn’t a fluke of the last century, but is needed more than ever. And it’s written with classic Thornbury clarity, wit, intellect, and fun. Thank God the King’s College was smart enough to elect him president. I wish Dr. Henry could have lived to see it, and to read this fine book.
4. Merle Haggard: The Running Kind, David Cantwell Y’all know I pledge allegiance to the Hag. But this book is important and worthy, even apart from the greatness of Merle’s music. The book is a sophisticated cultural history, tracing Haggard’s experience as the son of “Okie” migrants to California, as despised and stereotyped as other immigrants were in other times and places. It also traces his Forrest Gump-like life of cameo appearances in almost every important historical trend of the last forty years. He was imprisoned at an early age, though not quite doing “life without parole.” He was pardoned by Gov. Ronald Reagan. His “Okie from Muskogee” and “Fighting Side of Me” became anthems of the Nixonian “Silent Majority” in the culture wars, though Haggard himself was never much of a culture warrior. Of most interest to me was Haggard’s reflection, showing up so often in his songs, on the life of his father. The book closes with Haggard, late in life, playing “Okie from Muskogee” at a concert, introducing it this way. “A song I wrote for my father. He was from Oklahoma. And he did not smoke marijuana. He. Did. Not.”
5. Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme, Stephen Westerholm The so-called “new perspective on Paul” can get tiresome quickly. This book is different. Westerholm doesn’t write like a partisan, defending his tribe, but as a faithful witness seeking to find where his interlocutors are right and wrong. In the end he shows persuasively from the Scriptures how Augustine didn’t invent the concept of an “introspective conscience,” later picked up by Martin Luther and superimposed on Paul. Instead, the Pauline epistles themselves address, from start to finish, the question of “How can I find a gracious God?” The book didn’t prompt me to think, “Take that, you false teachers!” It prompted me to think, again and again, “Thank you Lord for your mercy to this sinner.” That’s always worth the price of a book.
6. Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative, Michael Novak This book is the testimony of one who traveled from socialism to so-called “neo-conservatism,” through a life working with figures from Sargent Shriver to Ronald Reagan. It’s more than a “here’s how I changed my mind” book. Woven through a fascinating personal history is a series of brilliant insights on everything from why socialists could never be persuaded that socialism was wrong to why conservatives shouldn’t be so quick to bash popular culture. I hated to see this insightful, fun book end.
7. The Stench of Honolulu: A Tropical Adventure, Jack Handey When I was a youth minister back in the 1990s, I would start every Bible Study time or student activity with a quote from Handey’s Saturday Night Live-era Deep Thoughts. The kids would groan, but I loved it. Now Handey’s back. This book seems to be a collection of “Deep Thoughts,” with a narrative strung between them, maybe even done on a bet. And it is hilarious. “I hope if I ever get reincarnated I can make a deal where I come back as a million ants. That way, even if I get stepped on or attacked by an anteater, I don’t care, because there’s lots more of me where that came from.” If that doesn’t make you laugh, skip this book. But if it does…
8. Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, James D. Bratt As one deeply influenced by the Kuyperian tradition, I was waiting a long time for this intellectual history of the great Dutch theologian and politician’s life to come to my door. The book highlights the brilliance and prophetic insight of Kuyper as a thinker and activist. It also shows some flashes of a path forward for Christians in a rapidly pluralizing American society. At the same time, the book points out the personal side of this great man, with both heroism and flaws. He was often depressed and irritable and comes off often as, frankly, kind of a jerk. The book reminded me to show some mercy to the grumpier among us, and to resolve to try not to be that way myself.
9. Looking for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and his Revolutionary Comic Strip, Nevin Martell Talk about grumpy. This book pictures the author of the strip Calvin and Hobbes as something of a loner, who grated at the publicity his work brought, sometimes to the irritation of his fans and colleagues. But, behind all that, was a comic strip like none other. I like the book because I like Calvin and Hobbes, but I liked it also because it highlights some important lessons for all of us. Watterson alienated many around him because he refused to turn his strip over to sellable clichés, and to cash in the strip for the plush toy and animated movie market. Whether you think Watterson was right or wrong, he stood with his artistic convictions, and that’s one reason why so many of us love his work. “Wonderful, lifelike characters are easily corrupted and cheapened by having them appear on every drugstore shelf and rack,” he said. “Several fine strips have turned themselves into shameless advertisements for products.” Moreover, he deplored the continuing of old strips with new authors and boilerplate scripts, just to keep the franchise going. “Strips that had some relevance to the world during the Depression are now being continued by baby boomers, and the results are embarrassing,” he said. I think there’s some relevance there to evangelical Christianity. This book also looks at the philosophy behind Watterson’s worldview. The author suggests that the little boy and his tiger in the strip my have been named based on Horace White’s observation that the United States “is based upon the philosophy of Hobbes and the religion of Calvin. It assumes that the natural state of mankind is a state of war, and that the carnal mind is at enmity with God.” I put this book down several times to find myself in the strips in one of Watterson’s collections. If you like Calvin and Hobbes, or Calvin and Hobbes, you’ll find this book interesting.
10. Ethics and Moral Reasoning: A Student’s Guide, C. Ben Mitchell Ethics books tend to be boring or dated, or both. They’re often boring because they’re abstract, disconnected from the lived-out questions of most people. They’re often dated because they can’t keep up with the whirring nature of technology and culture. This book isn’t boring and it won’t be dated for some time. Mitchell traces why moral philosophy isn’t just for specialists but for the whole Body of Christ. He explains with clarity the various ways of approaching these questions, and offers ethical reflection that isn’t ashamed of the gospel or embarrassed to claim, “The Bible says.” I plan to give this to lots of budding young ethicists, preachers and leaders.
11. The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song That Marches On, John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis I don’t remember ever hearing the Battle Hymn of the Republic sung in the patriotic services at my church growing up. Maybe that’s because it was seen as a “Yankee song,” and the 1980s were too close for south Mississippi to the close of the Civil War. I don’t know, but I remember hearing it first as a child in Elvis Presley’s “American Trilogy,” in which he fused it with “Dixie” and a Bahamian lullaby, seeking to transcend lyrically the Mason-Dixon line. In the years to come, I’ll be struck by the richness of the biblical imagery in the song. But that imagery is controversial, and that’s what this book is about. Contemporary progressives don’t tend to like hymns with militant imagery (see the controversies over “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “In Christ Alone”), and it’s hard to get more militant than “stomping out the vineyard where the grapes of wrath are stored.” But this book shows that the song was controversial with conservatives, such as J. Gresham Machen who found it to be a Christless, gospel-free anthem of crusading progressivism. Of course, the Battle Hymn returned during the civil rights era, linking the just cause of the Freedom Marchers and others with the earlier abolitionists. I like the Battle Hymn, and think we should sing it. But this book traced a fascinating series of cultural divides in America, and reminded me how what we sing embeds itself in our hearts, sometimes driving us apart and sometimes bringing us together—and sometimes both in different ages.
12. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life, Rod Dreher The first time I ever read Rod Dreher, I think in the pages of National Review, I found a kindred spirit. In the years since then, we’ve been in touch often through technology and though we’ve yet to meet in person, I think of him as a friend. Rod sent me this book when it was in early manuscript form, and I was drawn in from start to finish. This is the story of Rod and his family moving home to St. Francisville, Louisiana, after his sister was stricken with cancer. Part of the appeal is that Dreher is a gut-wrenchingly powerful writer. Part of it is that he doesn’t glaze over returning home. This isn’t Little House on the Bayou. And part of it is that we come from roughly the same part of the world, and I feel every day of sense of loss that I’m not at home in Biloxi. Wherever you’re from, whether you’re right next door to “Mama and them” or connected only by Skype and memories to your roots, this book will give you much to think about.
13. Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, Andy Crouch This is another book I read in manuscript form, in order to offer a blurb of endorsement. I planned to read a little at the time, expecting to like it because I’ve loved Andy Crouch’s previous work Culture Making. I read through the whole thing almost in one sitting and found it plowing through my heart, leaving idol shards everywhere. The book is about how all of us exercise power—regardless of whether we are an unemployed janitor or President of the United States—and how this power will be directed either for or against human flourishing. You will wince at some points as you see how your use of power is more Pharaoh-like than Christlike, or at least I did.