Top 10 Books of 2012

Here are my picks for the best books of 2012, in no particular order.
The titles link to my reviews (if available) or to Amazon :

Selling Water by the River

Selling Water by the River

by Shane Hipps

I haven’t gotten to post my review of this book yet, but it was one of the best surprises of 2012. Shane Hipps is one of the most important, underrated voices in Evangelical Christianity. Selling Water by the River is a fresh look into the heart of Christianity.

It’s a short, fast read, but Shane packs each chapter with thick, insightful metaphors that unlock some rich, complex ideas.

Monkeys with Typewriters

by Scarlett Thomas

I’m only 50 pages into this book, and those 50 pages already made my Top 10. Yes, this book is that good. Scarlett Thomas is one of the most capable fiction authors I’ve ever read (if you’ve never taken a crack at The End of Mr. Y, just trust me: it’s a must read). Apparently, she’s also an English professor. Monkeys with Typewriters is the textbook on creative writing she’s always wanted and finally had to write herself.

If you love writing or even just the art of storytelling, get this book now.Continue reading

Brave Sacrifices Accuracy for Romance

The movie Brave sacrifices accuracy for the sake of Romance
The movie Brave sacrifices accuracy for the sake of Romance

Though today we marry for “True Love”, that’s a relatively new concept. Throughout most of human history, people married to ensure a stable society. Pixar’s latest film, Brave, is a contemporary fairy tale.

Though Brave is set in pre-modern Scotland, its take on the purpose of marriage is thoroughly modern. Brave demonstrates how our attitude towards marriage has shifted.

In the pre-modern world, more than 90% of humans on the planet lived in small agrarian communities of fewer than 200 total persons. With child survival rates as low as 50% and life expectancy around 40, the very survival of the community depended on individuals marrying and procreating as quickly and often as possible. With such a small community, a person’s marital options were limited.Continue reading

The Revelation to JR. – Two Witnesses

This series of posts is my attempt to demonstrate that the language of the Revelation was actually symbolic code that was very intelligible to a first-century Jewish Christian living in the Roman Empire.  I’m re-writing the Revelation to communicate the same message, but to a twenty-first century American Christian audience, using symbols we understand.  This particular section parallels Revelation chapter 11.  If you want to catch up, here’s a PDF of the entire series so far: The Revelation to JR – Chapters 1-11.

Then I was given a tool belt and a steel beams and I was told:

Come and reinforce God’s sanctuary – include the pulpit and everyone worshiping in there.  But don’t bother with the foyer or classroom space.  All that’s being handed over to the rest of the world.  They’re going to run rampant all over the holy city for 42 months.

I’m going to give my two eye-witnesses authority to prophesy for 1,260 days while they’re dressed for a funeral.

Continue reading

11-15: Why Batman is the Best

batman_inc_111. Batman really is the best literary character.

I know I’m going to get crucified for this, but it’s true.  Batman is all about what it means to be human.  He lives in a world that is broken at a fundamental level, and he himself is a victim of that world – he watched his parents murdered in front of him.  And in a world where evil seems overwhelming, in a world full of beings with supernatural powers, the Batman is only human.  He has no special abilities.  He has only his will (and a giant pile of money).  As silly as it sounds, I think the Batman speaks to that deep part of us that rages against injustice, that refuses to believe the world is just a random joke.  That part of us that knows something’s broken and wants to fix it.  That part of us that believes we can do more than everyone else thinks we can.  That part of us that knows there’s more to being human than what most people settle for.

12. Violence doesn’t solve anything.

The thing about Batman is that he’s fictional.  There’s a reason superheroes don’t really exist: they can’t.  The world really is broken, but it was broken by people.  We broke (and continue to break) the world by trying to impose our own kind of order on it.  Something like 7 billion wills all trying to get the world to march to the beat of our own drums and we wonder that chaos seems to be the order of the day?  And somehow we’ve gotten it in our heads that the answer is to try harder than everyone else.  That if we are louder or stronger or more powerful than everyone else, our way will reign supreme.  But that’s not true.  Violence only begets more violence.  Violence can be effective in the short term, but it doesn’t fix the fundamental problem, the break at the core of who we are.  It only makes it worse.

13. The worst kinds of violence aren’t physical.

In fact, physical violence might be the preferable.  Its effects are more immediate, more visible, but they fade more quickly as well.  The more insidious kinds of violence are those that leave scars on our souls – emotional abuse, degrading another person’s spirit.  Crushing other cultures not by the sword but the commercial.  Teaching someone that difference is dangerous, that conformity is humanity.  Making someone else feel less human because s/he doesn’t fit into your idea of a perfect world.  That’s much worse.

14. Power is dangerous.

And that’s scary, because as soon as you have influence over another person, it’s possible (even likely) that you’re going to hurt him or her.  None of us is perfect; we all try to remake the world in our own images.  And that means we’re always at risk – always toeing the line between really engaging another person and colonizing him, remaking her to fit into our world.

15. The best place to be is uncomfortable.

Safe is easy.  And easy is dangerous, because easy is comfortable.  When we’re comfortable, we get complacent and we quit paying attention.  We stop asking hard questions.  We start to think we’re the king of our castles.  Being in an uncomfortable space reminds us that we’re not in control.  That the world is stranger than we like to remember.  That other people really aren’t the way we want them to be.  The uncomfortable spaces are a very good place to meet God.

As I write this, I’m sitting on the balcony of a Dominican Institute in Cairo listening to the Muslim call to prayer echo across the city.  I’m pretty far outside my comfort zone.

Who’s your favorite character?  Where have you been the victim of violence?  What about the perpetrator?  And how comfortable are you where you are?

6-10: Good Stories Matter

6. Reading is a necessary life-skill.

Leaders are readers.  Read lots of stuff.  Blogs, books, magazines.  Read the best stuff in your area.  Read fiction.  Read bestsellers.  Read classics.  Read books you’re pretty sure you’re going to disagree with.  Just read.  Seriously.  It’s a skill you can develop.

It just occurred to me that, if you’re reading this, I’m probably preaching to the choir.

7. There is such a thing as good literature.  Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer and Tim LeHaye are not it.

If you’re reading, I’m so glad.  But please read good books.  Not the trash that gets pawned off as literature.  Yes, I’m a snob about good books and I will never apologize for it.  The world is packed full of good books, so you don’t ever need to waste your time with crap.  I’m sure I just offended tons of people, but see above: on this issue, I will not apologize.

Do. Not. Read. Bad. Books.  It’s actually okay to get into a book and quit because it’s not a good book.  I had to learn this lesson the hard way.  Do yourself a favor and do the work of finding and reading good books.

8. Good stories are hard to find.

Good StoryNot because there are so few, but because there’s so much clutter out there (see #7).  Good stories transport us outside our small worlds and to a place that’s bigger than we can imagine on our own.  They show us ourselves at our best and worst.  They’re mirrors that show us our true selves (because let’s face it: we all need help with that).

Here are some of my favorite stories: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Anansi Boys, The Dark Knight, The Shawshank Redemption and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

9. Good story-tellers can make anything interesting and worthwhile.

Seriously.  Good story-tellers make even the most mundane activities or scenes burst with life and energy.  They use words to unveil a reality that you see has been there all along, you just couldn’t see it.  They show you the magic that imbues even the very mundane and ordinary.  And they make it look easy, but it’s not.  It’s not a gift… it’s a carefully cultivated skill.

Some of my favorite storytellers: Stephen R. Donaldson, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Johnny Cash,

10. You can learn to be a good story-teller.

Just to be clear, this is a bad story-teller.

It’s true.  What looks like magic is actually blood, sweat and lots of tears.  We are hard-wired for stories, so there are some basic skills anyone can develop to become a better story-teller (and –hearer for that matter).  Donald Miller has been working quite a bit on this lately, and has tons of great suggestions about how to become a better story-teller.  Here’re some books I also highly recommend if you want to work on this!

Resonate – Nancy Duarte
Made to Stick – Chip and Dan Heath
Communicating for a ChangeAndy Stanley

Whew – that’s 6-10.  Next week I’ll start off with my all-time favorite story character (no big surprise there).  But for now – how important are stories to you?  What are some of your favorite?  Who are some of your favorite story-tellers?