As 2014 comes to a close I want to recap some highlights of the 127 books I read this year. It was tough but I narrowed it down to my top 20. They are in no particular order, however, I have reserved the number one spot for the best book. I have also written a quick blurb on why I loved each book. You will find on this list a fairly broad range of topics (psychology, fiction, theology, biography). I do not claim to have been comprehensive in my reading nor have all of these books been written this year. However, these are the books that have stayed with me the longest. So, without further ado...the list!
1) How (Not) To Be Secular by James K.A. Smith (Best book of the year)
This is an absolutely breathtaking work. It is dense in some areas (although far less dense than Charles Taylor's massive work which Smith summarizes) but so important for understanding why our world is secular and what that means. This is a book I cannot get out of my head and it has shaped the way I think and read and understand the world.
2) Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won't Stop Talking by Susan Cain
I liked this book far more than I thought I would. It is entertaining, helpful and encouraging for us introverted types. A great read!
3) El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency by Ioan Grillo
This book makes the list for two reasons. First, it gives you a glimpse of the major drug issue confronting Mexico and challenges you to think about the issue in new ways. Second, it is just gripping with unforgettable stories. Ioan gets you so close to the underbelly of Mexico you fear for HIS life. This is a great read.
4) Jesus and the Victory of God by N.T. Wright
If you can make it through the first two to three hundred pages, you are confronted with some of the best historical research and reconstruction that you will ever read. If you read this book, you will never be able to read the Gospels the same way again. The downside is, the book is pretty massive.
5) The Fault in Our Stars by John Greene
Go ahead and laugh. I don't care. This is an excellent work of fiction and is far deeper than the movie might have you think. If you want a pulse on our secular, nihlistic youth culture, you need to read this book. At its core, it functions as a love story between two competing philosophies--that of Heidegger and Kirkegaard. I have probably reflected more on this book than almost any other book on our list. Read this in conjunction with How (Not) to Be Secular for a good understanding of our current culture.
6) C.S. Lewis: A Life by Allister McGrath
This is a great biography about a great guy. McGrath doesn't paint Lewis as a flawless character but I came away from this book with an even greater appreciation of him. Well worth your time reading.
7) PROOF: Finding Freedom Through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace by Daniel Montgomery and Paul Timothy Jones
This book is my new favorite book when talking about Calvinism. I use it in all my Bible classes because it gets to the heart of what Calvinists mean when we talk about God's grace. Beautiful work.
8) River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey by Candice Millard
This book was actually on my short list for book of the year. I love this book so much that Candice Millard is now on my "I'll Read Whatever She Writes" list. The story is amazing, the writing is fast-paced and it left me...well...just stunned. It is a book I still can't get out of my head six months after reading it.
9) Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
This is a book of letters by a fictional pastor who is dying to his young son. There is no plot twist. There is no real linear plot...just a lot of random reflections. And I bawled like a baby...three times. Maybe it's because I used to be a pastor but this book just floored me. It is beautiful and Robinson has such a command of the English language that it is just a joy to read. I loved it.
10) Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin
Full disclosure: this is a book for "kids" and was written at around a 6th grade level. Nevertheless, it is the best history book I've ever read. It is fast paced, intense and genuinely insightful. It made history come alive. It is one of the few books I just couldn't put down and I finished in just a few short hours. Then, I couldn't stop talking about it. So good.
11) Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Disturbing. Profane. Thrilling. Those three words sum up Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. It isn't an edifying book but it is a page-turner. It makes my list just because of how unforgettable it is.
12) Evangelical Theology: A biblical and systematic introduction by Michael Bird
This is my vote for the best new systematic theology on the market (replacing Wayne Grudem). What makes Bird's work so great is that he merges systematic and biblical theology together. Further, the book is genuinely funny. I have never, ever laughed out loud while reading a systematic theology until I read Bird's work. If you are a reader of theology, this absolutely has to be on your shelf.
13) The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant
This book is so good because it reads like a work of fiction but is actually non-fiction. Without giving away the ending, the book is about a man-eating tiger that a group of men in Russia is hired to kill. Oh, and did I mention the tiger is crazy smart? One of my favorite books of the year!
14) Divine Fury: A History of Genius by Darrin M. McMahon
I don't know what it was about this book, but I found it fascinating. Perhaps what is best is how McMahon describes how our understanding of what constitutes genius has changed. It is a great work that traces the history of geniuses. The book doesn't get bogged down in minutia and keeps things moving along well. Definitely check it out.
15) On Writing by Stephen King
I loved this book. Why? First, it functions as a great memoir of King's life. Second, it actually will teach you something about writing. Finally, it ends with a list of King's favorite books. You just can't beat it.
16) All Things for Good by Thomas Watson
So in order to appreciate this work you have to appreciate the Puritans, their style of writing and their frame of reference. If you can get by some dated language, what you will find in Watson is one of the deepest, most practical theologians ever. This work I have found particularly helpful when addressing the problem of evil. Watson's position is unabashedly theocentric meaning that he doesn't mess around with a lot of modern theodicy. A fantastic work and one that I found particularly helpful as I dealt with personal family issues.
17) Jesus on Every Page: 10 Simple Ways to Seek and Find Christ in the Old Testament by David Murray
Another book that was on my short list for book of the year and was probably the best biblical studies work I read all year. Practical, insightful and well-written Murray manages to pack a whole lot in just a few pages. Normally I don't think of biblical studies books as page turners but I think this book is the exception. Perhaps most importantly, it is written at a level where both academics and your every day Bible readers can read and appreciate it.
18) The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap Between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness by Kevin DeYoung
My faith tradition talks a lot about grace and the gospel, which is awesome. However, we tend to not talk as much about holiness. DeYoung seeks to remedy that issue by balancing grace and holiness into one practical guide. It is a short book but super convicting. It packs a bunch in one book.
19) Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God by Tim Keller
I don't know about you, but my prayer life is pretty erratic. Often times I feel like I am not praying in the most effective manner. Tim Keller seeks to remedy that by providing a biblical and practical guide to prayer. What is great is that Keller covers a ton of ground in this book. He dispels popular myths about what prayer is, covers the biblical evidence of prayer, covers historical perspectives on prayer and then gives a practical guide to prayer. Holy cow! And have I mentioned the extensive footnotes?! It is like getting a whole other book. Definitely check out this book!
20) Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme by Stephen Westerholm.
This book clocks in at just over 100 pages. Yet in 100 pages Westerholm demolishes the New Perspective on Paul, the new cosmological vision of Paul and E.P. Sanders proto-NPP view of Paul, all while enforcing the traditional perspective of justification. It is astonishing what Stephen could accomplish in just a few pages and is really a testimony to his clarity of writing. Pick it up if you want some clear, level-headed thinking on the issue of justification in the New Testament.