My Favorite 10 Books of 2013

Favorite Books of 2013-2

This has been a great reading year for me. I knocked out 64 books (see the complete list here) including a good mix of theology, philosophy, fiction, and even a few classics. It wasn’t easy to narrow my favorites down to top ten.

Before sharing my list, though, I’ll add my annual caveat: these are not this year’s most acclaimed books, nor the most timeless or best-written. Some weren’t even published in 2013. They’re simply my personal favorites, the books I read and liked best, the ones I kept thinking about well after finishing.
 
PS. Here are my favorite books from past years:

 

Brothers Karamazov10. The Brothers Karamazov

by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 796 pages, paperback
Originally released in November 1880

After deciding to start this classic back in 2011, I only finished it this year. As for many readers, the deep and probing novel illuminated for me the war between sin and grace, the apparent fissure between the goodness of God and a world marked by pain and loss, and the shocking beauty that emerges out of even the most dysfunctional families. Dostoyevsky’s insights into human psychology and resilient love still flash through my mind, long after finishing.

 

Reflections on the Psalms9. Reflections on the Psalms

by C.S. Lewis

Mariner Books, 168 pages, paperback
Originally released in 1958

This year I continued to read through Lewis’ corpus and his slim book on the Psalms emerged as my favorite. Though Lewis was not a theologian or biblical scholar—in fact he begins this book by admitting, “This is not a work of scholarship.” —Lewis was an accomplished expert in literature and an underrated poet. Here he applies those gifts to the Psalms, first exploring the more “repellent” verses, those concerning judgment and curses, before reflecting on the more upbeat, imaginative lyrics that compose most of the biblical collection. The result is a gem that shines new light on familiar hymns, and inspires you to read the Psalms anew.

 

What Happened at Vatican II8. What Happened at Vatican II

by John O’Malley

Belknap Press, 400 pages, paperback
Released on October 1, 2010

On the fiftieth anniversary of Vatican II, I asked many bibliophile friends which one-volume introduction to the Council they’d recommend. Almost everyone pointed to this book, and now I see why. O’Malley has a gift for tying together the wide and varied strands of theological debate, political posturing, and spiritual insight into a compelling narrative. His careful, linear account oscillates between on-the-ground anecdotes and sweeping, general trends, which together help any Council novice, like me, to grasp the full scope and significance of this momentous event.

 

The Napoleon of Notting Hill7. The Napoleon of Notting Hill

by G.K. Chesterton

Dover, 208 pages, paperback
Originally released in 1904

I really enjoyed this short and unsung novel by G.K. Chesterton—the first he ever wrote—because it embodies so many classic Chestertonian themes: the extraordinary hidden in the ordinary; the seriousness of fun (for “joy is the serious business of heaven,” as Lewis reminded); and the sanity of Distributism, on display as simple men rally to defend their piddling land from greedy industrialists for the simple reason that it is theirs. The book is admittedly surreal, filled with medieval heraldry and kingships decided by lottery, but that’s what gives it color. Read this book to see Chesterton’s whimsical brilliance play out through story.

 

Bad Religion6. Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics

by Ross Douthat

Free Press, 352 pages, hardcover
Released on April 17, 2012

According to Ross Douthat, a gifted New York Times columnist, Americans are not becoming less and less religious. We’re simply becoming less orthodox. Tracing our downward religious spiral from last century’s golden age, led by Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Billy Graham, to today’s fashionable blend of prosperity gospel (Joel Osteen), self-help cults (Oprah), and the spiritual-but-not-religious boon (Elizabeth Gilbert), Douthat shows how we’ve arrived at a watered-down faith that “strokes our egos, indulges our follies, and encourages our worst impulses.” If you want to understand the trends that have shaped our religious landscape, this is your book.

 

What Is Marriage5. What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense

by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, Robert George

Encounter Books, 152 pages, paperback
Released on December 11, 2012

After co-authoring the most downloaded academic paper in the history of the Internet, these three intellects expanded their arguments into a book-length treatise with the same title. The result, in my view, is the clearest and most cogent philosophical defense of marriage today (evidenced by its reference in recent Supreme Court decisions.) Anyone seeking to understand why the state should promote man-woman marriage as the ideal, and why we can’t seriously debate the “same-sex marriage” issue until we answer a more basic question—what is marriage?—should read this book.

 

Evangelical Catholicism4. Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century

by George Weigel

Basic Books, 304 pages, paperback
Released on February 5, 2013

Perhaps no phrase appears more in Catholic circles today than “the New Evangelization,” but what does it mean and how should it shape the Church? That’s what George Weigel answers in this missionary manifesto. Weigel’s guide lays out a plan for applying the Church’s evangelical identity to the priesthood, the episcopacy, the liturgy, the laity, Catholic intellectual life, and even to the papacy. He calls for a more vibrant, reformed Church, devoted to holiness and mission, whose central focus is proclaiming Jesus Christ to the world. It’s an exciting and insightful glimpse at the Church of the New Evangelization.

 

Answering Atheism3. Answering Atheism: How to Make the Case for God with Logic and Charity

by Trent Horn

Catholic Answers, 335 pages, paperback
Released on September 28, 2013

With the increasing popularity of the New Atheists, and the growth of their many disciples, we’ve seen a whole slew of books designed to counter this trend. However, many of these books have glaring issues that make them difficult to recommend (either to theists or atheists.) Most are either too simplistic, too academic, too focused, too broad, or too caustic. Yet Trent Horn’s book strikes the right balance of breadth and depth, clarity and sophistication, charity and truth. His main project is to show there are no good reasons to embrace atheism while there are many reasons to accept theism. He defends these contentions with fair and accessible prose, copious endnotes, thick appendices, and helpful Socratic dialogues, which all make this my go-to recommendation for anyone wondering whether God is real.

 

C.S. Lewis - A Life2. C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet

by Alister McGrath

Tyndale, 448 pages, hardcover
Released on February 18, 2013

To put it simply, I’ve read several C.S. Lewis biographies and Alister McGrath’s is the best. What makes McGrath so effective are his similarities to Lewis: both were born in Northern Ireland, both followed atheism throughout their adolescence, both attended Oxford, both became prestigious dons, and both converted to Christianity. This shared trajectory allows McGrath to get inside Lewis’ mind like few others. Even more, to ensure he understood his subject, McGrath read Lewis’ entire corpus chronologically before starting his biography. The resulting book covers the major events and figures in Lewis’ life, as expected, but McGrath approaches them primarily through Lewis’ books, which offer a fresh and illuminating gateway. Notably, McGrath also defends a new date for Lewis’ conversion to theism, setting it a year later than Lewis records in his own autobiography. This significant discovery, coupled with McGrath’s smooth and perceptive prose, should put this book at the top of every Lewis-lover’s list.

 

The Joy of the Gospel1. Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel)

by Pope Francis

Word Among Us, 224 pages, paperback
Released on January 6, 2014

First of all, yes, this is a book. At over 50,000 words, it’s one of the longest papal documents on record. And second, what a remarkable book it is. In his first solo work, the Holy Father applies his characteristic themes of joy, evangelization, and mercy toward building a culture of encounter and a poor church for the poor. Touching on almost every aspect of Church life, the wide-ranging treatise addresses complacent Christians, dispirited missionaries, poor preaching, and oppressive social injustice, shimmering on every page with memorable one-liners and powerful summonses. Pope Francis recently called Evangelii Nuntiandi the “greatest pastoral document ever written.” In my view, his own joyful, vivid call to evangelization now deserves that title.

 


 

Honorable Mention

Great Books I’m Still Reading

 

What were you favorite books of 2013?

 
 
Favorite Books of 2013

“How to Talk to Atheists” – Review

“How To Talk to Atheists” CD set

Patrick Coffin w/ William Lane Craig, Fr. Robert Spitzer, and Jennifer Fulwiler

Catholic Answers, CD or MP3
 
 
Since launching StrangeNotions.com, I’ve been inundated with requests. Most take the same form: “Can you help my atheist son?” or “Can you respond to my atheist friend on Facebook?” or “What do I say to my anti-Christian professor?”

I respond as much as possible but I can’t reply to all of them. There’s simply no way to personally engage every atheist argument. But that doesn’t mean I ignore them. Even if I can’t respond to the atheist myself, I point people to good resources that will help them to respond. I believe the old adage is true: “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.”

How to Talk to AtheistsPatrick Coffin’s new CD set, “How to Talk to Atheists”—also available as MP3 downloads—is a great new way to “teach a man to fish.” A former atheist himself, Patrick brought in three of the top Christian experts on atheism to discuss the most common arguments and issues.

The first interview is with William Lane Craig, an Evangelical philosopher and today’s top Christian debater. Each year, Craig visits universities and conferences around the world to debate atheists on topics like the existence of God, objective morality, and Jesus’ resurrection. Friends and foes alike respect his acumen. One atheist praised Craig’s performance against the infamous Christopher Hitchens, saying, “Frankly, Craig spanked Hitchens like a foolish child.”

In “How to Talk With Atheists”, Craig unpacks some of his go-to arguments, like the Kalaam cosmological argument and the moral argument. He also probes the concept of infinity, using analogies and philosophy to show why an infinite universe is logically impossible.

Patrick’ second interview is with Fr. Robert Spitzer, a true Renaissance man. Fr. Spitzer is a Jesuit priest, a gifted poet, a world-class physicist and philosopher, the former president of Gonzaga University, author of several great books, and a strong advocate of both faith and science.

Building on Craig’s philosophical points, Fr. Spitzer take a scientific approach, covering quantum physics, multiverses, and complex scientific theories. He spends a good amount of time on the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem, which shows how all models of the universe must have a beginning—a beginning that points to God. What makes this interview so fruitful is that Fr. Spitzer explains tough scientific concepts in easy, down-to-earth language.

Popular blogger Jennifer Fulwiler rounds out the interviews. She offers the unique perspective of an ordinary, educated laywomen who also used to be an atheist. Jennifer grew up in a non-religious home where she was raised to pursue truth through science and reason. However, through online comment boxes, discussions with her husband, and books on Christian apologetics, she later came to believe both ultimately pointed to God. In 2007, she entered the Catholic Church.

Her background allows her to speak from firsthand experience about talking with atheists. She gives practical suggestions like not assuming that someone has denounced God for intellectual reasons, or that a particular apologetics book will resonate with all atheists. It may be true, for example, that the book doesn’t speak the same “language” as the atheist—it may be too scientific, too basic, or too pejorative.

Jennifer spends much time on the emotional and social elements of atheism. Often, she says, people embrace atheism because of their environmental conditions or personal experiences. To effectively dialogue with atheists you first need to understand why they became atheists.

Overall, the audio set brings tremendous value to anyone hoping to talk with non-believers. Patrick Coffin has gathered three top experts who each focus on one facet of atheism: Craig on the philosophical, Fr. Spitzer on the scientific, and Jennifer on the personal. Together they cover atheism from many angles and give the listener an array of practical insights and strategies. If you’re wondering what to say to an atheist friend or family member, this audio set is for you.
 
 
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Download the interview here (1 minute)
 
 
ADDITIONAL NOTE: Each guest has written at least one book on their primary topic. From William Lane Craig check out Reasonable Faith, or the popularized edition, On Guard: Defending Your Faith With Reason and Precision. From Fr. Robert Spitzer you’ll want the challenging New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy. And while it hasn’t been released yet, Jen Fulwiler’s spiritual memoir recounting her conversion will be published by Ignatius Press in early 2014.

“Consuming the Word” – Review

Consuming the Word: The New Testament and The Eucharist in the Early Church

by Dr. Scott Hahn

Image, 176 pages, hardcover
Released on May 28, 2013
 
 
If you walked into a first-century church and asked to see a copy of the New Testament, you’d get a bunch of confused looks. What do you mean a copy? The Bible didn’t exist yet. For the early Christians, “New Testament” was a sacramental phrase. It wasn’t a book; it was the Eucharist.

Consuming the WordIn Consuming the Word: The New Testament and the Eucharist in the Early Church (Image, 2013), renowned scholar Dr. Scott Hahn explains that for the biblical writers, the words “testament” and “covenant” were interchangeable. Both the Greek word for “testament” (diatheke) and the Hebrew equivalent (b’rith) are most accurately rendered in English as “covenant.” Therefore when Jesus offered a cup of wine to his disciples at the Last Supper, saying “this cup is the new covenant [kaine diatheke] in my blood” (1 Corinthians 11:25), the Jews would have understood him to say, “this cup is the new testament in my blood.” Thus the New Testament was a sacrament at least a generation before it was a document.

But why is that important? It reveals the deep connection between the New Testament books and the New Covenant liturgy. These biblical documents were intended to be proclaimed within the context of the sacrament. Unlike many Protestants, who focus exclusively on the Scriptures, Catholics dine at two tables. As Pope John Paul II described them, “one of the Word of God, the other of the Eucharist. The work that we take on ourselves consists in approaching these two tables in order to be filled.” Hahn’s book offers many fascinating insights on this connection.

Some readers may find Consuming the Word uncharacteristically disjointed. The chapters don’t move with the same linear, directed focus of titles like The Lamb’s Supper or Hail, Holy Queen. Instead, the book reads more like a collection of related, but disconnected essays. Also, readers might find the title a bit deceptive. The book isn’t so much concerned with the New Testament canon, or the development of Eucharistic theology, but with Christian semantics and the Bible’s liturgical context.

Nevertheless, Consuming the Word effectively argues that to understand Christianity, we must know it’s most basic terms—and know them as the early Christians did. For them, the phrase “New Testament” was at once sacramental and biblical. It affirmed that the Bible’s proper home was in “the heart of the Church.” Therefore today, we must follow them by communing with Christ, the Word of God, through both letter and Spirit.

“The Christus Experiment” – Review

The Christus Experiment

by Rod Bennett

CreateSpace, 310 pages, paperback
 
 
When I first heard about The Christus Experiment, a sci-fi novel featuring a time-travelling Jesus, I was skeptical. It sounded like a weird blend of H.G. Wells and Dan Brown, covering science and faith and getting both wrong. But then I noted the author, Rod Bennett. Rod previously wrote Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words (Ignatius Press, 2002), which was an excellent book that brought the early Church to life through creative narratives. The fact that Rod authored The Christus Experiment gave it much more clout. For Rod is no Dan Brown, and I mean that as a compliment.

Christus ExperimentBut it was Mark Shea’s endorsement that really piqued my attention. Mark described the book as “a lulu of a sci-fi story that I stayed up later than I should have reading. I so want to see a movie made of this. It would rock the house. Rod Bennett is one of the most original minds going right now.”

The Christus Experiment centers on multi-billionaire Anson MacDonald, who hatches a plot to visit first-century Jerusalem, find and kidnap Jesus Christ, and bring him back to our day. Like many of the other characters, including a drug-addicted, wheelchair-bound psychic, MacDonald is a wounded skeptic interested to see whether Jesus is truly a revolutionary miracle-worker or just a disappointing charlatan. He gathers the greatest physicists, religious experts, and computer scientists money can buy and creates a time portal in the middle of the desert to carry out his plan.

Much like C.S. Lewis’ novel, That Hideous Strength, Rod uses story to explore weighty questions about faith, doubt, and the power of science. His complex characters, who are anything but cliché, balance these serious questions with plenty of dry humor. Readers will delight in Rod’s trio of “expert theologians,” who deconstruct, demythologize, and explain-away Jesus’ divinity even while speaking to him face-to-face. They reminded me of the preacher who, when given the choice of entering heaven or hearing a sermon on heaven, chose the sermon.

Rod most notably succeeds where many others have failed: bringing Jesus to life through fiction. It’s tough to capture Jesus’ otherworldliness and gravitas without coming across as trite. Yet just as Lewis did with Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia, Rod does with Jesus in his book. His depiction is strange and amazing, soft and strong, earthy and transcendent—the right balance of God and man.

In addition to its religious themes, The Christus Experiment also deals with scientific questions like whether history can be changed. Here Rod’s characters are split. Some believe it can and want to kill Jesus in order to stomp out Christianity before it ever takes root. Others want to restore Jesus to his first-century home, afraid of rupturing history and jeopardizing their own existence. The book never fully resolves the question, but lets the reader answer it for himself.

It should be noted that The Christus Experiment is self-published, though I didn’t spot any spelling or grammatical mistakes. Also, for some reason the print version is only available in large-print format and features no page numbers—only chapter and section numberings like the Bible.

Yet overall, the book is just as Mark described it. It’s smart, gripping, adventurous and full of important questions and fascinating characters. If you liked Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, you’ll love The Christus Experiment.
 
 
(Check out Jeff Miller’s review over at The Curt Jester.)