Some Favorites from My Year in Books (2022)

It has been a rough year. But, even in rough years, there are plenty of good books to read (I’ll make an update to the list if I read anything else really excellent before the 31st). As always, there are no rules etc. – these are just books I particularly enjoyed over the past year (previous years’ lists can be found here). Ok, here we go, with a quote/comment for each:

Dark, Salt, Clear (Lamorna Ash): “We want to know places. When we begin to, we believe such knowing will be reciprocated, that our indentations on the landscape will hold so that those in future generations will continue to see traces of us upon that land. Through Newlyn I learn there is value in being forgotten. Though the town felt a huge experience for me, I was a blip, barely even that, in the long lives of most of its residents: a kid with a smart London accent who stuck out like a sore thumb, who asked a few questions and then left again. The town went on without me. Of course it did. But, somehow, naively, I thought it might not have.” (An unexpectedly vulnerable book).

A Sportsman’s Notebook (Ivan Turgenev): “‘Allow me to observe to you,’ he drawled at last; ‘all you young people criticise and form judgments on everything at random; you have little knowledge of your own country; Russia, young gentlemen, is an unknown land to you … You are forever reading German.” (A Knausgaard reading recommendation – Turgenev! Who knew?).

The Coast of Utopia (Tom Stoppard): “TURGENEV     My purpose? My purpose was to write a novel. PEROTKIN     So you don’t take sides between the fathers and the children? TURGENEV     On the contrary, I take every possible side.” (Worked through a number of Stoppard plays this year, including Leopolodstadt, his most recent and most emotionally intense play – but his “Russian thinker” trilogy seemed to stick with me most).

Be Brief and Tell Them Everything (Brad Listi): “And now here I was, up to my neck in it, at large in a world of selfies and influencers and bottomless psychological need. Like a dad in pleated khakis, crashing a crowded house party.” (“Our job, I said, or one of our jobs, I think, is to figure out what we’re called to do. And then do what we’re called to do. So what are you called to do? she said. I’m called to articulate my confusion, I said.”).

Super-Infinite (Katherine Rundell): “It would be a mistake, though, to imagine that all this time Donne was filing his verse away, keeping it safe, copying it by candlelight into leather-bound tomes in his bedroom in the great house. Donne’s early writing life was one of papery disarray. He made very little effort to keep versions of his work; he did not write with an eye to future fame, immortality. Poetry was the best possible way to set down the unwieldy human truth as he saw it, but it was for himself and his close allies.” (A book that deserves the wide praise and recognition it has received – this section on Donne’s lack of preciousness regarding his poetic output was a sobering splash of cold water).

How to Write One Song (Jeff Tweedy): “To me, the difference between one song and songs is not some cute semantic trick; it’s an important distinction, and it’s more precise about what you’re actually doing. No one writes songs—plural. They write one song, and then another.” (I enjoyed this much more than I expected).

The Leopard (Giuseppe Di Lampedusa): “… all this amused Don Fabrizio, and in people of his character and standing the faculty for being amused makes up four fifths of affection.” (A book only its author could have written).

Talent (Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross): “How ambitious are you?” (My review here).

Unformed Landscape (Peter Stamm): “She had never been in a garden café before, but she knew right away what it was, and perhaps for that reason mistrusted it. It looks, she thought, the way a Norwegian who has never seen a garden café might imagine one to look.” (I read a few Stamm books this year … I think he can only be taken in small doses).

Termination Shock (Neal Stephenson): “This country is a mess,” Rufus allowed, “but it’s still one of the only outfits that can pull a fleet of lead-lined bulldozers out of its ass on short notice.” (I continue to admire Stephenson’s ability to just write whatever he wants).

Faith (Laughter and Embarrassment)

A Theological Phrasebook entry.

Let’s circle back to Moses’ ancestor Abraham for a moment. One day God, the great I Am, decides to visit Abraham (Genesis 18). Abraham is taking a nap in the midday heat when three men show up at his door. Abraham wakes from his drowsy stupor, sees who it is (somehow he seems to have some inkling that it’s God), and leaps up and starts rushing around, giving orders, getting bread baked and livestock slaughtered, before finally standing off to the side like an attentive innkeeper while his guests eat.

It is a funny scene. God, creator of the universe, sitting in the heat, while sweaty Abraham scurries around yelling at his wife and servants. It takes time to slaughter and cook a calf. Time to bake bread. What are the three guests talking about, as they sit in the shade of Abraham’s tent?

God eats his fill and then turns to Abraham and makes a promise: “I will surely return to you about this time next year and Sarah your wife will have a son.” God had already made this promise to Abraham the chapter before but he now commits himself to a timeline and makes sure Sarah can hear it. And Sarah, who is “old and advanced in years … past the age of childbearing” responds the same way Abraham did in chapter 17: she laughs.

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Circumcision

A Theological Phrasebook entry.

You may be familiar with the story of Moses. In exile in the desert he encounters God as a burning bush. God says, “Hey, guess what, I’m going to bring Israel out of Egypt, and you are the man to make it happen.” And Moses says, “Um, I’m most definitely not, please send someone else.” And God says, “I’m going to be with you, the fact that you’re not particularly impressive is actually kind of part of a larger point I’m trying to make, so let’s get going.” And Moses says, “No really, please, send someone else, I not only don’t want to go, I’m bad at public speaking.” And God says, “I insist.”

And, off Moses goes, and there is the “Let my people go” and plagues and crossing of the Red Sea stuff and it’s easy to see why it gets presented in a Hollywood hero sort of way, what with the plucky underdog facing off against the god-among-men-pharaoh, and the raising of staffs in dramatic moments and whatnot. But, there is a strange little story tucked into Exodus 4 that I have spent a lot of time thinking about in the course of my Christian life.

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Abundance

A Theological Phrasebook entry.

There are many paths that can be traced across the map of theology. They diverge and intersect in different ways, trying to describe the indescribable landscape of God and his relationship to his creation. God will always exceed our capacity to describe him. If God is perfectly captured by our understanding we have reached a point where what we are exploring is no longer God.

Creation is the affirmation that the universe contains music and not just noise (or at least that was how I described it in my earlier riff on Proverbs 8). But there are other ways of trying to describe creation. In the first chapters of Genesis, we are told a story of a garden, of a good world spoken into being, but also a specific place: “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.” Genesis presents both God-all-powerful creating by speech alone, and God-the-gardener planting trees and shaping human beings from the mud of the earth.

The garden of Eden is a place marked by abundance. It is a place where there is enough – where hunger is satisfied. There is food, there is intimacy, there is purpose, there is ultimately God, the source of this abundance, walking and talking with human beings in the cool of the evening. As already mentioned, this happy state of affairs ends. Adam and Eve disobey God’s command and are made to leave the garden. They no longer experience a life marked by abundance but are made to toil in a world marked by scarcity and division. It is not purely a material loss. Adam and Eve lose access to the garden and to the intimacy with one another and with God that they previously enjoyed. They hide from one another and from God. They become never-enough creatures.

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Enough

A Theological Phrasebook entry.

Kurt Vonnegut tells a story in his poem, “Joe Heller” (you can find it in various corners of the internet, but it was originally published in the New Yorker, as far as I can tell). You probably know how it goes: Vonnegut and Heller are at a party thrown by some billionaire and Vonnegut asks Heller how he feels about the fact that this guy makes more money in a day than Heller will make in a lifetime. Heller says, well, I have something he’ll never have, and Vonnegut asks what’s that, and Heller responds that he has “knowledge that I’ve got enough” (Vonnegut’s closing line: “Not bad! Rest in peace!”).

It’s a good story, as far as it goes. It is better to have some sense of what might be enough than to have no idea at all. Judging your self-worth by the size of your bank balance is unwise etc. But, the story has always sort of annoyed me. Partly because when I encounter it in the wild the people delivering it do so with a self-satisfied smirk. Take that billionaire! Go home and cry into your sacks of cash in lonely isolation! But, it’s more than the implicit smugness. It just doesn’t quite seem true. At least not to me, with my own hunger for more. I think, for most of us, most of the time, “enough” is preceded by “never” (Never! Never!). Maybe it isn’t a hunger for money that we are trying to satisfy, but there’s always something we’re chasing that we can never quite catch. A human animal is one marked by a “never enoughness.”

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Fall(ing)

A Theological Phrasebook entry.

One of the best illustrated books I discovered when I had children was John Burningham’s Mr. Gumpy’s Outing. The story starts with a man who decides to take trip down a river in his boat. As he floats along he begins to collect passengers. Two children, a rabbit, a cat, a dog etc. Each passenger receives a warning as they board Mr. Gumpy’s (increasingly full) boat, a limit they are told they cannot transgress. The limit is specific to each passenger. So, the children are told they can come for a ride as long as they “don’t squabble”; the rabbit can come as long as it doesn’t “hop about”; the cat, provided it does not chase the rabbit, etc.

You know how this story is going to end, don’t you? Of course you do.

Mr. Gumpy’s boat travels lazily down the river under the summer sun with its crew of children and animals and,

For a little while they all went along happily but then …
The goat kicked
The calf trampled
The chickens flapped
The sheep bleated
The pig mucked about
The dog teased the cat
The cat chased the rabbit
The rabbit hopped
The children squabbled
The boat tipped
And into the water they fell.

When reading this to my children, I would always punctuate the picture of Mr. Gumpy’s fall into the river with a dramatic “SPLAAAAAAAASHHH!” (For the concerned reader: things turn out ok for Mr. Gumpy and crew in the end – they climb out, dry off in the sun on the walk home, and have tea at Mr. Gumpy’s house).

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Hope (I)

A Theological Phrasebook entry.

Hope is sometimes imagined as being fixed on something very far away: a shimmering city on the horizon, a destination at the end of a long road, an X on a treasure map. The object of hope is a terminus, a distant end. But, hope is needed at beginnings too. Hope can be found in a series of stepping stones, in a straight road beneath your feet. You need hope to get out of bed in the morning.

Lead me on a level path say the psalmists (Psalm 27, among others). Give me a road to walk down, show me where I should go, hold my hand along the way. It is a hopeful request. When you are stuck in a swamp, the promise of some unseen city is not much help, you need a handhold, a place to put your next step.

So, hope is about first steps as much as last steps. There is little point in looking to the horizon if you are stuck in the muck, sinking up to your neck. What’s needed is not some future expectation but a trust that the hand that is extended will be strong enough to pull you free; that if you put your foot here, in this spot, the ground will hold, and then there, and then over there, until you have climbed out. Hope is trust that I won’t be left to simply drown, that my life is not simply a great deal of thrashing around without any progress.

There will be a time to consider cities on the far horizon. For now, there is simply a next step, the hint of a path, and nothing more.


Further exploration:

  • Psalm 27
  • Psalm 40
  • Psalm 25
  • Psalm … well, you get the idea, don’t you? (the Psalms are good – I read one every morning).

Creation

A Theological Phrasebook entry.

Creation is the name Christians give to the idea that the universe we live in contains music and not just noise. Or, it is more than that: what we see around us doesn’t just contain music, but is fundamentally musical, deep in its bones. There is a harmony and a beauty to the cosmos, a creativity and an order. It is not simply random. We are ourselves creatures, part of the song. We participate in it, can even echo it at times in derivative ways, plunking out simple tunes on toy xylophones in imitation of the symphony that surrounds us. Tragically, we are partly tone deaf and we struggle to catch the tune. In fact, on our own, we have a tendency towards creating discordant noise rather than joining in with the music.

Continue reading “Creation”

3:17 AM

A Theological Phrasebook entry.

A thump in the night and I am awake, staring at the glowing digits of the bedside alarm clock: 3:17AM. I roll over in the quiet but my mind is already vibrating with the dissonance of the coming day. It is unlikely that I am going to be able to navigate back towards sleep. Nothing unusual here, just considering the state of things, the various paths I have walked down that have brought me to this moment, 3:17AM, in the dark.

At different times in my life there have been moments of crisis in these early morning hours: a particular source of suffering elbowing me sharply in the ribs. But, I have been fortunate, with crises few and far between. More common is a mix of the mundane and existential: a concern about whether or not I filtered the duplicate data in that spreadsheet yesterday bumping up against a question of life purpose. How did I end up here, clicking imaginary Excel cells in the middle of the night? At 3:17AM I don’t have the ability to parry the inquiries, my defenses are down, my mind too loud and the world too silent.

The language of digital alarm clocks and Excel spreadsheets may somehow imply that this is a uniquely modern sort of thing. We might like to think so, it would make us feel special: the brave modern, facing the dark, where the ancients huddled under the comforting cloak of ritual and tradition. But, some ancient near eastern poet, thousands of years ago reminds us that there is nothing new in the anxieties of 3:17AM: “in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted … You hold my eyelids open; I am so troubled I cannot speak” (Psalm 77). There is some difference here, I admit, the psalmist is considerably more engaged with something, with Someone (that “You”), than I usually am in contemplating the emptiness of the night. But we recognize each other across the years.

There is something deeply human about the dark hour of 3:17AM, that moment of trying to make sense of things (and usually failing). Human beings are the “praying animal,” said the American theologian, Robert Jenson, and this is something of what he meant, I think. We are a creature that wants to understand things as a whole, that wants to make sense of things. To be a praying animal is to wake at 3am and be turned outwards to the night, to ask questions of it that it can never quite answer to our satisfaction.


Further exploration:

Theological Phrasebook: An Introduction

A phrasebook is (according to Merriam Webster) “a book containing idiomatic expressions of a foreign language and their translation.” Basically, it’s a tool that can be used when learning a new language, usually in a way that helps the learner participate in everyday life and communicate in real world situations. The idea with this Theological Phrasebook project is that I want to describe some concepts from Christian theology in a way that provides an introduction to the “conversation” of Christianity. I’m not aiming to be exhaustive. The entries are short and presented with some imaginative verve (I hope those already fluent in Christianity will still find the posts worth reading). All the related posts can be found through the Phrasebook tag.

There are variety of ingredients that have gone into this – an obvious influence is Frederick Buechner’s theological dictionary project, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (and its related volumes). In some ways, the project is my attempt to repay the debt I owe Buechner after encountering his work when I was a teenager. There are plenty of additional influences getting mixed into the conceptual pot (for those familiar with my other writing in a theological vein, yes Bonhoeffer is going to show up more than once), and a number of entries will include a “Further Exploring” note at the end, giving links to other sources.

As a side note, for those who don’t know me: I’m just a layperson (aka “just a guy”). I don’t work in a church or as a professor or anything like that, so there’s not any institutional authority behind what I’m going to be writing here. I have started and stopped this project multiple times, and it has grown more wild and loose each time I return to it. It is a strange, spiky sort of thing, but I can’t seem to leave it alone, and so am going to try and write it through to its end. I hope it might be helpful to someone out there who stumbles across it in the vast hinterlands of the internet.