One of my goals for 2015 was to read a book every week. I blew it. Before I get into telling you which books I loved (and loved less or, frankly, disliked) from 2015, let me start with that confession. I had every intention of reading one book, every week, and then blogging a review of that book to help me process and integrate what I read into my life. It didn’t happen.
How badly did I miss the mark, you might be wondering? Pretty badly. I read 31 books this year (that I remember) – 25 non-fiction and 6 fiction. That works out to just a little over one book every two weeks. Not exactly setting any records but still somewhat of an impressive list when you type them all out single-space in Microsoft Word.
With no further ado, let me tell you what I thought was great in 2015, bearing in mind that this simply means books that I happened to read within the calendar year 2015, not necessarily books that came out in 2015. As C.S. Lewis taught me, old books are to be valued at least as highly, if not more so, than new, and so I tried to read some of both this year. Bear in mind as well that top five lists on the internet are so arbitrary and subjective that you might just as well ask a stranger on the street than take my opinions as helpful but, if you’re feeling especially curious, read on.
This is the category in which I focus most of my reading time. As a campus minister working for an organization with its own press, I have ready access to a number of low-cost or free titles from what I believe to be the best Christian publishing company in the market and I take full advantage. That being said, on further reflection, it seems as though I read somewhat broadly this year – from academically rigorous research projects to popular theology to memoirs to practical ministry and beyond. Here were the top four from that list, in no particular order:
Knowing God by J.I. Packer
There is much to praise about Packer’s classic theology but there is one specific element of his writing that moved me more than the rest: his questions. Like any great teacher, he is at his best when he is unpacking the mysterious and simplifying the complex realities of God. The worst theological writing oversimplifies to the point of minimization, leaving us with a god that may be understandable but seems so petty or boring as to curtail our desire to know him. I will contain my praise by sharing a few examples of how Packer uses questions to both provoke our apathies and lift our gaze up to the God he describes:
- “If our God is the same as the God of New Testament believers, how can we justify ourselves in resting content with an experience of communion with him, and a level of Christian conduct, that falls so far below theirs?” (p. 81)
- “And who are you to suppose that you will be the first exception, the first person to find God wavering and failing to keep his word? Do you not see how you dishonor God by such fears?” (p. 271)
Santa Biblia by Justo González
This book wrecked me in the best possible ways. One of the things I have most appreciated about my time with InterVarsity is the heavy value that has been instilled within me for fighting to understand the world from ethnic and cultural perspectives outside my own. This brief-yet-brilliant little book helps the reader understand some of the critical themes that underscore a Latin@ hermeneutic of Scripture and the Christian experience. As a white man living in Saint Louis in 2015, this book challenged my reading of Scripture from a position of privilege and power and caused me to look again at stories that I thought I knew, calling my attention to a God who aligns himself with the marginalized and beckons for the privileged to join him not in the centers of power but along the frontera, that place at the edge of our understanding and along the borders between two peoples where mutual growth and flourishing, instead of alienation and conquest, can thrive.
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
Much ink has been spilled over this book’s brilliance and necessity “for such a time as this.” Dr. Cornel West called it “the secular bible of a new social movement” and that makes complete sense to me. This book challenged what I thought I understood about the depths of brokenness of the system of mass incarceration (hint: no matter how broken you thought our justice system was, it’s worse). However, the most startling parts of the book for me were Alexander’s brilliant retracing of the historical connections that link Mass Incarceration back to Jim Crow and back still to Slavery. As the saying goes, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. As I see Donald Trump continuing to rise in popularity, Alexander’s book haunts me and I pray that it will not be any more prophetic than it already has been. This book is a must-read, particularly for evangelicals trying to make sense of the #blacklivesmatter movement and other burgeoning populist social movements and their place in our nation’s history.
Beyond Awkward by Beau Crosetto
My only practical ministry book that made the best of cut. To be honest, I find a lot of “how-to” ministry books to be incredibly boring. Normally, the author has a handful of paradigms they are desiring to transfer into your skill set but, instead of creating a five-page PDF, they write a 200 page book, mostly filled with haphazard exegesis about how their acronym on discipleship was, can you believe it, what Jesus was doing all along! So simple – how did we miss that!?
This book, on the other hand, was the most practical evangelism book I have ever read. Crosetto, an IV staff in California, covers every issue I can imagine to address our natural fearful bent away from sharing our faith. From Spiritual Warfare to Asking Good Questions to Sharing Stories to Learning to Discern the Holy Spirit’s Voice, there are steps and tips all over the place, yet you never feel overwhelmed. The book has a natural progression that I think would be brilliant to go through with a group of leaders of any age desiring to grow in their ability to share the Gospel. The stories are useful as examples and the Scripture used is helpful without feeling like unnecessary page-filler. There’s even some additional videos and group resources that were created to aid in learning transfer. Overall, a great book.
I’ll only include one entry here to round out my top-five, as my reading in 2015 was so heavily slanted toward non-fiction. I love fiction and was even an English Literature major in college, but these books always take me much longer to read. It’s probably because I can’t really count it as work hours but I’d like to believe it’s also because I tend to savor books more when I know the author put intentional thought into every word of every sentence. The fiction books I read this year were all worth savoring but one stands above the others, not in quality, but in how it broke my heart (another C.S. Lewisism for gauging whether a book is good or not):
Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry
I actually don’t want to say much about this book because you just need to go buy it right now and read it. Berry is most famous for a series of books about a fictional rural farming town in Kentucky transitioning in the early-to-mid twentieth century away from previous generations who have valued community and longevity above all else to the rising generation escaping via newly formed highways and readily accessible automobiles to cities far from home. I have never ached for home or community more than when I read this book (and Hannah Coulter before it). Go buy it and then force your best friends to all move on to your block with you – that’s my plan from here.
Whew. We made it. Those were the five best books I read in 2015. If you’re curious and haven’t fallen asleep at your computer yet, I’ll include the full list from 2015 – feel free to comment below if you want recommendations from the further list.
- The Question of Canon – Michael Kruger
- The Permanent Revolution – Alan Hirsch & Tim Catchim
- Life Together in Christ – Ruth Haley Barton
- Miracle Work – Jordan Seng
- The Return of the Prodigal Son – Henri Nouwen
- Sacred Rhythms – Ruth Haley Barton
- Emotionally-Healthy Spirituality – Pete Scazzero
- Let’s All Be Brave – Annie Downs
- A Long Obedience in the Same Direction – Eugene Peterson
- Knowing God – JI Packer
- The Next Evangelicalism – Soong-Chan Rah
- The Good & Beautiful God – James Bryan Smith
- Culture Making – Andy Crouch
- The Meaning of Marriage – Tim Keller
- Santa Biblia – Justo González
- Different – Brian Sanders & Mike Patz
- Influencer – Grenny, Patterson, et al
- The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander
- Ragamuffin Gospel – Brennan Manning
- Scary Close – Donald Miller
- Reflections on Christian Leadership – Henri Nouwen
- Beyond Awkward – Beau Crosetto
- Learning to Walk in the Dark – Barbara Brown Taylor
- Understanding Gender Dysphoria – Mark Yarhouse (honorable mention)
- The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert – Rosaria Butterfield
- On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness – Andrew Peterson
- North! Or Be Eaten – Andrew Peterson
- The Monster in the Hollows – Andrew Peterson
- The Warden and the Wolf King – Andrew Peterson
- Jayber Crow – Wendell Berry
- LOTR: The Two Towers – JRR Tolkien
*Note: Andrew Peterson’s The Warden and the Wolf King, the fourth book in his Wingfeather Saga, came out in 2014, but I made myself re-read the previous three to recapture the story before finally finishing it this past year. It was beautiful and moving and a perfect ending to the saga. If you have kids, go buy those books. If you don’t have kids, admit that you still love kids’ books and go buy them anyway – you will not regret it.