The Best Books I Read in 2018 (and Some Not-So-Good)
Picture by Brandi Redd
‘Tis time my friends for what has become a favourite annual tradition: pulling together my thoughts for you on the best books I’ve read, those I’ve had the honour of endorsing, plus the not-so-good titles from this past twelve months. I’ve added Amazon links for you to explore these titles further but, as I say each year, consider ordering a book or two through your local bookshop also, as they really need your business.
What a gift great authors are to this world. I’d love you to give me leads for 2019’s list too. What were the best books you read this year? Let me know in the comments below.
|Peace Like a River by Leif Enger Amazon US | Amazon UK
It sat on my shelves for years. Why oh why did I wait? As we follow the miracle-working Jeremiah Land and his children in search of his eldest law-breaking son Davy, we are met with flowing prose, an exhilarating plot, and wonderful depictions of grace and faith. The most ‘Christian’ secular novel I’ve read and now one of my all-time favourites.
|The Magnificent Defeat by Frederick Buechner Amazon US | Amazon UK
Ah, Buechner… he turns up often in these lists. And given this is a book of sermons, I wasn’t expecting the writing to be as fine as classic memoirs like Sacred Journey. But I was wrong. Combining deep reflection on scripture with deep reflection on lived experience with a good measure of imagination thrown in, these short chapters are full of wonder and surprise.
|Conditions of Love by John Armstrong Amazon US | Amazon UK
What does it mean to love another person? While focussed largely on romantic love, this is a brilliant but accessible meditation on the topic, drawing from poetry, novels, philosophy, history and art, tracing our contemporary understandings back to their roots. A very valuable read.
|Stories With Intent by Kline Snodgrass Amazon US | Amazon UK
I am still making my way through this 600-page tome (second edition), considered one of the best texts available on Jesus’ parables. With careful biblical and historical analysis, Snodgrass helps clarify some of these difficult words of Jesus while rescuing others from familiarity or abuse. Brilliant.
Books I Endorsed
|Healing Our Broken Humanity by Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Graham Hill Amazon US | Amazon UK
“This is a timely book. In an age when new walls are being built between nations, races and sexes, Healing Our Broken Humanity takes us beyond hand-wringing alarm or chest-thumping reaction to reflection and practical change. As members of Christ’s Church we are a new humanity—an identity that incorporates and supersedes all others, a glimpse of God’s destiny for the world. That means solving society’s ills starts firstly with us, rooting out our own racism, nationalism, and complicity in injustice. Healing Our Broken Humanity is both diagnosis and cure, theory and practice, a book reminding us of who we are and giving us steps to enact change.”
|Honesty Over Silence by Patrick Regan Amazon US | Amazon UK
“Physical pain, emotional anguish, loss, doubt, darkness – Patrick Regan has felt all this and more, sometimes at once. Through it he has learnt that when you summon the bravery to vulnerably share your struggles, you end up giving others permission to be vulnerable too. And from that moment of connection community gets formed, lessons are then shared, and we all start to heal. Honesty Over Silence will help you know what to let go of and what to hold on to as you walk your own wilderness journey.”
|Workship Volume 2 by Kara Martin Amazon US | Amazon UK
“In Workship, Kara Martin helped us see that our work, however noticed or hidden, matters to God and to the world. In this follow up volume she gets even more practical, showing us how to bring beauty and hospitality into the workplace, deal with organisational stress and co-worker conflict, navigate tricky ethical dilemmas, and more. Here is your go-to manual for making the workdays meaningful.”
|The Wren’s Nest by Elizabeth Musser Amazon UK (soon to release in English)
“Two lives, a century apart. One problem, both ancient and modern. In The Wren’s Nest, Elizabeth Musser interlaces stories of love and loss, faith and doubt, gut-wrenching corruption and steady-dawning hope into a tale that is both moving and illuminating. The sins of America’s fathers are still with us. But they can be fought and the captive set free.”
|Influence by Kate Motaung and Shannon Popkin Amazon US | Amazon UK
“Today’s author faces pressure like never before to plug, push and promote her own work. This is difficult for most writers who’d rather craft books than sell them, and even more so for the Christian called to self-forgetfulness over self-promotion. How can we play our part in the contemporary publishing world without losing our soul? In Influence, Kate Motaung and Shannon Popkin place platform building where it belongs – in the context of character and calling. Recounting their own failures, successes and lessons alongside biblical insights, they help us navigate fear, comparison and other perils while encouraging us to humbly share our gifts. This is a timely, helpful book reminding us that platforms are best built for the service of God and others.”
Who Are You, Really? by Brian Little. In this short read Little adds a third layer to the nature/nurture debate, saying that personal projects are also key shapers of our personalities. The book could’ve done with more examples to clarify its argument, but is a helpful starting point on the topic.
The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz. A psychoanalyst recounts encounters with his patients that reveal just how mysterious and confounding the human psyche can be.
Transitions by William Bridges. A popular book on managing life’s changes, Bridges’ three-stage model of ‘endings-neutral zone-new beginnings’ resonates with much of what I’ve experienced through listening to others emerging from life-defining changes.
Bono on Bono by Mischka Assayas. Having sat on my shelf for years I pulled this down one afternoon and was soon engrossed. An exploration of Bono the artist, poverty campaigner, entrepreneur and businessman, Bono can’t help but drop God into the conversation (with pretty decent theology too), and Assayas uses his brilliant interview skills and his friendship to get the most out of Bono by posing scenarios, pushing him for clarity, disagreeing with him, and more. This is an old book now (2006) but worth the time.
Christian Living and Theology
Living on Purpose by Cathy Madavan. In this short study of the Book of James, Cathy weaves her trademark wit and storytelling into accessible insights from what can be (let’s face it) a difficult section of the New Testament. Get a copy for each of your small group members and grow together.
The God Who Loves You by Peter Kreeft. This only narrowly missed my Particularly Recommended list, being one of the best books on the theology of love I’ve ever read. Unfortunately, it’s let down by the application sections in the second half of the book which at times wander off topic or don’t allow adequate space to deal with complex issues (the tiny section on feminism will make many irate). But get this and read it. The strong parts are powerful.
Who God Says You Are by Kline Snodgrass. New Testament scholar Snodgrass explores human identity, arguing that we are a combination of body, history, relations, mind, commitments, actions, boundaries and change. While light on illustration and example, this is nevertheless a solid biblical work looking at an important topic.
Only the Brave by Various. The official book for the 2018 Spring Harvest event, looking at bold discipleship via the in-your-face Book of James.
Short Stories by Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine. A few years ago I started a practice of looking at a topic through two very different lenses (for instance, exploring God’s love by reading Shane Claiborne’s practice-oriented The Irresistible Revolution with DA Carson’s more conservative/reformed The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God). I’m reading Jewish scholar Levine alongside Kline Snodgrass’s Stories of Intent to see what insights both reveal about Jesus’ parables.
Theology and Joy by Jurgen Moltmann. A German theologian looking at play and joy? That will surely lead to some dense paragraphs… and it does. But there’s an important message tucked away in there: creation is God’s act of play, meaning we can play too as his image-bearers.
Sustaining Leadership by Paul Swann. Here’s what I’ve learnt: the leaders I’m most drawn to trust, respect and follow are those who have experienced deep trial. Paul Swann has mined his own wilderness experience of burnout and gathered the gems into this important book for all leaders.
Known By God by Brian Rosner. Who are we? What makes us, us? If you’ve heard about my next book you’ll know I’ve been interested in this topic for a while, and Rosner brings an important element to the conversation: in Christian terms, our identity is based on being known by God. A helpful book drawing on scripture, history and a wide range of thinkers.
A Gift of Love by Martin Luther King Jnr. This updated version of King’s classic book of sermons Strength to Love omits some outdated chapters and adds a couple more. In it we find a preacher who brought head, heart and action together, his allegorical approach to scripture leading to some weaknesses, but the entirety of his life leading to a profound example of love and justice.
Fools Talk by Os Guinness. Billed as Guinness’s magnum opus on communicating faith to a secular age, I was surprised how much I felt I’d read much of the material before. In short, if you’ve read Guinness’s other books you may not find much new here, but if you haven’t, this is a great way to access Os’s brilliance.
Waiting on God by Andrew Murray. The classic 31 day devotional book from a man who truly knew God and the peace and power that comes from dwelling with him. This was important sabbatical reading for me.
The Best Spiritual Writing 2010. Having heard about this annual series, I grabbed this edition at a second-hand store. Including articles and poems from a range of authors (Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, secular), I was impressed at the graceful writing even when I didn’t agree with the ideas. Highlights include David Berlinski’s The God of the Gaps (a masterful defence of scientifically-based intelligent design), Nicholas Carr’s Is Google Making Us Stupid? (the answer is Yes), Meir Soloveichik’s Why Beards? (why Jews don’t cut their beards but monks do), and John Updike’s The Writer in Winter.
Those Who Wait by Tanya Marlow. Bedridden for years with ME, Marlow knows what it means to wait. Marshalling what little energy she has, she has used her considerable writing skills to retell the stories of key biblical characters who waited too, adding reflection questions and creative exercises into the mix to bring encouragement to those living in the long winter of unfulfilled hopes. Very well done.
Godric by Frederick Buechner. Buechner imagines what the real story of the medieval English saint Godric might be underneath the hagiography. In doing, he perhaps makes Godric more lecherous than he ever was (reverse hagiography?) and rinses out the supernatural almost completely (a reflection of Buechner’s own liberal Protestanism?). But still, these are vivid words from one of my favourite authors. It was nominated for the Pulitzer on first release in 1981.
The Tenth Man by Graham Greene. Interesting alone for its own backstory – written then forgotten about until it was optioned for a movie forty years later (how does a writer forget about a book they’ve written?) – this is isn’t Greene’s most magnificent work, but a good exploration of conflicted conscience nonetheless.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver. A book of short stories from the master of gritty realism, the title story turns out to be the best – and possibly only – story about love itself.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham. A lusciously written interweaving of three lives separated by decades that is somber in outlook and graphic in places.
Lily’s Balloon by Katrina Roe, illustrated by Helene Magisson. A delightful picture book for young readers about letting go of something you love so someone else can enjoy it more.
Poetry and Writing
Blue Horses by Mary Oliver. To be honest, I find most poetry hard-going. Dense and abstract, I usually give up within a few lines. But in Mary Oliver I have found a poetic saviour. Her work is beautiful, insightful, unpretentious and most importantly (for me), accessible. This short book is as good as any to get you started.
Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor. This compilation of O’Connor’s thoughts on writing, drawn from various articles and talks, should be compulsory reading for every Christian who aspires to write fiction. Her repeated refrain: fiction deals first and foremost with the concrete, not the abstract ideas a writer may wish to present, and that a work of art is a good in itself and shouldn’t need to serve any other purpose (including evangelism).
Disappointing or Left Unfinished
The Bad Christian’s Manifesto by Dave Tomlinson. Believing that some of our conceptions of God are damaging (true enough), Tomlinson wants us to find new images. The result of this subjective quest is a Christianity in which God is reduced to a force, all religions are roads to the divine, incarnation is something a nice Muslim or secularist might embody (God becoming ‘flesh and blood time and again in every expression of humanity’) and historic Christian beliefs traded for popular secular values.
A Sense of Reality by Graham Greene. A book of short stories exploring genres of myth, dream and fantasy, I was enjoying this until the last story, A Discovery in the Woods, in which Green’s overly-detailed description of a little girl moves beyond distaste to repugnance. Why hasn’t there been more outrage over this semi-sexualisation of a child?
The Art of Mindful Walking by Adam Ford. What promised to be a book about the reflective possibilities of walking became a recounting of some walks the author did, quite a lot of talk about birds (his hobby), with a little Buddhism-lite and the odd ‘the Bible says such-and-such but we don’t need to believe such silliness anymore’ vagueness.
“The hummingbird, the fox, the raven, the hawk, the otter, the dragonfly, the water lily! And on and on. It must be a great disappointment to God if we are not dazzled at least ten times a day.”
“In every true prayer there are two hearts in exercise. The one is your heart, with its little, dark, human thoughts of what you need and God can do. The other is God’s great heart, with its infinite, divine purposes of blessing. To which of these two ought the larger place be given?”
What did you read this year that we should know about? Tell me now in the comments below.