My Year in Books

I usually don’t plan out my reading, and this past year was no exception. As I look back, however, I’m happy with my mix of topics and genres.

On average I read or listened to a book a week in 2023, about thirty of them being nonfiction. Of those, twenty covered topics like the Christian life, the church calendar, Christian political involvement, and the New Testament. The other ten were general nonfiction titles including three memoirs and two in American history.

Of the twenty-two fiction titles, the biggest single group (nine books) was SciFi and Fantasy which is a favorite for me. Another three were young adult and the rest general fiction, set mostly during the last hundred years.

Here are some of the best from my year:

Educated by Tara Westover (2018) is the astounding memoir of a woman who grew up in a radically survivalist family in Idaho, who never went to school and was only self-taught till she, amazingly, was accepted into college. The story is almost unimaginable how she managed to extricate herself from the iron grip of this sub-subculture reinforced by its extremist religious beliefs, violence, and emotional intimidation.

Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri (2020) is another memoir which opens a window into a very different culture. The author (now an adult) writes from the perspective of his young self, forced out of Iran as a refugee and ending up in Oklahoma. He delightfully communicates his obvious love for his native Persian culture even as he, his mother (the book’s hero) and his sister escape the religious persecution of his homeland. A book full of heart and sorrow and hope.

Tell Her Story by Nijay Gupta (2023) carefully unpacks the life and ministry of women in the New Testament that is hidden in plain sight. In everyday prose, he also provides valuable cultural background which the New Testament authors left unsaid because they would have assumed all their readers would have known it. While ancient Jewish, Greek, and Roman cultures were clearly patriarchal, many women of note were exceptions which we likewise see in the earliest Christian communities.

Rembrandt Is in the Wind by Russ Ramsey (2022) offers a wonderful meditation on the worth and importance of beauty in our lives. In nine chapters this consummate storyteller highlights nine artists from the last five hundred years of the Western world. In each he tells the story of the artist, or of a particular artwork, or of the subject of the art. The tales and their backstories are fascinating, engrossing, and sometimes tragic. Ramsey weaves together mysteries, human drama and more into compelling tapestries. A book of wisdom, of grace, and of beauty.

My local library has used the tagline: “Never apologize for your reading tastes.” Whether your reading is fun or serious, long or short, many or few, may your reading fill you in the coming year.

A Book’s Not Worth Writing Unless. . .

Are there ideas in a book that the author didn’t intend?

I asked this in an earlier post regarding interpreting the biblical authors. It’s important for understanding the Bible or any piece of literature. C. S. Lewis once weighed in on this very question.

In 1944 Charles Brady wrote a review of Lewis’s output up to that point, including the first installment of Lewis’s Space Trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet. Brady commented on the scene when the main character, Elwin Ransom, first encounters a race of intelligent beings from Mars, the Hrossa. This, Brady thought, could “be interpreted . . . as an allegory of racial fear and repugnance.”

Lewis wrote to Brady a few months later, thanking him for the overall positive review, and in the process made this insightful response: “When you talk about meetings of human races in connexion [sic] with Ransom and the Hrossa you say something that was not in my mind at all. So much the better: a book’s not worth writing unless it suggests more than the author intended.”*

Even though Lewis didn’t mean to say something about racial encounters generally (something that still concerns us today), nonetheless, he was happy to acknowledge that sometimes books take on a life of their own. Lewis seems to imply that that is the whole point of writing a book—that it be subtle, complex, evocative, and carry more ideas than the author even consciously anticipated.

That is what makes for great writing. If all the meaning is on the surface, it won’t stand the test of time. But a book with layers and depth can become something worth pondering for generations.

*These two quotes are from Mark Noll, C. S. Lewis in America (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2023), chapter one: Charles A. Brady, “C. S. Lewis: II,” America, June 10, 1944, 269; and C. S. Lewis to Charles A. Brady, October 29, 1944, in Books, Broadcasts, and the War, 1931–1949 , vol. 2 of The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed. Walter Hooper (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), 630.

The Persistent Myth

I feel like a rabbit trying to put out a raging forest fire by stamping out a few burning leaves. But the myth will not die.

While people before Copernicus did indeed think the sun and all the planets orbited the earth, the myth persists (even among the well-educated) that the ancients also thought all of creation was centered on humanity.

The myth lives in one author (who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty) who recently wrote, for example, that when Galileo saw through his telescope that moons were orbiting Jupiter, he “revealed that the Earth (and humanity) wasn’t the center of the universe.”

We can thank C. S. Lewis (and Jason Baxter in The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis) for setting us straight. In the old cosmology,

humankind is at the periphery of everything that really matters. This “geocentric universe [was] not in the least anthropocentric,” because it “made man a marginal—almost . . . a suburban—creature.” It was not only that “everyone” knew “the Earth is infinitesimally small by cosmic standards” but also that the Earth was made out of the dregs, after the purer bodies of stars had been made (a curious agreement with modern speculation!). Everything interesting, festive, fiery, light, clean, and harmonious was way out there, while we, poor fools, dwell at “the lowest point” of the universe, “plunged . . .in unending cold”; the earth was “in fact the ‘offscourings of creation,’ the cosmic dust-bin,” “‘the worst and deadest part of the universe,’ ‘the lowest story of the house,’ the point at which all light, heat, and movement descending from the nobler spheres finally died out into darkness, coldness, and passivity.”*

The heavenlies were thought to be perfect. Planets and stars were perfect spheres in perfect orbits. As we come closer to earth, we see that the moon clearly has imperfections, but less than the earth which is highly irregular with its many mountains and valleys, rivers and oceans. The most imperfect of all, hell, resided in the center of the earth.

As I’ve written before, the ancients knew our place in the universe—lowly, fallen creatures in need of grace. Ironically, the modern, scientific viewpoint does not. Humanity is the apex of evolution and the conqueror of physical world. We arrogantly elevate ourselves, thinking we stand on our own.

Only in recent decades has the myth of human progress been tarnished by the twentieth century, the most violent century in human history, with over 160 million killed for political reasons. Racism and ethnic strife persist. The environment continues to be polluted.

We think the ancients have so much to learn from us. The reverse is true.

*Jason M. Baxter, The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2022), 150-51. The quotations are from Lewis’s The Discarded Image and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century.

The Secret to Not Being Manipulated

In December 2000 a story appeared in several British newspapers, including The Guardian, about a man in New York, George Turklebaum, who had been dead at his office desk for five days . . . and no one noticed! Coworkers at “the publishing-services company” often passed by his cubicle and said hi without it registering that he hadn’t responded. “We just assumed that George was taking time to go over the text very carefully, as he always did,” said his boss.

Anything sound odd to you about that story? Anything odd besides a man being dead in an office for five days without anyone noticing?

Anything odd like, “Why did British papers report about a man being dead in New York instead of New York papers?”

Or odd like, “Why was the publishing-services company not named?”

Or odd like, “Wouldn’t a body start stinking to high heaven long before five days?” (Spoiler alert: it would.)

You’ve probably heard this story or variations of it which have circulated for at least the last twenty years. The truth is, it was first published by an American tabloid, the Weekly World News, which also publishes such important stories as “Newest U.S. Judge is 5-Years Old,” and “The Yeti Is Behind Cryptocurrency,” and former Vice President “Mike Pence Is a Cyborg.”* You get the idea.

The only source of this report for all the British newspapers, even for one as highly reputable as The Guardian, was the tabloid. There was no other corroborating evidence.

When David Mikkelson did some research at Snopes, he found that no one named George Turklebaum was listed in the Social Security Death Index, and the New York Medical Examiner’s office had no information on the death of anyone named Turklebaum for 1999 or 2000.**

Yet so many of us hear stories like this one about the dead office worker, and we think, “Weird. But I can actually see that. Don’t we all feel like nameless cogs in a machine sometime?”

We take it in, often uncritically. Yet right on the surface are aspects that should make us question what’s going on. Not just a rotten corpse, but the lack of specifics (like the company’s name) and of sources (like a police report).

The key word is uncritically. We don’t stop to question. Thinking critically about what we read or hear doesn’t mean being critical in the sense of finding fault. It means asking questions.

To some extent it doesn’t matter what questions we ask. Almost any question will do. The point is to ask a question and not stay on autopilot.

The question can come at the beginning, the middle, or the end. It can be profound or prosaic. Regardless, doing so engages us. We become actors in the drama, dialogue partners in the conversation, friends in the relationship. We are not merely passive receptacles into which entertainment, advertisements, opinions, information, or disinformation are poured.

Many people (including those we agree with) want to sway us for their own purposes. Nurturing the habit of asking questions about what we hear or read can, among other benefits, provide us with a vaccine against the virus of being manipulated by others.

*These are actual headlines from, accessed January 28, 2021.

**David Mikkelson, “Man Dies at Desk,” Snopes, See also

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

A Message to the Future

What if you wanted to send a message to someone in the future. Would you need a time machine? Would you have to reverse the polarity on your deflector array to transmit a message through a supernova? Maybe you would need to harness the power of a black hole to energize the system.

That might not even solve all your problems. After all, sending a message into the future can be a tricky business. What could make sure that it didn’t degrade as it passed through the space-time continuum? The technology could break down. Human error or human limitations could prevent the message from being transmitted. And because language and culture change significantly over time, our words and syntax could be difficult to understand by those in the future.

Yet if these difficulties could be overcome, who would you write? To yourself in five years? To your children in fifteen years? Grandchildren in fifty years? To those living five hundred years from now?

What would you write? Your hopes and dreams? Your hard-won wisdom? Stories from your life of sadness and joy? Or just the funny thing that happened today?

It wouldn’t have to be profound. The very commonness of our letters to the future can profoundly communicate our bonds as humans across time and culture.

What can encourage us in this rather daunting project is that people have been sending messages to the future for almost ten thousand years. Some of those earliest messages scratched on clay tablets were very commonplace—a shopping list, a record of livestock sold, a recipe for beer.

We also have records of how teachers taught students to read and write five thousand years ago. They used some rather sophisticated techniques (both semantic and phonological) and unsophisticated (the cane).

But wait, there’s more. Two and a half thousand years ago Homer, Confucius, and Isaiah sent messages to the future. From hundreds of years past Dante, Scheherazade, and Shakespeare still speak to us. More recent messages to our day come from Hemingway, Achebe, Borges, and Solzhenitsyn.

Writing and reading are so commonplace we forget how almost magical the whole process is. We can receive and send ordinary and exceptional stories as well as knowledge across thousands of miles and hundreds of years with people we have never met and who may not know our language.

And what technology shall we use for this? While our words can easily be multiplied thousands of times digitally, ink on paper may still be the most likely to survive into the next millennium.

Today, then, read a message for the future that was written long ago. Today, write that those in the future might know you and as a result know themselves better.

Credits: Pixabay eli007 (black hole); Pixabay Pexels (writing),

America’s Most Polarized Election?

They say, America’s polarized in unprecedented ways.

Is that true? Consider the election held in 1800 too.

Just twelve years after ratifying the Constitution, President John Adams ran for re-election against his own vice president, Thomas Jefferson. The rhetoric was superheated by hyperpartisan media, making it one of the country’s most acrimonious episodes.

Jon Meacham’s outstanding volume, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, and David McCullough’s excellent biography, John Adams, reveal the apocalyptic language that was common on both sides of the aisle. Federalist papers supporting Adams and Republican papers behind Jefferson were the equivalent of FOX News and MSNBC.

“Hyperbole was the order of the day,” Meacham writes. “For Republicans, Adams was an aspiring monarch. Americans, one Republican wrote, ‘will never permit the chief magistrate of the union to become a king instead of a president.’ For Federalists, Jefferson was a dangerous infidel. The Gazette of the United States told voters to choose ‘GOD—AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT or impiously declare for JEFFERSON__AND NO GOD.’ ” (Meacham, 322)

McCullough tells us, “In almost daily attacks in the Aurora, Adams was belittled as ‘The President by Three Votes,’ mocked again as ‘His Rotundity,’ excoriated as a base hypocrite, a tool of the British, ‘a man divested of his senses,’ . . . a man ‘unhinged’ by the ‘delirium of vanity.’ ” (McCullough, 485, 498)

Adams ended up third behind Jefferson and Burr who were tied in electoral votes. Yes, this was the election in which for Jefferson, “It might be nice. It might be nice to get Hamilton on your side.” Hamilton’s tilt toward Jefferson helped break the deadlock in the House between the two Republicans.

One irony is that Jefferson and his Republican friends feared that Adams wanted a stronger executive leaning toward that of a monarch. Yet it was Jefferson who expanded the power of the presidency far more than Adams ever contemplated. Not the least example of this was doubling the size of the country through the Louisiana Purchase, though the Constitution was very unclear (silent?) about such a transaction. (Meacham, 389-391)

Extreme political language is not an invention of the last twenty years. And if we are looking for the period when the country was most at odds with itself, we dare not forget a Civil War costing the lives of six hundred thousand. That level of violence seems to be more polarized than anything we are experiencing today.

Am I saying the issues we face now are unimportant and not worth vigorous debate? Not at all. Rather, we should put today’s conflicts in perspective. The end of the world is not at hand pending the outcome of the next election. Nonetheless, we should always work for the common good, to support those who are in need, to ensure justice and fair play for all.

Do you want more insight on how to think, to act, and to understand our current situation? Then read a good history book or two and stay away from Twitter.

Finding Good Books

I am always on the lookout for something good to read. By that I mostly mean books.

I love browsing books at a library or at a bookstore or online, but that can be hit and miss. Sometimes the title or cover or back cover pulls me in, and then I am disappointed when I do read it. Also at the back of my mind is this nagging fear that in just browsing I may have missed something better.

I also get recommendations from friends, read books by authors I’ve already read and enjoyed, and look at bestseller lists. I can usually get higher quality, more focused suggestions in those ways.

Another avenue I’ve found helpful in recent years is Goodreads. This social networking site is just about books. Friends post what they want to read, what they have read, give books a rating, and sometimes offer a review. Every day I get an email listing about two dozen books my Goodreads friends have read or want to read. (You can change the frequency of these email alerts too.)

Unlike other social networking sites, the goal is not necessarily to gather as many friends as you can—at least that’s not the way I use it. Rather, I try to find people whose tastes and interests overlap with mine.

When I see a book given good ratings and good reviews by several different people, I pay attention. That’s how Where the Crawdads Sing and Educated have made it on my “Want to Read” list. And that’s why I read The Lager Queen of Minnesota which proved to be just right for me.

Since I tend to like history, science fiction, biblical studies, and literary fiction, I try to get people on my friends list who do too. At the same time, I don’t want my list of friends to be too narrow. I want to be stretched to read in areas I might not ordinarily think of. Sometimes I just want beach reading. So I have friends who read a lot of those. Sometimes I want to read something from a different political or theological perspective. I have friends who point me to those as well.

Goodreads has lots of other features for those who like to track the books they are reading or who want to comment on a friend’s review. You can also suggest something to a friend.

Aggregate ratings and all the reviews for a particular book are available from the whole Goodreads community—not just those from your friends. I find that reading the most positive and the most negative reviews helps me get a handle on whether a certain book could be for me.

Goodreads is an excellent tool. But however you pick books, by all means, read books.

The Day I Flunked English

When I was in elementary school, I struggled to read.

I remember one particularly embarrassing episode when I was required to make a oral book report in third grade. I chose Winnie-The-Pooh, thinking it would be relatively easy to get through.

Whether due to lack of discipline, lack of focus, or lack of confidence, I only managed to struggle through one chapter. I still remember the look on my teacher’s face and the question when I finished my much truncated report: “Is that all?” Yes, I had to admit, head hung low, that was all.

Then there was the F in English I got in seventh grade. That called for a family meeting, with me at the center. I couldn’t figure out then and I still don’t know how that happened. I thought I was doing fine. I didn’t remember getting low scores in tests or failing to turn in papers. But there it was. I had flunked.

Yet one year later, in the summer before high school. I thought it would be a good goal to read Moby-Dick. And I did.

What changed? What transformed me into not just a good English student but someone who loved to read and loved to write?

I am sure part of it was just taking time for my brain to mature. Part of it might have been simply needing years of practice till the disciplines of study finally became second nature.

One important factor, though, that I still remember is the influence of my older brother and sister. I always saw them reading. They had books on their shelves and belonged to a book club. Seeing those arrive in the mail every so often was always exciting. Since I wanted to be as smart as they were, I thought I needed to read.

Do you want your younger siblings, your children, your grandchildren to become readers? By all means, read to them. But let them catch you reading too.

Books That Can Change Lives

On November 3, I was honored at the annual InterVarsity Fall Leadership Meetings in recognition of my 42 years with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and my upcoming retirement in February. About seventy key people from across the country in InterVarsity attended. After hearing some generous comments from Interim President Jim Lundgren and IVP Publisher Bob Fryling, they let me offer a few words. Here is what I said.

Continue reading “Books That Can Change Lives”