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Hearts & Minds Awards for Best Books of 2011 PART ONE

Book. Of. The. Year.  2011. Nope, not gonna do it.  First, I'm not sure there is such a thing.BestOf11.jpg  Yes, I know we like our lists, like to name stuff. Maybe God gave us humanoids the task to name the animals, but that was before the fall.  And I'll bet there are more new books each year, nowadays, then there were animals in the antediluvian Paradise.  And, anyway, even if there was some One Best Book, I would hope you wouldn't trust me to tell you what it is.  I'm aware of a lot of books and read pretty widely and have tons of opinions (as if you didn't know.) But a Best Book Picker I am not.

So, here are some.  Some. Good. Ones.  We like to talk about awards and winners and best in a category, honoring and celebrating, but do take it with a bit of tongue in cheek.  In case you don't get it, many of my categories are supposed to be a little funny, but my accolades are sincere.  Please do help us spread the word about these lists, because the authors we commend are deserving.  I've pondered this year's great titles pretty seriously. 

You don't know the anxiety creating this list causes me; I esteem our readership and know there are some smart folks out there (not to mention a few authors and publishers---hey, guys and gals. Thanks for being with us, but realize you're making me even more nervous!)  So I guess I have to admit I maybe missed a few that deserve some prizes.  Sorry.  But I do affirm a lot, and this is only the first part of the list. More are on the way. We've got some great books to celebrate, there will some big winners, and a few that might surprise you.

I do work hard to choose important and great titles, and trust that our fans and friends will appreciate it. 2011 as a great year for books, if less so for bookstores.   I don't think we're steering you wrong.  How's that for a grand claim?  

Having said that, here we go.

BEST BOOK OF SIMPLE AUTOBIOGRAPHY BY AN OTHERWISE EXTRAORDINARY  SPIRITUAL THEOLOGIAN OF GREAT NOTE.

Pastor Pete.gifThe Pastor Eugene Peterson (HarperOne) $25.99  How can this not be listed, and listed loudly? We have been blessed to tell people about this for almost a year, now, and we remain convinced it is one of the finest books of 2011. (And what a joy to be the booksellers at a large event with him this spring and to chat with him about this writing project!)  Well, as those who know him can attest, Peterson speaks slowly, and writes carefully, often beautifully, usually with great substance--his are not usually books that are read quickly.  This, though, was at times breezy, quite enjoyable as the beautifully-rendered story tells about his journey from Montana son of a butcher to highfalutin' bit city seminary student to lover of literature and suburban church planter as a perplexed, struggling, ordinary working pastor.  Sure, he becomes known for his famous paraphrase of the Bible The Message, and he has done meaty, mature books of spiritual theology in recent years, after a fruitful stint at British Columbia's Regent College.  But the true heart of this memoir is how a call was discerned and embraced by Pastor Pete and his wife Jan.  As a nod to Baltimore novelist Anne Tyler's Saint Maybe, he wanted to call this Pastor Maybe.  It is about being a humble pastor, and that is exactly how he most wants to be remembered.  With this great, sensible book--a delightful read, interesting and no-nonsense--being so widely acclaimed, he just may be most known for esteeming the hard work and vital role of the ordinary pastor in our time.  A big Hearts & Minds shout out for that!

THE KINDA,  SORTA,  ALMOST, BEST BOOK ABOUT SPIRITUALITY AWARD

flunking sainthood small.gifFlunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor Jana Riess (Paraclete) $16.99  I loved this book the minute I heard about it, loved it more the minute I saw it, with the cover that still makes me chuckle, and loved it for sure  after having read the forward twice.  (The second time I read it out loud to Beth, admittedly because part of it was about sex, and, well, since it was a Godly book and really funny, I figured I could get away with it.)  By the time I was a few chapters in I knew I had a soul mate, a best book of the year contender, and a title I just had to tell almost everyone about.  As you've surely heard, Riess sets out to read a spiritual classic each month, with an attendant spiritual practice.  Spoiler alert: it does not go well.  It made me laugh, reminded me of myself a bit too often, and shouts that we don't have to take this spiritual disciplines, contemplative spirituality, neo-monastic stuff quite that seriously.  Perhaps God is in our less than stellar efforts, our failures, our human foibles.  We've all got a lot to learn, and it's okay if we're not super-spiritual saints.  Perhaps, you would find this freeing, as did Lauren Winner who called it "surprising and freeing, fun and funny."  The "kinda, sorta, almost" phrase in the name of the award is a joke---can 't award a book about failure now can we?

THE INEFFABLE AWARD FOR, WELL, I CAN'T QUITE SAY....



sanctuary o.gifSanctuary of the Soul: Journey Into Meditative Prayer  Richard Foster (formatioin/IVP) $13.00  Foster's Celebration of Discipline and Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home are among the most important books in my life, and many others would also testify to Richard's important role in their lives.  I've really like his last three or four, but this is the best little book he's done in a long, long time.  It simply teaches us how to meditate, what that means from a Christian view, and gives some fabulously written examples of times when he found God's presence in immense silence. Need some tender guidance on contemplative prayer?  Ineffable, yes.  




LECTIO DIVINO AWARDO--AND SO MUCH MORE-O

111.gifThe Fire of the Word: Meeting God on Holy Ground Chris Webb (formatio/IVP) $15.00  There were so many great books put out on the formatio label this year, it is hard to name only a few. (Formatio is the imprint of InterVarsity Press that does the most consistently insightful, attractive, and Biblically-faithful books on spirituality of any current publisher.) This one, though, doubtlessly moved me, and I found myself inspired and instructed.  Webb tells moving stories of his own encounters with the Word of God, shares much about how to read the Bible devotionally--to hear God speak!---and teaches us about others who have done so well.  I suppose this is a book about how to read the Bible, but it is so gently and evocatively spiritual, it seems to be about prayer.   And so it is.  With blurbs from Eugene Peterson and formatio authors Ruth Haley Barton and James Bryan Smith, this is indicative of the best of evangelical thinkers about the interface of the Bible and spiritual formation.  Very, very good and deserving of special mention in this list of the best resources of 2011.

THE 'I BET THEY DIDN'T SEE THAT COMING' AWARD FOR UNSUSPECTED CHURCH TRANSFORMATION

renovation.gifRenovation of the Church: What Happens When A Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation  Kent Carlson & Mike Lueken (IVP) $15.00  A few, well, a lot of our readers might say "I told you so" but beg you not to be snooty.  This book is about an independent church that grew and grew using contemporary worship, spiffy drama, seeker outreach and very exciting, well, very exciting everything.  They soon realized their growing numbers and large staff and extraordinary effort was not sustainable.  They pastors were burning out.  The community of faith was vibrant but seemed dependent on the sensational and exciting and their faith might have been lacking in depth or maturity.  They did an about face, began to learn about spiritual disciplines, taught a different approach to evangelical faith and, as they deepened, they lost members.  But they nurtured disciples. "This is an honest story," writes James Bryan Smith, "of two courageous pastors who dared to change the ethos of their church..."  Smith describes the shift from "catering to consumers to creating Christ followers." This story of Oak Hills Church is a great example of not only how to get a church started and fired up, but now to navigate consumerism and an unbiblical entertainment ethos, finally pointing the way to resist ambition and embrace a more humble and historic vision of faith formation.  Kudos, again, to IVP for offering these kinds of resources, and kudos to Carlson & Lueken for being honest enough to tell their stories with candor and hope.  (Although I did see this coming, kudos, too, to IVP graphic designer Cindy Kiple for this classy cover design with the pomegranate. It's a photogenic and fashionable fruit, and a fabulous cover.)

THE "THANK YOU FOR BRINGING THIS UP AT LAST" MOST URGENT BOOK ON THE LEAST TALKED ABOUT TOPIC IN THE CHURCH AWARD

You Lost Me small.gifYou Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church...And Rethinking Faith $17.99  David Kinnaman (Baker) $17.99  I'm so happy about this book and so glad it was written and we felt so privileged to host David here talking about the book when it first came out. It was one of the highlights of the year for us.  I know others have talked about this topic of young adults leaving church, and several books have been written.  Maybe the goofy name of our award isn't quite right, since this isn't the first person to bring this up, but the Barna Group did do good research on this, and David explored it as robustly and as helpfully as anyone. So this book has become a tipping point of sorts, the conversation has now become, or could become, more mainstream and helpful than just fretful observations and hand-wringing.  Kinnaman documents with solid research the various reasons young adults who are raised in the church tend to leave it, or drift from vibrant faith or renounce belief, and invites us to open-mindedness to hear the voices of those who feel that have to somehow reconfigure their faith experiences in these critical years of their lives.  It has substance and stories, statistic and strategies. This is simply the most useful book for congregations on this topic that has yet been done. It was one of the Hearts & Minds favs of the year!  Hey, the 50 suggestions at the end offered by 50 various authors and leaders are themselves nearly worth the price of the book.  Now let's get busy -- reading, talking, listening, thinking, adopting our ministries in ways that might be faithful and true, helpful and effective. This award really is a heart-felt "thank you" for this important work.


THE ABSOLUTE MOST FUN YOU CAN HAVE READING A LONG SERIOUS BOOK AWARD

social.gifThe Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement David Brooks (Random House) $27.00; just out in paperback, $16.00  Okay it isn't true literary fiction; the story is mostly a device.  And it isn't quite as clever as his fabulous Bobos in Paradise, which is hard to top.  But, still, this offers so many summaries of research, so much data, lots of learning about human behavior, brain studies, gender, culture, work, sex, religion and so many topics that one simply ought to read it in case you're ever asked to be on Jeopardy.  And, as I've suggested, it is mostly, or at least partially, written as a very interesting novel!  Brooks' major points (which he deduces from the research, but fleshes out in the story) have been so much discussed--including in religious circles--that it deserves an extra award for raising so many important questions about the search for meaning and how people find fulfillment and values, important stuff all in a well-told fable. Part analysis, part story, lots of cleverness and tons of substance.  This was, in Academy Awards parlance, one of the 2011 blockbusters, and on everybody's short list of contenders.  Congratulations.  By the way, the High Calling blog community is having an on-line book study of this.  Check it out here.


THE "YOU'VE GOT TO BE KIDDING, WE GET A TWO SCOOPS!" AWARD FOR TWO SPECTACULAR BOOKS ON THE SAME TOPIC

Remember that feeling as a child when you were being treated to a rare ice cream cone  and they said you could get an extra scoop?  Well that isn't even half of how I feel announcing two spectacularly great books on the same topic.  Seeing either one come to publication would have made this a stellar year, each vying for a best book award.  And thank goodness, in 2011 we got two scoops!  Try 'em both!  Mix 'em together.  This is almost too good to be true!

kingdom calling.gifKingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good  Amy L. Sherman (IVP) $16.00  Certainly one of the very best books of the year and, if heeded, a game-changing, church-changing, world-changing book.  Written mostly (but, please, not exclusively) for pastors and church leaders, this unique study offers a very astute exploration of work, calling, career, service, inviting us to realize that our gifts and passions and vocations should be offered for the common good.  Not only does she do good Bible study, but she tells good stories, and offers very wise counsel about how to get at least one of four visions of meaningful labor into people's minds.  Her four channels or styles of relating faith, work, and the hope of making an impact in a needy world are excellently described and she offers tons of good ideas.  We couldn't be happier than to give this an award, and to proclaim that it is very highly recommended.

work matters smaller.gifWork Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work  Tom Nelson (Crossway) $15.99  I've been touting this all fall, happy it offers a splendid, rich, wise, account of a Christian perspective on work.   It is, I think, the best book yet written on this topic of daily toil, the joy and purpose of work, and how to see our jobs as extensions of our worship.  Not only are there great stories and illustrations and helpful case studies, it is written by a pastor who has done this well in his congregation.  Nelson tells of many years not inviting his congregants to think about their work-world and he movingly shares how he came to realize that he must pastor his flock in ways that empower them to serve God in their various spheres of influence, careers, and callings.   I could hardly be more excited about a book and we are very sincere in insisting it is one of the most important resources to be published in 2011.  Excellent!


THE BEYOND THE NAKED PUBLIC SQUARE AWARD FOR BEST BOOK ON CHRISTIAN PUBLIC WITNESS

public f.gifA Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good  Miroslav Volf (Brazos) $21.99  This is quite simply the right book at the right time, by a well-respected Yale theologian who draws on some of the best writers among both mainline Protestant, evangelical, Catholic and Orthodox thinkers, helping us navigate the complex cultural setting of pluralism, resentments about fundamentalisms, theological violence, and--still, at least until people read this book--a quietism that suggest we needn't think much about pubic life.  This is a book about culture, about human flourishing, about politics and justice but mostly is an articulation of and exploration of the implications of the claim that Christ is Lord in the 21st century.  Rave reviews on the back from Nicholas Wolterstorff and Richard Mouw give an indication that this is serious, nuanced, evangelical in the best sense.  Mouw says it is an "important book packed with wisdom!"  Wolterstorff says it is "a wonderful guide. for our times."  I guess I don't have to note the urgency of this topic this year of uncivil politics and renewed discussion about faith in the public square.  Please, give this to anybody you know who is active in activism or public discourse... 

A PURPLE HEART AWARD FOR ON THE GROUND FIGHTING TO END THE WAR BETWEEN FAITH & SCIENCE

Lang of Sc.gifThe Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions  Karl W. Giberson & Francis Collins (IVP) $20.00  I suspect these guys have felt a bit wounded even as they are insisting to be conscientious objectors in a war they don't believe in--there is no battleground between Christian faith and good science!  Of course, as in any academic discipline, there are questions, tensions, confusions, and they tackled all the usual matters, with clarity, thoughtfulness, and grace.  I honor this not because I agree with every word or because it is the final, best text, but because it seems to offer a comprehensive Christian framework for thinking about science in a way that is simple to understand and very interesting.  One of the very best entry level books in this large, complex field.  For what it is worth, endorsements for the author's BioLogos Foundation come from N.T. Wright, Philip Yancey, Os Guinness, Tim Keller, and more, including many prominent, moderate evangelicals.

THE BIG BRAINIAC AWARD FOR HIGH-LEVEL EFFORTS TO END THE WAR BETWEEN FAITH & SCIENCE

!.gifWhere the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, & Naturalism  Alvin Plantinga (Oxford University Press) $27.95  There is little doubt in the rarefied world of the philosophical guild that Alvin Plantinga is one of the most important philosophers writing today.  He is doubtlessly the world's leading scholar on the philosophy of religion.  In this very nuanced and specific book--about the philosophy of naturalism--Plantinga makes a very persuasive case that there is simply no intellectually credible reason to think that religious convictions are at odds with doing science.  If the above books was written perhaps to help conservative Christians grapple with the world of science, this is written to help the scholars of the philosophy of science grapple with differing ideologies that influence the sciences.  This is a very important book and we are sure it will get acclaim from sources more substantial than we.  For now, though, a "brainiac award."  

THE "WHEN I HEARD THE LEARN'D ASTRONOMER" AWARD FOR BEST BOOK TO HELP US EXPERIENCE CREATION AND TRANSCEND THE WAR BETWEEN FAITH & SCIENCE

!!.gifNature as Spiritual Practice  Steven Chase (Eerdmans) $18.00  An award named after the famous Whitman poem?  You're very welcome. You know there are lovely little books of devotional reading or spiritual exercises to use on hiking trips, resources for seeing God in the great outdoors and we stock a lot of them.  This is not altogether unlike those, but yet it is something bigger and deeper: a thick theology of the experience of nature.  It uses the developing language of practices and ponders a remarkable array of ways to be morally and spiritually formed by attending to the rhythms and ways of creation.  We have a lot of books about creation-care, green theology, and outdoor life, and there is nothing like this.  Kudos!  Also, then, when you really do go into the "mystical moist night-air" like the poet says, bring with you the more practical guidebook that Chase also wrote, a fine companion volume that that also deserves honorable mention: Field Guide to Nature as Spiritual Practice (Eerdmans; $8.00.) 

MY FAVORITE, MOST-LOVED, MOST-RECOMMENDED MEMOIR OF THE YEAR

Cron book.gifJesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me...A Memoir, of Sorts  Ian Cron (Nelson) $15.99  I don't think I've enjoyed a book this year as much as I did this one and I don't think I pressed it into so many people's hands, saying "you have to read this, you'll love it!"  And, they do!  This is accessible, funny, moving, insightful, very well written, and just what you want in a memoir---a great story well told, a bit of universal insight, some great laughs and some tender tears amidst very captivating prose.  You won't forget this guy's childhood, his weird family, his hard-earned faith, and his journey to healing and hope.  Not only was it my favorite memoir of the year, it was up there among my favorite books of any sort!   I'll read whatever Ian writes next, guaranteed.  And I bet we'll award it a prize as it, too, is sure to be good, whatever it may be.

THE KNOCK ME DOWN AND RIP MY HEART OUT AWARD FOR MOST AMAZINGLY STUNNING PAGE TURNING MEMOIR OF THE YEAR

!!!.gifHouse of Prayer No. 2: A Writer's Journey Home  Mark Richard (Nan Talese Books) $23.95  I can't remember how many times I sat this book down to catch my breath.  How many times, lying next to my wife in bed, she'd say "What?" as I sighed or smacked my head or wiped a tear or when I exclaimed "Holy sh....")  Holy shit. Yep, that pretty much sums up this crazy story of a handicapped kid whose life is troubled and graced, who becomes a writer, still troubled, still graced.  Novelist Pat Conroy--no stranger to some heavy-duty, heart-rending stories--says that Richard's prose style is "both hammerblow and shrapnel.  He has written the book of his life." Any Hembel (who says "this is some of the finest writing you will ever read") notes that "in this unconventional memoir, we see the yearning of the artist transfigured into faith---an authentic faith that is both struggled for and struggled against in the midst of ceaseless and necessary doubt."  Stunning.

HONORABLE MENTION FOR AN HONORABLE, GOOD STORY



!!!!.gifA Good and Perfect Gift: Faith, Expectations, and a Little Girl Named Penny  Amy Julia Becker (Bethany House) $14.99  Sometimes joy shows up when you least expect it, the back cover says.  Andy Crouch--a good judge about good books--writes that Becker "has the courage and grace to tell the truth. Whether you are a parent or not, whether the children in your life are 'typical' or not, this story will shake you, change you, encourage you."  Joni Eareckson Tada, who has written much about the dignity of those with handicapping conditions, says it is "poignant and powerful, the world needs more stories of inspiration like this one."  Lovely.


 

HONORABLE MENTION FOR A HARD, HOPEFUL STORY

House with.gifA House With No Roof: After My Father's Assassination, A Memoir  Rebecca Wilson (Counterpoint) $16.95 Two things drew me to this sad story of a girl growing up with a drug dealing, violent brother and a hippie-dippy San Francisco mom: Anne Lamott, who cared for the author's mother in her final stages of cancer, and wrote a remarkable forward, and the fact that it was on the esteemed publishing house, Counterpoint (Wendell Berry's publisher.)  In 1966, Ms Wilson's father, a radical union organizer, was murdered because of his efforts to expose corruption in the local union. How does a kid grow up in the hippy sub-culture of crazy politics and drugs and sex, raised by a mother undone by grief? How does a young adult, years later, cope with family secrets of this sort? She rides horses, becomes aware of the complexities of domestic violence, explores--and disavows religious faith--becomes a writer, and lives to tell about it.  Anne says "I think her story will blow you away."  Then she writes, soberly, "Rebecca Wilson's is a new voice in American letters, at once pure and heartfelt, rough and jaunty.  She's a natural storyteller with an amazing story that she tells with plainness and elegance. I don't quite know how she pulled this off, but I love and admire this book, as I do its author.  I believe you will too."

HONORABLE MENTION FOR A FASCINATING, ILLUSTRATIVE STORY

!!!!!!.gifRaised Right: How I Untangled My Faith from Politics  Alisa Harris (Waterbrook) $14.99  I've reviewed this riveting memoir in several places this year, and raved here at BookNotes.  It is a feisty and fun memoir, by a great young writer, telling the tale---truly fascinating, and quite enlightening---of her being raised among strict fundamentalists of a very politicized, right-wing sort.  As she grows into adulthood she learns some things, unlearns some things, sets out for a new way to more faithfully relate faith and public life.  I grew to care about this story and want to follow this important young voice, hoping she emerges as a thoughtful, balanced thinker about public justice and evangelical social engagement.  A few parts are really funny and a few parts are mouth-droppingly shocking.  Highly recommended.

HONORABLE MENTION FOR AN IMPORTANT, HEROIC STORY

!!!!!!!.gifTutu: Authorized  Alister Sparks (HarperOne) $29.99  Agree with him on every point of theology or politics or not, there is little doubt that the South African Bishop Desmond Tutu is one of the great world leaders of our lifetime. Tutu rose to prominence in the anti-apartheid efforts decades ago and has grown in stature as an Anglican theologian, global churchman, and pastor, a kindly and joyfully winsome follower of his savior, Jesus the Christ.  This is a riveting (authorized) biography, detailed and complex when it should be, upbeat and inspiring at times, insightful and captivating throughout.  A fine biography, not overly detailed and never tedious, but thorough about his life and times.  Tutu's faith and hope and love are nearly contagious, so reading this will surely be salutary, as a high Anglican might say.  The great cover doesn't hurt, either.  A very notable, long-awaited, heroic, biography.

HONORABLE MENTION FOR AN EVOCATIVE, SPIRITUAL STORY

!!!!!!!!.gifShirt of Flame: A Year With Saint Therese of Lisieux Heather King (Paraclete) $16.99  I was very much taken by the two previous elegant and eloquent memoirs King wrote, Parched and Redeemed,  her passionate story of bottoming out and moving into recovery from alcoholism and its sequel telling of her conversion to Christ and the Roman Catholic church.  So now I'd read anything she wrote.  But a book about her reading a book, the curiously passionate French Carmelite (that Jana Riess so roundly mocked in the beginning of Flunking Sainthood)??  Well, yes, even that. And it is so good.  As one reviewer---himself in gritty ministry in Ramallah, the West Bank of the Palestinian Territories---writes, "This book brings out the grit of sanctity, how it is a continuous, no-holds-barred full-on contact engagement with reality."  This is mostly a quiet book, gentle and very finely written.  Ronald Rolheiser wisely invites, "If you are aching at some very deep places, let this book be  your doctor."  

HONORABLE MENTION FOR FAVORITE LITERARY MEMOIR

!!!!!!!!!.gifThoughts without Cigarettes: A Memoir  Oscar Hijuelos (Gotham Books) $27.50 You may know this wonderful Latino novelist, or have heard of his Pulitzer Prize award-winning, best-selling Mambo Kings...(or his wonderful Mr. Ive's Christmas.)  This is his life story, a memoir of growing up Cuban in New York, his immigrant experience, showing how he became the person and writer he is.  Jose Miguel Oviedo writes that Hijuelos "achieves the miracle of transforming ordinary daily events into extraordinary happenings while recovering the lost time of childhood."  I'm drawn to the experience of those coming of age in minority cultures, and more, to those who grow up to become artists.  I'm not only in naming this as one of the great books of the year.

TRIPLE CROWN AWARD: THREE VITAL TOPICS IN ONE GREAT BOOK

!!!!!!!!!!!.gifThe Cost of Community: Jesus, St. Francis and the Life in the Kingdom  Jamie Arpin-Ricci, CJ  (Likewise; IVP) $16.00  I mostly love these sorts of books that aren't simple to categorize or shelve because they cover so much territory.  When they do it in a slim, well written volume, that is all the better.  This about intentional community, about what we can learn from St. Francis, and a study of the Sermon on the Mount.  Yes, it is also a memoir, but that wouldn't fit my "triple crown award" designation, and  calling it quadruple sounds dangerous.  Arpin-Ricci and his family--solid, evangelical  folk--end up being called to urban ministry, discover St. Francis who naturally rocks their world, and start taking the Sermon on the Mount as their primary document for living faithful Christ-shaped discipleship.  There are lots of good stories of their journey (and the dramatic stuff that happens in urban ministry) and there are upbeat examples of great joy in the journey.  But, too, this is serious stuff, inviting us--challenging us--to take Christ seriously, as Francis did.  And as do his pals at the Little Flowers community in Winnipeg.  A wonderful example of what some are calling the movement of "new monasticism at the forgotten places of the Empire."   Three cheers.

THE SCHOLARLY GREATEST HITS ALBUM, I MEAN, BOOK, OF THE YEAR

Taking Every.jpgTaking Every Thought Captive: Forty Years of the Christian Scholars Review edited by Don W. King (Abilene University Press) $ 25.00  I've touted this at BookNotes and in a few other places where I've been asked to submit reviews.  I'm trying to be clever, and in no way intend to demean this fine anthology, to say that it is like a greatest hits album, long enough to be a double album---with year's worth of wonderful cuts, deep tracks, stuff you forgot about, classics. There are older essays, more recent ones, all by leading Christian scholars of the last 40 years, and that have appeared in the important but little known journal The Christian Scholars Review. This includes important essays by Mark Noll, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, Ronald Sider, Brian Walsh, Arthur Holmes, and dozens more. Anyone who is a nonfiction book worm, anyone interested in honoring God in the modern academy, anybody interested in learning how to better integrate faith and scholarship, anyone who wants to reflect seriously on the implications of a Christian worldview, simply must get this award winning collection.  Like a good greatest hits disc, you'll use it a lot! Some parts you'll share with others. It deserves a lot of acclaim.  While we're at it, I'd give the producers a 2011 Grammy if I could...

THE BEST BOOK WITH WISE-CRACKING WHEN YOU LEAST EXPECT IT

!!!!!!!!!!!!.gifSocrates in the City: Conversations on "Life, God, and Other Small Topics"  Edited by Eric Metaxas  (Dutton) $27.95  Okay, the Yalie has his white ascot-like hanky in the breast pocket of his very Navy jacket making him look oh-so-dapper.  But he's a VeggieTale pirate at heart and just can't help himself. He cracks wise, even when introducing some of the world's smartest people. In the preface he asks why intellectual pursuits can 't be fun.  Yeah, that's what I always say when I'm introducing the founder of the not very funny First Things or a brilliant British theologian like Alister McGrath.  This great book compiles transcripts of lectures given at Metaxas's side hustle, his Socrates in the City lecture series in NYC.  And, yep, there are spectacular chapters here by Sir John Polkinghorne and Jean Bethke Elshtain and Os Guinness. Peter Kreeft and Alister McGrath are here and Francis Collins and more. I love the hint of a sly grin on Eric's cover mug and I like his upbeat opening chapter and the small hints of zaniness as he does the introductions for each eminent lecturer. But that doesn't alone earn a Hearts & Minds accolade.  Oh wait, maybe it does.  Sure this has some of the best arguments for a Christian view of life, for truth and goodness and justice, but, well, who needs sober erudition when you've got Metaxas channeling Socrates in his city?  Ha.  This is a spectacular book on all counts.  Buy two, one for your own edification and one to give away.  I'm not kidding!

BEST BOOK OF REFORMED THEOLOGY 



!!!!!!!!!!!!!.gifLife in God: John Calvin, Practical Formation, and the Future of Protestant Theology Matthew Myer Boulton (Eerdmans) $28.00  There are lots of good theology texts and we have lots that deserve mention.  This one stands out for being so very interesting, and well written and for insisting that serious theology should matter for ordinary folks.  Erudite and scholarly (this guy knows his stuff, believe me!) it makes the case that Calvin, especially in his famous Institutes, is most interested in the spiritual formation and timely discipleship of God's people.  This is a great example not only of some of the latest scholarly opinion about Calvin and his work but of why good doctrine, then, and now, really matters.  Calvin biographer and director of Refo500 notes that it is "a stimulating and fresh approach... Boulton succeeds in demonstrating that for Calvin doctrine is itself practical---and that Protestant theology today can gain much from reading Calvin."  If that ain't worthy of an award...

BEST BOOK OF ECUMENICAL THEOLOGY

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!.gifEvangelicals and Nicene Faith: Reclaiming the Apostolic Witness  edited by Timothy George (BakerAcademic) $24.99  My, my, this should have wide appeal and could be a huge blessing if it were studied and discussed.  Fastidious patristics will love it--it is about orthodoxy and the apostolic faith, and those who wish that evangelicals were more deeply rooted will find this useful, and liberal Protestants who are in need of perhaps insight from both will, also, find this really helpful.  There is a bit of an emphasis, too, on just how the Creed's truths can be lived out -- even in worship and mission and pastoral work.  Authors from a variety of perspectives gathered at Beeson Divinity school for a major conference and this work brings a large amount of insight about historic faith of the 4th century to the 21st century.   The book was dedicated to Jaroslav Pelikan.

HONORABLE MENTION AS BEST BOOK OF THEOLOGY--FOR GENERAL READERS

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!.gifSalvation Means Creation Healed: The Ecology of Sin and Grace  Howard Synder with Joel Scandrett (Cascade Books) $31.00  There is another subtitle here and it is important to me and important to the thesis of this fascinating, creatively-done work: "Overcoming the Divorce Between Earth and Heaven."  This thought-provoking and well-done book shares much, but adds new vigor to work such as Surprised By Hope by N. T. Wright, Transforming Vision by Walsh & Middleton, and even Creation Regained by Al Wolters, three books I return to again and again.  I have long admired the radical Wesleyan, Howard Snyder who has given us books on the relationship of the church to the Kingdom  such as Community of the King. This recent book has a broad and thoughtful tone, a global vision, and is deeply committed to the Biblical story (I almost thought I should award it in a Biblical studies category.) As David Fitch writes, it "crafts a stunning vision of the breadth of God's Reign in Jesus Christ."  Is the missio dei the restoration of all creation?  Do we need a fuller understanding of the gospel, rejecting the dualism between heaven and earth?  Can the bodily resurrection of Jesus shape our own sense of mission and purpose?  Should sound theology lead to an "ecological worldview"?  This is not arcane, heavy, theology, but it is more than another restatement of God's call to social involvement.  It is a richly develop, artfully produced, mature, provocative formulation of how to think about faith, life, discipleship and the nature of our churches.  Highly recommended.

THE NOT SURE AWARD

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!.gifNot Sure: A Pastor's Journey from Faith to Doubt John Suk (Eerdmans) $18.00  I was only half kidding in awarding this the "not sure" award.  I'm not sure what to call this, and I am not sure I want to commend it to all---it is rooted in memoir, thoughts the pastor and CRC church leader and writer had when he went on a year-long cross country tour with his wife in their RV. It is serious stuff, as significant doubt is.  As a learned theologian and a contemporary, philosophical thinker, Suk gives us more than a sentimental journal, let alone a travelogue: it is a critical study of the shift in culture (what some call the postmodern turn) and how religion has been seen in different ways in these days.  And in his own life.  I think it is fair to say that this is a painful book about a church leader owning up to the fact that he didn't believe what he once did.  He's seems now okay with his admission of a Christian sort of agnosticism, and his graceful, poignant telling of the tale is admirable, if a bit troubling.  Cornelius Plantinga writes "John Suk is as honest as the Bible. With an angular, unforgettable voice he joins the psalmists who dare to lament their losses before the face of God because even lament is at bottom an expression of faith. A memorable book!"  Oh yeah, that is putting it mildly.  Nic Wolterstorff calls it a "rich, eloquent, beautifully-written book...seldom has personal story been so imaginatively interwoven with cultural history, analysis, and critique." One sure thing-- this is an award winning piece of work, whatever category we call it.

A SWEET "FAITH AND FAITHLESSNESS" AWARD FOR THE BEST WRITTEN, MOST SURPRISING, SERIOUSLY UNCONVENTIONAL SEARCH FOR FAITH BY A PRETTY ANTI-CHRISTIAN AUTHOR WHO TAKES US ON ONE HECK OF A ROAD TRIP

sweet heaven.gifSweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country In Between  Jeff Sharlet (Norton) $24.95  I think this was one of the most captivating, wonderfully-written, artfully engaging, entertaining, heart-breaking books I've read all year.  I loved it, or most of it.  Sharlet made a name for himself documenting--and overstating, I'd say--the influence of some conservative evangelicals and others in the Christian right.  He has drifted from traditional Christian faith (by his own admission) but can't avoid the big questions, the search for meaning, extreme religious folks, or extremely anti-religious folks.  Drawn as he is to the odd-balls and weirdos, the noble and amazing folk at the fringes, he ends up with a collection of pieces that take you to some places where some sort of faith or faithlessness holds sway (sometimes by a thread.)  The New Republic was right to call him "fearless and fantastically talented" (an assessment that itself is almost award-worthy, given how fearless and how fantastically talented Sharlet is.)  Peter Trachtenberg says "he scours the desert margins of our culture, politics, and religion, training his eyes on outlaws, anarchists, fanatics, and saints. In this way he reveals the unexpected shape of our nation's center, which is to say, our heart."  I sort of hope not.  Still, what a book.  

THE FUNNIEST, MOST TOUCHING, GLOBAL SEARCH FOR TRUTH THROUGH WORLD RELIGIONS MEMOIR AWARD

!1.gifMan Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine  Eric Weiner (Grand Central) $26.99 Well, maybe this isn't the one you've been waiting for, but I've been looking for a book like this for a long time and this one is so good that it wins a coveted Hearts & Minds best book of 2011 award.  Halo or no, this dude is funny, honest, neurotic, and one heckuva writer.  (Do you know his acclaimed Geography of Bliss?) In what ends up being a bit embarrassing, the book starts with Weiner in the hospital, thinking he's dying.  A nurse asks him matter of factly if he has found his God.  His God?  He's smart enough to know that this is sort of odd--God is either the real God or not, not his own personal made-up cosmic friend.  But something about it strikes him.  He's all agnostic and unsure and yet eager and open.  He wants to experience the Real, he's a postmodern Jew in search of the religious experience that William James wrote about so importantly, but never experienced himself.  He is an award winning NPR journalist so has traveled around the world and has friends who are practitioners of every world religion in some pretty exotic places.  He seeks them out.  He tries things out---learning to whirl like a dervish in a remote outskirt of Istanbul, for instance meeting a Rinchope in Kathmandu.  It loved this book which--although I've got less interest in the subject than I should, I suppose--had me up late turning the pages, laughing myself silly, and wiping tears.  And, oddly, longing for my God.

A NICE SHINY APPLE AWARD: THE BEST BOOK FOR PUBLIC SCHOOL TEACHERS WHO ARE CHRISTIANS---A GREAT AND RARE BOOK.

making a diff.jpgMaking a Difference: Christian Educators in Public Schools  Donovan L. Graham (Purposeful Design) $16.95  Those who follow Hearts & Minds know that we love offering resources for professionals who want to "think Christianly" about their callings and careers.  We think the Bible calls us to develop unique and redemptive ways to live in the world, and relating faith and work is urgent.  Alas, there simply have not been many books about serving God as a public school teacher and how to take Biblically-based principle on education, knowing, learning, teaching, and forming communities of character.  This is a wonderful book, head and shoulders above anything else in the field.  Graham has taught in public schools, in Christian schools, and has taught education majors in a college setting.  Get the guy an apple, he deserves it!

BEST BOOK OF PHILOSOPHICAL STUDIES

!11.gifJustice in Love  Nicholas Wolterstorff  (Eerdmans) $35.00  Try as I might, I can't think of a witty name for this award nor anything to be a wise acre about.  Straight up, this is serious Christian scholarship, written by one of the most imminent political philosophers of our day, addressing themes around the relationship between love and justice.  You may know his significant, truly award-winning book of 2008 published by the prestigious Princeton University Press, Justice: Rights and Wrongs.  This, in a way, is a nearly 300 pages that didn't quite fit the tight format of that magisterial work.  Those of us committed to a Biblical worldview certainly ought to care about the nuances and implications of a Christian view of love, and most of what it written tends towards the devotional or sentimental.  This will give you mature insight, get you thinking more deeply, carry you into months of good conversations and ruminations.  May it help many, even if it is demanding. 

HERE YA GO: AN AWARD ABOUT PLACE

!111.gifWhere Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today Craig G. Bartholomew (BakerAcademic) $29.99   This category had several titles on a short list and there are many who are writing important stuff about our sense of place and why we should care about our locale. This, though, was the hands-down winner. As Bill McKibben writes, Where Mortals Dwell is "a unique book. It takes the deeply biblical identification with place and maps in onto our homogenized world to see what possibilities we have for new depth, new beauty, new meaning."  He exclaims, "I found it unrelentingly fascinating."  Well, so did I, and with blurbs and raves from esteemed cultural critics such as Bob Goudzwaard and Norman Wirzba, I was hooked even before it arrived.  Granted, it is perhaps a bit more philosophical than what most readers will want to wade through, and it covers a lot of ground.  Still, it is very interesting, well written and is delightfully interdisciplinary which should give it a wide appeal. As Duke Divinity School prof Ellen Davis notes, it may well be unprecedented. This is called a "here ya go" award...with the emphasis on here.  But also on why we go. This is one of the most important books of the decade and will only increase in urgency.  Years from now, you'll recall we gave it a holy shout out in 2011.  

BEST GOSPEL CENTERED BOOK ABOUT A SOCIAL ISSUE (WITH A GREAT TITLE)



!1111.gifBloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian  John Piper (Crossway) $22.99  I have written before about what is in some circles being called a "gospel centered life."  That is, an unrelenting emphasis on the saving grace of the gospel, seen in how God works out our justification through the death of Christ who becomes sin and takes away our condemnation and imputes to us his own righteousness, freeing us to living for God, properly so, now, by making much of Christ who shows us how to serving all with gladness.  Or something like that.  The prolific John Piper is the Patron Saint of this movement, if such Reformed Baptist types had patron saints.  Now, wonderfully, St. John shows how this deeply Christ-centered vision of the gospel effects our own complicity in the sins of racism and how the cross is the only true hope for ethnic and cultural reconciliation.  I am astonished at this book, happy that those who spend sometimes a bit too much time arguing about the details of atonement theories can now see how, in fact, God's good gospel leads us to take a stand for justice, renouncing all that would demean others due to race or ethnicity.  Piper knows the demonic influences of racism in black-and-white issues the best, and he talks about his own racist youthful years, so he mostly speaks to that.  This book has its quirks, as Piper almost always does, but it is significant in so many ways, that it surely is my pick for best book this year about race, best book about the gospel, best book to explain the implications of the gospel centered life.  As Tim Keller notes in the moving forward, this is, ultimately, not a book about social problems, or even a book about sin.  It is a book about moving more deeply into grace.  Kudos.

BEST GENERAL MARKET BOOK ABOUT A SOCIAL ISSUE (WITH THE BEST PUNK ROCK TITLE)



!11111.gifRock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World  Robin Wright (Simon & Schuster) $26.99  We have learned to be a bit suspicious of books that come out too quickly, rushed to press, to capitalize on a current event or recent trend.  Current events junkies the world over, though, were glad this came out when it did as many are interested in the "Arab Spring" and we needed an insightfu, reliable guide to the various countries and cultures, the diverse ideologies and players, and how to best think about the rage and rebellion that is rocking the Arab world.  Kudos to this world-class, highly regarded journalist for writing a book so informative, so important, and so very, very, edge-of-your seat interesting.  Those who follow these complex and exciting and dangerous things assure us that Ms Wright is singularly gifted to write this book.  I'm very impressed.


BEST BOOK WHICH TACKLES ONE ASPECT OF THE THREAT OF RADICAL ISLAM (WITH A TITLE THAT SAYS IT ALL)

!1111111.gifSilenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide  Paul Marshall & Nina Shea (Oxford University Press) $35.00  Okay, it isn't the sexiest category to be awarded.  I tried to not go over the top in finding a clever award title, because this is truly serious stuff. There is amazing research here, deep political analysis, important reminders of how worldviews work, and remarkable global reporting. Much of this is important work is truly up-to-date reporting about the threats to freedom presented by those who want to demolish any notions of religious freedom.  Blasphemy and apostasy laws are not essential to mature Islam, however, as several Islamic scholars write in the guest chapters of this ground-breaking work.  Although the authors are theologically-informed Christian scholars, this is not a general book about Islamic doctrine or world missions, but simply about whether this trend against religious freedom is a threat to the West and what we might do to respond to this nasty new reality.  There are gruesome stories here, and the threat is real, so it is to the author's great credit that they are mostly sober and even gracious through-out, resisting the cheap shot of sensationalism that lesser analysts might offer.  A brilliant book, very urgent, well done.

AND, FINALLY...
 
THE "FINALLY" AWARD TO WESTMINSTER/JOHN KNOX PRESS AND N.T. WRIGHT FOR THE LONG-AWAITED COMPLETION OF THE FOR EVERYONE SERIES

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!!111.gifThe Early Christian Letters for Everyone: James, Peter, John, and Judah N. T. Wright (WJK) $15.00

Revelation for Everyone  N.T. Wright (WJK) $15.00

NT Set.gifWith these two volumes out in 2011 we now have the complete multi-volume set of the "For Everyone" New Testament commentaries done by N. T. Wright.  These have been very helpful for lots of ordinary folks and informed Bible scholars enjoy checking them too for the way Wright offers his own unique translations, does astute Biblical exegesis, and shares lots of great pastoral insights and helpful, teacherly illustrations. We weren't sure when these final two were coming, and this is the year we can shout out Hallelujah for this great gift to God's people.



Well, time for a stretch break.  Operators are standing by if you want to join the celebrations by buying a few of these books.  Buying stuff is sort of like voting: let that invisible hand know you appreciate these kinds of quality titles; your vote in the marketplace is noticed.  Accolades and awards---especially of the sort that comes from a certain book shop in central Pennsylvania---don't pay the publishers bills, and if we want them to publish great books, well, we've got to buy the great books.  These are some of the best of the year, I'm sure of it. 

Tune in soon for the Hearts & Minds awards, Part Two.  There will be announcements; oh my, will there be announcements.  Will Rob Bell make the cut? Will I announce my truly favorite read of the year?  What crazy new kid's book will I award? Might I share what book made me the happiest?  What author might get two big Best Book designations? Should I get cranky and give a few bad book awards?  There's so much more coming.  But first, I've got some reading to do!   

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2 Comments

Thanks, Byron, for this excellent list! Looking forward to PART TWO!

Thanks so much! I appreciate the kind words. Slight correction: while I grew up in an evangelical church, it was not Baptist. Evangelical Covenant Church of Canada, actually.

Thanks again for the triple-kudos!