I had one of those years where I didn’t read anywhere near the number of books I usually do. Work commitments just seemed to dry up my time and my reading energy. And I didn’t binge watch anything on Netflix either. Whether that’s a plus or minus, I am not sure.
But four books stood out for me this year.
The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman.
This is hands down the best overview of how we got to the cultural moment we are in. In short, the moment didn’t arrive quickly, and it hasn’t come to us without some serious groundwork from a swathe of thinkers and actors on the world stage.
The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is hands down the best overview of how we got to the cultural moment we are in.
Trueman nails the reason why identity issues are such hot topics in the West, and he does it with a self-consciously detached eye. He approaches it less as a warrior in the culture war and more as one writing the history of the war. But for any Christian leader who wonders why their own people think and act the way they do, never mind how the secular world thinks and acts, this is the book. For, as Trueman points out, we’re all psychological “selfs” now, and there is no turning back. We’ve taken the red pill, and we’ve gone down the rabbit hole.
The book was less strong on what to do about that going forward, but perhaps that is for another time. If you want a good introduction to Trueman, read his work over at the Catholic journal First Things. You’ll get the bite-sized version of his thinking.
Christians: the Urgent Case for Jesus in Our World by Greg Sheridan.
Greg Sheridan told me that he wrote his previous book, God is Good for You, for the average punter—i.e. someone who would never enter a Christian bookshop, but who might pick up a copy of an apologetics book written by a well known journalist, in an airport newsagency.
His new book takes this same approach further. This time, he sets out to explore Jesus from the Gospels while deconstructing some of the secular—and less-than-helpful theologically liberal—assumptions people have regarding the dependability of the Scriptures. Using his keen journalist’s eye, Greg tells the stories of those who have their lives changed by Jesus, including Sydney Anglican Archbishop Kanishka Raffel. I would give this book to, well, anyone. It’s written so well, and it’s written from a cultural outsider to evangelicalism. That gives it the fresh eyes we need. Jesus, as Greg Sheridan describes him, seems, well, urgent!
Truth on Fire: Gazing at God Until Your Heart Sings, by Adam Ramsey.
Adam writes the way he speaks. Buy several copies and hand them out.
I think this book is destined to be a mini-classic. Written from the heart of a true pastor, who is also a well-constructed theologian, Truth on Fire offers us theology of the most practical and pastoral kind. As he turns his lens to God and his attributes, Adam Ramsey takes us deep but still manages to write in a way that is accessible, tender and emotionally moving in the right way. Adam weaves personal stories, family situations, and pastoral experiences into this book—succeeding in his stated aim of connecting the head and the heart with the truths about God: his goodness, his greatness and his Son.
I’ve listened to Adam’s sermons, and he writes the way he speaks. Buy several copies and hand them out. This book sold like hotcakes at our church bookstall.
The World Next Door: A Short Guide to the Christian Faith by Rory Shiner with Peter Orr.
This book is not published yet, but I read a pdf of it for Rory earlier this year. Suffice to say, it’s written with the same zinging style, and turn of phrase that has made Rory such a compelling public preacher.
Teaming up with Peter Orr was gold. Together they are the Laurel and Hardy, the Abbott and Costello, of sharp and wise apologetics. Based on the Apostle’s Creed, yet written with the totally secular person in mind, I remarked to Rory after reading it that it would be the only apologetics book I would give to my thoroughly secular brother with any confidence it would get past his defences. The ALDI version of Mere-Christianity? Hey, since we all shop at ALDI these days, that’s no bad thing.
Honourable mentions (which means I’ve started reading these) go to to Sam Chan’s new book on preaching, Topical Preaching in a Complex World, Daniel Sih’s Spacemaker: How to Unplug, Unwind, and think Clearly in the Digital Age, and Anna Lembke’s Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence.
I listened to five episodes of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast before I ran out of steam. Just did. Couldn’t go on from there. I read enough about the podcast (good and bad), but to be honest, once I hit episode 5, I felt it had told me all I needed to know. Less is more. Fawlty Towers knew that and stuck to 12 episodes. That’s why the UK version of The Office leaves the bloated US version for dead.
On a positive note, I loved listening to Mark Sayers’ Rebuilders podcast, especially those episodes during the lockdowns in his home city of Melbourne. Mark is so well read, and so well thought out. He’s not a rampant social media presence, which makes the podcast and (most of) his books, so fresh. Mark is able to bring clarity and insight to the cultural churn we are experiencing. As a pastor himself, he provides key insights as to the thinking of those sitting in the seats of our churches—and how to take that thinking and bring it before the gospel of Jesus Christ. With a Wesleyan background, Mark’s constant call is for renewal in the church, and he resists deconstruction of the church or of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. He has a solid orthodoxy and a generous assessment of God’s people in difficult times and sits between left and right politically—a true Goldilocks. Mark’s is a clarifying voice in the midst of much cultural and ecclesiological noise. His new book, A Non-Anxious Presence: How a Changing and Complex World Will Create a Remnant of Renewed Christian Leaders, is out early next year.