2021: A Year in Reading

In all the ups and downs of 2020, I decided I wanted to read more — both of the Bible and of books in general. I continued this priority in 2021, and it ended up being one of my most book-filled years yet. Here’s a list of the books I read with a brief description. I share these in case any of these books sound interesting to you.

Fiction

How Lucky: A Novel
by Will Leitch (Harper, 2021)

How Lucky is simply terrific. We picked the book up because it’s set in Athens, GA—just a mile from where Katie and I lived as newlyweds. So, yes, Leitch induced a severe sense of homesickness. But the book gave us more than nostalgia. With a disabled protagonist, the book is a testament to human dignity, friendship, and kindness. Honestly, thinking about the characters right now brings a big grin to my face. They’re that delightful. (Full disclosure: There’s a lot of language, so know that before going in.)

Jack
by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)

This book is the fourth (and presumably final) book in Robinson’s stellar Gilead series. This novel dives into issues of race and inequality, and it gives a deeper look into Jack Boughton’s compulsive, slightly neurotic, always paranoid psyche. Della loves him despite his many obvious flaws, in a way that depicts God’s love for us. As a result, this book about a tremendously flawed character is teeming with grace.

Lovely War
by Julie Berry (Viking, 2019)

Where to start with Lovely War? It’s a World War I love story told from the perspective of Greek gods living in the modern world. The idea sounds crazy, but it totally works. Katie read this book in 2020 and insisted I read it too. I’m glad I did.

The Christmas Pig
by J. K. Rowling (Scholastic, 2021)

Full disclosure: I was unsure about The Christmas Pig. The first quarter of the book is really heavy (especially for kids), and dare I say a tad boring to get through? But once the magic begins, the book finds its footing. I won’t spoil anything for you, but Rowling explores themes of love, sacrifice, and new life. (And, oddly enough, the book feels like a literary version of a Pete Docter Pixar film.) I do think there are a tad too many characters to grow emotionally connected to, but by and large The Christmas Pig is an enjoyable, inspiring book.

Bud, Not Buddy
by Christopher Paul Curtis (Scholastic, 1999)

A delightful story about a brave little boy on a journey to find his dad (or so he thinks). Bud is such a lovely, spunky character. I also enjoyed learning how key characters in the book (a former Negro league player, a black-led jazz group) were inspired by the author’s own grandfathers.

One Came Home
Amy Timberlake (Random House, 2014)

In my estimation, this book is a modern classic. One Came Home, cut from the same cloth as True Grit, tells the story of a girl who sets out to find her sister who’s presumed dead. Along the way, she encounters more adventure and danger than she bargained for.

Winnie-the-Pooh
by A.A. Milne (1926)

Milne’s classic book is one of my favorites to read to the kids. But I’m not sure who enjoyed the book more — me or them. Milne’s love for his own son permeates the pages, and it’s a love I like to share with my children.

A Bear Called Paddington
by Michael Bond (1958)

I was introduced to the character of Paddington by the 2015 movie of the same name. But what a joy this little bear is! A refugee from “darkest Peru,” Paddington humanizes refugees of all kinds and urges us to treat others with love and dignity.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
by Lewis Carroll (1865)

I once heard that Carroll was under the influence while writing this book. And after reading it? Well… I believe the rumors. This book is bizarre, an off-the-wall fever dream. While I appreciate how its uniqueness, Alice in Wonderland is not my cup of tea.

Perelandra
by C. S. Lewis (Scribner, 2003)

Perelandra is part 2 of Lewis’ criminally underrated Space Trilogy. It plays out like a retelling of Genesis 1-3 on Venus, and the protagonist seeks to stop the deceiver before Venus suffers the same fate as Earth. If you haven’t read it before, give it a chance. It’ll win your heart (and mind).

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
by C. S. Lewis (1952)

I’ve never completed the Narnia books, so I’m slowly working my way through them. Between Reepicheep’s bravery, Eustace’s growth as a character, and the overall sense of adventure, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was one of the more enjoyable so far. The end reminded me of the best parts of Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet or Perelandra.

The Red Pony
by John Steinbeck (1937)

Do you want a light coming-of-age story about a boy and his horse? The Red Pony is not for you. This brief novel is composed of several short stories about a boy growing up in an isolated part of the western frontier. The story is fraught with tension that never resolves, and Steinbeck includes graphic depictions of animal violence. Not an enjoyable read.

Junius Maltby
by John Steinbeck (1932)

Steinbeck’s short story is a cautionary tale of sloth. While not as unsettling as The Red Pony, it’s still not one I anticipate to return to.

Anne of Avonlea
by L. M. Montgomery (1909)

Confession time: I read the original Anne of Green Gables with deep reservations, but Montgomery’s classic was a lovely little novel. Sadly, I found Anne of Avonlea to be inferior in every way. I have lots of problems with this book, but I’ll boil it all down to one character: Davy. Let the reader understand.

The Green Ember
by S. D. Smith (Story Warren Books, 2014)

We’d heard high praise for this young adult fantasy book, so we were eager to pick it up. I enjoyed it less than the kids. The pacing was inconsistent, and it sometimes felt more interested in world-building than telling a compelling story. But I appreciate the world Smith was trying to build, and I hope subsequent books live up to their potential.

The Bronze Bow
by Elizabeth George Speare (1961)

I first read this book in middle school. Reading it now, some 20 years later, gave me a fresh appreciation for Speare’s storytelling and her ability to make us feel like a part of the first century world. We understand how radical Jesus must have been to young, angsty revolutionaries ready to burn Rome to the ground. But what Jesus offered was transformative, as we see in the life of the protagonist.

Harry Potter and the Sorcer’s Stone
by J.K. Rowling

Katie and I had long awaited the day when we could introduce the kids to the Harry Potter books. That day arrived this fall. Our plan is to read one each fall as the kids grow older.

The Best School Year Ever
by Barbara Robinson (1971)

A sequel to the infamous novel The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, this book continues telling the stories of the mischevious Herdmen kids. While not as memorable as its predecessor, Robinson still inspires lots of laughter and a few heartwarming moments.

Christian Nonfiction

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution
by Carl Trueman (Crossway, 2020)

Why is the world the way it is? In other words, how could we arrive at a point where the statement “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body” could be readily accepted by almost everyone? Trueman traces the development of the “self” through hundreds of years of Western thought. His work is impressive, wise, and surprisingly readable considering the breadth and depth of the topic. One of the most important reads of the year.

Reading While Black: African-American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope
by Esau McCaulley (Intervarsity Press, 2020)

McCaulley highlights the unique exegetical contributions of the black church to biblical interpretation. I simply loved this book. Having listened to McCaulley’s podcast The Disrupters, I could hear his voice as I read his words. Chapter 6 (“What Shall We Do with All This Rage”) stood out for his thoroughly biblical handling of a complex problem. A marxist McCaulley is not, and we’d all do well to cling to the Scriptures as firmly as he does when our cultural headwinds urge us not to.

Family Worship
by Donald Whitney (Crossway, 2019)

We have wanted to incorporate formal family devotions into our family routines, but we’ve had lots of fits and starts. Family Worship was a brief, helpful reminder on why and how we can do so. Whitney urges brevity, simplicity, and consistency in family worship, and we have tried to incorporate these practices into our family routines.

For God So Loved the World: A Blueprint for Kingdom Diversity
edited by Walter Strickland and Dayton Hartman (B&H, 2020)

Strickland and Hartman takes us on a tour of the what and why of kingdom diversity, featuring chapters from significant names in Southern Baptist life and some names who’ve influenced my own thinking. In particular, I appreciate the chapters on complementarianism — explaining the differences in complementarian thought and charting a path forward that’s both faithful to the inerrant Scriptures and empowering women to use their God-given gifts.

The Cross and Christian Ministry: Leadership Lessons from 1 Corinthians
by D.A. Carson (Baker Books, 1993)

I’ve read this book multiple times through the years — during my pastoral internship, then again in my first years of ministry. I read it again with my intern and found it as powerful and challenging as ever. Carson interacts with various passages of 1 Corinthians, and the insights for ministry are practical and wise.

Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News
by Jeffrey Bilbro (IVP Academic, 2021)

What is this news addiction doing to us? Is there a way out? And, most importantly, how should our Christian faith lead us to think about these questions? Bilbro addresses these topics in this book, which is wise, practical and liberating. (I wrote a review of the book at the Christ and Culture blog.)

A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (Collector’s Edition)
by Eugene Peterson (Intervarsity Press, 2019)

Eugene Peterson is best known for The Message translation of the Bible. But I wish he were more known for his devotional writings — like this book. In it, Peterson wades through the Psalms of Ascent and offers application to aid us in spiritual formation.

Cannabis and the Christian
by Todd Miles (B&H, 2021)

How should Christians think about marijuana? With the growing marijuana legalization movement, we can no longer simply say it’s bad because it’s illegal. We need to think Christianly about this substance, applying biblical ethical principles to this topic. This brief book by Todd Miles helps us do this very task. (I interviewed Miles about this book for Christianity Today.)

Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life
by Tish Harrison Warren (Intervarsity Press, 2016)

Does God care about how we brush our teeth, wash the dishes, or drive to work? Tish Harrison Warren says yes. This simple book is one of best books I’ve read in the past five years, so I made a point to read it again with my intern.

On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts
by James K. A. Smith (Baker, 2019)

On the Road with Saint Augustine is equal parts travelogue, apologetic work, historical theology, and autobiography. Smith helps us see how Augustine is much like each of us — a flawed human being who finds hope and healing in a life-changing resurrected ancient carpenter.

Enjoying the Bible: Literary Approaches to Loving the Scriptures
by Matthew Mullins (Baker, 2021)

Mullins, a literature prof, urges us to treat the Bible like literature. In particular, we can take principles for reading poetry and apply them to reading the poetry in the Scriptures. Doing so, he argues, will help us love the Bible on its own terms, not just see it as a collection of principles. In other words, there’s a reason why God gave us the Bible in all its various genres, as opposed to giving us a divine encyclopedia.

The Work of the Pastor
by William Still (Christian Focus, 2010)

This powerful, punchy, practical little book is one of my favorites on pastoral ministry. I re-read it, and I enjoyed it just as much as the first time.

Restarting the World: A New Normal After a Pandemic
by H. Norman Wright and Bryn Edwards (B&H, 2021)

In theory, this little book could be helpful. Ironically, though, I received it while the delta variant was just beginning to ravage the country. So… maybe the title was a bit premature? Nevertheless, there are some helpful insights, and the book is brief, simple, and easy to read.

Mere Discipleship: Growing in Wisdom and Hope
by Alister McGrath (Baker, 2018)

In this book, a collection of lectures delivered over the years, McGrath interacts with and applies key components of C.S. Lewis’ thought. I noticed that he shared some of his observations in the book in his lecture at the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture this year.

The Genealogical Adam and Eve: The Surprising Science of Universal Ancestry
by S. Joshua Swamidass (Intervarsity Press, 2019)

Joshua Swamidass proposes a new way of reconciling the creation/evolution debate. I must say, parts of his theory are intruiguing, though other parts leave me unconvinced. If you’re looking for a short version of what he’s advocated, he explains in this podcast episode.

Humbled: Welcoming the Uncomfortable Work of God
by David Mathis (B&H, 2021)

A short, helpful book on a big, cumbersome problem we all deal with — the problem of pride, and the pursuit of humility. In around 100 pages, Mathis urges us to look to the example of Jesus and pursue humility.

The Multi-Directional Leader: Responding Wisely to Challenges from Every Side
by Trevin Wax (TGC, 2021)

Such a wise little book from Trevin Wax. Wax puts into words thoughts I’d long wrestled with. In particular, I appreciate his call for “epistemic humility.” The book both encouraged and challenged me in my personal life and in my ministry.

Retreiving History: Memory and Identity Formation in the Early Church
by Stefana Dan Laing (Baker, 2017)

My favorite part of this book is towards the end. Laing shares the stories of notable women in church history — most of whom would are unknown in our churches. We owe it to ourselves to know these important stories of faithful saints in the past.

Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers
by Dane Ortlund (Crossway, 2020)

In 2020, lots of people were reading this book, so I finally read it for myself. Ortlund interacts with Scripture and Puritan thinkers to get at the heart of Christ — and what that means for our Christian life. The short of it: Jesus loves us far more than we dare imagine. An uplifiting, scripturally rich read with short chapters, so you could easily make it a part of your devotional routine.

Why God Makes Sense in a World That Doesn’t
by Gavin Ortlund (Baker, 2021)

Ironically, I read these books by the Ortlund brothers back to back! This book is less devotional and more apologetic. Ortlund is making a case for God — appealing not just to facts and logic, but also to art and beauty. In the coming years, I think we’ll need to employ the kinds of arguments Ortlund uses in this book.

Walking in God’s Wisdom
by Benjamin T. Quinn (Lexham, 2021)

Quinn gives us a framework from which to understand Proverbs, and he draws out key themes that pervade the book. The rare commentary that’s enjoyable to read. When I teach Proverbs, I intend to consult this book!

Turning of Days: Lessons from Nature, Season, and Spirit
by Hannah and Nathan Anderson (Moody Publishers, 2021)

“The heavens declare the glory of God,” and in this book the Hannah Anderson draws devotional applications from nature to spur worship and reflection, while her husband Nathan supplements these reflections with beautiful drawings.

The Gospel and Religious Liberty
by Russell Moore and Andrew T. Walker (B&H, 2016)

I read this book to prepare for a church lecture on the topic of religious liberty. It was succinct but helpful in helping me compile my thoughts.

The Expected One: Anticipating All of Jesus in the Advent
by Scott James (B&H, 2014)

We read this book together as a family in our morning devotions, and I found it to a simple, easy-to-follow guide to seeing the hope of Christ in the Christmas season. Each day, you’re prompted to read a verse, reflect on it, and pray. The devotions were simple enough for the whole family (even the littlest one) to get involved.

The Last Words of Jesus: A Meditation on Love and Suffering
by Daniel P. Horan (Franciscan Media, 2013)

A Franciscan friar offers his reflections on the seven last words of Jesus. Horan’s interpretation of Jesus’ words lean heavily into issues of justice, as his tradition often does, but he occasionally offers helpful applications.

Last Words: Seven Sayings from the Heart of Christ on the Cross
by Robert J. Nash (New Growth Press, 2020)

I found this book to be far more helpful and applicable than Horan’s book. Nash’s reflections and meditations informed my preaching of the seven last words of Jesus during Lent.

General Nonfiction

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
by Frederick Douglass

One of my goals in 2021 was to read more books by people of color, and Frederick Douglass’ infamous autobiography was at the top my reading list. Douglass is unflinching in his depiction of slavery, and his words resonate like those of an Old Testament prophet speaking God’s judgment against a cruel, inhumane system. I urge everyone — especially believers in Jesus — to read and reflect on his words.

Talking to GOATS: The Moments You Remember and the Stories You Never Heard
by Jim Gray (Harper Collins, 2020)

Why did Mike Tyson give away a brand-new sports car? What was the best game you never saw Michael Jordan play? How did Muhammed Ali treat a bunch of South Carolina kids? And what’s behind the beef between Pete Rose and Jim Gray? The veteran sportscaster tells these (and other) stories you’ve never heard before. If you like sports, you owe it to yourself to read this book. Gray sometimes toots his own horn too much, but the stories are worth it.

Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation
by Cokie Roberts (Harper Perennial, 2005)

The Founding Fathers were instrumental in the founding of our nation, but after reading this book I’m convinced that the nation wouldn’t exist without the contributions of “Founding Mothers” like Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Dolly Madison and others. While the men were away fighting wars and writing laws, the women kept estates afloat, ran businesses, wrote pamphlets — all while raising children. This book was an illuminating look at their experiences, filled with quotes and references to primary sources. I, for one, hope we can celebrate these founding mothers as much as we celebrate the founding fathers.

Dreams from my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance
by Barack Obama (Crown, 2004)

Before Barack Obama was a President, a Senator, husband, or father, he was a young man searching for his identity. And while I don’t agree with all of Obama’s politics, I deeply appreciated his candor in this book. He tells the story of his birth, searching for the father he barely knew, reconciling the disparate parts of his upbringing, and coming to terms with his identity. Dreams of my Father isn’t the polished autobiography of elder Obama the statesman; it’s the the raw reflections of a young man trying to find his place in this world. And doesn’t that describe all of us?

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction
by Alan Jacobs (Oxford University Press, 2011)

Alan Jacobs wants you to read. A lot. But lest you grow stressed, Jacobs doesn’t give you a lengthy list of literary “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots.” Instead, he urges you to read what you find interesting. Read on a whim. Follow your nose. And grow in your love of the written word.

A Shot in the Moonlight: How a Freed Slave and a Confederate Soldier Fought for Justice in the Jim Crow South
by Ben Montgomery (Hachette Book Group, 2021)

This book tells the true story of a grave injustice against a black man in the Jim Crow South — and the surprising legal victories he acheived. While the details of the story are astounding, the book’s methods of telling said story left much to be desired. For example, several chapters are simply excerpts from the trial transcripts.

Christmas in Plains: Memories
by Jimmy Carter (Simon and Schuster, 2001)

In this short book, Georgia’s most famous resident shares vignettes of his life story through various Christmases in his life. The Christmases begin simple but grow increasingly complex in his Presidential years.

Commentaries

I read several commentaries in 2021. Here are the ones I completed:

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