First off, my usual disclaimer and explanation.
This list is not meant to assess the thousands of good books published in 2021. There are plenty of worthy titles that I am not able to read (and lots I never hear of). This is simply a list of the books (Christian and non-Christian, but all non-fiction) that I thought were the best in the past year. “Best” doesn’t mean I agreed with everything in them; it means I found these books—all published in 2021 (or the very end of 2020)—a strong combination of thoughtful, useful, interesting, helpful, insightful, and challenging.
Instead of trying to rank the books 1-10 (always a somewhat arbitrary task), I’ll simply list them in alphabetical order by the author’s last name.
Special Note: in addition to the Top 10 list, I’ve included a number of other books I’ve enjoyed in the past year. Don’t miss all the bonus books mentioned at the end of the post! Now on to this year’s list.
Erika Bachiochi, The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision (University of Notre Dame)
I admit, I’ve never thought of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) as a possible source of conservative wisdom, but Bachiochi brilliantly employs Wollstonecraft’s 18th century feminist vision as a counterpoint to the moral bankruptcy that characterizes too much of contemporary feminism. At the heart of Bachiochi’s prescription is the contention that the best feminism is pro-woman, pro-family, and pro-children. She also insists, along with Wollstonecraft, that male infidelity is, in many ways, the problem to be remedied, and certainly not a lifestyle for the “liberated” woman to imitate.
Katy Faust and Stacy Manning, Them Before Us: Why We Need a Global Children’s Rights Movement (Post Hill)
Speaking of family and children, Faust and Manning argue forcefully that if we really want to put children first (“them before us”), we must be honest about how the sexual revolution, new reproductive technologies, and new familial arrangements are undeniably harmful to the most vulnerable among us. This book is a good one-stop guide to much of the latest sociological and biological research on marriage, family, and human flourishing.
Bruce Gordon and Carl Trueman, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Calvin and Calvinism (Oxford)
Gordon and Trueman are to be commended for commissioning an outstanding collection of chapters, written by outstanding scholars and covering a wide array of topics. With chapters on standard and excellent topics like Knox and Calvin, Calvinism in Germany, and Calvin among the Puritans, as well as “newer” topics covering the influence of Calvinism in places like China, Brazil, and Ghana, everyone interested in Calvinism should be interested in this book. The last chapter on “The New Calvinism” is a fair and evenhanded summary of the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement. This hefty volume is a terrific resource for pastors, scholars, and students.
Crawford Gribben, Survival and Resistance in Evangelical America: Christian Reconstruction in the Pacific Northwest (Oxford)
I’ve recommended this book many times in the last several months. If you want to see what fair-minded, contemporary historical research looks like (as opposed to advocacy historiography), this is a great example. With an even-handed approach, Gribben explores the growth of the Christian Reconstruction movement in places like Moscow, Idaho. What is Doug Wilson up to? This book tries to answer that question, without telling you whether the project is good or bad or something in between.
David Haines, Natural Theology: A Biblical and Historical Introduction and Defense (Davenant Press)
No doubt, we are seeing in our day a renewed appreciation among Protestants for natural theology. This is a good thing, and Haines shows us why. With an emphasis on the Greeks and the Romans and the first centuries of the church, Haines makes the convincing case that natural theology has been around a long time, is taught in the Bible, and has been the default position in the Western Church (Catholic and Protestant) until the last century.
Allen C. Guelzo, Robert E. Lee: A Life (Knopf)
Guelzo is one of the finest living historians. His research is impeccable, his prose memorable, and his insights provocative. All Guelzo’s learning and lucidity are on display in this magisterial biography. Oh, and he gives a great podcast interview.
John W. Kleinig, Wonderfully Made: A Protestant Theology of the Body (Lexham Press)
Being Reformed, I didn’t agree with every jot and tittle of Kleinig’s theology. But overall, it was a refreshing, positive, unflinching exploration of what Christians ought to believe, and should be teaching, in these crazy times. We need as many good Christian books about the body as we can get. This was a very good one.
Stephen Nichols, R.C. Sproul: A Life (Crossway)
This book was a pleasure to read. I think I devoured it in two sittings. Nichols has a flair for biographical writing, and Sproul makes a great subject for biographical history. I knew much of the broad outline of R.C.’s life, but I learned a lot I didn’t know. Anyone who has benefited from a Sproul book or lecture or sermon will enjoy this book.
Gary L. Steward, Justifying Revolution: The American Clergy’s Argument for Public Resistance 1750-1776 (Oxford)
Not everyone is into revised doctoral dissertations, but this one was particularly interesting. Did pastors support the American Revolution because they had become Republicans more than Christians and had drunk too deeply of Enlightenment wells? Or were they drawing upon an older Reformed tradition in resisting British tyranny? Steward makes a good case for the latter.
Scott Yenor, The Recovery of Family Life: Exposing the Limits of Modern Ideologies (Baylor)
Do we need another book aimed at undermining the sexual revolution? Given the way the revolution continues to roll on and roll over everything in its way, the answer, Yenor argues, is yes. This is a bracing analysis of how incoherent our modern assumptions have become and how the family suffers as a result.
And now for more books! This isn’t everything I’ve read in the past year, but here are a few dozen other books I read in 2021. You may want to check out some of these titles (even if I don’t agree with everything in every book).
Five of my favorite (non-2021) books:
David Calhoun, Princeton Seminary, Volumes 1 and 2 (Banner of Truth, 1994, 1996)
Wilfred McClay, Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story (Encounter, 2019)
Te-Li Lau, Defending Shame: Its Formative Power in Paul’s Letters (Baker Academic, 2020)
Andrew Roberts, Churchill: Walking with Destiny (Viking, 2018)
James S. Stewart, Heralds of God: A Practical Book on Preaching (Regent, 2001)
Books from 2021 that I just started and look forward to reading more:
H.W. Brands, Our First Civil War: Patriots and Loyalists in the American Revolution (Doubleday)
Jay Cost, James Madison: America’s First Politician (Basic Books)
Benjamin M. Friedman, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (Knopf)
Jonathan Gibson, Be Thou My Vision: A Liturgy for Daily Worship (Crossway)
Arthur Herman, The Viking Heart: How Scandinavians Conquered the World (Mariner Books)
Books on productivity and time management:
Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day (Currency, 2018)
Cal Newport, A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload (Penguin, 2021)
Greg McKeown, Effortless: Make it Easier to Do What Matters (Currency, 2021)
Oliver Burkman, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2021)
Jordan Raynor, Redeeming Your Time: 7 Biblical Principles for Being Purposeful, Present and Wildly Productive (Waterbrook, 2021)
Books on politics and economics and social issues:
Russell Kirk, Concise Guide to Conservatism (Regnery, 2019)
Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, 7th rev. ed. (Gateway, 2019)
William Julius Wilson, More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City (Norton)
Glenn S. Sunshine, Slaying Leviathan (Canon Press, 2021)
Thaddeus Williams, Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth (Zondervan, 2020)
James R. Otteson, Seven Deadly Economic Sins (Cambridge, 2021)
Wilfred Reilly, Taboo: Ten Facts You Can’t Talk About (Regnery, 2020).
Leonard Sax, Why Gender Matters, 2nd Ed (Harmony, 2017);
Books on history and historical figures:
Danny E. Olinger, Geerhardus Vos: Reformed Biblical Theologian, Confessional Presbyterian (Reformed Forum, 2018)
Iain Murray, “The Life of John Murray” in Collected Writings of John Murray, Volume 3 (Banner of Truth, 1982)
Edward H. Bonekemper III, The Myth of the Lost Cause (Regnery History, 2015)
Lucas E. Morel, Lincoln and the American Founding (SIU Press, 2020)
Allen C. Guelzo, Redeeming the Great Emancipator (Harvard, 2016)
Jason Riley, Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell (Basic Books, 2021)
Steven Ozment, Ancestors: The Loving Family in Old Europe (Harvard, 2001)
Steven Ozment, When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe (Harvard, 1983)
H.W. Brands, The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom (Doubleday, 2020)
Ritchie Robertson, The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness 1680-1790 (Harper, 2021).
Books on theology:
Donald Macleod, Christ Crucified: Understanding the Atonement (IVP Academic, 2014)
Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ (IVP, 1998)
Donald Macleod, Therefore the Truth I Speak: Scottish Theology 1500-1700 (Mentor, 2020)
Michael J. Kruger, Surviving Religion 101: Letters to a Christian Student on Keeping the Faith in College (Crossway, 2021)
James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification (Banner of Truth, 2016)
Stephen J. Grabill, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics (Eerdmans, 2006)
Michael Allen and Scott Swain, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Reformed Theology (OUP, 2020)
David Fergusson and Mark W. Elliott, The History of Scottish Theology, 3 Volumes (OUP, 2019)
Doug Moo, The Theology of Paul and His Letters (Zondervan Academic, 2021)
G.K. Chesteron, The Everlasting Man (Ignatius, 1925)