About January 2016

This page contains all entries posted to Hearts & Minds Books in January 2016. They are listed from oldest to newest.

December 2015 is the previous archive.

February 2016 is the next archive.

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

January 2016 Archives

January 1, 2016

A BALANCED READING PACKAGE: 3 books for 30% off; 2 books at 20%; 1 book earns 10% off.

Okay, book fans, here's a little deal to help you start the year off right.


You can pick one from each of these three categories, and if you do, you will own a nice package of good reading -- I recommend reading several at a time -- and we'll give you an extra deep discount.


Buy one from each of these three categories and we'll offer a 30% discount.


The 30% off is good for four days only.  This special Hearts & Minds New Year Package expires Tuesday night, January 5, 2016, at the stroke of midnight.  The shoe will drop and that will be that.


Well, not really: you can buy any two of these, any time, at our special 20% off discount offered to our BookNotes subscribers, and on-line customers. Or buy just one for 10% off.  How's that for a fun sliding scale?  Those offers usually don't expire.  But why not go for the package deal, and earn the better savings -- 30% OFF! -- and have a more balanced reading diet ready to go in the New Year?


Here I'll list five good books in three important categories.  Take your pick.


MEMOIRS


Everyone, I think, should read a memoir every so often.  Engaging the same part of the brain that fiction does, a well-written story of an author's life, or a narration of a part of his or her life, can be as engaging and enjoyable as a novel.  I've read memoirs I so enjoyed that I'd slap my thigh and say I can hardly believe it, saying, once again, that you can't make this stuff up!  I think it is really useful to see how others narrate their lives, how people make sense of stuff, and it gives us greater abilities to be empathetic and understanding. Read memoirs!


Here are five that I loved this year, five great memoirs from 2015 that you should consider.


Midnight Jesus- The Late Night Psychiatric Crisis Guy Jamie Blaine .jpgMidnight Jesus: The Late Night Psychiatric Crisis Guy Jamie Blaine (Nelson Books) $15.99  This was one of my favorite books of the year, with captivating writing so fresh and vibrant and exciting and funny and real.  Blaine is a low-rent, ruffled, redneck Pentecostal with a ton of doubts and remarkable solidarity with other losers, crazies, drug-addicted, strippers, and religion-haunted characters. He's most at home with the down-and-outers and the misfits. With extraordinary dignity and exceptional kindness he tells the stories of people he meets while working at a rehab and psych ward, befriending one and all. Midnight Jesus describes his journey as a psychology major in grad school, working at the clinic, helping out in his Pentecostal church's blue-collar counseling ministry, all the while working as a DJ at the local roller rink. And keeping a running dialogue with Jesus who is, apparently, with him under the disco balls at the rink and in his rusted out pick up, driving late, late, at night.  At least sometimes.


Blaine is Anne Lamott if she were Pentecostal, Southern, blue-collar, male, and, well, there's that roller rink thing. Forget what I said about his similarities to lovely Anne: Jamie's an original voice, with the occasional reference to Barth and Camus, but the more interesting ones from country and rock music or quotes Hunter S. Thompson; when he plays "The Old Rugged Cross" in a dive bar, or blasts heavy metal between his counseling sessions, it's the real deal, raw and authentic and full of sheer wonder and grace. The chapter about how he connected with one schizoid client because he understood a punk song reference tattooed on a clients shoulder made me grin and grin. Yep, Blaine is right. God sure does show up in weird and mysterious ways.


And this memoir will remind you of that, in amazing prose and in, shall we say, unusual situations.  It isn't every Christian book where the author gets tossed in jail for making a public disturbance, and gets to play Clue in jail with a former client, himself a former church guy. 


It also isn't every Christian book -- I'd say it isn't any Christian book -- that gets a rave endorsement by the likes of Augusten Burroughs, memoirist par excellence and author of Running With Scissors.  Burroughs writes of Blaine's Midnight Jesus that it is,


Gorgeous, brilliantly written, deeply moving, life-affirming, and just 

plain stunning.


joy in the journey hayner.jpgJoy in the Journey: Finding Abundance in the Shadow of Death Steve & Sharol Hayner (IVP) $16.00  I wrote about this at great length and have been told by more than one customer that it was the book that most moved them this past year. IOt is the story of the former IVCF leader who became the president of Columbia Seminary and found out he had pancreatic cancer. He and his wife, Sharol, entered into his last season of life -- the physical pain, the cancer treatments, but more, the spiritual journey, the emotional connections with so many through the blog Steve wrote at the CaringBridge website -- and tell about it, here.  This book is mostly drawn from his moving diary kept during that last year as he chose how he would face death.  


Steve was known for signing his letters "Joyfully" and this book illustrates the profound meaning of that practice and how it formed him into one with the the character and faith that could die well.  It is a very, very moving book, and a great tribute to a thoughtful, joyful, Christian leader.


As Gary Haugen of IJM writes:


This is a rare gift, to be invited into a journal so utterly full and overflowing with both the depth of pain and loss and yet the anchor of hope.


This wonderful little book will be unforgettable, and was one of the best books of last year.  It reads almost like a memoir since it is (mostly) a well-written set of diary entries designed to allow others to look into the story of his life, as well as that of his family and friends.  Powerful.


The Year Without A Purchase- One Family's Quest to Stop Shopping and Start Connecting .jpgThe Year WIthout A Purchase: One Family's Quest to Stop Shopping and Start Connecting Scott Dannemiller (WJK) $16.00  I wrote this a few weeks ago, and I hope you saw it: This unassuming little volume is certainly one of my favorite books of the year -- it made me laugh right out loud, made me cry and made me wonder what in the world they'd do next.  And what in the world I might do next. It's fun and really funny, as Dannemiller offers an insiders look into this family's zany plan not to buy anything for a year (except food and essentials. And the stuff they might cheat on. Ha.)


Margot Starbuck says it is "playful, thoughtful, substantial" and she is right.  This family really did try to connect with others, living well on less, and it is told with a wink and a sly grin, even as it is nicely inviting and even compelling. Of course you don't have to do what the Dannemiller's -- Scott, Gabby and two loud, smart kids -- did, but it will inspire you to wonder about how you do your kids birthday parties, how you give gifts at holidays, how you do family vacations, and how you do or don't fix or reuse stuff, what purchases you deem essential.  Most of us are troubled by our own materialism, it seems, and most of us are aware of how the majority world lives in poverty. (The Dannemiller's were Presbyterian missionaries for a year, doing social service in Central America, and lived in a poor, rural village.) This is a nice way to grapple more with being "rich Christians in an age of hunger" without being grumpy or anxious or overly political or guilt-induced. It's a funny book, did I say that?


I love these kinds of reports from the front lines of a year-long experiment, memoirs of a slice of life as a family tries to accomplish something good.  This one does just that, and I couldn't put it down -- I like reading about other families, about other dads, about other ordinary Christians trying to be more just, sustainable, joy-filled, and faithful.  It would make a great book with which to kick off the year, even if you have no intention of doing anything like what Scott Dannemiller and his wife and kids did. Enjoy!


Accidental Saints- Finding God in All the Wrong People.jpgAccidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People Nadia Bolz-Wevber (Convergent Books) $23.00  Nadia is one of a handful of poster children for the new face of emerging congregations, full of snarky cynicism, radical understandings of living in the way of Jesus, tattooed and cussing like the hip, stand-up comic she once was.  This book is so well crafted it is a joy to read, the remarkable sentences, the powerful ways the essays weave together, the stories told about this or that person in her edgy Lutheran missional congregation, House of All Sinners and Saints.  It is a memoir, yes, and a well written one, but, more, it is a window into deep faith and serious practices within a certain sort of liturgical, missional, post-Christiandom church and the story of a deep renewal of faith life amidst the un and de-churches.


Sarah Miles, herself a stunning wordsmith and memoirist of great grace, says:


Nadia Bolz-Weber's new book is even tougher, sharper, and sweeter than Pastrix. In painfully honest stories, she pulls back the curtains of religious life to show how church -- the actual, living, Body of Christ -- is created among us. This is a book for everyone who years to be made new.


Nadia has been called everything from a post-modern Augustine to a mash-up of "Louis C.K., Joey Ramone, and Saint Paul."  Think what you will at the end of her evangelical spirit and left-wing politics and unusual theology, this is a fabulous read, a fascinating bit of great writing, and a very moving story.


SwimRideRunBreathe_1024x1024.jpgSwim, Ride, Run, Breathe: How I Lost a Triathlon and Caught My Breath Jennifer Garrison Brownell (Pilgrim Press) $18.00  What a fascinating, well written memoir, the nicely and honestly told story of a very un-athletic woman training for the tri. I was hooked on her clever writing from the very first page (I kid you not) and was drawn in to story of her bookish, mainline-Protestant expression of faith (she is a UCC pastor) and her nearly perplexing drive to do this big thing.  In part, she wanted to learn to be more comfortable in her own body.  A large part of the story -- which is not the expected story of feeble person winning against all odds, hip, hip, hooray -- is her honest telling of her good marriage with her husband, Jason, who is in a wheelchair. He has a form of muscular dystrophy so his own body issues loom large in her consciousness as well.  As a  mid-life, liberal Protestant pastor in Portlandia, as the wife of a sharp guy who is in a wheelchair, as a "dedicated non-athlete" she discovers quite a bit along the way.


I was drawn to this because it was said it was written "with humor and without sentimentality."  Great wordsmith, writer, and preacher Debbie Blue (who wrote Consider the Birds) says of it,


This is no an inspiration tale about cheerfully conquering adversity. It is a funny, heartbreaking and wise story about telling the truth in all its messy beauty and learning to love it. It's about finding grace and gratitude in the ordinary and extraordinary details of life and memory. It's wonderful and hopeful. I loved it.


CHRISTIAN FORMATION/APPLIED THEOLOGY


Everyone should read, from time to time, books about basic Christian discipleship, living well, learning about faith and applying good theology to the rigors and routine of our daily lives.  Here are five of my favorites this past year, good for nearly anyone who wants a thoughtful, helpful guide to deepening faith, maturing in characters, living more robustly for God's Kingdom.  These are each very well done and exceptionally valuable, useful to build us up and keep us going. Chose one of these and dig in, forming the habit of reading about daily discipleship and spiritual growth.


soul of shame.jpgThe Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Our Selves Curt Thompson, MD (IVP) $22.00  This book by the energetic and thoughtful psychiatrist, Dr. Curt Thompson, is one of the best books of 2015, for sure. I reviewed it at great length, and Curt has gotten a lot of press and rave reviews from this, his second book.  As I explained it is both a Biblically-based study of the toxic impact of shame, and a neuroscientists take of how it effects us, and what we can do about it.  "We are all infected with the same spiritual disease" the back cover declares.  "It's name is shame."


This book is a great example of evangelical faith related to science and brain studies, and it is a great example of a book informed by pretty serious theology and science can be so very useful, practical for those who are hurting and a good guide for nearly anyone wanting to live more fully, understand sin and grace, dysfunction and being set free, our brokenness and the hope of restoration.  The book reminds us of embracing the big picture of the Scriptures and how developing a deeply Christian worldview and living out of that story is a aid for developing a coherent, sustainable life. 


The lively and good writer Dan Allender says it is "a magisterial work -- thoughtful, compelling, and transformative."


Allure of Gentleness- Defending the Gospel in the Manner of Jesus.jpgThe Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus Dallas Willard (HarperOne) $26.99  I hope you know the late, great, Dallas Willard, and his rich, thoughtful books that are deep and penetrating, without being obscure or scholarly.  He was a philosophy professor and a spiritual director schooled in the deepest classics. He was brilliant and yet humble, a writer about the ways the Kingdom of Christ break into our lives, often from the inside out.  He was an excellent thinker with a practical bent, the best sort of guide and coach.  His wrote a good handful of books about spiritual transformation.


This book was about how we can talk about the faith, present it to others, do what is usually called apologetics and evangelism, without the arguing, the brow-beating, the logical gymnastics.


Presbyterian pastor and Bible scholar Eugene Peterson writes:


I grew up in a Christian culture in which 'defending the faith' was carried out by using the Bible as a weapon. Anyone who challenged my faith was treated as an enemy. As an adult I discovered Dallas Willard. Unfailingly gentle and respectful, he transformed the apologetics of my generation as many of us 'laid down our swords and shields.'


I am sure you got that reference in the Peterson quote to "Down by the Riverside." Yes, we will "lay down our swords and shields" but that doesn't mean we are not in a battle, even a battle for hearts and minds.  But we fight in a very different way, so different that fighting hardly even seems the apt word. Defending the faith is hardly the right way to say it.  What is a better image, and what are better practices, for bearing witness in ways that are kind and fruitful? Full of grace and truth?  Willard can help.


As J.P. Moreland says, "I have never seen a book remotely like this."  He continues,


Because Willard places apologetics against the backdrop of pastoral care, it makes it a practice everyone who loves people should master. This is essential reading.


J. Stanley Mattson, founder and director of the C.S. Lewis Foundation says Willard is like Lewis.  "Willard advocates for truth, born on the wings of grace, and does so in the manner of a fellow pilgrim, keen to listen and to share."

Chris Hall, director of academic spiritual formation at Eastern University, says of it, 


Classic Willard: the gifted Christian philosopher answering hard questions -- the questions so many people have about God, hell, the problem of evil, the nature of freedom, the wonder of Jesus -- in an accessible style and with a gentle spirit.


simply good news .jpgSimply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes it Good N.T. Wright (HarperOne) $24.99  You most likely know that we are huge fans of Tom Wright, and admire his intellectual rigor, his broad involvement with various schools of thought and his cordial friendships with scholars from all over the map, so to speak.  We believe he is, when properly understood, a wonderful example of being forward-thinking and relevant, certainly, but faithful and solid to historic Biblical insights and theological verities.  Why not start off the hear either dipping in to Wright in an introductory way, or recalling many of his oft-spoken views.


This book is nearly a "greatest hits" album, a wonderful way to be brought up to speed with a variety of his most important themes.  There is a strong teaching here about the reliability of the gospel accounts, the importance of Jesus in the flow of the whole Scriptures, and how Christ is the King of all of life, inaugurating the start of God's redemptive project of new creation.  Wright is prolific and energetic and has some relatively easy to read books (wonderful collections of sermons and essays) and super-detailed scholarly work.  This one is what we might call "mid-level" -- an example of his informed vision and serious scholarship, but happily written, very, very accessible.  Nice.


Here's an offer: we can substitute this one for almost any other N.T. Wright volume, big or small. We've got 'em all.  Read some Wright in the New Year!


foolsTalk.jpgFools Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion Os Guinness (IVP) $22.00  Again, this is doubtlessly one of the best books of 2015 and will certainly be on any list I do to celebrate the year's best releases.  I hope you saw my own long BookNotes review to it and my appreciation for the many volumes of the astute Dr. Guinness.  I'm a fan of his exceptionally thoughtful work, and, as with most great authors, he is sure to stimulate your thinking, stir your heart, and make you wonder if you agree with his thesis or not.


This is, in some ways, an outpouring of a lifetime of hard thinking on the part of Guinness, informed, too, by a lifetime of serious conversations with seekers, cynics, atheists and various sorts of believers.  He has gleaned what he has learned from the likes of C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and sociologist Peter Berger about how to make a plausible case for those who are disposed to disbelief the truths of the gospel.


There are a good number of reviewers and people to whom we've sold this book this year who believe this is one of the best books they've ever read, and it surely should be considered an exceptionally valuable work, instructing us about how to talk well with those in the modern world.  Os shows us why simple formulaic testimonies or tit-for-tat rebuttals of questions offered by those who question the faith are often not adequate if we want others to seriously consider the claims of Christ.  We have to get beyond typical evangelism or typical apologetics.


Ravi Zacharias says it is a "must read" and Tim Keller says "I highly recommend it."  Dr. Guinness discusses the dynamics of how conversation, real communication, and persuasion works, including the use of satire (and story) to help people see deeper truths.  Do we want the gospel to seem plausible and attractive to post-Christian modernists? Do we want to actually make good headway in persuading others, no merely having fruitless arguments?  Holy Fools is a very stimulating, serious, profound book and it is well worth working through.   Highly recommended.


Joy and Human Flourishing- Essays on Theology, Culture, and the Good Life.jpgJoy and Human Flourishing: Essays on Theology, Culture and the Good Life edited by Miroslav Volf and Justin E. Crisp (Fortress) $39.00  What a book, a serious-minded, thoughtfully-prepared, applicable study of joy and its repercussions in the church and the world!  Joy is a primary call, these authors tell us, and a central reality of life lived in God. Surely we need more serious Biblical and theological study of this pleasant, but perplexing, topic.  Such a study dare not be glib or disinterested in the complex hardships of our fallen world. It would have to explore joy in our own lives, show how our own spiritual formation practices might help, and how that might allow us to live better in the world, in the culture, such as it is, with more care and compassion.  Joy and Human Flourishing is just such a book.  It includes pieces from Jurgen Moltmann, N.T. Wright, Marianne Meye Thompson, Mary Clark Mochella, Charles Mathewes, and, of course, Volf.  These are agents of shalom and this offers what John Ortberg calls "a grand project on a vast and vibrant scale."


Indeed, Nicholas Wolterstorff says:


If ever a book filled a gap, this is it. Joy is a central component  in the New Testament description of life as it is meant to be lived... This volume is an excellent beginning at filling that gap. It is ground breaking.


SOCIAL CONCERN, PUBLIC LIFE, MISSIONAL SERVICE IN THE WORLD


This has been a rich year for good books about public justice, the relationship of personal spirituality to cultural renewal, about how the gospel transforms lives, and also calls us to work for systemic change and social renewal as agents of God's shalom.  I write a lot about such themes -- Christian ministry in the arts, about racial justice, about political theology, work, and the like. Why not balance your faith with this kind of inspiring call to outward service?  Here are five recent ones, among the best of this past year that will expand your horizons a bit.


Roadmap to Reconciliation- Moving Communities into Unity, Wholeness, and Justice Brenda Salter McNeil.jpgRoadmap to Reconciliation: Moving Communities into Unity, Wholeness, and Justice Brenda Salter McNeil (IVP) $16.00  This new hardback is a great, great little book and gives a fabulous overview of the Biblical basis for racial reconciliation and pushes us towards true and lasting answers.  We can see the inequality, we understand the problems, but are we ready to rise up in faithful action?  What steps should we take to offer gospel-centered, wholistic, spiritual answers for racial justice?


This new book claims to be nothing short of a roadmap to show us the way.  I've appreciated Brenda's several other books and love her powerful, faithful public speaking.   Shane Claiborne says she is "a legend... one of the church's greatest thinkers on one of the world's greatest challenges."


Here are what some others say about this:


Soong-Chan Rah says it "offers helpful categories to sharpen our discussions and useful exercises that are both practical and applicable."  Christena Cleveland says it is "a practical handbook for small groups."  Patricia Raybon says it "shows believers how to stop talking about reconciliation and start being it together. Gripping to read and exciting to receive, passionate, equipping, and downright brilliant."   Brenda walks the walk as they say, and this brand new book is getting lots of attention. Add it to your list.


Great Commission Great Compassion- Following Jesus and Loving the World.jpgGreat Commission Great Compassion: Following Jesus and Loving the World Paul Borthwick (IVP) $16.00 I love the slogan that is on the back cover of this new book: "We follow Jesus into all the world, and we follow his example in all we do."  Right -- we do His work in His way, called to whole-life discipleship, serving others in faithful ways.


Borthwick is one of the best writers to do exciting and compelling introductions to why we should care about world missions.  He has deepened and perhaps widened his vision in recent years, writing more generally about our missional call to follow Christ in ways that allow us to make a difference, wherever we are.  His great strength is helping us not only know what we should about this complex topic but finding on-ramps and next steps for further involvement.  


As Greg Jao has explained, "Great Commission, Great Compassion, distills a week-long missions conference into a form that you can read, savor, and apply anywhere, anytime."  Do you want the Great Commission to be more deeply understood in your circles? Do you want to be more committed to wholistic service, linking evangelism and compassion?  Do you want to hear God's own heartbeat, becoming more in tune with Christ's own biggest hopes?  This book will help, I promise.


One of the great Bible scholars of our day, Chris Wright, wrote a lovely and inspiring foreword, noting that we need "the whole Bible story for our understanding and practice of mission."  What should we do?  Christopher Wright says to give them Borthwick's new book which helps us take steps towards "holistic, integrated mission that includes word and deed, evangelism, creation care and all the rest..."   The 100 suggestions that are in a closing appendix are themselves well worth considering.  Yes!


Jesus Without Borders- What Planes, Trains, & Rickshaws Taught Me About Jesus .jpgJesus Without Borders: What Plains, Trains and Rickshaws Taught Me About Jesus Chad Gibbs (Zondervan) $15.99  I could list this as a memoir as it is nearly a straight travelogue, a delightful journey nicely told, exuberant and funny at times, about a guy traveling around the world.  But I list it here: Gibbs doesn't just want to offer a literary memoir of his journey, but he wants us to understand a clearer picture of how other Christians all over the world worship, and what we can learn from their practices and lifestyles. It isn't exactly about world missions and it isn't exactly about global justice and it isn't directly about multi-culturalism. He has more than a dozen chapters, writing about what he learned in places as diverse as Russia and Brazil, Japan and India, The Netherlands and Uganda and, well, it really can help us all be more globally aware as world citizens, and more, as a multi-ethnic and multi-national Body of Christ.


Can other people's cultures teach us? Well, of course. Can we be formed in new ways and deepen the fidelity of our own discipleship by paying attention to our brothers and sisters elsewhere? Indeed. Can it be a fun learning experience, an enjoyable ride, even if a bit out of our comfort zone?  Oh yes it can!  Ghad Gibbs is living proof and Jesus Without Borders is a great example of how we can be drawn to God though a good story. Delightful.


Nonviolent action.jpgNonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands But Most Christians Have Never Really Tried Ronald J. Sider (Brazos Press) $19.99  I wrote about this when it first came out last winter, and now, at years end, wish to tell you again about how very inspiring this is, and how very sensible it seems to me -- if risky, courageous, demanding. I would be so very happy if some of our faithful customers took it up in their reading plan this new year.  It would make a great study or book club title to talk about.


I suppose you know that Sider is a Brethren Christian, a conservative evangelical that takes the BIble rather literally on the question of nonviolence.  That is, he thinks that war is a sin and, like other sins -- drunkenness, sexual immorality, racism, what have you -- Christians are called to refrain from involvement. It is so very odd to hear Christians who hold to a conservative political agenda complain about how the progressives and liberals (as they call them) just want to be like the world or are PC like the culture when, in this case, at least, nothing could be further from the truth: Sider is counter-cultural, not caring what "the world" thinks and his Biblical literalism on questions of nonviolence is disregarded by both the culture and the church. As a rural farm boy growing up a gospel-cased, Bible-believing, evangelical, being worldly or seeking approval of those in the culture was certainly not important to him, and this book certainly illustrates that.  Taking the Bible and Christian ethics seriously on this issue certainly doesn't sound like anybody in the culture!  Consequently, Dr. Sider regularly calls us to follow Jesus, to reject the worldliness of fighting, and invites us to the upside down values of Jesus, like putting away the sword and turning the other check and overcoming evil with good.  So, he's a consistently pro-life Christian pacifist.

But here is the thing: Sider is also aware that most Christians disagree with him on this, and that most Christians believe in the sad necessity of the use of some violence in some situations.  But in a world where preachers extol violence and we routinely fail to obey Christ's simple teaching about praying for our enemies, and where guns and flags are displayed even in Christian sanctuaries, he knows that the call to nonviolence isn't common and certainly not seriously considered by many.  He has written about that in other books, but doesn't much in this one.  In this book, however, he is offering a bit of a compromise, a fair and honest suggestion to those who don't embrace Biblical nonviolence.


You see, most Christian people believe in what is called the "just war theory." That means, to put it simply, that some wars are sometimes necessary and it is ethically legitimate for Christians to fight in such wars.  The tradition has many permutations and varying theologians emphasize different aspects of this school of thought, buy almost all agree that any Christian involvement in warfare has to be limited -- we can't fight in immoral wars and we can't intend to kill civilians, for instance. One of the principles of the just war theory is that for a war to be just and acceptable, it must be a last ditch effort. It is a sad last resort when every other reasonable option to be a peacemaker has failed.


Therefore, says Ron Sider in this fabulously interesting and stimulating recent book, we must, at least, try non-lethal ways of stopping war before we agree to be complicit in worldly violence.  Every major scholar and spokesperson of the just war theory down through church history has more or less said this; it is one of the principles embraced by Catholics, Orthodox, and mainline Protestants: we can't be overly zealous in going to war, and it must only be endorsed if it is the last ditch effort.  So, in this book Sider shows how nonviolent options might be first considered as an alternative to war, and offeres strategies we could propose before agreeing to wage violence. There are great examples where this has happened and some of them are really dramatic!


From all throughout history there have been breath-taking examples of warriors turned back and oppressors resisted by ways other than by killing them. Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands... proposes that it isn't sensible or ethically legitimate to endorse wars and bless the bombs unless we've tried some of these other plausible strategies first.  I think he is correct.   

Nonviolent action and non-lethal resistance has been practiced in history and in other social-political situations to promote peace and oppose injustice although many of us haven't heard most of these remarkable episodes of creative peacemaking.  This is actually an incredibly hopeful book, helping us see that even in this dangerous, awful world of ISIS and the like, God can use God's own upside methods to shame the powerful and liberate the oppressed and restore the order of common good.  Sider has done a great service in compiling these stories, and putting them together for us in one inspiring volume.

The foreword to this stimulating, provocative book is by Presbyterian Richard Mouw. Mouw, you should know, is not a pacifist, so he disagrees with Sider about whether Bible-informed Christians should kill.  Sider says no, of course, but Mouw would reluctantly allow such tragic necessity.  But Mouw, in his very compelling introduction, mostly agrees with Ron's thesis here: those that hold to the just war theory should admit that we dare not head off into war without trying other methods of conflict resolution and nonviolent resistance first.  This will take energy, creativity, research, prayerful discernment, and the willingness to suffer, perhaps, in order to be faithful to the limits and constraints of the just war theory.  If we haven't tried some of this stuff, Sider and Mouw maintain, we can't in good conscious say war and killing is a last resort.


This collection of amazing stories will blow you away. They will inspire you, stimulate your imagination to suppose new ideas and think differently about what it possible. It might change your view of modern warfare or the call to peacemaking. Regardless of how plausible and effective some of these examples of the past might be today, we must at least be aware and try them or something like them, if we are going to be true to the standard ethical viewpoints down through church history: war and bombing and killing must be a last resort. We can't just do "whatever it takes" as we must be faithful to ethical guidelines and Biblical principles.  Other options must be considered and tried.  This book shows us how.  


Restoring All Things- God's Audacious Plan to Change the World .jpgRestoring All Things: God's Audacious Plan to Change the World Through Everyday People Warren Cole Smith & John Stonestreet (Baker Books) $16.99 This is another good book I've previously announced, a notable one in 2015.  I loved much of this, and it has some great strengths: it combines a Biblically big vision of what God is doing in our world -- bringing Christ's Kingdom to bear in all of life, followers of Jesus becoming salt and light in the world but not of it.  Yes, it sees that God is bringing grace and hope to all, in various ways, in all manner of spheres and places.  So I likes it's wholistic vision, and it is a good way into this evangelical truth that God is at work in the world and we are invited to join in.


Secondly, this book is strong and will be very appealing to many because it is mostly stories, examples to inspire us of remarkable things going on in educational ministries, in medical reform, in political life, among the poor, victims of trafficking, in the media, in science. Smith & Stonestreet's Restoring All Things is a veritable case study of the shifts in evangelical thinking and mission in the last generation, showing that solid, faithful Christian folks are getting involved in social reform and cultural renewal, without forfeiting the the first things of the gospel or the imperatives of a Biblically-based form of faith.  Many have embraced "God's audacious plan!"


As Jay Richards says this is "not just encouragement but a good swift kick in the pants."  If you are discouraged or taken with "doom and gloom" these real life examples of mercy and love, justice and peace, love and forgiveness on display by ordinary folks caught up with this vision of God's restoring work in all of life will help you resist despair and take up a sober hope.  Maybe you'll be inspired to do some of these sorts of initiatives.  A great resource and a great way to kick off your new reading year!


Here is a reminder of our offer, the plans for a balanced book reading package. 

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January 13, 2016

Hearts & Minds Bookstore's BEST BOOKS OF 2015 - PART ONE

As I usually say as I introduce our Best of the Year awards, these might better be called Byron's Personal Favorite Books of the Year. That doesn't quite get it right, either, though, as I'm trying to get at some allusive worth, not just my favorite reads, but my favs that I think deserve acclaim as somehow important, particularly beautiful, or helpfully provocative.  I want to get some mojo going that excites you to read these books that, while not precisely the very best (necessarily) and not merely ones I got a kick out of, but those that deserve celebration, honor, and a zealous final shout-out before the year fades and the new books crowd out the memories of these fabulous books, great books of 2015. 

I may have read more this year than ever, but this year's list of Best of/Byron's Favorites is going to be just a little bit shorter - I wore myself out, and you, too, dear reader, I heard - in my epic awards lists the last few years. (Snoop around old BookNotes and you'll find my previous multi-installment re-caps of the year that went into overtime. Those books deserve their accolades and are still worth reading!)

So, pull up a chair, get that hot drink - or a stiff one as the case may be - and offer up a prayer of thanks that even in this crazy-making, fast-paced, too often superficial, theologically complicated (and strident) world of ours, authors and publishers offer up these gifts of truly wonderful books, affording us opportunities to enjoy ideas, sit in silence with the thoughts and creativity of another, and take in the wonder of the printed page.   Say a prayer of thanks for the publishing industry, and commit yourself to support those of us who make our living getting the word out.  And join me as I name this list, the Hearts & Minds Best Books of 2015.

BEST BOOKS OF APPLIED THEOLOGY, BASIC CHRISTIAN LIVING, WHOLE LIFE DISCIPLESHIP

staying is the new going.jpgStaying is the New Going: Choosing to Love Where God Places You  Alan Briggs (NavPress) $14.99  I loved this easy-to-read, brief book, and was very impressed with the author's ability to bring together astute social analysis about our mobile culture and the disinterest in a living local that came with late modern capitalism, with the best of recent missional thinking (for churches but mostly for ordinary folks in their daily lives.)  It has just enough solid cultural criticism to be meaty, and tons of fantastic, fascinating footnotes, and it has just enough stories and examples to make it come alive with actionable practicality. As you might guess, this spends some time not only pondering how to imagine a deeper sense of place but inviting us to practices that enhance our care for the local, from supporting farmers markets to indie cafes to local civic organizations.  This book is well-informed, helpful, inspirational, and exactly the sort of new missional vision that needs explained and underscored.  There's a tiny bit of hipster new urbanism stuff here, but Staying is the New Going is equally great for those deepening their care for rural life, small towns, and more conventional middle class suburbs. It is sure to touch your heart and help you see your place with different eyes.

By the way, the Foreword by Michael Frost on two strains within American literature - those that go and those that stay, those influenced by being on the road, and those who are definitively shaped by their sense of place -- is nothing short of brilliant and is itself worth the price of the book.  Can I give an extra award for best Foreword? Three big neighborhood cheers.

Garden City- Work, Rest, and the Art of Being Human.jpgGarden City: Work, Rest, and the Art of Being Human John Mark Comer (Zondervan) $20.99  When I reviewed this I said it was a delight, breezy and fun, arranged to appeal to younger readers (it looks like a Rob Bell book with white spaces and some minimalist page design.) It gets at the truths that are so much discussed in so many churches these days, that our faith makes us more fully human, our work matters to God, we are called to vocations for the common good, and throughout all our culture making we are invite by God to relationships, to rest, to wonder.

We regularly promote a bunch of serious books that explore these themes and Garden City may be the best introductory one for those that don't want one that is heady or too demanding. This is a fabulous book to use with others, in mentoring friendships, adult ed classes, book clubs, and the like. It can introduce vital concepts with remarkably clarity and wit.  Skye Jethani says that it invites us to "a ravishing vision of the beautiful future we are building with God today. Everyone who reads this book will see their world with new eyes."  Yes!

The Road to Character.jpgThe Road to Character David Brooks (Random House) $28.00 This has been one of the most discussed books this year in some circles, at least, and it deserves any accolades it garners. We are eager to highlight its significance, its rich storytelling, its serious-minded and thoughtful approach to how we come to be the people we are.  Brooks - who seems to be on a journey towards Christian faith - has released a handful of important books that blend 20th and 21st century social analysis and concern with the fabric of society, each written with verve (and, in his earlier books like Bobos in Paradise and On Paradise Drive) great wit and outright humor. More even than the others, The Road to Character is not only a sociological study and interesting analysis of what makes us tick, where virtue comes from and how people come to desire the good, it is an apologetic for it. Some of his study is profound and provocative, but he brings it home with fairly obvious examples - why is it, he asks in the beginning of the book, that guys that defeated the Nazi's or survived D-Day didn't do happy dances or pound their chests the way millionaire athletes do nowadays even if they make a fairly unremarkable play on the football field? Interestingly, he doesn't necessarily blame, as some do, the liberal shifts from the 1960s, but teases out the consequences of the ease of the post-WWII years after the Greatest Generation returned home.  Agree or not with his assessment of the flow of the decades and the spirit of the ages, The Road to Character is captivating and compelling. (Again, it is very erudite, confident, but it isn't preachy; Michael Gerson in The Washington Post notes that "The voice of the book is calm, fair and humane." The stories Brooks tells are worth every penny to buy this book. He tells in great detail the life stories of great people, of some that are not so great, and of some that are - imagine! - a blend of profound virtue and feet of broken clay. In this, it is a very wise and sophisticated book.

I know that some listeners don't like his weekly punditry on NPR or his moderately conservative presence in the New York Times and The Washington Post.  Still, I think even left-leaning readers will be pleasantly surprised at the people Brooks honors here - from Bayard Rustin, who so influenced Martin King to Dorothy Day of the Catholic left.  Where do such courageous activists come from? How does such counter-cultural character formation happen?  How does religious faith nurture moral development? It isn't a secret that Brooks has spent time in recent years with thoughtful evangelical leaders - from scholars at Christian colleges to Timothy Keller to fellow journalist and writer, Michael Gerson, or that his major research assistant thanked in the acknowledgments is herself an evangelical follower of Jesus. This broad vision of the meaning of life under the sun and this fascination with the social and political and ethical implications of the interior life is rich with religious overtones and Brooks is capable of exposing some of the layers of meaning in the search for a coherent, good life.  I think this is one of the most important books of the year, and certain - for educated readers - certainly one of the best. 

The reviews have been great - USA Today says he is like Malcolm Gladwell; Maria Popova, of the Brain Pickings newsletter writes that it is,

Elegant and lucid . . . a pitch-perfect clarion call, issued not with preachy hubris but from a deep place of humility, for awakening to the greatest rewards of living . . . The Road to Character is an essential read in its entirety--Anne Lamott with a harder edge of moral philosophy, Seneca with a softer edge of spiritual sensitivity, E. F. Schumacher for perplexed moderns.

soul of shame.jpgThe Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Tell Believe About Ourselves Curt Thompson  (IVP) $22.00  I have written about this often, highlighted it at nearly every off-cite event we've gone this year, and am delighted that we can confidently celebrate it as one of the very best books of 2015.  As you may recall, Dr. Curt Thompson is a working psychiatrist with a serious vocation of studying neuroscience; his earlier book (Anatomy of a Soul) explored how knowing a bit about brain studies and how God has wired us - brain and body! - will help us in our relationships and spiritual growth. This new book brings his psychiatric expertise and his teacherly ability to explain neurobiology to his overall project of studying in Biblical perspective the toxic impact of shame. In this single volume Thompson models an exemplary methodology of integrating Biblical studies, theology and spiritual formation with his own calling in the career of medicine and counseling. What an integrated, wholistic, multi-faceted perspective he has on his field!  And what a knack he has to help us!

In The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories... Thompson shares lots of stories of his own clients, how he has brought insight and served his patients by inviting them to a life of faith and discipleship by taking up the story of the redemptive work of God; although he tells this big drama of Scripture well, he then helps readers cope with shame and learn to be more whole and healthy and vulnerable by applying some basic habits and life skills based on brain science that can be truly transformative.  Kudos to Curt and to IVP for offering to us all such a great example of a thoughtful, useful, Christian book, one of the best of 2015!


Accidental Saints- Finding God in All the Wrong People.jpgAccidental Saints: Finding God in all the Wrong People  Nadia Bolz-Weber (Converge) $23.00  I know that many, if not most, of our BookNotes readers will be suspicious of some of Bolz-Weber's mainline Lutheran theological tendencies, and will disapprove of her ready acceptance and advocacy for persons within the GLTB community.  Some will be put off by her cussing - before her come-back-to-Jesus journey that led to ordination in the ELCA she found herself addicted and working in the late night, very blue, comedy circuit.  Some will object to her lefty and progressive worldview which verges on self-righteously indignant.  I doubt many will mind the artful images from the liturgical calendar famously tattooed across her arms and chest, but it is hard to miss.  Still, Bolz-Weber writes like a dream, the book was among the most interested and touching I read all year, and her memoir-like journalism about her edgy emerging faith community (The House of All Sinners and Saints in Denver) contained unforgettable characters and unforgettable theological insights. I loved this book.  Disagree with her understanding of doctrine or her embrace of the bohemian sub-culture, but Accidental Saints is about finding God's grace in bizarre situations, the ups and downs of postmodern church planting, and about God's own glory seen in the works of mercy, justice, advocacy and art of God's people in this unusual cultural setting.

Nadia admits to being a bit cranky, and, like most in her feeble, funny congregation, is on a journey towards greater Christ-likeness, being transformed by worshipping well and doing life with others in service to their community. Accidental Saints is an unforgettable book, doubtlessly an example of a new kind of religious memoir, and one Beth and I enjoyed and appreciated.

It's Not What You Think- Why Christianity Is About So Much More .jpgIt's Not What You Think: Why Christianity Is About So Much More Than Going To Heaven  Jefferson Bethke (Nelson) $17.99  If Nadia's book, above, is a high-octane, colorful telling of post-modern, emerging mainline liturgical faith in the setting of cultural bohemians, this book, at first blush, is the polar opposite. Bethke is culturally conventional and theologically conservative as a Reformed young adult in what seems like a spiffy megachurch.  He is in many ways nearly as much of an icon of a certain sort of faith expression as Nadia is for another.  You may know how he was catapulted to fame after a lively video called "Jesus is Greater Than Religion" went viral a few years back.  Next came a book by the same name exploring more of this wild and passionate Christ-centered vision and it was surprisingly good.  This Jefferson Bethke fellow obviously had more than a five minute YouTube sensation in him and as a young evangelical pastor has a keen ability to take serious Biblical truths and show us out to apply them to our lives in orthodox, faithful ways.

This new book reads well and its organizing structure is showing the surprising grace of God in many ways, explaining how things are never quite as they seem.  It really covers a lot of material, and is informed by solid thinkers who are known for relating good theology to contemporary culture -- think, say, Dallas Willard or N.T. Wright. (Chapters include telling about how we are not what we think, the Bible is not what we think, the gospel itself is not what we think, etc. It works!)  I thought this surprising contrast, turning common assumptions on their heads, was a very helpful approach to living out whole-life discipleship, mature and interesting and solid.

This is one of the best books in this huge category of "basic Christian growth" or what some religious bookstores call "Christian living." It is lively and aimed at a younger readership, or so it seems, and yet I loved it, reading it at the end of my 60th year.  Kudos to this young author and his vlogs and cool millennial vibe.  And thanks be to God that rising evangelical leaders like Jefferson Bethke are so robust and thoughtful and serious about living out practical discipleship in the contemporary culture, finding their own place within the broader story of God's redemptive plans. And thanks be that they help us find our own place there, too, in a Kingdom coming that is already but not yet. 


Grounded.pngGrounded: Finding God in the World - A Spiritual Revolution Diana Butler Bass (HarperOne) $26.99  For a variety of reasons I read and re-read this, dipping in again and again, throughout the fall and early winter.  It has stimulated my own thinking, brought great joy - at times tears to my eyes, and a much-needed renewal to my soul - and at times, not an insignificant amount of frustration.  This is not the time or place to detail my frustrations with certain lines and certain authors she cites approvingly other than to say there are moments that she seems, to me, to nearly set up a caricature of those she finds wanting, a "straw man" ploy. For instance, Bass talks about an "elevator" view of God and faith, as if the faith of most church folks is merely about going to heaven, zipping out of this world, to be with an otherwise distant deity. Perhaps it is because I rail about such gnostic otherworldliness myself that I am sensitive, now, to being fair about such critiques.  Ahh, but yet: even if most who hold to fairly conventional faith and evangelical doctrines don't quite match her cartoon of them, she is right - so right! - that faith is too often personalized and made internal or disconnected to life in God's good world. There is a sense that God cares more about the so-called spiritual than the so-called ordinary, secular life, and this book is yet another resource to disabuse us of this wrong-headed and unbiblical view.

Grounded, in its beautiful prose about earth, water, sky, reminds us of the wonder of creation, the grounded location we all share - we are Earthlings, after all, not made for heaven, but designed to bear God's image in the world - and helps us find God not only in our prayer life but in our gardening, not only in church but at the PTO, not only on spiritual retreat, but on family vacations.  It invites us not to leave taking but to presence, a sort of homecoming.

I have thoroughly enjoyed sitting under Diana's tutelage on occasion, and have read all her books, and I think Shauna Niequist is right to say this is her most beautiful writing, and perhaps her most significant work to date.  Her study of how Christian discipleship is embodied in homes, in neighborhoods, and in the public commons is wonderfully realized and very, very helpful.  Her writing is a delightful blend of theologizing and storytelling; she offers (accessible, if provocative) scholarship infused with memoir and testimony, relating her story, describing her emerging understandings of the Christian faith's vision of the sacramental nature of reality and God's presence around all things. She often shows that some of these insights and consequential practices are similar to those of other strains of other world religions and this could be distracting to those who are suspicious of such inter-faith dialogue.  (I hope no BookNotes reader opposes such tendencies in principle.) Bass's project of showing how Biblical, Christian faith invites us all to find God outside the walls of the congregation and in experiences other than liturgy and Scripture study is a fine, solid one, so there is a natural trajectory towards wondering how this plays out in our postmodern, post-Christian, pluralizing world and how to talk about this with our multi-faith neighbors.

Butler Bass wants to show connections between older spiritual revivals and contemporary interest in spirituality and the soul; as in her last book, Christianity After Religion she insists that we are not in an era of secularization. In one section that I continue to ponder she draws connections between the 18th century Great Awakening (she tells of her experience preaching in the old church of Jonathan Edwards in Northampton) and the renewed interest in small organic farms and sustainable agriculture and farmer's markets that region of old Puritan New England. In another she writes movingly about her own deepening sense of place in her neighborhood and locale and how this compares to spiritual renewals experienced at camps and retreats. Indeed, our own sense of home is an important aspect of her understanding of our spiritual formation, and her descriptions of places she has lived and the faith communities which have shaped her, are very important (and delightfully so) to the heart of the book.

Agree or not with her rejection of "elevator" faith and her emphasis on what theologians call immanence (the intimate nearness of God) and panentheism (God truly around all things, disclosed in all things, but not pantheism) you should grapple with the arguments offered in Grounded: Finding God in the World.  Perhaps, like me, you will wish she hadn't put some things quite so starkly, or you may wish she had affirmed a few other things that are left unexplored.  But I truly hope that, also like me, you will read this extraordinary book with an open heart, seeing how stories of natural history and personal heritage combine with how we formulate our theology and how we experience God's presence and grace in our ordinary lives.

We are happy to announce that this is one of the most interesting books I've read in quite a while, and one that is both substantive and pleasurable, tough and tender, serious and yet a bit playful and certainly has pages of sheer poignancy and wonderful delight. It invites us to environmental stewardship, to living more attentive to God in the ordinary, and to embody practices that are sustainable and healthy, engaged with local stuff, with being present to God's ways in the neighborhood and the common space of our life together.  Handsome, well written, and thought provoking - such are the makings of a good book, and this is one of the best of 2015.

Finding Livelihood.jpgFinding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure Nancy J. Nordenson (Kalos Press) $14.95 This handsome paperback is certainly one of the finest literary works I've read all year.

Here is just some of what I wrote in my  Labor Day weekend post this past fall:

I have extolled this book in several previous posts and have described it before at here at BookNotes. I am very enthusiastic about it, and of its publisher, Kalos, and want to be a champion of it because it is a truly, truly extraordinary book. The raves have been from important writers (Image editor, Gregory Wolfe, poet and writer Luci Shaw, Brett Lott, Leslie Leyland Fields, Marcus Goodyear of The High Calling blog.) Finding Livelihood is not at all common, it is beyond uncommon. It is not just good. It is nothing short of extraordinary and I doubt if you have ever read a book quite like it. It is wise, thoughtful, literary, poetic, full of stories - stories that are often exceptionally mundane but made exceptionally meaningful by Nancy Nordenson's extraordinary prose.

In that BookNotes posts last fall, I said "my own writing abilities, I am afraid, cannot rise to the quality that this luminous book deserves. I will tell you just a few things to pique your interest."

But I tried, and wrote a lot about it; now we want to honor it as one of our Best Books of the Year selections.

...as I have suggested, Nordenson is a great writer. She can weave sentences and paragraphs in creative ways that are pure joy to read if you enjoy the beauty of words well chosen and stories well told.  She tells us - warns us? - early on that the book has a lyric style, a nonlinear structure.  It includes "white space, metaphor, and slant-angle perspective."

"It is a way of exploring, not a way of explaining," she states. "Lyric structure bypasses the default problem-solving logic of self-help books and the chronologic reportage of memoir to more closely mimic the nature of a complex issue that can't be resolved in ten easy steps but can be seen and understood in new ways when explored from multiple directions. Lyric style finds clues and layers them or braids them together.

My review offered a lot of quotes and examples of her great, lyrical prose. I continued, though, noting that there are other books that are direct about this matter of finding God in the work-world, books that offer clues to spiritual formation for and in the marketplace, thinking Christianly about vocation and call, developing a Christian viewpoint, even, but this is less obvious than that. She does want life to be more seamless, not just to find paid work but to sense a call, to discover meaning in our days. Livelihood.  She does ruminate quite a bit on Josef Pieper's classic Leisure: The Basis of Culture (and in a simple reminder of its post-World War II context helped me understand it more than I had.) Her point in all of this is profound, but not evangelistic on the face of it; Why is Pieper's message so urgent?  She answers her own question in italics: To be human.

We have a lot of books on faith and work, vocation and calling, and a few are new, and really good. But this stands out, almost as a memoir, and a thoughtful, ecumenical rumimnation, on good livelihood. Congratulations to Nancy Nordenson and to Kalos Press for this,  truly one of the notable books of 2015.

happiness alcorn.jpgHappiness  Randy Alcorn (Tyndale) $24.95  When I saw this one word title, and saw the rather sentimental (boring?) cover, I was less interested than I might have been; many of us tend to push away from anything that seems shallow or tepid or which suggests that faith is wedded to the materialism of the American Dream. We might even roll our eyes in this broken, needy, world with the notion that God wants us to be happy.  Of course, you should know, as I should have, that Randy Alcorn does none of that, is a fine, fine scholar, drawing on Puritans and hefty theologians that have struggled deeply with Biblical promises and human suffering and the deep glories of knowing God.  I have to list this as one of the significant books of the year, in part because of the meticulous research Alcorn as put into this, the informative footnotes, the hefty theological under-girding of this complex, lengthy, and helpful study.  I get the sweet cover, I think -- it wants to shout to the casual browser that this isn't a dry tome, laden with arcane quotes from old-school heavyweights that is only for scholars or theologians. Yes, it is heavy, and yes, it quotes significant pastors of an earlier era, but it is written for ordinary folks, those wanting a Biblically-infused vision of one of the most common questions of human existence: can we be happy, and what does that mean? Kudos.

Spiritual Friendship- Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian.jpgSpiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian Wesley Hill (Brazos) $14.99  Some know Dr. Hill as many have read his important and beautiful little book Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality. In that important book he tells of his own journey as a gay man -- an evangelical working on a PhD in Trinitarian theology who believes that a Biblical view of sexual ethics requires of him to be celibate.  (His scholarly  one called Paul and the Trinity was just released this year.) I hope you read my lengthy review of Spiritual Friendship at BookNotes a while back as it is truly moving book, insisting that a Christian view of things must include a deeper awareness of and commitment to the art of friendship.  This is more important than any other book I can imagine on the topic, including (dare I say it?) The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis.  It is vital for all of us -- thinking about friendship, as it is not a book about his sexual attractions --  but certainly urgent for young adults who are still forging their life-long friends.  Thanks, Wes, for this generous and profound study. It is thoughtful, beautiful, and, as I've said, important. Oddly, there isn't much serious writing being done on friendship, and we can be glad for the exceptionally high quality of this lovely work. Cheers.

Serious Dreams Facebook Timeline banner.jpgSerious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life edited by Byron Borger (Square Halo Books) $12.99

I know, I know, this is awkward.  I've gotten great feedback from my own feisty chapter, a Serious Dreams cover.jpgpassionate message about changing the world by taking up radical visions of vocation preached to graduates from a Master's program at Geneva College in Western Pennsylvania, and also a gentle introductory chapter inviting young adults to dig in to their hometowns, attending to their hearts, nurturing a sense of place as they are transitioning out of college and into a life of quiet faithfulness.  Both the big picture call to social transformation and the Berry-esque invitation to stay put and live local are found here, although most of the chapters -- they were graduation speeches offered with great hope at Christian colleges, after all -- tend towards the former, with energy and vision and helpful guidance from very wise women and men. But I award this not because of my role, but because of the caliber of the authors compiled and the consistency and often beauty of their messages, inviting young adults to think well about the next stages of their lives, seeking God's ways as they find themselves in new jobs and new places working out their hopes and dreams in a very needy world. What an honor it was to edit the writings of Richard Mouw, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Claudia Beversluis, Amy Sherman, Steve Garber, John Perkins. These are each stellar individuals, most of them famous writers themselves, and all significant spokespersons for a certain way of inviting us to weave together belief and behavior and live out culture-shaping, whole-life discipleship. There is a fantastic short epilogue by Erica Young Reitz (who has a book coming out next year with IVP called After College.)

I don't say this because I edited the thing, I say this because it really is true: there is no other book like this and these pieces, along with reflection questions after each one, are just fantastic.  Thanks to Square Halo's Ned Bustard for great design work and, of course, to the authors who gave these dramatic talks and who permitted me to compile them into this handsome little book.  It was one of the great things for Beth and me in 2015, and we were humbled by the outpouring of interest among friends; we pray that its impact lasts.  Serious dreams, indeed.

BEST BOOKS OF SPIRITUALITY AND THE DEVOTIONAL LIFE

songs of jesus.jpgSongs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms Timothy and Kathy Keller (Dutton) $19.95 We were thrilled to have a brief conversation with Tim about this when we were staffing our book display at the Redeemer Presbyterian Center for Faith & Work conference; the book was just about to come out and he explained how much it means to him, and how he and Kathy have learned to practice (even amidst her own struggle with chronic pain and sustained illness) to read the book of Psalms through each month.  This daily devotional is grounded in his solid exegesis of the passages but also in their intimacy with God, their appreciation of how the Psalms point us towards the gospel, and how followers of Christ can, like Jesus himself, draw great insight and sustenance from the devotional reading of these poems, songs, Psalms. The book itself is beautiful, compact sized with two color ink and a ribbon marker.  It is one you will want to use, over and over.

cultivated life.jpgThe Cultivated Life: From Ceaseless Striving to Receiving Joy Susan S. Phillips (IVP) $17.00  The richness of this beautiful book is exceptional, and I want to award it as one of the very best books of the year.  I've written about it recently, but thought I'd quote our first comments about it at BookNotes when it released last summer:

This is one of the lead titles from InterVarsity Press this season, and, as such, it deserves to be read. They offer consistently good books and their formation line includes some of the premier writers about formation these days - and this is one of the very best of their summer list.  Susan Phillips has a PhD from U.C. Berkeley in sociology, is a director of the wonderful New College of Berkeley (New College is an affiliate of the Graduate Theological Union) and is involved in First Presbyterian there. She has taught courses on spiritual formation at Regent College in Vancouver, at Fuller Theological Seminary and at San Francisco Theological Seminary, so she has much experience in helping others move deeper into a life of spiritual sanity. Philips has written a previous book on spiritual direction, published by Morehouse, called Candlelight: Illuminating the Art of Spiritual Direction which is excellent and often recommended. I am confident that this new one will be considered one of the best books of the year, certainly within the genre of books about spirituality. The Cultivated Life is excellent, mature, inspiring and very helpful.  It really deserves to be well known and widely read.

Eugene Peterson has a glowing, glowing foreword which itself is quite substantial.  Peterson, as you may know, does not care for the frivolous or trendy, and relies on older sources, literary and spiritual classics, and affirms those who are profound thinkers, good writers, with down-to-Earth sensibilities as they invite people into Kingdom living. Peterson writes, "This is a book written specifically for those of us who are... developing an imagination for living the Christian faith with insight and skill in and for a society that is disconnected from the biblical revelation and the Jesus incarnation."  He is setting up an introduction to her book by noting that she writes about the "circus" of our cultural landscape, and how our own lives must be cultivate in ways different then, counter to these crazy times.  Her introduction, drawing on T.S. Eliot, stories of the Dalit/untouchable class in India, and a study of what she calls circus culture is called "Leaving the Circus" and it is really, really good.  She contrasts the circus, by the way, with a "garden" which connotes lush abundance, joy, and rest; a very evocative metaphor, for sure. 

Her first chapter, then, is called The Way of Cultivation and she offers "holy mixed metaphors" as we learn "the way" of the spiritual life.  Although it is not academic or complex, she has a short Bible study to illuminate the way narratives inform us.  This is good stuff!  There are some nice reflection questions, too, making this a very useful resource.  Very highly recommended. 

wearing god.jpgWearing God; Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God Lauren Winner (HarperOne) $24.99 Again, you may know that we've mentioned this often and have been glad to tell about it, over and over.  We have been boosters of Ms. Winner's books since her first extraordinary memoir, Girl Meets God.  We are thrilled that there was released, just a few months ago, a new, expanded edition of her great second book, Mudhouse Sabbath.  We have often recommended her Real Sex and I was deeply touched by her sad memoir, Still: Mid-Faith Crisis. In this new book about unusual images and metaphors for God used in the Bible she steps away just a bit from memoir (although it is still written in her signature style and offers glimpses into her own journey in appropriating these images.)

Wearing God is at once memoir and glimpses from church history, a resource for spiritual formation and a call to generous, radical discipleship. It explores unusual visions and understandings of God (from the Scriptures) showing how they were understood or used by older mystics and saints, and ways in which thinking beyond our customary go-to names and images of God can help us in our relationship with the Holy One.  Yes, the God of the Bible is revealed as clothing, as fire, as laughter, as mother, and more.  This is a lovely, well-researched book, thoughtful and wise and deep and good.  There are stories of Winner's own journey, grappling with Scripture and church fathers and mothers, and telling of how these fresh images can deepen our own spirituality.  She is now an Episcopal priest and she remains a thoughtful, curious, even eccentric writer, one I enjoy and one whose books I am happy to commend.  Wearing God!  What a great idea, one of the best of 2015.

BEST BOOKS OF THEOLOGY

The Crucifixion Rutledge.jpgThe Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ Fleming Rutledge (Eerdmans) $45.00  This major work has gotten more advanced rave reviews and remarkable blurbs than any such book I've seen in years; major theologians, Bible scholars, denominational leaders and seminary profs all agree that this is a book that is stunning in scope, beautiful in its lucid, careful, prose,  and passionate in its formulation of a view of the atonement and the work of the cross that seems to be both ancient and contemporary.  Rutledge is perhaps on the more conservative end of the spectrum within her more liberal Episcopalian denomination (she was one of the first women officially ordained by the Episcopalians back in the 70s and has been a stalwart thinker, pastor and preacher within the Anglican communion until her recent retirement from parish ministry.) Even if new and edgy thinkers might find her a bit traditionalist, older school evangelical scholars might find her too progressive or ecumenical.  We, of course, think this is a good place to be - too conservative for the liberals, too liberal from the conservatives - and brings a fresh, exciting, new vision to bear that helps us get beyond these stereotypes and binaries.  More significantly, though is how she is significantly committed to breaking open the Bible itself, and offers significant, insightful, fascinating rumination on not just theology, but on Scripture.  It is one of the major books of our time, a tour de force, magisterial, and one that should read widely.

The Gospel and Pluralism Today- Reassessing Lesslie Newbigin.jpgThe Gospel and Pluralism Today: Reassessing Lesslie Newbigin in the 21st Century edited by Scott W. Sunquist and Amos Yong (IVP Academic) $28.00  I hope you know how important Newbigin has been -- of his many, many books, his 1986 Foolishness to the Greeks is my favorite, but his most important and respected and discussed is his Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (published by Eerdmans in the late 1980s.) He has written about epistemology, about mission, about culture, about the Bible, about the shifts in the West from modernity to post-modernity. Indeed the important Gospel in Our Culture Network emerged from a Newbigin study group.  He was an exceptional missionary, churchman, scholar, and Christian leader and his nuanced reading of secularizing pluralism -- and how to bear witness in fruitful ways in such a culture -- were groundbreaking. This book explores not only the impact of his thinking, it continues his work by analyzing the nature of 21st century Western pluralism, and it asks how we might continue to do misisons at home and abroad inspired by these generative insights.

This brand new book is, without a doubt, the best thing I have yet seen assessing the significance of Newbigin, excellent for anyone who has read his work, or for those wanting to get caught up to speed, as they say.  Just listen to these wonderful endorsements from the back cover.

After a quarter century, Lesslie Newbigin's testimony to 'the gospel in a pluralist society' still feels strikingly relevant, penetrating in its analysis and winsome in its pastoral encouragement of Christian discipleship and witness. Such is the testimony of the authors of this volume, who rehearse, interpret, receive and build upon Newbigin's missional wisdom. They have done us the great service of calling us to do likewise! George R. Hunsberger, professor emeritus of missiology, Western Theological Seminary

As I write this, I'm sitting in a coffee shop in Winson Green, Birmingham, where Lesslie Newbigin pastored after returning from India. Newbigin loved this community, with all its cultural and religious diversity. He was always a pastor. But he was also a scholar who studied cultures theologically and philosophically. In The Gospel and Pluralism Today, Scott W. Sunquist and Amos Yong bring together a remarkable collection of papers that reveal the ongoing value and contribution of Newbigin's work. But Sunquist and Yong's book doesn't stop at Newbigin's contribution. It builds on Newbigin's thought, and it explores critical cultural and missionary issues that have emerged in the twenty-first century. In brief, this book is an invaluable addition to missiology and to the study of Newbigin's pastoral-missionary paradigm." Graham Hill, Morling College, author of GlobalChurch

Kudos to those who put this together. Scott Sunquist, by the way, had been a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary here in Pennsylvania and we have crossed paths with him at events as varied as Wee Kirk and CCO staff training. There is another Western Pennsylvania scholar represented here, Dr. Esther Meeks, who teaches at Geneva College and is a scholar of Michael Polyani -- important for Newbigin studies, too.  This exceptional book developed out of a conference at Fuller, where the editors teach, and deserves to be awarded and deserves to be widely read.

BEST BOOKS ABOUT LEWIS & TOLKIEN 

The Fellowship- The Literary Lives of JRR Tolkien.jpgThe Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings:  JRR Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams Philip and Carol Zaleski (Farrar Straus Giroux) $35.00 I am sure this deserves a very special shout out, an honorable mention and more. Not a few very smart folks I respect insist it is one of the best books they've ever read, and a few have found it very helpful in their own appreciation for how Lewis & Company did their work.  This is not the first book on the Inklings, nor will it be the last.  Others have similarly explored the essential art of collaboration nurture at their legendary gatherings and the Child.  In a year when there have been several significant books about Lewis and Tolkien et al, this is said to be a tour de force, a spectacular and major work.

I admit that I have not read it yet, but am eager to work through it - all 650+ pages! You?

a hobbit a wardrobe.jpgA Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysms of 1914 - 1918 Joseph Loconte (Thomas Nelson) $24.99  This was one of the best of the several Lewis-related books I read this year and I was pleased to have written about it when it first came out. Many critics have extolled it's historical and sociological insight, specifically about the spirit of the age as it impacted Western Europe, philosophically, religiously, psychologically, and how this Earth-shattering epochal change in outlook - caused by the horrors of World War I - effected these writers.  Lewis and Tolkien both saw awful action in the Great War and it affected them in ways that no one has explored so diligently before. This is a great book for understanding the cultural shifts that came to greater flower in the late 20th century, and it is a great book for understanding two of the century's most beloved writers. The book was riveting, to say the least, and, I think, very important.  

Women and C.S. jpgWomen and C.S. Lewis: What His Life and Literature Reveal for Today's Culture edited by Carolyn Curtis and Mary Pomroy Key (Lion Hudson) $17.95  There has been way too little written on this topic, and aside from a few major works (I think of the under-appreciated A Sword Between the Sexes? C.S. Lewis and the Gender Debates by Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen) there hasn't been a sustained attention to this in decades. Sexism in Narnia? Or in Screwtape? On among the Inklings?  And what should those who appreciate Lewis make of the attacks by the likes of Pullman, who declared Jack a misogynist?  Well, what a provocative and important set of questions, and what a fine and fair collection of essays on the topic. It is thoughtful, informed, and altogether fascinating.

Authors who contribute here include many Lewis scholars and very impressive names: Kathy Keller, Alister McGrath, Monkia Hider, Don W. King, Colin Duriez, David Downing, Malcolm Guite, Holly Ordway and more. The ringing endorsements range from Walter Hooper to Eric Metaxas to the excellent Diana Pavlac Glyer (we have her new Kent State University Press book about the collaboration among the Inklings, Bandersnatch, by the way.) Just when I thought I had read enough about Lewis this year, this book captured my attention, and many of the reviews I've read have affirmed that this is fresh writing, in many cases innovative and insightful new contributions.  There are interviews, here, essays and articles, some long and some less so.  C.S. Lewis and Women is a very fine addition to your Lewis-related library, and an excellent way to re-introduce Lewis to our contemporary conversations.   Spot on, Curtis and Key! Cheerio.

BEST MEMOIRS

Midnight Jesus- The Late Night Psychiatric Crisis Guy Jamie Blaine .jpgMidnight Jesus: Where Struggle, Faith, and Grace Collide Jamie Blaine (Nelson) $15.99  Oh my, what a fun, interesting book that I simply could not put down.  Few books this year struck me so, as I enjoyed the antics of this late night intake counselor at a psychiatric clinic, an intervention specialist, and drug and alcohol social worker.  From getting beat up by crazed clients to hanging out with the sad and suicidal to telling of his beautiful relationships with the down and out, the lost and lonely, Jamie Blaine is a saint, a strange one, perhaps, a blue-collar, pin-ball playing man of the streets with a generous streak a mile wide and a knack for immediately bonding with the strange ones, those with ripped and worn heavy metal tee shirts, with abused strippers, with con men and stilted lovers and autistic kids.  And did I mention that some of the most glorious, glorious writing in the book is describing the glories of his side hustle, working as a DJ at the local roller rink?  I'm not kidding; this book is about reaching out with few answers but an abiding conviction that God Is There and, in the person of Jesus, invites us to trust in goodness.

Man, I hope this dude is working on a sequel - I'd read whatever he wrote, now, but am already itching for more stories of his colorful, Pentecostal, rock-and-roll psychiatric, roller-skating, pin-ball-playing life.  If we gave him an award, he'd just give it away to somebody at the Quickie Mart or use it to help somebody at the psych ward.  Here's to that.


how dante can save.jpgHow Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History's Greatest Poem Rod Dreher (Regan Arts) $29.95  I have written about this at length, and shared my appreciation for this often in these last months.  Before I actually read it, I admired how handsomely it was designed, and shelved it under literary criticism; it is, after all, a study of  Divine Comedy.


Well, one of the great experiences this fall was meeting Dreher (at a Christian Legal Society conference where we were selling his book.) And I soon realized this marvelous book is actually written as a memoir: it is the story of Rod reading Dante.  It actually is a sequel to The Little Way of Ruthie Leming his tear-jerking and altogether lovely memoir of leaving the fast-paced, high-powered life of a culture reporter, political pundit, and film critic to move to rural Louisiana to be with his extended family after the death of his beloved sister. Alas, he gets settled in to this family-oriented, slower paced Southern town only to realize not all is well in the family system. He gets depressed, develops an auto-immune illness from the stress, gets into counseling, helps plant an Orthodox church, and -- low and behold -- finds the thing that helps him out of his serious funk and the serious dysfunctions of his not so warm and friendly way of life is reading The Divine Comedy.  This is a southern, nearly Gothic tale, a study of Dante, and the thinking person's self help book.  I loved it.


Eric Metaxas gets it right when he says,


Sometimes a book comes along that you want to press into the hands of everyone you know. A brilliant, searingly honest account of one man's path to real healing, and an invitation to the rest of us to join him.


Ronald Herzman, the SUNY professor who teaches the audio Great Courses lectures on The DIvine Comedy says "Dreher has assimilated what is most urgent in Dante and makes The Divine Comedy passionately real.  And I say Dreher deserves a Hearts & Minds Book of the Year award. It won't help him as much as reading Dante, I suppose, but nonetheless: how do you say congratulations in Latin? 


Ordinary Light- A Memoir.jpgOrdinary Light: A Memoir Tracy K. Smith (Alfred Knopf) $25.95 I love memoirs and have not long ago written a brief explanation of why it is helpful to see how other narrate their lives.  When a book is both beautifully written and tells the tales of a fascinating life, such a story grabs me and entertains me, and I come away enriched.  Tracy Smith won the Pulitzer Prize a few years back for her Life on Mars and has proven herself a remarkable, stellar author, a delightful writer with flowing prose that is artful without being obscure. She has remarkable recall of her mature observations and great wit as she grew up in a large African American family in the 1980s and on.  Her mother was a devout Christian - together they read Little Visits With God every night and Smith embraced a fascinating fastidiousness about being a good child. As she came to meet extended family members, talked with her scientist father, and eventually learned the stories of her parents involvement in the earlier days of the civil rights movement she increasingly comes into her own. Reading Ordinary Light is nearly effortless, yet a literary delight. The opening scene, telling of the death of her mother, was gripping, perfectly realized.  What a great, great book.

Going Into the City- Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man Robert Christgau.jpgGoing Into the City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man Robert Christgau (Dey Street Books) $27.99  Okay, this may not be for everyone, but I think it is one of the most enjoyable and exciting books I've read all year.  I wrote a very long review of it, which I've not posted (email me if you want to see it.) This is the vulgar and at times brilliant memoir of one of the top two or three rock critics of the last 50 years, and an author who helped, literally, shape the craft of rock journalism. His album reviews and rock star interviews are legendary (and brilliant) and this book tells the fascinating (at times exasperating, at times hilarious, at times nearly breathtaking) back story of his work in the rising field of rock music from the 60s on.  More, besides the cool reports of this backstage scene, that party and that interview with this or that mega-star - yes, you know the biggest stars of our lifetime! - Christgau spends a lot of time telling about how small magazines got started, how bigger, mainstream journals began to accept album reviews, and what it was like to write both major pieces and smaller reviews for some of the most immediately recognizable media outlets of our time. In this sense, it is about the vocation of being a writer, a critic, a working magazine journalist. Mr. Christgau's professional passion (the art of journalism, the craft of writing, the making of a living with words, doing intellectual criticism) is a theme of the book (and of my longer review) as he takes up networking other rock writers, pursuing serious on-going conversations about the nature of this work, what it is trying to accomplish and how to do it well, doing workshops, even teaching, eventually, essentially inventing a new craft, a new vocation, creating the calling of rock critic. (There are, as I try to explain in my reflection on the book, parallels here for thoughtful Christian journalists who themselves have networked and confab-ed and sweat blood and tears to make a difference in their salons and zines and alternative publications.)

If there are a handful of significant and popularly respected film critics - think Roger Ebert, for instance - Bob Christgau is a similarly significant pioneer of pop music criticism. Given what rock music was and where he was situated, there are copious amounts of sex and drugs and Marxist revolution in the air.  What a glimpse Going into the City offers into the popular arts, the 60s counter-culture, the commercialization of rock, and the calling into a career in radical journalism; what a story about a young artist moving into the Big Apple.  Christgau is obviously a colorful, dense, intelligent writer, and his telling of this tale was stimulating and made me want to explore many of the significant pieces he described writing, publishing, promoting or despising. I became interested in his friends and lovers, even as much more famous stars were in the background of this memoir.  I loved this book and, although it isn't for everyone, I couldn't put it down.

The Year Without A Purchase- One Family's Quest to Stop Shopping and Start Connecting .jpgThe Year Without A Purchase: One Family's Quest to Stop Shopping and Start Connecting Scott Dannemiller (WJK) $16.00   I have written about this a few times, and I think, come to think of it, that I laughed out loud more reading this book last summer than any book I read all year.  And, it was inspiring, up-lifting, well, in a way.  It made me realize I'm not alone in this dumb struggle to figure out a sane lifestyle.  Anyway, I have to give this some honorable mention, and will do so by reprinting what I've said before.

This unassuming little volume is certainly one of my favorite books of the year -- it made me laugh right out loud, made me cry and made me wonder what in the world they'd do next.  And what in the world I might do next. It's fun and really funny, as Dannemiller offers an insiders look into this family's zany plan not to buy anything for a year (except food and essentials. And the stuff they might cheat on. Ha.) 

Margot Starbuck says it is "playful, thoughtful, substantial" and she is right.  This family really did try to connect with others, living well on less, and it is told with a wink and a sly grin, even as it is nicely inviting and even compelling. Of course you don't have to do what the Dannemiller's -- Scott, Gabby and two loud, smart kids -- did, but it will inspire you to wonder about how you do your kids birthday parties, how you give gifts at holidays, how you do family vacations, and how you do or don't fix or reuse stuff, what purchases you deem essential.  Most of us are troubled by our own materialism, it seems, and most of us are aware of how the majority world lives in poverty. (The Dannemiller's were Presbyterian missionaries for a year, doing social service in Central America, and lived in a poor, rural village.) This is a nice way to grapple more with being "rich Christians in an age of hunger" without being grumpy or anxious or overly political or guilt-induced. It's a funny book, did I say that?

I love these kinds of reports from the front lines of a year-long experiment, memoirs of a slice of life as a family tries to accomplish something good.  This one does just that, and I couldn't put it down -- I like reading about other families, about other dads, about other ordinary Christians trying to be more just, sustainable, joy-filled, and faithful.  It would make a great book with which to kick off the year, even if you have no intention of doing anything like what Scott Dannemiller and his wife and kids did. Enjoy!

joy in the journey hayner.jpgJoy in the Journey: Finding Abundance in the Shadow of Death Steve & Sharol Hayner (IVP) $16.00 There are a number of customers who have purchased this book from us this fall, and are suggesting it be named the book of the year.  It really has had that impact, and, although brief, it is a very powerful story, by an important figure.  Hayner worked with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and in those years I had the privilege of crossing paths with him a few times. Steve ended up -- as an evangelical in the mainline church -- teaching at, and eventually installed as the President of, Columbia Theological Seminary, an important institution within my own Presbyterian Church (USA); again, we had opportunity to chat a time or two. I admired him greatly and was saddened by his untimely death.  To honor this extraordinary book, I'd like to reprint what I wrote about it after I first read it.  It's a little longer, but it deserves no less.

Where to begin to explain the significance of this handsome, small hardback, and why it matters?  How does the memoir of a dying saint, one known for signing his emails "joyfully" help us all?  I admit I've met the late Steve Hayner a time or two and care deeply about some of the organizations he has served (including InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and, in the last years of his life, Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, where he served as President.) But whether you had the great privilege of knowing this extraordinary, joyful Christian leader or not, and whether you are particularly interested in a memoir of death and dying or not, let me tell you: this is a book about faith formation, about daily discipleship, about learning to live well as a Christ-follower in families, organizations, among friends scattered; it is about faith and hope and trust and goodness. and, yes, joy in the journey.

As a nationally known evangelical para-church leader who later served as an administrator at a Christian university, became an ordained pastor (serving for a while a mostly black church) who surprisingly became a professor at a mainline denominational seminary, where he eventually became President, the story of Hayner's life and ministry is itself a noteworthy one.  (I wish I knew more about his move to Columbia, where he became colleagues with the likes of Elizabeth Johnson, Marcia Riggs, or Walt Brueggemann.) As Mark Labberton writes in his must-read, exceptionally moving introduction, Hayner mentored many individuals over the years, staying in close touch, involved in life-giving friendships with many, even as he served in demanding positions on the Boards of Fuller Theological Seminary, World Vision, and the anti-trafficking organization, the International Justice Mission.  His wholistic view of faith - embracing growth in theology, spirituality, multi-ethnic ministry, social concerns and public justice work, was exemplary, and he helped other live into that vision.  "He wanted," in just one of the beautiful phrases in Labberton's piece, drawn from The Message paraphrase of Psalm 31:8, "others...to have the room to breathe fully human lives, made in the image of God."

To be clear, Joy in the Journey is made up mostly of personal reports and spiritual journaling from a public diary Steve and his wife Sharol kept on the CaringBridge website, chronicling their faith journey as Steve was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer over Easter weekend of 2014 until his death, in his mid-60s, on January 31, 2015.  There is included of a bit of contextual medical background, offered before most entries, and a handful of sidebars by other folks, letters they wrote to Steve or Sharol, or observations offers along the way.  The entries unfold like a fast-moving tragedy, but yet -- and this is why this is such a very good book to read -- Steve and Sharol both have an ability to ruminate on their lives in ways that reveal their spiritual disciplines and dispositions, framing their hardships by the very things they believed most deeply; they share their own reflections upon Bible verses or passage or Psalms that helped them, and they are honest about their prayers and hopes and struggles. 

These entries are excruciatingly intimate at times, and exceptionally admirable. They are not idealized or over-spiritualized, but they are grounded so well in a well-lived faith. I know -- and the diary entries reveal -- that they are ordinary people, in many ways like any of us. (Steve himself wrote how grumpy and petty he was with his grandchildren during what he knew would be their last Christmas together, a mundane admission that nearly brought me to tears with the disappointing ordinariness of it.)  Still, I have never read anything so wonderful about approaching death with joy and trust.  As Steve signs off near the very end, noting that he is under hospice care, then, he still looks forward to living into joy.  

After Steve's death there was, of course, a large outpouring of support, and the memorial service was a tribute to the resurrection power only Christ can bring. The entries in this epilogue are from his family, mostly, and remind us all of the beauty of a life well lived, of the quiet habits of a man committed to God's reign, who served the church and the world, and who had mature and lovely relationships with family and friends.  Joy in the Journey: Finding Abundance in the Shadow of Death is a tear-jerker, to be sure, but I cannot commend it to you enough.

As good as these diary-type entries are, listening in to the real-time reflections of a couple struggling with tragic illness, the evils of cancer, the quandaries of medical care, their professional obligations and their extended family, their marriage, their prayer lives, and eventually Steve's death, I want to also note that the two introductions that open the volume are themselves worth the price of the book. 

Mark Labberton was influenced profoundly by Hayner as an undergrad as Steve was his campus minister.  Their lives unfolded similarly, and Steve continue to be a mentor and friend to Labberton (even as Mark, arguably, became more famous as an author and the President of Fuller, one of the worlds largest and most diverse seminaries.) They remained life-long friends, so much so that Mark could report about Steve's deepest desires - and how he understood that joy was deeply connected to "that wide place of God's grace."  Labberton honors Steve well in this reflection and it is nothing short of stunning. Oh, how I wish for all of us to have friends, friends like Labberton was to Steve, able to tell about his strengths, his gifts, his faithfulness.  From Mark's tribute you can see how well he knew Steve and Sharol, and his testimony is inspiring. But - ahh, here it is - Labberton could only report all this stuff about Steve because Steve was that kind of friend to him.  To realize the power and blessing of life-long friendship seen in that preface is a gentle but clear reminder to us all: who do have in this life that shares our faith journey and knows us so well?

Another person that was one of Steve's best friends was the African American leader Alex Gee.  It was Gee who invited Steve to become his associate pastor, in part, because he wanted Steve to understand the emotional toll of being a minority leader, not only so he could more experientially understand cross cultural ministry, but so that Steve could more deeply understand what his friend Alex - a black man who often spoke and ministered in largely white settings - goes through in such complicated situations. Steve said yes to this surprising arrangement, which illustrates much about Steve's adventuresome faithfulness, but also how loyal he was to his friends and co-workers in gospel ministry. This and a few other anecdotes from Gee really are helpful in helping us care about Hayner and his wife, before we even start the first page of their diaries.

Again, this short foreword by Gee, about Steve, is exceptionally inspiring, and I think it makes this book an even greater resource for your own spiritual formation.  Don't you want to be the kind of person about which these things could be said of you? Don't we often make fresh commitments to new sorts of spiritual practices or goals or hopes for ourselves as we look at others whom we admire? ("Follow my example as I follow Christ," the apostle Paul said more than once!) So, in this book, Hayner's own diary tells the story, but these two introductory pieces serving as brief tributes, the testimonials offered by Labberton and Gee, will inspire you to want serve well, living with authenticity and joy. 

As Gee writes, wisely - putting into words exactly why I am listing this as one of the best books to read this for faith formation,

After walking with Steve in his final months, I am considering where his life challenges mine. Where is God calling me to invest my time and energy? I'm asking what and who I need in life in order to face death with hope, joy, and confidence.  What changes do I need to make today in order to finish well? As you journey with Steve and Sharol in the following pages, how will you answer these questions?

FOR CHURCH LEADERS

The Pastor as Public Theologian- Reclaiming A Lost Vision.jpgThe Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision Kevin Vanhoozer & Owen Strachan (Baker Academic) $19.99  Again, this is one I have written about before and, I trust, is one that you will agree is a "no brainer" as one of the most important books of the year.  This wise and passionate call for churches to see their pastors as resident theologians, and for clergy to see as part of their own calling the on-going task of being a theologian with and for the congregation, is one we who care about reading and books would naturally sound out: what pastor worth his or her salt isn't reading seriously, citing authors, teaching about what they are learning, helping congregants deepen their discipleship by engaging in the task of doing theology?

Of course there are huge questions here, some of which Vanhoozer and Strachan take up, some which they don't - why is it that the clergyperson who is mostly called to this task? What even is theology, and how does the discipline, typically understood, fuel and equip ordinary congregants to think faithfully not just about academic theological topics, but about their application in their worlds of career and home-life, of civic engagement and their entertainment life?  Yes, yes, we need to be theologically aware and theologically astute; and, yes, there are intellectual resources for congregants that they bring to the table, their own lived experience of life in the neighborhood or marketplace, that can loop back and inform the pastor's own study and teaching. I think this is a remarkably important and very interesting book, but I also think (as I suggested in my first BookNotes review) that there are other sorts of Christian intellectual pursuits beyond theology proper that need to happen within the church, faith-based scholarship of the scientist, the lawyer, the businesswoman, the film critic, the psycho-therapist. Yes,  the pastor must do theology, but how does this serve the Biblically-informed thinking of people beyond the field of theology proper? This book can help unlock lots of great conversations and we are thrilled to honor it here.

the pastor as theologian - resurrecting an ancient vision.jpgInterestingly, another great book was released on this exact same topic this year, one that, unfortunately, didn't get as much attention, so we'll list it, here, too, also with great gusto: The Pastor as Theologian: Resurrecting An Ancient Vision by Gerald Hiestand & Todd Wilson (Zondervan; $18.99.) It, too, is very, very good, and certainly deserving to be commended as one of the great books this year. Peter Leithart (of the Theopolis Institute) commends it, saying it will help us recover a sense of pastors being the intellectual shepherd of the church. He writes, "The renewal of what Hiestand & Wilson call ecclesial theology will provide a needed transfusion into theologically anemic pastoral ministry and pastorally anemic theology." Both of these books deserve our accolades and, more importantly, deserve to be bought, read, discussed, and taken seriously.  Kudos.


The Vulnerable Pastor- How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry Many Smith.jpgThe Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry Mandy Smith (IVP) $16.00  I believe this beautifully written book -- even though it seems to be mostly for pastors -- would be an excellent read for anyone involved in church leadership or engaged in congregational ministry and certainly for those doing para-church ministry.  Mandy is a vibrant young-ish woman serving as the lead pastor in an interesting urban church near the university section of Cincinnati, and has grown weary of the expectations, metrics and high-pressured methods that often accompany church work. Through hardships, tears, and much profoundly spiritual reflection she has learned to articulate how weakness and vulnerability can (as the apostle Paul himself insists) lead us to rely on God, be empowered in fresh ways by the Holy Spirit, and find greater union with the very human, suffering Christ.  Pastors and leaders are, after all, human.


Although she is not the first to discover this, or even the first to say it (think of Eugene Peterson or Marva Dawn or even Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his lovely Life Together) her book seems truly original, and is written with great transparency and remarkable grace.  It is similar, really to another book that came out this year - one I myself am itching to read (but a guy has his limitations) called The Imperfect Pastor: Discovering Joy in Our Limitations through a Daily Apprenticeship with Jesus by Zack Eswine (Crossway; $16.99) which in some ways is a follow-up to his extraordinary 2012 release called Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry as a Human Being (Crossway; $19.99.) Zack Eswine is more conservatively Reformed than Smith, I gather -- he quotes Spurgeon's depression, she cites Brenning Manning and Ed Friedman -- but they are exploring similar human and institutional geography.


Perhaps you have followed the popular books (or TED talks) of Brene Brown on vulnerability, or maybe you just know that high-energy, large-scaled, programmatic glitz isn't adequate for authentic, congregational life.  Smith is tapping into an important trend, seen in books we've promoted like Slow Church or Shrink which reject pushy growth strategies and cookie-cutter formulas in order to embrace authenticity, relationships, uniqueness, and deeper faith formation.  Can broken, messy, limited (and who of us aren't trying to live as if we have few limitations) people find new ways to embrace their weaknesses so that they might bless their faith communities, modeling true Christian leadership? Ms. Smith shows how, with chapters on how vulnerable pastors handle emotions, use their time and energy, lead differently, teach differently, pray and read the Bible differently. It is stuff every clergyperson or elder or volunteer leader needs, offering much to ponder.


In many ways, The Vulnerable Pastor is a book about "being true to ourselves" by showing forth candid vulnerability among our people. Such a posture allows for honesty, community -- even if inviting what some might find threatening. One great chapter is called "Learning to Like the Mess." Carolyn Custis James notes that "Mandy Smith has packed a lot of freedom into her book -- freedom from unrealistic expectations of others and those (leaders) impose on themselves." The Vulnerable Pastor is an invitation to gospel-drenched freedom, an upside-down reversal of much that we think we know about being a ministry leader. We think it is truly one of the great books out this year.


Servants and Fools- A Biblical Theology of Leadership.jpgServants and Fools: A Biblical Theology of Leadership Arthur Boers (Abingdon Press) $19.99  Wow, I was excited to read this as soon as I heard about it - Boers, a Canadian Anglican who spent most of his life as a Mennonite, is a favorite author, and I've read most of his many books, on discipleship, spirituality, conflict resolution, The Lord's Prayer, and that great book where he draws on Albert Borgman's philosophy of focal practices, called Living Into Focus: Choosing What Matters in an Age of Distraction.  I knew this would be hard-hitting, a prophetic critique of how we've too often presumed and bought into the reigning assumptions about leadership, strength, power, organization and the rest. Less personal and tender and funny as Many Smith, they would both certain appreciate each other. Thanks be to God that there are courageous authors who are thoughtful and intentional about being Biblically-shaped leaders, and helping us all see what that might entail.


Arthur Boers does what is promised in Peterson's passionate forward. He draws on a close reading of the Bible and the best of serious thinkers past and present.  Who cites authors as interesting (and dangerous!) as Bible-based activists like Dan Berrigan and William Stringfellow, blending them with the likes of Clarence Jordon and Chad Meyers, Walter Brueggeman and Martin Buber, and drawing on other scholars of leadership theory, from Ronald Heifetz to Wes Granberg-Michaelson to Parker Palmer? The footnotes in this are gloriously rich and fascinating, and the Scripture scholars he mentions are particularly interesting.  But there are very few modern leadership types cited here. Rather, Fr. Boers does in-depth - dare I say, radical - Bible study, and develops a counter-cultural understanding and set of practices for servant leadership.  Foolish, I know. This is one of the best books of the year. As David Gill (himself an Ellul scholar) of Gordon Conwell Seminary's Center for Workplace, Theology and Business Ethics says, "Servants and Fools is a brilliant and essential contribution to any serious study of leadership: robust, faithful, insightful biblical teaching. I cannot imagine ever teaching another class on leadership without assigning and discussing this book."  Or, listen to Marva Dawn, who writes, "Arthur Boers punctures all pretensions, unveils delightful discoveries, and exhibits perceptive insights. Servants and Fools is the most potent book on Christian leadership."  I dare you to read it - but hold on tight. It will rock your world.


Radical Sending- Go To Love and Serve the Lord.jpgRadical Sending: Go To Love and Serve the Lord Demi Prentiss & Fletcher Love (Morehouse) $18.00 We have hundreds of books about congregational health, about church revitalization, about both the theology of church and the spirituality of local faith communities.  Many are excellent, and we enjoy letting church leaders in on the benefits of reading widely in this genre of books about church life.  Many, however, seem overlapping, and, although still useful, it is rare to find one that is really offering new insights, new stories, fresh and vital guidance.  Radical Sending is such a book, and I'd say there is hardly a book on the market like it.

The short version (and a longer review would be needed to do it justice, of course) is that this book, written by two mainline Episcopalians, wants to help create congregational cultures that equips congregants to serve God in their ordinary lives, especially in their own work and within their professional careers. Prentiss and Lowe delightfully tell stories of congregations attempting to bridge the "Sunday-Monday" gap, and they draw on diverse insights from Lutherans and Mennonites, from The High Calling blog to the older faith-work movement developed at the Laity Lodge, citing important voices such as Bethlehem Steel executive William Diehl, who was active in these conversations in the 70s and 80s. (Indeed, Bill Diehl spoke at the CCO's Jubilee conference in the late 70s.)

They seem a bit unaware of how this very topic -- congregations orienting themselves around equipping the congregants for workaday mission in the marketplace -- is quite in vogue now, especially among younger evangelical church plants and the rising movement around culture making, the popular For the Life of the World DVDs and the like. There are conferences, blogs, books, and networks galore about which these authors seem unfamiliar. (Just think of the telling of the tale by Tom Nelson in his wonderful Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work published 5 years ago by Crossway, or the stunningly robust DVD curriculum published by Regent College in Vancouver called ReFrame, or the Patheos Faith and Work channel curated by the director of the college think-tank named Opus: The Art of Work, not to mention the Redeemer Center for Faith and Work in downtown Manhattan where yours truly has held forth on occasion.) Nonetheless, these good authors do know that something is happening within mainline circles in this, too, and they have given us a very useful book about how ordinary congregations can tap into it.

There is a bit of a backstory to the writing of this that is interesting as well. Episcopalians have been doing workshops on serious hospitality -- inspired by a book by Stephan Spellers called Radical Welcome -- which is all about reaching out, being inclusive, forming a supportive church home for all seekers. It dawned on these authors that as good as this is (Prentiss tells of having Spellers at his own parish), the Book of Common Prayer (and many other liturgical traditions) ends the worship liturgy with the words "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord."  That is, they were struck by the missional vision of being sent, of scattering after gathering.  They thought, in a way, their own book about faith lived out in service to the common good in the public areas of modern life, could be a good bookend to Radical Welcome; hence the title Radical Sending.  Once transformed by Christ in the community of welcome and spiritual transformation offered by the local congregation, then what? Go to love and serve the Lord, indeed!

Radical Sending is simply written, with lots of the citations and stories one finds in mainline denominational books; in is upbeat but mostly no-nonsense and straight away. John Lewis (Director of St. Benedicts' Workshop in San Antonio) says it is "a provocative challenge to Christians to re-imagine and re-invigorate the church's vocation to shape and equip faithful disciples to join God's mission in their daily lives in the wider world."

Brian McLaren says,

Pastors, priests, and parishioners: if there's one book you read this year to strengthen your church, please let this be the book. Radical Sending will remind you why church matters so much in the first place, and it will inspire you to seize the potential that almost everybody is missing. Highly recommended.

SOCIAL CRITICISM AND CULTURAL ENGAGEMENT


foolsTalk.jpgFools Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion (IVP) $22.00 In mid-June, when this book released, I did a very lengthy rumination on it, explaining who Dr. Guinness is, highlighting a few of his many books, and noting why I thought he was the perfect author for this necessary topic. I was thrilled with Fools Talk and was stimulated, provoked, challenged and encouraged by working through it. It was intellectually stimulating because (for among many reasons) Guinness is weaving together the potent insights of three great thinkers who have influenced him: C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and Peter Berger. I knew without a doubt that I would name it as one of the very best books of the year.


Although my BookNotes review was long and flowing, I thought I'd just share a few paragraphs from it, here.


...in the first few chapters, Guinness is again in his critical mode, exposing the significant failures of apologetics in our day.  Even in the introduction he offers an incisive exploration of the impact of digital technologies - many of us, almost subliminally, are about self marketing in this age of tweets and selfies - and the doubled-edges of the sword that this is: people are increasingly open and in communication but yet are therefore increasingly wary, weary, even.  Who can deny the growing suspicions and cynicism many carry in part due to relentless 24/7 advertising and ubiquitous propaganda?  And who can deny that there is much cultural anger against the public face of Christianity, much self-inflicted by the harsher corners of the Christian community? We all know that there are those who specialize in argument and so-called apologetics but whose loud polemics are simply an embarrassment in contrast to the beauty and grace and richness of the gospel itself.


...to underscore the point of this book which is a guide to learning how to persuade, not just scold or proclaim or badger or win arguments about religion, Guinness in this chapter explores some of the parables of Jesus and how they were so remarkably able to unsettle and expose and invite the hearers to repentance and a realization of grace. He worries that in all our efforts to win debates (at least those of us who enter into religious conversations, having perhaps read books on how to argue well) we sometimes make a winning argument, taking the battle, so to speak, but losing the war, as it were. The goal of our conversations, he repeats, is not to win debates or look good in our sophisticated arguments, but to touch lives, inviting people to faith through grace. We want people to care about truth so they might come to trust the God who loves them so.  He writes,

The false art of always being right is a deadly trap for Christian advocates. Conversely, it is a high privilege to use the art of persuasion to bring people to where they know in their heart of hearts that they are wrong, that God's offer of grace is free. Little wonder that such a privilege and such an art can only be pursued with humility and with an overwhelming sense of God's grace to us, too. Again, the art of truth leads back to the incarnation, the cross and the Holy Spirit, and the life of faith continues as it began.

This reminder is the theme of the beautiful Epilogue, called "The Way of the Open Hand."  He explains that this symbol points us to

the positive side of apologetics that uses the highest strengths of human creativity in defense of truth. Expressing the love and compassion of Jesus, and using eloquence, creativity, imagination, humor and irony, open-hand apologetics has the task of helping pry open hearts and minds that, for a thousand reasons, have long grown resistant to God's great grace...

You will notice, in this good quote from the last page, that Os mentions the imagination, humor and irony.  These are actually explored in great detail - rather humorlessly, I might note - as Guinness teaches us from Peter Berger, who wrote (in the 1960s) profound work on what we might call the sociology and spirituality of humor.  The chapter called "spring loaded dynamics" is perhaps the most challenging in the book and yet may be the most important.  Here, Guinness's debt to Berger and Schaeffer and Lewis are evident, and it is nothing short of brilliant.  Yet, dense and brilliant as it is, it must be read in light of a previous chapter - one that has Berger's fingerprints all over it - called "Triggering the Signals."  

You may have heard the phrase (coined by Berger, I gather) "signals of transcendence." Lewis himself explained how this reality was key in his own conversion ("surprised by joy") and Os develops it clearly. 

Shifting from Lewis to Peter Berger, he writes, 

Berger's rich discussion of other signals of transcendence are a goldmine for the Christian advocate. It covers such typical human experiences as hope, play, humor, order, and judgment. His discussion is fresh and invigorating, but we should see it as a brilliant rediscovery rather than as radically new, for this was a powerful theme in the early church.  In the third century, for example, Gregory of Nyssa built on the Greek notion of desire and developed it in a biblical direction.

Guinness is fantastic here, swiftly reminding us of Gregory's profound teaching, shifting to Augustine, noting that "the same understanding of desire blazes in St Augustine, fanned by his own experience of passionately searching for God" and then on to, for instance, the telling of the story of Le Chambon (the famous town in France that hid Jews from Nazism's reach) and how author Philip Hallie (Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed) was drawn to "how goodness happened there." 

Who Rules the Earth- How Social .jpgWho Rules the Earth: How Social Rules Shape Our Planet & Our Lives Paul Steinberg (Oxford University Press) $25.99  As I hope you know, we stock a large number of books about the interface of faith and environmental studies, what we've come to call creation-care.  Evangelicals, especially, have written excellent books about eco-theology, about our call to steward well the goodness of the creation, and how lively faith can propel us not just to more simple, sustainable lifestyles, but to bigger matters of how we live with the "groaning creation" (Romans 8.) We carry books that are not overtly Christian, too, studies of the debates about climate change, handbooks for green living, and more.  This remarkable book, though, isn't exactly about the science or policy of global warming, but it does offer exceedingly important insights for anyone interested in the big questions about what has to happen for a more sustainable global economy in our 21st century. It is about the "hidden architecture of rules" and how the best social science research can show us how institutions can and should change if we want health for the common good.

Steinberg, a Professor of Sustainability and Society and also of Political Science, directs the Social Rules Project, and he writes in a pleasant and interesting way (a happy surprise for an academic book) and walks us through example after example of how things tend to work; that is, how assumptions about how things work are encoded in cultures, and how "rules" that preceded laws shape and inform how we imagine what is plausible.  Trying to change policy? Trying to impact the culture?  Between the grand religious conversations and visionary efforts to shift social imaginaries (on one hand) and concrete legislative debates about specific policy (on the other) are these "social rules" which are informed by what I might call worldviews.  Who rules the Earth? Not the philosophers or the politicians, not the artists or the businessmen - standard answers, always - but those sociological/religious-like stories that have given rise to customs, habits, patterns of power, and social realities, social architecture.  Who Rules the Earth is enlightening, helpful, and an important step towards actually making headway on more stewardly reforms for the sake of caring well for the world God loves. It is important, and, thankfully, very well written.

Prophetic Lament- Call for Justice in Troubled Times.jpgProphetic Lament: A Call for Justice in a Troubled World Soong-Chah Rah (IVP) $17.00  I wrote about this passionate, important book before and in revisiting it again I am struck again by how vital it is, and how interesting, and how, finally, empowering.  (And do I have to say, so needed in these hard days?)

There have been several books in the last decade discovering and exploring lament, and it isn't uncommon to hear, now, that to offer up lament to God is a firm part of the Jewish-Christian liturgical practice. We are authorized by the Bible to complain to God, to cry out, to give voice to our pains, doubts, and frustrations with the ways of the world. One of the under-developed Biblical resources for helping us understand and practice this under-developed Christian virtue is the book of Lamentations. (And for understandable reasons; it is not easy or inspiring.)

Rah unpacks the book of Lamentations in a way that is not quite a commentary, but plumbs its narrative depth and overt teaching to help us learn to lament injustice and sorrow in our own day.  More than an exploration of theodicy and more than a screed about social injustice, Prophetic Lament is a Biblically-grounded study and a spiritually-wise guide to how to express and deal with the sad stuff of our lives and of our broken culture and dysfunctional society.  Thanks be to God for this brave and useful book.  May its hard truths be widely read and discussed, increasingly finding their way into our common vocabulary and our regular worship and spiritual practices.


bigger.jpgBigger on the Inside: Christianity and Doctor Who edited by Ned Bustard & Greg Thornbury (Square Halo Books) $17.99  Well, why not? I think that nearly any time Square Halo Books releases a new volume it is up for consideration for a Best Book of the Year award; they do a fantastic job designing and creating books that are unique, interesting, and offering mature theological insight about the world of the arts.  I wrote a bit about this (even though I'm not much of a Whovian) and have come to realize more and more that this book is loved within a niche market, and is esteemed: the essays are very good. (And Dr. Greg Alan Thornbury? My, my, one of the more important young theologians writing these days, in between his work as President of Kings College in New York City.)  There are geeky sci-fi fans everywhere, but these smart essays are exceptionally well suited to feisty young adults, those who like the famous show, or just those who want to see solid theological reflections growing out of an iconic piece of popular culture. CCO's own Ivan Strong Moore has a blurb on the inside of this great paperback.  When we are out selling this at events, people do little happy dances when they see it, exclaiming all manner of stuff, some of which I don't even understand. One person once said she wished I had a "My Other Vehicle is a Tardus" bumper sticker to go with the book.  So, yeah, there's that. It deserves to be on this year's end list of highlights.

culture care cover.jpgCulture Care Makoto Fujimura (Fujimura Institute) $25.00  I trust you know our friend Mako Fujimura, one of the leading abstract painters working in the serious American art world. A Japanese-American (who graduated from Bucknell University here in central Pennsylvania) he has kept alive and developed a painstakingly caring, Japanese form of painting (using expensive, glimmering crushed minerals.)  He has become an tireless public intellectual, writing, lecturing, hosting exhibits, forming organizations such as the renowned International Arts Movement. (And his recent appointment as Director of the excellent Brehm Center at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.)  As a thoughtful evangelical Christian, Mako has articulated well a deeply Biblical vision of the arts, and a faith-based perspective on art criticism and the practices of the faithful aesthetic life.  We carry most of his many books, and was honored to be one of the very first bookstore to stock this handsome, handcrafted paperback (with a very creative onion-skin paper dust jacket)  produced recently by Fujimura's own organization in New Jersey.

Any time Mr. Fujimura publishes, his books are worth having. His written words are always, always thoughtful, exceptional, even, drawing deep connections and developing intellectual themes as only a quiet and learned thinker can do; his lovely early work of reflections (many done during and right after the horror of 9-11 exploring the role of the arts in such a time) called Refractions is still a personal favorite!  This new book, Culture Care, continues to showcase his calling to stimulate conversation -- poetic, beautiful, wise, collaborative conversations, about how to sustain and bring renewal to a culture in crisis. How to care for the social architecture, so to speak, that can sustain artists and culture-makers, so that they can, in term, enhance the sustainability and health of society.  A key word he uses in the book is generative, and he invites here us to be responsible, productive in fruitful ways that bring flourishing and healing -- what his friend Calvin Seerveld calls "rainbows for the fallen world."

Here is what Mako has explained about this small, poignant manifesto, generative itself as it is:

"This is a book for artists, but artists come in many forms. Anyone with a calling to create--from visual artists, musicians, writers, and actors, to entrepreneurs, pastors, and business professionals--will resonate with its message. This book is for anyone who feels the cultural divide, especially those with a desire or an artistic gift to reach across boundaries with understanding, reconciliation, and healing. It is a book for anyone with a passion for the arts, for supporters of the arts, and for "creative catalysts" who understand how much the culture we all share affects human thriving today and shapes the generations to come."

We are glad to be a small partner in distributing his work, happy to not only celebrate his generative efforts, in paint and in words, but to honor them the best we can. We invite you to buy his book, to read and discuss and embody it's mature, hopeful vision.  Yes!

Day Alt Music Died.jpgThe Day Alternative Music Died: Dylan, Zeppelin, Punk, Glam, Alt, Majors, Indies, and the Struggle Between Art and Money for the Soul of Rock Adam Caress (New Troy Books) $16.99 Speaking of rock criticism, and the history of writing about the popular arts in intelligent ways, this book was truly one of the most thrilling I've read all year, and one I so enjoyed writing about at great length. You should read my reflections on it, but you should at least know this much: the subtitle says much: it is about the swing back and forth between art and commerce.  Indie music, decade by decade, has meant different things to different rock music lovers, but has typically been created by the co-opting of aesthetic concerns, big labels mimicking edgy, fresh artists, and allowing commercialization to rule.  Alas, another sort of indie scene develops, until it, in time, is tamed and popularized and finally cop-opted by business concerns of record labels and sales and "the industry" (from Rolling Stone to the Grammy's to MTV.) Nobody escapes the astute observations and critical evaluations of Caress, a fine Christian scholar and passionate (and incredibly knowledgably) rock music fan. A stellar blurb on the back by the exquisite writer and media critic Sven Birkerts further illustrates that this is an important book, one that should be read and understood by anyone interested in the popular arts and the world of contemporary music.


75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know- The Fascinating Stories Behind Great Works of Art.jpg75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories Behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music and Film Terry Glaspey (Baker Books) $29.99 What a great, lovely, interesting, and inspiring book this is -- it is almost like a coffee table book, but the content is so inspiring and educational and important, it deserves to be taken more seriously than an attractive gift book for art lovers, although it is that. We surely must honor it with a very honorable mention.

Here's what I said in my review last fall:

If you have any curiosity at all about art, literature, film, or music and the true stories behind the great masterpieces of the world, this informative and beautiful book will provide hours and hours of wonderful reading. It is going to be a fabulous gift for gift-giving this holiday season, but you should buy it now so you can read it before gifting it this December. I'm not exaggerating - it is a marvelous idea, and wonderfully written. It is not tedious or overly complex, but it offers enough serious background and interpretation of the art and the artist to appeal to a very wide variety of reader. Hooray!

Some of the greatest artists of all time have taken their inspiration from their Christian faith and exploring how so many great masterworks emerged from artists of deep faith and Christian conviction is the starting point for these delightfully informative explorations.

Mr. Glaspey has written several books on faith formation, reading the Bible, a short biography of C.S. Lewis (Not at Tame Lion) and a book on reading great classics, and he works in the publishing industry. In our own work we have crossed paths a time or two, and I've read his other books; I respect him a lot as I say in my own blurb that appears in the book:

Terry Glaspey seems to know a bit about everything and a lot about the things that matter most. I would read anything he wrote, but this unique volume surpassed my great expectations. If you enjoy pondering the connections between faith, art, culture, and daily discipleship, you will adore this. 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know is itself a masterpiece. Who else can tell you about a painting by Caravaggio, a novel by Jane Austen, and live album by Johnny Cash all in the same book? Thanks be to God for Glaspey's clear faith, informed knowledge, and winsome writing that can help us glean spiritual insight in cultural projects from Dante to Dylan, from Rembrandt to the Tree of Life.

I was hooked on this idea from the minute I heard of it, knowing it was a great idea, and that Glaspey could pull it off.  But I was really hooked when I realized he was including contemporary rock albums such as a trilogy by Larry Norman, Bruce Cockburn's Dancing in the Dragon Jaws, and The Joshua Tree by U2. And - yay! -- contemporary novels such as Frederick Buechner's Godric and the short stories of Flannery O'Connor. The most recent pieces described are from 2011. I hope you know the painter and the filmmaker described in those final pages!

 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know starts with early Christian art in the Roman catacombs and then tells us of the amazing story of The Book of Kells and moves on through the Middle Ages (including some stunning cathedrals that are beautifully described) and the obvious selections of that productive era as it lead towards the Renaissance (The Divine Comedy, Rublev's Holy Trinity icon, van Eyck, Durer, Bosch, Michelangelo's famous work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and so many more.)  Interestingly, he includes a little song from the early 1500's "A Mighty Fortress Is our God."


Several of these are pieces I didn't know at all, or well, and a few are not my favorites. (He gives some advice about this in a good introduction, by the way, and invites us to work a bit at this since the artists themselves, of course, worked very hard. His good guidance and curation are helpful for those of us not well schooled in art history.) Even if you don't know them well, these pictures and descriptions are mostly all very moving and, of course, are truly important works.

Glaspey's descriptions are very, very helpful and you will be glad to be inspired by it all.

The listing is arranged chronologically, so one gets to read about Donne, Herbert, the famous St Teresa in Ecstasy sculpture by Bernini next to Rembrandt's famous Return of the Prodigal Son. Or, much later, a review of Death Comes for the Archbishop (Willa Cather), a 1928 film about Joan of Arc by Theodore Dreyer, and Head of Christ by George Rouault in order. Fascinating.

There is found here exquisite but teacherly descriptions of stained glass, classical music, poetry, a few plays, films and jazz albums. To read 70's-era pieces such as a European symphony Henryk Gorecki, a folkie album by Canadian Bruce Cockburn, a novel by U.S. Southerner Walker Percy next to a Japanese painting of The Last Supper by Sadao Watanabe (1981) was remarkably moving for me.  75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know really is a very great book. Kudos.

BEST NOVEL OF 2015


all the light we cannot see.jpgAll the Light We Cannot See Anthony Doerr (Scribner) $27.00 

Well, I've read and enjoyed quite a number of great novels this year - some previously published and famous, some self-published and not well known.  In the former category I was engulfed in the fiction worlds and people of three by Wally Lamb, such as The Hour I First Believed. And I finally read Marilyn Robinson's unforgettable, complex first novel, Homemaking - whew. 

In the later category, I enjoyed  the philosophical adventure story Bridging the Abyss by my good friend Dick Cleary. (I reviewed it last fall at BookNotes.)  I was very deeply involved for days and days with the Civil War era story about race and families and romance and truth, A Soldier's Heart by a York area writer, Michele McKnight Baker. And I have to say I loved essayist and memoirist Michael Perry's comic first novel, released by HarperOne, The Jesus Cow.  Yes, you read that right.

All the Light We Cannot See by the esteemed Anthony Doerr is, doubtlessly, the book that most stuck with me this year, the most beautiful, striking, interesting, moving, and literate bit of fiction I've read in quite a while. Many have called it ambitious, and it certainly is that. All the Light We Cannot See certainly deserves the Pulitzer Prize that it won, and I trust you have read reviews of it, or have discussed it with friends, and the beauty and horror that inevitably overtakes the two young protagonists, in Germany and in France.  We are pleased to sell it, despite some graphic scenes (it is set during the time of Nazi Germany) and some harsh language. I suppose it maybe isn't for everyone, but it is a truly great book, enduring and luminous and very significant. It surely deserves all the wide acclaim it has gotten, and we want to ad our little voice to the choir. It surely is a Best Book of 2015.

I am sorry this went on a bit longer than I had expected. True fans like overtime games, I suppose, but after a while, well, one needs a break. Take your notes of what you want to order, and stretch those legs. Get some fresh air. Talk to your loved ones.  But get ready to come back soon.  Hearts & Minds Best Books of 2015 will be back, hopefully tomorrow, with our second and final installment.

Thanks for caring about good books, about our selections, and about supporting independent bookselling.  We are so very grateful.


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January 16, 2016

PART TWO: Hearts & Minds Bookstore's BEST BOOKS OF 2015

Sorry this was a bit delayed: I spent some time in the ER and eventually accompanied my elderly mom as she was admitted to the hospital yesterday.  Anguishing as that was for Beth and I, during the endless waiting I kept thinking about these books, some which have become friends, nearly, important and valuable.  When hard times hit us we are who we are, and I am glad that I've read the books I have that have helped shape me, a little anyway, to be a person who has at least some capacity to endure. Read now, friends, while you can!  It matters.

WELCOME BACK TO PART TWO

Welcome back to Part Two of our annual recap of beloved and exciting titles that most caught my attention, honoring my favorite books this year past.  I love seeing such lists, but I'm not very good at "Best of" lists, so don't ask about my all-time  favorite albums or movies. Books? I've got hundreds which I count as dear friends; each year there are many that I think deserve special accolades. So here we go, celebrating exceptional titles from 2015.  The big first part of my list was posted a day or so ago, so don't miss that.  

I suppose you have plenty of books on your stack, but I hope you will consider ordering a few of these from us; part of our work here is to get the titles known, talked about, evaluated.  We are, each of us, I trust, in some community of discourse, and we discern the good, the true, the beautiful, and more, in conversation with others.  How about inviting these authors and their books into your conversations? Send us an order (we offer a good discount, too, for our BookNotes fans) and keep the conversations going!

BEST BOOKS OF BIBLICAL STUDIES

becoming the gospel.jpgBecoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission Michael Gorman (Eerdmans) $28.00  I do not need to say much about this recent release in the "Gospel and our Culture" series, as I've written about it a time or two before. I am delighted to note that Mike is a friend and customer, a supporter of our messy little shop here in Dallastown, and that he is as kind and personal and interesting in talking with us as he is when he is engaging in heady conversations with pals of his like Tom Wright or Richard Hays. Mike's response to Fleming Rutledge's serious presentation about her (Hearts & Minds Book of the Year award winner) The Crucifixion of Christ in December (at Saint Mary's Ecumenical Institute where he teaches) drew pleasantly and insightfully on his own body of work, including a trilogy of academic works on Paul cap-stoned by this recent 2015 release. One doesn't have to read Professor Gorman's Cruciformity or Inhabiting the Cruciform God to appreciate Becoming the Gospel as it stands alone quite nicely. But there is a movement and trajectory to his work, and it moves us, to use the words he so diligently unpacks, to a formation that is participatory and missional. Whole life discipleship? Servant leadership? Kingdom living? Missional church? Walking the Jesus Way?  All of these contemporary buzz words and phrases bring together the death of Christ, executed for our sake by the powers and the victory of the in-breaking reign of God. This kind of Biblical scholarship can surely fund a certain sort of thick, relevant, costly discipleship. Such a way of living out our faith can most fully be embraced as we deepen our understanding of what Paul proclaimed and taught about Jesus the Christ. This book, carefully argued and detailed as it, is as scholarly books are, will help us, I am sure of it. One of the best books of Biblical scholarship this year!

genesis-history__fiction__or_neither_207_315_90.JPGGenesis: History, Fiction, or Neither? Three Views of the Bible's Earliest Chapters edited by Charles Halton, with James K. Hoffmeier, Gordon J. Wenham, and Kenton L. Sparks (Zondervan) $16.99  I love these point/counterpoint books, of which there are many,and some are amazingly complex (a brand new one in 2016 is about faith and politics, with five differing views!) This one only has three, and each of the three authors respond to the others, making this a bit more manageable and useful. In a nutshell, the three authors contend that (a) the earliest stories of Genesis are actually history, (b) some sort of proto-history, or (c) actually just storytelling of an ancient sort that was not what we today think of as actually history. The project was assigned quite succinctly: each author was asked to explain what sort of writing they think early Genesis represents, and why they hold to that understanding. Secondly, there were asked to ruminate on how that interpretive approach effects how they read the Scriptures and how that effects other portions of the Bible, if it does.  And thirdly, they were given three distinct texts and were asked to explain them, the story of the Nephilim (Genesis 6: 1-4), Noah and the Ark (Genesis 6:9 - 29) and the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 1-9.) This exercise allows each author to show forth how their particular view informs how they handle specific passages and stories. As you can see, this is not a rehash of debates about the poetic structure of Genesis 1 or whether or not the fall described in Genesis 3 is allegory, what with the talking snake and all.  This particular book and this debate is not so much about origins or evolution.

Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither? is a wonderful overview of three ways to approach many key portions of Scripture, and a study of ancient truth, ancient historiography, and modern application of Holy Scripture. This conversation has implications for our view of the unity of Scripture itself, some say.  The authors are all earnest evangelical Biblical scholars and while the conversations are heated, at times, it is a healthy and good discussion. We admire these kinds of educational panels and the interplay of different voices, and think they are edifying. Even though these authors are evangelicals, by the way, this would be great to use in more mainline circles.  Kudos to Stanley Gundry who is the general Counterpoint series editor, and kudos to the particular editor of this one, and to the authors for pulling off such a robust and important conversation.

Prostitutes and Polygamists- A Look at Love Old Testament Style.jpgProstitutes and Polygamists: A Look at Love Old Testament Style David T. Lamb (Zondervan) $16.99 From the moment I saw the hilarious cover, I knew I'd like this book by the popular author of God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist. To say he is light-hearted is an understatement - the book is loaded with puns and quips and great footnotes with sometimes snarky references to TV shows from Love American Style to Arrested Development.  He's no slouch (he has a book on Oxford University Press, and is working on a major commentary on 1 & 2 Kings) but in P&P he picks up the style of his previous one - upbeat, clever, conversational, practical. He tries to answer tough questions that ordinary folks tend of have with fairly conventional answers. He's no wooden literalist but he's not a deconstructing higher critic, either. Endorsements on the back come from reliable mainstream scholars such as John Goldingay, Christopher J.H. Wright, Tremper Longman (who says, "Once you start reading this book you won't be able to put it down.")  One scholar says he is "sensible and down-to-earth." Frank Viola says, "The only books I read these days are those which throw fresh light on Scripture or challenge traditional presuppositions. Top-rated Old Testament scholar Richard Lamb has done both."  Well, for those who read radical feminist critics or explore anti-imperialist readings, these ruminations by Lamb, actually, may not do enough of either, but for those who want respectable, interesting, plausible answers to fair questions for ordinary people, this is truly a great step in the right direction.

Here are two reasons I want to honor this book.  Firstly, it is a great example of the kind of accessible Biblical scholarship that is appealing, fun, funny, applicable, humble, and useful.  That Lamb makes the Bible come alive, and gives us fascinating information about background, context, cultural stuff that illuminates our understand of the text, is just the sort of Bible teaching needed these days.  Lamb would be the first to admit, I'd bet, that he isn't doing high-level scholarly discourse for the academic guild of Biblical studies. But if you are involved in a home Bible study or teaching junior high Sunday school, or leading family devotions, or chatting with your young adult friends over brews, you don't need arcane didactic word studies from a dogmatic fundamentalist and you don't need a hiply ironic, overly academic journal article from SBL. Lamb does real-world evangelism and on-campus apologetics, answering tough questions the best he can, and he gives us here tools to understand and explain weird sexual practices seemingly condoned in the Bible while showing why it matters to our own formation of sexual ethics today. Three cheers for lively, contemporary, smart but down-to-earth Bible teachers who help us not only understand certain Bible quandaries, but gives us a healthy, reasonable style of study, a balanced hermeneutic, if you will that increases our own capacity to trust the goodness of the Scriptures.

And, secondly, not only is he sharp and whimsical and able to laugh even at the weirdo stuff in the Bible, Lamb is obviously eager to help us know God's grace, to live well, to have the big Bible story be our own narrative; he wants to bless us with a sturdy confidence that God's redemptive work unfolding in the storyline of the Bible points us to Christ and His saving grace. In his own remarkable admission that he, like all of us, is a sinner, sexually and otherwise, we are set free from false pretenses, liberated to ask hard questions of ourselves and our culture (and even of the Biblical text) which allows fresh, reasonably satisfying answers to spring forth among us.  

Look: I don't know if Lamb is always right about every jot and tittle - there's a lot of jots and tittles in this complex, big book we call the Holy Bible - and I don't know if his fairly traditional evangelical application is spot on in every case.  But he's a good man, a good teacher, a lover of God's Word and a lover of people, and he wants to help us all grapple with the Scriptures, discover more deeply God's grace, and learn to be shaped by Biblical truth, despite the confusing and odd and colorful ways in which it comes to us.  And for that, we can all be grateful.

A SAVORY AWARD: BEST BOOK ABOUT LIVING ABUNDANTLY

Savor- Living Abundantly Where You Are, As You Are.jpgSavor: Living Abundantly Where You Are, As You Are Shauna Niequist (Zondervan) $16.99  I didn't want to name this under the category about daily devotionals or spiritual formation in Part One of our "Best of 2015" lists. Although Savor is a lovely collection of 365 short daily readings, with a Bible verse starting each reading, by an inspirationally Christian writer, it seemed somehow something other than that. This is a way to dip in to previous writings of Shauna Niequist and add in some new reflections and suggestions for gracious living. The format is like a daily devo, but the approach is broad. We are invited to trust God, to trust the goodness of the world God made: reality is hard, tragic, even, and Niequist knows this, but through it all we can rally to see the grace God offers, a shot at redemption in the mundane ordinary stuff of life. Savor really is a call to pay attention to daily life, to savor the details, to enjoy and feel (and lament) what is really around us. Wonder, joy, goodness, betrayal, sadness, failure. One of Niequist's book is called Bittersweet, after all, and there are excerpts of it here.

I love the feel and heft of this earthy volume, the solid pages, the textured, earth tone cover and the hints of blue on the pages. It is beautifully made, conversational but wise, and a very, very useful resource as you attempt to live in new ways, breaking into Kingdom thinking rather then being stuck in old views and old habits.  

"Sink deep into the everyday goodness of God and savor every moment!" she exclaims. In the hands of some other writers this would seem to easy, or too sublime, or too shallow. Niequist gets it just right, and although I am not quite as energetic in my zeal for abundant moments, I'm with her in her hope that we can read and pray and live and behold.  She even includes some recipes (some already in Bread and Wine and some new) to make this book come alive as a useful tool for your own lifestyle.  Love it.  Kudos!

BEST BOOK ABOUT URBAN CRIME,  POLICE WORK, CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION PROSECUTION

Ghettoside- A True Story of Murder in America.jpgGhettoside: A True Story of Murder in America Jill Leovy (Spiegel & Grau) $16.00  To explain: I have been brought to tears, weeping many times this year listening to a powerful song called "The New Jim Crow" on the latest Indigo Girls album One Lost Day.  The heady book of that name by Michelle Alexander to which the song alludes is a serious study of the racism undeniably evident in the crisis of what is now called mass incarceration. One of our selections for Best Books of last year - now out in paperback - was a passionate, story-filled, illuminating similar work called Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by African American legal activist Bryan Stevenson (who we first heard at the Jubilee conference in Pittsburgh years ago, introduced to us as he was by Tony Campolo, Bryan's college mentor.) With the much-discussed scholarship of Alexander's New Jim Crow and the best-selling passionate testimony about Bryan Stephenson's legal aid work told so well in Just Mercy - not to mention the horrors of police violence and dramatic debate about law enforcement tactics and judicial outcomes in places like Ferguson, MO - American is on high alert about the issues of urban crime, about police work, about race and class and economics and politics in the complex work for the common good in our urban centers.  Add in the popularity of so many Law and Order type crime shows, and the award winning power of The Wire, and you realize that this recent book by award winning journalist Jill Leovy was poised to be a best-seller. Released last January in hard-cover, now out in paperback, it was doubtlessly one of the best books I read all year - I sat on the couch and would hardly budge, reading, reading, reading, exclaiming on every page how very interesting and eye-opening it was.  I'm not much of a true crime buff, but this was simply spectacular, how it was written, the pacing and story arc, and the actual story and topic. I wrote about it (here) and cannot say enough about it.

I do not know if the urban policing has changed much since the horrible years documented in this book (think Straight Outta Compton or Boyz in the Hood-era south LA.) We know that Ta-Nehisi Coates National Book Award winning Between the World and Me (speaking of breathtakingly spectacular writing) has brought great eloquence and passion to the experience of black life in these United States, even as his earlier memoir set in Baltimore, The Beautiful Struggle, so colorfully captured the dangers of life in the inner city.  I suppose I don't need to ramble on about how pertinent all this is; you know.

Ghettoside is about what some call "black on black" shootings, and how local police in LA do or don't investigate or prosecute these admittedly tragic and violent and culturally complicated crimes. Race and class and cultural differences make police investigations exceptionally difficult, and the gangs and thugs and urban social networks seem aligned to inhibit justice being served.  The complexities and injustices and violence and weirdness of all this makes for important (even riveting) reading, and I think anyone who thinks about, speaks, or writes about, contemporary policing should be aware of these hard circumstances and vexing scenarios. What an informative, gritty read this was, and how entertaining, even.  Like the ubiquitous cop and lawyer shows or legal thriller novels, Ghettoside puts you on the edge of your seat, grabs you tight and doesn't let go till you turn the last page.

Here's another reason I want to name and honor this book: it shows a fascinating, inspiring example of a person living out their calling with zeal and courage and dogged determination to make a difference. The hero of the story is a driven, honest cop, named Detective John Skaggs, and his diligence and insight - discovering and embodying best practices in his craft - is fabulous to behold and a good case study of the heady philosophical/theological stuff that those of us in the faith-work conversations often talk about.  It also seems to illustrate the body knowledge sense of deep knowing that Jamie Smith or Matthew Crawford writes about, a lived awareness of one's surroundings and the habits needed to thrive in one's vocation.  Many of the officers and detectives doing the investigation (year after long year) of the murder documented in Ghettoside are good guys, a few are exemplary, and the main hero - a white cop! -- is nothing short of that, an American hero. 

Do Black Lives Matter, with or without a hashtag?  As little as a decade ago a vast, vast number of murders of people of color were routinely left unprosecuted. In some way, this stunning fact seems to be one root or our current unrest, a deep, institutional legacy of disregard of mostly black, mostly urban, mostly young men. This can now longer be ignored, not only because of the relentless work of a few serious law enforcement workers to change their departments habits, but because of journalist Jill Leovy, who has written so compellingly about it.  I salute John Skaggs, and thank Ms Leovy for telling his story.

BEST BOOK TO UNDERSTAND THE CHANGES WITHIN THE CHRISTIAN RIGHT

Onward- Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel.jpgOnward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel Russell D. Moore (Broadman Holman) $24.99  Anyone who has heard or met Rev. Moore will know him to be a kind and gracious man, thoughtful and serious-minded about how to live out the full-orbed implications of the true gospel in a culture that he believes to be fading quickly from health and wholeness.  Yet, he is a man alive, on a mission, and is full of generous hope.  He has written widely (for instance, a good exegetical book about the temptations of Jesus, and a rousing book about the need for reform and charity in the field of orphan care and adoption.) This recent book captures his sense of urgency, but tempered with grace and hope. It is exceptionally significant; a bellwether book indicating huge changes afoot in what has often been called the Christian right.

Moore is a public policy guy, a leader of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptists, and he is bringing a somewhat different vision and tone to his work there. His predecessor was pretty much a partisan Republican, rather strident at times, with not much energy for issues of poverty, creation-care, race and the like, focusing rather on electing fiscal conservatives and anti-abortion legislators.  Moore made it clear when he took Mr. Land's position a few years ago that he intended to do at least two things as an public advocate for the country's largest Protestant denomination: he was going to keep first things first and preach the gospel of Christ, and, secondly, he was going to be more Biblically-nuanced, less single-isuey and more diverse in terms of what issues addressed and how he addressed them.  It is wonderful, in my view, to see a conservative so very interested in compassion, in social justice, in Biblical mandates for caring about the environment, and global human rights.  Moore is a vibrant evangelical Christian, and he has a fairly traditional view of many of these things - if one realizes that the "traditional family values" of the Moral Majority and the like were, in fact, not very traditional in terms of historic Christian social ethics.  Kudos to Russell Moore for his passionate, gospel-based vision of the relationship of evangelical faith and social concern, for his loyalties to Christ even as he offers insight and leadership on how to be good citizens and good neighbors.  

Onward does just what it offers, and reflects wisely, and clearly, about the Kingdom of God, the nature of the gospel, about our mission, our culture, how need for "convictional kindness." He tells great stories the way a Southern preacher can, and while I might not always say things quite the way he does, and might tweak his positions here and there, I am glad for such an intelligent and eloquent advocate of the gospel itself, and how he brings energy and courageous moderation to his guidance on various social issues and tension points in the struggle for cultural renewal.  The discourse about evangelical faith the common good just got a whole lot better, and we should all be grateful for this fresh voice.  Kudos!

BEST BOOK WRITTEN FOR CHRISTIAN WOMEN

true you.jpgTrue You: Overcoming Self-Doubt and Using Your Voice Adele Ahlberg Calhoun & Tracey D. Bianchi (IVP) $16.00  I think the IVP Crescendo line of books is doing some of the most consistently good titles in the religious publishing world today.  I've read most of them and think they are a blast -- always interesting, caring and warm,  but not smarmy or condescending, the way some evangelical books for women tend to be.  This wonderful book, which is exceedingly relevant and very, very important, is a perfect example of the thoughtfulness and wisdom that goes into these sorts of books. It is savvy and smart, but not academic or arcane. It is full of deep Christian insight, nicely explained. It is honest and real and helpful.

 The authors themselves are classic -- and what a pair they are! Calhoun is known for having written some very thorough guides to deeper contemplative living, such as the amazing resource, The Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (which was recently expanded and reissued in a lovely new edition, by the way.) She has an MA from the studious Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and  has been trained as a spiritual director. Tracey Bianchi, though, strikes me as a bit more, well, energetic. Her previous books -- one about why young moms need to connect with other moms and form vibrant relationships and a fun one called Green Mama: The Guilt-Free Guide to Saving the Planet -- are upbeat and lively.  Both seem to be pretty hip gals, and uniting a middle aged contemplative spiritual director and a  younger,  quite relational, funny mom activist, is fantastic. They said in an interview that they known each other for two decades and that they "want to peel away the layers of doubt and drama that often weigh down our hearts and disguise our voices. Who am I? What does God want me to say and do in this world? And what is getting in the way of my doing just that?" 

As Adele has put it,  women need to be able to say, "I have a voice that is worth hearing, a story that is worth telling, and a purpose worth realizing."  Something, though, is preventing that, and it is troubling. There is self-doubt and anxiety. The world, and the church, and especially the evangelical wing of the church which they represent, needs the voice of women. 

By the way, I don't like the cover at all.  The glass shoes with heels? The goofball socks? Don't let the confusion of that design turn you away, as I fear it could: this is a great book, one of the best of 2015.

BEST BOOK ON EVANGELISM

Beautiful Feet- Unleashing Women to Everyday Witness .jpgBeautiful Feet: Unleashing Women to Everyday Witness Jessica Leep Fick (IVP) $16.00  We have dozens and dozens of books on evangelism, and I get tell you my favorite few, our top ten, or suggest some that would be good for you given your own religious orientation or denominational ethos. From the most progressive mainline church to the most rigid Reformed ones and anything in between, there are resources that can help us all grapple with what it means to bear witness to God's saving grace in Christ and to find ways to help unchurched folks find a relationship with God, reconciled with their Maker by receiving God's forgiveness. I think most of us don't do this very well, and everybody is anxious about not offending anyone (and those that aren't, well, they probably should be.) In this pluralistic, post-Christian world, there are great, fresh opportunities to advance the Kingdom of God by inviting people and families, organizations and institutions, into an awareness of the mercy that surrounds us and into a submission to the Lordship of King Jesus.  It's exciting, complicated, and not a little bit perplexing.

Enter Jessica Leep Fick, and the famous Old Testament declaration re-cited in Romans 10:15 that the feet of those who bring good news are "beautiful."  I'm not a fan of the goofy roller skates and retro socks on the cover -- although now that my daughter has taken up  Roller Derby, and I read some luminous chapters about a blue-collar roller rink in another 2015 Book of the Year, Midnight Jesus -- maybe I'll warm to it.  But I'm telling you, energetic as this book is (Elisa Morgan calls it "snappy"), it certainly isn't goofy. It is astute and smart, well written, full of great stories, great insights, great inspiration for anyone wanting to get real about sharing the gospel with others, what that means and what it might look like.

Yes, this is another great addition to the Crescendo line of books designed by IVP for missional women. Notice the subtitle of Beautiful Feet: Unleashing Women to Everyday Witness. Obviously younger women will resonate most with the female orientation offered by this  dance party queen who wrote it, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and say it is the best book on evangelism this year. I think men and women should read it.  It speaks directly to women, and reflects on the unique issues and concerns and situations and opportunities faced by busy younger women, but, again, the overall theme of the glory of being involved in being agents of gospel good news is universal. We all might have beautiful feet.

And, not only is it snappy, and wise and helpful, there is stuff in here I haven't seen in other books. There's a chapter on the author's experiences at the Burning Man festival!  She has a healthy concern for the poor and the marginalized -- see her delightful and compelling telling of the story of Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas) who was a "fashionista for Jesus" in Joppa (see Acts 9.) She has tons of experience, having worked with wise and wholistic InterVarsity Christian Fellowship specialists like Rick RIchardson and York Moore.  And there is a fantastic study guide sure to be enjoyed and engaging by book clubs or Bible study groups.  

Edgy missional scholar, storyteller and activist Debra Hirsch (do you know her frank and funky Redeeming Sex?) says,

Jessica's verve and sensibility combine to make Beautiful Feet as practical as it is inspiring. For all of us navigating the call to witness, this book is good news.

BEST BOOK THAT COMBINES WILDERNESS ADVENTURE, OUTDOOR EDUCATION, SPIRITUAL FORMATION

backpacking with the saints.jpgBackpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as a Spiritual Practice Beldon C. Lane (Oxford University Press) $24.95  I have written about this often, and there is no doubt that it is an outstanding, outstanding book, helping us all -  campers, hikers, paddlers, wilderness adventurers or not - to appreciate how Biblical heroes and spiritual saints can be more deeply appreciated when read and pondered in the great outdoors.   I haven't done any hiking in years, I am sad to say, so I especially love the opportunity to do some vicarious adventuring along with my spiritual development.  This is a really nice resource and a lovely book.

Beldon Lane written other remarkable books about the spirituality of geography, so to speak, about finding God amidst, as one book put it, "the solace of fierce landscapes." But this one makes it even more obvious, linking, as it does, one particular saint's writings with one particular outdoor adventure.  Lane reads St. Columba of Iona while hiking in the Irish Wilderness, instance, and prays with Thomas Merton while in the Aravaipa Canyon and read Martin Luther while failing a climb of Mt. Whitney. There are more than a dozen chapters like this chapters like this, and each is like a short story, fascinating and thrilling and informative, about the landscape, the trip (sometimes, like the texts which accompanied him, which were risky) and the lessons learned while reading and reflecting on the teachings of spiritual writers, mystics, theologians and saints of all sorts. 

 Another bit of genius is how the book is arranged and the themes developed.   The first section of readings in Backpacking with the Saints introduces us to spiritual writers who can help us start our journey, so he reads them at base camp, so to speak. He has a handful of chapters under each section, starting  with the rubric of "Departure (Leaving the Trailhead)" and then some on the second leg, "Discipline (The Practice of the Wild)" followed by some on "Descent (When the Trail Gets Rough)" ending with some on the fourth leg of the journey, coming home, even -  "Delight (Returning Home With Gifts.)"

What a fascinating way to develop our spiritual journey, and how intentionally he uses these profound religious writers as Sherpas, if you will, to accompany us on our own pilgrimages through life.  For what it is worth, not all of the spiritual masters on this journey are Christian ones; he includes Gandhi, Rumi next to John of the Cross and Therese of Lisieux and Kierkegaard and Thomas Traherne and the like.  Even though not all of the spiritual writers are Christ-centered, this is fascinating, helpful and surely one of the great books released this year!

BEST BOOK THAT COMBINES WILDERNESS ADVENTURE, OUTDOOR EDUCATION, SPIRITUAL FORMATION -- RUNNER UP

Rewilding the Way.jpgRewilding the Way: Break Free to Follow an Untamed God Todd Wynward (Herald Press) $15.99

Okay, this is also a book about wilderness education, but its tone and direction are a bit different then the Beldon Lane one, above. I really loved it, too.  I think to honor it now I have to explain a bit about it. Here's what I wrote about it in BookNotes last September:

I have been eager to tell you about this book, but had to read more of it, to be sure it was all I had hoped.  And it is!  This is the story of a Mennonite couple - he, a wilderness guide who has spent more than a thousand nights outdoors - who started a very innovative wilderness-based public charter school in around Taos, New Mexico, smack in the middle of the beauty of the Sangra De Christo Mountains.  Wynward's call to "rewild" our understanding of the Christian faith is provocative, challenging, and - for many of us, I'm sure - will be a fresh reminder of the wild call to a joyful and prophetic lifestyle.

He does some great Bible study in Rewilding the Way, although it is upbeat and playful, even, as he pushes us to see that Christian faith is less about certitude and dogma and more about entering into God's grace and living as loving agents of the restoration of all things promised in the Biblical story. He knows some of the original languages, and he offers some refreshing insights. His wanting to be "wild" certainly pushes us to be creative and fun and energetic (he's an outdoors educator, after all, and has worked at camps and in wilderness mission, so you get the picture!) I don't fully trust, and certainly don't resonate with, many of the hipster post-evangelicals these days telling us to be wild and raw and free and crazy, written, too often, I suspect, from the safety of their coffee shop and little house church full of their best friends. Some talk about being "wild" but have little serious insight about what that entails.

But Wynward rescues dying refugees in the dangerous desert, aligns himself with Christians doing civil disobedience in the face of what they believe is a repressive Empire, and gives away stuff he doesn't need, in joyful response to the Biblical vision of abundance and agape and radical mercy.  He makes a wondrous adventure out of experiential education and studies stuff like watersheds and bio-regions and the local repercussions of climate change.  You want to be wild at heart? This rejection of the culture's assumptions of the "good life" and what is plausible as new creation opportunities as we follow the Jesus Way into the wildernesses, is a great, great resource to stimulate your imagination.  I dare ya.

For some of us, we can recall the first time we read Dorothy Day or heard the stories of Oscar Romero or really took seriously the words of John Perkins. Maybe it came from early articles in 1970's era Sojourners or maybe it came recently from the Irresistible Revolution or the Common Prayer prayer book by Shane Claiborne and his joyful crew of urban activists. I haven't felt the upbeat energy of that wholistic and joyful vision of radical social change in quite a while (even though I read the new monastics and other such books routinely.) This book just offered some truly exciting stuff and it helped these tired bones to enjoy these pages.  Todd Wynward has brought together some remarkable characters, friends and mentors of his, has read and engaged some fabulous authors, and helps us all learn from those who are "recovering from affluenza and restoring a humble place in the community of creation."

Endorsements for Rewilding the Way include Chad Meyers, Mark Scandrette, Nancy Sleeth, Bill McKibben and (former Dallastownian) Rick Ufford-Chase. New Mexican Franciscan Richard Rohr -- whose center in Albuquerque brings together contemplation and activism -- shows up, as you might guess. The back cover says Wynward seeks "the feral foundations of Scripture." You gotta love a phrase like that. Especially written by guy who lives in a yurt.

Brian McLaren says "I read a lot of good books. But seldom have I read a book that inspired me as much as Rewilding the Way. It is important, meaningful - and so beautifully written." 

I'm not as much of an outdoors guy as I sort of wish, and whether you really are or not, I think Todd Wynward's new book, with its great images and metaphors (and beautiful, provocative cover design) is a joy.  I recommend this, and offer kudos to Herald Press for doing such daring work. The middle portion of the book, by the way, offers succinct ideas, "Seven Paths to Wilding Your Way" which makes it practical (if challenging) and do-able.

I'm not gonna lie: Beth and I are not going to very fully take up the watershed discipleship that he describes here, but I was energized by the stories, inspired by his honest struggles, and cheered by the reminder of what it really looks like to affirm our proper place in God's good creation as we fight to protect the great outdoors.  Three cheers for this feral book!

And three cheers for that great cover, too!  Way to go Mennonite Publishing!

BEST EXAMPLE OF THEOLOGY IN CONVERSATION WITH URGENT CONTEMPORARY CONCERNS

From Nature to Creation- A Christian Vision for Understanding and Loving Our World.jpgFrom Nature to Creation: A Christian Vision for Understanding Our World Norman Wirzba (Baker Academic) $19.99  This book deserves accolades for a number of reasons, and is significant on a number of fronts.  First, I should remind you that it is the most recent (and maybe the last) in the long series of books edited by James K.A. Smith called "The Church and Postmodern Culture." Launched by Smith's own wonderful first one, Whose Afraid of Postmodernism. These are fascinating examples of serious Christian scholars interacting with European philosophers like Derrida and the like. The whole series attempts to use our theological resources to help us grapple with the critique made by these deconstructionists, rather then merely disagree with them, or avoid their hard-hitting social criticisms.  So kudos to Smith and the authors he's worked with to create this set of books.

Secondly, I might note that perhaps of all the books, the Wirzba one shows us why it all matters. He is less a philosopher interested in pomo scholarship, it seems, and a bit more down-to-Earth, a phrase I use intentionally. Wirzba's other books, some pretty academic, are about agriculture, about sustainability, about bio-regions and watersheds. He has written about and with his friend Wendell Berry and currently teaches theology and ecology at Duke Divinity School.  His lovely, lovey book Making Peace with the Land is co-written with a small farmer; they both make us hungry by writing about a Christian view of food, and they make us want to join them in coming to church with gardening dirt under our fingernails.  That's the kind of scholar/practitioner her is.

Yet, Professor Wirzba is quite capable of taking his place in this series about postmodern culture and does some heavy lifting for us here analyzing how Western culture's understanding of our home as God's creation shifted to "nature" with the rise of modernity.  He documents the philosophers, gives us a little bit of genealogy of ideas to get at this propitious shift in rhetoric and imagination.  Of course he brings the postmodern guys to bear on this with a few footnotes from Heidegger and Foucault and the like.  He helps us with insightful analysis: as Union Theological Seminary prof Larry Rasmussen writes,

As commercialized nature and utilitarian thinking poison the planet and change the climate, what could be more important than 'creation' as the gracious way we live. No one is better than Wirzba in describing modernity's idolatrous and disastrous course and offering a Christian understanding of creation as the antidote.

So, this is another book in this important series. And it really does help us understand how these shifts underneath the roots of Western culture have had disastrous consequences. (Ahh, I kept thinking as I read some of this: whoever thinks history and philosophy are only for "ivory tower" idealists or nerdy intellectuals with their head in the clouds or the books should be shown this, noting, again, how ideas have consequences and how social imaginations, often grounded in rhetorical and intellectual shifts, push us to practices and habits and ways of arranging our lives and our societies.  If we want to -- literally, as Wirzba shows -- eat better, knowing how we have rejected our very creatureliness is part of the answer.

Lastly, we award this book in a season when there is heighten interest in faith-based understandings of food and farming, spending time intentionally buying and preparing food and eating well. And there is an increased desire to see how our deepest spiritual experiences can be enhanced by our awareness of God's presence in the ordinary things of daily life.  With Norman Wirzba's contribution here about the creation being the world in which God delights -- less plausible when we've reduced creation to mere nature -- we ourselves can be open to delight, and to encountering the God of the Bible who invites us to delight. 

One of the  grandfathers of contemporary Christian environmental activism (now called creation-care) is Loren Wilkinson who teaches at Regent College in Vancouver.  His own endorsing blurb on the back of From Nature to Creation is a good reminder, especially when he ends by saying, "Drawing with magisterial and eloquent scholarship on a vast range of sources across both Christian and secular thought, Wirzba calls us to attentiveness, to rootedness -- and above all, to gratitude."  Such a book surely has to be commended, and we are happy to name it one of the most important of the year!   Perhaps, as Steven Bouma-Prediger (For the Beauty of the Earth) says, reading it will not only help us better love God and embrace our own creaturelines, but that doing so will be "life-giving for all of God's creatures."  We can hope.

BEST EXAMPLE OF A CHURCH STATEMENT IN CONVERSATION WITH CONTEMPORARY CONCERNS

Laudato Si.jpgOn Care of Our Common Home (Laudato Si) Pope Francis (Word Among Us Press) $12.95   I suppose you know about Encyclical Letters, the rare and formal times a Pope offers to his Roman Catholic flock and the listening world a declaration of what he takes to be God's will, Christian truth for the church and for the cultures of the world. Much has been made of Pope Francis' radical ways -- that he took the namesake of the old Saint Francis of Assisi is important -- and his own former ministry among the poor in his native South America influenced him significantly. 

Not everyone knew, at least until this document, that besides being a priest among the poor he also has an advanced degree in the sciences, and is a thoughtful, if not professional, political philosopher as well. Nearly anyone who reads this remarkably important Papal Encyclical will quickly realize both.  He is a great preacher and gentle spiritual writer and many of his devotional books have come out in the last year or so (including a major new one that just came out this week!)  This important formal piece, though, that was released this past summer, is exceedingly important, and exceptionally astute.

Two quick comments: Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home places the Christian concern about climate change in the theological context of our human duty to care for God's creation; it keeps God in the discussion at all points. (Indeed, the Latin phrase in the title means "Praise Be to You!") I suppose Francsis hasn't read the Norman Wirzba book mentioned above although both that book and the Pope's own intellectual influences would agree: secularizing modernity effected both how we view God and thereby how we view the cosmos and therefore the way we fall into idolatry, such as reducing progress to mere economic growth. Once we realize God's great delight in God's own world that He so loves, we ourselves can see our own vocation of creation care as a divinely charged obligation and privilege. So Laudato Si is good creational theology rooted in a history of ideas, and analysis of the complexity of human cultures and a good example of thoughtful Catholic scholarship regarding economics and markets, politics and governments, various institutions and civic life, global cooperation. and the need to work hard at naming and working towards an ethic of the common good.

For an exceptional bit of Protestant appreciation of and evaluation of the Pope's Letter, see the wonderful two part piece by Jonathan Chaplin in Comment magazine, here and here. After reading this detailed review you will want to get the Encyclical itself.  How great that in 2015, a Catholic Pope can write a detailed analysis of God's role in the world, the dangers of climate change, and the inadequacies of science and markets alone to solve our cultural malaise, in such a way that it ends up being discussed, even with its Latin title, in the secular Western media as well as among Christian folks of all sorts. This really is a little miracle, and we are grateful to play a part, selling copies here, and commending it to you as a very important, mature bit of Christian writing.  I say Gratias Deo.

THE ANNUAL LEONARD SWEET AWARD?

From Tablet to Table- Where Community Is Found and Identity is Formed.jpgFrom Tablet to Table: Where Community is Formed and Identity is Formed Leonard Sweet (NavPress) $14.99  I offer this award somewhat tongue in cheek - Sweet really has the capacity to read volumes and volumes (ancient spiritual saints, contemporary postmodern theorist, the latest cultural critics and preachers) and draw on their most pithy lines and insights as he weaves his own books, some big and significant, some more moderate in size and ambition.  He has released nearly a book a year for a decade now, or so it seems -it's hard to keep up - and most have been delightful, curious, interesting, informative, inspiring.  Last year he did a nearly magisterial book on preaching (cleverly entitled Giving Blood) and, I'm glad to report, this year's book is a short, slim one.  I'd be resentful if he did two huge, demanding volumes back to back.

I loved this new one, and thank him for a dozen things it invited me to ponder, to consider, to learn. (Including introducing me to the TV show Blue Bloods which, he noted, is one of the few shows these days where a family meal is a routine part of the show!)  I suppose that this reminder of the joy of eating, the importance of relationships formed around the table, and the richness of the sacramental tradition which discerns God's presence in the ordinary things of life in the good creation and the reminder that we form our identity within safe communities, will not be utterly new to most readers, but it is a splendid reminder, a beautiful and energetic call to this sense of the good life.  New for you or not, you will be thrilled to see how Sweet weaves together the stories, the quotes, the images and metaphors, the Bible teaching and the reading of social trends and demographics and offers them in a delightful, work.  From Tablet to Table is quintessentially Sweet, sweet and wise and feisty and good and endlessly thought-provoking. It is short and the colorful cover inviting, but do not be fooled: this is a very important book.

You might want to know that I was going to playfully call this Hearts & Minds honor the "I Told You So" Award because I have, surely somewhere in the last 20 years, noted that I thought Len's emphasis on computers and screens and whiz-bang technology was a tad overstated. I am no Luddite, but our own cultivated ineptitude here on line is in part a matter of principle: we have tried to stay, as he once put it, "high touch" without his equally important second part: "high tech."  Faceless carts and technological bureaucracy takes the humanity out of our shopping transactions, and I don't think that is normative for life in God's world. Years ago we took to heart the concerns of the likes of Jacques Ellul and, say, Technopoly by Neil Postman, hoping to resist the habits that come with an over-reliance on fast, faceless technologies.  I recall more than one conversation with Dr. Sweet about this very thing, pressing him to show some distance between us and the gizmos and I continue to fret about how we might be careful regarding what Quentin Schultze has called "the habits of the high tech heart." I want to maintain a regular refocus, as Sweet so nicely puts it, from the tablet to the table.

For Sweet, an early adopter of every high tech gadget known to postmodern man and zealous advocate for faith communities to embrace them, it may seem nearly ironic to have him warn us now about the unexpected consequences of too much tablet time, too much screen life.

Alas, it only seems ironic, because, at his heart, Len is a Victorian. He collects antiques for God's sake. He uses screens but he loves books. He appreciates the relational life, dines well, I suspect, relishes conversations about aesthetics, wrote about being green before it was fashionable.  In a way, this isn't ironic, it is Sweet coming full circle, as he does, for those with the eyes to see, in nearly all his many books.  We don't need to get rid of our tablets and iphones to appreciate good meals, or to find God at the table.  But we may need to look up from time to time, get our hands dirty in a backyard garden and enjoy not just poking around on our devices, but doing the dishes, joyfully cleaning up the mess of a life lived well in the real world. From Tablets to Tables will remind us, inspire us, help us and if we do as he suggests, it will form us, shaping us in healthy ways.  Get it today -and not an ebook, either!  This little gem you'll want to hold and savor, share and discuss, hopefully around a real table full of good food.

BEST BOOK OF POETRY

Slow Pilgrim- The Collected Poems Scott Cairns.jpgSlow Pilgrim: Collected Poems Scott Cairns (Paraclete Press) $39.00  I will admit to this right up front. I don't know much about poetry, and, frankly, go through phases, long phases, where I don't pay much attention to these glorious gifts of word play and verse. (I do pay attention to well-written song lyrics, but that is, admittedly, a different art.) Every now and then, though, I relish a certain poetic work, discover a certain poet, and I pay more attention.  Are you maybe like that?  Few Americans buy much poetry, and although we have a unique selection here, we don't sell much poetry at all.

Which is why, I suppose, I really want to honor this extraordinary writer, a good man, an excellent essayist, memoirist, scholar, and spiritual companion for those exploring the mysteries of the Orthodox tradition.  Cairnes is beloved in classy circles such as those who follow Image Journal and has often appeared at good venues like the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing or the Buechner Institute at King University in Bristol, Tennessee.  This new book is a major release, a gathered collection of his poems, and it is a handsomely produced paperback (as we have come to expect from the rich heritage of printing from the religious community that runs Paraclete Press.) There is a nice forward by Gregory Wolfe.

If you buy a lot of poetry and serious literature, I do not have to convince you of why Cairns is a treasure in the American world of letters. If you follow the conversations about spirituality and the arts, you know his work and value his presence in the landscape. But if you  don't buy a lot of poetry, I hope you might consider joining us in honoring the poet, buying this book, pondering and then sharing some of its beautiful, allusive, graceful, vital lines. Of all the poetry releases this year, of all the artful books we received, Slow Pilgrim is not just a notable book to own, but one of the best books of 2015.

BEST CHRISTIAN BOOK ABOUT POETRY

I Pray in Poems- Meditations on Poetry and Faith.jpgI Pray in Poems: Meditations on Poetry and Faith Dave Worster (Morehosue Publishing) $16.00 Did you resonate with what I wrote about, that some of us just don't pay enough attention to poetry?  This book may be for you. (Of course, if you are already a poetry lover, then this book will thrill you to no end.)

The format is simple.  After an introductory chapter or two, there are about 10 entries, each on a different poem, for the church seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany.  Then there are 10 more suitable for Ash Wednesday, Lent, Holy Week and through Easter. In this sense, I Pray in Poems is almost like a devotional, or a resource for faith formation or preaching during these parts of the church calendar.  But there is more here then simple inspirational devotionals inspired by nice lines from 20 different poems. It really is a careful, detailed study, opening up the poetry, and in so doing, opening up our hearts.

Listen to what Stanley Hauerwas writes, 

Prayer requires close attention to details. Poetry, at least the poetry that Dave Worster helps us read, trans us to attend to details not the least being words. So Worster's contention that there is an essential connection between poetry and prayer is sustained throughout this marvelous book. Drawing on the wisdom gained from years of teaching poetry, Worster enlivens our lives as Christians by helping us see what we otherwise might miss in our hurry to get on with life. By slowing us down we are able to see with his expositions of these poems that God is in the details.

BEST ART BOOK

revealed.jpgRevealed: A Picture Bible for Grown Ups edited and compiled by Ned Bustard (Square Halo Books) $37.99  You may want to know that this was one of our biggest sellers this last quarter; it was released a week and half before Christmas, an artful Bible-lover reviewed it briefly in the serious journal First Things, and the next thing you know we were shipping this handsome, provocative, coffee table picture Bible all over the country.  And overseas!  What fun.

I could write more about Bustard's interesting and usually helpful commentary on the Bible passages and his very interesting and always helpful commentary on the art. I could tell you which pieces I think were brilliant, which were most striking, which were appropriately repulsive.  We could talk about sex and violence in the Bible and the graphic nature of the visual arts in God's world.  We could talk about the large backstory of Bustard's determination to bring ancient and modern woodcuts and lithographs and other black and white artwork side by side to illuminate and provoke us to see the Biblical texts more clearly.  We could talk about which artists do this best, which are too allusive or too bold.  We could talk about the fascinating relationship of word and image, and how good art that is tied to narrative is perhaps different than other kinds of art.  We could even talk about Ned's good friend -Square Halo was the first to publish him -- Makoto Fujimura's luminous, lavish illustrated Four Gospels and how his abstract art in a different way opens up our vision of the text and the gospel behind it.  Revealed is a very different sort of art piece, truly a "picture Bible."

Revealed: A Picture Bible for Grown Ups is surely one of the most interesting books of this yearn of our Lord, an amazing contribution to not only Biblical studies but to the world of Christian art. I think to honor it here I will invite you to check out the review I did last month, here.

MISSION STORIES

Runaway Radical- A Young Man's Reckless Journey to Save the World.jpgRunaway Radical: A Young Man's Reckless Journey to Save the World Amy & Jonathan Hollingsworth (Nelson) $15.99 I was going to list this as one of my favorite memoirs of the year, a back and forth tale told by a young adult committed to radical faith and serious visions of making a difference the world and his conventionally Christian mother, watching as the son's deep faith becomes extreme, driven, weird, even, and as he ends up in Africa serving in a mission compound and is shamed and abused as toxic religionists there add to his bondage and confusion.  What a fascinating, relevant, and heartbreaking story, a story of young adult faith development, of the dangers of religious zeal, of the confusions about what Steve Garber calls "proximate justice" - that is, that we in a fallen world need to learn to live with something other than the very best and full, proper realization of God's will.  You can't always get what you want, the old rock song reminds us, but some young radicals miss this, and filled with idealism and a thin view of the tragic, end up bruised and broken. This was the hard experience of Jonathan Hollingsworth and in Runaway Radical his story is told mostly through the eyes of his mother.

As I explained in a long review of this captivating book last winter, I could hardly put it down and I zipped through it relentlessly. It made me laugh, made me scratch my head, made me nod in recognition, made me ponder anew things I hold dear, and made me glad that the season of trouble foisted on this good young man didn't drive him from faith altogether.  By the end of the book - spoiler alert - dear Jonathan is less sure of many things, but seems quite sure of one thing: God is a God of grace, of goodness, of mercy, so it is okay to not have life all figured out. It is okay to doubt, to question. God is with us and for us, no matter how screwy the church may be.  And that is a very important thing to know.

Runaway Radical works on many levels, the story of the boy, the struggles and concerns and viewpoints of the mother and father at home, the expose of weird faith in a local charismatic mega-church and even weirder and  more corrupt faith as practiced in central Africa where his plan to change the world got derailed. It is a window into contemporary evangelical faith and a window into how, finally, God's grace can give new hope and renewal after very hurtful experiences. I love the voice of the mother and of the son, and glad for their willingness to be so vulnerable in telling their story. Call it a great memoir, an important missionary story, a cautionary tale.  Call it one of the best of 2015.  

one thousand wells cover.jpgOne Thousand Wells: How An Audacious Goal Taught me to Love the World Instead of Save It Jena Lee Nardella (Howard) $24.00  Again, I want to celebrate this fabulous book, one that I exclaimed about as I was reading it, and wrote about the day I was finished with it. Jena Lee Nardella is a brave soul, a social entrepreneur who has worked with the very cool band Jars of Clay as they endeavored with her help to start an innovative wholistic mission project providing clean water and educating about clean blood, to help alleviate disease in Africa. It is important stuff, but enjoyable: IJM President Gary Haugen says it is "a delightful read."

Significant thinkers about global development and third world justice such as Dr. Paul Farmer inspired the young idealist in her college years. As she met author Steve Garber (who in those years had written a life-changing book about "weaving together belief and behavior in the young adult years" called Fabric of Faithfulness) she came to know the guys in Jars.  Garber helped them connect, inspired them all to keep on keeping on, and this book tells the fascinating, inspiring, complicated, heart-rending history of the rise of the extraordinary project known as Blood: Water Mission.  Leverage the fame of a hip Christian rock band to raise money to dig a thousand wells, in utter cooperation with local African leaders? Build trusting partnerships between artists and fans and politicos and development specialists and local African villagers, women's groups, medical clinics, indigenous churches?  How does a girl in college do all this? 

As I said in my BookNotes rave review, there are many books about idealistic social entrepreneurs, about wholistic mission, stories of success and failure in honoring God by loving our global neighbors well. Some are mostly uplifting stories, a few are tedious accounts of the economic data and possibilities of solving issues related to global poverty. One Thousand Wells seems to do it all, telling a great story -set both in the states, traveling on tour with the band, raising money on college campuses and such - and offering true insights about her times in Africa, learning about the nature of global poverty, the significance of fighting HIV AIDS and the role of clean water in the effort to nurture public health. From hanging out with evangelical leaders like Garber to meeting rock stars and world leaders, Jena has experienced much. But true to her good heart and solid perspective, the book shines most when she tells of her friendships - some healthy and enduring, some tragically broken - with leaders, mostly women, in Africa. (I'm not usually a fan of color photographs in books, but in One Thousand Wells they were fantastic to see!)  A good part of Jena's heart resides in that glorious, large land, and the physical and cultural landscapes are introduced with wonder and beauty.  This is a truly lovely book, a great story, by a serious young writer and activist.  We are delighted to name it as one of Hearts & Minds Best Books of 2015.

BEST ACADEMIC BOOK OF 2015

Christian Historiography better.jpgChristian Historiography: Five Rival Views Jay Green (Baylor University Press) $34.95  We are not an academic bookstore, really, and although we carry some scholarly and university press titles, we are a little picky - some say not nearly enough - about the sort of scholarly books we promote in various academic fields.  It is a looming question, even in a world where "all truth is God's truth" and in common grace there is so much to be appreciated and learned: what philosophical underpinnings shape the popular notions of various scholarly fields, or various camps within those fields, and of the particular scholars within those disciplines?  How do we bring God's health and wisdom and Biblically-informed insight to academic discourse, genre by genre, department by department of the modern university? From the details of neurological science or trauma studies to the insights of literary criticism or film studies, from the data found in sociology to the latest studies about climate change, from the debates about theories of jurisprudence to the complexities of aesthetics or architecture, it should be evident that no academic sphere is philosophically neutral, that no scholarship is religiously disinterested, that every scholar believes in something that informs her work.  All theories are grounded in the longings and ultimate concerns of the human heart and therefore, seeking to discern the contours of the influences in each field is a major concern for Christian scholars in the academy. It should be obvious, but it usually isn't, that this is the very calling of Christian academics, and their students, but for thinking Christians in the world at large, it is no less of a necessity; how do we discern the wisdom and truthfulness of the ideas coming at us from presidential candidates, popular science magazines, or between the lines in popular entertainment and advertising? We are always looking for books that thoughtfully engage the foundational theories in any given field, that discern the assumptions and religious-like values that shape the development of those fields, and help us all figure how to, as some put it, develop a uniquely Christian viewpoint as we "integrate faith and learning."

Sorry to go on about the background of what I mean by this award, and why we value a book like Dr. Jay Greens. It is a fine work, a perfect example of this very sort of research, and a wonderful book to hold up as exemplary in the field of Christian scholarship.  

Except, he has gone a step deeper into the conversation: these five rival views discussed in his new book are all alleged Christian views of the topic. These authors have been aware of the various schools of thought within their discipline, and have been more or less been intentional about carving out a certain school of thought - a camp or school of historiography - that they believe comports with their Christian convictions.  Can they all be right?

As you can tell, the particular field here is history, and the questions Green asks are about these rival theories of the philosophy of history as they are appropriated by Christian colleagues within the discipline.  Nobody interprets anything in a vacuum, and it is certainly obvious that presuppositions and a priori concerns and values and attitudes and convictions shape what sort of history we study, and what we make of it all. The study of these theories behind and underneath the doing of the work of writing history - historiography - is on display here, each view or school of thought fairly described and explored, and evaluated in light of the author's own biases about his own understanding of a faithful, coherent view of Christian historiography. 

Again: no academic discipline is philosophically neutral, so there are different schools of thoughts within each and every academic field. Christians are called to "take every thought captive" and allow their faith and assumptions about realty to color the work they do in the academy.  These authors discussed in this Five Rival Views book are all attempting to do this. It is Green's project to describe and compare and contrast and evaluate the coherence and Christian coherence of these different authors. Are they actually doing consistently Christian historiography in their methods and visions and values?

I trust this solid, exemplary thinker - he teaches at Covenant College in Tennessee and is working in the grand Augustinian/Reformed tradition  - and appreciated his role in a splendid reader compiled a few years ago about these very things. (Published by University of Notre Dame Press, it was called Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian's Vocation and was co-authored by other thoughtful Christian historians and friends John Fea of Messiah College and Eric Miller of Geneva College.)

This new volume from Baylor University Press is a major project, truly one of the finest works of this sort ever done. Would that there would be a book like this in every field of scholarship!  I know it isn't much from our corner of the world here in small town Dallastown, but we want to celebrate this kind of work, thank Dr. Green for his conscientiousness as a Christian scholar, and honor this book as one of the most significant of 2015.

A SHAMEFUL AWARD: BEST BET FOR BEST BOOK OF 2015 THAT I'VE NOT (YET) READ

Art of Memoir.jpgThe Art of Memoir Mary Karr (Harper) $24.99 Yes, I'm ashamed I haven't read more than a page or two of this, but I'm honoring it here anyway. 

There are some books that promise to be so enticing, so good, so fun, that I have to be in a suitable mood that is up for such joy. Or a book seems to be so important and serious and momentous that I have to be ready to dedicate the time and energy for that kind of reading.  I am itching to pick it up, but know the time just isn't right.  Ms Karr's recent book may be a little of the later, but is mostly the former, and I can't believe I just haven't found the space to take it up yet.  I read the preface and the first few pages and laughed right out loud. I saw her list of great memoirs in the back and was floored.  But I really, really want to be in the right frame of mind to enjoy it best.  I thought how I might just go through her own story again, picking up The Liars Club, Cherry, and Lit all over again.  And I wondered what the gritty and eccentric Ms Karr thinks of some of my favorite memoir writers, such as Catherine Gildiner (we so loved her three volumes about her quirky life) or my favorite memoirs such as Reading the Mountains of Home by John Elder, The Tender Land by Kathleen Finneran, The Cliff Walk: A Memoir of a Job Lost and a Life Found by Don Snyder and the devastating  An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us by James Carroll.  Anyway, I am sure The Art of Memoir will be fabulous for anyone who likes Carr, or who likes books about books.  I can't wait. I'm naming it one of the best books of 2015.  Even though I haven't read it yet.

BEST NEW PUBLISHER 

fcp.pngFalls City Press, founded 2015.

I will admit that I don't know any new publishers this year, and so I can't exactly promose the final veracity of this award. But my good freind Keith Martel -- one of the sharpest guys I know, in so many ways -- started what he is calling a micro-press.  I guess like a micro-brew.  He's developing a plan to release other books, but has done two good ones before his first year anniversary is even upon him. First he did his own co-authored book, one which I have raved about more than once, Storied LeadershipFoundations of Leadership from a Christian Perspective written with his pal and colleague at Geneva College, the always enthusiastic Brian Jensen (Falls City Press; $18.00.) These two storied leadership.jpggood are rock solid in faith and perspective, philosophical without being arcane, and serious without being dry. So they've gotten this whole-life discipleship thing just right: God cares about all of life and we are invited to take up our role as ambassadors of CHrist's Kingdom, exploring normatively in all aspects of life.  So when they write about leadership, they are inviting us to take up vocations within history, inspired by the whole Biblical story, and discover and embody practices that are consistent with that story. It's a truly wonderful little book, nicely done, and, as I say, published by this groovy new Western PA publishing venture.

The second book produced and published by Falls City Press is another I've reviewed at length, published in collaboration with the non-partisan, principled, Christian political think-tank The Center for Unleashing Opportunity- Why Escaping Poverty Requires.jpgPublic Justice.  In Unfolding Opportunity: Why Escaping Poverty Requires a Shared Vision of Justice (Falls City Press; $11.99.) Falls City and CPJ give us a handful of topics that are obstacles for those trying to get out of poverty, and areas in need of attention and reforming efforts on the part of those who want to be serious about actually doing something to fight poverty. It's brief chapters and practical tone make it ideal for young justice activists, it seems, almost a handbook for faithful Christian engagement.  In each topic, there are three sections, each penned by either Michael Gerson (famous pundit and former White House speech writer), Stephanie Summers (Director of CPJ) and  Katie Thompson (young justice advocate, editor of the CPJ Shared Justice blog.) They look at the facts about the issue, frame it in light of important Biblical themes and Christian insights, and then tell of case studies and good examples of work local groups are doing as an example of actual projects to be considered.  Richard Mouw has a very helpful foreword.  Three cheers for this great little resource, and three cheers for CPJ choosing this fresh new voice in the publishing world: Falls City Press.

BEST OPPORTUNITY TO RECOMMEND BOOKS

The Washington Times special Insert: "The Power of Prayer: Enhance Your Life" November 30, 2015 

We are truly privileged to get to sell books at all kinds of really nice venues, serving really fascinating organizations and ministries, and we've been assisted by some of our favorite people on the planet at these off cite events. From the low-key PC(USA) Wee Kirk Conference to the the pretty high-powered Redeemer Center for Faith and Work event, from the national Christian Legal Society annual gathering to any number of smaller clergy or Christian educational events, we are hosted well by good friends who value our book displays and sometimes give us an opportunity to speak, to teach, to do workshops on books, and to write for their own publications.

Well, what a surprise it was when the globally-known The Washington Times newspaper called, and invited me to do a column, a small side bar in a very large and attractive special edition insert they were doing right after Thanksgiving weekend.  Their topic -- with columns by dozens of prominent, mostly evangelical, leaders -- was prayer, and you can see my list of a handful of the best books on prayer and spirituality in that colorful, professionally-done insert, and on their webpage. Better, I filled it out a little, added a few, and did my own expanded edition of that list at our own BookNotes, which you can see here. 20 great books on prayer briefly described!

Special thanks to the esteemed Thomas P. McDevitt, Chairman of The Washington Times and project editor Larry Moffitt who added my small voice to their big project.  Afterwards, by the way, I got a lovely note from Philip Yancey, which -- okay, I'll admit it -- just made my day.  What a way to make a living, talking about good books with interesting folks!

BIGGEST BUILD-UP TO A NEW BOOK RELEASE (AND THE CONVERSATION AFTERWARDS)

Go Set a Watchman.jpgGo Set a Watchman Harper Lee (Harper) $27.99

I hope you haven't quickly forgotten the fascinating conversations about Atticus Finch, about rediscovering, as many readers did, the Harper Lee classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. We were happy that there were books coming out, or being re-marketed, about that great story. We had a nice in-store display including the very nice The Mockingbird Parables: Transforming People's Lives Through the Power of Story by Matt Litton (Tyndale; $14.99) and a new four-session DVD curriculum called The Faith of a Mockingbird (Abingdon Press; $39.99.) New supplemental books and Lee biographies have come out, and they are all quite interesting.

But we want to recall not just the very good Go Set a Watchman book but the lively conversations it seems everyone was having on facebook and twitter and in barbershops and here in the store. There were articles pro and con, discussions about the ethics of the corporation and literary executives, and there were articles, pro and con, about the aesthetic quality of the writing, and there were articles, pro and con, about the theme and insight and moral of the story itself.  This is all good, and we weighed in a bit. It was an honor to take pre-orders, sensing it was one of the significant moments in our career as book sellers.

Thanks to you who bought it from us, and thanks to you who wouldn't out of principle. And thanks to everybody who expressed an opinion after having read it.  Looking back, it was a great month in book land, eh?  

BEST IDEA OF A BOOK RE-DO

story of god's love for you.jpgThe Story of God's Love for You Sally Lloyd-Jones (Zondervan) $14.99

I sure, sure hope you know how much we appreciate the wonderful children's picture Bible The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Chapter Whispers His Name with the fabulously creative, energetic pictures by Jaego.  It isn't faultless, of course, but it is brilliant and so very useful. It comes in the regular, lovely square hardback, it comes in a larger size big hardback -- which is fabulous and well worth the few extra bucks, by the way -- and a deluxe gift edition that includes CDs of the stories being read out loud.

It is not surprising to me that sometimes customers feel like they are in a pinch. They really want to give The Jesus Storybook Bible to a fifth grader, or read it out loud to a junior high Sunday school class.  Heck, I know adults that have read it out loud in their own sophisticated Old Testament courses. (Okay, maybe I'm not  that sophisticated, really, but you get the point.) Sadly, with the childish pictures and kid's book font on the cover, it just doesn't work as a gift to a 13 year old.  Nope.

So, some marketing geniuses somewhere came up with the idea of taking the same lush and insightful and well-worded text and put it out in a handsome, compact hardback with discreet icon symbols instead of the pictures, making the same text now available to older readers who now need not be embarrassed by reading a pre-school picture Bible. Same text, cooler book design but no pictures. What an idea. And we've sold a lot of them this past month, with many exclaiming that this is just what they needed.  It's the same Sally Lloyd-Jones text but with a new design, and a new title. The words are all the same.  You can read a bit more that I wrote about it last month, here.

Hands in the air for marketing that doesn't feel like a greedy add on, a cottage industry of spin- off stuff, as too often it is, but a really smart idea, filling a really important need, re-launching a classic in a fresh new way. 


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January 25, 2016

10 Truly Fascinating Books from the End of 2015, not yet reviewed at BookNotes: 10% OFF


Thanks for your interest in our last two posts, the Best Books of 2015 Part One and the Best Books of 2015 Part Two.  What a joy to get orders for these kinds of great books.


Putting together such lists is always a bit dicey for me -- I forget books that I read earlier in the year and I wonder how I might honor titles that look so good and seem so impressive but that I haven't really read yet. It's a lot for me to manage during our store's busy holiday season, and I know I miss some.


Of course we are completely sincere in awarding books and authors with our little accolades, but the point -- I'm not at all ashamed to say this -- is for you, dear reader, to buy them.  From us.  We are proud to get to be your bookseller yet another year and eager to get more good books into your hands. We'd like to think we curate a fairly interesting selection, books that might prove helpful to you. It's like they say on those ubiquitous insurance commercials: it's what we do.


And we think we have at least some idea of some itches of yours that need scratching. You can find best-sellers of all sorts all over, and faceless algorithms come up with some stuff, if you're touched by that sort of thing.  But we're here working for you, telling you what we've got that you might like hearing about.


And so, here are a few that I sort of wanted to name last week. These are all good titles that came out in the tale end of 2015 but I haven't had time to study.  A few are quite new, actually, and I didn't want to move into the new year too quickly without giving these a shout out.  Fascinating, curious, well done, exceptionally thoughtful -- the sorts of volumes Hearts & Minds loves telling you about.


All are available from us at 10% off, sent out with a smile and a prayer.


One Nation Under God- A Christian Hope for American Politics.jpgOne Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics  Bruce Ashford and Christ Pappalardo (B&H Academic) $14.99  Okay, I'll admit two things: I am worried these days about those who too easily use this phrase, One Nation Under God.  Americana wholesome as it is, it has been abused by civil religionists and hijacked by the too often unbiblical Christian right. I have suspicions of anyone thinking this should be a lead phrase on a book. Secondly, if I look through the footnotes in a book on faithful politics and don't see it citing Jim Skillen (for instance, his must-read The Good of Politics or Ron Sider's excellent Just Politics or the brilliant Political Visions and Illusions by David Koyzis) I wonder what books from what tradition has informed the writer.  There's so much bad stuff out there.


Well, my fears were mostly allayed, and this recent little book ends up being really, really great.  I should have known -- Bruce Riley Ashford did a great little compact volume called Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians (yep, he's a Kuyper guy, and has read deeply in the relationship of theology and culture and pondered Kuyper's popular slogan about Christ redeeming every little bit of creation.) In fact, in One Nation Under God these two authors draw heavily on the teachings about "common grace for the common good" from Father Abraham (Kuyper), and they insist that politics is not an evil field to be avoided nor an avenue for Christians to take over culture in some bombastic power play.  They are passionate about the gospel and about our citizenship. Their little manifesto attempts to "engage in politics responsibly, confidently, graciously -- even Christianly."


One Nation Under God is divided up into two succinct sections.  The first part offers their principled view of the role of government, our calling as citizens -- basically a reformationally-rooted view of Christian politics, inspired somewhat by Albert Wolters (Creation Regained.). You can hear overtones of folks as important as Wolters, Leslie Newbigin, and N.T. Wright in chapters with titles such as these:


Locating Politics Within the True Story of the Whole World


Choosing Between Four Competing Views of Public Life


Declaring the Gospel as Public Truth


Doing Politics in a Post-Christian Country


Cultivating Wisdom and Public Virtue


This is an amazing little volume; the first half -- just 65 pages -- draws on Abraham Kuyper and Martin Luther King, Jr., Al Wolters and James Davidson Hunter, Rich Mouw and Karl Barth. Those astute quotes alone makes it worth the price of the book.


The second half applies this vision of civic life to seven issues or areas of concern -- sexuality and family, creation care, war and peace, immigration, poverty and economics, racial diversity and the like.  As you might expect from a book endorsed by writers of First Things, co-written by a provost at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, they are thoughtfully conservative on sexuality and life issues, but surprisingly passionate about fresh thinking (at least for most conservatives) on creation care and racial justice and immigration. I suppose this is as it should be: they are truly attempting to develop a Biblically-inspired, theologically conservative worldview out of which can come non-partisan, Christian political ideas and proposals.  I would not come down exactly where they do on every policy question, but so what? This is designed to enhance our thinking, stimulate conversation, get us more carefully footed on the solid rock of Christ's Kingdom, even as we ponder how to be salt and leaven and light in an obviously hurting, complicated and contested public square.  Kudos.


The Listening Life- Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction.jpgThe Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction Adam S. McHugh (IVP) $16.00  Just reading the table of contents of this splendid, beautiful book makes one feel invited into it; who doesn't want to be a better listener?  And who doesn't want to -- in the words of Frederick Buechner --  "listen to your life"?  This book is a bit contemplative, an invitation to slow down, a guide to attentiveness. What a gift!


Mr. McHugh is an author you should know; his first book is the only one on the topic of introverts in the church and it is excellent.  (It is called Introverts in the Church -- some people have raved about it to us! Interestingly, this new one caught the attention of Susan Cain, author of the best seller The Quiet and she says this one is "highly recommended."  Pretty cool, huh?


McHugh here invites us to pay attention in a world of distraction, not just to the generic others in your life, but to specific voices:  listening to God, listening to Scripture, listening to creation, listening to others, listening to people in pain, and listening to your own life.  Wow.






The Book of Womanhood .jpgThe Book of Womanhood Amy F. David Abdallah (Cascade) $25.00  I don't know what the publisher was thinking with this blackened out shadow of a woman for the cover, but the cheap look shouldn't dissuade you from checking out this fine, fine book.  The author (a beloved professor of theology and Bible at Nyack College) is passionate about life, about guiding others into taking up their life's journey with gusto, and with helping women students, especially, discover their own best identity. 


As one of Dr. Abdallah's colleagues -- the Director of Spiritual Formation at the college  -- puts it,


Amy has artfully constructed this rite of passage for women in order to help women understand and embrace what it means to be a woman and to celebrate the beautiful and delicate complexities that make us uniquely feminine. The Book of Womanhood is an outstanding resource for families, churches, and colleges.


Of course there are many debates within the evangelical world about God's plan for women and men and what is meant by "Biblical womanhood." This book can help "create a path through the confusion "by it's flexible framework of finding identity through developing a relationship with God, self, and others, and creation." This multi-faceted vision is fabulously realized, and it comes with a truly lovely foreword by the excellent writer from George Fox University, Lisa Graham McMinn. Nice!

Here is an fine endorsement from Mimi Haddad, the President of Christians for Biblical Equality:


Expected to be married with children in her twenties, life unfolded in unanticipated ways for Amy David Abdallah. These became opportunities to journey with God toward self-discovery and empowerment. This book builds wholeness in all its relationships. For these reasons, The Book of Womanhood is hard to put down.


So, there. It may be hard to pick up, but I'm telling you, it will be so, so useful, and I commend it to you if you are a young woman or care about any young women. Buy a bunch for a book group! 


Seeking Imperfection- Body Image, Marketing, and God Evan M. jpgSeeking Imperfection: Body Image, Marketing, and God Evan M. Dolive (The Pilgrim Press) $18.00  I have mentioned this book several times near the end of the year at events and to customers who may find it useful, and to friends that work in youth or college ministry but it dawns on me I haven't mentioned it here yet at BookNotes.  I sure intended to -- it is an excellent read, an important resources, and an example of what can happen when one dad gets a bee in his bonnet.


The backstory involved an internet post that went viral when Dolive, an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) decided to speak out when he saw a hyper-sexualized Victoria Secret's ad campaign with undergarments in their PINK line -- designed for Spring Break -- with sexually suggestive words on them.  Another mainline pastor, a clergy colleague of Rev. Dolive, got a ton of hits on a piece he had written exposing this lurid bit of profiteering aimed at young women, which captured the attention of Dolive.  He investigated the lurid marketing efforts of Victoria's Secret and, as a father of teenager girls, decided to draft an open letter to them.  His piece, in turn, went viral, and he received quite a lot of attention from all over the world.  When he ended up talking about sexism and and body image, marketing and sexuality, and being made in the image of God on CNN, there was a lot of attention.  People.com named him one of the "top five coolest dads" and he decided to turn his missive into a larger book. Seeking Imperfection: Body Image, Marketing, and God is the result, and we should all be very, very grateful.


Delive reminds us of the need for the church to confront the destructive tendencies of hyper-sexualized marketing and to counter them by reminding us how we have been created in God's image. This challenge -- for the church to speak to the culture on this very matter -- as Derek Penwell says in his review, "is a welcome word to a culture preoccupied with how people look." 


Unlike some books, this isn't abstract theology exploring the meaning of the Imago Dei although it isn't merely a screed against greedy marketeers. It is a very interesting, casual, if serious, exploration of our culture and the invitation for a sacred conversation. Since Dolive is a father and a pastor and a theologian, Seeking Imperfection is written with a tender heart, even if he is at times properly excised about how our society foists culture images of sexiness and self worth upon us all.  There are good discussion questions and a few resources offered in the back.  (Oh, how I wished he'd have cited Margot Starbuck's excellent Unsqueezed: Springing Free from Skinny Jeans, Nose Jobs, Highlights and Stilettos (my favorite book on body image for women) and Sam Van Eman's On Earth as It Is in Advertising? Moving from Commercial Hype to Gospel Hope, one of the few basic books on thinking Christianly about advertising and coping spiritually with its hype, written by a good friend.)


Yes, Dolive's a cool dad, talking mostly with an eye to the issues of younger women, but his study has large implications.


Christian Piatt, a popular Disciples of Christ writer notes some of the bigger theological stuff this pastor of Family Life helps us to grapple with:


Can we be made in the image of God and still be imperfect? This conundrum has plagued contemporary Christianity for far too long. Dolive, in his new book, takes this toxic religious issue head-on, offering a much-needed alternative to the illusion of Christian perfection. Additionally, he reclaims the pursuit of accepting ourselves as we are, imperfections included, so we may first learn to love ourselves before taking on the audacious (but critical) command to love others likewise. 


The Political World of Bob Dylan- Freedom and Justice, Power and Sin.jpgThe Political World of Bob Dylan: Freedom and Justice, Power and Sin Jeff Taylor & Chad Israelson (Palgrave Macmillan) $105.00  Okay, I was going to be snarky and award this some caustic shout out for being obscenely over-priced. I protest the terrible overpricing of academic books and can't believe that some publishers think they should get away with this nonsense.  That said, get thee to a library (although few libraries these days can afford these costly volumes) or buckle down and save some dough so you can order this from us -- it is nothing short of spectacular. It is a seriously Christian, profoundly insightful study of Dylan, seen by way of thinking about a non-aligned, counter-cultural bit of politics  shaped by God's Kingdom.


Part of the Palgrave "Critical Political Theory and Radical Practice " series, these authors bring a surprising perspective. Jeff Taylor is a bit of a friend, a Professor of Political Science at Dordt College, the seriously Dutch Reformed/Kuyperian college in Iowa, and have some important influences in common. In any event, this is the definitive book on the politics of Dylan, and should be on the shelf of any serious collector of books about Mr. Zimmerman and his work.


As it says on the back, The Political World of Bob Dylan "comprehensively investigates Dylan's relationship to the social, political, and religious cultures that acted upon him and to which he reacted. Generally associated with the New Left politics of the 1960s, Dylan's political worldview transcends that narrow description. The ideas he has expressed in songs and interviews can be categorized as traditional, populist, and Christian anarchistic."  Yeah, man, you read that right.


Colman McCarthy -- who some will remember for his remarkable work teaching inner city high school kids about nonviolence and peacemaking -- says, "As ably as any writers who have probed Dylan's politics, Taylor and Israelson clarify the complexities and explain the subtleties." 


I loved this quote by Dylan fan, sociologist and Baptist preacher, Tony Campolo,


After reading this book, I had the feeling that Jeff Taylor and Chad Israelson understand Dylan better than Dylan understands Dylan. They made me aware that I had made Bob Dylan in my own political image, and that he is much more complex than that.


If you read much about the inscrutable Mr. Dylan and his wondrous oeuvre, you may know the book Song of the North Country by a Minnesota university prof, David Pichaske. He writes


In their extensively researched, engagingly written, and carefully argued examination of Dylan's thought and art, Taylor and Israelson both extend and shed new light on previous Dylan scholarship.


Just so you know, the authors have become friends with Nat Hentoff, the legendary rock critic who knows Dylan so well and he has offered exceptional support. And how many mainstream scholarly books of this calibre, in these circles, thank Wendell Berry, Bill Kauffman, and Cal Seerveld for assistance?  The book is unconscionably pricey, but the content is maybe priceless. 


The Power and Vulnerability of Love- A Theological Anthropology .jpgThe Power and Vulnerability of Love: A Theological Anthropology Elizabeth O'Donnell Gandolfo (Fortress) $39.00  I'm not going to lie -- we have so many books on a Christian view of the human person that I just wasn't interested in another academic anthropology. But then I read the fascinating review in The Christian Century by one of my favorite book reviewers, Lauren Winner. In that review, Winner caught my attention with her opening line, "If Jurgen Moltmann and Brene Brown collaborated on a book, what might emerge is something like The Power of Vulnerability of Love."


All rightee then.


As Lauren explains in her smart review, Gondolfo explores the notion of God's empathy, solidarity, vulnerability -- to use older language, she is asking if God is impassable? That is, does God change as God suffers with us? When God comes near us in the human Jesus, does that mean God has risked vulnerability?  It is hard to not want to answer yes, from our limited understanding, it is obvious God has risked much. The God of the Bible, despite what some majestic hymns intone, is not a distant deity that is utterly fixed. And, of course, we limited, suffering humans are made in the image of God.  So, Winner writes,


Perhaps this is true of all theological anthropologies: in order to say something insightful about the kinds of creatures human beings are, one must say something about who God is, and because God is more interesting than we are, the theologians claims about divinity will always be the most arresting part of the project.


Here is what Elizabeth O'Donnell Gandolfo does in her new book: she explores the nature of humans, and the nature of God, by way of reflecting up and reporting beautifully about the vulnerability of mothers, especially in the act of childbirth.  Lauren Winner's review continues,


Gandolfo doesn't need doctrine about God to say any of that; she just needs feminist sociology. But her descriptions of maternity yield a way to say something about God. The theology she limns is aptly paradoxical.


That is, is seems that The Power and Vulnerability of Love both affirms God's great risk, willing to be vulnerability, and yet affirms -- unlike the tendency of most mainline denominational scholars these days -- that, really, we don't most need a God who is present, accompanying us in our grief and loss and limits, but we need a Someone who will not be buffeted by the horrors. In Winner's words, Gondolfo suggests that "Were this not the case, the image of God within us could be eradicated. It cannot. It is inviolable precisely because the God it images is invulnerable."


Well, I have not explored this big book, although I am interested in Gondolfo's study of the character of God ("and how an infinite and invulnerable God can be said to have wholly entered into human existence") and of her study of the human person. Maybe like me, you will be particularly interested in her study of motherhood, childbirth, midwifes, babies, and the like. 


Listen to Bonnie J. Miller-Mclemore, who writes,


It's so refreshing to read a work that takes vulnerability so seriously... This changes everything (to see how, you need to read the book.) Most impressively Gandolfo could not know what she knows without direct encounters with mothering, including other mother' narratives and practices. I love how she weaves maternal knowledge and Christian sources into a conceptually rich portrait of what it means to be human.


The Marvelous Clouds- Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media .jpgThe Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media John Durham Peters (University of Chicago Press) $30.00  Oh how I wanted to list this somehow as one of the most significant books of last year. It has been touted as "highly original" and "more than foundational."  One reviewer says it is "dazzlingly intelligent."  I just hadn't worked with it at all -- it is a well-made, sturdy hardback from one of the world's most prestigious publishing houses, but -- as these things go -- I have no idea what the authors views are, his assumptions and values, his backstory or worldview. It sure seems so very interesting -- I was immediately drawn to the wordplay of the title. I'm glad for anyone who find meaning in nature, and relates human culture to the realities of God's good world, whether they call it that or not.


Just read these two blurbs from the back cover:


"This book is about media in the way that Moby-Dick is about whaling. When Melville set the Pequod sailing between heaven and earth, he turned the ship into a lens through which his readers could examine humankind's place in the cosmos. In The Marvelous Clouds, Peters turns water, land, fire, and sky into lenses through which readers can explore the role of mediation in every aspect of their lives. This is a completely original, wildly ambitious, and deliciously lyrical book. It will certainly change the way you see media. It might also change the way you see the world."


Fred Turner, author of The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties


"Wide-ranging, playful, erudite, and delightfully diverse, The Marvelous Clouds redefines media in the largest possible terms, as anything that communicates meaning, including bodies, the environment, and the world itself.  Although this may seem to rob media of its specificity and therefore of its theoretical purchase, in Peters's hands it becomes the occasion for making surprising and insightful connections.  A treat for academics and general readers alike, this is a book not to be missed."


N. Katherine Hayles, author of How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis


Just so you know, there is another blurb that goes on and on about the author's familiarity with the obtuse continental philosopher Martin Heidegger and that "his epistemological realism overcomes the conventional position of the 'linguistic turn' and of 'constructivism' with a fresh and truly inspired unfolding of intuitions..." Just saying.


Teaching and Christian Imagination .jpgTeaching and Christian Imagination edited by David I. Smith and Susan M. Felch (Eerdmans) $22.00 This book came in December but it is dated 2016.  I think it was the first 2016 release we got in our store, so our hats are off to Eerdmans and these fine scholars at Calvin College.  Smith is the director of the Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning (and the director of the graduate program in education at Calvin) and Felch is the director of the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship which has offered the world some very good books over the last decades. She is also a professor of English and has written some lovely works herself.


As I spent time with this I was struck, as I knew I would be, by their deep Christian convictions, but how this pushes us onward to think about new stuff, working with new images and metaphors in helpful ways.  Yes, yes, we need basic books that explain conventional Christian theology as it shapes our assumptions and worldview and how that relates to each and every academic discipline or professional career. And this does this, but they "tell it slant" and invite us not just to "integrate Christ convictions and teaching" but they explore an energizing vision of the very art of teaching.  That is they "encourage teacher-readers to reanimate their work by imagining it differently."


And how does one do this, re-imagine teaching?  Well, they unpack three metaphors for teaching, namely journeys and pilgrimage, gardening and experience in wilderness, and buildings and walls. As Karen Eifler writes of it, "the authors provide catalysts for teachers of any discipline in religious institutions to rethink, reignite, and recommit to their vocation. Wending my way through this text I found myself invited and equipped to cultivate a hermeneutic wonder..."


There are some splendid essays here, well worth pondering, that bear fruit with repeated readings, I'm sure. Authors include Barbara Carvill, Kurt Schaefer, Timothy Steele, and John Witvliet and they all use these three metaphors to illuminate fresh visions of faith-infused teaching and learning.


Listen to some of what Dorothy Bass has said about this:


Imagine this, teachers, and experience it through reading this book: Set aside, for a moment, the fast pace and quantitative judgments that shape so much of contemporary education. Encounter biblical texts, poems, and works of art that help you to see what you do every day with new eyes. Hear down-to-earth stories from other teachers. Let your imagination of what it means to teach and to learn deepen and expand. Find renewal in the indispensable, beautiful, and difficult vocation to which God has called you.


Or, how's this for a good endorsement, from Baylor University's Perry Glanzer:


I have never read anything quite like this delightful book. The authors both nourish your soul and draw you along the path toward teaching excellence.... Every kind of Christian teacher will find this book life-giving.


A New Apostolic Refo .gifA New Apostolic Reformation? A Biblical Response to a Worldwide Movement   R. Douglas Geivett & Holly Pivec (Weaver Book Company) $19.99  I wasn't sure if many of our friends or followers would care about this, but it is so very interesting, and the authors so respected -- both are involved at the Talbot School of Theology at Biola -- that we wanted it to be known, and let you know that we stock it. Even if you've never heard of this NAR movement of the last decade or so, it's good to know about what's going on in certain wings of the Body of Christ.(Geivett, by the way, wrote the fascinating IVP book called Faith, Film, and Philosophy which explored worldviews and philosophical topics in contemporary film, so is adept at discerning what's going on out there.) This recent book, as Dr. James Spiegel (a philosophy and religion prof at Taylor University) says, "is an important book, a one-stop shop for an explanation and biblical assessment of the so-called New Apostolic Reformation."

  

I don't know if you know much about this new global movement, but it has a few main players -- evangelicals who have become neo-Pentecostals, some new charismatics (although, interestingly, not exactly the Assembly of God folks, conventional Pentecostals here in the states.) A few of the names are nearly rock stars in some circles.


Somewhat gathered around the fascinating work of C. Peter Wagner, it blends some curious stuff about spiritual warfare, territorial spirits and a critique of Western/secular/modernist rejection of the supernatural -- Wagner has been savvy about worldviews and cultures as a leader for 60 years in world-wide mission work.) Other names that a big in this big movement include Bill Hamon, Chuck Pierce, Che Ahn, and those involved the International Coalition of Apostolic Leaders.


A New Apostolic Reformation? A Biblical Response is a serious study, not a sensational expose. It looks at what the Bible teaches about prophets, false prophets, apostles and other offices of leadership. It looks at the nuances of views within various denominational traditions -- from Roman Catholic to traditional Protestant to historic Pentecostal, right up to this new, raging movement about anointing new apostles. 


This is not a general study opposing charismatic renewal or even mostly a study of the oddities of the NAR movement, but a theological reflection on what we should think about these sorts of movements and the doctrine of apostleship. It is meticulously footnoted and worthy of careful study.  


As the winsome NT scholar Craig Keener (formerly of Eastern/Palmer but now a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary) notes, there are serious Biblical errors and sociological abuses lurking around some in this movement. He wisely recommends this book to help us be aware of and challenge some of the weirdness. Keener writes:


This critique invites all of us, wherever we stand on the spectrum, and whether we agree with every detail of [their] criticism, to recognize and challenge these errors. Serious errors exposed here include Manifested Sons doctrine, dominionism, extra-biblical 'inspired' doctrines, that exalt individuals, inappropriate fixation on esoteric information about evil spirits, and certain 'apostles' calling people out of other denominations or movements to submit to their covering.



Brand Luther Andrew Pettegree.jpgBrand Luther Andrew Pettegree (Penguin Press) $29.95  This fabulous looking, hefty hardback -- the embossed printing gives you a feel that it was done on an old printing press -- has gotten some great reviews since it came out late this fall.  I like the big subtitle on the cover: How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous man in Europe -- and Started the Protestant Reformation.


In a way, this is a good study of Luther and the rise of the Protestant reformation -- just in time for the 500th anniversary here this year!  But what makes it so curiously interesting is that it the author is an expert in -- get this -- the sixteenth century book business.  As one scholar said, Brand Luther tells two tales. The first is an engaging biography of Martin Luther. The second is a stimulating account of the first time the printing press helped shape a mass movement." 


The reviews and back cover endorsements, by the way, are all of notable scholarly pedigree.  Big, big book author Diarmaid Maccullouch  has nice words, as do four or five mainstream historians and authors of books about the reformation era.  For instance, Bruce Gordon of Yale Divinity School calls it "authoritative and beautifully written" and says that "Pettegree's book provides a radical take on a revolutionary figure." Karin Maag, professor of history and director of the H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies at Calvin College calls it "perceptive and engaging" concluding that,


Pettegree's lucid and persuasive account offers an unparalleled insight into this outstanding early modern example of effective use of communication techniques that allows Luther's message to take hold.




BookNotes

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DISCOUNT
ANY ITEM MENTIONED

10% off
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takes you to the secure Hearts & Minds order form page
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if you have questions or need more information
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                                      Hearts & Minds 234 East Main Street  Dallastown, PA  17313     717-246-3333