Writings by Cole Huffman

The Books List 2020

I checked some books out of the Collierville Public Library. Upon return, the librarian told me the books would sit in quarantine for 72 hours. Around the country, some librarians are reporting books returned charred from being microwaved. Some books were bleached. “Novel coronavirus” indeed! I guess reading doesn’t necessarily make you smarter.

Nor does the news. Back in September’s newsletter, I quoted from a book I got from the Collierville Library, Alain de Botton’s The News: A User’s Manual. He makes the argument that news is now more powerful than faith in shaping people’s views.

People’s views about things in the news sometimes cause them to turn on those they’re bonded to in Christ. In that vein I read Well-Intentioned Dragons by Marshall Shelley. Compared to politicians, who “are satisfied with 51 percent of the constituency behind them,” Shelley writes, “pastors feel the pain when one vocal member becomes an opponent.”

Dragons often chase me to the Psalms, so I read David Taylor’s Open and Unafraid. Each of the fourteen chapters organizes the Psalms under headings like “Honesty,” “Anger,” “Nations,” “Joy.” Bono, of the band U2, a favorite, wrote in the afterword: “The Psalms see right through us. See right into us.”

Speaking of seeing, one of my reads this year has rainbow-colored glasses on the cover: Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody, by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay. The authors are liberals alarmed at illiberalism by way of “critical theories” that believe things like language is violence, silence is complicity, racism is baked into our culture, and there’s no such thing as biological sex.

Add to that the proliferation of “replacement religions” now. In Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, Tara Isabella Burton says people aren’t rejecting religion, they’re remixing it, especially the younger generations. She writes, “They want to choose—and, more often than not, purchase—the spiritual path that feels more authentic, more meaningful, to them. They prioritize intuitional spirituality over institutional religion.” See also David Zahl’s excellent Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance became Our New Religion, and What to Do about It.

This is a good place to mention that one reason replacement religion is so strong is evangelicals don’t know who we are anymore. We’ve historically been a renewal movement, but now we’re a sociopolitical movement. Thomas Kidd’s Who Is an Evangelical: A History of a Movement in Crisis is a book I would put in the Christmas stockings of every First Evaner, if I could.

Tim Carney’s Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse explained the changing nature of community ties in our country, looking at factors like marriage, education, and income. Carney writes, “Increasingly, place matters in America. ‘The land of opportunity’ is how we describe America as a country, but it’s becoming more accurate to say that America possesses some ‘lands of opportunity’ and many lands of hopelessness.”

I read a lot of memoirs. The best I read was Tara Westover’s Educated. Westover grew up in a fundamentalist Mormon family that did not believe in education or medicine. She now has a PhD from Cambridge. David Nott’s War Doctor: Surgery on the Front Line, is a riveting memoir of doing trauma surgery in war zones like Sarajevo and Aleppo. Finally, among the best I read, is Jason Hardy’s The Second Chance Club, about his working as a probation officer in New Orleans.

And Then They Stopped Talking to Me: Making Sense of Middle School, by Judith Warner, is about the social world of today’s middle schooler. Their parents are often over-involved in their world. In more affluent areas, there’s a lot of “social engineering” of kids’ friendships—adults deciding who’s in and out of the friend groups. “There won’t be enough room for a group picture on the front steps,” was the excuse one mother used to exclude her son’s unpopular friend from a group her son had put together for an eighth-grade pre-dance hangout. The mom felt that boy wasn’t cool enough to get on her Facebook page.

It seems like Australian and English writers help me the most with gospel communications to secularized people. God is Good for You by Greg Sheridan, writing for a skeptical Australian audience, was enlightening. 

Sexual brokenness is one of the biggest fallouts of secularism in practice. I found a lot to commend in Jay Stringer’s Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing

The Deep Things of God by Fred Sanders was the best theological work I read. It’s subtitled How the Trinity Changes Everything. Sanders writes, “The gospel derives its power from the infinite background of who God is . . . The main practical reason for learning how to think well about the eternal life of the Trinity is that it is the background for the gospel. The blessedness of God’s inner life is the only thing that is even better than the good news.”

I read some essay books that probably wouldn’t interest you, and some books about writing—the best among them was Jeffrey Munroe’s Reading Buechner. I read books with others in small groups, like Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines, by David Mathis, and Renovated: God, Dallas Willard, and the Church that Transforms, by Jim Wilder.

I’m closing out the year with four books: Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, by Tom Holland, which I’ve heard is a feast. The Deepest South of All: True Stories from Natchez, Mississippi, by the ever-observant Englishman in Mississippi, Richard Grant (loved his Dispatches from Pluto a few years ago). Before You Leave, a book about the questions people ask of Christianity, by Todd Von Helms; a couple of friends and I recently enjoyed breakfasting with him as he passed through Memphis. And Tempered Resilience: How Leaders are Formed in the Crucible of Change, by Tod Bolsinger. I need his perspective after a hard leadership year.

No books were harmed by microwaves or bleach in bringing you this Books List 2020.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 12:40 PM
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