Justin’s Top 10 Reads of 2020

People normally try to publish these kinds of year-end lists at the end of the year. But for various reasons, my life has been too hectic to manage that. So better late than never.

In compiling this list, I once again used Kevin DeYoung’s four criteria:

• Was this book well written and enjoyable to read?
• Did I find it personally challenging, illuminating, edifying, or entertaining?
• Is it a book I am likely to reread or consult often?
• Do I see myself frequently recommending this book to others?

In no particular order, here they are.

10. Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics- Mary Eberstadt. Conservatives say they believe that the family matters. But Mary Eberstadt has a knack for showing us in real terms what the consequences are for society when we mess around with the natural order. 

9. American Ulysses- Ronald White. I read this because White’s three Lincoln books were all amazing. I never knew Ulysses S. Grant was so interesting. Maybe not be as thorough as Ron Chernow’s bio, but shorter–which is why I chose to read it over Chernow’s (though it was still the longest book I read all year).  

8. The Christian Ministry- Charles Bridges. Finally got around to reading this classic for pastors by a 19th century evangelical Anglican. His discussions on preaching law and gospel were especially insightful. 

7. The Marrow of Modern Divinity- Edward Fisher. Another classic I’ve been meaning to get to for years. Written as a dialogue between a legalist, an antinomian, and a balanced gospel minister, it illumines the relationship between law and gospel in ways that few other books do. Thomas Boston’s copious notes are extremely valuable.

6. Narrative of Fredrick Douglass, An American Slave. Douglas’s first autobiography, and only the second slave narrative I’ve ever read. Both thrilling and harrowing. And the fact that it was published at a time when Douglas could’ve been legally recaptured and enslaved adds an additional layer of weightiness to it. I liked Douglas well enough that I may tackle David Blight’s recent bio this year.

5. Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth- Thaddeus Williams. I’ve been waiting for this one since I read William’s seed article a couple of years ago. Williams, a Christian and former Mormon, has given us a balanced and thoughtful discussion of social justice and the Bible, and one that I hope will become a conversation starter between Christians and pastors across ideological lines. If you have a pastor’s fraternal in your town, you should consider reading this one together. 

4. The Coddling of the American Mind- Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. I was a couple of years late getting to this best-seller. Lukianoff and Haidt, two secular liberals of a traditional stripe, wrote this book in order to analyze a disturbing trend they had noticed. As men who had done work defending free speech on campus, they noticed that starting around 2013 the calls for censorship started coming from the students instead of the administrators. This continuing trend has yielded new vocab words like “safe spaces,” “snowflakes,” and “microaggressions.” This is one of those books not designed for pastors that pastors should nevertheless read if they want to understand the cultural landscape.

3. Ride, Sally, Ride- Douglas Wilson. In a year where the splintering of the American Union has seemed more and more plausible, Doug Wilson invites us to imagine a hypothetical last straw: twenty years from now, a national crisis erupts when young Ace Hartwick is put on trial for murder after crushing his neighbor’s sex-bot in a trash-compactor (on purpose). Why murder? Because his neighbor had identified the sex-bot as his “wife.” Fictional, but far more believable than it ought to be—not only in how the postmodern pagans play along with the neighbor’s “marriage” fantasy, but also in how many Christians would rationalize playing along in the name of preserving their gospel witness. Disturbing but hilarious. And in the end, Wilson’s postmillennial optimism offers up a more satisfying national crack-up than I’ve ever been creative enough to imagine. 

2. Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States 1861-1865, James Oakes. And speaking of a national crack-up, James Oakes’s somewhat controversial thesis is that at least for the still young Republican Party, the shift from a war to preserve the Union to a war to destroy slavery was not as pronounced as many think. Indeed, in Oakes’s telling, the slave states were not acting irrationally when they seceded—they were simply taking Republicans at their word. The irrational part was simply that secession gave Republicans the Congressional majority, allowing them to accomplish fairly quickly what would have taken far longer had the Southern Democrats kept their seats. As in Wilson’s dystopia, the opponents of the natural law overreached and lost what they were trying to protect. Let us pray for a repeat—only this time with less bloodshed than we deserve.

1. Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage- Alfred Lansing. After enough friends pressuring me to read this book, I finally gave in. It resulted in some late nights, since I couldn’t put it down. Any man who wants to feel like a total pansy softened to death by civilization should read this book. It tells the true story of how Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance was trapped and crushed by Antarctic ice, leaving him and his crew to trudge across Antarctica dragging heavy boats and trying unsuccessfully to stay dry. I won’t spoil it by telling you how many of them succeeded in surviving, except to say that you can’t make this stuff up. This one is going on my list of “Books and films to share with my son,” right next to Master and Commander.

 

Note: Parts of this post were originally published on The Gospel Coalition.

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