Some Hearts & Minds favorite Books about Reading the Bible and the Best Study Bibles — on sale, too.

What an interesting time it has been these last weeks, announcing in two different posts our favorite books of 2016. We did a long review of Michael Wear’s thrilling new book Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House about the Future of Faith in America and announced that we will be hosting him here at the shop in Dallastown on March 10th for an in-store author appearance.  Less than a week ago I did what we think was a particularly important newsletter, describing ten mostly new books, mostly about navigating conversations about civil rights, racial justice and God’s heart for reconciliation.  Did you see it?

All of our past newsletters are nicely archived at the Hearts & Minds website so do browse around at those last BookNotes posts.

Our passion for racial justice, social reform, public theology, and offering books to help you be better citizens and agents for the common good — bearing witness to God’s transforming grace over “every square inch” of creation (as the Jubilee Conference 2017 says, cribbing from Abraham Kuyper’s famous phrase) — comes, we hope you know, from the Bible. Why do we think Christians should be in the vanguard of bringing justice and goodness and beauty to the world? The Bible tells us so!

deeper look at IVP studies.jpgOf course we stock small group Bible study guides on every book of the Bible (and DVD curriculum on many Biblical topics and themes.)  We wished we sold more of them. Send us an email or use the inquiry page at the website if you need any help finding resources. Just tell us what  your group is like and what you want to study. I’m sure we can make your job easier as a small group leader, Sunday school teacher, campus worker, or pastor. Or just for anyone wanting to dive in a bit deeper…

We regularly reply to customers, creating lists of options, recommending books they can use.  And, of course, we list some favorites here in the BookNotes newsletter that can help our readers understand God’s Word and renew their commitments to study it well.  We offer books from top scholars; recall how we described the fabulous, serious collection edited by Michael Goheen, Reading the Bible Missionally (Eerdmans; $35.00) or that we named as one of the Best Books of last year the recent big book of Biblical study by N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (HarperOne; $28.99.)

We’ve been celebrating new books, academic and popular, by John
Goldingay and Chris Wright and Walter Brueggemann, just as other
examples of a great Old Testament scholars that we enjoy.

apostle of crucified 2nd ed.gifOr, just for instance, this podcast interview with our friend Michael Gorman, a fabulous NT scholar, talking about a new edition of one of his many books on Paul, Apostle of the Crucified Lord (Eerdmans; $48.00) (that we carry, of course.)  

By the way, speaking of Mike Gorman’s serious New Testament scholarship on Paul and the cross, we are thrilled to be joining with the Philadelphia Theological Institute and Church of the Good Samaritan in Paoli, PA, as they host a woman Gorman (and other Bible scholars and preachers) admires, the Rev. Dr. Fleming Rutledge on March 20th for a day long program they are calling a “Lenten Day.”  If you can, you should come.

The Crucifixion Rutledge.jpgRev. Rutledge’s book The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ came out from Eerdmans late in 2015 and we first promoted it at a retreat of Episcopalian clergy from the Diocese of Philadelphia; what fun that was, announcing such a serious book from an esteemed preacher and colleague in ministry. We then had the great privilege of selling it at a lecture in Baltimore (at Saint Mary’s Ecumenical Institute) in December of 2015; it was the first time we met her and it was a joy.

We promptly called The Crucifixion one of the Best Books of 2015.  Interestingly, Christianity Today recently named it the Book of the Year for 2016, so sales have picked up on it, I’m told. Happily, it has just been released in paperback, now selling for $30.00, less than the salty $45.00 it was in hardcover.  The Crucifixion is mammoth, we know, but it is this kind of deep and careful attention to the text of Scripture that we want to promote.

If the Scriptures are a “miner’s lamp” shining on our work in the world, as John Calvin suggested and as Psalm 119 proclaims, we are to live in its light; in that sense reading it in faith is practical in purpose.  Certainly, though, for it to have that informing, shaping, guiding, directive role, we must know what it says and what it means so we can see how it illumines the life of the world.

Of course, many of us need somewhat basic introductions to the Bible.


drama of scripture.giftrue story of whole world.jpgWe often recommend the spectacular, if thorough, paperback intro to the Bible, The Drama of Scripture by Michael Goheen & Craig Bartholomew (Baker Academic; $22.99) or, easier and quicker, even good for sharp youth, the abridged version called The True Story of the Whole World: Finding Your Place in the Biblical Drama (Faith Alive; $16.00.)  I couldn’t work on Bible lessons without these two books at my side.

Maybe our biggest selling intro to reading the Bible is the very useful How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Fee & Douglas Stuart how to read the bible for all.jpg(Zondervan; $19.99) which shows how to read properly a historical narrative, the prophets, the Psalms, Gospels, Letters, Wisdom Literature and more. Every church library or resource center should have a couple of those around, and its sequel, How the Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour (Zondervan; $19.99.) I hope you know them and pass ’em out to those seeking to learn to read the Bible well.


I so enjoyed The Story of God and the Story of Us: Getting Lost and Found in the Bible so creatively written by Sean Gladding (IVP; $17.00.)  There is a DVD I often tout and although it’s created with a younger, hip audience in mind, it is very, very insightful and motivating to embody the redemptive story of God.


Many, lately, have appreciated Peter Enns provocative ruminations on the way Scripture works called The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It (HarperOne; $15.99) —  even if you don’t come down quite where he does (he is critical of some brands of evangelical inerrency that makes us more interested in arguing about propositional data than being capture of the deep truth behind and through the text.  Space does not permit me to do his story justice, but it is a worth reading to be sure we’re grappling with the complexities of the nature of the Word and our deep trust in it.

Saving the Bible From Ourselves Learning to Read and Live the Bible Well.jpgAnother recent book that I am very, very big on was one we awarded as one of the Best of 2016.  It is called Saving The Bible From Ourselves: Learning to Read & Live the Bible Well Glenn R. Paauw (IVP) $18.00  Among other things, I wrote that Mr. Paauw offers seven understandings (that may feel “new” to some, but are in fact fairly ancient) of the Bible as “steps on the path to recovering one deeply engaged Bible. His new-sounding understandings are, in fact alternatives to deficiencies.  And in naming these oddball ways we (mis) understand and misread the Bible he is brilliant

Paauw offers here 7 “kinds” or sorts of ways we think of the Bible, and counters each with a more faithful sort. (For instance, in contrast to our presumption that the Bible is essentially “complicated” he unveils the “elegant Bible.” Instead of a “snacking” Bible he invites us to “savor the feasting Bible.” He says we need saved from “my private Bible” and speaks of “sharing our synagogue Bible.”  Of course, instead of “our otherworldly Bible” he says we are to be “grounded in the Earthly Bible.”  On great problem, “our de-dramatized Bible” takes two sections to refute. He shows how we can “rediscover the storiented Bible” and then shows how we must “preform the stroiented Bible.”  There’s more and it is rich, solid, creative, helpful stuff. Blurbs on the back are long and rich themselves, by Walter Brueggemann and Mark Noll, who both commend it earnestly.  This is deserving of being on any good list of the best books of the year.


crosstalk.jpgAlthough not as well known, I know folks who have thanked us for recommending CrossTalk: Where Life & Scripture Meet by Michael Emlet (New Growth Press; $17.99.) Michael is a rigorously trained Bible scholar who works as a counselor and in this book he teaches both good exegesis and application — how to take the deeper meaning of a text and see if and how it is to be applied to the quandaries of our daily discipleship. It’s a book that ought to be better known and we are grateful for its wisdom and intelligence in appropriating the Scriptures for real life. 


Just this week we received our order of a great little book that I am eager to promote.  It is called The Whole Message of the Bible in 16 Words by Chris Bruno (Crossway; $10.99.)  It certainly stands on its own but could be seen as a sequel to his fascinating and highly recommended little book that came out last year, The 16 words.jpgWhole Story of the Bible in 16 Verses (Crossway; $10.99.) Perhaps I can review it more carefully later, but for now, now that I’m really pleased with it’s theology and vision. If last year’s book (explaining the Bible story in 16 verses) was about the plot or storyline of the Bible, this is the structure, the superstructure, if you will, the key teaching of it all, using the metaphor of a building.  The chapters include an opening part “The Foundation” which, curiously has, as chapter one “The End” and chapter two, “God.”  The next major portion includes three chapters as “The Frame” (which are creation, covenant, kingdom.) The next big part is called “The Superstructure” and includes words such as temple, messiah, Israel, land, idols, judgement, exodus, wisdom, law, Spirit, mission. 

That first one is a brilliant little overview, with those 16 stopping points to get at the whole flow of the big story.  This one is for those who have a handle on that grand narrative, and want to plumb it’s depth, again, in a quick and easy sort of way, looking at themes.  I love this kind of rich scholarship given in a “down and dirty” way for common folks. Kudos to Dr. Bruno. 

the 52 greatest .jpgSome folks like to use a daily devotional guide to actually read the Bible through in a year and there are many “one year” versions of the Bible that make such a plan handy.  A devotional we really like  for this exact purpose is By Kenneth Boa & John Alan Turner called 52 Greatest Stories of the Bible: A Weekly Devotional (Baker Books; $16.99.)

The 52 Greatest Stories of the Bible: A Weekly Devotional is arranged in a format that is very, very wise, tapping into felt needs of ordinary readers and, I think, offering a somewhat broader scope of how to read the Bible, one grounded in wise and fruitful practices.

The book has 52 chapters (one Bible passage a week for a year)

but each day of each week has a certain way into the text as the history of redemption unfolds. Each day of the week he has a devotional based on that week’s passage, following a “pattern” each week — Monday emphases the story, the Tuesday reflection explores the beliefs in that text, Wednesday always looks at what he calls the values (which includes heart attitudes or principles), Thursday is about action/application and Friday offers a reflection to pray, using the text in meditation, offering three kinds of prayer about the passage (about understanding, belief and action.) So each day has a good devotion, working differently on the same Bible story for a week at a time, each following, week by week, that same pattern of understanding the narrative, the beliefs, the values, an then an application emphasis and a meditative prayerful reflection for Friday and the weekend.


The New Bible Dictionary  I. Howard Marshall et al (IVP Academic) $45.00

The Eerdmans Companion to the Bible  Gordon Fee et al (Eerdmans) $40.00

The New Bible Dictionary  I. Howard jpgOf course, people who teach about reading and learning the Bible tell everyone they should own a few good reference tools, a good Bible handbook, a Bible dictionary, maybe an atlas, and a concordance. If you have any questions about reference tools, we’d love to try to answer your questions.  I think if I were buying just one such tool, I’d get the reliable, sturdy, The New Bible Dictionary now in its third edition, edited by I. Howard Marshall, J.I. Packer, et al, published by IVP Academic ($45.00.) I can’t tell you the number of people who have commended it because they themselves have found it beneficial, informative, a real asset to their Bible reading.

 The Eerdmans Companion to the Bible .jpgIf I were picking just one Bible handbook, I’m quite fond of the awesome, lavish, ecumenically minded The Eerdmans Companion to the Bible edited by Gordon Fee & Robert Hubbard (Eerdmans; $40.00) although it is expensive. Considering the the hours you will get lost in it, and the insight you will glean will be worth every penny.

If you are interested in either of those two “tools of the trade” reference books we could do a 20% discount on those – just remind us when you order and we’ll honor that extra discount deal.


But here is what I also think: everybody needs a good study Bible.

A study Bible has annotated notes for almost every passage and explains what is going on in theopen ESV.jpg Scriptures at that point.  Of course there are other features, standard in any good study edition – sidebars that offer extra little background articles or meditations, character studies, timelines,  maps, and introductions to each book of the Bible. The large concordances in these big volumes make buying a separate concordance unnecessary for most of us; the cross-references give you plenty of recommended verse to look up to supplement whatever you are studying. The background data and facts and insights about the culture and theology of the ancient world  in any good study Bible are worth their weight in gold. 

Of course, it should go without saying that the Bible is meant to be read as God’s Word and the study notes are fallible aids;  here’s a summary of a good piece by Justice Taylor that was in his Gospel Coalition blog on why and how to use a good study Bible.

A good study Bible, by the way, should not be confused with a devotional Bible that has little devotions scattered throughout, often with some niche-marketing theme.  There are inspiring Bibles for all sorts of interests and  needs and concerns and they have their place but those are not quite the same as a bone fide, well-balanced study edition. And, speaking of balance, we tend to shy away from study Bibles put together by one person – Scofield, MacArthur, Ryrie, Lucado, Jeremiah, Meyers,  etc.  No matter how educated and smart some preacher may be, he or she can’t be expected to know everything about everything.  The best study Bibles are created with a team of vetted experts. 


It is my opinion that the three best overall study Bibles on the market are:

niv-study-bible1.jpgESV Study BIble face out.jpgNLT Life App Study Bible.jpgNIV Study Bible

ESV Study Bible

Life Application Study Bible (in various translations.)  

Let me tell you why, as briefly as I can.

I determine this mostly due to the sheer quantity of features and the number of notes found in these outstanding, nearly epic, volumes. But also I value their ordinary usefulness for most folks; from the moderate, orthodox, reliable, nature of the content to the tone, design, and approachability, these are the best; we hear it all the time of folks whose Bible reading comes alive once they purchase a solid study Bible designed, as these are, to help the ordinary believer.  The three I mentioned above are head and shoulders more thorough and more helpful than most others with their tons and tons of helpful background aids, notes, comments, explanations cross-references, indexes, pull-quotes, sidebars, maps, graphics, color. And they are in the most popular and widely used translations.

I don’t have to explain to BookNotes readers that any book (and certainly any study bible resource) is going to be written out of the viewpoint and angle of vision of the person or team writing it. That’s not a bad thing and the best study Bibles attempt to be balanced, honest, and (usually) up front about any theological biases they hold. As with the Isaiah authorship example discussed below, I think the NIV Study Bible is more likely to show several sides to controversial interpretations of passages and be clear why they often hold to a more conservative conclusion; the various study editions using the NRSV are almost all less conservative, consistently, but some don’t even admit to it, as if their bias is just natural and right; similarly, the ESV Study Bible notes are often exceedingly conservative, even if their notes are extraordinarily smart and beautifully explained. 

One important question, then: what translation do you want to use?

If you favor the conservative, somewhat stately English Standard Version (ESV), then, obviously, the ESV Study Bible is going to be your go to. Crossway very expertly publishes them and we stock ’em. And what a beautiful array of sizes, designs, editions.

If you like the popular New International Version (NIV), their NIV Study Bible is a natural pick.  It is exceptionally well done.  (D.A. Carson recently edited the equally thorough NIV Zondervan Study Bible, but, to be honest, I just don’t get its distinctives. Some think it is more rigorous than the classic NIV Study Bible, a few think it more conservative; it does seem to use “biblical theology” with that emphasis of a unified theme and a gospel-centered focus, which is good. I just haven’t used it myself, so don’t yet realize all that it offers, robust as it is.)  HERE is a fair-minded review that compares the two in great detail.

These are manufactured by Zondervan and, yep, we stock ’em in all their varieties.

If you like the contemporary-sounding,  upbeat, and gender inclusive New Living Translation (NLT) then you most likely will want the Life Application Study Bible in the NLT. (Those creatively worded, practical Life App study notes with an emphasis on living out the meaning of the text (I call it the “so what” study Bible) are also available in the NIV, the KJV, and the NKJV, by the way.  For a season or two they made the Life Application Study Bible notes in the NRSV but that didn’t last; if you can find one in a crusty used book store, it’s worth picking up if you use the NRSV. We often recommend this Life Application Study Bible to those who aren’t used to studying as it really does tell you why and how knowing some background stuff helps, and what to do about it in daily living. In that sense it rewards study with clear and pastoral guidance.

I hate to get hairy, here, but, for what it is worth, the NLT does have a considerably more rigorous, less “application” oriented study Bible, a major work called The NLT Study Bible. I’m fond of the Life App notes, character studies, the mega-themes that are always explained in a “why it matters today” chart, so I’m going to suggest the Life App study editions, even though the NLT Study is as thorough and rigorous as the serious NIV Study Bible and the ESV Study Bible.  The NLTs are published by Tyndale and they do a very nice job.

(By the way, just a fun fact: acquaintances of ours like Albert Wolters (of Creation Regained) worked on the original NLT translation; Al headed the team that did Job, as I recall. Tremper Longman was involved as were a host of really respected Hebrew & Greek scholars we respect. It is well done!)

New Interpreter's Study Bible.jpgWe do not know of one truly fabulous study edition that is the stand-out must-have for those who prefer the NRSV.

I think my favorite  study edition in the NRSV is the New Interpreter’s Study Bible edited by Walter Harrelson (Abingdon; $48.99.) It draws somewhat on the amazing multi-volume set of commentaries of that name and has that same thoughtful engagement.  Walter Brueggemann, just for instance, contributed. It is one I often consult. It is hefty — weighing in at almost 4 lbs. — and includes the Apocrypha.

Harper Collins Study Bible.jpgThe Society of Biblical Literature helped sponsor the latest edition of the Harper Collins Study Bible with the senior editor being Harold Attridge with expert help from Wayne Meeks, Jouette Bassler and other major critical scholars (HarperOne; $44.95.)  Many think it is the best NRSV study edition, but it does seem a bit dry at times… although there are some wonderful contributors. This comes in hardback or paperback, with or without the Deuterocanonical/Apocryphal books. These sell for $34.99 in paperback or $37.99 in hardcover, without Deuterocanonicals and $39.99 in paperback or $44.99 in hardcover with the extra Deuterocanonical books.) 

Discipleship Study Bible.jpgThe Discipleship Study Bible (Westminster John Knox; $40.00) This  was created almost a decade ago with the editorial direction of Bruce Birch, Brian Blount, Thomas Long, and Gail O’Day, all serious scholars with great commitment to the mainline churches.  I like what the publisher said about it:

Other NRSV study Bibles provide factual information about the biblical text, but don’t include extensive guidance for Christian living. The Discipleship Study Bible is unique in offering both. Its annotations emphasize the personal and communal implications of the Bible for today without sacrificing the tools needed for understanding the ancient texts on their own terms. In combining these approaches to Bible study, a group of gifted writers, editors, and scholars have produced a truly comprehensive resource that includes introductory essays to each book of the Bible by top-notch contemporary Bible scholars

Apparently this is going out of print and we only have a few of these left, but wanted to list it so you knew of it. 

All three of these NRSV study volumes have excellent scholarship, if a bit heady at times, with a bit of a critical bent. They are ideal for moderate mainline folks. We happily sell all three but still wish for a more user-friendly, thorough, and theologically consistent NRSV study bible.

life with God Bible.jpgIn the NRSV we also really, really like the Life With God Bible (HarperOne) in somewhat smaller than compact handsome red or deep brown leather or paperback,  which doesn’t have tons of notes and features, but what it does have is really interesting;. It is almost a “study Bible” but it has, admittedly, a somewhat different agenda and not so many notes and maps and such. (It was created in cooperation with Renovare, Richard Foster’s renewal ministry.)  The Life With God Bible was compiled by a team headed up by Richard Foster, Eugene Peterson, Dallas Willard and Walter Brueggemann.  You can imagine why we like it so.

It comes in a hand-sized, offered in a rich, red leather ($39.99), a deep brownish/gray leather with Deutercanonical Books ($44.99) and in paperback ($24.99.) 

By the way, speaking of the NRSV study editions, why some favor The New Oxford Annotated is beyond me: there are, in contrast to the others I’ve mentioned,  considerably fewer notes and many of them are nearly useless.  Their opinions are not well argued , other than the ubiquitous and dishonest “Biblical scholars agree.”  For instance, in contrast, The NIV Study Bible notes offer an explanation for one authorship of Isaiah alongside an explanation for three separate Isaian authors.  They argue for the former, but not without giving the later its due.  The New Oxford dishonestly says “Bible scholars agree” that there are three Isaiah authors.  Apparently they don’t get out much.  Once I looked up 10 troublesome passages to see what various studied editions might say–stuff like Romans 13 or Paul saying women should be silent in church.   While Bibles like the NIV Study Bible tended to give reasonable explanations, sometimes showing various viewpoints on what the text in question might mean, often the Oxford had nothing!  Or it offered  arcane details that seemed tone deaf to the reason anyone might need help with the passage.  The cross references are meager, the concordance slim and the articles more often than not pretty dry.  And yet, religion departments and liberal seminaries recommend it.  For the price, it just isn’t as good as it ought to be.

Well, sorry to digress on the perplexities of the New Oxford Annotated — that’s just my way of comparing the benefits of a good  and helpful study Bible (and a less than helpful one.) The NIV Study Bible and The ESV Study Bible are, in my view, the Cadillac’s of the biz. They are the crème of the crop, semi-scholarly but clear, with an admittedly evangelical (and in the case of the ESV, Reformed) bias, with solid info designed to help Bible readers understand the Bible, deepen their faith, and live out their discipleship. 

The NIV is a bit easier to read and uses gender inclusive language for men and women, which is keeping with the meaning of the Biblical text and common usage, of course.  The ESV, based largely on the old RSV, uses antiquated masculine language, I suppose because the editors believe in old school lingo. Some who worked on the editing of the ESV translation complained that the NIV was driven by a gender agenda, but that was, in my view, the pot calling the kettle black.  There is little doubt, though, that the ESV claims to be more accurate and  elegant.

(And, there is little doubt that the Crossway publishing company creates the best-made popular level Bibles around; I am continually impressed with their aesthetic and crafted quality and the cool, but rarely gaudy, classy design of their numerous covers and layouts. They think well about paper choices, bindings and stitching and such.)

bird bible cover design.jpgBoth the NIV and the ESV translations, as I’m sure you know, are available in various sizes and with a vast array of cover designs. Both publishers have gone out of their way to come up with handsome and beautiful (and sometimes a bit nutty) designs with faux leather that feels soft and looks great. Even their study Bibles come in a real variety of sizes and colors, designs and looks.  Their respective web pages show off all  the options and we can get them all.

Please let us know if you are looking for any sort of Bible and our staff can walk you through the complicated maze of searching them all out.

Do you know the fairly recent Common English Bible translation, popularly called the CEB?  It was created a few years back by a long-standing, hard-working committee of Presbyterians, United Methodists, Church of the Brethren and others.  One person on the committee told me they wanted to create a solid translation that was as lively as the Good News (not a bad translation, actually) and the Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message but that was not only contemporary and upbeat and politically aware, but honest and accurate, and that read well out loud. (They famously spent a year testing it out in a variety of focus groups, getting feed Deep Blue Kids Bible.jpgCEB Student Bible.jpgback on the hearing of it, in nursing homes and college campuses, in big churches and small ones, among varies ethnic churches and in different parts of the country.)  The CEB is a really interesting rendition and I wish it were better known.  Their children’s study Bible (The Deep Blue Kids Bible) is mostly really great and their teen edition (The CEB Student Bible) is very good, too.  Each come in a variety of styles and we stock them all.  We’d love to talk more about this if you have any questions…

CEB Study Bibles.jpgA year ago or so the CEB team put out a large study Bible called The CEB Study Bible. (Abingdon Press; $54.99 in hardback; $59.99 with the Apocrypha; there are also some leather-like editions that we have.) It has everything you’d expect in a big study Bible, lots of notes, sidebars, extra articles, expert maps made by National Geographic for this project. Over a hundred different inter-denominational scholars worked on it – some you surely know, from a real variety of corners within the broader church. It’s 2240 pages.

CEB Vintage Tweed study bible.jpg(There is a very classy “Vintage Tweed Hardcover” edition of the CEB Study Bible coming in mid-March that I myself have my eye one; you can pre-order it from us at the discounted price shown at the order link at the end of this newsletter; it will regularly retail for $59.99.)

This recent study edition has amazingly interesting notes, and it is hard to explain – some of it seems a bit progressive, with good notes about lament and injustice and the implications of women named as leaders of the early church (like, say, Junia at the end of Romans.) I won’t say it is inordinately subversive, but it does seem to pack a punch in some of it’s notes.  There’s lots of standard stuff in there -charts and maps and background info and nice introductions to each book.  Again, it isn’t terribly well known yet, but we’re happy to stock it here.

So, if you need some fresh energy to your Bible reading and want to dig into Bible study a bit more, be sure you have a study Bible.  Or, perhaps, just switch up your translation, reading a plain text Bible from a different translation then you are used to.  

We are fans of the study Bible, and can help you further in finding the one that is best for you, and then the size, shape, color and price that you prefer.  Just give us a call or send us an email.


I am usually not a fan of shoe-horning every Biblical text into a pre-determined theme and hence, worry a bit about the mothering Bible or the leadership Bible or the worship Bible. 

These four, though, are done by remarkable and thorough Biblical scholars that bring into their notes a bit of insight about how the Biblical text is to be applied to our whole lives before God.  In these, the scholars have such regard for the authority of the Word of God that they wouldn’t dare fudge it’s meaning or squeeze texts into some marketing niche. What they are passionate about is seeing how previously under-appreciated (or nearly ignored) themes that regularly appear in the Scriptures might be brought to the fore bringing us new insights.  These, then, are not clever marketing ploys to exploit a market, but are at time brilliant interpreters doing what few have done before.  We’re happy to promote them and hope you enjoy knowing about them.

Faith & Work Study Bible.jpgThe NIV Faith & Work Study Bible  senior editor David Kim (Zondervan) $44.99 in hardback; $74.99 in black/gray faux leather 

I suppose you know that we have promoted the “faith and work” conversation for decades and have long promoted Christian books which help professionals and others learn to relate their deepest faith commitments to their work-a-day world, careers, and jobs.  Whether you are have paid employment, are retired, a student or one who takes seriously the calling of parent or grandparent, you will relish this study edition that highlights Biblical themes that help you in your daily vocation.

Rev. David Kim is the Director of the Center for Faith and Work at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York (and before that worked in campus ministry at Princeton University.)  He and his team highlight standard insights, do basic introductory stuff as would any study Bible but when it is warranted they bring out the vivid teaching of God’s missional care for the world and how work and calling matters in the unfolding of God’s plan.  You surely know the Bible has hundreds of verses about work, and hundreds more that might be marshaled for helping us develop a Biblical vision of life in the marketplace.  This is a wonderful study Bible and we can’t say enough about it.  In fact, there are 75  “Deeper at Work” stories which “deliver strength and encouragement from real-life experiences.” (Is it dumb that I’m kinda proud to know a few of the folks whose testimonies are included?  I’ll admit I’m jazzed to see folks I know described as something like modern day Bible characters!)  

Another good feature of this are the 45 “Core Doctrine” articles that feature teachings from Christian leaders through the ages; this Bible assumes that you have to know core stuff about the Bible and it’s teaching if you are going to faithfully integrate faith and work.  This is solid, no-nonsense content.  Take a look at the first few pages and the explanation of “the cultural mandate” of Genesis 1 and you’ll see what I mean.  This is pure gold!

You may also appreciate the “31-Day Journey” through the Biblical narrative, a nice guide and exercise to help readers grasp the Scripture’s overarching storyline. I already know one person who used this small feature to create a half a year’s worth of Bible curriculum for his youth group.

A number of unsung scholars and writers worked on this.  Other contributors who you know from BookNotes include Timothy Keller, Richard Mouw, Nancy Ortberg, and Jon Tyson (of New York’s Trinity Grace and a speaker at the upcoming Jubilee 2017.)  This really is an excellent study Bible, worthy of having in your library. I’m sure you’ll find it valuable.  Check out this interview with David about the project done by the good folks at Bible Gateway. 

Jesus Bible all 3.pngThe Jesus Bible: Sixty-Six Books. One Story. All About One Name  edited by Louis Giglio, Max Lucado, John Piper, Ravi Zacharias, Randy Alcorn and others (Passion Publishing/Zondervan) $44.99 in sturdy linen hardback;   $69.99 in Brown Leathersoft or a Robin’s Egg pale blue Leathersoft  All have a 8.7 font size.

Wow. This brand new edition is profound yet accessible and has features that help us meet Jesus throughout the whole of Scripture.  The now out of print Gospel Transformation Study Bible in the ESV did this well, and, now, we have a variety of big name evangelicals weighing in on how to see Christ’s unfolding redemptive plan in every book of the Bible.  I like their slogan — “there was no B.C.”

Included in The Jesus Bible there are 7 compelling essays on the grand narrative of Scripture – introduced by Louie Giglio, founder of the extraordinarily popular Passion Conferences.  (This past year, by the way, in three days of worship and music, they also raised over 1 million dollars to fight sexual trafficking.)  

I like the almost square sized shape of this hardback, made with a good linen cover (sans dust jacket.) The text is single column with room for notes and some journaling throughout. There’s ribbon marker and over 300 full page articles that help us “treasure Jesus”  and which will “encourage you to faithfully follow him as you participate in his story.”  Visit their spiffy website and watch the video trailer here — do come back here, though, please.

NIV-Cultural-Backgrounds-Study-Bible-3.jpgThe NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: Bringing to Life the Ancient World of Scripture Senior Editor, Craig Kenner & John Walton (Zondervan)  $49.99, hardcover; Tan/Brown imitation leather, $79.99;   “Context changes everything” it shouts on the back cover of this very handsome, very colorful, new study Bible.  This edition brings behind-the-scenes background information to the fore so you can see what is really going on–in context, all guided by one of the world’s leading experts on this exact matter, the page from Cultural Background Study.jpgremarkable Craig Keener and John Walton.  There is so much rich meaning to be found when you learn just a bit about the historical setting, the archeological evidences, the word meanings or the cultural customs that are in and around any given passage.  I am sure you recall a time when a pastor or Bible teacher said “back in those days what this saying meant was…” or “if you only knew what buildings or statues or walls were in that town as Jesus spoke, you’d realize – ” and the like.  This gives targeted book introductions that explain the context in which each book of the Bible was written.  It has verse-by-verse study notes, of course, but the notes feature new dimensions of insights to even familiar passages by explaining cultural context stuff.

pages from NIV Cultural Background Study Bible.jpgKey Hebrew words (in the Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament) terms are explained and expanded.  In fact, there are over 300 in-depth encyclopedia-like articles that explain key contextual topics.   The full color reproductions of artifacts, images from around the world, and the hundreds of helpful drawings and illustrations make this nearly lavish. The full color maps are made with world-class excellence.

Years ago we regularly sold books about the customs of Bible times, books with lists of the cities and tribes and worship practices.  Many books we carry still offer insight into the literary stylings of ancient near Eastern culture and the writing styles of First Century Judaism.  I think the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible is going to appeal to a lot of folks and it will be a very useful took for anyone tasked with teaching the Bible.  We are proud to stock it and eager to promote it.  You can watch a short video of them describing this project here.  Be sure to come back to us, though!


God's Justice BIBLE.jpgGod’s Justice Study Bible: The Flourishing of Creation and the Destruction of Evil Senior Editor, Tim Stafford (Zondervan) $39.99  I reviewed this when it first came out and exclaimed how great it was – some nice sidebars and articles, some graphic touches that show the overarching plan of God to bring healing and reconciliation and restoration to the broken creation. (I like the single column layout on the page, too.) What is exceptional about this sturdy, useful, edition is that is uses scholars from around the world, and, further, that they are tuned in to the often-missed themes of justice and public righteousness that are evident in any careful reading of these texts.  If you are interested – or, maybe, if your not interested – in social justice, this Bible is a must.  If you want to learn the meaning of texts from dozens of well-informed, reliable third world Bible scholars, men and women from every continent, then this will bring a somewhat fresh take.

As I said when this first came out, the insights are not excessively political or overly fixated on justice; that is, they are honest before the text and eager to serve readers well by producing a tree_poetry_song.pngtree_beginnings.pnguseful and reliable study edition. The introductions to each book are very, very good, interesting and informative, well worth reading themselves!  But, realize, these texts about justice, about God’s desire for flourishing and public justice and about evil and our role in promoting God’s reign in Christ, are really there and those who can help us see and understand and respond well are allies in our discipleship; perhaps they will help us see a bigger picture of God’s unfolding plan than we saw before.  I think this particular tree_letters.pngstudy Bible is a tremendous resource and I highly, highly recommend it; whether you love the NIV or not, this is such a great study Bible you should seriously consider it. 

I happen to know a few of those who worked on The NIV God’s Justice Study Bible and they are leaders of great integrity, I assure you.  Thanks be to God for this wonderful opportunity to have as our Bible teachers not only some of the best folks writing today, but men and women from contexts sometimes quite different then our own.  Check out their beautiful website here, and then come back to us and order one today.

And, I would be remiss at this point if I didn’t offer a great thank you to those who are designing Bibles well, and even those who are doing somewhat the opposite of study Bibles — simple reader’s editions with single columns, even those, like the new ESV 6-volume sets, without verse numbers, offering an distracted reading experience.  See this wonderful video here if this intrigues you. We have had the video over at the Hearts & Minds facebook page and wanted to share it here. It is beautiful; don’t miss it.


Through the Month of February 2017

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10 NEW BOOKS on RACE, JUSTICE, and the STRUGGLE FOR RECONCILIATION (All on sale. Use order link, below.)



Early in Evicted, Desmond Matthew’s extraordinarily well reported study of poverty, housing, profits, and evictions, there is a bit of a history lesson: in 1967, 200 African Americans and others marched for fairer housing opportunities across an iconic bridge dividing the predominantly black part of Milwaukee and the white section of the Wisconsin city.  Considered one of marching in milwaukee.jpgthe most racially segregated cities in America, more than 10,000 whites pushed them back in a scene perhaps reminiscent of the bloody day at the famous Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma a few years earlier. For 200 more days the dedicated black and white marchers protested, pushing on to symbolically insist on fair treatment and desegregation. For 200 more days they were abused, pushed back, shot at with sniper fire, their NAACP headquarters burned, their clergy leaders arrested. Two hundred persistent days in a row! 

A lot was happening in 1967, I know; I was just becoming interested in the world beyond my football practice, The Monkees, and church youth group.  I had a Great Aunt Lilly in Milwaukee, of German descent, and we visited her about that time, maybe ’68. To not have heard about this amazing story of protest, racism, and the struggle for desegregation and justice is itself amazing, is it not?

Have you heard of this epic slice of the civil rights story?

Well, in the last few years there has been renewed uprisings, protests, slogans – Black Lives Matter! Hands Up Don’t Shoot!  — and there has been, for a variety of reasons, push-back.  I don’t think many would argue that the election of our new President came about in part due to some considerable anxiety about where the protests against palpable injustice and debates about racial profiling, mass incarceration, anti-immigration sentiments, multi-culturalism and so forth. We can all be glad there are not tens of thousands of whites beating down peaceful civil rights marchers like in Selma or Milwaukee, but we also must admit that there’s a tension in the air that has arisen in recent years. Legitimate grievances about racism, often institutionalized and ubiquitous white privilege and some legitimate concerns about tactics and ideologies of the progressive protests have created a new face to the culture wars.

Here are some mostly brand new books that address issues of race that we think are very important. A few are on my bed-stand now, a few are in my living room stacks.  It’s good to have such wealth of new resources. I hope you agree that we need to be reading and talking about these kinds of books and we should support those publishers who continue to resource us with these kinds of tools that can “grant us wisdom” for, as the old hymn puts it, “the living of these days.”

marchbookthree_cover_trivision_nba_page_1_sm_lg.jpgMarch Book Three John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell  (Top Shelf Productions) $19.99  This third and final installment of the award-wining graphic novel trilogy was released late last year and has garnered award after prestigious award. 

As Raina Telgemeir writes boldly on the back cover:

March is one of the most important graphic novels ever created – an extraordinary presentation of an extraordinary life, and proof that young people can change the world. I’m stunned by the power of these comics, and grateful that Congressman Lewis’s story will enlighten and inspire future generations of readers and leaders.

march-trilogy-graphic_lg.jpgAlthough the first two volumes, March Book One and March Book Two, are fabulous and must-read history books, this final one is searing, picking up the story of Lewis’s leadership of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and their direct action campaigns such as Freedom Vote and the famous Mississippi Freedom Summer, and the intense debates on the floor of the Democratic National Convention.  Lewis was 25 years and and he was preparing spiritually to risk everything at that historic showdown in Selma. 

It crossed my mind to say that we should buy John Lewis’s book as a handbook for a new generation of activists.  I hope modern protestors (and those who have opinions about them) learn about the deep nonviolent philosophy of SNCC.  But I also hope all of us read it to be reminded, and to be inspired by this kind of bravery, this kind of leadership, this story of some of the most remarkable times in US history. 

The End of White Christian America.jpgThe End of White Christian America Robert P. Jones (Simon & Schuster) $28.00  This powerful and significant book is not brand new but it was released in the late summer of the 2016. It is a major work, provocative and fascinating, “clarifying and useful” as one white pastor noted. It has been called “brilliant” and “eloquent” and the author himself has been called “intelligent and fair-minded.”  I cannot give a full accounting of it but I can assure you it is one of the important books to help us put into context much of the anxiety and fear pervasive in our culture these days.  It is an argument many have alluded to — I’ve heard Walter Brueggemann and Leonard Sweet and Tom Sine and Marva Dawn give their variations of this general critique decades ago. There is simply no doubt that a certain sort of hegemony has eroded in the last generation or so and there is also no doubt that it has caused resentment in some quarters and anxiety nearly everywhere. (It is to this anxiety that David Gushee addressed his helpful, recent book, A Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends, suggesting that for people of faith it isn’t so bad since we have Biblical and spiritual resources to cope, and it is to this situation that Rod Dreher offers his important, dire proposal in the soon-to-be-released The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. PRE-ORDER that from us if you’d like; we’ll have it March 14, 2017.)

Yet, as new demographics and new values and new cultural habits and assumptions rise to the fore, there is fresh energy and new hope in some quarters as well.  To say we live in changing times – also around issues of race and faith and gender – is to put it mildly.  As with any epochal change, there are those who are worried, some who have legitimate concerns about plunging into new ways, and a lot who are willing and able to face the future with resilience and hope. 

“America is no longer a majority white Christian nation. In fact, the year 1993 was the last in which white Protestants constituted a majority of the population.”  In The End of White Christian America, Robert P. Jones (CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute) explains, “how this seismic change has profoundly altered the politics and social values of the United States.”

In fact, a reviewer in The New York Times said it was, “Quite possibly the most illuminating text for this election year.”

Consider these rave reviews:

As a white pastor who has been active addressing cultural issues for decades, I found this book fascinating, clarifying, and useful. For white Christians who want to serve our nation as a part of our faith, the big story line is not the loss of our centrality in the realms of political power; it’s the welcome opportunities for new partnerships based on shared moral principles. This book also leaves us pondering ways to be part of the sequel. –Rev. Dr. Joel C. Hunter, Senior Pastor, Northland, A Church Distributed

The 2016 election campaign revealed to all and sundry that we live in a new country. Robert Jones has written the best guide I have seen to the America taking shape around us. –Alan Wolfe, Professor of Political Science and Director of The Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, Boston College

Robert Jones convincingly illumines the waning influence of white Protestantism in America as well as the reactions of those bewildered or angered by this inexorable shift. Fast-paced and keenly discerning, this book does a remarkable job of explaining why our culture and politics are so fraught and why we seem to be entering a whole new era in our history. Truly a must-read for understanding the divided state of our nation today. –R. Marie Griffith, Director, John C. Danforth Center on Politics and Religion, and John C. Danforth Distinguished Professor in the Humanities, Washington University

Jones persuasively articulates how both the fear and the hope of the new America are animating our faith and our politics. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who seeks to understand how we got to where we are in our churches and politics today, and how we might help build the bridge to a new America. –Jim Wallis, author of America s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America

dream with me.jpgDream With Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win John M. Perkins (Baker Books) $19.99  There is hardly anyone I esteem more within the broader evangelical Christian community that John Perkins.  When I was doing my own little book, a collection of inspirational speeches turned into essays for young adults, I said quite simply that I had to have a chapter by John Perkins. I had a number of pretty famous contributors but John’s role was a deal-breaker for me.  Graciously he and his staff gave us a tape to transcribe and we happily put it in Serious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life. I say this to assure you that I’m not blowing smoke here: you should read Dr. Perkins’s books and this brand new one looks tremendous. It came two days ago so is brand, brand new.

I’m not alone in insisting that John is an important voice.  The very thoughtful author Randy Alcorn (his big book Heaven is very good and I loved his massive work from last year, a profound study simply called Happiness) says in the foreword,  “There aren’t many people other than Jesus and my wife – who I can say changed my life. John Perkins is one of them.”

The esteemed Philip Yancey (whose last book was Vanquishing Grace) says:

At a time when the racial divide in the United States is widening into a chasm, I cannot think of a more needed message than this book.


You may know that the band Switchfoot did a driving rock song about John called “The Sound (The John M. Perkins’ Blues)”.   On the first page of Dream With Me John has a nice excerpt from a letter by Jon Foreman about why they wrote that song, and then says that he wants to somewhat return the favor by using another song of theirs – “Love is the Final Fight” -as the lens through which he wants to tell this chapter of his story, explaining his latest work with the Christian Community Development Association and his dream of racial reconciliation.

Just skimming through this I see powerful new stories and examples of good work or keen insights from his wide variety of contacts. He knew older evangelical leaders like Hudson Armerding and Vernon McGee and he knows current leaders, from Tim Keller to young Judah Smith.  He counts as colleagues the best writers around race and justice these days, from Soong-Chan Rah to Lisa Sharon Harper to Charles Marsh and Wayne Gordon.  Of course, he has spoken at the CCO’s Jubilee Conference bunches of times. 

John has suffered for his work, the KKK tried to drive his ministry (Voice of Calvary) out of Mississippi. He was friends with the Medgar Evers family. He himself was tortured by brutal cops, his brother, Clyde, was shot in Hebron (and John’s humble, non-sensational telling of how he eventually realized he forgave the murderer is notable.) John and his life-long partner, Vera Mae, lost their son, Spencer, a friend to many of us.  You will have to read this inspiring, powerful story yourself to learn even more about John’s colorful life and to hear, again, his struggle to “fight without fists” and, in Christ, prevail.  Because, truly, “love is the final fight.”

Living into God's Dream- Dismantling Racism in America .jpgLiving into God’s Dream: Dismantling Racism in America edited by Catherine Meeks (Morehouse Publishing) $18.00  I was thrilled to see this book, published by the Episcopalian publishing house, put together by this strong black woman who I was first introduced to, I believe, by John Perkins.  Meeks now serves the Diocese of Atlanta as the chair of their Commission for Dismantling Racism, called “The Beloved Community.”  Before that, she was a Distinguished Professor of Socio-Cultural Studies at Wesleyan College.  She wrote a previous book we’ve stocked called Standing on Their Shoulders: A Celebration of African American Women.

There are nine chapters in this handbook, some written or co-written by Ms Meeks, others by names I mostly don’t know.  That’s a good thing for a book like this as it isn’t a star-studded anthology by famous authors, but a gritty story collection of folks in the trenches, so to speak, on the front lines of the struggle for racial justice. (Don Mosely, you may know, was decades ago involved with Koinonia Farms in Americus Georgia; he has a chapter called “Diary of a Spoiled White Guy.” Diana D’Souza has a piece called “A White Lens on Dismantling Racism” and Lynn Huber has an important chapter called “Architects of Safe Space for Beloved Community.”  There are a number of other women and men who write – including a fabulously interesting piece on “The American South as Our Holy Land” and a chapter documenting the actual efforts they are taking and the progress they are making in Atlanta. 

There is a good study guide in the back for processing these poignant chapters and pressing deeper into this conversation. The Rt. Rev. Jeffrey Lee, Bishop of Chicago, says of it that “the authors are animated by a fierce and tender love for humankind wounded by the sin of racism and a profound conviction that God offers a way through these wounds to new life together. This book is a companion for that journey.”

Richard Hughes, author of Myths America Lives By, says of it:

Living into God’s Dream is a gift to the church, to be sure, but it is also a gift to the American people. With insights that penetrate and probe the biases that lurk in the most unexamined chambers of our hearts, these essays will help even the most reluctant readers to grapple with the truth about white privilege, white supremacy, and what it means to be Black in America. Better still, these essays provide us with the tools we need-including the motivation-to take up the hard work of dismantling racism in our time.

Holding Up Your Corner - DVD.pngHolding Up Your Corner- Talking About Race In Your Community .jpgHolding Up Your Corner: Talking About Race In Your Community F. Willis Johnson (Abingdon Press) $15.99  This book came out in the middle of the holiday selling season a few weeks ago and I just didn’t have time to study it. Now, after a few weeks of flipping around through it, I’ve concluded I really do need to work with this. And some of you do, too.  It is for Christian leaders (pastor’s mostly, I gather) inviting and equipping them to “respond with confidence when crises occur, lower their own inhibitions about addressing the topic of race, and reclaim their authority as prophetic witnesses and leaders in order to transform their communities.” This book promises practical and foundational sorts of guidance, empowering leaders to:

 …live into their own calling to acknowledge what is not right in their own communities, to understand and affirm the genuine points of pain, in their specific settings, to take faithful action addressing injustice, and to lead others to do the same.

Don’t you feel like you need some help doing this? Christian leader, pundit, writer, pastor, campus minister, youth worker, small group leader, it seems to me that many of us have a calling to acknowledge injustices and facilitate conversations about these hard matters. In an age when everybody is so touchy about all this – some think we should talk more, some people think we should talk less – we need all the help we can get.

This book is fast-paced, has tons of ideas, and is a helpful, practical handbook. Apparently F. Willis Johnson has quite the gift of communication and is beloved in his United Methodist circles. (He is, not insignificantly, the senior minister of Wellspring Church in Ferguson, Missouri, a predominantly African America, inter-generational, UM church plant.) There is no doubt that some of his insight learned about talking together about racism and injustice has been hard won throughout his whole life as a black leader, but also as a pastor in Ferguson these last years.

If this appeals to you and you want to order it — and, if you trust Will Willimon, you should, as he says “I guarantee that after reading this book you will want to work from your corner to become part of God’s work in the world” — you should know that the next step after being motivated and guided by this 112 page book is to get the DVD curriculum by the same name, Holding Up Your Corner: Video Stories About Race (Abingdon; $39.99) If you order it, you should get the Holding Up Your Corner Participants Guide: Guided Conversations ($9.99.) Also, you can get a free downloadable facilitator’s guide that has more resources for viewing the DVD, using the guided conversations participants guide, and processing it with your group. It wouldn’t hurt to have this on hand because, sadly, you are going to be faced with a window of opportunity, probably sooner than later, to talk about this stuff again. Order it today.

Who Lynched Willie Earle- Preaching to Confront Racism.jpgWho Lynched Willie Earle: Preaching to Confront Racism Will Willimon (Abingdon) $17.99 This brand new book came last week and I am thrilled to recommend it.  Willimon, you surely know, was Dean of the Chapel at Duke and then a United Methodist Bishop in Alabama. He’s known as an elegant writer and eloquent speaker, even when he’s blunt and insistent on being faithful to the ways of Jesus. (He has pondered about this kind of stuff for years:  the classic book written with Stan Hauerwas, Resident Aliens, was re-issued a year or so ago in an anniversary edition and last year he released Fear of the Other, a small but potent book on why we fear “the other” and how to Christianly attend to xenophobias of various sorts.)   

This new book brings together Willimon’s gritty Christ-focused approach to culture and justice and race with the other major topic for which he is known: homiletics.  That is, he is known as a fine preacher and a teacher of preaching. He has numerous volumes on the art of preparing and proclaiming gospel messages, the theology of preaching, and of collections of sermons, his own, and others.  He is considered one of the best preachers in America, at least in certain mainline denominational circles.  

And so, Who Lynched Willie Earle is, in fact, a book about preaching, from a preacher of the sort they sometimes call a pulpiteer.  There are chapters that examine a historic sermon that unfold like a page-turner thriller.  He dissects an anti-racist sermon from 1947 in chapters like “Preparing to Preach” and “Assessing the Sermon” which become a homiletical case study and a tremendous chapter of Christian witness.  Then there is a hearty, long chapter “Preaching That Confronts Racism.”  As he states, obviously true, “Effective 21st -century preaching demands a more perceptive understanding of race and Christian faith.”  If the above listed book and DVD Holding Up Your Corner attempts to equip congregational or ministry leader to listen/lead/teach/talk fruitfully about race among the people of the church, facilitating conversations within the faith community, then Willimon’s new one is the necessary other piece: how to preach about the evil of racism. Willimon encouraged preaches to see American racism as an opportunity for Christians to honestly name sin and engage in acts of “detoxification, renovation, and reparation.”

As it says on the back cover of Who Lynched…, “Preaching that confronts racism communicates with power a salvation from the sinful narratives of American white supremacy. It hears black pain, names white complicity, and offers a gospel-centered critique of American exceptionalism and civil religion.”  If this book is as strong as it sounds, it may be akin to the raw and honest evangelical truth-telling found in John Piper’s Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian.

Willimon is a known raconteur, an upbeat teller of tales, and, as one prof put it, “a humorous yet deadly disturber of the peace.”  (He even has a novel, spoofing the corporate nature of the modern mega-church.)  Many pastors need his encouragement and many preachers need his advice, specifically on this issue of preaching brave sermons about racism.  I am sure this book will be used by God to help many get to a place where they can “speak the truth in love” about this stuff.

Here’s part of the book that serves as the very helpful, creative frame: when Willimon, born and bred (“to be a racist” he says) in Greenville, South Carolina, goes off to college, an admired professor, also from the South, asked if he had heard about the lynching perpetrated by folk in his hometown back in 1947.  It had gotten some attention in the national press (“A snooty piece was written about it in the New Yorker.”) The prof laments not only the lynching, but that the young Willimon didn’t know anything about it.  

This book a half a century later harkens back to that riveting moment of learning about the lynching and becoming aware of the cover up – the first couple pages of his introduction are quintessential Willimon and very much worth reading — and explores not only the reports and documentation about the mob action and murder but of a sermon preached about it which Will says is “the most courageous sermon every preached in Southern Methodism.”

The footnotes here are fascinating, of course, and Willimon shows himself to be quite the helpful scholar, too.  He not only does good historical reporting about this important sermon and how it was handled, but he guides us into thinking about the social constructions of race, the facts of racism, and the theological underpinnings of thinking about humans made in God’s image and the radical nature of the unity Christians are to embody in the local church.   I think a careful reading of this book will inform and inspire and aid any of us interested in this topic, whether we preach sermons or listen to them.  I hope it is widely read and frankly discussed.

Tears We Cannot Stop- A Sermon To White America .jpgTears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon To White America Michael Eric Dyson (St. Martin’s Press) $24.99 Well, if conventional, evangelical sermonizing taught by the likes of seminary prof Will Willimon isn’t your literary cup of tea, then perhaps this master of passionate, bold, literary prose who is a sociology prof (at Georgetown) will grab your heart and imagination.  Dyson, an old Philly guy, as I recall, is known for writing fun and informative stuff on a wide variety of topics.  He’s written about race and power and religion but often gets at that by way of pop culture, sports and music and more. I loved his old book on Tupac (Holler If You Hear Me) and we used to carry his one on Marvin Gaye. Between God and Gangster Rap was a pivotal resource.  He’s written bunches of other work – hardly any other black public intellectual has been so prolific – including well received books about Malcolm X and about King and, in 2016, an important work on Obama called The Black Presidency: Barak Obama and the Politics of Race in America.  The former President, himself (who read widely as we know) has said, “Anyone who speaks after Michael Eric Dyson pales in comparison.”) 

This brand new one is fierce and passionate and raw and personal.  Because I do not know all of his many previous works I cannot say for sure, but some are saying it is his most elegant and yet his most fierce.  I do not mean to distract at all from Dyson’s own intellectual and literary gifts or contribution, but the excerpt I read reminded me of one of the most discussed books on this topic in recent years, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Not unlike him, some reviewers are making comparisons to the seminal work of James Baldwin. The Fire This Time, maybe?  You must read Dyson, who demands we hear his pain, honor his people and their journey, and take up a hopeful vision with words asking “How can we make it through the long night of despair to the bright day of hope?”


The great literary figure Toni Morrison writes that it is:

Elegantly written, Tears We Cannot Stop is powerful in several areas, moving personal recollections; profound cultural analysis; and guidance for moral redemption. A work to relish.

And, speaking of amazingly powerful, award winning authors, read this from Stephen King:

Here’s a sermon that’s as fierce as it is lucid. It shook me up, but in a good way. This is how it works if you re black in America, this is what happens, and this is how it feels. If you’re black, you’ll feel a spark of recognition in every paragraph. If you re white, Dyson tells you what you need to know — what this white man needed to know, at least. This is a major achievement. I read it and said amen.

And you know what? As Dyson is fairly broad in calling this gut-wrenching cry from the heart a “sermon” it is, in fact, written by one who is not only a cultural critic, scholar,  and writer. Eric Michael Dyson – the Reverend Eric Michael Dyson —  has been an ordained minister for thirty-five years. And he can preach.  Perhaps these are hard truths for some of us to hear, but I hope you will try.

Race and Place 3.jpgRace and Place: How Urban Geography Shapes the Journey to Reconciliation David P. Leong (IVP) $16.00  IVP can always be counted on to offer some of the most astute, insightful, and useful books on racial justice, multi-ethnic ministry, and authentic visions of reconciliation.   They keep offering new ones, with new angles, fresh authors, important aspects of this big call to embody diversity and be effective in evangelical ministry in a culturally a racially diverse culture.  So I trust them.  A lot.

And this brilliant new book makes that case nicely, that they are on the cutting edge of doing useful work – not arcane philosophical studies but serious scholarship to be used by those doing real-world ministry. Race and Place reminds us of an important aspect of our work on this topic, namely, that “geography matters.”  If we “long for diverse, thriving neighborhoods and churches” we have to deal with “geographic structures and systems that create barriers to reconciliation and prevent the 

flourishing of our communities.”

Folks who are doing important work living and writing about missional outreach (like Tim Soerens, author of The New Parish) get how important all this is.  Soerens notes,

For way too long, conversations about race haven’t included place, and vice versa. With the insight of a scholar and wisdom that only comes from putting ideas into practice, Dr. Leong offers an invitation to the belonging, solidarity, and hope we so desperately need today.

I am so excited to read this, not only because I think he has much new to teach us, but because I am particularly interested in “a sense of place” and write and preach about ministry contextualized to place – from small towns to rust belt cities to rural places – and about social justice and racial equality.  To see these two themes brought together – Wendell Berry and Martin Luther King, if you will – is a great, great joy and I’m sure I will love reading this book.  I bet you will too!

(renovate a cover.jpgBy the way, I have to insert here that there is an African American pastor and writer who cites both King and Wendell Berry named Leonce Crump, whose book Renovate: Changing Who You Are By Loving Where You Are [Multnomah Press; $14.95] is spectacularly interesting and immensely helpful. I reviewed it less than a year ago at BookNotes and am thrilled to share that he is speaking from the main stage at Jubilee 2017 out in Pittsburgh this February. Yay.)

David Leong had previously written a short but even more academic study of place and urban geography/culture a few years back, a book we stock called Street Signs: Towards a Missional Theology of Urban Cultural Engagement (Wipf & Stock; $32.00.) This new one, though, Race and Place, about our racialized cities – and how we are impacted now by decisions made generations ago about streets and school districts and neighborhoods and shopping centers and more – is going to be so helpful for anyone wanting to embody a sense of care for the places God has sent us.  Unpacking the systemic challenges of patterns of race relations – what some might call the social architecture or what others might suggest are “principalities and powers” is vital. Race and Place: How Urban Geography Shapes the Journey to Reconciliation is going to be a very valuable contribution to our ongoing work as Kingdom people. Order it today.

 Theology of Race and Place- Liberation and Reconciliation.jpgA Theology of Race and Place: Liberation and Reconciliation in the Work of Jennings and Carter Andrew T. Draper (Pickwick Publications) $40.00  I suppose I don’t have to say it, but this is a scholarly work, emerging from Andrew’s doctoral dissertation.  Draper is a Visiting Professor of Theology at Taylor University (where he also directs the Honor’s Guild.) He is the founding senior pastor of Urban Light Community Church in Muncie Indiana, a Church of God congregation.  

Draper thanks Brian Brock for guiding him in some of his scholarly passions, pursued, finally, at the University of Aberdeen, the milieu of the Scottish Divines.   What a curious story this is, bringing together a wide variety of theological and spiritual and scholarly influences. I love this sort of interdisciplinary work, very serious academic effort, offered for the sake of the world.

You need to know this, at least: the two names in the subtitle are both very serious young scholars, both with some connections to Duke Divinity School.  William James Jennings, now at Yale Divinity School, wrote the significant, sophisticated 2011 volume, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (Yale University Press; $27.50.) J. Kameron Carter wrote in 2008 a very important, heady volume, Race: A Theological Account, which remains in hardcover from Oxford University Press ($38.95.)

I wish the publishers would have included the first names, at least, of the scholars under consideration in the subtitle to alert potential readers that it is, in fact, a close reading and study of these two important theologians of race and religious studies. That Stanley Hauerwas has a very favorable and detailed blurb on the back shouldn’t surprise us. It is serious stuff.

But listen to this from urban activist, evangelical pastor, and co-author of several books with John Perkins, Wayne “Coach” Gordon, of Lawndale Community Church, in an under-resourced part of Chicago:

The theology of race and place is sorely neglected in the American church. Andrew Draper is extremely qualified to speak on both as a pastoral practitioner of the philosophy of ministry embodied in Christian community development. This includes two powerful aspects, reconciliation and relocation, both of which demonstrate that place matters. I highly recommend A Theology of Race and Place. 

Do All Lives Matter - BAKER.jpgPRE-ORDER: Do All Lives Matter?: The Issues We Can No Longer Ignore and the Solutions We All Long For Wayne Gordon & John M. Perkins (Baker Books) $12.99  This title not yet released – due February 14, 201.  Who hasn’t wanted to agree with the slogan and hashtag Black Lives Matter.  After the long list of often unarmed black men shot, sometimes even in the back, by police, our hearts go out, our voices rise, insisting that this can’t be right. Made in God’s image, Black lives matter!  And who among us wouldn’t say that Blue lives matter; of course. Police, as such, are not all at fault, and we want to affirm their bravery and service; especially after the sniper shooting of police in Dallas last summer.  Of course.

But then a slogan became “all lives matter.”  And a deeper debate developed — if one goes into an emergency room with a broken leg, with the bone protruding out of an awful gash, it would be nearly pointless (and maybe counterproductive) to say that all bones matter. Well, gee, obviously, but at that point the urgent demand was to pay attention and affirm that leg bones matter!  I am sure I don’t have to explain that many who care about the effectiveness of the #blacklivesmatters campaign felt it was undermined and its power deflected by other lives matter saying.

This brave book, coming out in mid-February, by an active white urban pastor — nicknamed “coach” because of his powerful mentoring role on the streets and the truthful, evangelical civil rights leader, Dr. John Perkins,  get their heads together to hammer out some urgent thoughts about what we should and shouldn’t say about all of this.  The discussion will be vivid and honest, the conversation lively, the insight passed on priceless.  There will be an afterward reflecting on the conversation by old civil rights activist and scholar of civility, Dr. Richard Mouw.

You can decide if you think you can use this — for your own learning and growth or to pass out to that special friend who may need to read it — but I am hoping that many, many BookNotes readers order it from us.  PRE ORDER it at the link below.  Just tell us how many you want.  Easy.



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MORE SUPERLATIVES: ADDITION TO THE BEST BOOKS OF 2016 LIST — runner-ups and others I forgot to mention ON SALE

but wait there's more.jpgWe were thrilled that so many folks seemed to like our big BookNotes list of Best Books of 2016 that we posted a week or more ago.  Created in the rush of after-Christmas store sales and some early January travels, it was inevitable that I missed some that I wanted to name.  

Further, there are a bunch that, even if I didn’t name them in the best of Honorable Mentions list, are still quite honorable; some that are beautifully written, truly interesting, maybe even important, or perhaps particularly wise. We so enjoyed reading, discussing, reviewing, and selling them this year.  We’ve got thousands and thousands of books that come in during any given year but there are some that just stand out, that we really loved.

Book_sale_loot_(4552277923).jpgAnd so, these are the runner-ups, shall we say, those deserving an extra shout out, books and authors that helped make 2016 a great year for the sorts of books you find at Hearts & Minds. There’s something for nearly everyone, I’d say. We love reading widely and highlighting the best of various sorts of authors and styles and views.  (Still no novels, though… still working on that. It’s difficult!)

Here is what you can think of as a BookNotes Extra — more great books that we just had to list from the year of 2016 AD.  In no particular order… all on sale.  Use our secure order form page at the website by following the link below.  Spread the word. We’d love to sell some of these here in the early weeks of 2017.

The Soulmaking Room.jpgThe Soulmaking Room Dee Dee Risher (Upper Room Books) $16.99 I really should have named this in the previous list as it truly was one of the most moving books I read last summer. Dee Dee Risher used to write for The Other Side magazine, a journal that was very influential in our lives, one we read up until it closed a decade ago.  Committed to serious cultural engagement through the lens of the poor, the marginalized, and always looking for ways to make Christian discipleship and spirituality energetic and involved, the magazine and the intentional community that sustained it was something like, say, Sojourners, and early on they had much in common (and maybe some friendly competition in the post-evangelical peace and justice world of 80s and 90s, say.  If Sojo got a bit bigger, telling stories of national interest with globally known writers, The Other Side seemed to double down, stay local, keeping it real in a very rough part of Philly.  At the center of this ministry carried into the new millennium was the remarkably gifted writer and activist, Dee Dee Risher, a Southern, rural gal who found her way to China and then urban Philadelphia. The Soulmaking Room tells her story, a memoir that tells of her journey to be her most authentic self, being true to her convictions and her heart, forging a lifestyle of consistent, persistent resistances the principalities and powers.

The publicity for the book tells us: The Soulmaking Room addresses the spiritual challenges of the middle years. For many people, these years bring failure, uncertainty, and losses. Dee Dee Risher probes how struggles, losses, failures, and pain can actually result in a spiritually whole, authentic life. In this personal, funny, and vulnerable narrative, Risher is unrelentingly honest about money, race, marriage, class, parenting, and spirituality. This powerful, poetic book shows how grappling with universal experiences of human life can make people more resilient, deeper, and truer to their identity. The Soulmaking Room is for anyone who wants to look life right in the eye and come out more whole.

As part of the theme of the book, Risher beautifully weaves her own story with the story in the Scriptures of the prophet Elisha and the Shunammite woman, from which the book gets it title. Risher sees in this woman from Shunem hospitality and risk, bold generosity and honest vulnerability. 

Her friend, Jim Wallis, of Sojourners, writes:

Once in a great while, you come across a book that reflects the very personal journey of its author, yet also offers profound insights to a wide variety of readers. Dee Dee Risher has accomplished this feat with lyricism, grace, deep pathos, and unexpected joy. The humble wisdom Dee Dee offers in this book is something I would recommend to anyone who seeks to live more authentically and intentionally in our wonderful, mysterious, broken world, so loved by God. 

The fun forward is graciously written by a younger generation friend, Shane Claiborne, with whom Risher has worked.  (She now is associate communications director for Project HOME, a nonprofit working to end homelessness in Philadelphia. She worked with Shane to help launch  Conspire magazine.

After some lovely and fascinating words of tribute and setting context, Shane says she is a legend. But that not many know her.  After describing her journey, though, he then says:

One of the things you will discover as you read her book is that Dee Dee is wonderfully ordinary. She has certainly seen the world from her work in North Carolina to her time in China, but at the end of the day she is a mother, a courageous wife, a middle-aged freedom fighter who knows that most days of the revolution are from from spectacular. I think you, like me, will find yourself in her story. Our stories are gifts we share with one another and with the world. And when we share them, something magical happens. We remind one another that we are not alone as we heal from our wounds and as we dream of a better world. By sharing our own story, we help others write theirs. That is what Dee Dee Risher has done.

And she has done it with great grace, hard-learned skill of wondrous storytelling and fine writing, and with a broad vision of God’s better world, breaking into our ordinary days. One of the best books of the year. 

Everywhere God- Exploring the Ordinary Places .jpgEverywhere God: Exploring the Ordinary Places Alicia Brummeler (Kalos Press) $14.99  I discovered this book late in the year and you may not have heard of it, even though the publisher, Kalos Press, should be better known for doing fine and thoughtful, nearly literary works created out of a Christian worldview. This book is wonderful in many ways but has as its main burden the task of overcoming vestiges of an older and unfaithful assumption about a split between the so-called sacred and secular.  That is, this author is giving us stories from her life about how to encounter God in the ordinary, how to think realistically and beautifully about the goodness and brokenness that pervades our common life.  When I realized that she was been influenced by the writings of Edith Schaeffer I was very excited.  When I saw the blurb by Random Fellowship writer Margie Haack, I knew this woman must be very special, very honest, and probably a lot of fun to be around.

Here’s what Margie (author of her own wonderful collection of essays called God in the Sink) writes on the inside of the cover:  

For a younger generation of people who see to unite the parts of their life once defines as sacred versus secular, Everywhere God examines this dichotomy and encounters God in all parts of life. From parenting to the workplace the author’s journey take us deep into everyday life where we find God present on every level. A great strength of this book are the questions and outstanding resources at the end of each chapter that invite readers into further discussion and reflection.

Here are the chapter titles after a very fine opening one:

Encountering God in Creation

Encountering God in Literature

Encountering God in Hospitality

Encountering God in Rituals

Encountering God When Spiritually Adrift

Encountering God as a Caregiver

Encountering God in the Workplace

Encountering God in Community.

As Margie suggested, each section not only has Alicia’s ruminations, her own stories of leaning into these aspects of discipleship, these common place practices that open up life and joy and spirituality, but then some really good listings of further readings, books or films to pursue to deepen one’s attentiveness in that area.  These are all themselves wonderful — I rather compulsively read those parts first, and was not only encouraged but inspired.  A very nice little book, wise and thoughtful and lovely. 

I think Andrea Palpant Dilley, contributing editor for Christianity Today (and author of the wonderful, deeply moving memoir, God and Other Flat Tires), is correct when she notes:

This practical, insightful book is perfect for book groups, small groups, and individual readers who are hungry to find God’s sacred presence in the ordinary.

How I Shed My Skin.jpgHow I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood Jim Grimsley (Algonquin Books) $16.95 Algonquin is known as a publisher that only releases the finest writers and they often do good stuff that is particularly Southern. Although this book came out in ’15, we didn’t discover it until ’16 and it became one of the most thought-provoking books I read all year. I recall reviewing it at BookNotes and trying to explain how moving it was, how well written, and how this author shows — in a thoroughly enjoyable memoir — how racism can be learned and, in some ways, unlearned.

Grimsley tells of being in the first inter-racial class that started out together and graduated together (in 1973, in Jones County North Carolina) after the passage of the Freedom of Choice Act. Late in the book he attends (segregated) class reunions and ponders how his life has ended up, and why the country is still so deeply torn about matters of race. As a Southern gay man, he has some particular insights, too, about assumptions and biases and caring about others. This is eloquent, moving, thoughtful, a great book to read together.

Crossing the Waters- Following Jesus.jpgCrossing the Water: Following Jesus Through the Storms, The Fish, the Doubt and the Seas Leslie Leyland Fields (NavPress) $15.99  The day my “Best Books of 2016” post went live I got my first email reply and it was a customer raving about this, his favorite book of the year. I suppose he was wondering why I hadn’t listed it since I had so enthusiastically endorsed it at BookNotes earlier in the year, and to him, as a good read he’d enjoy.

I can’t answer that, but I certainly am happy to take this opportunity to rectify the oversight. This is on a number of people’s “best books” of the year, and we’d heard good things from those who took us up on our encouragement to read it. Here is what I wrote at BookNotes last month:

What a grand and surprising book this is — one you could happily give to any number of folks. Fields is a remarkable writer, very talented and very wise. (I adored the collected she edited The Spirit of Food and really appreciate her excellent book on the myths of parents and many have been helped by her Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers.) She is, by vocation, not only a writer, but a fisher-person doing her work with her family on a remote island off the coast of the mainland in Alaska.  This book includes some vivid telling of her wild experiences — dramatically wet and wild, scary, even — fishing in the dangerously cold seas of the Pacific Northwest. But here’s the thing: besides being a woman’s wilderness memoir and story of life in Alaska, it is also a study of faith. And, quite literally, a study of fishing in the Bible.

Early in the unfolding of this great book, Leyland Fields makes a trek, nearly a pilgrimage, to the Middle East, to fish in the sea of Galilee.  And there it gets really interesting, offering what the publisher says  is “the wettest, stormiest, wildest trip through the gospels you’ve ever taken.”

Do you recall the classic little book, so loved by so many decades ago, called A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm (by Philip Keller, which is still in print, by the way>) In a way, this is a look at the disciples — fisherman that they were — by a woman well acquainted with nets and salt water and storms and fish on the beach.  I think Crossing the Waters is a tremendous book, what reviewer Mark Galli calls “a rare gift.”  

He continues, “It pulses with story and theology, with lived suffering and quiet joy, with vast mysteries and a strong Savior.”

At Home in Exile- Finding Jesus .jpgAt Home in Exile: Finding Jesus Among My Ancestors & Refugee Neighbors Russell Jeung (Zondervan) $17.99  This is another exception book that we’ve seen this year, a spiritual memoir of a unique sort. With the tragic refugee crisis emerging in the last year or so we are paying a bit more attention to the stories of refugees, immigrants, and others who are exiled or homeless.  We stock a number of helpful books trying to help us want to offer Christ-like compassion and develop a Biblically-informed perspective on immigration issues, but this is not one of those. This is a story — joyful and at times harrowing — of living in East Oakland (in a neighborhood ominously called Murder Dubs) where he has to battle drug dealers who threaten him, exorcising a spirit possessing a teenager, and the big story of joining with 200 Cambodian and Latino friends and winning a landmark housing settlement against slumlords.

The back cover says, 

More poignantly, At Home in Exile weaves in narratives of longing and belonging as Jeung retraces the steps of his Chinese-Hakka family and his refugee neighbors. In the face of forced relocation and institutional discrimination, his family and friends resisted time and again over six generations.

Dr. Jeung has spent over two decades working in refugee resettlement when he came to realize that he, too, was an exile. “And this exilic identity, as a “stranger and foreigner,” provides wisdom and hope for all Christians engaging in the major societal issues of our day: mass displacement and poverty, racism, and persistent inequality.”

Dr. Russell Jeung is a leading sociologist of Asian Americans and race and is a professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University.  Kudos to Zondervan for bringing this fascinating memoir to us and for tackling such topics with insight and grit and grace. All proceeds of At Home in Exile will go to New Hope Covenant Church’s ministries for refugee families.

Science Fiction and the Abolition of Man- Finding C.S. Lewis in Sci-Fi jpgScience Fiction and the Abolition of Man: Finding C.S. Lewis in Sci-Fi Film and Television edited by Mark J. Boone & Kevin C. Neece (Pickwick Publications) $41.00 Well, I didn’t list this on the Best of 2016 list because I haven’t read a bit of it yet. But it released at the very end of December and, man, does it ever look great!  You may recall that I reviewed and heartily recommended The Gospel According to Star Trek: The Original Crew by my friend Kevin Neece; he was involved in this, a somewhat more scholarly, ambitious, and brilliant project. As the title suggests this brings into conversation the classic and hugely significant work by C.S. Lewis (The Abolition of Man) and other writings of his with various sorts of sci-fi projects (books, films, TV shows.)  In this extraordinary volume we have 21 hefty chapters linking parts of sci-fi films or books to particular lines or theories or theme from Lewis’ body of work

Mark Boone, the other editor, by the way, is a philosophy prof who has a scholarly work on Augustine and his understanding of desire called The Conversion and Therapy of Desire: Augustine’s Theology of Desire in the Cassiciacum Dialogues. I read as much as I could and it was very learned, very fluent in the literature on the big A, considered an important contribution.  Just saying, these guys are super smart and this book is serious.  And how about that cool, retro cover?  Awesome!

evicted.jpgEvicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City Matthew Desmond (Crown) $28.00 Anyone who reads reviews about books exploring current events on contemporary issues has most likely seen very positive reviews of this major work. From Barbara Ehrenreich (“Astonishing.  Desmond has set a new standard for reporting on poverty”) to Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, who says it is “beautiful, harrowing, and deeply human” and “a must-read for anyone who cares about social justice in this country.”  It is very well researched and has been commended by the best social scientists and urban activists, including the eminent Harvard professor William Julius Wilson. Evicted is a powerful study of economic hardship and life on the margins 

I’ve not finished it but I can assure you that it is very thoughtful and very moving; well-written seems a cliche to describe this non-fiction prose.  One reviewer said is it “exquisitely crafted.”

And, it is very, very important. Don’t take my word for it; Carlos Lozada writes just about the best thing that can be said of a non-fiction advoacy book,  in the Washington Post, no less:

An extraordinary feat of reporting and ethnography. Desmond has made it impossible to ever again consider poverty in America without tackling the role of housing — and without grappling with Evicted.

I am sorry I didn’t list this in the Best of 2016 and now that I’m reading it, I see why it was on so many other mainstream lists.

What Falls from the Sky- How I Disconnected from the Internet.jpgWhat Falls from the Sky: How I Disconnected from the Internet and Reconnected with the God Who Made the Clouds Esther Emery (Zondervan) $19.99  This handsome-looking books with an evocative snowy cover arrived the week before Christmas and we put it on our “new release” table and eyed it up from time to time. It sure looked inviting but, to be fully honest, I’d had enough of the “I’m getting off the internet” genre — see Christina Crook’s The Joy of Missing Out: Finding Balance in a Wired World for one of the most thoughtful or, say, The Wired Soul: Finding Spiritual Balance in a Hyperconnected Age by Tricia McCary Rhodes for a truly lovely reflection.) I have to admit I don’t like the all or nothing approach this book offers and, hey, anyway, if somebody goes off line, how will they read my book reviews? So, let’s not go overboard here, people.)??The other day I opened this book to see endorsements hidden inside. As you may know, these kinds of blurbs mean a lot to me — they usually tell you what orbit an author is in, and the advanced reviewers give you a hint by what they say (or don’t say) about both the content and the quality of the pages to come.

And there it was, rave reviews from creative writers I admired: Amy Boucher Pye, Preston Yancey, Addie Zierman, Jen Pollock Michel. And, of course, Christian Cook, who says:

Esther Emery’s What Falls from the Sky is a joyful pilgrimage into the heart of what matters in a complex and connected world. With wit and wisdom, she takes us on a wholehearted journey of an embodied faith: a faith where heart and hands, mind and body matter equally and the truth of Scripture is confirmed in the truth of the earth. What Falls from the Sky is not to be missed.

And then I saw this enticing blurb by Elizabeth Esther who wrote the amazing Girl at the End of the World:

I tore through this book like the pages were on fire. Esther Emery’s courageous, gritty, and self-aware experiment with fasting from the Internet is nothing less than a freedom song.

And so, late last night, with too much to do and my own internet compulsions to contend with, I, too was tearing through the pages of this marriage in disarray, this story of faith and growth and freedom and recovery.  What a book! I was — I am not exaggerating — hooked by the first page. What Falls from the Sky is arranged around four seasons of trying to stop the chaos of her life by getting rid of her electronic devices and screens, but there is more. We hear about her self discovery, her growing into a new found faith, her mothering of two young kids, her renewed romance with her husband, it’s all here, told in unbelievably great, dramatic, prose. Maybe you have read Present Over Perfect by the deservingly popular Shauna Niequist. This one is for you, struggling to calm the waters, learn to be present,  but hold on. The writing is mature, feisty, strong, raw and I commend this artfully told tale to anyone who likes good memoir, who wants well-crafted writing, who needs to explore a life slowly, slowly,  learning to be well lived. One of the best memoirs I’ve read in a long time.

Chasing Slow- Courage to Journey Off the Beaten Path.jpgChasing Slow: Courage to Journey Off the Beaten Path Erin Loechner (Zondervan) $24.99  I had an advanced copy of this and was really, really excited to see how it would actually look — there were already hints that it was going to be a very modern look.  But didn’t see the real lay out and full color design until just before the new year. This, it seems to me, ought to be a 2017 release — fresh, new, helpful, a perfect example of an applied faith lived out with artful intention for those making new declarations.  Chasing Slow is a book which surely deserves to be named as the best designed and most handsome Christian book of many a year. That the author herself is a former art director and stylist in Los Angeles and a star (and that she written for Elle Decor, Mari Claire, Dwell, and her work showcased in The New York Times) gives us a clue: this book is about designing one’s life, learning to slow down and think well, trusting that we will be given all that we need. In some sense the sturdy but gorgeous packaging is part of the message.

Loechner has seen her share of heartbreak — her husband’s brain tumor, bankruptcy, family loss, and public criticism.  In Chasing Slow she says she wants to guide folks to a new lifestyle “on that will refresh your perspective, renew your priorities, and shift your focus to the journey that matters most.”

This very cool book is divided into two parts: Part One is called “Chasing More.”  Part Two is called (yep, you’ve got it) “Chasing Slow.” 

As Hayley Morgan, author of Wild and Free says,

Erin’s way of thinking shows the fruit of living slowly. She pulls at every string, peeks beneath every layer. She connects the dots of how so many of us are feeling, putting words to questions we’re only just beginning to ask. This book is beautifully written, and you’ll want to savor it.

And, you’ll learn about some ethical shopping sites, like Zady. 

Overplayed- A Parent's Guide to Sanity in the World of Youth Sports.jpgOverplayed: A Parent’s Guide to Sanity in the World of Youth Sports David King & Margot Starbuck (Herald Press) $15.99  I agree with John R. Gerdy (author of Ball or Bands) who says “This book is a must-read for parents. It offers solid, helpful suggestions as to how we can, once again, make youth sports about the kids.”

I cheered this one on when it first came out because I know oodles of parents, and you do too, who are struggling with this question. And I cheered this one on because I know lots of others — pastors, Christian educators, teachers and mentors and aunts and uncles — who all are concerned about the young ones in their lives who seem to being sucked in to a way of life that isn’t healthy or, even, always very fun.  What are we to do?

I also cheered this on because I read the first several books of Margo Starbuck and loved every last page of each one. If Margo is behind something, I’m in.

This problem of being “overplayed” wasn’t a problem in our own household as our own kids were coming up, and but I read this anyway, in part because I know it is a pressing matter and in part because I wanted to see what King and Starbuck did.  It’s a fabulous book, a great resource — not at all anti-sports, by the way (King is the Athletics Director at a Christian university and has thought about this stuff a lot.) It deserves to be widely known because it is deeply Christian but could be read by nearly anyone, has some good, healthy thinking about recreation and fun and family, but also because it is very practical. With “Eight questions to discuss on the way home from the game” and “Five Ways to Ruin Your Child’s Sport’s Experience” and Dinnertime conversation starters about your family’s values, this helps you figure out how to address this matter. There is a Q&A section at the end of each chapter and some bonus tips for coaches, parents, and churches.  Overplayed will help solve some of your problems about how to deal. Order some today.

From Bubble to Bridge- Educating Christians for a Multi-Faith World .jpgFrom Bubble to Bridge: Educating Christians for a Multi-Faith World Marion Larson & Sarah L.H. Shady (IVP Academic) $19.99  There are dozens of books on Christian faith and world religions; some are more classically liberal almost glibly over-estimating our unity and commonalities.  Some are so eager to testify to the uniqueness of Christ that they are nothing but rants against Everybody.  Some are balanced, thoughtful, careful., showing how historic, Biblical Christian faith compares and contrast with other world religions. (By the way, for the record, I often suggest the very interesting book by Stephen Prothero God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World as a non-partisan overview of the distinctives.)  Anyway, although there are many solid handbooks to world faiths and many that are evangelically minded and reliable, I’ve not found one that does what this new one does.  It is, in a way, nearly historic, to see such a nuanced and thoughtful work stepping into the fray.

The authors both have PhDs and teach at Bethel University in St. Paul, MN.  They believe that “understanding our religious neighbors is more important than ever — but also more challenging.”  Why that is is part of what this book is about — understanding the deep religious strife and the ever-increasing pluralism, and responding faithfully with hospitality and warmth and clarity about the Christian faith.

Interfaith dialogue has been critiqued (often properly so) as a mere nicety, without much robust conversation or desire for evangelism. That has sometimes been a caricature, but especially those on the more conventional theological traditions will be very glad that this book does not lapse towards sentimentality or mere dialogue.  

Brian Howell of the theologically conservative Wheaton College says “From Bubble to Bridge arrives just in time… Larson and Shady have given us just what we need to grow our ethic of love across religious boundaries.”  

If there is anybody I trust on this matter it is the globally-experience church historian and advocate of Christian scholarship, Joel Carpenter of Calvin College. Dr Carpenter says,

Interfaith dialogue has been happening for a long time, whether or not evangelicals have participated. So what might evangelicals bring to the table, other than a guilty conscience for coming rather late? From Bubble to Bridge offers an answer: their activism! These evangelical scholars ask, can dialogue help people of differing faiths get along better as neighbors? If that is not a cardinal aim, they insist, then dialogue seems rather sterile. So the authors set out a model of interfaith engagement. They endorse dialogue, yes, but beyond that, cooperation?out of mutual caring for the common good. Given the conflicts, tensions, and passions of our day, this book is very timely, very much needed.

Listen to Douglas Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen of Messiah College, co-directors of the Religion in the Academy Project:

Religious conflicts often dominate today’s headlines, and Christian colleges are faced with the challenge of preparing students to live faithfully and graciously as followers of Jesus in a world where peace and good will among people of differing faiths is desperately needed. From Bubble to Bridge explains what’s at stake, analyzes the difficulties, and maps a positive path forward. Engaging, well-organized, and overflowing with practical wisdom, this is the guide to interfaith relations that evangelical educators have been seeking.

This book is designed, for starters, to use as a book to help inform and teach young adults at Christian colleges. (Curtiss Paul DeYoung of the Community Renewal Society in Chicago says it should be “required reading at all Christian colleges.”) And I hope a few of our friends in campus ministry and in higher education order it from us. But I think it deserves a wider readership and although it isn’t simple, it is for ordinary folks everywhere who want to dig deep with open hearts. I’m a fan of this project, glad for this bold plan, and highly recommend this as one of the finest contributions to this topic in years.

Kierkegaard- A Single Life.jpgKierkegaard: A Single Life Stephen Backhouse (Zondervan) $24.99  Who knew that there wasn’t a singular fine biography of the depressed Danish philosopher that was informative and interesting and accessible? Now we have it, an introductory bio, wonderfully-written, highly-regarded, a fresh look into the life and teachings of a scholar who is cited as one of the primary thinkers of the last century. Along with the likes of Einstein Freud, Darwin, Marx, Kierkegaard is one of those geniuses who have left their mark, for good or for ill. This book explains why that was and why we should care.

The blurbs on the back are from Rowan Williams, Stanley Hauerwas, William Cavanaugh, and Richard Beck of Abilene Christian University. Not too shabby. It deserves to be named in any list of notable books in 2016.

Excellent Preaching- Proclaiming the Gospel In Its Context & Ours .jpgExcellent Preaching: Proclaiming the Gospel In Its Context & Ours Craig Bartholomew (Lexham Press) $11.99  We have dozens of new books on preaching — homiletics, as we say when we want to sound smart — and I get a kick out of reading them. I skim and become familiar with many and they seem to fall into a couple of categories: some are rather curious, academic, drawing on some often eccentric scholarly theory or rhetorical school of thought.  We’ve got ’em, but nobody ever buys them.  Then there are more useful ones, designed to help pastors preach better, more faithfully and with more passion and interest.  These can be thoughtful or simplistic, more liberal or more conservative, but they are usually practical. Some are quite clever. 

Most attempt but don’t do much with the deepest context of the twenty-first century listener, the ethos and idols of the culture we find ourselves in. (I commend Timothy Keller’s Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism especially for chapter five that gives an overview of Charles Taylor to help us understand the late modern secular person.) Craig Bartholomew is a first class, world-respected Biblical scholar but he is also a bit of a cultural critic: by day he is the H. Evan Runner Professor of Philosophy at Redeemer University in Ancaster, Ontario.  He is also the dean of the St. George’s Centre for Biblical and Public Theology.  He is perhaps most known for being the co-author of The Drama of Scripture and the abridged version of that classic, the slimmer True Story of the Whole World.  (If you pick up shades of Newbigin there, you are correct) and a whole bunch of scholarly Biblical works.

This little book helps us learn to understand the Biblical text and although it is brief, it is really, really helpful. And it helps us learn to communicate well the bigger story of God’s redemptive plan, the unfolding story of creation/fall/redemption/restoration, even as we are grounded in Scripture and proclaiming to an audience that may or may not be fully formed into the ways of Christ’s Kingdom.  For a short, passionate argument about the need for and nature of effective preaching, this book (and it’s fine footnotes) deserves to be on the top of any preacher’s list.

Bruce Riley Ashford (author of Every Square Inch) summarizes it well:

…along the way he teaches the reader how to view a biblical text within the context of the whole biblical narrative, preach it in a way that draws hearers closer to God and at the same time sends them out into the world, and apply it to the prevalent idolatries of our time.

closer than close.jpgCloser Than Close: Awakening to the Freedom of Your Union With Christ Dave Hickman (NavPress) $14.99 I have recently re-read this splendid book and was, again, moved by his honest teaching about grace and the goodness of God and how our being one with Christ is the key to understanding our salvation and our ongoing growth and spiritual maturity.  It is down-to-Earth and not overly academic and perhaps that is why I didn’t list it among the top books of 2016. I think I should have — when he talks about weeping after reading a quote by Brennan Manning and tells of his friendship with Fil Anderson (whose Running on Empty told a similar story of ministry burnout and longing for inner transformation through more deeper awareness of God’s presence) I just knew that this is one of the very good books of this year.  I’ve enjoyed telling folks about it, glad for our little connection through mutual friends at Montreat College in North Carolina, and I sincerely want to give an honorable mention to Dave Hickman for offering us this reminder of what the life of faith is about, how we are closer to God — really closer — than we know.

I reviewed it well in a previous BookNotes, but I didn’t tell much about the introduction by Fil Anderson. Since it is there, I guess it is good to share it. Listen to this, as Anderson tells of his first meeting with Dave:

Despite my knowing that his life was spinning out of control, our initial encounter was more unsettling than I had anticipated. Immediately after he was seated in the cozy, quiet confines of my  study, he nervously explained the cause for his sudden, brief, and repetitive movements that already were threatening my ability to listen. 

Diagnosed with Tourett’s syndrome in the fourth grade, David had also suffered the debilitating effects of obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit disorder, and anxiety and depression. Ever since, he had lived with an impeding sense of doom. While asleep, he would sweat profusely. Upon waking, he suffered from “anxiety induced vomiting.” For years he dreaded nighttime and despised the coming of morning even more. Yet most devastating were the secrets he kept about himself. Eventually he led me into the hidden harbors of his heart, where fear, insecurity, and discontent had dropped anchor, revealing how his sense of identity had been tethered to externals, causing his sense of self-worth to be continually endangered. 

Anderson, his friend and spiritual director, continued:

David scorching honesty and humble transparency ravished my heart and brought me to tears. Despite the severity of his physical and emotional struggles, what had most plagued him was his soul’s desperate search for what he’d already been given. Clearly, the greatest discovery of his life was when David wok e up to the truth that he had been perfectly one with Christ since the day he gave his life to Christ.

David doesn’t talk that overtly in Closer Than Close about how dramatic his transformation was; the book is honest and at times poignant, but it is, again, for any of us. Knowing, though, his backstory makes it all that much more remarkable. Thanks be to God.

When Breath Becomes Air .jpgWhen Breath Becomes Air Paul Kalanithi (Random House) $25.00  I liked the look of this hand-sized hardback with embossed, textured cover and deckled pages and knew it was going to be nice.  We put it in our large section of books about death and dying, grief and loss, and for a bit forgot about it.  Later, I read a story from a New York Times Sunday Magazine article that was so beautifully written, by the soon-to-be widow of a dying doctor, that I cried and cried and sent it to Beth.  Alas — yep — it was written by Lucy, Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s wife and it told of his efforts writing this book as he was ill, how she intended to finish it for him, the very book we had but I hadn’t looked at.  Of course, we immediately paid more attention and realized this is a very exceptional book.

Paul was a good husband, a  beloved doc, in training for ten years to be a neurosurgeon. He earned an MPhil in history and philosophy (from Cambridge!) and graduated cum laude from the Yale School of Medicine.  But all of that only illustrates how smart he was, and what a gifted person he was. He was also a very, very good writer who loved great literature and a person who cared deeply about important things.  He was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer at the age of thirty-six.

As the book jacket tells us, “One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live.”  It works with that theme a bit and is elegantly written;  it is full of charm and pathos and insight and a quest for a meaningful life and a good death. The book eventually sky-rocketed to the top of the best-seller charts and not a few customers have told us it is one of the most deeply moving books they’ve ever read.  As the important and artful writer Atul Gawande says, it is “Rattling, heartbreaking, and ultimately beautiful, the too-young Dr. Kalanithi’s memoir is proof that the dying are the ones who have the most to teach us about life.”  Fiction writer, essayists and bookstore owner Ann Patchet says “This is one of the handful of books I consider to be a universal donor — I would recommend it to anyone, everyone.”

There are, by the way, a few pages in the middle which offer a beautiful rendering of his return to Christian faith after “a long stretch, following college, when my notion of God and Jesus had grown, to put it gently, tenuous.” His reflections about this part of his life are wonderfully written and encouraging.  The whole book is very, very good and certainly one of the Best Books of 2016.

I wanted to note, also, that this has been a good year for books about hardship, trials, being honest about pain and lament. Most years bring us several good books about grief and pastoral care of the hurting, but there are a few that were outstanding this year, and I wanted to publicly thank the publishers for trusting these words full of pathos, for allowing writers to do this kind of work.   For instance, if I could, I’d award all of these with some kind of blue ribbon.

Broken Hallelujahs- Learning to Grieve the Big and Small Losses of Life.jpgBroken Hallelujahs: Learning to Grieve the Big and Small Losses of Life  Beth Allen Slevcove (IVP) $16.00 Beautifully written narration of this Lutheran spiritual director’s disappointments, losses, hardships, both minor and major.  She searches for “hidden beauty in the dark” with candor and wit and grace. Excellent.

gift of hard things.jpgThe Gift of Hard Things: Finding Grace in Unexpected Places Mark Yaconelli (IVP) $16.00  Whoah, what a book. Kenda Dean says “I am undone… The Gift of Hard Things is a book of dazzling grace, a slice of holy ground, as life giving as water in a desert.”  Anne Lamott says “A book absolutely after my own heart…” Wow.

losing susan.jpgLosing Susan: Brain Disease, The Priest’s Wife, and the God Who Gives and Takes Away Victor Lee Austin (Brazos Press) $19.99 Austin is a scholar and priest and this is his eloquent testimony — “painfully truthful” as one reviewer put it, drawing on theological wisdom, without sentimentality. Some have compared it to the enduring memoir about grief of C.S. Lewis.

cancer is funny - good.jpgCancer Is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo Jason Micheli (Fortress) $26.99  First I want to say I hate the title and find it difficult to like a book that is so hard to easily suggest. I know people who are in serious chemo and can’t bring myself to tell them about this.  Secondly, if there was an award for worst cover of the year from a serious publisher, I’d nominate this. What in the world were they thinking?  It is just stupidly silly, and hard to take seriously.

Which is why I didn’t list it as one of the best books of the year; the publisher just dropped the ball on the packaging and promotion.  But, you know what? Micheli, a United Methodist minister, is a good guy who has been through a lot. He’s a great, energetic writer and his topic is important — not just finding humor in the hardest places, but in coping with life-threatening disease and serious pain.  And in this remarkable book he deconstructs all that stuff (in what Morgan Guyton calls “pastoral irreverence”) and brings us what one reviewer calls “astonishing” insights. No lesser theological light — not one known for her hilarity, as far as I can tell — than the thoughtful and classy Fleming Rutledge approves. She says it is “the real thing, people” and calls it “indispensable.” 

He is an upbeat, driven, fun writer, and, given that “death had sniffed him over” he is aware of the seriousness of illness, pain, disease. But he does, early in the book, do some fairly serious (although pleasant) analysis of what humor is, what the role of comedy is, the subversive power of laughter.  I appreciated that a lot and it helped me realize the theological substance behind his jokes and four letter words.

Listen to Brian Zahnd, author of Beauty Will Save the World, a book about aesthetics, and the the fabulous anti-war A Farewell to Mars:

I don’t know if cancer is funny, but I can tell you that Cancer Is Funny is often hilarious! And the parts of Jason Micheli’s astounding book that aren’t hilarious brim with profound reflections on life, death, God, and the absurd wonder and tragedy of being human. And it doesn’t hurt that the writing is superb. This is not a book for people with cancer, this is a book for people who are mortal.

The Face of the Deep.jpgThe Face of the Deep: Exploring the Mysterious Person of the Holy Spirit Paul J. Pastor (David C. Cook) $16.99  I have to admit, sinfully quirky reader that I am, that I didn’t read this right away.  I was frustrated by this because a blurb on the back says, “Finally, somebody is writing about the Holy Spirit!”

What world does that guy live in, to think nobody is writing about the Spirit — we’ve got dozens of recent books about the Holy Spirit here in the shop; and what sort of pompous copy editor allowed just nonsense to pass?  Maybe the editors don’t get out much.

Okay, now that I got that off my chest, I realize, also, that a greatly esteemed older Lutheran writer named Walter Wangerin also endorses this book, saying:

Often, while reading, I had to pause, think, and re-read a passage too rich and too insightful for a single consideration. Anyone who attends closely to Pastor’s book will experience the same inspiring jolts.

And then I saw other remarkably breathy endorsements from good folks I truly admire — Jon Tyson, Karen Swallow Prior, J. A. Swoboda, Katelyn Beaty, Skye Jethani, Jonathan Merritt, Chris Smith, Randy Woodley, Mandy Smith; important authors all. Holy smokes, I realized, something  serious, something full of awe and wonder, something vital, is going on here, exploring the Spirit in creation, art, history and theology, too.  I loved what John Mark Comer (author of the lively Garden City) says, noting it is:

Creative, thoughtful, rooted, mysterious — it pairs well for a conversation about God’s activity in the world.

And so I lift this up, naming it as a book I wished I had reader sooner, and one that I’ve started and will surely explore in greater care, soon.  Highly recommended.

Revelation- A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World .jpgRevelation: A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World Dennis
Covington (Little Brown) $26.00 This was truly one of the most moving books I read all year, keeping me glued to it as I read and thinking about it for months following. I’ve told about it many of the places I’ve spoken and want to honor it here.  I’ll just share what I wrote about it last winter when the evening I first saw it:

It is a good day around here when we
get books by authors we admire and whose writing we are just mad about. 
It is a great year when Dennis Covington releases a new book.  You may
know his stunning memoir called Salvation on Sand Mountain which
explored his reporting on and then involvement with a snake-handling
church in Appalachia, or his eloquent, profound book co-written by his
wife at the time, the extraordinary essayist Vickie Covington, called Cleaving,
about their good but troubled marriage. I loved his wild ride of a
nutty book about trying to re-claim Florida land his dad had been bilked
out of called Red-neck Rivera which below the surface (not unlike the more intense and beautiful Sand Mountain)
seemed to indicate his nearly pathological draw to dangerous stuff. To
say his book writing is “high octane” puts it mildly.  And, once again,
in this new one, it seems that he is drawn to danger.

got home from Jubilee bleary-eyed, exhausted, with a belly full of bad
road-trip coffee and ears still buzzing from the sound system, and just
wanting to go to bed. We unloaded some stuff back into the store, my
eyes fell on this book on our new release table, and I felt like it was
one of those moments: the new Dennis Covington book!  If I start this
now I will be up all night – should I even touch it? Read the first
pages?  Covington is an “astonishing” writer and here he is apparently
raising huge questions of doubt and faith and of the role of toxic, even
violent, religion.  Another high-octane, truly astonishing writer, Mark
Richard, author of the unforgettable House of Prayer No. 2I,
says, “Dennis Covington empathically inhabits the victims of the
violence he meets, and in a fleeting instance find the grace that
sustains them and the despair that transcends them beyond our reckoning.
Touched by his epistles, we are somehow encouraged, even when all we
have is God.”  

Barnes (another of my favorite writers, another of the most
unforgettable memoirists I’ve ever read) says “From the first sentence
on, you understand what Dennis Covington brings to the page is something
raw, terrifying, brilliant, and necessary. Vivid, tense, and
compelling, Covington’s story bears brave and unflinching witness to one
of the most threatening conflicts of our time.”  

I’m telling you, the blurbs on the back of this book themselves might keep you up at night. Listen to Alan Weisman, who writes,

Once again, Dennis Covington, author of the astonishing Salvation on Sand Mountain, rushes
headlong into abysses that the rest of us flee, from the most brutal
spots on earth to the rawest truths in the mirror. His obsessed, haunted
question scours the depths of madness — his, ours, this century’s —
yet somehow salvages faith from the most fearful despair. This brave
book is a Revelation, indeed.

Creation Care and the Gospel- Reconsidering The Mission of the Church .jpgCreation Care and the Gospel: Reconsidering The Mission of the Church edited by Colin Bell and Robert White, introduction by Edward R. Brown (Hendrickson) $29.99  I’ll admit, again, that I haven’t really read this — it came near the end of the year — but I can assure you it is one of the major releases because it is a document and set of study chapters developed by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, the international evangelical mission network, famously founded in 1974 by Billy Graham.  Perhaps you’ve seen the Cape Town Commitment, a small book that came out of their 2010 South African gathering. (Lausanne has only met three times in global Congresses (in 1974, 1989, and 2010.) In that Cape Town challenge it named a number of key topics that were to be urgent aspects of their movement’s philosophy of mission. It insisted that creation care was an important, integral aspect of faithful holistic mission and that more work needed to be done to develop a serious theology of environmental concern, emerging from the global church, related to themes of evangelism, justice, spirituality and mission.  And so, the Jamaica Consultation was held in late 2012, the “Jamaican Call to Action” was written, and this stunningly comprehensive work emerged from that gathering.  We are thrilled to stock it and commend it.

Some of this, of course, has been said before. There are dozens of great books on faith-based creation care, Christian views of environmental stewardship, Biblical studies about Earth-keeping, theological analysis of climate change.  many of the authors of the key chapters in this volume have themselves written entire books. This one is unique and particularly significant, though as it brings the weight of the Lausanne movement, the best of world-wide evangelical scholars, and the urgency felt especially in the two-thirds world, to bear on the global environmental crisis. 

The book is over 350 pages, with more than twenty major chapters, and 10 remarkable case studies from around the world. Creation Care and the Gospel has within its pages tons of Biblical, theological teaching, lots of great stories — including the fabulous episode told by Susan Emmerich about reconciling Tangier Island fisherfolk and ecological activists in the lower Chesapeake bay, not that far from us here — and a vast array of mission-minded testimony.  What God is doing around the world through Christ’s people on every continent is nothing short of breathtaking. This is surely a historic volume, documenting a historic moment in the evangelical movement.  Thanks be to God, who so loves the world He made.

great spiritual migration.jpgThe Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian Brian D. McLaren (Convergent) $21.00  I truly enjoyed this book and I think I have read all of Brian’s fascinating, important works. He has shifted in this thinking over time and he has increasingly become known not as emergent or a “new” kind of Christian, but as a progressive, mainline denominational voice. With endorsements on the back from Diana Butler Bass (who says it is his “finest book, a beautiful exploration of a hopeful, joyful, mystical, and just faith…”) and Richard Rohr, Joan Chittister, and Pete Enns, you can see this isn’t some youthful swagger about postmodernism.  This is serious stuff, and for those of us within mainline churches, it seems like a fresh way to say what many have said all along.   Which is to say this isn’t simple and it is in some ways controversial. I am not at ease with all of it, but I think as a sociologist of religion, a storyteller from the front lines, an evangelist for the commonwealth of God, he is explaining and showing what, in fact, is a reality for many folks — this is their interpretation of faith and it seems reasonable and right and faithful.  Sister Joan is right to say the book is, “A refreshingly honest, totally committed, enriching, and profound analysis of the Spiritual Moment that is changing all our lives.”  She continues, “If you are concerned — and excited — by what is going on in churches these days, read this book.” 

Brian is always winsome, tries to be gracious as he points towards a new way, and is, admittedly (as Fr. Rohr says) “refining the meaning of orthodoxy.” 

How so? Does the church, as we Presbyterians say, really believe in ecclesia semper reformanda (the church always reforming) and is this a faithful, healthy shift, or a step away from what God desires for Christ’s Body?  What is the migration McLaren is observing and inviting us to?

The book is arranged in three major parts:

Part One is called The Spiritual Migration: From a System of Beliefs to a Way of Life.

Part Two explores The Theological Migration: From a Violent God of Domination to a Nonviolent God of Liberation.

Part Three is earnest and exciting, The Missional Migration: From Organized Religion to Organizing Religion.

There are a few appendices, a “Charter for a Just and Generous Christianity” and “Fourteen Precepts of Just and Generous Christianity.” There are a few good pages well worth pondering where he explores a bit more of what he mean by “beliefs.”  

Over and over Brian is told that his expression of faith and his invitation to study the Bible for a just and generous sort of spirituality is the very kind of good news that makes people want to remain in their churches, despite toxic and stupid stuff.  In an age when evangelicalism has gotten a bad name and  for many, church life is seen as nearly passe, McLaren does us a service by offering this overview of some of the reforms possible — and happening — in various quarters within Christianity.  The book is at times provocative and the footnotes are packed with ideas, websites, authors and events to explore, making it a useful tool for some, a way to get “brought up to speed” on this part of the Body and what many are thinking and doing these days.  Glad or not, it is one of the important books here in the middle of our new millennial decade. You should read it.

Breaking the Huddle- How Your Community Can Grow Its Witness.jpgBreaking the Huddle: How Your Community Can Grow Its Witness Don Everts, Val Gordon, Doug Schaupp (IVP) $16.00  About ten years ago a book came out that was essential reading — it remains so, I think — for anyone doing campus ministry or interested in talking about faith with skeptics, seekers, or the ubiquitous un-churched.  Co-authored by Don Everts and Doug Schaupp, it was called I Once Was Lost and it was based on massive interviews with un-church college students and those who had come to faith in their college years. It was trying to figure out what emotional, relational, intellectual and other hurdles such young adults had to get over before they could even consider the truth claims about who Jesus was and is.  Interestingly, their massive data suggested a process of learning to trust a real Christian — a harder thing then you might suppose — and then several other major steps.  These stages, so to speak, towards faith, were then used to help earnest evangelists learn how to more effectively share the gospel with skeptics and postmodern seekers.

Well.  In this new book these authors revisit those five thresholds that individuals cross when they shift from being skeptics to being followers of Christ and apply these stages to congregational change. What steps do churches and faith communities need to journey through in order to be more effective in their outreach? Admittedly, most of our churches and fellowships are what they call “huddled.” Friendly, of course, but mostly in-house and not too externally focused. 

In Breaking the Huddle they show how huddled communities can become witnessing communities and then grow into what they call conversion communities, where “evangelistic growth becomes the new normal.”  These steps have been discerned by their research and by their work coaching all kinds of fellowship groups, faith communities and conventional congregations. As Jim Singleton says, “Many books motivate personal witness. This is one of the few books that gets at how to lead a cultural change toward being a community that stimulate s real ongoing conversion.”  I think he is right — there are lots of great books about reaching out, about seeing more missionally, about practices that change our church member’s attitudes and work for outreach. But this one is unique, really inviting the whole congregational culture to change. I’m very, very eager to explore this more carefully and can’t wait to hear of congregational study groups that start to use it.  By the way, besides the “macro-strategies” they offer for shaking up each of the three kinds of churches, they have lots of online resources too. 

When In Romans- An Invitation to Linger with the Gospel A.jpgWhen In Romans: An Invitation to Linger with the Gospel According to Paul Beverly Roberts Gaventa (Baker Academic) $22.99  I mostly wanted to list this because the title was so darn clever and the subtitle was nice — the gospel according to Paul.  Dr. Gaventa is a well-known Christian educator and scholar, an Emerita Professor of New Testament at Princeton and now a Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Baylor. In fact this year she has served as the President of the Society of Biblical Literature.

And she does this page-turning book on Romans with some quotes from Springsteen’s “Land of Hope and Dreams.”  Brian Blount says it is “easily accessible and utterly indispensable.”

John Buchanan (a widely known Presbyterian and former editor of The Christian Century) says of When in Romans:

Beverly Gaventa has produced that rarest of books, combining careful, exquisite scholarship with her eye for humanizing, delightful detail. Her writing is both sophisticated and accessible as she tackles Paul’s complex notions of individual and cosmic salvation. 

And listen to this from none other than Fleming Rutledge who herself has a large collection of sermons on Romans (Not Ashamed of the Gospel) and the magisterial book (a Hearts & Minds 2015 Award Winner) The Crucifixion:

From the beginning of the Christian era until the present day, Paul’s Letter to the Romans has been the source of revolutionary rethinking. Nowhere do we come closer to the radical heart of the gospel. The universal and cosmic notes of the Pauline symphony are sounded in this book by one of our most esteemed interpreters of the apostle’s letters. Beverly Gaventa has written a book for ordinary parish clergy and laypeople that is fun to read and full of spicy references to popular culture, and that will jolt readers into a new appreciation for the great apostle and his unique place in the history of Christian theology.

SGBC - Genesis.jpgSGBC - Daniel.jpgThe Story of God Bible Commentary (Zondervan) $29.99  There have been several new ones in this set that have been released this year and I am increasingly impressed.  I don’t name these books as some of the important ones of the year because of the authors, really, although they are all stellar. I want to commend Zondervan — and the general editors Tremper Longman and Scot McKnight — for overseeing this ongoing series. It started out a year or two ago with a couple of volumes and I want to celebrate that 2016 SGBC - Romans.jpgSGBC - Ephesians.jpgsaw a number of new ones in this useful series.

There are a few reasons I really like to recommend the volumes in this series. As the commentary set’s name suggests, there is some effort to place the book of the Bible under consideration within the larger framework of the unfolding canon. That is, it brings the grand Biblical meta-narrative, as they used to say, to the fore, and sees how this historical book is places within the bigger picture. This is immensely important and all too rare. I don’t know how well each volume does this but it is a major feature and quite a feature it is.

Secondly there is this sense of modern application, building bridges, explaining how to live out the text today. Like the wonderful NIV Application Commentary Series that always ends each section with some contemporary application, this set, too, aids the Bible teacher or preacher by offering this “Live the Story” part.

In fact, each Bible pericope in The Story of God Bible Commentary volumes is arranged in three easy-to-use sections designed to help readers live out God’s story.  The sections are:

Listen to the Story, Explain the Story, and Live the Story. It seems to me to be the first Bible commentary to offer these features together and we are glad that they are becoming better known.

2016 saw the release of the SGBC Genesis by Tremper Longman, Romans by Michael Bird, Ephesians by Mark D. Roberts, and Daniel by Wendy Widder. Look for several more in 2017, including 1 Peter by Dennis Edwards later this Spring.

A Unique Time of God- Karl Barth's WWI Sermons.jpgA Unique Time of God: Karl Barth’s WWI Sermons Karl Barth (Westminster/John Knox) $35.00  I don’t know if new stuff by the esteemed and extraordinarily important German theologian is considered by many a “publishing event” but we can’t let this late-in-the-year release slip by without some hubbub. This is the first time these sermons have been published in English and people in the know say that these sermons not only offer great theological and Biblical preaching in the midst of a global crisis but show how these sermons “are the true beginning of Barth’s later theology.”  

Here is what the publisher says:

Barth saw the war as “a unique time of God,” believing it to represent God’s judgment on militarism. These sermons reveal a deep strain of theological wrestling with the war’s meaning, as Barth comes to see the conflict as the logical outcome of all human attempts to create God in our own image. As it demonstrates a decisive shift in Barth’s early theology, this volume is essential for anyone who wishes to understand the twentieth century’s greatest theologian.

David Demson of Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto, continues,

Through them [these sermons] a revolutionary theology was born our of the necessity and struggle of proclaiming the Christian message during the first few months of the Great War. In these sermons, the pastoral and theological strengths of the young Barth are already present. Also evident are the liberal emphasis of nineteenth-century theology and the beginning of Barth’s negation of them. Klempas translation sets in high relief a major milestone in twentieth-century theology.

Live Live Like You Give a Damn! Join the Changemaking Celebration.jpgLike You Give a Damn! Join the Changemaking Celebration Tom Sine (Cascade Books) $24.00  I know the title can be off putting, but I’m telling you — as I did when I first celebrated this in our BookNotes newsletter review — this is well worth reading, a major call to action and a remarkably buoyant reminder of how God is alive and well, inspiring many to do such good, change-making stuff.  It brings to our attention a new generation of activists and public servants, missionaries and social entrepreneurs.  It is just jam-packed with stories and examples and cannot help but make you smile — and maybe make you wonder how you, too, might be involved. As Walter Brueggemann says in his remarkable endorsement, “Such as fresh, imaginative engagement will surely yield a “well done” from the Lord of the church who makes all things new.”

I trust you know Sine’s many other books, including his much celebrated and lasting collection of stories called The Mustard Seed Conspiracy written in maybe the late 70s. He did a fresh look and update in 2008 called The New Conspirators: Creating a Future One Mustard Seed at a Time that we still stock.  In a way, this is more of that magic — serious cultural analysis, ear-to-the ground discernment of what God’s people are doing, and an invitation to join up with a younger movement of those making a difference. 

By the way, I don’t think you will find a book this year that has so many rave reviews, so many endorsements and blurbs, so many wonderful folks celebrating the life and work of Tom Sine.  You should get this. And pass it on.  You can fan the flames of this changemaking revolution!

The Faithful Artist -  Vision for Evangelicalism and the Arts .jpgThe Faithful Artist: A Vision for Evangelicalism and the Arts Cameron J. Anderson (IVP Academic) $26.00  Published in cooperation with CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts) this is the second important volume in their newly launched “Studies in Theology and the Arts” series. And, wow, is it important. It surely is a notable thing that CIVA’s President, Cam Anderson, has finally done a book. It has been long-awaited and he is uniquely situated to offer such a fresh, well informed view. Further, it is a notable thing that this series has gotten launched. (The first volume causes a bit of a stir — maybe you read my long review of Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism by Jonathan Anderson & William Dyrness.) With blurbs on these from the likes of major scholars of aesthetics like Nicholas Wolterstorff and Calvin Seerveld, and wonderful patrons and practitioners like Luci Shaw and Makoto Fujimura, you can see that these are essential books for the library of anyone thinking seriously about faith and the arts.

We were glad to celebrate them when they came out and I was remiss not to list them in our Best of 2016 lists.  These really, really are significant and, for those who are glad about God’s redemptive work among the modern arts community, and folks like CIVA, they are a joy to behold and a treat to own. Highly recommended.

The End of Protestantism- Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church.jpgThe End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church
Peter J. Leithart (BakerAcademic) $21.99  Here is what I wrote last fall when this book was released:  Leithart may be one of the
most interesting theological voices writing today, and his last few
books have placed him into that rare circle of the “must read”
theological scholars. Anyone interested in the nature of the church, the
role of confessional truths, and the call to ecumenism will want to
have this. I surely hope many are drawn to it as the unity of the Body
of Christ is Jesus’s own stated passion.  The rave reviews of The End of Protestantism
are themselves so stimulating that it makes me really, really eager to
read this carefully. (There are woefully few good books on ecumenical
theology from anybody, let alone from such a rigorous evangelical.
Thanks be to God for this kind of serious, faithful work.) 

Hauerwas says that “Leithart simply cannot write a dull book. He cannot
because he has the courage and intellect to go to the heart of the
matter.”  Richard Mouw, in a blurb on the back, admits that he had given
up finding “an alternative to the tribalism of divisive
denominationalism and the ‘unity’ efforts of mainstream ecumenism.”
Leithart convinced him that he gave up too quickly; Mouw continues: “This
groundbreaking book combines exciting ecclesiological explorations with
some practical steps for moving forward.”

The fabulous Hans Boersma
calls it “urgent and fearless.” I commend it urgently and fearlessly to
mainline Protestants, evangelicals of all sorts and also to Roman
Catholics and the Orthodox.  I fear we won’t sell any at all, though,
but let us pray that we do. We’ve got a stack here.
  I hope you know this means a lot to us. We should all care about the broader church.  I hope this one helps.

Well, there were others that we liked, that we enjoyed selling, that we promoted with some vigor. But I’ve got to stop… Thanks for listening in and for sending orders our way.  We need the business and are grateful for your support.



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BRAND NEW: Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America by Michael Wear — ON SALE NOW

reclaiming hope.jpgI absolutely loved Michael Wear’s brand new book, Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of America (Nelson Books; $25.99; see our 20% off sale price at the order link below.)  I think many readers will enjoy it, will learn much, and that regardless of one’s affiliation (or non-affiliation) with a political party, it will be a valuable, even important read.  The book is graced with bunches of rave reviews from significant political leaders from across the political spectrum (from several countries, no less) and many respected Christian leaders – from Tim Keller to Russell Moore, pundits, (from Kirsten Powers to E. J. Dionne) and writers as different as J.D. Vance and Ann Voskamp, all insisting this is an important, graceful book.  You see, I’m not alone in highly recommending it although it really is a “Hearts & Minds” kind of book. We think our customers and friends will really appreciate it.

Let’s get this said right away: Yes, Michael is a life-long Democrat and, yes, he worked for the Obama campaign and landed a job as one of the youngest White House staffers ever.  And, yes, he finished his job well but didn’t seek another season of service – not exactly in protest, but certainly with great sadness and inner conflict – before the 44th President finished his final term.   Which is to say that if you loved, sort of liked, or significantly disliked President Obama, you will find something interesting and helpful in these reflections from this insider.

Books by Washington insiders are nothing new – many well-known officials from previous administrations have certainly told their side of their story and interested citizens gobble them up.  I think this is a mostly a good thing; of course some of us just want gossip but many want to understand, from the primary actors, what really went on in this historic episode or that significant policy debate or this or that shift in emphasis or dip in the polls.  If you’ve watched The West Wing or Madame Secretary (and I hope you have) then you can realize how informative and entertaining reading a book like Mr. Wear’s memoir can be.  Agree or disagree with former President Obama, and agree or disagree with Michael’s own efforts within that Administration, Reclaiming Hope: What I Learned in the Obama White House… is a great book.

michael wear.jpgYoung Mr. Wear first met Barack Obama quite by accident (or was it providential?) when he went to a meeting to volunteer at the wrong time and almost literally bumped into the then-Senator who just happened to be in the lobby for another meeting.  Wear dropped out of college to work on the first Obama Presidential campaign and eventually earned a job in the White House under President Obama as the assistant to the Executive Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.  (Even the name and focus of that office – which began during the Clinton Administration and became more publicly known during the Bush years – was a political decision President Obama had to make and Michael tells us some of that back-story; those of us who have followed that creatively-designed office, or, who have known and admired some who held that position, will find this really interesting.)

In the introduction to the book, Wear explains what became his job:

I led outreach to moderate and conservative religious believers, including evangelicals, and helped manage the president’s engagement of religious leaders and issues. I also coordinated our office’s work in certain policy areas, most significantly the child welfare system and efforts to combat human trafficking. After working in the White House for three and a half years, I was asked to lead religious outreach on the president’s reelection campaign, where I was chiefly responsible for outreach to religious Americans and the campaign’s engagement of religious issues. Following the campaign, I directed religious affairs for the president’s second inaugural.

The book starts with some really interesting background telling Michael’s own story, his blue collar roots, how his sister came to faith in Christ during their high school years and how she and her youth group friends tried to evangelize him. He was an agnostic at the time, and people gave him books like The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel and other thoughtful resources that could undo his skepticism. He debated with on-line bloggers and some thoughtful Christians slowly made a difference in his thinking.

In that chapter called “Family Values” he says he is from a working class Italian family in the suburbs of Buffalo, which he describes as:

a town and family emblematic of what writer George Packer has so strikingly referred to as ‘the unwinding’: the massive social and economic transformation of the last forty years that has led to a hollowing-out of America’s middle class. My parents divorced when I was seven under the pressure of economic strain, and so my older sister, Dana, and I were primarily raised by my mother, Genevieve. We did not have a lot of money – my mother worked two and sometimes three jobs for most of my childhood so that we could get by – but I was surrounded by a large, loving, Italian family.

I loved hearing him talk about his grandfather who was an army artilleryman in World War II and his memories of the rituals and rhythms of his inherited ethnic Catholicism.  That early chapter drew me into Wear’s story and sets the stage very nicely. 

Interestingly, he learned to love rhythm and blues and soul music, which, as he recalls:

constantly brought me into contact with the gospel. Whether it was a gospel tract on an otherwise secular album or the unencumbered praising of God on award shows by my favorite black artists, it was through black music and culture that I felt a sort of tension, a constant knocking that indicated a question that had yet to be confronted stood right outside the doors of my mind and heart.

Also, very interestingly, the 2002 acoustic album of Grammy Award-winning star Lauryn Hill with a “theologically rooted political awareness” really captured his attention. Michael tells us that “the intellectual heft of the effort, combined with Hill’s emotional sincerity, moved me. In one song, “I Gotta Find Peace of Mind” Hill sings about how she tried to find contentment in other relationships, but they fell short.”  You may know the song and how she ends with what seems like weeping, praising God, “riffing through tears about a God who is merciful and wonderful.”  

 At his sister’s church, once, somebody gave him a little booklet which was simply the book of Romans. You will appreciate his reflections on how that seminal New Testament epistle rocked his world, but there it is.  A smart, young, politically aware convert, eager to think more about the interface of faith and life, the Bible and politics, justice and grace, Christianity and his Democratic party.  Not your average teenager, I suppose, but it’s genuine and a good bit of background to know. 

Happily, in those years before he headed off to college to George Washington University, Michael met a sharp, thoughtful, bold young Christian gal who would become his first love and eventually his wife. You have to love a book where the first chapter says “Melissa has been my reminder that I am not my politics. She knew me and loved me before the campaigns, before the White House, before the fundraisers and fancy receptions. I would need that reminder in the days ahead.” Yes, he sure would!

And then, we are off to the races.  I knew from that first storytelling chapter that I was going to love this book.

Michael Ware + Obama sign.jpgIn chapter two, Michael meets the Senator who has so captured his attention. Michael – a white guy, remember, who loves R&B – was involved with the black student organization at his college and got involved as a freshman with the leadership of the College Democrats. He was supposed to lead students to a DNC convention, an important event with primary candidates, nominees, even super-delegates.  Michael went the wrong day, oddly bumped into the Senator who was rising in fame in part due to his now-classic 2004 Convention speech, and blurted out, “Senator, I’m a Christian who has followed your career for years, and I believe in your vision. I think you should run for President and I would love to work for you when you do.” Michael was persistent, almost annoyingly so, apparently, being in touch with Obama aids Reggie Love and Joshua DuBois (who then covered faith issues for Obama’s Senate office.)  He even offered the (unannounced) Senator free campaign advice.  Ha.

Why did he dive so passionately into this opaque job possibility?  He, himself wondered that:

Barack Obama’s singularity as a politician was definitely a large part of it. It is undeniable that for me and others of my generation, working to elect Obama became a way to place ourselves in the historic civil rights movement. My first explicitly political convictions were related to civil rights, and as a student at George Washington University I protested the police shooting of Sean Bell… it was beyond compelling to support Obama’s campaign. 

Michael continues with a very important declaration:

My identification as a Democrat did not mean that I was completely at ease in the party. When I became a Christian, I soon understood that throwing myself without reservation behind any party platform was impossible. My allegiances were elsewhere. Politics provided a choice between imperfect options. I remained a Democrat because of the party’s historic commitment to the working class, to combating poverty directly, and the Democrats’ leadership in the modern civil rights movement. I was deeply troubled by abortion (discussed later in this book), and that issue made navigating Democratic politics difficult at times. I also disagreed with Democrats’ general approach to matters of sex and sexuality, along with other issues. Still, I had profound disagreements with the Republican party, too.

That sort of keen and Biblically-faithful insight – being involved in a real party, but holding ultimate allegiance to Christ alone, aware of one’s party’s tendencies, both good and bad, and willing to be honest and humble about that – is a basic, fundamental assumption about our civic life that is all too rare. Young Michael displays in these simple sentences remarkable spiritual maturity and it is for this reason many, many people on both sides of the political isle should read this book. 

That Wear’s years of service in the White House itself (having the ear of the top aides of the President of the United States and sometimes the President himself) was framed by this moderate, thoughtful, non-ideological vision, makes this a valuable case study in contemporary Christian political service.  That this made life harder for him – not always lining up with his own party, being misunderstood among secularist colleagues, being “in but not of” the party – is an illustration of what most of us face, I think, in our own careers and callings, professional spheres, and within the cultural institutions and organizations and even families we find ourselves. 

playing god.jpgI don’t know if Michael has read Andy Crouch’s exceptional book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, on wisely stewarding the gifts of power and working for reform within good but fallen institutions, but his on-the-ground day by day work in politics as told in his own fascinating book is a great testimony to this sort of understanding and that kind of perspective and posture. Without saying it overtly too often, Wear is working out a particularly Christian perspective within his own career – at high levels of influence, no less – without being a rowdy revolutionary or an entrenched traditionalist (that is, if I may be blunt, he was not akin to either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.) I suspect he has drawn on insights from our friends over at the Center for Public Justice, too – just as one example of an organization that is neither left nor right, really, but seeking a higher conversation and deeper, lasting, reforming impact.  Mr. Wear’s Reclaiming Hope book is not exactly a treatise on Christian political theory or a study of Biblically-informed scholarship about the task of the state – see my several BookNotes book lists of important resources for direct teaching about third way Christian thinking and the wonderfully rich books that offer conversations between Christians who are struggling to find consensus on what that might really look like in our time.  Those are important, but this book is, well, a lot more fun. And interesting.

good of p .jpgLeft Right and Christ revised.jpgMichael is fluent in this broader conversation – he has spoken at places like the CCOs Jubilee Conference in Pittsburgh and Q Ideas conferences, the big Catalyst events — but his calling was not to be a scholar or pundit but to actually live it out within a particular party and particular administration, in the give and take of real world political work.

Reclaiming Hope is not like Jim Skillen’s must-read The Good of the Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction (Baker Academic; $24.00) or the wonderful, thoughtful, point-counterpoint books like Five Views on The Church and State: church state and public justice.jpgFive Views on The Church - Politics.jpgedited by Amy Black (Zondervan; $19.99) or Church, State and Public Justice: Five Views edited by P.C. Kemeny (IVP Academic; $22.00) or the feisty back and forth debate like Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics between Lisa Sharon Harper and D.C. Innes (Elevate Faith; $19.99.)

Michael Wear’s new book is more autobiographical and lived out, telling the story of what that vision of thoughtful Christian public service actually looks like in real time, set in the last 8 years or so. Fortunately, I’d say, Wear is informed by these healthy, faithful, mature works that have shaped his own assumptions and attitudes, which is exactly why I hope people of varying political convictions or opinions about the Obama years will read this book.  It is certainly illuminating about the Obama White House and current events of the last decade, but, also, between the lines there is this mostly tacit dimension pointing us towards how to be involved in the real world of actual citizenship and politics in a principled, reasonable way.  And, it hints at the cost of discipleship in public life when one comes to disagree with an employer and the organizational culture of one’s workplace or, in this case, with the political proposals and tone of his party.  It isn’t the heart of the book, but it is part of it.

Have you been there in your own context, your own work-world or school or church, in your own small place?  I bet you have, and I bet you will take some inspiration from how Michael himself handled his own growing disillusionment and frustrations on the job and in his own circle of best friends and beloved colleagues.

I’ve been there, myself, in my own small way, and seeing Wear’s courage and conviction and decision to walk away rather than compromise literally brought tears to my eyes as I read some portions of his story.  Do you know what I’m talking about? Have you ever struggled to live out your convictions in a space that is less than congenial to your ideas and hopes and dreams? It isn’t the only story of Reclaiming Hope: What I Learned… and it certainly isn’t the only take-away, but the conflicts Michael faces nearer the end of the book become an important and, at least for this reader, very, very moving.

Please  — not that there are many cynics or ideologues reading BookNotes — don’t turn up your nose and say, therefore, I told you so; he never should have worked for Obama in the first place. Get over that and learn from the book and maybe applaud his principles and good faith efforts.  Or, conversely, please, don’t turn up your nose saying he should have been more loyal to his boss (leader of the free world that he was) and party consistently no matter what.  Again, these are the reflections hard earned from the story of a young politico navigating his way “as the sausage is made” and working for what Steve Garber in that great chapter in Visions of Vocation calls “proximate justice”  — discerning how to compromise and be faithfully living with hope, even as the sausage is made. This in itself, no matter where you stand on which side of the isle, is admirable and good and beautiful.

Faith-Based Logo.pngAs I say with so many books I review and recommend, agree or not with every detail of the author and his views, you can enjoy the book and learn much from it, and I think this is especially the case with this one. You can learn about the White House and how it works, you can learn about the Obama campaigns and administration and how they worked, and you can learn about how, especially, his office helped work with varying religious communities in our pluralistic society.  Again, I hope this book is read by Democrats and Republicans and Green Party activists and Tea Partiers and libertarians and independents alike. I hope it is read by those who are apathetic about politics as such, the jaded and cynical, too. It shows at least how this one guy did his thing. It’s a story worth reading. For people of Christian faith perplexed by politics, it is really worth reading.

I am not alone in commending this so vigorously.  Listen to these endorsements:

Tim Keller says that Reclaiming Hope is: “an important and extremely timely book…Get it, read it, and talk to others about it.”  Wow, how ’bout that?

 E. J. Dionne says it is “a fascinating insider’s look in the Obama administration’s faith-based initiatives and a stirring call for Christians – indeed for Americans of all faiths – to rediscover a sense of hopefulness.”  Yes!

Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution says it is “Unusually important and moving… a fascinating portrait of a critical moment in American public life. Will appeal to anyone interested in the complex intersection of faith and politics.”  You see, this isn’t even a book only for Christians.

Do you remember Mike McCurry, the White House Press Secretary (1995-98)? He now teaches public theology at Wesley Theological Seminary and McCurry calls Reclaiming Faith “a road map for how we can pick up the broken pieces of our political life and reassemble a national commitment to a common good.” 

reclaiming hope.jpgI realize I’ve hardly touched on the major chapters of this book.  There are ten chapters telling the tale – from the first campaign to President Obama’s faith as expressed in the White House in the 2009 – 2010 era, and how Obama’s faith was expressed in 2011 – 2012.  These are exciting years and there was lot of controversy  (remember Jeremiah Wright?) and Michael was involved in managing the fall-out of episodes you most likely heard about in the news.

Equally interesting, he was involved in a whole lot of stuff you haven’t heard about – so much was going on as government agencies and leaders partnered with local folks, faith-based organizations, drawing together faith leaders to either serve as sounding boards and consultants on various sorts of public concerns and to unite different religious organizations, nonprofits, and ministries, around common goals for the common good. They worked on adoption issues, inner city social architecture, school funding, fatherhood initiatives, rural health care, organizing around the fight against sexual trafficking, and continued the good work of the Bush administration fighting AIDS in Africa.  Behind all of this is this larger conversation about shaping the public imagination regarding how religion fuels social change and how in our democratic society faith and government should and/or shouldn’t properly cooperate.

There are two serious chapters, then, that are very important for anyone interested in public justice and how the Obama administration, did or didn’t move in helpful directions on matters of public controversy.  One is called “Searching for Common Ground on Abortion” and it is a wise and important study. More should be said about this – one brave and important proposal is in the under-appreciated Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation by Charles Camosy (Eerdmans; $22.00.)  Wear’s chapter on this in Reclaiming Hope tells a hard part of this story and I respect him for his thoughtfulness here.

Things began to unravel for the Administration, and for Michael’s own work, as they moved towards what became known as the contraception mandate, which insisted that organizations that had reasons of conscience to oppose abortion-causing kinds of contraception still were required to pay for their supreme-court.jpgemployees to use these kinds of abortifacients. (Think of the Hobby Lobby lawsuits and others, such as the Obama Administration’s legal battle against the Little Sisters of Jesus, a group of elderly nuns who serve the poorest of the poor but couldn’t agree to pay for contraception for their support staff’s insurance if it included what they believed to be something sinful.)  All of this led to much-publicized Supreme Court rulings and Mr. Wear, despite misgivings, was working hard to build relationships of trust within various religious quarters, helping explain what increasingly became hard to explain.  No matter where you stand on these issues, this chapter will keep you turning the pages, hearing from the inside how things went down.

Wear’s day-by-day narrative unfolds much that went on around these admittedly complex matters. There were meetings with groups like the Association of Jesuit Colleges and the Sisters of Mercy and the Planned Parenthood political action committee (which launched an unprecedented $1.4 million ad campaign that argued Mitt Romney wanted to deny women cancer screenings.) There were months of negotiations on the specifics of the plan – there were leaks and hearings and meetings and reports, legal responses to an “Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.”  It is all very interesting and well told – not as tedious or detailed as some political memoirs are, but not shallow or too brief, either. 

Think what you will about which higher principle of law or common good or justice trumped which other principles in this complicated legal debate, Michael is surely correct when he observes:

The mandate brought the administration into direct, unnecessary conflict with organizations that serve the most vulnerable people, and provides invaluable service to this nation, and therefore misdirected attention and resources from servicing people to legal fees and public relations battles. Despite the numerous adjustments, many religious organizations, including the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, still oppose the mandate. In July 2013, CHA announced its concerns were adequately addressed after another round of adjustments.

Besides the facts of the abortion-related aspects of what became known as Obamacare there was the huge question – and I agree it is huge! – of religious conscientious objection and religious freedom. Again, Wear is certainly correct to say, “The controversy was bad for America, and it was bad for religious freedom…. it made religious freedom a partisan idea.”

He says, importantly,

I do not believe that anyone I worked with in the Obama administration, certainly not the president, deliberately sought to undermine religious freedom. That was not their aim. Religious freedom is not under attack.

“Religious freedom is not under attack,” he says.  But listen to this:

But it is under pressure. Religious freedom is increasingly butting up against other values in stark, personal ways, and religious freedom is often the loser in those collisions. We have a problem of pluralism, of different views and perspectives. What must be declared out of bounds is not our diverse perspectives, but the kind of zero-sum politics that disregards collateral damage in pursuit of a win. And the administration failed in this respect. 

Wear does not think that the Obama administration’s record on domestic religious freedom is all negative. He reminds us that “the president has rejected calls to refuse government grants to organizations that organize and hire around religion. The administration defended the National Day of Prayer in federal court and won. The EEOC fought workplace discrimination based on religion.”

Yet, “there is a culture of fear and anxiety around the future of religion that the president has mostly chosen to ignore.” Michael’s thoughtful, balanced, and well-informed chapter on this often-misunderstood topic will help us immensely, I think.  I will be interested in hearing what those who opposed the administration on this issue who are specialists in religious freedom litigation will think of his telling of this tale.

michael wear with flag.jpgThis part of the book – and the following chapter on the president’s “evolution” on marriage equality and LGBTQ rights – is informative, balanced, and, again, deeply moving. I feel for Wear’s desire to be faithful to his own conservative evangelical principles and his equally spiritually-motivated desire for common ground, public justice, and a effort to celebrate the good instincts of social justice embodied in his party’s pronouncements.  He wanted to continue his work, enduring in an embattled office, but grows in his dissatisfaction, seeming to be approaching burn out.

The appreciation he shows for President Obama and his associates in the working groups in the White House doesn’t come from a starry-eyed, partisan liberal, it is thoughtful, considered, fair-minded, hard-earned.  Nor do his criticisms come as cheap shots or with the nasty tones one might hear from the far right; again, his critique sounds fair and hard-won. Wear is not snarky or ideological or rude at all, although there are moments in the book where he seems heartbroken and conflicted, a loyal dissenter to the man he admired and to his party of choice. (Michael, I happen to know, shed some bittersweet tears at the recent final speech of President Obama in Chicago last week. Even though by the book’s close he has left the White House, he was in Chicago for the big ending.)

Reclaiming Hope has a very good chapter comparing and contrasting the way religion was or wasn’t treated in both the first Obama campaign and in the second re-election bid.  This gives an unvarnished account of some of the tensions that rose to the fore in those middle years.  One of the fascinating case studies was how Mr. Obama handled the criticisms from the secular left when they forcefully opposed Rick Warren’s role in the first inaugural service (Obama stood by this friend, insisting on a big tent of varied religious voices, including conventional conservative evangelicals) and how the president handled similar criticisms four years later about his friend Louie Giglio, who had been asked to pray at the second inaugural. (Obama threw Giglio under the bus, capitulating to pressures to exclude respected evangelical leaders.) 

There are some poignant, tender, even outrageous scenes in Reclaiming Hope and some of the most dramatic ones are in this section as Michael works around the clock trying to hold coalitions together, writing briefs and letters and speeches, doing the hard work of behind the scenes political service.  If you’ve seen Madame Secretary lately, you know exactly these kinds of behind the scenes worker wonks, and the long hours they keep and the hard work they do, trying to rise to difficult occasions that keep coming, day by day, hour by hour, sometimes. 

Some of this reporting is inspiring, some of it aggravating, much of it mesmerizing.  One story strikes me as an example of some of the interesting stuff we find in this memoir:  Michael has worked hard drafting a speech or paper about a particularly good Obama policy related to poverty; it was some white paper or draft of a brief; I forget, precisely. Wear cited the famous Matthew 25 passage where Jesus calls us to serve “the least of these.”  Repeatedly the paper came back from some of his associates in other departments of the White House, insisting that it was a misprint, telling him to fix it. Finally, Michael realized they simply had never heard the Biblical phrase and had no idea of its Biblical origin or what it meant. 

One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

I do not think Michael tells this story as a dig against his Democratic colleagues – the new Republican President of the United States is himself Biblically illiterate and could have said such a dumb thing, or worse.  I bet some of your own colleagues and associates might be equally Biblically illiterate. But it is revealing, isn’t it? 

Reclaiming-Hope-Michael-Wear banner.png

How do we allow faith to shine in an essentially post-Christian culture and among religiously unaware fellow citizens and often-secularized thought leaders?  Can there even be any hope for such a society?  If an adult convert to Christ like Barack Obama who was regular in church attendance and had no awful skeletons in his closet and was in conversation with evangelical Christians could end up tone-deaf to many core Christian convictions and perspectives, contributing to the terribly toxic cultural divisions we now face, is there hope for a balanced and sustainable future? And if a loyal party operative like Michael Wear gets disillusioned and doesn’t renew his position, is there hope for any Christians in political service? Is the vision for a moderate, reasonable, wise, nuanced, inter-face of Christian faith and politics an unrealistic hope?

And this, then, becomes the weight of the wonderful ending of this very good book – Michael has us on the edge of our seats as he sits in the Washington Cathedral the day of his final service to the Obama administration for whom he worked for years. He thinks about what these last years of his life have meant, what they have cost, what he might do next. He seeks God and ponders the meaning of hope. He draws inspiration from Dr. Raphael Warnock, who preaches from the pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr. King was pastor — who says, “It takes a tough mind and a tender heart to hold on to hope.”  

“But hold on we must,” Michael writes. “Hope is our tether to reality, and our bulwark against despair.” 

Faith-Hope-Love.jpgWear’s next lines on Christian hope – both within and beyond history – are truly moving and I hope you find your way to those pages. They are not ponderous or deep, but they are lovely and good and wise. He reflects on the meaning of Biblical hope, explores what he calls “real hope” and ruminates just a bit on the nature of our secular age and the puzzle of what he calls “hope and possibility.”

The final chapter is called “Reclaiming Hope” and Wear is solid and helpful here, too. (Ann Voskamp says it is “a lifeline for these times.” Jonathan Merritt says “it arrives not a moment too soon.” Richard Mouw says Michael Wear’s work and witness “keeps me hopeful.”)

reclaiming hope.jpgMany of us need this good word of hope this year, and although it is brief, it is helpful.  He reminds us to be good citizens, to stay engaged, to be involved in both local stuff and the bigger causes that transcend party politics. He gives a few examples of how individual action can make a difference and he encourages us to be involved in citizens groups and networks working for political change. He honors the fact that there can be disagreements about how to best proceed and he never implies it will be easy or simple.  It is a very encouraging way to end this fascinating book.

In this last chapter Wear hints that there are many big issues before us, naturally, but he names race and religious liberty as two examples which will demand our serious attention in upcoming months. Like most issues, these have both cultural and policy aspects – there is change that must happen in our hearts and minds, in our families and in our neighborhoods and churches and schools and civic culture, but there are ways that government policy can contribute, too. 

Michael, wisely, does not suggest that social improvement is only up to the state – government can only do so much and lasting social change is often up to individuals and organizations working in civil society.  But social change is not only up to individuals or churches; government has a role to play and besides being members of churches, schools, jobs, and neighborhoods, we are citizens.  We need to imagine what faithful public life looks like and we need to think about what Christian political life might be.  Few books have done this from this vantage point of insider experience, by a true party activist who isn’t an elected official, but an unsung public servant.  Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America is not the last book on Christian political thinking we need, but it is an essential one. There may not be one like it in a very long time. 

We will tell you more about this later, but please know that Michael Wear will be discussing his book at our Dallastown bookstore on March 10, 2017. Buy it now on sale and join us for the good conversation with him that evening. He will sign books, of course, that night, and answer questions about his time in the Obama White House. If you are in the area put it on your calendar and help us spread the word.

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Hearts & Minds Bookstore — BEST BOOKS OF 2016 AWARDS (on sale)

the-best-2016.pngEvery year in December we’re busy making lists for Christmas giving and reviewing the many new books that release during the holiday season.  With an annual off site event in early December, a store to run, and BookNotes to keep going, the annual Hearts & Minds “Best Books of the Year” lists gets pushed back until after the holidays.  This year we’ve had a particularly early off site early January event, so I’m running behind even more.  I’ve only been thinking about this for the last 12 months or so… 

Thanks to those who have inquired, those who have said they anticipate ordering a couple from our year’s end compendium.  We are grateful for your support.

I like to give this big disclaimer, too.  It’s hard for me to go public with this list  — we are not presuming to be able to say with certainty which are the most significant books of the year (although we have some favorites that we sure hope have lasting significance.) 

Best is a big word, maybe a bit too official; favorites may be a bit too fuzzy.  Somewhere in that nether land between formal proclamation and mere happy suggestion lies our little list.  These are important, I’m sure of it, and, usually, true delights for anyone who loves the printed page, offering pleasure and provocation, thoughtfulness and stimulation as a good book should.  I throw in a couple of curve balls, too,  just because I can.

And so, here’s our offering of a list of great books released in 2016 that caught our fancy and that we want to award. These are all non-fiction books for adults and all are worthy of honor.  Perhaps we’ll name some our our favorite novels and kids books eventually.

First, our top ten awards. And then a whole bunch of very worthy very honorable mentions.



You Are What You Love clearer.jpgYou Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit James K.A. Smith (Brazos Press) $19.99  I’ve been saying this is the most important and truly best book of 2016 since I read an early version in February or March. It is informed by important stuff of the sort we’ve been talking about for years; it really is a Hearts & Minds-ish kind of read.  It has been widely acclaimed and although I value the “cultural liturgies trilogy” from which it is drawn and popularized (Imagining the Kingdom and Desiring the Kingdom are the first two published with the third to come out next year) this one volume summary is substantive enough to be a serious read, but accessible enough for nearly anyone to work through. The ideas in You Are What You Love are fresh, the writing vivid and urgent, the vision broad and culturally significant. It is, without a doubt, my pick for Best Book of 2016. It covers topics such as worldview and cultural engagement, worship and liturgy, habits and how personal change happens, and what it means to live out a new set of Kingdom desires and God-shaped practices in daily life, in home, work, and society. Buy a few of this winner, please, knowing that you are helping create a different sort of conversation in the Christian community, knowing that many from all over are reading, discussing, plotting about, and drawing upon this bold, good work.  Allow me to be clear” of the thousands of books I’ve reviewed and the many, many more I’ve read in my life, this, I think, is in the top handful of most important books I’ve ever read. 

Strong and Weak- Embracing a Life of Love, Risk, and True Flourishing.jpgStrong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk, and True Flourishing  Andy Crouch (IVP) $20.00  Again, you can see my long review of this at the Hearts & Minds BookNotes newsletter and I do hope you go back and find it — I explained this book in great detail as it is such a very fascinating idea.  It is not about “balancing” strength and weakness but it is about fully embracing both, living a life of exercising cultural power and trusting the process of risk-taking; that is, being both strong and vulnerable, using power but being willing to suffer the price. It is about Christ-like postures of cultural engagement, giving a very unique description and stamp upon our daily Christian habits and lifestyles and tendencies. Beth and I both have been taken by Andy’s good work and this stimulating book has charmed and challenged us, as it will you, I’m sure, for years to come.  I do hope you have read his Culture Making and Playing God which, in a way, is somehow connected to this one, or so it seems to me. Strong and Weak: Embracing a life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing is without a doubt one of the very best books of this year. Very, very highly recommended.  By the way, look for a new Andy Crouch book coming this April, a short and very accessible intro to family conversations about digital technology The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place (Baker; $13.99.)

liturgy of the ordinary bigger.jpgLiturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life Tish Harrison Warren (IVP) $16.00 I think this may be the non-fiction book I enjoyed the very most this year and from what I hear it is the favorite of many, even though it only came out in late November. As I explained in our long BookNotes review it is about the spirituality of the daily, walking through a day in the author’s rather normal life, informed by spiritual attitudes learned through Christian worship.  She is drawing on Jamie Smith (yes!) and the wonderful forward is by Andy Crouch (yes, again!) No wonder I love this woman and her new book — what a helpful approach, wise and thoughtful, artful and solid. It allows us to see God’s hand in everything, to make beautiful the ordinary stuff of daily life, and it shows how worship, while firstly about God, is also about God’s reign being incarnated in our own feeble lives as we connect the liturgies of Sunday with the rituals of our day to day lives.

This wonderfully conceived — again, it’s a day in her life! — and beautifully written book is eloquent, sassy, fun, intelligent, and at times poignant. One of the very best of the year, without a doubt! It is very, very highly recommended, deserving to be on the short list of the top few books I’ve read all year.

Reading for the Common Good.jpgReading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish C. Christopher Smith (IVP) $16.00 Well.  Do I hear an “A-men?” Or as Springsteen put it, “Is anybody alive out there?”  This is a book that is so naturally important to the Hearts & Minds community that it deserves perhaps some special award of merit, some blue ribbon, some commemorative plaque.  I am surprised that every Christian bookstore in America isn’t touting this; if I had the money I’d be giving it away by the box-load. Truly, the vision of reading well, reading widely, missionally, using our minds, the gifts of writers, poets, scholars who create books, is so clearly stated that Chris Smith has become nearly the patron saint for booksellers and book lovers everywhere.  And yet, oddly, I don’t think the book is zooming up the best-seller charts. Why is that?

I’ll tell you why; well, at least partially why. You see, we are in a bit of a crisis. The printed page isn’t valued among us. The use of books has often been seen as trivial — an escape for those that like silly stories, or as academic — for those who are brainy and into that sort of stuff.  But to see that books can be spiritual tools for our deep edification and agents of Kingdom outreach and social transformation, well, it’s the stuff of the best of our history — think of the savvy use of the printing press in the Lutheran reformation or the emphasis on schooling in Calvin’s Geneva or the life-changing spiritual reading method of the Methodists or the community William Wilberforce and others built around reading known as the Clapham sect who stopped slavery in England, or the Inklings, even —  but isn’t embraced as much today as it might be.  Hence, this book is more urgent then many realize. More healing and life giving than our sick churches know.  Oh how I wish this book would be embraced widely. 

I know you know all this, friends. You are those who read our arcane lists, buy our books, support our bookish ministry in the world.  I am sorry to preach to the choir. Still, I want to honor Chris and his good book, celebrating his vision and his publishers eagerness to keep reading alive, keep book conversations alive, continuing to promote books as tools of the Kingdom. You simply have to read Reading for the Common Good to be reminded. Maybe you, too, will be so inspired as to say it was one of the best books of the year.

The Very Good Gospel.jpgThe Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right Lisa Sharon Harper (Waterbrook Press) $19.99  For the last five years Beth and I have hosted a major lecture in Pittsburgh which we’ve underwritten in order to give back to our many friends and customers in Pittsburgh a bit of excitement that comes with meeting an author with a big new book. Lisa Sharon Harper is a woman we’ve know a bit over the years and is a person we admire a lot. Her work with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and her leadership in New York Justice and eventually her finding a home working with our old acquaintance Jim Wallis at Sojourners just has left us glad and inspired. Agree or not with all of her activism, she is a Godly woman with a love for Christ and His ways that is palpable.  Her balance of prayerfulness and evangelism, social action and prophetic political witness is a sight to behold. Her work deserves to be known, her witness is commendable and this book is fabulous.

Lisa’s new book, then, is a window into her life, a bit of poignant memoir, vivid storytelling, testimony.  Mostly, though, it walks us through the Biblical narrative — the goodness of shalom in the original creation narrative, the disruption and vandalization of that shalom in the story of “the fall”  which we now sometime call alienation, and the promise and fulfillment of the healing of that — the gospel word is reconciliation! — that defines the very good news that is the gospel.  That story — how Lisa came to this broader understanding of the full scope of the gospel and how to tell it as liberation, peace, health, wholeness, shalom in a way that is Christ-centered and Bible-based is the tale of this book. It is her story, but, in a way, it is a retelling of the story. 

But it doesn’t end there — it isn’t just a narrative of an evangelical gal learning a bit more broad and culturally aware view of the Biblical teaching of the Kingdom, Christ restoring shalom. It is the project of the second half of the book to flesh out what reconciling shalom might look like in various spheres where we find great alienation. How to push back the brokenness, heal the hurts, be agents of transformation?  From distortions and alienation between genders, between races, between nations, from our need to be reconciled to God to our need to be reconciled to our very selves, Lisa tells powerful stories and offers great guidance on how to live as a people committed to this ministry of reconciliation.

I love the evangelical strength of this Godly woman and her vibrant faith comes shining through The Very Good Gospel; it is obvious to us that it is one of the best books of his year and deserves the attention it has been getting. I also value how Harper is able to point us towards the social implications and out-workings of this very good gospel, not as add-ons or mere secondary stuff we might get to later, but as core, key, central , integral — here is the vision of a wholistic faith (personal but not private as her boss Jim Wallis puts it) that we’ve been working for for forty years. Thank, you Lisa, thank you Multnomah Press, thank you readers for buying this book and making it well known. Very good indeed.

Adventures in Evangelical Civility - Mouw.jpgAdventures in Evangelical Civility: A Lifelong Quest for Common Ground Richard Mouw (Brazos Press) $24.99 I hope my previous BookNotes newsletter review of this was interesting to you — the book might sound a bit arcane if you don’t know and esteem Mouw as we do. I mentioned that I selected him to be in my little book that I edited (Serious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life ) not to brag (well, okay, I’m bragging a little) but to let you know that Mouw is an author that we truly esteem, who is in our circle of favorites, that represents much that we value. And he is such a thoughtful and clear writer.  If you like Hearts & Minds or find us interesting at all, you should know that we get some of it from Mouw. If you like us, you should read him.  And this is one of his to read, for sure!

Why this one when he has written so many wonderful things?  Simple — this is his intellectual memoir, a biography of the books and ideas and issues he’s struggled with over his storied life and how he came to the attitudes, theological views and conclusions he has. As a Reformed Christian with evangelical piety he has spent much time in dialogue with Anabaptists and Mennonites around issues of peacemaking, say; he curiously has been in deep theological discourse with Mormons. His interest in Protestant/Roman Catholic dialogue goes way back. He is a political theorist and philosopher so he has had to grapple with important work of intellectual depth and he has had to figure out how to make his way as a Christian scholar in the mainstream academy.  All of this stuff is important and his testimony of how he has done that is commendable and, frankly, I found it riveting. Anyone who is concerned about reading widely or who is engaged in scholarship within the world of higher education will be thrilled to see how brother Mouw worked out his own calling as a scholar.

One of the big themes of Adventures in Evangelical Civility is evident in the title and subtitle. Mouw is known for civility and for a quest for common ground. Drawing on the theological notion of “common grace” as taught by Dutch Reformed leader Abraham Kuyper, Mouw essentially searches for what is normative, helpful, beautiful, good in any theory, movement, trend of person. It is easy (and often vital) to be critical; Mouw’s first instinct, though, is to affirm the good, to build bridges, to seek commonality and to be gracious and civil.

I think this great book, therefore, is a vital resource for anyone wanting to work out their own vocations “in the world but not of it.” Butcher, baker, candlestick-maker,  we all have associations and spheres of influences churches, schools, networks, and neighborhoods and we have to make our way in them. Learning to relate well to the cultures around us and the institutions in which we find ourselves is important, and Professor Mouw gives us much guidance. 

Further, who these days doesn’t need some good examples of building consensus, of finding common ground, of being civil, of learning from others even if we are fundamentally different than them?  In this new post-Trump era, we all need help at this. Mouw has lived through much, has kept good records of his thoughts and fears, his insights and mistakes, and this memoir is a wonderful guidebook to learning to take similar adventures as he has. 

The Day the Revolution Began.pngThe Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion N.T. Wright (HarperOne) $28.99  This is a must-read for anyone interested in Biblical studies or contemporary theology. It is a key book in the Wright opus, a long-awaited follow up to his seminal Surprised by Hope. As I explained in my positive review when it released, it essentially is a study of the cross of Christ in the New Testament, explored in light of the “end of the story” — the restoration of creation. If that renewal of creation is the “end game” of the Biblical story, then we should understand Paul and the other New Testament writers teaching about the cross in light of that truth.  This wonderful book uses new creation “realized eschatology” as a lens to study the cross of Christ.  In this reading, Good Friday becomes “the day the revolution begins” and helps us live into Easter hope here and now. This is just fantastic — Biblical study with a big picture and inviting us to ponder the vision of how we embody and live out this “revolution” of new creation. One of the best Tom Wright books yet, and surely one of the best books of 2016. Order it today!

silence and beauty.jpgSilence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering Makoto Fujimura (IVP) $26.00 Oh my, I do hope you know this. It is, as I explained in our March BookNotes, a companion to the famous Japanese novel Silence by Shusaku Endo; we were delighted that many mail order customers and a few local friends here in the shop bought both the Fujimura book and Endo’s Silence (in its handsome new movie tie-in edition.) This is very relevant now as the long-awaited film version of the novel, directed and produced by Martin Scorsese, just released to much acclaim.

Makoto Fujimura is an esteemed and increasingly wellknown JapaneseAmerican abstract artist whose several books we stock and regularly promote. His own conversion to Christian faith happened while he was studying an ancient Japanese style of art (of which he is now a modern master) in Nagasaki, Japan, where he discovered Endo’s powerful novel about the silence of God during the brutal persecution of Japanese Christians in the 1600s. Fujimura’s new book tells of how Endo’s novel was important to him and uses his own experience as an artist of Christian faith to explore this same question — where is God in adversity, what do we do about suffering, why, why, why? In the face of evil and gross hardship, can we know a God who offers meaning and hope?  Can the arts bring some semblance of truth to this question; that is, can beauty help us understand suffering?

Mr. Fujimura’s book title is not trite and his book is not simple. It is a serious and at times luminous reflection — refraction would be a good word, one that Mako likes —  about beauty, about the arts, about the calling of artists and writers and sets that in conversation with the horror of the persecution Mr. Endo’s novel explores. What is the relationship, then, between silence and beauty?  As I said in that initial review, there is a splendid overview of Endo and of Mako’s work in the great introduction by Philip Yancey. It, too, should be honored. The dust jacket of this marvelous book, made with a thin, translucent paper that conjures Asian rice paper is elegant and artful; the designer has won awards for best book cover design as well.  What a great package, what a great set of ideas, what a great bit of writing, what a great, great book.  I cannot overstate how good it is, how wise and helpful. Congratulations to all involved.

Do check out this absolutely wonderful website produced by Makoto and his team that includes videos and a study guide for the book Silence and Beauty. This is an exceptionally rich resource, offered as a gift.  Enjoy. 

woman's place - maybe clearer.jpgA Woman’s Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World Katelyn Beaty (Howard Books) $22.99  Of course our very favorite books of the year have already been reviewed at greater length at BookNotes and A Woman’s Place is no exception.  You can visit our BookNotes review by searching our archives at the website.  I was initially worried that although we have many, many books on the relationship between faith and work and the notions of vocation and calling as we live out faith in our job sites and workplaces that not too much more could or needed to be said. Many of the very good books we’ve seen in recent years are fine, but do not present much new.

Katelyn Beaty proved me very wrong as she brings to this conversation a young woman’s voice, a journalists style and a whole lot of Kingdom vision. The broad and cosmic scope of Christ’s redemptive power and the subsequent high view of culture and work — all of life is being redeemed, after all — seems to be in her very bones. She seems nearly a daughter of Kuyper in this regard (“every square inch” is claimed by Christ, you know.)  Of course, having a robust and relevant Christian worldview is not enough. What more can she say about faith and work, calling and career that hasn’t been said?

The key is obvious from the title: Ms Beaty is offering a woman’s voice in this conversation. Interestingly, most of the best books about faith and work are written by men; sadly most seem to be written for men. (Beaty mentions that in some large churches that are wise enough to have a “faith and work” ministry or a “marketplace mission” department, it is located within the “men’s ministry” of the church. What?

Beaty’s book is not just for women, although surely any woman in the workplace will want to have their own copy. Women, I suppose, are the primary audience for this important contribution. However, I am not the only one who has said that men should read this, too — it offers good insight about gender and work, gender and home, work and family, and more. Men need to be a part of this conversation and men need to hear the unique challenges faced by Christian women as they try to bring their own gifts and insights to the workplace, the culture, the home.  I hope this book gets a wide readership. It is one of the best of the year, one of the rare books that we can say there is simply nothing like it in print. Hooray.

Life's Too Short to Pretend You're Not Religious  .jpgLife’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious David Dark (IVP) $20.00  This almost didn’t made it into our Hearts & Minds top ten of Best Books of 2016 even though I personally would say that it was one of my very favorite books of the year; heck I got a certain pleasure from reading it that I can hardly name — it’s one of the most curiously interesting books I’ve read in years!  I don’t always recommend it with such abandon to everyone, though, because, well, it is quirky, perhaps not for everyone; an acquired taste.  Still I have to honor it — David is a robust writer and Life’s Too Short to Pretend… is truly a great book, colorfully written, eccentric at times, curious, interesting, deep, honest, prophetic. It challenges both the glibly “spiritual but not religious” crowd insisting that everyone is fundamentally religious — driven by some stories or images that become narratives of ultimate concern — as well as those who want to reduce religion to a formula or dogma or creed as if intellectual assent to some set of truth claims is all there is to the mystery of faith, religion, life.  He’ll have none of it  —  but yet, Dark doesn’t spend much time denouncing inadequate social imaginaries or bad, dualistic stories or shallow, selfish visions. He just offers a better vision, tells a deeper story, invites us into his own ruminations as he shares, wearing his heart on his sleeve, bearing witness that deep stuff happens when one is attentive.

My, my, this is an interesting book, full of wit and passion and a few stories you will never forget. It is most obviously for the artsy and bohemian — he loves old poetry and hip, pop culture, postmodern literature and radical history, sincere love songs and funny comics, citing rock singers and movie makers, philosophers and peace activists — but it is also for anyone who likes to think about the truest truths, the way the world really works, by way of hearing how one guy sorts it all out. It is, as the Robbie Robertson rock and roll book (see below) is entitled, “testimony.”  And it is testimony about life, stories, art, and faith — and how that can bring us together, uniting us as human beings in search of meaning and justice and joy.

My friend C. Christopher Smith (of Reading for the Common Good and Slow Church) has a blurb on the book which is pretty perfect:

 David Dark is one of the most important prophetic voices of our day. Life’s Too Short To Pretend You’re Not Religious is another beautiful demonstration of the winsome way in which he unsettles our language and our imagination. Not content to unravel the basic fabric of our existence, Dark re-weaves the fibers into a rich and vibrant vision of the flourishing religious life for which we were created.

Or listen to the social historian and lived theology prof, Charles Marsh, reflecting on Dark’s “luminous reckonings”:  

… the result is a shock of recognition: life more abundant awaits us only in the deep immersions of togetherness with others. Here alone are the comedy and chaos that define the human condition and lead us gently or not into the strange new world of grace. Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious is an irresistible triumph.


The Boys in the Bunkhouse- Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland .jpgBoys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland Dan Barry (Harper) $26.99 This thick book is an epic bit of investigative reporting and was, of all the books I read this year, the most haunting, and the one that I find the most heart-rending of all.  I will never forget it. It is a long story, beautifully told by an excellent, insightful writer. If you don’t believe me about Dan Barry’s exquisite style, see his stunningly well-written memoir, which I also enjoyed this year, Pull Me Up: A Memoir or his well received and often-honored book about the longest baseball game Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game.

There is a reason Boys in the Bunkhouse has gotten such luminous reviews and has been called a “landmark achievement.” 

Besides his good storytelling ability and his expert dogged research which combines to earn him the reputation as one of our best literary nonfiction writers, I think this quote from National Book Award winner Colum McCann captures why many are so struck by his work.  “Dan Barry gives dignity even to the darkest corners of the American experience. He is the closest thing we have to a contemporary Steinbeck.”

Boys in the Bunkhouse tells the story of a group of intellectually handicapped men — boys when the story starts in 1960s Texas — who were essentially held captive and used as cheap  hard labor in a poultry processing plant in Atalissa, Iowa for much of their lives.  How could this be overlooked, the welfare of these workers forgotten for three decades, under the gaze of churches, neighbors, social workers, labor safety inspectors, politicians, and others? How did the well-intended effort of an apparently good man devolve into something so distorted and abusive, ending up so badly? How could such a thing happen in Red-state, decently religious, middle America?  This is, as the dust jacket jarringly says, “A Dickensian tale from the heartland.”

It is also a “luminous work of social justice.” 

Berry delves deep into their lives, summoning their memories and suffering, their tender moments of joy and persistent hopefulness — and, most of all, their endurance. He explores why this small town missed the tell tale signs of exploitations, details how those responsible for such profound indifference justified their actions, and chronicles the lasting impact of a dramatic court case that has spurred advocates to push for just pay and improved working conditions for people with disabilities. 

Word By Word- A Daily Spiritual Practice .jpgWord by Word: A Daily Spiritual Practice Marilyn McEntyre (Eerdmans) $17.99 Oh my, yes: this is a great, great book, a treasure for those who value good writing, who care about words, who want to ponder reflectively and would enjoy thinking about the meaning and implications of common words rather than a Bible devotional.   One reviewer said it blends “exegesis, philology, lectio divina, and prayer.” In a way, it is similar in tone to her wonderful little 2014 volume that is Bible-based called What’s in a Phrase?: Pausing Where Scripture Gives You Pause. McEntyre is a poet and writer who teaches literature in a med school. (She has two excellent, small books emerging from her work in hospice care, A Faithful Farewell: Living Your Last Chapter with Love and A Long Letting Go: Meditations on Losing Someone You Love.)

Marilyn has written one of my all time favorite books, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, which imagines words as God-given natural resources and asks what we might do to learn to steward them well.  In a way, this recent one is a meditative companion to that visionary book about the ethics of speech, with a word or phrase to ponder each day, for a week, with prompts to consider various uses and ways to appreciate the word or phrase, such as  She offers profound insights about words that she gives us to consider and it really works! What an engaging, moving, transformative book, written in a quiet, gentle manner. 

 When a writer and reader and preacher as good as Cornelius Plantinga recommends a book, it is worth noting. Of Word by Word he says:

McEntyre has again written with conspicuous grace and truth. She sees deeply into the Christian life. She writes simply and nobly, but with an enormous weight of discernment and suggestion. Some passages here are as powerful and lovely as any I’ve encountered in years.

celtic daily prayer.jpgCeltic Daily Prayer: Book Two: Farther Up and Farther In Northumbria Community (William Collins) $34.99  We stock a good number of prayer books of various kinds and the first volume of this — Celtic Daily Prayer — has been one of our most popular for years, now.  This sequel, with a beautiful cover and a few small format changes, is even better.  This is a brand new two-year collection of daily readings and prayers, with Celtic themes and inspiration and we’re thrilled to name it as one of the best resources of the year. A  solid, hand sized hardback with ribbon marker. Very nicely done.

Love, Henri- Letters the Spiritual Life.jpgLove, Henri: Letters the Spiritual Life Henri
J. M. Nouwen (Convergent) $24.00  I will admit to not having dipped into this much, yet. But I know enough to know that this is a major literary event, a significant contribution by one of the great spiritual writers of the last century and an immensely important figure who helped Protestants, especially, learn to appreciate Catholic and contemplative expressions of faith. Fr. Nouwen was known for writing
letters  — he kept nearly all of the 16,000 letters he received and he
responded to them all.  Some of his replies, spanning two decades, are
very revealing, some quite tender, some summarizing things he wrote in
his many books. This very handsome hardback offers over 200 of his
letters offering wit, condolence, insight, spiritual guidance. As Sue
Mosteller writes in her epilogue, “I love this collection. It is for me,
a spiritual autobiography. Henri’s letters reveal the ever-evolving,
ever-deepening, ever-struggling heart of my strong yet vulnerable

strangers-in-their-own-land.jpgStrangers in Their Own Land : Anger and Mourning on the American Right — A Journey to the Heart of Our Political Divide Arlie Russell Hochschild (The New Press) $27.95  This has appeared on many lists and the reasons are at least two fold: it is a serious, remarkable study about folks in Louisiana that support conservative politicians who want to gut EPA restrictions even as they lament the way pollution has ruined their livelihoods as shore-men and shrimpers and even as they are aware that the toxic pollution has given them exceedingly higher rates of cancer (in “Cancer Alley”) than nearly anywhere in the country. What a top notch bit of investigative reporting this is as the author embeds herself in this hurting community, so abused by chemical and oil companies, hearing them deeply about their own political convictions. So that’s one reason the book is achieving such renown — it’s a helluva story, vividly told, a story of great pathos about fellow citizens that needs to be told. 

Secondly, though, it is a meditation on why such blue-collar folk distrust elites and Washington and big government and media (etcetera etcetera.) This is the book to read for those who want to understand the Trump victory, it is the book to read if one wants to truly listen to those who are most likely pretty different than yourself. 

The highly regarded author is unabashedly liberal in her own bias (as is the radical publisher) and the blurbs on the back illustrate that — Barbara Ehrenreich, Robert Reich and others. (Her other earlier award winning books include The Second Shift.)  Here she is, trying to practice empathy and solidarity and to take seriously how others experience life and feel about it all.  Mark Danner of Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War says “A powerful, imaginative, necessary book, arriving not a moment too soon.” 


Hillbilly Elegy- A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis .jpgHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis J.D. Vance (Harper) $27.99  I have not yet published by long review of this and perhaps will soon but I must say this is without a doubt one of the most discussed, most appreciated, and biggest selling books of 2016. Although Vance writes for the conservative National Review and his story of the dysfunctions of poorer white folks in Appalachia and Rust Belt America has been used to explain the popularity of Mr. Trump, the book is not a political story but a human-scale memoir about a crazy family, broken social systems, and a guy who ends up in Yale Law School having made something of himself with help from loyal relatives, a reliable faith, and a stint in the US Marines.  Some are saying this is their favorite memoir ever and while I wouldn’t say that, it was truly difficult to put down and I wouldn’t stop talking about it for months. If you haven’t read it yet, you really should.  Hold on to your hat, it’s quite a story. One of the Best Books of 2016 without a doubt.

Callings- The Purpose and Passion of Work - A StoryCorps Book.jpgCallings: The Purpose and Passion of Work ( Storycorps Book )  Dave Isay (Penguin Press) $26.00  There have been many books over the years on the relationship of faith and work, informed by a Biblical vision of calling and the theology of vocation. This book came out of the beautiful, inspiring Storycorps radio program so is not overtly religious but it is, without a doubt, an enjoyable and inspiring read for people of faith and offers much to us to realize how so many different kind of people, in so many different kinds of job, talk about their work.  In a way, this secular complication is one of the most beautiful examples of people’s search for meaning and the hope for purpose, articulated in various ways and tones and accents. No matter what your job is, reading these folks describe their own sense of passion about their work will inspire you. I was glad to introduce this at BookNotes when it first came out and think it is one of the best books of many a year.

impossible people.jpgImpossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization Os Guinness (IVP) $20.00  I did a long BookNotes review of this when it first came out and it is one of my favorite books of the year, even if it made me both uncomfortable in a good way and a bit irritated. I appreciate authors who are uncompromising in their conviction and Os is one of those leaders I count on for unsullied truth telling, courage and compunction. He is prophetic and yet caring, culturally savvy and yet helpful.  This is Guinness at his feisty best.

As you can see from my previous BookNotes reflection this book does at least two things really well — it is an overview of the forces and pressures of modernity, documenting and warning us about the seductive influences upon our worldviews and habits of things like choice and change and mobility (all made exceptionally practical and daily in things as simple as using the internet.)  The secularizing forces of the vast cultural habitat we call modernity (and the perhaps overstated shift towards post modernity) are described in Impossible People almost as well as anywhere, and it is well worth having for that reason alone.

The heart of Dr. Guinness, though, does not beat primarily as an intellectual — he despises the phrase, actually — or as a cultural critic.  Although he spends much of his time in global think tanks and confabs and such, Os is a brother in Christ speaking to his fellow Christians, sisters and brothers about whom he worries. Are our leaders — certainly in the old mainline churches and increasingly in the hip evangelical ones — selling out to the ideas and lifestyles, the values and attitudes, of secularized modernity? Are we becoming accommodated to our culture?  Are we too concerned about worldly success and failing to hold our ground on fundamental matters of holiness and principle? Are we even unaware about how the first things of the gospel can be eroded by the ways of the world?

I think Os sometimes is a bit too strident although I know that he himself prayerfully struggles to write in a manner that is blunt about his concern about shallow theology and accommodated ways, without appearing judgmental or harsh. God bless him for such integrity — some writers blast away with little regard for the nuances and complexities of the targets of their barbs and others (perhaps the theme of this book) are too easily compromised.  It is a hard and glorious balance to speak the truth in love, to be “impossible” as Os puts it.  Impossible People, by the way, is pitched as a sequel to his lovely and important Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times. You don’t have to read that first, but you should pick it u; it was a Hearts & Minds Best Book award winner in 2014.

The Fractured Republic- Renewing America's Social Contract.jpgThe Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism Yuval Levin (Basic Books) $27.50  Many social critics and political theorists have raved about this. It comes out of his work as a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank and is one of the most discussed books about public life that has come out this year.  I’ve written about it a few places and highlighted it more than once in interviews and book talks.  Here’s some of what I said in one BookNotes post:  I hope that you have seen this reviewed and cited on the internet or in significant journals — I cannot wait to read this yet this summer as it has been promoted across the political spectrum as substantive and thoughtful. Left-leaning Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind) says “this is the book American most needs in 2016” and Paul Ryan says “Yuval Levin is one of the most insightful and original thinkers of our time.”  We are dangerously fragmented in this “age of individualism” and we must radically rethink our embeddedness in the ways of modernity which are played out here; Levin can help us develop a critique that is beyond the conventional far left and far right, showing how mediating structures and non-government institutions and neighborhoods can help rebuilding our republic. George Packer says of his humane and good writing that “His work gives the sense that our future needn’t be as grimly divided and dysfunctional as the present seems.” Let us know. This surely deserves to be considered one of the most significant books of 2016.

habakkuk before.jpgHabakkuk Before Breakfast: Liturgy, Lament and Hope Brian J. Walsh (Books Before Breakfast) $14.00 Done with the Wine Before Breakfast community at the University of Toronto, a group of students and others who gather for an early morning Eucharist service, this book offers the sermons and messages, the liturgies and litanies, the questions about music and the descriptions of songs played at their creative alt-services. Although the book is anchored by the study of this Old Testament prophet, there is tender stuff here (about a homeless guy who became an beloved member of their gang) and great reflection about the struggle to find mostly contemporary rock music that captured the themes of the service. The prayers and liturgical pieces are inspiring and useful, the Bible study stunning, the prophetic application uncompromising.  I wrote a longer review back at BookNotes if you want to hear more but this truly is an extraordinary work.  I assume you know Walsh from books like Transforming Vision, Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be, Colossians Remixed, or Beyond Homelessness. (Not to mention his wonderful survey of the lyrics of rock great Bruce Cockburn called Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination.) He’s long-time pals with NT Wright who noted how this fierce book “shakes us up and makes us realize that God’s loving justice is the only firm ground on which anyone — or any society — can ever stand.

Full disclosure: I’ve got a blurb on the back, too — what a blast and what an honor:

Under the leadership of Christian Reformed Church campus pastor Brian Walsh, Wine Before Breakfast is a ragtag group of folks who gather weekly for worship, song, biblical reflection, and Eucharist at 7:22 am., even in the cold and bleak days of winter. Join them as they talk with the seemingly cold and bleak Habakkuk, listening in on the raw reflections and earnest prayers, songs and sermons, connecting ancient Word and (post) modern world. Want to learn to recognize Biblical prophets? What to find hope amidst these hard days? This amazing book will help Habakkuk Before Breakfast is simply remarkable —  a wonderful follow-up to their Saint John Before Breakfast. Hold on!

Of course I’m going to name this one of the best books of 2016. Skim back over my longer review at BookNotes of it if you aren’t yet convinced — this is a worthy investment in your library and would be a fascinating book to prayerful work through with others.

 The Justice Calling- Where Passion Meets Perseverance.jpgThe Justice Calling: Where Passion Meets Perseverance Bethany Hanke Hoang &  Kristen Deede Johnson (Brazos Press) $19.99 We helped launch this extraordinary book at Jubilee 2016 last year in Pittsburgh and here is some of what I wrote in one of my discussions of it: “…both women are exceptionally well-schooled and committed to educating for lasting, formational transformation in readers so that we might be the kind of people who are empowered to be healthy activists in church and world.  They understand the big flow of the Scriptures, the story, as we say, and place God’s relentless call to do justice in that context.”  Andy Crouch has called it “a deep, wide, wise contribution to a truly comprehensive Christian understanding of Justice”  and says, “I can’t imagine a better biblical and theological introduction to the topic of justice.” In a year with a handful of very good social justice resources that stand out, this is rises above them all, a must read, beautiful, very insightful and important book of truly lasting significance.

How to Survive The Apocalypse- Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the end of the World .jpgHow to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith and Politics at the End of the World Robert Joustra & Alissa Wilkinson (Eerdmans) $16.00  Of the many, many intriguing books that offer uniquely Christian cultural criticism this year, this is the most audacious, the most fascinating and — for those who like to read seriously thoughtful stuff written about fun stuff — best book of its kind in years. I’ve recommended it almost everywhere I’ve gone this year and wrote about it more than once. I recommended it in a book list I wrote for a column for the Center for Public Justice this summer, and wrote this:  This new book by Wilkinson, a respected film critic for Christianity Today and Joustra, a professor of international studies at Redeemer University in Ontario, is a blast. It offers a great overview of recent themes in popular culture, from The Walking Dead to Game of Thrones to House of Cards, and yet it is serious-minded, drawing significantly on Charles Taylor and his analysis of the malaise of secular modernity. Its basic premise is this: in a culture where our best storytellers and artists are telling us that things are falling apart and that there is no hope, how do we act in the public square for the common good as people of hope? What do dystopian narratives tell us about our culture’s worldview and how do we live well in such anxiety-laden political terrain? Indeed, this is serious business, and yet, as Michael Wear says on the back, “Who said the apocalypse couldn’t be fun?”  Zombie plots, Battlestar Galactica, Scandal and the work of being Christian citizens?  Yes, yes indeed.

Rescuing Jesus- How People of Color, Women, & Queer Christians.jpgRescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women, & Queer Christians Are Reclaiming Evangelicalism Deborah Jian Lee (Beacon Press) $26.95  I suspect that naming this one of the best books of the year will annoy many and I understand that it moves in a direction that will be offensive, even, to some. It could be argued that it ought to be read by those who have a visceral reaction to a call to be more attentive to the changes happening within evangelicalism, and perhaps to be more inclusive to those who have been marginalized and hurt.  Whether you are drawn to this topic or not, this is a book that is informative and will offer a behind the scenes look at how these hot topic issues (and, more, the people involved) are changing para-church groups, evangelical college campuses, mega-churches and their leaders, the publishing world and more.  The book is exceptionally well researched and very well told as it follows a select handful of persons through their time within the evangelical movement; some remain intense followers of Christ within a broad evangelical tradition while others no longer find themselves affiliated with evangelical faith; a few no longer see themselves as Christians.

The author herself, Deborah Jian Lee, is not a neutral observer but a former evangelical who moved somewhat into the progressive faith camp and ended up (or so I gather) no longer a Christian at all.  Yet, she wants the stories of these folks told and wants to use their experiences — for better or worse — as not only case studies but as bell weather pointers to things that have changed and are changing within the broad religious landscape of our culture.

A quick admission: I was one of the people who the author interviewed in her writing of this big book and I spent an hour with her one afternoon three years ago.  She attended the CCO’s Jubilee conference once, too, and talks about it candidly.  Our good friend Lisa Sharon Harper — whose own The Very Good Gospel also is on our list of Best Books of 2016 — is one of the persons whose story is told by Ms Lee and it is remarkable to hear some of the backstory of Lisa’s life during her college years. (Lisa is both African American and obviously a woman and her being kicked off the leadership team of a college fellowship group and even out of a prayer meeting she herself started because she was a woman is told painfully.)  She is not the only friend of ours interviewed or mentioned in Rescuing Jesus so I care about this book a lot. I cried through some of it and found it hard to put down.

There are amazing stories in Rescuing Jesus, good journalistic reporting, helpful framing of contemporary concerns by explaining past controversies; within the evangelical feminist movement, for instance ( see explains the group Daughter of Sarah’s struggles about gay rights and abortion which led to a painful splintering and eventual formation of a more conventionally evangelical feminist organization.) She explores how many social justice causes did or didn’t get discussed within the national leadership of well known evangelical groups and ministries. I found the long section on the Queer Underground (as they called themselves) within the strictly conservative Biola University to be particularly riveting; no book I know has told this kind of story in this way before and it deserves credit for bringing these individuals and their stories to us.

Many thoughtful and caring Christian leaders do not think all these changes in attitude and practice are for the better; some are, for instance, glad about increased emphasis on racial and multi-ethnic diversity but disapprove of full equality for GLTBQ Christians.  Regardless of ones views, and whether one has a stake in evangelicalism, as such, or not, this is an important book about people’s lives, about religion in our time, about institutional change, and we are glad to honor it as one of the important books of 2016.

Punching Holes in the Dark- Living in the Light of the World.jpgPunching Holes in the Dark: Living in the Light of the World Robert Benson (Abingdon) $16.99  I do not think I have read a Robert Benson book that I was not sad to see end — surely the mark of a good book is when you want more words, more pages, more chapters. And, oh how I felt this way with Benson’s Punching Holes in the Dark… I said out loud to nearly anyone around me when I was reading this last summer that I didn’t want this book to end.  Benson is a charming, enchanted writer with a style I cannot describe. He has an economy of words and is clear as a bell, even though his content is mature and thoughtful and deeply wise. He has funny stories — a few I’ve read out loud at workshops — and he has tender tales and you will simply have to take this up yourself to see if he resonates with you has he does with so many of his appreciative fans.  One of whom happens to be Frederick Buechner, by the way, who has a rare blurb on the front of the book, noting its “candor and hope.”

I suppose this is a book about spiritual formation — Benson is, after all, a contemplative and retreat leader and is an adjunct faculty member for the Academy of Spiritual Formation and has several classic books on prayer. But like his book on baseball or the one on writing or the one about gardening on the one on Benedictine views of neighborliness or classic about hope (Between the Dreaming and the Coming True) his gentle spiritual tone spills out into quite ordinary life. He writes about growing up in a colorfully evangelical home, he writes about his involvement in an odd guys film club, he writes about food and faith and work and being an introvert. He writes about various kinds of worshipping communities, comparing them graciously to his own preferred Episcopalian style.  He isn’t overstated and never violent but he does get around to talking about what it means to punch holes in the darkness, letting a little light, and a little of The Light, shine through.

As Eugene Peterson puts it “Robert Benson doesn’t exactly tell us how to do it but he does tell an honest story about the ways that Jesus’ prayer is getting worked out in his own life.”  Without a doubt one of the books I most enjoyed this year. 

Light When It Comes- Trusting Joy, Facing Darkness & Seeing God in Everything.jpgLight When It Comes: Trusting Joy, Facing Darkness & Seeing God in Everything Chris Anderson (Eerdmans) $16.99 It is hard to explain the charm and value of this wonderful collection of short essays. It is pitched as a book that helps us “see God in everything” and you may recall a list I wrote not long ago at our BookNotes newsletter that listed 15 such books, all older. This new one could easily have been added to such a list but it isn’t exactly what I’d call “spirituality.” It is less about the God encounter in the quotidian, but about the goodness of the experiences of life itself.  Yes, yes, God is there; revelation happens as we come to see the Light. But, again, these are stories and ruminations on life, episodes and glorious snatches of God-light in the realness of daily living.  This guy is a great writer and a good observer. I love these kinds of collections of essays and want to honor it as the best of its class.

One of the great spiritual writers of this sort, himself a poet, is Brian Doyle, who has a rave comment on the back.  So does the spiritual writer Paula Huston who calls is “a literary gem and a cup of blessing.”

But what most attracted me to this small paperback is the rare endorsement from one of my alltime favorite writers, the undertaker Thomas Lynch, who says of it:

An age that has fashioned faith into bludgeon and cudgel, and traded community for self-righteous indignation, might better be illumined by Light When It Comes and by the grace of Anderson’s vital, studious witness. The ties of belief that bind us, each to the other, needn’t be rope enough to hang, cruel lash or rein or tether. Rather, lifeline, safe mooring, the holy, miraculous lowering of our hobbled, heart-wrecked selves to the place of our redeeming.

If I were giving an award for the best back cover blurb, I’d nominate those three poetic sentences right there. Wow.  If Lynch recommends it, you should read it.

Two Views on Homosexuality, The Bible, and the Church.jpgTwo Views on Homosexuality, The Bible, and the Church General Editor, Preston Sprinkle (Zondervan) $16.99  We often recommend the many, many books in the Zondervan Counterpoint series and for obvious reasons we have needed a book like this for decades. I have read for decades almost everything I can get my hands on studying this topic and there are oodles of books that bring all sorts of perspectives and orientations.  No book heretofore has attempted what this brave paperback does: it offers two evangelical scholars who hold to the conventional, orthodox view that same sex erotic relationships are forbidden by Scripture and two that suggest otherwise.  I know of only one good book that shows “both sides” pro and con around the exegesis of the Bible and, to be honest, for a variety of reasons, it hasn’t been that helpful.  Here we have four scholars who all agree with the most fundamental assumption that the Bible is God’s inspired and authoritative word and that our practices must be informed by careful study of the truest meaning of the Bible itself.  The two that oppose same sex relationships are gracious and candid and bring two slightly different views to the conversation; the two that are supportive of inclusion and marriage equality do so for slightly different theological reasons.  As with others in this large series of books, after each chapter the other three participants offer critique.  So by the end of the book readers have engaged not only four distinctive positions but have seen the rebuttals and responses from the others.

The editor of the project, Preston Sprinkle (who himself has a book offering a conventional view called People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is Not Just an Issue), weighs in with some summarizing and evaluation.

The four esteemed scholars who are contributors to this important volume, by the way, are William Loader, Megan K. Defranza, Wesley Hill and Stephen R. Holmes.  I’m grateful for their own courage and candor in entering this debate with grace and openness, knowing that all of us are leaning in over their shoulders.

By the way, I am pretty sure that Zondervan — a premier conservative evangelical publishing house —  will take some heat for daring to even host this conversation.  Interestingly, I suspect that few object to their doing books like this on other controversial topics from the excellent one on church/state relations to differing views of hell or the end times to questions about how to understand the doctrine of inerrency to the question of woman’s ordination to a fascinatingly feisty one on how evangelicals and the Orthodox should relate, and so many more. But this one on homosexuality — look out; some don’t even want to talk about this, let alone admit that the translation, meaning and interpretation of the most obvious relevant Biblical texts are themselves contested.  We here at Hearts & Minds applaud Zondervan’s efforts at helping us think things through with reputable Biblical thinkers in serious discussion, on this topic and the others. Kudos to the senior editor of this large Counterpoint series, the respected Stanley Gundry.

the mind of the spirit keener.jpgThe Mind of the Spirit: Paul’s Approach to Transformed Thinking Craig Keener (Baker Academic) $32.99  There are many, many academic books that deserve honorable mention and so many that, although I haven’t read them, they seem just spectacular. As you know, I’m a sucker for good blurbs and I take seriously the recommendations of scholars I respect. Although he have a lot of Biblical studies that are scholarly in nature, and many have gotten great reviews this year, I want to hold up this one at least. It is a rare combination of scholarly rigor and yet aimed at a subject that should affect us all — nurturing the “mind of Christ.”  If you are among the many who regularly reflect on the implications of Romans 12: 1-2 — and most book lovers, do, realizing as we do that books are tools for life long learning — then this book on how Paul envisions the transformed mind will certainly attract your interest.

Maybe you recall that a few weeks ago I gave a bit of a promotion to the autobiography that Keener wrote with his wife, who is African. It is a very moving story and is both tender and courageous. This is the other side of Keener, who is an exceptionally rigorous scholar — there are more foonotes in here than you can imagine!  He is fluent in ancient languages, Greco-Roman culture, and the cultural background of epistle writing in the age of the early church and is known for his dictionaries of cultural background information.  If anybody can help us figure out the cultural issues around Paul’s thinking, Keener can.  And if anybody has the learned zeal to help us embrace such a project — a transformed mind so we think as God wants, even about the issues of the day — again, Professor Keener can.   Before the end material this heady book is about 350 pages, so it isn’t as mammoth as it might have been.

Blurbs on the back are from a scholar from Yale Divinity School, from James Dunn of Durham, from Michael Bird the esteemed Biblical scholar from Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia.  I like the lines from  the very widely read Paul scholar Michael Gorman of the Ecumenical Institute at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, who notes that “Keener has filled a significant gap in Pauline studies as only he could do…”

Saving the Bible From Ourselves Learning to Read and Live the Bible Well.jpgSaving The Bible From Ourselves: Learning to Read & Live the Bible Well Glenn R. Paauw (IVP) $18.00 I so appreciated this book and it serves in many was as a quintessential Hearts & Minds sort of book — thoughtful but not arcane, open-minded but well grounded in orthodoxy, eager to help us live faith in our twenty-first century context. It provocatively (or playfully) asks “Does the Bible Need To Be Saved?” Well, maybe it does — from us!  That is, over the course of the centuries, Bible scholars and publishers have increasingly added helps — all kinds of stuff to help us make the Bible easier to understand. But maybe we really don’t read the Bible much anymore; that is, we study and tear apart the text, forcing verses into our per-conceived categories or domesticating them into our churchy sensibilities. Paauw wisely opts to reject “narrow, individualistic and escapist views of salvation” based on unhelpful assumptions about the Bible and how we read it. He offers, instead, what he calls “big readings.”

And then it really gets good — he offers seven understandings (that may feel “new” to some, but are in fact fairly ancient) of the Bible as “steps on the path to recovering one deeply engaged Bible. His new-sounding understandings are, in fact alternatives to deficiencies.  And in naming these oddball ways we (mis) understand and misread the Bible he is brilliant.

Paauw offers here 7 “kinds” or sorts of
ways we think of the Bible, and counters each with a more faithful
sort. (For instance, in contrast to our presumption that the Bible is
essentially “complicated” he unveils the “elegant Bible.” Instead of a
“snacking” Bible he invites us to “savor the feasting Bible.” He says we
need saved from “my private Bible” and speaks of “sharing our synagogue
Bible.”  Of course, instead of “our otherworldly Bible” he says we are
to be “grounded in the Earthly Bible.”  On great problem, “our
de-dramatized Bible” takes two sections to refute. He shows how we can
“rediscover the stroiented Bible” and then shows how we must “preform
the stroiented Bible.”  There’s more and it is rich, solid, creative,
helpful stuff. Blurbs on the back are long and rich themselves, by
Walter Brueggemann and Mark Noll, who both commend it earnestly.  This is deserving of being on any good list of the best books of the year.

confident pluralism.jpgConfident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference John D. Inazu (University of Chicago Press) $29.99 We usually name a few books that are scholarly in nature and this, obviously, is published by one of the most esteemed academic presses in the world.  Yet, it isn’t dry or dusty nor it it primarily written for the scholarly guild. This is a book for nearly all citizens who want to get beyond the simple call to civility and to probe more deeply about how the structures of our society could enhance greater diversity, making room for faith-based differences even in how the government funds programming and more.  I’ve read a lot in these related fields — personal civility, conflict resolution, and questions of religious liberty and such.  Insights from those who study civil society, the role of mediating structures and such will be glad for his appreciation of a multi-dimensional view of society.  (That is, society is more than just government and individuals and the questions for public philosophy need to be more than whether we want big government or small government.) Yet, how do we get along when our fundamental vision of the meaning of government and the direction of social institutions are so very contested?

This is a book celebrating this bold, American project — e pluribus unum. Yes, it has some political philosophy and some semi-scholarly studies of social structures and how to shore up faltering institutions. But it also has lovely guidance about conflict, diversity, getting along with others — thriving, as he says, through deep differences. This is a great, thoughtful book published by an esteemed legal scholar and old acquaintance of Hearts & Minds.  We are honored to name this as one of the most important books of 2016.

All Things New- Rediscovering the Four Chapter Gospel.pngAll Things New: Rediscovering the Four Chapter Gospel Hugh Whelchel (Institute for Faith, Work & Economics) $8.00  I don’t need to say much about this except this over the top exclamation (that I have been made repeatedly since I saw this remarkable Bible study resource) — this is the best small group Bible study I’ve seen on this kind of topic and one that many of us have longed for, literally, for decades! (As a matter of fact, I had considered trying my hand at doing this kind of a small group study, realizing the big hole in the market for Bible study on this topic.) All Things New is an absolutely must-use, big-picture small group discussion guide that I believe will be transformative for many who use it.  We have a lot of great small group Bible study books and discussion resources but there is simply nothing like this in print!

You may know that many authors (and we here) have talked about a “four chapter” understanding of the gospel — creation, fall, redemption, restoration — in contrast to the more conventional “two chapter” story that says only that we are sinners who are saved, drawing on the two center chapters of the unfolding Bible drama, fall and redemption.  But where and in what place are we saved, and to what ends? If we don’t know the goodness of creation (and all that implies about work and culture) and the hope of a future restoration of all things, then the gospel is truncated, cut down, reduced.  The gospel is more than “I need God and God loves me” or “Jesus died for your sins” or “I’m in deep need and God and the church can provide true meaning” even though those truths are true enough. This small group Bible study walks us quickly through this endlessly fascinating fuller, truer telling of the Bible story — from good creation through the disastrous distortions in every square inch of life caused by sin and idolatry to the blood bought salvation experienced by the death and resurrection of Jesus to how to live out the hope of the Kingdom coming, now and not yet. There are two final sessions, why the “two chapter” telling of the gospel story is inadequate and how the full vision of all of life being redeemed matters for our lives, including our public lives and our sense of work and calling.

Many, many kudos to Hugh Whelchel for writing and publishing this study that is going to be a life-line to many, a clear and basic Bible basis for a fuller understanding of God’s purposes in our lives and in our times.  

Ministry Mantras- Language for Cultivating Kingdom Culture .jpgMinistry Mantras: Language for Cultivating Kingdom Culture J.R. Briggs & Bob Hyatt (IVP) $17.00 This was a hard call to make as we have so many great, useful, inspiring, helpful books about congregational life and church renewal that it is hard to pick just one to highlight.  There are many books about parish life and several that we sold well at church events written for leaders and pastors. This one, though, is by an author I really, really like, a man I esteem greatly, and has a rather unique formate which sets it apart as interesting and easy to read . And — believe me — readers get a lot for their investment here as there is tons of information, insight, inspiration in Ministry Mantras. It deserves to be touted as one of the very best books of the year and my pick for my favorite book in the area of congregational life and church leadership.  It’s a great, fun read!

Here’s the gist: Ministry Mantas is just that, a collection of “mantras” or slogans to say and lives. I think this is nearly brilliant and am surprised it hasn’t been done before. In a way it gets us to best practices, good stuff that makes a difference, but it gets there by way of these battle cries, heart sayings, ministry mantras.  These are not cliches but truly insightful sayings that will stick with you and your team, you and your church. 

Essential Worship- A Handbook for Leaders.jpgEssential Worship: A Handbook for Leaders Greg Scheer (Baker Books) $19.99 There are bunches of books about worship and, I am convinced, many are very important.  We’ve seen some excellent ones this year but if I were to choose just one to commend, this would be it. We just cannot stop learning about how to worship well, what that means and could mean, and how to improve our liturgical practices. I hope this gets a wide readership.  Greg Scheer is involved a bit in the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship which itself is legendary and greatly appreciated by folks across the theological and liturgical spectrum; he himself serves a liturgically, aesthetically and missionally aware CRC church in Grand Rapids and this book emerges from his decades of serving the gathered people of God. (He has worked in a Southern evangelical church, a mainline Presbyterian congregation, and this large, lively CRC parish.)

I hope you recall our previous review of Essential Worship: A Handbook explaining it’s wide vision, making it helpful for those just starting to think about worship leading or those who have been pastors or church organists for decades. Highly recommended. 

Eucharistic Prayers Samuel Wells.jpgEucharistic Prayers Samuel Wells & Abigail Kocher (Eerdmans) $40.00 We have many books of prayers. Some are designed for personal use — think Valley of Vision, for instance or the two evocative ones by Walter Brueggemann (Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth and Prayers for a Privileged People) or the wonderful classic A Diary of Private Prayer by John Baillie. We remain fond of the big one put together by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and  Enuma Okoro called Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals that can also be used communally for worship.

And then there are books of prayers that are specifically designed to be used in public worship. Some are geared to the lectionary, others not. For mainline churches that follow the lectionary we’re fond of the two volumes (for each of three years) of Feasting on the Word Worship Companion. There are many such worship planning resources. Some, frankly, can be a bit stuffy while many these days are nearly flakey. To find eloquent and charm, clarity and theological substance in real prayers to be used in real services is quite an art and when we find one of this sort of substance and beauty we want to celebrate it loudly. To get theologians and church leaders like Wells and Kocher working on this project and then to present their good, spirited words in such a handsome, slightly larger hardback, is a true gift.  If you want more than their prayers for the Great Thanksgiving, you can see their thinking about prayer during worship called Shaping the Prayers of the People: The Art of Intercession which is very thoughtful. Thanks to Eerdmans for offering Eucharistic Prayers, a truly great liturgical resource volume, one of the best of its kind this year.

More-With-Less.jpgMore with Less Cookbook 40th Anniversary Edition Doris Longacre (Herald Press) $22.00  “A World Community Cookbook” with Rachel Stone  We recommended this last month in a BookNotes post about various sorts of books that make great gifts. We noted that “we have stocked this marvelous Mennonite cookbook since the day we opened and Beth and I have given quite a few away over the years — it remains a wonderful, wonderful gift, a great cookbook to use (even for those who aren’t advanced or skilled) made all the better in this very handsome, very new, 40th anniversary edition.  Earlier editions have sold over 1 million copies! We enjoy all three in the “World Community Cookbook” series — More-With-Less, Simply in Season, and Extending the Table, but More-with-Less remains the classic.”  It uses simple, natural ingredients, offers a gentle sense that we can be better stewards of the gifts of creation (and our family budgets) by spending less and being joyful extravagant in ways that are simple and cheaper.  In this new edition there’s some updated recipes, some great new essays, wonderful full color design and pictures. Some may still want the older spiral bound edition but this new one has a “lay flat” binding that promises to be useful in the kitchen.

The art and design of beautiful looking cookbooks these days is a joy to behold and when you combine this healthy, justice-oriented, simple-living vision with such a vivid, pleasing, design, and — most importantly — delicious recipes. you know you’ve got a winner.  This new version of a Hearts & Minds classic deserves a very honorable mention.

Art of Memoir.jpgArt of Memoir Mary Karr (Harper) $24.99  I hope you recall our announcing this — both a  good guide to being a writer, the art of doing memoir, and a bit of a continuation of her story, told so well in Liar’s Club, Cherry, and Lit — some of the most memorable memoirs of our generation.  If anyone can tell us how it’s done, Karr is it.  Technically, this came out in ’15 but I wanted to list it as a new paperback — and one I didn’t read until 2016.  If you’ve been undecided, maybe this will help:

Mary Karr has written another astonishingly perceptive, wildly entertaining, and profoundly honest book-funny, fascinating, necessary. The Art of Memoir will be the definitive book on reading and writing memoir for years to come. — Cheryl Strayed

Karr is a national treasure that rare genius who s also a brilliant teacher. This joyful celebration of memoir packs transcendent insights with trademark hilarity. Anyone yearning to write will be inspired, and anyone passionate to live an examined life will fall in love with language and literature all over again. — George Saunders

A Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends- From Fear to Faith in Unsettled Times .jpgA Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends: From Fear to Faith in Unsettled Times David Gushee (Westminster/John Knox Press) $15.00   This book deserves to be noted and I think it has much usefulness, even now. It came out long before the election, but captured something brewing for years, now, coming to a head in this season — namely, that many good Christian folks are fearful that things are coming undone. Many of us are anxious, not just about Trump (that’s another story) but about the larger trends in our culture, the shifts in church life, the changes in thinking about sexuality and the changes in the conversations about that; we are concerned about pop culture, about guns and immigration and poverty; we are nervous about foreign affairs, about ISIS and more. We are wondering about doctrine and the Bible and God and the future of our churches. Much of our anxiety revolves around the lack of civility in our civic discourse and the polarization that seems as bad as ever.  What even is America (a Christian country, or no?) Who are we, what should we make of the political parties and our apparently deepening fractures? What is a reasonable, Christian view about these concerns, these “unsettled times” and about our fears?

Well, it would be silly to say that this book can put us at ease as it is obvious that we are in troubled times. But Gushee tries to explain things in a way that might help us “keep it in perspective.” There are short chapters offering a fairly reasonable overview of the particular topic at hand, highlighting how we can see things in less alarmist ways.  It is, essentially, a caring pastoral letter offering guides to deeper faith even in our fearful times.  He is, for what it is worth, an ecumenically minded rather centrist evangelical Baptist ethics prof who tilts to the progressive on most (but not all) social issues. It’s a nice book.

Listen to the wise Krista Tippett, not only of the radio show “On Being” but of the Civil Conversations Project —  I think I included this quote when I announced this book before:

David Gushee is one of our most searching and important voices for public theology. He defies Christian stereotypes and divisions that have played a part in dividing America in so many other ways. And this book is a road map for discerningly, faithfully claiming the promise and redemption that are possible in this tumultuous national moment.

This would make a great primer for an adult ed class on book discussion group.  Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for THeology and PUblic Life at Mercer University.  Just a few months ago, Eerdmans re-issued an expanded and revised second edition of his magisterial, co-authored (with the late Glen Stassen) volume on Christian ethics called Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in a Contemporary Context. That book could show up on some “Best of” lists this year, I’d think, although I haven’t spent time with it yet…

The Spirituality of Wine  - amazon.jpgThe Spirituality of Wine Gisela H. Kreglinger (Eerdmans) $24.00 I’m not a fan of the medieval tapestry cover art but this beautiful book nonetheless is a personal favorite and should be on the shelf of anyone who is interested in wine, or anyone interested in a theology of the goodness of creation, anyone interested in Christian views of farming and land use, or anyone interested in the Bible at all, actually.  The author grew up working in her family’s European vineyard and is now (besides being a trained theologian) a world-renowned vintner. This great book looks at wine in the Bible, wine in religious customs, the abuse of alcohol, and, yes, offers lovely details of the growing of grapes, the making of wine, the world of wine tasting, marketing, selling, enjoying. If you are a casual enjoyer or a serious connoisseur, you will love this thorough, serious work. There is a  foreword by Eugene Peterson — makes sense. But what other theological book has a  blurb on the back by Alice Waters (one of the iconic food writers of our time), Carolo Petrini (of the Slow Food Movement) and heavy-weight German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann?  Salute!

Becoming Wise- An Inquiry Into the Mystery and Art of Living .jpgBecoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Mystery and Art of Living Krista Tippett (Penguin Press) $28.00  I suppose it is no surprise that we list this — we love memoir and storytelling and appreciate those who are perhaps not Christian who are still eloquent about their own quest for wisdom and meaning and purpose. Tippett is, of course, the host of the wonderful, wonderful “On Being” radio show and has interviewed some of the most interesting people on the planet.

This is a book years in the making offering insights that she learned from the many remarkable people she has had the privilege of interviewing over the years, weaving together a narrative of her own, and telling the stories of insights she’s gleaned along the way. It’s a mystery and an art, eh?   This is a beautiful, wonderful book.

When the Roll is Called- Trauma and the Soul of American Evangelicalism .jpgWhen the Roll is Called: Trauma and the Soul of American Evangelicalism Marie T. Hoffmann (Cascade) $20.00  Now is not the place to describe this book in great detail but it is a short work, developed nicely from a set of lectures, a part of the new “Fuller School of Psychology Integration Series.”  (The first in this new series, by the way, was by Messiah College anthropology professor Jenell Paris called The Good News About Conflict: Transforming Religious Struggle over Sexuality) which itself is remarkably insightful and obviously important.

This new one deserves an award if only for having such an audacious goal — to use the lens of trauma studies to get at the psychological hurt within the personalities of those who cooked up the dispensationalist theology (that is, the uniquely US theology of reading the Bible in an odd and unique schema about being raptured away to heaven prior to an unleashing of an Armageddon with the anti-Christ.)  Yep, this uses neuro-science and trauma study to look at the lives of a few key characters in American church history (some you’ve most likely heard of, some perhaps not) and comparing them with the “creation-fall-redemption” Biblical summary as seen in Calvin, all so that we might see why American evangelicalism developed as it did.  Why did this narrative  develop of a “heavenly” gospel versus a “social gospel” and why did the conflict take on the tone that it did?  “Prior to the Civil War,” Marie Hoffman says, “these two stories — of salvation in this life and salvation in the life to come — were one, never to be separated, together comprising the good news of Jesus Christ.” When the Roll is Called recounts the traumatic tearing asunder of this beautiful good news and offers hope for the restoration of the whole gospel. 

I have never read a book like this although almost all of it was stuff I have heard, here and there, or in some cases have written myself. But the twist she gives, the pastoral insight coupled with clinical vignettes and psycho-spiritual biography around the topics of trauma, was fascinating to say the least.

Notice what practicing Christian psychotherapist James Olthius, Emeritus Professor of Philosophical Theology of the Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto (and author of the amazingly rich The Beautiful Risk) says of it and how his remarks point us to what it captures — it is both a historical study and a guide to deconstruct the dualism of modern evangelicalism that fails to be honest about hurt and pain and lament. 

 A much-needed investigation of the relationship between Dispensational theology and the lives and times of its founding fathers. . . . Their emphasis on the next life in heaven with a de-emphasis on present life in this world was a defensive strategy constructed to justify and excuse their diminishment of feelings and inattention to experienced trauma. The real shame: the untold number of evangelicals who still fail to experience the joy and healing of their life in Christ because of continued inattention to suffered and unworked-through trauma.

The Bride(zilla) of Christ Ted Luck.jpgThe Bride(zilla) of Christ Ted Luck & Ronnie Martin (Multnomah) $15.99  There are dozens of helpful little books that come out each year on congregational life, on church stuff, on community and Christian views of conflict and such.  There is nearly a cottage industry these days writing books about those who are irritated at the church, those who no longer want to attend, or about those who have been hurt by religious shenanigans (real and imagined.) What do we do when local church folks have hurt us — mildly so, or seriously so? What do we do when the Bride of Christ ends up like a manic bridezilla?

I loved this book because it was both honest and yet a bit playful (the authors are pretty cool young dudes and the cheeky title offers a hint at their style.) They take the pain of those who have been hurt by toxic faith or abusive churches seriously but they also take the Biblical call to be in Christian fellowship seriously as well.  They are not emergent or progressive or whatever the latest term is for those who are re-imagining the church; that is, they are pretty traditional, pretty much loyal to the idea of the local church being an expression of the holy Bride of Christ and they invite us all to be committed to being a part of the local Body of Christ. 

Interestingly, both of these guys tell stories of being both wounded by the church and having wounded others in their own ministries. It important stuff.  Ted Kluck has written a number of books (include a great one on sports) and teaches at Union University, a Southern Baptist institution, and Ronnie Martin was known for a while as a star within the subculture of Christian pop music, doing innovative electronica  and house music under the name of Joy Electric. (Yeah, that’s what I said — that guy? Wow.)

By the way, this is a substantive, gospel-centered book with solid theology about God’s grace, good quotes from Bonhoeffer’s Life Together and their man Tim Keller and a bit from Lewis’s brilliant The Weight of Glory.  Although there is also lots of wit on display and a bit of hip sarcasm. You’ve got to love a book that has a chapter title such as “Jesus Loves You But I Think You’re A Jerk” and, in one on authenticity and what they call institutionalized hurt, “I Think Not Having a Gimmick Is Your Gimmick.” Yes! There are bunches of pop culture allusions, from a Rolling Stones joke in the epigram to a National Lampoon movie reference to what may be the only Iggie Pop quote in a Christian book, ever.  You see, I just had to award this one.  

Almighty- Courage, Resistance and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age .jpgAlmighty: Courage, Resistance, and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age Dan Zak (Blue Rider Press) $27.00  I have told you about this before and it is without a doubt one of the best books I have read all year. It is thick, wide-ranging, and remarkably well research and well-written. There is history here, science, politics, all good background for the basic story this feisty reporter tells — the story of three Christian radicals who feel called to protest the making of nuclear bomb components throughout the country, but mostly at Oak Ridge Tennessee.   If you have any interest in why people of faith do courageous and seemingly foolish things like getting arrested to make statements about faith and justice, this book will be illuminating. If you wonder how people come to the place where the dangers of nuclear holocaust consume them, and how they live with themselves facing decades of jail time, this study is brilliantly illuminating. If you need to be reminded of the grave moral threat that our weapons policies and budgets present to our culture and our souls, this book might be transformative for you. Agree or not with Zak’s mostly favorably telling of the lives of Michael Welli, Sister Megan Rice and Greg Boertje-Obed, this is a vast and mighty book, insightful and stimulating. It isn’t many books that near 400 pages that I didn’t want to end, but this is the case with Almighty. I wanted even more, eager to be engaged with this Quixotic movement of “beating swords into plowshares” carried on by hundreds of underground religious people inspired, originally, by the dramatic actions of civil disobedience of the Berrigan brothers, Philip and Daniel. In this year that Daniel died I read a remarkable collection of the prison letters written back and forth for half a lifetime by Dan and Phil.  This book, though, is the best way to understand their legacy. Read it.

caring for creation.jpgCaring for Creation: The Evangelical’s Guide to Climate Change and a Healthy Environment Mitch Hescox & Paul Douglas (Bethany House) $14.99 I’ve wanted to name this as one of the best books of the year from the moment I read it; that we hosted both authors in the store here the week before the book came out makes it truly one of the most important books of our year.  Mitch (the former engineer in the coal industry turned pastor turned creation-care activist) is an old friend and Paul (the weatherman and digital weather-tracking entrepreneur) a new one, and together they hit a big home run, offering Biblical insight, good science, moderate political solutions and good ideas for individuals or churches to pursue in being the caretakers of creation we are called to be.  I love these guys and love this book!

If you are concerned about climate change and don’t quite know what to do, this is a great starter book.  If you have heard that some people don’t even think that humans are causing climate change and fear that some of this has been overly politicized, please read this — both authors are dear Christian leaders, both happen to be Republican and pro-life; that is, this isn’t your typical screed from the far left as some assume all climate change books are. This book deserves to be better known, widely read, and seriously considered. Of the bunches of books on creation care that we shelved this year, this is the one we most want to honor as one of the most important books of 2016.

ruined.jpgRuined: A Memoir Ruth Everhart (Tyndale) $14.99 This has been one of those books that has stayed with me for months after having read it and we still get orders based on the review I wrote when it came out last August. You may recall that this book tells the story of Ruth Everhart being a student in the late 1960s at Calvin College in Grand Rapids Michigan where she and her housemates were raped. The story is told well, with enough pathos and tragedy to make it hard, at times (how could it not) but the criminal tragedy itself is not the only story being told. She struggles with the hard questions of God’s sovereignty and why bad things happen –what scholars call theodicy — and rejects some of her conservative Reformed community’s beloved doctrines. Everhart’s faith journey continues as she experiences some healing and hope (but how can one ever fully get over such a devastating assault?) and ends up happily married and a pastor in the PC(USA.)  Ruined is “told with candor and unflinching honest” the publisher says, it is “an extraordinary emotional and spiritual journey.” It has won a number of other book awards this season and has been on other “best of the year” lists.  Highly recommended.

Go- Returning Discipleship to the Front Lines of Faith.jpgGo: Returning Discipleship to the Front Lines of Faith Preston Sprinkle (NavPress) $14.99  There have been lots of books out these days about whole-life discipleship, about moving beyond nominal faith or internal spirituality, and about actually living out faith as followers of Jesus.  A few of these use the insights of the “missional church” movement and invite us to a sort of faithful discipleship that is missional.  This one is one of the very best I’ve seen in this simple genre — exciting, visionary, practical, though, and incorporating various insights from the missional movement. There are more academic ones, and we have them. This one, though, is practical and energetic. It’s got some info graphics and data (discovered by research commissioned by the Navigators and the Barna Group, newly presented here) that is usefully shown in order to help us appreciate the urgency of the priorities we will have to attend to if we’re going to return discipleship to the front lines of our faith communities. 

I like that Sprinkle teaches us to be disciples of Jesus together and that that demands community, spiritual formation,  developing the Christian mind, thinking about notions of vocation and calling, and more.  Happily, he is not unaware of the Biblical mandate to be agents of social transformation, seeking justice, being peacemakers, and working for racial reconciliation and the like. Go isn’t primarily a book about social action but he isn’t tone deaf to the needs of the aching world.  Sprinkle brings an energy and encouragement to his call to be more vibrant in faith and he offers something for the young Christian who is new to Biblically-informed living as well as something for those of us who need an upbeat reminder to get busy seeking God’s Kingdom in all we do.  Anyway, it’s one of many but for a variety of reasons I think it is one of the best I’ve seen.  Read it and get going!

Money-and-Possessions.jpgMoney and Possessions Walter Brueggemann (Westminster John Knox) $40.00 Do you know the popular “Interpretation” Bible commentary series? Somewhat in the spirit of these mainline denominational semi-scholarly commentaries this publisher inaugurated a few years ago a series called  Interpretation Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church.  That is, they’ve brought similar sorts of good scholars who are willing to summarize complex theological and Biblical themes in one handsome hardback book on a topic, not a certain book of the Bible.  There have been several volumes in this series: one on the sacraments, one important one called Canon and Creed; the one on violence in the Scriptures by Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s Jerome F.D. Creech is very good.  Ellen Davis did one on Biblical prophecy with the subtitle “Perspectives for Christian Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry” and Richard Lischer did the one on reading the parables. There is a big one on the Ten Commandments offering ways to preach and teach and live by these texts within our contemporary setting. You get the picture, eh?

And so it seemed a stroke of genius to recruit Walter Brueggemann to do this massive study of nearly every significant text in the whole Bible that deals with money and economics.  Although Walt is by training an Old Testament scholar and is passionate about the whole Bible, he has studied economics and social theory more than just about anybody I know (including some who work in business and economics!) He offers exegetical comment informed by the broad and wide church, naming what Church Fathers or people like Calvin or Luther (or modern liberation theologians for that matter) have said. He opens the hefty Money and Possessions with an epigram (“The Three Cries of History”) from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath which sets us up powerfully for a study that is not only rigorous but urgent and well written.  The foreword by Richard Horsley is important and this resource is one we should celebrate, study, and learn somehow, by God’s great grace, to apply. It may not be the final word and I suspect there are some other authors he should have cited and perspectives he should have more overtly grappled with, but this is, doubtlessly, one of the major contributions of the year in Biblical studies for God’s people. 

God, Neighbor, Empire- The Excess of Divine Fidelity and the Command of Common Good.jpg

For what it is worth it is hard not to honorably mention the other new, significant work released this year by Bruggemann, God, Neighbor, Empire: The Excess of Divine Fidelity and the Command of Common Good published in hardback by Baylor University Press. ($24.95.)  As I said in our newsletter when I announced it earlier this fall, these were lectures given at Fuller Theological Seminary. Very, very impressive and certainly one of the great books of the year.


Hamilton- The Revolution .jpgHamilton: The Revolution Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter (Hachette/Grand Central Publishing) $45.00 Well, yeah. Of course. The ground-breaking musical won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and this book gives readers an unprecedented view of both revolutions — the US one in which that the poor kid of the Caribbean fought against the British and this hip-hop once-in-a-generation theatrical piece that broadened the sound of Broadway.  This over-sized book tells the history of the show, features photos and excerpts of notebooks and emails, interviews with Questlove and Stephen Sonheim and over 40 other people involved in the production which has become a national phenomenon. We have only sold a few of these but what a blast showing it off and seeing the joy when customers realize we carry it.   This is a very important and truly handsome, fantastic volume that you will want to keep.


making sense of god.jpg.jpgThe Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs Peter Enns (HarperOne) $25.99  I reviewed this cautiously, not wanting to give the impression that the book throws out notions of truth or doctrine or that I fully agreed with Pete’s provocative prose. But many others I respect have grappled with this and I think the consensus is that even if he overstates this just a bit — and he is adamant that reading the Bible honestly can be damaging to one’s faith, given the sordid stuff found in the Word of God and is adamant that trusting God is something other than agreeing to certain theological dogmas — this is a thoughtful, winsome, inviting story of one man’s journey, offering permission for others to doubt, to struggle, to reject parts of the dogma passed down (especially from evangelicalism) and to forge a living relationship with the God who is there and who loves us so.  I think it is a great gift for those skeptical of faith because they know a bit and have catapulted overboard, angry about easy answers they’ve been given, frustrated that the Bible seems to be racist and sexist and full of wrath and genocide. This book not only invites folks to honor their own questions and doubts but, in fact, says it is an idol to pretend to have ultimate certitude. Good stuff, but perhaps supplement it with the more classic view of knowledge implicit in the Keller book below.

Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical Timothy Keller (Viking) $27.00  Keller is a bit different than Pete Enns although they both have old connections with Westminster Theological Seminary.  (Keller is probably their most esteemed alum and Pete is, well, their most notorious, having been fired there a few years back.)  This book is thoughtful, literate, serious, philosophically informed by winsome in its own way, inviting those who have an allergy to thinking about the plausibility of God to consider their skepticism and consider whether it is even sensible to think about God and religion as plausible.  In this sense, it is a prequel to Keller’s useful Reason for God.  Keller is always worth reading but maybe his firm apologetic could be soften by the more accommodating tone of Enns, above. 


present over perfect.jpgbroken way.jpgThe Broken Way: A Daring Path Into the Abundant Life Ann Voskamp (Zondervan) $22.99  I am a fan of Ann Voskamp and loved her famous One Thousand Gifts that invited us to embrace and be grateful for the goodness of God’s world, finding grace in the ordinary and beauty in the here and now. It became a best seller for good reason — it is nicely written, creatively considered, lovely, a tiny bit edgy but utterly orthodox, despite what a few cranks said. Her two on Advent were devotional and handsome, too. This one, though, moves her prose to a deeper level as she offers a profound (but not too heavy) study of the brokenness we encounter, embracing our pain, moving into the realities of who we are as hurting people. In an earlier BookNotes review I noted that there were very good blurbs on the back from Philip Yancey (who called it “rich” and “gritty”) and from Eugene Peterson. Christine Caine, naturally, raved.  It’s really good.

Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living Shauna Niequist (Zondervan) $22.99  Many readers, especially younger adult women, adore this writer who has told her stories in memoirs such as Orange Tangerine and Bittersweet. Her book about food — Bread and Wine — is a hugely popular book, one I adored.  Niequist is a beautiful, contemporary writer, again, with a certain very honest, contemporary style, and she uses it to full effect here as she admits to being burned out, stressed, attempting to do too much, perhaps driven by an unhealthy perfectionism. Brene Brown wrote the forward, which fits. It’s pretty inspiring, if a bit overblown — sure she’s exhausted, but she’s got a cool lake house and, well, is friends with Brene Brown. Jennifer Hatmaker says “I will go to the grave thankful for this message. It has changed my life.” If you want deep connection rather than just frantic, this story can help.


Hammer is the Prayer- Selected Poems .jpgHammer is the Prayer: Selected Poems Christian Wiman (Farrar Straus Giroux) $26.00  I’ll be the first to admit I am not a connoisseur of fine poetry and although we enjoy having a rather eccentric poetry selection, none of us here are qualified to say what is “the best.” But I know enough to know that there are a handful of poets whose work is highly regarded and whose own faith journey we know has informed their serious work.  Wendell Berry comes to mind, of course, and we value the wonderful work of Mary Oliver (whose collection of essays this year, Upstream, is a volume we’ve so enjoyed promoting.) His memoir of Christian faith, My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer is extraordinary.  Christian Wiman, you should know, edited for decades the important Poetry  Journal. He now teaches religion and literature at Yale Divinity School.  This is the first major compilation of selected poems and it seemed an obvious choice to honor this year.


 Christian Practical Wisdom- What It Is, Why It Matters .jpgChristian Practical Wisdom: What It Is, What It Matters Dorothy Bass and others (Eerdmans) $30.00  We easily like to suggest that someone is wise and I often use the word to describe certain books. But what do we mean by that? Are we maybe too glib about that?  What practices are rooted in creational wisdom, hearing the voice of God’s truth embedded in the realities of God’s creation? How good are we at intuiting the ways of the Lord — even if we know our Bibles well? Does faithful insight about daily living really matter and if so, how so? What does it look like and how can we deeper our formation in daily wisdom? These collected essays are fairly academic but there is no volume quite like this in print and some approach sheer brilliance. It’s maybe a bit too much for ordinary book clubs or Adult Ed classes at church and perhaps it isn’t useful as a theology textbook as such — although I’d say without irony that it would be a wise move to use this book in educational settings. Books like this are worth their weight in gold but sadly are often not given their due. Kudos!

The Way of Love- Recovering the Heart of Christianity .gifThe Way of Love: Recovering the Heart of Christianity Norman Wirzba (HarperOne) $25.99  I’m not sure why this book didn’t take off — the publisher didn’t seem to do much with it, it seems., but what a book it is!  Wirzba is a thoughtful and important scholar (his speciality area is environmental theology and he has books about Wendell Berry and a very sophisticated study of the theology of food, so he’s kind of a cool writer these days.) Even with a lovely foreword by Diana Butler Bass, drawing on her beautiful study called Grounded and blurbs by the likes of Eugene Peterson (who says “Connecting love and the hope of heaven, Wirzba provides a most satisfying and convincing conclusion”) it just hasn’t been widely acclaimed.  There frankly aren’t that many profound books on this focal point of Christian faith; I wonder why that is? Are we afraid to buckle down and study love? Do we not think that love is a way of life?  This book should be better known among us.

 Executing Grace- How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It's Killing Us .jpgExecuting Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us Shane Claiborne (HarperOne) $17.99  I can’t tell you how much I admire Shane and how much I agree with him in this book; one of the first campaigns of political activism I joined in college was an effort to stop executions in our state.  Yet, despite my passion and my affection for Shane, I’ll admit this book has some weaknesses not the least of which is that the subtitle is off putting for some, suggesting that the death of Christ on the cross and the atonement are somehow problematic, which is not the topic of this book. That Shane doesn’t do a systematic Bible study hurts the book’s cause, too (mostly that would be in his avoiding Genesis 9.)  Nonetheless, the passion for justice and the human kindness that is on display here, coupled with tons of fresh research, storytelling, political analysis and spiritual reflections makes this a must-read. You should know that even some who think that capitol punishment is in principle allowed by Scripture still think, given the racism and injustices so deeply enmeshed in our current criminal justice system, that it cannot be applied justly and they therefore oppose it. (That was the position, by the way, of one of the most rigorous theological voices in the field of criminal justice, Charles Colson, which surprisingly got him on the cover of Sojourners magazine. I myself talked to Chuck about that briefly before he died…) Anyway, I wish more folks had open minds about learning about this topic and were willing to give this very informative, very moving book a try.  Kudos to those who did. You know who you are.

Union with C.jpgUnion with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God Rankin Wilbourne (Cook) $19.99 Although its a bit lengthy, I think I will honor this book by repeating what I wrote about it when I featured it in September in our BookNotes:  Every now and then a book comes along that I categorize as a “sleeper.” That is, few know the author, the publisher isn’t particularly renowned, the national press most likely isn’t going to do stories about it.  But it is worth its weight in gold, ought to be known, is a true winner. We can only hope that Wilbourne’s new book gets noticed and used and stays in print long enough to become very well known.  Union with Christ is a book that does what we might think of as basic Christian growth, just solid teaching about the nature of God and how God works with and within us, but it is better than most such books.  It offers clear-headed (and often very inspiring) advice, not terribly dressy or loud, just solid teaching, guidance, motivation, good stories, good quotes, well put.  Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God answers big worldviewish kinds of questions – who am I? Why am I here? Where am I headed ? How can I become that which I want to be?  Pastor Wilbourne is good on questions like “what is the gospel” and invites us into a way of thinking about Christian formation that is practical and wise.

On the back of the book it asks “Do you secretly wonder if there’s more to life… but feel stuck?”  I can’t quite figure out if this marketing line is useful – it is obviously trying not to seem like a heady theology text or a mystical spirituality book: it’s practical, it is saying. Maybe it is just the way they think to market stuff at David C. Cook given their own understanding of the market for their often passionate, often upbeat, often young-adult oriented evangelical books. But I’m telling you, Union with Christ is more than a call to be passionate, more than a cheap promise that if you find God with enough enthusiasm, voila, everything will come alive. It may be perfect if you feel stuck, but it isn’t primarily about that.

No, this book reminds us that this formation stuff is a longer, slower process, and it is dependent on getting a few very foundational truths right.  One of these classic truths – a favorite of John Calvin’s, by the way – is the notion of “union with Christ.”  I was first introduced to this notion by a book also called Union with Christ that has been out of print but is now available again by the beloved Lewis Smedes. Others have written on it. Wilbourne’s, though, is very, very special.  He studied at Princeton Theological Seminary  and is not only well read but a great storyteller. It is a really, really good book and I commend it to you.

In fact, Tim Keller says “This is simply the best book for laypeople on this subject.”

Less succinct but equally compelling is this endorsement by John Ortberg who wrote a very nice forward:

I’m trying to remember the last time I was more excited about a new book or a new author. Rankin Wilbourne brings a remarkable flair for writing, and a great breadth and depth of learning, to the most important subject in the world: What is the true and sufficient destiny for human life?

The author is artfully literary (with an epigram from Dante in the front) without being too highbrow, draws on pop culture, too, and tells some good stories. He’s theologically conventional and orthodox, which is to say, he isn’t off the rails or weird.  Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God has this tone of urgency – it is important, important content – but is reasonable and lucid. It is helpful, trustworthy, interesting, insightful, and I am glad to have found it. It deserves to be well known.  Kudos to Cook for the handsome hardback design and making this such a nice, good volume.  It deserves to be taken seriously.


Divine Dance.jpgDivine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation Richard Rohr with Mike Morrell (Whitaker House) $23.99  Well, I am not one to say that theology doesn’t matter or that ideas about God are somehow beyond thinking well about and while I don’t want to overstate the role of theology — an old mentor of mine used to rail about turning theology into an idol which he called theolog-ism — I do think that theology matters. A lot.  I agree with Tozer when he said that the most important part of anyone’s worldview is their view of God.  So this is vital, important stuff. I applaud Father Rohr for inviting us into relationship with God and for allowing us to reflect on the meaning of God’s nature.

 As you may know from my lengthy BookNotes review of this when it first came out I both admire Fr. Richard Rohr immensely and yet am troubled by any number of oddball moves made in this quirky book.  There’s more that can and should be said and I advise reading this with discernment and in conversation with other more standard books on the topic . (Rohr and Morrell rather stupidly suggest that their aren’t many such books and that the church has been somehow silent about the Trinity in the last centuries. Huh?)  Still, I list it here because I devoured it, re-read parts, was nicely moved by some of it, disagreed with much, and realize it is a major work of our time and deserves to be named in any list of the most important books this year. The Divine Dance deserves mention, even if in my playfully backhanded way.

One scholarly reviewer was so alarmed by its deviousness that he said that if anyone recommends it you should never listen to anything that person says again.  All-rightee-then; I hope you don’t unsubscribe from our BookNotes because I rather ironically honor this book. (And, conversely, I hope you don’t hate me because I disapprove of some of it.) But there you have it: I think it’s a pretty bad book, nicely made with some tender portions, and yet deserves noting as it has been widely discussed and is a bit of a publishing phenomenon. For better or worse, or both, it’s a notable book of 2016.  If your interested, read it for yourself, maybe with others, maybe in conversation with other more conventional books on the nature of the Triune God, and make up your own mind.


Besides the ones in my top ten, of course each of which I enjoyed immensely…

some that brought me great, particular reading pleasure.

Dimestore- A Writer's Life.jpgDimestore: A Writer’s Life Lee Smith (Algonquin Books of
Chapel Hill) $24.95 Beth and I would both say this is one of the most
delightful, enjoyable books we’ve read all year and I literally had to stop reading sometime to catch my breath, stunned by her turns of phrases and lovely, lovely prose. I’m sure it would be a tremendous blessing to those, at least, who like Lee Smith’s popular
Southern novel.  This includes some great stuff about the writing life and about Southern literature but it is somewhat of a memoir including much about her
girlhood and the small town in which she grew up and her father’s
beloved five and dime store.  In fact, I caught just a little of her Fresh Air interview about the closing of the family retail small-town business and that is what first caught my attention. One reviewer said it is “a pitch-perfect mining
of the memories, desires, and imaginations fueling one of the South’s —
no, one of America’s — master storytellers.”  Perhaps akin to Euodora
Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings, it is fun, fresh, upbeat,
sentimental, wise, and so very enjoyable to read. Annie Dillard says
“her brilliance shines. Her wide warmth blesses everything funny about
life and — here especially — everything moving and deep.”

Testimony Robbie Robertson .jpgTestimony Robbie Robertson (Crown Archetype) $30.00  Oh man, this had my name all over it — the story of the early days of the guys who became Dylan’s backup band when he notoriously went electric, The Band, and their whirl-wind careers writing in New York city, later at Big Pink, playing Woodstock, doing early Americana music — who doesn’t love them singing in rough Appalachian harmonies “take a load off Fanny” from “The Weight” or “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” or the Canadian-Cajun story of “Acadian Driftwood”? It tells of their friendships with old bluesmen, soul singers, Van Morrison, Joni MItchell and everybody from Eric Clapton to the Beatles to Dylan, of course, all play major roles. All manner of folks show up, from Salvador Dali to Japanese filmmakers to drug dealers of every imaginable sort. It tells of their fraught lives up until their big ending with the extraordinary show that became the Scorsese rock documentary The Last Waltz.  With big fat bios from heros of mine like Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon last month, this is the one I curled up with first.

We Were Feminists Once- From Riot Grrrl to Covergirl.jpgWe Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to Covergirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement Andi Zeisler (Public Affairs) $26.99  I am not kidding, this is maybe my favorite book of the year. Beth and I have long identified as feminists and this feisty young woman — she founded Bitch magazine — is wonderfully written, incredibly energetic, a storyteller and cultural critic who is a force to be reckoned with.  Of course as an evangelical Christian I disagree with basic stuff in her worldview and despise some of her views (and on occasion found her vulgarity gratuitous.)  Still, her critical engagement with how pop culture co-opts big ideas and how even revolutionary ideology can be tamed and sold is so interesting and so valuable.  She looks at TV, at books, at movies, and rock and pop music (up to and including a splendid analysis of Beyonce.) Her chapter on feminist advertising and the reforming influence feminism had (and is having) on corporate culture is brilliant, entertaining and insightful.  More broadly, I’m interested in anyone who can show how radical ideas can or cannot be applied to culture and what true, lasting reform looks like. As a case study in cultural influence and as a morality tale about the dangers of being co-opted, We Were Feminists Once is very important. For anyone who likes to read about pop culture, it’s a blast. 

Big Magic.jpgBig Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear Elizabeth Gilbert (Riverhead Books) $16.00  I didn’t read this when it came out late in 2015 (even though I absolutely adored her epic novel The Signature of All Things that year) but took up Big Magic at the end of 2016 when it came out in paperback so feel like I can name it now.  I firmly disagree with her basic thesis that the muse has personality — creativity for her, as with many ancient pagans, can literally visit you (or depart if you are not cooperative)  sort of like spirits or angels. I disagree with this view of how creativity works and think a Christian aesthetic theory that is consistent with a Biblical worldview (as explored, say, by Calvin Seerveld or Nicholas Wolterstorff or Jeremy Begbie) presents a very different view and thereby leads to different attitudes and maybe different practices. Yet, she tells some unforgettable stories that are nearly incredible about her view, including one encounter involving her friend and fellow writer Ann Patchett (perhaps you saw her stunning TED talk on this. Wow.) I chose not to take her idea literally, and that freed me up to so enjoy this sweet and I think very wise book.

Anyway, Big Magic, despite this almost goofy view of creative ideas looking for participants to embody them, has some of the sanest, most delightful, inspiring, helpful, guidance for writers and artists and creative folks that I’ve read anywhere. I love how she devastates the romantic idea that suffering is good for art or that writers and musicians and artists should get a pass when it comes to addictive and unhealthy behaviors; no!  She is so good on this, warning us all about the dangers of romantic views and guiding us towards healthy, life-giving, positive views of being properly open to creative lives.  I also like how she invites ordinary folks to exercise their creative gifts as avocations, so to speak.  She is big on making things — do it! do it! she insists over and over.  Ms Gilbert is clear about the costs and exuberant about the joys. I am not sure why I was so very taken with this but after finishing it, I started it all over again, something I rarely do.  It offers stories and writing that is really fun and specific guidance that made me ponder and reflect on my attitudes.  Thanks you, EG.

almighty - zak.jpgAlmighty: Courage, Resistance, and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age Dan Zak (Blue Rider Press) $27.00 I wrote a bit about this above and in a big December post naming books that might make good gifts, suggesting this for anyone involved in peacemaking, protest, or who wants to see how America’s nuclear weapon’s program developed and has been resisted by an underground movement of faith-based folks inspired by the likes of Dan and Phil Berrigan.  I’ve admitted before that I have been found with some of these folks and have participated in some of these kinds of dramatic actions of civil disobedience before, so in a way this was reading about folks I know, including at least one event about which I had some very inside knowledge. So this was a very important book for me this year and I kept wondering how readers would feel about this big book if they where not already convinced that making nuclear weapons is (as the Roman Catholic church has said) is a sin (since to use them would be a sin.)  It is my hunch that this is so well written and so dramatic and such a sprawling story that agree or not, many would find it hard to put down. It is a learned, important bit of social history, scientific expose, religious testimony and the chronicling of a movement of bravery and faith. It was one of my favorite books of the year.

The Boys in the Bunkhouse- Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland .jpgBoys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland Dan Barry (Harper) $26.99 I reviewed this above so won’t repeat myself here, but it truly was one of the big books that I couldn’t — and still can’t — stop thinking about, a reading experience that I simply couldn’t escape.  I hope you didn’t skip over my description above as it is epic, and, I think, important for us to consider.  How did this happen? How do we miss the mistreatment of those with special needs, the vulnerable, those doing hard manual labor in our local factories and plants? What a piece of work this is, what a good writer the author is thoughtful and caring; after reading this I immediately ordered his own memoir so I could learn what led him to be the kind of man he is and the kind of journalist he has become. Wow.  This is a great read.

after college - erica young reitz.jpgAfter College: Navigating Transitions, Relationships and Faith Erica Young Reitz (IVP) $16.00 I have reviewed this great book elsewhere at BookNotes and hope you recall it.  It is a book, obviously, designed for college seniors or those right out of college and we can’t say how much it means to us to see it in print. Erica is a long-time supporter of our store, a very, very fine campus minister with the CCO, and she has specialized in this work of preparing collegiates to transition well into young adulthood after college. I know she is thoughtful and caring and a good writer — she did the afterward to my own book for young adults, Serious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life, after all. But when I got my hands on this when it released, and Beth and I started to read it, I was more than pleasantly surprised, I was deeply delighted at just how very good After College was. There are hundreds of very useful and inspiring books of basic Christian growth and books about maturing in faith and I get to skim a lot of them. Some are really good, and this is one of those — wonderfully written, drawing on great stories and the occasional well placed literary quote, written with charm and grace.  I’ll admit I read it through the lens of my own friendship with the author who I so admire and also my own interest in my own young adult kids, not to mention many other young friends who I thought would enjoy it. But the fact of the matter is I was elated to read this, enjoyed it a lot, and think it is one of the great releases this year. Kudos to IVP for taking a chance on this first time author and doing right by her with this great release. Cheers!

Great Tide Rising- Towards Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change .jpgGreat Tide Rising: Towards Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change Kathleen
Dean Moore (Counterpoint) $26.00 I have said often that I will read any
new book by Kathleen Moore, such a fine and moving writer she is. I
suppose I’d say this was one of the most moving books I experienced this
year, with its remarkable prose, its coherent vision, its passion for
justice and goodness and living a life of meaning in the face of the
harms perpetrated upon the Earth.  Some may find it a bit overwrought
and others might want a Biblical or theological perspective and this
does not offer that. But it is a sturdy, morally serious and, most
often, beautiful book of nature writing, solace, family, and the search
for meaningful action in a time of climate change.  I enjoy her prose, an I’m pressed with her comfort in the rough outdoors and her enjoyment of the beauty of land and sea, creatures great and small. And I am challenged by her passion to know what to do, knowing what we do know. This is an important book, beautiful, sophisticated and demanding and a personal favorite, even though it is about some scary stuff.


The Bookstore That Matters David Almack.jpgThe Bookstore That Matters David Almack (FaithLit Publications) $14.99  I do hope a few of our favorite customers order this but I’ll admit it is mostly an in-house guide to running a Christian bookstore and therefore of most interest to fellow retailers or those in the religious publishing industry. David is a respected acquaintance and his telling of his work in Philadelphia as a book lover and book seller as one who sees the possibility of Christian bookstores as a key to ministry makes for a fine read for anybody who loves Christian literature. His legendary work in urban Philly is cool, too — he’s brought in Christian hip hop artists and done all kinds of literacy work and outreach through the CLC shops.  That he very kindly mentions Hearts & Minds and commends our BookNotes reviews is a very serious compliment and I am deeply gratified to have found our work mentioned in this book. Thanks, Dave.


reclaiming hope.jpgReclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America Michael Wear (Nelson Books) $25.99  Within the week I will post a review of this major release — PRE-ORDER IT NOW if you’d like and we will send it to you the day it releases Januray 17th; it will surely be on my list next year this time as one of the great books of 2017.  Nearly a decade ago, Michael dropped out of college to work in the inspiring first campaign of Senator Obama and watched as he appealed widely to the broad faith community in the US — evangelical Rick Warren prayed at his first inaugural, you might recall. Michael is a theologically traditional evangelical and an idealistic Democrat which makes him not rare, but not commonplace, either.  I admire him greatly for his conscientious, Biblically-informed balance and thoughtfulness about politics, public service, and the common good. He ended up working alongside the President in the White House in a position at the intersection of faith, politics and public life.

Wear was one of Obama’s “ambassadors to America’s believers” (as Buzzfeed called him) and one of the youngest White House staffers in modern American history; he wasn’t yet 21 when he took up his job with the Obama Administration.  This book is Michael’s own recollections and analysis on everything from the earliest days of his own faith journey and how and why he got involved in politics, and, eventually, the controversies around Jeremiah Wright, for instance, and the dis-inviting of Louis Giglio from the second Inaugural (quite a contrast to the previous “big tent” approach four years earlier.) From the religious implications of health care reform and the complicated matters of the President’s later advocacy for same sex marriage, an issue which he perhaps disingenuously said he “evolved” on, Michael brings insider insight, honed by his own faithful, Christian, evaluations. It has been an extraordinary and historic decade, of course, and Wear brings insight beyond his years. Reclaiming Hope is a very lively book, and I couldn’t put it down.  Mr. Wear, in fact, will be appearing at our bookstore in March to tell us more about his years in the White House and the “lessons learned” that he shares so well in Reclaiming Hope.  I read an advanced copy of the manuscript and although it is officially a 2017 release, it was one of my own personal favorite reads late this fall.  I can’t wait to tell you more about it, soon.  Congratulations, Michael. And thank you for your service to our country in what were complex and painful times. I’m grateful you tell your story, both the good and the bad, the sweet and bittersweet, and hope many order the book.   


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