Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Reading List 2019

I love reading. I can't recall the last time I turned on our television, as I'd much rather read. And with no cable or Netflix, or any other television service available in our house, it's an easy choice. My wife Fiona reads even more voraciously than I do, as my pace is greatly hindered by all my pauses to underline things I want to be able to refer back to, but our idea of an ideal evening together is to stay home and read. I continue to try to be intentional about regularly including the following genres in my reading material...
  • Theology
  • Devotional / Christian Living
  • Missions / Evangelism
  • Biography / History
  • Leadership / Pastoral Development
  • Classics / Pre-20th Century books
This year, as I read books representing all of those categories, I may have ended up tackling more Big Books of 400+ pages than usual. I read four books of 400+ pages in 2019, the longest appearing to be 581 pages. I say "appearing" because one textbook-sized book that I read this year has since been published in three separate paperbacks of more normal book dimensions, and those three paperbacks are a total of 816 pages (though I liked having them all in one big textbook-sized version). 

Anyway, as usual, I'm also including my reading lists from 20182017, 2016201520142011 and 2010 (this blog was totally dormant for 2012 and 2013), just for the record.

Apart from the books listed here, I consistently read my Bible throughout the year (this year choosing the New American Standard translation). I believe the Bible is God's inspired Word to us, and of all the things I read, I see the Bible as what is most essential for me to be feeding on.

Here are the books that I've read this past year...
  1. If You Want to Walk on Water You've Got to Get Out of the Boat by John Ortberg. John Ortberg wrote this book about 18 years ago, and the reason it took me so long to read it was not because I’d never heard about it. It was because I felt annoyed by the title. It felt trite and pretentious. It felt ridiculous. Looking back, I can’t decide whether it made me feel too inferior to dare to believe I could live up to such a title, or too smug to read a book with a title that felt so cliche. Then I finally read the book. And I found every chapter spoke directly to where I was at — and in a way that felt both grace-based and challenging. As Ortberg mines this story, he uncovers so many gems that I want to read it all over again. It was immensely practical, and so consistently God-focused, that it gave me hope that maybe I actually can grow in this area of faith the way Peter surely grew on that eventful day!
  2. Forbidden Sands: A Search in the Sahara by Richard Trench. I was captivated by this book — perhaps because I once lived for a year in the desert of northern Sudan, and this book touched a sentimental chord in me. But even if that’s true, it must also be because Richard Trench has a beautiful way of describing his travels, and the desert he was tested by, and the extraordinary people he grew to love. I found myself sometimes laughing aloud at his responses to experiences I could relate to, or sometimes captivated by his descriptions of an environment I share his fascination with. It was a rich read about an amazing journey, and I’m grateful to have discovered his book.
  3. Ghosts of Everest: The Search for Mallory and Irvine by Jochen Hemmleb, Eric R. Simonson, and Larry A. Johnson. I love reading books on Everest, as well as reading history, so it’s difficult for me not to love this book! The authors did a fabulous job of writing parallel accounts of the fated 1924 climbing expedition and their 1999 research expedition, and I appreciated how careful they were with the conclusions that they came to. Along with so many others, I’m also fascinated by the memories of who George Mallory was and what he accomplished on Everest, and so I found it hard to put this book down. This was a great diversion. It was so well written that it helped me to better understand many details of the north side of Everest.
  4. The Transforming Power of Grace by Thomas C. Oden. I found this book enormously helpful, as there seem too few books out there offering a non-Calvinistic view on Biblical grace (and I had never read one before). To hear Calvinists referring to Reformed Theology as a Theology of Grace, as if any other position in the history of the church neglects grace, makes me wince. Oden does a magnificent job of drawing thoroughly on the historical ecumenical consensus regarding Biblical grace in order to celebrate how grace has long been emphasized throughout church history. Oden is clearly Arminian in his convictions, and having read this book, I will never again think of Arminianism as man-centered or works-based. This book very capably explains a God-centered grace-based theology that allows for the exercise of our free wills to receive it or reject it, and documents how the Church has held such positions (with notable exceptions) since the early Church Fathers. Make no mistake, this is not a devotional book, but one more tilted toward academic use, but I found it truly edifying.
  5. Created to be God's Friend: Lessons from the Life of Abraham: How God Shapes Those He Loves by Henry T. Blackaby. There were a few ways in which the contents of this book seemed to speak directly to my situation, and felt like the word of the Lord to me. And yet there were also too many ways in which this book just seemed very average, and even hurried and shallow in how breezily Blackaby seemed to simplify aspects or applications of Abraham’s story. Overall, this book was a disappointment.
  6. Arabian Travellers: The European Discovery of Arabia by Richard Trench. This is a wonderful book. It’s full of amazing colourful characters who travelled amidst a hostile though beautifully austere landscape among an ancient and fascinating people. It’s beautifully illustrated, well-researched, and written with a genuine fondness for most of whom it describes. My only regret is that in its breadth as an historical account of so many people, it left me wanting too often in terms of just a little more depth, and somewhat confused by some of the hurried accounts of their lengthy and circuitous travels in the deserts of Arabia. But apart from those few moments of uncertainty, I found this book a genuine pleasure to read.
  7. Out of a Far Country: A Gay Son's Journey to God, a Broken Mother's Search for Hope by Christopher Yuan and Angela Yuan. I was asked to read this book to assess whether it’d be a good book for teenagers to read. And though certain parts of the story went into more detailed descriptions than I was totally comfortable with, it was never gratuitous, and ultimately led to an incredibly encouraging outcome of God’s love and redemption being whole-heartedly embraced. I found this life story both moving and encouraging, and would recommend it to older teenagers and adults alike.
  8. Against the Flow: The Inspiration of Daniel in an Age of Relativism by John C. Lennox. The last couple times I read Daniel, I found myself wishing that I had a scholarly yet non-technical and readable book written to provide some context and explanation that would help me make sense of the visions and prophecies. Well this is that book! It not only helped me to understand the book of Daniel better, but Lennox does a great job of explaining the relevance of the message of Daniel in today’s world — as well as in my own personal life. It’s extremely well researched (the various appendices are well worth reading), but still written in a very readable and accessible style.
  9. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative by Christopher J. H. Wright. I picked up this 535-page hardcover based on how a one-sentence quote from it impacted me, and then I found the cumulative effect of its myriad sentences totally awe-inspiring! The scope of this book was more than I bargained for. Christopher Wright has provided us with what reads like a masterwork that reveals the Mystery of the ages, and in some ways seems to make sense of everything. It’s thorough. It’s earnest. It’s relevant. And it feels like the magnum opus of a theologian and writer who wanted to leave the world with a precious key to unlocking the Bible’s grand narrative (to quote the subtitle). I completed this book feeling both enriched and edified!
  10. A Rope from the Sky: The Making and Unmaking of the World's Newest State by Zach Vertin. I found this book enormously informative. As a reader who has lived and worked in northern Sudan, and who has visited the interior of South Sudan with a South Sudanese friend, I really appreciated Zach’s obvious heartfelt concern for the people, and his extraordinarily broad exposure to and understanding of the situation. I mean, he was directly involved in trying to hammer out peace deals, for crying out loud! I only found that amidst the many characters he had to introduce, and with so many thematic angles he needed to view the situation from, and amidst the frequent zigzagging from one time period to another and back again, I got a bit confused from time to time. But that aside, I felt grateful for the opportunity to learn so much from Zach’s experiences and insights.
  11. Wisdom from the Homeless: Lessons a Doctor Learned at a Homeless Shelter by Neil Craton. I'm glad to have read this book, for as the author reminds us in his closing thoughts, the challenges of the homeless are so complicated that we may be inclined to just ignore them, and I can relate to that response. The goal of this book isn’t to offer complex solutions to complex problems, but to simply offer a collection of anecdotes that bring these precious people to the reader’s attention. The subtitle speaks of personal lessons learned, but I found the varied lessons that the author shared far less compelling than his valuable example of faithfully serving people in such need. The book then leaves me asking myself, how will I respond? And I’m grateful for such a simple book that reminds me of that important question.
  12. The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King. I found this book to be informative and provoking in ways that I truly wanted and needed it to be. Though King insists that it isn’t a true historical account (and it’s not), he does manage to include an enormous amount of history in the many stories he tells. But by King’s own admission, it’s an account that “goes in circles,” which (as a linear thinker) I found a little difficult to follow. It was worth persevering through though, as I want to be more aware of the issues that so many first nations peoples with whom I share this land are daily grappling with. But given the harshness of the history King so painstakingly unpacks, being more aware just doesn’t feel enough... I want my heart to be affected by the heart with which Thomas King has passionately penned this “curious account."
  13. A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 by W. Phillip Keller. There certainly were some interesting insights in this book as the author explored Psalm 23 phrase by phrase. I found the first chapter’s unpacking of “The Lord is my shepherd” to be quite impacting as I considered how the Creator of the universe condescends to be my Shepherd. One emphasis the author made that I had never before considered was that this initial phrase of the psalm was potentially a boast — The LORD Himself is MY Shepherd! What an exciting privilege! But as the book progressed, I felt that the author too often drifted into speculation about the psalm’s meaning, and ended up over-examining and over-stating the shepherd-sheep analogy. I personally feel that shepherding is not the only imagery of Psalm 23, and I was disappointed by how this author misrepresented the latter half of the psalm, missing out on some valuable applications.
  14. Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace by Keith D. Stranglin and Thomas H. McCall. Though this book is quite technical and academic in nature, I found it extremely compelling reading. Its thorough explanations of Arminius’s writings totally shattered the distorted caricatures that I had naively made of Arminianism, and it replaced them with rich and encouraging explanations that emphasized the goodness and grace of God! I found the authors to be extremely persuasive in showing me how Arminius’s theology and soteriology is thoroughly Biblical. No longer do I see Arminianism as in conflict with an evangelical understanding of God’s sovereignty, or with salvation by faith received by God’s grace, or with having a solid assurance of salvation (among many other topics). This book has provided me with a very helpful education that I obviously needed.
  15. My Nigeria: Five Decades of Independence by Peter Cunliffe-Jones. Never having previously read much about Nigeria, I learned a great deal from reading this book. As an historical account, it seemed well laid out, and the author seemed to strike a good balance between being brutally honest in his assessments and being hopeful about Nigeria’s future. That said though, I did find that because this book is partially a family memoir regarding the author’s grandfather having a role in Nigeria achieving independence on what felt like very unstable footing, I grew weary of the feeling that the author was trying to absolve himself of his family’s sins by repeatedly slamming the British role in Nigeria’s history. Yes, we get it — Colonialism was very bad. But the British are gone now. Move along. But I did eventually appreciate the author’s trial-and-error journalistic attempts at diagnosing why Nigeria has continued to struggle in the ways it has, sharing many perspectives of Nigerians themselves without getting bogged down in technical details that would’ve lost me.
  16. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N.T. Wright. This book describes the hope that a follower of Jesus can have for what comes after our life in this world, and how that future hope should impact how we live our present lives in this world. I was eager to read it, as I have long felt very ill-equipped to discuss what the Bible says about a Christian’s eternal future. What N.T. Wright has to say on this topic was both challenging for me to wade through as well as rewarding in how much it got me thinking. Part of the challenge was how much Wright got me thinking about many implications of Jesus’s resurrection that I had never ever considered before. I’m not sure how I feel about every implication he presented, but I do feel that I learned a great deal from this book that I hope will impact my life in the here and now!
  17. No Way Down: Life and Death on K2 by Graham Bowley. It’s obvious that Graham Bowley put a great deal of journalistic research into writing this book, and his book feels very much like a blow-by-blow account of a very compelling story. I particularly enjoyed how well his epilogue capped off the book with some heart-wrenching descriptions of how challenging it was to interview some of the survivors of the ordeal. But as much as I truly enjoyed reading yet another book about extreme mountaineering, I felt somewhat distracted by Bowley’s narrative approach (in contrast to a documentary approach), and couldn’t help but feel that something important but intangible was missing due to this account being written by a writer with absolutely no mountaineering experience or background.
  18. The Man Without a Country by Edward Everett Hale. While browsing in a used bookstore, I couldn’t resist buying an 1898 edition of this little book as I recalled being quite moved by a film adaptation of it that I saw as a boy living in Michigan. I can see why this book was made a textbook in many American schools, as it very pointedly promotes a strong patriotic sentiment, which would’ve been important at the time when it was first published in The Atlantic in 1863 during the Civil War. That said, I wasn’t as impacted by reading it as I was by watching the film as a boy, and the choppy and fragmented plot-development in its old magazine-column style format certainly didn’t help. But I’ll admit that the simplicity of its patriotic message still has a certain appeal amidst the unpleasant political drama of the present day, when things feel almost as politically volatile as they were in 1863.
  19. Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City by Timothy Keller. As I began this book, I felt like I was reading a very thorough textbook, but as I drew near to the end of it, I felt like I had just completed an incredibly valuable course! This book is a rich resource that I will refer back to again and again, creating organized notes based on underlined portions, and then discussing with a church planting leadership team I’m on! This book has so many practical insights based on such well-researched foundational principles that I recommend it to any who want the church they’re a part of to become more effective in their community.
  20. A Teacup in a Storm: An Explorer's Guide to Life by Mick Conefrey. This book seemed more of a novelty than informative. I enjoyed some of the anecdotes, and appreciated the various obscure details about exploration, but too much of this book felt too abbreviated and thus, sketchy. And though as an avid reader of the explorers/climbers genre, I still learned a few things about events I’d already read extensively about, I was occasionally distracted by details that just felt inaccurate due to the brevity of the stories told. But that said, kudos to Conefrey for writing such a unique book with such a varied collection of tales.
  21. The Emotionally Healthy Leader: How Transforming Your Inner Life Will Deeply Transform Your Church, Team, and the World by Peter Scazzero. This book is so packed with valuable applications that it’s difficult for me to imagine ever being able to apply it all to my life and leadership. The book is so dense that it took me nearly a year to finish reading it, but now that I’m done, I know it’ll take me way more than yet another year to apply what I’ve learned. I found the first half of the book on the leader’s inner life to be the most impacting, though the latter half on the outer life never failed to include mention of the importance of keeping one’s inner life in mind when addressing the external and visible aspects of leadership. What I most appreciated in this book was the sense of urgency regarding my union with Jesus, my intimacy with my wife, and the pace and balance of my life. Just the simple phrase, “slowed down spirituality” gave me great encouragement for my ongoing life with God.