Four Books I’m Glad I Read in 2016

It’s no secret that 2016 has felt like a year full of side-taking and division for many of us. Lisa Lucas, head of the National Book Foundation, recommends that one of the best ways to understand the perspectives of others is to read. “My life is small and I think books are a way to make your life larger…We all need to be reading across the lines we’ve drawn in our lives.”

Lucas continues to unpack this idea in a recent interview with NPR entitled, “Read the Book that’s Not for You,”

“Lucas is an avid social media user, but she doesn’t believe Twitter will ever replace books — they’re just too different. You don’t scroll through a book quickly while waiting in line for a latte. When you read a book, you enter another world, and you have to spend time in that world. Reading a book, Lucas says, is a ‘protracted engagement’ with people who are different from you personally, culturally and — perhaps most important at this moment — politically.”

Three of my favorite books that I read in 2016 proved especially helpful as I’ve attempted to do just that. If you’re looking for another entry point to help you consider the perspectives of others, I found this blog post with recommendations by Lore Wilbert quite helpful as well.

Just Mercy by: Bryan Stevenson

Just Mercy is the memoir of Harvard Law School graduate Bryan Stevenson who recounts not just his experience as a lawyer for indigent clients on death row but also his life as a black man living in the South. The book follows the story of Walter McMillian, a young man sentenced to die for a crime he did not commit while weaving other cases and experiences Stevenson had that highlight the unjust treatment of those marginalized by our criminal justice system. As Stevenson states,

“I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, and our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy.”

Stevenson is a gifted storyteller who left me turning pages and wishing naptime was longer this fall.

You can watch an event Bryan Stevenson and Tim Keller did together in May below.

[vimeo 168964644 w=640 h=360]

Grace, Justice, & Mercy: An Evening with Bryan Stevenson and Rev. Tim Keller from Center for Faith & Work on Vimeo.

Hillbilly Elegy by: J.D. Vance

Through gritty, raw storytelling, Vance’s memoir gives a voice to people whose stories and struggles are often unheard and forgotten. Hillbilly Elegy shares what life is like for those who are part of America’s white working class in the Rust Belt.

In the opening pages, Vance sets up the purpose of his book by writing,

“The statistics tell you that kids like me face a grim future—that if they’re lucky, they’ll manage to avoid welfare; and if they’re unlucky, they’ll die of a heroin overdose, as happened to dozens in my small home-town just last year…I want people to know what it feels like to nearly give up on yourself and why you might do it. I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children. I want people to understand the American Dream as my family and I encountered it…to tell a true story about what that problem feels like when you were born with it hanging around your neck.”

Jesus Outside the Lines by Scott Sauls

Our small group read this together last spring and found it extremely helpful as we processed how to live out our faith in an increasingly polarized climate. Sauls opens by providing a biblical rationale for why and how Christians should approach division differently. Sauls writes,

“You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’…Jesus did not merely speak these words as an edict from on high. He become these words…Having received such grace, Christians have a compelling reason to be remarkably gracious, inviting, and endearing toward others, including and especially those who disagree with us.”

Chapter by chapter, Sauls tackles issues that have generated a great deal of side-taking—for the unborn or for the poor, personal faith or institutional church, money guilt or money greed, affirmation or critique, accountability or compassion, hope or realism, etc… and offers another way through the arguments.

None Like Him by: Jen Wilkin

Of all the books I read in 2016, this is the one I’ve come back to the most. Wilkin examines ten traits that are only true of God and not of us in an easy to read format that helped me to grow in a right understanding of who God is, to come to terms with my limitations as a finite human, to repent of the ways I try to be the god of my own life, and ultimately to worship.  Wilkin’s signature wit and personal stories provide a backdrop for her readers to ask themselves hard questions and apply what she shares in meaningful ways. It was difficult for me to choose just one excerpt to share, so here are a few.

“He is both a God who is near to us and a God who transcends. The fear of the Lord comprehends the fact that the father we are taught to call ‘ours’ is also the Lord of the universe, enthroned between the cherubim, doing as he pleases among the nations…The Bible paints a picture of a God who neither scowls nor coddles, a God who is both ‘Our Father’ and ‘in heaven’ in perfect balance.” (p. 11-12)

“Our limits teach us the fear of the Lord. They are reminders that keep us from falsely believing that we can be like God. When I reach the limit of my strength, I worship the One whose strength never flags. When I reach the limit of my reason, I worship the One whose reason is beyond searching out.” (p. 25)

“Furthermore, we are free to rely on God when our hope for a relationship or a situation has dwindled to nothing. Remember, our Creator-God specializes in bringing something from nothing. We cannot create hope where there is hopelessness or love where there is lovelessness. We cannot create repentance where there is unrepentance, but we can cry out to the God who can. In that first great act of creation, God miraculously rendered something from nothing. And he rejoices to continue that in human hearts…Not everything will be made new in this lifetime, but his promise to grow in us the fruit of the spirit means we can know abundant life whether relationships or circumstances heal or not.” (p. 52)

“The Bible begins with a time stamp, ‘in the beginning,’ and then spends sixty-six books describing the God who decrees seasons and times but is not bound by them in the least…He is simultaneously the God of the past, present, and future, bending time to his perfect will, unfettered by its constraints. The past holds for him no missed opportunity. The present holds for him no anxiety. The future holds for him no uncertainty. He was, and is, and is to come.” (p. 71)

“Our primary problem as Christian women is not that we lack self-worth, not that we lack a sense of significance. It’s that we lack awe…Awe helps us worry less about self-worth by turning our eyes first toward God, then toward others. It also helps establish our self-worth in the best possible way: we understand both our insignificance within creation and our significance to our Creator.” (p. 154-155)

If you are a woman, please consider picking up a copy of None Like Him and participating in Crossing Women’s One Read on Friday, January 27. Few books offer as much accessible, practical, applicable theology as this one and spending time discussing it with others only increases its value.

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