For the first time, we're running some end of year books coverage to pair up with our Eliot Awards. That being said, in the spirit of Mere Orthodoxy, we are doubling up on old book recommendations to pair with a few recommendations on new books. So below we have 23 book recommendations to wrap up 2023: Eight new books, all recommended by me. Then we have 15 old book recommendations solicited from contributors and friends to our work. We hope they are a blessing to you as you close out the year and that they might help you begin your new year's reading well.
Eight New Books
(all recommended by Jake Meador)
A Quiet Mind to Suffer With by John Andrew Bryant
This is my book of the year.
The subtitle—mental illness, trauma, and the death of Christ—actually undersells it. The book is an extended meditation on sin and angst and the internal disquiet we all experience and is one of the best and most rigorous applications of the Gospel to that problem I've yet encountered. Read it.
Andrew is a very annoying person. He's a pastor with a PhD in theology. He's written an excellent book on Exodus and another great one on disability and parenting. And then amidst all of that he comes out with my favorite history book of the year which evinces a doctoral level of research throughout. So he's talented and lovely to talk to and a good friend and I have nothing bad to say about him. But when you're a writer having a writer friend like him can be very annoying. It's like when I was trying and failing to learn German and my roommate who already had Hebrew started being able to read academic German after a summer intensive. I was happy for him and pleased to see him doing good work. And also he was annoying. That's all I'm saying.
Anyway: The book is fantastic. I've told people that it's a useful corrective in some ways to the usual evangelical historiographical "how we got here" genre book because Andrew is attentive to material factors that drive historical change in ways that more idealist evangelical critics often are not. But he manages to have the materialist concern without losing the ideas. It's a marvel. Go read it.
“More than any resource I know, Sacred Seasons makes following the Christian calendar approachable and enjoyable. This book is meticulously researched and theologically robust—it will be an enormous blessing to anyone who wants to enter more deeply into the rhythms of grace God has given his church.”
This is what Brad Littlejohn said:
This is a beautiful, invigorating, one-of-a-kind book. In an age of praise songs and fog machines, retrieving the church calendar can feel like little more than nostalgic play-acting. Yet the liturgical rhythms have provided a firm anchor for Christian devotion throughout the centuries. Danielle Hitchen has provided a rich treasure to the church in this historically informed, immensely practical how-to guide that offers us baby steps back into spiritual disciplines and promises to root us more deeply in God's grace and communion with our fellow saints.
All of that is absolutely 100% accurate. Pick it up and get started with it in January. You won't regret it.
Samuel's book is helpful because it is able to reach behind many of the current fights we are having in politics and culture. Until we reckon with the technological drivers of our moment, we aren't really going to get anywhere. James's book explains that problem quite well and offers some ideas for a way forward.
While the "liturgies" framing is, admittedly, somewhat overdone at this point, I think this particular application of it actually worked very well. So don't be put off by that. The way he uses it is instructive and quite appropriate.
The Great Dechurching by Michael Graham and Jim Davis
There are many, many wrong ideas out there right now about the place of religion in American life: The dominant driver of dechurching is abusive churches. The most common intellectual shift in people who dechurch is toward progressivism. American churches are basically doing fine and the noise about dechurching is largely just a digital artifact, not something tied to life on the ground in local churches.
All of those things are wrong.
The reality is that the biggest drivers of dechurching right now are changes of life, above all moving to a new place. More people dechurch into a secular right wing ideology than progressivism. And the current dechurching wave is the single biggest shift in churchgoing practice in American history.
Graham and Davis will walk you through the data from the study they did with Ryan Burge and then offer application to help call people back to church. And that's another misconception, by the way: Most people who have stopped attending church are actually willing to come back.
I will always have a soft spot for Pearcey's work for the simple reason that reading Total Truth while I was a student at L'Abri was such a significant experience for me. What I appreciate about Pearcey is that, like Wilson, she is attentive to material factors driving historical change and, like all of the other authors on this list, she isn't bothered by taking up stances that run against her own "tribe." She thinks for herself and is a meticulous researcher.
This book is no different. One thing I found especially helpful but also alarming: Pearcey noted first that there is a sharp dissonance culturally between how we think of "real men" vs "good men." The former are often moral abysses but they display a certain kind of chest-thumping bravado that many associate with masculinity. The latter is honorable, devoted, and principled, but often despised culturally for precisely those reasons, and this applies as much within many churches as it does the culture.
The other point she made: There is a sharp gap in behavior between self-identified evangelical men who don't go to church (they are statistically the most likely group in most studies to engage in domestic abuse) and evangelical men who do attend church (statistically the least likely to be abusive). At a time when many in the young Christian right are making their peace with manosphere internet Nazis, those two facts fill me with dread. But we owe Pearcey a debt for helping to document not only these two points, but many others.
Every writer doing worthwhile work is going to be influenced by a mixture of authors they're reading and friends they've made. For me the authors have always been people like Berry and Tolkien. But my oldest intellectual friend who has probably taught me the most that a friend can about how to think, how to ask questions, how to patiently reflect, is Matt Anderson. If you want to learn to do those things well or you want to help others learn to do those things well, read his book.
One of my friends calls them "reality observers." By that, he means "authors who are not Christian but are looking around at the world, recognizing what is real, what is happening to what is real, and are trying to do something to address it."
Mary Harrington is one of the best examples of this. Her book will give you some language to name the specific problems we're now facing around gender in more specific and clear (and less ideological) terminology and will help you be able to discern how to course correct and have better conversations with others about these essential topics. If I hadn't read Bryant late in the year, this probably would have been my pick for book of the year. It's that good.
For our purposes here, we are defining as "old" anything older than Mere Orthodoxy, meaning pre-2005. In one case the book, A Failure of Nerve, came out after 2005 but was released after the author had died in the 90s and his literary executors edited together his notes.
In A Return to Modesty, Shalit delivers scathing judgments on the failures of the sexual revolution ahead of her time. Shalit, writing in the mid-1990's, questions norms that had governed American society for the past generation. She ties the stark rise in female anxiety, depression, and unhappiness to blatant oversexualization and loss of an old-fashioned virtue, modesty.
For Shalit, modesty is not simply a set of rules, although she wrestles with her conservative Jewish background and practices, but a self-regard that women must cultivate. Her frank tone is balanced by her remarkable knowledge of classic literature and philosophy. Although Shalit was a college student when I was born, I've returned to this book countless times to inform my own critiques despite writing decades later. Parents and teens alike should use this book to inform current discussions about Instagram, Tik Tok, and coming of age in a time where female exposure is currency.
Maurice and Thérèse contains the correspondence between Saint Thérèse of Lisieux and a young French priest preparing for overseas missions. Translated, edited, and interspersed with historical and theological commentary by Patrick Ahern, it is an exquisite, heartbreaking window on a spiritual friendship between two youthful lovers of Christ. Reading these letters of Thérèse, one sees anew the beauty of her little way, the fire of her affection for Christ, and the reason why so many continue to covet and treasure her example and voice and prayers to this day.
CS Lewis famously commented that, given the choice of reading a new book or an old book, the latter are to be preferred. In our fascination with the latest and greatest, we often miss the good, the true, and the lasting.
If you’re not familiar with Gregory the Great’s “Pastoral Care” (vol. 11 in the Ancient Christian Writers series published by Newman Press in 1950) I’d suggest you have a look. At first I was tempted to dismiss a papal treatise out of hand. That was until I read that his Regula Pastoralis was the definitive work on the care of souls for a thousand years. Doing the math (he died in 604 A.D.), that takes you into the Reformation era. Sure enough, I discovered that threads of Gregory’s work can be found in Luther’s pastoral writings. And his insights inform quality pastoral care to this day. Here’s but one gem, which I cited in my book on pastoral care:
That man is an enemy to his Redeemer who on the strength of the good works he performs, desires to be loved by the Church, rather than by Him. Indeed, a servant is guilty of adulterous thought, if he craves to please the eyes of the bride when the bridegroom sends gifts to her by him.
A young boy rages against his peers with fists and words. An ordinary counselor focuses on the boy. But Rabbi Edwin Freidman took a different approach: let's focus on the family system. He argued that the boy's behavior was less a function of his psyche and more a function of latent anxiety in his family system. Change the system, change the boy. To do that, Friedman needed to help a system member become a non-anxious presence—someone who's connected to others without being controlled by their emotions.
Years later, Friedman began to explore what happens if we apply the same theory to the lost boys and girls of highly reactive public discourse. Might their bad behavior and naughty words be a function of something more than individual neurosis? In his posthumously published A Failure of Nerve, Freidman theorizes the answer is yes, explaining how culturewide anxiety infects the body politic and proposing how to develop a vaccine: non-anxious leadership. Since its publication, Friedman's work has proven prescient in all the worst ways. The social internet is an anxiety supercharger, generating so much electric fear that the already-weak institutional transformers all popped, plunging society into a paranoid darkness where the most anxious leaders gain the biggest followings and reign supreme. The good news is that his prescription was as helpful as his diagnosis: institutional survival requires a resurgence of non-anxious leadership. A Failure of Nerve is still the best guide for creating such leaders.
I think a lot about Christian witness, and the form that takes as the church. George Lindbeck'sNature of Doctrineblew the lid off of this question for me this last year. Though he takes as his starting point the question of ecumenism- how cross-Christian dialogue "works"- the book is really a description of various "forms" of religious expression.
The primary question asks what it is that religion is "doing", and what it means for ecumenical dialogue when we differ on the answer to this question. The question bears weight today because it is my estimation that the American church is working under a faulty assumption regarding what the church "does"; this book helped me name some of those assumptions.
G. C. Berkouwer (1903-1996) was a Dutch Reformed theologian who taught at the Free University of Amsterdam, occupying the seat previously held by Herman Bavinck. Berkouwer was a prominent interlocutor of Karl Barth and was a formal observer of the Second Vatican Council. Faith and Justification is the first installment in his influential “Studies in Dogmatics” series. 70 years after its publication, it remains a relevant and accessible, yet penetrating, consideration of the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone.
Faith and Justification treats the historic Reformation doctrine of justification while charitably engaging post-Reformation developments of Roman Catholic theology and the emergence of the dialectical theologies of the 20th century. Its continued helpfulness in the 21st century rests in Berkouwer’s refreshing marriage of careful exegesis and his emphasis, not on a doctrinal system, but upon the relationship of the living God to his people by their union with Jesus Christ.
Protestants keep complaining about their need for a "theology of the body." Developing one starts with reading the resources we already have. Oliver O'Donovan's BegottenorMade?remains one of the most substantive, serious treatments of bioethical questions Protestant moral theology has produced in the past thirty years. It is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand how the Gospel might intersect with the many challenges that beset us on every side. (Disclosure: I wrote the foreward to the second edition.)
Everyone knows Adam Smith as the author of The Wealth of Nations, and either celebrates or censures him accordingly as a chief architect of liberal individualism and the ideal of man as homo economicus. Smith himself, however, was far prouder of his achievement in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, which he saw as critical for understanding his later work in political economy. In it, he presents man not as an individualistic utility-maximizer, but as a thoroughly social animal who is instinctively drawn to his fellow human beings, feeling their pain and sharing their joy.
The result is a profound work of social psychology and moral theory that, while sometimes seen as a fountainhead of modern moral subjectivism, actually exhibits far more continuity with the classical Christian natural law tradition than one might expect.
Surely we've all heard the old joke that goes, "Two princesses and a minor deity walk into an invisible palace. The one sister looks around and says to the god, 'I see what you did there,' and the other sister just looks confused." No? Maybe it's a regional thing.
In any case, C.S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces deals with it all: faith and reason, philosophy and theology, existential angst and the seeming silence of God, envy and spite, repentance and forgiveness--and all through the retelling of an ancient pagan fairytale. I had never read it until this fall, and I came away thinking it was one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. Till We Have Faces will haunt you; it will also hallow you.
It’s the nonfiction, Midwestern Moby-Dick. Or: it’s the epic of the Plains. Or: it’s a look at a real-life Port William that also served to help conserve the place when the threat of modernity impinged on it.
Little read today, James C. Russell’s 1994 comparative study of Christian and Germanic religious cultures offers a richly suggestive perspective on contemporary debates. The spirituality of early Christianity, Russell argues, tended to be ascetic, universalistic, and “world-denying,” pointing toward a transcendent final end for human beings. The Germanic tribes, for their parts, had cultivated a quite different religious culture: world-affirming, earthly, particularistic, and lacking a concept of otherworldly salvation.
Hence, Russell submits, the cross-civilizational encounter between Christian missionaries and the Germanic tribes was not merely a Christianization of the pagans. It was also a Germanization of Western Christianity, spurring the development of “a heroic, folk-centered, magicoreligious reinterpretation of Christianity.” In other words: Christians learned how to give theological warrants for fighting and ruling.
Russell’s book is a densely academic study, but invites a host of follow-up questions. How many of the terms we throw around in Christian political theology are only barely baptized Germanic” ideas, left as accommodations to pre-Christian priors? And to what extent are these ideas normative for Western Christians today, as inheritors of that tradition? If nothing else, Russell’s study should spark interest in the political theologies of Christian branches that never underwent this “Germanization.” Modernity might have looked very different indeed.
Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault(Wiley-Blackwell, 1995) is the product of Hadot’s reflection upon a simple fact of much ancient philosophy: it does not proceed in linear, syllogistic fashion as much contemporary philosophy does, but is instead marked by repetition of key concepts, exhortations to the self to keep those concepts often before one’s eyes, reflection upon the lives of noble exemplars, and attempts to explain what it might mean to imitate those exemplars.
From these data points, Hadot theorizes that ancient philosophy ought to be conceived of less as warring schools of speculative thought and more as different ways of conceiving the good and flourishing life: “Ever since I started doing philosophy, I’ve always believed that philosophy was a concrete act, which changed our perspective on the world, and our life: not the construction of a system. It is a life, not a discourse.” Philosophy of this kind was done by those who wanted to cultivate a form of life, rather than to defend a school of thought: “a philosopher was, above all, someone who lived in a philosophical way. In other words, the philosopher was someone whose life was guided by his or her own reason, and who was a practitioner of the moral virtues.”
Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter (in the Tiina Nunnally) translation is... maybe the best term is a domestic epic? The trilogy (The Wreath, The Wife, The Cross) follows Kristin, a woman living in 14th century Norway, from her childhood until her death. Her life is full of incidents (an affair, a marriage, many children, more than one murder, an intense plague) but throughout it all, Undset is as interested in the small movements of Kristin's heart toward or away from God as in their worldly consequences. Throughout her life, Kristin must reckon with how to live rightly amid the family she has built, and one deep sin at its beginning. It's a book whose conclusion has an HBO-worthy body count, but is marked by profound peace, because Kristin walks those final steps with God. It's perfect for reading by firelight during a long, dark winter, waiting attentively for the light.
In the midst of a personal crisis, Auden determined to plumb the depths of the significance of the incarnation for sinful men. He sets the nativity poem in the modern day, bringing us into confrontation with the absurdity and power of God who became man:
How could the Eternal do a temporal act, The Infinite become a finite fact? Nothing can save us that is possible: We who must die demand a miracle.”
If you approach Vanauken's book as a love story, you're only going to half get it. It is a love story. But more than that, it is a conversion story. Within their love, Sheldon and his wife Davy find a world of beauty and joy and delight and they erect what they call "the shining barrier" to protect that world from the world.
And then Oxford happened, or you might say C. S. Lewis happened, or, truest of all, you might say the Hound of Heaven happened. While studying at Oxford, they encountered Christianity, not as a bundle of prejudices associated with small-minded bigots or as a nebulous and utilitarian assortment of superstitions, but as the disclosure of Love Himself. They slowly began to realize something: The world that they protected behind the Shining Barrier couldn't be preserved eternally, indeed it could not even survive this life once they encountered Christ. The world behind the Shining Barrier would have to be offered up to God—and then given back to them by him in its truer, more complete, resurrected form. But the process of offering it up would be painful. Only what dies can be resurrected. The depiction of young love is amongst the best I've ever read. But the chapter titled "The Deathly Snows" is perhaps the best humanly authored thing I've ever read, period.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).