study break

Top 10 Reads of 2020

Happy New Year's! Summing up a year by some of the best books I've read in 2020.

Quarantine, for me, meant lots of time for reading great new books! Here, I’ve got classic literature, religious commentary, and popular science. This year’s count was 40, with (some of) the best of them highlighted here.

My top ten list (more in order of when I read them than how much I like them):

  1. The Preacher’s Wife
  2. Other Minds
  3. Flow
  4. The Crucifixion
  5. Pure
  6. Jerusalem and Rome
  7. Dracula
  8. At Home in the Universe
  9. Endurance
  10. Mother to Son

The Preacher’s Wife by Kate Bowler

History should be taught like this: pick a niche topic (here, the role of women in leadership positions in church history; mostly, American church history) and trace the thread across multiple disciplines. I read about the female missionaries of the Wild West’s frontiers, the rise and influence of gospel music, and the Golden Age of Televangelism (such odd things occurred so briefly ago!) It also helped to bring me up to speed on the sociology of churchiness.

Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and The Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith

There was once an octopus named Charles and some behavioral scientists decided to try and see if he could learn how to pull a lever if it gave him food. Charles’ friends, Albert and Bertram, learned the trick with ease. Charles, however, refused to be cowed by a team of researching idiots. He pulled at the light in his aquarium. He did just about everything he could to the lever except pull it, which resulted in it breaking (and a “premature termination of the experiment”). He spied on his captors with eyes hovering above the water, squirting water at them if they approached. His captors could not explain the variables contributing to such behavior. But readers of Other Minds will be regaled by it.

We also hear of friendly wild cuttlefish, an aquarium-dwelling octopus who decided one (and only that one) aquarium employee deserved its wrath (in the form of water squirts), and octopus cities off Australian coastlines. Oh, you’ll also learn a little zoological evolution and theories in neuroscience. But those are secondary to the cephalopods themselves, of course.

Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The definition of ‘flow’ is complete absorption in a task. Csikszentmihalyi connects it to mostly active pursuits, from plumbing to rock climbing to gardening to intellectual thought. And in doing so, he describes not only a psychology of happiness, but a philosophy of it within a humanist framework. Fascinating and relatable.

The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge

A work the author spent at least ten years chiseling into shape, The Crucifixion is a rich theological study of the death of Christ in its religious and practical context.

Rich Christian theology shines from each page, and in a real-life, socially engaged, personally compassionate manner. Christianity is not for the elite, nor Jesus for the holy. This is a faith for the masses. A suffering Savior died to save everyday people of each tribe, nation, and tongue, and in His suffering, He redeemed our own suffering. What implications this theology has for justice, for peace, for the answers a world on fire needs today.

Rutledge spends time going over the definition and implications of such familiar concepts (to the Christian) as Christ’s death, Christ’s resurrection, sin, atonement, blood sacrifice, and more, and yet she presents them to us fresh such that the Christian reader can see his or her faith in ways never felt before. My favorite chapters were the earliest ones – I wish every Christian would read the chapter “The Question of Justice” on justice, mercy, and forgiveness. “The Godlessness of the Cross” was also good, putting the means of Christ’s death (namely, crucifixion) in a cultural and historical context that informs our theology.

Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women by Linda Kay Klein

I know this book was hard to read for many Christians, especially those in the American Evangelical church. And whether that difficulty was because it stirred up painful personal memories, or because it evoked an almost instinctive defense of one’s own religion, this book was so needed. I found Klein to be sensitive to her Christian roots, and remarkably unbiased in her portrayals of her interviewees. The women she spoke with all grew up in church purity culture, but whether they are now bitterly anti-Christian, still of the faith, or somewhere in between, Klein gives the impression that she is representing each honestly and respectfully.

To the outsider, “purity culture” is used to refer to the sex education provided by many evangelical churches, with an emphasis on physical and emotional virginity (‘purity’). The way it was taught has had a variety of negative effects in many women’s lives, ranging from the emotional to the psychological to unexplained physical reactions. While many women in the book have since left the faith, others are responding to a wake-up call in the American church. Many are asking: Is it possible to teach a biblically grounded sexual ethic that isn’t rooted in a shameful view of sex and a righteousness based on works?

Jerusalem and Rome by Josephus

It is so exciting to read an outsider’s look at the early Christian world. Josephus, a devout Jew and Pharisee, wrote histories spanning three hundred years, from Alexander the Great to the fall of Jerusalem. This includes accounts of the likes of Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, Pontius Pilate, John the Baptist, and yes, Jesus of Nazareth. His works were written about sixty years after Christ’s crucifixion as recorded in the New Testament, and as such are an extrabiblical account corroborating the historicity of His life and death.

In these pages, we learn about the religious factions of the day and political intrigue that rivals the drama of our own ruling powers, from the political savvy of Cleopatra, to powerful women in Herod’s court, to Jewish reactions to religious persecution.

This book in particular is not a complete piece of Josephus’ writings, but selections chosen by Nahum N. Glatzer. Either he chose unusually colorful excerpts from Josephus’ complete works, or I will be turning to full-length features in the future.

Now, all that sums up the first half of the book. What about the second half? Utter, utter horror. The book concludes with an account of the fall of Jerusalem, which was the culmination of a prolonged siege and brutal, brutal bloodshed. I can only say that the ancient world could be a ghastly place.

Dracula by Bram Stoker

A classic piece of horror, and the original vampire story. Dracula is a very engaging read with intriguing themes behind likeable characters and the complicated evil they face.

At Home in the Universe by Stuart Kauffman

This is an introduction to chaos theory, and the implications it has for the sciences in general. Kauffman will give you both detailed introductions to the many applications of the field, as well as down-to-earth dialogues with Chaos Theory’s experts.

Endurance by Alfred Lansing

A thriller packed with comedy and tragedy, and all the more shocking because of the truth of it’s account. Lansing draws from historical records and personal journal entries of the men involved in the Endurance‘s wreck of the Antarctic coast, and I will be forever mystified that not a single one died in their year-long pursuit of civilization. It certainly has its horrific moments. But the camaraderie and will to survive is remarkable to witness, especially through the first-hand accounts of the Captain and each of his colorful crewmembers.

Mother to Son: Letters to a Black Boy on Identity and Hope by Jasmine Holmes

This is another read on the topic of race in the church, but could not be more different in style from Aliens in a Promised Land (see extended list below). Holmes is not writing to an audience seeking reform in academia; she is writing to her young son. What does it mean to be black and male in America? What does it mean to be the only African American in a white church? She is not afraid of tough conversations, but as she confesses here, she has not always been that way. Holmes lives in a world where she refuses to define herself by any one camp (resists ‘tribalism,’ as she describes in her book), and that means, depending on who she’s talking to, she can be labeled an “Uncle Tom” or “cultural Marxist.” Going your own way comes with challenges, but love and unity are her ultimate goals.

Furthermore, you’ll read all about Holmes’ advice for her son on dealing with difficult people, intellectual honesty, and engaging in debate with people you care about but disagree with. Very practical stuff she generously provides, even if it’s secondary to the personal story she tells.

More Notable Reads

  • Aliens in a Promised Land ed. by Anthony Bradley – a very interesting collection of essays on race and the church.
  • The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
  • Desiring the Kingdom by James KA Smith – redefines Homo sapiens as Homo liturgicus. In other words, we are what we love, rather than what we think.
  • Yvain (The Knight with the Lion) by Chr├ętien de Troyes
  • The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas
  • A Return to Modesty by Wendy Shalit – the anecdotes here dialogue with the anecdotes of Klein’s book above, as we hear from women who wish they’d waited and feel pressured to conform in a secular culture.
  • Bully for Brontosaurus by Stephen Jay Gould – if you loved quirky professors who are always going off on a tangent, you’ll love this essay collection from paleontologist & science historian.
  • Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife
  • Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson – It is always fun to read a swashbuckling adventure through the eyes of a young man silently judging all the characters he meets.

Looking for a book recommendation and found nothing to suit your fancy here? Check out last year’s booklist for more suggested reads!

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