Tuesday, December 28, 2021

My Top Books of 2021

This was a good year for reading, but it didn’t come easily. 

In 2021, I continued to struggle with concentration just as I did during the first year of the pandemic. I ended up reading about a dozen books fewer than I did in 2020, and while I posted snippets from great books along the way, I didn’t write any full length book reviews.

But I did read. And I read some really good books. (I also read at some other similarly excellent books, but I haven’t completed them yet.)

These are the ones* that impressed and taught me the most in 2021:

Todd Miles writes great books for Christians. His book melding super-hero lore with excellent Christology made my list in 2018. This year he deftly tackled a highly-relevant topic (pun intended) with a concise, winsome, even-handed, well-informed, nuanced, readable, thoughtful book. 

Miles avoids easy answers and hasty conclusions but also pulls no punches either. I wish more Christian books were like this.

This year’s list includes two books on the Trinity. I’ve been repairing holes in my understanding of this crucial biblical doctrine for several years now, and reading Barrett’s book finally convinced me that the teaching called “Eternal Functional Subordination” that I had received from some of my (still beloved!) theological mentors was incorrect and ultimately incompatible with Nicene orthodoxy. As the title suggests, Barrett labors to demonstrate the interrelations between the doctrine of divine simplicity and the basic contours of pro-Nicene trinitarianism. I highly recommend it for those who are trying to sort these things out for themselves.

If that last paragraph sounded like goopy word-soup to you, I understand and sympathize. The concepts are a lot to wrap your mind around, and I’m still not good at explaining it all concisely. Thankfully, Scott Swain is. I recommend that more Christians begin with this introduction to the doctrine which proceeds from the same basic position as Barrett’s but in a constructive mode starting with the biblical data and building upwards. Both kinds of books (positive and disputative)  are needed, and I’m glad to have read good examples of both kinds this year.

I think I quoted from this book on social media more than any other that I read in 2021. Jeffrey Bilbro is bent on helping Christians think about how to absorb the news. It’s not a diatribe or even a lament, and the author is no Luddite, either. But he does want to help us be distinctly Christian in our reading of the news. I found it much more encouraging than I had expected–especially because I already was committed in principle to professor Bilbro's basic approach and was already trying to engage in some of the practices he recommends. Reading the Times was both sharpening and affirming.

Rebecca McLaughlin is writing the books the church needs right now. Starting with her award-winning Confronting Christianity (for which I have published a free downloadable small group discussion guide), McLaughlin has been churning out cheerful little volumes that cut through false dichotomies, shine a searchlight on bad arguments, and make a refreshing case for the truth, beauty, and goodness of Christianity. I read three great short books from her this year, 10 Questions Every Teen Should Ask (and Answer) About Christianity (Get one for the young person in your life!), Is Christmas Unbelievable? (We handed them out like cookies this year at church.), and The Secular Creed which engages 5 contemporary claims with great insight. I love the way she illuminates her sound arguments with scintillating illustrations from pop culture, literature, science, family stories, and Scripture. It’s amazing how much she packs into these little books and how she superbly presents the unexpected and ironical twists of both how Jesus challenges all of our thinking and is also better than anyone could ever imagine.

Here’s her conclusion:

"God's rule over our lives is heresy to modern, self-determining ears. But we must speak the truth with tenderness and not let our sin take the wheel. On all these fronts, we must fight hard with the weapon God has given us: self-sacrificing, unrelenting love. Rather than shouting progressives who seek love and justice down, let's call them in with a Jesus song: his song of good news for the historically oppressed, his song of love across racial and ethnic difference, his song that summons men and women, married and single, young and old, weak and strong, joyful and hurting, rich and destitute, into eternal love with him. Let's fight with love and sing the song with which will one day overcome. Can you hear it?" (Pg. 107).

Yes, I can.

* As I’ve said before [2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 2018, 2020], 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).

I hope to write another post about other kinds of books I read that were especially good for me in 2021.


Pastor Matt,
I'm in full agreement on your Trinity books recs. I read a different one by Barrett but same doctrine, and the one by Swain is super helpful. Don't know the others.... but I am like you, investing heavily in Trinity reading to do some needed patchwork.

Thanks, Dave! I'd also highly recommend reading everything by Fred Sanders that one can absorb.