Top 10 books–2020

I have put together a top 10 books list every year for over a decade. Although I have read fewer books this year than any since I began consistently keeping track in 2014, I had no trouble finding ten eleven books to recommend. You should also have plenty of time to order some of these for jolabokaflod.

Honorable Mention: God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and its Aftermath (2020) by N.T. Wright. God and the Pandemic receives an honorable mention because it is particularly relevant in 2020, but hopefully its relevance will soon diminish. Regardless, Wright, addressed many of the concerns raised by Christians about how to live in this time, finding a reasonable way between the extremes of denial and obsession. He helps us, as readers, to think about what it means to be Christians in the world today.

10. Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation (2008) by John Philip Newell. I read several books about Celtic spirituality this year, including three from John Philip Newell. Newell writes like a poet, which is part of my draw to him, I suppose. My attraction to Celtic spirituality is related to its connection with how I see and understand the world, with attention to things like creation, wholeness, interconnectedness, and creativity.

9. Ready Player One (2011) by Ernest Cline. When the Ready Player One movie came out in 2018, I saw it in the theater and I loved it, perhaps because I am a child of the eighties. I often return to the movie when I am looking for entertainment. Although Cline’s book has the same basic premise, there is a much greater richness and depth to the storytelling. I began with the audiobook, which is narrated by Wil Wheaton, who played Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, but because I am impatient and could not wait for my son to finish the audiobook with me, I purchased the paperback and quickly finished it. You cannot go wrong with either.

8. Something’s Not Right: Decoding the Hidden Tactics of Abuse–and Freeing Yourself from its Power (2020) by Wade Mullen. In the past few years, I have read several books about spiritual abuse and Something’s Not Right is among the best of them. Mullen writes from years of experience and research, yet does so in an accessible way. I particularly appreciated his discussion of how abusive organizations often use “impression management.” If you want to learn more about systemic abuse, I could not point you in a better direction than Something’s Not Right.

7. What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism (2017) by Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner. The past four years in America have felt increasingly divisive. Deception and vitriol ravage political decency and we have lost sight of what has made America great. Dan Rather, together with his colleague, Elliot Kirschner, put together 15 essays about America that filled me with hope. Drawing from his nearly nine decades as an American citizen, Rather addressed topics such as voting, the press, science, the arts, and the environment. As I listened, I wondered how I can foster the sort of vision Rather and Kirschner have of and for America.

6. 11/22/63 (2011) by Stephen King. There was a time in my life when I read books by Stephen King, and little else. In high school, I wrote a paper about him and I remember going to the Mead Public Library in Sheboygan, Wisconsin to ask the librarian to obtain a copy of the Playboy magazine interview with him for my paper. My friend Jordan turned me on to 11/22/63, which he described as one of his favorite books. I listened to the audiobook, which was narrated by Craig Wasson, and I was captivated once again by King’s ability to craft a story.

5. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (2020) by Kristin Kobes DuMez. Jesus and John Wayne may be the most provocative title on my top 10 list. When I posted a picture of the book cover on my Facebook page and expressed my eagerness to read it, a family member commented, “Give me a break!” I suspect the author has heard far worse. Briefly, the author traced the often parallel paths of rugged masculinity and 20th century evangelicalism, identifying the fallout. If you been trying to make sense of evangelicalism in post-Trump America, you cannot do much better than Jesus and John Wayne.

4. Exclusion and Embrace, Revised and Updated: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (2019 revision) by Miroslav Volf. My friend Perry, who often has great book recommendations, suggested Exclusion and Embrace and I was not disappointed. Volf is an accomplished theologian, but more importantly, he was raised in Croatia and a witness to ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. He has an exceptional understanding of confronting oppression, neither dismissing hurt nor the hard work of reconciliation. My copy is filled with underlines and marginalia, which is typically a sign of a book that engaged me deeply.

3. Art + Faith: A Theology of Making (2020) by Makoto Fujimura. I think a lot about topics like goodness, truth, and beauty and their connection to becoming whole. In his previous book, Culture Care, Fujimura introduced me to the term “maercstapa,” which is a border stalker. Maercstapas explore what is possible and bring it back to people. I was equally pleased with Art + Faith, which is just a few weeks old. Fujimura built upon ideas introduced in his former books in developing a thoughtful “theology of making” as he described it. I especially appreciated his connection between the work of creativity and God’s new creation. Weaving in examples from several of my favorite artists and writers solidified its position on the top 10 list.

2. Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making (2019) by Andrew Peterson. I read Adorning the Dark in January and knew that it was going to be a good book year. It is no surprise to anyone who knows me that Andrew Peterson is my favorite singer. He also wrote one of my favorite book series, the four volume Wingfeather Saga. Over the years, I have appreciated his thoughts on beauty and the creative process, so I welcomed having his thoughts condensed in book form. Like Art + Faith, Peterson’s book stirs my love for wholeness and beauty.

1. An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 1941-1943; and Letters from Westerbork (1981) by Etty Hillesum. As soon as I began reading this book, I knew it would be on my “must read” list, not to mention my 2020 Top 10. I first heard about Etty Hillesum from the writings of Chuck DeGroat, the author of Wholeheartedness, which is another favorite book of mine. Etty Hillesum was a Dutch Jewish woman living in the Netherlands at the beginning of World War II. She kept a series of self-reflective journals from 1941 until 1943, when she was sent to Auschwitz. She demonstrates an uncommon spiritual depth, no doubt sharpened by her experiences.

let it be

And Mary said, “Behold, I am a servant of the Lord; Let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.-Luke 1:38 (ESV)

This morning, my friend Mark and I started working through Luke’s gospel. Our plan is to read one chapter each day, and discuss it. Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel stood out to me. Gabriel told her that God’s Spirit would overshadow her, and she would become pregnant with the Messiah. She responded by saying, “I am God’s servant. Let it be as you say.”

In the chaos of the world, I become frantic and try to control my circumstances. If I am honest, I want to control everything, yet the harder I try to manage the world, the more hopeless I can feel. The truth is that I cannot fix COVID-19, or politics, or Christianity. Most days, I cannot even govern myself.

Mary’s prayer, “Let it be to me according to your word,” seems risky. It asks me to trust that God is loving and that he knows more than I do. It requires me to admit my powerlessness. It obliges me to let God be God.

God,
Every day, the world seems more and more fragmented.
My internal controller tries to hold it all together,
rather than allowing you to run the universe.
In a disintegrated world, trust is hard.
In the midst of pain, hope is harder.

In this moment and the next,
let me echo Mary’s simple prayer,
“I am your servant.
Let it be according to your word.”

the burden of pretending

Yesterday at work, I felt a fresh wave of sadness as I read news of yet another friend losing a loved one to COVID-19. When I told my wife, she said, “This is getting scary. Please don’t die.” Anger joined with my sadness when I heard about another friend who was not wearing a mask in public because she does not like wearing them.

Men in America have often been discouraged from expressing their feelings, especially the “weak” emotions, like fear or grief. Real men are supposed to be tough and controlled, maintaining a veneer of strength even when inside we are feeling deep pain.

Christians are no better off. Our fear is discouraged when we are reminded that the Bible says “do not be afraid” 365 times (side note: it actually doesn’t, though it does frequently address fear). In the midst of sorrow, Christians sometimes “comfort” the grieving by saying “Everything happens for a reason.” When Christians are angry about injustice, we are told to remember the importance of unity, which is often code for “Keep quiet.” I believe this is especially true for Christian women.

If this is place where you are coming from, you may wish to stop reading now. You have been warned.

I am afraid. I am afraid that my wife or my children will die from COVID-19. I am afraid of what would happen to them if I died. I am afraid that I will never be able to hug my mom again. I am afraid that if I do catch COVID-19 that it will affect my mind. I am afraid that things will never be the same. I am afraid of what will happen if Trump fails to concede the election. I am afraid of what might happen as he continues to spread falsehood and propaganda.

I am angry. I am angry when I see friends defying mask requirements. Some days, it takes everything within me to not say, “Put on a f@%!ing mask! If you don’t like wearing one, stay home!” I am angry when people seem to be more concerned about their individual liberties than loving their neighbors. I am angry when president Trump continues to spread propaganda and insist that he will still win when there is no path to him doing so. I am angry that he continues to promote suspicion and division in a deeply hurting nation that desperately needs leadership. I am angry that other leaders in what used to be “my party” continue to support his delusion and deception. I am angry when I see people twisting facts that are plainly obvious.

I am sad. I am sad that people are sick and dying. I am sad that our hospitals and morgues are full and that our healthcare providers are exhausted. I am sad that people keep pretending that COVID-19 is no worse than the flu or that it is politicized to keep Trump down. I am sad that suicide rates have skyrocketed. I am sad that since December, I have only spent an hour with my mom. I am sad that I have barely seen my dad or my wife’s parents this year. I am sad that my daughter’s wedding was not what she had initially planned. I am sad that I won’t get to go home for the holidays. I am sad that many people seem more committed to Trump than they do to the United States. I am sad that I cannot join together with my friends for coffee and embrace.

Maybe you are angry, afraid, or sad about the same things I am. Maybe you feel differently than I do. Maybe you feel these things and you have no idea why. Regardless, let yourself feel. God created us with emotion. Jesus felt every one of these things and he never apologized for them.

Pretending is a heavy burden. Be who you are. Give space to others to express their emotions when you have the margin to do so. Beware of the tendency to spiritualize or shame others for their emotions. Instead, listen without judgment and love without reservation.

Be reasonable

Historically, Christians have believed that Christianity is not only true, but objectively true. We believe that God created the universe. We believe that a man named Jesus lived 2000 years ago, that he was crucified on a Roman cross on a Friday, and was physically resurrected on Sunday. We believe that after his resurrection, he appeared to hundreds of people. (See 1 Corinthians 15). Evangelicals have boldly proclaimed the truth of Jesus. Christian philosophers, apologists, and theologians have dedicated themselves to demonstrating that Christianity is both reasonable and objectively true.

However, too often as I watch American Christians in the public square, I feel discouraged. They blatantly disregard information that is well-established and widely accepted, yet they believe and promote conspiratorial thinking and propaganda, which they have often heard from the lips of charlatans. At the fringes, their thinking reaches delusional levels.

I am concerned that as the world watches evangelical Christians rigidly clinging to propogandist thinking while denying facts that are not only possible, but objectively almost certain, any claim that Christians make to be people of truth will be either ignored or mocked. Why would anyone believe us when we say that Christianity is true, when we so obviously dismiss what is broadly accepted as fact? We know that some will reject Jesus, but when it seems that we care nothing for truth in other areas such as science or politics, we lose credibility.

Let us be people who are committed to truth wherever it may be found. We should be known as critical thinkers who are not only willing to ask, “Is this true?” but “Is this reasonable?” What does the preponderance of the evidence tell us? Where are we getting our information? When we are uncertain, let us be willing to ask the three questions1: 1) What do you mean by that? 2) How did you come to that conclusion? and 3) Is it possible I am wrong?

Until we can demonstrate to the watching world that we are loving and reasonable, the Truth we proclaim will be no more than a punchline.

1 The first two questions come from Greg Koukl at Stand to Reason.

a prayer on the eve of the election

Father, forgive us 
It is obvious that we have no clue what we are doing.  
You have given us the gift of reason  
yet when we insist that our understanding is right,
and we fail to acknowledge you,  
we have lost our way.  
Help us to turn again to you  
trusting you will set us on the right path, 
which is the way of love  
and when we get lost again  
bring us back home once more. 

Broken Ramparts

I am sad today, hot tears threatening to spill out. My friend shared this song with me earlier, which brought me right to the edge. Over the past few years, my life and my faith have been upended. The carefully constructed ramparts of my faith once allowed me to observe pain and suffering from a safe distance, but I did not know that I had built everything on shifting sand and when everything collapsed, I wandered about in a daze trying to understand how the broken pieces fit together.

In his severe mercy, God has been patiently revealing the reality of suffering, not every day, but in doses I can (barely) handle. Suffering is a universal phenomenon, but I feel its sharp bite most exquisitely when I am brought face to face with the pain I have caused to others, often under the banner of righteousness. I have twisted the truth, betrayed friends, and misused both professional and spiritual position in service to unholy ends and it tears me up inside.

Most days, if I think about who I was becoming, I still question whether I am trustworthy. How can I now claim to live with integrity when my words and actions had become so dis-integrating? How can I be certain that I am not still deluded, unloving, abusive? Maybe someday I will know the answers to those questions, but not today. For now, I will continue to press into my discomfort, seeking to know myself and live from a place of love.


As I thought about betrayal today, I was reminded of my favorite movie, Braveheart. I identify with Robert the Bruce, the presumptive leader of Scotland, who utterly betrayed William Wallace in pursuit of power and position.

Answers & Questions

I used to have all the answers–
or at least most of them
(I have the books to prove it)
a firm foundation of right ideas.

Then I opened the door of my mind
just a crack
and invited the questions inside.

The invitation was not without cost.
I know less now than I once did
for in opening the door
I saw the universe before me.

A prayer for wholeness

God of wholeness,
Father, Son, Spirit,
never lacking or incomplete,
eternally perfect in oneness,
you promised that in the Son,
all things shall be reconciled.

Remind me of my union with you,
always aware of your holy presence
in and around me.
You, O LORD, are never absent,
but I confess that my senses are dulled
by 10,000 distractions.
I want to love you
as you have loved me,
fully and completely and unreservedly.
Let your lovingkindness toward me
ignite my love.

You, O LORD, have filled this world
with those who bear your image
yet each person is uniquely beautiful.
Remove the scales from my eyes
so that I may see with compassion.
Help me to remember that listening is loving
and curiosity is a sacred gift.
To love another is to get dirt on my hands,
just as you did when you formed people
from the dust of the ground.
Whether in agreement or conflict,
let love define me.

As I look inward,
let me see myself as you see me,
not as damaged goods, nor irredeemable,
but as your beloved child
who is infinitely valuable in your eyes.
Let the knowledge of my belovedness
cast aside every doubt I have
about how you see me,
knowing that you cherish me
just as I am right now.

Help me to remember
that when you formed the heavens and the earth,
you called your creation good.
It was full of beauty
and teeming with life,
yet like your people,
your good creation has suffered
the ravages of disintegration.
You have invited me to be a steward of the earth;
let me take up that call with hope and endurance,
remembering that you are reconciling all things.
Grant me the skill
to make good and beautiful things,
remembering that goodness and beauty
are reflections of you.

Where there is hatred, restore compassion
where darkness, light
where confusion, clarity
where where fragmentation, integration
where agitation, peace
where pride, humility
where brokenness, wholeness
and where self-centeredness, love.

I cannot stay silent

I tried watching the debate on Tuesday night, but I soon turned it off. The behavior I was witnessing stirred up old memories.

When I was in junior high, my mom started dating the high school shop teacher. There was a rumor that years earlier, he had been abusive toward his first wife, but he was so charming, it was impossible to believe. He was mechanically gifted and often shared stories about the wonderful things he had done and made and more than once, he used his gifts to help others. Their relationship progressed and they eventually married. Over time though, his grandiosity and narcissism became increasingly evident and along with it, abuse.

He never hit me, but he never missed an opportunity to take shots at me, to remind me of my worthlessness. I regularly heard that I would never amount to anything. Name calling, manipulating, gas lighting, and eye rolling were a daily occurrence. He was verbally and psychologically abusive. He was a malignant narcissist.

When they had been married less than a year, I was selected by my teachers to go to Badger Boys State. My mom and I had a difficult conversation on the way to Ripon College. I somehow found the courage to tell her that if he was still there when I got home, I was going to move in with my grandma. In the days that followed, she found her courage too and moved out.

I wish I could tell you that their separation led to a repentant heart, but it didn’t. His abuse and manipulation only intensified and it definitely took its toll on both my mom and me, but ultimately, leaving was the only healthy option. Sadly, the responses of friends and family were often less than helpful. People were incredulous that someone who was capable of doing good things was so evil.

Now, as a psychologist, I hear stories of abuse and manipulation every day, women and men who live under the terror of narcissists who seek to control and psychologically manipulate them, working to break them down to nothing. Too often, they succeed. The psychological scars left by narcissists are often multigenerational. As Diana Beresford-Kroeger said in her excellent book, To Speak for the Trees, “Trauma casts a long shadow.”  

As I watched part of the presidential debate on Tuesday night, I saw a lot of similarities between the president and my former step-father. I watched as the president rolled his eyes, scoffed, lied, interrupted, and belittled Mr. Biden. This is what abusers do, plain and simple.

To be clear, this was not merely an off night for president Trump. These behaviors represent consistent patterns over time. He talks about how great he is while at the same time demeaning and criticizing others. When he failed to decisively condemn white supremacy but indirectly told a white supremacist group, the Proud Boys, to “stand back and stand by,” I heard a vailed threat. As a psychologist, I can tell you that other abuse victims perceived the same things, even if they could not put words to it. Like me, many people had to stop watching.

As someone who has been psychologically abused and who also works with abuse victims, let me offer an explanation about why you may have felt the way you did. You were witnessing an abusive narcissist in action. Donald Trump’s words and actions are not simply a difference in personality style. He doesn’t act the way he does because he’s a New Yorker. He is a manipulative bully.

Sometimes manipulative bullies do good things. In fact, narcissists will take every opportunity to make themselves look better, not principally in service to the greater good, but in order to stoke their pride. As they build themselves up, they leave piles of confused and broken people behind them.  

For me, this election is not simply about policy, it is about standing against abuse on a national scale. For me, this election is not about platform, but about speaking out on behalf of the belittled and downtrodden. For me, the election is not simply about difference of opinion, but about using my voice and my vote to speak out against a man who has had four years to “Make America Great Again,” but by his words and actions has left us more deeply divided than we have been for generations. 

Let me also recommend some additional resources: