The Silmarillion (1977); The Hobbit (1937); The Lord of the Rings (1954-55); The Children of Hurin (2007) by J. R. R. Tolkien (and let us not forget Christopher Tolkien, R. I. P.)
I declared 2020 to be my Year of Tolkien. While it will bleed into 2021 (I still need to read Beren and Luthien, The Fall of Gondolin, and Tolkien’s translations of Sir Gawain and Beowulf, along with collections of his essays and lectures), it was completely satisfying. I found The Silmarillion to be the most uneven of the bunch, but, for lack of a better word, it read to me like reading a Scripture of some long lost civilization. This was my first reread of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings—on my first read through, I preferred the simple adventure of The Hobbit, but this time I was swept up in the grand narrative Tolkien was telling in LOTR. I don’t know if there has been a created world that has been more immersive than Tolkien’s Middle Earth. To top it off, Children of Hurin is a moving, tragic tale which calls to mind the Greek and Norse myths of old. Tolkien was a master.
“He Descended to the Dead”: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday by Matthew Y. Emerson (2019)
I have always favored the clause in the Apostles Creed, which claims that Jesus “descended to Hell,” but it always stemmed from a fealty to the past. After reading Emerson, I confident in the theology which backs up that clause, and even feel that it is a necessary component of a good presentation of the gospel. This is an essential book in the process of retrieving the theology of the early church for evangelicals today.
The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims of Our Own Success by Ross Douthat (2020)
Douthat is the best columnist in the country, and this book ably demonstrates part of what makes America feel so stagnant nowadays. It has also proved to be quite prescient as we live in Coronatide, with some aspects looking to push beyond decadence—the rapid development of the COVID vaccines being the main one—while others, including the slow moving bureaucracy preventing widespread use of the vaccine, along with the languor of the Trump Administration, revealing just how entrenched our decadence really is.
How I Would Pitch to Babe Ruth by Tom Seaver (1975)
This delightful book includes major essays written about some of the greatest hitters in baseball history, introduced to us by one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history, and Valley native, Tom Seaver (R. I. P.), with Seaver telling us how he would handle each of these all-time greats. If you like baseball, you should try to get this book.
The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction by Roger E. Olson (2013)
Beginning with the Copernican Revolution wrought by Kant and the rest of the early moderns, and continuing through the development of theological liberalism and neo-orthdoxy, this book is a tour-de-force. If you care about modern theology, there is no better guide or companion in understanding the essence of the most important theologians and philosophers of the last 500 years.
Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis (1952)
It does not matter how often one reads this book. There is always something to gain from it. I’m not sure that anyone has ever been better at defending Christianity with pith and wit than Lewis.
The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone (2011)
I’m not sure a book caused me to think more about my presuppositions this year than this one. It is essential for grappling with the history and reality of racism in the United States and in American evangelicalism.
Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals: Why We Need Our Past to Have a Future by Gavin Ortlund (2019)
This book is fantastic. It is split into two parts: first, a defense for why evangelicals need to retrieve the theology of the ancient church, the church fathers and even those of the medieval church; second, Ortlund, provides case studies in what this sort of retrieval would look like, engaging divine simplicity, atonement, and the like. The truth is, we have a problem if we approach the Bible and Christian theology as if we are the first ones to have ever done it, a blank slate that can objectively parse out the mysteries of God. First, all of the ways that we think are colored by our backgrounds, culture, and what has come before—we can’t objectively study anything, so our best bet is to know this and understand it by reading those who came before us. Second, those who came before considered many of the issues we rage over today, and they came up with remarkably wise answers. The best thing that can be said about this book is that it makes the reader want to read the authors it is introducing and summarizing.
Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David Blight (2018)
I’m not sure there is a better living historian of the United States than Blight, and his biography of Frederick Douglass is a masterpiece. Read it if you care about the United States, slavery, the travails of great people, evocative storytelling, good writing, or an utterly inspiring life. Better yet, read it for all of these reasons.
Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World by Tara Isabella Burton (2020)
There is no understanding American religion today without reading this work by Burton. It complicates the secularization narrative while pinpointing where exactly our culture is at with religion—Americans are not exactly against religion, but they are increasingly finding their purpose and meaning outside of organized religion.
The Epistle to the Ephesians by Karl Barth (2017)
This little book is a collection of Barth’s lecture on the book of Ephesians, and it is marvelous. You will never look at the first two verses of Ephesians the same way ever again.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind by Alan Jacobs (2020)
This book really ought to be paired with Jacobs’s previous works, How to Think and The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. The world would be a better place if it drank from the well of Jacobs’s wisdom.