The numbering system in this listing of the best books has little meaning. It is hard to argue with Spurgeon’s book being the best of the year, but perhaps that it because I have spent the year preaching. Bret Lott’s book was the best book I read on being a writer. It almost convinced me to try to be one. Miller’s book was one of many good ones on prayer. Each book achieved a certain goal in a particular area. Some books, like equipment used on fields, merely break up the ground. Others dig deep into the soil, while others serve to plant, till, or harvest. In different areas of my life, the field is in different stages. On other years, in other times, the order and inclusions would be totally different.
1. Lectures to My Students by Charles H. Spurgeon
The best book I read in 2014, I am ashamed to admit, is Lectures to My Students by Charles H. Spurgeon. Why ashamed to admit this? Because I have had a copy of this book for years. Yes, I read selected chapters in years past and liked them, but it was only this year when I plodded along page by page from beginning to end. It was originally 3 separate volumes, and I read it like that. I feel like congratulating myself for reading the book and firing me for not having read it years ago and often since then. I will try to be better in the future by reading this book in whole or part often.
Lectures consists of talks that Charles H. Spurgeon gave to theology students on Friday afternoons, after their minds had been saturated through the weeks with heavy studies. Spurgeon sought to lively, practical, convicting, and humorous. He achieved all his goals. This book made me laugh, left me broken in conviction, provided me with sermon fodder, enriched me with pithy quotes, and challenged me all along the way.
One of my favorite chapters concerned Spurgeon’s own style of preaching. Unlike so many in the Reformed faith, Spurgeon was not a traditional expository preacher. He did not typically preach through books, chapters, or even verses. Spurgeon was prone to lift a phrase from its context and proceed from there to his message. And, he defended his methods and methodology. I was totally unconvinced by his chapter on this matter, but found it incredibly enjoyable and instructive. That attests to Spurgeon’s high skills. Thanks to George Grant, D. Lowrie, and David Richardson for inspiring me to read this book.
2. The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 by Rick Atkinson
This book has to be read in as part of the Liberation Trilogy, in which the first volume is Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 and the last and most recent volume is Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945. (I have not read the last one yet.) America’s wartime efforts in World War II are amazing. The sheer magnitude of what America did from December 1941 through August of 1945 ranks as one of history’s greatest events. Included in those momentous and terrible times were the Italian campaigns that involved the invasion of Sicily and then the Italian peninsula. The defense put up by the Italian armies was short lived, but German rushed troops and materials into Italy and contested the campaign every step of the way. The Americans had to contend with tensions between themselves and the British, the geographical challenges of Italy, the harshness of the winters spent in Italy, and with a series of poorly planned and badly executed campaigns. If I had not already known that the Allies were going to win, I would have assumed that the Germans would have won the campaign. But we did win and that message still resonates in an American’s heart.
War is not an abstraction where armies and divisions move and confront enemy forces. War involves individuals, some adept and prepared, some totally overwhelmed by the horrors of war. Atkinson tells the big picture story, but tells it through the accounts of those men who were there.
3. Wavell in the Middle East, 1939-1941: A Study in Generalship by Henry Raugh
I cannot complete explain why this book was so important to me. Until I heard of this book, I had not thought about General Wavell since the time when I was in high school. (Every boy, at about age 15, imagines himself under General Wavell’s command in the deserts of North Africa….) I was impressed, however, because this study of General Archibald Wavell is one of the less-told stories of World War II. General Wavell is not in the top or near the top tier of best known leaders of World War II. But, his role in the Middle East in 1940-1941 may have been more important, or at least as important, as that of any one else on the Allied side in that war. With minimal forces, with an incredibly strung out area of operations, with the odds against him, Wavell drove the Italians out of Ethiopia and eastern Africa. Then he oversaw the near complete destruction of the Italian forces in north Africa. He helped secure the Middle Eastern countries that could have tipped in their positions toward Vichy France and then Nazi Germany. His greatest setback, a campaign he did not favor, was in trying to slow or halt the German invasions of Greece and Italy. Had northern and eastern Africa and the Middle East not been securely in Allied hands, the war could have gone far differently. British loss of the Suez Canal and Egypt, the rallying of Muslims toward the Axis, and the lack of a substantial British victory somewhere would all have had bad repercussions for the allies. The quiet, gentle, scholarly, and poetic general paved the way to the ultimate victory of the Allies in World War II.
4. Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry by Paul David Tripp
In some ways, it is hard to raise a cheer for this book, and yet it was undeniably one of the best books I read this past year. Dangerous Calling was some serious, somber, sober, soul searching reading. This book is as critical for the pastor as Spurgeon’s Lectures. But there is little laughter here. Every pastor reading this book sees himself, sees dangers, and sees the many pot holes, bridges that are out, and deceptive side roads we face. I read and hear far too many stories of pastors whose ministries, churches, families, and personal lives are disrupted and destroyed by sin. Any Christian can stumble and fall. Pastors are not stronger than the rest of the congregation, but they are highly vulnerable. Strong medicine for bad diseases.
4. The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy
I love reading about Presidential lives. I am especially drawn to the late twentieth century Presidents. I have not read a lot about the life of Billy Graham, but I recognize him as one of the greatest preachers in all of history and probably the most important preacher of the 20th Century. Graham had a true heart of concern for quite a few U. S. Presidents. He truly loved and cared for Presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Clinton, and both Bushes. His attempts at a friendly relationship with Truman failed. He answered some of the most basic, and yet important, questions that Presidents asked about their souls, salvation, and eternity. Because of Graham’s prominence, he was courted and wooed by lots of political leaders. He sometimes stumbled, particularly in regard to his friendship with Richard Nixon, but he truly tried to maintain the role of a spiritual counselor to powerful men who were usually quite weak spiritually. An example of his popularity and prominence with Presidents can be seen in the fact that he stayed at the White House on George H. W. Bush’s last night there and stayed again the next night for the first night that the Clinton’s were there. This man truly loved and loves politicians that I don’t like, along with some that I do. (Gibbs and Duffy have another book out on Presidents that I cannot wait to get and read.)
5. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation by James K. A. Smith
I am anxious to read the next volume in Smith’s series, which is titled Imagining the Kingdom so that I can better piece together his message. Smith nudges Christian educators out of thinking merely of a fact-based Christian worldview to seeing something bigger, more all encompassing, more spiritual, imaginative, and cultural. This is not a “read once and discard” type of book. The series is called “Cultural Liturgies,” and that captures some of the whallop of Smith’s ideas to our thinking. To divide worship and worldview is not our calling. Talk to me more about this book as I continue to read and think on these things.
6. I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven
I read quite a few novels this past year, including ones by Tom Wolfe, Lief Enger, Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, Larry Woiwode, and others. I continue to try to figure out what novels do and how they mean (you read that right). This short novel was a re-reading after a thirty-year gap. The parish priest in this story has a year or so of life to live among a tribe of native people in Canada. The old ways are threatened by the new, the Faith contends with the customs, and eternal matters edge up against temporal ones. The story is beautiful and sad, short and haunting.
7. A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War by Thomas Fleming
Thomas Fleming is one of the best popular historians in America. His skill can be seen in this book where he explores some very familiar material and presents a new and better way of looking at it. The disease in the public mind, a phrase coined by the little noted President James Buchanan, was the tensions of slavery. The ugliness of the institution is found in this book, but the errors and shortcomings and near-successes and tragic failures of dealing with slavery are the gist of the book. Slavery and its remedy was not a problem merely caused by Southern sin. Some proposed cures as bad as the disease. This is good history and good story-telling.
8. Recovering Classical Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry by Gregory Alan Thornbury
Carl Henry was a mighty force in American evangelicalism. He was a Christian intellectual thinker of the highest magnitude. Unfortunately, like a lot of brainy people, he wrote in a style that was not popular and hammered away on issues that were not compelling. But Christian thinkers are not raised up to draw crowds, appeal to the masses, or achieve fame. They are called to study, to think, and to be faithful. Henry did all that. He bolstered the walls of the defense of Scripture and orthodoxy. Building on the labors of men like Cornelius Van Til and Gordon Clark, he aptly defended the faith. This study is a good defense of the importance of the man.
9. Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian by Bret Lott
This book is a companion volume of sorts to Before We Get Started: A Practical Memoir of a Writer’s Life. I have been enjoying Lott’s writing for the past four years. I have acquired and read most of his books and am anticipating more good novels and short stories to come. This book addresses issues related to being a Christian and being a writer. There are those writers who love the Lord and seek to express an explicitly Christian message through the medium of a novel. Lott does not typically write the “Come to Jesus”-type of novel. A Christian worldview and foundation underlies his work, but his message is there for all to read. This book helps explain some of the nuts and bolts of such a Christian approach to writing.
10. A Praying Life: Connecting With God in a Distracting World by Paul Miller
This was a year of good reading on prayer. I read one of E. M. Bounds’ books on prayer with much enjoyment and conviction. I preached through the Sermon on the Mount and devoted about seven sermons to the Lord’s Prayer. That sermon series was directed and helped by a number of books and portions of books I read on prayer. These included books by Philip Graham Ryken, N. T. Wright, Thomas Watson, and Wayne Mack. These reads were all profitable, but the best of all was A Praying Life by Paul Miller. Perhaps one of the most encouraging messages of the book was the call for praying in all of life’s circumstances. When our lives are busy, chaotic, and unfocused, then hurried, chaotic, and unfocused prayers need to be the order of the day. Prayer is to be our life, not just an add on.
C. S. Lewis: A Life–Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet by Alister McGrath is a fine biography of one of Christendom’s most engaging and interesting men. This book had to crowd itself onto a full shelf of Lewis studies, but it is one of the best.
I Wish I Had Been There: Twenty Historians Bring to Life Dramatic Events That Changed America, edited by Bryan Hollinshead, was a dollar bargain, like-new, used book that I picked up at a store in Wheaton, Illinois. At first, I only read and intended to read an interesting chapter or two. But I read the whole book. It was a good preparation for getting back into teaching American history.