14 December 2017

Top Ten Books of 2017

Every December, since 2010, I have put out a list of what I consider to be the best books I read during the year (see the bottom of the page for each of those lists). I typically read between 100 and 150 books each year, some of which rise to the top as particular stand outs. Some books, frankly, sink to the bottom, though I have learned over the years that if I don't particularly like a book, no one will give me detention if I set it aside and don't bother to finish it.  So without further ado, here is the 2017 list of best books. 

10) Whole Prayer by Walter Wangerin
I am a little surprised that Whole Prayer, now 16 years old, has not been more widely read. Of course there are many books on prayer and it is hard to know where to begin. This one should be amongst those most readily considered. Although Wangerin provides a basic structure--we speak, God listens; God speaks, we listen--it isn't really a prayer manual. Rather, it is a series of reflections about prayer and how we relate to God. Additionally, Wangerin's writing is a delight to the senses.  

9) Union with Christ by Rankin Wilbourne
In this book, the author explores the important, even essential, doctrine of how we are joined with Christ. Christ is in us, we are in Christ, if we are believers. That is not just an obscure theological maxim, but a living truth that has significant implications for how we live. In fact, there may be fewer things more important than understanding this concept. 


I particularly liked the third chapter, which explores "two songs playing in our heads". One song is the way of extravagant grace, the other the way of radical discipleship. I find myself drawn to both concepts. I love Brennan Manning and I love Dallas Willard. The author demonstrates that these are not mutually exclusive concepts. 


8) Recapturing the Wonder by Mike Cosper
I found myself immediately engaged in this book. He writes of a modern faith that has somehow lost its sense of mystery and wonder, a supernatural faith stripped of the "super" and thus becoming mundane. He observes this trend and tells his readers "open your eyes!" I have been trying to communicate this message to fellow believers, and I don't know if the message ever lands. Often, I suspect I am regarded as either a religious nutjob, or simply as kooky. Honestly, I'm okay with those characterizations, but as someone has tasted supernatural wonder, I want to invite others to the same. God's kingdom is so much larger and more glorious than most people ever imagine, and I, like Mike Cosper, want to shout, "come and see! come and see!" 

7) The Pastor's Justification by Jared Wilson
The Pastor's Justification is the first of two Wilson books on my list this year. In my review of this book, I noted that Wilson wields a twin blade of theological wisdom and a gift with words. Assuredly, his literary achievement is quite remarkable for anyone, much less someone of his age. If a person were interested in reading through all of an author's books, a worthwhile practice, Wilson would be a good person to consider. Although the title would suggest that this book is targeted to pastors, I think anyone who struggles with the burden of imperfection and who fails to recognize how amazing justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone really is would benefit from this book.

6) The Good and Beautiful series by James Bryan Smith
Smith wrote a series of three books--The Good and Beautiful God, The Good and Beautiful Life, and the Good and Beautiful Community.  Perhaps it is unfair to gather all of these together, but it's my list, so I won't apologize. As one might expect, the initial book in the series deals with the goodness and beauty of God, and then, through the other two, translates those ideas into the Christ life.  Of the three, my favorite was The Good and Beautiful Life, which addresses character formation by exploring the Sermon on the Mount.  

5) Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren
The longer I live the Christian life, the more deeply I appreciate the ways in which some authors are able to connect real life with a life of worship on a deep level. As I look over my list of books for this year, this theme certainly presents itself. In this book, the author is able to connect things like eating meals and arguments with the church's liturgy, and does so with exceptional writing. 

4) As Kingfishers Catch Fire by Eugene Peterson
For people who know me, it is no surprise that Eugene Peterson is one of my favorite authors. I think I have read almost every book he has written though assuredly there are some lesser known volumes that I have not yet encountered. It is a large book by Christian non-fiction standards, 372 pages, consisting of a collection of Peterson's sermons. Initially, this was a disappointment to me, though once I dug in, I was pleasantly surprised. The overarching theme of Kingfishers was the call to congruence, a way of living life that consistently reflects the "with God-life". This is certainly a book I will revisit often. 

3) The Jubilee by John Blase
I am fairly certain The Jubilee by John Blase is the only book of poetry I have ever included in my top 10. Although most of my books are shelved in my library in the basement, this book remains out on a display shelf in our living room, with the hope that someone will pick it up and read it. In my longer review in April, I wrote, "An unfortunate truth is that many people avoid poetry, finding it confusing, boring, or perhaps overly sentimental. As a poetry lover, I am never sure where to direct those who might have a spark of interest in poetry. Mary Oliver is certainly good and so is Wendell Berry, yet if I am to be honest, this might well be the first book I recommend now. It is both accessible and fosters wonder." 

2) Love Big. Be Well. by Winn Collier
This book is unusual. It is a series of (fictional) letters written mostly by a pastor, Jonas McAnn, to his congregation. The skillful way in which Collier was able to map real life and real concerns onto a fictional church was remarkable. I found myself caring deeply about the folks in the letters. 

1) The Imperfect Disciple: Grace for People Who Can't Get Their Act Together by Jared Wilson
Undoubtedly, Jared Wilson is one of my favorite authors. Last year I commented that he was one of only two authors who had made my top 10 books list three times or more (the other was Jerry Bridges). As of this year, he stands alone as the author most featured, and with two books no less! 

In this book, Wilson explored discipleship, but it read differently than most books on the topic. Even when writing about things we may do to grow in Christ, Wilson did not fail to shine a spotlight on God's graciousness. Although the whole book was excellent, this bit from chapter 9 brought me to tears. "When you are in the pit of suffering--on the verge of death, even--Jesus isn't up in heaven simply blasting you down below with some ethereal values. He's not 'sending good thoughts'--or worse, 'good vibes'--your way. No, when you are laid low in the dark well of despair, when the whole world seems to be crashing down on you, when your next breath seems sure to be your last, Christ Jesus is down in the void with you, holding you. He keeps your hand between his own. He offers his breast for your weary head. He whispers the words of comfort a whisker's breath from your ear: 'and behold, I am with you always.' Grace is all-sufficient for weakness and for suffering because Jesus is all-sufficient." I cannot recommend this book highly enough. 

2016
1) The Wingfeather Saga (technically 4 books) by Andrew Peterson
2) Living in Christ's Presence by Dallas Willard and John Ortberg
3) A Different Kind of Happiness by Larry Crabb
4) Wholeheartedness by Chuck DeGroat
5) World Enough and Time by Christian McEwen
6) The Blessing of Humility by Jerry Bridges
7) The Voice Bible by the Ecclesia Bible Society
8) The Cry of the Soul by Dan Allender and Tremper Longman
9) You are What You Love by James K.A. Smith
10) Letters to a Young Pastor by Calvin Miller

2015
1) Love Does by Bob Goff
2) The Allure of Gentleness by Dallas Willard
3) The Pastor by Eugene Peterson
4) A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser
5) A Loving Life by Paul Miller
6) Relational Soul by Rich Plass and Jim Cofield
7) Reversed Thunder by Eugene Peterson
8) Prodigal Church by Jared Wilson
9) The Solitary Tales by Travis Thrasher
10) hand in Hand: The beauty of God's sovereignty and meaningful human choice by Randy Alcorn

2014
1) Extravagant Grace by Barbara Duguid
2) Everybody's Normal Till You Get to Know Them by John Ortberg
3) Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi
4) The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ by Ray Ortlund Jr.
5) Joy for the World by Greg Forster
6) Why Sin Matters by Mark McMinn
7) What's Best Next? by Matt Perman
8) Messy Spirituality by Mike Yaconelli
9) Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves
10) Jesus Continued... by JD Greear

2013*
1) One Way Love by Tullian Tchvidjian
2) Grace in Addiction by John Z
3) Becoming a True Spiritual Community by Larry Crabb
4) Tale of the Toboggans by Christian Schmidt
5) Prodigal God by Tim Keller
*I only listed 5 in 2013 for some reason.

2012**
1) Anatomy of the Soul by Curt Thompson
2) The Transforming Power of the Gospel by Jerry Bridges
3) Not the Way Its Supposed to Be by Cornelius Plantinga
4) Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey
5) Think Christianly by Jonathan Morrow
6) Gospel Wakenfulness by Jared Wilson
7) Gospel Deeps by Jared Wilson
8) The Explicit Gospel by Matt Chandler
9) Shame Interrupted by Ed Welch
**Nine?  Why nine? What a weird number.

2011***
1) Commentary on Galatians by Martin Luther
2) Stand: A Call for the Endurance of the Saints by John Piper and Justin Taylor
3) Give Them Grace by Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson
4) How People Change by Tim Lane and Paul Tripp
5) Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald Whitney
***Apparently in 2011, I didn't actually put out a list. Why? I am not sure.  However, I went back through my list and here are some I would have recommended from that year. Luther on Galatians is an absolute must read for Christians, in my opinion. 

2010
1) Chosen by God by RC Sproul
2) The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan
3) Ashamed of the Gospel by John McArthur
4) Surprised by Grace by Tullian Tchvidjian
5) Confessions by St Augustine
6) The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges
7) Spectacular Sins by John Piper
8) If God is Good by Randy Alcorn
9) Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl by ND Wilson
10) Family Driven Faith by Voddie Baucham

16 November 2017

Book Review: Love Big. Be Well.

If it weren't for the high praise offered by John Blase, author of The Jubilee, one of my favorite collections of poetry, I am not sure I would have happened upon this remarkable book. Love Big Be Well (2017) by Winn Collier is such a warm and welcome gift. About two-thirds of the way through it, I wrote inside the front cover, "this whole book is a benediction."

Love Big Be Well offers a unique premise. A disenchanted man, Jonas McAnn, responds to a handwritten letter from a pastoral search committee from Granby Presbyterian Church, ultimately becoming this small town church's pastor. The book is a collection of pastoral letters, which routinely conclude with "Love Big. Be Well. Jonas."

In these letters, Jonas addresses several aspects of the Christian life, identifying what he sees as marks of true faith and those that seem to be counterfeits of what Jesus actually said with a raw honesty. One of the advantages of using a fictional story like this is the ability to describe one's convictions without seeming self-important.

Collier also accomplished what I think was an impressive rhetorical feat: I came to care deeply about the members of the church, and especially Don, through the pastor's descriptions in his letters. Fictional letters about fictional characters, and yet I was moved.

Several times, I found myself longing to read more about Port William, Kentucky, Wendell Berry's fictional small town because in many ways, Collier's book was reminiscent of Berry.

I certainly see why John Blase endorsed this book. And Eugene Peterson. I am happy to add my unknown name to that list. I will be reading this book again, and likely purchasing copies for others, because I won't want to share mine.

14 November 2017

Book Review: Recapturing the Wonder

I picked up Mike Cosper's Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World (2017) from the Intervarsity Press table at the AACC world convention along with a few other books. I tucked it in my briefcase and when I got home, shelved it. Thankfully, I didn't forget it was there because this book is excellent.

I found myself immediately engaged in this book. He writes of a modern faith that has somehow lost its sense of mystery and wonder, a supernatural faith stripped of the "super" and thus becoming mundane. He observes this trend and tells his readers "open your eyes!" I have been trying to communicate this message to fellow believers, and I don't know if the message ever lands. Often, I suspect I am regarded as either a religious nutjob, or simply as kooky.  Honestly, I'm okay with those characterizations, but once one has tasted supernatural wonder, he wants to invite others to the same. When one recognizes that God's kingdom is so much larger and more glorious than most people ever imagine, he wants to shout, "come and see! come and see!" 

I cannot commend this book strongly enough. If you find your faith boring, mundane, or disenchanted, please get this book and read it.  I don't think you'll regret it. The last page and a half of the book proper (149-150) are alone worth its price.

21 October 2017

Ten Statements about emotion

Ten statements about emotion that one will have difficulty supporting biblically:
1) Emotions are a sign of weakness. 
2) Life would be better if we learned to suppress our emotion.
3) One cannot be logical and emotional at the same time. 
4) People who express emotion are not thinking clearly. 
5) Emotions are unnecessary.
6) Emotions are dangerous.
7) Just like Spock, Jesus was unemotional.
8) God the Father is unemotional.
9) In the process of sanctification, we will become less emotionally expressive.
10) Church is not the place for emotion.

Soil of the Divine

In late 2016, I began working on a book of poetry based upon the Psalms. Each weekday morning, I would read one of the Psalms, meditate upon it, and see what stirred in my heart, with the goal of writing a poem inspired by each Psalm. Some mornings, words flowed easily; on others, I felt blocked, but each day, I wrote. After finishing the draft, I spent a few months editing and tweaking the poems. Some friends graciously agreed to offer editorial assistance as I neared the end (thank you Briana and Cindy!). I formatted the interior, designed the cover, and ultimately sent it on to publication.

Earlier in the week, I received my first case of books. They arrived while I was meeting with 7/8 of my life group. I gathered my children to the basement and subjected them to the grand unveiling. I am grateful they humored me. I sent copies along to a few people, but remained rather tight-lipped. I wanted my mom and my aunt Sandy to see it before I went public with it. They both have their copies, so I am glad to be able to tell you all about it.

I do hope you will consider reading it. Even if poetry "isn't your thing," my hope is that you might be edified by it. It's available on both Kindle and in paperback (if you know me, you are aware of my preference). You can purchase it directly through the CreateSpace e-store or Amazon.

If you are looking for Christmas gifts for everyone you know, I would also be happy to recommend it. 😊

*At times, I will post some of my favorite poems at my new blog, jasonkanz.com

11 October 2017

Altruism, Neuroscience, and Christian Psychology

I was contacted by a magazine editor to offer thoughts on an article from the Proceedings from the National Academy of Sciences a few years ago. I ended up writing a treatise. 

I will try to offer several thoughts, that I hope will be cogent.  The PNAS study is an interesting one. Neuroscience, as you no doubt know, has advanced considerably over the last several years. This seems especially true following the advent of functional neuroimaging, such as fMRI, which allows researchers to get a glimpse of what is happening in a functioning brain. This fMRI research has progressed from understanding motor functioning (e.g., finger tapping) to cognitive tasks (e.g., memory) and now to issues of relationship and morality. Researchers continually push the edge in terms of figuring out how to administer tasks inside the scanner  to try to understand what is going on in the brain. This emotion recognition paradigm is a fascinating one. It is unsurprising that the amygdala shows increased responsiveness in those who are altruistic; the amygdala is one of the brain structures most closely associated with emotional expression, but also emotional memory. So, from a neuropsychological perspective, these results confirm what one might predict. 

As a Christian neuropsychologist, the question of biological markers and altruism is an important one to consider. As you might imagine, for a non-theistic materialist, the assumption might be that the larger amygdala causes increased altruism, but what if the direction is reversed? What if those who exhibit consistently other-centered behaviors develop improved amygdala function? I shared with someone the other day that I believe Jesus, in his humanity, had the most exquisitely integrated brain of any person ever; there was no malfunction, there was no disintegration. His brain functioned the way all of our brains should function. But the New Testament also calls each of us to wholeness. I am particularly fond of John 13 to 17 where Jesus practically demonstrates other centered love and tells us to love one another like he loved us. Then in his prayer, he prayed that “they would be one as he and the Father were one.” Jesus was highly altruistic, the perfect picture of wholeness, and calls us to relational integration or what my friend Larry Crabb might call “relational holiness.” Neuroscientists are increasingly recognizing the brain as not just as the organ to make our bodies move and think, but that it is a relational organ. So when Jesus tells us to love one another like he loves, or when Paul tells us to put on the new self, we are being called into a life not only of greater other centeredness and greater love, but I would argue, deeper neurological integration. 

In terms of the reconciling power of God’s grace and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, God absolutely has the ability to change our hearts, but in so doing, he also equips us for greater neuropsychological health and wholeness. Unfortunately, it is all too common that Christians don’t live into that reality and we continue to live disintegrated.


I might also anticipate another question: why is it then that non-believers might be more altruistic, kind, charitable, etc. than non-believers. I would offer a couple of thoughts: first, those one time snapshots fail to account for one’s progressive sanctification. John Newton said once, “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.” God’s ongoing grace has a role in our sanctification, which I believe includes other-centeredness. The second observation I would offer is that God’s common grace allows remarkable may allow for compassion even amongst non-believers. The question that falls to us as believers, though, is what do I do with the gift that I have been given? Will I choose to live toward wholeness in Christ or not? 

10 October 2017

Book Review: Immeasurable

A good friend of mine has often spoken fondly of Skye Jethani, though until now, I have not taken the opportunity to read anything he has written. When I saw Immeasurable: Reflections on the Soul of Ministry in the Age of Church, Inc. (Moody, 2017) I decided to give it a go. Jethani does his readers a welcome service by providing a number of essays addressing the modern church, helping to reveal blind spots and suggesting ways forward. For example, he offered push back on the celebrity church culture, viewing church as transactional rather than relational, and, ironically, reading the latest Christian books.  I especially liked his chapter, Illumination, in which he explored the differences between preaching and teaching. Another friend and I have been talking about the differences between these two things recently and after reading this chapter, I am going to work hard to call what I do on Sunday mornings preaching rather than teaching. I am there to proclaim.

On the whole, this is a really good book full of welcome insight. The chapters vary considerably in length which tripped me up perhaps more than it should, but whether two pages or a dozen, each section contains something beneficial to ministers of the gospel.

09 October 2017

jasonkanz.com

I have opened up a new site over at jasonkanz.com  I plan to use that blog to share original creations, especially around the ideas of goodness, truth, and beauty.  Please consider following that blog if you are interested in my art, poetry, photoraphy, or essays.

Thank you.

04 October 2017

Poem: Rustling Leaves

So many rustling leaves
brittle and devoid of life.
They congregate in piles 
not long for the earth. 

Their burial clothes--
crimson, yellow, and burnt umber--
are beautiful
but retain no power for life. 

It is those leaves
who remain connected
to the Branch
in whom life dwells
and who, in return
breathe life into the world. 

30 September 2017

Poem: Pick the Flowers

In a world of LOLs and LMAOs
of baes and YOLOs,
we have not lost our vocabulary,
we have bastardized it.
Each of us
has rolling fields from which
we choose our words.
Though some fields
may be larger than others,
all contain verbal blossoms
ready to unfold in beauty
and bless.
Yet we choose weeds--
thorns and thistles--
who not only inhibit goodness
but actively corrupt it.
In a world
of so many weeds
pick the flowers.