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.

Friday, December 24, 2010

God with us

The Christ-child stood on Mary's knee,
His hair was like a crown,
And all the flowers looked up at Him,
And all the stars looked down

- G.K. Chesterton: 'A Christmas Carol'

Monday, December 20, 2010

Flash Mobs To Make Chesterton Smile (Or: Why Hallelujah Choruses in Shopping Malls Make Me Feel A Bit Dirty)

I don't know if you've heard of a "flash mob", but wikipedia defines it as "a large group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual act for a brief time, then disperse." It is generally thought not to apply to "events organized by public relations firms, protests, and publicity stunts" but to random people who want to be a bit zany.

The ones that I have come across have been relatively harmless. Usually what they do is startle people in public places with a bit of spontaneity, personality, or perhaps juxtaposed reality. For example:

I think that such flash mobs might make GK Chesterton smile. He thought that good things get old and routine only because we lose the imagination to keep them fresh and vital. This is one of the themes of his most playful (and second best) novel, Manalive. Dale Ahlquist describes the novel this way:
The hero of the story has the best name of any of Chesterton’s characters, and one of the best names in all of fiction: Innocent Smith. “Smith” is the name of the Common Man. “Innocent” is the name of purity and sweetness and awe at the universe. It is not ignorance. It is a knowledge unsullied by cynicism. Innocent Smith is a man who keeps the commandments and breaks the conventions. He is the opposite of the modern man whom Chesterton describes in his famous essay, “On Lying in Bed”: “Our views change constantly; but our lunch does not change.” Innocent Smith knows how to change his lunch. He has a picnic - on the roof! And when he breaks the conventions, he is often mistaken for breaking the commandments. He breaks, for instance, into a house late at night, just like a thief. But it is his own house. He has a torrid love affair. With his own wife. He then leaves his home and his wife, and travels all the way around the world so that he may return home. Taking the long way home, as it were. The ultimate purpose of any trip is to get home. No matter where we go, home is our destination.... Some think he is quite mad, and they seek to have him put away, where he will no longer bother to them. Some think is the first sane person they have ever met, that knowing him is like stepping into the light for the first time.

Within reason, I think flash mobs are continuous with the Chestertonian spirit and can inject a bit of life and personality into our public spaces. Check out the Star Wars subway car, the Tourist Lane, and I Love Lunch: The Musical.

Of course, if they are merely publicity stunts, if they shame people, if they manipulate spectators, if they are less than creative or if they are potentially destructive in some way -- then to varying degrees they might not be all that good.

One of the flash mobs that has been making news lately is the choral presentation of the Hallelujah chorus in a shopping mall. For instance, see this one in a food court. Most people seem to think this is really cool. Me not so much.

I don't doubt that it has and could be done with the best of motives and with some good results. I guess I can see how it could be fun, and perhaps even poignant to some degree. Truth is, at first they make me smile a little bit. But after the whole thing has gone on for a bit, and when it is all said and done, it feels kind of dirty to me.

I wasn't sure why until James Smith put his finger on it over on his blog. He gave two reasons, both of which have to do with context. I'll put the first one in my own words and then quote his second one verbatim:

First, the Hallelujah chorus in a shopping mall has absolutely no context. It is like k.d. Lang singing Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" at the Olympics: It sounds beautiful but we have no idea what it means. Though "hallelujah" literally means "Praise Yahweh", we can only assume that those who are not Jews or Christians mean it in the vaguest sense possible as an exclamation of joy or perhaps praise of some ambiguous deity. So what on earth does it mean to sing it in a mall? My guess is that it conjures up some sort of sense of transcendence, and in December performances also some sort of holiday spirit; some sort of tip of the hat to the "true meaning of Christmas", however conceived.

This could be harmless enough, and perhaps even positive. Such an interruption into the shopping mall routine might kindle in spectators a spark of reflection that could take them in a positive direction. I hope so. But I think more often than not the result is something along the lines of James Smith's second objection:

Second, these irruptive events do nothing to counter the formative effects and disordered telos of the mall's consumerism. Indeed if anything, they provide comfort to such practices--injecting a little dose of transcendence into the frantic pursuit for stuff, thus leaving the shoppers to happily continue on their way after the event.

Only now with the Vague Lord's blessing on all that marketplace clamor.

I realize I come off bah-humbug. In fact, that's what I thought of James Smith's objections at first. But I think there is something worth pointing out here, and it is not unrelated to the issue of whether we should complain when the general public stops saying "Merry Christmas". It is often argued that this is a bad thing, but to me it seems like if people stop misusing the words -- co-opting them for at best a banal and at worst a blasphemous meaning -- then perhaps they can mean what they mean again.

In any case, I'm sure there are those who'd be irritated by what I've said. I mean this (somewhat) lightheartedly and am happy to hear you out. I'm sure I'll be in a mall myself by week's end and I sure as heck will smile if I come across a thoughtful and creative Innocent Smith or two. In that spirit, I intend to have a happy Christmas, and sincerely wish you the same.

(Oh, and check out this hypothetical enactment of a flash mob gone wrong!)

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Flower of Scotland

I had the privilege of taking in a national rugby 'friendly' at Pittodrie Stadium in Aberdeen a couple weekends ago.
It was another great Scottish experience.

I was really impressed by the the crowd's vigour for the Scottish Anthem, 'The Flower of Scotland'

And what an honour to get to see the traditional Samoan pre-game ritual, the 'Haka'

Scotland beat Samoa 19-16 on a last second kick.
It was cold and snowing. Apparently this was the first time some of the Samoan team had ever seen snow. I missed about 20 minutes of the game in a 'queue' for a 'Bovril' (a hot meat drink. yes. that's what I said), having overestimated both the length of half-time and the speediness of the service. A truly memorable event nonetheless.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Arcade Fire Live in Glasgow

Last night's Arcade Fire show in Glasgow was fantastic. And to my pleasant surprise on youtube I can piece together and relive about half of the concert from multiple angles. All the clips below are from 'our' show, with the exception of Laika because I love it but could only find it from the London performance. This is the actual set list, and I've included some pictures and lyrics that stood out as well.


All the kids have always known / that the emperor wears no clothes / but to bow down to them anyway / is better than to be alone .... But I would rather be alone / than pretend I feel alright


(see also here)


(see short clip here)


Alexander, our older brother / set out for a great adventure / He tore our images out of his pictures / he scratched our names out of all his letters .... Our mother shoulda / just named you Laika! / It's for your own good, / it's for the neighborhood!
(Incidentally, Laika is the name of the first dog in space, who of course did not come back)


The video images in this one were oddly mesmerizing. This was one of the highlights of the show I thought.


Living in the sprawl / Dead shopping malls rise / like mountains beyond mountains / And there's no end in sight /I need the darkness someone please cut the lights / They heard me singing and they told me to stop / Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock / Sometimes I wonder if the world's so small / Can we ever get away from the sprawl?



(By the way, Rococo is the ornately expressive follow up to the Baroque period of art. I think the repetition of it is one of The Suburbs many ironies.)


set my spirit free...


I just can't understand / How I want a daughter while I'm still young / I want to hold her hand / Show her some beauty / Before this damage is done / But if it's too much to ask / If it's too much to ask / Send me a son




We used to wait .... now we're screaming sing the chorus again!
(More irony. Pleasant irony, of course, but still. Does a good job being about 'the old days' without being sentimental.)


(So. Much. Energy! This was a great one.)



Working for the church / While your family dies / You take what they give you / And you keep it inside / Every spark of friendship and love / Will die without a home / Hear the soldier groan, / "We'll go at it alone"
(This song kills me)


(I've talked about this song before.)

I don't know if it is suburban angst, anti-empire sentiment, or just being a 'Gen-Xer', but this band gets me in lots of ways.

We all wished for Suburban War and agreed My Body Is A Cage might have been 'done' a little more, but it was still good. Very good. What a show!

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Bittersweetness of Christmas

Sufjan Stevens - 'That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!'

Going outside
Shoveling snow in the driveway, driveway
Taking our shoes
Riding a sled down the hillside, hillside

Can you say what you want?
Can you say what you want to be?
Can you be what you want?
Can you be what you want?

Our father yells
Throwing the gifts in the wood stove, wood stove
My sister runs away
Taking her books to the schoolyard, schoolyard

In time the snow will rise
In time the snow will rise
In time the Lord will rise
In time the Lord will rise

Silent night
Holy night
Silent night
Nothing feels right

Something is missed in our Christmas celebrations if we don't pause to remember the tragedy that makes way for the victory. The Son of God comes and there is immediately no room for him. Only the angels can yet see 'Peace on Earth'; foreshadowed in that stable-birth is the wooden cross upon which the earth will push this boy away.

That's why I love Christmas songs like 'In the Bleak Midwinter' and 'O Come O Come Emmanuel'. The first through narrative and the second through tone capture the bittersweet incompleteness of the event, even while hearing and believing and celebrating the angel's promise and the gift of God's Son, Israel's Messiah, to a weary world.

Truth is, Christmas is not merry unless a resurrection tells us so, and I think in a sense, like Good Friday, our reflections on it can both celebrate and express longing. Seeing as the incarnation and resurrection have not yet reverberated fully through the cosmos, our advent waiting is a waiting still. This track from Sufjan Stevens' Songs for Christmas captures that perfectly, and I really like the simplicity with which this person put it to video. We can only imagine what might be going on in these houses, and so we remember the gravity of the manger and understand what it could mean if 'in time the Lord will rise.'

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Let's Hear it from Sufjan!

It is a good time to say something about Sufjan Stevens (pronounced 'soof-yawn') again. This year he came out with an album called 'The Age of Adz' (pronounced 'awds') and an EP called 'All Delighted People' which are both as unusual as they are enjoyable. Furthermore, his cathartic attempt to come to grips with Christmas music has become a source of refreshment for the December playlists everywhere. You can listen to (and purchase) these here. And be sure to check out Sufjan's fascinating performance on Jimmy Fallon. Talk about visuals and music being in sync!

Be sure to listen carefully to 'That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!' and his version of the traditional song 'Lo How A Rose E'er Blooming'. Both are beautiful. Stevens has singlehandedly made it possible for me to listen to Silent Night again, which is quite a feat, as long time readers might recall.[You also have to love songs called 'Get Behind Me Santa' and 'Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!)']

This one hasn't stuck out to me as much as the full album has, but the song Djohariah is a many-layered feast for the ears and mind. I read that somewhere someone thought it was an apocalyptic sequel to many of the themes on his previous (and amazing) album, 'Seven Swans'.

After a few listens I particularly like the opening song, 'Futile Devices', as well as 'Too Much' and 'I Walked' (both of which you can download for free). 'Vesuvius' is catching me lately as well.