A summer feast of books
Byron Borger is a small-town bookseller with a mail-order business, especially for students and those involved with campus life. Borger's picks are more accessible "starters" for those who, as he puts it, "haven't quite learned to swim in the deeper waters of academia and the formation of the Christian mindset." Help yourself to a new approach this summer!
I'll bet you've been to some restaurants where you get to pick an item from category one, another from category two, and so forth. If you're lucky, you get to pick a selection from category three—and then a choice of desserts. If you're spending time in good conversation and the setting is right, you splurge on a long cappuccino or two.
Here, in similar fashion, is a menu of tasty goods: books by category. May I suggest (he says in his most waiterly voice) that you take advantage of the full course meal? It may take a while, but it will be well worth it, especially if you are in the company of friends. Please, eat up this summer!
Here's the plan: pick one from each of the three categories for each of your summer months. And meanwhile, keep the beverages flowing—fill and re-fill from category four, sipped throughout, alongside the others. Please know that we do encourage mix-and-matching for your own palate. Substitutions are no problem, but the point of this plan is—well, I don't have to lecture you about a well-balanced diet, do I?
For our first course, we have a few hand-selected choices for basic Christian growth. The core convictions of Comment are rooted in the Christian faith, and deepening one's discipleship—knowing the basics and growing in faith—is a perpetual necessity. Call us back at the kitchen (firstname.lastname@example.org) if these don't appeal to you, as there are so, so many in this wonderful first category and we have a well-stocked pantry. Here are some good ones for appetizers:
Don't Waste Your Life, by John Piper (Crossway). Piper is passionate and radical in his call to find our gladness in Christ alone; we live for God's glory in all we do and find purpose in living a Christ-exalting life. I dare you to read his chapter "Making Much of Christ in the 8 to 5" and not have it affect your work at your summer job.
Velvet Elvis, by Rob Bell (Zondervan). This interesting set of reflections tastes considerably different from Piper's Calvinist piety and missionary zeal. Bell is a bit postmodern, artsy, whimsical and a great storyteller. His doctrinal foundations are a bit less overt, yet he invites us to playfully enter a way of life that is vibrant and authentic in following Jesus. His insistence that we keep thinking, experimenting and living into the hopes of the Kingdom makes this a zesty appetizer.
Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, by N.T. Wright (HarperSanFrancisco). Wright is one of the most important New Testament scholars alive. Here he offers his twenty-first century version of Mere Christianity. Similar to C.S. Lewis, he shows that certain human longings are signals of transcendence, and our heart's cry for meaning, justice and intimacy are indications that something is wrong. Could the Biblical story—creation-fall-redemption—offer hope? If the Christ-centered Biblical drama is the basis for the fulfillment of our deepest hopes, what might that look like? Clear, thoughtful and wonderful for seekers or followers of Christ.
Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places, by Eugene Peterson (Eerdmans). This is the first in a magisterial series of spiritual theology. It is hardly an appetizer, but a robust and lasting meal in itself. We list it here as it is so foundational, so basic, so important. Peterson walks us through key aspects of Christian living, guided by his literately-rich explication of the gospel's impact for daily living. It is spectacular and lasting. Those not used to meaty reading like this should instead perhaps start with Peterson's set of reflections on the Psalms, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society.
For our next course we proudly recommend the chef's recent choices that will help you understand your world, enjoy an awareness of the flow of ideas and make you more tender to the hurts and brokenness of our times. Call it cultural criticism or current affairs or Christian reflections on public life. These sorts of books are essential for faithful Christian discernment about our place in history, and should be part of our regular diet. We do live out our faith in the real world, after all, so history, culture, and politics matter, an insight that is still too rare among church folks, but part of the special vision of Comment. Eat up!
Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade—And How to Fight It, by David Batstone (HarperSanFrancisco). In recent years—perhaps starting with the extraordinary work of Gary Haugen's International Justice Mission and his book The Good News About Injustice—there has been an outcry over human rights concerns, and an awareness of the rise in our lifetime of slavery, child labour abuses and the evils of sexual trafficking. This book is the best study of the current horror, but full of hope and ideas for making a difference. Batstone knows corporate culture well (he has written widely on business ethics) and has traveled on every continent; here he is our strongest ally in entering this urgent battle.
It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God, edited by Ned Bustard (Square Halo Press). This newly re-edited volume is perhaps the best collection available about various aspects of a Christian engagement with the arts. It has many chapters, lots of art reproductions, stories, ideas, celebration and challenge. These chapters are so vibrant and full of an implicit Christian worldview that it should be widely known in our circles. What a sumptuous feast this one book is. Taste and see that God and God's world are so good.
Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight, by Norman Wirzba (Brazos). This is a stunning book, part of a very thoughtful, serious series called "Christian Practice of Everyday Life" (all of which are well worth chewing upon). This one, though, is the best, a thoroughly Biblical call to Sabbath rest, attentive to the realities of creation. Moving beyond "taking a day off," this invites us to live into a lifestyle of restfulness, to break with modernity's frantic pace, to think through responsible stewardship as it applies to how we relate to food, education, entertainment and such. Life changing!
Hope in Troubled Times: A New Vision for Confronting Global Crises, by Bob Goudzwaard, Mark Vander Vennen, David Van Heemst (Baker). This new book is a labour of love from a former member of the Dutch parliament, a Canadian social activist and family counselor, and a U.S. political theory professor. What a combination of insights, passions, concerns and dreams for our world! A significantly re-worked version of an older classic, Idols of Our Times, this book reflects on the relationship between various social problems—poverty, the environment, terrorism—and offers Biblical hope as a viable basis for social initiatives. With a fabulous foreword by Desmond Tutu, this may be one of the most important books of the decade. Whether you are confused or anxious, apathetic or uninvolved, read this book. If you know anybody who cares about solving serious social problems, give them this book.
Whether or not you are a student, you may enjoy books about learning, and you should be reminded that all are called upon by God to "think Christianly." If you are a college student, this is an especially urgent aspect of your calling and vocation. Not every church or fellowship group knows how to invite students (let alone assist them) in relating faith and scholarship, so our chef is ecstatic to offer some rare delicacies in this course. Good taste for the student palate and strong meat for the bones! Please help yourself to some scrumptious selections for the Christian college student.
The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness, by Derek Melleby & Donald Opitz (Brazos). These two great guys have cooked up the tastiest book of its kind! This is a fun and yet altogether serious call to be outrageous, to be full of wild hope even in your college learning. That is, to be so committed to Christ that you struggle to discern the joys and sacrifices, pleasures and perplexities that come when you take your discipleship into the classroom. The Bible speaks of "taking every thought captive" and the "renewal of your mind," and this book makes it relevant for young students. Have you pondered how to serve God, even in your schoolwork? This is the best entry point to this wonderful idea.
Engaging God's World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning and Living, by Cornelius Plantinga (Eerdmans). This beautifully-written volume invites us to think how the grand Biblical story affects ordinary college students. Insightful, profound and engaging, this is a must-read for any serious student.
The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior, by Steven Garber (IVP). The editor of Comment often says that this book truly changed his life; it is one of the most often-discussed books for collegiates—and anyone who cares about learning, relationships, culture and vocation must know of it. Deeply compassionate, wise and well-informed, it is a feast, a work well worth reading several times. Garber has mentored students, activists, artists and cultural leaders for a lifetime, and draws upon the three most important traits of those whose lives develop in sustained and integrated ways.
Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling, by James Sire (IVP). No Christian college student should miss out on the many good books by this helpful friend of students, this worldview scholar who so loves to think through the implications of Christian truth for spirituality, intellectual life, public engagement. Here he offers serious guidance for anyone wanting to mature in the life of the mind.
Ahhh, like we said: keep the water glass filled throughout this summer-long meal. Top off that coffee cup? Refill the sweet tea? You bet.
Novels, memoirs, short stories, poetry and funny books are excellent for summer reading, to be drunk even while chewing on information—rich books of important ideas. One should never have just one book going at a time, so at least keep sipping at some of these sorts.
Here are a few choice memoirs that our chef recommends, fresh and refreshing, even maybe a little frothy.
Cross X, by Joe Miller (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux). One of the best books of the year, this is a memoir which tells "the amazing true story of how the most unlikely team from the most unlikely of places overcame staggering obstacles at home and at school to challenge the debate community on race, power and education." Even if you've never been to a high school forensics tournament, or don't find the idea of public debating all that interesting, this—like a high-octane Akeelah and the Bee and Freedom Writers—is a page-turning study of a mostly black inner city debate team who rocked the debate world by studying Foucault and Paulo Friere and asking what education really is all about.
The Only Road North: 9,000 Miles of Dirt and Dreams, by Erik Mirandette (Zondervan). This breathtaking travelogue tells the riveting story of some college pals who drive around Africa, doing short-term mission service, checking out the scenes, and experiencing the horror of a terrorist attack. Through grief and darkness, they must recover a sense of God's purpose for their lives.
Who Are You People? A Personal Journey into the Heart of Fanatical Passion in America, by Sheri Caudron (Barricade Books). This is an entertaining story where the author travels to odd places to get to know people with extreme hobbies. From Trekkie conventions to Barbie Doll collectors, from ice fisherman to the weird subculture of furries, she wants to know why people get into the stuff they do. Why do they care about their hobbies, and what sense of belonging do they get from their eccentric interests? You won't be able to put it down, and it may make you wonder about your own deepest passions.
Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America, by Steve Almond (Harvest). Yes, that is really his name, and he is a brilliant writer. This hilarious book is his travelogue—going to independent candy manufacturers, studying their equipment, hearing their tales and stealing their stuff. For anybody who loves candy, small business, questions about the global economy, or the debate about what really is the best fix for a sugar jones, this is a sweet read.
Girl Meets God, by Lauren Winner (Shaw). This has been acclaimed for a few years, and Ms. Winner has become a staple in the edgy evangelical community, writing, reviewing and speaking. This is her well-realized memoir of becoming an Orthodox Jew and then slowly coming to Christian faith. One of the best spiritual autobiographies of our time. Read all three of her books, but start here.
The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On, by Dawn Eden (Word). Perhaps a bit like Lauren's memoir, this is a story of the author's dating life—think Sex and the City—and her slow realization that this was not good. Her conversion to a more appropriate lifestyle, and her journey into thoughtful Catholicism is smashing. One of her PR pieces described her as "a Jewish-born rock journalist turned salty Christian blog queen."
Crossing Myself: A Story of Spiritual Rebirth, by Greg Garrett (NavPress). There are numerous new memoirs of young adults grappling with Christian faith, rejecting the narrowness of the fundamentalist subculture—Blue Like Jazz, for instance. This is one of the better-written faith journeys, interesting, insightful and important as it deals vividly with his struggles with depression and doubt. The author ends up an evangelically minded, liturgically rich Episcopalian.
The Pine Island Paradox: Making Connections in a Disconnected World, by Kathleen Dean Moore (Milkweed). Going hiking or camping this summer? Grab any of Ms. Moore's books of lyrical nature essays and ponder along with her as she invites us to care about our surroundings, to be committed to our families and to our places and to think ecologically about life. Her stories are riveting, her writing glorious. See also her Riverwalking and Holdfast.
Editor's Note: This is an adaption of an earlier article, also by Byron Borger, from Comment in 2007.