The Reading Life

Ever since I was a young boy, I have loved reading. Even today, my personal library is the thing I value most. Marie Kondo, she of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up will never be allowed near my booksheves. Kondo suggests that a home needs no more than 30 books. Hey, I have that many books on my nightstand!

With the new year at hand, permit me to share some of my best reads from 2021 with you. I don’t claim that these are the best books of the year, just that they are books that I particularly enjoyed and that I think you might as well. My reading focuses on three broad areas–history (especially Christian history), theology, and Christian formation. I need to read more novels and hopefully 2022 will be the year I get to some of those on my shelves. So here are my top eight for 2020-21, not in any particular order.

  1. Where the Light Fell: A Memoir by Philip Yancey (Convergent, 2021). Yancey describes his experience growing up impverished in the American South during the 1960s. His father died when he was just a year old leaving Philip and his older brother, Marshall, to be raised by a single parent with little income. The Yancey’s were part of a strict Baptist fundamentalist church in the Jim Crow era and so fundamentalist doctrine and racism mixed together easily in their world. Philip and Marshall react in radically different ways, but were both haunted with sorting out what was real from what was false. Philip’s life and writing points to his continual struggle to do just this and we discover what Flannery O’Connor meant when she spoke of the American South as a “Christ-haunted world.”
  2. Breaking Bread With the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind by Alan Jacobs (Penguin, 2020). Alan Jacobs follows in the steps of C.S. Lewisand suggests the need for reading “old books” (think Chaucer, Melville, Milton, Orwell, and so on) to provide us with the necessary “bandwidth” to ponder and process the information deluge we face in the 21st century. Jacobs suggests that this is the best way we can deal with what he terms “social acceleration,” the sense that we must live with our “petal to the metal” 24/7. Reading older books allows us to inhabit a different time and place and build the “personal density” we need to discern the time and place in which we live.
  3. We the Fallen People: The Founders and the Future of American Democracy by Robert Tracy McKenzie (InterVarsity Press). I read a lot of history. I teach Christian history to graduate students. As their instructor, I challenge them to look at actual historical evidence from primary sources themselves, and then think about those sources both historically and theologically. I grew up with the nebulous idea that the United States was a Christian country founded by Christian patriots. But upon reading the evidence, we discover a far more complex story. As George Marsden has shown, the United States has both Christian and secular roots (think George Whitefield and Benjamin Franklin). McKenzie helps us recognize that while the United States has some unique Christian roots, it is no more a Christian country than Canada, Italy, Mexico, or Brazil. Hence, our Christian mission should not be formed by the dictates of party or politician, but by the biblical teaching that our true citizenship lies in God’s kingdom ruled by the Triune God.
  4. Travels With George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking, 2021). This book combines two of my reading loves–the American revolution and books about the road. Think John Steinbeck meets the Continental Army. Philbrick’s earlier work on the Puritans in Mayflower and the Massachusetts rebellion in Bunker Hill are masterful narratives. Here Philbrick road-trips to all of the locations that our first President travelled to during his three extensive trips through the new republic, and discovers that the country was as politically and culturally fragmented as we are today. I’ve wondered whether the United States can survive another 20 years without coming unglued. Apparently, George Washington wondered the same thing.
  5. Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great Amerian Story by Wilfred McClay (Encounter, 2020). Every American ought to read a good American history especially now. This is one of the best–an excellent survey especially for students and non-historians that captures the essence of the American story as it has unfolded so far. McClay teaches at the University of Oklahoma where he has taught U.S. history for many years, and he narrates the American story based on solid historical evidence and points toward several overarching themes we see as the story unfolds. I spent an enjoyable three weeks with this book last January during the pandemic.
  6. No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear by Kate Bowler (Random House, 2021). Bowler teaches Christian history at Duke Divinity School and has written extensively on the “prosperity gospel” movement that has become a powerful force in American Pentecostalism. While researching that movement, she was diagnosed with stage four cancer and this is her story of navigating that awful diagnosis and what came afterwards. (Fortunately, she survived and is still teaching and writing today.) In her research and in her life, she heard all of the positive-thinking cliches that well-meaning people told her as she suffered and struggled with the possibility of death. Often those maxims hide more complicated realities. For example, when people say “let go and let God,” the more complicated truth is that “God loves you, but won’t do your taxes for you.” Or, instead of “everythng happens for a reason,” the more complicated truth is “We must learn to face uncertainty with courage” (and I would with a deep trust in our God and savior Jesus Christ. A fabulous book if you want to explore a realistic Christian faith.
  7. Bearing God’s Name: Why Sinai Still Matters by Carmen Joy Imes (InterVarsity Press, 2020). OK, this makes my list for more than the quality of the book. Back in the 2000s, Carmen spent many afternoons and evenings studying in the GCTS-Charlotte library and we had some great discussions of theology, history, and biblical studies. She went on for PhD work at Wheaton and has now joined the faculty at Biola University. This, her second book, describes how the events surrounding Sinai recorded in Exodus and Deuteronomy form the core of the Old Testament and frame the redemptive events that surround Jesus Christ–his life, death, and resurrection. Carmen writes here not for scholars (though they will benefit from reading), but for pastors and laypeople, especially for those who want to understand how the themes of Holy Scripture fit together. If you want to know more about the Old Testament and how to read it, I can’t think of a better place to start.
  8. Power and Liberty: Constitutionalism in the Ameriican Revolution by Gordon Wood (Oxford UP, 2021). Gordon Wood is my go-to historians when it comes to understanding how the United States constitution was written, debated, and ratified. It was not a smooth process to get from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution, especially given the political independence of the states, the hostility of most Americans toward any kind of central authority, and slavery (the elephant in the room at the constitutional convention in Philadelphia). Wood describes that process and the surprise of many that the constitution was ratified by the states. I grew up with a sense of solidity about the United States. Now, I’m discovering that our divided society has beeen fragile all along and is nothing new, but something that the American founders had to grapple with as well.

So many books. So little time. But reading is one of the best, most enjoyable, and most practical ways to spend your time. You discover that life is far more than your own opinions and views. You also learn to change your mind about things when new evidence and new perspectives challenge you. So I hope that you will spend many happy hours reading in 2022.

I just got the January/February 2022 issue of Christianity Today with their 2022 book awards. The listing is a great place to start selecting titles that you may want to dive into. And the entire issue is a reading feast filled with a dozen excerpts from their awards. I’ll read those to see what titles I might want to read this year. At the same time I value recommendations from friends, announcements from publishers catalogs, and reviews of titles in places like the Wall Street Journal. I also keep an eye out for works by favorite authors like Alan Jacobs, Mark Noll, Alister McGrath, Michael Lewis and others. Most of all, make sure that you regularly read Holy Scripture.

Author: Bob Mayer

Bob Mayer recently retired after 24 years as Librarian and faculty member at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He loves good books, especially the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Henri Nouwen, and C.S. Lewis. He also enjoys film, especially movies that cause him to reflect theologically and culturally on important themes and questions.

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