Booknote: My Year in Books (2018)


When I finish a book, I add it to my annual “books read” list. My 2018 list is at the end of this post.

I don’t have a detailed reading plan – I select books based on interest and recommendations. I also use commentaries, Bible dictionaries, and systematic theologies as I prepare two weekly sermons and one Bible lecture. Since I seldom read these cover-to-cover, I don’t include them in the list. 2018 was spent in Romans, Exodus, 1 Timothy, and a December morning and evening series in Isaiah.

What follows are some of  my 2018 reading highlights. Several of my comments come from booknotes I wrote earlier in the year.

Every year, I read a few substantial volumes in theology. This year I returned to the four books that comprise Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. I found David Calhoun’s Knowing God and Ourselves an extraordinarily helpful companion volume, one that lives up to its subtitle: “Reading Calvin’s Institutes Devotionally.” Each chapter identifies the section of the Institutes to be read, along with scripture texts, prayers of Calvin, hymns, references to Calvin’s other works, and observations from numerous Calvin scholars. If you’ve never read the Institutes, you will want to follow this valuable guide.

I recommend highly Watchfulness: Recovering a Lost Spiritual Discipline by Brian Hedges. He argues that “watchfulness is as necessary to a healthy spiritual life as meditation and prayer,” and organizes his book around five critical questions: What is watchfulness? Why is watchfulness necessary? How is watchfulness cultivated? When is watchfulness imperative? Who is obligated to watchfulness in the church?

Offering informed counsel on end-of-life issues is a demanding aspect of pastoral ministry. No pastor should be without Departing in Peace: Biblical Decision-making by Bill Davis and its careful ethical reflections and case studies.

Francis Grimké’s Meditations on Preaching is a gem of a book, full of biblical wisdom and common sense. It is now required reading for second year RTS Jackson preaching students.

Preachers need models of clear and concise biblical exposition, and to that end, Dale Ralph Davis (Joshua: No Falling Words) and Guy Waters (The Life and Theology of Paul) are exemplary.

This year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I read with profit David Garrow’s biography and Patrick Parr’s study of King’s seminary years. The latter delved into his course studies, theological formation, the influence of professors, and friendships.

On December 6, 1917, two ships collided in the Halifax harbor, one carrying 2,300 tons of wet and dry picric acid, 200 tons of TNT, 10 tons of gun cotton and 35 tons of benzoyl. The subsequent blast, the largest man-made explosion prior to World War II, killed 1,900 people, and left 10% of the city’s population injured. I’ve long been interested in this event, and found John U. Bacon’s The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism a compelling read.

This year was the bicentennial anniversary of the birth of Frederick Douglass. I will have to wait until next year to read his biography. But for now, James Oakes’s The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics offers a skillful account of each man’s views on race and slavery. Sadly, among whites, strong antislavery views were seldom accompanied by a commitment to racial equality – Oakes helps us understand why.

The deaths of well-known people often spark my interest in learning more about their lives and/or reading the books they authored. This year saw the passing of George Herbert Walker Bush, James Cone, Paul Long, and Tom Wolfe.

One of the most difficult books to read was Nadia Murad’s The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State. In 2014, catastrophe came to her Yazidi village in northern Iraq when it fell to ISIS. Most of its men were killed, and the women sold into slavery. Her abuse at the hands of ISIS and harrowing escape to Iraqi Kurdistan offers a portrait of courage, perseverance in the face of evil, and a tenacious desire to see ISIS put on trial for genocide. The unexpected aid of a Sunni family reminds us that human compassion can flourish where least expected.

Lest we forget – the oppression of minorities makes up a significant part of the American story, and we should give attention to books like Philip Dray’s At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America and John Dittmer’s Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. Our nation has its own tragic history, and the persecutors have often been professing members of the Christian church.

In his The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, Victor Davis Hanson explains the complicated series of events that led to the Allied (Britain, Soviet Union, United States) and Axis (Germany, Italy, and Japan) coalitions, and the comparative strengths of each in terms of leadership, strategy, war materiel, combat and support personnel, and production capacity. He concludes: “The tragedy of World War II – a preventable conflict – was that sixty million people had perished to confirm that the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain were far stronger than the fascist powers of Germany, Japan, and Italy after all – a fact that should have been self evident and in no need of such a bloody laboratory, if not for prior British appeasement, American isolationism, and Russian collaboration.”

Among the novels I read, several stand out.

Two beautifully crafted stories of pastoral ministry and friendship are Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which I read for the third time. I’m quick to add that the theological views expressed in the books are not always my own. But devotion to flock and friends make these two books worthwhile reads for ministers of any tradition.

And speaking of repeat reads: since reading it for the first time in high school, I have returned to To Kill a Mockingbird at least once a decade, and it is among my favorite novels. When I find a novel I love, I like to reread. I never tire of good prose and well-told stories.

My most unusual 2018 read came from my friend Tiina, a native of Finland. In 2014 we met for the first time in the RTS Jackson cafeteria, and our conversation quickly turned to Finland’s heroic Winter War with the Soviet Union (1939-1940), and its most famous sniper. When Tiina’s husband Joe graduated this year, they gave me a copy of Tapio A.M. Saarelainen’s The White Sniper: Simo Häyhä. Credited with more than 500 verified kills, Häyhä reflected:”I did what I was told to, as well as I could. There would be no Finland unless everyone else had done the same.”

Of course, I made time for several “snack books” this year, which are ordinarily spy and mystery thrillers.

The books I completed in 2018:

  1. Gregory Nazianzus, In defence of his flight to Pontus, and his return, after his ordination to the priesthood, with an exposition of the character of the priestly office
  2. Mark Helprin, Paris in the Present Tense
  3. Bill Davis, Departing in Peace: Biblical Decision-making at the End of Life 
  4. James Bradley, Flyboys
  5. John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress (Part 1)
  6. David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
  7. Yuval Levin, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left
  8. John U. Bacon, The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism
  9. Martin Luther King Jr., The Measure of a Man
  10. Jared E. Alcantara, Learning from a Legend: What Gardner C. Taylor Can Teach Us About Preaching
  11. Vaughan Roberts, True Friendship
  12. Karen Cleveland, Need to Know
  13. Jeffrey R. Watt, Choosing Death: Suicide and Calvinism in Early Modern Geneva
  14. O. Garfield Jones, Parliamentary Procedure at a Glance
  15. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
  16. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book One): The Knowledge of God the Creator
  17. Ryan T. Anderson, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment 
  18. Allan H. Harman, Joseph Addison Alexander
  19. Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities
  20. Philip Dray, At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America
  21. Jeffrey D. Arthurs, Devote Yourself to the Public Reading of Scripture: The Transforming Power of the Well-Spoken Word
  22. James E. Dolezal, All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Theism
  23. Scott Pratt, Due Process
  24. Nadia Murad, The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State
  25. Francis James Grimke, Meditations on Preaching
  26.  William J. Cooper, The Lost Founding Father: John Quincy Adams and the Transformation of American Politics
  27.  Bruce P. Baugus, editor,  China’s Reforming Churches
  28. John Calvin, A Little Book on the Christian Life (translated and edited by Burk Parsons and Aaron Denlinger)
  29. Steve Lawson, No Higher Calling
  30. Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed
  31. Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop
  32. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book Two): The Knowledge of Christ the Redeemer
  33. Ian Hamilton, The Gospel-Shaped Life
  34. Megan Hill, Contentment: Seeing God’s Goodness
  35. Willa Cather, My Antonia
  36. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
  37. Roger Scruton, How to Be a Conservative
  38. John Flavel, The Mystery of Providence
  39. Brian G. Hedges, Watchfulness: Recovering a Lost Spiritual Discipline
  40. Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited
  41.  Rush Witt, Diehard Sins: How to Fight Wisely against Destructive Daily Habits
  42. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book Three): The Way in Which We Receive the Grace of Christ: What benefits Come to Us from It, and What Effects Follow
  43. Joseph Epstein, The Ideal of Culture: Essays
  44. Paul B. Long, Citizen Soldiers of World War II: True story of the American soldiers who served with Merrill’s Maurauders in Burma and the Chinese Sixth Army ruin WWII
  45. Guy Prentiss Waters, The Life and Theology of Paul
  46. John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi
  47. Dale Ralph Davis, Joshua: No Falling Words
  48. John Brown of Haddington, Counsel to Gospel Ministers
  49. Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate
  50. Joseph Epstein, Charm: The Elusive Enchantment
  51. Elliott Ackerman, Waiting for Eden
  52. Joseph Epstein, Wind Sprints
  53. Joel Beeke and Stephen Yuille, William Perkins
  54. Alan Jacobs, How to Think
  55. Victor Davis Hanson, The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won
  56. Mark Forsyth, The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase 
  57. James M. Garretson, An Able and Faithful Ministry: Samuel Miller and the Pastoral Office 
  58. The Bible
  59. Patrick Parr, The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age
  60.  John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book Four): The External Means or Aids By Which God Invites Us into the Society of Christ and Holds Us Therein
  61.  David B. Calhoun, Knowing God and Ourselves: Reading Calvin’s Institutes Devotionally
  62.  Tapio A.M. Saarelainen, The White Sniper: Simo Häyhä
  63. James Oakes, The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics
  64.  James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation: Fortieth Anniversary Edition
  65. Jon Meacham, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush


  1. Wayne Morrison on December 31, 2018 at 8:16 pm

    Charlie Wingard is a Beast Reader!!! I have to get reading…

  2. Henry Barbour on December 31, 2018 at 8:25 pm

    Thanks for inspiring a mostly non-reader to pick up the pace in 2019.

  3. Zack Groff on December 31, 2018 at 9:57 pm

    Your accomplishment as a reader is impressive and humbling. Thank you for these year-end thoughts as well!

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