Favorite Books of 2017

I read 100 books this year.  This is up from 79 books in 2015 and 81 books in 2016.

Many people ask:  “How do you read so many books?”  Or they ask the more offensive question: “But do you read every word or just skim?”  I answered these questions in a post long ago  but will perhaps provide an updated response some time soon.

Providing my favorite books of the year is always a fun and excruciating process.  It’s fun to look back at books that had an impact.  It’s excruciating to narrow down the stack of favorites.  Books serve different purposes:  Some books are not fun to read but provide a wealth of helpful information.  Other books are fun … but forgettable. This is my meager attempt to show some books that will maintain prominent places on my bookshelves.

I want to stress that these are my favorite books that I read in 2016 (they made have been released in years gone by).

Favorite Book of the Year:


Reversed Thunder.jpgI read this book by in January and knew right away that it would be in contention for my favorite book of the year.  That hunch proved to be true.  Here’s my write up from when the book appeared in my January reading log:

Like many pastors, I count Eugene Peterson as a mentor from afar.  We’ve never met but he has taught me countless lessons through the pages of his written work.  Each Peterson work deserves a spot of prominence on your self.  Reversed Thunder is a reflection on the last, but often misread, book of the Bible.  At times I had to force myself to put my pen down because I was tempted to underline almost every line on every page.  This book is now soaked with handwritten stars and scribbled underlines.  I can recommend few books more highly than this one.  This is an early candidate for book of the year.

I read this book in preparation for an upcoming (and coming soon) sermon series covering the letters to the churches in Revelation.  While my sermon series is limited to the first three chapters, this magisterial work covers the entirety of Revelation.  It is filled with poetic language, insightful application, and tremendous commentary.  This book contains as much scholarship as any commentary you can find – yet is superior in spiritual reflection and prose.  Interest in Revelation?  Start here.

Frontier Memoirs


IMG_0416This is a strange category but I needed a place to put two great ones.  Flowers and Fruits sent me on a rabbit trail of hunting down and reading similar books.  Here’s my write up from my August reading log:

In 1835 ZN Morrell left Tennessee to preach the gospel in primitive Texas.  How primitive?  At one point Morrell describes Houston as a place with few tents.  The book is essentially Morrell’s journey as he travelled across Texas preaching the gospel, planting churches, and forming Baptist associations.  Along the way he ran into trouble ~ to include fights to the death with Native Americans.  In many ways the book is an inspiration tale of missionary zeal.  In many other ways, it is a sad story of contradictions.

I have a loose and distant point of connection with the author.  ZN Morrell was the very first moderator of the Waco Baptist Association in 1860.  I served as moderator of Waco Regional Baptist Association from 2012 to 2014.  I remind my wife of this fact every time I picked up the book.  She always responded with a dull, “I know.”


BibleinpocketI read this book as part of my rabbit trail hunt started by the previous book.  I read it in December ~ just in time for my favorite books of the year.  Here’s the write up from when it appeared in my log:

I always appreciate a book recommendation but I rarely put them to use.  I’m so thankful this one was passed along to me.  As the title suggests it is a quick paced volume that tells a wealth of stories about frontier religion.  It covers everything from preaching and praying to gun totting and bad boy ministers.  In the mix are wild stories about revivals and denominations.

Phares makes great use of anecdotes and extremely obscure autobiographies and documents.  Each chapter stands alone and can be read in a handful of minutes.  My favorite gem came from a congregation member’s feedback when the new preacher asked for a critique of the sermon.   The critique was three fold:  1) You read your sermon 2) You read it poorly and 3) It wasn’t worth reading.  Ouch.  A preacher should learn very quickly to avoid fishing  for sermon compliments … or critiques.



What Happened CothenShocked I never read this one before! Here’s my write up from November:

I found this book by accident and I’m so glad that I did.  After reading a few pages, I voiced out loud, “How have I never read this before?!”   Cothen writes about the conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention as an insider.  After many years in pastoral ministry, Cothen served as the president of Oklahoma Baptist University (1968 to 1970), president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (1970 to 1974) and president of the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board (1975 to 1984).  The story he tells of the conflict is not a pretty one.  He describes a move from a focus on missions to a focus on fragmentation, a spirit of cooperation to a spirit of schism.  Yet, he shares the story with what the reader can sense is a broken heart and he does so with much grace.

For those unfamiliar with the Baptist conflicts of the 70’s and 80’s … I dare not attempt to summarize.  Simply put it was a struggle between “conservative” and “liberals”  but would be more accurately described as a unnecessary fights between fundamentalists and moderates.  If your looking to read on the subject, I can’t recommend a better book than this volume.


run with horsesThis is the second Peterson book on the list.  On top of that ~ this could have easily been my favorite book on the year.  Out of a 100 books I read this year ~ Peterson came in at 1a and 1b.  Here’s my write up from July:

I considered Eugene Peterson a mentor, even though we’ve never met.  He has taught me countless lessons through the pages of his work.  He has a reserved shelf in my office.  In some strange way, I find comfort in knowing his wisdom and experience is at my fingertips.

I was a few chapters into this work when Peterson made social media waves due to a interview in which he seemingly expressed a change in his view on marriage.  This revelation caused a dust up among blogs, Christian news sources, and booksellers.  After a few days of hysteria, Peterson clarified his statements and affirmed the traditional view.  I don’t know how to file the entire ordeal, but I do know that Peterson’s  impact on my pastoral identity is set in stone.

This book is a great illustration of Peterson’s academic capability and his pastoral sensitivity.  The book covers the book of Jeremiah, not in its entirety, but in great detail.  Peterson pulls certain passages throughout the prophet’s writing and provides historical details, insightful comments, and an overdose of congregational application.  A great companion volume for those studying Jeremiah.

Transcending Mission: The Eclipse of a Modern Tradition by Michael Stroope

Transcending Mission

Not only is this a significant contribution to the field of missiology but it will also be the focus of a section of my doctoral project.  Here’s the write up from my April reading log:

This is the first of five books that I finished for my doctorate of ministry studies.  Dr. Stroope was a professor of mine in seminary.  I overheard many conversations related to the topic of this book.  It’s fun to see it in print.

The book is an investigation into the language of mission. In part one Stroope provides an assessment of various methods and means through which modern interpreters have justified and historicized missions. In part two Stroope details the origins and modern use of missions. In part three Stroope provides an analysis of modern mission. He states his intention as an appraisal of the long course of mission rhetoric in an effort to identify the source and severity of the mission problem. His goal is to offer language that more appropriately expresses the church’s activity. Ultimately, Stroope argues that the modern mission movement is falling out of use. He claims it is a project of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Fearful of the church defending tradition and its language rather than defending the gospel, Stroope offers an alternative in his epilogue.

He offers the language of “pilgrim witness.” Pilgrim offers the image of a people who journey towards a greater vision. Witness offers the ideas of beholding and tellingBeholding is to be captured by a vision that is revealed and thus is transformative. To tell is to do more than recount events but to convey with one’s words and life what has been experienced. Stroope argues that pilgrim witness is kingdom of God language rather than language of tradition.


Judges and Ruth.jpgMy original list did not have this volume on it solely because I was thinking about books … but not commentaries.  Yet, upon later reflection this one came to mind.  It deserves a spot.  Here’s my write up from the August log:

I love commentaries.  I’ve amassed a large collection by digging through used bookstores all across the great state of Texas.  Yet, rarely do I read a commentary from front cover to back cover.  Commentaries are works of reference and I treat them as such.  I pick them up to study a particular passage and then return them to the self.  Yet, this was not the case with this volume.

In my personal Bible study I read through Judges and Ruth in August.  As part of my morning routine, after reading a chapter or two from the Biblical text, I picked up Way’s commentary.  It was a big blessing to me.  I love the Teach the Text Commentary Series.  It’s format is great for personnel study and for quick references when looking to teach a book of the Bible.  I’ve been a part of a subscription service through Baker Publishing for a number of years that sends me a volume from this series every 60 days at a discounted price.  Unfortunately, the series has been discontinued.  There are a few more volumes to be published but the entire series will not be completed.  I’m bummed.

Back to the topic at hand.  Volumes in commentary series are not made a equal.  Even in a tremendous serious some volumes fall flat and others rise to the top.  This volume is a brilliant piece of scholarship while holding tight to pastoral sensitivity and practical insight.



American Ulysses.jpgI read a ton of presidential biographies and this was my favorite of 2017.  Ron Chernow released a Grant biography at the end of the year that will arrive on my doorstep tomorrow.  I’ll see how the two compare.  Here’s my write up from June (I mention reading Grant’s personal memoirs.  Still need to do that):

You might get tired of me raving about a thick, dense presidential biography … but here I go again.  I loved this one.  I loved it in part because of how much I learned about this bearded wonder.  Prior to this book my knowledge of Grant was extremely superficial.  I knew the basics: He was a successful Civil War general.  He was president.  He was known for hitting the bottle hard.  White provides a much fuller picture and details a man that really gripped me.

White deconstructs popular caricatures of Grant.  Rather than painting Grant as a drunkard who lacked intellectual ability and curiosity, White shows Grant’s love of reading, deep faith, military and leadership genius, love of family and downplays drunkard myths.  White also gives great detail of Grant’s war efforts at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and Vicksburg among others.  Yet, it never approaches overload for those not interested in military minutiae.

I will now turn to read Grant’s personal memoirs, widely known as a work of literary genius.  Published by Mark Twain, these memoirs were sold around the country by individual agents who offered various prices according to the selected binding.  Hundreds of thousands of copies were sold shortly after Grant’s death.



EnduranceAnother one that I read in December.  Here’s the write up:

This is the type of book that stays with me for a while.  It tells a powerful story about a subject of which I no nothing.  It will send me on a rabbit trail of reading and searching for information.  I’ve already acquired another book on space and watched the first episode of Planet Earth.  My wife will quickly grow weary of my new obsession.

Who knew that astronauts perform dental operations on each other in space?  Who knew spending a year is space exposes an astronaut to radiation levels likely to cause them to die of cancer?  It was fascinating to read of the high level of international relations that takes place through space exploration.  It was fascinating to read of the toll space explorations takes on one physically and upon one’s family.

Kelly does a fabulous job providing insight to a world unknown by many of us (sentence of full of intentional puns).

Born To Run: A Hidden tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall

I’m still waiting on the movie.  Here the write up from my April reading log:

Born to runGeez. Another book on the sport of running that had me hooked from preface to  conclusion. McDougall details his true experience with the Tarahumara Indians who have developed the insane ability to run hundreds of miles through the Copper Canyons of Mexico.  At points the book reads like fiction and at other points it reads like an academic science journal.  The end result is entertainment … and a book that makes me want to run a 100 mile race.  It will never happen.  I could never do it.  But boy do I want to do it.

The book ends with the Tarahumra, an extremely secluded group, running a 50 mile race on their home turf against a handful of America’s best ultra~runners.  The book is filled with eccentric characters and well written prose.  This book begs for a film adaptation.  Guess what?  After typing the previous sentence, I googled “Born to Run film adaptation.”  Turns out the film is in development staring Matthew McConaughey.  Alright, alright, alright.  Go ahead.  Take my money now.



ElmerGantryI can’t tell you how many times this story line has run through my brain in the months since completing it.  Ultimately, that’s the sign of a great book.  Here is the May reading log write up:

This was my nightly reading while in NYC.  Its a doorstop of a book and I love my aging, weathered copy.  Within its pages Lewis provides a scathing look religion and specifically preachers and the gullible sheep that follow them.  It is a satirical work (written in 1926) that gives an outsider’s glimpse into the religious activity of America in fundamentalist and evangelical circles.    The Reverend Elmer Gantry is drunken womanizer who is led into ministry due to natural gifts and the chance at easy money.  After numerous (and I mean numerous) twist and turns, Gantry finds himself a successful Methodist minister despite his continued sexual indiscretions and blatant hypocrisy.  Lewis did research for the book by spending time in Kansas City with a handful of preachers.    The character of Sharon Falconer was loosely based on events in the career of radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson who founded the Pentecostal Christian denomination know as the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

While I should be offended and mortified by Lewis’ view of the church and preachers, I found the book to be enthralling and might list it as one of my favorites.  It is a well targeted critique at those that pursue ministry simply as a career rather than a calling.  May I never be counted among them.  It is also a great perspective on how those outside the church view the hypocrisy they see from inside the church.  May I resemble Christ more than I resemble a hypocrite and may I, along with the church, fix my eyes on Jesus.  


Small BombsI’m contemplating a reread of this one in the days ahead.  Here’s the write up from April:

This book was fascinating to me on many different levels.  First, it is a book that speaks to our current global climate in which much of the world is far too familiar with terrorism.  Especially terrorism intimately linked to religion.  This novel highlights this climate by following the impact of terrorism through the lives of various different characters living in India ~ both Muslims and Hindus.  Second, you also get a glimpse of broken people attempting to find wholeness through various efforts ~ both successful and unsuccessful.   Third, on a personal level I really enjoy works of fiction that depict cultures unlike my own.

This book does contain some graphic content in terms of terrorism and (for very brief moments) sexual content.  I offer that as a warning not as criticism.  I see both elements of graphic content as the author’s attempt to speak toward brokenness seeking wholeness.

I read the opening chapters over the course of a month until the storyline took an unexpected change of direction.  At the point of surprise, I finished the bulk of the book over the course of a weekend.

7 thoughts on “Favorite Books of 2017

  1. I really like Reversed Thunder on Revelation too! I found it (in good condition) for about 10 cents in the bins at my Goodwill “by the pound” store – books 25 cents a pound with some days half off. I have found some surprisingly good Christian books. Anyhow, I guess Peterson takes an Idealist approach to Revelation but even if that is not your preferred interpretive grid, the way he notes the major themes that apply across time (“last word on…”) makes it useful no matter how you might actually interpret Revelation.


    1. My appreciation for Peterson continues to grow. I also have a tremendous appreciation for finding dirt cheap books! Thanks for reading. I just listened to your recent sermon on Jesus our high priest.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember the Sunday FBC Crawford took care of the Sunday services for John Crowderand the church in West after the explosion. I was with TBM Disaster Relief and was privileged to be a part of the Songs of Summer sermon when your chosen hymn that service was It Is Well With My Soul. Very poignant for all of those in shock after that event. God used it in my life as well.

    On another note, you might enjoy reading “Called For Life” by Kent and Amber Brantley, the missionary couple who worked in Liberia during the Ebola epidemic. Just a thought.

    Thanks for the good blogs. Keep ‘em coming.

    Troy Lilly


    1. Troy ~ Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I’m grateful for your reflections on that Sunday in West. I’m amazed at the number of stories that have sprung up from that day. God used it in many powerful ways. I’m thankful I was able to play a small role.

      I appreciate the book recommendation! I’ve already added it to my book list!

      Blessings to your work with TBM. I pray for that group often. It is a needed ministry and has been a tremendous witness for Jesus in recent days.

      Jeff Gravens


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