The best books I read in 2021

I love to read, but I have a rather eclectic taste in books. Hopefully you can decide based on my brief description of each book whether or not you’d find it interesting. Please leave your comments/questions/alternate recommendations below. Happy reading in the New Year!

What if Jesus Was Serious? Skye Jethani

Even before I became a pastor, I was bothered by how Christians seemed to dismiss the Sermon on the Mount (Jesus’ longest continuous message, found in Matthew 5-7). The attitude about such radical teachings as “love your enemies”, “turn the other cheek” and “do not look at a woman with lust in your heart” seemed to be, “That’s too high a standard for ordinary people to meet.” Some even openly declared that Jesus was intentionally setting us up to fail so that we would know we needed grace. To me, that didn’t seem like Jesus at all. Skye Jethani obviously agrees. As his title indicates, it’s about what it would like to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously. This is a great book for all ages of Christians, including people who aren’t big readers. It’s short, broken up into two-three page readings. Jethani includes humorous “doodles” that make the teachings more memorable. But it’s also extremely challenging. Jesus WAS serious, and if we begin to take His words more seriously, we’ll become the kinds of people who draw others to Him.

Broken Signposts, NT Wright.

Wright is one of my favorite Christian writers and an excellent Bible scholar. This is his study of the Gospel of John. Instead of a straightforward, verse-by-verse Bible study, Wright structures the book around seven “signposts” that he says humanity has been struggling to find since history began: Justice, love, spirituality, beauty, freedom, truth and power. The Gospel of John, Wright says, shows us the only way to truly find these signposts and experience life as it was meant to be lived.

The Wisdom Pyramid: Feeding Your Soul in a Post-Truth World, by Brett McCracken

Are our smart phones killing us? Maybe not, but they seem to be driving us insane. Multiple studies have shown that levels of depression, anxiety and rage began to spike when these devices became widespread. But it’s now nearly impossible to function without them. So what should we do? McCracken offers a good answer: Instead of unplugging completely, we treat the internet and smartphones the way dieticians want us to treat foods that are high in sugar and fat: We consume them sparingly, strategically. Using the metaphor of the old food pyramid we learned as kids, McCracken suggests changing the media we consume: Scripture, our local church, good books, nature and enriching entertainments should (in descending order) fill our minds more so than social media and the 24-hour news cycle. This is a very practical, challenging book that I recommend to everyone.

Dominion, Tom Holland

If you love history, you should read this one. It’s long, but Holland is a skilled, entertaining writer. What he has done here is remarkable: He’s written a history of Christianity that shows how the values that we treasure in Western culture–human rights, the inherent dignity and worth of all people, etc–come from the Gospel. What makes this even more remarkable is that Holland, although raised in the Church of England, is not a believer. Yet he offers us a powerful reminder of the unstoppable, advancing Kingdom of God, and how those who trust in Christ are the light of the world.

So Brave, Young and Handsome, Leif Enger

Enger’s “Peace Like a River” is one of my favorite books of all time, so this one had a lot to live up to in my eyes. It’s narrated by an author who had one successful novel, long ago, and has struggled to finish another book since. He lives in Minnesota with his wife and young son (Enger does a great job of making the family environment vivid and compelling) in the mid-twentieth century. Then he meets an older man who is a fugitive from the law. The outlaw and the author become friends, and together begin a cross-country journey to find the woman the older man left when he fled from justice all those years ago. Along the way, they are pursued by a relentless lawman who reminded me of Les Miserables’ Javert. This is a story of adventure and hard-won redemption. I enjoyed it tremendously.

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey Into Christian Faith, Rosaria Champagne Butterfield

I love reading stories of how people came to faith, and this one is particularly relevant in our highly divisive times. Rosaria Champagne was, by her own description, a lesbian radical feminist college professor who often wrote editorials in the local paper about the damage caused by Christianity. This led to receiving stacks of hate mail. But then she got a different sort of letter, from a local pastor and his wife. That led to a friendship that ultimately led Rosaria to Christ. Not only is this book very well-written, it’s honest. Things in her life didn’t immediately get better, and in fact, were in many ways more complicated after she was saved. Christians in her story haven’t all behaved well. But it’s a story that will inspire us to invest in our neighbors–including the ones we assume have no interest in friendship with us.

Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church, and What the Bible Has to Say, by Preston Sprinkle.

The messages from our popular culture about gender have changed so rapidly over the past ten years, it’s hard to know how Christians should respond when their neighbors, co-workers, and family members suddenly announce they are gender-fluid or trans. Sprinkle writes as a Christian academic who has many friends who are at various points on the gender spectrum. He helps us understand how to communicate in a loving, respectful way without compromising biblical truth.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt

Don’t let the title fool you. This is not a Christian book. Haidt is a well known social psychologist who is very good at communicating with ordinary non-psychologists like us. The main takeaway from this book is Haidt’s image of the Elephant and the Rider. Here’s my short version: When we’re talking to someone (in person or online) about politics or religion, we make what we think are fool-proof arguments, and cannot understand why they stubbornly hold onto their beliefs. Haidt’s theory is that the rational part of our brain (the part that carefully weighs arguments according to the evidence) is like a man riding an elephant. He has some influence over the direction he travels, but in the end, that elephant is going to go where he wants. So what is the elephant? Our intuition–the stuff inside us we don’t ever think about, and may not even be aware of–like our hidden prejudices and presuppositions, our loyalties to the groups we belong to, experiences we’ve had (“The Christians at my high school were judgmental jerks, therefore Christianity is a lie”). There’s a lot more in the book (and I certainly don’t agree with Haidt’s theory of how religion began). But Haidt helped me see that changing someone’s mind is more about building a relationship with them than it is about arguing, debating, and sending them internet memes.

The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill (podcast), Mike Cosper

Yes, this is a podcast, not a book, but I wanted to recommend it here anyway. Mars Hill was a church planted in Seattle in the late 90s, which quickly became a megachurch and made its teaching pastor, Mark Driscoll, an evangelical superstar. Then, it all collapsed seemingly overnight. Driscoll could be crude at times (I first heard about him as “the preacher who cusses sometimes”–how I wish that was his biggest flaw), but evangelicals celebrated him, buying his books, downloading his sermons, inviting him to countless conferences, because of his meteoric success. He was a mesmerizing, entertaining speaker who preached solidly biblical messages. And his church was reaching young people by the thousands in one of the least-churched cities in America. We were willing to ignore Driscoll’s flaws because the results seemed so “anointed” by God. The podcast is excellent first because it pulls back the curtain on the toxic things that were really happening at Mars Hill (including interviews with many former staff and church members), but also doesn’t overlook the genuine good that happened there. It’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of assuming that someone who is gifted and dynamic should be given leadership responsibilities, even if he/she hasn’t shown the character necessary to lead. Along the way, it helps us understand where the “Christian celebrity culture” came from, and why we need to wean ourselves from it.

A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture that Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing, by Scot McKnight and Laura Berringer

This book is timely, considering the phenomenon that was The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill (see above). However, McKnight and Berringer (McKnight’s daughter), were inspired to write this book not by that church’s collapse, but by the disgraceful end of Bill Hybels’ ministry at Willow Creek Church in Chicago, where the authors are members. If you’ve ever been puzzled by why pastors so often stumble, and churches so often split (or drive away once-faithful members who swear “I’m never going back to a church again”), and what can be done to stop it all, McKnight and Berringer have some interesting ideas. I certainly didn’t agree with all of them, but this book reminded me that a church should be about producing truly good people, not just growing larger.

The Hope and The Glory, Herman Wouk

I became a little obsessed with the history and culture of Israel this year. I even got addicted to an odd little show on Netflix–Shtisel, shot in Hebrew, about a family of ultra-orthodox Jews in Jerusalem (which I recommend). I also watched CNN’s series on the history of Jerusalem (which was not great). These two books, by the author better known for The Caine Mutiny, The Winds of War, and War and Remembrance, take us through the history of modern-day Israel, starting with the nation’s founding in 1948. It centers on three extended families that helped defend the territory granted to Israel by the UN against the Arabs who were incensed at losing land on which they had lived for generations. The books then move forward through various crises to come, like the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War, and the hunting of the Munich terrorists. The battle scenes are exciting, but Wouk even manages to make the political details (like conversations between a main Israeli character and various CIA and military contacts in the US) interesting. Along the way, there are plenty of cameos from famous historical figures. These characters seem very real, and I found myself very invested in them. But the book also was a great reminder of what an unlikely miracle the modern-day state of Israel is.

The Source, James Michener

To continue my obsession with Israel, I found this book, written in the sixties, about the entire Israel story, from pre-historic times, through the biblical era, to modern day. Michener’s format here is like the one he used in Texas (the only other book of his I’ve read): Use a modern-day story as a framing device to walk through the history of a region. In this case, the modern-day story is about three archaeologists (an American, an Israeli, and an Arab) who are working on a dig in Israel. With every artifact they find, the story switches to the past, and shows us what was happening in that town in that era. Like with Texas, I thought the modern-day portion was much less interesting than the stories in the past. On the good side, it helps frame the arguments about the Holy Land in a way I found enlightening and relevant, even though it was written fifty years ago. But the stories of Israel’s past are fascinating. Michener has an economical way of writing, which enables him to bring hundreds of characters and dozens of eras to vivid life in a very short span of writing. Don’t get me wrong…this book is really, really long. But it’s extremely interesting, and I learned a great deal about Israeli history.

A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving

This is another book I’ve been meaning to read for years, ever since it was on some Christian writer’s list of “Great non-Christian novels with Christian themes.” I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I know it’s not going to appeal to everyone. The narrator grows up in a New England town, raised by his aristocratic grandmother after his beautiful mother is killed by a foul ball at a little league game. That ill-fated ball was hit by Owen Meany, a dwarf with a genius intellect and some strong theological beliefs, who is the narrator’s best friend. From that point forward, Owen believes he is chosen by God to do some BIG thing. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that Owen is right, but how his destiny ultimately gets fulfilled is something I certainly didn’t see coming. This is definitely NOT a Christian novel. But the narrator starts the story by telling us, “Owen Meany is the reason I am a Christian today,” and by the end of the book, I believed him. PS: I listened to the audio book, and the reader did an excellent job of capturing Owen’s unique voice, which added to my enjoyment of the story.

Where the Light Fell, Philip Yancey

I saved my absolute favorite for last. That seems odd to say, since this is such a disturbing book at times. Yancey is my favorite writer; Books like The Jesus I Never Knew, What’s So Amazing About Grace, Soul Survivor and many others have challenged and inspired me for the past twenty years. In this, the memoir of his childhood and family, we see why he is so determined to ask uncomfortable questions of Christians like me. Yancey grew up in a devout Southern Baptist home, raised by a single mother after his father (who planned to be a missionary to Africa) died of polio. Yancey’s mom promised the Lord her two boys would take their father’s place on the mission field, and her determination to fulfill that promise eventually drove both sons away from faith. Philip ultimately found his way back to Jesus, but his conversion story is only a small part of the book. Mostly, it’s the story of the fine line between genuine, committed Christianity and toxic fundamentalism, and how bad we tend to be at knowing the difference (and how tragic the results can be). I know that doesn’t make the book sound like fun, and its not. But it is a very involving read, and in a time when so many of our young adults and teenagers are walking away from faith, I think it offers us some lessons on why…and what can be done to change that. For that reason alone, this is the book I read this year that I most highly recommend.

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