The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith
Oxford University Press, 2014
272 pp., 44.95
Favorite Books of 2014
Once again I feel like a character from Philip K. Dick’s Now Wait for Last Year. Did someone slip JJ-180 into my buttermilk? At least I know that in this particular time-stream, I’m supposed to be listing my Favorite Books of 2014.
As usual, this list makes no pretensions to identify the “best” books, nor even to include all of those that dazzled me in the course of a year of reading. But these ARE the ones that came most readily to mind when I entered the requisite trance and began writing semi-automatically on the back of an envelope—in this case, one I’ve not opened, from the Social Security Adminstration (#theagingbrain).
I should add that—also as usual—it was a good year for Books & Culture writers. It seems churlish to mention only a handful of their books here, but let these stand for a much larger number: David Skeel’s True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World; Karen Swallow Prior’s Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Like of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist; David Martin’s Religion and Power: No Logos Without Mythos (excellent to read alongside Andy Crouch’s 2013 book Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power); Tiffany Kriner’s The Future of the Word: An Eschatology of Reading; Daniel Taylor’s novel Death Comes for the Deconstructionist; Scott Cairns’ Idiot Psalms; and Glitter Bomb by Aaron Belz.
So, here’s the list. The titles are mostly in alphabetical order (and the logic of departures from that will be clear), followed at the end by the Book of the Year. For additional thoughts on the Books of 2014, keep an eye out for a piece I’m doing for First Things (assuming it passes muster there).
America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of the Nation. Grant Wacker. My only objection to this superb book—even David Hollinger, who positively loathes Graham, calls it far and away the best thing ever written on its subject—is its faintly grandiose subtitle, which can be overlooked as a convention of the trade. I’ve been waiting for years for Grant Wacker to finish it, and the wait was worth it.
Arts & Entertainments. Christopher Beha. Enough of the handwringing over the long-gone heyday of “the Catholic novel,” whenever that Golden Age is supposed to have been. (And let it be noted that Walker Percy, whom I revere, was very much hit-and-miss as a novelist.) I hope that reading this novel—Beha’s second—will send you on to his first, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, which I was directed to by the late D. G. Myers.
Back Channel. Stephen Carter. Set around the Cuban Missile Crisis, Back Channel (as I wrote in my review) “is a spy novel, a Washington novel, a JFK novel; and the latest installment in Carter's fictional history of ‘the darker nation.’ . . . Carter's uncompromising lucidity is tonic, but Back Channel is also simply a delight to read. (How odd that a book which soberly considers the threat of nuclear annihilation should also be so funny! But we are strange creatures, aren’t we?)”
Breathturn to Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry. Paul Celan. Translated and with commentary by Pierre Joris. The greatest writers can survive even the hyperbole of their fawning admirers. Put this massive bilingual volume in a stack by your bed and read it throughout the New Year.
Cover. Peter Mendelsund. + What We See When We Read. Peter Mendelsund. Books—the old-fashioned kind, with paper and binding and such—are dinosaurs, headed for extinction. Or so we’re told. Who knows. Meanwhile, handsome books continue to appear, and some of the most seductive feature covers by Peter Mendelsund, who is not only an endlessly inventive designer but also an exceptionally perceptive reader of the books he designs and of books more generally. (Maybe there’s a connection.)
From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian’s Discovery of the Global Christian Story. Mark Noll. + A Patterned Life: Faith, History, and David Bebbington. Eileen Bebbington. Mark Noll and David Bebbington are two of the finest living historians. Almost exact contemporaries, they are both deeply evangelical (they’ve done more than their share to form the evangelical mind), and they are good friends as well. It’s a treat to have these two books appearing in the same year: an unusually personal narrative by Mark, and a witty and affectionate account of David’s life and work by his wife, Eileen. (Not to be missed: the photo of David “in secondhand bookshop, Eastbourne, Sussex, 1983.”)