Great Reads of 2021: A Reading Year in Review

Another year of pandemic misery = another fabulous year for books! Indeed, books carried me on a magic carpet ride high above the madness all year long. So, my annual review is a tad long this year. If you don’t want to skim the whole post, feel free to use these links to jump to your favorite genres or topics: Faith, Biblical Gender Roles & Church Abuse, Memoir & Biography, History, Politics & Culture, Fiction.

My Top Six Picks

In a crowded field of excellence, what makes one book stand out? When a book fundamentally shifts my perspective or understanding of a topic, when I can’t stop talking about it to my bibliophile friends, when the beauty of the language stops me dead and I go back to reread passages for the sheer glory of the prose….well, those are the books that make the cut. Here are my 2021 Top 6, in no particular order (reviews in their respective sections):

Faith

You’ll notice my reading centered around faith topics this year. This reflects an intentional commitment to deepen my faith by exploring perspectives beyond my own comfortable bubble and life experience. What a rich journey, seeing faith through the lens of history, other ethnicities, and other religious traditions!

Prayer in the Night by Tish Harrison Warren ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. Tish Harrison Warren is an Anglican priest, and this book explores “Compline,” an ancient nighttime prayer. As someone far removed from liturgical faith traditions, who nonetheless craves liturgy, this book nourished my soul in a dark season. Warren imbues her own personal vulnerability with deep theological truth in nearly poetic prose. This was my “most-gifted” book of 2021 — simply too good not to share. Not surprisingly, Christianity Today also named it their Book of the Year.

Abuelita Faith by Kat Armas ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. The great joy of reading is that in enables you to live many different lives, vicariously. Kat Armas, a second generation Cuban American, adroitly weaves stories of the women in her family and women from the Bible to celebrate what these women “on the margins” have contributed to a legacy of faith. By liberally employing her native Spanish language, readers experience the full richness of Cuban culture. My one criticism is that she avoids using gendered pronouns in reference to God, and I found that awkward and silly. I understand the point she’s trying to make, but it was jarring and distracting. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book. As one who treasures my own legacy of faith handed down through generations of women on the margins, I found these stories as warm and inviting as my Granny’s hugs.

Love Does by Bob Goff ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. When the world gets you down, pick up a Bob Goff book. He never fails to restore my hope in the power of faith and love. In each short chapter, Bob tells a personal story of he lives his faith in ordinary encounters with people. Bob is a radical, but he sounds so normal…. I think that may be the point. Radical love should just be normal for Jesus followers.

Love Makes Room by Staci Frenes ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. I loved the honest vulnerability of this book. Staci Frenes doesn’t flinch from the turmoil she and her husband experienced when their 16-year-old daughter told them she was gay. In their evangelical world, there was no room for a gay child, no roadmap for how to navigate a future they had not imagined. But they figured it out, through soul searching, awkward conversations, and even humor. They learned that love makes room.

Every Moment Holy, Volume 1 by Douglas McKelvey ⭐⭐⭐⭐. Liturgy, those communal rituals of worship, captivated me this year. This little volume includes poignant prayers to accompany the most mundane elements of our daily routines. I loved the discipline of seeing the holy in the ordinary, and celebrating it with beautiful prose. One liturgy in particular soothed my pain this year: a liturgy for those facing the slow loss of memory. As I lost my sweet mama piece by piece this year, I read this liturgy often, never without tears. Here’s an excerpt:

Though I know nothing else,

still let me know you.

And if a morning dawns

when I can no longer name you

or remember to call on you,

be more immediately present to me then

than my own confusion, than my own breath.

Be to me a peace and a light

and an abiding sense that I am loved and held

and that all will be well.

Biblical Gender Roles & Church Abuse

I did a deep dive into biblical gender roles this year, partly because it’s been a subject of concern for me for years, and partly because I’m sick to death of one after another sexual abuse scandal coming out of evangelical churches. Surely there’s a connection between patriarchy and abuse, right? And yet, we act so surprised every time another scandal comes to light. I haven’t completed my reading list on this topic yet, but I’ll have more to say about my studies in a future blog post. Consider this an appetizer.

Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. I read this in January and knew immediately it would be my most-recommended book for 2021. Du Mez describes her book as “a sweeping account of the last seventy-five years of white evangelicalism, showing how American evangelicals have worked for decades to replace the Jesus of the Gospels with an idol of rugged masculinity and Christian nationalism.” A history professor at Calvin University, Du Mez demonstrates serious research chops and writes in an easy, engaging style. As a 60-something woman raised in the church, I lived through the evangelical eras of Billy Graham, Bill Gothard, Jack Hyles, Jim Bakker, Phyllis Schlafly, Bob Jones, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Tim and Beverly LaHaye, and others. I rode the waves of Basic Youth Conflicts, Promise Keepers, the purity culture, and Veggie Tales as I raised my family. This wasn’t an academic exercise for me: it was a trip down memory lane with a knowledgable tour guide. (I wrote about my own experience with Jack Hyles here.) Overall, I have high praise for this book, but a few criticisms. I found the book’s subtitle cringe-worthy: “How white evangelicals corrupted a faith and fractured a nation.” Oh, dear. That’s unnecessarily provocative. I also wish Du Mez had offered a few counterfactuals to somewhat balance her criticisms. One could close the book after the last page and believe the whole 75-year history of evangelicalism was a missed opportunity. Not true at all. I lived most of those years and came through all the misadventures with my faith intact. Granted, it wasn’t easy, and I’m still sorting through some trauma, but the gospel message still found fruitful soil even if some of those tossing the seed were corrupt or misguided. While this book felt particularly relevant during the Trump presidency, I predict its relevancy will only increase, given the current trajectory of our culture and religious institutions.

The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. Whereas Du Mez explored how evangelical culture shapes our concept of masculinity in Jesus and John Wayne, Beth Allison Barr tackles our embedded beliefs about what constitutes biblical womanhood. She confronts church teaching that God designed women to be submissive wives and mothers, a divine hierarchy of authority known as “complementarianism,” through a blend of scholarship and personal narrative. Drawing on her deep expertise as a PhD in medieval history, she contrasts the vital roles women played in the church throughout history with the rigid limitations she encountered personally as the wife of a Southern Baptist youth minister. She covers common interpretations (or misinterpretations?) of Paul’s teachings, including how certain Bible translations reinforce those interpretations. After painstakingly revealing the human constructs behind our definition of “biblical womanhood,” she concludes: “Complementarianism is patriarchy, and patriarchy is about power. Neither have ever been about Jesus.” It no exaggeration to say that Du Mez and Barr’s books rattled the evangelical ecosystem this year. While they are independently excellent, they are dynamite together. I’d love to do a Zoom book club covering both books in 2022. Let me know if you’re interested!

A Church Called Tov by Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. Like many American Christians, I’ve been in a state of near-despair over the non-stop revelations of sexual sin and abuse by prominent church leaders. It just never ends. McKnight and Barringer address the root cause of the toxic cultures exposed at Willow Creek Church, Sovereign Grace Ministries, and within the Southern Baptist Convention, to name just a few. In contrast, they offer a church model designed to form a tov (Hebrew for “good”) culture — one built on empathy, grace, truth, justice and service. Tov church leaders model and nurture Christlikeness, which shouldn’t sound revolutionary, but it does. This book will help believers recognize the warning signs of a toxic church culture, and it should be required reading for ministry teams and elder boards.

Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church by Diane Langberg ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. This book should be a “must read” for every Christian, especially those in church leadership. Diane Langberg, PhD, is an internationally known psychologist with deep expertise in trauma and abuse of power. You’ll want to grab a fresh highlighter before you open this book because, Holy Moses, this woman brings the goods. She excoriates common practices that protect human systems at the expense of the vulnerable. She calls out as unbiblical the gender roles the church has promoted as biblical for years. She upholds every human life, regardless of race, gender, or ability, as imbued with inestimable value as a bearer of God’s own image. As someone whose life work has been to walk alongside the broken and wounded, she speaks with authority. I’ll be coming back to this book over and over. It’s that good.

Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian by Michelle Lee-Barnewall ⭐⭐⭐⭐. For those not steeped in church gender debate, there are essentially two camps. “Complementarians” take a hierarchical view of gender roles, believing that while women are equally valued, they fall below men in the divine order of authority. The Southern Baptist Convention launched the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) in 1987 to support this camp. The other camp identifies as “egalitarians,” sometimes called biblical feminists, that deny any divine hierarchy. This camp is represented by the group Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE). (Until I started studying this topic, I had no idea the degree to which these camps had formed and drawn their battle lines!) Michelle Lee-Barnwell wades into the debate between the two camps and declares, “You’re both wrong!” She addresses weaknesses in both positions and instead advocates a biblical model focused on humility, service and responsibility rather than power, position and privilege. While I don’t think Lee-Barnewell’s position will resolve the debate, it adds a valuable and well-reasoned perspective.

Memoir & Biography

A Burning in my Bones by Winn Collier ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. This book is the official biography of Eugene Peterson, a deeply influential pastor and writer best known for The Message, his translation of scripture into modern language. A brilliant intellectual, Peterson felt called to the work of a pastor, shepherding a small local body of believers. While his giftedness qualified him for a much larger, more influential platform, he invested himself for years into the lives of his small faith community. Winn Collier expertly weaves threads of Peterson’s life story, presenting him in all his humanity and complexity. I can’t even explain why this book resonated so deeply with me, but it certainly did. I absolutely loved it.

My Father Left Me Ireland by Michael Brendan Dougherty ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. This book was a close contender for my Top 6, and could easily qualify for “most surprising” read of the year. Michael Brendan Dougherty is a senior writer for National Review, a conservative political publication. I listen to National Review podcasts periodically for the same reason I eat broccoli, and that was my only context for knowing Dougherty. So imagine my surprise when I started listening to his memoir, which he narrates himself, and it’s an absolute masterpiece of prose. He walks through years of unfulfilled longing for a relationship with the father who left him before he was born. The emotional distance is further complicated by the physical distance between the U.S. and Ireland. Dougherty tells his story with an understated simplicity that completely belies the emotional undercurrents. This was one of my road trip listens, and at times I thought I might have to pull off the road to have a good cry. Don’t miss this one.

Where the Light Fell by Philip Yancey ⭐⭐⭐⭐. After reading Philip Yancey’s memoir, it makes perfect sense why so many of his earlier books deal with grace and disappointment and forgiveness. Yancey grew up in a highly dysfunctional family, deeply entrenched in fundamentalism. As a result, he’s spent most of his adult life disentangling his family bonds and deconstructing his faith from a toxic religious system. For everyone who’s ever struggled to love against all odds or to find Jesus in spite of the church, this book offers hope and healing.

Sisters First by Jenna Bush Hager and Barbara Pierce Bush ⭐⭐⭐⭐. I like a good surprise. When I picked up this book, I expected a collection of cute stories about teenagers in the White House, carefully curated to leave out anything negative. Instead, the book delivers a candid glimpse inside the Bush family with the emphasis on FAMILY. Of course, being born into a political dynasty gave Jenna and Barbara Bush unique experiences and perspectives, but their family somehow feels relatable. My sister and I are only a year apart, and we look more alike than the Bush twins. Often mistaken for twins, our personalities are just as distinct as Barbara and Jenna’s, so I completely related to the stories illustrating their personalities and the inevitable comparisons. Of course I enjoyed the funny stories, but I really appreciated the sisters’ unflinching treatment of 9/11, the Iraq war, their father’s struggle with alcohol, and the strong personalities of certain family members. Warts and all, a family’s enduring love shapes generations and society, even for the not-so-famous.

Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. When her mother is murdered outside her apartment on Memorial Drive in Atlanta in 1985, 19-year-old Natasha has only some of the puzzle pieces of her mother’s life. Instead of trying to make sense of the senseless, she responds to her grief by shoving those pieces into a mental box. Thirty years later, a move back to Atlanta prompts her to open the box and search for the missing pieces. In achingly beautiful prose, Natasha spins a chilling account of the trauma that shaped her childhood and haunts her memories. When the detective who worked her mother’s case provides the last pieces of the puzzle, Natasha can finally close the box again, this time with understanding. I read this book in a single day — it was that compelling.

history

Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. This book covers the multigenerational conflict in Northern Ireland, which, in the understatement of the century, came to be known as “The Troubles.” The book opens with the disappearance and presumed murder of a mother of 10, Jean McConville, in 1972. The journey to solve the mystery of her disappearance takes the reader deep into the inner sanctum of the Irish Revolutionary Army (IRA) and follows nearly four decades of violent sectarian war. Keefe draws us deep into the psychology of two famed IRA militants, sisters Dolores and Marian Price. I finished this book in January, and it was particularly unnerving to be immersed in Ireland’s history of violent extremism at the time our own U.S. Capitol was besieged by violent insurrectionists. The book is meticulously researched and expertly delivered, evidence of Keefe’s superb writing craft. Like so many Americans, Irish blood runs in my veins, which heightened the tragedy for me. I highly recommend this book.

Imperfect Union by Steve Inskeep ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. I thoroughly enjoyed this deep dive into mid-1800s American history. Inskeep tells the story of John and Jessie Fremont, early political celebrities during our country’s western expansion period and through the Civil War. Evidence of John Fremont’s multiple explorations to map the West can be found in the number of places that bear his name — Fremont Peak in both Wyoming and California, towns named Fremont in California, Utah and Washington, Fremont River in Utah, to name a few. I loved the rich detail, pulled from voluminous private letters, diaries, and newspaper articles, and the author’s even-handed narrative. Jessie was the daughter of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, and played an unusually active role in her husband’s political career. John Fremont served briefly as Military Governor of California and U.S. Senator, as well as three years as Governor of Arizona Territory. His candidacy for president in 1854 came up short, but helped launch the Republican party. The parallels of pre-Civil War rising political tensions and our own present-day rising political tensions made this book feel freshly relevant. Solomon had it right that there’s “nothing new under the sun.” The mid-1800s boasted warring political factions, conspiracy theories, smear campaigns, partisan newspapers, and violent conflicts even without social media!

The Teapot Dome Scandal: How Big Oil Bought the Harding White House by Laton McCartney ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. This audio book proved great road trip entertainment for my husband and me. (Our reading tastes vary widely, but we find agreement on historical non-fiction.) Growing up in Wyoming, we know Teapot Dome as a famous local landmark, not a national scandal! This story has it all — a whole cast of rich scoundrels, government corruption at the highest levels, clever fraud schemes employing rigged poker games and Liberty bonds, illicit affairs, murder, mental illness, suicide, and a few short prison terms. Whew! After seeing just how corrupt our elected officials were in the 1920s, I vacillated between encouragement (“Gee, our current officials look like choirboys”) and despair (“Was there ever an honest politician? Ever?”) While none of the many corrupt players get their proper comeuppance, especially Hugh Sinclair, neither do they live happily ever after with the spoils of their graft. One determined man, Democratic Senator Thomas Walsh from Montana pursued the truth for years through numerous investigations. He provides the much-needed hero figure in an otherwise utterly appalling chapter of American history.

Politics & Culture

I Alone Can Fix It by Philip Rucker and Carole Leonnig ⭐⭐⭐⭐. Honestly, I’ve done an almost complete Donald Trump detox since we bid him good riddance {barely!} in January. Still, the carnage of his presidency and his ongoing threat to democracy require attention. Rucker and Leonnig are two of the best, and this book walks through his catastrophic last year in chilling detail.

On the House by John Boehner ⭐⭐⭐⭐. Another road trip audio selection, I chose this one because Boehner does his own narration and I knew he’d be entertaining. I was not disappointed! I’m fairly ambivalent about John Boehner’s political career, but I found his behind-the-scenes accounts of Congressional dealmaking intriguing. My favorite parts of the book, however, were his stories of growing up with his parents and 10 siblings in a 2-bedroom apartment above the family pub. Those early experiences working in the bar, serving customers, and negotiating tight living quarters with his large family prepared him well for serving in Congress. A very enjoyable road trip companion!

Fiction

The Wind River Mystery Series by Margaret Coel ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. I read the first book of this 20-book series at the end of 2020, then devoured the other 19 this year during the darkest months of the pandemic. Man, I needed an escape from reality, and I binged on these stories like peanut butter M&Ms straight out of the bag. Father John O;Malley, a Jesuit priest serving at the mission on the Wind River Reservation teams up with Vicky Holden, an Arapaho attorney, to solve crimes on the reservation. Coel portrays the Arapaho people with deep affection and keen insight. A historian, she gets the details right. The deep friendship, complicated by romantic attraction, between Father John and Vicky kept me turning pages way past my bedtime.

The Thursday Murder Club and The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐. These delightful British mysteries are best enjoyed in audio format, because the narrator is superb! Four 70-something residents of a senior living center, Elizabeth, Joyce, Ron and Ibraham, collaborate with local police to solve crimes. Each brings their professional expertise, as well as their own secrets, to the puzzle room every Thursday to unravel the mystery at hand. Osman captures the quirks and vulnerabilities of his four main characters with laugh-out-loud humor and touching humanity. His ear for their dialogue is pitch perfect. Pure delight.

So, what were your favorite reads in 2021? Drop me a comment with your recommendations, and I’ll add them to my stack! Happy reading in 2022!

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