About January 2015

This page contains all entries posted to Hearts & Minds Books in January 2015. They are listed from oldest to newest.

December 2014 is the previous archive.

February 2015 is the next archive.

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

January 2015 Archives

January 12, 2015

2014 - BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR (part one) 20% OFF

All of these award winning books are available from us here at our shop in Dallastown.  We have themBooks-of-the-Year.png for our BookNotes readers at 20% off. (We show the regular retail price, and will deduct the discount when you order.)  If you want to place an on-line order, our order form page shown below is certified secure for safe use of credit card digits.  We'll send you a confirming note back as soon as I can after seeing your order, usually within a few hours.


So, let's get this party started.


Here, at last, are some of our choices for the best books of 2014.  As I say most years, I'm not aware of every book in every field, and these are titles we've come to honor as we've deduced from our own reading, titles we've stocked in the store, things people seem to most appreciate, honoring good writing about topics that we think are important, or writers we find charming, and, I'll admit, a matrix of variables that I can't always name. How does one balance the sheer joy of a zesty read and the significance of a major contribution to a field? How does one rate a book that is moving and lasting, for a nearly ambiguous reason?  These caveats in place, here are some I want to honor. We are happy to celebrate some excellent books and glad that a few of you read long (And even more glad if you buy a few from us!) 


Despite all the hemming and hawing, we love telling people about our favorites, and after consideration, we want to announce these as some of the very best books of the last year. Part One.


2014 BOOK OF THE YEAR


visions of vocation.jpgVisions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good Steven Garber (IVP) $16.00  If you subscribe to BookNotes or have heard me at nearly any place we've set up books these past 11 months, you'll know that I've declared this the best, the most important, the most interesting, the most vital book, and my personal favorite book, of the last several years.  We may have been one of the first places where one could pre-order it last year, and I explained why were were so eager, here. I've talked about its backstory and launch at Jubilee 2014, which was a fun way to celebrate it, and acknowlege Steve's role and work at Jubilee.  Here is a link where I review the book more precisely, and I explained why I commend it, listing a few very solid reasons.  It may be my favorite BookNotes post of the year, and I hope you saw it (and maybe even shared it with those who might be curious about this kind of a mature book.)  We offer our congratulations to Steve for the other more important awards it has won (including a runner up Best of honor over at Christianity Today) and our gratitude to InterVarsity Press for the great cover, too.  Even the title -- Visions of Vocation -- seems to be a nice follow up to his previous, important book, Fabric of Faithfulness.  I have rarely been so sure about a book I want to honor, commend, and promote.  Three very big cheers for the beautiful, profound, smart, and engaging Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good -- Hearts & Minds Best Book of the Year, for 2014 AD.  



BEST SELLING PRODUCT OF THE YEAR


flow package.jpgDVD  For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles Acton Institute (Guerrilla Productions) $59.99; our sale price $35.00  We are grateful for large internet ministries like the Gospel Coalition and for friends at Acton and the Washington Institute on Faith, Vocation & Culture, and at RUF, for linking to us as they've promoted this remarkable, edgy, creative DVD curriculum which asks "What is our salvation for?" with a multi-faceted, in-the-world-but-not-of-it exploration of how to be faithful within various cultural spheres. I suppose I was one of the very first to review it, and we raved, here. Andy Crouch's excellent Christianity Today review nearly went viral as he suggested it was the best Christian media resource he has ever seen. (Do click on that if you haven't read it -- he writes so well, and understands FLOW quite well.)  We have the colorful leaders/participants Field Guide (regularly $9.95) on sale as well  This may be the biggest selling item for us in 30+ years, and we've been delighted to ship them all over the world.  Congratulations to Stephen J. Grabill, Dwight Gibson, Evan Koons, and the other writers and producers in Grand Rapids for this enjoyable, provocative, insightful, and excellently-created seven-part series. Kudos to the guys in Jars of Clay, too, for the excellent original score and sound-track.  Watch the fabulous trailer, here, and then come back and help us promote this fine, fine video resource. 


BEST BOOK OF BIBLICAL STUDIES


new heavens and new earth.jpgA New Heaven and New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology J. Richard Middleton (Baker Academic) $26.99  Again, I've reviewed this at great length when it first came out, which I hope you saw (read or re-read it here) and we knew it would be award-winning as soon as we examined it. What a book!  It is brilliant, good, good stuff.  There is no doubt in my mind that this book is urgently needed -- among evangelicals and mainline folks alike -- to be fully clear about God's promises of new creation, and how this vision of a restored Earth can animate and sustain our efforts for cultural reform now. Richard is an excellent Biblical scholar and has worked on this serious volume for years; the endorsements have been robust and exceptional, and early readers report it is nearly life-changing. If you really want to live into the reign of God which includes the gracious, redemptive missio dei in all of life, then this kind of vision of God's rescue of the cosmos is not only important to know, but to know well.  I cannot think of a Biblical studies book in recent years that is more needed, more important, and which will bear better fruit.  As James K.A. Smith wrote,"if read as widely as I hope, this book would transform North American Christianity."  Amen.  Truly one of the best books of 2014!


BEST SOCIAL JUSTICE MEMOIR


just mercy.jpgJust Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption Bryan Stevenson (Spiegel & Grau) $28.00  I wish I could award this spectacular book multiple awards, and it may be that it will be as enduring as other truly great books of our times. I've suggested out loud that I wouldn't be surprised if this remarkable legal reformer who serves poor, imprisoned clients, gets the Nobel Peace Prize someday. This is a truly extraordinary story, a page-turner, a memoir unlike any I've read, truly one of the best books I've read in my life.  One of the best of 2014?  Oh my, my, absolutely yes! Please read my review, here. (The other books I note there, too, are useful as well, but my comments about Just Mercy are about half way down the column.) With endorsements from Desmond Tutu, Michelle Alexander, Isabel Wilkerson, Tracy Kidder, and novelist John Grisham, you should realize that this is a work to be taken seriously.  Bishop Tutu calls Stevenson "America's young Nelson Mandela" and Michelle Alexander (of the important New Jim Crow) says he is one of her personal heroes. As well he should be.  Read this amazing book, and you'll see how Bryan Stevenson has been called a real life Atticus Finch has earned the respect of so very many, by putting criminal reform for the poor, people of color, the very young and the very mentally challenged, at the heart of his vocation to make a difference for the abused.  You will see the world more realistically after reading this book, and you will be of better service to God and country. 


BEST BOOKS ABOUT THE CHURCH in 2014 -- A  PRIZE QUARTET


This may be unconventional, but I almost wanted to award these four books not even as individual books, or as a four-way tie, but as somewhat of a tsunami  (until I realized that sounded to grandiose and violent.) Yet, these four, which came out within weeks or months of one another, seem of a sort, and are best read together, in conversation with each other. In some cases, the authors are, in fact, friends, and seem to be networked somehow. Their publication not only illustrates an important trend in Christian publishing, as it surely does, but illustrates some of the best insights and (dare I say it without violating these author's resistance to technique and formula) best practices, for clergy, congregational leaders, church planters, and parish activists.  Yep, these four all deserve to be honored, they are each excellent, and, together, they are not merely a four-way tie for this category, but are together a huge force with which we must reckon.  Cheers, guys. Thanks.


new parish.jpgThe New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community  Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens and Dwight Friesen (IVP) $17.00 Another timely release in the IVP Praxis series, this extraordinary book brings together three very different thinkers and practitioners, each who have done excellent work in re-imagining the church in our post-Christian age, and have lived out the implications of a sense of place and a clear passion for Christ-like missional service. When reviewers as astute as Walter Brueggemann say that it is "teeming with fresh ideas and rich energy for the future of the church...this is hand-on missional ecclesiology in its most generative mode" you know you should read it. When one as widely read as Phyllis Tickle says "Hands down, one of the most sensible and simultaneously exhilarating books I have read in a long time" you know you will enjoy it.  Three cheers for these three amigos.


Slow Church-Cover1.jpgSlow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus C. Christopher Smith & John Pattison (IVP) $16.00  If this book is any indication of the Praxis line of IVP, we can take much hope in the future of rumination on the state of the church and the art of missional ministry. You may recall that I raved about this, exclaiming that it was my personal favorite book in this category in years -- and one of my personal favorite reads of 2014! -- and that we brought one of the authors here to speak earlier this fall.  Kudos to our friends who here relate "high speed internet, rapid rewards, quick trips, fast food, and... church?" Taking a cue from the slow food movement, they wonder what church might be like if they were inspired by the sorts of things the slow foodies think about. Brilliant, just brilliant!  One of the Best Books of 2014 for sure.




shrink.jpgShrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church-Growth Culture Tim Suttle (Zondervan) $16.99  Chris Smith (of Slow Church fame, and a consummate reader and book reviewer himself at The Englewood Review of Books) says "Shrink is one of the wisest and most significant evangelical books that I've read in the last decade; it is essential for every pastor and church leader!"  Stanley Hauerwas insists that if many churches have lost their way "Suttle helps us see how God in our time is making us leaner and meaner. I hope this book will be widely read."  I trust that this will not be misconstrued: this is not necessarily in favor of only smaller churches and doesn't necessarily disapprove of those whose congregations are thriving or growing in meaningful ways.  Of course not.  But, if yours is smaller or struggling, this will give you wise insight and encouragement.  And if yours is larger and effective, I think it will offer keen perspective and  needed reminders of what the local church is called to be and do, and how best to honor faithfulness in this particular time in the life of our culture.  Impressive.

fail.jpgFail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure J.R. Briggs (IVP) $16.00  I have told you about this before, and I am struck by how this thoughtful book has sold well at clergy conferences and pastor's gatherings; it resonates for several reasons.  The book is excellently conceived and well written, it emerges from the authors own epic fail, and the subsequent shame and sense of rejection that comes with ministry failure, and it offers unique spiritual insights on coping with and drawing upon the lessons of ministry plans that were aborted or dissolved. The Alban Institute had a few monographs on closing a church and a few small books have appeared here and there, but this is doubtlessly the best I've seen on this urgent topic. With a foreword by Eugene Peterson (and a fine endorsement by Ruth Haley Barton and Leonard Sweet) you can see a number of solid folks have agreed.  This book deserves its hard-won awards.


BEST BOOK OF WORSHIP STUDIES


evangelical vs - Melanie Ross.jpgEvangelical Versus Liturgical? Defying a Dichotomy  Melanie C. Ross (Eerdmans) $17.00  We have boldly touted this book since we first received it, writing about it, showing it off, explaining its rather rare qualities.  Ross teaches liturgics at the prestigious and might I suggest somewhat high-brow and ecumenical Yale Divinity School, but is well-suited to write a book which studies less liturgically sophisticated, ordinary evangelical congregations.  Can evangelical and low-church worship traditions see themselves as liturgical? Can those from higher church traditions of more formalize liturgy learn from the thinking and practice done in these kinds of churches? Anglican parishes and Evangelical Free churches and Lutherans, say, aren't likely to have too many common worship experiences, let alone host panels and confabs and conversations learning from one another -- except maybe at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship who commissioned this, and published it within its liturgical studies series. So, what better than at least to read about this false dichotomy, and ponder how to learn from each other?

I agree with Don Saliers, who refers to her "keen knowledge of ritual and liturgical studies" and calls it "wise and important" and then says it "is a major resource for anyone concerned about contrasts and convergences in worship practice."

Here is what Jamie Smith says of it:

This is a book that many of us have been waiting for. It is winsome without being wishy-washy; critical yet profoundly charitable. Above all it is both sharp and wise. Instead of the usual invitation for evangelicals to grow up and become 'liturgical,' Ross empowers free-church evangelicals to see the liturgical wisdom already implicit in their practices -- and presses liturgical theologians to appreciate the same. In doing so, she also invites evangelicals to become newly intentional about worship drawing from the deep wells of liturgical theology. This book is a win-win-win.


BEST MEMOIR -- OF A ONE DAY STORY


city of god.jpgCity of God: Faith in the Streets Sara Miles (Jericho Books) $20.00  You may not approve of all of the beliefs and values of this outspoken Episcopalian activist, but if you know her other amazing books (Take This Bread and Jesus Freak) you know she is one of our finest, most passionate and powerful writers, with an amazing prose style and an entertaining eye for detail.  Anne Lamott says it is "Gorgeous, gritty, profound... I love everything she writes, but there is some special about this new book."  City of God jumps back and forth with memories and flashbacks, and in many ways continues the journey of liturgy and justice, prayer and politics, so beautifully told in her previous books. But it mostly tells of three worship services experienced one Ash Wednesday, an traditional early morning service in the fancy sacred space of her church, the public action of offering ashes in the streets throughout the afternoon, in a public worship experience for the masses, and a reflection and debriefing at the end of this long, moving day. Even if you are not involved in urban ministry and even if you are not interested in liturgical acts like these, this is a poignant and profound "love song to her neighborhood" and a reminder, as one reviewer wrote, "how every ;moment of our lives is liturgy, and each and every liturgy we do if for the whole world which God loves so dearly."


BEST MEMOIR -- OF A ONE YEAR STORY


oilandhoneybookpage.jpgOil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist  Bill McKibben (Times Books) $26.00  I hope you recall my review of this (here) as I really, really loved this book.  I won't spoil it for you, but you should know that Mr. McKibben is a fine autobiography writer, a nature observer, a lay theologian, and one of the leading climate change activists in the world.  In this behind-the-scenes story he gives the moment-by-moment telling of his year fighting the polluting and dangerous XL Pipeline from the dirty Tar Sands of the fields in Canada, including his organizing chapters all over the world, doing stressful travel and speaking and press work, and leading a campaign of civil disobedience at the White House to protest the Administration's foot-dragging on global warming matters. This is elegant, moving, honest, and even if one doesn't agree with level of urgency McKibben insists is needed, or much of his political organizing, it is a great glimpse into the life and habits of "an unlikely activist."  And here is what bumps this jump good to great: almost half the book is about his finding respite by learning from his Vermont neighbor the art of bee keeping. There is moral outrage, there is personal courage, there is astute policy advocacy, but there is the simple joy of caring for his corner of nature, and the fine art of learning pretty nifty skills of tending to the bees.  Oil and honey, get it? What a book!  Highly recommended!


BEST MEMOIR -- OF A SEVERAL YEAR STORY


coming ashore.jpgComing Ashore  Catherine Gildiner (ECW Press) $24.95 This is the third installment of the life story of this truly amazing person, a Canadian psychologist and novelists whose literary gifts just shone in her first book, Too Close to the Falls which hilariouslyafter the falls.jpgtoo close to the falls.jpg told of her eccentric -- precocious is putting it mildly -- childhood working in her father's pharmacy in Niagara Falls, and her second, After the Falls told colorfully and poignantly of her coming of age and living large in the 1960s, with crazy jobs, working as a white girl in the civil rights movement in Ohio, and of her odd parents and the debilitating illness of her beloved father. This last memoir tells of her early 70's year in England as an Oxford University student, her return to life here, her falling in love (again), her on-going coping with aging parents, and some other stuff I just can't say lest I spoil the surprise.

This was the most enjoyable memoir both Beth and I have read all year, truly one of my favorite books of 2014, and her whole irresistible trilogy will be enjoyed by anyone who appreciates the art of the memoir. If you like Mary Karr, say, you will love these well-remembered biographical stories that unfold beautifully, movingly, with great wit and grace, with great self-awareness and insight.  We are delighted to tell you about these, am confident that it deserves a place on the Best Books of 2014 list, and want to honor all three.  Send us an order, you'll enjoy them, we are sure! 


BEST MEMOIR -- OF A LIFETIME STORY


rumours of glory memoir.jpgRumours of Glory: A Memoir Bruce Cockburn (HarperOne) $28.99 


I zipped through the more than 500 pages of this in a few days over a weekend and I've hardly been happier all year. What a read! How fun to revisit old songs and earlier albums, learning about them all. I suppose you know that I am a huge fan of this important Canadian rock star, guitar virtuoso, former Christian singer-songwriter, and on-going human rights and social justice activist.  Agree or not with Mr. Cockburn's life choices or political vision, for anyone interested in the music business, or in a behind-the-scenes glimpse of an artist, this book is fantastic.


I would like to re-say much of an earlier review I wrote at BookNotes, so you realize why it is important that I honor this splendidly interesting work.


Truth be told, my musical hero comes across as I feared: Mr. Cockburn no longer calls himself a Christian (although he is very, very candid about the earnest and thoughtful faith he held for years) and he is a bit spicy in his language (nothing new there.) He's an eccentric dude, we know, and I realized this more and more in this very revealing memoir. I found his reporting of his childhood days truly interesting and his rise into music, music school, and eventual stardom fascinating. He is honest about a handful of romantic relationships that haven't worked out. Like many artists, he's got some issues; he is undergoing Jungian dream therapy and getting to the bottom of some of his haunting concerns. He is also a remarkably virtuous person in many ways.  His narrations of making music, writing songs, preforming with other great musicians, his production of his many albums -- I know each one by heart and he gives some great details about specific tracks and recording processes and production notes! -- is fantastic and a must for true fans. If you are interested in popular music, or care at all about this telling of his tale, this really is a great and very handsome book.  It has been very favorably reviewed in places like Rolling Stone and we are happy to honor it now.


Cockburn's well known lefty activism, his philanthropy, his reporting from all over the globe, his travel-based research and bearing witness to repression, war, poverty, ecological crisis, and more makes the book not just entertaining and a good read, it is riveting, vital, important, deeply moving at times. We need to hear this stuff -- from the awful ways in which the US funded torturers and death squads in Central America to the way the "radium rain" came down after Chernobyl to the land mind issues in Cambodia and Africa... one really learns a lot from this, and his explanations are often first hand and come from solid research. This is first hand story-telling, with politics and prayer, romance and sex, fear and bravado, song-writing and art, mixed together in a life story of one of the more important pop singers of our time. 


Jackson Browne (who appears in it) says, 


This is the story of the development of one of the most astute and compelling songwriters in the English language. Bruce Cockburn's journey, both as a musician and as a thinker, draws us with him into spiritual and political realms and becomes a chronicle of his engagement in the major issues of the past thirty years. Rumours of Glory is highly personal account by one whose quest for expression engages the most important social questions of our time.  


Lewis Hyde, author of that amazing book on creativity and generosity, The Gift (which inspired Bruce's great song of that same name) says "Cockburn gives us a finely-grained account of the ground from which he harvested some of the finest songs of his generation."  


HONORABLE MENTIONS:  TWO NEW MEMOIRS BY CHRISTIAN INTELLECTUALS


from every tribe and nation.jpgreading a different story.jpgFrom Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian's Discovery of the Global Christian Story Mark A. Noll (Baker Academic) $19.99


Reading a Different Story: A Christian Scholar's Journey from America to Africa Susan VanZanten (Baker Academic) $19.99


Honors to Baker Academic for this surprisingly thrilling, very informative series called "Turning South: Christian Scholars in an Age of World Christianity." Kudos to series editor Joel Carpenter for his efforts which has invited evangelical academics to tell their story, not only of their faith journey and how they have seen their workj to j.jpg (as scholars and teachers) as an expression of (and informed by) their own deep Christian convictions, but how this faith has changed over recent years as they've increasingly been exposed to Christians (and others) in the global South. I have raved about the first one in this series, a must-read memoir by Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff (Journey Towards Justice) and commend it again, now that there are others in this great series.


Mark Noll, of course, is an eminent historian whose every new book is met with enthusiasm, both among historians and scholars, but all who read the best Christian writing. This new book, however, is more personal, and "is the one we have been hoping he would write" as one reviewer proclaimed.   The esteemed Philips Jenkins not only exclaims that he is especially delighted by From Every Tribe and Nation but that it "takes the literature on world Christianity to a whole new level."  Noll is a good storyteller, of course, and his telling of how "global Christianity" has become known in our generation is truly remarkable.  One of the very important, and lovely books of 2014, for sure!


Reading a Different Story, was particularly delightful for me, and I am glad that we announced it when it first came out.  Many BookNotes readers appreciate, and take inspiration from, books about books, memoirs of writers, moving essays about how faith informs literature. Ms VanZanten does this well, but here, in keeping with the theme of the Turning South series, she talks about her own experiences in the developing world, what we used to call the Third World. This book is splendid, and a fun read for anyone interested in global travel or world missions.  It is very important for those who teach, especially for college professors, wanting to be current in efforts to be properly multi-cultural. It's great strength, though, is how it brings to us insights about African literature, and other important writings from the post-colonial years in the global South.  Some of you know these books -- think, Things Fall Apart, just for instance -- and will love this rumination on "reading a different story."

Listen to these fine endorsements:

"This engaging intellectual autobiography is a rare treat for anyone pondering what it means to be a Christian scholar and teacher in the twenty-first century. It offers no vague generalizations. Rather, VanZanten has crafted clear-eyed, generous, and wise reflections on her journey into this vocation--from the intertwined blessings and challenges of her Dutch Reformed roots, through the liberating effects and pitfalls of collegiate and graduate study, to experience in an ecumenical range of Christian higher education. The dominant connecting theme is the value of learning to hear the voice of the 'other, ' particularly those outside the North Atlantic context."

--Randy L. Maddox, Duke Divinity School 


"In this beautifully written memoir, an exceptionally creative, courageous, and faithful scholar-teacher invites readers to join her on a journey that has led her to a truly global sense of both literature and Christianity. Encountering Susan VanZanten's expanding vision, we are challenged to broaden our own--and also given fresh resources that will help us to face that challenge. I highly recommend this book to those who teach in church-related colleges and universities."

--Dorothy C. Bass, Valparaiso University 


"VanZanten offers a rich weave of memoir and theological reflection and makes a compelling argument for curricular globalization that is dialectical, deep, and humble. She shows how a life of scholarship is also an adventure rife with mystery and grace. All who teach or read literature and all who seek to understand what shalom has to do with story will want to read this thoughtful book more than once."

--Marilyn McEntyre, writer; fellow at the Gaede Institute, Westmont College; UC Berkeley


BEST BOOK IN THE FIELD OF AMERICAN HISTORY 


rebel souls.jpgRebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America's First Bohemians Justin Martin (De Capo) $27.99  I knew I would love this from the first few pages, and a few more in, I was reading out loud to Beth for nights on end.  I not only thoroughly enjoyed this delightful social history, but learned so very much. (Who knew that the first stand-up comedian, delivered what was called a "comic lecture" since they didn't have a name for stand-up in the mid 19th century? Who knew that Whitman had these other folks around him?) This book explores a rowdy group of artists, writers, journalists, activists, and philosophers who gathered for years almost every night at an underground bar (Pfaff's Saloon in Greenwich Village ) knowingly and intentionally trying to import to the US the new social movement and cultural philosophy of France, wanting to be known as bohemians.  In a way, this biographical sketch of this crew, and their ideas, is a huge window into counter-cultural movements and fringe artists every since, and could be valuable for any who live and work in hipster circles or within those called to the arts. (Where did the idea come from that art, to be authentic, must somehow be shocking or against the mainstream tastes?)  Seen another way, this is also a study of how any idea might be clarified, re-fashioned, embodied, and disseminated by way of  relationships, networks, writing, using the arts, and strategizing how to reform civic  institutions.  And a couple of good "third places." Yes, this looks at the famous poet, but more, it looks at his crew, those who gathered at Pfaffs, who caused the artsy, counter-cultural vision of bohemia to be spread into North American culture. I really loved this book, spanning from the last half of the 19th century -- including some awful stuff about the raptures caused by the Civil War -- and highly, highly recommend it.

Here is a brief review I wrote of it earlier at BookNotes.  


Here is what the Los Angeles Review of Books wrote this past September, with a nice reminder of the important second half of the book:

a compelling, insightful group biography...Vividly describes not only Pfaff's heyday, but also how Clapp's coterie, once it was dispersed by the chaos, duties, and opportunities brought by the Civil War, came to define an unmistakably American species of rebel artist...Martin sets himself an ambitious task, and rises to it in the structure and reach of his telling. In 1860, the war scatters his protagonists, whose fates he follows for the latter two-thirds of Rebel Souls like a literary LoJack...Martin's done a remarkable job bringing 'those times, that place' very much alive through his painstaking research...Pfaff's rebel souls, Martin makes plain, are all around us.


BEST BIOGRAPHY


strange glory.jpgStrange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Charles Marsh (Knopf) $35.00  There have been many, many biographies of the extraordinary life of the German Lutheran martyr and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and, to be honest, many were less than thrilling, dry, poorly translated and whatnot.  Eric Metaxas's splendid, lively, and deservedly popular Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy broke some odd barrier, and now Bonhoeffer books are truly in vogue, his work is studied, and the floodgates have been opened for new work on his life and times. Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been in the making for a long, long, time, and the meticulous research shows. Still, Marsh has been writing on other topics (including race and social change in the US and I admire his passionate books such as God's Long Summer, The Beloved Community, and a recent one co-written with John Perkins, Welcoming Justice.) I am not qualified to adjudicate the controversies around various schools of thought regarding the best reading of Bonhoeffer or the details of his personal life. I still highly recommend Metaxas, which is so interesting and lively, although this moving new hardback book by Marsh is a weighty, serious, tome, and it is very well written, and deserves very special mention. It could be that it is the best, serious biography yet done on DB. The sober and quite wise and eloquent Alan Jacobs calls it "an extraordinary account" and says it is "profoundly researched and vividly imagined. Marsh has unearthed enough archival material to keep generations of Bonhoeffer scholars occupied, but, more important, has used his knowledge to weave a mesmerizing tale about one of the giants of the twentieth century. I can't remember when I've read a more compelling biography."    Wow.  2014 has been a great year for good books, eh?


A DOUBLE-AWARD: BEST NEW CONTRIBUTION TO BONHOEFFER STUDIES & BEST YOUTH MINISTRY BOOK


bonhoeffer as youth worker.jpgbonhoeffer as youth worker.jpgBonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together Andrew Root (Baker Academic) $19.99 Yep, this is on the top of the stack in two categories!  I think Root is a very important writer these days, and hope pastors know his Zondervan book, The Relational Pastor, and that theological thinkers know his recent Christopraxis (Fortress) and that all of us read his remarkable Abingdon book, The Promise of Despair.) I am adding this one to the Best Books of 2014 list because Root has added a new insight into Bonhoeffer that has never been well explored, and has developed his research with such far-reaching implications that it simply has become a "must read" for many of us. Yep, this studies the years in which Bonhoeffer was a youth pastor, his regular interest in the role of children, and in reporting much about those practices, he draws implications for the changing world of youth ministry in our time. In a way, this is a great introduction to Bonhoeffer, and a great reforming proposal for youth min. Fantastic! 


A VERY HONORABLE MENTION: THE BEST BIOGRAPHY OF AN ALMOST FORGOTTEN PERSON


fierce convictions - straight cover.jpgFierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More -- Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist Karen Swallow Prior (Nelson) $24.99  I've reviewed this for the Center for Public Justice at their Capitol Commentary, and at our own BookNotes.  Here is some of what I said when this came out this fall:  Oh my, where to begin? I want to read this because I don't know much about the remarkable woman who came alongside William Wilberforce in his on-going struggle against slavery (perhaps you recall her small role in the film Amazing Grace.) I am sure such a valiant woman's story will be very, very valuable to many, and I for one need to know more about this era, and her role.   Secondly, Karen Swallow Prior is the smart and sassy author -- her first book was a memoir about influential books in her life -- and I think I'd line up to buy whatever book she had on offer after that brilliant debut. And, then there are these magnificent, ebullient blurbs: sometimes you pick up a book just because so many people you really respect rave about it.  


So we are not alone in celebrating this significance of this important volume, and we are not the only ones that want to so honor it. From the foreword by Eric Metaxas (whose earlier book on Wilberforce was fantastic and included some good pages on Hannah More) to Richard Mouw to Mark Noll to Ann Voskamp to Leonard Sweet, many are insisting it is one of the best of the year.  Sweet (who knows a thing or two about the Brits in this era, by the way) writes, "Here is that rarity of a book: scholarship of impeccable rigor that's also a compulsive page-turner. Reading Karen Swallow Prior feels like a privilege." Agreed! 


HONORABLE MENTION: MOST VALUABLE RESOURCE FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE MINISTRY (by several authors)


forgive us .jpgForgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith Mae Elise Cannon, Lisa Sharon Harper, Troy Jackson, Soong-Chan Rah (Zondervan) price $22.99  I wrote about this first for Capitol Commentary (an e-newsletter of the Center for Public Justice) and then again at BookNotes.  Here you can find my comments and see my explanation of why I think it is so very, very important, and why these authors are so important to our efforts an deepening our social mission in the name of Christ.


It surely deserves to be listed as one of the Best Books of 2014, and certainly one of the most timely; the events that have transpired this year in Ferguson MO (and elsewhere) and the instense discussions, often hard, that we've had about them (even at my own facebook, and with dear friends and customers) surely indicates the urgency of this. This powerful and important book includes some very bad news, news that we would ought not pretend to forget, but would be wise to ponder, to own, and to experience with sadness and lament. But it also includes some even better news, not cheap or thin, but robust and glorious, real gospel truth: confession can lead to forgiveness, repentance leads to new life. Confessing our sins against land and people and cultures and turning from unjust ways is a beautiful door to a joyful and good way of life --  honest, vulnerable, relevant and fruitful. Yes, this book in many ways is hard to read, and even the most socially aware reader will learn much about our sorrowful past. But, again, this is brave and good and exciting: what joy can come from lament, repentance, and renewed commitments to seek justice and reconciliation! God will be pleased, Christ glorified, and our watching world intrigued as we admit to our violent and vile past, learning to talk in informed ways about corporate brokenness, and seek fresh new ways to be agents of hope. Congratulations to Harper, Cannon, Rah, and Jackson for this brave, urgent book.

Here is a blurb I myself offered that appears in the book; it was a great honor to be included with others who added their endorsements:  

1 Chronicles 12:32 mentions the sons of Issachar, who "understood the times and knew what God's people should do." Of course, one cannot understand our times without going into the past, and realizing the roots of our current historical situation. Our brave authors here do this for us, helping us learn things we did not know, underscoring certain features of our past social failings and bad theologies, and then offer insightful theological reflections to help us name sin, seek forgiveness and move forward in newness of life.  Anyone wanting to be Christ's ambassadors of reconciliation and agents of God's transforming Kingdom simply must grapple with the social sins named in this book, nurturing hearts that can become broken and healed by these stories of pain and compromise. We must learn the rhythms and goodness of grace that comes through lament and admitting guilt. This book will, indeed, help us be sons and daughters of Issachar -- aware, repentant, wise, and relevant. I pray it gets a wide, wide readership.

HONORABLE MENTION: MOST VALUABLE RESOURCE FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE MINISTRY (by a single author)


doing good without giving up.jpgDoing Good Without Giving Up: Sustaining Social Action in a World That's Hard to Change Ben Lowe (IVP) $16.00  Just a few years ago I raved about a book that remains a companion for me, and should be in the backpack or end-table of any activist (or those who may not identify as an activist, but one who cares deeply about making a difference in the world.) That book was by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson and was called The World Is Not Ours To Save and it remains a very, very special book to me.  Stevenson's call to deep spiritual practices that allow us to be people of hope, to trust God with the rescuing of the planet, is mature and sound.  And yet, there is a need for a companion volume to that, one that is, well, maybe just a wee bit more practical.  As the kids say, we might wonder what it looks like to be an activist of this very sort, hopeful, working out of good motivations, not fearful or frantic or angry. How does one keep on, keeping on?  It is a central theme of Steve Garber's serious reflection (Visions of Vocation) but again, we need a clear guide, a handbook to accompany us along the journey. My friend Ben Lowe has given us just what we need and a great, great gift in offering a book just like this: here is what, indeed, a spiritually-wise, balanced, hopeful, engaged, Christ-centered life of world-changing activism really looks like.  Lowe (who has even run for office, which gives him some nifty stories) offers profound ruminations on truly big stuff -- avoiding idolatries, practicing repentance, building bridges with opponents, discerning one's vocation around various causes and issues, and more mundane things for any of us involved in ministry or social change work, the small things that matter.  This book includes practical advice, important guidance in living out the love of Jesus, doing the good and holy work of advocacy for change, and yet enjoying the ride.  This is a book I have longed for in years past, and one I want to share with anyone who wants to persevere when, as he says, "the novelty wares off and our enthusiasm runs out."  Doing Good offers key practices for sustaining social action, and allows us to seek God's Kingdom through faithful missional lives.  Excellent. I am sure I will be talking about it, and recommending it, for years to come. 


HONORABLE MENTION: AN INSPIRING JOURNEY INTO THE HEART OF HOPE


Way of Tea and Justice.jpgThe Way of Tea and Justice: Rescuing the World's Favorite Beverage From It's Violent History Becca Stevens (Jericho) $22.00  Perhaps you've read Steven's other moving reflections about progressive Biblical faith, or her quiet little books of self-help spirituality. Her 2013 memoir Snake Oil was critically acclaimed and very powerful.  This recent book does two things, at least: it tells the story of how their Thistle Farm ministry decided to open a (fair-trade) tea shop to supplement their job-training ministry with sexual abused, trafficked and addicted women, and it tells the story of how tea is grown, harvested, sold, and enjoyed over time and geography.  What a pair of stories, the story of tea, and the story of the Thistle Farm cafe.  As Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times writes, "Women served by Thistle Farms would be dead by now if it weren't for the remarkable initiative by the Rev. Becca Stevens..." Yes, tea can be "a long journey into hope."  This inspiring book has down to earth advice, spiritual rumination, history, economics, and one heck of an wholesome entrepreneurial  project at its heart.  Steep some healthy tea, and as you read this, be glad for this kind of book in 2014.

BEST BOOK OF EVANGELISM

??the unbelievable gospel.jpgThe Unbelievable Gospel: Say Something Worth Believing Jonathan K. Dodson (Zondervan) $16.99  I like reading books about evangelism, and there are many that are really good.  I find that most people -- mainline liberals, progressive evangelicals, Roman Catholics, older-school fundamentalists, even -- don't know how to share their deepest convictions in ways that are natural and persuasive.  We are either too pushy or, increasingly, at least in our circles, so understandably desirous of not seeming disrespectful, that we often stay quiet, even when opportunities present themselves to share the gospel.  And then, sometimes, we do broach the subject of telling our story and we realize there is a huge disconnect between what we know to be gracious good news, and the typical unchurched person's view of Christianity; or, there is a disconnect between what we want to say, what we believe deeply to be the truest truths, and our confusion and inability to actually say much coherent.  No wonder we'd rather just nod and smile.
 
There are bunches of books that are good, and some that are stellar. 
The Unbelievable Gospel is the best I've seen in several years on this topic, from its colorful and helpful design (similar to early Rob Bell books, in terms of page design) to its mature clarity about the nature of communication, and, mostly, about its astute appreciation for how faith and Christian discipleship simply isn't compelling, or even plausible, for many in our culture. The last five chapters -- metaphors, "Good News to Those Who..." is worth the price of the book. Lots of thinkers I respect (from Alan Hirsch to Jerram Barrs, from Ed Stetzer to Mark Sayers) have given this big thumbs up. David Fitch says it is "stunningly clarifying."  We think it deserves a Best of the Year shout out. Congrats! 

BEST BOOK OF APOLOGETICS

True Paradox- How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World .jpgTrue Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of our Complex World David Skeel (IVP) $15.00  We were pleased to promote this a bit when it very first came out while at the 2014 annual Christian Legal Society Conference this fall -- what a trip to Boston, with thoughtful legal thinkers and Christian lawyers! Professor Skeel was not there, but many there knew of his astute legal mind, and his charitable, caring style. He is a rigorous thinker, and a good man, we've come to realize, and this book has been long-awaited for those of us who have followed him on line.  The heart of this book is captured well in the title and in the reference to complexity in the subtitle -- although my silly summary (that Christianity isn't plausibly true only because of its tight, logical answers to tough questions, but because of its leaving room for weirdness) maybe works, too.  That is, the Christian worldview offers a good account of a world where not everything can be easily explained, and its comfort with paradox and mystery is itself a good sign of its being attuned to reality.  This is another book published by IVP in cooperation with the Veritas Forum, a solid, open-minded, evangelical ministry which sets up conversations, symposia and debates on college campuses.  I love that the back of this book states "Our complex world raises difficult questions" without shying away.  We're not shy in affirming this is one of the Best Books of 2014.


BEST BOOKS OF BASIC CHRISTIAN GROWTH

Although I don't review a lot of these sorts of books -- often called "Christian living" -- it is most likely the largest category in our inventory. (Well, maybe alongside spirituality and Biblical studies.) There are so many, and so many good ones, we hardly know how to honor just one or two. There are resources written in styles and tones and with angles and insights for nearly anyone, from any denominational background. Many are truly excellent. We want to very honorably mention these five for being a bit surprising, contemporary, interesting, well-written, and powerfully helpful for the ordinary life of faith development. 

charis.jpgCharis: God's Scandalous Grace for Us  Preston Sprinkle (foreword by Tullian Tchividjian) (Cook) $14.99 There is a cottage industry of recent books that have "gospel-centered" in the title, and lots about the good news of God's merciful grace. Sprinkle is a lively, hip author, with a cool writing style, which traces this key doctrine from the beginning of the Bible to the end of Christ's life. So, yes, this is mostly a study of grace in the Old Testament.  His insight is solid, his pastoral wisdom helpful, and his Biblical insight is at times nearly stunning, and delivered with some flavorful zeal. What a scandal, that almost all of us need to hear, week after week: God loves us and offers unmerited mercy. As it says on the back, "take a journey into Charis -- where harlots are hugged, enemies are enjoyed, and really bad people receive really good things from a Creator who stubbornly delights in undelightful people.  Like us."


playdates with god.jpgPlaydates with God: Having Childlike Faith in a Grown-up World Laura J. Boggess (Leafwood) $14.99  I have only met this author once or twice, in passing, although I have come to respect her immensely. She is an excellent writer and a content editor at TheHighCalling.org -- the remarkable blog which helps guide folks to think about connections between worship and work, callings and careers,  faith and life.  While this broad vision of the Kingdom and a keen sense of calling and vocation hovers around her work, in this lovely book she shows what is often in her own heart -- a simple faith that sees how God is calling us back to an intimate relationship with our Creator. I resonated with her opening pages, sharing how she decided not to have a traditional "daily quiet time" of prayer and reading a little devotional book.  Certainly she believes in rigorous study and prayer, but wondered what her time of spiritual formation might be like if she understood it less as a study, but as a "playdate."


We all want some deep connection with God, discerned even while we are passing through fairly ordinary turf. We want to practice the presence. We want to rediscover wonder, be refreshed in joy, surprised, even -- perhaps even recapture a bit of child-likeness. I'm convinced that this moving book can help. As the very good writer Emily Wierenga says of it, "this is a must-read for those with restless hearts, longing to find their way home."  Congratulations to Ms Boggess for helping us so by sharing much from her own play, her own joy, amidst her own pain and struggle. We could all use a play-date with God, eh?  


real christian - bearing the marks.jpgReal Christian: Bearing the Marks of Authentic Faith Todd Wilson (Zondervan) $16.99  Okay, I'll admit: I love a book that is useful like this, with excellent discussion questions at the end of each chapter, a few Bible verses to read and reflect upon, some excellent and often serious books recommended for digging deeper after each chapter, and a few inspiring biographies to further encourage readers. The author loves classic, serious theology and knows how to recommend good books, at least for those that want to dig in.  This plan for basic Christian growth isn't nearly enough, of course (what one book would be?) but it is an excellent start for anyone that wants to be clear about first things, their own salvation and an assurance of God's grace as they explore true Christianity, allowing the gospel to transform them from the inside-out.  These lively chapters or well done and upbeat, but not too light-hearted. The author has a nearly palpable passion to help young Christians -- or older ones -- understand and embrace the central truths that can reform our affections and passions, offering us the graces of a Christ-centered life. With strong endorsements from Collin Hanson (who reads very deeply in this sort of thing as editorial director of The Gospel Coalition) and Timothy George and James MacDonald, you will realize that this is classic, evangelical theology, explained and applied to the heart of one that desires God.  It is, in this sense, a primer on the Christian life. Dan Wolgemuth, CEO of Youth For Christ/USA says "Read this book. Soak in it. Savor each word like you would the bite of a fine meal." He insists it is "strong, convicting, and inspiring."  We are glad for meaty works offered in contemporary packaging and with such accessible style.


Miracles.jpgMiracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, And How THey Can Change Your Life Eric Metaxas (Dutton) $27.95  Perhaps a few decades ago we here at the shop felt that there was maybe a bit too much being published about miracles, about charismatic renewal, about unusual spiritual experiences, books promoting a rather sensational view of life and faith.  Now, with the odd exception of the spate of books about people who claim to visit heaven, it seems there isn't nearly as much in mainstream religious publishing about these mysterious episodes. Maybe we need a dose of serious writing about mystery and miracle. Mr. Metaxas, a witty and winsome writer, with a PhD from Yale, is perfect for this large assignment, and he has delivered for our edification (and bafflement, perhaps) one heckuva a great book.  I've written about it before, carted it all over our travels this fall, and agree with the many rave reviewers that this is a very special, nearly extraordinary book. Owen Strachan (author of Risky Gospel) says reading it will "re-enchant your humanity" (which itself deserves some sort of award for best promise for a book in 2014!)  Always impressive TV star Patricia Heaton says that "Metaxas's Miracles mixes storytelling with logic and inspiring beauty with profound mystery. It's an intoxicating combination."  And one worthy of an award -- a Hearts & Minds Best Book of 2014.


god in sink.jpgGod in the SInk: Essays from Toad Hall Margie L. Haack (Kalos Press) $11.95  A few years ago we eagerly awarded Margie Haack a best book of the year award, for her riveting, moving, gentle memoir, The Exact Place.  Now she is back and this is nearly auto-biographical, again, although it isn't structured as a memoir. This splendid book is a great collection of letters and articles Margie wrote to her supporters, donors and friends of the ministry of Ransom, which she and her husband Denis manage out of a home called Toad Hall.  These essays were all from the "Notes from Toad Hall" magazine she sent out, and are honest (sometimes painfully so) ruminations, often including Biblical reflections, about her life and times, about ministry and homemaking, about being a wife, mother, grandmother, friend, and citizen of the great state of Minnesota.  Margie is very honest about her fears and foibles, candid about the dumb stuff she sees (in her marriage, in her home, among those with whom she serves) and also sees the absolute glory of the quotidian. I have written at length about why you should buy this book, and why we love it so -- I was a bit gushy about the book in my review at BookNotes, and some said it was one of the better reviews I've done, lately, so I hope you revisit it, and spread the word.


It should come as no surprise that we think it is one of certainly one of the Best Books of 2014.


We're not alone in saying this, by the way.  My blurb on the back cover stands alongside stellar endorsements by serious folks like Steve Garber, Andi Ashworth, Zack Eswine.  It is dedicated to the memory of one of Margie's earliest mentors, Edith Schaeffer (1904 - 2013.)  Kudos.


Well, friends and fans, we maybe aren't dressed in gowns and tuxedos, and we may not have Tina Fey and Amy Pohler as emcees (although we do have their funny books) but this is the intermission in this humble little awards show.  We'll be back soon after we all stretch a bit.  As they say, there's much more to come -- we'll name books in the categories of spirituality, missions, family life, politics, popular culture and the arts, theology, a few other odd-ball, made-up categories, and, of course, fiction.  Stay tuned.

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January 16, 2015

Hearts & Minds Bookstore -- BEST BOOKS OF 2014, PART TWO -- on sale 20% off

Books-of-the-Year.pngThe house lights are blinking on and off, friends, a sign that the intermission is over and we're starting up the ceremony again.

Welcome back to PART TWO of the Hearts & Minds Best Books of 2014 awards show.  (See Part One here, if you missed it; our BookNotes reviews are all archived at www.heartsandmindsbooks.com.)

Part Three will be posted soon, too.   There's a lot more to come.

Enjoy the show.

But first, this quick word from our sponsor: we usually show the regular retail price of these recommended books, but if you buy them from us, we will deduct the 20% BookNotes discount for you.  Our website order form page (see the link below) is certified secure and you can safely leave credit card digits there. Or, you can ask for us to just send you a bill and you can pay by check, later.  Just tell us what where to ship and who to bill. Or, we'd love for you to give us a call at the shop at 717-246-3333. Tell us that you saw the reviews at BookNotes. Thanks  again for making 2014 a great year for publishing, for reading our reviews and for sending orders our way.  We wouldn't be here without you.

BEST BOOK OF GLOBAL CONCERN 

locust effect.jpgThe Locust Effect: Why The End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence  Gary Haugen & Victor Boutros (Oxford University Press)  $27.95  There is little doubt that Mr. Haugen, who founded the International Justice Mission (IJM) and helped put sexual trafficking and contemporary slavery on the modern-day map, and has valiantly worked to liberate untold thousands, knows as much about structural evil and systemic violence than anyone on the planet. A thoughtful, prayerful, bold Christian, he has lead IJM to partner with lawyers, courts, police and governments throughout the world to work for reform of policies and enforcement of laws protecting the vulnerable.  In the magisterial Locust Effect, with the help of a young activist-scholar, they lay out the bigger picture, the need for the rule of law, the relationship of injustice and disorder, and how to establish greater public justice in places that are desperately in need of shalom. This book is one of the finest examples of thoughtful, accessible, inspiring, social justice advocacy, and a major contribution to the fields of global poverty and justice.  From one of the world's oldest and most prestigious academic presses, too. We were thrilled to be among the very first to review this (see my BookNotes review, here.) Surely this is one of the most important and best releases of 2014.

RUNNER UP: BEST BOOK OF CHRISTIAN GLOBAL CONCERN

Occupied Territories- The Revolution of Love From Bethlehem.jpgOccupied Territories: The Revolution of Love From Bethlehem to the Ends of the Earth Garth Hewitt (IVP) $16.00  A friend got to me an advanced copy of this manuscript earlier in the year, and I zoomed through it, eager to learn more of this amazing story.  What a book! Garth Hewitt is a global justice advocate and peacemaker (working worldwide through his human rights organization, the Amos Trust) and I am thrilled that this book came our way. It is very compelling. He is also a great singer-songwriter who I discovered decades ago (maybe alongside Mark Heard, or shortly thereafter.) He has served on the board of the world famous Greenbelt rock music festival in the UK and is a canon of St. George's Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem. When he is in London, he serves as an associate priest of St. Clement's Eastcheap.  You can even hear him on the BBC (Pause for Thought.) Which is all to say he is a tireless Christian servant, commitment to public justice work, but deeply connected to the local parish and to worship, even while he spends time  touring, researching, serving, speaking out, working into his calling as a "folk theologian"  and human rights activist. Occupied Territories documents how this "revolution of love" works, as he draws attention to the plight of those in poverty, violence, and repression.  Hewitt's is not a partisan political project, nor is his mission work driven by trendy causes or ideology. In Occupied Territories he is clear about Christ, about deep things of faith, and about how discipleship calls us into the fray, leading with love to build a new way.   There are powerful stories here, excellent Biblical exploration, and useful study questions to help reader process this call to live out the gospel in relevant, healing ways. This would be great for a book club, for a discussion group, for a Sunday school class. And it is perfect for a Hearts & Minds Best Book of the Year Award -- we honor this with great gratitude that there are people doing this kind of work, sharing their stories, and offering their faith to inform and inspire us.  Artist Cindy Kiple who designed the book cover, too, deserves a special award -- just wonderful!   Cheers!  Check out his website, here.

BEST BOOK FOR NURTURING PASSIONATE SOCIAL ACTION

Overrated- Are We More in Love with the Idea of Changing the World.jpgOverrated: Are We More in Love with the Idea of Changing the World Than Actually Changing the World Eugene Cho (Cook) $15.99  In Part One of this Best of 2014 list, we touted the very sober, practical, useful guide to sustaining social activism by my friend Ben Lowe, Doing Good Without Giving Up. It deserves its good place on this award show, and we think it is very wise, and a much needed companion for many.  Overrated by the hip Seattle pastor Eugene Cho is similar, but deserves its own moment in the sun.  It is exceptionally passionate, really strong, and explains how God does indeed expect us as Biblical people to stand for the poor, resist oppression, and commit ourselves to being servants of others, involved in projects which show charity and even become advocates for social reform.  So it does that well, really well. It's genius, though, is its generosity, its humble, almost comical tone -- "a confession, painful and honest," Cho says.  But yet, this guy understands our dilemma: it is harder to live this stuff out than it is to just talk as if we're doing something.  Sure, who doesn't want to make a difference, leave her mark, serve the poor, fight the powers.  But how do we do that? Start by knowing what the Bible really teaches, and this is a nice intro to good theology.  Then get serious, even as you have fun being challenged and recharged. Lynen Hybels, who has been on quite a journey herself of late, says, "I read every word and pondered what I read. Overrated challenged and chastised me, inspired and energized me. I highly recommend it."  No "hipster coffee-shop talk of justice" here, says Shane Claiborne. Cho "dares you to dive into the trenches and do something..." Let's not just talk about a better story, let's actually live a better story. Fantastic. See his organization One Day's Wages for lots of great ideas and ways to join a network of grassroots activists against global poverty.

MOST INTERESTING BOOK OF POLITICAL THEORY 

hobbit party.jpgThe Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot  Jonathan Witt & Jay W. Richards (Ignatius Press) $21.95  I will have a brief review of this published shortly in the Center for Public Justice's Capitol Commentary and there I note how very interesting this is, how persuasive it is at times, and yet hint at how it finally fails as uniquely Christian theoretical work.  That is, while it is exceptionally fluent in classically understood conservative Catholic social theory, and how The Lord of the Rings and other Tolkien masterpieces assumed and imagined a world that is shaped by this sort of worldview, it is less than clear why this is, in fact, the most theologically-sound, Biblically-warranted orientation. These brilliant writers are passionate about all things Middle Earth and that makes The Hobbit Party well, a party, almost; it is not only delightful to read, but very helpful, since they can help us appreciate the social, political, economic, and ecological views that informed the Shire, and the hobbit journey towards freedom. I enjoyed this book, learned much, commend it to others - perhaps especially those who haven't grappled with the serious, freedom-loving localism of the sort explained here - even though I may not fully agree with their nearly libertarian worldview.  Agree or not, this is a book to enjoy, to ponder, to discuss, to help us more accurately understand the fantasy novels that some say are the most important literary works of the 20th century, and to understand how to think creatively about communicating theories of natural law, public justice, cultural renewal in a post Christian society such as ours.  If only other political theory books would be so interesting!  Kudos.  

HONORABLE MENTION: A VERY NOTABLE TOLKIEN AWARD

Beowulf JRR.pngBeowulf: A Translation and Commentary J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien (HMH) $28.00  At last, 2014 saw the legendary and long-awaited release of JRR's translation of this great Anglo-Saxon classic. Perhaps you, like me, didn't get this as a high school kid. Perhaps you loved the passionate re-telling by Irish poet Seamus Heaney.  Perhaps you just want this great classic in your library, but never knew which edition to purchase. Well, this is a handsome, must-read version for those who want to understand the epic poem -- more than half the book is commentary!  And, I suppose,  it is also nearly a must-read volume for any true fans of the learned, pipe-smoking Inkling. Hear, hear.





HONORABLE MENTION: AN EXQUISITE, LEARNED BOOK ON BOOKS & WRITERS

Beauteous Truth- Faith, Reason, Literature and Culture  .jpgBeauteous Truth: Faith, Reason, Literature and Culture  Joseph Pearce (St. Augustine's Press) $30.00  Speaking of exceptionally learned, very conservative, radically insightful Roman Catholics, Pearce is, for some, nearly an acquired taste; he is so profoundly, classically trained that many will see him as beyond a curmudgeon and anti-modernist.  But yet, despite his quirks that some might think to be "so medieval" and anti-popular culture, this book is not only wise, it is fun; Thomas Howard gets it just right when he says it is written with brio.  What a joy to read such elegant and exquisite prose, in such a very sturdy, handsome volume.

In this great work he offers short essays about writers, writing, theology and philosophy as seen in literature, some of which were published in First Things, The Chesterton Review, and the Saint Austin Review. 


BEST BOOK OF POPULAR CULTURE STUDIES

Stories We Tell.jpgThe Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth Michael Cosper (Crossway) $15.99  There have been oodles, just oodles of books in recent years about Christian engagement in film, video games, TV, rock music and the like. Popular culture and media studies remain large sections of our store, and we are noticing an increasingly specialized bit of work coming out, seriously Christian and deeply studious; a few of these are a bit obtuse, though.  So it is just lovely, and very, very helpful, to have a really good, entry level, thoughtful, fun book by a theologically reliable author, ruminating about our love of TV and movies.  Why do we tell stories? How can the popular art of modern media inspire us? (Should it?) And how might it be a distraction, or worse? From the good and the bad, including the very bad, to the wise and the cruel, from the ponderous to the funny, this book really gets our deep desire to connect to stories, and to be entertained by our modern digital storytellers. I loved this book, appreciate it's fine and faithful intentions, and its upbeat writing style. The author isn't a scholar of postmodern literary theory, he isn't a media professor - in other words, he's not like the guy in the famous movie line in Annie Hall that pontificates loudly about all manner of abstract stuff (until Marshall McLuhan himself steps in and rebukes him!)  Yep, this is fun, funny, entertaining, and calls us to a Godly, wholesome, good appreciation of modern popular culture. A very impressive foreword by Timothy Keller is wonderful. This is a fantastic book.  Cheers!

HONORABLE MENTION: BEST PRACTICAL CHRISTIAN BOOK OF FILM STUDIES

when the lights go down.jpgWhen the Lights Go Down: Movie Review as Christian Practice  Mark D. Eckel (Westbow) $19.95  You gotta love a book about a guy who yells at the screen in the darkened theater, embarrassing his wife or kids.  You gotta love a book by a guy who loves movies so much he has a endless repertoire of examples, case studies, scenes and stars, to make any number of helpful points.  You gotta love a book by a fellow who teaches film in a local community church Sunday school, teaching church-going evangelicals how to understand narrative and script and lighting and such.  This is not an overly pious handbook of what to watch and what not to watch, it is a Biblically-rich, worldviewish companion to nurturing the art of thoughtful Christian engagement. As a Christian practice.  As Eckel reminds us early on, "A projector's light can reflect light from heaven." Not only does he offer succinct introductions to various philosophical matters below the surface in most films, he gives clear-headed and often fascinating points to ponder, and guidelines to consider as we attempt to relate our faith and our movie-watching. Throughout When the Lights Go Down he also has interviews with serious film scholars, critics, and film makers.  What a treat. This is an entertaining study, well designed with plenty of good information, inspiration, and Biblical wisdom.  Oh yeah, and did I say he shouts at the screen sometimes? This guy loves going to the movies, and he helps us enjoy it all the more, too. Soli Deo Gloria.  Thanks, Mark.

BEST TEXTS OF MISSIOLOGY - A TIE

Theology of Mission- A Believers Church Perspective.jpgTheology of Missions: A Believers Church Perspective John Howard Yoder (IVP Academic) $45.00  Despite the outrage over grave injustices perpetrated by this Mennonite scholar in his lifetime, there is no doubt that he was a world-class thinkers and made decisive, important contributions to 20th century theology; his more popular works, like The Politics of Jesus, demanding as they were, have inspired many to a more robust, radical discipleship in the ways and politics of Jesus. I value his work a lot. When I announced this major new text at BookNotes earlier in the eyar, I noted how many have raved about this significance of this volume.  Indeed, William Willimon says, "The discovery and publication Yoder's notes on mission is one of the great events in the history of the church's missionary impulse."  His "Believers Church Perspective" is well worth reading.



ntroduction to Christian Mission Goheen.jpgIntroduction to Christian Mission: Scripture, History and Issues Michael W. Goheen (IVP Academic) $30.00  If the above Yoder volume brought a feisty, political, even anti-empire, and clear Christological contribution to missiology, this neo-Calvinist - informed with shades of Kuyper - scholar brings a contemporary, missional (even Newbigin-esque) take, giving the standard missionary topics a world-changing ethos. Goheen has co-authored book on the drama of Scripture, on worldviews at the crossroads of modernity and postmodernity, and has an amazing way of seeing the interconnections of these themes with global mission theory.  It is comprehensive historical, naming all sorts of good stuff that ought to be covered in an introductory text like this. Rave reviews from across the theological spectrum grace the back. This is not only one of the best missions books published this year, it is one of the best missions books in many a year. 


BEST MISSIONS-ORIENTED BIBLICAL STUDY

God Dwells Among Us- Expanding Eden to the Ends of the Earth .jpgGod Dwells Among Us: Expanding Eden to the Ends of the Earth G.K. Beale & Mitchell Kim (IVP) $17.00  I don't know if this is to be shelved among other missionary books, as it isn't exactly a book to inspire missions or to propose new missionary strategies.  But yet, it is clear that the author's heart beats with a concern about unreached people groups, and the book opens and closes with breath-taking data about how many people groups have yet to have the Bible translated into their own language, who have yet to even hear the gospel in any kind of culturally-relevant manner.  This major Biblical study is framed by God's own missionary impulse, and this is clear. In fact, this is the very theme of the book: from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22, it is God's intention to establish and spread God's own rule, and the Kingdom of God is seen to begin in the beginning. The "great commission" is clearly linked to the "cultural mandate" and from epoch to epoch, book to book, chapter by chapter, these authors use their painstakingly diligent attention to detail to show how God's dwelling, God's temple, God's Immanuel, is the point of the whole grand love story of the Scriptures. God Dwells Among Us is honored on the back cover by rave blurbs by rigorous thinkers such as John Frame and Michael Horton. It is a work of genius, not least because it takes a massively, exceptionally scholarly tome, The Temple and the Church's Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (which is nothing short of brilliant) and made it more accessible, usable, helpful. The insight about the Scriptures are palpable, the implications notable, and we are sure we must name this as one of the Best of 2014.  

BEST WORLD MISSIONS BOOK  

Overturning the Tables of the Industrial Mission Complex.jpgOverturning the Tables of the Industrial Mission Complex Scott A. Bessenecker (IVP) $16.00 Well, well.  Well.  Should I award this a Best Book of 2014?  Does a thorough-going, serious, feisty critique of established Western mission work (and it's unseemly connection to late-model capitalism) need to be so publicly esteemed? What if it just feeds cynicism or drains needed resources from the unending task of world missions? What if people think I'm just stirring up trouble? I worry about these things - can passionate protest backfire, with unintended consequences?  After careful consideration, I am convinced that from my own comfortable, small town perch, I nonetheless discern that this book is spectacular, and spectacularly urgent. It is mostly right, and fully honorable, mostly wise and fully faithful. I'm sure of that.  As Paul Borthwick writes, "Scott Bessenecker's prophetic words and warnings will challenge and threaten, but they are desperately needed..." and notes that we need to be willing to do some "ruthless self-criticism." Right or not about all the details of his call to the reform of how the West sends, funds, and manages our organizations committed to working out the Great Commission, Overturning the Tables is a book that we simply must grapple with. One friend says "it is some of his best work yet." There have been large rumblings about these concerns for decades, of course, and this is the best summary and manifesto I've yet seen.  Our little award is given with the hope that Overturning the Tables is taken seriously, and that because of it, God's good work in the world is reconsidered and reformed and made more faithful.

BEST MISSIONS BIOGRAPHY

You've Got Libya- A Life Serving the Muslim World.jpgYou've Got Libya: A Life Serving the Muslim World Greg Livingstone (Monarch Books) $16.99  I suppose we all have heard of, if not actually seen, the iconic scene in Casablanca where Bogart tells Bacall "We've always got Paris."  I can't stop thinking of that, although Greg Livingstone "has" Libya in a very different way than those expat Americans, who only have romantic memories.  For those that don't know, Greg Livingstone pioneered one of the most exciting and urgent mission fields of the 20th century, taking the extraordinary work of William Carey further, wanting to reach Muslims with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Along with the likes of George Verwer and Phil Parshall, Livingstone was a quintessentially passionate late 20th century mission leader, educator, organizer.  And this book tells it all, the joys and jokes, the struggles and frustrations, the plans and prayers.  And lots of stories. Amazing stories.  Those who have been privileged to hear him, know some of them, and this book will inspire you with others.

Once he was with some high level Muslim leaders in an Arab country who wanted to build a family friendly theme park, and needed a wholesome engineer with experience in designing Disney World-level rides.  They wondered if he could help.  As a country closed to missionaries, of course, this was a natural "in" for Greg and his ministry, and he prayed God would help him find a "tent-maker" who engineers carnival rides and had a heart to share the gospel contextually in this repressive land (and, oh yes, would be willing to move there as an undercover missionary.)  On the plane, on the way home, as he shared his missionary calling with a seat mate, the man said to him "that is so exciting, I'm a Christian, too, and I'd love to be able to use my own skills as a missionary, but no one would ever need me.  You see, I design and install high end amusement park rides."  Yeah. So there's that. 

If you like stories that inspire you to live dangerously for God, if you want to be a Christ-centered peacemaker in a world of anti-Islamic fervor, if you want to hear how 21st century missionaries work all over the world, from hospitals that treat radical warriors to diplomats who are open to the gospel, to village projects teaching girls to read, this moving life story of one of the amazing people I've ever met takes you from Penn State and Colorado to Afghanistan, North India, Libya to Kuala Lumpur, you won't believe this fascinating journey. will be hard to put down, and harder to forget.  

BEST BOOK OF URBAN MISSIONS

God is in the City good.jpgGod Is in the City: Encounters of Grace and Transformation Shawn Casselbery (Mission Year) $17.00  We are proud to note that this book isn't widely available in many stores, as it is self-published by Mission Year themselves; we are fans of their urban work, and we are glad to help sell their stuff, so we were thrilled to tell you about it when it came out this fall. (Their handsomely designed pocket-sized book by their former Director, LeRoy Barber, The New Neighbor is also a true delight.) God is in the City is very, very special, and is very moving.  It brings to the plethora of books about the urban scene an upbeat and positive tone, a celebration, even.  It is easy to wring hands about gangs and thugs and drugs and police harassment, ghettos and absentee landlords. Yes, Mission Year folks lives in community in very hard places, caring for neighborhoods that are broken and hurting. And this book tells that story.  But inner city neighborhoods and the lives of those who abide there are more than their problems and God is at work, also in the iconic urban ghetto. This is a book that offers a bit of a framework for seeing the city in its strengths and weaknesses, and which celebrates God-showings even in very poor neighborhoods. And it does tell some great stories of ordinary volunteers and what God has done in and through them.  It is well considered, well written, and much needed. I commend it to anyone who cares about urban life, about home missions, and about holding up the dignity of people who struggle against hard odds, and sometimes seem to show remarkable goodness and grace.  God is, indeed, in the city, and this book helps inspire us to shout it out. We're glad to honor it as one of the fine books of 2014. 

BEST BOOK OF MISSIONAL THEOLOGY 

incarnate - Frost.jpgIncarnate: The Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement Michael Frost (IVP) $16.00  I could rave about this book for pages, telling why it is so very thoughtful, culturally important, theologically generative and a great example of the best ways missional theorists have applied thinkers like Newbigin (and others) to better understand the culture of the West, and embody the gospel in effective ways within this culture.  Can missional church leaders inspire their congregants to go deeper than merely starting a wholistic outreach, being more externally-focused (praise the Lord if they can get that far!) and do serious, theologically-astute cultural criticism? To be wise about the ways of our culture, and wiser about the deep truths of the gospel of the Kingdom? To repent of how we ourselves have helped construe things in ways that haven't been helpful? Can we embrace new practices by rethinking things?  Indeed, we must, and we can, with the help of books like this.  Incarnate is the best example of the best kind of missional church book--even if it is philosophically a bit more demanding than some that just coax us to care about our needy neighbors in our local parish. In a very quick nutshell (the book deserves so much more) this explores the doctrine of incarnation, rejects as unbiblical a "body vs soul" dichotomy, and holds up incarnational ministry in its most profound and sustaining way.  But not only does an incarnational theology deconstruct our goofy pietism that fails to adequate attend to our bodily natures, but the large press from the digital culture, too, increasingly allows us to be, as Frost terms it, "disincarnate."  With chapters on our rootlessness, our "schizophrenic sense of self", and our aimless wondering "in moral minefields" and the subsequent moral ambiguity, this really does provide expert cultural criticism that every church leader needs. I really value this book, and it stands as one of the prolific Aussie's very best. Kudos to the Praxis imprint of IVP for releasing books like this, and kudos to those who buy these kinds of books that have the possibility of transforming our vision, re-embodying our discipleship, and reforming our congregational lives.  Stunning. That cover is pretty striking, too...

BEST BOOK OF CULTURAL STUDIES

how not to be secular.jpgHow (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor James K.A. Smith (Eerdmans) $16.00  I suppose you would guess that we'd honor Jamie Smith for this book, since I reviewed his work and told about this book with such gusto, here. I admitted I was in waters more deep them I'm used to swimming, and I again acknowledge that this book isn't simple, and isn't at all simplistic. But, having said that, I must underscore it's utter significance, its amazing relevance, its vital role as a bit of prophecy, even, about the nature of the alleged secularism of our time.  Charles Taylor is one of the preeminent philosophers of our time, a writer known for being heavy, ponderous, turgid, even. Wading through his massive arguments and dense prose takes some specialized knowledge, and Dr. Smith, philosophy professor and gifted teacher that he is, is our man.  This book, then, is a book about a book, a literal guide to the insight and relevance of Charles Taylor's big Harvard University Press tome, A Secular Age. 

If we were giving awards for some of the coolest things we've done this year -selling books with lawyers in Boston, with leaders of small rural churches in Western Pennsylvania, serving the CCO at Jubilee, traveling to Montreat College to speak to students and sell books to faculty, hosting an evening with Jeremy Courtney and his Preemptive Love Coalition here in York, and so much more ---hosting the third annual Hearts & Minds Pittsburgh Summer Lecture with James K.A. Smith surely deserves some kind of award.  We are still thinking about the great joy of hanging out with Jamie and his wife, and his two stunning lectures in Pittsburgh. And (if I may cut to the chase, here) his lecture offering explanations of How (Not) to Be Secular reminded me of just what a remarkable scholar and popularizer of serious scholarship he is.  Smith is a fine writer, a learned philosopher, a passionate preacher, and a good communicator.  He really gets this Taylor book, he helps us get it, and insofar as Taylor's theories provide us with windows into our contemporary world, it is very, very valuable stuff.  Work through How (Not) to Be Secular carefully, perhaps with others.  You will be reading what is surely one of the most important books of 2014, and it will pay off in important, quiet ways.  

HONORABLE MENTION - CULTURAL CRITICISM

glass cage.jpgThe Glass Cage: Automation and Us Nicholas Carr (W.W. Norton) $26.95  I will admit that this has been on my "must read" list for a month, now.  The late fall is very, very hectic for us, and I've gleaned bits and pieces from reviews, interviews, and my own surreptitious time with a few pages here and there.  Alas, I've not read this carefully.  But I am sure that it is an exceptionally interesting, well written, and important contribution to our study of what our times are like.  You should know Carr's very impressive, and exceptionally important book about reading, The Shallows.  The Glass Cage: Automation and Us is a bit of a follow up to that heavy critique of how "google is making us dumb" and how our reading habits are being eroded by our use of the internets.  Look: every award show has its moments, and stuff happens that is off script. Maybe it is ghastly to award a Hearts & Minds win to a book I admit I haven't read yet.  Okay, get over it. Or tweet about it. I'm just doin' it.  Call it the best book I'm the most ashamed I haven't read yet.  Whatever.  A new book by Nicholas Carr is a very big deal, and it is certainly a book that I'd regret not naming. Read the Books & Culture review by Alan Jacobs, here (although skip their amazon link, automatons that they are) and tell me you don't agree. I am quite personally naming this one of the most notable books of 2014.

HONORABLE MENTION - CULTURAL CRITICISM - RUNNER UP

end-of-absence-smaller.jpgThe End of Absence: Reclaiming What We've Lost in a World of Constant Connection Michael Harris (Penguin/Current) $26.95  I've been wanting to shout about this for some time -- I read an advanced copy in a leisurely season last summer -- and am still thinking about it even now. Harris is a good writer, great at times, thoughtful, luminous, a fine storyteller. (He isn't writing for a religious audience, of course, so his language can be a bit spicy. Sigh.) Still, this book has a profound moral center, and it is inviting us to consider "what we've lost." Can one know what one has lost? (As Joni Mitchell sang, "you don't know what you've lost 'til it's gone.") This book isn't about paving paradise, but it is about somehow acknowledging that our 24/7 all-on digital lifestyles are hugely troubling to the human soul, and that, as Barry Schwartz (author of the brilliant Paradox of Choice) puts it on the back cover, "the digital revolution that envelops us contains traps that can lead us to understand less even as we seem to know more."  The cultural sociologist and author of Much Depends on Dinner, Margaret Visser says "Everybody over sixty should read this book. The rest of the population will need to urging, unless they are too far gone to read anything longer than a blurb." Cynical as that may be, I do think it deserves careful pondering, as it is a beautiful work.  Douglas Coupland notes it is "clear, truthful, and free of vexation. A true must-read."

MOST ENJOYABLE BOOK OF BASIC CHRISTIAN GROWTH

learning to walk in the dark.jpgLearning to Walk in the Dark Barbara Brown Taylor (HarperOne) $24.99  In Part One of this awards list, I named a few books that are utterly solid, theologically clear, useful, upbeat books that can help followers of Jesus grow in their faith and discipleship.  I don't like the category of "Christian living" that so many Christian bookstores employ as it implies that the other parts of the store - shelves of politics, film studies, food and cookbooks, art, business, sexuality, farming, family life - aren't  "Christian living."  So we aren't always clear what to call this category of non-academic books designed to help ordinary folks live out their faith.  Basic Christian Growth seems to work a bit, I guess.  Well, this one by the always elegant Barbara Brown Taylor is certainly the book in this genre I loved the most in terms of its fine writing, its artful style, its mature storytelling, its provocative theologizing.  As in her wonderful An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith she not only uses beautiful wordsmithing but helpful theology and a bit of Bible study to remind us that God cares about life, all of life.  She realizes, in her liberal Episcopalian way, the doctrines of calling and vocation, and realizes we all can find, and even be, an altar to the Divine, right smack in the ordinary world. Ahh, but here is the rub: why do we fine it easier to see this in the sensational (a beautiful sunset) or the "still, small voice" but less so when in the dark, when there is no voice, not even a small one? This fascinating book holds up the goodness of the dark, literal and metaphoric, and it honors those times in our lives when God seems silent. She invites us to a nocturnal faith, and she is critical of our too glib literalism in clinging to the Bible's own teaching about light, without an equal admission that God is also in the dark.  What a fascinating, fun, provocative, literary, artful book, as she takes us on midnight walks, a retreat without electricity, a frightening experience in a pitch-black cave. I was sad when it was finished, as I wanted to keep reading.  Agree or not with her conclusions, this is one very fabulous read, one of the best of 2014.

BEST BOOK OF PRACTICAL SELF-HELP GUIDANCE

oughest People to Love- How to Understand, Lead, and Love the Difficult People.jpgToughest People to Love: How to Understand, Lead, and Love the Difficult People in Your Life Charles DeGroat (Eerdmans) $14.00  There are tons of good books that serve as resources for those who need information and inspiration, some grandmotherly advice or some new data about stuff we need to know. We sell books for those going through divorces, about bereavement and grief, about sexual addictions, about coping with family difficulties, those who have loved ones with mental illness, with disabilities, who wonder about death and dying.  From finding a new job to learning to cook gluten free, from learning to study better, from losing weight to learning to date well, from coping with pain to learning about better conversation styles, we've got lots.  And many are truly fine. But -- wheeee -- a few truly stand out, and become personal favorites, books that are so well written, are so thoughtful, so full of grace and insight, (without seeming overly didactic) that we just have to tell folks about them.  Chuck DeGroat is one of these kinds of writers - his Leaving Egypt (published by Faith Alive, the CRC publishing house) is a tremendous and moving book about those in transition, needing to move on, towards grace and freedom - and we were thrilled to know he had written a new book this year. We knew it would be creatively written, graceful and good. Toughest People to Love is for anyone, and we've recommended it widely, although some of it is aimed at church leaders, pastors, and others who have to work with those who are hard to really love. Frankly, I am glad that I don't need this book myself, and I wondered early on if it is as good for those with hard-to-love people in their organizations or families as it seemed. Well, I quickly found out, as a few pastors and others who needed just such a book have told me it is in fact fantastic and it significantly helped their own awkward situations.  Yes, yes, this is really good stuff, wise and solid and helpful and eloquent.  Kudos.

BEST BOOK ABOUT MARRIAGE

A LifeLong Love.jpgA LifeLong Love: What If Marriage Is About More Than Just Staying Together? Gary Thomas (Cook) $18.99  Despite the rather technical-looking, grey cover, this book is beautifully crafted, a wonderful, chatty, charming bit of writing that can help anyone who wonders how to make their marriage more meaningful, more alive, more intimate, truly lasting a lifetime.  I've often said that Gary Thomas is one of my favorite writers, and we stock all of his books - mostly on spiritual formation and discipleship (Holy Available) although he has a great one on exercise and health (Every Body Matters) and one called Pure Pleasure on why we should take pleasure in the goodness of God's creation.  We adore his reflective, useful, deeply spiritual book Sacred Marriage (now only available in a gifty hardback that includes the 52 week devotional with it.) I suppose this new 2014 book could be seen as a sequel to that beautiful meditation.  Like that one, Thomas reminds us in LifeLong Love that our sacred unions are not so much for our own pleasure or self-actualization, but are means of grace, avenues of pursing holiness. Is God in your marriage? Do you want to practice the presence of Christ in the ordinary ups and downs of an ordinary marriage? This lively book will help. It helps you live out his big themes of the spirituality and holiness of family life.  It isn't abstract or too detailed, neither a textbook or a workbook.  It is just right, interesting, informative, but well worth mediating on. This is one of the Best Books of 2014, which will be a blessing to many for years to come, whatever season of marriage you are in.

BEST BOOK - FAMILY MEMOIR

father factor.jpgFather Factor: American Christian Men on Fatherhood and Faith edited by R. Anderson Campbell  (White Cloud Press) $17.95 Perhaps you will recall that I announced this with great joy earlier in the fall -- the editor is a friend, and at least four of the 33 chapters are written by personal friends. (One of the biggest Hearts & Minds fans in the world, Ethan Bryan, is in here -- he usually writes about baseball, but here he is writing about his own dad, a topic about which he has his own book coming next year.)  Or, perhaps you will recall our reviews of a previous volume Talking Taboo about Christian women in this "I Speak for Myself" series, which similarly included short auto-biographical pieces by great young writers. Here, we have a few famous authors, and a lot of unknown guys, each penning wonderful, moving essays about their own fathers, or about their own story of being a father, or there understanding of God as father (or all three, perhaps.) Dr. Campbell, who used to work for the CCO, is an Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at George Fox University in Oregon. He is a good thinker and fine writer. He collected these essays together and each one is excellent, and the collection includes all sorts of angles, plots, insights, and stories. Wow.  A few moved me to tears.  Together they are not only enjoyable, but worthy of deep consideration. As Richard Mouw writes, "These wonderfully readable accounts of father-son relationships are both candid and inspiring, exploring issues that touch many of us in deep ways. But they prod to go even deeper, point us to the ways our relationships with our human fathers shape -- and all too often distort -- our conceptions of the One who we have ben taught to address as Our Father..." Sarah Bessy says it well when she notes that Father Factor is "sometimes hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking, this tender collection of stories from fathers opened my eyes and my heart anew. Thank God for men like these!"

There hasn't been a book about family life that I've loved as much as this in years. I am positive that I want to honor this as a Best Book of 2014, and hope it gets a very wide readership.  

BEST BOOK ON FOOD ISSUES

the third plate.jpgThe Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food Dan Barber (The Penguin Press) $29.95  When I read an advanced excerpt of this hefty, handsome book, I was deeply moved, and when I read the advanced blurbs and endorsements, I knew it would be a major work, esteemed, reviewed, commended and talked about. We were happy to review it when it first came out, on a list with other such books. Barber's Blue Hill farm-to-table restaurant is legendary among foodies, and here you can see that he's not only a great chef, but why he does what he does, his vision for a reformation of the food system itself. And he is an intersting, vibrant writer.  Malcolm Gladwell says "I thought it would impossible for Dan Barber to be as interesting on the page as he is on the plate. But I was wrong." Similarly, Bill McKibben says that he is "as fine a thinker and writer as he is a chef -- which is saying a great deal. This book uses its ingredients -- the insights of some of the finest farmers on the planet -- to fashion something entirely new: a recipe for the future."  Ruth Reichl, of course, raves, as does Eric Scholosser. Elizabeth Kolbert  says it is "one of those rare books that are at once deft and searching -- deeply serious and equally entertaining." The Third Plate is, indeed, one of the Best Books of 2014. See his ThirdPlate website, here.

HONORABLE MENTION: A GREAT COOKBOOK AND FAMILY MEAL IDEA

52 New Foods.jpgThe 52 New Foods Challenge: A Family Cooking Adventure for Each Week of the Year, with 150 Recipes  Jennifer Tyler Lee (Avery/Penguin) $20.00 Jennifer Thler Lee is a mother of two and the creator of the award-winning nutrition game Crunch a Color.  Our kids are all grown up, and we've wondered if this would have worked for us.  (Answer: we may not have been organized enough to fully embrace it, but it would have been fun to mess around, trying some of this with all due haphazardness.) For those who share our predilections to resist campaigns and organized plans, this could still be fun.  The suggestions are hilariously interesting, the new foods and suggested recipes a surprising delight. Some you surely use, others maybe not. (Edamame? Avocados? Quinoa?) The focus on one item a week is low stress, really, and the recipes look fantastic. I like how she shows how to make it fun, how to boost variety, and her invitation to cook together. This inspires your child's creativity, passes on solution-based ideas with thoughtful information and lots of optimism. She is gentle but aware of some of the dangers of chemicals and GMOs and the like -- some food items really are ruined by typical industrial practices, we believe, and Ms Lee isn't unaware (see the discussion she has with her kids about corn, her concerns about "the dirty dozen" and the need to eat wild caught fish, given how much junk they put in farm-raised.) This is a fine, fun book, carrying an endorsement on the back by Jamie Oliver. Check out her website at www.52newfoods.com.  Very nice.

BEST BOOK OF 2014 - SPIRITUAL FORMATION

I had to list three here, since there are so very many good ones.  These are, I think, accessible for most readers, delightful and good.  I'll list a few more in another category that is somewhat more academic in nature, and I'll list a few more in yet another category that I'll call Spiritual Memoir.  Look for that in the Best Books of 2014 Part Three, coming soon.  For now, start with these.

soul keeping.jpgSoul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You John Ortberg (Zondervan) $22.99  Any year that a book comes out by John Ortberg, we are grateful, and break into a happy dance. His books are nearly perfect for most readers - thoughtful, entertaining, well-written without being too artsy, just a great blend of pastoral care, visionary insight, and helpful storytelling.  He takes very mature stuff - often about the inner life, practicing spiritual disciplines, allowing God to work in our lives so that we might serve the Kingdom with great winsome zeal - and makes it accessible to read, and do-able.  I recommend his work, all of it, to almost everyone. Soul Keeping is another great book from this Presbyterian pastor and "mystic of the mundane" and we are very happy to honor it as one of the best books of 2014.  It was an especially nice read, having come out shortly after the death of Ortberg's friend and mentor, Dallas Willard. In Soul Keeping Ortberg starts each chapter with a story about Willard, whose home he would regular visit. Is this a tribute to Willard? Not precisely, although it honors him, well -- it does draw on his key insights about the divine conspiracy of God in our lives, the ways the Spirit can transform us into Christ-like people.  How do we tend the soul? What does all this spirituality stuff really mean, and what does it look like? This is a great, great book, and we're very happy to honor it.

life together in christ.jpgLife Together in Christ: Experiencing Transformation in Community Ruth Haley Barton (IVP) $18.00  Ruth Haley Barton, like Ortberg (with whom she once worked at Willow Creek, developing spiritual formation resources), has a natural gift, it seems, to be full of grace and charm and is able to take fairly deep, even mystical stuff, and help readers come to appreciate and imagine the plausibility of their own encounters with having this deepened nature.  Her teaching (see her great DVD series Sacred Rhythms) and her writing is profound yet clear. What a gift, to be able to inspire folks to want more of God, to teach the classic, ancient disciplines, to be ecumenical and evangelical, and to actually guide readers into better ways of life, a true spiritual life. I read a lot of contemplative and devotional classics, and, to be honest, often return to Barton's books, and always, always, recommend her to those interested in spirituality.  So, yes, she's a personal favorite, and any new book from her is sure to be a winner.  This one, though, which I reviewed here, is fantastic - a must-read.  It is about how spirituality is deepened in community (and how authentic community can be the perfect soil for deepening growth in our relationship with God.) This is titled perfectly: we are in Christ, and we are living life together. This is not a "how to" book for better small groups, but I commend it to small group leaders.  More, it is a course on spiritual formation for small life groups.  And a much-deserving Best Book of 2014.

Allow me to say this, too: the last two great books released by Ruth Haley Barton have been for ministry leaders (Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership) and for church leaders wanting to experience practices of communal spiritual discernment (Pursuing God's Will Together.) In a way, those two were each aimed at a specific audience, and this new one may be a more general read for any of us, and certainly for any of us wanting to be involved in transformational communities. Life Together in Christ is without a doubt one of the best books of the year!  Congratulations, Ruth, and thank you for sharing your heart, your life, your wisdom, in ways that help us find a transforming center.

sacred fire rr.jpgSacred Fire: A Vision for A Deeper Human and Christian Maturity Ronald Rolheiser (Doubleday) $25.00  I suppose if you are familiar with contemporary spiritual writers and guides to the deeper life, you will know this fine Catholic priest and eloquent scholar. We take his books to any place where we display these sorts of topics. Many of us have been blown away by his extraordinary books (The Holy Longing is a true modern classic, now available in paperback.)  In some ways, Sacred Fire is a sequel to Holy Longing and while it does stand alone, might be best read as a part of his larger body of work.  This has been a long-awaited work, and, among other things, explores stages of faith development, and what it means to live well, even in service ("blessing") others, giving our lives away.  It came out in early 2014. I believe it will be enduring and it surely must be named on this listed, and celebrated as one of the most significant religious book published this year.


BEST BOOK ON PRAYER

Prayer- Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God.jpgPrayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God Timothy Keller (Dutton) $26.95  There have been a handful of books on prayer that I most always recommend, and for those who only intend to read one or two, I have been suggesting the same few for years. I am not sure this outstanding new release is going to supplant those simple, clear, useful books (Too Busy Not to Pray by Bill Hybels; Prayer by O. Hallesby; The Praying Life by Paul Miller; Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home by Richard Foster;  in case you wondered.) But there is no doubt that of all the books on praying that have come out in the last few years, some serious, some silly, some clear, some weird, this is the most sound, the most mature, the most helpful, and the most commendable. 

Here are the main sections, which Keller explores conscientiously and warmly with several good chapters under each: Desiring Prayer, Understanding Prayer, Learning Prayer, Deepening Prayer, Doing Prayer. It is, as you might suspect (since you surely know we are fans of the smart, evangelical, Reformed, Manhattan pastor and cultural leader) one of our favorite books of 2014. It is also one of the very best.

A SPECIAL AWARD OF MERIT FOR A VERY SPECIAL DVD  and BOOK

Living In ChristConf.jpg
Living in Christ's Presence DVD.jpgLiving In Christ.jpgDVD Living in Christ's Presence  Dallas Willard & John Ortberg (IVP) $30.00  I should equally celebrate and honor the fabulous hardback volume Living in Christ's Presence (IVP; $20.00) which includes the transcripts - expertly edited into a wonderfully-written book - of the live conference where these two soul friends lectured and shared deep conversations. The DVD is fantastic, mature, thoughtful.  Willard was soon to be dying, we now know, and yet he retained his razor sharp logic and kindly wit, and Ortberg, ever humble and playful, teases out of the great thinker solid, useful guidance for wholistic discipleship and spiritual growth.  It looks at what Willard teaches about the Kingdom of God, and the relationship between heaven and Earth. Here's the simple format: Willard would present, and then Ortberg would interview him, drawing out with greater clarity the big truths about which Willard was so passionate.  Then, in the next presentation, Ortberg would do a fabulous keynote talk, and professor Willard would then grill him, deepening the insight, drawing out the implications.  Back and forth they go, one lecturing, the other responding. It is a truly great book, but you have to see it to more fully appreciate the blessed synergism of these two, the philosophy professor and the evangelical pastor. Thanks to those who turned this good event into a great book, and special thanks to those who crafted it into a fabulous video curriculum.  One of the best DVD offerings of 2014.  Thanks be to God.

BEST BOOK OF SPIRITUAL FORMATION BY A FIRST TIME WRITER

There are two lovely winners, here, a tie, as it were.  I couldn't decide, which was most deserving, but when I reviewed them both last summer, and I was very struck by both. They are both lively, will keep you engaged, and offer fresh takes on classic spirituality, lived out in the perplexities of the aching modern world.  Congratulations to both authors. 

beautiful disaster big.jpgBeautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness Marlena Graves (Brazos Press) $15.99 If you have been with us at any book display or event the second half of this year, you may have heard me speak of this book, and may have seen it stacked up at our book displays.  Beth and I greatly admire this down-to-Earth author who has put herself bravely into this wonderful book, her first.  Beautiful Disaster is honorable, so we honor it, and it is helpful, so we thank her.  Her fine way of blending good memoir, fine writing, and good Biblical teaching with her own journey learning the classic spiritual disciplines, makes this a refreshing, edifying book. The main theme - in case you missed it from the allusive title - is about how we can cope with hard times by nurturing our inner lives, finding a deeper walk with God by developing spiritual practices that can sustain us in the wilderness times. Is this a self-help book about enduring hardship? Is it a book about how the Bible can sustain us during dry times? Is it a book about how a young woman grew up amidst rural poverty and racial discrimination? Is it about how spirituality can form us to be people of care and goodness and justice? Yes, yes, yes, and more. 

The first half is about "this wilderness life" while the second explores "wilderness gifts." The book is called Beautiful Disaster and while it is beautiful, it is certainly no disaster.  It is one of the best books of the year! 

found.jpgFound: A Story of Questions, Grace, and Everyday Prayer Micha Boyett (Worthy) $14.99  I wonder if you've seen this here in the shop, or picked it up at any of our book displays, and noticed not only the appealing cover, but the stellar endorsements on the back. Mary Karr, the world-famous Catholic memoirist (who calls herself "a black belt sinner.) Addie Zimmerman, author of much-discussed When We Were On Fire. Rachel Held Evans. Ann Voskamp.  Adam McHugh (Introverts in the Church.) Yes, there are some edgy, cool folks saying this is the best, so I'm not alone in raving.  They are correct, Found is a great story, a compelling memoir-like journey into daily prayer, inspired by the author's discovery of Benedictine spirituality.  Just when you think there doesn't really need to be anything more written on the worldly saint -- I love Benedict and that Earthy sort of "pray and work" orientation to faith, of course -- along comes this former youth minister, dyed in the wool member of the evangelical sub-culture, learning the quiet ways of grace and of ancient spirituality and everyday prayer. One reviewer wrote "If you are like me you've grown weary of a culture that demands the sensationalistic, the glamorous, the extraordinary. Micha Boyett is in search for the beauty in the everyday."  She has a lovely tone in this book, is a great writer, and Found is a fine, fine book, which we want to celebrate as one of the best of the year. 

RUNNERS UP: HONORABLE MENTIONS FOR GREAT BOOKS ON CLASSIC CHRISTIAN SPIRITUALITY - WITH A FRESH STYLE

How does one say which book on the inner life is really the best?  Each person may resonate with the writing, tone, and recommendations of an author quite differently. Others may like the author's stories and illustrations, but not their practices. Others may be deeply moved, but may not motivated to put into practice new spiritual disciplines.  Anyway, there are so many good ones, I had to list a few more that deserve very special honor. Here's to celebrating these very good books which bring ancient insights to contemporary readers in a refreshing ways.

beloved dust.jpgBeloved Dust: Drawing Close to God By Discovering the Truth About Yourself Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel (Zondervan) $16.99  These two young professors are theological Jedi knights, and I can't believe the good stuff they've released (see below.) They obviously know the rich spiritual classics, have been thoughtfully engaged in nurturing a uniquely evangelical engagement with the very best writings across time. They have drawn on the best formation stuff (Strobel is an Edwards scholar, too, by the way.)  But yet, they write in a conversational, modern style. This book offers a richer communion with God, a deep sense of God's presence, that is explained in a super contemporary tone. To say this is a "cool" book is true enough, but it is also intelligent, wise, profound. It offers us the glory of God, known by us as we understand ourselves.  Beloved Dust. That's a winner of a phrase, eh?

 


The Making of an Ordinary Saint - My Journey From Frustration to Joy .jpgThe Making of an Ordinary Saint: My Journey From Frustration to Joy with the Spiritual Disciplines Nathan Foster (IVP) $14.99  I don't dig the cover that much, but Nathan is an outdoorsy guy, so I guess it works. And the main title and the direct sub-title explains it all. Here is what you need to know: Nathan Foster has written in another book (Wisdom Chaser: Finding My Father at 14,000 Feet) about his drifting from the faith of his family, his awkward relationship with his famous father (Richard Foster) and his eventual, slow recovery of faith as a social worker among the hurting. The elder Foster  -- and others of us schooled by him in devotional classics and spiritual disciplines and devotional classics -- may not realize (at first) how frustrating and off-putting some of this stuff is to many.  It may be somewhat a generational thing, but I think it is more than that: as Nathan describes here, Christian discipleship and the inner transformation that comes from God as we open ourselves to Christ's presence, isn't a cookie-cutter thing, and no one book or guru or set of practices will work for everybody. We really need a fresh take on some of this stuff.  Eugene Peterson notices about this fine book that it is written "not impersonally and objectively, but as a participant."  James Bryan Smith says it is "a voice badly needed today. He is a storyteller whose raw honest disarms... without fear of judgement." Imperfect sainthood for you? This is a great book.

Christ-Shaped Character- Choosing Love, Faith and Hope.jpgChrist-Shaped Character: Choosing Love, Faith and Hope  Helen Cepero (IVP) $16.00 This book may not be written with as much elan and hip style as some by other contemporary dudes, it is nonetheless a sheer delight, a beautifully rendered book about taking ancient insights and spiritual disciplines and showing how they help us today, helping us be formed in the ways of classic virtues.  Indeed, I have been known to say these past months that it is one of the best books I've seen on faith, hope and love. Helen Cepero trains spiritual directors and leads retreats and has written a previous little book (called Jounaling as a Spiritual Practice) which shows her own deep awareness of how spiritual practices can help us discern the presence of God in our lives. She is widely respected.  Jan Johnson (who has written widely in spiritual formation) says "Cepero hasn't just written about love, faith and hope, but about actually doing it." Adele Calhoun (author of Spiritual Disciplines Handbook) writes, "Her gentle wisdom can help you choose life."  Cepero nearly apologizes at the end, noting that there aren't prescribed pathways or simple road map, but we all know that's not how these things work. The cover itself is fascinating, with nine nice photographs of different pathways.  The way into love and hope, through deepening faith, is a journey. This great book is your invitation to walk it well.  There is a great study guide in the back, too, so you can process the ideas, hopefully even with others. 

A DISTINGUISHED HONORABLE MENTION: A LUMINOUS BOOK BY A SUFFERING SAINT

Tway of grace.jpghe Way of Grace: Finding God on the Path of Surrender Glandion Carney with Marjean Brooks  Foreword by Richard J. Foster (Renovare/IVP) $15.00  I wrote passionately about this distinguished gentleman, a man who we've had the good fortune of meeting, and praying with, and I once again want to remind readers that this is a book that deserves our honor, and that it should be considered a very important book. It is the testimony of a leader within Renovare (the inter-denominational movement to explore spirituality founded by Richard Foster) written after the author learned he had Parkinson's disease. Gary Moon has called him "one of the best spiritual directors I have ever known" and Jan Johnson shows how it matters: he is always "the 'real deal.' Anyone facing a seeming debilitating transition or walking alongside that person needs Glandion at their side, telling them both the truth and stories contained in this marvelous book."

Yes, he tells stories -- and they are lovely and sometimes gripping.  Glandion grew up among the Black Panther glandion.jpgmovement in the Oakland Bay area, and he became a church planter for the CRC, integrating spiritual formation into the life of the local church. He's served many organizations as a chaplain, bringing his blend of social concern and prayerfulness and pastoral care together with great grace. So there are stories, but most, now, are about his quiet struggles, day by day, even the struggle with despair. In The Way of Grace he tells humbly of our remarkable God, and the great virtue of surrender.

The first person I know who read this book told me he likened it to Jerry Sittser's classic about bereavement A Grace Disguised.  I see it. This book, like that one, should endure as a beautiful example of "poignant vulnerability" as brother Glandion travels into what he calls "a new land of amazing grace."

Rev. Carney, until his retirement, was associate pastor of pastoral care at St. Peter's Anglican Church in Birmingham. His co-author is a writer who is also a member of St. Peter's. Join us in reading, sharing, and honoring this good man and this very wise book of spiritual practices that can carry us through difficult days. Cheers!


MOST BEAUTIFULLY DESIGNED BOOK OF CLASSIC SPIRITUALITY

Art & Prayer by Verdon.jpgArt & Prayer: The Beauty of Turning to God Timothy Verdon (Mount Tabor Books/Paraclete) $32.50  I reviewed this at great length earlier this fall, and we have displayed it prominently in the store for months now. It is such a book-lovers delight to hold such a book, with glossy paper, exquisite full color printing of mostly older, classic artwork. Be aware, though, this isn't firstly a book of art, but it is a reflection, even a teaching, on the classic essential art of praying. Faith and prayer, Monsignor Verdon explains, "become creative responses of creatures made in the image and likeness of their Creator relating to him with the help of their imaginations." This book on spiritual formation is aided by fine art (Verdon's reputation as an art historian and curator in Italy is notable.) He shows here how images work as tools to teach us how to turn to God and explores in detail how prayer can become the fruit of a "sanctified imagination." This is certainly one of the most artfully designed books on display this year, and it is one of the best on prayer and spirituality. We think the interaction of text and image deserves a special award, and we are happy to celebrate it here. A unique, special and very notable book of  2014!

BEST BOOK OF SPIRITUALITY - academic

There is a tie here, too -- more winners than I can whittle down to just one. I couldn't decide, but when I reviewed at least two of them last summer, I was very struck by both and have known for a while they are particularly significant. The third, by Maggie Ross, is a rare find, and a deep, profound work.  These are each important, offering keen insight that we need to hear.  Congratulations to the authors, writers of spiritual depth and theological integrity that they are.

Called to Be Saints.jpgCalled to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity  Gordon T. Smith (IVP Academic) $26.00  Many folks enjoy "basic Christian growth" books, and read the  relentlessly, and some are obsessed with using lovely reflections about the contemplative life, seeking mystical discernment of God's presence. But what does, finally, religious maturity look like? What are the ends and goals of practicing the spiritual disciplines? What does it mean to be a saint, to be holy, to be faithful?   I doubt if Smith sees himself as a pure academic, as he writes widely in spiritual formation, and does wonderful workshops for ordinary people in the deeper life of prayerfulness and discernment. Still, it is a bit more meaty than some, and it is rewarding for any that appreciate serious work  As James Bryan Smith (of Renovare) writes, "This is a much-needed book today. It answers pressing yet almost forgotten questions by articulating how the sanctification gap came to be and how to bridge it. This book is a wise guide to abundant living, not through self-help techniques but by learning how to live an abundant life in Christ. Read this book, study this book live this book and you will find wisdom, goodness, love and joy." That's why it deserves to be honored as one of the Best Books of the Year.

reading the christian classics a guide for e.jpgReading the Christian Spiritual Classics: A Guide for Evangelicals  edited by Jamin Goggin & Kyle Strobel (IVP Academic) $24.00 I would like to quote some of what I wrote in a longer essay about this book last summer, which shows why I think it is so very important to honor it.


It offers clear-headed, centrist evangelical theologians offering their take on various sorts of great spiritual classics, giving ways to appreciate and benefit from this genre, even as some of the liabilities are named and exposed.  This is generous, ecumenical work at its finest, affirming the best of other traditions, and yet reading them as evangelicals.


And whether you see yourself as an evangelical or not, this book will help you.


For instance, here you have weighty, good chapters by the likes of James Houston, Bruce Demarest, Gerald Sittser and Tom Schwanda, weighing in on their specialty areas.  For Houston that is on the genre and use of classical literature;  Demarest writes on Catholic Spirituality, Sittser on the Desert Fathers, Schwanda draws on the heavy (but often overlooked) mystical elements of the Puritans. (He has an entire book on that and it is amazing!) These essays provide so much meat that it is a virtual feast.  It is delicious and very, very wise. Enjoy! 


There are excellent chapters in this collection on how evangelical Protestants should appropriate the church Fathers and Mothers, good teaching on the Orthodox tradition, fine chapters on the monastics and why we should read them today (and with what sort of approach or bias.)  Is there a uniquely evangelical way to read the spiritual classics?  Must we be discerning as we read?  This book offers not only the life-changing renewal that can come from engaging these old masters and their ancient writings, but helps overcome fears, offers insight into some of the foreign theological traditions from which they come, making them that much more approachable and beneficial.


Here is what J.I. Packer writes of it:

Here you have an absolutely unrivaled mapping by experts of the whole church's rich, smorgasbord heritage of Christ-centered, sanctification-focused devotional writing, most of which will be unknown to most of us.  What to do with it? Take it as your tour guide and start reading its recommended texts. You will be glad you did, I promise you. Wealth awaits.

Silence- A User's Guide Maggie Ross .jpgSilence: A User's Guide Maggie Ross (Cascade) $28.00  Ross is an Anglican solitary, and I have read other delightful, and deeply moving, books about her commitment to silence and solitude.  This one isn't precisely an academic text, though her astute scholarship shines through this project.  It is a heady blend of deep writing about contemplative prayer, the history of thinking theologically about silence (Desmond Tutu says her bibliography is "formidable") and yet speaks in hushed tones of the heart. Originally published in the UK, we are grateful that Cascade has reprinted it here. The impressive Diarmaid MacCulloch says Ross brings "an extraordinary combination of practicality, scholarship, and prayerful reflection to this remarkable book. Readers cannot fail to profit from its many explorations, which lead to a passionate, iconoclastic, and cheering affirmation of the centrality of silence in our meetings with God."  Yes, I do believe that this deserves a very special commendation. It is a major (quiet) contribution in this year of our Lord, 2014.


Okay friends, take a breather and watch for PART THREE coming soon.  I'm going to be typing a lot, so get those credit cards ready.  We want to honor, celebrate, and sell some books!  Congratulations to the publishers, editors, writers, and you, the readers and buyers.


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January 21, 2015

PART THREE -- Hearts & Minds Best Books of 2014

THE HEARTS & MINDS BOOKSTORE 2014 BEST BOOKS AWARDS: PART THREE


You may not be old enough to remember when TV sets would go blank with some fuzzy message instructing viewers to "stand by" due to technical difficulties. Well, we've had our share of difficulties of one sort or another -- not to mention the regular demands of post-holiday work and some much needed post-holiday binge-watching. (I'm teaching a class at church on pop culture, after all.)  But I digress.  I wanted to thank you for standing by.


So, now, here we go --  the home stretch, a bonus reel, if you'd like, of some of the most intriguing, rewarding, helpful, fun, valuable, notable books of this year of our Lord, 2014.  Part One can be found at our website, here; Part Two was posted here. 


Now, we are back to our regularly scheduled program, without interruption.


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A VERY HONORABLE MENTION FOR ONE OF THE VERY BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR -- PART MEMOIR, PART REFLECTION, PART SOLID TEACHING


Teach us To Want.jpgTeach Us To Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith Jen Pollock Michel (IVP) $16.00  I cannot say enough about this book, and we have tried to press it into people's hands more often then most books this year.  It is, quite simply, brilliantly told, deeply thoughtful, and very moving. She is a very good writer, and she is candid, even raw, in moments, in ruminating on this very big question: is it wrong to want? Should Christians have worldly desires? Is ambition wrong? What, really, is this thing called desire?  Rebekah Lyons writes of it, "We often feel the urge to hide our longings, especially in the church. Through her own story of fear, loss, and God's goodness, Jen Pollock Michel stirs us to recover and reshape these desires in light of the Kingdom of God."  Exactly.  And any book that can do this, deserves to be honored.  Better, it enjoys to be read and discussed. I hope you buy this book, and invite you to enjoy us in celebrating it as a major contribution to Christian publishing this year.  By the way, Christianity Today editor Katelyn Beaty -- herself a great writer! -- has a very good foreword. It sets the stage nicely, and is itself worth reading.  Bethany Jenkins (of The Park Forum, an online devotional community in NYC) says "seriously, one of the most beautiful nonfictions books I have ever read." And the fantastic writer Leslie Leyland Fields says "I've been waiting for this book for a very long time.  Congratulations to all involved, the her.meneutics blog women, the IVP Crescendo imprint, and the good editors at IVP. 


A VERY HONORABLE MENTION FOR ONE OF THE VERY BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR --  A CALL TO FAITH, OBEDIENCE AND HOPE FOR SOCIETAL RENEWAL


renaissance os g.jpgRenaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times  Os Guinness (IVP) $16.00  This stellar book deserves much awarding, many honorable mentions, some serious accolades and  hip hoorays. I am impressed, as I always am, by the sheer power of Guinness' vocabulary, his clarity and precision, and his immense learnedness. He is a strong thinker and excellent communicator.  This would be an award winning book just for the power of the language, the goodness of the writing -- readers, writers, preachers, artists, take note: this is one way it is admirably done, and it is a good way. Study him and learn; the pages are serious, crisp, erudite, solid, astute.  So we are glad for the form and style of this wonderful book, which (by the way) is trim sized and feels nice in the hand. It is not too weighty and designed in a way that is classy, as befits a book like this, by an author like this.  However, the more important matter is the content, the way in which Guinness can invite us, indeed challenge us, to be faithful to first things, to examine the threats to orthodox faith and the ways in which we tend to misconstrue the Bible's key themes when it comes to social change. This really is a very foundational book, reminding us how the gospel alone can change cultures (as it has, and as it must.)  From very sharp British scientists like John Lennox to serious literary scholars such as David Lyle Jeffrey, to the impressive pastor and preacher Tim Keller, this book has been called "penetrating" and "rich" and "astute" and "at once a stinging indictment of cultural idolatry in the Christian Wet and a clarion call to renewal on the model of Christ in the Gospels and the witness of the apostles." Keller says "for decades, Os Guinness has been one of the most nuanced, realistic, yet hopeful voices calling Christians to engagement with the culture. This latest volume from him should not be missed by anyone." 


We need not wring our hands -- although being on our knees a bit more wouldn't hurt -- and we don't have to fuel the fires of the culture wars. This fine book reminds us that "to change the world" we must seek a Godly renaissance. I hope you hear me on this: this is one of the Best Books of 2014 and deserves a very wide readership. There is a prayer at the end of each chapter, and very good discussion questions. It ends with an "evangelical manifesto."  We must learn "the dynamics of the Kingdom" (as he puts it)ponder how to take courage and live out faith in practice in all of life.


BEST SELF PUBLISHED BOOK OF 2014


moveable feast tt.jpgA Movable Feast: Worship for the Other Six Days Terry Timm (ImaginationPlus) $11.99  I award this the "best self published book" to underscore the indigenous energy and creative efforts of this amazing, tireless leader (and very fine writer.)  It is a truly good book, well designed (way to go Phil Mollenkof.) I hope you realized that I've mentioned this out loud at a few events this fall, and I hope you recall that I wrote about it at BookNotes.  You may recall that I respect Pastor Timm a lot, and that he is doing excellent work in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, with a special ministry (may his tribe increase!) helping his congregants think Christianly about their callings and careers.  They have brought people the five hours to Hearts & Minds to have me help them find books around their various passions and professions, and they have paid to have me visit with them, helping curate a list of books for their particular needs.  Well, who does that? And why?  This is why: if one worships well, if one is truly attracted to adore Christ as Lord, then this Sunday morning stuff will spill over into a life well lived.  Terry Timm is a new kind of leader, it seems, truly running with this recent interest in work, vocation, calling, and the "other six days" of the whole people of God, for the life of the world.  But he starts at the beginning, the worship of the God who deserves praise.  This is a great little book on renewal in worship for the sake of the calling of the people to serve as salt and light.  Welcome to the feast. 


BEST BOOK ON THE WRITING LIFE


dancing on the head of a pin.jpgDancing on the Head of a Pin: The Practice of the Writing Life Robert Benson (Waterbrook) $14.99  If Benson the Writer puts out a new book, I'm a-gonna read it. In fact, I was so eager to have this one, that I got out one of his spectacular books on prayer (Living Prayer) and then his lovely little memoir about vacationing in the Caribbean  (Home Another Way), just to get in the mood and help me anticipate this new work.  It is, as they say on the back, "a masterful blend of the practical and the spiritual..." which "invites you into the work and rewards of a writer's life. I liked very much his clear-headed book about discerning his vocation to be a writer called The Echo Within and I commend it to anyone wanting a down-to-Earth story about finding one's calling.  But this, this is pure gold for anyone in the creative life, anyone who writes or wants to write.  Phyllis Tickle gets it about right when she says it is written with "deceptive simplicity and an almost seductive easiness in his voice."  And I love that she explains this books wisdom and value by saying it "lays open before us the filigreed mystique of the writing life in all its beauty, its unmitigated angst, and its inescapable vocation."  I'd have awarded this one of my favorite reads of the year anyway, but being reminded of that, I want to give a unmitigated filigreed away of beauty and angst. Three cheers for Robert Benson. Love the cover, too; perfect!  Namaste.


BEST NOVELS OF 2014


Beth and I thought this thru, and we agreed it should be a runner up, although she slightly favored the Sue Monk Kidd for being a bit more interesting, with a more complex plot and more characters.  But both certainly deserve our thanks and our honorable mention.


The Invention of Wings.jpglila.jpgThe Invention of Wings Sue Monk Kidd (Viking) $27.95  The stunning, fabulous story of Sarah Grimke, the abolitionist, and the slave she owned as a child, Hetty "Handful." Sue Monk Kidd is a great writer and thoughtful person of deep faith. Exceptionally informative, moving, quite a story!


Lila  Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) $26.00  You know that Ms Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize for the first book in this trilogy, Gilead, which was followed by the popular and also much-awarded Home. This recent one tells the story of the hardscrabble life of the mysterious wife of the pastor John Ames, the protagonist of Gilead.  Robinson is often hailed as one of the best living novelists, and we are honored to honor her, and glad we stock all of her good work.



A SPECIAL AWARD OF GREAT MERIT: MY FAVORITE NOVEL READ IN 2014


The Signature of All Things Elizabeth Gilbert (Viking) $28.95  I will insist that this is not only the best novel I've read all hear, but one of the most unforgettable stories I have ever read. What fine, fine writing, what remarkable storytelling, what a fascinating, even troubling epic tale -- one that even after 499 pages, I did not wish to end.  Oh, how I will miss Alma Whittaker and her botanical studies. Although this story spans the globe, much of it is set in mid 19th century Philadelphia, and then in Tahiti, and then Holland. (Alma's father was a helper on the journeys of Captain Cook in the late 1700s and became wealthy in what might be called the early multi-national pharmaceutical business.) TheThe Signature of All Things  hardback.jpg main character, Alma, is a botanist, and the book has as one of its many themes large questions about faith and science, about Darwin -- whose work is going to be published to her keen interest nearer the end of the book.  There are missionaries, mystics, abolitionists, and, yes, some eloquently described moments of exquisite sexuality.  I was glad I had a very handsome hardback, with deckled pages and beautiful botanical drawings in the flyleaves, the sort that one of the characters in the book draws and publishes. (The hardcover was released in 2013, but the paperback came out in 2014.) I simply must share my own enthusiasm -- Beth's too, as she read it before I , and was very taken with it -- for this magisterial, complex, epic story, written in nearly perfectly rendered, wonderfully realized, luminous prose.


BEST POETRY VOLUMES


What do I know? I am admittedly out of my league here, but I had to underscore at least a few that I've spent some time with that I think deserve special commendation. What can I say?


unquiet-vigil-new-and-selected-poems-epub-version-3.jpgUnquiet Vigil: New and Selected Poems Paul Quenon (Paraclete Press) $19.99  Here is what it says on the back: "What tumbles through a monk's mind in the course of a day? What might be gleaned while ranging high along the Kentucky knobs, or quietly emerge while sitting in the dark before dawn? Inner and outer landscapes form the poems in Unquiet Vigil."  These are very nice, very artful and quite moving; I enjoyed his opening essay, too. This poet-monk has been at this a long time; his Novice Master, Fr. Louis, was also a renowned poet. You may know him by his more public name, Thomas Merton. And, there is a blurb on the back by Maurice Manning who says "it is a joy to have this book." 





Once in the West- Poems Christian Wiman (.jpg

Once in the West: Poems Christian Wiman (FSG) $25.00  Wiman has been well known and well respected since his long stint as editor of the renowned Poetry magazine. Then, upon his struggle with a brain tumor, his brush with mortality, and the writing of the luminous and very thoughtful meditation on faith, life, art and death -- My Bright Abyss -- he has become even more widely known and read. His last volume of poetry was Every Riven Thing which one The New York Times reviewer said as "an ecstatic ruckus worthy of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who also tasted the tears in things -- and the holy, too."  Marilynne Robinson says his poetry (and scholarship) has "a purifying urgency that is rare in this world." This new work certainly is one of the most anticipated poetry releases of 2014, and we think it is surely one of the best.




practicing silence thurston.jpgPracticing Silence: New and Selected Verses
Bonnie Thurston (Paraclete Press) $19.99  I love paperbacks with the French folded covers, and find this handsome and attractive. Bonnie Thurston is known as an astute Bible scholar (having written several commentaries, and books on spirituality, including stuff on the early church fathers and mothers.) So it isn't surprising, really, that her poetry has been used by  Brother David Steindl-Rast who has a foreword) and the above-mentioned Brother Paul Quenon. This book really is about the spiritual life, perhaps an armchair visit to a monastery.  Although it can be used devotionally, it is good art, carrying a rave review from (for instance) the Poet Laureate of Virginia (who calls it "pure and intense") and a former Poet Laureate of Maryland and Emeritus professor who says "These poems are among the very best I have encountered in a lifetime of reading and teaching poetry."  Wow.  Maybe that deserves an award, too, for Best. Blurb. Ever.  Cheers!


BEST BOOKS OF EASY-TO-READ CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE FOR ORDINARY FOLKS


know the creeds.jpgknow the heretics.jpgKnow the Creeds and Councils Justin S. Holcomb (Zondervan) $12.99


Know the Heretics Justin S. Holcomb (Zondervan) $12.99


Come on, people, you gotta love a set of books like this. They are compact-size, written with just a dash of whimsy (or at least it can be said that they aren't dry.) Each one explains the historical background, the significance of the creeds or heresies, and why it matters today.  The one on the Creeds is less needed, I suppose, as there are so many good books on this, although this is a really good re-telling.  The one on the heresies, though, shows the dumb errors and considerable dangers, the orthodox responses, and suggests how these troubled ways of thinking about faith are still with us today. I applaud Holcomb for this sharp thinking, his pastoral concerns, and his decent way of "speaking the truth in love" as he kindly does what needs to be done, calling us to understand and stand in the great tradition of historic, orthodox Christian faith. Think this is too complicated? Get 'em, and see how fun it can be, learning this stuff.  Think it is all too stuffy or you are too progressive to want to waste time with this? Please, give these a try, and see what you think.  As they used to say in art school, you at least have to know the rules before you break 'em. This really is relevant, important material and we want to honor this great little attempt at bringing these historic matters to us in a readable way.


BEST BOOK OF PHILOSOPHY FOR ORDINARY PEOPLE  


little manuel on knowing.jpgA Little Manual for Knowing  Esther Lightcap Meek (Cascade) $14.00 This little book is just about 100 pages, and is -- if I can use the fancy-pants scholarly word -- about epistemology.  What does it mean to really know? Steve Garber (in what I called the Book of the Year, Visions of Vocation) asks the huge question about what we do with what we know. But here, Dr. Meek goes a steep deeper: how do we know what we know. What does it even mean to really know something? She invited some pondering about this in the fantastic and interesting Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowing for Ordinary People and then did her major scholarly work on this in a thick tome called Loving to Know: Introducing Covenant Epistemology.  This one is simple and clear and interesting.  We know Esther, a professor at Geneva College, and we think the world of this. And we are not alone: lovely endorsements on the back are from the brilliant Gideon Strauss, the artist Makoto Fujimura ("essential reading for every university, every business, every church and every home") psychologist Dan Allender (a "brilliant little manual.") There is deep wisdom here, and you will be wiser if you read it, I am certain.  Bruce Vojak (a dean of engineering at University of Illinois) writes, "with this pearl of great value, Esther Meek lovingly and confidentially shepherds us on a pilgrimage... for those who commit to the journey, the hoped-for gifts await."  The Best Little Manual of 2014!


SPECIAL AWARD OF MERIT:  MOST CONTROVERSIAL CHRISTIAN BOOK ON RACIAL JUSTICE -- THAT MOST NEEDS TO BE CONSIDERED


Dear White Christians- For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation.jpgDear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation Jennifer Harvey (Eerdmans) $ 25.00  I'm not sure this is the best-written book of the year, as it is dense and uses some fairly serious specialty language.  Ms Harvey is a religion professor and anti-racist activist; she will annoy many not just for heady sentences with cultural studies rhetoric about deconstructing the reigning paradigms but because, well, she deconstructs the reigning paradigms. Evangelical authors -- many who are people of color and justice activists themselves -- hold to a vision of racial reconciliation, and we have promoted many a book with this theme. Authentic, radically gospel-based reconciliation goes further and seems to me to be more Biblical, and demands harder work, then mere "appreciation" of diversity.  (How hard this can be can be seen in reading the earnest and at time painful book More Than Equals by Chris Rice & Spencer Perkins, just for instance.) But this book, this goes further, insisting that the Bible calls us to deep justice, and that this demands repentance and -- yes -- reparations.  You have got to read it.


Reggie Williams (of the brilliant Bonhoeffer's Black Jesus) says of it, "One of the most valuable contributions to the work of anti-racism in recent years. Harvey demonstrates with compelling accuracy and clarity why popular Christian dialogue about racial reconciliation does not work but in fact only serves to reinforce historic, systemic problems. As Lisa Sharon Harper (one of the authors of another book we honored this year, Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith) and a trusted black friend says "Dear White Christians is a must-read. This kind of unflinching analysis is both rare and powerful." Do we want to "repair our racialized society"?  Does the "racial reconciliation" model work? Does it take us far enough? This is a book that moves the conversation in new ways and simply must be read, must be discussed, but be grappled with. Womanist Eboni Marshall Turman says it is "a timely and indispensable contribution to the field of Christian social ethics. This reparations paradigm is essential if we love the body of Christ and if we year for justice."



prophetic evangelicals.jpgshalom and the c of c.jpgresurrection city.jpgprophetic rage.jpgBy the way,  thanks and kudos to the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for doing this on-going, meaty and provocative set of books which they call the "prophetic Christianity" series. The senior editors are Bruce Ellis Benson, Malinda Elizabeth Berry and Peter Goodwin Heltzel.


SPECIAL AWARD OF MERIT: ANOTHER BRILLIANT NEW BOOK BY PHILIP YANCEY


vanishing grace.jpgVanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News?  Philip Yancey (Zondervan) $22.99  Well, for starters, you have to love a book that shares an endorsement on the back by Max Lucado, one of the most popular, sweet, and I think altogether lovely evangelical wordsmith, and Bono, still one of the best rock stars in the history of rock and roll.  (Bono, interestingly, seems to know Yancey, and writes "It is a lot to expect authors themselves to live up to the magic of their words, and it's very special when they do. Philip Yancey has a way about him that can only be described as Graceful. Not vanishing, at all!")  There are three big things to say about this, after reminding you what an intelligent, open-minded, caring writer he is, known and read by our best writers. First, this book is in many ways a decades-later sequel to his landmark book What's So Amazing About Grace which wondered why we seem not to be as graceful in our churches as our doctrine would lead us to be.  It remains an excellent read and we highly recommend it, and this follow up is long-awaited, to be it mildly.  (Perhaps it could earn an award for the longest-awaited sequel.  Ha.) Secondly, this deserves attention because it does take seriously the latest research on the "nones" and the "spiritual but not religious" and those that David Kinnamen so importantly wrote about in You Lost Me.  That is, why do people leave the church, and why are so many thoughtful people so very turned off? Fair or not, there is large animosity out there, and he is trying to think that through, and offer this concern about vanishing grace as part of the problem.  Thirdly, we honor this remarkable book because of his interesting way in the core chapters, exploring the faith journeys of "pilgrims, activists and artists." -- people he calls "grace dispensers."  Well, he is one, and this book itself is a shot of love, a grace dispenser.  He invites us to what he calls "holy subversion" and in a way that is elegant and clear, he offers compelling stories and keen observation. What a book!


BEST BOOK OF CHRISTIAN CREATION-CARE / ENVIRONMENTAL STUDIES


introducing evangelical ecotheology.jpgIntroducing Evangelical Ecotheology: Foundations in Scripture, Theology, History and Praxis Daniel L. Brunner, Jennifer L. Butler, A. J. Swoboda (Baker Academic) $26.99  We have a very large selection of books about creation care, climate change, environmental stewardship and green living. Each year we preview bunches, and stock a good number. This, without a doubt, is the stand out volume of the year, certainly the best theological work on this topic in years.  These authors are evangelicals, solid, passionate, and yet remarkably fluent with other faith traditions, and, of course, with the science of climate change, pollution and the like. This has rave reviews from Norman Wirzba, from Steven Bouma-Prediger, Leonard Sweet, and Rev. Flectcher Harper, the ecumenical director of GreenFaith. These scholars who are from George Fox University are exceptional, but, interestingly, they bring an interdisciplinary touch: Brunner is professor of Christian history and formation, Butler is a UCC pastor and instructor in earth-keeping, and A.J. is a professor of Biblical studies.  (He, by the way, has edited an extraordinary volume of Pentecostal theologians and ethicists profoundly grappling with earth-keeping and environmental justice.  Did you know the founder of Earth Day was a pacifist Pentecostal? More on Swoboda's Blood Cries Out: Pentecostals, Ecology, and the Groans of Creation later.)  For now, Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology deserves a very green award of merit.  Cool they used the term ecotheology, too.  Good for them!


BEST THEOLOGICAL MEMOIR


a change of heart - oden.jpgA Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir Thomas C. Oden (IVP Academic) $40.00  How to begin?  Well, perhaps you've not read many theological autobiographies, and although this is rather plainly told with tons of details and fascinating stories, it is a valuable glimpse into not only the spiritual and theological journey of one brilliant scholar and writer, but it is, in many ways, a window into our times.  Certainly, Oden was in the thick of and in many ways one of the creators of mid-20th century liberal theology, and was active in the fascinating best years of the World Council of Churches.  But -- and I would say, thanks be to God -- he saw the way in which shoddy and trendy liberalized theology and ideological political activism was secularizing mainline Protestantism, and he shifted, and he shifted hard. He discovered the early church fathers, and increasingly became a scholar of their pastoral visions. He has been a voice among mainline folks (he taught at Drew) calling for a sensible return to the first things of the gospel, and he has been also a voice among evangelicals to dig more deeply into early church sources, the work of those early thinkers and pastors who set the stage for historic, creedal faith. (Oden is the general editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on the Scripture and the Ancient Christian Doctrine series, both published by IVP Academic) and now is the Director of the Center for Early African Christianity at Eastern University. His impact, in various quarters, in different ways, throughout his illustrious life, is hard to underestimate.


Timothy George of Beeson Divinity School says bluntly that "Tom Oden is one of the most remarkable Christians of our time. This is the story of how he has lived through, contributed to and helped overthrow several revolutions during his long and fruitful life." 


Roberta Green Ahmanson, an exceptionally generous art patron and cultural renewal leader and writer herself, says "In a century when intellectuals abandoned the Christian faith in droves, one intellectual had the courage to embrace it. A movement liberal at forty, at eighty Tom Oden had become the champion of the classic Christian consensus. A Change of Heart tells the story of one of the twentieth century's most courageous intellectual and spiritual journeys."


I like the advice of Lamin Sanneh of Yale Divinity School: "Oden's view that theology should not be at the whim of every passing fashion, or that current affairs should not be the litmus test, deserves careful consideration every by those who disagree with him." 


We honor him and this provocative book. It may be counter-intuitive, but I think I will say it is boldly radical. His change of heart, his change in direction, his call to be ancient, moving forward by, in a sense, appropriating the past, is a pretty daring move. Read all about it in this fine autobiography.


HONORABLE MENTIONS FOR ACADEMIC THEOLOGY TEXT


Again, here I am way out of my expertise, and our ecumenically diverse inventory means we've got all kinds of stuff, from all kinds of views, on all kinds of themes and sub-themes.  I think that these two, though, seem to fit my end of the year honorable mentions list.


Jurgen Moltmann- Collected Readings .jpgJurgen Moltmann: Collected Readings  edited by Margaret Kohl (Fortress) $34.00  Fortress's slogan these days is "scholarship that matters" and here, at least, they are surely right. Moltmann is a bone fide major league world class theologian.  I heard him years ago, and realized then that he was over my head, and that his concerns were vital, important, prescient, even. Here, Kohl has given us an essential reader, collecting many of his groundbreaking writings together in one good volume.  The very reliable Richard Bauckham does the significant introduction.  Kudos to Fortress not only for this very valuable volume, but for others in this series, such as one published last year by John Douglas Hall. 





Atonement, Law, and Justice- The Cross in Historical and Cultural Context .jpgAtonement, Law, and Justice: The Cross in Historical and Cultural Context Adonis Vidu (Baker Academic) $24.99  Anyone who follows contemporary theology knows that debates rage about the nature of the cross, about atonement theories and the like. I find some of this troubling, but much of it is wholesome and helpful. I do not think that Dr. Adonis Vidu (of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary) has resolved all the important questions surround this profound mystery -- the nature of the atoning work of the cross -- but what he does here is very, very valuable and I want to honor it by bestowing our little award. This sophisticated book really does make a helpful contribution by showing how various schools of thought and theories and theologies were rooted in certain historical and cultural settings. These cultural settings helped shape how thinkers in those times and places viewed matters of the law, what legalities were. Without much effort we can see that assumptions about the nature of law and penalties and punishment and justice are themselves informed by culture and somewhat constructed, so when we import those views of law and justice into the theological conversations we are adopting definitions and assumptions about what is going on and through the cross. Impressive, rigorous Reformed scholars such as Carl Trueman have given Atonement, Law, and Justice good reviews; Hans Boersma of Regent (and author of the important Violence, Hospitality and the Cross) offers a favorable assessment, too.  I want to underscore these scholars who say this will repay careful study. I want to say it is important that we do. Kudos.


BEST BOOK OF CHRISTIAN HISTORY -- AND MORE


When Saint Francis Saved the Church-.jpgWhen Saint Francis Saved the Church: How a Converted Medieval Troubadour Created a Spiritual Vision for the Ages Jon M. Sweeney (Ave Maria Press) $22.00  Who isn't intrigued by the latest Pope, named Saint Francis? And who isn't interested in the legendary medieval servant of the poor, peacemaker, mystic? You know, the one from Assisi.  Maybe you have read a few books about Francis and Clare, or maybe you've been touched by his famous peace prayer. Now is the time to learn more, and Jon Sweeney, who has written widely on Francis, is your perfect guide.  This is a fabulously interesting book, well written, and should be loudly celebrated -- how did they do that in the Middle Ages, anyway, with a boars-head feaste or something? Jon deserves it. This book deserves it.


The eloquent Barbara Brown Taylor doesn't blurb that many books, but she is positive about this one.  She writes, "Jon Sweeney is good at many things, but he is a master at retrieving the treasure of the Christian past and restoring it to currency for the Christian present. In this book, he transcends even those categories." (She also says that Francis of Assisi "springs to life" under Sweeney's care.) One of our most popular spiritual writers of the last decade, Richard Rohr, is himself a Franciscan, and he says this is "an exciting, intelligent, and faithful understanding of Francis of Assis -- for our time and for all time!  Read and find hope!" 


I was drawn to this book because I know of Sweeney's acclaim as an editor and writer, but was particularly struck by this back-cover blurb by Bert Ghezzi (author of Voices of the Saints) who wrote that "Reflecting with Jon Sweeney on the work and wisdom of St. Francis of Assisi orients us on how to pray for Pope Francis's effort and to respond to his initiatives." That certainly is a brilliant way to think about reading a book -- that it will make us attentive to a world Christian leader, and help us pray and respond in faithfulness.  That makes this not only a great book to enjoy and to learn from, but may make it nearly essential. We are happy to honor it, adding it to our list of Best Books of 2014.


BEST  BOOK ON PREACHING


seeing beauty and saying.jpgSeeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully: The Power of Poetic Effect in the Work of George Herbert, George Whitfield and C.S. Lewis John Piper (Crossway) $19.99  I'm a bit out on the proverbial limb here, since this may not, technically speaking, even be a book on homiletics.  We've gotten some great ones in this year -- from Giving Blood by Leonard Sweet which blew me away to the creatively titled Invasion of the Dead: Preaching Resurrection by Brian Blount, and a new one by a great wordsmith and solid Dutch preacher, Scott Hoezee. But this grabbed me, and I need to honor it appropriately.  Piper is a passionate and eloquent, if not always elegant, writer and Baptist preacher. He has done a series of book wherein he offers three short biographies in each, biographies of the "swans who are not silent" (an allusion to a line said by the successor to the great preacher in 425 AD, Saint Augustine.) In these "The Swans Are Not Silent" series, Piper draws from past leaders some particular truth -- one is on suffering, one on endurance, one on the sovereignty of God.  This new one, that looks at Herbert, Whitefield and Lewis, looks at the relationship of believing in the beauty of God and speaking beautifully.  How might our deep theological aesthetic shape the poetics of our speech? What is the relationship between truth and beauty?  By telling us how the poet, the preacher, and the novelist did this, we can be inspired to "see beauty" and "say it beautifully."  Preachers, at least, should ponder this. This is a moving little book, and like the others, it is inspiring to see how Piper draws on themes of these past swans, eloquent leaders of the historic faith.  


BEST SHORT BOOK ON THE CHRISTIAN MIND



Called to the Life of the Mind- Some Advice for Evangelical Scholars.jpgCalled to the Life of the Mind: Some Advice for Evangelical Scholars
Richard J. Mouw (Eerdmans) $10.00 It is always a good year if a new Rich Mouw book is released. This is him in his popular short form, and these essays are almost too short. Brief, succinct, almost devotional, this is advice, reflection, rumination, and story-telling about the calling of the Christian scholar. Jamie Smith writes, "Too many Christian responses to anti-intellectualism end up endorsing what Augustine calls curiositas -- the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge's sake. This marvelous little book from one of my heros, Rich Mouw, is a distinct call for the faithful cultivation of the mind in service of Christ."  Messiah College's Richard Hughes says it is "a gem of a book" and Mark Noll and J.I. Packer weigh in.  We have to shout out this one -- three very big cheers for this very small book.


Here is a nice little video advertisement for the book. Enjoy!




BEST BIG BOOK ON THE CHRISTIAN MIND


Christian Scholarship in the Twenty-First Century- Prospects and Perils.jpgChristian Scholarship in the Twenty-First Century: Prospects and Perils  edited by Thomas M. Crisp, Steve L. Porter, Gregg A. Ten Elshof (Eerdmans) $27.00  The perennial questions of what, really, is Christian scholarship and what is the calling of a Christian scholar, and how Christian scholars can engage their disciplines in a distinctly Christian way are the pressing matters of this academic collection from the Biola University Center for Christian Thought. I don't know if every chapter here is the best single piece published this year, but, taken together, this conversation -- this fabulous anthology by Christian academics, about rigorous and faithful work in higher education -- is certainly well worth celebrating. With authors like Paul Moser and Natasha Duqette and Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff and Amos Young, this is diverse, thoughtful, and a significant contribution to those asking big questions about the rich tradition of faith and how it applies to the broader cultural questions, especially those asked in the arts and sciences. From the habits and commitments of the scholar to the methodology and pedagogy questions, this is a spirited (and Spirited!) volume 




HONORABLE MENTION: A REMARKABLE BOOK OFFERING A GLIMPSE INTO CHRISTIAN HIGHER EDUCATION


Claiming Our Callings- Toward a New Understanding of Vocation in the Liberal Arts .jpgClaiming Our Callings: Toward a New Understanding of Vocation in the Liberal Arts edited by Kaethe Schwehn and L. DeAne Lagerquist (Oxford University Press) $27.95  What a great idea -- telling the story of how the notions of calling and vocation have informed the way one Lutheran college has worked, and how the staff their have integrated this rich, multi-layered notion into their work in higher education.  


I love the foreword by Doug Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen who write that,


Claiming Our Callings is recommended reading for anyone interested in the future of American higher education, whether that education takes place at a church-related institutions or a public university or someplace else... it does not tell colleges and universities what they should do; it does not pontificate about what ought to be. Instead, and much more valuably, it paints a picture of how one particular institution educates students in a manner that inspires reflections on what could be done or might be appropriate. There is no one model of learning and life that applies to all institutions of higher learning, but this record of St. Olaf's experiences opens an important doorway of imagination for what might be possible elsewhere.


Schwehn got her MFA from the famous Iowa Writer's Workshop and Lagerquist holds at PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School, and both are on faculty at St. Olaf's and are leaders in both the Lily Fellows Network of church-related colleges and within Lutheran higher education. This book is a great read, full of remarkable insight, and an exciting "doorway of imagination." Congratulations to all -- this is a worthy, beautiful, rich book.


THE BEST NEW WALTER BRUEGGEMANN


reality g h eerdmans.jpgReality Grief Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks Walter Brueggemann (Eerdmans) $15.00  I want to say this briefly, so I will cut to the chase. Brueggemann's Prophetic Imagination is one of the most important religious books of the 20th century, and that, coupled with The Hopeful Imagination changed my views, gave voice to my inclinations, and gave me categories and vocabulary that I have employed ever since. It is widely esteemed, and this, my friends, is the closest thing to a sequel of The Prophetic Imagination then anything he has yet done. This, as Brian McLaren has said of it, "takes us from the world of the  Bible to the headlines of today, opening inconvenient but desperately needed truths."  Hauerwas is right, too, "It is one thing to call for a prophetic imagination; it is quite another matter to actually have a prophetic imagination." This is a fully amazing book, a good entry point if you haven't read Brueggemann before or lately. It is doubtlessly one of the most important books of the year, and insofar as it draws us to his other work, too, one of the important books of his career. Don'tfrom whom no secrets are hid.jpg miss it.  


By the way, Brueggemann published a practice of homefulness.jpgsignificant paperback text on the Psalms this fall -- From Whom No Secrets Are Hid: Introducing the Psalms (Westminster/John Knox; $30.00) the first major look at the Psalms he has done in quite a while. And special kudos to Wipf & Stock for releasing handsome, smallish paperback collections in uniform covers of Walt's papers, sermons, speeches.  New this past Spring was one that ought to be awarded something -- best title, perhaps? -- allusively called  The Practice of Homefulness (Wipf & Stock; $17.00)  Nice, huh?  For all of his generative, bold, work, we give thanks to the Lord.


BEST BOOK ABOUT HOMOSEXUALITY AND THE CHURCH


generous spaciousness.jpgGenerous Spaciousness: Responding to Gay Christians in the Church Wendy Vander Wall-Gritter (Brazos Press) $16.99  This has been a year during which many books have been released assessing, re-assessing (and countering the reassessing) the church's view(s) of GLBT members, same sex marriage policies, etcetera, etcetera.  There is hardly a topic where our commitment to carry various views and many books on these perspectives is less appreciated -- "something to offend everyone" we sometimes joke.  But this is nothing to joke about, as the pain is deep, the theological concerns profound, and the torn fabric of our denominations tragic.  We could highlight many books that I read on this topic this year (and I have read a goodly number) but I want to award just one, and it is without a doubt this extraordinary work. VanderWal-Gritter has been executive director of new ("ex-gay") Direction Ministry in Canada; in fact, she was instrumental in helping her colleagues at Exodus International admit that their "reparative therapy" work was less successful then they admitted, causing this national ex-gay ministry to disband.  She is known as a fair and kind advocate for good discussion, and has worked well with many "sides" in this complicated matter. Generous Spaciousness, as you can imagine from the title, is decidedly not about getting to the "right" answer on the Biblical or theological question, but about learning to talk about it decently, with care and grace and integrity and how to treat those who are often painfully excluded from the church's fellowship.  This book is about how the church simply must be a community of honest and safe conversations, where our deepest differences can be worked through.  As Gary Nelson (Borderland Churches) says, "You will not agree with everything Wendy says no matter where you position yourself in the conversation, but you will be stretched." That is the sign of a good book, eh?


Brian Walsh writes, "I can't imagine a more timely book. Modeling the very "generous spaciousness" that she advocates, VanderWal-Gritter's heart is on every page. The church is at a crucial moment of transition in relation to gay brothers and sisters, and this wonderfully written book will prove to be one of the most helpful guides in the midst of the change. Profoundly and deeply biblical, theologically rich, and rooted in years of humble, respectful, and vulnerable listening, VanderWal-Gritter's wisdom is precisely what we so desperately need."   One of the very best books I've read all year, good for for thinking about sexual ethics, good for thinking about how to get alone as the people of God in these times. Here is one good review of Wendy VanderWal's book, from the other side of the pond which is fair and honest and mostly favorable.  Here is a very critical review by a guy I respect that thinks she is not as fair or orthodox as she ought to be. Here is a good review by a gay, celibate couple which is illuminating.  Agree with her view of God, her exegesis of Scripture, or her open-minded, open-hearted approach to community and inclusion, this is, still, simply a must-read.  We're happy to honor it.


AWARD OF MERIT FOR BEST OLD BOOK NEWLY TRANSLATED


between the begining and the end.jpgBetween the Beginning and the End: A Radical Kingdom Vision J. H. Bavinck (Eerdmans) $20.00  Many in both the conservative Calvinist movement and others who are interested in an orthodox theology that can fund sustained cultural engagement are reading Herman Bavinck. This is a good thing, and a long time coming. This Bavinck also deserves a come-back, and this is the second volume of the great Dutch missiologist (1895 - 1964) published by Eerdmans in as many years. John Bolt writes of Between the Beginning and the End, "I don't know of another single book that provides such a reliable and inspiring guide to the panorama of biblical salvation history and its immediacy for us."  The world-class Andrew Walls (who splits his time between Liverpool and Ghana) says it is "immense in scope and range, rich in suggestion and allusion... splendid and thought-provoking." Charles Van Engen of Fuller says "This moving meditation is a must-read for all church leaders. Bavinck's radical kingdom vision will revolutionize the reader's understanding of the Christ's place and role in God's mission from age to age. Bert Hielema's translation is outstanding --readable, fluid, clear, forceful, and compelling."   Be thankful that publishers do this kind of work,  bringing older works to the light of day.  Kudos all around.



AWARD OF MERIT FOR -- WELL, FOR BEING SO DARN INTERESTING, DARING, RARE


uncommon s.jpg(Un)Common Sounds: Songs of Peace and Reconciliation Among Muslims and Christians  edited by Roberta R. King and Sooi Ling Tan (Cascade) $38.00 What a truly fascinating, rare, stimulating and inspiring book, and how good to know that there are people doing this kind of artful mission work -- peacemaking through music! -- and writing about it with such academic rigor. And a touch of bon vivant.  King and Tan teach at the most multi-ethnic seminary in the country, the evangelically-minded Fuller Theological Seminary. (Dr. King teaches Communication and Ethnomusicology and Dr. Tan also teaches at Malaysia Baptist Theological Seminary.) The essays collected here tell the story of peacemaking efforts experienced throughout the world by bringing together Christians and Muslims to learn indigenous music, to play each others instruments, to sing and worship and play together. Can music and the performing arts aid peacebuilding and interfaith dialogue? This splendid book is based on research in the Middle East, North Africa, and Indonesia and shares specific case studies. It includes discussion questions and even projects for each chapter so it may be used as a textbook or experiential adult education study. There are good forewords here, too, by William Dyrness and Najeeba Syeed-Miller. This is a rigorous, interfaith project and a sophisticated book. We are happy to honor it, hoping, as the authors suggest, that as we learn each others songs and watch each others shows, the "un" can be removed, and we will have "common sounds." Please, Lord.  Please enjoy the fabulously beautiful Songs for Peace Project website, here. There has been a documentary film made about this, too.


BEST DAILY DEVOTIONAL


We Make the Road by Walking- A Year Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation.jpgWe Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation Brian D. McLaren (Jericho) $25.00  I know there are many wonderful daily devotionals of a fairly conventional sort, and we stock plenty.  Any one may change your life as you take up the habit of reading just a bit each day, reading the prayer, pondering the passage.  But this, this is a bit larger in scope: it is a year long study, to be done hopefully with others, which tells the Bible story in almost paraphrased, colorful novelization. Brian is a creative Bible teacher and explains much about what is happening as he walks us through, day by day, week by week, each portion of the Bible story.  It is a journey one undertakes, a journey to submit oneself to this big narrative, to find ourselves drawn to Christ and his work in the work, and to apply it to our own orientation to the world and its great needs.  Dare we believe this old old story makes a difference in postmodern 21st century? Can this story form us, give us hope, push us towards what some might call a Christianly understood progressive social agenda?  One reviewer says this is "a sinewy, but orderly and open presentation of the faith. The result is as startling as it is beautify"  It a book of this nature one will surely wish for this Biblical text to be explore or that theological truth to be unpacked or one or another cause or concern to be brought into the mix.  It is remarkable how much is included in this informal lectionary and daily reading guide.  Do you want to follow Christ with more common sense and yet vibrant daily discipleship? Do you wish to know the Bible better, without being too wooden or literalistic? Do you want to have your story be shaped by the big Story?  This is one of the most interesting guidebooks we've seen, and want to honor it well, one of the best of the year.


BEST LIVE BIBLE STUDY -- A RESOURCE AND A REPORT FROM THE FIELD


St John Before big.jpgSt John Before Breakfast  Brian J. Walsh and the Wine Before Breakfast Community (Books Before Breakfast) $18.00  I want to honor this feisty book with two awards, naming it the best "live" Bible study book, a resource that  are transcripts of real studies done live, so to speak, and that you yourself could use, and, also, as the best report back from the fields of faithful ministry, a glimpse into an innovative and lively work among college students at the University of Toronto. This little gathered community meets for a communion service early morning each week -- Wine Before Breakfast, you see -- and with the leadership of Brian (and others) they've spent time working through the gospel of John.  As I said in my review, here, this includes the spoken-word, nearly poem/sermon homilies offered around the text. It is in your face, it uses bold language, and it demands that we pay attention to what the Word of the Lord says, as we have the guts to listen to it.  There are some other litanies and prayers included, and most weeks, it is nothing short of dunomis -- it's live!  It will -- as the old adage goes -- comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, and draw us to the work of Jesus.  What a worshipping community this must be, and how gracious they've become, inviting in marginalized and hurting; and that isn't quite right, since "they" didn't "invite" those others.  They are  the hurting, and the redeemed, and the bold ones staking their hope on this Kingdom stuff.  What prayers!  What music! What breaking open of the Word! St John Before Breakfast is a book you won't forget if you dare to read it carefully. One of the books we are happy to promote, eager to honor, honored to award. Cheers!


HONORABLE MENTION FOR MOST CREATIVE NEW INNOVATION IN BOOK PUBLISHING


frames season 1 collection.jpgFrames Authors.jpgFrames  edited by Roxanne Stone produced by The Barna Group (Zondervan) $7.99 each Boxed Set of all nine, $59.99 DVD $29.99  These are simple books that are easy to explain (even though there are nice of them, and an accompanying DVD.) They each are attempting to "reframe" how we think about contemporary issues, and they offer upbeat info graphics to give you just enough data to be up to date on that topic.  They have an essay, and then a shorter response.  These are small pocket sized books, designed for those who want to dip into an good article, published as a small book, but really smaller then a typical book.  Of course these are not designed to replace more substantive reading, but we applaud their important research -- both in determining the topics (these are issues their research show to be important) and in their basic sense that people need short, well designed on-ramps to deeper, relevant Christian thinking.  These came out, technically, the very end of 2013, but stores got them on the shelves in January, and we were early enthusiasts in 2014.  We wrote about them, here, and want to honor them, here, now. Great stuff!  What a great idea: big ideas in small packages.


We know several of the authors of these Frames booklets, by the way, and hate to play favorites, but Wonder Woman: Navigating the Challenges of Motherhood, Career and Identity by Kate Harris is especially well done.  And who doesn't want to read a bit more by Love Does author Bob Goff? The little one by Jon Tyson on the church --  Sacred Roots -- is urgent; Fighting for Peace by Carol Howard Merritt (on violence in our own culture) and Tyler Wiggs-Stevenson (on global peacemaking) are really important.  I so respect Nicole Baker Fulgham, and glad she wrote the one on caring about public frames DVDs pack.pngschooling. A few are on the hyper-linked lives we live, one is one our relationship with our technologies and devices and the info-overload and 24/7 expectations we have these days.


Oh heck, they are all good.  Get the boxed set, and gather some friends to go through the presentations available on the Frames DVD. Congratulations to Barna Group, to Roxanne, and Dave Kinnamen for this clever and viable way to get folks reading a bit on important topics.  Good job, gang!












HONORABLE MENTION: DORDT COLLEGE PRESS, CALVIN SEERVELD,

AND THE PUBLISHING EVENT OF THE YEAR


In December I wrote an extensive summary of all six of these handsome, extensive volumes of the collection writings, occasional pieces, and sundry articles, sermons, reviews, and speeches of one of the most interesting, tireless Kingdom scholars of our time. Seerveld is a colorful, passionate writer, deeply rooted in what must be called a Biblical world and life view, and Dordt College Press has given us a great gift by edited these various sorts of writings, grouping them by topic, and simultaneously releasing them in uniform covers.  I hope you can take the time to read my essay, found under the "columns" tab at the website wherein I make the case that this philosopher of aesthetic theory and Christian art historian is very, very important to read, and that this publication of his wise and vibrant body of work is truly a publishing event. 


There will be, I'm sure, a special honor in the Kingdom hall of fame for this project; we want to celebrate it now, as one of the great publishing events of recent years.


Kudos to John Kok and others who were involved.  I was pretty keen on having an endorsing blurb on the back of one (Redemptive Art in Society) and that, too, by the way, was a special highlight of my year.  Thanks to all who care. Read Seerveld!

Seerveld books screen Shot 2014-04-11 at 20.42.30.png


BEST RELIGIOUS PICTURE BOOK FOR CHILDREN


Love Letters from God Bible Stories  .jpgLove Letters from God Bible Stories written by Glenys Nellist  illustrated by Sophie Allsopp (Zonderkidz) $16.99 Here is what I wrote in an earlier BookNotes, happily affirmed here, now: This is without a doubt one of the best designs in a children's Bible story collection we've seen -- it is colorful, fun without being cute, with a creatively designed part that sets it apart and brings it all home. Yes, it has engaging pictures, sidebars and graphic design on each two page spread; if that were all, it would still be much better than average and highly recommended.  But there is also a little tipped in, lift the flap sort of letter or card, with a letter to the child in each one.  In other words, it says in simple, personalized prose exactly how this passage teaches about God's great love and faithfulness to the child. These notes are very colloquial, and talk about "being on Jesus' team" and things being super-duper. It is child-like, just a little silly, even. This lift-the-flap feature isn't so prominent as to distract from the pictures and the telling of the story, but is an extra, enhancing contribution.  We love this book, and congratulate ZonderKidz for doing such fine work.


FUNNIEST BOOK WE'VE SOLD WELL THIS YEAR


Okay, who doesn't want to give a shout out to Amy Pohler, but, ya know, we have to show you this. It's been a fun year.


everything I need to know I learned.jpgEverything I Need to Know I Learned from a Little Golden Book Diane Muldrow (Golden Books) $9.99 Yep. If you are a baby boomer or older, you have to see this. Maybe this is why Beth and I are in this work, since we, uh, yup, had or read these books, in all their old fashioned glory  And we remember them! 


We just got into the shop the lovely little follow up, Everything I Need to Know About Love I Learned from a Little Golden Book which you should give to somebody you love this Valentine's Day.








 




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January 25, 2015

TOP TEN New Books of January 2015 -- so far... ON SALE


I'm in an award-giving mood, and yet, having spent time reviewing so many from the previous year, realized my stack is growing and growing, and I've got to make some time to read these new ones, just in and displayed on our "new release" table.  Of the batch of brand new titles in the brand new year, here is what's on my list. I want to read more in each of these. Maybe you might, too. You know what to do.  Thanks.


simply good news.jpgSimply Good News: Why the Gospel Is News and What Makes It Good  N.T. Wright (HarperOne) $24.99  Although his massive scholarly works may not be for everyone, his more popular-level ones are just tremendous, thoughtful, insightful, interesting. I hope you have tried a few -- they are very, very good.  So: we are huge fans of these kinds of books, perfect for the educated non-specialist, who want  more than fluff and yet doesn't have time to wade through massive tomes. Wright is just such a great example of this kind of writer, and this is a perfect example of a book we'd like to really promote.  Plus, it isn't just interesting and curious, it is Biblically correct: he doesn't present the gospel as advice, but as news.  Really good news!!


Here is a helpful, fair review of this brand new book that explains what it covers and how good it is. The author suggests that Simply Good News is like a "greatest hits" compilation where the good doctor re-states most of his major themes. I say, fantastic!  Just what we need!  Although it isn't at all a stale rehash, but a fresh re-articulation of the centrality of the theme of the Kingdom. As the reviewer notes, has a few truly new notions, here, too, including a really fresh chapter on prayer.  Simply Good News really does explore the truest truth, the gospel of the Kingdom, God's saving grace for the life of the world, and I think it is not only the best book of the month, but will surely be on the Best Of lists a year from now.  Reading it now will deepen your understanding and appreciation and commitment to the Kingdom of God, and a great way to kick off your New Year's reading resolutions.



church in exile.jpgThe Church in Exile: Living in Hope After Christendom Lee Beach (IVP Academic) $25.00  Many will value Beach's radical call to serious discipleship and his broad and astute observations about post-Christian Western culture. He is currently a professor and the director of ministry formation at McMasters Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario. He has pastored in the CM&A denomination for over 20 years.  J. Richard Middleton, who calls some portions "profound", sums up much when he writes of it, "We have much to learn from Beach's insights about holy, missional and hopeful Christian living from the margins." With strong endorsements by Michael Frost and David Fitch and JR Woodward, you can see it has good folks behind it, and many who appreciate his Biblical study of exile and diaspora. Frost, who has written about these themes himself, says that Beach challenges us to come to terms with the church's identity as exiles in post-Christendom, and "to embrace the challenge for creative theological reflection funded by a prophetic missional imagination, to drastically break with traditional modes of church life, and to bravely launch ourselves as the people of God into this new world." There is a great foreword by Walter Brueggemann who calls it a "rich exercise in hope."





Fight Back with Joy- Celebrate More, Regret Less, Stare Down Your Greatest Fears.jpgFight Back with Joy: Celebrate More, Regret Less, Stare Down Your Greatest Fears Margaret Feinberg (Worthy) $15.99  I had an early manuscript of this -- thanks Margaret! -- and pretty much fell in love with it.  I liked her previous Wonderstruck quite a lot, and this, too, shares her moving prose, her upbeat attitude, her deeply Christ-centered lifestyle, and her joyful, honest style.  But this time -- hold on! -- this time, she brings the raw honest style, and the joy, in extra doses. We find out early on in the book that she was given a very serious diagnosis with bad, bad cancer. (Is there any other kind?) She was setting out to write a book about joy. (What was she thinking? What was God thinking?) Alas, this tells the tale of her coping with some very hard stuff with some very realistic, hard-won joy. Kay Warren, who also had cancer, and has also lost a son to early death, knows tragedy and sorrow and the struggle for resilience. She writes, "You'll be captivated by her skill weaving together words, thoughts, and phrases -- but even more beautiful is the way you'll be drawn closer to Jesus, our source of joy."  There's a neat letter from her husband, Leif, in the back, too.  Three cheers for this remarkable couple, and how they turned this hard year into an chance to do a different sort of ministry, to care for others, and be cared for. Three cheers for this book!  Margaret, God bless her, is really good at social media ministry and has some cool posters at Pinterest and other inspiring digital stuff.  Check her out.




true you.jpgTrue You: Overcoming Self-Doubt and Using Your Voice  Adele Ahlberg Calhoun & Tracey D. Bianchi (IVP/Crescendo) $16.00  Adele Ahlberg Calhoun is an experienced leader in ministry and has written significant work on spiritual formation.  Her big and exceptionally useful Spiritual Disciplines Handbook is a go-to, oft recommended resource; her Invitations from God is spectacular, moving, insightful, profound.  She and her husband are good friends with the Keller's of Redeemer, if that helps assure you of her thoughtful depth. Tracey Bianchi is also a writer I respect -- she is quite an active young woman, who has written two books we loved -- Mom Connections is about how young mothers need supportive friendship, and offers very good ideas for those in that season of life, and Green Mama which is an upbeat and fun look at the call to be environmentally conscious, and how to be more green around the home, as a faithful act of Christian discipleship. Great stuff!  I love Calhoun's mature, sober style and I like Tracey's passionate, colorful approach. Together, I am sure they are going to be justly famous: what a team! What a book!  You know that women have many expectations thrust upon them --  "act like a lady" "land a career" "find a man" ("be sure to stay thin.")  With what Amy Simpson calls "empathy and sisterly candor" these authors explore how to be true to yourself. What does it mean to "find your voice?" (And what does it mean to use it well?)  I have to say, I don't get the cover design, but it is cute, and the call to be true, truly you, is evident. There is a small group study guide included, and I am sure this is going to be a great book for women of all ages, to read alone or, better, together.  


Simply Open.jpgSimply Open: A Guide to Experiencing God in the Everyday Greg Paul (Nelson) $16.99  I have read other books by Greg Paul about his work in urban ministry, and they are beautifully written, raw and real, and both inspiring and challenging. He hits hard, speaks with truth and grace, and is a creative, interesting person.  Here, he offers us "the simplest, most transformative prayer you may ever pray." This is a simple matter of practicing a prayer of awareness, which -- as it says on the back cover -- "can turn each ordinary workday into a deepening spiritual journey."  For anyone interested in the contemplative path or who wants a deeper experience of God's presence Simply Open invites us to use our five senses to encounter God and God's world.  Moment by moment, God can open you up -- eyes, ears, nostrils, hands, mouth, heart, and mind. I am sure this is exquisite to read, exciting to learn about, and will help you, if pursued. I can't wait to read this book.   Paul is to be trusted, and this will be an amazing work.






divine magician.jpgThe Divine Magician: The Disappearance of Religion and the Discovery of Faith Peter Rollins (Howard) $14.99  I'll admit that I've not fully embraced the popularity of this creative, energetic, storytelling, postmodern, Irish theologian. His live blend of music, visual art with soundcapes, theater, ritual and reflection sound sensationally moving, but the books are a bit more standard-fair blend of progressive theology, cultural studies, and a subversion of sacred cows. Here, he interrogates traditional religious notions, undermining the commonplace debates involving dogma, doctrine, and tradition.  The back cover calls it an "incendiary reading of Christianity" which "breaks the boundaries of religion." I don't know what that means, really, or why it is a good thing, but I'm going to find out. Why don't you join me -- let's figure this out. The back cover says he is a "firebrand" and that he rejects both the "spiritual" and "religious" label. I think I get that.  As with his other books, it will create a lot of discussion, and we're happy to stock it.






rise.jpgRise: Get Up and Live in God's Great Story  Trip Lee (Nelson) $16.99  A year or so ago this hip-hop artist, who is also a pastor, wrote a nifty little pocket-sized book -- with a spay-painted cover that just seemed right -- about basic Christian living. It was called The Good Life, and we sold it collegiate gatherings on occasion and to hip high school kids who like his hip hop vibe.  Now, here, he offers us a new, more expansive book on themes of grace and Christian living, on honoring God and living right, with big purpose. He's got rave endorsements from NFL players, hip hop stars (like Lecrae, who was just on Jimmy Fallon last week) and a few NBA stars. This dude is taking off. He's known in certain circles, brings a passion and clarity about life, faithfulness, and Godly discipleship - and this cover is great, too!  It like how John Piper in the foreword explains the book's rare blend of both relevance and reverence.  


By the way, we carry his new CD, too -- Rise.






lessons in belonging.jpgLessons in Belonging From a Church-Going Commitment Phobe Erin S. Lane (IVP/Crescendo) $16.00  I first encountered the good writing of Ms Lane when she edited a wonderful collection of autobiographical sketches of young Christian women from various denominations and cultures. (It is called Talking Taboo and we raved about it when it came out.) I realized then that she had some Quaker connections, and friends with (sorry with the friend joke) perhaps the most famous Friend these days, Parker Palmer.  To see Parker Palmer's introduction here, on a book from the evangelical publisher IVP, is just so very sweet. I think this is going to be a great, great read; the "Crescendo" line is an imprint of women writers, but not necessarily just for women readers, I'm so interested in this. (In fact, two the rave blurbs on the back -- Mark Labberton and Shane Claiborne -- are men.)  The others rave, too: Phyllis Tickle says it is "one of the clearest and certainly one of the most informing pictures I have seen to date of the generation of young adults who presently are shapping the twenty-first century church."  Lane is very smart, and her footnotes show off her wide and interesting reading -- yay!  Her description of her varied church experiences (she graduated from divinity school, works in spiritual formation, and is married to a pastor) is simply stated: "It's complicated."  I am sure you will enjoy this funny, smart book, and I am also sure that it's wisdom about community and connection will be important for you. I'm eager to help get it well known and widely read. 


The Grand Paradox- The Messiness of Life, the Mystery of God.jpgThe Grand Paradox: The Messiness of Life, the Mystery of God, and the Necessity of Faith Ken Wytsma (foreword by Eugene Cho) $22.99 I don't know if you are surprised to see a book on a mainstream evangelical publishing house with the word "paradox" in the title. It is profound, and it is a mature, good work.  Called "a contemporary guide on the pursuit of God" and with a foreword by Eugene Cho (we gave his Overrated a Book of the Year award) this seems to include a powerful mix of reading the Word and reading the world, of ruminations on God and reflections on the brokenness of the world, of the mystery of God and the messiness of life.  Ken Wytsma knows the messiness of life, well, too: he has organized the nationally-known "Justice Conference" and now knows missionaries, advocates and activists from all over this sad world.  So he knows a lot about the necessity of faith as we walk on in this world, trying to make a difference. Not only is it great that the author is so widely read and broadly schooled, and it's cool that the title includes words like mystery and paradox, there is this blurb on the back, by the grand Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff of Yale University: 


Thoroughly honest, never evasive, free of cliches, deeply Christian, encouraging rather than scolding in tone, it is the most perceptive and helpful discussion of faith that I know of.


Read that last line again. Oh my goodness. Now that is a book you should own!  The Grand Paradox.


aloof.jpgAloof: Figuring Out Life with a God Who Hides Tony Kriz (Nelson) $15.99  Except for some early church Greek fathers and medieval mystics, there has not been a big tradition of many books written on the perceived absence of God.  In our time, a few that have been written have been either glib (don't worry, God's presence will return) or theologically odd. Some shine: Still by Lauren Winner and Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor are personal favorites, although both are fairly artful memoirs, telling the stories of their own unique journeys of faith and the experience of the absence of God. I don't quite know anyone who has written directly and clearly and faithfully about this hard quandary. You may know Tony Kirz as Tony the Beat Poet from the famous Blue Like Jazz.  His first  good book, mostly a memoir, Sinners and Other Wise Men, got a rave review from us here and we still gladly stock it. (What a story!) Aloof has plenty of rave reviews itself, from authors I respect from John Pattison, Randy Woodley, Tim Soerens, Sean Gladding, Leroy Barber, Lisa Sharon Harper, and more. There are some edgy young post-evangelicals, some classy big shots (a Senator, a college President) and a few lively endorsements by those I don't know, but they really were touched by it. I'm impressed, really impressed, and can't wait to read it. (There are even some cool pen and ink drawings, too, enhancing it.) Maybe you should share it with somebody needing a book in an authentic conversational style that helps us process God being with us, and our awareness of that, in various stages of the life of faith. One reviewer says "no one will put this book down feeling cheated. It is a work of art!"



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January 29, 2015

In honor of Super Bowl Weekend: Books on Sports -- theological, inspirational, and critical. ALL ON SALE 20% OFF

FAITH AND CULTURE

From Andy Crouch's wonderful Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (IVP; $20.00) to Steve Turner's fascinating Popcultured: Thinking Christianly About Style, Media and Entertainment (IVP; $17.00) to thoughtful DVD curriculum like the artsy and insightful For the Life of the World (Gorilla Productions; $59.99 our sale price $35.00) and so many more, we've reviewed a lot of resources over the years to help people of faith live in the world, intentionally connecting faith and life, even "engaging culture" as the saying goes these days.  Any day now we will have the brand new self published book by abstract artist Makoto Fujimura, the exquisite Culture Care (Fujimuro Institute; $20.00) and the fabulously upbeat, insightful new book Becoming Worldly Saints: Can Your Servebecoming worldly saints.jpg Jesus and Still Enjoy Your Life? by Michael Wittmer (Zondervan; $15.99.) On and on they come, great books meeting this deep felt need for guides and assistance in navigating our contemporary culture with grace and fidelity.  From the arts and entertainment to our work and civic lives, from the influences of mass media and technology to the pressures of consumerism, we feel stressed, or curious; we may want help, we may want inspiration for making a difference. We all need to be more intentional about practicing the presence of God in the ordinary stuff of daily living.


We often come back to the rubric of John 17, that followers of Christ are called to be "in the world but not of it" or the Romans 12 language of being "non-conformed to the ways of this world."  Paul says there in that magnificent letter about God's grace that we are, therefore, to have renewed minds, which, apparently, helps us serve God in the day-to-day, our very bodies being living worship services.With renewed minds and sanctified imaginations, we can live differently, in the world. This, by the way, is why even now we are working a bit every day ordering books to sell at the big Jubilee conference in Pittsburgh which is the flagship event in the country on this vision of a "transforming vision" and whole-life, culturally-relevant discipleship.  


SPORTS BOOKS

And so, as perhaps just one case study, let's think for a bit about sports.  It's Super Bowl weekend, and most of us will be tuned in, if only for the ads (a subject for another day.) It is a near religious event in America. This is not the place to deconstruct and "read" the good and the bad of Super Bowl Sunday, itself, but we can, at least, suggest some books about sports to help us think through this side of life with some sense of a theological worldview.  


We have, of course, devotionals for athletes and books for parents of kids who play sports.  We haveto stir a movement.jpg some fine testimonial type autobiographies by athletes, and most of these are fine. We're Tony Dungy fans, just for instance, and carry all of his stuff.  During baseball season, I was happy to promote To Stir a Movement: Life, Justice and Major League Baseball by Jeremy Affeldt (Beacon HIll Press; $21.99) a great example of a professional ball player who is using his fame not only to play with joy and integrity, but to work against contemporary slavery, sexual trafficking and such.  And you know that one of our favorite customers, Ethan Bryant, has written a book I love, a memoir of a summer going to Royals gamescatch and rele.jpg called Run Home and Take a Bow: Stories of Life, Faith, and a Season with the Kansas City Royals (Samizdat Creative; $12.99) and the very interesting Catch and Release: Faith Freedom and Knuckleballs (Electio Publishing; $15.99) about him playing catch to raise money to stop slavery. What a fun idea, a book around the world of sports, but not about watching, or even playing the real sport, but about this lovely game of having a catch.  We've reviewed these in the past and suggest them again.


But what do we make of the state of contemporary sports, the good, the bad, the ugly? What other resources might a serious Christian athlete, or sports fan, read to help ponder and discern a God-honoring "cultural engagement" in the world of high powered sport?


Here are just a handful I pulled from our shelves.  Some are old chestnuts, tried and true, a few are new.  Some are fairly sophisticated, almost academic theology while a few are deeply pious, mature appeals to glorify God in all we do, even in our sports fan lives or our game playing.  Some offer fun insight or cultural analysis. I will list a batch, and end with one I was stunned by, that I read almost in one sitting, taking short breathers, and unable to stop.  I am sorry I didn't write about it sooner, but the words just didn't come; I didn't know how to tell you how moved I was by it. Against Football by Steve Almond  is one helluva book, and I want to tell you about it now, ironically, as we prepare for the big game this weekend. 


20% OFF

All of these are on sale for 20% off.  Just use the order form below, and we'll deduct the discount off the regular retail prices we list.  Listing these books illustrates of one of our passions: finding resources for people in a certain side of life which help to bring that aspect of life into relationship with the gospel, to be aware and intentional and thoughtful, exploring what might be called a Christian perspective.  These might help. Hut, hut, hut, hike! Go!


touchdowns for jesus.jpgTouchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of the Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports Marcia W. Mount Shoop (Cascade) $16.00  This is one of the best books on faith and sports I've read, thoughtful, critical, engaging, and -- critical as it is -- written by a very knowledgeable, passionate woman who has great love of sports. She is a Presbyterian pastor with a PhD from Emory and her husband is a beloved college coach (John Shoop.) Her "calling audibles" blog invited others into the conversations she and her husband were having, often about key, critical concerns, asking big questions, including concerns about the sexism that pervades the industrial sports complex. Another respected coach wrote a glowing introduction, inviting us to come to grips with the issues revealed in this book.  As Bomani Jones, an ESPN Commentator says, "Shoop has been close enough to this insane world to know how it works, but removed enough to clearly and honestly discuss what's right and wrong about the games we watch and the machines that drive them." She's got some good stories, too -- shouting at hecklers at Soldier Field, getting kicked out of a wives of players Bible study --  which further makes this a fascinating, feisty, valuable book. Wow.


brief theology of sport.jpgA Brief Theology of Sport  Lincoln Harvey (Cascade) $17.00  This, too, is an excellent new work, advancing the discourse about how Christian theology relates to sports, and how we can think faithfully about how we consider games and athletics.  Harvey is from England, so is a besotted soccer fan (a fan of Arsenal, no less!)  This is serious theological stuff (one chapter is called "A Liturgical Celebration of Contingency") and is yet a very interesting read.  Harvey obviously loves the games he watches, and he asks us to ask ourselves tough questions about what we love, and why.  As Luke Bretherton of Duke Divinity School writes, "Wonderfully insightful, historically rich, and theologically punchy, this is vital reading for anyone who plays, watches, or is utterly bemused by the world of sports." A bit heavy at times, and is, truly, a theology of sport.








Kluck-The-reason-for-sports-A-Christian-manifesto.jpgThe Reason for Sports: A Christian Fanifesto Ted Luck (Moody) $13.99  Moody Publishers, as I'm sure you know, have a great history of being rather fundamentalist, focused on the first things of the gospel, an evangelical urgency about exalting Christ, and (because Moody was so committed to the urban poor) doing work in the inner city, with the occasional book about racial reconciliation. They are a mainstream, solid, evangelical press, with clearly Christian doctrine and practical stuff on Christian living.  And here -- really! -- is a funny, upbeat, curiously-wide-ranging, oddball book, a manifesto for sports fans. It's fantastic.  Can sports bring some sort of inspired vision? Can we appreciate goodness, common grace for the common good, so to speak? Does God in God's world smile about our simple joys as we watch and cheer? Kluck says yes, and although he is a conventional, youngish, evangelical Christian, he is passionate about this business of being a high octane sports fan, and has written a book that anybody, religious or not, could appreciate. As Mark Galli nicely puts it, The Reason for Sports "helps think about sports Christianly without Christian cliches and worn out sports piety. He's an athlete and a fan whose writing implicitly reminds us why God created sports: for the joy of play."  I agree with the ESPN host who said ""This is not your normal sports book. Nor is it your normal Christian book."  Short, sweet, helpful. If you know anybody who is a gonzo fan, you should get them this book!


Kneeling in the End Zone- Spiritual Lessons from the World of Sports.jpgKneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons from the World of Sports Josh Tinley (Pilgrim Press) $15.00  We have promoted this before, and think it is one of the more mature guides to the inspiration we can get from watching or playing athletics. Dr. Greg Linville, who teaches Sports Outreach at Malone University writes that "As a vocational sports theologian, I strongly relate to Tinley's desire to communicate God's game plan for life as he connects the theological dots... as observed through sport. Many of Tinley's sporting metaphors and athletic stories would bring a smile to the face of the Apostle Paul who was the first follower of Christ to realize the effectiveness of sporting metaphors to teach and illustrate spiritual principles." But yet, don't think this as only an inspirational, devotional volume for jocks, and not only for football players -- Kneeling in the End Zone looks at the profound and the ugly, the beautiful and the absurd, and attempts to use sports as a bit of a lens to clarify theology and faith.  It is, as I've said, one of the better books of this kind. There are transcendent moments in sports, and Tinley helps us see that.



Game Day for the Glory of God- A Guide for Athletes, Fans, & Wannabes.jpgGame Day for the Glory of God: A Guide for Athletes, Fans, & Wannabes Stephen Altrogge (Crossway) $10.99  I often tell sports fans, parents, coaches, and players that this really is the best introductory book of which we are aware about what we should know about a Christian view of sports.  It is short and passionately gospel-centered, inviting us to resist idols and put God first in everything, even our game day.  Good for fans, of course, for high school or college atheletes, and certainly for parents wanting to help their kids get a solid, Godly perspective. Altrogge lives and pastors in Western Pennsylvania, by the way, so is, quite naturally, a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  A great, inspiring little book.










Games People Play - Theology, Religion, and Sport .jpgThe Games People Play: Theology, Religion, and Sport Robert Ellis (Wipf & Stock) $37.00  I know this is thick and a bit pricey. But it looks very mature, and very good. The author of what might be the best serious book on sports -- Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports on Baylor University Press ($29.95) -- Shirl James Hoffman (who also writes about kinesiology) raves. Shirl Hoffman writes, "Ellis masterfully weaves a thread through the church's inconstant history with sport, dissects sport as a modern cultural phenomenon, and armed with a prodigious arsenal of evidence, dares to ask whether the transcendent moments of sport might actually be experiences of God. A must-read for anyone hoping to understand how sport fits within the Christian tradition." For serious readers.








  Welcome to the Terrordom- The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports Dave Zirin.jpgWelcome to the Terrordom: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports Dave Zirin (foreword by Chuck D) (Haymarket Books) $16.00  You maybe know that 80's era rappers Public Enemy blazed into the world of hip hop, known for the 1989 "Welcome to the Terrordom" anthem, a call to arms against a world gone mad.  It is from that song title that this book gets it's title, and it is no accident that the passionate social critic Chuck D of Public Enemy even wrote the foreword.  Zirin, a left wing journalist who truly loves sports, and is a good sports journalist, exposes the scandals and dangers "looking past the shiny surface to what's really happening in the locker room, the boardroom, the arena, and the stands." He's angry at things we should be angry about, and is optimistic about some other things. It is a bit dated, but if you are interested in the politics of sports, so to speak, the critique within Welcome to the Terrordom is powerful. Zirin sometimes writes for The Nation, and is smart and sassy and important.







From Season to Season- Sports as American Religion edited by Joseph L. jpgFrom Season to Season: Sports as American Religion edited by Joseph L. Price (Mercer University Press) $25.00  Mercer University Press has a whole line of books about sports and religion in American culture.  Wow. Dr. Price who edited this (and he has several good chapters himself) is a Langdon Gilkey scholar, so has tools to develop a mature and thoughtful theology of cultural engagement.  And he's a sports fan (and a college President, too) Here, he brings together a handful of scholars, each offering a particular paper on various aspects of the sporting experience in North American culture. From professional wrestling to hockey in Canada to basketball and various specific themes -- "The Pitchers Mound as Cosmic Mountain" and "The Final Four as Final Judgement" and "The Super Bowl as Religious Festival" -- this is all truly fascinating.  The title itself comes from an essay on "The Rhythmic and Religious Significance of American Sports Seasons."  What a collection to help us discern the times...





  In Praise of Athletic Beauty Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht.jpgIn Praise of Athletic Beauty Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (Belknap/Harvard University Press) $22.95  I've mentioned this before, and think it is a fine contribution to the library of the serious thinker about sports. It is, I suppose, mostly a book about aesthetics, and it is eloquent and literary. It is asked why we have such fervor, when in awe of athletic prowess, and it answers this fundamental question by drawing deeply on the history of philosophy, trying to explore what is evoked and what moves us by seeing good performances. In Praise of Athletic Beauty invites us to embrace our enjoyment, offering a philosophically sophisticated explanation of the beauty of it all. Not for everyone, yet, I think, it is very important, and those who are serious about developing some kind of normative viewpoint on athletics, would be wise to ponder this complex, beautiful book.









inside out coaching.jpgInside Out Coaching: How Sports Can Transform Lives Joe Ehrmann (Simon & Schuster) $25.00  We have raved before about the fantastic sports biography, the tale of former Baltimore Colt Joe Ehrmann, as told by Sports Illustrated writer (and Pulitzer Prize winner) Jeffrey Marks, called Season of Life. It's truly a great book.  Now, here, Joe Ehrmann tells his own story, and about his work as a coach (as we learn in Season of Life, he leaves pro ball, goes to seminary, and starts coaching an urban youth league, teaching boys to be "men for each other.")  I have some sharp, thoughtful friends who work in campus ministry with athletes and coaches and they all use this routinely. It is one of the best examples of a profoundly Christian orientation, a clear sense of calling and vocation, but yet written for a mainstream audience; Ehrmann is clearly a man of deep and serious faith, but he does not wear it on his sleeve or resort to the aforementioned "pious sports platitudes." This is a gem of a book, and every career should be so fortunate to have a leader this articulate who has thought hard about the good stuff they can do in their particular field.  Coach or not, this is a great book for anyone interested in sports, and certainly anyone interested in sports ministry.  Hooray!




  The NFL Unplugged- The Brutal, Brilliant World of Professional Football .jpgThe NFL Unplugged: The Brutal, Brilliant World of Professional Football Anthony Gargano (Wiley) $25.95    This has been widely reviewed, enjoyed by serious football fans, and the author is esteemed for being a fine writer and powerful reporter -- and a pretty passionate, opinionated, regular sports guy. This really does have the inside scoop -- raw, unplugged, brutal.  From what really happens in huddles and pile-ups to how coaches speeches work (to help or deflate players) to what "the dark place" is, this is extraordinary. How far will some players and coaches go to win? What is training camp really like?  What goes on behind the NFL curtain, in the lives of the players. Gargano is a South Philly radio guy, and this is is "a front row seat to the agony and the ecstasy." If you love football, you won't be able to put this book down.







  Against Football - One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto .jpgAgainst Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto Steve Almond (Melville House) $22.95  This was one of the most amazing books I've read all year -- I was going to award it one of the Best of 2014, but wasn't sure what category in which to name it. I really intended to, but just, oddly, never listed it. It really is one of those books I will never forget.


This passionate little volume strikes me not only as a brilliant and shocking and provoking and interesting book on football, by a fan who has become a critic (over the awful facts about financial corruption, injustice, the tax exempt status of the billion dollar NFL, the sexism, the racism and more, but mostly over the matter of concussions) but also as a case study in moral dilemmas.  That is, Against Football is a book about ethics. It deserves a major review, but I'll just name two quick things: firstly, it is a cry of the heart by a guy who is an over the top fan. Not unlike his book about being a true fan of rock music (Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life) or his charming book about indie candy makers and his passion for tracking down these delightful sweets (Candyfreak), Almond is a great, great, truly entertaining, creative writer; he's punchy and solid and fun, and he loves, loves, loves his (get this) Oakland Raiders.  And sports in general, and football in specific. And those ("wretched") Raiders.  Only a fan as obsessed as he is, with as many great chapters about the joys and meaning of sport fandom, could get away with this kind of radical critique and still be taken seriously. Almond has a broken heart, because he loves football, but now hates it. 


Secondly, and this is important, his main point is that it is unethical to watch football. He develops this moral argument with the aforementioned shocking facts, and with the aforementioned broken heart. He believes he must give up being entertained by watching a corrupt sport that -- it is now a fact that cannot be denied -- causes great, great harm to many of the players.  He doesn't make the pornography connection, but he might have; it must be said that it is wrong to be entertained by watching the degradation or violation of others. Violence is wrong; being entertained by what we know is harm being done to others, makes us morally complicit.  Mr. Almond has his list of reforms, and it is worth reading just to consider and advocate for those, but he is, at this point, no mere reformer. Watching professional and college ball is like watching the gladiators; it is immoral, and we ought not partake. The stats about brain damage are remarkable, and he is trying to call us to responsible action, knowing what we know. As a true fan, who thinks that in it's "exalted moments, is not just a sport but a lovely and intricate form of art." So, he wants to "honor the ethical complexities and the allure of the game."


What does it mean, Almond asks, 


...that the most popular and unifying form of entertainment in American circa 2014 features giant muscled men, mostly African-American, engaged in a sport that causes many of them to suffer brain damage? What does in mean that our society has transmuted the intuitive physical joys of childhood -- run, leap, throw, tackle -- into a corporatized form of simulated combat? That a collision sport has become the leading signifier of our institutions of higher learning, and the undisputed champ of our colossal Athletic Industrial Complex?


Agree or not, this is the most passionate, compelling, cogent, and, oddly, interestingly enjoyable book making this hard case that has yet been written. It would be a hammering screed in somebody else's hands, but Almond is so skilled and charming a writer -- colorful and vulgar and funny and crass and even tender at times -- that he can be captivating in his moral prophecy. Against Football is one of the most compelling, provocative, interesting books about social ethics I've read in a long, long, time.  Again, it is making demands on us, asking about complicity.  It is my view that no informed sports fan can be seriously engaged in these conversations and debates without having read this book.  I've read all of Steve Almonds books, fiction and non, and despite his R-rated vocabulary, know that he has a very, very profound moral center. One reviewer mentions his "astonishing wit, intelligence, and decency." This searing book explores the biggest question facing sports fans today.  Read it and weep.  And then decide.


If you aren't sure, check these out: Here is one interview, to show his literate side, and why he was drawn to racking this muck. Here is an hour long youtube discussion with Almond and the brilliant Gregg Easterbrook, whose book The King of Sports: Why Football Must Be Reformed (St. Martin's; $15.99) I suppose I should also have listed, now that it is out in paperback. Do watch the first moments of this video, hearing Almond read from his preface which will give you a sense of his eloquence, passion, wit, and convictions.


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