10 Books I Recommend That I Read for the First Time in 2013

I read a lot of books in a year. Half of them I’ve never read before. It’s easy to read a lot of books when so many of them you are reading again and again. But of all the books I read for the first time this year, these are the ones I think I would recommend the most. That may change.

The last one listed is the one I recommend the most. Outside of that, they are really in no particular order. I may love one and appreciate one more this week that one I appreciated like no other the week before. All of them are worth your time, though.


A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor – I waited all year for this one and though it is short, I love it. I love because I’m a writer and a believer. And those two things are hard to work through. And in this short journal, we pull back the curtain and hear a young Flannery O’Connor talking to God.

Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Recover the World’s Stolen Treasures by Robert Wittman – I just finished this one and loved it. Books about art theft are a favorite of mine and this one was perfect. I enjoy reading about art. I enjoy mysteries. maybe that’s the reason I can get lost in books like this, especially one as well done as this one.

The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor by Jonathan Rogers – An evangelical Baptist writing about a Catholic writer. I tore through these pages. If you have any interest in Flannery O’Connor, I recommend it.

The Pastor As Minor Poet by M. Craig Barnes – Some books come at just the right time. And you feel like they were given to you personally. It doesn’t happen much. But when it does, it’s a powerful thing. This is one of those books.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy – When I finished this book, I wiped away the tears, got up and walked into my boy’s room and kissed them both and just watched them sleep for a few minutes. I feel about this book the way many feel about books like Catcher in the Rye.

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy – I’d been listening to Townes Van Zandt for a month nonstop. And I wanted some reading that had the feel and strength of his lyrics and singing. I tried Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. But they were not what i was looking for at the time. And I ran into this one and was able to check it out from the library to read on my iPad. That was late on a friday night. By Saturday I had bought a used copy and was hooked. I finished on Monday.

Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale by Frederick Buechner – All I can say is that I wish I had read this book many years ago. It would have helped in so many ways.

Secrets in the Dark: A Life In Sermons by Frederick Buechner – This book changed me. One sermon in particular. I read that sermon at least once a week and pray that God will honor the longing that is still there from hearing “Whom shall I send into the pain of this world where people die?” This book above all others is why I want to be a pastor again.

In Search of Deep Faith by Jim Belcher – This is the book I think about all the time. And that to me is the mark of the best books. Well-written, yes. But it has the aroma of being well-lived. I love the stories in this book. Because I love C.S. Lewis and Van Gogh and the stories of martyrs and those who have tasted grief and loss and come out on the other side with a faith that is something to aspire to. There is no book I have read this year that I would recommend higher than this one. And I’ve read some astounding books this year. My review is here.

Tuesday’s 10: Books I Read Over and Over

I have a tendency to read books over and over. I’ve got books I’ve read almost every year since the first time I cracked them open. In some I find comfort. In others it’s like walking to the top of a hill and being able to look out over a wonderful landscape again and again. This is a list of those books. I will actually be cheating on this list as there are more than ten books here…

1. The Harry Potter Series. Every October as it starts to turn cool outside I start these books and finish by Christmas. I don’t just think these books are entertaining. I think they are genius.

2. The Chronicles of Narnia. Every January I read all six seven. And I learn something…see something new everytime. Children’s books? Sure. And these children stories are the furniture of my mind and have been since I was a boy.

3. Surprised By Joy. This autobiography of C.S. Lewis’ early life draws me in almost yearly now. I “get this” book in a way that sets it apart for me. And it is written so darn well.

4. Pride and Prejudice. Not only is it considered Austen’s best but many consider it the greatest novel in the English language. C.S. Lewis was a fan as well as my professor, Jerram Barrs, who introduced her books to me while in Seminary. I’ve read all her books at least 5 times and P&P I’ve read at least 10 times averaging more than a read a year over the past 9 years. It is my favorite novel.

5. The Count of Monte Cristo. I picked this up so I could read it before the movie came out in 2002. I fell in love with the story, which obviously the makers of the movie thought unworthy of their “skills.” The movie was terrible and not the story written by Dumas. This work is over 1000 pages of brilliance.

6. Witness. Whittaker Chambers’ autobiography is my favorite book. Period. The fact that you do not know this book is a national tragedy. If I were the head of education in this country, I would make it required reading. Everyone I have recommended this book to has been rendered speechless – not only by the story but by the writing, which is singular.

7. The Prodigal God. This book meant so much to my wife and I after reading it the first time, when my friend David suggested “Keller” as a middle name for our son, we actually liked it and used it. There are not many books I’ve given away as much as this one.

8. Mystery and Manners. Flannery O’Connor is known for her short stories and two novels but this book of essays and talks is a favorite of mine. I’ve read it at least 4 times in the past 12 years. Maybe more. Great writing and helpful thoughts on faith and writing.

9. Orthodoxy. Chesterton is always interesting but this witty piece of apologetics is abnormal in it’s ability to entertain while making one think so much the mind bends to breaking only to be re-formed.

10. L’bri. The story of what the Schaeffers…of what God did in the Swiss Alps through the Schaeffers is a story I long to read every couple of years. Apart from Schaeffer, I am not sure I would have my love of art, philosophy and how our faith helps us think about these things. Schaeffer could not have dreamed what would be when he decided to move his family to Switzerland. The story of how God used them brings me to tears every time.

What about you?

The Feel Of It

Yesterday, I received an eagerly awaited book in the mail. It may have been the first time I was anxious to get a book I’d already read through twice. Winter Light by Bruce Ray Smith is the first book released by my publisher. Somewhere between prose and poetry, it’s an exceptional work. But I wanted to see it and feel it as a foretaste of what I could expect with my own book. There was no disappointment.

Writing has been a hobby for a while now. Only recently have I gotten paid for it. And before a month or so ago, a book contract was of the same character as the moon for a young boy. I’d been encouraged to write a book. And I would sit on my front porch and wonder. But the imaginings in my head were as the echoes of someone else’s noise.

But now we are talking reality. Right now, there are men looking over my manuscript to make editorial suggestions. One day I’ll get a box in the mail. I’ll take a key to the wrapping tape, slide it and then pull the flaps back. Will there be those annoying packing “peanuts” in there?

I’ll pull out a copy. The book’s cover will touch against the ends of my fingers and the palms of my un-calloused hands. Like a black-jack dealer I’ll flip fast the pages and gaze at the back. The front. And then the back again. Lord willin’ it’ll happen. And then I’ll take a look at the front again.

I know… I know I’m not supposed to talk about these things. Calm, cool and collected is the order of the day. To act as if this is par for the course is the recipe. But I’m just too anything but. I actually tried it for a minute but it felt self-conscious. And it seemed to come off as if I was special when I know that isn’t the case. What is special is the case.

A Glimpse of My Dad

Father’s Day is coming up.

When you write, the temptation is to use a subject to display your writing. It’s real and powerful. And deadly to the soul. It’s the reason I have not written on some subjects and been careful when writing about others. So. Please believe me when I say that my desire to honor my Dad with a post each week is simply because of my respect and the joy of many memories where he is featured.
When I told my parents I was writing a book, they were not surprised and of course, wanted to know more. So I sent them the actual proposal sent to the publisher, along with the first chapter. A few days later, my Dad looked at me and shook his head in a way I have seen him do many times before. Actually he has two versions of this. One is the disappointment I saw after every report card.  It was usually a few days after I got the report card because we always got them on Thursdays – too close to the weekend. So I waited and would watch him shake his head on Sunday night. After he’d been working all day as a pastor. Brilliant Matt, brilliant.
But here I saw another kind of shake of his whitened head. He shook it like you would a “no.” But it was coupled with a wry smile telling you the opposite of the motion. This is the undeserved but far too common, “I’m proud of you shake of the head.” 
He said, “You are a great writer.” And then I was told they could not get over I had written it. They have always been easily impressed by me and my brothers. Especially by my brothers. And then my Dad – the man of a thousand pitches in the backyard – proceeded to tell me what I had written meant much to him. “My life is very mundane now. I cannot do much.” And he thanked me.
About 2 weeks before September 11, 2001 my father suffered a heart attack while playing tennis – the game he taught me to play before I can even remember playing it. During his bypass surgery, he had the first of many strokes. And these strokes have done their damnedest to do him in and break his spirit. But his kind heart and sharp mind still fight tooth and nail. And I mean damnedest in the theological sense. His sight is failing him miserably and his memory worries him. His smile charges on with the power and speed of a train bent on its destination.

He is one reason I write…why I cannot help myself. His poems are legendary for being part of our family gatherings. He used poetry to celebrate people and memories and times and places. And while not Donne or Hopkins, Dickinson or Whitman, they are made of fireside warmth and irresistible smiles. The way a Hobbit would have done song. You just won’t catch him with a pipe or pint.

My parents were always glad to read my painful poems. And buy me books and encourage me to read. They never questioned me and made me embarrassed about all the poetry I would read and write as a teenager. Their love for me has always taken the form of encouragement and the structure of praise. Even though I threatened to fail my classes and be a raving success at day-dreaming.

So these posts are for my Dad. I ask you to bear with me for the next month as I tell a few stories and give you a glimpse into the goodness of Robert D. Redmond. Dad to me

Why Are Catholics Great Writers and Baptists Are Not?

For a while now I’ve been toying with a question. Maybe a year or so at the most. I’ve had an answer in mind but I still keep asking the question anyway.

Why is it that Catholics are the best writers? And some of my favorites?

Flannery O’Connor. J.R.R. Tolkein. Thomas Merton. Dorothy Sayers. G.K. Chesterton.

And what about those who are far more similar to them than the people I’ve surrounded myself with? You know like the Anglicans.

Shakepseare. C.S. Lewis. Jane Austen.

And one of my favorites these days is Eugene Peterson, who has learned a great deal from those of Rome. Heck, I would have never picked up Merton if not for him.

My first and simplest answer is that they have a sacramental (read: sacred) view of words. Words are precious and full of beauty. They stand by themselves full of value, devoid of their use. But this is not how we evangelicals primarily think of words. We only use them – whoring them out. They have a function. Like machines. Maybe this is why I can think no writer, who is Baptist – outside of Bunyan – who is lauded as a ‘great writer’ by those outside of the evangelical subculture.

What do you think? Can you think of great writers who are Baptists? Who am I missing?

What have you read that could help me think about this some more?

Is it relevant that all of them are Paedobaptists?

Thoughts on Rob Bell and the Controversy Surrounding His Yet-To-Be-Released Book

If you have no idea what is going on, read this.

The post that started it all is here.

If you are clueless on who Rob Bell is, go here.

Update: Here is a really interesting post on Rob.

1. I have never read a Rob Bell book. And have never wanted to till now.

2. I have however prejudged a book of his before and then been found to be wrong.

3. It will not commend the gospel of grace to anyone who does not believe the gospel (or who you might think is in error), to denounce a book and it’s author before it has been released. The young people we keep saying we are worried about will not take us and our concerns seriously. Only the ones who agree with orthodox views on hell will listen. And retweet.

4. Rob Bell may be a universalist. Or he may just not be all that on clear on purpose.

5. John Stott is an annihilationist. Lewis believed in Purgatory. Would we be nicer to Bell for these beliefs?

6. I love John Piper but his ‘farewell’ tweet to Rob Bell was poorly done.

7. Harper Collins Wins.

8. The Synod of Dort took 6 months, the council of Nicea at least two months. Not sure if 6 days is enough.

9. If I had to make a prediction, I think this will end up being a non-issue when the book comes out. The worried one will not see a crystal clear declaration and the fans of Bell will keep on being fans. Again, all it would have taken to get a listen from those who do not already agree with them, would be for the Calvinist bloggers to wait till the book comes and and be able to say, “I have read it, this is what I think.” But now? Impossible.

10. I’m hoping the Publisher sends me a free copy. If I have to wait I may forget about this by the time it comes out. (Just heard from publisher and I should get a copy soon.)

My Advance Copy of Peterson’s Memoirs Has Come In

No need to be impressed. I simply contacted the Publisher, happened to get the right person and they said they would be glad to send me an advance copy. A first born child might or might not have been promised.

It was delivered today.

Blogging could be light over the next week or so as I intend to write a review for this blog. It may in fact show up elsewhere. I hate book reviews. But I love books and I love to write about them. Maybe I can eek one out.

It is late Wednesday evening. As of right now, it is sitting about 8 feet from me. Painful as it is to wait, I will not begin till the morning. Sleep would be impossible if it was begun now. My biography of Garbo will have to tide me over till the morning.

One Year With C.S. Lewis As A Mentor

At the end of 2009 I found myself teetering on the brink of quitting the ministry. I am not sure I told anyone this at the time – not even my wife. The taste in my mouth had become bitter toward the ministry. Not the gospel, just vocational ministry. It felt like business. The mystic and prophetic elements that drew me in seemed all but missing. So I thought about quitting. Sitting in a pew sounded wonderful. It still does sometimes. I remember praying one night while walking around my neighborhood alone. The air was cool. Christmas lights were lit already. All I could really say was, “help.” This sounds more dramatic now than it was then.  Then it just sounded pretty pitiful. Thankfully, he provided that help.

I started reading Eugene Peterson’s books for pastors.  And they were refreshing. For the first time in months I could feel my heart warming to the idea of being in ministry again. So I decided to start reading through more of his books and so I gave myself a year of slowly reading through his writings. It has been very rewarding despite the fact that some people literally think he is going to hell for writing The Message. I wish I was young and brilliant again.

This brings us to 2011 and my decision to read through C.S. Lewis. While I am not new to Lewis like I was with Peterson, there is a good bit of his work I have not been exposed to. And there are a few books about him I want to read. I can only guess his sobriety and skill in writing will be helpful. Refreshing even.

My plan is for this to be a little more intensive. Not only do I plan to read about 30 or more books this year – either by Lewis or about him and his work – I also plan on blogging through them. As of now, I am thinking about starting a companion blog devoted specifically to this while linking to each post through this blog. If any readers would like to read through any of the books “with me” they will be able to do so.

(On a side note I plan on reading some classic Greek mythology, George McDonald and all the usual books I read in a given year. All in hopes they will add some interesting insights.)

I do have a request from my readers. Are there any books of Lewis you would recommend as must reads for me? Chances are I am already planning on reading it but I am sure I am missing something someone has read and found interesting. So please send me some recommendations and feedback on what you think about this project of mine. And if you have any ideas on how to make this project better, let me know.

Going ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ on ‘Blue Like Jazz’

Update: Don actually contacted me through Twitter and thanked me for the post. He was very gracious, which is not surprising. My goal was not to have contact with him but to truly apologize to him and get a little closure on something which had haunted me. His kind reply did the trick, for which I am thankful.

(The following should be read in light of yesterday’s post…)

“Crap, I’m going to have to apologize to him. Publicly.”

My particular sin of choice is to be wrong, know it and then not want to admit it. Call it insecurity. Call it self-protection. I am not sure what it is besides that ancient fortress of the human soul, pride. I hate everything about it. Well, not everything. There is that liberating moment of admitting when I admit I am wrong. You know, when you finally say it out loud. Wait. That feels pretty good and really awful…in a John Cougar “Hurts So Good” kinda way.

All the young people I had discipled in youth ministry were reading Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz. Them and their parents. Their Dentists and their Hair-Stylists. And everyone for that matter. I could not go anywhere without hearing about this book. This could not be good. Because he was not endorsed by those I read the most, is how I knew, thank you very much. So I decided I did not like this book long before I even set my eyes on a physical copy.

The first time I saw a copy, I was spending some of my book budget on Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Vol. 1. As I walked up to the cash register at the small independent bookstore in the small Mississippi town in which I lived, there it sat.  It sat there in all it’s best-selling non-Reformed, wishy-washy theological glory. Without a doubt, it’s proximity to the cash register would cause unsuspecting shoppers temptation to spontaneously buy such claptrap.

So I bought it.

Why did I buy a book I had already gone “Green Eggs and Ham” on?  I couldn’t very well write a negative review of a book I had not read. So I had to read it. And then put it on my “bad book” shelf. I can actually remember the guy who sold it to me, asking me if I had read it yet, and though my answer was “no,” I wanted to make sure he knew I was not interested in how much he liked it. I was also mad because I loved the cover and the title. But Hell’s Bells, Brian McLaren defaced the back cover with his recommendation. How could I, for the love?

So I read it, having already decided to hate it. Green eggs and ham, man. Green eggs and freaking ham. But deep down, even as read it and found reasons to not like it, a seed took root. I could not ignore how well-written it was. There was so much to like. Full of humor and honesty and great sentences, I read it quickly. If I had been fully honest, I would have admitted how wrong I was. But I decided to blog on it, anyway.

Sadly, I do not remember everything I said. More sadly, the internet and the ‘2nd most popular blog among Christians’ do remember the salient points. Go ahead. Take a look…. Hopefully everyone thinks that Matt Redmond is the worship leader.

Humility-coated arrogance wants me to think it does not matter. He probably has not seen it and even if he did, he would not care. But the fact is I committed a grave error doing what I did. And the error/sin is no less real even if no one ever saw what I thoughtlessly wrote. I not only prejudged him and his book, I also reviewed it for anyone and everyone to see after doing so. What is worse is that I never acknowledged the seed. Deep down I knew it was a good book and have known so after years of thinking about what he wrote. I have grown to like it a lot over the years though it was just 2 days ago I picked it up to read again.

The only way Don Miller would know I exist is most likely by reading that post. But here it goes anyway…

“Don, I am sorry. For all the reasons above, I apologize. Please forgive me.”

There. Now I feel better. In a John Cougar sort of way.

"This Is A Must Read" and Other Ridiculous Ideas About Books

When you pretty much get paid to leave a job in ministry, inevitably there comes a crisis of belief. And as you emerge on the other side, dripping with the mire of failure and loss, reality comes into focus as you look through tears and sweat. The effects are myriad. Legion. Over the past year, one of these effects has been how I look at books. Since books have been precious friends since my earliest days, it is no wonder this would be the case.  The effect has been to see how we often think about books wrongly.

For example, far too often we think of a book as “The Way” when we should be thinking of books as something to help us on the way. This thinking is betrayed when our opinion of people is lessened because they did not like a particular book we thought should help everyone in Christian growth. I mean, this bundle of bound pages is a “must read.” Right? Or when they love a book and we thought they should have thought it should have been bad for them.

But what I notice more than anything is our need to qualify our love for a book or an author by saying, “Of course, I do not agree with everything he/she says.” The “of course” is misleading because, let’s face it, we always feel the need to add it. “Of course” means “it goes without saying.” But we say it anyway because we want to make sure we do not get colored with someone’s theological errors, methodology, etc., though we want to make sure others know we benefited from the book or author’s work. A little.

Actually it’s refreshing when this does not happen. My wife and I have some friends who love and have benefited from a particular author’s books. He is a little, ehem, controversial in my world. So one night while eating dinner in their home, they told me they loved his books. I sat there and I waited for what seemed like an eternity for the, “Of course…” but it never came. I didn’t know how to respond, I probably stuttered trying to sound diplomatic. But I’m glad they did not feel the need to qualify their affection for this author and the books he had labored over.

And I’m glad because we should dispense with the whole thing. We are Christians, right? We believe everyone has a sin problem. Everyone includes authors. So, no one’s book is the book to end all books. Yes, even John Piper and Tim Keller.  No decent author feels this way. We tend to think a book is a “must read” even when the author of the book does not. The fact that we would disagree with something in a book someone wrote should…well, go without saying. Literally. (Actually, we need to admit that we even disagree with The Book, The Bible, sometimes. Not because it is wrong but because we are natural rebels.)

The real danger comes when you feel the book you love could not have error, either because of your devotion to its message or because of your devotion to the author. It’s as if the problem of sin ceased to be a factor in the writing and editing of a particular work.

Maybe we should relax. Read books and be helped by what we can. Sure we can disagree with someone and still love their book just as we disagree with a friend and love them and benefit from their life. Let books help you on your way without feeling the necessity to live as if any book is the way. Because if you don’t, you will say something ridiculous like, “This is a must read.”