At the beginning of the year, I set a personal goal to try and read one book a week. I knew that was ambitious and even though I fell woefully short (when I finish my current read, I’ll be at 35), I still came across some great books this year. Whereas I limit myself to 2008 releases when it comes to my Albums of the Year posts, this list is open to any book I read this year. As with my Top Albums, I simply couldn’t limit myself to a Top 10. Thus, I submit to you my Top 12 Books for 2008.
12. Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ron Sider
The only reason this book is ranked so low on my list is because I haven’t finished it yet. Originally published in 1977, this updated version of this seminal work delineates the Biblical mandate for the people of God to invest themselves in acts of social justice. Sider refuses to let the conversation about poverty remain in the abstract, instead offerring a practical path to care for the 1.2 billion people who currently live in relentless, unrelieved poverty worldwide. I wish every Christian I know would read this book.
11. Living the Sermon on the Mount: A Practical Hope for Grace and Deliverance by Glen Stassen
Stassen, an ethicist at Fuller, writes an accessible and engaging analysis of the most ignored sermon of all time. I chose to tackle this relatively quick read before diving into his more protracted (and recognizable) Kingdom Ethics. Writing with a simplicity that is true to his Minnesotan roots, Stassen draws some fascinating connections between the Sermon on the Mount and the prophetic writing of Isaiah. I’d recommend this to anyone interested in a more thorough, yet not overly-scholarly study of the Sermon on the Mount.
10. Three Nights in August by Buzz Bissinger
I can’t believe I’m ranking this book this low. Bissinger’s behind-the-scenes dissection of a late-season three game series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs was supposed to be my summer baseball read. I finished it in two days. Bissinger was given unprecedented access to my beloved Cards for this work, to the degree that he even sat next to Cardinal manager Tony LaRussa on the dugout for over 50 games during the 2003 season. His examination of the strategy behind the game is fascinating, but it’s the emphasis on the game’s human element that makes this a truly compelling work. A must read for any baseball fan.
9. The Great Awakening by Jim Wallis
Like many Americans, I read quite a bit of political material this year. Three of those texts appear on this list. Wallis has been on my radar for the past couple of years. I read his God’s Politics a year or two ago and even re-read it again this year. My primary criticism of Wallis has always been that he’s a bit too long-winded. Both of his works would benefit from some substantial editing. But his content is always thought-provoking, especially in the areas where I don’t agree with him.
8. The Preacher King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Word That Moved America by Richard Lischer
Long before he was a civil rights activist, Martin Luther King Jr., like his father before him, was a preacher. And as he rose to become the voice of the civil rights movement in this country, King remained a preacher at heart. Lischer notes that it was King’s background as a preacher that helped him not only articulate a vision for the civil rights movement but also gave him the courage to speak out against racial injustice from the moral ground of Scripture. King is a true American, one of my heroes, and I recommend this read to anyone.
7. The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs
Jacobs, a writer for Esquire magazine, decided to take on an interesting project in an effort to prove the futility of Biblical fundamentalism: he committed himself to stringently follow the commands of the Bible for a full calendar year, down to the finer points of beard grooming and stoning adulterers. His journey is at turns poignant and hilarious and his writing style is easy and engaging. An enjoyable read.
6. God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush by Randall Balmer
A professor of American religious history at Columbia and editor-at-large for Christianity Today, Balmer examines each of the administrations of the last 50 years and meticulously details the progression from JFK’s declaration that religion should play no role in our electoral process to George W. Bush’s frank assertion, “I believe that God wants me to be president.” Balmer reveals the role that religious conviction has played (or not played) in the personal and political lives of our most recent presidents, which makes for a fascinating book.
5. Red Letter Christians: A Citizen’s Guide to Faith & Politics by Tony Campolo
The third and final of the political works to make this list, Red Letter Christians takes on the important global, economic, and moral issues of our time from a distinctly Christocentric perspective. As with Wallis, Campolo writes from a decidedly leftist point of view. But even at points where I disagree with him, Campolo gives me reason to rethink some of my longheld political positions in light of the ethic of Jesus.
4. Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places by Eugene Peterson
Peterson could write a paraphrase of the phonebook and I’d read it. This work, the first in a five-volume series on spiritual theology, makes my list for myriad reasons: Peterson’s eloquent articulation, his detailed exegesis of some of Scripture’s paradigmatic texts (Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, John, Mark, Luke / Acts), and the anecdotal material he deftly weaves into his writing. But what I most appreciated about this work was its pastoral tone. It really blessed me at a time when I needed it the most. And that’s the norm, rather than the exception, when I read Peterson.
3. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
I can’t say that I enjoyed every moment of Hosseini’s debut novel and if you’ve read The Kite Runner, you know the reason why. But even now, months later, I’m still moved by Hosseini’s heartbreaking tale of Amir and Hasan, childhood friends separated by a terrible secret. Set against the backdrop of Afghanistan’s political turmoil over the past 30 years, Hosseini’s story of betrayal and redemption still resonates with me even months later. “For you, a thousand times over.”
2. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
I’ve loved McCarthy since I first read All The Pretty Horses 10 years ago. I began the year by reading through No Country For Old Men and I was supremely disappointed; I just got lost in all the bloodshed. But The Road, a post-apocalyptic tale of a nameless father and his son and their journey of survival, made me weep. McCarthy forces his readers to ask certain ethical and existential questions as we journey along with his protagonists. But it is the father’s fierce love for his son that is the most gripping element of this work. “My job is to take care of you,” he tells his son at one especially grim point. “I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you.” In the end, McCarthy gives us a story about faith, about hoping against hope, and about “carrying the fire”. I can’t wait to share this book with my sons someday.
1. Surprised By Hope by N.T. Wright
Wright is the Ryan Adams of New Testament scholars. Despite his prolific writing output, Wright has a knack for bringing biblical scholarship to the mainstream Christian community. Surprised By Hope is the latest addition to that corpus. The subtitle succinctly says it all: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. Wright challenges the widely accepted Christian assumption of heaven as a non-physical resting place for disembodied souls, a position influenced more by Hellenistic thought than Scripture. Instead, he argues in favor of the biblical teaching on bodily resurrection and God’s renewal of creation. Wright offers an eschatology for today, a theology of the afterlife that imbues the present with greater meaning and purpose. This is easily the most important work I’ve read this year. I highly recommend it.