2015 books round-up


Time for my annual round-up of the books I’ve read in the past year (see entries for 2013 and 2014). As usual, I’ve listed them by category – fiction, non-fiction, theology and other – and have singled out two favourites for each category. Books I’ve read before are marked with an asterisk. For extra nerdery, the underlying data is here.


The big difference between 2015 and 2016 is the number of novels I’ve read. Last year I only read ten works of fiction; this year, fiction is the biggest category, with 32 books. This is related to the fact I made much better use of the library than in previous years: thirty of the books I read this year were library books, most of them fiction (or graphic novels).

It’s hard to single out favourites from this list. Moby Dick is an astonishing book; Andrew O’Hagan’s Be Near Me is a moving account of a gay priest caught up in the consequences of his behaviour; it was a delight to rediscover P.G. Wodehouse. This was also the year I got back into science fiction, with books by J.G. Ballard, Ursula Le Guin, Philip K. Dick and Kim Stanley Robinson, among others.

In the end, though, I’m picking out The Dispossessed, by Ursula Le Guin, for its superbly realised vision of an anarchist society, and Ali Smith’s “exciting and moving and clever and sexy” How to be Both (one of several books this year recommended to me by my wife).


The usual mishmash of different topics among these 24 books. Anarchism was something of a theme this year, with several books on this topic (in addition to Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed) as I explored my “anarcho-curiosity”. I loved Tom Holland’s account of the Julio-Claudian emperors, Dynasty and Helen Macdonald’s beautifully written H is for Hawk. But I’ve selected as my favourites John Grindrod’s celebration of postwar architecture, Concretopia, and Norman Davies’ vast, flawed but transformational Europe: A History (though I reserve the right to regret this choice once I’ve read Tony Judt’s hatchet-job review of it…).

Theology / Spirituality 

Not a vintage year for theology-related books, I have to admit. Something I hope to address in 2016. I loved the two Rowan Williams books, and have another of his queued up to read this year. It was interesting to read up a little on the Quakers, and even more so to explore Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and theology in Sabine Dramm’s Introduction to his thought. My favourites for the year, though, are Heiko A. Oberman’s theological biography of Martin Luther, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, and Eugene F. Rogers’ Sexuality and the Christian Body – in particular for his discussions of what it means for us to be Gentiles grafted into the people of God “against nature”, and of marriage as an “ascetic vocation” and as a reflection both of the triune nature of God and of justification by faith.


Mostly graphic novels and comic books, though also including Tim Dowling’s funny and perceptive account of modern marriage, How to be a Husband (another recommendation from my wife), which is one of my favourites for the year along with Robert Crumb’s extraordinary rendering of The Book of Genesis Illustrated. An honourable mention for Nicola Streeton’s heartbreaking story of bereavement and recovery, Billy, Me & You.

Looking ahead

I’m not going to make any rash predictions or grandiose programmatic statements of intent about my reading for 2016. My shelves (sic) of unread books are full of enticing prospects, but I dare say I’ll get distracted by other things, as usual. I’m currently in the early stages of Paul Kingsnorth’s novel The Wake, which is looking very promising.


The mystery of the missing “O”

O_SapientiaToday is O Sapientia – and so was yesterday.

In the western church, the “O antiphons” have traditionally been sung at Vespers before and after the Magnificat, in the period from 17 December to 23 December.

However, in the calendar for the Book of Common Prayer, 16 December is marked as “O Sapientia”. Why the 16th rather than the 17th?

As this post explains, 16 December was the date the O antiphons began in the Sarum Use. In this scheme, eight antiphons (rather than seven) were used, the extra antiphon being O virgo virginum, sung on 23 December:

O Virgo virginum, quomodo fiet istud?
Quia nec primam similem visa es nec habere sequentem.
Filiae Jerusalem, quid me admiramini?
Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis.

O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be?
For neither before thee was any like thee, nor shall there be after.
Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me?
The thing which ye behold is a divine mystery.

Cranmer drew heavily on the Sarum Use in writing the Book of Common Prayer, which explains the retention of 16 December as the date for O Sapientia. Except it doesn’t, because beyond that mysterious reference in its calendar the Prayer Book makes no provision at all for the O antiphons. As the post linked above observes:

Interestingly, while the 1662 Calendar preserved the pre-Reformation English date, there is no evidence for the use of the O Antiphons in Anglican worship in the 17th century, and the Marian antiphon appointed for December 23 in Sarum Use would not have been sung in the reformed Church of England at the time.

Finally, as Wikipedia observes, the inclusion of O virgo virginum changes the acrostic formed by the initial letters of each “O” (written in reverse order) from ERO CRAS (“I shall be with you tomorrow”) to VERO CRAS (“truly tomorrow”).

The rise of “Top Gear spirituality”

Image: Wolfgang Sauber (CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Jem Bloomfield has written an interesting post on the growth of a certain type of macho rhetoric in certain Christian circles. I don’t particularly want to get enmeshed in the specific instance Jem is talking about, but it does seem to confirm a trend within English evangelicalism that I’ve noticed before. (Though I must admit that my links with that brand of evangelicalism now barely even qualify as “tenuous”.)

This is the tendency towards what I sometimes call “Top Gear spirituality”. I first encountered this the last time I attended the London Men’s Convention, back in 2009. Another attendee at the same event described it well:

As John has put it, there was, at times, a ‘Top Gear’ spirituality (Top Gear is a popular British TV programme where middle aged men salivate over an array of sports cars). You can guess the kinds of things – jokes about sports teams, jokes about baldness (lots of them!), jokes about scrotums. All the usual stuff. There was an uncomfortable insistence on making fun of the main speaker (Tim Keller) in a laddish kind of, ‘Hey, you big bald son of a gun. Not much hair on you is there? Baldy. You big bald son of a bald man. Ha!’ That kind of thing. Graciously Keller did not call down bear attacks as was his right as prophet of the LORD. Now that really would have sorted out the men from the boys.

I expanded on this in a post on the BHT a month or so later, which I’m reposting below, partly since the “Christian laddishness” – beer! self-conscious swearing! where’s your sense of humour! – that Jem is describing seems to fit exactly with what I was saying in that post (even if my reference to Mark Driscoll has been somewhat overtaken by events).

From the Boar’s Head Tavern, 11 May 2009: 

Men want more “manly anthems”, less girly emotional stuff in church, says a readers survey for “Sorted”, a UK Christian magazine for men. The editor of “Sorted” comments:

I am fed up with singing these sentimental lovey dovey songs. On the football terraces we are very passionate, chanting and cheering, and we want more songs like that. We want fewer girly songs.


At least when John Piper, Mark Driscoll and so on talk about “real men”, the stereotypes they come up with are (in general) stereotypes of male responsibility: protecting your wife and family from intruders, digging the garden, fixing the car, etc.

When British evangelicals start talking about being “real men”, they reach for the worst examples of male irresponsibility and arrested development: “on the football terraces”, magazine titles like “Sorted” (’nuff respect on da street, mon!), laddish banter and so on.

I’ve encountered some pretty icky “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs – though nothing, it has to be said, to compare with traditional interpretations of the Song of Songs as a dialogue between Christ and the church – but putting songs (and other features of church life) on a scale from “effeminate” to “manly” is simply the wrong paradigm.

The song of St Athanasius

St AthanasiusIn his discussion of “notional” vs “real” assent to the Trinity (see previous post), Newman gives a particular example of a real, concrete, devotional expression of the doctrine of the Trinity, one that may surprise many of us who recited it in church this morning: the Athanasian Creed.

The Athanasian Creed is often regarded as a turgid succession of baffling notions. As the old joke goes: “the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Holy Spirit incomprehensible, the whole thing incomprehensible.” I’ve always loved it, though, and Newman helps me understand why.

Partly it is that (as we saw in my previous post) the Athanasian Creed isn’t as abstract as it appears at first glance. Rather, it is founded on the concrete language of “Person, Father, Son, Spirit, He, One” that Newman sees as the material of “real assent”, rather than the abstract terminology of “notional assent” (“substance, essence, existence, form,” and so on). But Newman goes further, by extolling the emotional and imaginative power of the “Quicunque Vult”:

It must be recollected especially that the Athanasian Creed has sometimes been called the “Psalmus Quicunque.” It is not a mere collection of notions, however momentous. It is a psalm or hymn of praise, of confession, and of profound, self-prostrating homage, parallel to the canticles of the elect in the Apocalypse. It appeals to the imagination quite as much as to the intellect. It is the war-song of faith, with which we warn, first ourselves, then each other, and then all those who are within its hearing, and the hearing of the Truth, who our God is, and how we must worship Him, and how vast our responsibility will be, if we know what to believe, and yet believe not. (p.133)

Newman quotes an 1833 poem on the Athanasian Creed, which describes it as:

The Psalm that gathers in one glorious lay
All chants that e’er from heaven to earth found way;
Creed of the Saints, and Anthem of the Blest,
And calm-breathed warning of the kindliest love
That ever heaved a wakeful mother’s breast.

He continues:

For myself, I have ever felt it as the most simple and sublime, the most devotional formulary to which Christianity has given birth, more so even than the Veni Creator and the Te Deum. Even the antithetical form of its sentences, which is a stumbling-block to so many, as seeming to force, and to exult in forcing a mystery upon recalcitrating minds, has to my apprehension, even notionally considered, a very different drift.

It is intended as a check upon our reasonings, lest they rush on in one direction beyond the limits of the truth, and it turns them back into the opposite direction. Certainly it implies a glorying in the Mystery; but it is not simply a statement of the Mystery for the sake of its mysteriousness.

So perhaps that’s another tip for next year’s Trinity Sunday services. Don’t say the Athanasian Creed. Sing it.