BEST BOOKS OF 2010

Allow me to be candid.  This best of the year thing is tricky.  I want you to enjoy my celebrations and accolades, so the column is hopefully somewhat amusing and informative.  I do want to be sincere, naming books that truly deserve honorable mention and that we deem to be important for our audience.  Late as I am, I know what other lists have touted and I'm tempted to just mimic those who are smarter than I.  Yet, I usually offer awards for books that we have carried and that I have read, not necessarily the best the world has to offer, but the best we've been pleased to review and sell.  So, for instance,  I know that Freedom by Jonathan Franzen is one of the best novels of the year---my wife couldn't put it down---but I haven't gotten to it yet. (I did love the weird and wondrous The Corrections.) So I can't really list his new one, since I haven't read it, even though I sort of feel like I should; lots of people I respect have said so and I think serious folks might think ill of us if we ignore it.  Add to my quandary that we are not primarily a book review journal but a bookstore, and we want to convince at least a few folks out there to buy a couple of these, so we have a view to what you, dear reader, friend and followers of the Hearts & Minds tribe, will find stimulating.  Which is just a long way of saying I don't quite know what I'm doing, and offer these with the proverbial grain of salt, and occasional tongue in cheek.  So, without further ado, let the salty cheekiness begin.

BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR

Okay, we ain't the Academy Awards here, so I won't make you wait for the final five minutes of a drawn-out show to get to the biggee.  Let's get this out of the way.  I've pondered.  I've prayed.  I've read and re-read.  It's a tough call, especially given, well, the toughness of the call.  So I'm taking the cheap way out.  I'm announcing an unprecedented four-way tie.

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy  Eric Metaxas (Thomas Nelson) $29.99  I've been taken by this book since before it got published; the author's first publisher dismissed it as too lengthy.  The usually sane and amiable Metaxas held his ground, a new publisher was found, and it was released in all its verbose glory.  I think I'd take maybe two sentences out, but this is a hugely important, remarkably interesting, exceptionally inspiring work.  It deserves awards for making an important contribution to the complex field of Bonhoeffer studies (reframing the Lutheran martyr as a solid and orthodox Trinitarian evangelical as opposed to the Christ-less universalists some gatekeepers in the Bonhoeffer study guild have claimed.)  And, he has brought the history of the theological and spiritually-based resistance of Nazism to the forefront of especially the evangelical community, who have promoted this book significantly.  At the end of the broadest evaluation of this books insights and historical value and important impact, it must be said, though, that it is a rip-roaring good read, told well, in accessible, clear prose.  Truly one of the best religious books of recent years, and one of the most valuable of 2010.  

The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Towards God Leslie Leyland Fields (Wipf & Stock) $30.00  I wasn't kidding when I said in my previous review of this that there are a few chapters in here that are amongst the finest prose I have read, ever.  I have read and read again Denise Frame Harlan's fine memoiristic reflection, asking if I like it so only because I know here,and know some of the people she writes about.  (Yes, it was political thinker Jim Skillen who cried while reading the passage in Robert Farrar Capon's Supper of the Lamb that so effected Ms Harlan. Yes, he was doing a staff training time for the CCO.)  I admit to my bias, but her writing and her story is simply stunning, as are many others.   It is my conviction that Ms Fields has pulled together some of the finest contemporary writers who are justly famous for the notable skills at wordsmithing---like the aforementioned Capon, Wendell Berry, Lauren Winner or Alexander Schmemman---and newer, perhaps up-coming authors, chefs, theologians, novelists, activists.  Ms Fields own lovely piece about farm life (that has been published at TheHighCallings blog) is itself a wonder, a true wonder.  Not only is this varied writing consistently high quality, the insight and perspective is sometimes nothing short of brilliant.  And the topic is spot on, with the recent interests in the spirituality of the ordinary, concerns about nutrition, food justice, and the daily rituals of preparing and eating God's good gifts of food.  And did I mention there are recipes?   I don't care for the cover, and it is a shame that a paperback is priced as it is,  but this should not stop you from owning this tremendous, wondrous, anthology.  You can read it again and again, share pieces, use it to remind you of the goodness of God's world, the ways in which we can see life anew, and how to more closely pay attention to the stuff that matters most. And it may remind you, too, to pick up a copy of Supper of the Lamb, which would surely please the authors herein.  I gently tap my silver against my goblet: cheers to one and all.

To Change the World: The Irony Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World  James Davison Hunter (Oxford University Press) $27.95  If you've been paying attention this summer, you may know that this sophisticated book was discussed, loved and loathed, evaluated and debated in journals, blogs, conferences and confabs  and in many venues, reviewed in some of the circles we most respect.  In a notably gracious move, Andy Crouch, who is dissed by Hunter in the book, reviewed it pretty favorably in Christianity Today.  Editors there then asked him to take off the gloves, and say what he thought about Hunter's critique of his Culture Making project.  They invited Charles Colson to likewise respond to Hunter's criticisms of his role in the rise of the Christian right.  That dialogue--not exactly unprecedented, but perhaps too rare--hints of the richness of this work and is an indication that it is being taken seriously.  The rave reviews on the back from Charles Taylor (whose whopping A Secular Age was a Very Important Work of recent years), Robert Bellah, and Nicholas Wolterstorff of Yale might impress you.  One may or may not fully agree with Hunter's interesting critiques of various efforts to transform culture---he simply dismisses the Christian right, the Christian left, the cultural engagement efforts of Catalyst and The Q events, not to mention the neo-Anabaptist feistiness of Hauwerwas and the Radically Orthodox.  You may not buy his arguments about the sociology of how change happens, the role of elites, ideas, institutions.  And I'm still unsure about the implications of the "faithful presence" approach he outlines in the final portion.  No matter; this is doubtlessly the most important book of its kind in years, attracting sustained attention and evoking very important conversations in many important places.   Let us move away from the politics of resentment and victimization, reform our capitulation to the spirit and styles of late modern times, and find fruitful, lasting ways to be effective in our call to be salt and light.  This book will help.  Pastors, leaders, writers, and anyone interested about the public witness of God's people should grapple with this astute, serious work.

What Good Is God? In Search of a Faith That Matters  Philip Yancey (FaithWords) $23.99  Line-for-line, Yancey is one of the most important writers of our day, bar none.  I think he is vastly under-rated, although he is esteemed, in theory.  I am not sure folks have purchased this book in our circles in the way they should have, and I am honoring it now not just to get sales going again---although I sincerely pray that this happens---but because I simply cannot get the sentences and pictures and stories out of my mind.  How many authors carry rave reviews from Billy Graham (he doesn't blurb anybody else that I know of) and edgy bohemian, Anne Lamott, who says "I love Yancey's work.  He is a brilliant, graceful writer."  

Yes, Yancey is a graceful writer.  He works hard at his craft, and puts together sentences with an economy and care that few journalists can match.  I hope he gets some huge life-time achievement award some day, because he deserves it.  This book is a spectacular collection of two essays, each set in one of ten places.  He travels to ten hard places and writes about what difference God makes in those places.  This is why he travels, why he covers the hard stuff, why he writes: to determine if it matters.

Here, he tells us some of the most unsettling stuff he has ever written about.  From sex workers to campus massacre at Virginia Tech, he enters as a caring observer, learns the stories from the ground up, and reports back from the field just what he sees.  And what he sees is good news, good news among the rubble, among the pain, poignant and deep and real.  From China to South Africa, from Mumbai to Memphis, he tells of what God is doing, without being glib, sensational or overbearing.  A few of these stories are a bit more gripping and raw than others; his story of his old church in urban Chicago--"a place for misfits"---is upbeat and inspiring.  He visits the Inklings hang-outs at Oxford and makes a very good case on the true and lasting significance of Lewis, a apostle to the skeptics.  His two chapters on his old legalistic Bible college are fair and honest and fascinating.  Some will criticize him for being critical; he gets letters from all over the world, though, thanking him for naming the toxic faith that emerged in those years at those kind of places.  And yet, even here, he is a writer of good grace. 

This is not a random collection of miscellaneous pieces (although if it were, it would still be award-winning, as a best greatest hits album!)  No, these ten stops along his way, where he tells the "story behind the story" each contribute another piece to the puzzle, an insight gathered, another remarkable testimony about his biggest question: does God matter?  Read this for the good writing.  Read this to learn about the amazing grace he finds.  Read this to shore up your own doubts and fears.  Give this to others who need to hear the news, first hand accounts, of a God who is there.  Yancey always deserves our gratitude for being a writer of integrity and class.  Here, he has given us a book that will last, accounts of faith that makes a difference.   

BEST BOOKS ABOUT THE ARTS

Again, a tie.  We have a handful that we've enjoyed, and we are glad that Christian publishers do this kind of work.  These are the two we want to list.

For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts  Edited by W. David O. Taylor (Baker) $14.99  From the forward by poet Luci Shaw to the final chapter ("My Hopes and Prayer" by Taylor himself) this is a truly splendid collection.  The pieces are relatively short, not overly demanding, yet thoughtful and rich and varied.  Makoto Fujimura notes that it is "pragmatic and theologically astute at the same time" and he is correct.  There is foundational, thoughtful, and inspiring theology and perspective here, and there are practical pieces, clear-headed proposals and positive suggestions.  It is encouraging, if honest, and a wonderful example of how a wide variety of authors can contribute to a single, over-arching vision.  Unlike, say, our very favorite anthology of this sort, edited by Ned Bustard, It was Good: Making Art for the Glory of God (Square Halo Press), this collection is not necessarily by and for artists.  Here we have John Witvliet on worship, Lauren Winner teaching us about art patronage, Eugene Peterson on the role of the pastor to encourage artists.  (If you are an artist whose pastor does not encourage you, perhaps you could give this to him or her. Or, read this chapter for yourself, allowing Peterson to mentor you through his good words.)  Barbara Nicolosi, a fabulous Roman Catholic leader in the film industry offers an insightful chapter about the inclinations of the artistic types (and how to shepherd them.)  There is a chapter for practitioners and a wise essay on the dangers of art-making in the local church.  Jeremy Begbie's last chapter is a call for further scholarship and practice, offering good hope for  the recent renaissance in Christians working in the arts.   

Of course it has long been our position that artists----like bankers or teachers or counselors or engineers---don't have to do their work in the church, or in service of the gathered community in worship.  Yet, there can be a vibrant relationship between artists and the local church, and this book has catapulted that conversation a light year ahead in the right direction.  What a fun array of authors, an excellent array of ideas, a good array of suggestions.  Get this book, give it away, keep the conversation going.    

Saving Leonardo: A Call To Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meaning  Nancy Pearcy (B&H) $26.99  I have reviewed this a great length at BookNotes, and I hinted that I am a tiny bit unsure about Ms Pearcy's interpretation of some particular cultural artifacts.  I'm not even sure she is fully correct about her sweeping evaluation about the history of ideas, let alone the way worldviews have crept in to popular mindset via specific art pieces.   I didn't say it, but the reactionary subtitle, and the occasionally alarmist rhetoric gives some balanced readers pause. (See Alissa Wilkinson's very fair critique in Comment.)  Yet, despite these concerns, it is a indication of the strength of this book that despite any controversy it engenders and any weaknesses it carries, it deserves to be considered one of the best--and most informative and interesting--books of recent years.  Pearcy has done us all a very great service by again exposing the false dualisms of contemporary culture, what Francis Schaeffer termed the dichotomy between the "upper story" and "lower story" or of what philosophers like Polanyi describe as an unhelpful epistemological split between facts and values.  Sound complicated?  That is exactly why we are eager to honor this book with an award: it navigates complicated streams of thoughts---most vitally from the Romantic era---in clear and provocative ways.  Whether you have a passing awareness of philosophy or not, or care about art history much, you simply have to think a bit about the way ideas of trickled down, from 18th century painters to 20th century film-makers, to our postmodern 21st century computer games and graphic novels and TV shows.  Love it or argue with it, a good book will teach you something, make you think, draw you to deep matters that matter, and allow you to have some pleasure in doing so.  From the full color art, the clear writing, and the provocative thesis, this is a book deserving of your attention.  Kudos to the Baptist publishers Broadman for daring to publish what some might find arcane.  I hope it sells widely and is discussed seriously.  

BEST BOOKS ABOUT POLITICAL-SOCIAL ENGAGEMENT

Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World  Richard Mouw (IVP) $16.00  I have celebrated this book years ago, when it was out in an earlier version.  This re-packaged and slightly expanded edition is to be more than applauded, it is to be honored---in the deepest sense of the word.  I honor this because it is honorable.  It is fair.  It is kind.  It is principled.   It is honest.  It is fun and flavorful, interesting and intrepid.  It is right and it is necessary.  Please, please, please.  Get this book, spread the word, pass it on.  Learn from this wise, cautious, passionate thinker about being true to one's convictions, even as one pays attention to public etiquette and civil discourse.  Whether you have concerns about conflict in your local congregation, ugliness in your community or workplace, or are weighted down by the harsh impasse we find in our national discourse, this book can help.  Thanks to Mouw for re-thinking this, thanks to IVP for re-issuing it.  

Christian America and the Kingdom of God  Richard Hughes (Illinois University Press) $29.95  This has a 2009 copyright date, but I believe it was released so close to the tail end of last year that it really is--for all practical purposes (or, at least for my practical purposes)--a 2010 title.  Maybe I'm cheating a little, but I want to honor this as a stand-out title this year on the curious question of how American exceptionalism developed and is maintained by inappropriate confusion about God's work in the world.  This certainly is a more urgent question now then it was when the good professor starting writing this a few years ago.  There are blurbs here from thee always thoughtful and prudent Mark Noll, from the esteemed Martin Marty,and from the late Howard Zinn (perhaps the last book the activist historian endorsed.) Noll is correct, I think, when he says this is trenchant; as he says 
"Those who think that the United States is distinctly Christian nation and those who are sure it is not will both read this book with great profit."  "Few have written on this topic with as much intelligence and authority as he" says one reviewer.  That deserves a shout out from the Hearts & Minds awards bench.  Yay.

Global Warming and the Risen Lord: Christian Discipleship and Climate Change Jim Ball (Evangelical Environmental Network) $25.00  We are grateful that in recent years there have been an outpouring of fine, Christian scholarship---Biblical, theological, and scientific---about creation care and stewardship of God's world.  Some are very, very good.  With the horrors in the Gulf this year, and the ongoing debates about climate change (and the publication of Eaarth by Bill McKibben last year) the need for such resources remains stronger than ever.  How to pick out one for a special award?

Well, I am happy to announce that GWaRC deserves honor for several reasons, with layers of merit and notability. Firstly, it is well written, by a first-class Christian leader; Rev. Dr. Jim Ball has been at this a long time and we have admired him for decades in his faithful, progressive leadership among evangelicals, especially.  He is creative, well informed, energetic, and full of God's good vision of hope.  He has studied this topic for decades, used to work for the Union of Concerned Scientists, has been interviewed or listed as a viable leader in places such as Time, Newsweek, ABC's Good Morning America and even Rolling Stone, and has testified before the U.S. Senate.  And he is always clear about this faith.  (As an aside, mainline denominational publishers have, true to form, also published serious contributions to the on-going theological conversation about creation, ethics and sustainability.  I have found them, almost without fail, to be theologically bizarre, obscure, scholastic, over-priced and largely useless in the serious struggle to mobilize church folks to become active in efforts at lifestyle and policy change of our deadly industrial culture.  Kudos to guys like Ball who speak plainly, faithfully, with orthodox doctrine and vibrant piety.)  Global Warming and the Risen Lord has a handsome design on the inside with some striking b/w photographs and a couple of other lovely graphic touches.  The endorsements from a wide array of esteemed church and world leaders illustrate the book's credibility---from N.T. Wright in England to Gordon MacDonald in New England, from Sir John Houghton (a former Chair of an Intergovernmental Scientific Panel) to Larry Schweiger the President and CEO of the National Wildlife Foundation.

I like the quote from Ron Sider, who notes that "Jim's book displays his passion for protecting the poor and vulnerable and provides a clarion call for Christians to do so by walking faithfully with the Risen Lord as He leads the way in overcoming global warming."  And that is yet another beautiful and innovative contribution to this Biblically-based spirituality of creation-care: it emphasizes the risen Christ!  If Jesus has indeed risen from the dead, and reigns, then this truth has huge and important implications for the way in which we work on this issue.  Three green cheers for this important book (and the way Russell Media helped get it printed in an environmentally sound manner, partnering with "Plant with a Purpose.")  Local pal, United Methodist clergyman (and former coal industry man) Mitch Hescox, President of the EEN, has a nice afterward.  

BEST BOOKS ABOUT MISSIONS

Living Mission: The Vision and Voices of New Friars edited by Scott Bessenecker (IVP) $16.00  A few years ago Bessenecker did a powerful book documenting young missionaries and social activists who have aligned themselves with the poorest of the poor, from the slums of Manilla to the refugee camps of Sudan to the barrios of Brazil.  These are relief workers, church planters, wandering servants, evangelicals shaped by the ethos of Francis, all described in gruesome glory in a book called The New Friars. In this new one, Bessenecker invites a number of these thoughtful, engaged, and now significantly experienced servants of the poor to describe the essential tenants of their view of mission.  From elder, long-term urban missionaries like Viv Grig to world-travelled folk like Christopher and Phileena Heuertz (Word Made Flesh), this collection is powerful, inspiring, challenging, and very important.  What a strong bit of hefty wisdom!  What an indication of the emerging tone in missiology. Spectacular.  Thank goodness for folks like this, doing this work.  And thanks for publishers like IVP who have the guts to so gracefully describe it.

 â€¨Friends at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission Chris Heuertz and Christine Pohl (IVP) $15.00 This is the fourth in this absolutely fabulous "Resources for Reconciliation" series, an on-going set of books coming from the Duke Divinity School Center on Reconciliation.  Each book pairs a scholar with an activist, and brings us extraordinary insight and powerful stories, designed for good reading and good conversation.  This one is like no other book we know, seriously linking themes of hospitality to how we become friends with those whom we serve.   Pohl, you may know, nearly "wrote the book" on hospitality, by writing the book Making Room.  Christ Heuertz is one of the aforementioned New Friars and is as worldly wise about the poorest of the poor, and what it means to do justice and mercy in these settings, than anyone writing books today.   Together, they have given us an unprecedented book.

Nearly everyone going on short term mission trips struggles to avoid patronizing or "helping" others in demeaning ways, and this small book takes that struggle to a new level, offering theological resources and fresh ideas for developing attitudes and practices of authentic mutuality.  Anyone who supports missionaries, anybody who cares about service in the world, and certainly anyone who who participates in work projects or short-term mission trips really should get this book.  We give it an enthusiastic award, with very deep appreciation.


BEST MEMOIRS

Oh my, we love this genre.  There are several that I have re-read this year, and I've been struck by their influence in my literary tastes.  Still, there are new ones, and it is hard to award just one.  Here are a few we consider our favorites.

I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth Brenda Peterson (DeCapo) $25.00  I told everybody about this as I was reading it as it was one of those wonderfully written and truly remarkable stories that drew me in and stuck with me for months.  The story is well told, and I grew to love writer (indeed, I've now explored other non-fiction nature writing she has done.)  This memoir is, to say it more simply than it deserves, is about the author growing up in the 70s as the child of a National Parks Service outdoorsman, learning from her beloved dad more about nature than most of us will ever know.  Her passion of animals and earth and sky soon came to be in conflict with the Southern Baptist fundamentalism of her rapture-oriented parents.  How they held together the goodness of God's world and His presence around us and their conviction that Christ would burn it all up as they flew to an invisible far-away heaven is beyond me, but they did.  Science, good cooking, animals, an abiding joy in the beauty of landscape was part of their family values and yet Brenda was severely scolded for asking if she'd see her dog in heaven.   This story is her account of her drift from faith, her ongoing theological reflection, her environmental activism.

Near the end of this aching story she says she discovers N.T. Wright, whose theology affirms the goodness of creation and insists that the bodily resurrection of Christ portends the restoration of the whole cosmos.  She wonders if she heard this twenty years earlier if it would have saved her faith.  One wonders.  One also has to wonder why a writer as smart as Peterson couldn't figure some of this out on her own; surely there were robust evangelical voices of peace and justice that she could have discovered.  If only...still, for a beautifully rendered faith journey, and a fantastic window into conservative religion of late baby boomers, this is one heck of a book.  One of my "can't put down" awards goes to this, for sure.   

The Grace of Silence: A Memoir  Michele Norris (Pantheon) $24.95 A few years ago NPR called our bookstore, with the calling saying she was calling on behalf of Michele Norris.  Had I heard of her, she wondered.  Had I heard of her?  Were they kidding me?  Norris had somehow heard of our work in York PA a few years previous pulling together an ethnically and politically and religiously diverse group to work for the rights of detained Chinese immigrants, and wondered if we could help set up some candid conversations around race in a typical mid-American town.  She says in the preface of this riveting book that the subsequent NPR story (maybe you heard it) recorded in York got her to thinking about her own racially complex past.  Granted, she is a nationally esteemed journalist, but the elegant recommendations on the back cover---from luminaries such as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Henry Louis Gates, Tom Brokaw, Dave Isay of StoryCorps---all speak of this books remarkable power of a "painful yet triumphant journey of self-discovery" for this one unique American family.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Goodwin writes that "History at its best is storytelling...in the hands of a gifted storyteller, a memoir becomes more than a chronicle of the writer's life.  It becomes the history of a time and place.  So it is with this magnificent memoir---one of the most eloquent, moving, and insightful memoirs I have ever read."  Given our tiny, tiny, tiny bit of influence on this, we simply have to give it a large shout out.  It deserves real awards and perhaps it will itself be nominated for something like the American Book Award or a Pulitzer.  For now, she gets it from us.  Kudos!

Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature Kathleen Kean Moore (Trumpeter) $15.95  I am sad this splendid, lovely, smart, nature writer's other books---among my all time favorites!---are out of print.  I will hope they are reissued.  This new one, again, made me literally tremble at certain pages, and while this seems a bit more demanding then her other glowing reportage, this is surely one of the best books of its broad genre.  Interestingly, the theme of this is how being present to the grandeur of nature can, in fact, help us grieve well.  There is not as much direct stuff about grief and loss as one might expect (although the author shares great sadness in the preface, explaining the build-up of losses she faced in the run-up to writing these pieces.)  She is, literally, an outdoors-woman and although she is also a philosophy professor, her specialty is the lived experience of being with nature.  Scott Russell Sanders says, as I cited when I first reviewed this, "This book itself is such a consoling creation a cause for gratitude and joy."  I agree.

Lit: A Memoir Mary Karr (Harper) $14.99  Can we just out and out cheat here?  Call it the best 2010 memoir in paperback or something: it came out last year, and Beth and I both oddly waited until this year to devour it.  Her previous two---Liars Club and Cherry--are considered among the finest of 20th century memoir and were books that showed us how to tell a hard-scrabble story of brokenness and dysfunction and still keep us laughing, with jaw-dropping prose, recalling a life through a writer's artful lense. 

Now, in Lit, with a fantastic play on the word, literature prof Karr turns into the addict she most feared she would become, marries, reunites with her crazy Texan mother, and--get this--becomes a Christian as she is sponsored into the Catholic church by a famous literary figure as she continues to grow as a famous writer... I think we may have given a shout out to this last year, but now that it is here in paperback, and Beth and I have both read every page, we can't say enough about its captivating prose, the remarkable life it describes, and how, again, Mary Karr shows us how to do this thing called literary memoir.  One of the most awarded books of last year, and we are happy to fully agree.

BEST INTELLECTUAL BIOGRAPHY

Hope In Scattered Times: A Life of Christopher Lasch Eric Miller (Eerdmans) $32.00  I almost listed this as one of my personal favorite books of the year, and it certainly is one of the most amazing books in any category.  I am aware that it is not for everyone but it is truly extraordinary, about a very important scholar and writer.  There is no other serious biography of the great public intellectual, Christopher Lasch, and Dr. Miller of Geneva College has served us well with this wonderfully-written, exceedingly fascinating account of the intellectual journey of one of the great minds of the later half of the 20th century.  Here is some of what I wrote about it in a review I did in Comment, on-line journal.

...readers appreciate serious social criticism and Christopher Lasch was one of the most important and insightful prophets of our time; his Culture of Narcissism,  Haven in a Heartless World, and True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics are modern classics of serious intellectual social history.  Indeed, this thrilling biography follows Lasch's journey from a U.S. family steeped in liberal and progressive politics, through his time as a student in 1950s Harvard and on to being a "public intellectual" during the Cold War, and his break with the ideological failings of liberalism, embracing something quite other than old-school conservatism. Although his intellect was formidable, his relationships with an impressive array of friends were equally remarkable. (He was, for instance, novelist John Updike's roommate in college, was mentored or influenced by some of the great American scholars of the 20th century---Mills, Niebuhr, Schlessinger, Kennen, Hofstadter---and in the conservative revolution of the 80s was in the thick of conversations with everyone from Jacques Ellul to Robert Bellah to Jean Bethke Elshtain.  One of the best books of any year that shows the story of a thinker's life, his movement away from secular theories, and his effort to embrace a new tradition of doing social criticism with a view to sustainable hope.  The book title, by the way, is a line from Auden.

BEST BOOKS OF CURRENT AFFAIRS

American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us  Robert D. Putnam & David E. Campbell (Simon & Schuster) $30.00 This is big and fat and has some graphs, so I'm afraid it isn't going to be a best-seller here.  Yet, the book is garnering critical review, it is climbing up the best-seller charts, as the authors have been vetted in important venues.   The back jack endorsements are stunning, with amazing raves from Cornel West, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, Rabbi Eric Yoffie (who says,"This is the best overview of American religion in the last half century I have ever read.  If you care about American religion, you must read this book.")  Another reviewer wrote that it is "an instant canonical text...indispensable." How about this, from Alan Dershowitz, "This remarkable book does to religion what the Kinsey Report did to sex: document, dissect, and assess...whether you are a fundamentalist or an atheist (or anything in between) this book matters."

 It's no wonder it is getting acclaim, first from the reputation of Putnam: Bowling Alone was an immensely helpful, and very, very interesting contribution to understanding voluntary associations in our time, and how groups---from bowling leagues to the PTO to the local Methodist church---are decreasing in their role in people's lives. It was one of the great books of the last decade, and we were early promoters.   Here, now, the master sociologists turn their eyes to this very big issue of the day, how religion functions in our culture, how it does or doesn't divide us, and how we can think about faith in a pluralistic culture.  They've been working on this for years, and given the harsh zeitgeist on these things, it hasn't come a moment too soon.  I will admit to not having read all of this.  I am not sure if all of his proposals are as helpful or fruitful as we may need.  No matter.  This is a key book, important, vibrant, serious, and to be commended.  We wanted to tout it, applauding the seriousness, the perspective, the writing, and the topic.  Kudos to one and all involved.

Bye-Bye Miss American Empire: Neighborhood Patriots, Backcountry Rebels, and their Underdog Crusade to Redraw America's Political Map  Bill Kauffman (Chelsea Green) $17.95 Well, this is going to be a hard-sell, having you honor our awarding this for anything more than the season's longest subtitle. And I'm not even sure how to explain the darn thing.  A lot of this is history, all of it shaped by author's quirky passion for localism, decentralization, and "front-porch anarchism." (Not to mention his penchant for word-play, song allusions, and overall clever wittiness.  His friend James Howard Kunstler says he writes with an "antic verve" which puts it mildly.)  I've said before that I will read anything this guy writes, and find his crotchety, wacky, long-winded sentences to thrill my mind and fill my heart.  That is, he is on to something, giving voice to a third way that is so far left, it is right (or so far right, it is left.)  Or, better, he's something then again, not concerning himself with being left or right. He seems even beyond communitarianism or libertarianism to a small-is-beautiful patriotic pacifism.  Remember the 18th-century debate between the Federalists and the Jeffersonians?  Bigger centralized government vs smaller local folk?  Kauffman is way (way) on the side of the little guys.  An earlier book of his which I couldn't put down carried the torch of some outspoken prophets of the colonial era ---especially one from Maryland named Luther Martin---who were against the ratification of the Constitution; they were in favor of the Articles of the Confederation, not wanting to give the Feds too much power.  Tell that to the Christian right these days that some early founders opposed the Constitution!  I Samuel 8 isn't my favorite verse in the Bible for determining wise statecraft, but Kauffman gets it, and without the lingo of subsidiarity (Roman Catholic) or sphere sovereignty (Kuyperian/Calvinist) he sees to invoke the spirit of Wendell Berry and Dorothy Day and the aforementioned Thomas Jefferson and  Luther Martin and wants everybody to do as they please in their own backyard, free from the colonization of unneighborly Empires.  

This, then, leads him to the topic of this can't-put-down travelogue through the most fascinating counter-culture I've found in a long time.  He's reporting on his journeys to the various conventions, movements and efforts of those who want to secede from the Union.  I'm telling you, this is one rock-n-roll road trip and he reports, argues with, argues for, and tells us about the history of folk who don't want to be homogenized by Uncle Sam and Wal-Mart.  The story of secession---from populists in West Kansas to the indigenous Lakota people---is much more interesting (and reasonable and plausible) than the scowling history books and mainstream media wants us to believe.  Kauffman is our man to make it plain.  And, as one reviewer said, make it "intensely enjoyable." And Bye-Bye was certainly that for me.

From those wanting independence for Hawaii to those who think that New York or California ought to each break into two states, from the neo-Confederates (some who are black, by the way) of the deep south to the freedom lovers of crunchy Vermont, from the First Nations peoples of the contiguous states to the Alaskan Inuits, each group makes a strong case for being left alone and argues the justice of their call for freedom.  Why should Washington DC determine laws for people in the Middle of the Pacific?  Why, for that matter, should people in Manhattan care one whit what local zoning rules are in, say, Kauffman's beloved small home-town of Batavia NY?  (He tells the story of his leaving big-time Beltway politics and returning home to fight Wal-Mart and coach a Little League team in the endearing Muckdog Gazette.)  It will be hard to take, but Abe Lincoln is not a hero in this telling of the tale, and although Kauffman is a sentimental patriot (he'd rather sew another star on the flag than take one off) he thinks people, especially those bound by local traditions, faiths, and cultures, have the right of self-determination.  Cheers for Tunisian independence?  How about Texas?  What is sacred about the Union, except the mythology of the importance of Lincoln keeping us together?  This is one heckuva book, rollicking, wild, funny, and very, very informative, about people, beliefs and movements I have rarely considered.  It deserves a couple of awards, but I don't know in quite what.  Trouble-making? Iconoclasm? Common sense? Crazy-long sentences? A cool title?  Yep.  All that and more.  He's a great writer, and amazingly aware historian, and a deep down good, good guy.

The Flight of the Intellectuals Paul Berman (Melville House) $26.00  I am not sure of what to make of the large implications of this serious work, but it is fascinating for several reasons, and deserves a significant honor.  Firstly, it is eloquent and mature writing, intellectual argument at its finest.  It is demanding reading, sophisticated and informed.  Secondly, it is commendable because Berman is, as he did in his very urgent Terror and Liberalism, breaking down historic categories and caricatures. (That is, in that book, he argued that the lef't commitment to liberal values ought to cause them to support the war on terror.)  Here, again, he calls on the liberal intellectual class and the thought leaders of the left---think The New York Review of Books or The New Republic--- to reconsider their naive capitulation to the ideas of the radical Islamists.  One of his important case studies is the reception among scholars and liberal leaders of Muslim spokesperson and Oxford professor, Tariq Ramadan.  Years ago, intellectuals condemned the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Today, Ayatollah's the world over issue such calls to assassinate moderates, or execute those who speak out for justice, and the liberal class is silent.

Why have liberal intellectuals in the West largely "flown" from their duty to be voices of freedom and human rights?  How can we discuss the threats of some very dangerous ideas in our polarizing culture?  Gripping, important, and exceptionally thoughtful work by a leading contemporary essayist. Those of us who strive to be Christian pacifists may not agree, and Berman himself desires not to be seen as bellicose.  This deserves to be seriously considered and we think we should honor it as one of the most significant books of 2010.

BEST SCIENCE BOOKS

Darwin's Pious Idea: Why The Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong Conor Cunningham (Eerdmans) $34.99  At over 500 pages, this is a slow, tough read.  It is by a world-renowned British philosopher and carries weighty endorsements by some of the leading intellectuals the world over.  (Charles Taylor, Louis Dupre, John Haught, Slavoj Zizek.  Slavoj Zizek??)  I must admit that I am not the best judge of these things, but I've read a handful of science books this year, am still drawn to the intelligent design authors in ways that many of my friends find perplexing, and this really does seem to be of a calibre unlike anything I've seen lately.  I am not alone in stating that this is an obvious masterwork, a work that may endure as a classic contribution, and an important study of not only science, but of the Biblical notion of creation and its mature import for the doing of the philosophy of science.  As Stanley Hauerwas observes, "Writing with engaging humor that betrays an extraordinary energetic intelligence, Cunningham shows us why, given the Christian God, an evolutionary account of life is necessary.  This theological account of creation will become a classic."

A  Fine-Tuned Universe: The Question for God in Science and Theology Alister McGrath (WJK) $39.95  I'm going out on a limb here, but not a very thin one.  I've not read this, but the evidence is sturdy.  This is a masterpiece and truly a notable book in these days.  This is an expanded version of Dr. McGrath's Gifford Lectures of 2009 and to have them released in 2010 is a scholarly gift to the world.  You may know the prestigious reputation of the Giffords, one of the most closely watched and important lecture series in the world, having been annually delivered for over 100 years.  Given at the University of Aberdeen, they usually are related to issues of natural theology, faith and the sciences or a theological perspective on our scientific culture and some of the most prominent theological minds of the 20th century have lectured there. This dense book, considerably expanded, stands in a grand tradition.  With endorsements by scientists Philip Clayton, Francis Collins, and John Polkinghorne, this remarkable, prolific, evangelical thinker, with PhDs in both science and theology, is surely well deserving of our simple honor.  Surely one of the important books of the year.

BEST REFLECTION ON POP CULTURE

The Day Metallica Came to Church: Searching for the Everywhere God in Everything  John Van Sloten (Square Inch) $14.99  I suppose I was first captured by the cool cover and the hand-sized package with deckled pages and the oh-so-clever title.  Even more, the "square inch" of this publishing imprint is an allusion to the famous phrase in a speech by Dutch statesman Abraham Kuyper, who insisted that Christ claims as his own "every square inch" of creation, demanding a uniquely Christian perspective on our thinking about everything.  But it was the wisdom of the chapters that turned this into a useful resource and into an award winning keeper of a book; this is glowing, fine, amazingly fun reportage of finding God in all manner of places. From the movie Crash to the stories of Batman, from Metallica to Bach, Van Gogh to the local soccer game,  God is to be found, at loose in the world, helping people discern meaning and goodness and grace.  From Ray Charles to Joel & Ethan Coen, Van Sloten takes it all in, and offers back helpful reflections and thoughtful meditations, often informed by eloquent religious writers of the likes of Frederick Buechner, Madeline L'Engle or George MacDonald.  It isn't every book, by the way, that has blurbs on the back by Leonard Sweet and Shane Claiborne and Richard Mouw, but all bring their voices to celebrate the Spirit at work in the world, shown to us by the skilled eye and good writing of this Canadian pastor.  

BEST BOOKS FOR PERSONAL GROWTH

About You: Fully Human Fully Alive  Dick Staub (Jossey Bass) $22.95  I suppose you know the quote from the first century Christian leader that the glory of God is seen in a person fully alive.  In a book that artist Bruce Herman of Gordon College has called "refreshingly honest" Staub " doesn't flinch at the reality of our fallenness, but offers fresh insight into a profound mystery: Why does God love us? What is wrong with the current picture of our lives? How can it be painted more beautifully and truly to match the vision of the Artist?"  Indeed, artistic metaphors are helpful in this fine book, but it is not mere metaphor.  Staub truly knows that the best theology based on the best reading of the Bible calls us to be truly alive in the world.   As it says on the front cover "Jesus Didn't Come to Make Us Christians; Jesus Came to Make Us Fully Human."  This is a lovely study of salvation, humanness, cultural engagement, passion, desire, goodness, and all that goes in to being people who understand that we are "made, marred, and mended."   Staub is a fabulous storyteller, a respected journalist, and an important leader in the post-fundamentalist recovery of evangelicalism.  That is, as his earlier book put it, he is now "too pagan and too Christian" somehow in the middle (and loving every minute of it!)  Isn't this a bit like Jesus--a bit too loose for the religious types, but a bit too holy for the sinners?  Yet he loved all and invites us all--saints and sinners--to let go of dumb categories, gnostic pieties, and be reborn into true life.  I love this stuff.  You should too.

Squeezed: Springing Free from Skinny Jeans, Nose Jobs, Highlights and Stilettos  Margot Starbuck (IVP) $16.00  You may recall how we raved and raved a year or so ago about this new writer we discovered, a funny and poignant storyteller, whose search for a birth-father (and a Heavenly Father), a journey through chronic pain and depression and into Christian ministry just took our breath away.  Girl in an Orange Dress remains a moving and rewarding memoir and we are thrilled that the girl has given us a new book.  As a male, I suppose I didn't get as much out of it as more feminine readers, but I am proud to say as loudly as I can that this was one of the best books of 2010.  She covers "body image" and cultural-criticism territory that some have written about before but with a theological depth and savvy (and yet a light-hearted joy) that is a rare blend.  Her writing abilities are stellar, her insight impressive, her passion contagious and, did I say she is funny? She is funny.  This is the kind of "Christian self-help book" that redeems the phrase, and is a standard for the sorts of contemporary, practical, insightful books that we need to see on the market.  This is a "no-brainer" and a truly award winning title.  Yippee.

The Art of Dying: Living Fully to the Life to Come Rob Moll (IVP) $16.00  Book lovers will know what I mean when I say that there are certain books that become deeply meaningful, almost sacred in their impact, in ways that one can hardly whisper about.  I have not reviewed this book on line yet, in part, because I don't really know how to sell it, what to say that will communicate what it is, how well it is written, how vibrant and real and alive it is.  Will ordinary folks want to read a book about hospice care, about caregiving; can interviews about end of life care be that inspiring?  Can a book about dying be beautiful?  Of course.  Do we all need such a book? Duh.  There have been rituals and practices in times gone by that helped us all attend to "dying well" and there have been spiritual writings about "a good death."  Why do we not now hear of this much?  How can we recover not a morbid sense of fear or sadness, but an awareness of Christian consolation. It sounds like a cliche as I say it, but this book on learning to die will help us learn to live.  What an honorable book this is.  We happily list it as one of the best.

BEST NEW RESOURCES ABOUT C.S. LEWIS

Again, I just have to announce a draw---there are such a goodly number of important and interesting Lewisonia works, that I couldn't name just one.  But two stand out for their quality, usefulness, and the way they appealed to us.  If I was at an old public house, I'd raise my pint and say "hear, hear" or something like that in honorable mention of these two---one a new and rare DVD, the other a lovely overview.

DVD The C.S. Lewis Study Program: Mere Christianity  Dr. Chris Mitchell (C.S Lewis Institute)  $19.99  I cannot tell you how many times we have been asked here at the shop for a resource to walk readers through the logic and analogies and teachings of Lewis' most influential work,  Mere Christianity.  Here---fife and drum roll, please---at long last, we have not only a good, but a truly exceptional aid.   This new DVD is a great, great release, and we are exuberant to finally be able to make such a resource available.  If you love Lewis, you will know what I mean when I say this is precious, holy,  life-changing material  And if you do not, but wonder what all the fuss is about, this may be the perfect entry.   Read my longer review of this one-of-a-kind (and now, "award-winning") four-part DVD resource to walk you through the this important classic book, and learn more about it.  We are happy to stock it, eager to tell of it's spiritual helpfulness, insightful and professional tone, and truly award-winning style.

The Soul of C. S. Lewis: A Meditative Journey through Twenty-Six of His Best-Loved Writings Wayne Martindale, Jerry Root, and Linda Washington (Tyndale) $19.99  As I noted at the BookNotes blog earlier, this book could sell for twice the price and be a bargain.  Lovingly edited and compiled, this really is, as the sub-title says, a sweet reflection on all of Lewis' major works. This is at once a "readers guide" and guidebook, but also a thoughtful and at times captivating rumination on the deepest meanings and insights of C. S. L. The reviews are gathered into four major sections, and although they offer the dates and chronology, they are arranged by theme, or tone.  They show the movement of his thought, following his journey of "Pilgrimage", "Temptation and Triumph", "Going Deeper", and, then, the books that they describe as "Words of Grace."

 Lovers of Lewis will surely be thrilled to see these authors arrange and discuss so caringly his impressive body of work.  Those who need a friendly sherpa or two to help you in the daunting journey, well, you've found them.  We are happy to honor this as one of the best. 

BEST BOOKS OF BASIC CHRISTIAN GROWTH

The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor: Seeing Others Through the Eyes of Jesus  Mark Labberton (IVP) $20.00 From the first paragraph of this riveting book, I new I had a true winner on my hands.  Labberton wrote the remarkable Dangerous Act of Worship and this, in a way, is a natural sequel.  How can we become people who love well?  Why do some people seem to gravitate to the poor and needy, to share love with the unloved, the underdog?  What is the root of apathy?  Mark Labberton is a PC(USA) pastor, and now preaching prof at Fuller Theological Seminary.  He uses his considerable communication skills to great effect in giving us a fantastic study, the book---as Brenda Salter McNeil says, "that I've been waiting for!  It is practical and thought-provoking guide that shows us how to cultivate lives of justice, mercy, and faith."  Alan Hirsch, a passionate, missional writer himself, notes that it is "eloquent and subversive."  Do you see people through the eyes of Jesus?  In even asking this, I realize I want to read this again, more slowly this time.  This is one of the great examples of why I am proud to be a bookseller, an example of the fine, mature, ecumenical work that is coming from our evangelical publishing houses these days.  Award winning, to be sure.  

Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition  James K.A. Smith (Baker) $14.99  Wait, wait, hear me out.  This is the awards show, you know, so even if you aren't interested in this---even if you are neither young nor Calvinist---I'm telling you, this is truly one of the best books of the year!  Don't you dare change that channel.  I adored this little volume, and thinks it is wise, interesting, good, and important.  Jamie, as you may know, teaches philosophy at Calvin College, and is interested in all sorts of fascinating stuff.  He's a bit Pentecostal, he's very postmodern, he's very interested in film and literature, he's quite ecumenical and he's politically, well, not the Christian right.  (He's taken Jim Wallis to task, too, for---get this--civil religion, in his collection of essays The Devil Reads Derrida.)  So he's an amazing writer, and on that short list of people you should read almost anything he does.

This is a set of pastoral letters he has written to a young guy and gal (composites, really, so this is fictional, I guess) helping them move away from their rather boisterous convictions about old school Calvinism.  Jamie is a fine "five-point Calvinist" so he is not betraying his tradition, but he is wisely counseling them to deepen their ecumenical roots, to understand that there is more to the Reformed tradition than arguments about predestination.  You may know that the mainstream media (Time, Newsweek, and places as diverse as the Chronicle of Higher Education and The New York Times, and The Christian Century and Christianity Today have all highlighted what some are calling the "new" young Calvinists, documented in the book by journalist Collen Hanson, Young, Reformed and Restless, sporting the popular "Jonathan Edwards Is My Homeboy tee- shirt on the cover.) 

Letters to... is an effort to shape the piety of this rising generation of neo-Puritans into perhaps a "kinder gentler" Calvinism, and introducing them to other strains, including Smith's beloved Abraham Kuyper. Using this time-honored device of personal letters of guideance, he explains a variety of nuances, names several authors, invites his young friends to understand Kuyper's notions of common grace and  cultural engagement, and even points them to Reformed voices from the global south. (The little postcards from Jamie's international travels are genius, breaking up the email style a bit.)  Who knew that the debate about whether or not debating TULIP could be so fruitful, and who knew that reading over the shoulder of some receiving forthright pastoral guidance could be so very helpful?  This is a book I wish believers of all ages and stripes would consider.  It is sane, wise, nicely written, informative, and solid. Dare I use the word edifying?  Indeed.  If you like anything about what we write here, this is the sort of spirituality and discipleship that keeps us going.  We celebrate it, honor it, and hope you do to. 

Your Church Is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ's Mission is Vital for the Future of the Church  John Armstrong (Zondervan) $19.99  This past year I took this book with a misleading title around to church leadership events, telling everyone I can that I think it is important (and pointing out the very clear and properly urgent sub-title which really describes it best.)  I'm confident, however, that it is not just a book for church leaders;  developing a heart for a Biblically-based commitment to ecumenicity is a primary calling for the ordinary Christian.  So, we celebrate this, honoring it with our feeble "ecumenical" award.    It is a book we believe in, and it tells an interesting story.  Armstrong was once a very strict and separatist Baptist, a gifted communicator with several books, including some on publishers that do mostly Puritan theology. He wasn't really a very ecumenical fellow, it seems.  Yet, his natural good-natured personality and intellectual curiosity kept him reading widely and relating to others outside his own circle.

This recent book is partly John's own story of growing into a heart-felt ecumenicity and a Biblical and theological call to a rich, evangelical view of the full Body of Christ.  With a moving forward by Anglican J. I. Packer, John has given us a large gift, born of his own pain and struggles, friendships lost and friendship gained, as he explores the meaning of the "missional church" in these postmodern times.  Mainline denominations have had a consistent, if thin, vision of ecumenical work, so leaders and readers in mainline circles may not feel they need to read a book like this---but they surely should, as it offers a very helpful basis for thinking about church.  As most mainline denominations are in conflict, and evangelical churches look on with suspicion, we all need a reminder of what we are called to be as Gods people, how we can find solidarity beyond denominational boundaries, even amidst tensions; it is understandable in hard times to focus on our own issues and concerns.

Still, as Your Church Is Too Small reminds us, too often, our view of the church is too small, too parochial.  We must rediscover and live into an active expression of being a global and faithful Body of Christ, ambassadors for His reign of shalom, witnessing to the reconciliation He has wrought.  This book proposes, with diligent Biblical exposition, that we can unite in mission, and that co-operation is a must.  This is an important part of our own work here, and we are delighted to honor this as one of the key books of 2010.   It is a rare book on the church, on being ecumenical, told by a recovering separatist (who is, by the way, on his way to meet with the Vatican quite soon.)  With blurbs by a Roman Catholic, an Orthodox priest, and an evangelical on the back, this is a ground-breaking book.  It is rare I can say this, but there is nothing like it in print!   It is a book we all need.   We're happy to name it one of the best and most unique books of 2010, not just for leaders or denominational executives or those inclined towards pleasant theological debate, but for every ordinary Christian.  

Untamed: Reactivating a Missional Form of Discipleship Alan & Deborah Hersh (Baker) $14.99   You may know that one of the most popular religious publishing trends--a school of thought and theological vision that has really taken off--is to think about congregational life in terms of the broad duty to witness to God's reign in all of life, being a church "for the world."  They call this being missional; not just sending out missionaries, but being a community that thinks always about engagement, witness, service.  The nuances and implications of this are vast, and there have been more missional church events and books than you can imagine (most of it very good, in our view.)  At last, somebody from the epicenter of that conversation has applied the missional congregation theories to ordinary living, adopting that passion and rhetoric and rubrics to daily, wholistic discipleship.  This is fantastic, a new way to be reminded of what it means to be a follower of Jesus and an ambassador of the Kingdom, written with personal stories and remarkable vision.  Right on.

Generous Justice: How God's Grace Makes Us Just Timothy Keller (Dutton) $19.95  This hand-sized hardback, handsomely matching his previous, wonderful Prodigal God and Counterfeit Gods, is truly one of the great books of the year.  As I noted at BookNotes, I am so fond of this for several important reasons.  Firstly, it is very well done, thoughtful, interesting, and Biblically wise.  Further, it is very important, I believe, to ground our urgent activism for social justice in the goodness of the gospel and this "gospel centered" vision of God's grace is vital.  The subtitle of this is not mere marketing or incidental.  The justification we have with God, wrought by God's own redemptive work in Christ through the cross, is the cornerstone of the Kingdom coming.  Our work for a "whole new world' and our calling to be agents of redemptive change, especially for the poor and oppressed, does not need to be--ought not be!--justified with wacky or obscure theological speculations.  The Bible and orthodox faith necessarily leads one to be agents of justice, to care about God's world, to work for mercy and public righteousness; folks in mainline churches and within more evangelical movements alike need clear-headed and theologically reliable foundations if we are going to endure in this important work.  This is particularly important since, even now, some churches tends towards the social implications of the gospel while others tend to verbal evangelism and church growth stuff.  Keller helps us, in clear and non-controversial ways, to keep it together, to be fully wholistic, to be motivated to work for justice in God's own ways. 

This is a grand and vital book, will be a reassurance to many who know that the work for justice is urgent, and will be an eye-opener and heart-former for those with conservative doctrine who may have yet to realize how central social justice is for faithful discipleship.  Generous Justice is the kind of readable and high-calibre book that gives Christian books a great name, and the kind of evangelical exposition that makes me proud.  I've longed for a book like this for 30 years.  Short and sweet and solid as the rock.  Kudos.

Besides the Bible: 100 Books That Have, Should, or Will Create a Christian Culture Dan Gibson, Jordan Green, John Pattison and others (Biblica) $14.99  I thought it might be tacky to do a category of "books the proprietor of Hearts & Minds has a chapter in" but I am fully sincere in saying this is a rare and remarkable resource for the spiritual formation of disciples in the way of Christ.  Christ calls us disciples, you know, which means learner.  You wouldn't be reading this (and I surely wouldn't be writing it) if we didn't believe that reading widely is an act of spiritual formation, and that learning what to read is a key skill for maturing faith.  Here--as you probably know if you follow our blog or facebook or twitter---these three guys, who write for the Burnside Writer's Collective, do reviews of their all-time top 100 books.  Actually, they got excited about the project, so they graciously invited others to name one book they would review:  Donald Miller, Phyllis Tickle, Susan Isaacs,  Becky Garrison, Karen Spears Zacharias, some other great, great folks, and, uh, yours truly.

I've never won any awards to speak of, and I can only say that I am sincerely honored to be a part of this nifty publishing posse.  The books they commend are almost always thoughtful and important, and the way they write--briefly--- about them are compelling and enjoyable.  Besides the Bible is a book to have fun with, to use as a resource, to keep handy, and to share with others.  You may not need to read every book they/we suggest, but you should certainly know about them all. If you don't, you may need this more than you know!  We need to honor God with our minds, we need to be fluent in the culture around us, and we can celebrate the good role of the best books in our culture, glad for the common grace of good words and good ideas and good art in the finest literature.  Besides the  Bible has some cool ideas, suggested by some good folks.  If we don't give this a big ol' honkin' H&M holler, then I'd just be being falsely humble.  This is a fabulous little book.  Hooray.

BEST BOOKS OF PASTORAL THEOLOGY



Drawn to Freedom: Christian Faith Today in Conversation with the Heidelberg Catechism Eberhard Busch (Eerdmans) $32.00  I will admit that I am drawn to the Heidelberg, and  I am struck by the the way it is studied among the more liberal UCC folk and more conservative CRC folk---denominations that matter to me, even though they are not my own.  This is translated by a central Pennsylvania gentleman who studied with Barth and came to know Dr. Busch as a younger man in Germany.  The backstory is worth awarding this some dear prize, and we are thrilled to know of it.  Busch is a serious thinker, and this will be daunting for all but the most dedicated students.  Yet, as Scott Hoezee writes, "Busch writes lyrically about human freedom in relationship to God.  But along the way it is the Heidelberg Catechism itself that gets liberated. Busch has freed the Catechism from its reputation of being outdated and fusty by showing the relevance  of the Reformed traditions' premier confession in answering questions that people are still asking."  This includes some very penetrating analysis, and deserves to be honored as the sort of serious work that could helpfully inform pastors, leaders, teachers and those who are tasked with the instruction of the faithful.  Kudos for the good work, and thanks for the good effort, Bill Rader, careful and caring translator.

For the Fame of God's Name: Essays in Honor of John Piper edited by Sam Storms & Justin Taylor (Crossway) $35.00  I may be out on a limb, here, since the fierce Baptist pastor John Piper, who calls himself a Christian hedonist as he presses hard for God's joy, is a bit too bombastic than some of our gentle readers may care for.  Yet, this feitschgrift, collected as a surprise for his 60th birthday, is as fine a collection of practical theology as I've seen this year.  Many fine men---yes, they are all men, given his views of women in church leadership---offer solid articles and essays to honor Piper with his emphasis on the joy of the gospel known as we honor the glory of God in all things.  Piper teaches his people relentlessly that we are to "make much of God" in all we do.  Our pleasure is found as we give glory to Christ. this sustains them through hard times and in the serious call to sacrifice and giving that his parish is known for. 

There is no doubt that Piper is one of the extraordinary pastors and preachers of our time and his commitment to preaching the sovereignty of God and the gospel of grace is consistent and commendable.  But this book is less about Piper and can be seen as a fine resource for a lifetime of study. From heavy theological scholars like G.K. Beale,  Bruce Ware and D. A Carson to pastoral leaders like Ray Ortlund and C. J. Mahaney to Biblical scholars like Thomas Schreiner, these are all serious, weighty, insightful authors (if on the strictly conservative end of evangelicalism.)  Nearly every contributor has himself a stellar book or more, and even when they are scholars whose positions I may not always agree with, they are worthy of serious consideration. They write on a variety of topics, all rooted in historic Protestant piety.  Some explore the supremacy of God in various aspects of contemporary life---Randy Alcorn rails against our materialism and Thabiti Anyabwile writes about ethnicity and racism.  David Powlinson has a good piece on counseling and Justin Taylor writes passionately about the pro-life cause as an example of God's gracious heart.  I loved the overview of the mission of God by the wonderful Scott Hafemann and there is an interesting piece called "The Mystery of Marriage" which, again, develops a heady Christ-centered view.   Of course there are a few pieces about Jonathan Edwards and they are very nicely done. (Our friend Stephen Nichols has one on Edwards' preaching and Sam Storms has a powerful chapter on Edwards---and Piper's--pursuit of joy.)

Few of our readers will agree with all of these strong conservative Calvinistic voices; many Reformed folks don't even put things quite the way this gang does.  But you should know the contributors--from the helpful Scotsman Sinclair Ferguson to the Capitol Hill Baptist leader Mark Dever, and most of the others.  Can this old school stuff fly in our edgy 21st century culture?  Does this sort of thinking bear fruit that is truly of God's Kingdom?  Let me be frank:  I don't think this is all we need.  But this is solid, meaty, and in many ways beautiful stuff.  Those who appreciate it are doing honorable ministry and we commend it for your consideration.  We think it deserves to be honored, even as it was written to honor Dr. Piper.  

BEST BOOKS ON CONGREGATIONAL LIFE

There are oodles of books for parish life, good resources, inspiring stories, things for pastors and things for church folk of all kinds.  I hardly know where to begin.  I've enjoyed skimming through many, and some are very well done.  Lots are useful.  Yet, I must say that few, now, stand out as utterly exceptional.  Except a very few.

The Gifts of the Small Church  Jason Byassee (Abingdon) $14.00  You may know Byassee from his fine writing in The Christian Century.  He is now a scholar at Duke Divinity School, but a while back he pastored a small country church.  This captures the texture of a vital congregation that taught him much.  Some of it is a hoot---reading like Richard Lichard's classic Open Secret while other parts are somewhat "Peterson-esque."  All of it is well done, the characters are captured just right and the gifts and graces of small church life are celebrate in his musings.  There is a good afterward by Will Willimon, who notes, "To see our people as Christ sees them, to see the church as Christ sees it may be the one thing needful in all Christian ministry.  That is what Jason Byassee has done here and that is what he so eloquently invites the rest of us to do as well."  Three good cheers.  Let's have a pot-luck casserole to celebrate!  

The Good and Beautiful Community: Following the Spirit, Extending Grace, Demonstrating Love James Bryan Smith (IVP) $22.00  It should come as no surprise that we tout this magnificent book, the third in a trilogy of titles, all among the best books of recent years.  First came The Good and Beautiful God, and then The Good and Beautiful Life and now this one, on church life.  This "Apprentice" series draws on Dallas Willard's key insights that discipleship demands a vision of being apprenticed, and invites readers to exercises of soul care, thinking through ways to enhance the reading with real life efforts to engage the material.  This is a very enjoyable, strong, helpful, and very well-conceived book about the nature of the local faith community, and invites us to be agents of God's Kingdom by being in relationship with others on the journey, so we can be shaped by them, and so we can be empowered to serve others.  This great book brings together worship, spiritual practices and community engagement and roots them in the narrative of what God is doing in Christ.  Another great example of the fine formatio line of IVP released in cooperation with Renovare, the spiritual formation ministry of Richard Foster.  This is some of the best "soul training" stuff we've seen, and we are particularly glad for one on the nature of the local body.  One of the best of the year.

BEST BOOKS ON YOUTH MINISTRY

This has been a great year for youth ministry resources, and is especially notable for a few scholarly and/or serious works that are important and have been widely reviewed.  We are happy to list these notable titles, glad for such work being done.  May the field continue to mature, and may our congregational care and outreach to teens grow more faithful and success.  We are eager to honor these books that stand out.

Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church Kendra Creasy Dean (Oxford University Press) $24.95  Granted, most of this draws on the same ground as Christian Smith and his ground-breaking research on the lame views of God and faith that most teens have absorbed, this really does share that sociology in the context of ordinary mainline congregations.  That Dean teaches in the field (Smith does not) and therefore offers suggestions for the remedy, helps make this truly one of the most important books of its kind, certainly in my memory.    She has done some of her own research, shows how to get beyond this mediocre religiosity, and, as Mark DeVries notes, "the book pulls no punches but, at the same time, inspires hope that the American church can--in fact, must--move beyond the flimsy, vague, self-absorbed spirituality that has unintentionally been woven into the faith of postmodern American Christianity."  This fine book has been reported on in the mainstream news, and has been widely reviewed.  We name it as one of our very Best of the Year!

OMG: A Youth Ministry Handbook edited by Kendra Creasy Dean (Abingdon) $26.00  While Dean was busy writing her important Oxford book, she pulled together some of the best and most thoughtful youth ministry leaders---from mainline and ecumenical congregations, mostly, folks like Rodger Nishioka and Amy Scott Vaughn---and invited them to collaborate on a resource that has weighty theological insight, but is upbeat, useful, and real.  Applicable and important for all youth workers, it is nice to see a nuance and serious handbook, with endorsements on the back from a Lutheran, a Roman Catholic, a prof at United Methodist Perkins, and a Presbyterian. Can the teen-speak "OMG" be a pray, a plea, a petition?  Let us hope so.  This book will help be the answer.   Very, very good and very, very special.

Consuming Youth: Leading Teens Through Consumer Culture John Berard, James Benner & Rick Bartless (Zondervan) $16.99  A few years ago we were told that we were one of the few bookstores that invited youth workers to consider the sociology of late consumer capitalism and how advertising and popular culture have shaped adolescent development by offering secular books about youth written by savvy culture critics and sociologist.  Stuff like Naomi Klein on branding or Jean Kilbourne on sexualized advertising; we stock books like  A Tribe Apart or Teenage Wasteland and the work of Thomas Hine and Michael Warren.  Just like any missionary, youth workers have to know something about the culture in which teens find themselves.

 At last, a reliable, thoughtful and energetic book offers a serious critique of our 21st century branded culture and navigates these recent stormy waters with a theology that is engaged, critical, informed, and hopeful.  Yes, they cite the good, hard stuff, and yes, they quote all kinds of wild and wonderful writers.  At the end of it all, they hope to shape an alternative script for youth in today's consumer culture, moving the conversation forward about how to mentor youth in the cultural location in they now exist.  I hope Consuming Youth sells and I hope it is taken to heart and I hope more youth workers---some who have natural instincts about this stuff--will develop habits and practices of doing this exact kind of critical theology.  Maybe our shout out will help.  Is it consumeristic and secularizing and corrupting to give them a (not too glitzy) H&M award??  Ha.

Story, Signs and Sacred Rhythms: A Narrative Approach to Youth Ministry Chris Folmsbee (Zondervan) $14.99  I wanted to give this an award as soon as I saw it---what a cool look and a great, great title.  And a cheapo price for a sturdy hardback!  Way to go Zondervan!  Still, a fine price and title alone isn't enough to seduce this award-picking committee of one, no sir.  And, trust me, this easily-read book is truly award-winning in my book, as it reminds us how narrative theology---one that actually follows the plot-line of the Bible---can help us rethink youth ministry.  You know, I think anyone in ministry can benefit from this---pastors, counselors, para-church workers.  Or anybody trying to live the Christian life.  This is a helpful reconstruction of what it means to do ministry and what it means to live into the Story of God by allowing the story and signs to shape our sacred rhythms.  

Reinventing Youth Ministry (Again): From Bells and Whistles to Flesh and Blood (IVP) $17.00  Wayne Rice has been at the forefront of the rise of the youth ministry industry, was a co-founder of "Youth Specialties" which helped youth groups learn from wild and crazy bells and whistles, a style and ethos to which he now brings some needed critique.  I for one am in many ways a product of that immense mid-70s paradigm shift, and the zany, evangelical, relationally fun approach taught by the likes of Wayne and the late Mike Yaconelli,  became a major part of my life in campus ministry in those years.  Which is to say, I owe this dude, big time.  As Walt Mueller---the go-to guy on big picture youth stuff in North America---says, "All of us in youth ministry owe a debt of gratitude to Wayne Rice.  With this book, our debt just got bigger."   As Duffy Robbins notes, this book allows us to "look backward only long enough so that we don't repeat (or make new) mistakes about going forward."  This deserves to be considered one of the great books of recent years, not only because of who wrote it, its historical significance, but because of the solid guidance he offers as we move into a new era, demanding a new wave of youth ministry.
 
BEST BOOKS OF APOLOGETICS

Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith  selected and with an introduction by Francis S. Collins (HarperOne) $19.99 This truly is a great reader, designed for seekers, and a helpful anthology of some of the best excerpts of some of the best books of all time.  The excerpts are gathered together and arranged by subject---for instance, it begins with "classic arguments for faith and reason" (which includes Plato and Augustine and Aquinas and Pascal and more) and moves to "the meaning of truth" which includes a great, diverse, excerpts from Os Guinness, Madeleine L'Engle, and Dorothy Sayers.  Other units include "Loving God with All Your Mind", excerpts on the problem of evil and suffering, two readings on justice, three good pieces on "miracles, longing and mysticism" and so on.  "Love and forgiveness as pointers to God" include excerpts by Bonhoeffer, Viktor Frankl and Mother Theresa.  Oh, the wide array of contributors to this good volume---Chesterton, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Elie Wiesel.  A few are not as well known, important and sharp evangelicals (like Collin's friend, Art Lindsley and one of his mentors in relating faith and science, Alister McGrath.)  I don't know any other book that includes readings from the Dali Lama and philosopher Alvin Plantinga and NYC pastor, Tim Keller.  With a piece by the late Anthony Flew, and an introduction to the journey by N. T. Wright, you can see this is thoughtful, good stuff.  With authors like Thomas Merton, you can be assured it isn't just a pushy evangelical ruse: this really is a fine and robust set of vital readings.

Anyone who loves ideas, who loves historic classics, or who is seriously interested in the quest for human meaning simply ought to have this fine anthology.  If this were an academy award, surely it would get something like "best supporting actor" as Collins himself---now the head of the NIH and a leading voice in the discussions about faith and science---doesn't have a chapter.  We are awarding it gladly, hoping you agree.  What a great resource!

A Place for Truth: Leading Thinkers Explore Life's Hardest Questions  edited by Dallas Willard (IVP Academic) $20.00  You may know the good work of Veritas Forum, a ministry that hosts meaningful and civil discussions (and sometimes, debates) on college campuses---often at the very best Ivy League schools--presenting the wonderful case that Christian faith has intellectual credibility and should not be dismissed as irrelevant to university life.  Some of the finest authors and speakers of our generation, leaders we admire, are in this "highlights from the Veritas Forum."  Just for instance, there is Francis Collins and Os Guinness, Tim Keller and Ronald Sider, Mary Poplin and N.T. Wright.  This collection covers so much good ground---from intellectual argumentation, to thoughtful testimonial memoir, to various lectures on Christian perspectives on the arts, science, politics and social concern---that it is hard to describe this briefly.  It is a tremendous resource, deserving of great appreciation, and a good example of the sorts of fruitful work the Forum has done. Bene optime!

BEST BOOKS ON EVANGELISM

Okay, I'll admit it.  I love reading books like this. I don't do it all that well, but let's let that go for now.  We need to be reminded of the goodness of sharing the good news, and be instructed on best practices, as they say.  The best one of the year?  The one that gets you talking.  The one that gets me talking.  This isn't rocket science, but I find that a few of these are stellar.  Let's call em honorable mentions, at least.

The Unexpected Adventure: Taking Everyday Risks To Talk with People About Jesus Lee Strobel & Mark Mittelberg (Zondervan) $14.99 This is a collection of 42 stories, arranged to be read one-a-day, so that you are inspired to stay open to the possibility that God might open a door for you to love another, or talk about Christ, or invite someone into a conversation about church or God or truth  No, these aren't all stories of front-porch conversions, but they are real, healthy first-steps to be used by God, and they are deeply moving.  If even a few people did even a few of the things suggested in this collection, the world would be a better place, seekers might be invited into faith, and God's Kingdom might be advanced in concrete ways.  I'm all about this, affirm the goodness of the tales, like the way it is pitched, invite you to consider joining this kind of exhilarating adventure.

Marks of the Messenger: Knowing, Living and Speaking the Gospel J. Mack Stiles (IVP) $15.00 This is a bit heavy, maybe even a bit alarmist. The author seems concerned that too many folks are saying dumb stuff about God, thinking they are sharing the gospel, when, in fact, they don't even understand the gospel themselves. While he is deeply committed to social outreach, he wants to be clear that merely doing justice advocacy or creation care is not the same as evangelism.  There is a character component, of course---our lives have to have integrity and there needs to be some consistency between message and messenger---hence, the good subtitle about "living" the gospel.  And it really is helpful to understand the key doctrines of God, stuff about guilt and grace and God's goodness ad our need and Christ's atoning work.  So here it is, a serious, passionate reminder of what evangelism truly is, why it is important, and the need to forego formulas and programs and get our own hearts and minds, our lives and our doctrines, aligned with orthodox theology so they are consistent with Biblical teaching.  It's a bit tough-sounding, but I agree.  I wish anyone eager to share their faith would redouble their study, and read this book.  First things first.  And if you do not have a passion for sharing the good news, it could be--could it be?--some indication that you may not have considered the nature of the gospel of grace much yourself.  Either way, this is one of the best contributions to this field in quite a while.  Way to go.

The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission: Promoting the Gospel with More Than Our Lips John Dickson (Zondervan) $22.99  The boring cover kept me from reading this until a respected friend and Christian leader asked me about it.  Oops.  As I explored it quickly I was immediately drawn in; I couldn't put it down. What a book!  The important subtitle is nothing new: Promoting the Gospel With More Than Our Lips, but the insight this British leader offers about the role of laypeople, ones integration of faith and work, the calling to live meaningfully engaged in the world around us, is truly remarkable. There is tremendous Bible research here, too---opening up new insights in a very no-nonsense, fully readable way.  Hefty blurbs on the back range from Richard Bauckham to Collin Hansen to Jim Belcher to N.T. Wright.  This really is a cut above many, a helpful guide to the whole picture of evangelism and invites us to realize that we can, indeed, make a Godly different in the lives around us.  Terrific!

BEST BOOKS OF BIBLICAL STUDIES



Why the Bible Matters: Rediscovering Its Significance in an Age of Suspicion  Michael Erre (Harvest House) $13.99  I list this because it is a wonderful, wonderful, and very necessary book about the big picture of the unfolding drama of the whole Scriptures.  It nicely explains what Gabe Lyons calls the "four chapter story" and what Al Wolter's introduced in Creation Regained and what Walsh & Middleton (in Transforming Vision) taught to N.T. Wright---that the Bible is a narrative with the flow from good creation to radical fall to cosmic redemption and full creational restoration.  Erre is chatty and funny, a bit cynical and raw, and walks us through a high regard for the authority of Scripture with a view to the consistent history of redemption that flows through the odd tales and perplexing history.  That is, he has a narrative approach, and this seems a bit like a Bible study through the eyes of Donald Miller, say.  A good appendix has a helpful annotated list of some good resources to defend a traditional view of the Bible against some weird criticisms and hair-brained allegations, but this is not the thrust of the book.  Yep, this is now my favorite, basic-level, easy-to-read, engaging overview of the Bible, written with youthful wit, narrative integrity, without implying anything other than an utterly high view of the authority of God's Story for our own. Wild, a bit wacky, and very inviting.

The Story of God, the Story of Us  Sean Gladding (IVP) $17.00  It is hard not to applaud too loudly for this one-of-a kind book, and we are thrilled to award it our honor, such as it is.  Yes, this book deserves accolades for several reasons.  Firstly, it does indeed capture the "one true story of the whole world" (as Newbigin puts it.)  It does this with a clever and helpful set of titles (all starting with the letters C, an idea he may have borrowed from Brian McLaren.)  Don't you just have to read an overview of the Bible that goes like this: Creation, Catastrophe, Covenant, Community (Exodus), Community (Sinai), Conquest, Crown, Conceit, Christ, Cross, Church, Consummation.  Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is right; we should: "Commit this story to memory.  Tell it to your kids.  Let is direct your life."  This is the whole big picture, coherent and clear. 

You see, Gladding--a creative-type church planter with shaved head and cool goatee whose church has some ridiculously-cool-sounding name and who hails from New Zealand--has done what should have been down long ago for adults.  Like we do with kid's Bibles, he has retold the story, in novel-esque form, to be read out loud.  You can imagine the campfire as the elders tell these stories of God's people, and you can feel the sadness as they lament in exile, and you can experience the spectacular excitement as the new covenant community is formed as followers of Christ in the period of Second Temple Judaism.  Alan Hirsh says it is "as artful as it is significant" and anyone who needs a fresh way to tell the old, old story---a fresh way to be gathered up into the old, old story---will find this interesting, provocative, and challenging.  Nothing like it that we know of; highly recommended, happily honored.  Yeah!  Kudos to the "Likewise" imprint for their consistently innovative, contemporary, and faithful books such as this.

Out of Babylon  Walter Brueggemann (Abingdon) $15.00  Here is Brueggemann at his quintessential best, preaching passionately, basing everything on key Bible texts, inviting us to--evoking among us to ability to--see connections between this persistent question, that pervades Walter's scholarly and pastoral work, and remains among us, pressing: how do we live faithfully in the world but not of it and how do we relate to the empires around us?  Marva Dawn says that "Brueggemann is stunningly brilliant here.  Besides surveying most of the First Testament prophets to show the relationship between the contemporary Church to the metaphor of "Babylon" this volume takes some surprising turns and gives us fresh directions.  Out of Babylon is a must for all Christians!"  Or, as Shane Claiborne puts it, Brueggemann has been a steadfast voice in the wilderness "daring us to say no to the empire but to say yes to another world....these are the songs of Zion."  If you think that some religious comments about consumerism or violence or oppression are a bit thin, try this.  It will help you understand the Scriptures, and base your life upon their vision of being faithful in exile, and hoping for the promise of Home.

The Gospel of John: When Loves Comes to Town Paul Louis Metzgar (IVP) $18.00  This is a new series cooked up by the genius editors at IVP and they surely picked a top shelf cultural critic and social activist to lead off the set.  The Resonate Series is going to be a set of Bible commentaries that offer contemporary exegesis, struggling with the text and context, with the Word and the world.  That is, they hope to recover ancient Biblical wisdom as it resonates with today's setting, today's urgent needs, and the pressing concerns of our postmodern culture.  Leonard Sweet---an amazingly generative Bible scholar when he puts himself to it--- wrote the forward and very solid, hip pastor Rick McKinley (Imago Dei) wrote an afterward.  Metzgar, for those that care, is involved in an institute at Multnomah Bible College, is friends with John Perkins, and has a recent Wipf & Stock release, a collection of brilliant articles and sermons called New Wine Tastings: Theological Essays of Cultural Engagement.  He is shaking up the city of Portland, I'm told, and is a wonderfully energetic and fruitful theologian. 

Here, he walks us through the gospel of John, inviting these stories and texts to show us how to be lovers of God, friends of the friendless, and what it means for "love to rise again in our midst and in our lives."  Reliable evangelical scholars such as James Houston (Regent College, Vancouver) and Wheaton College's Gary Burge have endorsed this, and commend it as an ideal work for students or anyone interested in fresh, relevant Bible commentary with a view to faithful, wholistic discipleship.  What an idea (I say with a tiny bit of sarcasm...) I think that there is nothing quite like it in this format.  While it isn't quite like the "anti-commentary commentary" which I often suggest, Colossians Remixed (by Keesmaat & Walsh) When Loves Comes to Town has a bit more punch than your traditional exegetical resource. And any gospel commentary that takes a song from Rattle & Hum--a duet between Bono and B.B. King--has got to be great!  Resonate.  Indeed.  It deserves a special commendation of one of the best ideas in the Christian publishing world of 2010.  Now if we can just get folks aware of it, and eager to study. 

Dwelling With Philippians: A Conversation with Scripture Through Image and Word  edited by Elizabeth Steele Halstead, Paul Detterman, Joyce Borger, & John D. Witvliet (Eerdmans) $21.99 We list this an example of one of the year's best commentaries, and it is best in part because it is so creatively done, artful, colorful; rich and warm and thoughtful.  As you may know from our previous reviews of it, this is more of a meditation than a Greek exegesis, and it is informed mostly by visual artwork--there is both classic, and contemporary full color art on almost every page.  This is not just a lavish coffee table book, though, as it is designed as a companion to your study of this joy-filled and important New Testament prison letter.  Tons of photos, prints of classic and contemporary artworks, some poetry, classy graphic design, and hymn texts are set beside evocative commentary and reflection questions.  Nothing like it in print.  Truly award winning and deserving of a lovely standing ovation.

NEW BOOKS I MOST ENJOYED THIS YEAR

I could put more in this category, and many of the above surely go into this list of honorable mentions. I just loved that Bill Kauffman book, and so enjoyed the memoirs, say.  Still, a couple spring to mind that, well, I just loved for the sheer fun of reading them.

The Next Christians: How a New Generation Is Restoring the Faith (The Good News About the End of Christian America)  Gabe Lyons (Doubleday) $19.99  This deserves a number of awards, I'd say, so I'll be right up front: I enjoyed this very, very much, in part because it so refreshingly told the stories of the shift in attitudes among younger generations of evangelical Christians, rooted in a rather wholistic and narrative approach to the full gospel of God's coming Kingdom.  Some might quibble that his evidence for this shift is mostly anecdotal, but this dude surely has his finger on the pulse of the rising leaders, and travels around in interesting circles in ways that few of us can even imagine.  I know that Gabe is sharp and theologically savvy, he's solid and desiring to be faithful and effective as he articulates the new vision growing under our noses.  He is saying stuff in exciting ways, but (if I may humbly submit) it is a perspective that some of us have been hard at work speaking, conferencing, teaching, selling books, and working towards for decades. In this savvy cool guy, I see a true leader with a solid vision.  You can't imagine how thrilled and relieved I am to see his work.

The first half of the book is a great overview of the fading realities of old school fundamentalism and the increasing irrelevance of the culture wars of earlier evangelicals (not to mention earlier mainline liberals.)  As America has drifted from whatever religious cultural consensus it once had, the young adults of today are not offended by the drift; indeed, in many ways, it is all they have ever known.  As they read the Bible in more big-picture narrative ways, they get the broader sweep of the relationship between missional vision and daily discipleship. They are eager to be of service, to be active and authentic, pushing back against the bad reputation of the church (so well documented in the work Gabe co-authored a few years ago, Unchristian.) As evangelical ministries, mainline churches, religious book and curriculum publishers, Christian music industry types, para-church campus ministers, denominational executives and others try to get their bearings on the millennial generation that is now rising to adult leadership---the class of 2000 is approaching 30 years old!---this guidebook to the shift is essential, brief, inspiring reading.


The book really takes off in the second half, with a set of theologically vital impulses that Gabe says---and shares stories about---is happening these days.  Younger Christians, while passionate about God and serious about theology [aside: if your church is not, it is no wonder you have no young adults in attendance!] they are also taking their faith into the streets in refreshing, creative ways.  Here are the images he offers of what makes the "restorers" (as he calls them) somewhat different that their forebears.  The Next Christians are those who, while committed to a Biblical worldview, are "provoked, not offended", "creators, not critics", "called, not employed", "grounded, not distracted", "in community, not alone", and "counter-cultural, not trying to be relevant."  This is, Lyons insists, a "new era" and we must follow this next big shift. That authors and thought leaders as different as Phyllis Tickle and Chuck Colson, Os Guinness and Rob Bell, Margaret Fienberg and Scott McKnight, all endorse this guy and his vibrant networking ministry, is telling.  He is a leader to watch, a man to read, a person to follow.  We are honored to call him a friend, eager to celebrate his work, honest about awarding this as one of the best books I've read all year.  Best because I so loved and enjoyed it, best because I hope others read it, and receive its significant insight, and best because, well, I agree with it.  Sam Rodreiguez of the National Hispanic Leadership Conference says it will help us "embrace change as we welcome a fresh move of the Spirit.

Ms Tickle says there are "a thousand reasons to rejoice here."  Let us give you one more reason: they released a stellar Next Christians DVD curriculum to go with it, not unlike the great Q Society Room DVDs that we raved about last year (all which are produced by and hosted by Lyons.)  There is a provocative and useful study book to use, and this five week DVD covers much of the material in the book.  I cannot recommend it more strongly, for anyone interested in fruitful and faithful cultural engagement, for anyone who wants the "big picture" of shifts in evangelical faith, and anyone who may want a window into the work of some of the younger leaders rising in the next generation of serious Christians. Whether you are a mainline denominational person or a conservative independent church, whether you are a next generation student yourself, or a para-church leader, this book will be useful for you.  I took great joy in reading it and in writing about it.   

Commitment: A Love Story Elizabeth Gilbert (Penguin) $16.00 I'll admit that Beth and I both loved Gilbert's mega-seller Eat Pray Love, and really, really enjoyed her wispy and clever writing style.  I think she is really good at evoking images, turning a surprising phrase, and coming up with an unexpected idea or shift in a paragraph.  She is witty and funny with something of substance to report. That is, she's a very good writer, and I would argue that line by line with anyone who disagrees.  Her new book---the long awaited sequel to EPL wherein she has to figure out if she wants to marry again (she doesn't) and what she will do since the Homeland Security people seem intent on keeping her dear Brazilian lover out of the country.

Yes, according to the government, they have to get married if they want to stay together and live in her American home.  A scholar's pursuit of the history and meaning of marriage ensues, she writes as they hole up in this country or that, and as their relationship deepens, their struggle to find happiness unfolds---two steps forward, one step back, or worse-- and Gilbert learns all manner of interesting things about the sociology of matrimony.  She plays the role of an anthropologist field worker, with notebook and heart in hand.  It is serious and it is personal.  She has to figure it out.

 Look, I don't think she gets that all right, and I'm not suggesting her sexual ethics are particularly Biblical, although she is pretty wise about most things and I stand with most of her conclusions.  This is a warm, wonderfully written, smart and very interesting book, loaded with fascinating interviews with people about their marriages, from Hmong tribeswoman in rural Cambodia to very old women she knows who are friends of friends, including, then, truly wonderful stuff about her own family's colorful history.  My, my, neither Beth nor I could put this down, and we read portions out loud to each other, for the sheer joy of the writing, the importance of the topic, and the thrill of learning something new about how humans have fairly or unfairly woven together this fabric they call married life.  They've changed the subtitle now that the paperback is just out; in hardcover it was subtitled "A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage." We are happy to award this a Book of the Year kiss, and eager to hear if others enjoyed it as much as we did. 

Rock and Roll Will Save Your Soul: A Book By and for the Fanatics Among Us  Steve Almond $23.00   Well, if some may find troubling our appreciation for a less than Christianly considered look at marriage (see above), I may offend even more still with this effort at a literary Grammy award to a book, as I've said about a novel of his, that I "hate to love."  This author---as I have said as I've commented upon other books of his over the years---is a personal favorite. His Candy Freak, about his obsession with the sweet stuff, is an all time great, clever and insightful and more powerful than you'd imagine!  I love his style, I appreciate so much about his way with words and think at his heart he writes with some sort of moral center.  I understand, if not fully resonating with, some of his view of things, and he captures almost in caricature the urbane angst of the ubber-hip, jaded Gen X literary type. True to form---and it is too often the case here---he is needlessly vulgar, at times offensively so. Still, despite those occasional ugly transgressions, and a bunch of merely, uh, vivid phrases, this book was a true delight for me, and one I immediately gave to a couple of music-loving friends. 

If you have not been obsessed with albums and artists; if you haven't longed to convert others to the records of your passion, if you haven't dreamed of---or, in my case, actually engaged in--stalking certain rock stars, well, then just skip this sucker. Most of you aren't fanatics, so you won't care---unless maybe you know one, and are trying to figure him or her out.  There is some very insightful stuff about how music can give voice to our deepest concerns (why some adolescent boys love heavy metal, for instance) and in one very moving section tells of how a person he knows well, a young woman, was literally brought out of a hellish mess of a life by her attention to hard rock.  This is an odd book, mostly narrative by Almond the Fanatic, but a bit of serious music criticism and some inspiring stuff about rock artists he's come to know.  Still, it isn't for everyone.  But if you are beyond the pale when it comes to your musical obsessions, and don't mind carrying around a book with the blasphemous cover (I took the dusk jacket off), then I believe this book will make you smile, and smile very deeply and with an awareness that you are not alone in your dedication to serious contemporary music.  It will make you appreciate obsession, wonder why pop music means so much to so many of us, and will touch your rock and roll heart in places that only a good mix tape really could  One of my personal favorite books of the year.  Beth?  Not so much.

Wisdom Chaser: Finding My Father at 14,000 Feet Nathan Foster (IVP) $16.00 I suppose there are a dozen reasons why a reader is attracted to a book, and I admit that this is a no-brainer.  I was on a rare trip to Colorado, hanging around a gazing at the very fourteeners described in this riveting memoir of mountain-climbing, a faith lost and found, and the reconciliation of an estranged father and son.  My own son is a rock climber, so it reminded me of him a bit.  Nathan is the son of Richard Foster, a man I've met and admired, and to hear of Richard's clueless neglect of his hurting adolescent son was grueling.  Oh the pain inflicted on the children of those in leadership and ministry!  Yet, the drug-addled and religiously cynical (and surprisingly unaware) young adult son reaches out to his famous, contemplative dad, and dares him to climb the famous mountain peaks with him and to somehow find relational reconciliation. 

This is a quickly read and very moving drama of father and son, their love for the outdoors, their different style of climbing, their joy in the journey, and importantly, Nathan's own journey towards an edgy faith of radical discipleship and solidarity with the abused and hurting teens of his own sub-culture.  (That he now is a professor of social work at a Christian college sort of makes it sound a bit more tidy than it was, but it was a hard and painful journey and I'm sure the book only told some of it.  It was plenty realistic and raw, I'd say.)  Richard Foster writes a small afterward, which was good, and the book--and the story it told-- meant tons to me, seeing God's faithfulness to these men, to see the hope of healed father-son friendships, and to see God's call to ministry upon them both.  And those mountains?  Seeing them took my breath away, and did give the book a certain visceral wallop.  Still, I bet you'd enjoy it, no matter where you read it.  A book I couldn't stop talking about for weeks.  

BEST BOOKS ON SPIRITUALITY

Common Prayer: Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals compiled by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove & Enuma Okoro (Zondervan) $24.95  I hope you consider reading my longer review of this from last November; we we were thrilled to announce it, to be among the first stores to get behind it, and to be asked by Shane and the The Simple Way community to handle some of the sales to "release parties" that prayed with this resource the week it was launched.  There were candles lit and songs sung and food and silence and celebration and all manner of conspiring for goodness, and prayer books from Hearts & Minds were there. 

Common Prayer is a large-sized prayer book, with some moving woodcuts (that bring to mind the Catholic Worker) and music and prayers and litanies and feast days for alternative heroes, prayers for various occasions (including house blessings, new babies, times of grief, prayers for sexual purity and for loneliness and for preparation for social justice work, etc.)  There are sidebars that help you learn about the liturgical practices of fixed hour prayer and some good (if brief) guidance on why radical, missional "new monastic" faith communities need to root their social activism to the ancient ways of ecumenical prayer.  I must admit that while we were fully enthused about this, the book itself---and the promotion of it---left us with a grand sense of gladness, happy that Zondervan took the risk to publish a liturgical prayer book aimed at those who, most likely, aren't used to purchasing such a resource.  Shane and Jonathan wrote a good book on prayer drawing on the desert fathers and mothers a year ago, so this came as no surprise, really, but it still is an extraordinary publishing event, and is even better than we expected.  Kudos all around.  Thanks be to God. 

Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (Paraclete Press) $14.99  Again, I reviewed this when it first came out, and we are thrilled to suggest it to you once again.  It is handsomely made, nicely written, and offers a happy blend of story, theology, the history  of folks like the desert fathers and mothers, and makes a case that praying locally is better than globe-hopping, nomadic restlessness.  Although this is a book of spiritual formation, it is like few others in it has this parallel theme of being involved in ordinary ways in one's neighborhood; it wouldn't be fair to say it is the kind of book Wendel Berry would write if he did this kind of book, I suppose, but that may suggest why we love it so.  We need roots, a sense of place, and a spirituality that commends us to God and each other.  This is very nicely done, wise and useful.  A gracious forward by Kathleen Norris is lovely, and adds value to the book.  Brief and clear, with some great stories of his own neighborhood and household, this is one of the best quiet books of the year.

Spiritual Rhythm: Being With Jesus Every Season of Your Soul Mark Buchannan (Zondervan) $17.99  There are books of deep spirituality that may be richer than this, and there are some that are more mystical and esoteric.  But for ordinary saints of God, those struggling with the inevitable ups and downs of life under the sun, this is a gem of a resource, beautifully written, wise and practical.  It isn't difficult, and it isn't overly complex.  Yet, there is a maturity here, a thoughtful sense of God's presence in different ways over different seasons of our lives.  Are you in a harsh winter?  A renewing Spring?  Are there deaths and loss or hope and blue skies?  Our formation in the ways of Christ and our inner spirituality will take shape influenced by these predicaments and Buchannan guides us as a wise director, as a seasoned pastor, and a good friend.  There is wonderful prose, fine citations of important authors, fun and inspiring stories, and some very helpful exercises to draw upon during different "seasons" of your soul. We have commended this good author before, and applaud his increasing fame.  We hope our award helps others know that he is a guy worth reading, an author we care about.  This book, especially, is a real blessing, delightful and true. 

HONORABLE MENTION FOR FOSTERING EVANGELICAL SELF-REFLECTION

Routes & Radishes--And Other Things to Talk About at the Evangelical Crossroads  Mark Russell, Allen Yeh, Michelle Sanchez, Chelle Stearns, Dwight Friesen (Zondervan) $22.99  This is a fantastic and creatively packaged volume which has five voices, in clear dialogue and discussion, about the nature and future of evangelicalism.  The youthful, multi-cultural mix of men ad women is itself a large indication of something---this ain't Billy Graham or Tony Campolo or John Piper.  Their "future's so bright I gotta wear shades" allusion on the back cover is a hoot, and, again, this is an important sign.  More importantly, though, these are solid thinkers, vibrant missional servants, Kingdom people who are serious about theology, engaged in culture, well-read, and eager to, in the words of Trinity Evangelical theology prof, Dr. Simon Chan, "envision a form of Evangelicalism which is self-critical, richly nuanced, and ecumenically aware.  If this is the Evangelicalism of the future, there is reason to be hopeful."

I hope you get the allusion of the title.  Routes, of course has to do with the paths we may go; radishes are deeply rooted things.  Clever, eh? There is friendly disagreement about both the past and the future here, and the format offers this good back and forth, with a serious intention about being faithful and fruitful, even in our shifting, complex times. The conversation partners are all quite sharp, and well worth hearing out.  Yey (DPhil from Oxford) is a prof of History and Theology at Biola; Sanchez (MDiv, ThM from Gordon-Conwell) is pastor of Christian Formation at Highrock Covenant Church; Mark Russell (PhD Asbury) is a former missionary and cofounder of Russell Media; Chelle Stearns (PhD, University of St Andrews) is Assistant Professor of Theology at Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle, and Dwight Friesen (DMin George Fox) is an ordained pastor, internet guru, and Associate Professor of Practical Theology, also at Mars Hill Graduate School.)  Man, these kids are smart and influential.  This deserves a bundle of awards, and we are happy to commend it as a very important conversation, and a rich tool for further discussion, reflection, and your own participation.

BEST NEW BOOK ON ANABAPTISM

The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith  Stuart Murray (Herald Press) $13.99  Okay, this is an odd little category, since I don't award the best book on Lutheran or Anglican or Methodist studies.  Well, if any such tradition had a exceptionally-readable, all new, very exciting and truly popular release that sets the barre for such work, I'd create an award just for them.  This is a fantastic release---done a year or so ago in England and now happily released by the Mennonite Publishing House here in Pennsylvania.  We stock nearly everything they release, but this is extraordinary.  The rave reviews on the back are from Brian McLaren (an ecumenical emergent leader), Tom Sine (a global futurist with Presbyterian connections) and Shane Claiborne, an evangelical "new monastic" activist.  Neither are anabaptists themselves, but mostly likely all have been shaped by the likes of Yoder et al.  Murray is an urban church planter, known in the newer missional circles, and a very thoughtful writer.  This attempts to offer the best of the anabaptist core components and practices, stripped perhaps from their Swiss Brethren or Amish connotations.  Can the Christian community at large learn from an updated, robust look at the radical reformation? I hope so.

BEST BOOKS ON CHRISTIAN PHILOSOPHY

Herman Dooyeweerd: Christian Philosopher of State and Civil Society Jonathan Chaplin (University of Notre Dame) $68.00   Although we stock some standard philosophy texts and appreciate all sorts of academic writing, this serious study of the dense philosophy of Dutch scholar Herman Dooyeweerd simply must be celebrated.  It was, after all, the incisive critique of Western culture's driving spirits, and the attention to a Biblically-informed understanding of the multi-dimensional nature and inter-relationships of things in God's world, that emerged from his Chair at the Free University of Amsterdam in the early parts of the 20th century that inspired a generation of young fire-brand (mostly Canadian) philosophers in later decades that so impacted me in my college years. I am not a philosopher and have always found--surprise, surprise--Dooyeweerdian philosophy to be exceedingly obtuse, but the spin-off organizations (from the think-tank Cardus and Comment and the funky e-zine Catapult to Citizens for Public Justice, in some ways the CCO and the Jubilee conference) continues to gladly stand in the broad tradition of neo-Calvinist thinkers who have used Dooyeweerd's tools to reformingly engage culture.  This is meaty work, not for those with only a passing interest, but it is well written, helpful in explaining this unique Reformed philosophy, with an emphasis, as the subtitle suggests, on law and politics. The best book about H.D. and his philosophy that has yet been done and very important in these times of renewed interest in the deepest answers to our largest cultural and policy questions. Dr. Chaplin is director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, Cambridge, England.

Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy James K. A. Smith (Eerdmans) $19.00  Smith has had a prolific year, what with the already awarded Letters to a Young Calvinist, and his co-editing one of the more serious, scholarly books on the philosophy of science in a long time---Science and the Spirit: A Pentecostal Engagement with the Sciences (Indiana University Press, 2010.) Yes, Neo-Calvinist Smith is also a Pentecostal and is doing much to advance the unique contributions of a Pentecostal worldview to the academy, as the science collection indicates.  Thinking in Tongues is a new book which is just that-- a serious study of how Pentecostal insights and impulses, faith and practice, shape the very ways in which he does his philosophy.  Wow.

Thinking In Tongues--besides being deserving of an award for the wit and clarity of the title--deserves honorable mention not only because it is so pioneering, but because it is so darn interesting.  I am not averse to the Holy Spirited gift of speaking in tongues, and I swear that at times I was so thrilled with this little academic text that I felt something coming on; at least something like inexplicably deep joy.  How does being a Pentecostal scholar inform epistemology, ontology, the philosophy of language,and the rest?  Chapter by chapter, Professor Smith walks us through deep philosophical waters, noting how his charismatic worldview has shaped his technical work as a reformational philosopher.  The lead chapter, sort of a "letter to a Pentecostal philosopher" is a gem, and his insight is potent for anyone doing philosophy in these postmodern days.  If this book isn't deserving of some accolades, I don't know what it.  If you are at all interested in the radical ways faith informs scholarship, or if you are at all interested in the diversity of ways and means to explore academic philosophy, or if you are at all interested in how Pentecostals might engage the deepest questions of life, this book is for you.  Spread the word.   

BEST SERIES COMPLETED IN 2010

What a fun and important category, and there were several completed this year---such as the notably hefty and very serious four-volume set called The Theology of Lordship by John M. Frame (Presbyterian & Reformed.)  My pick for a winner is a tie, so I will honor two happily complete sets.  Two very different sorts of writing, but two that our readers will surely want to join us in celebrating.  One is an eight-book series that was introduced just last year, each book by a different author;  the other is a five-book series that started maybe more than 5 years ago, with each volume written by the same esteemed writer.  And our honorees are...drum roll, please.

Ancient Future series on Spiritual Practices  edited by Phyllis Tickle (Thomas Nelson) $12.95 each.  You may have seen our recent description (and sale price) of these interesting, ecumenical resources, each by a different contemporary author, on practices such as receiving Eucharist, praying fixed hour prayers, following the liturgical calendar, keeping sabbath, tithing, fasting, and going on pilgrimage.  I hope you read that review if you didn't as I found something commendable about each one.  The first, Finding Our Way Again, lays out the beauty, spirituality of (and necessity of) doing these sorts of things, and is a good over-view of the set, setting the tone and framing the teachings.  You can read them pretty much in any order, I'd say. The new paperback releases, by the way, have brief study guides at the end of each. 

Most readers will appreciate some volumes more than others--based on the topic or the author--but we think they are all very worthwhile, quite notable, and want to honor the publisher for bringing to us this delightful, ecumenical, and rather ambitious project.  Isn't there some spiritual practice we call showing gratitude?  Honoring others?  Yes! 

Finding Our Way Again  Brian McLaren
In Constant Prayer     Robert Benson
Sabbath                       Dan Allander
The Liturgical Year     Joan Chittister
The Sacred Meal         Nora Gallagher
Fasting                         Scott McKnight
Tithing                          Douglas LeBlanc                     
The Sacred Journey   Charles Foster



A Conversation in Spiritual Theology series  Eugene Peterson (Eerdmans)  I have found it difficult to talk about just one of these remarkable works, and think it best to promote them as an on-going, unfolding series.  In many ways, this represents Peterson's magnum opus, although I in no way want to diminish his stunning books on basic discipleship, his several books of Bible reflections on the important four-part series on "vocational holiness" for pastors. We have appreciated and esteemed his books for years.

Still, this five-volume set may be his most lasting, mature work, deep and thoughtful spiritual reflections on the theology of daily living, following Christ in down-to-Earth ways, being shaped along the way in the ways of Jesus. The one released this year, Practicing Resurrection, is a study of Ephesians, actually (and the title a reference to a splendid poem by Wendell Berry.)  These wise books deserve to be read slowly; so far, I've read two of them twice and haven't gotten to them all; I'm taking my time.  I think it best to read them in order, although not everyone does.   All five are all still available in handsome, uniform hardcovers but the first two are now available in paperback.  Rev. Peterson and his long-time associate Peter Santucii has produced study guides for each one ($6.00) which we carry and recommend.

Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology  $25.99/$16.99
Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading  $20.00/$16.00
Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers $24.00
The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways That Jesus is the Way  $22.00
Practicing Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ  $24.00

Thanks, everyone, for reading this long and elaborate list.  I am afraid I skipped a few of my favorites--what was I reading nearly a year ago?  Still, I trust you enjoy these suggestions, and hope you continue to choose your own favorites, honoring authors and publishers and booksellers who bring the good.  Thanks be to God for this great privilege of having words to read, books to hold, ideas to share.  We couldn't do what we do if it weren't for the writers and the industry who gets us the volumes.  Of course, we couldn't sell them if there weren't willing readers.  Thanks, one and all.