At the start of 2019 I set myself the target of 50 books this year. The glorious invention of Audible makes that possible, but it would still mean doubling my 2018 total. I have to confess I only managed 40, but there have been some inspiring and intriguing reads along the way. Here’s my run down of my top 12, in the order I read them (apart from the last!)
- The Hacking of the American mind – Robert H Lustig.
When John Mark Comer mentioned this in passing in his excellent podcast ‘This Cultural Moment’, it’s topic intrigued me. Lustig, a Medical Doctor, explains the difference between the two neurotransmitters, Serotonin and Dopamine. I’m not qualified to explain the science, but basically our body’s production of Serotonin is linked to contentment and Dopamine is linked to pleasure (reward). I’ve spent a lot of time this year contrasting joy and happiness and Lustig’s explanations have been very helpful. Key highlights: (a) The danger that big business uses our addiction to dopamine for marketing, but causes mental health challenges. (b) The 4 ‘C’s which produce Serotonin; connect, contribute, cope and cook.
2. Johannes Hartl – Heart Fire.
Any book full of stories that build faith that consistent intercessory prayer brings change and ignites a passion to pray is a good book. Hartl is primarily a story teller and shares an adventure into deeper relationship with God and establishing the Augsburg House of Prayer, using key questions about prayer to navigate the story. Hartl is a Roman Catholic, his church culture and worship traditions are very different from mine, but as he shares his encounters God’s power and love, those contrasts become refreshing and grew my heart for unity.
3. Covenant and Conversation, Genesis – Jonathan Sacks
My next top read was someone a step even further outside my culture and tradition, the masterful, extraordinary Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. I actually read 3 of his books this year (Not in God’s Name and his Daily readings of Exodus as well as this one). Each chapter is a reflection on the weekly readings of the Torah. I just love the way he thinks, writes and understands the world, Sacks is such a big-picture and clear thinker, wonderfully wise, deeply rooted in scripture. His summaries are hugely quotable with majestic statements about the world, rooted in a deep faith. Reading Sacks has grown my understanding of Judaism and love for the Bible. He enabled me to rediscover Genesis in such a fresh way that we did an autumn preaching series on it.
4. Greater Things – Paul Harcourt/Ralph Turner
As someone with a leadership role in New Wine I felt obliged to read this book before United (our summer conferences). I’m so glad I did. The story of NewWine captures the early fresh excitement of growth and life as the Holy Spirit was welcomed anew into churches across the UK and a family with a shared encounter grew through loving healthy relationships. The book nicely balances anecdote, history and reflections on what God has done, linking various parts of NewWine together. It also helpfully shares some of the story behind our core values and gives a steer for the years ahead. I found my hope for God’s Spirit to transform the church in England (& beyond) grew as I reflected on the story so far, knowing that its a story we’re living in, that has only just begun.
5. How to Pray – Pete Grieg (Audible version)
I nearly didn’t listen to this one, proudly thinking “I’ve read 30+ books on prayer and it looks a bit basic”. But 3 things changed my mind. I was introducing Pete’s seminar at New Wine United, my 11 year old wanted to listen to it and I’m writing a book on intercession myself, so wanted to read what’s live in the church right now. In the end Pete became my daily companion on my dog walks through the summer and I adored this book. As we saw in Red Moon Rising and Dirty Glory, Pete is a masterful story teller, a humble inspiration and quite simply a gift to the church. This book is very accessible to brand new believers, but has theological depth for those who have sought to know God for decades. Once again, the fruit in my life from reading this book has been enlivened faith and greater intimacy with God.
6. The second Mountain – David Brooks
At another New Wine United seminar, Anita Cleverly, quoted the first paragraph of this book. ‘Every once in a while, I meet a person who radiates joy. These are people who seem to glow with an inner light. They are kind, tranquil, delighted by small pleasures, and grateful for the large ones…’ I was hooked. Having read Richard Rohr’s stunning book ‘Falling upwards’ (twice), in my early 40s, the first half/second half of life thesis is one I find helpful. Brooks is a skilled writer, (a New York Times columnist). He grabbed my attention with a vision of a better world and the intrigue of answers to the immaturity of our culture. With skilful broad brush strokes, intricate anecdotes and personal vulnerability his exploration of vocation, ambition, relationships and changed priorities is full of wisdom and faith.
7. Dissolution – CJ Sansom
Audible has changed my life! I’ve listened to 174hrs of fiction this year (10 novels) I tend to only read paper novels on holiday and listen through the year. My wife Nells loves this, I’ve cleaned up the kitchen so much more now that I can ‘read’ whilst I’m doing it. I’ve chosen just one, which is the first in Sansom’s Shardlake series having seen so many people reading them on trains. I now understand the hype. Shardlake is a very empathetic character, there’s enough history to feel you learn something, ecclesiology to make me ponder and plot to keep you gripped. Every now and then a book makes me want to wash up, just so I can hear what happens next.
8. The Ruthless elimination of hurry – John Mark Comer
This was published in the States a day before the UK, and I was in New York, so just to amuse myself with the irony, I rushed out to buy my copy late at night before the UK release. (I was rewarded, the USA edition has a lovely red cover). I’ve enjoyed all John Mark’s books, and found this even more readable, relaxed and accessible. He diagnoses the issues of hurry in our culture, challenges the grip of tech on our lives and points us to Jesus for restored ways to live. A great deal of this I’d heard him teach before at New Wine and on podcasts, but I needed to hear it again and integrate it into my life.
9. The Spy and the Traitor – Ben MacIntyre
Utterly brilliant! A thrilling biography of Cold War spy Oleg Gordievsky, working deep in the KGB, spying for British intelligence. The story is beautifully told, with an expert balance of biography, intrigue, psychological insight and dramatic tension. Very different from most books I read/listen to, this also had me washing up, or longing for my next long car journey.
10. Failure of nerve – Edwin Freidman
When enough leaders you respect are quoting a book, you start to pay attention. I’d come to realise that Freidman’s work is seminal in contemporary understanding of leadership and his phrase a ‘non-anxious presence’ appears all over the place. His opening analysis of the mess of contemporary culture had me turning back to the inside sleeve multiple times to check when he wrote it (it was first published just after his death in 1996). Friedman brilliantly analyses our ‘quick fix culture’, and is piercing in his critique of reactivity, herding, obsession with data and blame. Like many good leadership books, I was delighted to see someone diagnose the issues of our culture with such clarity. Friedman’s proposal is that leaders need to combat the underlying anxiety of our society and do so through ‘self-defining’. There are times for me he pushes too far towards a free reign for leaders being narcissistic autocrats, (maybe based on my negative experiences of such leaders) so this needs careful reading, and comes with a health warning of taking to extremes, or using to self-justify. But as a corrective to the ills of our society and call to clarity and courage in leadership, there is inspiration here. (But if you want to justify being a narcissistic autocrat, then please read the Bible instead of this!)
11. Ambition – Emma Ineson
This book was only published 3 weeks ago. Emma has brilliantly captured a key issue in the church today. We want to be strategic and envisioned, we want to see growth and fruit, without throwing away the core humility and surrender which scripture teaches us. I loved reading a book by a leader who works in a church and tradition I am familiar with, addressing issues I can so easily identify with. (I found her reflections on the Green report, ‘talent pool’ particularly intriguing, but that’s another blog). Emma writes in a winsome, honest and non-anxious manner, her use of parenthesis and inverted commas is very witty. The final chapter on the beatitudes beautifully brings us back to core values taught by Jesus, it cut me to the heart, challenging my selfish ambition, whilst releasing me in peace at how God created me.
12. The Bible
Always my first read of the day, the foundation of my life and lamp to guide my path. I try to read it cover to cover every year, I’ve lost count but aiming for 50 times through in my lifetime. This year I chose the New Living Translation, which I’ve found very readable. It’s not my place to review God’s Word, suffice to say, it is the foundation of my life, the true revelation of God’s character and day after day He uses it to speak, to direct, correct and make sense of the crazy world we live in.