I read books much like Sam from the iconic Green Eggs and Ham who could eat the green stuff here and there. I can read pretty much everywhere. In 2020, I have read books in a plane and on a train. I’ve read them within a car and in hotels from afar. And I would read them with my wife and with PhD students who play the fife. In short, I do so like good books. I hope you too will try a good book or two soon. Below are the four tastiest volumes that I read in 2020.
If you feel the urge to stop reading this post, finding books scary, I encourage you to stay with me for another minute or two. Investigate the books below. Though you may not like books much today, I encourage you to heed the advice of Sam-I-Am who profoundly said, “Try them! Try them! And you may.
John M. Barry
I began the year unaware of this book. But a pandemic and a well-timed tweet by my fellow PhD. student John Blackman later, the book became my favorite volume of 2020.
When the Coronavirus swept across our shores, I found myself completely unprepared for the virus. I did not know how to think about a virus. My grandparent’s stories which dipped into the 1920s knew nothing of pandemics or plagues. Barry’s book provides the historical context that I needed to make sense of these times. In the 546-page book that reads like a novel, the author traces the conflict that erupts as scientists seek to conquer the mysterious and every changing world of microbes that are killing thousands. As the story flows from rural Kansas, to France, and then back to urban New York and to a host of other locations, Barry clarifies many misconceptions that have distorted our understanding of the Spanish Flu, the benefits of epidemiology, and the power of modern medicine. He also draws connections between the 1918 pandemic and other medical crises such as Polio and the Swine Flu, noting both the advances of modern medicine and its frustrating limits. Modern medicine still fails to definitively answer our questions. Barry notes, “They knew so little. So little. They knew only isolation worked.”
At times, Barry’s own biases bleed into the story. But his biases against Christianity do not impede his overarching commitment to leave no stone unturned. He examines Presidential files, small town newspapers, and private correspondence. The research that produced this book has captured the attention of Presidents on both sides of the political spectrum. I would encourage you to listen to Barry as well.
And they lied for the war effort, for the propaganda machine Wilson had created. It is impossible to quantify how many deaths the lies caused. It is impossible to quantify how many young men died because the army refused to follow the advice of its own surgeon general. But while those in authority were reassuring people that this was influenza, only influenza, nothing different from ordinary “la grippe” at least some people must have believed them, at least some people must have exposed themselves to the virus in ways they would not have otherwise, and at least some of those people must have died who would otherwise have lived.
Iain H. Murray
As the world around him descended into darkness, J.C. Ryle remained fixed to the light of Christ. In the space of 273 pages, historian Iain Murray chronicles the life and discusses the theology of one of the greatest British theologians of the nineteenth century. Ryle overcame his nominal Christian roots and was transformed into the famous grace inspired pastor we know today because of his single-minded devotion to Christ. Murry writes, “The gospel itself was ever the most important part of whatever he spoke or wrote, and the gospel meant the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ (133).” He clung to it when his wives died, when the Church of England drifted from the truth, and when his son wrote off the historic Christian faith as being archaic. Through all the disappointments, criticisms, and sorrows, Ryle rested happily upon the rock of Jesus Christ, extending love to friend and foe alike. One contemporary described Ryle as “that man of granite with the heart of a child.” Though the church of England sank into liberalism, Ryle’s ministry bore great evangelical fruit. He opened 44 new churches and installed more than 100 new clergy in his diocese. The relevance Ryle’s son, Herbert, sought through theological innovation, J.C. Ryle achieved through the proclamation of the historic faith. Murray’s work is a valuable and encouraging read.
Faced with difficulties of many kinds, Ryle had no doubt where his priorities lay: ‘my first and foremost business, as Bishop of a new Diocese, is to provide for preaching of the Gospel to souls now entirely neglected’…From the time of his conversion he had believed that nominal Christianity – ‘churchianity’ without personal experience of Christ – was ‘the greatest defect of the Christianity of our times.’
Justin S. Holcom
Using only 192 small pages, Holcom accomplishes the herculean task of providing his readers with helpful introductions to more than thirteen creeds and doctrinal statements. Each of his chapters chronicles the historical background, the content, and the relevance of documents such as the Apostle’s creed, the Council of Trent, and the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. At the end of each chapter, the author provides his readers with discussion questions and a list of books for further study, making this the perfect book for both the pastor and the lay person. Though no book of this size could comprehensively deal with every issue tied to these documents, Holcom provides his readers with a meaningful introduction to those movements that both indirectly and directly shape their theological practice. For example, he details Nicaea which solidified the church’s understanding of Jesus and the Council of Trent which explains why protestants cannot rejoin the Catholic Church. Though Jesus’s church does not need councils and theological documents to be the church, these statements prove to be more helpful than most Christians realize. Holcom writes, “Creeds aren’t dogmas that are imposed on Scripture but are themselves drawn from the Bible and provide a touchstone to the faith for Christians of all times and places.”
The fact that Christianity developed – that the sixteenth century, for instance, looked very different from the third, and that both looked very different from the twenty-first – can sometimes lead us to wonder what the essential core of Christianity is. As a result, some people decide to ignore history altogether and try to reconstruct “real Christianity” with nothing more than a Bible. But this approach misses a great deal. Christians of the past were no less concerned with being faithful to God than we are, and they sought to fit together all that the Scripture has to say about the mysteries of Christianity – the incarnation, the Trinity, predestination, and more – with all the intellectual power of their times. To ignore these insights is to attempt to reinvent the wheel, and to risk reinventing it badly.
The sweetness of Thomas Goodwin’s 1651 book has become all the fuller with age. Instead of being driven to the edge of irrelevance by the busyness of the modern world, Goodwin’s exposition of God’s love for his people proves to be acutely applicable to our day. The first part of the book reveals how heaven amplifies Jesus’s love for his disciples, reminding readers that the God who extended grace to the bumbling Peter readily extends grace to you and me. Goodwin notes, “now that he is in heaven, his heart remains as graciously inclined to sinners that come to him, as ever on earth (4).” In the second and third part of the book, Goodwin unpacks the heart of Hebrews 4:15 which declares the Jesus is a high priest who “was in all points tempted like us, yet without sin.” He also traces Christ’s love for his people throw the Trinity, amplifying the love of God exemplified through the mercy and grace of God.
Goodwin’s recounting of God’s love for his people proves a refreshing correction to the works righteousness that dominates much of the evangelical world. Though the author’s old English could prove a little cumbersome for some readers, Goodwin’s small book will prove to be a powerful dose of encouragement for souls worn down by sickness, relationship difficulties, and the pressures put upon them by well-meaning religious folks who think God’s love flows through choir practices, painting projects, and Wednesday morning Bible studies. We don’t need those things to earn Jesus’s love. Christ’s heart is always towards his people.
But then, some greatly distressed souls might question thus: Though he pities me, and is affected, yet my misery and sins being great will he take them in to the full, lay them to heart, to pity me according to the greatness of them? To me with this thought therefore, and to prevent even this objection about Christ’s pity the apostle sets him out by what was the duty of the high priest, who was his shadow; that he is one that ‘can have compassion according to the measure of every one’s distress’s…Thy misery can never exceed his mercy.