Joel Wentz

contending for thoughtful Christianity

The 8 Best Books I Read in 2018

Reading is a big part of my life. It’s how I interact with big ideas, historic and cultural trends, and how I sharpen my own thinking. For me, reading regularly (I aim for a 60-90 minutes every day) is a rough equivalent to showing up at the gym or running. It’s a discipline, and is both improved and more enjoyable with regular practice. Out of the 96 books I read in 2018, here are the 8 that have stuck with me the most (in chronological order, according to when I read them).

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari

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Harari is an historian of the highest caliber. He makes no pretense to be a simple modernistic-objective-observer of historical data, but acknowledges the inevitable role that the writer must play in interpreting the data he is collecting. The question then becomes, “how compelling is the historian’s interpretation?” And for my money, Harari paints one of the most interesting, sweeping accounts of human history, putting forward fascinating explanations for the rise of economic systems, religious thought, and cultural trends, all in an accessible package that is hard to put down.

Stamped From the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram Kendi

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I knew this would be a hard book to read, simply because of the nature of the subject matter, but I was shocked by how Kendi handles such painful material in both a gracious and bold manner. The book is painstakingly researched and footnoted, and Kendi proposes a crucially important innovation in conversation around race in our country’s history. Instead of utilizing the typical two-category system for historic thought (racist and anti-racist), Kendi proposes a third stream that has been present in both white and black intellectuals throughout American history: assimilationist. This seemingly simple move opens up a radical new category for understanding the legacies of racial doctrine, and it’s a profoundly helpful move for parsing out the complexities of figures like MLK and W.E.B. DuBois. This is an essential text for anyone who wants to get a firmer grasp on the history of race in America.

Paul: A Biography by N.T. Wright

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I’ve been a massive fan of Tom Wright for years. His historical acumen, paired with a pretty theologically conservative framework, make him a unique figure in mainstream scholarship. He also has an amazing ability to write both complex, academic work as well as approachable, breezy, popular-level writing. His biography of Paul lies somewhere between these two poles, and to my mind, is the perfect level of accessibility. There is a narrative here, which does give a sense of “life” to the book, but Wright also isn’t trying to write a novel. The result is a deeply-informed, hypothetical proposal of how Paul’s life may have unfolded, and the context in which his famous writings were produced. For anyone interested in the enigmatic writer of over half the New Testament, or anyone who has adopted the popularly-accepted, negative view of St. Paul, this book is an absolute must-read.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

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As this list makes evident, one of my major interests is the history of race in America, and more broadly, the West. I had always heard that Malcolm X is one of the more misunderstood figures who stands in the middle of this history, and now that I’ve read his autobiography, I too see him in a new light. Here was a bold, uncompromising visionary, who was courageous in the face of (literally) life-threatening work, was willing to be misunderstood, but was also humble and able to change his deeply-held views when corrected. MLK is rightly praised for his work in the Civil Rights era, but we ignore Malcolm at our peril. I recommend this for anyone who thinks they have an idea of the man behind the reputation, but hasn’t read his words directly.

The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt

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I picked up this book both because I’m a fan of Jonathan Haidt (the Righteous Mind is one of my all-time favorites), and because it is focused on what is happening with the increasingly fracturing and divisive culture of universities today (I spend most of my time on university campuses). I was blown away by the case that Haidt and Lukainoff lay out, and found that it not only explained what I’m seeing on-campus, but in fact could be applied to the entirety of our culture right now. Their work draws on subjects like history, psychology, sociology and politics to make a comprehensive argument, and they propose hopeful, practical steps for moving forward. For anyone who has been scratching their head at the vitriol around subjects like race, social justice, gender, or sexuality, or for people (like me) who have just felt like “something is off” in our cultural moment, this is an essential read.

Guns, Germs & Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

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I can vividly remember asking a friend in high school, “Why were Europeans the first ones to come up with the technology necessary to cross the ocean?” Notwithstanding the fact that the assumptions this question rests on aren’t actually true (the Chinese had a much more advanced navy, much earlier in history), the fact that I was asking it, and the fact that my friend didn’t have an answer, are emblematic of the problematic way we popularly understand world history. There is a very pernicious, underlying assumption of “white-European” superiority that props up our own understanding of how and why history unfolded the way it did, and Jared Diamond takes a ruthless axe to the root of that tree in his masterful book. In the place of this popular narrative, he proposes a painstakingly-researched case for why Mesopotamia, followed quickly by Europe and parts of Asia, developed things like farming, domestication, writing and technological innovation before the rest of the world. His argument doesn’t contain a shred of racial doctrine, and in fact, is one of the best antidotes to this harmful way to understand the world. For anyone who found themselves pondering the question at the beginning of this paragraph, you absolutely must read Jared Diamond.

Faith in the Shadows by Austin Fischer

I grew up conservative-Evangelical, and in that subculture, especially if you’re a people-pleaser like me, you learn that it’s simply easier to avoid asking thorny questions. Questions like, “Why exactly does the earth need to be 10,000 years old?” or “How exactly is God still ‘good’ if he doesn’t stop genocide and throws people into eternal torment?” Austin Fischer is a pastor who not only understands the emotional weight of these questions, but has genuinely asked them himself. In his courageous book, he faces them head-on, and gives the reader permission to do the same. The result is a powerful meditation on what exactly it means to be a faithful Christian when answers to all the above questions simply can’t pull you through.

A Severe Mercy: A Story of Faith, Tragedy, and Triumph by Sheldon Vanauken

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Sheldon Vanauken’s masterpiece has been on my reading radar for years, and oh, how I wish I had read it before now. It’s a well-known work, so it hardly needs me to defend it, or to explain why you should read it, but it is truly one of the most moving accounts of love, loss, faith, and doubt that I have ever read. Vanauken’s command of language (he is a poet) makes an already-powerful story overflow with beautiful and evocative imagery. His meditations on theological ideas are equally captivating and memorable, and the first-hand correspondence with C.S. Lewis (letters are included throughout the book) is simply a cherry-on-top of a book that could stand on its own.



8 Honorable Mentions:

Becoming Dallas Willard: The Formation of a Philosopher, Teacher & Christ-Follower by Gary Moon

Enlightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress by Steven Pinker

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown

The Magicians Trilogy by Lev Grossman

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction by John Fea

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context by Myron Penner