I’ve been asked about it a few times already, so here it is: my review of my reading from 2017. Any suggestions for 2018? Let me know.
Here’s some quick links:
- Science fiction
- Other fiction
- Christian life
- Christian history
- Christian ministry
- Top of the Pile (best books of 2017)
The Day of the Triffids (John Wyndham)
Having grown up hearing of this book from my Dad, I was well aware of its premise before opening its first (digital) page. Nonetheless, the story is well written, the atmosphere of intrigue is well crafted, and I loved entering into the world of this dystopian sci-fi. Of course, the title renders sinister every mention of this menacing plant until the great ‘Day of the Triffids’ arrives, and humanity is left battling for survival.
Given such a dramatic setup, in my view the book slightly dragged – especially when the novelty of the problem started to wear off. As one who is normally ‘plot-driven’ in my reading, I found the book just-about carried me through, but given the potential for great set pieces and action scenes (of which there were a few) such incidents were surprisingly sparse.
The ending was satisfactorily opened-ended – and if such a concept seems to you to be an oxymoron, I suggest you stear clear of the book! There is closure, but it’s is more about concluding with hope than with resolution.
Given the classic nature of this book (its positive critical reception and numerous adaptations into film and radio have installed it firmly on the cultural landscape), it’s well worth a ready. And if you fancy a laugh, watch the 1963 film version, complete with puppet triffids!
Perelandra (C.S. Lewis)
Continuing my foray into C.S. Lewis’s sci-fi trilogy, I picked up this book with the strong recommendation of my friend. Like the first in the series, I found this book a little difficult to get into. Lewis is excellent at painting his peculiar Venus, but given its considerable contrast from Earth, it takes some time to accept this new planet.
Moreover, I became increasingly aware of the theologically loaded nature of his narrative long before I quite understood the parallels. However, once the penny dropped, this became a fascinating study of the Fall. As with all of Lewis’s writings (indeed, the writing of any Christian), discernment is needed; at some points I was blown away by the insight, at other points I was sceptical of his conclusions. Nonetheless, such a foundational component of our world’s history merits deeper consideration, and if Perelandra will help us to meditate more deeply on the lessons of Genesis 2-4, I hope many more will read it!
Have I mentioned that I love sci-fi? It stretches the imagination into the implausible or even the impossible – but, when well-written, it is oddly believable. When carefully researched, it invites the suspension of disbelief, but doesn’t take it for granted. That’s what I loved so much about ‘The Martian’, with its rigorous science that so many others have found dull: the accuracy of a well-researched novel draws the reader in!
The Brilliance Trilogy cannot claim that level of accuracy, but it is nonetheless a well-crafted plot, with twists and turns carrying the reader through. The ‘surprises’ are not wholly unpredictable, but are elegantly executed, and the ‘grand finale’ of the middle instalment (“A Better World”) nearly made me gasp. It certainly prompted me to pick up the third of the series before the year was out!
(For Christian friends sensitive to explicit content, it’s worth noting a few brief and unnecessary moments. Why does the publishing industry seem to be convinced of the need for such gratuitous content in its fiction? Such moments frustrated me, but were infrequent and easily skipped.)
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)
There are some books that lend themselves to a cult following – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is just such an example. It is hard to think of an adjective more appropriate than ‘random’ – and in so many different ways! The premise is fairly famous – our protagonist saved from earth just before it is destroyed to make way for an intergalactic highway. The beautiful parody of everyday bureaucracy is one of many comments on ‘real life’ that Adams transferred into his absurd universe.
Even as someone who enjoys the weird and the wonderful of this kind of book, there were moments when I found it a little difficult to keep going with this book. I started the next in the series (The Restaurant at the End of the Universe) before the end of 2017, but struggled to give any enduring focus.
Something to dip into for a dose of random absurdity!
Ready Player One (Ernest Cline)
My flatmate commented frequently on how much I would enjoy this, so I had high expectations as I began – and I wasn’t disappointed. It has long been on my wishlist, but I finally purchased it when it came down to 99p on Kindle (true of so many of the books I own!) and whizzed through it with extraordinary speed.
The premise is largely an excuse for 1980s children to geek-out over numerous cultural references. Even as someone who grew up in the decade, many passed me by – I’m not as much a child of the ’80s as I’d like to think – but there were a few that I could take hold of, and the plot rumbles on at a pace with enough twists and turns to amuse even the most ’80s-disinterested reader.
The storyline is a classic sci-fi – with teleportation, super-powers, space travel and all the other things you might expect. Since I am someone who likes to read, it would be easy to dismiss my recommendation when ‘I couldn’t put it down’, but I find it hard to spend a long time reading in any one go. Not so for this book. It was a great little read – I’m only sad to hear that the author’s other books don’t compare.
Stories of Your Life and Others (Ted Chiang)
I think Arrival might be my favourite film of all time. It seems comparatively unknown, but one of my happiest additions to my film collection.
Of course, then, I was interested to read the book which inspired the film. “Stories of Your Life and Others” is a collection of short sci-fi stories from which the eponymous short story became the aforementioned film. They’re a weird bunch – all very interesting ideas, and each one very different from the last. They’re delivered without introduction (though the author provides an interesting commentary at the back of the book), so it takes a few pages to get to grips with the next sci-fi idea – but I like that about them. They’re unassumingly inviting you into their respective worlds.
However, each one is inevitably underdeveloped. There’s not quite long enough to feel any particular concern for these characters; each idea is not allowed long before the short story comes to a close, and its full potential is hardly realised. The story on which Arrival was based is a classic example of this – it’s exactly the same idea, but the film takes it further and so I enjoyed reading it a lot less than expected.
I’d still give this a good score, but I guess I was a little disappointed. Then again, which such great enjoyment of the film, what book could hope to live up to it?
The Phantom of Menace (Ian Doescher)
What can be said about this that hasn’t been said before? I’ve read the ‘original trilogy’ of Ian Doescher’s Star Wars adaptations and enjoyed them immensely. It’s the same idea repeated again, this time returning to the beginning of the prequels and giving them the Shakespeare treatment.
I’m not going to try to sell this to those who have no interest in Star Wars; and there’ll be plenty of Star Wars geeks who have no interest in reading the plots in iambic pentameter. Nonetheless I’ve enjoyed reading yet another one – and I look forward to making my way through the next. Though the author is American, it feels like there’s something quintessentially British about adapting Star Wars into this peculiar genre. With everyone I’ve ever spoken to about these books, I’ve always been met with a slightly bemused dismissal. I’ll probably not persuade you to read this either, but I’m ok with that.
The Uncommon Reader (Alan Bennett)
I don’t re-read many books, but I’d remember this as a light read, and I fancied something cheerful that I would get through in a few sittings. I have read very little from this famous author – indeed, perhaps this is the only thing of his that I have read – but I enjoyed it for its simplicity, readability and humour. Imagine that a travelling library earned the regular attention of the Queen – what might happen? This is a merry little tale with very few characters, and a lovely insight into the internal mind of our beloved monarch – that is, what Alan Bennett thinks she would be like at least.
Keep the Aspidistra Flying (George Orwell)
What a depressing book! Its central character was obsessed with money to the point of being deeply irritating, but as I got towards the end of the book I realised that was the point. His self-fulfilling prophecies were tragic, and he was wholly dislikeable in many different ways … but there was part of me that wanted to know how things would turn out anyway.
Orwell apparently apologised for releasing this book into the world.
But it was a well delivered book – it performed exactly as advertised, it’s just not my cup of tea.
Offshore (Penelope Fitzgerald)
The whole story hangs around life on a collection of narrow boats (or barges? What’s the difference?) on the River Thames. There’s a great mix – from the stately to the decrepit; a statement which is true of the boats and their owners. Indeed, there’s a beautiful symmetry between the two that carries through the book.
Like many literary fiction books, it’s not about the plot as much as the characters, but both are well developed. I’ve not read anything by Fitzgerald before, but this was nearly enough to warm me to her as an author – well written, intriguing characters, a plot that moves slowly but not too slowly. Even the alarming, jarring ending felt appropriate to the book, in spite of its appearance out-of-nowhere.
I say “nearly enough to warm me to her”, because I haven’t taken a great interest in any of her other books. In an industry flooded with great writers, and with a ‘to-read’ list as long as my arm, it’s hard to imagine what she could have written to enlist me as a fan. But if my list were shorter…
The Red Notebook (Antoine Laurain)
Laurain’s The President’s Hat warmed me to this author when I read it a few years ago, and so I decided to get hold of this book when it was discounted on Kindle. It’s a very different read, although feels – again – very French (I’m not sure what I mean by that … it just does).
It’s a slightly slow beginning, but quickly becomes an intriguing read, all centred around the notebook of the title. Somehow Laurain manages to stop the male protagonist from coming across as creepy (you’ll see why that’s noteworthy if you read it), and we find ourselves willing the two main characters to get together. I guess in many ways it’s no great departure from a fairly classic ‘love story’ plot, but it’s well translated into highly readable English, and draws you in comfortably.
Do they end up together? You’d have to read it.
The Looking Glass War (John Le Carre)
Why don’t I read more of this excellent author?
You’d have to look at previous year’s reading reviews to chart my love affair with Le Carré‘s books; there are so many things I love about them, it is baffling that I haven’t filled my literary diet with his work. This was, for some reason, the only Le Carré book I managed to read in 2017 – but it was the one I finished most quickly.
Loosely belonging in the “George Smiley” series, this (like several other “Smiley” novels) gives the famous spy very little air time. Instead, more of the tradecraft for which Le Carré is famous unfolds with beautiful descriptions that carry you through to its inevitable conclusion.
As I’ve said before, you don’t read Le Carré for the ‘big reveal’ at the end. Rather, the carefully constructed plot, brilliant characterisation and exquisite crafting of prose make his work exceptional. I haven’t heard much said about this particular novel in the past, but it certainly belongs amongst the best of them.
Brother of the more famous Jack (Barbara Trapido)
This book confused me in many ways. I don’t feel like I really got a grasp of its plot, or quite what it was doing. Even following a discussion at my monthly book group where we reviewed this novel, I still feel quite unsure about what it was about.
Some books leave an impression on you. Other books are hard to place, but you remember when you pick them up to read again. For me, this one belongs in a third category. I can only apologise to its author, and suggest that this would appeal to many. The writing style was great – but as a plot-driven reader, I found this harder to grab hold of.
The Lonely Londoners (Samuel Selvon)
The book group of which I am a part took ‘London’ as a loose theme this year. Inevitably, then, we read this pioneering 1950s novel focusing on working-class immigrants from the Caribbean. As I’ve mentioned numerous times, I need a decent plot to draw me in, and for that reason this book took a little longer to catch my attention. It follows the stories of numerous characters, and working out ‘what it is’ made it harder to penetrate. However, once I’d grabbed hold of that, this was a very interesting read.
Written by a Trinidadian author who moved to the UK at a similar time, the book had a deep sense of authenticity – communicated by his use of ‘creolized’ English. It has been widely commended for its social commentary, with the protagonist and his friends struggling to make their way in a society that seems frequently biased against them.
It is gritty, in parts deeply unpleasant, and does not give its plot a traditional ‘resolution’ – but for all those reasons it accomplishes what it sets out to achieve. I can see why it made a name for its author.
The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe (C.S. Lewis)
I read this in 2016 too, and I can add little to my review of then. It was still a deeply enjoyable book, with a beautiful and theologically rich plot. Perfect? Of course not. Deeply recommended? For sure.
A Spy by nature (Charles Cumming)
Charles Cumming was once recommended to me in a bookshop as someone comparable to Le Carré. I’m far from finishing Le Carré‘s works (indeed, he appears still to be adding to his body of work, with the publication this year of yet-another Smiley novel), but some time ago I registered my need to have someone to turn to “after Le Carré”.
Cumming is an understandably popular author, and a friend has suggested to me that it would be foolish to judge him on the basis of this work – it is not his best. But if I’m honest, I found it hard to get into. His similarities to Le Carré extend as far as the nature of his plot, but not the quality of his language – and that’s fine, because I presume Cumming is appealing to a wide market. Unfortunately, however, it is the quality of language that originally drew me in with ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, and I was hoping for something similar here.
At points it dragged; like many other books I read this year, it took a while to ‘work out what it is'; but it hasn’t put me off altogether. I originally purchased a large collection of Cumming’s work (7 novels ‘in one’) when it was reduced to 99p on Kindle. Despite finding this book hard work, I intend on returning to other novels; but I’m not in a great rush – not when there are so many Le Carré’s still ‘on the shelf’…
Oliver Twist (Charles Dickens)
What a dreary book!
I guess Dickens is famous for his depiction of a rather depressing part of England’s history, but I found this especially bleak. I knew much of the plot from the film and stage adaptations, but even then it took my by surprise. Much of the material that the screen has made famous can be found in the first half of the book; the rest seems given over to various depressing moments.
The book does not end quite as sadly as you might imagine, but that didn’t stop me being left with an overriding sense of melancholy at how things turned out.
Dickens is a master story teller. Originally produced as a serial, I can imagine being on the edge of my seat, keen to find out what happened next. Many of the characters are quite two-dimensional, and yet he produces a compelling commentary on various aspects of society – the plight of orphans, the judgmentalism of some amongst the higher classes etc. etc.
I don’t firmly believe in the necessity of ‘reading the classics’, but I’m glad I read this.
Don’t waste your life (+ Risk is right) (John Piper)
This is a tremendous book. Someone wryly suggested to me that obeying its title would preclude reading it, but I read it nonetheless and absolutely enjoyed it!
The book exposes the great danger that we might get through our whole lives and find, at the end, it was a waste. Early in the book he considers a couple who took early retirement to cruise on their trawler, play softball and collect shells. ‘Picture them before Christ at the great day of judgment: “Look, Lord. See my shells.” That is a tragedy.’ (p38). I guess anyone reading this might agree, but Piper exposes how quickly we drift into similar tragedies. How resolutely are we giving our whole lives – literally giving them up – to serve the purpose of Christ in this world?
One of the best chapters is “Risk is Right – Better to Lose your life than to waste it” (p67). He essentially defends and explores the statement, “It is the will of God that we be uncertain about how life on this earth will turn out for us” (p75) – a statement with radical and life-changing implications that I implore you to consider! It has been turned into its own slightly-extended book, which you can get free online (“Risk is Right”, available here in MOBI, EPUB and PDF formats). If you don’t have an appetite for the full 192-page book from which this chapter was taken, read this much shorter booklet and let it prompt you to turn to the larger one!
Another particularly strong part of the book challenges the way in which we drift into ‘peacetime’ thinking. I offer this extended quote in hope it will prompt you to read the book:
“Sometimes I use the phrase “wartime lifestyle” or “wartime mind-set.” … It tells me that there is a war going on in the world between Christ and Satan, truth and falsehood, belief and unbelief. It tells me that there are weapons to be funded and used, but that these weapons are not swords or guns or bombs but the Gospel and prayer and self-sacrificing love (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). And it tells me that the stakes of this conflict are higher than any other war in history; they are eternal and infinite: heaven or hell, eternal joy or eternal torment (Matthew 25:46). I need to hear this message again and again, because I drift into a peacetime mind-set as certainly as rain falls down and flames go up. I am wired by nature to love the same toys that the world loves, I start to fit in. I start to love what others love. I start to call earth “home”. Before you know it, I am calling luxuries “needs” and using my money just the way unbelievers do. I begin to forget the war. I don’t think much about people perishing. Missions and unreached peoples drop out of my mind. I stop dreaming about the triumphs of grace. I sink into secular mind-set that looks first to what man can do, not what God can do. It is a terrible sickness.” (p99-100).
This isn’t written for those in full-time paid ministry but for all of us – not as a rebuke, but as a call to something better than a wasted life. I am prevented by space and pragmatism from offering more of the excellent observations Piper has shared in his text. Even the 20 or so that I highlighted for myself are a bare reflection of the gems he has penned.
Of course, there are always aspects of any book that I don’t agree with, and this is no exception. I reflected after reading the book that his chapter on “Living to prove He is more precious than life” gave too much ground – (“It fully accords with the intention of this book that thousands of Christians would … give their lives in science and research, as well as medical missions, to wage war against disease and suffering, and thus display the beauty and power of Christ”, p104). The rest of that chapter makes such an investment hard to fathom when it misses the real nature of the ‘war’ he discussed earlier. However, the book repeatedly maintains an eternal perspective (“any good-hearted goal, without the desire to give people eternal joy in God, is condemnation with a kind face”, p146)
This book is a great spur to living your whole life for Jesus. As a final taster, the following quote considers the memory of a WWII soldier, Hoopes, and offers Piper’s reflection. It is graphic, gory and upsetting, but must surely stir your heart if there are any embers left burning in it!
In that instant the sniper shot [Kelly] through the Adam’s apple. Hoopes, a pharmacist’s mate himself, struggled frantically to save his friend. “I took my forceps and reached into his neck to grasp the artery and pinch it off,” Hoopes recalled. “His blood was spurting. He had no speech but his eyes were on me. He knew I was trying to save his life. I tried everything in the world. I couldn’t do it. I tried. The blood was so slippery. I couldn’t get the artery. I was trying to hard. And all the while he just looked at me. He looked directly into my face. The last thing he did as the blood spurts became less and less was to pat me on the arm as if to say, ‘That’s all right.’ Then he died.” In this heart-breaking moment I want to be Hoopes and I want to be Kelly. I want to be able to say to suffering and perishing people, “I tried everything in the world … I was trying so hard.” And I want to be able to say to those around me when I die, “It’s all right. To live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (pp124-5)
How to walk into church (Tony Payne)
This short book needs little by way of review – indeed, when I read it a couple of years ago I had little to say about it then, except to give it a strong recommendation. You think you know how to walk into church, but as someone who’s actually thought about this myself, I still found it hard useful advice – and spending the short time required to read it again was still certainly worth it.
Compared to her (Sophie De Witt)
I got this book when it was being given away as a free eBook by the Good Book Company. It is very much aimed at women – and, as a friend observed, particularly married women – but whoever you are I found it to be good at exposing us. The central premise is that we struggle with ‘comparison syndrome’, comparing ourselves to others in various ways, with numerous detrimental manifestations that are unhelpful (and even sinful) for us as Christians.
I’m not totally convinced by everything (e.g. that the original sin was a ‘comparison syndrome’ problem). However, Sophie De Witt has produced something that is useful both diagnostically and for treatment, which I increasingly find to be rare in Christian literature (most seem to meet one or the other … or indeed neither!). If you recognise any tendency to compare yourself to others (don’t we all?) then it would be a worthwhile read, even if you don’t think your tendency has reached harmful levels.
Holiness (J. C. Ryle)
This is SUCH a good book.
In his introduction to Athanasius’s “On the Incarnation”, C. S. Lewis wrote that the only palliative to our cultural blindspots was ‘to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books’. His argument is sound and I have tried to increase the number of old books I read. They are almost always harder to read – their language is less familiar, their style is different from what we are used to, but J. C. Ryle gives me a further reason to adopt this practice: he writes in such a way a to put ‘fire in your belly’!
It probably says everything that I highlighted one hundred and sixty passages in the book. If that doesn’t give you reason enough to read it, let me quote a few here:
Let us never forget that truth, distorted and exaggerated, can become the mother of the most dangerous heresies. (p6)
Terribly black must that guilt be for which nothing but the blood of the Son of God could make satisfaction. (p15)
Nothing, I am convinced, will astonish us so much, when we awake in the resurrection day, as the view we shall have of sin and the retrospect we shall take of our own countless shortcomings and defects. (p15)
‘The pope’s calendar,’ says Jenkyn, ‘only makes saints of the dead, but Scripture requires sanctity in the living.’ (p49)
You must believe before you do … Watch jealously over your faith, if you have any. It is the citadel of the Christian character, on which the safety of the whole fortress depends. (p60)
Let us seek friends that will stir us up about our prayers, our Bible reading, and our employment of time, about our souls, our salvation, and a world to come. (p85)
Our hold of Him is feeble and easily loosed; His hold of us is strong and irresistible. (p111)
Marvel not that he refused greatness, riches and pleasure. He looked far forward. He saw with the eye of faith kingdoms crumbling into dust, riches making to themselves wings and fleeing away, pleasures leading on to death and judgement, and Christ only and His little flock enduring for ever. (p124)
Is there any cross in your Christianity? Are there any sharp corners in your religion, anything that ever jars and comes in collision with the earthly-mindedness around you? Or is all smooth and rounded off, and comfortably fitted into custom and fashion? (p125)
How many clergymen work hard in their profession for a few years, and then become lazy and indolent from the love of this present world! At the outset of their ministry they seem willing to spend and be spent for Christ; they are instant in season and out of season; their preaching is lively and their churches are filled. Their congregations are well looked after; cottage lectures, prayer meetings, house-to-house visitation, are their weekly delight. But, alas, how often after ‘beginning in the Spirit’ they end ‘in the flesh’ and, like Samson, are shorn of their strength in the lap of that Delilah, the world! They are preferred to some rich living; they marry a worldly wife; they are puffed up with pride and neglect study and prayer. A nipping frost cuts off the spiritual blossoms which once bade so fair. Their preaching loses its unction and power; their weekday work becomes less and less; the society they mix in becomes less select; the tone of their conversation becomes more earthly. They cease to disregard the opinion of man; they imbibe a morbid fear of ‘extreme views’, and are filled with a cautious dread of giving offence. And at last the man who at one time seemed likely to be a real successor of the apostles and a good soldier of Christ, settles down on his lees as a clerical gardener, farmer, or diner out, by whom nobody is offended and nobody is saved. His church becomes half empty; his influence dwindles away; the world has bound him hand and foot. He has walked in the steps of Lot’s wife. He has looked back. (p151)
I stop quoting only because there are too many more to quote! Indeed, chapter 14 (Visible Churches Warned) was such a great chapter that I simply highlighted its chapter heading and commented, “Yes and Amen!”!
If none of that is reason enough to read this book, take the subject matter. Do you not long to be more holy? If you do, then read this book. If you don’t, then this book will be even more profitable for you than you can imagine.
12 Ways your phone is changing you (Tony Reinke)
I saw this book highlighted across the Christian blogosphere before actually giving it much attention – and I approached it with some scepticism. I expected to find in it a ‘balanced approach’ to technology which can feel forced and artificial, and assumed that I knew already most of the ’12 ways’ my phone is changing me – at best I could probably work them out for myself, and at least I could see everything I need to see by reading the chapter headings.
Instead I found this book to be outstanding. It was deeply insightful, carefully researched, and diligently put together. Sure, the chiastic structure of the chapters (revealed at the end) feels slightly contrived; sure, I don’t agree with everything he’s written. But how can I complain about a book that offers such an excellent exposé of our digital culture.
“Do my smartphone habits provicde an easy escape from sobered thinking about my death, the return of Christ and eternal realities?”
“Our smartphones amplify the most unnecessary distractions as they deaden us to teh most significant and important ‘distractions’, the true needs of our families and neighbors. My phone conditions me to be a passive observer … When I go into my social media streams, too often I use Facebook to insulate me from the real needs of my friends.”
“Our lack of self control with digital marshmallows malnourishes our sustained linear concentation.”
“…self-expression alone is never an adequate reason for Christians to communicate online. To what eternal destiny am I influencing others, and even myself?”
“Headphones give us a buffer from both healthy introspection and social conversation.”
“Anonymity is where sin flourishes, and anonymity is the most pervasive lie of the digital age.”
“It is better to enter heaven having decided to never use the Internet again, rather than going to hell clicking on everything you desire.”
If I were to offer this book any criticism, it would be that though it succeeds diagnostically, it fails to offer much by way of ‘treatment’. To level that as a criticism would seem pretty unfair, given that the book sets out to expose the problem, rather than provide all the solutions – and the end of the book offers some suggestions on how to change. Nonetheless, I have expressed the same warning to most of those to whom I have recommended this book (and I have recommended it a lot!) – not because I think it should stop people reading it, but because I’m keen that, having identified the problem, we don’t assume we have consequently discovered the cure. For all of the internal resolution to change that I experienced on reading this book, my habits have barely (yet) changed. The concluding suggestions he gives are practical, but God in the Bible has given us plenty of reason to change, and we must turn there to be truly changed.
There is much in this book that is pertinent to our age, and ‘our generation’ (and I deliberately intend that to be defined broadly!). I’d love it if all the students with whom I work read it – and for us to work together to help one another overcome the numerous potentially-damaging effects of the smartphone. This technology will only be a force for ‘good’ if we’re conscious of its hazards – and to that end, I’m extremely grateful that Tony Reinke wrote this book.
The Circle (Dave Eggers)
This fiction book only emerged on my radar when Netflix decided to produce a film out of it. The trailer left me intrigued, and so I thought I’d read the book before watching it.
The concept is simple and intriguing – an unstoppable escalation in ‘social media culture’ exposes the flaws in its own absolute principles. Part dyspotian-future, part exposé of present culture, the protagonist is drawn into an obsession with ‘smiles’ (read, “Likes”) and a commitment to freedom of information – even when that’s extremely intrusive. As I write this review, Facebook has faced a huge furore following revelations that its users’ data has been harvested for political ends – the very questions raised by Eggers in this now-five-year-old book feel deeply prescient.
The book included some vulgar moments, but on the whole offered a clever critique – which is why the Netflix adaptation was so infuriating. I won’t give any spoilers, but every substantial change felt like a movement away from the book’s greatest strengths. The brilliant twist towards the end of the book was ruined within the first few minutes of the film; the brilliant conclusion to the novel was entirely changed to land in a very different direction. It felt like the penetrating critique of the axioms of social media was softened, perhaps even attempting some kind of redemption of the form. I felt sure that Eggers would have been outraged at the screenwriters’ corruption of his work … until I discovered that he was one of them. Go figure.
Virtually Human (Ed Brooks & Pete Nicholas)
Again, the Christian blogosphere reverberated with excitement when this book was released – a helpful contribution to an area of life that Christians have often adopted unthinkingly. “Prophetic”, even.
I can understand why it received such positive reviews. The book deliberately explores a wide range of aspects of digital culture, and expresses (from the very beginning) a commitment to ‘subversive fulfilment’. This is consistently upheld in each chapter, exploring what is bad and upholding what is good in all of the aspects considered. Unfortunately I felt that this was sometimes pursued to its detriment; the strongest chapter was probably the one on pornography, simply because there was no attempt to commend technology’s approach to sex. It was filled with astute observations about contemporary approach to sex and gender, unembarrassed about critiquing them, and felt no need to find the ‘positives’ of the pornography industry.
The other chapters also offered good criticisms – and explored much more of digital culture than merely the smartphone (see “12 Ways…”, above). There are some deeply helpful observations, and it felt more biblical – and more committed to helping Christians adopt a healthier worldview – than 12 Ways. It was a very useful book to have read! But because I do not currently adopt the same philosophical commitment to subversive fulfilment, I found the ‘balanced’ approach slightly jarring in places.
It’s hard, then, to say which book I prefer! This book felt less detailed, less researched (but only by comparison – both were heavily researched!) and more driven by biblical worldview than scientific data – and if that all sounds like criticism, it’s certainly not! I think this book went further down the ‘treatment’ side – it had more to say that I disagreed with, but also more than I profoundly want to emphasise. Perhaps the only solution is to read them both!
Captured by a better vision (Tim Chester)
This is now an old book, and it has a clear purpose – trying to help those addicted to pornography to change.
It serves that end excellently. Unlike my criticisms of the books above, it uses the Bible brilliantly to drive change. The early chapters of the book work towards an excellent application of gospel grace. The whole direction of the book is to work increasingly to persuade Christians to change their worldview, rather than adopting superficial habits. Where many articles and books will press heavily on the benefit of ‘accountability partnerships’, Tim Chester is helpfully measured in his endorsement of such relationships – wholly positive, but without suggesting they are the key to change. They’re not. Christians need to be “captured by a better vision” – and that is what he works to promote.
The book has a primary audience – married men addicted to pornography. That may feel unfair – after all, he starts the book acknowledging that women are also addicted to pornography, and acknowledging that I may be reading this to help a friend who is struggling with the issue. At various points in the book he throws out similar caveats. However, it is clear from the numerous applications that don’t receive such qualification that his primary audience is married men – and, to a lesser but still significant extent, heterosexual men – who are addicted to pornography. Much of the early material about the production of pornography exposes the horrific suffering of women in the industry (and, I must say, was hard and unpleasant to read); some of the later material highlights the damage to wives that pornography brings about. At those points, it felt like some people reading the book might find it harder to apply.
Nonetheless, the overarching principles were clearly pertinent to any Christian, and it remains the best book on the topic that I’ve read. His writing is clear, his advice is biblically rooted and sound, and his purpose is excellent. If this is an issue you’re struggling with, and especially if you’re a man, I recommend this.
Many have come to question the possibility that God is totally in control, when confronted in the world with such evident disorder and suffering. Rabbi Kushner famously published “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” in 1981, essentially arguing that God is incapable of preventing all evil from happening. Such abandonment of Scripture – even those Scriptures shared by Judaism and Christianity – creates more pastoral problems than it solves, but it takes a keen, delicate and astute mind to provide a better solution. Christopher Ash has provided a nice little primer to step into the breach, which I warmly commend.
Compared to “Big God” by Orlando Saer (still a favourite of mine), I think this book handles the question from a slightly more academic perspective, but it nonetheless shows an extraordinary and abundant sensitivity to the person in the midst of suffering as they read. Ash’s personal experience and sympathy towards others are at the fore throughout. He affirms the control of God over all things without compromising the reality of our decisions or His own holiness. The book is fairly easy to understand, and – importantly! – short. What it lacks in comprehensiveness is made up for in convenience.
For a helpful introduction to the topic, this is an excellent choice. Read it, pass it on.
The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (D. A. Carson)
Given how difficult it can be to read many of Carson’s books, a book with “difficult” in the title is rather off-putting – hence I’ve owned this book for many years without picking it up. I’m glad that I finally did.
This is an absolutely brilliant book. It is mercifully short, and yet manages to consider a huge topic with elegant efficiency. Sometimes that means Carson’s choice of language is … difficult. But you will be rewarded if you’re willing to put in a little effort (especially over sentences like, “As I understand the historical context, the proto-gnostic opponents John was facing thought of themselves as an ontological elite who enjoyed the inside track with God because of the special insight they had received.” p87-88).
The book is a model of biblical nuance (not “balance”!) in articulating the complementary facets of God’s love. He resists the urge to polarise discussion (“God is wholly loving of everyone in exactly the same way” vs “God is loving of only a select portion of humans, and has no love for anyone else”), and consequently allows God’s voice to be heard clearly and distinctly, in the different things He has to say.
Knowing God (J. I. Packer)
I read this many years ago, but was glad to come back to it. This book is understandably a classic, but you need to find a friend if you’re going to make it through it. It is a great aid to actually knowing God, and so it’s worth the effort – but it is an effort.
Made up of over 20 fairly disconnected chapters, the book challenges the idea that you already know God – and even as someone who has been a Christian for a long time, it was a challenge to me. Have I let my view of God become a figment of my imagination rather than the God who has revealed Himself? Am I really enjoying my relationship with Him, or have I made it into something quite different from what He has won?
It’s a book that rewards slow and careful thought, rather than tearing through it in a few hours – partly because of the independence of its chapters, but mainly because of the depth of its content. If you haven’t yet read it, you really should.
King’s Cross (Timothy Keller)
Happily the pun in the title is not the best thing about this book. Billed as a ‘revelatory look at the life of Christ as told in the Gospel of Mark’, Keller takes some interesting turns in his exploration of Mark, but certainly demonstrates on the way some excellent insights into our saving message. I don’t agree with all of his exegetical decisions (hey – within a few months I normally disagree with my own decisions, so how could anyone else expect to fair better?!) but there were several moments when I delighted to highlight his material. Chapter 7 was a great meditation on internal guilt, deconstructing secular and religious means of finding atonement; chapter 13 concludes with the great observation, ‘Either you’ll have to kill him or you’ll have to crown him. The one thing you can’t do is just say, “What an interesting guy”‘ (p.160); Chapter 18 has some great reflections on the resurrection, including, ‘The resurrection was God’s way of stamping PAID IN FULL right across history so that nobody could miss it‘ (p.216).
Nonetheless, there were moments when I didn’t just disagree – I was troubled by the conclusions. At the end of chapter 10, Keller’s reflections on the exorcism in Mark 9 are baffling to me, extolling God’s ability to empower us through life’s evil and suffering (‘to overcome our own suffering’, p.118), rather than His (exclusive) power to take us through death to resurrection life. In chapter 9 he talked about the cross as a solution to the ‘stain of inconsequentiality‘, that Jesus went to the cross and ‘lost [His] identity so you can have one‘ (p.102). To describe the cross that way certainly resonates with today’s hearers, but there is such danger in portraying the cross in terms of our felt-needs, if it misses or hides the actual accomplishments of the cross – accomplishments that Keller is obviously unafraid to declare, given other material he has written.
What do I do with all this? It makes an interesting book, well worth a read – but with all the evaluative caution we read any books. And not my “go-to” book when I want to understand Mark’s gospel.
Judges: Such a Great Salvation (Dale Ralph Davis)
I don’t read enough Old Testament narrative, and so to help me through the book, I decided to pick up this easy-reading commentary that I’ve had for a while. It provided me with some lovely company as I delved into the troubling history of Israel, and reminded me why so many people love Dale Ralph Davis. He has a lovely tone, manages to smuggle some excellent academic content into a fairly ‘light’ book, and frequently helps to bring the story to light.
There were moments when Ralph Davis’s personal issues seemed to come to the fore. How he managed to apply a chapter in Judges to the Lord’s supper remains a surprise to me! But my biggest beef with the book was his determination to be optimistic about the nation of Israel, frequently putting a positive spin on their performance when the author’s purpose is clearly to demonstrate their folly!
Nonetheless, I left the book of Judges struck by my gratitude for a King like Jesus – indeed, struck by my very great need for such a King. And I was helped to that end in no-small-part by this book. Thanks Dale.
Transgender (Vaughan Roberts)
There isn’t much (good) material that has been written on this subject, so I’m grateful for this brief introduction from Vaughan Roberts. It certainly is brief – it couldn’t hope to say everything that needs to be said. But given that most Christians are coming to this debate with a relatively large amount of ignorance, most of us would do extremely well to get hold of this book and give it a read. It is faithful, easily read and helps to explore some of the big issues with integrity and – importantly – compassion.
It seems like this area of ethics will increasingly need all of us to be clear on our position. While our culture has apparently adopted a poorly-researched and emotionally-driven orthodoxy from which none are allowed to stray, those of us who stand apart from the crowd will need to be clear and sympathetic in our discussion – to those inside the church, as well as to those in the wider world. To that end, this book would be a wise place to begin.
Bible Matters (Tim Chester)
I hadn’t spoken to anyone who had read this book when I finished it, but I quickly became its passionate advocate. Many books have been written to give a theology of the Bible, and lots of popular level books have emerged in the past which received my whole-hearted commendation (for example, Kevin DeYoung’s “Taking God at His Word”). Nothing that I have read before has been as good as this.
What to say that could convince you to read it?
Chester has not only chosen to make his book thoroughly biblical, but he has chosen to say about the Bible the things which God has chosen to say about the Bible. Rather than being formed around a series of questions that systematic theologians have chosen to pose, the book describes the Bible as relational and intentional, as well as (the more standard categories of) reliable and accessible. It’s the first book of its kind where I’ve seen a chapter about the Bible being written with purpose – and exploring the idea that we might want to identify the author’s purpose in any text we study.
Most importantly, it made me want to read the Bible.
This is one of the best books I read in the whole of 2017 – and, given my hearty endorsement of many books on this list, that should be received as the high praise it is.
The Son of God and the New Creation (Graeme Goldsworthy)
I love this book. I also found it very hard to read.
I’ve read other books this year that did biblical theology badly. To pick up this book and see how well it approached the question it posed made it a delight! How wonderful to see someone tracing the phrase “Son of God” through the Bible story, and to evaluate the difference such chronology made.
Unfortunately, it was also written in an almost impenetrable style. I frequently had to re-read sentences, just to understand what was being said; it wasn’t always clear to me what purpose paragraphs had, and how ideas were developing from one another.
That has made it difficult to recommend as whole-heartedly as I would like. For content, this book is ace – and (to my mind) a model of biblical theology done well. It helped me to love Jesus more – which is (of course!) a brilliant attribute for a book. But it wasn’t quite as ‘reader-friendly’ as many books of this length.
With all of those caveats, let me encourage you to get hold of it – and persist through the difficulties. It is worth it.
Breath of Life (Orlando Saer)
When I was giving talks on how we relate to God at the end of October, I was keen to recommend books on the Bible and the Holy Spirit. “The Bible” was excellently discussed by “Bible Matters” (see above), but I hadn’t read many books on “the Holy Spirit” – and, to my shame, had failed to read the book that most people recommend on this topic (so I shan’t even try to compare it). Nonetheless, since I had really enjoyed Saer’s previous book (on God’s Sovereignty), I decided to give this one a try – and was not disappointed.
Rather than working through several different aspects of the Spirit’s work in separate chapters, this book took the great approach of exploring how the Spirit is described through the Bible – and how different aspects of His work develop through Scripture. That made for a really interesting Bible Overview, as well as a convincing demonstration of His role and activity. I found myself helped to see His role differently – more biblically, I hope – and found myself instantly inclined to recommend it.
It’s less readable than Saer’s book “Big God”, for which I think he’s bettter known, but is nonetheless an excellent choice for anyone wanting a decent, biblically faithful and short read about the third person of the Trinity.
The Unquenchable Flame (Michael Reeves)
I don’t know much church history. This book was, therefore, a great introduction to the Reformation and the various ‘heroes’ of the evangelical world who were used by God to bring it about.
Of course, historians will temper their commendation of this book because it is written from a solidly evangelical perspective. Moreover, it takes on a particularly ‘free-church bent’ towards the later chapters. But, in Reeves’ highly-readable and accessible style, he helps to cover a vast and potentially-complex period of history with good humour and a careful eye. I felt like I understand the period much better – and, though I haven’t yet delved deeper, I felt much more able to approach other books on that period with just a little bit more understanding.
It’s been around for quite a few years now, so I’m sure many will have read it already, but if you haven’t, it’s a good place to start.
Old Wives Tales (Claire Heath-Whyte)
Claire Heath-Whyte has written a few books now, but I think this was her first – and it is a testament to its quality that so many others have been written. Much of our history – in and out of the church – is dominated by men, and it can often leave unsung heroines waiting in the wings. This book helps to identify some women of the faith who have been used powerfully by God over the years.
The book is not ignorant of these women’s failures; some are specifically included as illustrations of women who have not persisted in faithfulness. As a consequence, we are given an encouragement to learn from their example and to live valiantly for Christ – and we are protected from that common danger of biographies, where the hero is such a shining example that we are left overwhelmed by our own sense of failure. No, these women are real women – but women with something to teach us.
Freedom Movement (Mike Reeves)
This mass-produced book was a great way of making accessible the central truths whose discovery sparked the Reformation. It took only one breakfast time to read, but it was a lovely way of introducing friends and neighbours to the key reason why the Protestant Church broke away from the Roman Catholic church. Many still think that the Church of England began life as the brain child of a divorce-ready King Henry VIII. How wonderful to disabuse them of that erroneous theory!
Small, readable, and an easy fit through most postboxes. Nice job.
Expositional Preaching (David Helm)
I’ve read a few books on preaching, but this is my current go-to recommendation – and not just because I managed to get hold of lots of copies of it for a cheap price! (Thanks 10ofthose!)
What Helm does that so few manage is to ask his reader to communicate the author’s purpose. Many books from a conservative evangelical perspective will encourage us to make the message of our sermon the same as the message of the passage we’re preaching on; but still much room is given to apply that message however we wish – with the inevitable attempt to find the application that best engages the hearer. However, Helm rightly identifies that God has written with purpose – and He knows what we need! Rather than trying to be as relevant as possible (and thereby miss what God is actually saying), we would do much better to find out the intention of God’s text, and find (as a direct consequence) the rightly-relevant message for those listening.
The chapter on ‘Theological Reflection’ was the one that, to my mind, was most in danger of threatening the strength mentioned above. Finding “lines to Christ” can sometimes leave us hunting for a connection that is so foreign to the original author that we’ve abandoned his point altogether. However, when Helm (in this chapter) extols the virtues of biblical theology, it is a wonderful thing to read.
There are lots of things which could be said about preaching which this doesn’t manage. But it’s a short and easy read, and (so far) the best book I’ve read on the subject. I look forward to someone commending to me a more substantial tome that achieves that, alongside the many other things this book misses!
Honest Evangelism (Rico Tice)
If you’re reading this and you’re not a Christian, the fact that people want to tell you the gospel my irritate you enormously. But if you are a Christian, you’ll know that such ‘evangelistic zeal’ is borne entirely out of your love for others, and your longing for them to know the joy – and safety – of the One in whom you have placed your trust. But, chances are, you also find it difficult to communicate. All sorts of hurdles stand in the way. Sometimes you simply don’t want to; other times you don’t know what to say; and even when you’re ready and raring to go, others don’t want to hear it.
This book achieved two wonderful things. Firstly, it equipped me to step out and engage in conversations about Jesus. It was honest and open about the reasons we’ll find that difficult, but helped me to overcome trepidation and step out in faith. More than that, however, it also made me want to do it. Often books (and conversations!) about evangelism simply make me feel like a failure. This book wonderfully commended the gospel and made me want to talk about Jesus.
For that reason I soon got hold of several copies to give them away. I encourage you to do the same!
God’s Leader (Andy Mason)
Whenever someone starts writing a Christian book, I imagine there is a huge temptation to amass a series of biblical quotes that seem to back up their message. This is, of course, backwards – we should start with the things that God has chosen to say, and make sure they are driving and guiding the message we communicate.
For this reason, I loved God’s Leader. Each chapter took a passage to explore, and wonderfully sought to get across the message of the text, with the purpose the author had in mind. Of course, that often wasn’t primarily about leadership – more often, the Bible is about Jesus! But acknowledging that makes for a much more Jesus-focused book, and much better-applied lessons on leadership. I felt like each chapter either gave us an excellent exposition of the passage concerned, or delivered a legitimate secondary application – and admitted that this was what was going on!
It has meant that I have recommended this book to many people, and got hold of lots and lots of copies of it. It’s also made it into my top 5 for the year – and I have enjoyed lots of this year’s books, so that’s pretty good.
Preaching in the New Testament (Jonathan Griffiths)
The question of the role of ‘preaching’ is a key question, but a difficult one to answer. Lots is said about preaching, and about Bible teaching in general, but the Bible never seems to explicitly contrast preaching with other forms of teaching (if you think it does, let me know!) – it doesn’t ever say “Preaching does this, but Bible studies don’t”. Of course, that doesn’t settle the discussion – arguments from silence are beset with difficulties. But it means it is difficult to answer the question of whether one form of teaching the Bible should be held differently from others.
Jonathan Griffiths has produced this book as an attempt to answer that question. The key aspects of this question often concern the Greek use of ‘preaching’ language, and I’m not expert on this. I want to approach this with humility, knowing that the author has a greater mind than me, and has done far more with this book than I would be able to do. Unfortunately, though I followed his arguments, I wasn’t convinced by his conclusions – and so couldn’t embrace the applications with which he concluded the book. I couldn’t see why ‘preaching’ in the New Testament mapped onto the monologues we’re familiar with in church, nor why the things said of ‘preaching’ were so sharply distinguished from other forms of communicating biblical truth.
Given that this debate has significant applications on the church, it is an important discussion – but I remain steadily on the ‘unconvinced’ side at the moment. Yes, preaching is powerful – but it is powerful because God works in power by His Spirit through His Word, not because communicating via a 20-minute monologue is more powerful than sitting with a friend and an open Bible in a coffee shop. Yes, let’s keep preaching – but let’s also keep leading seminars, Bible studies, and one-to-one Bible studies.
The Pastor’s Justification (Jared Wilson)
Here’s a lovely book full of lovely observations. I found myself reading it with a critical spirit – as with many books that I read, I didn’t agree with all of this exegetical decisions. It seemed like some of the things he said didn’t reflect the biblical quote he used to back it up – but that didn’t mean that I disagreed with his conclusions. On the contrary, he applied his clear pastoral sensitivity to the pastorate, and that was wisely done.
Covering many different areas of a pastor’s character, it was a great encouragement to live a godly, Christ-like life, especially as someone engaged in ministry.
There were times when his application to family life was harder to apply – but that is no criticism of his book. This book also faded into the shadows after reading “God’s Leader” (see above), which occupies a similar position in the library. But what this book did particularly well was to highlight the challenges of ministry – and, since he explored the way we respond to various challenges that I haven’t yet faced, it was a helpful warning of what is yet to come on this road. For that, I’m grateful.
Renewal (John James)
I can’t quite remember why I got hold of this book, or why I read it, but I was grateful for it. I’m not in the same kind of context. I’m not trying to renew a church. But I found myself drawn into the challenges the author faced and delighting in his biblical faithfulness. He expected no silver bullet, and rightly warned against our pursuit of magic solutions to the problems faced in church renewal. He highlighted particular difficulties (e.g. in contrast to church planting) and – without adopting a populist strategy – commended the virtues of this gospel-advancing endeavour.
May God bless many more church renewal-movements through this book.
Style or Substance (William Taylor & David Dargue)
I was due to preach on 2 Corinthians 2-7 in early 2018, and so this book was an inevitable choice. Coming from the same stable, it was somewhat inevitable that I was going to agree with what was said – especially their observation that 2 Corinthians is not primarily written as a handbook for ministry – “as you and I read ‘we’ today, we are not firstly thinking about ourselves and our ministry. Rather, we are learning what real ministry looks like, so that we can find it, keep connected to it, and be confident in it”. However, I was particularly struck by several quotes that seemed profoundly helpful to those of us engaged in ministry:
[Speaking of false teachers] Interestingly these false teachers taught Jesus, they taught the Spirit, and they taught the gospel. But it was a different Jesus, a different Spirit and a different gospel.
Those who look for ‘on the face’ and at ‘outward appearance’ are always looking for something human, that seems more important, or more wonderful than Justification.
The key point to remember is that heart-transformation is entirely a work of God, and is therefore not man-centred. God removes the veil, God reveals Himself, God brings a person alive, and God enables a person to gaze on His glory in the face of Christ. And as the glory of God in the face of Christ is gazed on, God brings conviction of sin, and produces Transformation.
Ultimately He brings resurrection, and new creation.
The list above contains many books that I can warmly commend, but the ‘top’ of my list would be:
- Don’t Waste your Life (John Piper)
- God’s Leader (Andy Mason)
- 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You (Tony Reinke)
- Holiness (J. C. Ryle)
- Bible Matters (Tim Chester)
- The Looking Glass War (John Le Carre)
- Ready Player One (Ernest Cline)
And at the very top? It’s an extremely tough choice. For a fair balance between ‘fire-in-your-belly’ and readability, it’s probably “Don’t Waste Your Life”.