Here’s one of the paragraphs from my earlier review of this book: If you’ve read Marsh, a professor at the University of Virginia, you’ve likely been amazed at the author’s ability to write history (footnotes and quotations abound) as an utterly captivating narrative. Chapters are arranged around a handful of women and men whose experiences during the Civil Rights Movement advance Marsh’s thesis, that it has been a robust Christian faith that inspires and sustains advocates for a more just American society. According to the author, when these movements wandered from their Christian roots they became unfocused, selfish and generally ineffective at bringing about systemic change. This is a strong stance, but Marsh argues it persuasively by piling up story upon story of farmers, preachers and students who were compelled to great sacrifice by their Christian hope, what Dr. King called “the great event of Calvary.”
If I could convince you to read just one book from this short list it would have to be Eula Bliss’s beautiful and devastating collection of essays. After reading an especially poignant chapter one night this summer I had to set the book down and replay the prose, taking the words and images in as best I could. Bliss primarily ruminates on race and the essays come back to this American theme from many angles, including the author’s many experiences throughout the USA. The book begins with a history of telephone poles, especially the opposition by many to the unsightly additions to small town skyline. With little notice the essay takes a hard turn and Bliss piles up accounts of how quickly the new telephone poles became instruments of lynching throughout the country. “Now, I tell my sister, these poles, these wires, do not look the same to me. Nothing is innocent, my sister reminds me. But nothing, I would like to think, remains unrepentant. One summer, heavy rains fell in Nebraska and some green telephone poles grew small leafy branches.”
A Failure of Nerve
A friend and mentor who has helped start three churches recommended Edwin Friedman’s final (and unfinished) book as the most important book for any pastor. It took me much of the year to read; there are some superfluous paragraphs here but I mostly found Friedman to be provocative, original, and incredibly helpful for the work I do. Of any book I read this year, this is the one I’ve most often referenced in conversations. Friedman is a systems thinker who is interested in how things- most often people- relate and affect each other. A critical component to good leadership according to the author is to be the non-anxious presence, the person who remains disentangled from the anxiety and fear that often permeates organizations and families. It’s a bit of an effort, but the insight in this book would benefit anyone interested in the health and success of any system (including families).
Learning to Die in Miami
My favorite book ever is Carlos Eire’s first memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana. In this sequel the author and Yale University professor picks up his story in Miami after having been airlifted as a child from Cuba after Fidel Castro’s revolution. Eire is a wonderful writer whose recollections, whether funny or painful, usually point towards something beyond. In Learning to Die in Miami we meet many hosts, individuals and families who took Carlos and his brother in during their first years of exile. It’s hard not to wonder which sort of host we would have been: gracious and accommodating or entitled and vindictive. Surely both types of hosts are present in our country of immigrants today. I imagine others of Eire’s readers resonate like me with the themes of home, place, and geography scattered throughout both books. Those of us who grew up without a connection to place will often know the restlessness described and uncovered by this “refugee boy.”
This book sat on my to-read pile for years. I’d pick it up for a few pages and then set it down for months at a time. Willard’s best-known book is no light read, but it was something else that kept me from digging in. Having finally made it through I’ve come to see the problem with the book (and the author) is how seriously Jesus is considered. The book was difficult to read because it calls into question in so many ways my own commitment to the way of Jesus in the world. And yet, there is grace scattered liberally throughout these pages…how could it be any differently in a book so centered on Jesus? So while there is regular conviction, there is also ample encouragement and hope. Willard refreshingly believes that Jesus meant what he said, not only for a future life beyond the grave but right now.
How about you? What is the book (or books) that most impacted how you think and live this year?