David Bunce scribblings on pastoral and academic theology

My favourite books of 2021

This year has been a strange one for reading: lockdowns, a few longer hospital stays, moving across the country and the stress of a new job ate significantly into reading time. However, as the year draws to a close and I look back on what I’ve been reading, here are some of my highlights from 2021. My criteria are a highly complex (read: completely arbitrary), so there’s some books I have here because they have meant a lot to me, and others that have made it onto the list because they are objectively great.

  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. I love the central conceit at the centre of this book - a man is lives in a house that is full of different seas. It is beautifully written. I read this through in one sitting one night whilst our smallest child was in hospital and we were also meant to be moving house, and it gave a beautiful escape from the stress of life.

  • Andrew Root’s “Ministry in a Secular Age” trilogy. These - technically cheating - three books explore different aspects of Charles Taylor’s Secular Age - youth ministry, pastoral ministry and congregational life. I think it’s fair to say this has provoked some of my most creative rethinking of ministry and theological assumptions that I had been working from, and Root’s careful exegesis of Taylor and other thinkers is a rich resource for the church. I think this is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the cultural times we live in.

  • Night Waking by Sarah Moss. I’m a fan of nearly everything I have read by Sarah Moss, and this (slightly older) novel was no exception. I find Moss both an incredibly astute observer of human nature, and a gently provocative cultural commentator. This book is about a female academic trying to keep her career (and marriage) alive whilst stranded on a remote Scottish island and surrounded by small snot-filled children.

  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik. This modern fantasy take on the Polish/Slavic fairy tale tradition (especially the character of Baba Jaga) features absolutely stunning - and I mean stunning - writing. A very satisfying read.

  • Managing Leadership Anxiety - Yours and Theirs by Steve Cuss. After having a rough patch in ministry a few years back, which took a mental and physical toll on me, I had been looking around for some kind of theoretical grounding to keep me in a healthier place. I discovered Family Systems Theory, which has freed me up to be a lot less anxious in ministry. Steve Cuss’ book does an excellent job of introducing some complex theory in a practical and accessible way.

  • Biblical Porn - Affect, Labor, and Pastor Mark Driscoll’s Evangelical Empire by Jessica Johnson. I read Johnson’s book a few months before Christianity Today’s The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast came out and think it gives a more helpful account of Mars Hill church than the CT podcast. Her linguistic training, her foregrounding of more minority voices and her theory of emotive affect allow her to better interrogate the structural issues at play than CT, which I find a bit power-naive and which privileges some very unhelpful voices (Tony Jones, for example…)

  • Fulfillment - Winning and Losing in One-Click America by Alec MacGillis. This is an excellent piece of long form journalism on the Amazon empire, which really convicted me about my use of the corporate giant. I had long been aware of issues of tax compliance and unfair competition, but MacGillis builds a really solid case on how this works on a micrograin level - and they way in which Amazon influences local and state politics in the State. Since reading this, I have been much more aware of my purchases on Amazon and much more conscious about trying to reduce my use to a bare minimum.

  • As everyone is talking about them: Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez and The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr really are as good as everyone (apart from Denny Burk…) is saying. There are some clear material overlaps in the argumentation (both for example point strongly to the importance of post-war anti-communism as a turning point in American christian conceptions of masculinity). They don’t hit the ball out of the park on every single point (for instance, I didn’t find Barr’s exegetical work to bring much new to the table), but both are hugely important books and deserve a wide reading.

  • Uprooted - Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind by Grace Olmstead. I’ve been really interesting in the concept of roots and rootedness in the last year (part of reflecting on what it means to move to a small town as not just an outsider, but as an immigrant). Grace Olmstead’s journalistic account of the small rural communities she grew up in and the combined effects of globalism, the brain-drain pull of the cities and local political decisions (or lack thereof) is a really provocative read. In some ways, she is telling a similar sort of story to James Rebanks (though in a very different cultural context). Through both testimonies, I have been challenged to think about what cultural goods I hold as important and am maybe (re)discovering a small-c conservative side to me that I wasn’t previously aware of.

  • The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. This is just a very fun and satisfying read - wonderful crisp prose, fun little concept and touching on some difficult themes without being too heavy or depressing.

  • Karl Barth - ein Leben im Widerspruch by Christiane Tietz. Tietz’s biography is a wonderful fresh account of Karl Barth’s life - drawing on a lot of archival resources that weren’t previously available (not least private letters), she paints a critical but sympathetic account of a great but troubled thinker. One of the things I really appreciated about this was the way she brought other aspects of Barth’s life beside his theology (i.e. his political engagement both during his pastorate and also as a professor) to the foreground to give a very balanced view.

  • Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield. This was just a beautiful novel set around the Oxford Thames, drawing judiciously on some of the local folklore of the area. Some very sympathetic characters and some beautiful prose.

About David Bunce

I am a British pastor living and working in Austria. I I am on the pastoral team of a church in the centre of Vienna and lead Austria Baptist Aid's Youth and Children work (KJW). I am also an MRes student at the University of Wales Trinity St David researching Karl Barth's early theology. More about me