I want to share ten of the books I enjoyed reading the most this last year. I realized that my nonfiction books far outnumbered my fiction (something I think I will balance out in the coming year). All of my favorites from 2020 are nonfiction. These books moved me and stuck with me long after I finished them. In no particular order, here they are.
This is not the most profound book I have read, but its message was so timely and immediately impactful to me that it is a top book from 2020. Just before I started it, I was intensely aware of the noisiness of my everyday life. Between the sounds outside me (3 energetic children under age 5) and the sounds inside me (my mind’s constant adding or offloading of ideas/tasks/anxieties/possibilities), I felt overstimulated or, as Barton writes, “entrenched in noise and words.” In this book she shares her personal experience of learning to establish habits of silence and solitude and how she has used that knowledge to help others cultivate an inner calm so they can meet with God in a deeper way. This book encouraged me to start practicing silence — for my own well-being, to open myself up to the Lord’s sustaining Word, and to set myself up to be more present to those around me. I started this practice in the mornings before reading Scripture. It took a few months of jitters and distractedness for me to settle into stillness, but over time, I’ve been able to work up to ten minutes of silence. Even though I don’t do it every single day, on the mornings I do, I can feel how grounding it is for the rest of the day.
In this book, Reeves argues (in a joyful, self-effacing, and earnest way) the centrality of God’s nature as three in one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He shows how this reality is foundational to understanding God and living the Christian life. He helps by framing the Trinity in simple, insightful ways, with biblical support. For example, he says, “The Father is never without the Son but, like a lamp, it is the very nature of the Father to shine out his Son.” He notes, “The Spirit is the one through whom the Father loves, blesses, and empowers His Son.” He then supports these arguments with Scripture passages and insights from Christian theologians. Here is a lovely summary from the last pages of the book: “Jesus [is] the bright lane to knowledge of the true God. As the glorious, Spirit-anointed Son, he reveals his Father. He reveals God to be Father, Son and Spirit–and thus he reveals the only God who is love, and he shows us the true glory of that love on the cross. In him we see a God far beyond the bores and tyrants we all rush to reject. In him we see the good God.” Delighting in the Trinity moved me towards a deeper affection for God.
Here Jacobs develops an argument for reading old books. He trains readers to thoughtfully engage with worldviews of authors who have profoundly different perspectives and experiences. In an interview with The Trinity Forum, Jacobs talks about how reading books from the past can act as “training for encountering difference.” He addresses the way we live much of our life online and can feel we need to perform “informational triage” on all of the data coming at us. We are in a “frenetic standstill,” he says, in which we are both inundated with information and feel frozen in inaction. He explains that this is why we often are quick to discount something we view as offensive. But he says, “We need to be able to discern the difference between ideas that are truly offensive and ideas that only seem to be offensive because we actually haven’t understood them yet.” In this book, Jacobs (a professor of English) walks through old works from people like Henrik Ibsen, Frederick Douglass, Simone Weil, and Italo Calvino in an engaging and accessible way. He shows how to interact with texts that seem strange to our modern sensibilities. I loved engaging with the ideas he writes about and finished the book with renewed vigor to read and think about older books. Breaking Bread with the Dead seemed like an important book but also so enjoyable to read.
Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd by Thomas Chatterton Williams. This book is a memoir that includes some cultural commentary on the hip-hop culture of the 90s, a time when Williams came of age. I enjoyed Williams’ excellent storytelling and the way he takes the reader along through is own evolution in thought. Williams seems genuinely interested in understanding and empathizing with others in his community who have stayed on a trajectory he believes is limiting or harmful. Meanwhile, he is committed to taking a different path, not out of arrogance, but rather a genuine desire to live more freely. In 2019 Williams published a memoir called Self-Portrait in Black and White: Family, Fatherhood, and Rethinking Race, which further chronicles the way he has thought about race. In the beginning of that book, he writes, “We are at the same time obsessed with race and wholly confounded by it.” Williams shares personal stories and insights and offers pointed critiques. While I differ from him in some of his assumptions and solutions, he still gave me a lot to consider as I learn how to engage with various viewpoints on race and racism today.
Originally published in the 1980s, this book seems just as relevant today, while many Americans seek to understand the roots of racism, the nature of African Americans’ struggle for freedom and dignity, and how to work towards justice and peace. Ellis, an African American man, lays out a historical and cultural timeline and uses his Christian faith to understand cultural movements over time. He helps the reader understand the forces behind various movements throughout history (especially focusing on the legacies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X). There is an extensive glossary of terms, people, and events in the back of the book to aid a student of American history or cultural studies. This book is a thoroughly researched, clearly written guide that I expect to refer to often. Learn more about the author here. Two others books I read recently that have helped me gain more understanding in this area include Beyond Racial Gridlock by George Yancey, and Divided by Faith by Michael Emerson.
McLaughlin writes in a scholarly style, using research, Biblical text, cultural commentary, literature, and more. She makes compelling arguments for the truths of Christianity in a personal and winsome way. She encouraged me to consider several of the controversial claims of Christianity and strengthened me with research and conclusions that are thorough and intellectually honest. After reading the book, I feel emboldened to invite skeptics or those of other faiths to join me in open discussion about challenging topics rather than gloss over or avoid them. I’m looking forward to reading whatever she writes in the future.
Part memoir, part guidebook for creative artists, this book resonated with my heart. I appreciated hearing Peterson talk about his own struggles and thought processes in his career as a musician and author. His self-deprecating storytelling was disarming, and the openness about some of his fears and dreams inspired me to share my own vulnerabilities with others. I’m looking forward to reading his fantasy series with my boys when they are a little bit older. Also, I listen to Peterson’s beautiful collaborative album each Advent season.
After reading this beautiful book, I immediately gave it to a friend. Lore articulates with candor and warmth some of the pitfalls of physical touch in the church. She shares how a faith community can harmfully range from not touching at all to touching abusively. Touch is a powerful form of acceptance and affection and Wilbert shares how its loving manifestation in the church is especially important for those who do not live day-to-day with a spouse or family. She shares from her own experience and makes a case for how Jesus used touch in his ministry on earth to bring about life and healing. We can, in turn, learn to live as people who redeem the power of touch for good. Read more of Lore’s thoughtful writing here and here.
This book is compelling and eloquent. I wish I had read it in my twenties, when I was even more prone to strive to earn God’s love rather than simply rest in it. Ortlund supports his arguments for receiving Christ’s love with biblical texts and writings from early church thinkers. His tone is compassionate and inviting, pointing towards the subject of this book: Jesus Christ. You can read the first chapter here.
Vroegop’s book is both personal and pastoral. He shares his story of heartache and bewilderment when his baby dies. He offers guidance from God’s Word about how to lament–how to cry out to the Lord and find hope in Christ. I have read several books on grief and this is one of the most moving, perhaps because of the way he lays out his own struggle so plainly. His tone is humble and hopeful, and this book is a beautiful example of how to offer those who suffer ways to express sorrow and find solace in the Lord. His recent book Weep with Me about how lament and racial reconciliation connect is a thought-provoking read.