I always wait to the last minute to post my annual list, so I know I’ve missed the big wave of the last couple of weeks. In any event, here is my list presented with appropriate fanfare. The best books I read this year. (Keep in mind that not all of these were published in 2017—they were just the best books I read in 2017.)
In ascending order:
10. The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America by Frances Fitzgerald I had mixed feelings about this book when I read it late spring, but its significance has grown on me. The first half is a really great book. The second half bogs down, not so much due to Fitzgerald’s writing, but because of the historical narrative shift of evangelicalism as revivalistic and culturally responsive movement to evangelicalism as political reactionary and morally compromised movement. The second half history is largely about the machinations of the Republican Party from 1970s onward, which for a book written about “The Evangelicals,” tells you quite a bit. Beginning to end, however, the book is meticulously researched and nearly exhaustive in details. It could have used a better editor, however, not simply to pare down the length, but also to catch recurring errors —eg. 1. repeatedly referring to the premillennialist belief in “The Tribulations,” when nearly all spokespeople call it “The Tribulation” singular; 2. constantly re-introducing figures, like referring to Rick Warren as megachurch pastor and bestelling author of The Purpose-Driven Life numerous times within a few pages (You already told us who he was!); and 3. simple textual errors like typos that I’m sure the sheer bulk created more opportunity for. At one point Gregory Boyd is referred to as “Gerald Boyd” within a page of his name being listed correctly. Despite the sloppy editing, it is a weighty book and a good outsider’s panoramic look at how we got where we are today.
9. Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel by Ray Ortlund I actually can’t think of anybody better to have written this. What this book lacks in length, it makes up for in profundity and depth. The gospel shape of and implications for the marriage union are laid out clearly and with affection. The field of Christian marriage books grows exponentially every year with a new slew of entries—this one rises to the top. Skip the cutesy reheated therapy-speak from the latest evangelical social media personalities and read this from one of our wisest and most weathered shepherds.
8. Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality by Wesley Hill One of the most personally helpful books I’ve read in a long time. Even if this struggle is not your struggle, Hill patiently and pastorally shows how it kinda is. Huge implications in this little book for anyone who longs, feels lonely, and wants to know how any of this fits into the big picture of sanctification. It’s also a helpful window into the world of Christians with SSA that most straight evangelicals don’t get. But don’t just read it that way. Read it personally and apply it to your affections for God. (Note: I have not read the 2016 expanded version, which is linked here.)
7. Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry Slow down. Listen to the dialogue. Hear the wind through the grass, the mooing of the cows, the bubbling of the streams. Laugh at the old coots in the barber shop. Try to stay awake in church. No book I read this year feels as lived and lived-in as this one.
6. Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor Southern Gothic with a heavy dose of theological medicine. O’Connor’s absurdist portrait of irredeemable men and women pawing at the prospect of redemption like cats might a mouse is mesmerizing, frustrating, and perplexing. It’s also one of the best narrative depictions of the sickness of sin—not just what we do, but who we are—that I’ve ever read. Come for the weirdness, stay for the subtle insights into the human condition apart from God against the humid backdrop of the Christ-haunted south.
5. Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat Douthat’s scathing portrait of religious America does not go as far back as Fitzgerald’s The Evangelicals in tracing the roots of our modern evangelical malaise, but his landscape is still bigger (to include “conservative Christian” religionists) and his insights more accurate. As I read this book, I kept thinking of people I wished would read it. If you have trouble sorting out how we got here—where moralistic therapeutic deism, the prosperity gospel, and nationalism are the holy trinity of evangelicalism—Douthat’s book is a sherpa up the thin-aired mountain. Important.
4. Chronicles, Vol. 1 by Bob Dylan Autobiography as fever dream. I don’t even know how much is true, but it certainly sounds true. Dazzling prose, mesmerizing reflections. Dylan is able to infuse even the most ostensibly mundane memories with a sense of wonder and meaning. My favorite parts are when he recollects thoughts and feelings about other musical contemporaries—everyone from Ricky Nelson to Tiny Tim, from Woody Guthrie to Bono. I don’t know if there will be a Volume 2, but I will read it.
3. Free at Last?: The Gospel in the African American Experience by Carl Ellis A must-read for our divisive and divided times, especially for pastors, ministry leaders, or really any Christian interested in listening well to the African-American experience and in understanding the necessary gospel implication of racial justice. Let Dr. Ellis be your teacher. You will learn a lot.
2. All Loves Excelling by John Bunyan I know I’m pressing the boundaries of the Top Books of 2017 pretty hard with this 17th-century classic of Puritan literature, but it helped me tremendously this year. A sublime taste: “He that would know the love of Christ in several degrees of it, must begin at his person, for in him dwells all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Nay, more; in him ‘are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ (Col. 2:3). In him, that is, in his person: For, for the godhead of Christ, and our nature to be united in one person, is the highest mystery, and the first appearance of the love of Christ by himself, to the world (1 Tim. 3:16). Here I say, lie hid the treasures of wisdom, and here, to the world, springs forth the riches of his love.”
1. The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge I’m not sure I’ve read a (modern) book so simultaneously intellectual and devotional in a long, long time. A masterful and exhaustive treatment of the doctrine of substitution and its entailments (and controversies and historical roots and ecclesiological implications), I was stirred and edified by Rutledge’s book and read the whole shebang in about three days. Couldn’t put it down. For a fuller examination, read Andrew Wilson’s excellent TGC review; I share both his appreciations and his critiques. The “redemption” of Anselm is helpful. The willingness to critique her own mainline tribe is appreciated. Her defense of wrath, blood guilt, the preach-ability of the biblical gospel, and so on is all so refreshing and relevant to our current theological situation. My quibbles began about halfway through and accumulated in dribbles thenceforth—dribbles of quibbles!—but what is great in this book is more than worth the investment. It took Rutledge 20 years to write, and it shows. Hands down, the best book I read this year.
Honorable Mentions: Weakness Is the Way by J. I. Packer The Rise of Evangelicalism by Mark Noll Reading the Bible Supernaturally by John Piper Theologies of the American Revivalists by Robert Caldwell The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher – Listen to Owen Strachan and me discuss this book on the FTC podcast.