Favorite Reads of 2020

 

Typically at the end of each year I post a list of my favorite books read that year. That time is now upon us. This list is not of books written in 2020 (although six of the ten were published in the last two years), not is it a list of all the books I read; it is a list of my favorite books read in 2020. This list is also not ranked in order of my favorite or the ones I think were the best. They are in roughly the chronological order that I read them. The books on this list were my favorites because of what they taught me, the joy they brought, how they edified me, or the way they enabled me to see things from others’ perspectives. I try to read books that I not only know I will agree with, but also books that will challenge me and allow me to think critically about issues of importance. I’m thankful that in a year of uncertainty, there were still books. God is good.

    1. Grant by Ron Chernow (2017). An epic biography that covers the scope of Ulysses Grant’s life from shopkeeper to General to President. While honest with struggles that Grant had with alcohol in his life, this account is a corrective to the stereotypes associated with Grant and presents him as a man of integrity overall who was oftentimes to trusting of his associates. Most revealing was how instrumental he was in a positive way in the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era seeking to secure the rights of the recently freed African Americans. He may have done more for Civil Rights for African Americans than any other President in history. The progress that was made under his administration highlights the immediate setbacks and backlash that happened in the American South, the results of some of which continue today.
    2. 51PPV59S5SL._AC_UY218_The Amazing Spider-Man, Volume 1 (Masterworks Series) by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Contains Amazing Fantasy #15 and Amazing Spider-Man #1-10 (1963). My favorite comic book super hero while growing up was Spider-Man. During my early teen years in the late 1980s I would purchase, read, and collect each month’s issues of Amazing Spider-Man, Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man, The Web of Spider-Man, and Marvel Tales (featuring reprinted Amazing Spider-Man classics). When I saw that some editions of Marvel’s Masterworks series were available to read for free on Kindle for Amazon Prime members, I decided to read the first volume featuring the first eleven appearances of Spider-Man from the early 1960s. Although the stories were much simpler then, the 1960s artwork is my aesthetic. Excelsior! 
    3. imageThe Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral-And How It Changed the American West by Jeff Guinn (2011). My first foray into historical research was a research paper written in high school exploring the true stories behind some of the myths of the Old West. As much as I love the genre of western, I love even more the real stories that inspired the mythos of the wild west. This book, therefore, appealed to me with its promise in the subtitle to tell the “real story” of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. It starts out somewhat slow with a lot of background to the town of Tombstone, but when the main characters of the gunfight are introduced it becomes riveting. It turns out that “Doc” Holiday in real life is almost as fascinating as the version played by Val Kilmer and the closing chapter detailing the influence of this gunfight on the development of the modern western is very enlightening.
    4. 3830454ATen Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine by Barry Strauss (2019). This work surveys the first four-hundred years of the Roman Empire by examining the ten most influential Roman Emperors during that period. As a classicist and professor of ancient military history, Strauss is an expert guide on this tour through early Roman history. Strauss is a master storyteller and his book is an enjoyable read. Particularly interesting to me was the way in which these “Ten Caesars” shaped the world into which Christ was born and in which Christianity developed. The interplay between the various Roman emperors with one another and the Senate makes for fascinating (even if sometimes soap-opery) reading.
    5. download (1)Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood by Aimee Byrd (2020). I have long appreciated the corrective that complementarianism is to both egalitarianism on the one hand and patriarchalism on the other hand. However, correctives also sometimes need correcting. Aimee Byrd provides helpful pushback to overreaches in the “biblical manhood and womanhood” movement from biblical, theological, and historical perspectives. In the end, she remains committed to her confessional tradition in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Westminster Confession of Faith) and the teaching of Scripture regarding gender roles in the church and home while she rejects many of the contemporary evangelical interpretations of exactly what that should look like in today’s world. Helpful and thought-provoking if read with charity and a willingness to listen.
    6. 31ACyi3x7rL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_Reformed Evangelicalism and the Search for a Usable Past: The Historiography of Arnold Dallimore, Pastor-Historian by Ian Hugh Clary (2020). This work was originally Ian Clary’s doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of the Free State. Clary has modified that work for publication and it was released this year in the series in Reformed Historical Theology published by Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. Clary’s work, while focused on the Canadian historian Arnold Dallimore, provides a compelling case study on the role of the Christian historian. Clary analyzes the historical writings of Dallimore pointing out both strengths and weaknesses. This analysis allows Clary to propose a way for Christian historians to approach history in a way that is faithful to tell the truth “warts and all” about its heroes, while also telling the story of the past in a way that is usable, profitable, encouraging, and instructive for the church today. In this work, Clary models exactly what he commends to the good of all who will read it.
    7. 51HOWdvDmeL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope by Esau McCaulley (2020). This work by New Testament scholar and Wheaton professor Esau McCaulley was very eye-opening to me. Although written for a primary audience of African-American students of the Bible, this work provides rich insight into the ways in which the Black church in America has interpreted the Bible. Just reading this book is an important reminder of the way that our context influences our interpretation of Scripture. It is very important to read how other groups interpret Scripture because many other groups may have more in common with the first century readers of the New Testament. This is certainly true of those who have lived as minorities and experienced persecution. For such communities, the hope of eternity, when all wrongs will be made right and there is no more suffering, is especially understood and celebrated. By reading this book I was able to eavesdrop on conversations that have long been taking place in the Black church in America and I have a richer understanding of Scripture because of it. I lament with the author his struggle to find a home in the white church, both among theological conservatives who share his high view of Scripture but who have little interest in matters of racial justice or among theological liberals who share his concern about social justice but whose beliefs regarding Scripture undercut the very hope that has sustained the African-American community over centuries of suffering. I’m grateful to Dr. McCaulley for opening a window into a long ongoing conversation that I have sadly been mostly unaware of. I pray that white evangelicals and African-American Christians will learn from one another and sharpen one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
    8. 566134_1_ftcGentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by Dane Ortlund (2020). This is quite simply the most soul-encouraging, heart-strengthening, gospel-sustaining books that I have ever read. I was moved to tears many times as Ortlund vividly portrayed the beauty of the gentle mercies of Jesus Christ. In this work, Ortlund draws from the rich devotional literature of the Puritans, especially Thomas Goodwin’s The Heart of Christ. Although filled with the gospel-saturated Puritan ethos, Ortlund writes in accessible English for the modern reader. In many ways, Ortlund has distilled the teaching of the Puritans on the compassion of Christ into single breath-taking volume. After reading my copy, I placed it on my bookshelf with my Puritan classics where it rightfully belongs and from where I will pull it again and again as I often need to be reminded of Christ’s love for me, a sinner.
    9. 147216The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby (2019). This book doesn’t tell the full story of American Christianity. It doesn’t claim to do so. However, it does tell the part of the story that has often been ignored or left out when white evangelicals write their own history. I think of Churchill’s quip that history will be kind to him because he intended to write it! We have often been far too kind to ourselves in our recounting of our history. Tisby provides an important and instructive look at the ways that the white church in America has often been complicit in the racism of the wider American culture. You may not agree with Tisby’s proposed solutions, but clearly the white church has not been what it should have been on this issue. Honestly acknowledging the problem is the first step toward changing that and this book confronts us with facts from our past that will begin us on that journey.
    10. 5117RSGMD7L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith (2012). I ended 2020 the same way that I began it—by reading a 1,000+ page biography of a two-term Republican president who had previously served as an United States General leading his country to victory. The parallels between the lives and careers of Grant and Eisenhower are striking at times, highlighted by the fact that the author had also written a biography of Grant and makes several comparisons. Both men arose from relative obscurity to become commanding generals where their success propelled them to the presidency. Eisenhower is presented by Smith, not as a flawless man, but as a steady leader who led with integrity. Although he was identified with war due to his role as Supreme Commander in the European theater during World War II, his presidency was a period of stability and peace due to his measured leadership at the beginning of the Cold War era. Eisenhower was uniquely qualified to oppose the extremists within his own party. He was able to withstand and ultimately squelch the McCarthyian Communist witch hunts due to his own stature as a trusted leader. His role in integrating the Armed Forces and using the military to enforce the Supreme Courts ruling to desegregate schools is an important, though often overlooked legacy that paved the way for the Civil Rights movement. 

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