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The Lectio Letter - Issue #61 - All the books I read in 2022 Reviewed
To try and express in even the most insightful and theologically sophisticated terms the meaning of what God speaks through the events of our lives is as precarious a business as to try and express the meaningful of the sound of rain on the rood or the spectacle of the setting sun.
But I choose to believe that He speaks nonetheless, and the reason that His words are impossible to capture in human language is of course that they are ultimately always incarnate words. They are words fleshed out in the everydayness no less than in the crises of our own experience.
— Frederick Buechener
Welcome to Issue #61 of the Lectio Letter. This members-only newsletter is (normally) filled with music, film and food suggestions, links, and an article written by yours truly. But this time it’s my yearly review of (almost) every book I read in 2022.
Why read? The quote from Frederick Buechner above captures the reality that no words really pin down the full reality of God’s presence in our lives. It is in our lived lives that the glory (which is to say the presence) of God that really sings out through.
Yet God has chosen to be present to us through the speaking and reading of words. So much so that Christ is described as the logos, the living word. So all reading for Christians is ultimately a treasure hunt for what God is speaking to us at the current moment.
Of course, books and words don’t make us mature, but sometimes we move around our lives with a kind of blindness. We become blind to the wonder and altogether ordinariness of God’s presence with us.
The reading of books brings our attention to realities that, when we are attentive, become the inhabitation of God. We plod through page after page, until one luminous sentence or paragraph grips our attention helping us see something until now hidden.
This new sight gives us the opportunity to meet God and hear His words to us, to see again the call to turn around and live more deeply into the reality which He has revealed.
As we receive His word to us in the reading of words written by others, we get the chance to do something extraordinary. We allow the space opened up within us by the words we have read to become, in fresh and transformative ways, a habitation of the Holy. A place where God is welcome to dwell in new ways.
As we do that, we become bit by bit, an incarnate word ourselves. A flesh and blood representation of the love and life of God that this broken and wandering world needs so badly.
So why read? To make space to hear the voice of God calling us to become all that we were meant to be. As Irenaeus once said, “The Glory of God is a human fully alive”. The point of reading for the Christian is not simply to know but to become.
This yearly email includes the books I’ve read this year through which I’ve been listening out for the voice of God in.
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Well, This is the third of my annual book reviews (read 2020 and 2021 here) and while it is always quite a bit more work than I expect it to be, I enjoy the chance to reflect on what I’ve read and what those books have come to mean for me.
This year was the slimmest so far on books that I read cover to cover. Probably due to unexpectedly taking on leadership for a module in the M.A. course we staffed which meant I read lots of articles and scanned chapters of books for the sake of curriculum creation.
As I put the books in a row for the picture above, our dog Lowen came over and stretched right next to them in a shameless attention-grabbing attempt. He’s often at my feet or on my lap (yes, you read that right) when reading, so I thought it was appropriate to keep his paws in. Despite this row looking rather ornate, my usual desk organisation is far from OCD… confession in image form below;
I had hoped to read a little more fiction and political history this year, but unsurprisingly I mostly stayed within the boundaries of theology and spiritual formation.
Do you have a book you read this year that you thought was fantastic? Let me know by leaving a comment…
You’ll notice this email doesn’t include the normal life, music, watching and cooking updates for the sake of length. But if you are in the need of some of those, feel free to scan back through the last 60 issues of this newsletter which are packed with that kind of stuff here.
Also, if you are reading in Gmail, this email will likely be clipped due to its length. If you want to read it all, scroll to the bottom and then click “View entire message” to see it all. You are not getting it all if you don’t see my signature at the bottom.
Top 3 books of 2022
As you’ll see below, this was a year of reading about the Kingdom and power. Thanks to a last-minute assignment I mentioned in the introduction, to write a module on “Kingdom and Power” for our M.A. in Christian Formation.
David Fitch is an Anabaptist Church planter and professor at Northern Seminary. In this book, he deftly weaves those two vocations in a work that is thoughtfully grounded in theology and theory while remaining readable and practical for those engaged in a life on mission.
Fitch helps connect the theme of God’s presence to the work of God’s people in the world. Fitch is not simply unpacking a series of ideas, but commending a series of practices. As Jamie Smith argued in the book “You are what you love”, we cannot hope to grow into Christlikeness just by filling our heads with new ideas. If you are what you love, and love is a virtue, then love is a habit.
Fitch writes reflections on 7 habits, none of which would be new to you. But what Fitch is doing, which is novel, is inviting us to consider how each of these disciplines takes place as we engage in mission with God in the world.
To do this, he sets up the concept of three circles; close, dotted and half, which he explains in part one of the book. The encouragement is to gain an imagination that sees God’s presence active in the close circle of a church community, the dotted circle where we invite those on the edge of the kingdom into our community through hospitality and the half-circle of our lives out in the world.
He contends that churches that only focus on God’s presence in the close circle of the church community end up in maintenance mode. Those that effectively abandon the gathered church context to solely be on mission in the half circle out in the world end up in exhaustion mode. It is a book well worth reading.
I got the opportunity to interview David Fitch for the class in lieu of him being part which you can watch below;
Andy Crouch is one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking Christians writing today. While I appreciate Andy Crouch’s voice deeply, I have sometimes struggled to get into the rhythm of his writing style.
This book was no exception, but it didn’t keep it from being in the top 3 this year because of how crucial the topic he addresses is. Here’s the blurb for what the book is about;
Our greatest need is to be recognized—to be seen, loved, and embedded in rich relationships with those around us. But for the last century, we’ve displaced that need with the ease of technology. We’ve dreamed of mastery without relationship (what the premodern world called magic) and abundance without dependence (what Jesus called Mammon). Yet even before a pandemic disrupted that quest, we felt threatened and strangely out of place: lonely, anxious, bored amid endless options, oddly disconnected amid infinite connections.
In The Life We’re Looking For, bestselling author Andy Crouch shows how we have been seduced by a false vision of human flourishing—and how each of us can fight back.
The most insightful section of this book for me was his connection between personhood and power (Ch. 3 and 4), devices and instruments (Ch.9) and family vs. households (Ch. 10). He creates distinctions which continue to remain with me.
"One way to measure your health as a person is to ask: How many people have the keys to your house? How many people can pretty much let themselves into your life without knocking?"
— Andy Crouch
For the last few years, I’ve been fascinated by Charles Taylor’s understanding of the western world as secular. A whole cottage industry of books riffing on Taylor’s language and insights have grown up and this work by Richard Beck is one of the more accessible.
Taylor describes the world as dis-enchanted, that is, we don’t see the spiritual depth of the world we live in and the lives we lead. We need a fresh “enchanted” view of the world in order to meet God meaningfully in our lives. Beck argues that the world is not suffering from a crisis of faith as belief, but a crisis of faith as attention. This was the book that inspired the recent Lectio article; “ADHD Christianity”
The publisher’s blurb gives a helpful introduction;
We live in a secular age, a world dominated by science and technology. Increasing numbers of us don't believe in God anymore. We don't expect miracles. We've grown up and left those fairytales behind, culturally and personally.
Yet five hundred years ago the world was very much enchanted. It was a world where God existed and the devil was real. It was a world full of angels and demons. It was a world of holy wells and magical eels. But since the Protestant Reformation and the beginning of the Enlightenment, the world, in the West at least, has become increasingly disenchanted.
While this might be taken as evidence of a crisis of belief, Richard Beck argues it's actually a crisis of attention. God hasn't gone anywhere, but we've lost our capacity to see God.
The rising tide of disenchantment has profoundly changed our religious imaginations and led to a loss of the holy expectation that we can be interrupted by the sacred and divine. But it doesn't have to be this way. With attention and an intentional and cultivated capacity to experience God as a living, vital presence in our lives, Hunting Magic Eels, shows us, we can cultivate an enchanted faith in a skeptical age.
Runners up 2022
I probably spent more time pouring over this book this year than any other on the list. I might have read it 3 times. It was very nearly made the top three above, but because it is slightly less practical than David Fitch’s, it missed out.
McKnight as a biblical scholar wrote this book as a result of a conversation with a pastor and a a follow-up biblical word study. One of the great frustrations of writing a curriculum on the concept of “Kingdom” is how many writers use the word kingdom to mean pretty much whatever they think God is involved in. It becomes a catch-all for their preferences for Christian action.
The conversation that initiates this book is with a pastor in his 50s who laments that he doesn’t understand the way his church staff in their 20s are using the word kingdom to mean “justice”. While McKnight doesn’t discount justice as a part of the Kingdom he shows that Kingdom in the scriptures is always related to a number of things; A king, a law, a land and a people.
This book is a crucial read for anyone who uses “Kingdom” language and wants to get a better hold of what that word means in the biblical text.
The students who read this though did struggle with it and not just because of his strength in asserting that Kingdom needs to be closely identified with Church, but because the book is, in my judgement actually 3 books. It is a popular level book on the use of the word kingdom, a biblical studies book on the use of the word kingdom and the appendices (in my estimation worth the price of the book themselves) are a series of historical primers on the use of the word “kingdom”.
“There is no kingdom that is not about a just society, as there is no kingdom without redemption under Christ. Yet I’m convinced that both of these approaches to kingdom fall substantially short of what kingdom meant to Jesus, so we need once again to be patient enough to ponder what the Bible teaches.”
— Scot McKnight
I also interviewed Scot for the class we had this year, you can watch it below;
It is understandably eyebrow-raising that I have included a book on the theology of Rowan Williams in the top five that I have read in 2022. Rowan Williams is known for his dense theological prose and complexity, yet Ben Myers unpicks the knotted yarn of William’s work and has written a deeply profound summary.
In contrast to Myer’s other book “The Apostles Creed” which I have not stopped recommending, this is a bit more specialist. But Myer’s ability, probably due to his training being in English literature rather than theology, to unpack William’s dense theology is quite remarkable.
Myer’s traces the historical progression of William’s theology including his period as Archbishop of Canterbury. He shows how this Welsh Anglican philosopher-poet who draws deeply on Eastern Orthodoxy reframes Christian theology in a way that is helpfully strange. Why helpfully? Well, the profundity of things we are most familiar with gets lost over time. Reframing the approach to Christian theology as William’s does, reminds us that as the disciples on the road to Emmaus, our eyes are so often kept from recognising him.
'The poet is someone who looks at language so closely that it becomes new, so that what was always familiar now seems utterly singular and arresting. Our normal perceptions are dim and dreamlike, but the poet rouses us to attention - not really to see something new, but to see anew what was right there in front of us all along'
— Ben Myers, Christ the Stranger, p. 2
We were given this book by our dear friend Matt Wood and it’s truly been the gift that keeps giving. It’s a collection of short poetic essays which are written in ways which make you catch your breath.
When you read this writing it is like realising that an author’s ability can go to “11”.
In the introduction David James Duncan remarks on Doyle, who passed in 2016 of a brain tumour;
"Brian Doyle lived the pleasure of bearing daily witness to the glories hidden in people, places and creatures of little or no size or renown, and brought inimitably playful or soaring or aching or heartfelt language to his tellings."
The book is a series of essays which read like praise and delight for the things and people he loved. When I was reading one of the first essays on the meeting of a shrew, I spontaneously laughed out loud with delight. His writing is like an essay on attention, uncovering the mundane wonders of his everyday world.
“I walked out so full of hope I'm sure I spilled some by the door”
― Brian Doyle, One Long River of Song
The Rest of the books I read in 2022
Andrew Root’s first book in this series made my list last year and given my interest in the concept of time and discipleship I jumped into this book with much expectation. Root continues his work of bringing Charles Taylor’s thinking into practical theology and this time introduces german sociologist Hartmut Rosa.
He explains why the speed of modern life makes encountering God so impossible. Why the acceleration of modern life is leaving people disconnected and depressed and why the Church should not be trying to keep up.
I found his section on why “slow church” won’t work because it plays into the fads which undergird the modern fixation on growth fascinating.
“Too often, congregations look to programs and strategies to change them. But this reverses things. Programs and strategies are best born out of a story of transformation. Congregations should yearn for a story, not just for innovative programming.”
— Andrew Root, The Congregation in a Secular age
Here’s a great video summary of some of what Andrew Root discusses in the book…
John Swinton was one of my professors at Aberdeen, the type that stays with you. He is a soft-spoken Glaswegian (a person from Glasgow for the uninitiated) who has been a mental health nurse, chaplain and now professor at Aberdeen. He introduced us to Hauerwas and his ethics are surely deeply impacted by that. At the same time, Swinton was the first person to really push me to reflect on anthropology. That is, What are humans?
In this wonderful book, he draws on our societal conceptions of time recognising how they moved, in his words, from monastery to marketplace, making time a commodity for achieving rather than a space in which to meet God. But this change in telling time not only does violence to our relationship to God but in our relationships with others. Especially those who experience forms of disability. He explores cognitive impairment in relation to what it means to participate and perform in our modern world and calls for a gentler way of moving through time in order to become the type of person who can recognise the gift of living alongside others with disabilities.
“God's time is slow, patient, and kind and welcomes friendship; it is a way of being in the fullness of time that is not determined by productivity, success, or linear movements toward personal goals. It is a way of love, a way of the heart.”
― John Swinton,
I came to this book with high hopes. I have been a fan of Dallas Willard’s writing and have been fascinated with the discoveries of interpersonal neuroscience (through the work of Curt Thomson). Additionally, a number of people I work with in the Centre endorsed it enthusiastically.
While there were many worthwhile insights, I found the prose a little difficult to stay engaged with and was a little incredulous that he claim that Willard close to his death said he would re-work all he had done in light of the insights Wilder had found.
The book focuses on the significance of attachment theory and our relationship with God. In that way, it is deeply valuable but I found the book a bit belaboured and felt it could have been shorter.
The book did touch on a concern I have been harbouring for a number of years, that in a world where psychology and therapy are increasingly (and I should state at this point, helpfully) mainstream, that theological concepts like salvation become swallowed whole by therapeutic language. Salvation certainly includes therapeutic experiences of loving attachment, but the danger is for the broad reality of salvation to become shrunk into a psychological container.
Ninety minutes is about all the time you want to spend in Derrida’s brain. He is the primary proponent for the deconstruction of reality that post-modernity is known for and he goes all the way. While I disagree with Derrida and his branch of post-modernity, it was helpful to gain an understanding of the logic, if indeed you can call it that, of this form of post-modernity.
While pure post-modernity is anathema to meta-narratives like Christianity, the suspicion around words does have a ring of theological apophaticism to it which when taken like medicine can heal us of problematic anthropomorphic projections which are the endless temptation in Christian theology and practice.
This is about the third time I’ve read this book. Kruger is a theologian in the Torrancian tradition which can be known for its imperceptible complication. That makes Kruger’s work all the more impressive as he draws out the pastoral implications of our inclusion into Christ. This book is warm, pastoral and deeply helpful for anyone experiencing some form of a ‘dark night of the soul’.
This book is a very helpful explanation of multiple ‘models’ of the kingdom. We used it in our module. It is not an easy or particularly engaging read but it is a very shrewd overview of perspectives different traditions of the church have had in relation to understanding the kingdom.
It is hard not to be impressed by Tim Keller. His writing output, its quality, theologically grounded and pastorally engaged. This is a theology of work. If you are unsure if your work matters, this book is for you. Keller helps define how we keep work from staying meaningful without becoming an idol.
“A job is a vocation only if someone else calls you to do it for them rather than for yourself. And so our work can be a calling only if it is reimagined as a mission of service to something beyond merely our own interests. Thinking of work mainly as a means of self-fulfillment and self-realization slowly crushes a person.”
― Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God's Plan for the World
Another book by Andy Crouch! This book has really become genre-defining in that it articulates in a thoughtful and nuanced way a classically reformed kuyperian view of the role of humans to, as the bible project has put it, “take the world somewhere”.
One of the most helpful distinctions Crouch makes is between gestures and postures. He argues that Christians have taken certain postures toward cultures throughout history. Those postures are; condemning, critiquing, copying or consuming. He argues that at different places and times, certain aspects of culture deserve all of these responses, but if we allow them to harden into postures we won’t be participating in making culture as we are called to.
“I wonder what we Christians are known for in the world outside our churches. Are we known as critics, consumers, copiers, condemners of culture? I’m afraid so. Why aren’t we known as cultivators—people who tend and nourish what is best in human culture, who do the hard and painstaking work to preserve the best of what people before us have done? Why aren’t we known as creators—people who dare to think and do something that has never been thought or done before, something that makes the world more welcoming and thrilling and beautiful?”
― Andy Crouch
This is a collection of essays by James Smith published in 2013. His essay on How (not) to change the world (the title of which I stole for my own 3-part series here, here and here) was very useful for the module, but it is a rich collection of essays which are worth the price of the book.
Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb: Searching for Jesus Path of Power in a Church that Has Abandoned It
From the publisher’s blurb;
Why do so many rock-star pastors implode under the spotlight? How have so many Christian leaders and institutions been lured by toxic and abusive power? Why are so many Christians tempted to chase worldly success and status? Because, according to Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel, rather than seeking kingdom power embodied by Jesus, we have embraced a form of power that is antithetical to the cross.
This book is an excellent critique of the power-crazed industrial complex of Christian celebrities. Written through interaction with various exemplars of Christian leadership, the authors provide a compelling vision of weakness and humility as the way of the lamb along with explaining the temptations to power that plague those of us who follow Jesus.
“The focus is on my ability, my creativity, and my potential. These become the pistons driving the engine of self (resulting, Jesus tells us, in the eternal loss of self). No place for weakness exists in this view of reality. More important, no place exists for God. We don’t reject God outright, but we retain the god of Deism, who once did some powerful things but is generally detached from our day-to-day lives. So instead of abiding, we pray for God to give us some of his power. Instead of growing into him who is our head (Eph. 4:15), we ask him to give us some magic (“Just make me stop sinning,” “Just make these temptations go away,” and so on). Instead of entering into the way of weakness, we try to use God to become something powerful.”
— Goggin, Way of the Lamb, p. 48
The Faith of Jesus Christ: Exegetical, Biblical and Theological Studies by Michael Bird and Preston Sprinkle
Ok, we’re moving into the geeky here, but there is a debate in new testament studies over the meaning of the greek term “pistis christou” which gets translated variously as “Faith in Christ” or “Faith(fullness) of Christ”. How this is interpreted changes the nature of the gospel itself. Are you saved by your faith in Christ, or by the faithfulness of Christ? Sincere-believing Intelligent New Testament Scholars disagree and the debate is far from concluded.
For my part, I am more convinced that the Faithfulness of Christ is the saving action rather than me putting my faith in Christ which can devolve into a form of “works”. The debate is much more nuanced than that last phrase and if you are interested to wade in, then this is a great introduction.
I was fascinated to read this book and so invested in the exorbitant cost of it, only to find it was released in paperback for a much more economical amount. This is an academic work on the nature of Holy Spirit experiences but in listening to Zahl on a podcast (He is related to the founder of MockingBird) I was fascinated to discover his impetus in writing it was attending an Alpha course and his wife’s experiences on a YWAM DTS.
Here’s a short summary of the outcomes via this ChurchTimes review;
Christianity must focus on specifically Christian experience rather than religious experience in general; and forensic doctrines of the atonement have experiential implications — they are not exclusively “objective”.
The last book is another academic-ish one. Barclay, a British Pauline scholar wrote a large tome called “Paul and the Gift”, which shook the Pauline studies world through an exploration of the concept of gift in Paul and the ancient context. This had big implications for what Paul might have meant by grace (which in greek is Charis or gift). An important topic to say the least.
Barclay subverts the common understanding of grace as a free gift requiring nothing in return and argues that in its ancient context, the idea of a gift had an expectation of reciprocity. Ultimately Barclay argues that grace is a person more than a thing, and receiving that gift has an inbuilt sense that the gift is received in order to be given again.
If you’ve made it this far, then Well done! The next Lectio will be out in a couple of weeks time, full of music, food, reading and link suggestions along with an article from me on the decrease in religious faith in the UK, aaand should be slightly shorter than this one..
Grace and Peace,
That’s all for now,