School book bans and political battles over library collections are two of the disturbing things people will remember about 2022. In such an environment, reading shifts from being a source of entertainment and knowledge to an act of protest. Opening a book — especially one tackling a controversial subject or challenging the status quo — becomes an act of defiance that nurtures dreams about a different world than the one we live in now.
Here at A Public Witness, it’s an annual tradition (meaning we did it last year and we’re doing it again now) to share our favorite books of the year. Our selections are not subject to any form of censorship beyond our own curiosity and procrastination. Nor, despite being steadfast supporters of democracy overall, do we put these recommendations up for a vote. Instead, you get Brian and Beau’s unfiltered recommendations for what to purchase at your local bookstore, download on your eReader, or check out from your local library (unless one of our recommendations has been removed from its shelves).
As with last year, the table of contents is as follows: 1. Five books featured on our podcast Dangerous Dogma, 2. Five books recommended by Brian (that haven’t yet led to Dangerous Dogma episodes), 3. Five books recommended by Beau, and 4. A heartwarming conclusion.
5 Books Featured on Dangerous Dogma
1. A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence: Key Thinkers, Activists, and Movements for the Gospel of Peace by David Cramer and Myles Werntz (Baker Academic). This time of year, we sing songs about the birth of the “Prince of Peace” and even make peace a key theme for Advent. But actually living out the Christian teachings on nonviolence is much harder and rarer. Fortunately, the Mennonite and Baptist co-authors of this work have compiled examples that enlarge our understanding of different approaches to Christian nonviolence, and also inspire us to better live out the gospel of peace. Both authors talked about their work in episode 34. We could use more peace on Earth. So let’s start by studying those who have shown us how.
2. Fortune: How Race Broke My Family and the World — and How to Repair It All by Lisa Sharon Harper (Brazos Press). In this beautiful and ambitious work, Harper explores her own family history to tell the story of racism in the United States. As she explained in episode 36, we cannot make progress today unless we are willing to tell the truth about the past. This book will teach you about parts of our history that many have worked to keep hidden. But the book isn’t just about the past. Harper also offers practical ways Christians can help make a better present and future. Along the way, her words will educate, challenge, upset, and inspire you.
3. The Flag & The Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy by Philip Gorski and Samuel Perry (Oxford University Press). There are a lot of books coming out trying to understand Christian Nationalism, especially in light of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. And none more effectively offers the case for how this ideology threatens our nation than The Flag & The Cross. Perry, one of the two sociologists who wrote this important book, talked about the dangers of Christian Nationalism in episode 46. And Gorski offered a few words in our review of the book earlier this year. With a new presidential campaign season already starting, this book is a must-read for those who care about Christianity and democracy.
4. Do I Stay Christian?: A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed, and the Disillusioned by Brian McLaren (St. Martin’s Essentials). Amid the rise of the “nones” (those who aren’t atheists but who remain religiously unaffiliated), McLaren explains why he has stayed a Christian. But he makes this compelling case by first explaining the reasons he might have walked away from church. He isn’t playing devil’s advocate; he’s honestly acknowledging the ways Christians have brought pain and suffering to the world. As he explained in episode 53, he believes we must be honest about the good and bad impact of churches and Christian leaders. Only with such honesty can those of us who stay Christian help make a better Church and world.
5. White Evangelicals and Right-Wing Populism: How Did We Get Here? by Marcia Pally (Routledge). This slim volume packs in a ton of information to help readers understand how White evangelicals moved from often embracing progressive politics to cheerleading the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection on behalf of an authoritarian ruler. As the subtitle notes, Pally explores the development of the U.S. evangelical movement, especially how populistic politics helped shape White evangelical racism, xenophobia, and sexism. What we see today is a story decades in the making as many evangelicals gave into duress over a changing society and economic pressures. She offered a peek into these ideas in episode 57.
5 Books Recommended by Brian
1. The First Advent in Palestine: Reversals, Resistance, and the Ongoing Complexity of Hope by Kelley Nikondeha (Broadleaf Books). If you’ve been reading our Unsettling Advent series, you can probably guess I appreciate efforts to think about this time of year in ways that run counter to our culture’s glittery, commercialized festival. Nikondeha does that as she unpacks the biblical stories with a focus on understanding the social and political context of Jesus’s time. And she weaves in stories from Palestinians today that offer additional insights. You won’t read the old Christmas stories the same way again — and that’s a gift.
2. Sympathy, Solidarity, and Silence: Three European Baptist Responses to the Holocaust by Lee Spitzer (Judson Press). In this important work, Spitzer builds upon his earlier volume Baptists, Jews, and the Holocaust: The Hand of Sincere Friendship. In the first book, he studied how Southern, Northern (now American), and National (Black) Baptists reacted to the rise of the Nazis and news of the Holocaust. In the new book, he turns his attention to Baptists in England, France, and Germany. He makes significant contributions to our understanding of what happened. And this book offers insights for Christians today thinking about issues of antisemitism, democracy, authoritarianism, and prophetic witness. He talked about the book and some of what he found in a recent episode of Baptist Without An Adjective.
3. 2 A.M. in Little America by Ken Kalfus (Milkweed Editions). In this novel, Kalfus introduces readers to the life of a refugee experiencing anti-immigrant hatred after fleeing political violence during a civil war … in the United States. It’s a haunting book in a time when some people talk about political differences in the U.S. as if a civil war is a solution that should actually be considered. The lack of specificity on some of the details about locations, languages, and political players interrupts the story a bit, but also works to give readers the same disorienting and unsure sense of reality that plagues the narrator.
4. Voices of Lament: Reflections on Brokenness and Hope in a World Longing for Justice edited by Natasha Sistrunk Robinson (Revell). This unique book features essays, poems, and art by nearly 30 Women of Color reflecting on faith and life in light of their contexts and Psalm 37. They walk through the passage to reflect on issues of oppression, suffering, and justice. And they do it with a kind of honesty that’s common in the psalms but often missing in Christian literature and worship today. Not only is this book worth reading, but it also introduced me to several writers I hadn’t yet read but have books I now know to check out.
5. Flight and Metamorphosis: Poems by Nelly Sachs, translated by Joshua Weiner & Linda Parshall (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux). Sachs died in 1970, but this new English translation of one of her German poetry books came out just this year. A German Jew who escaped the Nazi regime in 1940, she was honored with the 1966 Nobel Prize in Literature in large part for her poems about the Holocaust. But this book is instead grounded in her experience as a refugee in Stockholm, Sweden, and at times sounds like it could be the words of someone today fleeing Syria, Myanmar, Sudan, or Ukraine. As she plays with language, she also works in references to biblical characters like Adam, Noah, Jacob, Joseph, David, and Daniel
5 Books Recommended by Beau
1. Christianity’s American Fate: How Religion Became More Conservative and Society More Secular by David Hollinger (Princeton University Press). A noted historian, Hollinger tackles two trends that should fascinate every American Christian concerned about the decline of moderate and progressive denominational traditions: an increasingly secular society that sees no need for faith and a co-opting of Christianity by an increasingly extreme wing of society. He explains these developments by turning a common explanation on its head. Perhaps conservative evangelical churches grew numerically because they demanded less, not more, than their mainline or ecumenical counterparts. Look for a podcast interview with the author this week on Dangerous Dogma and a fuller review of the book in January.
2. Letters to the Sons of Society: A Father’s Invitation to Love, Honesty, and Freedom by Shaka Senghor (Convergent Books). This book likely wouldn’t have been on my radar had The Christian Century not asked me to review it. I’m so glad that request came in. In writing letters to his sons about his own experiences as a formerly-incarcerated Black man living in the U.S., Senghor covers a lot of the territory a reader would anticipate, but he does so in very surprising ways. The book mixes profound, sometimes contrarian, insights with raw emotions that run the gamut from humor to anger.
3. The Office BFFs: Tales of The Office from Two Best Friends Who Were There by Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey (Dey Street Books). Building off their incredible re-watch podcast, the “Office Ladies” have put their stories and personal photos into book form. Whether watching The Office for the first or hundredth time, this is essential reading for understanding the people — fictional and real — who made up the Dunder Mifflin universe. This book makes a way better gift than a homemade oven mitt or a jazz babies poster for any fan of the TV show, whether that’s a friend, family member, or yourself.
4. Spiritual Care: The Everyday Work of Chaplains by Wendy Cadge (Oxford University Press). The work of chaplains is a rapidly growing element of the American religious landscape. Few scholars have illuminated the complexity of chaplaincy like Cadge, a sociologist. Her latest book takes chaplains in the Boston area as a case study for understanding both the evolutions of chaplaincy and how it is diversely practiced today. Often embodying the tension between church and state by carrying out their vocational work in public settings, chaplains warrant greater attention for what they reveal about the state of the American soul. Cadge’s latest book is a wise guide into this neglected but vital area of ministry.
5. The Seven Democratic Virtues: What You Can Do to Overcome Tribalism and Save Our Democracy by Christopher Beem (Penn State University Press). After an earlier book review and podcast interview, you’re probably tired of hearing about this book from us or wondering if we get a commission for every copy sold (we don’t, but we probably should). It’s just a rare thing to find a political scientist trained as a religious ethicist talking about what is morally and normatively required from citizens to preserve our democracy. Beem addresses one of our most urgent questions in an intelligent but accessible way. This is a book every American Christian worried about our democracy needs to read.
What Are You Reading?
While not all of these books might be of interest to you, we hope you will find a couple worth picking up. Maybe if you’ve been good this year, you’ll find one of them under your Christmas tree soon.
There are obviously many other good books we read this year that we could highlight. And there are even more piled up on our desks or cluttering our Christmas wish lists. But we’d like to quickly note two other books.
One of us (Beau) had a book come out earlier this year on progressive Christian parenting. Beau and his co-author, Jonathan Hall, talked about the book on episode 43 of Dangerous Dogma. Their book, Dear Son: Raising Faithful, Just, and Compassionate Men, is perfect for the young father on your Christmas list.
Additionally, the two of us joined with biblical scholar Angela Parker to co-author a Lenten devotional book for this coming year: Unsetting Lent. It might seem odd to put this on the 2022 book list, but it is technically now available. So go ahead and get copies for yourself and others in your church or Bible study group. And you can save 5% by using the promo code LENT23 between now and Christmas.
In an age where too few people read books and too many people seek to ban books, we hope this list will inspire you. And if you’ve read a good book this year, we invite you to share that in a comment (as usual, commenting is only available for paid subscribers). We look forward to adding your suggestions to our piles!
As a public witness,
Brian Kaylor & Beau Underwood