Five of the best books I read in 2017

This year I read less books than I have in two decades. But the ones I did read were almost all excellent. Maybe, as you get older, your ability to pick a good book increases?  Here are five of the best I read in 2017, complete with juicy quotes from each one:

 

Best adult fiction: A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

A finely-described and instantly-believable novel from the 1980s which imagines part of the USA becoming a restrictively religious state. Clearly draws on the then-recent Iranian revolution for inspiration and highlights the fragility of our current socio-political order. Yet this is no sweeping philosophical epic. It is instead a deeply personal story told through the eyes of one woman who…. actually, I won’t spoil it – you can find out when (or if) you read it. But it’s so vivid that the acclaimed television adaptation is very boring by comparison when you watch it afterwards.

“Is that how we lived then? But we lived as usual. Everyone does, most of the time. Whatever is going on is as usual. Even this is as usual, now.

We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.

Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it. There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with as they used to say, but they were about other women, and the men who did such things were other men. None of them were the men we knew. The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.

We lived in the gaps between the stories.”

Image result for asterix and the chariot raceBest comic book: Asterix and the Chariot Race by Jean-Yves Ferri & Didier Conrad

I’ve been reading Asterix books since I was about nine or ten years old. They tell the story of two Gaulish warriors and their adventures in and around the Roman empire. The original writer, Rene Goscinny, died in 1977 after producing twenty-four volumes in just seventeen years. His illustrator, Albert Uderzo, carried on producing new stories at a slower rate until 2009. Uderzo’s early efforts were pretty strong but slowly deteriorated in quality over recent years. A new writing and illustrating team of Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad took over four years ago and this is the third Asterix book they have produced. It’s also probably the first of the Ferri-Conrad efforts which one could mistake for a 1970s Goscinny-Uderzo volume. Which constitutes high praise for an Asterix book!

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Image result for the witches

Best kids’ fiction: The Witches by Roald Dahl

I read so many books with my kids these days. Often on the way to and from school. Dahl is the author who first fired my boys’ interest in chapter books and we read almost all his children’s fiction together over the 2016/17 academic year. I read The Witches with the eldest (then aged six) in January because I thought it would be too scary for my four-year old. Then I changed my mind and ended up reading it to both of them when we were on vacation this summer. The older boy was, despite knowing what was coming, as transfixed the second time as the first. It’s all very dark stuff and Dahl knows exactly where to poke children’s imaginations to get a reaction. I hadn’t opened the book since being read it as a schoolchild and yet I could still remember vivid details some thirty years later.

“”Look for the nose-holes,” my grandmother said. “Witches have slightly larger nose-holes than ordinary people. The rim of each nose-hole is pink and curvy, like the rim of a certain kind of sea-shell.”

“Why do they have such big nose-holes?” I asked.

“For smelling with,” my grandmother said. “A REAL WITCH has the most amazing powers of smell. She can actually smell out a child who is standing on the other side of the street on a pitch-black night.”

“She couldn’t smell me,” I said. “I’ve just had a bath.”

“Oh yes she could,” my grandmother said. “The cleaner you happen to be, the more smelly you are to a witch.”

“That can’t be true,” I said.

“An absolutely clean child gives off the most ghastly stench to a witch,” my grand-mother said. “The dirtier you are, the less you smell.”

“But that doesn’t make sense, Grandmamma.”

“Oh yes it does,” my grandmother said. “It isn’t the dirt that the witch is smelling. It is you. The smell that drives a witch mad actually comes right out of your own skin. It comes oozing out of your skin in waves, and these waves, stink-waves the witches call them, go floating through the air and hit the witch right smack in her nostrils. They send her reeling.””

Best non-fiction book: Destroyer of the gods by Larry Hurtado

Edinburgh University professor Larry Hurtado is an expert on the history of early Christianity. Hurtado notes that much ink has been spilled on the topic of what early Christianity had in common with contemporary religious movements of the time. Yet few academics have explored the question of what made the early Christian movement so distinctive from the beginning. It’s often said that the early Christians were seen as ‘atheists’ by their contemporaries and Hurtado fleshes out exactly why this was the case. It’s a stunning, yet very easily-accessible, distillation of the available historical evidence from ancient Jewish, Christian, Roman and Greek sources. Readers are given a vivid picture of how Christianity looked to first-century eyes. Especially the eyes of outsiders. This isn’t a book particularly for the believer or the skeptic. It’s just a really rich work of history which everybody should take some time to read if they want to be informed about how the Christian movement – which has so shaped the world – actually got going.

“In the eyes of many of that time, early Christianity was odd, bizarre, in some ways even dangerous. For one thing, it did not fit what ‘religion’ was for people then. Indicative of this, Roman-era critics designated it as a perverse ‘superstition.’ Yet the very features of early Christianity which made it odd and objectionable in the ancient Roman setting have become now unquestioned assumptions about religion in much of the modern world. But we likely do not realize how unusual, even odd, these notions once were, and are still, in the larger context of human history. Nor do many of us realize that what are for us these commonplace notions originated in the rambunctious early Christian movement.”

 

Best theology book: I Want You to Be by Tomáš Halík

Tomáš Halík’s writing always changes the way I see the world. He has a brilliant way of weaving doubt and even unbelief into the fabric of theology (and philosophy) and not treating them as enemies of God. Many times I’m not even sure I agree with things Halík writes but I am glad to have had my thinking and outlook challenged and unsettled by him and some of what I read always filters through into my writing and speaking.

“Theologians are professional doubters. Even when they are fully anchored in God by sincere and ardent faith, it is their duty to be part of the band of seekers by exploring questions in the light of their own way of living, understanding and expressing their faith. A faith that is constantly unsettled by doubts and has to struggle with unbelief within oneself also is no ‘half-hearted faith’.”

Halík really embodies this like nobody else I’ve read.

The Best Books I Read In 2016

This year I’ve read a bunch of books. Not as many as when I was researching for my own book in 2014/15, or in previous years when I was enrolled as a student somewhere or other, but still a fair few. Some were older and others were brand new. Here are five of my favorites:

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Best Fiction Book: The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (2005)

In a year when Western politics took an eerily 1930s turn into xenophobic and isolationist nationalism, Philip Roth’s book is even more relevant now than it was when first published. It tells the story of a Jewish family living in Newark during an alternate version of US history where Nazi-sympathizer Charles Lindbergh – rather than Franklin Roosevelt – wins the 1940 Presidential Election. Roth’s narrative never feels anything other than plausible and grabs you from the first page. The first few chapters are especially haunting as they feel like a foretelling of the rise of Donald Trump. A great choice if you want a book which pulls you into another world and also makes you think about current and historical events in a new light.

413cv9i2bw6l-_sx329_bo1204203200_Best Book on Contemporary Issues: Flourishing by Miroslav Volf (2016)

Miroslav Volf is a Croatian intellectual who witnessed genocide and experienced persecution in his home nation. He has since become a globally-recognized voice on questions about religion, violence, the relevance of the Christian faith for today. Long-admired for his academic works of theology, Volf gained wider recognition after co-teaching a class with Tony Blair at Yale University (where Volf is a professor) and he has now assumed the role of a “public theologian” – someone who writes for a thinking popular audience of both skeptics and believers (and those in-between) and invites everyone to reconsider their presuppositions about the world. Flourishing is by far my favorite Volf book to date. It argues that religion is – contrary to popular assumptions – integral to the flourishing of humanity. I would suggest that all my friends – whatever their religious or non-religious convictions – take look at this one and see what thoughts it provokes.

41uoghgdfjl-_sx311_bo1204203200_Best Book on Communication: TED Talks by Chris Anderson (2016)

This is a book full of practical advice on preparing great public presentations. The author, Chris Anderson, founded the TED Talks and draws on his vast experience to offer tips on everything from structure and content through to visuals and wardrobe choices. I liked the book so much I was reading a chapter a day (so as to absorb it slowly) and then sending WhatsApp messages to younger communicators I am mentoring with screenshots of the best quotes and passages, along with my summaries and thoughts on that days reading. TED Talks can be a bit sterile and samey after you’ve seen a number of them. But – to quote a friend – if you want to think outside the box, then you first need a box, and this book is a pretty good box for communicators to slide into for inspiration and direction.

9780802847324Best Theology Book: The Crucifixion by Fleming Rutledge

Just a brilliant book for those seeking a fresh understanding of Jesus’ death and its relevance for today. Escapes all the cliches and vividly brings home both the horror and shame of the crucifixion (early Christians were mocked for following a crucified man) and also explores contemporary issues like injustice and genocide – as well as more personal everyday realities – to give the reader a sense of why Jesus died and what might be the significance of his death for the realities of our world today. Rutledge, a parish priest as well as an academic, constantly asks “can it preach?” and wants the cross to grab people’s imaginations and reorient their lives. Best for those with a bit of theological reading under their belts already, but I wouldn’t necessarily dissuade others from giving it a go.

 

61j2bggcsctl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Best Comic Book: The Amazing Spider-Man Omnibus Volume 1 by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko (2007)

This is a masonry slab of a book. Over one-thousand pages of beautiful glossy color pages covering the first three years of Spider-Man’s comic book career. Most of the major villains are introduced and reintroduced. The stories are more linear and less overwhelmingly gritty than superhero comics later became. Peter Parker’s early adventures are just fun and it will take some time for you to get through the whole volume. If you can afford it (I received it as a gift; it can cost up to £75) then you’ll get your money’s worth from your investment.

News: Two New Podcast Interviews

This week two new podcast interviews have become available. One is a thirty-five minute conversation I had with George Wood from Influence Magazine. I really enjoyed our conversation and we probed a Jesus-focused apologetic together. It’s here. The other is a two hour conversation with Nick Peters of Deeper Waters. It was a fun chat which frequently went off piste onto topics like a spirituality of suffering and how Christians can speak of spiritual experience to “spiritual but not religious” folk if we ourselves are more intellectual or cerebral. You can check that one out, here.