Top Ten Books I Read in 2015
December 7, 2015
It is time for those end of the year lists to start coming out. Keeping in the tradition that I started last year, I wanted to share the top ten books that I read this year. Two opening words. First, It is important to say again that these books did not necessarily come out in 2015. Merely, these are books that I read this year--some did come out in 2015, others long before. Second, these are books that I completed. I started a lot more, but for a variety of reasons didn't make it to the end. And so, of the 66 books that I completed thus far in 2015, here are my top ten:
1. Scott Manetsch, Calvin's Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church.
Ref21 readers are already familiar with this book. But Manetsch's work completely revisioned my understanding of what the ministry of Calvin and his colleagues looked like. Even more, the shape of the Reformed movement--not just on the continent, but in Scotland and in America beyond--became more clear as a result of this book. To be able to trace the lines from Calvin's day to my own ministry is not only exciting historiography; it is a genuine contribution to the life of the church.
2. J. Todd Billings, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ.
A powerful book. Billings explores his own battle with incurable cancer in the larger narrative of the psalms of lament and union with Christ. As a pastor who has several parishioners dealing with cancer at any given time, this was a rich theological resource and personal reflection.
3. Helen MacDonald, H is for Hawk.
One of my children is fascinating by hawking; after reading MacDonald's personal narrative of dealing with grief by training a hawk, I understand why. While there are some disturbing bits about T. H. White--familiar to most readers because of his retelling of the Arthur stories, but also the chronicler of his own attempt to train a goshawk--this was an ultimately redemptive, hopeful story.
4. Ed Shaw, The Plausibility Problem: The Church and Same-Sex Attraction.
This was just published in the US as Same-Sex Attraction and the Church, but I read the UK version earlier this year as I prepared to teach on this topic for our congregation. Of all the books that I read on the topic, this was by far the best. Shaw unpacks the various "plausibility" problems that confront same-sex attracted people as they wrestle with the biblical demands of celibacy. A hopeful book filled with Gospel.
5. Jane Dawson, John Knox.
A marvelous biography of Knox, as much of an achievement as Bruce Gordon's 2009 biography of Calvin was. Dawson sympathetically locates Knox in the political controversies of the day, deals with his theological commitments, and charts the trajectory of the Church of Scotland from its Knoxian roots. A fascinating book.
6. Philip and Carol Zaleski, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings.
This was an excellent group biography of the Inklings and especially four central figures: J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams. While those who have read a lot of Tolkien and Lewis will not find much new information here, I found it helpful to read about their interactions with the others, both individually and collectively. Too, Barfield and Williams come off the worse by their comparison to Lewis and Tolkien; indeed, "Tollers" was the shining hero of the story, the most consistent Christian and most thoughtful critic.
7. Tim Keller, Preaching.
I try to read at least one book on a preaching a year as a means of continuing education. Keller's book would repay an annual re-reading. Thoughtful explanations on how to preach Christ-centered sermons, on preaching to the affections, and on planning to preach. The endnotes were a separate book by themselves: don't ignore them! One of the best books on preaching I've read.
8. Michel Faber, The Book of Strange New Things.
This was World magazine's book of the year last year and so I decided to read it. What a powerful story--both the novel itself and the author's backstory. As with any book that deals with religion--especially written by an agnostic--I had some questions, but this novel dealt well with the evangelical emphasis upon conversion, the love for Scripture, and the need for missions. It also dealt with the heart-breaking challenge of losing loved ones and how faith does or does not help us maintain our connections. Powerful.
9. Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman
If you have not read this book either because of the controversy surrounding it or because of fear that it would change your opinion of Atticus Finch, you are missing out. In my mind, Go Set a Watchman is every bit as powerful and important as Lee's earlier story. Centering on the classic southern theme of "conscience," especially consciences warped on the issues of race, Lee not only faithfully depicts how southerners wrestled with these issues in the 1950s, but the way forward in our own time.
Of all the books in the Crossway series Theologians on the Christian Life that I've read, this was the best. Bolt gives us the missing fifth volume of Bavinck's dogmatics--his ethics. And he does so in a way that helps the reader understand the key theological themes of those dogmatics and other occasional writings--both what they said and what they have to say to our own day. I found myself reflecting on the material in my ministry for weeks after.
Honorable mention: my J. Gresham Machen and For a Continuing Church. I've spent a lot of time reading these two books. In their own way, I think they each make a contribution. My Machen gently disagrees with some of the major studies of the Westminster Seminary founder, while For a Continuing Church is the first thoroughly research, archival-based narrative of the PCA. I hope they'll find a place in your reading list in 2016.