I love reading other people’s top ten lists and being exposed to great books so I decided I would write one this year. Doug Wilson once wrote, “You read widely to be shaped, not so that you may be prepared to regurgitate.” I found this astute observation so inspiring and have committed to reading more this past year. I am thankful for the Goodreads Reading Challenge which helps me set challenging goals and keep track of my progress. I utilized this tool for the first time this past year and found it to be so motivating. I highly recommend using it and setting a personal reading goal for the new year. Here are some of the books that have shaped me this past year (these are books I read this past year, not necessarily ones that were published this year). You can check out the results of my Reading Challenge here.
10. The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
In chapel at seminary a few years back John MacArthur recommended this book and after finding it in Goodwill for just one dollar, I couldn’t resist. Who would have thought that 470 pages about cancer could be so interesting? With Mukherjee’s expertise, challenging vocabulary, and perception, this book was so riveting I could barely put it down. With intriguing stories of doctors, donors, researchers, nurses, and patients—the chapters of this book delineate how the past and present intersect often in extraordinary ways to push cancer research forward. This book is guaranteed to give you not only a better understanding of this incipient plague affecting millions around the globe, but an intensely moving story of human survival and achievement.
9. Christless Christianity by Michael Horton
This is a book about getting the simple and glorious message of the Gospel right. The Gospel is the well from which Christians are given new life and continue to thrive. In modern American Evangelicalism, the well has been poisoned with theological liberalism, semi-Pelagian revivalism, therapeutic moralism, and consumeristic pragmatism—all of which center on the individual and not Christ. The emphasis is on our faith, works, spirituality, our feelings, experiences, successes, preferences, and felt needs—our doing rather than Christ’s finished work. All this has downplayed, even removed the necessity of key biblical truths such as man’s sin, God’s wrath, and Christ’s cross. Horton critiques the evangelical landscape and declares most of modern Christianity to be Christless. He calls for a reformation where the Gospel is no longer seen as good advice for better living (What Would Jesus Do?), but a message proclaiming what God has fully accomplished in Christ (What Has Christ Done?). He heralds a robustly biblical Gospel which details the story of what Christ has accomplished to reconcile us to God. An important book for understanding trends in the modern church.
8. The Dynamic Heart in Daily Life by Jeremy Pierre
The biblical concept of the heart is fascinating, complex, and intensely practical. Our inner man is constantly responding to circumstances outside of us, circumstances in which we interact with God, ourselves, and others. Pierre does a fabulous job showing that people are unified beings who think, feel, and choose simultaneously and that our conscious actions reveal the inner beliefs, desires, and commitments of our hearts. In the context of redemptive history, he traces the nature of the heart at creation, corruption, redemption, and in its daily contexts. Reminding us that our hearts were designed to glorify God and function best accordingly, he encourages us to have better self-awareness to the underlying motivations of our responses. Counselors are equipped to discern these motivations in their unique and complex situations. In one of the most insightful parts of the book, Pierre maintains that people are always culpable for their responses, but shows that we should discern between the external conditions, passive dynamic effects, and active dynamic responses of people in their circumstances. In other words, pay better attention and listen closer to their story.
7. The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager by Thomas Hine
Being both a millennial and somewhat of an old soul, I have long been intrigued by the concept of adolescence and how it is beginning earlier and extending later into life. Hine turns back the pages of history to show that the teenager is a social invention that took shape during the first half of the twentieth century. Read almost as a dark, dystopian comedy, he explores changes in our culture’s perceptions and expectations of teenagers over years and shows how the teen years may be the most exciting, horrifying, and confusing time of our lives. His research and observations explore the intricate dance between teens and culture—how teens think about society and how society thinks about teens. He touches on important issues such as work, school, sex, marriage, drugs, music, and clothing. This is a must read for parents, teachers, and youth pastors as we interact with young people during this volatile and vulnerable period of time in their lives. “Teenagers are people of whom too much is asked and too little is expected.
6. 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You by Tony Reinke
Philip Dick wrote, “[Technology] can fluctuate rapidly between being a benefit and a hazard very rapidly.” Living in the twenty-first century requires wisdom to navigate through the flood of technological advancement. Not only is it constantly evolving, but it is ever present with us. Nowhere is this more true than with that device you currently have in your hand (or pocket). Our phones are not only changing, but they are changing us and I am thankful for a book that forewarns me so that I can be mindful of the potential dangers that I face when I hold my phone in my hand. Self-criticism is a painful, yet necessary discipline. Although this book has heart-piercing conviction on every page, it is equally balanced with soul-stirring Good News in every chapter. Reinke will painfully yet delicately strip vanity from your appetite by stamping eternity on the forefront of your mind. A well-researched and practical book.
5. The Heresy of Orthodoxy by Andreas J. Kostenberger and Michael J. Kruger
I don’t know about you, but it has become an ordinary experience for me to go on to social media and be surprised by the “deconversion” stories of other Christians championing tolerance fueled by postmodern deconstruction. Kostenberger and Kruger show how the Bauer-Ehrman thesis undergirds this inclusive, pluralistic Christianity in which the only heresy is now orthodoxy itself. This thesis claims that early Christianity was very diverse until the ecclesiastical majority—or “winners”—forced their orthodox beliefs on others and excluded other writings and doctrines from the Canon. This thesis has led to a suspicion of orthodox Christianity and the credibility of the Scriptures. The authors of this book effectively discredit the Bauer-Ehrman thesis utilizing history and Scripture and they brilliantly show the unity of Bible as a whole body of divine revelation meant to announce God’s redemptive acts and shape His community of people. This is an important book that makes difficult topics such as early church history, the canon, textual criticism, and biblical theology clear and evident to the average Christian. “The siren song of pluralism will always drown out the sober voice of history.”
4. Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker by Andrew Root
This year I took on the role of a youth pastor and I was immediately drawn to this book. Root details Bonhoeffer’s life devotion to youth in the church, makes the compelling case that he was the forefather of modern youth ministry, and draws important conclusions about working with youth from his life, work, and writings. Most who are familiar with Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship might be surprised to discover that the great theological mind behind these works who was the holder of two doctorates, spent the majority of his life faithfully ministering to young people. Root shows Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on the theological rather than theology. He sought to disciple young people to experience Christ in their concrete lives, share their personhood with others in God’s community, and to passionately follow Christ as a person rather than an idea. This book is chock-full of practical insights for those who faithfully minister to young people in the church and desire to do their work more effectively. I was challenged to go beyond the motions and give more of myself to Christ and to the students under my care.
3. The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield
Books do not make me cry. It usually takes a motion picture with the combination of a moving script, professional actors, and a dramatic soundtrack in the minor key. But this book is the exception. At multiple points I had to put it down, make sure no one was looking, and just weep. Butterfield, a former lesbian and liberal English professor, details the story of how Christ broke into her life and saved her. It was not an immediate experience, but a slow and dramatic change in which the faithful hospitality and love of an older Christian couple eventually wore her down and helped her to see the truth. She discloses intimate details of her new relationship with Jesus, her introduction to church, her marriage to a pastor, her many fostering cases, and adoptions. Interspersed throughout the narrative are insights into same-sex attraction, beautiful descriptions of the Gospel, and practical wisdom for Christians living in today’s world. This book filled my eyes with tears and my heart with adoration for my Redeemer.
2. Love Thy Body by Nancy Pearcey
In the introduction, Pearcey declares that her purpose is negatively, to prove that a secular morality does not fit the real universe and positively, to show that there is another “reality-based morality that expresses a positive, life-affirming view of the human person—one that is more inspiring, more appealing, and more liberating than the secular worldview.” She did not disappoint and for such a bold claim, she far exceeded my expectations in arguing her case. She shows the battle for morality is a conflict of worldviews and breaks down the secular and biblical presuppositions that underlay the opposing positions. She shows how the secular worldview assumes a body/person split with the body defined by empirical sciences and the person defined by private, subjective values. She then continues to show the inconsistencies and long-term ramifications of this thinking in regards to marriage, sex, abortion, pornography, homosexuality, and transgender issues. With philosophical and theological acumen, she makes a cogent and compassionate case for a biblical worldview of an embodied soul meant to be unified and under submission to a good Creator. Anyone struggling with issues of life and sexuality should check out this well-researched and thoughtful resource. She will stretch your thinking on these important cultural issues.
1. On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior
If there was one book that came out this year that was hyped up, it was this one. I saw it all over social media and as a late reader in life playing catch-up, I was drawn to it as a helpful resource. Don’t let the title of the book confuse you. Prior is not necessarily interested in helping you achieve a greater quantity of reading—acceleration and accumulation—but a greater quality, which she defines as breadth and diligence. Her main thesis is that “Reading well is, in itself, an act of virtue, or excellence, and it is a habit that cultivates more virtue in return.” Taking the theme of virtue, she examines a variety of books, old and new, showing the virtues the stories emphasize through the development of the characters within their respective plots. In the introduction she gave me a desire to read more diligently and in the following chapters she modeled for me how to accomplish this task. Be forewarned there are some spoilers, and I had not yet read most of the books she analyzes, but fortunately by the time I get to reading them I will have forgotten much. But remember, as I mentioned above, we read not to retain but to be shaped—or as Prior puts it, reading should be “formative, not merely informative.” I would be remiss not to mention the aesthetic bonus of the book. Artist Ned Bustard adds a unique element by providing beautiful, wood-cut illustrations at the beginning of each chapter guaranteed to make he whole experience of the book all the more enjoyable. And the cover is absolutely stunning! This one is well worth your time and money for the introduction alone.
Honorable Mentions: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Reframing Foster Care by Jason Johnson, A Theology of Biblical Counseling by Heath Lambert, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, Paul and the Law by Bryan S. Rosner, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, John G. Paton by Paul Schlehlein, All That Is in God by James E. Dolezal, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, and The New England Soul by Harry S. Stout.