My favorite books of 2011.

My disclaimer about my book list is that they are not all written in 2011, this is simply a way to reflect on what I’ve read this year regardless of when the titles were written.  To narrow things down a bit, I’m doing only non-fiction that has really shaped me this year.

On the fiction front, I will say in brief that my international travel to places like Beirut and Kenya early this year gave me the opportunity to finally read Stephen King’s Dark Tower series this year, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  Over the Christmas break, I got to finish King’s 11/22/63, which might be the most sheer fun read of the year for me.  John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany completely astounded me.  In its spiritual power, I would put it on an elite shelf of novels like Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Frederick Buechner’s Godric, two of my favorite books.

Also worth mentioning is that I’ve discovered some wonderful new study resources this year.  During my Revelation series, I was able to snag an advance copy of the forthcoming commentary from my dear friend and teacher Dr. John Christopher Thomas of the Pentecostal Theological Seminary.  It’s a remarkable work (and it was such an honor for us to have him at Renovatus this year to share his work with us directly.)  The commentary will be out in 2012, and I’ll let you know as soon as it hits.  His wonderful commentary on John’s epistles (from the Pentecostal Commentary series) was also enormously helpful this year.  I also revisited Richard Bauckham’s beautiful Revelation commentary this year as well, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, and fell in love with it all over again.

So that’s a snapshot of the fiction and commentaries. But without further ado, my four favorite books read in 2011:

1.  Alone Together: Why We Expect More of Technology and Less From Each Other by Sherry Turkle

Every once in a while, it feels like God Himself drops a book in my life that alters my perspective on society/culture in a defining way.  Last year, that book was Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion.  This year it was Alone Together, from MIT Professor and psychologist Sherry Turkle.  I had not grasped the extent to which our technology is changing our brains until now.  Nor did I understand the extent to which the technology that is meant to bring us together is actually driving us further apart.  While it has no explicit frame of reference for church, the implications of this book for religious life in general and Christian communities in particular are enormous.  Her book has been especially helpful in how I will frame my forthcoming book Prototype in cultural context.  I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

2.  Preacher King: Martin Luther King and the Word that Moved America by Richard Lischer

First of all, Duke professor Richard Lischer is a freakishly good writer (as demonstrated by his marvelous memoir of his early life as a rural pastor, Open Secrets, which I adore).  His treatment of King’s preaching is utterly unique in the large canon of work devoted to King, and fascinating on so many levels.   I’m quite passionate in my study of preaching as a craft and discipline.  And I can honestly say no book has shaped/challenged/informed my own understanding of preaching as much as this one.  Lischer argues that since most treatments of King’s preaching are based on his published manuscripts, they have been toned down and flattened from their black context (stripped of colloqualisms, emotion, and power).  Thus he works directly off extensive audio of King’s preaching previously ignored.  While it’s a book about his preaching, the insight into King’s life and thought are just enormous—I think it has to be on the same shelf as the most definitive MLK biographies even for those who are not as interested in preaching per se as I am.  But that said, I’ve told every preacher I know that they simply must read it, and I continue to.

3.  The Furious Longing of God by Brennan Manning

If you’ve read any of Manning’s work before, nothing in this book will necessarily strike you as new.  Maybe it was all I’ve learned this year about the Fatherhood and maddening love of God, maybe it was just that the stories Manning tells this go round are uniquely powerful—but this one just hit me right between the eyes.  It’s a slim volume, can be read in a couple of hours, but potent.

4.  Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle

Those closest to me can attest that I don’t cry easily.  But man, this book tore me to pieces.  Boyle, a Catholic priest in the most violent, gang-ridden district of Los Angeles, is also the founder of Homeboy Industries, which places gang members in legitimate jobs. It’s chock full of beautiful stories of people coming awake to the love of God, discovering their belovedness smack dab in the middle of their brokenness.  The whole book is so full of the power and scandal that is the love of Jesus that I almost want to say, if you want to know what I believe about the nature of the gospel—read this.  Given the context, the language is raw, but I can’t imagine anybody walking away from this book and the profanity being what they talk about.