The end of the year is a good time reflecting on what has shaped you, and few things have shaped me as profoundly as books. Here is a list of my top ten favorite books that I read (or listened to) in 2020.
1. The Abolition of Man – C.S. Lewis
It is only someone like Lewis who can take a review of a grammar book and critique all of Western culture with it. And the beautiful thing is that his critique rings louder and clearer as the decades march on. Lewis wrote this book against a culture that (even then) said, “do whatever you feel like doing.” Lewis responds by asking the question that is increasingly forgotten, “is what I feel a good thing to do?”
His essay, “men without chests” becomes increasingly relevant as people today, even more than before, forget the value of virtue and mourn the loss of its fruits. Finally, he takes his conclusion of our obsession with technology to its logical end, showing that man never conquers nature, but rather uses nature as an instrument to conquer other men.
2. When I Don’t Desire God- John Piper
I think this book is Piper at his best. The first few chapters set out why you ought to desire joy in God. They are dense, but only because he is so theologically careful. If you get through those, then he hits the practical side of the Christian life.
The practical chapters were some of the most helpful things that I have ever read. From how, where, and when to pray to how eating and exercising tie into pursuing joy in God, Piper gives the nitty gritty directions that a culture without spiritual disciplines so desperately needs. Whether you are a new Christian or you have been following Jesus for a long time, I can’t imagine a person who would not benefit from this book.
3. The Gospel Comes With a House Key- Rosaria Butterfield
A lot has been written on how hospitality is the new frontier of evangelism, but Butterfield writes it best.
My favorite part is that Butterfield is open about the costs of hospitality. She speaks of befriending a man who ended up building a meth lab in his house. She speaks of her house being robbed. She speaks of a thousand inconveniences and pains in the furtherance of the gospel, and she challenges us to embrace all of them for the sake of the gospel.
All of this is in the shadow of her own incredible story about how hospitality led her to Christ. I can’t speak highly enough of this book. Rosaria Butterfield is a careful thinker, an engaging writer, and is someone I would love to emulate.
4. Evangelism in a Skeptical World (audio lectures)- Sam Chan
Just a disclaimer, as the title suggests, this is a series of audio lectures and not a book per se. But what a series of audio lectures. Chan knows what he wants, and he goes and gets it. He wants to tell people about Jesus. Not winning a discussion, not looking smart, not giving any sort of theological treatise. And because of this, his book is incredibly helpful.
I think his two most helpful points are the fact that community breaks down plausibility structures. Basically, this means that we find believable what the people around us find believable. That’s huge. The implications are that one of the reasons many people find Christianity implausible is because their circles do not contain Christians.
The second point is that we need have a good gauge as to what our non-Christians neighbors want and then show how the methods that they are using to get those things come up short. The quick way to understand this is that we need to move into resonance before dissonance. I am so quick to shoot down someone else’s ideas that I forget to realize how much truth exist even in really bad ideas.
Quick, fun, and profound. I would hand this to any Christian wanting to know how to share their faith.
5. The Loveliness of Christ- Samuel Rutherford
This book is full of little gems that you should roll around in your mouth until they melt. Rutherford speaks of the consolation of Christ in suffering, and as an American Christian, it is something I need to dwell on more. He does such a good job of pushing the suffering Christian’s eyes back onto Christ, again and again. I have found, personally, that doing this to other believers is much of what discipleship is. Don’t come to me for help, I have nothing in me that can help you, but I can show you someone who does.
“Blessed be my rich Lord Jesus, who sendeth not away beggars from His house with a toom dish. He filleth the vessels of such as will come and seek. We might beg ourselves rich (if we were wise), if we could but hold out our withered hands to Christ, and learn to suit and seek, ask and knock.”
― Samuel Rutherford
6. Crime and punishment- Fyodor Dostoevsky
Russian novels on audio are something of my guilty pleasure. This book is massive, and definitely doesn’t just, “get to the point.” But there is hardly a better way to explore the themes of humanity, sin, and guilt.
Getting into Rasholnikov’s mind is both revealing and repulsive. Partially because you can actually follow his logic into killing a woman with an axe. But he is not the only character that is both sympathetic and wicked. One of the best depictions of sin I have ever read was written into the character of the drunkard Semyon Zakharovich Marmeladov. Marmeladov, even after his life of drunkenness had the chance to turn his life around. He chose instead to drink again, leaving his family in poverty. He bought a last drink with money that he got from his daughter, who because of poverty had sold herself into prostitution. He rhetorically asks,
“Do you suppose, you that sell, that this pint of yours has been sweet to me? It was tribulation I sought at the bottom of it, tears and tribulation, and have found it, and I have tasted it…”
Piercing, visceral, and haunting. Not to oversell, but at the end of this book, you may know the world you live in, and even yourself, just a little bit better.
7. The Everlasting Man- Chesterton
When I read a book like this, published in 1925, I am overwhelmed by how little society changes. Almost 100 years later, we modern people still have a contempt for the past, an oversimplification of history, and a focus on how man is like the other animals instead of how he is vastly different. And Chesterton has an a weapon in his arsenal besides brute logic: he’s funny. E.B. White once said, “A despot doesn’t fear eloquent writers preaching freedom-he fears a drunken poet may crack a joke that will take hold.” And therein lies a lot of the strength of Chesterton, he’s witty, memorable, and his points stick.
Chesterton also does an excellent job painting Christianity as both unique an beautiful. He separates it from every other religion and there is a sense that even if you are not a Christian at the end of his book, you may at least want to be.
8. Reappearing Church-Mark Sayers
Sayers is something of a public intellectual and a radical, which is a combination that we need more of. He starts out the book as a manual for small groups who want to be part of the movement of renewal in the West. His emphasis is on dedication and intentional formation against the culture.
Sayers is also a great exegete of the culture. He shows how the culture has de-formed Christians to the point that simple discipleship is almost impossible. This is a book that I think can be used powerfully to bring renewal, mainly by pointing out the specific things that hinder it.
9. Good and Angry- David Powlison
One way to rate the quality of a book is to see not only if it gives you new information but if it also changes your behavior. “Good and Angry” did that for me. Powlison’s definition of anger as, “the constructive displeasure of mercy” changed how I saw anger and changed what I did when I felt it in my bones.
Anger is a good thing, but a good thing that can go wrong in so many ways. Powlison does a good job helping identify what is the “wrong” that is underneath anger. To be able to articulate that wrong can do wonders in helping either diffuse anger, or express it in constructive ways.
10. A Secular Age- Taylor
I’m indebted to James K.A. Smith for making this book more accessible. In his book on this book, “How Not to be Secular” he does a good job distilling the gold out of this book. And man, is there a lot of gold. But Smith’s book (and he admits as much) is not a substitute for reading this one. There is a lot that only Taylor, in all his grandeur, can give us through his story of Western Christianity.
The Achilles heel of this book is that it is so darn inaccessible. Taylor writes long passages in French and then has the translation in parenthesis. He uses German words (without translation) casually. I think he assumes we are as smart as he is. And I can assure you wholeheartedly that I am not.
But I profited. A lot. Once you get used to his style, reading goes by a lot faster. (I think the sweet spot for me was probably between page 300-400) I think Taylor’s terms and insights are especially useful as you interact with unbelievers who say they can see nothing of Christianity. There will be a lot of moments where you say, “oh, that’s why people act that way!” or “oh, that’s why I believe that.”
It’s a hard book, but if you dig long enough, I guarantee that there are some diamonds down there.