Best Twenty Books of the Last Twenty Years

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Over the years, I have turned down lots of invitations to Australia—even though I would love to go there—because I can’t stand the thought of that long of an airplane ride. This year I wish I were in Australia on New Year’s Eve just so I could get a fourteen hour head-start on seeing 2020 go away. But, this is not just the end of the worst year ever, but also the end of a decade. 

As a thought experiment, I asked myself what I would choose as the most formative books of the past twenty years. These are not, necessarily, the best books of the last two decades in an objective sense, but the most shaping of my life and thought (so far as I can remember). And, of course, I am relying on really faulty memory here. As Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” 

But I’ll try.

I’ve chosen these books by asking what books have changed my mind dramatically about something, or permanently caused me to see things in an obviously-to-me different way. That doesn’t mean that I agree with everything in these books. As a matter of fact, some of what I’ve learned has been in the arguing with ideas. Sometimes the author has persuaded me of his or her point of view; sometimes not. Either way, though, I have been changed. 

There’s one book that I’ve left off this list, because it didn’t seem to fit with the others, and I will do that one in a separate post on “The Book That Shaped Me the Most Over the Last Twenty Years.” 

Rather than giving a synopsis of why each book is about, I have included a key quote from each one. Maybe I will bring back “Reading in Exile” to explain why each of these were chosen. 

Here they are—in order of chronology of publication, not of importance. 

Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow (Counterpoint, 2000) 

“I whisper over to myself the way of loss, the names of the dead. One by one, we lose our loved ones, our friends, our powers of work and pleasure, our landmarks, the days of our allotted time. One by one, the way we lose them, they return to us and are treasured up in our hearts. Grief affirms them, preserves them, sets the cost. Finally a man stands up alone, scoured and charred like a burnt tree, having lost everything and (at the cost only of its loss) found everything, and is ready to go. Now I am ready.” 

Wendell Berry, Life Is a Miracle: An  Essay Against Modern Superstition (Counterpoint, 2000)

“The most radical influence of reductive science has been the virtually universal adoption of the idea that the world, its creatures, and all the parts of its creatures are machines—that is, that there is no difference between creature and artifice, birth and manufacture, thought and computation. Our language, wherever it is used, is now almost invariably conditioned by the assumption that fleshly bodies are machines full of mechanisms, fully compatible with the mechanisms of medicine, industry, and commerce; and that minds are computers fully compatible with electronic technology.” 

Czeslaw Milosz, To Begin Where I Am: Selected Essays (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001) 

“Perhaps my life was triumphant not because it lacked evil and defeats but because I could see with my own eyes how what was just a vague promise is slowly being fulfilled and how that which I suspected of false greatness is disintegrating. The concealed structure of reality is reasonable. To assert this in this terrifying century is a great deal. Nonetheless, almost never, with the exception of a few brief moments, did the conviction abandon me that sooner or later the absurd will fail, and this is what distinguished me from my despairing contemporaries. Impossible to name, accessible only to intuition, the very fabric of movement seemed to me miraculous.” 

Leon Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Free Press, 2003)

“Why does the Bible present knowledge as if it were embodied in a tree, obtainable by eating? What, for openers, is a tree? A tree is a seemingly independent being, self-developing, self-sustaining, and apparently self-caused. But seeming is not being. God caused this tree to come out of the ground—like all trees. The tree’s appearance of independence—its on-its-ownness—is deceptive. Though separate and distinct, the tree in fact belong to the earth. Though it appears lofty to the human eye, it is in fact of lowly origins and contains no breath of life. A tree may be attractive to sight and tempting for food, but it is silent; it has nothing useful to teach about life. In short, a tree is a natural, terrestrial, low but seemingly lofty, attractive (to sight) but amoral being, seemingly—but only seemingly—autonomous and self-sufficing.” 

N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God: (Fortress, 2003) 

“The resurrection constitutes Jesus as the world’s true sovereign, the son of god who claims absolute allegiance from everyone and everything within creation. He is the start of the creator’s new world: its pilot project, indeed its pilot.” 

Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003) 

“In his view, the present age has no use for anything that cannot be bought and sold or theorized about. So the present age has no use for the Christian faith. But the believer, he though, should count this as an advantage, and see the present age as preferable to ‘Christendom,’ when the churches prospered. ‘In the old Christendom,’ he explained, ‘everyone was a Christian and hardly anyone thought twice about it. But in the present age the survivor of theory and consumption becomes a wayfarer in the desert, like St. Anthony: which is to say, open to signs.’”

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (Picador, 2004) 

“This is an important thing, which I have told many people, and which my father told me, and which his father told him. When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation? If you confront insult or antagonism, your first impulse will be to respond in kind. But if you think, as it were, This is an emissary sent from the Lord, and some benefit is intended for me, first of all the occasion to demonstrate my faithfulness, the chance to show that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me, you are free to act otherwise than as circumstances would seem to dictate. You are free to act by your own lights. You are freed at the same time of the impulse to hate or resent that person. He would probably laugh at the thought that the Lord sent him to you for your benefit (and his), but that is the perfection of the disguise, his own ignorance of it.” 

David L. Chappell, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (University of North Carolina Press, 2004)

“Though anti-racists were not cowed by the power and popularity of those lies, neither were they content with the superior sophistication or righteousness of their own view. They could not trust in the inevitable triumph of truth and fairness. Instead, they had to fight determinedly and intelligently. Given that they could and di so fight, their superior understanding of human nature helps explain their greater strength and performance in battle. Is it possible to imagine where one might attain such a realistic understanding of human nature if not in the Bible?” 

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Belknap, 2007) 

“I have been drawing a portrait of the world we have lost, one in which spiritual forces impinged on porous agents, in which the social was grounded in the sacred and secular time in higher times, a society moreover in which the play of structure and anti-structure was held in equilibrium; and this human drama unfolded within a cosmos. All this has been dismantled and replaced by something quite different in the transformation we often roughly call disenchantment. How did this arise?” 

Annie Dillard, The Maytrees (Harper, 2007) 

“Comically, when he took his last outdoor shower a week ago, he did not know it would be his last. Nothing marked or would mark his last piece of pie, swim, tune—as presently he would see his last everything, kid, dawn, spoon, and familiar face—if he had not already. When he knew he would die, he found it impossible, then sad, to near the falls’ lip, to yield to the ripping loss of the colored world and himself in it. Where would—say—literature be, if everyone mattered less than a speck? In all his work he avoided sentimental topics, ay love and grief. But they came along, didn’t they.” 

John Updike, Endpoint and Other Poems (Knopf, 2009)

“Why go to Sunday school, though surily, 

and not believe a bit of what was taught? 

The desert shepherds in their scratchy robes

Undoubtedly existed, and Israel’s defeats—

the Temple in its sacredness destroyed 

by Babylon and Rome Yet Jews kept faith 

and passed the payers, the crabbed rites, 

from table to table as Christians mocked.

“We mocked, but took. The timbrel creed of praise 

gives spirit to the daily; blood tinges lips. 

The tongue reposes in papyrus pleas, 

Saying, Surely—magnificent, that ‘surely’—

goodness and mercy shall follow me all 

the days of my life, my life, forever.”

Seth Godin, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? (Penguin, 2010) 

“There are two reasons why it’s vital to know whom you are working for. The first is that understanding your audience allows you to target your work and to get feedback that will help you do it better next time.” 

“The other reason? Because it tell you whom to ignore.”

“It’s impossible to make art for everyone. There are too many conflicting goals and there’s far too much noise. Art for everyone is mediocre, bland, and ineffective.”

“If you don’t pinpoint your audience, you end up making your art for the loudest, crankiest critics. And that’s a waste.” 

James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2010)

“The tragedy is that in the name of resisting the internal deterioration of faith and the corruption of the world around them, many Christians—and Christian conservatives most significantly—unwittingly embrace some of the most corrosive aspects of the cultural disintegration they decry. By nurturing its resentments, sustaining them through a discourse of negation toward outsiders, and in cases pursing their will to power, they become functional Nietzscheans, participating in the very cultural breakdown they so ardently strive to resist.” 

Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale University Press, 2010) 

“My thesis is that for us as human beings there are two fundamentally opposed realities, two different modes of experience; that each is of ultimate importance in bringing about the recognizably human world; and that their difference is rooted in the bihemispheric structure of the brain. It follows that the hemispheres need to cooperate, but I believe they are in fact involved in a sort of power struggle, and that this explains many aspects of contemporary Western culture.”

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon, 2012) 

“Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. Moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously, long before moral reasoning has a chance to get started, and those first intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning. If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you…the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and that rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning—the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes-the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior.”

Paul K. Moser, The Severity of God: Religion and Philosophy Reconceived (Cambridge University Press, 2013) 

“A Christian philosophy, as suggested, must accommodate the heart of what it is to be Christian, namely Gethsemane union with God in Christ as Lord. Otherwise, the philosophy does not merit the title ‘Christian.’ The union in question is no mere correct belief that something about Christ is true. Instead, it calls for volitional cooperation and companionship with Christ, who empowers and guides how we think, not just what we think. Accordingly, the rare fruit of the Spirit in Christ—love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, and so on—should apply even to Christian thinking and thinkers. Divine redemption values the inward process of human cooperation and companionship with Christ as much as any objective reality. Christian philosophy should follow suit, under the preeminence of God in Christ. It also should acknowledge that communing with and obeying God can awaken one to otherwise neglected realities and evidence of God, as God emerges more clearly as ‘Abba, Father’ in one’s experience.”

“We face a serious problem: the frequent divorce of Christian belief and philosophy from the Christian foundation of the inward Christ and Gethsemane union with God in Christ. The result is correct intellectual belief without the needed divine power, guidance, and companionship from the inward Christ.” 

Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015)

“Stealing past the watchful dragons, Lewis was able to portray a Christian cosmos sung into being ex nihilo, marred in its beginning, redeemed by divine self-sacrifice, and finally dissolved, at the eschaton, into the real Narnia and the real England, into the story ‘which goes on forever and every chapter is better than the one before.’”

Larry Hurtado, Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016)

“A successful religious movement must retain a certain level of continuity with its cultural setting, and yet it must also ‘maintain a medium level of tension’ with that setting as well. That is, a movement must avoid being seen as completely alien or incomprehensible. But, on the other hand, it also must have what I mean by distinctives, distinguishing features that set it apart in tis cultural setting, including the behavioral demands made upon its converts. There has to be a clear difference between being an insider to the group and an outsider.” 

David Whyte, Everything Is Waiting for You (Many Rivers Press, 2016) 

“…at the bottom of the dark well 

of our going there’s another 

door of hospitality, 

another recognition 

that the old intuitions may be true 

about being watched over 

and that the timing 

of it all is not entirely 

in our hands but held 

in common with every other hand we touch

and that the first revelation 

after death might be 

some kind of gathering, 

the first summation something like 

a dance night in Waterford City

at the height of our youth, 

the tide of faces 

ready to meet and welcome us back…”

Eugene Peterson, As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God (Waterbrook, 2017) 

“The Christian life is the lifelong practice of attending to the details of congruence—congruence between ends and means, congruence between what we do and the way we do it, congruence between what is written in Scripture and our living out of what is written, congruence between a ship and its prow, congruence between preaching and living, congruence between the sermon and what is lived in both preacher and congregation, the congruence of the Word made flesh in Jesus with what is lived in our flesh.”

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).