Every December since my college days a few friends and I have started an email thread to swap stories of our reading experiences over the course of that year. We follow a typical top-ten format, often mimicking the two or three-sentence recap style of similar lists that appear increasingly early, like the post-Halloween Christmas marketing blitz they augment, in periodicals and websites. But we go deeper than that, too, trying to discern patterns in our interests and correlating our reports with what we’d enjoyed or endured outside the pages of books in the intervening months.
I haven’t yet sent my list to my friends, but here’s some of what will certainly appear on it.
As I described in the pages of First Things earlier this year, I spent some time rereading the great twentieth-century Lutheran New Testament scholar Ernst Käsemann, as a way of remembering that Tom Wright’s Paul isn’t the only game in town, despite all the accolades the latter has received, especially from my Anglican wing of the Church. Paired with Fleming Rutledge’s marvelous collection of sermons on the epistle to the Romans, Not Ashamed of the Gospel, Käsemann’s work was for me a fiery, prophetic reminder that Paul’s gospel is an announcement of shock and scandal. It doesn’t endorse first- (or twenty-first) century categories of cultural worth and concomitant distinctions between the righteous and the wicked: It upends them, heralding instead the universality of wickedness and the only hope of its cure, the righteousness of God in Christ.
I also looked for books unrelated to my seminary teaching. I read John Drury’s new biography of the priest-poet George Herbert, Music at Midnight. Aside from the book’s many delights, part of the joy of reading it was knowing that Drury trained, like me, as a New Testament scholar and that hasn’t kept him from ranging, in his research and writing, well beyond his academic discipline’s boundaries. Then again, to read Herbert well you need to be fully immersed in the New Testament. Some of the best biblical exegesis you’ll encounter is in Herbert’s poetry, and the poems are inexplicable without their biblical subtext.
Other books I loved this year were biblical and theological but, again, not directly germane to any classes I taught or essays I wrote. I treasure that kind of reading: my beloved teacher Walter Moberly’s magnum opus, Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture, David Bentley Hart’s elegant and comprehensive The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, and Rowan Williams’ unassumingly non-flashy pastoral guide Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer. And, on a more personal note, Eve Tushnet’s pioneering Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith addressed the questions I regularly ponder in the privacy of my own longings and fears and did so in a way that gave me hope.
Three books in particular, though, stand out above the rest. One of those was Charles Marsh’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Strange Glory. I’ve already written a full review of the book for Books & Culture, so I won’t repeat myself here. What haunts me about the book is not just its fresh revelations of the depths of the German churches’ capitulation to Hitleralthough there are many of those that Marsh has uncoveredbut also the much-discussed treatment of Bonhoeffer’s cosmopolitan life and his impassioned pursuit of his friend Eberhard Bethge as the world began to burn.
The reviews have obsessed over Marsh’s supposed portrait of a “gay” Bonhoeffer, and some of these have been absurd. (Frank Schaeffer’s cawing over Marsh’s depiction of a “flamingly gay” Bonhoeffer would be risible if it weren’t so egregious a misreading.) Still, what preoccupies me about Marsh’s portrait is its pervasive sense of unslaked desire and loss. Michael Hollerich’s review, published in this magazine, said of Marsh’s treatment of the relationship between Bonhoeffer and Bethge: “This was a rich and deep friendship, and its intensity did not lack a certain erotic charge. I don’t know how that can come as a great surprise to anyone with much experience in human friendship, whether same-sex or different-sex.” That is precisely right. And that is a large part of the reason this book will sadden, unsettle, and instruct me for a long time to come.
Perhaps for the same reason, I was also moved this year by Marvin O’Connell’s The Oxford Conspirators: A History of the Oxford Movement 1833-45. O’Connell is a retired history professor at Notre Dame, having written this book in 1969. I picked it up because I had heard that Mark Noll said it was the best treatment of those heady days in the Church of England known as the Tractarian campaign, in which John Henry Newman, Edward Pusey, and John Keble, among others, sought to return the Church to its catholic roots. Unsurprisingly, I learned a lot and kept turning pages as if I were reading a mystery novel whose end I already knew but whose twists and turns still enthralled. Again, though, as with Marsh’s book, what lingers in my mind is not the political intrigue or the theological debates. My afterimage is the book’s final scene in which the camaraderie that wove the lives of Newman and his friends together is slowly unraveled due to irreconcilable differences. Shortly after finishing the book, I had coffee with a friend who had read it years earlier, and the remembrance of his fingers splayed as he described the book’s last pages“All the friends scattered and drifted at the end of the Movement”is haunting.
Finally, the best book I read this year was Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. And once again, as with Marsh’s biography of Bonhoeffer and O’Connell’s history of a turbulent nineteenth-century decade in the life of the Church of England, I am struck mostly by the themes of unfulfilled longing. Originally a trilogy published in the early 1920s, Kristin Lavransdatter tells the story, over the course of about one thousand pages, of the whole life of its title character in medieval Norway. It has elements of the macabre, as it eerily explores lingering superstitions in face of an ascendant Christianity. It also has elements of the devotional, reading at times like a spiritual handbook, a chart of the soul’s progress to be used as a goad to the reader’s own self-examination. Mainly, though, it is a story of marriage and motherhood and all the ways that we remain mysteriouslysometimes wondrously, sometimes fearfully and devastatinglydistinct and distant from one another. When Kristin’s adult son, near the end of the book, decides to become a monk, we feel with Kristin the force of the question, Do I know him at all?, and we also feel, with her son, the achebut also the joy and the hopeof the unbridgeable gulf that divides one life from the one that brought it into being.
I write often about the consolations of friendship, hospitality, and Christian community, but sometimes I wonder if I’m too sanguine, writing as if these were easily attainable and capable of straightforward engineering. These three books, in very different ways, puncture my naivety. They confront me afresh with our human inability to control the relationships in which we find ourselves and all the ways that, in even the very closest familial and spiritual, fraternal relationships, unsatisfied longing remains. That’s perhaps a good place to be at the end of a year of reading reminded of one’s basic condition as a human being; thirsty, desirous, and waiting, in a fallen world full of beauty.
Wesley Hill is assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry.