Joel Wentz

contending for thoughtful Christianity

My Favorite Books in 2016

So, 2016 blew.

The perils and low-points of 2016 have been well-reported: we were dominated by a toxic, relentless political election; refugee crises and global civil unrest stoked fears (and hopefully compassion); race relations in America boiled over as police violence was continually reported; and there even seemed to be a deadly plague striking down one beloved musician after another.

But in the midst of all the suckiness, I was able to find comfort and challenge in some amazing books. So even if you aren't a reader, I commend the following to you.*

Favorite Memoir: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Stevenson's work as a justice advocate in the American South for over 25 years is beyond inspiring, and it is brilliantly captured in "story form" in this memoir. I was quite literally moved to tears by his account of real people who suffer as a result of our deeply flawed system. and the emotional impact of "Just Mercy" is intensified because of Stevenson's own relentless hope, which infects the reader in profound (dare I say, spiritual?) ways. Particularly in our political climate, this book is an absolute must-read.

Near-Favorites: Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans & Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Favorite Non-Fiction: Gettoside by Jill Leovy

Investigative reporting doesn't get much more enthralling than Jill Leovy's account of crime in South L.A. The "true crime" element is such that, at points, I nearly forgot I was reading non-fiction. The people are real, the broken lives are real, and the social commentary that Leovy threads throughout the story is real. Books like Gettoside are precisely what our fractured society needs, as it has been proven over and over again that the need for social change is best communicated through story. And it's a damn good read, to boot.

Near-Favorite: My Brother's Keeper by Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen & Life's Too Short to Pretend You're Not Religious by David Dark

Favorite Fiction: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

Certainly one of the older books I read in 2016, I was struck by the relevancy of Bradbury's commentary on humanity and society. Like the best science fiction, Bradbury transports the reader to another world (in this case, Mars) and uses its setting to make sharp observations about us. The setting of Mars is fully-realized, and Bradbury brilliantly uses the short-story/novella form to weave together multiple plots. The reader is left with some seriously haunting images and memorable characters, and in the case of the Martian Chronicles, the total is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

Near-Favorites: Home by Marilynne Robinson, Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman & the Expanse Series by James S.A. Corey

Favorite History: Slavery By Another Name by Douglas Blackmon

I decided to separate 'non-fiction' from 'history' because there's just way too much good stuff in both categories! Even after making this distinction, though, choosing a single favorite was a difficult task.

Nevertheless, Douglas Blackmon's searing account of the post-Civil War era of race relations is both astoundingly-well-researched and a gripping narrative. It isn't hyperbolic to say that this book absolutely shatters the popular notion that slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation and the conclusion of the Civil War (which is what I was taught in grade school). This simply isn't true, and those who are skeptical of this argument now have the onus on them to disprove Blackmon's research. 'Slavery by Another Name' is what I think of as a "Pandora's Box Book" in that the reader cannot unsee what Blackmon painstakingly exposes. It's hard for me to think of a better book for our time, and I absolutely cannot recommend it highly enough.

Near-Favorites: America's War for the Greater Middle East by Andrew Bacevich, Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Leowen & The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward Baptist

Favorite Theology/Philosophy: The Divine Magician by Peter Rollins

Peter Rollins is an electrifying and controversial thinker, and I imagine future generations may look back on him as a Kierkegaard-of-our-times. Thankfully, though, his writing is quite a bit more approachable than Soren's, and I found myself completely taken with his most recent work. In 'Divine Magician,' Rollins pulls on the well-trod territory of the Garden of Eden, but in his characteristic way, rips it wide open with a radical reading, pulling on insights from psychology, philosophy, sociology, and even popular culture. He is clearly brilliant, but has no interest in flouting his intelligence behind opaque writing and inaccessible ideas. To top it off, he is funny, incisive, and (dare I say) pastoral in his concern for people. Those willing to momentarily suspend 'traditional' questions about things like "the historicity of Adam and Eve" or "authorial intent in exegesis" will find much to gain from Rollin's interpretation here.

Near-Favorites: The Christian Imagination by Willie Jennings; Men and Women in the Church by Sarah Sumner; Theology in the Context of World Christianity by Timothy Tennent & The Day the Revolution Began by N.T. Wright 

Onwards to 2017! May you be a better year than the one we just slogged through, but even if you are not, I have no doubt I will find some great literary companions to keep me company.

*Note that this is not a review of books actually published in 2016. They are included here simply because I got around to reading them this year.