The Common Good
November-December 1999

Books of the Year

by The Editors | November-December 1999

From hip hop to Howard Thurman, From the well-known to the obscure, we did the reading for you (really, it was our pleasure)

The hardest thing wasn’t choosing which books to keep on our first Sojourners Books of the Year list. The most difficult task was removing from the list the many other worthy candidates published over the past year. We canvassed readers, our Board of Directors, senior editors, contributing editors, and our own staff, and after a long process—and lots of reading!—ended up with 25 books published from January 1998 through July 1999 that we think are worthy of note (and worthy of Christmas gift-giving?). All of these books, in very different ways, deal with the issues the magazine has been addressing for almost 30 years—all grapple with the meaning of faith in our age. From novels to memoirs, from historical fiction to biblical exegesis, each book on the list contributes in some way to our understanding of the lively intersection of faith, politics, and culture.

It’s not a definitive list by any means; we’ve undoubtedly missed some of your favorites. In fact, we considered leaving the last slot (in this alphabetical listing) open for you to fill in your own book of the year. But we’ll be making this an annual event, so as you’re reading throughout the next year, drop us a line or send us an e-mail at books@sojourners.com and tell us about titles you think we should consider. In the meantime, happy reading!

Amazing Grace by Kathleen Norris
The Bible Jesus Read by Phillip Yancey
The Children by David Halberstam
Civility by Stephen L. Carter
Daniel by Daniel Berrigan
The Divine Conspiracy
by Dallas Willard
For the Time Being
by Annie Dillard
Heart of Flesh
by Joan D. Chittister
Hip Hop America
by Nelson George
Isaiah
by Walter Brueggemann
Just Peacemaking
by Glen Stassen
Lambs of God
by Marele Daye
A Moral Vision for America
by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin
On the Bus with Rosa Parks
by Rita Dove
Pillar of Fire
by Taylor Branch
The Poisonwood Bible
by Barbara Kingsolver
The Remaking of Evangelical Theology
by Gary Dorrien
The Road to Peace
by Henri Nouwen
Saints and Villains
by Denise Giardina
A Strange Freedom
by Howard Thurman
This Great Unknowing
by Denise Levertov
Walking With the Wind
by John Lewis and Michael D'Orso
The War Against Parents
by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornell West
Women and Redemption
by Rosemary Radford Ruether
Virtual Faith
by Tom Beaudoin

Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith
Kathleen Norris

When poet Kathleen Norris began a slow return to Christianity, she felt bombarded by the language of doctrine and liturgy. In Amazing Grace she struggles with and ultimately finds blessing in what she calls her "scary vocabulary"—words such as "judgment," "creeds," and "grace." These essays elegantly succeed in Norris’ goal of removing "the patina of abstraction or glassy-eyed piety from religious words" by grounding them in the world and human life. The styles are utterly different, but like Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies: Thoughts on Faith, Amazing Grace has spurred many people both in and out of the church to a renewed interest in spiritual life. (Riverhead Books)

The Bible Jesus Read
Philip Yancey

Although some readers might be tempted to dismiss this Old Testament survey as "Bible Study Lite," Yancey’s engaging, conversational style will speak to many readers not inclined to tackle more rigorous works. Yancey, a former Readers Digest regular and now a Christianity Today columnist, offers his personal, subjective reflections on four books of the Hebrew Bible, as well as a short essay on the prophets, each chapter a sermon-like and sermon-length commentary on the biblical books’ meaning for today’s faithful. The author’s greatest contribution might well be the opening segment, wherein he seeks to address the question, "Is the Old Testament worth the effort?" Yancey’s answer: A resounding Yes. (Zondervan)

The Children
David Halberstam

Halberstam’s portraits of "children" who played roles central to the civil rights movement is already well-known and celebrated. But it’s worth taking a close look at the anguish and exhilaration living, breathing—and sometimes unheroic—human beings faced during the events of the time. As Will Campbell wrote in his Sojourners review of Halberstam’s book (May-June 1998), "It is about America: America at its best, America at its worst. The title of this admirable book is apt, for the bravest, most venturesome, and at times seemingly foolhardy acts of the civil rights movement were carried out by the young." (Random House)

Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy
Stephen L. Carter

For anyone who’s wondered what happened to civility in our public life, and perhaps some aspects of our personal lives, Stephen Carter offers a thoughtful, well-reasoned—and polite—reflection. We in America tend to carry the illusion that we travel alone; we don’t know each other and thus believe we don’t owe anyone anything. But civility—the sacrifices we are called to make in order to live together—is fundamentally an ethic for relating to the stranger. Carter offers a set of rules for civility and relates how each is important to democracy. Many are self-evident; others are not. But they all urge us toward better minding our manners for the sake of our fellow passengers. (Basic Books)

Daniel: Under the Siege of the Divine
Daniel Berrigan, SJ

Jesuit priest, poet, and activist Daniel Berrigan is brilliant in almost any medium he chooses, ranging from his plays, like The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, to his recent collected works of poetry, And the Risen Bread: Selected Poems, 1957-1997; from his literal jeremiads on our broken body politic to his scholarly, incisive, Spirit-bent Bible studies. In Daniel, Berrigan takes us into the surreal prophecies of the ancient Hebrew seer. By fusing social critique, Jewish midrash, contemporary political analysis, and soul-stirring poetry, Berrigan brings forth a book of wisdom and spiritual complexity much like the one he is commenting on. At age 76 Berrigan still inflames the Word and blows a mighty trumpet blast for all people of conscience. (Plough Publishing House)

The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God
Dallas Willard

In an age when Jesus has become either a "nice idea" or a poster boy for the issue du jour, Willard argues compellingly for the relevance of God to every aspect of our daily life. He captures the central insights of Christ’s teachings in a fresh way that invites in the seekers and searchers of today. Willard, a theologian and professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California, challenges the 21st-century church away from the millennium of "sin management" to an apprenticeship in the gospel. He comes down equally hard on Sunday-only Christians and left- or right-wing Pharisees who use Christianity to advance political agendas rather than spiritual ones. The Divine Conspiracy unleashes a simple, creative, and deeply spiritual energy toward renewal of the church. (HarperSanFrancisco)

For the Time Being
Annie Dillard

Twenty-five years after her Pulitzer-Prize winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard invites us into her mystical mind. Dillard is classically druidic in her role as scientist, poet, and priest. In this personal narrative she ranges from the natural history of sand to the rise of Hasidic thought in Eastern Europe. She weaves the memoirs of Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin’s diggings in China with a study of the spectrum of human birth malformations. Dillard is the master of the act of rigorous spiritual contemplative observation. Through it she brings to the surface timeless questions about God, evil, and individual existence (themes dealt with in a very different context by Reynolds Price’s Letter to a Man in a Fire). Dillard pushes us point-blank on the question: Do we believe that individual life is sacred or do we not? (Knopf)

Heart of Flesh: A Feminist Spirituality for Women and Men
Joan D. Chittister, OSB

The author moves feminism from the sideshow of the gender wars to the main pulpit in Gospel 101. Feminist spirituality can no longer be a "women’s" or "leftist" issue. Chittister convinces us that there will be no true fulfillment of the law of Christ without a feminist revolution in the body of Christ. While brilliantly clear in her analysis, wisdom, and convictions, Chittister never shies away from the thorny questions of patriarchy’s distorting effect on men or of the patriarchal woman who has successfully internalized her oppression. Including the beautiful artwork of Nancy Earle, Heart of Flesh takes the reader on a very human journey that names the spirituality and experiences of women as good news for the church. (Eerdmans)

Hip Hop America
Nelson George

Nelson George is one of our most perceptive social critics and, perhaps more important, a dogged cultural educator. He explains society’s edges to society’s mainstream, and the mainstream is all the better for it. In Hip Hop America, George passionately and patiently shows how hip hop music, unlike other underground cultural phenomena, has emerged as one the most powerful social forces in America. Although hip hop is the voice of the underclass, it speaks through much of today’s popular culture and is the primary determiner of what is contemporary. Unfortunately, George laments, its power has been confined to society’s surfaces, and the energy and anger of urban youth that lies at hip hop’s core has yet to be tapped for its deeper potential for real social change. Ultimately, hip hop is a "broken compass" of materialism and aggression that corrupts its own empowering passion as just another way to sell blue jeans. (Viking Penguin)

Isaiah (two volumes)
Walter Brueggemann

What Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man did for political exegesis of the gospel of Mark, Brueggemann does for the prophet Isaiah. This user-friendly, two-volume set explores Isaiah’s richness and density, highlighting the themes of displacement, grief, and restoration that remain relevant for Christians today. Brueggemann, an Old Testament professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, is a brilliant contemporary writer on the narrative model of scriptural interpretation, particularly as it lends itself to the proclamation of the Word. His Cadences of Home: Preaching Among Exiles, Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation, and The Covenanted Self: Explorations in Law and Covenant all strike at the heart of the biblical imagination, sparking in readers a fire for our faith. (Westminster John Knox Press)

Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices for Abolishing War
Glen Stassen, ed.

This is a foundational work for wrestling with issues of war and peace for the next 20 years. Just Peacemaking is the product of 23 scholars who have collaborated annually since 1992 to specify practical steps and develop principles of a new critical approach to peacemaking. Rather than focusing on the question of how to stop war, Stassen, professor of Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, and colleagues push the theme of fanning the flames of peace. They challenge pacifists to be active peacemakers rather than trying to collect converts to pacifism. They also force just war theorists to emphasize the steps before the last resort of violence, thus increasing the climate of peace. When the world asks what to do about Rwanda, Kosovo, and East Timor, Stassen’s groundbreaking work outlines possible steps forward. Just Peacemaking is practical, positive, and effective analysis. (The Pilgrim Press)

Lambs of God
Marele Daye

The main characters in this odd, mysterious novel—three cloistered nuns who are mostly odd and mysterious themselves—make sense of their world by the telling of fairy tales, and this story is in many ways its own fairy tale. It grapples with themes of community, ritual, mysticism, the search for genuine spirituality, and the clash of tradition and modernity—but it doesn’t so much seek answers as it does twist about the questions. This novel—one of those "not for everybody" books—will speak to some readers in profundities beyond words. The rest might just furrow their brows and shrug. (Riverhead Books)

A Moral Vision for America
Joseph Cardinal Bernardin (John P. Langan, SJ, ed.)

For more than 20 years, Cardinal Bernardin was one of the most influential Catholic bishops in the United States and a public figure whose influence extended far beyond the Catholic Church. In developing the "seamless garment" of a consistent ethic of life in his role in the 1983 pastoral letter on peace, he articulated a moral vision for faithful Christians. This collection of addresses brings together some of the major themes of his moral teaching and public witness on central public policy issues. (Georgetown University Press)

On the Bus With Rosa Parks
Rita Dove

Soon after the Clinton-Gore administration took the White House, Rita Dove was invited to read a little something for them at an after-dinner event. She chose her poem "Parsley," based on the abuses of power by the Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo. There was a tense titter in the room. She was not politically appropriate. She brazenly spoke truth to power. In her newest collection, On the Bus With Rosa Parks, the former Poet Laureate again pushes us to examine the intersections of individual lives with the grand sweep of history. Dove catches the gift of freedom in "Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967," with the line "tell me what you’ve read that keeps/that half smile afloat/above the collar of your impeccable blouse." From each page, Dove calls us to lift every voice and sing. (W.W. Norton & Company)

Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65
Taylor Branch

Ten years after his monumental (and Pulitzer-Prize winning) Parting the Waters, Taylor Branch has produced another seminal work in this, the second volume of his America in the King Years trilogy. Branch’s 15 years of research, thousands of interviews, and behind-closed-doors accounts of these preeminent years of the movement result in an unparalleled chronicle that, while not strictly a biography of Martin Luther King Jr., amply demonstrates Branch’s thesis that "King’s life is the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed postwar years." Readers need not be dissuaded by the daunting scope or sterling academic credentials of this book; Branch is at heart a storyteller, and in his hands the drama of the times comes through in gripping fashion. (Simon & Schuster)

The Poisonwood Bible
Barbara Kingsolver

From the best-selling author of The Bean Trees and Animal Dreams comes an epic novel of the Price family—Southern evangelical missionaries to the Belgian Congo in 1959. While the second half of the book is not as tightly edited as it should be, Kingsolver nonetheless takes us into the heart of the drama of the Congo’s drive for independence from Belgium, the CIA-inspired assassination of the first democratically elected prime minister, and the U.S. missionary family caught in the middle. As always, Kingsolver’s deft and incisive command of language and her lyrical weft between the personal and political produces a work of art filled with moral daring and shimmering hope. (HarperFlamingo)

The Remaking of Evangelical Theology
Gary Dorrien

In recent years, evangelical Christianity has experienced more public attention and more internal ferment. Dorrien provides an informative historical survey of American evangelical theology, particularly in the 20th century. He describes the doctrines and leaders of four strains: classical, pietistic, fundamentalist, and the recent emergence of a post-conservative evangelicalism. As evangelical theology emerges from the struggles over biblical inerrancy and other doctrinal disputes to a greater openness to Catholicism and feminist theologies, he sees the current creative ferment as a sign of health and vitality. (Westminster John Knox Press)

The Road to Peace: Writings on Peace and Justice
Henri Nouwen (John Dear, SJ, ed.)

Henri Nouwen is one of the most significant spiritual writers of the century. He understood that spirituality has social implications, and this book brings together for the first time Nouwen’s writings on peacemaking, racial equality, hearing the cry of the poor, and the solidarity of the human family. Nouwen participated in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march, traveled to Central and South America, and witnessed at the Nevada nuclear test site; his reflections on these and other events are all rooted in prayerful response to the judgment question, "What have you done for the least of these?" (Orbis Books)

Saints and Villains
Denise Giardina

If you want the definitive chronicling of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life, read Eberhard Bethge’s biography, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But if you want to immerse yourself in the flesh-and-blood grapplings of faith and conscience that confront believers in any age—and enjoy a well-told yarn in the process—check out Giardina’s novel. This is historical fiction, not history, and the author—for purposes of narrative flow, literary cohesion, and character development that she explains in the afterword—departed from several key aspects of Bonhoeffer’s real-life story. Nevertheless, the novel is a gripping demonstration that well-written fiction can sometimes take you inside a person’s soul and illuminate profound "truths" more effectively than any other literary genre. (W.W. Norton)

A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life
Howard Thurman (Walter Earl Fluker, Catherine Tumber, eds.)

Howard Thurman was one of the great theologians and preachers of the 20th century, yet even to many who unknowingly follow in his footsteps he remains off the radar. This "best of" compilation might help rectify that omission and serve as an introduction to a man called "pastor to the civil rights movement." For Thurman, both the meaning of life and the soul of America can be found in religious faith, and this collection of writings—many of them previously published in other forms—acts almost as a spiritual journal of a lifelong journey of faith. (Beacon Press)

This Great Unknowing: Last Poems
Denise Levertov

When Levertov died on December 30, 1997, she left behind 40 finished poems that Paul Lacey has now formed as her last collection. This Great Unknowing is not a "sympathy collection" of leftovers published simply to memorialize one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. On the contrary, it displays the passion, lyrical prowess, and spiritual jubilation that filled Levertov’s final days. Few poets can move as confidently as she from a "Roast Potatoes" view of the Catholic Worker pickup truck rummaging through the Bowry of 1960, to a meditation on "Feet" that closes with a Maundy Thursday footwashing, to "Thinking about Paul Celan"à"that we receive/at least a bruising,/blue, blue, unfading,/we who accept survival." Levertov’s last words are honey and fire on the tongue. (New Directions)

Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement
John Lewis with Michael D’Orso

The subtitle of this book is too small. In this remarkably intimate yet grand- scale memoir, Lewis invites you into the heart and soul of America through the day-to-day events of one person’s life. From the Nashville Movement to the Freedom Rides, from the March on Washington to Selma’s "Bloody Sunday," his story flows from his boyhood in rural Alabama to the streets of Montgomery, from national leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to representing Atlanta in the U.S. Congress. The story is eloquently and dramatically told, and serves as a powerful inspiration to carry on the walk. (Simon & Schuster)

The War Against Parents: What We Can Do For America’s Beleaguered Moms and Dads
Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West

When Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West came out with a book on family values, even The Nation started shaking. Hewlett and West call American parents to organize and fight back against a society that talks the talk of family then abandons parents in an economic and political wasteland. The War Against Parents reviews a legislative history that helped build strong families (e.g. the GI bill and pro-labor laws), examines how the covenant with American families was broken, then points us in the direction of building a parents movement. The first plank in the platform is a "Parent’s Bill of Rights," which includes paid parenting leave, a "living wage," legal and moral support for fathers, and family health coverage. Lest those without dependents feel left behind, remember that we are all stakeholders in the family trust. (Houghton Mifflin)

Women and Redemption: A Theological History
Rosemary Radford Ruether

It would seem an absurdly daunting challenge to do justice to the history of Christian feminism in a mere 300 pages, but Ruether manages to pull it off in this Summa Femina Theologica. While the author introduces the book as an attempt to answer the question "Are women redeemed by Christ?" its greatest value is not in Christology or theology but in its comprehensive reporting and analysis of the evolving paradigm around women and redemption, from scripture to the present. Ruether’s overview of the emerging feminist theologies of Latin America, Africa, and Asia—necessarily in summary form to cover such a large and complex field, geographically and theologically—rounds out this important contribution to Christian feminist thought. (Fortress Press)

Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X
Tom Beaudoin

Beaudoin brings his theological tools to the terrain of popular culture to, as he puts it, "divine a GenX theology." Far from being irreligious, Generation Xers—those born from the early 1960s to the late 1970s—have grown up with and are living lives infused with religious meaning. Beaudoin, a member of that generation himself, navigates us through music, cyberspace, fashion, videos, and other cultural expressions—including body piercing—to argue that our culture is anything but a theological wasteland, and that the oft-cited "spiritual slackers" label that hounds GenXers is far from accurate. While Beaudoin’s analysis is narrow—he focuses primarily on white, middle-class culture—Virtual Faith makes a great contribution to our cultural conversation. (Jossey-Bass)

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