My Top 16 Books of 2020

Longtime readers of this blog-and virtually anyone who has any idea that this blog even exists-are most likely aware of my habit of posting a top 10 list of my favorite reads from the previous year. Anyone who knows me in real life also knows that I can be somewhat indecisive, and narrowing this year's list down to 10 seemed like more decisions than I wanted to deal with. So I'm pleading a special case for a special year, and giving a top 16 list. 

Other differences from previous lists include my inclusion of re-reads (because I was hit so deeply by my re-reading of Till We Have Faces), allowing multiples from the same author (the Carson books deserve it), and how I've written (I normally stack these books up in front of myself, but I'm in the process of moving, and so they're pretty well all packed up).

1. Till We Have Faces- CS Lewis

I cannot communicate forcefully enough the impact of re-reading this book. I think the first
time I read Till We Have Faces was 4 or 5 years ago, and I remember spending a good portion of the time just trying to keep track of the story. I also remember being completely captivated by one phrase: the stench of holiness. 

This read through, my attention was drawn to what I think Lewis was trying to get at: our deep and subtle ability to deceive ourselves. 

2. Educated- Tara Westover

Tara Westover has a harrowing personal story. I deeply resonated with parts of it, and am deeply grateful that I couldn't relate to more. She writes beautifully, and her deepest question is one that many of us struggle with: how can I see and name something as wrong and still love the people involved?

3. Enjoying God- Tim Chester

Perhaps the most spiritually beneficial book I read the first half of the year. Chester draws on the work of John Owen in Communion with God, but this isn't just the re-hash of someone else's work. He spends chapter after chapter demonstrating how we can experience intimacy with God in our everyday moments in life. Not in a mystical, detached, or ethereal way, but in a manner that is God-centered, Bible saturated, and theologically informed. 

4. And Every Morning The Way Home Gets Longer and Longer- Fredrick Backman

I've heard rave reviews of Backman and decided to listen to this little book at work. Imagine my shame as the mailman is walking around town alternately laughing and crying. In a very brief story he grapples with death, love, friendship, and family in a way that puts most philosophers to shame. 

5. Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor- DA Carson

Wasn't sure which of the Carson books to put first, but this gets the nod. Carson takes a series of letters and journal entries from his father, and weaves them together with a mini biography of his dad and a history of Evangelicalism in mid 20th century Quebec. It's masterfully done, but more important than the accomplishment is the life being focused on: Tom Carson was indeed an ordinary pastor, a church planter and pastor who saw very little fruit during most of his ministry. And yet in spite of the difficulties and discouragements, he remained faithful. Which is all Jesus ultimately requires of his stewards. Thoroughly encouraging.

6. John- DA Carson

While the previous Carson book inspired me in ministry, this one helped me in the more normal sense. I both taught and preached through John (in different settings) from late 2017 through mid 2020. I don't think I picked up Carson's commentary until sometime in 2018, but from that point it has been a near and dear companion. Obviously it wasn't the only one on my desk (or Logos software) but it was the only one I made sure to read every week. Helpful on language and historical data, but shines when it comes to theology and practical implications of the doctrine for the believer's life. And if you want to dig deeper on anything, Carson's footnotes are a great place to start.

7. The Killer Angels- Michael Shaara

I grew up watching the movie Gettysburg which is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel. It's cliché to say, but the book is so much better it is not even funny. I felt like I was in the shoes of Longstreet and Chamberlain (the other depictions are good, but you get the feeling that Shaara has more sympathy with these characters than the others). This book reinvigorated my appetite for history in general, and military history in particular.

8. Heidelberg Catechism

I'm not Reformed with a capital R, so there a few quibbles I'd have...but overall, this is a beautiful summation of Christian truth in a Question and Answer format. 

Q. What is your only comfort in life and death?          

A. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.

9. A Big Gospel in Small Places- Stephen Whitmer

Witmer takes on an issue of pressing importance for me personally: given the bigness of the Gospel need in this world, should Christians bother with small places? His answer: depends on on the Christian. Some are called to the global cities, the culturally strategic places, the places of worldly influence. And some of us are called to Nazareth. The Gospel is for all kinds of people in all kinds of places-or perhaps more accurately, every person in every place. Important or insignificant. Big or small.

10. American Buffalo- Steven Rinella

I'll admit to being a bit of a MeatEater fanboy, and so I thought a family road trip would be a perfect time to listen to Rinella's book on an American Icon, the bison or buffalo. Well, the book is really good, but unless you want to explain his analogies explaining Bison bison sexual organs to your children, pass on the audiobook for the car ride. 

11. Zeal Without Burnout- Christopher Ash

This is a brief book. It's not groundbreaking in it's suggestions. But Ash is firm in reminding his readers that they are not God, and God does not expect them to be. So much of ministry burnout is based on our own idolatries of self, productivity, and pleasing people. But this book will call you back to simple obedience within the creaturely constraints which God himself has placed upon us. 

12. Jack- Marylinne Robinson

I love all of Marylinne Robinson's novels. To be honest, I think Jack is weaker than the previous body of work, but that says more about the quality of Robinson's previous work than this particular novel. The only quibble is how lost I imagined I'd be if I didn't already have Gilead and Home in my mental furniture. Not sure how the opening 50 pages (probably less than that in a normal copy, our librarian ordered it in large print) of dialog would have landed otherwise.

13. ConservatismRoger Scruton

In a time when the label conservative can carry an awful lot of baggage, much of which seems quite the opposite of conservative, it was refreshing to read an intellectual history and explanation of that term many hold so dear. A reminder that conservatives seek to conserve, not tear down or burn things. Timely. 

14. One Assembly- Jonathan Leeman

An argument that when the New Testament authors (and the Holy Spirit under whose inspiration they wrote) used the word ekklesia, "assembly", to describe the church, they actually meant for assembling to be a constitutive part of the definition of the church. While the church is more than a gathering of people, it cannot, in fact, be less. I found his argument persuasive.

15. No Quick Fix- Andy Naselli

A helpful look at the how sanctification actually takes place in the life of a believer, countering the "let go and let God" ideas which were/are articulated in Keswick theology, and carry popularly into much of modern evangelicalism.

16. Tess of the Deurbervilles- Thomas Hardy

I'd never read any Thomas Hardy...and while this is definitely not my "kind" of book, I did enjoy it. Thoroughly. Enough to give it some space in the top 16. Like all good fiction, it made me think.

Books I Enjoyed, But Not As Much as the Top Tier...roughly in order of enjoyment

Hank the Cowdog, John Erickson; If you have kids and aren't reading Hank the Cowdog to them, what are you doing with your life?

The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb, Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel

Weakness is the Way, JI Packer

The Gospel of John, James Boice; Brilliant collection of sermons!

The Last of the Mountain Men, Harold Peterson

Mom Enough, Ed. Tony Reinke

The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan

Visit the Sick, Brian Croft

Ordinary Grace, William Kent Krueger

Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Ulysses S. Grant

Forgotten Church, Glenn Daman

Right Color, Wrong Culture, Bryan Loritts

The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories, Ernest Hemingway

Church Elders, Jeramie Rinne

Comfort the Grieving, Paul Tautges

John, Carl Laney

The Trumpet of the Swan, EB White

Servant of All, Richard Enlow

Doubtless, Shelby Abbott

Poirot and Me, David Suchet

Many Colors, Soong-Chan Rah

The Fellowship of the Ring, JRR Tolkien

What Did You Expect? Paul Tripp

Coronavirus and Christ, John Piper

Spirits in Bondage, CS Lewis

Charlotte's Webb, EB White

Alexander Hamilton, Charles Conant

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Books I also read:

The Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

Take My Heart and Make it Break, Steve Shanks

Hokahey!, Richard Hardoff

Why Social Justice is not Biblical Justice, Scott David Allen


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