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 That Have Helped Me ‘Get’ Grace

My guess is that none ever gets grace completely. We are all on a journey of discovery and recovery. We are discovering the grand vistas of God’s grace and also seeing worlds of grace in the minutiae of life. And we are recovering what was once intended – growing young in the aging face of history.

The following books have helped me along the way. This is not meant to be a best of list or seen as definitive. These are simply books which have moved me along in this world of “un-grace” as Yancey calls it. I’m not done with this list. As a matter of fact grace is what I’m always looking for when reading – no matter the genre or author.

My hope? Some of you will find a book to help you a few steps along the way.

These are in no particluar order.

1. What’s So Amazing About Grace? by Phillip Yancey. I’ve never been able to get over this book. There are a number of stories throughout the book and this is where the strength of the book lies. It was through this work I discovered Babette’s Feast, a favorite story.

2. Putting Amazing Back Into Grace by Michael Horton. It would not be much of an overstatement to say I was a Calvinist because of this book. And the theology presented here is the theology I still hold onto for the most part. mentally I go back to this book often.

3. The God You Can Know by Dan DeHaan You’ve most likely never even heard of this one. But it changed me and was the first book I felt like I could not get enough of. And it was the first book that made me weep while reading it. It’s probably been 14 years or more since I’ve read it but it still shapes me.

4. The Prodigal God by Tim Keller. The kind of book that can change everything.

5. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. A novel about an aged pastor learning to live out the grace he has preached. I Stayed up all night to finish once I got started. Painful and beautiful.

6. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. As much as I wanted to identify with Peter, as a kid I could not escape I was Edmund, in need of radical grace.

7. The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning. This is still a relatively new one for me. I was always too reformed to even give it a try. But it came at just the right time. I was low and needed the grace that pours forth like Niagara from this book. The church…the world needs more books like this.

8. The Maytrees by Annie Dillard.  This was my introduction to Annie Dillard and she clearly understands grace more than most preachers.

9. The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor. I know this cheating but in every story grace and the need for it edges in sideways and is sometimes there beside you sitting uncomfortably before you even know it.

10. The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes. If you start reading the Puritans here, it just may ruin you. I’m not a Puritan hater but this is the standard in my book. A comforting book I’ve needed to read again again because of disappointment and the simple need to be reminded of God’s love for sinners.

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?

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?

Midweek Music: The Civil Wars

What does it sound like when two great voices careen against each other?

The first time I heard them, I had just turned off the road known to long-time Birmingham residents as “Diaper Row.” I was on the Red Mountain Expressway driving north. We had then  a radio station that would actually play a song like ‘Poison and Wine’. Fifteen minutes later I had downloaded the EP of the same name, tweeted about it and got a thanks from Joy Williams.

I don’t know what kind of music you call Biblical. But I’ve been doing some reading in the OT and there is a lot of betrayal and beauty, murder and mystery, passion and paradox all the way through. The best music has at the very least echoes of this. Which is why I like Barton Hollow, their first full-length album. It’s Biblical in the same way Flannery O’Connor is Biblical.

And O’Connor is a good comparison.

There is a southern gothic edge to it. Beauty with darkened filigree. But not too much filigree. This album is dominated by two voices, a guitar and a piano. But the two voices define it. Joy Williams voice is hypnotic and the kind you could get addicted to. It’s the audible version of a thousand pools of light. John Paul’s voice is well…is it OK to say a man has a beautiful voice?

This album is worth far more than the $5 you can get it for on Amazon.

One last thing. ‘Poison and Wine’ – the first song I heard by them is the kind of song you wish would never end. So don’t feel guilty about hitting ‘repeat’ again and again. Everybody does it.

Taking Long Looks

“People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything…” – Flannery O’Connor

Having read this quote for the first time about 12 years ago, I am surprised it is just now getting under my skin. But the very fact it has is perhaps proof of it’s truthfulness. Though I read novels, I am prone to not take long looks at most things. Like most Christians, I am quick to judge. Well, I am just quick period. I am quick to decide on the goodness or badness of something. I make rash judgments on people and books and everything. I want everything done quick. Food. Stories. Conversations. Trips. Blog posts. Downloads. Uploads. Health. Answered prayer.

So, I’m part of that elite evangelical group known as “Everyone.” We don’t take long looks at anything because it requires a reigning in of ego. The long look asks us to submit ourselves to the fact we have limited knowledge. We can guess and speculate but really we are just ignoramuses.

The BP oil spill is a good example. We were right to be concerned. But we were wrong to talk and act as if we knew the ending. We spoke about the spill as if we knew for certain what all the effects would be. And we knew, of course, they would be catastrophic. And so we handed out judgment diffused with anger like those without hope. In other words we freaked out and acted as if the Gulf Coast would be irreparably harmed. And we did all of this at the beginning of the story. But now? The oil cannot even be found. The beaches are pristine. And little microbes are “eating” up the oil that is below the surface. We should not have been so quick to think we knew the end of the story before we finished the first chapter.

Novels, of course are stories. And they should teach us something here. All the stories we love seem to have a crisis moment where we are forced to either have hope or dispense with it. And then as the story moves along, the characters change and the drama takes on a redemptive form. Hope emerges from the ashes of crisis. Our heart soars. Thankfully, we have looked long into the reaches of the final pages.

Our stories are similar. Not only have we as believers emerged from the slavery of sin and death and crossed the river on dry land into life and love with God, our Redeemer. But we continue on into a story that never ends. We move “further up and further in” as Lewis showed us in one of his novels. The story has not yet ended. We not only want others to take the long look into our lives, we naturally fall in this direction when thinking about ourselves. The cliché rings true. God isn’t finished yet. The story is not over. That is, unless you are without hope and cannot look long into the stories about and around you.