the books that most shaped me in 2014

I will spare you the tedium of an apologetic for publishing this list, of saying that it’s all in good fun or I don’t mean it to be pretentious or whatever. I assume if you clicked the link, you like lists too. These are wildly subjective, and were not even all published in the last year—of the many books I’ve experienced, these are just the ones that have marked me most (in non-fiction). Since this has been an intense, emotional, roller-coaster ride of a year, they are all pieces of art I’ve felt special kinship with, because in one way or another they have ligthened the dark just a little. So it feels a bit less sterile and more intimate than these have felt when I’ve done them in the past. It feels like I am introducing you to my friends. It’s very nice to have you and them all at the same dinner party. I hope you get all get along, but if you don’t like any of these guests, I won’t hold it against you.

  1. Falling Upward by Richard Rohr

When somebody says something like, “this book has saved my life,” generally it is hyperbole. It’s not an expression here. It is a book that has kept me alive, sustained me when all else was lost. It has been my companion in bed in the darkest of nights, sometimes the only thing that could subdue the shivers. I was at Rohr’s conference in New Mexico this fall, and I thought from afar that if I could, I would like to kiss this little monk on the top of his head (I’m 6'5,” Rohr is a fairly slight man). I read it while on a personal spiritual retreat in San Diego back in March, and every word bathed me, bandaged me, soothed me, sang to me. It was holy reading. I want everyone that I love to read it.

Falling Upward is about the two halves of life—not so much in terms of biological age, though the two are often tangentially related. It’s about life before and after failure. There are 1,000 ways I could commend it to you, but the truth is that Falling Upward is a book that will feel like it dropped out of heaven if you are in the right season in life for it, and probably feel like reading math if you aren’t. You are either ready for it or you are not, and if you are not ready, or the time just isn’t right, I doubt it would be particularly helpful if I explained it to you. I’ll put it this way: it will make all the sense in the world to you after the crash. We go crashing into the second half of life, not waltzing into it, and you probably won’t need anybody to tell you that you’ve got there. In the meantime, if anybody reading this sees Father Rohr, please kiss him on the head for me.

It’s nearly impossible to pick an excerpt since I highlighted most of the book. But here goes: “Some kind of falling, what I will soon call ‘necessary suffering,’ is programmed into the journey. All the sources seem to say it, starting with Adam and Eve and all they represent. Yes, they ‘sinned’ and were cast out of the Garden of Eden, but from those very acts came ‘consciousness,’ conscience, and their own further journey. But it all started with transgression. Only people unfamiliar with sacred story are surprised that they ate the apple. As soon as God told them specifically not to, you know they will! It creates the whole story line inside of which we can find ourselves. It is not that suffering or failure might happen, or that it will only happen to you if you are bad (which is what religious people often think), or that it will happen to this unfortunate, or to a few in other places, or that you can somehow by cleverness or righteousness avoid it. No, it will happen, and to you! Losing, failing, falling, sin, and the suffering that comes from those experiences—all of this is a necessary and even good part of the human journey. As my favorite mystic, Lady Julian of Norwich, put it in Middle English, ‘Sin is behovely!’”

And since I’ve already got you to the dinner party, let’s not rush. Here’s one more: “The genius of the Gospel was that it included the problem inside the solution. The falling became the standing. The stumbling became the finding. The dying became the rising. The raft became the shore. The small self cannot see this very easily, because it doubts itself too much, is still too fragile, and is caught up in the tragedy of it all. It has not lived long enough to see the big patterns.” Sweet Jesus, yes.

2) The Grace in Dying by Kathleen Dowling Singh

Books like The Grace in Dying do not come along very often. It is so comprehensive in scope, so bold in its vision, and runs across so many disciplines—it truly is a book of particular genius. Not only is it wise, but tender, warm, compassionate, and most of all unbearably human. A PhD who has spent her life walking with hundreds of people through the dying process, Dowling Singh’s bold thesis is that no matter where people come from, what their culture or background, religious or otherwise—the dying process is remarkably similar when people actually have time to die (as opposed to sudden, traumatic death). In the same way that Rohr sees the “answer” in Christianity as already being programmed into the problem (through failure, sin and stumbling, we fall into resurrection), Dowling Singh sees divine grace as hardwired into the dying process itself.

The argument runs something like this: We spend most of our lives building our ego, making judgements around our likes, dislikes, and preferences. The ego is not evil—ego-building is necessary in human growth and development. But the ego is not the true self, only our image or perception of ourselves. So we spend most of our lives living from that ego rather than living from our depths, living from the soul. In the process of dying, all of those ego mechanisms are slowly taken from us as the body becomes weak, frail, and dependent. And yet it is precisely in this letting go of the ego self, even against our wills, that we are liberated. While the process inevitably entails seasons of chaos, anger, and denial, before death there is generally a time of unparalleled acceptance and peace, however long or short—the last burst of a soul finally living beyond the constraints of the ego. Grace indeed, however harsh it may come.

Dowling Singh herself is Buddhist, but the book is chock full of insights from Jesus and great Christian thinkers and mystics. In fact, I think the book at its core level is about nothing more or less than “losing your life to find it,” and Dowling Singh quite understands the essence of Christian theology from the outside infinitely better than most of us insiders. If it doesn’t move you, you don’t have a pulse. And if there is not Spirit and life all over this book, I don’t know where the Spirit is. I dare you to make it through this book without both blowing a few mental circuits and shedding some hot tears.

We will discover for ourselves that the tragedy is not in dying, the tragedy is in living disconnected from Life. I have heard it said that our culture suffers not so much from the forces of darkness but the forces of shallowness. We will experience grace the moment we experience our connection with Spirit, the transcendent Reality, the Center to our periphery. We will experience grace the moment we experience Life beyond our cramped self-definition, the moment we take off the blinders and glory in all that is beyond ‘me.’

And later, “The path home could be easily traced, much like a mother following her child’s path to bed. She sees what has been dropped on the way. If we were the mother following an enlightened being or the consciousness of one who has entered the Near Death experience, we would see the toys left behind and the shoes that had been dropped, the socks, the pants, the shirt, and the underwear; the body, the emotions, and the thoughts; and last, before the bed, just discarded on the floor, all separate sense of self.” Mercy.

Dowling Singh’s visionary, monumental work reframes the challenge of Jesus’ own teaching in an evocative, potentially life-altering way: if these are in fact the qualities of death and dying, what it would like if a person were able to experience the grace of dying while they are still alive?

3) Iron John: A Book about Men by Robert Bly

Unfortunately, we are not given a manual on manhood when we are born. It’s a pity, but ultimately a problem that could be corrected: I propose that every human being that comes into the world with a penis be given a copy of Iron John at birth, and begin being taught bite-size pieces from it by the time they start elementary school. Don’t even think I’m kidding. And this is from a guy who has generally stayed away from books on masculinity, finding most of them to be cliched, one-dimensional, and sentimental. But you won’t find an ounce of that within a country mile of Iron John.

Drawing from a Grimm fairy tale, the poet Bly illumines the plight of the contemporary male with unparalleled brilliance. I cannot do this justice here. In short, he begins with the myth of the young boy who finds a wild man locked in a cage in the woods. Inside the cage is a golden ball the boy wants. But he cannot get it unless he steals the key to the cage from underneath his mother’s pillow, and thus lets the wild man out. If he does not have this experience, if he keeps the wild man locked in the cage and does not undergo the necessary rites of male initiation, he must experience the lessons of this transition in mid-life in a much harsher way.

It would take a few pages to share the story of how I felt like I was almost mystically guided to this book, how a Scripture about Joseph being thrown into the well led me like a dove into it. I have a forthcoming essay where I share this experience at length, but for now I will simply say that it was one of the most explicitly divinely ordered experiences of my life. I especially wish every man I know could read Chapter four, “The Road of Ashes, Descent and Grief,” which was literally life-changing for me. I can tell you it was as uncomfortable as comforting, because it felt like I had stumbled into The Neverending Story. It was almost too true too my life. The process Bly describes for a man at roughly 35 who has not yet been initiated was eerie in its relevance for me. I saw things in this book I cannot now unsee. Read at your own peril.

Very little of Bly’s book works well to quote in some ways without full context, but here is a section I especially loved:

If a lover lacks the Wild Man, he may not give enough wild flowers. He may make love indoors to much, be too respectable, lack what Yeats called ‘the folly,’ the willingness to throw away house and land for a woman…A king without enough Wild Man will be a king for human beings, but animals, ocean, and trees will have no representation in his Senate. We sense that was true of President Truman. And Reagan, we recall, ‘If you’ve seen one Redwood, you’ve seen them all.’ Bishops and Popes have traditionally been lacking in the Wild Man; they take church doctrine too seriously but not the ecology of the earth.

4) A Farewell to Mars by Brian Zahnd

I consider Brian one of my closest friends. But that is not why this book made my list. I’ll just repeat what I wrote in my endorsement of it, cause this is still what I think: “A Farewell to Mars is the best, most lucid, prophetic book written by a pastor in our time. It is peerless. Zahnd channels Dylan, Girard, Yoder, Hauerwas, Peterson and Von Balthasar. It’s a brash, bold, pastoral synthesis; so prophetic to the forces of empire as to be a work of pastoral treason. It’s deliciously traitorous. A Farewell to Mars builds the peaceable kingdom up and burns most everything else down. It’s delightful. I could not love it more.” Hey, and if you think I’m just too biased, Eugene Peterson’s endorsement is just as glowing. So if you will not receive my witness, listen to one higher than I.

5) The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss by David Bentley Hart

Here’s my big claim about the Eastern Orthodox David Bentley Hart. I think he may well be our finest living theologian (Stanley Hauerwas has been the most influential on me, and Rowan Williams would be a rival). But there just simply aren’t many people on earth that match his blinding brilliance, artistry, beauty or grandiosity as a writer and thinker. Granted, in books like The Beauty of the Infinite, which I mostly enjoyed, the writing can be so ornate as to be over-adorned, and you can get lost in the avalanche of words. But more often than not, there is a laser-like precision to his words—even when Hart is addressing the biggest topic of them all, the nature and character of God Himself, as he does here.

Yeah, so basically this is kind of God’s biography. I don’t know if God gave David Bentley Hart permission or not, so I can’t say for sure wheter it’s the authorized or unauthorized biography. But based on the prose in this book, I’d put money down on God sending His notes straight over to Brother Hart.

I’ll tell you this just for fun: man, I would not want to be insulted by Hart. When he took on the “new atheists” in Athiest Delusions: The Christian Revolution and It’s Fashionable Enemies, it was the most awe-inspiring verbal punk-down I had ever read. But the great thing about Hart, an equal opportunity dismantler of any form of intellectual dishonesty, is that in this beautiful book about God, he gives intelligent design folks as much holy hell as he did the atheists.

Let’s watch as he actually brings all of that full circle: “It is certainly the demiurge about whom Stenger and Dawkins write; neither has actually ever written a word about God…The recent Intelligent Design movement represents the demiurge’s boldest adventure in some considerable time” (ow!)…As either a scientific or a philisophical project, Intelligent Design theory is a deeply problematic undertaking; and from a theological or metaphysical perspective, it is a massive distraction…Anyway, at this point I shall largely leave the new atheists, fundamentalists of every adherence, and Intelligent Design theorists all to their own devices, and perhaps to one another, and wish them all well, and hope that they do not waste too much time chasing after one another in circles. If I mention them below, it will only be in passing. From here onward, it is God—not gods, not the demiurge—of whom I wish to speak.” And OW.

Footnote: please remind me not to ever piss off David Bentley Hart.

6) Man’s Search for Himself by Rollo May

Sigh…I’ll file this under books I wish I had read earlier in my life. Then again, I’ve become a big proponent of the notion that we see what we are able to see when we are ready to see it, and not before. But if Robert Bly gave us a manual on maleness, Rollo May gave us an awfully good manual on plain ole being human here.

For May, the goal of human development is that we all, in Kierkegaard’s phrase, come to ultimately “choose one’s self.” There is no way this can happen unless we are given a real choice:

It is doubtful whether anyone really begins to live, that is, to affirm and choose his own existence, until he has frankly confronted the terrifying fact that he could wipe out his existence but chooses not to. Since one is free to die, he is free also to live. The mass patterns of routine are broken: he no longer exists as an accidental result of his parents having conceived him, of his growing up and living as an infinitesimal item on the treadmill of cause-and-effect, marrying, begetting new children, growing old and dying. Since he could have chosen to die but chose not to, every act thereafter has to some extent been made possible because of that choice. Every act then has its own special element of freedom.

As May demonstrates, those who have been taught that happiness and success would follow their ‘being good,’ and understand being good merely as a kind of external obedience, are not able to develop their own interior awareness and strength. Thus, “By being obedient over a long period of time, he loses his real powers of ethical, responsible choice. Strange as it sounds, then, the powers of these people to achieve goodness and the joy which goes with it are diminished.”

Like Bly in Iron John, May sees many problems in human society as results of a culture where people do not have the rites of passage that enable them to really take responsibility for their own lives. When people continue to live out of duty and obligation, keeping the rules only so that others will tell them they are good, they end up with contempt for themselves. Living contingent on the approval of others means we never develop our own sense of dignity and self-esteem…really our own sense of self.

The compulsive needs to be admired and praised — undermine one’s own courage, for one then fights on someone else’s conviction rather than one’s own…when one acts to gain someone else’s praise, furthermore, the act itself is a living reminder of the feeling of weakness and worthlessness; otherwise there would be no need to prostitute one’s attitudes. This often leads to the cowardly feeling of having co-operated knowingly in one’s own vanquishment.

It is not been happy to learn this much about growing up at 36, but May is quite the tutor. I definitely have to go back and catch up on more of his catalog now.

7) Just Kids by Patti Smith

I only know Patti Smith’s hits. I did not come to this book as a fan of her music. But I walked away from it spellbound by her writing. I mean this as a very large compliment, as I’ve read some great memoirs in recent years—but I don’t think I’ve read one to rival Smith’s. It’s so alive, so earthy, so elegant, just teeming with life. There is no explicit faith message in this book, but you don’t write this honestly about human experience without getting into spirituality, and Smith traverses sacred ground over and over through the streets of New York City. Chronicling her on-again/off-again romance/friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, beauty and heartbreak shimmer through every page.

And then you get writing like this: “Perhaps to satisfy my curiosity, my mother enrolled me in Sunday school. We were taught by rote, Bible verses and the words of Jesus. Afterward, we stood in line and were rewarded with a spoonful of comb honey. There was only one spoon in the jar to serve many coughing children. I instinctively shied from the spoon but I swifly accepted the notion of God. It pleased me to imagine a presence above us, in perpetual motion, like liquid stars.

Or how about this section, when she introduces Mapplethorpe: “His young eyes stored away each play of light, the sparkle of a jewel, the rich dressing of an altar, the burnish of a gold-toned saxophone or a field of blue stars. he was gracious and shy with a precise nature. He contained, even at an early age, a stirring and a desire to stir.

Thank you, Patti Smith—I don’t think I even want to try to write at all anymore.

8) Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor

Barbara, oh Barbara. She just keeps cranking out these beautiful books, with such elegant (and occasionally deceitful) simplicity. Surely she is on the short list of our best spiritual writers before Learning to Walk in the Dark, but this accessible, lyrical meditation on all we can only see and learn when the sun goes down only cements her legacy more. I heard her preach on themes from the book this year, and she is of course just as much a force of nature as a preacher as she is a writer. What a gift her words are to us.

This year, I was especially grateful that Taylor told me what she saw in the dark, as I read it in moments when I could not see a thing. She challenges the dualisms so often held in religious circles, the way that Christian teaching often “thrives on dividing reality into opposed pairs: good/evil, church/world, spirit/flesh, sacred/profane, light/dark. Even if you are not Christian, it should be easy to tell which half of each pair is ‘higher’ and which is ‘lower.’ In every case, the language of opposition works by placing the other half farther away. This not only simplifies life for people who do not want to spend a lot of time thinking about whether the divisions really hold; it also offers them a strong sense of purpose by giving them daily battles to engage in. The more they win out over the world of the flesh, the better. The more they beat back the powers of darkness, the closer they get to God. The ultimate goal is to live with that God forever, in a bright heaven where the bottom half of every earthly equation has finally returned to dust.” If that section scares you off, or you aren’t willing to consider the prospect that God may actually have treasures buried for us in the dark, don’t read this book. On second thought—read it anyway. BBT will probably change your mind.

9) Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year by Tavis Smiley

There is nothing especially lyrical about this book. The writing is fairly unadorned; it will not knock you out. But the narrative absolutely will. There is something appropriately sparse about Smiley’s account of King’s final year, in which he takes us into the angst, anguish, and torment of MLK behind the curtain, before his martyrdom forever changed the world. Like Falling Upward, The Grace in Dying, and Learning to Walk in the Dark, it illuminates the ways that unraveling, losing, and dying yield to the miracle of new life. But this is shown to us through narrative rather than told to us through theology or philosophy.

Smiley won’t let us skip ahead into resurrection. He takes us deep into King’s own descent, self-doubt, infidelity, and the constant in-fighting within the civil rights movement. He reminds us of a time when King was not a universally heralded hero, but a star who was fading, written off even by his most ardent supporters for fighting the Vietnam war with as much energy as he fought racial injustice. King was accused of watering down the message by not staying quiet on issues of war and poverty. Both the prophetic edge of King’s voice, as well as his most human brokenness, are brought back into the story for us here.

10) Broken Open: How Difficult Times Help Us Grow by Elizabeth Lesser

What sets Lesser apart as a writer is her uncommon honesty. She is unafraid to shed light on her own soul and story, even the parts we might deem unattractive, and her courage gives this book a tremendous kind of authenticity and spiritual power. Lesser powerfully demonstrates the way that failure and loss of any and all kinds can transform us into wiser, more compassionate, more human creatures, capable of living with a depth of purpose and empathy we could not have known before the fall.

This is also a book that stumbles naturally in and out of Christian language, though it is not by any means a “Christian book” and is decisively non-preachy: “The journey from Once-born to Twice-Born brings us to a crossroads where the old ways of doing things are no longer working but a better way lies somewhere at the far edge of the woods. We are afraid to step into those woods but even more afraid to turn back. To turn back is one kind of death: to go forward is another. The first kind of death ends in ashes: the second leads toward rebirth. For some of us, the day arrives when we step willingly into the woods. A longing to wake up, to feel more alive, to feel something spurs us beyond our fear. Some of us resist like hell until the forces of fate deliver a crisis. Some of us get sick and tired of filling an inner emptiness with drugs or drink or food, and we turn to face our real hunger: our soul hunger.

Twice-born people trade the safety for the power of the unknown. Something calls them into the woods, where the straight path vanishes and there is no turning back, only going through. This is not easy. It is not a made-up fairy tale. It is very real and very difficult. To face our shadow—the dragons and hags that we have spent a lifetime running away from—is perhaps the most difficult journey we will ever take. But it is there, in the shadows, that we retrieve our hidden parts, learn our lessons, and give birth to the wise and mature self…If there is only one thing that has made a difference in my life, it is the courage to turn and face what wants to change in me.”

It strikes me by the end of this little piece, that talking candidly about the books I’ve read gives kind of road map of my own soul. Then again, maybe that is what the best books always do. If they don’t give us exact directions, at the very least they draw a giant red star on whatever road we’re walking, and say to us, “You are HERE.

Written by

author of How to Survive a Shipwreck & Prototype. host of the Zeitcast. pastor of the table.

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