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.
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
– Micah 6:8
Before the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Gardner and the national controversy that ensued, I neither gave much thought to nor was I concerned about the state of our criminal justice system, much less about how the color of one’s skin makes it more likely that a person will fall into this system and be wronged by it. Then Thabiti Anywabwile, one of the pastors at my church, wrote a poignant blog post on his greatest fear about coming back to the States after pastoring a church in the Cayman Islands: That this country would “destroy” his young black son. This post and others he wrote stirred many in our mostly white church to think about how as Christians we should respond to issues of race and injustice, and to seek to understand the fears and struggles borne by many of our black brothers and sisters in the faith. These conversations suggested I give more serious thought to these issues, and then, as we were driving one day, my wife and I had a conversation about statistics she’d read showing how blacks and other minorities disproportionately fall victim to the uneven enforcement of harsh laws that have the power to ruin lives. As we talked, I decided that we should read a book to understand these issues better. Because I had heard of it recently, I first thought of Michelle Alexander’s well-reviewed The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, but before I settled on this choice I came across (on Twitter, so you see, it can be useful!) Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel & Grau, 2014), a deeply personal and richly told story by a young lawyer who champions the cause of the condemned. I’m only forty pages into it, and already it’s a terrific read that has educated, challenged, and unsettled me about an issue that deserves more attention, especially from those of us who know a just and merciful God who commands us to fight for the rights of the poor and the oppressed.
Below is a brief but powerful and challenging excerpt:
“My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice…I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.
“We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer I get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and – perhaps – we all need some measure of unmerited grace” (18).