Has a book changed your life? A few books have captured my attention and changed my perspective in ways that altered the direction of my life. I will identify them at the end of this post. None of the books that I read in 2022 were among those that have changed me most, but here are my takeaways from the books that impressed me and changed me when I read them last year. Each of them helped me grow as a person and as a maturing disciple of Jesus.
Some are histories. Others are books about theology or mission. One is a book about leadership. What they had in common was a well-constructed narrative or argument that left an imprint on my soul. They were:
The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire by Alan Kreider
Patience “was centrally important to early Christians,” Alan Kreider maintains. He sustains this thesis throughout the book. Although, to use a football analogy, I think that Kreider sometimes outkicks his coverage, he presents compelling evidence that early Christian evangelism and discipling differed in in aggressiveness and intentionality from modern strategies for evangelism. Can you imagine not allowing visitors to worship assemblies or requiring three years of tutelage and testimony from a Christian sponsor before baptism? Yet the churches grew steadily during more than two centuries when state opposition compelled wariness about admitting new members too quickly. Although I disagree with some specific applications, I agree that patience coheres well with living “peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim. 2:2). Evangelizing by attraction to the distinctive lifestyle and choices of Christians is biblical but would require much patience, but also great sensitivity to interested people and an ability to answer their questions or direct them to someone who can. This is a book that deserves to be read, and considered carefully. Kreider says much that needs to be heard and practiced.
A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story by Michael W. Goheen
Goheen offers a biblical foundation and direction for missional Christianity. Eschewing an individualistic approach to discipleship and mission, he stresses God’s use of a people to bring his light to the world. He follows his theology with practical application in the final chapters, accompanied by warnings of distraction and misplaced focus. Although I questioned a couple of his suggestions for personal application, his overview of scripture and emphasis on the church as both institution and community provide a secure foundation that, coupled with helpful, thoughtful suggestions for application, make this book one that I heartily recommend.
When Time Stopped by Ariana Neumann
After he died, the author learned that her inscrutable, hardworking father with his obsession for repairing timepieces had lived creatively and heroically during World War II as he reshaped his character and his identity to try to survive Nazi persecution of Jews in Europe. After resolving, researching, or tracking down answers to the clues he had left her, she realized that along with a far deeper awareness of her family’s heritage, she now understood her father. This is a carefully told memoir that slowly drew me in, then captured me with the tension, fear, love, and enduring trauma responses that are described.
Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy
by David Zucchino
This carefully researched account recounts one of the most scandalous, criminal, and frankly sinful moments in American history, the violent overthrow of an elected city government as part of a state-wide effort to marginalize minority voters and reassert “White Supremacy” (the term actually used by the planners of the insurrection). The preparations for the episode sadly have contemporary parallels, some of which are noted and others that may be discerned by readers. I recommend a careful reading and thoughtful contemplating of the events of November 1898 as well considering carefully how we may avoid similar debacles.
Staying the Course: Fifteen Leaders Survey Their Past and Envision the Future of Churches of Christ by Thomas Olbricht and Gayle Crowe
This survey of fifteen accomplished men and women, all members of the Church of Christ, consists of each one’s own descriptions of his or her life, journey of faith, and vision for the Church of Christ. The group includes judges Janice Brown and Andrew Hairston (also a preacher and military chaplain), civil rights leader, attorney, and preacher Fred Gray, religion professors J. J. M. Roberts and Thomas Olbricht, and Major League baseball player/Christian educator Gail Hopkins. Hopkins worked on a M. A. in religion at Pepperdine University while playing major league Baseball. As a singer and former English teacher, Carolyn Hunter’s brief memoir “Sing On” captured my attention with its captivating tying of hymn lyrics to her own story of a woman who loved biblical scholarship and preaching while part of churches who usually did not envision a woman in those roles. I briefly met Olbricht and John Willis earlier in my life, attended a chaplain’s conference at which Fred Gray spoke about race relations in Churches of Christ, and had the joy of having Andrew Hairston visit my office for an entire afternoon of cherished mentoring for me and my co-workers when I was senior Chaplain for the Georgia National Guard. Their stories gave me illuminating insights into what I already had learned from and about them. The accounts of these and the others reveal differing hopes and dreams in some respects for a fellowship that they all deeply love. Some are deeply politically conservative; others are more progressive. They all share a faith in Jesus Christ and the church that bears his name that has inspired them and nourished them in their careers and family lives, whether spent in formal ministry or as Christian leaders in other fields of work. For many of them, their journey required spiritual resilience when they encountered unexpected faith challenges internally, or from critics within the church or their professional fields. Their persistence in faith is what binds the accounts, given originally as spoken addresses by the leaders themselves to the Christian Scholars Conference over several years, together. All have had great influence on others. While I was surprised by details of some memoirs, I benefited greatly from learning the paths they have followed and the challenges they have overcome. Their hopes, fears, and dreams for a church that I too have served and love moved me as I reflected on them. Thank you to Thomas H. Olbricht and Gayle Crowe for editing this anthology.
Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of And in an Either-Or World by Jen Pollock Michel
This quote was among many statements in this survey of the phenomenon of paradox in the Bible that captured my attention: “Mystery is inherent to the nature of the gospel, whose wisdom confounds more than assists. God’s project of salvation, in sending a suffering Servant to wash the feet of the world in his very blood, is foolishness to the world.” This book is a very good overview of an often-ignored aspect of the Bible.
A Burning in My Bones: The Authorized Biography of Eugene H. Peterson, Translator of the Message by Winn Collier
The author offers friendly but frank insight into one of the more influential writers about ministry and a translator of a popular version of the Bible. On a personal note, Eugene Peterson and I both were preachers for local churches that were about twelve miles apart for seven years during the 1980s, so I read the book with understanding of the local context of his ministry in Bel Air, Maryland. I’ve been in the building where he preached. We only encountered each other once, briefly, but several of his books have encouraged me. This is a well-written biography of a complex leader and man.
Inside the Hot Zone: A Soldier on the Front Lines of Biological Warfare by Mark G. Kortepeter
After surviving the COVID pandemic, you owe it to yourself to read this arresting personal perspective from inside the American government and military on-going fight against deadly diseases.
Smart Leadership: Four Simple Choices to Scale Your Impact by Mark Miller
Mark Miller indeed lays out four simple choices to improve impact as a leader. An easy read, but the time spent reading it was well spent.
These all made a mark on me that will endure. Three books from earlier years disrupted my perspective and my priorities. They altered my perspective, changed my direction, and gave me a sense of who I could be as a person. They were The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Dune by Frank Herbert, and the book that I have read in its entirety more than any other, that anthology that we know as the Bible. The “story of the Grand Inquisitor” from the first shocked me into awareness of how spiritual arrogance can skew our spiritual perception. Dune captured my imagination and opened my mind to possibilities. The Bible continues to enrich my understanding of a loving God who listens but challenges his people to grow through discipline, suffering, prayer, and community. I learn something new each time that I read through the Bible again. And, of course, it is the foundation of this blog about learning to pray from the prayers recorded within it. I encourage you to read the books I have mentioned in this post. Some will enhance your understanding of contemporary issues. Others may challenge your prejudices or increase your enthusiasm for change as a disciple of Jesus. At least one of them may very well change your life.