The other day I received an email from Goodreads, telling me about my “year in books” — so far in 2016, I’ve read 7,834 pages, with my shortest book being 80 pages, and my longest being 672 pages. There is no way I would have been able to read this much if I didn’t respond to Goodreads’ “reading challenge” at the start of this year, which motivated me to set a goal of reading 40 books in the year. As of today, Dec. 15, I have read 36, with one about half way done, and another recently started, so hope still abides that I can reach my lofty ambition by Dec. 31.
With all this reading under my belt, I would be remiss if I didn’t offer my favorite 10 books of the 36-38 that I’ve read so far, and this comes to you with some time left for that avid reader on your Christmas list. Here are my 10 favorite books read (not necessarily released) in 2016:
1. The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, Larry Taunton. This is not only an engaging page turner, but is also a powerful example of how Christians should engage the skeptic, with a humble reminder that the lives we lead are just as important as the words we speak.
2. Preaching, Tim Keller. So many helpful observations for preachers: make your sermon good, but leave it to God to make it great; don’t merely confront or adapt, but adapt in order to confront; remember that you are not at war with a group of people but with a system of ideas that have victimized people. Essential reading.
3. The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Rosaria Butterfield. An inspiring story of a woman who experienced what today’s cultural elites say is impossible –- she left her lesbian lifestyle and is now not only a committed Christian, but happily married to a man. This might not be a common occurrence, but the idea that such a transformation is impossible is what Rosaria calls a “pack of lies.”
4. Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance. Vance tackles an essential question: “how much of our lives, good and bad, should we credit to our personal decisions, and how much is just the inheritance of our culture, our families, and our parents who have failed their children?” Not only do you get a host of interesting characters and bizarre stories, you will also look at the next “hillbilly” you meet with considerable more understanding and compassion.
5. Unfaithful Music, Elvis Costello. He’s definitely an acquired taste, but Elvis has always been one of my favorite songwriters. He had a reputation early in his career as a smug “angry young man,” but gracing the pages of this book are self-deprecation, humility and thoughtful reflection on a life mostly past. At the heart of this memoir is simply a man who is, and always has been, captivated with music.
6. The Grace Effect, Larry Taunton. Yes, I was so impressed with Taunton’s book on Hitchens (see #1) that I read another. In this prequel, Taunton explains in depressing detail how the Ukraine’s atheistic heritage has produced a culture of cruelty and indifference, particularly to children. The entire book is a touching metaphor for the gospel, the story of a hopeless life redeemed by relentless grace.
7. The Imperfect Pastor, Zach Eswine. This is a book that every pastor (or aspiring pastor) should read. Eswine issues a challenge to the insidious idolatries of the pastor’s heart – the desire to know it all, to fix at all, and to be in a more exciting place. “You were never meant to repent because you don’t know it all. You are meant to repent because you’ve tried.”
8. Defending the Free Market, Robert Sirico. Argues that a free market economy is the friend, not the enemy, of the poor and marginalized, by encouraging them to flourish in obedience to the creation mandate. “It is precisely those societies that have liberated the entrepreneur to create new wealth that have generated the reserves of wealth . . . (and) have done the most to roll back extreme poverty and place people on the path to economic well-being.”
9. Why Trust the Bible, Greg Gilbert. A brief overview of the Bible’s authority and trustworthiness, designed specifically for skeptics who see the Bible as a tall tale full of contradictions, and also for Christians who want to know how to defend the reliability of the Scriptures.
10. Tactics, Gregory Koukl. Helpful handbook for how to interact with skeptics. Koukl takes the pressure off the believer by advising us to be more prepared to ask good questions than to have all the answers. For Koukl, the important thing is not to win the argument, but to “put a stone in someone’s shoe” — that is, to cause him/her to at least re-think his/her opposition to Christianity.
Goodreads, by the way, is a great app. It allows you to stay in touch with friends, so you can see what they are reading now and what they plan to read. You can write a synopsis of each book you read, so you can go back and review the main benefit received from your reading. The app also keeps track of when you started a book and when you finished it, for those who are overly obsessive about such trivial details. And the “reading challenge” at the start of each year is, at least for some of us, a healthy motivator to read more than you would otherwise.