My top 10 reads of 2017 (maybe inspiration for your ‘book’ tokens?)

Recently I was meeting with a colleague who asked me whether I had always been ‘well read’, a question that I hadnt really thought of before. It wasnt something i would have said to myself up until the age of 18 when i read a little academic reading as possible to get through school. But that changed when I started studying and working towards something vocationally, and also had access to libraries on subjects like youth work and theology that i was keenly interested in reading more. Up until now, I have been reluctant to do a ‘top’ anything of any-year, largely due to avoiding the self absorption, and that many of these books have featured in articles already this year, though some may have passed you by. So, it might be that youve been given ‘book’ tokens (i am avoiding using brand names) and are looking for what to spend them on (I am) and so here are my top reads from the last year with a summary from each, and please do comment on what yours have been or suggest titles for me to read in 2018.

  1. Eager to Love- the alternative Way of Francis of Assisi, By Richard Rohr This bargain was found in a Durham charity shop for about £2 last December and I dont think i put it down for most of January. My first read  of anything by Richard Rohr, and the first time id read in depth about St Francis.

‘My Brothers, God has called me to walk in the way of humility, and showed me the way of simplicity..The Lord has shown me that he wants me to be a new kind of fool in the world, and God does not lead  us by any other knowledge than that’ St Francis. (RR, 2014, p33)

As a result of this I signed up to receive Richard Rohrs daily mediation at CAC. As well penned a number of articles on St Francis and Spirituality of Street based work.

2. Improvisation- The Drama of Christian Ethics, by Samuel Wells. This was one from last Christmas, and was a book that I wanted ever since I had seen Kevin Vanhoozer refer to it in his Drama of Doctrine, and also Anthony Thiselton do so in Hermeneutics of Doctrine, both of which would have made it to previous top 10 lists had i made them. Sam Wells in this book discusses Ethics and develops thinking around theatrical Improvisation to build a case for Christian ethics, within the narrative of the Christian drama as improvisation.

‘Christian Ethics is not about helping anyone act Christianity in a crisis, but about helping Christians embody their faith in the practices of Discipleship all the time’ (Wells, 2004, p15)

3. The Pedagogy of the Heart- by Paulo Freire. A friend of mine recommended this book as they were often selectively quoting from it on facebook. To be honest I would have found it anyway, eventually as I was buying at least one Freire book per year anyway. This book is more autobiographical as the principle ‘practice-reflector’ reflects on his own life, from its military rule, exile and then his early moves into education in Sao Paulo. It is deeply moving and like all of Freire an easy but provokative read.

‘While a virtue, tolerance does not grow on trees, neither is it a concept that can be learned through mechanical transferrance, from a speaking active subject who deposits it in subdued patients. The learning of tolerance takes place through testimony. Above all, it implies that, whilst fighting for a dream, i must not become passionately closed within myself’ (PF, 1997, p17)

4. The Presentation of self in everyday life- by Erving Goffman. Although this was on the radar, given Goffmans concept of human person as metaphorical performer, It was only because a significant section of my thesis looked at Goffmans theory that I gave this book a significant read. What i find surprising is that Goffman is barely mentioned in youth ministry in terms of thinking about persons in interactions, and the environments of the stage of the church/youth setting. Though there is some reference to Goffman on the website. Its easily the most readily available book in this top 10 and you can get a copy for less that £1. The sociological Anthony Giddens suggests that Goffmans metaphor of human presentation as theatrical is, though often dicredited is still the best for expanding and encapsulating human interactions and co-presence within some kind of framework, so on that recommendation might be worth a read for the conversational element of youth work, and if nothing else might give you a new discipline to reflect on in your ongoing reflective practice, that of sociology.

‘When an individual plays a part he implicitly requests his observers to take seriously the impression that is fostered before them’ (Goffman, 1960, p28) (ed; like those reading this and what this article gives the impression of? 😉 )

5. The Pastor as Public Theologian – Reclaiming a Lost Vision – Kevin Vanhoozer & Owen Strachan (2016) – Ok, so I have a bit of an obsession with both Paulo Freire and Kevin Vanhoozer, my bookshelf might be considered a bit of a shrine to both of them, In April I bought this book of Vanhoozers, and whilst it only got a quick skim read during a time when i was completing studies at that time, it still easily makes it into this top 10. Vanhoozer and Strachan scope out the current problems faced by Pastors, Ministers, and Youth leaders in that they might be feeling that they have less place in ‘people work’ in society and that as a result their identity to be needed is reduced somewhat. (I would add that in the UK, austerity has caused the clergy/church/youth worker to be even more required in a people person role). They suggest that too many pastors have exchanged their theological birth right for a bowl of lentil stew of management techniques, leadership, strategic planning, because ‘the role of the pastor as a theologian no longer is exciting or intelligable’  according to Vanhoozer/Strachan, this book is about theology’s return to the public and proposes that the pastor-theologian is a peculiar Public figure, who builds up people in christ, says what God is doing and involved with people in and for community. If you are in need of an encouragement as to your role in vocational ministry, and a reminder of the theological imperative of building community, then this might be for you.

6. Faith Generation – Retaining Young People and Growing the Church. Nick Shepherd (2016)  Quite Simply the most thorough, challenging book on the state of UK youth Ministry for the last 10 years. Nick addresses a number of popular targets (MTD being one) and also incorporates a number of recent conclusions from research into church attendance and growth, and also takes apart a number of youth ministry urban myths, such as the reliance and adoption of developmental theories, such as Fowler and Westerhoffs faith development theories and suggests that faith is something that is generated in young people in a constructive exercise involving their identity, that needs to be plausible and reliable, and this includes meaningful and testable. My full review of this book is here: and this book featured heavily in my posts in 2017, including this line:

‘The first area we might consider is the way young people move from being learners to deciders’ (Shepherd, p156)

Though it was written with a ‘church context’ in mind, generating faith in, as well as helping it be formed in young people is a task for the missional church and projects that do this, it is a worthy read.

6. Theatrical Theology – Explorations in Performing the Faith (eds Trevor Hart, Wesley Van der Lugt, 2014)

The next two books featured heavily in my reading in the first half of the year as I was writing my Thesis on Theodrama. This first one features 13 seperate essays from some of the main proponents of Theatres insights for Theology, and as such we are part of an ongoing Drama. These essays feature Vanhoozer, Wells, Hart and Vander Lugt, and its chapters include subjects such as the drama of empty churches, the play of Christian life, Death, Doing Gods Story, and one I particularly liked that of Heltzel who describes how a youth project in Wall Street were improvised performers as church of the theatre of the oppressed, and how revolution was through dramatic interruptions to the neo-liberal normal life. He goes on to talk about Jesus as transformer of space from despair to hope, and this is what churches can bring to communities.

‘Churches today need to learn how to translate the liturgical performance of Sunday worship into street theatre freely performed throughout the week’ (Heltzel, 2014, p261 in Theatrical Theology)

7. Living Theodrama – Wesley Vander Lugt, 2014

This one is only for the serious Theodrama students, at nearly £100 RRP, though not the most expensive book on this list. In this work Wesley Van der Lugt attempts to bring together all the many phrases, terms and metaphors linking theology and theatre as expressed in proposals since Von Baltasar in the 1970’s. Vander lugt attempts to bring more study of Theatre into the Theodrama discussion (as it can often be lacking) , this he does through use of terms like ‘disponibility’ and drawing from Theatrical theory of Stanislowski and Brecht in a way that others hadnt. He also describes church as an inter-actional theatre and discipleship as a twin task of formation and performance.

‘Reflection on the living Theodrama gives rise to a theatrical theology and motivates a livelier way of life made possible by a living King who died, rose again and embodied both the rough and the Holy’ (Vander Lugt, p28)

8. Young People and the Church since 1990 – Naomi Thompson, 2018

A confession to make, at £105 I did not pay for this full price, and I realise that it is beyond the reach of most if not all. It therefore might only be a relevance to the UK practice of Youth Ministry if it is read and bought for university libraries where the historical actions that shaped the development of youth ministry in the UK. For in a way that is what Naomi discusses, and along the way expounds from her research into Sunday Schools how they rise and fell, and the affiliation issues that they created. I have already written a review of Naomis book, it as here: . A post that was based on this book, and was then published in Christianity Today is here: The one question in churches that, since Sunday Schools, hasnt gone away.  In her conclusion Thompson argues that churches often adopt a passive approach to decline, when they have the agency to affect positive change, in the same way that they acted with agency to contribute to their own decline.

9. The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry Andrew Root and Kenda Creasy Dean. For some reason, half way through last year, i think it was to do with my studies, I spent a little while reading up on theological frameworks for youth ministry, and most notably the US context. Also I had just been to hear Kenda Creasy Dean at an event in Leeds. This book builds on, and asks strangely similar questions to the earlier Thome (Starting Right) with significant additions that reflect on Dean and Roots own personal theological journeys since, most especially Roots developments of Practical Theology, methods and models, and to be fair, 15 years of new insights, research and practices of youth ministry since that first work. If you want to think practically and theologically about youth ministry as a theological task then this book, a serious read is for a serious player in youth ministry. It might reward you back. My concern is that Youth Ministry is more than practical theology which is where Root ends, and that an imagination of Theology as Theatrical is lacking in this book. Roots practical theology is too scientific for my liking. Performers for me is better, and theodrama best describes the action of God and humanity intertwining in a way that Roots chosen models do not.  But until that book is written, this one is a good follow up to ‘starting right’ and also gives an idea of the critical conversations in academia that youth ministry is causing in the USA. Criticism aside, this still makes it into my top 10 for 2017, as it easily gave me much to think about.

10. Border Crossings, Cultural workers and the politics of Education, Henry Giroux, 1992. After I had finished my dissertation, I stepped off the gas for a few weeks and did nothing. Read nothing. The first book I picked up to read was Naomis book above, the second was this one. The concept of ‘Border Crossing’ has been in my mind since Cockburn and Wallace wrote that youth work plays a role in Border pedagogy, and they referred to Giroux in that book which i read about 4 years ago, and so this has been on the radar since. It didnt disappoint, especially for the few pounds I paid for it. It was like reading Freire with the politics cranked up a notch, and where Giroux was talking about Reagans American and a slide to neo liberalism and an eduation for the economiy which had no regard to for power, identity politics and equality. I was reading the same criticism but with Trump and the current tories in mind. It made me angry, passionate and determined to persue a path of equality, education and constantly helping young people be critical reflectors in their place in the world. Worth it, and an easy pick for number 10.

‘Cultural workers (that could be youthworkers) need to unravel not only ideological codes, representations, and practices that structure the dominant order, they also need to acknowledge “those places and spaces we inherit and occupy, which frame our lives in very specific and concrete ways, which are as much part of our psyches as they are a physical or geographical placement’ (Giroux, 1992, 79)

when Giroux described the institutional racism in schools, (p138) and within the curriculum of history, then it was easy to draw parrallels with the charlotesville protests and dismantling of statues that embodied that colonialism.

So there we go, I hope, by the end of this you might be inspired to buy and read for yourself one or more of these titles, and I hope that they cause you to be inspired in your community practices in churches, with young people and also the playing of your part in the drama of ongoing redemption that is the Gods ongoing Drama. Please do send me your reads in the comments below, or upcoiming titles you think I should give a read. Thank you, and Happy 2018!

Author: James

Currently I work part time for both Frontier Youth Trust ( and Communities Together Durham ( , though this blog is my own personal views. I am also self employed and do various aspects of youthwork consultancy, including training, writing, lecturing, seminars and written pieces, including organisational consultancy, community profiling and detached/youthwork training. Please do get in touch if I can be of help to you in your church, project or organisation to develop your youth and community work. I have contributed to 'Here be Dragons (2013), and two recent articles in the youth and theology journal and 'ANVIL' the CMS online journal. My recent employment includes, working for FYT as a youthwork development adviser, being the centre director at Durham YFC, and before this I was known as 'Mr Sidewalk' as I was the project coordinator for the Sidewalk Project in Perth, where I facilitated the delivery of 5 years of detached youthwork on the streets, schools and communities to engage with young people , and support through alcohol misuse issues. In 2017 I completed an MA in Theology & Ministry at St John's College, Durham, and in 2008 graduated from ICC (now NTC Glasgow) with an honours degree in youth work with Applied theology.

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