At the beginning of 2016, I set a goal of reading 50 books this year. It was an ambitious goal but I thought I could do it. It turns out that life happened, 2017 is upon us, and I only ended up reading 36 books this year. Not as much as I would have liked, but probably more than I would have read if I hadn't been aiming at 50. Out of the 36 books I read in 2016, I picked my 5 favorites and have included a brief review of each. These are not necessarily the best of books that were published in 2016, but are my top picks (in no particular order) among the books that I read in 2016. Read one of them and maybe you'll find a new favorite!
The Way Thais Lead: Face as Social Capital
This was an excellent, well-written book with lots of insight about the different types of "face" that Thai people (especially leaders) strive for... and fear losing. The author draws out the implication for relationships between leaders and followers, and drives towards a conclusion that presents an alternative indigenous way of leadership in Thai culture that flies in the face of less noble (but more common) alternatives. The author got his Ph.D from Fuller Seminary, but this book is very obviously for a general audience, so he stops short of offering any biblical or theological reflection on the topic of face and Thai leadership. All the same, this was a very engaging book with lots of colorful quotes from Thai leaders. It gives a good framework for understanding what is happening all around you in everyday social interactions. It is a must-read if you live in Thailand.
Miracles: A Journalist Looks at Modern Day Experiences of God’s Power
Long-time “Christianity Today” journalist Tim Stafford says that he did not write this book as an apologetic to win over those who deny the possibility of miracles, nor did he write it to dissuade those who rejoice at every miracle they hear about. Rather, he wrote it for people (like me) who believe in miracles but are skeptical about reports of miracles because they often turn out to not be true. This book chronicles the author’s own search for understanding, combining the personal experiences of himself and others, a survey of the biblical data about miracles, interviews with various church members and ministry leaders, and critical reflection on all of the above. The final chapter summarizes the author’s conclusions, the majority of which are solid and biblical, providing a hopeful faith-filled attitude towards expecting miracles, but is also grounded in a holistic view of God’s providence that emphasizes the various ways in which God works, both natural and supernatural. His sections on the nature, purpose, and frequency of miracles are especially good.
The one weakness of the book is that the author goes too soft on some extreme Pentecostal pastors and prophets who, in my judgment, go beyond the Bible and twist Scripture. His desire to be fair and even-handed is commendable but he is too generous to various miracle ministries and ministers, even as he often goes on to express disappoint with their exaggerated claims and abuse of Scripture. It seems that the author wants to counteract the unbiblical and unsubstantiated claims made by these ministers without turning off readers who like them. The fact that this book was put out by charismatic publisher Bethany House tells me that the author’s target audience is broadly charismatic/Pentecostal and evangelical.
The Girl in the Picture
"The Girl in the Picture” is about a girl and her family caught in the midst of the war in Vietnam. The girl, Kim Phuc, was the subject of the famous war-time photo of a young girl running naked out of a village that had been hit by napalm. It is a riveting, page-turning, biography, and gives a good window into what life was like for a normal family before, during, and after the war in Vietnam (not to mention an interesting picture of life in Castro's Cuba). I learned many details about the Vietnam War that I had previously just heard in passing but not really understood (such as the significance of the Tet Offensive). Interestingly, when Kim grows up she becomes a Christian through a church in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), although this part of her experience makes up only a minor part of the narrative. This book is a biography as well as a cultural and political history, and author Denise Chong gives a sympathetic and well-written account of Kim Phuc’s life and the global events in which she became an unexpected participant. You definitely learn about Cold War politics in this book, but the author seems to do a good job of telling the facts without turning the book into a political statement. It is Kim’s story, rather than a political agenda, that drives the narrative.
The Diffusion of Global Evangelicalism
No Graven Image
This is a phenomenal book but if I didn't know the author was Elisabeth Elliot, I might have guessed it was written by a cynical former missionary who abandoned the faith, or went emergent or something. "No Graven Image” is a novel about an idealistic missionary seeking to reach the mountain Indians in Ecuador, set in the 1960s. It gets right up in the face of just about every aspect of evangelical missionary sub-culture and its triumphalistic cliches and pat answers. The main action of the book takes place in the mind of the protagonist, Margaret Sparhawk, as her expectations of what a missionary should be and do are challenged by the realities of missionary life. She questions the unquestioned assumptions and party lines that missionaries (and their supporters) often employ. When the book came out, Elisabeth Elliot received severe criticism and it is not hard to see why. This was a devastating novel with a tragic ending, that bears reading by every missionary. Not every missionary will like it, however.