We’ve reached the end of a difficult year. Our family sighs with relief as we recount all the events of 2020 and anticipate a better year to come. At the same time we thank our heavenly Father for his constant mercies and ministry of comfort (2 Cor. 1:3). He has sustained and carried us this year.
One merciful means of strength and endurance? Books. Great books.
So here is my roundup of favorite titles from 2020. Their mention doesn’t mean I agree with everything in their pages, but that they follow the criteria I first used in 2015’s Reading Favorites article:
If one of the main purposes of books is to make the reader think, then these are the ones I’d say made me think most deeply, curiously, and enthusiastically this year. (I’ve chosen a first prize and a runner-up for each genre.)
First Prize: Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers (Dane C. Ortlund)
There’s a reason the newly released Gentle and Lowly is already a best-seller. It is a balm to the soul. Ortlund’s beautiful examination of the compassionate heart of Jesus stands apart from most contemporary books, many of which, while good and helpful, are “us-centered” rather than God-centered. Isn’t a long, lingering look at Christ exactly what the Bible says will help us the most (Heb. 12:1–2)? I’m on my second reading of Gentle and Lowly and highly, highly recommend it to you. Amid a difficult season of much weariness, Jesus knew I would need the reminder that he delights to save and strengthen his people.
Runner-Up: A Quest for Godliness: A Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (J. I. Packer)
When you hear the word “Puritan,” what comes to mind? If you think of descriptors like “stodgy,” “overly intense,” even “self-righteous,” you wouldn’t be alone (I’m guilty of this!). Beloved pastor and theologian J. I. Packer anticipates our thoughts and, in his compelling treatment of Puritan theology and practice, deconstructs our misconceptions while rebuilding for us truths about these faithful, Bible-believing physicians of the soul. Modern evangelicals (especially teachers) will benefit from Packer’s thorough visit through this period in church history and will be freshly inspired to commit the beautiful gospel.
Biography, Memoir, & Historical Fiction
First Prize #1: The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz (Erik Larson)
My husband once asked me, “Whose books will you always read?” Without hesitation I answered, “Erik Larson’s.” Naturally, I was thrilled when his new book released, and right at the start of COVID. A gifted writer of narrative history, Larson once again brings the past to life, telling the story of Winston Churchill, England’s eccentric, shrewd Prime Minister during WWII. This vivid account by Larson is so clearly the result of careful research and beautiful writing. To read about a global war during a global pandemic? My fear of sickness waned in the scope of history, when London was blitzed by German bombs for 52 consecutive nights. That will give us perspective.
Runner-Up: The Life of Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Iain H. Murray)
In an age of watered-down sermons, man-centric “gospels,” and a lack of vibrant church life, we will benefit from biographies of faithful men and women, pastors included. One of history’s most influential modern pastors was Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who entered vocational ministry after becoming a doctor and who served at Westminster Chapel in London for almost 30 years. Reading about his life and ministry, his commitment to preaching the whole counsel of God, and his love for his various flocks has exhorted me to remain faithful to Christ in my own ministry, both at home and in public.
First Prize: Holiness (J. C. Ryle)
Ryle’s wonderful book Holiness is a classic for good reason. With a pastoral heart, he offers the Christian and non-Christian alike a clearer glimpse into our hearts and our need for Christ who alone can propel our pursuit of godliness. I appreciated most of all his emphasis on a person’s love for Jesus. If we have not love for our Lord and Savior, we completely miss the point of godliness. Holiness is so searching that I had to restrain myself from highlighting the entire book.
Runner-Up: O Death, Where Is Thy Sting? (John Murray)
John Murray was a Reformed pastor and professor at Westminster Theological Seminary. O Death, Where Is Thy Sting? is a collection of his sermons. Murray clearly loved Christ and preached his Word from this heart of deep affection and allegiance to him. His preaching is an example of clear Bible exposition and pastoral application. My heart was stirred by his messages!
Vocation & Learning
First Prize: Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching As Worship (John Piper)
John Piper’s recent series includes A Peculiar Glory, Reading the Bible Supernaturally (which won my “Christian Living” First Prize in 2017’s Reading Favorites), and Expository Exultation. All of them have been formative for my mind and soul, helping me answer the questions, “What do I believe about Scripture?” and now “What do I believe about preaching in corporate worship?” The depth and breadth of Piper’s arguments astound me, but most astounding is his obvious adoration of the Lord and Savior in whom he exults. This is an important book for our pandemic-time when many churches are not meeting.
Runner-Up: Honey for a Child’s Heart: The Imaginative Use of Books in Family Life (Gladys Hunt)
Not all books, and not all children’s books, are counted equal, Gladys Hunt argues in Honey for a Child’s Heart. A friend and mentor recommended this book to me after I asked her about how I can best steward time with my children. Her answer? “Talk to them, and read to them.” Enter Hunt’s helpful resource, which states a case for prioritizing reading in the home, and then provides numerous lists of great books for every age group. I’ve used her appendices multiple times to reserve books at the library. I’m sold! A great coffee table book and gift idea for parents.
First Prize: Jack: A Novel (Marilynne Robinson)
Beauty is an elusive subject. What is it exactly? How do we recognize it? We know it when we see it––or perhaps, when we read it. Beauty describes Marilynne Robinson’s writing, and her new novel Jack is no exception. I admire her ability to search a character’s heart and mind and to tackle complex themes like human depravity, grace, and justice without any sense of banality, which she does so successfully in Jack.
Runner-Up: Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë)
As a governess living at Thornfield Hall, Jane falls in love with its master, Edward Rochester, but strange things begin to happen in his household, unveiling a secret that threatens to tear them apart. Not only is Brontë’s plot riveting, her excellent writing speeds it along.