Best Books of 2019

Each year I set myself a goal to read 52 books — one per week. Most years I don’t hit the mark but I read exactly 52 books in 2018 and by the time I finish my current read, I’ll be at 62 books for 2019. Pretty excited about that. Audible has been a huge help; I’ve used it for most of the fiction and biographies I’ve read this year. Non-fiction is usually Kindle or old school hard copies.

On the subject of books, Evernote has a feature that I am constantly raving about: you can upload all your Kindle highlights directly into Evernote and when you do this, they immediately become searchable. Say, for instance, I’m reading N.T. Wright on atonement. I can highlight a whole paragraph on my Kindle app; upload it to Evernote; and the next time I preach on atonement, I simply search for the keyword in Evernote and the Wright quote (along with hundreds of others) pulls up immediately. This is huge for someone like me who reads a lot but has struggled to retain some of the finer points of an author’s argument — particularly a theological author. Anyway, if you’re a book nerd and you use Kindle (and if you’re not using Kindle, you should check it out), you need to know about the Evernote feature. It’s awesome.

A couple of other notes: this year I re-read several of my favorites from previous years. This month, I re-read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which still stands as my favorite piece of fiction (and my 2008 Book of the Year). I love it so much I bought copies for my sons as Christmas gifts. It’s the best description of what I feel in my heart for my children. When the boy talks about “carrying the fire” I tear up. If you’re unfamiliar with The Road, just read it. For fun, I also re-read Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind — mainly because I erroneously assumed that book three of this trilogy was coming out this fall. Even though he’s still taking his time wrapping up this series (as is George R.R. Martin), I really enjoyed re-reading The Name of the Wind.

I also spent some time this summer working through Lee Camp’s brilliant Mere Discipleship. Since originally reading it in 2006, I’ve re-read it twice and both times the experience was enriching. Challenging, even frustrating at times, Camp pushes against a comfortable “church-going” Christianity to recover the ancient nature of discipleship as a lifestyle of apprenticeship to Jesus. His exposé of the ways in which American Christianity is beholden to nationalism is as relevant today as it was a decade ago. (More on that below.) If I were simply ranking the books I’ve read this year in the order of their impact, this one still makes the top five. I highly recommend it. Also on the non-fiction front, I re-read Good Faith by Dave Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons; and I also worked my way through Brene Brown’s Braving the Wilderness again. I’m probably just going to re-read that one every year for the foreseeable future. Her words really resonate with me.

Okay, now for the list. Here are the best books I read (for the first time) in 2019:

The Crucifixion by Fleming Rutledge
  1. The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus by Fleming Rutledge. I haven’t even finished reading this one yet, but I’m comfortable declaring it to be the best book I’ve read this year. Atonement theology needs to be reconsidered in most Christian churches — I think I can say this with confidence. It’s not so much that our atonement theology is wrong, just limited. Ask almost any Christian to explain the death of Jesus and you’ll hear a rephrasing of the substitutionary theory of atonement: Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins, taking our place, etc. And this is true, to be sure. But it’s only one way the biblical authors explain the death of Jesus. In just a few sentences, she summarizes her primary thesis: “The Passover lamb, the goat driven into the wilderness, the ransom, the substitute, the victor on the field of battle, the representative man — each and all of these and more have their place, and the cross is diminished if any one of them is omitted. We need to make room for all the biblical images.” And she’s right. In fact, Rutledge argues that we diminish the biblical witness when we refer to these motifs as “theories.” Each image helps provide a composite view of the intricacy and the beauty of Christ’s cross. Rutledge threads the needle with aplomb: she writes with the mind of a scholar and the heart of a pastor. But unlike others who have attempted to tackle such theologically deep topics, Rutledge is imminently readable. She restores the ancient understanding of the “irreligiosity” of the cross — something so scandalous as to be avoided in common conversation in the first century. I’m sure there are points that I would prefer that she would nuance differently, but I’m already compelled by her argument and I can’t wait to finish this one. The best book I’ve read all year is both challenging and inspiring.
  2. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. This one has been on my list for a few years and I finally tackled it. Few books live up to the hype like Karamazov, which is actually philosophy and theology dressed as a novel. I spent all summer wrestling with the varying positions of Ivan, Dmitri, Alyosha and Fyodor. (By the way, when I grow up, I want to be Father Zosima.) The plot — equal parts murder mystery and courtroom drama — is actually a discourse on faith and doubt. Is belief in God tenable in a world of great atrocities such as ours? Do we actually possess free will? Is nihilism any better or worse than altruism? What is redemption? And what is its relationship to suffering? Dostoyevsky refuses to flinch as he asks these questions — and dozens more. I see why this is such a revered piece of fiction. It’s obviously not for the feint of heart, but the payoff is immense. In this case, the designation as a classic is entirely warranted.
  3. Postcards from Babylon: The Church in American Exile by Brian Zahnd. Warning: this book is liable to upset you. But in a good way. Zahnd reminds his readers of the subversive, countercultural way of the earliest Christians. The followers of Jesus in the first century pledged allegiance to a crucified Savior — a claim which sent shock waves across the Roman Empire. These earliest believers were often persecuted for their beliefs — beliefs that Rome considered to be dangerous, a threat to the status quo. But what happened to that subversive spirit? Zahnd argues that — in this country, at least — the church has failed to be a threat to the empire (the only biblical analogue for the United States) because we’ve gotten in bed with her. We’ve lost some of our countercultural zeal because we’re more beholden to the claims of nationalism (“Make America Great Again”) than the claims of a state-executed peasant who says true greatness is found in serving. Rather than living in “Israel” — a modern day land of promise flowing with milk and honey, per the God and country crowd — we’re actually living in “Babylon”, a place of exile and identity loss. Zahnd takes aim at American militarism, materialism, and religious nationalism and, personally, I appreciate his courage and his fearlessness in telling the truth. But what I love the most is that Zahnd writes as an “insider” — he’s not lobbing grenades from outside the church, but he implores us to greater faithfulness with both feet planted in the life of a local church. Zahnd will surely draw fire from some Trump defending evangelicals (as I’m sure I will, for recommending his book so highly), but I don’t find Zahnd to be partisan in the least. What I do find is a clarion call for Christians to shape their politics around the ethic and teaching of Jesus — as we are called to do in every area of life. This is a bold and timely book.
  4. 438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea by Jonathan Franklin. Franklin tells the amazingly true story of Salvador Alvarenga, a fisherman from Mexico who survived fourteen months in a small boat drifting seven thousand miles across the Pacific Ocean. In November 2012, Alvarenga’s fishing boat was pushed out into open sea by gale force winds and ten-foot waves. This began a harrowing journey drifting from the coast of Mexico across the Pacific Ocean to the Marshall Islands, where Alvarenga washed ashore in January 2014. This is a story of resilience but even more, it’s a story of hope and faith. I knew from the get-go that Alvarenga would live; I mean, the title pretty much gives that away. And yet, the story was absolutely gripping. I’m still amazed at his improbable journey across the Pacific, including the time he spent in the area known as “the doldrums.” Simply an incredible tale of survival.
  5. Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: It’s Impossible to Be Spiritually Mature, While Remaining Emotionally Immature by Peter Scazzero. Scazzero’s claim is spot on: emotional health and spiritual maturity are linked. Yet most Christians are paralyzed by fear and anger — feelings they are ill-equipped to deal with because they believe them to be sinful and / or to be avoided. Scazzero puts forward a model of emotional health rooted in self-awareness and, in particular, awareness of our feelings. In this way, Scazzero is indebted to the work of Edwin Friedman and Murray Bowen on differentiation. But Scazzero also argues for the importance of the daily office, contemplative reflection, Sabbath…all the things we know we should be doing to cultivate our spiritual lives. This is a fantastic read, one worth re-reading a few times.
  6. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo and Michael Eric Dyson. See #3 — this book is GUARANTEED to upset you. But also in a good way. I read this book early in the year (maybe January?) and some of the authors’ arguments are still resonating with me. Race conversations are fraught with lots of pitfalls, but I appreciate the honesty of this text; I feel like it has prepared me to engage on this topic in a more meaningful way — and perhaps with one or two fewer blind spots. In times such as these, that’s a victory.
  7. Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission by Michael J. Gorman. Gorman is a tremendous scholar and I have really appreciated his work on Revelation. This text has been called “the first detailed exegetical treatment of Paul’s letters from the emerging discipline of missional hermeneutics,” which is a fancy way of saying that we should embody — not simply believe in — the gospel.
  8. Searching for the Pattern: My Journey in Interpreting the Bible by John Mark Hicks. This book comes with a caveat: if you’re not part of the church of Christ (or if you didn’t grow up in churches of Christ), then this book will likely be confusing. But if you have a connection to the church of Christ, I recommend this book. A book on hermeneutics is probably destined to be overlooked, but Hicks challenges the long-standing “command / example / necessary inference” hermeneutic that has long been a staple in churches of Christ — yet he does so with kindness, love, and a deep emphasis upon the Scriptures. Hicks argues that Jesus ought to be the only pattern for our reading of holy texts — and I’m indebted to him for this thoughtful and well-written proposal for a Christ-centered hermeneutic.
  9. Becoming Us: Using the Enneagram to Create a Thriving Gospel-Centered Marriage by Beth McCord and Jeff McCord. The Enneagram is all the rage these days. I’ve probably read a dozen Enneagram books over the last few years and I’ve even done the deep dive at a couple of workshops / retreats. So I’ve reached the saturation point where I find most of this material somewhat derivative. But Beth McCord’s work on how to use the Enneagram as a tool to enrich your marriage is fantastic. I highly recommend this book.
  10. Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies by David Bentley Hart. Hart is doing some great work in the field of apologetics. Whereas most apologetics texts traffic in the same tired arguments, Hart roots his defense of the Christian faith in equal parts logic and history. This is an apologetics text written by a historian; or a history of the Christian faith, written by an apologist…I can’t tell the difference. Either way, his arguments are powerful and revelatory. All of my Christian friends should read this text, especially if you have concerns about the anti-Christian bias that seems to be on the rise.
  11. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. This is the book that started it all. Having not seen the Broadway show, I wanted to see what the fuss was about. Hamilton was truly a fascinating man and I really enjoyed this book. My favorite biography of the year.
  12. Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin. DKG’s magnum opus — Team of Rivals — was my introduction to both her writing and her special fondness for presidential history. With Leadership, she distills leadership principles gleaned from her research into the careers of four of our Presidents: Lincoln, LBJ, and the Roosevelts. One of my takeaways from this great book is that leadership is almost always forged out of crisis and tragedy: FDR’s polio; Theodore losing his mother and his wife within a day; LBJ’s depression upon losing his first Senate bid; and Lincoln’s repeated losses, both political and personal. Each man demonstrated his own style of leadership, yet each possessed an indomitable ambition and a deep drive to be great. However, each man also understood how to balance that ambition with humility, even grace at times. (With that in mind, I’d LOVE it if a copy of this book made it’s way to the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue!)
  13. Wild and Crazy Guys: How the Comedy Mavericks of the ’80s Changed Hollywood Forever by Nick de Semlyen. If you’re my age, you can probably remember a time when SNL was much-watch television; when Steve Martin was the biggest name in stand-up; and when Chevy Chase was actually funny. This book chronicles this time in history with stories you’ll find both hilarious and insightful. A great, quick beach read the next time you vacation.
  14. Miracle Men: Hershiser, Gibson, and the Improbable 1988 Dodgers by Josh Suchon. Each summer I read at least one baseball book. This summer I read two and this was the best. Sunny and I love watching the Dodgers during the summer — since they play on the west coast, we’ve fallen asleep many a night to the Dodger broadcasting duo of Joe Davis and Orel Hershiser. Honestly, I’m a sucker for anything written about this era of baseball — the baseball of my youth.
  15. Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation by Martin Laird. Most Christians think “contemplation” is either a Buddhist practice or some sort of New Age, hippie stuff that should be avoided at all costs. And most Christians would be shocked to learn that contemplation has deep roots in Christianity. Laird’s book is a great primer for those seeking to learn more about distinctly Christian practices of silence, meditation, and prayer.
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