The 10 Most Helpful Books I Read This Year

The 10 Most Helpful Books I Read This Year

In 2023, I set out to read more books than I did in 2022. Thankfully, this was one time in my life when a New Year’s resolution survived through the end of January! 

I tried to vary what I read throughout the year, mixing in fiction and non-fiction and exploring different topics that interest me. At the end of the day, I ended up reading a lot of books about American Christian history and the interplay of faith and politics, as well as some memoirs and other spiritual reflections. 

So much of what I read this year helped to shape my thinking, and I wanted to share a few of those titles with you. Here are, in no particular order, 10 books I read in 2023 that I found to be the most helpful and insightful. 

The Civil War as a Theological Crisis” by Mark Noll

I read multiple books authored by Christian historian Mark Noll this year, and I found each of them to be incredibly informative. “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis” was especially helpful in answering the question: How is it that one of the most Christian nations on the planet was also one of the last western democracies to abolish slavery

Noll’s account of the Civil War as a crisis in theology explores the biblical arguments for and against the institution of chattel slavery that were offered by pastors and theologians in America in the run-up to the Civil War. He also examines what contemporary voices from Canada and Europe were saying at the time and how their understanding of slavery was different from those in America. 

(Order “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis” here.)

The Bible Told Them So: How Southern Evangelicals Fought to Preserve White Supremacy” by J. Russell Hawkins  

After the fall of slavery and the end of the Reconstruction era, Jim Crow became the order of the day in the American south—and also in the church. In this historical work, J. Russell Hawkins explores attitudes toward racial integration within the Southern Baptist Convention and Methodist denominations, particularly in South Carolina. 

By focusing on the specific stories of how evangelical Christians in South Carolina initially opposed integration, only to begrudgingly accept it by the end of the Civil Rights era under the banner of “colorblindness,” Hawkins highlights the widespread work that is still necessary for the American evangelical church to do in order to rid itself of the white supremacy of its past and pursue a more holistic sense of justice and inclusion. 

(Order “The Bible Told Them So” here.)

Revelation for the Rest of Us: A Prophetic Call to Follow Jesus as a Dissident Disciple” by Scot McKnight and Cody Matchett

Revelation is a book of the Bible that I have often avoided, particularly when it comes to crafting sermon series. And part of that is because I have always known that the most popular interpretations of Revelation are poor interpretations. I just didn’t know what a good one looked like. 

With “Revelation for the Rest of Us,” Scot McKnight sets the stage for a better reading of Revelation—not as a cryptogram for interpreting the latest headlines coming out of the Middle East, but as a call for Christians to live as “moral dissidents” in a world that more often mirrors the evil empires of Babylon and Rome than the Kingdom of Heaven. 

If I had one critique for this book, it would be that, in my opinion, McKnight ventures too often into our specific political moment in America, naming names and calling out the specifics of what we see playing out on Fox News and MSNBC. 

I felt those comments located the book in a specific historical moment rather than creating a text that could be read 50 years from now without any need to understand the cultural context in which the book was written. I also think those comments may have turned off some readers from digesting the paradigm-shifting interpretation of Revelation he offered and that could benefit them. 

But other than that, I found this book to be incredibly helpful. 

(Order “Revelation for the Rest of Us” here.)

All My Knotted-Up Life: A Memoir” by Beth Moore

Beth Moore has been a household name in evangelical circles for as long as I can remember. Love her or hate her, she has left an indelible mark on the American church. 

In her incredibly transparent and beautifully written memoir, Moore recounts key moments in her life, from her experiences with childhood sexual abuse to her Southern Baptist upbringing and calling into ministry, her struggles to find wholeness and healing in the midst of marriage and motherhood, and the controversies that have surrounded her public life as a woman teaching the Bible in mostly conservative spaces. 

This book is painful, beautiful, and eye-opening. 

(Order “All My Knotted-Up Life” here.)

Divorce and Remarriage in the Church: Biblical Solutions for Pastoral Realities” by David Instone-Brewer

As someone who is no stranger to the pain caused by domestic abuse, I have often struggled with the teachings on divorce and remarriage offered in many evangelical circles. Almost all evangelicals would agree that someone is permitted to divorce their spouse in the case of marital infidelity. But what about in cases of abuse, neglect, or abandonment?

I have never found a theological treatment of this question that both took Scripture seriously enough and provided a satisfying answer. That is, until I read David Instone-Brewer’s in-depth analysis of the relevant biblical texts, the cultural and theological contexts in which those instructions were given, and how we can arrive at a sensible answer on the question of divorce and remarriage without throwing out the authority of Scripture. 

If you are in pastoral leadership, this book is a must-read. 

(Order “Divorce and Remarriage in the Church” here.)

A Grief Observed” by C.S. Lewis

Originally published under the pseudonym N.W. Clerk, “A Grief Observed” is probably one of C.S. Lewis’ most controversial works. I think that’s part of what I like about it. 

Lewis authored the book shortly after the death of his beloved wife, and in it he offers his candid thoughts and experiences. His words were so candid, in fact, that when the book was republished under his name following his death, some readers came to believe that the book was a work of pseudo-fiction—because clearly a theological mind as sharp as Lewis’ would not be wrestling with the magnitude of doubt and existential dread expressed on the pages of “A Grief Observed.” 

I don’t think that’s the case. I think it was real. And the fact that Lewis could freely express these thoughts and feelings and still end up at a place of genuine faith makes the book worth reading. 

(Order “A Grief Observed” here.)

The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism” by Paul D. Miller

Christian nationalism is a system of thought that has, alarmingly and unfortunately, risen in popularity over the past couple of years, even among those who had previously considered themselves mainstream evangelical Christians. 

It’s also a concept that often seems poorly defined. Ask 10 different people what Christian nationalism is and you might get 12 different answers. 

In “The Religion of American Greatness,” Paul D. Miller, who is a scholar of international affairs and a former White House staffer for presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, seeks to define Christian nationalism on its own terms. He then goes on to explain why it is so dangerous. 

Miller is also an evangelical Christian, so his critique of the rise of Christian nationalism within evangelical spaces is that of a concerned insider who understands evangelical theology and its cultural context. 

I have returned to reference this book multiple times throughout the year. 

(Order “The Religion of American Greatness” here.)

The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” by Mark Noll

“The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind,” Mark Noll writes on the opening page of one of his more famous works. Throughout the book, Noll, himself a committed evangelical and also an intellectual, explores why it is that evangelicalism has historically had such an anti-intellectual bent. 

Throughout the book, Noll describes the various controversies that have helped to define evangelicalism, from the fundamentalist/modernist debate to American Christians’ responses to the rise of evolutionary theory as the default explanation for the origins of life on earth. And what he comes to explain is that some of the beautiful aspects of evangelicalism—its pragmatism and its focus on mission and “the plain reading of Scripture”—have also given the movement an anti-intellectual tenor.

As a result, even evangelicals who have cultivated an intellectual mind have not done so by means provided within the evangelical movement. Rather, they have borrowed tools from other Christian traditions. 

In the 2022 edition, Noll provides a brand new preface and afterword to the book, which was originally published in 1994, to situate the content of the book in our present cultural moment. 

(Order “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” here.)

The Ballot and the Bible: How Scripture Has Been Used and Abused in American Politics and Where We Go from Here” by Kaitlyn Schiess

“The Ballot and the Bible” is a helpful overview of how the Bible has been used in American politics throughout our nation’s history, for better or for worse. 

In each chapter of the book, Kaitlyn Schiess provides in-depth but very readable analysis of how certain biblical themes, principles, and phrases have been used by politicians and pundits at various points in American history. She also compares the popular understanding of those themes and principles to sound biblical interpretation. 

For my part, I think the final chapter on Jeremiah 29 as the basis for political theology is worth the cover price. 

(Order “The Ballot and the Bible” here.)

Women and the Gender of God” by Amy Peeler

“Women and the Gender of God” first came on my radar when I read a scathing review that described it as “feminist theology,” which is “a species of liberal theology.” The review further said that Amy Peeler, who is an associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, arrived at “disturbing and, quite frankly, bizarre and disquieting conclusions.”

That review was given by someone who at the time worked on the staff of the same church where Peeler is associate rector.

Given the review, I wanted to see what was in this book that was so egregious that a fellow minister felt compelled to publicly excoriate it. Wrongly assuming that the book was written at the popular level (rather than being thoroughly academic), I picked up a copy and began reading it.

All I can say is that it is not light reading. 

In the book, Peeler offers a robust defense of the theological claim that God is not male. Further, she argues that this distinction is important, because “theology has consequences,” and a masculine view of God has been used throughout the centuries to denigrate women in the church and in society. 

Throughout her work, Peeler offers nuanced and careful theological reasoning to support the notion that God is neither male nor masculine, accounting for the fact that the Bible uses masculine pronouns to refer to God, he is called Father (something Peeler does not argue should cease), and that Jesus came as a man. 

The book is certainly challenging. But it is completely orthodox and incredibly insightful, and I would not characterize it as “feminist.” 

(Order “Women and the Gender of God” here.)

What Did You Read This Year? 

What books were most helpful to you in 2023? Leave your recommendations in the comments below or email me at [email protected]


This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. M

    Currently making my ways through Mere Christianity, Holier Than Thou, and whatever fantasy or sci-fi book I’m focusing on!

    1. Dale Chamberlain

      These are great recommendations! I haven’t read “Holier Than Thou,” but I’ll put it on my list! And I always enjoy a good sci-fi story.

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