What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: A LOT of Books

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Long time followers of this blog (again, really, just my mother and I think at this point her uncle Paul) know that my huge goal for the 2016 calendar year was to read 100 books.  Well, as of yesterday around 3pm I read the last words of Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful novel Lila and let it slowly dawn on me that I had actually succeeded.

Then I went to my list of books and went to publish them here only to realize I had accidentally listed one book twice which meant I still had another book to read!  So I frantically downloaded a Walter Brueggemann volume on the life of David, read it over the last 36 hours and can now proudly say I read 100 books this year!

This part of 2016 has been brutal but well worth it.  I do not sit still well and I have always found reading boring but several times this year I forced myself to sit for hours at a time and work through a book when I rather would have been doing anything but.  That is the real victory.

I made up some other rules as the year went on to keep myself in check.  At one point it occurred to me I had not reread any books from previous years so I continued that, meaning the list below were all brand new to me this year.  At another point I realized the oldest book I had read was from the 1960s and that bothered me so I began reading older books.  Then I noticed that some books I read were kind of short so I forced myself to read a string of longer, harder books to make up for it.

So after a long year of averaging 2 books a week, I proudly publish my list.  I broke them into categories for you all.  I wanted to do an official ranking but that was taking way too long.  But I do have categories for the top five and for “forgettables.”  I didn’t include those in other categories.  I typed some sarcastic or noteworthy comments on the ones that felt like they deserved it.  This is for your perusal and I hope you spot one or two you would like to read in the next year!

(Oh and if you spot another book I listed twice, just go ahead and keep that to yourself.  Ignorance is bliss!)

Top 5

  1. Prophetic Lament by Soong Chan Rah (Not only the best but also the newest. I think I bought it two days after publication.)
  2. Gilead by Marilyne Robinson (Robinson’s three novels about pastors and their families are on this list but this one, the first one, stands above the others as a triumph in literature.)
  3. A Failure of Nerve, by Edwin Friedman
  4. Under the Unpredictable Plant by Eugene Peterson
  5. The Social Animal by David Brooks

“Forgettables”

*I honestly did read these books but I also honestly have no recollection of doing so.

  1. The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen 
  2. Story-Shaped Worship, by Robbie Castleman (Sad story: this book was listed twice on my original list which meant I had to read another book at the last minute to get over the 100 mark.)
  3. Move on By Vicky Courtney
  4. Growing God’s Church by Gary L. McIntosh (I remember this book now! It was stupid in every way.  I hated it.  I wrote a blog about it too!  I am still leaving it here though in the hopes that I forget it again.)
  5. Charles Finney Biography
  6. Essential Beliefs by Mark Maddix and Diane Leclerc
  7. God Dwells Among us by G.K. Beale and Mitchell Kim
  8. Jesus the Pastor by John Frye

Most Unique

  1. The Sacred Diary of Plass by Plass (A friend lent me his copy. Good luck finding another one.)

Bible Books

  1. Exegetical Fallacies by D.A. Carson
  2. Kings and Presidents by Tim and Shawna Gaines
  3. Our Father Abraham, by Marvin Wilson
  4. Carolyn Sharp Old Testament Prophets for Today
  5. Interpreting Prophetic Literature by James Nogalski
  6. Challenging Prophetic Metaphor by Julia M. O Brien
  7. The Theology of the Book of Amos by John Barton
  8. The Riddles of the Fourth Gospel by Paul Anderson
  9. Cycle of Victorious Living by Scott Daniels
  10. Paul by Rowan Williams
  11. Who’s Got Your Back by Eddie Estep
  12. The Rapture Exposed by Barbara Rossing
  13. The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter (I am ashamed to admit that I had not read Alter or Brueggemann before this year. But at least I remedied it now.)
  14. The Art of Biblical Poetry by Robert Alter
  15. Spirituality of the Psalms by Walter Brueggemann (I feel like Brueggemann’s books are cheating because they are short but every word is packed with incredible meaning. The point to page ratios are outstanding!)
  16. David’s Truth In Israel’s Imagination by Walter Brueggemann

The Cheaters

*With low page numbers, these count as books but barely.  Most were read in a day or even an hour when I was down, unmotivated and desperate to catch back up.

  1. Trinity: The God We Don’t Know by Jason Byassee
  2. 30 Days with Wesley by Mark Harmon (a wonderful Wesleyan devotional meant to take a month. I was behind by four books in late July so I read it in an hour and a half.)
  3. Antagonists in the Local Church by Brian Samsen (This was actually a thesis for a D.Min but it was 120 pages and very good)
  4. Missions Mosaic by Donna Wilson (This is one of the Church of the Nazarene Missions books. I could have read and counted all six but that really would have been cheating)
  5. Church History for Modern Ministry by Dayton Hartman (This is not the worst book but it is the most disappointing. I bought it thinking it would be a long primer in church history and found it was 4 chapters and 80 pages talking about why pastors should study church history)

The Grossly Overblown Discussions of Meaningless Data

  1. Meet Generation Z by James Emery White (Spoiler alert, the next generation is being raised by the current generation so James Emery White is fairly convinced they are going to be bad at everything, mostly God stuff)
  2. Reaching Millenials by David Stark
  3. America at the Crossroads by George Barna

More Theological and Academic

(Three of these are about Martin Luther and one is by Martin Luther.  It is kind of fun to just dig deep into one historical person and their theology.  This category also wins the award for most books written by people I know!)

  1. Holy Trinity: Holy People: The Theology of Christian Perfecting, by T. A. Noble
  2. The Uncontrolling Love of God by Thomas Jay Oord
  3. Wholeness in Christ by William Greathouse
  4. Theology of Martin Luther by Paul Altheus
  5. Martin Luther’s Theology by Lohse
  6. Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will by Julian Baggini
  7. Christian Ethics and the Church by Philip Turner
  8. Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology by Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy
  9. The Bondage of the Will by Martin Luther (By far the oldest book I read!)
  10. Union with Christ by Braaten and Jensen

Novels

  1. Home by Marilyne Robinson
  2. Watership Down by Richard Adams
  3. The Giver by Lois Lowry
  4. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig (This is written like a novel but could easily fit in three or four categories. It is a must read and fascinating in every way.  I still find myself quoting it in my head.)
  5. Lila by Marilynne Robinson
  6. Far Side of the World by Patrick O’brien
  7. The Prestige by Christopher Priest (The Christopher Nolan movie based off this book is way better. One of those rare cases where cinema was an improvement.)

Pastor and Church Helps

  1. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor or Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert
  2. How Odd of God: Chosen for the Curious Vocation of Preaching by Will Willimon
  3. The Cross Shattered Church by Stanley Hauerwas
  4. The Art of Pastoring by David Hansen
  5. The New Parish by Dwight Friesen and Paul Sparks
  6. The Power of Loving Your Church by David Hansen (Hansen’s books are now sacred to me because they were given to me by a mentor during a difficult time.)
  7. Time Bomb in the Church by Daniel Spaite
  8. Fellowship of Differents by Scot McNight
  9. The Contemplative Pastor by Eugene Peterson
  10. Bridging the Divide: The Continuing Conversation Between a Mormon and an Evangelical by Robert L. Millet and Gregory C.V. Johnson
  11. The Circle Maker by Mark Batterson (see below comment about point to page ratios. This book easily could have been fifty pages long and instead was 350.)
  12. On Leadership by John Gardner

Devotional.  .  .Maybe? or Mostly Just Self Helpers

  1. The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to Jesus: Lord, Liar, Lunatic or Awesome? By Tripp Fuller
  2. The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer
  3. Life in the Spirit by A.W. Tozer (It is quite possible Tozer would turn over in his grave to be included on a list between Tripp Fuller and Rachel Held Evans. . .or maybe he would be honored. The jury is still out on this one.)
  4. Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans
  5. Evolving in Monkey Town by Rachel Held Evans
  6. Half Truths: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves Adam Hamilton
  7. The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel
  8. Love and Respect by Emmerson Ebberichs
  9. A Woman of Strength and Purpose by Cynthia Tobias
  10. Grace Walk by Steve Mcvey
  11. Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God by Lauren Wiener
  12. The Reason for God by Timothy Keller
  13. In a Pit With a Lion on a Snowy Day by Mark Batterson
  14. Wild Goose Chase by Mark Batterson (I judge books by the point to page ratio, asking “how many legitimate points did this person make per page?” Batterson fails every time.  He makes one point for every two hundred pages, making 90 percent of his words superfluous.)
  15. Grace by Max Lucado
  16. Every Man’s Battle by Stephen Arterburn and Fred Stoeker

From or About History, Recent and Long Ago

*Let’s just assume that almost every single one of these books was incredible!  I love history.

  1. Truth and Duty by Mary Mapes
  2. Nazarene Roots by Stan Ingersol
  3. Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill
  4. Natural History Essays by Henry David Thoreau (This was the oldest book until I read Luther’s “Bondage of the Will”)
  5. The Big Short by Michael Lewis (The movie and the book are must read/must watch to understand just how disgusting the 2008 market crash was.)
  6. America’s Original Sin by Jim Wallis
  7. The Great Crown Jewels Robbery of 1303 by Paul Doherty (Have you guys seen Braveheart? Well, true story, it turns out while Edward the Longshanks was defeating William Wallace at Falkirk a bunch of monks and thieves broke into his treasury and scattered the contents across London.)
  8. Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel
  9. A History of Davis County by Glen Leonard (Picked up this 400 page volume at my local library. It is a history of the county where I live and a fascinating one at that)

Memoirs of the Living

  1. Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton (A fascinating account of the trials of a suburban, church mom. I wonder how many like her sit in our pews every week?)
  2. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisis Coates
  3. The Blood of Lambs by Kamal Saleem
  4. The Pastor by Eugene Peterson
  5. Usain Bolt’s Autobiography

Technology Culture

  1. Alone Together by Sheryl Turkle
  2. Screens and Teens by Kathy Koch
  3. Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle
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The More You Read, The Less You Know

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A bit under a year ago I made the big, hairy, audacious goal (BHAG’s as they are called) to read 100 books over the 2016 calendar year.  It was a hard goal to commit to and has been a harder goal to pursue.  Right now on August 22nd, I freely admit that I will never do this again.  On January 1st I will gladly drop back to my usual pattern of reading one book a week.

The books I have conquered have not all been easy 100 page self helpers with one point chapters.  Over the last month I completed Martin Luther’s 350 page “Bondage of the Will” and read three systematic theologies all running over 300 pages.  In addition, I have kept to my usual pattern of reading 2 or 3 news articles a day, every issue of TIME magazine and a few religious periodicals as they become available.

Since it is August 22nd, I should also freely admit I am not sure why I am doing this.  Initially it had something to do with the fact that I did second grade twice.  Since then I have always felt like I was a year behind my fellow colleagues.  This is the year I catch up!

The reasons for the BHAG go deeper than that.  Every older pastor I respect has impressed upon me that pastors must read and that they must read a variety of books from a variety of fields and perspectives.  On the same note, I know several pastors who don’t read, or only read very selectively, and almost to a person their ministries, especially their sermons, are theological disasters.  Some of them pastor large churches but they are peddling cheap forms of consumer religiosity, not the deep truths of God’s Word.  I don’t want to be them, even if it means being a small church pastor for the rest of my life.

With that said, the more I read the more I distrust reading.  In fact, over the last several months I have come across several quotes by historical figures who themselves read very widely and deeply.  Yet at the end of their lives they recommend Christians just read the Bible.

A.W. Tozer, who wrote 40 books himself and was known for reading several more, is one of the more blunt ones.  In sermons he preached towards the end of his career that are now published as “Life in the Spirit” and “How to be Filled With the Spirit”, he recommended his congregation not read too many books other than the Bible.  He argued that we could trust his judgment in this because he had read so many books himself.

I am quickly agreeing with Tozer.  It is quite possible that in the very near future I will tell my congregation, “my job is to read books so that you don’t have to.  And trust me, that is a great act of love and sacrifice on my part!”

What Tozer may have known is that the more you read, the less you know.  It has all ready been commonly said that the goal of an education is not intelligence or rote memorization of data or even acquisition of a skill, but humility.  One of the jokes told to us in college was that if we graduated thinking we knew something, my alma mater would have failed me and I would deserve a $100,000 refund.  Sadly, I know some of my classmates who deserve the refund.  But the more you study, read, memorize and practice, the more you realize you don’t know anything.

There is a vast universe of information out there of which the smartest of us have only grasped an iota.  The more I read the more I discover things I was flat out wrong about, or had not even the slightest idea existed.  The more I read, the more I know that I know not.  Everything I thought was true proved wrong by another turn of a page.

Also the more I read, the more I realize the authors don’t know what they are talking about either.  They are almost as limited as I in their grasp of reality.  Take Martin Luther’s “Bondage of the Will” where he quotes Romans at length.  Over the last century new archaeological findings from the 1st century Roman empire, including several written documents, have proved most of Luther’s exegesis of Paul misleading.  On top of that, the holocaust awakened scholars to the long neglected awareness of 1st century Jewish thought and literature.  Post holocaust we understand Paul was much more Jewish than Gentile and our Gentile readings of his letters are incredibly inaccurate.  Poor Martin Luther didn’t know that.  He was a victim of his time and place and of the information he had available to him at the time.  Because of that he also advocated for the Holocaust centuries before his followers would actually carry it out.  One Lutheran historian noted that you can’t blame him for his antisemitism.  He was merely acting out of the common sentiment of his time.

Aren’t we all?  I too am a victim of my own time and place and so are all of the many authors whose books I have been devouring these last months and years.  Don’t even get me started about present day “journalists” who seem to be more victim to their context, which in this case is internet clicks, than anybody has ever been!

Realizing this to be true, what could I possibly say from the pulpit on Sunday?  We might be wrong about everything?  There is a futility to existence that I know not how to answer?  Don’t ever read anything by anybody because they are probably wrong?  Martin Luther was a heretic?  John Wesley probably was too?  But don’t worry, you and I are definitely worse than either which is why we keep their stuff around and insist that at least our pastors study them!

All of that may be good, especially for our time and place where people are growing increasingly arrogant about what they assume to be true.  However the second half of Tozer’s advice rings truer.  The Scriptures are far more profound than anything I have yet discovered.  The Scriptures ring truer, reveal more and inspire us to virtue more than any other document yet produced.  I have spent my 32 years on this planet studying them, memorizing them, learning their languages and I have yet to discover their depth. And I am sure that I will spend the next 40 to 50 years of my life continuing to pore over them only to continue to discover new territories of God’s wisdom and grace.

For this reason, the more I read the more I find myself quoting books from the pulpit, but not to say, “See here, this author has something to teach us.”  But to say, “See here, this author maybe should have read Scripture more closely.  See here, this author might have been wrong because Scripture teaches something else.”  Or on a more positive note, “See here, I didn’t read Scripture well enough and this author pointed out to me something I had missed in the text.”  “See here, our God is greater and more loving than even Luther or Wesley or Tozer or Lewis or Chrysostom or even our modern day authors have yet discovered!”  They help us dig a bit deeper but Scripture reveals to us that there are much greater and deeper ravines of God’s great love yet to explore!

After all, Scripture teaches us over and over that it is not about what you know, but it is about who you know, that all loving but all encompassing, great three in one, one in three personality we label God and the Hebrews called YHWH!

See here, I read many books so that I can continue to encourage you to spend your life reading the one Book and getting to know the one God!