It shouldn’t be surprising that the editorial staff at The Gospel Coalition enjoys 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 that bibliographic joy with our readers, every year I ask our team to select a few books off the beaten path that they enjoyed reading over the past year and would commend to others.
Kate Quinn, The Rose Code (William Morrow, 2021)
I enjoy historical fiction but often pass over books about WWII because after I’d read a few they all started to sound the same. That is until I found Kate Quinn’s book about three British women who worked as codebreakers during WWII. Quinn crafts a fascinating story set in an English country estate that housed a secret operation to break German military codes. Characters face the pressures of daunting work that has the potential to save the lives of their countrymen while trying to navigate their personal relationships with friends and family who aren’t allowed to know what they’re doing. Moral dilemmas and competing loyalties expose the complexities of war for the everyday people who fight them—whether with their bodies or their minds.
Seth Lewis, Dream Small: The Secret Power of the Ordinary Christian Life (The Good Book Company, 2022)
In a world that equates success with riches, fame, and followers, I sometimes wonder if I’m really doing anything with my life. Even in church culture, there are calls to build a platform and do big things for the kingdom. Reading Seth Lewis’s book was a breath of fresh air. With simple but true encouragements from Scripture and examples from the lives of ordinary people, he reminded me I don’t need to be famous—God just calls me to be faithful.
Charles Spurgeon, The Promises of God: A New Edition of the Classic Devotional Based on the English Standard Version (Crossway, 2019)
I enjoy reading books and sermons by faithful saints throughout church history, but some of them can be a slog. So I’m grateful for Tim Chester’s work to update this classic from Charles Spurgeon. I used these daily devotions to begin my quiet times over the last year and found them both accessible and rich. Whether it was his insight into a promise I hadn’t previously noted or a reminder of one I’ve long held dear, I was encouraged by Spurgeon’s insights each morning.
Matthew Continetti, The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism (Basic Books, 2022)
My political world has turned upside down in the last seven years. Continetti gave me the historical context I lacked for understanding the ever-changing priorities of American political conservatives. I learned I’ve never been conservative by the standards of nativists, for example. Movements and coalitions never stand still. But as Christians, we hold fixed beliefs we can’t dismiss just because they aren’t popular at any given time.
Christopher Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture (Zondervan, 2022)
I’ve never seen this depth of social criticism delivered through the lens of biblical theology. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read. For years I’ve heard about Watkin and this project. Praise God it’s finally in the hands of church leaders around the world—and not a minute too soon. We need not only heightened confidence in God’s Word but also the hope of God’s unfolding redemption to help us discern these disconcerting times. Perhaps the Western church is in decline. But that’s sometimes when theologians (such as Augustine with City of God) produce the best work.
Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light (Picador, 2021)
We lost Hilary Mantel in 2022. But what a legacy she left behind with her Wolf Hall trilogy. Thomas Cromwell is not only one of the most significant figures of the English Reformation—thanks to Mantel, he’s also one of the greatest characters in English literature. Politics and theology intertwine as much in our day as they did in the momentous 16th century. Maybe the mix is less obvious when we’re not executing heretics. But leaders today can still learn much from Cromwell’s brilliant, tortured life and the perils of power.
Kate Albus, A Place to Hang the Moon (Margaret Ferguson Books, 2021)
My husband and I enjoy audiobooks together in the car, but our sporadic opportunities to listen mean we’re always looking for books that don’t require us to remember long lists of characters or complex plot lines (sorry, Tolstoy). Albus’s book is actually a middle-grade novel (perfect for the times when our kids are also in the car) about three orphaned siblings displaced from their London home by WWII. The writing is simple and the characters are loveably consistent, but their realistic emotions and conflicts left us middle-aged listeners both laughing and crying as we rooted for the three children to find a home.
Jim VandeHei, Mike Allen, and Roy Schwartz, Smart Brevity: The Power of Saying More with Less (Workman Publishing, 2022)
It’s become a running joke on our editorial team that I once excused a mediocre article by saying, “It’s not going to win a Pulitzer, but . . .” Smart Brevity’s authors, by contrast, don’t think you should apologize for writing that’s not Pulitzer-caliber. In fact, they think short bullet points and quick takeaways are often more valuable than poetic literary prose. I’m not giving up my Pulitzer aims anytime soon, but reading this book challenged me to consider whether beautiful writing always fulfills the second great commandment. At times, I fear, those lovely sentences may be more about serving the writer’s (or editor’s!) ego than the reader’s need.
Jacqueline Winspear, Birds of a Feather (reprint, Soho Crime, 2015)
I love a good mystery novel. It’s a genre that vividly illustrates biblical themes: the wickedness and guilt in all our hearts, the existence of moral absolutes, our longing for justice, and the honorable quest to discover truth. Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs novels have long been among my favorites, but somehow I’d never read Birds of Feather, the second in the series. Earlier this year, I remedied that lack and accompanied Maisie on her mission to find a missing woman. Along the way, Maisie (and her readers) must reckon with what it means to be courageous—and where courage can cross a moral line, even when it’s in the service of something good. Set between the world wars, Maisie’s story has much to tell us today.
Betsy Childs Howard
Ross Douthat, The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery (Convergent, 2021)
Though I (thankfully) don’t suffer from chronic illness, this memoir by a New York Times columnist gave me new insight into so many things. Douthat writes with deeply personal candor about how chronic Lyme disease humbled him professionally, tested his marriage, sent him (against his wishes) seeking answers in the world of alternative medicine, and drove him to his knees. As Stephen Witmer wrote in his review of The Deep Places, “As an exploration of embodied life, and of the losses and gains of physical suffering, and of the strengths and limitations of the scientific and medical establishments, it speaks to all of us.”
Faith Cook, Troubled Journey: A Missionary Childhood in War-Torn China (Banner of Truth, 2004)
Christian biographer Faith Cook tells her own family story in this memoir. Cook’s parents were missionaries to China during the Second World War and were part of a movement that believed in sacrificing all for the cause. In practice, this meant that they sent their children to boarding school and sometimes didn’t see them for several years. Cook writes frankly of the physical and emotional toll this took on her family and criticizes her parents’ choices. At the same time, she writes with great love and respect for them and anyone else who lays down their lives for the sake of the gospel. Cook’s example of appreciating the good while honestly acknowledging the bad provides an excellent alternative to the popular path of deconstruction.
Channing L. Crisler and Robert L. Plummer, eds., Always Reforming: Reflections on Martin Luther and Biblical Studies (Lexham Press, 2021)
A festschrift published in a scholar’s honor sometimes gives his friends one last opportunity to disagree with him. That’s not the case with this volume dedicated to Mark Seifrid. Each essay reflects Seifrid’s deep love for the Scriptures and the reformer’s teaching, and it includes at least two essays by scholars—Thomas R. Schreiner (on Romans 7) and Brian Vickers (on recentering justification around Christ’s person)—who have changed or nuanced their views in recent years to move closer to Seifrid and the “Lutheran” Paul. The volume’s inclusion of Reformed, Baptist, and Lutheran scholars is a testimony to Seifrid’s theological journey and his Christian love for his colleagues at each stage of his ministry.
Marilynne Robinson, Lila (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)
When I read this book, I reflected on the differing ways John Ames and Lila relate to the Scriptures. Their pace and rhythms are worlds apart. She resonates with the hardest parts of Ezekiel and Job. He thinks through the lens of Calvin’s Institutes. One participant in our church book club described it beautifully: “He could speak theologically; she could relate to that baby weltering in its own blood” (Ezek. 16:6–8). Their difference reminds me just how much we need a community of people with different backgrounds and personalities to help us hear God’s Word in its fullness.
Cara Wall, The Dearly Beloved (Simon and Schuster, 2019)
Some books teach us how to have empathy for characters with whom it’s difficult to relate. Reading other books is like looking in a mirror. This book, for me, was the latter. Wall’s two ministry couples—Charles and Lily, James and Nan—face a culture in turmoil, various doubts and griefs, and their own conflicting temperaments. Charles and Lily meet the sorrow of raising a child with severe autism while serving a church. Wall describes the emotions involved in these struggles in ways that made me feel seen and known. The book is fiction, but pastoral counselors working with the parents of a child facing a disability diagnosis would benefit greatly from reading it. I’m thankful for a novel that doesn’t hide life’s pain but encourages hope and faith.
Abigail Favale, The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory (Ignatius Press, 2022)
There was no book this year I underlined more voraciously than this one. Favale’s work is part of an emerging trend of female-authored books exposing the bad fruit of the sexual revolution and gender ideology. I’ve read a lot in recent years on theological readings of sex and gender, and this is up there among the best. For classroom, small group, or personal study, this is an indispensable new resource offering a refreshing “Christian theory” of gender as a reality-based, hopeful alternative to the dominating secular critical theories.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005; originally 1951)
I read this early in the year and it blew my mind. We’re familiar with the concept of sacred space, but what about sacred time? Written from a Jewish theological perspective, Heschel beautifully unpacks the “architecture of time” that is the concept of Sabbath. Infused with reverent joy, the book has much to offer Christian readers looking to ponder the mystery of God’s intentions for time and Sabbath.
Jhumpa Lahiri, In Other Words (reprint, Vintage, 2017)
Perhaps nothing dislocates a person more than losing the ability to understand and communicate through words. In this memoir, Jhumpa Lahiri poignantly describes what it’s like to live in a different country and learn a new language while writing in it. The outcome of such a project—first composed in Italian and then translated into English—is a writing style that’s deep and compelling in its simplicity. Lahiri’s reflections beautifully portray the complex emotions and questions that plague a cultural outsider as she embraces the limitations of trying to describe it all in a foreign tongue. Anyone who’s ever moved to another country will easily relate.
Garrett M. Graff, The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of September 11, 2001 (Simon & Schuster, 2019)
I’m not sure what makes this book—best enjoyed in audio format—so captivating. Of course, the world-altering events of September 11 account for its historical significance. Then there’s the story of George Bush, occupant of the solitary airborne plane that fateful afternoon. This book offers a small window into the burden of responsibility, fear of the unknown, and eerie loneliness the president must have felt as he zigzagged the country in Air Force One. But what makes this book truly unique is the opportunity to hear from everyday Americans, those whose lives were forever changed in a single day through the terror of death and the triumph of bravery.
Daniel Nayeri, Everything Sad Is Untrue (Levine Querido, 2020)
I love the title of this book from Daniel Nayeri, in part because it’s counterintuitive. For the reader, what’s clearly true is the incredible sadness, shame, and loneliness he felt as a prepubescent refugee from Iran attending grade school in Oklahoma. On many occasions throughout the book, I nodded and smiled at Nayeri’s vivid descriptions and childlike candor about the challenges of being an outsider. For him, as for the reader, laughter is a coping mechanism. You laugh so you don’t cry; the sadness is too strong. But as Nayeri deftly reveals—amid potty humor, no less—is that those tears can also lead to joy when you meet the One who bears all our sorrows.
Carolyn Weber, Surprised by Oxford: A Memoir (Thomas Nelson, 2013)
What can I say about this lovely, poignant book? It has it all: romance, theological musings, Oxford backdrop, conversion narrative, Christian apologetic, and more. It’s beautifully written and an exquisite model for Christian writers. Weber’s book has recently been adapted into film, but make sure to read the book first.
Anthony Doerr, Cloud Cuckoo Land (Scribner, 2022)
I’m not sure quite how to describe this book, since on paper it seems like a mishmash of stories across time (15th, 20th, 21st, and 22nd centuries) and space (also literally?) that seemingly don’t connect. But if you stick with it, you’ll find a lovely work that the author describes as a “paean to books.” As a friend put it, Doerr is at his best in providing “beautifully descriptive writing; an intricate, intersecting plot (plots, actually); and characters I cared about deeply.” If you appreciated Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See (another entrancing story), you won’t be disappointed here.
Ryan Holiday, Discipline Is Destiny: The Power of Self-Control (Portfolio, 2022)
Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit, so it’s always fascinating to see how non-Christians consider these moral virtues. Ryan Holiday has quickly become the best popularizer of the new Stoic movement. While I’m no disciple of the Stoics, it’s always fascinating to see many common-grace insights that confirm the Christian worldview. Because Holiday is a broad reader, his book is peppered with accounts from history that beautifully illustrate this ancient virtue. As with most of Holiday’s books, there’s always more I’d want to say but not less.
Patrick Radden Keefe, Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty (Doubleday, 2021)
Engrossing and infuriating. Don’t tell me systemic injustice doesn’t exist today.
Glen Scrivener, The Air We Breathe: How We All Came to Believe in Freedom, Kindness, Progress, and Equality (The Good Book Company, 2022)
Secular Westerners reject Christian belief while feasting on its fruit. Whether the subject is enlightenment or equality, compassion or consent, science or freedom or progress, our neighbors have Christianity to thank for the values they cherish. This argument is provocative and demonstrably true. Building on groundbreaking historical scholarship, Glen Scrivener has made a case that cannot be ignored. This is one of the most important books I’ve read in a long time.
Isaac Adams, Talking About Race: Gospel Hope for Hard Conversations (Zondervan, 2022)
Isaac Adams wades into the race conversation not as a pundit or self-styled prophet but as a pastor. If Christians in droves began reading and applying the insights contained in this book, our churches—and nation—would be in a much better place. It’s possible my church members will grow tired of me recommending this book. So be it. They—and their pastor—need its truth and wisdom, over and over again.
Charles Spurgeon, We Endeavor (Pilgrim Publications, 1897)
Although difficult to find in print, this tiny 160-page book is a collection of Spurgeon’s sermons to a group of young leaders who desired to serve as foreign missionaries. I usually read this book once a year and distribute it to next-generation leaders in our church. The book is mercifully shorter than Lectures to My Students, and it gives readers a glimpse into the preacher’s heart behind those lectures. I’m convicted and challenged every time I have the opportunity to interact with this little-known gem.
Malcolm Gladwell, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know (Back Bay Books, 2021)
How did we fail to discern a leader’s double life? Why do abusers go undetected for so long in our churches and institutions? Why do those who report abuse often get ignored or attacked? Gladwell provides data and stories that help provide answers to these questions. Given the subject matter, a trigger warning is appropriate with this book, and Gladwell’s conclusions aren’t all equally helpful. But the categories provided by Talking to Strangers are thought-provoking and insightful.
Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Liveright, 2016)
I enjoyed SPQR as a supplement to Tom Holland’s Dominion. Holland focuses primarily on the rise of Christianity and secondarily on the decline of the Roman worldview. In contrast, Beard provides deep insights into the Roman worldview and way of life, providing little interaction with the rise of Christianity. For preachers and teachers tasked with connecting New Testament passages—written to those who were swept up in the great Roman Empire—to modern Christians, SPQR is a wonderful resource to understand the original context of the text. I’d recommend pairing The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius with SPQR in order to explore more of the primary source material behind the book.
L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables (Hachette Childrens Books, 2019; originally 1908)
I’d never read the Anne series before picking it up in January at the urging of a friend. I haven’t been the same since. Anne Shirley taught me to appreciate the beauty of the natural world, to serve people in small and quiet ways with love, and to trust God with every “bend in the road” ahead. I loved watching her grow up and retain her joyful spirit through every season of her life. I’m currently on my second read-through of the whole eight-book series, and I plan to revisit at least a few of the books every spring.
Ray Rhodes Jr., Susie: The Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon (Moody Publishers, 2021)
I included Susie in our “What We’re Reading This Summer” list this year, but I can’t resist recommending it here too. I couldn’t put it down, and thankfully I didn’t have to—I read it for seven hours straight while stuck on my couch with COVID-19. I’m so glad to be acquainted with both the Spurgeons now. Through the many trials Susie faced, her steadfast faith in the goodness of God encouraged me to also trust in his perfect timing, even when being sick meant disrupted travel plans. She, not unlike Anne Shirley, sought to joyfully accept the gifts God gave her rather than wasting her life wishing she had different gifts. Susie’s faithfulness will long stay with me.
Dennis Duncan, Index, a History of the (Allen Lane, 2021)
If you love words as much as I do, you probably won’t be able to make it past reading the clever title of this book without ordering it. I was thrilled to find it under the Christmas tree last year. Duncan lays out the fascinating history of sorting tools, revealing how features we take for granted like alphabetical order and page numbers were far from inevitable. He takes us on a journey from the serene 13th-century monasteries of Europe all the way to the modern-day index—as we go, we learn about the diverse ways humans have sought to bring order to the world’s ever-multiplying mass of information.
Lucy Worsley, Agatha Christie: An Elusive Woman (Pegasus Crime, 2022)
My family has been on a Hercule Poirot kick for months now, listening to audio versions of the murder mysteries while we drive to school and work and church. It’s been delightful to read Lucy Worsley’s biography of author Agatha Christie at the same time. Christie’s own life—falling from riches into poverty then back into riches, a mysterious disappearance, a tragic love story with a happy ending—is just as riveting as her clever fiction.
Jen Pollock Michel, In Good Time: 8 Habits for Reimagining Productivity, Resisting Hurry, and Practicing Peace (Baker Books, 2022)
There are no quick hints or practical tips in Jen Pollock Michel’s newest book—instead, she uses the pandemic as a springboard for thinking deeply about how we view time. This is a treat for anyone who loves beautiful prose—and it’s the best example I’ve seen of someone bringing beauty out of the ashes of the coronavirus.
Brian Chapell, Grace at Work: Redeeming the Grind and the Glory of Your Job (Crossway, 2022)
I read a lot of books on faith and work, and this is one of my favorites. Smart and readable, it addresses a pile of issues—from integrity to success to what to do if you don’t like your job or your boss. I liked it so much that I pulled two excerpts—and 20 quotes—to post at TGC. Even then, I left a lot of good stuff on the ground. It’s worth picking up.