My Best Books of 2017 and Reading in the Year Ahead...

As another year draws to a close I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the books that have most profoundly impacted me in 2017. This was an incredible year for me for reading. This is due to a number of factors: (1) I completed my MTS thesis this spring which brought me through many great books, (2) I had a summer break before we moved to NYC that enabled some much needed down time, and (3) I live down the hall from one of the top theological libraries in the world, the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary

How I Read Great Books All Year Long...

Before I do that I wanted to share a quick list of the way that I hunt down so many great books. If you are anything like me, one of the most painful questions of life is this: How am I supposed to read all of these incredible books?!?! So here are just some of the ways that I try to keep up:

  1. I follow places that make it their business to pay attention to new and/or important works in the fields that interest me. This includes places like the Englewood Review of Books and The New York Review of Books, I often check the forthcoming titles section at some of my favorite publishing houses like Fortress Press and Orbis Books. And on social media I pay attention to the book recommendations of scholars, activists, and church leaders that I respect. 
  2. I read every footnote in every book that I read. When I begin to notice a pattern of citing certain authors or certain texts I am able to add them to the orbit of what I am reading or going to read. 
  3. I am always asking my friends and mentors, "What are you reading?"
  4. I pay attention to everything that Kris reads for her MDiv/MSSW at Union Theological Seminary. Her courses are amazing, and I find that it helps (slightly) to assuage my unvarnished jealousy to read alongside her coursework. 
  5. When I look up a book on Amazon I always take the time to look at the other recommending titles. And I keep an active, ongoing wishlist going to provide a reminder for myself of the titles I want to pursue going forward.

MY TOP BOOKS OF 2017

The books that I have read this year have spanned a number of different disciplines, in part due to the interdisciplinary nature of my thesis work, and I have broken them down here as follows: Theology/Church History, Society/Culture, Memoir, and Race/Racism.

THEOLOGY/CHURCH HISTORY

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Suffering by Dorothee Soelle

This book is first on the list on purpose. If you have ever struggled with questions about the nature of evil and human suffering this is the first book I would recommend for you. Her work was central to my thesis this Spring and was the only book I re-read in 2017. The first chapter in which Soelle offers a critique of what she calls "Christian masochism" and "Christian sadism" should be required reading for all clergy and those who wrestle with these kinds of questions. This book would be in the top 10 books I have read in my lifetime. I cannot recommend it strongly enough. 

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Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre

McEntyre, a professor of English who writes about the intersection of language and Christian faith, has written a short little book about the importance of the task faced by theologians and clergy in the stewardship of language, particularly in a culture that is in some ways post-truth. Although written in 2009, this book feels as if it was meant for the Trump Era of fake news and campaigns of misinformation. This is a beautifully written text that not only informs but will help those who have the calling of communicating the truths of Christian faith in a society filled with so much (dis)information. 

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Post-Traumatic Public Theology edited by Stephanie N. Arel and Shelly Rambo

This edited collection of essays ranges widely around questions of trauma and human suffering, theological reflection, and the concrete life of Christians and ecclesial communities. I found the essays by Willie Jennings ("War Bodies: Remembering Bodies in a Time of War"), Bryan Stone ("Trauma, Reality, and Eucharist"), and Dan Hauge ("The Trauma of Racism and the Distorted White Imagination") are foundational contributions to their respective conversations at the intersection of trauma and theology. Highly recommended. 

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Silence: A Christian History by Diarmaid MacCulloch

Diarmaid MacCulloch is one of the leading church historians alive today, and this text, the product of 2006 Gifford Lectures (some of the most prestigious lectures given in religion), MacCulloch explores the places in Christian history from which we can learn because of silence. He explores these "gaps" to which he is conscious because of his own experience as a renowned church historian who, as an openly gay man, has experienced enough silencing to know where to look in the Christian tradition. This is a must read for anyone interested in how to learn from and explore church history. 

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Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology, 2 Vols., by David E. Kelsey

The career-long project of an important theologian, this massive two-volume set (1,092 pages) is a tour de force for anyone who wants to think deeply about theological anthropology. This is one of the most complex books I read this year, but was also one of the most rewarding. Anyone thinking about the nature of sin, salvation, or what it means to be human must engage this work. This is one I will be coming back to for years to come.

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The New Testament: A Translation by David Bentley Hart

From the Dust Jacket:
David Bentley Hart undertook this new translation of the New Testament in the spirit of “etsi doctrina non daretur,” “as if doctrine is not given.” Reproducing the texts’ often fragmentary formulations without augmentation or correction, he has produced a pitilessly literal translation, one that captures the texts’ impenetrability and unfinished quality while awakening readers to an uncanniness that often lies hidden beneath doctrinal layers.
 
The early Christians’ sometimes raw, astonished, and halting prose challenges the idea that the New Testament affirms the kind of people we are. Hart reminds us that they were a company of extremists, radical in their rejection of the values and priorities of society not only at its most degenerate, but often at its most reasonable and decent. “To live as the New Testament language requires,” he writes, “Christians would have to become strangers and sojourners on the earth, to have here no enduring city, to belong to a Kingdom truly not of this world. And we surely cannot do that, can we?”

The "Concluding Scientific Postscript" at the conclusion of the text is not only a powerful explanation and defense of Hart's choices throughout the New Testament text, but is a wonderful example of how Scripture should be considered and more importantly, encountered. This is the only thing I carry to church these days. A must have. 

SOCIETY/CULTURE

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Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair by Sarah Schulman

This is the book that I discovered in 2017 that I always needed but could never find. In this incredibly provocative book, Schulman takes on all kinds of areas of tension and sensitivity and cuts through it with laser precision. Exploring the difference between conflict, which inherently involves a duty to participate in repair, and abuse, she opens us up to re-examine every area of our lives and society where polarization, animosity, and defensive postures reside. Someday when I teach full-time, this will be required reading of every student I teach. An incredible book. 

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The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics, 2nd Edition, by Arthur W. Frank

This wonderful book explores the ways in which stories of illness that emerge within a "remission society" whose primary values are wholeness and health, and how these narratives are used to respond to the world as it is and as we long for it to be. 

This book not only unlocks the way that stories are told, but helps the reader to understand how they are being deployed. Not just what they are saying, but more importantly what they are doing. This book has changed the way that I listen for how churches deploy (or silence) the narratives of Scripture and their own communal life. A brilliant book whose influence and importance are rightly regarded. 

Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction by Maia Szalavitz

From the Dust Jacket:
Challenging both the idea of the addict's “broken brain” and the notion of a simple “addictive personality,” Unbroken Brain offers a radical and groundbreaking new perspective, arguing that addictions are learning disorders and shows how seeing the condition this way can untangle our current debates over treatment, prevention and policy. Like autistic traits, addictive behaviors fall on a spectrum -- and they can be a normal response to an extreme situation. By illustrating what addiction is, and is not, the book illustrates how timing, history, family, peers, culture and chemicals come together to create both illness and recovery- and why there is no “addictive personality” or single treatment that works for all. Combining Maia Szalavitz’s personal story with a distillation of more than 25 years of science and research, Unbroken Brain provides a paradigm-shifting approach to thinking about addiction.

This book is brilliant, accessible, and an important conversation starter for one of the most entrenched and important problems that faces our nation in the coming years. 

MEMOIR

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A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold

I admittedly had a deeply personal interest in this memoir. Sue Klebold is the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the two shooters at the first "mass" school shooting: Columbine High School in Colorado. Growing up about 30 minutes north of Columbine, having friends who attended the school when this happened, and having met Dylan in an off-chance encounter at Columbine a few months before the shooting made me curious how Sue, a tireless advocate for adolescent mental health and intervention and anti-violence advocate, would tell her story. In an honest, raw, and heartbreaking testimony to the complexity, fragility, and terrorizing potential of human beings, Klebold holds nothing back. Breathtaking. An important memoir in the age of active-shooter drills in our schools and in a political climate that protects weapons over children. 

Against the Wind: Memoir of a Radical Christian by Dorothee Soelle

The memoir of my favorite theologian is both insightful and expansive. It opens up new avenues into a richer understanding of her perspective, theological commitments, and the ways in which this radical disciple and theologian navigated the ever complicated path between the academy, the church, and the streets. This memoir helps to give context to her expansive work and to the kind of life that can be cultivated by the reader in order to prepare themselves and their communities for the kind of capacity that characterized Soelle's life and career. Anyone interested in her work should read this memoir. 

RACE/RACISM

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Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson

Without a doubt one of the most important and uncomfortable books I read in 2017, Dyson literally takes us to church with a full liturgy examining black experience, white complicity, and the ways in which White America, particularly those who claim Christian faith must wake up and respond with boldness and an absence of ambiguity or neutrality. At times I felt myself physically cringe, verbally respond, or put down the book through tears in my eyes. 

For all these reasons and more this is one book that all white people who care about racial justice in America, particularly of Christian faith, should read yesterday. 

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White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson

From the Dust Jacket:
Since 1865 and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, every time African Americans have made advances towards full participation in our democracy, white reaction has fueled a deliberate and relentless rollback of their gains. The end of the Civil War and Reconstruction was greeted with the Black Codes and Jim Crow; the Supreme Court's landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision was met with the shutting down of public schools throughout the South while taxpayer dollars financed segregated white private schools; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 triggered a coded but powerful response, the so-called Southern Strategy and the War on Drugs that disenfranchised millions of African Americans while propelling presidents Nixon and Reagan into the White House, and then the election of America's first black President, led to the expression of white rage that has been as relentless as it has been brutal. 

Carefully linking these and other historical flashpoints when social progress for African Americans was countered by deliberate and cleverly crafted opposition, Anderson pulls back the veil that has long covered actions made in the name of protecting democracy, fiscal responsibility, or protection against fraud, rendering visible the long lineage of white rage. Compelling and dramatic in the unimpeachable history it relates, White Rage will add an important new dimension to the national conversation about race in America.

This book is a powerful retelling of the real history of racism in America, and one of which I was largely aware. Anderson masterfully challenges some of our most sacred narratives, exposing them for the complex and often malevolent individuals and institutions that they were. A humbling and important book. 


PROMISING READS FOR 2018

I don't want to take the time here to say why I am excited about these books in the coming year, but I do want to lay out some of them here. Some of them are new, others are simply new to me. Maybe this can serve as a nice stimulus for your own reading list in the coming year...

What's on your bookshelf for this coming year?