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. As one of our team members recently reflected, “I honestly believe the reading culture on our editorial team is one of our most underrated strengths and a secret to our collective success.”
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.
Lewis Dartnell, The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm (Penguin, 2015)
Imagine if the world as we know it has ended, and the entire infrastructure we once depended on has collapsed. What would the survivors of such an apocalypse do to thrive in the long term? What knowledge would they need to recover as rapidly as possible? That’s the question that launches this book-length thought experiment. In the most fascinating non-fiction book I’ve read this year, Dartnell offers a “reboot manual” that explains what technology and science we’d need to know to restore civilization. While the topic may appear somewhat morbid, it gave me a greater appreciation of how God has diffused knowledge in such a way that societal flourishing requires the cooperation of many people. (I also learned that before the cataclysm happens, I need to befriend an industrial chemist.)
Kevin DeYoung, The Ten Commandments: What They Mean, Why They Matter, and Why We Should Obey Them (Crossway, 2018)
At the beginning of the year I set out to read as many books on Christian ethics as I could find. I was surprised to discover—though I shouldn’t have been—that DeYoung’s explanation of the Ten Commandments would be the most helpful and enlightening. In his concise manner, DeYoung clarifies why these commandments are the key to biblical ethics. “The commandments not only show us what God wants; they show us what God is like,” DeYoung writes. “They say something about his honor, his worth, and his majesty. They tell us what matters to God. We can’t disdain the law without disrespecting the Lawgiver.” If I could require one book (other than the Bible) for Christians to read next year, this would be the one.
Leonard Sax, The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups (Basic, 2015)
Not a distinctly Christian book, but more helpful than most Christian parenting books I’ve read. Don’t throw out the gospel-centered parenting books (unless they’re really just antinomianism applied to parenting), but do read them in tandem with something like this. Sax deals with the kind of basic-level issues that Christian parenting books tend to unwisely assume (like not letting your 8-year-old decide when to eat or where to go to school). I’m afraid a lot of Christian parents my age are trying to digest meat when they haven’t yet learned to drink milk. They’re worried about the intricacies of their toddler’s heart while failing to teach them basic obedience. We need books like this. Sax is what Solomon would sound like if he were writing to parents in the iPhone generation.
J. V. Fesko, Reforming Apologetics (Baker Academic, 2019)
Many moons ago I read C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and J. Budziszweski’s What We Can’t Not Know. These non-Reformed books convinced me that natural law is not only a real thing, but also a valuable tool for making Christian moral convictions more deeply rooted and less susceptible to shifting cultural winds. Reading Protestant Scholastic authors persuaded me that Reformed theologians once largely shared this judgment. Reading Fesko has helped me understand why this emphasis on “the book of nature” was rejected by so many of the 20th-century Reformed theologians I’ve read. It has also confirmed my suspicion that this rejection was a wrong turn from which we would do well to retrace our steps. Anyone interested in theological retrieval should read this volume. The chapters on common notions and the light of nature are worth the price of the book.
Mark Ward, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (Lexham, 2019)
In this unique contribution to the KJV-only debate, Mark Ward brackets the issue of text-types and focuses instead on the KJV’s readability. His central argument matches my experience. Despite being a proficient reader comfortable with “thee’s and thou’s,” I had no idea how much of a barrier to understanding its language had been until I began listening to preaching from modern translations. And while I’m eternally grateful for the real advantages of being raised on the KJV, I’d also confess that few decisions have been more beneficial to my spiritual life than switching to the ESV. This book will not likely convince those in the grip of conspiracy theories. But if any book out there can gently persuade level-headed KJV users to branch out, it’s this one.
Kate Bowler, The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities (Princeton University Press, 2019)
I married into a family of social scientists, I work for a parachurch ministry, and I am both a preacher’s wife and also a preacher’s daughter. It’s no surprise, then, that Kate Bowler’s new book ended up first on my “hold” list at the public library. In this research-focused book, Bowler examines the forces and characteristics that propel Christian women—especially complementarian evangelicals—into the limelight. Surveying pastors’ wives, speakers, musicians, authors, and theologians, Bowler’s female subjects range broadly across the theological landscape, venturing into circles far beyond my own (as Betsy Howard points out in her review of the book). And Bowler writes as a scientist reporting on data, so her book does not provide a kingdom perspective or apply biblical categories. But, despite the book’s given limitations, many of her themes felt relevant to my own life and work. In a year when I began writing a new book that requires me to expose my own weaknesses and sins, her chapter on the tension between vulnerability and authority caused me to examine my heart. I’m unlikely to ever be a celebrity, but Bowler’s work reminds me that the same temptations that ensnare the famous can trouble us all.
Alan Bradley, The Golden Tresses of the Dead: A Flavia DeLuce Novel (Delacorte Press, 2019)
For fun reading, I pick up a mystery novel every year, and Alan Bradley’s Flavia DeLuce series is one of my favorites. Bradley’s sleuth, Flavia, is a sharp-witted chemist who doggedly solves the complex cases that seem to plague her English village, circa 1951. Flavia is smart, emotionally complex, and funny. She is also 12 years old. Reading Bradley’s novels reminds me that God has established moral absolutes—whether the world acknowledges them or not—and will ultimately bring justice to prevail in his world. They also remind me that there is nothing so urgent in my life that I can’t occasionally take a moment for a cup of tea in my bedroom or a joyous bike ride on a blustery day.
Henrik Pontoppidan, A Fortunate Man (Museum Tusculanum Press, 1898)
Imagine a conversation on the meaning of life between Luther, Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. Hidden inside an epic Danish novel that won its author the 1917 Nobel Prize for Literature. I had no idea where this book would end up after 755 pages.
Vasily Grossman, Stalingrad (NYRB Classics, 2019)
After the Nazis surrendered to end the Great Patriotic War, the Soviet Union searched for their newest Tolstoy to explain the war in classic Russian style: the epic novel. Vasily Grossman is better known for the critically acclaimed Life and Fate, sequel to Stalingrad, written in 1952 but released earlier this year in English translation. While Stalingrad suffers from censor-impaired reconstruction, the novel nevertheless excels in dramatizing the line between good and evil that runs through every human heart.
Rankin Wilbourne and Brian Gregor, The Cross Before Me: Reimagining the Way to the Good Life (David C. Cook, 2019)
This is an urgent and challenging yet ultimately hopeful book that helped me find life in the way of the cross. Wilbourne and Gregor know that Jesus’s way isn’t popular today. But I’m so thankful they’ve shown us the truth about abundant life.
Betsy Childs Howard
Sam Allberry, Seven Myths About Singleness (Crossway 2019)
This is the most realistic yet hopeful book on singleness I’ve read. Allberry aptly points out the challenges of the single life, but he also catalogs its blessings. He shows the vital role single Christians play in the lives of their churches and in giving each of us a picture of what it means to live in submission to God’s commands. I appreciated his real-life, practical examples of how married friends and church members can help single Christians flourish as they play their part in the body of Christ.
Philip Roth, The Plot Against America (Vintage Books, 2004)
I read a lot of novels, and this is the best I’ve come across in a long time. The story begins in 1940 when, in a reimagining of history, Charles Lindbergh has just been elected president of the United States. Lindbergh was a known Nazi sympathizer, so in this version of events the United States does not take a side in the Second World War. Well-plotted and well-written, this book has great relevance to our day, from the deep political divisions in America to the growing antisemitic movements in Europe.
J. I. Packer, ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God (Eerdmans, 1958)
Packer’s classic defense of the authority of Scripture is as beautiful and emotionally stirring as it is convincing. I think I underlined, starred, or wrote “YES” beside something on every page. It’s short, concise, passionate, pithy, and curmudgeonly in the best sense of the word—a magnificent resource for Christians who need to remind themselves, in a world drowning in a glut of words, why God’s Word remains our essential anchor.
Mark Sayers, Reappearing Church: The Hope for Renewal in the Rise of Our Post-Christian Culture (Moody, 2019)
After diagnosing some of the church’s contemporary ailments in Disappearing Church (2016), Australian pastor Mark Sayers offers a hope-filled prescription for revival in Reappearing Church. Spoiler alert: It’s not a new, hip, just-discovered solution. The refreshing book is more a reminder and a call back to the basics than a groundbreaking renewal program. But that’s exactly why we need it.
Nancy Pearcey, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality (Baker, 2018)
So much of the moral insanity in today’s world stems from a seriously contorted view of the human body. Pearcey’s supremely helpful book charts the philosophical trajectories that got us here, how those views inform a variety of issues (sexuality, gender identity, abortion, and so on), and why a Christian understanding of the body is foundational for human flourishing.
Peter Leithart, A House for My Name: A Survey of the Old Testament (Canon, 2000)
Who knew that a 20-year-old book with such an uninspiring cover and prosaic title could be so riveting? This book is a gem, making the sweep of the Old Testament come alive and the connections rich and evocative. I don’t always agree with Leithart—in fact, I often argued back with him in the margins—but I was spurred on in my Bible reading by having him as a guide. This year I also slowly worked my way through 1–2 Chronicles and Leithart’s new Chronicles commentary (Brazos, 2019). Rather than the panoramic view of the Old Testament forrest, in this recent volume you look at the trees—at some of the most underrated books in the Old Testament. With so many insights into the text, full of biblical-theological connections and brimming with pointed pastoral applications, I wish more commentaries could be written with this kind of verve and zeal.
Robert Caro, Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing (Knopf, 2019)
I count Robert Caro’s Lyndon B. Johnson biographies as some of the most thrilling experiences in my reading life, so I looked forward to this behind-the-scenes look into Caro’s research and writing. This isn’t the memoir that Caro would someday like to write, but at 83, with his fifth and final LBJ volume still years from completion, he wanted to share a few things from his work on his Robert Moses/LBJ biographies—really, studies on power (its use and misuse) and how it shapes us. What makes Caro such a unique biographer is that he’s never satisfied with mere surface-level understanding of people and times; hence why he takes many years to write books and why they’re a feast for readers.
Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings (Tor, 2010)
It took a Ross Douthat column on the Game of Thrones TV show to convince me I had to read more modern-day fantasy writers (and not George R. R. Martin). Friends pointed me to Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives, and I devoured the three (of a projected 10) volumes in the series. With exquisite character- and world-building (each book is at least 1,000 pages), I’ve found a new favorite fantasy writer who upholds virtue, leadership, and sacrifice—without giving us flat characters.
John Eisenberg, The Streak: Lou Gehrig, Cal Ripken Jr., and Baseball’s Most Historic Record (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017)
When rookie shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. appeared in the Baltimore Orioles’ lineup on May 30, 1982, he probably had no idea that he’d play in the next 2,632 consecutive games before taking a day off. Ripken’s name wouldn’t be absent for Baltimore’s daily box score until September 20, 1998—a span of more than 16 years. Along the way, he broke one of baseball’s most hallowed records: Lou Gehrig’s streak of 2,130 straight games. Eisenberg takes an in-depth look at both men and other baseball players who assembled impressive streaks showing up daily for work without fail, all of which serves as inspiration for a virtue that’s seldom touted but is nonetheless vital for a stable society and healthy churches: gritty faithfulness.
A. J. Blaime, The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017)
There are ordinary people placed into extraordinary circumstances—and then there’s Harry Truman. In a profoundly short time, Truman went from a failed farmer and clothing store owner from Independence, Missouri, to America’s highest office—becoming America’s 33rd president when Franklin D. Roosevelt died in the spring of 1945 with our nation deeply involved in the bloodiest war in history. In four months’ time, Truman would face decisions like whether or not to drop the atomic bomb on Japan and would help oversee the surrender of both the German and Japanese armies. He would face often contentious meetings with world leaders like Churchill and Stalin. David McCullough’s massive Pulitzer Prize-winning biography covers Truman’s entire life story, but Blaime brings sharp focus to Truman’s first months in office up to the end of World War II. Blaime’s work is beautifully written and powerfully illustrates how God often orchestrates history by drawing straight lines with crooked sticks.
Darlene Deibler Rose, Evidence Not Seen: A Woman’s Miraculous Faith in the Jungles of World War II (HarperCollins, 2003)
The true story of a young American missionary’s courage and faith in the jungles of New Guinea—and her four years in a notorious Japanese prison camp. If you liked Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, don’t miss this one. One of the most remarkable and inspiring stories I’ve read in a long time.
Andre Agassi, Open: An Autobiography (Vintage, 2010)
If you’re looking for a typically superficial celebrity memoir, this is not your book. It’s deep. I’m not even a tennis fan, and I was absorbed from page one. What a crazy life, what a transparent telling, what a searching study of the human heart. One of the best memoirs I’ve ever read.
Robert Kursow, Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II (Random House, 2004).
Fall 1991. Two deep-wreck divers submerge to the ocean floor for a routine exploration, sixty miles off the coast of New Jersey. What they discover jolts them: a German U-Boat. Unable to locate an identifying mark in the decaying mass of steel, they embark on a dizzying quest—on land and by sea—to identify the sunken sub. Mysteriously, no surviving war document—Nazi or Allied—records a U-Boat sinking anywhere in the vicinity. Six years later, the truth finally emerges. This is such an unlikely, and enthralling, true story. I couldn’t put it down.
Luke Goodrich, Free to Believe: The Battle Over Religious Liberty in America (Moody, 2019)
As America slides into post-Christendom, the legal clashes over religious liberty have grown more troubling. From Masterpiece Cakeshop to the Equality Act, Christians are wondering what’s going on and how worried they need to be. Luke Goodrich, an attorney at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, provides an excellent answer in this book. Carefully reasoned and biblically anchored, he lays out the most serious threats to religious freedom and what Christian organizations can do about them. (Hint: Not worry. “Our joy should be rooted not in the composition of the Supreme Court nor in the caliber of our latest victory but in the character of our suffering and victorious Savior.”)
Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (Harper, 2010)
There is no more clear picture of God’s common grace than the one laid out in this book. He traces how the trading of goods, services, and ideas throughout history has consistently improved the human condition and the environment. (For example, improved farming practices and products mean we feed more people—and use less land doing it—than we used to.) Ridley is not a Christian, but he’s laid out the most convincing evidence of God’s generous care for human flourishing through common grace that I’ve ever seen.