Should I be concerned that my 2021 reading list is so… theological? I’m not too inclined to read much fiction, but I still figure I should be reading a variety of genres among non-fiction books. Perhaps the pandemic has made me too serious.
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 2021...
- The Divine Conquest: God's Pursuit of Man by A.W. Tozer. This book is primarily about the Holy Spirit. But Tozer is too pastoral a writer to simply offer a theology of the Holy Spirit with no application to our lives, which is why he challenges us to lay down our lives so that the Holy Spirit can fill us afresh. In God’s pursuit of men and women in this world, our experience of His Spirit dwelling in us requires submission to Jesus’ Lordship, and allowing a divine conquest of our will. That’s what makes this book so forceful, and even uncomfortable. But being filled with the Spirit — and even conquered by the Spirit — is all about intimacy with God, which is what my heart is after.
- With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by Eugene B. Sledge. It was incredibly sobering to read this account from the perspective of a young marine who was on the front lines of the horrors of the Pacific campaign of WWII. It’s impossible for a reader to fully imagine what Sledge experienced, and yet he’s a great writer who very ably captures the intensity of battles, the sheer awfulness of the battle zones, and even the morale-sucking monotony of war. Though I sometimes wished he had explained more fully how some battles progressed, I definitely appreciated his vulnerability and sensitivity in what he did describe, as well as the incredible sacrifices that he and his fellow-marines were willing to endure for the sake of so many others.
- The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus is the Way by Eugene H. Peterson. It’s difficult to describe this book. I found it at times provoking, at times irritating — at times informative, at times boring — at times eloquent, at times rambling. A couple chapters stood out for me as incredibly timely messages that I really needed to read and process. Other chapters included fascinating and engaging explanations of the context of biblical characters and events. But too many other chapters just felt like indulgently long-winded sounds and sentences signifying nothing. And by indulgent, I mean long, cumbersome sentences as long as a third of a page; and long lists in the form of sentences, as if every scenario or example needed to be mentioned between so many commas in an unnecessarily long description. It was wearing, and it left me wanting to be done, despite all the wonderful and quotable gems buried amidst the many words of this book.
- The Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer. Again and again, God-glorifying insights burst forth from the pages of this book. Reading it was often like having curtains opened that provided me with fresh perspectives of familiar places. But I had to persevere. There were times when it felt like dry theology, with obscure quotations and highly precise distinctions. But it was never long before a sentence or paragraph would once again have my full attention, encouraging me with what felt like more than just a deeper understanding, but also a deeper appreciation of my God. To say I found it informative in a helpful way would be true, but not the greatest compliment. That’s why I would also add that what felt like information often felt inspiring, given the devotion with which Tozer wrote this book.
- Winning the War in Your Mind: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life by Craig Groeschel. I picked this book up at a time when I felt desperate about a battle I was losing against so many negative thoughts in my head. And this book has given me hope of winning that fight because of the practical and accessible steps it gave me to counter the lies I’ve spent way too much time believing. I think a big reason it felt so helpful is that it doesn’t just describe what’s happening in the spiritual realm, but also provides easily understood explanations of what’s going on neurologically. That’s what made the strategies that Craig provides so compelling — once I understood how the exercises literally change how my brain functions, I felt greater motivation and greater hope that they’d make a difference. And the four main principles of the book are thoroughly biblical, and left me not only knowing that I can only win this war through deeper communion with Jesus, but left me wanting that.
- Pursuing God's Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups by Ruth Haley Barton. Though the general premise of this book didn’t feel new to me, many of the particulars did. And yet there were moments when I thought that however valuable the ideals of this book are, the particular applications of them just felt too unrealistic. They would just require too many team retreats, or make too many meetings too long. But Ruth Haley Barton won me over as she gently encouraged readers to start small and grow gradually. I don’t think I can subscribe to every detail she suggests, but I found her emphasis on discerning God’s will over human decision-making inspiring. I’d much rather take time to hear God together as a team than constantly endure the tug of war of human opinions, and she provides very clear and practical steps on how to do so. I’ve already begun sharing and practicing some of what I learned in this book in a board-context, and it’s been well-received.
- In the Day of Thy Power: The Scriptural Principles of Revival by Arthur Wallis. I’d long been reluctant to read this book as it sat on my shelf for many years after I received it as a gift. Quite honestly, I’m skeptical of the idea that the classic idea of “revival” is God’s strategy for reaching the world for Christ. I’ve always felt that such a view tilts too much toward an attractional evangelistic model rather than the missional act of going out into the world as Jesus commanded us to do. But when a friend of mine who is very fruitful at making disciples and planting churches raved about this book, I decided to give it a try. As I began, it didn’t take long to see that the author was extremely thorough and very well-acquainted with the Bible. And though I was sometimes a bit uneasy with what seemed like prophetic interpretations of passages, I also sometimes found those explanations quite compelling. By the end, this book made two important impressions on me: the relevance of revival isn’t exclusive to attractional evangelism, and persistent prayer is essential to any form of evangelism. In fact, this book gave me a greater desire to grow in prayer as the author challenged and inspired me regarding what God wants to do through us in this world. I’m glad I finally read it.
- At the Foot of the Snows: A Journey of Faith and Words Among the Kham-Speaking People of Nepal by David E. Watters. When a book brings tears to my eyes, or causes me to suddenly pause and pray in response to something I’ve read, I know I’m being treated to a highly worthwhile story. I found this book quite moving, its story very inspiring, sometimes leaving me mesmerized or on the edge of my seat. It’s a stirring story of true Christlikeness expressed in the lives of an ordinary family and of the simple mountain people they lived among. It includes stories of angels and miracles, and of beatings and imprisonments. And yet it’s not written in a way that left me feeling that the people portrayed were wholly different from me, living a spiritual life completely unattainable to anyone reading this book. The author’s son wrote in the epilogue that his parents “were painfully aware of their own inadequacies, struggling all the while in vessels of earth and clay.” It was Christ who shone in them as they humbly followed him to achieve his purposes in all their human frailty. And as a result of their obedience, a beautiful people group will now stand before the throne of Jesus joyfully singing his praises!
- The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules by Carolyn Custis James. I love that the gospel of Jesus is so clearly portrayed throughout the many stories of the Old Testament, and Carolyn Custis James brings that out in her exploration of the story of Ruth. And though she says that this book was written to and for women, the inspiring insights she finds are also enriching for male readers like myself. I appreciated the research that was obviously put into the many cultural and biblical themes relevant to the book of Ruth, and given the significance of the female characters in this story, there was definite benefit in reading a book written from a woman’s perspective. I only struggled to some degree with the amount of conjecture or speculation that was reflected in the interpretation of the motives of some of the characters in the story.
- The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God by Dallas Willard. In all the reading I’ve done, Dallas Willard might be one of the most quoted authors I’ve encountered, so I decided to give one of his books a try. And I have to admit, now that I’ve completed it, I’m feeling rather winded. The man has a lot to say about a lot of themes, and says it all in an extremely thorough manner. But though winded, I also feel encouraged. Even though reading this book was quite the mental workout, I was repeatedly amazed at Willard’s fresh perspectives on familiar themes, and found myself gripped by portions of the book that seemed so applicable to where I was at in my heart. Sure, I wondered about his interpretations of some passages, and thought he went on too long in numerous places (the entire final chapter seemed totally unnecessary), but it all seemed worth it as he provided some brilliant and practical descriptions of a life of prayer, a life of rest in God, and a life of obedience and abundance as a disciple of Jesus. Overall, I felt helped by this book.
- A Loving Life: In a World of Broken Relationships by Paul E. Miller. It’s not like I didn’t find some great insights and observations in this book. Miller did a wonderful job of highlighting the true sacrificial nature of love, as illustrated in the biblical book of Ruth, and in contrast to our society’s soft and fuzzy versions of love. And I appreciated how well he did at connecting the dots between the story of Ruth and the larger biblical narrative, culminating in the story of Jesus. But too much of this book simply felt like Miller was using the book of Ruth as a platform for sharing a wide collection of opinions and passions that had too tenuous a connection to Ruth’s story. I too often found myself wondering, “What does this have to do with the book of Ruth?” And I was also uncomfortable with many of Miller’s interpretations of character motivations that felt to me like he was inserting twenty-first century mindsets. All those concerns ended up making what could’ve been a great book seem just okay.
- The Life of the Rev. John Wesley, M.A. with Some Account of his Ancestors and Relations; and the Life of the Rev. Charles Wesley, M.A. by John Whitehead, M.D. It felt more like a project than a pleasure to read this lengthy account of both John and Charles Wesley. It was written and published in two volumes in 1793 and 1796 by a man who knew John and Charles Wesley personally, so I figured I’d get an accurate portrait of their lives unblemished by the forgetfulness that comes with the passing of time. Unfortunately, Dr. Whitehead’s closeness to the Wesleys seemed to make him reluctant to provide a truly accurate picture that included more than a few sentences about their faults in his glowing accounts of them. Dr. Whitehead was also not a fan of condensing the source material he used, and so amidst his detailed explanations of what happened in the lives of the Wesleys, he constantly inserted the contents of lengthy letters that seemed totally unnecessary. And all of it written, of course, in highly wordy eighteenth century English. I learned a great deal, but I sometimes wondered if I was reading a defence of the original intentions of Methodism rather than a biography of the Wesleys, given the changes that were brewing around the time when John Wesley died.
- The Father Heart of God: Experiencing the Depths of His Love for You by Floyd McClung. This book has sat on my bookshelf unread for years. But then I spontaneously chose to read it because someone told me that Floyd McClung presents the message of the gospel in this book in a way that the world needs to hear. I found it even more than that. It offers an invitation and guidance on how to get free of hindrances in our hearts that prevent us from more fully experiencing the blessings of the Father heart of God. Though an extremely short book, and refreshingly simple in its message, I found it encouraging, and found some of its personal applications particularly relevant.
- The Whole Armor of God: How Christ's Victory Strengthens Us for Spiritual Warfare by Iain M. Duguid. I wanted to read this because of the weakness I so often feel in the very areas that the armour of God is meant to help us. I needed reminders, and I wanted reassurance, and I needed guidance, and this book provided all of that. In Iain Duguid’s typically insightful and pastoral approach to unpacking biblical texts, he gave me hope that I can grow as a good soldier of Christ. And what was most helpful was that Duguid continually pointed his readers (or listeners, as these are sermon transcripts) to Christ as the One who is the complete fulfillment of the armour he invites us to wear. It’s so encouraging that putting on the armour of Christ means pursuing Jesus himself.
- Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Four fascinating stories about four exceptional men, each facing very trying circumstances. Goodwin is a masterful writer who literally captivated me with these enlightening portraits of four past presidents. I was impressed with her thorough grasp of what influenced them, of what motivated them, and of how each of their leadership styles so perfectly fit the crisis that each of them faced. And though she emphasized how all four of them came from such different backgrounds and had such different temperaments, what they obviously all had in common was that they were all exceptionally ambitious and exceptionally resilient. I’m grateful not only to have learned much about them as leaders, but to have learned valuable leadership lessons from them.
- Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year by Malcolm Guite. I occasionally write poems, but I must admit that I struggle to read them. And yet, in the case of this book of sonnets, a form of poetry with which I was totally unfamiliar, I’m inclined to doubt myself in my reading-struggles rather than the poet. Though I often felt distracted by what seemed like a seemingly endless variety of random rhyme schemes, I felt genuinely stirred by about a quarter of the seventy sonnets in this book. Guite’s creative use of language to express profound insights in the sonnets I enjoyed was worth the read. And the fact that I struggled to read the rest of them is no reason to doubt the value of these poems, chronicling the Christian calendar.
- Life Can Begin Again: Sermons on the Sermon on the Mount by Helmut Thielicke. As this book title suggests, Helmut Thielicke describes the Sermon on the Mount as an opportunity to make a fresh start in life along a new path. But he also assures us that the ideals of that sermon are pointless apart from knowing the One who preached it. Thielicke wanted his listeners to recognize that it is by knowing He who has looked after everything in our past and has assured us of a future full of promises fulfilled that we are made ready to obey the unflinching demands of the Sermon on the Mount, and to confidently begin living our new life with the Preacher of that sermon.
This sermon series by Thielicke was delivered soon after WWII ended to German listeners whose lives had been shattered by the war. With his usual pastoral manner, Thielicke makes Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount immensely relevant and pointedly challenging to people seeking to make sense of life in tough times. I felt wowed by some of these sermons and unfazed by others, but as a whole I appreciated Thielicke’s insights regarding the passages he focused on, and I was fascinated by his specific references to how his listeners had been impacted by the war.
- A Wind in the House of Islam: How God is Drawing Muslims Around the World to Faith in Jesus Christ by David Garrison. This book got me excited. And what’s even more exciting is that the dramatic increases in the movements of Muslims turning to Christ that are documented in this book have continued to grow exponentially in momentum in the seven years since the stories of this book. I really enjoyed reading about the history of each of the nine regions (or “rooms”) of “the house of Islam,” but I especially loved the present day personal stories of Muslims who had fallen in love with Jesus. This book fits into so many book-categories that I’m drawn to: history, biography, missions… but the greatest reason i enjoyed it was that it got me excited about what God is up to throughout this entire world, leaving me with a desire to be a part of it.
- Foresight: How the Chemistry of Life Reveals Planning and Purpose by Marcos Eberlin. Amazing is not an adequate word for what this book describes. For example, consider the flagellum motor, a microscopic nanomachine that helps many lowly bacteria find food. It requires millions of atoms to be perfectly arranged so as to actually form a so-called molecular motor that appears to have rotors, shafts, O-rings, junctions, a propeller, and even a clutch. It’s all true. And the scientist who wrote this book asks a simple question: How could such an ingeniously and sequentially arranged complex cellular structure that operates in such a highly synchronized fashion have evolved one blind, random mutation at a time? And he asks that question about one fascinating example after another so as to suggest that the world we live in must have involved foresight and planning to exist. Too many complex life forms required multiple aspects of their structure, that mutually depend on each other to function, to all become operational at once in order to exist. Marcos Eberlin has a terrific ability to explain extraordinarily complex aspects of our world in a way that I not only found readable, but also highly compelling.
- Abraham Lincoln: Lessons in Spiritual Leadership by Elton Trueblood. At the risk of overstatement, I found this book truly inspirational. Lincoln’s spiritual life has long been debated due to how extensively his spiritual views changed throughout his life. That’s why I so appreciated how thoroughly Elton Trueblood researched the subject, and then sought to express Lincoln’s heart rather than just explain his religious opinions. Trueblood made it clear how the most profound changes in Lincoln’s spiritual journey happened in his final years while being the president during a civil war. And if any reader chooses to consider how great trials can positively shape our own perception of God’s involvement in our lives, we would do well to consider this quote from June 1862: “I have felt His hand upon me in great trials and submitted to His guidance, and I trust that as He shall further open the way, I will be ready to walk therein, relying on His help and trusting in His goodness and wisdom.”
- Determined to Believe?: The Sovereignty of God, Freedom, Faith, and Human Responsibility by John C. Lennox. As I read this, it felt like I was literally attending a course personally taught by John Lennox. The material is so thorough in its presentation, so meticulous in the biblical references, and so clear in how Lennox patiently reached his conclusions that I wanted to be a front row student every time I sat down to read this book. Lennox is a sharp thinker who made some great points in this book, and really got me thinking. But I didn’t find it quite as comprehensive as I had hoped it’d be, as Lennox didn’t address some key biblical passages that I’d like to have heard his views on, and he sometimes seemed a tad dismissive of views that differed from his conclusions. I’ve read a fair bit on both sides of this issue, but I’m glad I added this to what I’ve read. Though I wasn’t fully persuaded by some of Lennox’s conclusions, I still found most of his arguments extremely helpful and insightful.