My Best Books of 2019

December 22, 2019 — Leave a comment

As I reflect on 2019 and the close to 30 books I put away in it (I don’t remember if that’s a lot or a little, but a few of those reads were well over a thousand pages), here are my best books of the year:

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Best Christian Life BookLiturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren. This book was recommended to me last year, and after reading a selection in it, I wanted to give it a whirl. I’m so glad I did. Warren’s aim is to help make our everyday actions a part of spiritual formation. She’s a winsome and gifted writer, and the book feels very devotional in nature. Warren’s sense of gospel-story infusing our day is alone worth giving it a read. While I might have some disagreements with Warren in non-essential areas of the faith, there is more than enough common ground to not only recommend Liturgy of the Ordinary but to enthusiastically do so!

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Best Biblical Studies/Theology Book (Classic)Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, Vol. 2 by Herman Bavinck. Since Bavinck’s Vol. 1 was my best book of it’s kind in 2018, I couldn’t see his Vol. 2 not taking 2019’s top spot. I wrote a year ago about Vol. 1 that Reformed Dogmatics has a “gravity, precision, and brilliance about it that is unparalleled in my experience.” Vol. 2 is no different. Bavinck’s theological presentation of God and Creation was food for my soul. It was intellectually stimulating – a theology for thinkers – not one that easily succumbs to cheap parlor tricks of proof texting idea or using paper-thin logic for support. It is the work of people like Bavinck that can rescue disillusioned Christians from the stunted and shallow perspectives that pass for current evangelical thought. Bavinck not only holds his own in theology proper but does so in light of the theologians throughout the ages – a truly catholic work if you will. Though challenging to read, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2, shows the kind of erudition the church needs more, not less of.

Best novels in 2019:

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Best Fiction (Classic) – 1984 by George Orwell. This is one of those books I never read when I was in junior high or high school. I’m glad I didn’t. It’s not because it wasn’t a classic. It’s because it was. I’m increasingly coming to the conviction that the great works of literature are wasted on youth who can’t appreciate them because they’re either forced to read them or aren’t old enough to appreciate them. At least that was true for me. With that said, 1984 was a terrifying, harrowing experience. Orwell feels less author and more prophet. He is prescient in his writing as it deals with a totalitarian state where the thought police…and word police…and philosophy police as Big Brother rule the day. Ironically, in the 80’s and 90’s people thought 1984 described a world ruled by the far right. Today, it could be argued that the novel is a picture of the far left gone awry – of political correctness as idolatry. Orwell’s is the best kind of fiction. Like Albert Camus once said, “fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth,” and 1984 tells the truth in an unforgettable way.

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Best Fiction (Modern) – The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. This was a book I couldn’t put down: exquisite writing, engrossing storyline, and captivating characters. Tartt’s tale, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is of a boy who loses his mother and tries to find himself while losing himself in the world he been thrown into (literally). It’s part cultural critique, part Bildungsroman…and all epic but reads much quicker than its 775 pages. The amount of detail in this book must have kept Tarrt busy doing research for months if not years. Maybe that’s why she writes one book a decade. The result, at least in the case of The Goldfinch, was definitely worth it. Easily my favorite modern read of 2019.

Runner Up: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

Best Fiction (Debut Novelist) Presidio: A Novel by Randy Kennedy. As I person who grew up in West Texas during the 70’s and 80’s, I knew I’d be almost powerless from keeping a book with the same setting out of my reading stack. I’m sure glad I didn’t. The biggest strength of Kennedy’s debut novel is his power to hit all the right notes in describing life on the Llano Estacado. His noir style has some similarities with Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. For a first novel, I think Presidio is a wonder. It has well-paced writing, an engaging story, and tension in the all the right places. I’ll let the readers be the judge as to whether the ending is a fitting conclusion to the story line.

Runner Up: Into the Distance by Hernan Diaz

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Best Nonfiction Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott. This is a book I’d seen several of my pastor friends enjoy. After reading it myself I now see why. Lamott, the child of hippies in San Francisco, illustrates the principle of the apple not falling far from the tree. She’s an irascible, dyed-in-the-wool liberal who has converted to Christianity. Her writing is funny, quirky, and unflinchingly honest. Her autobiographical stories are messy because she’s messy. Her life is messy, her decision-making is messy, her theology is messy, etc. Now, you can either let that trouble you or inspire you. If you have a good working knowledge of the gospel, I hope you choose the latter instead of the former. Traveling Mercies left me grateful for a Jesus who has by his grace also included me, another messy person, in the kingdom of God.

Best Book I Still Need to Think About 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. This epic 900-plus page book and National Book Critics Circle Award Winner has been regarded as a modern masterpiece. It’s a border story that’s no mere border story. It felt a bit like reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest where the plot isn’t clearly demarcated, but that’s okay, it’s the journey that one is to remember. I finished 2666 feeling all kinds of things and not too sure exactly what they were. It’s the kind of book you’re sure you’re not going to like and then, after finishing it, it sticks with you in a way you can’t put your finger on it. I’m still not too sure what to say about 2666. But I won’t be surprised if I wind up coming back to it one way or another.

On Friday I received a text from one of my closest buddies informing me that Stacy, one of my college friends, had committed suicide. I was immediately overcome with emotion – a whole bucket full of sobbing, cursing, shouting, and stunned silence to boot. Frankly, there were brief moments where I was inconsolable. Something was breaking in me. Indeed, the depth of anguish and sorrow was so profound that there were times I even wondered where it was coming from. But here are my thoughts.

Stacy and me circa 1990

I’ve said many times that the greatest gift I ever received from Baylor were the friendships formed over those four years in Waco. For me, that brief chapter in life was almost magical. It seemed the bonds of friendship were formed quickly our first semester as freshmen. This gaggle of kids who were trying to figure out who they were and who they wanted to be immediately connected; we ate lunches together, took road trips, opened God’s Word and prayed for each other, danced with each other at various formals and local honky-tonks, always stopped to talk if we saw another of us walking around campus, and even a few shared brief romances that we reflect upon with more fondness than embarrassment. We laughed a lot, spoke of spiritual things, and offered our shoulder for those who needed to shed a tear or two.

Stacy was firmly fixed within the constellation of those friendships, almost as a sister we wanted to protect. Our sophomore year she even moved to the apartment complex that we guys had chosen so she could be with us. Maybe she felt we would protect her as well. Truth is we would have done anything for Stacy. Everyone loved her because she embodied the best of what those friendships looked like – a godly woman, a godly friend. She just joined in with everyone else as we learned how those kinds of friendships could be formed.

To look back on those times is to be awash with a little nostalgia and quite a bit of melancholy where one hearkens for the “good ole days” when life was simple, beautiful, and innocent. Sure, it might’ve been a little on the naïve side – it is college – but those relationships were sincere, hopeful, spiritual, and powerful enough to leave an impression on me for what defines real, godly friendships. In fact, it’s almost darn near ruined me ever since.

So it’s possible that in my mind’s eye I want to keep those years at school and the people I loved in them untouchable. I felt like in those friendships I was given a masterpiece painting, something priceless and rare, a possession many would want but few would ever find. It was so meaningful I have hung it high above on the mantle of my heart where it would serve to inspire me and drive me to better friendships in life. In way, Stacy represented not only a dear friend but the grace of best kind of friendships.

So when I got word that she committed suicide it felt as if someone or something drew a big black mark across the canvas. The beautiful and good was disfigured and marred. It was a tragic way to be reminded that the brokenness of sin sinks its claws into everything. And that you don’t get to keep anything for yourself that isn’t protected from its reach. The darkness not only assaults your present but can assail your past. Thus, Stacy’s death felt tragic to me…and in me. Something was stolen from me, and it’s not coming back this side of Jesus’ return. That’s my best guess on why I feel this so deeply.

And that won’t change any time soon because this does strike me in my core. The pillars have shaken and there may be a few cracks within. For all the goodness and grace in which those friendships shaped, taught, and blessed me over the years, it only makes sense that when we lose one of us we also lose a little bit of ourselves. That just might be what this is: a losing of Stacy and a little bit of me.

I love you Stacy. Kyrie Eleison.

We recently finished up a sermon series on Faith & Science. It was one of the most well-attended, and highly invitational series in recent memory. Now that it’s over, I thought I’d offer a few reflections that come to mind.

#1: Congregants are more motivated about this topic than you think.

This was an easy topic to choose because we live in the backyard of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and as such, a large percentage of our congregants and neighbors have occupations that intersect the sciences (e.g., engineers, astronauts, scientists, medical personnel). But don’t let that fool you into thinking that the subject of faith and science is one in which you should pass because your demographic may differ. I discovered that just as many people from non scientifically-oriented backgrounds were also deeply drawn to this series. If philosopher Dr. Charles Taylor and his critically-acclaimed book A Secular Age‘s description of modernity is accurate, we live in time where atheistic materialism has come to full flower. It is the explanation for everything. Science is king and Christianity, by contrast, is harangued as a pale imitation for understanding our world. These are the waters in which all of your congregants swim. It’s the fight they deal with as they disciple their children who are indoctrinated into the secular age. It’s for reasons like these that your people thirst to know how the Christian faith actually engages science instead of tucks tail and runs.

#2: It’s a perfect opportunity to deconstruct the stereotypes the unchurched have about Christianity in general and the church in specific.

Throughout our series, I had the opportunity of conversing with scores of folk who identified as unbelievers. Most were from scientific backgrounds. For example, I spoke with an MIT-trained scientist who was not only impressed that a Christian church broached the topic of science and its relationship to faith but that, by and large, demonstrated how Christianity isn’t monolithic on secondary and tertiary issue (e.g., the interpretive stance of Genesis 1-2). Many skeptics, especially the scientifically-minded I’ve spoken with, tend to paint all churches as anti-intellectual, anti-critical thinking, anti-science communities that is generally evidenced in Christian fundamentalism. A series on faith and science however presents them with a different narrative that forces them to re-think their presupposed categories and biases. Indeed, it pushes them to employ their critical skills to re-evaluate not only the church but Jesus Christ himself. And that deconstruction can reboot the spiritual journeys of more people than you might think.

#3: You may save the faith of some.

I anticipated a lot of different responses to this series, but I was surprised to see how many tears came from it. They weren’t tears of anger but gratitude. One gentlemen found me in the lobby between services and soberly remarked, “You have no idea how this series has helped me.” I said thanks but he grabbed my arm and with tears forming in his eyes continued, “No. You don’t understand. I grew up in a church that told me science was evil and to ask questions was wrong and a lack of faith. Consequently, my whole life I’ve thought I’ve betrayed God because I wanted to know more about how the universe works. I thought I had to pick Jesus or science. And hearing from you that we, as Christians, don’t have to think in such binary terms has been oxygen to my soul. I’m sure this series has helped many people to work out their faith, but for me, it’s saved mine.” How many folk in your congregation have been given the same soul-crushing burden of thinking they must choose between their Savior and science? Rescue them!

#4: Pastors can help their people build better bridges between faith and science than the one they’ve likely been given.

Christians have been given too little discipleship that intersects with science, if anything at all. For many, their church’s unfortunate strategy concerning science was “don’t ask, don’t tell.” And those churches who did try to equip their people often did so using tired and outdated argumentation that tends to be peppered with ad hominems, red herrings, and straw men which won’t last three seconds into a college biology class. Don’t use that ineffective playbook! You might fool the majority of congregants who just accept those old arguments prima facie, but those with even the slightest level of advanced scientific education won’t. Far from winning the scientifically-minded, you’ll only confirm their bias that Christian pastors, like their flock, still have their collective heads in the sand when it comes to how the world really is. However, a series on faith and science can point out the shortcomings of a fortress mentality that retreats from scientific dialogue and reorients followers of Jesus on how a person of faith fairly and intelligently engages science. It can help them answer questions they were too afraid to ask in the past and free them up to pursue relationships with both the sciences and those who work in them. Simply put, it’s a series that helps them become better missionaries because it builds better bridges to cross.

#5: If not you, who?

The most popular question pastors have asked me concerning this series deals with how much more preparation did I have than a “regular” sermon series? While I’m sure my study might have taken a few more hours than potentially a different topic, don’t let that stop you. My question to you pastor is, if you don’t shepherd your congregation in the intersection of science and faith, who will? That’s your job. Don’t let secularists and materialists be the only voice they hear! In fact, I’d bet your congregation can deal with one less sermon series on marriage, family, or parenting this year (which, I’m sure, they’ve heard more than once) and have it replaced by a series on faith and science they’ve likely never heard before. Will it be challenging? Sure. But if part of the difficulty of that challenge is because you don’t know how to think about faith and science for yourself, then you know where you need to grow as a teacher and congregational leader. Whether you like it or not, your calling as a pastor is to be a Christian thinker as well as a Christian communicator. You aren’t called to think for your congregants (that’s their responsibility). You are called to equip them in their thinking. And it’s hard to train your people to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5) if you aren’t working hard to get your own head around how to biblically engage the world, and that most definitely includes science which is the religion of the secular age. So if a series on faith and science for your congregants demands you first need to figure out what faith and science means for you, then get to it. If you don’t do it for your people, just know the world has been doing it for you.