Today is the first day of 2016. In about a week (on January 9), I’m turning 40. This is a time of transitions for me. A lot of my previous work (largely through the Mennonite Worker) has lessened. In 2016, I begin work on a number of new projects (my Pastoral Study Project with the Louisville Institute, my work with the Carnival de Resistance, and beginning a PhD program (this one isn’t definite yet…I’m still discerning). I also hope (particularly if I don’t begin a PhD program) this will be a year in which I go deeper as a writer and artist.
To mark this transition, I am going to issue a series of lists. I don’t presume folks will find these lists interesting; I’m doing this for myself. Creating the future is bound up with embracingÂ what’sÂ passed.
My religious and political views are markedly different from that of my 25 year old self. The catalytic event for my radical shift was 9/11. Many people become more conservative when terrorist attacks happen. The opposite happened for me. The lust for revenge, particularly among Christians, shook me (the intro to my book the unKingdom of God tells some of that story). And so, in the followingÂ couple of years, I began to dig deeper into my faith. Thankfully, I read some books that challenged me to the core.
And so, here are five books that were instrumental in waking me from my dogmatic slumber:
Yes. It is a cheesy move. Listing “the Bible” as your favorite book is incredibly passe. But there it is. Reading the Bible, a book with which I was already well acquainted, shattered my lens. One post 9/11 day, I was reading the gospel of Luke and my mind exploded with the realization that I was a Christian who had, essentially, silenced Christ. Luke’s Gospel reveals a Jesus who is angry with the powerful and rich, who loves the marginalized and the poor, whoÂ preaches love for enemy and the laying down of swords. This Jesus called me out of the path I was on (I was, at the time, planning on becoming an Air Force chaplain) into a much more radical path.
He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
â€œThe Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lordâ€™s favor.â€
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.
Then he began to say to them, â€œToday this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.â€
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
The novel, which has received global aclaim, follos the life of Okonkwo, a village leader in Nigeria. The novel follows his life and the life of his family before British colonizers and Christian missionaries come and shows the way in which, well, things fall apart after that.Â My first insights into the wickedness of colonialism came from reading Things Fall Apart. Before that, I had never really imagined that sending missionaries into the world could be a bad thing. It was the first time I remember thinking “maybe missionaries till the soil for the seeds of conquest.”
The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.
Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon
In the years since reading this book, I’ve grown ambivalent about Hauerwas. Nevertheless, this book helped me shed my patriotism and recognize that the church is at its best when it is a prophetic voice calling the world to a better way of life rather than as a chaplain to society…seeking access to halls of power where it can influence policy. Resident Aliens unleashed my inner Anabaptist and set me on the past to becoming a Mennonite pastor.
Mainline American Protestantism, as is often the case, plodded wearily along as if nothing had changed. Like an aging dowager, living in a decaying mansion on the edge of town, bankrupt and penniless, house decaying around her but acting as if her family still controlled the city, our theologians and church leaders continued to think and act as if we were in charge, as if the old arrangements were still valid.
Silence by Shusaku Endo
Silence, follows a Portuguese priest, Rodrigues, on a dangerous mission to Japan (during the Tokugawa shogunate). Rodrigues is sent to investigate the growing number of faithful apostatizing, particularly of Father Ferreira, a famous missionary. Rodrigues discovers a church under persecution and finds that his triumphant Eurpoean Christ is silent in the midst of it all.
If you don’t want any spoilers, skip to the next book on the list. My favorite excerpt comes from the climax of the book. When I finished reading the book, I had changed. It gave me a glimpse of a Jesus who suffers with the oppressed. Reading the book was like having a born again experience…it remains my favorite novel.
Rodrigues holds to his triumphant Jesus in spite of being tortured. But the stakes are raised; he is told that if he doesn’t forsake Christ by stepping on a fumie (which is an image of the crucified Christ) many of the apostate Christians will be killed. Does he cling faithfully to the Christ of the fumie, or does he forsake him, therein saving others? In this act he is confronted with an entirely different understanding of Christ, whose voice speaks after a long silence:
The first rays of the dawn appear. The light shines on his long neck stretched out like a chicken and upon the bony shoulders. The priest grasps the fumie with both hands bringing it close to his eyes. He would like to press to his own face that face trampled on by so many feet. With saddened glance he stares intently at the man in the centre of the fumie, worn down and hollow with the constant trampling. A tear is about to fall from his eye. ‘Ah,’ he says trembling, ‘the pain!’
. . . The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’
The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.
The Brothers Karamazov byÂ Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Honestly, I didn’t finish the Brothers Karamozov the first few times I attempted to read it. Russian novels are like that. But I read enough to be ruined. The Brothers Karamazov is often touted as one of the best (if not the best) novels ever written. The characters are complex (more complex than most people I know). It somehow manages to be one of the most philosophical works I’ve ever read. It grapples with the nature of God, morality, free will, faith, reason, tradition, and change.
In particular, it was the fifth chapterâ€”called the “Grand Inquisitor”â€”that ruined me. The chapter contains a parable (told by Ivan, who tends to be a bit of a cynic, to Alyosha, his pious novice monk younger brother) that demonstrates how the Church has discardedÂ Jesus.Â In the parable, Jesus returns during the Spanish Inquisition.Â The people recognize him and flock around him.Â He compassionately heals several of the sick and lame.Â Knowing who Jesus is, an elderly cardinal–the Grand Inquisitor–promptly arrests Jesus.Â Jesus is dangerous.Â He threatens the status-quo.Â The Grand Inquisitor visits Jesus in his cell, informing him that he is no longer needed. The Inquisitor explains that Christ was wrong to reject each temptation by Satan. If Jesus had only given people what they wanted, he could have ruled. The Church, which is now allied with the devil, is better able to give the people what they need.Â The Grand Inquisitor sets Jesus free, but banishes him.Â The Grand Inquisitor will continue to use the name of Jesus, but has replaced his teachings for ones better equipped to meet the needs of the people. Jesus silently departs to “the dark alleys of the city.”
There are too many great passages in this book, but here’s one favorite:
The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular. In my dreams, I often make plans for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually face crucifixion if it were suddenly necessary. Yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together. I know from experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs me and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because heâ€™s too long over his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I hate men individually the more I love humanity.
Noticing a trend here? It is telling that 3/5 of my list are works of fiction. And 4/5 are primarily narrative. This is one of the reasons I’ve recently shifted to writing literature. I’m sure I’ll still write a few works of nonfiction, but I’m convinced that a good story is theÂ bestÂ container for theological and philosophical depth.
What books have most changed the direction of your life?