Ranking the books I’ve read this year.

reading

Last year I started tracking my reading goals, successes and failures with a couple of friends using Goodreads. I set the not so lofty goal of reading two books a month, but moving across the world and starting a new career cut me pretty far short of my goal. I sought to set a more modest goal this year and I know I’ll meet it. One book a month is really nothing. I’d love to get to a book a week, and I’d love to write more as I’ve stated not too long ago. I know some people who read 100 books a year. I’m jealous. It’s going to take some real commitment or becoming a full time student again to get to that point I think.

While I enjoyed most of the books, only the last one in the ranking ended up being a real disappointment. So here’s my ranking with brief explanations.

1. Story by Robert McKee

I really enjoyed this book. I had been wanting to read it for a long time because I want to know more about screenwriting and what the methods were behind really good stories on film and TV. I was not disappointed. It’s very straightforward and technical but also fun, because the subject matter is always interesting. Even though it takes a lot of practice to get good at it, everyone can relate to the innate sense of knowing when a story is good or bad, and this book gets a little in to the details of why that is, and how to harness that for your own writing. It’s specific to screenwriting, though many principles will be applicable to any writing I believe. A big book, but a lot of fun if you like film and/or stories.

2. iWoz by Steve Wozniak

I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I would. Having read two other books connected with the legacy of Steve Jobs before this, I just wanted a bit more perspective on the personalities behind the Apple phenomenon. But what I found in Wozniak was a relatable guy caught up in a world of power. I felt a lot more pathos from his account than I planned to. Having worked in tech and seeing how poor relationships can be in any organization, especially with a lot of youth and ego, I found Woz to be a bit of a mentor while much of the world tries to emulate Jobs. Woz was a good friend. Every time I read a book on Jobs or watch a documentary, I’m impressed just like everyone else, but I wouldn’t want to work with or for him. When I read about Woz I feel like he’d be an incredible guy to work with or for. His version of events is much more emotional and lighthearted, and I really appreciated his wisdom.

3. Dogmatics in Outline by Karl Barth

Barth is theological force to be reckoned with. This book of his though, is very accessible. He definitely deals with deeper theological issues, but this short 150 page book was derived from lectures he gave to lay leaders in German churches. If this were the only thing he’d written I don’t think there would be much controversy regarding him. But he went on to write much, including his massive “Church Domatics,” which perhaps I’ll read one day. As an introduction into his thought, I really enjoyed this quick little read, and I found it helpful for the same kind of people today he was speaking to then, lay church leaders.

4. The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch

Alan Hirsch is one of the most popular authors and speakers of the missional church movement, and this was his breakout book. I had read bits and pieces of his books for years but I wanted to finally finish this one, and I’m glad I did. I enjoyed it a lot, but I do have a growing concern that the missional church movement has become excessively works oriented and tribal. There’s an entire subculture of missional churches now that have a language not shared with much of the Christian world, and rituals and practices that wouldn’t be recognized by much of the global church, including places like China, which Hirsch references a lot, where the church is growing rapidly while under oppression. I fear this is becoming a trendy way to do church for white hipster evangelicals more than anything else. That’s not a bad thing, because the goal is good, but I think there is a sanctioning of sub-cultural lingo and practice that is used as a judgment of spiritual character, when those things are best left on the spectrum of possible appropriate adaptations to cultural contexts. All that said, it’s a good read with good challenges to an all to stagnant western church.

5. What to Expect when No One’s Expecting by Jonathan Last

I was just curious about this one after seeing it on a reading list by Pastor Tim Keller. It ended up being a fascinating look into the issue of fertility around the world, and particularly in America. The primary concern of the book is the impact of various sociological forces that lead to many things, one of them primarily being a dearth or growth of baby making, and what it tells us about the American political environment. In many ways it’s a timely read for an election year such as this. I don’t know enough about demographics and sociology to critique anything Last says, but that being said, I really enjoyed reading it, and I want to read more books like it in the future.

6. Clowning in Rome by Henri Nouwen

Nouwen was a prolific Catholic writer for many years, particularly in the genre of spiritual formation. This book is a collection of lectures he gave in Rome to a group of clergy people. He took his cues from the clowns around Rome who he viewed on the periphery of society, very humble, yet whose live’s entire purpose was to bring a smile to people on the periphery. That’s the major theme, the clownishness of the Christian life as a way of standing against the worldly powers. It’s an interesting and humble read, and I felt humbled by reading it. Nothing too heady, just a reminder that we’re all clowns, and to do the best with that we can. Who can’t use that reminder from time to time?

7. Out of Solitude by Henri Nouwen

Another short one by Nouwen just focused on solitude. It was yet again a very simple reminder, this time on the importance of being alone as a spiritual discipline. In a noisy world, it’s certainly a hard practice to cultivate, but his wisdom was a welcomed reminder to put up that fight for the sake of spiritual health.

8. The Starfish and The Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom

I had been aware of this book for the better part of a decade before finally getting around to reading it. It’s on decentralization in organizations and movements, with a lot of case studies from history to modern times. In many ways it is a secular version of the Forgotten Ways, Hirsch even sites it in the book. It’s a helpful book on the power of culture and ideas, and how when those are the things that unite people for a long period of time, the staying power is enormous. The title captures the idea well, if you cut the leg off a starfish, another starfish is born, but if you get the head off a spider it dies. It’s pretty much that simple, but requires a lot to make it apart of your organizational culture.

9. Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

I enjoyed this book, but it was just too long. There is a lot of narrative about how much leisure time the author as an awesome scholar had to run all his thought experiments, when he should have dived into the fruit of that labor a lot more quickly. Even so, the fruit of his labor is very fascinating, and quite helpful to me as a teacher. Basically his research highlighted how powerful human instinct is, fast thinking, and how we don’t really appreciate that enough. However, it needs to be reigned in under the discipline of slow thinking, and careful reasoning. The real key is developing the skills associated with how to switch back and forth depending on the context. A very interesting if not overly long read.

10. A Life of Jesus by Shusaku Endo

I read this book for two reasons. One was that it’s a popular book from a Japanese author about Jesus. This is significant for many reasons. One being that Japan is less than 1% Christian. This book is older now, but Endo wrote it as a help to Japanese people to understand and empathize with Jesus from their cultural perspective, so I really read it for that insight. I’m quite familiar with the life of Jesus, but living in Korea, I don’t know enough about what Korean culture specifically, or Asian culture more generally, find most appealing about him. I know it’s different from the West in at least some ways. I wanted Endo to shed whatever light he could on that cultural note in his telling. Secondly, I wanted to read this because another book he wrote, “Silence,” about Jesuit missionaries being persecuted in Japan a long time ago, is being made into a movie by Martin Scorsese soon, staring Liam Neeson. So I wanted to see what this guy had to say about Jesus. The reason I came away disappointed is because he was heavily under the influence of German higher criticism. He quoted Bultmann a lot, as well as other mid-century German textual critics of the Bible. In the end, he didn’t believe in a real resurrection of Christ, but instead a very humanistic interpretation I’ve read in other liberal theology, that Jesus’ legacy rose in the lives of his followers such that it lived in them, and in that way, he was resurrected. Along the way, I didn’t feel like I gleaned much cultural insight from him either, so I left feeling pretty disappointed and sad. If he’s one of the few Japanese authors who wrote about Jesus, I can’t be surprised Jesus isn’t a bigger deal there. I have several friends who are missionaries in Japan, and I pray that they will lovingly teach and correct this where it is found.

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Resting with Books and the Gift of Teaching

Extended Breaks are Awesome

I’ve enjoyed the benefit of an extended break from work for the first time since I was a student. I didn’t realize how much I had missed them. Today marks three weeks since last semester ended and I have several weeks yet before the new school year begins in Korea. I’ve stayed busy enough getting ahead on learning basic Korean, reading, writing, some film projects, movies, tv and skyping as many family and friends as possible, almost one a day for an hour or so. But my favorite has been hanging out with my wife. Every night is date night….nay, everyday all day is just a big date. All of it has helped me pump the breaks on the constant flow and mental pinball that occurs in my head, and achieve and overall goal I have of slowing down in general. The job I had before moving to Korea to teach had the perk of unlimited vacation. At the time it felt great, but in reality it led to a lot of shorter breaks, never more than a week or so. While nice, it doesn’t provide the pressure free extended break that comes with the forced intermission between school years, which in Korea follows the calendar year. So while unlimited vacation in a corporate setting is nice, the breaks I took only led to getting “caught up” on sleep, reading, relationships, personal projects and other life giving things, whereas during this break I feel a sense of getting ahead on them, and beyond just liking it that way, I think it’s healthier.

Reading in a Sea of Leisure

I always read, but the way one reads makes all the difference. Again, when I was a student, even when I needed to read a lot and read quickly I had more time for reading than nearly anything else. I was always able to process what I read because it was my whole world at the time as a student. Once I began to work full time I hated giving that up. When I switched careers to work in technology I had to read a lot on account management, online marketing, web and instructional design to learn a new industry, and when I read theology, history and fiction it was always in addition, the extra reading time when available. Reading in my field and as a teacher has made for a less forced experience again, because for the most part I just read what I truly want to.

I’ve been rereading a book by Alan Hirsch called the Forgotten Ways, about organic missional churches. He uses a lot of language he has developed to talk about Christian movements and the types of leaders, networks and ministries he sees in the Bible and through the years of church history to modern times. Sometimes that language is kind of weird to me, but I understand where he is coming from. I remembered connecting with his personal narrative of a grassroots ministry in Australia with a ministry my friends and I fell into when we were in Seminary called Curry Night, which I’ve been thinking about a lot more recently. I wanted to go back to that source and process it fresh. I’m nearly done, and still thinking about it.

I’m about to start reading iWoz by Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple among other things. I read Steve Jobs‘ biography recently, followed by Creativity Inc. and I wanted to follow it up with Woz’s book. I’m pretty curious to get to it. My time in tech leaves me as an informed curious observer of the various industries represented, so I like to read this stuff and nerd out a bit watching shows like Silicon Valley, which quite pleasantly feels like a series of deja vu at times. I’m taken aback by how Jobs unabashedly viewed his work as a spiritual expression, his version of Japanese Zen Buddhism. That reality of Zen which is incarnated in every Apple product, alongside his rather chaotic personal life has got me in a long pause for reflection. People use technology to express spirituality, whether they intend to or not. Most non-traditionally religious people avoid being seen that way, but something about Jobs’ openness about it gave the world permission to do so as well.

I’m in the middle of Story by Robert McKee, a book about screen writing. If you’ve read or are familiar with Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, you may know that name, as he refers to him because he studies under McKee to learn about story. He really is a master. I enjoy good stories and I find I can connect with students I feel incredibly culturally distant from through story quite easily. Furthermore I love film, and fully embrace the golden age of TV we’re in right now, though perhaps movies are in a sort of remake the classics phase. I have enjoyed and been quite surprised by how McKee breaks down good stories, using popular movies like Star Wars and Chinatown as illustrations many will be familiar with. I like how brash he is regarding the need for clarity in relation to characters and their values, and how to set up powerful moments. I have so much to learn about this, but it has been a fun read even when technical regarding the craft of story-writing. I’m only half way through, but….I’m taking my sweet time.

I’m working my way through Karl Barth’s Dogmatics in Outline. At one point I had planned to work through his entire Church Dogmatics with a friend, but that would take years in our worlds. So I settled on this shorter work for now and I enjoy it more than I thought I would. I’m just a quarter of the way through, but his synthesis of thought is transparent from the beginning, and his pervasive influence in theological studies is not hard to understand even after a cursory gander at his writing. Alongside this I’m slowly moving through an anthology of Kierkegaard’s writings. I’ve never read someone I felt was crazy and then brilliant so often. I need to dig more into his stuff, but it’s been back and forth thus far.

Lastly I’m reading through the New Testament using the NIV Zondervan Study Bible. They had a great deal on kindle recently and I didn’t pass it up. I enjoy the NIV2011, and the study notes are really superb. I was reading Philemon most recently and was really struck by verse 18 where Paul asks him to count any debt he incurred from Onisemus to himself. That level of involvement with pastoral care in the complexity of that situation are a great challenge. How many times am I willing to enter in to a conflict as a peacemaker and incur people’s debts to help deescalate and achieve peaceful and graceful resolutions? One of many ways the Bible lives and takes root in the souls of it’s readers.

Reflecting on the year of Mobile Ed

I truly had a gift to be able to work with a variety of scholars from across the US for a year while working in Mobile Ed, a department at Logos Bible Software. I picked up some followers to this blog while posting podcasts I created with some of the professors during this time. I love good scholarship, but Christian scholarship is really only valuable in service to good ministry in some way. I came in to Mobile Ed having left a messy church situation. I was a volunteer while working full time at a Web Design firm (again, not much free time in this season). Having Biblical scholars, counselors and theologians pouring in week after week was a real gift. I didn’t expect to be processing so much in this season of life, but I found myself needing some time and some help. Beyond the fact that I got to pursue my passion for helping to create great theological content, I got personally taught, pastored and counseled as well, and formed many friendships. I’ll be taking it all in for a while I’m sure, as it was like being in a seminary intensive class week after week. Even as a Bible College and Seminary graduate, that kind of variety and concentrated time, even though I was producing shoots and doing quality control on the content, was an unparalleled educational experience. There’s a lot I could say, and maybe I will later, but for now I’m reflecting on the gift of teaching and teachers. I told all the speakers I worked with they inspired me too much, I had to quit being an instructional designer and become an instructor. I hope I can model their example in my context.

The opportunity to inform and shepherd hearts and minds in Biblical spirituality is profound. The best teachers I’ve had pass on knowledge, to be sure, but what made them great is they passed on passion to me. Passion for Christ, for the Gospel, for the Bible and God’s people as well as for the world. If I can say anything else about having an extended break, more than a month, it’s that it has helped me slow down enough to feel that passion in full force. To remember these vital things, in moments from my past, as well as in what I read, and to marinate in it. I enjoy business. I was actually pretty successful with account management, and I was finding my stride with instructional design. But I became an uber pragmatic person as the business context demands, which isn’t natural to me. Pragmatic is, but not uberly so. Perhaps, one day I’ll do those things again. I’m not completley opposed. But something about teaching, and the breaks it affords, has helped capture a romance about life I had before, that I was told to cast off as a product of youth. I don’t think it’s to be cast off, but cultivated and matured. I don’t feel called to less passion, or less love, or less desire, but to more. And I would be concerned if I saw a drain on those things in my students, especially in relation to my classes. Work nor education should require becoming less human to be more efficient. I think good humans are efficient, they just leave a lot of room for love’s opportunities.

Life is definitely not, nor will it ever be, an endless bed of roses. But for now, very early on in this year, for the first time in a long time I’m feeling rested. I’m more ahead in life on the things that give me life. I have a busy year ahead, and SO much to learn. I’m like a child in Korea, sometimes totally dependent on others. But I think this rhythm in my heart will make me better at whatever is to come.