Thursday, December 31, 2020

My Top Books of 2020

Reading whole books, like most things in 2020, was a real struggle for me. For many weeks, especially from March to August, I had bad brainfog with “too many tabs open in the browser of my mind.” Concentration was at a premium and the pure pleasure of reading was a casualty.

But the bright side of reading in 2020 was that I had wonderful books to struggle with! My pile was simply brimming with scintillating reads. And, in fact, disciplining myself to read–even if just for a few pages or even a few paragraphs–is one of the key practices that helped me get through the brainfog that threatened to take over the last nine months. (And I also learned, in the process, that I need low-powered reading glasses which also helped to mitigate my concentration problems.)

My "Top" Books

Last year, I didn’t have a chance to do a “Top Books of 2019" post. I was too wrapped up in leading the search for the next Allegheny District Superintendent to produce one. But I had been doing them the six previous years [2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018]. As I’ve said before, this 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 fairly new 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).

This year, when I was telling Heather about it, she asked if I had a favourite (yes, with the British “u”), and I said that I did have favorites (yes, with the American spelling) in various categories. In fact, as I reflected on it further, I realized I had 10 favorites that were the best or “the most” in some way. So here they are, then, in no particular order.

"The Most" Books of 2020

Most Affirming:

Witmer’s book was the most affirming of God’s call upon my own life for pastoral ministry in a what he terms a “small place.” I've been pastoring Lanse Free Church, a rural church parked along the interstate, now for going on 23 years. I'm in it for the long haul, and it's because of the bigness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Witmer does a stellar job of developing a clear-eyed theological vision of ministry in small places. In my opinion, A Big Gospel in Small Places should be required reading for seminarians in their last year before the pastorate and for those 10 years into a small place ministry (with booster shots every 10 years afterwards). 

Most Intriguing:

Created to Draw Near
by Edward Welch 

Ed has a unique knack for seeing intriguing things that have always been there and nobody else has noticed. He is also singularly gifted at boiling ideas down to their simple essence and then deploying them right back into everyday life.

You and I, if we belong to Christ, are royal priests. I knew that biblical truth, and I have had about 5 thoughts about what that means for my life. Ed has 200 pages of simple (but not simplistic) thoughts about what that means for our lives.

Bonus: I also read Ed's tiny-page-sized devotional, A Small Book for the Anxious Heart at just the right moment--April 2020. I heartily recommend it, not so much for intriguing ideas but for short, fresh, fear-defeating insights for your heart.

Most Sobering:

Remember Death
by Matthew J. McCullough 

I had planned to read McCullough's reflections on mortality long before COVID-19 showed up on the scene, but in God's providence I was opening it just as the novel coronavirus started to spread across our country. 

McCullough's thesis is that honest death-awareness allows a believer to live the life they have to the fullest. 

It turns out that taxes are not inevitable, but death is. The sooner we embrace that truth, the sooner we can actually live the life we are called to.

Most Counter-Cultural:

Born Again This Way 
by Rachel Gilson

As I read Gilson's instructive memoir, I found a quotable quote for sharing on my social media feed on every other page! 

Gilson combines the power of personal story and counter-cultural biblical truth. Her unexpected discoveries in life tell a very different narrative than the world's which she details in cheerful, perceptive, readable prose. 

I expect to hand out Born Again This Way to many, and I'm looking forward to reading her contribution the upcoming book, Before You Lose Your Faith.

Most Accessible:

Why Does God Care Who I Sleep With?
 by Sam Allberry

Ok. I'm cheating here on this one. It might be just as counter-cultural as Gilson's book (and Allberry wrote the foreword for hers). It has the same message but less from a personal testimony approach andmore from an accessible introductory teaching treatment of the topic.

Ok. That last paragraph was a lot of words to say, "I would hand this book to anyone who wants to understand the basic Christian sexual ethic. Get it. Read it. Give it."

Ok. I want everyone to read, not only this accessible book, but all of the books in this new Questioning Faith series from the Good Book Company. This is how apologetics should be done.

Most Constructive:

In the last few years, I've been doing a lot of reading and thinking about theological method. It seems to me that how you go about solving a problem will often shape if not determine what kind of an answer you will get.

"Retrieval" is historical theology tool in the theologian's toolbox that is increasingly being discussed. Gavin Ortlund's book is an introduction to this idea, an argument for its use by theological evangelicals, and an very instructive exemplar of its practice. I was already sold on the basic idea of retrieval, but the four case studies were so helpful, I actually read the entire book a second time already this year!

In this same vein, I also read and highly recommend:

Retrieving Eternal Generation edited by Fred Sanders & Scott Swain
The Ascension of Christ by Patrick Schreiner

Most Mind-Stretching:

God In Himself
by Steven Duby

Duby's book is actually a little bit above my paygrade, but I'm glad I read it. 

The basic idea (if I understand even that) is that we can know God truly if not comprehensively, and that our analogical language (creaturely comparisons) does provide that true knowledge.

I think I actually understand it better than I can explain, but being able to explain something is the true mark of understanding it. This work challenged my brain and even kept my brain alive during a really difficult time.

For Christmas, Heather bought me Duby's book on the doctrine of simplicity (which is surprisingly complex!) so I expect to have my mind-stretched again in 2021.

Most Heart-Strengthening:

Gentle and Lowly
by Dane Ortlund 

There’s a reason this one is on everybody’s list this year:

It’s just that good.

Because Jesus is just that good.

And Dane Ortlund has found some carefully chosen words to capture and give that goodness to readers. This book is golden.

Most Haunting:

What Is a Girl Worth? by Rachael Denhollander

I wish I didn't have to read this story, but I wish even more that Mrs. Denhollander did not have to live it. 

I'm also thankful that she broke her silence and has had the courage to tell her story, over and over again.

I listened to What Is a Girl Worth as an audiobook which made it even more vivid. I pray that I learn lessons in courage and truth-telling from her example.

Most Hopeful:

Compassion & Conviction
by Justin Giboney, Michael Wear, and Chris Butler

You might not have noticed, but 2020 was an election year. In fact, it was a particularly brutal election season that tempted me to a kind of despair. One of the hardest things right now is develop a public theology--how Christian faith intersects with politics and public policy. I admit to being stymied and confused about how to think through these issues well. I have much to learn.

One bright spot for me was reading Compassion & Conviction by the leaders of the AND Campaign. It's just an introduction, but the idea is that we don't have to choose either compassion or conviction in our approach to public life--in fact, we better not! 

By the way, I was also greatly helped in this area by listening to Russell Moore's Signposts podcast this year and by reading Before You Vote by David Platt which I would recommend every American Christian absorb. Platt doesn't tell you how to vote, but helps you think about how to decide.

I know that I'm blessed to have a book budget and the ability to read--even when my brain is foggy. I'm looking forward to turning back the covers of a new set of books in 2021. Tolle Reading Glasses and Tolle Lege!