I love to read. It’s an obsession of mine (along with the irritatingly-addictive game Candy Crush Saga) that occupies most of my personal free time. And this year has seen me delve into quite a number of tomes, novels, and distractions of the mind.
So what follows is something that I hope will become an annual feature on this blog, as I present to you my favourite reads of the past year, along with a few of the books that I’m looking forward to escaping into during 2016.
With the books is a few of my random thoughts about them (some longer that others), and a link to it on Amazon.co.uk (just click on the book title).
MY FAVOURITES OF 2015
Admit it, the title alone draws you in, doesn’t it?
Raymond Tallis is on top form in this amazing book, expertly describing the complexity and the uniqueness of being human, whilst exposing scientism’s leanings towards understanding human consciousness as mere brain-activity and thinking of human behaviour in the same way as animal behaviour (and vice versa). Through his expert knowledge of biology, and his very well sharpened philosophic skills, Tallis demonstrates that to be human is something that transcends being an “animal”; we are very different, and these differences need to be realised.
Now before any “creationists” reading this begin to believe that they have stumbled upon the science book they’ve been waiting for; Tallis is not arguing against Biological Evolution or engaging in an anti-scientific rant. Tallis, as an Atheist, Humanist, Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Manchester, and a pro-evolutionist, is arguing that human evolution has moved us beyond the state of being “just an animal”. In his own words; “As an Atheist and also a Humanist I believe that we should develop an image of humanity that is richer and truer to our distinctive nature than that of a exceptionally gifted chimp” (p.10).
I loved this book! Seriously, it was extremely enriching – especially against a back-drop of consistent pop-science news articles that wish to describe everything about us, and our behaviour, using a frame of reference which is constructed out of animal-analogies and brain-scans. Tallis, through what many would consider his magnum opus, provides a beautiful description of our transcendent state.
This is a big book, in many ways – so, if you want to get to grips with Raymond Tallis prior to tackling this, then I would also recommend The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Fantastical Journey Around Your Head.
D.N.A (Deoxyribonucleic Acid) has very much found it’s way into the vernacular of our language. Most of us – I think? – can very easily form a mental picture of a double helix, recall the letters G C T A from our science lessons, and understand that these “letters” somehow form the building blocks of who we are. Most of us will have a grasp on how hereditary genetic traits work, and some of us might even know a few clever facts, like that Identical Twins have the exact same D.N.A.
And yet – Identical (Zygotic) Twins, over their life-cycle, can turn out different in many ways. Why?
Our cell life is a lot more complex than just the template of our D.N.A; there are other factors playing on the top of this genetic code, switching certain options “off” and “on”. Welcome to the world Epigenetics.
As someone who had heard of this term being banded around in science articles and TV shows, I wanted to learn a little bit more – after all, when I did Biology at School (in the mid 1990’s) this stuff certainly wasn’t mentioned on the public radar.
Nessa Carey has written an excellent book helping “numpties” like myself grasp hold of this new and exiting field in biology. It’s not a book that is shy of using biological terminology, and it involved me grappling with imagery that I had never even imagined before; but that’s the exciting thing about science! As well as providing you with the knowledge of why your male tortoiseshell cat will be infertile, this book will give you a greater appreciation of the complexity of life at a cellular level.
I want to be able to go over to my book shelf and take this off: peruse through my side notes and highlighting, and reacquaint myself with this book more thoroughly before recommending it to you. However, I can’t. As I’ve passed it on to someone else to read – way back in March of this year (apologies to Cordelia, as that’s one less book sale).
But for those who hold to the notion of a “male” and “female” brain, or for those who have a deep conviction that there are certain tasks that men and women “naturally” excel in over the opposite sex, this book will shock you!
Cordelia Fine, in a very clear non-cluttered approach, pulls the rug firmly out from under those who believe the gospel according to “gender orientated brains” and shows the clear inadequacy of experimental data that proves women are more “naturally” paternal because female monkeys prefer playing with dolls. In a stunning way, she demonstrates that a lot of our behaviour could primarily be shaped by feeling the burden of performing to the stereotypical culturally defined roles of how a man or woman should behave, and not because of some biological brain hard-wiring.
For any misogynists out there, this book will challenge some of the evidence you hold to about women “thinking” differently. For the feminists out there, you’ll absolutely love this. For men like myself, who don’t have a love of football and who don’t find the sight of a broken car engine appealing, this is a breath of fresh air.
Faith & Theology:
We have all witnessed it, some of us may have been victims of it, then again, some of us may have been party to it; the use of the Bible as a means to justify hate, violence and inhumanity towards others.
It’s true, the bible contains it’s fair share of violent scenes and violent rhetoric. And when we discover those scenes, it’s really tempting to just ignore them and dismiss them as mistakes in the writing of scripture, but we can’t, “all scripture is inspired”, etc . On the other hand, in taking scripture as inspired, does that mean we have to accept these passages as revealing to us God’s intent for humanity? It’s certainly not a new problem in Biblical Hermeneutics.
Derek’s book is an excellent resource for helping us to navigate through this minefield, offering us a trajectory that will help us in ethically, morally and responsibly reading the Bible; a hermeneutic of Love, and understanding scripture as Jesus did. If you only read one chapter of this book – although, I can’t understand why you would – then chapter 3, Paul’s Conversion from Violence, would get my firm recommendation.
I loved this book, and it was easily my favourite read of the year. It’s very well written, with an easy to follow flow and pace to it. But that doesn’t mean it will sit comfortably with all; there are certainly parts where it didn’t for me. That said, most “good” books shouldn’t comfort our pre-existing though patterns. At the end of the day, the book does do what it’s suppose to do; it calls us to stop ignoring/dismissing the violent parts of scripture, on the one hand, and calls us to not just blindly endorse the “words” on the page, on the other.
If you want to wrestle further with some of the issues raised in this, then two of the books Derek sources in his writing (one of which I’ve nearly finished reading, and the other I read in 2014) are as follows:
The following book would also prove helpful…
I’m not sure how to begin describing the scope of this book – it’s just plain brilliant, to use non-scholarly language.
Just how applicable is the Old Testament to those under the New Covenant? I’m sure most of us, as Christians, have asked that question at some point or another. Well, Old Testament scholar Christopher Wright takes 480 pages (excluding a very helpful and extensive Bibliography) to help navigate that question. In short, it still is applicable, but to understand how it is applicable today requires taking the time to understand the ethical framework of the Old Testament Laws within their own Israelite culture and time in contrast to the other cultures around them. That’s one of my main loves of this book – as well as it’s breadth of scope on such topics as work, ecology, family, politics etc – it doesn’t seek to devise some sort of universal transcultural black or white morality, but a social-ethical approach to understanding the Old Testament Canon.
I’m struggling to summarise this book, to be honest. But it’ll certainly be a resource that I can see myself returning to again and again within my own personal studies.
In light of biological evolution, what are we to do with the whole Adam and Eve story of Genesis 2 & 3? Are we still “made” in God’s image, if we are in fact formed by an evolutionary process? If the story of Adam and Eve, with the “Fall”, isn’t a literal historical story, then what does that mean with regards to sin, salvation and everything in between?
Firstly, I would agree with Christopher Wright in the book mentioned above (see chapter 4, Ecology and the earth, pgs 116-126); that the image of God is not biological property that we possess within our genome, but a calling upon humanity to represent and serve God. As such, evolution doesn’t undo this. But that doesn’t really begin to answer the questions, does it?
For those of us who feel caught between the false dicohtamy of Science v’s Scripture, then this book will prove extremely helpful. John Walton, along with a nice contribution from N.T. Wright, provides an excellent resource for understanding the intent of the second and third chapters of the book of Genesis, and their use in the New Testament writings.
The book is very accessible and is written in short chapters that continually build-up Walton’s proposition, as he contrasts the writing of Genesis with other A.N.E creation accounts, as well as analysing the lexical concepts of the text. And the good thing is, you don’t have to be an academic to grasp this; although there is enough in this, I feel, to satisfy both scholars and lay-people.
I highly recommend reading this, regardless of you’re take of Genesis 2 & 3 – if you want to know Walton’s conclusions, then read the book.
If you want a more balanced approach, comparing Walton’s view with others on this topic, then I would also recommend Four Views on the Historical Adam (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology from Zondervan.
I have to admit, this is the first book of Nouwen’s that I’ve ever read, and I can’t believe that I’ve left it this long. This book was beautiful.
Nouwen’s book centres around the very famous parable known as the The Prodigal Son, and Rembrandt’s portrayal of that story within the painting shown on the front cover (which also bears the book’s title). While Nouwen goes to allegorical interpretative extents that most New Testament Scholar’s like Kenneth Bailey, N.T. Wright and Craig L. Blomberg would cringe at – and I can understand why – this book does a fantastic job of conveying something powerful about the loving and graceful character of God.
Yes, I’ve read my fair share of “thinky” books this year (as per the mentions above), but this book really grabbed my heart, and lingered in my soul for weeks after. Actually, as I write this and look at it while it sits next to my keyboard, I want to pick it up again and be reminded of it. So here’s a bit of Nouwen prose to tempt you with;
” The farther I run away from the place where God dwells, the less I am able to hear the voice that calls me the Beloved, and the less I hear that voice, the more entangled I become in the manipulations and power games of the world”.
This was the first book I read this year, and it’s my favourite book by McManus after Soul Cravings.
I’m not a fan of “self-help” books, but the one thing I love about all of McManus’ writings is his ability to talk about the beauty and potential of a human life without deeming it into some mechanical self-perpetuating procedure. As McManus himself states, “The Artisan Soul…makes life a craft and not product” (p.30). And as such, The Artisan Soul is an exploration of the Divine’s ability to move upon the canvas of the human condition; It’s an introduction to the interdependent dance between Spirit and flesh; a journey of discovery into our creative potential to be formed into the Image of Christ.
McManus doesn’t write about “self-help”, he writes about Art. Read it.
“…if God refuses to mass-produce but insists on an intimate process that in the end forms each of us into the image of Christ, why would we choose a lesser path for our own lives?” (p.31)
Ok, this is where it gets slightly trickier for me to whittle down. So I’m going to keep this section shorter than the above, if only because the three titles that I have picked are very much in the “public eye” and have been so for some time.
Yes, I am a fan of the TV show, but I’ve been intending to read the books ever since I started watching. I bought the first five books back in 2014, and have been meaning to make a start. The problem is, they are not “short stories”, so finding the time slip this in amongst my other reading proved difficult. But that’s what holiday’s are for, I suppose?
For those who have maybe resisted watching the TV show – for obvious reasons – then you’ll find the book much more palatable, while at the same time, the accurate portrayal of other-world (but still very much this-world) descriptions of power struggles remains poignant. You may think you’re reading about the inhabitants of a land called Westeros as you read this series, but if you stop and consider, you’ll see that Martin is skilfully articulating the psychology of humanities historical, and present, power struggles.
Before George R.R Martin wrote about the ludicrous and violent extents people will go through in order to maintain power, there was T.H. White’s critical assessment of war via the re-telling of the story of King Arthur. There’s a reason this book is a classic, so I’d encourage you to not only read the story, but to hear the lessons that White is trying to teach about the impotency of war to form a better society.
For me personally, the third part of this book, The Ill-Made Knight – which focuses more on Lancelot – was amazing.
There’s a theme, of sorts, between these three fiction books – but I’ll leave that to you to explore and think about. You’ll certainly see it in this tale, as you read from the spilling of red wine on the streets of France to the “The Sea” of it’s revolution.
I shouldn’t really need to explain why you should read Dickens, but underneath his stories is a message that is timeless. If you’re new to Dickens, as I still am, you’ll find he’s not an easy read: the English syntax he employs is one that wouldn’t survive the alterations most book-editors of today would inflict upon it. That said, press in and you’ll get use to it, in a similar fashion to watching a foreign film with English subtitles (don’t push that analogy to far). I promise you, the translation struggles you’ll experience are certainly worth the rewards.
AND SOME OF WHAT I’LL BE READING IN 2016
For obvious reasons I can’t give any reviews of the following, but I just wanted to list a few of the books that I’m determined to read this year in the hope that it would whet your appetite, too.
After reading Sarah’s excellent book Jesus Feminist in the middle of 2014, I’m really looking forward to once again listening to Sarah discuss the questions that arise from the wrestling match between our faith and experience. I’m really hoping to the start the year with this one – as long as I can clear away the two remaining books in my current reading stack.
So far I haven’t read any of Rachel’s books, but this one has been sat on my wish-list since it’s release this year. Within this book, Rachel openly and honestly talks about something most of us at some point have struggled with in our journey – church.
Weighing in at a hefty 1680 pages, Wright’s fourth part to his monumental Christian Origins and the Question of God series is something I’ve been eager to jump into since completing the first three parts (although, I did read them in reverse order). If I manage to get through this, I’ll admit that I’ll feel a sense of pride in completing it. However, due to the scale of it, I can’t see myself pinning any other theological texts down during 2015.
“God is like Jesus” is a firm conviction that I cling to (see my blog series Portraits of God, and my book Love: Expressed), so my heart naturally gravitated towards this book. And when you have other author/thinkers like Peterson, Zahnd, McClaren, Rohr and William Paul Young singing it’s praises, you kind of want to discover why.
As a father of an autistic child, I am constantly seeking understanding. Earlier this year I read an excellent book, The Autistic Brain by Temple Grandin, so I’m hoping that this will be equally as helpful – especially after reading some of the reviews it has received.
After reading Jonathan’s first book Prototype, most of us have been eagerly awaiting the next one. If you take the time to explore Jonathan’s blog, then you’ll find a few nice extracts to entice you.
I’m currently reading a number of books around this topic – both from an affirming perspective and a non-affirming perspective. Having previously read a few of Preston’s previous books (Fight, Charis), I’m looking forward to hearing Preston’s prose, heart and sensitivity enter into the conversation.
Yes, it is a graphic-novel (I’ll humour the “unenlightened”, and let you refer to it as a “comic-book”) – don’t be so surprised! Sadly, I’ve hardly read any graphic-novels in the past 12 months, with the exception of Avengers Versus X-Men.
I love a good story, and Brain Michael Bendis know’s how to spin a good web of a tale (did you see what I did there? – sorry). I’ve read the previous four volumes about Miles Morales’ Spider-man, and it’s been fantastic and gritty so far – they should Peter parker and make this into a movie! #JustSayin
So that’s the end of my short list, but I hope it’s given you some ideas of your own to explore. Happy reading!
Tristan Sherwin is a husband to Steph, a Father to Corban & Eaden, a Follower of Jesus, a Pastor at Metro Christian Centre, Bury, England, and the Author of Love: Expressed (Available now at Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, WestBow Press and other online retailers)