Since much of my time was spent writing, I ended up reading fewer books in 2010. Oddly, I was separated from books because I was writing about them. And most of the books that I did find time to read were books on the topic of reading. This prohibited me from reading many of the new books released in 2010.
By God’s grace, I still managed to read a fair number of books this year and—thanks to your kind prodding—I was encouraged to recount the books I read and assemble my favorites into this list. So I scoured my shelves and heaped my favorites into a bloggable pile.
In effect this is a list of my 30 favorite books that I read in 2010 (besides Scripture, of course). Not all of these books have been read from cover-to-cover (and you will soon see why: several of the books are large reference works). But many of these I have read in their entirety (or close to it).
My list is pretty haphazard, as you have come to expect. Here’s my list, broken down categorically and in no particular order.
ON READING AND LITERATURE
Leland Ryken, Realms of Gold: The Classics in Christian Perspective (Wipf & Stock, 2003). In my research on reading I came to value Ryken’s books that equip Christians to benefit from classic literature. By far, this book is my favorite book on the topic. Ryken moves from classic to classic, drawing out edifying themes. In this book Ryken provides a clinic on how Christians should read fiction for the benefit of the soul.
Leland Ryken, editor, The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing (Shaw, 2002). This book is a compilation of the best Christian writing on the topics of literature. Any Christian interested in reading or writing literature should own this collection. If it’s been said, and if it’s worth reading, you will find it somewhere in here.
Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, editors, William Shakespeare Complete Works (Macmillan, 2008). This 2,500-page mammoth published by the Royal Shakespeare Company was a sweet find. Shakespeare’s writings expose the limitations of my literacy skills, and I bought this book in the hopes that it would help guide me along. It has. The editor’s introductions are skillfully written and brief explanatory notes at the foot of each page “explain allusions and gloss obsolete and difficult words, confusing phraseology, occasional major textual cruces … bawdy innuendo, and technical terms (e.g. legal and military language).” Readers should be forewarned that the editors refuse to let any “bawdy innuendo” pass silently, and they are quick to suggest innuendo that I think is more a reflection of the editor’s imagination than of Shakespeare’s intention. But in general the introductions and the brief notes make the experience of reading Shakespeare less laborious and more delightful.
C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge, 1961). Readers often critique books, but this is one book that critiques readers. Only Lewis could write this, and he pulls it off brilliantly. I was left with a holy reverence for books that I didn’t have, or had lost over the years. Reading is a sacred act and we should handle books–at least the best of them–with great care and respect. Thank you, Mr. Lewis, for the reminder.
Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word (Eerdmans, 1985). Measured in influence, images tend to get more attention than the written word. This book celebrates the importance of language and revelation, and it cautions us about life in a culture that is dominated by visual communication. Of all the books on this list, I disagree with this one more frequently than any other. And yet of all the books on this list, few were more intellectually invigorating. Ellul is like that.
ON CHRISTIANS + CULTURE
James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford, 2010). This book is a thoughtful discussion about how the Church can and should seek to influence culture. It’s worth reading, because when Hunter is spot-on he is also vivid. I’ve posted examples of these excerpts on the blog. Here’s one. This book gets much respect, and it’s a well deserved respect.
Timothy Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (Dutton, 2010). A careful biblical look at the Christian’s responsibility to care for those most vulnerable to injustice: widows, orphans, immigrants, minorities, and the poor. I counted 234 biblical references in this book. The book is well researched, biblical, provocative, and it gives me eyes to see the needs of the culturally vulnerable. It is too easy to neglect our most needy ‘neighbors.’ But Keller makes this neglect more difficult.
D. A. Carson, Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus (Crossway, 2010). One of the great living Bible scholars, writing about the pinnacle of our Savior’s work, with the goal of edifying a broad Christian audience … need I elaborate?
D. A. Carson, The God Who Is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story (Baker, 2010). One day we will hold in our hands a full biblical theology of Scripture from Carson. But until then we can make due with this book that traces the major themes throughout Scripture. If you are looking for a book that will help you make sense of how the Bible fits together from Genesis to Revelation, while avoiding reductionism, this is the best book I’ve read. It is also offered as a discussion leader’s guide and as a DVD series (see the free materials here). In my opinion, this is the most important Christian book published in 2010.
Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Baker Academic, 2008). Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck was born on December 13, 1854. His birthday (Monday) is an annual reminder to me of God’s kindness in giving the church this theologian and his 4-volume systematic theology. Rarely does a day pass that I don’t reference this opus in my research. It is an incredible accomplishment; clear, precise, useful, and worth noting on this list. But if RD is too much, check out Our Reasonable Faith.
Athanasius, On the Incarnation (St. Vladimir, 1977). A ‘classic’ is a book that everyone talks about but nobody reads. I had not read Athanasius’ classic until a few months ago. I was surprised at the simplicity and clarity of writing. Although to say this is a book about the incarnation is limiting. Athanasius covers everything from the creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, simultaneously explaining the incarnation, life, substitutionary death, resurrection and return of our Savior. And of course the introduction by C. S. Lewis on old books is worth the price of the book (literally!). This is a classic that should be read.
J. Mark Beach, Piety’s Wisdom: A Summary of Calvin’s Institutes with Study Questions (RHB, 2010). A few excellent study guides for Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion have been published in the past couple of years. And some are still forthcoming (Douglas Wilson will eventually publish his excellent study guide). Beach’s summary oozes with pastoral sensitivities. For an audience that is frightened by the Everest-like size of Calvin’s work and the rock face of 16th century prose style, Beach is the experienced sherpa you want along for the climb. A brilliant book that can broadly benefit the church.
Eckhard J. Schnabel, Early Christian Mission (IVP Academic, 2004). I dipped into this 2-volume book a few times throughout the year and was impressed at its breadth and its detail. Schnabel has an encyclopedic mind and he traces the expansion of the church beginning with Jesus and the twelve disciples (vol 1) to Paul and the early church (vol 2). If you are interested in how God’s church has expanded in the NT, this 2,000-page work is a trove of biblical, historical, and archeological information relevant to biblical missiology. And he excels at applying early church history to contemporary topics in missiological discussions. If you want to learn about church planting and missions from a reliable Bible scholar, Schnabel is your man.
ON THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
Dave Harvey, Rescuing Ambition (Crossway, 2010). This is an outstanding book on taking risks and shooting big for God’s glory. “Risk always leads us to experience God in a deeper way. This is by design. Risk rescues us from misplaced security by anchoring us in the eternal” (180). The boost of motivation I experienced while reading this book was a key factor in my decision to write my own book. Dave’s message is very important, and especially for any Christian who dreams big for the glory of God. And it’s for any Christian who has never dreamt big. This is a horizon-expanding book.
Samuel Ward, Living Faith (Banner, 2008). A short 96-page booklet that is loaded with wisdom. Whenever I travel I keep this little book in my backpack. “It is sad to see a Christian pursuing joy in coarse and earthly pleasures when he has more noble and angelical delights, second only in degree and manner of enjoyment to heaven itself. Our faith takes us to the third heaven. We roll and tumble our souls in beds of roses, that is, our meditations of justification, sanctification, and salvation through Christ” (p. 30). This book makes a great gift, too.
Charles J. Daudert, Off the Record with Martin Luther: An Original Translation of the Table Talks (Hansa-Hewlett, 2009). Off the Record is a handy collection of Luther’s off-cuff statements, freshly translated from German into English and collected into topics. The chapter on “Advice to Pastors” is very good (pp. 205–240). The publisher includes a download URL in the introduction for those readers who wish to read Luther’s most racy comments. I posted more details about this book on Justin Taylor’s blog this summer.
Danny E. Olinger, A Geerhardus Vos Anthology: Biblical and Theological Insights Alphabetically Arranged (P&R, 2005). This book is not new but very useful when I want to quickly find Vos’ punch line on just about any theological topic. This book is a collection of brilliant quotes, organized topically. If I ever meet Olinger, I will give him a bear hug, lift him from the ground, and spin him in a circle! It’s that good.
Tom Rath, StrengthsFinder 2.0 (Gallup, 2007). This book is built around an online test that gauges personal strengths. The test revealed my five personal strengths after completing a 20-minute multiple-choice test. This simple exercise was life-focusing (no hyperbole!). The results of this test have helped bring clarity to my daily priorities and direction to the long-term goals that I set. The test and the book also helped me discover personal weaknesses. By seeing these weaknesses I can better appreciate the co-laborers that God has placed in my life. The test, and the direction offered in the book, has been incredibly encouraging, humbling, and helpful.
Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Hebrews (Eerdmans, 2010). For years I have benefited from Peter O’Brien’s commentaries on Colossians, Ephesians, and Philippians. In 2010 O’Brien gave us a commentary on Hebrews. I studied this commentary in my devotional times and was richly blessed by my deepening appreciation for the work of the Savior. This is a wonderful commentary.
Gary A. Stringer, editor, The Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne, Volume 7, Part 1: The Holy Sonnets (Indiana Univ., 2005). Donne’s sonnets are brief but devotionally rewarding. To study the sonnets in greater detail I use this commentary. Just about every substantive comment ever published by a scholar on the sonnets has been collected into this “comprehensive digest.” Studying this commentary has made Donne’s sonnets come alive in striking depth, color, and detail. Commentaries like this one do more than provide information for the reader, they inform our interpretation, and they sharpen our ability to read other poetry.
Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull, The Lord of The Rings: A Reader’s Companion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005). This is a paragraph-by-paragraph commentary of The Lord of the Rings. It is paginated to the retypeset 50th anniversary edition of LOTR. This commentary offers valuable background information that only the nerdiest Tolkien fans would ever discover without assistance. This beautifully designed commentary illuminates many details and helps me better appreciate the LOTR storyline.
Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Fortress, 2000). A huge biography (1,050 pages) written with detail, clarity, and warmth, reflecting the close relationship the author enjoyed with Bonhoeffer. I have completed about 30-percent of this book so far, choosing to read it slowly on Sunday mornings between devotions and breakfast. Bonhoeffer was brilliant, and Bethge proves to have been a faithful and capable biographer. I look forward to waking early on Sundays to meet with Bethge.
Bruce Gordon, Calvin (Yale, 2009). This is another biography that is ‘in progress.’ Gordon has done a fine job bringing Calvin to life in this book. Here is what struck me from the beginning: Gordon applauds Calvin’s genius and his theological contributions without glossing his failures. This is an honest biography of a spiritual giant, which is evident from the book’s opening words: “John Calvin was the greatest Protestant reformer of the sixteenth century, brilliant, visionary and iconic. The superior force of his mind was evident in all that he did. He was also ruthless, and an outstanding hater.” I don’t think I could have put this book down if not for a writing deadline that slapped this book from my hands.
BOOKS ENJOYED WITH THE FAMILY
Stephen J. Nichols, The Church History ABCs: Augustine and 25 Other Heroes of the Faith (Crossway, 2010). Teach kids church history and make them laugh, too? This brilliant book raises the standard for Christian books written for little munchkins. No child is too young to be introduced to pillars of church history like Zacharias Ursinus.
Sally Lloyd-Jones, Jesus Storybook Bible, Deluxe Edition (Zonderkidz, 2009). The deluxe edition includes an audio CD of the entire book, which our kids have listened to many times while riding around in the car or listening at night before bed. This audio version has made a deep impact in the lives of our kids. We are on our third copy of the book (they get trashed from heavy use in our home).
Peter J. Leithart, Wise Words: Family Stories That Bring the Proverbs to Life (Canon Press, 2003). The book is a collection of brief fantasy stories, that each illustrate a particular Proverb. Leithart is an imaginative writer and these short stories are loaded with allegorical biblical inferences. I know of nothing like it, and few books have gained more widespread appreciation from the kids. After dinner we read a chapter from this book as a family.
So that’s my list of 30 favorite reads from 2010.
Tell me, what were a few of your favorite books from the past year?