By the time I applied for my first passport, I’d already traveled the continents. Books like Kidnapped, The Flame Trees of Thika, and Through Gates of Splendor carried me to foreign lands. I learned the wilds of East Africa could become an adventurous home for a British girl like Elspeth Huxley, and maybe a girl like me. I saw how an orphan like David Balfour could find his courage in a flight through the Scottish Highlands heather. I learned about the high cost of following Christ through the martyrdom of Jim Elliot and his companions on a remote beach in Ecuador.
Books launch some of us out into the world, to the places we first visited on a page. Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem, his 1989 memoir that captured the everyday of a war-torn land, grounded my own reporting in a changing Middle East starting a decade later.
Besides expanding our knowledge base, good books on faraway lands grow our imagination. Our Understanding the World category will take you to China, Russia, Japan, and into the heart of Islamic State territory and the world of Islam, all without taking your shoes and belt off to pass airport security.
We chose books that are global in kind but local in scope. Reporter Rob Schmitz’s genius was to craft a picture of rapidly transforming China by telling the stories of one potholed street in Shanghai. There’s the homeless Old Kang, the flower shop owner Zhao, millennial CK—an accordion factory profiteer turned sandwich shop owner—and Uncle Feng, who makes by hand 180 scallion pancakes every day. Through them we see China’s soaring economic growth, and those who’ve been left in its wake. We learn about the country’s education systems, migration flows, collectivist policies, and corruption. Most of all, we come away wanting to be a good neighbor like Schmitz.
You may ask whether the strange and exotic is integral to knowing our own place in the world. You really have no need to look further than to Christian history. Moses received a pharaoh’s education, and with it led God’s people across the Sinai and into the strange lands of Canaan. The Apostle Paul was a Roman citizen who found himself in the wide deserts of Arabia after his conversion. Augustine was the son of a Berber who spoke Latin with an African accent. And what of those English Separatists, French Huguenots, and Dutch Reformers who sailed an ocean to settle a New World?
Regrettably, our short-list picks take little explicit note of Christians’ roles in the gripping topics of our day—save Nabeel Qureshi’s latest work, No God but One, a timely and theologically astute look at where Christianity and Islam intersect, and how they dramatically part ways. Post-Christian publishing needs more Biblically grounded and well-written works of nonfiction.
The Great Commission call to make disciples of “all nations” historically has pushed Christians into the farthest reaches of the inhabited globe. In the process of understanding the world, we come to appreciate our own place in it.
Book of the Year
STREET OF ETERNAL HAPPINESS Rob Schmitz (Crown)