The best books I read this year. (Keep in mind that not all of these were published in 2018 —they were just the best books I read in 2018.)
In ascending order:
Some Honorable Mentions:
Some Pastors and Teachers by Sinclair Ferguson, The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston, Harry Potter books 1 and 2, Retrieving Eternal Generation edited by Fred Sanders, Gilead by Marilyn Robinson, Can We Trust the Gospels? by Peter Williams, The Life and Diary of David Brainerd, On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior, Justification by James Buchanan, and So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures by Maureen Corrigan
10. Movie Nights with the Reagans: A Memoir by Mark Weinberg
From one of Reagan’s communications officers and a close friend of both President and Mrs. Reagan, this book uses different movies screened weekly by the President during his tenure—mostly at Camp David but also at the White House—as launching points to coverage of the presidency and also private moments with the Reagan family. As a child of the Reagan era weened on many of the ’80s films covered—Back to the Future, Red Dawn, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ghostbusters, and so on—I really liked the pop culture lens. My favorite chapters were on E.T., mainly because Steinberg spends a fair amount of time sensitively outlining the significance of that film, and on Rocky IV, which apparently had some internal and informal influence on Cold War relations. The book also covers some movies Reagan himself starred in (Bedtime for Bonzo, Knute Rockne: All American), including the one where he and Mrs. Reagan (then Nancy Davis) played loved interests—Hellcats of the Navy. The chapters I enjoyed the most had clear connections between the movie and the Reagans’ reactions, as well as Steinberg’s personal friendship with both. The ones I liked least, the movies covered felt more like a pretense to talk about things unconnected. I especially appreciated, surprisingly so, the insider’s perspective on the private lives of the Reagans and their personalities. A good read for fans of either the Reagan presidency or ’80s films (as cultural artifacts)—or both.
9. Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock by Gregory Thornbury
A fantastic inquiry into a complex figure. Larry Norman is perhaps the father of “Christian rock,” but he’s a lot more than that. He is really evangelicalism’s Bob Dylan—rabblerouser poet, honorary questioner of traditionalism while still a traditionalist—but unlike Dylan, he’s woefully unknown to contemporary audiences. As a Gen-Xer who came to appreciate Norman’s work after his prime but during the prime of most of his first-generation mentees (77’s/Mike Roe, Daniel Amos, Lost Dogs, and so on), I ate it up. Read it in nearly one sitting.
8. Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump by John Fea
I’ve struggled to understand for three years now the (white) evangelical turnabout—or apparent turnabout, I suppose—on matters of character, ethics, and witness in relation to the overwhelming and full-throated support by so many for now-President Donald Trump. As a child of the ’80s I recall how adamantly it was ground into us that “character matters,” that principle trumps party (pardon the pun). Well, Fea’s book is an accessible, thoughtful, and deft analysis of the deep, deep roots of nationalism, racism, and misunderstandings both exegetical and also historical that have plagued American evangelicalism from the beginning. If you have trouble making sense of how we got here, this book—mostly an American history lesson from a solid (conservative) scholar and partly a journalistic expose of the Trump campaign to election success—will help. As it comes from an evangelical, it’s an insider’s perspective on why so many of us insiders feel like outsiders at the moment. Not exhaustive; not airtight. But a good pointer in the right directions for diagnosis. (It is to some extent also a shorter and more specific version of what one might find in the recent book on The Evangelicals from Frances Fitzgerald.) Recommended, although know that Fea is not afraid to criticize (without rancor) some figures close to home.
7. God’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America by Larry Eskridge
Superb. Meticulously researched, exhaustively reported, and deeply insightful. Also incredibly and increasingly relevant to understanding modern evangelical history. Perhaps not for the reader with a casual interest in the Jesus People Movement—it is long and stuffed with anecdotal minutiae—the reader with real interest will probably find no better treatment of the subject. I loved it.
6. Evangelical History in Australia: Spirit, Word, and World by Stuart Piggin
Piggin’s depth of research provides simultaneously a broad(ish) overview of evangelical history in Australia yet still proves surprisingly and pleasingly thorough. I particularly enjoyed Piggin’s recounting of the early planting of Christian movements in the country and the later crusades of Billy Graham and their effect.
5. Apologetics at the Cross: An Introduction for Christian Witness by Joshua Chatraw and Mark Allen
I was struck by how comprehensive and yet accessible this new reference work on apologetics proves to be. This book is a masterful synthesis of where the church and world have been in worldview and mission and a reliable map for evangelistically navigating our secular age. Not your average reference book; sure to be a trusted and well-consulted resource for years to come.
4. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
Believe the hype, because it’s not hype. All the praise is this book’s (and its author’s) marvelous due. Ostensibly about a mid-20th century Midwestern family’s search for a fugitive son, Enger’s novel is a sublime and patient meditation on family, faith, and justice. Sterling prose, poetic pacing, and rife with spiritual meaning. Really quite an astounding book.
3. Black Preacher to White America: The Collected Writings of Lemuel Haynes, 1774-1833 by Lemuel Haynes
I first became interested in Haynes’s historical and theological impact while ministering in Vermont, near where Haynes pastored (Rutland, Vermont, and also Granville, New York). I have been trying to track down as much on him as I can ever since. This particular volume is incredibly valuable—and incredibly rare. I had to interlibrary loan the version I read, because copies are hard to find and expensive to buy. I do hope somebody will publish a new edition of Haynes’s sermons at some point. They are in the public domain, so far as I know. This volume of his collected writings is a great window into history and a treasure trove of doctrinal wisdom preached pastorally and prophetically. And speaking personally, a few selections in this volume ministered quite profoundly to my soul.
2. Dying Thoughts by Richard Baxter
Few are better at soul-surgery and gospel application to the wounds than Baxter. This book, a meditation on his own fears and doubts and a theological appraisal of them, was a valuable devotional read for me this year, even as I finished my slow, two-year re-read of Augustine’s Confessions. A nice complement.
1. Communion with the Triune God by John Owen
Not for the faint of heart, but also very much for the faint of heart. I read this classic work of devotional theology over numerous lunch breaks spanning a couple of months. I especially profited from the latter part focusing on the Holy Spirit.