A Life Amongst Books in 2017

I love reading. I love lists of books. I love looking back and making a record of the books that provided a texture of ideas and words to my life over the last year. My goal is always to finish each month with 5 books completed. This year I read 83, my record since high school. (I suppose that this rise in volumes could be attributed to the books I read for university.)

As usual, the following will include, in chronological order, the books that made the best impression, followed by a longer list of the other books I really enjoyed reading this year.

Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation

After being influenced by James K. A. Smith’s thinking for several years and with the release of his final volume in the Cultural Liturgies Trilogy this Autumn, it was finally time to tackle the series itself. I read this book in January and it’s insights have shaped me ever since. I think its concepts are key for understanding how the human heart and society works. Later in the year, I read the second volume (Imagining the Kingdom) and I’ve just started the final book: Awaiting the King.

Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands

I’ve enjoyed Michael Chabon’s fiction, but this book of essays on the imagination turned me, head-over-heels, into a fan. Being immersed in his active approach to such a diverse range of subjects is like taking a sniff of cayenne pepper to your imaginative senses – it reminds you of what wonders are possible in this world and then has you looking for what other concepts you might have missed in your previously your humdrum existence.

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

This was doubtless the most entertaining audiobook I’ve listened to. Trever Noah narrates his experiences growing up in the dying embers of apartheid South Africa. It is simultaneously fascinating, side-splittingly hilarious, and harrowing. I don’t expect that I’ll soon forget the stories, accents, and insights of  this book.

Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties

As I’ve shared elsewhere, this was the year I made my way though everything Beatles. An online friend recommended this guide to every track they recorded, and I’m so glad I had it. It’s an insightful analysis into the brilliance and shortcomings of the band, while tracing the cultural forces of that indelible era that both shaped and was shaped by the lads from Liverpool. The story of The Beatles is a story of both the stunning potential of humanity and it’s irredeemable shortcomings. This book shows both of these traits.

Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical

Tim Keller’s books are always insightful. In this volume, he sets out to provide a sort of prequel to his debut classic The Reason for God: an argument for the validity of belief in an age of skepticism. But the book becomes much more: a systematic, carefully researched understanding of our current era and the system of belief that undergirds it. It’s a heady book. It’s an important book. I want to reread it.

Holy the Firm

This slim volume is Annie Dillard at her most distilled. It is both simple and approachable, and complex and layered. It’s an age old narrative of why so much evil can exist amongst such vast goodness, but it is told in a simple story that is narrowly focused but encompasses so much. I read it twice in a row, and then wrote about it for school.

No Great Mischief

Some novels are page turners, but the writing itself is quickly forgotten (hello Ms. Rowling...). Others are beautifully written but take a fair bit of concentration to pick away at. This book is one of those rare combinations of being ripping yarn, while continuing beautiful writing on every page. It’s a perennial novel; one that I’m sure I will return to repeatedly, a novel for the ages that remains remarkably tied to a specific place.

Born to Run

Bruce Springsteen narrates his highly acclaimed memoir. The Boss’s voice is in your ears for 18 hours. What more can I say? Bruce Springsteen’s voice is a gift for the people. This audiobook is no different. It was fascinating, insightful, and through it, I’ve developed a great affection for The Boss. He is a gift we do not deserve, and so is this book.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

This vast book, tracing an alternative history where magic is the lost inheritance of the English, feels like it was written in the 18th century, a cross between Austin and Dickens. Ms Clarke has written a terrific yarn, with an ending that verges upon the eschatological. But what I appreciated most about this book was how the plot, while important, was not the main point. This is a story that loves its characters and its textures and wants us to enjoy them too. It’s a marvel that I’m almost ashamed I’ve missed up until now.

 

Honourable Mentions

This year the Book of Psalms was once again my guide and nourishment. I’ve thought back to C.S. Lewis’ small book of essays, The Weight of Glory, often, and enjoyed a recording by Malcolm Guite of Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse. Francis Spufford’s A Child That Books Built was splendid. On Writing Well gets to the heart of good writing habits, and does so in a manner far more enjoyable (a sign itself of good writing) than any other I have read. Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage left a thread in my head that would later be picked up and Wesley Hill’s Spiritual Friendship was both well written and insightful. Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction was terrific and the novel Station Eleven wove an interweaving story that I throughly enjoyed. I can’t wait to reread Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, even as I read Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf yet again and loved it all the more. I would have been haunted by Benjamin Hertwig’s book of poetry, Slow War, even if he wasn’t my cousin and friend. Michael Chabon’s Moonglow is, I think, my favorite novel of his. Mike Cosper’s Recapturing the Wonder was insightful and convicting. Before We Get Started is Bret Lott being again incredibly human and humble. I fell in love again with The Wind in the Willows and with Tolkien’s best short stories – Farmer Giles of Ham, Smith of Wootton Major and Leaf by Niggle. And Alan Jacob’s little How to Think was thought provoking in a year when I reflected a good deal on how to talk to those I disagree with.

 

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In Defence of Owning Too Many Books

I live my life surrounded by books. The increase of these volumes used to excite me. Now, it tends to lead to despondency. Why do I keep pursing books, even when I know I'll never read them all? Why even bother?

Last September I gave a speech at my friend Kyle's variety show, wrestling through these memories and expectations and eventually arriving at hope. Now, less then a year later, it's become my debut essay with Upwrite Magazine.

I'm really proud of this piece. Working with Upwrite to edit and improve it was a great joy, combining my three favorited things: creating, collaborating, and communicating. Go give it a read and tell us what you think!

 

 

 

 

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My desk while writing this piece. I'm really excited about the potential to buy new bookshelves.  

Brett Lott's Letters & Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian

I've been slowly posting the assignments I wrote as part of last year's Creativity and the Christian course. I highly recommend Brett Lott's fine volume and am excited to announce that he has generously agreed to be interviewed later this month! I'm excited and nervous. Watch this space! And in the meantime, read his excellent book.

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Key Contributions

Bret Lott is a writer. He has achieved the commercial success that defines the dream a successful writing life, and he has the literary accolades to prove that he has not sold his artistic soul to achieve them. But Bret Lott is also a Christian who has thought deeply about the implications of his faith upon his writing life, and vice versa.

Bret refuses to separate his writing from his faith. There is a backbone of belief to his craft and the result is a joyful boldness. In the book's first essay, he reminds us of his belief in God's existence and intervention in our world, and the examples of it in Bret's life. This is in strong contrast to today's secular age, which "has become so primed to the self that there is no room to believe in anything else." But as Christians, the source of both reason and imagination has been met in Christ. The result of this truth in our lives is that there is nothing to stop us from being a witness through our art. We have been given a freedom to create art. In light of the supernatural intervention of the true God in our lives, what circumstances have we to fear?

This doctrine permeates all aspects of his craft. It clarifies and provides boundaries to his role as an artist and his relationship to both the church and the public square (chapter 2). It gives him courage to push hard in writing with precision, because "I have been made in the image of God, and not blurrily in his image, not almost in his image, not close enough in his image" (chapter 3). It gives context to his writings, rooted in the people around him (chapter 4) and it protects him from thinking too highly of himself (chapter 5).

In the end, writing can never be divorced from life. Bret explores this relationship in the second half of the book, an extended essay on his writing and the ordinary days surrounding the death of his father. Here is writing and here is life, together bearing fruit for all eternity.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Lott's thinking is saturated in the Bible yet also so obviously born out of his life as world class writer. This permeates the entire book, but the second essay stood out to me. It examines the relationship between the believing artist and surrounding society. Lott defines both a believer and an artist as being "blessed to be a blessing." He also recognizes that "we do not commit art in a vacuum but are a part of society," so we had best understand the moral order imposed on that society by God. In this order, the role of the artist is "a creator in a worship relationship to God." Satan usurps this order, convincing us "to divorce art from God." Lott quotes filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, who believed "that art lost its creative urge the moment it was separated from worship." The result is the desperate need to find meaning in yourself and your art, "an unmoored harmonic line, consumed with believing itself the melody."

This lie of Satan's has been broken by Christ's work on the cross. When our salvation is found in Him, our place in the moral order is restored and we can create "portraits of humanity that extend to all who have ears to hear and eyes to see the value of humanity for our having been created by God in his image." We now know we are, created to live lives "in service - in creation - to our creator God."

For Lott, these lives - people and their particulars - are the reasons we write. For him, his writing is all about the people involved in his stories. "People, in the dire straights we all of us have known and will know, carried with them their own ragged and sorrowful and mysterious worth." Lott expresses a real humility in the face of these people and their circumstances. They force him to get out of his writing's way and let their stories speak.

The book is a collection of essays, not a thesis. This is both a strength and a weakness.

Personal Application

Letters & Life taught me to have courage and to have humility. "For writing that will last, and that will mean something, and that will have pierced the heart and soul and mind not only of our readers but, more importantly, of ourself... precision is the most important element." This kind of writing takes courage - courage to trust what you are trying to feel enough to push past dead expressions and find new words, "precise words we don't yet know [that] will serve the purpose of showing us what we can't yet see." The life I am witnessing is a precise life. So don't let me trade it for vague stories that lack the courage of the particulars. I serve a precise God who has made precise people. May I listen and stare and have the courage to tell exactly what I see.

We also need humility. We need to get ourselves out of the way and minimize our own importance. It is "the dethroning of the writer, the constant and all-consuming bloody coup every story or poem or essay - every genuine work of art - must accomplish over its author in order truly to live and to breathe and to have something to say to us that will matter." Artists tackle the eternal. Much is at stake and as a result we tend to think highly of ourselves. But the eternal has "to be approached on one's knees... humbly, carefully, cautiously."

It is true that our words matter. Our writing, if it is done with precision, "is a manifestation of the eternal... a foray into the Holy of Holies." But Lott is quick to acknowledge that words have limitations. In the face of the complexities, frustrations, and tragedies of life "words can not capture what I want to capture." There is even a weariness: "I have lived too much with words." Words alone are not enough. We write because of the people around us. We write to process and to explain the events of our lives, to bear witness to the "people who went before us and the people who are still among us." They are what matter. We write in the context of life.

Questions for the Author

"If we look either to Christian publishing or to New York for our venue, for our outlet, for our income, as it were, from writing... then we have missed the point of creating in God's name entirely." This is encouraging, but then how do we plan with wisdom for the practical details of a career in writing?

"How many of us who claim to be artists or at least want to be called such - and be honest now, as God is our witness - have done so in one form or another, to excuse our being lazy, or forgetful, or just plain irresponsible?" How does Brett overcome this?

He talks about the "artistry by which [others have] lived their lives in service to... God." Schaeffer says that "no work of art is more important than the Christian's own life." What does this look like? How does this apply to his life?

How does he balance the value of art ("a manifestation of the eternal and far more important than than the artist can ever be") and the value of people?

How does he keep himself humble as an artist?

"I have lived too much with words." "I am so tired of words." I too have this frustration. How does he respond, especially when his career is in words? "So why, when words are so deceitful, so scheming as to speak truth and untruth in the very same instant, why is the work of putting them in the correct order my work?" How does he answer this dilemma?

"Words matter, yes. But they are deceitful. Acts. Acts are what matter." Is our faith a faith of words, acts, or both?

What role does his church play in the creation of his art? How does it disciple him? Does it help him insure that his stories align with the true story?

2016: A Year Amongst Books

To live a life amongst quality books has, for me, always been a supreme value and a sign of a life well lived. Although I've always struggled to read, I've always loved books. I love shopping for them, organizing them, and planning which new volumes to tackle next. I'm always collecting lists of books recommended by trusted thinkers and writers and towards the end of every year I consult these lists and make my own spreadsheet of all the books I hope to read during the next year. (And let me tell you, 2017 is looking promising.) Because so many of the books I've lived my life amongst in 2016 were recommended to me by others, I feel it is an essential service to put a list of these favourites together, with the hope that you too will come across something worth pursuing is. Perhaps a title or two from this list strikes your interest and deepens or enriches your life in some way.

Last year I read 72 books. That number astonished me and I remained convinced it would never repeat that feat. This year I read 74 books, so go figure. I'm not holding my breath for 2017 though.  My goal is always to close the month with five completed titles.

I offer this list in a roughly chronological order.

I read Malcolm Guite's advent poetry anthology Waiting on the Word: A Poem A Day for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany last year and found it to be a delightful poetry education. Malcolm selects poems from across time and genre, including religious and secular poems. Then he offers a short essay walking us through the language and meaning of the poem, explaining why it offers value for our advent journey. Malcolm also reads each poem aloud on his website, which is itself an education on how to savour poetry's language.

I listened to Will Paton's excellent recording of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. It's a breathless and detailed look at what it means to be alive and to truly notice and enjoy the life around us. Since I'm a sucker for anything Inklings related, I really enjoyed the fine new biography of the group The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings. It was a joy to read and it was great to have a more up to date examination of their lives and their influences.

This year I also prayed through The Psalms for the first time. It has shaped my prayer life more than anything else. I plan on re-reading them indefinitely for the foreseeable future. The Psalms are the prayerbook of the Bible. They were prayerbook of Jesus, and have been the prayerbook of the church for two millenniums. How can they not become my prayerbook as well? My vision is that these songs will be woven into my own life as I pray, sing, read about, and make art around them in the year ahead.

My best friend recommended East of Eden and what a book! Some books you read quickly because you can't wait to hear what happens next. Others you read slowly to savour each sentence. This book was the first time I encountered both. Every year I pick up an Annie Dillard volume, and this year I picked up An American Childhood. And Makoto Fujumura's book Silence & Beauty helped reshape my view of how Christ can be shown in a culture and through that culture's art.

Mike Cosper's book Stories We Tell was crucial in reframing the way I approached stories and cinema in particular. When I look back on my year of movie going, I notice now how little I watched prior to reading this book and how much more willing I was to engage with this medium after reading it. His approach acknowledges the power that stories old over us. It brings out the deep desires that stories tap into. And it opened up how many of our society's greatest stories hint at the True Storyline of scripture. I've been thinking, talking, and writing about the ideas in this book all year and I hope these thoughts continue.

If I were to choose one book of 2016, it would be Eugene Peterson slender volume Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer. Rarely have I read a book that includes such elegant writing with such spiritual truth. I ended up reading one chapter from the book aloud to three different friends. I also did a photo project based off that chapter. I can't wait to read more of Eugene Peterson on the Psalms. 

James K.A. Smith's You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit was another influential read. In it, he argues that although Christian thinkers and culture have been focused on changing what we think, it is in fact our desires and habits that are much more formative. These habits of the heart are shaped in subconscious ways by the shopping malls, cinemas, and Facebook feeds, but God has given the church an even more powerful tool: the rhythms of church worship. Since Mike Cosper is very much influenced by Jamie Smith and since I got to meet Jamie in September, the thinking in this book has been flowing throughout my year.

At one point I was trying to read Bob Dylan's memoir, Chronicles Volume One while eating a meal. Every time I put my pencil down to take a bit of food, I was forced to pick the pencil back up again to underline yet another sentence. This book describes the well-worn grooves of Dylan's artistic creation process. The last half of the book, which walked us through the week surrounding the recording of my favourite Dylan record, 'Oh Mercy', captured the frustrations and break-throughs of creating an album.

I really enjoyed how Brett Lott integrated the steady, heart work of being a Christian with the steady, hard work of being a writer in Of Letters & Life. The tiny, jewel-like story The Angel Knew Papa and the Dog is a volume I hope to read aloud one of these Christmases. Listening to Neil Gaiman read his terrifying volume The Ocean at the End of the Lane was a fantastic audiobook experience. The Gift: Creativity in the Modern World helped change my approach to how to give away the art I create. Driven to Distraction and The Dyslexic Advantage re-woke and changed my perspective on my very real disabilities. I hope these books don't just sit on the shelf but make a difference in my 2017.

I spent most of the year reading through the Harry Potter series and it's accompanying complementary books. What a ride! Although I remain unimpressed by her prose, I'm floored by the richly detailed world J. K. Rowling has created and am shocked at how deeply Christian her stories are. Her world is a treasure and I thoroughly repent of my prudish and judgmental attitude what I thought was a superfluous and dangers world of mere "witchcraft and wizardry."

Finally, Art & Fear was an encouraging and confronting book that I've already given away many times and hope to return to. And it took me three years to work my way through Seamus Heany's giant poetry anthology Opened Ground. Those words became melodies that I worked, created, slept, prayed, and lived amongst these last three years. I'm grateful.

 A small selection of my favourite books from 2016. The rest are lent out or are ebooks. 

A small selection of my favourite books from 2016. The rest are lent out or are ebooks. 

Frances Schaeffer's Art and the Bible

 Over the summer, I participated in a course called Creativity and the Christian. It was a challenge and a joy to be forced to write essays again. I'll be posting what I worked on over the next couple weeks, beginning with three book reports. Each of these books is excellent and I recommend reading. Here is my report for Frances Scaheffer's classic volume, Art and the Bible.

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Key Contributions

The Christian faith has enjoyed a historically rich relationship with the arts. The writings of Dante, the music of Bach, the paintings of Rembrandt, and the songwriting of Bono are small sampling of this heritage. So why is the Evangelical church marked by both an aesthetic barrenness and an attitude of fear and avoidance towards the arts? Is our church's understanding of the arts actually rooted in a proper understanding of the Bible? Francis Schaeffer's seminal work, Art and the Bible, provided a much needed clarity when it was first published in 1973 and continues to offer a reorienting view of a proper doctrine of creativity. 

The Bible's portrayal of reality is not limited to matters of the soul. The doctrines of the creation, the redemption, and the future resurrection provide a framework that permeates all aspects of reality. Christ is Lord over everything, giving us context and boldness for our own acts of artistic creation. With such an anchoring in the objective, true reality, we have both the strength and the freedom to pursue knowledge and art.

We see the character of God both in his creation of the world and in how he directs us through his word. And both point to a God who is himself creative and who made us to worship him creatively. "God is interested in beauty. God made people to be beautiful. And beauty has a place in the worship of God." Observe the beauty and complexity of His creation. Read the descriptions on the various types of art God commissioned for the tabernacle and the temple. Notice the wide range of writing styles that are included in scriptures. If we are made in the image of God, we too are called to be creative and our art has value in itself. "Why? Because a work of art is a work of creativity, and creativity has value because God is the Creator."

 

Strengths and Weaknesses

For Schaeffer, art is an expression of  "the nature and character of humanity." We can recognize the excellence of an artist's work without having to agree with his outlook on life. To enjoy an author's skill with words or a director's vision of the world is a way to honour the image of God in those people. But that doesn't necessarily mean we embrace what that artist is saying morally. Every man, artist or not, is bound to the Word of God.

Schaeffer's articulates the minor and major themes in the Christian message and how Christian art should include both. The minor theme includes the reality of the fallenness of man, the resulting sense of meaninglessness and tragedy, and the "defeated and sinful side to the Christian life." The major theme is the joy that opens up when we realize that God is real and knowable, and that there is hope through redemption and the future resurrection. To underemphasize the minor theme is to be false to reality. "But in general...the major theme is to be dominant - though it must exist in relationship to the minor."

He also distinguishes between using art to worship God instead of worshipping the art itself. He observes that the Law "does not forbid the making of representatives art but rather the worship of it." If our art finds its worth as an offering to God rather than to men, then there is meaning and significance to our efforts. But our tendency, as humans and as artists, is to instead worship the work of our hands and elevate it over God. "Fixed down in our hearts is a failure to understand that beauty should be to the praise of God." Hezekiah destroys Moses' bronze serpent "because men had made it an idol. What is wrong with representational art is not its existence but its wrong uses." May our worship be only to the True King, so that our art may serve Him instead of taking His place in our lives. The book was so rich I struggled to pick out weaknesses.

 

Personal Application

Schaeffer's charge to keep our art contemporary is an important challenge. "If you are a young Christian artist, you should be working in the art forms of the twentieth century, showing the marks of the culture out of which you have come, reflecting your own contemporaries and embodying something of the nature of the world as seen from a Christian perspective." This requires vigilance, being constantly aware of how the content of your messages fits within the style of your art. There is no easy answer. We must ask careful questions of our audience and listen closely to their feedback. Does the medium distract or confuse the content? "The Christian...must wrestle with the whole question, looking to the Holy Spirit for help to know when to invent, when to adopt, when to adapt, and when to not to use a specific style at all. This is something each artist wrestles with for a lifetime, not something he settles once and for all."

Ultimately, Schaeffer's book offers me freedom. "The Christian is the really free man - he is free to have imagination." It is a freedom rooted in a proper doctrine of our God and his world. It is a freedom offered through the redemption of our hearts in Christ and the guidance of His Spirit, replacing the paralyzing effects of idolatry. It is also a freedom coming from the realization that we are given a lifetime to express everything that needs to be said. "No artist can say everything he might want to say... into a single work... If a man is to be an artist, his goal should be in a lifetime to produce a wide and deep body of work."

Over the years, I've struggled with feelings of inadequacy or failure when my creative endeavours don't succeed. Through this book, I've realized how much of this stems from finding my identity in the art, rather than using my art as a means to worship God. My prayer is that my work would be to an audience of One and that my satisfaction would come from this alone.

 

Questions for the Author

If, through Christ, our "whole capacity as man is refashioned" - our soul and our mind and body - how does this apply to taking care of our bodies; health, fitness, and beauty?

"The arts and the sciences do have a place in the Christian life - they are not peripheral." It's clear from this book that having proper doctrine is central to holding the arts and sciences in place. What focus then should churches place on teaching these other topics?

He talks about the ugliness of many evangelical church buildings and compares it to the construction of the temple, which was full of physical beauty. How do these guidelines from the Old Testament era apply to building churches in the New Testament?

In what ways can our contemporary church's architecture and physical aesthetic provoke praise? How should we balance our emphasis on this with the other purposes of the church? How should we convey the importance of this to leaders in the church who overlook it?

Hezekiah "had the temple cleansed and worship reformed according to the law of God." In what ways does the church's contemporary worship need reforming?

How does he interact with nudity in art? This applies to viewing classical art, like paintings and sculpture, but also modern art, like film and literature. Sexuality and the body are beautiful and matter to God, but we are also accountable to a higher moral standard.

He talks about art that is produced within the Christian framework, even if the artist is him or herself not a believer. Does this happen less and less on our culture? Also, there are some who find truth and beauty and echoes of the Gospel in all art, regardless of who created it. What would Schaeffer say to this? When should we be critical of a work's worldview and when should we enjoy and learn from what it says?

I Read an Astonishing Number of Books in 2015

At the start of 2015, I set out with the goal to read five books by the end of each month. This goal was achieved, but the extra time several months of sickness gave me, boosted the total number of books read up to 72. 72 books! That’s my record since I left school. 

It’s March, long past the respectable window in which one can publish such lists. But several have asked for a list, and several more have asked for reading suggestions, so here at last is something. Before I dive in, I have three reflections on this year of reading:

1. Our reading time is precious. So there is nothing worse than looking back over several months of reading and realizing that nothing from that list was worth my time. How do you ensure the books you choose to read are worth reading? Some books fall into my life, others I seek out after receiving a recommendation. Coming to end of a year and having such a long list of memorable titles is a gift I can’t take for granted. 

2. Douglas Wilson has a great article with tips on how to read more books. I was surprised by how many of these tricks I’ve already used to great effect. Keeping a list of books I finish was an early incentive for me to finish books. Having many different types of books on the go at once is also a big help. (I currently have 15 titles on my “actively reading” list.) Are there any tricks you deploy?

3. But with all this rapid reading, is there a place for settling into and slowly reading just a single book? Both a friend and my pastor have recently challenged me with this suggestion. How do you find a balance between reading many books and integrating what you read into your life?  

Here then, is my list, my favourite titles followed by honourable mentions.

Cry, the Beloved Country
I listened to the Michael York’s audiobook narration of Alan Paton’s novel Cry, the Beloved Country. I had started this story while sick and looking for a story to listen that might help me fall asleep. As the narration began, I slowly started to sit up in bed, intently listening to every word. My eyes grew wide in the darkness. This was truly something different. The story, of an Anglican priest from a Zulu tribe on his way to Johannesburg in search of his lost son, is both gut wrenching and life affirming. The prose is laced with poetry that will make your heart break. And Michael York’s narration exceeds the quality of ever other audiobook I’ve listened to. This book shows Christ at work with an honesty that’s rarely seen.

The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment
Every month my pastor recommends a book for our church to read. The month of May was one of the toughest in my life, and this book, by the Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs arrived at exactly the right moment. I wrote elsewhere about it’s impact. I doubt its cordial of medicine will remain bottled up on my shelf forever. I will need its council and wisdom again.

Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life
Makoto Fujumura is walking a path faithful to both the community of Christ and the professional art world. In this book, he outlines the theology and philosophy behind this balance, a new paradigm that seeks to care for what is good in the culture, rather than simply combatting what we don’t like. In a year of political division in both Canada and the US, this book is especially needed. It is theology and it is art, it is doctrine laced with imagination and example, both personal and historical. Seek it out. 

Jayber Crow
I spent many happy hours on my summer vacation wandering the forests and sea cliffs of Hornby Island, taking pictures while listening to this book by Wendall Berry. Its story of a small-town barber, his private spiritual journey, and the public life of the community he lives amongst is a story to nestle amongst. Paul Michael’s recording gets the Kentucky accents just right.

Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert
I’ve always wanted to understand and appreciate the poetry of George Herbert, but it insisted on eluding my grasp. John Drury’s own Cambridge roots makes him the perfect biographer, but what I didn’t expect was also an illuminating guide to understanding Herbert’s poetry, which I now treasure.  His story was also personally affecting, giving me much to ponder about the visible fruits of a man’s ministry.

The Book of the Dun Cow
A blurb on the book’s cover describes it as “ belonging on the same shelf as Animal Farm, Lord of the Rings, and Watership Down”. Walter Wangerin wove a terrifying and memorable fable filled with very real characters I won’t be forgetting soon. The audiobook recording is worth seeking out.

Ambition: Essays By Members of the Chrysostom Society
This year I wrestled with how to reckon with my ambitions as a humble and content Christ-follower. These essays by the members of the Chrysostom Society, gave me hope, reframing my perceptions, comforting me with their experiences, and challenging me in my contentment.

To Kill A Mockingbird
This is my sister’s favourite book. After confessing that I had never read it, I came home one night to find it on my pillow with a hand written note: “READ ME!”. My sister was right.

The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ
Another Calvary Grace Church “book of the month”, this volume by Ray Ortlund was as clarifying and refreshing as stumbling upon fresh spring of water amid a dry and weary land.

Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God
Tim Keller’s guide to prayer gave me a guideline and a handbook to what’s gradually changing from a mysterious to achievable process.

The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis
This collection of essays from one of the final Desiring God conferences contained a sentence that continues to direct my thoughts to this day. It came to mind even as I typed this blog post.

Honourable Mentions:

U2's Achtung Baby: Meditations on Love in the Shadow of the Fall by Stephen Catanzarite
Brendan by Frederick Buechner
Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald S. Whitney
The Office of Assertion: An Art of Rhetoric for the Academic Essay by Scott F. Crider
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel by Matt Zoller Seitz
Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (Revised Edition, 2011) by John Piper
The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs
Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God by Dane C. Ortlund

 Here's a stack of my favourite books from last year, at least the books I could find around the house. The rest I had leant out, some I had borrowed, a few had been returned to the library. It was a lot of work putting all these books back on the shelf. 

Here's a stack of my favourite books from last year, at least the books I could find around the house. The rest I had leant out, some I had borrowed, a few had been returned to the library. It was a lot of work putting all these books back on the shelf. 

Travels 2015: A Hornby Island Reader

Travels 2015 is a series of updates I originally posted on Facebook while on vacation. What started as a quick update and a couple photos transformed into a series of mini-essays that I would have posted on this website had it been up and running at the time. This one was written on August 7th, 2015.

 

As I shared my summer reading list with my family, I was asked "how much time are you actually planning on spending with us?" (Which isn't fair. They spent just as much time reading as I did. You should see the stack of booksIlona brought!) But true to form, the books along the left ('Select Letters of John Newton', a largely wishy-washy book by Annie Dillard, and 'A Brief History of Thought' [which Tim Keller calls "the one book to read to understand culture"]) have all been untouched. I'll probably get started on one or two of them as I travel.

On my iPhone you'll see an audiobook of Wendell Barry's 'Jayber Crow'. It's been a delightful listen, a story of a small town barber that's full of very real characters, well turned phrases, and an understanding of the human heart that progresses along with the story. It's accompanied many an ocean walk these past weeks.

Tim Keller's book on prayer is almost a compilation of thinking and advice on prayer from throughout church history. Very practical. And every vacation for the last six years has included at least one P. G. Wodehouse. They are the perfect summer combination of witty brilliance and mindless fun.

But my true Honby companion has been 'Music at Midnight', John Drury's fine biography of the English poet-priest George Herbert. It's a guide to bot his life and his poetry. Herbert's richly Reformed Anglican faith was actualized through struggle that resulted in some of the finest poetry in the English language. It was a joy to unpack its depth. It was also fascinating to uncover his life; he has an ambitious and successful academic career in Cambridge before poor health and inner turmoil brought him to lead a humble life as a village parson. I was struck by the way his struggles found their purpose through his writings, which tooka life of their own after Herbert's death, encouraging and building up many, many readers. It was a reminder to persevere in faithfulness, trusting that through Christ we will bear fruit, despite what we may or may not see today.

I hope you enjoy the series of pictures of the various vantages I viewed with this volume in hand.

P. S. Coffee Update: My aunt, who came up by car to visit us for the week, was kind enough to purchase a Moka espresso pot on my behalf, as well as pick up a bag of Fernwood decaf. How kind! My coffee drinking is restored.

Books of Influence in 2013

This post was originally published in January 2014. Images are from the books and are not my own.

It’s that time of year, where bloggers everywhere turn to their logbooks of entertainment from the previous year and offer up their favoirtes. As one who loves lists, I too offer my selections. Today we will discuss books, with films to follow. 

First, a word on “the best of 2013”. I think I read three or four books this year that were actually published in 2013, so if I stuck to that categorization, this would be a short and easy list. But of the 38 books I read this year, I’m bound to be influenced by much more then just the passing fancies of our age. It’s perhaps slightly unfair, since I could just read a stack of classics and accurately call them the “best” books I read that year. But nevertheless, in chronological order, I offer the books that most shaped me this past year, followed by list of honourable mentions.

Christian Imagination

A hefty 500 page anthology, The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Imagination features contributions, both short and long, from 50 authors, living and dead, assembled by the venerable authorty of the topic, Leland Ryken. It set a trajectory and was a travelguide for what would become a year of art exploration. The book explores, from many angles, the “realationship between imagination, belief, and words” and taught me to demand a quality in writing that reflects the author’s Creator, to confront the “aesthetic poverty of evangelicalism”, and to recognize the worldview of an author while learning from the way that author represents it.

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Children of Men

A Good Man is Hard To Find and The Children of Men were read shortly after or at the same time as the previous volume. They both illustrated the principles Ryken’s book set out. Here are two Christian women who write well and by their writing challenge both believers and the world at large. Flannery O’Conner’s work particularly stands out for its dark short stories depiciting ordinary characters in a weary world, in which you can almost feel the eternal weight of their desicions. Much has been said about how Ms. O’Conner used violence to shock her characters and her sleepy audience into the realization of eternal truths. I find her short stores a cousin of sorts to the music of Sufjan Stevens.

Every Good Endeavour

The moment I heard about Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work I knew it was for me. It was so helpful I plan on rereading it every year that I find myself in the workforce. Unlike so many other evangelical perspectives on the working world, this is a wholestic, hopeful, biblical, and practical look at the culture of the workforce and how it interesects with the Christian’s calling. I want to buy a box of copies and hand them to friends and colleagues.

Planet Narnia

Seldom have I enjoyed a book more than Planet Narnia. Like a real life literary detective novel, this book adds so much to the beloved series I grew up with and to the study of Lewis. Not only is it an example of how a Christian should bring both literary and theological depth to his writing, but it also opened my eyes to the the world of Lewis scholarship  something I am now itching to one day contribute to.

I slowly worked my way through The Four Holy Gospels, savouring the way the depth of its images paired to the eternal depth of its words. My Name is Asher Lev painted with words the way the author sees the world along with his internal struggle. Death By Living was enjoyable and moving, well written and entertaining. The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert was an encouraging reminder to never give up on the unlikely people God throws in your path. Finally, Winter’s Tale, although convoluted at times and prehaps too long, was a book full of wisdom and beauty and is the work of fiction which I have underlined the most.

Stay tuned! Next I’ll be posting my favourite films from 2013.