Top Reads of 2019

Being the year when I finished seminary and started Parish Pulpit Fellowship, I’m pleased to say that this year’s readings are very assorted: theology, philosophy, mysticism/spiritual, fiction, sci-fi, high fantasy, dyspotian, letters, and even punctuation! It seems, more than previous years, there was a high number of gems and goldmines—as evidenced by the many different kinds of “Best” and “Most” categories I had to conjure. Or maybe I feel like that every year.

I also finally read figures I’ve been meaning to and genres I had to overlook during seminary. Every since I heard the fantastic name Friedrich Schleiermacher—it just dances off the tongue—and his infamous legacy, I’ve wanted to read him. I’m delighted to report that I found his On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Desires (1799) more agreeable than not. And one of my favorite genres I had to shelve during seminary is dystopian. At their best they accurately present our world in a foreign-not-so-foreign ways; in such way, I guess, they do merit theological value. I was, however, pretty disappointed by Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953)—maybe it was too hyped?

Without further ado, here’s my varied list because I didn’t want to pare down too much:

Best Re-read of 2019:
C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces (1956)

It’s hard, very hard, to name a favorite C.S. Lewis book—but this one comes very close. The second time around was even better than the first (see my review). I took it slower this time, chewing not only on the story but also on Lewis’s masterful storytelling, and I’m glad I did. I sunk and soared with Orual. Her plight became ash in my mouth and her revelation honey on my lips. She was answered.

Runner-Up: Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (1994)

Few books merit re-reads: either it’s that good or that complicated. This is that good and that simple. The Return of the Prodigal Son is one of Nouwen’s most mature works. The way he expounds on the younger and elder sons seems to me a bit distant, as if he’s more remembering lessons learned; he really wrestles with the father, however. It’s hard being faithful and loving for so long. I’m glad Nouwen is with me and so many others on the way.

Best Fiction of 2019:
Frank Herbert, Dune (1965)

Dune!!! Acclaimed as the most sold sci-fi novel in 2003, nearly 40 years after publication. It’s more than a classic; it’s a gold standard of sci-fi (see my review). I loved nearly every minute listening to it—so much so that I even took nighttime walks to hear more! That’s damn good storytelling, and voice acting.

TED-Ed made a video about why you should read Dune!

Runner-Up: Brandon Sanderson, Mistborn: Final Empire (2006)

After sci-fi, I wanted to try my ears on fantasy. Mistborn did not disappoint (see my review). At times it’s a bit long-winded: that’s quite unavoidable since it is nearly 25 hours long on Audible. But more often than not it delighted some of the long commutes in Seoul. And more often than I would like to admit I dreamed about swallowing bits of metal to burn and harness allomantic powers. But I dared not: I don’t know the proper proportions, and allomancy is hereditary.

Best Dystopian of 2019:
Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower (1993)

A modern-day prophet, that’s what she is. It was chilling to read a dystopian because of climate change and not some nuclear war or global warfare (see my review). Set not too far into the future and just around Riverside, California, it was eerie to read streets and places I know—mostly within an hour drive (minus traffic) of Pasadena. I should learn some survival skills, just in case.

Runner-Up: Albert Camus, The Plague (1947)

Another fascinating dystopian not based on Cold War fears but Black-Death-esque pandemonium! What would happen if an entire city was quarantined with an unknown but terrible disease? Would panic take over? Would old habits go on? How would a town handle such horrifying news? The Plague is not an action-packed page-turner; rather, it is a simmer that bubbles up a rich stew.

Best Theology of 2019:
Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology Volume One (2015)

Katherine Sonderegger is one of my theologian-heroes. She’s creative, poetic, and unflinchingly confessional, as evidenced in the first installment of her systematics (see my review). I think one of the most captivating aspects is the way Systematic Theology Volume One reads. It’s commanding not with dominant airs but rather with staunch rootedness. It’s rhythmic like a sermon—and, no, not the boring kind. It’s ravishing to the soul—charging weary ones like me.

Runner-Up: Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self (2013)

Sarah Coakley is not afraid of taboo topics: sex, sexuality, gender, desire, and the Trinity. She’s not weaving these together to be sensational; instead, she thinks things are already that complicated (see my review). Our desires—even sexual ones—are hopelessly (or rather thankfully) entangled with God’s desire. And this is good news: God’s unyielding desire for us will purify and reenergize our desires properly for God and neighbor.

The next two categories before naming the best book of 2019 are more fun.

Most Informative of 2019:
Kathryn Tanner, Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism (2019)

Do economic theory and theological ethics go together? Well, whether we like it or not, they are already molded together, and it’ll be for the better the quicker we reckon this. Kathryn Tanner had decades ago and Max Weber centuries before. Max Weber almost made Protestant ethics subservient to capitalism. But this time Christian theology strikes back to destroy the Death Star of finance-dominated capitalism and win back humanity unto God (see my review).

Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism wins this category because it unpacks finance-dominated capitalism and Christian theology strong enough to combat and undo the former’s treacheries. There’s a lot, almost so much so that it merits a re-read.

Runner-Up: Daniel L. Smith-Christopher, A Biblical Theology of Exile (2002)

Scripture is saturated with exilic theology—both from and for exiled peoples. This is a Copernican Revolution of viewing Scripture as written by winners to, quite frankly, losers. The smelting pot of exile, abandonment, and divine judgment makes for some of the most wise, beautiful, hopeful, and loving theology. As Paul says, God’s power and grace are made perfect in weakness.

Most Pleasantly Surprising of 2019:
Saint Anselm, Monologium and Proslogium (1076-8)

I think Anselm gets a bad rep for being dull and narrow-minded for his Ontological Argument (or the argument for God’s existence) and ruthless for his Cur Deus Homo (or a treatise on why God became man and for Jesus’ death). Bad press, I’d say! I found Anselm to be the very opposite: exciting, open (yet critical), and full of awe before God’s majesty. Monologium and Proslogium are meant to be instructional, yes, but they are also prayers. They’re also prime examples of Anselm’s principle: fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”). Also accurate is the old man’s desperate plea before Jesus: “I believe, help my unbelief!” I felt like I was pluming the depths and heights of human reason with Anselm in Monologium and Proslogium. In the end, all is for more praise to God.

Thank you, Doctor Magnificus.

Runner-Up: Richard Feldman, Epistemology (2002)

It’s no surprise that the two books in this “Most Pleasantly Surprising” categories are philosophy: I always had a slight phobia to it. But I’m glad to say that it does not have to be that way—at least, not all the time! Richard Feldman is a wonderful guide into modern, analytic epistemology (fancy word for “the study of knowledge or knowing”). It’s incredibly helpful and thereby delightful.

Best of 2019:
Willie James Jennings, Acts (2017)

It’s Willie James Jennings. Need I say more? Well, I did in my review.

Jennings is one of today’s best and most articulate theologians. When he speaks or writes, one is strongly advised to heed him. Even in this more lay-level theological commentary, it is jam-packed with empire-toppling theology, such as the revolution of the intimate! The Spirit is moving through brother Jennings, hallelujah!

Runner-Up: Henri Nouwen, Love, Henri (2016)

It almost took the entire year to finish these letters. Such a beautiful human being, Henri Nouwen is. These letters exhume with love and grace. Patience and understanding saturate them, always pointing to Jesus. What a wounded soul, yet it is precisely his woundedness that so deeply touches his correspondents and readers. I have benefited and will continue to benefit from his vulnerability.

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