These are my 13 favorite books that I read in 2013:
1. Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God / Brian Rosner
My favorite book of the year is this treatment of the Apostle Paul’s repudiation, replacement, and reappropriation of the Mosaic Law. Rosner brings a humble tone, a pastoral heart, and a lucid brevity to a notoriously complex conversation. Also be sure to check out Rosner’s lectures (audio and notes) that form the basis of the book.
2. A New Testament Biblical Theology / G.K. Beale
It’s dense. It’s too long. And it’s repetitive. Did I say it was repetitive? But Beale’s book made me treasure my Bible and inspires me to read it more and more.
3. Poems / George Herbert
Pastors shepherd people. Poets shepherd words. Pastor-poets do both. George Herbert was a pastor and a poet. I enjoyed his poems all year long. Of Christ, Herbert wrote: “Much more him I must adore, Who of the law’s sour juice sweet wine did make, Ev’n God himself, being pressed for my sake.” If you want a good introduction to his work, check out A Year With George Herbert by Jim Scott Orrick.
4. Expository Thoughts on the Gospels (John, Vol. 2 and Vol. 3) / J.C. Ryle
My pastor preached through the Gospel of John in 2013 and good Bishop Ryle’s Expository Thoughts was my blood-earnest companion from beginning to end.
“Weak, and feeble, and foolish as it may seem to man, the simple story of the Cross is enough for all the children of Adam in every part of the globe. The tidings of Christ’s death for sinners, and the atonement made by that death, is able to meet the hearts and satisfy the consciences of all nations, and peoples, and kindreds, and tongues. Carried by faithful messengers, it feeds and supplies all ranks and classes. ‘The preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness, but to us who are saved it is the power of God.’ (1 Cor. 1:18.) Five barley loaves and two small fishes seemed scanty provision for a hungry crowd. But blessed by Christ, and distributed by His disciples, they were more than sufficient. Let us never doubt for a moment, that the preaching of Christ crucified,—the old story of His blood, and righteousness, and substitution,—is enough for all the spiritual necessities of all mankind. It is not worn out. It is not obsolete. It has not lost its power. We want nothing new,—nothing more broad and kind,—nothing more intellectual,—nothing more efficacious. We want nothing but the true bread of life which Christ bestows, distributed faithfully among starving souls. Let men sneer or ridicule as they will. Nothing else can do good in this sinful world. No other teaching can fill hungry consciences, and give them peace. We are all in a wilderness. We must feed on Christ crucified, and the atonement made by His death, or we shall die in our sins.”
–J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on John, Vol. 1 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1869/2012), 229-230. Ryle is commenting on John 6:1-14.
“This is a spoken world–from galaxies to inchworms from seraphs to electrons to meter maids every last thing was and is shaped ex nihilo. It–and we–all exist as beats and rhythms and rhymes in the cosmic and constant word art of the Creator God. To fully embrace and attempt to apply such a vision is… dizzying.”
“Understand this: we are both tiny and massive. We are nothing more than molded clay given breath, but we are nothing less than divine self-portraits, huffing and puffing along mountain ranges of epic narrative arcs prepared for us by the Infinite Word Himself. Swell with pride and gratitude, for you are tiny and given much. You are as spoken by God as the stars.”
“By His grace, we are the water made wine. We are the dust made flesh made dust made flesh again. We are the whores made brides and the thieves made saints and the killers made apostles. We are the dead made living.”
6. Les Misérables / Victor Hugo
Hugo’s classic was a huge investment of time but it was worth it. It’s such a great meditation on law and grace. One of my favorite passages was the description of a pastor counseling a criminal awaiting execution:
“Bishop Myriel sped off to the jail, rushed to the cell, called the murderer by his name, took his hand and talked to him. He spent all day and all night with him, forgetting about food and sleep and praying to God for the soul of the condemned man. He spoke to him of the highest truths, which are the simplest ones. He was a father, brother, friend; and only acted as a bishop to bless him. He taught him everything he could, reassuring him and consoling him as he did so. This man had been about to die in despair. Death for him had been an abyss. Standing, trembling, on the ghastly brink, he had shrunk back in horror. He couldn’t take his eyes off the fatal chinks in the wall and what lay on the other side and he could see only darkness. The bishop made him to see the light. The next day, when they went to get the poor man, the bishop was still there. He climbed into the cart with him and mounted the scaffold with him. The doomed man, so gloomy and horror-stricken the day before, was radiant. He felt his soul reconciled and he trusted himself to God. The bishop embraced him and, just as the blade was about to fall, he said to him, ‘Whomsoever man puts to death, God restores to life. Pray, believe, and enter into life! God the Father is there!’” (14-15)
7. The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction / Alan Jacobs
This delightful book is dripping with wise reading counsel. The biggest takeaway: “Read what gives you delight– at least most of the time– and do so without shame.” (23)
8. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief / Lawrence Wright
This book is a meticulous exposé on the bizarre and brutal cult called the Church of Scientology. If you don’t want to read the whole book, just read Wright’s 2011 profile of Paul Haggis in The New Yorker.
9. Churchill: The Power of Words / Winston Churchill and The Wit and Wisdom of Winston Churchill / Ed. James Humes
My fascination with Winston Churchill hung with me in 2013 and I expect it will drift on into the new year. These two books helped me appreciate Churchill’s love affair with the English language. He once remarked, “It was my ambition all my life to be master of the spoken word.” Read the following paragraph slowly and aloud. It’s masterful.
“Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the new world, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
10. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose / Flannery O’Connor
If you like Flannery’s short stories, then you’ll eat up this book. Her wit and wisdom is on display throughout.
- On living with peacocks: “It is hard to tell the truth about this bird. The habits of any peachicken left to himself would hardly be noticeable, but multiplied by forty, they become a situation.”
- On freaks: “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”
- On bad writing: “Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”
- “Fiction should be both canny and uncanny.”
- “The fact is that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.”
- “I am no disbeliever in spiritual purpose and no vague believer. I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that. I don’t think that this is a position that can be taken halfway or one that is particularly easy in these times to make transparent in fiction.”
Her essay, “The King of the Birds,” is just plain delightful. I promise you that it’s the best thing you’ll ever read on raising peacocks.
11. My Man Jeeves / The Code of the Woosters / Carry On Jeeves / P.G. Wodehouse
If Allison found me laughing with a book in my hands, it was because I was reading Wodehouse. His stories are ripping and he’s “a black belt metaphor ninja.” But don’t just take my word for it.
12. Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2: God and Creation / Herman Bavinck
If you want to read worshipful theology, then read Bavinck. I only wish I’d met him years ago.
“Every attribute of God is precious to believers. They cannot do without any of them. They desire no other God than the only true God, who has revealed Himself in Christ, and they glory in all His perfections in truth. Their adoration, their love, their thanksgiving, and praise are aroused not only by God’s grace and love but also by His holiness and righteousness, not only by God’s goodness but also by His omnipotence, not only by His communicable but also His incommunicable attributes.” (250)
13. The Works of Thomas Brooks, Volume 3 / Thomas Brooks
Even though I didn’t finish this entire volume, I thoroughly enjoyed the portion that I read. Here’s an example of why I lingered for months in a work called “The Unsearchable Riches of Christ.”
“Sinners, don’t you deceive your own souls: sin and your souls must part, or Christ and your souls can never meet. Sin and your souls must be two, or Christ and your souls can never be one. Christ is a most precious commodity; He is better than rubies, Prov. 8:11, or the most costly pearls. And you must part with your old gold, with your shining gold, your old sins, your most shining sins, or you must perish forever. Christ is to be sought and bought with any pains, at any price. We cannot buy this gold too dear. He is a jewel worth more than a thousand worlds, as all know that have Him. Get Him, and get all; miss Him and miss all.” (203)
As always, happy reading and Happy New Year!