My [Ryan’s] Top Books of 2015

My brothers and I have long been keeping track of the books we read every year for the purpose of looking back and discerning which books had the deepest effect on our thinking and way of life. The following is brief recap of the most important books to me this year (note that not all of the following were published in 2015, only read by me in 2015).

*Please also note that the first 5 are in order of importance and the rest are randomly placed

  1. Jesus the Forgiving Victim (all 4 volumes) – James Alison
    • JFV-Books-Horiz-1024x651Don’t let the cheesy covers fool you – these volumes were the single most refreshing and interesting take on scripture and faith that I’ve ever read. As a Catholic theologian, schooled by the late Rene Girard, Alison brings together the proper anthropological and sociological framework to talk about how Jesus reveals “things hidden since the foundation of the world” and why it matters for his followers. Each volume is oustanding and the entire corpus is collectively – “the best thing I’ve read all year” (which is a big statement, I know).
  2. Slow Pilgrim (collected poems) – Scott Cairns
    • 41RCZaqU8XL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_No need to convince those of you who have read Cairns previously. Perhaps its just the kind of poetry I like – or more likely, Cairns’ theological and lyrical genius – but there really isn’t a bad poem in this massive collection of his life’s work. This certainly counts for the most elongated read as it has taken nearly 8 months to get through.
  3. Transforming theological education – Perry Shaw
    • 51DQqZczGWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Hands down – the best work on theological education (or any education for that matter) that there is. This completely revamped how I think theological education should be done – and it might turn out to be the most fruitful book I’ve read this year in that it is aiding the process of thinking through how we could re-shape aspects of Namikango’s educational outlook as well.
  4. The Slavery of Death – Richard Beck
    • 31CKhpV4Y4L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve long known what was in this book (from his blog posts) but his subsequent work of putting everything together here – from Ernest Becker to Rene Girard to William Stringfellow and Arthur McGill – made this book to be one of the most grounding and helpful theological texts that I’ve read. Trained as a psychologist, Beck provides a fresh take on how the life, identity, death and resurrection of Jesus actually reframes a new way of being human through re-casting how the psychology of mortality, identity and the “fear of death” might function more healthily if we took Jesus’ life and victory seriously. Most convincing is how Beck has managed to align a solid theological anthropology with the  great anthropological, psychological and sociological theorists.
  5. Desiring the Kingdom: worship, worldview and cultural formation – James K.A. Smith
    • PrintThis genius book outlines an understanding of humanity as “desiring or worshipping creatures”. This serves to shed light on how desire drives belief and action. If Christianity remains in the realm of intellectual battles or information massing or mere behavior modification then it has long lost the battle to real heart change and to the surrounding culture. This also provided a new lens into how theological education should be done. We are driven by “loves/desires” more so than “what information is in our head”.  In other words, it is more important to desire-rightly than it is to merely “have your mental doctrinal furniture arranged correctly”.
  6. From Dependence to Dignity – Brian Fikkert
    • 51WY9XEcqDL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This is a brilliant follow up to How Helping Hurts in many ways – but this one also provides a very useful theological anthropology for development work. He also outlines how savings groups can function through the ministry of the local church. Nothing that I needed convincing of necessarily – but a helpful book to articulate what we are trying to do here in Malawi anyway.
  7. Death comes for the deconstructionist – Daniel Taylor
    • 41sKA3Y0fIL._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_Surprise of the year for me! A random purchase (after seeing it reviewed in Books & Culture) which turned out to be worth every second of if. Taylor has put together an existential and philosophical detective story – all the while using lovely prose and a sub-conscious rallying behind the main character and his mentally handicapped sidekick sister. A very lovely story indeed.
  8. Finding True Happiness: satisfying our restless hearts– Robert Spitzer
    • 51yabJffKdL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Cheesy title I know – but seriously – this guy is ridiculous smart – Catholic priest and PHD/expert in cosmology, physics and psychology. Spitzer weaves together such a wonderful array of sources/authors on how the world works, how people function and why happiness is so deeply ingrained into our psyche. All the while extremely practical in his advice and explanation of practical measures to take to work in the direction of living in accordance with the “grain of the universe”. Surely this is the most learned book on happiness that there is.
  9. Birth and death of meaning: an interdisciplinary perspective on the problem of man– Ernest Becker
    • 51xfQNPAv6L._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_Finally read this in lieu of Richard Beck’s book above, and it didn’t disappoint. An unbelievably robust psychological account of how self-preservation and fear of death leads to all forms of meaning-creation, self-justification and the creation of hero-projects in every culture.  I have been looking for many years for a coherent account of theological anthropology, and so far, for me, Ernest Becker – coupled with the insights of the late Rene Girard – have brilliantly provided a coherent framework.
  10. A More Christlike God: a more beautiful gospel – Bradley Jersak51-GTU+RRAL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Don’t need to say much here – except that this is probably the most convincing (not that I necessarily needed convincing) book on the subject of how we can say that Jesus is the face of God for us (in all his character, nature and self-giving reality). Jersak brings all the texts together and synthesizes a new way of understanding how Jesus radically subverted (in action and word) all images of who God is and what God is like.
  11. Scarcity – Sendil MullainathanScarcity-featuer21A deeply interesting and helpful book within the sphere of anthropology, psychology and the “dismal science” of how being without (any given reality) deeply effects neurology and decision-making habits. This effects all of us in one way or another because we all lack (or think we lack) something, whether it is time, finances, education, food or skill. And certainly a necessity for anyone working with persons who face the daily grind of lacking basic essential needs for survival. This mental and psychological grind radically alters long and short-term decision making abilities. This MUST effect how we learn to work alongside and care for such folk with a kindness and a whole new way of understanding their reality.

12. Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium) – Pope Francis (encyclical)*

Pope Francis salutes the crowd during his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s square at the Vatican on May 22, 2013. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)

Okay – not a book per se – but there wasn’t anything that was more truthful and joyful than this encyclical. A publication that challenges to be sure – are we joyful people? If we have received the good news – why are we not the most joyful, light and kind people there are? Why does not the good news light up the church-community and communities of the world? If not, perhaps a re-fixing of our eyes on Jesus is what is needed to sense, receive and learn what it means to live out of the fullness of Jesus’ embodiment of justice, compassion and humility. A must-read for all followers of Jesus to be sure.

13. The Bible Tells me so: why defending scripture has made us unable to read it – Peter Enns

The-Bible-Tells-Me-So-Feature-492x344This is an exemplary book of biblical studies – clear-headed, excellent hermeneutics, funny, honest, humble and very Christ-centered. Enns is the perfect example of a scholar who holds very solid theological knowledge together with a love for Jesus, a deep pastoral heart – and all of this in tandem with the readable (and enjoyable) prose of a novelist. If you care to gain a more healthy hermeneutic for reading scripture, how to think through the violence of the Old Testament, or why Genesis is the way it is or how the Torah and OT canon functioned for second-temple Judaism and the early disciples, then please take up and read this book.


Top 7 Audiobook listens (in order of importance to me):

  1. Accidental Saints – Nadia Bolz-Weber
    • accidental-saints-featureThis book is pure gospel. But not merely in its proclamation, more specifically in its embodiment of the sheer gut-wrenching difficulty of learning to live as imperfect “gospel people” amongst other imperfect (and often very annoying)  people). Nadia details her own failures and the subsequent practice of receiving transformative forgiveness – deeply funny, serious and honest through and through. I’ve rarely finished a book and felt that I had just seen my own flaws highlighted and then received the gift of God’s undeserved love handed to me all at once. Not an easy book, mind you – as it is never easy to accept grace nor to give that same grace to annoying and difficult people. Yet another reason why we need this book – lived examples of what the actual practice of transformative grace could do in us and through us if we were humble (and aware) enough to give and receive it.
  1. H is for Hawk – Helen MacDonald
    • 51ZFyNd66mL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Don’t need to say much here – except that I think about this book – and about hawks almost every day now. A deep and far-reaching narrative of sorrow, identity, longing and the relational nature of the universe.
  1. Big Magic – Elizabeth Gilbert
    • 3988d5ab_elizabeth-gilbert.xxxlargeAnother surprise for me this year – started listening to it on a whim after hearing Rob Bell interview her – and realized how brilliant she was. This book was the best (albeit only) book on creativity that I’ve read – plus she is just one of those really joyful people that makes you want to go and create something wonderful for the sake of it – regardless of how successful you end up…which is most often “not very” in my case… A very lovely and inspiring book that everyone should read!
  1. The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope – Austen Ivereigh
    • 51GbUaHsjsL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_An excellent (and almost too thorough) examination of the factors that molded Pope Francis into the person he is today. Sheds a good deal of light on why his compassion runs so deep for the poor and opressed, how he has fought for justice in many different ways, how his Jesuit-ness effects every decision he makes and why he is first and foremost a follower of Jesus beyond anything else. Undoubtedly, it is a great priveledge to be alive during his leadership of the global catholic church.
  1. The Little Prince – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
    • the-little-princeQuite lovely. The mark of a classic children’s book is that it challenges and instructs adults first. This certainly does.
  1. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy – Eric Metaxas
    • Dietrich Bonhoeffer
      Dietrich Bonhoeffer [1906 – 1945], Deutscher evangelischer Theologe, Mitglied der Bekennenden Kirche, 1945 hingerichtet
      Aufnahmedatum: 1924
      Inventar-Nr.: Nachl. 299 (D. Bonhoeffer)
      Personen / Religiöse Persönlichkeiten / Bonhoeffer / Porträts
      Second time to listen through this book for me, and yet again, it is a genius, engaging and very well written biography. And for the sake of time, I’ll forgo the need to tell you why I think Bonhoeffer’s life and thought is so important. Just read this book – or better yet – read Bonhoeffer himself.

Published by Ryan Hayes

Ryan Hayes is a development practitioner, teacher and co-author of his first book of poems, Paralipomenon. Being born in Nairobi, Kenya and living most of his life in Africa, he has a wealth of experience and understanding into the cultural and linguistic factors of South-East Africa. Ryan is happily married to Justine with whom they have begotten three beautiful girls – Amelie, Lily and Rylee. He is a lifelong learner and devoted student of Jesus, mysticism, quantum physics and the human psyche.

3 thoughts on “My [Ryan’s] Top Books of 2015

  1. Ryan, thanks for the heads up on these authors. Familiar and similarly impressed with my previous encounters with Enns, Taylor and Metaxas. Particularly intrigued with Miller, Jersak, and Smith, we’ll all look worth the read. Thanks, as if my stack of books wasn’t high enough already. Appreciate very much your attention to the discipline of the mind. Keep it up.

    1. Thanks David, for your comment. Really appreciate it. And very much appreciate your ability to read through such a large amount of material while handling so many other issues as well. Would be interested to hear your thoughts on your favorite 2015 reads or on any of the above when you do read them. Thanks again.

  2. Wow! I didn’t know you were such an avid reader, Ryan. I’m in two book clubs so always looking for recommendations. Thanks.

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