I’m a sucker for end-of-the-year-favorites lists. Yesterday, I gave a sampler of my seven favorite albums I listened to in 2016. Today I offer seven books I enjoyed reading. These books were not all published in 2016, nor are they necessarily the best books I read this year. Rather, for one reason or another, these are the ones I enjoyed or appreciated the most. Except for the first title, they are in no particular order.
The Supper of the Lamb (Robert Farrah Capon). It might seem odd that a cookbook from the 1960s would be my favorite book of the year. That is, until you read Capon’s culinary reflection. Using one recipe—”lamb for eight persons four times”—as the organizing rubric for the book, Capon goes about his business of cooking up the world for our delight. Like Chesterton, he helps us truly see the world for what it actually is: a great wonder. Capon is funny, poignant, playful, and convicting in a way only an Episcopal-priest-turned-New-York-Times-food-columnist could be. And he has a chapter on cutting an onion that is one of the finest pieces of writing I’ve read.
“Between the onion and the parsley, therefore, I shall give the summation of my case for paying attention. Man’s real work is to look at the things of the world and to love them for what they are. That is, after all, what God does, and man was not made in God’s image for nothing. The fruits of his attention can be seen in all the arts, crafts, and sciences. It can cost him time and effort, but it pays handsomely. If an hour can be spent on one onion, think how much regarding it took on the part of that old Russian who looked at onions and church spires long enough to come up with St. Basil’s Cathedral. Or how much curious and loving attention was expended by the first man who looked hard enough at the inside of trees, the entrails of cats, the hind ends of horses and the juice of pine trees to realize he could turn them all into the first fiddle. No doubt his wife urged him to get up and do something useful. I am sure that he was a stalwart enough lover of things to pay no attention at all to her nagging; but how wonderful it would have been if he had known what we know now about his dawdling. He could have silenced her with the greatest riposte of all time: Don’t bother me; I am creating the possibility of the Bach unaccompanied sonatas.”
The Things of Earth (Joe Rigney). As someone once described it, this is the book for those who are drawn to John Piper’s vision of Christian Hedonism, but also like their beer and bacon. Rigney shows that those whose minds are set on the things above, where Christ is, are awfully concerned about earthly things—family, vocations, food, play—and rightly so. He helps us see that our enjoyment of God’s good gifts is not cause for low-grade guilt, but actually please the Father.
“To shrink back from all that can be called Nature into negative spirituality is as if we ran away from horses instead of learning to ride. There is in our present pilgrim condition plenty of room (more room than most of us like) for abstinence and renunciation and mortifying our natural desires. But behind all asceticism the thought should be, “Who will trust us with the true wealth if we cannot be trusted even with the wealth that perishes?” Who will trust me with a spiritual body if I cannot control even an earthly body? These small and perishable bodies we now have were given to us as ponies are given to schoolboys. We must learn to manage: not that we may some day be free of horses altogether but that someday we may ride bareback, confident and rejoicing, those greater mounts, those winged, shinning and world-shaking horses which perhaps even now expect us with impatience, pawing and snorting in the King’s stables. Not that the gallop would be of any value unless it were a gallop with the King; but how else—since He has retained His own charger—should we accompany Him.”
Gilead (Marilynne Robinson). Gilead is a long letter from Reverend John Ames, an aging Congregationalist pastor, to his young son. The story is engaging, but the real gift is Robinson’s wordcraft. She develops small town Gilead, Iowa into a character unto itself, and is a master of description. For example,
“There is one photograph of my grandfather around the house somewhere, taken in his old age, that might help you understand why I thought this way. It is a good likeness. It shows a wild-haired, one-eyed, scrawny old fellow with a crooked beard, like a paintbrush left to dry with lacquer in it, staring down the camera as if it had accused him of something terrible very suddenly, and he is still thinking how to reply and keeping the question at bay with the sheer ferocity of that stare. Of course there is guilt enough in the best life to account for a look like that.”
Knowing Christ (Mark Jones). A friend gave me this book last year when we were in the States, and I am so thankful he did. I read Knowing Christ devotionally one chapter a day along with my Bible reading. Jones displayed gems of Puritan wisdom regarding the doctrine of the person of Christ. The best compliment I can pay to the book is that it helped me love and treasure Jesus more. (Bonus points for Jones becoming the king of theology Twitter during this year’s evangelical Trinity controversy).
“We may please God simply because Jesus pleased him first by his willing and acceptable death on the cross.”
“As believers we should comfort ourselves that Christ did not return to the Father alone, but as the captain of our salvation who enables us to share in his glory.”
The Second Forgetting (Benjamin T. Mast). The Second Forgetting applies the Gospel to those suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia—the patients and their caregivers. I bought the book after a family member was diagnosed with dementia. Mast, a professor of brain sciences at the University of Lousville and an elder at his local church, weaves clinical science with practical theology to offer hope and counsel to those fighting one of our world’s most cruel diseases.
“Alzheimer’s strips away our worldly identity, but a person is valuable for who they are, not simply for what they can contribute. We are more than the sum of our memories. Even when we have nothing left to offer others, we still have value to God, and nothing can change that.”
Blood-Bought World (Toby J. Sumpter). This book is a rollicking in-your-face call for Christians to cast aside the fig leaves—respectability, comfort, fear, and other idols—that shield us from the real Jesus, the one who claims all authority in heaven and on earth. Sumpter envisions a bold church, “full of people who don’t give a damn about the fleeting pleasures of this life.” But first, we must grasp what made Jesus so killable. Sumpter, who blogs at Having Two Legs, has become one of my favorite writers this year. He consistently punches hard when he ought to punch, and writes with grace-drenched mercy when that is called for.
“But what God has in mind is the complete renovation of the world… Jesus claimed all authority in heaven and on earth. He claimed all of it, and sent His apostles to announce that claim in the words of the gospel and to enact it with water, bread, and wine, with His full authority. That’s what evangelism is: Hello, World: Jesus bought this place with His blood. Deal with it. The real faith, once delivered to the saints, is driven by the Spirit of Jesus, a wild, rambunctious, healing force set on the redemption of the world. Men who know this Jesus have no patience for a polite social club with religious jargon.”
Kill the Dragon, Get the Girl (Cheston Hervey and Darren Doane). We dinner-read this book back in the spring. My four-year-old son was fascinated by this dragon hunt tale. I include it here not because it was so much better than some other books I read this year, but because I had so much fun with it with my son. Doane is a filmmaker (Collision, The Free Speech Apocalypse, They Grow up Fast), and the film version of this story should be released in 2017. “Kill the Dragon, get the girl”—it’s the story of the whole Bible in six words.
“A deep, dragon voice spoke. “And in the end, I ended up just like you. My legs, taken. Crawling around on my belly. Who is the one that deserves pity in this story? I’ll take more than your legs this time, you pathetic cripple. I’ll take your all. And this time, there’s no one here to help you—not even a bus full of mewling children. YOU belong to ME.”
What were your favorite books of 2016?