Moore to the Point
Hello, fellow wayfarers. Here it is: this year’s annotated list of my favorite books of the year. This is this week’s Moore to the Point.

Russell Moore
My Favorite Books of 2021

As I do every year, I have cobbled together for y’all a list of my favorite books of the outgoing year. The rules are always that I’m to limit myself to 10 or 12 and to exclude books written by friends of mine. I violated the second rule several times below—so sue me. (On second thought, don’t!)

These are in no particular order, other than how they were randomly spread out on my desk as I sat down to write this.

Did you know that one of Eugene Peterson’s closest friends in seminary was Pat Robertson? Neither did I. While this book is filled with wondrous little discoveries like that, it takes us beyond the life of this pastor-writer-poet-essayist-translator into why his work resonates with so many of us.

Consider, for instance, Peterson’s frustration when, as a young pastor, he suspected that the denominational bureaucrats getting his monthly reports weren’t really reading them. Peterson started including made-up scandalous antics in the reports, culminating in telling them how he enjoyed psychedelic mushrooms and how adding hallucinogens to the Eucharist had boosted congregational morale. When he never heard a word back, his suspicions were confirmed.

“The people who ordained me and took responsibility for my work were interested in financial reports, attendance graphs, program planning,” he said. “They were interested in my job; they cared little for my vocation.”

This moving book is the story of how Peterson gave a lifetime of long obedience in the opposite direction.

Here’s a sample: When Peterson told interviewer Dean Nelson that he had declined a meeting with the rock star Bono so he could finish his translation of the Old Testament prophets for The Message, Nelson was incredulous, saying, “You may be the only person alive who would turn down the opportunity [to meet Bono] just to make a deadline. I mean, come on. … It’s Bono, for crying out loud.”

To which Peterson replied, amid the crowd’s laughter, “Dean, it was Isaiah.”

2.     Leon Kass, Founding God’s Nation: Reading Exodus (Yale University Press)

In last year’s 20 best books of the last 20 years, I wrote how philosopher Leon Kass’s book on Genesis, The Beginning of Wisdom, had shaped and reshaped the way I read the Torah, maybe more than any book outside Scripture itself. I never think about the serpent of Genesis 3, for example, without considering Kass’s description of a snake exhibiting both a hyperrational intellect and a voraciously wild appetite.

After a long, long wait, Kass did it again—this time with an analysis of Exodus.

Earlier this year, I discussed Kass’s contrast of “Egyptian wonder” with “Hebraic awe” in the burning bush account. Here’s another sample of Kass’s outside-the-box thinking:

Asking why the prohibition on taking the Lord’s name in vain is in the Ten Commandments, Kass says, “The injunction’s real target may be the attempt to live in the world assuming that ‘God is on our side.’ To speak the Lord’s name, unless instructed to do so, is to wrap yourself in the divine mantle, to summon God in support of your own purposes. … In the guise of beseeching the Lord in his majesty and grace, one behaves as if one were His lord and master. One behaves, in other words, like Pharaoh.”

This seems quite relevant at the moment. The book provoked me to thought and rethought—but, more than that, to awe.

3.     Malcolm Guite, Lifting the Veil: Imagination and the Kingdom of God (Square Halo)

Malcolm Guite, one of my favorite living poets, writes here about one of my favorite topics. He argues that our fragmenting time has put asunder what God has joined together: reason and the imagination. These two are put back together, he shows, by the incarnation of Christ.

The book is punctuated throughout with poetry, both Guite’s and others’. And the book manages to do what it argues for—it engages both the intellect and the imagination.

I was delighted by Guite’s meditation on a Scripture passage that for many years has captured and recaptured my heart: the “come and see” passage of John 1, in which Nathanael is approached by Jesus and “suddenly knows that he is completely known by this man he has never met.” Guite writes:

Nathanael, who was scoffing at Nazareth a minute before, has a sudden leap of understanding, outpacing reason or teaching, leaping ahead of all the other disciples to an understanding and certainty that even Peter would not attain for another three years, and declares, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

An epiphany has taken place, something whole and complete has been disclosed in a single glance: to see and be seen is enough.

If you don’t know why you need this book, I would just say, “Come and see.”

When asked what this book is about, one person I overheard said “trees,” another said “gardening,” and still another said “culture making.” None of those responses is wrong, exactly, but they are kind of like saying that Jayber Crow is about hair care.

Andrew Peterson (AP) is a polymath—involved in multiple things at once, all the time. He’s writing songs, singing on tour around the country, writing a children’s fantasy book series, producing that into an animated television series, drawing sketches (some of which are included in this book), organizing a yearly Hutchmoot conference, and cultivating a community of people called the Rabbit Room. Plus, he’s building hedges, planting wildflowers, critiquing films, and helping those of us who are his friends with all our many problems.

Those all seem to be radically different things, but they’re not. In all of them, AP is bringing forward what God is cultivating in him in a subterranean way, through Scripture, prayer, built-in creativity, and built-out discipline, as well as through what Frederick Buechner called listening to one’s life.

This book is like that. In it, AP describes how he came to write his song “The Silence of God.” Behind that song (and his others) are countless experiences—some conscious, some unconscious; some joyful, some wrenching—that produce the kind of person who writes lyrics that reach many of us at a primal level. The book is personal, meditative, funny, and deep, all at the same time.

The story goes that when J. R. R. Tolkien read the early drafts of his Lord of the Rings trilogy to his fellow Inklings, in the Rabbit Room at the back of an Oxford pub, Hugo Dyson listened for a moment and exclaimed, “Oh no, not another (expletive) elf!” Those who have gathered around the fireplace at AP’s Chapter House are no Inklings, but we may have said a time or two in conversation, “Oh no, not footpaths again!” But deep down, we love it, because we understand what AP is saying.

If forced to describe the book in one word, I would do it. If you said “trees,” I wouldn’t dispute you. But I would say the book was about “God” or “grace.” Or maybe instead of a one-word description, I would just say, as Jesus did, “A sower went out to sow …”

Here’s a taste of AP’s skill:

To my right, on the little wooden table beside my chair, sits a black, leather-bound Bible with my name embossed on the lower right of the cover. The man pages within carry a translation of the Word of God, the Word that told trees to exist in the first place, and those words are made alive by a holy wind blowing through the book’s leaves. That living Word planted a seed in my parents, a seed that fell on good soil, and they in turn planted in me and my siblings an imagination-grounding story about a tree in a garden, a tree on a hill of death, and a tree in a heavenly city. Those trees fill my heart and my head, and they keep my compass trained on the Kingdom. Here in the Chapter House, at the dark edge of Warren Wood, the trees keep me company, and they keep me warm.

I am kept by trees.

5.     M. R. O’Connor, Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World (St. Martin’s)

While we’re on the subject of footpaths, this fascinating book argues that one problem faced by today’s children is that they so rarely get lost. I immediately paid attention to this, since so much of my own childhood was spent exploring acres and acres of woods and swamps for hours, without a helicopter parent in sight. Now, I find that my mind is so dependent on GPS that I can’t find my way to the airport from my house—a trek I take multiple times a week—without consulting my phone.

Getting lost is important, this book argues, because a central aspect of what it means to be human is to be a “wayfinder.” O’Connor writes:

We are a species of primate that shed our reliance on the biological hardware and genetic programming that tells animals where they are and need to go. Instead, we developed cognitive abilities built on perception and attention, giving us the freedom to go anywhere. For us, navigation is not pure intuition, but process. When we move through space, we perceive the environment and direct our attention to its characteristics, collecting information or, as some would describe it, building internal representations or maps of space that are “placed” in our memory. Out of the stream of information generated by our movement we create origins, sequences, paths, routes, and destinations that make up narratives with starting points, middles, and arrivals. It’s this ability to organize and remember our journeys that gives us the ability to find our way back.

The book, though not written from a Christian viewpoint, intersects with the biblical concept of life as a pilgrimage, of following the pillar of fire into unknown territory while naming our Ebenezers and Bethels along the way. While reading it, I thought often of Walker Percy’s central claim, from which the salutation of my weekly newsletter comes, that human beings are not merely organisms in an environment but wayfarers.

6.     Amanda Ripley, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out (Simon & Schuster)

Normally, I tend to skim through this sort of book because the authors make essentially the same point, reminding us what it takes to move through personal conflict. I found this book to be completely different, though.

The author defines high conflict as not just an argument between individuals over some topic but also a system of antagonism and interpersonal warfare. As I read the book, I marked up sections on how the roots of conflict often lie in threats to our identity, on how the “exhausted majority” in high-conflict situations often check out altogether, and on how shame functions in conflict. Ripley does more than just trace the roots of high conflict; she shows tested ways to navigate through it.

Here is the author’s wise warning about “conflict entrepreneurs”—those the apostle Paul described as having an “unhealthy craving for controversy” (1 Tim. 6:4, ESV):

One way to prevent high conflict is to learn to recognize the conflict entrepreneurs in your orbit. Notice who delights in each new plot twist of a feud. Who is quick to validate every lament and to articulate wrongs no one else has even thought of? We all know people like this, and it’s important to keep them at a safe distance.

With many churches—and almost every North American denomination—seeing an exhausted majority capitulating to the conflict entrepreneurs, this book is needed right now. If we paid attention to the insights here, we would not eliminate conflict, but we could have the kind of conflict that doesn’t result in wreckage, trauma, and cynicism.

Having been raised in a very Southern Baptist context, I am quite sure I did not even know what the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) was until I was an adult. And yet, I realize now that its words shaped me more than anything else, save the King James Bible. Every wedding and funeral that I ever witnessed or officiated were all dependent on the words and liturgies of this great gift to the universal church.

This edition of the 1662 prayer book is itself a gift to the church. The typeface and binding are beautiful, and its size makes it easy to keep nearby, to use as a resource when reading the Bible or praying. My copy stays right here next to me all the time.

Here I am violating my “no books written by friends” rule again. But I could not construct this list without mentioning this volume by the widely respected former governor of Tennessee.

Most books by politicians are ephemeral ghostwritten publicity pieces. Not only do I not read them; I doubt the “authors” ever do either. This book, though, is quite different. It comes from a person, not from a committee. And it comes from a person who has proven himself to be neither a conflict entrepreneur nor a hack, at a time when it would be much easier to be either or both.

In this book, Gov. Haslam, a faithful Presbyterian churchman and elder, reflects on what he’s learned about being a follower of Christ in public life. He takes the reader through some of his most fraught decisions—from pondering whether to commute the sentence of a woman convicted of killing her trafficker to whether to sign or veto a bill naming the Bible as Tennessee’s state book. Along the way, he analyzes questions such as whether what the Bible calls meekness can really work in the political system.

This book is not a partisan treatise; it’s a word of wise counsel to those who are tempted to either accommodate a toxic political culture or withdraw from the civic space altogether. Democrats, independents, and Republicans (like Gov. Haslam) alike will benefit from the insights here.

In my endorsement of this book, I wrote, “This is the book we need right now, and it comes not a moment too soon.” In a time when our political fractures threaten to erupt into violence, I believe that even more strongly now.

9.     Michael Stewart Foley, Citizen Cash: The Political Life and Times of Johnny Cash (Basic)

As I write this, on one side of my desk is a reproduction of the Sun Records cut of “I Walk the Line” by Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two. On my other side is a Christmas tree that includes my favorite ornament, which plays Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” at the push of a button. Every new book on Cash is going to find its way into my library.

This book is of special interest because it goes beyond a mere biography of the Man in Black, examining the complicated political figure that was Cash. The book traces Cash’s engagement with questions of racial injustice, draft resisters and the Vietnam War, mistreatment of Native Americans, and beyond. Along the way, it describes how Cash thought through his Christian faith and his friendship with Billy Graham in relation to his political identity. This might be the first biography of a country music singer-songwriter in which Christianity Today plays a key role in the story.

The book is worth reading because it analyzes not only a person but also a cultural moment. It presents a compelling portrait of the singer not just as an artist but also as a citizen.

Here’s a sample paragraph:

Somehow, in the space of six minutes, Johnny Cash criticized the Vietnam War, called for an end to all war, and paid tribute to America’s fighting men for their honor and sacrifice. Reviews of the show also said that he “endorsed Richard M. Nixon’s conduct of the war,” though that is not heard on the recording. But in expressing all of these supposedly contradictory positions, Cash rejected Nixon’s simplistic dichotomy of a vocal, disloyal minority and a silent, patriotic majority, and instead spoke for a truer majority of Americans represented by the audience—for people who analyzed the war less as a question of geopolitics but more for the heart, for people who by the end of 1969 seemed to both hate the war and support the troops.

10. Matthew Rose, A World After Liberalism: Philosophers of the Radical Right (Yale University Press)

In this book, the author analyzes data about a phenomenon many of us have seen coming and warned about for a while. He looks at so-called “populist” movements in Europe and now in North America. Many of these, he notes, claim Christian identity or symbolism—using “Western civilization” or “Judeo-Christian culture” to prop up nationalist fervor or white-grievance racial politics.

As Rose points out, behind the scenes, the idea leaders of these movements are hostile to Christianity itself—not because it is too narrow or moralistic but because it is too globalist and egalitarian. Christianity upends ethnic and national superiorities because it requires all nations to “adopt the sacred history and even the deity of another community, connecting their deepest beliefs to the unique experiences of a foreign people,” namely, the people of Israel.

And, most importantly, these postreligious illiberal movements ultimately revolt against what Rose calls “the essence of the Christian Question,” which is that “Christianity denied what antiquity had serenely assumed: that the strong are destined to rule the weak, that we have no obligations to strangers, and that our identities are constituted by our social status.”

Rose warns that a post-Christian populism would “give defiant expression to primordial passions, once disciplined by religion, that liberalism tried to repress—about preserving cultural differences, punishing enemies, and deposing disloyal elites.” As authoritarian movements gain ground around the globe, we should worry as those who support democracy. But especially when those movements use the gospel for such purposes, we should ask the question “What hath Jerusalem to do with Budapest?”

11. Jonathan Rauch, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth (Brookings Institution)

I wish I could go more than a half-hour without hearing from someone about the same situation: a congregation or a family torn apart by misinformation, usually via social media platforms. In this important book, Jonathan Rauch examines what happens when a society loses a shared consensus—not only on what is true and what is false but also on how to even begin judging the difference. Rauch writes:

What troll culture and cancel culture have in common is that they are techniques of what propaganda experts often call information warfare. Rather than using rational persuasion to seek truth, they manipulate the social and media environments for political advantage. They may appear marginal, disorganized, or unhinged, but they are aggressive, expansionary, and rooted in a sophisticated understanding of human cognitive and emotional vulnerabilities.

I don’t agree with Rauch on everything here, of course. He’s an atheist whose concept of rationality too narrowly excludes, in my view, the possibility that life is more than material. He would say that I violate the constitution of knowledge by accepting the “personal authority” of a person I firmly believe was dead and is now alive. Nonetheless, I agree with Rauch’s central point about the way propaganda is working both to confuse truth and to exhaust people from thinking at all.

This book is important when the future of American democracy is fragile. But it is also needed when many of us in religious communities are under threat from misinformation campaigns. As Rauch points out, the ultimate goal of misinformation campaigns is not to persuade but to demoralize both individuals and institutions.

“Institutions propagate and enforce norms and rules, evaluate and certify credentials, set agendas and direct resources, enforce accountability, and train future generations to do all of those other things, and more,” Rauch warns. “That is why, today, the institutions and norms of liberal science, not individuals, are the real targets of attack by nihilists and bullies.”

We need not agree with this book on every point to see that this is a warning worth heeding.

12. A. G. Mojtabai, Thirst: A Novel (Slant)

Mark Meynell is a writer I respect, so when he recommended this novella, I immediately ordered it. The book languished in a pile for many months, though. When I finally started reading it, I wondered why I had waited so long.

It’s about a dying priest, Theo, who has no living relatives except a first cousin, Lena, who is summoned to his deathbed. Lena has long ago lost her childhood faith. “Simply—gradually—she’d become unstitched from the faith,” the narrator recounts. “Faith, she decided, was more a matter of belonging than signing on to this or that belief, and she did not belong.”

The book depicts death with remarkable poignancy. It also portrays one who is attempting to live up to her responsibilities in the context of a faith she no longer holds. Perhaps the most moving section of the novella, for me, takes place when the dying priest is holding Lena’s hand as he hears the rosary recited next door. He squeezes her hand—hard—at the sound of the pleas for mercy.

She is not prepared for the strength of his grasp even now. Nor for the tears in his eyes—and in her own, unbidden.

It’s through something like rhyme, she thinks, not reason, the way this seeps into you, carves a channel, takes hold. Before we understood what “mourning” meant, or “valley of tears” or “Advocate,” or “exile,” we learned to recite the words. Learned them, not by mind, but (as people say) “by heart.”

Desert Island Bookshelf or Playlist

I ran out of space this week, but I’ll be back next week with an installment of the Desert Island Bookshelf/Playlist. If you’d like to participate, picture yourself stranded on a desert island for the rest of your life with one bookshelf or one playlist. Send me either one photo of all the books you would keep with you or a list of up to 12 songs you would choose (excluding hymns and worship songs), along with as much or as little explanation of your choices as you would like. You can send your submission to

Quote of the Moment

“It’s been a long December and there’s reason to believe / Maybe this year will be better than the last.”

—Counting Crows, “A Long December”

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