While I read fewer books this year, some of it’s due to reading works that ran into the deep hundreds as well as thousands of pages.
Best Christian Life/Ministry Book – The Flourishing Pastor by Tom Nelson. Nelson’s contribution is a pathway of ministry wisdom for seminarians and veterans. Integrationist in approach, The Flourishing Pastor examines a “shepherding paradigm” that begins with a calling to develop a greater devotion to Jesus our Ultimate Shepherd so that leaders might be able not only to endure but thrive in a world that seems to shipwreck pastors left and right. Nelson concludes, “The painful irony is that we speak to others about cultivating intimacy with God while we neglect our own intimacy with God.” Fortunately, Nelson’s work gives readers practical, insightful, and winsome ways to strengthen their walk with Christ. The Flourishing Pastor is wonderfully written in the same spirit of Eugene Peterson and Dallas Willard, two authors Nelson invokes frequently, because the vision of pastoral ministry depicted for readers is genuinely tethered to the spirit of discipleship. This makes Nelson’s book just as much a guidebook for what pastors need to be as much as what they need to do. The latter part of The Flourishing Pastor could be the learning pathway for a seminary degree in church leadership. From developing leadership systems to a finding creating integrated spiritual formation processes, Nelson gives readers the fruit of his long and effective pastoral ministry and alone is worth the price of the book. The Flourishing Pastor is the perfect mix of internal and external work to which pastors much attend in order to maximize their ministry. All of it gloriously tied to courageously leading for and walking closely to the one, true Shepherd of us all. This was my top pick for The Gopsel Coalition’s book awards.
Best Biblical Studies/Theology Book – The Book of Revelation (NIGTC) by Dr. G.K Beale. At the start of the 2021, I decided to take a more in-depth study of the book of Revelation. It’s a book I felt whose main message I knew decently well but never really got into the weeds verse-by-verse. Thus, like any other biblical book I seek to study, I grab what are widely considered the top commentaries on said book. Well, it didn’t take long for it to become clear that Dr. Beale’s commentary was the #1 work on Revelation. No matter wear you searched, Beale was the best across the board. I grabbed his commentary and spent hours each day for about three months working through all 1,309 pages of his work. It was some of the most intense, concentrated Bible study I’ve ever undertaken, and also the most fruitful. Folks may want to work through his more user-friendly Revelation: A Shorter Commentary with David Campbell (ringing in at 552 pages). Either way, Beale’s work on Revelation is magisterial in scope as he works through John’s Apocalypse with a keen eye to the Old Testament prophetic literature that it fulfills. Indeed, Beale’s foundational conviction is that one cannot truly understand Revelation without knowing the apocalyptic themes and literature to which Revelation heavily alludes. I left Beale’s study feeling not only had I much more to learn but also that I’d come much further along the road than I could’ve imagined! I was blessed to top it off by personally interviewing Dr. Beale for our Clear Creek Resources Podcast shortly afterward.
Runner Up: Evangelical Theology: Second Edition by Michael Bird. For years I’ve been looking for an alternative to Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. Dr. Bird’s offering is superior in various ways. The weakness is in the telling of it – too academic in places (the introduction alone will knock most laypersons of the path to finishing) – which is a weakness that contrasts the biggest strength of Grudem: readability. It’s likely one of the main reasons why Grudem’s work is so popular. It’s popularly written. Which is somewhat sad because, outside of a nagging dependency on Barth, Bird’s Evangelical Theology is better-reasoned, more biblically-holistic, cruciform-centric, and theologically-mature. Unfortunately, Bird’s addition of jokes (or what he thinks is funny) and references to US politics (in his introduction for Pete’s sake!) gives his work a feeling that’s more reactionary and less timeless. Still, with that said, it’s one of the best contemporary one-volume systematic theologies I’ve read to date.
Best Fiction (Modern) – Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen. Franzen has garnered a reputation for being one of the great writers of his generation along with compatriots like David Foster Wallace. His most celebrated work to date, The Corrections, was a National Book Award winner and Pulitzer finalist. I read his penultimate novel Purity but was disappointed with the effort. This time around, with Crossroads, I knew it to be the beginning of a trilogy entitled ‘A Key to All Mythologies‘ which would be a story spanning three generations and trace the inner life of our culture up to the present day. The first book was to center around the Hildebrandt family, who’s head of household was a pastor. No kidding? I pre-ordered Crossroads a year in advance and could not have been more pleased with it. Franzen delves into the deeper themes of life: faith, goodness, God, sin, brokenness, redemption, identity. It’s the kind of book that make literature literature. Franzen, who is considered part of the New Sincerity movement in fiction, gives readers a heartbreakingly beautiful account of what it means to be good: the paths we choose, the price we pay, and the need for grace in it all. My best fiction of 2021.
Best Fiction (Classic) – Stoner by John Williams. As noted in the past, I’ve made classics a part of my reading calendar because I feel like I’m old (and experienced in life) enough to appreciate their greatness. William’s Butcher’s Crossing was one of my best books of 2020, so I felt like I needed to pick up what is considered one of his classics. Written in 1965, Stoner is about a man named William Stoner who, despite his humble and rigid upbringing, pursues the intellectual life of an academician. Williams brilliantly matches the protagonist’s emotional tenor (or lack thereof) with perfect pitch narration as Dr. Stoner seeks to live out his passions even if those very passions lead to his undoing. Can there be a greater love than romance? Or can romance manifest itself in different ways? Stoner seeks to ask and answer these kinds of questions.
Best Non-Fiction – Seeds of Empire by Andrew J. Torget. It’s not a big secret that I’m a Texas fan. However, being a Texas fan doesn’t mean you must turn a blind eye to the truth or whitewash the past. Like all histories, there are high and lows, wins and losses, and good and evil. The Lone Star state is no different. And yet to know the Republic’s past is to be aware of her successes and her sins. All you ask is for honesty and fairness in the telling and let history be not only a reading about the past but also a learning for the future. Dr. Torget, a professor of history at the University of North Texas, has written one of the most noteworthy, and some might say controversial, books in the field of Texas history. But it is an honest and fair book that doesn’t pontificate or posture when it comes to the sobering truth that the Republic of Texas was very much a slave nation that later became very much a slave state upon entering the Union. That’s the truth of history. Under what lens of scrutiny and morality by which you view that history is up to you. Torget serves all Texans well by giving readers the sober telling and understanding of a respected historian. I say more power to him and those of his ilk. This is the kind of book that this year’s Forget the Alamo, which ironically leaned heavily on Seeds of Empire, was not. But Torget’s offering has helped us as Texans one and all.