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John Calvin puts forward a very simple reason why love is the greatest gift: “Because faith and hope are our own: love is diffused among others.” In other words, faith and hope benefit the possessor, but love always benefits another. In John 13:34–35 Jesus says, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Love always requires an “other” as an object; love cannot remain within itself, and that is part of what makes love the greatest gift.
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The Books We Enjoyed in 2018

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It shouldn’t be surprising that the editorial staff at The Gospel Coalition enjoys reading. While our team worked diligently to evaluate the Christian market for our annual book awards (see 2018 TGC Book Awards), we also read an eclectic array of titles for professional development, historical awareness, encouragement, and just plain fun. I asked our editorial team to select at least one book they read and would commend to TGC readers.

Joe Carter (Editor)

Chris Voss, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended on It (Harper Business, 2016)

Chris Voss, a former international hostage negotiator for the FBI, developed his skills dealing with bank robbers, kidnappers, and terrorists. But the lessons he offers on negotiation and conflict resolution can be applied to help you communicate better with salespeople, your business colleagues, or even your own kids. Too often, such business books have one, often obvious, idea that’s stretched out for an entire book. But Never Split the Difference includes numerous ideas you can apply immediately—as well as plenty of juicy stories about negotiating with bank robbers, kidnappers, and terrorists.

Neil Gaiman, Norse Mythology (W. W. North & Company, 2017)

The Greeks and Romans are the Coke and Pepsi of mythology—they’re the only brands most Americans know or care about, and they aren’t all that different. If we know anything at all about Norse mythology it’s probably what we’ve picked up from Marvel Comics or while playing Dungeons & Dragons. Neil Gaiman (creator of Coraline and the Sandman comics) shows us what we’ve been missing in his retelling of several stories from the Norse canon. The stories are playfully absurd, and the cast of characters is always entertaining (especially Thor, who’s portrayed as being as thick as Scandinavian ice in the arms and head). I recommend listening to the audiobook, which is read by Gaiman.

Russ Roberts, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness (Portfolio, 2014)

Adam Smith is the most influential economist you’ve (probably) never read. His ideas about the “invisible hand,” free trade, and self-interest have become staples of modern economic thought. Yet his earlier—even less read—work on virtue and “moral sentiments” is essential to understanding how the dross of individual self-interest is spun into the gold of communal prosperity. Russ Roberts, an economist himself, explains how Smith shows us not only why we should be “lovely” but how we can curate the virtues that make us worthy of love. Always engaging and insightful, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life is a “self-help” book in the best sense of the term.

Bennett Hansen (Acts 29 Editor)

Alan Jacobs, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (Currency, 2017)

No book has proven so helpful to me in thinking about what it means to think. Jacobs observes that thinking is hard work, and we’re often unaware of the assumptions that inform our efforts in this realm. Highlighting the differences between intuitive thinking and conscious reflection, he unpacks the importance of slowing down (something we’re not usually good at) in both our thinking and also our responses to others, especially those with whom we disagree. In a polarized, post-truth age, this book is packed full of sharp, timely insight for anyone who wants to learn how to think well.

Kate Fox, Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour (Hodder & Stoughton, 2001)

In my ongoing, feeble attempt to understand the culture I’ve come to reside in as an expat, this book has been a great help. Clever, insightful, and often humorous, Kate Fox provides an in-depth study of English culture. Technically, it’s an anthropology book, but it reads more like a comedy with striking insights into “Englishness.” For anyone who has come to call this small, cold, wet island “home,” Fox’s book will surely prove useful.

Nick Jans, A Wolf Called Romeo (Mariner Books, 2014)

My love of nature writing and wolves made this a highly enjoyable read. Nick Jans tells the true story of Romeo, a black wolf who befriended the dogs and (some of) the residents of Juneau, Alaska. Jans recounts his experience of observing and interacting with a controversial mammal that has long been vilified by some and romanticized by others. Beautifully written, this is a moving account of what can happen when man and wilderness meet.

Collin Hansen (Editorial Director)

Matthew D. Hockenos, Then They Came for Me: Martin Niemöller, the Pastor Who Defied the Nazis (Basic Books, 2018)

Many of us know about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but more famous for dissent in that troubled time was his ministerial colleague Martin Niemöller, who spent World War II in prison on Hitler’s orders. This biography isn’t quite sympathetic with the protagonist, but for that reason it’s full of humanity and complexity that makes for introspective and illuminating reading.

Alicia Chudo (Gary Saul Morson), And Quiet Flows the Vodka: or When Pushkin Comes to Shove (Northwestern University Press, 2000)

Laugh-out-loud funny, this book is also full of potent insights on politics, religion, history, and everything else that makes Russian literature so endlessly fascinating. It’s the perfect antidote to so much academic self-seriousness that masquerades as cutting-edge scholarship.

Joseph Crespino, Atticus Finch: The Biography (Basic Books, 2018)

Now that’s a novel idea: a biography of a fictional figure. But then Atticus Finch isn’t entirely fictional, as Harper Lee based him largely on her own father. Crespino shows how the publication of Go Set a Watchman was a watershed for our entire understanding of Lee and her perspective on race and religion during the civil-rights movement.

Megan Hill (Editor)

Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (Grand Central Publishing, 2016)

I’m no stranger to the demands of a life lived with a jumble of cognitively deep and shallow tasks. I’m a mother. And a Christian. Laundry tumbles on the heels of Bible study, complex work assignments overlap with peanut-butter-sandwich-assembly, and it’s hard to get it all done, let alone produce meaningful results. Enter Deep Work, an extremely practical guide to making the most of your brain, your time, and your energy to more effectively tackle intellectually demanding projects. Newport’s engaging chapters helped me to see where I was needlessly dwelling on mindless tasks (email! group texts!) and where I could squeeze more real thinking into my days. Deep Work isn’t a “Christian” book, but it’s easy to see how worshiping and working more deeply is an eminently Christian goal—one I will continue to pursue for the glory of God in 2019.

Brett McCracken (Senior Editor)

Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country (Scribners, 1948)

Jarring in its beauty as well as its tragedy, this South African fiction classic tells a tale of two families whose paths intersect in ways that reflect the nation’s larger racial tensions, which persist to this day. I read the book on a trip to South Africa in May (which I wrote about for TGC), and it brought vivid context and connection to the country in a manner typical of great literature that is rooted in place.

Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (Yale University Press, 2018)

This was the best 2018-released book I read this year. I loved it not only because I think its thesis is right—that both conservative and progressive versions of liberalism are rooted in a form of radical individualism that will be their undoing—but because its prescriptions, primarily stronger localism and mediating institutions (the sort Yuval Levin talked about in The Fractured Republic), are much-needed.

Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (IVP, 2000)

I read this book in the weeks following Peterson’s death. What a timely treasure. The book’s title and subtitle, “Discipleship in an Instant Society,” say everything about why this is such an essential contemporary classic. Following Jesus is a journey: a specific (narrow and costly) path in which short-cuts, expectations of “best life now” instant gratification, and the tyranny of one’s “authentic” feelings can undermine our growth and mission.

Ivan Mesa (Books Editor)

Robert Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson (Knopf, 1982–)

I’ll cheat here and include all of Robert Caro’s published volumes in The Years of Lyndon Johnson (the fifth and final volume is still outstanding). Caro is a masterful writer and biographer, but it’s not fair to view these as simple biographies; they’re whole examinations of the times and lively accounts of the people. To read a series of books with such depth and clarity is a thrilling experience. Here I’ll consider one of the volumes, The Means of Ascent, which covers the period from 1941 until the 1948 Texas Democratic senatorial primary, between Lyndon Johnson and Coke Stevenson. Caro chronicles Johnson’s “utter ruthlessness . . . and a seemingly bottomless capacity for deceit, deception and betrayal.” The title brilliantly captures not just how LBJ ascended to power, but also the age-old debate over ends and means—how the dark features of LBJ’s character, like his duplicity and ruthlessness (which were rooted in deep insecurity), meshed with and ran parallel to his compassion for the downtrodden (like Johnson’s later passage of civil- and voting-rights laws and the Great Society’s help for those caught in the “tentacles of circumstance”).

Catherine McIlwaine, Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth (Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 2018)

It’s hard to overstate the influence of the Inklings on the shape of today’s cultural and imaginative life. While we grieve that we only have one surviving member of the original group—Tolkien’s son, Christopher, who in the last several decades has edited much of his father’s posthumously published work (don’t miss this exquisite profile of Christopher Tolkien)—latter-day Inklings can rejoice at the publication of Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, which draws together essays on Tolkien’s life, influences, and philology, and reproduces personal photographs and private papers. Tied to this publication, the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City will showcase a Tolkien exhibition from January 25 through May 12, 2019. Not many of us will be able to visit, but this beautifully executed book is a satisfying alternative.

Victor Hugo, Les Miserables (A. Lacroix, Verboeckhoven & Cie, 1862)

I’ve loved the musical version of Les Miserables ever since I was a teenager and overheard “One Day More” in a friend’s car. I’ve even read books about Les Miserables—its history, theology, and themes. So I’m surprised it took me this long to read Victor Hugo’s classic (I think the size intimidated me, so I listened to George Guidall’s narration instead). I treasure this story, and even the many tedious digressions (e.g., history of slang, Battle of Waterloo, prostitution in 18th-century France, the sewer system) invariably pay off, adding texture and pathos to the more dramatic sections of the book. While Hugo’s editorializing throughout the novel is out of fashion today, I appreciate the numerous asides that add moral forcefulness. While Hugo was anticlerical, I appreciate the central role that Christianity plays in Les Miserables, with the bishop serving the key role in the book, and Jean Valjean’s exquisite portrayal of grace (contrasted with Javert’s law). Here is a long, sometimes meandering book that pays rich dividends. I suggest picking up the Julie Rose translation.

Jeff Robinson (Senior Editor)

Bob Spitz, Reagan: An American Journey (Penguin Press, 2018) 

Ronald Reagan was the first president I was privileged to vote for, and he remains my favorite. I’ve read many Reagan biographies, but this latest may be the best. Spitz captures both the tenderness and also toughness of America’s 40th president. This book reminded me of what good leadership looks like—it’s clothed in humility and draws people with winsome, yet uncompromising firmness that never needs to remind those under its leadership that it is indeed in charge.

Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic, Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man (Simon & Schuster, 2018)

This book kept me up late into the night as I read and then turned out the light and pondered the fate of the USS Indianapolis, the 900-plus men who wound up in the shark-infested waters, the 316 who survived, and the court case decades later that sought to exonerate ship captain Charles McVay. Vincent and Vladic present a gripping, deeply detailed (and sometimes disturbing) account of this unthinkable tragedy. If more history were written like this, more readers would delight in engaging the past.

Joe Posnanski, The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip through Buck O’Neil’s America (William Morrow, 2008) 

This is an older book that had been sitting on my shelf for quite a while, but on the urging of a pastor friend I read it this summer and am glad I did. Buck O’Neil is one of the great figures from the old black professional baseball leagues (he was both a player and manager) that thrived, sadly, in obscurity, until Jackie Robinson brought down the color barrier in 1947. This book is about much more than baseball. It’s about an extraordinary man who enjoyed life to the full, pursuing his great loves of baseball and jazz music, and bringing joy to the lives of seemingly everyone he met. O’Neil, who died in 2006 at age 94, was a follower of Christ who dripped the joy of one who was content in his Savior.

Matt Smethurst (Managing Editor)

William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (Simon and Schuster, 1960)

Simply masterful. A sweeping history of Nazi Germany filtered through a journalist’s eyes. Brisk narrative, vivid prose, illuminating explanation—this volume has it all. Best of all, Shirer lived alongside—and in some cases, through—the harrowing events he recounts. (The U.S. foreign correspondent broadcasted from Berlin for several years, from the rise of Nazism through the first year of the war.) Shirer’s journalistic expertise, amplified by firsthand acquaintance with key persons, places, and events in the story, renders The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich a unique and unparalleled work.

Andrew Gross, The One Man: A Novel (Minotaur Books, 2016)

Historical-thriller fiction at its finest, particularly if you’re interested in World War II. Harrowing (most of the story takes place at Auschwitz) and beautiful. Short chapters; fast-moving plot; I couldn’t put it down. There is one brief sex scene, though not too graphic.

Tara Westover, Educated: A Memoir (Random House, 2018)

Difficult to read, impossible to put down. Westover grew up as a fundamentalist Mormon on a mountain in Idaho. She had no birth certificate, never saw a doctor, and didn’t go to school. Now she has a PhD from Cambridge. The story is as heartbreaking as it is astonishing. The Hillbilly Elegy of 2018. 

Sarah Zylstra (Senior Writer)

Jean Twenge, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (Atria Books, 2017)

Packed with surveys and statistics, Jean Twenge’s book explains the general characteristics of the generation rising up after the Millennials. The first wave of iGen, who grew up with screens, are now in college and entering the workforce. College faculty and employers I’ve spoken to confirmed this book’s observations, from fewer teen pregnancies to more anxiety to less spirituality. For parents, teachers, or youth workers, iGen offers a clear look at how smartphones have drastically affected an entire generation.


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