Heartlands Best Reads of 2017:#5 The Crucifixion

51EUda6wF3L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Fleming Rutledge is having a long-overdue moment in the wake of her 2015 book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.  I finally finished it in 2017, qualifying it for this list, and gushed about it in my review, (which you can access through the title link in the previous sentence).

Rutledge sees her book as an exercise of religious imagination, drawing together biblical and theological images of the atonement and exploring their significance.  “The principal purpose of this book,” she says, “will be to strengthen the reader’s surmise that the cross of Jesus is an unrepeatable event that calls all religion into question and establishes an altogether new foundation for faith, life, and a human future.” (2)

I credit this book with drawing me back to a love of theology, primarily because Fleming doesn’t insist that such a pursuit be done at the expense of beauty and literature.  In fact, she insists on such things.

This is my top theological recommendation these days.  Solid, comprehensive, generous, and insightful.  With the occasional quote from Flannery O’Conner, Dostoevsky, and MLK.  An easy pick.

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The Greatness of the Small: A Review of Love Big. Be Well.

IMG_7336When Amy Quitman writes a letter to the unknown pastor that the Pastoral Search Committee hopes to call to their Presbyterian church in the small town of Granby, she includes an invitation that would set the hearts of potential candidates like me aflutter:

We want theology, but we want the kind that will pierce our soul or prompt tears or leave us sitting in a calm silence, the kind that will put us smack-dab in the middle of the story, the kind that will work well with a bit of Billy Collins or Mary Karr now and then.  Oh, and we like a good guffaw.  I’ll be up-front with you: we don’t trust a pastor who never laughs. (5)

Jonas McAnn, unhappily stationed in a cubicle as an insurance company employee, answers the invite, as you might expect he would.  After all, his folder of potential church profiles and questionnaires is sitting beneath a stack of books that includes the likes of John Irving and Karl Barth.  Burned by his previous pastorates, Jonas is tired of plans, programs, and church growth strategies.  A lover of beauty, he is looking for an opportunity to be a pastor:

“Lots of churches don’t actually want a pastor,” he writes back to Granby Presbyterian.  “They want a leadership coach or a fundraising executive or a consultant to mastermind a strategic takeover (often performed under the moniker of evangelism or missional engagement)…Too much pastoral leadership literature recirculates anxious efforts to make the church significant or influential or up-to-date, as if they need to harangue the church into becoming something.  I think my job is to remind the church that she already is something.  Can we settle down and be who we are, where we are?” (12-13)

The epistolary match-making works and soon Jonas is moving his family to the mountains of Virginia.

51zxriXcF5L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Winn Collier’s Love Big. Be Well.: Letters to a Small-Town Church [William B. Eerdman’s, 2017] is a gentle, human love story that begins with these two letters and continues with many more.  It is a novel that has big things to say yet finds its transcendence by staying close to home.  For instance, when the church plans for a new eucharistic table, two members suggest using trees from the church property and Jonas reports:

Now, every Sunday, we receive grace around a table intricately woven into our story, our place.  It’s true that a church in Seattle could feast at this table, but it’s also true that it wouldn’t mean nearly as much to them.  Particulars matter.  Stories matter.  Places matter. (130)

There’s more than a little Wendell Berry in Collier’s small town characters.  They value the small, the local, the sustainable.  And they celebrate the elemental gifts of long-lived community.

Pastor Jonas is continually directing his congregation’s focus to interactions that could be easily overlooked, such as the significance of a BBQ dinner with friends or breakfast at Stu’s with the Order of the Roasted Bean.  “Showing up, doing the work, being together–that’s our liturgy,” Jonas writes to his congregation.  “And it matters.” (99)

As a denominational official in The United Methodist Church who works with many pastors and programs, I appreciate Collier’s empathetic portrayal of a small church and its clergy leader.  Explicitly and implicitly, those who labor in small churches are often told that they don’t measure up–that they need to be more than they are.  Jonas pushes back:

When religious experts suggest an identity update, the whole proposal amounts, in my book, to nothing more than a grand slogan and a fresh coat of paint.  We could try to re-envision ourselves as a community center or a social advocacy firm if we want to wrench ourselves trying to fit into someone else’s clothes.  But look, we are the church.  We’re incompetent at most endeavors, but the Spirit has gifted us with divine energy to live into a simple and straightforward vocation.  Gathered at Jesus’s table, we feast on true life and the disperse into our run-of-the-mill lives as witnesses to the Kingdom of this Jesus who loves the whole world.  The world needs more of who we are, not less. (26)

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Winn Collier

Rural churches and pastors are having a hard time of it these days.  The letters that Jonas writes to his parishioners are a tonic for weary souls seeking to be faithful with what always seems like less.  Shining through Jonas’s words are those of the author, who shares his art and wisdom as the pastor of All Souls Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.  (Winn also writes regularly on his self-titled blog.)

Without calling attention to itself, Collier’s writing delves deeply into questions of prayer, baptism, and the nature and mission of the Church–all sprinkled with humor, quotes from literary and theological greats, and a lot of love.

Jonas McAnn is the kind of pastor I want to have and strive to be.  Winn Collier is the kind of writer we all need for such a time as this.

Look for my interview with Winn Collier coming soon to Heartlands.

Heartlands Best Reads of 2017: #6 Sing, Unburied, Sing

51ipyal4R-L._UY250_Mississippi has many layers.  William Faulkner knew this and crafted his intricate tales of Yoknapatawpha County with characters haunted by the past, spurred by subterranean passions, and trapped in violent, tragic relationships.  Jesmyn Ward claims Faulkner as an literary influence and it shows in her rich novels of Bois Sauvage, like Yoknapatawpha, a fictional rendering of the Mississippi she knows.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is the story of an extended family trying to come to terms with their limitations.  We meet Jojo, a 13-year-old with a drug-addicted African-American mother and an imprisoned white father, who is coming of age with the burdens of trying to understand what it means to be a man while being the healing center of his family.  His mother, Leonie, is haunted by the ghost of her brother and her inability to really care for her children or mother.  His grandfather, is similarly burdened by a past he can’t give voice to.

Perspective shifts with each chapter.  The past is never far away.  Racial tensions are everywhere.  The dead are as needy as the living.  And yet there is a surprising grace suffusing everything.

It took me awhile to get into this book, despite the fact that its opening scene was the best I read all year – Jojo and his grandfather slaughtering a goat and introducing the theme of life and death.  I was reading the book in small doses when it really demands sustained engagement.  But it is affecting and the images linger.

71-wjMrvimL._UX250_Jesmyn Ward has had a big year.  She just got a MacArthur genius grant and Sing, Unburied, Sing won the National Book Award for fiction.  She also put Southern fiction back on the map in a big way.  I put it at #6 on the Best Reads List.

Click on the title link above for my review of the book.

Heartlands Best Reads of 2017: #7 All the Pretty Horses

51+nxfaxmXL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_I’m sure Cormac McCarthy has been dying to see if this accolade would come his way.  His 1992 novel, All the Pretty Horses, is now 25 years old, but I just got around to it this year.  Something about spending a month in West Texas made it seem like an appropriate companion.

And it was.  McCarthy captures the harsh beauty of the terrain and peoples it with characters that are hard-bitten, philosophical, and even funny.  I never expected to laugh so much as I did reading the dialogue of Jimmy Blevins, one of the three teenagers at the center of the story.  What you wind up with at the end of this reading experience is a fine meditation on home – the place Americans have always had a hard time locating.

As for Billy Bob Thornton’s 2002 movie of the novel–well, I’d give that a miss.

So congrats to Cormac on making #7 on the 2017 Best Reads countdown.  I hear Dostoyevsky is looking to make the 2018 Heartlands’ list.

Click on the title link above for my review of the book.

Heartlands Best Reads of 2017: #8 American Fire

51xyeLUVvCL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Of course, it had local appeal for those of us on the Eastern Shore, but Monica Hesse’s exploration of the 2012-13 arson spree here that damaged 60+ structures was masterful writing.  In American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, the Washington Post reporter used the window of the crime to explore what was happening on a larger scale throughout rural America.  And she did it without turning the people she spent time with into caricatures.  The investigators, fire fighters, and arsonists all feel like three-dimensional people.

Good, timely writing about what’s happening in the American countryside made this is a shoo-in for the Heartlands Top 10 Best Reads of 2017 and I give American Fire the #8 slot.  My interview with Monica Hesse was also fun.

Click on the title link above for my review of the book.

Why Katherine Sonderegger Gets 10 Pages a Day: A Review of Her Systematic Theology

41G1+De1i8L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_If your fine-grain theological vocabulary has grown a little rusty with lack of use, as I’m afraid mine has, you will find Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology: Volume One, Doctrine of God [Fortress, 2015] daunting.  I’m not ashamed to say that it took me nearly a year to get through it.  By this fall, however, I was determined to work through the 529 page tome so I used the 10 pages a day method.  I’m glad I did.

I wouldn’t normally be so dogged in pushing through, but there were several things about Sonderegger that intrigued me.

First, is the fact that she periodically breaks forth into some of the most glorious prose I’ve ever seen a theologian use.  The burning bush reveals that “the cosmos is phosphoric, Light bearing.” (81)  Intoxicated with the notion of God’s omnipotence, Sonderegger says, “The Spirit-soaked existence of the enchanted world gives us the haunting reminder that Power must be in the end personal.” (200)  To believe, she says, “is to trust that there is more.  More riches in a text than meets the eye; more Grace and Life in bread and wine and oil than anyone glimpses there;…more is the name of Christian dignity.” (456).

I’ll grant that there are many passages that snag in the thorny woods of her eccentric prose, but the clearings into which such writing emerges are worth every part of the journey.

Secondly, Sonderegger returns to the classical Divine Perfections of Omnipresence, Omnipotence, Omniscience, and Love, whose main purchase on Christian consciousness these days consists of occasional singings of “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.”  Discussions of the perfections can be airy and deadly dry, but Sonderegger uses a thorough-going compatibilism to place creation firmly within the picture.

“Deity is not repugnant to the cosmos, nor paradoxical to it,” she affirms.  “We do not find a contradiction or opposition between the One Lord and all that He has made.  Rather, the Divine Reality is compatible with the cosmos: God has a ‘positive’ relation to the world.” (xix)

Yes, you see it there in that passage—the things you need to get used to in this book.  The idiosyncratic capitalization.  The consistently masculine pronouns for God.  Sonderegger has her reasons, but for those of us trained in theology after the 60s, these decisions act as barriers.  It is worth the effort to surmount them, however.

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Katherine Sonderegger

Ultimately, Sonderegger is trying to act as a supplement and corrective to the Christocentric systematic theologies that Barth and his followers have produced.  She is sympathetic and a fellow-traveler with Barth in many ways, but her focus in on the Unicity of God, not the Trinity.  She wants to address the “allergy” modern Christian theology has shown towards “questions about Deity—what God is” (xi).

In her exploration, Sonderegger holds on to that focus with impressive determination and exegetical skill.  I felt carried along by her vision even when the writing became cryptic.  It’s a strange beauty, this book.  Strange and beautiful.

Katherine Sonderegger is the William Meade Professor of Theology at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia.

Heartlands Best Reads of 2017: #9 Can You See Anything Now?

416HGA6nSHL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_We continue the idiosyncratic countdown of best reads of 2017 with all its caveats: not all published in 2017, not limited by genre but limited by Alex having to have read them.  Don’t let my limitations keep you from Katherine James’ debut novel Can You See Anything Now?–a book with the rich texture of human tragedy and a beautiful confidence in God’s presence in its midst.  The story of a small town with its own red-blue divides and the artists and young people who populate it, this is a story that stuck with me and gave me hope for what Christian fiction is at its best.  Raw and wonderful.  And I had fun interviewing the author this fall.

Heartlands Best Reads of 2017: #10 Strangers In Their Own Land

lysander-yuen-288916It’s been a great year for reading.  I credit Sarah Willson Craig for inviting me into a real mid-life reading renaissance.  She’s the one who posted the Better World Reading Challenge on Facebook in 2016 and got a group of friends committed.  I’m grateful.

Since everyone else is doing their end-of-the-year list, I decided to join the fray with a Heartlands Best Reads of 2017.  Some caveats: These are books I read in 2017, but they weren’t all published this year.  2017 books did get some extra points in the ranking, however.

Also, I’m not making any allowance for genre.  Fiction, non-fiction–theology and journalism–cats and dogs living together–it’s one big, unruly house on my nightstand.

Of course there are some great books that didn’t make the final list.  Here are a few of the near-misses that I loved reading this year (with links to reviews where I’ve done them):

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Cancer is not Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Cancer by Jason Micheli

All True Not a Lie in It by Alix Hawley

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Duane’s Depressed by Larry McMurtry

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Given the quality of those books, you can see why the Top Ten are extra special to me.  So today we start the countdown with #10.

51b54MMSZnL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild was not one of the best-written of the Top Ten, but it lingered with me and proved to be a very useful book during a year when I was trying to get my mind around the Great Divide.  Her “deep story” that emerged from many days of living as a California sociologist in rural Louisiana was a very useful framework that reminded me of a Flannery O’Conner story.  A bonus for me was the opportunity to interview Hochschild and she turns out to be a delightful, perceptive, authentic person.