Before the year is over, I thought I’d offer my entry to the annual collection of “best of” lists. Two notes: These are the best books I read in 2012, but that does not mean they were published in 2012. Also, as you will see, I tend to read a bit outside the tribe, so to speak. Without further ado, in ascending order:
10. Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman
This fascinating history and expose of the brainwashing cult Scientology started by fancy-pants huckster L. Ron Hubbard was a couldn’t-put-it-down read for me. Beginning with the enterprise’s roots in Hubbard’s days writing science fiction, Reitman’s book is meticulously researched but plainly written, culminating in a peek behind the scenes to the trauma of today, from the grooming of vulnerable young celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta to the emotional and physical abuse of cult members’ children. Reitman’s work is an important one.
9. Church Discipline by Jonathan Leeman
The “little red book” from Leeman on church discipline — not to be confused with his big book on the subject, The Surprising Offense of God’s Love, which is also excellent — is one of the entries in 9 Marks’ Building Healthy Churches series. This is a great primer on a sorely neglected facet of the church’s love for Christ. Leeman writes clearly and concisely, no easy feat given he well covers all the exegetical ground and even provides guidance on a host of “what if?” scenarios. I found it extremely helpful. Perhaps a great contribution to your elders’ resources and certainly to your church library.
8. Defiant Grace by Dane Ortlund
This short overview of the gospel depths in the four gospels is like four shots of doxological whisky served straight up. Ortlund talks about the “vertigo” of grace in the book, and he writes toward that end too. This book flew a bit under the radar (I am way overdue on a review of it for Themelios), as Dane tends to do himself, but it deserves a wider read and a long meditation.
7. The Fight by Norman Mailer
Mailer’s eyewitness coverage of the days leading up to the legendary 1975 World Heavyweight clash in Zaire between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman and the fight itself is as visceral and measured as the fighters themselves. He spends most time on the training regimens and character of the fighters. Ali in particular never needed anyone’s help appearing larger than life, but through these two icons of the boxing world, Mailer is able to ruminate ecstatically about race, class, national identity, and, yes, violence. Not for all readers, of course, but if you like literary fiction and non-fiction from genius navel-gazers like Mailer, and you appreciate the bloody ballet of boxing’s heyday, this one could be for you.
6. Fidelity: How to be a One-Woman Man by Douglas Wilson
The rumors of its animus have been greatly exaggerated. What Wilson aims his collar-throttling and acerbic wit at are selfish, chauvinistic, excuse-making husbands. I don’t think that described me before I read this book, but we could all use a good talking-to on sacrificially serving our wives now and again. The theological stuff on sexual sin was really incisive, as well.
5. The Lobster Chronicles: Life on a Very Small Island by Linda Greenlaw
Oh boy, I loved reading this. Greenlaw, a compatriot of the departed fishermen documented in Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm, retired from fishing to become a lobsterman. Lobsterwoman? Yes. This book is sort of about her new career in lobstering, assisted by her dutiful father, but it’s really about the motley crew of interesting people and the unique community they make up — equal parts charming and discomforting — on Isle au Haut, Maine, which is accessed only by boat, normally from Stonington. I confess I may have loved this book mostly because I read it while cozied up in a lovely sea cottage in the very town of Stonington, Maine last summer. Certainly having the salt air in my nose and on my skin while reading it bumped it up a few notches.
4. 1776 by David McCullough
I have never been a big reader of history, and this book was my first effort at making correction. Figured I’d opt for a pretty popular read, thinking the odds of my enjoying it would be better. I was right. McCullough gives great insight not just to the exploits of our founding fathers but to their motivations and grit. I was most moved by the efforts of Henry Knox and his men, lugging Fort Ticonderog’s cannons all the way from the fort to Boston through ice and snow. Whoa.
3. The Fullness of Christ by John Preston
Was directed to this Kindle edition Puritan John Preston’s exposition of John 1:16 by someone online (I forget who, sorry) and am I ever glad I clicked the links to try it out. Pure gospel gold. How can one get a (short) book’s worth of material out of one verse? Well, how full do you think Christ is? Page after page gleams with grace upon grace. One of my favorite passages:
[T]here was in Stephen and the saints the fullness of a container, but in Christ, there is the fullness of a spring. Their fullness was given to them by someone else and so is derivative. In Christ, there is the fullness of a fountain, which proceeds from himself and depends on no one else. The medieval scholastic theologians expressed this well when they said that Christ’s and the saints’ fullness differ as fire and things set on fire. The fullness of the ocean is too small to express this. The removal of even a drop or two diminishes it to some degree, but you can light a thousand torches from the fullness of fire and it is not diminished at all.
2. Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves
Narrowly edging out Preston’s little antique gem is this little modern gem from British theologian and minister Reeves, my most soul-stirring read of 2012. This was the last book I finished this year, just last week, and I’m glad I did. As an introduction to the Christian faith, as the book is billed, it would make a fantastic establishment of new believers in full-fledged Trinitarian faith, but we “old” believers will profit from Reeves’s relentless exulting in the gospel. Read it along with Fred Sanders’s uber-excellent The Deep Things of God and get a refreshing reset on your appreciation of the fullness of God’s work in the gospel.
1. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
I actually started this classic in 2011 but finished it about a week into January. I read the Penguin Classics edition, which is a handsome craftsman’s paperback with interpretative introduction by Melville scholar Nathaniel Philbrick. Moby Dick is one of those rare books that is like what it is about. Meaning, reading it cover to cover is an experience akin to whaling — there are waves upon waves of interminable boredom, of meticulous details, of philosophical ruminations, of feeling adrift at sea and lost forever, of feeling on the verge of losing one’s mind. Punctuated by moments of sheer panicky brilliance and ecstatic mania. Looking for that one big “a ha!” moment that suddenly ties the whole book together is like Ahab’s search for the elusive white whale itself. But a hint: Pay attention to early chapters 8 and 9. Moby Dick is full of great lines too. Here’s one of my favorite passages, from the aforementioned Chapter 8, titled “The Pulpit”:
. . . for the pulpit is ever this earth’s foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world. From thence it is the storm of God’s quick wrath is first descried, and the bow must bear the earliest brunt. From thence it is the God of breezes fair or foul is first invoked for favorable winds. Yes, the world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.
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