15 Books of 2015

Lists are great! I think they're helpful. I like to challenge myself to make lists, to rank things, to help me think through different things; be they priorities, favorites, options, or influences. The following list is my jab at ranking the top 15 books (in terms of their positive influence on my thinking) that I read in 2015. You'll quickly notice that they weren't all written in 2015... that's just when I finally got around to actually reading them (and some of them were written in 2015). So, obviously, there are books that by all means should have made the list, had I read them in time (I'm thinking of Andrew Zirschky's Beyond the Screen, I expect that one to make my 2016 list).

15. Saying is Believing by Amanda Hontz Drury 
This is a wonderful argument for the importance of the practice of "testimony" an giving voice to young people's experience in youth ministry. We discover that "...engaging in the practice of testimony develops and deepens authentic Christian faith for adolescents" (p. 19). And beyond merely throwing around theories (though her theory is robust), Drury offers examples and concrete practices that can (and should) be taken up in youth ministries.

14. Let the Children Come: Reimagining Childhood From a Christian Perspective by Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore
Bonnie Miller-McLemore is one of the leading thinkers in the field of practical theology and also one of the only thinkers to deeply reflect on childhood. This book, which I believe started out as a book about parenting but became a book about childhood, offers an approach to childhood that avoids the foreclosure of meaning that often comes with psychologically essentialized or biologically determinative approaches to understanding children's experience. She centralizes the experience of the child on its own terms and thus teaches us lessons we couldn't learn from simply studying children as "potential adults."

13. Raging with Compassion by John Swinton
John Swinton has become a huge influence on my thinking!
He is a rare example of someone who is steeped in pastoral care (as opposed to Christian education and formation... there is somewhat of a division between these in practical theology) and privileges the theological nature of practical theology with a robust theological methodology (a trait more common on the education/formation side of the field, i.e. Richard Osmer, Ray Anderson, and Andrew Root). In Raging with Compassion Swinton takes up "the problem of evil" (theodicy)--a problem usually reserved or outsourced to the systematic theologians. And in approaching the problem as a practical theologian, he teaches us lessons that the systematic theologians simply couldn't. Helping us discern the presence (and absence) of God in the human experience of radical suffering and evil, Swinton offers concrete practices that churches should take up in helping and allowing the people in their congregations face this haunting problem.

12. Spiritual Formation by Henri Nouwen
If I had only read Henri Nouwen, and no one else, for the entire year, it would not have been a waste. Nouwen is always nourishment for the soul and stimulation for the mind. In this book, Nouwen explores the concept of spiritual formation--a concept that is much more enigmatic than most theologians are willing to make it. Nouwen moves us away from progressivist approaches to spiritual formation that are built on the assumption that formation is univocally related with development and the achievement of higher levels of formation. "In a society that overvalues progress, development, and personal achievement ...it is of great importance," writes Nouwen, "that we leave the world of measurements behind when we speak about the life of the Spirit. Spiritual formation, I have come to believe, is not about steps or stages on the way to perfection. It’s about the movements from the mind to the heart through prayer in its many forms that reunite us with God, each other, and our truest selves" (p. xv-xvi).

11. Cross Talk by Sally Brown

Sally Brown takes the theology of the cross to the discipline of homiletics (preaching). In mainline American Christianity, there has been a hesitancy among preachers, for all the right reasons, to preach on the suffering and death of Jesus. The hesitancy is merited by the damage that has been caused by wrong-headed approaches to the theology of the cross--approaches that are built on unhelpful "theories of the atonement" that have legitimized various forms of abuse or have justified the resignation of sufferers to their suffering. Brown believes that by moving away from such theories and moving toward the ambiguous and fluid theology of the cross that's present in the New Testament, we can reclaim the centrality of the cross and its meaning in our preaching.

10. The Disabled God by Nancy L. Eiesland
I think it's fair to think of The Disabled God as a seminal work in the theology of disability. Drawing from sources in liberation theology, Eiesland introduces us to God revealed not as "perfect" and "powerful" but as disabled in the imperfect scarred body of the resurrected Jesus. What we discover is that disability (a cultural construction) does not preclude wholeness and that the human experience of embodiment is an experience of glorious difference. Read this book!

9. Gifts Glittering and Poisoned by Chanon Ross
Chanon Ross is not only a brilliant scholar... he happens to be my boss (at the Institute for Youth Ministry). However, don't you dare begin to think that's the only reason his book has made my list this year. I learned a lot from this book! In Gifts Glittering and Poisoned, Ross explores the disordered desires of American consumer society through the lens of an historical interpretation of ancient Roman imperial pomp (specifically its games in the colosseum), interpreting both of these distinct cultures--the United States and the Roman Empire--as "society of the spectacle." Through spectacular displays that feed on and fetishize our individual desires (disordering them), we are formed as a dimembered society. But Ross invites us, as the church, to be re-membered and to resist, subvert, and reframe the spectacle through the remembrance of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.  ...P.S. Gifts Glittering and Poisoned (or GG&P? Wonder if that'll catch on...) is going to be featured in a symposium on Syndicate in the not-so-distant future. You should check it out!

8A Secular Age by Charles Taylor
Not every book on this list is here because I found enjoyment in reading it. A Secular Age is one of those books that you just have to read... even if you find it fairly boring (which I did). Don't get me wrong. A lot of people find this book to be a real page turner (I believe Andrew Root has already read it 5 time... btw, be impressed by that 'cause it's about 900 pages long). I forced myself to bite the bullet and read this whole book this Fall because I'd read James K. A. Smith's short summary (How (Not) to Be Secular) and realized that I really just needed to read Taylor himself (I guess Smith did his job). The reason this book has made my list is because I simply cannot unlearn the lessons I learned from this book and the framework of interpretation he offers has become a standard interpretive lens for me. Taylor offers a lens for understanding the world, specifically how society moved from its predisposition of belief to a predisposition of disbelief. In other words, Taylor's big question is, How did we go from a world in which it was difficult not to believe in God to a world where it is difficult to believe in God. Our sort of imbedded understanding of the world no longer includes transcendence. We live in what Taylor calls, "the immanent frame" where we are at best only "haunted" by transcendence. So even our most devout attempts to speak and think of God are encased in an epistemological posture that complicates and even precludes the very suggestion of divinity. This is not all bad, however, since ours is a God who is not pure transcendence but a God revealed in the particularity of human life, even the human life of Jesus of Nazareth--God is transcendence in immanence.

7.  Theology and the Philosophy of Science by Wolfhart Pannenberg

This book was not what I had come to expect from Wolfart Pannenberg. I had basically associated Pannenberg with Jurgen Moltmann and had learned to expect a similar theological style. Having only read Jesus--God and Man and maybe two or three short articles or chapters by Pannenberg, I did not realize how incredibly dense and robust Pannenberg's scholarship could be. (No offense to Moltmann, but it turns out Panneneberg is a bit more rigorous and a lot more dense in his scholarship). This book was a real challenge for me, but once I finished reading it (and it took some patience through 450 pages of confusion to finally get to a place of understanding), I could appreciate how important this book is. Panneneberg's project, as I understand it, is to argue for the legitimacy of theology as a "science" (which, in his german mind, is more like what we might mean by "academic discipline"). But he does it in a way that is quite distinct from the way Schliermacher did it. Rather than trying to elevate the theological to the level of "hard science" that can objectively quantify, prove, and generalize its content, Pannenberg brings every science, even the "hard" ones down to the level of the theological and the subjective. He does this by contending that a science is something that explores and apprehends reality. He then goes on to set up science's problem as a problem of meaning. To put it simply (and probably simplistically... remember, this was a tough book for me) reality itself is not compatible with a hard bifurcation of "natural" and "human" sciences, nor is it limited only to nomological forms of understanding--rules on how things are. Reality, to be understood, must include its meaning--it must include the transcendent and ideographic. Therefore, whatever methods we have to explore reality, including the exploration of its meaning, must be considered a science. Theology, the science that explores the transcendent, unquantifiable, and qualitative grounding of reality and its meaning (namely, God) is a science in its truest sense. And as such, in turn, it must take seriously the whole of reality of which God is at the heart.
There's actually a lot more to this book and I'm sure many of its themes went far over my head. But it will continue to be an important resource for me.

6. Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle
After talking about Taylor and Pannenberg, turning to Gregory Boyle might seem like taking a rest in the shallow end... and it is, if we're only speaking in terms of readability. But Boyle is more challenging than you'd think. Boyle started a gang-intervention program located in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. In Tattoos on the Heart, Boyle tells the stories of the people there, people we'd perhaps be tempted to dehumanize through stigmatization. In biblical fashion, these stories work as parables, exposing the presence and action of God in the lives of marginalized and sometimes even frightening people (have you heard the story of the Good Samaritan lately?). This book cannot help but give its reader hope and a renewed sense of compassion and love for humanity through the revelation of God's extravagant love for humanity.

5. Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman

Howard Thurman is someone that everyone should read and Jesus and the Disinherited is a good place to start. Before the emergence of black liberation theology, Thurman offered a liberating spirituality grounded in the poor Jewish Jesus who was disinherited under Roman oppression. Grounding the gospel itself in the story of this Jesus, Thurman offers a view of Christianity that actually offers good news to people who have found themselves on the under-side of society, even so-called "Christian" society.

4. Letter From Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr.
It's almost embarrassing that I didn't get around to reading this short but undeniably powerful book until 2015. A classic, to be sure, Letter From Birmingham Jail simply must be read and re-read, especially right now! This letter (either a long letter or a very short book) is a defense of non-violent resistance to racism and segregation. It outlines the moral responsibility to break unjust laws and to take direct action instead of waiting for change to slowly develop. The letter itself is beautiful and important, but the context is what gives it its power.  Anyone who thinks that non-violence is the comfortable path or that racism is simply going to fade away if we wait needs only to remember that when Dr. King penned the words, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. ...Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial 'outside agitator' idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider," he was sitting in a jail cell, imprisoned, in Birmingham.

3. Giving an Account of Oneself by Judith Butler
Judith Butler has messed me up.... in a good way. I will never be able to think of the idea of "story" in the same way again. She reminds us of the truth that we already know in our gut--that our identity, the who of what we are, simply cannot be contained in a "story." We know in our bones, even as we give account of ourselves or try to tell our story, that the cracks in the narrative, the places where we simplify the story, tell tiny little lies so that the story makes more sense, or omit certain details for the sake of the listener are, in themselves, significant and real. In giving too much authority to the story, we foreclose on the meaning of those things that don't fit and those truths to which we have no access through analysis. We are not, in truth, our story. Rather, we are who we are in the very "structure of address" of which the story is only an interruption. I am not my story, I am the one who stands before you, the me of the story is no more real than the me who addresses you and is addressed by you. There's a lot to this book. Read it so you can get messed up too!

2. Childhood (second edition) by Chris Jenks
Yes! This may be the best work in Childhood Studies to date. Exploring childhood as a social construct rather than a 'natural' developmental process, Jenks challenges the reader on one traditional assumption after another and encourages us to reimagine childhood for it's actual social content and not just it's potentiality toward achieving adulthood. This book... even before Erickson and Piaget... should be required reading for anyone who works with children and youth or endeavors to understand the experience of childhood. For the youth worker and the practical theologian, this book is a wonderful resource for re-theorizing "adolescence" (and we need to do that!).

1. Theology of Play by Jurgen Moltmann 
I can hardly believe that it's been less than a year since I've read this book. It has become so important to my own thinking that I can hardly remember being without it. This is one of Moltmann's greatest works, I believe, and yet it remains among the most difficult to acquire (since it is, as of now, out of print... but you can find it under the title Theology and Joy). In following with the spirit of its subject, this book is written with a playful and experimental (even curious) posture. It may, therefore, frustrate the extremely careful and scientific dogmatic theologians among us, but it exemplifies Moltmann's more doxological approach to theology--"We study theology properly because we are curious and find pleasure in the subject" (66). Thus, Theology of Play is as perplexing as it is profound and mysterious as it is illuminating. Moltmann wants to see a paradigm shift--from work to play, from necessity and outcome to freedom and spontaneity, from adult notions of purpose and goal to childlike enjoyment of God for its own sake, from law to gospel. For Moltmann, the whole of the Christian life is at stake. For as the Christian life itself is awareness of God in Jesus Christ, and ultimately, delight in God "...to confuse the enjoyment of God and our existence with goals and purposes" (19) sacrifices the freedom of liberation that is the good news of Jesus Christ.
"Life as rejoicing in liberation, as solidarity with those in bondage, as play with reconciled existence, and as pain at unreconciled existence demonstrates the Easter event in the world" (31). We are to learn from children and learn to play, to play without any "purpose" as such. Indeed the very question of purpose is the "question of the adult in the child who does't want to play anymore but needs goals in order to make something respectable of himself" (18). The Christian life, according to Moltmann, is not to be envisioned as a 'purpose driven life' but, perhaps, as a game of delight in the God who creates and redeems the world for nothing. Find this book and read it!