My Top Reads of 2011

I thought I would share with you my top reads for 2011 and why I liked them so much.  You will see that they fall into three basic categories, History, Novels and Church related.  I read other genre’s but these are the three rails that keep me energized throughout the year.  I have placed them in order of impact for me.  I also have included portions of the book descriptions from the publisher to give you a better idea of what the book is about.

1.     The Pastor: A Memoir by Eugene Peterson.

Few books have moved me at a visceral level as this book.  I admire Peterson for his honesty and humanness in writing this book.  His analogy of the similarities between his father as a butcher and how that prepared him to be a pastor is compelling.  And the story of his first convert to Christianity in grade school left me laughing on the floor.  If I had my way I would make this required reading for all pastors.  The book made me proud of my profession.  I am a pastor.

The Pastor steers away from abstractions, offering instead a beautiful rendering of a life tied to the physical world—the land, the holy space, the people—shaping Peterson’s pastoral vocation as well as his faith. He takes on church marketing, mega pastors, and the church’s too-cozy relationship to American glitz and consumerism to present a simple, faith-filled job description of what being a pastor means today. In the end, Peterson discovered that being a pastor boiled down to “paying attention and calling attention to ‘what is going on right now’ between men and women, with each other and with God.” The Pastor is destined to become a classic.

2. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Mataxas

I kept telling my wife as I was reading this book, “But I don’t want Dietrich to die.” A definitive, deeply moving narrative, Bonhoeffer is a story of moral courage in the face of the monstrous evil that was Nazism.

After discovering the fire of true faith in a Harlem church, Bonhoeffer returned to Germany and became one of the first to speak out against Hitler. As a double-agent, he joined the plot to assassinate the Fuhrer, and was hanged in Flossenberg concentration camp at age 39. Since his death, Bonhoeffer has grown to be one of the most fascinating, complex figures of the 20th century.

3. Renovation of the Church: What Happens When a Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation, by Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken

This book articulated what I have been feeling for years about the current state of the attractional model of Church in our culture.  I found it compelling and courageous.  Its the story of how God took a thriving, consumer-oriented church and transformed it into a modest congregation of unformed believers committed to the growth of the spirit–even when it meant a decline in numbers.

As Kent and Mike found out, a decade of major change is not easy on a church. Oak Hills Church, from the pastoral staff to the congregation, had to confront addiction to personal ambition, resist consumerism and reorient their lives around the teachings of Jesus. Their renewed focus on spiritual formation over numerical growth triggered major changes in the content of their sermons, the tenor of their worship services, and the reason for their outreach. They lost members. But the health and spiritual depth of their church today is a testimony of God’s transforming work and enduring faithfulness to the people he loves. Honest and humble, this is Kent and Mike’s story of a church they love, written to inspire and challenge other churches to let God rewrite their stories as well.

4. Whole Life Transformation: Becoming the Change Your Church Needs, by Keith Meyer

I loved this book so much that I bought six hard back copies and gave them to the young leaders of our church and have been meeting at 6:00AM on Saturday mornings to work our way through it.

2011 Golden Canon Leadership Book Award winner! Ministry to others and growing the church were the center of Keith Meyer’s life. And yet he was arguing with his wife about how many nights a week he was spending in meetings. His temper was short, and he was exhausted. Keith writes: “I can see that I was pursuing a twisted idea of ‘success’–not in the secular forms I regularly preached against, but in the sanctified activism and workaholism sometimes called ‘professional ministry.’

A growing church, defined mostly by higher attendance at church services, more and more programs, and bigger budgets and buildings were the marks of a successful ministry in the clergy circles I ran with at that time.” In the midst of his pain Keith discovered a new way of living–one that truly depended on Christ to redeem and reform his character. And then as he was transformed, he discovered that the change in him was changing the way that he was pastoring and leading others. Drawing from the riches of church history and the experience of contemporary ministry, Keith Meyer writes with the voice of a prophet and the heart of a pastor. If you’re ready to stop trying to follow Christ and start training to be a Christ follower, this is the book for you.

5. Far Bright Star by Robert Olmstead.

Novels are where deep truth are found.  Well turned phrases help me write better sermons.  The drama and tension in a novel make me a better story teller.  All of these are excellent reasons to read fiction.  This book is language at its best.  Set in 1916, Far Bright Star follows Napoleon Childs, an aging cavalryman, as he leads an expedition of inexperienced soldiers into the mountains of Mexico to hunt down Pancho Villa and bring him to justice. Though he is seasoned at such missions, things go terribly wrong and the patrol is brutally attacked. After witnessing the demise of his troops, Napoleon is left by his captors to die in the desert.

Through him we enter the conflicted mind of a warrior as he tries to survive against all odds, as he seeks to make sense of a lifetime of senseless wars and to reckon with the reasons a man would choose a life on the battlefield. Olmstead, an award-winning writer, uses his precise, descriptive prose to explore the endurance and fate of the last horse soldiers. The result is a tightly wound novel that is as moving as it is terrifying.

6. Outer Dark, by Cormac McCarthy

In my opinion this is the nation’s greatest living fiction writer.  He is an acquired taste, however.  He is brutal and violent.   But no one and I mean no one creates a sentence with such force and eloquence as McCarthy.  I read and re-read his works.

Outer Dark is a novel at once fabular and starkly evocative, set is an unspecified place in Appalachia, sometime around the turn of the century.  A woman bears her brother’s child, a boy; he leaves the baby in the woods and tells her he died of natural causes.  Discovering her brother’s lie, she sets forth alone to find her son.  Both brother and sister wander separately through a countryside being scourged by three terrifying and elusive strangers, headlong toward an eerie, apocalyptic resolution.

7. Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow

I love historical biography’s.  This one is one of the best.  I enjoy reading how men and women of history made decisions and handled stress and difficulties.  There is so much misinformation surrounding our first president that it is appalling at times.  This is a great book.

In Washington: A Life celebrated biographer Ron Chernow provides a richly nuanced portrait of the father of our nation. With a breadth and depth matched by no other one-volume life of Washington, this crisply paced narrative carries the reader through his troubled boyhood, his precocious feats in the French and Indian War, his creation of Mount Vernon, his heroic exploits with the Continental Army, his presiding over the Constitutional Convention, and his magnificent performance as America’s first president.

8. Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard

One of the saddest biographies I have read.  This is a little known and fascinating man who became president reluctantly.  James A. Garfield was one of the most extraordinary men ever elected president. Born into abject poverty, he rose to become a wunderkind scholar, a Civil War hero, and a renowned and admired reformist congressman. Nominated for president against his will, he engaged in a fierce battle with the corrupt political establishment. But four months after his inauguration, a deranged office seeker tracked Garfield down and shot him in the back.

But the shot didn’t kill Garfield. The drama of what hap­pened subsequently is a powerful story of a nation in tur­moil. The unhinged assassin’s half-delivered strike shattered the fragile national mood of a country so recently fractured by civil war, and left the wounded president as the object of a bitter behind-the-scenes struggle for power—over his administration, over the nation’s future, and, hauntingly, over his medical care. A team of physicians administered shockingly archaic treatments, to disastrous effect. As his condition worsened, Garfield received help: Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, worked around the clock to invent a new device capable of finding the bullet.

9. The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows, by James Bryan Smith

This is a simple and yet very profound book on how our imaginings about God affect how we live out our lives on a day-by-day basis.  Our false narratives about God affect how we live.

“God wants me to try harder.” “God blesses me when I’m good and punishes me when I’m bad.” “God is angry with me.” We all have ideas that we tell ourselves about God and how he works in our lives. Some are true–but many are false. James Bryan Smith believes those thoughts determine not only who we are, but how we live. In fact, Smith declares, the most important thing about a person is what they think about God.

The path to spiritual transformation begins here. Turning to the Gospels, Smith invites you to put your ideas to the test to see if they match up with what Jesus himself reveals about God. Once you’ve discovered the truth in Scripture, Smith leads you through a process of spiritual formation that includes specific activities aimed at making these new narratives real in your body and soul as well as your mind.

10. Walking Home: A Traveler in the Alaskan Wilderness, a Journey into the Human Heart,  by Lynn Schooler

I bought this book in Junuea while on a cruise this summer and finished before I got home.  I love the way this man writes.  It is a fascinating look at the way the wilderness can be a place of self-discovery during difficult times.

Lynn Schooler had recently lost a dear friend and was feeling his marriage slipping away from him when he set out on a daring journey-first by boat, then on foot-into the Alaskan wilderness to clear his head. His solo expedition, recounted in Walking Home, is filled with the awe and danger of being on one’s own in the wild, being battered by the elements and even, for two harrowing days, becoming the terrified quarry of a grizzly bear.

But the formidable, lonely landscape is also rich with human stories-of trappers, explorers, marooned sailors, and hermits, as well as the myths of the region’s Tlingit Indians. Relating his journey, Schooler creates a conversation between the human and the natural, the past and the present, to investigate-on a remote and uninhabited shore-what it means to be not only part of nature’s wild web, but also a member of a human community in the flow of history.

Well, there they are.  I certainly read more than these ten, but these affected my thinking or moved my heart in some pretty profound ways.


One thought on “My Top Reads of 2011

  1. Joe,
    Based on book 10 you’d probably love The Man Who Walked Through Time and another called Investment Biker. Great reads and right up your alley. I think God gave us both explorer’s hearts…

    Hope it’s your best year ever Joe.

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