Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
12 Books for the 12 Days of Christmas
[Capital Commentary readers can get a 20 percent discount on books listed here by ordering through Hearts & Minds and mentioning "Capital Commentary" in the order.]
1. Seven Women and the Secret of Their Greatness
Eric Metaxas (Nelson Books) $24.99
You may already know Metaxas’s collection of short biographies Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness, now out in paperback. His new book tells in similar fashion the stories of seven remarkable women, including Joan of Arc, Susanna Wesley, Corrie Ten Boom, Rosa Parks, and several others who not only showed great character but great courage. Metaxas is a fine writer and knows how to tell a good story, bringing just the right mix of data and drama, facts and big picture framework.
Quite interesting is the piece on Saint Maria of Paris, also known as Maria Skobtsova, an energetic Orthodox nun who cared for the poor, stood for justice, spoke out against the Nazis, and was tragically gassed at Ravensbruck in 1945. The lovely chapter on Mother Teresa is truly inspiring, and the tremendous chapter on Clapham poet and social reformer Hannah More (introduced in Amazing Grace, Metaxas’s Wilberforce biography) is itself worth the price of the book. Author Karen Swallow Prior suggests “This may be the best book you read this year.”
2. Possible: A Blueprint for Changing How We Change the World
Stephan Bauman (Multnomah) $22.99
A friend of CPJ and CEO of World Relief, Bauman has lived in Africa with his wife and both are visionary advocates for a holistic gospel and social justice. In this recent book – shaped by decades of experience in transformational development – he shows how lasting justice is obtained, how a better world is plausible and, as the title says, possible. Evangelicals for Social Action founder Ronald Sider says Possible is “A wonderful summons to do justice… a powerful combination of gripping stories, solid theology, and probing challenge.”
This would make a great gift for anyone interested in global concerns or whose heart aches about injustice. It would also be a good read for those drifting towards cynicism or despair over global injustice. As Gary Haugen writes, Bauman’s Possible offers “a compelling perspective on our calling, our orientation toward suffering, and the anatomy of lasting change.”
3. The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction
James W. Skillen (Baker Academic) $24.00
While not a new book, having been released in 2014, The Good of Politics is written by CPJ’s founder and former president James Skillen and is one of the best books that illustrates a robust and positive Christian view of the state. The Good of Politics offers a Biblical perspective on political engagement by examining the strengths and weaknesses of various views of the state throughout church history.
There was much confusion in the early church years as pagan Greek philosophy influenced early church leaders, bifurcating life into an unbiblical sacred/secular dualism, such that political theory developed without adequate grounding in the Bible. In Skillen’s telling, the large questions for the early church (What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?) and for Augustine (What is the relationship between the city of God and the city of man?) were not adequately answered, and consequently, the understanding of the task of the state developed in unhelpful ways. Even as medieval Catholics and the Protestant reformation moved the conversation forward, more work needs to be done in considering an authentically faithful vision of citizenship.
Skillen draws on the nineteenth century social philosophy of Dutch statesman Abraham Kuyper and his associates and surveys important contemporary voices in public theology. This is Skillen’s best book yet, what Jonathan Chaplin called a tour de force and what David Koyzis called a “biblically and historically rich primer on political life.” I hope many people find it under their Christmas tree this year.
4. Poetry Night at the Ballpark and Other Scenes from an Alternative America: Writings, 1986 - 2014
Bill Kauffman (Front Porch Republic Books) $49.00
Although certainly no evangelical, and perhaps not familiar with the unique Christian political philosophy advanced by CPJ, Bill Kauffman is a writer of such verbal dexterity, American gusto, and surprisingly non-partisan panache that anyone interested in contemporary civic life should know his work. This anthology is a perfect way to enjoy this writer, offering 400 pages of short but well-informed essays, from book and film reviews, sports reporting, historical pieces, and political op-ed tirades.
I know of no polemicist who is more enjoyable to read; his prodigious vocabulary is full of smart whimsy and local color. Kauffman is an independent localist, a populist so fiercely in love with his region and land that he’s passionately anti-imperial. Is there such a thing as a conservative pacifist? Could there be a politico who combines the spiritual sense of place of Wendell Berry and the anti-war/anti-modernist passion of Daniel Berrigan, along with a profound appreciation for old-school Republicanism?
Kauffman’s love for local little league is evident, as is his appreciation for both the punk rock of his era and his love for middle American, old-school country outlaws like Merle Haggard. The pop culture references fly as fast as the obscure historical ones. His 2010 short review of the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird is a delight, and his cleverness shows in the title of a piece on Edmund Wilson, “Wilson’s Picket,” a fascinating look at not only Wilson’s Civil War opus, but his friendship with Robert Penn Warren and the disapproval of Arthur Schlesinger.
Poetry Night at the Ballpark is a rare and extraordinary anthology, sure to delight those who love history, politics, and popular culture, and those who enjoy creative, high-octane writing that mocks standard-fare politics in favor of a front porch, ballpark, small town patriotism.
5. In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492 - 1783
Mark A. Noll (Oxford University Press) $29.95
Many contemporary evangelical scholars date their calling into serious academic work from their reading of Noll’s seminal book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Noll’s legendary work as a Christian scholar integrates his deepest convictions with his research, winning him awards, accolades, and the appreciation of the faithful in church and academy and press. As Duke Divinity School’s Professor of Christian History, Grant Wacker, says, “Lest there be any doubt, this volume secures the author’s rank as the dean of active American religious historians.” Gordon Wood, Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University, calls this book a “landmark work of history,” and says that “No one has ever before described and analyzed the role of the Bible in colonial America as thoroughly as Mark Noll has in this important book.”
Obviously, this would be a great gift for anyone who loves the Bible. It starts with fabulous chapters on the rise of Tyndale’s translations, the KJV, and rise of the English Bible in the age of colonialism. But those interested in American history will enjoy it as well, learning how early America’s most widely read book informed not only individuals and churches, but also helped shape a vision of America’s public and civic life (the final two chapters are “Revolutionary Rhetoric” and “Revolutionary Argument.”) One of the most significant books of its kind this year.
6. Religion in the Oval Office: The Religious Lives of American Presidents
Gary Scott Smith (Oxford University Press) $34.95
At over 600 pages, this may be Smith’s magnum opus, following his earlier engaging scholarly books. His book Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush was notable for its balanced and non-polemical study, full of fascinating facts and insight. Smith, a long-standing friend of CPJ, is the Chairman of the History Department of Grove City College and is not only “wonderfully informed,” as the Journal of American Studies put it, but offers – in the words of the Christian Century – “a welcome relief” for those who “groan under the weight of panicky punditry on religion and the presidency.”
In the first book, hailed as “magisterial,” Smith studied the faith of eleven key presidents. In this new book, equally meticulous and exhaustively researched, Smith takes on eleven more of our nation’s most interesting and influential chief executives: John Adams, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, William McKinley, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.
As it says on the dust jacket, Smith tells of how faith influenced policy, with the result “a fascinating account of how religion has helped shaped the course of our history. From John Quincy Adam’s treatment of Native Americans, to Harry Truman’s decision to recognize Israel, to Bill Clinton’s promotion of religious liberty and welfare reform, to Barack Obama’s policies on poverty and gay rights, Smith shows how strongly our president’s religious commitments have affected policy from the earliest days of our nation to the present.” It is a big book and will wrap up nicely as a very handsome gift.
7. The Givenness of Things: Essays
Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux) $26.00
There are few current public intellectuals who are as esteemed in the literary world as the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson. (Gilead, Home, and Lila tell of a pastor and his family in mid-20th century Ohio, while her first novel, Housekeeping, is a moving rural story of loss and longing.) Robinson is also known for heady essays in popular outlets such as The Atlantic, The New Republic, and The New Yorker, and this new anthology brings together some of her most serious pieces about culture, religion, philosophy, and the spirit of the age. She worries that “as a culture we have become less interested in the exploration of the glorious mind and more interested in creating and mastering technologies that will yield material well-being. But while cultural pessimism is always fashionable, there is still much to give us hope.”
Robinson is, interestingly, a scholar of John Calvin, and several of these thoughtful ruminations reflect on the role of the Protestant reformation. She writes on topics as wide ranging as “Humanism” and “Reformation” and “Glory” and “Awakening” and “Memory” and “Theology.” This will appeal to those who appreciate her novels but also to those who hunger for eloquent reflections on metaphysics and culture and meaning and beauty. This is a solid gift for the serious readers on your list.
8. Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government
Larry P. Arnn (Nelson Books) $22.99
There have been a flurry of Churchill books this season, and there are surely many fans of the punchy conservative British statesman and war leader. Dr. Arnn (president of Hillsdale College and author of The Founder’s Key which explored the religious influences upon the US Constitution) is a perfect writer to add to the field.
This new book explores Churchill’s political philosophy, offering splendid biography and lively history. Lewis Lehrman, of the Lincoln Institute at Gettysburg College, says that “…it is the one book on Churchill that every undergraduate, every graduate student, every professional historian, and every member of the literate general public should read.” Churchill’s Trial is divided into three sections, covering war, empire, and peace, which, in Lehrman’s view, are “the topics which define the era of his statesmanship.”
Obviously, Winston Churchill was known for his brave admonitions to courage, duty, honor, and the like, but Arnn importantly shows that these virtues are rooted in more than wartime bluster; they emerge from profound and enduring philosophical convictions about public life.
9. 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories Behind the Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film
Terry Glaspey (Baker) $22.99
Most of the books recommended here have been selected for readers who care about public life, citizenship, social concerns, and politics. Yet most who read history or debate theories of public justice understand that our political life is deeply intertwined with our cultural life. Our views of civic virtue and the meaning of justice are informed by the visions of artists who influence the culture. Indeed, as Steven Garber (Visions of Vocation) puts it, “artists get there first.”
This medium-sized coffee table book offers short reflections on some of the great art pieces of all time. From the earliest Christian art (in the catacombs, circa 300) and The Book of Kells (Ireland, circa 550) through the high Middle Ages and the Renaissance, then well into the modern era, this survey artfully captures the meaning of significant art pieces. It includes music from Bach to U2, the literary works of writers from John Bunyan to Frederick Buechner, and the true stories behind beloved masterpieces of sculpture and painting, as well as those of lesser known artifacts.
This fascinating book invites us into the historical visions of cathedral builders, stained glass artists, and painters as well as famous musicians and writers such as George Frideric Handel, William Blake, and Jane Austen, along with more contemporary artists such as Flannery O’Connor, Mahalia Jackson, Bruce Cockburn, and Makoto Fujimura. At over 350 pages, nicely printed on glossy paper, this is a wonderful book to give-- but you may want to buy one for yourself too.
10. The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms
Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller (Viking) $19.95
Many will know Keller as the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and the author of books about the reasonableness of faith, the vocation of work, the meaning of suffering, and the call to “generous justice.” While Keller and his wife have collaborated on a previous book (The Meaning of Marriage), this new book is perhaps their most personal.
This small hardback is printed on heavy, glossy paper and includes some handsome touches of color in the page design and a ribbon marker. It makes a lovely gift, of course, but more importantly, it offers a remarkable study of every line of every Psalm in a year’s worth of brief reflections for devotional use, accompanied by well-crafted prayers.
Too many devotionals are theologically eccentric or shallow (or conversely, dense and a bit disconnected from contemporary life.) The Songs of Jesus is good for those who enjoy a daily practice of brief, prayerful Scripture reading. The church has long commended the daily use of the Psalms, and this wonderful new resource will help us embrace the classic practice. Highly recommended.
11. Unleashing Opportunity: Why Escaping Poverty Requires A Shared Vision Of Justice
Michael Gerson, Stephanie Summers, Katie Thompson (Falls City Press) $11.95
I would be remiss not to mention this latest release from CPJ. As I hope you already know know, this compact book describes the major obstacles in our country that keep people mired in poverty and suggests ways to move towards empowerment and economic health.
The chapters cover five topics: early childhood, foster care, juvenile justice, the graduation gap, and predatory lending. In each short chapter, Gerson provides insightful information on the topic, sharing data and knowledge; Summers then frames the issues in light of basic reformational wisdom and insights about life in God’s good but fallen creation; and finally, Thompson tells stories of those doing good work in embodying the principles discussed in the previous sections and offers guidance on how to be involved in civic institutions that enhance our social fabric. Facts, wisdom, stories; issues, insights, answers.
This small volume offers much to anyone interested in issues of poverty in North America or those who want to be more involved in being good neighbors and advocating for public justice in these difficult times. Unleashing Opportunity is a great little book which, if not given as a Christmas Day gift, could surely be given on St. Nicholas Day—a day when the church calendar reminds us of our concern for the poor.
12. Serious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life
Edited by Byron Borger (Square Halo Books) $12.99
Well. What should one say to recommend one’s own book?! I have been told that I have a great, if gentle, foreword about living local and taking small steps to embrace one’s sense of vocation and calling, written for the young adult audience for whom this book was compiled. I also have a more fiery speech included, inviting graduating college students to become culturally engaged, suffering servants like the Bible’s “sons and daughters of Issachar.” But the best parts of the book may be the other rousing graduation speeches given at Christian colleges (Calvin College, Messiah College, Malone College, Seattle Pacific University, Geneva College, Covenant College.)
A number of remarkable people, all friends of CPJ, in fact, have written wise and truly inspiring chapters: Amy Sherman, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Richard Mouw, Claudia Beversluis, Steven Garber, and John Perkins. Although this colorful little compact paperback was designed to be given as a gift for a recent college graduate (complete with short reflection pieces at the end of each chapter), readers of various ages and stages of life have reported that it is a good introduction to (or reminder of) the all-of-life-redeemed, transforming worldview that invites us to make a difference in the spheres of influence which are ours.
I may humbly say so, this kind of visionary thinking about reforming institutions through a high and holy view of calling and vocation is just the thing we need if we are to resist the privatization and dualism that too often yields a shallow and ineffective faith. Serious dreams and bold ideas, indeed!
-Byron Borger runs Hearts & Minds Books. Capital Commentary readers can get a 20 percent discount on books listed here by ordering through Hearts & Minds.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”