My 14 Favorite Books in 2018

I read many good books in 2018. Here are my 14 favorites, alphabetized by author’s last name. For each, I’ve excerpted a paragraph from my review of the book and provided a link to the full review on Amazon. If you like my review of a particular book (or of all of them), please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page for it. That will help me to achieve my #NerdGoal of being a Top 100 Reviewer on Amazon. I’m currently ranked 351st.

Ryan T. Anderson, When Harry Became Sally (Encounter)
Popular culture and political action may have normalized transgender identity, but Anderson reminds readers how radical it is. “At the heart of the transgender moment are radical ideas about the human person — in particular, that people are what they claim to be, regardless of contrary evidence. A transgender boy is a boy, not merely a girl who identifies as a boy.” This is a metaphysical claim, one that needs to be subjected to more scrutiny than it has been. When Harry Became Sallyoffers a multidisciplinary critique of transgender identity

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Mary Eberstadt, How the West Really Lost God (Templeton Press)
I haven’t yet written a full-blown review of this one yet, but here’s what I have up on Amazon right now:

Eberstadt is to be commended for writing a thought-provoking book, even if you don’t agree with all her thoughts. At a certain level of abstraction, I think the Family Factor makes sense as an explanation—a theory of variation—as to why Christian faith and practice has declined in some places and at some times, and why it has risen at others. At least to a degree. With Eberstadt, I do not think one can entirely discount other explanations, however. Moreover, as a Pentecostal, I don’t track with her fingering sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers as the first link in the chain toward family decline. The centuries between Luther and the 1960s are just too long. Still, I found How the West Really Lost Godan interesting, page-turning read and commend it to you to read.

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Doris Kearns Goodwin,Leadership in Turbulent Times (Simon & Schuster)
The best way to study leadership is to study leaders. How they exercised influence in their contexts provides examples of how we can do so in ours. For this reason, it is paramount for leaders to be well-versed in biography and history, the knowledge of people and their times Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Leadership in Turbulent Times provides case studies of the leadership of four U.S. presidents at critical junctures in their administrations:

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Timothy Keller, The Prodigal Prophet (Viking)
The ProdigalProphet makes for compelling reading. It explains the meaning of the Book of Jonah in its original context, but it draws out the implications of that meaning for our context. It shows the baleful ways Christians can worship ideological idols, misuse Scripture, and fail to love their neighbors as they should. But it also shows what a gospel-centered mission looks like, as well as how the gospel shapes our relationship with neighbors in our everyday lives.

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Matthew D. Kim, Preaching with Cultural Intelligence (Baker Academic)
America is increasingly diverse, and so are American churches. Matthew D. Kim wants “to prepare twenty-first-century preachers for the realities of congregational diversity in North America and beyond.” To do so, he outlines a “homiletical template” to help preachers more effectively take into account their communities’ diversity in their preaching. He focuses specifically on diversity of denominations, ethnicities, genders, locations and religions. Preaching with Cultural Intelligenceis a must-read for preachers who want to effectively minister to people different from themselves.

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Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind (Penguin Press)
As I mentioned at the outset of this review, I am serious when I say that every American concerned with the future of our nation’s public discourse and democratic culture should read The Coddling of the American Mind. It stimulated my thinking as a parent and helped form a better opinion of contemporary events as a concerned citizen. As a person, it provided an accessible introduction to cognitive behavioral therapy, identifying the cognitive distortions that misshape our opinions and hence misguide our actions. And it reminded me that people across the aisle from me—politically and religiously—are also intelligent and public-minded and can have things to say I need to hear. So, buy this book. Read it. Then share it.

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Christian B. Miller, The Character Gap (Oxford)
The cover of Christian B. Miller’s book, The Character Gap, has a picture of Gandhi at the top and Hitler at the bottom with a graded spectrum between them. The picture is fitting, for one of Miller’s central theses is that most people are neither as bad as we could be nor as good as we should be. We are, instead, a muddle. The question that arises, then, is how we can become better than we are.

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Russell Moore, The Storm-Tossed Family (B&H Books)
The Lord redeeming the mess we have made of our families constitutes the bulk of Moore’s book. He discusses family milestones such as gender differences, marriage, sexuality, childbearing and adoption, parenting, divorce, trauma and aging. His words are wise, irenic and filled with astute theological insight, often expressed in memorable aphorisms. I’ll conclude with just such an aphorism, for it succinctly captures the theme of the entire book: “The only safe harbor for a storm-tossed family is a nail-scarred home.”

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Jonathan Neumann, To Heal the World (All Points)
Tikkun olam is Hebrew for “to heal the world.” It has become a popular catchphrase among leftwing American Jewish rabbis and social activists. According to them, it is an ancient teaching of Judaism, and therefore a religious foundation for their politics. The only problem is that it isn’t. At least that’s what Jonathan Neumann concludes in To Heal the World. He argues that tikkun olam provides a religious covering for a political ideology that has been arrived at via nonreligious means. And that political ideology is “social justice.”

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Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well (Brazos)
I have nothing but praise for this book. It exemplifies how to read well, both in the sense of reading closely and of reading through the lens of moral analysis. Perhaps the highest praise I can give the book is that when I turned its last page, I wanted to read (or re-read) the works of fiction it studied.

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Joy E. A. Qualls, God Forgive Us for Being Women (Pickwick)
Even as hundreds of early Pentecostal women pioneered mission fields and planted churches, they often met resistance from men (typically) who felt the need to put them in their place by limiting their authority in the local church. My friend Joy Qualls explores this tension — between Pentecostal empowerment and hierarchical resistance, especially in the Assemblies of God — in her new book, God Forgive Us for Being Women.

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Hans Rosling, Factfulness (Flatiron Books)
I highly recommend reading Factfulness. Learning about material improvements to the human condition is exciting. But I also recommend it because it offers sound guidance about how to interpret the barrage of information presented to us daily. Knowing how to read, interpret, and filter out the noise in trends is a necessary component of a contemporary worldview, leading to better informed—and hence more productive—action.

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Ed Stetzer, Christians in the Age of Outrage (Tyndale Momentum)
The vicious cycle of outrage and counter-outrage has got to stop, for the good of our culture and for the sake of the gospel. Christians need to demonstrate a better way. After all, if the Church is “the hermeneutic of the gospel,” as Lesslie Newbigin put it, then our unrighteous outrage may lead people away from God, giving Him a bad reputation in the process. You can be outraged or you can fulfill the Great Commission. You can’t do both. That’s why I highly recommend both Christians in the Age of Outrage and its author. If you’d like to see how he deals online with controversial issues in a Christian manner, follow @EdStetzer on major social media. Or check out his blog at

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Karl Vaters, Small Church Essentials (Moody)
Small Church Essentials isn’t anti-big church by any stretch of the imagination. By the same token, though, it’s not uncritically pro-small church. “Small churches are not a problem, a virtue, or an excuse,” Vaters writes. “Jesus calls every church and every church leader for a purpose,” he concludes, “and He equips us with everything we need to accomplish that purpose.” Regardless of size. If you’re a small-church pastor who wants to increase your own capacity and your church’s capacity for effective ministry, I highly recommend this hopeful, helpful book.

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To Heal the World? | Book Review

Tikkun olamis Hebrew for “to heal the world.” It has become a popular catchphrase among leftwing American Jewish rabbis and social activists. According to them, it is an ancient teaching of Judaism, and therefore a religious foundation for their politics.

The only problem is that it isn’t. At least that’s what Jonathan Neumann concludes in To Heal the World. He argues that tikkun olamprovides a religious covering for a political ideology that has been arrived at via nonreligious means. And that political ideology is “social justice.”

Here’s how Neumann defines that political ideology:

“Social justice is a political philosophy that advocates the redistribution of income—and sometimes even wealth and other property—in order to achieve economic egalitarianism…. In more recent decades, social justice has also come to include an agenda of permissive social policies that leave lifestyle questions to the discretion of the individual and promote gender diversity; an approach to foreign and defense policy that emphasizes multilateral diplomacy over military strength; a preference for comprehensive alternatives to the use of fossil fuels and nuclear energy for the sake of the environment; and other attitudes and policies associated predominantly with today’s left-wing political parties…. Over the past several years, campus radicals have tried to impose even more extreme conceptions of social justice on their universities through protests over safe spaces and microaggressions, and increasingly perceive social justice through the prism of intersectionality, which portrays society as the Manichean struggle for justice by powerless victims against oppressive power-holders.”

Neumann rightly thinks this definition is noncontroversial: “your own experience ought to confirm it: just ask yourself what you think of when you hear the phrase ‘social justice,’ and which politicians you think are more likely to refer to it.”

To Heal the Worlddoesn’t offer a comprehensive critique of social-justice policies, although Neumann clearly sails on the starboard side of the political ship. Instead, the book deconstructs the notion that tikkun-olam-as-social-justice bears any necessary relationship to Judaism. Indeed, it argues that the social justice scheme promulgated by the Jewish left “corrupts Judaism and endangers Israel,” in the lapidary words of the subtitle.

Here’s how Neumann’s argument unfolds: After defining the problem in the book’s Introduction, chapters 1 and 2 describe, respectively, the emergence of the Jewish Left out of Reform Judaism and the increasing use of tikkun olamto describe its agenda. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, European Jews began to experience increasing freedom from the legal restraints and social prejudices that had hitherto been placed on their communities by Christian states. In consequence, some of them began to shed the particularistic rituals of traditional Judaism and emphasize Judaism’s universalistic ethics, which looked surprisingly Kantian. In postwar America, this commitment to universalistic ethics came to be expressed as tikkun olam. The takeaway from Neumann’s historical narrative is twofold: First, Reform Judaism’s relationship to traditional Judaism was critical from the beginning. It sought at its inception to distance itself from Judaism as it had been practiced historically. Second, its universalizing mode rendered Jewish particularism highly problematic, including its longings for Zion.

In the early to mid-twentieth century, Reform Judaism rethought both these points, and sought to root its thinking in Tanakh (the Hebrew acronym for what Christians call the Old Testament), as well as to give qualified support to the nascent Jewish state. Chapters 3 through 7 examine the progressive Jewish use of the biblical narratives of creation, Abraham, Joseph, Exodus, and the prophets to underwrite their political ideology. In each case, Neumann shows that the tikkun olam/social justice readings of the relevant passages are problematic, both because they are bad textual readings (“eisegesis” rather than “exegesis”) and because they bear so little relationship to traditional Jewish interpretation. Whatever else they are, Neumann contends, they are problematic as Jewishreadings of the text.

Indeed, chapter 8 argues that the Jewish Left’s use of tikkun olamitself is problematic. The phrase is taken from the Aleynu, a prayer offered in Judaism’s three daily services. Tikkun olamdoesn’t appear in the Bible, its use in the Talmud and Midrash is rare and suggests something far less totalizing than social justice, and its appearance in the Kabbalah takes the concept in a different direction than where the Jewish Left goes with it. Recognizing these deficiencies, some progressive Jews have stopped using tikkun olamas an organizing concept altogether. The first paragraph of chapter 9 summarizes Neumann’s case against the Jewish Left to this point: “What the Bible says and what the Jewish social justice movement thinks it says diverge…. And tikkun olam itself has never meant what American Jews now understand the term to mean.”

That tension between social justice and traditional Judaism is the subject of chapter 10, “Social Justice vs. Israel.” Historically, Judaism is a particularistic religion, a “Chosen People” with a “Promised Land.” Given the Jewish Left’s historical roots in Reform Judaism, and given Reform Judaism’s tendency to universalism rather than particularism, it was almost inevitable that there would be a clash between the demands of “social justice” and the hopes for a renewed Jewish nation in Israel. After the Holocaust, that tension was tamped down for a time, but one doesn’t have to look too hard today to find leftwing Jewish critics of the entire Zionist project.

Indeed, the assumptions of tikkun olam/social justice Judaism problematizes the very existence of a Jewish identity, as chapter 11 makes clear. If the essence of Judaism is universalistic ethics, then why be Jewish at all? Judaism as such—its history, traditions, rituals, etc.—provide nothing more than illustrations of moral themes that can be derived from sources other than the Bible. And if the State of Israel itself constitutes an existential social-justice problem, why be a Jew at all?

For Neumann, tikkun olamundermines Jewish Peoplehood and forecasts the redundancy of the Jews: “Social justice has no need for Jews: by its logic, they need not concern themselves with perpetuating their people, need not limit themselves to Jewish partners, and need not raise their children to be Jewish. They need only work to repair the world—a pursuit that eventually involves their very dissolution into the rest of humanity.”

In chapter 12, Neumann suggests an alternative: “Jews can reimagine the possibility that their ancient heritage has something unique to say—something greater than a mere echo of the political and cultural fads of our time.” This is particularism for the sake of universalism, and it finds precedent deep in the Bible and Jewish tradition: “through your [i.e., Abraham’s] offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me” (Genesis 22:18).

As a Gentile and a Christian, I’m not sure what to make of Neumann’s final proposal. What fascinates me about To Heal the Worldis the parallel that leftwing Judaism and tikkun olamhas with liberal Protestantism and the “Social Gospel.” Neumann makes this parallel explicit, arguing that Reform Judaism drew a part of its inspiration from the Social Gospel movement. If so, that raises the question in my mind whether the relationship between the Social Gospel and traditional Christianity is as biblically and theologically problematic as the relationship between tikkun olamand traditional Judaism.

But that’s a question for another day and another book.

Book Reviewed
Jonathan Neumann, To Heal the World: How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel(New York: All Points Books, 2018).

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