Category Archives: Books

The Best Books I Read This Year (2021)

I hunt for fabulous books, reads that leave me reeling. Here is what I want from a book, what I demand, what I pray for before I read the first sentence: I want everything and nothing less. By God’s grace, I found 36 fabulous books this year, and I thoroughly enjoyed every last one of them.

My Top 12:

1. God of All Things / Andrew Wilson

All of creation is the theater of God’s glory because “the earth is the LORD’s and everything in it.” (Psalm 24:1) In this wonderful new book, Wilson helps his readers delight in the knowledge that “everything in creation tells us something about our Creator.” (201) The world is theomorphic, that is, all things “take the form they do because they are created to reveal God.” (4) Along the way, Wilson shows the scriptural significance of dust, earthquakes, pigs, livestock, stones, galaxies, honey, mountains, rainbows, gardens, donkeys, salt, rain, water, bread, trees, viruses, clothes, light, and more. (Check out these delicious excerpts here, here, here, and here.)

“For now, the created order is filled with signposts. One of my dreams in writing this book has been that you might look around you and see reasons to worship that you hadn’t noticed before. But the day is coming when the signposts will not be needed, because the reality is here. We will know fully, even as we are fully known. And on that day the things of God will stop pointing and start praising. ‘The mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands’ (Isa. 55:12). ‘Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together’ (Ps. 98:8). ‘The stones will cry out’ (Luke 19:40). The things of God will sing to the King of Kings and the God of things, for whom and through whom and to whom they exist. So will we.” (201-202)

Charles Simeon once said: “There are but two lessons for the Christian to learn: the one is, to enjoy God in everything; the other is, to enjoy everything in God.” This book, my favorite book of the year, can help you do both.

2. Exodus Old and New: A Biblical Theology of Redemption / L. Michael Morales

When Dr. Morales writes a book about the Bible, I read it. His volume on Leviticus is one of my all-time favorites. This new biblical-theological feast traces the exodus theme in Scripture around three movements: the historical exodus out of Egypt, the prophesied second exodus, and the new exodus of Jesus the Messiah. Exegetical insights abound. The section on the Servant Songs in Isaiah is worth the price of the entire book.

“All the streams of heavenly blessings converge through the one unifying sieve of this servant, the Messiah. He is the Rock through whom every divine promise pours out as a rushing river, transforming the wilderness of this age into the paradise of a new creation.” (145)

Morales helped me see more fully how “the cross on which Jesus shed His blood has become the doorpost of the world (John 19:29; Exodus 12:22).” (164)

3. Faith in the Time of Plague / Eds. Stephen Coleman & Todd Rester

How might pastors learn to shepherd well through a global pandemic? One way is by gleaning heavenly wisdom from godly pastors who faced the worst of plagues in the past. Coleman and Rester have translated and edited an enriching volume of treatises, letters, hymns, and prayers, from the Reformation and Post-Reformation eras, that help us to think theologically and pastorally about living and shepherding during times of great crisis.

“Plague and disease deeply shaped the ministries of pastors and the congregational life of the early modern churches. A faithful pastor in this context needed a solid theology of God’s providence and the dignity of every human being, especially of the sick and the infirm; a deep love of neighbor; a strong commitment to the duties of pastoral vocation; and a robust Christian prudence to navigate the physical and spiritual needs of his family, congregation, and community. As we can all attest, pandemics tend to reveal the seams and tensions within a society. It was no different in the sixteenth century.” (xxvi)

You will find thoughtful reflections on Philippians 2Psalm 91, Exodus 9, 1 Samuel 24, 1 Chronicles 21, and Ezekiel 5 and 14, as well as pearls of wisdom like this one from Theodore Beza:

“This especially must be agreed upon, that as our sins are the chief and true cause of the plague, so this is the only proper remedy against the same: that if the ministers would not dispute about infectiousness (which belongs to physicians) but, by their life and doctrine stir up the people to earnest repentance, love, and charity one towards another, then the sheep themselves would hear clearly and heed the voice of their pastors.” (29)

4. The Incomparableness of God / George Swinnock

George Swinnock is one of the easiest Puritan authors to read. He’s also one of the most edifying. This little volume is a God-enthralled meditation on Psalm 89:6: “For who in the heaven can be compared unto the LORD? Who among the sons of the mighty can be likened unto the LORD?” Here’s a taste:

“Who could have imagined that God should become man, infinite become finite, the Creator a creature; the Father of spirits become flesh, and the Lord of life be put to death? Who could conceive, that He who made all things of nothing, should be made Himself of a woman, made by Him? That He whom the heavens, and heaven of heavens cannot contain, should be contained in the narrow womb of a woman? That the only bread of life should be hungry, the only water of life be thirsty; the only rest be weary, the only ease be pained, and the only joy and consolation be sorrowful, exceeding sorrowful unto death? Who could have imagined that one, yea, millions, should be rich by another’s poverty, filled by another’s emptiness, be exalted by another’s disgrace, healed by another’s wounds, eased by another’s pains, be absolved by another’s condemnation, and live eternally by another’s temporal death? Who could have imagined that infinite justice and infinite mercy should be made fast friends, and fully satisfied by one and the same action; that the greatest fury and the greatest favour, the greatest hatred and the greatest love, should concur in, and be manifested by one and the same thing? Could men or angels speak such mysteries? Surely no.” (106)

Glory!

5. Be Thou My Vision: A Liturgy for Daily Worship / Jonathan Gibson

If you find yourself wayward and wandering, distracted and distressed, during your times of daily worship with the Lord, you might find help from this simple but incredibly rich devotional guide. Here’s a sample of what’s inside. Praying the daily offices and the rhythms of a fixed liturgy can be an oasis for the soul. Also, especially if you’re a pastor, avail yourself of Gibson’s Reformation Worship. It’s a liturgical goldmine.

6. Pure in Heart: Sexual Sin and the Promises of God / Garrett Kell

Robert Murray M’Cheyne once gave this priceless wisdom: “Do not take up your time so much with studying your own heart as with studying Christ’s heart. For one look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ!” I was reminded of this quote while reading this earnest, humble, and Scripture-saturated book by a pastor and friend I deeply love and respect. Garrett wisely helps us see the deceitfulness of sin and the deception of the devil:

“Satan is a historian. He is the master of replaying old sins to the tune of accusation. He digs up past failures and then blackmails us with reminders of why God is disappointed with us. Before sin, Satan is the tempter who whispers, ‘You should do this!’ After sin, Satan is the accuser who whispers, ‘How could you have done this!’ Satan kills through temptation and then buries with guilt. But whether he allures with sugar on the tongue or accuses with salt in a wound, the devil is always working. His aim is to turn your gaze from God, because seeing him with sober eyes strengthens your fight for faith in the one greater than all your foes.” (64)

But more than anything, Kell helps us long to see God. “When the hope of seeing God fills our hearts, it has a purifying effect on our lives.” (94) “We know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure.” (1 John 3:2-3)

7. Handbook on the Gospels / Benjamin L. Gladd 

I spent much of 2021 pondering and preaching the Gospel according to Luke. No commentary was more helpful to me than this one. This new series of NT handbooks focuses on the content of the biblical books, rather than historical-critical questions. Gladd faithfully summarizes the passage, makes textual connections to other passages, paying careful attention to OT allusions and quotations. Check out this insight on the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:

“The father’s treatment of his prodigal son is remarkable in its similarities to the Joseph narrative. He clothes the son in his ‘best robe’ and puts a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet (Luke 15:22). The language is close to Genesis 41:42, when Pharaoh gives Joseph a ring and dresses ‘him in robes of fine linen.’ A few verses earlier, the prodigal son is forced to work with pigs because ‘there was a severe famine in that whole country’ (Luke 15:14). According to Genesis 41, Pharaoh dreams that seven years of famine would descend upon Egypt after seven years of prosperity (Gen. 41:25-32). The combination of these plot points refers Luke’s audience back to the Joseph narrative. The donning of clothes in the OT symbolizes the right to inherit and rule (Gen. 3:21; 37; Num. 20:24-28; 1 Kings 11:30-31; 19:19-21; Isa. 22:21). The prodigal son, after recognizing his sin, comes and receives a great deal of inheritance and rule over the estate, just as Joseph is given the right to rule over Egypt. The father elevates his prodigal son to the status of ruler. The restoration of the prodigal son, the sinner, symbolizes all the outsiders within Luke’s narrative and their new identity as the true Israel of God. They are all identified with the great patriarch Joseph. The father twice announces that the son ‘was dead’ but is now ‘alive again’ (Luke 15:24, 32). Life here should be understood as resurrection life, the new creational act of God whereby He spiritually resurrects those who trust in Jesus (see John 5:25; Rom. 6:11, 13; 1 Pet. 1:3; Rev. 1:18; 2:8; 20:5).” (267-268)

8. An All-Round Ministry / Charles Spurgeon

I read Spurgeon for admiration, not imitation. I don’t try to imitate him. But I admire God for what He did in and through His faithful servant. This sobering collection of pastoral addresses is full of wisdom, encouragement, and testimonies of God’s amazing grace. Even in the darkness of his depression, Spurgeon was used by the Lord to minister the gospel of Christ to others who, like him, found themselves in the silent shades of sorrow.

“When you and I become weak, and are depressed in spirit, and our soul passes through the valley of the shadow of death, it is often on account of others. One Sabbath morning, I preached from the text, ‘My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?’ (Matthew 27:46) and though I did not say so, yet I preached my own experience. I heard my own chains clank while I tried to preach to my fellow-prisoners in the dark; but I could not tell why I was brought into such an awful horror of darkness, for which I condemned myself. On the following Monday evening, a man came to see me who bore all the marks of despair upon his countenance. His hair seemed to stand upright, and his eyes were ready to start from their sockets. He said to me, after a little parleying, ‘I never before, in my life, heard any man speak who seemed to know my heart. Mine is a terrible case; but on Sunday morning you painted me to the life, and preached as if you had been inside my soul.’

By God’s grace, I saved that man from suicide, and led him into gospel light and liberty; but I know I could not have done it if I had not myself been confined in the dungeon in which he lay. I tell the story, brethren, because you sometimes may not understand your own experience, and the perfect people may condemn you for having it; but what know they of God’s servants? You and I have to suffer much for the sake of the people of our charge. God’s sheep ramble very far, and we have to go after them; and sometimes the shepherds go where they themselves would never roam if they were not in pursuit of lost sheep. You may be in Egyptian darkness, and you may wonder why such a horror chills your marrow; but you may be altogether in the pursuit of your calling, and be led of the Spirit to a position of sympathy with desponding minds. Expect to grow weaker, brethren, that you may comfort the weak, and so may become masters in Israel in the judgment of others; while, in your own opinion, you are less than the least of all saints.” (172-173)

9. Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners / Dane Ortlund

This is an outstanding book about growing in Christ. Sanctification is about growing “in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18) How does this growth happen? Here’s Ortlund’s answer: “The basic point of this book is that change is a matter of going deeper… Growing in Christ is not centrally improving or adding or experiencing but deepening. Implicit in the notion of deepening is that you already have what you need.” (16) We already have Christ, the One in whom are hidden unsearchable riches of love and all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

“Let me suggest that you consider the possibility that your current mental idea of Jesus is the tip of the iceberg. That there are wondrous depths to Him, realities about Him, still awaiting your discovery. I’m not disregarding the real discipleship already at play in your life and the true discoveries of the depths of Jesus Christ you have already made. But let me ask you to open yourself up to the possibility that one reason you see modest growth and ongoing sin in your life– if that is indeed the case– is that the Jesus you are following is a junior varsity Jesus, an unwittingly reduced Jesus, an unsurprising and predictable Jesus. I’m not assuming that’s the case. I’m just asking you to test yourself, with honesty. When Christopher Columbus reached the Caribbean in 1492, he named the natives “Indians,” thinking he had reached what Europeans of the time referred to as “the Indies” (China, Japan, and India). In fact he was nowhere close to South or East Asia. In his path were vast regions of land, unexplored and uncharted, of which Columbus knew nothing. He assumed the world was smaller than it was. Have we made a similar mistake with regard to Jesus Christ? Are there vast tracts of who He is, according to biblical revelation, that are unexplored? Have we unintentionally reduced Him to manageable, predictable proportions? Have we been looking at a junior varsity, decaffeinated, one-dimensional Jesus of our own making, thinking we’re looking at the real Jesus? Have we snorkeled in the shallows, thinking we’ve now hit bottom on the Pacific?” (22-23)

10. Invitation to Biblical Theology / Kimble & Spellman

I love this intermediate-level introduction to the glorious world of biblical theology, which the authors define as “the study of the whole Bible on its own terms.” (16) The categories of canon, covenants, and Christ structure their approach. After sketching the Bible’s grand storyline, they trace several of the Bible’s significant themes (God’s glory, Kingdom, Covenant, Temple and Priesthood, Worship, Messiah and Atonement, Salvation and Judgment, Holy Spirit, and Mission).

“One of the main purposes of Scripture is to display Jesus Christ.” (81)

“At the heart of the story of the biblical covenants is the bedrock conviction that the God of creation is the God of the covenants.” (82)

“The gospel is still a story that takes two Testaments to tell.” (83)

“Two hermeneutical statements can begin to capture the conviction of the New Testament authors. For them, Jesus both fulfills and fills out the Scriptures.” (94)

“For the biblical theologian, the role of the reader is never to make a path to Christ, but always to follow the path to Christ that the biblical authors have laid down. Taking a canonical line to the cross may not be straight or fast, but it’s true.” (101)

“The Pentateuch was meant to be read as a whole, with each of its five parts connected to and building upon the others. The five books of Moses are really five narrative components of the one Book of Moses.” (121)

“The biblical authors were also biblical readers. The task of biblical theology requires reading and rereading.” (453)

Take up and read.

11. Why God Makes Sense in a World That Doesn’t / Gavin Ortlund

Ortlund offers a winsome, rigorous, and engaging abductive argument for God’s existence. (The sections in Chapter 2 on math and music are phenomenal.) He carefully considers the cause, the meaning, the conflict, and the hope of the world. He then works backwards from a present set of conditions to the most likely explanation, an inference to the best explanation, by showing the beautiful reasonableness of Christian theism. This approach says, “If God doesn’t exist, so much of life– so much of what we already assume in the way we function– becomes inexplicable.” (13) Imagine this volume as a book-length expansion of what good old Puddleglum declared to the Witch in The Silver Chair:

“One word, Ma’am… One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.” (159)

This book is a masterclass in how to treat those with whom you disagree. Ortlund engages the best atheistic arguments with charity, clarity, and grace. And he keeps the promise he makes in the preface:

“I tell you that I’ve given you my best effort as a writer so that I may invite you to give the book your best effort as a reader. We live in an age of distraction and sound bites. The careful reader of books is not our defining strength. But if you will give me your attention from cover to cover, I will do everything I can to make it worth your effort.” (xi)

A worthy effort indeed.

12. Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. 1 / Francis Turretin

I plodded my way through Volume 1 of Turretin’s Institutes. Like other scholastics, his writings are lectures not sermons. The goal of an elenctic theology is to demonstrate and assert the truth of sound doctrine by refuting false doctrines. So expect an apologetic feel throughout. His reputation for doctrinal precision is well founded. (His section on the Trinity is wonderful!) But I also found some amusing surprises. For example, Turretin has an entire section devoted to the argument that the world was created in autumn rather than in spring, making his case, in part, from the timing of Israel’s feasts in Exodus and Leviticus. (1: 441–444) Most surprising of all was his warm-hearted devotion:

“These four things in the highest manner commend the love of God towards us:

(1) the majesty of the Lover;

(2) the poverty and unworthiness of the loved;

(3) the worth of Him in whom we are loved;

(4) the multitude and excellence of the gifts which flow out from that love to us.”

He in whom we are beloved is Christ, the delight of His heavenly Father and the ‘express image of His person.’ He could have given us nothing more excellent, nothing dearer, even if He had given the whole universe.” (242) (3.20.6)

Logic on fire.

My Next 12:

13. Remembrance of Earth’s Past Trilogy / Cixin Liu

The London Review of Books called this recently translated Hugo Award-winning trilogy “one of the most ambitious works of science fiction ever written.” I found this to be a gross understatement. These novels are mind-blowing, no matter the genre. The scale of the tale is staggering. Three volumes, The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End, tallying over 1,600 pages. A narrative timeline spanning 18,906,450 years, encompassing ancient Egypt, the Qin dynasty, the Byzantine Empire, the Cultural Revolution, the present, and a time eighteen million years in the future. One entire scene is told from the perspective of an ant. (An ant!) The first book is set on Earth, but many of its scenes take place in virtual reality, inside a video game. By the end of the third book, the scope of the action is interstellar and annihilation unfolds across multiple dimensions.

Liu’s prose is plain. He writes like a computer engineer. This isn’t Dickens. This is hard science fiction (‘hard sci-fi’ has a lot of science in it, ‘soft sci-fi’ doesn’t). So expect lots of astronomy, cosmology, math, particle physics, molecular biology, all shot through with the Fermi Paradox. The Three-Body Problem takes its title from an analytical problem in orbital mechanics which has to do with the unpredictable motion of three bodies under mutual gravitational pull.

This might not be your bag, but I’m telling you the plot pops. Just stick with it. I almost gave up, but everything picks up 300 pages into the second book. Think contact with alien life cranked up to beyond sinister levels. Think H. G. Wells’s “The War of the Worlds” (1898) but on a cosmic scale. The trilogy concerns the catastrophic consequences of humanity’s attempt to make contact with extraterrestrials. According to Liu, the reason we haven’t heard from aliens yet is that we’re the only species dumb enough to reveal our own location in the universe:

“The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care. The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds other life—another hunter, an angel or a demon, a delicate infant or a tottering old man, a fairy or a demigod—there’s only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them. In this forest, hell is other people. An eternal threat that any life that exposes its own existence will be swiftly wiped out. This is the picture of cosmic civilization. It’s the explanation for the Fermi Paradox.”

Shi Qiang lit another cigarette, if only to have a bit of light.

“But in this dark forest, there’s a stupid child called humanity, who has built a bonfire and is standing beside it shouting, ‘Here I am! Here I am!’” Luo Ji said.

“Has anyone heard it?”

“That’s guaranteed.”

It goes without saying, the author’s darkly pessimistic secularism permeates the story. Which is what makes the glimmers of hope and beauty and love in the face of death all the more strange. It’s like he can’t force himself to go gentle into that good night.

14. Empire of Pain / Patrick Radden Keefe

It’s been said that behind every great fortune there is a crime. For years, the name “Sackler” has been synonymous with art and philanthropy. But instead of their donations to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre, the British Museum, Harvard, and Yale, the Sackler legacy now includes $10 billion in profits from OxyContin, millions of opioid addicts, a half million dead Americans, and an ever-growing tsunami of civil lawsuits. Keefe chronicles the fascinating, devastating, and infuriating history of the family who founded Purdue Pharma, the company which made a painkiller stronger than morphine in 1996. Here’s what happened next:

“In 1996, Purdue introduced a groundbreaking drug, a powerful opioid painkiller called OxyContin, which Americans from every corner of the country found themselves addicted to these powerful drugs. Many people who started abusing OxyContin ended up transitioning to street drugs, like heroin or fentanyl. The numbers are staggering. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the quarter century following the introduction of OxyContin, some 450,000 Americans have died of opioid-related overdoses. Such overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death in America, accounting for more deaths than car accidents– more deaths, even, than than most quintessentially American of metrics, gunshot wounds. In fact, more Americans have lost their lives from opioid overdoses than died in all of the wars the country has fought since World War II. (4-5)

If you don’t want to read the book, check out Keefe’s 2017 exposé published in The New Yorker, or listen to this NPR interview.

15. Cloud Cuckoo Land / Anthony Doerr

Ursula Le Guin once noted, “There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.” (34) Anthony Doerr tells a beautiful story that will resonate most in the hearts of βιβλιοφάγοι, book worms, those who love and live in books. The story is really several interlocking stories, Swiss-watchery in its construction, dizzyingly told from the perspective of five characters in the ancient past, the present, and the distant future. In my favorite passage, Doerr perfectly describes the transportive power of reading as a frightened orphan named Anna is stranded in a Constantinople under siege. Anna finds consolation in a mysterious tale told on a Greek codex:

“The quiet moments frighten her more: when the work pauses and she can hear the songs of the Saracens out beyond the walls, the creaking of their siege machines, the nickering of their horses and bleats of their camels. When the wind is right, she can smell the food they’re cooking. To be so close to men who want her dead. To know that only a partition of masonry prevents them from doing their will.

She works until she cannot see her hands in front of her face, then trudges home to the house of Kalaphates, takes a candle from the scullery, and climbs onto the pallet beside Maria, her fingernails broken, her hands veined with dirt, and pulls the blanket around them and opens the little brown goatskin codex.

The reading goes slowly. Some leaves are partially obscured by mold, and the scribe who copied the story did not separate the words with spaces, and the tallow candles give off a weak and sputtery light, and she is often so tired that the lines seem to ripple and dance in front of her eyes.

The shepherd in the story accidentally turns himself into an ass, then a fish, and now he swims through the innards of an enormous leviathan, touring the continents while dodging beasts who try to eat him: it’s silly, absurd; this cannot possibly be the sort of compendium of marvels the Italians sought, can it?

And yet. When the stream of the old Greek picks up, and she climbs into the story, as though climbing the wall of the priory on the rock– handhold here, foothold there– the damp chill of the cell dissipates, and the bright, ridiculous world of Aethon takes its place.

Our sea monster battled with another, bigger and more monstrous even than he was, and the waters around us quaked, and ships with a hundred sailors on each sank in front of me, and whole uprooted islands were carried past. I closed my eyes in terror, and fixed my thoughts on the golden city in the clouds…

Turn a page, walk the lines of sentences: the singer steps out, and conjures a world of color and noise in the space inside your head.” (314-315)

Doerr reminded me to be ever thankful for the written word, for books, for libraries, for stories. “A text– a book– is a resting place for the memories of people who have lived before. A way for the memory to stay fixed after the soul has traveled on.” (51)

16. Ghost Wars and Directorate S / Steve Coll

In the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ghost Wars, Steve Coll details the C.I.A.’s operations in Afghanistan, from the Soviet invasion in 1979 through the summer of 2001, including the rise of the Taliban, the secret efforts of the CIA to capture or kill Osama bin Laden beginning in 1998, and the intelligence failures that led to September 11th. In Directorate S, Coll “seeks to provide a thorough, reliable history of how the C.I.A., I.S.I., and Afghan intelligence agencies influenced the rise of a new war in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, and how that war fostered a revival of Al Qaeda, allied terrorist networks, and, eventually, branches of the Islamic State.” (5) Contemplating the myriad catastrophic and unforced errors is incredibly painful. But if you want to know what happened, and especially what went wrong in Afghanistan, read these books. And continue to pray for the Afghan people.

17. The Wild Places / Robert Macfarlane

No living writer helps me marvel at the manifold splendor of God reflected in His creation more than Robert Macfarlane, Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. His prose is perfect. And his point is often the same: go outside, pay attention, find beauty, be still, and be amazed. In this volume, he records his search for the wild places in Britain and Ireland. Here is the lyrical description of his exploration of a sea cave hidden among the jagged cliffs along the shoreline of Ynys Enlli, a small island off the westernmost tip of the Lleyn Peninsula in Wales:

“I dove in. Blue shock. The cold running into me like dye. I surfaced, gasping, and began to swim towards the cliffs at the eastern side of the bay. I could feel the insistent draw of the current, sliding me out to the west, back towards Enlli. I swam at a diagonal to it, to keep my course. Nearing the cliffs, I moved through different ribbons and bands of temperature, warm, then suddenly cold again. A large lustrous wave surged me between two big rocks, and as I put a hand out to stop myself from being barged against them, I felt barnacles tear at my fingers. I swam to the biggest of the caves. Holding on to an edge of rock, and letting the swell lift me gently up and down, I looked inside. Though I could not see the back of the cave, it seemed to run thirty or forty feet into the cliffs: cone-shaped, tightening into the earth from its mouth. I released the rock, and drifted slowly into the opening. As I crossed the shadow cast by the cave’s roof, the water grew cold. There was a big hollow sucking and slapping sound. I shouted, and heard my call come back at me from all sides. As I got deeper in, the water shallowed. I swam breast-stroke, to keep myself as flat as possible. I was passing over dark red and purple rocks: the voodoo colours of basalt, dolerite. The lower sides of the cave were lined with frizzy green seaweed, which was slick and shiny where the water reached it, like wet hair. Further back into the cave, the light was diffused and the air appeared powdery. The temperature had dropped, and I sensed the whole gathered coldness of the unsunned rock around and above me, pushing out into the air and water. I glanced back over my shoulder. The big semicircular mouth of the cave had by now shrunk to a cuticle of light. I could only just see out to the horizon of the sea, and I felt sudden involuntary lurch of fear. I swam on, moving slowly now, trying to sense the sharp rocks over which I was moving. Then I reached the end of the cave, and there, at its very back, and in its very centre, lifted almost entirely out of the water, sat a single vast white boulder, made of smooth creamy rock, shaped roughly like a throne or seat. It must have weighed five or six tons. I climbed awkwardly out of the water, slipping on weed, and sat on the rock, while the water slopped around its base, and looked back down the cave to the curved rim of light, all that remained of the world beyond. Remembering the white rock now, it seems like a hallucination. I cannot explain what it really looked like, certainly not what it was doing there, among the red and purple basalts. Nor could I conceive of the might of the storm waves that, over the centuries, must have brought that boulder to the cave, and then shifted it deeper and deeper in, until finally they had heaved it into that position, placed perfectly at the centre and the back of the cave.” (37-38)

Breathtaking.

18. Crime and Punishment / Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky)

Mark Twain defined a classic as a book which people praise and don’t read. In my experience, classics are those books I read in high school and didn’t quite grasp. I’ve now read Crime and Punishment three times and it gets better every time. After my re-reading this year, what lingered with me the most was Raskolnikov’s feverish, haunting, and prescient dream at the novel’s end:

“He lay in the hospital all through the end of Lent and Holy Week. As he began to recover, he remembered his dreams from when he was still lying in feverish delirium. In his illness he had dreamed that the whole world was doomed to fall victim to some terrible, as yet unknown and unseen pestilence spreading to Europe from the depths of Asia. Everyone was to perish, except for certain, very few, chosen ones. Some new trichinae had appeared, microscopic creatures that lodged themselves in men’s bodies. But these creatures were spirits, endowed with reason and will. Those who received them into themselves immediately became possessed and mad. But never, never had people considered themselves so intelligent and unshakeable in the truth as did these infected ones. Never had they thought their judgments, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions and beliefs more unshakeable. Entire settlements, entire cities and nations would be infected and go mad. Everyone became anxious, and no one understood anyone else; each thought the truth was contained in himself alone, and suffered looking at others, beat his breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know whom or how to judge, could not agree on what to regard as evil, what as good. They did not know whom to accuse, whom to vindicate. People killed each other in some sort of meaningless spite. They gathered into whole armies against each other, but, already on the march, the armies would suddenly begin destroying themselves, the ranks would break up, the soldiers would fall upon one another, stabbing and cutting, biting and eating one another. In the cities the bells rang all day long: everyone was being summoned, but no one knew who was summoning them or why, and everyone felt anxious. The most ordinary trades ceased, because everyone offered his own ideas, his own corrections, and no one could agree. Agriculture ceased. Here and there people would band together, agree among themselves to do something, swear never to part– but immediately begin something completely different from what they themselves had just suggested, begin accusing one another, fighting, stabbing. Fires broke out; famine broke out. Everyone and everything was perishing. The pestilence grew and spread further and further. Only a few people in the whole world could be saved; they were pure and chosen, destined to begin a new generation of people and a new life, to renew and purify the earth; but no one had seen these people anywhere, no one had heard their words or voices.” (547-548)

Wow. Here’s a helpful guide to the classics just in case you want to visit (or revisit) that daunting work of literature you’ve never quite finished and was never quite finished with you.

19. Slavery By Another Name / Douglas Blackmon

It’s easy to think that slavery in America is, thankfully, a thing of the past. But in this Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Blackmon, senior national correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, documents with devastating detail the re-enslavement of black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. In an effort to give a voice to the voiceless, Blackmon introduces his readers to Green Cottenham. In many ways, this book is his story:

“On March 30, 1908, Green Cottenham was arrested by the sheriff of Shelby County, Alabama, and charged with ‘vagrancy.’ Cottenham had committed no true crime. Vagrancy the offense of a person not being able to prove at a given moment that he or she is employed, was a new and flimsy concoction dredged up from legal obscurity at the end of the nineteenth century by the state legislatures of Alabama and other southern states. It was capriciously enforced by local sheriffs and constables, adjudicated by mayors and notaries public, recorded haphazardly or not at all in court records, and, most tellingly in a time of massive unemployment among all southern men, was reserved almost exclusively for black men. Cottenham’s offense was blackness. After three days behind bars, twenty-two-year-old Cottenham was found guilty in a swift appearance before the county judge and immediately sentenced to a thirty-day term of hard labor. Unable to pay the array of fees assessed on every prisoner—fees to the sheriff, the deputy, the court clerk, the witnesses— Cottenham’s sentence was extended to nearly a year of hard labor. The next day, Cottenham, the youngest of nine children born to former slaves in an adjoining county, was sold. Under a standing arrangement between the county and a vast subsidiary of the industrial titan of the North—U.S. Steel Corporation—the sheriff turned the young man over to the company for the duration of his sentence. In return, the subsidiary, Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Company, gave the county $12 a month to pay off Cottenham’s fine and fees. What the company’s managers did with Cottenham, and thousands of other black men they purchased from sheriffs across Alabama, was entirely up to them. A few hours later, the company plunged Cottenham into the darkness of a mine called Slope No. 12—one shaft in a vast subterranean labyrinth on the edge of Birmingham known as the Pratt Mines. There, he was chained inside a long wooden barrack at night and required to spend nearly every waking hour digging and loading coal. His required daily ‘task’ was to remove eight tons of coal from the mine. Cottenham was subject to the whip for failure to dig the requisite amount, at risk of physical torture for disobedience, and vulnerable to the sexual predations of other miners— many of whom already had passed years or decades in their own chthonian confinement. The lightless catacombs of black rock, packed with hundreds of desperate men slick with sweat and coated in pulverized coal, must have exceeded any vision of hell a boy born in the countryside of Alabama—even a child of slaves—could have ever imagined… Forty-five years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freeing American slaves, Green Cottenham and more than a thousand other black men toiled under the lash at Slope 12. Imprisoned in what was then the most advanced city of the South, guarded by whipping bosses employed by the most iconic example of the modern corporation emerging in the gilded North, they were slaves in all but name… This slavery did not last a lifetime and did not automatically extend from one generation to the next. But it was nonetheless slavery—a system in which armies of free men, guilty of no crimes and entitled by law to freedom, were compelled to labor without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced to do the bidding of white masters through the regular application of extraordinary physical coercion.” (1-2, 4)

“The commercial sectors of U.S. society have never been asked to fully account for their roles as the primary enforcers of Jim Crow segregation, and not at all for engineering the resurrection of forced labor after the Civil War. The civil rights movement focused on forcing government and individual citizens to integrate public schools, reinstate full voting rights, and end offensive behavior. But it was business that policed adherence to America’s racial customs more than any other actor in U.S. society. American banks maintained ubiquitous discriminatory lending practices throughout the country that until the 1960s prevented millions of working-class African Americans from obtaining the lines of credit that millions of white families used to accumulate wealth and move from lower- to middle-class status. Indeed, the opportunity for blacks to pursue the most basic American formula for achieving middle-class status—buying a home in desirable neighborhoods where real estate values were likely to appreciate over time—was openly barred by legions of real estate agents in every city and region. Until the 1950s, rules of the National Association of Realtors made it a violation of the organization’s code of ethics for an agent to sell a home in a white neighborhood to an African American, or vice versa. It was hundreds of thousands of individual businesses that refused to give blacks jobs, equal pay, or promotions. It was wealthy men on Wall Street and in the executive suites of southern banks that financed the organized opposition to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” (383)

“In my quest to find Green Cottenham, I also discovered an unsettling truth that when white Americans frankly peel back the layers of our commingled pasts, we are all marked by it. Whether a company or an individual, we are marred either by our connections to the specific crimes and injuries of our fathers and their fathers. Or we are tainted by the failures of our fathers to fulfill our national credos when their courage was most needed. We are formed in molds twisted by the gifts we received at the expense of others. It is not our ‘fault.’ But it is undeniably our inheritance.”(383)

Faulkner was right: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (73)

20. Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11 / Mitchell Zuckoff

In September, on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I began reading Zuckoff’s definitive account of the tragedy, because I never want to forget. The great WWII historian, Ian Toll, once said this about Pearl Harbor: “The passage of time strips away the searing immediacy of the surprise attack and envelops it in layers of exposition and retrospective judgment. Hindsight furnishes us with perspective on the crisis, but it also undercuts our ability to empathize with the immediate concerns of those who suffered through it.” Already an entire generation has no direct memory of 9/11, despite its daily effects on their lives. Zuckoff helps us all remember so that we’ll never forget.

“Torn open, aflame, weakening from within, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center spewed paper like blood from an arterial wound. Legal documents and employee reviews. Pay stubs, birthday cards, takeout menus. Timesheets and blueprints, photographs and calendars, crayon drawings and love notes. Some in full, some in tatters, some in flames. A single scrap from the South Tower, tossed like a bottled message from a sinking ship, captured the day’s horror. In a scrawled hand, next to a bloody fingerprint, the note read:

84th floor
west office
12 People trapped

After the paper came the people. After the people came the buildings. After the buildings came the wars. The ashes cooled, but not the anguish.” (xviii)

21. The Baseball 100 / Joe Posnanski

The best baseball writer in the world gives his best shot at listing the 100 best players of all time. I devoured this book. Each chapter profiles a different player for 4-5 pages, delivering stats and anecdotes galore. And Posnanski is a gem of a writer. This is how he describes Ken Griffey Jr.’s swing: “Junior’s swing was majestic, gorgeous, the Grand Canyon of swings, the Machu Picchu of swings, the ‘Here Comes the Sun’ of swings. It tilted upward, and when bat met ball, you could feel the breath rush out of you.” (366)

I experience shortness of breath every time I watch this home-run swing. And just in case you haven’t heard, the Atlanta Braves finally won the World Series again and it was glorious. Go Braves! That is all.

22. Right Ho, Jeeves / P.G. Wodehouse

I try to read at least one Bertie and Jeeves novel every year because Wodehouse never misses:

“Ask anyone who knows me, and they will tell you that after two months of my company, what the normal person feels is that that will about do for the present.” (34-35)

“She cried in a voice that hit me between the eyebrows and went out at the back of my head.” (40)

“I have had occasion, I fancy, to speak before now of these pick-me-up drinks of Jeeves’s and their effect on a fellow who is hanging to life by a thread on the morning after. What they consist of, I couldn’t tell you. He says some kind of sauce, the yolk of a raw egg and a dash of red pepper, but nothing will convince me that the thing doesn’t go much deeper than that. Be that as it may, however, the results of swallowing one are amazing. For perhaps the split part of a second nothing happens. It is as though all Nature waited breathless. Then, suddenly, it is as if the Last Trump had sounded and Judgement Day set in with unusual severity. Bonfires burst out in all parts of the frame. The abdomen becomes heavily charged with molten lava. A great wind seems to blow through the world, and the subject is aware of something resembling a steam hammer striking the back of the head. During this phase, the ears ring loudly, the eyeballs rotate and there is a tingling about the brow. And then, just as you are feeling that you ought to ring up your lawyer and see that your affairs are in order before it is too late, the whole situation seems to clarify. The wind drops. The ears cease to ring. Birds twitter. Brass bands start playing. The sun comes up over the horizon with a jerk. And a moment later all you are conscious of is a great peace. As I drained the glass now, new life seemed to burgeon within me.” (48)

“He sat listening like a lump of dough.” (71)

“A man’s brain whizzes along for years exceeding the speed limit, and then something suddenly goes wrong with the steering-gear and it skids and comes a smeller in the ditch.” (90)

“His brow cleared, his eyes brightened, he lost that fishy look, and he gazed at the slug, which was still on the long, long trail, with something approaching bonhomie.” (104)

“My guardian angel had not been asleep at the switch.” (115)

“A tankard of their special home-brewed was in my hand, and the ecstasy of that first Gallup is still green in my memory.” (118)

“He rose and began to pace the room in an overwrought sort of way, like a zoo lion who has heard the dinner-gong go and is hoping the keeper won’t forget him in the general distribution.” (123)

“There is a time for studying beetles and a time for not studying beetles.” (166)

“One thing I have never failed to hand the man. Jeeves is magnetic. There is about him something that seems to soothe and hypnotize. To the best of my knowledge, he has never encountered a charging rhinoceros, but should this contingency occur, I have no doubt that the animal, meeting his eye, would check itself in mid-stride, roll over and lie purring with its legs in the air.” (267)

23. Butcher’s Moon / Richard Stark

Parker is a professional super-thief, the brilliant invention of Richard Stark, the prince of noir. Butcher’s Moon is a continuation of a robbery caper Parker began in Slayground, and serves as a culmination of the best of the series. The Parker novels all follow a four-part structure, with prose as orderly as a classical symphony, and most of them begin in medias res with a sentence that starts with the word “when.” For me and Parker, it was love at first line:

The Man With the Getaway Face (1963): “When the bandages came off, Parker looked in the mirror at a stranger.”
The Mourner (1963): “When the guy with the asthma finally came in from the fire escape, Parker rabbit-punched him and took his gun away.”
The Jugger (1965): “When the knock came at the door, Parker was just turning to the obituary page.”
The Seventh (1966): “When he didn’t get any answer the second time he knocked, Parker kicked the door in.”
Slayground (1971): “Parker jumped out of the Ford with a gun in one hand and the packet of explosive in the other.”
Butcher’s Moon (1974): “Running toward the light, Parker fired twice over his left shoulder, not caring whether he hit anything or not.”
Backflash (1998): “When the car stopped rolling, Parker kicked out the rest of the windshield and crawled through onto the wrinkled hood, Glock first.”
Firebreak (2001): “When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.”
Ask the Parrot (2006): “When the helicopter swept northward and lifted out of sight over the top of the hill, Parker stepped away from the tree he’d waited beside and continued his climb.”

24. The Apollo Murders / Chris Hadfield

One of most accomplished astronauts in the world, who graduated as the top U.S. Air Force test pilot, and was CAPCOM for twenty-five Shuttle missions, and NASA’s Director of Operations in Russia, and served as Commander of the International Space Station, wrote a ripping murder mystery that takes place on a fictional Apollo Mission 18 during the space race and the Cold War in the early 1970s. This book is like Clancy’s The Hunt For Red October but set on the moon. Some readers don’t care for all the technical jargon but I dig it:

“Starting the world’s most powerful engine wasn’t easy. It took about nine seconds to crank one up—the time an Olympic sprinter could run 100 yards. The time it takes to tie one shoe. The most dangerous nine seconds of the whole flight. The amount of fuel needed to push the Saturn V off the pad was staggering: 3,400 gallons every second. That required fuel pumps with their own jet engines, just to spin them fast enough.

The rocketship had five of these jets pumping the kerosene and oxygen into the rocket chambers, where it would mix, explode and storm out the 12-foot-tall exhaust nozzles in a 5,800-degree, 160-million-horsepower inferno. The crew’s eyes were glued to the engine instruments as the clock counted down into single digits.

‘T minus ten, nine, and we have ignition sequence start.’

Four fireworks ignited inside each engine: two to spin up the fuel pump, and two to burn any flammable gases lurking in the exhaust nozzle.

‘Six, five, four…’

Two big valves opened, and liquid oxygen poured from its high tank down through the spinning pump and into the rocket, gushing out the huge nozzle under its own weight like a frothy white waterfall. Two smaller valves clicked open, feeding oxygen and kerosene to fuel the jet engines, spinning the pumps up to high speed. The pressure in the main fuel lines suddenly jumped to 380 psi. Conditions were set, with everything ready to ignite the rockets. Just needed some lighter fluid.

Two small discs burst under the high fuel pressure, and a slug of triethylboron/aluminum was pushed into the oxygen-rich rocket chambers. Like the ultimate spark plug, the fluids exploded on contact.

‘Three, two…’

The middle engine lit first, followed quickly by the outer four; if all five had started at once, they would have torn the rocketship and launch pad apart. Two more big valves opened, and high-pressure kerosene poured into the growing maelstrom.

‘One, zero, and liftoff, we have liftoff, at 7:32 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.’

Hell, unleashed, creating 700 tons of thrust in each of the five engines—enough total power to lift more than 7 million pounds straight up. The ultimate deadlift. The last of the ground umbilicals feeding the rocket disconnected and snapped back. The four heavy hold-down arms that had been clamping the base to the pad hissed in pneumatic relief and pivoted away. The Saturn V was free.” (141-142)

My Final 12:

25. Precious Promises / Joseph Alleine

I’ve given away dozens of copies of this devotional classic over the years and I’m thrilled the good folks at the Banner of Truth have reprinted it in a new edition. Alleine uses his encyclopedic knowledge of Scripture to string together the “exceeding great and precious promises” (2 Peter 1:4) of God with the goal of comforting the struggling believer:

“And in that day you shall know that I am a rewarder of them that diligently seek me (Heb. 11:6); and that I did record your words (Mal. 3:16), and bottle your tears, and tell your wanderings (Psa. 56:8), and keep an account, even to a cup of cold water, of whatever you said or did for my name (Matt. 10:42). You shall surely find that nothing is lost (1 Cor. 15:58); but you shall have full measure, pressed down and running over, thousands of years in paradise, for the least good thought, and thousand thousands for the least good word; and then the reckoning shall begin again, till all arithmetic be at a loss. For you shall be swallowed up in a blessed eternity, and the doors of heaven shall be shut upon you, and there shall be no more going out (Dan. 12:2, 3; Rev. 3:12; Luke 16:26).

The glorious choir of my holy angels, the goodly fellowship of my blessed prophets, the happy society of triumphant apostles, the royal hosts of victorious martyrs, these shall be your companions for ever (Matt. 8:1, 12; Heb. 12:22, 23). And you shall come in white robes, with palms in your hands, everyone having the harps of God, and golden bowls full of sweet-smelling aromas, and shall cast your crowns before me, and strike in with the multitude of the heavenly hosts, glorifying God, and saying, Hallelujah! The Lord God omnipotent reigns (Rev. 7:9-12; 19:5, 6). Blessing, honour, glory, and power be to him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb for ever and ever (Rev. 5:13).

In short, I will make you equal to the angels of God (Luke 20:36), and you shall be the everlasting trumpets of my praise (Rev. 7:10-12, 15). You shall be abundantly satisfied with the fatness of my house, and I I will make you drink of the rivers of my pleasures (Psa. 36:8). You shall be an eternal excellency (Isa. 60:15), and if God can die, and eternity run out, then and only then, shall your joys expire. For you shall see me as I am (1 John 3:2), and know me as you are known (1 Cor. 13:12); and shall behold my face in righteousness, and be satisfied with my likeness (Psa. 17:15). And you shall be the vessels of my glory, whose blessed use shall be to receive the overflowings of my goodness, and to have mine infinite love and glory poured out into you brimful, and running over for evermore (Rom. 9:23; 2 2 Tim 2:20; Rev. 22:1).

And blessed is he who has believed, for there shall be a performance of the things that have been told him (Luke 1:45). I the Lord has spoken it, you shall see my face, and my name shall be written in your foreheads; and you shall no more need the sun, nor the moon, for the Lord God shall give you light, and you shall reign for ever and ever (Rev. 22:3-5).” (39-40)

26. How to Eat Your Bible / Nate Pickowicz 

Wise Bishop Ryle once said:

“Next to praying there is nothing so important in practical religion as Bible-reading. God has mercifully given us a book which is “able to make us wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim. 3:15.) By reading that book we may learn what to believe, what to be, and what to do; how to live with comfort, and how to die in peace. Happy is that man who possesses a Bible! Happier still is he who reads it! Happiest of all is he who not only reads it, but obeys it, and makes it the rule of his faith and practice!” (91)

I love books that point me to the Book. Nate Pickowicz’s brief and superb new book does just that. The subtitle says it all: “A Simple Approach to Learning and Loving the Word of God.” I can give this book to any member of my congregation knowing it will help both new and seasoned believers read and study their Bible more faithfully and more fruitfully. Buy several copies and give them away to those you’re discipling as a New Year’s gift.

27. The Deep Places / Ross Douthat

Imagine suffering excruciating and bewildering pain for five years due to a devastating disease that doesn’t officially exist. That’s Douthat’s story, struggling day-by-day with Lyme disease. This poignant memoir helped me grow in sympathy for those who suffer with chronic illness. Chronic sufferers often feel all alone in their pain, surrounded by others who still feel “at home” in their own bodies.

“A friend could listen, another friend could visit, a family member could watch our kids or make us dinner, but there was a gulf fixed between my world and theirs, between my morning-to-evening experience of pain’s variety and novelty and their inability to comprehend what it would mean to be sick every day, the same thing waiting every morning upon waking, without recourse or relief. I could understand their bafflement, because I remembered what the term “chronic illness” had meant to me in the before times. Even with my mother’s struggles as an example, I still associated it with the fatigue that comes after you’ve stayed up with a newborn baby, or the aches and pains you feel after exercising for the first time in monthssuffering that was challenging but manageable, with recourse, in the worst case, to an exhausted sleep. Whereas the reality was pain that didn’t let you relax, let alone sleep; pain that made your body feel like a cage around your consciousness; tension, always tension, the opposite of a Victorian lady picturesquely swooning on a couch. All this was an education, an experience of what it meant to be an embodied human being that could be endured but not really explained to someone whose body was still a home, a cooperator, a friend.” (90)

Douthat has done a great service for the chronic-Lyme community and for those, like me, who don’t live on that “prairie of pain.” He beautifully lays bare both his struggle and his striving for life.

“The gift of chronic illness is the space and opportunity to strive and seek. The purpose of the illness in your life has to involve finding something– finding strength in learning how to endure, finding virtue in how to live for others, finding some hidden truth in unraveling the mystery of what actually ails you. And not to yield is often the hardest task of all.

I can’t claim to have gained all the things I should have gained from the past six years. Who will I be when this is over? my mind would sometimes ask in the depths, since it was hard to imagine the same self that went into this illness coming out the other side. But now that I’m closer, God willing, to the end than the beginning, I can still recognize the person beneath the peeling dragon scales– maybe a little wiser, a little more patient, a little less consumed by the political, little more open-minded, but still carrying many of the same habits and vices and temptations as the me I knew before.

But I have learned, at least, something about what it means not to yield, to go on searching and fighting and simply living in the shadow of despair, to do what must be done even when it seems like your body is incapable of the task and your mind is brutally imprisoned.

What doesn’t kill you doesn’t necessarily make you stronger. But what doesn’t kill you doesn’t kill you, and sometimes that alone supplies the thin reed of hope, the solid thing to cling to when every other help and possibility goes through your fingers like sand.

That first sickened summer in Maine, sixteen months into the illness, when nothing was working and my body blazed with pain, I  forced myself to do what I would do as a child, to run along the packed brown surface of the sandbar, splashing through the inch of water rippling beneath my feet, and then suddenly pivot and stagger out deeper and fling myself up and out and down, belly-whopping into the freezing water of the bay.

For an instant or more, the shock to my system would be more pressing than the pain, and I would come up spluttering, every nerve jangling, and think: I am still alive.

I am still alive.

That’s where this not-yet-finished story ends. I have lived for six years with invaders in my flesh, I have seen the world from way down underneath, I have done things I couldn’t have imagined, I have fought and fought and fought.

And I am still alive.” (196-197)

28. Crux, Mors, Inferi: A Primer and Reader on the Descent of Christ / Samuel Renihan

In 2019, Matthew Emerson wrote an incredible book on Christ’s descent to the dead. Christ experienced the fullness of human death; He also defeated it. He entered the realm of death itself, our mighty enemy, and came away with his keys. The keys of Death and Hades are now held in our Savior’s nail-pierced hands. (Rev. 1:18) The good news of Good Friday, and the ecstasy of Easter Sunday, is infused with the hope of Holy Saturday. In Samuel Renihan’s new book, he builds upon Emerson’s solid foundation, provides some more exegetical footing, and does significant theological retrieval of his own by including over 100 pages of historical excerpts on the descent from Reformation and Post-Reformation theologians. Hilary of Poitiers is right: “Virgo, partus, et corpus; postque crux, mors, inferi, salus nostra est. The Virgin, birth, and body, then the cross, death, and lower world; this is our salvation.”

29. The God of the Garden / Andrew Peterson

This is a biographical meditation about trees, gardens, and the importance of place. But it’s really all about trees.

“It’s winter. I hear a gusty wind in the night beyond the window, low and groaning like a distant jet plane, and it occurs to me that the trees are speaking. Their limbs are shaken and bent by the cold front tearing across Tennessee. The Chapter House is warm, with the embers of a tired fire crackling like morse code in the hearth beside me—again, the voice of trees. The temperature has been dropping all day, so the wooden bones of this little building are contracting, causing the wood-paneled ceiling to creak now and then. When I came in just now, shoulders up to my ears from the chill, I slammed the arch-top door a friend made out of reclaimed barn wood, rattling the wooden picture frames on the wall—one of them containing that eighteenth-century print of the Castle Kalmar (printed on wood-pulp, of course). I stomped my feet on the hardwood floor, and the trees spoke again. The wooden shelves I built out of pine planks hold hundreds of books: Sayers, Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien; Wordsworth, Coleridge, Wilbur, Merton, and Berry. Trees made the pulp that made the pages (also known as leaves) where the words were preserved and printed and bound, each book the fruit of a life’s labor. There are journals full of songwriting ideas: bad lines scratched out and reworked, furious scribblings, prayers preserved on paper. The walls around the drafting desk are covered with drawings made by wooden pencils (there’s no smell quite like the aroma of pencil shavings dumped from the sharpener to the bin). Those drawings are mostly of trees, on sketch paper—again, made from trees. On the wooden mantel over the hearth there’s a collection of old smoking pipes made from briar wood, one of which I bought in a busy tree-lined market in Bordighera, Italy, just across the street from George MacDonald’s house, and it whispers a tale of Scotland and the North Wind and my family’s journey south to Italy from the forested Swiss Alps. To my right, on the little wooden table beside my chair, sits a black, leather-bound Bible with my name embossed on the lower right of the cover. The many pages within carry a translation of the Word of God, the Word that told trees to exist in the first place, and those words are made alive by a holy wind blowing through the book’s leaves. That living Word planted a seed in my parents, a seed that fell on good soil, and they in turn planted in me and my siblings an imagination-grounding story about a tree in a garden, a tree on a hill of death, and a tree in a heavenly city. Those trees fill my heart and my head, and they keep my compass trained on the Kingdom. Here in the Chapter House, at the dark edge of Warren Wood, the trees keep me company, and they keep me warm. I am kept by trees.” (191-192)

I particularly loved the book’s final chapter, where Peterson describes his visit to Israel, culminating with his journey to the Temple Mount at the heart of Jerusalem:

“This was Mount Moriah, where Abraham was spared from sacrificing Isaac by the ram caught in the brambly tree. This was where Solomon completed the temple whose pillars were pomegranate trees, where the Ark of the Covenant rested—the same ark that contained the ten commandments, the manna, and, yes, a tree: Aaron’s staff that had budded with new leaves. Not far away was the site where the crucifixion tree was planted atop Skull Hill, and not far away from that the Root of David, Abraham’s seed, was planted and reborn in a garden. This was where, at Jesus’ triumphant “It is finished!” the curtain was torn in two and he opened for us the gate of glory, which leads his children to a New Jerusalem where a Tree of Life will straddle the holy river. I was overwhelmed with love, and by love. I stood in the eye of a storm made up of living stories. Stories were the wind and the rain and the rolling thunder, and Jesus is king of it all.” (177-178)

Allison and I also visited Israel this year, and we met some new friends, and we saw an old friend, and even though we didn’t see enough trees, we did make some wonderful memories (and friends) that I pray will last a lifetime.

30. The Dark is Rising / Susan Cooper

I was a latecomer to the “Dark is Rising” series. Apparently they’ve been hugely popular for decades, especially in the UK. The opening tale, Over Sea, Under Stone, is wonderful. English children, on holiday in Cornwall, discover an ancient treasure map in a secret room hidden behind a wardrobe. Mysterious enemies lurk about, waiting to steal what the three Drew children are seeking: clues from the map that could lead them to King Arthur’s grail. The second book in the series, The Dark is Rising, is, well, darker. It’s not a horror story, but a story of ever-present dread. A “shadowy awareness of evil” pervades the tale. It’s Midwinter Eve in a small English village, four days before Christmas and one day before Will Stanton’s eleventh birthday. A snowstorm is brewing in the north, animals are fidgeting in the fields, and rooks are swirling in the grey sky. An old farmer sees these signs and warns Will, “This night will be bad and tomorrow will be beyond imagining.” The Dark is rising. But there’s hope:

When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back;
Three from the circle, three from the track;
Wood, bronze, iron; water, fire, stone;
Five will return, and one go alone.’ (63)

31. Rejoice and Tremble / Michael Reeves

Michael Reeves wrote a book on the fear of the LORD. Seriously, what else do you need to know?

“The filial fear of God is the soul of godliness and the essence of the new life implanted by the Spirit. It is the ultimate affection and the very aroma of heaven. It is the affection that expels our sinful fears and our anxieties. It is the affection that expels spiritual lethargy. To grow in this sweet and quaking wonder at God is to taste heaven now.” (168)

Amen.

32. I Heard You Paint Houses / Charles Brandt

This book is the basis of Martin Scorsese’s film, The Irishman, and Brandt tells the true story of Frank Sheeran. (Maybe.)

“The thread of this story is Frank Sheeran’s unique and fascinating life. The witty Irishman was raised a devout Catholic and was a tough child of the Great Depression; a combat-hardened hero of World War II; a high-ranking official in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; a man alleged by Rudy Giuliani in a Civil RICO suit to be “acting in concert with” La Cosa Nostra’s ruling commission — one of only two non-Italians on Guiliani’s list of twenty-six top mob figures, which included the sitting bosses of the Bonnano, Genovese, Colombo, Luchese, Chicago, and Milwaukee families as well as various underbosses; a convicted felon, mob enforcer, and legendary stand-up guy; and a father of four daughters and a beloved grandfather.” (5)

Sheeran was not only the right-hand man and mob enforcer for Russell Bufalino, he was also a close friend of Jimmy Hoffa.

“The first words Jimmy ever spoke to me were, ‘I heard you paint houses.’ The paint is the blood that supposedly gets on the wall or the floor when you shoot somebody. I told Jimmy, ‘I do my own carpentry work, too.’ That refers to making coffins and means you get rid of the bodies yourself.” (11)

Before he died, Brandt interviewed Sheeran one last time and he confessed to killing Hoffa. Some doubt the veracity of Sheeran’s claims. (See here and here and if you’re ready to go down the rabbit hole, read the “Hoffex” FBI memo). I don’t know what to believe, but I do know I Heard You Paint Houses is an engrossing glimpse inside La Cosa Nostra. (I think.)

33. The Body Keeps the Score / Bessel van der Kolk

This book does a good job introducing the experience, the history, and the treatment of trauma from a secular perspective. The strength of the book lies in awakening an awareness of what survivors of trauma fear and feel. Two quotes stuck with me:

“One does not have to be a combat soldier, or visit a refugee camp in Syria or the Congo to encounter trauma. Trauma happens to us, our friends, our families, and our neighbors… Trauma, by definition, is unbearable and intolerable. Most rape victims, combat soldiers, and children who have been molested become so upset when they think about what they experienced that they try to push it out of their minds, trying to act as if nothing happened, and move on. It takes tremendous energy to keep functioning while carrying the memory of terror, and the shame of utter weakness and vulnerability. Long after a traumatic experience is over, it may be reactivated at the slightest hint of danger and mobilize disturbed brain circuits and secrete massive amounts of stress hormones. This precipitates unpleasant emotions intense physical sensations, and impulsive and aggressive actions. These posttraumatic reactions feel incomprehensible and overwhelming. Feeling out of control, survivors of trauma often begin to fear that they are damaged to the core and beyond redemption.” (1-2)

“At the opening session for a group of former Marines, the first man to speak flatly declared, “I do not want to talk about the war.” I replied that the members could discuss anything they wanted. After half an hour of excruciating silence, one veteran finally started to talk about his helicopter crash. To my amazement the rest immediately came to life, speaking with great intensity about their traumatic experiences. All of them returned the following week and the week after. In the group they found resonance and meaning in what had previously been only sensations of terror and emptiness. They felt a renewed sense of the comradeship that had been so vital to their war experience. They insisted that I had to be part of their newfound unit and gave me a Marine captain’s uniform for my birthday. In retrospect that gesture revealed part of the problem: You were either in or out—you either belonged to the unit or you were nobody. After trauma the world becomes sharply divided between those who know and those who don’t. People who have not shared the traumatic experience cannot be trusted, because they can’t understand it. Sadly, this often includes spouses, children, and co-workers.” (17-18)

As I reflected on this book, I was reminded of the importance of what Bonhoeffer called “the ministry of listening” in the local church:

“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear. So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him. Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either.” (97-98)

It doesn’t mean we don’t speak. We must speak. But we must first be quick to listen and slow to speak.

34. How to Take Smart Notes / Sönke Ahrens

I’m an avid notetaker. My children often make fun of my ever-present notebook and pen. I was immediately drawn to this book when I learned of it from an episode of the Reformed Forum podcast. A German sociologist, Niklaus Luhmann, developed an idiosyncratic form of note-taking that’s organized in an interconnected card catalog-type system called a Zettelkasten (‘notes box’). All of the note-taking is directed toward atomic writing. In the book, Ahrens explains and expands Luhmann’s system. He proposes dividing your note-taking into three types:

  1. Ephemeral notes (these eventually get thrown out)
  2. Literature notes (write these as you read a book, but keep them separate from the next type)
  3. Zettel (process your literature notes and write permanent notes—one note per idea)

Camden Bucey explains what happens next:

“Once written, you must then link a note to the other notes in your existing network of note-ideas. In my conceptualization, Luhmann’s method is a form of atomic writing. You must force yourself to formulate your thoughts and write them as if writing them for someone else. This can be difficult, and you may find much personal inertia to this approach. That’s because you think you know the subject matter better than you do. Writing is the thinking process. By using this method, Luhmann was able to write more than 70 books and 400 scholarly articles before he died at the age of 70. That is impressive. But perhaps even more impressive than his scholarly output is the nature of his scholarship. He was able to approach subjects in fresh ways, finding surprising connections among disparate disciplines. This was due in part to the unexpected connections made within his Zettelkasten.”

I’ll admit we’ve now reached peak levels of nerdishness. But if you’ve made it this far then you have to be… intrigued. You don’t have to build an old-school wooden card catalog. After all, there are lots of digital options for creating a Zettelkasten. I’m gonna give this approach a try in 2022. Have any of y’all ever used the “Smart Notes” method? Let me know.

35. The Law of Innocence / Michael Connelly

Michael Connelly is a storyteller extraordinaire. You probably already know his beloved police detective, Harry Bosch. But you might be less familiar with Bosch’s half-brother, LA defense attorney Mickey Haller, also known as “The Lincoln Lawyer.” Here’s his legal philosophy:

“A murder case is like a tree. A tall tree. An oak tree. It has been carefully planted and cared for by the state. Watered and trimmed when needed, examined for disease and parasites of any kind. Its root system is constantly monitored as it flourishes underground and clings tightly to the earth. No money is spared in guarding the tree. Its caretakers are granted immense powers to protect and serve it. The tree’s branches eventually grow and spread wide in splendor. They provide deep shade for those who seek true justice. The branches spring from a thick and sturdy trunk. Direct evidence, circumstantial evidence, forensic science, motive, and opportunity. The tree must stand strong against the winds that challenge it. And that’s where I come in. I’m the man with the ax. My job is to cut the tree down to the ground and burn its wood to ashes.” (4)

This latest story is the sixth (and best) in the series and we find Mickey in the trial of his life, but this time he’s the one on trial.

“A trial often comes down to who is a better storyteller, the prosecution or the defense. There is evidence, of course, but physical evidence is at first interpreted for the jury by the storyteller. The physical evidence fits both stories. One might be more believable than the other when writ small. But a skilled storyteller can even the scales of justice or maybe even tip them the other way.” (190-191)

36. Prayers of a Parent for Young Adults / Kathleen Nielson

Kathleen Nielson has done a great service for parents who long to pray without ceasing for their children. She’s penned Scriptural prayers for young children, for teens, for young adults, and for adult children, covering requests for saving faith, delight in God’s Word, love for the church, friendships, generosity, humility, hope, strength for suffering, and even one for a good night’s rest.

For Nighttime Rest

My son, do not lose sight of these– keep sound wisdom and discretion, and they will be life for your soul and adornment for your neck. Then you will walk on your way securely, and your foot will not stumble. If you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet. (Prov. 3:21-24)

How good to pray for our children’s rest! (We can’t help but be praying for our own rest as well.) And how important– not just that their bodies would be healthy and refreshed by regular, deep, peaceful sleep, but also that their souls would be at rest, at peace with God through the Lord Jesus Christ and the ministry of the Spirit. Our grown children do not go alone into their days and nights. What a comfort to commit them to the Lord who does not slumber or sleep (Ps. 121:4).

May he know the rest of one who labors well and wisely,
having aimed in hours of light to please you, Lord,
then resting in the hours of night as one who knows his way
along the path you put before him,
going before him night and day
and by your Spirit showing him the way.

I pray he would embrace the rhythm of dark and light,
of sleep renewing and of morning zest.
When he lies down, would you make his sleep sweet?
May evening prayers seep into dreams
that would not haunt or frighten–
comfort, rather; gladden; or pass harmless by.
And if he wakes, Lord,
may he know You with him,
there to lighten the dark watches of the night
with echoing sustenance of the Word
and comfort from the saving love of Christ
and songs that sweeten all the shadows
’til the morning sends the dark away.

Now, Lord, I do admit,
I’m praying for my rest as well–
so let me rest
in offering this prayer to you. (56-57)

Now may the God of peace grant you perfect peace, and living hope, and glorious grace, and steadfast love with faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord, until the day breaks and the shadows flee away.

As always, happy reading and Happy New Year!

–Nick Roark

 

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“Light and high beauty forever” by J.R.R. Tolkien

“At last Frodo could go no further. They had climbed up a narrow shelving ravine, but they still had a long way to go before they could even come in sight of the last craggy ridge.

‘I must rest now, Sam, and sleep if I can,’ said Frodo.

He looked about, but there seemed nowhere even for an animal to crawl into in this dismal country. At length, tired out, they slunk under a curtain of brambles that hung down like a mat over a low rock-face.

There they sat and made such a meal as they could. Keeping back the precious lembas for the evil days ahead, they ate the half of what remained in Sam’s bag of Faramir’s provision: some dried fruit, and a small slip of cured meat; and they sipped some water.

They had drunk again from the pools in the valley, but they were very thirsty again. There was a bitter tang in the air of Mordor that dried the mouth.

When Sam thought of water even his hopeful spirit quailed. Beyond the Morgai there was the dreadful plain of Gorgoroth to cross.

‘Now you go to sleep first, Mr. Frodo,’ he said. ‘It’s getting dark again. I reckon this day is nearly over.’

Frodo sighed and was asleep almost before the words were spoken. Sam struggled with his own weariness, and he took Frodo’s hand; and there he sat silent till deep night fell.

Then at last, to keep himself awake, he crawled from the hiding-place and looked out. The land seemed full of creaking and cracking and sly noises, but there was no sound of voice or of foot.

Far above the Ephel Dúath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale.

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him.

For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.

His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him.

He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.”

–J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1954), 921-922.

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“Reading well is listening well” by C.S. Lewis

“If we take literature in the widest sense, so as to include the literature both of knowledge and of power, the question, ‘What is the good of reading what anyone writes?’ is very like the question ‘What is the good of listening to what anyone says?’

Unless you contain in yourself sources that can supply all the information, entertainment, advice, rebuke and merriment you want, the answer is obvious.

And if it is worthwhile listening or reading at all, it is often worth doing so attentively.

Indeed we must attend even to discover that something is not worth attention.”

–C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961/1992), 131-132.

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“Those who read great works” by C.S. Lewis

“In the first place, the majority never read anything twice. The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers ‘I’ve read it already’ to be a conclusive argument against reading a work.

We have all known women who remembered a novel so dimly that they had to stand for half an hour in the library skimming through it before they were certain they had once read it.

But the moment they became certain, they rejected it immediately. It was for them dead, like a burnt-out match, an old railway ticket, or yesterday’s paper; they had already used it.

Those who read great works, on the other hand, will read the same work ten, twenty or thirty times during the course of their life.

Secondly, the majority, though they are sometimes frequent readers, do not set much store by reading. They turn to it as a last resource.

They abandon it with alacrity as soon as any alternative pastime turns up. It is kept for railway journeys, illnesses, odd moments of enforced solitude, or for the process called ‘reading oneself to sleep.’

They sometimes combine it with desultory conversation; often, with listening to the radio.

But literary people are always looking for leisure and silence in which to read and do so with their whole attention. When they are denied such attentive and undisturbed reading even for few days they feel impoverished.

Thirdly, the first reading of some literary work is often, to the literary, an experience so momentous that only experiences of love, religion, or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison.

Their whole consciousness is changed. They have become what they were not before.

But there is no sign of anything like this among the other sort of readers. When they have finished the story or the novel, nothing much, or nothing at all, seems to have happened to them.

Finally, and as a natural result of their different behaviour in reading, what they have read is constantly and prominently present to the mind of the few, but not to that of the many.

The former mouth over their favourite lines and stanzas in solitude. Scenes and characters from books provide them with a sort of iconography by which they interpret or sum up their own experience.

They talk to one another about books, often and at length. The latter seldom think or talk of their reading.

It is pretty clear that the majority, if they spoke without passion and were fully articulate, would not accuse of of liking the wrong books, but of making such a fuss about any books at all.

We treat as a main ingredient in our well-being something which to them is marginal.”

–C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961/1992), 2-3.

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“My own eyes are not enough for me” by C.S. Lewis

“Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk with an unliterary friend.

He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison.

My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through the eyes of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented.

I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog.

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we wink back into sub-individuality.

But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see.

Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”

–C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961/1992), 140-141.

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The Best Books I Read This Year (2020)

E.B. White is right: “Books are good company, in sad times and happy times.” I kept company with many good books in 2020, but these were my favorites. There are 36 selections and I thoroughly enjoyed every last one of them.

My Top 12:

1. The Wonderful Works of God / Herman Bavinck

I lingered in this palace of a book for most of 2020 because I didn’t want it to end. Think of it as a more accessible and less footnotey alternative to the four-volume Reformed Dogmatics. The fear of God is evident on every page. To read Bavinck is to be reminded afresh that theology must lead us to rest in the arms of our gracious God:

“To know God does not consist of knowing a great deal about Him, but of this, rather, that we have seen Him in the person Christ, that we have encountered Him on our life’s way, and that in the experience of our soul we have come to know His virtues, His righteousness and holiness, His compassion and His grace. That is why this knowledge, in distinction from all other knowledge, bears the name of the knowledge of faith. It is the product not of scientific study and reflection but of a childlike and simple faith. This faith is not only a sure knowledge but also a firm confidence that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits. Only those who become as little children shall enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 18:3). Only the pure of heart shall see the face of God (Matt. 5:8). Only those born of water and of the Spirit can enter the kingdom (John 3:5). Those who know His name will put their trust in Him (Ps. 9:10). God is known in proportion to the extent that He is loved.” (13)

2. Gentle and Lowly / Dane Ortlund

The “Sweet Dropper,” the heavenly Doctor Sibbes, once asked: “What will we do for Christ, if we will not feast with Him?” (Works, 2: 34) Few books helped me feast more with Christ this year than this meditation on the Savior’s beautiful heart towards sinners. Most books are cul-de-sacs; few are express lanes. This book is the latter. Packer’s Knowing God steered me to Spurgeon, Sproul’s The Holiness of God led me to Luther, and Piper’s The Pleasures of God plunged me into Edwards. I hope Gentle and Lowly serves others as an express lane to the glories of Christ in the writings of Thomas Goodwin, John Bunyan, and Richard Sibbes.

“Meek. Humble. Gentle. Jesus is not trigger-happy. Not harsh, reactionary, easily exasperated. He is the most understanding person in the universe. The posture most natural to Him is not a pointed finger but open arms.” (19)

“We cannot present a reason for Christ to finally close off His heart to His own sheep. No such reason exists. Every human friend has a limit. If we offend enough, if a relationship gets damaged enough, if we betray enough times, we are cast out. The walls go up. With Christ, our sins and weaknesses are the very resumé items that qualify us to approach Him. Nothing but coming to Him is required.” (64)

“For those united to Him, the heart of Jesus is not a rental; it is your new permanent residence. You are not a tenant; you are a child. His heart is not a ticking time bomb; His heart is the green pastures and still waters of endless reassurances of His presence and comfort, whatever our present spiritual accomplishments. It is who He is.” (66)

“The sins of those who belong to God open the floodgates of his heart of compassion for us. The dam breaks. It is not our loveliness that wins his love. It is our unloveliness.” (75)

“Repent of your small thoughts of God’s heart.” (170)

“Jesus does not love like us. We love until we are betrayed. Jesus continued to the cross despite betrayal. We love until we are forsaken. Jesus loved through forsakenness. We love up to a limit. Jesus loves to the end.” (198)

3. Reformed Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 / Joel Beeke & Paul Smalley

Chances are Joel Beeke published another book while you were reading this post. He’s at over 100 books now! This introductory volume of his systematic theology lectures is his best project yet. It’s exegetical, theological, confessional, doxological, pastoral, practical, and full of spicy quotes from the Fathers, the Reformers, and the Puritans. I’m eager to dive into Volume 2 on the doctrines of anthropology and Christology in 2021.

“God’s call for men to repent of idolatry is not the death knell of human happiness, but the beginning of real life. God commands us to turn from broken cisterns and drink from the Fountain of living waters. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit say, ‘Come, eat and drink.’ The feast to which they summon us is nothing less than fellowship with the One true and living God.” (1: 602-603)

4. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self / Carl Trueman

Trueman discerns our own errors and those of this evil age. The subtitle says it all: “Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution.” He explains how so many have come to understand sexual difference as a matter of psychological choice. This brilliant volume serves as a faithful guide to understanding our confusing times, and as a clarion call for the church to be courageous:

“This book is not a lament for a lost golden age or even for the parlous state of culture as we now face it… As for the notion of some lost golden age, it is truly very hard for any competent historian to be nostalgic. What past times were better than the present? An era before antibiotics when childbirth or even minor cuts might lead to septicemia and death? The great days of the nineteenth century when the church was culturally powerful and marriage was between one man and one woman for life but little children worked in factories and swept chimneys? Perhaps the Great Depression? The Second World War? The era of Vietnam? Every age has had its darkness and its dangers. The task of the Christian is not to whine about the moment in which he or she lives but to understand its problems and respond appropriately to them.” (29-30)

5. Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition / Craig A. Carter

I judge books by their covers. “The book cover functions simultaneously as an invitation to potential readers,” Peter Mendelsund notes. “Come, it says, join the party– or at least save the date.” (2) I love the cover of Craig Carter’s book on the glories of the Great Tradition and premodern exegesis, and I’m glad I accepted his invitation to join the rip-roaring party found inside. The picture on the cover is “Simeon’s Song of Praise,” painted by Rembrandt in 1631:

“It depicts an aged Simeon quoting Isaiah 52:10 as he prophesies that this baby Jesus is ‘the Lord’s Christ’ (Luke 2:26). A faithful and skilled reader of Scripture, Simeon sees the messianic thrust of the Old Testament as pointing toward the coming of the Suffering Servant. The text stresses that he understood this by the Holy Spirit. My book is about how to read like Simeon, Anna, and other faithful people of God, who discerned the Christological meaning of the Holy Scriptures by the illumination of the Spirit, symbolized in the painting by the bright light shining down on the child and Simeon’s face.” (xx-xxi)

This is a firecracker of a book. In his feisty way, Carter challenges his readers to recognize that all theology should be exegetical, and all exegesis should be theological. I’ve already pre-ordered Carter’s next volume: Contemplating God with the Great Tradition: Recovering Trinitarian Classical Theism. Consider doing the same.

6. “He Descended to the Dead” / Matthew Emerson

The doctrine of Christ’s descent is a derelict doctrine. Emerson remedies this deficiency by clearing away many misunderstandings, and by retrieving this comforting truth: “He descended to the dead.” Christ experienced the fullness of human death; He also defeated it. He entered the realm of death itself, our mighty enemy, and came away with his keys. The keys of Death and Hades are now held in our Savior’s nail-pierced hands. (Rev. 1:18) Emerson illuminates the good news of Good Friday, and the ecstasy of Easter Sunday, with the hope of Holy Saturday.

“There is something more immediate than Christ’s second coming and believers’ resurrection to eternal life that we can preach to those grieving but not without hope. The hope that is more immediate, and one that is descriptive of our departed love ones’ eternal state right now, not just some distant day, is that Christ, too, has experienced death. He did not just experience dying only to rise again moments later, but He actually remained dead in the grave. He did not simply have his breath expire and then immediately rise to glory, but His body was buried and His soul departed to the place of the dead. And because He is God in the flesh, He defeated the place of the dead and the grave by descending into them and then rising again on the third day. In the Christian tradition, this hope is known as the the doctrine of Christ’s descensus— His descent to the dead.” (xi)

7. The Trinity / Scott Swain

This is the best concise introduction to the doctrine of the Trinity I’ve ever read. The Bible is central. The writing is clear. The chapter on divine simplicity is pure gold. The critique of ERAS/EFS is correct. The tone is worshipful. Even the glossary led me to praise.

“Christians praise God the Trinity because He is supremely worthy of our praise. The blessed Trinity is supreme in being, beauty, and beatitude.” (15)

“No topic of study is more rewarding, or more challenging, than the doctrine of the Trinity. Nor is any topic of study fraught with greater possibility of error. Nevertheless, we may enter our study with confidence because the triune God has revealed Himself in His Word. It is God’s good pleasure that we would know Him, that we would receive Him, and that our souls would find rest in Him (Matt. 11:25–30).” (22)

“Christians praise the triune God because that is how God presents Himself to us in Holy Scripture: as one God in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Bible is the primary discourse of Trinitarian theology. Fluently, almost effortlessly, the prophets and apostles narrate, bless, pray, and sing the name of the triune God.” (25)

“The God who is Father, Son, and Spirit has reached out through the Son and by the Spirit to embrace us as sons and daughters to the end that we may call God our Father in the Spirit of the Son.” (26)

“God is not composed of parts. God is pure God, and nothing but God is God.” (54)

“The Bible’s basic Trinitarian grammar affirms the oneness of God, identifies the three persons of the Trinity with the one God, and distinguishes the three persons of the Trinity by their relations of origin.” (59)

“God plus the world is not more sufficient, more glorious, or more blessed than God minus the world.” (127)

“The heart of the blessed Trinity is to benefit us by giving Himself to us. This is the love of the Father. This is the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 13:14).” (127-128)

“The triune God alone is the ultimate end of all His works, the supreme benefit He gives, the supreme benefit that can be received.” (132)

8. The Mystery of Christ, His Covenant, and His Kingdom / Samuel Renihan

This book helped me read my Bible better. Renihan explains typology, expounds the mystery of Christ, and exegetes the biblical covenants from a 1689 Federalist perspective. If you want a solid primer on covenant theology from a confessional Baptist, start here.

“Studying the covenant theology of the Bible magnifies the majesty of the triune God’s plan of redemption.” (7)

“All of Scripture, and thus all redemptive history, is driving towards the arrival of the promised Seed of the woman.” (31)

“The purpose of the Old Covenant was to produce the New Covenant because the purpose of the Old Covenant was to provide the Messiah, the Christ, the Mediator of the New Covenant.” (135)

“The New Covenant of grace, established in the blood of Christ, founded in the Covenant of Redemption, and preached to the world in the gospel, is God’s master plan.” (178)

“The study of the mystery of Christ, His covenant, and His kingdom is a devotional experience. It is a way of wonderment, a path of praise. It is a balm, a salve, a nepenthe, a panacea, a cordial, a precious remedy, a sweet medicine, ‘a sure and steadfast anchor for the soul’ (Hebrews 6:19). The mystery is free everlasting salvation in Christ, and it is for everyone. For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in Him will not be put to shame. For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on Him. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ (Rom. 10:11-13)” (209)

9. Bavinck: A Critical Biography / James Eglinton

I’ve imbibed a lot of Bavinck’s writings, but I knew little of his life. I didn’t know about his lonely years as a pastor. I didn’t know he was a Bible translator. I didn’t know he wrote a book on raising teenagers. I didn’t know about his political career. I didn’t know his children and grandchildren were heroes and martyrs in the anti-Nazi resistance movement. I didn’t know about his trips to America. I didn’t know he hung out with Teddy Roosevelt at the White House. This is the best biography I’ve read about one of my theological heroes since Marsden’s life of Jonathan Edwards.

“Why does Herman Bavinck (1854–1921), a prolific theologian who worked within the Dutch neo-Calvinist movement, deserve a biography? In his own era, the answer to that question would have been fairly obvious: in the early twentieth-century Netherlands, Herman Bavinck was a household name. To his contemporaries, he was known not only as a brilliant theologian. To them, he was also—among other things—a pioneer in psychology, a pedagogical reformer, a champion for girls’ education and advocate of women’s voting rights, a parliamentarian, and a journalist. He was, and in some circles today remains, a person of international signifi- cance. In 1908, for example, Bavinck gave the prestigious Stone Lectures in Princeton, before which President Theodore Roosevelt received him and his wife at the White House. Bavinck was the kind of Dutchman whose foreign travels were chronicled in the national press and who would then return to give sold-out lectures across the country on his impressions and experiences overseas. A century later, a growing international audience reads his works in a host of languages.” (xvii)

10. The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Biblical and Systematic Theology / Jeremy Treat

More people would read dissertations if they were this well-written. Treat unites what should never have been torn apart: the cross of Christ and the kingdom of God (Rev. 5:9-10). God’s reign and redemption both arise from the cross of our crucified Lord. “His main message was the kingdom and His main mission was to go to Golgotha.” (17) Treat helped grow my love for the King who came into the world to be the propitiation for our sins (penal substitution), and to destroy the works of the devil (Christus Victor). (1 John 4:10; 3:8)

“The thief on the cross looked at the man from Nazareth being crucified next to him and said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’ (Luke 23:42). Somehow this man conceived of the crucified Jesus as ruling over a kingdom. While the title on Christ’s cross—’The King of the Jews’—makes explicit that there is a connection between the kingdom and the cross, perhaps the crown of thorns provides the best image for explaining how they relate. This is not, after all, the first time that thorns have shown up in the story. Adam was to be a servant-king in the garden, but because he did not exercise dominion over the ground and the animals, the serpent ruled over him and the ground was cursed by God. Thorns first appear as a direct result and manifestation of the curse (Gen 3:17–18). Jesus comes as the last Adam, the faithful servant-king who not only fulfills Adam’s commission of ruling over the earth but removes the curse by taking it onto Himself. As Jesus wore the crown of thorns, He bore the curse of God. He is the ‘[seed] of a woman’ who crushed Satan with a bruised heel (Gen 3:15). He is the seed of Abraham who ‘redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us… so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles’ (Gal 3:13–14). The thorns, which were a sign of the curse and defeat of Adam, are paradoxically transformed into a sign of the kingship and victory of Jesus. Jesus is the king who reigns by bearing the curse of the people whom He so loves. The connection between the cross and the curse, however, does reveal that the title given to Jesus during his crucifixion—’The King of the Jews’—was only partially correct. Inasmuch as the task of the Jews was to bring God’s blessing to all the earth (Gen 12:3) and thereby reverse the curse of sin in Genesis 3–11, Jesus—the Jewish Messiah—was claiming His throne not only over Israel but over all the earth. God accomplished His mission of restoring His creation through Jesus as He was enthroned as king on the cross. The kingdom of God comes in power, but the power of the gospel is Christ crucified.” (252-253)

Amen.

11. Devoted to God’s Church / Sinclair Ferguson

What a wondrous privilege it is to belong to the family of God! In a year when so many have been distanced from the local church, this is a winsome and worthy read. “If push comes to shove, Christ and His people come first.” (5) The chapters on the centrality of the Bible and the priority of prayer in the life of the local church are worth the price of the book.

“In some countries the Bible is a banned book. Government agents hunt Bibles down and confiscate them. Imagine for a moment that this happened to your favourite Bible—and in order to prosecute you your Bible was handed over to a CSI Unit (‘Crime Scene Investigation’)—the kind of law enforcement unit you have probably seen on TV–Would there be enough recent fingerprint and DNA evidence on your Bible to bring charges against you of being a Christian? And would there be enough evidence of a transformed life to secure a conviction against you?” (98)

12. The Pastor of Kilsyth / Islay Burns

Most pastors serve in relative obscurity. Unknown beyond their own flock, they labor in the vineyard of the Lord for a season, and then are soon forgotten. I’d never heard of William Hamilton Burns (1779-1859). He was an ordinary pastor of a small rural congregation in Scotland for over 60 years. He held no prestigious pulpit, founded no institution, and published no books. But he was a faithful shepherd who ministered God’s Word to God’s people for decades. I wept while reading this memoir written by a son who described his father as a man of God, unnoticed by the world, who sought to live under the eye and smile of the Lord all his days.

“The simple annals of a country pastor’s daily life are uniform and uneventful, and afford little scope for the biographer’s pencil. Interesting and precious as any work done on earth in Heaven’s eyes, it is the obscurest possible in the world’s regard. Angels look down upon it; busy, eager, bustling men heed it not. A calm routine of lowly, though sacred duties, a constant unvaried ministry of love, it flows on in a still and quiet stream, arresting no attention by its noise, and known alone to the lowly homes it visits on its way, and the flowers and the fields it waters. The young pastor of Dun was no exception to this.

He preached the Word. He dispensed the sacred Supper. He warned the careless. He comforted the sorrowing. He baptized little children. He blessed the union of young and loving hearts. He visited the sick and the dying. He buried the dead. He pressed the hand, and whispered words of peace into the ear of mourners. He carried to the poor widow and friendless orphan the charity of the Church and his own. He slipped in softly into some happy home and gently broke the sad news of the sudden disaster far away. He lifted up the fallen one from the ground. And he pointed to Him who receiveth the publicans and the sinners. These things and such as these, he did in that little home-walk for twenty successive years day by day; but that was all.

There is much here for the records of the sky, but nothing, or next to nothing, for the noisy annals of time. Such as the work was, however, he did it, as all who knew him witnessed, faithfully and well, with a calm, serious, conscientious, cheerful, loving diligence that was the fruit of faith and prayer; always at his work, and always happy in it, and desiring nothing better or higher on earth.” (43-44)

There is nothing flashy here; only faithfulness over the long haul. I thank God for faithful, ordinary pastors, who lead ordinary lives, and minister God’s ordinary means of grace. Your labors in the Lord are not in vain.

Honorable Mentions:

Best New Edition of a Classic: Let Slavery Die / Henry H. Garnet

Best New Commentary: Colossians and Philemon / G.K. Beale

Best Old Commentary: James: A Practical Commentary / Thomas Manton

Best New Audiobook of a Classic: The Hobbit / J.R.R. Tolkien / Narrated by Andy Serkis

My Next 12:

13. Lonesome Dove / Larry McMurtry

The best novel I read in 2020 was this Pulitzer Prize-winning Odyssey of the Wild West. There’s plenty of action, along with a bunch of cowboys, cattle, sagebrush, horse stealing, Comanche raids, kidnapping, murders, boredom, loneliness, gambling, whiskey-drinking, bar fights, prostitutes, river crossings, water moccasins, coarse humor, broken hearts, shootouts, and homesickness. But what makes this book so captivating are the many great scenes in which nothing happens except that W. F. Call and Gus McCrae talk. And these two former Texas Rangers talk so well you never want them to stop:

“My main skills are talking and cooking biscuits,” Augustus said. “And getting drunk on the porch. I’ve probably slipped a little on the biscuits in the last few days, and I’ve lost the porch, but I can still talk with the best of them.” (405)

“Captain, what’ll we do?” he asked. “Live through it,” Call said. “That’s all we can do.” (566)

“Yesterday’s gone on down the river and you can’t get it back.” (505)

“I doubt it matters where you die, but it matters where you live,” Augustus said. (389)

“It’s like I told you last night, son,” Captain Call said. “The earth is mostly just a boneyard. But pretty in the sunlight.” (628)

McMurtry also knows how to paint a scene:

“Evening took a long time getting to Lonesome Dove, but when it came it was a comfort. For most of the hours of the day— and most of the months of the year— the sun had the town trapped deep in dust, far out in the chaparral flats, a heaven for snakes and horned toads, roadrunners and stinging lizards, but a hell for pigs and Tennesseans. There was not even a respectable shade tree within twenty or thirty miles; in fact, the actual location of the nearest decent shade was a matter of vigorous debate in the offices— if you wanted to call a roofless barn and a couple of patched-up corrals offices— of the Hat Creek Cattle Company, half of which Augustus owned.” (3-4)

“The eastern sky was red as coals in a forge, lighting up the flats along the river. Dew had wet the million needles of the chaparral, and when the rim of the sun edged over the horizon the chaparral seemed to be spotted with diamonds. A bush in the backyard was filled with little rainbows as the sun touched the dew. It was tribute enough to sunup that it could make even chaparral bushes look beautiful, Augustus thought, and he watched the process happily, knowing it would only last a few minutes. The sun spread reddish-gold light through the shining bushes, among which a few goats wandered, bleating. Even when the sun rose above the low bluffs to the south, a layer of light lingered for a bit at the level of the chaparral, as if independent of its source. Then the sun lifted clear, like an immense coin. The dew quickly died, and the light that filled the bushes like red dust dispersed, leaving clear, slightly bluish air. It was good reading light by then, so Augustus applied himself for a few minutes to the Prophets. He was not overly religious, but he did consider himself a fair prophet and liked to study the styles of his predecessors.” (50)

During this difficult year, I relished the company of Gus and Call. “It’s a fine world,” Augustus said, “though rich in hardships at times.” (873) At the end of their long trek north to Montana, no riches await these old Rangers. But their journey and friendship are riches enough.

14. Irreversible Damage / Abigail Shrier

Between 2016 and 2017, the number of adolescent girls seeking gender transition surgery quadrupled in the United States. In Great Britain, the increase for the last decade was an astounding 4,400%. In this valiant, humane, well-written, and well-researched book, Wall Street Journal reporter Abigail Shrier investigates why.

“Gender dysphoria– formerly known as ‘gender identity disorder’– is characterized by a severe and persistent discomfort in one’s biological sex. It typically begins in early childhood– ages two to four– though it may grow more severe in adolescence. But in most cases– nearly 70 percent– childhood gender dysphoria resolves. Historically, it afflicted a tiny sliver of the population (roughly .01 percent) and almost exclusively boys. Before 2012, in fact, there was no scientific literature on girls ages eleven to twenty-one ever having developed gender dysphoria at all.

In the last decade that has changed, and dramatically. The Western world has seen a sudden surge of adolescents claiming to have gender dysphoria and self-identifying as ‘transgender.’ For the first time in medical history, natal girls are not only present among those so identifying– they constitute the majority.

Why? What happened? How did an age group that had always been the minority of those afflicted (adolescents) come to form the majority? Perhaps more significantly– why did the sex ratio flip: from overwhelmingly boys, to majority girls?” (xxi)

Most of the mainstream media have boycotted this book, labeling it as transphobic. That’s a real shame because Shrier makes her aim crystal clear throughout the book: she wants to protect the vulnerable.

“I have nothing but respect for the transgender adults I’ve interviewed. They were among the most sober, thoughtful, and decent people I had come to know in the course of writing this book. But I was concerned about another population, too, one I considered more vulnerable. A population we seem to have abandoned in pursuit of identity politics and progressive bona fides. A group that should, by right, be making us awfully proud, but instead seems to be teetering on the edge of disaster, the brink of despair– teenage girls. They hold the very possibility for our future. If only they weren’t tearing themselves apart.” (219)

Shrier concludes with some practical instructions to parents of young girls:

  1. Don’t get your kid a smartphone.
  2. Don’t relinquish your authority as the parent.
  3. Don’t support gender ideology in your child’s education.
  4. Reintroduce privacy into the home.
  5. Consider big steps to separate your daughter from harm.
  6. Stop pathologizing girlhood.
  7. Don’t be afraid to admit: it’s wonderful to be a girl.

“Remember to tell your daughter that a woman’s most unique capacity– childbirth– is perhaps life’s greatest blessing. But whatever else you teach your daughter, remember to include something more. Tell her because the culture so often denies it. Tell her because people will try to make a victim of her. Tell her because it’s natural to doubt. Most of all, tell her because it’s true. She’s lucky. She’s special. She was born a girl. And being a woman is a gift, containing far too many joys to pass up.” (218)

NOTE: Amazon refuses to allow U.S. sales of the hardback of this book. But you can purchase it directly from the publisher at 50% off. Enter “WHERESAMAZON50” at checkout.

15. Piranesi / Susanna Clarke

This novel is unlike anything I’ve ever read. Clarke asks the reader to ponder many astonishing what ifs: What if there were a house so large it contained an entire ocean? What if the house was so vast it made it impossible to say how large it was because no one had ever seen all of it? What if one person set out to explore it? That one person is called Piranesi. “It is my belief,” he assures us, “that the World (or, if you will, the House, since the two are for all practical purposes identical) wishes an Inhabitant for Itself to be a witness to its Beauty and the recipient of its Mercies.” (11-12)

The House is quite beautiful. It’s a three-story labyrinth, a limitless white marble temple. Its colossal halls are linked by unending staircases, doorways, and vestibules. Each room is adorned with classical columns and filled with spectacular statues. The bottom floor encompasses an ocean. Waves come crashing up the stairs of the Drowned Halls, causing sudden floods when the tides converge. The top floor contains the clouds and their rainfall. Above the House, Piranesi can see a boundless sky with sun, moon, and stars. Only the ground floor is habitable. That’s where Piranesi lives, explores, and journals what he sees.

This story is weird, haunting, and mesmerizing. It’s the stuff of half-remembered dreams. I read it in one sitting. Clarke loves the Inklings, especially Owen Barfield and C.S. Lewis. Narnian allusions abound. (A faun adorns the cover!) Saying anything more about the plot risks spoiling the tale. When I look back on this year, and the feelings of prolonged isolation, this is the story I’ll call to mind. “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable,” Piranesi says, “its Kindness infinite.” (245)

16. Rise and Kill First / Ronen Bergman

The Talmud says: “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.” Since World War II, Israel has assassinated more people than any other country in the Western World. This book tells the origin and secret history of Israel’s targeted assassinations.

“Of all the means that democracies use to protect their security, there is none more fraught and controversial than ‘killing the driver’– assassination. Some, euphemistically, call it ‘liquidation.’ The American intelligence community calls it, for legal reasons, ‘targeted killings.’ In practice, these terms amount to the same thing: killing a specific individual in order to achieve a specific goal– saving the lives of people the target intends to kill, averting a dangerous act that he is about to perpetrate, and sometimes removing a leader in order to change the course of history. The use of assassinations by a state touches two very different dilemmas. First, is it effective? Can the elimination of an individual, or a number of individuals, make the world a safer place? Second, it is morally and legally justifiable? Is it legitimate, both ethically and judicially, for a country to employ the gravest of all crimes in any code of ethics or law– the premeditated taking of a human life– in order to protect its own citizens? This book deals mainly with the assassinations and targeted killings carried out by the Mossad and by the other arms of the Israeli government, in both peacetime and wartime– as well as, in the early chapters, by the underground militias in the pre-state era, organizations that were to become the army and intelligence services of the state, once it was established… The Mossad and Israel’s other intelligence arms have down away with individuals who were identified as direct threats to national security, and killing them also sent a bigger message: If you are an enemy of Israel, we will find and kill you, wherever you are. This message has indeed been heard around the world.” (xxi-xxiii)

17. Midnight in Chernobyl / Adam Higginbotham

After watching the HBO Miniseries Chernobyl, I read this riveting reconstruction of the worst nuclear disaster in the history of the world. On the night of April 26, 1986, what began as a standard safety test plunged into a full-scale meltdown of Chernobyl’s Reactor No. 4. The radioactive release from the giant explosion was 400 times the size of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

“Radiation is invisible and has neither taste nor smell. Although it’s yet to be proved that exposure to any level of radiation is entirely safe, it becomes manifestly dangerous when the particles and waves it gives off are powerful enough to transform or break apart the atoms that make up the tissues of living organisms. This high-energy radiance is ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation takes three principal forms: alpha particles, beta particles, and gamma rays… Gamma rays—high-frequency electromagnetic waves traveling at the speed of light—are the most energetic of all. They can traverse large distances, penetrate anything short of thick pieces of concrete or lead, and destroy electronics. Gamma rays pass straight through a human being without slowing down, smashing through cells like a fusillade of microscopic bullets. Severe exposure to all ionizing radiation results in acute radiation syndrome (ARS), in which the fabric of the human body is unpicked, rearranged, and destroyed at the most minute levels. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, hemorrhaging, and hair loss, followed by a collapse of the immune system, exhaustion of bone marrow, disintegration of internal organs, and, finally, death.” (27-28)

18. Apollo, the Race to the Moon / Charles Murray and Catherine Cox

In The Right Stuff, the late Tom Wolfe answered this question: What is it that makes a man willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle, such as a Redstone, Atlas, Titan, or Saturn rocket, and wait for someone to light the fuse? Charles Murray and Catherine Cox answer a different, but no less fascinating, set of questions:

Who were the brilliant engineers and designers and programmers who made the Apollo space program happen? Who built the five F-1 engines on the Saturn V that generated 7.5 million pounds of thrust? Who got our astronauts all the way to the moon and back in a command and lunar module that used far less computing capacity than what’s in a single iPhone? Who were the 45 people in the Space Task Group who began the US space program from scratch on November 5, 1958, with no launch vehicle, no spacecraft, no launch facilities, no experience with manned space flight— and landed the first human on the moon on July 20, 1969, only 10 years and 9 months later?

I found their answers enthralling. If you enjoy engineering and design, if you’re intrigued by Elon Musk’s Space-X efforts, if you like books about Skunk Works, if you’ve ever wondered what happens when rocket boosters ignite, then you’ll love this epic story of the Apollo space program.

“As soon as the sensors within the combustion chambers of the F-1s determined that the igniters were lit, the main LOX valves opened, releasing liquid oxygen into each combustion chamber where it combined with a fuel-rich combustion gas, an exhaust product from the turbine. The gas was comparatively cool—only 800 degrees Fahrenheit—and would help cool the nozzle during flight; now, it prepared the interior of the chamber for the thermal shock to come. This process took three seconds. The combustion of the exhaust gas produced a thick orange smoke. At T–5.3 seconds, as sensors within each combustion chamber determined that the pressure at the face of the injector had reached 20 pounds per square inch, the main fuel valves opened and a torrent of kerosene burst through the painstakingly sized and angled orifices of the injection plate, past and through the copper baffles that had been redesigned so often. The streams of kerosene (a ton per second per engine) and liquid oxygen (two tons per second per engine) then impinged, formed their fans, and, mingling, ignited. At T–8.9 seconds, the people in the bleachers could see an eruption of orange smoke pushing down and bouncing off the flame deflector under the launcher, then bursting out at either side. Then, a few seconds later, the flame directly under the engines turned to an incandescent white as the orange smoke billowed outward and upward, beginning to envelop the rocket. Still 501 didn’t move. The noise of the preparatory burn that had created the orange cloud was inaudible across the four miles separating the viewers from the launch site. Even as the engines went to mainstage and they saw the incandescent white flame, the sound had yet to reach them. As the Saturn V moved off the pad, the sound finally reached across the marsh and slammed into the viewing area. It came first through the ground, tremors that shook the viewing stand and rattled its corrugated iron roof. Then came the noise, 120 decibels of it, in staccato bursts. People who were there would recall it not as a sound, but as a physical force. In the C.B.S. broadcast booth, the plate-glass window began to shake so violently that Walter Cronkite had to hold it in place with his hands as he tried to continue his commentary. At the beginning, it seemed more a levitation than a liftoff—the Saturn rose so ponderously that it took more than ten seconds for it to clear the top of the umbilical tower. Then, as the Saturn got farther from the ground, the scale of the F-1’s inferno became more fully apparent. And then the rocket climbed.” (199-202)

19. Hitler: Downfall: 1939-1945 / Volker Ulrich

This second volume of a magisterial biography of Adolph Hitler begins at the height of his power in the summer of 1939. Ulrich records the Führer’s fatal descent, showing how one man terrorized a whole continent, fueled the murder of over 6 million Jews, and challenged the entire civilized world. By early January 1945, a depressed Hitler admitted, “I know the war is lost. Our enemies’ superiority is too great. We will not surrender, never ever. We may go down, but we will take a world with us.” (535)

“Hitler’s tyranny lasted only twelve years, but it fundamentally changed the face of the world– albeit in a way completely different from what the dictator had intended. Hitler had wanted to lead the Third Reich from hegemony in Europe to global domination. In the end, the Reich lay in ruins, and the German national state Bismarck had forged in three wars in the nineteenth century perished in an orgy of violence and criminal atrocities. The moral trauma Hitler left behind lasted far longer than Germany’s temporal loss of its status as a sovereign nation… We are not and we cannot be done with confronting Adolf Hitler. In a certain sense, we will be bound to him for all eternity. Hitler will remain a cautionary example for all time. If his life and career teaches us anything, it is how quickly democracy can be priced from its hinges when political institutions fail and civilizing forces in society are too weak to combat the lure of authoritarianism; how thin the mantle separating civilization and barbarism actually is; and what human beings are capable of when the rule of law and ethical norms are suspended and some people are granted unlimited power over the lives of others.” (630, 632)

20. The War Poems / Siegfried Sassoon

In a few short lines, a poet can cleave your heart. I spent the year revisiting the Great War Poets: Brooke, Owen, Graves, and Rosenberg. But I found Sassoon’s piercing words on war, “the hell where youth and laughter go,” to be unforgettable.

Aftermath (1919)

Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same–and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz,
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench–
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, “Is it all going to happen again?”

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack–
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads–those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

21. The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien / John Garth

Tolkien lamented in one of his letters, “Many reviewers seem to assume that Middle-Earth is another planet!” (283) In this gorgeous book, Garth explores the earthly places that inspired Middle-Earth. I knew Tolkien’s visit to the Swiss valley of Lauterbrunnen became the imaginative foundation for Rivendell. But I didn’t grasp how much his battle-zone experiences in the Great War shaped his writings. Tolkien’s life in the trenches at the brutal Battle of the Somme shaped many locales in The Lord of the Rings, from Hobbit holes to the Dead Marshes.

“Tolkien knew personally how a hole can mean comfort and security, a place to try and shut out all dangers. Officers’ dugouts were meticulously positioned, engineered for safety, built and maintained by each unit’s dedicated carpenters, blacksmiths, bricklayers and miners. An amazingly efficient supply network supplied their needs, from food to post. The Somme chalk made them both solid and bright. A British officers’ dugout could be an enviable snug, as well furnished as a student room at Oxford– a place of camaraderie, humour, civilized conversation.

It hardly needs saying that this cosiness is only part of the picture. The world of the trenches was also a place of suffocating squalor, exhaustion, boredom and terror. To reflect this dichotomy, Tolkien used a favourite technique– creating contrasting opposites. The plucky, home-loving Hobbits are ranged against the even more subterranean Orcs, who have no life except soldiering. These goblins know their way through the labyrinthine tunnels of the Misty Mountains as well as soldiers knew the maze of trenches.

The underground world often shows touches of the Somme. The battlefield was transformed by war and weather. When Tolkien said the Dead Marshes ‘owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme,’ he meant the autumn rains had turned the chalky clay to claggy mud and slime. In the Marshes, we are in a world unlike anything else in Middle-Earth, but remarkably like the battlefield Tolkien knew, with its desolations, its smoke and gas barrages, and its deadly observers in the sky and to the east. Mists curl upward from the pools and the air is filled with a perpetual reek. The travelers cower from flying Ringwraiths and, for the first time, Frodo stoops to avoid the unseen Eye of Sauron. They tread with extreme caution lest they ‘go down to join the Dead ones’– a real hazard for Somme soldiers if they slipped criss-crossing the waste. Gollum explains that the Dead Marshes have grown and ‘swallowed up the graves’ from the ancient battle. So it was on the Somme, where the swollen Ancre inundated the makeshift cemeteries around it, and rain filled the hellholes where soldiers had crawled to die. In trench memoirs, it is the faces of the dead that horrify most. ” (163-166)

I revisit Middle-Earth every year. When I walk with Frodo and Sam through the Dead Marshes in 2021, it will be the Battle of the Somme, not Dagorlad, that’s fixed in my mind’s eye:

“Here nothing lived, not even the leprous growths that feed on rottenness. The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails upon the lands about. High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light. They had come to the desolation that lay before Mordor: the lasting monument to the dark labour of its slaves that should endure when all their purposes were made void; a land defiled, diseased beyond all healing – unless the Great Sea should enter in and wash it with oblivion. ‘I feel sick,’ said Sam. Frodo did not speak.” (631-632)

22. A Sportsman’s Notebook / Ivan Turgenev

Turgenev doesn’t disappoint. His lush descriptions of nineteenth-century Russia, the inhabitants of the steppe and the vast forests, are beautiful beyond all conveyance:

“I was sitting in a birch-wood one autumn, about the middle of September. Ever since morning a fine drizzle had been falling, giving way now and again to warm sunshine: it was fluky weather. One moment the sky would be all overcast with puffy white clouds, at another it would suddenly clear in places for a moment, and, through the rift, the azure would appear, clear and smiling, like the glance of a brilliant eye. I sat and looked about me and listened. The leaves were whispering faintly over my head: you could have told the time of year from their whisper alone. It was not the gay, laughing shiver of spring, nor the soft murmur, the long discourse of summer, nor the cold, frightened rustling of late autumn, but a scarcely perceptible, drowsy converse. A little breeze was just stirring among the treetops. The interior of the wood, drenched with rain, kept changing its appearance as the sun shone out or went in behind the clouds: sometimes it was all ablaze, as if everything there was smiling. The slender boles of the scattered birches suddenly took on the fresh brilliance of white silk, the tiny leaves on the ground gleamed and blazed with purple and gold, and the handsome stems of the tall, curly bracken, already tinged with their autumn hue, the hue of overripe grapes, stood out luminously before me in an infinite, criss-crossed maze. Then suddenly the whole scene took on a faint shade of blue: in an instant, the bright colors went out, the birches stood blankly white as new-fallen snow, not yet touched by the cold light of the winter sun; and furtively, slyly, the finest of drizzles began to spray and whisper through the wood. The leaves of birches were almost all of them still green, though of a marked pallor; only here and there stood a single young one, quite red or quite gold, and it was a sight to see how brightly it flared up when the sun’s rays suddenly found their way to it, slipping and dappling through the thick net of fine branches, all newly washed in sparkling rain. There was not a sound from the birds: they were all snuggled down and keeping quiet.” (261-262)

23. Breaking Bread with the Dead / Alan Jacobs

What do Robinson Crusoe, To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn, and Of Mice and Men have in common? They’re all cancelled classics. Alan Jacobs tells why: “This neatly sums up a common current attitude: all history hitherto is at best a sewer of racism, sexism, homophobia, and general social injustice, at worst an abattoir which no reasonable person would even want to peek at.” (11) Jacobs argues that paying attention to old books from strange times (even those with ideas we find loathsome!) can help us lead loving lives in the present.

“Ideas and ambitions aren’t worth much unless they are transformed into a settled disposition, a habit of mind. And what I’m talking about, and indeed have been talking about throughout this book, is a need for a disposition to love; to love the too-often-neglected voices from our past, from the world’s past. I counsel to give the dead the blood of our attention for our own sake, to enrich and strengthen our identities, to make ourselves more solid and less tenuous. There’s an important sense in which we cannot use the past to love ourselves unless we also learn to love our ancestors. We must see them not as others but as neighbors— and then, ultimately as kin, as members our (very) extended family. These writers who help us to encounter our ancestors not as anthropological curiosities whom we observe from a critical distance, but as those with whom we can, and should, break bread.

When we own our kinship to those people, they may come alive for us not just as exemplars of narrowness and wickedness that we have to overcome, but as neighbors and even as teachers. When we acknowledge that even when they go far astray they do so in ways that we surely would have, had we been formed as they were, we extend them not just attention but love, the very love that we hope our descendants will extend to us. The argument that I have made here for the cultivation of personal density is also an argument for serving as links in the living chain that extends into the distant past and also into the distant future. It is an argument for a genealogy of love.” (150-151)

“Breaking bread with the dead is not a scholarly task to be completed but a permanent banquet, to which all who hunger are invited.” (80)

24. K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches / Tyler Kepner

After my beloved Braves blew a 3-1 lead to the Dodgers in the NLCS, I sought solace in this spellbinding history of the national pastime as told through the craft of pitching. Kepner devotes each chapter to a different pitch. Each page brims with stats from archival research, saber-metrics (exit velo, spin rate, launch angle, etc.), and stories from over 300 interviews with Hall of Fame and superstar players.

“The pitches are the DNA of baseball, the fundamental coding of the game. The sport could easily be called ‘pitching,’ because the pitcher controls everything. He is the most influential player on the field, by far, but he can’t play every day. That factor, more than any other, makes baseball so interesting. A major league pitcher is part boxer and part magician; if he’s not punching you in the face, he’s swiping a quarter from behind your ear. If you ever square him up, you’d better savor it. Even in batting practice, the world’s best hitters tap harmless grounders and punch lazy fly balls. In the heat of competition, every hit is an exquisite anomaly.” (xiii)

Other books do a better job explaining the science of baseball. (See Off Speed by Terry McDermott). But no book I’ve ever read surpasses Kepner’s seamless narrative on the miracle of baseball. Walt Whitman wrote the truth in The Brooklyn Eagle on July 23, 1846:

“Let us enjoy life a little. Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms, and taste some of the good things Providence has scattered around so liberally. The game of ball is glorious.”

My Final 12:

25. Adorning the Dark / Andrew Peterson

There’s much to love in Peterson’s latest book. His rifts on the mystery of making are magical.

On making a stone wall and a Roman arch:

“You wouldn’t believe how much unwanted stone is just lying around in Tennessee. The next time I walked around our woods I noticed a ton (literally) of rocks scattered about the property, so I loaded them into a wheelbarrow and heaved them up to the front yard. The kids had a list of daily chores anyway, so I added the assignment of walking the woods each morning and bringing two rocks each day to the pile. Then, satisfied that I had enough to get started, I watched hours of YouTube videos about dry stack walls. During a warm snap in January I walked outside with a shovel and dug the first footer for the foundation. I figured we had enough rocks piled up to make some real progress, but after fussing with it for a few chilly hours I had gone through all our rocks and had completed about six feet of two-foot-high wall. Just 94 feet to go. I thought about Roy Scheider in Jaws and said to myself, “We’re gonna need more rocks.” My obsessive nature kicked in, and I spent weeks scouring the Nashville area for more stones. I pilfered construction sites, walked the woods around our house for hours, searched the shoulders of highways—and discovered treasure troves of discarded stones, which I surreptitiously hauled away in my old truck. Years later, I still can’t help but notice orphaned stones beside the road, and my kids still make fun of me. Slowly but surely, the wall took shape. My arms did, too, to Jamie’s delight. At some point I got it into my head that the wall needed an archway—as in, a bona fide Roman Arch, suspended by nothing but a keystone and this thing called gravity. Once again, YouTube provided all I really needed to know. I built up the sides of an opening, then measured and built a wooden frame with a round top. By now my older brother decided he needed to come over and inform me in classic older-brother fashion that it would never work—which, of course, was all the motivation I needed to carry through. I stacked the stones on top of the frame, set the keystone, and used a hammer to tighten it all with little shims of flinder. When all was ready, with the whole family watching, I nervously removed the legs from the frame. The round wooden support fell away, and—lo, and behold!—the thing held. My brother grunted something congratulatory and went home as I high-fived Jamie and the kids. It took another few weeks to complete the other arm of the wall, and before long the footpaths were dug, some plants were in the ground, and we had an actual enclosed cottage garden, complete with a stone archway, right here at The Warren.” (54-55)

On making a sonnet:

“I finished the wall that spring around Easter, and one morning I woke at dawn, just as the sun broke over the hill and shot a ray of new light across the property. Because the earth had been slowly tilting its way toward summer, that light landed in a new place, illuminating the stone arch. I peeked through the blinds and gasped, because the arch, suspended by gravity looked like the mouth of the empty tomb. Those rocks, repurposed and reborn, were crying out praise.

Lenten Sonnet March 8, 2017

This morning I woke and opened the shade,
Saw frost in the shadows, dew in the light,
Steam hovering up through each gleaming blade
Of grass. The stone arch caught the sun.
The sight Of it all, first thing in the morning, wakes
A contentment with the world. I feel young
Knowing the slow turn of the planet rakes
A bright edge of infant light, a tune sung
As long as the world has spun: new again,
New again, the mercies of God are new
Each morning, and morning moves with the spin
Of the old earth and greets each eye on cue—
Mercy, speeding west from here to the plain
To the peaks, to the sea, then back again.” (55)

On making a home:

“I love this place. I love it because I have loved it with my labor, with sweat and blood and a persistent longing to belong to it. My name is on the deed, which means I own it, inasmuch as a human can own a part of the earth. It belongs to me more than any place I’ve ever known—but in a deeper, truer way, I belong to it. In the honey from my bees and the bounty from the berry bushes I have literally tasted the fruit of my co-laboring with this corner of creation, and it is profoundly sweet. It speaks to me of its Maker. And my Maker speaks to me through it. I love to watch people taste my honey. They always close their eyes and breathe deep, and they always proclaim it better by far than whatever they buy at the grocery store. I’m not sure it tastes all that different, but their enjoyment is heightened by the knowledge that it came from the flowers underfoot and the long labor of the bees’ sweet alchemy. I think it reminds them of Eden. The world that is whispers of the world to come, just as Julie’s thirty-year plan invites me into the long struggle of begetting something new and beautiful made out of Tennessee stones as old as Everest. The Kingdom is coming, but the Kingdom is here. That’s why we’re homesick, and it’s also why we might as well get busy planting.” (56)

26. On the Apostolic Preaching / Irenaeus of Lyons

This brief book from the great Greek Father displays the whole content of the apostolic preaching. What’s so striking is how much this preaching is derived from the Old Testament. But this isn’t surprising. In his youth Irenaeus (A.D. 130-202) often heard the aged Polycarp preach. Polycarp was discipled by the Apostle John. So when you read Irenaeus, you’re reading a guy who was discipled by the guy, who was discipled by John, who was discipled by Jesus. And Jesus said, “If you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote of Me.” (John 5:46) Irenaeus helped me to praise the Lord that “the transgression which occurred through the tree was undone by the obedience of the tree.” (33)

27. Does God Suffer? / Thomas Weinandy

Does God experience emotional change? Is He subject to mood swings like His creatures? And does God suffer like we do? Throughout church history, most Christians have answered with an emphatic “No!” But much of 20th century theology has answered “Yes!” Weinandy spent his teaching career expounding the classical understanding of God’s immutabilty and impassibility. Since God is immutable, He must also be impassible. Weinandy responds to those who advocate a passible God by rooting impassibility in Scripture and in the Christological tradition inherited from the Fathers. As a Protestant, I don’t agree with all that Weinandy writes, but this book, and his book on divine immutability, Does God Change?, are both exceptional.

28. None Like Him / Jen Wilkin

This is an excellent and accessible book on the incommunicable attributes of God. God is not like us. And that’s good news. “When we fear God rightly, we recognize Him for who He truly is: a God of no limits, and therefore, utterly unlike anyone or anything we know. This is the start of becoming wise.” (13) Wilkin makes this wise observation:

“Human beings created to bear the image of God instead aspire to become like God. Designed to reflect His glory, we choose instead to rival it. We do so by reaching for those attributes that are true only of God, those suited only to a limitless being. Rather than worship and trust in the omniscience of God, we desire to be all-knowing ourselves. Rather than celebrate and revere His omnipotence, we seek ultimate power in our own spheres of influence. Rather than rest in the immutability of God, we point to our own calcified sin patterns and declare ourselves unchanging and unchangeable. Like our father Adam and our mother Eve, we long for that which is intended only for God, rejecting our God-given limits and craving the limitlessness we foolishly believe we are capable of wielding and entitled to possess. Even as the redeemed, we crave the forbidden fruit of rivalry.” (23-24)

29. Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings / Neil Price

In June 793, a boat filled with warriors reached the island monastery of Lindisfarne on the coast of Northumbria. A brutal attack followed, the first recorded Viking raid in Britain. “Never before has such terror appeared in Britain,” wrote the English cleric Alcuin. “Behold, the church of St. Cuthbert was spattered with the blood of the priests of God, and despoiled of all its ornaments.” This was only the beginning.

In this brilliant new book, the leading expert on Vikings tells the history of a people notorious for violence, but who also ice-skated, skied, left beautiful runic inscriptions, and built some of the greatest seagoing vessels in history. Behind the bloodshed and pillaging was an allegiance to cruel gods, and a vision of the afterlife that held no link between how a life was lived and the dead person’s ultimate fate. Theology always fuels actions, and eschatology always shapes ethics.

Did you know the Vikings fought their way into Ireland and France? Did you know they populated Iceland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and even reached continental America? Did you know that a Viking fleet sailed south into the Mediterranean, attacked Morocco, then went even further east and reached Egypt? Did you know that in 1013, the Vikings launched a full-scale invasion of Britain, conquered the city of London, and Svein Forkbeard became the first Viking king of England? If you’re as hooked as I am on Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon series, then you’ll enjoy this fascinating deep-dive on the ruthless and renowned men of the North, the children of Ash and Elm.

30. The Children of Men / P.D. James

Baroness James of Holland Park is best known for her superb Inspector Dalgliesh novels. I reread this dystopian story set in 2021, cherishing it more than ever before. It’s the most overtly Christian book James ever wrote. A mysterious disease causes global infertility. No child has been born anywhere in the world since 1995. Society unravels when it becomes clear no cure will be found. Nothing exposes idolatry like a pandemic.

“We are outraged and demoralized less by the impending end of our species, less even by our inability to prevent it, than by our failure to discover the cause. Western science and Western medicine haven’t prepared us for the magnitude and humiliation of this ultimate failure. There have been many diseases which have been difficult to diagnose or cure and one which almost depopulated two continents before it spent itself. But we have always in the end been able to explain why. We have given names to the viruses and germs which, even today, take possession of us, much to our chagrin since it seems a personal affront that they should still assail us, like old enemies who keep up the skirmish and bring down the occasional victim when their victory is assured. Western science has been our god. In the variety of its power it has preserved, comforted, healed, warmed, fed and entertained us and we have felt free to criticize and occasionally reject it as men have always rejected their gods, but in the knowledge that, despite our apostasy, this deity, our creature and our slave, would still provide for us; the anesthetic for the pain, the spare heart, the new lung, the antibiotic, the moving wheels and the moving pictures. The light will always come on when we press the switch and if it doesn’t we can find out why. Science was never a subject I was at home with. I understood little of it at school and I understand little more now that I’m fifty. Yet it has been my god too, even if its achievements are incomprehensible to me, and I share the universal disillusionment of those whose god has died. It is twenty-five years now since a human being was born and in our hearts few of us believe that the cry of a new-born child will ever be heard again on our planet. ” (5-7)

And yet in this bleakness, hope abounds. A child is born, a son is given, and the yoke of an oppressor is broken.

31. The Guardians / John Grisham

Not every Grisham novel is worth reading, but most are. Especially this one, his 33rd! It’s like a legal thriller version of Bryan Stevenson’s unforgettable Just Mercy. The main character, Cullen Post, is loosely based on James McCloskey, the founder of Centurion Ministries. The wrongful convictions of 63 men and women on death row were overturned because of the efforts of McCloskey and his team. Grisham’s page-turner reminded me that to do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice.

32. How to Become a Federal Criminal / Mike Chase

The most amusing book I read this year is an illustrated handbook for the aspiring felon. The owner and operator of @CrimeADay on Twitter documents the countless ways you can become a federal criminal. For example, removing a bald eagle from your home without a permit is a felony offense according to Title 50, Section 21.12(d). When you visit a National Park, please remember 36 C.F.R. § 2.1 (a)(3) prohibits “tossing, throwing or rolling rocks or other items inside caves or caverns, into valleys, canyons, or caverns, and down hillsides or mountainsides.” Keep in mind that (182) Title 18, Section 1716(c) of the U.S. Code permits the mailing of live scorpions provided the scorpions are packaged in a box clearly marked “Live Scorpions.” However, another statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1716D, makes it a federal crime to send a live mongoose in the mail. Mongoose mailers are subject to as much as one year in federal prison. “For the aspiring offender, Washington D.C. is Graceland. It’s a Mecca. It’s the only place where a person can become a three-time federal offender by abandoning a fish in the National Arboretum, taking a nap at the Smithsonian, and posting an unauthorized flyer on a bulletin board at the Government Accountability Office– all before lunch.” (208) What’s the main lesson of this book? Of the making of many laws, there is no end.

33. Blacktop Wasteland / S.A. Cosby

S.A. Cosby’s crime novel is Amazon’s #1 Mystery and Thriller of the Year. I imagine it’ll be made into a movie soon. Cosby grew up in Mathews County, Virginia, on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, where he worked as a bouncer, a forklift driver, a retail manager, a landscaper, a construction worker, and a mortuary attendant, all while writing crime stories on the side. He can now add full-time writer to his résumé. This book isn’t for everyone. It’s a gritty tale, a kind of eclectic mashup of the classic “one last job” heist story, several Fast and Furious car-chase scenes, a huge dose of Southern rural noir, and a glimpse of what it’s like being a black father living below the Mason Dixon line. Here’s a sampling of when the main character drove his getaway car off an overpass:

“Beauregard slammed on the brakes and yanked the steering wheel to the left. The Buick did a 180 as a gray cloud of smoke engulfed them. Without a second of hesitation he slammed the car in reverse and stomped on the gas. The wooden pickets that had surrounded the median had been replaced with orange snow fencing. Ronnie was screaming in his ear. No words, just one long nonsensical wail. They were doing 60, hurtling toward an unfinished section of road. Backwards. The police were closing in like wolves chasing a deer. Then the deer sprouted wings. Beauregard didn’t say hold on. He didn’t say watch out. But in his mind, he heard his father’s voice. ‘She flying now, Bug!’ The Buick sailed off the overpass. It plummeted twenty-five feet like a stone. The trunk slammed into the pile of dirt, but the dirt helped to cushion their fall. The edge of the overpass rapidly receded from Beauregard’s vision as they fell. He braced himself by gripping the steering wheel and leaning back in his seat as hard as he could. The rear bumper took some of the force. The load-leveling shocks he had installed took the rest. He could feel every inch of the steel plating he welded to the chassis stretch to its tensile limit. The cop car that had been closest to them had slammed on the brakes. The cop car behind hadn’t. It crashed into the first one and sent it careening off the edge. It landed nose first into the asphalt. Steam and engine coolant burst from the crumpled hood even as the car fell forward on its roof. Beauregard jerked on the gearshift, dropped the car into drive and extricated himself from the dry dirt pile. Red clay flew fifty feet into the air as the rear tires strained for purchase. Finally, after what seemed like ten years Beauregard felt the rubber meet the road. He slipped by the upside-down cop car and crashed through the traffic cones. He took the road back to Route 314 and turned right.” (119-120)

34. Every Day Matters / Brandon Crowe

Time is slippery. How you spend your days is how you spend your life. Every day matters. But Crowe understands true productivity is more than just getting things done. It’s about being a faithful steward in the sight of the Lord. “Being productive does not mean seeking first our own interests. Biblical productivity must be guided by two great commands: loving God and loving our neighbor (Matthew 22:37-39). Loving God and doing what He commands means we must be faithful stewards of what God has entrusted to us.” (5) Crowe grounds his approach in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, highlighting the benefits and limitations of diligent work. His chapter on Paul’s grace-driven effort is super. This is the perfect book to (re)read at the dawn of 2021.

“Each day is a gift from God, and those things you do on a daily basis add up. Aim to make small improvements each day. Strive to get a little bit closer to your goals each day. The ultimate goal is not personal promotion, but serving Christ and His kingdom. Remember, every day matters. If every day matters, then today must be the day to get started.” (129)

35. The Ascension of Christ / Patrick Schreiner

Back in 2007, I read an awe-inspiring book by Gerrit Scott Dawson entitled Jesus Ascended. (You can read a bunch of the best quotes here.) Dawson led me to contemplate Christ’s ascension and His continuing incarnation. But given its price ($60!) and academic style, it’s not a book I would ever give away to my flock. So I was thrilled to read Patrick Schreiner’s wonderful little book on this neglected doctrine. It balances deep theology and lucid brevity. Much what happened in 2020 tempted me to look down. But this book summoned me to look up. With uplifted head we look to our ascended Savior and King, who holds both the scepter of the universe and all of our concerns in His wise and gracious hands. Weary saint, look up and remember the Day is fast approaching when “all God’s people will ascend, follow their forerunner, and be with God forever.” (116)

36. Every Moment Holy, Volume 1 / Douglas Kaine McKelvey 

This collection of prayers, blessings, liturgies, and laments was a close companion for the Roark family in 2020. We said goodbye to friends who moved away. We prayed for medical providers. We feasted together on the Lord’s Day. We pondered our consumption of media. We celebrated the winter’s first snowfall. We comforted one another during illness. We marked the first hearth-fire of the season. We did all these things together using the words of this book, giving voice to prayers we didn’t know we needed to pray. “There are no unsacred moments; there are only sacred moments and moments we have forgotten are sacred.” (xvii) Every Moment Holy will help you reclaim the sacredness of all of life.

Lament Upon the Finishing of a Beloved Book
“I am stirred and saddened, O Lord,
in coming to this tale’s end,
to bid farewell and return now
from my sojourn in that storied place
where longings for something
more than the life I lead
were wakened.
It is in the receding glow of that small,
bright sorrow that I now linger.
Let it do its work in me,
inviting me to dig beneath these
fresh-stirred longings, to see
that their roots are not at last a longing
for the places depicted in these pages;
but are, in truth,
profound and holy wounds,
yearnings for a lost garden and a more
perfect city, where justice and righteousness
are restored, and harms are healed, and losses
redeemed, and love proved true,
and earth and heaven reconciled.
What I feel is, at its heart, a homesick hope
for a place of unbroken communion
with my Creator, and with His people,
and with all of His creation.
What I most desire
is to open my eyes and find that,
for the first time in my life,
I am home and breathing
the wild winds of my native land.
So of course my heart aches
each time I receive these beautiful, distant
rumors of that far country!
Of course I do not want such a story to end,
for it has wedged open for me
a way like a window,
through which I have glimpsed
a vision of things more as they will one day be
than as they now are in these hard
and sorrowing lands of our exile.
Thank you, O my God,
for loving me enough
that you would rouse
my deepest desires again through story,
appointing these longings as true signposts
planted in a war-torn and cratered landscape,
reminding me that all of history
is leading at last
to a King and a kingdom,
and pointing me ever onward toward.
His righteous and eternal city.
May I return now
from the world of this book
to the daily details of my own life
with truer vision and fiercer hope,
trailing with me
remnants of that coming glory
I have glimpsed again
in story.  Amen.” (95-98)

Now may the God of peace grant you perfect peace, and living hope, and glorious grace, and steadfast love with faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord, until the day breaks and the shadows flee away.

As always, happy reading and Happy New Year!

–Nick Roark

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“It seems that Christians read and understand their Bibles less today” by Sinclair Ferguson

“There are so many Bible translations and editions. I personally use the English Standard Version of the Bible. I love it and I recommend it.

Over the years I have seem to amassed multiple copies: a Study Bible, a Large Print Bible, a Compact Bible, a Wide Margin Bible, A Reference Bible, a Pew Bible, and a Classic Thinline Bible, a Minister’s Bible, and yes, I also have a Red Letter Version (although I dislike the idea that Jesus’ words should somehow be distinguished in this way. Plus, publishers should know that red letters are more difficult to read as one’s eyesight gets poorer!).

And then I have other translations as well. The Geneva Bible (I am privileged to have been given a copy published in 1610!); The Authorised (King James) Version, The American Revised Version, The New American Standard Version, The New King James Version, J. N. Darbys Translation, Moffatt’s Translation, The New English Bible, The Amplified Bible, The Message, The Living Bible, The New Living Bible, and so on.

In addition, at one time I used to receive a Bible Catalogue every four months which offered for sale an even longer list of Bibles I don’t have. The Orthodox Study Bible, The Archaeology Study Bible, The Power of a Praying Woman Bible, The Rainbow Bible, Bibles for children, teens, girls, fellows, youth, sportsmen, soldiers, etc.

Yet, despite all these translations in all the variety of packaging in which they come, it seems that Christians read and understand their Bibles less today than their forefathers did.

Are you one of them?

In some countries the Bible is a banned book. Government agents hunt Bibles down and confiscate them.

Imagine for a moment that this happened to your favourite Bible—and in order to prosecute you your Bible was handed over to a CSI Unit (‘Crime Scene Investigation’)—the kind of law enforcement unit you have probably seen on TV–Would there be enough recent fingerprint and DNA evidence on your Bible to bring charges against you of being a Christian?

And would there be enough evidence of a transformed life to secure a conviction against you?

–Sinclair Ferguson, Devoted to God’s Church: Core Values for Christian Fellowship (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2020), 97-98.

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Filed under Banner of Truth, Bible, Books, Christian Theology, Jesus Christ, Preaching, Puritanical, Quotable Quotes, Reading, Sanctification, Sinclair Ferguson, The Church, The Gospel, Work