Top Twenty Books of the Year image

Top Twenty Books of the Year

There are so many ways of doing a "best book of the year" list, it can be difficult to know where to start. If you read a wide variety of books, which this year I've tried to, you can enjoy books for completely different reasons, and people who chime happily with some of your choices will stare in disbelief at others (so I wonder if I'm the only person to have read Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination and Matilda for the first time this year, for example). It's also hard to tell whether you should choose the best books released this year, in which case you narrow the field dramatically unless you pretty much only read new books, or choose the best books you read this year, in which case people will be tutting that some of your choices are now old hat, and some of them you really should have read before (which I certainly concede). Well: so be it. It's my list.

Top Ten New Books

Hannah Anderson, Humble Roots. I was privileged to endorse this, and measured by its impact on the Wilson family alone, it is probably my book of the year. Hannah does a wonderful job of combining theological and biblical reflection, rich horticultural imagery and practical application (so you end up with a chapter on blackberries and suffering, for instance), and both Rachel and I found it spoke right to our souls. It is also the first book I’m planning to re-read from this year’s crop. Superb.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain, Christian Dogmatics. A superb collection of theological essays on all the major doctrines of the Christian faith, including Kevin Vanhoozer on Scripture and Oliver Crisp on Sin. This, for those who have used prooftexty systematic theology textbooks and lost confidence in systematics altogether, is a great way to rehabilitate.

Joshua Ryan Butler, The Pursuing God. Josh is one of my favourite younger writers—and I use that term to simply mean “younger than me”—and this is a beautiful series of reflections on the way the love and character of God works. If you’ve read his previous The Skeletons in God’s Closet, you won’t need any further encouragement to buy this; if you haven’t, this excerpt may help.

Ben Judah, This is London. Ben Judah is a remarkable writer, and the kind of person who thinks journalism means you have to go out into the world and find stories, rather than sitting at your desk and googling them. In this hard-hitting travelogue, he goes into underground London (both metaphorically and, sometimes, literally) and meets all kinds of people who never appear in the travel guides: Afghan migrants, Lithuanian prostitutes, Filipino slaves, oligarch wives, litter pickers, drug runners, illegal builders and so on. The result is a perspective on London that you won’t find anywhere else, complete with some heartwarming moments and some serious food for thought.

Tim Keller, Making Sense of God. Certainly the best apologetics book released this year, and all the more so because it is pitched at people who aren’t really interested in apologetics, this is vintage Keller. As I put it in my review, “Instead of assuming Christianity has the answer to a burning secular question, Keller talks to those for whom there’s no burning question.” We’re introduced to important recent works by Jonathan Haidt, Andrew Delbanco, Terry Eagleton, Luc Ferry, Julian Baggini, Thomas Nagel, and many other skeptics and agnostics, and in each case, we’re shown how their insights can and should provoke us to consider Christianity carefully, whatever conclusion we come to.

Peter Leithart, Delivered from the Elements of the World. Leithart is one of the few theologians I know of who is worth reading no matter what they are writing about, and no matter whether or not you agree with him. His take on atonement and/or Galatians and/or justification is no exception, especially if read alongside Brad Littlejohn’s critique. The section on the flesh is probably the most theologically informative passage I’ve read this year.

Yuval Levin, The Fractured Republic. This book on American society and politics was a great read before the election, and would be even more so afterwards. Levin argues that a certain nostalgia for the post-War years dominates political discourse for both Left and Right, and that a more positive future vision requires what he calls an ethic of subsidiarity: the rehabilitation of the middle layers of society (clubs, unions, churches, mosques and so on). I briefly summarised his case here and here.

Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual. Technically this book was released in 2014, but it’s new enough for most of us. Siedentop traces the origins of concepts like equality and individuality—starting with the earliest societies, worshipping around the ancestral fires, and then moving through the classical period, the early church, Christendom and the Renaissance, and finishing with the modern West—and gives a good deal of the credit to Christianity. It is a masterful piece of intellectual history. The fact that I read it alongside Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Christianity and Edward Said’s Orientalism made it even more compelling.

James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love. The fascinating thing about Jamie Smith is that you know what he’s going to say, but you still delight in hearing him say it. If you don’t know what he’s going to say, on the other hand, this is a must-read. His central Augustinian insight on desire and habit, and his application of it to the contemporary church, is hugely significant for all of us.

Jen Wilkin, None Like Him. Jen is one of the outstanding women teachers I have come across, and she has written a book about the character of God (which is a good start). But the twist is that she has only written about those attributes of God that we do not share: infinity, unchangeability, and so on. Her section on the way we count things as a way of controlling them, and the way God is utterly beyond this, was worth buying the book for on its own.

Top Ten Older Books I Read This Year

Augustine, City of God. Magisterial, sweeping, brilliant, civilisation-shaping, and (in my view) even more readably written than the Confessions.

G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy. Hilarious, bombastic, provocative, inflammatory, paradoxical, mystifying, conservative, radical.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. The longest whodunnit I’ve ever read, as well as a stunning portrayal of the difference made by hope in the resurrection.

T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets. Poetry that is Christian in a way it makes you rethink all kinds of things, and so beautifully written you don’t want it to end.

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind. The most important book I read this year.

Tim Keller, Prayer. The book I took the longest to read this year (around eight months), and also the book that shaped my devotional life more than any other.

Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity. An extraordinarily vivid yet meticulous history of the Church, which sheds light on virtually everything.

George Orwell, 1984. Thoroughly gripping, disturbing, dark, savage, mesmerising storytelling.

Blaise Pascal, Pensees. This set of philosophical, religious and literary musings is practically unsummarisable, but no less brilliant for that.

If you’re on Twitter, I’d love to hear the best books you read this year, especially if you think I’d like them (and the books being released next year that you’re most excited about!) I’ll probably read half as many next year, and that will involve being a bit more selective ...

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