My Top Twelve Books for 2020

“When one has read a book, I think there is nothing so nice as discussing it with someone else.” So wrote a young C.S. Lewis to his friend Arthur Greeves in 1916.

That’s why I love reading all those year-end, “best books/reads of 2020” blogs that friends have written. So here’s mine; but rather than tell you every book I read, I will commend some of my favorite reads for this year.

BTW, I am not a super-fast reader. I aim to read about 100 books a year. And in case you are wondering, I did not make my goal this year, I hit 94! So, here are some of my reading highlights.

1. Holy Scripture       

Nothing, I repeat, nothing substitutes for a continuous, careful reading of Scripture, over and over again. This is the book of books, a divine meeting place, God’s written Word. As the translators of the King James Bible put it in 1611, it is “that inestimable treasure that excelleth all the riches of the earth.” As Thomas Cranmer said, God caused the holy Scriptures to be written for our learning. We must hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them again and again. Why? Jesus put it best when he said, “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

2. The Apocrypha      

The Apocrypha consists of a collection of 14-15 books written in the four centuries between the testaments (between 400 BC and 1AD), during the so-called “400 silent years.” They did not appear in the Hebrew Canon of Scripture and Protestants do not consider them to be Scripture, though Roman Catholics accept them as canonical. While Protestants do not consider them to have divine inspiration, they are useful for the history, wisdom, and the examples they give.

Historically they shed light on Second Temple Judaism, messianic expectations, the Hellenization crisis and the courageous Maccabean Revolt. Maccabees speaks of the savagery of Antiochus Epiphanes who prohibited Jewish religion, destroyed the Scriptures, and defiled the temple. It also tells of the battle to win back the temple and its rededication with the Feast of Lights (Hanukkah). The books of Esdras parallel events in Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah. Ecclesiasticus resembles the book of Proverbs. Sirach is also full of proverbs and has the famous discourse—“Let us now praise famous men.” Judith portrays another courageous Esther-like woman who heroically invades the enemy’s camp.

Read it not for your devotions, but as background to better understand your Bible and the time between the testaments.

3. J. I. Packer and Joel Scandrett, eds. To Be a Christian: An Anglian Catechism

Several new catechisms have been written in the last decade, (i.e. The New City Catechism). This new one is published for the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), but will benefit non-Anglicans as well. It was edited by Joel Scandrett and the late J. I. Packer, and claims to be “a catechism grounded in Christian truth for today’s increasingly post-modern world.” It reminds us that “much of the discipline of discipling has been abandoned in today’s churches.” So it offers “a more comprehensive catechetical tool for adult or near adult inquirers and for all Christians seeking deeper grounding in the full reality of Christian faith and life.” The book consists of 360 questions and answers that instruct believers in core beliefs and practices, with each answer including Scripture references. It is wisely laid out in four sections: 1) The Gospel—Beginning with Christ, 2) The Apostles’ Creed—Believing in Christ, 3) The Lord’s Prayer—Belonging to Christ, and 4) the Ten Commandments—Becoming like Christ. It also has a section on justification and sanctification, and various prayers for diverse occasions. I found it spiritually enriching.

4. James K. A. Smith, On the Road with St Augustine: A Real World Spirituality for Restless Hearts

This book was a delightful surprise. Originally, I thought, why read an interpretation of Augustine, when you can read Augustine (I am an Augustine fan)? But I was intrigued at James Smith’s presentation. I am fascinated by journey stories—Homer’s Odysseus, Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, Bilbo and Frodo, and of course, Augustine.

Smith gives us an account, not just of Augustine’s physical journey, but his joy-quest, driven by his unrelenting ambition to fill the vacuum of his soul. Smith capture’s the heart of Augustine’s historical journey. He does so while visiting key Augustine-related sites from Santa Monica to Milan and Rome. He also shows us how others have and still are interacting with Augustine, i.e. modern philosophers like Albert Camus and Martin Heidegger. Says Smith: Augustine is still our contemporary; he is not done speaking to us.

More importantly, this book looks through the lens of Augustine’s story to offer us a travelogue of the human heart. It not only shows us the timelessness of Augustine’s quest, but reminds us how our own culture glorifies life on the road, but never seems to find its way home. All the while Smith ties the whole story to Scripture and the God who still receives prodigals.

You know it is a good book when, while reading it, you find yourself thinking that you must give it to others, i.e. to friends who are still on the road searching. And so, this historical travelogue, is actually an evangelistic tool that could be quite useful today.

5. Richard Hannula, Trial and Triumph: Stories from Church History

As you can see, not all the books on my list are new. This is in part because, people who write lists like this have an infatuation with new books, and also because I have a lot of catching up to do on older books I have not yet gotten to.

The merits of Richard Hannula’s book are first of all that it is a collection of forty-six brief biographies of significant people in church history, i.e. part of the great cloud of witness, whom we should get to know because they are family. You should know something about Polycarp, Blandina, Augustine, Monica, Luther, The Two Margarets, Luther, Newton, Paton, Carmichael, many more.

But second, I have given this book away to many friends because Hannula tells a good story, and church history must be about passing on important family stories so they are not lost. I have read sections of this book at the dinner table to family, and at staff meetings at work. These stories will surprise, delight, and fortify the conviction of those who hear them.

6. R. Albert Mohler, The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture and the Church             

In his latest book, The Gathering Storm, Al Mohler looks at the cultural storm brewing and issues a sobering weather advisory to the church. This storm, (i.e. cultural revolution) not only demands a complete reordering of society and assaults our constitutional liberties, but seeks the muzzling of historic Christian witness. According to Dr. Mohler, this is no time for passivism, quietism or losing our grip on divine revelation and gospel hope. But it is a time for faithfulness, protest and engagement. If you like listening to his podcast, The Briefing, you will find this book goes deeper still.            

7. Mark David Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding: Separating Modern Myth from Historical Truth

We often hear the assertions that America’s founding fathers were all deists, that Jefferson and Madison desired to build a high wall of strict separation between church and state, that the founders believed that government should never encourage religion, that they advocated for religious liberty only because they were children of the Enlightenment, and that the Constitution is a godless document. Hall demonstrates that these claims are false. He argues persuasively that their ideas were profoundly influenced by Christian convictions and the Jewish-Christian tradition. America’s founders did not found an explicitly Christian nation, but they did draw from their Christian convictions to create a constitutional order that would benefit all Americans, and not just Christians. This is a very important book.

8. J. I. Packer and Mark Dever, In My place Condemned He Stood: Celebrating the Glory of the Atonement

Here is an older book I read before Easter on the importance of the cross. It not only reminds us that the cross is at the center of gospel proclamation, but that the cross is being attacked more than ever. There is an anti-redemptionism afoot which seeks to sideline or altogether deny the work of Christ as our redeemer and absolutely hates the idea of substitutionary atonement. Some of the attacks are quite vicious, i.e. claiming that the cross is violent, immoral and demonstrates cosmic child abuse. This book draws from both Packer’s early and later writings as he answers each charge and explains how the doctrine of the Trinity informs our view of the atonement. Jesus is no helpless victim or abused child, but is “very God of very God” who freely surrenders himself to the worst man can do in order give his life as a ransom for many and save sinners.

I try to read a book on the incarnation each Advent, and a book on the cross and resurrection during the season of Lent. This book, while not introductory, was very rewarding.

9. Harry Lewis, Excellence without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education

What is the purpose of a university? I often talk about CCU and say that our educational model consists of at least three pillars: competency, character and Christ-centered faith. Furthermore, I add that this was the original model in American and Western higher education. Sadly, our universities have drifted from this vision and the consequences of this loss are now showing everywhere. Enter Harry Lewis, a Harvard insider. He is straight-forward about the Christ-centered part of higher education being abandoned long ago. Here he makes the case that the character part has vanished as well. Worse still, this loss is now undermining the competency or excellence part, because Harvard pursues “excellence without a soul.” Or as he puts it, “In short, the universities have forgotten their larger educational role for college students.” The university is “soulless.” Harvard and our other great universities have “lost sight of the essential purpose of undergraduate education.” That is a great tragedy, and here is more evidence of higher education’s decline. Of course, it does not have to be this way! There is a better model that some universities still live by.

10. Virgil, The Aeneid, translated by Robert Fagles

I should have read this book long ago, since it is a Western classic. The Aeneid was to Rome what The Odyssey was to ancient Greece. It is a Latin epic poem written by Virgil in the last days of the Roman Republic and tells the legendary story of Aeneas, a Trojan, who travelled from falling Troy to Italy where he became the ancestor-founder of Rome. The Aeneid was written to give the Romans a great national epic and to legitimize Augustus’ reign. Virgil, who was the supreme poet of his age, thought he was living during the golden age of the Roman empire. He actually read parts of this book to Augustus. The Aeneid became a key textbook in both Roman and medieval education. Dante actually uses Virgil as a guide through the first two countries of the next world. Virgil has also been viewed as a pagan prophet. In one of his other writings, he prophecies of the birth of a son who will bring back the golden age of Earth. Many Christians took this to be a prophecy of the birth of Christ.

11. R. Albert Mohler, The Conviction to Lead: 25 Principles for Leadership that Matters

This was one of my re-reads this year. It’s a great leadership book set apart by its premise that in leadership, conviction matters. The leader is meant to be the chief believer of an organization. I’ve used this book for teaching a class on pastoral leadership at Reformed Theological Seminary. I currently recommend it to younger, up-and-coming leaders. It is immensely practical with suggestions about how to be a thought-leader in your organization or church.  

12. John M. Ellis, The Breakdown of Higher Education: How It Happened, The Damage it Does & What Can Be Done

John Ellis, an insider to the University of California system of higher education, (supposedly the best in the world), makes a devastating indictment as he documents the radicalization of campuses. A decades-long process of politicization has turned America’s once-great universities into a monoculture of authoritarian leftist orthodoxy. Consequently, he says, “Our universities are no longer devoted to the free exchange of ideas in pursuit of truth.”

Ellis has watched the deterioration of academia up close for the past fifty years. He has seen the composition of the faculty morph from mildly left-leaning to almost exclusively leftist. We have recently seen the fruit of this with student mobs, harassment campaigns, and denial of free speech on multiple campuses. The net effect of all this is that it has seriously undermined higher education, and in the process eroded public trust in our universities. “Far from teaching students how to think for themselves, many schools set out to make sure that those students never stray from campus groupthink.” This, says Ellis, is mis-education. Many universities behave like anti-universities. He adds, that “the radical campus is a fraud and a betrayal of everything that a university should be.” While Ellis’s own solutions come up short, his critique is devastating, and a reminder that ideas have consequences.

I hope that these insights deepen your own reading in the coming year, and entice you to pick up one of these volumes yourself. Happy New Year!

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