Avid readers can name a book that had an outsized impact on them. It may not be the best book they’ve ever read, but it was a book that hit them at just the right time, with a story or a message they needed to hear. Or perhaps it was a book that said well something they’d been wrestling with for a while.
The list below is that kind of book list. It is not a list of the “best” books of 2018. In fact, many of them were not even published in 2018. But they are books that members of the Colson Center staff (and a few other fellow-travelers) read this year that left a big boot print on their minds or hearts. (For convenience, I’ve compiled the books in a simple list at the end.)
Michael Craven, who helps lead our Colson Fellows program, chose The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan and The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. Of the former, Michael said, “While this year was the tenth or eleventh time I read this wonderful classic, it nonetheless remains fresh and relevant. Through various seasons of life, the Lord has used this book more so than any other (except the Bible) to encourage and strengthen me. It is no wonder Spurgeon read this book more than 100 times during his life and it remains among the best-selling English language books in history.”
Michael’s other book is familiar to many of us. We at the Colson Center have long had a fascination with Rod Dreher. (You can read my interview with him here.) Craven said The Benedict Option made his list because he appreciates “Dreher’s analysis of the current culture, the weakness inherent in the American church, and this unique historical moment. There is much to glean from this book that I believe will encourage the church to become more knowledgeable about the times in which we live and how to prove ourselves faithful in the face of our cultural moment.”
Colson Senior Fellow J. Warner Wallace has a few great books of his own, including the best-selling Cold Case Christianity. It is perhaps not surprising that his picks for 2018 lean in to the world of apologetics. His first choice is Abdu Murray’s Saving Truth: Finding Meaning and Clarity in a Post-Truth World. Wallace calls it “an accessible, engaging book that examines the confusion in America surrounding the most important issues: religion, science, and morality.” Speaking of science, Wallace also points us to J.P. Moreland’s Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology, which he says “cuts right to the philosophical dilemma facing all our discussions of science and faith: a “rigid adherence to scientism―as opposed to a healthy respect for science.”
Colson Center Executive Director Steve Verleye brings us another entry from the world of fiction. “I read the whole series of Cyrus Barker books from Will Thomas this year,” Steve said. “The first book – Some Danger Involved – was the best. I love Sherlock Holmes, so a series of books about an “Enquiry Agent” (he hates the term Private Investigator) who is a believer and attends Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s church was too much fun.”
Steve also introduces us to the the only business book on this list, The Content Trap: A Strategist’s Guide to Digital Change. He calls this book, by Bharat Anand, a “great book on the impact of the Internet on content creating organizations and how to organize your business (or ministry) to take advantage of the technology rather than being made obsolete.”
Steve said that the Cyrus Barker books were recommended to him by our resident polymath Roberto Rivera. Roberto reads everything, and picking only one book was tough. “They might as well as ask mother to name her favorite child,” he said. Finally, though, he narrowed it down to The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell by Robert Dugoni. “I wrote about it a few months ago and in my piece, I paid it the highest compliment I can think of: I compared it to ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ Not because the story was anything like Tolkien’s, but because Dugoni’s story and storytelling left me believing that ‘All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’”
In the non-fiction category, Roberto chose Dopesick by Beth Macy. “More than 70 thousand Americans died from drug overdoses last year,” Roberto said. “What keeps the book from becoming overwhelmingly bleak is Macy’s compassion and serious reporting chops. For a taste of both, give a listen to her conversation with John Stonestreet.”
Shane Morris, one of our writers who also voices the intros of our BreakPoint podcast interviews, has picked N. T. Wright’s Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. According to Shane, “Wright overwhelms the reader with the revolutionary nature of orthodox and historic Christian hope for life after death. He clears away the accretions of gnostic culture and popular piety with the stunning yet deeply Scriptural affirmations that this physical world is good, that our bodies aren’t destined to remain dust, and that Jesus Christ has begun the New Creation right here in the midst of the old.”
BreakPoint’s Managing Editor Timothy D. Padgett chose Plain Theology for Plain People by Charles Octavius Boothe (intro by Walter Strickland). “As the title suggests, this book is a simple primer on theology,” Tim explains. “Its beauty is two-fold: 1) A man born as a slave writes a book faithfully encapsulating the basics of the faith for the good of all people. 2) This 19th/20th century work tells the same story as any ‘rule of faith’ from the Reformation, Middle Ages, or Early Church eras.”
Tim also recommends Os Guinness’s Last Call for Liberty: How America’s Genius for Freedom Has Become its Greatest Threat. Os Guinness is a long-time favorite of The Colson Center. He and Chuck Colson were friends, and we have featured him many times as part of our Fellows program, at our Wilberforce Weekend, and on the BreakPoint website. His latest book, Tim says, “passionately reminds us that our liberties are not accidental and natural development of impersonal historical processes but are the result of specific circumstances which did not have to happen and are not guaranteed to endure. If we are not careful and proactive, our culture’s attempt to have freedom without virtue will leave lacking both virtue and freedom.”
Another Colson Center regular is Glenn Sunshine. Glenn is a pillar of our Fellows program, and a regular on our website. His readers know that when Glenn talks, it makes sense to pay close attention. His pick for this year is Kenneth Boa’s Life in the Presence of God. “I read everything I can that Ken Boa writes,” Glenn said, “which isn’t easy given how much he produces. This may be his best book yet — an interesting and practical guide to practicing God’s presence and living in light of eternity.” (I discussed this book with Ken in a recent podcast, which you can hear here.)
Our friend Eric Metaxas, who was one of the voices of BreakPoint for five years, recommends the new edition of Thomas Howard’s Chance or the Dance?” Eric calls Howard “insuperably brilliant” and says the fact that the book has been out of print is “scandalous.” He says it is “among the best and most important books of the last half century.” Eric himself wrote a “cheeky” foreword to the book. In it, he says, “The estimable Peter Kreeft and I agree that if we could take five books to a desert island, this would be at least two of them.”
Joseph Backholm joined the Colson Center this year from the Family Policy Institute of Washington. He will lead a new media initiative in 2019 that you will hear much more about in the weeks and months ahead. Joseph’s pick is The Wright Brothers by David McCullough. “I knew what the Wright Brothers did,” Joseph said, “but I had no idea how much personal risk and perseverance was required or the challenges they experienced because of their success.”
The Colson Center’s Director of Marketing Brian Brown recommends Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry. He calls it a “challenging and theologically and historically rich look at how Christians have sought to be a part of God’s work in the world — and where we lost our way.”
My pick for the books that had the biggest impact on me in 2018 are Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. At 1100 pages, Infinite Jest is a difficult book to read and sometimes hard to stomach. But I found it worth the effort, though I will admit it took me three tries over a five-year period to get through it. I published an extended essay on the book and on David Foster Wallace in Christianity Today this year. You can read that essay here. Jayber Crow is, quite simply, one of the best novels I’ve ever read. In a hundred years, it may be the only book on this list (with the exception of The Pilgrim’s Progress) that anyone will still be reading.
Finally, the President of The Colson Center, John Stonestreet, finishes our list with four selections: “Both Helen Alvare’s, Putting Children’s Interests Firsts in US Family Law and Policy: With Power Comes Responsibility and Jennifer Roback Morse’s The Sexual State: How Elite Ideologies Are Destroying Lives and Why the Church was Right All Along are important, scathing critiques of the latter consequences of the sexual revolution, especially the damage done when the state is co-opted behind its agenda,” John said.
John says Elaine Storkey’s Scars Across Humanity: Understanding and Overcoming Violence Against Women is “a difficult but important read that provides thorough accounting of ways in which women are victimized world-wide.” John’s final pick is Anthony Esolen’s Nostalgia, “a beautifully written and creative analysis of progressivism’s failure to provide any real vision of progress.”
Happy reading. This list should keep you busy through 2019…and well beyond.
Some Danger Involved by Will Thomas (and the entire Cyrus Barker series)
Plain Theology for Plain People by Charles Octavius Boothe (intro by Walter Strickland)
Chance or the Dance? By Thomas Howard (foreword by Eric Metaxas)