Best Books of the Year 2007 part 2


Welcome back.  I’ve got so many more books to talk about, really, really fine titles, good authors, intriguing and enjoyable (and, sometimes, crazy-making) writing.  I could tell you all about even more great reads, but these are the ones that I believe deserve some kind of distinction, ought to be honored. It seems that I’m naming an unusually odd listing—-conservative theology and ribald fiction;  traditional spirituality and radical exegesis.  I hope they interest you;  further, I truly hope they sell.  At least, if word gets out, they will know of their listing, here, at the annual Hearts & Minds Best Books of the Year awards.  Thanks for following along.  As we said last time, awards and acclamation means little if the books aren’t bought and read and discussed.  We appreciate your support for good books, interesting reading, theological literature, and Christian perspectives.

AND tune in soon for PART THREE, some favorite children’s books, fiction and other notables from 2007. 


Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior Steven Garber (IVP) $16   If you have read these columns for a while, you know we have often said that Steve is one of my best friends, and one of the most significant works we have sold in our 25 years of book-selling.  Please check out my old reviews if you haven’t, and buy this if you don’t own it.  The new edition has an updated cover (yay) and a very, very well-written new forward and a fascinating afterward.  I implore you to believe me: it is worth the price of the new book for these two great essays that frame the largest question of Fabric: what is the responsibility of knowing?  How does a Christian worldview give rise to a way of life, and how, in communities of conversations, can we live out our faith to make a difference in a fallen world? For the record, I will say that I am mentioned in this book—it includes bunches of interviews, testimonials, stories and examples of those whose faith is long-lasting and culturally influential, in ways large and small—but that has no bearing on our giving it the award.  It really is extraordinary, a book to read and re-read.  This new edition is a cause to celebrate.  If you don’t know Steve’s good writing style, or the seriousness of his work, I urge you to read a few of his pieces at his Washington Institute site. 


The Good Works Reader  Thomas C. Oden (Eerdmans) $25  This is the second in a series called the Classic Christian Readers.  Here, patristic scholar Oden draws together the best stuff he could find on what the earliest Christian believers said and wrote about “good works.”  It is remarkable that the leaders of the early church wrote so very much about visiting the sick, about standing up for the poor, against abortion and the death penalty, about our duties to love our neighbors, to be concerned about the needy.  An earlier volume was called The Justification Reader and was a major contribution to our conversations about justification, the doctrine of the cross, atonement theories and such; like the new one, Oden lists hundreds of examples of the kinds of things said among the first centuries of Christian thinkers about that topic.  Here, he offers what our earlier leaders said about the relationship of faith and works, our call to good works, and the details of what kinds of good works they most commended.  With endorsements from the likes of Charles Colson, Dallas Willard and Richard John Neuhaus, you can see that it is being taken seriously by socially-concerned folk with serious theological commitments.  I trust those of every faith tradition will appreciate this compendium.  Good work, Dr. O!


The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright John Piper (Crossway) $17.99 I was going to call this the “olive branch award” but that wasn’t quite right;  almost.  Piper, here, as you may guess, goes after Wright’s view of justification, atonement, imputation of righteousness, this particular sub-section of the broader controversy that goes under the rubric of “The New Perspective on Paul.”  This could have been mean and ugly and it is not.  It could have been a slam-job, taking the most confused lines of Wright’s using them out of context to “prove” he is a heretic.  Piper will have none of this, and an early draft of the book was sent to Wright for his feedback.  He commends Wright often, especially for his Jesus studies and his Bible-based call to wholistic social concern.  Few of Wright’s critics, it seems to me, appreciate him as much as John tends to.  Still, Piper, ever the scholar and pastor, logical and passionate, reads portions of Wright line by line by line, interspersing tidbits of his personal conversations with Wright, sermonettes about why his conviction (that Wright gets it wrong) are so sure and why he thinks they are so urgent.  I suppose I appreciated this as much as I did as I was glad it was fair-minded and passionate.  I am not sure this matters as much as Piper says it does, and I am not sure he is correct, although his exegesis seems impeccable.  I admit to having to re-read a couple of pages that bogged down a bit in tedious detail.  The rave endorsements from scholars like D.A. Carson, Richard Gaffin, Thomas Schreiner and Andreas Kostenberger illustrates, not surprisingly, who lines up to affirm Pipers methodical treatment, and they all agree it is urgent, challenging and courteous.  Fine-tuned theological debate like this can be helpful to struggle through, even for us lay folk, and that deserves an award!
Congratulations to Piper for another passionate call to Christ-honoring focus on the goodness of the gospel; and kudos to him for his fair and careful tone.


The Hermeneutics of Doctrine Anthony C. Thiselton (Eerdmans) $46  Wow, what a weighty tome.  And what an amazing volume.  As N.T. Wright puts it, “all the adjectives have already been used up in praise of Tony Thiselton’s previous volumes: magisterial, comprehensive, mind-blowing, worldview-changing, challenging yet comprehensible, massively learned and massively relevant, deeply faithful to the Christian tradition yet deeply refreshing in seeing everything from new angles”¦This new book is vintage Thiselton!”  Rowan Williams insists that it is “by any standard a major work, deeply necessary in a climate where confusion and indifference about doctrine too often prevail.”  Thiselton is steeped in, and known for, work on hermeneutical theory; here, in over 600 pages, he relates that to the formation of doctrine.  Give this guy an award or two!


Empire: The Christian Tradition: New Readings of Classical Theologians
edited by Kwok Pui-lan, Don H. Compier, and Joerg Rieger (Fortress) $32   This price is a bargain for the 550 page big-sized paperback.  Empire is a provoking, fascinating, generative, distinguished exploration of how over 30 classic theological writers can be re-configured and re-understood in ways that are consonant with recent understandings of the dangers of Empire, globalized principalities and powers, and the critique of dominion ideologies that oppress.  Our new era demands, the authors suggest, post-colonial theories,
and here global theologians analyze how historic scholars either did or didn’t deal with their own contexts of empire.  Social concerns such as war, social domination, displacement and diaspora swirled around writers as diverse as Saint Paul to Augustine, from Julian of Norwich to Jonathan Edwards.  Classics figures are here (Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Barth) and so are Bartolome de Las Casas and Frederick Douglas and some with whom you may not be familiar.  This is a large and valuable compilation.


The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World  edited by John Piper/Justin Taylor (Crossway) $14.99
Emergent Manifesto of Hope  edited by Dough Pagitt & Tony Jones (Baker) $19.99  These two great book deserve much more attention than I can give them here, but they both are indicative of major trends within evangelicalism, and, of course, evangelicalism plays the largest role within American Christianity.  So these are important, more so, I predict, that you may think.  The first, The Supremacy of Christ, is a collection of pieces from a gathering that well illustrates the tradition of conservative, thoughtful, culturally engaged, Calvinist and neo-Puritan thinking.  These are sharp folks, engaging writers, with compelling arguments, passionate love for God, tireless commitment to the gospel of grace, and a helpfully rigorous, non-partisan social vision.  I am drawn to their work, and read as many of their books as I can, even if I worry that they are a bit too pre-occupied with theology, as such, and a bit overly skeptical about the good faith of others who are outside their camp.  These chapters include good talks by David Wells, Voddie Baucham, D.A. Carson, Tim Keller, Mark Driscoll and has a nice dialogue section with them all at the end.  I do not think they give adequate attention to either the best arguments for the truthfulness of the postmodern view (as articulated, say, by Crystal Downing, Jamie Smith, Brian Walsh) nor the realities of the hot-wired, image-driven milieu explored playfully by the likes of Len Sweet.  (In fact, some of the chapters are just good sermons, exegetically mature and edifying, but their cultural critique is odd; one author starts with an overstatement of the role of sentimental 60’s pop song, an almost embarrassing bit of nearly irrelevant cultural discernment.)  Still, this is a great read, and an important example of the new kinds of newly Reformed thinkers that are making a mark.  I like the design of the book, too.  Kudos to Crossway, the preeminent publisher of this particular kind of conservative evangelical commitment to historic, Biblical orthodoxy, proclaimed with urgent passion.  .

The Emergent Manifesto book is an even more sizable, thoughtful, and important book, again, an indication of where many younger evangelical leaders are heading.  One need not be a part of the “emergent village” to join this conversation, and these wide-ranging and interesting chapters are well-worth discussing.  For years, now, Doug and others have been asked to express concisely what they do and do not believe, and while that question, itself, is a bit problematic (at least when it is asked in a simplistic or bombastic way), here a whole gang of emergent folks weigh in.  Ryan Bolger (whose book, The Emerging Church is the standard introduction) is here, as are the usual suspects, McLaren, Sally Morgenthaler, Pagitt, Dan Kimball, Tim Keel, Mark Scandrette, et al.  There are voices of multi-culturalism (the great First Nation’s author, Randy Woodly), social justice (Rondolpho Carrasco), mainline folks (Karen Sloan, Chris Erdman, Adam Walker Cleaveland—whose chapter “Presbymergent” is the “Story of One Mainliner’s Quest  to Be A Loyal Radical” is great and stands nicely next to a Catholic contribtuion.)  We’ve got some heavy stuff (Dwight Friesen and Samir Selmanovic; McLaren on post-colonial thinking) and some light-hearted ones, too (how about a chapter called “Emergent Kissing: Authenticity and Integrity in Sexuality”?)  This book is a tremendous read, a great collection, even if it mires down a few times in earnest coolness.  Clever writing, though, even if a bit too hip, is fun.  Read it along with the above title, and you tell me which captures your imagination, seems consistent with a Biblical worldview, fires your heart and mind?  Fascinating stuff, important, vital. 


(Re)Thinking Worldview: Learning to Think, Live, and Speak in This World J. Mark Bertrand (Crossway) $16.99  Hooo-ray, this is one great book.  You know that the concept of worldview, and  worldviewish cultural discernment is a foundational part of our work here at the bookstore;  we love to help Christian folks “connect the dots” between the way they see, the way they evaluate our world, how they embrace their callings in these days.  This book not only explains worldviews in refreshing and smart ways, but it is deeply Biblical, thoughtfully written, and very practical.  We reviewed it when it first came out over at the blog and we remain convinced it is a wonderful and important book by a very clever fellow.  As Davey Naugle writes, “Bertrand’s book is a rich gift to serious citizens of the Kingdom of God.”  Maybe I should (re)think the name of this award to convince you to take it seriously.  This is a great, great book.


Starting From Scratch: Memoirs of a Wandering Cook  Patty Kirk (Nelson) $22.99  A year a go we raved about Patty Kirk’s lovely and smart paperback  memoir Confession of a Amateur Believer.  Here, she gets on the foody train and tells her story in light of her relationship with food, eating, cooking, the physical and emotional and political and spiritual dimensions.  It is especially poignant when she tells of craving familiar foods while in foreign lands, fondly remembering family dishes for which the recipe has been lost.

This is, as the back cover says, “the story of a rich and passionate life of longing told in culinary terms.”  Wonderfully written, surprising, even.  I’ll admit, though, that we haven’t tried any of her recipes.  They are in there, making this a bonus buy.  Bon Appetite!


Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion Sarah Miles (Ballentine) $24.95

Well.  I will soon post a longer review of this amazing book.  Because of its controversial nature, I will have to draw out a careful argument, explaining in some detail my appreciation, my enjoyment, my jaw-dropping wonderment about this truly extraordinary memoir.  This year I’ve said to mainline denominational groups that it “makes Anne Lamott look like Barry Manilow” by which I meant that her writing was even more feisty, colorful, vulgar, funny.  And that her faith journey—from radical Marxist activist, lesbian, foody and spiritual skeptic, who finds a relationship with Jesus at a Eucharistic service at which she communed for the first time ever—is, like Lamott’s, or Nora Gallagher’s,  sincere, fabulous, fascinating, earnest, vibrant, and yet not exactly evangelical.  (When Publisher’s Weekly said it was “grittier than many religious memoirs, they were not kidding.)  Still, her embrace of the mystery of Christ, her involvement in the Body of Christ, and her passionate efforts to serve the poor in the high-brow ecumenical Episcopalian parish in w
hich she was converted, is one of the most touching, riveting, and thought-provoking stories I have ever read.  There only a few memoirs that I would say match this for me, and it has surely been one of my favorite books of the year.  I dare you, no matter your views on communion, your views on homosexuality, your understanding of how conversion happens, your interest or disinterest in food pantry work and local poverty, I dare you to read this book and not be deeply touched.  It is a cliché to say, but it is true: I laughed and I cried.  I was moved to wonder and to prayer.  And I’m still perplexed by it all.  She is theologically peculiar, spiritually real, if new to faith,  politically radical and very much in love with God in Christ.  And a great writer!  What a book!


Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics  Rebecca Solnit (University of California Press) $24.95  I became a fan as I read–studied is more like it–an earlier book of hers as she is considered one of the most literate and thoughtful of our environmental writers; it reflected on the deepest meaning of getting lost, called Wanderlust. She won the coveted National Book Critics Circle Award for River of Shadows.  In 2003 she won the very prestigious Lannan Literary Award.  So my lefty literary types should be proud of us, a Christian bookstore, stocking this stuff.  I have to tell ya, though, that, try as I might, some of these essays eluded me when I tried to skim them.  She’s deep, profound, metaphorical, and worthy of your fullest attention.  Here, she tells of passionate protests against abuse of land, writing about toxic deserts and suburban badlands of the new West.  Adam Hochschild (of Bury the Chains, a Hearts & Minds fav) says that Solnit, “like some of the places she writes about here, is a national treasure.”  It is said she illustrates in her memoiristic, journalistic writing “brilliant and all too rare interweaving of political acumen and passionate prose.”  I was excited in one review to hear it said that “these are neither love songs nor dirges: imagine the intellectual acuity of Susan Sontag alloyed with the holy roar of Walt Whitman.”  She at least deserves an award for the best blurbs.  I think I want to honor this for its tough, deep meanderings into the passions we have for landscape and place, and the regions of the heart that matter most.  Even the book is weighty, its gravitas known as you hold it. 


Water From a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries Gerald Sittser  (IVP) $22  A lot of books came out this year on spirituality, contemplative prayer, lectio divino, some lovely memoirs about the inner journey, and introductions to the deeper life.  This splendid book moves from the witness of first century AD to the risks of contemporary missionaries.  With a very helpful introduction by Eugene Peterson, and endorsements from Mark Noll, Lauren Winner and Dallas Willard, this well-told history is one of the best books of its kinds I’ve seen.  Very accessible, interesting and, finally, enriching, covering in helpful ways numerous themes illustrated by numerous saints and leaders and movements.  Sittser is the beloved author of the stunningly good A Grief Disguised (the best book on suffering I’ve ever read), a book on the will of God as a way of life, and a recent, good paperback book on unanswered prayer.  Buy anything he writes!  And this, a prayerfully bestowed Hearts & Minds award-winner!


Joyful Exiles: Life in Christ on the Dangerous Edge of Things James Houston (IVP) $17   Okay, I was going to name this something like the best book that is really hard to explain, or the hardest book to sell on personal growth that really thoughtful Christians ought to read, or “The Best Book James Houston Wrote” award, the one we’ve been waiting for from him.  Hard to explain, this mysterious, deeply pious, learned, Godly gentleman: he founded the C.S. Lewis Institute in DC years ago, and was professor of spiritual theology at Regent in BC.  (Eugene Peterson took his place there upon his retirement.)  Anyone who has heard him speak knows him as a kindly, old-school scholar, who can speak as fluently about the pre-Socratic Greeks as the monks of the Middle Ages; he swerves effortlessly between the Greco-Roman rhetorical influences on Paul, say, and the Gnostic dangers found in medieval monasticism.  He seems to bring all his learning into fine-tuned pastoral wisdom, and this mentoring influence has struck many as the kind of teaching we so desperately need: evangelical, historically-rooted, doctrinally sound, widely-applied and counter-cultural intuitions about the ways and means of following the triune God.  In many ways, this is a gleaning from all his many books, edited generously so that his dense writing is made readable for anyone willing to work through it, and learn.  A profound offering, worthy of the highest commendation. By the way, about six of his previous books have been re-issued in uniform, very handsome, paperback editions.  I will be doing a blog post on them all—-this is a great sign, good, meaty writing by a deep and educated man, offered up to help you and me grow in our daily discipleship, in the world as it really is.  Nice!


The Heidelberg Catechism: A New Translation for the 21st Century  Translated and introduction essay by Lee C. Barrett  (Pilgrim Press) $8.50  You can fit this little guy in your pocket, but it is not small in importance or depth; here, Barrett offers a new translation of the classic 16th century Heidelberg Catechism. Dr. Barrett explains the nuances of which text he used, and why, and he makes a convincing case that this is the best translation yet done.  Besides being accurate and relevant, it is just nice to see this chestnut published anew.  Barrett’s very solid introduction explains why catechisms are important, why doctrine matters, and, in generally Reformed language befitting his work at a UCC seminary, he offers this as a guideline—“recovering our bearings”— for future theological exploration.  Mostly, though, he suggests its relevance for church folk, new members, confirmands and persons seeking deeper discipleship.  I’m not sure how to exclaim our joy in this little volume other than to remind you of the Catechism’ main themes: Guilt, Grace, Gratitude.


Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear Scott Bader-Saye (Brazos) $17.99  Most of the books in this series are deeper than most book that might be considered “basic Christian living.”  They engage in theological reflection of common life, studious evaluations of culture and contemporary ideologies, and they invite us to sustained, ordinary living in ways that are consistent with radical Christian conviction.  They are all important and good, but a few are truly great.  Here, Bader-Saye invites us to think through our fears (especially in a world of terrorism alerts, airport security, and school shootings.)  Through helpful use of movie scenes and popular novels, and serious Bible study, Scott helps us all move towards a life of love, learning to embody the hospitality of Christ, and engage in peacemaking ministries.   Good discussion questions, too, making this an ideal
tool for study groups.


Countdown to Sunday: A Daily Guide for Those Who Dare to Preach Chris Erdman (Brazos) $14.99
The Word Militant: Preaching a Decentering Word Walter Brueggemann (Fortress) $35   I know, I’m a geek.  I’m not a preacher, but I enjoy reading books about the proclamation of the Word.  Every year for our State Pastor’s Conference here in Pennsylvania, I suggest one book on preaching to the gathering, and this year, Countdown to Sunday was my choice.  Here, Erdman offers an ingenious journal—day-by-day as he leads up to Sunday, noting what he does each day (as his schedule permits, which it usually doesn’t of course.)  Along the way, readers are inspired to care about the Biblical text, alert to new ways to study, and excited to see how this author, at least, struggles to be honest before the text, and discern how to helpfully proclaim it to his community of faith. Easy to read, but obviously not light-weight. Very, very nicely done, and therefore my pick for the best homiletics book of the year.

The other homiletics text that deserves a very special award is The Word Militant.  The cover annoys me a bit, and the price is offensive.  Still, the many books written by this important scholar are among my best friends, and I come back to his sermons again and again. He has written some other gems about preaching that are beloved and often-cited (like Finally Comes the Poet) and he reminds us of hard truths, offers big comfort, calls us to radical discipleship, and teaches us how to preach the Word with imagination and punch.  It is amazing how widely-read Walt is, and how interdisciplinary (and inter-denominational) he is.  Yet, his passion is the Word, with all it’s wildness.  The forward by Will Willimon itself is inspiring; I’ve re-read it several times, too.  Not just for preachers or teachers. I’d say.  No matter who reads it, it truly deserves our commendation.


UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christiantiy”¦And Why It Matters  David Kinnaman & Gabe Lyons (Baker) $17.99  I’d give an award to this nifty book even if I hadn’t been enthralled with it;  The related Fermi Project and it’s amazing website (and it’s Q conferences) reminds us well of the point of this book.  The research shows, now, in the most extensive data yet gathered, that young adults think Christianity is pretty lame (or, worse, hostile, uncreative, hypocritical, judgmental, politically rigid, etc.) This groundbreaking research into the perceptions of 16 to 29 year olds makes a very, very compelling case that we have a serious image problem.  Yet, the real strength of this book is that a forward-looking, creative and gracious lifestyle of faith can turn around these hostile perceptions.  Christian leaders of all sorts—Brian McLaren and John Stottt, Andy Crouch and Jonalyn Fincher, Gary Haugen and Jim Wallis, for instance—all offer testimonials of their cultural engagement that shows how to reverse these negative notions of bad faith.  Let’s hope that many read this book, take the stats to heart, and get inspired to turn this thing around.  This is sociology for a transformed life, data for the Kingdom.  Not geeky at all. UnChristian (and the website and buzz the book has garnered) deserves an H&M high honor.


Jonah, Jesus, and Other Good Coyotes: Speaking Peace to Power in the Bible  Daniel L. Smith-Christopher  (Abingdon) $20.00  Wow, what an original, new approach to the Kingdom vision of justice, peacemaking, nonviolent direct action and Scripturally-directed politics.  A “good coyote,” we learn, are those who help immigrants cross the border to safety, and this kind of work is the exact social location of Daniel Smith-Christopher’s ministry.  His program of standing with the poor and vulnerable and his spiritually-driven vision to “cross borders” in the name of an inclusive God is, well, revolutionary.  And, as he carefully argues, fully Biblical. Smith-Christopher is Director of Peace Studies at Loyola Marymount and has written some impressive books—Walt Brueggemann (who graces this volume with a lovely preface) always cites his early, rare Religion of the Landless.  He has done major work on the theology of exile, and it shows, here, too.  (He even cites our friend Richard Middleton’s work The Liberating Image on the image of God.)  Prophetic, peacemaking, provocative.  Maybe our celebrating it will help it get known—-it deserves wide consideration as a significant contribution to our calling as agents of transformation and reconciliation.


Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crisis, and a Revolution of Hope Brian McLaren (Nelson) $21.99  As I noted in our review at the blog the day this important book was released, EMC begins with Brian asking a very, very large question: what are the few most important issues of our time, and what would Jesus say about them.  Well, if that isn’t award winning for best start to a book, I don’t know what is.  And, happily, he carries on with serious but readable cultural criticism in light of deep faith.  He draws on serious works (like Bob Goudzewaard & Mark VanderVennan’s Hope in Troubled Times or Leonard Boff’s Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, and social critics like Herman Daly and David Korten) to generate a broad and inter-related evaluation of these most urgent concerns.  Terrorism, war, poverty, ecological degradation cannot be appropriately regarded (let alone solved) without a renewed faith and a different framing narrative—brilliant!  McLaren has done us a great service in sorting through excellent literature, bringing together in tentative proposals some of the best thinkers of our time.  He does this clearly as a Christian (in many ways this is a follow up to the Kingdom vision of last year’s The Secret Message of Jesus–now out in paperback, with an additional chapter on the Lord’s Prayer.)  Some will think he’s not theologically precise enough (a concern I understand), others will quibble about his socio-economic critique, some may not find enough real hope in his call to hope.  So what?  Let’s have a good discussion about all this!  This is a major proposal, a call to a movement, the maturing of a conversation among social activists, emergent villagers, Sojourners and other streams that are flowing in the same direction. Not unlike Wallis’ God’s Politics it seems to be sparking a movement, a trajectory, a renewed framework of faithfulness.

 Please pray for McLaren’s Everything Must Change “DeepShift” Tour, where we have been asked to be the book provider, shipping things to over 15 locations as he and his companions present a series of gatherings to reflect on this call to Christ-focused hopeful action.  Educate yourself about this movement, at least, by buying the book.  Join us in celebrating—agreeing in the details or not—this good effort to bring Christian principles into normative relationship with some of the largest looming issues of our day.  Audacious to think we can make a difference?  Our God is the One who promises restoration, renewal, resurrection.  Christ is the morning star, as Goudzewaard reminds us, that shines brightest in the dar
kest night,  just before the dawn.  Brian is, at his best, a signpost pointing the way to the coming reign of the new King.  Thanks be to God for such audacity.


Creating the Better Hour: Lessons From William Wilberforce  Edited by Chuck Stetson (Stroud & Hall) $24.95  What a year it has been, with the spectacular release last winter of Amazing Grace (now out in DVD) and the batch of books on William Wilberforce.  (I have said, often, that Eric Metexas’ Amazing Grace bio is the best yet, and it is now out in paperback.)  Here, a very culturally and politically conservative publishing house has released a truly handsome book—the woodcut on the cover brings to mind a collection of essays by Wendell Berry, say—that stands as a sturdy and attractive new way of thinking about social change.

There are all sorts of contributors in this fabulous anthology, each offering a take on Wilberforce that shows his abolition movement in all its contemporary relevance for creating “a better hour.”  We have Baroness Caroline Cox (one of the leading human rights activists in the world) and David Blankenhorn (a pro-family scholar who is not at all your typical self-help guru), Chuck Colson (a social and theological conservative who is known for his compassion for prisoners and his call to humanize criminology.)  H&M friend Mark Rodgers (a major leader in Republican politics who has helped Bono get a hearing on Captiol Hill) writes about  “Making Goodness Fashionable”–a very good and important chapter, by the way—and Joseph Califano, a cabinet member under Jimmy Carter has a chapter. Here we have legal theoriest Mary Ann Glendon on Eleanor Roosevelt and Os Guinness on globalization; there are pieces on modern day slavery, and a few Wilberforce scholars (like Kevin Belmont and John Pollock) on his daring and faithful life.  Vishal Mangalwadi—the Francis Schaeffer of India, some have said—has a moving chapter on India, and Elizabeth Ashamu has an important piece on the Sudan.

After each section there are some discussion questions, some Bible verses, and a closing prayer, making this a great guide for a small group or adult class.

My, my, this is a great collection, well designed, thorough, non-partisan, deeply faithful (yet accessible for those without religious interests.)  Those who liked Amazing Grace because of its social justice message, and those who enjoyed seeing an evangelical hero on the silver screen will all agree that this is a very useful and motivating follow-up.  It deserves more than a Hearts & Minds Best Book award, it deserves to be read, discussed and acted upon.  I hope it is carried in every bookstore in America, but, if not, know that we have it here. 


Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church  Paul Louis Metzger  (Eerdmans) $16  Okay, we’ve got more books on racial justice, multi-culturalism and ethnic ministry than any store of which we know.  We read these a lot.  This one, though, stands out in stunning ways, it astutely offers a powerful perspective, important, broad cultural discernment, and has a very solid Bible-based foundation.  Metzger shows how the consumerism of the title—-ever hear of those who “shop for a church”—leads to greater distance between the poor and those who are not, and between races.  Interestingly, in the consummate Christian act of Eucharist, though, we can reorder our church life together, break the consumerist ideologies of the culture, and learn new habits and practices, creating a new kind of reconciled community.  With an important, lengthy afterward by the impeccable John Perkins and a cool forward by Donald “Blue Like Jazz”  Miller, this sharp study is way beyond the typical lament about injustice.  This is a thoughtful call to be consumed by Christ, not consumerism.  We think it deserves a special place on our list as a most significant book of 2007.  Do you know someone who ought to read it?


Which Brings Me To You: A Novel in Confessions  Steve Almond & Julianna Baggott (Algonquin) $23.95
(Not that You Asked): Rants, Exploits, and Obsessions Steve Almond (Random House) $21.95

Well, this is a bit of a tie; I have named two books by the same low-life author.  See, I called him a name.  I hate this guy.  There.

Well, I don’t, really, and I’ll now admit that I called him a low-life here, and said I hated him, to protect myself from those who think I ought not ready dirty books by pagan authors.  Still, this guy is one of my favorite writers, a wordsmith of the highest order, a fella whose writing makes me laugh, makes me think, brings me joy, and, on occasion, well, I guess I daren’t put that in print.  I could say that for some, a few of his chapters might be better than that little blue pill they tell you about on TV.  Like I said, I hate that.

Steve Almond came into our lives with his fabulously funny, really interesting, and subtly political memoir, Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America a book I’d award every year if I could.  I wrote much about that hilarious story of his jones for the sweet stuff, and his pilgrimage to old-school candy factories in a review at our website several years back, and even corresponded with him a bit.  Beth and I and several of our staff promoted it the best we could, foisting it on anybody who’d listen.  Then, I read two of his short story collections, (such as The Evil B.B. Chow)  which included some nearly brilliant concepts, some really great stories, some pretty weird people, and some very yucky language.  Seriously, as a follower of Jesus, and a person committed to the standards of the Scriptures, I’m unsure about all of this; there is erotic poetry in the Bible, of course, and the goodnesses of God’s real world are not wrong to celebrate in fiction or the arts.  The sad realities of our fallen world–bad people, bad sex, violence, greed, hurt, obsessive longing—are in the Word, too, after all and the best literature. (Read any Shakespeare lately?)  That smart-aleck Almond brings a very contemporary voice to edgy talk about sex and desire and such, well, I’m an ambivalent, appreciative reader.  (I don’t have space here to explore the proper ways nudity, nakedness and sexuality should or shouldn’t be portrayed frankly in faithful art, although there are thoughtful Christian critics who have written wisely, I think.)  I do like reading Almond, but admit that I’m nervous admitting it here.  (Secularists or those with few ethical constraints about sexual content would wonder what the big deal is, while most religious folks, I’d dare say, would wonder how I would even consider enjoying such writing, let alone promoting it.)  So be it, since, as in so many areas, here at H&M, we are a bookstore that isn’t typical, I guess.)  I’ll again note for the record that I think he overdoes the sex talk, especially when it is between unmarried persons, as it usually is in his world, as if their are not consequences to such entanglements, and, funny as it sometimes is, I don’t always see the value of his candor, even though I think Mr. A has a heart of gold. (And, truth be told, figuring out the consequences of entanglements and obsessions is, actually, one of his themes, for those with ears to hear.)   His short stories run the gamut from clever hijinks to obvious morality tales, from goofy
weirdness to what some of our customers will consider just postmodern porn; read at your own risk.  He’d be in the ballpark, stylistically, with Dave Eggers, or even Hunter Thompson at times.  The New York Times Book Review called him “slangy and salty” which is, I’d say, putting it nicely.  He loves Vonnegut, of course.

His 2007 co-written novel, with Julianna Baggott, Which Brings Me To You: A Novel in Confessions, got a lot of press this past summer, and I honestly couldn’t put the book down.  Again, there is way too much sexual stuff for most folks—-I rarely watch R rated movies by the way, and have little tolerance of the F bomb in film.  Still, this story was captivating, really eloquent, and made me wonder if it was truly great literature or not. It sure was entertaining.  The premise itself reeled me in right away as it was so intriguing: a couple who meet at a wedding reception stop short of casual sex and understand that they ought to know one another.  For a year, they exchange a series of letters, each naming their biggest secrets, confessing, falling in love, it seems, as they share their dark stories with unbelievable thoughtfulness and self-awareness. (Nobody I know writes letters like that by the way, or even has lives like that, of course; just sayin’.)  The woman’s letters were beautifully written by Ms Baggott, herself an unusually good writer, and Mr. Almond did every-other (intense) chapter.  It was a really fun read that I didn’t want to end.

It was Almond’s stunning essay about stalking Vonnegut in his remarkable collection of essays Not That You Asked, that really hooked me on his non-fiction prose.  What a stellar collection of smart, well-crafted and fun pieces.  Here, the crazy candy man writes about all kinds of stuff, pontificating with righteous rage and postmodern agnst and neo-urban cool irony.  (One set of “letters” to Oprah about his imagined partnership, getting his book on her show, was hilariously wild!) Yes, there are a few sexually-oriented essays here, too, as he’s writing about his mundane life, laden as it is with the stuff of, well, mundane life: teaching, parents, politics, honesty, relationships, faith, jobs, a competitor in the writing world, his daily writing work, music, his new wife and their experiences with a new baby (a truly great portion), and other good stuff about his escapades.  I cherish this window into the heart of a young, semi-sophisticated quasi- intellectual, and his ironic sensibilities are, in one way, quintessentially contemporary.  I disapprove of his ethical frame, sometimes, many will be put off by some of his crass talk, but he often makes me laugh right out loud (a rarity for me, I’m afraid.)  I honor him as one of the best writers picking up a pen these days, and writer with a caring, good heart.  I just had to celebrate him as one of the best of the year, if I was being honest, so there ya go.  Steve Almond, the writer I love to hate.  Or, more honestly, the one I am ambivalent about approving, but really, really, really love nonetheless.  That’s what this award could be called, “sweet nonethelesses.”


Crazy for God  Frank Schaeffer (Carroll & Graf) $26  Few books touched me more, interested me more, annoyed me more, and finally enthralled me more this year that the bitter, mixed-bag memoir of Franky–now, Frank– Schaeffer, son of evangelical guru, philosopher, European missionary, cultural critic and Calvinist Bible teachers and writers, Francis and Edith Schaeffer.  Anybody that snoops around our website knows of our indebtedness to the Schaeffer’s and several of our best and sanest friends spent time at the Swiss L’Abri that Frank describes here. The Schaeffer’s profound contribution in the early to mid- 70s to a then-culturally disengaged and politically dead evangelicalism, rippled out my way, and here we are, doing what we do, neither liberal or conservative, largely because of this stream of neo-Calvinism that included Schaeffer (and his mentor Rookmaaker, the art critic) et al.  It was Schaeffer who—leaving fundamentalism behind—created a generation of evangelical scholars, movements for theologically orthodox but culturally relevant outreach, and invited college students and counter-cultural activists like myself to a deeper faith that related the Lordship of Christ to the various issues across the entire spectrum of cultural life.  Other authors—from Os Guinness to Nancy Pearcey to Steve Garber—have meant a lot to us, and they were deeply informed by Schaeffer’s vision and care.

Alas, Frank, now a very disaffected, skeptical, Orthodox Christian, has written a tell-all, a tell-all that is so oddly bitter that is seems at times nearly pathological.  I will write about this weird and touching book at greater length later, but, for now, know that it deserves the publicity it has been getting.  (It has been reviewed in thoughtful Christian venues like Books & Culture and Jane Smiley, a contemporary novelist, reviews it approvingly in The Nation on line.  [Note, if it is still there, see my letter to the editor in response to Smiley’s essay, and the other posts as well, at their website.] 

Some have said that Crazy for God is very well written, and it has its glorious moments.  Compared to the truly luminous writing of the best memoirs, though—think Kathleen Finneran, Scott Russell Saunders, Mary Karr,  Sarah Miles or even the darn good Michael Perry—it sometimes devolves to cliches and fairly commonplace reportage, shifting from the profound to the dumb to the gratuitous.  Still, what reportage there is: meeting Timothy Leary,  learning that Eric Clapton gave Escape from Reason to Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, learning of Edith’s blue-blood tastes, expecting a meeting with Joan Baez. Learning about his father’s distaste for false piety. Hearing of his daily, youthful life in Switzerland in the evangelical/hippie commune, chasing girls, hanging out with seekers,  coping with his polio-induced limp, listening in as his mother prayed or hiking in the Alps with his father.
Some of the book, though, is nearly slanderous against his parents; despite his claim to love and appreciate them, he says the most horrid things and I remain agnostic about the truthfulness of his claims. How can we know?  (He was helpful in allowing his sisters to comment on a few occasions, and one refused.  They recalled their years there quite differently, although that does not on the face of it disprove his allegations.  I may try to write more on about this in a longer review, perhaps.

The last portion of the book is extraordinary, not for elegance, hardly even for insight—-I wrote letters to him a decade ago warning him of these very things, and it is hard not to say “We told you so” as he tells creepy stories of his years as a high-flying, top-level, anti-abortion activist for the new-found Christian right.  Still, to hear him narrate his compromised involvement with the hard right, getting Falwell and Robertson, et al, on board in the anti-abortion movement (against his father’s best instincts, who favored deeper thoughtfulness and less partisan civic involvements and seemed to only partially understand how he was being co-opted) is breathtaking and jaw-dropping.  In a longer review I’d explain some of this story—but, rather than wait, order it now and read it yourself.  See if it does not tell a fascinating tale, offering an important slice of social history, and see if it isn’t, also, troubling to hear a son speak so unkindly of so many people that loved him.

The subtitle of the book is telling: It reads, “How I Gr
ew Up As One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (Or Almost All) Of It Back.”  It is not too different than his great Calvin Becker novels, Portfino, Zermatt, and Saving Grandma, works that have rightfully developed a bit of a cult following, even among those with no clue that they are inspired by his real life years in Europe.  Frank was, typically, angry with evangelical reviews when the first novel came out and it was suggested that this sounded a whole lot like his growing up in the  L’Abi mission.  He meanly scolded us that that was the problem with evangelicals, they had no imagination, didn’t know what a novel was?  It seems now, as some of us said back then, that it was Franky who had little imagination.  He couldn’t see that, indeed, the  Becker story was mostly his own.  Now, he admits it, and seems (again) to scold anyone who doesn’t agree with his extreme refutation of the L’Abri movement.  Some things change slowly.  Perhaps, eventually, his anger will mellow—there are lovely hints of this by the end of the memoir—and he will regain a balanced criticism and fair appreciation, learning to speak judiciously and with deeper compassion.  Until then, this is chock-full of surprises, interesting to anyone whose evangelical faith was nurtured in the last half of the 20th century, or anyone who wants an inside glimpse into the rise of the Christian right.  As I said, I couldn’t put it down, irksome as it was.  It truly is deserving of this award, the book I most loved to hate.  Or is that hated to love?   Sigh.


The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism
Michael Behe  (Free Press) $28  Okay, I’ll admit it that I like this guy.  I’ll admit to having a strong bias in favor of many of the philosophical assumptions that pervade the ID movement (namely, the critique of naturalism as a worldview, and a call for alternative scientific theories to be explored, chipping away at the hubristic hegemony of the Darwinian model.)  And, I’ll admit, I’ve read more reviews of this book than pages of the book itself.  For those of us who are not in the field, this is serious work, carefully done, and plainly explained, but real science, for sure.

Do I think Dr. Behe is without fault?  Do I think he’s closed the debate?  Do I think there is no more to be said?  Of course not.  This is science, after all, and there is always more to learn, more to experiment with, more research, and theories to explore.  I am very aware that many serious folks have offered fair critique of Behe (here is a collection of bunches of articles that review his early work critically.) Still, this is doubtlessly a major step forward in the science of cell stuff, and deserves our little award for taking the ID conversation up several very big notches.  If you are unsure if you ought to shell out for this important book, here is a very succinct outline of it’s main points, from the blog Post-Darwinist.


The Truth War: Fighting for Certainty in an Age of Deception John MacArthur (Nelson)  I have on occasion been grateful for John MacArthur’s bull-headed, take-no-prisoners, plain-spoken commitment to Christ as Lord and the Bible as true.  I’ve benefited from some of his books, and don’t despise him the way some do.  (For those who are unaware, he speaks his mind, rejects all accommodation with contemporary culture, and has written firmly against charismatic renewal and the emergent folks.)  Anyway, in this book, where he rails against the erosion of modernist views of truth, and yells at the emergent movement, throwing the baby out completely with the bathwater, which is his style, he says some things that are beyond foolish.  For instance, in a proper concern for unbiblical language and a worldly tongue, he says that Christian bookstores are now “flooded” with obscenity.  Flooded, we are. With filth.  Evangelical books are now loaded with dirty words and foul language and cussing and such.  Well, let me be as firm as brother John is.  He is lying.  His publisher has no credibility for allowing him to say such unfounded, demeaning and dishonest doo doo, in the name of truthfulness, no less.  A big ol’ irony award for John McA.  And one for his editor, too, who should have pulled the plug on this mean-spirited, inaccurate book with too many outrageous accusations and not enough serious truth, and quite a lot about which to be uncertain.


Living the Questions of...  NavPress $7.99  Seth Godin, a hipster marketing guy, did a neo-motivational book a year ago, making the case for ongoing innovations, for designs that are new (not just new advertising campaigns) and pushed entrepreneurial types to push the envelope of outstanding new contributions.  Well, NavPress, if I may say so, was, a few decades back, one the most most boring Bible study guide makers in the evangelical market.  They were cut and dry, dry and cookie-cutter.   Perhaps that is an overstatement, but it is true that many thoughtful folks look askance at most of these small group fill-in-the-blank resources.  All of them are much, much better nowadays, with cool covers and interesting inside page design and touching interpersonal questions and better content questions. But I digress.

NavPress as a publisher is doing great stuff—I blogged about their new deliberate line—but what I want to honor here is this new batch of Bible studies.  This year saw all four gospels come out: Living the Questions of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and, more recently, several of the New Testament epistles have been released as well.  Each one has a bit of a lectio divino feel; that is, they are arranged for some quiet reflection, not just intellectual banter or determining the “right” answer.  They are to be deeply considered, prayed over, even.  Not only are these guidebooks helpful in bringing a little bit of contemplative perspective, each chapter is then paired with a reading on the facing page.  This is what is so remarkable for an evangelical small group inductive study:  they give you a paragraph of Dostoevsky, a page of Wendell Berry, a bit of a Henri Nouwan essay or a column from Psyschology Today or Leadership Journal.  This is not a pandering effort to be “relevant” but a very valid insight: we are to engage God’s words amidst the themes and voices that surround us.  We must learn to compare and contrast—for good of for ill—-the common grace insights of writers, columnists, poets and novelists— what a great way to do small group formation by reading the Word and reading the world.  Kudos to NavPress for all of their recent studies and books, but especially for inviting us to live into the questions with this recent series.  A prayerful purple cow, indeed.  There is, I am confident, nothing like it on the market. 

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So there you have it, some awards, some winners, some recommendations.
More to come, best kids books, picture books, fiction and a few outstanding personal growth, self-help titles and what not.  2007 was a good year, so there are some real winners.