I do so hope you saw our Hearts & Minds Bookstore’s Best Books of 2013 PART ONE posted just a day ago. We named some of very, very good books, honored them the best we could, and invited you to consider adopting a few of these award-winners into your own home. Okay, I didn’t really say that, but I hope you know that we make our living selling these resources and we do hope they all find good homes. It would be dishonorable to honor them by buying them elsewhere, I’d say (since you heard about ’em here, after all.) You wouldn’t want a Worst Faux Pas of the Year Award, now would you?
Do help us spread the word about these cheery accolades! These are great, significant titles, our recent favorites and some of the very best, duly noted, circa 2013 A.D.
Thanks be to God for books and writers, publishers and readers.
We will start with a very special award, sort of a life time achievement award, a book we are naming as one of the Best Books of the Year, and more, one of the very book-selling experiences we’ve ever been a small party of. It is in honor of a hero of ours, but the book, well the book gets a Hearts & Minds award, for sure.
A VERY SPECIAL HONORABLE MENTION — BEST BOOK TO HONOR AN ESTEEMED AUTHOR FOR A LIFETIME OF WRITING AND SERVICE (AND MORE)
Following Jesus: Journeys in Radical Discipleship: Essays in Honor of Ronald J. Sider edited by Paul Alexander & Al Tizon (Regnum) $39.99 OUR SALE PRICE $25.00 In the interests of time and space, I will try to be reserved in explaining our enthusiasm for naming this as one of the Hearts & Minds Best Books of the Year in 2013. I believe we were the first place in the world to write about this book, and I know we were the first place in the world to sell it.
You can read my longer review of it from our BookNotes column last July.
Following Jesus was created as a surprise collection (published by an outfit overseas, in part to keep it a surprise) of essays in honor of (and on the occasion of the retirement of) Ron Sider, professor at Palmer Seminary, and founder of Evangelicals for Social Action. I admire most of the authors who contributed to this tribute (not quite a festschrift, since that is a book offered by one’s students; this is by many world leaders and thinkers and activists, all who want to honor Ron. In many ways, anyway, we are have been his students, even if not formally, by reading is essays and buying his many books.) I know several of the authors, and, as I hope you know, I view Ron himself not only as a friend and hero, but as a bit of a long-distant mentor. I have read all of his books, have been in conversations with him for years, and have appreciated so very much about his life and ministry, his tenacious commitment to solid evangelical theology, his broad and faithful concerns about so many issues of our day, and his call to be Biblically-informed as we work for a better world.
One need not agree with every detail of the work of Evangelicals for Social Action or appreciate Sider’s thick evangelical approach as much as I do to recognize the importance of this very informative and valuable book. I am not alone to insist that Sider is a very, very important figure within the religious landscape of our lifetime, and this collection of pieces, done as a tribute to him from authors from all over the globe, exploring various aspects of radical discipleship, illustrates that he has left his mark all over the world, on all sorts of issues.
Few bookstores have promoted this book, and that is a shame, as it stands as a great primer on Christian social ethics and is a wonderfully useful resource to own. You can read my previous review to realize the many topics covered, the good writers, the important issues explored, the helpful insight offered on many fronts. Christian people should know this material, and should know these perspectives. This is a book we honor, and it is a book we think you should buy.
Further, it is a book offered as a gift to the watching world, helping others come to appreciate Ron and his years of good work, and an invitation to pick up the challenge of living in service to our Servant King Jesus. For this and for many other reasons, I am eager to celebrate this as a book of huge significance and of great joy, certainly one of the best of the year. Being a part of its launch last spring was one of the great privileges of our work this year and we offer our hearty congratulations to Al Tizon and Paul Alexander for their good effort in creating this marvelous, honoring anthology. Congrats to Ron, of course, but more, for those who dreamed up, wrote and published this very good book. Hooray!
BEST INSPIRATIONAL EXAMPLE OF A PERSON MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Hearts at a Time Jeremy Courtney (Howard) $24.00 I hope you saw our BookNotes review of this where I insisted it was one of the great stories of our time. Courtney is an amazing young man, doing good, good work, and anyone interested in development work, medical missions, cross cultural relationships or global peacemaking will want to have a few of these to give away — it is such a rewarding story and such an urgent cause. Preemptive Love is an organization that helps do heart surgeries for the children of Iraq, where there is an epidemic of childhood heart disease as a result of radiation and other toxins left behind from the Gulf Wars. Please buy this book, please. It is amazing, you will learn much and you will contribute to a very urgent cause. We are grateful to know of this good ministry, and glad that young and effective leaders like Jeremy are able to pull this kind of stuff off. Wow, what a mission, what a dream — what a book!
BEST NEW BOOK TO CAPTURE THE OLD SPIRIT OF “THE CATHOLIC WORKER” BY YOUNG RADICAL BAPTIST
Strangers At My Door: A True Story of Finding Jesus in Unexpected Guests
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (Convergent) $14.99 I gather than most BookNotes readers have heard of Dorothy Day, a convert to Catholicism back before WW II who, besides being somewhat like a Mother Theresa that cared for the poor and lonely in the slums of New York, also edited a radical religious newspaper, organized unions, resisted militarism, and did civil disobedience in her most Christ-like, nearly Franciscan way. Her “Catholic Worker” movement was based on a simple gospel truth or two, one being that Christ calls His followers to share lives with the poor, in personal and humble ways, face-to-face. Enter Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a former right-wing evangelical boy, who meets up with Shane Claiborne while in college and learns about the radical faith perspectives of the likes of Dorothy and so many others, from Sojourners to Oscar Romero to early church fathers and mothers who lived on the fringes of the establishment . Eventually, during a Witness for Peace trip to Iraq, when they are injured in a US bombing attack, they are saved by Iraqi Muslims, who (even though we had just bombed their small hospital) took them in, showing grace, and helped them recover. That happened in the town of Rutba, which became somewhat of a parable, parallel to the “Good Samaritan” for them. Those that know Jonathan’s story, know that he and his wife started what they now call Rutba House in Durham NC, a new monastic community that see itself as a counter-witness to American empire and power and serves the poor as a way to say no to typical religiosity and yes to the simple ways of Jesus.
Call them un-American, call them idealists, (call them crazy), but you will, after reading Strangers At My Door, a powerful, poetic, beautiful and messy book, realize that their witness is not driven by a mere ideological agenda, but emerges out of their deep historic spirituality, their grappling with Scripture, their standing in the sturdy traditions of folk like Francis and Dorothy Day. This book is mostly stories, ruminations on the good and the beautiful seen even in the very and complicated (and sometimes violent) lives they encounter in their broken down neighborhood. Rutba House is a house of hospitality, and their household is a space to welcome Christ Himself, as it says in Matthew 25. Jonathan W-H is a fabulous storyteller, he’s had some amazing stories (no wonder he had to write ’em down!), is obviously well read and nicely able to weave the poems of Rumi or the reflections of Clarence Jordan or the lines from old African American spirituals into a lively, inspiriting, and very, very good testimony of their trying to find Jesus among the outcasts.
BEST BOOK OF CHRISTIAN JOURNALISM, EXAMINING THE DIVERSITY OF THE CHURCH
Discerning the Body: Searching for Jesus in the World Jason Byassee (Cascade Books) $29.00 Some of you may have read Rev. Byassee’s other books (such as his beautiful book about being a pastor of a small membership church and the benefits of such congregations or his little on on the desert fathers or another brief one Reading Augustine.) He is a keen observer of the religious landscape and a very gifted journalist, having filed articles and essays in many prominent journals in recent years. Some of the chapters in this collection have appeared in The Christian Century or the Sojo blog or Christianity Today, but, together, they are a powerhouse overview of the nature of religiosity in America here in the new millennium. And can he ever draw good insights and suggestive ideas from his on-the-ground coverage. From his time at Nadia Bolz-Weber’s emergent Lutheran church (“It’s Simul Justus, Not the Tattoos”) to his time with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, from his journeys among small town liberal parishes to big city mega-churches (what other book profiles Chicago’s Trinity UCC and Joel Osteen’s arena?) he tells it like it is, giving testimony to the places God’s people gather, their practices and ethos, and the good and bad ways God’s grace can be discerned in those contexts. This is a real travelogue (he ends up with, for instance, a new monastic community in North Carolina and then hangs a right to go visit to the Creation Museum in Kentucky; one whole section reports on churches and ministries in Africa.) About a half a dozen or more of these fine-crafted pieces are about Roman Catholics, and a bunch are under the section “Searching for Jesus in Popular Culture.” This is a fabulous collection of very thoughtful essays, a wonderful reader, good for learning about different sorts of religious expression and good for pondering the state of the Body of Christ in this day. What a collection, what an author. This deserves a lot of attention and we are happy to add our accolades to Jason Byassee’s discerning eye.
BEST REPORTAGE ABOUT SPIRITUALITY
Atchison Blue: A Search for Silence, A Spiritual Home, and a Living Faith Judith Valente (Sorin) $15.95 I have awarded, in our previous list, and in this list, again, memoir-like narratives of folks learning to grow in their faith, deepen their discipleship or reflect on the interface of their own lives and the work of God in the world. This one is quite specifically a memoir about the author’s interest in the spirituality of a group of nuns in a convent. As a high-profile writer and fast-paced Catholic journalist, the author had certain professional reasons to visit the Mount St. Scholastica monastery. Not unlike Kathleen Norris, who wrote so wonderfully about her own immersion in the monastic culture in The Cloister Walk, Valente writes of what she sees, what she experiences, what she longs for, and how her times with the nuns influenced her own interior life, and how the Benedictine vision enhanced her own life in the world.
Macrina Wiederkehr says “I joyfully applaud this book” and Richard Rohr writes “There will be very few who would not find Valente’s journey helpful to their own” and Paul Huston says “Compelling in its honesty, overflowing with grace, Atchison Blue is a marvelous addition to the spiritual writing genre made famous by Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and Kathleen Norris.” Wow — those are some reviews! I really enjoyed this quiet story and I knew half way through that I’d want to award it with one of our “best of” accolades.
A SPECIAL HONORABLE MENTION FOR BEST WRITTEN AND MOST ARTFULLY DESIGNED BOOK (THAT SUPPLEMENTS A CD, TOO)
CMYK: The Process of Doing Life Together Justin McRoberts (Justin McRoberts) $24.99 What can I say? This is in a rare niche as a book, and is very good as a book, but is kicked up a real big notch with its incredibly interesting, full-color design, and is made extraordinary for having a great CD on which it is based. This is, I must admit, hard to explain, and complicated to award, as it is a big trifecta of deserving-ness for Writing/Design/Music and some mojo thrown in just for the big idea of it all. I love this creatively designed, full-color book that goes with a set of fabulous singer-song-writer CDs, offering the back stories to and reflections upon the songs. I hope you saw my long review at BookNotes — I think it is worth reading, if you haven’t. Now that the three smaller EP CDs have been compiled onto one full CD you can buy the disc or you can just buy the book; but together they are an innovative and synergistic project, each enhancing the art of the other.
Not every recording artist has the prose writing gifts to pull off a project like this. Not every recording artist has this much to say, (or they can only say it within their allusive songs.) Justin has the chops to do this, and he pulled it off with flying colors. I think this is more than charming, more than clever, it is brilliant. I am very honored to have an endorsing blurb on the back, and am not alone in sharing great enthusiasm for this stellar project. One of the coolest things we’ve sold all year, a big award winner from us in 2013.
BEST COLLECTION OF ESSAYS BY A PROMINENT NOVELIST (AND BOOKSELLER)
This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage Ann Patchett (Harper) $27.99 Ahhh, a book lovers dream, right here, a fine collection of often sweet, wonderfully-written, very smart essays spanning a number of years from one of our most esteemed and popular working novelists. Who owns a bookstore. Oh my, what is not to love about this — Ann Patchett telling tales of her life, talking about grandma and her failed marriage, and the happy one of which the title alludes, and about writing and novels and art. And about starting that now famous bookstore and loving indies, buying local, and loving her own loyal customers. You have to love a book in which there is a chapter called “The Bookstore Strikes Back” (which was previously published in The Atlantic Monthly, as were a few other entries.) Being Ann Patchett, her lovely, well-stocked store became a national symbol of the charms of real bookstores and of course it must be exquisite. (Have any of our Nashville friends been?) She writes about dogs and families and Catholic nuns and books and short stories and Tennessee and so much more. Yes, an award winner of 2013, to be savored for years to come.
BEST LEADERSHIP BOOK
The Catalyst Leader: 8 Essentials for Becoming a Change Maker Brad Lomenick (Nelson) $22.99 We stock a lot of leadership books and for a number of reasons, this one stands out. I so appreciate Lomenick’s candor, his passion, his own great integrity, the good stories and the solid eight topics. You may know him of being the creator of the hugely popular young leaders culture conference, Catalyst. This interaction with so many movers and shakers, old-timers and up and comers, has allowed him to observe much, and he has distilled years of work with Catalyst change-makers into these key, prudent, important lessons. This excellent book (and the good DVD that you can get as well) invites us not just to managerial skills or a take-charge style, but to be thoughtful about cultural engagement and learning to make significant change and lasting reforms as we help lead the way. Over the long haul. Very impressive.
BEST BOOK OF PHILOSOPHY
Journey Toward Justice: Personal Encounters in the Global South Nicholas Wolterstorff (Baker)$ 21.99 Okay, I am aware there are many other major works of philosophy that have been released this year (and we have a number of them!) But this is extraordinary, truly extraordinary: a world-renowned Christian philosopher telling his own story of ways in which coming face to face with those where oppressed in the global south influenced his thinking and shaped the direction and character of his work (towards political philosophy.) This is a serious read, but as pleasant and interesting as writing in this usually abstract field can be; it is outstanding for any number of profound reasons, but also for this: for those who don’t quite see the value of such (philosophical) reasoning, this helps keep the discipline grounded, and shows the “so what” nature of the good call to philosophizing. The reviews have been stellar and the book deserves our highest honors. It is the first in a new series of how scholars have been impacted by their involvement in the broader world, so that idea, itself, is worthy of praise: best idea for a book series! Big thanks to Wolterstorff for sharing his heart, for offering this lucid intro to his work, and to those who came up with the engaging series. Congratulations!
BEST BOOK OF WOMEN’S STUDIES (BUT NOT JUST FOR WOMEN)
Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith Erin S. Lane & Enuma Okoro (White Could Press) $16.95 I almost celebrated this under the “memoir” category as each chapter allows a different woman to tell her story, doing first-person autobiographical creative writing. The book is simply created to allow real women to tell their own stories, and as I said in an earlier announcement of it at BookNotes, the stories are interesting, compelling, and from a variety of viewpoints and sorts of experiences. I know a number of these good writers, and many of our readers will recognize a number of their names. Many are very good essayists and most have truly insightful stories to tell, sharing their own experiences within Christian churches. We award this for a few reasons, not the least of which is that it is entertaining reading, good writing, finely crafted essays and engaging storytelling. More obviously, though, the pain and disenfranchisement experienced by many women in many religious settings is simply a matter that must be talked about. In many places sins against women are legend and the voices of women nearly excluded.
Whether these stories will help solve our theological and social problems I cannot say, but I am confident that without them we will make no God-pleasing progress. Kudos to the indie publisher who offered this project and to the editors who compiled the pieces and to the many women who gladly told their stories and shared their lives. This is not on a major-market publisher making it all that much more interesting and worthy of our support. Check it out. We are glad to give it due credit!
BEST BOOK OF THEOLOGICALLY-INSPIRED NATURE WRITING
Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible Debbie Blue (Abingdon) $16.99 This is the third book I’ve read by Debbie Blue and we are so appreciative of her hippy style, her cool, hipster voice, her edgy theology. She’s emergent and post-evangelical, I guess, if one needs labels, but know this: she plays very close attention to the Biblical text, she asks reasonable and valuable questions of the text (and of our traditional readings, sometimes) and she does it with high-octane literary chops, showing forth a writing style that is loads of fun. Oh, and did I say this is mostly a book about natural history — yes, birds of and in the Bible, but she explains all sorts of biological and mythical and cross-cultural wisdom accumulated around pelicans and ravens and ostriches and vultures and more. This is an entertaining read and it is even lovely to hold — it is a beautifully manufactured book (one of the very best paperbacks of the year, with French fold flaps and beautiful wood-cut-like artwork enhancing every chapter.) And, I think there is much to learn about faith, God’s own revelation, and the way of being Christian to learn here. Call it natural science, call it literary art, call it a collection of interesting sermons, Consider the Birds is one of the most intriguing and enjoyable books of the year.
BEST CONTRIBUTION TO MEDIEVAL STUDIES
St Hildegard of Bingen: Doctor of the Church: A Spiritual Reader Carmen Acevedo Butcher (Paraclete Press) $16.99 Oh, all right, I made this category up, and I have no clue what other contributions there have been to serious medieval studies. But Hildegard is a very important figure in the history of spirituality, of science, of medicine, of liturgy, of music and more, and because of this there is a fascinating with her, in both scholarly circles and among lay people wanting a taste of her whole-life, creation-based mystical spirituality. I’m glad this older compilation of her work has been given a new publication, and we wanted to honor Paraclete for re-issuing it.
BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR FOR CHRISTIAN TEACHERS
Faithful Education: Themes and Values for Teaching, Learning, and Leading Amy Lynn Dee & Gary Tiffin (Pickwick Publications) $20.00 There is only a small handful of books of substance for Christians who teach, and some very good ones are unappealing to most as they presume that one teachers in an alternative Christian day school or some other parochial school. We carry anything we can find for public school teachers to think faithfully about their vocation as educators, and this one is splendid, provocative, highlighting profound Christian traits and characteristics that shape the practice of teaching well, and Christianly. What a joy to find this. One of the best books in this field.
HEARTS & MINDS AWARD FOR FAVORITE NOVEL
Want Not Jonathan Miles (HMH) I must be careful in announcing this as the rough language and sexual situations make this a novel I do not recommend for everyone. One must judge for oneself whether in the realm of literature this sort of gross realism is appropriate, enjoyable or worthy. I cringed a bit, myself, and felt the author was gratuitous at times, although the characters spouting the vulgarities were, well, those kind of characters. Nonetheless, the vivid writing blew me away, the characters were indeed fascinating (bizarre, actually, in some cases) and the interlocking stories, so full of pathos, just remarkable in their creative unfolding. This complex, multi-layered, fast-paced modern novel tells stories that seem mostly unrelated, and the people are themselves complicated and wounded and interesting, and, eventually, most are endearing. Some critics raved, while a few found the themes and “message” a bit heavy handed; in each of the three main plots, in one way or another, the topic is the sadnesses and oddities of our throw-away culture. Much of the book is about human waste (sometimes with nuanced symbolism, and sometimes, oh, quite literally) and one whole fascinating plot is about a pair of (religious?) anarchist dumpster divers. What does it mean to “waste not, want not” as we use to say? Why is there a Bible verse (Matthew 26:8) cited in the epigram? This important novel has been called “warm, complex, comic, honest, and never flinching” and another novelist called it “powerful, blisteringly funny” and yet another says it is “clear-eyed, exuberant entertainment.” Want Not exposes the hollow abundance of our contemporary society which “squanders all we hold dear.” Can one enjoy such a novel designed to shake us up? Is it fund to be drawn into the deconstruction? Certainly. I can’t stop thinking about it and I finished it weeks ago. It’s weird, unlike anything I’ve ever read, with such colorful detail and odd-ball people that I didn’t want it to end. My favorite fiction of 2013.
Frances and Bernard Carlene Bauer (Houghton Mifflin/Mariner) $14.95 My other choice for best novel of the year, now out in paperback, couldn’t be further in style or context or language than Want Not, although, come to think of it, that might be a subtitle for this classy novel about religious and romantic longing. Loosely inspired by the correspondence of Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor and poet Robert Lowell, this story unfolds in nothing but a series of letters. This epistolary approach has been used before, of course, and this is a great example of how it can work well — one gets to know the interior lives and intellectual views of these two verbose literary figures. I don’t want to give away the plot, although I could describe it simply in a sentence or so, but their religious convictions — sneering at Bishop Sheen while they read Maritain and Aquinas and Kierkegaard — are intense and their friendship profound, making for a very good book for many literate BookNotes readers, I think.
The coveted starred review in Booklist notes that it is “a novel of stunning subtlety, grace and depth (with) letters of breathtaking wit” and novelist Jane Hamilton calls it “a perfect novel.” Ann Packer writes that it is “dazzling and gorgeously written.” Dear Frances and Bernard the poet are classic intellectuals of the late 50s who are well read and published and seriously Catholic in their worldviews, writing smartly about faith and work, art and poetry, marriage and friendship (and their own parents and lovers and jobs and hopes.) A few other characters (friends of Frances and friends of Bernard) appear but mostly the story is the intellectual sparring of these two people who end up being quite different and with different hopes for their correspondence. The cadence and language (and goings-on in their lives) are as one might imagine if one was a well-educated and cosmopolitan writer of the mid-20th century, who meets a soul mate at a writer’s colony. I found it utterly captivating. Again, I didn’t want it to end… one of the most interesting, artistic, and creative novels I’ve read in years.
BEST POETRY VOLUME
This Day: Collected and new Sabbath Poems Wendell Berry (Counterpoint) $30.00 This was a good year for poetry, I think, and although I’m no critic, we were glad to stock the new Mary Oliver, a wonderful and some indie press released about which I hope to tell you soon. But this is doubtlessly the one that we want to most honor, by a farmer, novelist, poet, cultural critic, environmental activist and Southern storyteller. I need not go on and on about this, and you most likely know that for nearly thirty-five years, Berry has written poems on Sundays on his solitary walks around his farm in Kentucky. This is a big, beautiful book, spanning the years from 1979- 2012. Very, very nicely done in a nice hardcover edition.
BEST SHORT BOOK OF MOVING ESSAYS
Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair Anne Lamott (Riverhead) $17.95 Some of Anne Lamott’s books are novels, of course, and some are longer form memoirs (about being a grandmother) or nonfiction (Bird by Bird is one of our favorite books about writing.) This newest release, handsomely designed and packaged as a companion to her short and wonderful Please,Thanks Wow, is an extended rumination on what it means to find meaning in pain, in sadnesses, in brokenness and injustice. And she is colorful and specific as she names the random stuff we all have experienced, from cancer to Sandy Hook. Yet, as with all her books, her prose just sings, her vocabulary is such fun to read (I’ve read a few of these sections several times) and her stories are exquisite parables for life and goodness. Agree or not with her hippy-dippy customs (who else would talk about coffee-filter crafts made in her special needs Sunday school class as a cross between Betsy Ross and Wavy Gravy) or her rather inclusive theology, this is a book to enjoy, to ponder, to give to those who may not responses well to more conventional religious reading. This is fun and funny, sad and even tragic. It is one of the best books she has done, and one of my favorite books of the year!
BEST BOOK OF PERSONAL GROWTH
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way W Live, Love, Parent and Lead Brene Brown (Gotham Books) $26.00 I suppose it will come as no surprise to know that this book has been one that has gotten such a buzz, so much publicity, so much internet conversation, that one simply has to be aware of it. Her previous, moving rumination The Blessings of Imperfection seems to have the seeds of the core of this book, that we must courageous, and to do that, we must be willing to be vulnerable. This exciting and nicely written work is a breath-taking combination of sophisticated social science, research-based psychology, very cool storytelling, and postmodern motivational bravado. Endorsements are from across the range of cultural leaders, from Sir Ken Robinson to Harriet Lerner to Maria Shriver to Seth Godin. Hip evangelicals have drawn on it, and it has been a Godsend to those who must step up, get “skin in the game” and be willing to risk much to pursue their callings. This is an important book, but practical. Here’s the subtitle, again, worthy of its own Best Of The Year award: “How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way W Live, Love, Parent and Lead.” Oh yes.
BEST PARENTING BOOK THE YEAR
Hopes and Fears: Everyday Theology for New Parents, and Other Tired Anxious People Bromleigh McCleneghan & Lee Hull Moses (Alban Institute) $17.00 I know this is written by two women and some of it is about their pregnancies and mothering, but, as the titles suggests, it really is for all parents (and others!) I was so absolutely taken with it, their good writing and their interesting ruminations on their lives as mainline denominational pastors, wives, mothers, about their husbands and their fathering roles, that I want to recommend it to everyone, male or female, parent or not. This is a wonderful little book, loaded with insight, lovely reflections well worth pondering, and poignant episodes from their lives together. I love the writerly tone and the rather worldly and down-to-Earth style of these mainline pastors; that is, they offer a very distinctive theological voice, but it isn’t that of formulaic or traditionalist evangelicalism.
The foreword by Bonnie Miller-McLemore is beautiful (as is her wonderful book In the Midst of Chaos: Caring for Children as Spiritual Practice which the authors name in their acknowledgments as formative for them. So that explains why I love this book so much.) Carol Howard Merritt endorsed it saying “By cultivating the rich ground of motherhood and ministry, McCleneghan and Moses present us with an abundance of messy, beautiful, and human theology.” Or listen to this, from the spectacular writer Heidi Neumark (author of Breathing Space about her rugged ministry in the South Bronx), “This is a book you can pick up when you are sleep deprived and emerge laughing with recognition and buoyed by grace.”
By the way, I said this in an earlier listing of this book, but it should be noted that the Alban Institute is known mostly for helpful resources designed for managing mainline churches and synagogues, and they are very good at what they do. This sort of personal growth, family-oriented book isn’t their strong suit, and they are to be commended for publishing such a fine, luminous, helpful book that is theologically aware, but not the least bit preachy or condesending. Maybe they should share the award, too — kudos one and all.
NOTABLE BOOK FOR EVANGELICAL CHRISTIAN MOTHERS ABOUT THE THEOLOGY OF GRACE IN THE HOME
Glimpses of Grace: Treasuring the Gospel in Your Home Gloria Furman (Crossway) $14.99 I have to say this was a hard call for me. It is a book that is very, very different than the one I so lauded above. I wanted to award it, I wanted to celebrate it, I wanted to honor the obviously sincere and thoughtful and very dedicated mom (and missionary doula) who wrote it amid church planting in a hard, hot, Middle Eastern country. Her desire to be funny with her children, to be utterly gracious and giving and kind to one and all, her eagerness to have Christ glorified in all things as she clings to the cross and Christ’s grace, well, it is so very obviously good that who wouldn’t want to honor such a book? It is deserving of accolades, in part because there is very little like this available, a book that with some humor and detailed Reformed preaching and clear Bible teaching, brings the key truths of the gospel front and center into homemaking, hospitality, marital kindness and mothering. Furman is honest about her stinky kitchen floor, her piled up dishes, and her annoyance when people from her ministry team use items from her refrigerator without replacing them. Her husband is thoughtless at times and her kids are, well, her kids are kids. She has, like most of us, been reluctant to invite folks into her home because of embarrassment, naming the stingy sin as an “idolatry of a picture perfect home.” And she wants Jesus’ grace to transform all of this from the inside out. Indeed, she wants to practice the presence of God in the mundane, allow God’s great glories to be manifest in the ordinary stuff of her days, so that she can be that much more loving and good and glad.
This is all so very well and so very good, and we celebrate this lovely book for these reasons. Hooray. But allow one caveat, or two. I sometimes wonder if this “gospel centered life” following Luther’s admonition to “preach the gospel to yourself” is, maybe, sometimes, a bit much. Christ’s yoke is easy, we are told. That is, her sanctification, and the sanctification of her home, seems to somehow (in her always troubled soul and always guilty mind) relate to whether or not she can announce grace and trust Christ alone. She gets to amazing grace, but always after a bit of wallowing, or so it seemed to me. Think of her reluctance to offer hospitality. Need we beat ourselves up over sin and idolatry (for pity’s sake) or just, well, swallow our pride a little and lighten up a bit, learning to go with the flow? I know that doesn’t sound nearly as righteous or as spiritual, but – really – must we make a huge doctrinal issue out of everything? Maybe we need to be reminded of the audacious claims of the Christ-centered gospel, confessing sin, or maybe we just need to chill a bit and smile at our foibles and let it go at that. After a while, despite truly beautiful and lovely reminders of the splendor of the ordinary and the messiness of spiritual formation, and a Piper-esque sense of making much of God, these self rebukes begin not to sound like grace, but sound a bit obsessive, maybe to some even toxic. If anything might have improved this sweet and helpful book it might have been that the author just take a dose of her own teaching and then lighten up a little bit. Grace is not a work, and the glory of the gospel is, always, in some part mystery. In other words, the book verges on becoming tendentious, like an overwrought Puritan sermon, wearing us down. She wants to be humble, but calling so much attention to her own struggles, making a Big Deal out of every small failing (even as she rightfully assures us that Christ’s finished work has redeemed her) seems to hint at something other than humility. The gospel centered life misapplied could and sometime does lead to an ironic new bondage and an unhealthy bit of over-spiritualization of everything.
Oddly, even though we honor this book as notable, I wish its tone were a wee bit less heavy-handed, and that Mrs. Furman saw the gospel as the in-breaking of God’s reign “On Earth as it is in Heaven” rather than seeming to reduce it to her own spiritual issues (as if this life is somehow merely an inner preparation for living eternally in heaven, which she actually says — were the Crossway editors asleep at the wheel on that one?) Why doesn’t she sound more missional (even though her husband is a church planter and she is in a foreign land?) Why doesn’t she talk about the ethics of her economy or the cross cultural conflicts her children surely are facing? What is happening in her neighborhood and her host country? We never hear a bit about that. Her personalistic view of the gospel, it seems, allows her to seem disinterested in the Kingdom implications of stewarding a home, in a place, and grace seems reduced mostly to a inner category of her own heart. These are the downsides of a less than fully Biblical understanding of the gospel, I’m afraid. Still, I’m happy to applaud this book about desiring God and future grace, custom-made for messy moms who want to serve God in their house-holding. It is a fine first step, a helpful resource, a good title from an obviously serious woman of God. Shalom, friend.
BEST HEALTH BOOK
All Natural: A Skeptics Quest to Discover if the Natural Approach to Diet, Childbirth, Healing and the Environment Really Keeps Us Healthier and Happier Nathanael Johnson (Rodale) $26.99 The first chapter of this was long, all about various school of thought about childbirth, and since Beth and I have read quite a bit about midwifery, home birth and the like, we couldn’t put it down. (Anybody who interviews Ana Mae Gaskin deserves an award in my book!) This is a fun and entertaining and valuable story: the author was raised with nearly every radical living idea and health fad, natural eating and innovative diet, and Earth-friendly practices known to late 20th century counter-cultural mamas and hip daddios. Some of us will smile the smile or recognition, even if we only causally read Prevention magazine or the Foxfire Books. Yet, as he came of age, he wondered, as we all do, why some who have made impeccable lifestyle choices get sick and why some slobs live on. What gives? Does sprouting your own mung beans really make a difference? Are the toxins in vaccinations really that bad? What’s really wrong with some low level radiation, anyway?
Get again the important subtitle, which is not a subtext, but the real text: “A Skeptics Quest to Discover if the Natural Approach to Diet, Childbirth, Healing and the Environment Really Keeps Us Healthier and Happier.” This is first hand, very classy reportage, almost like a memoir, of one guy’s personal quest to figure out good science, wise living, and evaluate the maybe crazy stuff he was raised to believe. I fully agree with Bill McKibben’s sage review when he says “This guy can really write and he can really report, and he can help you understand why some things you believe don’t make as much sense as you might imagine. It is a book both gentle and wry.” Now for that — besides it being really pretty funny at times and very, very informative — it deserves some kind of all natural Award. But don’t believe me, be like Nate Johnson — read this book and see for yourself.
BEST BOOK ABOUT CHILDREN’S MINISTRY AND CHURCH VITALITY
Children’s Ministry in the Way of Jesus David M. Csinos & Ivy Beckwith foreword by John H. Westerhoff (IVP/Praxis) $18.00 Some background: in 2012 a fascinating conference was held about the role of children and youth in the changing church and cultural settings we are seeing; this was emergent, somewhat post-evangelical, diverse and progressive, with voices sometimes not heard at such events. The papers from that conference have been published in a stimulating, important book about emerging children and youth ministry, especially among congregations with a progressive vision and creative new theology (searching for a better way than the old debates between conservatives and liberals.) That book is called Faith Forward edited by Melvin Bray and David Csinos and I announced it here. Out of that gathering has come an organization, Faith Forward, and the founder and president is David Csinos, co-author of this new, excellent book. Ivy Beckwith (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) has done other very good books on children’s ministry, especially in the postmodern setting, and has a chapter in that first Faith Forward anthology. That Csinos and Beckwith have here collaborated to give us a first-rate, theologically robust, culturally savvy, psychologically aware, congregationally serious book about the role of children in our churches is a great, great gift. Long-time scholar of these things, John Westerhoff raves in the foreword about the fresh, solid ideas, and many leaders from across the ecclesiastical landscape have endorsed it. (Scottie May of Wheaton College, for instance, raves, and says it will “help to change children’s ministry as we have known it.” Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore calls it a “wonderful guide.” I am sure we should declare it one of the best books in the field. It is a must for anyone working in churches, anyone who cares about kids, anyone interested in vital congregational education and formation. Cheers!
BEST BOOK ABOUT YOUTH MINISTRY AND CHURCH VITALITY
Teenagers Matter: Making Student Ministry a Priority in Your Church
Mark Cannister (Baker) $21.99 This is a fairly serious read in a
fairly serious series edited by uber youth worker scholar Chap Clark.
Cannister may himself be a scholar, too, but some of us know him as a
wild and crazy youth worker, one of those quintessential nuts who loves
teens and would do anything to make an impression, to give ’em a good
time, to turn them on to Jesus and His church. Cannister (now professor
of Christian ministers at Gordon College and former president of North
American Professors of Christian Education) used to be in Pittsburgh,
and I can vouch for the kid’s lives he touched, the networking of youth
workers he developed, and the consulting services he provided to many
churches and their youth. With rave, exuberant endorsements from Andrew
Root, Walt Mueller, Duffy Robbins and many others, this was almost a
no-brainer: what a valuable, important work, reminding church folks why
youth ministry is vital to vital congregations and why we need to
cultivate space for teens to be involved in the life of the church. As
Root (of Luther Seminary) notes, “On every page you’ll see a wise
teacher, devoted parent, and ferocious advocate for the young.” Three
big cheers for one of the most important books of the year for the life
of the church.
BEST BOOK ABOUT YOUNG ADULT MINISTRY
Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood: A Practical Theology for College and Young Adult Ministry David Setran & Chris Kiesling (BakerAcademic) $21.99 I realize that many churches do not have a young adult ministry, let alone a college ministry. And for many, this rigorous, thorough work will be more than they need. Email us if you want a more general list for those seeking to attract younger adults and how to work a bit on that. But for those who are serious, who want the best research and the most frusitful practices in the field, then this exploration of spiritual formation among emerging adults is just the best. It has the best professionals in the field endorsing it (Jeffrey Arnett, for instance, or James Wilhoit or Sharon Daloz Parks.) This eplores human development, cultural rends, and insists that this life stage has some unique features, features which those serious about ministry must know. Impressive stuff.
BEST BOOK OF CONTEMPORARY RELIGIOUS HISTORY
God’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America Larry Eskridge (Oxford University Press) $35.00 I wasn’t sure about this, even though the esteemed editor of the prestigious Books & Culture said it was one of the best books of the year, and CT named it as the book of the year. I just wasn’t sure and although we had it in stock, hadn’t really studied it. Once I read the preface I was hooked and I was more than fascinated I was nearly stunned by the immense research and great storytelling that went into this. The author uncovers some of the very first conversions to Christ among the youth counter culture that spilled over into others and others until a new social phenomenon was beginning. She documents the good, the bad and the very ugly, she explores the backstories of everything from Explo ’72 to the founding of JUPUSA, from the radical street communes to the big business of contemporary Christian music, from the rise of dangerous cults like the Children of God and The Way International to the ways in which the Jesus People influenced mainline denominational churches.
I think this is truly fascinating social history and anyone interested in the 60’s counter-culture or the era of the wild and crazy 70s in US history will find this a great, great read. But more so, it is very valuable for anyone that is interested in ecumenicity, in current congregational life, in the on-going diversity that makes up the religious landscape in American culture and nearly every church in America today. From the charismatic renewal and folk mass movement in the Roman Catholic tradition to the emergent movement in the mainline churches discussed by Phyllis Tickle and lived out by Nadia Bolz Weber to the “young restless and reformed” movement of neo-Puritans like Mark Driscoll, the connections with the awakening which started in this era is nearly a direct line. The rise of evangelicalism, the rise of the religious publishing industry, the rise of the religious right, the rise of the evangelical left, the rise of contemporary worship teams, the rise of mega churches, the rise of Christian colleges, the rise of para-church ministries — from Young Life to the CCO to various work-world ministries (to even fairly calm outfits like Steve Garber’s Washington Institute for Faith, Culture and Vocation) to the new denominations breaking away from old line denominations — all can in one way or another be traced to the renewal of hippy kids and the “one way” movement of the early 70s.
My friend Bill Romanowski has a strong blurb on the back of this serious work and he says it well, “Blossoming amidst the fads and frenzy of the youthful counterculture, the Jesus People blurred traditional boundaries between conservative religion and consumer popular culture. With clarity and insight Larry Eskridge unearths the backstories and central dynamics of this curious phenomenon to show how it left a lasting mark on American evangelicalism.” Tanya Marie Luhrmann, herself an impressive secular scholar of American religious studies says “This long-awaited book tells one of the most important untold stories in postwar American religious life. One cannot understand the resurgence of American evangelical Christianity without taking into account the way hippie Christians shaped its character and development. God’s Forever Family is a splendid history…” We think it deserves every award it gets, including our little shout out here.
BEST BOOK OF CROSS CULTURAL STUDIES
Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora (Atlantic Monthly Press) $25.00 When the blurbs are from fine and caring writers such as Edwidge Danticat (who calls it “exceptionally beautiful”) and Cheryl Strayed (who says “Raboteau has written a poignant, passionate, human-scale memoir about the biggest things”) and Dave Eggers (“my head gets blown off on every page…I doubt if there will be a more important work of nonfiction this year”) you know you have to pay attention. That one of the people I respect the most, who works with African-Americans and Africans in campus ministry, has found it immensely helpful, is a good reminder, too. I love telling people about books they can use in their unique settings, and it is wonderful when the books we promote actually stimulate conversations of consequence. Hooray!
MOST SCARY BOOK OF 2013
Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety Eric Scholosser (The Penguin Press) $36.00 With small pertinent details blacked out on the cover design you already know this is messing with classified information. Some readers will recall the horrors of the Titan Missiles, what these nuclear weapons can do, etc., etc., ad nauseam, literally. If you need a wake-up call about what can go wrong here in the land of the largest and most costly military in the history of the world, leave it to fast-paced, wild-man writer Slosser — who wrote Fast Food Nation a few years back — to blow the lid off things, carefully researching cover-ups and dangers galore. This lively big book is immensely important to understand, a thriller and a large morality tale, and, frankly, the scariest book I have read in ages. It is big and thick and worth every penny if it can convince us that things are not as they seem, and that we must renew our commitments to dismantle these horrible technologies.
HONORABLE MENTION FOR MOST INTERESTINGLY DESIGNED BOOK
The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems Emily Dickinson, Jen Bervin, Marta Werner (New Directions) $39.95 This has gotten great acclaim and really has to be seen to be appreciated. This is a wonderful collection of real pictures of the many famous “envelope poems” by Ms Dickinson. Yes, she wrote on envelopes, and these 52 facsimilies are from late in her life. This shows these hand-done lines on full size ragged, torn papers. The overall effect is nothing short of breath-taking. This hardback book is shows these folded and re-used envelopes with scribbled lines and side-ways cursive… front and back, and are not the easiest to read, for obvious reasons (but they have a full transcription, too.) As a stunning design project and a glorious artifact, this is certainly a beautiful and strangely moving book.
S J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst (Mulholland Books) $35.00 Even the title of this was under wraps for a while, with sales reps promoting it without knowing much with the publishers catalog refusing to say the title or show the cover. Now we know why: it is a book within a book, surrounded by yet another story, and some postcards and other supplies as well. The artful interfacing of these dual stories and paraphernalia is mid-rash (maybe? Or not connected?) and is part of the fun. Is this just a high-end prank? Ostentatious artists gone haywire? Or are there glimpses of literary brilliance, mysteriously referential, postmodern, mystical, maybe? Who knows? (J.J. Abrams, you will recall, brought us most famously the epic TV show Lost. So go figure.)
In S you have a novel, and in the margins of that novel the hand scribbled notations by (who?) another couple, themselves writing another story. I haven’t read either of the stories, let alone tried to figure out the puzzle between and beyond them, but as a clever work of publishing art, as an innovative package and creative project, it deserves very high marks for good effort. I can’t speak to its literary merit, but it is one of the coolest book ideas I’ve seen in a while.
AN HONORARY “EVERY SQUARE INCH” AWARD OF MERIT
TO THE ACTON INSTITUTE FOR DILIGENT EFFORTS TO TRANSLATE THE WRITINGS OF DUTCH STATESMAN AND THEOLOGIAN, ABRAHAM KUYPER
I don’t know how the Dutch say “congratulations” but we can offer thanks by saying hartelijk bedankt for this large on-going project of translating both smaller and larger works of the creative and prodigious Calvinist activist of the late 19th century who lived on into the 20th, helping us all learn about worldviews and ways of life, cultural diversity and strong principles, the non-compromising call to honor Christ in all of life and the gracious goodness of the open-minded notion of common grace which honors the best ways all people (Christians or not) can contribute to human flourishing and the common good.
In Part One of this Best of the Year listing I listed James Bratt’s monumental new Eerdmans biography of Kuyper as one of the best books of 2013 (and last year at this time we celebrated the small introductory monograph by Rich Mouw on why Kuyper matters today) but here we now have more of the real deal.
The Acton Institute just released two brand new Kuyper volumes at the end of 2013, neither having been translated into English before. Either one would be a noteworthy publishing event and Kuyperian or not, those who value a learned and important theological library will be glad for these coming out in English. I know some have prayed for this for decades.
We are pleased to offer our honorable mention to those involved in this noteworthy occasion.
The first new release (which deserves a major review of its own) is now in English called Guidance for Christian Engagement in Government by Abraham Kuyper (CLP Academic; $25.00.) It is a translation (by Harry Van Dyke) of what many from Holland called Our Program. Not quite a manifesto, it was the presentation of first principles, and the policies that evolved from those principles, offered by Kuyper when he first started the uniquely Christian, pro-democratic political party in 1879. Political historians, contemporary civic educators, poly sci majors, pundits of all persuasions and those interested in public theology will be thrilled to know of this.
Our friend (and former South African justice activist) Gideon Strauss writes that “although Kuyper’s context differs from those of present day readers, his practical wisdom, infectious passion, and sparkling intellect continues to inspire and illuminate.” The Center for Public Justice (CPJ) founder James Skillen observes “Our Program is stunning for its depth and breadth when compared with the empty chatter and cheap sloganeering that constitutes so much of our politics today.”
Beyond this 385 page treatise on a Dutch Calvinist view of government and the call for a distinctive Christian political movement (different, we would say, today, than the right or the left, but beholden to the deepest currents of Christian social thinking in the great tradition) the project of Kuyper-translation saw a major milestone being reached in 2013 — the first part of Kuyper’s magnum opus, his multi-volume work on common grace.
Common Grace, Volume 1, Part 1(Noah – Adam) was released last month and should, again, be valued and honored as a publishing event. Translated by Nelson D. Kloosterman and Ed M. van der Maas, this first part of the major first volume of Common Grace was edited by Jordon Ballor and Stephen Grabill. Happily, Richard Mouw has a lovely and helpful introduction. Considered the capstone of Kuyper’s theology, this is the first time a complete translation into English has been attempted and we are grateful, very grateful, to be able to stock and promote it. (CLP Academic; $25.00)
(Kuyperian) kudos to project partners, Acton Institute, Kuyper College, Calvin College, Dordt College, Fuller Theological Seminary and Mid-American Reformed Seminary. Of course the Kuyper library is housed at Princeton Seminary (the site of his famed Lectures on Calvinism where he introduced in 1904 the notion that Reformed faith leads to a distinctive way of engaging the arts and sciences, business and politics. From that came the 20th century interest in worldviews and evangelical intellectual and cultural engagement, and, I might add, the impetus behind a cluttered little bookshop in southern York County. Hearts & Minds is grateful for this project and raises a glass to toast this great effort and the milestone of the first volume being released in 2013. Surely a Best of the Year Award. Soli deo gloria.
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