Best Books of 2020
The time has come once again for me to identify what I consider to be the best books of 2020. This year’s list is an odd assortment. Although most on the list are works of deep theological reflection, there are a couple that you may find a bit out of place for someone like me. That is especially the case with my selection for best book of the year. So, let’s get started.
(10) How to Read Theology for All Its Worth, by Karin Spiecker Stetina (Zondervan Academic, 203pp.).
This first book on my list will appeal to theologically minded people who need a reference guide to help them through the maze of options in the Christian world. Here is the endorsement I wrote for it:
“This book may well be the first of its kind. At least I know of none other like it. My friend and former colleague, Karin Stetina, has produced a remarkably insightful and practical guide for students of theology. Reading theology today can be a daunting task, with no clear road signs to direct us or warnings about whom and what to avoid. This book is precisely what the Christian world has needed, a wise, fair-minded, objective handbook on what questions to ask when reading theology. I have a strong sense that this extremely helpful work will be the standard reference guide for years to come.”
(9) When the Stars Disappear: Help and Hope from Stories of Suffering in Scripture, by Mark Talbot (Crossway, 138 pp.).
Mark Talbot, like Karin Stetina, was a colleague of mine when I taught at Wheaton College. Mark’s own story of indescribable suffering is hard to read. At the age of 17, Mark fell 50 ft. off a Tarzan-like rope swing, breaking his back and becoming partially paralyzed from the waist down. To this day (he’s now in his 60’s) he has endured indescribable suffering and pain. This short volume (138 pages) is the first of a projected four-volume treatment of suffering. Here is Mark’s description of it:
“Although this book began in response to a particular calamity, it is written for all Christians who are puzzled or distressed by the griefs, troubles, sicknesses, trials, betrayals, persecutions, and afflictions we and others undergo, whether that suffering is acute and perhaps calamitous, or chronic in some potentially overwhelming way, or even if it is simply significant enough to make us wonder why it should be” (19).
Mark’s focus in this first volume is entirely on stories of suffering among various OT believers, from the laments of the psalmists to the agonies of Job.
(8) Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, by Rod Dreher (Sentinel, 240pp.).
This could easily have come in at number one, as could all ten of those that I have listed in this article. I could say a lot about this book, but I urge you to read it for yourself. It’s not encouraging, but it is incredibly instructive.
Dreher describes what he refers to as a progressive “and profoundly anti-Christian militancy” (xiii) that is steadily overtaking our society. It is, he says, a “soft totalitarianism” that is “therapeutic. It masks its hatred of dissenters [primarily Bible-believing Christians] from its utopian ideology in the guise of helping and healing” (7). Drawing on the experience and insights from victims of hard totalitarianism in the former Czechoslovakia, Poland, Russian, and elsewhere, Dreher paints a picture of what he believes is coming to the United States, and is, to a degree, already here. This is a book for our time. Get it and read it!
(7) Why I’m Still Surprised by the Power of the Spirit: Discovering How God Speaks and Heals Today, by Jack Deere (Zondervan, 320pp.).
My good friend Jack Deere has re-written his classic work of the 1990’s, Surprised by the Power of the Spirit. And the sequel is everything the first installment provided, and more. This is not a repetitious re-issuing of the same book. Jack has greatly expanded his treatment of the Spirit’s work today with fresh stories that will encourage, inspire, and challenge you.
(6) The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, by Carl R. Trueman (Crossway, 425pp.).
Rod Dreher (see above) wrote the Foreword to this incredibly in-depth volume that chronicles the emergence of what Trueman calls “expressive individualism.” If you have never encountered that terminology before, it is largely what explains the condition of our world today and the mindset that has given birth to the transgender phenomenon. I’ll let Dreher say it:
“Trueman’s tour de force analyzes the roots of the crisis in the thought and writing of men like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud – the usual suspects, you might say – but he also factors in figures like nineteenth-century English poets, who taught elites how to think and feel in radically different ways. By the time the reader arrives at the book’s conclusion, which explains why transgenderism is not simply a quirky offshoot of identity politics but rather the ultimate expression of the spirit of modernity, the reader will grasp why the trans phenomenon has been so readily accepted by contemporaries – and why the church’s efforts to resist it and the sexual revolution of which it is a part have been so feeble and ineffective” (12).
This is not an easy read, but it is well worth the effort you will put into it. Once started, I couldn’t put it down. It is the best explanation of the origin and nature of the moral decay in our world that I’ve ever read.
(5) What About Evil? A Defense of God’s Sovereign Glory, by Scott Christensen (P & R Publishing, 544pp.).
You may recall that a few years ago I cited Christensen’s book, What About Free Will? as one of the best books I’ve ever read. This is his monumental sequel in which he analyzes multiple perspectives on the reality of evil in our world and how we should understand it in view of our great and good God of Scripture.
Fair warning: this is a deep and challenging book. Christensen surveys the many efforts to reconcile the existence of evil with the power and goodness of God and lands on what he calls “the greater-glory theodicy” as the most biblical perspective. He briefly summarizes it as follows:
“1. God’s ultimate purpose in freely creating the world is to supremely magnify the riches of his glory to all his creatures, especially human beings, who alone bear his image.
2. God’s glory is supremely magnified in the atoning work of Christ, which is the sole means of accomplishing redemption for human beings.
3. Redemption is unnecessary unless human beings have fallen into sin.
4. Therefore, the fall of humanity is necessary to God’s ultimate purpose in creating the world” (7).
Again, he writes:
“The idea is simply this: the fall of humanity was no mistake. It did not catch God by surprise. Nor was it the result of Adam and Eve’s free will, as most understand the term free will. The fall was planned by God because it brings about the greater good of redemption. A fallen-but-being-redeemed world is far better than an unfallen-not-needing-redemption world. Such a world brings greater glory to God. No better world seems possible than one in which Christ’s redemptive work brings such supreme glory to God” (7-8).
(4) Jonathan Edwards: Spiritual Writings, Selected and Introduced by Kyle C. Strobel, Adriaan C. Neele, and Kenneth P. Minkema (Paulist Press, 440pp.).
Although this book was released in 2019, I didn’t find out about it until this year. It is certainly worthy to be noted in this list, regardless of when it was published. The book contains lengthy descriptions of Edwards’s spirituality, together with excerpts from his Diary, Resolutions, Personal Narrative, his account of the life of David Brainerd, Religious Affections, and numerous sermons and other shorter writings. If nothing else, this volume will go a long way to correct the misconceptions of Edwards often provoked by his famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (not to suggest, of course, that there is anything misguided in that sermon!).
(3) Finding the Right Hills To Die On: The Case for Theological Triage, by Gavin Ortlund (Crossway, 163pp.).
I love this book! It is concise and remarkably clear in identifying the biblical doctrines that are worthy “dying for”! That is to say, Gavin provides solid guidance in helping us know what doctrines are foundational for Christian faith and essential to the gospel, as over against those that are not. Here is my endorsement of the book:
“As best I can tell, this is the first book of its kind and is long overdue. Gavin Ortlund has done the church a tremendous service by providing a clear, irenic, and well-reasoned (not to mention biblical) perspective on the comparative importance of our many Christian doctrines. Some in the church today have waged vigorous war and ‘died’ needlessly on virtually every hill, while others, in the name of unity, don’t find any hill worth ‘dying’ on. To both, and to everyone in between the two extremes, I say, ‘Read this book!’”
(2) The Holy Spirit, by Gregg R. Allison and Andreas J. Kostenberger (B & H Academic, 543pp.).
I trust that my endorsement of this volume is sufficient to account for why it is number two on my list this year.
“Designating a book as unprecedented and the first of its kind can often be misleading and the fruit of what C. S. Lewis called ‘chronological snobbery.’ But that is not the case when it comes to this remarkable new volume on the Holy Spirit by Allison and Kostenberger. Having taught graduate courses on the Holy Spirit on multiple occasions, I was repeatedly frustrated by the lack of a biblically solid, evangelical treatment of the third person of the Godhead and his ministry among God’s people. But no more. I’m hesitant to speak of any book as exhaustive or comprehensive, but this one comes close! From the Old Testament through the New, into church history and up to the present day, the authors have provided us with the most substantive, biblically rooted, and persuasive treatment of the Spirit to date. I cannot recommend it too highly.”
(1) Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State, by Barton Gellman (Penguin Press, 426pp.).
As many of you know, I’ve devoted considerable time and effort in studying Edward Snowden, the most famous (or, infamous, depending on your perspective) whistleblower in U.S. history. I recently wrote a blog article calling on President Donald Trump to issue Snowden a full pardon. In this volume, Pulitzer Prize and Emmy Award willing journalist, Barton Gellman, formerly of the Washington Post, has written the most detailed story of Snowden’s decision to disclose the illegal surveillance program of the National Security Agency.
Before reading this volume, I urge you to read Snowden’s autobiographical account of what he did and why, a book that was my number one choice for best book of 2019. It is titled, Permanent Record. Gellman’s treatment is detailed and goes well beyond Snowden to describe the nature and extent of our government’s surveillance programs.
Here is a vivid description of the book from the dust jacket:
“Dark Mirror is the story that Gellman could not tell before, a gripping inside narrative of investigative reporting as it happened and a deep dive into the machinery of the surveillance state. Gellman recounts the puzzles, dilemmas, and tumultuous events behind the scenes of his work – in Top Secret intelligence facilities, in Moscow hotel rooms, in huddles with Washington Post lawyers and editors, in Silicon Valley executive suites, and in encrypted messages from anonymous accounts. Within the book is a compelling portrait of national security journalism under pressure from legal threats, government investigations, and foreign intelligence agencies intent on stealing Gellman’s files. Throughout Dark Mirror, Gellman wages an escalating battle against unknown adversaries who force him to mimic their tradecraft in self-defense.”
OK, this is shameless self-promotion, but at least I didn’t include it in the Top Ten! It is my book, Understanding Spiritual Gifts: A Comprehensive Guide (Zondervan, 384pp.). Enough said!