Best Books of 2013 (and Book of the Year)
Every year I seek to honor those books, which were published during the past year that I've read and think are worthy of special attention. Besides a Book of the Year, I want to recognize a number of other books that merit this attention, books that have affected and influenced my life. Of course, I can only honor those books I've read, and so my list may look different from other lists (and there are books I've read this year that were published earlier, that I have found very compelling as well). But these are the ones that standout to me, books that I would recommend for your reading. After the book of the year, the rest of the best are found listed and described under three categories: History and Literature, Bible and Theology; and Church and Spirituality.
BOOK OF THE YEAR
THE SACREDNESS OF HUMAN LIFE: Why an Ancient Biblical Vision Is Key to the World's Future. By David P. Gushee. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013. Xvi + 461 pp
Is human life sacred? There is significant evidence that many among us would answer no -- if not in words, at least in actions. When I read David Gushee's masterful book early in the year I knew that its message was must be considered carefully and prayerfully. When one sees a book like this, especially when the author is an evangelical, one might think it is simply about abortion. While Gushee opposes abortion, that is not the focus of the book. It is life itself, including our relationship as human beings with the rest of creation, that is sacred. It is sacred, and not just having sanctity, because God has consecrated human life as sacred. I read a lot of books this year, and many of them were excellent, but none moved me quite like this one. I am pleased to name The Sacredness of Human Life as my Book of the Year for 2013. You can find my review here.
The remaining books, all of which I found to stand out among the many excellent books I read, and they are listed by category and are not in any specific order (other than my random choice).
History and Literature
- THE STONE-CAMPBELL MOVEMENT: A Global History. D. Newell Williams, Douglas A. Foster, Paul Blowers, General Editors. Scott D. Seay, Managing Editor. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2013. X + 476 pages.
- The designation Stone-Campbell Movement has come to denote that American born religious community that sought to restore New Testament Christianity even as it sought to bring unity to a fractured Protestant Christian Community in the United States. What makes this book special is that it is composed by historians from across the three branches, who worked as a team to produce a marvelously fair historical account of the movement that I call home. The review can be found here.
- THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY AND THE RISE OF THE PROTESTANT MAINLINE. By Elesha J. Coffman. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. X + 271.
- The Christian Century magazine began life as the voice of Disciples of Christ liberals, but in time it became a leading voice of the Protestant Mainline. It continues to be a voice from this same constituency. As Elesha Coffman demonstrates here, the Christian Century sought to influence the Protestant Mainline by influencing its elite -- especially its educated clergy. But it not only influenced, it helped create that mainline. Coffman does a nice job bringing out the story, especially as it relates to founding editor Charles Clayton Morrison. The review can be found here.
- KARL BARTH'S EMERGENCY HOMILETIC, 1932-1933: A Summons to Prophetic Witness at the Dawn of the Third Reich. By Angela Dienhart Hancock. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, Co., 2013. Xvi +356 pages.
- In 1932 and 1933, Karl Barth foreseeing the danger posed by Hitler's rise to church and nation chose to take up the teaching of preaching to prepare students for the impending challenges -- even though there was already a teacher of homiletics at Bonn. In this book Angela Dienhart Hancock takes us semester by semester through this course of study, demonstrating that Barth was far from silent or passive in the face of Hitler's challenges. My review can be found here.
- THE "BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER": A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books). By Alan Jacobs. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013. Xii + 236 pages.
- The Book of Common Prayer emerged from the English Reformation. Created by Thomas Cranmer and then remade and revised down through the centuries, it has proven to be influential on the worship and spiritual life not only of the descendants of the English Reformation, but also upon the English language itself. Alan Jacobs does a masterful job in telling the story (the biography) of this book from its origins with Cranmer to the present day. My review can be found here.
Bible and Theology
- WHAT CHRISTIANITY IS NOT: An Exercise in Negative Theology. By Douglas John Hall. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013. 1994 pages.
- In what he promises is his last book, theologian Douglas John Hall writes to the contemporary church a word about the future of the Christian faith. He suggests that in an age where no creedal consensus is possible, it might be best if we pursue the question of the nature of Christian faith by asking what it is not. When we get to the core, the essence of the faith is rooted in Christ and the cross. It is a worthy capstone for a tremendous career, but it is also a word we need to heed. My review was published in the Christian Century.
- PARENTAL GUIDANCE ADVISED: Adult Preaching from the Old Testament. Edited by Alyce M. McKenzie and Charles L. Aaron Jr. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2013. Xi +147 pages.
- This collection of essays is written to honor a professor of preaching (John Holbert), and it focuses on the preaching of the Old Testament. The provocative title serves to remind preachers that when appropriating texts from the Hebrew Bible, one must be ready for anything -- from sex to violence and a lot more. I have placed it under the Bible and Theology category even though it focuses on preaching because it is so tied into the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. It is a very intriguing book and worthy of this listing. My review can be found here.
- JOHN, JESUS, AND THE RENEWAL OF ISRAEL. By Richard Horsley and Tom Thatcher. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013. 201 pages.
- When we try to reconstruct the historical Jesus, we rarely turn to the Gospel of John. The portrayal of Jesus's life in John is so different from that of the synoptic gospels that scholars have followed Clement of Alexandria and rendered it simply a spiritual gospel. Horsley and Thatcher, however, are not content with that designation and offer a provocative proposal suggesting that John offers a compelling vision of Jesus the Galilean prophet/messiah seeking to renew or restore Israel in opposition to the Temple State, which is a tool of Rome. My review can be found here.
Church and Spirituality
Religion and Public Life
- READING FOR PREACHING: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists. By Cornelius Plantinga. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013. 136 pages.
- Preacher and professor Cornelius Plantinga invites and challenges preachers to engage in a broad general reading program. It's not just that one will have a broader range of illustrations for sermons, but in the process of engaging a wide range of literature one will be formed into a person of wisdom. For a person like me whose reading habits can get rather narrow, this proved incredibly helpful. My review will appear later in the Christian Century.
- THE SPIRITUAL PRACTICE OF REMEMBERING. By Margaret Bendroth. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013. Ix + 132 pages.
- Every person and every faith community has a past, but what can be gained spiritually from remembering the past? That is the question explored in this wonderful book by historian Margaret Bendroth. It is not merely that if we forget the past we're doomed to repeat it -- it is instead that if we forget the past we cease to be human. Much wisdom is found in this book. My review can be found here.
- IMMORTAL DIAMOND: The Search for Our True Self. By Richard Rohr. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2013. Xxv + 255 pages.
- One of the most revered spiritual writers of our time, Richard Rohr continues to provide works of great wisdom. In this latest book, Rohr provides us with a pathway toward discovering our true self. The pathway to this realization requires us to let go of certainty, so that we might live out of that core (immortal diamond), which is love. My review can be found here.
- THE GOOD FUNERAL: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care. By Thomas G. Long and Thomas Lynch. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013. Xxv + 252 pages.
- Can there be a good funeral? According to the authors of this book there can be and should be. The question is -- how do we get there. Written for pastors and funeral directors this book offers great wisdom -- even if one doesn't agree on every matter. Must reading for every pastor. My review is found here.
- WORSHIP FOR THE WHOLE PEOPLE OF GOD: Vital Worship for the 21st Century. By Ruth C. Duck. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013. Xxii + 334 pages.
- Worship is the center of the Christian faith. But how might we go about this in a way that is gracious and responsive and that is transformative of us as communities and as persons? Ruth Duck has written not just a textbook for seminarians, but a fountain of wisdom for the church as a whole. My review is found here.
Religion and Public Life
- DOES JESUS REALLY LOVE ME?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America. By Jeff Chu. New York: Harper Collins Books, 2013. 353 pages.
- The trend in America is set -- the acceptance of homosexuality as a natural part of the human ecology and the rightness of gay marriage is on the rise. While many in our churches continue to resist this change, even here there are signs of change. One of the reasons is that as the closets empty, people are discovering that their relatives, friends, and neighbors -- persons they love -- happen to be gay. Relationships are key to the change. In this book by Jeff Chu, who happens to be both gay and Christian, travels the country asking whether Jesus truly loves him. Together with Justin Lee's book, Torn, we have the kind of testimony that can help turn the tide. My review is found here.