In 2007, WORLD’s books issue included an annotated list of the top 100 books I had reviewed during seven fat years for publishing. Those familiar with Joseph’s saga in Genesis knew the question to ask: Would seven lean years come next? Happily, no: While some Christian publishers now controlled by secular publishers have seen a decline in quality, good books still run the gauntlet and gain readers.
The following pages include 140 of the best books (out of about 800 I’ve reviewed during that period), mostly by reading them during my hour a day on the treadmill, and the names of 20 novelists worth checking out. This time I’ve organized them in eight categories. Three sets of 20 books each are on friction-filled subjects: Christianity vs. atheism, Darwinism, and Islam. Then come four broader sets—history, biography, current events, and poverty-fighting—followed by the list of fiction writers. I’ve asterisked several that made our Book of the Year short list and receive more coverage in the Books of the Year article.
Christianity vs. atheism
Standing for Christ against atheism: James Anderson’s What’s Your Worldview?* allows readers to identify their own theological leanings. Gregory Koukl’s Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions shows how to deal with self-destructive philosophical arguments (pointing out, for example, that the statement “There are no absolutes” is an absolute). Evidence for God: 50 Arguments for Faith from the Bible, History, Philosophy, and Science, edited by William Dembski and Michael Licona, offers brief, handy apologetic essays.
Looking for good responses to criticisms of the Bible? Jeffrey Russell’s Exposing Myths About Christianity answers 145 viral lies and legends such as, “The New Testament was composed long after the death of Jesus.” Donald Johnson’s How to Talk to a Skeptic* helps us compare the reasonability of stories about the universe. Christopher Wright’s The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith will help Christians flummoxed by events such as Joshua’s invasion of Canaan.
Those who exalt our own reason should read John Wilkinson’s No Argument for God: Going Beyond Reason in Conversations About Faith. Mitch Stokes’ A Shot of Faith (to the Head) vigorously and rightly criticizes evidentialism by showing that facts of any kind assume a certain faith. Anthony Selvaggio’s 7 Toxic Ideas Polluting Your Mind provides succinct critiques from a Christian perspective of ideologies such as egalitarianism, consumerism, and relativism. Richard Sherlock’s Nature’s End: The Theological Meaning of the New Genetics lays out the limitations of natural law and rationalistic apologetics.
If we ourselves are prideful, William Farley’s Gospel-Powered Humility shows how essential it is to accept God’s wisdom over our own. Barbara Duguid’s Extravagant Grace* shows (as its subtitle states) God’s Glory Displayed in Our Weakness. Darrow Miller’s LifeWork: A Biblical Theology for What You Do Every Day effectively unites truth and practical application. Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts beautifully emphasizes the importance of thankfulness.
Going deeper: Ellis Potter’s 3 Theories of Everything is a brief, brilliant look at the three basic theological choices before us—Monism, Dualism, and Trinitarianism. Randy Alcorn’s If God Is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil explodes the atheistic claim that the existence of evil negates the Christian proclamation of God’s total sovereignty and total goodness. Michael Reeves’ Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith readably and delightfully shows how the Trinity is the basis for love and true communication.
I’ll conclude this section with three books from the New York pastor who has helped to change the thinking of many young Manhattan sophisticates. Tim Keller’s The Reason for God provides such a solid defense of Christian belief in an age of skepticism that it was WORLD’s 2008 Book of the Year. Keller’s The Prodigal God shows how the Father saves both younger brothers and elder brothers, while Counterfeit Gods is a pastoral look at the idols—money, power, sex, moral excellence—we come to worship if we turn good things into ultimate things.
Atheism’s scientific veneer gives it intellectual standing, and that’s why discussing origins is so important. Starting with Charles Darwin himself, Paul Johnson’s Darwin: Portrait of a Genius is a useful short biography, and David Herbert’s Charles Darwin’s Religious Views: From Creationist to Evolutionist serves up fascinating detail. Nickell John Romjue’s I, Charles Darwin imagines Darwin returning to earth to be confounded by the DNA revolution and the complexity of cells. Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell and Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design* tie together the discoveries that suggest Darwinism is scientifically outmoded.
What’s the alternative? The Holman QuickSource Guide to Understanding Creation, by Mark Whorton and Hill Roberts, is a useful introduction to contending positions. Why the Universe Is the Way It Is, by Hugh Ross, offers a strong old-earth perspective. Davis A. Young and Ralph F. Stearley’s The Bible, Rocks and Time lays out geological evidence for an old earth, while Coming to Grips with Genesis, edited by Terry Mortenson and Thane Ury, makes a young-earth case for reading Genesis 1-2 as they were historically understood.
Also, William Dembski’s The Design Inference mathematically destroys Darwinism. Dembski collaborated with Jonathan Wells in How To Be an Intellectually Fulfilled Atheist (or Not) to show how intelligent design succeeds, and materialism fails, at accounting for the high-tech engineering of the cell. Dembski teamed with Jonathan Witt to produce Intelligent Design Uncensored, an easy-to-understand introduction to the debate. God and Evolution, edited by Jay Richards, includes penetrating essays that, among other things, undercut Francis Collins’ beef with intelligent design.
Should Christians Embrace Evolution?, edited by Norman Nevin, explains why that’s a mistake—especially when theistic evolutionists turn God’s most amazing creation, man, into the product of chance. Science & Human Origins, by Ann Gauger, Douglas Axe, and Casey Luskin, exposes the lack of compelling evidence for human evolution. C. John Collins’ Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? Who They Were and Why You Should Care answers that crucial question.
For the social effects of Darwinism, read John West’s Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science. Bradley Watson’s Living Constitution, Dying Faith: Progressivism and the New Science of Jurisprudence describes the impact of evolutionary theory on political and social thought. Jerry Bergman’s Hitler and the Nazi Darwinian Worldview proves how German anti-Semitism plus Darwinism equaled mass murder. In his Slaughter of the Dissidents: The Shocking Truth About Killing the Careers of Darwin Doubters, evolution ideologues suppress honest dissent.
Islam is on the march. In Darrow Miller’s Emancipating the World: A Christian Response to Radical Islam and Fundamentalist Atheism, Christians are fighting a war for souls within Islam and America itself. Rick Richter’s Comparing the Qur’an and the Bible accomplishes its promise, and William Kilpatrick’s Christianity, Islam, and Atheism examines the reasons for Christian reticence toward criticizing Islam. Robert Scott’s Questions Muslims Ask gives good answers to questions like, What sort of God can be murdered? What sort of God can be born as a baby? and Why do you worship three Gods?
The Cross in the Shadow of the Crescent, by Erwin Lutzer, summarizes Islam’s history, and The Hidden Origins of Islam, edited by Karl-Heinz Ohlig and Gerd-R. Puin, suggests that Islam began as a Christian heresy. Ibn Warraq’s Why the West Is Best demolishes the myth of Islam’s medieval golden age, and his Virgins? What Virgins? is an honest critique of Islam from someone who grew up in it. Robert Reilly’s The Closing of the Muslim Mind shows how and why Islam fell behind a millennium ago.
Two titles from Andrew McCarthy, The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America and Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy, spotlight disturbing trends, as does Paul Marshall and Nina Shea’s Silenced: How Apostasy & Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide. Raymond Ibrahim’s Crucified Again delivers on the promise of its subtitle: Exposing Islam’s New War on Christians. Eliza Griswold’s The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam is a ground-level examination of skirmishes in Africa and east Asia.
Andrew G. Bostom’s Sharia Versus Freedom warns of the threat posed by Islamic totalitarianism toward Western liberty. Patrick Sookhdeo’s Islam in our Midst: The Challenge to Our Christian Heritage is an excellent brief introduction to belligerent Muslims allied with hard secularists against their common enemy, Christ. Sookhdeo offers one way to fight back in his Freedom to Believe: Challenging Islam’s Apostasy Law. Meanwhile, Theodore Dalrymple indicts Europe’s unwillingness to fight back in The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism.
Giles Milton’s Paradise Lost, Smyrna, 1922: The Destruction of a Christian City in the Islamic World is the gripping tale of Turkey’s final expulsion of Christians. David G. Dalin and John F. Rothmann’s Icon of Evil: Hitler’s Mufti and the Rise of Radical Islam meticulously documents the career and views of the Arab leader of 1920s Jerusalem who urged efficiency in the Nazi extermination of Jews. Lamin Sanneh’s Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African is a wonderfully evocative memoir of moving from childhood Islam in Gambia to a faith in Christ that many churches feared to recognize.
From letters to the editor I know that many WORLD readers love history books—and Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion tells the most important story of the past 2,000 years. If you’re looking for broad overviews, A Patriot’s History of the United States*, by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, and A Patriot’s History of the Modern World by Schweikart and Dave Dougherty, read smoothly without political correctness.
Victor Davis Hanson’s The Father of Us All: War and History shows why some wars are worth fighting. Jay Rubenstein’s Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse sheds light on the Western Europeans who fought their way to Jerusalem more than 900 years ago. Stark’s God’s Battalions and Jonathan Phillips’ Holy Warriors help polish the tarnished reputation of the crusaders.
Philipp Blom’s The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914 is great storytelling, and Holger Herwig’s The Marne, 1914 shows how the great war descended quickly into horror previously unimaginable. David Faber’s Munich, 1938 and Giles MacDonogh’s 1938: Hitler’s Gamble show what happened when English and French leaders desperately tried to avoid another horror. And when appeasement failed? Debórah Dwork and Robert Jan Van Pelt’s Flight from the Reich (about Jewish refugees from Hitler), Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands (about the nations ground between the twin millstones of Hitler and Stalin), and Michael Jones’ Leningrad: State of Siege tell the grim tales.
The Whisperers by Orlando Figes uses a vast array of previously hidden family archives to expose how Stalin turned the hearts of children against parents. Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 shows how Stalin and his sycophants extended the realm of hatred. Marci Shore’s The Taste of Ashes is a personal recollection of Soviet Communism’s lingering bitter effect, even after its political fall.
Jonathan Bean’s Race & Liberty in America spotlights African-American leaders in the 19th and 20th centuries who prized individual rights, Christianity, and markets. Amity Shlaes’ The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression splendidly chronicles governmental economic intervention during the 1930s. Anthony Flint’s Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City delivers on its title’s promise.
Turning to biographies, Herman Selderhuis has given us John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life, and Phillip Simpson’s A Life of Gospel Peace spotlights Jeremiah Burroughs, the 17th-century author of a timeless guide to “the rare jewel of Christian contentment.” W. Andrew Hoffecker’s Charles Hodge and John Muether’s Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman reacquaint us with these important theologians of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Ira Stoll’s Samuel Adams: A Life shows how Adams’ biblical faith helped him to foment a unique revolution that did not end in dictatorship. Thomas Kidd’s Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots profiles Adams’ Virginia counterpart. Other countries weren’t so blessed in their founding fathers, as demonstrated by Marie Arana’s Bolivar and Jonathan Steinberg’s Bismarck: A Life. Stephen Mansfield’s Lincoln’s Battle with God lucidly examines whether and when the Greatest Emancipator freed Lincoln from fatalism and moved him to faith.
Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy hit bestseller lists and Tim Townsend’s Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis* did not, but both raise issues about “cheap grace” and what happens when we have nothing left to offer. Edward E. Ericson Jr. and Alexis Klimoff’s The Soul and Barbed Wire: An Introduction to Solzhenitsyn demystifies the greatly misunderstood 20th-century icon.
Fans of 19th-century political and social history will like Benjamin Disraeli, Adam Kirsch’s look at the Jewish Christian who became Britain’s scintillating prime minister. Walter Stahr’s Seward takes Lincoln’s secretary of state out of the Alaskan icebox into which he’s often placed (and forgotten). Robert J. Norrell’s Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington evaluates common views of this pivotal figure that ignore the twisting course he had to run throughout his eventful life. Tim Jeal’s Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer shows how Britain-born Henry Stanley recreated himself as an American journalist and gutsy adventurer.
Turning to the 20th and 21st centuries, James Humes’ Churchill: The Prophetic Statesman and Arthur Herman’s Gandhi & Churchill write of men who encountered sensational successes and failures but always came back for more—of each. Claire Berlinski’s “There Is No Alternative”: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters and Stanley Kurtz’s Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism portray two determined ideologues.
I’ll list books on current events by topic, starting with A for this past year’s best book on abortion, Clarke Forsythe’s Abuse of Discretion: The Inside Story of Roe v. Wade. B is for birth dearth, the subject of Jonathan Last’s What to Expect When No One’s Expecting. C is for capitalism, resourcefully defended by Jay Richards’ Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem, and Thomas Woods’ Back on the Road to Serfdom.
D is the grade most distinguished professors should get for propagandizing rather than telling the truth, as Yale’s David Gelernter passionately points out in America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered in the Obamacrats). E is for Peter Schweizer’s Extortion: How Politicians Extract Your Money, Buy Votes, and Line Their Own Pockets, which backs up its slashing title with specific detail. Provocative foreign policy/international books include Angelo Codevilla’s Advice to War Presidents, Melanie Kirkpatrick’s Escape from North Korea, Jean-François Revel’s Last Exit to Utopia, and Caroline Glick’s The Israeli Solution.
Arthur Brooks reviews domestic policy in The Battle: How the Fight Between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America’s Future, and Patrick Garry patches a conservative weakness with Conservatism Redefined: A Creed for the Poor and Disadvantaged. On social issues, Rosaria Butterfield’s The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert eloquently relates how she moved from lesbianism to gospel faith, while Russell Moore’s Adopted for Life shows how to move babies into homes. Anthony Bradley’s Liberating Black Theology lays the foundation for change among African-Americans. In Blind Spot, Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert, and Roberta Green Ahmanson examine the dangers noted in their subtitle: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion.
Charles Murray’s Coming Apart reveals how the economically rich are getting socially richer as they stay married, and how the poor become poorer when they fall into social anarchy. Brandon Garrett’s Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong indicts pressured confessions, jailhouse informants, and lazy lawyers for contributing to injustice. Thomas Sowell’s The Housing Boom and Bust explains how government became a large part of the problem. Samuel Rodriguez’s The Lamb’s Agenda shows how Hispanics and others can unite on biblical principles.
Finally, Obama staffers would not have wasted billions had they absorbed the lessons of Josh Lerner’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams: Why Public Efforts to Boost Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Have Failed—and What to Do About It.
During the past seven years, several books have demonstrated what Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert point out in the title of their essential work: When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself. Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa offers damning evidence, and Robert Lupton criticizes domestic good intentions in Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help—And How to Reverse It. Ted Boers and Tim Stoner’s Demons of Poverty attacks progress-resistant religion, dysfunctional government, and class-based societies.
It’s counterintuitive to say this, but the main factor in helping the poor is often not money. James Tooley’s The Beautiful Tree shows how slum-based, low-cost private schools in India and other countries provide a much better education than public schools. Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel’s More Than Good Intentions proves that inexpensive initiatives, such as deworming children, save more lives than many costlier projects. Wayne Grudem and Barry Asmus’ The Poverty of Nations, Udo Middelmann’s Christianity Versus Fatalistic Religions in the War Against Poverty, and Darrow Miller’s Nurturing the Nations: Reclaiming the Dignity of Women in Building Healthy Cultures, all show how worldview and custom hurt more than lack of cash.
Peter Greer has co-authored three important books. The Poor Will Be Glad: Joining the Revolution to Lift the World Out of Poverty, with Phil Smith, is both thoughtful and beautiful. The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good, with Anna Haggard, and Mission Drift, with Chris Horst, show how philanthropy can easily skimp on love while swelling with pride. Relentless: Pursuing a Life That Matters, by Dave Donaldson and Terry Glaspey, advise on how to help the poor while strengthening churches and holding charities accountable. Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers grippingly portrays enterprise and exploitation in Mumbai, India.
Peter Brown’s scholarly Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 A.D. illuminates the development of church attitudes toward helping the poor. Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert’s What Is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission, and Tim Chester’s Good News to the Poor show what the church should be doing to alleviate suffering. Steven Mosher’s Population Control: Real Costs, Illusory Benefits details how poverty-fighting through contraception is contra to what really works.
In The Tyranny of Experts*, William Easterly documents what happens when first world nations, ignoring the importance of personal beliefs and personal help, believe massive manipulations will make the crucial difference in the third world. Lawrence Mead’s From Prophecy to Charity: How to Help the Poor lays out a domestic road map.
Some of the books just listed are not light reading, so that’s where fiction comes in for me. Mesomorphic action heroes and philosophical tomes disguised as novels bore me, so please judge my recommendations accordingly. Most of my favorite detective or spy novel authors have written series of books. As it’s hard to declare one particular book in a series to be best of show, I’ll simply list 10 secular and 10 Christian authors.
On the secular side, David Downing, Alan Furst, and Philip Kerr have produced superb novels largely set in Europe of the 1930s, usually with Nazi villains. Alex Dryden, William Ryan, Tom Rob Smith, and Martin Cruz Smith have done similarly well with Soviet agents and officials as the heavies. In Daniel Silva’s novels centered on Israeli spy Gabriel Allon, almost everyone is or can be an enemy. Readers who prefer more literary novels may like Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son and Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder.
Warning: Almost all of those books may include sex, violence, and foul language. Christian novelists tend to produce detective, spy, lawyer, or action stories that are cleaner: I’ve enjoyed at least two novels each by (in alphabetical order) Randy Alcorn, Don Brown, Tim Downs, Brian Godawa, Steven James, Ray Keating, John K. Reed, Randy Singer, and Dave Swavely. Readers with more literary tastes might prefer Bret Lott.