But, as we said, there are more. A lot more. It has been a good year. So, in random order, some of the titles we want to celebrate, honor, award, and laud. Bring 'em up to the stage, we've got some medals to give out, here in PART TWO of our annual list. And then, stay tuned, as PART THREE will come soon.
Metaphorically speaking. We've got no stage, no medals, and, frankly, our huzzah's ain't worth that much in the big world of mega-publishing and viral videos. But, we want to shout a little, hoping somebody notices. And buys the books, supporting our work, these authors and publishers. That is the point of this venture, you know. Booksellers large or small need good writers, helpful publishers, and tons of readers. They write 'em, we sell 'em, you read 'em. When it works, it is great. Cue: Louise Armstrong singing "What a Wonderful World." Kudos to those who write, those who publish, those who buy, and all who read. You are the best.
BEST BOOK OF CULTURAL CRITICISM
The Road Trip That Changed the World Mark Sayers (Moody Press) $14.99 Sayers has two other award winning books, and a stunningly hip and very important DVD curriculum, based on his first (The Trouble With Paris, about hyper-modern, consumerism.) The second book, The Vertical Self, was truly excellent, but sadly didn't sell well. We loved that study about our view of ourselves, how our worldview and cultural leanings shape our very sense of self. So he's a good, good author.
This new one is a study of Jack Kerouac's life and ethos found in the classic 1957 beat novel On the Road. He explores why this counter-cultural bohemian vision has captured the imaginations of millions. With great insight, verve, appreciation, and profundity, he nails the way this vision of life valorizes being an outsider, being "on the road" as symbolic of refusing to buy in to traditional values. Of course, for Biblical people, there is something to this, this sense of being a pilgrim, being non-conformed, offering prophetic denunciation to the idols of the land. But it is not fully adequate and has left to much confusion and sorry. This book is no knee jerk bit of reactionary polemics against beats, hippies or greens. But it does place the right-brained, left-winged, counter-cultural vibe in a broader post-Enlightenment context. Why are so many knowingly uncommitted (to much of anything?) Why do we say that the destination doesn't matter, but the journey is all that matters? Why do we romanticize wanderlust? Why don't many young adults seem to want to grow up, let alone settle down? As Sayers explains, we want to be part of something meaningful, but do not want to be bound by it. He shows (with as much accuracy and enthusiasm as he did in The Trouble with Paris, and Vertical Self, he explores the driving spirit behind the iconic movement. With the new movie about Saint Jack K now out, by the way, this accessible, interesting, helpful book couldn't be more timely.
Get the long subtitle: "The unlikely theory that will change how you view culture, the church, and most importantly, yourself." Maybe this tag is a bit much, but what's a conservative Christian publisher to do when it is trying to market an unusual book, trying to get readers to enter a conversation about a broad cultural trend to which they may not relate well? But this is no cheesy self help book, and I'm not sure it will change the way you view everything, regardless of the claim on the cover. But it will surely make you more culturally astute, and it just may help you see our era and its zeitgeist in a new way. I think Debra and Alan Hirsch are right when they say "Mark Sayers has pretty much unlocked the cultural code of millions of young adults. His insights into mass culture, the corporate psyche, and spirituality sometimes border on the uncanny." This is certainly deserving of an award. It's one of the year's best. Thanks to Moody Press for doing this one-of-a-kind kind book, with this kind of an author.
BEST BOOK OF BASIC CHRISTIAN GROWTH (TIE)
A Grace Revealed: How God Redeems the Story of Your Life Jerry Sittser (Zondervan) $19.99 I have raved about this elsewhere, noting that in some ways it is a 20-year on follow-up to his riveting book about grief, A Grace Disguised. Sittser is a beautiful writer, a sensible, mature theologian, and an excellent guide to seeing our lives as unfolding as part of God's own redemptive work in the world. This is a multifaceted diamond, sparkling with reflections on hope, loss, grace, courage, faith, trust, meaning, joy. It is honest. It is about being caught up in the goodness of Jesus the Christ. There are a lot of books like this, but this is exceptional -- partially because of the remarkable story, with the tragic loss of his family as described in that previous book. No, it is good because it is so wise, so engaging, so nicely written, so helpful to help us all see what is so very true.
BEST BOOK OF BASIC CHRISTIAN GROWTH (TIE)
Everyday Missions: How Ordinary People Can Change the World Leroy Barber (IVP) $15.00 I love Leroy Barber, author of New Neighbor and vibrant President of Mission Year. He can write wonderfully, he is a great storyteller, and how he opens up Bible stories is just fabulous. In this call to whole-life discipleship, Barber explores "Kingdom Imagination" by looking at Moses, "God-Confidence" by telling about David, "Spirit-Led Mentors" are explored by studying Esther and Peter. These character driven stories lead him to remarkable insights -- including level-headed stuff about "job versus calling" and inspiring stuff about taking risks, dreaming, standing out. Many will be encouraged by his chapter "The Myth of the Extraordinary" and his ruminations about time and money are very, very helpful. This book is just jam-packed with good insights, it makes you want to rise to bigger dreams, it deepens faith and motivates us to take good steps towards running with God. This is what a basic book of Christian living can do. Three big cheers.
BEST BOOK OF GLOBAL CHRISTIAN THINKING
The Gospel after Christendom: New Voices, New Cultures, New Expressions edited by Ryan Bolger (BakerAcademic) $29.99 A few years ago, Bolger gave us what was at the time, without a doubt, the definitive study of emerging churches (Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures.) Here, he revisits this important project, offering a glimpse into other places, other voices. As Michael Frost writes, "Here's proof that the emerging missional conversation is transcending the traditional ecclesial and cultural boundaries that too often limit the church's ability to speak to itself." There are authors here from New Zealand and Latin America, from post-Christian Europe and Asian. This is a very broad survey, and each author is weighing in on topics that are worthy of our consideration.
There are great pieced grouped around four units. The first part looks at various Peoples, the second, Cultures. Wow. The third is very useful, exploring several practices, and how our missional identity is shaped. Part 4 dramatically tells of edgy experiments (from hip hop churches to liturgical communities such as the one led by Nadia Bolz-Weber to the Jesus Dojo, explained by Mark Scandrette. How fascinating to learn of urban micro-Abbeys and Bykirken, a Norwegian city-church.) The fifth part tells of fresh expressions of various traditions, giving this an important connection to on-going denominational traditions. Sally Morganthaler says that this big book is "a deluge of lived imagination." That it is. Is this a report from at least a portion of the future of the Church? Absolutely. Bolger is to be commended for this broad anthology (despite a few notably missing conversation partners.) Like it or not, this is essential reading.
BEST BOOK ON DISABILITIES STUDIES
Disability and the Gospel Michael Beates (Crossway) $15.99 I suppose most places don't award the best book about disabilities, but we often do, as it is an important category in our store. There are many moving books about parenting kids with special needs, about handicapping conditions, stories of those who have overcome painful and serious struggles. We were tipped off to the importance of this book by the insistent foreword by Jon Eareckson Tada, and if she says something is that good, we listen. Also, when I was skeptical that this would be mostly a Bible study about God's presence during hardships, by a well respected Reformed scholar, I learned that he himself is the father of a very disabled daughter. So he knows what he is talking about, from the awkward things people say to the exhausting struggle of caring for a very needy child. Oh my, this guy has seen it all. As a board member of Joni and Friends, he has a heart for educating and equipping churches to be more inclusive. And as a thoughtful, conservative evangelical, he has the chops to engage some of the more liberal liberation theologies of disabilities. Agree or not, it is just wonderful to see somebody engaging the work of more ecumenical, mainline scholars. We are happy that a book like this exists, glad for its Biblical basis, and very glad for how it brings God's grace to those who are pained by handicaps and disabilities. This is not the final book on the subject, but, without a doubt, it is the best we've seen in recent years.
BEST BOOK OF CROSS CULTURAL STUDIES
Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible E. Randolph Richards & Brandon J. O'Brien (IVP) $16.00 Although this seems on the face of it to be a book we should award as one of the best books of Biblical studies (and it is!) we are awarding this as the best book of the year on intercultural, multi-ethnic concerns. It is so helpful and clear the way these authors explain how different cultures tend to understand/experience things like time, things like family, or the tensions (is that a Western bias in how I say it?) between individualism and collectivism. Richards has a missionary in cultures that were not Western, and his stories are tremendously interesting, reminding us all of our own blinders and lenses that, like that which is below an iceberg and not seen, really influence us. There are many of us who study worldviews, realizing that Christian discipleship, to be fully lived and radical, must grapple with below the surface assumptions, mores, attitudes and such, not carrying them unthinkingly into our faith walk. Alas, our sociological biases from our ethnic cultures must be examined as well. This book goes a long way in explaining that, and some of it made me giddy with new knowledge, fresh reminders, and great stories of how pretty basic practices -- like how we read the Bible -- can be distorted by assumptions we carry. I promise you that as you read this book you will learn about the Bible, you will learn more about the people in God's world, and you will surely ponder your own biases and blinders. Fascinating. Is giving three cheers multi-culturally enough? Blue ribbons? Salute? I don't know for sure, but here we go, honoring this as a Best Book of 2012.
BEST BOOK OF CROSS CULTURAL STUDIES -- RUNNER UP
The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America Edward J. Blum & Paul Harvey (University of North Carolina Press) $32.50 I don't usually award seriously academic books from scholarly presses as it just seems a bit unreal, to expect ordinary readers to tackle over-priced and often arcane and heavy scholarship. If a book is truly worthy, I usually think, it has to be accessible and not obscure. Yet, this book is stellar in so many ways, important, illuminating, insightful, and powerful, that is certainly deserves one of our Best Of accolades.
When someone was well read as Cornel West says it is "masterful" and a "breath of fresh air" and important scholar of race relations in American such as Michael Emerson of Rice say it "will transform what you thought you knew" it certainly deserves attention. In what has been called "sweeping in scope" and "extremely powerful" and "original" and "paradigm changing," Blum & Harvey have done a careful, fascinating study of the very ways Christ has been seen, vis a vie race and ethnicity. It is both historical and very up to date; it is attentive to cultural and social concerns, and it is quite specifically about race and racism. Can the very iconography of Christ be a tool of both racial oppression and liberation? Of course -- we have seen this, and we know it. But these astute historians have shown us how it works. I like the back cover blurb by Randall Balmer, who writes, "In The Color of Christ, two of our finest historians track the changing portrayals of Jesus in American life against the vicissitudes of history, especially the troubled waters of race relations. In so doing, they have produced both a splendid book as well as a unique perspective on American religious history. This is not the first study of the images of Christ in American history, but it is indisputably the best."
BEST BOOK OF ECUMENICAL STUDIES
Dialogue of Love: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic Ecumenist Eduardo J. Echeverria (Wipf & Stock) $31.00
I don't know if there is much of a market for books about ecumenism (not that there even are that many.) But when a book comes along that is vividly ecumenical, fluent in various sorts of theological traditions, and invites serious, meaty, discourse around what we share in common and what we do not, written with grace and care, well, that is truly notable, and we stock it. Here, the specific faith conversation is mostly between Dutch neo-Calvinism (Kuyper, Bavinck. Berkouwer, Dooyeweerd, even Francis Schaeffer and the like) and Roman Catholic scholars such as Romano Guardini, John Paul II, Pope Benedict. It moves from studying Christian unity itself to dissecting each faith communities views of ecclesiology, sacraments, and the relationship of faith and reason, leading to very urgent questions, like how to understand the relationship between nature and grace. Does anybody out there care? If you like theology, if you are interested in civil dialogue, if you want to learn about two streams of the river of faith, this conversation is fabulous. Rare, curious, notable. We surely want to honor it with an award indicating how outstanding it is. Frank Beckwith calls it "an amazing book." J. Daryl Charles says it is offers a "splendidly elucidating argument." Hans Boersma from Regent College raves (saying the author is "the most attractive sort" of ecumenist.
BEST BOOK OF ECUMENICAL STUDIES -- RUNNER UP
From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart: Rekindling my Love for Catholicism Chris Haw (Ave Maria Press) $15.95 I loved this book and could hardly put it down. It isn't remarkably written or stunningly clever, it is just one heckuva great story, a plain-spoken tale about a kid who ends up doing some unbelievable stuff. Chris comes into a deeper personal relationship with Christ through seeker-sensitive, thoughtful and upbeat evangelicals during his high school years, causing him to leave behind his nominal Catholic upbringing. He ends up at Willow, where he meets Shane Claiborne , who was serving in his year there. Alive to evangelical piety, he soon learns a more radical application of evangelical theology, in mission and service and prophetic protest. He rocks out with Willow Creek contemporary worship, learns about their ministry with the poor and immigrants, and slowly embraces a wholistic faith that leads him to Eastern College (now University.) He meets Campolo, joined the legendary YACHT Club (Youth Against Complacency and Homelessness Today) started by Shane, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and others, and hangs out with some Catholic Worker types he meets in the streets of Camden. He learns about environmental theology while studying in Belize (dare I say that they most likely bought their books from us!) where he meets Brian Walsh and Stephen Bouma-Prediger and is introduced to the writing of Wendell Berry. He learns about the vast militarism reigning violence on so many and embraces a Biblical nonviolence -- think Thomas Merton or Saint Francis. Yes, do think of Francis, wealthy Catholic fellow who grapples with God's grace and makes a huge life change. Long story short, Haw ends up back in the Roman Catholic communion, and makes here a moving apology for his shift to a politically-aware contemplative lifestyle. He celebrates his return to Roman Catholic faith, lives as a new monastic, serving the poor and engaging the questions burning in his heart and among his friends. (You may follow some of this as he co-wrote the feisty, colorful Jesus for President with the Shanester.) What a story, what a journey, what a good guy, a guy who continues to study and offer an accessible introduction to much important thinking -- from Rene Girard and James Alison to Gerhard Lohfink, and, interestingly G.K. Chesterton. Kudos to Ave Maria Press for doing this book, and for Chris for sharing his journey so clearly. I hope Roman Catholic read it and are grateful for how God used evangelical Protestants to teach Chris about gospel grace and Biblical truth. I hope Protestants read it to realize just how natural it seems for a guy on a journey like this to find a meaningful church home in the tradition of his youth (not to mention the tradition of folks like Dorothy Day and Oscar Romero and, yes, Francis and Clare of Assisi.) A good read, notable, to be honorably mention as one of the best books of 2012.
BEST BOOK OF CHRISTIAN PSYCHOLOGY /SELF HELP
Shame Interrupted: How God Lifts the Pain of Worthlessness and Rejection Edward Welch (New Growth Press) $17.99 This is a fairly hefty book, seriously Biblical, and I wondered if it can be properly considered "self help." It is grounded in mature, grace-filled, gospel-centered theology, and is as important for counselors and pastors as it is for ordinary folks who want help with the debilitating impact of shame. I so respect the writings of the always passionate Dan Allender, and he says, here "This is more than an important and redemptive book; it is a labor that could open the field of counseling, soul care, and pastoral work to a vital reformation." So, yes, it is nearly a professional book for caregivers. (And, he draws on remarkable scholarly work which examines shame in the ancient Near East and in the Bible.) But its primary audience is still those who are hurting. There are many who are living lives that feel crushed by inadequacy, who feel they must hide, who sense themselves to be inferior, worthless, failures. They understand a bit of the gospel, but still have not allowed the power of God's goodness to shave away their feelings of shame. There is honest hope, and this important resource can help, offering truth and liberty.
BEST BOOK ABOUT DATING//SELF-HELP GROWTH FOR YOUNG ADULTS
Altared: The True Story of a She, a He, and How They Both Got Too Worked Up about We Claire & Eli (Waterbrook) $14.99 Beth and I both discovered this about the same time, whipping through it with eagerness (and, for me, great surprise. I won't spoil it, though.) The book is part memoir, part rumination, and although they beg readers not to skip over the didactic parts on love and discipleship, the unfolding he-said, she-said plot-line is what is so wonderful and fresh. Long story short, these two thoughtful, interesting, evangelical young adults are typical of many that we know and love. They are good and interesting folks, seeking a meaningful career with caring friends, reading good books, hanging out at coffee shops, listening to cool music. They wonder about God's call on their lives, they bring their relationships to God and to their friends for consideration and guidance, and they relish good conversations. They get hurt and angry, celebrate first kisses, and wonder about, well, the stuff young couples in love wonder about.
As the title suggests, they think the evangelical sub-culture places too much energy into some of these matters, and over-does the whole focusing on the family thing. Can one get "too worked up" about a godly relationship? Can such piety actually complicate in unhealthy ways the natural rhythms of courtship, dating, romance? This is a fun-to-read cautionary tale, almost like a postmodern romance novel, with some very illuminating Biblical reflections thrown in for good measure. Altared won't eliminate the need for good books about healthy dating, sex, or the single life. But it is an interesting story, and in some ways deconstructs they books, subverts some of the peculiar religiosity around it all, in a way that will, in the long run, help form better disciples and wiser, more faithful followers of Jesus. Call this an anti-self-help book.
BEST BOOK ABOUT MARRIAGE
The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller (Dutton) $25.95 I am a sucker for even sentimental, simple books about marriage and family. Who doesn't want to improve their family life, and who can't learn something from these basic, self-help guidebooks? But every once in a rare while, one comes along that is richer than most, thoughtfully engaged in the culture, clear without being dumbed down, and exceptional in every way. For those who like Keller, he and wife wife have given us a great gift. I wish a few pages were different; the very best award winning books are not often the ones with which I fully agree. They make us think, they make us ponder, they help us learn, and they motivate us to grow and live differently. This one does that, and more. To God be the glory, and may many ordinary folks be assisted in thinking more faithfully about this vital side of life. By the way, the sermons delivered at Keller's Redeemer Presbyterian upon which this book is based are among the most popular among Keller's largely sophisticated, often unmarried, urbane audience. So even if you are not married, this is worth having.
BEST BOOK ABOUT MARRIAGE -- RUNNER UP
Walk with Me: Pilgrim's Progress for Married Couples Annie Wald (River North) $15.99 The compact paperback, with French flaps on the covers, deckled pages, make it a bit handsome. That the author worked for Cambridge University Press indicates that she is very, very smart. That she came up with this brilliant idea -- reworking the classic allegory Pilgrims Progress for couples! -- is sheer genius. I don't know who buys books like this, but it is, quite simply, the coolest idea we've seen in the family and marriage market in a long, long time. This is realistic, to be sure, about the struggles of marriage. It hints at the joys. It reminds us that two lovers are not only on a journey towards each other, but for something, and some place, beyond themselves. John Ortberg -- himself quite a clever and gifted storyteller -- notes that this creative guide reminds us that a "marriage is more of a story than a to-do list." Yes, a story-shaped marriage book. Perhaps you can see this coming, but Eugene Peterson has a marvelous, marvelous forward, describing, as he does, how reading novels can help clue us in to the story-shaped nature of reality. In speaking of how we tend to realize this -- we don't read a recipe for stew and think of it as something else --he notes this: "Sometimes when we are faced with the task of Christian living, and in this case, the task of Christian marriage, we don't do that. We pick out rules or advice or "principles" -- de-story them from the story of God -- then apply what we read apart from the story of God... One of the tasks of this book, quite brilliantly executed, is to keep the story out in front."
BEST BOOK ON CREATIVITY AND THE ARTS
Drawn In: A Creative Process for Artists, Activists, and Jesus Followers (Paraclete) $16.99 In part one of this Best Books list I named my favorite book of the year in the category of the arts. This deserves an award of similar hue, but it isn't precisely about the arts. It certainly isn't about art history or doing faithful aesthetic theory. It is about living fully as a follower of Jesus as a cultural creative, as one who can playfully and prayerful summon new nuance and insight for building good stuff. It is hard to explain, but Bronsink does good Biblical study -- he did his seminary work under the likes of Walter Brueggemann -- reminding us that we are made in the very image of a Creator God, so design and fashion and music and creative cooking and all sorts of making things are in our God-given, God-blessed DNA. And, God, being God and all, continues to do God's own work, sustaining and redeeming the world Christ rules, so, yes, we join our creative juices with God's dreams of a healed world, and we find joy and meaning. In a sense we are all artists, even if not called professionally into the world of art, and Bronsink takes this call seriously -- not just as nifty rhetoric for what Doug Pagitt calls nicely in the forward the "Inventive Age", but truly, as a central to the imago dei and our task in these days. He offers exercises and experiments to enhance our own creative processes and he offers ways to deconstruct the standard ways of thinking about art that leave so many of us out of the picture. It is enjoyable, provocative, and (to use a word that usually makes me cringe) empowering. It is handsomely designed, and has tremendous footnotes. Bronsink is himself a musician, a pastor, and a collaborative, urban activist. Sally Morganthaler says "This is one of the finest books on art, creativity, and the nature of God to date. It is no less than a manifesto; a call to create at the grandest and most humble of scales. To make and remake with passionate and tangible love. Stunning, from start to finish." And that is why we are offering it an award of merit, honoring it as one of the best books of 2012.
BEST BOOK OF POETRY
Prayers of a Young Poet Rainer Maria Rilke (Paraclete) $22.99 I don't know if this is the best poetry of the year. Perhaps not. But this is a true publishing event, here in 2012, and I am surprised it hasn't been on the front page of The New York Review of Books and other prestigious journals concerned about literature. Who doesn't know Letters to a Young Poet? Rilke is very important in 20th century literature, and to not a few aspiring young wordsmiths, and to find these early poems being translated into English for the first time is momentous. These are extraordinary early-draft forms of some of Rilke's most famous works as well as some that have never been translated. Poet and translator Jane Hirshfield writes that they "somehow evoke, for me, Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks -- it shows the same mix of surety, roughness, genius, and the sense of precipitous creative speed." Other poets have said this is "a hauntingly beautiful book" and calls the poems "startling." Are these prayers? Theological meditations? Lines of artful metaphor where "each verbal foray into the divine courts a mystery that can be approached but neither comprehended nor defined"? Yes. And, we say, the winner in the poetry category this year.
Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land Ruth Everhart (Eerdmans) $18.00 When my sales rep presented this, I realized it was a book that those behind the scenes at the publishing house esteemed greatly. He was convinced it was tremendously written, evocative, eloquent, and fun. He thought it was insightful, offering great journalistic reportage from the field of one of the most contested places on Earth. And, he noted, it was profoundly spiritual, an elegant testimony of a Presbyterian preacher and her "turning point" of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. When several important people whose views I trust advise us of books before they are released, I am quick to pay attention, so I stole away with this the day it came. And words can hardly express my appreciation. Carol Howard Merritt says "I cannot imagine a better guide into the Holy Land than Ruth Everhart. Every page conjures Everhart's fierce intellect and sacred passion. With each step she takes, her engrossing descriptions point us beyond Sunday school sentimentality and challenge us to grapple with the blood and violence that pulse through the dust." ??It is fabulous when a book I love has garnered rave reviews. That is, don't take it from me, listen to these eloquent voices, who offer two of the best blurbs I've read on books this year:
Like George Gershwin's American in Paris, Ruth Everhart's memoir of an American Protestant in the Holy Land trips through a whirlwind of sights, sounds, conversations, questions, and revelations. The pace and first-person perspective effectively convey the disorienting (and holy) mess that results from putting our sanitized faith into tangible context -- where dust and dispute, pomegranates and politics, armed soldiers and traveling pilgrims coexist. Everhart lays bare her struggles and assumptions so that we have room to examine our own, and offers us her journey so that we might witness the mobility of Holiness as it contrasts with our desire for a locatable Jesus. Ultimately, Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land teaches us again the value of seeking, losing, and rediscovering the Divine every day.Can I give an award for best blurb?
And then there is this, from the great novelist Clyde Edgerton, who says,
I can think of only two reasons to buy this book: 1. You are not going to the Holy Land. 2. You are going to the Holy Land. In these pages Ruth Everhart writes eloquently about her trip into the dust and beauty of Christianity's cradle -- about her wrestling with her beliefs, her faith, and her past. If all pilgrims were as curious, insightful, introspective, firm, and openhearted as Ruth Everhart, our old world would roll more happily and safely through the universe. In her story you'll find bloodshed, humor, and -- most importantly -- love.BEST RESOURCE FOR WORSHIP RENEWAL
Proclamation by Design: The Visual Arts in Worship Karmen Krahn & Leslie James (Faith & Life Resources) $32.99 We read a lot of books about worship, both the sort that appeal to free-wheeling, song-based contemporary worship, and those that are more traditionally liturgical. We carry worship planning resources, lectionary prayer books, etc. etc. We like and recommend many. Occasionally, though, we discover a book that stands apart, that isn't quite like anything else, and we get very excited to share about it. This one is like that, and we are so very grateful. Proclamation by Design is lovely rumination (from the Mennonite faith tradition) about the need for visual arts to be wisely used in worship settings, and it includes very helpful tips and guides for making tableaux, adorn the church with fabric art, paper cuttings, flower arrangements, banners, and other visual enhancements that speak to the gathered community and are alert to the Biblical texts under consideration. The photographs they show of various designs and displays used in real congregations show how it is done, and the way services can be enhanced by giving attention to the aesthetic dimension of the sacred space. Many pastors and worship leaders have been wanting a book like this (the stunning Nancy Chinn book, Spaces for Spirit, is one we are routinely asked for, even though it has long been out of print. The only other book like this is Art in Service of the Sacred by Catherine Kapikian which is also sadly out of print.) This is similar to these although a bit more "usable" for ordinary spaces than Chinn's and shows reasonable installations. It truly deserves a colorful award!
BEST BOOK FOR ASPIRING CHRISTIAN STUDENTS
Your Minds Mission Greg Jao (IVP) $4.00 Well, well, well. Okay, our bookstore is mentioned, I've got a nifty blurb on the back, and our "books by vocation" lists at our website are mentioned (even though it is woefully in need up updating!) But regardless of the appearance of self-interest, I wholeheartedly and with exceeding gladly honor this as what could be one of the most far-reaching, consequential books of the year! It is easy to read, it is short, it is cheap. It is designed for students who have a relationship with Christ and want to learn what it means to serve him faithfully in the modern world. So, where to begin? Greg deftly weaves together themes of discipleship, of the Kingdom of God, of the need for a Christian worldview (drawing on classics like Transforming Vision) and is clear about serving God in one's calling and career. So, to get to the huge, life-long topic of vocation, he starts with "thinking Christianly." He shows briefly how to have a redeemed mind, to learn to read well and widely, to integrate faith and thoughtful scholarship, to learn to think about others, to be missional, in our learning. This is all here in upbeat, motivational language.
Greg is skilled at Bible study, and mentoring young adults, about helping students see the relationship between the Bible and collegiate learning. We are thrilled that there is this short book, a fine resource, and believe it would be honored as a "Best of" even if there were other similar books on the market. That there is nothing like this makes it all the more necessary, all the more worthy of celebration, and -- please, God! -- worthy to be so esteemed among us that we use it often. Most students, even if they embrace the rhetoric of being a distinctively Christian student (not just a normal student who happens to believe in God) and want to "take every thought captive" for Christ in the classroom, have little idea how to do that. This book could turn them from being an aspiring Christian student to one on a life-long journey of thinking and acting and living like one. Truly, this book gets an A+.
BEST BOOK FOR THOUGHTFUL CHRISTIAN STUDENTS
David K. Naugle (Crossway) $11.99 I mostly like and greatly appreciate this series of brief "student's guides" called "Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition." Young scholars should have them, and we should give them out quickly, to follow up the essential books like the aforementioned Your Mind's Mission and, of course, Opitz & Melleby's The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness, which, as you know, I'd give an award to every year if I could. This short book on philosophy, though, takes the "Reclaiming..." series to the proverbial next level. It not only offers a helpful overview of the history of philosophy (a helpful tool for any of us) but it insists that we think about just such matters through the lens of a reforming faith. That is, we don't study faith and philosophy, we don't need a little of Plato alongside a little of Paul,m we don't have to live in two realms of spirituality and scholarship. No, there is a seamless, integrated, dare I say radical view that helps students "take every thought captive" for Christ. We start with our foundations upon the living Christ, who comes to us in Word and in the broader community of theological tradition, and, rooted in that, we from there can take in and appreciate, and evaluate and critique all scholarship. Christian philosophy is a tool to be learned, to help us learn other things, it is a behind-the-scenes discipline (not unlike, but not the same as theology) to equip us to be good and faithful learners.
Davey Naugle, prof at Dallas Baptist University, is a great teacher, a fun communicator, and a dear man. His love for God and Scripture and all manner of learning is palpable and he is the perfect author for this necessary little paperback. Three big cheers for this most basic of books -- foundational, urgent, pleasant, and useful. When deep thinkers and scholarly publishers talk about the integration of faith and learning -- or if you read that fiery lingo here, even, this is an example of what we mean. Hooray!
BEST ODD BIBLICAL BOOK ON A SURPRISING TOPIC
Masking and Unmasking Ourselves: Interpreting Biblical Texts on Clothing and Identity Dr. Norman Cohen (Jewish Lights Publishing) $24.99 We stock a lot of Judaic books from JLP and their more interfaith publishing sister, SkyLight Paths. This one was a sleeper, a surprise, an amazingly interesting bit of rabbinic reflection on, yep, cloths in the Bible. I read another book on the theology of clothes this year, but this takes the award! "Clothes assume a primary importance as a vehicle that suggests character, provides insights into a person's identity and even governs it...But the problem is that if Oscar Wilde is correct that 'if you give a man a mask, he will tell you the truth,' then what exactly conveys the truth. Is it the person himself or herself or is it the mask, the clothing that he or she wears, that reveals deeper images of self." Did you know there are at least 10 Bible stories that involve clothing in an essential way? Blurbs on the back of this ingenious, fun book include endorsements by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and Phyllis Trible of Union Theological. Cohen has written other books of psychology, ruminations on the self (and one on family conflict narratives in Genesis and how they can help bringing healing to our own lives.) I'm not sure I agree with his basic psychological orientation. But I've never read anything like this, have you? It deserves an honorable mention!
BEST WEIRD BOOK ON A REALLY OBSCURE TOPIC
Flea Market Jesus Arthur E. Farnsley (Cascade) $16.00 I trust that Hearts & Minds fans will realize I am not really insulting the clever Mr. Farnsley for his eccentric book on an odd topic. It is, as they say, what it is. Book lovers who read widely are always eager for a new thrill and aren't put off by weirdo stuff. So, trust me on this, this is one helluva book. The author -- who himself is a distinguished scholar, lay theologian and sociologist -- here takes us on a journey into flea markets and, well, it sort of gets unravelled from there. It is very well written, although the writing style isn't weird, just quite nice. He has had his work appear as cover stories of both Christianity Today and Christian Century, so he's no slouch; indeed, he's a fine journalist. A great storyteller, even. But this is basically a sociology/ethnography of those who run the stands at flea markets. That is, he is studying "America's most solitary, and alienated, entrepreneurs." It is, as he says, "an up-close look at the rugged individualism of those trying hardest to separate themselves from institutions."
Farnsley gets these folks. He is, himself (besides a Research Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana/Purdue University) a twenty-two-time knife and tomahawk champion of the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association (that's the NMLRA for those who know these things.) I kid you not. So when he starts talking about this uniquely American celebration of guns and frontier life -- his research is mostly among white, rural, mid-westerners -- he knows his subjects; they are his friends and fans. Part ethnography, part autobiography, this quirky book explores alienation, Biblical literalism, libertarianism (can anybody say Tea Party?) and helps us understand some of the anger bubbling below the surface of the culture wars.
I'm telling you, this is crazy-cool stuff. A prof from University of Massachusetts at Amherst writes, after the obligatory nod to the oddity of buckskin sideshows at Midwest flea markets, "The result is one of the most personally engaging and intellectually compelling accounts of individualism since Thoreau. Farnsley dips into his own marginality to play interlocutor to the conflicts between anti-individualistic institutionalism and anti-conformist individuality. After being introduced to a beguiling range of his lifelong flea market friends....the book slips up on you like a few cold beers on a hot summer afternoon." I guess it is fair to say this is somewhat about religion and politics and culture, the sort of study made famous by, say, Bellah in Habits of the Heart. But it is mostly about the eccentric characters who inhabit this precarious world of indie outdoor selling and their concerns, fears, longings, and beliefs. You're not going to find this on many best seller lists, but we're happy to award it a Best of medal, right here. Betcha didn't see that coming.
BEST SERIOUS BOOK ABOUT CONGREGATIONAL LIFE & NURTURE
Intergenerational Christian Formation: Bringing the Whole Church Together in Ministry, Community and Worship Holly Catterton Allen and Christine Lawton Ross (IVP Academic) $22.00 I suppose you know that many evangelically minded churches, those attracting large numbers of families with kids have very segmented programming options -- big church for adults, children's church, even teen church. One large church I know allows twenty something to have not only their own Christian educational classes but their own worship service. Niche-marketed and age-segregated models have been significantly critiqued, mostly by mainline folks, insisting this is unhealthy and unhelpful. How can we live into Psalm 145:4 (one generation telling of God's work to the next) if different generations never relate? I believe this is the most thorough and best book for inter-generational views of ministry yet done, and it is certainly strong within an evangelical context. This book is for pastors and professional church educators or anyone who wants to think deeply about the nature of our churches. There are great examples of multi-age small groups and intergenerational programs, reminding us that this can be done, and it can be done fruitfully. If there is "generational narcissism" then this is the anecdote.
BEST SIMPLE BOOK ON CHRISTIAN EDUCATION
Dwelling: Helping Kids Find a Place in God's Story Jessie Schut (Faith Alive) $5.99 From the lovely photo on the cover to the inexpensive price-tag, from the short chapters to the clear prose, this book just cries out to be bought in bulk and shared with everybody and anybody who teaches Sunday school or works with children at your church. This is CE 101, which oodles of touching chapters covering nearly everything anyone would need to know to be a better church school educator. From stages of faith development to multiple intelligences, from how to pray with children to the role of creativity and arts, from dealing with unruly kids to helping students learn the Bible, there is just great, solid, helpful, basic, good information. I do not think I've seen a book like this in a while, and it could serve as a gift to encourage seasoned teachers, as a handbook for ongoing teacher training, or as book to put into the hands of first time volunteers. It was developed to be used with the Christian Reformed Church's Dwell curriculum but it mentions that only rarely in passing, to it is truly good for any Protestant congregation. Very nicely done.
BEST BOOK ABOUT YOUTH MINISTRY
Taking Theology to Youth Ministry Andrew Root (Zondervan) $12.99 This was a hard call as there are so many great resources for youth min work, Bible studies, games books, programming tools, DVDs. And, of course, there is a plethora of somewhat more academic or foundational books, guides to the big picture. We stock a lot, and appreciate many. This one, though, ends up being a favorite, for three big reasons. It gets a celebrated Best of 2012 award because it is well written, as a bit of a novel. It is fun, and I trust appealing to those who need it most, to see this device of a story. The book is about the quandary of Nadia, whose in a position at a church with different "factions" of parents who want somewhat different things from the youth program at her church. (Even her colleagues on staff of the church, the pastor and the associate, seem to have quite different expectations.) What is youth ministry, and what is it for, after all? What's the point?? I think the answer to this million dollar question is too often presumed and not often enough asked directly, and I applaud the fictional Nadia (and her clever, prodigious creator, Andrew Root) for asking the big theological question.
Here is a second reason we award this as one of the best books of the year: if you buy this, you will then surely want to find out what happens next, in the sequel, Taking the Cross to Youth Ministry. Then you'll pick up book three, Unpacking Scripture in Youth Ministry. Unlocking Mission and Eschatology in Youth Ministry is the final book in the series and you won't want to miss it. All four of these slim hardbacks are themselves noteworthy, and I guess I really want to honor the whole unprecedented set of them. They are, together, called "The Theological Journey Through Youth Ministry" (and I love the woodcut covers, too!) Four short novels, interspersed with fine ruminations and helpful guidance, followed by a discussion/study guide. Root has given us a youth ministry crash course, on asking the biggest, most urgent questions. He is surely right to ask them, and surely right to frame the answers in light of the big themes of God's work in the world, the promise of the gospel, and the telling of that story in the Biblical narrative. Agree with everything Nadia does or the implications that Root draws from her story, these are books you will want to read and discuss and ponder and discuss some more. Four big cheers, for all four. The author, by the way, teaches at Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul, and last year co-authored with Kenda Creasy Dean the wonderful, wonderful book, The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry. (IVP; $18.00.) Way to go, Mr. Root.
BEST BOOK ABOUT WORLD MISSIONS
Christ Our Reconciler: Gospel-Church-World edited by Julia Cameron (IVP) $18.00 I have written about this before, sharing with great energy my appreciation for this grand collection of speeches and studies given at the famous Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in South Africa a year ago. There are so many great authors here, offering insightful, motivational, and often very profound chapters. What a great book, compiling pieces by Ruth Padilla DeBorst, Dewi Hughes, Ajith Fernando, Os Guinness, Tim Keller, Becky Pippert, John Piper, Chris Wright and so many more, from Singapore, South Africa, Egypt, from several African countries. These chapters cover so much -- studies about our views of truth in a pluralistic world, insight about personal integrity, good calls to global partnerships, insight about discerning faithful priorities, and, of course, this glorious theme about the peace of Christ as we are reconciled to God and become agents of reconciliation. As I have written often, there is a good movement among the best evangelical missions movements to be involved in justice campaigns, working against slavery, tending to creation care, reaching out to form healing projects against ethnic hatreds. This book is a good illustration of this, and if you need a quick way to get brought up to speed on the nature of wholistic missions, this one book is a great selection. It surely deserves our highest honors and we are proud to name it as one of the Best of 2012!
BEST BOOK ABOUT ECONOMICS (TIE)
The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World Daniel M. Bell, Jr. (series editor: James K.A. Smith) (Baker Academic) $19.99 This year I read two different big books about the Wall Street crash of a decade ago and two about the debt crisis. All were informative, interesting, even for some who who doesn't "do" numbers very well. Hard economics is not my favorite topic, but in this day and age, we simply must know a bit about how the world works, about globalization, about finances and such. This book, however, appearing near the end of the year, is extraordinary -- it analysis, as the title alludes, the notion of desire. He argues that every economic theory -- and certainly late modern capitalism -- presupposes a certain philosophy (he calls it a theology) that offers an evaluation of what is most treasured. What we want. Of course, since this part of the heavy series "The Church and Postmodern Culture) I expected this to be scholarly. It is rigorous, but also pretty captivating. It is profound -- asking what we most desire, what we think is the good, what is dignified and just. With endorsements from folks like Graham Ward, D. Stephen Long, Douglas Meeks, Norman Wirzba, you get the picture of the sort of book this is -- a vision for a virtuous capitalism, with our desires disciplined and ordered properly. As Creston Davis of Rollins College puts it, "The Economy of Desire is the manifesto for restoring dignity in the wake of injustice." All right!
BEST BOOK ABOUT ECONOMICS (TIE)?
The Crisis and the Kingdom: Economics, Scripture and the Global Financial Crisis
E. Philip Davis (Wipf & Stock) $18.00 I am glad to honor this book in part because it is truly superb, but also just because it is so audacious to have a book like this; it is the sort of readable, important, Biblically-literate book we need. The author is a Baptist pastor in London, and has several advanced degrees in finance and in economics. He has written a very technical and prestigious scholarly text about markets (published by Oxford, only the most prestigious academic publisher in the world! Take that, you who harbor biases against Baptists!) If anyone is positioned to help us think faithfully about the global economic crisis, what went wrong with bankers, the financial sector, households and governments, coming to a head in 2007-2008, and what will continue to go wrong without serious reformation, it is this fine gentleman. He is thoughtful, writes out of first hand experience, and although he's got some prophetic passion, he is (as economist Donald Hay observes) "careful and judicious." This is, subsequently, a book unlike any other. We are very, very pleased to announce it as one of the most important books of the year.
BEST HYBRID BOOK ABOUT A LOT OF STUFF IN ONE COOL BOOK
Making All Things New: God's Dream for Global Justice R. York Moore (IVP) $15.00 I have promoted this book in several venues, written about it in several places. We now want to give it a hearty hooray in a category I just made up. Is it a Bible commentary? Is it a book about global justice? Is it a book about evangelism? Is it a book about mission? Oh yes, and more! York tells of unspeakable violence, reports about his work against modern day slavery and sexual trafficking, and he offers a beautiful book about goodness and hope. Oh yes, he does this by way of ruminations on the mysterious hope of the Book of Revelation. God's dream of the redemptive victory found in the slain Lamb is powerful stuff. Revelation -- written, as we all know, under the persecution of the Romans and within the struggles of the Jewish and Gentile Christian communities -- the promise of Christ's return gave hope and direction in a time of crisis. What a energetic, robust, vivid, passionate book about justice, about liberty, about God's promises, and about how to dream God's dream. One of the best books I've read all year! And, by the way, not sure why, but I love the cover!
BEST MEMOIR THAT ISN'T ONLY A MEMOIR --- INSPIRING US TO LIVE FREELY, SETTLED OR NOT?
This Ordinary Adventure: Settling Down without Settling Christine and Adam Jeske (IVP) $15.00 Likewise is an edgy imprint of IVP and their books are almost all upbeat, contemporary, written by younger folks, missional, often dealing quite honestly with the most burning contemporary issues, like poverty, oppression, and the desires of younger adults to be faithful in fresh and demanding ways. We love this imprint of books. I can't put it in simple words, but this book moved me deeply, and, in some ways, is quintessential, capturing why Likewise is so very, very important. First, the book is fun. Religious publishing doesn't need more boring or cliched authors, trafficking in the same old religiosity. It speaks not only with a fresh voice, but it is ruminating on stuff that deeply matters to many of us, and certainly to many of the rising generation -- namely, how can we be faithful to God's call to care about our broken world, caring for it in its beauty and pain, without burning out or growing jaded? There is something vitally urgent about this question -- how can we "settle down without settling." Can we live a normal life and still be radically faithful? Can we travel on a whim, give away our money, live freely in Christ, without ending up bizarre or marginal?
Also, this book is written in the popular, entertaining style of memoir -- they tell their story of living a dream, of being passionate, of being, as they put it "amazing" (and doing it pretty much all over the world.) But, of course, most of us live "in the land of malls and manicured lawns." We do ordinary stuff, we face "ruts and routines." Can we embrace a full vision of being amazing, without doing expensive, demanding things like traveling across the globe? What we have an ongoing course of studies? Children? Extended family? (Not to mention friends and church?) Can we life a missional life, even in our hum drum days? Can we get "unstuck from the ordinary" but yet be open to staying put, settling down, caring about our real place? Or, conversely, can we settle down, but still be willing to make wild faith choices when called upon? As activist and "global soccer mom" Shayne Moore puts it, this book shows that "a missional life and an ordinary life are not either-or, but rather both/and." This energetic paradox, of being faithful in ordinary small things and in being bold in extraordinary bigger things, is at the heart of this book, and most of the likewise books that invite incarnational discipleship. This deserves a down home, ordinary county-fair variety blue ribbon. Neato.
BEST MEMOIR THAT ISN'T ONLY A MEMOIR --- INSPIRING US TO ENGAGE A CONTROVERSIAL TOPIC
Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs-Christians Debate Justin Lee (Jericho Books) $21.99 I simply couldn't put this book down, and that in itself makes me want to honor it -- it truly was a captivating read! I think there are several reasons, besides its fine writing and interesting author. This brave book deserves a larger review, but we want to honor it, and award the author this honorable mention because it is so very well done, interesting, thoughtful, fair, and very honest. As you may have heard, Torn tells the story of a young evangelical who holds the typical evangelical assumption that homosexual practice is not consistent with Biblical instruction or consistent with God's given intentions for appropriate sexuality. As a teen, active in a good church, and a fine family, Lee discovers that he is attracted to other guys. He is confused at first, thinking his desires for girls will come. He dates a bit, forms a very loving relationship with a young lady, but he remains attracted to other males. He prays and prays about this, and, upon realizing his same-sex attraction isn't apparently going away, he tells his youth worker, his pastor, his parents. I was moved to tears several times in this part of the book -- it is all so well-told, rather plainly, candid, clear. His coming out is scary, tender and healthy and although he doesn't sensationalize the telling at all, it is very, very moving. All but the harshest reader will have great sympathy for this dedicated Christian kid who just wants to live for God and be what he believes to be normal. The plot thickens as he attempts special therapy to heal this disposition, and meets all sorts of characters, some who treat him well, with great care and goodness, and others who do not. Some readers will be shocked, most will be hurt as we realize the deep pain visited upon folks like Jason.
One part of this deserves mention, although you should read it for the full story. Some of the reparative therapists helping gay Christians regained a more typical attraction to those of the opposite sex insist that all same-sex attractions come from bad parenting, from dysfunctional families, or some sort of long-forgotten abuse. I think, by the way, that some statistics point to this being the case, perhaps often the case. But Justin Lee was resolute in insisting to his therapists that this was not the case with his strong, normal family. He had a good relationship with both parents, and all the markers of a healthy, religious family were there. He was bullied to confess certain things, which he did not confess, pressured to recall things that simply had never happened, with his rude counselors insisting things about his father that Lee knew to be unfounded. This example of a therapist insisting they understand the cause of a problem was stunning, and it happened to him repeatedly. It was a turning point for him, as he realized that his therapists were wrong, way wrong. Anyway, it was, again, a moving part of the book, and a powerful chapter of his own story. One would hope that his parents would be proud.)??I was very struck by another part of the story where the young Mr. Lee attempts to build better relationship between the evangelical campus ministry organizations in which he is involved and the GLBTQ community on campus (and the painfulness of that, with most from neither side wanting to give up their stereotypes and hostilities) and his eventual sense of wanting a ministry within these communities. He naturally studies this topic, trying to clarify his views, listening to various sides; it is to his credit that he was trying to navigate the opposing views, discerning the cheesy from the best scholarship, wanting to be faithful and true and sensible in his journey into being an out, publicly gay Christian.
There are many folks whose books I have read and some whom I have come to know who are involved in various sides of this complex discussion about how the church should or shouldn't approve of same-sex sexual relationships. Two people I respect very much are Andrew Hill (a celibate gay evangelical who wrote a memoir of his own convictions about being out, but not sexually active, Washed and Waiting) and Andrew Marin (a straight evangelical with a large heart for enhancing a civil discourse and ministry among the gay community, whose book about that is called Love Is An Orientation.) They have both written positive endorsements of Torn and we agree with them that this is a must-read for Christian people, regardless of their viewpoint on the ethics of this issue. Seeing how people are treated, learning how some cope with their inner desires and orientations, and learning how some of the so-called helpful groups actually work is enlightening. This issue is simply not going to go away, and reading widely about it is important. Hearing the stories of gay and lesbian brothers and sisters is a first step. This is best book I've read of this sort, in part because of the earnest and gracious writing and because the author is so clearly rooted in strong evangelical faith. It certainly stands as one of the best books I've read this year.
MOST WONDERFULLY CHARMING BOOK OF THE YEAR
The Little Bookstore of Big Stone: A Memoir of Friendship, Community, and the Uncommon Pleasure of a Good Book Wendy Welch (St. Martin's Press) $24.99 Talk about a heart-warming book, a book that will restore your faith in ordinary folks doing good work! Oh, how Beth and I loved this book, and how we related to it! It is the very well-told memoir of a middle aged couple -- he a Scottish folk-singer, she an Appalachian storyteller with a degree in cultural anthropology -- who open a used bookstore in an economically-depressed coal town. Would the locals accept them? Would they form friends among fellow-readers? Would they learn the fine art of retail? And would they survive the in-house culture of a small, rural town that may not be particularly trusting of outsiders? There is a bit of drama in this memoir of opening a bookstore (and every bit of it rings true!) What a read.
We cannot tell you how much we loved this book, one of the most enjoyable, charming, delightfully pleasant books I've ever read. Of course, if you aren't a book lover, if you don't haunt indie bookstores, if you don't care about bricks and mortar shops, or if you don't like hearing stories of how this book or that author means so much to this or that person, well, this might not appeal to you that much. If you care about the finding and treasuring and sharing of books, if you are up for a memoir of a couple forging their marriage along with their customer base, and sharing the perils and glories of taking up a vocation in book-selling, this is sure to please. The numerous lovely quotes all endorsing this big-hearted book will themselves give you great courage in era when so many are talking about the demise of the book. Take up this story of small town life, of the used book world, of faithful and good work in a sweet and funky little bookshop. You will not forget these folks, and you will be glad.
By the way, yes, it is true, Beth and I resonated with this because it is, in some ways, nearly our story. In some important ways, though, it is not -- we don't drink as much and we never had a square dance in the shop! Ha. But, since there are no plans for a Dallastown-based H&M memoir, this is as close as it gets. Enjoy! Please. It'll do you good. And who knows, maybe you'll be inspired to follow your dreams, whatever they are.
BOOK THAT TOUCHED ME THE MOST
Letters to Heaven: Reaching Beyond the Great Divide (Worthy) $14.99 The paperback came out in 2012, and I read it this year, so I guess it counts, eh? I cried in my bedroom, I choked back tears at a pizza joint, I wiped my cheeks at the coffee shop. Everywhere I took this, I found it so deeply moving, so well written, so kind and thoughtful and solid and touching that I just knew I wanted to mention in the year's wrap up. There are some fascinating (and some weird) books about people who have allegedly gone to heaven or had after life experiences and this is not one of them. Maybe it is tapping into this cultural zeitgeist or our deep longing to somehow gain great in this age of uncertainty. But it isn't like the popular "I've visited heaven" books, not at all.
This last book of the late Calvin Miller is a sane and solid book, movingly written, almost like a set of short stories. You may know from his many other books that Calvin Miller was a gifted writer, a deep thinker, an eloquent preacher, and a bit of a poet. This book is a collection of letters penned to various deceased people who are, we suppose, in heaven, starting with his mother. Yes, it is touching (but neither is it maudlin or mushy.) The next letter blew me away, as he writes to a man with whom he shared the gospel on his death-bed, to apparently little effect, who, well, may or may not be at the sending address. Miller tells great stories to the people he is writing to, reminding them (or is he reminding himself?) of things that were important during their time on Earth. These letters really unfold like little stories, and they are so well done.
Here is what the book is finally all about, I think: heaven is surely a place where God's great love has healed us, making us happy and whole. That is, it is a place of being done with unfinished business. Well, in the hands of a novelist and storyteller like Miller, finishing up unfinished business is the stuff of legend, the material for great stories, of great art. Yes?
The thing is, as I've suggested, this moving book is not a collection of fictional short stories. They are letters to people he mostly knows -- ahh, the letter about finally being in Narnia, written to the Lewis scholar and friend, George Sayer, who Miller met once, is so amazingly rich. The letter to Madeline L'Engle is mostly about her being reunited with her beloved husband, Hugh (and Miller hoping that he and his wife Barbara will have a special reunion when they meet again after death.) You've got to read the one he wrote to Lewis, citing A Grief Observed. A few of these letters are about the truths spoken by the dead, and they are written movingly, but not to people he knew, like the Lewis one, obviously. For instance, he writes to Oscar Wilde and one great one to Johnny Cash that you just have to read. These are thoughtful, interesting, touching, and a genius device for telling good stories about all kinds of stuff. Mostly it is about God's overwhelming grace, the promise of restoration, and hope that we all can have as we think about what is happening with those who have gone before. Or, like in the letter he writes to Paul Brand, the surgeon, how we can keep their work alive on their behalf. Yes, this is a book about heaven that is magnificent, and a device for writing that I've never encountered before. For that, we gladly and sincerely celebrate it as one of the best books I've read all year. We offer our condolences to Barbara and all who mourn the loss of this good, beloved writer, who has surely now found his song, now that he has met The Singer.
Don't forget, there will be more coming soon, as we continue our BEST BOOKS OF 2012 list, soon. Some amazing books, some surprising categories, some well deserving authors.
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