What I Read In 2019 (And Why)

2019 was a good year for reading. I managed to read about 30 books this year, which may be a personal high, but there were several shorter books in the mix!  I’ll give you the full list and my top five in a moment…but first, a bit about how I choose what to read.

I often choose reading along certain themes. Late last year, I decided I wanted to read about empires in 2019— not theological reflections or pontifications on Christianity and empire, but histories of empires themselves written by non-Christians.

In late 2018, I finished “Gandhi and Churchill”, which was a poignant parallel of two remarkable leaders whose respective nations would come to clash over ideology and power. The centuries-long presence of the British empire in India may be one of the most world-shaping realities of the modern era. Then, to kick off 2019, I went on to read about the way German church leaders were complicit with the rise of the Nazi regime as seen through the life of one particular pastor, Martin Niemoller, in the book “Then They Came for Me”. It was sobering. I followed that up by reading about the rise of the Roman Empire, from Augustus to its Nero, in Tom Holland’s epic work, “Dynasty”. It was fascinating to see the roots of many of our modern conceptions of power, nobility, and public virtue. But what I loved most was the being able to imagine the political backdrop of the New Testament as I read about the first five Caesars (the Julio-Claudians). Finally, I read Niall Ferguson’s “Empire” on the rise and fall of the British Empire, the largest empire the world has ever known. The influence of Christianity as a moral restraint for the excesses of power and as a justifying reason for their assertion of superiority resulted in a complicated legacy.

I threw in a couple of fiction books to round off my reading on empire. “A Passage to India” by E. M. Forster was thoroughly enjoyable, and “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe was a slow but sobering reminder that what is a footnote for the empire is a lifetime of sorrow for one man; the machinations of “progress” must be slowed by attention to its impact on the particular.

The capstone— the book that brought many of the themes in these other books together— was “Dominion” by Tom Holland. I’m about two-thirds through, and it doesn’t seem that I’ll finish it in 2019, nevertheless, it is my Book of the Year. Holland, a secular historian, traces the improbable rise of Christianity, carefully showing how unprecedented its claims and teachings were in the Jewish and Greco-Roman world. It’s persistence and resilience in the face of persecution and the development of theology through careful contextualization are further remarkable features of Christianity. Though Holland doesn’t shy away from the darker chapters in Christianity’s history, he is quick to show when certain actions were aberrations of Christianity teaching and when they were extensions of it. Contra many claims by atheists today, the worst actions of Christians in history were when they had deviated the most from the teachings of Jesus and Paul. In the end, Holland argues that much of the embedded and institutionalized virtues and values of Western society are fruit from Christian roots. Can the fruit remain if it is severed from the root? This is the great experiment of the march of secularization.

The next theme I turned to was how Christianity relates to a secularized age, a pluralistic world, and a humanistic empire. “Seriously Dangerous Religion” is a tour de force of comparative religions through a meta-frame. Provan identifies 10 major questions every major religion or system must grapple with. He then shows how the Old Testament addresses these questions in comparison to other ancient religions or post-modern composites of ancient religions (like the notion that all religions of the “Axial Age” were the same, or the generic spirituality of the New Age). He does show how Christianity (the New Testament) extends the vision that is sketched in the Old Testament and brings it to its fullest expression and completion in Jesus.

“Faith for Exiles” by Barna’s David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock summoned research to outline five practices of young Christians who developed a resilient faith in the the midst of a Babylonian world. It was practical and inspiring, not only as a pastor but as a father. The accessible yet richly theological, “Gospel Allegiance” outlines how fidelity to Jesus the King grounds Christians and gives shape to a robust Christianity no matter what empire we find ourselves living in. It reclaims words that have lost their original textual meaning– like faith, gospel, grace, and works– and shows how the fit together through the paradigm of Kingship and Kingdom. Finally, “Seculosity” demonstrated with observational insight and a sharp wit, how society in the west has channeled a moralistic impulse and appropriated religious fervor and ritual to facets of life like work, romance, parenting, eating, and more.

The rest of my reading can be filed under the categories of pastoral theology and personal enrichment. Here’s a quick bit about some of them. I was struck by the profound integration of social analysis and theological reflection in the collection of sermons from Martin Luther King, Jr, Strength to Love”; I benefited from Preston Sprinkle’s short books, Grace/Truth 1.0″ and “Grace/Truth 2.0”on gender and sexuality; I found the collection of essays on identity, community, and authority in the digital age in “The HTML Of Cruciform Love” utterly fascinating; I loved my pastor’s book, “Remarkable”, on engaging culture in a Christlike way; I learned a lot from Lucy Peppiatt’s succinct summary and fresh perspective of the biblical vision of womanhood (which challenges the assumed patriarchy of many); I normally find reading Rowan Williams to be quite a laborious endeavor, but hist short series of books–  “Being Human”, “Being Christian”, and “Being Disciples” — were really excellent and not too dense; I appreciated Wesley Hill’s demonstration of Trinitarian theology at work in Paul’s letters; I found Haley Jacob’s exegesis and arguments in “Conformed to the Image of His Son” really compelling; I was moved and inspired by what I consider the best single book on prayer, Pete Greig’s “How to Pray”; and, I can see why some have called N. T. Wright’s “History and Eschatology” a capstone of his life’s work on the historical Jesus and Christian eschatology.

Alright, here are my top five, followed by the full list.


My Top Five 
1. “Dominion”– Tom Holland

2. “Empire”– Niall Ferguson

3. “Seriously Dangerous Religion”– Iain Provan

4. “Gospel Allegiance”– Matthew Bates

5. “Seculosity”– David Zahl


The Full List:
Theology/Biblical Studies
  1. “The Christological Hymns of the New Testament”– Matthew Gordley
  2. “Paul and the Trinity”– Wesley Hill
  3. “Conformed to the Image of His Son”– Haley Goranson Jacob
  4. “The 3D Gospel”– Jayson Georges
  5. “For all God’s Worth”– N. T. Wright
  6. “Blue Parakeet 2nd Edition”– Scot Mcknight (read 2/3rds)
  7. “Being Human”– Rowan Williams
  8. “Being Christian”– Rowan Williams
  9. “Being Disciples”– Rowan Williams
  10. “Seriously Dangerous Religion”– Iain Provan
  11. “Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women”– Lucy Peppiat
  12. “Gospel Allegiance”– Matthew Bates
  13. “History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology”– N. T. Wright
Histories/Biographies 
  1. “Then They Came For Me”– Matthew D. Hockenos
  2. “Dynasty”– Tom Holland
  3. “Empire”– Niall Ferguson
  4. “The Intellectual World of CS Lewis”– Alistair McGrath
  5. “Dominion”– Tom Holland (2/3rd done!)
Cultural Conversations 
  1. “Grace and Truth 1.0”– Preston Sprinkle
  2. “Grace and Truth 2.0”– Preston Sprinkle
  3. “The HTML of Cruciform Love”– Edited John Frederick and Eric Lewellen
  4. “Remarkable”– Brady Boyd
  5. “Talking to Strangers”– Malcom Gladwell
  6. “Faith for Exiles”– David Kinnaman
  7. “Seculosity”– David Zahl
Fiction 
  1. “Things Fall Apart”– Chinua Achebe
  2. “A Passage to India”– E. M. Forster
Devotional
  1. “How to Pray”– Pete Greig
  2. “Prayer: Our Deepest Longing”– Ronald Rolheiser
  3. “Strength to Love” — Martin Luther King, Jr. (2 chapters left!)
Leadership
  1. “Captain Class”– Sam Walker

“Still”: A 5- Day Devotional

Earlier this year, Integrity Music release a 5-day devotional that I had written to accompany a wonderful new instrumental album called ‘Still‘ by a fabulous UK band called ‘Rivers & Robots’. (One of their other albums– ‘Eternal Son‘–  is always on in our home, thanks to a friend who gave it to me on vinyl, and to my son who can’t get enough of it!)

Anyway, when the devotionals first released, there was a problem with my voice– it was pitch-shifted lower by some sort of technological fluke. Instead of being soothing, it sounded like Kylo-Ren trying to feed you some propaganda. Well, all that is sorted now, and these sound much better. I hope they will bless you and provide you a little respite in this noisy and chaotic world.

DAY 1

 

DAY 2

 

DAY 3

 

DAY 4

 

DAY 5

Preparing for a New Year

For the past 6 or 7 years, Holly and I have done a prayer and planning retreat, usually at the end of the calendar year, or sometimes right at the beginning. We were inspired by some wise, older, mentors who talked about their rhythm of intentionally praying and planning for the new year. (Special thanks to my parents for watching our kids this year, as in recent years.) 

Each year, we’ve done it slightly differently, but there has generally been a progression from prayer to planning. Often, we start by listening, waiting upon the Lord, asking Him if He has a word for us for the new year. This year, to aid our listening, we began by sitting in the beautiful church at the Franciscan monastery near our house. Holly and I found separate corners in the quiet, empty sanctuary for about an hour or so. Holly used the ‘Prayer of Examen’ as a way of taking stock of the year [here’s a short article from Peter Scazzero on how Evangelicals can practice the Prayer of Examen]. I sat and quieted my heart, kneeling in silence. We both read passages of Scripture and journaled.


Over lunch, we talked about some of the things we heard from the Lord. Then we made our way to the retreat center in town where we would spend two nights, and took the afternoon to formulate a ‘Rule of Life’ for each of us [here’s a very thorough website from Steve Macchia on how Evangelicals can create a ‘Rule of Life’]. Many people do this as an exercise in solitude, but we found it helpful to discuss it with one another because it helps us to not be too ambitious or unrealistic. Plus, my wife is an external processor so everything is better when you have someone to talk it out with.

Here’s a sample of my Rule of Life (slightly redacted for the public):

rule-of-life-001

A new practice we did this year was to try to set morning and evening habits (or ‘liturgies’ in the very loose James K. A. Smith sense of the word– or in the sense Eugene Peterson called his ‘liturgical nap’ decades before Smith!). We are both rather poor at consistency, but we aren’t willing to give up because we believe in the formative power of spiritual habits (1 Tim. 4:6-16).* So we talked through the physical, habitual rituals for our mornings and evenings– from a consistent wake time, to work-out time, to prayer, Bible reading, and breakfast (and, dinner clean-up, bedtime prep, reading with the kids, and nighttime prayers). We tried to be realistic and not too ambitious. We also discussed a very simple ‘Sabbath’ practice to try– beginning with a walk, our evening meal, a candle and prayer for others as we gather at the table. We have four kids, so life is far from monastic– but rhythms even with the chaos and mess of real life– can make it feel like there’s music to our movements (and not just madness!).

Our first evening was mostly recreational: we went out to eat, came back and read, and relaxed. The next morning, it was time to go over the calendar for the new year. We tried to put in the things we know: from kids activities (basketball, soccer, dance, etc) to meal groups. Then we blocked out my travel and in-town special ministry events. With a year-at-a-glance, we talked about possible vacations, camping trips, and weekend getaways, circling dates on the calendar that would serve as placeholders until plans are actually made. We’ve learned the hard way that if you don’t ‘schedule first what matters most’, then whatever comes will fill the spots. Our goal was not to fill the calendar, but to allow ourselves to see what kind of margin we could create. All the wildness and goodness of life happens in the white spaces we leave, right?

The afternoon was mostly reading and doing a bit of personal work– Holly did some homeschool planning, and I did some dissertation editing. Then, we had dinner, watched ‘The Crown’ on Netflix, and ran out to grab some hot chocolate. I’m telling you all these boring details not because I think you’ll find them compelling, but precisely because they are uninteresting: a prayer and planning retreat is not epic or other-worldly. It is the kind of space in the ordinary for you to breath, and for God to breathe in it.

img_1309

One final piece of our annual retreat is writing letters to our children. Years ago, we bought each of them a journal that we write in. Though we may write in it at different points in the year, we make it a point to write in it at this retreat. With some worship music going in the background, we pray for the Lord to give us a ‘word’ or a theme for each child. Then, we write them a letter in the journal, recapping some of what we have seen in them this year, and in what we sense for them in the year ahead. The plan is to give them each their journal when they graduate high school, or something like that. So, they won’t read their ‘word’ now. But, the mere act of journalling a word for them each year allows us to follow up with a personal conversation when we get home, shepherding them into the next season.

Anyway…our retreat is an amalgam of things we’ve learned from others along the way– from the Examen to the Rule of Life to the journalling idea. I’m quite sure none of this is original to us. And it certainly shouldn’t be unique to us. If this is inspiring or helpful to you in anyway, please, use it. If not, forget about it! 🙂


Even if you didn’t get days away to prepare for a new calendar year, here’s a little recap with some helpful questions to guide some reflection on your end:

Spiritual review:

  • Where did you feel God’s joy in your life last year?
  • Where did God’s grace show up in helping you give and receive love?
  • Where did you feel joy drain out of you last year?
  • Where did you fail to allow grace to flow through you by failing to give or receive love?

Spiritual preview:

  • Is there a word or a phrase or a theme from the Lord for this year?
  • What are some relationships the Lord is calling you to be attentive to this year?
  • Are there some projects that the Lord is leading you to step out and attempt this year?

Spiritual habits:

  • What are your repeated actions each morning and evening?
  • Is there a built-in rhythm for rest and weekly sabbath?
  • Are there times during the week where you can be free of your phone (Can you give it ‘office hours’?)?
  • What will guide your Bible-reading this year?

Planning for margin:

  • What activities have you already committed to?
  • What trips have you already planned for work or ministry?
  • Where can you mark out space for retreats and vacations– time for reflection and renewal, and for recreation?
  • Where can you leave margin– unscheduled space– in your calendar?

Paying attention:

  • If you have children, what is the Lord doing in their lives?
  • How can you co-operate with the Holy Spirit’s work in your children or in the lives of those around you?
  • What can you cultivate in your children or in the lives of those around you?

For any of you who have your own rhythm of prayer and planning for your lives and homes…do share so that this can be but the spark for the gathering of collective wisdom in the community of faith.

Cheers to you in 2017!


* For an illustration of how the Holy Spirit works in us to helps us ‘make every effort’ in the formation of character through the training of habits, here’s a 4-min clip from a sermon I gave in 2010! Excuse the scruffy look!

Advent Video Devotionals: “When God Comes Near…”

24/7 Prayer, an amazing movement and ministry led by Pete Greig, has launched their Advent video devotionals. These are wonderful, 3-4 minute videos helping us reflect on the coming of Christ. The theme this year is “When God comes near…”

Pete, along with several friends– Daniel Grothe, Andrew Arndt, David Perkins, and more–filmed these short devotionals. I had the privilege of doing three of these videos. The podcast, ranked tops in the UK, can be subscribed to on iTunes here or on YouTube here.

Here’s my first one, Episode 5:

Here is Episode 6:

Here is my final contribution Episode 7: