With our on-the-road, pop-up bookstore work keeping us up late and often away last month we've not had time to properly think about Advent. The road trips were hard but rewarding - many thanks to friends at Montreat College in NC and Redeemer Presbyterian in NYC, Geneva College in Beaver Falls, PA, and St. Mary's Ecumenical Institute in Baltimore, MD, and, just after Thanksgiving, the Episcopal clergy from the Diocese of Pennsylvania who allow me to speak to them about books they might find stimulating and useful and their annual retreat. That we got to be with authors as diverse as Tim Keller, James Dunn, Phyllis Tickle (and, even better, the good folks who attend these events and talk over the book tables and buy our wares) is an immense privilege. This November schedule prevented us from doing a proper Advent book list here at BookNotes.
I assume you are, in your own way, as busy as we are, so maybe you won't mind our tardiness, here in early Advent. May these books prove helpful as you enter into this journey. Send us an order right away (they are all on sale!) and we'll ship them with all possible promptness.
You can also browse through a previous list from last year -- most of these are still in print and I suspect we have most of 'em in stock now, too. (A few are real classics!) Enjoy!
I don't know if it is helpful to distinguish this little book from others that invite us to the celebration of Advent, but Doulos Resources is an sister imprint to the wonderful Kalos Press, which has brought you such great literary works as Margie Haack's The Exact Place and Matt Redmond's God of the Mundane. Solid, creative, and very interesting, these books are all well worth having. I figured if you valued those (which we have raved about at BookNotes) you might like to know that these are from the same great indie press.
The Greatest Gift: Unwrapping the Full Love Story of Christmas Ann Voskamp (Tyndale) $19.99 I cannot recommend this more highly, having loved every page I've tasted, and hoping to press it into your hands, so you can enjoy its deep truths, its wonderful, wonderful writing, its sturdy, attractive design and really helpful insights. Who knows, maybe you will share it with others as a special holiday blessing, or at least read it out loud to those you love. It is that kind of book.
I trust you know the New York Times bestseller by Ms Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts (and the really nice little gift book edition, that has quotes from it, accompanied by very nice full- color nature photography.) Voskamp was roughly criticized by some not so discerning critics who thought she verged on pantheism since she so colorfully writes about God's presence in the glories of the created world. She's from a farming family, and gets more than most of us about the ways of God and creation (she has a splendid chapter in my often-recommended all-time-favorite anthology of food essays The Spirit of Food) and she is fluent in the broad contemplative tradition, too, realizing how attentiveness to the mundane stuff of daily work and life is how we nurture grateful hearts. Anyway, she's a good thinker, a fabulous storyteller, a broad-hearted, generous, evangelical, an accomplished wordsmith with a wondrous sense of things under foot. In this very handsome collection of Advent readings - based on Older Testament texts, which she handles with aplumb - she does a modern update of the Jesse Tree custom, and besides the great insight of the inter-connectedness of the Biblical stories and the unfolding drama of the big picture, offers exquisite new designs for making your own Jesse Tree ornaments. (See the book's accompanying website for the actual patterns, if you'd like: www.aholyexperience.com.)
You have to love a book which offers this in the beginning:
Big and glossy and loud and fast - that's how this bent-up world turns.
But God, when He comes - He shows up in this fetal ball.
He who cared the edges of the cosmos curved Himself into a fetal ball in the dark, tethered Himself to the uterine wall of a virgin, and lets His cells divide, light splitting all white.
Each day's Biblical reading in The Greatest Gift is printed out in full, her own take on the telling comes next, and there is even a section each day which offers an idea for further unwrapping the gift - that is, something to do. These are not extravagant or guilt-producing, but just suggested small steps towards greater fidelity in this busy month. It is a pleasurable journey even as it makes you reconsider some things, and we think it is very much worth your time. We're happy to recommend it as the best new Advent/Christmastime resource published this year.
A Stubborn Sweetness And Other Stories for the Christmas Season Katherine Paterson (Westminster/John Knox) $15.00 Oh my, were we excited when we heard that the amazing children's writer, the often-awarded Ms Katherine Paterson, had this new book coming out. It is, in fact, a combination of most of the stories from her two other (frustratingly out-of-print) short story holiday collections, Angels and Other Strangers and A Midnight Clear. One or two stories from those two books have been oddly left out, and there is one included that was previously published in a Presbyterian denominational magazine. For the price, this is perhaps the best bargain of the season, a very nicely crafted hardback with a textured cover and good paper and binding. But, most importantly, these are great stories that can be read out loud in many settings. I suppose they are mostly for personal reading or family devotions, but I know of Christian educators who have used them in Sunday school, and (since she is so esteemed in the mainstream world of excellent children's books) some have been read in public schools as well.
There is a story about a shopping mall's night watchman, a lonely widower, a pregnant teenage runaway, a political prisoner in China, a grieving mother, and a privileged American, all "who have forgotten the true meaning of Christmas because of loss, pain, greed, or circumstances." As it says on the dust jacket, "through unexpected and uplifting ways, each is reminded of the first Christmas story and the vision of hope and peace it offers the world."
These stories, perhaps firstly written for middle school age youngsters, are not simplistic or preachy. They are not primarily Bible lessons. These are contemporary short stories, for older children and families, nuanced and beautiful, provocative and spiritually-alive. A Stubborn Sweetness And Other Stories are highly recommended, whether you have children or not. Why not skip some of the cheesy holiday Hallmark movies and the endless re-runs of romances set over Christmas that are mostly foolish and not related to Christmas, and spend an hour or two reading this for your holiday entertainment? You won't regret it.
The Women of Christmas: Experience the Season Afresh with Elizabeth, Mary, and Anna Liz Curtis Higgs (Waterbrook) $14.99 Again, this selection is a good one, and a great price for a hardback which is over 200 pages! You most likely know of Liz Curtis Higgs as a popular Woman of Faith speaker and knock-out comedian. She has been known for being a bit loud and funny, and for over a decade has been writing modern-day novels and engaging Bible studies bringing "bad girls of the Bible" to life in modern times. She is not trying to be a high-brow literati, nor a mystically deep contemplative, pondering the hidden mysteries of the season. No, she's a bold preacher, a funny communicator, and a good writer, just retelling and helping us appreciate these stories with boldness and good humor, realizing how they are still good news for us today. In the last few books Higgs has been less funny, and this one is, while good natured and winsome, not laugh-inducing. The Women of Christmas is a solid, entertaining Bible study book showing how, by following the footsteps of these well-known women, your own life can unfold in more vibrant and perhaps new ways this season. There is a useful study guide, too, making this a helpful resource for any last minute Bible studies or programs you may have to arrange. Nice.
Embodied Light: Advent Reflections on the Incarnation Melissa Tidwell (Upper Room) $12.00 Upper Room can be counted on to produce warm and elegant paperbacks of Advent devotions, and this is the best they've done this year. Tidwell is a good writer and this book is unique - it invites us to pray with our bodies, to literally embody seasonal practices through gesturing, conversing, walking and singing. This is a four-week journey (with a Bible text, discussion questions, and prayer prompts for each reading) that walks us deeper into the mystery of the adventure of God's adventure of taking on human flesh. The book opens with an epigram of a Mary Oliver poem ("Poem", since you want to know) and in the first section cites a Wim Wender's film (Wings of Desire, if you want to know.) It's that kind of book, artful, nearly sensual and quite thoughtful, showing literally what we mean by an embodied, incarnational faith.
Advent A to Z: Prayerful and Playful Preperations for Families Sharon Harding & John Indermark (Abingdon) $11.99 This book maybe isn't for everyone - it is designed for families with young children and has tons of ways to explore Advent by way of studying a word starting with each of the 26 successive letters of the alphabet, followed by suggestions for simple, easy-to-prepare activities such as games, crafts, meditations, journaling ideas, even outreach or service projects.) The activities are based on that day's word and are ideal for parents teaching their children about Advent including those who obviously already know their alphabet. (Which is to say, this is not primarily in the genre of an "alphabet book" even though it uses that device.) Plus, there is a section in each entry called "for adults" which means (yes!) adults can play this game, too. And here is another thing: Indermark is a renowned Bible teacher (having done books on the prophets, the gospels, a great book on love in the New Testament, and others that gently invite us into radical, Biblical teachings.) I think there is enough meat here to inspire nearly anyone wanting new ideas that are both Biblically-grounded and a bit experiential as we learn to live out the hope of God's coming reign. The two authors - one a Christian educator, the other a Biblical scholar and UCC pastor -- have collaborated before, on the much-respected Feasting on the Word and Seasons of the Spirit curriculum.
A Joy To the World: The Forgotten Meaning of Christmas Isaac Watts and Paraclete Press (Paraclete Press) $16.99 This is one of those smaller-sized hardbacks, ubiquitous this time of year, as they make such a perfect house-warming gift, or as a book to share at a party or as a stocking stuffer. Some of these nice-looking gift books are vapid, others are full of the delightful but often-used quotes and stories and classic poems we've heard before -- fine, but not particularly catching. Well, at first glance, this is one you have heard before, too, but - hold on to your hat! - it will allow you to attend to the grand and glorious themes of the grand and glorious words of this grand and glorious hymn, and it could be life-changing! You may recall that "Joy to the World" was inspired by Psalm 98 and was not written as a Christmas carol at all. The hymn is about the return of the Messiah who comes in glory, in victory over evil, setting (as NT Wright likes to say it) "putting things to rights." As you should know, the liturgical season of Advent is not (in the traditional church calendar) a time of counting down til Christmas, really, but a season of recalling how we are awaiting the second coming. To allow Isaac Watts to interpret his own song (as this book does, with excerpts of his own theologically rich insights) as a spiritual aid to deepen and enhance our longing for the final restoration, is a very, very special gift. This handsome gift book is light to hold, lovely on the eyes, and - if you have eyes to see and ears to really hear - will be theologically informative and transforming. Kudos to the editors and writers at Paraclete Press who pulled this together and enhanced it with very appropriate design and historic art. Very, very nicely done, and very, very important.
The Hope of Christmas Jack Countryman (Nelson) $12.99 Jack Countryman's imprint is renowned for producing very, very handsome gift books, with heavy stock paper, great bindings, full color art and very nice page design. This is a 7 inch x 5 inch hardback, with a heavy card-stock sleeve, too, that nearly sparkles with the white cover and the overlay of silver and red touches. Inside, this devotional collection offers standard inspiration, evangelical piety, wholesome Christmas hopes, and a reminder about the truest hope of the season. It is a very nice gift book, for others or for yourself.
This is a great devotional aid, especially if you feel harried or hurried this time of year, and can't put in the proper time doing much serious Bible study. The Hope of Christmas is arranged in about 20 sections, each comprised of three parts: prophecy, fulfillment, promise. That is, there is a Old Testament text, a New Testament text, and a reflection on the implications and promises of God inspired by this rhthem of promise and fulfillment (also drawn from the Bible.) There are also poems and hymn lyrics, easy-to-read reflections and a few prayers scattered throughout. The understated artwork evokes the look of hand-made stamp art or simple woodcuts, and the result makes a very nice book to hold, and certainly nice to use as a gift. I'm sure you'd enjoy giving a few of these away, sharing them with those who may not know the bigger Biblical story that forms the real basis for the Christian celebrations this time of year. Prophecy, fulfillment, promise. And, as it reminds us, patience, as we wait. Nice.
SIX BOOKS NOT DESIGNED AS ADVENT RESOURCES THAT YOU STILL MIGHT FIND HELPFUL TO USE THIS MONTH.
Incarnation: The Surprising Overlap of Heaven & Earth William Willimon (Abingdon) $13.99 I will read almost anything Willimon writes, and I'm sure some of our readers do too; many of our best Christian leaders admire his insight, his boldness, and his solid, clear writing. Willimon is a bit blunt at times, occasionally funny with his warm Southern storytelling, and obviously is grounded in wide, wide reading in the best writers from throughout church history. He is a consummate, communicator, not hip, but mature and eloquent. In this inaugural book in the "Belief Matters" series, Willimon does a quick study and creates a great layperson's guide to this complex theological doctrine, explaining what it means and why it matters.
I love this slim book, and would recommend it no matter what month it was. Since the time is now upon us to ponder this mystery, why not pick this up and use it a bit - maybe a quickly convened study club with some holiday cheer? Unless you are reading the little first century classic, On the Incarnation by Athanasius (in the SVS edition with the C.S. Lewis forward) may I encourage you to buy this one, at least? My hunch is you will hear more than a bit of nonsense this time of year from various quarters in the media and church, and this will help you navigate it all. Friends, the incarnation is a core and important doctrine, and I for one am glad for this "Theology Matters" series. You will learn something if you read this, I'm sure, and you will be glad for it.
What is the Incarnation? William B. Evans (Presbyterian & Reformed) $4.99 Okay, if you don't want to read Athanasius, and you don't want to read Willimon, at least get a bunch of these very nice booklets and stack 'em around as life preservers in this wacky season. Written by a Bible & Religion prof at Erskine College, this is no-nonsense, the solid truth, none-negotiable and clear-headed. I love most of these little "Basics of Faith" booklets, handsomely produced by this conservative Calvinist publisher, and I believe that no matter what your theological persuasion, this is a study from which you will benefit. Scottish scholar and Presbyterian pastor Sinclair Ferguson says that "Evans introduces us to both the teaching of Scripture and the loving reflections of some of the best minds of the Christian centuries...will stimulate even greater love for and faith in the Lord Jesus." How many books can promise that? (This really is mostly a very fine series, each about 35 pages with great colorful covers. You know we've often celebrated the one on worldview by Philip Ryken and the excellent one by our friend Stephen Nichols on vocation. We stock 'em all.)
Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair Anne Lamott (Riverhead) $17.95 Oh my, you surely know this bawdy
hippie author of fiction and nonfiction, as famous for her excellent prose as
she is for being an admittedly messed-up, way-lefty, Jesus-loving Christian. Her last little book was way cool, on
prayer, entitled Help, Thanks, Wow, and was published in a nifty slim-lined
hardback. This new one is a perfect companion volume, in a matching little
hardback. I think the writing and
storytelling is even better here - and the theme is, frankly, ideal for this
time of year. If God-With-Us is
not about repair of the world, an offer of grace and goodness for our screwy
little lives on this broken, broken planet, then it isn't much worth pondering. But Anne gets that much,
at least: God loves us and we, accepted and blessed, can be agents of repair,
incarnations of hope. Lamott knows that the tough questions about where God is in the midst of our
struggles are well worth asking. Of course. Maybe especially this month. It is always a nice little escape anytime to enter her wacky world
and read her stuff, especially if you are a fan, as so many of us are. Given how
urgent the topic, though, joining her and reading along offers more than a fun read -- it becomes a much needed call to care, to be present to one another, to help
mend together the shreds, stitch by stitch. This is a very moving book, and could be a good companion and inspiration for those who can't quite do the more customary Advent devotionals.
By the way, we stock the "audio book" on CD and she herself reads it. Very cool. Even if you don't read it during Advent, it would make a swell gift for a fan. You're welcome for the nifty idea.
Embracing the Transformation Walter Brueggemann (edited by K.C.Hanson) (Cascade Books)
$14.00 This is the latest (brand new) little collection of Dr. Brueggemann and those that follow him know that he offers
astute observations on the Biblical texts that are generative for daily
discipleship, especially as we think about public life, the big themes of what is shaping our culture and our lives, and how a Biblical vision might provide other ways to be in the world. Often surprising,
sometimes deeply moving, occasionally mind-numbing, Walt is a genius, an
inspiration to many of us, and a rare blend of the prophetic and the pastoral,
the scholar and the preacher. He holds up these stories (explained with often amazing insight and remarkable vocabulary) and asks us to stake our lives on them. Can
we be an alternative community, as the text invites us? Can we catch of glimpse of the gospel that dismantles
the principalities and powers and deconstructs our ideologies? If
Advent is a time of "hungering and thirsting after righteousness" or hearing the one who "cries from the wilderness" then doing this
kind of intensive study that yields a prophetic imagination is a near-perfect
seasonal practice. That the second
chapter is called "Advent: Departure and Homecoming" nearly makes this little
volume a must-have resource this month. Just
like a few other little Brueggemann collections edited by Hanson, these essays were first
published in Journal of Preachers.
A Spirituality of Homecoming Henri Nouwen (Upper Room) $12.00 This is the fifth in the series of little, very handsome monographs published in cooperation with the Henri Nouwen Society, edited by John Mogabgab, and we are grateful for them all. It seems that this one might work well in Advent (even though it is based on a set of Lenten talks) - the chapters are brief and few, but it is a little book to live with, to carry and ponder. There are lovely pull quotes and some small design features that make it especially nice. Here is how it starts:
There are some amazing Advent themes in almost every line, eh? It's a nice little book, and thought maybe you might like to know about it, maybe even to use these days.
The spiritual life is a journey to the center, the center in which we come in touch with the pain of God as well as with the love of God, the pain of our world as well as the hope of the world, the pains of our own lives as well as the light that breaks into our darkness. It is a journey in which we resist the many distractions that pull us away from the center with an endless number of things that quite literally "occupy" us.
And it is a journey of prayer in which we stand in the presence of God with a listening heart...God is not in the distant heavens or in the hidden depths of the future, but here and now. God has pitched a tent among us. Even more than that, God has made a home in us so that we can make God's home our home.
Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship N.T. Wright (Eerdmans) $14.00 This is one of the earliest NT Wright books, one of the first I ever read, and it remains a favorite. The respected and energetic New Testament scholar here offers a wonderful study of Jesus, as expressed in Hebrews, Colossians, Matthew, John, Mark, and Revelation. Wow. And those are just the chapters of part one; part two explores aspects of having a renewed mind and living into being "a living sacrifice" in a renewed world that is now and not yet. As Tom puts it, "The longer you look at Jesus, the more you will want to serve him in his world. That is, of course, if it's the real Jesus you're looking at." This Advent, let us look to the "real Jesus." This overview of the portrayal of Jesus in six New Testament books and six New Testament themes is sure to help. A very nice study, ideal for pondering alone or with friends this holiday season or in the new year.
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