Gifts for the Holidays: Books, Music and the Glory of Children's Books

Readers and friends of Hearts & Minds from far and wide tell us they enjoy our annual Christmas suggestions. Not confined to serious review or thematic ruminations, I suggest books to tuck under the tree, to give to a colleague at work as a special holiday gift or--go on!--stuff to put on your own wish list. Tell your folks and sweeties: call Hearts & Minds and we'll send out just what you want. We'll even gift wrap your goodies before we send them if you need us to.

For starters, though, the obligatory anti-consumerism spiel. Perhaps ironically, rather than go on against the secularization of the materialistic gimmee-fest formerly known as Christmas, let me recommend a book. (No, Virginia, not all buying and selling and giving and getting is wrong!) Christmas Unwrapped: Consumerism, Christ and Culture edited by Richard Horsley and James Tracy (Trinity Press International, $20.00), is a serious-minded bit of cultural analysis, subversive deconstruction of the season's myths and good, solid Bible study. Few books have such a radical societal critique coupled with Scriptural exegesis! And lots of good stuff you ought to know about the history of the holiday's current manifestations.

My column here regularly encourages practices of spiritual discernment in everyday life. A Christian worldview asks, always and everywhere, "why do we do things this way and what are the assumptions embedded in our current activities?" This is a fabulous example of just how to do hard Christian thinking about our place in time; it is a book to ponder all year long.

A Few Seasonal Suggestions
The Advent of Justice: A Book of Meditations by Brian Walsh, Richard Middleton, Sylvia Keesmaat, Mark Vander Vennen (Dordt College Press, $6.95). One of our little joys here is to promote the otherwise unheralded treasure. This book, we tell folks each year, is the best Advent devotional we've ever seen. Carefully rooted in the classic prophetic texts of the Hebrew Scriptures, this month's worth of short readings has political and societal hopes that can only be called daringly eschatological. In other words, in the Advent season we pray and work for "Thy Kingdom Come," which isn't a bad summary of any Christmas book worth its salt.

This is reasonably priced, so give "Ëœem out, especially to those who may need to be challenged to go beyond the typical sentimentality which too often verges on slush. With U.S flags flying higher than usual, it is my sense that we need this prophetic orientation now more than ever.

Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Plough, $15.00). This is the find of the year! The good folks at Plough publishing (we carry all their titles) have collected a truly breathtaking array of poets, hymn writers, novelists and devotional writers in a handsome hardback. From Dostoevsky to Dillard, Luci Shaw to Thomas Merton, this is deep and wide and radical as orthodoxy. This is a holiday gift you can be proud to share with nearly any thoughtful seeker.

The Innkeeper by John Piper (Crossway, $9.99). There are numerous small-sized stories and novellas in well-crafted hardcovers this time of year. Most are fine, a few quite touching. None, really, are written by serious theologians, though, and some verge on the sentimental and shallow.

Enter John Piper. Few working pastors are as driven by serious, biblical doctrines, few are so passionate about either God's sovereignty or the radical cost of discipleship. While all of his many books (for instance, The Pleasures of God, which I intend to review here in upcoming months) are worth wading through, this little Christmas fable tells the story of God's extravagant love and the powerful implications of the incarnation. A highly recommended story from a modern-day Jonathan Edwards.

Children's Books
Customers have often complimented us on the children's books we stock which capture a sensibility which is both artistic and thoughtful. Indeed, some of our favorite items are picture books (which are often given to adults as well as their children!). Call us if you ever want to chat about such things; we can even suggest books about children's books. Ahh, some of these are truly some of the best writing around!

For Christmas giving, allow us to mention just a few:

The Shine Man: A Christmas Story by Mary Quattlebaum (Eerdmans, $17.00). A large-sized picture book beautifully illustrated by Tim Ladwig, an esteemed children's book artist, about the true meaning of giving, even when there isn't much to give. This story of a depression-era shoe-shine man will touch your heart and, if I may suggest, warm your soul.

The Quiltmakers Gift by Jeff Brumeau, illustrated by Gail DeMarcken (Scholastic, $17.95). This has to be the most colorful and visually stunning children's book in years! A wondrous fable about a king learning to help the poor, divesting of his wealth all with the help of a old woman quilt maker. For ages 6-10, this is one of the best!

Gleam and Glow by Eve Bunting (Harcourt, $16.00). Bunting has done socially conscious children's work for years, and has won numerous awards and commendations. Her latest is a touching true story set in Bosnia during the war there, about a refugee family and the fish they left behind. A charming and powerful lesson of coming home and hope, with luminous illustrations.

Swallowing the Golden Stone: Stories and Essays by Walter Wangerin, Jr. (Augsburg, $16.99). Wangerin is well-loved as a storyteller, Bible teacher, theologian and fantasy writer. Here he weaves his magic with a collection of parables and stories, with fascinating essays after each, explaining why the story form is important and how one might understand that particular fable. Certainly anyone who loves a good yarn will love the stories--and, of course, anyone who loves Tolkien or Potter--and most adults will greatly appreciate the little bit of lit crit he does between the stories. Fiction and nonfiction in the same handsome kids' book. Cool.

For non-preschool kids, our own favorite reads this year have actually come in the form of audio tapes: we can hardly express how delightful these books-on-tape are. If you order them from us and don't like them, I'd give you your money back! That's how sure I am that these are true blessings.

The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson. This is an older story, written by the award winning Presbyterian writer known best for Bridge to Teribethia and numerous other esteemed children's writings. This story tells of the troubled foster kid (Gilladrial, from Tolkien) and her learning to be loved by the eccentric Bible-reading foster mom and her cohorts: the blind black man who reads poetry and the slow and quiet fellow foster boy. The cantankerous hearts and crass language of Gilly takes some getting used to, but this is truly one of the most redemptive stories I've ever read. Hearing it on tape is spectacular, here read in multiple accents by a powerful reader. (Because of the sadnesses and cussin', most parents would want to wait till their elementary kids are a bit older. Our third grader was deeply touched, but it is best suited for older elementary and up.)

Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo, performed by Cherry Jones (Listening Library, $18.00). Another exceptionally well-read audio--you'll just love these accents!--this book won a prestigious Newberry award a year ago. A lovely little country girl, India Opal, in this small rural town brings home a dog (named after the grocery store she found him in) and gets to keep him. Her preacher father and an assorted cast of colorful southern characters conspire to create a story of love, forgiveness, wonder, loss and grace. My, my...

If you've got, or even know, kids, giving (or getting) books about parenting can never hurt. There are so, so many good ones to choose from, and we have been particularly blessed by reading a variety of them. Although I've mentioned them before in these pages, here are the best of recent years:

Parenting Without Perfection: Creating Disciples in a Toxic World by John Seel (NavPress, $13.00). Not at all a "how-to," this is a broader vision of the calling of parenting, a Kingdom vision for culturally relevant, distinctively Christian parenting in an obviously broken world. Especially for those with older youth, this one is essential.

Say Goodbye to Whining, Complaining and Bad Attitudes...in You and Your Kids by Scott Turansky & Joanne M. Miller (Waterbrook, $12.99). Beth and I are in an adult class in our church using this, and it has been very much appreciated by all. (Even before we read this, we trusted this work as Joanne's husband is an InterVarsity worker and bookseller who we respect immensely; plus, we've met their kids!) Again, this goes a bit deeper--although with quite practical suggestions along the way--trying to develop and nurture a family style based less on obedience and more on honor. Very impressive, easy to read, lots of fun and quite usable.

The Mystery of Children by Mike Mason (Waterbook, $12.95). Most of our best customers know we find Mason's work to be some of the best writing coming out these days. (His book The Mystery of Marriage is regularly recommended for its writing and depth; his Practicing the Presence of People: How We Learn to Love is simple and profound; his commentary on Job exceptional.) This gentle book reminds all of us to learn from children, to care for others as for Christ, and to never take our young ones for granted. If this doesn't speak volumes to you, call your heart doctor right away as there might be something seriously wrong.

Parent Trek: Nurturing Creativity and Care in Our Children edited by Jeanne Zimmerly Jantzi (Herald Press, $11.99). Created by a highly motivated team of former MCC mission workers, this is a collection of devotionals/stories/reflections/suggestions for raising children in new ways--to resist individualism and consumerism, to cherish the earth and the poor, to envision themselves as God's alternative community, to play in ways which are creative and honorable. Presenting ways to be proactive with problem areas such as materialism, TV, shopping, schoolwork, parties, gender, this book raises a all the right questions for those struggling to raise their children in a way different than the dominant culture. Refreshing and quite unique.

This Just In
Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2 by Steve Stockman (Relevant Books, $13.99). This is the one we've been waiting for. An Irish Presbyterian (who maintains a cool U2 website) who has his own BBC radio show has been using the work of the band in his sermons and writings for 20 years. Explores the questions and controversy surrounding the deep-rooted religious themes of U2. Not only is this a great, great read, the publishing house is a brand new venture, tied in to the forthcoming "relevant" magazine which promises to be quite cool. Their masthead will read "God. Life. Progressive Culture."

He Shines In All That's Fair: Culture and Common Grace by Richard Mouw (Eerdmans, $14.00). If this were a usual CCO Ministry Exchange column, I'd most likely have this as my main book review. Mouw is just about the best Dutch Calvinist out there--seriously Reformed yet ecumenical, biblically-solid yet devotional, intentionally influenced by Abraham Kuyper and the movement in our time to recover his wide-as-life vision of a truly Christian worldview. Citing a line from a hymn as his book title, as he often does, Mouw explains the Reformed notion that God's grace can be seen even amongst those who may not know Christ in a saving way; since God cares about, say, a good Cal Ripken homer or a swingin' Louis Armstrong tune, a happy, sexy marriage or a secular nation-state that crafts just laws, shouldn't we? But does such cultural activity honor God if it is not finally Christ-honoring? This matter which seems taken for granted among many of us--that the doctrine of God creating the world good means God cares about all sorts of stuff--gets a bit more complex under Mouw's careful exposition. Lest our reformational worldview get simplistic and shallow, get this book, struggle with its ponderous parts, and praise God for evangelical leaders of this caliber. Highly recommended!

The Dangerous Duty of Delight by John Piper (Multnomah, $9.99). I've mentioned Piper as a modern-day incarnation of America's most famous scholar/preacher, the Puritan-influenced Jonathan Edwards. Like Edwards, Piper is passionate about God's glory, tells us to find deep pleasure in God, to think serious thoughts about God and to feel God's joy in radical obedience to His sovereign ways. Well here it is: a summary of Piper's earth-shaking discovery of "Christian hedonism" in an attractive, Jabez-sized handbook. This is a great, great way to whet your appetite for Piper's deeper work (which J.I. Packer called "God-intoxicated"). Hold on to your hat, open up your heart. I dare you.

An Instrument of Your Peace: A Tribute to the Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi by Helen Steiner Rice, paintings by John Ruthven (Baker, $16.99). Rice was an enormously popular religious poet 50 years ago, often maligned for being too schmaltzy, but, frankly, better than most realize. This illuminated book, like the manuscripts of Saint Francis' time, carries a wonder in its sheer beauty (the artist is himself a world-renowned painter of birds). Very brief reflection questions follow each poem, allowing its message to work its way into the reader's heart. Since we are in a time of war, these simple rhymes may be a consolation and hope to anyone, but especially to those older folks who may know her numerous books. Francis' conversion came, of course, during a bloody holy war against the Muslims; may this book--and the lovely CD that comes with it, sung by the Monks of Weston Priory--lead many to be peacemakers.

Madeleine L'Engle: Herself compiled by Carole Chase (Shaw, $16.99). This lovely new hardcover is a collection of writings on Madeleine's own sense of calling as a writer. Short pieces, mostly excerpted from elsewhere, this is the first in a series called "The Writer's Palette" from the newly-restored Shaw publishing venture. Hoorraaay!

Bright Evening Star by Madeleine L'Engle (Shaw, $ 16.99). This was out previously but has been reissued in a great edition by Shaw. Reflections on the incarnation make this suitable for Christmas, but certainly important and lovely reading anytime.

A Sabbath Life: One Woman's Search for Wholeness by Kathleen Hirsch (North Point Press, $24.00). Speaking of splendid writing, North Point Press has made its name as a significant outlet for serious and good-hearted writers (for instance, Wendell Berry, whose recent novel, by the way, Jayber Crow, is now out in paperback). North Point found this fine memoir of a woman in her 40s longing for a deeper, less hectic life, her awakening and change. Hirsch wonders how being a woman affects her sense of her unique contribution, her nameless "something more." Fine writing on the quest for meaning.

Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church by Philip Yancey (Doubleday, $21.95). Not only is this Yancey's newest, it is a remarkable collection of what almost seems like magazine articles (because they were!). Here, he writes marvelously about those sorts of incredible people who have been impacted by Christ and thereby give him hope that not all who name the name of Christ are narrow-minded bigots. Yep, with him writing about everyone from Annie Dillard to Leo Tolstoy, Fred Buechner to G.K. Chesteron, Martin Luther King to Henri Nouwen, this is perhaps one of the best arguments for the Christian faith to come out in years! Give this to anyone who needs convinced that there are serious, thoughtful and creative folks who are Christians, or for those who feel lonely in their open-minded search and appreciation for mystery and wonder. As one reviewer (Peter Gomes, Chaplain at Harvard) has put it, "This book is a godsend for people who are religious but not churchmen, for those who need spiritual companionship along the way of their journey. Yancey's fellow travelers here make good company for all hurting, hopeful and thoughtful people."

King Came Preaching: The Pulpit Power of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Dr. Mervyn Warren (IVP, $19.99). While this might be most helpful to any preachers on your holiday gift list, this is truly a historic book. This aptly describes not only King's amazing theological basis for his social activism, but his preaching work. Included in this extraordinary volume are the full texts of four of King's sermons never before in print! Respected pulpiteer, Dr. Gardner Taylor, wrote the forward, assuring that this to be a lasting and important work.

Finding God in the Lord of the Rings by Kurt Bruner & Jim Ware (Tyndale, $12.99). This little hardback could have fallen into two bad categories: a cheesy and shallow evangelistic tract or an overly academic treatise that most fans wouldn't care about. Happily, this is a serious book, accessible and full of insight. Since The Lord of the Rings has been named as one of the most popular books of the twentieth century, and now that the movie is the talk of the town, we might as well walk through that window of opportunity with this book in hand. These authors love Tolkien, who loved God. This is a useful little book--written in a nearly devotional style--that will be a blessing to many, I am sure.

As I wander around my shop, late at night, looking at the blessings of books to which we here in our culture have access, I am amazed at how many choices there are. But what to select? And, I hope you know, I take my role as reviewer here pretty seriously--I want readers and customers (and especially CCO campus ministry staff for whom I first write these reflections) to be guided into some of the more helpful books available. Sadly, the secularized big box superstores are all seeming quite alike these days with their Oprah bestsellers and same ol' New York Times highbrow current affairs and cookbooks and the latest self-help guru all while too many Christian bookstores hardly have any books at all! (Have you noticed that, too?) In fact, some of the larger inspirational chains are now not even calling their themselves "bookstores," but "Christian stores," freeing them from the bondage of having to stock those bound things we call books. Some who are passionate about books, though, seem stuck in another century, still selling nothing but old theology texts.

To remind you of the titles we feel strongly about, and to promote a mix of new titles, informed by old truths, I think that, rather than create more random lists, I might say this: some of the best books you could give this holiday season are the ones I've reviewed here over the past year. Why not take a few minutes and flash back to our previous reviews--the new Os Guinness, for instance, or Reading the Mountains of Home or, say,the breath-taking writing of Kathryn Finneran's memoir, The Tender Land or the solid biblical scholarship of NT Wright? These reviews mean a lot to us here at Hearts & Minds, and if you are a newcomer to our monthly reviews, checking out the past year's worth might be fruitful. I assure you that you will find interesting titles, surprising recommendations and important works. I would be sad if folks didn't know just how good the publishing world is. (Click here to find back issues of the Ministry Exchange and the articles of the past year.)

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It frustrates me (and maybe you) that we don't talk much about music in these monthly columns. We love it when folks call--we'll tell you about the latest in CCM, our favorite new acoustic singer-songwriter, the coolest jazz we're playing in the store. From hardcore to hardly heard of, we love to chat about the tunes.

So, here is my very limited gift suggestion list, mostly just what is in my CD player here of late. I stand behind each of them, toes tapping and sometimes tears flowing freely. This is good, good stuff, almost as important as the books!

Love and Theft, Bob Dylan (Columbia)
This is the most authentically-sounding Dylan album in years! Sounding real old and yet rocking in the new world, this is a classic! A few songs are Texas swing, another I swear sounds like Louie Armstrong. Expect the cryptic lyrics that somehow speak truth; I don't really know what he means when he mournfully sings "I stayed in Mississippi a little too long" but, you know, I know I must have, too. And you gotta love a line about the sheriff wanting to bring in "Charles Darwin, dead or alive."

Deeper, Delirious? (Chordant)
Just when you thought you couldn't take another rockin' praise album or another version of "I Could Sing of Your Love Forever," these Brits, the godfathers of GenX passionate worship, have put together the essential greatest hits, complete with several new versions, remixes and live cuts. In the new editions, the voices are sweeter, the guitars louder, the choir even more groovy. (Yep, one has a big fat choir.) And the female background singer! Where'd she come from?? Few praise discs sing about "dancing against injustice" (or sound as much like U2 when they do it). The new take on "Revival Town" just knocked me down.

Enter the Worship Circle, Vol. 2 100 Portraits & Waterdeep (Grassroots)
The first low-tech, tribal and very, very hip worldbeat worship album was a breath of fresh air, and this new collaboration is artsy and coffeehouse cool. Get out the tie dye and raise those hands!

Creation Dream: The Music of Bruce Cockburn Various (True North)
A very authentic jazz tribute recording of Bruce Cockburn covers. (Bruce even graces the album playing guitar on a few cuts.) Be warned, these are not elevator music rip offs, or even gentle Windham Hill improvisations. This is full throttle serious jazz, done by an extra cool gang of top notch players who love Cockburn. A must for serious Cockburn fanatics or the intense jazz collector. Everybody else, skip it.

One World: The Music of Bob Marley Bob Marley (Columbia)
In these days of needing Christian action for peace and justice, we take our inspiration anywhere we can. Although I truly love much contemporary Christian music--the new Steve Curtis Chapman is good, as is the new Jennifer Knapp, and my son swears by the new Five Iron Frenzy (and everybody knows about POD and Creed)--few artists sing about social justice, love and peace the way Marley used to. Granted, his rasta worldview is not the same as orthodox Christian faith, but I still am moved by his struggle for social change and his sweet love for his wife.

Summershine Vigilantes of Love (Compass)
This is hands-down my favorite album of the year (but why did he change the line "I'm so confused by Calvinism" in this new version?). Last year's Audible Sigh is on my short list of all time favorites (there: I've said it. Folks have long pressed me for my favorite of theirs) but this new Beatle-esque disc is a strong follow up. Man, when he sings the phrase "adagio for strings," it just slays me with hope.

Skiffle Bop Brooks Williams
The newest BW. Dead Sea Cafe, the greatest hits collection from his (out-of-print) early period, is very hard to beat. (You may recall my mentioning the song from that collection, Seven Sisters, in my September book review.) This new, cool, slightly jazzy disc showcases Brooks' phenomenal guitar work and seems somehow fun and intimate. Buy this guy's stuff and support one of the finest singer-songwriters on the circuit. Better yet, book him at your campus or church!

Solstice Various Windham Hill Artists
I am a sucker for almost all of those touching and well-crafted mellow instrumental improvs which these guys release every holiday season. Done by some of today's finest neo-folk/new age instrumentalists, the last few have been a bit commercial, too predictable, nice, but not stunning like the first few. This new one is recorded with super high-end fidelity for audiophiles and seems to recapture the meandering, acoustic, neoclassical aesthetic of the early releases. Very, very nice.

Sketches of My Culture Cornel West
Yes, you read that right. The brilliant Afro-American Harvard scholar (we consider his Race Matters an essential text) has done a rap album! Perhaps better described as spoken word over a mix of hip hop, jazz and blues. The only rapper in a three piece suit.

So It Goes Rollyn Zoubek (Shenandoah Sings)
Produced by Brooks Williams with his slide guitar all over, Rollyn is a wonderful young female singer-songwriter. Her slightly slower cover of Brooks' T.S. Eliot inspired "Wanderer's Song" makes this especially dear to me, but it is her rendition of the old hymn "Be Still My Soul" that makes this a disc you've got to get.

All That You Can't Leave Behind U2 (Island)
Read the various reviews, talk to anyone who cares about rock music, get on the web. Study and reflect on this--it is one of the best recordings in the history of the genre, and that it was done by Christians should take us to our knees. If you are one of the few who don't own it yet, please know you can get it here. We've stocked U2 since the day we opened 20 years ago, so we can say "we told you so."