1. The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom by Helen Thorpe (2017). Thorpe reveals the experiences of refugee teenagers from all over the world as they endeavor to learn English and build new lives in America. From a Denver classroom to a Congo village, she doesn’t oversimplify the challenges or complexities, but invites us to ponder the juxtapositions of heart-breaking evil and beautiful, resilient goodness. To flee tragedy, overcome trauma, embrace opportunity, doggedly succeed, and then look back and consider the obligation that success gives to the rest of the world – these refugees have much to teach and remind us what it truly means to be “American.” (My full review)
2. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson (2014). Every chapter in this book wrecked me – and inspired me. With cinematic twists and turns, the true story follows a successful black man wrongfully accused and convicted of murdering a white woman in the late 1980’s, offering a fascinating window into the depths of the American criminal justice system that have as much to do with class as race. Stevenson gives us a painfully close look at prejudice and injustice, but through the lens of the long-suffering commitment and neighborly, Christ-like love that leads to progress, redemption, and hope. (My full review)
3. Our 50-State Border Crisis by Howard G. Buffet (2018). The son of Warren Buffet draws on experience in philanthropy and law enforcement to present personal stories and explain everything from the political collapses of Central American countries to why desperate people flee for the United States to the ways coyotes and cartels take advantage of them along the way. With a palpably deep concern for all involved, Buffet significantly challenged my political views with a nuanced defense of both compassion and the rule of law, arguing that they must go together in a way that affirms some conservative ideas while also rejecting some of their current policies. (My full review)
4. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond (2017). From the trailer park to the inner city, walk a mile in the shoes of poor American renters and see how spiraling crises lead to getting evicted and struggling to find new places to live at the bottom of the moldy, cracked-window, broken-appliance rental market. This engaging narrative will help you understand the mindsets behind harmful short-term decisions and long-term policy consequences, but also simply feel a little bit of what it’s like to be poor, whether you’re a conservative or liberal, Christian or secular humanist, who wants to love their neighbors and find positive, empowering ways to truly help those in need. (My full review)
5. Red Rising series by Pierce Brown (2014-2016). Fast-paced sci-fi thrillers with epic adventuring across the solar system. I almost quit early in the second book due to the gratuitous violence and the main character’s uncanny ability to always perfectly recover from said violence, but the astonishingly clever plot twists kept me going, and the subtle character developments and nuanced sociological world-building made me glad I finished the trilogy (although I just realized that apparently the author has kept going).
6. 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson (2018). If you push past the politicized reputations and read Peterson for yourself, you’ll find a cautious thinker ultimately concerned with how to respond to the tragedies of life and alleviate unnecessary suffering instead of buckling under the weight of it. Weaving metaphors and archetypes from history and religion, Peterson offers useful and thought-provoking wisdom about truth, listening, endurance, and more.
7. Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe by Simon Conway Morris (2004). A rare prominent evolutionary scientist who is also a committed Christian, Morris argues that the wonders of life and the universe are less random and more purposeful than most secular folks are willing to allow. Amidst a deep dive into convergent evolution, Morris also marvels at the “eerie perfection” of the genetic code, pokes fun at the irrational exuberance of abiogenesis researchers, elaborates on our finely-tuned placement in the galaxy, and more. (My full review)
8. Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser (2013). With a nail-biting true story of a missile accident in Arkansas interspersed with a general history of nuclear weapons (full of under-appreciated close calls), Schlosser unsettlingly suggests that nuclear weapons have historically posed greater threats to the fallible humans trying to handle them than their enemies. I couldn’t put it down and learned a lot. (My full review)
9. The Hole in our Gospel by Richard Stearns (2009). Through a series of remarkable “coincidences,” Stearns left his role as CEO of a multi-million dollar fine china company to become the next president of World Vision. Stearns’ personal story adds a fresh touch to the well-worn but important genre of books challenging comfortable American Christians not to limit our faith to personal salvation and avoid a scary world in cocoons of luxury, but to sacrificially transform it by participating in Jesus’ building of the kingdom of God and establishing justice and righteousness on the earth. (My full review)
10. Big Dog, Little Dog by P. D. Eastman – An insightful metaphor on positive inter-class relationships and conflict resolution. So I good I read it over thirty times.
And It Was Good: Reflections on Beginnings by Madeleine L’Engle – I’d never heard of this non-fiction L’Engle work before I found it in a thrift store, but I enjoyed her thought-provoking unorthodox theological musings – from the communal dimension of what it means to be made in God’s image to her argument for using non-gendered pronouns for God.
Why I Left / Why I Stayed by Tony & Bart Campolo – A prominent evangelical and his son discuss why the one has stayed a Christian and why the other has left. (My full review)
Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter – A looooong amusing and intellectually stimulating tome that uses computer concepts to explore patterns in music, art, and science.
The Very Worst Missionary by Jamie Wright – A necessary addition to the conversation of how a lot of well-intentioned missionary work has gone terribly wrong and how it can become a little bit better.