The Month in Reviews: June 2021

I began the month with the notorious RBG and ended with poetry from the island of Iona. In addition to Ginsburg, I read biographies of Siggy Wilzig (read the review for Unstoppable to find out who that is) and Henrietta Mears, who influenced many of the major figures of early evangelicalism, as well as Simeon Booker’s memoir of covering the civil right era for Jet. Wendell Berry’s The Hidden Wound is classic Berry from 1968 which I followed with a contemporary work on mixed ethnic identity. I’m up to book eight in the Inspector Gamache series. For once the murder is not in Three Pines, but a remote monastery. Other fiction included a collection of short stories by Ursula Le Guin and a strange post apocalyptic book involving battles between people able to ride clouds and build thunderheads. The most theological of the books were ones on election, ethics, and preaching Jeremiah with practical theology on what we can do when it is “not our turn,” the practice of tentmaking and on ministry to the disabled. Rounding out this months list was an Erik Larsen non-fiction thriller.

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader GinsburgIrin Cardmon & Shana Knizhnik. New York: Dey Street Books, 2015. A profile of the Supreme Court Justice, centered around her dissenting opinions read from the bench but also tracing her career, her marriage, work out routines and more, liberally illustrated with photos and images. Review

UnstoppableJoshua M. Greene. San Rafael, CA: Insight Editions, 2021. The biography of Siggi Wilzig, an Auschwitz Holocaust survivor who arrived in the U.S. with $240 and built a fortune in both the oil and banking industries while speaking out against the Holocaust. Review

Mother of Modern Evangelicalism: The Life and Legacy of Henrietta MearsArlin C. Migliazzo, Foreword by Kristen Kobes Du Mez. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2020. The first comprehensive biography on Henrietta Mears that focuses on her early life, her Christian Education ministry at Hollywood Presbyterian Church, and her national impact on a nascent evangelical network of leaders, on Christian publishing and retreat ministry. Review

The Hidden WoundWendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2010 (Original edition 1968, with Afterword 1988). An extended essay on racism in America, our collective attempts to conceal this wound upon American life, and its connections to our deformed ideas of work. Review

Mixed BlessingChandra Crane, Foreward by Jemar Tisby. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. The author describes her own challenges and blessings of being a person of mixed ethnic and cultural identity, and how the Christian can affirm and include the growing number of mixed identity persons. Review

God Has ChosenMark R. Lindsay. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. A survey of the development of the doctrine of election throughout Christian history, including discussions of human freedom, those who are not of the elect, and the status of Israel as chosen. Review

The Beautiful Mystery (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #8), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2013. While solving a case involving the murder of a prior in a remote monastery, Gamache must confront his arch-nemesis Chief Superintendent Sylvain Françoeur. Review

It’s Not Your TurnHeather Thompson Day. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021. When everyone seems to be moving ahead while we are standing still, chosen for jobs while we are runners up, the question is how we should live while we wait our turn. Review

Shocking the ConscienceSimeon Booker with Carol McCabe Booker. Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 2013. A memoir of Simeon Booker’s career as a reporter, much of it during the height of the Civil Rights movement from the murder of Emmett Till to the busing battles of the 1970’s and beyond. Review

Working Abroad with PurposeGlenn D. Deckert, Foreword by James Lundgren. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2019. A concise handbook on the practice of tentmaking, explaining the concept, offering practical tips on a number of aspects of working abroad, and recounting the author’s personal experiences. Review

Orsinian TalesUrsula K. Le Guin. New York: Library of America, 2016 (originally published in 1976). A collection of eleven short stories set in the fictional eastern European country of Orsinia taking place between 1150 and 1965. Review

Talking About EthicsMichael S. Jones, Mark J. Farnham, and David L. Saxon. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academics, 2021. An approach, which after a chapter of laying out different ethical approaches, applies these through fictional conversations between three students, friends, and classmates discussing various contemporary ethical issues. Review

ThunderstruckErik Larsen. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006. The intersection of the lives of Guglielmo Marconi and Hawley Harvey Crippen occurs on a trans-Atlantic voyage with a Scotland Yard detective in pursuit. Review

Preaching JeremiahWalter Brueggeman. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2020. Bruggeman takes the framework of Jeremiah as a model for preaching, both in its structure of introduction, ending(s), and body, in its bringing a message of beyond, that both confronts the denial of God, and the grounds for hope that outlasts despair. Review

Disability and the ChurchLamar Hardwick, foreword by Bill Gaventa. Downers Grove: IVP Praxis, 2021. An eloquent and theologically grounded plea affirming the value of persons with disabilities and the steps churches can take to welcome and fully include them. Review

Balcony of FogRick Shapero. Half Moon Bay, CA: TooFar Media, 2020. In a post-nuclear world, a laborer and a fugitive from a vengeful lover inhabiting a thunderhead meet up, transform to cloud-beings and eventually engage in a climactic battle. Review

Iona: New and Selected PoetryKenneth Steven. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2021. Summary: A collection of poems connected to the island of Iona, the spiritual home of the author. Review

Best Book of the Month. Mother of Modern Evangelicalism is an exceptionally well-researched account of Henrietta Mears, a Christian education director in a Hollywood church that influenced a number of film stars as well as early leading lights in evangelicalism. She formed a publishing house, Gospel Light, to publish high quality, biblical-based materials for all ages. The biography stands out from earlier ones in tracing her early life in Minnesota and training as an educator. She did all this as a single woman at a time when cultural and theological strictures would discourage the leadership she exercised and a fascinating aspect of this biography is how she worked around these strictures while never openly challenging them.

Quote of the Month: Wendell Berry makes an admission many find challenging to accept even in the America of 2021. He wrote this in 1968:

“If white people have suffered less obviously from racism than black people, they have nevertheless suffered greatly; the cost has been greater perhaps than we can yet know. If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of the wound into himself. As the master, or as a member of the dominant race, he has felt little compulsion to acknowledge it or speak of it; the more painful it has grown the more deeply he has hidden it within himself. But the wound is there, and it is a profound disorder, as great a damage in his mind as it is in his society.

This wound is in me….I want to know, as fully and exactly as I can, what the wound is and how much I am suffering from it….

It leads me to ask how “fully and exactly” do I want to comprehend this wound?

What I’m Reading. I’ve just finished Imago, the final book in Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy. I found myself wondering why she did not carry the series on further. I also have awaiting review The Problem of the Old Testament, an exploration of how Christians ought read the Old Testament including the issues of continuity and discontinuity, how we read prophecy “fulfilled” in the New Testament and how we think of Israel and the church. I just began Who Created Christianity a festschrift for David Wenham with contributions from N.T. Wright, Stanley Porter, Alister McGrath, Michael Bird, Craig Blomberg, and Greg Beale among others. Victor Davis Hanson’s A War Like No Other is his account of the Peloponnesian War. I’m in the middle of another Ngaio Marsh, Final Curtain, featuring both Roderick Alleyn and his wife, an artist. An Impossible Marriage is the story of a “mixed orientation” marriage and how the seemingly impossible has been possible for them. Finally, 40 Patchtown is a novel by Damian Dressick, a first time author, of an Appalachian mining town and the challenges of standing up to big coal in the early twentieth century.

Hope you are able to find a cool place, a cool drink and a good books to read during the lazy, hazy days of summer!

The Month in Reviews: May 2021

I just finished a book edited by Marita Golden of interviews with Black writers discussing the transformative power of both reading and writing. That is what sustains reading and writing in my own life–to share what has been good and even transformative, and to hope I might connect you with writing that will have that effect in your life. That was certainly the case with the books I read this month whether it was a comprehensive study of the doctrine (indeed the wonder) of creation, the theme of rest in the Bible or a classic Octavia Butler work that explores the dynamics of colonization at the level of alien life. Reading Mary Wells Lawrence’s memoir of her life in advertising, which began in my home town of Youngstown was a walk down the memory lane of all those ad slogans that will forever be etched in my mind, and finally, I know who to blame! Walter Isaacson’s The Code Breaker on Jennifer Doudna and CRISPR is essential reading for understanding the coming biotech revolution. Contemporary issues were amply covered in works on sexual abuse in the church, whether we can have a redemptive presence on social media, and how Christians might faithfully engage the news. In the realm of fiction, in addition to the Octavia Butler, I enjoyed a historical fiction account of J.D. Salinger’s war experience and the first volume of a new fantasy series and continued reading my way through the works of golden age mystery by Ngaio Marsh. Take a look through this list and you just might find a few summer reads!

Reimagining ApologeticsJustin Ariel Bailey. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. A case for an apologetics appealing to beauty and to the imagination that points toward a better picture of what life might be. Full review

Sergeant SalingerJerome Charyn. New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2021. A fictional account of J.D. Salinger’s early adult life, centered around his wartime service with the CIC including the landing at Utah Beach, fighting in Normandy’s Hedgerows, the interrogation of German captives, the harrowing fighting of Huertgen Forest during the Battle of the Bulge, and the discovery of a Nazi death camp. Full review

Prayer in the NightTish Harrison Warren. Downers Grove: IVP Formatio, 2021. Both an introduction to Compline and a phrase by phrase reflection using one of the loveliest of Compline prayers. Full review

#ChurchToo: How Purity Culture Upholds Abuse and How to Find Healing, Emily Joy Allison. Minneapolis: Broadleaf Books, 2021. An argument connecting sexual abuse and other sexually dysfunctional teaching to the purity teaching upholding an ideal of abstinence until marriage between a man and a woman. Full review

Posting Peace: Why Social Media Divides Us and What We Can Do About ItDouglas S. Bursch. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021. A discussion of the nature of online media, why it divides us, and how Christians can have a reconciling and redemptive presence. Full review

Candles in the DarkRowan Williams. London: SPCK, 2020. Weekly meditations by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, written for his parish church from March to September 2020, during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Full review

A Big Life (in advertising)Mary Wells Lawrence. New York, Simon & Schuster, 2003. A memoir of the first woman to head up a Madison Avenue advertising firm, producing some of the most memorable advertising campaigns of the 1960’s through the 1980’s. Full review

Waiting for the Rest That Still RemainsArie C. Leder. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2021. A consideration of the theology of the former prophets, including the Book of Ruth, considered through the lens of rest. Full review

The Black Coast (The God-King Chronicles #1), Mike Brooks. New York: Solaris, 2021. Former enemies seek refuge with the people of Black Keep against a backdrop of political infighting, intrigue around the succession of the God-King, and the rise of a sinister power. Full review

The Code BreakerWalter Isaacson. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021. The story of the 2020 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, Jennifer Doudna, and the discovery of ways to use CRISPR enzymes to edit genomes, and her subsequent efforts to establish ethical standards for the use of this breakthrough discovery. Full review

Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the NewsJeffrey Bilbro. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021. A discussion of what Christian faithfulness looks like as we engage the news, focusing on our practices of attention, our awareness of the time we are in, and the communities of which we are part. Full review

Death in Ecstasy (Roderick Alleyn #4), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem, 2012 (originally published in 1936). Nigel Bathgate happens upon the strange religious rites at the House of the Sacred Flame just in time to witness the death of Cara Quayne, the Chosen Vessel, when she imbibes a chalice of wine laced with cyanide. Full review

Adulthood Rites (Exogenesis #2), Octavia Butler. New York: Popular Library, 1988. (Out of print. Link is to a different edition) Lilith’s son Akin, a human “construct,” is kidnapped by resisters and raised in one of their settlements, and realizes his own unique and risky calling. Full review

The Doctrine of Creation: A Constructive Kuyperian Approach, Bruce Riley Ashford and Craig G. Bartholomew. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. A study of the doctrine of creation, demonstrating how this doctrine is foundational and related to everything else in Christian theology. Full review

The Word: Black Writers Talk About the Transformative Power of Reading and WritingEdited by Marita Golden. New York: Broadway Paperbacks, 2011. Interviews with notable Black writers about formative influences on their reading and writing, significant books and their particular writing callings. Full review

Best Book of the Month. I give the nod this month to Tish Harrison Warren’s Prayer in the Night. She introduces the unfamiliar to the practice of Compline prayers and reflects chapter by chapter on one of the most beautiful of these and how God meets us in the night in every circumstance of our lives from our joys to our dying. This is exquisitely beautiful and vulnerable writing.

Quote of the Month: I love quotes on reading. Edwidge Danticat, in Marita Golden’s The Word made this striking observation about the importance of both reading and writing, one to which I fully subscribe:

“Reading is important–although we can so easily go into platitudes here–because it expands your mind, your life. It extends your world. It’s traveling without a passport. I feel like there are people in my life I will never know as well as the people in the books that I’ve read. I believe that it’s the duty of every truly free citizen to read, especially to read beyond your borders, to read and read extensively. Writing is our footmark in the world. We’re still looking at cave writings of centuries ago and are asking, what are they saying? It’s one of the most important gifts we leave the world” (p. 72)

What I’m Reading. I just finished Notorious RBG, a somewhat light-hearted biographical sketch of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg written while she was still alive. It ranges the gamut from her legal career and cases involving women’s rights and her dissents on the bench to her jabots, who did the cooking in her household, and the love of opera she shared with “Nino” Scalia. Tons of pictures! I’m into a couple other biographies at present, one of Henrietta Mears, whose What the Bible is all About was a guidebook to me in my early Christian life, and one of Siggi Wilzig, a holocaust survivor who arrived here with a grade school education and $240 and became a Wall Street legend. The book is titled Unstoppable and it strikes me as a somewhat tragic tale of a driven and psychologically scarred man. I’ve just begun Chandra Crane’s Mixed Blessing, on embracing a bi- or multi-racial identity, something true of nine million Americans, and which will only grow in the years ahead. And I’ve just opened Wendell Berry’s The Hidden Wound. I can’t go a year without reading something of his. In my continuing quest to read through all the Chief Inspector Gamache stories, I anticipate reading #8, A Beautiful Mystery, this month. Her books helped me get through the pandemic, so I’m not giving up now!

The Month in Reviews: April 2021

I read two books this months defending the reading of the old books, particularly those associated with the western canon, which has come in for much scorn. Of the two, Alan Jacobs’ Breaking Bread with the Dead had the advantage for me of an irenic approach that took the critics seriously while celebrating what is worthy in these works. Both spoke of the “strangeness” of these works and, in Jacobs’ words, their capacity to increase our “personal density.” Books on three different books of scripture (Jeremiah, Romans, and 2 Corinthians) were another part of my reading this month as well as Ben Witherington III’s Torah Old and New. I’ve come to appreciate those who write with great skill with their words and reveled both in the poetry of Mary Oliver and the Lenten devotionals of Marilyn McEntyre, each on a word or phrase. Zuboff’s book on surveillance capitalism raises important questions but in an overly repetitious fashion that I felt “showed all her work.” A couple other books that were an absolute delight were Michael Kibbe’s From Research to Teaching, which sparkled with practical insights, and Alister McGrath’s theological biography of one of my heroes, recently passed, J. I. Packer. A delightful new author for me was Liuan Huska, whose book Hurting Yet Whole offered one of the best explorations of how one lives with chronic pain. So here is the list with links to publishers in the title and a link to the full review at the end of each summary.

Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver, Mary Oliver. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. A selection of the poetry of Mary Oliver written between 1963 to 2015. Review

Resurrecting Justice: Reading Romans for the Life of the WorldDouglas Harink. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. An invitation to read Romans as a treatise on justice in our relationship with God, in the church, and in society. Review

From Research to Teaching: A Guide to Beginning Your Classroom CareerMichael Kibbe. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021. A practical guide for those transitioning from graduate research to teaching, focusing on what teachers must do and must know. Review

Prodigal Son (Frankenstein Book One), Dean Koontz. New York: Bantam Books, 2009. A serial murderer is loose in New Orleans, and something far worse that two detectives begin to unravel, helped by a mysterious, tattooed figure by the name of Deucalion. Review

J. I. Packer: His Life and ThoughtAlister McGrath. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. An account of the theologian’s faith, life, and theological engagement. Review

Breaking Bread with the DeadAlan Jacobs. New York: Penguin Press, 2020. A case for reading old books as a means of increasing our “personal density” to expand our temporal bandwidth. Review

Where the Eye AlightsMarilyn McEntyre. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2021. A collection of forty Lenten meditations drawn from words or phrases from scripture and poetry, inviting us to pause and attend. Review

Torah Old and NewBen Witherington III. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2018. A study of the texts from the Pentateuch quoted or alluded to in the New Testament and how they were understood both in their original context and as used in the New Testament context. Review

Hurting Yet WholeLiuan Huska. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. When a vibrant young writer descends into a season of chronic pain, she discovers the disembodied character of much Christian theology, that she could be whole as a person yet hurting, and that pain and physical vulnerability can be a place where we are met by God. Review

The Age of Surveillance CapitalismShoshana Zuboff. New York: Public Affairs, 2019. An extended treatise on the idea of surveillance capitalism, in which we are the “raw materials” for others economic gain and the object of instrumentarian control. Review

The Theology of JeremiahJohn Goldingay. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021. A survey of the life of Jeremiah, the composition of the book, and the theological themes running through it. Review

Work and Worship: Reconnecting Our Labor and LiturgyMatthew Kaemingk and Cory B. Willson (Foreword by Nicholas Wolterstorff). Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020. Proposes that a theology of work is not enough. In scripture, people were formed in their work through worship rather than simply an intellectual engagement. Review

A Trick of the Light (Chief Inspector Gamache #7), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur, 2012. The vernissage for Clara’s art show is a stunning success with glowing reviews only to be spoiled when the body of her estranged childhood friend is found in her flowerbed. Review

The Western CanonHarold Bloom. New York: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt Publishing, 1994, this edition 2014. A spirited defense of the traditional Western Canon of literature against what Bloom calls the “School of Resentment” and a discussion of 26 representative works Bloom would include. Review

Strength in Weakness: An Introduction to 2 CorinthiansJonathan Lamb. Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Langham Preaching Resources, 2020. A concise exposition of 2 Corinthians designed as a resource for pastors, and for personal and small group study. Review

The Battle of HastingsJim Bradbury. New York: Pegasus Books, 2021. A historical account of Anglo-Saxon England, the rise of Normandy and the precipitating events leading up to the Norman invasion and the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and the aftermath. Review

Best Book of the Month: Work and Worship by Kaemingk and Willson gets the nod. They address a crucial missing link in the “theology of work” discussion in making the connection between our worship on Sunday and our work through the week, and do so with theological clarity and practical examples.

Quote of the Month: I appreciated the insight of Marilyn McEntyre into the connection between repentance and rest. I’ve never thought of repentance as very restful. She persuaded me otherwise:

“And repentance, to return to Isaiah [30:15], allows you to rest. I think of the many times I’ve heard–and said–some version of ‘I’m wrestling with…” “I’m struggling with…” “I’m working on…” changing a habit, coming to terms with self defeating patterns, releasing resentments or guilt or old confusions. Repentance allows us to rest in forgiveness, regroup, and rather than wrestling, float for a while, upheld while we learn to swim in the current, or walk unburdened, or do a dance of deliverance, day by day releasing the past and entering fully, with an open heart, into the present where an open heart is waiting to receive us.” (p.11).

What I’m Reading: At present, I’m soaking in Tish Harrison Warren’s Prayer in the Night, a reflection upon one of my favorite compline prayers. I’ve just finished Justin Ariel Bailey’s Reimagining Apologetics which argues for an apologetics of beauty using the works of George MacDonald and Marilynne Robinson. I came across Mary Wells Lawrence in my Youngstown blog (she also grew up there), and learned she had written a memoir, A Big Life. She was the first women to head a Madison Avenue ad agency and she offers an insider look at this whirlwind life. Purity culture and abuse in the church has been much in the news and #ChurchToo is an exploration of this theme by one of the originators of the #ChurchToo hashtag. Sergeant Salinger is a biographical fiction account of J.D. Salinger’s World War 2 service. Pretty interesting read! Finally The Black Coast is the first installment of a fantasy series replete with dragons, raiding clans, demonic figures and a kingdom in danger from without and within. Still trying to figure out if I like this, which is probably a bad sign.

Much good reading and more on the review pile including Winn Collier’s new biography of Eugene Peterson that just came in and I can’t wait to get to read! Hope you have some books like that on your “to read” pile as summer approaches.

Go to “The Month in Reviews” on my blog to skim all my reviews going back to 2014 or use the “Search” box to see if I’ve reviewed something you are interested in.

The Month in Reviews: March 2021

Some great novels and historical fiction. A celebration of the wonders of the world and a hard look at what it will take to keep it habitable. Some delightful mysteries. Institutions at their best and worst. Spirituality in the cell of an anchoress, and in the city. Helps in understanding scripture, global Christian history, and our modern concept of the self. Books addressing abuse in the church and discipleship in the workplace. Books addressing the trauma of the pandemic and the experience of racism. Yes, I read, and enjoy a wide variety of books. So hopefully there is something here you will like. Scroll down, and click the review link to see the full reviews.

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern SelfCarl R. Trueman. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2020. Traces the intellectual history of what Charles Taylor calls expressive individualism and Philip Rieff calls the psychological man that the author argues explains the modern understanding of self contributing to a revolution in human sexuality. Review

Maigret and the Old PeopleGeorges Simenon. New York: Penguin Books, 2019 (originally published in 1960). Maigret investigates the shooting death of a retired diplomat, struggling to figure out who among all the old people in his circle would have the motive and opportunity to kill him. Review

Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the ChurchDiane Langberg. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2020. A psychologist looks at the dynamics of power behind various forms of abuse and trauma in which church figures are either perpetrators or complicit. Review

God and the PandemicN. T. Wright. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 2020. Reflects both upon our quest to know “why the pandemic?” and how we should then live. Review

Institutional Intelligence: How to Build an Effective OrganizationGordon T. Smith. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017. Believing that institutions are essential to human flourishing, unpacks the intelligence necessary to work effectively within organizations, and the different elements of organizational life that must be navigated wisely. Review

Bury Your Dead (Chief Inspector Gamache #6), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2010. Gamache and Beauvoir are on leave after an attempt to rescue an agent goes terribly wrong. As each faces their own traumas they get caught up in murder investigations in Quebec City and Three Pines. Review

Bad BloodJohn Carreyrou. New York: Vintage, 2020. The account of Elizabeth Holmes, the blood testing company Theranos, and the ambition that led to lies upon lies deceiving famous investors, pharmaceutical companies, and business publications until an investigative reporter on a tip discovered the house of cards on which it was all built. Review

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, Bill Gates. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2021. An assessment of what it will take to get to “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050, and the technological breakthroughs we will need to achieve that. Review

Healing Racial TraumaSheila Wise Rowe (Foreword by Soong-Chan Rah). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. A counseling psychologist describes the experience of racial trauma in story, drawing upon her own and other clinical experiences, and explores the resources for resilience to face continuing racial struggle. Review

Workplace Discipleship 101David W. Gill. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2020. A practical guide to living as a follower in one’s workplace focused on how we get ready for our work, impact our workplace, and beyond our workplace. Review

The Four WindsKristen Hannah. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2021. Set in the Dust Bowl depression era, Elsa Martinelli grows from a timid girl to a mother whose fight for her children fulfills her grandfather’s exhortation to “be brave.” Review

A Gentleman in MoscowAmor Towles. New York: Penguin, 2019. Count Rostov has been sentenced to house arrest in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol for life during Stalin’s regime and must find purpose for life within its confines. Review

Misreading Scripture with Individualist EyesE. Randolph Richards and Richard James. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. Shows how we may misread scripture if we do not reckon with the collectivist context in which it is written, and in which many cultures still live. Review

World of WondersAimee Nezhukumatathil. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2020. A combination of memoir and nature writing describing the variety of living creatures encountered by the author in the different places where she lived and her own lived experience in these places. Review

The City is My MonasteryRichard Carter. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2020. A monk moves to the heart of London and forms a community sharing a rule of life and offers a reflective account organized around that rule. Review

A Survey of the History of Global Christianity, Second EditionMark Nickens. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2020. A study of Christianity from its beginnings to the present, tracing its global diffusion, and the resulting diversity within the big “tent” of Christianity. Review

The Burning Land (Saxon Chronicles #5), Bernard Cornwell. New York: Harper Collins, 2010. Uhtred, Alfred’s warrior is torn between his oaths to Alfred and his daughter, his longing to recover his stolen home of Bebbanburg, his Viking friend Ragnar, and the threat of a dangerous woman, a knife edge on which the fate of Alfred’s kingdom balances. Review

The Way of Julian Norwich: A Prayer Journey Through LentSheila Upjohn. London: SPCK, 2020. Six meditations on the writings of Julian of Norwich that redirect our focus from sin and judgement to the greatness of God’s love revealed in Christ’s incarnation and death. Review

Best Book of the Month. So many candidates for this one. It came down to A Gentleman in Moscow and The Four Winds. I’ll go with Kristin Hannah. The story covers similar ground to The Grapes of Wrath. I thought Elsa Martinelli holds her own against Tom Joad and Hannah captures the desperate conditions of the dust bowl and California migrations as profoundly as Steinbeck–apologies if that is a heresy to someone! Warning, though. Not an easy read.

Quote of the Month. I found The Way of Julian delightful for the chance to discover the vision of the love of God that captivated Julian’s life. This short quote on prayer turns prayer from duty to joy:

“Our prayer makes God glad and happy. He wants it and waits for it so that, by his grace, he can make us as like him in condition as we are by creation. This is his blessed will. . . He is avid for our prayers continually.”

What I’m Reading. I just finished Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver, a compilation of her poetry throughout her writing career. How amazing the insights this woman captured within miles of her home. I’ve just began Alister McGrath’s new biography on the life and thought of J.I. Packer. Resurrecting Justice offers a study on the theme of justice in Romans. Both Breaking Bread with the Dead by Alan Jacobs and Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon challenge the trend in academia to shun what were once the standard texts of western literature. Yes, they have their problems, but both authors think they have abiding worth as well. At the suggestion of a blogging friend who pointed out one of the deficits in my reading, I’ve picked up Dean Koontz Prodigal Son, the first in his Frankenstein trilogy. Definitely a page-turner. And to get ready for an interview with Michael Kibbe for my work, I’m reading From Research to Teaching, a guide to teaching effectiveness. And we haven’t even gotten to the others on my TBR pile. We’ll see how many of those I get to beyond the above in the next month. Until then, happy reading!

Go to “The Month in Reviews” on my blog to skim all my reviews going back to 2014 or use the “Search” box to see if I’ve reviewed something you are interested in.

The Month In Reviews: February 2021

We had a lot of snowy days and cold nights this February. Time to read a lot of great books. A couple of novels on their way to becoming dystopian fiction classics. Another Louise Penny Gamache novel. A book on the science of life. A couple books edited by the same team on Christian scholarship. A history of civil rights efforts in the north and one on the distinctive contribution of the Black church’s reading of the Bible. A biography of “muckraker” Ida Tarbell and a study of Abraham’s Lincoln’s anti-slavery interpretation and implementation of the Constitution. Books on politics, ecology, and exile and the Bible. Other good theology and biblical studies. A memoir by the creator of Rubik’s cube and a collection of the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel. Here are summaries and links to all the reviews. Visit the full review for anything that looks interesting!

Christ and the Kingdoms of MenDavid C. Innes, foreword by Carl R. Trueman. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2020. Explores the civic and political responsibilities of Christians and the proper purposes of government. Review

The Handmaid’s TaleMargaret Atwood. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1986. One woman’s account of life as a “handmaid” in the dystopian society of the Republic of Gilead, an authoritarian religious society organized around the urgent problem of declining birthrates. Review

The Brutal Telling (Chief Inspector Gamache #5), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2009. The body of an unknown man is found in the bistro of Gabri and Olivier, and Olivier is the chief suspect! Review

Cubed: The Puzzle of Us All, Ernö Rubik. New York: Flatiron Books, 2020. A memoir that explores both the role of puzzles in our life, and the creation and afterlife of the eponymous cube that bears the author’s name. Review

Voices and Views on Paul: Exploring Scholarly TrendsBen Witherington III and Jason A. Myers. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. A discussion and analysis of recent Pauline scholarship focusing on E.P. Sanders, James D.G. Dunn, N.T. Wright, John Barclay, Stephen Chester, and Louis Martyn. Review

Reading While BlackEsau McCaulley. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. A study of biblical interpretation in the traditional Black church that emphasizes the conversation between the biblical text and the Black experience and how this sustains hope in the face of despair. Review

Sinless Flesh: A Critique of Karl Barth’s Fallen ChristRafael Nogueira Bello. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020. Drawing upon the doctrines of inseparable operations, grace of union and habitual grace, and original sin, argues against the contention of Barth and Torrance that the Son of God assumed fallen human flesh in the Incarnation. Review

Life’s Edge: The Search for What It Means to Be AliveCarl Zimmer. New York: Dutton, (forthcoming) 3/9/2021. An exploration of how scientists attempt (and have failed) to define what life is and the quest to understand how life arose. Review

Public Intellectuals and the Common, Edited by Todd C. Ream, Jerry Pattengale, and Christopher J. Devers. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021. A collection of presentations defining, articulating the need for and practice of Christian public intellectual work that pursues the wider good. Review

Ecology and the BibleFrédéric Baudin. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2020. A study of the biblical material on ecology, and how it bears on our current crises. Review

Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the NorthThomas J. Sugrue. New York: Random House, 2009. A history of the fight for civil rights in the North from 1920 to roughly 2000, focusing on movements, leaders, issues, and their expression in northern cities. Review

Ida M. Tarbell: The Woman Who Challenged Big Business — And Won!Emily Arnold McCully. New York: Clarion Books, 2014. A biography for young adults highlighting Tarbell’s journalistic career including her series of articles and books taking on Standard Oil, her relationship with Sam McClure, her views on women’s suffrage, and her lifelong labor to support her family. Review

The State of the Evangelical MindEdited by Todd C. Ream, Jerry Pattengale, and Christopher J. Devers. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018. A collection of essays surveying the state of evangelical thought twenty five years after Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Review

The Road, Cormac McCarthy. New York: Vintage Books, 2007. A dystopian story of a father and son helping each other survive in a post-nuclear America, scavenging for food and avoiding murderous mobs. Review

Rebels and Exiles (Essential Studies in Biblical Theology), Matthew S. Harmon. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. A study of the theme of exile throughout the Bible, from the garden, to the warnings and reality of Israel’s exile, the return from exile accomplished by Christ, realized in part even while his people remain exiles awaiting the new creation. Review

Thunder in the Soul (Plough Spiritual Guides), Abraham Joshua Heschel. (Edited by Robert Erlwine). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2020. A collection of the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel concerning the life of knowing and being known by God. Review

The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery ConstitutionJames Oakes. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2021. A historical account of how Abraham Lincoln, although not a traditional abolitionist, strongly supported and implemented the antislavery portions of the Constitution to pursue the end of slavery. Review

Best Book of the Month. If you have never read any Abraham Joshua Heschel, pick up a copy of Thunder in the Soul, a collection of the thought of Heschel. I found myself stopping to think and ponder after almost every sentence. Here’s one taste, as he writes about God: “His is the call, ours the paraphrase; His is the creation, ours a reflection. He is not an object to be comprehended, a thesis to be endorsed, neither the sum of all that is (facts) nor a digest of all that ought to be (ideals). He is the ultimate subject.”

Best Quote of the Month. Beside the above, I liked this statement about the role of puzzles in our lives”

“Puzzles bring out important qualities in each of us: concentration, curiosity, a sense of play, the eagerness to discover a solution. These are the versame qualities that form the bedrock for all human creativity. Puzzles are not just entertainment or devices for killing time. For us, as for our ancestors, they help point the way to our creative potential. If you are curious, you will find the puzzles around you. If you are determined, you will solve them.”

What I’m Reading. I have a couple mysteries going right now–the next Louise Penny for me, Bury Your Dead and Georges Simenon’s Maigret and the Old People. John Carreyrou’s account of the rise and fall of Theranos and its young executive Elizabeth Holmes, Bad Blood, is a riveting account of the pursuit of money and power when ethics become optional. Redeeming Power by Diane Langberg is an eloquent and theologically grounded study of power and sexual abuse in the church. Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is a tour de force of intellectual history showing the development that has transformed our idea of the self, and its implications for our life in society and our understanding of sexuality. I also have Bill Gates new book on climate change and the latest Kristen Hannah book on my TBR pile. Later this month I will be interviewing Gordon T. Smith about his book, Institutional Intelligence, so I will be reading that as well. I look forward to our continuing conversation about good books!

Go to “The Month in Reviews” on my blog to skim all my reviews going back to 2014 or use the “Search” box to see if I’ve reviewed something you are interested in.

The Month in Reviews: January 2021

Can you believe we are a month into 2021? It has been a month that is the epitome of the old saying, “May you live in interesting times.” I feel like my readings certainly have fit the times, whether a commentary on wisdom, learning to think and write with the clarity of Shakespeare, or learning to seek God in prayer and grow in knowledge of the holy God and holiness of character and thought. Then sometimes, there have been those delightful diversions, whether a Ngaio Marsh mystery, a story about a rescue of stranded flyers of a Greenland glacier, the biography of a theologian from a hundred years ago whose work is just coming into English translation, or C.S. Lewis’s early narrative poem Dymer. Here are the books I was reading this month to navigate interesting times.

The Message of Wisdom(Bible Speaks Today). Daniel J. Estes. London: Inter-Varsity Press, 2020. A study of the theme of wisdom, primarily in the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament but also incorporating other passages in scripture including those in the New Testament focusing on the culmination of wisdom in Christ. Review

Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial ReconciliationJennifer Harvey. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2014. Argues that a reparations rather than reconciliation paradigm is what is necessary to heal the racial divides in the United States. Review

The Columbus Anthologyedited and with an Introduction by Amanda Page. Columbus: Trillium (an imprint of The Ohio State University Press) co-published with Rust Belt Publishing, 2020. An anthology of non-fiction prose and poetry by Columbus authors, mostly relating to Columbus. Review

Frozen in Time, Mitchell Zuckoff. New York: HarperCollins, 2014. An account of rescue efforts in 1942-43 and a retrieval effort in 2012 to recover several lost heroes, all occurring on the Greenland icecap. Review

Charitable WritingRichard Hughes Gibson and James Edward Beitler III, Foreword by Anne Ruggles Gere, Afterword by Alan Jacobs. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. Two writing professors explore how Christian faith ought shape both how one writes and how one teaches students to write, shaped by the virtues of humility, love, and hope. Review

Prayer RevolutionJohn Smed. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2020. A call to kingdom prayer movements based in houses of prayer through which Christ comes, the Holy Spirit advances, and renewal spreads in cities, nations, and globally. Review

Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved the MonarchyA. N. Wilson. New York: Harper Collins, 2019. A full length biography, Prince Consort of Queen Victoria, stressing his contributions to cultural and political life in Victorian England, published on the two hundredth anniversary of his birth. Review

How to Think Like ShakespeareScott Newstok. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020. A concise and engaging guide to the habits and practices of mind that enable clarity of thought, expression, and learning. Review

Bavinck: A Critical BiographyJames Eglinton. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020. A biography tracing the origins, significant life events and theological scholarship of Dutch neo-Calvinist theologian Herman Bavinck. Review

Death of a Peer (Surfeit of Lampreys), Ngaio Marsh. New York, Harper Collins: New York, 2009. A New Zealander’s visit to a happy-go-lucky English family is interrupted by the gruesome murder of Lord Charles’ brother in the elevator serving their flat, making the family prime suspects for Scotland Yard detective Roderick Alleyn. Review

Perspectives on Paul: Five ViewsEdited by Scot McKnight and B.J. Oropeza. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020. Presents five perspectives on the ministry and message of Paul: the Catholic, traditional Protestant, the “New Perspective” pioneered by E.P. Sanders, the Paul within Judaism perspective, and the Gift perspective. Review

Splendour in the DarkJerry Root, annotations of Dymer by David C. Downing. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. An annotated edition of C. S. Lewis’s Dymer and three presentations with responses given as part of the Hansen Lectureship series at Wheaton’s Marion E. Wade Center. Review

Finding the Dragon LadyMonique Brinson Demery. New York: Public Affair, 2013. A biography of Madame Nhu, part of the ruling family in Vietnam (1954-1963) based on the author’s personal interactions with Madame Nhu before her death, allowing her to obtain memoirs and a diary of her life. Review

Reading Scripture as the Church (New Explorations in Theology), Derek W. Taylor. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. Brings Dietrich Bonhoeffer into conversation with three theologians concerning how the church reads and interprets scripture. Review

HolinessJohn Webster. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2003. A theology of holiness, beginning with holiness in the theological enterprise and then thinking about the holiness of God, the church, and the individual. Review

Best book of the Month: I have to give the nod to James Eglinton’s illuminating biography, Bavinck. Herman Bavinck was a Dutch theologian of the late nineteenth, early twentieth century relatively little known outside of Reformed circles. With the translation of his theological works into English and his association with Abraham Kuyper, theologian and politician, interest is growing in Bavinck. Eglinton’s biography illuminates both the times and Bavinck’s efforts to navigate the tensions of doing theology that is both orthodox and engages modernity.

Best quote of the Month: Daniel J. Estes study on The Message of Wisdom is a gem. He offers this trenchant observation on truthtelling:

“Why is it so hard for us to be truthful? Truthfulness can fail for many reasons, but oftentimes it surrenders to fear. We fail to be truthful because we fear criticism, but then we end up looking like cowards when the truth eventually comes out. We fail to be truthful because we fear responsibility, but we end up trapped in a web of our deceptions. We fail to be truthful because we fear the personal cost of getting hurt, but we end up enslaved to the guilty conscience pricked by our dishonesty. We fail to be truthful because we fear upsetting others, but we end up missing the chance to provide constructive reproof that would actually help them” (pp. 121-122).

What I’m Reading. I’ve just finished Christ and the Kingdoms of Men on political theology. I found much that I believe is helpful, and one significant area to which I object. Watch for my review! I’ve almost finished Louise Penny’s The Brutal Telling, the fifth in her Gamache series. These just keep getting better! I finally broke down and am reading The Handmaid’s Tale. This is not a happy story, but raises profound questions about how women might fare under a religiously authoritarian regime, and what happens when we unjustly constrain human freedom. Reading While Black by Esau McCauley has received a good deal of notice. McCauley argues for the unique contribution that blacks offer the rest of the Christian community as they read scripture. Ben Witherington III was one of my seminary professors, so I try to read whatever he writes (unfortunately he writes so much I can’t keep up!). His Voices and Views on Paul is a great overview and critique of recent Pauline scholarship. Finally, Cubed: The Puzzle of Us All is a fascinating memoir by the eponymous creator of Rubik’s cube.

Reading can help us both make sense of our times and how we might live in them, and take a break from thinking about them when we need to. I hope you find some time for some of each!

Go to “The Month in Reviews” on my blog to skim all my reviews going back to 2014 or use the “Search” box to see if I’ve reviewed something you are interested in.

The Month in Reviews: December 2020

I began and ended December reading Louise Penny mysteries (#3 and 4 in the Chief Inspector Gamache series) and these were great books to frame the last month of 2020. In between, there were 16 others (I was on vacation for part of the month and with shelter-at-home, this was a great opportunity for some extra reading. A few that stood out included the first volume on Barack Obama’s memoirs, which I chose as my book of the year. Another was the sixth edition of the late James W. Sire’s The Universe Next Door which has framed my years in collegiate ministry. A couple other notables for me were both written by Butlers. Dawn is an Octavia Butler sci-fi classic, the first in a trilogy. White Evangelical Racism by Anthea Butler makes a concise but persuasive overall case for the complicity of white evangelicalism in America’s racist history–hard to read as a white evangelical! I finally finished Jonathan Levy’s massive Ages of American Capitalism, which for its length is a highly interesting survey of America’s economic history.

The Cruelest Month (Chief Inspector Gamache #3), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2007. Gamache returns to Three Pines to solve a murder during a seance at the old Hadley House while forces within the Surete’ (and on his team) plot his downfall to avenge the Arnot case. Review

Original Sin and the Fall (Spectrum Multiview Books), edited by J. B. Stump and Chad Meister. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. An overview of five different views of original sin and the fall, with responses by each contributor to the other views. Review

March: Book Three, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2016. The culmination of this three part work, focused on the movement to obtain voting rights in Alabama and Mississippi, the March on Birmingham, and the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Review

The Liturgy of PoliticsKaitlyn Schiess (Foreword by Michael Wear). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. Drawing on the thought of James K. A. Smith, explores how the liturgies of our lives shape our political engagement and the gospel-shaped formative practices our Christian communities may embrace. Review

Wisdom From Babylon: Leadership for the Church in a Secular Age, Gordon T. Smith. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. Considers what it means to live in a secular age, different ways of responding as churches, what may learned from sources ancient and modern, and the competencies of church leadership we need. Review

Sustaining Grace: Innovative Ecosystems for New Faith Communitiesedited by Scott J. Hagley, Karen Rohrer, Michael Gehrling. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2020. A collection of articles arising from conversations among church planters, traditional church leaders, denominational leaders and academics connected, in most cases with the Presbyterian Church (USA), 1001 New Worshipping Communities, and Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Review

A Promised Land, Barack Obama. New York: Crown Publishing, 2020. The first volume of the presidential memoir of Barack Obama, tracing his early life, his entry into politics and rise, his first presidential campaign and first term up to the death of Osama Bin Laden. Review

Exodus Old and New (Essential Studies in Biblical Theology), L. Michael Morales. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. A study of the Exodus theme from its anticipation with Abraham, to the exodus from Egypt, the prophesied second exodus and the new exodus of Jesus the Messiah. Review

We Will Not Cancel Usadrienne maree brown (Afterword by Malkia Devich Cyril). Chico, CA: AK Press, 2020. A plea to those within the modern abolitionist movement to not use “cancelling” or “call outs” against one another. Review

Ages of American Capitalism: A History of the United StatesJonathan Levy. New York: Random House, (Forthcoming, April 20,) 2021. An economic history of the United States, dividing the history into ages of commerce, capital, control, and chaos. Review

A Bigger Table, Expanded Edition with Study Guide, John Pavlovitz (Foreword by Jacqueline L. Lewis). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020. Traces the author’s journey into a bigger vision of and practice of Christian community that is far more inclusive in welcoming people and chronicles the stories of a bigger table and the lives it has touched. Review

The Fantasy Literature of England, Colin Manlove. Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, 2020 (first published in 1999). A study focusing on and surveying the fantasy literature of England, distinguishing it from that of other countries, identifying six types, and discussing a tremendous variety of writers. Review

Dawn (Xenogenesis #1), Octavia Butler. New York: Popular Library (Warner Books), 1988 (publisher link is to a different, in print, edition). Lilith is chosen to lead a handful of humans preserved after a thermonuclear war by an alien race but faces difficult choices when she realizes the price she and her people must pay for their survival. Review

Stained Glass (Blackford Oakes #2), William F. Buckley, Jr. New York: MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Media, 2015 (first published in 1978). When a charismatic German who fought against the Nazis in the resistance in Norway campaigns to become Chancellor on a platform to reunite Germany, Soviets and Americans come together to block this, with Blackford Oakes at the center, restoring a family chapel of the candidate. Review

Angry WeatherFriederike Otto. Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2020. A description of the use of attribution science to assess the probability that anthropogenic-caused climate change is a factor in particular extreme weather events. Review

The Universe Next Door, Sixth Edition, James W. Sire (Foreword by Jim Hoover). Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. A new edition of this foundational work on comparative worldviews, exploring the contours of various worldviews, including a new chapter on Islam, through the use of eight questions. Review

White Evangelical RacismAnthea Butler. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, (Forthcoming, March) 2021. A short history of the evangelical movement in the United States, showing its ties to racism and white supremacy from the time of slavery down to the present. Review

A Rule Against Murder (Chief Inspector Gamache #4), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2008. The Gamache’s getaway to a peaceful lodge is interrupted, first by an unloving family reunion, and then by the death of one of the family, crushed under a statue. Meanwhile, the naming of a child forces Gamache to face his own family history. Review

Best of the Month: Since I gave the nod to A Promised Land for my book of the year, I decided on A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny. The Gamache series keeps getting better and the combination of intricate plot and the character development of Gamache as well as several other recurring characters makes for a satisfying read.

Best quote of the month: There were a number of candidates here but Anthea Butler’s concluding comments in her book White Evangelical Racism capture for me the challenge facing American evangelicalism:

“Evangelicalism is at a precipice. It is no longer a movement to which Americans look for a moral center. American evangelicalism lacks social, political, and spiritual effectiveness in the twentyfirst century. It has become a religion lodged within political partyIt is a religion that promotes issues important almost exclusively to white conservatives. Evangelicalism embraces racists and says that evangelicals’ interests, and only theirs, are the most important for all American citizens.”

What I’m Reading. I have two books ready for review. One is Dan Estes fine study titled The Message of Wisdom on the wisdom literature. The other is Dear White Christians and contends that we cannot speak about racial reconciliation without addressing the issue of reparation. I’ve just begun reading Charitable Writing in preparation for an interview with the authors. A much needed exploration of the connection between virtue and our writing. Prayer Revolution is a stirring call to prayer that fuels kingdom movements. The Columbus Anthology is a collection, similar to a literary review with contributions from various Columbus writers. Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved the Monarchy is on the life of the Prince Consort to Queen Victoria. Frozen in Time is about a real life mission to retrieve the remains and the aircraft of two Coast Guard aviators who crashed on the ice cap of Greenland after 70 years had passed.

Well, there’s the rundown. I wish you much good reading in 2021 with the hope that this time next year we will be looking at the pandemic in the rearview mirror. Stay safe and read on, friends!

Go to “The Month in Reviews” on my blog to skim all my reviews going back to 2014 or use the “Search” box to see if I’ve reviewed something you are interested in.

Bob on Books Best Books of 2020

This has been a weird year in the book world as the pandemic has affected our reading habits (for better or worse), bookselling, publishing schedules and authors’ efforts to promote their books. Yet books have been there to inspire, to comfort, and divert. Many of the books here were published in 2020, but a few were such outstanding reads from earlier years I needed to include them. One difference this year is the inclusion of Ohio authors, not only in their own category, but in a few others.

Best of the Year:

A Promised Land, Barack Obama. New York: Crown Publishing, 2020. I delayed this post to finish this book. Whether you agreed with his politics or not, the disciplined and flowing prose offers insight not only into the events of his rise and presidency but his thought processes, his conception of and respect for the office, his vision for the nation, as well as insights into his family life. Review

Best Memoirs:

Sex and the City of God, Carolyn Weber. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. I wrote about this book: “This skillfully written narrative, punctuated with poetry and Augustine, invites us into the the aching wonder of human love shaped by the growing pursuit of the City of God. We are left wondering if God has something better on offer, even when it comes to human sexuality.” Review

Answering the CallNathaniel R. Jones. New York: The New Press, 2016. Nathaniel R. Jones was a U.S. Court of Appeals judge and former general counsel of the NAACP. His memoir reflects a single vision to answer the call to use the law to fight for equal rights for Blacks. Jones was not only an Ohio author but from my home town of Youngstown. He died this year. Review

Best Biography:

His Truth is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of HopeJon Meacham (Afterword by John Lewis). New York: Random House, 2020. Meacham gives us an account not only of the events of the late Congressman John Lewis’s life but also the faith that sustained his efforts and the non-violent methods of his resistance. Review

Best History:

City on a Hill: A History of American ExceptionalismAbram C. Van Engen. New Haven: Yale University Press, Forthcoming, February 25, 2020. Van Engen traces the history of John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon that included the phrase “city on a hill” and how this became a metaphor for American exceptionalism. Review

To Think ChristianlyCharles E. Cotherman (Foreword by Kenneth G. Elzinga).  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. This is a well-researched and written account of the Christian study center movement beginning with Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri. I wrote: “It also reminds me of the great debt of gratitude I owe to the places and people Cotherman chronicles–from Francis Schaeffer and how he first helped me think Christianly, to Jim Houston and the influence he and Regent had on a close ministry colleague, to the vision of the doctrine and life that I acquired through Ligonier, and the vision of campus engagement Ken Elzinga and the Center for Christian Study has given so many of us.” Review

Best Graphic non-fiction:

Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio, Derf Backderf. New York: Abrams Comicarts, 2020. Backderf is an Ohio native and in this graphic novel, he traces the last days of the four students who died at Kent State on the fiftieth anniversary of the shootings. He captures the setting, the swirl of events and the tragic moments on May 4, 1970, as well as any I’ve seen. Review

Best Ohio Authors: (In addition to those elsewhere in this list)

Goshen RoadBonnie Proudfoot. Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press, 2020. Bonnie Proudfoot is a first time author from southeast Ohio whose lean yet descriptive prose narrates the lives of two sisters, their husbands and families making a go at life in rural Appalachia. Review

Barnstorming Ohio To Understand AmericaDavid Giffels. New York: Hachette Books, 2020. Akron native spent a year traveling around Ohio, which he describes as “an All-American buffet.” He proposes that Ohio is a political microcosm of the U.S. political landscape, with which I would agree. His rendering of Ohio is one I recognized as ringing true. Review

Best Books on Race:

The Cross and the Lynching TreeJames H. Cone. Maryknoll: Orbis, 2013. Black theologian James Cone’s reflection on the parallel between the cross and the lynching tree, the perplexing reality that this has been missed within the white community, and how an understanding of this connection and the meaning of the cross has offered hope for the long struggle of the African-American community. Probably one of the most powerful books I read in 2020. Review

Brown Church: Five Centuries of Latina/o Social Justice, Theology, and IdentityRobert Chao Romero. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. A study of the five hundred year of Latina/o Christianity and its resistance and response to colonialism, dictatorships, U.S. imperialism, and oppression toward farm workers and immigrants. The author refutes the idea that the Latina/o church was an instrument of oppression, but rather sustained the resistance to oppression of the Latina/o community. An interview I did back in June with the author was one of the highlights of this year. Review

Best Essays:

UpstreamMary Oliver. New York: Penguin, 2016. These are exquisitely written essays on both nature and literary figures by poet Mary Oliver. Oliver is another Ohio-born author, growing up in Maple Heights, Ohio, where we also lived for nine years. Review

Make A ListMarilyn McEntyre. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2018. McEntyre explores the human phenomenon of why we make and like lists, how we can turn lists into a life-giving practice, and a plethora of ideas for lists we might create. Review

Best Theology:

Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of CreationGavin Ortlund. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. Ortlund discusses how Augustine approached the Genesis accounts of beginnings and suggests his approach may be helpful in our present day origins controversies. Review

Best Books on Existential Issues:

Companions in the DarknessDiana Gruver (Foreword by Chuck DeGroat). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. Biographies of seven Christians in history who experienced depression and the hope we can embrace from how they lived through their struggle. The author skillfully interweaves her own experience with depression with those of whom she writes.

The Lost Art of DyingL. S. Dugdale. New York: Harper One, 2020. Dugdale is a physician on the front line of treating COVID patients. She challenges our over-medicalized treatment of the dying, advocating a recovery of the “art of dying,” which also makes it possible to live well. She draws on ancient texts known as the Ars Moriendi and recovers their wisdom at a time when it is greatly needed. Review

Best Fiction:

The Great AloneKristen Hannah. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018. A family moves to the wilderness of Alaska, hopefully for a new start for Ernt Allbright, a former POW in Vietnam, only to discover that in a beautiful and dangerous wilderness, the greatest danger may lay in their own cabin. Hannah evokes the terrible splendor of the Alaskan wilderness and the fine line between love and peril in this troubled family. Review

A Tree Grows in BrooklynBetty Smith. New York: Harper Perennial, 2018 (originally published in 1943). A coming of age story told through the eyes of Francie Nolan, about a girl’s life and ambitions in a struggling family in Brooklyn. I finally got around to reading a classic which was among the most popular books among soldiers in World War II. Smith draws us into a Brooklyn setting of the past to tell an ageless story. Review

I realize this is a bit different list than some years. More books that touch in some way on the experiences of people of color. It has been that kind of year. Books on serious questions like depression and death. I have less fiction than usual. I did read other fiction, more in the diverting rather than great category. The exception perhaps is that I began reading the Chief Inspector Gamache books by author Louise Penny. I’m only three books in but am taken with Gamache and the people of Three Pines and the deeply insightful writing of Penny on the human condition. I’ve begun reading some Octavia Butler and Georges Simenon. All have been quite good but somehow didn’t fit this list. At any rate I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my choices, and feel free to let me know your “best books” choices as well. So many good books!

The Month in Reviews: November 2020

This was a rich month of reading. I’ve been reading through a three-volume graphic autobiography of John Lewis, the civil rights leader and congressman. His resolution and commitment to non-violence and willingness to suffer make him a unique American hero. There was a lovely book of devotionals drawn from the lyrics of Michael Card. I dipped into the gritty noir crime fiction of Walter Mosley and explored the “gentle madness” of bibliomania. I read about the last months of World War II and a college leader’s presentations on his vision for higher ed. I met memorable fictional characters, Davis McGowan and Olive Kitteridge. Of course there was a rich mix of theological books and Rod Dreher’s cri de coeur to “live not by lies. Enjoy the list and click on “review” to read the full review of a book or the title to connect with the publisher’s page on the book.

Rhythms for LifeAlastair Sterne. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. An approach to spiritual practices and a rule of life tailored to the unique identity, gifts, calling, and roles of each person. Review

Live Not By LiesRod Dreher. New York: Sentinal, 2020. Drawing on interviews with Christians in the former Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, Dreher warns of a rise of a similar, though “soft” totalitarianism in the U.S., and outlines what Christians must do to live in the truth. Review

A Gentle MadnessNicholas A Basbanes. New York: Henry Holt, 1999. An entertaining journey through the history and contemporary world of book collecting, and the “bibliomanes” whose passion for books formed amazing collections. Review

Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout. New York: Random House, 2008. A collection of short stories set in a small coastal village in Maine, centering around an aging and abrasive middle school teacher, Olive Kitteridge. Review

Between History and SpiritCraig S. Keener. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020. A collection of the author’s journal articles on the book of Acts. Review

The Nazarene: Forty Devotions on the Lyrical Life of JesusMichael Card. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. The author helps us consider Jesus through lyrics from his songs and biblically informed reflections. Review

You Can Keep That To YourselfAdam Smyer. New York: Akashic Books, 2020. A humorous and pointed list of “things not to say” to Black friends or colleagues. Review

All I Did Was Shoot My Man (A Leonid McGill Mystery #4), Walter Mosley. New York, Riverhead Press, 2012. The release from prison of a woman framed in an insurance heist sets loose a string of murders, including an attempt on McGill’s life, even while he tries to find out who is behind the heist and the murders. Review

A Commentary on James, Aida Besancon Spencer. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2020. A scholarly and accessible exegetical commentary on the Epistle of James. Review

March: Book OneJohn Lewis, Andrew Aydin (co-author), Nate Powell (artist). Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2013. A graphic non-fiction biography of John Lewis. Book One focuses on his youth, the contact with Martin Luther King, Jr. that changed the course of his life, and his early efforts in the desegregation of lunch counters in Nashville. Review

Biblical Theology According to the Apostles (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Chris Bruno, Jared Compton, Kevin McFadden. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. A study of the summaries of Israel’s story in the New Testament and their culmination in the person of Christ. Review

Companions in the DarknessDiana Gruver (Foreword by Chuck DeGroat). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. Biographies of seven Christians in history who experienced depression and the hope we can embrace from how they lived through their struggle. Review

Six Months in 1945: From World War to Cold WarMichael Dobbs. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. An account of the six months from Yalta to Hiroshima and how the decisions and events of those months shaped the post-war world. Review

Spiritual Practices of JesusCatherine J. Wright. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. A study of three spiritual practices of Jesus found in Luke’s gospel considering them in the first century context of his readers and the writings of the earliest fathers of the church. Review

McGowan’s CallRob Smith. Huron, OH: Drinian Press, 2007. A collection of short stories and a novella tracing the ministry of a pastor from a small Ohio river town to a suburb of Dayton. Review

March: Book Two, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2015. The second part of this graphic non-fiction narrative of the Civil Rights movement from the experiences of further sit-ins and marches to the Freedom Rides, the children’s marches, and the March on Washington. Review

Dreaming Dreams of Christian Higher EducationDavid S. Guthrie (Foreword by Bradshaw Fry; Afterword by Eric Miller). Beaver Falls, PA: Falls City Press, 2020. A collection of presentations given over a twenty year period on realizing the dream of Christian higher education by a leader in Christian higher ed. Review

The Enneagram for Spiritual FormationA. J. Sherrill (Foreword by Chuck DeGroat). Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2020. Explores how the Enneagram may be used as a tool for self-understanding that may serve as a guide on one’s discipleship pathway. Review

Best of the Month. I have to give the nod to first-time author Diana Gruver for her Companions in the Darkness. The book combines thoughtful studies of seven Christians who experienced depression interwoven with her own experience written with a flowing grace that offers hope in a season when many are struggling.

Best Quote of the Month. The Spiritual Practices of Jesus explores the spirituality of Jesus in the gospel of Luke. This is a challenging statement on wealth:

Perhaps one reason for the emphasis on radical almsgiving is the lens through which early Christians look at wealth. In their opinion, we don’t really own our wealth. It is placed in our care by God so that we may bestow it to those who have less than we do. Therefore, when we spend our wealth on ourselves alone, we are essentially stealing from the poor (and thereby from God). The reverse is also true. When we give to the poor, we show ourselves to be good stewards of the resources God has trusted us with, and we are, in essence, giving to God. This attitude could not be further from the attitude that many Christians in America have today (p. 63).

What I’m Reading. Next up for review is Louise Penny’s The Cruelest Month, the third of her Gamache series. Gamache investigates a death at a seance while colleagues in the Surete’ plot his downfall. Original Sin and the Fall explores five theological views of the doctrine of original sin. I’ve been plodding my way through a lengthy economic history of America, Ages of American Capitalism. I’ve nearly finished the third and final volume of March, a graphic autobiography on the life of John Lewis, culminating in the first inaugural of Barack Obama. And that leads me to A Promised Land, the first volume in the presidential memoir of Barack Obama. It is not only well-written but striking for the humility that readily admits mistakes, blunders and his own struggles to balance political ambition and love of his family. I’ve just begun Gordon T. Smith’s Wisdom from Babylon: Leadership for the Church in a Secular Age. Smith draws on sources throughout global church history for insight of how leaders might lead in this secular age. The Liturgy of Politics by Kaitlyn Schiess looks at the habits and behaviors that shape the churches politics, and how we might choose different liturgies to shape a better political engagement.

The first snow of the season is in the air as I write during our county’s “stay at home” advisory. I think I’ll do just that with a cup of tea and a good book with some Christmas music in the background.

Go to “The Month in Reviews” on my blog to skim all my reviews going back to 2014 or use the “Search” box to see if I’ve reviewed something you are interested in.

The Month in Reviews: October 2020

With the cooler weather, I think I’m catching up on the books I didn’t read early in the pandemic. In this month’s reads, there are a couple books about relationships and marriage, a senator’s conversion to activism against gun violence, an exciting rescue, Marilynne Robinson’s latest, some good theology, a profound book on suffering, and a wonderful book about political and civic engagement that renewed my hope.

Sex and the City of God, Carolyn Weber. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. A story of how the decision to choose “the city of God” transformed love, sexuality, and relationships for the author. Review

The Violence Inside Us, Chris Murphy. New York: Random House, 2020. A Connecticut Senator describes his own awakening to the scourge of gun violence after Newtown, and explores the causes and remedies for this uniquely American problem. Review

Sarah’s Laughter, Vinoth Ramachandra. Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Langham Global Library, 2020. An exploration of suffering, whether through illness or physical decline, human or natural evil, and the embrace of grief, lament, doubt, questioning and more, and what it means to hope amid our struggle. Review

The Lost Get-Back BoogieJames Lee Burke. New York: Pocket Star, 2006 (first published 1986). On release from prison, Iry Paret leaves Louisiana for Montana for a new start with his prisonmate, Buddy Riordan, only to find he has landed in the midst of new troubles. Review

God in Himself: Scripture, Metaphysics, and the Task of Christian TheologySteven J. Duby. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. A study of what may be known of God in God’s self rather than in God’s external relations to the world and the role that scripture, metaphysics, natural and supernatural theology, and the use of analogy all play in forming this understanding. Review

Compassion (&) ConvictionJustin Giboney, Michael Wear, and Chris Butler, Foreword by Barbara Williams-Skinner. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. A handbook for better political and civic engagement, overcoming the highly polarized character of our current discourse and the unhealthy assimilation of the church into politics. Review

All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer TeamChristina Soontornvat. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2020. An account of the rescue of the Wild Boars boys soccer team describing the engineering and diving efforts, and how the boys endured this experience. Review

Good ManNathan Clarkson. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2020. Goes beyond the stereotypes of what a “real man” is to explore the character of a good man and the journey of discovery this involves. Review

Friends DividedGordon S. Wood. New York: Penguin Books, 2018. An account of the sometimes troubled and unlikely friendship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Review

JackMarilynne Robinson. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2020. The story of an inter-racial love affair between Jack Ames Boughton and Della Miles, and Jack’s struggle to find grace. Review

Blessed Are The NonesStina Kielsmeier-Cook. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. A memoir of a Christian woman coming to terms, with the help of some Catholic nuns, with her husband’s de-conversion. Review

Tales of the Jazz Age, F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York, Open Road Media, 2016 (first published in 1922). A collection of eleven short stories, the most famous of which is “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Review

Leading Lives That Matter (Second Edition), Edited by Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2020. An anthology on what the well-lived life looks like exploring four important vocabularies and six vital questions through a range of religious and secular readings. Review

Love, Zac: Small-Town Football and the Life and Death of an American Boy, Reid Forgrave. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2020. The account of Zac Easter, who grew up in the football culture of small town Iowa and his family, played hard, until he began to experience the consequences of repeated concussions, when his life began to unravel. Review

Best Book of the Month: Compassion (&) Conviction is a timely primer on practical and effective political and civic engagement built on a biblical framework that moves beyond the binaries that have so deeply divided us. It was so refreshing to read a book taking both a strong pro-life stance and a strong social justice stance.

Best Quote of the Month: Carolyn Weber is a gifted writer whose work I’ve previously enjoyed, but I thought she soared to new heights in Sex and the City of God, a book on singleness, courtship, and marriage as a young Christian. This quote is one of many I could have pulled:

Sex as the template for genealogy is important because sexuality is a reflection of God’s relationship with us. Our relationship to sex speaks of our relationship to God. And because our relationship to God must precede our relationship with everything else, including our own selves, working from this first relationship changes everything. As a result, more often than not in a culture that neglects our dignity as spiritual beings, pursuing this foundational relationship can feel countercultural, though it is God’s norm, for in becoming children of God we become who he intended us to be (p. 63).

What I’m Reading: I have three books ready for review this coming week. Rhythms for Life helps connect spiritual practices to the kind of person you are. Live Not By Lies is Rod Dreher’s sequel to The Benedict Option. Having studied the Communist governments of eastern Europe and talked to Christians who bore faithful witness under totalitarian regimes, he offers a warning of the coming of a soft totalitarianism, and what Christians must be prepared for. Nicholas A Basbanes A Gentle Madness was written in the 1990’s and tells the stories of those obsessed with book collecting, a very different group, I found, from those who love reading.

I’m in the middle of several other books right now. All I Did Was Shoot My Man is my first dip into the crime fiction of Walter Mosley, the dean of Black crime fiction writers. Olive Kittredge is an older work, a collection of stories set in a coastal New England town around the formidable title character. Craig S. Keener’s Between History and Spirit collects a number of journal articles by Keener on the book of Acts. on which Keener wrote a four volume exegetical commentary. Finally, Aida Besancon Spencer’s Commentary on James is just that–a careful exegetical commentary that draws out James on faith and works, money and speech.

Writing from the United States, it appears with the spike in COVID-19 cases that I will be sheltering in place for a good while yet. I’m fortunate to be able to work from home, collaborating with colleagues and connecting with friends via video technology. I’m also quite grateful for the literary companions with whom I have the chance to keep company. I hope this time affords you that opportunity as well. Stay safe, my bookish friends!

Go to “The Month in Reviews” on my blog to skim all my reviews going back to 2014 or use the “Search” box to see if I’ve reviewed something you are interested in.