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.
Companies that restrict or limit employees’ ability to use social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter during work hours are understandably trying to reduce distraction that results in waste and inefficiency. As studies have shown, however, such policies turn out to be counterproductive, because workers who surf the Internet or use social media for reasonable amounts of time while at work are generally more productive and effective.
Now let me be honest: This is a finding which I’ve enthusiastically pounced on as a way of justifying my social media habits while at work. The fact is that there are still many days when I would be more productive if I spent less time on these sites and more time in focused, extended stretches of work. But this is something I’m conscious of and getting better at, so with that admission aside, I’d like to share below how Matt Perman puts this in his excellent and wonderfully practical book What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done (Zondervan, 2014). I especially like what he says about how having and using online networks can help workers in today’s “knowledge economy.”
“For self-motivated people, time spent on Facebook is actually productive. It is productive for building networks and spreading truth. Both of these build people up, and thus increase productive capacity.
“Research bears this out by showing that employees with extensive online networks (such as through Facebook, LinkedIn, and so forth) are actually more productive than those without them.
“Facebook and other online networks and interaction help us refine, spread, and gain ideas. These are three core competencies in the era of knowledge work” (249-250).
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.”