The best books I read this year. (Keep in mind that not all of these were published in 2019—they were just the best books I read in 2019.)
In ascending order:
Not for the faint of heart, nor the impatient of mind. This meticulous investigation into the circumstances around the 1969 murders of actress Sharon Tate and six others by members of the Manson cult began as a short magazine article that ballooned into a decades-long inquiry into local and federal obfuscation of key facts. O’Neill’s treatment is obsessive and complex, but his conspiracy theories are not as outlandish as one might expect. The deeper he digs, the more evidence he unearths to reveal the moral chaos of this tumultuous period in American history.
The human enterprise in the 21st century will continue to be oriented around the pursuit of physical immortality—or at least the plausible illusion of it. Which is what makes books like this incisive biblical meditation on our unrelenting creatureliness so valuable. Like Solomon before him, McCullough brings the unavoidable end of us all into the spotlight of honesty and, through it, points to the every-living One who provides the only escape.
In an age of ever-increasing ministerial technology and “best practices” destined for the bargain bins of yesterday’s cutting edge-church resources, here is a refreshing entry into the lost art of “soul curing.” Senkbeil writes with wisdom and care, making constant connections between the biblical art of shepherding with the ancient pasture-work that runs in his family. A good corrective for Western evangelicalism.
Another great contribution from one of evangelicalism’s best modern historians, Kidd in this book provides a good bridge for wary Christians (in the United States, in particular) between where we’re going and how in the world we got here. If, like me, you’ve wondered about the historic roots of and contemporary developments in the present-day evangelical malaise, this book is a brilliant guide.
6. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (Penguin)
Perhaps the greatest “haunted house” story of all time, this classic work of gothic horror has inspired countless knock-offs and derivations. Contrasted with the garish quality of much modern horror, including works directly inspired by Jackson’s book, the scares in this story are subtle, nuanced even. The book builds more upon a growing sense of dread and ominous portent, as much a haunting character study as a ghost tale. Readers accustomed to modern tropes may find the book anticlimactic, but careful appraisal reveals a story that will continue to grow and haunt in the imagination long after the last page is turned.
5. J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life by Leland Ryken (Crossway)
I thoroughly enjoyed this creative biography of the last in a generation of Reformed evangelical giants. Ryken organizes the book more according to themes and vocations than strict chronology, and the effect is really “getting to know” the brilliant Packer in multiple dimensions. I was especially inspired and moved by the coverage of Packer’s authorial output throughout his career, which while slowed, is thankfully still ongoing.
4. Virgil Wander by Leif Enger (Grove)
Enger’s most recent novel (2018) is a masterful character study in which, once again, the setting becomes as vivid a figure in the story as anybody walking and talking. The plot is sparse (really until nearly the end) but the pleasures and pressures of place carry the narrative along with the fully conceived characterization. A book about the clash between nostalgia for the past and the burdensome mysteries of the future, as well as a host of other things in between, read this for Enger’s delectable prose and evocative sense of scene.
Take your biblical theology next level with this dense but daring foray into Christian Platonism, patristic retrieval, and Spiritual hermeneutics. Carter’s book is already subject of vigorous debates within academic circles, and whether you agree with all his theses or conclusions, if you’re interested in an evangelical understanding of the Bible that comports both with Christ-centeredness and also historic rootedness, you should find this work helpfully challenging, if not spiritually invigorating.
2. Sketches of the Life and Character of Lemuel Haynes by Timothy Mather Cooley (Negro Universities Press)
I first read this important book upon discovering a copy of the 1837 edition at an antiquarian books shop during my pastorate in Vermont. This year I more closely re-read a 1969 Negro Universities Press facsimile edition as part of my doctoral work. Haynes is likely the most significant figure in American religious history that most people have never heard of, and this versatile biography, written by a younger contemporary of Haynes’s and first published just a few years after his death, is one of only two(!) substantive biographies published on Haynes in the last 200 years. And it is a wonder of a work, covering Haynes’s childhood and theological upbringing, as well as a host of anecdotes and quotable quotes from his faithful ministry in colonial Vermont and New York. Reading this book more closely I came away with a renewed affection for this great American pastor—the first ordained black man in American history and the first black pastor of an all-white congregation—and feeling like I’d found a friend.
While the one extensive collection of Haynes’s writings is frustratingly difficult to find, there are numerous reprints of this biography that can found online and purchased at an affordable price. I highly recommend it.
This latest work from Smith is an incisive ethnography of the heart of Western Christianity and at the same time a stirring cartography of the individual human soul. I found the book both intellectually stimulating and also emotionally moving. The chapter on fathers is alone worth the price of the book, but the whole thing is a journey worth joining. I read it in one sitting and loved every mile. The best book I read this year (and it happened to be published this year).