Monday, January 05, 2015

Best Books of 2014 (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 four categories:  History and Biography, Bible and Theology; and Church and Spirituality. and Religion and Public Life.


JOHN WESLEY IN AMERICA: Restoring Primitive ChristianityBy Geordan Hammond.  Oxford, UK:  Oxford University Press, 2014.  Xv + 237 pages.

As I looked over the books published in 2014, which I read, there were a number of standouts.  I had a difficult time choosing, but decided in the end that Geordan Hammond's study of John Wesley's time in America deserved special attention.  I am not a Wesley scholar (I am a student of 18th century English church history however), but I believe that Geordan's examination of Wesley's desire to implement what he believed was primitive Christianity (as filtered through high church Anglican and Nonjuror thought and practice) is groundbreaking and could change our understanding of Wesley and his mission in important ways.  It is scholarly but accessible.  My review can be found 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 Biography

  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been the subject of numerous biographies and studies.  Some are insightful and some are not.  This biography covers similar ground as other biographies, but in ways that previous writers have not done quite as well, Charles Marsh humanizes Bonhoeffer.  He can be petulant, self-absorbed, and possibly unsure of his sexual identity.  Though some have suggested that Marsh portrays Bonhoeffer as being gay, Marsh is careful to note that whatever his sexual orientation/identity he remained celibate till his death.  An excellent read.  My Review is found here.  
  • JESUS: A Pilgrimage. By James Martin, S.J.  San Francisco:  Harper One, 2014.  510 pages.
  • Where to put James Martin's study of Jesus?  It is part biography, part travelogue, part biblical study.  Whatever the nature of the book, James Martin, SJ, chaplain to Stephen Colbert, brings wonderful insight to the life and teachings of Jesus by taking us on a pilgrimage to the sites where these events are alleged to have taken place.  In doing so, we find ourselves engrossed in history, social realities, and more.  A wonderful book by a most engaging author.  My review is found here.  
  • THE AMERICAN CHURCH THAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN: A History of the Consultation on Church Union By Keith Watkins with Foreword by Michael Kinnamon. Eugene, OR:  Pickwick Publications, 2014.  Xviii + 244 pages.
  • Living as we do in an age when the value of institutional religion is being questioned, the formal ecumenical movement has lost much of its steam.  But once, not so long ago, there was a dream to create a powerful unified mainline Protestant church that would stand tall with the Roman Catholic Church.  Much work was done in resolving long standing issues of ministry, theology, membership, and sacraments.  In the end, the churches couldn't make the jump, but the work done has made significant contributions to Protestant Christianity.  Keith Watkins, a participant in the work of the Consultation on Church Union has written an important study of COCU and its impact.  It is well worth reading.  My review is found here.  

        Bible and Theology

  • Richard Lischer is a teacher of preachers, and he approaches the parables of Jesus from that perspective, bringing them alive, and inviting us to move beyond historical-critical analysis to creative and imaginative engagement with these important stories from Jesus.  My review is found here.     
  • Deanna Thompson's recent contribution to Westminster John Knox Press's Belief  series of theological commentaries is insightful, theologically rich, and a joy to read.  Rarely do Christian preachers or bible students turn to Deuteronomy, but in Thompson's hands the text comes alive.  She deals with matters of covenant, which are so important to the Christian faith and the question of divine wrath, which tends to be off-putting for contemporary Christians.  All in all, this is a commentary to add to one's library so as it can be turned to with regularity.  My review is found here.

        Church and Spirituality

  • CHANGING OUR MIND:  A Call from America’s Leading Evangelical Ethics Scholar for Full Acceptance of LGBT Christians in the Church.  By David P. Gushee. Canton, MI:  Read the Spirit Books, 2014.  Xxiii + 131 pages.
  • I named David Gushee's The Sacredness of Human Life as my Best Book for 2013.  He makes a return trip to this list with a smaller, but equally powerful volume that addresses the question of his stance toward the LGBT community.  An evangelical social ethicist, Gushee has concluded that he and the  church have been wrong about this community, and has come out as an ally and advocate.  There were several books that came out this year, including books by Mark Achtemeier and Ken Wilson that give voice to a change of heart and mind.  All three are excellent, but of the three I have to say that David's is the most powerful statement.  Read all three, but start with this volume.  My review is found here.

  • In an increasingly fast-paced world, Chris Smith and John Pattison take a clue from the slow food movement and urge us to slow down, so that we might engage in conversation with God and with each other.  It is a call for the church to be a community where lives are transformed and empowered for ministry in the world.  It is counter-intuitive but could revolutionize the church.  This is a must read.  My review is found here.  

  • We have been living in an era of the mega-church, which like modern malls are destination churches.  Usually built near a freeway, one can come and go quickly, without engaging the neighborhood.  In this book, which pairs nicely with Slow Church above, the authors of this book call us to focus more tightly on the neighborhoods in which the church exists.  They take the older vision of the church as parish, where the concern of the congregation was not simply for its members, but for the entire neighborhood.  It is an insightful and challenging book that deserves our attention.  My review is found here.  

         Religion and Public Life
  • Many Americans live with the illusion that we live in a post-racial society -- after all, we elected an African American President -- but the events of recent years belie that idea. While many think they are "color blind," facts on the ground suggest a different reality. One of the leading voices today regarding issues of justice and racial reconciliation has been William Barber, a Disciples Pastor and President of the North Carolina NAACP.  This book brings together speeches and presentations made in a number of engagements, including several from the Moral Monday efforts, which he helped found.  His vision is rooted in faith, much like the earlier Civil Rights efforts, and is broad in scope.  The book is a must read for all who care about our country and its future.  My review can be found here.  
  • As one engaged in faith-based community organizing I am always on the lookout for books and resources that help define this work in ways that keep the work spiritually/theologically grounded. There were several books that appeared this year, including Roger Gench's Theology from the Trencheswhich I found to be extremely insightful and helpful.  I have chosen to highlight this book by Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heltzel, because it expands the vision beyond traditional organizing  premises to focus on the need for solidarity, a vision that can be of great help for congregations and activists who live in more comfortable circumstances. By the way, I would encourage the reading of both this book and that by Gench, for they are complementary. My review is found here.   


brian christopher coulter said...

I do enjoy a good #hashtag - thanks for the review and the read! Blessings to you, Robert.

Steve Kindle said...

Bob, I want to thank you again for your extremely helpful blog, and especially your frequent book reviews. You are providing your readers with sound analysis and important choices for our reading time. I may not always agree with you, but I always appreciate you and your good work. Best wishes for a productive 2015.

Deanna Thompson said...

So honored to have my book included in this illustrious list. Thanks for your insightful reviews and prompts to encourage worthwhile reading--I plan to check out "Forward Together"--sounds like just the kind of work we need for this time and place.

Robert Cornwall said...

Deanna, thank you for writing such a thoughtful commentary. Yes, I think you will find Forward Together a valuable read!