With a shelter-in-place order in effect the last 12 weeks, I got a jump on some of the books that would have been pushed to my summer reading list. Here are a few that have jumped to the fore.
When everything shut down in March, I went straight for John Kelly’s “The Great Mortality — an intimate history of the Black Death, the most devastating plague of all time.” The horrific spread of this flea-born bacterial disease jumped from rodents to humans, showing no respect for anyone and nearly wiping out Europe. In great detail, Kelly traces how, beginning in 1347, the epidemic raced across Europe, killing 25 million people by 1355.
If you’ve had enough coronavirus talk, and Kelly’s punch to the gut doesn’t grab you, try Tommy Caldwell’s “The Push — a climber’s search for the path.” Caldwell is a legendary rock climber who tells his New York Time’s bestselling story with humility and tenderness. Admitting his vulnerability and fear make Caldwell’s moments of triumph even more intriguing. Caldwell is prominent in “Free Solo,” the Oscar-winning National Geographic documentary of Alex Honnold’s ascent of Yosemite’s famous 3,000-foot vertical El Capitan, using no ropes. I watched it twice. Both times, it took my breath away, as each time I thought Honnold would fall to his death. Both Caldwell’s “The Push” and the documentary “Free Solo” make this a must-read, must-see duo.
In late March Brant Hansen’s new book was released. A radio personality and podcaster, Hansen’s “The Truth About Us” explores how everyone, let’s be honest, is self-righteous. Hansen is a small-town boy from central Illinois who is funny, smart and theologically savvy. The book explores this question: “What good could possibly come from admitting that most of us are far more self-righteous than righteous?”
Incidentally, since the book was released in late March, it has garnered 130 5-star reviews on Amazon. One of Hansen’s earlier books I liked, “Unoffendable — how just one change can make all of life better,” has reaped more than 1,000 5-star reviews, a rare accomplishment in the world of Amazon book reviews.
Every Tuesday for the last 10 weeks, I have taken a class through Zoom on how to better tell and write your own story. Amazingly, almost 1,000 students across the globe join writer Leslie Leyland Fields as she lectures on her new book, “Your Story Matters — Finding, writing and living the Truth of Your Life.” For years, I have read books on how to be a better writer. This book captivates me like few others have. Fields believes anyone can write their story in a gripping way. She repeatedly says, “No one knows your story like you do, and no one can write your story as well as you can.”
More than 15 years ago, I read a book by Sarah Sumner called “Men and Women in the Church,” which I loved. Sumner helped me solidify what I had come to believe, that in fact all roles of leadership open to men in the Bible also are available to women, including pastoring a church.
In May, I read Sumner’s “Angry Like Jesus — Using his example to spark your moral courage.” Sumner explores the stories of Jesus’ anger in the New Testament, concluding that godly anger can stir the church to wake up and be more truthful. Arguing that godly anger is the cure for arrogance and senseless violence, Sumner believes we must allow our anger to be refined and made useful in the hands of God. Given the frustration with the coronavirus and the anger at the senseless killing of George Floyd, this book might just be the companion you need this summer.
I have just finished two books featuring two pastors, Martin Niemoller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, both principal figures in Germany during World War II. Skidmore College history professor Matthew Hockenos wrote “Then They Came for Me — Martin Niemoller, the Pastor who defied the Nazis.” Niemoller was a controversial Lutheran pastor and theologian who initially supported Hitler but ultimately opposed Hitler’s “Aryan Paragraph” (saying all Jews should be banned from every area of public life in Germany).
Niemoller paid for his opposition. He was arrested and imprisoned from 1937-45. After the war, Niemoller was a key figure in helping rebuild trust in German churches.
Finally, a fascinating new book released this spring investigates the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer through the eyes of an American tour guide at Bonhoeffer’s childhood home in Berlin. Laura Fabrycky, who lived in Berlin from 2016-19, has written “Keys to Bonhoeffer’s Haus — Exploring the World and Wisdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.”
Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who opposed Hitler more than Niemoller did, even participating in a failed assassination attempt. Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned in 1943. In April 1945, he was hanged at age 39, just weeks before Germany fell to the Allies. Though I have read many books about Bonhoeffer, Fabrycky’s book gave me a fresh look into Bonhoeffer’s wisdom, introducing me to a fuller understanding of how he understood his own identity, his particular method of scripture meditation and prayer, and why he was so committed to resisting Hitler, finally paying with his own life.