Category Archives: Books & Literature

My 5 Favorite Books of 2011

I usually enjoy putting together my list of 5 favorite books from the past year. I’m not sure that anyone really cares that much about my favorite books. But it’s always fun to reflect on what I’ve read over the last twelve months and remember all the great books I’ve read.

Alas, this is not one of those years. Looking back, I’m somewhat distressed but two things: (1) I really didn’t read that many books, and (2) most of them weren’t all that great. They weren’t bad; they just weren’t great.

I need to do something about that next year. At the very least, I need to carve out a little more reading space – especially for good fiction. But I also need to read better books. I think I’ve been trying a little too hard to “keep up” with the popular books, leaving too little time to engage the really good ones.

Nonetheless, the year wasn’t a complete loss. I did read some good books worth mentioning. So, without further ado, here are my 5 favorite books of 2011. (By the way, these are books that I read in 2011 regardless of when they were published.)

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Best Theology Book

The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything, Fred Sanders. If you like reading theologians who write well, think creatively, engage important issues, and connect them to everyday life, this book is for you. Sanders does an outstanding job working through a range of issues relative to understanding the Trinity, and showing how each matters for life and ministry today. Far from being a piece of theological speculation, of interest only to theologians and church historians, Sanders unfolds the Trinity as central to Christian spirituality and the gospel itself.

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Best Fiction Book

The Magicians and The Magician King by Lev Grossman. Okay, I’m cheating a bit here by putting two books together. But they really tell one story, and I read them at the same time. So I think it’s justified. Anyway, these two fantasy novels are a fabulous read. Grossman shamelessly steals themes and ideas from all over the fantasy genre, combining them to tell a unique and compelling story. What I found most interesting here is that unlike most fantasy novels, I didn’t find the world that Grossman created to be all that interesting. But his characters are oddly fascinating. And he’s not at all afraid to run them through the ringer. (Warning: the story does get rather gritty in places. It’s not as bad as A Song of Fire and Ice, but it’s still tough at times.)

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Best Book about the Gospel

The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, Scot McKnight. I decided to go with just one of the many books written about the gospel this year. And, of those, I liked McKnight’s the best. McKnight does a great job explaining how the good news of “my” salvation only makes sense when it gets placed in the larger story of what God has been doing in and through his people from the very beginning. Since that’s much of what I’m trying to do with my own gospel book (though in a rather quirkier manner), I’m probably a bit biased. But I think it’s so important to see the broader story as the necessary frame for the narrower story of personal salvation. And McKnight’s is one of the best books out there right now for doing that.

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Best Book That Is Impossible to Categorize 

Night of the Living Dead Christian: One Man’s Ferociously Funny Quest to Discover What It Means to Be Truly Transformed, Matt Mikalatos. Speaking of quirky, you have to love a book that uses werewolves, zombies, and vampires to tell the story of Christian transformation. Matt has a creative (someone would say bizarre) sense of humor and the amazing ability to take pop culture and use it to illuminate important theological ideas. If you’re looking for something a little different to read, or if you’d like to recommend a book to someone who doesn’t usually read theology books, this is a great choice

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Best Church History Book: 

Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth, Alister McGrath. This book served as the starting point for the heresy series I wrote in the fall. McGrath does a great job laying out all the key issues involved in understanding what heresy is and why it matters today. And he manages to avoid being overly technical at the same time, keeping the book readable and fairly short.

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The Best and Worst of the Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books

NPR just released its list of the Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of all time. With more than 5,000 people submitting nominations and 60,000 people voting, it presents an interesting cross-section of what people like in the genre. (Note: You won’t find any young adult books on the list because they’re reserving those for a separate list. So, no Lewis, Pullman, or Rowling. Although, on that note, why is the Sword of Shannara trilogy on the list? How is that more “adult” than the Hunger Games trilogy?)

Since I’m a fan of the genre, I just couldn’t resist making some comments. But, before I do, it’s worth noting that this isn’t a list based on literary merit, historical significance, or anthropological insight. People voted. So, it’s a popularity contest. But, it was an interesting one.

So, check out the list for yourself, but here’s what I think:

  • Most Surprising: Patrick Rothfuss, The Kingkiller Chronicles. Now, don’t get me wrong. This isn’t surprising because the two books in this series so far are bad books. Far from it. The Name of the Wind is unquestionably my favorite debut SciFi novel. What’s surprising here is that Rothfuss has only written two books in the series and the first just came out in 2009. That’s amazing in a list dominated by established authors who published most of their books decades ago! (Runner Up: Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale. Same thing here: an excellent book that I just didn’t expect to see rated this highly by popular vote. Apparently I don’t give people enough credit.)
  • Least Surprising: J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings. #1. No surprise. (Runner Up: George R. R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire. Best-selling books, popular HBO series, sex, death, destruction, and a midget. What else do you need?)
  • Most Overrated: Frank Herbert, The Dune Chronicles. Lots of people will disagree with me here, but I’ve never been able to get into these books. I’m probably tainted by the fact that I watched David Lynch’s Dune as a child and just didn’t understand. What’s up with the giant worms? I didn’t get it.  (Runner Up: The Princess Bride. (#11!? Seriously? Am I missing something?)
  • Most Underrated: Terry Pratchet, The Discworld Series. Without a doubt, this was the hardest category because so many great books seemed too far down the list. But, in the end, I had to go with the Discworld books. The problem here seems to be that they were listed as individual books (e.g. Small Gods, Going Postal), though others were listed by series (e.g. Lord of the Rings, World of Time). That’s unfortunate because the Discworld books definitely deserved better. (Runner Up: Robin Hobb, The Farseer Trilogy. Too many to pick from here (Neverwhere, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, The Malazan Book of the Fallen), but Robin Hobb’s books are so creative and engaging, despite the fact that her main characters sometimes border on being unloveable idiots. Great reading.)
  • Best Movie Version: Fellowship of the Ring. I’m a Tolkien fan. What can I say? And I know lots of people like Return of the King better, but Fellowship of the Ring is my favorite.. (Runner Up: Princess Bride. Okay, so it really wasn’t a great movie. But too many fond youth ministry memories make it seem like an Academy Award Winner.)
  • Worst Movie Version: Starship Troopers. This was a tough call since so many bad movies have ruined perfectly good SciFi books. But, Starship Troopers has to be the worst offender. I’m still doing penance for having actually watched that drek. (Runner Up: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. From what I hear, Watchmen is a worthy candidate here, but I was warned in advance. So, of the movies I’ve actually seen, this is definitely the second worst.)
  • Movie I Wish Would Get Made: American Gods. No question. That would be too awesome. (Runner Up: The Kingkiller Chronicles. Granted, they’d have to wait until he’s finished writing them. But still….)
  • One I’d Like to Read:  Walter M. Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz. A classic that I just haven’t gotten around to yet. (Runner Up: Neil Gaiman, The Sandman Series. The only Gaiman works I haven’t read yet.)
  • One I Wished I Hadn’t Read: Neil Stephenson, Anathem. Stephenson is probably a genius. But, his books put me to sleep. (Runner Up: J.R.R. Tolkein, Silmarillion. I just don’t need to know that much back story of a novel. Any novel.)

For some other good thoughts, check out Glen Weldon’s NPR’s Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels: Parsing the Results.

Dorothy Sayers on the Lost Tools of Learning (and a happy birthday)

Today marks Dorothy Sayers‘ 118th birthday (June 13, 1893). Writer, theologian, poet, essayist, and playwright, Sayers did it all. And, she did it amazingly well.

To commemorate her birthday, here are some excerpts from her essay on The Lost Tools of Learning. Regardless of whether you agree with her argument that we need to return to medieval models of education (and the way this argument has been used by the classical and home schooling movements), her comments on the importance of learning to think are outstanding:

Have you ever, in listening to a debate among adult and presumably responsible people, been fretted by the extraordinary inability of the average debater to speak to the question, or to meet and refute the arguments of speakers on the other side? Or have you ever pondered upon the extremely high incidence of irrelevant matter which crops up at committee meetings, and upon the very great rarity of persons capable of acting as chairmen of committees? And when you think of this, and think that most of our public affairs are settled by debates and committees, have you ever felt a certain sinking of the heart?

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Is not the great defect of our education today—a defect traceable through all the disquieting symptoms of trouble that I have mentioned—that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils “subjects,” we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning. It is as though we had taught a child, mechanically and by rule of thumb, to play “The Harmonious Blacksmith” upon the piano, but had never taught him the scale or how to read music; so that, having memorized “The Harmonious Blacksmith,” he still had not the faintest notion how to proceed from that to tackle “The Last Rose of Summer.” Why do I say, “as though”? In certain of the arts and crafts, we sometimes do precisely this—requiring a child to “express himself” in paint before we teach him how to handle the colors and the brush. There is a school of thought which believes this to be the right way to set about the job. But observe: it is not the way in which a trained craftsman will go about to teach himself a new medium. He, having learned by experience the best way to economize labor and take the thing by the right end, will start off by doodling about on an odd piece of material, in order to “give himself the feel of the tool.”

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For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects. We who were scandalized in 1940 when men were sent to fight armored tanks with rifles, are not scandalized when young men and women are sent into the world to fight massed propaganda with a smattering of “subjects”; and when whole classes and whole nations become hypnotized by the arts of the spell binder, we have the impudence to be astonished. We dole out lip-service to the importance of education—lip-service and, just occasionally, a little grant of money; we postpone the school-leaving age, and plan to build bigger and better schools; the teachers slave conscientiously in and out of school hours; and yet, as I believe, all this devoted effort is largely frustrated, because we have lost the tools of learning, and in their absence can only make a botched and piecemeal job of it.

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]

Francis Chan and Erasing Hell

Ok Ok!!  I know everyone is tired of hearing about hell.  I myself checked out about a month ago.  However, since it had been a while since I checked in I thought I would see if anyone had posted anything fresh on the issue.  I was optimistically hoping to find a response from Rob Bell clarifying his position.  To this point I have not, but I did find a promo video for Francis (I literally almost wrote Jackie) Chan’s new book, Erasing Hell.  Don’t worry he’s just asking some good thought provoking questions.  The book sounds like a respectful  and thoughtful response (IN WHICH I NOW MAKE A BIG DISCLAIMER THAT I HAVE NOT READ THE BOOK YET!  THUS I AM NOT ENDORSING NOR DEFAMING IT!!!).

Tips for the Th.M. – Part 17 (Analyzing Theological Texts)

Just starting your program, you’re about to take your first first class. Like a good student, you decide to take the initiative. So, you download the syllabus and take a look at the reading list. Then you look at it again. That can’t be right. How in the world are you supposed to read all of that in one semester? It can’t be done. Your professor must be insane.

Now, that last statement is quite possible. I’ve known a lot of professors over the years, and I’m not convinced that all of them were entirely sane. But, unless you want to try and prove the mental instability of your professors, you might want to consider the possibility that they knew exactly what they were doing when they assigned that much reading. Maybe the problem isn’t the amount of reading, but your ability to engage the reading successfully. Approaching the right reading in the wrong way can be disastrous.

That’s the issue that Travis McMaken addresses in his post on “Analyzing Theological Texts.” Travis offers a simple rubric for engaging theological texts based on three key questions.

My advice for beginning students, or students struggling with analysis and evaluation, is to focus on answering three questions about a text: What? Why? and How? These questions are mutually implicating, and need not be addressed sequentially. Sometimes one or the other will be far more clear, and you will be able to work from there towards the others. But bearing them all in mind when you read will help you to make better sense of the text or argument in question.

Make sure you read the rest of the post to see what Travis has to say. He goes on to explain that these three questions can be used both for analysis and evaluation. It sounds too good to be true, but approaching your readings with several simple questions in mind can focus your attention, increase your recall, and greatly facilitate your interaction with theological texts.

And, if you’d like more tips for academic study, check out the rest of the Tips for the Th.M.

6 Reasons You Should “Waste” Your Time Reading Fiction

A while back, I asked people to respond to the question “What Have You Enjoyed Reading Lately?” And, several people responded with some really good books. I’ve added a couple of them to my own reading list, so thanks for the suggestions.

photo by Paul Mayers

But, one thing that really stood out to me from the responses was the complete lack of fiction. In all the responses, not a single fiction title.

Now, I suppose that could be because some of you are students who long for the day when you’ll actually be able to choose your own books. So, you just don’t have time to read fiction. Or, maybe some felt that because this is a Th.M. blog, they should only list sufficiently academic books. And, since I posted this on a Saturday, it’s possible that those of you who do enjoy fiction were just out enjoying life while the more studious types were still hunched over their keyboards.

So, there could be many reasons for the non-fiction tilt of the responses. But, it did make me wonder if there’s still a sense that reading fiction is ultimately a waste of time – or, at least, significantly less valuable than reading real books. If so, here’s my best shot at offering 6 reasons that I think reading fiction is important.

  1. Fiction reveals truth. There’s something about a good story that reveals truth in ways that non-fiction cannot. Why do you think Jesus chose to tell so many stories? A good story makes us experience truth. Although non-fiction is great for conveying information, fiction can make that same information sink into our bones in powerful ways.
  2. Fiction strengthens the imagination. Ours is a pragmatic culture. As a result, we often fail to appreciate the importance of the imagination. At best, it’s a diversion. At worst, it distracts from real concerns and takes time away from what truly matters. But, imagination is the skill of seeing the world as it could be. And, when we’re facing a world ravaged by sin, what could be more important that the ability to see what could be?
  3. Fiction manifests beauty. Like any art form, good fiction has a unique ability to display beauty. The right combination of words, a powerful metaphor, a well-described scene, each of these uses the written word to display beauty in ways that no other art form can. And, although non-fiction has the same ability to manifest beauty through the written word, there’s something in the beauty of narrative that’s impossible to capture in any other medium. Soaking up a good story can be like watching a beautiful sunset – a reminder that there is still beauty in this broken world.
  4. Fiction expands horizons. We are storied beings; our stories define us. If you want to understand another person fully, you need to know his or her story. That’s one reason that biographies sell so well. They are a window into different world, a world other than my own. Fiction does the same. A good story draws us in, unveiling reality from a new perspective. For a short time, I can “become” a modern housewife, a 19th century slave, or something else dramatically removed from my own experience. Fiction expands my window on reality, letting me see reality through another’s eyes. And by drawing me in and making me part of the story, it reveals these new perspectives in ways that non-fiction typically doesn’t.
  5. Fiction makes better writers. One pragmatic issue to consider is that reading fiction makes you a better writer. Fiction authors use language differently than non-fiction writers. And, any good writer needs exposure to a variety of writing techniques. Indeed, I’d suggest that any writer should seek exposure to a wide range of literary genres – poetry, fiction, history, philosophy, religion, etc. Each reveals a new way of writing that can expand the tools available to the aspiring author. And, in this way, good fiction shapes good writers.
  6. Fiction is fun. It would be easy to conclude that merely being “fun” isn’t a good enough reason for reading fiction. Why not? Unless I’m missing something, God created us for both work and play. Each manifests his glory in unique ways. So, enjoying yourself is simply part of being who God has created you to be. And, reading good fiction is fun. Enjoy it.

Now, it’s important to realize that for all of this to work the fiction has to be good fiction. Reading trashy fiction still impacts us, but not necessarily in good ways. And, if what you read shapes what you write, then bad fiction produces bad writers (the writer’s version of “you are what you eat”). So, be aware of what you read. A trashy novel is like a candy bar; every now and then may be okay, but don’t make a steady diet of it.

If you want to reflect more on the importance of reading fiction, here are some other articles you might enjoy:

In Memoriam: T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

T.S. Eliot, one of the greatest and most theologically significant poets and playwrights of the 20th century, died on January 4, 1965. In Memoriam, here is a section from “Little Gidding” (the fourth quartet of Eliot’s Four Quartets).

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
……Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre—
……To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
……We only live, only suspire
……Consumed by either fire or fire.

So Whadda Ya Know….

By Brian Johnson

[This post is part of a series that the Th.M. students at Western Seminary are doing this semester on understanding the relationship between philosophy and theology.

It’s difficult to “know” how much blood has been spilt on the epistemological battlefield – the age-old attempt to “know” how we “know” – if you “know” what I mean.

This posting is my meager attempt to address the issues at hand from an evangelical point of view, and is in part in a reflection upon Vincent Cooke’s article “The New Calvinist Epistemology.”

Epistemology is defined as “the study of knowledge and justified belief” (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology/). Two elements of this (brief) definition stand out in my mind: What is real knowledge? and What is justified belief?

In most of our epistemological discussions, knowledge is treated as propositional statements. Things like: Tom is 6’4” tall. It could be argued that this is but one kind of knowing. Alongside propositional knowledge, we could add experiential knowledge (playing basketball with Tom), and transformational knowledge (where knowledge of my wife has changed me – I’m a better man now that I’m married).

Additionally, it’s important to distinguish knowledge from reality. While I may know that “Tom is tall”, that knowledge is neither “Tom” nor is it “tallness”. It is just information – a mere subset, and in fact, just one small feature of the reality of Tom.

Thus, I believe we error by making knowledge a kind of shorthand for comprehensive, exhaustive knowledge. Often we find imperfect knowledge sufficient for the task at hand. (Perhaps it’s a matter of precision…)

With regard to justified belief, Cooke brings out an excellent point (via Plantinga): that beliefs can be rational without the support of philosophical justification. That is, there are beliefs that we accept (dare I say must accept) that do not lend themselves to ‘justification’ in the technical philosophical sense.

He goes on to argue that classical foundationalism (the demand that all beliefs be accepted only if they are self-evident, un-doubtable, or evident to the senses) does not meet it’s own demands for justification – i.e. that it itself is not self-evident, nor un-doubtable, nor evident to the senses.

Classical foundationalism has put a wedge between theology and philosophy by demanding ‘justification’ for theological propositions – a kind of ‘justification’ that foundationalism fails to provide for itself. Post-foundational epistemology allows theological propositions (like ‘God exists”) to be accepted as we accept other ideas, which are difficult to justify. (Cooke cites Plantinga’s example of this kind of proposition: “that other minds exist.” This test concept cannot be supported via rigorous justification, but is practically accepted as a ‘basic’ belief.) This opens the door for renewed interaction and dialogue between theology and philosophy – allowing us evaluate theological ideas that previous philosophers simply dismissed.

Personally I’m encouraged by the school of criteriologists (those who believe that in certain circumstances we are justified in accepting beliefs without formal ‘justification’) that Cooke describes, and envision fruitful developments between theology and philosophy in the years to come.

What do you think? Am I justified in seeing the crumbling of classical foundationalism as a positive step for the integration of theology and philosophy?

The top banned books of the decade

The American Library Associated has published a list of the top 100 banned/challenged books from 2000-2009. Here’s the top 10:

  1. Harry Potter (series), by J.K. Rowling
  2. Alice series, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
  3. The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier
  4. And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson/Peter Parnell
  5. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
  6. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
  7. Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz
  8. His Dark Materials (series), by Philip Pullman
  9. TTYL; TTFN; L8R, G8R (series), by Myracle, Lauren
  10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

Apparently, I need to read controversial books a bit more, since the only ones I’ve read in the top 10 are the Harry Potter books, Of Mice and Men, and the His Dark Materials series.

Some interesting inclusions from the rest of the list:

  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn comes in at #14. Still? After all these years, there’s still controversy. That by itself is a pretty impressive accomplishment. Go Twain.
  • My Brother Sam Is Dead by James Lincoln Collier hit #27. What’s the deal with this one? This was one of my favorite books as a kid. I don’t know how many times I read it, and I don’t remember anything particularly controversial. Maybe I just wasn’t sheltered enough as a child.
  • I have the same question with the Bridge To Terabithia at 28. Is this really controversy worthy?
  • #35 on the other hand is one that I haven’t read, but the title alone probably explains the controversy: Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging, by Louise Rennison.
  • The fact that The Kite Runner comes in at #50 is just a shame. Sure there’s a pretty tough scene in the book, but can’t we get past that and appreciate the power of the story?
  • The Junie B. Jones books (#71)? Really? Did we run out of things to complain about?
  • And, of course, there’s the normal list of great literature that touched on difficult themes and therefore should be kept from our children: The Color Purple (17), Catcher in the Rye (19), To Kill a Mockingbird (21), Brave New World (36), Fahrenheit 451 (69), and The Handmaid’s Tale (88).

I could keep going. There’s some great literature on this list. (It also looks like there’s some real garbage, but I can’t comment on books I haven’t read). Since I obviously haven’t read everything on the list, I’d be curious to know what books you think are on here that kids really should be reading.

“Through a Glass Darkly” by Traci Brimhall

You counted days by their cold silences.
…………At night, wolves and men with bleeding hands

colonized your dreams. The last time I visited,
…………you said you trapped a dead woman in your room

who told you to starve yourself to make room for God,
…………so I let them give your body enough electricity

to calm it. Don’t be afraid. The future is not disguised
…………as sleep. It is a tango. It is a waterfall between

two countries, the river that tried to drown you.
…………It is a city where men speak a language

you can fake if you must. It’s the hands of children
…………thieving your empty pockets. It’s bicycles

with bells ringing through the streets at midnight.
…………Come up from the basement. It’s not over.

Before the sun rises, moonlight on the trees.
…………Before they tear the asylum down, joy.

(You can see the original post and listen to the author read her poem here.)