The Common Good
May-June 2001

Books of the Year

by The Editors | May-June 2001

Reading to provoke, perplex, and please.

We searched high. We searched low. We read the globally merged publishers and the micro-presses. We even wiped salt-and-vinegar potato chips off our fingers as we leafed through stacks of books published in the year 2000. The result is 25 books we think are among the best of the best (listed alphabetically). They range from praying with icons to saving the cities, from pentecostalism to papal sin, from civil rights to economic apartheid. There are even a couple of novels and short stories in the mix. So after you've triple underlined your dog-eared copy of Faith Works by Sojourners editor Jim Wallis (which we humbly think belongs on the list), take a look at the engaging ways our "books of the year" are illuminating the crossroads of faith, politics, and culture. Let us know which of your favorites we missed—and start your nominating list for the best books of 2001! Drop us a note at books@sojo.net.

The Battle for God
Karen Armstrong

A broad look at the history of religious fundamentalism from a seasoned observer of all things religious. Armstrong focuses on three types of fundamentalism—U.S. Protestant fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism in Israel, and Muslim fundamentalism in Egypt and Iran—and shows how these particular movements have been a response to what she calls "a dread of modernity": fears, anxieties, and desires provoked by the difficulties of life in the modern world. A fascinating look at one of the most powerful forces in the world. (Knopf)

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community
Robert Putnam

What's happened to America's civic and social life? To drastically summarize Putnam's thesis and now-famous metaphor, we bowl alone rather than in leagues—and this trend has been rising for the last several decades. One way to get at why our civic participation is declining is to count things, and count Putnam does. Statistics on just about every sector of society are here: politics and public affairs; religion; clubs and community associations; work-related organizations; informal groups such as card parties and bridge clubs; volunteering; philanthropy; the Internet, and others. The good news: Putnam believes we can reverse the decline. (Simon & Schuster)

The Bride: Images of the Church
Daniel Berrigan
icons by William Hart McNichols

A stunning, devastating, and uplifting prayer book for the 21st-century Christian. McNichols' skillful artistry is arresting: William Stringfellow's icon nails us with his hands extended in a manner that brooks no falsehood. Martyr Rutillio Grande holds the broken body of his beloved El Salvador. Mechtild of Magdeburg affronts us with the wild wind of her speech. Each of the 27 icons is nestled in the kindling of a poem by Daniel Berrigan; it all awaits your match. The rather archaic title references Christians as the bride of Christ. (Orbis Books). Also worthy of note: Spiritual Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals and Groups on the Twelve Spiritual Disciplines, edited by Richard Foster and Emilie Griffin, provides a year's worth of weekly readings on Christian disciplines from authors such as Dorothy Day, Frederick Buechner, and Martin Luther King Jr. (HarperSanFrancisco)

Civil Rights Since 1787: A Reader on the Black Struggle
Jonathan Birnbaum and Clarence Taylor

Birnbaum and Taylor explore the astounding complexity of the civil rights movement as a historical force and its interconnection with political, labor, feminist, and educational concerns. The combination of primary sources and secondary analysis serves to tell the story of the civil rights struggle in its full historical context—not so much as the inevitable and straight line of progress as made by a few great individuals, but as the fundamentally dynamic struggle that continues today. (New York University Press). See also the second volume of David Levering Lewis' astounding biography W.E.B. DuBois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963, in which Lewis covers the second half of DuBois' towering career. (Henry Holt)

Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope: Contested Truth in a Post-Christian World
Walter Brueggemann

A collection of elegantly worded essays—with Brueggemann's typically sharp thinking—whose primary focus is speech and rhetoric: How do we read, listen, and proclaim the gospel? A wonderful resource for pastors and others looking for deep, intelligent thinking on scripture. This is the third volume in his series of biblical and theological essays; the first two are The Covenanted Self and Texts That Linger, Words That Explode. (Fortress Press)

Economic Apartheid in America
Chuck Collins and Felice Yeskel

A clear blueprint on how to combat the growing inequality in the United States, with graphs, illustrations, and "action boxes" that contain information on hundreds of groups working for economic justice. The authors, from the Boston-based United for a Fair Economy, navigate us through a daunting reality with honesty and humor—and help equip us to make a difference. (The New Press)

Edges of the Field: Lessons on the Obligations of Ownership
Joseph William Singer

Ownership has obligations as well as rights, Singer argues, and operating with mercy and fairness is not only right, but economically beneficial. He relies on sources as diverse as the Torah, the musical "Rent," studies of the effects of welfare legislation, and the story of the CEO of Malden Mills—who retained his employees even after the mill burned down—to argue that legal property rights be amended to serve everyone, not just the wealthy. The book's title refers to the biblical plan of leaving the edges of the field for the vulnerable among us. (Beacon Press)

Elegy on the Death of César Chávez
Rudolfo Anaya
illustrated by Gaspar Enriguez

After the 1993 death of civil rights leader César Chávez, Chicano novelist Rudolfo Anaya wrote this elegy eulogizing the man, the work, the people, and the land. Chávez deserves his place with the great leaders of pacifist resistance. The American farm workers movement is a masterpiece of beauty, tragedy, and the struggle for justice and dignity carried out by those whose hands pick the fruit for the world. (Cinco Punto Press). This work, along with F. Arturo Rosales' new Testimonio: A Documentary History of the Mexican American Struggle for Civil Rights, helps (at long last) to build a contemporary accessible oeuvre of the Chicano liberation movement. Also worthy of note: Black Cuban, Black American: A Memoir, by Evelio Grillo—a compelling, personal account of Grillo's one-way trip out of the Cuban barrio and into the American black mainstream. (Arte Publico Press)

A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict
Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall

This book is a nonviolence primer no household, church, or school should be without. A companion book to a feature-length film and two PBS documentary programs on the history of nonviolence, A Force gives an in-depth look at 10 decades of political struggle, social upheaval, and military action in 24 nations on five continents. It includes remarkable interviews of participants in and eyewitnesses to the 20th century's nonviolent conflicts. Together the book and film form a definitive account of the great nonviolent conflicts of the past 100 years. The project provides the best current tactical, strategic, and pragmatic material available for students of social change. (St. Martin's Press)

God's Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics
Stephen Carter

The veteran explainer of all things religious and political—and the complexities that arise at their intersection—attempts to answer the question raised, but left unanswered, by his 1993 bestseller, The Culture of Disbelief: "If religion is to be actively involved in politics, what is the proper form of that involvement?" No blueprint exists to show precisely what this involvement should look like, but Carter gives an intelligent and refreshingly straightforward analysis of the issues. (Basic Books)

In the Name of Salome
Julia Alvarez

It's 1960, and 65-year-old Camila Ureña decides to join the Castro revolution. After early retirement from her career teaching Spanish at Vassar, the Dominican Republic native faces a decision: move to a secure neighborhood in Florida with her best friend, or go to Havana where her brothers live and face a land and family in the midst of upheaval. How Camila comes to this crossroad is the crux of Alvarez' most ambitious novel to date. Using the history of the Dominican Republic and a fictionalized history of the late Dominican poet Salome Ureña, Alvarez explores the themes of mothers and daughters, art and politics, traditional faith and the wilder life of the spirit. (Algonquin Books)

Leap
Terry Tempest Williams

In the tradition of Annie Dillard and Kathleen Norris, Williams presents a provocative narrative blending of religious insight, natural history, and "The Garden of Delights"a 15th-century triptych by the Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch. Williams' vision of Bosch's work forms an extended inquiry into the relationship between religion and spirituality and the invitation of incarnation. With each leap of insight, she pushes her definition of a "living faith." In the process she examines the teachings and rituals of her Mormon upbringing and reclaims a covenantal relationship with God. (Pantheon Books)

Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition
Wendell Berry

Poet, theologian, and gentleman farmer Wendell Berry takes on what Gandhi called "science without humanity" in his most recent book-length essay. In the liberation mode we have come to expect in Berry's writing, he proposes a new Emancipation Proclamation to free human life from the increasingly corporate sensibilities of science. Lest you think these mighty philosophies are a little too over-your-head, fear not. Berry's moral imagination is rooted as ever in the bend in the river, the four wood ducks outside his window, and the patch of snow slowly melting. Life is a Miracle may be a necessary handbook for the 21st century. (Counterpoint Press)

Lying Awake
Mark Salzman

Sister John of the Cross, who lives in a Carmelite monastery outside Los Angeles, experiences vivid, intense visions of God. But those visions come with powerful headaches, which become progressively debilitating. Soon she must face a dilemma: if these visions are the result of a physical illness, what will happen to her visions if she is "cured?" A slim, elegant novel that explores the mysteries of religious experience. (Knopf)

Mollie's Job: The Story of Life and Work on the Global Assembly Line
William Adler

This is the story of North American labor and capital during the last half century. In this fine nonfiction narrative, Adler follows the intersecting lives and destinies of three women—Mollie James in Patterson, New Jersey; Dorothy Carter in Mississippi; and Balbina Duque in Matamoros, Mexico—all of whom work the same factory job as it winds its way south. Their stories are the prism for examining the decline of unions and the middle class, the growing gap between the rich and the poor, public policy that rewards companies for moving jobs overseas, the way "free trade" can undermine community stability, and how global economy can exploit workers on both sides of the border. (Scribner) For another perspective on globalization, see Eyes of the Heart: Seeking a Path for the Poor in the Age of Globalization, by Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Aristide, the newly re-elected president of Haiti and a former Catholic priest, gives a graphic and tender representation of what happens when free trade overruns local markets, eradicates local economies, and creates dependency on foreign handouts. (Common Courage Press)

My Lord Bag of Rice
Carol Bly

This is a collection of Bly's best short stories, plus two new ones. Her sharp-eyed characters stand just a little apart from their peers in a humorous and vibrant way. Bly grew up surrounded by literary figures (Sinclair Lewis was a neighbor), and early in her life began honing her sense of place, her understanding of the beauty of the particular, and the justice edge that sharpens her writing. She is best known for the spiritual and moral intelligence she brings to her characters as they make their way in a mostly mediocre world. Tobias Wolff calls Bly the "Flannery O'Connor of the Midwest." (Milkweed)

Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing
Ted Conover

After New York's Sing Sing prison denied investigative journalist Conover access to the prison to write a story, he decided his only option was to go undercover. After seven weeks of preparation at the Albany Training Academy, Conover was sent to Sing Sing to work as a prison guard for one year. His account of life in prison for both guards and inmates is insightful, compelling, and often just plain terrifying. (Random House)

Oscar Romero: Memories in Mosaic
Maria Lopez Vigil

One might assume that an oral history collection on El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero, released last year to coincide with the 20th anniversary of his assassination, would be merely a sentimentalized tribute. Instead, the editor artfully compiles a variety of voices to create a multi-faceted, unflinching biographical portrait of an ordinary and cautious man whose faith and integrity—and heartbreak over murdered friends—eventually shaped him into an outspoken critic of the Salvadoran military and government. For this he paid with his life. A moving reminder that saints are forged in the messy contradictions and pain of real life, not dropped down from heaven fully formed and holy. Originally published in Spanish in 1993, this graceful English translation was completed by Kathy Ogle. (EPICA)

Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit
Garry Wills

A thoughtful and carefully researched look at the Catholic Church and what Wills sees as the church's "stubborn resistance to the truth." A practicing Catholic himself, Wills analyzes church history and recent papal documents and argues that these statements are in part responsible for the derailment of the church's mission. Particular areas of concern to Wills include contraception, gay and lesbian sexuality, the priesthood, and women's exclusion from the priesthood. Wills, the 1993 Pulitzer Prize winner for nonfiction writing, is the author of Nixon Agonistes, Reagan's America, Lincoln at Gettysburg, and many other books. Prepare yourself for a bracing, engaging ride. (Doubleday)

Pentecostalism and the Future of the Christian Churches
Richard Shaull and Waldo Cesar

While liberation theology and the Christian base community movement once gave voice to the disenfranchised in Latin America, pentecostalism has rapidly become the church of the poor in that part of the world. The reasons? According to the authors, it's mainly the brutal effects of globalization, along with the pentecostal churches' aggressive outreach efforts and promises of a better life (and afterlife). Shaull, an American liberation theologian, and Brazilian sociologist Cesar argue that Latin American Christians have a lot to offer the rest of the church—and that North American Christians need to open our ears and hearts to hear it. (Eerdmans)

Pontius Pilate
Ann Wroe

In this imaginative biography, Wroe uses historical sources and careful speculation to recreate the daily life, political intrigues, and cultural environment of the official who presided over the trial of Jesus. For the Christian reader, this book provides a new perspective on well-worn Sunday school stories and a primer on the many interpretations and myths attached to Pilate throughout church history. Wroe has written a gripping and elegant narrative that pushes—but does not break—the boundaries of biography. (Random House)

Spirit Matters
Michael Lerner

Lerner challenges both conservatives and liberals whose beliefs lead to the conclusion that people only really care about their material well-being. On the contrary, Lerner argues, our meaning in life comes from being embodiments of the Spirit and living with what he calls an "emancipatory spirituality"—a recognition "that nothing is more sustaining than a life filled with spiritual practices and joyful service to others." (Walsch Books)

Visions of Charity
Rebecca Anne Allahyari

Allahyari looks at the front lines of volunteer involvement with poor and homeless people to assess what volunteer work means for those who do it. She profiles two "charities"—the evangelistic Salvation Army and the Catholic Worker Loaves and Fishes. She explores these two agencies' differing ideological orientations through the complex lens of race, class, and gender, focusing on how these affect the volunteers, rather than the clients. Through her engaging study, Allahyari reveals the complicated and contradictory politics of faith-based responses to poverty today. For a great companion book, see Revolution and Renewal: How Churches Are Saving Our Cities, by Tony Campolo. It illustrates why faith-based organizations are such an important part of building up cities, community by community; the book confirms that these programs are a necessary complement to government social programs. (Both from the University of California Press)

Who Will Provide? The Changing Role of Religion in American Social Welfare
Edited by Mary Jo Bane, Brent Coffin, and Ronald Thiemann

An accessible, important collection of essays around the question of who provides for the most vulnerable among us. Lawyers, theologians, and social scientists—including Mary Jo Bane, J. Bryan Hehir, Martha Minow, and Theda Skocpol—shine a light on how various government and religious and nonprofit organizations provide social services. The essays are engaging and especially timely, given the 1996 decision to "end welfare as we know it" and the recent establishment of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. (Westview Press)

The Word on the Street
Stanley Saunders and Charles Campbell

The authors, theologians from Columbia Seminary, leave their classrooms and team up with Atlanta's Open Door Community, a group of African Americans and whites who live together in a Christian discipleship community that serves the poor and protests injustice. "Reader beware!" said our reviewer. "You may follow the authors' example and depart from the comfortable confines of the safe seminary and quiet church to discover not the theory, but the reality that God dwells among the poor." (Eerdmans) For an equally compelling look at the same issues, but from a child's perspective, check out Jonathan Kozol's Ordinary Resurrections. The children Kozol writes about live in Mott Haven, South Bronx; all are poor, most have lost relatives to AIDS, and some have lived in homeless shelters. Yet, for our reviewer, the many interactions that occur among children, teachers, pastors, and parents yield to "melodies of joy and goodness." (Crown Publishing)

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