My Favorite Books – 2021

Looking back through the years, I have noticed that these lists keep getting longer. There are simply too many good books to read. Here are my favorites from this year—the ones that most affected me and caused me to think.

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution by Carl R. Trueman (2020)

Most books like this are polemics, which tend to be quite useless. Trueman certainly disagrees with the dominant view of the self (which he describes as the reality that one’s identity has been psychologized, then sexualized, then politicized), but he writes in order to pass off greater understanding, not simple opprobrium. In particular, Trueman shows the importance of our language: All too often, orthodox Christians criticize the outcomes of the dominant culture while using the very vocabulary and ways of thinking that lead to such outcomes. It’s no wonder that the church continues to drift.

The Children of Men by P. D. James (1992)

A moving, gripping and realistic portrait of the horror and despair that would accompany worldwide infertility, along with the wonder of childbirth. Hopefully the book’s cultural aspects do not turn out to be prophetic, though I fear they will.

Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World by Tom Holland (2021)

A tour-de-force proving, without a doubt, that so much of what we love about the world, whether we know it or not, comes from Christianity.

The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart by Harold L. Senkbeil (2019)

I don’t believe I’ve read a better book on the art of pastoring than this one. One of Senkbeil’s vocation-altering insights: Just give people Jesus; it’s all you can do. This may seem like a no-brainer, but so much of pastoral training consists of quality of leadership and church growth and team building and what we can learn from the business world, to the point where the life-saving work of Jesus is all but forgotten. This is a necessary reminder.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis (1950-1956)

A reread. I understand the criticism that Lewis’s world is disjointed, containing mythical beasts from too many different lands, and that his allegory smacks the reader too hard on top of the head. But I don’t care. These books are a balm to the weary soul.

The Age of Reform, 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe by Steven Ozment (1980)

Ozment shows definitively that the Reformation was not some brand-new thing that Luther invented in German pubs, but something that rose out of the theological swamps of Medieval Europe. If you have read a good recent book on Luther or the Reformation, that book is indebted to this one.

The Complete Tales of Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne (1926-1928)

Once, I was driving through a small town, with white picket fences, old-fashioned architecture, and a slow way about it—this town is so pleasant, I thought. Upon leaving the town, we saw the sign: Pleasanton.

Winnie the Pooh is the Pleasanton of children’s stories. Each one is a sheer delight.

Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise of Hope by Esau McCaulley (2020)

If one is unconvinced on whether one’s cultural background affects his or her understandings of the Scriptures, one should read this book. McCaulley shows just how much white evangelical culture has colored our reading of the Bible, not necessarily by critiquing it, but by showing the value of another reading, that of the black church. McCaulley changed my mind on what the Bible has to say about politics, among other things.

Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement by Richard Brookhiser (2009)

If you care at all about conservatism in the United States, you must be familiar with William F. Buckley, Jr., and Richard Brookhiser gives perhaps the most penetrating insights into WFB’s character. He is very revealing about their relationship, warts and all, and one comes away with realistic admiration for the man who was the sine qua non of the conservative movement.

Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (2017)

Kareem writing about John Wooden? This was made for me.

The Odyssey by Homer, transl. by Emily Wilson (circa 8th c. BC; 2018)

I’d previously read this in the Fitzgerald translation. Emily Wilson’s holds up. Homer’s Odysseus is a most interesting hero: valiant and cunning, insatiable and diabolical.

The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War by Joanne B. Freeman (2018)

It’s funny how learning any amount of history disabuses one of the notion that things are getting worse and worse. Freeman has a welcoming writing style, and has a knack for picking out the most interesting details. (Among them, an Arkansas House Speaker who murdered another representative who insulted him with a Bowie knife, and got reelected—and then pulled his knife out on another politician, only for his colleagues to force him to put it away by cocking their pistols in his direction. History is not boring!)

None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God by Matthew Barrett (2019)

The best introduction to the doctrine of God that’s out there. I will return to this again and again—for sermons, for refreshers, for my own study.

Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life by C. S. Lewis (1955)

Lewis is probably my favorite writer. He writes in such a way that the reader—at least, me—wholly identifies with him and his thoughts, as if you have always thought the same and could have written just that. Of course, none of us can write like Lewis, but he offers that to us.

I read this on the occasion of the birth of our third daughter, Lucy Joy—named for one of Lewis’s greatest creations, Lucy Pevensie, the heroine of the Narnia books, and his concept of Joy, seen in his memoir.

The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery by Ross Douthat (2021)

It’s shocking how vulnerable Douthat is in this book, but it has the proper effect. Chronic illness is hell, and we—as individuals, as society, as the church—ought to be more willing to do what we can to help.

The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski (2021)

My favorite read of the year. If you love baseball, this book is for you. If you used to love baseball, you will fall back in love with this book (at least until baseball season, and 4.5 hour games start again). If you never loved baseball, this book will make you want to give it a try. This book is meant to be devoured in as few sittings as possible, and then savored in tiny morsels.

The Message: New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs transl. by Eugene Peterson (1993)

Peterson’s language is so earthy. People who find this translation beneath them deserve their misery.

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