Best Books of 2018

Each year, I set a goal to read 52 books — one book per week for the entire year. I usually fall short of the goal — I think 2011 was the last year I hit the mark. For point of reference, I read 40 books in 2017 and 44 the previous year.

But by the time I finish the book I’m currently reading, I’ll be at exactly 52 books for 2018! Given that I read quite a few books that were 600+ pages this year, I’m pretty excited about this! One thing that helped was a subscription to Audible, Amazon’s audiobook service. I started the free trial back in September and quickly realized Audible was a great way to maximize my “reading” time while driving to work or taking a walk. Thanks to Audible, I was able to tack on another 9 titles to my reading list for the year, including Walter Isaacson’s 600-page Leonardo da Vinci biography. If you’re an avid reader, you really should consider an Audible subscription. I think you’ll like it.

Disclaimer: the title of this post is a bit misleading. It sounds like this is a list of the best books written in 2018; that’s not what this list is about. This is a list of the best books I’ve read this year. Several of these titles were released in 2018, but most of them were not.

Here are the best books I read this year:

My 2018 Book of the Year
  1. Yeshua:The Life of the Messiah from a Messianic Jewish Perspective by Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum. As I look back over these book lists I’ve been doing for the past 13 years, I see several titles that continue to influence my thinking: Grenz’s Theology for the Community of God; Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals; and last year’s Enneagram primer, The Road Back to You. I reference these works ALL.THE.TIME. and their ideas have been some of the more formative ones I’ve grappled with over the past decade. Fruchtenbaum’s Yeshua series (a four-volume set) ranks right up there in terms of magnitude and importance for me. Based upon over four decades of research, Fruchtenbaum — a Messianic Jew — challenges readers to understand Jesus and the New Covenant within a thoroughly Jewish context. And I would say this is more than just extracurricular Bible study; this volume has helped me understand the entire framework of the Scriptures in deeper and more meaningful ways. Fruchtenbaum’s careful exegesis and familiarity with the biblical land provide essential insights into texts and stories I thought I fully understood. Balancing scholarship with faithfulness to the Gospel, Fruchtenbaum answers questions like: Was the old covenant really nailed to the cross? Does the church replace Israel in God’s redemption plan? What did Jesus mean when he said he did not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them? Fruchtenbaum interacts with rabbinic resources to demonstrate the Jewish context of Jesus — or, Yeshua, to use his Jewish name. The full four-volume set also comes in a single abridged volume (see picture above) which might be a good place to start if you’re interested in reading more. If you are looking for a resource to expand your understanding of the Scriptures, I highly recommend this important and insightful book. I’ve not read anything like it this year — or ever, for that matter.
  2. Paul: A Biography by N.T. Wright. I picked up a copy of Wright’s biography on the life of Paul as soon as it was released in February and immediately began reading. Rich with insight from the world’s leading New Testament scholar, I would read this book again in a heartbeat. Like the best biographers, Wright makes Paul come alive in fresh new ways, even for readers like me who are familiar with the Apostle’s life and spend a great deal of time reading his teaching. My best summary of this book: Wright made me want to be even more like this fearless Kingdom emissary. Paul: A Biography would be yet another helpful volume to put alongside your Bible study resources.
  3. The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves by Curt Thompson. As I presented a series of messages this summer on the power of guilt and shame, Thompson’s book emerged as essential reading. A board-certified psychiatrist, Thompson constantly asks, “What story is shame trying to tell us?” And his response might surprise you: he argues that shame is being actively leveraged by the personality of evil to bend us toward sin. Shame grows when we listen to the voices telling us that we’re not enough. Not only do we feel bad, we begin to sense that we are bad. And that’s when shame has us hooked. I appreciate Thompson’s interdisciplinary approach to shame, ranging back and forth between neuroplasticity, the biblical narrative, the importance of relational vulnerability, and anecdotes from his own private practice. This should be required reading somewhere, given shame’s universal reach. (And Lauren Daigle’s “You Say” should be required listening during this required reading!)
  4. Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. For several months this year, I subscribed to Michael Hyatt’s LeaderBox, a curated selection of texts focused on strategies for maximizing your leadership. I quickly noticed a recurring theme in much of the business literature I was reading: the connection between rest and efficiency. We often wear our exhaustion like a badge, bragging about the long hours we log as if our worth is somehow linked to overworking. But this is a wholly recent phenomenon in human history. Pang looks at a host of innovators in disciplines such as science, politics, art, and literature to demonstrate that deliberate rest is the key to even greater productivity, viability and health. As a believer, I couldn’t help but draw parallels back to Israel’s practice of Sabbath rest — a command from the Creator Himself, I would point out. Pang’s work challenged me to evaluate my own relationship to both work and rest. A must read.
  5. Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund. This fascinating book was another Hyatt recommendation. Rosling argues against some of the prevailing assumptions of Western culture — that conditions around the world are getting worse; that extreme poverty has doubled in the last 20 years; that life expectancy around the world is decreasing, and so on. Packed with data (often in the form of colorful, easy-to-understand graphics) and supplemented with anecdotes, Rosling exposes our tendency to view the world as more frightening, more violent, and more hopeless than it really is. Thus the title: he argues for more “factfulness” in our understanding of our world. I don’t know if he’s right about all of this, but I sure hope he is. This important book just might restore your hope in the future.
  6. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi and Abraham Verghese. I don’t want to give away too much here. You just need to read this book as you make your New Year’s resolutions. And be sure you have some Kleenex ready.
  7. Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. Sunny has been asking me for years to read this book and I avoided it for a number of reasons. But I finally relented this fall and picked up this re-telling of the story of Hosea and Gomer set in the American West of the late 1800s. Rivers writes an honest and complex narrative that forces us to consider the magnitude — and the cost — of both shame and grace. My wife was right: I should’ve read this book years ago.
  8. Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime by Ron Stallworth. Ron Stallworth, the first African-American detective in the history of the Colorado Springs Police Department, uses his real name and poses as a white man to infiltrate the local chapter of the KKK. If that sounds like the plot to a Hollywood movie, well…it is. Even more surprising is the fact that it’s also a true story, as delineated here by Stallworth himself.
  9. Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. After covering the lives of creatives such as Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, and Albert Enstein, it was inevitable that Isaacson would write about Leonardo. I knew nothing about the man when I jumped in to this volume, so it worked a little like an art appreciation course for me. But Isaacson gave me a deep appreciation for Leonardo’s inter-disciplinary genius.
  10. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling. Jackson and I read through the HP series this summer and this was far and away my favorite entry. Imaginative fiction like Rowling is important for someone like me who reads mostly non-fiction throughout the year.
  11. First in Line: Presidents, Vice Presidents, and the Pursuit of Power by Kate Anderson Brown. Before you see Vice, read this book about the sometimes rocky, rarely cordial relationship between our Presidents and their Vice Presidents.
  12. Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude by Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin. As an introvert, I loved this book. If you’re involved in leadership in any capacity (and who isn’t), solitude is a vital practice. We live in largely unreflective times — because we are always tethered to our devices. Even when we’re “alone”, we’re not truly alone. We simply don’t build in time for solitude. Kethledge and Erwin draw on the practices of historical figures such as Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr., and Aung San Suu Kyi to inspire readers to embrace intentional solitude.
  13. The Pastor by Eugene Peterson. I started reading this a couple of months before Peterson passed away this fall. I’ve read nearly everything Peterson has written and I’ve always appreciated his work. But this autobiography helped me know the man in a deeper way. If you’re involved in any kind of congregational ministry or if you’re just a fan of Peterson’s writing, you’ll enjoy this retelling of the man’s story.
  14. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K.A. Smith. One sentence summary: we are what we love.
  15. This Is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel by Trevin Wax. Wax’s exposes some of the more prevalent myths that permeate our world. This book inspired me to preach a series of messages on Gospel worldview this fall, using Wax’s material as a template.

That’s my list. I’d love to know what you’ve read this year that really inspired you.

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