If you weren’t reading RELEVANT in 2008, then hopefully you had your nose in one of these 10 wonderful works of literature. We know that The Shack was self-published in 2007, but the book really made its mark during the last 12 months (#1 fiction on The New York Times Best Seller list, June 2008). Also, we did not include the ESV Study Bible in the list because that is the greatest book of all time. This is not a "greatest books of all time" list, but a list that acknowledges the best books that were published this year.
Many Christians are living tormented lives. They move from one broken relationship to another, trying to find restoration and healing. It’s revealing that the Christian divorce rate mirrors secular society: We view freedom as a word in the dictionary and a theological position, but not a reality. In Death by Love, Mark Driscoll tackles the hardships that Christians endure and provides some clear encouragement—and a dose of harsh criticism—with a series of ultra-personal letters. There’s none of the typical mind-numbing emergent mumbo jumbo of his contemporary theologians, just a bunch of Bible verses and sound advice. If you can read this book without a little of the fog lifting from your soul, you probably enjoy the fog.
In the midst of a glut of "Christians and culture" type books, this one stands out because it takes a step back and forces us to contend with the very word, "culture." What is it? How do we "make it"? Andy Crouch offers a thoughtful, extremely helpful reality-check of a book for anyone with an inkling to "change the culture" in any way. It goes beyond all the usual clichés and offers a back-to-basics, from-the-Bible justification for why Christians should be thinking about but also participating in culture making. It’s a rare book that challenges Christians to do more than just criticize or boycott culture but to make and remake it ourselves.
Michael Pollan has done what most diet/nutrition authors can’t or haven’t done: say something worthwhile. Instead of touting a new get-slim-quick scheme to encourage his readers to be interested, he plots a new course. He wants Americans to be conscious of what they are consuming—not to just consume less but consume better. His is a food ethic that deals not just with the quality of food but also with the place and time of consumption, suggesting food to take an active role in community. He wants us all to stop eating burgers in our SUVs and eat a well-thought-out meal with friends around a table.
Jim Wallis boldly dismissed the evangelical right in 2005 with God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, but this year he took another step beyond the comfort of the “Republican Christian” base. The Great Awakening assured Christian Americans that it will be OK if they vote for Obama—suggesting that Christians will live out the greatest politics when they are pursuing a lifestyle of love and unity. Wallis presents a case for morality in the country, one that doesn’t look to one side or another but finds direction from above.
The Shack was one of the most popular and controversial books of the year. Deemed by some as heretical and others as the best piece of Christian literature since Pilgrim’s Progress, it calls readers to rethink relationship with the divine.
The Shack is a story Young wrote to explain the problem of suffering to children. In it, he provides a postmodern look at the mysterious nature of God and our relationship to the three-in-one. The main character, Mack, is forced to return to the place where his young daughter was murdered—an abandoned shack. There, he encounters the trinity personified as two minority women and an ugly carpenter. Young counters the image of God as an angry father with a delicate, motherly figure full of grace. If you didn’t read The Shack in ‘08, better put it on your list for ‘09.
Thomas Friedman’s usual approachably intelligent style resonates beautifully in this year’s masterwork, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—and How It Can Renew America. The author of The World is Flat describes in sweet, succinct terms our current global convergence of overpopulation, the climate crisis and "the rise of the global middle class." The ability to deftly handle such topics without overreacting or sensationalizing is a tightrope attempt, but the Pulitzer Prize winner handles it beautifully.
The latest from British theologian N.T. Wright is a stunning, paradigm re-alignment of a book that challenges Christians to re-think their faith in light of a fuller understanding of the Resurrection. Is the purpose of Christianity being able to go to heaven when we die? Wright convincingly argues that no, in light of the Resurrection, there is much more to life than the afterlife. We are living the Resurrection on Earth now, as the Church, a body of renewal and restoration for an aching, needy world. This is an important, challenging book, and essential reading for any Christian serious about understanding the meaning of what they believe and why they believe it.
In his first book, Irresistible Revolution, Shane Claiborne talks about living life as an “ordinary radical” or, in other words, to live as Christ lived. In Jesus for President, he continues that discussion but dives even deeper into what the politics of an “ordinary radical” should look like. Claiborne truly emerges with this book as a modern-day prophet. His words and ideas are challenging to the point where it can become depressing because what he’s suggesting seems impossible. He reminds us how Christ preached that we do not need to put God back into government but we are to live by a different set of rules altogether. Jesus for President is even more relevant now, following the election, as it was leading up to November.
Awkward and brilliant are the words I’d use to describe David Sedaris’ newest collection of essays. For those who love the stories about his family’s crazy antics (including that of his sister, comedienne Amy Sedaris) and his neurotic adventures in France, this book doesn’t disappoint. He writes about situations most of us have experienced (albeit, probably not to the extent Sedaris has)—including a cough drop falling out of his mouth onto the lap of the sleeping person sitting next to him on an airplane, his partner lancing a boil off of his backside and a crotchety old neighbor who he comes to befriend. Sedaris does a wonderful job of conveying the ridiculousness of life while also maintaining an underlying sense of family connections and the true meaning of love—even if it’s in the form of boil-lancing.
In some ways, there’s nothing new here. The ever-building conversational style of Rob Bell will probably never change, and that alone might decide whether you purchased Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile on the first day it was released or why you’ll never pick it up. But personal opinions of Bell aside, JWtSC is Bell’s most focused and mature work to date.
The chapter titles run as long as Sufjan’s songs and the content is just as sweet. Bell tackles the subject of America as Babylon in the most inoffensive way possible, handling the comparison tenderly and making sure never to go too far for the sake of his audience. Instead, the closer look leaves the reader with questions of what it means to be a Christian in the most powerful, provided-for nation on the planet. It’s a much needed primer on the subject from a large platform that will serve the Church for years to come.
Did you read any other books that changed your life this year? If there was anything else that belonged on this list, what was it?