Here it is, a list of books; the best books we’ve read in 2021, which are different from the best books published in 2021. Why give you a list of books? Because we think reading is important and we think Christians ought to be reading books. If you have time for Instagram and Netflix, you ought to make time to read soul-shaping books. Here are a few books we read this year that we commend to you.
Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction: The Conflict of Christian Faith and American Culture (Crossway, 1990).
Christians face the constant need to discern the culture around them. We can all see the basic trends: tolerance, diversity, equality, welfare, consumerism, bureaucracy, scientism, Marxism, psychotherapy, narcissism, and revolution. But these trends are not just words on a list. They are the idols of individual American’s. Over the many decades, the evangelical church has chosen to befriend these idols rather than snuff them out. Schlossberg pulls back the layers of the common idols in American culture, showing what’s beneath the surface of American idolatry. For example, one of the controlling assumptions of secular culture is “ressentiment,” a mash-up of resentment and sentimentalism.
“Ressentiment begins with perceived injury that may have a basis in fact, but more often is occasioned by envy for the possessions or the qualities possessed by another person. If the perception is not either sublimated or assuaged by the doing of some injury to the object of the feeling, the result is a persistent mental condition, stemming from the repression of emotions that are not acceptable when openly expressed. The result is hatred and the impulse to spite and to say things that detract from the other’s worth … the rejoicing at another person’s misfortune … it is not content to suffer quietly but has a festering quality that seeks outlet in doing harm to its object. Ressentiment has its origin in the tendency to make comparisons between the attributes of another and one’s own attributes … Any perceived difference is enough to set the pathology in motion. Ressentiment whispers continually: ‘I can forgive everything, but not that you are—that you are what you are—that I am not what you are—indeed that I am not you.’” (pp. 51f)
Alec Ryrie, Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt (Belknap Press, 2019).
This book traces the history of unbelief, more specifically, the history of atheism. How did the once-Christian West change into post-religious societies? In the Medieval Age, the Christian framework was entrenched in the West such that it was, as Charles Taylor has said, “virtually impossible not to believe in God.” In the twenty-first century, it is a situation that, as Friedrich Nietzsche claimed, “God is dead.” Ryrie’s work of original history tries to answer the question, who killed God, when, and how? As Ryrie argues, the answer involves the interwoven stories of anger and anxiety. The most helpful takeaway from this scholarly book is that unbelief is not based on reason, but emotion.
“And so the years around 1660 are when our main story ends: for this is when unbelief finally came out into the open and claimed philosophical respectability for itself. The intellectual history of atheism that follows from then until now is both important and fascinating, but we should not let it fool us. Behind and beneath it lies the deeper, emotional history we have been tracing. Its two streams now mingled and reinforced one another: On one side was the stream of anger: the unbelief of suspicion and defiance, refusing to be taken in or ordered around by priests and their God. That kind of unbelief was eyecatching, but it only became dangerous when it began to assert an ethical framework of its own … The second emotional stream of unbelief: the stream of anxiety, in which earnestly pious men and women found themselves beset with fears and uncertainties which could not be reasoned away, because they were not in the end based on reason.” (pp. 181f)
John Williams, Augustus (New York Review of Books, 1971).
This novel is historical fiction at its best, opening up an entire historical era centered around the real-life Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus. John Williams, the author, sticks to the known facts of the real story while providing imaginative insight into the elusive man born originally as Gaius Octavius Thurinus in 63 B.C. Williams introduces the reader to other real-life characters such as Cicero, Ovid, Marc Antony, Vergil, and Augustus’ daughter Julia. Each is presented real to life. However, the novel is more than a humble suggestion of the past. It’s a story about individual responsibility in a complicated world, the effect of power on individuals, and the unforgiving burden of leadership that draws the lines of enmities and friendship in unexpected places. God’s Providence often leads to unexpected lives that create friction between duty and selfish ambition. Wise Christians label this as sanctification. God’s plan, though something we would not have chosen, is the only way our stubborn sin nature will be stripped of the prideful illusion of self-determination. This book matters not because every idea is Christian, but because the themes of the book are the things Christians should be wrestling with.
“I was never so foolish as to believe that my laws of marriage and adultery would be obeyed; I did not obey them, nor did my friends. Vergil, when he invoked the Muse to assist him in the writing of The Aeneid, did not in any substantial way believe in her whom he invoked; it was a way that he had learned to begin the poem, a way to announce his intention. Thus those laws which I initiated were not intended so much to be obeyed as to be followed; I believed that there was no possibility of virtue without the idea of virtue, and no effective idea of virtue that was not encoded in the law itself.” (pg. 292)
Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Lexham Press, 2015).
The worldview of the biblical authors was far more supernatural than modern readers of the Bible. This is why American evangelicals miss so much of what Scripture reveals about the spiritual realm. My repeated experience reading the book was, “How have I overlooked this for so many years?” Michael Heiser is an expert in the ancient cultural context of the Bible and the Hebrew language. Only in a few instances does his Arminian theological bias interfere with his conclusions. The book is full of insights that will open up parts of the Bible that were previously closed to you. Consider a sampling of the subjects Heiser explores:
- Why wasn’t Eve surprised when the serpent spoke to her?
- How did descendants of the Nephilim survive the flood?
- Why did Jacob fuse Yahweh and his Angel together in his prayer?
- Who are the assembly of divine beings that God presides over?
- In what way do those beings participate in God’s decisions?
- Why do Peter and Jude promote belief in imprisoned spirits?
- Why does Paul describe evil spirits in terms of geographical rulership?
- Who are the “glorious ones” that even angels dare not rebuke?
“Psalm 82 is especially interesting since elohim occurs twice in that single verse. In Psalm 82:1, the first elohim must be singular, since the Hebrew grammar has the word as the subject of a singular verbal form (“stands”). The second elohim must be plural, since the preposition in front of it (“in the midst of”) requires more than one. You can’t be “in the midst of” one. The preposition calls for a group—as does the earlier noun, assembly. The meaning of the verse is inescapable: The singular elohim of Israel presides over an assembly of elohim. A quick read of Psalm 82 informs us that God has called this council meeting to judge the elohim for corrupt rule of the nations … The text is not clear whether all of the elohim are under judgment or just some. The idea of elohim ruling the nations under God’s authority is a biblical concept that is described in other passages we’ll explore later. For now, it’s sufficient that you see clearly that the sons of God are divine beings under the authority of the God of Israel.” (pp. 26f)
Jon Meacham, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush (Random House, 2015).
Three words: Honor. Duty. Country. These are the words that shaped the life of George H.W. Bush, the 41st President of the United States. And he lived long enough to see the world pass him by. He was raised in a world where honor, duty, and country meant something. They were virtues that made truly great men. He died in a world where honor, duty, and country meant nothing. Honor – There can be no such thing in a world of egalitarianism. Duty – The only duty is to get famous as fast as possible. Country – Why would you seek the prosperity of a country that is systemically unfair, unjust, and racist? As Jon Meacham explains, George H.W. Bush is one of the great American lives—he had strong parents, a sparkling education, heroic service in World War II, success in Texas oil, US congressman, ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican National Committee, envoy to China, director of the CIA, VP of the United States, forty-first president, and the only president since John Adams to see his son win the presidency.
Evangelicals have wasted far too much time scrutinizing whether George H.W. Bush’s doctrine was orthodox enough to be one of us. The same can be said for evangelicals and Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. The issue before us is do we have what it takes to produce public servants that serve with honor and duty the way Bush did. Maybe if we spent less time scrolling through inflammatory headlines and more time sitting at the feet of high-character statesmen like George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower, and George H.W. Bush, evangelicals could once again produce a politician to be proud of. Chesterton once said, “I doubt whether the best men ever would devote themselves to politics.” The point of reading this book isn’t that Christians will agree with every policy decision Bush made. The point is to remind us that decent and selfless men can be politicians.
“Even in the dark, he tried to look ahead. It was late, and he knew he should sleep, but he just couldn’t—not yet, anyway. Too much has happened; too much was on his mind. In the Houstonian Hotel’s suite 271 on the evening he lost his bid for a second term as president of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush climbed out of bed and slipped into an adjourning wood-paneled living room. Weary but restless, he settled on a small sofa. The room was empty, his heart full. There he sat, alone, struggling to make peace with the news that he, an American president who embodied the experience of the World War II generation, had just been defeated by Bill Clinton, the Baby Boomer Democratic governor of Arkansas. In his private, tape-recorded diary, Bush dictated: ‘I ache and I now must think: how do you keep your chin up, keep your head up through a couple of difficult days ahead.’ He kept his voice low: Barbara, his devoted wife of forty-seven years, was asleep back in the bedroom. ‘I think of our country, and the people that are hurting, and there is so much we didn’t do’ Bush told his diary. ‘And yes, progress … we made, but no, the job is not finished, and that kills me.’ (pg. xv)
Jerry Bridges, Trusting God (NavPress, 2017).
All Christians say they trust God, but that trust is put to the test when we face suffering. Whether large problems or small, suffering is a part of life that no one likes but we all face. Jerry Bridges was a businessman with the heart of a pastor. He wrote several books in addition to this one, most notably Transforming Grace, and The Pursuit of Holiness. Reading Trusting God is like sitting down with an older saint who has faced many trials and understands exactly what you are going through. He writes in an easy-to-understand manner, emphasizing three primary points: God is sovereign in all things, God’s wisdom is infinite, and His love is perfect. It’s hard for us to reconcile those points when times are dark, but Mr. Bridges points us always back to Scripture and the wisdom of faithful saints in the past. The main points may seem simple, but if you lay them to heart you will be prepared when the storms of life come. Trusting God is a great book to read, whether you are facing suffering or if you know someone who is.
“Sometimes afterward we can see some of the beneficial results of adversity in our lives, but we seldom can see it during the times of adversity. Joseph could surely see after he had become prime minister of Egypt some of the results of the affliction God had allowed in his life, but he certainly could not see it while going through it. To him the whole painful process must have seemed devoid of any meaning and very contrary to his expectations of the future, as given to him through his dreams. But whether we see beneficial results in this life or not, we are still called to trust God that in His love He wills what is best for us and in His wisdom He knows how to bring it about.”
Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (Grand Central Publishing, 2016).
The claim of this book is simple – you must dedicate times of full concentration to accomplish significant tasks. He defines deep work as, “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.” He begins by citing the philosopher Carl Jung, who was trying to develop a theory of psychology that would overtake the theories of Sigmund Freud. To accomplish this, Jung had to reduce the time he spent with patients in the summer and live alone in a cabin he had built in the forest of Switzerland. He would work distraction-free throughout the morning, then meditate, take walks, and leisurely read in the afternoon and evening. This focus gave him the ability to accomplish the task he set for himself. Though there is much to disagree with in Jung, we must acknowledge that his work transformed the field of psychology over the last hundred years.
Newport lists reasons for us to pursue deep work, then at the end tells us how to do so. Much of it centers around eliminating distractions, especially technological distractions. He is no Luddite, calling for the elimination of technology, but he is circumspect as to its advantages and disadvantages when it comes to the need for concentration. This book motivated me to change several of my habits and I have already seen fruit from those changes. He cites numerous examples of people who practice this and how they were able to accomplish much while maintaining a good family life. I can’t recommend this book enough.
“In an age of network tools, in other words, knowledge workers increasingly replace deep work with the shallow alternative – constantly sending and receiving e-mail messages like human network routers – with frequent breaks for quick hits of distraction. Larger efforts that would be well served by deep thinking, such as forming a new business strategy or writing and important grant application, get fragmented into distracted dashes that produce muted quality.”
James Herriot, All Creatures Great and Small (Griffin, 2014).
I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend this classic by Alfred Wight, better known by his pen name, James Herriot. Wight was a veterinarian in the Yorkshire region of the United Kingdom (northern England, just below Scotland) from 1940 until his death in 1995. All Creatures Great and Small begins his story as a vet just out of college who gets a job in Yorkshire working for a quirky, sometimes exasperating, yet loveable boss. The stories of the interesting animals and their owners, in addition to his evocative descriptions of the lovely countryside in Northern England, make it a delightful, funny, and memorable series of stories. If you like this one, be sure to read the other three volumes in the series (All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Things Wise and Wonderful, The Lord God Made Them All). Please note there are uncensored descriptions of animal anatomy and occasional language that you don’t want your children using. But a little verbal editing (if you read it to your children) will take care of that.
“A maid answered my ring, beaming on me as an honored guest and led me to the room, crammed with expensive furniture and littered with glossy magazines and the latest novels. Mrs. Pumphrey, in the high-backed chair by the fire, put down her book with a cry of delight. ‘Tricki! Tricki! Here is your Uncle Herriot.’ I had been made an uncle very early and, sensing the advantages of the relationship, had made no objection. Tricki, as always, bounded from his cushion, leaped onto the back of the sofa and put his paws on my shoulders. He then licked my face thoroughly before retiring, exhausted. He was soon exhausted because he was given roughly twice the amount of food needed for a dog of his size. And it was the wrong kind of food.”
Rory Groves and Allan Carlson, Durable Trades: Family-Centered Economics that have Stood the Test of Time (Front Porch Republic Books, 2020).
This is a solid, well-researched, and easy to read book. The author, Rory Groves, gives a clear call to pursue family economies. Mr. Groves writes from the heart, and his care for home economies shines through. That call isn’t new, as books by Allan Carlson, C.R. Wiley, and others have already made similar cases. What makes this book different is the degree of practical insight it contains. He researched the durability of dozens of jobs that have remained with us for hundreds of years. For each trade, he rates each one in the following areas: how family-integrated they are, how durable (long-lasting) they are, how resilient they are in hard times, and their income potential. Many books of this sort boil down to a call to an agrarian life – this is not one of those. It is a practical guide for people who want to financially build their households. It’s a mini-encyclopedia of tried-and-true home economies.
“What should our response be to brittle systems and future (and present) challenges? How do families build their houses on the rock in a time of shifting sands? What will last and what will crumble under its own weight? These are the very questions I originally set out to answer – for my own family first, and then for the benefit of others who ‘see danger coming and (want to) take refuge.’ The process has been illuminating, both in identifying the causes of decline in historical family-based businesses and in discovering why some family-centered economics have stood the test of time…But there are lessons from the past. We are not the first society to face these problems, and we will not be the last.”
David Hackett Fisher, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford University Press, 1989).
If you’ve ever wondered why various sections of the U.S. are so culturally different, you’re not alone. There is indeed a difference in the culture of the various regions of the country, but those differences aren’t new – they have been with us since we were British colonies. This is the thesis of historian David Hackett Fischer, one of the oldest colonial historians alive today. In this book, he presents the four British cultures that migrated to North America: the Puritans of New England, the Quakers of the Delaware Valley, the Cavaliers (high society British) of the Virginia Tidewater region, and the Scotch-Irish of the lower South. He demonstrates the various folkways of each group, i.e., parenting, religious practice, political philosophy, and courting and marriage, to only name a few. But first, he demonstrates how each of those folkways was present in the groups when they lived in Britain. The application of those cultures to today is where it gets interesting. Have you ever wondered why New England seems okay with government intrusion but the South resists it? Have you ever wondered why the coastal states usually vote blue, whereas “flyover country” votes mostly red? Reading Fisher will go a long way toward answering those questions. It’s easy to think that our ideas are right; after all, they make good sense to us. Whereas our neighbor from a different part of the country may have views that strike us as odd. But neither of our opinions are arbitrarily chosen. Fisher reveals how many of our views are culturally inherited. Understanding this principle can help us appreciate, or at least be more forbearing, towards our neighbors.
“Independence did not mark the end of the four British folkways in America, or of the regional cultures which they inspired. The history of the United States is, in many ways the story of their continuing interaction. Most broad areas of consensus in American life have grown from values that these cultures shared in common. Many major conflicts in American history have developed primarily from their differences. Every presidential election shows their persistent power in American politics.”
Jonathan Pennington, Jesus the Great Philosopher: Rediscovering the Wisdom Needed for the Good Life (Brazos Press, 2020).
When you think of philosophers, you probably think of Plato, Aristotle, Buddha, or Confucius. When Christians especially think of Jesus, they think of God, the Bible, and “the founder of Christianity.” Certainly, Jesus is all of those things, but He is also, in the ancient sense, a philosopher. For the ancients, a philosopher was one who loves and practices wisdom, who thinks about and lives a good life, and who teaches the path toward that life. Anyone who calls Himself “the way, the truth, and the life,” anyone who teaches the key to happiness, anyone who points people to eternal glory would be considered a philosopher, and that’s exactly what Jesus did.
Jonathan Pennington expounds all of these ideas clearly and concisely in his book, “Jesus the Great Philosopher.” Pennington elaborates what a philosopher is, how he spoke, what he talked about, and how Jesus epitomizes those things. The author, who teaches at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is no liberal. He does not reduce Jesus to merely a great teacher, as He is viewed by some other religions. Pennington exalts Christ as God in the flesh, while helping us to see that as this perfect giver of wisdom surpassed all previous and future philosophers in his teaching.
“But it is worth noting that in contrast with John the Baptist, Jesus was described as eating and drinking, and indeed was maligned as a glutton and wine-imbiber, a friend of publicans and sinners. He went to a lot of dinner parties. There is nothing to indicate that he was habitually sorrowful, dour, and overly serious. After all, people – regular, nonreligious people – were very attracted to him. He must have been accessible, warm, and joyful.”
Jerry Bowyer, The Maker Versus the Takers: What Jesus Really Said about Social Justice and Economics (Fidelis Books, 2020).
What did Jesus have to say about economics? Weren’t some of his messages anti-profit/capitalism? I went into this book expecting it to be somewhat of an exegetical hackjob – trying to put the modern, conservative movements’ words into Jesus’s mouth. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that this book is, in fact, a VERY well researched exegesis of the Gospels and reveals that Jesus was frequently speaking very directly to today’s most relevant issues: the abuse of political, ecclesiastical, and economic power by elites at the expense of the poor and middle class. One of the most delightful aspects of the book is how Bowyer reveals the import of the “throw-away” parts of the verses that we don’t even tend to pay attention to where Jesus went to Galilee or Judea, etc. He shows that modern readers should see that, in those verses, the Gospel writers are actually prefacing Jesus’s messages with something like “then Jesus went to Washington DC” or “then Jesus went to Silicon Valley” or “then Jesus went to Wall Street” – critical context that should absolutely color our reading of Jesus’s message (like the fact that the “camel through eye of a needle” comment was made to a powerful senator). This book is important because it provides essential context to a lot of the most common “proof texts” used to argue against free markets. It is also essential because it reveals how incredibly important these issues were to our Lord – He was anything but silent on these topics.
“Judas perfectly encapsulates the Judean/Jerusalem elite economic philosophy: talk piously, engage in status one-upmanship, centralized control of money, and then plunder the money box for your own benefit…..
“For the poor will never cease to be in the land;.. -Deuteronomy 15:11
“So Jesus is taking the conversation back to the Torah and reminding Judas the class he is a member of, or aspires to join, already stands condemned because if they had been obeying Torah, there would be no poor; certainly not enough as to stand as a highly visible image to use to goad people into giving in to a temple system that would not actually care for the poor.
“Jesus’s statement about the poor always being with “you”–meaning Israel’s leaders, Judas’s friends, not all humanity–unmasks the whole crooked system of monetary redistribution upward, accompanied by rhetoric about redistributing it downward.” (pg.73-74)
Jean-Marc Berthoud, Authority in the Christian Life (Independently Published, 2020).
This book is one of the most relevant (and quotable!) books I’ve read in a long time. Berthoud does a wonderful job of establishing a clear understanding of how Christians are to operate in relation to God and the authorities that He has established at every level: the home, the church, and the magistrate. This is certainly a book I will be reading over and over. It is short (142 pages) and dense. Christians need to read this book right now in order to get our heads screwed on straight with respect to how Christians should participate in politics and all levels of leadership and submission to authority.
“One of the most common and most harmful errors of our time is that which seeks to oppose the lawful exercise of power to love. This error is the corollary of that which claims to desire to oppose the love of God, men and creation, to detailed obedience to God’s commandments. Such errors proceed from the modern notion that love fro God and one’s neighbor is a feeling. No. Contrary to what prevailing romantic and existentialist humanism claims, true love is not a feeling–which would make it a passive and subjective phenomenon–but an act of the will directed toward good. This is what a carefull reading of the New Testatment compels us to declare. It often speaks of love, but not as a feeling, always as an act of the will, regenerated and upheld by God, toward good. The joy of love comes as the fruit of right action. Thus we can affirm that an authority which in its actions conforms to good reveals God’s love for His creatures–even, and above all, when it justly punishes those who do evil.
“My son, despise not the chastening of the LORD; neither be weary of his correction: for whom the LORD loveth he correcteth; even as a father the son in whom he delighteth. (Prov. 3:11-12)” (pg. 48)
“What about when the civil power which should only apply justice as defined by God’s Law (appropriately applied to time and place) replaces God with itself as the source of law and becomes a law to itself, thus changing evil into good and good into evil? Our parliaments and legislatures have long declared themselves to be a source of law. They can declare anything–just or unjust–to be law, and the magistrate is then obligated to enforce that law. The magistrate’s task is unenviable, for it is he who must put such laws into execution, ultimately encouraging the evildoer and punishing those who do good. A Christian magistrate who does not wish to be judged by God for his evil works as an iniquitous judge on the Las Day has no choice but to refuse to enforce such iniquitous laws.” (pg. 73)
“To take a recent example, after the suicide of a conscientious objector in prison, we saw young pacifists brandishing the slogan ‘Prison kills, Kill prison!’ This is the purest form of Rousseau’s ideology: evil proceeds from the institution and not the heart of man. According to this philosophy, we must merely overturn the institutions that kill, and man will be regenerated. The result: the Terror of the French Revolution, the Bolshevik Gulag Archipelago and, today, the riots on the streets of many cities across the United States.
“Those who work for the abolition of police and military power in their country–if they aren’t being bribed by foreign powers–are possessed by a utopian vision of the natural goodness of man, a completely unrealistic and gravely dangerous vision. For they labor–consciously or unconsciously–to deliver their country into the hands of the most voracious and most powerful foreign military power, just as those who work toward the dismantling of civil power work to deliver defenseless law-abiding citizens into the hands of criminals. Moved by unrealistic, wicked optimism, all these utopian idealists who deny the reality of sin in all men work to destroy the authority structures established by God for the good of men.
“We must repeat: the power of the sword is a blessing and a good.” (pg. 74-75)
 G.K. Chesterton, The Miscellany of Men, pg 21.