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Our Favorite Books of 2013

December 31, 2013


As 2013 comes to a close, Fr. Barron and our Word on Fire Blog contributors share some of the best books they read this past year. From theological gems to children’s classics, there’s something for everyone in this list. As you’re deciding what to read next in 2014, may this list point you to some great options.

Fr. Robert Barron is the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and the Rector of Mundelein Seminary. 

The Experience of GodThe Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss by David Bentley Hart
From publisher: “Despite the recent ferocious public debate about belief, the concept most central to the discussion—God—frequently remains vaguely and obscurely described. Are those engaged in these arguments even talking about the same thing? In a wide-ranging response to this confusion, esteemed scholar David Bentley Hart pursues a clarification of how the word “God” functions in the world’s great theistic faiths.”

Jesus and the Temple by Nicholas Perrin
From publisher: “This volume offers a fresh approach to the question, “Who was Jesus? ” Integrating the findings of contemporary Jesus scholarship, Nicholas Perrin explains how Jesus saw himself and his movement as a reconstitution of the temple. By viewing Jesus as temple, Perrin reveals an enriched understanding of Jesus’s self knowledge, ministry, teachings, death, and resurrection and closes the gap between the historical Jesus and the proclamation of the early church.”

Paul and the Faithfulness of God by N.T. Wright
From publisher: “This highly anticipated two-book fourth volume in N. T. Wright’s magisterial series, Christian Origins and the Question of God, is destined to become the standard reference point on the subject for all serious students of the Bible and theology. The mature summation of a lifetime’s study, this landmark book pays a rich tribute to the breadth and depth of the apostle’s vision, and offers an unparalleled wealth of detailed insights into his life, times, and enduring impact.”

Fr. Steve Grunow is the CEO of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. 

Infinity Dwindled to InfancyInfinity Dwindled to Infancy: A Catholic and Evangelical Christology by Edward T. Oakes
If we do not have clarity in regards to the identity and mission of the Lord Jesus, our efforts to serve him in his Church will come to naught. Christ is not who we would make him to be, but who he reveals himself to be. It is in the totality of Christ’s revelation that the identity and mission of the Christian and the Church is properly understood. No other reference point will suffice.

Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word Volume III Meditations on the Gospel of Matthew by Erasmo Leiva Merikakis
Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ. Christian spirituality is an invitation to know the Lord Jesus in Sacraments, in works of Mercy, and in the revelatory texts of the Bible. Knowing Christ as the fulfillment of the scriptures is not merely a matter of historical, textual analysis, but of contemplation of his mystery. Leiva-Merikakis does not simply introduce the Christ of the Gospels as a literary character, but a living, divine person who invites us into communion with his divine life.

Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life by Elizabeth Scalia
The toxicity of our culture emanates from the sacrifices that we are making to false gods. The fumes of this foul air are asphixiating. This book takes a hammer to the idols of our culture, clears the air and allows one to breathe the clear air of the Holy Spirit.

The Theology of Saint Augustine: An Introduction to His Most Important Works by Matthew Levering
I have been reading Saint Augustine for years and have found no better introduction to the spiritual master’s work than Levering’s book.

Dare We Hope that all Men be Saved? by Hans Urs von Balthasar
A controversial text that became controversial again. Re-reading this book always reminds me of the joy of the Gospel, the expansiveness of the hope that is revealed in the cross and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and the necessity and urgency of sharing with the world the Gospel’s invitation to know Christ and share a relationship with him in his Church.

Jared Zimmerer is an author, husband, and father of four from Denton, Texas.

The Priority of ChristThe Priority of Christ: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism by Fr. Robert Barron
As the foundational work to the CATHOLICISM series, this book envelopes the intellectual, pioneering venture that Fr. Barron has brought to the world. I was simply blown away at the vast understanding of the crossroads in which the Church finds herself. Fr. Barron offers one answer to our need to join the gap between Christian culture and secularism: Jesus Christ. I think my favorite section is entitled ‘The Narratives’. In this section Fr. Barron thoroughly investigates three themes of Christ based on the New Testament stories, these themes being Christ the Gatherer, Christ the Warrior and Christ the King. Fr. Barron’s understanding of scripture is beyond compare.

The Broken Empire Trilogy by Mark Lawrence
This trilogy is a coming into manhood dark fantasy that captured my imagination and love of adventure. This group of novels expresses man’s ability to do wonderful works of charity but also the intrinsic temptation to perform dark and terrible deeds most often at the expense of our fellow man. The story is set in a distant future where it seems that culture has returned living as it was during the medieval ages, however this time with a much firmer grip on the magical. An interesting anecdote within the story is that only a few religions have survived the sands of time: paganism, Islam and Roman Catholicism. The story is narrated by the main character, Honorous Jorg Ancrath, which reveals the abysmal psychology and struggle between sin and virtue in a world full of suffering.

Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story by Arnold Schwarzenegger
Whether you love or hate him, Arnold Schwarzenegger has made an impact on society as a whole more than most realize. From fulfilling the American dream, to bringing the fitness culture to the masses, to legitimizing the sport of bodybuilding, to changing action films forever, one cannot deny that Arnold is one of the leading characters of the twentieth century. As a young boy I admired Arnold and now as a bodybuilder have very mixed feelings about what he offered to young bodybuilders. However what I loved about this autobiography was that it is brutally honest. He doesn’t pretend to be something he isn’t. Arnold shares much of his struggles, his joys, his successes and failures.

Matthew Becklo works as an editor and tutor, writing about art, entertainment, philosophy, and theology.

Mind and CosmosMind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False by Thomas Nagel
Prominent atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel (“What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”) set off a firestorm in late 2012 with this book, which offers a robust challenge to the reigning metaphysical picture behind much of modern science and philosophy. The materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature, Nagel argues, fails to fully account for human phenomena such as consciousness, cognition, and value. Although Nagel won’t go so far as to posit a divine source of the world, he allies himself with Christian philosophers like Alvin Plantinga in the attempt to construct some alternative to materialism, which Nagel predicts will “come to seem laughable in a generation or two.” Time will tell who has it right!

Love & Will by Rollo May
May’s book is as relevant a read today as it was when it was published in 1969 – in fact, it seems more relevant than ever. Supplementing his own twenty-five years as a therapist with themes from existential philosophy, May argues that the crisis of modernity arises from a narrowing of love and an undermining of will in the human person. Our collective “flight from eros” and “hell of frenetic passivity” are two sides of one coin: an understanding of the body as a determined machine which the psyche – if there at all – manipulates from without. May calls for a more integrated picture of human psychology, one which overrides the neurotic ennui of modern life with an emphasis on intentionality, care, and the fullness of love and responsibility.

To Know Christ Jesus by Frank Sheed
A personal recommendation from Brandon Vogt, this detailed look at the life and times of Jesus Christ is filled with fascinating meditations on the full meaning and import of the Gospels. Sheed consistently reminds us that the Gospel writers are not so much focused on the order in which Jesus did certain things, but that he did certain things – and Sheed gives a clear-eyed analysis of his every word and action. From the Annunciation to the Ascension, this insightful and thorough biography is a must-read for anyone who would like to better know and understand who Christ truly is, and why his life has exerted such a profound influence on history.

Fr. Michael Cummins serves as the Vocation Director for the Diocese of Knoxville.

Jesus Began to PreachMy first book for 2013 is a book I actually re-read in 2013 and a book I asked our diocesan permanent deacon preparation class to read for a weekend workshop I was leading with them. The book is entitled, Jesus Began to Preach: The Mystery of God’s Word by Fr. Rainero Cantalamessa. I think that anything by Fr. Cantalamessa is excellent but in this book he delves deep into the theology of preaching and God’s Holy Word. I believe that the book is a must read for any preacher and really for any Christian who desires an encounter with Christ in the Scriptures. From the book, Fr. Cantalamessa’s advice to the preacher, “First, kneel down and ask God what word he wants to say: then, sit at a desk and use one’s knowledge to shape that word. This changes everything, because it’s not God who has to make my word his, but I who make his word mine.”

The second book of 2013 that continues to bring me great joy is Open Mind, Faithful Heart: Reflections on Following Jesus by Pope Francis (then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio). There are many books written about Pope Francis, but this is a book written by Pope Francis. The reflections were compiled with the thought that this would be his last “work” before retirement. Well … surprise! The reflections are wonderful, each a few pages in length and each ending with an invitation for prayer and reflection. This is a book to take your time reading through, sitting and praying with what is offered. The book offers a wonderful glimpse into the pastoral and spiritual heart of our Pope and is indeed an invitation to more truly follow Jesus.

My third book for this year is one I happened to come across as I was browsing a book store one day. The book is The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. It is written by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter. First published in 2009, it has been re-published in connection with a movie release. The book tells the story of a special Allied unit formed with the tasks of working to preserve the great historical monuments and works of art throughout Europe during the Second World War and to regain historical works of art stolen by the Nazis. This is the first instance of any such unit being established in the history of war. They literally had to figure it out as they went along! Running underneath the story of the Monuments Men is the power of beauty and art needed to nourish the human heart and civilization and civilization’s responsibility and task to preserve and protect beauty. I highly recommend the book.

Ellyn von Huben is a freelance writer and contributor to the Word on Fire blog.

2013 has been something of a traumatic year. There have been some major losses and shocking adjustments to be made. I was faced with a sudden move and the need to cull my personal library, giving away what I no longer needed and putting the bulk of it – except for three bankers boxes of the most necessary works – into storage. A true, but not totally successful, exercise in detachment. Then there were massive amounts of old periodicals that popped up. Why was I saving the 2006 Vanity Fair International Best Dressed edition? I thumbed through enough aged pages of the New Yorker and First Things that the page count could comprise one very long book.

The Bad Catholic's Guide to Good LivingFor reference, entertainment, and relief from the chaos, I relied on the four volumes of John Zmirak’s Bad Catholic series (The Bad Catholic’s Guides to Good Living; Wine, Whiskey and Song; The Seven Deadly Sins; and The Catechism] These are books for any year and a good addition for the Catholic library. Zmirak’s sense of humor is impressive. His gift of expanding on Church teachings (especially those “hard truths”) with humor as the stealth tool is priceless. When my faith needs a nudge and I could use a laugh, these continue to be my go-to books.

When our move was confirmed, I put myself on a “no new books” program. But I made a very good exception for Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church by George Weigel. The author’s well laid out proposal for the future of the Church as an Evangelical body has much to offer the serious Catholic reader. It is, in essence, quite a radical book, but conveyed in a calm and well-reasoned manner. I would hope that this could be a staple for parish book clubs and on the bookshelves of those Catholics who are invested in carrying the Good News of the Gospel into the world. Yes, this was an impulse buy after hearing Weigel speak at my parish. But it was a good investment; a book I shall return to often. And not just because I mustered the nerve to have my volume signed.

Salve for my bibliophile soul came in the form of a gift from my sister, Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books by Paul Collins. Those who have great affection for the printed word will love Collins tale of moving to a small town in Wales which is home to forty (yes, 40!) antiquarian books stores. Book lovers know that a good book can take us anywhere and “Sixpence House” was the vacation that I sorely needed.

Kerry Trotter is a writer and a mom of two wonderful kids.

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
A foundering soul/funk/jazz record shop in early 2000’s OaklTelegraph Avenueand is the backdrop for the stories of two families. With esoteric references to bygone artists and business models as well as painstakingly researched insight into midwifery and blaxsploitation films (yes, both), Chabon made this writer downright angry with his gorgeous prose. So, so good.

The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer
A newspaper reporter recounts his youth spent in and around a neighborhood bar in Manhasset, N.Y. Searching for both a father figure and a voice, Moehringer leaned heavily on the bar for support, and not surprisingly, the bar leaned back. Hard. It’s a hilarious, thoughtful read and a nice reminder to stop whining and get to work.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting by Heidi Murkoff
While this was not my first trip through “Expecting”-land, I certainly benefited from a refresher in the roller coaster that is pregnancy. I didn’t pore over it quite the way I did the first go-‘round, but I valued the easily navigable index and the many dogeared pages about “frequent urination.”

Fr. Damian Ference is a priest of the Diocese of Cleveland and an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Borromeo Seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio.

GulpGulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach
I never imagined that a book on the human digestive system would be one of my favorite reads of the year, but it happened. Beginning with the sadly underappreciated sense of smell, Roach literally follows the journey of food through the entire digestive tract, offering an informative, colorful, humorous, and thoroughly satisfying description of how the body processes food. I have been quoting this book non-stop to friends and even to a few strangers.

The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity by Robert Louis Wilken
Wilken made reading church history fun again a few years back with The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. This most recent work offers thirty-six short, yet rich chapters covering all the major players, cities, councils, heresies and movements of the first millennium of Christianity. Wilken’s treatment of Art and Architecture, Music and Worship, and The Rise of Islam are especially good.

A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor
When your favorite author publishes a new book, it’s exciting news. But when your favorite author has been dead for almost fifty years and her new book is a collection of her prayers from graduate school, you offer an oblation of thanksgiving to the Almighty. If anyone is still trying to secularize O’Connor, this short book will immediately have him beating his breast, begging for mercy.

Rozann Carter is the Creative Director at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries

Vatican II - The Essential TextsVatican II:The Essential Texts edited by Norman Tanner
I took a class this past fall on the documents of the Second Vatican Council. Admittedly, I should have read these texts in their entirety a long time ago but had only read bits and pieces. After completing the book, I have an even more profound gratitude for the gift of our Faith and for the great charge of Vatican II, which truly makes our work at Word On Fire, and our mission as an evangelical people in our modern culture, possible! Read these texts– they are poetic, prophetic, easy-to-understand, and “essential.”

Holy Days and Gospel Reflections by Heather King
I got this book, a compilation of the Magnificat reflections written by Heather King, in my Christmas stocking just a few days ago. It is supposed to be a “soaker”– a devotional type of book to read a little at a time. But if you have read anything Heather has written, you know that “a little at a time” is impossible. Her writing is full of the most beautiful, raw, Flannery-O’Conner-esque analogies that leave you feeling utterly connected to the Body of Christ, in all its pain and grace-filled glory. In her reflection on the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, she closes with, ” To receive the day requires the heart of a lover, the nerve a tightrope walker, and the patient, plodding endurance of a pack animal. That is Mary, her heart on fire, traversing the hill country on her way to Mount Calvary…” The nerve of a tightrope walker? Perfect.

The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt, Illustrated by Oliver Jeffers
Picketing crayons? Angry letters from overworked Blue and appeal letters from Orange and Yellow who both claim that they are the true color of the sun? Peach, who has to hide in the box because his clothes have been peeled off? Hilarious. Oliver Jeffers is the author of The Incredible Book Eating Boy and arguably the most hilarious children’s book illustrator of all time. I was practically stopping kids on the street– “Have you SEEN this? No?? Sit down. Story time.”

Peggy Pandaleon is Director of Faith Formation Programs at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.

The Life of Mary as Seen by the MysticsThe Life of Mary as Seen By the Mystics by Raphael Brown
A beautiful compilation of private revelations that is masterfully written into a moving and memorable biography of the Virgin Mary. The revelations are primarily from two mystics, Venerable Anne Catherine Emmerich and Venerable a Mary of Agreda, with a few episodes from the writings of St. Bridget of Sweden and St. Elizabeth of Schoenau included. In complete harmony with the Gospel and Church teachings, this book drew me closer to our Blessed Mother and illuminated the reasons why she is the preeminent disciple. It creates beautiful visualizations of Mary’s life from birth to death, which have enhanced my own prayer life, especially during the rosary.

The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
One of C.S. Lewis’ many entertaining and insightful fantasies. The Great Divorce focuses on life after death and the relationship between heaven and hell as seen through the keen observation of one traveling soul. We see how our relationships with others in this life affect our eternal destiny. As always, Lewis provokes deep thought on spiritual subjects, while keeping us laughing and engaged throughout.

Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus by Sherry Weddell
A practical and helpful guide for anyone who wants to deepen his relationship with Christ and/or find her mission within his Church. Through the Catherine of Siena Institute, Weddell has worked with hundreds of parishes to help Church leaders, parish staff and all Catholics find their center in Christ and uncover talents, gifts, and charisms that flow from that relationship. Immensely helpful for those who want to put the concept of New Evangelization into action.

Anne Straus is the Event Coordinator at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.

The Secret Diary of Elisabeth LeseurThe Secret Diary of Elisabeth Leseur: The Woman Who Changed Her Husband from Atheist to Priest by Elisabeth Leseur
Elizabeth Leseur’s patience and determination in loving her difficult husband through his atheism was such a beautiful example to me. She stood strong in her faith yet loving in her attitude. Her witness has helped me realize that even in today’s very secular world, it is all about loving people where they are at and then through your witness of joy, peace, faith, and love encouraging them to grow into a closer relationship with God.

Transformation in Christ: On the Christian Attitude by Dietrich von Hildebrand
A classic depicting the true path to holiness for those who love Christ. Each chapter delves into what we need to know to change our spiritual attitudes in order to perfect our love for Him.

Navigating the Interior Life: Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God by Dan Burke
A wealth of information in regards to finding a spiritual director and finding deeper meaning in seeking out a relationship with our dear Lord.

Brandon Vogt is the Content Director at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries

C.S. Lewis - A LifeC.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet by Alister McGrath
To put it simply, I’ve read several C.S. Lewis biographies and Alister McGrath’s is the best. What makes McGrath so effective is how similar he is to Lewis: both were born in Northern Ireland, both followed atheism throughout their adolescence, both attended Oxford, both became prestigious dons, and both converted to Christianity. This parallel trajectory allows McGrath to get inside Lewis’ mind like few others. Even more, to ensure he understood his subject, McGrath also read Lewis’ entire corpus chronologically before starting his biography. As expected, McGrath’s book covers the major events and figures in Lewis’ life, but he approaches them primarily through Lewis’ books, which presents a fresh and illuminating gateway. Notably, McGrath also defends a new date for Lewis’ conversion to theism, setting it a year later than Lewis records in his own autobiography. This significant discovery, coupled with McGrath’s smooth and perceptive prose, should put this book at the top of every Lewis-lover’s list.

Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) by Pope Francis
First of all, yes, this is a book. At over 50,000 words, it’s one of the longest papal documents on record. And second, what a remarkable book it is. In his first solo document, the Holy Father applies his characteristic themes of joy, evangelization, and mercy toward building a culture of encounter and a poor church for the poor. Touching on almost every aspect of Church life, the wide-ranging treatise addresses complacent Christians, dispirited missionaries, poor preaching, and oppressive social injustice, shimmering on every page with memorable one-liners and powerful summonses. Pope Francis recently called Evangelii Nuntiandi the “greatest pastoral document ever written.” In my view, his own joyful, vivid call to evangelization deserves that title.

Answering Atheism: How to Make the Case for God with Logic and Charity by Trent Horn
With the increasing popularity of the New Atheists, and the growth of their many disciples, we’ve seen a whole slew of books designed to counter this trend. However, many of these books have glaring issues that make them difficult to recommend (either to theists or atheists.) Most are either too simplistic, too academic, too focused, too broad, or too caustic. Yet Trent Horn’s book strikes the right balance of breadth and depth, clarity and sophistication, charity and truth. His main project is to show there are no good reasons to embrace atheism while there are many reasons to accept theism. He defends these contentions with fair and accessible prose, copious endnotes, thick appendices, and helpful Socratic dialogues, which all make this my go-to recommendation for anyone wondering whether God is real.