Top 5 Books I Read In 2014

Well folks, 2015 is here! And so passes 2014, a year which departed quicker than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

One of the major changes in my life during 2014 was beginning my studies for a degree in Theology, Mission and Ministry. I know, sounds a little heady for a beardy biker/bricklayer? Of course, even a fairly ‘off-the-wall’ course like what I’m studying requires, or at least is enriched by, reading.

So, out of the selection of laudible, laughable and sometimes lambastable literature I have layed my little hands on, here are a few of the highlights, each with a short review/synopsis. Or syniew as I like to call it.

Desiring the Kingdom – Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation – James K. A . Smith

This book was a breath of fresh air. Nestling away in the ‘recommended reading’ list for college, the title didn’t grab my attention until we read an excerpt one week. Here, with such a gentle and unassuming title, is a book with profound implications. The core message of the book is to challenge the notion that we, as human beings, are primarily thinking or beleiving animals. Smith challenges the commonly held but rarely addressed notion that all worthy activity in the human being happens above the neck. He makes astute reflections which bring the message home, such as the ludicrous statement we sometimes make, ‘I have a body’ – surely I am a body??. He goes on to argue that the true object of worship (or Telos) of an individual can be traced by examing their notion of ‘the good life’, and by taking a close look at the everyday liturgical (embodied habits/ritual) actions which serve this end. From the spirituality of the shopping mall as temple, to questions like ‘why do we do communion?’, Smith expertly exposes which Kingdom we are truly serving in our lives.

The second half of the book looks at how we can apply these ideas to to key realms in God’s Kingdom, the Church and the Christian College (and by implication Christian Education. He masterfully ducks nailing his colours to the mast on this issue).

Smith, coming from a Reformed ecclesial tradition, poetically states his case, with numerous and often ammusing references to popular culture and literature. A very enjoyable and yet deeply challenging read. Fully recommend it to any Christian asking the question, ‘Surely there’s more than this?’.

Becoming a disciple is not a matter of a new or changed self-understanding but becoming part of a different community with a different set of practices. But the domestication of Christianity as a perspective does little to disturb or reorient our pratices; rather, it too often becomes a way of affirming the configurations of culture that we find around us  – we just do what everyone else does “plus Jesus”

 

Befriending the Stranger – Jean Vanier

I’ve already written a more detailed review of my experience of reading this excellent little book here.

The book is a compilation of a serious of sermons given by Vanier on a retreat for folks who work in L’Arche communities. In these communities Christians live along side people with major mental and physical disabilities, sharing in God’s love as they journey together. This book deeply challenged me. In follwing God’s call to embrace the poor, weak and strange, we embody our acceptance of God’s love to the poverty, weakness and strangeness in our own selves.

“Jesus calls us not only to welcome the weak and the rejected […] but also the weak and the broken person within us”

A must-read for any Christian serving God among those on the margins of mainstream society.

 

The Ragamuffin Gospel – Brennan Manning

Oh how I deeply love this book. I don’t agree with everything it says, but the core message continues to challenge me. Manning delicately displays the proud, self-righteous and pietistic ‘act’ we play at being good faithful little Christians, and then takes a 14lb sledgehammer to it. The core message of the book is a simple one – ‘Christian-God loves you’. But it is one which we so frequently fail to embrace. Giving examples from his own experiences, not least of repeated journeys through the 12-step program in his struggle with alcoholism, Manning paints a masterpiece portrait of God’s love to the ragamuffins, the unloveable, you and me.

As he famously once preached,

“In the 48 years since I was first ambushed by Jesus, in a little chapel in the Allegheny Mountains of Western Pennsylvania, and in literally thousands of hours of prayers, meditation, silence and solitude over those years, I am now utterly convinced that on Judgment Day the Lord Jesus is going to ask each of us one question and only one question,

“Did you believe that I loved you? That I desired you? That I waited for you day after day? That I longed to hear the sound of your voice?”

The real believers there will answer, “Yes, Jesus, I believed in your love and I tried to shape my life as a response to it.”

But many of us who are so faithful in our ministry, in our practice, in our churchgoing, are gonna have to reply, “Well frankly, no, sir. I mean I never really believed it. I mean I heard a lot of wonderful sermons and teachings about it. In fact, I gave quite a few myself. But I always thought that was just a way of speaking, a kindly lie, some Christian’s pious pat on the back to cheer me on.”

And there’s the difference between the real believers and the nominal Christians that are found in our churches across the land.

The Early Christians In Their Own Words – Eberhard Arnold

This book is essentially an ordered collection of quotes and texts made by early Christians in the first 5 centuries A.D. For many years I had desired to get to grips with some of the development of thinking in the early Church, and especially to reflecton words ‘from the the horse’s mouth’. In some ways what Arnold has done here is dangerous one could end up with a  very one-sided perspective if his sources are not diverse. However the selected texts provide an inspiration and a challenge to the modern Church. This is particularly poignant in the dialog between Christians and state officials, especially now in a time where more radical expressions of Christianity are meeting resistance from the state, even in western cultures with a rich Christian heritage. In times such as these we must be challenged by the face of early martyrs such as Speratus, who before a Roman Consul confessed,

“I do not recognise any empire of this present age. I serve that God whom no person has seen, or can ever see with these eyes”

The Enneagram, A Christian Perspective – Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert

It has to be said from the outset that this book is quite biased. If your are unfamiliar with the Enneagram I recommend looking into it. The Enneagram is basically a personality-type indicator, but where it differs from MBTI et al is it has a far more spiritual focus. The idea of the Enneagram (certainly as articulated in this book) is to better know God and his love for us by better understanding ourselves, and those things which inhibit our acceptance of His love. This also leads to a more effective life of service in His Kingdom.

Where the book fails (in my opinion) is in trying to proof-text from history the notion that the Enneagram system has its roots in Christianity. From a novice perspective the arguments and texts used seem quite weak, and don’t have me convinced. For me this is essentially not important, any more than trying to argue that the Haynes manual for my old BMW motorcycle has it’s roots in the monastic tradition of the Desert Fathers. My (albeit amateurish) view is that the system works. It is probably based more on observation than anything else, and a tactical application of Christian truth to systematically organised ‘types’ of person is as valid as doing the same thing with politics, psychology or many other schools.

The real value for me in this book, was not in trying to defend the system. It was in reading the challenge of God’s word, and the life of Jesus to the ‘bull in a china shop’ that is my personality. Also, recognising some of the more redeemable aspects is healthy too, it’s not all bad news! The book acts as a looking-glass into which we can take an honest look, and approach God asking for transformation (or integration to use their terminology).

Anyone who knows me well, this will probably resonate:

“Among the life task of Eights is to confront the question of power. […] Eights have to watch that they don’t degrade, humiliate, or intimidate other people with their power. […] Redeemed eights can protect others with their power and vitality instead of dominating them. Without eights the world might still look worse than it does. Thank God there are people who break through and tear down the lying facades of institutions and societies. We need them, but they need to […] allow room for their soft side.”

Anyone involved in work or ministry primarily focused on people can benefit from some of the wisdom of this book and system. Take it for what it is – a guide.

 

I hope that this gives a little insight into the journey of learning I am on at the moment. Here’s to a year of good reading in 2015!

Please feel free to leave any reading suggestions in the comments bar:

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