Here is a selection of what I’ve been reading since the beginning of the new year.

Malcom Gladwell, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know (Little, Brown, 2019). I know Gladwell is a simplifier. He takes complex subjects and writes about them in ways that scholars probably find frustrating. But no one can tell a better (non-fiction) story than Gladwell. From spies in Cuba to terrorists in the Middle East, this book was fascinating from start to finish, and in the process Gladwell comes to a number of surprising conclusions. Note: I listened to the book on Audible, and it was masterfully done, more like a podcast than an audiobook.

James Clear, Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones (Avery, 2018). I’m a sucker for books on habits and productivity. If you keep in mind the genre—not a Christian book, so no understanding of the gospel or the Holy Spirit or heart change—this is an excellent book. Don’t let the title throw you off. Clear does not oversell his method, nor does he promise drastic life change in two weeks. But the book is a quick read (or listen) and will give you several good strategies for making small improvements right away.

Thomas R. Schreiner, Spiritual Gifts: What They Are and Why They Matter (B&H, 2018). This is an excellent primer on spiritual gifts from a cessastionist perspective. Shreiner is unrelentingly kind and fair in his analysis, especially when he disagrees with continuationists. There are more comprehensive books on the subject, but for an introductory volume this one is hard to beat.

Jonathan I. Griffiths, Preaching in the New Testament: An Exegetical and Biblical-Theological Study (Apollos, 2017). I’ve yet to be disappointed with Carson’s New Studies in Biblical Theology. This is one of the shorter ones in the series and one of the best ones too. The gist: “Preaching in the New Testament is a public declaration of God’s word by a commissioned agent that stands in a line of continuity with Old Testament prophetic ministry” (128-129). Griffiths argues, as I noted elsewhere, that there is such a thing as preaching, and not everyone does it.

Barry Hankins, Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservatives and American Culture (University of Alabama Press, 2002). Almost two decades old, Hankins readable analysis is still a helpful reflection on the conservative resurgence in the SBC in the last part of the 20h century. As the title suggests, central to Hankins’s thesis is the idea that SBC conservatives reasserted themselves due to a growing sense that they needed to be less parochial and more counter-cultural at the same time.

Stephen F. Knott, The Lost Soul of the American Presidency: The Decline into Demagoguery and the Prospects for Renewal (University Press of Kansas, 2019). Knott argues that James Madison and Alexander Hamilton envisioned a presidency—which George Washington fulfilled—that would be removed from the “passions” of the people and show little concerns for “the little arts of popularity.” Unfortunately, this vision of the American presidency began to lose its soul under Thomas Jefferson and unraveled under Andrew Jackson. Abraham Lincoln was (mostly) a return to the Hamiltonian vision, but the decline into demagoguery accelerated once again with Woodrow Wilson and has reached its apotheosis with Donald Trump. While Knott’s thesis is plausible, the second half of the book was not as strong as the first half. After dealing carefully with Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Jackson, more recent presidents are covered so quickly and lightly that it feels like almost any thesis could stick.

Gregg Hurwitz, Orphan X (Minotaur Books, 2016). And now for something completely different—a high-tech thriller where the good guy tries to help people in need. Evan Smoak is the Nowhere Man, taken as a boy and trained to be a secret agent with incomprehensible skills and abilities. You’ll need to skip a few sections (like I did) that get unnecessarily racy. But if you don’t mind rooting for an assassin (with a moral compass) you will enjoy Orphan X. A page-turner filled with surprises.