Skip to main content

Features

Topical paradise

The best books on subjects ranging from the Earth’s beginning to internet innovation

Topical paradise

This year we’ve thrown two questions at 13 Christians who are known and knowledgeable in their fields. First: What’s the best overall book you would recommend for a layman who wants to understand your area of expertise? Second, What’s an outstanding book on your subject published within the last few years? Here are their answers.

Mike Adams [higher education]

Those wishing to understand how American universities have lost their way should read William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale (1951). The university shift toward secularism began long before political correctness, and Buckley documents that transformation like no one else. Those interested in recent campus cultural wars need to read Unlearning Liberty (2012) by Greg Lukianoff. Although Lukianoff is a liberal and an atheist, he is astounded by the level of hostility toward evangelical Christians on college campuses. More importantly, he explains how campus speech codes and “anti-discrimination” clauses undermine free speech and religious liberty. —Mike Adams, a professor at UNC-Wilmington, writes columns at townhall.com

Robert F. Davis [music]

I continue to appreciate The Enjoyment of Music (latest edition: 2012), by Forney, Dell’Antonio, and Machlis, especially the “essential listening edition” from Norton. It’s easy to use, with interactive listening features and downloads. Reading it alongside Music Through the Eyes of Faith (1993), by Harold M. Best, will give Christians a solid education in and understanding of music. Although it’s not about music, Paul Tripp’s Dangerous Calling (2012) will help music ministers, directors, and performers to be aware of institutional politics and pitfalls, and his encouragements will help musicians who desire to put their gifts to godly use. —Robert F. Davis is a freelance musician in New York City

Daniel James Devine [digital technology]

The hair-tousling speed of internet innovation is hard to follow, especially if you didn’t grow up using a smartphone. Born Digital (2008), by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, explains how social networks, wikis, blogs, online activism, photo tagging, file sharing, etc., have shaped the minds and habits of people born after 1980. The generation-wide analysis of privacy, online identities, cyberbullying, and information overload remains timely. For a Christian look at online movers and shakers, try iGods (2013) by Craig Detweiler. He affectionately traces the short histories of companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook, pondering which of our problems they solved, and whether we’ve given them too much reverence in return. —Daniel James Devine writes on science and technology for WORLD

Makoto Fujimura [modern art]

Sister Wendy is a great resource for art in general: See her Story of Painting (1997). For modern art in particular, Daniel Siedell’s God in the Gallery (2008) uses Paul’s encounter with the Athenians on Mars Hill as a springboard for challenging the church to engage with the secular art world—and provide a means of bringing order out of chaos. More recently, Golden Sea is a retrospective of my “Golden Sea” series of paintings that seeks to relate modern art to Christian thought, with essays by noted Christian thinkers. It comes with a documentary that makes contemporary Japanese art accessible to the layman. —Makoto Fujimura is an artist and founder of the Fujimura Institute

David Greusel [architecture]

Eric O. Jacobsen has written two books I would recommend for any Christian who wants to think carefully about the built environment. The first and more accessible is Sidewalks in the Kingdom (2003). This wonderfully written book considers from a Christian and pastoral perspective how we make our cities, and introduces some very orthodox ideas that may startle even longtime believers. The second book, The Space Between (2012), could be seen as a sequel to Sidewalks, although both books stand on their own. It is a deeper and more theological take on the same subject: how we make our cities today and how we could make them better. —David Greusel is founder of Convergence Design, a Kansas City architectural firm

Max McLean [theater]

Being an Actor (1984) immediately engaged me. It’s Simon Callow’s generous account of his early years in the London theater, including technical analysis of roles, plays, and the state of the profession. He writes with eloquence and a genuine love for acting. Theatre, by David Mamet (2011) is a delightful read covering five decades. Mamet writes with great wit and slays several theatrical sacred cows, such as Constantin Stanislavski’s three volumes on acting. Mamet also explains how and why Broadway has deteriorated from producing thoughtful dramas to offering spectacles that cater primarily to tourists. I also recommend it for preachers, to help them understand what it takes to engage an audience. —Max McLean is a professional actor and artistic director at Fellowship for the Performing Arts

Ellis Potter [worldview and world religions]

Three Ways of Asian Wisdom: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Zen and Their Significance for the West (1966), by Nancy Wilson Ross, is very well researched, beautifully illustrated, and neutrally written. It will make Christians informed enough to give an answer “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). Zen and Japanese Culture, by D.T. Suzuki (2010) is a masterful and definitive book on the subject. Many people are interested in Zen, and you can love them by knowing more than they do! My 3 Theories of Everything (2012) briefly compares Monism, Dualism, and Trinitarianism and will equip you to ask loving questions that will open up windows of perception for your neighbors—and yourself. —Ellis Potter is a pastor in Lausanne, Switzerland, as well as a traveling teacher and preacher

Russ Pulliam [journalism]

A tie for all-time best between The Autobiography of William Allen White (1946) and Central Ideas in the Development of American Journalism by Marvin Olasky (1990). White captures the romance of small-town news reporting and offers discerning character sketches of other national figures from 1880 to 1925. Olasky captures the worldviews behind the news in a way that no other historian has come close to grasping. More recently, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, by Doris Kearns Goodwin (2013), puts journalism history in a larger context. She is not so strong on political philosophy but has a gift for portraying the colorful personalities of newsmakers. —Russ Pulliam is a columnist for the Indianapolis Star

Fazale Rana [chemistry and biochemistry]

Travels to the Nanoworld (2001), by Michael Gross, provides an accessible description of the amazing molecular machines found in the cell and shows how the cell’s machinery inspires nanotechnology. Though an unbeliever, Gross provides plenty of fodder for those seeking to make the case for intelligent design. Adam Rutherford’s Creation: How Science Is Reinventing Life Itself (2013) describes the latest in origin-of-life research that is indispensable for those who follow the creation/evolution controversy. Rutherford also reviews the remarkable progress made by scientists in their quest to create artificial cells, making an unintentional case for intelligent agency. (My books The Cell’s Design and Creating Life in the Lab offer a Christian perspective on these topics.) —Faz Rana is a biochemist and executive vice president of Reasons to Believe

John Mark Reynolds [philosophy]

The most important book for someone starting philosophy from a Christian perspective is Richard Swinburne’s Faith and Reason (1994). It is deep enough that it will not let you down later, but accessible enough that with care, any college graduate can draw from its depths. For those who think Christians are intellectual lightweights, Swinburne is a solid corrective. More recently, The Great Books Reader, which I edited (2011), introduces laymen to the indispensable texts. Old books have been winnowed by the only place Darwinism works: culture. The classics were the fittest, for good and bad in a fallen world, and so they survived. Most of us need help to get started reading the classics, so this book puts some treats on the bottom shelf. —John Mark Reynolds is the provost of Houston Baptist University

Hugh Ross [origins]

Rare Earth (2000) by Peter Ward and Donald Brownless, explains how precariously balanced the characteristics of the sun, moon, and Earth must be to allow for advanced life. For example, the complex and delicate fine-tuning required for the operation of plate tectonics is highly unlikely to have arisen in this manner anywhere else in the universe. Similarly, Lucky Planet (2014), by David Waltham, argues that all the physical, chemical, and biological factors needed to sustain Earth’s remarkable climate stability make the odds of it happening elsewhere extremely remote. Waltham chalks up our existence to exceptional luck. The precise timing of the many complex events he describes indicates otherwise. —Hugh Ross is an astrophysicist and founder and president of Reasons to Believe

Karen Swallow Prior [literature]

Invitation to the Classics, edited by Louise Cowan and Os Guinness (2006), and How to Read Literature Like a Professor, by Thomas C. Foster (2002), are two helpful guides to reading. A more recent work is my own literary and spiritual memoir, Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (2012). It examines spiritual truths revealed in a variety of masterpieces (from Charlotte’s Web to Great Expectations to Death of a Salesman) and shows how, ultimately, reading great books drew me back to God. —Karen Swallow Prior, Ph.D., is professor of English at Liberty University

Larry Woiwode [fiction]

Rather than recommending books about fiction, here’s my best example of fiction itself: War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. It’s a long haul, but the prose is simple, straightforward, and engaging, and the characters and historical figures are as well-rounded as any you’ll find, except perhaps in Shakespeare. The newest and best translation is by Pevear and Volokhonsky. War and Peace accomplishes everything fiction is supposed to do, and as a bonus the reader gets Tolstoy’s theory of history, which runs counter to both the Marxist view and the idea that “history is biography.” —Larry Woiwode is writer-in-residence at Jamestown College, Jamestown, N.D.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.