The best books I read this year. As every year, please keep in mind that not all of these were published in 2021—they were just the best books I read in 2021. And like last year, I am not including re-reads.
In ascending order . . .
Honorable Mentions: Truth on Fire by Adam Ramsey, Servants for His Glory by Miguel Nuñez, Justification Vindicated by Robert Traill, and Overstated: A Coast-to-Coast Roast of the 50 States by Colin Quinn.
10. Belichick and Brady: Two Men, the Patriots, and How They Revolutionized Football by Michael Holley
Was it Brady? Was it Belichick? [little girl meme:] Why not both?
This meticulous chronicle of the rise of the middling New England Patriots into perhaps the NFL’s most versatile legacy team is a fine meal for those who want to see how the sausage was made. I picked it up expecting it to be more biographical of the coach and quarterback and found instead a detailed account of the whole team’s ups and downs game by game, season by season in the Brady/Belichick era. Great for fans of the Patriots or just fans of football.
9. The Cold Vanish: Seeking the Missing in North America’s Wildlands by John Billman
My interest in both true crime and mysterious disappearance stories drew me to this book, which is more the latter the former. It’s a riveting and chilling survey of a sampling of the mind-boggling number of people who simply disappear in American forests and wildernesses. Some stories are told in short fashion, while Billman also follows a couple of stories over the length of the book, recounting the desperate searchings by families, friends, and law enforcement. If you want to be spooked about the great outdoors, this is your book. I found it a fascinating reminder of how small we really are.
8. The God of the Garden: Thoughts on Creation, Culture, and the Kingdom by Andrew Peterson
Led by the subtitle, I went into this book expecting more reflections on art and artistry, along the lines of Peterson’s excellent Adorning the Dark. Instead it’s more of a memoir-slash-book about trees. Yes, you read that right. Once I adjusted, I found it a really moving read — personal, honest, and poetic. Quite touching, if this is your kind of thing.
7. The Challenge of Preaching by John Stott
This slender volume is actually a distillation of Stott’s work in his “big” preaching book Between Two Worlds. More on the philosophy of preaching than the practicalities, I still found it chock-full of important takeaways. Stott has a rare knack for applying timeless truths to the pressing needs of the day.
6. 11/22/63 by Stephen King
A writer finds a time portal in a diner and decides the best thing to do is go back and stop the assassination of JFK. From that nifty premise comes an epic book dealing with questions of love, ethics, and the nature of time and space itself. Some parts lag, but the story just kept me plugging along. And while the ending was not exactly what I expected, it was still satisfying in its own right. One of later King’s better works.
5. True Spirituality: How to Live for Jesus Moment by Moment by Francis Schaeffer
I’ve actually had this book for a long time, and I can’t believe I’d never read it until this year. Written with Schaeffer’s signature insight, True Spirituality serves as an excellent primer to the Christian life, a kind of “basics for believers” that goes deeper (but not academically so) than the average introductory text. A really refreshing read.
4. Why God Makes Sense in a World That Doesn’t: The Beauty of Christian Theism by Gavin Ortlund
I guess it wouldn’t be a top ten list without an Ortlund entry! This time it’s another excellent work from Gavin, who also made last year’s list. Why God Makes Sense is a bit like Tim Keller’s Reason for God but for your even more academic-minded and intellectual atheist/agnostic friends. If I were ranking recommendations based on “level of intellect,” Gavin’s would be top, Keller’s middle, and my (of course) Unparalleled third. The former two are really about the case for Christian theism against atheism/naturalism while mine is more about the case for Christianity among comparative religions, but all three would fall into the genre of “spiritual apologetics,” employing logic, history, and the expected apologetic reasonings but really specializing in the transcendent *beauty* of Christianity, alongside its intellectual coherence. Gavin Ortlund has written a book here that I think should serve the church well for decades and decades to come. Fantastic.
3. The Pastor as Counselor: The Call for Soul Care by David Powlison
This little monograph, published posthumously this year by Crossway, is a thoroughly rewarding reflection on the utter necessity of pastoral ministry for real human flourishing and the vital truth of the supernaturality of Christianity. Powlison’s work served to remind me again of the uniqueness of pastoral care and, through these reminders, actually refreshed me with the grace of Christ in a surprising way.
2. Holier Than Thou: How God’s Holiness Helps Us Trust Him by Jackie Hill Perry
The best new release I read in 2021 was the best Christian book I read all year and thus my pick for the 2021 For the Church Book Awards. Perry’s book is just a thoughtful, wonderful staring at the glory of God. What could be better? As the pursuit of personal holiness comes not primarily through behaving but beholding, I relished page after page of her combining classical theism with poetic language. Holier Than Thou would make an excellent use of any Christian’s time, especially in a day of casual flippancy (even in the church) about God.
1. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
I read Of Mice and Men in junior high school and then didn’t pick up another Steinbeck book for thirty-some years. So I’m a latecomer to appreciate his mastery of setting, pacing, and especially characterization. This is my first time through this masterpiece, a Nobel Prize for Literature winner which follows the epic saga of the Trask and Hamilton families in the Salinas Valley of California across multiple decades in the early 20th century. But Eden is really a recasting, a transplanting of that Genesis saga across time and space to the hard soils of the American west coast and the American heart. The best book I’ve read this year.
If I may, I’d also like to point you to two books I had published this year: Gospel-Driven Ministry, my almost-everything-I-know introduction to pastoring, and Love Me Anyway, which I wrote for anybody who’s ever laid awake at night, staring at the ceiling, wondering if God cares.