Several years ago, I was meeting with one of my favorite authors and told him his writing had been life-changing for me. “Isn’t it something,” he said, “How we read just the right book at just the right time, meet just the right person at just the right time, have just the right conversation at just the right time?”
It is “something” indeed. Something I would call “the providence of God.” That’s why compiling this list is one of those things I look forward to doing, each year. Whether any of you benefit from this list or not, I don’t know. But I have to do it, no matter what. Because it helps me to trace back what I needed to learn, or to be reminded of, in a given year.
As always, these are in no particular order other than where I found them on the shelf as I was writing this. As is my habit, there are twelve (twelve days of Christmas, twelve tribes of Israel, twelve apostles, just makes sense to me).
1. What I Stand On: The Collected Essays of Wendell Berry
Wendell Berry, What I Stand On: The Collected Essays of Wendell Berry, 1969-2017, ed. Jack Shoemaker (The Library of America).
We might as well start with the author who told me those wise words this article opened with: the Kentucky poet and novelist and sage Wendell Berry. This is not, strictly speaking, a new work, but a collection of old essays, set in a beautiful two-volume edition.
The title of this set is taken, of course, from Mr. Berry’s agrarian manifesto, “What I Stand for Is What I Stand On.” And in these essays, spanning a near half-century, there he stands, he can do no other.
Re-reading all these essays that I’ve read over the years, all together, was a reminder of the sort of consistency and integrity that can show up in one life’s work. I was also reminded, as I read back through these essays, about particular ones that hit me with special force when I read them originally, such as Berry’s essay in Life Is a Miracle on why the fundamental challenge of the modern age is whether to see oneself as a creature or as a machine.
I read that essay, again at just the right time, and it opened up a way of thinking that re-shaped, and reshapes even now, everything for me.
There are other essays in here that I’m sure I read before, but which maybe I read too early for them to really land with force for me. One of those is about parenting, back in the essay “Family Work” in the 1981 volume, The Gift of Good Land.
Here’s what he writes:
“According to my observation, one of the likeliest results of a wholesome diet of home-raised home-cooked food is a heightened relish for cokes and hot dogs. And if you ‘deprive’ your children of TV at home, they are going to watch it with something like rapture away from home. And obligations, jobs, and chores at home will almost certainly cause your child to wish, sometimes at least, to be somewhere else, watching TV.”
“Because, of course, parents are not the only ones raising their children. They are being raised also by their schools and by their friends and by the parents of their friends. Some of this outside raising is good, some is not. It is, anyhow, unavoidable.”
“What this means, I think is about what it has always meant. Children, no matter how nurtured at home, must be risked to the world. And parenthood is not an exact science, but a vexed privilege, and a blessed trial, absolutely necessary and not altogether possible.”
2. Reading Buechner: Exploring the Work of a Master Memoirist, Novelist, Theologian, and Preacher
Jeffrey Munroe, Reading Buechner: Exploring the Work of a Master Memoirist, Novelist, Theologian, and Preacher (InterVarsity Press)
Another writer whose work came along at just the right time for me was the subject of this next book. For years, I’ve contemplated writing a book on Frederick Buechner. Now I don’t have to do that, because there’s this new book. As I mentioned in a review of this book, when I saw the announcement of publication by InterVarsity, my first thought was, “I hope it’s good, because evangelicalism needs Buechner, maybe now more than ever.”
My worries were baseless. The book is good—thoughtful, engaging, comprehensive. And it’s written by an author who knows the Buechner corpus and is thoroughly competent to wrestle with the spiritual and theological questions Buechner raises.
Moreover, the book provides a helpful resource for newcomers to Buechner to discern where to start—in the novels, the memoirs, the sermons, and the essays.
Plus, there’s that photograph on the cover, of Buechner staring out at the reader, almost as though he could see who is holding this volume. In my case, he could. In almost every Buechner book, it was as though he had listened to my life as well as to his own, and he was there to help me make sense of the alphabet of grace being spelled out there.
3. Balm in Gilead: A Theological Dialogue with Marilynne Robinson
Timothy Larsen and Keith L. Johnson, eds., Balm in Gilead: A Theological Dialogue with Marilynne Robinson (InterVarsity Press)
Here’s another exploration of an author who was, and is, life-altering to me. This lively and life-giving book is multiple theologians and scholars interacting with the Christian themes in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead novels.
These are well worth your time, though the highlight of the book is Robinson herself, especially in the conversation we have transcribed here of her and the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. As always, she is full of insight, saying, for instance: “We have a habit of thinking that only cynicism is honest—and this is a terrible blindness.”
The best gift of this book is that it brings back to memory all those delightful scenes and moments and conversations from the Gilead novels.
Recently, I was speaking in Iowa City, Iowa, and was overjoyed to have a tour of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where Robinson teaches, and to wonder as I looked around if some places in those inauspicious rooms were the origin stories of aspects of Rev. Ames or Lila…people who’ve come to live in my imagination, and from whom I long to hear again.
If you’d like to hear a conversation I had recently with Marilynne Robinson, you can find it here.
4. The Peanuts Papers: Writers and Cartoonists on Charlie Brown
Andrew Blauner, ed., The Peanuts Papers: Writers and Cartoonists on Charlie Brown, Snoopy, & the Gang, and the Meaning of Life (Library of America)
I’ve written here about how, in a way Charlie Brown rescued my ministry, twice.
This book, another collection of essays, reminds me just how evocative those little characters by cartoonist Charles Schulz actually are. Several analyze Linus as, in the words of one, “a Pascalian intellectual,” contrasting the Great Pumpkin scenario with that powerful recitation of Luke 2 in the Christmas special. In the Pumpkin cult, Linus tries to work up “sincerity”—that which the Great Pumpkin rewards.
In the Luke narrative, he simply points to something—a light dawning in great darkness. The first is a transaction; the second is something else altogether.
This book prompted me to laugh out loud several times, and, more than once, to wipe a tear away from my eye. The subject here is only superficially about the Peanuts; deeper down these conversations are about the last item on the title’s list: the meaning of life.
Here’s a sample, from Chuck Klosterman’s essay on why Charlie Brown keeps trying to kick that football:
“It doesn’t matter how many times this sort of thing has happened before. It will never stop happening. Like I said, Charlie Brown knows he’s doomed. He absolutely knows it. But a little part of his mind always suggests, ‘Maybe not this time, though.’ That glimmer of hope is his Achilles’ heel. It’s also the attribute that makes him so imminently relatable. The joke is not that Charlie Brown is hopeless. The joke is that Charlie Brown knows he’s hopeless but he doesn’t trust the infallibility of his own insecurity. If he’s always wrong about everything, perhaps he’s wrong about this too.”
5. Biloxi: A Novel
Mary Miller, Biloxi: A Novel (W.W. Norton)
A few years ago, I was preaching in north Mississippi, and someone there asked what part of Mississippi I’m from. I answered, “Biloxi,” and his eyes lit up. “Oh, the fun part,” he said.
Some would say “fun;” some would say “sinful.” My hometown is a gambling town, and was long before it was legal—a majority Catholic immigrant community on the seacoast of a Baptist state. And as you who know me will know, I’m fond of my hometown.
That’s why I expected to hate this novel, written by an author not from the Coast but from Oxford (as in Ole Miss, not as in Merry Olde England). I was accustomed, growing up, to north Mississippians calling us “coast trash” and “beach rats.”
And yet, I loved this book, and not just because it is filled with the landmarks of my life (here’s the lighthouse, there’s the pharmacy on Pass Road, etc.). The book is a penetrating look at questions of loneliness and connection. And, yes—meaning in life.
“This was the tragedy of families, summed up in its entirety: you wanted to be known and loved for yourself and you also wanted to be someone who might be capable of living another life altogether.”
“Laurel was getting the hang of the jump rope by that point, counting out Mississippis, which pleased me. Even in Mississippi the children counted Mississippis—we had the river and the measurement of seconds. We had a lot of other stuff, too, stuff that others would never know about because they only wanted to rehash the bad things.”
And the last paragraph was so moving that I found myself unable to shut the book, re-reading it over and over again:
“I sat in the car with the windows down, Layla patiently beside me as I watched the lights in their house go off and others turn on. I wanted to pause my life, remember everything about this moment. The chill in the air indicating the arrival of a new season at last, the feel of whatever substance Laurel had transferred to my cheek, and Maxine’s house, behind the doors and windows of which my daughter and her family prepared for bed. They were my family, too, and had been all along. Everything going forward was up to me. I could continue down the road I’d been on. I knew exactly what that road held. It wouldn’t offer any surprises and I had never liked surprises, or this was the story I’d told myself all these years, but the story could change. It already had.”
6. Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making
Andrew Peterson, Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making (B&H)
Every year, I resolve not to include any books by friends. That’s mostly because if I keep that rule, then other friends won’t be offended if their books aren’t here. But sometimes I can’t help it, and this is one of those times.
It’s hard to describe this book. It’s part guidance for people to use their creative gifts in line with the gospel, part memoir about a life in songwriting and all other forms of creativity, and part a meditation on, again, the meaning of life.
But none of that really sums it up, so here’s how I would describe it, from my point of view.
One of the most important things in my life these days are the nights spent at Andrew’s house, where a group of five or six of us gather, sometimes to read a little T.S. Eliot poetry and something else to discuss, and sometimes just to talk.
Those evenings are hard to schedule because almost all of us have callings that keep us on the road. My wife knows that, usually, when a social gathering is canceled, my introverted self is delighted—more time reclaimed. But whenever this gathering is postponed, I grieve.
I suppose that’s because it’s a place where, around the fireplace, no one is pretending or performing. I can say things there I can say nowhere else. And Andrew, whether there or elsewhere, always leaves me pondering anew the mercies of God and what it means to have the great gift of getting to image just a glimmer of that.
I say all that to say that this is what this book is like. You are sitting there in the Chapter House at the Warren, getting some counsel and encouragement and inspiration from one of the most brilliant creators I know.
And I don’t just say that because he’s my friend. If I didn’t think it, I would just obey my “no books from friends” rule. This book motivated me to get back to work on the book I’m writing now, and I’ll bet it will spark in you the same sort of motivation to plunge into whatever God has called you to create.
Click here to read more.
SOURCE: Crosswalk, Russell Moore