2015 was a great reading year. I read more books and really enjoyed the reading more than ever. I will soon be posting some of the good books I read this past year, but first I will deal with my top ten books and authors for the year. Frequent readers (or the lone frequent reader) of this blog will recognize most of the titles since I wrote blog posts all through the year about books.
Here is a major change from past years: I used to award a particular book and author first place. Then I continued on with second place, third, and on through tenth place. Sometimes, the best book reading experience is clear to me. Sometimes not. Then trying to figure whether a particular book was the sixth or seventh best became arbitrary. So even though these books appear in an order, there is no ranking. Actually, I am basing the list on the way the books are stacked up in the picture above.
Also authors of the books became either prideful or hurt because of the placings. Even authors who were winning Pulitzer Prizes were angry because they did not win the Ben House Best Books Prize. So, authors, you are all winners. Come to Texarkana and claim your reward: A picture with me, the chance to autograph my copies of your books, and a dinner together at Wendy’s (if I pay) or a nice restuarant (if the author pays).
For several years, I have been reading Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy. This year I read the third volume: The Guns at Last Light. This set focuses on the European campaigns of World War II, in particular, the American phase of the war, starting with North Africa, then on to Italy, and finally, the Normandy invasion to the end of the war. Atkinson is an outstanding historian and writer. He weaves together the overall military campaigns with both key and famous figures in the war and with the accounts of individual soldiers. For good World War II history and good writing, read the entire set. This set is to World War II what Shelby Foote’s Civil War is to the American Civil War. (I hope to someday get the boxed set of all three volumes. My copy of The Guns at Last Light is defective and coming apart.)
Thomas Fleming is THE historian of the American War for Independence and early American history. Yet, he goes beyond his one specialty and writes both histories and novels on other parts of American history. His latest book is The Great Divide: The Conflict Between Washington and Jefferson That Defined a Nation. One could assemble the various Fleming books and have a near complete multi-volume study of the life and times of George Washington. I will dream of such a boxed set being published and arriving in the mail.
This book is a great companion to other Fleming books or a good stand alone volume. Washington and Jefferson were fellow Virginians, political leaders and cohorts, and fellow companions in the battle for liberty for the new American nation. Washington, thankfully, was a skilled leader. He was able to use Jefferson in his administration. Jefferson, on the other hand, was a schemer. He was able to work for Washington while also working against him to advance his own political agenda. Jefferson was also a rival with Alexander Hamilton. Washington and Hamilton had a good understanding of the radicalism of the French Revolution, while Jefferson either fell prey to or willingly adopted the thinking of the Revolutionaries.
Political conflict is nothing new. Good men differ. Politics is a rough sport. Thankfully, in these conflicts between two of the renowned figures on Mount Rushmore, Washington’s wiser course of action prevailed.
The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War by Nicholas Thompson is a great read. This book was a total surprise to me. I picked up a slightly marked used copy for a couple of bucks. I thought it might be used as an occasional reference or might be read in that mythical future time when all books I own are read. Then, I picked it up one evening and started reading. This is an incredible history. It is also a worthy tribute to two great American diplomats and civil servants. I read lots of political books that leave me somewhat depressed. This book was uplifting.
Nitze and Kennan were both Cold Warriors, basically New Deal Democrats, and intellectuals. They generally differed on how America should handle the Soviet Union and other foreign policy challenges. Neither man ever became Secretary of State or held elective office. Both were superior men. This book was written by Nitze’s grandson.
In an interesting anecdote, he tells of seeing a well worn complete set of Joseph Conrad’s books. “How, Gramps, did you have time to read all of these books when you were negotiating all the arms treaties?” Nitze replied, “Missiles are boring. Conrad is interesting.”
The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision is a joint effort by Kevin Vanhoozer and Own Strachen, with a few short sections by other pastor/contributors. For me, this book was preaching to the choir. As it often happens, really smart theology students go for the academic track, while the others “settle” for being pastors. As these authors testify, the most challenging academic and theological task is pastoral ministry. “Our pastor is really a theologian” sometimes means that the listener better get prepared for a dull sermon with little application. That should not be the case.
I am not a pastor (anymore), but I can testify to the need of pastors being more grounded in theology. This is not just so he can refute Arminians, Dispensationalists, and others. This is so he can open the Word of God and apply it to the congregation sitting in the pews. This is a great study, no matter which side of the pulpit you are on during a Sunday morning service.
Os Guinness has written many good books for Christians that are profound, full of literary gems, and focused on the heart and mind connection. And Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion may be his best book. (The Call is quite good also.) This is a book about Christian apologetics and more. There have been many volumes of useful debate among apologists and theologians over defending the faith. The various schools of thought (Presuppositionalist, Evidentialists, etc.) have built up worthy cases for their positions and useful critiques of the opposing schools. This book never touches those intra-mural Christian debates.
This may very well be the best book I have read on Christian apologetics. I would put it in this triad: Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, Lewis’ Mere Christianity, and Guinness’ Fool’s Talk. This book is filled with practical strategies of communicating with lost people and with objections to the faith. Yet is is not a handbook. It is high on my list of books to reread.
Two quick conclusions from reading Emil Brunner: A Reappraisal by Alister McGrath: I want everything written by McGrath and everything written by Brunner. Before reading this book, Brunner was a foggy theological person linked with Barth, Tillich, and other guys I was and am wary of. The German theologians are daunting. First, one has to get past the names, then the unusual ways of expressing themselves (in English translation), and then the scholarly technical baggage. At least that is what I thought. Brunner was a deep thinker, but a man capable of preaching and writing clear and forceful messages. He and Barth had their own conflicts, and he is far different from Tillich or the liberal theologians of the Higher Critical Movement.
After reading this incredible study, I read Our Faith by Brunner. It was a great read and almost made this list. I look forward to reading Christianity and Civilization after reading McGrath’s appraisal of it. Brunner clearly saw the spiritual dimensions of political movements (like Naziism and Communism). There are some clinkers in his theology, but overall he was a great and all too often neglected theologian.
I said at the beginning that there was not going to be “The Number One Book for 2016.” But if there were, it would be this one. This is a long overdue, scholarly examination of the life of theologian, pastor, writer, political and social activist, educational reformer, and conservative thinker R. J. Rushdoony. McVicar has given a good study of many conservative and theological currents that were moving along in the 1950s through the 1980s that were impacted by evangelicals. Rushdoony may not have been as publically prominent as others, such as Francis Schaeffer or Carl F. H. Henry, but he was even more influential.
Rushdoony was a public theologian. He spent much of his life speaking to and writing for small core groups, but those groups along with his writings added up over time. Without Rushdoony, it would be hard to imagine modern Christian education and home schooling, Creation Science, Van Tilian apologetics, Postmillennialism, and Christian worldview thinking.
One can hope that this fine study will inspire and provoke more books. We now need an Iain Murray-type biography of Rushdoony. (Meaning, McVicar is an academic, while Murray writes for the broader Christian reading audience. ) We also need a good biography of some of the other key men in these related movements. I gave a series of lectures some years back called “Calvinist Worldview Thinkers in the Wilderness Years.” Those men and the movements need to have their stories told.
I knew I would like You Must Read: Books That Have Shaped Our Lives. I just did not realize how much I would enjoy it. First of all, the book itself and all the books it highlights are Banner of Truth publications. This book is, in one sense, a sales catelog, a promotional guide, a book report advertising and pushing Banner titles. And that’s all right by me. Second, the contributors include some of the best Christian authors and pastors of our time, including Joel Beeke, Alister Brigg, R. C. Sproul, John McArthur, Mark Dever, and many others. Third, the chapters themselves are good studies of the contents and impact of the books.
As I read accounts of Ian Murray’s Forgotten Spurgeon and Jonathan Edwards: A Biography, John Murray’s Redemption: Accomplished and Applied, and Arnold Dallimore’s George Whitefield, I was reminded of how good and formative the many Banner books have been on my life. Then there are selections over Banner books I have not read, such as Thomas Boston’s Human Nature in its Fourfold State (the subject of Al Mohler’s chapter) and others I don’t own, I found myself hungering to read the missing links.
This book is, in large part, a tribute to Iain Murray for both his own writings and those he has labored to put into or back into print. It is also a testimony to how many years the current Calvinist and Reformed revival has been in the making. (Now, I have to get a hardback copy of this book.)
Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together by Andrew Root was another surprise. I love the Bonhoeffer life story, even though it always leaves me sad. I love The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together. I was disappointed in Eric Metaxas’ enjoyable, but flawed biography of Bonhoeffer. I assumed this book was simply a retelling of his life, but just the early part of it when he was basically a youth director.
This book closely examined Bonhoeffer’s teaching method and investment of his life in that of his students. Bonhoeffer ministered to young people in Germany and for a time in Spain (to a German community there). He, too, was a public theologian. He ministered to the minds of his students and promoted a life of Christian fellowship. This book is not a biography or the history of a movement in Germany of the 1920s-30s, even though it contains biographical and historical material. It is a good study of the role of teaching youth and mentoring disciples.
Tim Keller has moved into the “I want every book he writes” category for me. I read this book about the same time as I read Fool’s Talk by Guinness. Both books are essential reads for people who deal with rhetoric and ideas. Keller rightly sees preaching or proclaiming as something that takes place in the pulpit, but not only in the pulpit. My preaching duties and opportunities are not frequent anymore, but I still found this book extremely helpful to read. Yes, I plan on reading it again.
Coming Soon: 50 Good Books I Read in 2016