And don't even get me started about the quandaries in recommending fiction.
Of course, at the end of the day, as they say, we often go with our gut. There are books we really, really like and suppose that most folks would love (or at least they should!) Unless the request is for a scholarly paper or a notably uneducated group, say, there really are titles that we broadly recommend, that anybody could read, that we think many should consider and that we believe most would enjoy. Some books are more important than others and some are more beautiful than others. Some important books are worth reading even if they are a bit slow-going and some books are so interestingly written, they are fun to read, just for the ride. But, ahh - when we find those that have truly great content and are truly well written, we, like you, are delighted and just have to tell others.
So, this is my annual disclaimer-slash-qualifier about my highly subjective, rambling list of some of the best books of 2012. Yes, it is a little late and, I'll admit, not every book is for every reader. Recall that principle - different books are good for different sorts of readers. But you know our general take on things, and if you believe in reading widely, being a life-long learner, and in developing your own library of truly great books, I am sure you will want to study this list and make it a priority to read some of them. Although we hope you consider buying some of these (we have them all at 20% off!), we put the work into creating this list mostly as an act of gratitude. It seems right to honor some of the best work among the publishers and genres we care most about.
Thanks to the authors, publishers, editors, sales reps and others who have allowed our book-selling in 2012 to be a true joy. The last few years have been notoriously hard for indie bookstores; you know how tenuous our ministry remains. Our staff here at the shop work hard and with good cheer, even though this job is often anguishing in its complexity and tension. But, truly, we believe in the power of books, and love selling them to you. It is our prayer that people will somehow be helped as these pages bring pleasure and edification. May God be pleased as lives are touched and cultures are transformed because of the ideas carried by these packages of print and paper.
Pray with us and be glad. There are great books being written and published. The religious publishing world is doing good work. Insofar as you buy these books and talk about them, you are part of it all.
Here are some of the Best of 2012, all deserving to be honorably mentioned.
Don't stop reading, by the way -- there are some really great ones at the end, like at the Academy Awards (which haven't even been chosen yet, by the way, so I'm not that far behind schedule.)
And, remember, this is just part one. More to come, for sure!
BEST BOOK ABOUT CHRISTIAN CULTURAL ENGAGEMENT
The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment Eric O. Jacobsen (Baker Academic) $22.99 You may know how very, very important the spicy writer James Howard Kunstler has been as he has introduced the thinking about new urbanism to a popular audience in the last decade. I hope you know The Geography of Nowhere and Return to Nowhere. Well, the Montana-based, small town Presbyterian pastor Reverend Eric Jacobsen wrote a few years ago what is sort of a Christian introduction to new urbanism in his own Sidewalks of the Kingdom (Brazos Press; $22.00); he made it clear (with a strong introduction by Eugene Peterson) that church folks should care about the not-so-sexy issues in their town like zoning and sidewalks and urban sprawl and boarded up buildings and third places like coffee shops. Well, from that fairly ordinary beginning, Jacobsen has matured into one of the Christian community's most astute cultural critics. And in this important, fascinating, wide-ranging, quite exceptional book he has given us a theologically mature but quite readable study of how we see and inhabit our built environment. Sound arcane? Not at all! What could be more practical than how we see, on looking, on learning to appreciate the good and the often bad influences of appropriate or inappropriate buildings and their arrangements. This is not, technically architecture (that is the study of the buildings themselves.) This is a bigger, and even more interesting topic, the study of the space between and around the buildings. It is truly an eye-opening study and I am sure you will not be the same after you have learned this stuff. As one writer insists, this book will help us learn to better love our neighbors, by, among other things, attending to their neighborhoods. But, of course, they are our neighborhoods too, and we must inhabit them with God's eyes, with our bodies, with informed minds. If we want beauty and health and justice and sustainability, we must grapple with the insights and wisdom of this spectacular book. If we want to move beyond the talk of worldview to a lifestyle and way of being that is healthy and profoundly Christian, this is a way into that hope of embodied discipleship and faithful living. I wish I had a literal blue medal or something -- The Space Between is very highly recommended, a true award winner. One of the very best and most important and most interesting titles of 2012!
BEST BOOK OF APPLIED THEOLOGY
Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church J. Todd Billings (Baker) $19.99 Paul Lim from Vanderbilt called this a "beautiful, mystical and biblical idea" and Michael Horton notes it is displays "the research of a scholar and the heart of a pastor." I agree with Kelly Kapic who notes that even though Billings draws on much historical work (Calvin and Bavinck, naturally) "he doesn't let us out of the story....he highlights why union with Christ continues to matter for our understanding of the Christian life, making insightful connections between adoption and participation, incomprehensibility and accommodation, justice and Eucharist, grace and action." Sounds heady, and it is. But it is one of the best books of its sort, and draws us deeply into the very heart of the gospel. By the way, I am glad, given the lovely recent interest in contemplative spirituality that this sort of solid resource for the theological and Biblical underpinnings of our communion with God, and the implications for our daily living.
BEST BOOK ABOUT PASTORAL LIFE
Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry as a Human Being Eswine (Crossway) $19.99 I often recommend (especially for those interesting in mainline denominational clergy folk) the wonderful book by Lilian Daniel and Martin Copenhaver This Odd and Wondrous Calling published by Eerdmans a few years back. That opened up the private lives of these UCC ministers, and it was so nicely written, I declared it a must-read. This new book shares certain similarities as it offers an open window into the life, especially the interior life, of the pastor, even if it is written from a different theological context. It is written particularly for pastors and preachers, but it is a remarkable glimpse into the foibles and fears and temptations of our very human clergy. Eswine is a youngish, rather theologically conservative, Reformed guy (and a clever and thoughtful writer -- I greatly appreciated his previous Preaching in a Post-Everything Culture.) This stunning, honest, well-written rumination on the real life of pastors is truly extraordinary! Sensing Jesus covers much ground, with circuitous reflections and tangential stories and bold arguments -- it is hard to describe but I couldn't put it down! I kept thinking of pastor friends, and wondering how they'd respond. Others have also raved about this, noting its wisdom and insight about being true to one's true calling, one's truest calling, and living honestly into one's one faith in the presence of Christ in the mundane. The respected Jerram Barrs (Covenant Theological Seminary) asserts that "This is one of the finest books on being a pastor written in this generation." Pastor Joe Novenson (Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church) says "This book is simultaneously deeply distressing and profoundly comforting...one of the most helpful books on pastoring that I have read since my ordination in 1978.) My friend Denis Haack of Ransom Fellowship offers an eloquent, rave review -- and if Denis likes it, that itself makes it worth reading!
Rev. Scotty Smith of Christ Community Church in Nashville asks, longingly, "Where was this book when I was stuck in the unrelenting grind of performance-based pastoring; the spiritual schizophrenia of preaching the gospel with a frozen heart; the lonely pedestal of a pulpit surrounded by thousands of people?" Zac is candid, sharing pain and lament and joy and hope. Can we embody what we preach? This book is must-read, one of the best of the year!
BEST BOOK ABOUT SPIRITUAL LEADERSHIP WITHIN CONGREGATIONS OR PARA-CHURCH MINISTRIES
Pursuing God's Will Together: A Spiritual Practice for Leadership Groups Ruth Haley Barton (IVP) $20.00 I hope you saw our long review of this when it came out last May. I'll admit that we are particularly fond of Ruth and her good work at Transforming Center. We find all of her books to be truly wonderful, and recommend them often. This one helps church leadership boards and councils (or other ministry teams) to shift from Robert's Rules-type procedures, arguing, voting, decision-making, to more a more fluid, spiritual process using contemplative reflection, listening and discerning God's will. It is simply the best book yet written on this topic and we happily award it a Best Book of the Year citation. And it didn't even take much discernment -- some things are just so obvious!
MOST IMPORTANT BOOK ABOUT CHURCH OUTREACH
You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church...and Rethinking Faith David Kinnaman (Baker) $17.99 This is the much-discussed work which documents why 20-somethings who once were involved in churches ended up drifting away. Based on the largest amount of research yet done on this demographic, reflecting upon the stories told, and offering insights about what churches can do to retain their young adults. We helped bring David in to the area to lecture on this right after the book came out, and attracted almost 400 folks. Several books groups and church classes have worked through it. If you wonder about what is going on in our churches (of any sort) and our culture that is conspiring to cause young adults to drift, you have to read, and take seriously, this monumental book. There is now a new You Lost Me DVD curriculum ($24.99; participants workbook, $9.99) of David walking you through his work, and it is well worth viewing, and viewing again with a group. Kudos to Kinnaman and his team for doing this very important work and offering these useful resources that takes the stories of young adults seriously.
BEST BOOK ON THE MISSIONAL CHURCH
Creating a Missional Culture: Equipping the Church for the Sake of the World J.R. Woodward (IVP) $16.00 We love, and regularly recommend, the powerfully important -- dare I say vitally urgent! -- books about being a missional church, freeing our congregations from self-absorption to be true agents of the Kingdom in our post-Christian culture. Yes, there are oodles, and they are good -- Alan Roxburgh, Reggie McNeal, and Alan Hirsch all have released good books lately. But JR's truly stands out, head and shoulders in many ways, above the crowd of missional church books. It is helpful for it's astute analysis of church and culture, and for its Biblical material. Woodward tells good stories, offers helpful ideas, and makes a notable contribution for sustained study of the kinds of leadership --collaborative and deeply spiritual -- if we are going to create and sustain a shift to a missional culture in our churches. This book was years in the making and the endorsements are many and superlative. "I have been craving for a book that would facilitate the re-imagination of church culture, and it is finally here" says Dwight Friesen. "Beautifully written, a gift to the missional conversation" says Michael Frost. Princeton prof Darrell Guder, who I believe first coined the word "missional" says it "defies categorization" and then, after listing great features, assures us that this book "does all that and more." Indeed. It is our pick for one of the very best books on church life of this year.
BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR ON SPIRITUALITY
Kneeling with the Giants: Learning to Pray with History's Best Teachers Gary Neal Hansen (IVP) $15.00 This is a simple book to explain, but it is one of those books that you may want to spend a life-time with. It explains to use the prayer practices, insights, and techniques (if I dare call them that) of some of the greatest pray-ers of church history. From the written prayers of the Puritans to the use of the Lord's Prayer by Martin Luther to the deep contemplation of St. Teresa of Avila (or learning "contemplation in the dark" by praying with The Cloud of Unknowing) these chapters explain and unfold a deeper way to know God and pray by drawing on these specific saints. The book is arranged in four major parts -- from what language we use, to praying with Scripture, to conversations in both the light and dark. The fourth part ("Asking God for Help") includes praying for healing with Agnes Sanford and learning the work of intercession with Andrew Murray. There is a beautiful closing benediction and two good appendices, helping us use the book in small groups or church classes. Helping put all this into practice is a chief concern of the author, as he states in the beginning and in the end. Reading about prayer is helpful, but the point is to pray, he reminds us. Gary is a good man who teaches at the PC(USA) seminary at Dubuque University. He has visited our bookstore. He's the real deal. This book is nearly a masterpiece. It is even handsomely designed and offered at a good price. It is surely one of the most important and very best books of the year! Thanks be to God.
HONORABLE MENTION - SPIRITUALITY STUDIES
Still: Notes on a Mid-Life Crisis Lauren F. Winner (HarperOne) $24.99 This has an official release date of 2012, but I believe it arrived a bit early, maybe in late 2011. Does it count for this for this year? It is so, so, good, I want to announce it here, honoring it for its eloquence, its thoughtfulness, its candor and its wondrous ability to speak to so many people. She has been to our shop and has shared from her fascinating memoir, Girl Meets God and her important book on single sexuality. Sure, I might quibble about this or that insight, this or that episode, but Lauren is a writer I admire, a woman on a journey of faith that has been widely watched, and this good rumination on her loss of a sense of Christ's presence, her spiritual angst, allows us to follow more of her pilgrimage through the ups and downs. If you have ever wondered about how to keep faith alive, even in the doldrums, amidst depression and grief and perplexities, and are drawn to first-hand memoiristic tellings of her life in the Episcopal church, this is a book for you. We think it clearly deserves to be mentioned here. Look for it next month in a striking new paperback.
HONORABLE MENTION -- SPIRITUALITY STUDIES
Missional Spirituality: Embodying God's Love from the Inside Out Roger Helland & Leonard Hjalmarson (IVP) $16.00 While this is not a memoir or particularly warm, as some devotionals are, it is nonetheless fiery, full of passion and insight about how spirituality can be derailed and unhinged from the central core of Christian discipleship -- living in the world for others. This is a serious exploration of the interior life, bringing into view many of the classic topics found in other good books about spiritual formation. But, without being trendy or needlessly hip, it honestly insists that we be missional, that we be people advancing God's Kingdom, that we desire to fulfill the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. Too few books on contemplative disciplines integrate them within the practices of the church. If the "Earth is the Lord's" then that has great implications for congregational life, for Christian living, and for our spirituality. As Michael Frost (The Shaping of Things to Come) declares "This book is a triumph!"
HAPPY NEW YEAR AWARD FOR BEST BOOK ABOUT HEALTH & FITNESS
The Life of the Body: Physical Well-Being and Spiritual Formation Valerie E. Hess and Lane M. Arnold (IVP) $15.00 Every year a batch of books come out at the very end of the year, clearly marketed to capture the "New Year's Resolution" crowd. Fine. Most are okay, a few pretty weird. Even religious publishers do this, and most of their releases are bland at best. This book, though, which arrived at the end of December, is truly spectacular, bringing together good insight about stewardship of the body and the integration of our multi-dimensional selves. They realize that the experiences of our bodies influence, to speak loosely, the state of our souls. These authors are good guides to spiritual formation and are very familiar with the classic spirituality literature (Hess wrote the popular Spiritual Disciplines Devotional.) How great that they offer a holistic vision of physicality as a key aspect of spiritual formation. The book is part of the respected formatio line of IVP and co-published by Renovare. This isn't the first book to broach this subject, but it is the very best so far.
BEST BOOK OF BASIC CHRISTIAN GROWTH
The Explicit Gospel Matt Chandler with Jared Wilson (Crossway) $17.99 I had a few minor concerns about how this book was written, a couple of things that made me scratch my head, and I wasn't sure, as I read it, if it would be a strong contender. But I couldn't stop thinking of it, have had good conversations about it, and have revisited parts of it, reminding me that that is the sign of a very useful and good book. I do think this is rich in many way, aspects are very, very helpful, and I am quite glad to honor it as one of the best books I've read this year. I have reviewed it elsewhere, explaining that he shows two ways to explain the gospel and illustrating what goes haywire if we fail to use both approaches.
To oversimplify, Chandler draws one understanding of the gospel from conservative systematic theology, atonement doctrines, and clear-headed notions of the facts on the ground, applied to our personal lives. This is very good news, of course, that we are forgiven and made new, that the gospel can work its power in our broken and rebellious lives. He also affirms the broader, somewhat more "big picture" telling of the gospel that is driven less by theological propositions (sin, grace, etc) but more by the flow of the Bible itself -- we live in a good creation, God has made covenant with it, despite our sin and the creation's fallenness and with a People. Christ has come, Christ is Risen, Christ is coming again: that's the Story and it shapes the contours of how we live out our own story. This broader, narratively shaped gospel of the Kingdom compels us to be a people, a people responding to the call of the story, entering mission, working for social change, cultural healing, justice and shalom. Chandler goes further than the older-school debates between, say, a personal gospel and a social gospel, but I suppose that way of understanding the conversation is part of it. He is a serious, youngish, Reformed thinker, and, by all accounts, a very good pastor. He has faced a terminal illness, and continues to preach and write with verve. As Brad Lomenick of Catalyst puts it, this book offers "a roadmap and wake up call to our generation to grasp the full, expansive, and true gospel story." One renowned author says "If you read only one book this year, make it this one. It's that important." There ya go.
HONORABLE MENTION: BASIC CHRISTIAN GROWTH
Holy Nomad: The Rugged Road To Joy Matt Litton (Abingdon) $15.99 You may know that we often cite books about a sense of place. We are skeptical about books celebrating growth, upward movement, razzle-dazzle, success defined as "going far." We like smaller, slower projects and think that a generally Biblical vision of life reminds us to pay attention to where we are. So I wasn't so sure about a book about nomads. Didn't like the idea of valorizing moving on, leaving, taking off. My, goodness, was I ever dumb -- the "nomad" life described here isn't at all (or at least not necessarily) literal. Litton is all about place. He loves the particulars of his life, his home, his basement, even, the place to which he was driven in search of answers for why his Christian faith seemed to lack joy. As he describes early in the book the pink insulation hanging from an unfinished ceiling remodeling project, I new this was a book I'd enjoy. When I saw raw and real poet, singer/song-writer and rock star Bill Mallonee with a blurb on the inside, I knew I was going to dig this book.
I was disposed to like it, I must admit, because of his previous book, a lovely Christian study of To Killing a Mockingbird (The Mockingbird Parables: Transforming Lives Through the Power of Story; Tyndale; $14.99.) So I shouldn't have balked at the nomadic metaphor. ??So, life really is a journey, eh? We are holy nomads. We are to be on the move for God, being formed in the ways of Christ, eager to change, to be transformed, to grow. So many books --- great books, even ---teach us about this, and the classic books of spiritual formation should be our regular diet if we long for gospel-driven transformation. But then, sometimes, we need a ride with the top down, one with a bit more wild energy, a bit more abandon, a bit more honest and raw clarity about the ride. This is it. Put your seat-belt on. Litton names our struggles, invites us to let go of those things that hold us back and tie us down, and invites us to a fuller, richer life; one of deep down goodness, peace and real, tangible joy. As Mallonee puts it, Litton invites us to walk hand-in-hand with the Holy Nomad named Jesus. For a finely crafted, honest, upbeat look at our lack of joy, with great quotes (from rock singers like Switchfoot to literary figures like Thoreau, C.S. Lewis and Eugene Peterson) and fascinating stories, this books deserves a year's end shout out and very joyful celebration!
MOST INSPIRING BOOK OF THE YEAR
Love Does: Discover a Secretly Ordinary Life in an Ordinary World Bob Goff (Nelson) $15.99 This may be in the running for one of my favorite books, ever. Readers of Donald Miller's coffee shop ruminations on faith may recall Goff, who shows up part way through A Million Miles in a Thousand Years to help mentor Miller. In this long-awaited book the energetic Goff tells tons of stories from his life as kid, a young law student wanna be, an international activist, do-gooder, justice worker, friend, prankster, and erstwhile follower of Jesus with a gigantic sense of humor. It is about the funniest book I've read all year, and certainly the most inspiring. You won't believe some of his crazy tales, from fighting child slavery in Uganda to pulling pranks on rich friends in NYC. Goff is electric, optimistic, exceptionally talented, always likable, a born story-teller, and not the least bit cynical or ironic. He thinks God loves everybody, so he does too. And then he enjoys raising a ruckus to show it.
Some of us know that Bob "leaks Jesus" on folks all over the world, but we most love that he comes to Pittsburgh to hang with college students at the Jubilee conference most years. Maybe he deserves an award just for that. If he did, he might give it away. Yay, Goff. Best of 2012. His phone number is in the back of the book, so if you call him, tell him you read about him here.
BEST BOOK ABOUT GLOBAL POVERTY
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity Katharine Boo (Random House) $27.00 If you are a book lover, you have surely heard of this, maybe one of the most appreciated non-fiction books of the year. It is haunting, brutal at times, brilliantly written, and both devastating and hopeful as it tells about this incredibly poor subculture within this incredibly complex, loud and passionate city. (Think Slumdog Millionaire. Then think again; you won't believe some of this.) It has won a National Book Award and has been on nearly every important top 10 list of the year. There is a reason for this, and we want to add our voices, such as they are, to this important, humane, and very well done book. Buy this book.
HONORABLE MENTION -- ABOUT GLOBAL POVERTY
The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change Roger Thurow (Public Affairs) $26.99 I am not even finished with this and am confident that it is an award-winning book, one of the most captivating and important books I've read in a while. With passionate endorsements from Bono, and more sober ones by the likes of The Financial Times, we know Thurow is a good writer and on the side of the angles. I read much of his book Enough: Why the World's Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty, and this new one revisits Africa, but with a different focus. It colorfully chronicles the struggle of four women farmers in Western Kenya who have come together to try new farming opportunities, taking enormous risks to change their lives. This is the sort of glimpse into the real issues of African poverty that we need if we are going to think well and possibly help well.
BEST BOOK OF APOLOGETICS
The Searchers: A Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt Joseph Loconte (Nelson) $24.99 I'll admit it, this book had me when I read, in the preview catalog booksellers get, this quote by Eric Metaxas: "Every once in a while a book comes along that is so elegant and beautiful and vital that you can't imagine the world without it. Joe Loconte's The Searchers is a masterpiece, one of those rare books you will want to give to almost anyone, believers and non-believers alike. It overflows with wisdom and information about the very thing that makes us human, our search for meaning in the universe."
Yes, indeed, this is a very special book, a grand story of folks who struggle to make sense of a violent and confused world. This book is set in the days following the execution of Jesus -- imaginatively recreating the walk on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24. Loconte isn't a Bible scholar, though (he is a historian by profession) and he draws on literature and art, a bit of philosophy and current affairs. He shows how that Biblical drama is key to understanding history, and our own lives and places within history. Who isn't a searcher? Who at times doesn't seek and make meaning out of our deepest yearnings? Maybe you know somebody who is smart, and turned off by the hypocrisy and superficial nature of much church life. Maybe this could help. It surely is a creatively done, hybrid of a book -- a notable one of apologetics, history, a bit of Bible and a gracefully clear invitation to think deeply about the truth of the Christian story.
SPECIAL MARKETPLACE AWARD: BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR ABOUT THE INTEGRATION OF FAITH AND WORK
Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God's Work Timothy Keller with Katherine Leary Alsdorf (Dutton) $26.95 We were invited to help launch this important book at a big event in Manhattan with Rev. Keller, Katherine Alsdorf and Redeemer Presbyterian's Center for Faith and Work as they gathered for a conference on Christian faith and its relationship to vocation, calling, career, and work. We are not celebrating this as a best book of the year because of that, although that great event helps remind us of the significance of Keller, and of his colleagues at the Center. No, this book deserves very special commendation because it is, in fact, just about the best book I've seen on this topic, ever. I've read a lot in this field and there are a few that stand out. This is certainly one of them. (See my reasons why, in my review, here.) I actually want to say that this is one of the best books of the last decade (in any category) and surely one of the best books of 2012. What a great resource for people of faith to see how their convictions play out in the workaday world.
BEST BOOK OF BIBLICAL STUDIES (OLDER TESTAMENT)
Hearing the Old Testament: Listening for God's Address edited by Craig G. Bartholomew & David Beldman (Eerdmans) $32.00 It is nearly ridiculous to name just one book in this large field of study, but, for my money, there are so many excellent chapters, so many either remarkably insightful, or somehow generative, that this seems to me to be the most important, interesting, good and useful book about the Older Testament published all year. I'll admit I'm partial to some of the contributors -- authors such as Al Wolters, Tremper Longman, Chris Wright, M. Danny Carroll R., Gordon Wenham, Iain Provan, Aubray Spears. I love it when there are serious scholars from whom you gain not only information and insight, but a sense of urgency, that this stuff matters. This stuff matters! Kudos to the Paideia Centre for Public Theology at Redeemer University in Canada who helped fund this project.
HONORABLE MENTION: BIBLICAL STUDIES (OLDER TESTAMENT)
Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms Glenn Pemberton (Abilene University Press) $19.99 This author isn't the first to note that up to a full third of the Psalter is comprised of poems of sadness, grief, rage. These "psalms of lament" are of great interest these days (a great chapter by Calvin Seerveld entitled "Learning to Cry in Church" just appeared in a book about using the Psalms liturgically, in worship.) But, with all the interest, no one has done this sort of systematic, solid study of these Psalms in a way that equips us to use them well. This is mature scholarship, by a beloved Old Testament professor who cares about the church. Walter Brueggemann, who has done much in our generation to unlock these texts, claims that this is "a masterful study of the Lament Psalms that is sure to be a rich resource for the practice of faith." Yes, it is deeply moving, and yes it offers helpful ideas in incorporating these into the life of the church. Few books so deftly combine serious scholarship and pastoral wisdom. We are glad to honor such books, glad to applaud such authors.
BEST BOOK OF BIBLICAL STUDIES (NEWER TESTAMENT)
How God Became King And How We Missed It N.T. Wright (HarperOne) $25.99 I guess if one says repeatedly that this is the best book of the year, it surely should be named in it's situated category. Yes, yes, this is one of our favorite books -- that he lectured eloquently on it in our back yard is icing on the cake! -- and it is doubtlessly the Biblical studies book that we most enjoyed, and enjoyed talking about. It is important, well written, a bit provocative, but utterly sensible. A great blend of informed scholarship, teacherly instruction, pastoral guidance, and a bit of prophetic fire. Love it.
Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (HarperOne; $24.99.) I need to honorably mention this companion book that also came out in 2012, also quite useful, and very highly recommended. This is truly one great study, again, like the above one, combining good teaching, preaching, solid information, a bit of edge and to be recommended to both believers and seekers.
I also should mention that one of the great events of the year at which we got to work was when St. Mary's Ecumenical Institute in Baltimore hosted Tom for several days on these two books. What good work they do, and what a joy it was to serve that event as book sellers...
HONORABLE MENTION: BIBLICAL STUDIES (NEWER TESTAMENT)
Frameworks: How To Navigate the New Testament Eric Larson (Frameworks Resources) $27.00 I know there are a dozen or so great introductions to the New Testament, and I know you cannot own, let alone use, them all. But this is truly unique, and I'll mention two reasons. First, there are fantastic, interesting, full color photographs enhancing every section. The design is sleek and contemporary, using some nifty picto-graphics -- it's created for a visual generation, and very, very attractive. These are not standard-fare stock photos of the Sea of Galilee or close-ups of Roman coins as in many illustrated Bible handbooks. Trust me, these are cool. Award-winning cool. Secondly, I will mention the important, helpful arrangement, the devices used to help us understand and embrace the flow of the Newer Testament writings, writings to be understood as essential explications of the gospel breaking in to human history. Larson, an experienced Bible teacher, created this asking 10 questions of each of the 27 New Testament books. It is uniform, clear, helpful. I love the subtitle: "An Extraordinary Guide for Ordinary People."
BEST BIBLE COMMENTARY OF THE YEAR
The Gospel of John: A Commentary Frederick Dale Bruner (Eerdmans) $75.00 Hands down. You may recall the tremendously respected and greatly appreciated two volume studies Bruner did on Matthew. (They were once published as The Christ Book and The Church Book, but are now simply Matthew: A Commentary volume 1 and Matthew: A Commentary volume 2.) Here, you've got one big wonking volume 1280 pages (I peeked.) Did I mention it is pricey? One of our very astute Bible-studying customers (not a pastor, by the way, and not particularly well off, financially) said it is worth every penny! This is what a commentary can do, what a commentary should be. I'm not kidding. The best of the year, and most likely, it will be the unsurpassed best for many years to come. Bruner is a beloved professor at Whitworth College and now is Scholar in Residence at Fuller Theological Seminary.
VERY HONORABLE MENTION - GENERAL BIBLICAL SCHOLARSHIP
Living Countertestimony: Conversations with Walter Brueggemann Walter Brueggemann with Carolyn J. Sharp (WJK) $20.00 Brueggemann is endlessly interesting, always talkative, and here the astute Ms Sharp, a pleasant but incisive interviewer (and professor at Yale Divinity School) raises bunches of questions, month by month, in a series of illuminating conversations. Some are quite specific about this or that - hermeneutics, Brueggy's preaching style, his take on the latest scholars working in the field of critical studies, the criticisms he has taken(from the left and the right!) Other chapters feel more free-wheeling, like we are listening in on good friends schmoozing over a good meal, which is pretty much what was happening. Oh, to be at that table! A few chapters have other church leaders and scholars involved but the focus is always on Walt, his spiritual journey, his ministry, his scholarship, the books he reads, his vocation within the church, and his insights about the times in which we live. This was certainly one of the very best books I've read all year, not just because I esteem and enjoy Brueggemann and know him a bit (and have had some of these kinds of conversations with him) but, truly, because this really is a fabulously conceived book, full of interesting rabbit trails, key questions, and honest struggle, great imagination and hope. Very highly recommended for anyone who pays attention to his generative work, or who wants to understand the fascinating man behind the books.
BEST BOOK ABOUT INTERFAITH DIALOGUE
Why Did Jesus, Moses, The Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World Brian McLaren (Jericho Books) $24.99 I know some of our readers don't particularly like McLaren's views these days -- he's too liberal for some, and too conservative for others -- but I believe he is not only important to read, but a fine, interesting, capable thinker and good wordsmith. I enjoy him and I enjoy his books, even when I don't fully agree with them. On this topic, he brings his quintessential postmodern/postcolonial sensibilities, and his recent experiences traveling in and serving with global Christians (in Africa, for instance) has, as it must, informed his passion for this topic. (I am less interested in authors who may write with impeccable doctrine who have not experienced what they are writing about -- I know books about, say, how Christ is the singular Savior and how we must stand firm on that who have never actually talked to anyone from another religion!) So this book has that kind of integrity as it was born out of genuine experience. Another commendable aspect of it is how it holds both a desire for respectful interfaith dialogue while insisting on the value of a strong Christian identity. There have been other authors and projects that, in the name of interfaith respect and civility, settle on a rather insubstantial affirmation of what we all agree on, weakening each faith's distinctives. McLaren is more interested in our identity, or at least how we may come to some similarities out of fidelity to our own convictions. This book wants to engage in fruitful pluralistic conversations from a specifically Christian perspective. Very interesting, and whether you agree or not, we think it is one of the best books of the year, well deserving of a Hearts & Minds shout out. Plus, he deserves some props for that funny title.
This may have been, by the way, the first release of the newly formed Jericho Books. Not bad for a publisher to start strongly, with a clear, particular vision. They will be important to follow.
BEST ART BOOK
Beauty Given By Grace: Biblical Prints of Sadao Watanabe Sandra Bowden, John Hesselink, Makoto Fujimura (Square Halo Press) $29.99 When it first released this summer I reviewed this marvelous new large-sized, high-quality paperback book at great length, noting its global significance, its sheer beauty, and how the essays were so very, very interesting. It is a much needed book on a significant Christian artist who is known all over the world and, rare though it may be, it is vast in its importance. Not only are the evocative, Japanese-styled prints beautiful to behold, cover many Biblical texts in Biblical order, the well-crafted essays are very informative and strangely poignant . I was moved to tears as I read this; other subsequent reviews and reports have confirmed my instincts that this is a very important book. Kudos to all involved.
BEST BOOK ABOUT THE ARTS
Art as Spiritual Perception: Essays in Honor of E. John Walford edited by James Romaine (Crossway) $40.00 I wrote earlier why I loved this book, how I so appreciated the many good scholars who do their various pieces, each in honor of the legendary art historian of Wheaton College, John Walford. From Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker to Calvin Seerveld to William Dyrness and many more, these examples of Christianly-conceived art evaluation are exceptional, important, making this book a watershed in Christian work in this field. Congratulations to James Romaine who put this all together, and thanks to Crossway for their willingness to create just a handsome, well-designed, and significant volume.
MOST IMPORTANT RE-ISSUE
Roots of Western Culture: Pagan, Secular, and Christian Options Herman Dooyeweerd (Reformational Publishing Project) $15.95 Well, you might appreciate the review I did of this at Comment magazine a few months ago or, if you are a devotee of this heavy Dutch philosopher, you will already know that these essays, once published in a Dutch newspaper, are intellectually dense and significant and enduring. This is the guy who so influenced Francis Schaeffer, around whose work the Institute for Christian Studies graduate school in Toronto was formed, and which, in circuitous ways, helped shape our own worldview and vocation as booksellers. This is the best popular introduction to the heavy philosopher's work and has long been out of print. If he were better known and more widely read, we might call this a publishing event. At least we will award it here. Kudos!
MOST TIMELY RE-ISSUE
A Hobbit Journey: Discovering the Enchantment of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth Matthew Dickerson (Brazos Press) $16.99 It seems any year that a Dickerson book comes out, it ends up being celebrated at the Hearts & Minds BookNotes blog. We are thrilled that this out of print book, previously released as Following Gandolf, has been reintroduced (revised and considerably expanded) just in time to help those interested in The Hobbit explore more of it's grand vision and deeper meaning. My, my, this is solid stuff, very helpful, fun, beautifully-written, absorbing and truly inspiring as we attempt to life morally heroic, Christ-like lives. What is so interesting about this is how seamlessly Dickerson weaves together contemporary social ethics -- from justice issues to questions about the body -- and the Tolkien narratives. A great book like this, happily available again, is worth some kind of medal.
MOST NEEDED RE-ISSUE
Just Politics: A Guide for Christian Engagement Ronald J. Sider (Brazos) $19.99 Again, sometimes we are just thrilled that an older book gets a new coat of paint, re-issued with a new title and new cover. In this election year, we needed a solid, readable, and nonpartisan book that would illustrate a distinctively Christian approach to politics. This is the best book I know of for ordinary, educated readers, about the methodology of how to think Christianly about our citizenship. Of course we can't merely proof-text favorite Bible verses (as both the left and the right tend to do) but neither can we just add a religious gloss on our favored Republican or Democratic ideologies. Thanks to Sider for his painstaking, costly faithfulness over the years, and his hard work insisting that we honor Christ by intentionally resisting the scandal of allowing the gospel to be hijacked by any worldly ideology, left, right, or center. Agree or not with Ron and his "Evangelicals for Social Action" organization, I think everyone who votes should read this book! Just Politics is one of the year's best. It was formerly released as The Scandal of Evangelical Politics, and now includes some rousing new material (including an appendix with a great literature review for book nerds like me.) Get it!
BEST MOVIE TIE-IN COVER
Life of Pi Yann Martel (Mariner Books) $15.95 Hip and colorful, this new movie tie-in edition strikes me as the neatest new cover of books re-issued due to their renewed popularity because of a movie. And there are several this year! I admit I'm usually not a fan of these covers that match the movie posters. We loved this unforgettable, eccentric, 2002 (postmodern?) novel, and we're glad to celebrate its new popularity. Runners-up might for neat new jackets include The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (love the new cover!) and, certainly, the movie-tie in of Pulitzer Prize-winning Team of Rivals, re-issued as Lincoln which is quite striking. Three cheers for these great new book covers!
BEST NEW EDITION OF AN OLD CLASSIC
Charity and Its Fruits: Living in the Light of God's Love Jonathan Edwards, edited by Kyle Strobel (Crossway) $22.99 Few who have struggled through this book have doubted its worth -- what an amazingly rich, surprisingly relevant, and wonderful, serious Biblical teaching from this 18th century pastor and public intellectual. (Edwards is known for having one of the most brilliant minds in American history and was, of course, the first President of Princeton University.) In this fabulous new edition, Strobel, who has served as a Fellow at the Yale Edward's Center, offers a very helpful, thorough introduction to the book, over 150 explanatory notes, definitions of confusing terminology and adds insight collating this with other Edward's writings. A final conclusion shows how to live out this grace-filled call to costly love. This is unabridged and not paraphrased, but Stobel's energetic help makes it come alive in new ways. It is still not simple. It is truly deserving of accolades and great thanks.
BEST LITERARY CRITICISM
Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me Karen Swallow Prior (T.S. Poetry Press) Okay, I'll give you that this isn't exactly literary criticism, and I only name it that as a nod to her expertise as serious lit prof. It's a memoir. But -- get this! -- this is a memoir of a woman who is a literature professor, arranged around different books that shaped her life and faith. Is that a great idea, or what? A memoir in the guise of book reviews? Book reviews with mostly her own story? Yep, yep. Loved it. Name the medal whatever you want, she earned it, and deserves all sorts of accolades and gratitude from those of us who love good books, writing about good books, who appreciate an open-minded but seriously Christian take on quality literature. What a story -- give it up for a woman whose name I am sure you will hear more about. (Kudos to L.L. Barkat, too, founder of the indie press T.S. Poetry Press which does such lovely, fine books.)
BEST SPORTS STORY
Run Home and Take a Bow: Stories of Life, Faith, and A Season with the Kansas City Royals Ethan Bryan (Samizdat Press) $14.99 Okay, full disclosure. Hearts & Minds is mentioned on one page, as the author compares reading a few BookNotes reviews I did (helping him see things from various viewpoints) and how he saw things from other's viewpoint as he sat in different places during one game when he got to wander around a near empty stadium. It is nice in his telling, but that's it: in each chapter Bryan draws some faith lesson from his experience at his team's games. I guarantee you that this isn't cheesy or sentimental -- he's a serious sports fan, a knowledgeable baseball history buff, a well-read Christian thinker, a passionate youth pastor and local activist, and a fun storyteller. He tells of his own love for the game, how he learned it from his dad, and how he is teaching it to his girls. Yeah, he loves those Royals. (Stranger things have been written, I suppose. Ha.) I have lost my zeal for the game I used to love, but you know what? I adored this breezy memoir, and keep coming back to it. Sports fan? You gotta know this book. Spring training starts soon! Run home and take a bow, Ethan Bryan. You've won a pennant race or something.
BEST BOOK ABOUT FILM
Reforming Hollywood: How American Protestants Fought for Freedom at the Movies William D. Romanowski (Oxford University Press) $29.95 I want to give this dual awards, you know, the way some actors get a Golden Globe and an Academy Award. Or, better, think how some movies clean up in several different categories, honored for excellence in each? This is like that. Romanowski deserves acclaim for writing one of the most captivating and yet seriously researched scholarly books of the year. So there's that trophy. Next, he deserves acclaim for doing what I believe is distinctively Christian scholarship -- his faith-based values have colored how he thinks, informed his research methodologies, subtly informing what he tends to go after and how he tends to interpret the data, but, yet, it isn't overtly religious. Indeed, although the book is about the history of Protestant Christians (liberal, fundamentalist, progressive and evangelicals alike) his own Reformed worldview isn't explicitly evident, except for those who have eyes to see and are paying attention to how he frames his storytelling. It operates as it should, below the service, influentially, but not worn on his sleeve, cheaply. So, a trophy, there. And, yes, he has broken new ground, telling new parts of the Hollywood story (the American story, in many ways) that simply haven't been told before. One of the greatest living scholars of film history has a commending blurb on the back and the book is surely going to leave its mark in its field. Can he hold all these statues on the awards stage? Oh, and did I say that Reforming Hollywood, despite its meticulous detail, is actually fun to read, with all kinds of in-house stuff revealed, background details engagingly told, from the political and business world debates about censorship in the days of the early talkies to the behind-the-scenes drama of the formation of the ratings code in the heat of the early 70s, to the curious marketing campaigns in recent years aimed at the religious market, his is a giant spotlight shined upon the formation of movie history. Call this star to the stage -- he deserves a bunch of gold!
BEST BOOK OF AMERICAN STUDIES
A Free People's Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future Os Guinness (IVP) $16.00 I knew from a few pages in that this was, not unexpectedly, quintessential Os Guinness; lucid, eloquent, jam-packed with information, historical vignettes, quotes; it is serious -- you can just feel the urgency. He has been speaking and teaching on this theme, all over the globe, in scholarly symposia and in church workshops, from punchy presentations at culturally-engaged evangelical venues like the hip Q events to long-form serious lecture series at prestigious secular universities. This British evangelical who loves America and her civic traditions has poured his life into explaining the matrix of influences and virtues that are necessary to sustain the freedom won centuries ago. Consequently this book offers detailed colonial history, constitutional exegesis, socio-cultural studies and pithy evaluation of the most contemporary public affairs, especially around issues of the culture wars, religious freedom and structures and practices of civility. This book is less overtly evangelical than many of his others and, in it, we are reminded again of Guinness's challenging role bridging the academy and the church, the culture of think-tanks and the world of global missions and evangelicalism. He is one of the smartest people I've ever met (having studied under some of the world's leading scholars, for instance at Oxford) but he desires to communicate to fairly ordinary folks. It is rare to read a scholar who is as familiar with Peter Berger as he is with Billy Graham, who can dissect how, say, thinking about the Greek city states or the Fall of the Roman Empire, shaped how the framers understood their own role and their own ideas and can offer passionate views about mega-churches or popular culture. A book by Os Guinness is always worth reading, and this dense study is certainly one of his best.
Can we grapple with the deep needs of the day, inspired by America's core ideas about freedom and pluralism and justice and can we astutely apply them with faithful rigor to the complexities of our contemporary era of relativism and Empire? Can we find the courage and resolve and civic graces to make our commitments known? It remains to be seen, I suppose, but this historical overview is an important contribution to our public conversations. I pray that it is widely read and widely considered.
I cannot begin to list the rave reviews and good accolades this book has garnered, from Jean Bethke Elshtain to Michael Cromartie to James Sire to Eric Metaxas. I think they are correct. Of course, more needs to be said, and much more work needs to be done. This is an award winning book, though, much needed for this critical time.
BEST BOOK ABOUT FAITH & SOCIAL JUSTICE
The Just Church: Becoming a Risk-Taking, Justice-Seeking, Disciple-Making Congregation Jim Martin (Tyndale) $14.99 Co-published by International Justice Mission, this incredibly useful book does just what its subtitle promises -- it helps integrate justice advocacy into ordinary discipleship, and helps ordinary churches realize they must be proactive in building wholistic disciples. Dare our churches not take risks for the cause of justice, dare we sit on the sidelines of the great historical battle for justice and liberation, dare we continue with church-life as usual? Of course there are many great books about justice and tons of books about congregational health. Few bring them together, and none do it as well as this one. Martin is the vice president of church mobilization for the anti-trafficking organization IJM and offers his upbeat, spiritually-sound insight into how to get your church moving. May this book add to the momentum of Jesus people loving God's world, and stretching into areas of advocacy and social change, living out the mandate of Isaiah 1:17. By the way, I should make special mention of the nifty QR codes that enhance every chapter. Watch short videos developing each chapter's themes. Yay.
SPECIAL MEDAL FOR CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR IN THE CULTURE WARS
Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars Jonathan Merritt (FaithWords) $19.99 Jonathan is a blogger, writer, gadfly and activist, a humble and upbeat guy, fun and funny, which, it seems to me, is an indication of God's good work in his life. This book could have been a bitter screed against the religious right, about his conservative upbringing and how some of his own mentors and friends turned on him when he began to explore theological matters (like creation care) outside of their typical orbit. Instead, this is a gentle and kind reflection on his journey away from the narrow issues of the far right and a study of how his generation of vibrant, younger evangelicals are tired of the culture wars approach. Merritt is a good writer and he deftly explores how the battle language, the black and white moralism, the us vs them legalism, the conflation of patriotism with Biblical faith conspires to drive some away from faith and is, after all, not fully Biblical, anyway. He has not jumped ship, though, and remains a humble tenacious voice helping his young adult cohort (especially cultural creatives) take seriously the joy of being a Christ follower as well as helping his old tribe -- and all of us -- to take seriously a "third way" between the left and right. I am not doing this story justice in this short commendation, and you simply must read it. Give it to the disillusioned, to those tired of culture wars, of those who want a dose of faith that wants to be true agents of lasting Christ-centered restoration, in but not of the culture. For now, allow us to honor it, naming it as one of the best of 2012.
SPECIAL MEDAL FOR REAL CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTION - BEING A PEACEMAKER IN TIME OF WAR
Reborn on the Fourth of July: The Challenge of Faith, Patriotism and Conscience Logan Mehl-Laituri (IVP) $15.00 Somewhere in one of my earlier reviews of this I said that I cried reading it, wish so badly I had just such a book when I was coming of age, struggling with the draft, in the early 70s. I was wondering how this brave brother was able to find his way to Biblical pacifism amidst a warrior culture and evangelical faith experience that did not equip him to easily think about these things; it is nearly a miracle. I wondered how he would sustain this glorious, hard, Christ-centeredness without growing jaded or bitter. The book is riveting, a battle story revealing a strong man who comes undone at the sight of the killing fields, who is driven to rethink everything while engaged in front line battles in Iraq, broken man finding healing and hope by coming to grips with the ethical mandates of the nonviolent Lamb. This author is not sentimental or sappy, but cry I did. You might too. Or you might hate it, thinking him subversive or dangerous. You will not miss his loyalty to King Jesus, his fluency in the Scriptures and Christian thinking, nor his tough commitments to his fellow soldiers. We will hear more from him (he is, even now, working further on ministry to and with soldiers who are Christ-followers.)
Interestingly, many who are not pacifists have found it very much worth reading. Listen to Herman Keizer, U.S. Army (retired) and director of chaplains for the CRC, who writes, "Mehl-Laituri is a person of courage, heroic valor, who sees his duty and does it; he is a child of God, since he was reborn on the fourth of July." I want to give this some kind of award that spans the decades --- I have not seen a book like this in our 30 years of book-selling! Thanks to this brave publisher; indeed no mainstream Christian publisher other than those affiliated with pacifist denominations or radical Catholic orders, have done anything like it. Kudos.
THE FOUR BEST MEMOIRS of 2012
January First: A Child's Descent into Madness and Her Father's Struggle to Save Her Michael Schofield (Crown) $25.00 This may have been the book I raced through the quickest -- a true page turner for me, except when I put it down to wipe my eyes or smack my head (the parents are heroes in many respects, and embarrassingly wrong-headed sometimes.) It is a riveting read of young parents with a severally mentally disturbed child; early on they were told that childhood schizophrenia just doesn't exist. It is amazing what some folks go through; I think I said in an earlier review that it was one of the saddest books I have ever read. It is good to see what some parents go through as they cope with difficult or disabled children, and entering their world will be something I won't forget. What a story!
The Exact Place: A Memoir Margie Haack (Kalos Press) $14.95 A wonderfully written memoir of a girl growing up in a rough home, in poverty, in very rural Minnesota. I'll admit she's a friend (and I have a blurb on the cover) but it truly is just wonderful, both entertaining and inspiring. I reviewed it at great length at BookNotes and if you didn't read that, I hope you do -- it explains who Margie is, the good work she and her husband do at Ransom Fellowship, and why this book is so appealing, exploring her "spiritual geography" and the ragged line of redemption the flows through her years. It was our store's biggest seller of 2012, by the way. It deserves some sort of award just for that, but, of course, that doesn't finally prove anything (although I think you should trust our discerning customers!) The reader's subsequent reviews, the re-orders, the other accolades it has received from important folks does count, though. Trust us: this is truly one of the best of the best, a lovely read for which you will be very grateful.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail Cheryl Strayed (Knopf) $25.95 We are proud to have discovered this early on -- before Oprah! -- and literally couldn't put it down. What an adventure it tells, of Strayed coping with debilitating grief and bad, bad life choices by hiking, ill-prepared, the rugged Pacific Crest Trail, itself not necessarily a very smart choice. But what a high adventure! And it is so well written -- amazingly, so. It deserves all the "best of" awards it has gotten from everybody in the universe. By the way I want to be careful saying this, but I was very moved by her stunningly heart-felt book of tender (and very frank) on-line advice column responses Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (Vintage), although they are so grossly vulgar at times, it is hard to recommend them to many ordinary folks. She pours her heart out with candor and guts to every dear messed up soul who writes to her. (She makes no pretense to being Christian, in case you wondered and even while her sentences are so beautiful they make you cry, you will want to recover, take a breath, and realize she is sometimes offering pretty bad advice.) Still, she is a beautiful, caring, good-hearted writer and I'd read anything she does. The forward to Tiny Beautiful Things by novelist and essayist Steve Almond is itself a great piece of writing that I have read several times. But, the award goes to Wild. You've got to read it, despite some sex and language and drugs and, well, the worst of nature and some vivid portrayals of what we might call "the human condition." Through all that being lost there is goodness and glory and natural beauty, courage and hope and one great helluva great hiking story.
The End of Your Life Book Club Will Schwalbe (Knopf) $25.00 Not as morbid as it sounds, this has become one of my very favorite books of the year. It isn't brilliantly written like the previously mentioned memoirs, but it narrates the story so well, it ends up being truly wonderful. When it becomes evident that the middle-aged author's mother is dying, they read books together -- and this story of it is the wonderful, wise, result. Schwalbe worked in the book biz, so there are author appearances and early versions of forthcoming manuscripts and a ton of bookish awareness. His mother must have been one of the most interesting people of her generation -- she helped start an organization for refugees, traveled all over the world in service and raised -- as she was dying! -- a million dollars for libraries in Afghanistan. Through the chemo and the growing illness, which she takes with dignity and high class charm, they read and read and read. Every chapter explains a book they loved, even as it reports the ups and downs of their relationship, how their family coped, and how they came to appreciate so many good books. Mitch Albom calls it "a wonderful book about wonderful books." Very, very good.
THREE BIG CHEERS: THE MOST ENJOYABLE BOOK OF THE YEAR
Does This Church Make Me Look Fat: A Mennonite Finds Faith, Meets Mr. Right, and Solves Her Lady Problems Rhoda Janzen (Grand Central Publishing) $24.99 This book deserves a long, funny review, but time here is limited -- you know how it is at the Academy Awards show. You can only linger so long. Beth and I have so thoroughly enjoyed so many books this year, we can hardly name the joy we've gotten from fine writers, good stories, lovely sentences, amazing stuff learned, in and between the lines of so many precious books. But, yes, ladies and gents, this was our choice for our favorite book for sheer pleasure. You met two years ago the very interesting Rhoda Janzen in her crazy-great memoir Mennonite in a Little Black Dress where she is learning to appreciate her frumpy old-school Mennonite parents when she had to return home from her hip world of teaching literature someplace pretty cool after a devastating injury. That was a rip-roaring read that carried a great endorsement about how much it made Elizabeth Gilbert laugh. And if it made that smart gal laugh, well, we wanted to read it, and read it and sell it and tell about it and sell it more we did. Anyway, how many books are endorsed by People and Vogue and The New York Times Book Review and Barbara Brown Taylor? And that juxtapositions sexy high heels and simple living rural Mennonites?
Okay. Does This Church Make Me Look Fat is the hilarious, very touching, sequel. Ms Janzen is clearly a Christian now, still copping a bit of an attitude, still witty and still loving her handbags and such. Now she is teaching at Hope College, a school which is part of the Reformed Church of America. She has fallen in love with a recovering druggie, who is a decent, outdoorsy, blue-collar guy (with guns! Explain that to the frumpy Mennonites!) And, he doesn't believe in sex before being married. And he goes to a Pentecostal church, where people dance in the Spirit and sometimes speak in tongues. In fact, much of the book is about Janzen trying to navigate her fairly mainline/liberal ecumenical faith, her high-brow literary culture, her rural, no-nonsense Anabaptist background and her new lover's Pentecostal church and their multi-ethnic, swinging, services and their rousing prayers for healing and stuff. Oh, and she has cancer. Wow, talk about lady problems. This is a book you won't forget, with sentences so interesting and paragraphs so good that you'll put the book down wondering how she thought of that. But you'll pick it back up because you'll want to know what in the world is going to happen next in this very modern story of one very sincere seeker on the way to a truly abundant life. You really don't have to read the first one first, but you sure should. It won some awards a few years ago, including one right here. Go Rhoda J, go!
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