About December 2006

This page contains all entries posted to Hearts & Minds Books in December 2006. They are listed from oldest to newest.

November 2006 is the previous archive.

January 2007 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

December 2006 Archives

December 1, 2006

Hearts & Minds Best Books Awards 2006 PART ONE

Year-End Picks: profound, winsome, interesting and odd

I think my words from last year are true again this year, and serve as a preface to the next two month’s worth of listings (Part One of the list published in our December column; Part Two to be posted in January’s spot.) At year’s end last year, I wrote the following introduction to our Books of the Year list.

I will admit forthrightly: these are as idiosyncratic as ever. I really am sincere about wanting to award most of these fine books, and a few truly are profound, deserving of more acclaim than our little shop can bestow. Others are, well, just some really great books I want to mention in some significant capacity before year’s end. And a few are eccentric releases that deserve, uh, something. And we can offer that, at least. So here goes, the years best. Not sure what they are the best of, but we will make it up as we go along. And, like the Academy Awards, we hold a few really great categories till near the end. So tune in next month for part two!


Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith Diana Butler-Bass (Harper SanFransico) $23.95 This study attempts to put to rest the notion that only evangelical or conservative churches are growing and wonderfully describes---as she does in her Hearts & Minds favs Strength for the Journey and Broken We Kneel and two edited volumes from the Alban Institute---various congregations, the practices that they’ve come to embrace, and how these deeply spiritual congregations are both robust and distinctively mainline. We appreciate Diana’s project, her affirmation that there really are a variety of kinds of churches, and her insistence that, if we look and learn, we can celebrate the Spirit’s work, in congregations with different styles, approaches, strengths and habits and theological depth. Some readers have detected a bit too much of an anti-evangelical chip on her otherwise righteous shoulder. Still, this book, and the parishes she describes, deserve a wide reading, and a big ‘ol Hearts & Minds Book of the Year award. Which, like her book itself, some conservatives folk may find a bit troubling. Cheers!

Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading Eugene Peterson (Eerdmans) $20.00 Last year this time we were still enchanted with and telling everybody about the first, large foundation of Peterson’s projected five-book series. (That first one, which we awarded as Book of the Year last year, is called, drawing on the line from Hopkins, Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places.) With the third in the series The Jesus Way, I about to be released February of 07, you must get the second. Maybe our declaring it one of the very best books of the year will remind you: Peterson is one of this generation’s finest writers, most trusted pastoral theologians, and brings a deep and no-nonsense spirituality to his writing. This book is about how to read, especially how to read the Scriptures, drawing on the ancient tradition of lectio divino where one reflects deeply on the truth of the test, swallowing hard. Of all the very good books on spiritual formation these days, and with the many good guides to lectio this really is one of the best and will be enduring. We highly commend it.

The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul By Restoring Sabbath Mark Buchanan (Word) $17.99 This may be a surprise since Buchananan’s good books are perhaps not well know (Your God is Too Safe, say, or The Holy Wild) or may be considered by the more discriminating reader to be a bit too sweetly over-written, like Max Lucado, say. Well, let me tell ya: if I’ve ever said that, I take it all back. I’ve been reading all his books, and we are looking forward to the new one, Hidden in Plain Sight that is coming later this winter. And he is the best! This book on Sabbath was so insightful, so well-written, so interesting, so compelling, and this is important, so rooted in a whole-life view of Sabbath rest, and not just how to not work on Sunday, that it really was a good guide to deeper Christian living. We are huge fans, here, and hope you will be too.

Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight Norman Wirzba (Brazos) $19.99 In the HeartsandMinds BookNotes blog I celebrated that this may be the first book on a religious publishing house with a forward by the esteemed agricultural essayist and Kentucky farmer-poet-novelist, Wendell Berry. We’ve followed Wirzba’s writing and scholarly work on faith-based environmental thinking, and simply must award this not only as one of our favorite picks of the year, but one of the most important.
This is not a book that just invites us to rest on Sunday, and it isn’t quite like Buchanan’s, with tender and touching (or humorous) stories, about evangelical piety and deeper discipleship, knowing self and God. Rather, this is painted on a much broader canvas of cultural engagement, prophetic insight about the idols of our age, the daily habits and practices that constitute a counter-cultural way of being in the world. It is a bit more demanding, although his prose is clear and precise. It is also demanding in that it calls us powerfully away from the consumer-dominated economy, educational systems and media into more stewardly ways, based on life as gift, delight in God’s good creation, and gentle care for self and others. I could list this in a few categoriesâ€"one of the best works of cultural criticism, one of the best Biblical studies, one of the most helpful guides to sane lifestyle, one of the best books of theology. When I want to exclaim about it around so many different topics, I realized that it truly is one of the finest books I’ve read. May the Lord guide us to live out even a portion of the vision shared in this powerful call to radical discipleship.

Evil and the Justice of God N.T. Wright (IVP) $18.00 These four lectures---and Wright is an exceptional lecturer, a fine oratory, a brilliant scholar, a good teacher and caring pastor---are among the best stuff done on this topic, a hard topic that has been mined seriously for as long as human’s have asked "Why?" In our blog entry announcing this book this fall, I noted that it is difficult to surpass the sheer eloquence and intellectual coherence of Os Guinness’s remarkable book Unspeakable. I noted, though, that Wright brings the eye and expertise of a Biblical scholar to bear on this inscrutable topic, and has now given us one of the definitive books. It is meaty yet very readable, thoughtful but not ponderous. This should be on everyone’s list, and we are eager to honor it with great gusto! Look for our unprecedented second Book of the Year Award to the same author when we tip the Hearts & Minds hat for another of his three 2006 releases (coming up later in the list!)

At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68 $35.00 cloth or $2o.00pb) When I blogged about this on Martin Luther King Day (it seemed appropriate, you know) I insisted it was magisterial. As the third and final volume by this Pulitzer Prize winning author, we would be terribly remiss not to name this as one of the truly most important, wonderful, worthy and stunning books of the year.


Leaving Church Barbara Brown Taylor (Harper SanFransico) $23.95 This may be the most talked about book of the year, and certainly â€" as we predicted---one of the best written. Anyone that has read her eloquent sermons (and everybody should own at least one of her paperback collections) or who has heard me quote (as I often do) her first memoir, The Preaching Life, will know that she is the kind of wordsmith that takes your breath away. Some lines are so well-crafted that it becomes an epiphany in itself. This book is her memoir of growing into her pastoral work, her increasing fame, her theological questioning, and her painful decision to leave her parish work as an Episcopal priest. As I said when I reviewed it earlier in the year, it is a fun and funny book in many ways (I really, really couldn’t put it down) but is also sad, I thought. God bless her on her journey. I’m glad we get to see into and thereby travel along at least some of it with her.

Crossing Myself: A Story of Spiritual Rebirth Greg Garrett (NavPress) $12.99 That the publisher who became famous decades ago for inductive Bible studies and small group resources is now publishing edgy, young adult memoirs by authors who have be awarded The William Faulkner Prize for Fiction is itself a bellwether pointer about the changing shape of evangelical publishing. But I digress. Here, Garrett tells of his journey in and out of faith, the "mystery of crooked lines," and the struggles of depression and doubt. I suspect some view this as merely the next Donald Miller kind of story, and that, of course, wouldn’t be bad. But this is a substantial and thoughtful memoir, by a talented writer. How many evangelical authors have a front-cover blurb by Dennis Covington (of Salvation on Sand Mountain, which happens to be one of my all-time favorite books, ever?) How many NavPress writers also end up being published by The Utne Reader? Greg teaches creative writing at Baylor and is a student at Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest. Doesn’t that make you want to check him out?

Confessions of an Amateur Believer Patty Kirk (Nelson) $14.99 We have to award this as one of the great memoirs I’ve read this year! As Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen says in her back-cover endorsement, "Spiritual autobiography can so easily degenerate into sentimentality or subtle egotism, but Patty Kirk’s does neither. Her varied reflections---from cows to critical thinking---are by turns wry, humorous, and touched with wonder…" Another reviewer noticed (which seemed to escape me at first) that there is a progression, from pain, anguish, understanding, acceptance and delight. This is the story of a very thoughtful and honest woman, a mature Christian who has been through a lot, and who is vulnerable and real. One of the best of its kind in a long time!

A Private History of Awe Scott Russell Sanders (North Point Press) $25.00 Those of us who have admired the genre of nature writers who focus on place, and those writers who tell of their commitment to home and place, have all come to deeply admire the exceptional work of Sanders. He is nearly an icon in some circles, so clear and passionate and caring as an author. When this came out, I held it, just to be in the presence of a new, serious work by this important memoirist. The back cover blurb is an excerpt of a letter about the book from his friend Wendell Berry, who writes, "Much of it is authentically beautiful and it is beautifully and properly titled. It has gravity and pleasure and candor and gratitude and sorrow, all eloquent, and never a moment of ungenerosity. Every return to the theme of your love for Ruth put tears in my eyes…" How can we not give an honorable mention to a book about which Berry says, "Our poor country needs this book more than it knows…"?


The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals Michael Pollan (The Penguin Press) $26.95 If any other book of the year list doesn’t have this on, I’d scrunch up I’m eyebrows and scratch my head. As we knew from his luminous other works (like The Botany of Desire), this author is a truly great and truly interesting wordsmith and a big picture thinker. Here, he writes about the food chain, by way the four different kinds of meals, which he then describes in spectacular chapters that are worth the price of the book alone. This comes with impressive endorsements from some fine food writers (Ruth Reichl and Alice Waters) and social critics (Eric Schlosser, author of Fast-Food Nation says that Pollan discovers how "Eating well can be a pleasurable way to change the world." One respected political journalist says "…his luscious sentences deliver so much pleasure and humor and surprise as they carry one from dinner table to cornfield to feedlot to forest floor, and then back again---that they happy reader could almost miss the profound truth half hidden at the heart of this beautiful book." What is that truth? Read this important work and find out.

Simply In Season Mary Beth Lind & Cathleen Hockman-Wert (Herald Press) $19.99 plastic comb binding/ $13.00 paperback. Years ago---decades, now---we became fans of the wonderful, practical cookbook which reminded us of simple living, natural choices, care for the poor and a celebration of sustainable lifestyles called The More-With-Less Cookbook. It to this day the most dog-eared one in our kitchen and our biggest selling cookbook here at the shop. A close second is the sequel, the beautiful and internationally-flavored Extending the Table, similar produced with loving care and excellence by the good folks at the Mennonite Central Committee. The third in this wonderful "World Community Cookbook" series shows us the joys of eating seasonally, buying locally, and enjoying sustainable choices made from a wise set of stewardly priorities. Not only is it one of the most attractive covers to grace a cookbook, you can purchase (for home or small group use) a study guide that explores the faith-based economics of all of this. And, just so we are clear, it appears that the recipes are as scrumptious as the idea and presentation. Four cheers---one hearty one for each season!---for this truly exceptional book.

House Thinking: A Room-by-Room Look at How We Live Winifred Gallagher (Harper) $24.95 Is this an Award-Winning book, really, or just something that I feel a desperate need to explore? Yes, and yes! Gallagher is a thoughtful writer, very good, really, and is able to tell us of this whole field of the emotional impact of our homes. How did houses get to be the way they are? How do we create a "just-right" place? Gallagher is a good journalist, a fine writer, a storyteller and teacher. Those who believe that God’s world has an internal coherence and that people of faith are called to embody creation in meaningful and normative ways, it is vital that we reflect on stuff like architecture and home-making. From studies of historic homes to her own family’s abode, this is a walk into thinking that is illuminating and wise.


Seeing Through Cynicism: A Reconsideration of the Power of Suspicion Dick Keyes (IVP) $16.00 This actually is a serious problem in a bookstore, and we have plenty of entries in this category. One excellent one stands out, though, and deserves rave reviews! We aren’t quite sure where to put this in the store; on what shelf does it belong? How about "best books of the year!" How about most urgently needed book that nobody else has addressed? Anybody who cares about our culture, who is sensitive to the things of God, who wants to nurture a deeply faithful way of thinking, surely knows that our cynicism is hugely problematic. Keyes, an admired Hearts & Minds acquaintance, serves with his wife, Mardi, at the New England L’Abri, the study/retreat center in the tradition of Francis and Edith Schaeffer. Few books are as mature theologically and as practical; this is a work of deep wisdom and as socially relevant as any. For those who follow Hearts & Minds work, and appreciate some of the same influences, you may know that Keyes is somewhat similar to Steve Garber, who gives a rare back-cover blurb. That, in it self, may tell you more about this book’s tone, substance, grace, and importance than our little Award. Still, we wouldâ€"without any nod or wink or postmodern irony---very sincerely give it a good gold star to signify our claim that it is one of the very best, and important, books of 2006.


Truck: A Love Story Michael Perry (Harper) $24.95 I thought about putting this in the best book category, given how much pleasure my wife and I (and a few of our customers) got from this story of this rural fella working to restore his old International. I really wanted to put it under best memoir, but, well, we had too many in that category already. This isn’t by any stretch a joke book, and it isn’t intended, I don’t think, to be primarily a humor book. Still, the great, great writing is by turns eloquent and elegant, but, usually, it is just laugh-outl oud funny, whether he is writing about the luscious fantasies conjured by seed catalogues or why he only has a handful or cookbooks. And even when I wasn’t laughing, I still found myself with sore cheeks from grinning as I read. Two summers ago I blogged about his memoir of being a small town EMT (Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time) and his fabulous collection of short pieces, Off Main Street.) Now we are ready to invite him to drive into big time fame with a Hearts & Minds Book of the Year award. Yeee-ha.

Penguins, Pain and the Whole Shebang: Why I Do the Things I Do God (as told by John Shore) (Seabury Books) $15.00 This pocket-sized hardback is funny from the outset (it has Shore’s obligatory photo on the back flap of the dust jacket, but under God it notes, over a gray box where the picture should be "No Photo Available." As one reviewer put it, this is "Mere Christianity meets Mad Magazine." Richard Lederer calls this author the offspring of "Kurt Vonnegut and Dave Barry". It really is, I must say, a thoughtful guide to the bigger questions of apologetics, as God dictates his views of stuff serious (and not so serious, like when he told how for a while after Star Wars came out he took at liking to the Yoda character and talked like him, freaking out the angles with lines like "Don’t play the harp. Let the harp play you.") But, these goofy asides aside, this is a pretty right on bit of conversation, asking about God’s existence, the problem of evil, and the meaning of life. Veggie-Tale co-writer and all around thoughtful apologist Eric Metaxas (one of the guys who started Socrates Cafe in NYC) says "Shore is a madman and a genius, and this book is so happily wrought I don’t know what to say about it---except that this is the book many, many folks have been waiting for. It’s a genuine triumph, a killer combo of astronomical wit and wisdom." To wit: a Hearts & Minds smiley face award in the funniest book category.

The Ride of Our Lives: Roadside Lessons of an American Family Mike Leonard (Ballantine) $24.95 You may know Leonard’s work from the Today Show. Here, he tells of the journey he and his grown kids made in two large RV’s around the country, taking his elderly parents to key places from their childhood or earlier years. Leonard’s octogenarian folks are cards----his both a foul-mouthed, good-hearted Irish Catholic from Paterson NJ, and his father a sweet (if hard of hearing) talkative gentleman whose optimism counters his wife’s pessimism. There are some crazy scenes, some sad memories, and the book is more an opportunity to ponder the family tree’s twisted branches than to explore the actual geography of their trip.
It isn’t brilliant, but it is a great ride, and the characters that his parents are make this a laugh-out loud read.
There is a DVD in the back with clips from the journey. Get out the tissues, too…


To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife Caitlin Flanagan (Little Brown) $22.95 Last spring this was all the rage, and I mean rage! Wonderfully written, really smart, delightfully fascinating, at times profoundly insightful, it none-the-less ends up as one of the wackiest things ever produced: a book about the joys of stay-at-home mothering and the significance of caring for the home written by a woman who writes, without batting an eye, that (since she has maids and nannies and such) she’s never cleaned up the soiled sheets of her own kids, ever. Huh? I thought the social history, clever writing and basically good notion---a pro-feminist, pro-family view---would appeal to friends, like our buddy, the book-review queen herself, Lauren Winner. Upon getting my email, she wrote back with a friendly scold and suggested I see her review in The Chicago Tribune where she loathed it more than loved it. Still, it deserves some (dis) honorable mention and I’d love to have our customers join the fray. Maybe when it comes out in paperback this spring&133;


State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America Patrick Buchanon (Thomas Dunne Books) $24.95 This is a hard book to award, in a category that is ill-defined, with mixed motives on my part, I’m afraid. You see, this listing isn’t for merely bad books. There are many of them; ignore ’em. This is a book that I hated. But--and this is important---I so disliked it because it should have been better. It is an important subject. The author has very legitimate concerns. He marshals bunches of statistics and tells of some pretty alarming facts. It is a topic to which not enough serious thought has been given (and too many are caught, it seems, in ideological ruts---either they are unhospitable to others, in xonophic wasy that are unbecoming, or they are afraid to name social ills for fear of not being PC.). Despite the need for a good book like this, the Big B shoots himself in the foot so often with harsh language, over-blown rhetoric (this "invasion" language for instance) that it is hard to take seriously. It is nearly devoid of any obvious compassionate framework, let alone a Biblical worldview. I wanted to take this book seriously; a friend I respect thinks it is very helpful. Sadly, it didn’t just fail to convince me, it irritated the daylights out of me, bordered on racism, and insulted me on every other page, even as he presented fascinating and important information about the rise of immigrant gangs, the history of border wars, and the public health consequences of illegal immigration. That, gentle readers, is worth some kind of prize, si?

Why the Christian Right Is Wrong: A Minister’s Manifesto for Taking Back Your Faith, Your Flag, Your Future Robin Meyers (Jossey-Bass) $22.95 There have been way too many books against the Christian right that misunderstand the nature of conservative Protestants, who confuse evangelicals with fundamentalists and don't know the differences between charismatics and Pentecostals, let alone show an journalistic empathy for this particular, often working class, sub-culture of fellow-citizens. That they could get published by prestigious publishing houses and contain such caricature and mis-information is frustrating, to say the least. Then there are some that are just ugly, and, sadly, some are written by fellow Christian believers. They are intolerant, nasty, even as they traffic in over-blown rhetoric and a spite that is inordinately uncharitable. Journalistic integrity is lost when some truly dangerous characters--dominionists, say, who really do want to "take over" or militia groups, and others who are much more nuanced, are noted in the same sentence. This is one of those kinds of inflammatory books, a book so ill tempered, inaccurate and over-stated that it is virtually useless in reforming a truly Biblical view of citizenship, politics, or public life. Again, like the other award-winners in this dubious category, I wanted to like this book. I have large sympathies for his critique of the Christian right. I would like for somebody to speak truth into this mess and come out with a wise, chaste and radically Biblical vision of political life. This didn’t just fail to convince me of the "Christian leftist" view, it irritated the daylights out of me. And, again, dear readers, that is worthy of an award that would be the kind we’d give to the worst "attack ad" in a negative political campaign. This is a great example of how not to do Christian politics.

Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman’s Soul John Eldridge & Staci Eldridge (Nelson) $22.99 You may know of our nearly famous critique of Wild at Heart that appear at our monthly column here in June 2002. I thought that very popular book was a train wreck, with unbiblical assumptions, odd gender role stuff, a personalization of the call to public justice, really bad theology of salvation and sanctification, and a pretty sketchy style of Scriptural interpretation based more on pop psychology that traditional hermeneutics (not to mention the misquoted of Bible verses!). And then there were those weirdo sentences, like saying that men want to feel a rough rope in their hands. And all the movie illustrations from violent, warrior, killers (Braveheart’s adulterous fighter is closer to the spirit of Christ, he says, than Mother Theresa! And people like this stuff!) Given how much I liked his other stuff, I found that one to be very unfortunate. Its popularity was troubling and its best-selling, cult status speaks volumes of our evangelical sub-culture, falling for this mess of pottage. Now, here is the one for women, presumably the "blond-haired beauties" he refers to in his earlier book. Look: I know that we aren"t clear about gender stuff and I know most churches don"t honor our sexuality, passions, dreams and visions. Men and women are bored and our hurts are not honored or healed. There are complications galore. And I am confident that the Eldridges mean well; they care about people’s pain and they are good communicators, using popular films and such to wake us up and care much. But when an author starts talking about going on a date with Jesus, and, ladies, shaving your legs for Him, and a book like that becomes a best seller and garners good reviews, well, it is a time for a bit of tough-guy wildness from this corner. There are bad books we should just ignore, but this is one that deserves to be on our list. We need a book like this, but this sure ain’t it. Which is why is deserves the honor of being noted here, an important loser of 2006.


The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life Robert E. Webber (Baker) $16.99 This may be a harder sell, but I think it deserves cheers and kudos and awards from whoever are the powers that be. Webber spends much time tracing the ways in which passionate, experiential spirituality has been removed from ordinary life, the ways in which the early churches fascination with neo-Platonic dualism and world-denying monasticism and individualistic privatization de-formed our understandings of spirituality. In two sections----The Crisis and The Challenge---he walks us through centuries of important thinkers and theological debates. This is a major contribution to a proper, Biblical foundation for our spiritual lives, a book which draws us into the Biblical story. Divine Embrace reminds us of the ways that story should shape us as people, together, and equips us to live out true ("ancient-future") faith in a complicated, post-modern world. The rave reviews on the back cover, from Brian McLaren, David Neff (of Christianity Today) and Calvin College prof James Smith remind me that we are not alone in acclaiming this major work and awarding it one of our Books of the Year.

The Contented Soul: The Art of Savoring Life Lisa Graham McMinn (IVP) $17.00 We adored her earlier, exquisite book (Sexuality and Holy Longing) and know of her many academic articles on the social sciences she has written as Department Chair at Wheaton College. Here, she gives us a luscious, slow and careful rendering of what makes for as happy life: a contented soul. Although this should be read more widely than just be those interested in contemplative spirituality, its themes will resonate with those who are interested in the inner journey. She talks "mellowness of heart" and doesn’t sound the least bit corny; she invites us to live gently and oh how we hunger for it as she describes in story after story.

Listen: Finding God in the Story of Your Life Keri Wyatt Kent (Jossey Bass) $19.95 This author has published other books that invite women, and moms, especially, into the deeper spiritual experience. Here, she offers a nicely done overview of spiritual disciplines, paying attention and how to follow the deepest desires of our hearts, to know God in the everyday moments of life. Very nicely done.

The Night Offices: Prayers for the Hours From Sunset to Sunrise Phyllis Tickle (Oxford University Press) $28.00 We have been fans of Ms Tickle’s great writing - memoir, essays, reviews, and sociological studies such as Prayer is a Place. She is rightly known for the beautiful three-volume set of fixed-hour prayer books Divine Hours. Here, she offers a gorgeously produced hardback with two-color ink, ribbon marker, and deep blue cover which are prayers for nighttime. The introduction says, "The Office of the Night Watch, as its name suggests, comes into human reckoning during those hours when sleep is upon almost all of us. For those who are restless or sleepless, however, the office is often a personal balm and an easing. For others, its beauty alone is sufficient to justify setting a clock for its keeping. For those who travel across time zones and shift diurnal patterns abruptly,the Office of the Night Watch is often a portable sanctuary, a way of entering into the company of believers wherever one is and on however skewed a schedule." I am not inclined to use this kind of a book, but perhaps someday I will. For those drawn to liturgical prayer or who have used her other volumes, this is a spectacular gift!

Letters of Faith Through the Seasons: A Treasury of Great Christian Correspondence (Volume 1) James M. Houston (Honor Books) $19.99 This set of devotions takes you through the first half of the liturgical year (December to May), and offers meaty, well-written readings that were once letters---are still letters, compiled and written, to you! Few contemporary writers know the broadest Christian tradition as well as Dr. Houston (founder of Washington’s C.S. Lewis Institute and first professor of spiritual theology at Regent in BC, a position famously filled upon Houston’s retirement, by Eugene Peterson.) Each letter, here, is followed by Scripture, a thought for the day, and a prayer. Dip into guidance and edification by writers as diverse as John of the Cross and Baron Friedrich von Hugel, from Athanasius to Martin Luther, from Amy Carmichael to Flannery O’Connor. Very thoughtful arranged in a handsome hardcover making it, we think, a truly award-winning volume.

Joyful Exiles: Life in Christ in the Dangerous Edge of Things James M. Houston (IVP) $17.00 Dr. Houston’s many thoughtful books are esteemed by some of the best spiritual writers of our time; he is solidly orthodox, delightfully ecumenical, and rigorously thoughtful making him balanced in the best sense of the word. I am not sure why his books have not sold better, or why he hasn’t received the popularity of, say, Dallas Willard or Eugene Peterson. Here, he weaves his deepest insights about spirituality with some of his own story, making this his most accessible book, perhaps his best. One of our customers, a local pastor who reads as maturely in the devotional classics as anyone, insists it is one of the best books he’s read in years. We are happy to award it a little Hearts & Minds honor; let us pray that others promote it far and wide.

Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation Ruth Haley Barton (IVP) $16.00 We have been touting Ruth’s books since her earliest work on women, gender and relationships. Over the past decade she has taken up her place as one of our best teachers about spirituality, Sabbath, silence, and such. After promoting her previous book, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, she repeatedly heard folks cry out that they indeed longed for the knowledge of God and spiritual experience she spoke of, but they felt they didn’t have the right pace of life --- No time! Too busy! â€" to make it happen. Out of the experience of her own hectic life, and her leadership in spiritual direction with other equally busy folks, she developed a strong conviction that we must create spaces in our lives for the things we find most important; she has written this wise, compelling, helpful guide to finding a lifestyle suited for spiritual formation. There are oodles of good books on this topic, but this one is special. We are confident it deserves to be high up on our "Book of the Year" list.

The Sign of the Cross: The Gesture, the Mystery, the History Andreas Andreopoulos (Paraclete) $19.95 Is this an award-winning book, or just one that I found immensely interesting, informative, instructive and inspirational? Did I love it, really, or did I just like Frederica Mathewes-Green’s telling forward (I would read nearly anything she writes!) I must be clear: I have only intentionally cross myself a few times with anything approaching religious devotion, and after reading this book, I cannot yet find myself comfortable with the custom. (I am afraid, I suppose, in my Presbyterian and evangelical circles, it might appear gratuitous.) Still, if we care about the way our fathers and mothers in ancient times practiced their faith, if we care about how many brothers and sisters today still do, if we care about embodied practices that are rooted in cosmic theological truths, we should attend to this simple gesture. This book not only informs us of a practice that is so ancient we don’t really know when it started, it appeals to readers with rich and mystical depth. Yes, I think it deserves a good runner-up mention here in our Best of the Year list.

Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference Philip Yancey (Zondervan) $21.99 Yancey is one of our best writers, a thoughtful and sharp advocate for evangelical faith, defined broadly and well. Here, he ponders the biggest questions, and offers good advise. More than one reviewer noted the positive influence it had on their own prayer lives. That in itself makes us want to shout about it. Certainly one of Yancey’s best ever.


Spirituality, Justice and Pedagogy Edited by David I. Smith, John Shortt & John Sullivan (Stapleford Centre & the Kuyers Institute) This volume of essays takes such a probing look at education, and what it means to think in a deeply Christian fashion about teaching justly, and about teaching about justice, that it deserves a special, new category for Hearts & Minds blue ribbon winners. The online Journal of Education and Christian Belief will publish occasional other pieces, perhaps, but, for now, this collection is extraordinary. A few Hearts & Minds friends are in here (like Chris Elisara, formerly of the Creation Care Studies Program in Belize and David Smith, German prof at Calvin College and author of the remarkable The Bible and the Task of Teaching).) Also, you will find important scholars of educational theory such as Nicholas Woltersdorff (Yale) and Doug Blomberg (of the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto.) Whether interested in the sub-disciplines of teaching about engineering, or the quandaries of helping students grapple with the complexities of the Middle East, character formation or African American studies, or the ways in which spiritual disciplines can enhance classroom learning, this interdisciplinary collection is very helpful.


Learning the Language of the Fields: Tilling & Keeping as Christian Vocation Daniel G. Deffenbaugh (Cowley) $14.95 Happily, this lovely, rich, paperback is not only lovely to behold and good to carry around, it is a fabulous read. I blogged about this earlier (although I didn’t note then that I find myself loving some, agreeing with much, and disagreeing with a few theological points.) This is a wonderful and wonderfully-written book and while I want to tout it’s insight, the importance of it’s vision of Christian care for creation, the way it explores how ritual is related to community, and a host of other stuff about attending to our local landscapes, we want to honor the book design, the allusive quality of the title, the typography of the cover and the nice shot of the garden that (upon closer study) isn’t perfect like some high-quality calendar photo. Go to the blog to get a look-see for yourself.

Here I Am: Reflections on the Ordained Life Richard Giles (Canterbury Press) $12.99 Revered Giles is a decent and pleasant British chap who serves as Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral in Philadelphia. This is a slightly larger than pocket sized hardback with lovely black and white woodcuts throughout. The deep red art and the b/w illustration on the cover immediately draw even a casual viewer in. That the book is about being shepherd of the sheep make the rural-flavor of the style of illustration seems wonderfully apropos. Canterbury Press does nice books and this inexpensive hardcover by a Hearts & Minds acquaintance seems like a great choice for a lovely award for design. By the way, although this is perfect for a gift to a clergy person you may know, even those of us not ordained into priestly ministry should reflect on these vows which Fr. Giles explicates here.


A Time to Embrace: Same-Gender Relationships in Religion, Law, and Politics William Stacy Johnson (Eerdmans) $25.00 Too often, books on controversial topics are such screeds, so one-sided, so lacking in nuance or thoughtfulness that they only convince the already convinced. Or they are so fair-minded and moderate that they don’t really take much of a stand on anything. I am not sure this book is right. I haven’t worked through it carefully enough, myself. It surely deserves to be taken seriously and we appreciate not only the grace of the writing but also the broad interdisciplinary learnedness of the author (who is not only a Biblical scholar, a theologian at Princeton Seminary, but an attorney and legal scholar.) While I have a few bones to pick (one of which, for the record, is my sense that he does an injustice to New Testament Robert Gagnon in a lengthy footnote) we believe it may be one of the more important and substantive books of its kind. We award it and the publisher, glad for the opportunity to recognize a book of note that stands out for making us think and re-think.


Jesus, The Tribulation, and the End of Exile: Restoring Eschatology and the Origin of the Atonement Brant Pitre (Baker Academic) $49.99 For a category that could be nearly endless, I can at least say this: it has to be over 500 pages, have important significance, and truly be something I want to commend to our more scholarly readers. This one is it! Listen to the blurbs from stunning scholars like Dale Allison (who calls it "convincing" with implications that are "manifold") and Scot McKnight (who suggests it is the best dissertation he has ever read) and Notre Dame’s David E. Aune (who says it is a "rich, exciting and grand book…a bold and reasoned challenge…a theological tour de force.") I know I’m out of my league, here, but sure looks like a winner. Listen to this: "Every once in a while, a scholar emerges who forces us to rethink long-settled opinion and reorient our reading of the New Testament. With this book, Brant Pitre demonstrates subtly but conclusively that the historical Jesus did indeed understand his mission in terms of Jewish messianism---expressed especially in Israel’s restoration from exile, a new exodus, and the tribulation of the Messiah…" (from Scott Hahn.) With advanced degrees also from Vanderbilt, and a teaching position at Holy Cross College, this is an ecumenically important piece of work. Cheers!

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony Richard Bauckham (Eerdmans) $32.00 Again, over 500 pages, with rave reviews, a handsome presentation, this time by a world-renowned Scripture scholar that we truly appreciate. N.T. Wright says "Now Bauckham, in a characteristic tour de force, draws on his unparalleled knowledge of the world of the first Christians to argue not only that the gospels do indeed contain eyewitness testimony but that their first readers would certainly have recognized them as such. This book is a remarkable piece of detective work, resulting in a fresh and vivid approach to dozens, perhaps hundreds of well-known problems and passages."

Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship From the Garden to the New Creation Allen P. Ross (Kregal) $35.99 Those who know Dr. Ross’s passionate teaching and serious commentaries like Creation and Blessing or his work on (of all things) Leviticus know that he is as solid as they come, weaving Hebrew insights, Christian doctrine and wholistic Christian living. With endorsements here from the likes of John Frame and John Witvliet, Robert Webber and Daniel Block, you can see this is meaty, evangelical stuff. Life is just too short, but at least we can acclaim this book’s important with our Award.


Lord, Have Mercy: Praying for Justice With Conviction and Humility Claire Wolfteich (Jossey-Bass) $21.95 I will promptly admit that I am being a bit ornery here, not choosing to honor one of the many good books one current political life that are hot. This was the year of the Anti-Christian-Right book, with more than a dozen such releases, and counting. Some were okay, some pretty mean. Some were just wrong-headed. Some, like The Politics of Jesus by Obery Hendricks, were very important (although it irks me that one would use the title already claimed by the important John Howard Yoder.) And of course there are stacks and stacks of books on international affairs, citizenship, politics from all perspectives. I’ve read plenty, stock lots, could talk all night about some…Here, though, is perhaps one of the most important and under-appreciated titles of the year, a fair and balanced book aimed at the practices of prayer as we seek God’s heart on peace and justice issues, nurturing a spirituality of public life. The case studies are useful, the guidance is sound, the writing is inspirational and clear. We’ve liked all of the "Practices of Faith" series published by Jossey-Bass and this is one of the best.


Home: The Blueprints of Our Lives edited by John Edwards (Collins) $29.95 I gave this as a gift to my mother, as it is simple book to read, with lovely photos of people’s homes, and then a brief narrative of how their childhood home effected them. Some contributors grew up very wealthy; others were dirt poor; a few are famous (from Rick Warren to Nanci Griffith; from John Glenn to Maya Lin.) Some talk specifically about the architecture of the home while others write lovingly about the tone of their family. Some write about their hometown place (rural Kansas or urban Brooklyn) and still others share a detailed memory of their back yard or favorite room. Increasingly, we are coming to understand the need for attention to our sense of place, and this handsome gift book offers good stories, helpful testimonies to the impact of house, home and family. Very nice,

U2 by U2 U2 (Harper) $39.95 How can I not mention this gloriously rich, over-sized collection of photographs of the most important band in rock and roll? That this is the first time the band members have actually done a book together, it has become the official biography, too. From all four band members (and their manager) telling their stories, sharing memories and explaining their lives and work, to the stunning modern photography from the guys personal archives, this is a keeper for any fan of pop culture or any collector of coffee-table art books. Well worth it, and worthy of our big Award!

December 5, 2006

new N.T. Wright

Evil and the Justice of God is the long-awaited, brief hardback published by InterVarsity Press ($18.00), a book that surely will be on many critics "best of" lists here at the end of the year. Os Guinness has written, I might remind you, one of the best recent books on the question of suffering, the problem of evil and the call to not only understand evil from within a profoundly Biblical worldview, but to use that framework as the basis for appropriate, faithful, robust and hopeful resistance to evil. I must say that my largest disappointment with the new N.T. Wright is that is doesn't cite Unspeakable: Facing Up To The Challenge of Evil, Dr. Guinness' elequant and thoughtful apologetic. That aside, it is otherwise fabulous and very, very urgent.

The reason for the oversight, I suppose, is that Wright is a Biblical scholar and uses a more direct interaction with Biblical texts and themes. Guinness is a Christian sociologist, popularizer of the best philosphy and literary works, and, while he may not want this term applied to him, is the quintessential "public intellectual." Wright, although himself quite culturally savvy, is an ordained Anglican priest, a churchman, a bishop and former canon theologian at Westminister Abby, so brings his theological and Scriptural studies focus to the task. Within the guild of New Testament scholars, N.T. is a large presence, and very well-respected (if often debated from those who find him too evangelical, on the one hand, and those who find him too liberal, on the other. Go figure.)

And so, his new book looks at the problem of evil within creation, the overall Biblical drama, and the responsibilities we have to be fully human in the face of tragic suffering. He offers a compelling call to live into the "new heavens and new Earth" even as we await Christ making "all things new." It is both insightful and inspiring.

With excellent endorsements on the back from various sources---for instance, Yale's Lamin Sanneh and Talbot's J.P. Moreland--- one can see the breadth of respect and Wright's influence in various streams within the church of today. When perhaps the best-read Christian leader in North America, Books & Culture editor John Wilson, says "This is a book that every thoughtful Christian should read" we should take notice.

Also, this month, Baker books published a small hardback by N.T. Wright on the debates about New Testament documents, DaVinci Code kind of questions, formulated around the publication of the recent so-called Gospel of Judas. Entitled Judas and the Gospel of Jesus: Have We Missed the Truth About Christianity? (Baker; $18.95) this is a balanced and reasonable look into the reliability of recent media claims about the gospels and these pseudo-gospels that have been so discussed in recent years. It was just a few months ago that the Judas document was on the cover of Time and I am sure that we will be hearing more of these pre-gnostic accounts of an less than Divine and less than human Christ. Not bad holiday reading, come to think of it, Wright on the proper take on the person of the Babe of Bethlehem.



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December 12, 2006

Son of the Most High

Our Sunday school class is being treated to a wonderful series on Messiah by the spectacular Christian composer, George Frederick Handel. Our teacher, a thoughtful Bible student and fine musician herself, is being guided by the excellent Kerygma curriculum. (Their studies are thoughtfully designed from Presbyterian folks in the PC(USA) and are very good.) We're thinking about the Biblical basis of these awesome pieces, and the powerful way GFH wove them together into an important telling of the story of Israel and her savior, who released her from exile and secured not only her rescue, but the restoration of all things. Let Heaven and Nature sing, indeed.

I will never forget the first time I heard Al Wolters (Creation Regained) describe the vast, vast implications of that one single line from the carol Joy To The World that tells of God's healing restoration which brings blessing "far as the curse is found." (Ahh, where is sin's curse? Everywhere! Where does God's Kingdom's impact extend? Everywhere!) For that reason alone, I add in a quick aside, it is worth having Michael D. Williams' book on your shelf. It is a splendid, innovative, overview of the history of redemption and the unfolding drama of the Biblical story, nicely entitled Far As The Curse Is Found: The Covanant Story of Redemption released this past year by Presbyterian & Reformed; $17.99. What's not to love about a book called that? A brand new work with a similiar approach deserves a full review, but I can at least announce it here: the big, thick magnum opus of Christopher J. H. Wright has been released by IVP, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative ($38.00.) It will be much discussed, I'm sure.

But back to Handel. If you would like to plumb the depths of these wonderous texts a bit, consider this new Advent devotional, Reflections of Messiah: Contemporary Advent Meditations Inspired by Handel by Jim Melchiorre (Upper Room; $12.00.) This United Methodist leader has a good eye for a good story. He doesn't tell us much about Messiah, and it spends little time reflecting on the intentions of Handel or his writer---who took the texts from the Book of Common Prayer, mostly. It is fiesty, active, thought-provoking. Good discussion questions, too, inviting us to take these texts seriously, and to allow them to propel us to mission.

My big suggestion, though, I save for the end. Son of the Most High is a musical recording that takes these same classic Biblical texts and makes new, contemporary songs of them. Part of the Biblical paraphrase project called "The Voice" (I've commended McLaren's re-write of Acts called The Dust OffTheir Feet, and am excited to see the forthcoming Lauren Winner piece which translates Matthew) this acoustic-driven, singer/songwriter collection is fabulous. It isn't a "young Messiah" type effort and makes no pretense to update Handel. It does work with the same matieral, though. With contributions by Cademon Call's Andrew Osenga, female vocalist Kendall Payne, worship-leading hipsters Don & Lori Chaffer, and other great players (like Steven Delopoulos and Andrew Peterson) this cool worship album is wonderful for Advent. And for those drinking in the Messiah texts, from Mr. Handel or Jim Melchiorre, it is an extra special soundtrack. Go here for more.

Son of the Most High
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December 14, 2006

A Musical Tour of Daily Readings for Advent

I thought I would tell of another Advent devotional. These days, it seems, more and more churches have allowed contemporary praise music to supplant liturgically sound Advent and Christmas carols. Actually, this isn't as you might at first think; many of the edgier and contemporary services actually do shape their music around Advent themes. (Tip of the hat to my old bud Gordon Carpenter, a really thoughtful contemporary music leader, for instance!) Still, I know some churches that just have given up on the carols, rich as they are. And don't get me started---please, don't get me started--on melodramatic bum, bum, ba, baaaump! (ding!)---overly-orchestrated and poorly written Christmas cantatas.

And so, the urgency of tonight's post on another Advent devotional book. O Come Emmanuel: A Musical Tour of Daily Readings for Advent and Christmas by Gordon Giles (Paraclete Press; $14.95) is a sweet and intelligent collection of well-crafted reflections inspired by the texts of great, great seasonal songs. From Come Thou Redeemer of the Earth to People Look East, to the standards such as Hark the Herald Angles Sing, (so cogently written by Charles Wesley & George Whitefield) and O Come, O Come Immanuel and the like, this guide is wonderful in its diversity. How great is a devotional that includes powerful essays on In the Bleak Mid-Winter to Good King Wenceslas, the work of Vaughan Williams and the music of Taize? I think it would enhance anyone's Advent and Christmas season, and would make a wonderful gift.

Know any choir members, directors, musicians or writers? Anyone who cares about the poetry of church history? Who loves thinking theologically about music (or would benefit from a chance to do so?) You know, this is a season when discussions of Christian faith and theology are publically sanctioned, and, with the holidays upon us, it is appropriate now in a way it rarely is, to give gifts of religious books. Why not take advantage of this seasonal open door and share some thoughtful Christian literature with a colleague or neighbor or friend? They just might appreciate it. Check out O Come Emmanuel by Anglican priest, vicor, muscian and philosopher, Gordon Giles, well- published by our friends at Paraclete. Very nicely done.

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O Come Emmanuel
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read@heartsandmindsbooks.com or call 717.246.3333

December 17, 2006

marriage books make great gifts

I get requests of all sorts---what a privelege when someone trusts us enough to ask for suggested books on (as we answered today) sexuality; on preaching; on excellent practices of clergy; on recommendations for someone in business; on eating disorders. Thanks for asking, thanks for the trust; books can really help others and it is a privelege to be in this work. And thanks for the business. Beats selling The Christmas Shoes if you know what I mean...

One e-mail friend wanted to get his soon-to-be-married buddy a marriage devotional. I thought you might like to see my brief, e-mailed response. Of course there are oodles of other good books on marriage, and several more we would recommend for others, in other situations. For this customer, these seemed right. Maybe you can hum Santa Baby or something and think about your loved one. Call us quick.

Thanks for writing. It is always good to hear from you. Glad you are giving a book as a gift---way to go! And thanks for asking for our input. Here's the thing about marriage devotionals. Most are fairly shallow, it seems to me. If a couple wants to read a book together about marriage, there are more useful and wiser ones than the devotionals. Or, if they want a devotional, there are better and more mature ones than the marriage ones. So I can recommend a few, but wasn't sure that was really what you wanted. So I thought I'd just list a couple of wonderful books on marriage that would make sweet gifts. We gift wrap, too, you know. Let us know what you think.

As For Me and My House: Crafting Your Marriage to Last Walter Wangerin (Nelson Publishing) $13.99 This really is one of our all time favorites! Well written, very moving, this pastor tells of his own friendship with his wife, his need for improved communication, etc. Beautifully written, insightful, wise. Highly recommended.

The Mystery of Marriage by Mike Mason (Multnomah) $12.99 This is another absolute favorite that we always recommend. Again, it isn't just a practical guide, but it is written out of longing to think about marriage spiritually. Mason was quite content being a solitary guy, rather deep and contemplative (almost like a monk!) Still, he was called to marriage, and he wrote this wondrous, reflective meditation on the deeper meaning of it all. Sweet. The great Reformed writer J.I. Packer, who I know you like, wrote the forward, highly commending it! Nothing like it!

Each for the Other: Marriage as it's Meant to Be Bryan Chapell (Baker) $12.99 Finally out in paperback, Chapell is a great communicator, well known as the president of Covenant Theological Seminary (PCA.) His really is a marvelous treatment, combining solid Biblical teaching and practical instruction. There is a chapter just for husbands, another just for wives, but most of it is essential reading for all.

Intimate Mystery: Creating Strength and Beauty in Your Marriage Tremper Longman & Dan Allandar (IVP) $15.00 This is a great study, really nicely done, by these two guys who were influenced (every early one) by the CCO. Longman is a great Bible scholar, Allandar and solid Christian psychologist. There are study guides, a DVD, and it is excellent for couples or for small groups. The book stands alone, though, and is very insightful, with their profound worldview pretty evident, making this really nice.

Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts Les & Leslie Parrott (Zondervan) $19.99 This is perfect not only for pre-marital folks but for anybody in their first few years of marriage. Exceptionally practical, really clear psychological principles, good inventories to help you know yourself, your style of relating, etc. There is a workbook just for men, another just for wives. Nice but it isn't terribly Biblical or theological.

Devotions for Sacred Marriage Gary Thomas (Zondervan) $14.99 This is a great devotional, designed to supplement his book, Sacred Marriage. Thomas is a great writer, rather contemplative, but happily quite practical. We like his book a lot (he has one called Sacred Parenting, too, and a devotional to go with that, as well) and we are impressed with his solid, theological underpinnings. Good stuff!

The Love List Les and Leslie Parrott (Zondervan) $14.99 This is very cool: something that they recommend you do as a couple once a year; something once a month; something once a week; something once a day. I hate easily 1-2-3-step plans, but this is just too nice not to mention. Delightful and, frankly, pretty smart.

Falling into Love: How the Average Guy Got the Girl of His Dreams Ned Erickson (Relevant Books) $11.99 A young a hip story of a romance and marriage. This isn't as made-in-heaven glory story, but it isn't a tragic story of break-up and heartache, either. It is just a funny, ordinary, goofy memoir of a real couple, who really found God's help to stick together through thick, thin and all manner of weirdness. Not the most inspirational theological work, but it is solid, Christian discipleship, making do, in Christ, with our real-world selves. Thanks be for fun books like this.

December 18, 2006

Three great books on Mary

Yesterday, the Revised Common Lectionary gave us texts about Mary. Even those who don't preach from the lectionary may have preached on the classic, seasonal stories of Mary's pregnancy; hopefully, some of us have pondered the upside-down values of the Magnificant. I would guess that some of our BookNotes readers sung or listened to Mary Did You Know, a song that I always find very moving.

To supplement your Christmas study, and to celebrate a renewed interest in Mary coming from evangelicals---surely a good sign---I thought I'd announce three new books that have released this season on the virgin. That they all have very lovely covers is nice, too. Perhaps just seeing them will bless you.

The Real Mary: Why Evangelical Christains Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus (Paraclete Press; $19.95) is the latest by one of the fastest rising stars in New Testament scholarship these days, Scot McKnight. This nice hardcover was published by the same house that gave us The Jesus Creed, a much-discussed McKnight book. This well-written volume has very great endorsements by Ben Witherington, Lynne Hybels, Nancy Ortberg, among others. H&M friend Joseph Modica (Chaplain at Eastern University) cheerfully says, "I'll never be able to look at that powder blue Mary figurine in the Christmas nativity scene the same way again."

Strange Heaven: The Virgin Mary as Woman, Mother, Disciple and Advocate Jon M. Sweeney (Paraclete) $23.95 Sweeney is another author to watch, one who can craft fine prose and who has given us some very nice books in the past few years. Sweeney's own spiritual memoir (Born Again and Again) was one of our favorites, and he has gone on to do two fine books on Francis and another on the recent trend of Protestants to be interested in Roman Catholic saints.) Strange Heaven invites us to meditate on the Divine feminine, and reminds us that the best devotional literature is often mysterious and deep. Very interesting.

Mary for Evangelicals: Toward an Understanding of the Mother of Our Lord Tim Perry (IVP) $24.00 Here is a serious book, perhaps the most thorough study of Mary from a Protestant persepctive that I know of. With remarkable endorsements by scholars as diverse as Marva Dawn and Chris Hall, Beverly Roberts Gaventa and Frederica Mathewes-Green, this is a broad and studious work. The book is divided into three substantial sections, Mary in Holy Scripture, Mary in the History of Christian Thought and Toward an Evangelical Mariology. What a spectacular book this is!

The back cover of Sweeney's book declares that "The virgin Mary ignites the human imagination more than any other woman in history." I am not sure if that is so, but I can't think of a comparable woman. And it makes sense; the Biblical promise is that all generations will call her blessed. Perhaps it would be wise to consider a study of her this year. These books would surely be a good place to start.

December 22, 2006

Blessed Are the Uncool

I don't know about you, but I have a deceidedly love/hate relationship with the Christmas season. I suppose it isn't all that profound---isn't it obvious?---that our culture has nearly ruined Christmas with the commercialization and fashion and sex and Santa stuff. Yet, I love it. Yep, I work in retail, I enjoy watching our staff "wait on" customers and ring in sales. I believe in our products (well, most of them, anyway) and I think shopping can be an act of blessing, a meaningful service, not just a mindless ritual or capitulation to crass consumerism. Still, I get really, really sad at the mall, perplexed by the lostness of our world and feeling very lonely. Even as deeply orthodox truths are sung in Christmas carols (there is sometimes better theology in the mall's muzak than in some churches) the whole busy season zooms by in a blur. So, I'm perplexed and sad, even though I love all the holiday stuff. I get all sentimental even listening to "I'll Be Home For Christmas"....and we watch the corny Christmas movies, too. I love Elf and The Santa Clause and the like. I love our big Christmas tree, even as I worry a bit about Jesus and his call to serve the poor. I know I don't live as simply as I once aspired to. The whole X-mas vibe, people talking about vacations and parties and the lovely decorations everywhere just makes me feel all this stuff very deeply.

And, so, I have a love-hate relationship with that new aesthetic that is all over the tube; have you seen the oh-so-cool Target ads, the "Love-Peace & Gap" ads, these ads with Moby-esque soundtracks? Man. Everything is so detached and cool and ironic and weird in a hip kind of way.

Blessed Are the Uncool: Living Authentically in a World of Show by Paul Grant (IVP; $13.00) may be the most important book of the season because it challanges us to think about how badly we desire to be cool. And I hardly need to mention the ironies of this; a very cool book, laden with hipster allusions and quotes from chic sociologists who write books with titles like Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude and Hip: The History (both very good books that we stock, by the way) calling us away from inauthenticity and the shallowness of coolness. How cool is that?

I suspect as I spend more time with this book, it will move me deeply, and I will try to take to heart Grant's call to uncoolness. I sometimes make fun of myself as a bit of a bookish geek, but I'd wonder if it is just pride--- playing dumb with tongue in cheek to impress the crowd. I wonder if this book will convict me. I am sure it will be insightful, both as cultural criticism and as personal spiritual formation. From dipping in to it here and there, I can assure you it is very smart, and very well written, and deeply faithful. That the author grew up (son of a missionary family in Europe) in a multi-ethnic setting, and has a serious interest in hip-hop culture (how many other books written by white evangelicals quote Fifty Cent or bell hooks?) makes this exceptional. There is an uncool website, too, and blogs for each of the chapters. Paul Grant hopes to have readers share their stories and discuss all matters of uncoolness. Check it out at uncoolbook.blogspot

Know anybody that is cool enough to want to read about it? Know anybody whose sunglasses mask an inner shame, whose preformance rebellion is rooted less in serious cultural witness and more about posturing? Know anybody who desires to be set free from this odd coping mechanism and wants live authentically as God sees us and as God call us to be? This could be a very rare gift, an invitation to break out of the vexations we have about Christmas, the "merchants of cool" and find ourselves free enough to live into a lifestyle of real compassion, pathos and care. Now that would be cool!

And, if this rings a bit shallow to you, perhaps you need this one: Seeing Through Cynicism: A Reconsideration of the Power of Suspicion by Dick Keyes (IVP: $16.00.) (Check out Dick's work at the L'Abri in Massachusetts, here.) Although I hope to review it more substantially later, this brillant book, on a topic about which little is written, will surely be on our "best of the year" list, and it may be just the thing for some of you out there. Moi? you ask. If the shoe fits, buy the book. My friend Steve Garber has a great blurb on the back, so cool or uncool, this book is really a very important contribution.

Merry Christmas.

Blessed Are the Uncool: Living Authentically in a World of Show Paul Grant (IVP) $13.00 Seeing Through Cynicism: A Reconsideration of the Power of Suspicion Dick Keyes (IVP) $16.00

December 24, 2006

Two Songs for Christmas

You may recall that a few months ago we shared our fondness for the new TV show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. I think we were pushing lute recordings, actually, and it came up.

I've been waiting for Christmas Eve to link you to a clip from that show. It shows one of the most beautiful renditions of O Holy Night that I've ever heard. In the show, homeless musicians from New Orleans are hanging around Hollywood and studio locals (like Kevin Eubanks, who makes a cameo appearance) are calling in sick, and allowing these refugee players to get a gig and a paycheck. The guys at the Studio 60 show get 'em all to play together at their Christmas show. The horn player--who, in fact, really is a young trumpet player from N.O.--- shows some wild chops earlier in the show, but this Christmas piece is slow, gentle and very moving. The real photos of the on-going tragedy of New Orleans in the background give it an poignancy that is stunning.

Do you know the line in that song about breaking the chains of oppression---shades of Luke 4!---because "the slaves are our brothers."? What a song! Once at the NBC site, click on the "Watch Video" button for the "Musical Christmas tribute to the City of New Orleans." It is a wonderous few minutes.

And, while we are at it, click here for a free Christmas tune written by our friend, former VOL man, Bill Mallonee. His last album, Victory Garden gets my vote for one of the years top two or three releases, and we carry it, too, of course. This holiday song ("Every Father Knows") is quitessential Americana folksy rocker Bill, and works on many levels. He swipes a line from T.S. Eliott, too.

Merry Christmas, all.

December 26, 2006

Preaching & Pastoring: A Provisional Miscellany

I guess it would be overstating it to say it is a Christmas present to our faithful readers---yes, it really would be an overstatement. But you still might make you jolly to know that I've done a new, long bibliography over at the website. You may recall that I (used to) do a monthly Book Review Article, and those longer reviews are all archived.

Although I've skipped doing them this fall, I've just posted one for November. October and December ones may follow soon (I hope) and then, early in January, we will post the "Hearts & Mind Best of the Year list", which will be quirky, diverse, interesting and a list of great quality. We got great feedback from last years, so we hope to have the drum roll and awards presentation for '06 within a few weeks. But I'm ahead of myself.

For Christmas (after the O Holy Night clip I posted Christmas Eve) please enjoy the Hearts & Minds website Monthly Book Review, which is a two-fer. One is a list of recommendations on pastoral leadership, the next is one on preaching. I list some really great books, and describe them in ways that I hope is enticing. Maybe you could pass the list around to those who might find it useful. (That would be a Christmas gift to us, sharing our efforts with others.)

Please click here or visit www.heartsandmindsbooks.com. Thanks.

December 29, 2006

Divine Nobodies

Can God show up among ordinary folks, weirdos and losers? Can followers of Christ find Him and His ways more evidently in ordinary moments than in ecstatic worship and highly polished ministries? What might we learn from the life of those who are not part of the church, or who are outside, on the margins, maybe a bit odd? This is the question that young writer Jim Palmer sets out to discover, and writes about so well in his wonderful new book, Divine Nobodies: Shedding Religion to Find God (and the Unlikely People Who Help You.) Maybe I shouldn't say he "sets out to discover" this, as it seems to slowly creep up on him, moments of great grace amidst his foibles, serious failures and deep brokenness. He was given this insight, and he faithfully tells of his findings.

This memoir tells of Palmer's journey away from traditional evangelical faith, churchianity, his "got-God-in-his-pocket and a wonderful plan for his (oh so successful) life" charismatic worldview. After some very tough times, some serious re-questioning of his life as a big time mega-church pastor with all the right (if simplistic) answers, and a bit of a walk on the wild side, he finds a move towards wholeness that is truly wonderful. Wonder-full. The ups and downs, the authentic journey, the steps towards healing, the radical life following the way of Christ, the passion for God and his new freedom, all comes to him, mostly through a variety of encounters with the unlikely nobodies that populate his odd life.

From the Waffle House waitress to the blue-collar tire salesman, from the spiritual kids at a Montossori-like Catechesis of the Good Shepherd atrium* to a mystical Catholic monk that guides him on retreat; from a street-wise, rowdy drummer in a hard rock band to a dear friend who walked through unspeakable grief, each illumines a new truth, a particular insight, a step towards wholeness. Each encounter helps him piece his faith back together, invites him more deeply into Kingdom living, and challanges us to live into the mystery of authentic life with God in a seriously-troubled world.

Palmer is a funny writer--for good reason, Brian McLaren likens him to "the next Donald Miller"---but he is also full of good insight and a pretty hefty dose of pathos. This is one of the best books I've read this year---moving, interesting, clever and, yes, I had to wipe a few tears as I was drawn in the stories he shares.

Find God and Kingdom truths from a hard-core rap fan? A young girl with severe cerebral palsy? An abandoned kid in a group home? A politically-correct, liberal swimming instructor?
You bet. Each chapter stands alone, some are more serious than others (man, the chapter on his work in Thailand with International Justice Mission helping bust child sex traffickers was powerful) but all weave together to form a vision of life in a world were God works in mysterious ways. Or, maybe, and I guess this is the real point, in pretty ordinary ways.

It is a bit frustrating (as it is with much of the emergent conversation, it seems to me) that Palmer seems to suggest that this is a really new insight, something edgy. I guess there are some churches out there that never teach about God's common grace, that God shows up all over this big 'ol wonderful world, that the doctrine of creation is insightful for more than refuting evolutionists, that the arts matter, that the abused and hurting reveal Christ in special ways. For some of us, this is central, foundational, almost common sense stuff, and it is curious to read about it as if it is newly discovered. (Where has this guy lived for the last twenty-five years if this is that new?) And, then, having discovered common grace and seeing truths outside the institutional churches, do you really have to be so utterly unconnected to institutional churches, now that the mega-church thing has been shown to be wanting? (Surely there are ordinary congregations that are neither mega nor legalistic, that would be better than the no-church/house thing.)

But even for those of us who will not be surprised by this insight that God-shows-up ("playing in ten thousand places", as Gerard Manley Hopkins has taught us) it is really, really good---I mean really, really good!---to hear somebody say it, once again. Thanks, Jimbo. You are one of these unusual suspects that have helped me remember what it is all about.

Divine Nobodies: Shedding Religion to Find God (and the unlikely people who help you)
Jim Palmer (Word) $13.99

*anyone who works with young children, especially in religious education, will find that this one chapter is worth the price of the book. For a some-what similiar, brief essay telling of another such encounter, check out my good friend Denise Frame Harlan's blog (which features well-written tales of the splendor of the ordinary). This post is called Weather Report: Spiral of Light which describes a gentle experience with children in an Advent candle thing.