Book Recommendations for 2021

Books worth reading this coming year

Here are a few books that have challenged and inspired me this past year. I pray they might do the same for you this coming year!

Book Recommendations for 2021

These are the best reflections I’ve read about Coronavirus and the Christian faith. Both N.T. Wright and Walter Brueggemann are two of my favorite theologians.

Not only are we facing a pandemic, but a lot of political unrest. Please, please, please take the time to read Lee Camp’s political manifesto for Christians. It might just change your life (as Kingdom thinking does).

I have been reading and re-reading St. Augustine for years. I have also been following the work of James K. A. Smith. In this book I found much more than I imagined! This was this year’s most spiritually forming book for me. I highly recommend it!

I love reading biblical theology by scholars who strive to condense their longer and deeper works into tomes for a popular level. This book by Richard Bauckman is absolutely brilliant!

In addition to reading theology, I enjoy reading novels and poetry for spiritual formation. This year during quarantine I spent time with Rainer Maria Rilke and T.S. Eliot. I always love reading Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Check out these anthologies that will help you better discover the spiritual writings of these two Russian giants!

This past year I have taken a greater interest in Patristics. If you would like to read writings from early Christian theologians, the Philokalia is a great place to begin!

In addition to Patristics, I discovered Alexander Schmemann and his work, For the Life of the World. I started learning about sacramental theology in regards to storytelling in Catholic literature (for ex. Flannery O’Connor) and now I’ve found one of the classic works on the topic and it has revolutionized my thinking.

Check out this anthology of short stories by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. These stories can help you reflect on interracial relationships and what it means to be a part of the same community with people who are radically different than you are. Also check out Chimamanda’s fellow Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe, especially his work, Things Fall Apart.

In the area of pastoral theology, I could not leave out a title by Eugene Peterson. This book is not to be read straight through but to be read little by little for deep reflection. This book is a part of a larger series on pastoral work.

Even before I saw his painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights” in person, I have been fascinated by the person and work of Hieronymus Bosch. So I thought I’d end this list with a book by one of my favorite publishing houses, Taschen.

Let yourself be challenged by people who are different than you, people who lived in other times and places. Dare to become not only better informed, but spiritually transformed.

A Coronavirus Prayer

A prayer by Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann. Virus as Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and Anxiety. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020.

The Giver of Bread and Fish
Walter Brueggemann

Matthew 7:7–11

We do “thoughts and prayers” easily and glibly;
we do “thoughts” without thinking;
we do “prayers” without praying.

We commit that glib act
because it is what we know how to do with an anemic god, or
because we are embarrassed to do more, or
because it is convenient and costs us nothing.

Now, however, we are driven to unthinkable thoughts, about
all that is ending, and
all this we have lost, and
all that leaves us with a sinking feeling.

Now, however, we are driven, some of us, to unutterable prayers.
We are driven to such prayer
by awareness that our usual reliabilities are gone.
We are driven to you, the abiding God
when other helpers fail and comforts flee.

Thus we are bold to pray:

We are bold to ask, because it will be given!
So we pray for the end of this virus,
for the health of the neighborhood,
for the recovery of the economy.

We are bold to seek, because you will be found!
We seek your mercy and your goodness and your generosity,
so let yourself be found by us.

We are bold to knock, because it will be opened.
We know many doors slammed shut,
doors of health and safety and comfort and fun.
Open to us the door of life, and love, and peace, and joy.

Here we are in your presence:

We ask for bread:
the bread of life,
the bread of abundance,
the bread of neighborly sharing.
Do not give us a stone or a crumb.

We ask for fish:
the fish of a good diet,
the fish of your abundant waters,
the fish that signs the gospel,
Do not give us a snake or the hiss of poison.

We dare to pray, not because we are at our wits end,
but because you are at the center of our life.
Our hope is in no other save in thee alone!
So hear, heal, save, restore!
Be the God you have promised to be. Amen.

Handel’s Messiah for Advent

“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” — Isaiah 9:2

Handel’s Messiah, credit: The British Library

We often think of Handel’s Messiah as an oratorio for Christmas, but it was in fact written as a commentary on the birth, death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Christ. The libretto was written by Charles Jennens and the music was composed by George Frideric Handel.

The libretto was taken from the King James Version and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. The libretto is taken from 81 different Bible verses, most of them from the prophet Isaiah.

This masterpiece has nurtured my Advent meditations for years. We can be a part of God’s redemption of time and space as we relive the expectation of Israel, longing for the Messiah and His Kingdom here on earth. As we rehearse Israel’s wait, we also expectantly wait for Jesus’ second coming when He will come to judge the living and the dead.

Here are the Scriptural citations for the Advent part of Handel’s Messiah if you would like to spend more time in the biblical text while listening to their musical interpretation.

Handel’s Messiah

Scene I: Isaiah’s prophecy of salvation

Overture
Comfort ye my people — Isaiah 40:1–3
Ev’ry valley shall be exalted — Isaiah 40:4
And the glory of the Lord — Isaiah 40:5

Scene II: The coming judgment

Thus saith the Lord of hosts — Haggai 2:6–7; Malachi 3:1
But who may abide the day of His coming — Malachi 3:2
And he shall purify the sons of Levi — Malachi 3:3

Scene III: The prophecy of Christ’s birth

Behold, a virgin shall conceive — Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23
O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion — Isaiah 40:9; 60:1
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth — Isaiah 60:2–3
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light — Isaiah 9:2
For unto us a child is born — Isaiah 9:6

For a greater understanding of Advent, I recommend the following books:

Bobby Gross. Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009.

Fleming Rutledge. Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018.

God Still Speaks of Justice

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book on the Hebrew prophets tells us about the importance of not only translating the prophets correctly, but understanding the power of their words both emotionally and spiritually.

The Prophet Isaiah, Marc Chagall

Hear the Word of the Lord from Isaiah 58

“Shout! A full-throated shout!
 Hold nothing back — a trumpet-blast shout!
Tell my people what’s wrong with their lives,
 face my family Jacob with their sins!
They’re busy, busy, busy at worship,
 and love studying all about me.
To all appearances they’re a nation of right-living people — 
 law-abiding, God-honoring.
They ask me, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’
 and love having me on their side.
But they also complain,
 ‘Why do we fast and you don’t look our way?
 Why do we humble ourselves and you don’t even notice?’

“Well, here’s why:

“The bottom line on your ‘fast days’ is profit.
 You drive your employees much too hard.
You fast, but at the same time you bicker and fight.
 You fast, but you swing a mean fist.
The kind of fasting you do
 won’t get your prayers off the ground.
Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after:
 a day to show off humility?
To put on a pious long face
 and parade around solemnly in black?
Do you call that fasting,
 a fast day that I, God, would like?

“This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
 to break the chains of injustice,
 get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
 free the oppressed,
 cancel debts.
What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
 sharing your food with the hungry,
 inviting the homeless poor into your homes,
 putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
 being available to your own families.
Do this and the lights will turn on,
 and your lives will turn around at once.
Your righteousness will pave your way.
 The God of glory will secure your passage.
Then when you pray, God will answer.
 You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’

“If you get rid of unfair practices,
 quit blaming victims,
 quit gossiping about other people’s sins,
If you are generous with the hungry
 and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out,
Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness,
 your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.
I will always show you where to go.
 I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places — 
 firm muscles, strong bones.
You’ll be like a well-watered garden,
 a gurgling spring that never runs dry.
You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew,
 rebuild the foundations from out of your past.
You’ll be known as those who can fix anything,
 restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate,
 make the community livable again.

“If you watch your step on the Sabbath
 and don’t use my holy day for personal advantage,
If you treat the Sabbath as a day of joy,
 God’s holy day as a celebration,
If you honor it by refusing ‘business as usual,’
 making money, running here and there — 
Then you’ll be free to enjoy God!
 Oh, I’ll make you ride high and soar above it all.
I’ll make you feast on the inheritance of your ancestor Jacob.”
 Yes! God says so!

Translation: Eugene Peterson

Fox News & Spiritual Formation

You are being discipled by Fox News. And if not by Fox News, maybe by CNN, Blaze Media, Democracy Now! or Ben Shapiro. And maybe the news media is not discipling you, but possibly someone other than Jesus is.

We do not normally think that spiritual formation takes place while we follow the news in our preferred outlets. The truth is that we are often unaware or not critical enough of the messages we are receiving from these sources. As long as news media is a for-profit industry, as long as they need sponsors, target groups, marketing strategies and as long as media outlets simulate a fourth branch of the government, we must be careful of what we uncritically digest.

Please do not misunderstand me, American media outlets have done a lot of good for our country. They often denounce corruption, share information the government would rather keep quiet and a host of other services for the welfare of the general public. I am not anti-media in any way. I am, however, not in favor of allowing media outlets to take over a role that belongs to Christ and the church.

How does the media disciple us?

Christ’s Kingdom project teaches us what it means to be human (we are made in the image and likeness of God) and how to live with one another in society (loving our neighbors and enemies as an expression of our love for God). Jesus teaches us what should enrage us (injustice, hypocrisy, legalism) and what should be cause of celebration (repentance and resurrection). Jesus tells us what is the goal of human history (a day of reckoning when God will right all wrong and restore our broken creation and our broken bodies). The Gospels give us a political theology (Christ is King, Christ is Lord and not Caesar).

If you have watched or read anything from CNN or Fox News lately, you would know they’re teaching us ways of being human that are contrary to the ways of Jesus. They’re telling us that God’s chosen people is America, that we should be fine with the status quo, that the poor and the foreigner are our enemies, that political top-down power and influence is what is going to bring about real change. The way they report the news if powerful because they are not simply stating facts but sharing key parts of larger narratives that support different visions or worldviews. Neither Fox or CNN, neither the right or the left faithfully tells the narrative of God’s upside-down Kingdom.

Christians are told every day on cable news that they must choose to be on the right or the left and that to be for something you have to be against someone. However, in between the right and the left stands the cross where we are called to die to self, to individualism, to country, to the myths of nationalism, white supremacy, neoliberal and socialist economic systems and to adopt Christ’s Kingdom project as the only true expression of Jesus Himself, the way, the truth and the life.

Will you allow Jesus’ Kingdom project to be the dominant narrative that tugs at your heart, that shapes your vision of the world, that determines how you view and treat others? Will you let Jesus teach you about what should make you angry or why you should celebrate? Will you recognize Fox and CNN for what they are — human attempts to make sense of human life and society that do not express or represent faithfully the witness of Jesus Christ in the world?

Cf. Christian Nationalism & the Crucified Christ

Christian Nationalism & the Crucified Christ

Christian Nationalism is an affront to Christ

Hebrews 12:1–3 NIV

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

On Wednesday, August 26th, Vice President Mike Pence said the following words in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention:

“So let’s run the race marked out for us (Hebrews 12:1). Let’s fix our eyes (12:2) on Old Glory and all she represents (Christian Nationalism), fix our eyes (Hebrews 12:2) on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire (Christian Nationalism). And let’s fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2) and freedom (Christian Nationalism) and never forget that where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17). That means freedom always wins (Christian Nationalism).” — V.P. Mike Pence

In the next to last paragraph of Pence’s speech, he marries Christian Scripture and nationalist sentiments much like the Emperor Constantine or the Catholic kings and queens of medeival Europe.

Vice President Pence

For those of us who worship Christ as King, for those of us who pledge allegiance only to the Kingdom of God, for those of who understand our citizenship to be with God in heaven, this shameless and blatant mix of Holy Scripture and Christian Nationalist tropes is very disturbing. Why? Christian Nationalism is an affront to God. Christian Nationalism must always talk vaguely about God and Jesus and precisely about country, or in this case, the flag and what she represents. Christian Nationalism calls us to worship country and not Christ or at least to divide our loyalties and worship both.

The author of the letter to the Hebrews calls us to “fix our eyes on Jesus” not on a human empire like so many that have come and gone throughout history. I will not look to country for meaning, purpose or my identity — for these things I will look to Christ and to Him alone. The courage that inspires me to give my own life in sacrifice for others was not displayed on the battlefields of Korea, Vietnam or in the Middle East but on a hill called Golgotha.

The author and perfecter of my faith does not give me freedom in order to begin an uninhibited pursuit of happiness but the freedom to answer freely His call to discipleship. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “when Christ calls a man, he bides him come and die”. Christian Nationalist freedom is without loyalty to the ethic of the crucified Christ, whereas the responsibility to freedom in Christ is freedom to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him every day.

American politicians know that many Americans are deeply religious. But they’re counting on our religiosity, our “cultural Christianity” and a vague commitment to Christ and the Scriptures in order to rouse us to the cause of country. In other words, they want to tap into a power greater than politics (faith and worship) in order to mobilize a people for their own ends.

American politicians have always feared Christians with a higher calling, one that surpasses country and bows only to Christ. Christians who pledged their only and undying allegiance to the Lamb and who rose above partisan politics were put on the FBI watchlist. Why? They cannot be bought or driven by fear.

What I have been written today is not a call for Christians to vote one way or another but to wake up to the dangers of the bastardization of the Christian faith for political purposes. Christianity is a politic, it is an interpretation of human history, it is a coherent vision for human life and society. You should pray and agonize when contemplating who to vote for but please, I beg you, do not think that God is bringing His Kingdom or the world that He wants through the top down, through the power brokers, through the Republican Party. He’s reserved that privilege for the poor, the poor in spirit, the meek and the lowly (Matthew 5:1ff).

I highly recommend the following book in order to understand these issues from a biblical and theological perspective:

Scandalous Witness: A Little Political Manifesto for Christians by Lee Camp

Von guten Mächten treu und still umgeben

Ein Gedicht von / a poem by / una poesía de Dietrich Bonhoeffer

1. Von guten Mächten treu und still umgeben,
behütet und getröstet wunderbar,
so will ich diese Tage mit euch leben
und mit euch gehen in ein neues Jahr.

2. Noch will das alte unsre Herzen quälen,
noch drückt uns böser Tage schwere Last.
Ach Herr, gib unsern aufgeschreckten Seelen
das Heil, für das du uns geschaffen hast.

3. Und reichst du uns den schweren Kelch, den bittern
des Leids, gefüllt bis an den höchsten Rand,
so nehmen wir ihn dankbar ohne Zittern
aus deiner guten und geliebten Hand.

4. Doch willst du uns noch einmal Freude schenken
an dieser Welt und ihrer Sonne Glanz,
dann wolln wir des Vergangenen gedenken,
und dann gehört dir unser Leben ganz.

5. Laß warm und helldie Kerzen heute flammen,
die du in unsre Dunkelheit gebracht,
führ, wenn es sein kann, wieder uns zusammen.
Wir wissen es, dein Licht scheint in der Nacht.

6. Wenn sich die Stille nun tief um uns breitet,
so laß uns hören jenen vollen Klang
der Welt, die unsichtbar sich um uns weitet,
all deiner Kinder hohen Lobgesang.

7. Von guten Mächten wunderbar geborgen,
erwarten wir getrost, was kommen mag.
Gott ist beiuns am Abend und am Morgen
und ganz gewiß an jedem neuen Tag.

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Widerstand und Ergebung. Briefe und Aufzeichnungen aus der Haft.

With every power for good to stay and guide me,
comforted and inspired beyond all fear,
I’ll live these days with you in thought beside me,
and pass, with you, into the coming year.

The old year still torments out hearts, unhastening;
the long days of our sorrow still endure;
Father, grant to the souls thou hast been chastening
that thou hast promised, the healing and the cure.

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
we will not falter, thankfully receiving
all that is given by thy loving hand.

But should it be thy will once more to release us
to life’s enjoyment and its good sunshine,
that which we’ve learned from sorrow shall increase us,
and all our life be dedicate as thine.

Today, let candles shed their radiant greeting;
lo, on our darkness are they not thy light
leading us, haply, to our longed-for-meeting? –
Thou canst illumine even our darkest night.

When now the silence deepens for our hearkening,
grant we may hear they children’s voices raise
from all the unseen world around us darkening
their universal paean, in thy praise.

While all the powers of good aid and attend us,
boldly we’ll face the future, come what may.
At even and at morn God will befriend us,
and oh, most surely on each newborn day!

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison. English translation: John Bowden

Fielmente rodeado de poderes bienhechores,
protegido y maravillosamente consolado,
quiero vivir este día con vosotros
y con vosotros entrar en un nuevo año.

El pasado aún quiere atormentar nuestros corazones,
aún nos oprime la pesada carga de malos días.
¡Señor! Confiere a nuestras aterrorizadas almas
la salvación que para nosotros tienes prevista.

Y si nos tiendes el pesado cáliz, el amargo cáliz
del dolor, lleno hasta rebosar,
lo tomaremos agradecidos y sin temblar
de tu bondadosa y querida mano.

Pero si una vez más quieres concedernos la alegría
del espectáculo de este mundo y del brillo de su sol,
recordaremos el pasado,
y nuestra vida será toda para ti.

Permite que hoy reluzcan con calor y paz lo cirios
que Tú has traído a nuestra oscuridad;
y, si es posible, reúnenos de nuevo.
Nosotros sabemos que tu luz brilla en la noche.

Cuando el silencio profundo reine a nuestro alrededor,
concédenos escuchar el sonido lleno
del mundo, que invisible se expande en torno nuestro
y supremo canto de alabanza de todos tus hijos.

Maravillosamente protegidos por poderes bienhechores,
esperamos confiados lo que venga.
Dios está con nosotros mañana y noche,
y ciertamente en cada nuevo día.

— Dietrich Bonhoofer, Resistencia y sumisión. Cartas y apuntes desde el cautiverio. Traducción al castellano: J.J. Alemany y Constantino Ruiz-Garrido

True Christianity

How comes it that saints are still looked upon as a class apart instead of being normal examples of membership of the church? The answer to that question is to be found in the cost of sainthood. It cannot be too often or too clearly proclaimed that Christianity is something for which a big price has to be paid. When all around us the air is full of vague rumors of a new-found faith which is free of effort and tolerant of everything save toil and pain, it is time to speak out boldly and to say that true Christianity is the most costly possession in the world, that it still knows but one road, which leads over Calvary, and still has but one symbol, which is a cross. If a saint is one who approximates to the life of Christ, it is self-evident that he is one who suffers in the endeavor to come to God. There were many ways in which our Lord could have saved the world, but he was limited in his choice, for God can but choose “the best,” and the way he chose was the way of suffering, of hard discipline, and severe tests. The man and the woman who are not prepared to pay this price cannot attain the profession of sainthood to which they are called.

– R. Somerset Ward