It’s that time of year again – time for me to look through my reading log for 2015 and pick the ten books I most enjoyed reading!
A number of other writers do “end of year” lists of the best books released in a given year. I don’t feel adequate to that task, since there’s no way I could possibly read and review even a sliver of the great books released each year. Instead, I have selected the ten books that I most enjoyed (and an honorable mention.) Put these on your wish list and maybe this Christmas you’ll enjoy them too.
If you are interested, you can check out the books I’ve selected in previous years (2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006) as well as my Hubworthy page of “Essential” recommendations.
#1. FAITH SPEAKING UNDERSTANDING
Performing the Drama of Doctrine
by Kevin Vanhoozer
I assumed this book would be just a popular level version of Vanhoozer’s massive Drama of Doctrine. I was wrong. Vanhoozer builds upon and goes beyond his earlier work in ways that help us see what it means to be “in Christ.” No book better demonstrates how the drama of everyday life is shaped by doctrine, and no author is better at presenting the reality of discipleship with fresh and engaging metaphors that increase your understanding and joy in following Jesus.
#2. DIVINE SEX
A Compelling Vision for Christian Relationships in a Hyper-Sexualized Age
Jonathan Grant, an Anglican leader in New Zealand, goes beyond debates over gay marriage or homosexuality to the bigger picture of sexuality, marriage, singleness, and how these fit together according to our culture, in contrast to how the Church is to put these things together within the framework of a biblical worldview. If you want to understand the plausibility and power of the Sexual Revolution in our culture today, start here. Grant offers us the foundational pieces of the puzzle that help us understand our context and how we can be faithful in it. Really, get this book and read it twice.
#3. SAINT FRANCIS OF ASSISI
G. K. Chesterton
This is the only book that I read twice this year – first on Kindle and then in paperback. Don’t go to Chesterton if you’re looking for an exhaustive and accurate account of Francis’ life story. Go to this book for insight into the appeal of Francis, the beauty of God, the love of God’s world, and the discovery of joy in being utterly dependent upon Christ. The chapter “Jongleurs de Dieu” (The Jugglers of God) itself is worth the price of the book.
#4. THE WITCHES
How did widespread panic descend upon Salem in 1692, leading to confusion, accusation, and the execution of devout Christians as if they were witches? Stacy Schiff offers a riveting account of the trials in New England at the dawn of the American experiment. Schiff certainly knows how to cast a spell on her reader; she is an expert at painting scenes and crafting sentences. Some of her biases as an historian surface, but on the whole, she is sympathetic to her cast of characters. This book drops you into the supernatural world of religious villagers seeking to survive their stark and dangerous surroundings. You won’t get all your questions about Salem answered, but you’ll understand something more of human nature and how even the most passionate and devoted Christians can be both perpetrators and victims of fear.
Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism
Don’t let the simplicity of the title fool you. Keller’s manual on preaching offers an astute analysis of our current cultural moment and how God’s messengers can and should contextualize the truth of the gospel in order to affirm and subvert the dominant worldviews of our society. I expected to find a good book with one or two chapters to be indispensable for preachers, but I found this to be a great book, and so I kept underlining all the way through. From the proper and balanced approach to preaching Christ from all of Scripture, to offering application and apologetics, Preaching encapsulates Keller’s way of engaging people with biblical truth.
#6. THE DOCTRINE OF REPENTANCE
This is the oldest book on my list, and also the most relevant to everyday Christian experience. The Puritan preacher differentiates between true and counterfeit repentance, and turns to a wealth of biblical illustrations to communicate the beauty and necessity of turning from sin to God. Watson is a master of the one-liner; I found myself pausing and pondering sentence after sentence in this sparkling work of pastoral theology. Imagine Luther’s first of 95 theses (“the whole of Christian life is to be one of repentance”) stretched into 100 pages or so, and you have the gist of this excellent work.
#7. KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER
The only fiction book to make my list this year (forgive me, but I wrote a dissertation!), Norwegian author Sigrid Unset’s trilogy is rich in character development and bursting with beauty in her descriptions of medieval Norway. The world she creates is full of faith and feeling, superstition and shame, love and lust, loyalty and honor.
#8. ONWARD by Russell Moore
and ONE NATION UNDER GOD by Bruce Ashford and Chris Pappalardo
We are entering a presidential election year, and I can’t think of two better books to pass along to believers grappling with how to engage in politics. Moore’s work is a manifesto for Christian action as a distinct minority within an increasingly hostile culture. Ashford and Pappalardo introduce the different ways Christians have engaged in politics and then offer brief thoughts on some of the most controversial issues of our day. Both of these books appeal to principles and demonstrate a posture that transcends the polarities of “right” and “left” or “conservative” and “liberal.” Both books demonstrate the way to engage the world as ambassadors of King Jesus.
#9. HABITS OF THE HEART
Individualism and Commitment in American Life
by Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler and Steven Tipton
For years I have seen this book referenced and quoted in various books. This year, I finally got around to reading it, and now I understand what all the fuss is about. Here is a book of sociology that illuminates the underlying premises and practices of American citizens. While I do not agree with all their prescriptions for the future, I do believe these sociologists have their finger on the pulse of American culture – the individualism that motivates and shapes us, as well as hinders our ability to construct and maintain important social communities.
#10. GOD IS RED
The Secret History of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China
by Liao Yiwu
I am always encouraged by stories of Christians where persecution or oppression is rampant. Sometimes these books border on hagiography because the author’s affinity and sympathy for the oppressed is so strong. God is Red is different, primarily because the author is a dissident journalist but not a believer. This makes Yiwu’s reporting all the more powerful because he is recounting and telling stories of persecution, though not persuaded (yet!) of the central truth claims of Christianity. A fascinating glimpse into the Christians in Communist China – those that belong to registered and unregistered churches.
FINDING AND SEEKING
Ethics as Theology
by Oliver O’Donovan