Skip to content

Best Reads of 2020

der bucherwurm-Carl_SpitzwegEach year I keep a list of the books I read all the way through, typically with brief notes, as a way of tracking my thoughts and a way to look back on each year and see some of what influenced me. So, in this post I have drawn from that list some of the best books I read this year with slightly edited versions of the notes I jotted down after reading them.

I selected a Top 10 from the books I read this year. These 10 aren’t listed in a particular order, and they made this list for various reasons ranging from sheer enjoyment to level of impact on me. Following the Top 10 are some more books I enjoyed reading this year (in no particular order) as well as some disappointing ones.

For whatever reason my history reading this year focused largely on WWII. I think that grew out of my fascination with Ben Macintyre’ books. Having started his Cold War books last year, I went on to listen to everything of his I could find (and enjoying them so much I found hard copies as well).

Top 10

  1. Greek New Testament- This was my Bible reading plan this year. It is sad that this is the first time I read this straight through, but it was wonderful. The UBS Readers GNT was very helpful. Extremely enlightening, seeing many texts afresh, noting differences among authors, etc. For devotional reading it was a challenge in portions that were difficult but very worthwhile
  2. Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers, Dane Ortlund- This was probably the best book, outside of Scripture,  I read this year. Excellent, very helpful, soul nourishing.
  3. Heaven Taken by Storm, Thomas Watson- Excellent! I read a portion each morning along with my bible reading and was profited greatly. Very good on exerting effort to fight sin and grow in holiness. The modern editing helped significantly.
  4. The God Who Acts in History: The Significance of Sinai,  Craig Bartholomew- very significant book on the philosophical underpinnings of modern biblical studies. Eye opening for me in various places, particularly the survey of philosophers and how their ideas have shaped biblical studies
  5. Not Forgotten: Inspiring Missionary Pioneers, David J Brady- great collection of powerful missionary stories. It is clear that the title represents the author’s goal, not the current situation. These missionaries are largely forgotten but he writes to change that, and we are indebted to him for it.
  6. Between the Swastika and the Sickle: The Life, Disappearance, and Execution of Ernst Lohmeyer,  James R. Edwards- Fascinating, challenging, convicting account of this German NT scholars life in opposition to the Nazis and then the Communists. Also fascinating is the story of how Edwards became interested in Lohmeyer’s hidden story and then worked to unearth it.
  7. Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory, Ben Macintyre- I thought this was the most engaging of Macintyre’s books I’ve read so far. This is the story of a wild plan that helped to deceive the Nazis’ about the location of the D-Day landings which saved untold numbers of lives and made the successful landing possible. Macintyre is a master of stories of intrigue and does a wonderful job here.
  8. The Duel: The Eighty-Day Struggle Between Churchill and Hitler, John Lukacs- I greatly enjoy history written by journalists as they tend to know how to tell the story well. But when I started this book, it was immediately apparent that I had entered another realm with a historian and master of the history of ideas, who could also tell the story well. The style and profundity of Lukacs was riveting in itself. Then there are so many lesson here for leadership and perseverance. We tend, today, to overlook how tenuous the situation was at the beginning of the 80 days discussed here.  I also read his Five Days in London: May 1940, which covers some similar ground but is very worthwhile on its own. These two books have sent me looking for other books by Lukacs.
  9. Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, Rod Dreher- Very well written. Reminds me of much of my early discipleship focused on the dangers of communism and stories of the suffering of believers under totalitarian regimes. It all seems even more relevant today. We need this call to rebuke our spiritual softness, immaturity, and self-centeredness.
  10. Witchwood, John Buchan- I didn’t realize I’d never read this one before. It isn’t the same kind of thriller as most of Buchan’s others. However, the main character is a pastor who in the end wishes he was the adventurer/soldier in Buchan’s other stories. That said, it is a thoughtful, significant critique of the church when it settles for outward conformity and is too connected to politics. Great analysis of the all too common problem of people happy to sit and listen to you preach and then carrying on with their wickedness covered over with church language. I read this for a class on pastoral ministry in novels that I taught over the summer in which I also had the opportunity to re-read these great books: Gilead: A Novel, Marilynne Robinson; Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton; The Year of the Warrior, Lars Walker.

 

Bible/Theology/Christian Living

  1. They Call Him Pastor: The Life and Ministry of R. Paul Caudill, Netta Sue Caudill McKnight- I received this book from a lady at church who had been pastored by Caudill. I knew about Caudill from second hand books I picked up in Memphis which showed me he had been pastor of FBC Memphis, and that he had combined serious attention to the text (Greek exegesis) with very effective preaching. This is not a critical bio but a work by his daughter which pulled together pieces of an autobiography he had worked on. Still it gives a glimpse into his life and ministry- encouraging and challenging for pastoral ministry today. He was serious about study, loved and wrote poetry, dedicated to visiting all his people, devoted to prison ministry, reaching the “least of these”, foreign missions.
  2. Made for the Journey: One Missionaries First Year in the Jungles of Ecuador, Elisabeth Elliot- I did not know of this book before. It previously went under the title, These Strange Ashes. It is a good, honest look at the challenges of life when God does not work as you expected as you seek to serve Him.
  3. The Art of Bible Translation, Robert Alter- While I differ with Alter in many areas, this is helpful look at the work of translating and a critique of many ideas common today
  4. Preaching the Word with John Chrysostom, Gerald Bray- accessible, brief intro to Chrysostom, particularly to his message.
  5. Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living, Cornelius Plantinga- A nice overview of the Christian worldview
  6. A Biblical Theology of Blamelessness: Paul’s Development of a Jewish Concept, Mark Baker- This is a currently unpublished dissertation which contributes nicely to the academic discussion. Baker critiques the New Perspective on Paul, following J. Barclay (The Gift), and helpfully discusses how works matter in the Christian life while not being salvific.

History

  1. Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit That Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War, Ben Macintyre- very engaging. I’ve enjoyed all of Macintyre’s books but this one did not have the slow parts that some of the others did. Very human- looking into what it was like for the men involved. Compelling stories of bravery, sacrifice, comradeship, yet does not glorify war. Rather it shows the deep scars it left on these heroes. Also humorous, great stories of various sorts. In ways it does a great job of showing the weirdness of war- joy, laughter, humor, friendship right up against slaughter, cruelty, suffering, inhumanity.

Reading about the N Africa campaign, I thought, “This sounds like the Rat Patrol series.”  Sure enough the concept of the show was based on the SAS, though beyond the concept the show did now worry about historical accuracy.

  1. Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal, Ben Macintyre- Classic Macintyre. This one follows a spy who seemed to go back and forth between allegiances.
  2. Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, Ben Macintyre- This one goes well with Operation Mincemeat as it tells the overall story of British spies who posed as Nazi spies helping to set up D-Day. Again it helps us to see how precarious the entire enterprise was. As one of the leaders of this effort said, “We were not very far from failure just before our period of greatest success.”
  3. Lucky 666: The Impossible Mission That Changed the War in the Pacific, Bob Drury & Tom Clavin- Drury and Clavin have also become favorites of mine (you’ll see another of their books below). This is a compelling story of friendship, bravery, and sacrifice.
  4. No Surrender: A Father, a Son, and an Extraordinary Act of Heroism That Continues to Live on Today, Christopher Edmonds & Douglas Century- This is fascinating story. I was set for it to be overdone or cheesy, but it is a powerful story well told. The father suffered much and acted heroically in WWII but never talked about it later. After the father’s death, the son pursued the bits and pieces he had of a story and pieced it together.
  5. Hal Moore on Leadership: Winning when Outgunned and Outmanned, Harold G. Moore & Maike Guardia – Engaging, but very repetitive. This may arise from it being an uncompleted work that another author took and completed. It states mostly basic ideas, which I think you’d see elsewhere. The primary interest is Moore himself and the connection of these ideas to him. I find the book beneficial, but if talking to others about it they would need to know the limitations.
  6. C. S. Lewis’ Letters to Children, ed. Lyle Dorsett & Marjorie Lamp Mead- very fun and enlightening. It is not always clear why these letters were chosen or edited the way they were, but it is fun to see how Lewis engaged the children who wrote him, deferential, open about his health and feelings, willing to give gentle criticism of their writing. It is also fun to see his explanations of things in Narnia and comments about his other books.
  7. Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Civil War, James M. McPherson- Good book by a leading Civil War expert. It can be viewed as a valuable study in leadership, as McPherson walks through the various events and their challenges.
  8. So Great a Cloud of Witnesses: Union University 1823-2000, James Alex Baggett- I had read portions of this before but finally rad it straight through. Many fascinating episodes in Union’s history.
  9. Rescue at Los Baños: The Most Daring Prison Camp Raid of World War II,  Bruce Henderson- Not as great as Drury and Clavin or Macintyre, but this was an interesting story from the Pacific theater of WWII.
  10. The Kirk in Scotland, John Buchan (with extra chapter by R D Kernohan)- very interesting to see Buchan’s take on the Church of Scotland. Fits what I’ve read from him elsewhere. He’s not for the technicalities of theological debate, which I get given some of what has gone on in Scotland. A lot of good here.
  11. Last Men Out: The True Story of America’s Heroic Final Hours in Vietnam, Bob Drury and Tom Clavin- I really like these two authors. They tell the story carefully but in an engaging way. The failure in procedure, policy and execution by US political leaders is clear, but this is a great story about the courage and perseverance of the Marines.

Culture/Politics

  1. The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties, Christopher Caldwell- Wow. Hard-hitting analysis that doesn’t spare any party or side. Argues that civil rights legislation no matter how well-intended subverted the written constitution with a new one that privileged certain groups over others. He traces the sense of entitlement taken up by different groups including eventually poor whites as this led to the rise of Trump.
  2. Fortitude: American Resilience in the Era of Outrage Dan Crenshaw- Excellent challenge to the outrage culture and victim mentality of today. I bought a copy for all my adult sons.
  3. All It Takes Is Guts: A Minority View, Walter E. Williams- I began listening to this book because I got it for free. I had no idea I’d finish this book shortly before the author died. A lot of wisdom here.
  4. Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator, Gary Noesner- I got this book because I enjoyed watching the Waco miniseries which was partially based on this book. There is a lot here that is applicable to leadership.
  5. Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It, Chris Voss and Tahl Raz- Some good insights but marred by coming across as arrogant. The voice of the one reading may have made this worse.
  6. That Hideous Strength: A Deeper Look at How the West Was Lost, Melvin Tinker- strong critique of cultural Marxism. Kind of sloppy in writing in places, but strong on key points. Similar in many respects to Dreher’s book (above) but more theological

Fiction

  1. I, James Blunt, H V Morton- fascinating. Written in 1942 to stir up Britain to resist Germany, commissioned by the Ministry of Information due to the concern that many would rather sue for peace than continue the war alone after French defeat. Describes what it would be like under German rule drawing on atrocities that had happened under Germans elsewhere. I expect it was very effective. George Orwell described it as “a good flesh creeper, founded on the justified assumption that the mass of the English people haven’t heard of fascism.” Very similar to later things I have read/seen like “Red Dawn”.
  2. The Order (Gabriel Allon Series), Daniel Silva- I tried a new author based on the recommendation of a friend. Though I’m typically skeptical of modern thrillers, Silva won me over. Very interesting and smart, good action and intrigue. Particularly fun because of its interest in Bible and biblical history, even though Silva accepts the more critical, disbelieving scholarship. Hard on Catholic church, deservedly often, but he prefers a move to liberation theology and “updating” away from tradition. Because I enjoyed this one, I also read House of Spies: A Novel (Gabriel Allon, Book 17). It was fun but not as good as the previous one. I think I will look for the books where he intertwines biblical history.
  3. Bulldog Drummond (The Bulldog Drummond Book 1) by McNeile, H. C.- Fun story, similar to Buchan’s Hannay stories, though not quite to that level. Like the Buchan’s Hannay series this begins post WWI. A fun romp, with a standard British take on the world from that time. Some are bothered by that, but it is a great view of the culture at the time. It was fun to see the terms of affection, the guy calling his girl- “Old thing,” or “little girl,” and the girl calling him “boy.” Striking that this book, like Buchan’s, foresees the rise of a demagogue post WWI to try to take over the world. Strong sentiment against communist uprising. Prodemocracy. I enjoyed this enough to go on to the second in the series, The Black Gang(Bulldog Drummond, Book 2). This one is even better than the first. Here you get to see the hero better. He is a masked hero in the night who acts the part of a well-to-do fop during the day, similar to Batman. The well to do adventurer though seems common to the genre. He plays dumb, but has a sharp mind (though not a genius like Batman). Zorro similarities as well. Also he has been trained in the past by an Asian master in hand to hand combat and this serves him well.
  4. The Rescue (Ryan Decker), The Raid (Ryan Decker Book 2),The Mountain (Ryan Decker Book 3), Steven Konkoly- Having read a couple of Konkoly books last year, I picked him back up and ended up reading 10 more this year. This series was the best of the ones I read this year. The hero here is a former CIA operative now working to rescue children caught in the slave trafficking. Good adventure with nobility and courage. Good story, some language but otherwise clean. Good banter between men.

Since I found myself in the midst of a pandemic, why not listen to some apocalyptic books about pandemics! Konkoly’s Zulu Virus Chronicles (HOT ZONE: A Post-Apocalyptic Conspiracy Thriller,

KILL BOX, andFIRE STORM ) and Alex Fletcher series (THE JAKARTA PANDEMIC: A Modern Pandemic Thriller, THE PERSEID COLLAPSE, EVENT HORIZON, and POINT OF CRISIS)  were entertaining though intense.

  1. The Resistance, Douglas Bond- A nice story about British pilots encountering the French resistance. Bond incorporates the C S Lewis radio broadcasts which is a neat and original idea. He seems to suggest the Lewis’s broadcasts contained code for the French Resistance to pick up.
  2. Sick Heart River, John Buchan- This was Buchan’s last novel, written after his move to Canada and published posthumously. His hero is facing death which is striking since it seems Buchan did not know at the time that he was actually facing death as well. This is a deeply spiritual book with the main character renouncing his almost deistic view of God and explicitly returning to a Christian understanding of God.
  3. The Richard Hannay series, John Buchan- I decided to re-read (listen this time) to the entire Hannay series (The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle, Mr. Standfast, The Three Hostages, The Courts of the Morning andThe Island of Sheep). The remain stimulating and entertaining. Some debate whether or not The Courts of the Morning should be included in the Hannay stories but of course it should. Sandy is the key character, but he really is in some of the other stories. Hannay only provides the introduction, but it is part of the same universe and introduces Sandy’s marriage and the woman he marries. This is then picked up in the next Hannay story, The Island of Sheep.
  4. The Thirty-One Kings: A Richard Hannay Thriller (Richard Hannay Returns), Robert J Harris- It was fun to discover that someone had taken up the Hannay narrative bringing it into WWII. Harris does a decent job, knows Buchan’s material and is respectful of the source material (although killing off Sandy was a bold move, perhaps an overreach). It’s not Buchan though. It reads like an imitator, so a fan like me notices the nods to the past and appreciates the love of the material but it is a lesser product.
  5. The First Fowler: A Green Ember Story, S. D. Smith- We have loved the Green Ember stories, but this one is not as compelling as the others. Since we are fans, it was worthwhile but a bit of a letdown. It would be good if he provided an overview of the story so you can remember where this other pieces fit and perhaps an annotated list of characters

Disappointments

  1. The Quiet American, Graeme Greene- What a lousy excuse for a novel. The main character, who is the narrator, is a despicable person for whom I had no empathy. I get his antipathy to Pyle, but neither character gained any traction with me. Why would someone want to read about someone moping through life, whimpering, whining and complaining? In the end his critique of American intrigue in Viet Nam lands, but that could have been said in a paragraph, and the storyline does not add punch to the bare statement.
  2. The Third Man, Graham Greene- I tried again, because people tell me Greene is good, but this one was another disappointment. Decent story but I just don’t see it as great writing. It’s just fair, nothing particularly great. I see it is a critique of post-war Vienna, corruption as we tried to win the peace, American naiveté, etc. Fine. But as a story it’s not all that.
  3. Jesus: A Biography from a Believer, Paul Johnson- Catholic, conservative, so Bible is reliable but so are all the Catholic traditions. And those traditions are assumed. Less than careful in deductions. Very negative toward Judaism. Jesus comes to move things away from Judaism and more towards the rationality of the Greeks, thus Paul continues this trend and Thomas Aquinas’s work is a crowning achievement in this realm. Yikes.
  4. Notes from Underground, Roger Scruton- I really appreciate Scruton, but in the end, I did not think this book was very good. Plot seemed to jump at the end in a way that I think was supposed to make sense but did not at all to me. Quite often I was not sure I was following the point or was making the deductions I was supposed to. Perhaps that is due to my dullness rather than opaqueness of the writing.

“Read, Pray, Sing” in Latest Issue of Midwestern Journal of Theology

mwjt
My essay “Read, Pray, Sing: The Psalms as an Entryway to the Scriptures” has just been published in the latest issue of the Midwestern Journal of Theology. This is a print version of a lecture I have given at a conference at Union University and at a conference at Oklahoma Baptist University.

I am grateful for the opportunity to share this more broadly that our churches (Baptists in particular but other evangelicals as well) should change our practice in a specific way. Or, more precisely, I am arguing that we should regain a practice that was part of our tradition at one point but has been lost along the way.

I am arguing two basic points. First, the Psalms are intended to serve as a summary of the whole Bible, specifically a summary that is to be prayed and sung. The Psalms are a tutor for us that will teach us to read the Bible well, and by singing and praying them we are enabled to internalize the Scripture more effectively.

Second, the Scriptures by command and example call us not only to read the Psalms but also to sing and pray them. In Baptist circles, if people have heard of Psalm singing, they regard it as a preference of some people. But the Scriptures command us to sing Psalms (Col 3:16; Eph 5:19) and the Scriptures are filled with examples of people praying them.

I also draw on historical examples to show that these ideas have been common in the history of the church.

Giving the alarming rate of biblical illiteracy in the church and our general weakness in prayer, can we afford to neglect this divinely ordained resource? I would love to stir up discussion among church leaders on this topic.

Good Timber

My oldest son, Nathan, recently brought my attention to this powerful poem. Nathan has an interest in poems about nature, adventure, and perseverance- and that pleases me!

I am quite taken with this poem, so I looked into the author, Douglas Malloch (May 5, 1877 – July 2, 1938). He was a poet and author of short stories. As Associate Editor of American Lumberman, a trade paper in Chicago, he became known as “the Lumberman’s Poet.” 

In an age that increasingly treats hardship as unexpected and unjust, we need this does of realism and truth to become hardy individuals ready to serve the Lord.

Good Timber

The tree that never had to fight
For sun and sky and air and light,
But stood out in the open plain
And always got its share of rain,
Never became a forest king
But lived and died a scrubby thing.

The man who never had to toil
To gain and farm his patch of soil,
Who never had to win his share
Of sun and sky and light and air,
Never became a manly man
But lived and died as he began.

Good timber does not grow with ease:
The stronger wind, the stronger trees;
The further sky, the greater length;
The more the storm, the more the strength.
By sun and cold, by rain and snow,
In trees and men good timbers grow.

Where thickest lies the forest growth,
We find the patriarchs of both.
And they hold counsel with the stars
Whose broken branches show the scars
Of many winds and much of strife.
This is the common law of life.

-          Douglas Malloch, (1877-1938)

 

The Cowboy & The Shepherd

A friend sent me this video yesterday. It is an excellent, brief discussion of pastoral ministry, hitting many of the key points I try to speak to at this site. I recommend this video for any pastors, and especially for guys just starting out as pastor John Powell talks about some of his struggles in his first two years, struggles which are common to most of us.

Sadly, John died this weekend after being struck by a car as he had stopped to help someone. I never knew John, but I appreciate deeply what he shares here and I have joined others in praying for his  family. I hope you will benefit from this video and then pray for his family a well.

What’s a Pastor for?

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of preaching at my home church, FBC Jackson, TN, as we celebrated Justin Wainscott’s 10th anniversary as pastor at FBC. I thought it was a good opportunity to revisit what the New Testament says about the task of pastors, so that we might be reminded what it is God has called pastors to do.

I am convinced many churches are not clear on what the Bible says pastors are to do, with the result that some pastors are praised for the wrong reasons and some are criticized for the wrong reasons. Here is my attempt to speak to this issue and to encourage my brother in his faithful pursuit of God’s calling as a pastor.

Luther on Pastoral Duty during a Plague

At the London Review of Books blog, historian Lyndal Roper has a helpful, brief piece on Luther’s response to the plague that came to Wittenberg. Roper is Regius Chair of History at the University of Oxford and has written a biography of Luther.

Her column is largely a summary and interaction with Luther’s pamphlet, Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague. As we deal with a pandemic it is helpful to hear Luther’s thoughts as he faced more death and devastation. He was clear on the duty of pastors to stay and to minister to the sick and dying. Roper gives some moving examples. It is well worth reading.

The Psalms: The Paradise of Devotion

spurgeon_charlesI am editing for publication a brief piece on the Psalms and came back across this beautiful quote from Spurgeon on the Psalms:

“Above all, I trust that the Holy Spirit. has been with me in writing and compiling these volumes, and therefore I expect that he will bless them both to the conversion of the unrenewed and to the edification of believers. The writing of this book has been a means of grace to my own heart; I have enjoyed for myself what I have prepared for my readers. The Book of Psalms has been a royal banquet to me, and in feasting upon its contents I have seemed to eat angels’ food. It is no wonder that old writers should call it,—the school of patience, the soul’s soliloquies, the little Bible, the anatomy of conscience, the rose garden, the pearl island, and the like. It is the Paradise of devotion, the Holy Land of poesy, the heart of Scripture, the map of experience, and the tongue of saints. It is the spokesman of feelings which else had found no utterance. Does it not say just what we wished to say? Are not its prayers and praises exactly such as our hearts delight in? No man needs better company than the Psalms; therein he may read and commune with friends human and divine; friends who know the heart of man towards God, and the heart of God towards man ; friends who perfectly sympathize with us and our sorrows, friends who never betray or forsake. Oh, to be shut up in a cave with David, with no other occupation but to hear him sing, and to sing with him! Well might a Christian monarch lay aside his crown for such enjoyment, and a believing pauper find a crown in such felicity.” (from the preface to volume 6, The Treasury of David, London” Passamore & Alabaster, 1882, vii)

Summer Class- Pastoral Ministry in Novels

This summer (June-July) I will get to teach a class I’ve been dreaming of for years- Portraits of Pastoral Ministry in Modern Novels.

I already teach our regular Pastoral Ministry class where we walk through key biblical texts while reading seminal texts on pastoral ministry from the 6th century to today. We seek to understand what pastoral ministry is by studying the Scriptures along with the church through the ages.

This new class is a follow up on my standard class. Having examined the biblical teaching, how might well-written novels help us better envision what this biblical model looks like in practice? Good literature has a way of helping us flesh out ideas, to see what ti looks like to put something into practice. One of the reasons God has given us literature, I believe, is to help stir our souls to love more deeply the truth and to move us with disgust at its perversion. This is what we will seek in this class.

As is typical for me, I have more books I’d like to include in this class than we have time for :). So, to keep it manageable, I have settled on these four books (you can see the full syllabus here):

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
Alan Paton, Cry the Beloved Country
Lars Walker, Year of the Warrior
John Buchan, Witch Wood

I’ll mention at the end other books I had in mind. Gilead is a portrait of a faithful pastor in a small town in Iowa that no one would have heard about our much cared about. It is a beautifully written portrayal of ministry, wrestling with guilt, loss, forgiveness and care for souls without concern for the recognition of the world.

In Cry the Beloved Country, a Zulu pastor who must deal with a prodigal son in the midst of the racial tensions of South Africa in the mid-20th century. It is a moving story of love, loss and the challenge of faith with powerful pictures of ministry.

Probably the surprise book in the list is The Year of the Warrior, a work which combines historical fiction with fantasy. The story follows a portion of the career of the historical figure Erling Skjalgsson (975-1028), a viking leader who brought Christianity to his people. The main character is a captured Irishman who is required to become Erling’s priest- even though he is not a believer! The fantasy portion comes in as this priest encounters the spirits and old gods who are now being run out by this new “crucified God.” This story raises questions of faith and doubt, the power of the gospel, and the clash with principalities and powers.

Lastly, Witch Wood was a well-known book in days past but probably unknown to most of my readers today. Buchan was a prolific author and Scottish statesman who ended up as Governor General of Canada (1935-1940). Witch Wood is a story of pastoral ministry during the days of the Scottish Covenanters. The main character takes a pastorate in a sleepy little village where all seems well. However, while the people are faithful to the services of the church they are even more deeply embedded in dark practices and trouble begins when the pastor challenges this. This is more directly relevant to pastoral ministry today than we often want to admit.

This is already longer than I planned, so I will conclude by saying we’ll read these novels, have four Zoom meetings to discuss them and in between have mini-lectures on video that introduce the books further and layout biblical and theological framework of the vision of pastoral ministry we are discussing. I’d love to have you join us, and we have a special deal for those who’d like to audit the class. Write me for more details (rvanneste at uu dot edu).

[I had various other books in mind, but the other 2 that almost made the list were Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry and The Inside of the Cup by Winston Churchill, the American one not the British one. Jayber Crow is great but speaks more about the church, the community, than pastoral ministry. Churchill’s book is a powerful story about the allure of watering down the gospel, which the author sees as a good thing, but it is long and I wondered if students would appreciate the style as much as I did.]

“Behold the Throne of Grace”

At church this evening we sang a John Newton hymn, which I don’t remember ever singing before- “Behold the Throne of Grace”.

I enjoyed it immensely so I looked it up once I got home, and have pasted the full poem in below. This is great example of a poetic exposition of scripture with pastoral application. It is worth meditating on as a wonderful exhortation to prayer.

Behold the throne of grace,
The promise calls us near,
There Jesus shows a smiling face
And waits to answer prayer.

That rich atoning blood,
Which sprinkled round we see,
Provides for those who come to God
An all prevailing plea.

My soul, ask what thou wilt,
Thou canst not be too bold;
Since His own blood for thee He spilt,
What else can He withhold?

Beyond thy utmost wants
His love and pow’r can bless;
To praying souls He always grants,
More than they can express.

Since ’tis the Lord’s command,
My mouth I open wide;
Lord open Thou Thy bounteous hand,
That I may be supplied.

Thine image, Lord, bestow,
Thy presence and Thy love;
I ask to serve Thee here below,
And reign with Thee above.

Teach me to live by faith,
Conform my will to Thine;
Let me victorious be in death,
And then in glory shine.

If Thou these blessings give,
And wilt my portion be;
Cheerful the world’s poor toys I leave,
To them who know not Thee.

Best Reads of 2019

imageEach year I keep a list of the books I read all the way through, typically with brief notes, as a way of tracking my thoughts and a way to look back on each year and see some of what influenced me. So, in this post I have drawn from that list some of the best books I read this year with slightly edited versions of the notes I jotted down after reading them.

I selected a Top 10 from the books I read this year. These 10 aren’t listed in a particular order, and they made this list for various reasons ranging from sheer enjoyment to level of impact on me. Following the Top 10 are some more books I enjoyed reading this year (in no particular order) as well as some disappointing ones.

Top 10:

  1. Becoming C. S. Lewis (1898-1918): A Biography of Young Jack Lewis, Harry Lee Poe- This is a fascinating account of the early years of C S Lewis pointing out how the key themes of his thought are rooted in his early experiences.I look forward to the follow up volume in 2020 and the final volume of this biography in 2021
  2. Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, Tom Schreiner- This new edition is due out next month, but I had the opportunity to read it early in order to write a blurb for it. I loved it! It is a faithful exposition in a conversational tone, not bogged down in what could have been an avalanche of footnotes, though he does point to key works. This is a go to resource for anyone reading Paul- students, pastors, professors.
  3. Clash of Visions: Populism and Elitism in New Testament Theology, Robert W. Yarbrough- A superb treatment of a crucial topic- the divide between biblical scholarship which is rooted in Christian faith and that which instead begins with and prioritizes human wisdom. A must read for anyone involved in academic study of the Bible.
  4. A Little Book for New Historians, Robert Tracy McKenzie- A wonderful treatment of the importance of historical thinking and a primer on how to develop such thinking. Aimed at students, this is a valuable resource for anyone in biblical studies as well (really any discipline). It is well written and engaging.
  5. The Wingfeather Saga, Andrew Peterson- I know I am late to this party, but I listened to this series this year and loved them! They are fun, rich, deep, powerful and profound. So many beautiful portraits, wonderful wordings, and strong concepts. In his make believe world, Peterson helps us face the reality of pain along with the importance of hope.

Here are the books in the series in order:

 On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness

North! Or Be Eaten

The Monster in the Hollows

The Warden and the Wolf King

  1. The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, Jean Twenge & Keith Campbell- This is an important book especially for parents and educators. Not written from an explicitly Christian worldview, these authors point out so many practices that have seeped into typical everyday life that encourage self-absorption. The scary thing is that this book is already 10 years old and these patterns have only increased. Reading this book prompted me to follow up by reading Christopher Lasch’s classic, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, which is full of keen observations.
  2. Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life…And Maybe the World, William H. McRaven- This is a powerful, little motivational book strong on perseverance. Well-written, punchy and engaging. When I saw Admiral McRaven had a second book, Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations, I had to read it as well, and it I enjoyed it as well.
  3. A Students Guide To Core Curriculum, Mark C. Henrie- The core curriculum at colleges is often overlooked or looked down upon, but Henrie does an excellent job demonstrating the wisdom of a carefully constructed core curriculum. He writes to help students pick classes for a solid core even if their college doesn’t prescribe one. The book is also useful to faculty considering the core at their colleges.
  4. Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead, Jim Mattis and Bing West- Part memoir, part leadership book, I found this fascinating. Mattis is well read, serious about education, a believer in empowering the people he leads and a hardnosed realist.
  5. The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems, Leland Ryken – I greatly enjoyed reading one of these poems each morning along with my other devotional reading.

Biblical Studies/Theology:

  1. Pauline Language and the Pastoral Epistles: A Study of Linguistic Variation in the Corpus Paulinum, Jermo van Nes- This is a very technical book which breaks new ground in the debate on Pauline authorship of 1-2 Timothy and Titus. My full review can be accessed here.
  2. The Book of Revelation; A Biography, Timothy Beal- I like the approach of this series. Beal is completely skeptical about the veracity of Scripture but provides many interesting insights.
  3. Paul: An Apostle’s Journey, Douglas Campbell- started off more conservative than I expected. Well written so that is reads smoothly. It is warm and engaging. Campbell clearly wants not simply to produce a textbook of facts, but aims to nurture and to shape his readers. However, in the end he totally jumps track. After arguing that careful research requires close attention to the text of the letters (before considering Acts for example), he leaves the text behind to argue philosophically why universalism must be the way. He even acknowledges that Paul doesn’t go here but the overarching philosophy requires it, and it is the proper outworking of Paul’s thought even if Paul could not see it.
  4. Paul in Fresh Perspective, N. T. Wright- He writes so well! Provocative and helpful. Obvious places where I disagree, but I like much as well, especially when he is pointing out the assumptions of higher critical scholarship which has just been taken as a given. He does this suggesting we reconsider and take seriously Pauline authorship of Eph and Col. I take that and say, “The PE, too.”
  5. The Lost Letters of Pergamum: A Story from the New Testament World, Bruce Longenecker- Although it starts a bit flat, it grows as it goes and in the end I thought it was a good story while it teaches a lot about NT background.
  6. Honest Evangelism: How to Talk About Jesus Even When It Is Tough, Tico Rice with Carl Laferton- good, very helpful at key points on just doing evangelism. Not triumphalistic as so many books are, honest about the struggles, good about urging you to simply trust in God and do it
  7. Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation, Josef Pieper- Very good! Striking and profound.

History

  1. Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West, Tom Clavin- This was a fun book. I started slow, but in the end was fascinating. I didn’t realize Earp and Masterson were such good friends and were connected so much. I didn’t realize their brothers were lawmen, and one of the Earps served as a lawman longer than Wyatt or Bat. They were also friends with Buffalo Bill Cody and Teddy Roosevelt. They interacted socially with Frank & Jesse James. I’ve begun keeping an eye out for other books by Clavin.
  2. The Battle for Leyte Gulf: The Incredible Story of World War II’s Largest Naval Battle, C Vann Woodward- A very interesting analysis of this important battle.
  3. The Escape Artists: A Band of Daredevil Pilots and the Greatest Prison Break of the Great War, Neal Bascomb- interesting, though it was slow moving back and forth to the stories of the different people. The latter part about the actual escape was more riveting. Many interesting points though. I was especially struck again by the total agreement among European countries of the strict distinction between officers and men and the “right” of officers to have servants (“orderlies”) even in prison camp
  4. Seal Target Geronimo: The Inside Story of the Mission to Kill Osama Bin Laden, Chuck Pfarrer- An account of this mission by one man who was involved. It differs from the official account.
  5. The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, Ben Macintyre- Started slow, but then picked up and was great. Had me on the edge of my seat. Also filled a gap of history- in my own lifetime- that I did not know. Fascinating
  6. A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, Ben Macintyre- The previous book led me to look for other books by Macintyre. This one was fascinating as well, detailing the biggest scandal in British spy craft, with one of their leading spies being a Soviet double-agent from the beginning. Much here about human nature as well. The author interacts significantly with C. S. Lewis’s essay, “The Inner Ring,” to describe British culture.
  7. The Men of the Revolution, Edwin S. Grosvenor, ed.- A nice collection of essays on key men of this era. Good overviews and reminders. The essay on the governor of Spanish Louisiana and his role in fighting for the patriot cause was all brand new to me.

Fiction

  1. Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck- A good story, sad, even discouraging, but I think that’s what he was aiming for- forcing people to consider the plight of people in difficult circumstances, the oppressed and limited. It is effective to that end. Did the trope of the small smart guy and the big strong dumb guy come from this book or inform it?
  2. Darknet, Matthew Mather- very entertaining. A cyber espionage, conspiracy tale. Really drew me in.
  3. The Wreck and Rise of Whitson Mariner (Tales of Old Natalia Book 2), S. D. Smith – Fun, not quite as compelling as some of the other ones in this series
  4. Surfeit of Suspects, George Bellairs- I picked up a copy in the British National Library. They had a whole section of British Library Crime Classics. It was fun, though not great.
  5. No Traveller Returns, Louis L’Amour & Beau L’Amour- I haven’t always liked what Beau has done with his father’s stories, but this one is quite good. This is a previously unpublished novel that had been sitting in a file. Louis wrote in from 1938-1942 with the outbreak of WWII causing him to put it aside. You can see many of the common ideas of L’Amour here, especially if you’ve read his memoir. As usual I listened to several of Louis L’Amour’s books over the year. His moral code and concern for historical accuracy keep drawing me in.

The Turkey Feather Riders

Where the Long Grass Blows

Showdown at Yellow Butte

Reilly’s Luck, – I particularly liked this one

Man Riding West

The Key-Lock Man

The Californios

Trouble Shooter (A Hopalong Cassidy novel),- from what I had read about L’Amour distancing himself from his Cassidy novels I didn’t expect much from this, but I enjoyed it. It was quite similar to his other books.

  1. Silence, Shusako Endo- I still have not watched the movie, but wanted to engage the book.  It is an important discussion of missions and the problem of persecution. I did not find it as challenging as others have suggested, though. The questions raised have been addressed along the way in the history fo the church.
  2. The Illustrated Man, Ray Bradbury- very good, essentially a collection of short stories, many very insightful. He foresaw much. His story about a racial harmony is powerful, especially coming from 1951. His story about men in space encountering a society where Jesus had just visited is a strong expose of presuppositionally critical approaches. The entire book is available online here: https://csuclc.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/illustrated-man-by-ray-bradbury.pdf
  3. Fractured State: A Post-Apocalyptic Thriller, Steven Konkoly- fun, engaging story set in California in the near future where poor decisions have led to a water shortage which has then led to a drastic increase of government control of everyday life in California and thus a desire among some to secede from the Union.  I enjoyed it so much that I immediately moved on to the sequel: Rogue State: A Post-Apocalyptic Thriller .Too much profanity, but other than that a captivating story.
  4. Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War by P. W. Singer & August Cole- an entertaining story, intriguing in what it imagines for the near future

 Bios/Nonfiction

  1. Marine! The Life of Chesty Puller, Burke Davis- Burke Davis is one of my favorite historical writers, and Chesty Puller’s is a fascinating life.
  2. Just Show Up: And Other Enduring Values from Baseball’s Iron Man, Cal Ripken, Jr.- Very good- a great title for Ripken and a great piece of advice. Not as well written as Mattis, but solid advice
  3. The World as I See It, Albert Einstein- interesting. Some places to agree some to disagree. Interesting to see him so strenuously arguing for complete disarmament of every nation and then for each nation to give up some of its national sovereignty to a world court for arbitrations. Also striking to see his argument for an atheistic Judaism, that Judaism has great insights for the world and that the idea of God was only aa crutch which can now be discarded as insignificant to the whole. Sounds a bit like what some German liberal “Christians” about that time were arguing.
  4. Folsom Untold: The Strange True Story of Johnny Cash’s Greatest Album, Danny Robbins- I really enjoyed the first half with the story about how Cash ended up doing a concert at Folsom and his reaching out to the songwriter in jail there. The author/narrator is overly dramatic, but I enjoyed it. It went on to too much of a debunking tenor after that
  5. Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Charities, and Churches, Peter Greer and Christ Horst, with Anna Haggard- Excellent! This was required reading but I really enjoyed it. Well written and many great points
  6. Mapping Your Academic Career: Charting the Course of a Professor’s Life, Gary M. Burge- Insightful. I think in a few places he sees only one way a prof’s career might develop when I think there are several, but still this is immensely helpful for people just beginning this career, in mid-career, or at the close of their career.
  7. Brett Favre: America’s Quarterback, Chuck Carlson- fun, easy read
  8. Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction, Stephen Eric Bronner- A dull read, but important as this is a key text on this topic by a leading proponent. The history of this idea/movement reads like a ship without a rudder. Having rejected God they flail about looking for some basis for authority and meaning. They talk about the need for the transcendence but reject religion.
  9. The Red Bandanna: A Life. A Choice. A Legacy, Tom Rinaldi- A compelling account of a young man who died in World Trade Center on September 11. He worked there but was preparing to leave his lucrative job to be a fireman. He had been a volunteer fireman for years. In the midst of the tragedy he helped people escape and went back to help more.

Disappointments

  1. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John LeCarré- not very good at all. I didn’t care for the first Smiley novel I read (last year), but this one is on lists of great novels so I tried again. But disappointed. The moral ambivalence doesn’t’ engage me, and the way he writes makes it hard to follow the jumps and understand what’s going on. No need to bother with any more of his books
  2. Preacher’s Justice, William Johnstone- fair, action-packed story, but lacked the moral compass of L’Amour and the attention to historical accuracy. This made me appreciate Louis L’Amour all the more.
  3. Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World, Thomas Cahill- Cahill is a compelling writer but not much of a historian. He has his own point to make and will fit everything into that. Worth reading, but it started so well that I had high hopes.