Seven leaner years
70 reading recommendations, 2014-2021
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In our issue dated June 30, 2007, WORLD published “Seven fat years,” alluding to the dream Joseph interprets in Genesis 41, and offering 100 recommendations of books published during the first seven years of this century. In our issue dated June 28, 2014, we published “Seven more fat years,” showing 160 books published since 2007.
Now it’s time for “Seven leaner years,” with the title reflecting hard times for publishing in two ways. Many publishing houses put out politically correct books, and the few conservative ones often emphasize opinion aimed at “owning the libs” rather than thoughtful analysis. Some Christian publishers remain forthright, but at others, marketing rules.
Here are my top 70 of the past seven years, in six categories that indicate my idiosyncratic reading interests—America Now, American History, World History, Scientific Debates, Applied Theology, and Fiction—with one candle at the end to put atop the cake.
Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse
Tim Carney shows how less church and community involvement often leads to a give-up attitude that among 10 percent of the populace worsens job prospects. He also observed the political difference between “evangelicals” who do not go to church and those who do.
The Once and Future Worker
Oren Cass notes that 1 in 5 men in their prime do not work full time, and many are without accomplishments like building strong personal relationships, succeeding at work, and supporting a family. Proposals: Do not have a “college or bust” attitude, and do not pursue economic growth in ways that sicken the labor market.
Who Killed Civil Society?
Howard Husock shows how poverty-fighters a century ago promoted an American three-self doctrine: self-respect, self-control, self-government. Today we turn the spotlight not on the strengths of the poor but their weaknesses.
Discrimination and Disparities
An enlarged edition of Thomas Sowell’s insightful work on why multiple factors—some systemic, some individual, and many a combination of both (as in miseducation and crime)— contribute to radical differences in outcomes within American society.
Please Stop Helping Us
Jason Riley unflinchingly examines whether government policy is the chief engine of black progress, or whether numerous national programs have harmed rather than helped the poor and uneducated.
America in Retreat
Bret Stephens shows how isolationist rhetoric is on the rise in America, along with balance-of-power appeasement. The consequence may be more disorder than we bargained for, including world war and the avoidable sacrifice of countless lives: If America does not lead, Russia, China, or Iran very likely will.
Bootleggers & Baptists
The grandson-grandpa writing team of Adam Smith and Bruce Yandle created a book that’s both serious and fun to read. The title stems from Prohibition, when Baptists and bootleggers, for different reasons, worked to shut down taverns. Recently, both bankers and community organizers supported the risky loans that created a housing bubble.
Benjamin Barton and Stephanos Bibas show how much criminal justice in the United States has become impersonal, amoral, and hidden, with plea bargaining replacing trials. They propose ways to make it individualized, moral, transparent, and participatory.
Barrio America: How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City
A.K. Sandoval-Strausz shows how in deteriorating areas of Dallas and Chicago “immigrants restored the shopping streets and storefronts that had been emptying out in favor of suburban landscapes designed around the automobile.”
The Secular Creed
Rebecca McLaughlin helps us distinguish between racial equality (a Biblical concept) and the LGBT agenda, which is clearly un-Biblical. Staying low on the ladder of abstraction, she also explains why Christianity is the basis for women’s rights and why we need to oppose firmly transgender trends. Mocking does not help. Biblical objectivity does.
Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown
Lauren Hilgers gives us the inspiring story of Zhuang Liehong, a democracy protester from south China who escapes and starts from scratch in Queens. Excellent street-level reporting brings to life hardship and opportunity.
Free to Believe: The Battle Over Religious Liberty in America
Becket law firm attorney Luke Goodrich shows that some leading abortion and gay rights activists are not content with legalization, acceptance, and even general approval. What if declining to perform an abortion becomes an illegal act of sex discrimination?
Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents
Rod Dreher summarizes well what we can learn from those who lived under 20th-century totalitarianism. Stand firm but let bitterness stand down. Appreciate the value of suffering but be merciful to those whose capacity is less. Practice hospitality. Speak up but don’t worry about being prudently silent at times.
I’ve written before about the two textbooks published in 2019 that I recommend for bright high-school and college students: Thomas Kidd’s American History (two volumes) and Wilfred McClay’s Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story. Both offer coherent narratives that recognize problems but honor American accomplishments. Here are 12 books for general readers.
John Sedgwick avoids the children’s version of the Cherokee Trail of Tears and eloquently shows how less racism among whites and less political maneuvering within the Cherokee tribe could have mitigated the disaster.
Did America Have a Christian Founding?
Historians offer radically different answers to the title question, so Mark David Hall’s thoughtful analysis is helpful. He views many founders as Christian and others not, but progressive secularists are wrong in trying to re-create the 18th century in their own image: The Constitution and other early documents certainly emerged from a Biblical worldview.
The Crooked Path to Abolition
James Oakes shows the battle between those who saw the Constitution as pro-slavery and those who saw it through the light of a liberty-embracing Declaration of Independence. Pro-life readers will perceive the Dred Scott–Roe v. Wade parallels.
Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders
Dennis Rasmussen shows how George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson all thought the American experiment was a failure and the United States would soon be disunited. Yet we’ve lasted for almost 250 years, so we must have done something right.
A Nation Forged by Crisis
Jay Sexton presents a challenging new perspective on American history in 200 tightly written pages. Instead of telling a conventional story of social evolution, he offers the historian’s equivalent of a biologist’s “punctuated equilibrium”: long periods of little change punctuated by dramatic disasters that create surprising benefits.
Looming Civil War
Jason Phillips punctures the view that Americans both north and south anticipated “a short, glorious war.” Some politicians and soldiers did talk that way, but many civilians “felt dragged into a terrifying future by extremists from both regions,” as “unreason and dread” poisoned politics, and the telegraph offered “instantaneous information that promised more knowledge than it delivered.”
Citizen Reporters: S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine That Rewrote America
Stephanie Gorton shows how early 20th-century reporters like Ida Tarbell and Willa Cather captured the imagination of McClure’s Magazine’s 400,000 readers and the nation as a whole. As in the early 21st century, even the subjects of investigative stories often wanted to be known and photographed: “Click! Click! Click! … Everybody posing, smirking, attitudinizing!”
Armies of Deliverance
Elizabeth Varon supplements Civil War battle accounts by focusing on how Northerners thought the war would liberate poor Southern whites living under slaveholder domination. Meanwhile, the failure of Reconstruction became likely as Confederate leaders succeeded in portraying white Southerners generally as victims of Yankee aggression.
Great Society: A New History
Amity Shlaes teaches how the failure of 1960s suite-level planning has led to current economic and racial tensions—and our hard experience suggests that today’s top-down programs won’t do any better. She deftly and delightfully profiles leaders of the era like union head Walter Reuther, young radical Tom Hayden, and economics ear-whisperer Arthur Burns.
The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties
Christopher Caldwell details the impact of two 1960s laws: the Civil Rights Act and the Immigration and Nationality Act. The first law, designed to help the descendants of slaves, now primarily benefits many others. Caldwell then explains insightfully how the 1960s revolution affected sex, war, debt, and diversity, creating winners and losers.
The Year of Peril: America in 1942
Tracy Campbell shows that U.S. victory in World War II was not a sure thing. Life proclaimed 1942 “the critical year in the existence of the United States.” Three out of 10 Americans hoped for a negotiated settlement with Hitler. Some thought America would go the way of Poland, Greece, and France.
The Only Plane in the Sky
This is the book I’d want today’s and tomorrow’s college students to read if they want to understand what 9/11 was like. Garrett Graff’s gut-pounding compilation makes the day come alive, hour by hour.
Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer
Many religions designate some ground as holy, emphasize ritual sacrifices, and go through other procedures that, when checked off, guarantee eternal rewards. Scott Hendrix shows how “separating religion from moralism was Luther’s revolutionary innovation.” (For reviews of two dozen other books about Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, see WORLD, Oct. 28, 2017.)
Augustine on the Christian Life: Transformed by the Power of God
Thomas à Kempis in the 15th century told us we should imitate Christ, but Gerald Bray shows how Augustine a millennium earlier came to see that Jesus “took our sins upon himself, not in order to set us an example that we should imitate but in order to remove from us the burden of sin and death. … We must be crucified with Christ, not strengthened by his example.”
The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel
Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes brilliantly analyze “the first and greatest work of Western political thought.” The books of 1 and 2 Samuel in the Old Testament show how an ambitionless Saul became a paranoid tyrant and an ambitious David loved and was loved by God, but was still a sinner.
The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise
Darío Fernández-Morera punctures the myth of multicultural harmony in medieval Spain among Muslim overlords and Christian or Jewish subjects. He shows how Muslims ran a gangsterlike protection racket, with Christians and Jews paying up and accepting second-class citizenship.
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
Erik Larson re-creates the weeks leading up to 1,198 deaths (mostly civilian) in 1915, when a German submarine torpedoed and sank the luxury liner Lusitania off the coast of Ireland. He masterfully weaves human interest into the history and asks the what-ifs.
You Say You Want a Revolution? Radical Idealism and Its Tragic Consequences
Daniel Chirot takes us through the Russian, German, Iranian, and Chinese revolutions, with a detour to Mexico as well, and shows why they all became bloody tragedies, with the most ruthless killing high-minded reformers: “If you want a revolution, beware.”
The House of Government
Yuri Slezkine’s 1,104 pages of astonishing research shows how Russian revolutionaries dug a pit and fell into it. Andrei Bubnov, the People’s Commissar of Enlightenment, emphasized the need for opponents of Communism to be “squashed like vile vermin,” but did not like being treated like a cockroach himself.
The Order of the Day
Translated from the French, The Order of the Day is Éric Vuillard’s beautifully written short book about an ugly incident, Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria. Vuillard describes those capitulating to Adolf Hitler for short-term gains “like 24 calculating machines at the gates of Hell.”
Stefan Ihrig shows how Turks justified mass murder of Armenians during World War I, and how Hitler in 1939 told his officials they could kill without consequences to them or to Germany: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Moral: When an evil policy “works” and perpetrators go unpunished, other power-seekers will go and do likewise.
Anatomy of a Genocide
Omer Bartov’s masterpiece of ground-level history shows that for more than four centuries in the border town of Buczacz, Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews mostly got along. That quickly changed with World War II, where German soldiers “shot Jews eagerly,” but local volunteers, including Ukrainians and Poles, wanted in.
In Those Nightmarish Days
Two extraordinary Polish journalists came to realize they were on the road to something beyond even their worst nightmares: extermination. Peretz Opoczynski, Josef Zelkowicz, and almost all their subjects died in concentration camps or from starvation. (Germans provided ghetto occupants with a daily allotment of 184 calories.)
Robert Harris’ two key fictional characters interact with Neville Chamberlain, Adolf Hitler, and other leaders during the four days that led to the infamous agreement that would purportedly prevent World War II. Harris makes historical and imagined characters come alive and gives us Chamberlain’s logic in waving a piece of paper that promised “peace in our time,” which made as much sense as President Joe Biden trusting the Taliban. (Derogatory references to Hitler include F-bombs.)
Author Lian Xi describes how Lin Zhao lost faith in the Chinese Communist Party and regained faith in Christ. Chinese officials killed her in 1968, but 13 years later a judge returned to her family hundreds of pages of writings Lin penned in prison with ink and her own blood.
The Wizard and the Prophet
Charles Mann describes how Norman Borlaug persevered through failed experiments and political challenges to increase global grain harvests, while William Vogt, a prophet of population doom, started the modern environmental movement by incorrectly forecasting mass starvation unless we stop being fruitful and multiplying.
Bjorn Lomborg says “global warming is real, but it is not the end of the world. It is a manageable problem.” If we obsess about it, we make children unnecessarily fearful and waste trillions of dollars, crowding out investments in immunization, education, better crop varieties, more fertilizer, and other needs that would save and prosper many more lives.
The Mystery of Life’s Origin: The Continuing Controversy
Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, James Tour, and others give us two books in one: a classic that in 1984 provided the base for the intelligent design movement of the 1990s, and a series of new, cutting-edge chapters that set the stage for a Roaring ’20s decade of scientific advancement.
The Secret Life of Science
Jeremy Baumberg describes a hyper-competitive scientific establishment where researchers build careers by conforming their work to a mainstream vision and gaining grants from vested interests.
The Miracle of the Cell
For centuries “fearfully and wonderfully made” were just words about our bodies from Psalm 139. Now we have proof: Biochemist Michael Denton shows how vast is the chasm between some chemical soup and a cell filled with genetic information encoded in the double helix, and much besides.
Michael Behe explains how the evolutionary process can make a creature look different, but it builds or creates nothing at the genetic level. He highlights new scientific discoveries that show how Darwin’s mechanism works by breaking down genes: devolution, not evolution.
Darwin’s House of Cards
Tom Bethell shows how “Darwin and his contemporaries had no way of knowing just how complex a cell is.” Darwinists today offer bait-and-switches—moths in England changing color, finches developing larger beaks—that depend on listeners not understanding the difference between microevolution and macroevolution.
The Kingdom of Speech
Here’s Tom Wolfe having fun with Darwinism and then linguistic theory. Wolfe sees evolution as a fable for atheists and Charles Darwin as an ambitious but fearful upper-class Brit beaten to the punch on natural selection by the lowly Alfred Russel Wallace.
Purpose & Desire
J. Scott Turner notes that modern Darwinism is an echo chamber: He raises deep questions with a measured tone that will entice scientific materialists to look in the mirror and wonder what they’re missing. Good for those who might be put off by Bethell’s attacks, but we should realize we can’t worship both God and current science dogma.
Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological critique
Those influenced by the well-funded BioLogos campaign to sell macroevolution to Christians should read how neo-Darwinism fails scientifically, with neither the fossil record nor genetics undermining the first two chapters of Genesis. Transitional ape-to-human fossils remain unfound, and humans and chimpanzees are not similar at the genetic level.
Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin: Theological, Biblical, and Scientific Perspectives
Fifteen thoughtful essays in this volume edited by Hans Madueme and Michael Reeves connect the dots of basic Christian teaching and God-breathed science. Nothing in oversold Darwinian theory forces us to give up the Biblical teaching that “because Adam first sinned, we all participate in that one sin, and as a result we are all in the same sinking boat”—with only Christ keeping us afloat.
Return of the God Hypothesis
New this year: the third in Stephen Meyer’s excellent beyond-Darwin trilogy, following up Signature in the Cell (2009) and Darwin’s Doubt (2013). Meyer summarizes the new evidence from biology and physics and shows that those with a “Science is Real” sign on their lawns should logically put a “God is Real” sign next to it.
Pro-Choice or Pro-Life?
Randy Alcorn’s succinct work is my new, inexpensive (Kindle price: 99 cents) go-to book for—here comes the subtitle—Examining 15 Pro-Choice Claims: What Do Facts & Common Sense Tell Us? Among the claims Alcorn swats away: The unborn child is not a person, has no right to live off the body of another person, and should be killable when rape, incest, or disability are factors.
Why the Reformation Still Matters
Michael Reeves and Tim Chester explain that no one tried harder than Martin Luther to earn his own salvation, but he had to learn that “you do not know God because you were cleverer than other people or have greater spiritual insight or spend more time in contemplation. You know God because he has graciously revealed himself to you in the message of the cross. It is an act of grace. … Sunny stories of how basically good we are, so attractive in their cheeriness, are actually terrible, enslaving lies.”
The Gospel Comes with a House Key
Our homes are not our own but belong to Christ, who has paid the mortgage with His blood—and Rosaria Butterfield shows how we can use “radical, ordinary hospitality” to turn houses from fortresses to hospitals for the wounded.
What Does the Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality?
Solid exegesis and tight writing make Kevin DeYoung’s What Does the Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality? stand out in the crowded field of books about LGBT issues. DeYoung faithfully explains the hard-hitting words in Genesis 19, Leviticus 18 and 20, Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, and 1 Timothy 1, and also shows that the underlying question concerns the authority of the Bible and its entire grand narrative.
Paul Miller’s explanation of the Christian life is so simple, it’s brilliant: The Christian life is shaped like a capital J. You descend on the left and rise on the right. Not just once but again and again, the everyday Christian life is dying to convenience, worldly success, and approval, only to be resurrected into repentance, humility, and hope.
The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto Against the Status Quo
Jared C. Wilson articulately points out problems in many “seeker” or “attractional” churches that emphasize self-improvement or life-enhancement: “If the purpose of worship is to feel good, we stop worshiping God.” He notes, “Preaching even a ‘positive’ practical message with no gospel-centrality amounts to preaching the law. … Don’t treat the Bible as an instruction manual. Treat it as a life preserver.”
What About Evil?
Scott Christensen comes as close as any human can to explaining why bad things happen. He shows how God is the master Playwright whose storytelling we creatures strive to imitate. God’s long-range perspective is apparent in His support of marriage and criticism of adultery, which can provide a fleeting buzz.
Living Life Backward
David Gibson reminds us how we should act at funerals. Instead of racing away to resume our normal activities, we should linger, realize it will all too soon be our turn, and ask ourselves, “What will my life have been worth?” Realizing that life is finite pushes us not to morbidity but to an eagerness to use each day for God’s glory.
The Compelling Community: Where God’s Power Makes a Church Attractive
Co-authors Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop distinguish the subtle but significant difference between a “gospel-plus” community and a “gospel-revealing” community: The first facilitates comfort-based relationships rooted in the gospel plus something else, while the latter builds relationships between people who have little in common other than Christ.
Theodicy of Love: Cosmic Conflict and the Problem of Evil
John Peckham takes a deep dive into the coexistence of divine omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence with human freedom and rampaging evil. This theodicy goes beyond free-will defenses and does not see evil as evidence of a weak God.
Kelly Kapic emphasizes that our hope is in God “who made and redeemed heaven and earth, not in our own intellectual acuity.” He asks Christians to mix hope and lament in faithful suffering, rather than emphasizing hope with no lament (that’s naïve optimism), lament with no hope (“unrelenting despair”), and neither hope nor lament (“detached stoicism”).
Matthew McCullough asks, “How can you enjoy anything about life if you know that, in the end, the more you love something the more it will hurt when you lose it?” Buddhists say the answer is nonattachment to anyone and anything. McCullough shows how Christians can see that bid for support and raise it through Christ’s promise of eternal life.
Black River and Eden Mine
Author Sarah Hulse writes about personal change in these two wonderfully crafted novels. In an interview published in this year’s June 26 issue, she said, “I write about very flawed characters in very difficult situations, and the possibility of redemption is central.” (Some bad language reveals character under pressure.)
Anne Tyler’s retelling of The Taming of the Shrew features good writing and good praise of marriage. The orphaned protagonist, Pyotr, once stayed at a friend’s house and heard from a distance the parents sitting in their living room. “Wife said, ‘Mumble mumble?’ Husband said, ‘Mumble.’” Pyotr asks Kate, who at first uses shrewish language, “You would maybe sit sometimes in this living room with me? You would say, ‘Mumble?’ And I would say, ‘Mumble mumble.’” Kate finally says, “We could do that sometimes.”
Min Jin Lee’s moving multigenerational saga of Koreans in Japan provides a positive view of Christianity. It’s a modern rendition of Hosea, which Lee summarized this way in our WORLD interview (June 30, 2018): “God tells Hosea, a perfectly nice guy, go marry the town slut. … God says, ‘I want you to do it, Hosea, so you’ll know what it’s like when you cheat on me.’ What an interesting, very troubling idea.” (Some scenes of adultery, and bad characters speak crudely.)
The Book of Strange New Things
Michel Faber’s main character is an addict-turned-missionary who knows that Jesus saved him, so he wants to save the inhabitants of a planet far from Earth, Oasis. The Oasans have already heard of Jesus and many of them ardently believed: They now call themselves “Jesus Lover One” or “Jesus Lover 30,” in order of when they made professions of faith. They yearn for more teaching from the Bible, which they call “the book of strange new things.” (Warning: Sex on page 8—between a husband and wife just before he heads to the distant galaxy—and some later cautions.)
And here’s one final recommendation:
Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing
This is the book I’d want every historian and in-depth journalist to read. Robert Caro explains how he researched his vivid books: “Turn over every page” in libraries, and (when interviewing) “keep saying, What would I see? Sometimes these people get angry because I’m asking the same question over and over again. If you just keep doing it, it’s amazing what comes out of people.”
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