These were my favorite nonfiction works of 2015. They don’t have to have been published in 2015 (most of them weren’t), but I did read them in 2015. (Yes, I am getting around to this late.)
Allah: A Christian Response (Miroslav Volf)
In this solidly researched book on Islam, Volf proves once again that he is one of the most thoughtful and clear writers in western Christian theology. Here he deals with the question of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God, and finds that they do. He finds a lot more than that as well, however; he discovers that what the Qur’an condemns about Jesus and the Trinity are actually heterodox presentations of Christian doctrines. That is, what the Qur’an condemns about the Trinity, Christians also condemn as misunderstandings of the doctrine.
Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity (Dianna Anderson)
Anderson comes out of the post-evangelical world of Rachel Held Evans and Benjamin Corey, and her book is a live grenade lobbed into the evangelical world of Pharisaical sexuality. Rather than condemning one another’s sexual choices, she argues that the church must focus on real purity; that is, that sexual mistakes do not “ruin” us or turn us into damaged goods, that enthusiastic consent must be the absolute rule for all sexual encounters (rather than non-consent, dubious consent, and consent against conscience), and that issues of justice and love of neighbor still apply in the sexual realm. She highlights the ways in which modern evangelicalism fails on these points.
Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America (Linda Tirado)
This was a surprise book for me; I heard about it on NPR. Tirado is a woman who has lived in poverty her whole life, and in this brutally-honest book she tells all about what it is like to live in what she calls “bootstrap America,” highlighting the stress and intense pressure that comes with life on the bottom, the injustices in the workplace that prevent them from moving up out of the bottom, and the psychology of poverty. I will never look at poverty the same way again.
No Contest: The Case Against Competition (Alfie Kohn)
This is the classic defense of cooperation over competition, originally published in 1988. Kohn is another master of clarity, able to clear vast swaths of “common sense” in a few short paragraphs. In this book he highlights the vast amounts of documentation which show how bad competition is for children, adults, the press, political elections, schools, sports, women, minorities, and literally everyone. You won’t believe what the science tells us until you work through this delightful, and freeing, book.
The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom about Children and Parenting (Alfie Kohn)
Another book by Kohn, this one published in 2014. Here he takes his characteristic clarity and insight to the notion of the “spoiled millennial.” Even in the respected, popular press you will find people lamenting about all of these spoiled millennials and the terrible parenting practices that produce them. He goes on to show in this book that older generations have lamented the “moral collapse” of younger generations since the time of Plato, that there is no real evidence that millennials are any more narcissistic, selfish, arrogant, or spoiled than any other generation in American history, and in fact that they tend to be more altruistic, volunteering more and being more open and interested in issues of justice than their parents. Another mind-blowing and ground-clearing book by Kohn.
The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power (Steve Fraser)
In this free-wheeling economic history, Fraser manages to take something that might have been very dull, and turns it into something compelling. He documents the long American tradition of resistance to organized wealth and power, beginning even before the American Revolution and continuing up until the 1960s. From that point the people virtually gave up and have allowed the wealthy to take our money and kill our economy, and offers suggestions on how to revitalize the populist resistance once again.
Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation (Jennifer Harvey)
Harvey’s book was one I just stumbled across because it looked interesting. She argues that if we really want to see genuine racial reconciliation in the church, we must abandon our white privilege and instead practice radical solidarity. She documents how the white church abandoned the black church during the end of the civil rights era when African Americans began to demand reparations. This was a bridge too far for white America, says Harvey, and the civil rights movement splintered and died an ignoble death shortly thereafter. We abandoned them, she says. The only way forward, thus, is to start with justice and restitution, not reconciliation. Reconciliation can only come after repentance, and the only acceptable act of repentance is to make reparations. I pray the church will heed her words.
Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think (George Lakoff)
Lakoff is a respected cognitive scientist, and in this book he explores what makes liberals different from conservatives. He finds that the different policy positions that define liberalism and conservatism have nothing in common except for their root cognitive metaphors. Once we see that Americans view their government and their nation as a family, we can look at how conservatives and liberals envision the ideal family. What he discovers is that conservatives operate on a “hierarchical father model,” and liberals on an “egalitarian parent model.” The various specific policy proposals get support or opposition depending on how they fit into these central, governing metaphors about national life.
In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction (Gabor Mate)
Gabor Mate worked as a medical doctor and therapist to low-income and addicted persons in Canada for a number of years. This book is the fruit of his research into addiction, and it is groundbreaking. In it he shows that addiction has its root in early-childhood development, when children suffer emotional stress, distress, or lack of proper attachment to their parents. He documents how this lack of emotional balance results in neurological damage, and how addicts use drugs or alcohol (or sugar, binge television, unhealthy foods, obsessive collecting or hoarding) as a means of self-medication and self-comfort, to address the howling emptiness inside. They quite literally cannot help it, he argues, from the overwhelming conclusions of the medical science and psychological research. He ends the book with some great suggestions for reform of national drug policies.
The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution, and the Power of Love (Ilio Delio)
Delio is a theologian working to extend Teilhard de Chardin’s work and bring it up-to-date for the 21st century. This book was my first exposure to her work, and to the work of Teilhard de Chardin. A breathtaking book about integrating evolution into the Christian narrative.
Journey to the Common Good (Walter Brueggemann)
Brueggemann remains a favorite writer of mine, and this little book is an argument for reclaiming Christian efforts for the common good of the world. He works through the exodus liberation, the Jubilee, and then through the sweep of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and shows how the issues of solidarity with the poor, justice, and mercy are the central themes throughout. The clarity of this short work is ideal for handing out to friends or family who might not yet have discovered the Christian journey to the common good.
Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt (Chris Hedges)
Hedges’ latest work is a series of essays on two interconnected subjects: 1) the moral necessity of standing up against injustice, oppression, and hate, and 2) the high price that reformers generally pay for doing so. In so doing, he recovers the old Norse model of the hero, the one who stands in the breach and fights to the death not because he necessarily believes he can win, but because it is the right thing to do. I found the book wonderfully inspiring. It does not do what many books about justice do, which is try to frame justice in terms of its pragmatic or utilitarian ends. Hedges is agnostic on whether justice can win its fight, but he insists the battle is no less worth fighting because of that.
Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Walter Wink)
Wink’s careful and well-documented work is an inspiring piece of theology which explores what the phrase “the principalities and powers” means in the New Testament. He concludes that the powers are the inward spirit in any form of organization, structure, business, school, nation, or government, which becomes its own “essence,” invisible and unspoken. Thus, the New Testament’s call to wage war against principalities and powers is a call to expose the invisible gods of our world, our social constructs, our privileges, our hidden rules that exist beyond human intentionality or consciousness, and by exposing them, exorcise them as demonic forces, and construct new systems built around the call of the gospel.
The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind (Cynthia Bourgeault)
This was a fascinating and inspiring book that seeks to reclaim Jesus as a mystical teacher of wisdom, not a political cynic or a first century Zealot or any of the various proposals that have been made about him. The book carries an endorsement by Richard Rohr, which is what drew me to it in the first place, and I found it powerful and stirring. One of the most interesting things about the book is her argument that Jesus was not an ignorant peasant, but rather spoke at least three languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, and probably Greek as well) and that Galilee, where he grew up, was actually a highly cosmopolitan area, due to the fact that the Silk Road from the far east passed directly through it, where Jesus would have been exposed to a lot of wisdom theology.