It shouldn’t be surprising that 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.
To share in bibliographic joy with our readers, every year I ask our team to select a few books off the beaten path that they enjoyed reading during the past year and would commend to others.
Sharon James, How Christianity Transformed the World (Christian Focus, 2021)
When we consider the state of the world or even the state of the church, it’s easy to be discouraged. We may be tempted to wonder if our faith makes a difference or if Christians affect the surrounding culture. I found Sharon James’s book to be fresh encouragement in understanding and reflecting upon the overwhelming influence of Christianity on the world. This book is short and easy to read, but offers important historical details that illuminate the hopeful realities as the light of the gospel goes forth into the world.
I’ve always enjoyed historical fiction, and both of these novels introduced me to inspiring historical figures that I’d never heard of before. The Personal Librarian tells the story of Belle de Costa Greene, a black American woman who hid her true identity and passed as white so she could work as J. P. Morgan’s personal librarian. Beneath a Scarlet Sky tells the story of Pino Lella’s fight against the Nazis as part of the Italian resistance during World War II. Both of these stories highlight two people who courageously lived hidden lives so they could help others.
Frances E. Jensen, The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults (Harper Paperbacks, 2016)
Anyone raising children would benefit from this helpful book, which explores what’s happening inside the teenage brain. Dr. Jensen is the chairwoman of the department of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as a mother of two teenage boys. She writes with the understanding of a mother who is struggling to help her sons remember their daily tasks, as well as the wisdom of a neurologist who knows the limitations of her executive function. Jensen in no way excuses problematic teenage behavior, but she does help parents understand the developmental stages the brain is still going through in the teenage years and why teenagers are particularly susceptible to certain struggles and impulsive behaviors.
Andrew Pettegree, Brand Luther: How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe—and Started the Protestant Reformation (Penguin, 2015)
Many of my most memorable reading experiences leave me thinking, Why didn’t I already know that? Somehow it had escaped my attention that Luther basically invented the popular theological treatise. I loved this book’s behind-the-scenes look at Luther’s efforts to wield the printing press to his advantage. And I couldn’t help but wonder how we’re seeing some of these same innovations play out today in theological discourse.
Jeffrey Bilbro, Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News (IVP, 2021)
It’ll help when reading this book if you already share some of Bilbro’s localist tendencies. Then you’ll see why he wants you to turn off cable news and knock on your neighbor’s door. So many of the challenges I see today in discipleship go back to habits in media consumption. Even if you don’t buy all his arguments, Bilbro will help you think more critically and wisely about today’s overwhelming news landscape.
Malcolm Gladwell, The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War (Little, Brown and Company, 2021)
I’d recommend the audiobook version for this one. Not only was I engrossed in the story but the medium seemed to signal the future of publishing—podcast, audiobook, and hardcover combining for an immersive media experience. I’m always interested in Gladwell, especially when he takes on one of my favorite subjects. You know it’s a good book when you can still recall so much of it many months later.
Betsy Childs Howard
Josephine Tey, Brat Farrar (Peter Davies, 1949)
Though it wasn’t my first time to read this British mystery novel, reading Brat Farrar aloud to my husband was a highlight of 2021. Josephine Tey’s compelling, literary telling of a family mystery bears no resemblance to a formulaic whodunit, but it’s one of the most gripping novels I’ve ever read.
Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Peepo! (Kestral Books, 1981)
Yes, this is a board book. But if, like me, you spend more time reading to your kids than you do reading on your own, it pays to have good children’s books. Peepo! (also published as Peekaboo! in American editions) is a delightful rhyming account of everything a baby sees throughout the day. The detailed illustrations depicting wartime Britain make reading and rereading this book a delight for parents and children.
Matthew B. Crawford, Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road (William Morrow, 2020)
With his previous books Shop Class As Soulcraft and The World Beyond Your Head, Matthew B. Crawford has established himself as a sort of analog prophet for the digitally mediated world. His latest, Why We Drive, relishes everything physical, mechanical, and philosophical about the automobile. In the process, he presents a forceful critique of the virtual, automated future that still doesn’t have to be inevitable.
Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop (Alfred A. Knopf, 1927)
It’s been some time since a novel affected me as deeply as Cather’s did when I read it this spring. A story of faith, friendship, landscape, and committed love (to a particular place, people, and mission), the novel is a profound breath of fresh, sincere air. For me, the clarifying purity of reading it—especially against the backdrop of the toxic confusion and ephemera of digital life—was invigorating in the same way the titular character is enlivened by the dry, desert, morning wind of his Santa Fe mission field.
Blaise Pascal, Pensées (Penguin Classics, revised edition, 1995)
My meager brain couldn’t fully grasp all of Pascal’s fragment thoughts in this posthumously edited volume from the 17th century. But enough of them—which read like hastily scribbled, middle-of-the-night theological epiphanies—are brilliant, understandable pearls of wisdom, such that Pensées is likely my most underlined book for 2021. If you have time in 2022 for a daunting but essential book of old Christian wisdom (and I hope you do), consider this one.
Carl Trueman, Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution (Crossway, 2022)
Carl Trueman distills his larger The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self while still offering a fresh and original work that presses his argument in under 200 pages. His final chapter (“Strangers in This Strange New World”) ought to be required reading for every pastor and church leader. Trueman points to the church’s complicity in our expressive individualist world, explains how the second-century church can serve as a model of “cultural protest” (as opposed to “engaging the culture”), calls on pastors to preach the whole counsel of God’s Word and deliberately use catechisms, lifts up the Psalms as a vital ingredient in shaping our moral intuitions and inner lives, advocates for the discipleship value of natural law, and concludes with a word on Christian hope that is neither given to impotent despair nor naïve optimism. What a gift of a book. (Releases February 2022.)
George Packer, Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021)
Packer’s volume is strong in its diagnosis of the problems we face, though a little underwhelming with the proposed solutions. Still, it’s a worthy read if for nothing else than for understanding this fourfold division: Free America, Smart America, Real America, Just America.
Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954–63 (Simon & Schuster, 1989)
The best biographies don’t merely give you a sense of the person; they help you understand the times. Taylor Branch’s biography of MLK does just that.
Adam Makos with Larry Alexander, A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II (Berkley, 2012)
This unlikely story has been called “the most incredible encounter between enemies in World War II.” Read it and you’ll see why. It would certainly make for a blockbuster movie. The end moved me to tears.
Fredrik Backman, Anxious People: A Novel (Atria, 2020)
Swedish novelist Fredrik Backman is an exceedingly charming writer. When I encounter his characters and read his sentences, I can’t help but sense that he relished crafting them. His stories hum with exquisite prose—and often with trenchant insight into the human condition. I’m unaware of a novelist who blends easygoing wit, wistful mood, and subtle profundity better than he.
Benjamin Campbell, Richmond’s Unhealed History (Brandylane, 2011)
In preparation for moving to Richmond, I read up on its racial history. It is singularly sad. For almost half of the 1800s, the city was the second-largest slave market in North America. Put bluntly, it was the most strategic slave-trading hub in the South’s largest slave-trading state. And then things got worse. The Confederacy made Richmond the capital of its cause. One of the most prominent streets, Monument Avenue, was named for its statues lionizing Confederate heroes. The city remained an epicenter of racial injustice during the reign of Jim Crow. It was a forerunner to nationwide redlining. From employment to education to housing, it lagged behind other major cities in effecting justice. So, what is Richmond known for? Any honest answer must include its legacy of racism, sometimes perpetuated in the name of Christ. Travel Guide dubbed it the “Best U.S. Historical Destination.” But if you visit the sites, be prepared to grieve.
Ellen Vaughn, Becoming Elisabeth Elliot (B&H Books, 2020)
Sometimes Elisabeth Elliot’s life can seem like a fairy tale of far-off places, tragic violence, and perfect holiness. Ellen Vaughn tells a real story—gritty and relatable—that includes the disappointments, arguments, and roadblocks. But it’s no less beautiful or God-glorifying—in fact, it’s an honest reminder that it is God, not us, who deserves the glory for the good he accomplishes in and through us.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England 1650–1750 (Vintage, 1991)
I admit this book is probably for a niche audience. But if you’re like me, and you love thinking about women and work, pick this one up. It’s helpful to realize that colonial women were neither ideal homemakers nor repressed servants to their husbands. Just like men, women have always wrestled with thorns and thistles. And even in a slower-moving age, their relationship to work was always adjusting and changing.
Jordan Raynor, Redeeming Your Time: 7 Biblical Principles for Being Purposeful, Present, and Wildly Productive (WaterBrook, 2021)
As a fan of Cal Newport, I’ve been wishing for a while that someone would write about productivity from a distinctly Christian perspective. In this book, Jordan Raynor lays out seven principles that are both practically helpful and rooted in Scripture. If you liked Getting Things Done and Deep Work, and you also appreciate Tim Keller and Jen Wilkin, put this one on your Christmas list.
Tilly Dillehay, Seeing Green: Don’t Let Envy Color Your Joy (Harvest House, 2018)
I like things that are black and white, easily defined, and measurable. But sin doesn’t often work that way. There are lots of gray areas and “heart issues” that can be harder to pinpoint—and easier to ignore. That’s why I appreciate Tilly Dillehay’s thoughtful book on envy. With candid examples from her own life, she paints a picture of envy that is both clarifying and convicting, but never condemning. Reading this book felt like having a wise and loving friend graciously confront my sin.
Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (Modern Library Classics, 2000)
Although I regularly read modern fiction, as a former high school English teacher I have a special love for the classics. But somehow I had failed to read Jane Eyre until earlier this year. The classics endure for a reason, and Bronte’s exploration of the authentic self in this novel is as relevant now as ever. Especially refreshing is the fact that, ultimately, Jane’s sense of authenticity and truth are rooted in God, not in some subjective notion of self-love and self-fulfillment. We need more heroines like Jane who look upward rather than inward to determine their course.
Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture: St. John Chapters I–XVI and Expositions of Holy Scripture: St. John Chapters XV–XXI (Public Domain)
I came across Alexander Maclaren’s expositions years ago when looking for commentary on a passage of Scripture I was studying. It wasn’t long before his sermons were my regular quiet-time companions. I have particularly enjoyed working through the Gospel of John verse by verse, treating myself to Maclaren’s corresponding sermon after finishing a section. He has a remarkable ability to plumb the depths of a passage and deliver pointed application while magnifying the beauty of the gospel. When my dad retired after decades of pastoral ministry, I found out he’d had a set of Maclaren’s expositions since seminary. He’s now passed them on to me. These sermons are a treasure that has served the kingdom for generations.
Arnold A. Dallimore, Spurgeon: A Biography (Banner of Truth, 1985)
I went on a Spurgeon reading spree this year and this was my favorite biography. Among the many achievements of the Prince of Preachers, Dallimore highlights a more important trait: “Throughout his entire ministry many hearers remarked that, moved as they were by his preaching, they were still more affected by his praying” (79). Spurgeon’s humble dependence on prayer made a real difference in my own prayer life, encouraging me to come to God with greater desperation and confidence.
Andrew Peterson, The Wingfeather Saga (WaterBrook, re-released 2020)
This is a middle-grade fantasy series following siblings Janner, Tink, and Leeli Igiby as they flee with their family from the evil Fangs of Dang. Even though these books are written for children, every adult I’ve lent them to has loved them. Andrew Peterson, a Christian singer-songwriter, brings his skill in beautifully expressing biblical truth into his fiction. Alongside the Igibys, I learned about family, love, sacrifice, and redemption. I turned the last page and returned to my normal life with a greater longing for eternity.
Alan Jacobs, Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind (Penguin, 2020)
In today’s cancel culture, when one misstep gets you publicly shamed and shunned, voices from the past don’t stand a chance. They’re sized up by our present, narrow moral standards, and cast off as irrelevant or even dangerous. Alan Jacobs offers us a better approach to the past in Breaking Bread with the Dead. We need these voices. Learning from both the wisdom and failures of those who have come before—and recognizing we have many of the same weaknesses—will make us steady, tranquil people in this age of information overload and social acceleration.