This is the third year that I have committed to reading 50 books (you can view my completed books list on Goodreads here). With the perfect blend of curiosity, intentionality, and tenacity, you can join me in reading more. If you desire this, I have shared my personal tips and tricks on reading more. As I am continually shaped by what I read, I desire to share books worthy of your time and energy. These are my favorite books read in 2019 (not necessarily published this year). As you read through each section, I hope you will see the overlapping and recurring themes. This is one of the joys of reading more.
10. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (771 pages)
“Life—whatever else it is—is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway; wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping our hearts and eyes open.”
Love and loss, art and ethics, idolatry and secrets. This book is like an epic roller coaster with surprising twists and gut-wrenching turns. The dynamic characters intricately weaved together in the action-packed plot keep you fastened to your seat right from the beginning all the way to its glorious end (those last couple pages are worth the whole book). Brimming with themes from Ecclesiastes, the tragic life of Theo Decker is incredibly vexing as he never seems to grab hold of what he desires. Life is portrayed to be fleeting and frustrating but with a silver lining found in the ordinary kindness of others and the invisible way that life’s most difficult circumstances can work together for good. The story is tragic yet hopeful, dark yet resplendent. I highly recommend the book (but not the movie, it was terribly flat!).
9. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (203 pages)
“Although he was rash, untutored in the ways of the backcountry, and incautious to the point of foolhardiness, he wasn’t incompetent . . . And he wasn’t a nutcase, he wasn’t a sociopath, he wasn’t an outcast. McCandless was something else—although precisely what is hard to say. A pilgrim, perhaps.”
Krakauer provides this dramatic and empathetic account of Chris McCandless, a conflicted young man on the run from his family and society. Rejecting a life of security and conformity, he chose one of adventure and solitude on the road and in the wilderness. Highly intelligent and big-hearted like J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, his stubborn angst and idealism led him to dismiss the instruction of those who loved him most and to instead white-knuckle a reckless life of self-sufficiency, cynicism, and isolation. The immediate gratification of danger and risky behavior led him to overlook the long-term rewards of good judgment and deep relationships. Rather than seeing McCandless as an easy target of judgment, I learned much from his fascinating life. He was right to find joy in nature and in being alone, but he ultimately learned that it is principally found in our relationships with others, however messy and imperfect they may be. Unfortunately McCandless discovered this the hard way and a little too late. The book deals with complex issues of adolescence such as identity, purpose, and belonging. The movie is amazing, but read the book first.
8. Postmodern Times by Gene Edward Veith, Jr. (234 pages)
“The postmodernists are right to question the arrogance of the Enlightenment, the assumption that human reason can answer every question and solve every problem.”
Postmodernism is one of those ambiguous philosophies and Christians are often divided over whether it conflicts with or coincides with the biblical worldview. Veith takes a balanced approach toward postmodernism and examines its historical roots as well as its effect on art, society, and religion. He provides a deeper understanding of culturally relevant themes that pervade our pluralistic society such as political correctness, multi-culturalism, revisionism, deconstruction, contextualization, intersectionality, etc. Although postmodernism is distrustful of metanarrarives and promotes a “hermeneutics of suspicion”, it still can support the Christian worldview. Postmodernism shows us the need for revelation. Man cannot know everything, but we can know the One who does . . . and thankfully, He delights in revealing Himself to us. When mankind rejects the self-attesting, authoritative Scripture of the self-revealing Creator, there is no objective or consistent foundation for discovering the truth. My favorite explanation of postmodernism (specifically related to art) is “contrived depthlessness.”
7. Letters to a Romantic: On Dating and Letters to a Romantic: on Engagement by Sean Perron and Spencer Harmon (134 pages each)
“Whatever you do, don’t buy the lie of ‘Twenty Things You Have to Do in Your Twenties before Marriage.’ Don’t believe the lie that you have to ‘live it up before you settle down.'”
Adolescence is longer today than ever before in human history and marriage is postponed as a capstone rather than prioritized as a cornerstone of adult life. After serving in high school ministries for 12 years now and after working security on the campus of a Christian university, I have seen confusion consistently pervade the dating field within young evangelicalism. Worldly portrayals of relationships in entertainment can sear the conscience and cloud the judgment. Unhelpful “Christian” resources (such as I Kissed Dating Goodbye) can sow legalism and engender fear. What is missing is the simple wisdom necessary to pursue a relationship in a God-honoring approach—with the right person, for the right reasons, and in the right way. Many of the questions I receive about dating and marriage are often just so basic. I found these two books to be refreshing. Written as letters to young people, Sean and Spencer, with the help of their wives, give practical wisdom from God’s Word and their own experience on dating and engagement. On Dating deals with practical things such as what the point of a first date is, how to decline a date, how to break up, and how to know when to pursue marriage. On Engagement deals with how to maintain relationships with friends, honor your new parents, and determine the appropriate length of engagement. If you or someone you know is struggling to connect with the opposite sex or move forward in a relationship, there is much wisdom to be gained from these books.
6. Longing for Motherhood by Chelsea Patterson Sobolik (201 pages)
“One of the biggest ways the Western church can grow is to learn that sorrow, grief, and lament aren’t things to run away from. Life is a painful journey toward heaven, and Christians should learn how to have tender hearts.”
The Scriptures are replete with stories of barrenness and the hurt and shame that accompanies childlessness. Although my wife and I have not dealt with infertility, some people close to us have and my mother recommended that I read this book. Whether we are aware of it or not, there are people around us—in our churches, families, and communities—who are hurting because their dreams of having children remain unfulfilled year after year. And hope deferred makes the heart sick (Prov 13:12). This is an absolutely beautiful testimony of God’s goodness in the midst of intense suffering. Through Chelsea’s own vulnerable story of childlessness, she helped me see the importance of the grieving process, how to have a tender heart toward those who are grieving, how to personally look to Christ in times of unfulfilled desires and complete lack of control, how to use suffering to serve others, and how to see God’s bigger plan in childlessness. Because infertility affects 12% of the population, I believe this is an important book for everyone to read, especially for those in ministry. It is also a great source of encouragement for those struggling with childlessness.
5. Until Every Child Is Home by Todd R. Chipman (228 pages)
“Sometimes our churches fail to realize a deep sense of mutual commitment because we are not stepping out in ministries that stretch us to the point of realizing that we need one another. Foster care and adoption will do just that.”
As a foster parent of over 3 years, I was very excited to see this book release in the past year. Chipman makes a clarion call to the church to lead the way in caring for orphans because it vividly demonstrates the power and message of the Gospel in our communities. He demonstrates how orphan-care is a “gateway ministry” that simultaneously combats the common injustices of our society such as abortion, homelessness, racial injustice, and human trafficking. He argues that because of the church’s message—God’s activity in rescuing estranged sons and daughters by bringing them into His multi-ethnic family—the church has the capacity like no other to meet the spiritual, emotional, and social needs of orphans. He makes the case that pastors should lead in orphan-care ministry and tells the stories of faithful, well-known advocates—leaders who are leading the way—such as Russel and Maria Moore, David and Heather Platt, Kent and Rosaria Butterfield, Tony and Kimberly Merida, and Jason and Emily Johnson. This is a compelling case for the church to step up to the plate. If God’s mission came at the cost of His only Son, it is going to come at a high cost to the church as well. It is not an easy task, but a necessary one.
4. The Little Way of Ruthie Lemming by Rod Dreher (268 pages)
“Nobody thinks about limits, and how much we need each other. But if you live long enough, you see suffering. It comes close to you. It shatters the illusion, so dear to us, of self-sufficiency, autonomy, of control.”
Family and conflict, suffering and death, forgiveness and grace. This book had the most visceral effect on me this year; it thoroughly wrecked me. “A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life”—the subtitle says it all. Dreher recounts the beautiful and tragic story of his sister’s battle with cancer and her subsequent passing. A faithful, young mother, a beloved schoolteacher, and one of the most hard-working and kind people, Ruthie remained in St. Francisville, Louisiana, the small town where she was raised. Dreher, on the other hand, had gone off to college and then became a writer in the big city. It took his sister’s courage and her community’s loving, sacrificial support during this storm to help him see what he had overlooked—the beauty and goodness of a small country town and living near family. After losing my mother at a young age and leaving the small towns of NH for seminary in Southern CA, this moving memoir made me yearn to be closer to my family and pine for the ordinary goodness of provincial life.
3. None Greater by Matthew Barrett (246 pages)
“Call it what you want; I am persuaded—and I hope you will be too by the end of this book—that the God of the classical theism is simply the God of the Bible.”
“Daddy, if God is everywhere, how does He fit in our house?” My daughter’s simple yet complex question is related to theological ontology—God’s being and essence. Notice how she tried to understand God according to human limitations. She naturally thinks that God is like us and naturally seeks to build her understanding of Him from the bottom up. All of us are prone to formulate a god that is like us, contrived of our own finite imaginations and confined to human limitations. Yes, God is incomprehensible, but when we become comfortable with our understanding of Him, we have domesticated Him, and that is idolatry. Any approach to theology that is minimalistic or reductionistic is plain wrong. Let’s face it, thinking about God is not easy and thinking of Him in human terms is a natural way for us to mitigate the headache that comes from trying to grasp the infinite. But God has revealed Himself to us, so thinking from the bottom up is not our only option. This excellent book seeks to explain from Scripture and historical theology, the ontological attributes of God such as incomprehensibility, infinity, simplicity, immutability, impassibility, eternality, and omnipresence. This is an important book—a necessary book—to combat our comfortable and domesticated view of God.
2. Hearers & Doers by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (245 pages)
“Wisdom means knowing what to do in particular situations in order to glorify God and follow Jesus in ways that benefit faithful disciples. In a word, theological wisdom means knowing how to improvise the mind of Christ at all times, everywhere, and to everyone.”
I began to oversee a new adult discipleship ministry at our church this year and this book couldn’t have been more timely. This book is all about making disciples who make disciples. So many churches today are for unbelievers with a come-and-see, evangelistic emphasis. Vanhoozer argues that our people’s greatest need is to learn to read the Scriptures theologically in order to inform their beliefs, transform their imagination, and form new habits of grace. It is doctrine that makes disciples fit for purpose, equipped to go out and fulfill the mission of the church. Drawing from our culture’s social imaginary of human flourishing and well-being—largely seen in medicine and health, diet and nutrition, exercise and training—he shows that it invariably includes a community of people and a body of knowledge. But attending a gym and reading about a new diet will not benefit you until you put the doctrine into practice, until you do it. Like the fitness culture, he argues that the Scriptures are the core knowledge that must be taught to improve the church body’s core mobility. If you desire to grow as a disciple or to develop disciples who make disciples by improvising the mind of Christ at all times, everywhere, and to everyone, Vanhoozer has done the church a service by confirming the necessity of doctrine in the life and mission of the local church.
1. On the Road with Saint Augustine by James K. A. Smith (223 pages)
“If we never seem to arrive, grow tired of every place that promised to be the end of the road, it’s because the terrain of our interior life is a wilderness of wants.”
If you are human, you need to read this book. Smith is a captivating writer who has a way of presenting the truths of Scripture and the Christian worldview in a fresh, captivating way that truly helps you understand your own restless heart. Of course, he has learned from the best. When I saw On the Road was coming out, I grabbed my unfinished copy of Augustine’s Confessions and finished it first. I am so glad I did and I recommend you do the same. With the overarching theme of hitting the road to find ourselves, Smith speaks to the heart portrayed in Ecclesiastes—one that is constantly yearning for satisfaction and fulfillment, but cannot find it in anything under the sun. It is discontent with the elusive and ephemeral vision of the good life presented to us by the world. He shows that the heart’s hunger is infinite and cannot be satisfied by anything created. Even when we find some satisfaction in the finite things, we become increasingly more disappointed and more dependent on them. This book is guaranteed to help you gauge what your heart is ultimately longing for when it seeks fulfillment in things such as freedom, ambition, sex, motherhood, friendship, enlightenment, and justice. You will discover in a new way that rest from the disappointing rat race is found in a relationship with our Creator. Augustine said it best, “What am I to myself without You but a guide to my own downfall.”
Honorable Mentions: Lit! by Tony Reinke, Talk Like Ted by Carmine Gallo, Humble Calvinism by J. A. Medders, Counseling the Hard Cases by Stuart Scott and Heath Lambert, Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith, Dominion and Dynasty by Stephen G. Dempster, Passions of the Heart by John D. Street, Quiet by Susan Cain, Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper, and The Gospel Comes with a House Key by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield.
Check out My Top Ten Books Read in 2018