Thursday, December 30, 2010

Top 35 Non-Fiction

Every year around my birthday I try to get a new "all time" list up on my blog, for the sake of both recollection and recommendation. What began as a thank you email to 31 people who had had a profound impact on my life followed up with blog-lists of "32 films that stuck", "33 favourite fiction", and "34 albums I've lived by" -- all found on my sidebar and added to each year. This year I offer my top 35 non-fiction reads of all time. A bit of an eclectic (and ecclesiological) list, but it is my list nonetheless. 'Tis the season.

1. Karl Barth - Church Dogmatics IV: The Doctrine of Reconciliation

The four part-volumes and posthumously published fragments of what ended up being the climactic finale to Barth's theological career have for me been the clearest and most compelling articulation not only of Protestant Christianity but of life on this earth. Not a few times this year I've been heard to say (somewhat facetiously) that I think I became a Christian reading the Church Dogmatics.

2. G.K. Chesterton - Orthodoxy

An autobiographical account of Chesterton's coming to faith at the turn of last century, Orthodoxy transcends memoir and offers a wonderful view of the Christian spirit amongst the modern myths. The humility and humour that GKC brings to the reasonable defense of the orthodox Christian faith is to me the embodiment of speaking the truth in love. The content of the book is refreshing and true to life; inspiring and provocative of further thought.

3. Henri Nouwen - In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership

At a conference one year I retreated to my room for the afternoon, opened this book, read it, wept, phoned my brother, hung up, turned to the beginning and read it all over again. This book transformed my perspective on Christian leadership and community. When people ask me for my top five leadership books I just tell them to read this one and quit wasting their time.

4. Miroslav Volf - Exclusion and Embrace: Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation

Maybe the best practical account of the gospel that I've read. Among other things in this book Volf recommends "the epistemological side of faith in the Crucified," a posture of dialogue which does not amount to the forsaking of one’s convictions, but the openness to the ever-present possibility of having one’s perceptions enhanced by others, especially those with which one essentially disagrees. Calling it "enlarged thinking," Volf explains that this is not a rhetorical strategy, but is simply what true followers of Christ do.

5. Stanley Hauerwas & William Willimon - Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony

I must have turned to this book every couple weeks when I was a pastor, and it really impacted my approach. Though the subtitle -- "a provocative Christian assessment of culture and ministry for people who know something is wrong" -- is what grabbed me first, it was the constructive content that stuck with me most. I am still grappling with Hauerwas and Willimon's description of the church as first of all a confessing people.

6. Francis Schaeffer - True Spirituality

I had a pretty narrow view of what the cross of Christ meant for person, church and world until I picked this up and devoured it somewhere in the gap between my first and second years of Bible College. It dealt with what Schaeffer called the "substantial" ramifications of the gospel, but didn't sell them as guarantees or self-help mechanisms. What he showed was the social and personal trajectory of the gospel.

7. Stanley Grenz & John Franke - Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context

Having been tempted to rely on and form intellectual foundations for my faith and to work up apologetic arguments for them, I was impacted by this book to consider other ways that theology might and ought to be done. Not only did it give voice to and address intelligently many of the doubts and suspicions that have arisen in the contemporary era, it also went on from there to point out the Trinitarian structure, Community-integration, and eschatological orientation of Christian theology.

8. Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen - Gender and Grace: Love, Work & Parenting in a Changing World

Though I had done a good deal of exegetical and theological work on the issue of gender roles and the Bible, I still had trouble understanding past contexts and picturing the way mutuality-based relationships, churches and societies might look today. This sociological account dovetailed explicitly with that study to clarify the paradigm for me in the way no other book ever has. I went through it with my wife and we took it as a role model for the type of couple we wanted to be and the type of community we wanted to be a part of promoting in this broken world. A brilliant, informative, and important read for any Christian trying to be true to the biblical vision in our time.

9. N.T. Wright - Jesus and the Victory of God

At a time when scholars of every stripe were questioning and reframing historical Jesus studies, N.T. Wright gave a historical-exegetical account of the life and passion of Jesus that credibly and compellingly highlighted the radical relevance of this first century Jew and opened up a floodgate of fresh insights into the import of the Christian gospel. Before reading this I had been hesitant to preach the gospels and leant more toward the epistles and Old Testament narratives, but Wright brought the gospels to life and showed to me both their accessibility and profundity.

10. Romeo Dallaire - Shake Hands With the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda

A devastating memoir of an incredible experience in this man's life. He was the leader of United Nations peacekeepers in Rwanda before and during the 1994 genocide who was handcuffed by the world's lack of support for the mission there. He witnessed not only the atrocities of tribal warfare but of political malaise. Dallaire's conclusion? What we most desperately need is a "transfusion of humanity." I won't say I enjoyed this book, but I couldn't put it down -- and it gave some complexity to my fairly simplistic pacifism.

11. Karl Barth - Church Dogmatics II: The Doctrine of God

Reading the Doctrine of Election early every Friday morning for two years over a Starbucks with a half dozen seminarians was certainly a highlight of my education and an eminently formative experience. Though I fought him on the doctrine of election at every step, Barth's resistence to common categories and his insistence on speaking about Jesus first ended up being not only convincing but contagious. Going back and reading the first part-volume on the perfections of God now is only solidifying the importance of this book to my whole outlook.

12. G.K. Chesterton - The Everlasting Man

Though dense at points, at other points the prose is just marvelous. Likely Chesterton's best work of theology. I'm not sure if I still agree with it as much as I used to (particularly as it concerns its natural theology), but I certainly find in it an irresistible account of how it is that Jesus Christ is the alpha and omega, the man for all humanity, the one creation longed for -- and longs for still.

13. Donald Miller - Searching for God Knows What

An engaging and personable working out of the Christian faith by a guy my age with some of the same hang-ups. Written in a conversational style it brought some new vitality not only to the mundane things of life but to some of its deepest convictions. Has an honesty that is well taken and infectious.

14. John Ortberg - Everybody's Normal Till You Get to Know Them

An excellent and easy-to-read application of Matthew 18. An absolute must for people trying to lead a community of any kind, let alone a Christian community -- which has the motor for the kind of reconciliation work that that chapter describes. Entering the pastorate with a bachelor's degree, I still didn't know what to do with broken relationships in the community. This got me on the road to those practicalities, and many books later, now to a new ecclesiology.

15. Sidney Lumet - Making Movies

An acclaimed director describes the technicalities and personalities of film-making, with some incredible insights into the dynamics of respecting individuality and working together for common goals. A lot of leadership books derive their "principles" from the business or the sporting world, often to ill effect, and I found some balance and profundity in this perspective from the world of the arts.

16. John Stackhouse - Finally Feminist: A Pragmatic Christian Understanding of Gender

An excellent assessment and explanation of the gender-roles issue in churches today. It explains the biblical material in a way that refuses to assume that one side or the other is simply out of touch or unintelligent or unbiblical, manages to articulate a paradigm for understanding the whole, and offers a way forward with debate and change under the rubric of the law of love.

17. C.S. Lewis - Mere Christianity

I've since gone back to the book with a bit more of a level head, but when I first finished Mere Christianity I told my family that it really ought to be the 67th book of the Bible. Now that I mark book reviews of it for a distance learning class I've come to see its many flaws. But I can't deny what it did for me at one time, nor am I unmindful of the many wonderful gems inside.

18. Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter: The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can't Be Jammed

This book is a breath of fresh air for those disillusioned with culture but also unsatisfied with reactionary (and problematic) counter-cultures. The authors give some great perspective to the whole trend of "culture-jamming" and unveil it as the same culture as the one before with little more than a different product to sell. More to the point, what the "culture-jammers" are selling is the product of "difference". In fact, the authors show that the desire to be different is what makes our capitalist culture succeed, which is ironic since this is the very culture the culture-jammers claim to want to undermine.

19. Joseph Pearce - Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G.K. Chesterton

A thoroughly enjoyable picture of a very unique character whose genius and eccentricity can often overshadow the truly inspiring humility and joy at the core of his being. He seems like he's a guy everyone would be better off for having known. Since we can't go back to the 30s, I highly recommend curling up on a couch and getting to know him through the pages of this book.

20. Philip Yancey - Rumours of Another World: What on Earth are We Missing?

This book spoke to a variety of things, from faith to sex, and just kept pointing to the guiding sense of wonder within it all.

21. Anthony Campolo - Partly Right (We Have Met the Enemy and They Are)

At the time someone described Campolo as a "sweaty-toothed youth speaker." He's intense, and to be honest I was surprised to be reading a book by him for a philosophy class. But he really hit me where I needed it to hurt with this one. "All truth is God's truth," they say, and sometimes the truth the Church most needs to hear may come not from within but from without. If all we ever read is what flies off the Christian book store shelves we may only ever read what we want to hear. Campolo does a great job gleaning great (and biblical) stuff from some generally disregarded sources, and this book is a good read in humility, truth, and listening skills.

22. Annie Dillard - Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I heard that Annie Dillard's writing philosophy is not to use a single word unless it achieves a specific purpose. I believe it. She just quite simply has a way with words. Every single one is packed with a punch of life and majesty. In this book she can take an ordinary thing such as a leaf or an cloudy day or a trail of insects on the curbside at a rundown gas station and pull out of it more frightful beauty and terrible glory than we ever realized was there. Stuff we drive by every day is for Dillard the key to the universe, and reading this book alone can exponentially increase your awe and gratitude. Reading this book was the first time I remember enjoying reading for the plain sake of the reading itself.

23. Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela - A Human Being Died that Night

A psychologist in post-Apartheid South Africa personally interviews one of the most atrocious perpetrators of apartheid's many crimes, and wrestles with the realization of his humanity. Prime evil can be condemned, but not written off as something to which we innocent victims are immune. A sad and profoundly moving read.

24. Philip Yancey - Soul Survivor

A series of chapters on influential authors and thinkers, from Martin Luther King to Fyodor Dostoevsky. Many of the books I've mentioned on this list I read because of Yancey. He opened up several new vistas for me, some I have yet to fully explore.

25. Tricia McCary Rhodes - Contemplating the Cross

A 40 day meditation on the passion week leading up to Easter, this book helped me learn to meditate and more importantly to plumb the depths of the death of the Son of God.

26. John Webster - Word and Church

Some of the clearest articulations I've ever read about what is the church and what it means that God with us speaks among us.

27. Augustine - Confessions

A masterpiece which is best read as doxology first, theology second, and autobiography third. However, the three are obviously and importantly intertwined.

28. Bernd Wannenwetsch - Political Worship

This book bogged down in the middle but I thought that the path laid out in the beginning and the ideals put forward toward the end were some of the most refreshing and appropriate ecclesiology I've read. The chapter on "Consensus and Forgiveness" offers a much needed word for churches obsessed with efficiency and success that they forget their call to the ministry of reconciliation.

29. Elie Wiesel - Night

30. Simon Wiesenthal - The Sunflower

Holocaust reflections that are as pointed and poignant as they are haunting.

31. Rob Bell - Velvet Elvis

It may have been the tone more than the content that caught me up in this one. I had some problems with the book, but was pretty on board with the trajectory. In seminary I did extensive research on Rob Bell's hermeneutic, and so this book and the ensuing study left its trail in my thinking.

32. Clark Pinnock - Most Moved Mover

Many people I respect (and some I don't respect) have long since written off openness theology. I continue to be more intrigued than I am unconvinced, and will usually be the first to defend the view, even while I tweak it accordingly. All that to say, I was deeply invigorated by what Pinnock put forward here, and have yet to put this issue to bed.

33. Andrew Purves - Reconstructing Pastoral Theology

I said before that I'd tell pastors browsing leadership books to read Nouwen's In the Name of Jesus and then not waste their time on anything else. I forgot to mention this one. I can't wait to read Purves' latest book, because this one cleared the ground excellently for a much-needed, well, reconstruction in pastoral theology.

34. Ravi Zacharias - Cries of the Heart

Though I've not had a lot of tragedy or suffering in my life, theodicy questions have always been front and center on my mind. I appreciate that Ravi Zacharias got me thinking about this early, and got me thinking (and feeling) pretty clearly too.

35. Robert Louis Wilken - The Spirit of Early Christian Thought

A highly readable and inspiring introduction to the theology of the first few centuries of the church. Instilled in me a hunger to read more of the patristics and to trace more avidly the continuities of Christianity.


Brett Gee 英 明 said...

this is a great list. I like the Sidney Lumet book on there. One of the best I've read all year. NT Wright's 'surprised by hope' has also been nice to read this year. I look forward to getting my hands on The Church Dogmatics as I have heard from numerous people that they are must reads.

Anonymous said...

great list, jon. of those i've read, i agree with your assessment (though you might expect me to make a case to move Jesus and the Victory of God higher on the list...) of those I haven't read, I added 8 of your recomends to my new years reading list. dale.

Tony Tanti said...

you surprised me with a few of these, thanks for not just listing them, your descriptions have made me intrigued to read a couple of these. The Rebel Sell and Ortberg jump to mind.

ajmoyse said...

Thank you for this list. I share a similar affection with you regarding many of these books. Though, there are some that I have not read. ... though, now they will be added to my "to read" list, which is expanding out of control these days.

Jon Coutts said...

@Brett: I had Surprised by Hope in my shortlist.
@Tony: You'd love the Rebel Sell.
@Dale: 9th ain't bad. Especially with what's ahead of it. I could maybe go 7th!
@ajmoyse: thanks for coming by. I know what you mean about reading lists.

Anonymous said...

9th ain't bad at all. agreed it has some tough competition for the top 5, but to see wright come in behind schaeffer?

btw: please post a review of Dawn Treader (5/10) so I can justify (or at least shore up) my resolve not to see the movie.


Jon Coutts said...

That was Caspian I gave 5/10. It was fairly well done until they let the 2 chapters of battle take over the film. Dawn Treader is worse. Don't bother. I mean, the kids thought it was alright, and it was fun to watch with them, but only in a curiosity sort of way. Disney quite simply blew it again.