Here are my top five books of this year. All are excellent in their own way, but I’ve ordered them with the ones I consider the most widely helpful and applicable at the top.
5. Born Again by Charles Colson
Before he was “born again” by putting his faith in Christ, Charles Colson was Special Counsel to President Nixon and known as Nixon’s “hatchet man,” “incapable of humanitarian thoughts” and willing to do anything to get the job done. With the Watergate scandal, Colson fell from the summit of power to the depths of nationally-televised trials, a conviction, and seven months in prison. This experience showed him the emptiness of power, revealed his ugly pride, and opened his heart to a new and infinitely better boss: Jesus Christ. This candid, moving, and powerful autobiography takes the reader into the smoke-filled rooms where Nixon men schemed of ways to destroy their opponents, through the heady days of Watergate, and illustrates the power of the Gospel to transform one’s life in ways nobody thought possible.
4. Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics by Robert Benne
Don’t mind the ugly cover; this book is an excellently reasoned guide to thinking about politics from a Christian perspective. Benne rejects what he sees as two wrong ways to relate religion and politics: “separationism” and “fusionism.” The first would have Christians reject all political engagement, and the second fuses religion and politics in an unwarranted manner that ends up distorting both. He offers a better way: a helpful framework for discerning how the Christian faith informs political stances and involvement. This is a helpful read for those who are wary of the use of Christianity by politicians and political parties who are more interested in scoring political points than being faithful to the teachings of religion. It is also good that Benne does not say what positions Christians should hold on specific issues, though he does use a few, such as abortion, as examples for his framework.
3. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
In this book Stevenson, an attorney who runs a non-profit legal defense group in Montgomery, Alabama, shares how he went from a directionless Harvard Law student who didn’t connect with his studies to becoming a passionate defender of the poor and disadvantaged whose lives are being stolen, and for some, threatened by an electric chair, by a broken criminal justice system. The people Stevenson represents are typically poor, uneducated, and often with disabilities, many of whom don’t receive the attention and care necessary to address the struggles they face. Full of harrowing real-life stories, Just Mercy is eye-opening, infuriating, tragic, yet ultimately hopeful. And if you pick it up, make sure you keep some tissues with you.
2. What’s Best Next? How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done by Matt Perman
As those who know him say, there is probably no one who has thought more about the relationship between the Gospel and productivity than Matt, and I think this book proves it. He first lays out the theological basis for caring about productivity, arguing that real productivity is not just getting things done, but getting the right things done. Christians are called to be rich in “good works,” which means we should seek to be productive not only because this brings glory to God, but also because our good works and effectiveness in doing them blesses our family, friends, or co-workers. Beyond being theologically sharp, Matt is full of practical advice, showing through his example and that of others who’ve written on productivity and management how to create a “life vision,” set goals, plan out your week, process e-mail, and so much more. Want to start the new year with a bang? Do yourself a favor and get this book!
1. Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller
In his characteristically thoughtful way, Tim Keller, who is the pastor of a large church in Manhattan, tackles the subject of suffering and offers biblical counsel on how to “walk with God” through trials and suffering. He begins by showing how our modern culture fails to see the uses of suffering that many in ages past recognized, resulting in inadequate ways of dealing with suffering. Keller then looks at the various reasons for and types of suffering (if you’re in the middle of suffering and just really need a hug, skip the entire first half of this book), and then shows us how the Bible depicts suffering and offers examples, such as Job, of how we can respond to and redeem our suffering. The biblical answer, as he describes, is compelling, in that it tells us to not ignore or run away from our suffering, but to trust the God who knows our pain and walk through the suffering as we talk to God (prayer) and hold him by the hand.
I loved Tim Sanders’s Love is the Killer App (Three Rivers, 2002).
Though I haven’t read many books in business and marketing, this is a book that, though it deals heavily in these fields, transcends those genres: It’s a book which, at a fundamental level, can help you to grow as a person and then teach you how to help others grow as well. What Sanders calls a “lovecat” is essentially a nice, smart person who is generous with his knowledge and network and who is committed to the growth of others.
Sanders says you become a “lovecat” by attending to three things: 1) Knowledge, 2) Network, and 3) Compassion. By “knowledge,” he means you must read a lot, and books above all, so that you are at the top of your field and are equipped to share this knowledge with others. By “network,” he means that not only should you diligently cultivate a professional network, but you should then be diligent about helping people those in your network by sharing your knowledge with them and get busy connecting them with others who can help them. Finally, by “compassion,” he means something that is so simple but which we often neglect in at the workplace, and especially in the world business: Be human. This he defines well, I thought, as fundamentally “being committed to the growth of the other.”
This is one of my favorite things about Sanders’s book: Everything he commends is consistent with biblical principles, and primarily, as the title suggests, the biblical command to love. This is all about putting others first, seeking their good above your own, and then finding your own happiness and success because of that.
I loved how he puts it at the end of his book (meaning these pages are all kinds of dog-eared!):
“If you are a genuine lovecat, you show compassion for people because you like them. You tell others you are committed to their success because you want your contacts to be smarter, more informed, more capable. You arrange meetings between your contacts because you genuinely believe they will like each other, even if you gain nothing from the introduction… When there is no love, there should be no expression of love. Never fake it.”
“… Perhaps the greatest advantage of being compassionate is that… you help your bizmates grow, in both their outward success and their inner lives. And they sense your compassion, they start to develop in the most basic sense… In other words, we love people in order to help them grow in their own ability to love. We want them to enjoy the warmth of love and become more human… So when I engage in bizlove, I’m motivated by the impact it has on others, not just the attitude they will have about me (and whatever gain or popularity that affords me) I’m not a needy lover. I don’t hug you or tell you how much I care about you because I’m lonely. I say and do those things because I want you to experience the same humanity, freedom, and joy that I do. When lovecats help others do that, our job is done” (192-193).
Matt Perman’s new book What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done (Zondervan, 2014), which grew out of his excellent blog, is a must read not only for Christians (he skillfully takes a God-centered, gospel-driven approach to the subject of productivity) but for all who want to make the best use of their time to maximize their effectiveness and better serve others. I’ll write more posts on some of the helpful principles and tips Matt shares in his book, but for now, I wanted to share a fascinating excerpt from his interview with Bradley Blakeman, one of the schedulers of President George W. Bush, showing the value of having a routine that creates a basic framework while allowing flexibility. When Matt asked him how he did this job, Blakeman replied:
“What I tried to do is craft a schedule by which the president didn’t have to rely on a piece of paper – it became innate in his head. I said to myself, ‘How can I make the president comfortable so only pockets of time change every day?’
“So the president got a briefing at the same time every day – FBI at 7:00 am, for example. Then recurring meetings happened at the same time same day, such as the Secretary of State every Thursday at 10:00 a.m. There was also ‘use it or lose it’ time, meaning that if someone didn’t need a recurring meeting that week, they could give it back so it could be used for something else.
“Lunch was every day at the same time, and so was exercise. Thus, the president knew that only a few hours in the day changed, without even having to look at his schedule. The majority of his time he could therefore keep in his head, without relaying on paper. The result is that the president is involved in a routine that he gets used to, and the presidency then becomes more normal. We tried to make an abnormal experience a normal experience.”
Do you normally think of humor as an important quality for a leader to have? Before I read Al Mohler’s The Conviction to Lead: 25 Principles for Leadership That Matters (Bethany House, 2012), I didn’t. I thought of humor as something that might add to the character appeal or charisma of a leader, but not really as important, or even a virtue.
But consider what Dr. Mohler has to say about the way that humor can be used to serve and, by showing humility, build respect among those you serve as a leader:
“We are not called to be comedians or humorists, but the effective leader knows that generous, self-deprecating humor is a gift that leaders can give to the people they serve.
“Humor humanizes and warms the heart. Those who follow you know that you have weaknesses and foibles, so let them share in the humor you direct at yourself. Humor should never be used at another’s expense, but it can be used to make people feel at ease, to relieve tension, and even to affirm humanity. Humor must never be crude or disrespectful, but it can build respect.
“… Leaders know how to laugh with their team, with their people, with the public, and at themselves. Humor is a public admission that leaders are completely human, and that, in itself, is a virtue” (155-156).
NOTE: In this book, Dr. Mohler (President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) has some wonderful things to say about many topics, including reading and the use of social media for leaders. Stay tuned for posts on these!
Cicero’s On Old Age is ancient wisdom at its best. In it he answers the charges of younger men against old age, such as lack of physical activity and the loss of mental acuity and bodily pleasures, such as taste and sex. To each of these charges Cicero responds by arguing that much of the discomfort and failings of old age are due more to the bad habits of earlier years and personal character faults than to old age itself. Old age, he says, has much to offer to those seeking the improvement of their mind and the refining of their spirit. As the French essayist Montaigne said of the work, Cicero makes you look forward to old age.
Written about 40 years before the birth of Christ, this work also shows human wisdom’s limits as well as its glimmers of eternal wisdom. For example, Cicero’s affirms the immortality of the soul but is unable to imagine much else beyond death. As the last quote below shows, however, he seems to have understood that this life is a temporary stay on the way to our true home, much like the Christian concept of pilgrims on the way to our true and final home.
I encourage everyone, young and old, to treat themselves to this classic work. It’s only about 30 pages. But if you won’t get to it for a while because you have so much to read as it is, here’s a (completely free!) sampling:
“A person who lacks the means, within himself, to live a good and happy life will find any period of his existence wearisome.”
“[In old age] there is great satisfaction in the knowledge of a life well spent and the memory of many things well done.”
“The evils for which ignorant people blame old age are really their own faults and deficiencies.”
“Great deeds are not done by strength or speed or physique: they are the products of thought, and character, and judgement. And far from diminishing, such qualities actually increase with age.”
“At the very least we must concede age the capacity to teach and train young men and fit them for jobs of every kind; and no function could possibly be more honorable than that.”
“When its campaigns of sex, ambition, rivalry, quarreling, and all the other passions are ended, the human spirit returns to live within itself – and is well off. There is supreme satisfaction to be derived from an old age which has knowledge and learning to feed upon.”
“Old age must have its foundations well laid in early life.”
“Old people are also complained about as morose, and petulant, and ill-tempered, and hard to please…but these are faults of character, not of age…For the fact is that not every personality, any more than every wine, grows sour with age.”
“The particular harvest of old age, I repeat, is its abundant recollection of blessings acquired in earlier years.”
“Since death is an imminent possibility from hour to hour, you must not let the prospect frighten you, or you will be in a state of perpetual anxiety.”
“What nature gives us is a place to dwell in temporarily, not one to make our own. When I leave life, therefore, I shall feel as if I am leaving a hostel rather than a home.”
On reading Cicero’s On Old Age, the great French essayist Montaigne said, “He gives one an appetite for growing old.” And he really does, for it’s a delightful, wise, and surprisingly optimistic work. I first read this in a Georgetown class taught by the legendary and beloved Father Schall, whom I credit for introducing me to the “great books,” and I’m thrilled to share it with you now. Though this work deals with old age, it’s profitable for all people, young or old, who desire to acquire wisdom and live life well.
Written in 44 B.C., Cicero, a respected Roman statesman and master orator, answers charges against old age, beginning with: “old age takes us away from active work”:
He begins, “surely there are also occupations fitted for old men’s minds and brains even when their bodies are infirm” (219).
“So people who declare that there are no activities for old age are speaking beside the point. It is like saying that the pilot has nothing to do with sailing a ship because he leaves others to climb the masts and run along the gangways and work the pumps, while he himself sits quietly in the stern holding the rudder. He may not be doing what the younger men are doing, but his contribution is much more significant and valuable than theirs. Great deeds are not done by strength or speed or physique; they are the products of thought, and character, and judgment. And far from diminishing, such qualities actually increase with age” (220).
In showing us Lincoln at his lowest – in the darkest fits of gloom and depression – and at his best – telling humorous stories to guests, comforting others who are suffering, and achieving great political triumphs – Joshua Wolf Shenk gives us the picture of an integrated life.
He shows us that suffering, even in the form of mental illness, which Lincoln had, need not be the whole story. Indeed, it can be a crucial part of one’s personal growth and maturity into greatness. Lincoln never wished for affliction and surely he must have wished depression away many times during his life. But with the help of others as well as several coping mechanisms, such as reading poetry or telling jokes, he harnessed the monster of depression in a way that strengthened his character, his endurance, and allowed him to rise to the great historical challenges that confronted his presidency. I like how Shenk puts it in some of the last lines of Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (Mariner, 2006):
“The overarching lesson of Lincoln’s life is one of wholeness. Knowing that confidence, clarity, and joy are possible in life, it is easy to be impatient with fear, doubt, and sadness. If one desires to ‘stir up the world,’ it is easy to be impatient with work for the sake of work. Yet no story’s end can forsake its beginning and its middle. Perhaps in the inspiration of Lincoln’s end we can receive some fortitude and instruction about all that it took for him to get there…The hope is not that suffering will go away, for with Lincoln it did not ever go away. The hope is that suffering, plainly acknowledged and endured, can fit us for the surprising challenges that await” (215-216). (Emphasis mine.)