The best books I read this year. As every year, please keep in mind that not all of these were published in 2020—they were just the best books I read in 2020. However, this year I’ve excluded re-reads, as I did more re-reading this year than in recent years. Titles like Augustine’s City of God, Richard Lovelace’s Dynamics of Spiritual Life, and C.S. Lewis’s Four Loves and Perelandra would have easily crowded out some newcomers.
In ascending order:
10. Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father by Thomas S. Kidd (Yale)
This is the second year in a row a book by Kidd has made my “best of” list and for good reason. Franklin was of course not a Christian, but this spiritual biography of sorts is a fascinating and meticulous look at the philosophies and formations that drove him, including not just deism but the burgeoning Puritan Calvinism of his upbringing.
9. Deep Discipleship: How the Church Can Make Whole Disciples of Jesus by J. T. English (B&H)
I can’t believe this book hasn’t been written yet, but I’m glad that English was the one to do it. You’ll find a non-panicky appraisal of the discipleship deficit in evangelicalism over the last 30 years but also an optimistic, practical, robust, and—above all—biblical exploration of the antidotes. I especially appreciated Chapter 5 on how disciples grow, which is by itself worth the price of the book. For those looking to implement a gospel-centered discipleship culture in your church, no matter your size or resources, this is the book you need. Going forward, it will be a go-to recommendation for those I teach and coach.
8. Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon (Abingdon)
A short but punchy read. Almost wore out my pen underlining things on every page. This challenging, provocative book goes hard against Western evangelicalism’s syncretistic and accommodating position in her surrounding culture and casts a consistent vision for recapturing the prophetic peculiarity of the Christian community in the world. I didn’t agree with every little thing, and Hauerwas and Willimon write out of a tradition different from my own, but I found so much in this book resonating and stirring. Maybe you will too.
7. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein (Liveright)
An excellent work of data-driven history and sociology. Aided by Rothstein’s largely dispassionate delivery—he really writes as an historian and social scientist, not as a pundit or commentator—the sheer tonnage of explicit prejudice he chronicles should be as maddening as it is enlightening. Many ought to wrestle with the history here, the “de jure” racism enforced by real-estate zoning, school zoning, banking, and so on, continuing well past the civil-rights era and right into the 1980s, still having ramifications today. If you are one to discount the idea of systemic injustice/racism, please read this book and consider its implications.
6. Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage by Gavin Ortlund (Crossway)
I technically read this at the end of 2019, but it was too late to have made that year’s list, so it’s going here. I was also blessed to endorse the book. Here was my blurb: “To put it simply: this is an important book. With an historian’s insight, a theologian’s precision, and a pastor’s wisdom, Gavin Ortlund has given the church an invaluable handbook for navigating our ongoing doctrinal challenges and for healing our ongoing doctrinal divisions.”
5. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (Vintage)
The second-best-selling “true crime” book of all time but certainly the most artful. Capote’s rich narrative recounts the frightening events surrounding the murders of the Clutter family in 1959 Kansas. Through thorough personal research, including visiting the area (with author pal Harper Lee) to interview locals and ponder the scene and even befriending one of the murderers on death row before their execution, Capote crafts a mesmerizing and deep portrayal of the sweetness of innocence and the banality of evil.
4. Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609 by Scott M. Manetsch (Oxford)
I had to read this book for my doctoral studies this fall—scratch that. I got to read this book for my doctoral studies this fall. What looks on the surface to be a dry and daunting history text is actually a wonderful and detailed manual for pastoral care and ministry life that I’d recommend to just about any pastor. Manetsch’s intricate study of life in Calvin’s Geneva, both during and after that towering figure’s ministry, covers everything from intimate details of familial life to even caring for people during a plague. Church discipline, in-fighting, navigating political environments, and so on. This book about a different place several centuries removed is ever-relevant for church life today. Highly recommended.
3. Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What by Peter Steinke (Rowman & Littlefield)
Could there be a more relevant book for pastoral ministry in 2020 than this? Published in 2006, there is apparently a later, revised edition under a different title (which I am not familiar with), this work resulting from the extensive pastoral experience and church consultation work from Steinke (who sadly passed away earlier this summer) is a master calls in navigating church conflict, division, and other assorted maladies. While I would have certainly liked more gospel and less therapy-speak, this is still an excellent read and a book I’d recommend to almost any pastor about calm, confident leadership in the midst of conflict, confusion, or chaos. Really good stuff here on understanding conflict dynamics, emotionality, and so on in congregations. For every story he told, I could think of real-life examples I either faced as a pastor or am aware of in the pastorates of others I know.
2. One Assembly: Rethinking the Multisite and Multiservice Church Models by Jonathan Leeman (Crossway)
This is the book that should have made a big splash in 2020, except for the tidal wave of COVID-19 which I think just overtook serious consideration of it. You can read this one sitting, but you should consider it slowly. Leeman thoroughly and convincingly argues from Scripture that the way so many of us do church is really a way of doing churches. And as I’m already seeing ecclesiological “futurists” declaring that livestream and “online campuses” are to be the norm for church going into the future, we need Leeman’s book more than ever before. It would behoove every pastor and ministry leader to read and wrestle with this book. The third chapter on catholicity in particular, whether you agree with Leeman’s arguments leading up to it, is very important.
1. Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by Dane Ortlund (Crossway)
What else could it have been? This book is exceptional and exquisite. No work ministered more to me in this crazy year than Dane’s painstaking and patient helping me stare at the comforting glory of Christ. It is above all the books I read this year the one I will keep coming back to for years to come. If you’ve read it, you know. If you haven’t, stop punishing yourself and give yourself the Christmas gift of this beautiful work.
I hope you won’t mind if I mention I published two books of my own in 2020—The Gospel According to Satan, a non-fiction work aimed at helping you understand the tempting deceptions at the root of some popular cliches both cultural and religious, and Echo Island, a Christian novel written with young adult readers in mind but with wider appeal for readers of all ages who appreciate the writing of C. S. Lewis and the kinds of mysterious tales you might find in The Twilight Zone or in Unexplained Mysteries.