My Top Books from 2020

One of my reflections every year is to spend some time reviewing the books that I read during the year. It gives me a picture of what I was processing and being challenged by. It’s a great catalogue of new thoughts taking root and new ideas that are percolating. The early Christian leader, Paul of Tarsus would say that we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. I have become convinced that unless we are allowing ourselves to think new thoughts, being challenged in the way we think and how we understand the world, we will move towards atrophy. Books are one of the great gifts that are a part of the process of renewing our minds.

This year, one thing that was shocking to me during all of the COVID shutdown is that it actually decreased my reading. I don’t know if it affected you in the same way, or if it had the opposite effect, but I found that my regular reading habits weren’t working as well as they normally do, but I was still able to complete 30 books.

What makes for a good book for me may be different than you, but for me, they’re books that I find myself thinking about for a while afterwards, they usually have stretched or challenged me in new ways and it’s usually one I find myself engrossed in as I’m reading it. And so, with that, I hope that these stand outs for me from this past year can be helpful for you as you consider ways to be renewing your mind over this next year.

Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez

I picked this up after seeing Beth Moore tweet that it was the one book she read in 2020 that she wishes everyone would read in 2021, which was enough of an endorsement for me to pick it up and read it in a couple of days leading into Christmas. For the past 15 years, I have found myself teaching and preaching against Christian Nationalism in various forums, seeing it as a significant problem in the church, which we has especially shown itself to be true over the past year. Du Mez does a great job bringing together a cohesive narrative to make sense of the rise particularly of White Christian Nationalism, alongside the movement of patriarchy and toxic masculinity in the church as well as the effects it’s had on the larger American culture and politics.

If you have been baffled by things like the overwhelming percentage of white evangelicals that would not only vote for Trump, but would overwhelmingly support his behavior, the support for white supremacists, the attitudes towards refugees and immigrants, and abuse coverups in the church…and you want to try and make sense of how we got here – I can’t recommend this book highly enough. If you’ve spent any time reading on the history of evangelicalism, the integration of anti-communist sentiments during the Cold-War, purity culture, and racial injustice in the church, this won’t be entirely new content to you, but the way that Du Mez puts it together will help to give context to how we got to where we are today.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

I don’t read a ton of fiction, but when I find one that grabs me, it sucks me in like a good binge on Netflix. I found myself constantly looking for opportunities when I could sneak in a few more minutes of reading this book, which won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Whitehead tells the story of a young Black man who ends up in juvenile prison in Florida during the Jim Crow era, which is based around a real reform school and the stories that have surfaced from that school.

This book caused me to consider racial inequities, systemic injustice as well as criminal reform, without being direct and utilizing stories that were based in reality. I usually don’t like books that win awards, they often feel to me like they are self-indulgent writing that doesn’t connect with me personally. But this one was very different. It’s a great way to bring yourself into a world that may have been outside of your experiences.

Shining Like the Sun by Steve Wiens

This book helped to bring together two themes that I’ve been working through in my own life – Contemplative Christianity along with spiritual practices that are a part of the ordinary rhythms of life. Wiens does that in the context of utilizing practices as a way of reconstructing your faith. I find myself in conversations on a regular basis with people who are going through some sort of deconstruction of faith. My experience is that it’s often a intellectual and emotional journey meshed together, but it ends up having implications in so many areas of our lives, including rhythms and practices that had been ingrained into our lives. Wiens draws from the great contemplative tradition to help bring healthy integration to a journey of a renewed faith.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Noah’s story of growing up in apartheid South Africa, where he was literally born a crime as the child of a White father and a Black mother. Sometimes it’s difficult to be confronted by the situations that are a part of our own experiences and lives, and it’s helpful to engage in a situation that doesn’t directly implicate us in order to be able to see a bit more clearly. As the host of the Daily Show, Noah does a great job at combining humor and thoughtfulness in order to expose the reality of life in apartheid South Africa in order to confront the reality of racial injustice that’s a part of the system that you and I exist in. I listened to this as an audio book, and was so glad that I did, enjoying both Noah’s accent, his pronunciation of different South African dialects, and the way he would recount his mother’s voice.

Here is Real Magic by Nate Staniforth

I was shocked at how much I liked this book. In fact, I find myself thinking about it again every once in a while and will likely reread it this year. It’s Magician Nate Staniforth’s story of recapturing wonder after becoming burned out by the profession that once captured his imagination. One friend after reading it described it as the male version of Eat, Pray, Love, which is probably a good description. It’s one of those books that I don’t know that I left it with any specific thing that I would do or learn from it, but found myself inspired as I read it and left with a renewed sense to pursue wonder.

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

I found myself regularly sharing something I had learned from this book during dinners with the family. So much so, that it began to become a family joke that I began all my sentences with, “I’m reading a book about the bombing of London during World War 2…” I read this during the early days of the COVID stay at home order and it gave me a very small sense of solidarity with what was happening in London during the bombing of the city and it gave me a needed perspective at that time that we would be able to make it through. Churchill is a fascinating leader through that time and you’re able to get a bit of a biography on him, while not being specifically a biography on him. I often say that if I had to read history books that had been written like this during high school, I would have enjoyed history a lot more.

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

It’s crazy to me how controversial this book has been, and particularly by people who have never read it, but have read a sentence or two out of context. A friend who has been helpful to me over the years on been understanding racial injustice, being confronted by my complicity and has offered helpful challenges of normalized narratives in my life – said that this is the one book he was asking all of his White friends to read – so just from that, it seemed important for me to engage it. While I read several books on this topic this past year, I think this is the one that gave some language and framework to be able to appropriately hear and receive the others that I read.

There’s been a lot written and said about this book over this past year, so I won’t offer more on it, other than to say – it’s important for us to be confronted with ways of thinking that have become normalized, to think about the way we bring who we are into different spaces and how we make room for others who’s experiences are not our own. Growing up as an upper-middle class white male, it’s easy for me to ignore those things, but a part of loving my neighbor and following the example of Jesus who “did not hold onto his advantage” is to be curious and open to being challenged in new and different ways. I’d encourage you to read DiAngelo’s book (or any of the multitude of others that address racial injustice and our complicity in it) with an open, non-defensive posture to see what you need to learn and be challenged by.

Everything is Spiritual by Rob Bell

This is as close to a memoir as we might get from Bell. I found so much resonance with Bell’s own journey, some of what he went through and endured from others (on a much smaller scale) and the way he processed all of that has been helpful for me through the past several years in my own journeys. If you aren’t a fan of Bell’s writing, with fragmented sentences and unique paragraph formatting, you probably won’t like this book, as it’s one long run on chapter. But I found it to be engrossing and a quick read. I’ll be honest though – his whole section on sperm and sex seemed out of place in the book and felt like something he just really wanted to find a way to fit in.

Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey

I fully expect to get teased relentlessly for putting McConaughey’s book on this list, but when a friend who I highly respect told me in almost hushed tones that he read it in one sitting, I bought it while we were still on the phone.

First, he’s actually a really good writer. Second, he’s thoughtfully approached the way he engages life. Third, it’ll inspire you to want to recapture adventure. I didn’t read it as quickly as my friend though…it took me two sittings.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

I love Steinbeck, and realized that I had never read this classic of his. I’m not sure I’ve ever put two fiction books on my end of the year book list, but both of the fiction books I have on this list moved me beyond fiction in ways most fiction books don’t for me. It asks questions of providence, human freedom, and gets a little preachy without feeling preachy. There’s a reason this is a classic

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