It shouldn’t be surprising that we, the editorial staff at The Gospel Coalition, enjoy reading. While our team worked diligently to evaluate the Christian market for our annual book awards, we also read an eclectic array of titles for professional development, historical awareness, encouragement, and just plain fun. It’s not surprising, then, that on our calls and meetings, we often swap book suggestions, discuss what titles we’ve enjoyed, and make plans for forthcoming releases.
To share in that bibliographic joy with our readers, I asked our team to select a few books they enjoyed reading over the past year and would commend to others.
Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (Viking, 2011)
Red and blue, rural and urban, North and South. Forget what you thought you knew about our divisions in the United States. Woodard will guide you to the deeper and more diverse origins of our political and religious differences. His understanding of evangelicals leaves much to be desired. But you can overlook that weakness in order to apply his insights to why certain churches thrive, or wither, in different cultural soils.
Joseph Henrich, The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (Ferrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020)
You can summarize this lengthy book’s thesis fairly simply: the lower the rate of cousins who marry one another, the more likely a country will be WEIRD: Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. Henrich, professor and chair of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, identifies the church’s “marriage and family program” at the center of this centuries-long revolution. Henrich joins a growing chorus of scholars outside the church who nevertheless recognize the Christian origins of our Western culture. You don’t get to keep what you like from Western culture if you throw away Christianity.
Yaa Gyasi, Transcendent Kingdom (Knopf, 2020)
Gyasi’s debut book, Homegoing, earned her a seven-figure advance as a first-time author. And she deserved every penny. Her follow-up novel bears similarities by featuring an immigrant family from Ghana that settles in Alabama. Faith once again plays a prominent role as the young protagonist struggles with her mother’s fervent Pentecostalism and her brother’s drug abuse. Christians shouldn’t expect to be edified by Gyasi. But they may learn to empathize with the immigrant struggle to find faith, hope, and love in a strange new world.
Alfred Lansing, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage (Basic Books, 2012; originally 1959)
Any man who wants to feel like a total pansy softened to death by civilization should read this book. It tells the true story of how Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance was trapped and crushed by Antarctic ice, leaving him and his men to trudge across Antarctica dragging heavy boats and trying unsuccessfully to stay dry. I won’t spoil it by telling you how many of them survived, except to say that you can’t make this stuff up. This one is going on my list of “books and films to share with my son,” right next to Master and Commander.
James Oakes, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States 1861–1865 (W. W. Norton, 2012)
James Oakes argues that at least for the Republican Party, the shift from a war to preserve the Union to a war to destroy slavery wasn’t as pronounced as many think. Indeed, in Oakes’s telling, the slave states weren’t acting irrationally when they seceded—they were simply taking Republicans at their word. The irrational part was simply that secession allowed Lincoln’s Republicans to accomplish quickly what would have taken far longer had the Southern Democrats kept their seats. The opponents of the natural law overreached and lost what they were trying to protect. Let us pray for a repeat—only this time with less bloodshed than we deserve.
Adam Minter, Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale (Bloomsbury, 2019)
I’m a dedicated thrifter. Over the years, my secondhand finds have included a working typewriter from the 1930s, an original watercolor by an established American painter, and enough clothing for four growing children. These cost me a mere fraction of their retail value—and allowed me to feel the virtuous buzz of having reused and recycled (if not reduced). They also make me curious about the history and future of the seemingly endless items that come through my Goodwill’s donation doors. In Secondhand, journalist Adam Minter follows cast-offs as they travel from American basements to resale stores in this country and, ultimately, around the world. Minter documents how hand-me-downs often increase the economic well-being of the world’s citizens, while also urging creators of stuff to make it reusable and repairable—so each item can do the most good for the most people over its lifetime.
Josephine Tey, Miss Pym Disposes (Scribner, 1998)
I wouldn’t have known about the novels of Josephine Tey had not TGC editor Betsy Howard recommended I try one. Tey, a pseudonymous Scottish writer with—I’ve now discovered—a cult following, produced just eight books in her lifetime. Her third, Miss Pym Disposes, takes place at an all-girls school and evokes the settings and characters of one of my other favorite novelists, Dorothy Sayers. Miss Pym is a mystery, although you might be almost on the final pages before you realize this fact. Indeed, in the last chapters Tey’s carefully constructed moral dilemma brings her characters into the light, revealing that—as Christians already know—the real plot happens in the human heart.
The Best of America’s Test Kitchen: Best Recipes, Equipment Reviews, and Tastings 2021 (America’s Test Kitchen, 2020)
I think frequently about Rebekah Merkle’s explanation of two approaches to feeding a family: “The first is to feel bugged at everyone for being hungry again, darn it. So you feed them in a way that resolves the problem with the least amount of disruption to yourself. . . . The second way . . . is to say, ‘This is a task I have to do every single day—I had better figure out how to get good at it.’” Convicted by how often I don’t approach meal-preparation with an eye to God’s glory and love for my nearest neighbors, I recently picked up The Best of America’s Test Kitchen at my local library. For me, reading cookbooks is a kind of professional development. The Lord has called me to feed other people every day. I’d better get good at it.
Betsy Childs Howard
I read both of Emily Oster’s books as I awaited the birth of my first child. Oster, an economist at Brown University, has developed an unusual approach to pregnancy and parenting questions. She takes standard recommendations given to parents and then examines the data or medical studies behind them to help parents to make informed decisions. Oster writes from a secular point of view, and her perspective on some subjects (such as genetic testing) are at odds with Christian ethics. But I came away better understanding both the myths and also the science around pregnancy and childrearing.
Megan Hill, A Place to Belong: Learning to Love the Local Church (Crossway, 2020)
This book was such an encouragement. It reminded me of the gift God has given us in the church, something that has seemed even more precious during the months when we haven’t been able to gather in person. Hill emphasizes not what the church should be but what God promises that it will be. In an era when we talk often of the messiness involved in church life, it’s good to know that the family of God began in the mind of God, and he will use us to accomplish his purposes.
John Flavel, Keeping the Heart: How to Maintain Your Love for God (Christian Heritage, rev. ed., 2012)
I read this book at the beginning of the year, and I’m already planning to reread it in the coming year. Written more than 300 years ago, Flavel continues to speak with relevance, wisely pointing us to our most important work—keeping the heart. Written in typical Puritan fashion, Flavel defines what it means to keep the heart, the distractions that keep us from our task, and the way we can devote ourselves to this important, lifelong work.
Jean Hatzfeld, Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak (Picador, 2006)
This is a difficult book to read. However, it’s a necessary reminder of the deep effects of our fallen human condition and how quickly any person (except by the grace of God) has the capacity to commit unspeakable atrocities. I read this book alongside Hatzfeld’s other book, Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak (2007), and was struck by how the survivors wrestled with the guilt of surviving almost more than the perpetrators dealt with the guilt of their crimes. Months after reading, I’m still pondering the painful stories and insights from both set of interviews.
Mark Sullivan, Beneath a Scarlet Sky: A Novel (Lake Union Publishing, 2017)
Based on a true story, this fictional account tells of one man’s resistance in northern Italy during the last two years of World War II. Pino Lella’s life is one of bravery mixed with tragedy as he helped Jews escape to Switzerland, while also working for the highest-ranking Nazi in Italy. While I’ve read accounts of the resistance work in France, Poland, Germany, and the Netherlands, this was the first story I’d read of the resistance in Italy. Sullivan did an excellent job researching and recounting the details of Pino’s life within the historical context.
John Williams, Stoner (NYRB Classics, 2006)
I read fiction far less than I should, but when I read this novel earlier this year, it floored me. Described by The New Yorker as “The Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of,” Williams’s book is every bit as powerful as the best of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, or Updike, but more understated and perhaps less showy. The book—which narrates the tragic life of a rather unimpressive professor in Missouri—reminded me at times of Marilynne Robinson’s fiction. Even as its setting and characters are quotidian, the novel is packed with profound existential insights.
Roger Scruton, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2011)
Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Has the notion of objective, universal standards of aesthetic value outlived its usefulness? Most in the contemporary academy would answer “yes” to these questions. But conservative intellectual Roger Scruton, who passed away in January, says not so fast. His short book on beauty is dense and highly philosophical, but it’s a compelling defense of what beauty is and why it isn’t just arbitrary and subjective. Any lover of the arts, or really any lover of truth, should read and digest this important little book.
Jay Kim, Analog Church: Why We Need Real People, Places, and Things in the Digital Age (IVP, 2020).
It’s a grave miscalculation for the church today to think relevance depends on the ability to keep up with the pace, gloss, and hype of our technological world. Our frenetic, fidgety age doesn’t need a frenetic, fidgety church. Our Insta-perfect, polished age doesn’t need a photoshopped, inauthentic church. Our tech-weary world doesn’t need a tech-obsessed church. Jay Kim’s Analog Church presents a compelling case for the church’s most radical act in today’s world: not to be a trendy, shape-shifting, chameleonic copycat, but to be a transcendent Christ-centered community whose difference from the world is why it makes a difference. In a year when church necessarily became more digital and less analog—something most of us felt as a significant loss—Kim’s book took on special resonance.
Edmund Morris, Colonel Roosevelt (Random House, 2010)
It’s hard to recapture the whirlwind of Morris’s first volume on Roosevelt’s life, which chronicled his meteoric rise to the presidency. This third and final volume chronicles his descent—of life away from power, of unfulfilled ambition, of decline, loss, and death. Teddy Roosevelt is one of my favorite presidents—this “man in the arena” who lived life to the brim—and Morris’s trilogy does him justice.
Brandon Crowe, Every Day Matters: A Biblical Approach to Productivity (Lexham, 2019) and Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day (Currency, 2018)
It’s rare to combine biblical faithfulness and practical usefulness when it comes to productivity books, but Brandon Crowe’s Every Day Matters does just that. Though a non-Christian title, Make Time is beautifully packaged book with principles arranged for the reader to pick up as needed (e.g., how to organize your apps, ideal time to drink coffee, when to check email, batching items, organization methods, blocking calendars, nixing notifications, snack like a toddler). Nothing earth-shattering about this book, but it takes some of the best “tips” from the genre of self-improvement and compiles them in a fun and insightful format.
John M. Barry, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History (Viking, 2004)
More than a book documenting the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, it’s a history of scientific research, both decades before and after; a biography of several fascinating characters; a look at the power of institutions for both good and ill; the unintended and overlooked effects of war; the self-sacrificing heroism of medical professionals and the cowardice of many others; and the collective memory of a disease, where even a mildly hit continent like Australia still interpreted the events as the new Black Plague (it was that bad). Even though a tragic account, the book is a mesmerizing read.
Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living (Harper Perennial, 2011)
“If you read only one book on culture,” Tim Keller said in 2012, “read this one.” It is “a terrific, fast way to get a handle on Western culture.”
Ferry is an atheistic French philosopher who, in a way similar to someone like Jonathan Haidt, seems “not far from the kingdom.” And this is indeed one of those rare paradigm-shaping books. As the title suggests, Ferry traces the development of big ideas and philosophical movements, exploring (and contrasting) each era’s account of three things: knowledge, morality, and “salvation.” The result is explanatory power of a kind that will serve any Christian interested in cultural apologetics.
Sonia Purnell, A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II (Penguin, 2020)
Virginia Hall is difficult to categorize. An American living in England at the dawn of World War II, she overcame immense obstacles—a disability (one leg) and prevailing disfavor toward women in paramilitary contexts, for starters—to become a mastermind of the underground French-resistance movement. This book is a stirring account of her exploits. What struck and sobered me most, though, was the endless infighting that dogged the movement, even under the shadow of the Third Reich. Rather than overlooking differences and locking arms to defeat this common foe, intramural squabbles persisted. You didn’t need a U-boat to torpedo the French resistance—they almost did it to themselves. As a Reformed evangelical in 2020, I couldn’t read it without lamenting the state of our own little movement today.
Thomas Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (IVP Academic, 2014)
I’m so glad I read this autobiography. Except for a few lulls, it’s a remarkably absorbing and edifying story. Oden was a theologically liberal professor—frankly, a heretic—who in midlife came to discover, especially through patristic writings, the beauty of orthodoxy and the wonder of gospel grace. A lifelong Methodist, he went on to become one of the 20th (and early 21st) century’s most prolific and influential theologians. While I differ with Oden on some significant second-order issues, I eagerly await meeting him in glory. What a life. And what a stirring and refreshing read.
Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Random House, 2010)
Isabel Wilkerson tells the stories of three African American young people who joined the massive move away from the Jim Crow South into more promising freedoms in the North and West from 1915 to 1970. The book is a bit too long—sometimes the explanations are repetitive—but the history is fascinating, and Wilkerson tells it well.
Robert Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra (Random House, 1967)
I picked up Massie’s classic work on the last Russian czar at the recommendation of TGC editor Melissa Kruger. For someone who is woefully ignorant of Russian history, like I am, this book is a captivating introduction. From the weird spiritualist Rasputin to the desperate mother Alexandra to the pitiful child Alexis, Massie explains the complicated fall of Russian royalty in a clear and compelling way.
Kendra Adachi, The Lazy Genius Way: Embrace What Matters, Ditch What Doesn’t, and Get Stuff Done (WaterBrook, 2020)
I love books on organization and productivity, but after a while, they all start to sound the same. (Get up early, exercise, use a planner.) Kendra Adachi digs in a little bit further, explaining that before you can do something well, you have to know what you’re doing, and why. This quick and easy read offers a fun way to think about being a genius about the things that matter, and lazy about the things that don’t.