2011 marks the first time I’ve ever hit my mark of reading 52 books in a year. Going back to school had a lot to do with that, but I’m pumped. I’ve had this goal for so long, now I don’t know what goal to aim for in 2012…maybe 60 books?
Anyway, here’s my annual list of the best books I’ve read in the last calendar year. Of course, very few of these are 2011 releases. Rather, these are books I’ve read this year that have really impacted me. As you can tell from the list, I don’t read very much fiction; I’m more of a non-fiction guy. Since I’m always looking for book suggestions, I’d love to hear your reading suggestions. Now, on to the list:
- The Great Omission, Dallas Willard. What does it mean to follow Jesus? If you’ve ever asked yourself this question, this is the book for you. I’ve discovered that there’s plenty of misunderstanding about grace: the legalists want it to remain elusive; permissives abuse it. Willard answers the call with an incisive reflection on the demands of discipleship. “Grace is opposed to earning, not effort.” Honest and instantly resonant. A must read.
- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain. In my opinion, most “classics” turn out to be real yawners. But as the only work of fiction on my list this year, Finn is fully deserving of the moniker in my opinion. This is the Empire Strikes Back of American literature, far surpassing its predecessor. I think what makes this so great is its context — it’s a rare combination of being reflective of the times while being light years ahead of them. Almost makes me want to go back and read Tom Sawyer. Almost.
- One.Life, Scot McKnight. McKnight is becoming a perennial contender on this list, with One.Life and his earlier The Jesus Creed. This is yet another concise reflection on following Jesus in today’s context. Couple this with Willard and your life will be richly blessed.
- Kisses From Katie, Katie Davis. This is the most inspirational book I’ve read in quite some time. Taken from her memoirs as a Ugandan missionary — better said, her memoir as a lover of people, particularly Ugandans, particularly Ugandan orphans, particularly the 13 Ugandan orphans she has adopted…all before her 21st birthday, no less — Davis has written a moving testimony to the power of love compelled. Read this one at your own risk, folks. You may find yourself more fully open to the call of God on your life.
- Prophets, Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel’s treatment of the Hebrew prophets was particularly helpful as I studied and taught them earlier in the year. This volume, though lengthy, was impossible for me to put down.
- Decision Points, George W. Bush. I think time and distance will help properly frame the Presidency of George W. Bush. To say 9/11 changed our nation is an unremarkable statement; but this recollection helped me see just how much terrorism, particularly 9/11, affected Bush’s administration. Some want to vilify him for everything that’s happened since (Iraq, Afghanistan) while others want to give him a pass. The truth is probably somewhere in between. An insightful reflection on a controversial period of American history.
- Strengths-Based Leadership, Tom Rath & Barry Conchie. Those familiar with Rath’s earlier work, Strengths Finder 2.0, will find a team-based skills analysis. The best leaders aren’t necessarily well rounded, but the best teams are. We used this with our ministry staff at Mayfair and the results were really interesting. I recommend it to any leader operating in a multi-staff setting.
- Living on the Black: Two Pitchers, Two Teams, One Season to Remember, John Feinstein. My summer baseball read this year did not disappoint. Feinstein spent the 2007 season following two of the most respected pitchers in the majors: Tom Glavine of the New York Mets and Mike Mussina of the crosstown Yankees. Feinstein ably takes his readers into the clubhouse for an unprecedented look at two elite craftsmen in the twilight of their storied careers. Even the most casual fan will enjoy this well written text on the pressure and ritual of being a big time, big league pitcher.
- The Tea Party Goes to Washington, Rand Paul. When I tell someone that I’ve read this book, I get one of two responses: either “I love the Tea Party!” or “You’re not becoming one of those nuts, are you?” While I’m certainly do devotee to the cause, I will admit that the whole grass roots “We the people” thing intrigues me. Paul, son of presidential hopeful Ron Paul, gives me an even deeper appreciation for the movement, although he probably proselytizes a bit too much here for my tastes. Still, he’s written an interesting, highly readable account of a political force to be reckoned with in the American political landscape.
- How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer. In 2009, Lehrer delivered this fascinating dissection of human decision-making processes. He plumbs the link between deductive reasoning and intuition with just enough layman scientific jargon to help you get it without becoming overbearing. He also laces his text with fascinating illustrations and anecdotes. Decide to read it, then learn all about why you did so.
- The Mentor Leader, Tony Dungy. Dungy’s been putting out some great faith-based stuff recently, but I think he especially shines when he integrates his values alongside his coaching experience, all of which comes to a head in The Mentor Leader. Dungy writes with honesty and conviction, imploring his audience to contemplate their role within communities both large and small (organizations, corporations, families, neighborhoods, etc.) and ask one simple question: How can I make the people around me better? Dungy draws on a wealth of coaching stories to make his point, but his NFL experience always moves the conversation forward in more universal areas. For instance, Dungy explains his decision to associate himself with Michael Vick on the heels of the bombshell news of the superstar quarterback’s involvement in a dog fighting ring. In short, Dungy felt he could make a difference in Vick’s life, much as so many others had done for Coach Dungy over the years. Call it paying it forward, NFL style.
- Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews, Kevin J. Madigan and Jon Levenson. Madigan (professor at Harvard Divinity School) and Levenson (professor of Jewish studies, also at Harvard) team up to write an accessible and insightful exploration of the Jewish roots of the doctrine of resurrection. Combine this one with N.T. Wright’s powerful Surprised By Hope (my 2008 Book of the Year) and you’ll be fully prepared for the bodily resurrection. Zombie apocalypse…well, that’s another matter.
- Managing Polarities in Congregations: Eight Keys for Thriving Faith Communities, Roy M. Oswald and Barry Johnson. Most of what I’ve read this year has been aimed at congregational development and, therefore, wouldn’t be very interesting to many people. But I think this exception would greatly benefit most church goers by exposing the imaginative gridlock of our either/or thinking.
- Practicing Gospel: Unconventional Thoughts on the Church’s Ministry, Edward Farley. Heady. Challenging. And all kinds of good.
- Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, Martha C. Nussbaum. Drawing on Socrates and the Stoics, Nussbaum argues for curricular advances committed to the production of “world citizens”. Although some of this material is specifically aimed at higher education institutions, it is also written in a highly accessible way to invite a more general readership.