These are my favorite books that I read in 2015:
1. Newton on the Christian Life / Tony Reinke
John Newton was dramatically converted to Christ after a thunderstorm on the high seas. He then faithfully pastored two congregations for 43 years. J.I. Packer called Newton the “friendliest, wisest, humblest” evangelical leader of his day, and he was “perhaps the greatest pastoral letter-writer of all time.” (25) Tim Keller claims that Newton is “the best pastor I’ve ever seen in my life.” (23) The former slave trader encouraged William Wilberforce in his efforts to help end the slave trade in England. And he also penned the most well-known hymn in the English language. I think it’s safe to say that we can learn much from John Newton about living for Christ in this world.
To that end, Tony Reinke has written the best book in what is a wonderful collection of books, Crossway’s Theologians On the Christian Life series. “Think of this book,” Reinke says, “as a field guide meant to get dirty, dog-eared, and faded in the clenched hands of a Christian pilgrim.” (32) This “field guide” is glorious. It’s a delight from beginning to end and brimming with golden selections from Newton:
“All shall work together for good: everything is needful that He sends; nothing can be needful that He withholds.” (195)
“My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior.” (49)
“Have we not a Saviour, a Shepherd full of compassion and tenderness? If we wish for love in a friend, He has shewn love unspeakable; —He left His glory, assumed our nature, and submitted to shame, poverty, and death, even the death of the cross, that He might save us from sin and misery, and open the kingdom of heaven to us, who were once His enemies. For He saw and pitied us, when we knew not how to pity ourselves. If we need a powerful friend, Jesus is almighty: our help is in Him who made heaven and earth, who raises the dead, and hushes the tempest and raging waves into a calm with a word. If we need a present friend, a help at hand in the hour of trouble, Jesus is always near, about our path by day, and our bed by night; nearer than the light by which we see, or the air we breathe; nearer than we are to ourselves; so that not a thought, a sigh, or a tear, escapes His notice. Since then His love and His wisdom are infinite, and He has already done so much for us, shall we not trust Him to the end? His mercies are countless as the sands, and hereafter we shall see cause to count our trials among our chief mercies.” (17)
Newton and Reinke served me this year by calling me again and again to fix my eyes on Christ. For that, I am grateful.
2. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy With God / Tim Keller
Prayer is crucial. Keller writes: “Prayer is simply the key to everything we need to do and to be in life.” (18) He spends the next 300 pages helping his readers understand what prayer is and how to do it. Along the way Keller relies on choice lessons that he’s learned from Augustine (“Letter 130”), Martin Luther (“A Simple Way to Pray”), John Calvin, John Owen, and several others. My only beef with Prayer is with the publisher: I think we all can agree that Dutton’s decision to use endnotes in Tim Keller’s books is barbaric. So, Dutton, please do us all a favor, give the people what we want, and start using footnotes instead. Thank you.
3. Enjoy Your Prayer Life / Michael Reeves
This helpful book is brief, convicting, and life-giving. Reeves writes:
“The Son has brought us with Him– in Him– before His Father. That’s what we enjoy in prayer.” (35)
“It is the word of God, the gracious message of Christ, that awakens faith and so prayer – and so that must be the basic shape of our everyday communion with God. We need to set Christ before ourselves. That is, we hear the word of Christ in Scripture, in song, through each other and by reminding ourselves as we praise him. We should long that our eyes might be opened to see the beauty of the Lord and that we might be drawn afresh to want him – and then prayer is simply the articulation of our heart’s response. To summarise what we have discovered so far, prayer is the chief exercise of faith. Naturally we’re rubbish at prayer because we’re sinners. Yet the solution – what will give us the true life of real communion with God – is the gospel of Christ that awakens faith.” (19)
4. A Way to Pray / Matthew Henry
Henry is known for his whole-Bible commentary. But he also wrote this excellent primer on how to pray scripturally. This volume, edited by O. Palmer Robertson, is sort of like The Valley of Vision meets D.A. Carson’s A Call to Spiritual Reformation a.k.a Praying Like Paul. Henry is helping me to grow in praying according to God’s will. (1 John 5:14) Consider this simple prayer before a meal (373):
“Gracious God, You are the Protector and Preserver of the whole creation. You have nourished us throughout our lives up to the present day with sufficient food, though we are evil and unthankful. Forgive all our sins, for by them we have forfeited Your mercies. Restore our right standing with you in Christ Jesus. Enable us to taste covenant love in commonplace mercies. Give us the grace to use these mercies and all the comforts of Your creation to the glory of Christ, our great Benefactor and Redeemer. Amen.”
5. Edwards on the Christian Life / Dane Ortlund
What is the role of beauty in the Christian life? Ortlund’s answer: “To become a Christian is to become alive to beauty… Sinners are beautified as they behold the beauty of God in Jesus Christ.” (23, 24) This book is an accessible way to introduce others to the beautiful, God-entranced vision of Jonathan Edwards.
6. The Greatest Fight in the World / Charles Spurgeon
Spurgeon’s final address to his beloved students in his Pastors College is as timely now as it was back in 1891:
“On his knees a believer is invincible.” (31)
“We need nothing more than God has seen fit to reveal.” (40)
“God’s Word is our ultimatum.” (41)
“The very root of holiness lies in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (50)
“We are ourselves trophies of the power of the sword of the Spirit.” (54)
“A good textuary is a good theologian.” (60)
“Believers in verbal inspiration should be studiously careful to be verbally correct.” (61)
“The gospel has the singular faculty of creating a taste for itself.” (63)
“There is no arguing after we find that ‘It is written.’” (64)
7. The Ministry Medical / Jonathan Griffiths
Griffiths walks through 2 Timothy, the Apostle Paul’s last letter, and asks 36 textual questions to help diagnose the spiritual health of your ministry. I’m eager to read this volume again with my fellow elders.
8. Who is Jesus? and Why Trust the Bible? / Greg Gilbert
9Marks and Crossway continue to crank out wonderfully helpful books, especially books that busy pastors can give away to bless their church members. I thoroughly enjoyed both of these volumes by Gilbert and plan to get a bunch of copies to give away throughout the year.
9. Knowing Christ / Mark Jones
Following Jesus means growing in our knowledge of Jesus. This book helps us know Christ better. My favorite chapter in Knowing Christ was “Chapter 26 — Christ’s Names”:
“All that God has revealed to us concerning His Son, Jesus Christ, and the various names attributed to him, leave us in little doubt that His names ought to be exceedingly precious to His people. What more can be said? He is the last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45), Almighty (Rev. 1:8), Alpha and Omega (Rev. 1:8), Amen (Rev. 3:14), Arm of the Lord (Isa. 51:9), Pioneer of our faith (Heb. 12:2), Ruler of God’s creation (Rev. 3:14), beloved Son (Matt. 12:18), Branch (Isa. 4:2), Bread of life (John 6:32), Cornerstone (Ps. 118:22), Counsellor (Isa. 9:6), Faithful witness (Rev. 1:5), God (Rom. 9:5), Ruler (Matt. 2:6), Holy One (Acts 3:14), Horn of Salvation (Luke 1:69), I Am (John 8:58), Immanuel (Isa. 7:14), Righteous One (Acts 7:52), King (Zech. 9:9), King of kings and Lord of lords (1 Tim. 6:15), Lamb of God (John 1:29), Life (John 14:6), Light of the world (John 8:12), Lion of Judah (Rev. 5:5), Lord of glory (1 Cor. 2:8), the Lord our righteousness (Jer. 23:6), Man of sorrows (Isa. 53:3), Messenger (Mal. 3:1), Mighty God (Isa. 9:6), Morning star (Rev. 22:16), Passover lamb (1 Cor. 5:7), Prince of life (Acts 3:15), Prince of peace (Isa. 9:6), Redeemer (Job 19:25), Resurrection and the life (John 11:25), Rock (1 Cor. 10:4), Root of David (Rev. 22:16), Rose of Sharon (Song of Sol. 2:1), Overseer of our souls (1 Pet. 2:25), Sun of righteousness (Mal. 4:2), True vine (John 15:1), and Witness (Isa. 55:4). Perhaps we now have some glimpse into why Isaiah said: ‘and his name shall be called Wonderful…’ (Isa. 9:6). What is it to know Christ? It is to know his names and all that they mean. For this reason, we shall spend eternity worshipping the One whose names are past finding out.” (217-218)
10. Stuff Matters / Mark Miodownik
Materials are marvelous. That’s the lesson I learned from Stuff Matters. It’s the #1 bestseller in the Inorganic Chemistry section of Amazon.com for good reason. The book begins with a lackluster photograph of a man relaxing on his outdoor deck. The man in the photo is Mark Miodownik, a professor of materials at University College London. Captured in the picture are also ten common materials that we see and use everyday without really stopping and marveling. When is the last time you were amazed by paper, concrete, glass, graphite, plastic, steel, and chocolate? Chesterton was right when we wrote: “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.” This booked helped me wonder. The chapter on chocolate is worth the price of the book:
“Take a piece of dark chocolate and pop it in your mouth. For a few minutes you will feel its hard corners against your palate and tongue but taste little in the way of flavor. It is almost impossible to resist the urge to give it a good bite, but try very hard not to, so that you can experience what happens next: the lump becoming suddenly limp as it absorbs the heat from your tongue. As it becomes liquid, you will notice your tongue feels cooler, and then a combination of sweet and bitter flavors floods your mouth. These are followed by fruity and nutty sensations, and finally an earthy, muddy taste down the back of your throat. For one blissful moment you will be in thrall to the most deliciously engineered material on earth. Chocolate is designed to transform into a liquid as soon as it hits your mouth. This trick is the culmination of hundreds of years of culinary and engineering effort, aimed initially at creating a popular drink that could hold its own against tea and coffee. That effort failed miserably until chocolate manufacturers realized that making hot chocolate in the mouth instead of a saucepan was much more delightful, much more modern, and far more widely liked. In effect they created a solid drink, made possible by their understanding and control crystals– specifically, cocoa butter crystals. The chocolate industry has never looked back.” (73-74)
11. Do More Better / Tim Challies
There are lots of productivity books out there. I found this one by Challies to be concise and clear and practical. He writes: “Productivity is effectively stewarding your gifts, talents, time, energy, and enthusiasm for the good of others and the glory of God.” (16) Amen.
12. The Ology / Marty Machowski
We read The Ology during our family worship in the morning and the Roark kids loved it. Deep truths, beautifully communicated and illustrated.
13. The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert and Openness Unhindered / Rosaria Butterfield
I was fascinated by both of these books by Butterfield. If you’re only able to read one of them, I’d encourage you to read Openness Unhindered because of her extended treatment on sexual identity and union with Christ. Secret Thoughts begins in this way:
“When I was 28 years old, I boldly declared myself lesbian. I was at the finish of a PhD in English Literature and Cultural Studies. I was a teaching associate in one of the first and strongest women’s studies departments in the nation. I was being recruited by universities to take on faculty and administrative roles in advancing radical leftist ideologies. I genuinely believed that I was helping to make the world a better place. At the age of 36, I was one of the few tenured women at a large research university, a rising administrator, and a community activist. I had become one of the ‘tenured radicals.’ By all standards, I had made it. That same year, Christ claimed me for himself and the life that I had known and loved came to a humiliating end.” (ix)
14. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena / Anthony Marra
The best story I read in 2015 was this beautiful and brutal debut novel about a surgeon in war-torn Chechnya. Marra was asked about the book’s title and he replied:
“One day I looked up the definition of life in a medical dictionary and found a surprisingly poetic entry: ‘A constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.’ As biological life is structured as a constellation of six phenomena, the narrative life of this novel is structured as a constellation of six point-of-view characters.”
These characters stay with you. In a variety of ways, Constellation reminded me of Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. I’m not ashamed to say that I wept like a baby when I got to the last page. Just a beautiful, heartrending story of loss and hope and “immense, spinning joy.” (379)
While were are on fiction, let me briefly mention two other novels that I loved.
15. Crossing to Safety / Wallace Stegner
Last year was a season of transition for me, for my family, and for several of our dearest friends in ministry. So I’m thankful to have read this wise and tender novel that follows the lives of two couples, the Morgans and the Langs, along with their joys and losses. When I think of Crossing to Safety, I’ll think of our family’s life on Capitol Hill: “There it was, there it is, the place where during the best time of our lives friendship had its home and happiness had its headquarters.” (6)
16. The Other / Thomas Tryon
This might not be your cup of tea but I couldn’t put The Other down. It’s bizarre, beautifully written, and by far the spookiest book that I’ve ever read. And the ending… wow. Tryon’s story has the power to makes an apple cellar on a bucolic New England farm seem menacing:
“I’ve told Miss DeGroot all kinds of stories about the apple cellar. She says it’s a spooky place; she’s right. Buried deep in the heart of the barn, with thick walls of New England traprock, and no electrical illumination, the room was a marvelously clandestine place. For six months of the year, October to March, the bushel baskets stood in rows, brimful with apples; onions dug out of the kitchen garden swagged from the rafters, and garlands of dried peppers, and along the shelves lay bunches of beets, parsnips, and turnips. But during the remaining months, its store of provender spent, the apple cellar served for other, more devious, employment. Shut away from the light, free from intrusion, you felt it was such a place as could be peopled by a boy’s imagination with all the creatures of his fancy, with kings, courtiers, and criminals—whatever; stage, temple, prison, down there seeds were sown, to grow magically overnight, like mushrooms. A place whose walls could be made to recede into airy spaciousness, the ceiling and floor into a limitless void, wood and stone and mortar dissolved at will. But in June, with the whole of the summer stretching endlessly before you, the apple cellar was forbidden and you had to be close and cunning not to get caught. You had matches hidden in a Prince Albert tobacco tin and a candle butt stuck in a Coca-Cola bottle for light. All was dead secret; you listened carefully, one ear cocked, fearful of discovery; you envisioned every sound a Betrayer, a Giant, a Walking Horror…” (9-10)
Did I mention the ending?
17. Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln / Richard Brookhiser
I try to spend time every year with masters of English prose. In 2014, I spent the year with Winston Churchill. In 2015, I lived with Abraham Lincoln. I thoroughly enjoyed Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. If you want a brief biography of Lincoln, check out Abraham Lincoln by James McPherson. As I slowly worked my way through Lincoln’s Speeches and Writings: 1859-1865, I stumbled across one of my favorite passages, Lincoln’s consoling letter to Mrs. Bixley, who had lost five sons in the Civil War:
November 21, 1864
I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant-General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
Yours very sincerely and respectfully,
As enjoyable as his speeches and letters were, the Lincoln book that will stay with me, and the one that I’ll return to again, is Richard Brookhiser’s Founder’s Son. Brookhiser shows how Lincoln’s “greatest curiosity was about the great things.” (301) I loved this book and I learned a bunch.
18. The Warmth of Other Suns / Isabel Wilkerson
In early 2015, a friend and dear brother in the Lord gave a sweet and challenging meditation on 1 Peter 3:8. One of his applications was, “Diversity with sympathy is key to unity. Diversity without sympathy is assimilation.” That got me thinking and I was provoked to spend more time reading books that might help me grow in understanding, tender-heartedness, sympathy, and brotherly love, especially for those who have experienced (and continue to endure) racism in all its manifold ugliness. No book served me more than The Warmth of Other Suns, a riveting history of the Great Migration told through the lives of four individuals who experienced the horrors of life in the Jim Crow South:
“Younger blacks could see the contradictions in their world—that, sixty, seventy, eighty years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, they still had to step off the sidewalk when a white person approached, were banished to jobs nobody else wanted no matter their skill or ambition, couldn’t vote, but could be hanged on suspicion of the pettiest infraction. These were the facts of their lives: There were days when whites could go to the amusement park and a day when blacks could go, if they were permitted at all. There were white elevators and colored elevators (meaning the freight elevators in back); white train platforms and colored train platforms. There were white ambulances and colored ambulances to ferry the sick, and white hearses and colored hearses for those who didn’t survive whatever was wrong with them. There were white waiting rooms and colored waiting rooms in any conceivable place where a person might have to wait for something, from the bus depot to the doctor’s office. A total of four restrooms had to be constructed and maintained at significant expense in any public establishment that bothered to provide any for colored people: one for white men, one for white women, one for colored men, and one for colored women… There was a colored window at the post office in Pensacola, Florida, and there were white and colored telephone booths in Oklahoma. White and colored went to separate windows to get their license plates in Indianola, Mississippi, and to separate tellers to make their deposits at the First National Bank of Atlanta. There were taxicabs for colored people and taxicabs for white people in Jacksonville, Birmingham, Atlanta, and the entire state of Mississippi. Colored people had to be off the streets and out of the city limits by 8 P.M. in Palm Beach and Miami Beach. Throughout the South, the conventional rules of the road did not apply when a colored motorist was behind the wheel. If he reached an intersection first, he had to let the white motorist go ahead of him. He could not pass a white motorist on the road no matter how slowly the white motorist was going and had to take extreme caution to avoid an accident because he would likely be blamed no matter who was at fault. In everyday interactions, a black person could not contradict a white person or speak unless spoken to first. A black person could not be the first to offer to shake a white person’s hand. A handshake could occur only if a white person so gestured, leaving many people having never shaken hands with a person of the other race. The consequences for the slightest misstep were swift and brutal. Two whites beat a black tenant farmer in Louise, Mississippi, in 1948, wrote the historian James C. Cobb, because the man ‘asked for a receipt after paying his water bill.’ It was against the law for a colored person and a white person to play checkers together in Birmingham. White and colored gamblers had to place their bets at separate windows and sit in separate aisles at racetracks in Arkansas. At saloons in Atlanta, the bars were segregated: Whites drank on stools at one end of the bar and blacks on stools at the other end, until the city outlawed even that, resulting in white-only and colored-only saloons. There were white parking spaces and colored parking spaces in the town square in Calhoun City, Mississippi. In one North Carolina courthouse, there was a white Bible and a black Bible to swear to tell the truth on.” (44-45)
To think that all of this happened in this country just a few decades ago. Twelve Years A Slave by Solomon Northup, Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates were all unforgettable reads for me. The most poignant paragraph from these books was the one below from Jesmyn Ward, who tragically lost her brother, Joshua, in October 2000:
“Every year on the day he died, I wake up to the dread of another year passing. I lock myself in my room, wherever I am living, and I cry until my eyes swell shut. And at the edge of the longing, the terror that I will forget who he was and forget our lives together immobilizes me, pulls me down further, until I am like someone in those cartoons from our youth, stuck in a quagmire of quicksand, mired in the cold, liquid crush, and then: drowning. After Joshua died, my father stopped working, lived on Top Ramen and hot dogs by working odd jobs, and watched television on two different sets at the same time for hours a day. My mother cleans my brother’s grave every few weeks, picking stray grass, brushing the sand to an even smoothness. Every death anniversary, she takes to her room, closes her blinds, wraps herself in silence and darkness. Every year on his birthday, she buys mums for his grave and cleans the small ceramic figures of angels and teddy bears she’s placed around it, while Nerissa and Charine attach balloons, one for every birthday year, this year thirty-three, to his headstone. ‘I only dream of him as a child,’ my mother says. ‘He’s always my little boy.’ This is grief.” (242-243)
19. Spying in America / Michael Sulick
Can you keep a secret? The United States government clearly cannot. In this book, Michael Sulick, former head of the CIA’s clandestine service, details thirty fascinating espionage cases from the American Revolution to the Cold War. Imagine if David McCullough wrote a history of espionage. That’s what Spying in America is like. (And, while we’re on spying, if you’re looking for some fun spy novels, check out Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon books. I liked this The English Spy, The Prince of Fire, and The Messenger).
20. The Boys in the Boat / Daniel James Brown
I enjoyed several nonfiction books abouts boats this year. In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick is the harrowing true story of the whale ship Essex that was attacked by a huge whale that later inspired Moby Dick. Erik Larson’s Dead Wake (I follow the simple rule of reading everything Larson writes.) tells the story of the sinking of the luxury ocean liner Lusitania by the Nazi U-boat in 1915 during the first year of WWII. But my favorite book about boats in 2015 was definitely The Boys in the Boat. It’s about the quest for rowing gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. I was inspired by the story.
21. Beowulf: A New Translation / Translated by Seamus Heaney
One of my favorite reads from last year was N.D. Wilson’s Boys of Blur, which is a kind of modern re-telling of Beowulf with swamps and sugarcane fields and the Everglades and high school football. So I decided to reread the original Beowulf, an epic that I hadn’t read since college. I’ll probably tackle Tolkien’s translation in 2016, but for 2015 I chose the award-winning translation by Seamus Heaney, one of the best poets in the world. It did not disappoint. Even though it’s abridged, also consider checking out Heaney’s audiobook version.
22. Thirst: Poems / Mary Oliver
A few years ago, I was in a bookshop with my wife in Cape Cod and stumbled across Thirst, a collection by a poet who lived just up the road a bit, in Provincetown, MA. I’ve enjoyed Oliver’s poems ever since. (Check out: Blue Iris, Evidence, Swan, A Thousand Mornings, Blue Horses, and Felicity). Poets are shepherds of words. They can teach us to see and to say. Oliver has mainly helped me to marvel more at the beauty of God’s creation. “Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing still learning to be astonished.” (“Messenger,” Thirst, p. 1). If you are looking for some wonderful poetry about the incarnation of our Lord, it’s hard to beat Accompanied by Angels by Luci Shaw.
23. The Wingfeather Saga / Andrew Peterson
I spent nearly all of 2015 traveling with my three children through the magical world of Aerwiar alongside the three amazing Wingfeather children. Peterson is a talented singer and songwriter (Dear Andrew, please bring the Behold the Lamb of God tour back to the DC area! We missed you this year). So I wasn’t surprised when we loved all four books in this bittersweet series:
My kiddos gave the following reviews:
Emmaline (6): “I like the characters. They all have creative names.”
Hudson (8): “I like the stories because they’re about a different world with interesting creatures.”
Elijah (9): “I like the Wingfeather books because they’re adventurous.”
Daddy likes how Peterson weaves the redemptive power of self-sacrificial love throughout the saga from beginning to end. “Blood was shed that you three might breathe the good air of life.” (On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, 17)
The Warden and the Wolf King concludes with the following poem (516-517):
The world is whispering–listen child!–
The world is telling a tale.
When the seafoam froths in the water wild
Or the fendril flies in the gale,
When the sky is mad with the swirling storm
And thunder shakes the hall,
Child, keep watch for the passing form
Of the one who made it all.
Listen, child to the Hollish wind,
To the hush of heather down,
To the voice of the brook at the stony bend
And the bells of Rysentown.
The dark of the heart is a darkness deep
And the sweep of the night is wide
And the pain of the heart when the people weep
Is an overwhelming tide–
And yet! and yet! when the tide runs low
As the tide will always do
And the heavy sky where the bellows blow
Is bright at last, and blue
And the sun ascends in the quiet morn
And the sorrow sinks away,
When the veil of death and dark is torn
Asunder by the day,
Then the light of love is the flame of spring
And the flow of the river strong
And the hope of the heart as the people sing
Is an everlasting song.
The winter is whispering, “green and gold,”
And the heart is whispering, too–
It’s a story the Maker has always told
And the story, my child, is true.
As always, happy reading and Happy New Year!
p.s. This year marks the 10-year anniversary of Tolle Lege. If you like this blog, consider leaving a comment below with your favorite books of 2015. I’d enjoy learning what books you enjoyed.