Well, it’s that time of year again—time for the ubiquitous “top books” lists on the interwebs. I am joining the herd and offering my own. I read a lot of books this year, including more fiction than the past few years, and below is the cream of the crop. (Keep in mind that not all of these were published in 2016—they were just the best books I read in 2016.)
In ascending order:
10. The Secret Place by Tana French
Tana French is one of my favorite contemporary writers of crime thrillers. I haven’t read all her books, but the ones I have are set in her native Ireland, this one at an all-girls school that becomes the site of a murder of a boy from the all-boys school across the way. What ensues is a twisty, tense investigation involving adolescent girls with all their teenage class warfare and power plays, cliques, queen bees and outcasts, social media and texting. It’s a parent of teen girls’ worst nightmare. And all told with French’s customary sophistication and artistry. I like my genre thrillers with a literary weight, and French always offers that. Plus there’s always a shadow of supernaturalism in her stories, including The Secret Place—nothing overt or explicit, just a hint to remind you that this world is a haunted place. (Mature content warning.)
9. The Imperfect Pastor by Zack Eswine
Eswine is the gospel-centered Eugene Peterson, helping us poach pastoral ministry back from the professionalism and “leadership” industries. Contemplative, poetic, confessional, and grace-soaked, this short book—an amendment of sorts of his previous Sensing Jesus—is a must-read for pastors interested in caring well for their flocks.
8. The Cases That Haunt Us by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker
Here’s where I confess to being a bit of a true crime junkie. John Douglas is perhaps best known for his book Mindhunter, which helped establish him as one of the best profilers in the FBI, becoming the inspiration for numerous fictional works, including Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter stories. What I liked about this book in particular is that it covers famous cases throughout history, applying Douglas’s signature profiling expertise to either posit a suspect where there is none known or declare the likely guilt or innocence of the suspect eventually identified by investigators. Thus, Douglas covers the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, JonBenet Ramsey, and other cases applying his almost extra-sensory psychological perception. I found it riveting. (Mature content warning.)
7. When People Are Big and God Is Small by Ed Welch
The subtitle of this book is “Overcoming Peer Pressure, Codependency, and the Fear of Man.” I’m not sure who isn’t susceptible to at least one of those, but for neurotic messes like me, this book fired on all cylinders. Particularly helpful is Welch’s incisive dismantling of the “needs cup” approach to relationship dynamics.
6. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Written ostensibly as a long letter to his young son, Coates’s National Book Award winner is a powerful and reflective treatise on what it means to be black in America. This book and others like it are important for white Americans—in particular white evangelicals—because it behooves us to listen. We may never understand, but we can listen. And seek through this window into the experience of having a black body—in a place where having one is dangerous—to investigate the places where our blindness to privilege and prejudice has contributed to the problem.
5. Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance
Another window into another world—in particular, the dysfunctional and disadvantaged world of poor, white Appalachia. Vance’s book has become lots of things since its popularity has risen—an explanation for the Trump election win, a universal tract on the marginalized and poor, and so on. It may be all of those things and more, but I read it as a well-told story of personal triumph over adversity. The sociological education one receives is good, but the personal inspiration is better. I learned a lot, but I was also moved.
4. Biblical Authority After Babel by Kevin Vanhoozer
Vanhoozer’s latest is equal parts apologetic for the Reformation and also vision for the evangelical future, as he posits a recovery of the traditional 5 Solas—in their historical and biblical contexts, and in all their respective theological nuances—as the hope for a “mere evangelicalism” emerging from the rubble of our post-Christian era. What I most appreciated about the book, intimidating as it may be to those who don’t read much in the way of academic books, is that it gets more difficult as it goes. By the time you’re wading deep, Vanhoozer has equipped you well to handle it. Whether his optimism is viable for our ecclesiological and cultural future, I’ll leave it to the PhDs to decide. I thought it was rather compelling and exciting.
3. The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe
In which one of the icons of the New York literati offers a blistering, brilliant takedown of Darwinian evolutionary theory, citing human speech as its Achilles heel. Short, staggering, and sarcastic to the point of ecstasy, I loved this book. I only was left hanging at the end by Wolfe’s poignant send-off, which noticeably leaves out how he thinks human beings got here.
2. The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson
I am not sure there is a more relevant book for evangelical theology right now. What’s wonderful is that Ferguson’s masterful overview of the perils of both antinomianism and also legalism is couched in a historical portrayal of the 18th-century Scottish dispute known as the Marrow Controversy! There really is nothing new under the sun, including our tendencies to drift in one way or another from the gospel. What I loved most about this book was the helpful, intellectual, and (yet) pastoral way Ferguson reveals that antinomianism and legalism aren’t simply theological positions but also tones or postures we can display, even when we have all the right theological positions on paper. Hugely relevant. A must-read for serious pastors and preachers.
1. Silence by Shusaku Endo
Now hailed as a literary classic (and soon to release as a film by Martin Scorsese), Silence tells the story of the first Jesuit missionaries into Japan in the 17th century and the persecution they endured. What results is a brief but indelible reflection on faith, doubt, and the inscrutable mystery of God. Mixed into this heady philosophical stew are provocative musings on contextualization, cultural adaptation, and religious adaptability. This is a literary masterwork, but I’d recommend it to any Christian interested in a window into the persecuted church and the clarifying darkness of suffering. It’s also interesting, I think, to consider the book’s crucial philosophical conundrums through a Reformational Protestant lens, and I look forward to discussing that especially with the book club at Midwestern Seminary who are currently reading this great book.