1. Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving From Affluence to Generosity by Ronald J. Sider. This book came out in 1977, and is regarded by many as a “classic.” The version I read was the fifth edition, updated in (I think) 2004.
The book comes in four parts: the first part depicts the state of the world today, in which there are billions of poor people and millions of affluent people who could help. The second part shares a biblical perspective on poverty and possessions. The third attempts to answer the question, “What causes poverty?” And the fourth shares practical steps that Christians in rich countries can follow to both simplify their own lives and make wise contributions to making the world a more just and fair place.
This was a challenging book for me. Although I don’t think of myself as affluent, I certainly live in an affluent part of the world and enjoy many more conveniences than those people who have to live on a few dollars a day. The main things that I got out of this book were 1) practical tips on living more simply, while simultaneously fostering community, and 2) a greater understanding of the economics of poverty. Lack of understanding the latter, I think, is a major obstacle that keeps Christians from helping the poor. We think that the foreign aid rich countries give to poor countries is a lot, but most actually give less than 1 percent of their GNP in foreign aid – and much of this aid is tied to their own foreign policy interests. We think that this aid is more than enough to make up for inequalities caused by things like tariffs and the abusive practices of some multi-national corporations, but it is not. This is definitely a book that all Christians in wealthy nations should read. Even if not everyone agrees with Sider’s practical proposals, the problem of poverty is something that all Christians – if they are reading their Bibles and are genuinely seeking to be more like Jesus – are called to address.
2. Praying With the Church: Following Jesus Daily, Hourly, Today by Scot McKnight. McKnight was raised in a Christian tradition that had no use for daily set prayers, but as an adult he has come to appreciate and even love them. Like McKnight, I was raised in a Christian tradition that did not have set prayers (though we did recite the Lord’s Prayer and the “Gloria Patri” every week in church). As an adult, I have been more and more interested in the practice of daily prayer times as I have come to understand how deep they go in the Christian tradition.
McKnight’s book is a quick read and it comes in two parts: the first deals with Jesus’ own use of set prayers (Jews of his time recited prayers daily, and what we call the “Lord’s Prayer” is Jesus teaching his disciples something to pray every day). The second part serves as an introduction to four prayer books: the Orthodox Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers, the Roman Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and Phyllis Tickle’s modern ecumenical Divine Hours. I would recommend this book to anyone who, like me, wants to have a richer prayer life and who is less familiar with the tradition of set prayers and how to use a prayer book.
3. The Ascent of a Leader: How Ordinary Relationships Develop Extraordinary Character and Influence by Bill Thrall, Bruce McNichol and Ken McElrath. Throughout my time in graduate school, I felt that it was more important to spend my time reading deep theology books than leadership books. But as I grow closer to (hopefully) taking on more leadership in a church setting, and as I become more aware that it is rarely bad theology that gets pastors kicked out of churches, I’ve become more interested in leadership literature. Earlier this year I read Now, Discover Your Strengths, and I’ve just recently completed The Ascent of a Leader.
The “ascent” the authors talk about is climbing the “character ladder” rather than the “capacity ladder.” The capacity ladder is what leaders are able to do on their own, and it comes with four rungs: discover what I can do, develop my capacities, acquire a title or position and attain individual potential. Climbing up just this kind of ladder can lead to loneliness and failure. Rather, spurred on by environments and relationships of grace, leaders should climb the character ladder: trust God and others, choose vulnerability, align with truth, pay the price and discover destiny. Once you start to climb the character ladder, you can integrate it with the capacity ladder, “leveraging our capacities far beyond what we could have accomplished without character” (143). I found this book to be a good reminder of how important character is in everyday life.
4. The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible by Scot McKnight. I’d heard a lot about this little book in recent months, and when I was at the Covenant’s annual meeting in Portland this summer, I was able to pick it up. The title comes from a time when McKnight was sitting in his backyard and saw a strange blue bird that he had never seen before. Turns out it was a parakeet that had escaped from someone’s cage. The “blue parakeets” of the title are “oddities in the Bible that we prefer to cage and silence rather than to permit into our sacred mental gardens” (208). Issues like Sabbath, foot washing, tithing and women in ministry are blue parakeets that many of us don’t quite know what to do with: do we try to retrieve all practices from biblical times? Do we try to retrieve only what we can salvage for our day and our culture? Do we read through tradition? Or do we read in dialogue with tradition? McKnight counsels us to read the Bible as a Story. We should read this Story in order to get to know the God behind it. And we should discern through God’s Spirit and in the context of our community how to continue living that Story in our own day. McKnight provides an example of discernment in the issue of women in ministry.
This is a wonderful book, and I hope it finds its way into the hands of lots of people. All Christians interpret the Bible in some way, but there are so few books for a popular audience on how to best interpret it. As a result, many are left thinking that the way their pastor or their immediate community interprets the Bible is self-evidently the only way. This is unfortunate.
This isn’t a perfect book, by any means. Since it is short, and meant for a popular audience, McKnight ends up dealing with some complicated issues very briefly. As a result, I doubt whether he will convince many people who, for example, are thoroughly antagonistic to women’s ordination. But since the book is for a popular audience, and no popular book can deal with these issues in great detail, I still highly recommend it.
5. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. I have never seen the movie version of this book, and I was surprised on reading it to find that Scarlett O’Hara is one of the more malevolent and despicable literary protagonists I have ever read about – and I have read Anna Karenina. Like Anna Karenina, the real hero of this book is someone besides the main character: in Anna Karenina it is Levin (who, I’ve heard, Tolstoy modeled after himself), and in Gone With the Wind, it seems to me that the heroine is really Melanie Wilkes. But in both books, the intended hero is far overshadowed by protagonists who are such finely written, true-to-life characters that, despite their badness, they steal the show. It’s a great credit to Margaret Mitchell that she could create such a believable character as Scarlett – even if she is so believable that I genuinely didn’t like her.
6. The Theology of the Book of Revelation by Richard Bauckham. We have been reading through the book of Revelation in our Bible study, and I have taken it on myself to do background reading and lead the discussion. Part of that background reading has been this fantastic little book (it’s only 169 pages). Bauckham, who retired a couple of years ago from being Professor of New Testament at St. Andrews, digs into the theological content of Revelation and finds that it has perhaps the most developed trinitarian theology in the New Testament. He doesn’t spend a lot of time criticizing various interpretations of the book, but it’s clear that he doesn’t think futurist or historicist interpretations do a very good job of making sense of the imagery in the book. This is a dense little book, and it doesn’t move chronologically through the text. For those who want to read it, I’d recommend reading Revelation first to get a sense of it, then read this book, and then go back and read Revelation again with new eyes.