Wednesday, December 27, 2017

My Top Books of 2017

The flood-tide of 2017 events has crested (I sure hope), and it's time again to share some of the good things I've had the privilege of reading this year.

It's been a great year for reading for me though I haven't gotten to write about it much. I didn't read very many books (less than 70 and a bunch of them were escapist fiction), but a goodly percentage were great books that really challenged me. In fact, if I had to name a theme for the year, it was that I read great books that strongly pushed me in directions I needed to go.

What I Mean By "Top Books"

As in past years [2013, 2014, 20152016], my "Top Books" list is not necessarily the best books that were published that particular year or the most enjoyable either. I intend it to be a list of the Christian nonfiction books I read:

- that had the most personal impact on me, my thinking, my heart.
- that I was the most consistently enthusiastic about.
- that I kept coming back to again and again.
- that I couldn't help recommending to others (and recommend without reservations and significant caveats).

Choosing which books to name as "the top" ones was really hard this year. I think that most years I've named five. This year I barely whittled it down to seven (and that by sneaking in some "honorable mentions"). Tune in tomorrow for even more great books.

My Top Books Read in 2017

1. The Triune God by Fred Sanders

Sander's newest book on the Trinity in the "New Studies in Dogmatics" series from Zondervan pushed me in a whole lot of directions not the least of which was stretching my mind to read on an higher academic level.

As for the content, this is what I said to LifeWay Pastors when they asked about it:
I want to understand, as much as I can, the deepest mysteries of Who God is, and what is more mysterious than the Tri-Personal-Unity of God? Sanders is taking me deeper than I’ve ever gone without rabbit-trailing into unhealthy and unhelpful speculation.
I have also spent several hours watching the video course companion to the book. There is still so much I don't understand about this fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith, but I feel that, with Fred's help (and other good books such as Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves), I'm making progress. I need to read it again.

2. How to Be an Atheist by Mitch Stokes

Stokes' book was also a bit beyond my intellectual abilities to fully comprehend, but I still thoroughly enjoyed  watching his mind work. In How To Be An Atheist, Mitch Stokes shines a skeptical light on skepticism. After taking on David Hume and showing the limits of skepticism, he turns to science (which has not disproven God, perhaps quite the opposite) and then morality (making the moral argument--which I have always found so compelling since I was introduced to it by C.S. Lewis--in new sophisticated ways in the current climate of militant atheist skepticism).

Stokes is well qualified to write this book with his PhD in philosophy and his MS in engineering and his clever and mischievous sense of humor. He does a wonderful job of presenting the best arguments for the other side and then interacting respectfully but sharply with them. I need to read it again soon.

Speaking of presenting the best arguments of the other side, I finally got to finish the series of apologetic books by Nabeel Qureshi by reading Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus which turned out to be my favorite of them all. Qureshi is the most sympathetic apologist I've ever been exposed to. It was strange to start reading a book while the author was living and then, sadly, to finish it after he had passed. I pray that his books stay in print for a very long time and reach many people for Christ.

3. Twelve Ways Your Phone Is Changing You by Tony Reinke

This book was no fun to read. Reinke pushed me to reevaluate my use of technology (the smartphone being just the pinnacle of personal tech in our day) in significant ways.

Reinke is no enemy of technology. He does a wonderful job of celebrating it as a gift of God. But he is a shrewd observer of how our sinful hearts twist around any technology and take it in unhealthy directions. [See these EFCA Now reviews I got to coordinate for more.] I need to read it again soon and will be handing it to my kids as they get phones of their own.

In a very similar vein, Andy Crouch's The Tech-Wise Family was a very good short read on how to put technology in its proper place (hint: not the center).

4. A Small Book about a Big Problem by Ed Welch

My one sentence review:

This book is small like a "ghost pepper" is small.

I published a longer review this Fall when I ran a contest giving away a copy. This book pushed me to identify my anger problem when it isn't coming out as rage.

I love how Ed has gotten really good at packing pungent thoughts into short conversational meditations. My only criticism is that the title doesn't say what the book is about! I need to read it again soon.

5. Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel by Ray Ortlund

This book pushed me towards beauty.

Ortlund's book wasn't an academically challenging read nor did it challenge me to love Heather in a different way, but it did sweetly remind me of what I know about marriage--marriage has always been a beautiful picture of the gospel.

Ray uses carefully chosen words to pull together and powerfully present how marriage fits into the grand storyline of the Bible. It's imminently quotable (Tweetable!) and rich. It encouraged me to continue to love my wife as I've been learning to do for the last 24 years and to love her for the glory of Jesus. I need to read it again.

6. The Vanishing American Adult by Ben Sasse

I expected to be challenged by Sasse's book (and I was), but I was surprised by how encouraged I was by reading it.

The challenge is that Senator Sasse is an uber-talented intellectual who sets a rigorously high bar for raising up the next generation of American citizens. I can't relate to his achievements (aside from getting jealous) and could feel like many of his illustrative examples are unattainable. I also expected to be depressed by some of the trends he was observing (vanishing adulthood is not a positive thing!)

But I was actually encouraged. My biggest encouragement was that I recognized the broad outlines of his philosophy of parenting as being the same as Heather and mine. "Yes! That's what we're trying to do with our kids!" was the thought that regularly reoccurred as I read it. I enjoyed reading his engaging (often humorous) prose. I dog-eared a bunch of pages, especially the ones with list-like practical suggestions and began loaning it out to other parents.

7. Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia by John Dunlop

Dunlop's book pushed me to love people more skillfully and to face my impending mortality. 

Interestingly, Dr. Dunlop used to be our physician when I was a young seminarian. I'm glad he's focused on geriatrics now because he's shown a deep understanding of what it feels like to grow weak with age and infirmity.

The greatest strength of this book was describing what dementia is like from the perspective of both the person suffering from it and a person caring for someone who has it. Everyone who reads it (and I've read multiple reviews of it as the book review coordinator for EFCA Now) says the same thing.

So many people are affected by this that a book like this needed written. Our copy is getting passed all the way around our little church. I'm glad that this one is so rich with theological insight and practical counsel.

It was hard to read because just as there is a good chance Dr. Dunlop will eventually suffer from dementia himself (and his letter to his family at the end is a beautiful meditation on such), there is a good chance that either Heather or I or both of us will suffer similarly as we get old. As a preview of coming attractions, it was a difficult but salutary harbinger to consider. I need to read it again.