As a child, I loved reading. My mother can tell so many stories about reading to me as an infant or me beginning to read. But, for a long time, I lost this love. There were a variety of reasons behind this. But in 2019, that love was revived. I now make a concerted effort to read as much as I can. As I am getting my Ph.D in mathematics, naturally I spend a substantial amount of time reading books about math. But I read a variety of other topics this year as well, in topics ranging from hermeneutics, theology, cosmology, and philosophy. I find learning about all these things fascinating, and I want to share some of the books I’ve found most interesting and thought provoking. It’s hard to make a top 10 list for something so subjective, so I’ve done the best I could to include a variety of topics that different people might find interesting, and I’ve added some brief commentary below each to explain why I enjoyed each.
10: Mathematics for Human Flourishing (by Francis Su)
This is one of the best books I’ve read that pulls away wool from the public’s perception of what mathematics is. While the public tends to think of mathematics, and often mathematicians, as purely logical and data-focused, this book sheds away that stereotype to reveal the deeply aesthetic, societal, and emotional aspects of mathematics. I highly recommend the book for anyone who wants to see math in a different and beautiful light.
9: There is a God (by Antony Flew)
Antony Flew was, for most of his life, one of the most famous philosophical atheists in the world. He engaged in public debates defending atheism, and wrote many books in its favor. However, towards the end of his life, this great skeptic can to believe that in a kind of deism (a belief that there is a God but which neither affirms nor denies any particular religious tradition). And the primary reason for this, which might be surprising to many, is actually modern biology. This book goes through the evidence that convinced him that there must be some kind of God in an easy to read and objective way.
8: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (by C.S. Lewis)
This is a pretty well known book, so it probably doesn’t need too much of my commentary. This is a beautiful story (also a movie) written by one of the most engaging writers of the twentieth century, C.S. Lewis. Good for children and adults, bringing both childlike wonder and deep questions to the table, this book is a good and quick read for anyone.
7: Knowledge and Christian Belief (by Alvin Plantinga)
Alvin Plantinga is an extremely influential philosopher from Notre Dame. He came into his career in a time when philosophical circles thought that there was no reason to take people who believe in any kind of God seriously. Plantinga essentially single-handedly changed their minds, and now modern philosophy has fruitful debate between atheists and theists. This book is a summary version of one of Plantinga’s most important works, Warranted Christian Belief, that addresses in a careful and thoughtful manner those people who claim that religious belief is irrational (as distinct from those who merely say it is false). The book addresses such topics as misguided secular definitions of the word faith, the witness of the Holy Spirit in Christianity, the nature of rationality, and what it means to know anything at all.
6: Where is God in a Coronavirus World? (by John Lennox)
John Lennox is a philosopher and mathematician at Oxford University, and a prolific author. In this book, Lennox takes a look at the COVID pandemic through a calmer lens, taking seriously all the suffering and yet not resorting to panic, taking seriously the physical, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of the world in which we find ourselves. Asking questions such as “why does God allow viruses” and providing scientific as well as spiritual answers, this book is a great and short read if you are struggling to grapple with the pandemic as a Christian (or even as a non-Christian).
5: Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes (by E. Randolph Richards & Brandon J. O’Brien)
Most books written by authors today are easy for us to read, because we share a common culture with the authors. But when you read a book from an ancient time or a faraway place, things get tricky. You may not be aware of the assumptions of that culture, you may not be aware of their way of life and the things they care about. And because you don’t know these things, you are apt to misunderstand a lot of what they write. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes does a deep dive into the many ways we as 21st century Westerners misread what the 1st century-and-earlier Eastern/Middle Eastern authors of the Bible were trying to tell us. The authors go through their own process as Westerners of learning about Eastern ways of looking at life, including such topics as family, individuals, morality, laws, the honor-shame paradigm, and much more, and show how what we think the Jewish authors of the Biblical text meant isn’t quite what they actually meant. This book is a must-read if you want to better learn what the Bible really teaches.
4: The Question of God (by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr.)
Many great men and women have wrestled over the difficult questions of life – one of which, of course, is whether or not there is a God, and if so what God is like. This book is an exploration of some of the big questions – ‘God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life’ per the subtitle of the book – through two very different sets of eyes – C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud. They were roughly contemporary, and although they never met, their ideas have an interesting and enlightening back-and-forth. For those who want to explore the lives and ideas of either of these two great men, I’d highly recommend picking up this book.
3: Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus (by Nabeel Qureshi)
This book is riveting and challenging to anyone. Nabeel Qureshi grew up Muslim, spent several years comparing the Scriptures and historical evidence behind Christianity and Islam, and eventually became a Christian through that study and through visions and dreams about Jesus. The evidence does come up in this book, but the book is more a story of his life, focusing more on spiritual and emotional realities of his Muslim upbringing, his friendship with Christians and those of other faiths, and the differences he saw between the Pakistani Muslim culture of his family and the Western culture than surrounded him. No matter your background, no matter what you think about Islam or Christianity, there is much to learn from Nabeel’s clear and eloquent writing style. By reading this book, not only will you get to see a very interesting life play out, you will learn about various cultures and how they interact in an individual’s life.
2: Tactics (by Greg Koukl)
I consider this a must-read for anyone who wants to do public dialogue. It should be required reading. The best summary I could give of what the book is about would be how to tactfully avoid unhelpful conversations by moving conversations in productive directions. The book itself focuses on doing this in religious and/or political conversations, but the core lessons apply anywhere and, even if you disagree with the author’s opinions, you can still see clearly how the strategies discussed work. To give a taste of the book, my favorite conversational tactic is called the Road Runner Tactic, and it gives conversational strategies for pointing out self-refuting ideas, which are ideas that fails to live up to their own standard. By mastering this book, your conversations about any topic – and especially controversial ones – will become much more productive and helpful for everyone, including yourself.
1: God, Stephen Hawking, and the Multiverse (by David Hutchings & David Wilkinson)
This is an absolutely brilliant book. If you want to understand the life of the great physicist and thinker Stephen Hawking, my main recommendation would be this book, probably even more than Hawking’s own books. I say this because the authors have made Hawking’s scientific and philosophical thinking incredibly accessible using helpful stories and analogies that make the whole book engaging. You don’t have to know any special amount of math, science, or philosophy, and the book is nonetheless able to take the reader through Hawking’s biggest and most influential ideas, both through the eyes of the public and the eyes of academia.
I’ve read many more books than just 10 this year, and I felt I had to leave off so many awesome books when I made this list, to I wanted to throw on a few at the end as honorable mentions. These are listed in no particular order.
- Cold-Case Christianity (by J. Warner Wallace)
- Like crime shows? J. Warner Wallace has been on some for his work as a cold-case detective. As an atheist, Wallace used his investigative skills on the Bible and came to the conclusion that Jesus really did rise from the dead and that Christianity is the truth. In this book, Wallace shows how the objective tools that a detective uses at a crime scene can reveal the truth of the Bible in an easy-to-understand way that connects very closely with concepts that we already understand well from our favorite TV crime dramas.
- Infinity, Causation, and Paradox (by Alexander Pruss)
- This one is really dense, and you’d need some background in set theory and probability to follow it, but it is utterly fascinating. The book delves into a huge range of paradoxes about infinity – like strange lotteries with infinitely many tickets, infinitely long sticks, and infinitely long chains of cause-and-effect – and analyzes them mathematically and philosophically with the goal of resolving as many of the paradoxes as possible in ‘one fell swoop.’ The solution given in the book, causal finitism, holds that although perhaps infinitely many things exist, only finitely many causes can contribute to any event. The book ends with a discussion that suggests that, if causal finitism is true, then there ought to be a First Uncaused Cause of everything that exists.
- The Kalam Cosmological Argument (by William Lane Craig)
- Easy to read for a work of academic philosophy. This book covers evidence for God’s existence in a form called the Kalam cosmological argument. Craig traces the origins of the argument in medieval Islamic theology and traces the lineage of these thoughts to modern times. Craig then reformulates the argument in a stronger form, and draws of evidence from big bang cosmology, thermodynamics, and metaphysics to argue that the universe has a transcendent cause. (Worth noting: this book was written in the 1970’s, and the section on science would need to be much longer to fully discuss modern developments in cosmology. But the discussion is still close enough to modern as to be useful).
- Church History in Plain Language (by Bruce Shelly)
- Overview of the entire two thousand year history of the Christian church in, as the title suggests, plain and easy to understand language. The book is broken up in a natural way, and covers topics from early church councils to the formation and function of monasteries to denominational differences and so much more. Highly recommend as a introduction to the long and complicated history of the Christian church.
- God and the Astronomers (by Robert Jastrow)
- If science is the study of what what causes the effects we see around us, what caused the universe to spring into existence? World-renowned astrophysicist Dr. Robert Jastrow takes the reader through the evidence for the Big Bang, why at first that evidence was hated and rejected by atheist scientists, and the eventual acceptance by the scientific community of a theory that felt uncomfortably like a Biblical creation event.
- Surprised by Hope (by N.T. Wright)
- Renowned scholar and Anglican bishop N.T. Wright explores the Biblical messages about the afterlife we all miss… it has never been about heaven at all. Wright delves into the importance in the Bible of the real bodily resurrection, both of Christ and eventually of our own bodies, and the related deep connections between this life and the life to come that are all to often ignored.
- Tales of Impossibility (by Dave Richeson)
- A fascinating look into the 2000 year history of big problems that ancient Greek were unable to solve, the most famous of which would be “squaring the circle.” The book goes through the history and various approaches taken to the problems until they were finally solved in the 1800’s using a surprising method.
Thank you for taking the time to read through this list. I hope that you’ve found something that might interest you that you can pick up in 2021!