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My Top Ten Books of 2021

by Frank Powell

This year I started reading again. I never stopped, not completely. But for the past several years, I read sparingly. A book here. A book there. Not enough to keep a list.

In 2021, however, things changed. I started reading again because I started writing again. I made it a habit, a discipline. Almost every writer I know loves to read. They tell stories about how books were their escape as children. They read for hours. They read for fun.

That’s not me. I never read for fun as a child. I never read for any reason at all. And I didn’t hang out with anyone who read. Reading doesn’t come easy for me, that’s all I’m trying to say. When I’m in a bad place or want some down time, my brain doesn’t salivate over that novel on my nightstand. Reading, however, is the single most important discipline (along with writing) in my life. I’m most healthy and alive when I’m reading.

Reading is a lost art in our fast-paced world. We don’t have time for it. That’s a shame. It doesn’t bode well for our future. Reading has mental and physical benefits. Science has proven this. I won’t get into those benefits here. It’s unnecessary. It’s unnecessary because you already know reading matters.

Even if you don’t read, you know it has value. Something deep in you knows you benefit more from reading books than watching Netflix or scrolling Twitter or Instagram. 

You know because anytime you come across someone who reads books, you either want to know more about them or you’re turned off by them. The same motive is behind both responses. This person is doing something that matters. 

These are my top ten books of 2021, in no order at all. Unless you need them in some order for your own psyche. In that case, assume they’re in order from 10 to 1, starting with 10. And also make a therapist part of your goal for the new year.

What Happened to You by Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey

This is an important book about trauma and how the brain responds to it. We have a history of trauma in our home, from my chronic illness to my daughter’s earliest years in India. This book should be essential reading for parents, teachers and educators of all types, pastors, and so on. It reframes the question from “What is wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?” This shift allows us to look past behaviors and address underlying issues.

Untamed by Glennon Doyle

Straight-laced, buttoned-up, go-to-church-every-Sunday Christian folk won’t like this book and they won’t like me for including it on this list. I don’t care. Glennon Doyle is a prophet. I have learned so much from her about accepting myself and other people as they are, rather than forcing others to conform to my worldview. It’s a challenging read. I’ll be honest about that. But her words will force you to grow up and expand your reality. 

The Memory of Old Jack by Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry is one of my favorite authors. He inks out magic with his pen. His writing is intoxicating and seductive. That’s the only way I know to describe it. It draws you in, like a hypnotist, and suddenly the walls around you fade away and it’s just you and Wendell. This book is about an old man who flashes back to different scenes in his past just before his death. It’s a book about mistakes and regrets, but it’s also about making peace with both. 

The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd

You hear people describe books as page-turners. Page-turners compete with sleep and normal life functions. You become so enthralled with the tale that you lose all sense of time and responsibility. This book was that for me. I couldn’t put it down. Sue Monk Kidd is a superb storyteller. This story hinges around a single question, “What if Jesus was married?” Ana is the main character and wife of Jesus. This is a book, though, about being suppressed and silenced. It is a manifesto for women and marginalized people and all of us, really, how we should listen to the voice within, even at the expense of comfort and the status quo.

Redeeming Power by Diane Langberg

Here’s a quote from Redeeming Power that shook me:

No system that carries oppression, silencing, dehumanizing, violence, abuse, and corruption within is healthy, no matter how godly the goals of that system may be. Tolerance of such things, out of fear, disbelief, or self-deception, will not protect the system from the disease that will kill it if left untreated.

In the wake of so many scandals in the Christian community, this book is, in a word, necessary. It is about understanding power in the context of the gospel. It is also about the corruption of systems and how God’s people must recognize and call out unhealthy, dehumanizing behaviors, even if it means destroying systems or institutions. Every leader should read this book. We can’t allow people to suffer on the alter of unhealthy, toxic institutions.

A Burning in My Bones: Biography of Eugene Peterson by Winn Collier

I love Eugene Peterson. His demeanor, his heart, his mind, his love for people and for contemplation. I love his dedication to the craft of writing as well. Eugene is my pastor, and I know I’m not alone. Eugene is everyman’s pastor. So, when I heard about this biography, I snatched it up. I love how the author, Winn Collier, portrays Eugene Peterson. He tries to show his humanity, how he struggled with his church and his family and even his faith. That was humbling. It reminded me that we’re all trying our best, and even the great ones, like Eugene Peterson, struggle with this thing called life. 

Morality by Jonathan Sacks

The thesis of this book is simple: if we want to heal our fractured culture, we must restore a vision of morality that nurtures the community and the common good. Rabbi Sacks seasons this thesis with wisdom and anecdotes and infuses them with sociology, philosophy, psychology and theology. This is a timely book, a call to change. It’s for anyone who refuses to continue down the road of individualism and self-preservation, who desires wholeness and human flourishing.

Secrets in the Dark by Frederick Buechner

Frederick Buchner is my spiritual father (along with Wendell Berry and Richard Rohr). I can sit at his feet for hours and ingest his wisdom. It changes me. I feel more alive and awake. I feel more connected with my neighbor and with creation. I feel less anxious. This book is a collection of Buechner’s sermons, arranged chronologically, from his first years as a preacher to his last. If you read the whole book, you will understand, once you reach the last page, why he is considered one of the greatest spiritual writers of our time. 

Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle by Dante Stewart

This is Dante Stewart’s stirring, provocative, personal account of dealing with white privilege and the invisible ideologies that uphold it. It’s a book about what it’s like to live as a black man in a white world. I found his words convicting and comforting at the same time, but mostly convicting. That’s what good writing is supposed to do, by the way, stir everything inside you. His words will not allow you to stay where you are, either, another quality of good writing. You can move backwards or forwards, but you can’t sit still. His words and sentences flow like a smooth fountain. So your eyes can move easily across the page, even if his ideas are hard for the mind to digest.

Jesus and John Wayne by Kristen Kobes du Mez

One of those books that comes around once in a generation. It helped me understand why so many evangelicals seemingly threw their Christian morals to the wind in the past few years. Or better put, they crucified their values on the cross of power and progress. It also gave me language for the many ways toxic masculinity has contributed to so much systemic injustice in our culture. I wish every man would read this book, and would have their eyes opened to the ways our culture has told us who we should be, and how this has very little to do with Jesus.

Here’s a complete list of the books I read this year: 

Non-fiction: 

Always A Guest (Barbara Brown Taylor)

Atomic Habits (James Clear)

Bird by Bird (Anne Lamott)

The Brain that Changes Itself (Normal Doidge)

A Burning In My Bones: Biography of Eugene Peterson (Winn Collier)

The Dignity of Difference (Jonathan Sacks)

David Whyte: Essentials (David Whyte)

Falling Upward (Richard Rohr)

Freedom (Sebastian Junger)

The Gift of Being Yourself (David Benner)

Good Goats (Dennis Linn)

The Hiding Place (Corrie Ten Boom)

How to be Here (Rob Bell)

Jesus and John Wayne (Kristin Kobes du Mez)

Keep Going (Austin Kleon)

Mindset (Carol Dweck)

Morality (Jonathan Sacks)

Native (Kaitlin B. Curtice)

No Cure for Being Human (Kate Bowler)

The Pastor (Eugene Peterson)

Prayer in the Night (Tish Harrison Warren)

Redeeming Power (Diane Langberg)

Secrets in the Dark (Frederick Buechner)

The Seven Story Mountain (Thomas Merton)

Think Again (Adam Grant)

Untamed (Glennon Doyle)

What Do We Do With the Bible (Richard Rohr)

What Happened To You (Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey)

When the Heart Waits (Sue Monk Kidd)

Wild (Cheryl Strayed)

The Wisdom Pattern (Richard Rohr)

The Writing Life (Annie Dillard)

On Writing (Stephen King)

Fiction: 

Bewilderment (Richard Powers)

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse (Charlie Mackey)

The Book of Longings (Sue Monk Kidd)

Hannah Coulter (Wendell Berry)

Jayber Crow (Wendell Berry)

Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness (Stephen Mitchell)

Lincoln in the Bardo (George Saunders)

The Memory of Old Jack (Wendell Berry)

Notes From the Underground (Fyodor Dostoevsky)

The Stranger in the Lifeboat (Mitch Albom)

Where the Crawdads Sing (Delia Owen)

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