The 39 Books I Read or Re-Read in 2019, With Brief Notes
These are in no particular order. Overall, my favorite books from this year are The Body Keeps the Score, Humble Roots, All That’s Good, Disruptive Witness, and Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne (which I re-read). My 2019 goal is to read 50 books. Leave me some recommendations in the comments!
The Stormlight Archive (The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, Oathbringer, Edgedancer) by Brandon Sanderson
Sanderson’s fantasy writing strikes a nice balance between world-building and fast-paced action. I can tell that he writes the kind of fantasy novels he truly wants to read: satisfying plotlines, interesting character development that includes a good mix of pathos and humor, breathtaking systems of magic and power, and sudden turns of events. I will re-read this series when the next volume is released. I’m a fan of Sanderson’s work generally; if you’ve never read him before I recommend starting with the Mistborn trilogy.
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
A pastor is hired by a large corporation to go to a colonized planet and work as a missionary within an indigenous humanoid population. He is a devoted husband but must leave his wife behind on an earth that is rapidly destabilizing, news of which he only learns about in bits and pieces as she mentions things in messages to him—messages which he can’t get when he chooses to go live among the planet’s inhabitants. This isn’t an especially exciting or suspenseful book - it is more science fiction than fantasy - but it includes a lot of meditations on God, evil, the nature of missionary work, what it means to be a “person,” and love. Worth reading if you want something entirely different.
Golden Hill: A Novel of New York by Francis Spufford
This novel won accolades when it was published in 2017. I thought it was just OK.
The Earthsea Cycle (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, The Other Wind), by Ursula K. Le Guin (re-read)
A Wizard of Earthsea was first published in 1968. Ursula K. Le Guin is considered by many to be the godmother of modern fantasy. I love these novels and find myself eagerly returning to them about once every other year. It is hard to put into words, but Le Guin’s writing is imbued with a soft, gentle power that is both magical and refreshing when compared to a lot of modern fantasy that tends to engage the same tropes in varying ways. These are stories about a different way to think about power. We need more of that in our world.
Harry Potter (books 1-7), J. K. Rowling (re-read)
I have read these every year for the past several years. They are part of a small group of novels that remind me what it means to tell a good story.
Chronicle of the Unhewn Thrown (The Emperor’s Blades, The Providence of Fire, The Last Mortal Bond, Skullsworn), by Brian Staveley (re-read)
This is one of the sharpest and most original fantasy series I’ve read in a long time. Staveley’s characters are complex and the overall tone of this series is dark; “good” and “evil” are not obvious, and it becomes difficult to know who you’re supposed to root for. The story is surprising and compelling, and it was difficult to put these down - which is why I re-read them. Skullsworn is a novella set within the world and it’s just as good as the trilogy itself.
Non-Fiction - Theology and Biblical Studies
Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering, by Kelly Kapic
I am always looking for good books on suffering, because it is a hard topic. Perhaps you are like me and you tend to insulate yourself from others’ suffering and hope to avoid your own. But it is often unavoidable and as Christians we are called biblically to sit with others in their own suffering. There are better and worse ways to do that. Kapic’s book combines pastoral sensitivity, personal and heart-wrenching experience, and profound biblical wisdom. I’m not sure that this is the book I would want to read in the short term if, say, my young daughter suddenly died. But if my daughter did indeed die, I will be glad to have read this. I heartily recommend this to anyone who wants to care more wisely for others.
Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age, by Alan Noble
There are “Christian leaders” who make a lot of money trying to convince Christians that we are being uniquely persecuted in America. It is true that Christian witness is hard in our society, but why it’s hard is a crucial question. Noble’s book makes part of philosopher Charles Taylor’s thought accessible and applies it specifically to the question of how Christians can most effectively live out — bear witness to — the Gospel. Noble combines excellent cultural analysis and incisive diagnoses with helpful concrete strategies for living differently both as individual Christians and as local churches. I was given a lot to think about and heartily recommend this.
Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul, by Hannah Anderson
Hannah is a kind, powerfully thoughtful, winsome writer. She and her husband live in a small Appalachian community in Virginia (which is close to my heart). In this book, Anderson uses the overall metaphor of gardening — and the different plants she and her husband grow at home — to talk about different biblical and theological facets of humility. Somewhat surprisingly (to me), Hannah’s basic point is that true humility is to rest in what God says is true of you in Christ. I have been thinking and teaching a lot about rest in 2018 but had never thought to connect it to humility in this way. From now on, I will. I wholeheartedly recommend this.
All That’s Good: Recovering the Lost Art of Discernment, by Hannah Anderson
I had the privilege of receiving a pre-release copy of this book and have since recommended it to several people. Many versions of the Christian life are basically variations on the theme of avoiding things we shouldn’t do. This crops up in a number of unforeseen ways and hampers a full biblical vision of embodied righteousness: thinking of and knowing the good, recognizing it, cultivating it in oneself and others, and doing it. This book is extremely helpful on the subjects of decision making, Christian liberty and social engagement, and freedom in Christ generally.
Rejoicing in Christ, by Michael Reeves
Jesus is God’s fullest revelation of Himself. Christology — the truth about who Jesus is and what He has done and will do — is glorious; Reeves goes a step further and intentionally connects different facets of Jesus’ identity to our emotional and psychological wellbeing. This is a great book for someone without an academic background who wants to start to understand more deeply why the truth about Jesus matters for us.
What it Means to Be a Man: God’s Design for Us in a World of Extremes, by Rhett Smith
I read this on a whim, since I often have conversations with younger men about what it means to be a man, and I am always looking for good resources that don’t over simplify manhood or baptize cultural norms as if they are scriptural guidelines. This is a book for guys who haven’t read a lot and would be best used as part of an ongoing dialogue about manhood and maturity.
Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God, by Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan
One of the things about the Bible that has troubled me the most are the so-called “genocide” texts in the Old Testament. I am not done reading about this subject, but I thought this book was very helpful in a number of ways. First and foremost, the authors do a good job of helping us interpret the Old Testament in a way appropriate to the time and culture in which it was written—including customary ways ancient Near Eastern peoples talked about warfare and conquering. The Bible is in many ways a product of its culture and this gives us excellent insight to see that “genocide” isn’t really what was happening here. (I’m greatly simplifying a lot of exegetical and cultural argument at this point.) Along the way the authors also talk about a few other things, such as the commonly-accepted idea that Christianity (or religion generally) causes violence and that the Crusades were a time of extreme and one-sided Christian religious violence. I picked up some other reading recommendations from the authors’ citations that I hope to check out in 2019. This is an excellent resource for anyone who, like me, has been confused or troubled by some of these Old Testament texts.
No Little Women: Equipping All Women in the Household of God, by Aimee Byrd
Byrd’s mission is simple: convince male church leaders that they need to take seriously their responsibility to disciple and lead the women in their congregations. She is a complementarian who believes pastoral and elder roles are reserved for men; she is also a scholar and educator who recognizes that evangelical women are a lucrative target market for LifeWay bookstores and popular conferences, and neither of those entities necessarily cares about making sure women are learning sound doctrine. “Sound doctrine” isn’t about some theological gatekeeper; it is about rightly understanding and applying the Bible, and the difference between performance-driven and grace-driven Christianity. The uncomfortable truth is that many male pastors are leading the women in their congregations by proxy, either entrusting their discipleship to a women’s ministry leader or thinking that investing in husbands is enough, since they’ll invest in their wives. (This also leaves out single women!) There’s a lot to unpack here, but I really appreciate Byrd’s candor and directness and think every pastor / elder / church leader (man or woman) would benefit from this reminder about the importance of developing all members of our churches.
The Pastor, by Eugene Peterson
This was a balm to read. I have learned a lot from Eugene Peterson’s books. He is always refreshing and surprising; that rare author who helps you delight in things you thought you knew but really took for granted. This is a story about God’s faithfulness to him through a long career of pastoral faithfulness. It is a picture of being deeply rooted in all the normal banalities of a small, particular, local church community. It convicted me that I stay too aloof from some of that normalcy in my own church (made harder because I travel often for work). It reminded me to look freshly for God’s grace in the midst of very ordinary things.
The Lost World of Genesis One, by John Walton
When we read the creation account, our modern minds are preoccupied by questions of “how.” We have inherited a scientific worldview and a century of debates between “young earth creationists” and “Darwinian evolutionists,.” We are therefore primed to ask certain questions (without necessarily realizing it), and it’s not surprising then that we find answers in the Bible to the questions we brought it. But what if we are asking the wrong questions? Walton (an evangelical biblical scholar who teaches at Wheaton) makes the case that the creation account is not about “how” or about material origins but rather about “why” and “who”: the world created to be a temple in which God Himself dwells, for His good purposes alongside and through His chosen representatives (human beings). In sum: it may be the case that young earth, six day creationism is correct; but if so, it’s not because that’s what Genesis 1 teaches. Genesis 1 is simply talking about something else. If this sounds abstract or off-base, I encourage you to read the book. It’s written to bring scholarly conversations to non-scholars and is an excellent discussion starter.
The Mind of the Spirit: Paul’s Approach to Transformed Thinking, by Craig S. Keener
Keener is one of my favorite New Testament scholars. His grasp of source material is encyclopedic and the length of his footnotes and endnotes is legendary. In this book he explores what Paul says about “the mind of the Spirit” and what that means for thinking and living differently as a Christian. In the process he examines much helpful cultural background material and delves deeply into many important Scripture passages. I was interested in this book because I often sense a gap between the way we talk about transformation and the means of personal transformation. There is a balance between understanding Scripture on this topic more clearly (on the one hand) and over-reading Scripture to force it to say things that were not in the author’s minds (on the other hand; this to me is one chief error of those who think the Bible is sufficient for all mental health counseling). I learned a lot of helpful things and will return to this book in future thinking or writing about the Bible’s vision for personal (spiritual / behavioral / mental / emotional) transformation.
Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: It’s Impossible to be Spiritually Mature, While Remaining Emotionally Immature, by Pete Scazzero
The one weakness of this book is that Pete sometimes engages in what I consider shallow or misapplied biblical exegesis. Overall, though, this is a book I genuinely believe everyone in Christian ministry should read and seriously consider. I work with a lot of leaders and teams in many contexts and low emotional intelligence is in some way at the root of nearly every conflict I’ve seen or heard of. This book is a Christian introduction to emotional intelligence and the (radical for some) idea that it’s not possible to bifurcate emotional and spiritual maturity. In other words, how is it that we can have churches with sound doctrine, biblically faithful preaching, long history of saints serving, but yet still have people who get angry and sin in their anger frequently, backbiting and gossip, low or no personal boundaries, passive-aggressive behavior, conflict avoidance, and all of the physical and emotional fallout and symptoms from things like this? Why doesn’t the Holy Spirit just zap emotional intelligence into His people when the Word is rightly preached and sung? I don’t know; but Scazzero’s point is that we’ve got to stop avoiding conversations about these things and instead confront them head-on so that the Spirit aligns us to a healthy relationship with our emotions. There are too many helpful nuggets here to list. This is the kind of book I will begin regularly buying for others.
Non-Fiction - Leadership, Sociology, History, Psychology
Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, by Ed Catmull
I am an unashamed Pixar fanboy. I’ve loved every movie they’ve made (aside from a few of the sequels) and am excited to eventually enjoy their cinematic world with my kids. This book is a fascinating behind the scenes story about how Pixar was founded, including many production stories of the various movies that helped catapult them to success. There are a lot of excellent leadership and culture lessons here for anybody working with teams and organizations. If you like Pixar’s magic, and want to know how to free a team of people to dream and create more than they themselves even thought possible, this book is for you.
White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means to be White, by Daniel Hill
I’ve heard it said that white privilege doesn’t mean white people haven’t experienced hardships in life; white privilege means that the color of our skin hasn’t been one those hardships. I know many conservative Christians who reflexively dismiss this concept as coming from liberal academia, but at its core (Hill tries to show), white privilege is just another expression of the sin that Christians believe has plagued the world since the Fall. There is ample sociological, economic, and historical evidence that modern American society has been and remains an overall safer and easier place for people with white skin. Hill is a white pastor in Chicago who spent the first part of his career misunderstanding and getting this wrong in zeal without knowledge. His heart is for white Christians to step back and take an honest look at this idea, as well as to make space to truly listen to brothers and sisters of color who offer stories and perspectives that initially differ from our own. I think this is a helpful dialogue-starter for white Christians who want to know how to effectively talk about and engage these issues, especially with people who aren’t convinced that this concept is even real.
Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, by Douglas A. Blackmon
Blackmon is not the most compelling writer, but this book punched me in the gut over and over again. His basis thesis — borne out by overwhelming historical fact — is that slavery did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation; it merely shifted form. Local and state governments worked with local law enforcement to round up people of color on false or selectively applied charges and then farmed them out (literally, as if they were animals or equipment) to private companies as cheap labor. These men (and some women) lived and worked in horrific conditions, were lied to about whether they could earn their freedom, were lied to about their charges, were taken advantage of; and this is an inescapable part of the economic legacy of the American South post-Civil War. The book focused on the history of one particular family in Alabama but traces a wide-ranging pattern of exploitation for white society’s economic benefit. This pattern did not truly end until World War II, when certain forms of labor were finally declared illegal. This is an important and sobering read to help people understand how it’s possible that these kinds of past injustices can still have ripple effects in the present.
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel Van Der Kolk
Van Der Kolk was a pioneering researcher with Vietnam veterans. He helped lead the way in correctly labeling and diagnosing PTSD. This is a sobering book that provides an introduction to the concept of trauma: its unique effects on our mind and bodies, the way it disrupts our brain’s ability to distinguish between “past” and “present,” and hopeful ways forward in helping our brains and bodies heal. I found myself crying at several points as the author told stories of his patients and talked about statistics of, for example, the annual number of children who are sexually abused by a parent or relative. This is a weighty book that gave me extra compassion for trauma victims and a recommitment to giving lots of grace to people around me, many of whom carry ongoing trauma scars that I won’t know anything about and that they may or may not be getting help with. Christians especially should consider how the realities of what trauma does to our brains should affect the way we care for and shepherd people who have been affected by it. I heartily recommend this book.
This Is Your Brain on Joy: How the New Science of Happiness Can Help You Feel Good and Be Happy, by Dr. Earl Henslin
In this book, Henslin popularizes (and simplifies) recent neuroscience research that helps us understand exactly what’s going on inside our brains when we feel various emotions. The upshot is that there is no “perfect” brain; most of us have some kind of neurological imbalance one way or another, and there is a lot of hope for people to grow and change their neural pathways to experience more joy and wellbeing.