Reading is a sweet gift. And while I always feel like I am in a serious “book debt” (always more books to read than I have time), it is fun to look back and reflect on what my favorite reads were from the last year. These are not limited to books that were published in the last year, but only books I read in the last year.
10. Spark by John J. Ratey
Often we hear that we need to exercise to improve our heart-health, to lower cholesterol, or to just look better in a bathing suit. Here, the author makes a compelling argument that we should focus instead on how exercise affects our brains. The bones of the argument is that rigorous cardiovascular exercise helps create a chemical in the brain (BDNF) that promotes the growth of new neurons and fosters better neural connections. This helps with everything from learning new concepts, to dealing with stress, depression, anxiety, ADHD, hormonal changes, and even the mental decline associated with aging. As someone who hasn’t been terribly motivated to exercise consistently before, this was very persuasive and just plain cool. I went from exercising 2-3 times a week to 5 times a week after reading it.
9. The Body by Bill Bryson
I picked this book up on a lark while walking through a small bookstore on vacation, thumbing through nearly twenty pages before realizing I should just buy it. Bryson is a very talented writer who can take something as seemingly inane and pedestrian as our anatomy, and make it fascinating, witty, and enticing. Each chapter is devoted to a different aspect of our body (i.e. skin, brain, digestive system, lungs, etc.). The book is written from a thoroughly secular, evolutionary perspective, but I cannot tell you how many times I set the book down and paused in wonder at how we are truly “fearfully and wonderfully made.” The book had the treat of giving the, Wow, I never thought about that before, moment, time and time again, revealing how much about our bodies we take for granted.
8. Deeper by Dane C. Ortlund
Like everyone else, I read Gentle and Lowly in 2020 (and again in 2021), and eagerly lapped this unofficial sequel up. Ortlund carries on the same pastoral work as modeled by the Puritans which he began in his first volume, but here presses more into what sanctification looks like. But he doesn’t shift gears from Gentle and Lowly, he doesn’t bifurcate the tender mercies of the Lord from our responsibility in growing in godliness. Rather, he demonstrates how it is the very tenderness of Jesus that gives birth to and sustains our sanctification. Every chapter is so refreshing, so helpful, and so rich with the best pastoral teachings we have from history–I could not more highly recommend this work for those looking for practical help in the daily battle against sin.
7. Rembrandt Is in the Wind by Russ Ramsey
If you are interested in dipping your toe into the waters of art, this is a great introduction. Written by a pastor with a passion for art, this book weaves together art criticism, history, theology, and Scripture into a seamless garment. The book examines nine different artists and their most famous works, folding together the history of the artist, the composition, and the subject that is being painted (often Biblical scenes). Ramsey is an extremely talented writer and storyteller, folding these various threads together into a captivating story that is both moving and enlightening. His chapters on Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Van Gogh, and Tanner were my favorites.
6. The Joy of Hearing by Thomas Schreiner
I have been teaching a Sunday School class on the the theology of Revelation this past year and have found Schreiner’s slim volume to be extremely helpful. Schreiner is lucid, concise, and anchored to the text. He helpfully cuts through a lot of chatter and speculation by only emphasizing the major plumb lines of the text of Revelation itself (read: he avoids silly extremes). The book is organized into major themes of the book, looking at what the whole of Revelation teaches us about the Church, about evil, about God the Father, etc. So much of Revelation relies on the Old Testament, and Schreiner’s interaction with these are likely the most helpful contribution he gives. There were times where I found myself frustrated at his brevity, wanting him to dig into an issue more thoroughly. But this is also one of the book’s great strengths: the book isn’t bloated, but very accessible. Further, Schreiner’s irenic and charitable tone for those who disagree with him throughout is a great model for all.
5. Planet Narnia by Michael Ward
If you have ever been under the impression that because C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are written for children they do not deserve serious reflection, then Lewis scholar Michael Ward is here to swat you down–or up, rather, up into the seven-fold heavens of Ptolemy. I had heard, here and there, of the thesis of this book, but knew very little about the details. Ward makes the argument that Lewis had a hidden schema lying behind the Chronicles: each of the seven books correspond to the seven Ptolemaic planets with each irradiated by the entire Medieval and Ancient Greek cosmological superstructure associated with each. This book is academic and unless you are a serious fan of Lewis you’ll likely feel overwhelmed, but there is a more popular level work done by him (The Narnia Code) that I would love to read. I have been reading Lewis for over a dozen years, yet this book opened up aspects of Lewis that I knew nothing about–thoroughly fascinating.
4. Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor
A brilliant and thoroughly discombobulating story about a man haunted by the Jesus he wants so desperately to refuse to believe in, a Jesus who, “move[s] from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.” It is as if someone has taken Calvin’s sensus divinitatis and turned it into a gothic novel set in the 1950’s South. The main character, Hazel Motes, fiercely proclaims a staunch atheism, trying to convince everyone that there is no guilt, no sin, no God–but the person he is trying to convince most is himself. And he fails. As a child, Hazel was certain that he was going to grow up to become a preacher, just like his grandfather. After four years serving in the military, however, he realizes that the sin he had been trained to resist is actually quite enticing, and in a moment abandons his entire faith. The rest of the novel unrolls the repercussions of this decision. It’s a jarring and bizarre character display of a tortured conscience who rejects God while simultaneously believing in God, but only as judge, not as savior; who denies sin exists, yet feels miserable and guilty the more he gives himself over to it. O’Connor has her sights fixed on Western modernity that feels it has outgrown God, and man oh man, is she ruthless.
3. Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
An ode to a way of life that seems so distant and far removed from 2022 that it sounds like Berry is describing something from centuries ago, when there are people still alive today who have experienced it. That in of itself is an exposing, a revelation of the poverty of our time, of the thinness of the digital technopoly we live under, and how quickly it has untethered us from all that makes us most humane. Like all of Berry’s novels, Hannah Coulter has no inciting incident, no gripping plot that leaves you on the edge of your seat. It is, in many ways, a boring book. But it is boring the way a leisurely walk through a redwood forest is boring. There are no explosions or memes or steamy scandals, but there is quiet, meaning, grief, and beauty. And in the stillness of Port William, you find a way of life, community, and family that fill you with a deep longing for so much more than the thin soup of what the American life has become today. Take up and read this wonderful, wonderful book.
2. Political Church by Jonathan Leeman
What is the relationship between church and state? What kind of authority does Caesar possess and what kind does Peter possess? Are there two kingdoms? Should Christians seek to make America a “Christian nation”? Should Christians be wanting to create a pluralistic society? Should we bring our Christian convictions into the public square? Many of the debates surrounding those issues today are all addressed at great length in this book. Here, Leeman weaves together political theory, systematic theology, and (believe it or not) Baptist ecclesiology to present a persuasive and thoughtful political theology. But the most helpful contribution that Leeman makes is that he interacts with all three of those along the superstructure of the Bible’s covenantal storyline itself, letting God’s Word set the tone and chart the trajectory for the discussion, rather than using abstract categories first and then backing into proof texts here and there to validate the system he has already constructed. The book is academic and dense, but close reading pays rich dividends. Read my full review here.
1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
A classic for a reason. Dostoevsky is hard to read, (I attempted to read this back in 2018, but gave up), but there are few writers who have the depth and insight he does into the human situation, particularly into the psychological realities of faith, doubt, guilt, and temptation. On the surface, this is a murder mystery novel, but the murder is just the setting for the greater metaphysical drama that takes place between good and evil. Dostoevsky was a devout Christian, yet he provides the most convincing argument against God’s existence through Ivan’s debate with Alyosha. And Alyosha has no response, no rebuttal. But, by the end of the book–though he never can defeat Ivan intellectually–Alyosha wins. Read my full review here.
Favorite quote (obviously): “I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, for all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.”
The World-Ending Fire by Wendell Berry
After I read Jayber Crow last year, I went on a serious Wendell Berry kick and started reading as much as I could by him. Berry is known primarily for his Port William novels, but this is a collection of his non-fiction essays that really spell out his agrarianism and techno-skepticism. I didn’t track with him on everything, but by the time I finished it, I had built three raised garden beds, a three-tiered compost bin, and plotted out plans for rows of berry bushes next Spring. It really is that persuasive. Consider this: maybe you aren’t convinced by the environmentalism arguments typically made, maybe you doubt the science or the politics or whatever. Fine. Berry doesn’t make the science the center piece of his argument. Instead he makes you stop and consider: what kind of person are you becoming by your posture towards the earth? Do you have the heart of a steward, or an exploiter? It was that question that made me start thinking far more seriously about what I was doing, about what kind of person I was becoming.