Best & Worst of 2021

This year I read 139 books with a total page count of 47,713 (~343 pages/book). I now present you with my sixth annual best and worst reads of the year lists (titles linked to my full review if I wrote one; excludes re-reads; presented in groups of five unranked; & starting with the “worst of” list so we can end on a positive note…no purchase necessary; void where prohibited):

Worst of the Year:

  • The Divine Comedy: Paradise by Danté (Translated by Dorothy L. Sayers): Between the constant reference to contemporary Italian politics and what I consider to be idolatrous reliance on Mary and the Saints, I found this hard to get through.
  • Jamaica Inn by Daphne DuMaurier: If you like melodramatic Harlequin-esque “historical romance,” this is for you…but that’s not my genre at all.
  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac: drugs, sex, jazz, blah blah blah…aren’t I deep!
  • Ripley Underground by Patricia Highsmith: a disappointing sequel to the interesting Talented Mr. Ripley. The complete non-ending was the worst.
  • The Tinfoil Dossier Trilogy by Caitlin R. Kiernan: A mashup of Cthulhu and black helicopter style conspiracies is a cool idea, but the execution was trippy to the point of incomprehensible and just plain gross (in both the splattery and moral senses).

Best Fiction

  • Bleak House by Charles Dickens: If you like Dickens, be sure to read this one. However, this isn’t a good place to start if you’ve never read him before.
  • Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain by A. Lee Martinez: This is pretty silly and episodic. Not great literature, but a lot of fun as the author plays with classic supervillain tropes.
  • The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells: This series (5 novellas and a novel so far) is top-tier sci-fi with an AI protagonist/narrator that any introvert can appreciate.
  • The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones: I don’t usually enjoy revenge slasher horror, but this “literary horror” worked surprisingly well.
  • Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir: Another masterpiece from Andy Weir for those who like a lot of science in their science fiction.

Best Non-fiction

  • Gentle & Lowly by Dane Ortlund: A thoughtful reminder that “Yes, Jesus loves me,” and biblical Christianity is not based on “Try harder to be better.”
  • God Against the Revolution by Gregg L. Frazer: In a departure from the “fan fiction” version of American history, Frazer examines the anti-revolution arguments of loyalist clergymen in colonial America.
  • Nuking the Moon by Vince Houghton: This examination of various eventually-abandoned-due-to-stupidity military and espionage plans is equal parts funny and frightening.
  • The Secular Creed by Rebecca McLaughlin: One of my new favorite authors interacts biblically with the kinds of statements that appear on yard signs beginning with “In this house we believe…”
  • Stephen Fry’s Greek Myths Trilogy (Mythos, Heroes, Troy) by Stephen Fry: I’m not sure if this exploration and retelling of the Greek myths counts as fantasy or non-fiction, but either way it’s a lot of fun.

That’s it for 2021. My reading goal for 2022 is my usual standby of “at least 100 books with an average page count of 300+.” Postings to this blog will probably continue to be sporadic unless work become unexpectedly less hectic, but we’ll see what happens. Happy New Year!

Misc. Mini Reviews

It’s that time of year when blogging takes a back seat to holiday family fun and a busy church calendar, but today I have enough time for a few mini-reviews.

Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain by [A. Lee Martinez]

Title: Emperor Mollusk Versus the Sinister Brain
Author: A. Lee Martinez
Genre: Humorous Sci-fi
Pages: 320
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This reminds me of several comedic movies that feature a “genius supervillain” as the protagonist (Megamind, Despicable Me, Doctor Horrible’s Sing-along Blog). The main difference is that Emperor Mollusk is actually (almost) as smart and competent as he thinks he is (having once actually conquered the earth, though he is now semi-retired). The plot is a bit episodic and silly, but the oversize egos, snappy repartee, tongue-in-cheek sci-fi tropes, etc., make this a lot of fun if you like that sort of humor.

Silverview: A Novel by [John le Carré]

Title: Silverview
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage “Thriller”
Pages: 224
Rating: 3 of 5

John LeCarré’s final (posthumous) book doesn’t add much to his body of work. It features the usual brooding disillusionment of “was all this spy stuff worth it?” “do I really believe in anything” and his newer books’ recurring theme of “modern government ideology is incoherent.” Most of the story follows the point of view of a minor secondary player who is largely in the dark, providing some “what is going on here?” interest (but not much). If you’re really into LeCarré, give it a shot, but don’t expect much of anything new.

Title: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
Author: James Hogg
Genre: Classic Gothic Novel
Pages: 265
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Who knew that you could write a Gothic novel based on some sort of warped hyper-Calvinist theology? The author weaves a dark tale of the depths to which someone can sink if they misapply the doctrines of divine election and justification (“God has declared me eternally righteous, so everything I do must be his will…”). The story is told first as a third-person report of murderous events and then largely retold in the first person by the self-righteous cause of it all (urged on by a Mephistophelian “friend”). Read it an interesting exploration of religious mania or just a quirky Gothic novel. Either way, it’s worth a read.

None Dare Call It Treason

Title: God Against the Revolution:
The Loyalist Clergy’s Case Against the American Revolution
Author: Gregg L. Frazer
Genre: History (plus Theology & Philosophy)
Pages: 280
Rating: 5 of 5

“Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.” – John Harrington

This book helped fill a gap in my understanding of US history. In school (kindergarten through master’s degree), I remember only one teacher who (rather tentatively) expressed any serious doubt over whether the American Revolution was morally justifiable. After all, if you’re a red-blooded American, you know that the patriots were absolutely justified in their rebellion against English tyranny. We won against all odds, so that must prove that God was on our side.

If such a facile argument doesn’t work for you, this book provides interesting historical (and theological/philosophical) information that should be integrated into your understanding of the American Revolution. Gregg Frazer dares to stir the waters by presenting the arguments and life circumstances of colonists who stayed loyal to their king.

Because most writings by such people were repressed and destroyed (so much for freedom of speech and of the press), he is limited in his sources to the writings of five or six loyalist clergymen. He presents their arguments largely without direct comment on whether or not he finds them convincing (though he is clearly sympathetic to some of them). The arguments are divided into categories: biblical, theoretical on the nature of government, legal, rational regarding the American situation, and rational based on colonial actions.

Personally, I was most interested in the biblical arguments since I views the principles and commands of Scripture as my basis for morality. As I suspected, most arguments revolved around Romans 13:1-7 & 1 Peter 2:13-17 which both command Christians to be law-abiding citizens/subjects who honor, obey, and pay taxes to the existing authorities (with the exception that laws commanding a Christian to directly disobey God must be disobeyed with a willingness to accept the consequences -e.g. Acts 5:29, Daniel 3:15-18). The point was well-argued, and I myself have preached/taught these passages in a similar way (to similar, though less violent, pushback from “patriotic Americans”)…there truly is nothing new under the sun!

Overall, this is a fascinating book. If you are at all interested in the American Revolution and/or the nature of a Christian’s responsibility toward human government, I challenge you to read it. Don’t settle for the “fan fiction” version of American history. You may or may not agree with the loyalist clergy view of “God against the revolution,” but for the sake of intellectual integrity, it is good to hear out both sides in a complex issue. And of course, examining the triumphs and failures (military, cultural, moral, etc.) of the past helps us make wiser decisions in the present.

Top 10 Christian Book Recommendations

After an exhausting week of Vacation Bible School, I don’t feel inspired to write any fresh reviews. However, it’s been too long since I posted anything here, so I’m going to do something a little bit different today. I have compiled a list of the 10 Christian books that I most frequently recommend to friends. Some are an introduction to (or exposition of) what Christians believe, and some are more on the order of “how should we then live?”. I hope you find something useful here (presented in alphabetical order with title linked to a full review if I wrote one):

Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible by [Mark Ward]

Title: Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible
Author: Mark Ward
Pages: 144

This is probably the most niche book on the list, addressing a concern that only crops up in certain conservative churches. However, if you grew up in “King James Only/Superiority” circles, you should read this balanced defense of modern English Bible translations.

Can We Trust the Gospels? by [Peter J. Williams]

Title: Can We Trust the Gospels
Author: Peter J. Williams
Pages: 162

This author demonstrates why it is reasonable to believe that the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are accurate accounts of the life of Jesus. This is one of the more scholarly books on the list, but the author does not assume prior knowledge or use unexplained academic jargon.

Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World's Largest Religion by [Rebecca McLaughlin]

Title: Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion
Author: Rebecca McLaughlin
Pages: 242

Topics addressed in this insightful book include religious violence, homophobia (she herself has been same sex attracted throughout her life), misogyny, slavery, theodicy (existence of evil/suffering), and much more.

Title: Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ
Authors: Andrew David Naselli & Claton Butcher
Pages: 160

Way too many conflicts that occur between Christians are over issues that the Bible has left up to our individual consciences. This book helps Christians think through Christian love that does not cause unnecessary offense or try to bind others to our own merely cultural preferences.

Title: Gentle & Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers
Author: Dane C. Ortlund
Pages: 224

Sometimes we need to be reminded “Yes, Jesus loves me.” People who grew up in a certain kind of church soaked in the message of “Try harder to do better because God might have deigned to save you, but he doesn’t really like you that much.” This thoughtful book brings out what the Scriptures say about Jesus’ love and compassion.

Title: God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel: How Truth Overwhelms a Life Built on Lies
Author: Costi W. Hinn
Pages: 224

The “Prosperity Gospel” of guaranteed health and wealth that is peddled by smarmy televangelists makes me sick. Costi Hinn (nephew of televangelist Benny Hinn) demonstrates how destructive and unbiblical this corrupt teaching is. (for the short version, check out Shai Linne’s hip-hop masterpiece Fal$e Teacher$).

Title: Heaven: A Comprehensive Guide to Everything the Bible Says about Our Eternal Home
Author: Randy Alcorn
Pages: 560

This is by far the longest book on the list, but it is well worth your time to read it. It sweeps away misconceptions of heaven as a stuffy, boring place and digs into what the Bible actually says about the afterlife.

Title: How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil
Author: D. A. Carson
Pages: 240

One of the biggest difficulties for Christianity is “the problem of evil.” If God is perfectly good and all-powerful why is there evil in the world? D. A. Carson provides an excellent biblical framework for understanding this issue. (For a much more difficult in depth treatment check out The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problem of Evil by John S. Feinberg)

How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age by [Jonathan Leeman]

Title: How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age
Author: Jonathan Leeman
Pages: 252

This is a book that every American Evangelical Christian needs to read! It gives biblical guidance on how and why followers of Jesus should participate in the political process rather than being a poorly disguised partisan guide about who and what to vote for. (See also Before You Vote: Seven Questions Every Christian Should Ask by David Platt).

Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics) by [C. S. Lewis, Kathleen Norris]

Title: Mere Christianity
Author: C. S. Lewis
Pages: 227

I had to put at least one book on here from my all time favorite author. I don’t 100% agree with everything Lewis says (e.g. sacraments as a means of applying grace, or the possibility of thwarting God’s will for your life), but this is an excellent introduction to the general beliefs of historical Christianity. Even if you’ve been a devoted Christian your whole life, Lewis comes at things from a different angle that will help you see your faith with fresh eyes.

Micro Reviews

Recently, by the time I get done preparing my weekly sermons, Bible studies, counseling, fire-dousing, etc. my writing and creative ability is sapped for the day. I am definitely in need of the vacation that I have coming up in a few weeks. That said, I don’t want to completely neglect this blog or leave too many books unreviewed, so here are a handful of one to three sentence reviews (none of the usual formatting…I’m weary):

The First World War by John Keegan – I don’t find WW1 especially interesting, but wanted to get a good overview of it. This book provided just that: a solid surface-level overview in a rather dry, businesslike style. (Rating: 4.5 of 5)

The Secular Creed by Rebecca McLaughlin – In this short book, McLaughlin interacts with many of the slogans found on the kind of yard signs that begin “In this house we believe…”. Using a blend of social science data and Scripture she shows if (and how) each one fits into a biblical worldview. After reading this and Confronting Christianity, McLaughlin is one of my new favorite authors. (Rating: 5 out of 5)

Tinfoil Dossier Series (Agents of Dreamland, Black Helicopters, & The Tindalos Asset) by Caitlin R. Kiernan – Blending modern paranoid conspiracy theory thinking with Lovecraftian elements is a pretty cool idea for a series of novellas. Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy the execution at all as it was trippy to the point of being nearly incomprehensible and laced with massive amounts of profanity and perversion (e.g. incest). (Rating: 2 out of 5)

Jack Aubrey & Stephen Maturin Series (Master & Commander, etc.) by Patrick O’Brian – Historical fiction isn’t usually my thing, but these books are a lot of fun so far. Three books in, I’m definitely enjoying the Napoleonic Wars era exploits of the the blustering Captain Jack Aubrey & his friend the somewhat eccentric Dr. Stephen Maturin (both at sea and on shore in polite society). (Rating: 4 out of 5)

Single & Single by John LeCarré – This story dives into the world of high-level money laundering and all its attendant corruption. As usual with LeCarré, the book was interesting without really providing any likeable characters. Also, somewhere after his George Smiley books LeCarré seems to have lost the ability/will to write a dénouement, as the last three books I have read by him have ended abruptly with a ton of loose ends. (Rating 3 out of 5)

Yes, Jesus Loves Me

Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by [Dane C. Ortlund]

Title: Gentle and Lowly:
The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers
Author: Dane C. Ortlund
Genre: Beautiful Theology
Pages: 190 (plus indices, etc.)
Rating: 4.5 of 5

People who grew up in a certain kind of church soaked in the message of “Try harder to do better because God might have deigned to save you, but he doesn’t really like you that much.” They live under constant pressure to earn God’s love and approval with a constant sinking feeling of failing to do so (even while professing a belief in his mercy and grace). This book destroys such a disapproving, aloof image of our Heavenly Father and his Son Jesus Christ.

Jesus described himself as “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29), and in 23 short chapters Ortlund (with the help of various Puritan theologians) explores many facets of his compassionate character. We are reminded what it means when we say that Jesus “loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). These pages offer a beautiful, soul-refreshing description of the believer’s loving relationship with the One who “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3). This is not lightweight downplaying of God’s other attributes so we can focus on his love drivel, but biblically grounded praise of the One who is perfectly just and righteous and whose heart is characterized by mercy, grace, and compassion.

My only quibble with the book is that (like a lot of things that come out of The Gospel Coalition) it is a bit hero-worshippy toward the Puritan theologians. However, the quotes by these men that pervade the book demonstrate why this admiration is not wholly misplaced.

Overall, I highly recommend this book. I wouldn’t recommend blasting straight through it as moving too quickly may make some of it sound repetitive. Rather, savor a chapter or two at a time to appreciate all the different strands he is pulling together. There might not be anything particularly new here, but it eloquently remind us that “Yes, Jesus loves me; the Bible tells me so.”

The Serpent Slayer

Title: The Serpent & the Serpent Slayer
Author: Andy Naselli
Genre: Biblical Theology
Pages: 160
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 11/3/2020 – Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review.

Who doesn’t love a tale of dragon-slaying? This book traces the theme of serpent/dragon-slaying through the Bible from the first promise of a Savior who would “crush the head” of the serpent (Genesis 3:14-15) to the final defeat of “the dragon, that ancient serpent who is the devil” in the book of Revelation. Along the way, the author also draws comparisons to other serpent/dragon-slaying stories, both mythical and popular fantasy.

I love the idea of this book, and the theme is definitely there in Scripture and in popular stories. Naselli does a decent job of tracing the thread, quoting extended passages from the Bible throughout the book. However, I do think that some of his examples are a bit of stretch, particularly in the passages pulled from the eras of judges and kings (and points made from The Lord of the Rings which does not in fact feature any dragons or serpents even though it has a strong biblical good overcoming evil vibe).

In areas related to the fulfillment of prophecy and the role of national Israel, the author’s theology is quite a bit different from my own. While these aren’t issues over which we should call each other “heretic,” they do significantly affect how we understand some of the passages he highlights. Someone who is a bit more amillennialist, preterist, and/or supersessionist than I am will probably have a greater appreciation for certain parts of the book than I do.

Overall, this is a pretty cool little biblical theology book. It speaks to me as a theology nerd, fantasy geek, and follower of Jesus Christ who is the ultimate dragon-slayer.

Read This First

Before You Vote: Seven Questions Every Christian Should Ask by [David Platt]

Title: Before You Vote:
Seven Questions Every Christian Should Ask
Author: David Platt
Genre: Theology/Politics
Pages: 120
Rating: 5 of 5

If you are Christian who claims to live by the principles of God’s Word, you need to read this book. All too often, professing Christians act as if certain biblical principles are somehow suspended during election season. Getting “the right candidate” elected takes on a higher priority than love for our neighbor, unity in the church, or the pursuit of holiness. This should not be!

In this short book, David Platt uses seven questions to help Christians keep a proper focus and God-honoring mindset while deciding how to vote and while interacting with those who decide differently. This is a non-partisan book, and not like the “non-partisan voting guides” that carefully curate their questions to push you toward a certain candidate or party. Platt recognizes that different Christians who have the same commitment to biblical truth may weigh issues differently and arrive at different decisions on who they should vote for in good conscience. He interacts with biblical principles, not party platforms. His seven questions are:

  1. Does God call me to vote?
  2. Who has my heart?
  3. What does my neighbor need?
  4. What is the Christian position?
  5. How do I weigh the issues?
  6. Am I eager to maintain unity in the church?
  7. So how do I vote?

Question seven is kind of the odd one out. Rather than focusing on a biblical principle, it fleshes out Platt’s personal system for weighing issues (using two hypothetical examples rather than his own personal position). This provides a method for organizing thoughts prompted by questions 1-6, but is not necessarily the only way to do so.

My one (very) minor quibble with the book is an omission that I found surprising. When Platt discusses voting options, he speaks of the three options for “stewarding your vote” as: voting for the Democratic candidate, voting for the Republican candidate, or “convictional inaction” (choosing to deliberately refrain from voting in a specific race if you cannot in good conscience vote for either major party candidate). Missing is the option of voting for a “third party” candidate. While very similar to “convictional inaction,” it is different enough (you are expressing your conviction in a way that will be tabulated) that I think it should have been mentioned.

Overall, this is one of the best books I have read on Christian engagement with the political process (see also How the Nations Rage by Jonathan Leeman). It is a much needed reminder that we may disagree on issues of conscience, but such disagreement should not cause us to lay aside love for our neighbors and unity of the body of Christ. To borrow a few phrases from Romans 14 (where varying convictions about food have become a divisive issue in the church): Let us each be “fully convinced in his own mind” because “everything that does not come from faith is sin,” and “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food” or, in this case, votes.

A Rebuke of Blatant Hypocrisy

The Immoral Majority: Why Evangelicals Chose Political Power Over Christian Values by [Ben Howe]

Title: The Immoral Majority:
Why Evangelicals Chose Political Power Over Christian Values
Author: Ben Howe
Genre: Politics/Theology
Pages: 265 (plus indices, citations, etcs.)
Rating: 4 of 5

How could so many Evangelical Christians go from howls of “Character matters! He must resign!” during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal to declaring “we’re electing a president not a pastor” and “it’s just locker room talk” in defense of the flagrant immorality of Donald Trump? How can they not see this blatant testimony-destroying hypocrisy? How can we speak with any kind of moral authority when the majority of self-identified Evangelicals unreservedly applaud and defend the every action of a man who in his personal conduct is the antithesis of our Lord and Savior? If nothing else, this book has let me know that there are at least a few other conservative Christians out there who share these grave concerns.

Ben Howe, a self-identified Christian and political conservative, takes a hard look at the “Trump Evangelicals.” He traces the steps that led from “not my first choice, but…” to full-fledged defense, support, or even celebration, of behavior that should appall a follower of Jesus Christ. He tries to uncover and understand the underlying motives (concluding mostly self-interest & retribution after years of feeling like they were being unfairly mischaracterized), and shows how any “gains” made through policy are essentially “gaining the world but losing your soul.” He ends on a call to return to trusting God’s to accomplish his will as we consistently obey him rather than trying to help God out with an ends-justify-the-means plunge into hypocrisy.

As far as weak points: His definition of Evangelical was incredibly imprecise, some of his attribution of motives may have been overly cynical, and he seemed to go back and forth on whether it was a problem to support Trump at all or just a problem to support/defend his flagrantly immoral behavior. In spite of these imprecisions, I would still highly recommend this book as food for thought and a biblically solid rebuke of the ends-justify-the-means thinking that far too many Christians have adopted in the arena of politics.

I leave you with this quote: “Our job is to ensure our devotion to Christ’s teachings in the means. Our trust is to believe in God’s will as it relates to the ends.” (p. 229)

Music from Narnia

I haven’t finished any books worth reviewing in the last week, so I decided to do something a little different and review a (book-related) music album. Like my other favorite group, The Gray Havens, this artist is heavily influenced by my favorite author, C. S. Lewis.

Into the Lantern Waste

Title: Into the Lantern Waste
Artist: Sarah Sparks
Genre: Folk
Length: 36 minutes (10 songs)
Rating: 5 of 5

The Chronicles of Narnia is one of my favorite series of all time, second only to Lord of the Rings (see my full review of Narnia here). It works as both a set of charming fantasy stories and a theologically rich exploration of the person and work of Jesus Christ. C. S. Lewis viewed these books as a “supposition” of what it would look like for Jesus to appear in another world.

This album picks up on many of the theological themes that Lewis wove into his stories. Songs center around major characters and events from Narnia as well as parallel thoughts from Lewis’s other writings (e.g. Mere Christianity) and the Bible. I was pleased to notice that the song order matches the books’ original publication order rather than the chronological order that prevails in newer editions…it’s a small, nitpicky thing, but it made me happy.

The folksy/ballad style and jazzy vocals lend the perfect contemplative air to the album. The haunting Blood for Blood about the redemption of Edmund is especially effective. Occasionally, the vocals may be a bit too soft compared to the music, but overall I highly recommend this to any fans of Narnia and Lewis!