Tag Archives: Writing

The Best Books I Read This Year (2019)

“There is no substitute for reading,” a wise woman once wrote. “A book is a door and on the other side is somewhere else.” (111) I stepped through several literary doors to somewhere else in 2019 and these were my favorite destinations. There are 36 selections and I thoroughly enjoyed every last one of them.

My Top 12:

1. Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of Leviticus / L. Michael Morales

The best book I read in 2019 is this worshipful biblical-theological feast. Morales unpacks the glories of Leviticus and shows that the central hope of the Pentateuch is fixed upon the Last Adam who ushers His people into the holy presence of God through His perfect atoning sacrifice. Here’s a taste:

“The tabernacle was not merely the earthly house of God, but the way to God– the way of YHWH. Now, keeping in mind the parallels between the garden of Eden and the tabernacle, one may discern readily how the entrance into the holy of holies, ‘the archetypal priestly act,’ comprised a liturgical drama: the annual re-entry into the garden of Eden.

On the Day of Atonement Adam’s eastward expulsion from the garden of Eden was reversed as the high priest, a cultic Adam, ascended westward through the cherubim-woven veil and into the summit of the cultic mountain of God.

At the heart of the Pentateuch, we find an answer to the question Who shall ascend into the mountain of YHWH? The one able to ascend is the Adam-like high priest, with blood, on the Day of Atonement. This is the way YHWH has opened for humanity to dwell in His Presence.” (177)

I’m really looking forward to digging into his new book on the exodus in 2020.

2. Justification, Volumes 1-2 / Michael Horton

What is more precious or paramount than justification? Martin Luther wrote that “justification by itself creates true theologians and therefore it is indispensable in the church and so we must frequently work on it.” (Works, 34: 157) Michael Horton has worked hard to give students of Scripture a true gift in his two volumes on justification. He models how to carefully present and graciously interact with opposing viewpoints, and over the span of nearly 900 pages he positively articulates the glorious truth that sinners are declared right with God by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, all to the glory of God alone. Horton is also a swell writer:

“Justification is a particular gift that we have in Christ alone, received through faith alone. It is a legal decision but not a legal fiction. Unlike the arbitrary decree of the nominalist deity, this justification is the most real event imaginable. Its ground is the covenantal obedience, faithfulness, and merits of God incarnate. This righteousness—the Messiah’s faithfulness—is really imputed or credited to real sinners. We are no longer in the ambit of created substances but of an exchange between persons: rags for a robe, debts for an inheritance, curse for blessing, death for life, condemnation for justification. Everything that we had in Adam, which included our own debts, is transferred to Christ, and everything that He possesses is transferred to His people. Even the faith to embrace Christ comes with, and is strengthened by, the gift of Christ Himself as He is delivered through His word and sacraments.” (1: 268)

3. Wise Counsel: John Newton’s Letters to John Ryland Jr. / John Newton

Imagine being a young and relatively inexperienced Baptist pastor, only to become theological penpals with one of the wisest and godliest ministers in all of England. That’s precisely what happened to John Ryland Jr. when he began his decades-long correspondence with the great Anglican divine John Newton. These letters are brimming with heavenly wisdom and reading them made my heart sing.

“That monster Self has as many heads as Hydra, as many lives as a cat. It’s more than 25 years since I hoped it was fast nailed to the cross, but alas it’s alive still mixing with and spoiling everything I do.” (70)

“I advise you to take a lodging as near as you can to Gethsemane, and to walk daily to Mount Golgotha.” (100)

“We may be very orthodox, skilled in defense of the five points, satisfied that our constitution of church order is the very best in the world, and yet be lamentably cold and formal in the feelings of our hearts towards Him.” (128)

“I am admitted to a throne of grace. I have an Advocate with the Father. And such is the power, care, and compassion of my great Shepherd that, prone as I am to wander, He keeps me from wandering quite away.” (170)

“Accept this hasty line as a token my sympathy. May the Lord bless you both. And may we all so weep as becomes those who expect, ere long, to have all our tears wiped away.” (187)

“The older I grow, the more I am drawn to preach much concerning the person of the Saviour, the atonement of the Saviour, the glory of the Saviour, and the influences of the Holy Spirit.” (232)

“I am a striking proof that the atoning blood of Jesus can cleanse from the most enormous sins, that His grace can soften the hardest heart, subdue the most obstinate habits of evil, and that He is able to save to the uttermost.” (396)

“My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.” (401)

4. The Preacher’s Catechism / Lewis Allen

I don’t read to “have read.” I read to survive. This book helped me to survive as a preacher.

“God loves a cheerful preacher. Our ever-blessed, ever-joyful God wants to be proclaimed by those who are brimful of the joy of His grace in Christ brings. He calls us to delight in Him and, out of that joy, to call others to the feast. Preacher and sermon must be filled with gospel joy. ‘With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation’ (Isaiah 12:3). Preachers who taste, teach, and share the joy of the gospel are truly fulfilling their calling as they serve those who listen.” (31)

“Worship the Lord when no one notices you and when the work is unexciting. Remember in those times that God loves you. He sees you and honors all your labors. Remember that in due season you will receive your reward if you don’t give up (Galatians 6:9). Self-pity is as much out of place in Christian ministry as self-promotion is. Worship Him because of who He is, the Lord of heaven and earth. You’re preaching for God. You’re preaching because He has been pleased to call and equip you to preach, and He is pleased as you preach.” (49)

“The Ten Commandments as we’ve been discussing them round our dinner table read like this:

1. Put nothing in the place of Jesus.
2. Make nothing which gets in the way of your love for Jesus.
3. Honour Jesus’ Name in all you do.
4. Seek your soul’s rest in Jesus.
5. Honour your parents, as a love-expression for Jesus.
6. Do not murder, as Jesus brings life, never death.
7. Keep sexually pure, because Jesus has won your body, as well as your heart.
8. Do not steal, because Jesus is enough.
9. Do not lie, because Jesus is the truth, and loves the truth.
10. Don’t set your heart on anything, because Jesus really is enough.” (116)

5. None Greater / Matthew Barrett

The Puritan pastor-theologian Stephen Charnock issued a timely warning in 1681: “Though we cannot comprehend God as He is, we must be careful not to fancy Him to be what He is not.” (Works, 1: 276) Matthew Barrett helps believers to heed this counsel, alerting us to be on guard against vainly imagining God as a being who is just like us, only bigger and better: “There is none greater than God, not because He is merely a greater version of ourselves but because He is nothing like ourselves.” (xvi) This book is a stupendous introduction to the classical understanding of the doctrine of God and it’s chock full of quotes about the divine attributes from the theological “A-Team” (Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas). Barrett is a sure-footed guide to helping you grasp God’s ungraspable greatness. (Psalm 145:3)

6. God Without Passions, A Reader / Ed. Samuel Renihan

Why would you want to read a collection of excerpts written hundreds of years ago by theologians with names like “Wolfgang Musculus,” all of which advocate for the doctrine of divine impassibility? Here’s an insightful answer from Carl Trueman:

“It is arguably the doctrine of God, rather than that of Scripture, which has historically been the place where assaults on orthodoxy have typically started within the church, at least prior to the rise of Higher Criticism. When someone starts to tinker with the doctrine of Scripture, many Christians instinctively feel that something nefarious is being done. But when someone starts to tinker with the doctrine of God, many simply assume that very clever people are engaged in improving the tradition.” (15-16)

Let the reader understand.

7. Theoretical-Practical Theology, Volumes 1-2 / Petrus Van Mastricht

“A man is not so inclined to give up when he sees in panoramas,” writes Robert Kurson. (9) No book in 2019 outside of Scripture did more to give me a panoramic vision of God than these beautiful volumes published by Reformation Heritage Books. Van Mastricht begins every chapter with exegesis and ends every chapter in application. It’s all theological gold.

“The infinite greatness of God supplies an argument for us to make Him great with infinite praises (Luke 1:46). For He is (1) great, and therefore, greatly to be praised. Indeed, He is (2) most great, infinitely great: ‘and His greatness is unsearchable.’ (Ps. 145:3) And also (3) He is the only One who is such (Isa. 40:12; 15, 17). Indeed, (4) great in so many ways; great, in fact, in all ways: in His essence, His presence, His duration, His wisdom, His strength and power, His grace and mercy (Ps. 147:5). And in this greatness He is (5) above the gods, whether earthly, such as kings and magistrates, or heavenly (at lease in the opinion of the pagans), the false gods; and above all gods (2 Chron. 2:5; Ps. 135:5).

For if, then we celebrate the sun for its great greatness, and the heavens for their greater greatness, why would we not celebrate God for His greatest greatness, for His infinite greatness?

Let us therefore make Him great (1) in our heart (Ps. 103:1; Luke 1:46), by always thinking of Him great things, indeed the greatest of things, for He is the One who is infinitely greater than all our thoughts (Eph. 3:20); by esteeming as great, indeed, as most great, both Him and all that is His– His presence, favor, promises, worship– in such a way that we approach Him and all things of His with an infinite (that is, an insatiable) appetite and desire (Ps. 84:1-2).

(2) In our mouth, that with a great voice, in the presence of others, we celebrate Him who is infinitely great (Ps. 103:8), indeed that we call others to celebrate Him with us (Ps. 103:20-22).

Finally, (3) in our work, that we do it (a) with profound reverence for the infinite deity, and with fear of offending Him, even in the least things, because He is the most great King (Mal. 1:14; Deut. 10:17; Neh. 1:5; Dan. 9:4). (b) By a careful zeal for obeying and pleasing Him (2 Cor. 5:9). (c) By an infinite desire or concern for possessing and enjoying Him (Ps. 73:25).” (2: 190)

8. The Son Who Learned Obedience / D. Glenn Butner

In the summer of 2016, an evangelical donnybrook erupted online over the doctrine of the Trinity, particularly relating to what is called “eternal functional subordination” (EFS) or “eternal relational authority-submission” (ERAS) or “eternal subordination of the Son” (ESS). In this wise book, Butner calmly clarifies the arguments on both sides, analyzes key texts like 1 Corinthians 15:28, demonstrates the doctrinal implications of EFS/ERAS/ESS, and nimbly expounds pro-Nicene teaching, inseparable operations, and dyothelite Christology. He concludes:

“The claim that the Son eternally submits to the Father is not explicitly taught in the Bible, and its acceptance offers an inferior second-order explanation of scriptural patterns, undermines rational explanations of Christology, Soteriology, and the doctrine of God, deviates from tradition, and provides little conceptual clarity. Simply put, theologians ought to stop claiming that the Son eternally submits to the Father.” (196)

I agree.

9. Enjoying God / Tim Chester

Man does not live on polemics alone. And so I’m thankful that Chester penned this richly devotional meditation on the Triune God. He shows how to enjoy God in the messiness of life in a fallen world. It’s like John Owen’s Communion with God, but for dummies. It’s tremendous.

“Each day reflect on how God is being kind to you. And think of Jesus as the Father’s kindness in person. ‘But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared,’ says Paul in Titus 3:4-5, ‘He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy.’ The Father’s kindness ‘appeared’ and it looks like Jesus. If you want to see the kindness of God, then look at the life and death of Jesus. This is the measure of God’s kindness. This is divine kindness clothed in human flesh. This is His kindness to you.” (64)

10. The Sacrifice of Praise / Herman Bavinck

2019 was a spectacular year for Bavinck devotees. This, and this, and this (!!!!) all came hot off the press. But after reading a ton of Herman this year, I loved this one most of all. The book takes its title from Hebrews 13:15 and focuses on the Christian’s delightful and daunting duty of confessing Jesus Christ as Lord before God and the world. For me, Chapter 9 on the “Opposition to Confession” was worth the price of the book:

“Christ was not ashamed of us at His incarnation. To be sure, He had many reasons to be. He Himself was the firstborn of the Father, the radiance of the Father’s glory and the exact image of His being– who thought it not robbery to be equal with God (John 3:16; 10:30; 17:5; Heb. 1:3; Col. 1:15; Phil. 2:6).

We were laden with guilt, unclean from head to toe, and subject to decay (Ps. 38:4; Rom. 8:20-21), yet He was not ashamed to call us His brothers (Heb. 2:11). He was not ashamed of us before God or before the holy angels (Mark 8:38).

He took on our flesh and blood, assumed our nature, and became like us in everything apart from sin. In Christ, even God was not ashamed to be called our God (Heb. 11:16).

Therefore, He will likewise not be ashamed of us in the day of His future. To be sure, at that time He will come again not as a servant but as Lord, not to suffer but to be glorified, not to a cross but with a crown (Rev. 6:2; 19:16).

Nevertheless, He will not be ashamed of us, for the One who ascended far above the heavens is the same One who descended to the lowest parts of the earth. The One who judges is the Son of Man who once came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).

Our Judge is our Savior; He never forgets nor forsakes His people (Deut. 31:6; Isa. 33:22). ‘So everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before My Father who is in heaven’ (Matt. 10:32).

In full view of the whole world so that all of creation may hear it, He will publicly stand up for His faithful confessors. However despised they may have been in this world, Christ will take their name upon His lips and proclaim it to every ear that they are His– the ones whom He has bought with His own blood and of whom no power in the world or in Hell will be able to rob Him (Rom. 8:38-39).

As Christ says, so it will be. His judgment will apply to the whole of creation. His confession will concern all creation. No one will be able to criticize it. No one will dare to oppose it. His judgment will be exalted above all criticism and will stand high above the judgment of all men and devils. The heavens and the earth and Hell and all creation will eternally submit to it.

Of greater importance than all of this is that the Father will rest in this work of His Son (Heb. 4:9-10). Just as after creation God saw all that He had made and, behold, it was very good, in that way at the end of days He will look down with divine pleasure upon the great work of redemption that Christ accomplished (Gen. 1:31).

When the church without spot or wrinkle is set before Him, and the perfected kingdom has been given to Him, then the Father will adopt all of the redeemed of the Son as His children, inviting them to participate in His communion and enjoy His presence (Eph. 5:25-27; Rev. 21:2, 7).

The public confession on behalf of believers by Christ before His Father, who is in heaven, will be the guarantee of their eternal salvation and glory (Matt. 10:32).” (80-81)

Wonderful.

11. Matthew, Disciple and Scribe / Patrick Schreiner

The Gospel according to Matthew was the first book of the Bible I ever read as a non-Christian and then as a new Christian. So Matthew is and will always be the First Gospel for me. In his latest book, Dr. Schreiner helped me see more of the glory and grace of the Savior as He is revealed in the First Gospel. I am certain he will help you too.

“The magi have come to worship Jesus, but Jerusalem, the scribes, and Herod the king are troubled when they hear that a new king has appeared on the scene. As Matthew indicated in the genealogy, Jesus is not only the King of the Jews but now also the King of the whole world. Jesus both fulfills the old covenant and inaugurates the new. The star is in the east because the King has come to welcome those ‘east of Eden’ who were cast out so long ago (cf. Gen. 3:24; 4:16).” (80)

Amen.

12. Seeing Green / Tilly Dillehay

Envy, that green-eyed monster, is the art of counting the other fellow’s blessings instead of your own. Tilly Dillehay has written an excellent book on what envy is, what envy has to do with glory, how envy robs your joy, and how to put envy to death by the Spirit.

“There’s nothing more natural than envy: it belongs to the debased mind of a natural man, not to a mind that has been transformed supernaturally by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 1:28-31; James 3:14-16).” (18)

“Envy is more interested in getting rid of the other person’s advantage than in acquiring it for itself. In a complete demonic reverse of logic, the envious person believes that it would be better for no one to have it than for another person to have it while he himself goes without.” (41)

“Compared to what’s coming, this present age is breathtakingly short. It’s an eye-blink’s worth of prosperity (cf. 1 Peter 1:4). Envying your neighbor’s lifestyle is an extreme form of tunnel vision.” (105)

Three Honorable Mentions:

Best Biblical Commentary: Philippians (Mentor) / Matthew S. Harmon

The best commentary I read this year was Harmon’s on Philippians. It has everything you’d want: Exegetical precision, doxological theology, pastoral application, and lucid brevity. And it’s also Christ-centered through and through: “God calls us in Christ, and to Christ. As our life begins in Him (1 Cor. 1:30), it continues in and because of Him (John 15:1) and will be consummated in Him (Col. 1:28). The Christian life is a Christ-centered, Christ-focused, Christ-enabled life.” (359)

Best Audiobook: Beloved / Toni Morrison

I first encountered Morrison’s searching novels in college. When she passed away in August, I decided it was time to reread Beloved. Hearing her read this haunting story in her own voice was an experience I’ll never forget. 

Best New Edition of an Old Classic: The Book of Common Prayer (2019) / ARCNA

The Anglican Church in North America published a new edition of the BCP. You can read it all online here for free. I picked up the leather edition and it’s outstanding. If you’re unfamiliar with the BCP, Thomas Cranmer’s collects are the best place to start:

Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and the comfort of your holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of this world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

O heavenly Father, you have filled the world with beauty: Open our eyes to behold your gracious hand in all your works; that, rejoicing in your whole creation, we may learn to serve you with gladness; for the sake of him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the strength of love: So mightily spread abroad your Spirit, that all peoples may be gathered under the banner of the Prince of Peace; to whom be dominion and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Almighty God, you sit on your throne giving righteous judgment: We humbly ask you to bless all courts of justice and all magistrates in this land; give them a spirit of wisdom and understanding, that fearing no power but yours alone, they may discern the truth and impartially administer the law; through him who shall come to be our Judge, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

O God, almighty and merciful, you heal the broken-hearted, and turn the sadness of the sorrowful to joy, Let your fatherly goodness be upon all whom you have made. Remember in pity all those who are this day destitute, homeless, elderly, infirm, or forgotten. Bless the multitude of your poor. Lift up those who are cast down. Mightily befriend innocent sufferers, and sanctify to them the endurance of their wrongs. Cheer with hope all who are discouraged and downcast, and by your heavenly grace preserve from falling those whose poverty tempts them to sin. Though they be troubled on every side, suffer them not to be distressed; though they are perplexed, save them from despair. Grant this, O Lord, for the love of him who for our sakes became poor, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

O God, grant that we may desire you, and desiring you seek you, and seeking you find you, and finding you be satisfied in you for ever. Amen.

Best Wodehouse: The Inimitable Jeeves

No year is complete for me without spending time with Bertie and Jeeves. Wodehouse is a wordsmith and he never disappoints.

“Right from the first day Jeeves came to me, I have looked on him as a sort of guide, philosopher, and friend.” (10)
“You were always a fat-headed worm without any soul, weren’t you?” (12)
“I’ve always said, and I always shall say, that for sheer brains, Jeeves, you stand alone. All the other great thinkers of the age are simply in the crowd, watching you go by.” (22)
“At that moment, the gong sounded, and the genial host came tumbling downstairs like the delivery of a ton of coals.” (25)
“I came upon on young Bingo dancing like an untamed gazelle.” (31)
“The manager was a whiskered cove who looked like a bandit.” (34)
“I don’t pretend to be Sherlock Holmes or anything of that order, but the moment I looked at her I said to myself, ‘The girl plays the organ in a village church!'” (36)
“I turned round and Jeeves shied like a startled mustang.” (36)
“Dash it, a fellow must call his soul his own. You can’t be a serf to your valet.” (37)
“Relief was surging over me in great chunks by now.” (47) 

My Next 12:

13. Paris in the Present Tense / Mark Helprin

A few years ago, Andy Crouch wrote a short piece that I’ve returned to again and again because we both share a love for the writings of Mark Helprin: “I know no other writer who can craft such moving sentences in such simple words. Helprin’s language rarely calls attention to itself, but it never fails to make you pay deeper attention to the world and your own life.” I feel the same way about Helprin’s latest novel about an old man named Jules who hears music everywhere, whether he is walking down a busy Parisian street, or sitting aboard a commercial airliner awaiting liftoff.

“Music even of this kind was everywhere the bearer of messages from an unreachable but always beckoning place out of which perfection spilled easily and without limit. In his deepest despair — when his wife died, when his only grandchild was diagnosed with leukemia (the reason he had come to America) — Jules Lacour might still hear music arising from unexpected quarters: from the rhythms of steel wheels on train tracks, though this was now rare in France after the joints in the rails had been bridged by welds; from the clickings of elevators moving in their shafts; the unpredictable harmonies of traffic; wind in the trees; the workings of machines; and water flowing, falling, or surging in waves. Even in desperation, music would sound as if from nothing, and wake him to life. He was a cellist, and could never have been anything else. The world had courage, faith, beauty, and love, and it had music, which, although not merely an abstraction, was equal to the greatest abstractions and principles— its power to lift, clarify, and carry the soul forever unmatched.” (15-16)

“We’ve become addicted to praise. At an early age we look not to the music but to the teacher’s approval, and later to the applause of the audience, the reviewer’s sentence or two, or perhaps, eventually, to the world tour, posters in front of the concert hall, the wide-eyes of hotel clerks and managers as fame knocks them back like a wave. And as you seek approval, praise, position, wealth, and fame, the music becomes the means rather than the end… Grocery clerks, railroad workers, farmers, private soldiers, and street cleaners expect neither praise nor fame. Their reward comes quietly as they pass through life unrecognized. Learn to live like them. The music is all you need.” (348-349)

There are beauties here which pierce like swords and burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart. Some readers will know that this is good news, good beyond hope.

14. Fahrenheit 451 / Ray Bradbury

I only vaguely recall some of those mandatory summer reading books I breezed through back in high school. So I reread this classic by Bradbury that was published in 1953. And guess what? It sounds just like 2019.

“Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy. Any man who can take a TV wall apart and put it back together again, and most men can nowadays, is happier than any man who tries to slide-rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just won’t be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely. I know, I’ve tried it; to hell with it. So bring on your clubs and parties, your acrobats and magicians, your dare-devils, jet cars, motorcycle helicopters, your sex and heroin, more of everything to do with automatic reflex. If the drama is bad, if the film says nothing, if the play is hollow, sting me with the theremin, loudly. I’ll think I’m responding to the play, when it’s only a tactile reaction to vibration. But I don’t care. I just like solid entertainment. I must be going. Lecture’s over. I hope I’ve clarified things. The important thing for you to remember, Montag, is we’re the Happiness Boys, the Dixie Duo, you and I and the others. We stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought. We have our fingers in the dyke. Hold steady. Don’t let the torrent of melancholy and drear philosophy drown our world. We depend on you.” (80-81)

15. The Spy and the Traitor / Ben Macintyre

This nerve-wracking read wins the coveted “most-likely-book-to-soon-be-made-into-a-movie-or-miniseries-on-Netflix Award.” If you like Cold War international intrigue and spy fiction, you will totally dig this true and nerve-wracking Cold War espionage story.

16. Underland: A Deep Time Journey / Robert Macfarlane

Special grace is encircled by common grace. There’s a ton we can learn from others who are made in God’s image but who don’t share a Christian view of reality. Few living writers help me to see more wonder in this God-spoke world than Robert Macfarlane. Even the way he describes a simple stroll through the woods can take your breath away. Imagine being able to write a paragraph like this:

“We almost pass it by. Late afternoon, late summer: harvest time in the mountains to the north of the Carso. Smell of woodsmoke, meadow. Wooden cabins with steep eaves speaking of heavy winter snowfall. An old man sitting in a chair drawn up to a western gable end, eyes closed, catching the last of the sun. Long-handled scythes leaning against walls, cut grass on the blades. Cyclamens in the shade, purple fungi poking through leaf litter under the beeches. Apple trees here and there, hit by small yellow fruit. The land’s surface dimpled with grassed-in sinkholes. It is one of the most peaceful landscapes through which I have ever walked. Then we follow, because we are curious as to where it leads, a side path that turns away from the open ground of meadows and cabins, curving gently through beech and oak, and then angling up, the trees thinning in number but growing in height, poplars now, their leaves hissing in the wind. We walk the path in innocence because we do not know what is at its end, and through the poplars we can see golden reefs of cloud massing out over the sea, black on their undersides. The sun is warm on our faces, the rich smell of the meadow grass is thickening to rank — and then there is the first of the marks, cut deeply into the pale bark, and there is the edge of the chasm.” (213)

Macfarlane beckons you to pause and pay attention to what you can see in all that surrounds you. And in the glorious second chapter of Underland, he summons you to stare in amazement at that which you cannot see (or hear!):  dark matter, neutrinos, and WIMPS (weakly interacting massive particles).

“Dark matter is fundamental to everything in the universe; it anchors all structures together. Without dark matter, super-clusters, galaxies, planets, humans, fleas and bacilli would not exist. Presently, the particle thought most likely to be the constituent of dark matter is known wryly as a WIMP —a weakly interacting massive particle. What we know of WIMPs suggests that they are heavy (up to more than a thousand times the weight of a proton), and that they were created in sufficiently vast quantities in the seconds after the birth of the universe to account for the missing mass. WIMPs — like neutrinos, nicknamed ‘ghost particles’ — have scant regard for the world of baryonic matter.

WIMPs traverse our livers, skulls and guts in their trillions each second. Neutrinos fly through the Earth’s crust, mantle and solid iron-nickel core without touching a single atom as they go. To these subatomic particles, we are the ghosts and ours the shadow-world, made at most of a diaphanous webwork. The great challenge faced by physicists has been how to compel such elusive particles to interact with experiments; how to weave a net that might catch these quick fish. One of the solutions has been to go underground.

Subterranean laboratories have been established around the world, dedicated to the detection of evidence that a WIMP or a neutrino has briefly interacted with baryonic matter. The experiments under way in these deep-sunk laboratories are all forms of ghost hunting, and they are located far underground because the surrounding rock shields the experiments from what physicists call ‘noise’.

Noise is the trundle of everyday particles through the air, the din of the ordinary atomic world going about its business. Radioactivity is deafening noise. Cosmic-ray muons are noise. If you wish to listen for sounds so faint they may not exist at all, you can’t have someone playing the drums in your ear. To hear the breath of the birth of the universe, you must come below ground to what are, experimentally speaking, among the quietest places in the universe.” (57, 58-59)

For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things (including dark matter and WIMPS) were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things (including neutrinos) hold together. I’m glad I read this book. I’m thankful I didn’t pass it by.

17. The Body: A Guide For Occupants / Bill Bryson

“As we age, we lose our sense of the intimate otherness of things; we allow habit to displace awe, inevitability to banish delight; we grow into adulthood and put away childish things.”(88)

One book that helped reinvigorate my awe at the wonder of the human body is the latest book by Bill Bryson. Here are some of the mind-blowing factoids I discovered: 

“That is unquestionably the most astounding thing about us– that we are just a collection of inert components, the same stuff you would find in a pile of dirt.” (4)

“You blink fourteen thousand times a day– so much that your eyes are shut for twenty-tree minutes of every waking day. Yet you never have to think about it, because every second of every day your body undertakes a literally unquantifiable number of tasks– a quadrillion, a nonillion, a quindecillion, a vigintillion (these are actual measures), at all events some number vastly beyond imagining– without requiring an instant of your attention.” (4-5)

“In the second of so since you started this sentence, your body has made a million red blood cells.” (5)

“Altogether it takes 7 billion billion billion (that’s 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, or 7 octillion) atoms to make you.” (5)

“Unpacked, you are positively enormous. Your lungs, smoothed out, would cover a tennis court, and the airways within them would stretch nearly from coast to coast. The length of all your blood vessels would take you two and a half times around Earth.” (5)

“You have a meter of DNA packed into every cell, and so many cells that if you formed all the DNA in your body into a single strand, it would stretch ten billion miles, to beyond Pluto. Think of it: there is enough of you to leave the solar system.” (5)

“You would need twenty billion strands of DNA laid side by side to make the width of the finest human hair.”

“All humans share 99.9 percent of their DNA, and yet no two humans are alike. My DNA and your DNA will differ in three to four million places, which is a small proportion of the total but enough to make a lot of difference between us.” (7)

“The body is often likened to a machine, but it is so much more than that. It works twenty-four hears a day for decades without (for the most part) needing regular servicing or the installation of spare parts, runs on water and a few organic compounds, is soft and rather lovely, is accommodatingly mobile and pliant, reproduces itself with enthusiasm, makes jokes, feels affection, appreciates a red sunset and a cooling breeze. How many machines do you know that can do any of that? There is no question about it. You are truly a wonder. But then so, it must be said, is an earthworm.” (8)

“The skin consists of an inner layer called the dermis and an outer epidermis. The outermost surface of the epidermis, called the stratum corneum, is made up entirely of dead cells. It is an arresting thought that all that makes you lovely is deceased. Where body meets air, we are all cadavers. These outer skin cells are replaced every month. We shed skin copiously, almost carelessly: some twenty-five thousand flakes a minute, over a million pieces every hour. Run a finger along a dusty shelf, and you are in large part clearing a path through fragments of your former self. Silently and remorselessly we turn to dust.” (11-12)

I could keep going but, alas, my fingers are tired of typing. There are chapters on the brain, the heart and blood, the immune system, the lungs, the skeleton, skin and hair, nerves and pain, and conception and birth. I found it interesting that while the author writes from a secular evolutionary perspective, he repeatedly uses the same word over and over to describe human beings: “miracle.” (4, 9, 84, 113, 194, 206, 249, 293, 299)

18. Edison / Edmund Morris

Just when I was feeling pretty productive, I came across the following zinger in this wonderful new biography of the famous inventor Thomas Edison:

“Edison averaged one patent for every ten to twelve days of his adult life. This does not include inventions, such as the X-ray fluoroscope, that he chose to leave patent-free.” (5, #fn 1)

Yikes! 

19. Eyes in the Sky: The Secret Rise of Gorgon Stare and How It Will Watch Us All / Arthur Holland Michel

Fallen man apes to be like God. We long for omniscience and omnipresence. We yearn to know all and see all. And technology is the means to this end. C.S. Lewis wisely replied in a letter to Arthur C. Clarke on Dec. 7, 1943: “A race devoted to the increase of its own power by technology with complete indifference to ethics does seem to me a cancer in the universe.” (Letters, 2: 594) Consider, for instance, both the security benefits and the ethical concerns involved in wide-area drone surveillance. “In one exercise off the Scottish coast in 2016, a solitary albatross-sized catapult-launched surveillance drone equipped with a wide-area camera was able to peruse every square inch of an area the size of Wales in just 55 hours.” (91) Before reading this bracing book, I tended to think of drone surveillance as something that happened “over there.”

But Holland Michel makes clear that it’s already happening “over here.” It’s not just some Will Smith conspiracy movie. WAMI (Wide Angle Motion Imagery) and Gorgon Stare allow for something like “closed-circuit television on steroids” across city-sized areas. Earlier versions of this technology had 1,854,296,064 pixels, enough imaging power to spot an object six inches wide from an altitude of 25,000 feet in a frame twice the width of Manhattan.

As astounding as this is, the surveillance capabilities have dramatically improved. But here is the most disturbing Orwellian factoid from this book: the airspace over the United States of America falls into the same legal category as other public spaces like sidewalks, roads, parks, and beaches. Therefore, just as it isn’t illegal to take photographs of private property, or private citizens, from public space, in the same way, we have no expectation of privacy from above.

20. Butcher’s Crossing / John Williams

This may be the best novel I’ve ever read about the American West. Spectacularly written by an author who died as a literary nobody but who is now considered by many to be one of the greatest writers of the last 100 years. 

21. Over Sea, Under Stone / Susan Cooper

I’m a latecomer to the “Dark is Rising” series. Apparently they’ve been hugely popular for decades. I’d never even heard of these stories prior to their re-release earlier this year. The opening tale is wonderful. English children, on holiday in Cornwall, discover an ancient treasure map in a secret room hidden behind a wardrobe. Mysterious enemies lurk about, waiting to steal what the three Drew children are seeking: clues from the map that could lead them to King Arthur’s grail.

This story has it all: a glorious setting, a frightening villain, a strong emphasis on the good triumphing over the evil through sacrifice, prophecy and mystery, pain and loss, boys acting bravely, girls acting brilliantly, adventure galore, and old manuscripts written in Latin translated below by an Indiana Jones-like Uncle:

“The darkness draws toward Cornwall, and the long ships creep to our shore, and the battle is near which must lead to final defeat and the end of all that we have known. No guardian for the grail is left. And to save my life, and the secret of the grail that only its guardian knows, I must flee even as Bedwin the strange knight fled. But in all the land of Logres no haven remains, so that I must cross the sea to the land where, they say, Cornishmen have fled whenever terror comes. But the grail may not leave this land, but must wait the Pendragon, till the day comes. So therefore, I trust it to this land, over sea and under stone, and I mark here the signs by which the proper man in the proper place, may know where it lies: the signs that wax and wane but do not die. The secret of its charge I may not write, but carry unspoken to my grave. Yet the man who finds the grail and has other words from me will know, by both, the secret for himself. And for him is the charge, the promise and the proof, and in his day the Pendragon shall come again. And that day shall see a new Logres, with evil cast out; when the old world shall appear no more than a dream.” (63)

I’m planning on reading the entire series aloud to the Roark kiddos in 2020. 

22. Norco ’80 / Peter Houlahan

This book is intense. It’s got guns, and bullets, and Dispensational eschatology, and more guns, and the most spectacular bank robbery in American history. If that sounds like your bag, then have at it.

23. Working / Robert Caro

Last year I devoured Caro’s massive biography of Robert Moses. This year I read this collection of shorter pieces covering his approach to research, his writing process, and his interview tricks of the trade. Caro is a real gem. He’s 84 years old and he’s spent his entire adult life producing incredibly well-written biographies of two powerful, larger-than-life men: Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson. He’s won a Pulitzer Prize and he’s published millions of words. How does he do it?

“When I decided to write a book, I determined to do something to slow myself down, to not write until I had thought things through. That was why I resolved to write my first drafts in longhand, slowest of the various means of committing thoughts to paper, before I started doing later drafts on the typewriter; that is why I still do my first few drafts in longhand today; that is why, even now that typewriters have been replaced by computers, I still stick to my Smith-Corona Electra 210. And yet, even thus slowed down, I still, when I’m writing, set myself the goal of a minimum of a thousand words a day, and, as a chart I keep on my closet door attests, most days meet it.” (xii)

I love his advice about interviewing others:

“Silence is the weapon, silence and people’s need to fill it– as long as the person isn’t you, the interviewer. Two of fiction’s greatest interviewers– Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret and John le Carre’s George Smiley– have little devices they use to keep themselves from talking, and let silence do its work. Maigret cleans his ever-present pipe, tapping it gently on his desk and then scraping it out until the witness breaks down and talks. Smiley takes off his eyeglsses and polishes them with the thick end of his necktie. As for myself, I have less class. When I’m waiting for the person I’m interviewing to break a silence by giving me a piece of information I want, I write ‘SU’ (for Shut Up!) in my notebook. If anyone were ever to look through my notebooks, he would find a lot of ‘SUs’ there.” (137)

24. Digital Minimalism / Cal Newport

I was helped a bunch by Newport’s previous book Deep Work. It caused me to reevaluate how I structure my work week. As the title indicates, the main thrust of Newport’s newest book is this: the key to thriving in our high-tech world is to spend much less time using technology. “Less can be more in our relationship with digital tools.” (xv) Newport helped me reconsider how I use my iPhone. As a result my smartphone has been kind of a dumbphone for quite a while. No Internet, no social media. I use my phone the following activities: calls, texts, maps, and audio (music/podcasts/books). “Declaring freedom from your smartphone is probably the most serious step you can take toward embracing the attention resistance. This follows because smartphones are the preferred Trojan horse of the digital attention economy.” (246) This would be a fantastic book to pick up and read in January and prayerfully consider how 2020 might be a different kind of year, with more time spent with people and enjoying God’s creation, and less time staring at screens.

My Final 12:

25. The Ten Commandments / Thomas Watson

I preached through Exodus this year and we spent several weeks working through the Ten Commandments as a church. Thomas Watson was at my side all the way. I’ve said before that Watson is by far the most Tweetable of all the Puritans. His comments on the Ten Words didn’t disappoint. Here’s a snippet of his thoughts on the prologue to the Decalogue (Ex. 20:1-2):

“Great was the work of creation, but greater was the work of redemption. Great wisdom was seen in making us,—but more miraculous wisdom in saving us. Great power was seen in bringing us out of nothing,—but greater power in helping us when we were worse than nothing. It cost more to redeem us than to create us. In the creation there was but ‘speaking a word,’ (Ps. 148:5). In the redeeming us, there was shedding of blood (1 Pet. 1:19). The creation was the work of God’s fingers (Ps. 8:3); redemption was the work of His arm (Luke 1:5). In the creation, God gave us ourselves; in the redemption, He gave us Himself. By creation, we have a life in Adam; by redemption, we have a life in Christ (Col. 3:3). By creation, we had a right to an earthly paradise; by redemption, we have a title to an heavenly kingdom.” (96)

26. Atomic Habits / James Clear

I’ll revisit this book again and again. Clear explains how habits form, how to kill bad habits, and how to cultivate good ones.

“All big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision. But as that decision is repeated, a habit sprouts and grows stronger. Roots entrench themselves and branches grow. The task of breaking a bad habit is like uprooting a powerful oak within us. And the task of building a good habit is like cultivating a delicate flower one day at a time.” (22)

27. Before You Open Your Bible / Matt Smethurst

Reading this book will help you read the Book. I’ve recently given away dozens of copies of this jewel to members of our church as a way of encouraging prayerful, faithful, careful, and joyful Bible reading in 2020.

“Until Jesus splits the skies in blazing glory and our faith becomes sight, we must live in the age of the ear as we await the age of the eye. So ‘for now,’ Augustine said sixteen centuries ago, ‘treat the Scripture of God as the face of God. Melt in its presence.’ And as Spurgeon put it, ‘To me the Bible is not God, but it is God’s voice, and I do not hear it without awe.’ Your Bible is a bottomless treasure chest of beauty and wonder, strength and joy. May you approach it for the rest of your days as if that’s true, because it is.” (79)

28. Piercing Heaven: Prayers of the Puritans / Robert Elmer

I received my first copy of The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions nearly twenty years ago. It has been a constant companion ever since. I’ve wondered if anyone was going to get around to publishing some more Puritan. This new volume of prayers is a feast. Warm-hearted, Scriptural, and ardent.

29. Dark Clouds Deep Mercy / Mark Vroegop

I was taught the ACTS model of prayer as a new believer: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered how much of the Bible, especially the Psalms, speaks in the language of lament. One-third of the prayers in the Psalms are prayers of lament. After the loss of a stillborn daughter, Mark Vroegop and his wife found solace in these Scriptures. “The Bible gave voice to my pain and I discovered a minor-key language for my suffering: lament.” (17) Vroegop walks through several Psalms of lament (77, 10, 22, and 13) and provides examples of pastoral prayers of lament that serve as models for corporate prayer.

“Lament stands in the gap between pain and promise.” (26)
“Lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust.” (28)“Pain has a way of awakening us to our need for God’s help.” (60)
“Hope springs from truth rehearsed.” (119)
“Lament helps us interpret pain through the lens of God’s character and his ultimate mercy. The power of lament is the opportunity to express our sorrow we feel while also anchoring our hearts in the truth we believe.” (119)
“Lament is the language of a people who know the whole story—the gospel story” (150).

This book is a helpful guide to voice our laments to the Lord until that glorious day comes when sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

30. The Creaking On The Stairs / Mez McConnell

One of the reasons to lament is because of the pervasiveness of child abuse in this fallen world. In The Creaking on the Stairs, Mez shares not only about the abuse he endured as a child at the hands of his own mother but he also powerfully shares the good news of Jesus Christ.

“I am conflicted even further when I think about my own family today, almost three decades after she beat me for the last time. My wife of 20 years lies next to me soundly sleeping. My teenage girls are in their rooms. Because of the scars of my childhood, they have never known violence in our home. Because of the horrors of my pain, they have never known cigarette burns on pale, skinny arms. Because of the nightmare of systematic abuse I faced, they have never spent endless lonely nights in locked cupboards without food and clothing. Because of my shame, they have never known the horrors of being stripped and mocked in front of drunken strangers. Because of my humiliations, they have never known hunger so deep they’ve been forced to eat their own faeces. Because of the extreme violence of my upbringing, they’ve never been beaten with poles and sticks. Because of the trauma of my childhood, they’ve never been knocked unconscious for failing to wash a dish properly. Ironically, because of ‘her’, my own children have never known the horrors of deeply psychological and traumatic abuse. Of course, there is another reason they have never known and experienced these things. They’ve never known these things because I know Jesus.”

Rosaria Butterfield puts it well: “This is the most disturbing book that I have ever read. And I cannot recommend it highly enough.”

31. Mystic River / Dennis Lehane

No novel troubled me more in 2019 than this one. It’s a tragic story that is beyond sad. Lehane writes in the minor key but he makes it all sound so beautiful.

“When Garret Anderson blooped a dying sigh of a single into shallow right and ended Pedro’s bid for a no-hitter, any excitement that had been left in the 8-0 game floated out past the bleachers, and Dave found himself paying more attention to the lights and the fans and Anaheim Stadium itself than to the actual game. He watched the faces in the bleachers most—the disgust and defeated fatigue, the fans looking like they were taking the loss more personally than the guys in the dugout. And maybe they were. For some of them, Dave figured, this was the only game they’d attend this year. They’d brought the kids, the wife, walked out of their homes into the early California evening with coolers for the tailgate party and five thirty-dollar tickets so they could sit in the cheap seats and put twenty-five-dollar caps on their kids’ heads, eat six-dollar rat burgers and $4.50 hot dogs, watered-down Pepsi and sticky ice cream bars that melted into the hairs of their wrists. They came to be elated and uplifted, Dave knew, raised up out of their lives by the rare spectacle of victory. That’s why arenas and ballparks felt like cathedrals—buzzing with light and murmured prayers and forty thousand hearts all beating the drum of the same collective hope. Win for me. Win for my kids. Win for my marriage so I can carry your winning back to the car with me and sit in the glow of it with my family as we drive back toward our otherwise winless lives. Win for me. Win. Win. Win. But when the team lost, that collective hope crumbled into shards and any illusion of unity you’d felt with your fellow parishioners went with it. Your team had failed you and served only to remind you that usually when you tried, you lost. When you hoped, hope died. And you sat there in the debris of cellophane wrappers and popcorn and soft, soggy drink cups, dumped back into the numb wreckage of your life, facing a long dark walk back through a long dark parking lot with hordes of drunk, angry strangers, a silent wife tallying up your latest failure, and three cranky kids. All so you could get in your car and drive back to your home, the very place from which this cathedral had promised to transport you.” (50-51)

This book isn’t for the faint of heart. But Lehane shows in vivid relief more than any novel I’ve ever read the haunting and lasting effects of the abuse of authority, especially the abuse of a child.

“I will come home to you, Celeste. We will make that good life. We will. And then, I promise, no more lies. No more secrets. But I think I need to tell this one last lie, the worst lie of my lying life, because I can’t tell the worst truth of my life.” (365)

32. The Moon Is Always Round / Jonathan Gibson

This was not only the best children’s book I read all year; it’s one of the best children’s books I’ve ever read. How do you teach your children about the goodness of God when you walk with them through the valley of the shadow of death? You show them that just as the moon is always round, our God is always good. What a truth to believe and to pass along to our children.

P.S.: Andrew Wilson’s Sophie and the Heidelberg Cat is also spectacular!

33. Superheroes Can’t Save You / Todd Miles

I imagine most of the folks in our congregations, especially our young people, wouldn’t have a clue how to articulate the dangers of docetism, liberalism, modalism, Arianism, adoptionism, Apollinarianism, or Eutychianism. In fact, most pastors I know couldn’t explain all of these aberrant teachings and ancient Christological heresies. But I bet lots of us could say a thing or two about Superman, Batman, Ant-Man, Thor, Green Lantern, Hulk, and Spider-Man.

Enter Todd Miles. He used to be a nuclear scientist, but now he’s a theology professor at Western Seminary in Portland. He loves Jesus and His Word and he’s had a lifelong passion for comic books. In this book, he takes the superheroes that we know and uses them as a way of explaining false understandings of who Jesus is. It’s brilliant. It’s like Chalcedon meets Marvel.

“We all need and want a Savior– a hero who will deliver us. I believe this is why the superhero comics, movies, and television shows are so popular. There is something inside each one of us that years for a champion to rise up and deliver us.

Jesus is only able to do all the things that the Bible says He does because He is everything that the Bible says He is. The Bible testifies to the full humanity and full deity of Jesus. Jesus had to possess true and authentic human and divine natures in order to fulfill biblical prophecy, save a people for God, and then see that people through to the new heavens and new earth. No run-of-the-mill savior could do all that—not the greatest of real human heroes, not even the best creations of our most imaginative comic writers.

Unlike Superman, Jesus, the Son of God, did not just seem to be human. Jesus actually is human in every respect that it takes to be authentically human.

Unlike Batman, Jesus, the Son of Man, is more than a remarkable human. He is in fact fully God, sharing the divine essence equally and eternally with God the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Unlike Hank Pym, and his alter egos, Ant-Man, GiantMan, and Yellowjacket, God exists simultaneously as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the three coequal and coeternal members of the Trinity. Jesus could and did interact with both the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Unlike Thor, a god but inferior to his father, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is not just a god. He is fully equal to God the Father. All that it takes to be God is found in the person of Jesus Christ.

Unlike Green Lantern, a mere man empowered by a ring, Jesus Christ is not a mere man empowered by the Holy Spirit. Jesus depended on the Holy Spirit throughout His life and ministry, but it was not because of anything He lacked in and of Himself. The Son possesses all the attributes of deity, fully and completely; He always has and always will.

Unlike Bruce Banner, who is overwhelmed by the Hulk upon transformation, Jesus Christ at all times possesses all that it takes to make Him authentically human, and His divine nature does not overwhelm or trivialize any of those essential human attributes.

And unlike Spider-Man, who is a bizarre combination of human and spider, Jesus Christ has a divine nature and a human nature, not a weird hybrid of the two. His humanity is not mixed into His deity.

Because Jesus Christ is all these things, we have found that He is able to reign as: King of kings, save us from sin, pioneer our resurrection, serve as our example and help in temptation, be our great High Priest, establish us as his coheirs, and much,  much more.” (176-178)

34. Recursion / Blake Crouch

Crouch seems unable to write a boring tale. His previous book was a mind-bender. His latest is a rip-roaring, sci-fi, time travel story. It’s a fun beach-read kind of a book and for me it was unputdownable.

35. Ordinary Grace / William Kent Krueger

The final novel I read in 2019 was one of the best. It reminded me of a short story by Stephen King entitled “The Body.” There are many unforgettable scenes, but my favorite took place at a funeral:

My father drove the Packard to the cemetery which was set on a hill on the east side of town. The hole was already dug and Gus was waiting and Sheriff Gregor was there though I didn’t know why and moments after we arrived Mr. van der Waal drove up in the hearse and my father and Gus and the sheriff and the mortician slid the coffin from the back. It was a simple box of pine planed and sanded smooth and it had no handles. The men lifted and carried it on their shoulders to the grave. They laid it on wooden two-by-fours that Gus had arranged across the opening along with canvas straps for the eventual lowering into the earth. Then the men stood back and I with them and my father opened his Bible.

It seemed to me a good day to be dead and by that I mean that if the dead cared no more about the worries they’d shouldered in life and could lie back and enjoy the best of what God had created it was a day for exactly such. The air was warm and still and the grass of the cemetery which Gus kept watered and clipped was soft green and the river that reflected the sky was a long ribbon of blue silk and I thought that when I died this was the place exactly I would want to lie and this was the scene that forever I would want to look upon. And I thought that it was strange that a resting place so kingly had been given to a man who had nothing and about whom we knew so little that even his name was a mystery. And though I didn’t know at all and still do not the truth of the arrangement, I suspected that it was somehow my father’s doing. My father and his great embracing heart.

He read the Twenty-Third Psalm and then he read from Romans ending with: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

He closed the book and said, “We believe too often that on the roads we walk we walk alone. Which is never true. Even this man who is unknown to us was known to God and God was his constant companion. God never promised us an easy life. He never promised that we wouldn’t suffer, that we wouldn’t feel despair and loneliness and confusion and desperation. What he did promise was that in our suffering we would never be alone. And though we may sometimes make ourselves blind and deaf to his presence he is beside us and around us and within us always. We are never separated from his love. And he promised us something else, the most important promise of all. That there would be surcease. That there would be an end to our pain and our suffering and our loneliness, that we would be with him and know him, and this would be heaven. This man, who in life may have felt utterly alone, feels alone no more. This man, whose life may have been days and nights of endless waiting, is waiting no more. He is where God always knew he would be, in a place prepared. And for this we rejoice.”

My father led us in the Lord’s Prayer and we stood in silence for a few moments staring down at the simple coffin which was pale yellow against the black of the hole beneath. And then my father said something that amazed me. He said, “It’s a good day to be dead.” Which were almost the exact words I’d been thinking. And he said, “Let this man in this place of beauty rest forever in peace.” Which was also very nearly what I’d been thinking. (70-71)

36. The Complete Poetical Works of James Thomson, Vol. 1 / James Thomson

James Thomson (1700–1748) has become one of my favorite poets but I’ve only read one of his poems. I spent the whole year, season by season, meandering slowly but surely through the 5,500 lines (!) of his epic poem about the seasons creatively entitled, “The Seasons.” It’s incredible. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Below you’ll find Thomson’s wonderful description of the One who is the Author of all seasons, the One who is the Lord of the summer, the One who is light Himself:

Now may the God of peace grant you perfect peace, and living hope, and glorious grace, and steadfast love with faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord, until the day breaks and the shadows flee away.

As always, happy reading and Happy New Year!

–Nick Roark

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“Self-righteousness can feed upon doctrines, as well as upon works” by John Newton

“There is a principle of self, which disposes us to despise those who differ from us; and we are often under its influence, when we think we are only shewing a becoming zeal in the cause of God.

I readily believe that the leading points of Arminianism spring from, and are nourished by, the pride of the human heart; but I should be glad if the reverse was always true; and that to embrace what are called the Calvinistic doctrines was an infallible token of a humble mind.

I think I have known some Arminians—that is, persons who, for want of clearer light, have been afraid of receiving the doctrines of free grace—who yet have given evidence that their hearts were in a degree humbled before the Lord.

And I am afraid there are Calvinists, who, while they account it a proof of their humility that they are willing in words to debase the creature, and to give all the glory of salvation to the Lord, yet know not what manner of spirit they are of.

Whatever it be that makes us trust in ourselves that we are comparatively wise or good, so as to treat those with contempt who do not subscribe to our doctrines, or follow our party, is a proof and fruit of a self-righteous spirit.

Self-righteousness can feed upon doctrines, as well as upon works; and a man may have the heart of a Pharisee, while his head is stored with orthodox notions of the unworthiness of the creature and the riches of free grace.

Yea, I would add, the best of men are not wholly free from this leaven; and therefore are too apt to be pleased with such representations as hold up our adversaries to ridicule, and by consequence flatter our own superior judgments.

Controversies, for the most part, are so managed as to indulge rather than to repress this wrong disposition; and therefore, generally speaking, they are productive of little good. They provoke those whom they should convince, and puff up those whom they should edify.

I hope your performance will savour of a spirit of true humility, and be a means of promoting it in others.”

–John Newton, “Letter XIX: On Controversy,” The Works of John NewtonVolume 1 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2015), 1: 272-273.

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“If we cannot all be writers, then we all want to be critics!” by Martin Luther

“Although I know full well and hear every day that many people think little of me and say that I only write little pamphlets and sermons in German for the uneducated laity, I do not let that stop me. Would to God that in my lifetime I had, to my fullest ability, helped one layman to be better!

I would be quite satisfied, thank God, and quite willing then to let all my little books perish. Whether the making of many large books is an art and of benefit to Christendom, I leave for others to judge.

If we cannot all be writers, then we all want to be critics! I will most gladly leave to anybody else the glory of greater things. I will not be ashamed in the slightest to preach to the uneducated layman and write for him in German.

Although I may have little skill at it myself, it seems to me that if we had hitherto busied ourselves in this very task and were of a mind to do more of it in the future, Christendom would have reaped no small advantage and would have been more benefitted by this than by those heavy, weighty tomes which are only handled in the schools among learned schoolmen.

Furthermore, I have never forced anyone or begged him to listen to me or read my sermons. I have served the church unstintingly with that which God gave me. This is my duty.

If anybody so chooses, he is free to read others and listen to them. If people do not want to read my books or hear my sermons, that does not matter very much.

As far as I am concerned it is quite enough, really more than enough, that some laymen—and those the most distinguished—are humble enough to read my sermons. And if nothing else motivated me, this would be more than sufficient.”

–Martin Luther, “Treatise on Good Works,Luther’s Works, Vol. 44: The Christian in Society I (ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann; vol. 44; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 22.

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Filed under Christian Theology, Humility, Jesus Christ, Martin Luther, Preaching, Puritanical, Quotable Quotes, The Gospel, Writing

The Best Books I Read This Year (2018)

These are my favorite books that I read in 2018. There are 36 selections and I thoroughly enjoyed every last one of them.

My Top 12:

1. Some Pastors and Teachers / Sinclair Ferguson

The best book I read in 2018 is this brilliant cornucopia of essays covering theological topics, historical figures, and spiritual issues. Imagine if you could take a course on pastoral ministry from Sinclair Ferguson. The substance of that class would be the bulk of this book. Ferguson issues a challenge to busy pastors right at the outset:

“Many—probably most—of these chapters were written in the context of busy pastoral ministry, either in Scotland or in the United States—preaching, teaching, pastoral visiting, personal meetings, crises in the lives of individuals and sometimes the whole church, administrative responsibilities, and the wide and wonderful variety of activities that make up the average ministers life. And since virtually all the essays were written by request, their writing has been squeezed into, or out of, an occasional hiatus in the sheer busy-ness of ministry life and the constant preparation involved in preaching anywhere between three and six times in the week.” (xii-xiii)

I am eternally grateful that Sinclair Ferguson took the time to write such edifying material for others. Over the years, I may have read and reread “The Preacher’s Decalogue” (chapter 39) twenty-five times or so. He calls these chapters “some of the leftovers from the abundance of good food the Lord has given us in His Word,” (xv). I call them a feast for the hungry soul.

2. God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ / Stephen Wellum

This book is a worshipfully written, biblical-theological, gold mine of Christology that will help you treasure more dearly God’s own dear Son:

“Because our plight is so desperate, due to sin, the only person who can save us is God’s own dear Son. It is only as the Son incarnate that our Lord can represent us; it is only as the Son incarnate that He can put away our sin, stand in our place, and turn away God’s wrath by bearing our sin. Only Jesus can satisfy God’s own righteous requirements, because He is one with the Lord as God the Son; only Jesus can do this for us because He is truly a man and can represent us.” (442-443)

3. Reformation Worship / Eds. Jonathan Gibson and Mark Earngey

Gibson and Earngey retrieve Protestant liturgies from the past for their use in the present. This volume includes entire orders of service from Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Cranmer, Knox, Ursinus, the Puritans, and others. Gibson pens an incredible opening chapter entitled “Worship: On Earth as It Is in Heaven“:

“Worship is the right, fitting, and delightful response of moral beings—angelic and human—to God the Creator, Redeemer, and Consummator, for who He is as one eternal God in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit— and for what He has done in creation and redemption, and for what He will do in the coming consummation, to whom be all praise and glory, now and forever, world without end. Amen.” (2)

If you are responsible for planning the corporate worship services of your local church, you will be greatly served by mining the treasures of this book.

4. On Reading Well / Karen Swallow Prior

Reading great works of literature can cultivate a desire for the good life, a life of virtue and excellence, because “reading literature, more than informing, forms us” (22). Here’s what I wrote in my TGC review:

On Reading Well is exquisitely written and will appeal immediately to a certain kind of reader: the kind who reads a book review about a book about the virtues embodied in reading books; the kind of reader who finds it impossible to pass by a used bookstore without slipping inside in search of a story that will stir a homesick hope within; the kind of reader who, like David Copperfield, reads “as if for life” itself (59); the kind of reader who joyfully affirms with C. S. Lewis, “My own eyes are not enough for me; I will see through those of others” (140).

But even if you’re not yet that kind of reader, Prior beckons you to become one. You won’t find a scolding tone or any long list of books you simply must read before you die. Instead, acting as the English professor we all wish we had in school, she humbly kindles a desire in you to leave her own book behind and reach for that daunting work of literature you’ve never quite finished and was never quite finished with you. I suspect this was one of Prior’s goals all along.”

5. The Last Adam: A Theology of the Obedient Life of Jesus in the Gospel / Brandon Crowe

We were plunged into the abyss of sin by the disobedience of the first Adam. Our salvation rests upon the obedience of the last Adam, who humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. “Jesus never erred in any way, remaining faithful throughout His life, demonstrating His faithfulness all the way to Jerusalem and His enthronement upon a Roman cross.” (207) This careful study helped me marvel at how Jesus lived for us and for our great salvation.

6. Remember Death / Matthew McCullough

I did more funerals than weddings this year, and so I’ve been thinking a lot about death recently. Matt McCullough is a godly pastor and an outstanding writer. He shepherds his readers through a topic most of us try desperately to avoid. But as he puts it: “So long as death remains someone else’s problem, Jesus will remain someone else’s Savior.” (59) McCullough’s sober meditation cultivated a “death-awareness” in me and helped me see how “facing up to the truth about death can lead us to a deeper hope in life.” (173)

7. Living Life Backwards / David Gibson

Speaking of death, Ecclesiastes tells us “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die.” (3:1-2) Gibson has written an outstanding exploration of this challenging OT book. Here’s the key paragraph:

“Ecclesiastes teaches us to live life backward. It encourages us to take the one thing in the future that is certain—our death—and work backward from that point into all the details and decisions and heartaches of our lives, and to think about them from the perspective of the end. It is the destination that makes sense of the journey. If we know for sure where we are heading, then we can know for sure what we need to do before we get there. Ecclesiastes invites us to let the end sculpt our priorities and goals, our greatest ambitions and our strongest desires. I want to persuade you that only if you prepare to die can you really learn how to live.” (12)

8. Spurgeon on the Christian Life / Michael Reeves

This book is Charles Spurgeon plus Michael Reeves. Honestly, that’s really all you need to know. I’m unsure if Reeves has read all 18 million words that Spurgeon published in his lifetime. But I do know that he accomplishes his expressed aim in this book: “I generally find reading Spurgeon himself like breathing in great lungfuls of mountain air: he is bracing, refreshing, and rousing. I want, therefore, to try to make myself scarce and let Spurgeon leap at readers himself.” (17) The Prince of Preachers indeed leaps off every page, and that’s a fabulous thing.

9. The Beauty of the Lord: Theology as Aesthetics / Jonathan King

This monograph is one of the most edifying and God-glorifying works I read this entire year. There are wonderful systematic and biblical-theological insights found throughout. The author’s aim is “to explore and develop a theology of beauty based on God’s plan in Christ. Thus the nature of beauty, as defined by the divine economy of redemption, which sums all things up in Jesus Christ (Eph 1:10), is pursued in a specifically biblical and systematic way from beginning to end.” (1)

King makes a compelling case both from biblical evidence and theological warrant that beauty properly should be considered a perfection of the divine nature. The author draws together bright threads of beauty from Scripture and from the writings of Irenaeus, Augustine, Calvin, Balthasar, Bavinck, Edwards, and others, to fashion a glorious “theodramatic” tapestry of redemption. If you read this book carefully and prayerfully, I trust that your eyes too will ‘behold the King in His beauty.’ I’m looking forward to reading King’s next book project, provocatively titled God’s Oikosystem: The Roles that Holy Angels and Fallen Angels Play in God’s Eternal Plan for Humans.

10. J.C. Ryle: Prepared To Stand Alone  / Iain H. Murray

I know of no finer biography of the great Bishop of Liverpool than this one. It’s what I’ve come to expect from Murray: clearly written, theologically astute, and resolutely wise. I’m writing this from my home study where my bookshelves are brimming with works published by the Banner of Truth. I’m forever grateful to the Lord for providentially using Murray to co-found the Banner on July 22, 1957, while he served as an assistant to Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel in London. I actually got the idea to begin this blog in 2003 from an offhand comment Murray made during an interview with Mark Dever in 2002.

Chilling with Iain and Jean at Cracker Barrel

After his funeral, J.C. Ryle’s successor referred to him as “that man of granite with the heart of a child.” (213) That also seems to me to be an apt description of Iain H. Murray.

11. Calling on the Name of the Lord: A Biblical Theology of Prayer / J. Gary Millar

John Calvin observed an unbreakable link between prayer and the gospel: “Just as faith is born from the gospel, so through it our hearts are trained to call upon God’s name.” (Institutes, 3.20.1-3) This connection between prayer and gospel is explored in this outstanding NSBT volume. Millar argues convincingly that “calling on the name of the Lord” is to be primarily understood throughout the Scriptures as asking God to come through on what He has already promised:

“I can find five prayers in the New Testament encourages us to believe God will always come through on: He will always answer our prayers when we ask Him to do His new covenant work through His Word by the Spirit. And what does that look like? Here is a summary of the ‘no brainer’ prayers we should pray for as individuals and communities, because God has already guaranteed to answer:

-when we pray for forgiveness (1 John 5:19);
-when we pray to know God better (Eph. 1:15-22; 3:18-19);
-when we pray for wisdom (James 1:5-6);
-when we pray for strength to obey/love/live for God (Eph. 1:15-22; 3:14-15);
-when we pray for the spread of the gospel (Luke 10:2; Acts 5; Col. 4)” (239)

12. Prayer / John Onwuchekwa

This wonderful little book, written by a dear brother, is packed full of glorious wisdom for making prayer central to the life of your church:

“It’s so much easier to read about prayer than to actually pray.” (16)

“Prayer is oxygen for the Christian. It sustains us. It is to the church what it is to individuals—breathing. Yet many of our gatherings could be likened to people coming together merely to hold their collective breath. This would explain why people seem to have so little energy for actually living out the Christian life.” (23)

“The local church is the best way to define the ‘us’ in our prayers.” (62)

“Jesus stared death square in the face, knowing his fate was inescapable. How did he face it? On his knees in prayer.” (70)

“We’ll always lack peace when we judge God’s love for us by how many of our prayers are answered with a ‘yes.’ False hope is the most fertile soil for a crop of discontentment.” (72)

“Jesus’s faithfulness to do God’s task is directly tied to his prayer. The disciples’ faithlessness is directly tied to their prayerlessness.” (75)

“A church that practices prayer is more than a church that learns; it’s also a church that leans. We learn dependence by leaning on God together.” (92)

“Let the temptation to worry serve as the divine alarm clock reminding you it’s time to pray.” (125)

“The power of our prayers isn’t found in the number of people praying, but the willingness of the One to whom we’re praying.” (126)

Three Honorable Mentions:

Best Out of Print Book: The Collected Writings of Lemuel Haynes / Lemuel Haynes

Lemuel Haynes (1753-1833) was the first African-American ordained by any religious body in America. He was a veteran of the American Revolution and was a powerful preacher, influenced greatly by the works of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. Unfortunately, his collected writings remain difficult to find. I was only able to access them via InterLibrary Loan. Here’s a taste:

“The godly preacher will not be ambitious of saying fine things to win applause, but of saying useful things to win souls. He will consider that he has the weak as well as the strong, children as well as adults to speak to, and that he must be accountable for the blood of their souls if they perish through his neglect. This will influence him to study plainness more than politeness.

Such a preacher will not come into the pulpit as an actor comes to the stage to display his talents, but as one who feels the weight of eternal things. Oh! With what zeal and fervor will he speak! How will death, judgment, and eternity appear as it were in every feature, and every word!

Out of the abundance of his heart, his mouth will speak. He will study and preach with reference to a judgment to come, and deliver every sermon in some respects, as if it were his last, not knowing when his Lord will call him or his hearers to account.” (50-51)

How can sermons like this be out of print?

Best Biblical Commentary: The Gospel According to Mark / James Edwards

The best commentary I read this year was this gem on the Gospel of Mark. Highly recommended!

Best Wodehouse: Very Good, Jeeves! / P.G. Wodehouse

One can really never read too much Wodehouse. So it’s a good thing there are 99 volumes in his collected works. Here’s a sampling from the rip-roaring volume, Very Good, Jeeves!:

“When it is a question of a pal being in the soup, we Woosters no longer think of self; and that poor old Bingo was knee-deep in the bisque was made plain by his mere appearance– which was that of a cat which has just been struck by a half-brick and is expecting another shortly.” (22-23)

“Bingo uttered a stricken woofle like a bull-dog that has been refused cake.” (25)

“Young Bingo, you see, is one of those fellows who, once their fingers close over the handle of a tennis racket, fall into a sort of trance in which nothing outside the radius of the lawn exists for them. If you came up to Bingo in the middle of a set and told him that panthers were devouring his best friend in the kitchen garden, he would look at you and say, ‘Oh, ah?’ or words to that effect.” (26)

“Never give in. Perseverance brings home the gravy.” (59)

“As Shakespeare says, if you’re going to do a thing you might just as well pop right at it and get it over.” (63)

“Tuppy has one of those high, squeaky voices that sound like the tenor of the village choir failing to hit a high note. This voice, however, was something in between the last Trumpet and a tiger calling for breakfast after being on a diet for a day or two.” (76)

“His eyebrows seemed to pierce me like a knife.” (78)

“Reason was beginning to do a bit of tottering on its throne.” (111)

“You know, whatever you may say against old Jeeves– you’ve got to admit that the man can plan a campaign. Naopoleon could have taken his correspondence course.” (126-127)

“The voice of Love seemed to call to me, but it was a wrong number.” (160)

My Next 12:

13. Washington Black / Esi Edugyan

My favorite novel of the year tells the heart-wrenching tale of an eleven-year-old slave named Washington Black. “Wash” escapes from a Barbados sugar plantation with the help of Titch, his master’s brother, who also happens to be a naturalist, explorer, inventor, and abolitionist. Their worldwide adventures begin with a frightful flight and daring getaway in an experimental hot-air balloon. Edugyan is quite the wordsmith. Here’s proof:

A wind was blowing; the Cloud-cutter roared, creaked, leaning into its ropes. The wind was warm, unpleasant, with the scent of iron and rain in it. I watched Titch’s dark figure move to adjust the canister of gas in the blackness, grunting and cursing softly. The canopy hung high above me, a scorch against the lighter sky.

Titch called to me urgently, and I clambered into the wicker-and-wood gondola, its oars stretching like antennae into the sky, its four odd wings creaking like rudders in the wind. How terrifying it all looked, in the dark; a great hot fear of death went through me. As Titch was double-checking the bolts and knots, he paused to give me a strange, quiet look. But I said nothing, and he said nothing, an in silence he turned back to his preparations.

“Well, Wash,” he said at last.

“Well,” I said, terrified.

Then, without another word, he adjusted the canister. A higher column of fire surged upwards into the canopy, and the fabric began to shudder and shake. The shaking was terrible. My teeth rattled in my skull. I stared in fascinated terror at the broad black mouth sucking up fire.

The air stank of char and smoke, of burning oil. Finally Titch leaned over and severed each rope in its turn. All around me I could hear the hissing of the grass as the wicker basket was dragged across it– a vicious, final sound.

In the half-light I could just make out the hollows of Titch’s face, his eyes blacked out, only the white shards of his teeth distinct and visible. I felt a give in my belly; I clutched at the oars of the Cloud-cutter in dread. The air around us began to howl; the sky rushed towards us. We were rising.

I can barely describe the sight of it. I saw the threatening sky below, a great red crack of light, like a monstrous eye just opening. The sky was still black where we were, but the wind was already hurling us seaward. I watched the half-cut cane fields in the faint light, the white scars of harvest glistening like the part in a woman’s hair.

What did I feel? What would anyone feel, in such a place? My chest ached with anguish and wonder, an astonishment that went on and on, and I could not catch my breath. The Cloud-cutter spun, turned gradually faster, rising ever higher. I began to cry– deep, silent, racking sobs, my face turned away from Titch, staring out onto the boundlessness of the world. The air grew colder, crept in webs across my skin. All was shadow, red light, storm-fire and frenzy. And up we went into the eye of it, untouched, miraculous. (130-131)

14. A Gentleman in Moscow / Amor Towles

This is a charming story about a Russian count sentenced by a Bolshevik tribunal to spend the rest of his life in Moscow’s Metropolis Hotel. The Count loses much of his earthly possessions, and yet this doesn’t rob him of his irrepressible joy. A life without luxury can be the richest of all. I was reminded that even something like a simple breakfast and freshly brewed coffee should cause me to pause and give thanks to the Lord, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy:

“Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov stirred at half past eight to the sound of rain on the eaves. With a half-opened eye, he pulled back his covers and climbed from bed. He donned his robe and slipped on his slippers. He took up the tin from the bureau, spooned a spoonful of beans into the apparatus, and began to crank the crank.

Even as he turned the little handle round and round, the room remained under the tenuous authority of sleep. As yet unchallenged, somnolence continued to cast its shadow over sights and sensations, over forms and formulations, over what has been said and what must be done, lending each the insubstantiality of its domain. But when the Count opened the small wooden drawer of the grinder, the world and all it contained were transformed by that envy of the alchemists—the aroma of freshly ground coffee.

In that instant, darkness was separated from light, the waters from the lands, and the heavens from the earth. The trees bore fruit and the woods rustled with the movement of birds and beasts and all manner of creeping things. While closer at hand, a patient pigeon scuffed its feet on the flashing.

Easing the little drawer from the apparatus, the Count poured its contents into the pot (which he had mindfully primed with water the night before). He lit the burner and shook out the match. As he waited for the coffee to brew, he did thirty squats and thirty stretches and took thirty deep breaths. From the little cupboard in the corner, he took a small pitcher of cream, a pair of English biscuits, and a piece of fruit (today an apple). Then having poured the coffee, he began to enjoy the morning’s sensations to their fullest:

The crisp tartness of the apple, the hot bitterness of the coffee, the savory sweetness of the biscuit with its hint of butter… So perfect was the combination that upon finishing, the Count was tempted to crank the crank, quarter the apple, dole out the biscuits, and enjoy his breakfast all over again.” (171-172)

15. Grant / Ron Chernow

Murat Halstead, editor of the Cincinnati Commercial, penned the following scathing indictment of Ulysses S. Grant: “He is a poor drunken imbecile and hopelessly foolish.” Grant did indeed battle alcohol abuse much of his life. But Ron Chernow’s magisterial biography reveals many commendable and inspiring aspects of the man who rose from Union General to the nation’s Commander in Chief. One of my favorite scenes occurred as Grant marched triumphantly towards Vicksburg:

“In less than three weeks, Grant had traversed 130 miles on foot and handily won five consecutive battles in a bravura campaign that would be enshrined in military textbooks. He had shown true virtuosity in spontaneously coordinating many moving parts and adapting to shifting enemy positions. With the Army of the Tennessee, he had created the mobile, lightning-quick army for which Lincoln yearned in contrast to the hidebound eastern forces. As Lincoln’s secretary John Nicolay exclaimed, ‘The praise of our western soldiers is on every lip, Illinois valor particularly receiving as it properly should, large honor.’ Contrary to his image of securing victories at heavy cost, Grant had sacrificed 4,300 men versus 7,200 for the Confederates, even though he had tackled a combined Confederate force at Vicksburg, Grand Gulf, and Jackson of more than 60,000 men, much larger than the 43,000 he transferred across the Mississippi. ‘Grant is now deservedly the hero,’ Sherman proclaimed. ‘He is now belabored with praise by those who a month ago accused him of all the sins in the calendar.’ One journalist traveling with Grant’s army summed up his new stature: ‘Nothing like this campaign has occurred during this war. It stamps Gen. Grant as a man of uncommon military ability—proves him the foremost one in the west; if not in the nation.’ The New York Times, noting that Grant had captured fifty guns and six thousand prisoners, stressed that this whirlwind operation had been accomplished ‘in a foreign climate, under a tropical sun ablaze with the white heat of summer, with only such supplies as could be gleaned from the country.’ As Grant’s columns strode confidently toward Vicksburg, scenes of ecstatic jubilation greeted them as they passed abandoned plantations and were applauded by former slaves. One ex-slave, seated on a lawn, rocking back and forth in joy, kept shouting, ‘Glory, hallelujah, glory, hallelujah… Bless God, bless God. I never spected to see dis day.'” (266-267)

In the book’s last chapter, we encounter Grant spending his final days dying of cancer. Having been swindled by a family friend, Grant was desperate to provide for his family. Despite being racked with excruciating pain, Grant persevered and penned what is widely viewed as a masterpiece, the foremost military memoir in the English language. It was an immediate best-seller. After his death, Grant’s widow received $450,000 in royalties. In his final battle, General Grant once again emerged victorious.

16. Stalin: Waiting For Hitler / Stephen Kotkin

I’d never read anything about Stalin but after watching this lecture by Kotkin, I decided to take the plunge. I learned a bunch. Who was Joseph Stalin? He was a human being, a revolutionary, a dictator, a fearsome contriver of class warfare, a creator of great power, a magnetic leader, and a destroyer of tens of millions of lives.

“Murderous and mendacious do not begin to describe the person readers will encounter in this volume. At the same time, Stalin galvanized millions. His colossal authority was rooted in a dedicated faction, which he forged, a formidable apparatus, which he built, and Marxist-Leninist ideology, which he helped synthesize. But his power was magnified many times over by ordinary people, who projected onto him their soaring ambitions for justice, peace, and abundance, as well as national greatness. (8)

During Stalin’s 30-year rule, the most terrible crimes became morally imperative acts in the name of creating paradise on earth. Kotkin’s section covering the Great Terror, the purge led by Stalin, was horrifying.

“Throughout 1937 and 1938, there were on average nearly 2,200 arrests and more than 1,000 executions per day.” (437)

I’m looking forward to Kotkin’s third volume on Stalin that will pick up the story in 1942.

17. The Power Broker / Robert Caro

Have you ever heard of Robert Moses? I had not. But Caro’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Moses makes plain just how he became America’s greatest builder and the single most powerful man of our age in the City and in the State of New York. But more than an enthralling biography, Caro also eloquently explores the dangers, the temptations, and the acquisition of absolute power.

18. Educated / Tara Westover

Power can be abused at a national level (see Joseph Stalin), and at a city/state level (see Robert Moses). But power can also be tragically abused in a single home, in one family. Tara Westover tells her heart-breaking story of overcoming the lasting effects of growing up in a Mormon survivalist family in Idaho. “It’s strange how you give the people you love so much power over you.” (199) Many parts of this book were hard to read, but I was thankful I made it to the end.

19. The End of the Affair / Graham Greene

Faith, unbelief, God, atheism, love, lust, hatred, desire, life, and death. This riveting novel has it all. I couldn’t put it down. I read it twice. Then I came across this audiobook recording by Colin Firth, and I spent six hours listening to this story again. Searching and superb.

20. To A God Unknown / John Steinbeck

A lush and lyrical story that blends together elements of the creation and fall narratives of Genesis, paganism, pantheism, a Greek tragedy, a tree of life, and, of course, California. This is a strange and haunting book and I was mesmerized by it.

“When his eyes cleared from the lantern light he saw that the night was sharper. The mountain flanks, rounded and flesh-like, stood out softly in shallow perspective and a deep purple essence hung on their outlines. All of the night, the hills, the black hummocks of the trees were as soft and friendly as an embrace. But straight ahead, the black arrow-headed pines cut into the sky. The night was ageing toward dawn, the leaves and grasses whispered and sighed under the fresh morning wind. Whistle of ducks’ wings sounded overhead, where an invisible squadron started over-early for the south. And the great owls swung restlessly through the air at the last of the night’s hunting. The wind brought a pine smell down from the hills, and the penetrating odour of and the pleasant bouquet of a skunk’s anger, smelling, since it was far away, like azaleas. Joseph nearly forgot his mission, for the hills reached out tender arms to him and the mountains were as gentle and insistent as a loving woman who is half asleep. The sharp pines lengthened and pierced higher and higher into the sky.” (88-89)

21. The Man Who Caught the Storm / Brantley Hargrove

In 2013, I read a crazy story in National Geographic about a legendary storm chaser named Tim Samaras, and the infamous El Reno tornado, the widest tornado in recorded history. I remember thinking, “Someone should write a book about that guy.” Brantley Hargrove has not only written a poignant tribute to Samaras, but he’s also penned an unputdownable classic. (And this is Hargrove’s debut book!) If you liked Into Thin Air or The Perfect Storm, you’ll dig this book.

22. The Feather Thief / Kirk Wallace Johnson

The subtitle of this book says it all: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century. Here’s my best attempt at a run-on sentence blurb: A 20-year-old American dude who plays the flute at London’s Royal Academy of Music and who is obsessed with the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying, rides a train to the Tring museum, breaks in, and proceeds to steal thousands of priceless rare bird feathers, and then escapes into the darkness. What could possibly go wrong? A rip-roaring story.

23. The Hunt For Red October / Tom Clancy

My Dad introduced me to the stories of Tom Clancy. I read most of the Jack Ryan books 20 years ago but hadn’t picked one up again until this year. I was digging through the fiction shelves at a used bookstore near Capitol Hill, and I saw an inexpensive hardback first edition of The Hunt of Red October.  It’s hard to believe that a book written in 1984 featuring nuclear submarine warfare would still hold up to rereading decades later. But it does, with flying colors. I agree with the Gipper. “It’s my kind of yarn.”

24. Oranges / John McPhee
The Curve of Binding Energy / John McPhee

John McPhee has written a variety of fascinating long-form stories for The New Yorker over the years. Several of these have been made into books, two of which I read this year. One tells the story of Ted Taylor, a theoretical physicist, who conceived and designed the largest-yield fission bomb ever exploded by any nation in the world. The other McPhee book I devoured was a book about oranges. That’s right. An entire book about oranges! I enjoy eating oranges and find orange juice delicious but I’d never thought much about the history of oranges. McPhee has a forensic eye for detail and this book didn’t disappoint:

“The custom of drinking orange juice with breakfast is not very widespread, taking the world as a whole, and it is thought by many peoples to be a distinctly American habit. But many Danes drink it regularly with breakfast, and so do Hondurans, Filipinos, Jamaicans, and the wealthier citizens of Trinidad and Tobago. The day is started with orange juice in the Colombian Andes, and, to some extent, in Kuwait. Bolivians don’t touch it at breakfast time, but they drink it steadily for the rest of the day. The ‘play lunch’, or morning tea, that Australian children carry with them to school is usually an orange, peeled spirally halfway down, with the peel replaced around the fruit. The child unwinds the peel and holds the orange as if it were an ice-cream cone. People in Nepal almost never peel oranges, preferring to eat them in cut quarters, the way American athletes do. The sour oranges of Afghanistan customarily appear as seasoning agents on Afghan dinner tables. Squeezed over Afghan food, they cut the grease. The Shamouti Orange, of Israel, is seedless and sweet, has a thick skin, and grows in Hadera, Gaza, Tiberias, Jericho, the Jordan Valley, and Jaffa; it is exported from Jaffa, and for that reason is known universally beyond Israel as the Jaffa Orange. The Jaffa Orange is a variety that British people consider superior others, possibly because Richard the Lionhearted spent the winter of 1191-92 in the citrus groves of Jaffa. Citrus trees are spread across the North African coast from Alexandria to Tangier, the city whose name was given to tangerines. Oranges tend to become less tart the closer they are grown to the equator, and in Brazil there is one kind of orange that has virtually no acid in it at all. In the principal towns of Trinidad and Tobago, oranges are sold on street corners. The vender cuts them in half and sprinkles salt on them. In Jamaica, people halve oranges, get down on their hands and knees, and clean floors with one half in each hand. Jamaican mechanics use oranges to clear away grease and oil. The blood orange of Spain, its flesh streaked with red, is prized throughout Europe. Blood oranges grow well in Florida, but they frighten American women. Spain has about thirty-five million orange trees, grows six billion oranges a year, and exports more oranges than any other country, including the United States. A Frenchman sits at the dinner table, as the finishing flourish of the meal, slowly and gently disrobes an orange. In France, peeling the fruit is not yet considered an inconvenience. French preferences run to the blood oranges and the Thomson Navels of Spain, and to the thick-skinned, bland Maltaises, which the French import not from Malta but from Tunisia. Sometimes, Europeans eat oranges with knives and forks. On occasion, they serve a dessert orange that has previously been peeled with such extraordinary care that strips of the peel arc outward like the petals of a flower from the separated and reassembled segments in the centre. The Swiss sometimes serve oranges under a smothering of sugar and whipped cream; on a hot day in a Swiss garden, orange juice with ice is a luxurious drink. Norwegian children like to remove the top of an orange, make a little hole, push a lump of sugar into it, and then suck out the juice. English children make orange-peel teeth and wedge them over their gums on Halloween. Irish children take oranges to the movies, where they eat them while they watch the show, tossing the peels at each other and at the people on the screen. In Reykjavik, Iceland, in greenhouses that are heated by volcanic springs, orange trees yearly bear fruit. In the New York Botanical Garden, six mature orange trees are growing in the soil of the Bronx. Their trunks are six inches in diameter, and they bear well every year. The oranges are for viewing and are not supposed to be picked. When people walk past them, however, they sometimes find them irresistible.” (3-5)

I found this book irresistible and I’ll never look at an orange the same way again.

My Final 12:

25. Charity and Its Fruits / Jonathan Edwards

Every month I spend time reading from my personal Canon of Theologians. In July, I always hang out with Jonathan Edwards. This year I slowly reread his exposition of 1 Corinthians 13, where he scatters jewels throughout. In his sermon on “Love does not envy,” (13:4) Edwards writes:

“The gospel scheme, all of it from beginning to end, tends to the contrary of this spirit of envy. For there we are taught how far God was from grudging us the most exceeding honor and blessedness, and how He has grudged us nothing as too much to be done for us, and nothing as too great and too good to be given us.

He hath not grudged us His only begotten Son, that which was most precious and most dear of all to Himself. For what was dearer to God than His only begotten, dearly beloved Son? He hath not grudged us the highest honor and blessedness in union with Him.

The doctrines of the gospel teach us how far Jesus Christ was from grudging us anything which He could do for or give to us. He did not grudge us a life spent in labor and suffering. He did not grudge us His own precious blood.

He hath not grudged us a sitting with Him on His throne in heaven, and being partakers with Him of that heavenly kingdom and glory which the Father hath given Him, and sitting with Him on thrones judging the world.” (224)

Glorious.

26. Christ From Beginning To End / Trent Hunter & Stephen Wellum

This is an excellent introduction to Biblical theology that will help you see how the full story of Scripture reveals the full glory of Christ. “As the radiance of God’s glory, Jesus is our great prophet. As the purification for our sins, He is our Great High Priest. As the one who sat down at God’s right hand, He is our King.” (211) Amen.

27. The Gospel Comes With a House Key / Rosaria Butterfield

The latest book from Rosaria Butterfield unpacks “radically ordinary hospitality.” I found it to be both encouragingly hopeful and devastatingly convicting. But don’t just take my word for it. Read the first twenty pages for yourself.

“Jesus dined with sinners, but He didn’t sin with sinners. Jesus lived in the world, but He didn’t live like the world. This is the Jesus paradox. And it defines those who are willing to suffer with others for the sake of gospel sharing and gospel living, those who care more for integrity than appearances. Engaging in radically ordinary hospitality means we provide the time necessary to build strong relationships with people who think differently than we do as well as build strong relationships from within the family of God. It means we know that only hypocrites and cowards let their words be stronger than their relationships, making sneaky raids into culture on social media or behaving like moralizing social prigs in the neighborhood. Radically ordinary hospitality shows this skeptical, post-Christian world what authentic Christianity looks like. Radically ordinary hospitality gives evidence of faith in Jesus’s power to save. It doesn’t get dug in over politics or culture or where someone stands on current events. It knows what conversion means, what identity in Christ does, and what repentance creates. It knows that sin is deceptive. To be deceived means to be taken captive by an evil force to do its bidding. It knows that people need to be rescued from their sin, not to be given pep talks about good choice making. It remembers that Jesus rescues people from their sin. Jesus rescued us. Jesus lives and reigns.” (13)

28. The Odyssey / Homer, trans. Emily Wilson

If you ever get the hankering to read this classic epic, you’ll want to read Emily Wilson’s exquisite translation. “Tell me about a complicated man. Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy, and where he went, and who he met, the pain he suffered in the storms at sea, and how he worked to save his life and bring his men back home… Tell the old story for our modern times. Find the beginning.” (105) My favorite line in the book: “My life is thin with weakness.” (195)

29. Why We Sleep / Matthew P. Walker

Two years ago I listened to a fascinating interview on NPR with Matthew Walker, the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley. Terry Gross asked Walker, “What are we losing when we deprive ourselves of sleep?” I still remember his six-word response: “Short sleep predicts a shorter life.” Walker argues that “our lack of sleep is a slow form of self-euthanasia.” (324) Yikes! Did you know that caffeine is the second most-traded commodity on the planet after oil? I didn’t. I found the really fascinating stuff in this book to be chapters 9, 10, and 11, on how and why human beings dream. Reading this book made me thankful for the gift of sleep and eager to trust the One who neither slumbers nor sleeps.

30. I’ll Be Gone In the Dark / Michelle McNamara

Michelle McNamara was a true crime journalist who spent years in a tireless quest to unmask the identity of a notoriously violent predator, the “Golden State Killer.” Tragically, she died in 2016 before she could complete the final edits to her book. But what’s even more incredible is what happened in April 2018. Detectives, using DNA evidence, believe they have finally solved the case. You can listen to how investigators chased down the clues in a recent audiobook, Evil Has A Name. The diligent pursuit of justice displayed by McNamara and the detectives is awe-inspiring.

31. Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon / Robert Kurson

How can you not devour a book that starts like this?

“Three astronauts are strapped into a small spacecraft thirty-six stories in the air, awaiting the final moments of countdown. They sit atop the most powerful machine ever built. The Saturn V rocket is a jewel of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a vehicle that will generate the energy of a small atomic bomb. But it has never flown with men aboard, and it has had just two tests, the most recent of which failed catastrophically just eight months earlier. The three astronauts are going not merely into Earth orbit, or even beyond the world altitude record of 853 miles. They intend to go a quarter of a million miles away, to a place no man has ever gone. They intend to go to the Moon. Beneath them, the United States is fracturing. The year 1968 has seen killing, war, protest, and political unrest unlike any in the country’s history, from the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy to the unraveling of Vietnam to the riots in Chicago. Already, Time magazine has named THE DISSENTER its Man of the Year. As the countdown begins, there are engineers and scientists at NASA who question whether the crew will ever return. Even the astronauts are realistic about their chances of surviving the flight, an operation riskier than anything the American space agency has ever attempted. One of them has recorded a final goodbye to his wife, to be played in the event he doesn’t return. In August, this mission did not exist. Nearly everything that has gone into its planning—the training, analysis, calculations, even the politics—has been rushed to the launchpad in a fraction of the time ordinarily required. If anything goes wrong, public opinion—and the will of the United States government—might turn against NASA. The fate of the entire space program hangs on the crew’s safe return. As the moment of launch draws near, one of the astronauts spots a mud dauber wasp building a nest on the outside of one of the spacecraft’s tiny windows. Back and forth the insect moves, grabbing mud and adding to its new home. The astronaut thinks, ‘You are in for a surprise.’ Vapors begin to spew from around the base of the giant rocket. Less than a minute remains before lift-off. When the five first-stage engines ignite, they will deliver a combined 160 million horsepower. In the final few seconds, a typhoon of flames unfurls to either side. Beneath the astronauts, it is not just the launchpad that begins to shake, but the entire world.” (3-4)

32. The Life of Olaudah Equiano / Olaudah Equiano

In 1756, Olaudah Equiano was kidnapped from his home in Nigeria and sold into slavery. Years later, after many dangers, toils, and snares, Olaudah would write these amazing words, as a free man, a man set free from his sins by amazing grace:

“In the evening of October 6th, as I was reading and meditating on the fourth chapter of Acts, the twelfth verse, I had solemn apprehensions of eternity. But the Lord was pleased to break in upon my soul with His bright beams of heavenly light. And in an instant, He removed the veil, and I saw clearly with the eye of faith the crucified Saviour bleeding on the cross: the Scriptures became an unsealed book. I saw myself a condemned criminal under the law of God, but I also saw the Lord Jesus Christ in His humiliation, loaded and bearing my reproach, my sin, and my shame. Christ was revealed to my soul as the chiefest among ten thousand. I felt an astonishing change; the burden of sin, the gaping jaws of hell, and the fears of death, that weighed me down before, now lost their horror. Every providential circumstance that happened to me, from the day I was taken from my parents to that hour, was then in my view. I was sensible of the invisible hand of God, which guided and protected me when I didn’t know the truth. Still the Lord pursued me and His mercy melted me down. I was finally enabled to praise and glorify God’s most holy name. There is no salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved, but Jesus Christ.’ What a Saviour I have! What a great debtor I am to sovereign free grace.” (310-311)

33. A River in Darkness / Masaji Ishikawa

Masaji Ishikawa was born in 1947. His father was a Korean national residing in Japan. His mother was Japanese. In 1960, when he was thirteen years old, his family moved to the “promised land” of North Korea. In 1996, he made a desperate bid to escape. In this book, he tells his unforgettable story.

“What do I remember of that night? The night I escaped from North Korea? There are so many things that I don’t remember, that I’ve put out of my mind forever. But I’ll tell you what I do recall. It’s drizzling. But soon the drizzle turns to torrential rain. Sheets of rain so heavy, I’m soaked to the skin. I collapse under the shelter of a bush, utterly incapable of measuring the passage of time. I am weary to the core. My legs have sunk into the mud, but somehow I crawl out from under the bush. Between the branches, I can see the Yalu River in front of me. But it’s changed—now totally unrecognizable. This morning, kids were wading in what was little more than a stream. But the cascading downpour has turned it into an impassable torrent. Across the river, about thirty yards away, I can make out China, shrouded in mist. Thirty yards—the distance between life and death. I shiver. I know that countless North Koreans have stood here before me, gazing across at China under the cover of darkness, memories of the people they’ve just left behind swirling through their minds. Those people, like the ones I’ve left, were starving. What else could they do? I stare into the torrent and wonder how many of them succeeded. Then again, what difference does it make? If I remain in North Korea, I’ll die of starvation. It’s as simple as that.” (1-2)

Pray for North Korea.

34. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot / Robert Macfarlane

Macfarlane is a Cambridge literature professor who loves to walk. He’s also an amazing writer. Here’s what it’s like to stroll through Cambridge on a wintry, moon-lit evening:

“Two days short of the winter solstice; the turn of the year’s tide. All that cold day, the city and the countryside around felt halted, paused. Five degrees below freezing and the earth battened down. Clouds held snow that would not fall. Out in the suburbs the schools were closed, people homebound, the pavements rinky and the roads black-iced. The sun ran a shallow arc across the sky. Then just before dusk the snow came — dropping straight for five hours and settling at a steady inch an hour.

I was at my desk that evening, trying to work but distracted by the weather. I kept stopping, standing, looking out of the window. The snow was sinking through the orange cone cast by a street light, the fat flakes showing like furnace sparks.

Around eight o’clock the snow ceased. An hour later I went for a walk with a flask of whisky to keep me warm. I walked for half a mile along dark back roads where the snow lay clean and unmarked. The houses began to thin out. A few undrawn curtains: family evenings underway, the flicker and burble of television sets. The cold like a wire in the nose. A slew of stars, the moon flooding everything with silver.

At the southerly fringe of the suburb, a last lamp post stands by a hawthorn hedge, and next to it is a hole in the hedge which leads down to a modest field path.

I followed the field path east-south-east towards a long chalk hilltop, visible as a whaleback in the darkness. Northwards was the glow of the city, and the red blip of aircraft warning lights from towers and cranes. Dry snow squeaked underfoot. A fox crossed the field to my west at a trot. The moonlight was so bright that everything cast a crisp moon-shadow: black on white, stark as woodcut. Wands of dogwood made zebra-hide of the path; hawthorn threw a lattice. The trees were frilled with snow, which lay to the depth of an inch or more on branches and twigs. The snow caused everything to exceed itself and the moonlight caused everything to double itself.

This is the path I’ve probably walked more often than any other in my life. It’s a young way; maybe fifty years old, no more. Its easterly hedge is mostly hawthorn and around eight feet high; its westerly hedge is a younger mix of blackthorn, hawthorn, hazel and dogwood. It is not normally a beautiful place, but there’s a feeling of secrecy to it that I appreciate, hedged in as it is on both sides, and running discreetly as it does between field and road. In summer I’ve seen small rolling clouds of goldfinches rising from teasel-heads and then curling ahead to settle again, retreating in the measure that I approach them.

That evening the path was a grey snow alley, and I followed it up to the hanger of beech trees that tops the whaleback hill, passing off the clay and onto the chalk proper. At the back brink of the beechwood I ducked through an ivy-trailed gap, and was into the forty-acre field that lies beyond.

At first sight the field seemed flawless; floe country. Then I set out across it and started to see the signs. The snow was densely printed with the tracks of birds and animals — archives of the hundreds of journeys made since the snow had stopped. There were neat deer slots, partridge prints like arrowheads pointing the way, and the pads of rabbits. Lines of tracks curved away from me across the field, disappearing into shadow or hedge. The moonlight, falling at a slant, deepened the dark in the nearer tracks so that they appeared full as inkwells. To all these marks I added my own.” (5-7)

35. The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands / Ed. Huw Lewis-Jones

This volume gets the award for the most beautiful book of 2018. It’s chock-full of delightful, imaginary maps from Pilgrim’s Progress, Middle Earth, Treasure Island, the world of Harry Potter, and more. We all learned at a young age that if you find a map at the start of a book, then an adventure and a journey is about to begin. I can still see in my mind’s eye the Western Woods, building up to the mountains of Ettinsmoor, and then Cair Paravel rising to the east, all because C.S. Lewis included a map at the beginning of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Maps don’t just speak to our soles; they speak to our souls.

36. The Soul in Paraphrase / Leland Ryken

My favorite book of poetry this year was this excellent collection that includes 150 choice poems with insightful comments by Leland Ryken. I close with the words of the great George Herbert, from his poem, “The Elixir”:

Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
To do it as for Thee. (101)

As always, happy reading and Happy New Year!

–Nick Roark

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“Let us adore Him for His love” by John Newton

“Blessed be God! Amidst all my changes I find the foundation stands sure. And I am seldom or never left to doubt either of the Lord’s love to me, or the reality of the desires He has given me towards Himself.

Though when I measure my love by the degree of its exercise, or the fruits it produceth, I have reason to sit down ashamed as the chief of sinners and the least of all saints. But in Him I have righteousness and peace, and in Him I must and will rejoice.

I would willingly fill up my sheet, but feel a straitness in my spirit, and know not what further to say.

O for a ray of Divine light to set me at liberty, that I might write a few lines worth reading, something that might warm my heart and comfort yours!

Then the subject must be Jesus. But of Him what can I say that you do not know? Well, though you know Him, you are glad to hear of Him again and again.

Come then, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt His name together.

Let us adore Him for His love, that love which has a height, and depth, and length, and breadth, beyond the grasp of our poor conceptions;

a love that moved Him to empty Himself, to take on Him the form of a servant, and to be obedient unto death, even the death of the cross;

a love that pitied us in our lost estate, that found us when we sought Him not, that spoke peace to our souls in the day of our distress;

a love that bears with all our present weakness, mistakes, backslidings, and shortcomings;

a love that is always watchful, always ready to guide, to comfort, and to heal;

a love that will not be wearied, cannot be conquered, and is incapable of changes;

a love that will, in the end, prevail over all opposition, will perfect that which concerns us, and will not leave us till it has brought us perfect in holiness and happiness, to rejoice in His presence in glory.

The love of Christ: it is the wonder, the joy, the song of angels. And the sense of it shed abroad in our hearts makes life pleasant and death welcome.

Alas! What a heart have I that I love Him no better! But I hope He has given me a desire to make Him my all in all, and to account everything loss and dross that dares to stand in competition with Him.”

–John Newton, The Works of John Newton, Vol. 2, Ed. Richard Cecil (London: Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1824), 2: 179-181.

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“Read, study, reflect, and write” by Sinclair Ferguson

“Many—probably most—of these chapters were written in the context of busy pastoral ministry, either in Scotland or in the United States—preaching, teaching, pastoral visiting, personal meetings, crises in the lives of individuals and sometimes the whole church, administrative responsibilities, and the wide and wonderful variety of activities that make up the average ministers life.

And since virtually all the essays were written by request, their writing has been squeezed into, or out of, an occasional hiatus in the sheer busy-ness of ministry life and the constant preparation involved in preaching anywhere between three and six times in the week.

So, at some point in the writing of almost all these chapters I have heard an inner voice ask, ‘Whatever possessed you to agree to do this?’ Yet, however far short these various pieces fall, in each case the preparation of them did me good, enlarged my understanding a little, and fed into the day-to-day work of pastoral ministry.

I hope, therefore, that these pages will encourage other ministers to allow themselves to be stretched a little beyond their normal pulpit or lectern preparation. There is no doubt that the wider reflection, reading, study and stretching involved can only strengthen and enrich long-term ministry.

Such stretching produces growth. Sometimes ministers can ‘waste’ the privileged time they have by studying only in relation to their next sermon. This does produce some growth, of course; but perhaps not growth that is constantly putting down deeper roots and producing richer fruit.

Preachers need to be reading and studying more widely, and reflecting theologically if that is to be the case. For only then will our ongoing ministry be deepened and enriched.

Thus, in one sense at least, the undergirding message of these diverse chapters is: if you are a preacher, accept invitations or create opportunities to study, speak, or write on subjects outside of your usual diet of preparation.

Yes, you may find yourself under a little pressure; but pressure can produce diamonds! You will grow personally as a result, and, God-willing, Paul’s exhortation will be fulfilled in your ministry:

Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have… Practise these things, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers (1 Timothy 4:13-16).

It can be an unnerving question to ask oneself, ‘Has anyone in the congregation ever thought, far less said, about me, ‘He is making progress’?”

–Sinclair Ferguson, Some Pastors and Teachers (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2017), xii-xiii.

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The Best Books I Read This Year (2017)

These are my favorite books that I read in 2017. Better late than never. There are 36 selections and I thoroughly enjoyed every last one of them.

My Top 12:


1. Christ Alone / Stephen Wellum

My favorite book this year was a beautiful volume on the person and work of Jesus Christ. Wellum argues convincingly that our understanding of who Jesus is and what He does must be developed from Scripture and its entire storyline. This is clearly written, exegetical theology at its finest.

There are many good things in life which legitimately demand our attention. Yet, it is far too easy to forget who is central to everything, namely our Lord Jesus. Given who our Lord is as God the Son incarnate; given what He has done for us as our new covenant head and incomparable Redeemer; given the absolute necessity of His work; given that He has represented us in obedient life and stood in our place in substitutionary death to pay for our sin and accomplish our eternal salvation; given that He is the all-sufficient Savior who meets all of our needs as our great prophet, priest, and king; given all of this, our only reasonable response is to submit ourselves to Him in complete trust, confidence, love, joy, worship, and obedience. He demands and deserves nothing less. (312)

Amen.

2. How To Understand And Apply The New Testament / Andrew Naselli

There are lots of books that seek to explain how to interpret and apply the Bible. But I’d wager this is the only one in which you’ll find references to B.B. Warfield, D.A. Carson, Harry Potter, and Lebron James. Naselli is a fun and faithful guide who helped me look at the Book more carefully and responsibly. Chapter 5 on tracing the logical argument of a passage by arcing, bracketing, or phrasing is worth the price of the book.

Don’t miss the whole point of exegesis. It’s to know and worship God. So I pray that this book will help you exegete the text in a way that spreads a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. Exegesis and theology are thrilling because they help you know and worship God. And only God satisfies. You most glorify God when He most satisfies you. He’s better than sex and shopping and new iPhones and hot pizza and chocolate and money and power and anything else your heart may crave. God reigns, saves, and satisfies through covenant for His glory in Christ. That is what you get to see from so many angles when you look at the Book. And when you understand exegesis and theology better, the praise gets richer. So why wouldn’t you look at the Book? (333)

3. Calvin’s Company of Pastors / Scott Manetsch

This book provides “a systematic study of Geneva’s ministers, their pastoral theology, and practical ministry activities during nearly three-quarters of a century from 1536 to 1609,” (8). Manetsch’s meticulous research is brimming with Reformational wisdom and includes one of the best quotes on heaven that I’ve ever read.

4. The Lord’s Prayer / Thomas Watson

When I read Thomas Watson, I often think: “I should read more Thomas Watson.” He’s the most Tweetable of all the Puritans. Short, pithy, and heart-searching:

“Affliction can hurt a man only while he is living, but sin hurts him when he is dead.” (309)

“Our Saviour will have us pray, ‘Give us bread this day,’ to teach us to live every day as if it were our last.” (202)

“God’s glory is as dear to a saint as his own salvation. And that this glory may be promoted he endeavors the conversion of souls.” (44)

“To forgive sin, is for God to cast our sins into the depths of the sea. ‘Thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea,’ (Micah 7:19). This implies God’s burying them out of sight, that they shall not rise up in judgment against us. God will throw them in, not as cork that riseth again, but as lead that sinks to the bottom.” (215)

“The pearl of price, the Lord Jesus, is the quintessence of all good things. To give us Christ is more than if God had given us all the world. He can make more worlds, but He has no more Christs to bestow.” (206)

“Here is comfort for such as can, upon good grounds, call God ‘Father.’ There is more sweetness in this word ‘Father’ than if we had ten thousand worlds.” (15)

You can you see why I plan to mine the riches of Watson’s Body of Divinity in 2018.

5. Majesty in Misery, Vol. 3 / Charles Spurgeon

I read Spurgeon because he consistently leaves me staggered by the glory and the grace of Jesus Christ. This volume is the third in a trilogy of sermons focusing on the passion of the Christ. In a sermon entitled “Christ’s Dying Words For His Church,” Spurgeon writes:

“It appears to me, that if Christ finished the work for us, He will finish the work in us.” (209)

Isn’t that wonderful? I’ve not even come close to reading all that Spurgeon wrote. I’m not sure anyone actually has. But I’ve realized that the man could write on just about anything and make it interesting. Even mosquitoes! But this much I know: Spurgeon on the cross of Christ is not to be missed.

6. All That Is In God / James Dolezal

God is simple. That is, God isn’t compounded or made up of parts. He’s not the sum of His parts. God’s attributes, His excellencies, are identical with His essence. God isn’t just loving; He is love (1 John 4:8). God isn’t just holy; He is holiness (1 John 1:5). This is what classical Christian theism teaches. Dolezal is concerned by recent denials of this vital truth by advocates of theistic mutualism: “The chief problem I address in this work is the abandonment of God’s simplicity and of the infinite pure actuality of His being.” This book on God’s simplicity isn’t simple. It’s what C.S. Lewis called “a tough bit of theology.” But, I believe if you work your way through it carefully and prayerfully, then you’ll find that your heart sings unbidden before the only Sovereign, the immortal God who is the great I AM.

7. God Is / Mark Jones

A few years ago, Mark Jones penned a delightful book called Knowing Christ. Jones does something similar in this volume where he focuses his exegetical attention on God’s attributes. In 27 brief chapters, Jones glories in the God who is Triune, simple, Spirit, infinite, eternal, unchangeable, independent, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, Yahweh, blessed, glorious, majestic, sovereign, love, good, patient, merciful, wise, holy, faithful, gracious, just, angry, and anthropomorphic. This book is worth reading simply for all the amazing citations from Puritans like Stephen Charnock and John Owen and Thomas Watson.

8. The Story of Scripture / Matthew Emerson

I spent June 2016 – June 2017 doing a deep dive in several biblical theology volumes as research for a writing project. Many books in this field are rich but technical and advanced. For example, one book that’s served me well while preaching through the Gospel according to Mark has been Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark by Rikki Watts. It’s illuminating but also rather thick at times. So when I come across a book of biblical theology that’s clearly written, worshipful, accessible, and grounded and governed by the biblical text, I’m eager to share it with others. Matthew Emerson’s new book is just that. I knew it was going to be an outstanding work even before I finished reading the acknowledgements:

And I am eternally and fundamentally grateful to our Triune God, without whom I would still be blind to the truths of Scripture and deaf to its call to repent and believe in the incarnate, crucified-and-resurrected Son of God. I would be wandering in a story of my own making, a story without meaning and point. Instead, because of the graciousness of God in Christ, I am by the power of his Spirit finding my place in his story, the story of the world that finds its center in the person and work of Jesus.

Emerson tells the Story, and he tells it quite well. See for yourself.

9. Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel / Ray Ortlund

It’s been said before that the Bible begins (Genesis 2) and ends (Revelation 19) with a wedding. Ray Ortlund humbly and beautifully unpacks the meaning of marriage in his typical Gospel-centered way.

Marriage is not a human invention; it is a divine revelation. Its design never was our own made-up arrangement of infinite malleability. It was given to us, at the beginning of all things, as a brightly shining fixity of eternal significance. We might not always live up to its true grandeur. None of us does so perfectly. But we have no right to redefine it, and we have every reason to revere   it. Only the Bible imparts to us a vision of marriage so transcendent and glorious, far beyond human variation and even human failure. Marriage is of God and reveals a wonderful truth about God. And we have no right to change the face of God in the world. All we can rightly do is receive what God has revealed with gladness and humility. (11)

10. Missions / Andy Johnson

This wise 9Marks volume wins “The Book I’ve Given Away Most to My Congregation in 2017 Award.” The strength of this little book lies in the confidence it produces in Christ’s unhindered gospel and in His unstoppable mission:

We should have confidence because we know the mission will not fail. We may fail in our faithfulness, but God will not fail in His mission. Christ will have the nations for His inheritance. Frantic speculation and guilt are weak motivators compared with the truth of God’s unstoppable plan to rescue every child for whom Christ died. Christ will not lose any of those whom the Father has given Him, and God has chosen to use us– in countless local churches– as the agents of His gospel triumph. (120)

11. The Tech-Wise Family / Andy Crouch
12. 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You / Tony Reinke

I’m grateful to God for help in thinking through the questions related to technology and family and Christian discipleship. Both Andy Crouch and Tony Reinke have written excellent books that serve the the church in these areas. The scope of Crouch’s volume is more broad, while Reinke’s is more narrow. Yet both are hugely helpful. Crouch notes:

Technology is in its proper place when it helps us bond with the real people we have been given to love. It’s out of its proper place when we end up bonding with people at a distance, like celebrities, whom we will never meet.

Technology is in its proper place when it starts great conversations. It’s out of its proper place when it prevents us from talking with and listening to one another. Technology is in its proper place when it helps us take care of the fragile bodies we inhabit. It’s out of its proper place when it promises to help us escape the limits and vulnerabilities of those bodies altogether.

Technology is in its proper place when it helps us acquire skill and mastery of domains that are the glory of human culture (sports, music, the arts, cooking, writing, accounting; the list could go on and on). When we let technology replace the development of skill with passive consumption, something has gone wrong.

Technology is in its proper place when it helps us cultivate awe for the created world we are part of and responsible for stewarding (our family spent some joyful and awefilled hours when our children were ill middle school watching the beautifully produced BBC series Planet Earth). It’s out of its proper place when it keeps us from engaging the wild and wonderful natural world with all our senses.

Technology is in its proper place only when we use it with intention and care. If there’s one thing I’ve discovered about technology, it’s that it doesn’t stay in its proper place on its own; much like my children’s toys and stuffed creatures and minor treasures, it finds its way underfoot all over the house and all over our lives. If we aren’t intentional and careful, we’ll end up with a quite extraordinary mess. (20-21)

Reinke rightly observes that “technology tends to feed our vanity and kill our wonder.” (207-208) Does this mean you should you trade in your smartphone for a dumbphone? Maybe. Reinke concludes his volume with several helpful diagnostic questions:

1. What does my smartphone cost me per year if I add up the price of the device, insurance protection, covers and cases, and monthly service?
2. Do I need mobile web access to fulfill my calling in vocation or ministry?
3. Is texting essential to my care for others? Do those texts need to be seen in real time? And is the smartphone the only way to do it?
4. Do I need mobile web access to legitimately serve others?
5. Do I need mobile web access to navigate unfamiliar cities? Is the device an essential part of my travels?
6. Do I need my smartphone to take advantage of coupons in stores? How much money would I save instead without a smartphone data plan?
7. Can my web access wait? Is the convenience of mobile web access something I can functionally replace with structured time at a laptop or desktop computer later?
8. Can I get along just as well with a dumbphone, a WiFi hotspot, an iPod, or a tablet?
9. Can I listen to audio and podcasts in other ways (through an iPod, for example)?
10. Have I simply grown addicted to my phone? If so, can the problem be solved with moderation, or do I need to just cut it off?
11. Do the mobile lures of my phone insulate me from people and real needs around me?
12. Do I want my kids to see me gazing at a handheld screen so much as they grow up? What does this habit project to them and to others around   me? (197-198)

These two books helped me rethink the way I use my iPhone and the ways I use/don’t use social media. They’ve produced good conversations with my bride this year and, I’m sure, these conversations will continue into 2018. I’m grateful to God for both of these brothers and for their books.

Honorable Mention: The Bible Project Coffee Table Book / The Bible Project

The book my three children enjoyed the most this year was definitely this labor of love from the good folks at The Bible Project. This book is spectacular. Imagine having a literary diagram and written summary of every book in Scripture. It’s a visual learner’s dream come true. If you’ve been helped at all by their Read Scripture videos, consider getting a copy of the print version of this series.

My Next 12:

13. Deep Work / Cal Newport

Cal Newport is a best-selling author. He’s a millennial. He’s an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University. And yet he doesn’t have any social media accounts. Why? Because Newport is committed to deep work, which he defines as follows: “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” (3) Newport argues persuasively that deep work is valuable, rare, and meaningful. His chapter on quitting social media is the most provocative in the book. If you want a taste of Newport’s message, watch his TedTalk on the subject.

14. Killers of the Flower Moon and The Devil & Sherlock Holmes / David Grann

David Grann is one of my favorite investigative feature writers from The New Yorker. In 2004, he wrote a piece about those who search for the mysterious giant squid entitled “The Squid Hunters.” I’ve been a huge fan ever since. His other famous long-reads include:

You can find other interesting examples of his work in the collection The Devil & Sherlock Holmes. But if you’re only going to read one thing by Grann, it should be Killers of the Flower Moon. He weaves a tragic and disturbing tale of greed, racism, deceit, murder, and justice:

In the early twentieth century, the members of the Osage Nation became the richest people per capita in the world, after oil was discovered under their reservation, in Oklahoma. Then they began to be mysteriously murdered off. In 1923, after the death toll reached more than two dozen, the case was taken up by the Bureau of Investigation, then an obscure branch of the Justice Department, which was later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The case was among the F.B.I.’s first major homicide investigations. After J. Edgar Hoover was appointed the bureau’s director, in 1924, he sent a team of undercover operatives, including a Native American agent, to the Osage reservation.

You can read the book’s opening chapter article here to whet your appetite. But I promise that you’ll want to see for yourself how this sad and shocking story ends.

15. Hero of the Empire and Destiny of the Republic / Candice Millard

It seems impossible for Candice Millard to write an uninteresting book. Last year, I picked up The River of Doubt, a tale about Theodore Roosevelt’s quest into the Amazon. I loved it. So I went on a quest of my own to devour everything she’s written. If you like reading well-told history, you’ll dig Candice Millard’s books. Hero is about the young Winston Churchill’s dramatic escape from a prison camp during the Boer War. Destiny covers the sad and shocking assassination of President James Garfield, an extraordinary man of whom I knew far too little about. Both are excellent reads.

16. Battle For Middle-Earth / Fleming Rutledge

In the flurry of “best books of the year” posts, I saw a slew of positive endorsements for Rutledge’s magnum opus Crucifixion. While I read and appreciated some aspects of this work, I actually enjoyed her theological commentary on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings far more. I make it a point to try and read LOTR every year, and Rutledge was my companion this year as I journeyed with Frodo and Sam from Hobbiton in the Shire to Mount Doom and back again. Her comments throughout are textual, insightful, and illuminating. For those of us who often breath the sweet air of Middle Earth, this is a book worth reading.

17. The Secret History / Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt’s most famous novel, The Goldfinch, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014. Her debut novel, The Secret History, is not as well known and, perhaps, for good reason. It’s nerdy. It’s literary. It’s bookish. It’s highfalutin. It’s gloomy. It’s way too long. It’s filled with untranslated Greek. It’s not for the faint of heart. But it’s got this startling opening paragraph, and that’s all it took to reel me in:

The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He’d been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history—state troopers, the FBI, even an army helicopter; the college closed, the dye factory in Hampden shut down, people coming from New Hampshire, upstate New York, as far away as Boston. (1)

18. True Grit / Charles Portis

Speaking of Donna Tartt, she once wrote:

It’s commonplace to say that we ‘love’ a book, but when we say it, we really mean all sorts of things. Sometimes we mean only that we have read a book once and enjoyed it; sometimes we mean that a book was important to us in our youth, though we haven’t picked it up in years; sometimes what we ‘love’ is an impressionistic idea glimpsed from afar as opposed to the experience of wallowing and plowing through an actual text, and all too often people claim to love books they haven’t read at all. Then there are the books we love so much that we read them every year or two, and know passages of them by heart; that cheer us when we are sick or sad and never fail to amuse us when we take them up at random; that we press on all our friends and acquaintances; and to which we return again and again with undimmed enthusiasm over the course of a lifetime. I think it goes without saying that most books that engage readers on this very high level are masterpieces; and this is why I believe that True Grit by Charles Portis is a masterpiece. Not only have I loved True Grit since I was a child; it is a book loved passionately by my entire family. I cannot think of another novel—any novel—which is so delightful to so many disparate age groups and literary tastes. (215-216)

I love True Grit, too. What’s it about? In the opening paragraph, the young Mattie Ross sets the stage:

People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band. Here is what happened. (9)

The dialogue in this novel is simply superb. One of my favorite exchanges in the book happens when Mattie is trying to find someone to avenge her father’s death:

“Who is the best marshal they have?”

The sheriff thought on it for a minute. He said, “I would have to weigh that proposition. There is near about two hundred of them. I reckon William Waters is the best tracker. He is a half-breed Comanche and it is something to see, watching him cut for sign. The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now L. T. Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive. He may let one get by now and then but he believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake. Also the court does not pay any fees for dead men. Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string. Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best they have.”

I said, “Where can I find this Rooster?” (22-23)

And you’ll also find surprising theological jewels like this one:

The Indian woman spoke good English and I learned to my surprise that she too was a Presbyterian. She had been schooled by a missionary. What preachers we had in those days! Truly they took the word into “the highways and hedges.” Mrs. Bagby was not a Cumberland Presbyterian but a member of the U.S. or Southern Presbyterian Church. I too am now a member of the Southern Church. I say nothing against the Cumberlands. They broke with the Presbyterian Church because they did not believe a preacher needed a lot of formal education. That is all right but they are not sound on Election. They do not fully accept it. I confess it is a hard doctrine, running contrary to our earthly ideas of fair play, but I can see no way around it. Read I Corinthians 6:13 and II Timothy 1:9, 10. Also I Peter 1:2, 19, 20 and Romans 11:7. There you have it. It was good for Paul and Silas and it is good enough for me. It is good enough for you too. (109-110)

19. The Last Kingdom / Bernard Cornwell

Have you ever discovered a book you enjoy and then find out that it’s the first in a larger series of stories? My favorite historical fiction series is the sweeping Aubrey-Maturin collection by Patrick O’Brian. I’ve just begun the fourth novel, The Mauritius Command, and I’m thrilled to know that 16 more of these beautiful sea adventures still await me. I had the same experience when I came across The Last Kingdom, the first of ten volumes in Cornwell’s Saxon Tales. This is the exciting—yet little known—story of the making of England in the 9th and 10th centuries, the years in which King Alfred the Great, his son and grandson defeated the Danish Vikings who had invaded and occupied three of England’s four kingdoms. Here’s a flavor of Cornwell’s writing, when the main character sees the Viking ships approaching for the very first time:

And then I saw them. Three ships. In my memory they slid from a bank of sea mist, and perhaps they did, but memory is a faulty thing and my other images of that day are of a clear, cloudless sky, so perhaps there was no mist, but it seems to me that one moment the sea was empty and the next there were three ships coming from the south. Beautiful things. They appeared to rest weightless on the ocean, and when their oars dug into the waves they skimmed the water. Their prows and sterns curled high and were tipped with gilded beasts, serpents, and dragons, and it seemed to me that on that far-off summer’s day the three boats danced on the water, propelled by the rise and fall of the silver wings of their oar banks. The sun flashed off the wet blades, splinters of light, then the oars dipped, were tugged, and the beast-headed boats surged, and I stared entranced. The three boats had been rowing northward, their square sails furled on their long yards, but when we turned back south to canter homeward on the sand so that our horses’ manes tossed like wind-blown spray and the hooded hawks mewed in alarm, the ships turned with us. Where the cliff had collapsed to leave a ramp of broken turf we rode inland, the horses heaving up the slope, and from there we galloped along the coastal path to our fortress. (5)

20. 1984 / George Orwell

The best futuristic fiction is often utterly prescient. If you haven’t reread 1984 since high school, it’s high time you do so.

“BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.” (3)
“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” (3)
“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” (31)
“Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.” (44)
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” (154)
“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” (168)
“For the first time he perceived that if you want to keep a secret you must also hide it from yourself.” (177)
“He loved Big Brother.” (187)

21. Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 / Volker Ullrich

Michiko Kakutani, writing in The New York Times, once asked, “How did Adolf Hitler — described by one eminent magazine editor in 1930 as a ‘half-insane rascal,’ a ‘pathetic dunderhead,’ a “nowhere fool,’ a ‘big mouth’ — rise to power in the land of Goethe and Beethoven? What persuaded millions of ordinary Germans to embrace him and his doctrine of hatred? How did this ‘most unlikely pretender to high state office’ achieve absolute power in a once democratic country and set it on a course of monstrous horror?” Ullrich supplies the tragic answer in this first of a two-volume series. It’s long, at over 1,000 pages. But it’s very well written. A timely read.

22. Theodore Rex / Edmund Morris

I spent much of this year hanging out again with Teddy Roosevelt. Last year just wasn’t enough time for me to get to know him, and after spending the year going slowly through volume two in Morris’ magisterial series, I’ve once again been entertained and amazed at the whirling dervish of personality that was Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.. He was quite a piece of work. There are so many splendid examples of the Rooseveltian intensity, strenuosity, and enchantment in Theodore Rex.  I commend the book to you and end by quoting from the personal reflections of Captain Archibald Willingham de Graffenreid Butt (what a name!), the President’s military aide from Georgia who visited Teddy at his home in Sagmore Hill:

Captain Butt stayed at Sagamore Hill for four more days, enchanted by the Roosevelt family, while they in turn found him to be unflappable, tireless, well-bred, and discreet. Like the President, he was a heroic trencherman, and matched Roosevelt plate by oversized plate, from double helpings of peaches and cream for breakfast, followed by fried liver and bacon and hominy grits with salt and butter (“Why, Mr. President, this is a Southern breakfast-), through three-course lunches and meat dinners suppurating with fat. “You think me a large eater,” Butt wrote in his next letter home. “Well, I am small in comparison to him. But he has a tremendous body and really enjoys each mouthful. I never saw anyone with a more wholesome appetite, and then he complains of not losing flesh. I felt like asking him today: ‘How can you expect to.)’ ”

Between meals, there was much strenuous activity. Butt discovered during a midsummer deluge (as Ambassador Jusserand had discovered during a February snowstorm) that Roosevelt considered tennis to be a game for all seasons. The sodden ball was smashed to and fro. Swimming and water-fighting, too, were by their nature compatible with rain. When heat built up in the woods, the President was impelled to seize an ax and get in fuel for the winter. “I think Mr. Roosevelt cuts down trees merely for the pleasure of hearing them fall,” Butt wrote. “Just as he swims and plays tennis merely for the pleasure of straining his muscles and shouting. Yet when he reads he has such powers of concentration that he hears no noise around him and is unable to say whether people have been in the room or not.” The President’s strenuosity extended even to ghost stories. “I want ghosts who do things. I don’t care for the Henry James kind of ghosts. I want real sepulchral ghosts, the kind that knock you over and eat fire… none of your weak, shallow apparitions.”

Much of Roosevelt’s library time that weekend was devoted to books and maps about Africa. He talked about it continually. “You know how you feel when you have all but finished one job and are eager to get at another. Well, that is how I feel. I sometimes feel that I am no longer President, I am so anxious to get on this trip.” He hoped that by the time he came down the Nile, to meet up with Edith in Cairo, he would be “sufficiently forgotten” to return home “without being a target for the newspapers.” Winthrop asked what quarry he feared the most in East Africa. The answer came promptly: “You can kill the lion by shooting him in any part of the body, but his alertness and agility make him the most dangerous to me.”

Roosevelt moved on to discuss the King of Abyssinia, Albert Beveridge’s affectations, Shakespeare’s “compressed thought,” and the Book of Common Prayer, with interspersed witticisms that had his listeners roaring with laughter. “His humour is so elusive, his wit so dashing and his thoughts so incisive that I find he is the hardest man to quote that I have ever heard talk,” Butt wrote. “In conversation he is a perfect flying squirrel, and before you have grasped one pungent thought he goes off on another limb whistling for you to follow.” (532-533)

Incredible.

23. Hellhound On His Trail / Hampton Sides

This book tells the story of one of the darkest moments in America’s history, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sides then details the subsequent search for the killer, James Earl Ray, which was the largest manhunt in American history.

24. Ten Restaurants That Changed America / Paul Freedman

Almost half the meals eaten in America take place outside the home. I’ve eaten at restaurants all my life but I’d never once considered the history of restaurants in America until I read this book:

This book is not about the ten best restaurants that ever existed in the United States. Some of the establishments on our list have served marvelous food; others changed how we eat, even if in retrospect their innovations don’t seem so wonderful or their food fails to satisfy today’s tastes. The selection is based on influence and exemplification: the importance of each restaurant for setting or reflecting trends in what Americans think about food and particularly dining out. Culinary fashions, as social history shows us, are determined not just by the upper classes who pride themselves on discernment but by the enthusiasms of less pretentious people for modest but ubiquitous places to eat, such as coffee shops, ice-cream parlors, or highway restaurants. What we eat today is the result of the innovations of these ten restaurants.

The opening chapter on Delmonico’s is, as you might expect, mouth-watering.

My Final 12:

25. Shark Drunk / Morten Strøksnes

Perhaps the most unique book I read in 2017 was subtitled, “The Art of Catching a Large Shark from a Tiny Rubber Dinghy in a Big Ocean.” Even though the author writes from an utterly secular perspective, I still found times when his description of creation led me to worship. I pray Mr. Strøksnes comes to know the One deserving of all worship, the One who made the Greenland shark as a display of His matchless glory:

On land, life is lived horizontally. Almost everything takes place on the ground, or at most on a level with the tallest trees. Of course birds can fly higher, but even they spend the majority of their time near the ground. The sea, on the other hand, is vertical, an interconnected column of water with an average depth of approximately 12,000 feet. And there is life from top to bottom. The vast majority of living space on earth, so to speak, can be found in the sea. All other landscapes, including the rain forests, pale in comparison. If we combine what we know about the ocean’s depths, from a purely logical point of view we can conclude that everything found on land—all the mountains, ridges, fields, forests, deserts, even the cities and other man-made phenomena—all this could easily fit into the sea. The average elevation on land is only 2,700 feet. Even if we dumped the whole Himalayan range into the deepest part of the ocean, it would make only a big splash before the mountain chain sank and disappeared without a trace. There is so much water in the ocean that if we imagined the entire seafloor rising up to what is now the surface, all the continents would be totally covered under many miles of salt water. Only the tops of the tallest mountains would stick up out of the ocean. (35)

There is an enormous amount of water in outer space. But in our own solar system, water—in liquid form—presumably exists only on our planet. The earth is the perfect distance from the sun. If we had been farther out in the solar system, all our water would have been in the form of ice or vapor, as in the sperm-like tails of comets racing away from the sun. The earth is big enough for gravity to hold the atmosphere in place, even though that’s not a given. And we’re not close enough to any giant planet with so much gravitational pull that every flow tide would make a wave several hundred feet high wash over the whole planet, like in the movie Interstellar. On Neptune, harsh conditions prevail. Icy winds blowing at more than twelve hundred miles per hour are constantly sweeping across the planet’s polished white surface. The average temperature is about minus 350 degrees Fahrenheit. The distance from our earth to the sun is such that most of our water is liquid. Without these conditions, the water would be ice or gas, if it was present at all. And life as we know it wouldn’t be able to exist. (112)

Moonlight takes more than a second to reach earth. Sunlight takes eight minutes. It occurs to me that astronomers are archaeologists or geologists, searching for fossils of light. Nothing happens in real time; everything we see is from the past. We’re always lagging slightly behind. Even in our interactions, even inside our own heads, we’re a millionth of a second behind. Our own Milky Way, which is one among billions of galaxies, is a hundred thousand light-years in diameter. (113)

Today the sea is not quiet. We know that even before we reach the seaward side. But it’s not outright hostile either. The fourteen-footer sits noticeably low in the water, for obvious reasons. Luckily the sea isn’t too rough, just long breakers that won’t put our heavy, listless boat to the test. Of course that could all change, and much faster than the time it would take to get back to harbor. The boat could serve as a deep freezer. It probably contains enough ice for two thousand cocktails, and four thousand whisky on the rocks. A couple of drinks would be great right now, to stop me from worrying about heading into the open Lofoten Sea in this frozen boat. The seagulls are silent, the snow sparkling white. Even the sun seems cold. For me, coming from the big city only yesterday, the dazzling clear surroundings and the wide horizon are refreshment for my soul. Yet there’s something about the sea today that has me concerned. What could be lurking behind the silvery-white and viscous fluidity? It’s like staring into a glass eye. (169)

To find out what’s lurking just below the service, you’ll have to read Shark Drunk for yourself.

26. Off Speed / Terry McDermott

The best sports book I read in 2017 was far and away this gem of a baseball book by Terry McDermott. He uses the perfect game tossed by King Felix in August 2012 against Tampa Bay as a backdrop to wax eloquent about the sweet science of pitching a baseball, that five-ounce ball roughly the size of your fist. McDermott covers the history and mechanics of the fastball, curveball, spitball, sinker, knuckleball, slider, split, cutter, and change-up.

Consider the major league hitter’s basic problem. The pitcher stands on a small hill sixty feet six inches, give or take a foot, depending on where in the batter’s box the hitter stands. The pitcher strides forward before he throws, and, by the time he releases the ball, has already shrunk the distance between him and the hitter by almost 10 percent. An average fastball from an average pitcher leaves his hand at about 90 mph. A pitcher of average size throwing at average speed gives the hitter approximately four-tenths of a second to see, identify, and attack a pitch. That is about how long it takes to blink your eyes twice. The batter is using an implement uniquely unsuitable to accomplishing his task. A baseball bat is normally somewhat less than a yard long; it weighs somewhere between twenty-nine and thirty-six ounces. At its thickest part it is 2.25 inches in diameter. If the bat is to strike the ball solidly, the ball must hit near the center of the bat’s circumference about six inches from the bat’s end. The spot varies from bat to bat, depending on the type and hardness of the wood and the shape and weight of the bat, but at its largest this spot is about five square inches in area. Think of that for a moment. A hitter must swing a yardlong piece of round wood in such a way that he contacts a small round ball moving faster than he is legally allowed to drive his car. The contact has to occur within a fivesquare-inch area of the wood. The plane of the strike zone varies from hitter to hitter but is theoretically seventeen inches wide and approximately two feet tall. Of course, the zone is not a plane at all, but a volume of approximately 4.5 cubic feet. It extends from the front of home plate to the rear, and a ball passing through it at any point is supposed to be a strike. In real life, the zone tends to be wider and shorter than the rulebook stipulates. Nonetheless, the batter is defending more than four cubic feet of space with a five-square-inch weapon, and he has to swing the bat at a speed of 70 mph in order to move it from his shoulder to the center of the plate. “It is far more likely that the pitcher will accidentally throw the ball in the way of the hitter’s bat than it is for the hitter to time the pitch perfectly and execute flawless swing mechanics to achieve 100 percent on-time contact on their own,” according to Perry Husband, who has studied pitcher-batter interactions extensively. The deck, in other words, is stacked. (7-8)

Early baseball was a hitter’s sport. Hitters could request pitchers to throw the ball in specific locations. Teams routinely scored dozens of runs, sometimes as many as one hundred. Pitchers were placed inside a box about forty feet from the hitters and were required to throw the ball underhanded. They were also supposed to throw the ball as slowly as possible. To ensure the speed limit was adhered to, the pitcher was required to keep his wrist stiff. The rule makers might as well have served the ball to hitters on a platter, which was exactly the point. The rule specified: “The ball must be pitched, not thrown, for the bat. ” It was more like slow-pitch softball, or coach-pitch Little League, than the game we know today. (26)

When a man throws a baseball, it travels at whatever speed he is able to impart to it through the levers of his throwing motion. There is an upper limit, imposed by human physiology, on this speed. It appears to be something less than 110 mph, perhaps as low as 106 mph. By manipulating his grip on the ball and the motion of his wrist at release, the pitcher imparts spin to the pitch. As the ball moves through the air, the spin causes the ball to move in a certain, predictable direction. Because of the spin, the air on one side of the ball moves faster than the other, resulting in uneven pressure on the ball, making it curve in the direction of the lower pressure. This is known as the Magnus Force. Additionally, no matter how fast a ball is thrown, gravity pulls the ball toward the earth as it hurtles homeward. Finally, air resistance, or drag, slows the ball down. A typical major league pitch will lose about 10 percent of its release velocity by the time it gets to the hitter. A 100 mph fastball will be traveling at about 90 mph when it reaches the vicinity of home plate…In the time it takes your brain to register that a baseball has been thrown at it, the baseball has already eliminated a third of the distance between you and it. (81-82, 83-84)

You don’t have to know what Magnus Force is to enjoy this book.

27. The Genius of Birds / Jennifer Ackerman

Reading books is often an exercise in humility because you realize how little you actually know. There’s so much in this God-spoke world that we simply don’t know. I was humbled throughout The Genius of Birds. I was provoked by the title. What’s so special about birds? Well, it turns out, quite a lot actually.

For a long time, the knock on birds was that they’re stupid. Beady eyed and nut brained. Reptiles with wings. Pigeon heads. Turkeys. They fly into windows, peck at their reflections, buzz into power lines, blunder into extinction. Our language reflects our disrespect. Something worthless or unappealing is “for the birds.” An ineffectual politician is a “lame duck.” To “lay an egg” is to flub a performance. To be “henpecked” is to be harassed with persistent nagging. “Eating crow” is eating humble pie. The expression “bird brain,” for a stupid, foolish, or scatterbrained person, entered the English language in the early 1920s because people thought of birds as mere flying, pecking automatons, with brains so small they had no capacity for thought at all. That view is a gone goose. In the past two decades or so, from fields and laboratories around the world have flowed examples of bird species capable of mental feats comparable to those found in primates. There’s a kind of bird that creates colorful designs out of berries, bits of glass, and blossoms to attract females, and another kind that hides up to thirty-three thousand seeds scattered over dozens of square miles and remembers where it put them months later. There’s a species that solves a classic puzzle at nearly the same pace as a five-year-old child, and one that’s an expert at picking locks. There are birds that can count and do simple math, make their own tools, move to the beat of music, comprehend basic principles of physics, remember the past, and plan for the future. (1-2)

Many bird species are highly social. They breed in colonies, bathe in groups, roost in congregations, forage in flocks. They eavesdrop. They argue. They cheat. They deceive and manipulate. They kidnap. They divorce. They display a strong sense of fairness. They give gifts. They play keep-away and tug-of-war with twigs, strands of Spanish moss, bits of gauze. They pilfer from their neighbors. They warn their young away from strangers. They tease. They share. They cultivate social networks. They vie for status. They kiss to console one another. They teach their young. They blackmail their parents. They summon witnesses to the death of a peer. (101)

The sheer profusion and precision of a mockingbird’s imitated songs is a marvel. A tally of one mockingbird’s tunes captured twenty imitations of calls and songs per minute: nuthatches, kingfisher, northern cardinal, kestrel, even the high-pitched seep seep seep begging of a mockingbird chick. The Arnold Arboretum mocker of Boston was said to mimic thirty-nine birdsongs, fifty birdcalls, and the notes of a frog and a cricket. You can tell where a mockingbird lives by the songs he sings. So particular is a song to its bird that individual birds within a population may share only 10 percent of their song patterns. When it came to describing the mockingbird’s imitative skills, the ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush dropped all pretense of scientific detachment, trumpeting the mocker as “the king of song” surpassing “the whole feathered choir.” No wonder the Native Americans of South Carolina called the bird Cencontlatolly, or “Four Hundred Tongues.” It’s only a small exaggeration. Mockingbirds regularly imitate as many as two hundred different songs. (147)

Birds wearing tiny geolocator backpacks have revealed the details of their marathon migrations. The tiny blackpoll warbler, a bird of boreal forest, leaves New England and eastern Canada each fall and migrates to South America, flying nonstop over the Atlantic to its staging grounds in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Greater Antilles—a flight of up to seventeen hundred miles—in just two or three days. The Arctic tern, a bird who lives by his love of long daylight and bent for high mileage, circles the world in orbit with the seasons, flying from its nesting grounds in Greenland and Iceland to its wintering grounds off the coast of Antarctica—a round-trip of almost forty-four thousand miles. In an average thirty-year lifetime, then, a tern may fly the equivalent of three trips to the moon and back. How in the world does it find its way? How does a red knot resting at Cape May on its spring journey north from Tierra del Fuego know how to pinpoint last year’s breeding grounds in the distant northern Arctic? How does a European bee-eater traveling south from its summer season in a farm field in Spain find a course over the Sahara to its familiar patch of West African forest? How does a bristle-thighed curlew or a sooty shearwater steer homeward over a vast and featureless expanse of sea? As one who gets easily lost in a small patch of woodland, I’m in awe of the navigating abilities of birds. How can they accomplish a feat few humans can carry out even with the help of a compass? (199)

The fog is lifting. I can begin to make out the undulant curtain of the Blue Ridge Mountains across the valley, purpled by the haze. From a grove of trees nearby comes the piercing zeet of a chickadee. I wander over, and there is the bird perched in a pine tree, rolling out its string of dees, perhaps taking measure of my presence. One has only to consider the extraordinary genius packed tightly into that tiny puff of feathers to lay the mind wide open to the mysteries of a bird’s knowing—the what and the why. These are wonderful puzzles to keep around on our intellectual bookshelf, to remind us how little we still know. (266)

28. Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout / Philip Connors

In his book, An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis makes a fascinating point about the value of reading books:

“Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through the eyes of others.” (140)

I owe enormous thanks to Philip Connors, the author of his lyrical nonfiction memoir about his life as a wilderness lookout. Connors left his budding career as a Wall Street Journal reporter in order to spend half a year keeping vigil over 20,000 square miles of desert, forest, and mountain chains from atop a tower 10,000 feet above sea level. I’m quite certain I’ll never be a wilderness lookout. But after reading Fire Season, I feel like I’ve looked through the eyes of one:

Since that first summer I’ve returned each succeeding year to sit 10,000 feet above sea level and watch for smoke. Most days I can see a hundred miles in all directions. On clear days I can make out mountains 180 miles away. To the east stretches the valley of the Rio Grande, cradled by the desert: austere, forbidding, dotted with creosote shrubs, and home to a collection of horned and thorned species evolved to live in a land of scarce water. To the north and south, along the Black Range, a line of peaks rises and falls in timbered waves; to the west, the Rio Mimbres meanders out of the mountains, its lower valley verdant with grasses. Beyond it rise more mesas and mountains: the Diablos, the Jerkies, the Mogollons. A peaceable kingdom, a wilderness in good working order—and my job to sound the alarm if it burns. Having spent eight summers in my little glass-walled perch, I have an intimate acquaintance with the look and feel of the border highlands each week of each month, from April through August: the brutal winds of spring, when gales off the desert gust above seventy miles an hour and the occasional snow squall turns my peak white; the dawning of summer in late May, when the wind abates and the aphids hatch and ladybugs emerge in great clouds from their hibernation; the fires of June, when dry lightning connects with the hills and mesas, sparking smokes that fill the air with the sweet smell of burning pine; the tremendous storms of July, when the radio antenna sizzles like bacon on a griddle and the lightning makes me flinch as if from the threat of a punch; and the blessed indolence of August, when the meadows bloom with wildflowers and the creeks run again, the rains having turned my world a dozen different shades of green. I’ve seen lunar eclipses and desert sandstorms and lightning that made my hair stand on end. I’ve seen fires burn so hot they made their own weather. I’ve watched deer and elk frolic in the meadow below me and pine trees explode in a blue ball of smoke. If there’s a better job anywhere on the planet, I’d like to know what it is. (3)

29. How to Steal the Mona Lisa / Taylor Bayouth

One of the perks of living in the Washington, D.C. area is the easy access to wonderful museums and art galleries. During one of our visits to the Smithsonian, my youngest son saw the Hope Diamond and asked, “I wonder if anyone has ever tried to steal that thing?” I don’t know the answer to that question, but after reading How to Steal the Mona Lisa, I now have at least an idea of how someone might try to pull off such a brazen heist. Bayouth describes how he would go about nabbing several priceless art and artifacts including the Hope Diamond, the “Mona Lisa,” the Archaeopteryx Lithographica, Rodin’s “Thinker,” King Tut’s golden death mask, the Crown Jewels, and the Codex Leicester. I’m not sure any of these how-to’s would actually work and I think he’s only kidding. But either way, my boys laughed and giggled mischievously throughout this read. They especially enjoyed the fun diagrams and visual aids, like this one:

Pro tip: When driving your getaway car at a remarkable rate, don’t forget to remove your welder’s goggles.

30. Magpie Murders / Anthony Horowitz

This unputdownable whodunit is a mystery within a mystery, an enigma within an enigma, a novel within a novel. It’s like getting two ingenious novels for the price of one. I thought it was brilliant.

31. The Black Tower and Sleep No More / P.D. James

I miss P.D. James. While she died in 2014, her mystery stories are still being published posthumously, evidenced by the most recent release of Sleep No More. Several of these tales are set during Christmastime, including one morbidly entitled “The Murder of Santa Claus”:

We drove through the village in silence. It lay sombre and deserted in its pre-Christmas calm. I can remember the church half-hidden behind the great yews and the silent school with the children’s Christmas chains of coloured paper gleaming dully against the windows. Marston Turville is a small seventeenth-century manor house, its three wings built round a courtyard. I saw it first as a mass of grey stone, blacked out as was the whole village, under low broken clouds. My uncle greeted me before a log fire in the great hall. I came in, blinking, from the December dusk into a blaze of colour; candles sparkling on the huge Christmas tree, its tub piled with imitation snowballs of frosted cotton wool; the leaping fire; the gleam of firelight on silver. My fellow guests were taking tea and I see them as a tableau, cups halfway to their lips, predestined victims waiting for the tragedy to begin. (64-65)

I also had the pleasure of revisiting one of my favorite Inspector Dalgliesh stories, The Black Tower, that finds the famous Scotland Yard detective-poet downcast and convalescing in a retirement home in an isolated village on the Dorset coast.

He wasn’t sure whether this disenchantment with his job was caused solely by his illness, the salutory reminder of inevitable death, or whether it was the symptom of a more fundamental malaise, that latitude in middle-life of alternate doldrums and uncertain winds when one realizes that hopes deferred are no longer realizable, that ports not visited will now never be seen, that this journey and others before it may have been a mistake, that one has no longer even confidence in charts and compass. More than his job now seemed to him trivial and unsatisfactory. Lying sleepless as so many patients must have done before him in that bleak impersonal room, watching the headlamps of passing cars sweep across the ceiling, listening to the secretive and muted noises of the hospital’s nocturnal life, he took the dispiriting inventory of his life. (11-12)

What I enjoy most about P.D. James is her ability to draw the reader’s attention to God’s bright and bountiful kindness in creation, even atop the dark backdrop of murder and mayhem:

Before he turned again to the car his eye was caught by a small clump of unknown flowers. The pale pinkish white heads rose from a mossy pad on top of the wall and trembled delicately in the light breeze. Dalgliesh walked over and stood stock still, regarding in silence their unpretentious beauty. He smelt for the first time the clean half-illusory salt tang of the sea. The air moved warm and gentle against his skin. He was suddenly suffused with happiness and, as always in these rare transitory moments, intrigued by the purely physical nature of his joy. It moved along his veins, a gentle effervescence. Even to analyse its nature was to lose hold of it. But he recognized it for what it the first clear intimation since his illness that life could be good. (18)

It was a warm misty morning under a sky of low cloud. As he left the valley and began to trudge up the cliff path a reluctant rain began to fall in slow heavy drops. The sea was a milky blue, sluggish and opaque, its slopping waves pitted with rain and awash with shifting patterns of floating foam. There was a smell of autumn as if someone far off, undetected even by a wisp of smoke, was burning leaves. The narrow path rose higher skirting the cliff edge, now close enough to give him a brief vertiginous illusion of danger, now twisting inland between a tatter of bronzed bracken crumpled with the wind, and low tangles of bramble bushes, their red and black berries tight and meagre compared with the luscious fruit of inland hedgerows. The headland was dissected by low broken walls of stone and studded with small limestone rocks. Some, half buried, protruded tipsily from the soil like the relics of a disorderly graveyard. Dalgliesh walked warily. It was his first country walk since his illness. The demands of his job meant that walking had always been a rare and special pleasure. Now he moved with something of the uncertainty of those first tentative steps of convalescence, muscles and senses rediscovering remembered pleasures, not with keen delight but with the gentle acceptance of familiarity. The brief metallic warble and churling note of stonechats, busy among the brambles; a solitary black-headed gull motionless as a ship’s figurehead on a promontory of rock; clumps of rock samphire, their umbels stained with purple; yellow dandelions, pinpoints of brightness on the faded autumnal grass. After nearly ten minutes of walking the cliff path began to slope gently downhill and was eventually dissected by a narrow lane running inland from the cliff edge. About six yards from the sea it broadened into a gently sloping plateau of bright green turf and moss. Dalgliesh stopped suddenly as if stung by memory. This then, must be the place where Victor Holroyd had chosen to sit, the spot from which he had plunged to his death. For a moment he wished that it hadn’t lain so inconveniently in his path. The thought of violent death broke disagreeably into his euphoria. But he could understand the attraction of the spot. The lane was secluded and sheltered from the wind, there was a sense of privacy and peace. (103-104)

32. Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection / Arthur Conan Doyle

My Audiobook of the Year is this Audible production read by Stephen Fry, whose narration sweeps you away to Victorian England, fog-drenched London, and, of course, 221B Baker Street.

33. S Is For Southern / Ed. David DiBenedetto

If you’re from the South, or have visited the South, or just know a Southerner, I think you’ll find this survey both entertaining and illuminating. There are brief articles on all things Southern, from “Absinthe” to “Zydeco,” from the “Atlanta Braves” to “Wonder Bread, and from to “Barbecue” to “Y’all.” Here’s a tasty sampling:

ACCENT: The Southern accent is one of our nation’s greatest treasures. Its beauty rivals that of a songbird or the most resonant cello. Had the Southern accent not been invented, our ears would have fallen off long ago, or become vestigial, fleshy cauliflowers hanging off the sides of our heads, for without the Southern accent there would have been nothing much worth listening to. Someone, somewhere, can make a case that I’m exaggerating its importance to us as a people and to America, but I can assure you I am not. Maybe I am.

But it’s lovely, isn’t it, the Southern accent? It’s not because I have one myself that I say this, because my accent is not what it could be: years of watching I Dream of Jeannie growing tip have me talking more like an out-of-work B actor than like my grandmother Eva Pedigo, who came from Savannah, settled in Birmingham, and sounded as if she marinated her vowels in butter overnight. An accent is your vocal personality. It’s like a hairstyle or a favorite pair of shoes, the only difference being that it’s in your throat.

There’s a Northern accent as well, and it’s easily distinguishable from a Southern accent the same way a paper bag full of broken glass is distinguishable from a cashmere scarf. But when you leave the South and head in other directions, accents tend to disappear, the song of language is lost, and what you’re left with is bland communication, meaning without music. It’s amusing, at least to me, to hear scholarly argot used to understand and investigate our day-to-day lives, especially the most resolutely non-scholarly subjects, like Southern English. My wife, a Vermonter, had no idea what fixin’ to meant when she first heard it. Had she researched the phrase, she would have learned that it indicated “immediate future action.” I could have told her that. (2)

BACON: I remember. Weekend mornings asleep in my attic bedroom in Birmingham, Alabama, not exactly waking to the smell of bacon, but being awakened by it. Similar to that of freshly cut wet grass, the smell of bacon can travel for miles and never lose its potency. It was just like the cartoons I watched at the time— Pepe le Pew I remember most vividly— in which you could see the smells; they wafted through the air like spirits. They could corral you like a lariat; they could capture you. That’s what bacon did to me. Half-asleep, I would follow it downstairs and into the kitchen, and still half-asleep eat it until my mother slapped my hand. “Save some for the rest of us.” Only then would I open my eyes completely, a boy trapped in an unfeeling world where he had to share.

Bacon is a time machine for me to this day. I smell it and it’s Saturday morning. My parents, dead now for many years, are seated around the morning room table. My beautiful sisters— one of whom is also gone— also crowd around me, lunging for what is rightly mine, for what I very clearly had dibs on, being the first down. But they strike as fast as copperheads. Our dog Rudy, that little brown mixed breed, as long as a dachshund with the face of a beagle (we called him a dog, though no one was really sure), hid himself beneath the table, as still as a jungle animal, hoping for crumbs. Everyone is happy, everyone is young. Life is something that is just about to happen, and it’s all good. That is what bacon does to me.

Eating bacon is like dating Taylor Swift: it may not be good for you, but people just keep coming back for more, understanding that a life with a little bacon in it beats a life with no bacon at all. Bacon is full of saturated fat and salt, and yet unlike other foods makes no secret of it. Bacon is honest. Maybe this is one reason we’ve seen an increase in the popularity of bacon and recipes that call for it, such that we can now be said to be experiencing a “bacon mania.״ Those of us who were raised on a farm might count a piglet as a dear first pet and eat him later. That’s because bacon is stronger than love itself. I wasn’t raised on a farm but, rather, in front of a television, and yet I too counted a pig as my first virtual pet: Arnold Ziffel, on Green Acres. But that changes nothing. I would eat him if he were bacon. Bacon is not just bacon. It’s bacon ice cream, chocolate-dipped bacon, and more. It’s the meaty embodiment of Southern culture. (18)

34. Zeal Without Burnout / Christopher Ash

Christopher Ash produces helpful resources for believers year after year. I appreciated his candid and humble missive on sustainable sacrifice. We need sleep… and God does not. We need Sabbath rests… and God does not. We need friends… and God does not. We need inward renewal… and God does not. Sacrifice is not the same as burnout. As a young pastor, I needed to read this book and I plan to read it again in 2018.

If you’re looking for other helpful resources to get organized and focused for the new year ahead, I was helped last year by each of these books in various ways:

35. Between the Woods and the Water and The Broken Road / Patrick Leigh Fermor

Two years ago I began walking across pre-WWII Europe with Patrick Leigh Fermor. We’ve been trekking our way to Constantinople and we finally arrived. I’m sort of sad that the journey is over. Fermor is quite the wordsmith. He never uses one word when ten would do. Here’s a typical Fermorian sentence:

A restless geometry of fire-flies darted about under the spatulate volume of the chestnut trees, and getting up one night to go to bed, we found emerald-coloured tree-frogs smaller than threepenny-bits clinging to the leaves like miniature green castaways on rafts. (Between The Woods and the Water, 107)

Imagine being near a train track when the Orient Express passed by. How would you put that experience into words? Here’s the way Fermor rendered such an event from his own life:

I was pondering these matters, slogging along through the twilight beside the banked railway, when a humming along the rails and an increasing clatter behind me indicated the approach of a train. The shuddering cylinder grew larger and larger and soon it was rocketing by overhead; all the windows were alight in a serpent of bright quadrilaterals, and along the coach work, as it crashed past, was painted: Paris–Munich–Vienna–Zagreb–Belgrade–Sofia–Istanbul and Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lits. The Orient Express! The pink lampshades glowed softly in the dining car, the brass gleamed. The passengers would be lowering their novels and crosswords as the brown-jacketed attendants approached with trays of aperitifs. I waved, but the gloaming was too deep for an answer. I wondered who the passengers were– they had travelled in two days a journey that had taken me over nine months, and in a few hours they would be in Constantinople. The necklace of bright lights dwindled in the distance with its freight of runaway lovers, cabaret girls, Knights of Malta, vamps, acrobats, smugglers, papal nuncios, private detectives, lecturers in the future of the novel, millionaires, arms’ manufacturers, irrigation experts and spies, leaving a mournful silence in the thirsty Rumelian plateau. (The Broken Road, 22)

How would you describe a sunset? Here’s Fermor doing just that:

The clouds had flushed an astounding pink. But this was not to be compared with the sky behind. The flatness of the Alfold leaves a stage for cloud-events at sunset that are dangerous to describe: levitated armies in deadlock and riderless squadrons descending in slow motion to smouldering and sulphurous lagoons where barbicans gradually collapse and fleets of burning triremes turn dark before sinking. These are black vesper’s pageants… the least said the better. (The Broken Road, 44)

Perhaps my favorite part in these final two volumes is the conclusion of Volume 2 when Fermor finally catches sight of the Carpathian Uplands:

On the one hand a canyon thrust a deep gash north-east into the range I had been skirting for days, and its climb into the Carpathians reached the foot of the great ashen peaks. On the other, it plunged south-west down a gorge that would lead to the lowlands, and, at last, to the everyday world: but there was no hint of this yet. The chasm was silent except for the sound of water and the echo of an occasional rock falling. But while I gazed, clouds at the head of the ravine were breaking loose and spreading crumpled shadows across the juts and the clefts; then they blotted out the sun in an abrupt upland storm.

The wind sent a few sighting shots, followed by a swish of raindrops. Sheltering under an overhang, I watched them turn into hailstones the size of mothballs: they bounced and scattered downhill by the million; and in half an hour, their white drifts were all that was left. The washed rocks looked newly cut, there was not a cloud in sight and a breeze smelling of bracken and wet earth kept the air from stagnating.

Even jumping from ledge to ledge and sliding on wet pine-needles, the downward climb lasted for hours. Scree slowed the pace and buttresses of rock, smooth as boiler-plates or spiked like iguanas, imposed grueling swerves. Gleams across the cliffs revealed faraway threads of water; close to, they coiled and cataracted through the tree-trunks as conifers abdicated when the hardwoods began to outnumber them; and the ravine, deepening fast, coaxed the trees higher and higher until the oaks, mantled with ivy, pronged with the antlers of dead boughs and tufted with mistletoe, grew into giants.

Clearings of beech opened their forest-chambers and bracken gave way to mares’ tails, hemlock and the tatters of old man’s beard. The damp, which covered everything with moss, looped the branches with creepers and plumed the clefts and forks overhead, and the flaking bark, shaggy with lichen, greaved the tree-trunks like metal tainted with verdigris, filling the slanting world underneath with a stagey green-grey light. The woods had become an undercroft of acorns, beech-nuts and moaning wood-pigeons; the sound of water grew louder; and soon, flecked by leaf-shadows and askim with wagtails and redstarts, the ice-cold Cerna was rushing by under the branches.

The mysterious river split and joined again round blades of rock, slid over shelves that combed it into symmetrical waterfalls and rushed on chopping and changing down the gorge. Then I came down into quieter reaches. Shoals of trout anchored themselves among the reflections of elderflower or glided to new retreats, deep in the shade, where only a few wrinkles hinted at the current, and the black rocks, which gave the river its dark Slavonic cumbered the depths. (The Broken Road, 221-222)

Wow.

36. Devotions / Mary Oliver

Several years ago, I was in a small bookshop with my wife in Cape Cod. While in the poetry section, I found a copy of Thirst. I’ve been a big fan of Mary Oliver ever since. Devotions is a wonderful collection of her work. Some of my favorites aren’t included (like “The Place I Want To Get Back To”), but that doesn’t diminish the quality of this volume for me. Oliver, like all poets worth reading, paints with words what she sees in the world, marvelous mysteries in plain sight and miracles in the commonplace.

MINDFUL

Everyday
I see or hear
something
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for —
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world —
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant —
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these —
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass? (173)

W.H. Davis once wrote: “What is this life if, full of care, / We have no time to stand and stare?” I’m hoping for a more attentive year in 2018, filled with thanksgiving to the Lord for His covenant mercies, fresh every morning.

As always, happy reading and Happy New Year!

–Nick Roark

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