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So, let’s get this party started.
Here, at last, are some of our choices for the best books of 2014. As I say most years, I’m not aware of every book in every field, and these are titles we’ve come to honor as we’ve deduced from our own reading, titles we’ve stocked in the store, things people seem to most appreciate, honoring good writing about topics that we think are important, or writers we find charming, and, I’ll admit, a matrix of variables that I can’t always name. How does one balance the sheer joy of a zesty read and the significance of a major contribution to a field? How does one rate a book that is moving and lasting, for a nearly ambiguous reason? These caveats in place, here are some I want to honor. We are happy to celebrate some excellent books and glad that a few of you read long (And even more glad if you buy a few from us!)
Despite all the hemming and hawing, we love telling people about our favorites, and after consideration, we want to announce these as some of the very best books of the last year. Part One.
2014 BOOK OF THE YEAR
Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good Steven Garber (IVP) $16.00 If you subscribe to BookNotes or have heard me at nearly any place we’ve set up books these past 11 months, you’ll know that I’ve declared this the best, the most important, the most interesting, the most vital book, and my personal favorite book, of the last several years. We may have been one of the first places where one could pre-order it last year, and I explained why were were so eager, here. I’ve talked about its backstory and launch at Jubilee 2014, which was a fun way to celebrate it, and acknowlege Steve’s role and work at Jubilee. Here is a link where I review the book more precisely, and I explained why I commend it, listing a few very solid reasons. It may be my favorite BookNotes post of the year, and I hope you saw it (and maybe even shared it with those who might be curious about this kind of a mature book.) We offer our congratulations to Steve for the other more important awards it has won (including a runner up Best of honor over at Christianity Today) and our gratitude to InterVarsity Press for the great cover, too. Even the title — Visions of Vocation — seems to be a nice follow up to his previous, important book, Fabric of Faithfulness. I have rarely been so sure about a book I want to honor, commend, and promote. Three very big cheers for the beautiful, profound, smart, and engaging Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good — Hearts & Minds Best Book of the Year, for 2014 AD.
BEST SELLING PRODUCT OF THE YEAR
DVD For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles Acton Institute (Guerrilla Productions) $59.99; our sale price $35.00 We are grateful for large internet ministries like the Gospel Coalition and for friends at Acton and the Washington Institute on Faith, Vocation & Culture, and at RUF, for linking to us as they’ve promoted this remarkable, edgy, creative DVD curriculum which asks “What is our salvation for?” with a multi-faceted, in-the-world-but-not-of-it exploration of how to be faithful within various cultural spheres. I suppose I was one of the very first to review it, and we raved, here. Andy Crouch’s excellent Christianity Today review nearly went viral as he suggested it was the best Christian media resource he has ever seen. (Do click on that if you haven’t read it — he writes so well, and understands FLOW quite well.) We have the colorful leaders/participants Field Guide (regularly $9.95) on sale as well This may be the biggest selling item for us in 30+ years, and we’ve been delighted to ship them all over the world. Congratulations to Stephen J. Grabill, Dwight Gibson, Evan Koons, and the other writers and producers in Grand Rapids for this enjoyable, provocative, insightful, and excellently-created seven-part series. Kudos to the guys in Jars of Clay, too, for the excellent original score and sound-track. Watch the fabulous trailer, here, and then come back and help us promote this fine, fine video resource.
BEST BOOK OF BIBLICAL STUDIES
A New Heaven and New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology J. Richard Middleton (Baker Academic) $26.99 Again, I’ve reviewed this at great length when it first came out, which I hope you saw (read or re-read it here) and we knew it would be award-winning as soon as we examined it. What a book! It is brilliant, good, good stuff. There is no doubt in my mind that this book is urgently needed — among evangelicals and mainline folks alike — to be fully clear about God’s promises of new creation, and how this vision of a restored Earth can animate and sustain our efforts for cultural reform now. Richard is an excellent Biblical scholar and has worked on this serious volume for years; the endorsements have been robust and exceptional, and early readers report it is nearly life-changing. If you really want to live into the reign of God which includes the gracious, redemptive missio dei in all of life, then this kind of vision of God’s rescue of the cosmos is not only important to know, but to know well. I cannot think of a Biblical studies book in recent years that is more needed, more important, and which will bear better fruit. As James K.A. Smith wrote,”if read as widely as I hope, this book would transform North American Christianity.” Amen. Truly one of the best books of 2014!
BEST SOCIAL JUSTICE MEMOIR
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption Bryan Stevenson (Spiegel & Grau) $28.00 I wish I could award this spectacular book multiple awards, and it may be that it will be as enduring as other truly great books of our times. I’ve suggested out loud that I wouldn’t be surprised if this remarkable legal reformer who serves poor, imprisoned clients, gets the Nobel Peace Prize someday. This is a truly extraordinary story, a page-turner, a memoir unlike any I’ve read, truly one of the best books I’ve read in my life. One of the best of 2014? Oh my, my, absolutely yes! Please read my review, here. (The other books I note there, too, are useful as well, but my comments about Just Mercy are about half way down the column.) With endorsements from Desmond Tutu, Michelle Alexander, Isabel Wilkerson, Tracy Kidder, and novelist John Grisham, you should realize that this is a work to be taken seriously. Bishop Tutu calls Stevenson “America’s young Nelson Mandela” and Michelle Alexander (of the important New Jim Crow) says he is one of her personal heroes. As well he should be. Read this amazing book, and you’ll see how Bryan Stevenson has been called a real life Atticus Finch has earned the respect of so very many, by putting criminal reform for the poor, people of color, the very young and the very mentally challenged, at the heart of his vocation to make a difference for the abused. You will see the world more realistically after reading this book, and you will be of better service to God and country.
BEST BOOKS ABOUT THE CHURCH in 2014 — A PRIZE QUARTET
This may be unconventional, but I almost wanted to award these four books not even as individual books, or as a four-way tie, but as somewhat of a tsunami (until I realized that sounded to grandiose and violent.) Yet, these four, which came out within weeks or months of one another, seem of a sort, and are best read together, in conversation with each other. In some cases, the authors are, in fact, friends, and seem to be networked somehow. Their publication not only illustrates an important trend in Christian publishing, as it surely does, but illustrates some of the best insights and (dare I say it without violating these author’s resistance to technique and formula) best practices, for clergy, congregational leaders, church planters, and parish activists. Yep, these four all deserve to be honored, they are each excellent, and, together, they are not merely a four-way tie for this category, but are together a huge force with which we must reckon. Cheers, guys. Thanks.
The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens and Dwight Friesen (IVP) $17.00 Another timely release in the IVP Praxis series, this extraordinary book brings together three very different thinkers and practitioners, each who have done excellent work in re-imagining the church in our post-Christian age, and have lived out the implications of a sense of place and a clear passion for Christ-like missional service. When reviewers as astute as Walter Brueggemann say that it is “teeming with fresh ideas and rich energy for the future of the church…this is hand-on missional ecclesiology in its most generative mode” you know you should read it. When one as widely read as Phyllis Tickle says “Hands down, one of the most sensible and simultaneously exhilarating books I have read in a long time” you know you will enjoy it. Three cheers for these three amigos.
Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus C. Christopher Smith & John Pattison (IVP) $16.00 If this book is any indication of the Praxis line of IVP, we can take much hope in the future of rumination on the state of the church and the art of missional ministry. You may recall that I raved about this, exclaiming that it was my personal favorite book in this category in years — and one of my personal favorite reads of 2014! — and that we brought one of the authors here to speak earlier this fall. Kudos to our friends who here relate “high speed internet, rapid rewards, quick trips, fast food, and… church?” Taking a cue from the slow food movement, they wonder what church might be like if they were inspired by the sorts of things the slow foodies think about. Brilliant, just brilliant! One of the Best Books of 2014 for sure.
Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church-Growth Culture Tim Suttle (Zondervan) $16.99 Chris Smith (of Slow Church fame, and a consummate reader and book reviewer himself at The Englewood Review of Books) says “Shrink is one of the wisest and most significant evangelical books that I’ve read in the last decade; it is essential for every pastor and church leader!” Stanley Hauerwas insists that if many churches have lost their way “Suttle helps us see how God in our time is making us leaner and meaner. I hope this book will be widely read.” I trust that this will not be misconstrued: this is not necessarily in favor of only smaller churches and doesn’t necessarily disapprove of those whose congregations are thriving or growing in meaningful ways. Of course not. But, if yours is smaller or struggling, this will give you wise insight and encouragement. And if yours is larger and effective, I think it will offer keen perspective and needed reminders of what the local church is called to be and do, and how best to honor faithfulness in this particular time in the life of our culture. Impressive.
Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure J.R. Briggs (IVP) $16.00 I have told you about this before, and I am struck by how this thoughtful book has sold well at clergy conferences and pastor’s gatherings; it resonates for several reasons. The book is excellently conceived and well written, it emerges from the authors own epic fail, and the subsequent shame and sense of rejection that comes with ministry failure, and it offers unique spiritual insights on coping with and drawing upon the lessons of ministry plans that were aborted or dissolved. The Alban Institute had a few monographs on closing a church and a few small books have appeared here and there, but this is doubtlessly the best I’ve seen on this urgent topic. With a foreword by Eugene Peterson (and a fine endorsement by Ruth Haley Barton and Leonard Sweet) you can see a number of solid folks have agreed. This book deserves its hard-won awards.
BEST BOOK OF WORSHIP STUDIES
Evangelical Versus Liturgical? Defying a Dichotomy Melanie C. Ross (Eerdmans) $17.00 We have boldly touted this book since we first received it, writing about it, showing it off, explaining its rather rare qualities. Ross teaches liturgics at the prestigious and might I suggest somewhat high-brow and ecumenical Yale Divinity School, but is well-suited to write a book which studies less liturgically sophisticated, ordinary evangelical congregations. Can evangelical and low-church worship traditions see themselves as liturgical? Can those from higher church traditions of more formalize liturgy learn from the thinking and practice done in these kinds of churches? Anglican parishes and Evangelical Free churches and Lutherans, say, aren’t likely to have too many common worship experiences, let alone host panels and confabs and conversations learning from one another — except maybe at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship who commissioned this, and published it within its liturgical studies series. So, what better than at least to read about this false dichotomy, and ponder how to learn from each other?
I agree with Don Saliers, who refers to her “keen knowledge of ritual and liturgical studies” and calls it “wise and important” and then says it “is a major resource for anyone concerned about contrasts and convergences in worship practice.”
Here is what Jamie Smith says of it:
This is a book that many of us have been waiting for. It is winsome without being wishy-washy; critical yet profoundly charitable. Above all it is both sharp and wise. Instead of the usual invitation for evangelicals to grow up and become ‘liturgical,’ Ross empowers free-church evangelicals to see the liturgical wisdom already implicit in their practices — and presses liturgical theologians to appreciate the same. In doing so, she also invites evangelicals to become newly intentional about worship drawing from the deep wells of liturgical theology. This book is a win-win-win.
BEST MEMOIR — OF A ONE DAY STORY
City of God: Faith in the Streets Sara Miles (Jericho Books) $20.00 You may not approve of all of the beliefs and values of this outspoken Episcopalian activist, but if you know her other amazing books (Take This Bread and Jesus Freak) you know she is one of our finest, most passionate and powerful writers, with an amazing prose style and an entertaining eye for detail. Anne Lamott says it is “Gorgeous, gritty, profound… I love everything she writes, but there is some special about this new book.” City of God jumps back and forth with memories and flashbacks, and in many ways continues the journey of liturgy and justice, prayer and politics, so beautifully told in her previous books. But it mostly tells of three worship services experienced one Ash Wednesday, an traditional early morning service in the fancy sacred space of her church, the public action of offering ashes in the streets throughout the afternoon, in a public worship experience for the masses, and a reflection and debriefing at the end of this long, moving day. Even if you are not involved in urban ministry and even if you are not interested in liturgical acts like these, this is a poignant and profound “love song to her neighborhood” and a reminder, as one reviewer wrote, “how every ;moment of our lives is liturgy, and each and every liturgy we do if for the whole world which God loves so dearly.”
BEST MEMOIR — OF A ONE YEAR STORY
Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist Bill McKibben (Times Books) $26.00 I hope you recall my review of this (here) as I really, really loved this book. I won’t spoil it for you, but you should know that Mr. McKibben is a fine autobiography writer, a nature observer, a lay theologian, and one of the leading climate change activists in the world. In this behind-the-scenes story he gives the moment-by-moment telling of his year fighting the polluting and dangerous XL Pipeline from the dirty Tar Sands of the fields in Canada, including his organizing chapters all over the world, doing stressful travel and speaking and press work, and leading a campaign of civil disobedience at the White House to protest the Administration’s foot-dragging on global warming matters. This is elegant, moving, honest, and even if one doesn’t agree with level of urgency McKibben insists is needed, or much of his political organizing, it is a great glimpse into the life and habits of “an unlikely activist.” And here is what bumps this jump good to great: almost half the book is about his finding respite by learning from his Vermont neighbor the art of bee keeping. There is moral outrage, there is personal courage, there is astute policy advocacy, but there is the simple joy of caring for his corner of nature, and the fine art of learning pretty nifty skills of tending to the bees. Oil and honey, get it? What a book! Highly recommended!
BEST MEMOIR — OF A SEVERAL YEAR STORY
Coming Ashore Catherine Gildiner (ECW Press) $24.95 This is the third installment of the life story of this truly amazing person, a Canadian psychologist and novelists whose literary gifts just shone in her first book, Too Close to the Falls which hilariously told of her eccentric — precocious is putting it mildly — childhood working in her father’s pharmacy in Niagara Falls, and her second, After the Falls told colorfully and poignantly of her coming of age and living large in the 1960s, with crazy jobs, working as a white girl in the civil rights movement in Ohio, and of her odd parents and the debilitating illness of her beloved father. This last memoir tells of her early 70’s year in England as an Oxford University student, her return to life here, her falling in love (again), her on-going coping with aging parents, and some other stuff I just can’t say lest I spoil the surprise.
This was the most enjoyable memoir both Beth and I have read all year, truly one of my favorite books of 2014, and her whole irresistible trilogy will be enjoyed by anyone who appreciates the art of the memoir. If you like Mary Karr, say, you will love these well-remembered biographical stories that unfold beautifully, movingly, with great wit and grace, with great self-awareness and insight. We are delighted to tell you about these, am confident that it deserves a place on the Best Books of 2014 list, and want to honor all three. Send us an order, you’ll enjoy them, we are sure!
BEST MEMOIR — OF A LIFETIME STORY
Rumours of Glory: A Memoir Bruce Cockburn (HarperOne) $28.99
I zipped through the more than 500 pages of this in a few days over a weekend and I’ve hardly been happier all year. What a read! How fun to revisit old songs and earlier albums, learning about them all. I suppose you know that I am a huge fan of this important Canadian rock star, guitar virtuoso, former Christian singer-songwriter, and on-going human rights and social justice activist. Agree or not with Mr. Cockburn’s life choices or political vision, for anyone interested in the music business, or in a behind-the-scenes glimpse of an artist, this book is fantastic.
I would like to re-say much of an earlier review I wrote at BookNotes, so you realize why it is important that I honor this splendidly interesting work.
Truth be told, my musical hero comes across as I feared: Mr. Cockburn no longer calls himself a Christian (although he is very, very candid about the earnest and thoughtful faith he held for years) and he is a bit spicy in his language (nothing new there.) He’s an eccentric dude, we know, and I realized this more and more in this very revealing memoir. I found his reporting of his childhood days truly interesting and his rise into music, music school, and eventual stardom fascinating. He is honest about a handful of romantic relationships that haven’t worked out. Like many artists, he’s got some issues; he is undergoing Jungian dream therapy and getting to the bottom of some of his haunting concerns. He is also a remarkably virtuous person in many ways. His narrations of making music, writing songs, preforming with other great musicians, his production of his many albums — I know each one by heart and he gives some great details about specific tracks and recording processes and production notes! — is fantastic and a must for true fans. If you are interested in popular music, or care at all about this telling of his tale, this really is a great and very handsome book. It has been very favorably reviewed in places like Rolling Stone and we are happy to honor it now.
Cockburn’s well known lefty activism, his philanthropy, his reporting from all over the globe, his travel-based research and bearing witness to repression, war, poverty, ecological crisis, and more makes the book not just entertaining and a good read, it is riveting, vital, important, deeply moving at times. We need to hear this stuff — from the awful ways in which the US funded torturers and death squads in Central America to the way the “radium rain” came down after Chernobyl to the land mind issues in Cambodia and Africa… one really learns a lot from this, and his explanations are often first hand and come from solid research. This is first hand story-telling, with politics and prayer, romance and sex, fear and bravado, song-writing and art, mixed together in a life story of one of the more important pop singers of our time.
Jackson Browne (who appears in it) says,
This is the story of the development of one of the most astute and compelling songwriters in the English language. Bruce Cockburn’s journey, both as a musician and as a thinker, draws us with him into spiritual and political realms and becomes a chronicle of his engagement in the major issues of the past thirty years. Rumours of Glory is highly personal account by one whose quest for expression engages the most important social questions of our time.
Lewis Hyde, author of that amazing book on creativity and generosity, The Gift (which inspired Bruce’s great song of that same name) says “Cockburn gives us a finely-grained account of the ground from which he harvested some of the finest songs of his generation.”
HONORABLE MENTIONS: TWO NEW MEMOIRS BY CHRISTIAN INTELLECTUALS
From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian’s Discovery of the Global Christian Story Mark A. Noll (Baker Academic) $19.99
Reading a Different Story: A Christian Scholar’s Journey from America to Africa Susan VanZanten (Baker Academic) $19.99
Honors to Baker Academic for this surprisingly thrilling, very informative series called “Turning South: Christian Scholars in an Age of World Christianity.” Kudos to series editor Joel Carpenter for his efforts which has invited evangelical academics to tell their story, not only of their faith journey and how they have seen their work (as scholars and teachers) as an expression of (and informed by) their own deep Christian convictions, but how this faith has changed over recent years as they’ve increasingly been exposed to Christians (and others) in the global South. I have raved about the first one in this series, a must-read memoir by Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff (Journey Towards Justice) and commend it again, now that there are others in this great series.
Mark Noll, of course, is an eminent historian whose every new book is met with enthusiasm, both among historians and scholars, but all who read the best Christian writing. This new book, however, is more personal, and “is the one we have been hoping he would write” as one reviewer proclaimed. The esteemed Philips Jenkins not only exclaims that he is especially delighted by From Every Tribe and Nation but that it “takes the literature on world Christianity to a whole new level.” Noll is a good storyteller, of course, and his telling of how “global Christianity” has become known in our generation is truly remarkable. One of the very important, and lovely books of 2014, for sure!
Reading a Different Story, was particularly delightful for me, and I am glad that we announced it when it first came out. Many BookNotes readers appreciate, and take inspiration from, books about books, memoirs of writers, moving essays about how faith informs literature. Ms VanZanten does this well, but here, in keeping with the theme of the Turning South series, she talks about her own experiences in the developing world, what we used to call the Third World. This book is splendid, and a fun read for anyone interested in global travel or world missions. It is very important for those who teach, especially for college professors, wanting to be current in efforts to be properly multi-cultural. It’s great strength, though, is how it brings to us insights about African literature, and other important writings from the post-colonial years in the global South. Some of you know these books — think, Things Fall Apart, just for instance — and will love this rumination on “reading a different story.”
Listen to these fine endorsements:
“This engaging intellectual autobiography is a rare treat for anyone pondering what it means to be a Christian scholar and teacher in the twenty-first century. It offers no vague generalizations. Rather, VanZanten has crafted clear-eyed, generous, and wise reflections on her journey into this vocation–from the intertwined blessings and challenges of her Dutch Reformed roots, through the liberating effects and pitfalls of collegiate and graduate study, to experience in an ecumenical range of Christian higher education. The dominant connecting theme is the value of learning to hear the voice of the ‘other, ‘ particularly those outside the North Atlantic context.”
–Randy L. Maddox, Duke Divinity School
“In this beautifully written memoir, an exceptionally creative, courageous, and faithful scholar-teacher invites readers to join her on a journey that has led her to a truly global sense of both literature and Christianity. Encountering Susan VanZanten’s expanding vision, we are challenged to broaden our own–and also given fresh resources that will help us to face that challenge. I highly recommend this book to those who teach in church-related colleges and universities.”
–Dorothy C. Bass, Valparaiso University
“VanZanten offers a rich weave of memoir and theological reflection and makes a compelling argument for curricular globalization that is dialectical, deep, and humble. She shows how a life of scholarship is also an adventure rife with mystery and grace. All who teach or read literature and all who seek to understand what shalom has to do with story will want to read this thoughtful book more than once.”
–Marilyn McEntyre, writer; fellow at the Gaede Institute, Westmont College; UC Berkeley
BEST BOOK IN THE FIELD OF AMERICAN HISTORY
Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians Justin Martin (De Capo) $27.99 I knew I would love this from the first few pages, and a few more in, I was reading out loud to Beth for nights on end. I not only thoroughly enjoyed this delightful social history, but learned so very much. (Who knew that the first stand-up comedian, delivered what was called a “comic lecture” since they didn’t have a name for stand-up in the mid 19th century? Who knew that Whitman had these other folks around him?) This book explores a rowdy group of artists, writers, journalists, activists, and philosophers who gathered for years almost every night at an underground bar (Pfaff’s Saloon in Greenwich Village ) knowingly and intentionally trying to import to the US the new social movement and cultural philosophy of France, wanting to be known as bohemians. In a way, this biographical sketch of this crew, and their ideas, is a huge window into counter-cultural movements and fringe artists every since, and could be valuable for any who live and work in hipster circles or within those called to the arts. (Where did the idea come from that art, to be authentic, must somehow be shocking or against the mainstream tastes?) Seen another way, this is also a study of how any idea might be clarified, re-fashioned, embodied, and disseminated by way of relationships, networks, writing, using the arts, and strategizing how to reform civic institutions. And a couple of good “third places.” Yes, this looks at the famous poet, but more, it looks at his crew, those who gathered at Pfaffs, who caused the artsy, counter-cultural vision of bohemia to be spread into North American culture. I really loved this book, spanning from the last half of the 19th century — including some awful stuff about the raptures caused by the Civil War — and highly, highly recommend it.
Here is a brief review I wrote of it earlier at BookNotes.
Here is what the Los Angeles Review of Books wrote this past September, with a nice reminder of the important second half of the book:
a compelling, insightful group biography…Vividly describes not only Pfaff’s heyday, but also how Clapp’s coterie, once it was dispersed by the chaos, duties, and opportunities brought by the Civil War, came to define an unmistakably American species of rebel artist…Martin sets himself an ambitious task, and rises to it in the structure and reach of his telling. In 1860, the war scatters his protagonists, whose fates he follows for the latter two-thirds of Rebel Souls like a literary LoJack…Martin’s done a remarkable job bringing ‘those times, that place’ very much alive through his painstaking research…Pfaff’s rebel souls, Martin makes plain, are all around us.
Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Charles Marsh (Knopf) $35.00 There have been many, many biographies of the extraordinary life of the German Lutheran martyr and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and, to be honest, many were less than thrilling, dry, poorly translated and whatnot. Eric Metaxas’s splendid, lively, and deservedly popular Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy broke some odd barrier, and now Bonhoeffer books are truly in vogue, his work is studied, and the floodgates have been opened for new work on his life and times. Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been in the making for a long, long, time, and the meticulous research shows. Still, Marsh has been writing on other topics (including race and social change in the US and I admire his passionate books such as God’s Long Summer, The Beloved Community, and a recent one co-written with John Perkins, Welcoming Justice.) I am not qualified to adjudicate the controversies around various schools of thought regarding the best reading of Bonhoeffer or the details of his personal life. I still highly recommend Metaxas, which is so interesting and lively, although this moving new hardback book by Marsh is a weighty, serious, tome, and it is very well written, and deserves very special mention. It could be that it is the best, serious biography yet done on DB. The sober and quite wise and eloquent Alan Jacobs calls it “an extraordinary account” and says it is “profoundly researched and vividly imagined. Marsh has unearthed enough archival material to keep generations of Bonhoeffer scholars occupied, but, more important, has used his knowledge to weave a mesmerizing tale about one of the giants of the twentieth century. I can’t remember when I’ve read a more compelling biography.” Wow. 2014 has been a great year for good books, eh?
A DOUBLE-AWARD: BEST NEW CONTRIBUTION TO BONHOEFFER STUDIES & BEST YOUTH MINISTRY BOOK
Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together Andrew Root (Baker Academic) $19.99 Yep, this is on the top of the stack in two categories! I think Root is a very important writer these days, and hope pastors know his Zondervan book, The Relational Pastor, and that theological thinkers know his recent Christopraxis (Fortress) and that all of us read his remarkable Abingdon book, The Promise of Despair.) I am adding this one to the Best Books of 2014 list because Root has added a new insight into Bonhoeffer that has never been well explored, and has developed his research with such far-reaching implications that it simply has become a “must read” for many of us. Yep, this studies the years in which Bonhoeffer was a youth pastor, his regular interest in the role of children, and in reporting much about those practices, he draws implications for the changing world of youth ministry in our time. In a way, this is a great introduction to Bonhoeffer, and a great reforming proposal for youth min. Fantastic!
A VERY HONORABLE MENTION: THE BEST BIOGRAPHY OF AN ALMOST FORGOTTEN PERSON
Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More — Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist Karen Swallow Prior (Nelson) $24.99 I’ve reviewed this for the Center for Public Justice at their Capitol Commentary, and at our own BookNotes. Here is some of what I said when this came out this fall: Oh my, where to begin? I want to read this because I don’t know much about the remarkable woman who came alongside William Wilberforce in his on-going struggle against slavery (perhaps you recall her small role in the film Amazing Grace.) I am sure such a valiant woman’s story will be very, very valuable to many, and I for one need to know more about this era, and her role. Secondly, Karen Swallow Prior is the smart and sassy author — her first book was a memoir about influential books in her life — and I think I’d line up to buy whatever book she had on offer after that brilliant debut. And, then there are these magnificent, ebullient blurbs: sometimes you pick up a book just because so many people you really respect rave about it.
So we are not alone in celebrating this significance of this important volume, and we are not the only ones that want to so honor it. From the foreword by Eric Metaxas (whose earlier book on Wilberforce was fantastic and included some good pages on Hannah More) to Richard Mouw to Mark Noll to Ann Voskamp to Leonard Sweet, many are insisting it is one of the best of the year. Sweet (who knows a thing or two about the Brits in this era, by the way) writes, “Here is that rarity of a book: scholarship of impeccable rigor that’s also a compulsive page-turner. Reading Karen Swallow Prior feels like a privilege.” Agreed!
HONORABLE MENTION: MOST VALUABLE RESOURCE FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE MINISTRY (by several authors)
Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith Mae Elise Cannon, Lisa Sharon Harper, Troy Jackson, Soong-Chan Rah (Zondervan) price $22.99 I wrote about this first for Capitol Commentary (an e-newsletter of the Center for Public Justice) and then again at BookNotes. Here you can find my comments and see my explanation of why I think it is so very, very important, and why these authors are so important to our efforts an deepening our social mission in the name of Christ.
It surely deserves to be listed as one of the Best Books of 2014, and certainly one of the most timely; the events that have transpired this year in Ferguson MO (and elsewhere) and the instense discussions, often hard, that we’ve had about them (even at my own facebook, and with dear friends and customers) surely indicates the urgency of this. This powerful and important book includes some very bad news, news that we would ought not pretend to forget, but would be wise to ponder, to own, and to experience with sadness and lament. But it also includes some even better news, not cheap or thin, but robust and glorious, real gospel truth: confession can lead to forgiveness, repentance leads to new life. Confessing our sins against land and people and cultures and turning from unjust ways is a beautiful door to a joyful and good way of life — honest, vulnerable, relevant and fruitful. Yes, this book in many ways is hard to read, and even the most socially aware reader will learn much about our sorrowful past. But, again, this is brave and good and exciting: what joy can come from lament, repentance, and renewed commitments to seek justice and reconciliation! God will be pleased, Christ glorified, and our watching world intrigued as we admit to our violent and vile past, learning to talk in informed ways about corporate brokenness, and seek fresh new ways to be agents of hope. Congratulations to Harper, Cannon, Rah, and Jackson for this brave, urgent book.
Here is a blurb I myself offered that appears in the book; it was a great honor to be included with others who added their endorsements:
1 Chronicles 12:32 mentions the sons of Issachar, who “understood the times and knew what God’s people should do.” Of course, one cannot understand our times without going into the past, and realizing the roots of our current historical situation. Our brave authors here do this for us, helping us learn things we did not know, underscoring certain features of our past social failings and bad theologies, and then offer insightful theological reflections to help us name sin, seek forgiveness and move forward in newness of life. Anyone wanting to be Christ’s ambassadors of reconciliation and agents of God’s transforming Kingdom simply must grapple with the social sins named in this book, nurturing hearts that can become broken and healed by these stories of pain and compromise. We must learn the rhythms and goodness of grace that comes through lament and admitting guilt. This book will, indeed, help us be sons and daughters of Issachar — aware, repentant, wise, and relevant. I pray it gets a wide, wide readership.
HONORABLE MENTION: MOST VALUABLE RESOURCE FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE MINISTRY (by a single author)
Doing Good Without Giving Up: Sustaining Social Action in a World That’s Hard to Change Ben Lowe (IVP) $16.00 Just a few years ago I raved about a book that remains a companion for me, and should be in the backpack or end-table of any activist (or those who may not identify as an activist, but one who cares deeply about making a difference in the world.) That book was by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson and was called The World Is Not Ours To Save and it remains a very, very special book to me. Stevenson’s call to deep spiritual practices that allow us to be people of hope, to trust God with the rescuing of the planet, is mature and sound. And yet, there is a need for a companion volume to that, one that is, well, maybe just a wee bit more practical. As the kids say, we might wonder what it looks like to be an activist of this very sort, hopeful, working out of good motivations, not fearful or frantic or angry. How does one keep on, keeping on? It is a central theme of Steve Garber’s serious reflection (Visions of Vocation) but again, we need a clear guide, a handbook to accompany us along the journey. My friend Ben Lowe has given us just what we need and a great, great gift in offering a book just like this: here is what, indeed, a spiritually-wise, balanced, hopeful, engaged, Christ-centered life of world-changing activism really looks like. Lowe (who has even run for office, which gives him some nifty stories) offers profound ruminations on truly big stuff — avoiding idolatries, practicing repentance, building bridges with opponents, discerning one’s vocation around various causes and issues, and more mundane things for any of us involved in ministry or social change work, the small things that matter. This book includes practical advice, important guidance in living out the love of Jesus, doing the good and holy work of advocacy for change, and yet enjoying the ride. This is a book I have longed for in years past, and one I want to share with anyone who wants to persevere when, as he says, “the novelty wares off and our enthusiasm runs out.” Doing Good offers key practices for sustaining social action, and allows us to seek God’s Kingdom through faithful missional lives. Excellent. I am sure I will be talking about it, and recommending it, for years to come.
HONORABLE MENTION: AN INSPIRING JOURNEY INTO THE HEART OF HOPE
The Way of Tea and Justice: Rescuing the World’s Favorite Beverage From It’s Violent History Becca Stevens (Jericho) $22.00 Perhaps you’ve read Steven’s other moving reflections about progressive Biblical faith, or her quiet little books of self-help spirituality. Her 2013 memoir Snake Oil was critically acclaimed and very powerful. This recent book does two things, at least: it tells the story of how their Thistle Farm ministry decided to open a (fair-trade) tea shop to supplement their job-training ministry with sexual abused, trafficked and addicted women, and it tells the story of how tea is grown, harvested, sold, and enjoyed over time and geography. What a pair of stories, the story of tea, and the story of the Thistle Farm cafe. As Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times writes, “Women served by Thistle Farms would be dead by now if it weren’t for the remarkable initiative by the Rev. Becca Stevens…” Yes, tea can be “a long journey into hope.” This inspiring book has down to earth advice, spiritual rumination, history, economics, and one heck of an wholesome entrepreneurial project at its heart. Steep some healthy tea, and as you read this, be glad for this kind of book in 2014.
BEST BOOK OF EVANGELISM
??The Unbelievable Gospel: Say Something Worth Believing Jonathan K. Dodson (Zondervan) $16.99 I like reading books about evangelism, and there are many that are really good. I find that most people — mainline liberals, progressive evangelicals, Roman Catholics, older-school fundamentalists, even — don’t know how to share their deepest convictions in ways that are natural and persuasive. We are either too pushy or, increasingly, at least in our circles, so understandably desirous of not seeming disrespectful, that we often stay quiet, even when opportunities present themselves to share the gospel. And then, sometimes, we do broach the subject of telling our story and we realize there is a huge disconnect between what we know to be gracious good news, and the typical unchurched person’s view of Christianity; or, there is a disconnect between what we want to say, what we believe deeply to be the truest truths, and our confusion and inability to actually say much coherent. No wonder we’d rather just nod and smile.
There are bunches of books that are good, and some that are stellar. The Unbelievable Gospel is the best I’ve seen in several years on this topic, from its colorful and helpful design (similar to early Rob Bell books, in terms of page design) to its mature clarity about the nature of communication, and, mostly, about its astute appreciation for how faith and Christian discipleship simply isn’t compelling, or even plausible, for many in our culture. The last five chapters — metaphors, “Good News to Those Who…” is worth the price of the book. Lots of thinkers I respect (from Alan Hirsch to Jerram Barrs, from Ed Stetzer to Mark Sayers) have given this big thumbs up. David Fitch says it is “stunningly clarifying.” We think it deserves a Best of the Year shout out. Congrats!
BEST BOOK OF APOLOGETICS
True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of our Complex World David Skeel (IVP) $15.00 We were pleased to promote this a bit when it very first came out while at the 2014 annual Christian Legal Society Conference this fall — what a trip to Boston, with thoughtful legal thinkers and Christian lawyers! Professor Skeel was not there, but many there knew of his astute legal mind, and his charitable, caring style. He is a rigorous thinker, and a good man, we’ve come to realize, and this book has been long-awaited for those of us who have followed him on line. The heart of this book is captured well in the title and in the reference to complexity in the subtitle — although my silly summary (that Christianity isn’t plausibly true only because of its tight, logical answers to tough questions, but because of its leaving room for weirdness) maybe works, too. That is, the Christian worldview offers a good account of a world where not everything can be easily explained, and its comfort with paradox and mystery is itself a good sign of its being attuned to reality. This is another book published by IVP in cooperation with the Veritas Forum, a solid, open-minded, evangelical ministry which sets up conversations, symposia and debates on college campuses. I love that the back of this book states “Our complex world raises difficult questions” without shying away. We’re not shy in affirming this is one of the Best Books of 2014.
BEST BOOKS OF BASIC CHRISTIAN GROWTH
Although I don’t review a lot of these sorts of books — often called “Christian living” — it is most likely the largest category in our inventory. (Well, maybe alongside spirituality and Biblical studies.) There are so many, and so many good ones, we hardly know how to honor just one or two. There are resources written in styles and tones and with angles and insights for nearly anyone, from any denominational background. Many are truly excellent. We want to very honorably mention these five for being a bit surprising, contemporary, interesting, well-written, and powerfully helpful for the ordinary life of faith development.
Charis: God’s Scandalous Grace for Us Preston Sprinkle (foreword by Tullian Tchividjian) (Cook) $14.99 There is a cottage industry of recent books that have “gospel-centered” in the title, and lots about the good news of God’s merciful grace. Sprinkle is a lively, hip author, with a cool writing style, which traces this key doctrine from the beginning of the Bible to the end of Christ’s life. So, yes, this is mostly a study of grace in the Old Testament. His insight is solid, his pastoral wisdom helpful, and his Biblical insight is at times nearly stunning, and delivered with some flavorful zeal. What a scandal, that almost all of us need to hear, week after week: God loves us and offers unmerited mercy. As it says on the back, “take a journey into Charis — where harlots are hugged, enemies are enjoyed, and really bad people receive really good things from a Creator who stubbornly delights in undelightful people. Like us.”
Playdates with God: Having Childlike Faith in a Grown-up World Laura J. Boggess (Leafwood) $14.99 I have only met this author once or twice, in passing, although I have come to respect her immensely. She is an excellent writer and a content editor at TheHighCalling.org — the remarkable blog which helps guide folks to think about connections between worship and work, callings and careers, faith and life. While this broad vision of the Kingdom and a keen sense of calling and vocation hovers around her work, in this lovely book she shows what is often in her own heart — a simple faith that sees how God is calling us back to an intimate relationship with our Creator. I resonated with her opening pages, sharing how she decided not to have a traditional “daily quiet time” of prayer and reading a little devotional book. Certainly she believes in rigorous study and prayer, but wondered what her time of spiritual formation might be like if she understood it less as a study, but as a “playdate.”
We all want some deep connection with God, discerned even while we are passing through fairly ordinary turf. We want to practice the presence. We want to rediscover wonder, be refreshed in joy, surprised, even — perhaps even recapture a bit of child-likeness. I’m convinced that this moving book can help. As the very good writer Emily Wierenga says of it, “this is a must-read for those with restless hearts, longing to find their way home.” Congratulations to Ms Boggess for helping us so by sharing much from her own play, her own joy, amidst her own pain and struggle. We could all use a play-date with God, eh?
Real Christian: Bearing the Marks of Authentic Faith Todd Wilson (Zondervan) $16.99 Okay, I’ll admit: I love a book that is useful like this, with excellent discussion questions at the end of each chapter, a few Bible verses to read and reflect upon, some excellent and often serious books recommended for digging deeper after each chapter, and a few inspiring biographies to further encourage readers. The author loves classic, serious theology and knows how to recommend good books, at least for those that want to dig in. This plan for basic Christian growth isn’t nearly enough, of course (what one book would be?) but it is an excellent start for anyone that wants to be clear about first things, their own salvation and an assurance of God’s grace as they explore true Christianity, allowing the gospel to transform them from the inside-out. These lively chapters or well done and upbeat, but not too light-hearted. The author has a nearly palpable passion to help young Christians — or older ones — understand and embrace the central truths that can reform our affections and passions, offering us the graces of a Christ-centered life. With strong endorsements from Collin Hanson (who reads very deeply in this sort of thing as editorial director of The Gospel Coalition) and Timothy George and James MacDonald, you will realize that this is classic, evangelical theology, explained and applied to the heart of one that desires God. It is, in this sense, a primer on the Christian life. Dan Wolgemuth, CEO of Youth For Christ/USA says “Read this book. Soak in it. Savor each word like you would the bite of a fine meal.” He insists it is “strong, convicting, and inspiring.” We are glad for meaty works offered in contemporary packaging and with such accessible style.
Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, And How THey Can Change Your Life Eric Metaxas (Dutton) $27.95 Perhaps a few decades ago we here at the shop felt that there was maybe a bit too much being published about miracles, about charismatic renewal, about unusual spiritual experiences, books promoting a rather sensational view of life and faith. Now, with the odd exception of the spate of books about people who claim to visit heaven, it seems there isn’t nearly as much in mainstream religious publishing about these mysterious episodes. Maybe we need a dose of serious writing about mystery and miracle. Mr. Metaxas, a witty and winsome writer, with a PhD from Yale, is perfect for this large assignment, and he has delivered for our edification (and bafflement, perhaps) one heckuva a great book. I’ve written about it before, carted it all over our travels this fall, and agree with the many rave reviewers that this is a very special, nearly extraordinary book. Owen Strachan (author of Risky Gospel) says reading it will “re-enchant your humanity” (which itself deserves some sort of award for best promise for a book in 2014!) Always impressive TV star Patricia Heaton says that “Metaxas’s Miracles mixes storytelling with logic and inspiring beauty with profound mystery. It’s an intoxicating combination.” And one worthy of an award — a Hearts & Minds Best Book of 2014.
God in the SInk: Essays from Toad Hall Margie L. Haack (Kalos Press) $11.95 A few years ago we eagerly awarded Margie Haack a best book of the year award, for her riveting, moving, gentle memoir, The Exact Place. Now she is back and this is nearly auto-biographical, again, although it isn’t structured as a memoir. This splendid book is a great collection of letters and articles Margie wrote to her supporters, donors and friends of the ministry of Ransom, which she and her husband Denis manage out of a home called Toad Hall. These essays were all from the “Notes from Toad Hall” magazine she sent out, and are honest (sometimes painfully so) ruminations, often including Biblical reflections, about her life and times, about ministry and homemaking, about being a wife, mother, grandmother, friend, and citizen of the great state of Minnesota. Margie is very honest about her fears and foibles, candid about the dumb stuff she sees (in her marriage, in her home, among those with whom she serves) and also sees the absolute glory of the quotidian. I have written at length about why you should buy this book, and why we love it so — I was a bit gushy about the book in my review at BookNotes, and some said it was one of the better reviews I’ve done, lately, so I hope you revisit it, and spread the word.
It should come as no surprise that we think it is one of certainly one of the Best Books of 2014.
We’re not alone in saying this, by the way. My blurb on the back cover stands alongside stellar endorsements by serious folks like Steve Garber, Andi Ashworth, Zack Eswine. It is dedicated to the memory of one of Margie’s earliest mentors, Edith Schaeffer (1904 – 2013.) Kudos.
friends and fans, we maybe aren’t dressed in gowns and tuxedos, and we
may not have Tina Fey and Amy Pohler as emcees (although we do have
their funny books) but this is the intermission in this humble little
awards show. We’ll be back soon after we all stretch a bit. As they
say, there’s much more to come — we’ll name books in the categories of spirituality, missions, family life, politics, popular culture and the arts, theology, a few other odd-ball, made-up categories, and, of course, fiction. Stay tuned.
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