Every December, I put out a list of what I consider to be the best books I have read during the previous year. I generally read over 100 books each year, and not surprisingly, the quality varies. As an aside, I would comment that I no longer feel guilty for setting a book aside that isn’t stirring me at the moment. Often, I will come back later and it will settle on me more strongly. For example, yesterday I finished reading Robert Bly’s Iron John, a book I had previously attempted on 3 occasions. People often will ask me for recommendations on what to read and these top ten lists are often a good place to start.
10) Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump by John Fea (2018)
Believe Me was written by John Fea, an evangelical and historian who writes on his blog about the “intersection of American history, religion, politics, and academic life.” Believe Me deals with Trump-era conservativism including several important issues to consider, such as evangelical politics of fear and what President Trump means by “great again.” Fea calls evangelicals to hope, humility, and history. Fea captures several reasons why I am in the 19 percent.
9) My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok (1972)
Written in 1972, Potok told the story of Asher Lev, a Hasidic Jewish boy living in New York City. His family is deeply immersed in the Jewish culture, not only locally, but nationally and internationally. His father works for the “Rebbe,” who is essentially the head of their order. Asher, however, appears to be an artistic genius from an early age. He is compelled to paint, even when discouraged from doing so. What makes this story so compelling is the way that Potok wrote of the tension between Father and Son, between their fundamentalism and Asher’s gifting. Though 46 years old, the book has lost none of its beauty.
8) Becoming Dallas Willard: The Formation of a Philosopher, Teacher, and Christ Follower by Gary Moon (2018)
I do not read a lot of biographies, but I was excited for this one. Dallas Willard, who died in 2013, is one of my spiritual heroes. Willard also had a deep impact upon the author, Gary Moon. Moon clearly did his research, introducing us to Willard as a young man and tracing his history up through his death. Willard came from meager roots, instilled with a strong work ethic; however, he was also gifted with a remarkable intellect. Moon commented that there are few geniuses, but he believes Willard was one. Willard became a Southern Baptist pastor, but ultimately became a tenured philosophy professor at USC. He stated that he had clearly heard God say that if he became a pastor, the universities would be closed to him, but if he entered the university, both the university and the church would be open. Some of my favorite books have been written by Willard, and Moon’s biography is a welcome addition.
7) Dignity Revolution: Reclaiming God’s Rich Vision for Humanity by Daniel Darling (2018)
I have been discouraged with how frequently we humans do not treat one another with dignity. It seems that in our social media culture, conversations are increasingly charged with sarcasm, name calling, and devaluing of others. I have frequently said that we have a tendency to treat people from other groups as less valuable. Darling wrote about these issues I have been thinking about with clarity, dignity, and courage. He tackles not just one, but many, pet issues that we hold dearly.
6) Stumbling Toward Wholeness: How the Love of God Changes Us by Andrew Bauman (2018)
I read a lot of books about wholeness. I believe that our sanctification is deeply, if not principally, a journey toward becoming whole. This year I read two other wonderful volumes about wholeness including Whole by Steve Wiens and Wholeheartedness by Chuck DeGroat, whose book was on my top 10 list in 2016. I also tried to read Wholeness and that Implicate Order by David Bohm, which was a challenge. Regardless, Bauman writes with honesty about what wholeness looks like. I laughed, I cried, I cheered…literally.
3) Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver (2017)
This is a stunning anthology of poems written by the incomparable Mary Oliver. A Pulitzer-prize winning poet, her works spans several decades and this might be the finest collection of her work. If you are reluctant to try poetry, this may be a wonderful place to start.
4) The Hidden Life: Awakened by Kitty Crenshaw and Catherine Snapp (2016)
The Hidden Life is another biography of sorts. It tells the story of Betty Skinner’s spiritual journey from dark night to wisdom. A woman now in her 90s, Betty was hospitalized for several months for depression when she was in her 40s. Her doctor had told her that she "had a hole in her soul." Slowly, she began to explore her own soul and her own needs, ultimately becoming a mentor to others. I actually read this book twice this year. I read an earlier version first in March. I contacted one of the authors and asked if the newer version, which was retitled, was the same book. She told me that a few sections—specifically about neuroscience—were added, but it was otherwise very similar. She then graciously sent me the new version, which I read two months later and liked just as well.
3) Everybody, Always: Becoming Love in a World Full of Setbacks and Difficult People by Bob Goff (2018)
In 2015, Love Does by Bob Goff was my favorite book. I told my friend Mark that if I ever wrote a book, Love Does was the kind of book I would hope to write. Everybody, Always is no different. Goff is a captivating, humorous writer. He lives life on the edge, taking risks, and doing great big things under the heading of “love.” I come away from his essays with renewed energy and a desire to love better.
2) Courage, Dear Heart: Letters to a Weary World by Rebecca Reynolds (2018)
One of my favorite places on the Interwebs is “the Rabbit Room Chinwag,” a community of nearly 2000 creatives who discuss things like beauty, goodness, and Gargan rockroaches. My first exposure to Reynolds was through the Rabbit Room, where she is a frequent fixture. She had written an essay for one volume of the Molehill, which is an anthology of poetry, stories, art, and recipes from a variety of Rabbit Room folks. I remember telling my wife how blown away I was by that essay and read section of it to her. When I heard she was writing a book, I couldn’t wait for its release. I don’t think I was alone. Shortly after it was published, many online sources—including Amazon—ran out of copies.
On Goodreads, I had this to say about Courage, Dear Heart: “I cannot speak highly enough about this book. Reynolds writes with intelligence, humility, and heart. She writes about the human condition not as an intellectual treatise, but as one who has seen it, who has lived it. She is a storyteller, through and through. I do not know which of the letters is my favorite, but I resonated deeply with several of them, perhaps a letter to the fearful, a letter to those living in chaos, or a letter to the disillusioned. I hope she doesn’t stop here; the world needs more storytellers like her.”
1) Schema of a Soul: What Kind of Love is Stronger than Death? by Kimberlye Berg (2013)
This book blew me away. I described it on my blog as one of the most beautiful books I had ever read. In it, Berg tells the story of the loss of her son, Michael, and the subsequent journey through the pain. In my review, I wrote, “It is a memoir. A eulogy. A love letter to her husband. A confession. A prayer. Poetic. Raw. Honest. Tragic. And beautiful all the same. She treasures words.” I cried half a dozen times. Schema is one of the best books I have read.
The Power of Vulnerability: Authenticity, Connection, and Courage by Brene Brown (2013)
Brene Brown is one of my favorite authors. If you are unfamiliar with Brown, she is a college social work professor who blew up the Internet with her 2010 TEDxHouston talk "The Power of Vulnerability," which according to the TED website is the 4th most popular TED talk ever given, now standing at more than 37 million views. She has written several great books, but listening to her is an even greater treat. The 6 hour, 30 minute audio brings together her work on shame, authenticity, courage, and connection. I've listened to it several times, and I have no doubt I will listen again.