Top Books of 2015

December 31, 2015

I've read many good books this year. Here are my choices for the best ones of 2015. I read other good books this year that were older books so I left them off the list. And I'm sure I'll eventually read some other good books published this year. But here's my top ten that I read from this year. I hope you find some of these interesting and check them out.

10. Jesus without Borders: What Planes, Trains, and Rickshaws Taught Me about Jesus by Chad Gibbs

In this fun book, author Chad Gibbs recounts trips to 13 countries over a two-year period. In each, he writes a bit about Christians he met there and how they taught him something about faith beyond what he learned growing up in the heart of the U.S. 'Bible belt.' Humorous and well-written, the book's a quick, easy read. I love the idea of the book and the lesson of a faith that transcends national boundaries (and would especially love someone to give me a nice advance to write a similar book!). My disappointment with the book is I wanted to spend more time in each place, especially since he writes quite a bit about traveling itself and therefore leaves little room for the Christian voices in the countries. Maybe he could've written a longer book or covered fewer countries. But it's still worth picking up.

9. Evangelical Christian Baptists of Georgia: The History and Transformation of a Free Church Tradition by Malkhaz Songulashvili

This book covers the rich history and unique culture of Baptists in the former Soviet-bloc nation of Georgia. It's a great book that's only this low on my list since it likely has a pretty limited appeal. This is a must read if you are interested in church-state issues, modern church history, or the life of churches in that region of the world. I reviewed this book in more detail in an earlier post.

8. Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security by Sarah Chayes

This book offers a detailed and convincing case that governmental corruption is not a symptom of instability but a cause. Sarah Chayes, a former NPR reporter and former adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, therefore argues that corruption must be tackled before we can see important changes in nations. To build this case, she reports with examples from Afghanistan, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Uzbekistan, and Nigeria. She also brings in some historical examples.

7. The Church in Exile: Living in Hope After Christendom by Lee Beach

In a time when many western Christians lament how much culture has changed, this book offers an alternative perspective. Canadian pastoral professor Lee Beach notes how the story of God's people in the Bible and the story of the Christian Church throughout the ages often features a people in exile. I don't quite share all of his thoughts about us moving just now into exile (since I'm not as optimistic about the era that's passed), but I think his thinking about exile would help a lot of Christian leaders today. And I appreciate his focus on viewing the present and future with hope.

6. The Francis Miracle: Inside the Transformation of the Pope and the Church by John L. Allen

An excellent account of a remarkable Christian leader by one of the top Catholic journalists. I wrote about this book for when it came out and interviewed John Allen for the article. I continue to appreciate the moral public witness of Pope Francis and how he challenges Christians to live out a gospel of mercy and grace. Allen captures that tone well.

5. The Relevance of Religion: How Faithful People Can Change Politics by John Danforth

As I survey the world of Republican politics today, I miss John Danforth (one of my senators in Missouri when I was growing up). His voice is badly needed still today. Fortunately, he's still writing. His latest book is a good reflection on issues of religion and politics. As a longtime politician and an Episcopalian priest, he understands this territory. I disagree a bit with his assessment of religion and politics as separate realms (likely coming from him embracing a "two kingdoms" theology), but I mostly agree with his book. He offers some positive, practical discussion on what's gone wrong with politics today, how to fix it, and what role religious people could play. If only we could get all presidential candidates and congressional leaders to read this book!

4. Chosen?: Reading the Bible Amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict by Walter Brueggemann

When it comes to Walter Brueggemann (who I got to meet this year), my philosophy is to read whatever he writes! This short book is no exception. Brueggemann brings a depth to biblical analysis that illuminates the passages and their relevance to today. In this quick read, he examines the texts about the chosen people and promised land and how those texts should impact how Christians view the contemporary conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. I wish every U.S. Christian would read this book and prayerfully consider it.

3. Rediscovering Jesus: An Introduction to Biblical, Religious and Cultural Perspectives on Christ by David B. Capes, Rodney Reeves, and E. Randolph Richards

This book impacted the way I read the Bible. The authors, one of whom (Rodney Reeves) I had for several undergraduate classes, consider portrayals of Jesus in isolation instead of just lumping everything together. For instance, they look at how Matthew wrote about Jesus and what our faith would look like if that was the only depiction we had. They then do the same for the other Gospel writers, Paul, the general epistles, and even Revelation! In the second part of the book, they use the same format to consider non-biblical portrayals, such as the writings of the Gnostics, the  Qur'an, the Book of Mormon, and others. The book is an easy read (it's written as an undergraduate introductory course book) and helped me to see new insights about the various biblical writers. (I plan to write a longer review soon in another post.)

2. Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell

I love everything Sarah Vowell writes. Her latest book lived up to expectations. With her trademark style of part-history book, part-travelogue, and part-humorous storytelling, she traces the life and impact of Marquis de Lafayette as he traveled from France to join the Continental Army's fight during the American Revolution. As usual, she connects the historical stories with current political issues, which creates the sense of our past still living with us just as she relives the past while tromping around historical sites. 

1. Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands but Most Christians Have Never Really Tried by Ronald J. Sider

The subtitle captures the key argument of the book: nonviolence works and is the Christian call but we do not give it a chance. Ron Sider quickly poses his challenge to the non-pacifist majority Christian perspective: "how can Christians in the Just War tradition claim that the violence they justify is truly a last resort until they have invested billions and trained tens of thousands of people in a powerful, sustained testing of the possibilities of nonviolent alternatives?" Most of the book is a look at various case studies of how nonviolent action worked. He covers the familiar cases most people know (like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.) but also looks at much less known cases like Philadelphia Quakers in kayaks taking on a Pakistani steamship full of weapons or Americans challenging nuclear weapons by sailing to the Marshall Islands testing zone. His examples come from around the world with a strong focus on the 20th Century. This book made the top of the list for me since it inspired the most additional reading. As he briefly recounts various case studies, Sider notes key books that focus on a particular movement. I've picked up multiple books and have enjoyed them.

One final noteworthy book from 2015 is my own! I didn't add it to the list since I didn't actually read it this year (after all, I wrote it mostly in 2013 and 2014). I also didn't want to admit how low on the list I would put it. But I hope people will find it to be worthy of mentioning along with the ten great books I've highlighted. Please check it out and read it in 2016.

Sacramental Politics: Religious Worship as Political Action by Brian Kaylor