The year 2020 will obviously be known for many things – a pandemic, wearing masks, and social distancing to name a few – but as far as my own reading habits went, the year 2020 could be known as the year for biographies, auto-biographies, and memoirs. Seven of the 27 books I read in 2020 fit those categories (25%), plus two other books that recounted personal stories about travel expeditions. It wasn't intentional, but it certainly did result in my appreciation for that genre growing.
My full 2020 reading list appears below, but as usual, I'll also include my reading lists from past years (just for the record): 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2011 and 2010 (this blog was totally dormant for 2012 and 2013).
Apart from the books listed here, I consistently read my Bible throughout the year. I believe the Bible is God's inspired Word to us, and of all the things I read, I see the Bible as the most important book to be continually reading.
Here are the books I've read in 2020...
- Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners by John Bunyan. It’s difficult to describe this auto-biography, given the awful scale of the adversity John Bunyan faced, both in the inner turmoil of his personal faith battles (which were extreme, to say the least), as well as in the fierce opposition he faced as a non-conformist preacher in the 17th century. He persevered, and left this world a legacy that has blessed more people than we can know. And though his personal struggles may seem preposterous, it’s his perseverance through both the inner and the outer struggles he describes that I found so impacting. Again and again, he turns to God’s Word for relief and release, resulting in a spiritual depth that he was irrepressibly eager to share with others until the day he died. I actually wanted to like this book less due to how long John Bunyan’s struggles persisted, but I found his tenacity so attractive that I couldn’t help but admire him and the story he had to tell.
- The Kingdom Unleashed: How Jesus' 1st-Century Kingdom Values Are Transforming Thousands of Cultures and Awakening His Church by Jerry Trousdale and Glenn S. Sunshine. The truth is, most of this book left me wanting to give it 5 stars. I found the overall message and challenge of the book to be inspiring and provoking. It left me wanting to *give it a try* in terms of the methods that the authors described. There’s much in this book that feels both relevant and important, and I’m going to discuss its contents with others until I can confirm what the Lord wants me to implement from it. My only hesitancy regarding its message is how far the authors go in redefining what churches and church growth should look like in the context of the global north based on what’s happening in the radically different contexts in the global south. I’ll need to think on that a bit more! I don’t think I’m quite as convinced as they are that the methods of this book can’t be implemented within the context of existing churches in the global north.
- Gettysburg by Stephen W. Sears. There are few individual battles in the annals of the wars of this world that I care to read a 500+ page book on, but Gettysburg is one of them. And Stephen Sears does a masterful job of compellingly telling the tale based on extremely thorough and well footnoted research. I’ve previously read a great deal about the American Civil War, but still felt that this book clarified a great many interesting details for me regarding this historically momentous battle.
- God Dwells Among Us: Expanding Eden to the Ends of the Earth by G.K. Beale and Mitchell Kim. There were more than a few times when I was *wowed* by what I found in this book — insights that gave me a whole new perspective on particular passages in the Bible. In fact, this book is packed with details that beg for further study (little wonder, since it’s based on a book by Beale of much greater depth called “The Temple and the Church’s Mission”). And yet, despite the fact that the authors would’ve had to be very selective in what they chose from that longer work, I noticed a fair bit of repetition in this brief 166-page book. And then what they selected from the longer work left me sometimes feeling like they were racing through a barebones list of the essential details in which every sentence was critical, and with much of the scholastic background material removed (or alluded to in substantial endnotes). It left me weary at times, though I suspect I’d have been more wearied by the significantly greater detail that Beale goes into in his longer book. I think this condensed version will be sufficient for me.
- Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy J. Keller. I’m not sure what I expected, but this wasn’t what I expected. Essentially, this is about how expository sermons can be clearly evangelistic while also edifying the saints. A tall order, but Keller painstakingly emphasizes that the only way to do this is to connect the truths of any scriptural passages to the unspoken messages we pick up from the world in which we live, and then bring every sermon back to focus on Christ rather than resorting to moralism. I found his emphasis on Christ and the gospel truly stirring, but didn’t find it easy to see how I would be able to address the various cultural narratives he then described in such detail — almost too much detail. But then he brought it all back to focus on Christ as he appealed for sermons preached from hearts of Holy Spirit-inspired worship. A very rich read.
- Sand Dance: By Camel Across Arabia's Great Southern Desert by Bruce Kirkby. I feared I’d be disappointed by this book, knowing how improbable it would be for three upstart Canadians to reproduce what Wilfred Thesiger achieved in his heroic crossings of Arabia’s Empty Quarter in the 1940s before the oil industry changed the region forever. I feared the regular visits of Land Rovers and the apparent reluctance of the Bedu guides in this 1990s adventure would spoil the story, making it all seem farcical. I was wrong. I loved this book. I was mesmerized by the descriptive passages, and drawn into the tensions with the Bedu guides (which thankfully resolved), and identified so much with the pathos of the journey’s end that I cried as Kirby concluded. Perhaps it’s because it was so obvious from the start that no one could reproduce what Thesiger did 70 years ago, but more likely because it reminded me of my own good-byes after living in the desert of northern Sudan for a year of my life in 1987. Living in a desert has a way of making a permanent impression on a person. I’m grateful Kirby and his friends made this journey, and so glad he wrote this extraordinary account.
- Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. I never imagined myself reading a book on this subject, and yet the more I read, the more I realized how valuable a book on this subject is for anyone who wants to be better equipped to show true care to anyone facing end of life challenges. And while I can understand why Dr. Gawande would subtitle his book, “Medicine and What Matters in the End,” I’d suggest that an alternative subtitle could be, “The Shortfalls of Medicine When it Comes to the End.” Dr. Gawande describes and illustrates those shortfalls with great humility, sensitivity and compassion. I found this book quite moving, and full of helpful insights on a subject that’s relevant to us all, but that we don’t relish thinking about too much.
- The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński. Kapuściński begins with one of the more transfixing opening paragraphs I’ve encountered in a long time, and then goes on to provide one compelling portrait after another of the extraordinary beauty and pain of post-colonial Africa. Some chapters felt riveting to me, and many touched my heart, though some felt tantalizingly incomplete. But all of them felt written by a man with a keen eye for detail, and who truly immersed himself in the cultures he encountered, and who felt genuine appreciation of the people that he met. The feeling that too many chapters felt like partial tales that left me hanging was my only disappointment. But perhaps that was the author’s point, as so much appeared to be unresolved in the dizzying diversity of the African nations he wrote about as they struggled to establish their identities in the turbulent era he described.
- God's Lavish Grace by Terry Virgo. Perhaps Terry Virgo had a different audience in mind than me. I read this because I wanted to grow in my understanding and appreciation of God’s infinite grace, but I couldn’t help but think that this book was was aimed at newer Christians. It was an okay book that did in fact speak to Christians who were tired or discouraged, and did have some helpful insights, but it just too often felt like the author was skimming the surface of this topic rather than plumbing its depths.
- Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices From Africa and Asia by Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom. Despite not knowing this book existed until just months ago, my reading of this book feels long overdue. I’ve long had a passion for global missions, but I can’t deny that I’ve long viewed it almost exclusively from a Western perspective. So it felt both refreshing and encouraging to read about such a culturally diverse collection of heroes of the faith from so many nations of the world. I can’t say I felt equally enthusiastic about every character described in this book, but I’m still grateful for how every story expanded my awareness of how God has advanced his kingdom in this world. The stories were all well told, and for the many characters in this book who I can applaud enthusiastically, their tenacity in the faith and their zeal for Jesus is an inspiration, and well worth remembering.
- God's Strategy in Human History: Volume 1 – God's Path to Victory by Roger Forster and Paul Marston. This book was both helpful and sometimes frustrating for me to read. I found it helpful in how the authors unpacked some valuable doctrines that I was eager for more input on — such as election and predestination — and I'm grateful for the careful thought they gave to themes that I’ve previously had only very narrow exposure to. But unfortunately, I didn’t always find it easy to grasp the flow of thought throughout the book, and also struggled at times with what felt to me like variations in what they were saying regarding some of their finer points. I was also uncomfortable with what felt like a rather blunt and sweeping dogmatism on themes that I don't think the Bible is altogether clear about, and this was sometimes expressed in a somewhat testy tone toward those who differed with the authors’ opinions. I certainly found it educational, but also found it a bit of a mixed bag.
- Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation by Carl Bangs. I find it hard to imagine how this book could have been better. I thoroughly enjoyed delving into a time period from so long ago, and Carl Bangs does a brilliant job of describing the religious and political contexts of the times, basing many of his descriptions on obscure town and university records from nearly 400 years ago. Bangs achieves a very helpful balance in this biography between historical details and theological details, as well as sensitively including personal details about a man who experienced such tragedy, and so much opposition from many ungracious enemies. This biography is educational as well as enjoyable, and I so appreciated being able to learn about Arminian doctrine from the words of Arminius himself.
- How the World Began by Helmut Thielicke. The fact is, I simply like Helmut Thielicke’s books. This is a collection of sermons he preached on the first eleven chapters of Genesis. Foundational stuff, to be sure. But what made the material so rich for me was how it felt like Thielicke was able to put Genesis 1-11 in the now, and to so masterfully include me as a reader (listener) in his sermons by the examples he’d use — and not usually in flattering ways. But I also enjoyed how he would insert questions or perceived objections into his sermons that I could identify with, and then he’d deal with those objections like a man solving an ancient riddle. I can’t say that I always agreed with every line or every thought he wrote, but what does that matter when so much of what he shared felt so compelling and so encouraging.
- With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen B. Oates. I’ve long wanted to read a Lincoln biography, but with so many in print, how does one choose? Well, having previously read a shorter book about Lincoln by Stephen Oates, I felt safe choosing this one. But I was also attracted to the title of this book. I appreciate the phrase Oates chose for the title to sum up the life of Abraham Lincoln. The political world seemed as ruthless and as spiteful then as it seems now, but Lincoln was a different sort of politician. He was once marketed in a campaign as “Honest Abe,” but it seems to me he could’ve also been known as “a man in whom there is no guile.” He was such a good-hearted man, and though Oates makes it clear he had flaws, it was Lincoln’s willingness to look past the flaws of both friends and foes alike, and see good in them, that most impressed me about him. In fact, by the end of the book, I felt befriended by him myself, leaving me wiping tears away at the book’s conclusion. This was a highly readable book and a very rewarding account of the life of a man who is worth remembering.
- Recovering Eden: The Gospel According to Ecclesiastes by Zack Eswine. I have long found The Book of Ecclesiastes to be extremely confusing. I’ve needed someone’s help to make sense of it, and Zack Eswine’s book was very helpful. I actually had a sense that I was meant to read this book. I was struggling with some particular realities of living in this broken world, and I knew that there had to be a better way for me to respond to specific disappointments than the creeping disillusionment in my heart. Zack Eswine explained how Ecclesiastes teaches that we’re meant to live in the tension of both delightful and disquieting times in this world under the sun. And instead of trying to escape the tension, we’re to live in the grace God provides for it knowing that God is governing both the delightful and the disquieting times. That frees me to truly enjoy the delights, and to trust God in the disquiets. “With God, everything fits, nothing is wasted or lost. God does not abandon one second of a life under the sun. No disquiet is God forsaken.” Not every chapter was a huge help to me, but many of the chapters truly hit the bull’s-eye I needed.
- Intimate Moments with the Savior: Learning to Love by Ken Gire. This is a book to be savoured. I couldn’t bring myself to read more than one chapter in a day with so many beautiful insights to be reflected on... pondered... prayed about... absorbed... savoured. I simply love Ken Gire’s writing style. It’s almost poetic in the allusions and parallelisms he finds. It’s also like he’s painting a picture as much as telling a story as he invites the reader into different scenes from the Gospels (each chapter including a full scripture passage, a meditation, and a prayer). I expect I’ll refer back to this book again from time to time. It felt nourishing, and digging into the selected passages truly made me feel closer to Jesus.
- Spent Matches: Igniting the Signal Fire for the Spiritually Dissatisfied by Roy Moran. I have some thinking to do. And some praying. Roy Moran wants to provoke some paradigm shifts in his readers, and given the fact that true paradigm shifts should inevitably make people uncomfortable, I think Roy Moran has done a good job with this book. Because after finishing this book, I felt very uncomfortable — but in a way that wants to continue the conversation, and go back over what I underlined, and talk with God and others about what I read. I feel provoked in an area in which I need to be provoked because I haven’t been as fruitful as I want to be. Roy Moran presents in this book an understanding of the Great Commission that challenges our knowledge-based approach to discipleship. Jesus called us to teach people to obey his commands, not to simply know them, and so if we’re not making disciples who also obediently make disciples, then we’re not achieving what Jesus called us to achieve. So Roy Moran offers a paradigm-rattling obedience-based discipleship model that is highly repeatable in its simplicity, allowing any disciple of Jesus to make disciple-making disciples, but that doesn’t check all my boxes for what I think “church” is meant to look like! This book is both persuasive and compelling enough to make it difficult for me to ignore its premise amidst my difficulties with some of its implications. I have some thinking to do.
- Thin Air by Greg Child. This may be the most insightfully reflective, emotionally expressive, and creatively descriptive book on mountain climbing that I’ve ever read (and I’ve read many). It’s extremely well written, is full of creative turns of phrase, and includes many engaging descriptions of fascinating people and places and situations. I got choked up at times, sometimes laughed out loud, and at other times, simply couldn’t put this book down. But I still found myself too often frustrated due to not being able to fully visualize Greg Child’s descriptions of his climbs. He used far too much insider language without explanation regarding the geographic features of mountains and regarding climbing gear and techniques. If I hadn’t previously read so many other mountain climbing books, I’d have felt even more confused. This book deserved a glossary since Greg Child clearly didn’t want to upset the pace of the book with technical explanations. And his pacing in his storytelling is quite good — except for the times when I kept wishing that I knew what he was talking about.
- Kept by the Power of God by I. Howard Marshall. First of all, I’m simply grateful that this book exists. I wanted to read a book from a non-Calvinist perspective on Christian assurance, and I.Howard Marshall has provided this rarity. And what I found so persuasive about this book is that it’s more an exegetical study than a topical study. Marshall painstakingly walks us through passage after passage of the New Testament, showing that our “assurance of final salvation does not rest primarily upon the evidences of election but rather on [our] Saviour.” In other words, salvation rests in our Saviour rather than a system. That is a huge comfort to me, and why I wanted to read a book like this. It gives me the language and the background that I wanted in order to speak more Biblically about the assurance that is ours in Jesus!
- Out of Africa by Karen Blixen. This book is a piece of history written from the heart. Karen Blixen’s insightful storytelling likely feels that way because she obviously truly loved the faraway place and peoples she was describing. That’s primarily what kept me reading, for even though Karen Blixen was most certainly a product of the colonial times in which she lived, she displayed true affection for the local people she dwelt among. But I simply found the book to be too much and too disjointed. At times her insights felt forced, and at other times her observations seemed over-generalized. And in the end, what should have felt like a heart-rending departure from Africa ended up simply feeling like too long a good-bye.
- Nigeria: What Everyone Needs to Know by John Campbell. Simply put, this is a detailed book-length fact sheet. The intention of the authors was not to write something gripping, but to provide something introductory and informative, and they have done a very good job of that. This book is well-documented, and though it will inevitably contain biases, it has the ring of factual objectivity to it. The writers clearly appreciate Nigeria, but they don’t get caught up with expressing affection for Nigeria. And they clearly have hope for Nigeria, but they don’t shy away from describing what hinders hope for Nigeria. I read this to gain a general understanding about Nigeria, and I found it very well written, well presented, and very helpful.
- The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer. I cut my teeth reading Tozer as a new Christian forty years ago, and yet I hadn’t read a book by him since. It’s been too long! But I recently felt God prompt me to read this book, and I’m so glad I did. Tozer deals with vital foundational truths in this book that address our whole approach to God. And yet this entire book feels more like the earnest prayer of a man after God than just his opinions on Christian living; more like a call or a cry than a theological explanation. Tozer appeals to our hearts as much as to our minds. It’s a cry to clean house and make room for intentional time with God, and I trust there will be lasting changes in my life as a result of reading this.
- Behind the Ranges: Fraser of Lisuland by Geraldine Guinness Taylor. What came first to mind as I completed reading this biography of James Fraser was that he seemed both incredibly inspiring as well as tremendously unintimidating. What I mean is that though Fraser was both highly motivated and sacrificing in his pursuit of God and His purposes, he was also very kind-hearted and relational in how he pursued those purposes. But it was his revelation regarding the supreme importance of prayer that I found most inspiring and instructive. I’ve already begun pursuing some of Fraser’s approaches to prayer, and I hope that the encouragement of this story touches my prayer life in many more ways.
- The Making of a Leader: Recognizing the Lessons and Stages of Leadership Development by J. Robert Clinton. I found this book a challenge to appreciate. It almost felt like a science textbook. The stages of leadership development that the author presented felt way too tightly defined in way too much detail to feel applicable to leaders everywhere. People’s personal experiences just don’t always follow the rigid patterns he describes. And I was continually distracted by the jargon the author used as he talked about stages and phases, patterns and processes, clusters and continuums, and more galore. There are some excellent principles and insights in this book that I’m sure I’ll refer back to in the future — and chapter seven on “Life Maturing Processes” was a huge help — but it all just seemed too much to wade through to find what felt valuable.
- The Gospel in a Pluralist Society by Lesslie Newbigin. I’m sure this book has more to teach me than what I absorbed in my halting, brain-stretching first reading of it. I kept thinking, I’m going to have to go back and re-read what I’ve underlined to really appreciate the flow of Newbigin’s thoughts. And I hope I do that one day, because I’ve never read anything quite so probing regarding the cultural implications of Christian mission and evangelism. I struggled to align myself with everything Newbigin expressed, but the value of this book is that it forced me to think outside the well-established theological lines I’m accustomed to staying within, and that, I believe, is a good thing.
- The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God's Mercy by Timothy J. Keller. I often long for a deeper personal understanding of the grace of God — and have also sometimes felt more than a bit like Jonah — so the sub-title of this book attracted me. Again and again, Keller challenged my puny view of God’s grace, but then reminded me that the path to a fuller experience of God’s grace must include challenges to the parts of me that resist his grace. For example, “If Jonah was to begin finally to ascend, both in the water and in faith, he had to be brought to the very end of himself. The way up was, first of all, down. The usual place to learn the greatest secrets of God's grace is at the bottom." And “We learn from Jonah that understanding God's grace — and being changed by it — always requires a long journey with successive stages. It can't happen in a single cathartic or catastrophic experience (like being swallowed by a fish!)." There’s so much more I could quote. I only wish Keller had formatted the book so that it didn’t feel quite so much like two books stuck together, resulting in a bit of repetition.
- Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by Dane C. Ortlund. This is, without a doubt, the best book I have read in... I don’t know how long. I didn’t just read it — I prayed through it. During my regular devotional times with the Lord, I took time to pray into statements in the book that I had underlined as I gave thanks for encouraging truths, and repented of my unbelief regarding things that just seemed too good to be true. This book struck so many chords in my heart that I felt it was written just for me, and yet I’ve already bought a couple more copies for friends who I know will appreciate it as much as I have. To see the heart of Jesus unveiled as Dane Ortlund probed the truths of Matthew 11:29 seemed to continually stop me in my tracks, sometimes feeling stunned, and frequently feeling overwhelmed by God’s love and kindness toward me despite my sins and struggles.