A year of strict European quarantining and time inside has lent itself to quite a lot of good reading. Not all the books I read this year were published in 2020, but I’m glad they made it onto my radar during this crazy year. Here’s just a quick list with a few remarks about each:
- The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution by Carl R. Trueman
This is the last book I read this year, but certainly the most significant. In many ways, this book feels like the culmination of many of the books I’ve read centered on modern society and notions of self-identity. It is the highest recommendation I have on this list for any Christian interested in understanding the times we’re living in now.
The book seeks to explain how phrases such as “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” came to be something that makes sense to the average person. By tracing the modern ideas of “self” developed by Enlightenment thinkers and poets, Trueman elucidates the march from post-enlightenment to postmodern thought, demonstrating that the rise of the sexual revolution and identity politics have roots which date back much father than the 1960s. I don't want this to become a review of this book (maybe that will come later), so I’ll close with this: Read this book.
2. The Gulag Archipelago (Abridged) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
In another book on this list, Rod Dreher introduced me to Solzhenitsyn. He is perhaps the most famous dissident of the communist regime of the Soviet Union. He suffered greatly under the USSR and spent a number of years in the gulags, eventually being exiled to the West. Solzhenitsyn pulled back the curtain to reveal the horrors of the Soviet Union and its totalitarian ideology to Western readers who didn’t fully understand just how bad the communist regime was. I too have been astonished at the horrors which took place under the USSR (horrors that would make a Nazi blush), yet didn’t find their way into any of my school history books. Solzhenitsyn’s account shows us that Marxism isn’t just bad economics, it’s societal poison.
3. Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind by Tom Holland
Tom Holland gives a fascinating account, not necessarily of the history of the Church, but the history of the Church’s impact on Western civilization. He compellingly argues that modern-day Western peoples cannot make sense of the world without using a fundamentally Christian framework. The morals, ethics, science, and philosophies that are foundational to Western nations are not so much Greco-Roman as they are Christian.
Whether it be the idea that humility is greater than pride, the poor should receive justice, women should be treated as equal with men, oppression of the poor is evil — or notions of “human rights” or “human dignity” — it is impossible to escape Christianity’s influence on Western thought, even as the West is abandoning its faith. Holland has a great appreciation for Christianity, even as he offers criticisms of the Christian worldview. Be sure this book makes it on your wish list for 2021!
4. The Benedict Option: A Strategy For Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by Rod Dreher
If I’m not mistaken, this book kicked off the whole “option” trend in the literary world over the past few years. Sadly, I missed this book when it came out in 2017, but the book is probably even more relevant in 2020.
Dreher gives absolutely spot-on cultural analysis in this book — the threats, challenges, and opportunities Christians will face in the coming years (and even today). He points back to Benedictine monks who serve as examples for Christians today who look with uncertainty to the cultural decay around us. He encourages Christians to embrace what he calls the Benedict Option. Far from retreating into monasteries in the wilderness, instead, the Benedict Option is centered around forming strong communities of Christians, built around local churches, which can support one another as the culture becomes increasingly hostile toward us. I don’t agree with every single conclusion he gives, but I am very thankful that this book exists and I hope we will heed Dreher’s wisdom in the coming decades.
5. Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents by Rod Dreher
What can I say, I like Rod Dreher.
The title of this book was taken from one of the writings of Solzhenitsyn when he was giving a similar exhortation to Christian dissidents under the Soviet Union.
This book is a great follow-up to The Benedict Option, in that it really feels like the two books are more of a “Volume 1 and Volume 2”. Dreher draws on the stories of other dissidents in the Soviet Union to give strategy and insight into how Christians may have to operate in the coming decades. The threat of totalitarianism, or what Dreher calls “soft totalitarianism,” is very real — even in the democratic West! He reminds conservatives that woke capitalism and big tech are just as dangerous as big governments, if not more so. He encourages Christians to prioritize holy living, church membership, and familial devotion as a means of resistance.
6. Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by Dane Ortlund
A breath of fresh air amongst the other books on this list, this is the most compelling theological work I read this year. Gentle and Lowly is appropriately included on many people’s top 10 lists for the year.
Ortlund goes to Scripture and opens up Christ’s heart for His people in a beautiful, moving way. He points out that the only two words Christ uses to describe His own heart are “gentle and lowly” (Matt. 11:29). This book deepened the way I relate to the Lord, adjusted my heart toward sin and confession, and opened my eyes to even more of Christ than I saw before. Buy this book for yourself, and then buy another copy for someone else. I can’t recommend it enough.
7. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation For Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt
Have you ever wondered why college campuses seemed to have a major shift around 2013 toward what we see today? How “microaggressions,” “safe spaces,”and “trigger warnings” became part of the normal vernacular across many of America’s institutions for higher education? Lukainoff and Haidt, who self-identify as liberals, track the generational differences that later Millennials and Gen Z have experienced which, consequently, have set them up to prioritize emotional safety on their college campuses.
Coddling sets out to undo three great “untruths” that have gripped many young adults and college students: The Untruth of Fragility (what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker), the Untruth of Emotional Reasoning (always trust your feelings), and the Untruth of Us vs. Them (life is a battle between good people and evil people). The authors then give advice for how society can use wiser strategies to develop wiser students, universities, and parents.
Neither of these men are Christians, so there are flaws in their arguments and gaps in their solutions. However, this book is an example of common grace in that these two non-believing image-bearers still hit the nail on the head in several places. Pastors, teachers, school administrators, and parents — this book is a must-read for you.
8. The Unquenchable Flame by Michael Reeves
A pastor recommended this book to me, and I am very thankful for it. I had read and studied so much about the Reformation between 2015–17 that I had gotten a bit burnt out on it. But between visiting Wittenberg this year and reading this book, my love for the Reformation heroes was rekindled.
The Unquenchable Flame is an excellent, concise summary of the major figures and events surrounding the Protestant Reformation, written in a way that anyone can easily understand. I read through the book in about two days — it was that hard to put down. So whether you need to rekindle your love for the Reformation or you want an introduction to it, pick up a copy.
9. The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity by Douglas Murray
I was introduced to Douglas Murray earlier this year when I read The Strange Death of Europe, and I quickly grew to appreciate his perspective on culture (as much as I may disagree with some of his views).
This book has four major sections which deal with the most controversial subjects in our modern culture: Gay, Women, Race, and Trans. Murray tracks each of these movements, many of which started out with different intentions than what we are seeing today. Madness is very journalistic in its approach, which leads the reader to a systematic yet story-like understanding of these social movements. I hesitate to say much more, as this article is not intended to be as controversial as the original source. Suffice it to say, Murray is a voice worth listening to, even if you may disagree with some of his viewpoints.
10. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
This was a book I had been meaning to read for years. By the way, let’s not even talk about the disappointing Netflix film adaptation of this book. Trust me and just go for the book — it’s so good.
I’m a sucker for a good memoir, and although Vance is still a relatively young man, his memoir is up there among the greats. He gives the reader a glimpse into the poor, white, working-class culture in Appalachia. This huge demographic often gets overlooked in much of the national discourse, and they are deeply misunderstood by the cultural elites (something the movie demonstrates pretty well).
I laughed out loud many times reading this book. The stories are gripping, and you almost feel like you’re part of this hillbilly family not long into the story.
Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity — and Why This Harms Everybody by Helen Pluckrose and James A. Lindsay
Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making by Andrew Peterson
Lectures to My Students by Charles Spurgeon
The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam by Douglas Murray
The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture, and the Church by Albert Mohler