2020 Book Recommendations

At no point this year (or any other year for that matter) did anyone ever approach me to inquire about the books I read. Even so, I felt like volunteering this particular tidbit of personal information. So without further adieu, I present the books that were most encouraging, inspiring, convicting, challenging, thought provoking, and/or paradigm shifting — listed chronologically (because ranking this sort of thing would be absurd).

In the unlikely event that anyone chooses to read one of these books and wants to discuss it, please let me know. There are some real doozies in here, and there were multiple times I felt like I needed to debrief with someone.

The Neverending Story
Michael Ende

When I Read It: January/February 2020

Why I Read It:
I watched the movie as a kid and loved it. It didn’t dawn on me that it was actually based on a book until I was an adult. I got a copy a few years back, but the ending of [spoiler alert] Stranger Things season 3 reminded me to finally read it.

Why I Recommend It:
Because fantasy and imagination are important. As G. K. Chesterton said, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

Notable Quote:
“Only the right name gives beings and things their reality. A wrong name makes everything unreal. That’s what lies do.”

Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes
Shauna Niequist

When I Read It: April/May 2020

Why I Read It:
My wife read it and suggested it to me. We both enjoy food, hosting people, and reflecting on how that intersects with our faith.

Why I Recommend It:
I think the following quote speaks to this far better than I will…

Notable Quote:
“Food matters because it’s one of the things that forces us to live in this world — this tactile, physical, messy, and beautiful world — no matter how hard we try to escape into our minds and our ideals. Food is a reminder of our humanity, our fragility, our createdness. Try to think yourself through starvation. Try to command yourself not to be hungry, using your own sheer will. It will work for a while, maybe, but at some point you’ll find yourself — no matter how high-minded or iron-willed — face-to-face with your own hunger, and with that hunger, your own humanity.

The sacraments are tangible ways to represent intangible ideas: new life becomes something we can feel and smell and see when we baptize in water. The idea of a Savior, of a sacrifice, of body and blood so many centuries ago, fills our senses and invades our present when our fingers break bread and our mouths fill with wine.

We don’t experience this connection, this remembering, this intimate memory and celebration of Christ, only at the altar. We experience it, or at least we could, every time the bread and wine are present — essentially, every time we are fed. During that last meal, that last gathering of dear friends and disciples, Jesus was inviting us to gather around a table and remember, in church buildings and outside of them, during the sacrament of Communion and outside of it.

When you offer peace instead of division, when you offer faith instead of fear, when you offer someone a place at your table instead of keeping them out because they’re different or messy or wrong somehow, you represent the heart of Christ.

We tend to believe that what we’ve done is too bad — that our sins and mistakes are beyond repair, and our faults and failures too deep and ugly. That’s what shame tells us. But if we take a chance and come to the table, and if when we are there we are treated with respect and esteem and kindness, then that voice of shame recedes, just for a little while, enough to let the voice of truth, of hope, of Christ Himself, get planted a little deeper and a little deeper each time. The table becomes the hospital bed, the place of healing. It becomes the place of relearning and reeducating, the place where value and love are communicated.

When the table is full, heavy with platters, wine glasses scattered, napkins twisted and crumpled, forks askew, dessert plates scattered with crumbs and icing, candles burning down low — it’s in those moments that I feel a deep sense of God’s presence and happiness. I feel honored to create a place around my table, a place for laughing and crying, for being seen and heard, for telling stories and creating memories.

Roots: The Saga of an American Family
Alex Haley

When I Read It: May 2020

Why I Read It:
I remember hearing how this book/miniseries had a major cultural impact in the 1970’s, and I inherited a copy of this book from my grandpa. The Ahmaud Arbery video had just been released, and I felt it was time to take a dive into this complex, controversial work.

Why I Recommend It:
This is epic masterpiece of 20th century American literature, following a family from enslavement in the mid 1760’s to the civil rights movement in the 1960’s. Every American needs to grapple with this story, but it’s not for the faint of heart — there are graphic descriptions of torture and rape — which were part of the daily trauma experienced by slaves.

Notable Quote:
“The first time he had taken the massa to one of these “high-falutin’ to-dos,” as Bell called them, Kunta had been all but overwhelmed by conflicting emotions: awe, indignation, envy, contempt, fascination, revulsion — but most of all a deep loneliness and melancholy from which it took him almost a week to recover. He couldn’t believe that such incredible wealth actually existed, that people really lived that way. It took him a long time, and a great many more parties, to realize that they didn’t live that way, that it was all strangely unreal, a kind of beautiful dream the white folks were having, a lie they were telling themselves: that goodness can come from badness, that it’s possible to be civilized with one another without treating as human beings those whose blood, sweat, and mother’s milk made possible the life of privilege they led.”

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass

When I Read It: May/June 2020

Why I Read It:
I’ve had it on my “to read” list for years. After reading Roots, it felt it was right to dig deeper into the primary sources of American history.

Why I Recommend It:
American history is complicated. We need to listen to the voices of the marginalized and let them challenge the gilded narrative we’ve been taught.

Notable Quote:
“I FIND, since reading over the foregoing Narrative that I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion. To remove the liability of such misapprehension, I deem it proper to append the following brief explanation. What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest, possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.”

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America
Ibram X. Kendi

When I Read It: June 2020

Why I Read It:
There have been a lot of highly publicized police killings of unarmed black men in prior years, but somehow the outrage boiled a little hotter this summer. This book topped lots of recommended lists, and when a friend suggested it directly, I prioritized it over everything else.

Why I Recommend It:
Racism evolves throughout history, and unless we remain vigilant that it does not take root in our own minds, we will perpetuate it — often times assuming our own innocence.

Notable Quote:
“I was taught the popular folktale of racism: that ignorant and hateful people had produced racist ideas, and that these racist people had instituted racist policies. But when I learned the motives behind the production of many of America’s most influentially racist ideas, it became quite obvious that this folktale, though sensible, was not based on a firm footing of historical evidence. Ignorance/hate → racist ideas → discrimination: this causal relationship is largely ahistorical. It has actually been the inverse relationship — racial discrimination led to racist ideas which led to ignorance and hate. Racial discrimination → racist ideas →ignorance/hate: this is the causal relationship driving America’s history of race relations.”

ParentShift: Ten Universal Truths That Will Change the Way You Raise Your Kids
Linda and Ty Hatfield & Wendy Thomas Russel

When I Read It: June 2020

Why I Read It:
My wife and I have 4 children. It can be chaotic. This was recommended to us.

Why I Recommend It:
This book has a lot of insights into the complexity of humanity, and I would recommend it to anyone — even without kids. The way they parse out the intersection between physical needs, psychology, and dealing with conflict is profound. I’m convinced that this book can also help navigate the socio-political conflicts that raged through 2020, if only we’re patient enough to self-regulate and hear what others are trying to communicate.

Notable Quote:
“He theorized that the emotional needs of children — their need for acceptance, respect, and significance — were as important as their physical needs but were constantly being undermined by permissive parents, on the one hand, and punitive parents, on the other. When children whine, hit, withdraw, refuse to cooperate, break the rules, or engage in power struggles, he said, they are not trying to be defiant or selfish or disrespectful; they have legitimate emotional needs that are being ignored. Lacking the maturity, language, or skill set to state their needs clearly, they rely on the most effective more of communication they have: their behavior.”

Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America
Michael O. Emerson

When I Read It: June/July 2020

Why I Read It:
This book was referenced by the Holy Post Podcast in as they discussed race, the church, and why things seem to be just as bad now as they were during the civil rights movement in the 1960's.

Why I Recommend It:
The gospel of Jesus Christ is for all people, yet racial discrimination is often perpetuated by the very people trying to share the good news. Many churches (including my own) have made verbal efforts to address the problems, yet racial discrimination stubbornly persists. The author makes a convincing case that “the evangelical movement’s emphasis on individualism, free will, and personal relationships makes invisible the pervasive injustice that perpetuates racial inequality.”

Notable Quote:
“Because evangelicals view their primary task as evangelism and discipleship, they tend to avoid issues that hinder these activities. Thus, they are generally not counter-cultural. With some significant exceptions, they avoid “rocking the boat,” and live within the confines of the larger culture. At times they have been able to call for and realize social change, but most typically their influence has been limited to alterations at the margins. So, despite having the subcultural tools to call for radical changes in race relations, they most consistently call for changes in persons that leave the dominant social structures, institutions, and culture intact. This avoidance of boat-rocking unwittingly leads to granting power to larger economic and social forces. It also means that evangelicals’ views to a considerable extent conform to the socioeconomic conditions of their time.”

Dream with Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win
John M. Perkins

When I Read It: July/August 2020

Why I Read It:
I had been reading a lot of really heavy, convicting, and (occasionally) bleak reports of American socio-religious history, and it left me feeling frustrated and disappointed. I had heard Dr. Perkins offered a fresh perspective.

Why I Recommend It:
Dr. Perkins (who was personal friends with Dr. King) deals with the atrocities of racism first hand, but infuses the hope and joy that comes from faithfulness to the gospel.

Notable Quote:
“I am all for churches being a part of the nonviolent marches and protests that have happened in the wake of violent killings, but these protests happen only after a tragic event has taken place. I want the church to be what prevents these acts from ever happening. I want the church to be the community that is so dedicated to loving our neighbors, to caring for the poor and neglected, and to living out true reconciliation that these killings do not even take place.”

Compassion (&) Conviction: The AND Campaign’s Guide to Faithful Civic Engagement
Justin Giboney

When I Read It: August 2020

Why I Read It:
I learned about The AND Campaign from the Theology In The Raw Podcast (and again on the Holy Post) where Mr. Giboney made the case that the Christian witness is necessary to critique political power without compromising.

Why I Recommend It:
Political issues are regularly framed in ways that force us to choose between justice and morality, which causes Christians to abandon politics or fall into tribalist extremes. This book helps explore a third way that defies the binary false-choice in a way that is both faithful and engaged.

Notable Quote:
“In politics, civility shows itself in respect for disagreement and in granting others the right to express it. Civility shows itself when we acknowledge the best in our political opponents’ line of thinking and the best in our political opponents themselves. Civility is mercy and forgiveness. It is a form of public grace.”

The Blue Parakeet
Scot McKnight

When I Read It: August 2020

Why I Read It:
I had read Dr. McKnight’s King Jesus Gospel, and was already a fan of his work. This book was recommended by The Bible Project podcast, so I thought I’d read it.

Why I Recommend It:
The same Bible is shared by very different traditions, each picking and choosing which passages are relevant, and how to put it into practice. McKnight exposes the hypocrisy of Christians who say they believe in the Bible without doing what it says. The book challenges assumptions, and show’s that we’re all guilty of confirmation bias when it comes to interpreting scripture.

Notable Quote:
“Any method of Bible study that doesn’t lead to transformation abandons the missional path of God and leaves us stranded.”

People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is Not Just an Issue
Preston Sprinkle

When I Read It: September 2020

Why I Read It:
I had been listening to Dr. Sprinkle’s Theology In The Raw Podcast for years. I had listened to the audiobook of his book Fight, and when I realized this book was available on Hoopla Digital, I made sure it was the next thing I read.

Why I Recommend It:
Believe it or not, it is possible to reconcile the Bible’s prohibition on same sex intercourse with the message of radical, unconditional grace. This book helps walk that tightrope in a way that is thorough, nuanced, and graceful. For what it’s worth, it addresses the “clobber passages” with much more grace than has historically been granted.

Notable Quote:
At the beginning of my journey, I set out to study what the Bible says about homosexuality. And to be honest, I thought this part of my study would take a few weeks. After all, my tradition had already concluded that same-sex relations are wrong, and so I only needed to find the verses that supported this tradition. But as I started to study those verses, I quickly found that the discussion is not so simple. You may find it shocking, but most scholars who have written books about homosexuality in the last forty years have concluded that the Bible does not condemn consensual, monogamous, same-sex relations.The debate is not about what the Bible says. That much is clear. The debate is over what the Bible means.

I’ve always been eager to test my traditional beliefs by Scripture. After all, I’m a product of the Protestant Reformation, which upholds Scripture — not tradition — as our ultimate authority. Sometimes the church’s tradition needs to be corrected and reformed by Scripture. For many years, the church stood on the wrong side of the question of slavery. Many Christians held the Bible in one hand while they whipped their slaves with the other. Christians have also stood on the wrong side of science. The famous Christian astronomer Galileo was excommunicated and imprisoned for trying to overturn the church’s traditional belief that the sun revolves around the earth. Yet we are all thankful that Galileo had the nerve to question tradition — even one that was written in stone.

I underwent a similar shift in my own thinking a few years ago when I set out to study what the Bible says about warfare and violence. As a reformed evangelical and son of a Marine, I always assumed that it’s perfectly okay for Christians to kill if it was during a war or to save an innocent person. It seemed like a no-brainer, and my tradition had all but unanimously affirmed it. But when I studied what the Bible actually says about violence and warfare, I ended up advocating — to my own surprise — absolute nonviolence, even though this goes against the tradition I grew up with.

All that to say, I am quite eager to let the Bible challenge tradition. It’s not that tradition is bad or doesn’t carry any authority. I think it does. But all evangelical Christians agree that the Bible stands over tradition as our ultimate authority.

So when I began my study a few years ago, I came before God and said, “If my tradition has been wrong about homosexuality, then please show me through your Word and give me the courage to proclaim the truth.” I have prayed that prayer several times throughout this study, and I encourage you to do the same. If the Bible is our ultimate authority, and if tradition is subject to error, then we all should eagerly drag our traditions to the foot of Scripture and mandate a re-evaluation. That’s what “reformation” means. It means that we submit our traditions to the authoritative Word, even if it compels us to reconfigure long-held beliefs.

Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples
Francis Chan

When I Read It: September 2020

Why I Read It:
This was recommended by the Small-Groups/Christian Education minister at the church I attend in preparation of a sermon series and focus we were taking over the summer.

Why I Recommend It:
I read a lot of convicting things this year, and this one was another spiritual gut punch that confronted my comfortable attitudes toward how church is done.

Notable Quote:
“Yet somehow many have come to believe that a person can be a “Christian” without being like Christ. A “follower” who doesn’t follow. How does that make any sense? Many people in the church have decided to take on the name of Christ and nothing else. This would be like Jesus walking up to those first disciples and saying, “Hey, would you guys mind identifying yourselves with Me in some way? Don’t worry, I don’t actually care if you do anything I do or change your lifestyle at all. I’m just looking for people who are willing to say they believe in Me and call themselves Christians.”

The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism
Jemar Tisby

When I Read It: September/October 2020

Why I Read It:
I heard this book recommended on Holy Post Podcast when the author was interviewed. It stands in contrast to Ibram X. Kendi’s book, as Tisby’s hones in on how the American church was complicit in each new development of racial discrimination.

Why I Recommend It:
This unique telling of history shows that racism was not an inevitability, but instead that the church compromised at every step along the way in order to perpetuate evil. Understanding history helps us know which solutions to pursue, but we must grasp the depth of the sin in order to embrace the cure. The book is simultaneously heartbreaking, infuriating, convicting, and hopeful.

Notable Quote:
“Christian complicity with racism in the twenty-first century looks different than complicity with racism in the past. It looks like Christians responding to ‘black lives matter’ with the phrase ‘all lives matter.’ It looks like Christians consistently supporting a president whose racism has been on display for decades. It looks like Christians telling black people and their allies that their attempts to bring up racial concerns are ‘divisive.’ It looks conversations on race that focus on individual relationships and are unwilling to discuss systemic solutions. Perhaps Christian complicity in racism has not changed after all. Although the characters and the specifics are new, many of the same rationalizations for racism remain.”

Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk: A Christian’s Guide to Engaging Politics
Eugene Cho

When I Read It: October 2020

Why I Read It:
The 2020 political discourse had been a raging dumpster fire, so when Eugene Cho was interviewed on the Theology In The Raw Podcast and mentioned the book, I appreciated his perspective as a minister and the son of Korean immigrants.

Why I Recommend It:
Politics effect real peoples’ lives, so it is necessary that Christians engage. However, unquestioned loyalty to any party leads to vilifying the vulnerable. This book “integrates the pastoral, prophetic, practical, and personal” so that the church remains engaged with integrity.

Notable Quote:
“To devalue the life of another, to be a jerk, is counter to the kingdom. To be a jerk, to revel in earthly shouting matches, sells short the radically different way of Christ. It’s a poor representation of Christianity and also a foolish political move. Before all of our best arguments, let’s first show love. That’s what we’re supposed to be known for, after all.”

Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States
Andrew Whitehead & Samuel Perry

When I Read It: October 2020

Why I Read It:
Another recommendation from the Holy Post Podcast. See a pattern yet?

Why I Recommend It:
This book acknowledges the paradoxical discrepancy between evangelical belief and christian nationalism. This is an important guide to one of the most influential, yet least understood, force shaping American politics.

Notable Quote:
“Some conceptual clarifications would be helpful at the onset. Though journalists and historians have bandied about the term a good deal in the past decade, we mean “Christian nationalism” to describe an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic live with a particular type of Christian identity and culture. We use “Christian” here is a specific sense. We are not referring to doctrinal orthodoxy or personal piety. (In face, we find some Christian nationalists can be quite secular.) Rather, the explicit ideological content of Christian nationalism comprises beliefs about historical identity, cultural preeminence, and political influence. But just as important, it also contains ideological content that is often implicit. This includes symbolic boundaries that conceptually blur and conflate religious ideology (Christian, preferably Protestant) with race (white), nativity (born in the United States), citizenship (American), and political ideology (social and fiscal conservative). Christian nationalism, then, provides a complex of explicit and implicit ideals, values, and myths — what we call a “cultural framework” — through which American perceive and navigate their social world.

What do we not mean by Christian nationalism? Fist — and this may surprise (or disappoint) some readers — this isn’t a book about white evangelicals. Certainly, we will address the considerable overlap between Christian nationalism and white evangelicalism. But the two concepts are not at all synonymous. Christian nationalism is a framework that orients American’s perspectives on national identity, belonging, and social hierarchies. American evangelicalism, strictly speaking, is a theological tradition prioritizing certain doctrinal commitments including biblical inerrancy and conversionism. While a large percentage of Christian nationalists are affiliated with evangelical beliefs, many non-evangelicals (or non-Christians, for that matter) also hold strong Christian nationalist beliefs. Conversely, many white evangelicals in surveys unequivocally reject Christian nationalism…”

The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection
Robert Farrar Capon

When I Read It: Off and on through most of 2020

Why I Read It:
It was highly recommended to me from one friend, and then another friend gave me a copy as a gift.

Why I Recommend It:
This is an inspirational treatise extolling the glory of old fashioned home cooking, and occasionally waxes pastoral while considering the quality of a proper carbon steel blade.

Notable Quote:
“The world may or may not need another cookbook, but it needs all the lovers — amateurs — it can get. It is a gorgeous old place, full of clownish graces and beautiful drolleries, and it has enough textures, tastes, and smells to keep us intrigued for more time than we have. Unfortunately, however, our response to its loveliness is not always delight: It is, far more often than it should be, boredom. And that is not only odd, it is tragic; for boredom is not neutral — it is the fertilizing principle of unloveliness.

In such a situation, the amateur — the lover, the man who thinks heedlessness is a sin and boredom a heresy — is just the man you need. More than that, whether you think you need him or not, he is a man who is bound, by his love, to speak. If he loves Wisdom or the Arts, so much the better for him and for all of us. But if he loves only the way meat browns or onions peel, if he delights simply in the curds of his cheese or the color of his wine, he is, by every one of those enthusiasms, commanded to speak. A silent lover is one who doesn’t know his job.”

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
Jonathan Haidt

When I Read It: November 2020

Why I Read It:
I saw it referenced and recommended in so many places it was hard to keep track. It was time to read it for myself.

Why I Recommend It:
Haidt shows how anthropology, history, and psychology support varying moral foundations. He offers what each each political tribal group has right, and what each can learn from the other.

Notable Quote:
“We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).”

The Liturgy of Politics: Spiritual Formation for the Sake of Our Neighbor
Kaitlyn Schiess

When I Read It: December 2020

Why I Read It:
Kaitlyn Schiess was interviewed by the Holy Post Podcast, and suggested that both sides of the political divide present false gospels of prosperity, patriotism, security, and supremacy, and that they’re more subtle and powerful than we care to admit.

Why I Recommend It:
Miss Schess shows how we are shaped by our practices, and forces us to recognize the formative power of politics. She begs us to recover historic Christian practices that conform us into the image of Christ.

Notable Quote:
“Political participation has a unique agility to inspire idolatry in people precisely because it so often involves promises of protection and provision, require sacrifices, legitimizes authority, and inspires submission and worship.”

Here’s a full list of the books I read this year.

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