My Favorite Books of 2021

I know I’m a little bit behind everyone else on my “top 10 books” list, but we just moved to a new city, and I think I’m finally getting back to my old rhythms. These are the top 10 books that I enjoyed in 2021.

10. Evangelism as Exiles-Elliot Clark
Clark is painfully biblical, painful because there are some of his points that I don’t want to engage with, but need to because scripture says them. A few examples are that we need to be prepared for being reviled when we speak about Jesus, we need to proclaim the gospel to those who often don’t want to hear it, and how we treat our wives has a direct effect on how successful we are in the work of mission.

9. Behind the Beautiful Forevers-Katherine Boo
I really appreciate the reviewer who said that the editor likely made Boo put in the word “hope” into the subtitle of this book. And it’s true, there is not too much hope in this book.

One thing that Boo hits again and again is that much of slum life is the poor taking advantage of the even poorer. This is a bleak but helpful contrast to a book like Shantaram, which seems to inject a certain nobility into being poor. There is a naïve strain of thought that says that the poor would improve morally if we simply gave them money. But the flipside is no less naïve, that the rich would improve morally if we simply took away their money.

I appreciate this book’s ability to highlight the corruption that runs through the whole Mumbai system. A stain that runs through the police, the judiciary, government aid, the criminal justice system, the education system, and even the hospitals.

And it is in those moments of the utmost bleakness that maybe hope does have a place. Because it is in those moments that you begin to develop an imagination for what might happen if the Christian gospel took root. Not just transforming an individual’s life, but like just a pinch of yeast in a massive bowl of dough, slowly transforming the entire culture from the inside out.

8. Deep discipleship-J.T. English
It is always a good book that shows you your blind spots. Churches usually subscribe to either a small group model or a Sunday school model. I love small groups and in a lot of ways that was my de facto position. But English does a really good job parsing out that small groups and Sunday schools do different things, and we need them both.

English is the master of good systems. This is an excellent book for anyone trying to plant or revitalize a church. Pulling both teaching and community together is important, and this is an excellent nuts-and-bolts book to help you do just that.

7. Ministries of Mercy-Tim Keller
You should have a “go to” book in every category. My problem is that my “go to” books all are beginning to be Tim Keller books. Work? “Every Good Endeavor.” Church planting? “Center Church.” Preaching? “Preaching” Prayer? “Prayer” (Hey, I didn’t say that Keller was creative in his titles) And now I’ve added a new one.

Keller starts out with an overview of needs, which although somewhat dated, probably have not changed significantly. Either way, the exact numbers are not the point as much as the overwhelming need. Keller moves into why we should address these needs and then how we should address them.

I found that some of Keller’s most helpful passages (and there was a lot of competition) were

1. His discussion of how good works and evangelism work together. He lays out 5 views and in typical Keller fashion, aims for the most balanced. Neither without each other, Neither as a means to the other.

2. His discussion of should we give assistance to only those who deserve it. On one side you have people that say mercy should be given to all freely; on the other side, you have those who say that you should first make sure those you help won’t squander the assistance. He speaks of how grace should be first given freely and then love drives us to have the needy assist us in their assistance. He draws the analogy about how Christ gives us grace freely, but then requires us to work out our own salvation. And we ought to do this out of love for the poor, just as Christ does for us. This is, as he states it, only allowing mercy to limit mercy. As I look at my own heart I realize how impossible it is to live this way consistently. But, hey, welcome to the Christian life.

3. His nuts-and-bolts ways of starting a mercy ministry. Everyone with volunteers will benefit from his discussion of how to organize volunteers. Also, especially as someone in a leadership role, his admonition that lay ministry drives mercy ministry strikes me as both refreshing and sustainable.

Mercy ministry is a hard road, but I can’t imagine a ministry that wouldn’t benefit from this book.

6. The Case for Life: Equipping Christians to Engage the Culture-Scott Klusendorf
Keep this book on your shelf. With all the legislation and Supreme Court decisions surrounding abortion, we need to learn to speak compassionately, logically, and persuasively on this topic.

Klusendorf packs a lot into this little book. He talks about almost every conceivable justification for abortion, embryonic stem cell research, how to debate, hope for the post-abortive, and even a brief defense of the Christian faith. But even with all of that, it is not hard to follow.

Klusendorf is not only persuasive, but he is persuasive in a way that doesn’t make straw men of his opponents. I know few pro-choicers who would not resonate at least at some level with the pro-choicer described in the book.

As a postscript, even his terminology is helpful and well thought out. He uses the phrase “pro-abortion choice” to describe the position that allows for abortion. Which I think is the clearest and most accurate title that I’ve ever heard. “Pro-abortion” is often misleading, as many who support abortion really don’t like abortion, but support the choice to have one. And “pro-choice” is often too broad, because the conversation is not about choices in general, but about one particular choice.

5. Bloodlines-John Piper
Reading Bloodlines in 2021, I am aware there are a lot of articles and books on racial reconciliation. And that is good. But it is refreshing that Piper was writing this in 2011, back before race was as much of a hot-button topic as it is now.

This book is very good. There are three main reasons for this.

1. Piper’s own change towards racism. It is helpful to not only read that someone can change, but to also read that someone did. Especially when that person is the author of the book.

2. Piper’s focus on the gospel. So much of what we hear is a (often correct) lament of how bad race relations are. That has its place, but the current culture has no answer of how to fix the problem of racism. In the gospel, Piper does, and in talking about it he strikes a hopeful note.

3. Piper’s nuance. When speaking of the plight of the African-American community, usually you waffle between two narratives. One is that the black community needs to do better, and that they are the cause of their own suffering. The other is that the white community needs to do better, and that they are the cause of black suffering. Both have elements of truth in them, and Piper threads the needle between both approaches and shows how they are both incomplete pictures.

This has been my go-to recommendation for a resource on racial reconciliation and will continue to be.

4. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self-Carl Trueman
There is an old joke (that I heard from David Foster Wallace) about a pair of fish swimming past a third fish. The third fish greets them, “how’s the water today?” Then one of the two fish says to the other, “What’s water?”

The point of the joke, of course, is that when you are surrounded by something for so long, you don’t realize that you are in it. Trueman helps peel back how our society got to the place where the phrase, “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” makes sense. And although you may disagree with that phrase, as Trueman peels back the layers of logic leading up to that phrase, you may find yourself having taken some of the culture’s suppositions for granted.

I think this book will help Christians be informed about their surroundings, as well as help them “fight upstream.” Not taking issue primarily at the level of “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body,” but maybe at the level of “people are basically good,” or “we define our own meaning.”

3. Side by Side-Ed Welch
Occasionally in the Christian life, you need someone to remind you of the most basic things. That person is Ed Welch. He will say things like pray for yourself and pray for others and then explain how you do it. Not profound, but unfortunately so neglected. Welch is someone to read slowly and apply as you go.

One of the most helpful things that he mentions is that we ought to pray for ourselves, not just our felt needs, but what we really need. And then we pray for others like we pray for ourselves. And then we check back on others after we prayed for them and say that we prayed for them. And In those small steps that he lays out, he lays the basis for strong, healthy community.

2. The Last Battle-C.S. Lewis
Our culture needs books like the last battle. Because I think we have a hard time understanding revelation until we understand the paradoxes of emotions in “The Last Battle.” There is great loss and great joy brought together. There is just vengeance that you long for when you see injustice and a longing for the salvation of those who refuse salvation. There is a leaving of a very beautiful world and the inauguration of an even more beautiful world.  The emotions you feel in “The Last Battle” are deeper and more complex than the ones we are used to feeling. 

I might have taken off a star for Emeth. I really considered it. People smarter than me have argued that it is not inclusivism that Emeth is saved. And maybe it’s not. But it sure does feel off. But I’m keeping all five stars because the rest of the book is just so darn good.

Postscript: Oh, our culture also desperately needs this book because of our view of demons as imaginary. Lewis does a great job both not equating Aslan with Tash, but also painting Tash as incredibly powerful and not to be handled flippantly.

1. Gospel Fluency-Jeff Vanderstelt
If I could put this book in the hands of every Christian, I would. Vanderselt takes the question of, “what is the gospel good for,” and answers it with, “everything.” Which is such a refreshing read in the Bible Belt. Growing up, much of my concept of Jesus was someone who was only relevant for staying away from “big” sins and for getting us to heaven when we die. As such, I didn’t think about Jesus a lot. But Vanderselt shows how the gospel affects every single thing every single day.

I really believe the primary problem in my context is not that people don’t believe Christianity is true, I think the primary problem is that people don’t believe Christianity is important. This book gives you the reasons to stop believing that and the tools to convince others as well.

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