Best Books of 2023

Best Books of 2023 December 30, 2023
This image depicts Joey Cochran's best books of 2023.
Joey Cochran’s Best Books of 2023

Last year I introduced my “Best Books” column with some strategies for how to read. If you’re thinking about strategies for how to read in 2024, I recommend checking out that article. Now if you’re curious about strategies on selecting what to read for 2024, sit tight and lean in.

How I Select What I Read

No doubt, there are all sorts of readers who will happen upon this column. Some of these suggestions may not fit you as a reader. Nonetheless, perhaps these recommendations are right for you. Allow me to share my strategies on how I select what to read.

As I go through my year, I typically think about four reasons to read a book. I read 1) for professional development, 2) to be the best teacher for my students, 3) to keep up with specialty literature, and 4) to be a better global citizen. As I discuss how I select what I read, I’ll trickle in highlights from my “Best Books of 2023” list.

Read for Professional Development 

Throughout the year, circumstances lead me to be reflective on how I might professionally develop myself. I’ve found certain seasons of the year are conducive for this sort of reading. Since I’m a teaching-scholar, between semesters is typically when I tackle readings that are meaningful for my professional development.

Last summer I read The Slow Professor (University of Toronto Press, 2016) by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber, a book that applies the philosophy of the slow movement to academia. The slow movement suggests that life should be savored and unhurried. The best sort of work, that which is excellent, requires nurture and time. This criteria is not much different from what a finely fermented wine requires. I took this book seriously, and I let it bake in my mind for the rest of the year, while I worked towards my capstone publishing project for 2023.

Breaking the Social Media Prism (Princeton University Press, 2021) by Chris Bail provided suggestions for how to foster healthy interactions across ideological divides on social media. Since social media often turns into a hotbed of conflict rather than a nursery for flourishing, I wanted to think about how I might be part of the solution rather than the problem. I didn’t always get this right in 2023, but I think, when it mattered, I took the right steps to retract, apologize, and reach across the aisle, in order to foster more productive conversations about current issues.

During the fall, I read two other books for the purpose of professional development. My sage colleague, Tracy McKenzie, ordered each faculty in our department a copy of James K. A. Smith’s How to Inhabit Time (Brazos Press, 2022). This book proved to be a literary and philosophical triumph on the value of history and temporality. Both devotional and scholarly in its treatment, it set a standard for me on what fine Christian scholarship looks like and how to produce first-rate, accessible Christian scholarship.

As I continued through the fall and taught World History Since 1300, I slowly read Kathleen Wellman’s outstanding, Hijacking History: How the Christian Right Teaches History and Why It Matters (Oxford University Press, 2021). Wellman methodically tracked through key fundamentalist world histories and provided historical background and context for how Bob Jones University, Accelerated Christian Education, and Abeka Books created world history publishing mills and what kind of citizens they hoped to form. Wellman’s scholarship was quite instructive on what pitfalls to avoid, as I supervised and facilitated students’ world history education at Wheaton College.

Read to Be the Best Teacher

I also select reading to sharpen me to be the best lecturer and instructor in the classroom. Some of my reading from 2023 assisted personal content mastery for the classes I taught. Maybe you’re not a teacher; whatever your craft is, read to master your craft.

America Bewitched: The Story of Witchcraft After Salem (Oxford University Press, 2013) by Owen Davies supported my understanding of magic and witch-hunts in the United States after the Salem witch-hunt of 1692. I have now taught my Magic and Folklore class four times; from this experience, I have learned how imperative it is for students to come away from studying early modern era witch-hunts with the understanding that witch-hunts did not end when they were decriminalized; rather, they evolved as people altered how they went about witch-hunt accusations and how they shaped their community’s public opinion about the accused.

I slogged through Bernard Bailyn’s classic The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Harvard University Press, 1967, 2017) and Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815 (Oxford University Press, 2009) for deeper dives into the content that my American History to 1865 class covers. These books gave more texture to: Joseph Locke and Ben Wright (ed.) of The American Yawp, Thomas Kidd’s American History, Vol. 1, and Shi and Mayer’s For the Record, Vol. 1—which were the required texts for that class. Bailyn and Wood’s detailed treatment of the political people and powers of the two revolutions (revolt against Britain and democratic revolution of 1800) supplemented the already stellar readings for the class. By the way, The American Yawp is an open source, massively collaborative text that is available in print from Stanford University Press, but you may access it for free here. I think every U. S. citizen should read this two volume history of the United States and its accompanying readers.

Read to Keep Up with Specialty Literature

The bulk of my reading each year falls within the realm of my specialty. As an expert on Jonathan Edwards, it’s vital for me to keep up with new publications about him. America’s Theologian Beyond America: Jonathan Edwards, Israel, and China (Oxford University Press, 2023) by Victor Zhu revisits Edwards’s eschatology and the reception of his work globally, particularly in Israel and China.

The highly accessible work from George Marsden, An Infinite Fountain of Light: Jonathan Edwards for the Twenty-First Century (Intervarsity Press, 2023) offers a case for the enduring value of Jonathan Edwards, despite his detractor’s efforts to dethrone him as America’s greatest intellectual mind. Marsden suggests numerous other readings from some of the twentieth/twenty-first centuries’ premier Christian philosophers and intellectuals. I hosted a book panel on this book, in Marsden’s honor, with the Conference on Faith and History, which you may listen to here.

These two books invigorated my thought and reflection on Jonathan Edward’s natural philosophy and philosophical-theology, which culminated in my 2023 journal article with Yale’s Jonathan Edwards Studies, “Jonathan Edwards and His World of Harmony,” an article that proposes Edwards’s harmonious ontology of relations and how he developed this notion and conveyed it in his early natural philosophy notebooks and miscellanies on philosophical-theology. You may read the article here, if you wish.

I hosted a few other book talks with the Conference on Faith and History and chatted with authors about their books. For those conversations, I read Daniel Hummel’s The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism: How the Evangelical Battle Ove the End Times Shaped a Nation (Eerdman’s 2023), Paul Gutacker’s The Old Faith in a New Nation: American Protestants and the Christian Past (Oxford University Press, 2023), and Mark Edward’s Walter Lippmann: American Skeptic, American Pastor (Oxford University Press, 2023).

Hummel traced the growth of dispensational and premillennial thought throughout the United States and how its popular success in the later twentieth century paradoxically led to its decline as a serious theological system (listen to CFH Book Talk here). Gutacker discussed the emergence of the professional discipline of history, across the nineteenth century, and the key issues in United States history that mattered to these historians: such as disestablishment, women’s rights, and people of color’s rights (listen to CFH Book Talk here). Edwards provided a spiritual biography of the public intellectual, Walter Lippmann, whose columns, essays, and book publications shaped economic and political policy in the United States, across much of the twentieth century (listen to CFH Book Talk here).

Prior to the Hummel, Gutacker, and Marsden books and book talks, the death of Timothy Keller prompted me to stop everything and read Brad Vermurlen’s Reformed Resurgence (Oxford University Press, 2020) followed by James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2010). These two books helped me process the passing of Timothy Keller, situate his white paper on The Decline and Renewal of the American Church, and better understand TGC’s Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics project. The book talks were a calculated, continued analysis of the field related to this project.

Another area of my specialty includes evangelical history, and I like to keep up with it in real time. Reading memoir or works framed by memoir and current issues in evangelicalism are valuable to me. Of course, before I started any of the following publications, I first read Stephen Williams’s The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born Again Years (Oxford University Press, 2014), a book that previously slipped past my notice. Williams provides a concise and vivid portrayal of the Religious Rights emergence. I recommend pairing it with the PBS documentary series: With God On Our Side and its companion book by William Martin, With God On Our Side (Broadway Books, 2004).

I read Beth Moore’s All My Knotted Up Life (Tyndale, 2023), the first book that brought me to tears this year. The story of Beth Moore’s upbringing, conversion, rise to evangelical influence, inevitable departure from the SBC, and parallel personal story of frequent hardships is a gripping, riveting account of perseverance and relentless love for Jesus. Beth Moore is one of a few anointed lives that the Lord has especially used during the last half-century, and her story is one of those that will help historians like myself trace the contours of evangelicalism during that same period.

Jesus v. Evangelicals (Zondervan, 2023) by Constantine Campbell was as much a dismantling and reparation project on evangelicalism as it was personal memoir. Since Con’s and my lives intersected at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, we shared a network of dear friends, and the two of us plodded through similar challenges with different results, this one felt a bit more personal. I, too, got weepy eyed reading this one.

Katelyn Beaty’s Celebrities for Jesus (Brazos, 2022) is one of those book I couldn’t put down. I read it in one day. It’s the sort of book that makes you angry and hopeful, all at one time. Protestant Christianity in the States needs leaders like Katelyn Beaty more than ever.

Jon Ward’s Testimony: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Failed a Generation (Brazos, 2023) turned out to be an intriguing if not confusing book;  Testimony appeared to me to be more a critique of a niche wing of the Reformed Resurgence, particularly the Sovereign Grace churches, rather than it being representative of mainstream evangelicalism. Granted, this sliver of evangelicalism (reformed fundamentalism) has been granted an oversized status of influence upon what is considered “the center” of evangelicalism.

The most stirring and best read of my year came towards the end, when I finally read Karen Swallow Prior’s The Evangelical Imagination (Brazos, 2023). I chatted with Karen about her book for a couple hours at a CPT Conference, years ago now. I had a good sense of the books trajectory, but until reading it, I had not sensed how well Prior pressed her finger upon the main nerve to the whole nervous system of evangelicalism. She brought together evangelical literature, philosophy, theology, and history into an astounding narrative of what evangelicalism has been and what yet it might be. This book might as well have been published by an academic press, or, rather, it puts Brazos Press into a category alongside tier one academic presses.

Another fantastic Brazos Press book, Kaitlyn Schiess’s The Ballot and the Bible (Brazos, 2023), tours the history of how the Bible has been employed towards political ends, for good or ill. Kaitlyn has a sharp mind, and her book is full of foresight and insight. I’ll be revisiting this book in coming years.

Finally, I attended a Cushwa Center event at the University of Notre Dame this past fall. In preparation for that event, I read Lerone Martin’s brilliant history, The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover: How the FBI Aided and Abetted the Rise of White Christian Nationalism (Princeton University Press, 2023). Martin’s history interrogates how the convergence and permeation of Hoover’s commitments to Christianity and White Nationalism made and empowered the FBI and how he created a social network of evangelicals and Catholics who supported and bolstered his and the FBI’s power across the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, up to his death. 

Read to Be a Better Global Citizen

I think United States citizens need to foster a wider awareness of where they fit into the world as a global citizen. I happen to have been blessed with a built in incentive to expand my own awareness as a global citizen. My major new class prep for the 2023–24 academic year had me take on the World History Since 1300 class at Wheaton College. I plodded through the required readings for this world history course, a feat in itself:

  • The Travels of Ibn Battuta (Cambridge University Press, 2013)
  • Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali (Pearson, 2006)
  • The Broken Spears (Beacon Press, 2007)
  • Prophetic Identities: Indigenous Missionaries on British Colonial Frontiers, 1850–75 (University of British Columbia Press, 2013)
  • The Dead Will Arise: Nongqawusa and the Great Xhosa Cattle-Killing Movement of 1856–7 (Indiana University Press, 1989)

Furthermore, I started a number of excellent books, which I will not finish until 2024. You’ll see those books on next year’s lists. Some of them include: Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indian, Empires and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815 (Cambridge University Press, 1990, 2010); James Belich, Making Peoples: A History of the New Zealanders (Penguin, 1996); Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton University Press, 2000, 2021); Pekka Hämäläinen, Comanche Empire (Yale University Press, 2008); Manan Ahmed Asif, The Loss of Hindustan: The Invention of India (Harvard University Press, 2020); William Dalrymple, The Anarchy (Bloomsbury, 2022).

Even so, I managed to finish Merry E. Weisner-Hanks’s Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe, 4th Edition (Cambridge University Press, 2019) and Peter Adamson’s Philosophy in the Islamic World: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2015). Weisner-Hanks’s book illuminated much about the life of women throughout early modern history. She touched on nearly every topic pertinent to this subject and introduced me to many new characters in women’s history and new ways of studying women’s history. Adamson helped me expand my understanding of one of the most influential world religions and its intersection with Christian philosophy.

"This is very interesting. It raises the question of the terms of collaboration between the ..."

Drama in Nahua Mexico: 3 Rulers ..."
"Regarding Seventh-Day Adventism ... The blog did not answer key issues ... their adherence to ..."

Are Seventh-day Adventists Evangelical?
"The division in evangelicalism began in 1980 with the Moral Majority. The tiny evangelical left ..."

Is It Time To Rebrand Brand ..."
"And I believe if The Gardener is anywhere, he should be at those cemeteries to ..."

Rudyard Kipling, Neil Gaiman, and A ..."

Browse Our Archives