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Have you ever been clobbered by a 2-by-4 plank? Our Books of the Year committee has come up with a 4-by-4, a shortlist of 16 books in four categories. Most of them smack readers hard. They challenge the conventional wisdom. They deal with difficult questions of persecution, community-building, cultural craziness, marriage, and more. Most also offer hope.
Because we know our readers love to read, we’ve published a special books issue every summer at this time since 1999. The timing is partly because summer’s a great season to read, and also because the International Christian Retailers Show (once known as the Christian Booksellers Association convention) is always in late June. But WORLD differs from some other Christian magazines in that most of our winners do not come from Christian publishers. Of course, it’s hard to know these days what’s a Christian publisher and what isn’t, since Thomas Nelson and Zondervan are both part of the Rupert Murdoch empire and others are subsidiaries of New York houses.
Here are reviews of all 16 finalists, with the winner in each category listed last.
The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise by Darío Fernández-Morera
Joy by Abigail Santamaria
Justifying Genocide by Stefan Ihrig
In Those Nightmarish Days by Peretz Opoczynski & Josef Zelkowicz
Puncturing myths, reporting genocide
By Marvin Olasky
Numerous books propagandize for Islam by calling Muslim rule in Spain during the Middle Ages a golden age of tolerance. Darío Fernández-Morera’s The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews Under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain (ISI Books) cuts against PR for Islam by giving specific examples of rulers cutting off heads or applying burning candles to the faces of sexual slaves. Fernández-Morera rightly says the notion of Christian contentment under Muslim rule is “even more preposterous than saying that American blacks might be ‘content’ with their second-class citizenship … or perhaps even with their treatment by slave owners.”
In actuality, Muslim Spain’s class system had Arabs at the top. Berbers, freed Muslim white slaves, and converts came next, with Jews and Christians at the bottom. Good footnoting substantiates statements like this: “As both Muslim and Christian sources attest, the Islamic forces were more ruthless and knew how to demoralize an enemy better than any army since the Roman conquest.” Demoralization included death sentences for irritating Muslim authorities, and even bans on music. (Authorities “had the power to enter a house if they heard string and wind instruments being played and break them up.”) Forced latrine-cleaning was common: Muslim officials said, “The Jew and the Christian are better fitted for such trades, since they are the trades of those who are vile.”
A lesser myth concerns the life of Joy Davidman: Since she became Mrs. C.S. Lewis, she must have been a saintly person, right? Abigail Santamaria’s Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C.S. Lewis (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) respects Davidman and her love for Lewis but does not cover up her manipulation as she moved from a troubled marriage to a long visit with Lewis and his brother, then to a marriage for legal purposes so she could stay in England, and finally to a marriage growing out of real love in 1957.
Santamaria shows how Joy, a Communist during the Great Depression, often felt unjoyful and insecure. For example, the bulk of the royalties from books C.S. Lewis wrote went into an Agape Fund used to help people with medical or school expenses, but she wanted less money to go into that fund and more to spend. Still, she brought much happiness to Lewis and contributed to his thinking, and this biography shows why. For more about the book, see an interview with the author in the March 5, 2016, issue of WORLD.
If Iran, North Korea, or an expanding ISIS caliphate could nuke an American city or create a devastating electromagnetic pulse over the United States, should the United States respond with devastating effect, killing innocent people along with the perpetrators? Some Christians would say no, but Stefan Ihrig’s Justifying Genocide: Germany and the Armenians from Bismarck to Hitler (Harvard University Press) suggests a yes: If an evil policy attains an evil end and the perpetrators go unpunished, other power-seekers will go and do likewise.
Ihrig shows how not only Nazis but others in the 1920s praised a “New Turkey” founded on the corpses of 1 million Armenians who were economically successful and thus, much like Jews, objects of envy and hatred. German newspapers and scholars first denied that the genocide of 1915 occurred. Then, as the evidence was overwhelming, they justified mass murder by classifying the Armenians, along with Jews, as subhuman “Armenoids.”
Ihrig also reports the “population exchange” of the 1920s, as Turks exiled Christians to Greece and Greece sent Muslims to Turkey. Adolf Hitler initially wanted something similar, a border expansion that could bring into the Reich all Germanic peoples to the east and south of Germany proper, and exile Jews. That Turkish solution did not work because other countries would not allow Jews to immigrate, so Hitler moved on to “the Final Solution.” In August 1939, he told officials to “send to death mercilessly, and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. … Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Our winner in the history/biography category shows what that “solution” looked like at ground level. In Those Nightmarish Days: The Ghetto Reportage of Peretz Opoczynski and Josef Zelkowicz (Yale University Press) is the work of two extraordinary writers who lived in Poland and came to realize they were on the road to something beyond even their worst nightmares: extermination. The two journalists and almost all their subjects died in concentration camps or from starvation. (Germans provided ghetto occupants with a daily allotment of 184 calories.)
To do their jobs, Opoczynski and Zelkowicz had to preach to themselves: “Go out into the street and look for yourself, breathe in the unconscious terror of the tiny babies being readied for slaughter—look hard, and do not cry! Look good and hard, and do not let your heart burst, so that you will later be able to give a deliberate and considered account.” That’s what they did, as in this example from Sept. 4, 1942: “What just yesterday seemed an improbable, unbelievable report has unfortunately revealed itself to be the case: children ten years old and under will be torn from their parents and siblings and deported. … They’re simply being tossed away, discarded like garbage.”
In Those Nightmarish Days is our book of the year in this category because its street-level journalism reaches across decades and continents. One of our committee members, Sophia Lee, offered the best three-word review: “Chilled my bones.”
Augustine on the Christian Life by Gerald Bray
Messy Grace by Caleb Kaltenbach
The Compelling Community by Mark Dever & Jamie Dunlop
The Prodigal Church by Jared C. Wilson
Loving grace, building community
By Sophia Lee & Marvin Olasky
Gerald Bray’s Augustine on the Christian Life: Transformed by the Power of God (Crossway) brings to life a man who knew “it was not he who had found God but God who had found him. This is the hallmark of true conversion.” Bray shows how Augustine, before his conversion at age 32, had tried religions that claimed we could ascend to God, and so knew from personal experience that our only hope is in God descending to us. This sense of God’s sovereignty also helps us not to covet the attainments of others or wish, amid terrorism and war, that we were born at a different time.
Bray shows how Augustine dealt with hard questions, such as why “God has appointed some to eternal life but not others. … [Augustine knew that] God’s foresight is the same as his memory and understanding … he does not observe things by thinking of them one by one, but embraces everything that he knows in one eternal, unchangeable, and inexpressible vision.” In Bray’s summary, this makes the issue of “foreknowledge irrelevant, since it is only compatible with a time-and-space framework, which does not apply to God. [Predestination is] an eternal phenomenon—as valid in the ‘past’ as it is in the ‘future,’ since both are comprehended in the overarching and eternal present.”
Caleb Kaltenbach’s raw Messy Grace: How a Pastor with Gay Parents Learned to Love Others Without Sacrificing Conviction (WaterBrook) describes how he grew up with two lesbian moms and a closeted-gay dad. He hung out with his mother’s lesbian friends in LGBT clubs and late-night parties but also visited a friend dying of AIDS, watched the patient’s Christian family refuse to touch him, and watched onlookers at gay pride parades hold up “You’ll burn in hell” signs. Those childhood experiences solidified Kaltenbach’s belief that “Christians hate gay people,” so he joined a high-school Bible study to learn how to tear down Jesus—only to fall in love with Him.
Kaltenbach tried to honor his parents even as they mocked his faith. He became a pastor to congregants struggling with homosexuality-related issues: “Messiness is what happens when you try to live out God’s perfect grace as a flawed person in a flawed world.” Messy Grace hums with the good news of God’s love, truth, and grace while also addressing practical scenarios such as whether to attend a gay wedding. Readers may not agree with all of Kaltenbach’s practical applications, but Messy Grace is a much-needed reference on how to love well both the Bible and people.
Most churches today have the goal of “building community,” and some create niches based on similar life experiences, demographics, social causes, or needs. We now have Bible studies for newlyweds, yuppies, feed-the-homeless teams, motorcycle churches, and single mom meet-ups. But in The Compelling Community: Where God’s Power Makes a Church Attractive (Crossway), co-authors Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop ask a tough question: What if we merely build “communities that can thrive regardless of the gospel,” rather than communities characterized by relationships that could not have formed but for the gospel’s “supernatural” means?
The Compelling Community distinguishes the subtle but significant difference between a “gospel-plus” community and a “gospel-revealing” community: The first facilitates comfort-based relationships rooted in the gospel plus something else, while the latter builds relationships between people who have little in common other than Christ. The book describes why God desires the latter church and often builds it despite our strategies and flaws. On how to promote church diversity, for example, the authors advise: Do nothing. “God has already done it.” Dever and Dunlop lay out biblical principles and show how to apply them through meaningful church membership, preaching that equips the congregation to equip others, corporate prayer, church discipline, evangelism, and church planting.
Jared C. Wilson’s The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto Against the Status Quo (Crossway) articulately points out problems in many “seeker” or “attractional” churches that emphasize self-improvement or life-enhancement rather than God-enhancement: “If the purpose of worship is to feel good, we stop worshiping God.” He’s concerned when a church seems more like a concert and when Bible study leaders ask not, “What does this text mean?” but, “What does this text mean to you?” He notes, “Preaching even a ‘positive’ practical message with no gospel-centrality amounts to preaching the law. … Don’t treat the Bible as an instruction manual. Treat it as a life preserver.”
When Wilson scrutinizes worship, he asks, “Does this element exalt God or man?” He notes that “both irreligion and religion are fundamentally self-salvation projects. They are equally self-righteous, even though the former is predicated on being automatically righteous and the latter aims to earn righteousness.” Here’s his summary of Christian exceptionalism: “Grace is what makes Christianity unique among all world religions and philosophies. … None of us would have come up with the concept of divine unmerited favor. None of us would have invented the notion that we cannot be good enough or smart enough, that we could not somehow become gods ourselves.”
The Prodigal Church is our “accessible theology” book of the year because every church, no matter the denomination, struggles in our age of entertainment with how to attract people to church without distracting them from the gospel. An important understanding for both youth ministries and adult evangelism is: “What you win them with is what you win them to.” Instead of adding on programs, churches should win attenders to an understanding of the gospel’s astounding message: The work is already done.
You Will Be Made to Care by Erick Erickson & Bill Blankschaen
From Dependence to Dignity by Brian Fikkert & Russell Mask
The Demon in Democracy by Ryszard Legutko
Wind Sprints by Joseph Epstein
Pushing over idols, enjoying the circus
By Sophia Lee & Marvin Olasky
For regular WORLD readers, the religious liberty attacks that Bible-believing cake bakers and wedding photographers face today are familiar news—but You Will Be Made to Care: The War on Faith, Family, and Your Freedom to Believe (Regnery) reminds us not to get too comfortable with it. Erick Erickson and Bill Blankschaen write primarily to Christians who still cling to a biblical worldview, particularly those still half-awake to the real and impending warfare that the secular left is waging—and seemingly winning. To them, the authors are hollering, “WAKE UP!” and with vernacular prose and biting quips they explain why and how the “Spirit of the Age” will one day knock on your own door: “The day is coming—sooner than you think—when you too will be made to care.”
If the language gets over the top (at one point the authors draw similarities between Adolf Hitler and “secular overlords”), it’s because the authors try to bang into their readers’ heads the “supreme silliness” of this era. Obergefell v. Hodges is just a prelude to the ongoing restructure of millennia-old traditions and common sense. As scorching as the book is toward the left, it also rebukes Christians who for too long have been able to “coast in peace on the faith fumes of yesterday’s believers.” And that brings readers to its ultimate point: We need a resurgence—in our community, self, family, church, and country. Despite the tone that’s meant to alarm and frighten, You Will Be Made to Care signs off on an optimistic note: “You are not alone. And never will be.”
From Dependence to Dignity: How to Alleviate Poverty Through Church-Centered Microfinance (Zondervan) is the sequel to the influential When Helping Hurts—and it also shows that “good intentions are not enough.” Authors Brian Fikkert and Russell Mask show how affluent American churches can help churches in poorer countries build financial services for small businesses that lack access to banking—but since “microfinance” can foster unhealthy dependence, we have to be careful that it does not become one more idol for destruction.
Fikkert and Mask pare down abstract terminologies and complex concepts into comprehensible words that even the financially illiterate can understand. Basing their conclusions on 15 years of research and experience through The Chalmers Center at Covenant College, they weave theology, missiology, social science, and finance into practical advice. They don’t run from tough cases in which church members cannot or refuse to pay back loans from the church, and they push toward a gospel-infused goal: not only material improvement but restoration of poor people to their rightful dignity as image bearers of a relational God.
Ryszard Legutko’s The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies (Encounter) is a harder-to-read, academic book by a Polish professor, but it brilliantly assaults a third contemporary idol: democracy. Since Christians are a minority, Legutko notes that liberal majoritarianism makes “the Christian religion, its institutions, and its article of faith objects of endlessly multiplying derisions. … All the objectives the communists set for themselves, and which they pursued with savage brutality, were achieved by the liberal democrats who, almost without any effort and simply by allowing people to drift along with the flow of modernity, succeeded in … pushing religion to the sidelines, pressing the clergy into docility, and inspiring powerful mass culture with a strong anti-religious bias.”
Legutko points out a common feature in communist and liberal democratic regimes: Discussion ebbs in many areas because some things are “unquestionably bad or unquestionably good. Discussing them was tantamount to casting doubts on something whose value had been unequivocally determined. … Both sides—communist and liberal-democratic—share their dislike, sometimes bordering on hatred, toward the same enemies: the Church and religion, the nation, classical metaphysics, moral conservatism, and the family. Both are unable to mitigate their arrogance toward everything that their ideology despises, and which, in their revolutionary ardor, they seek to remove from the public space and from private lives.”
The Erickson, Fikkert/Mask, and Legutko books are sobering, which makes it a pleasure to have our winner in current events be Joseph Epstein’s latest collection of witty essays, Wind Sprints (Axios). We interviewed Epstein a dozen years ago (see “‘A lucky life,’” Jan. 31, 2004), and at age 79 he still displays an open, curious mind and writes with humor and humility about a vast array of topics. Just one example: Epstein gives today’s equivalent of John Adams’ famous statement that he studied politics and war so his sons could study mathematics and philosophy and their sons could study painting and poetry—“I worked at dry cleaning in order that my son could have the liberty to study sociology in order that his son could have the right to undergo a sex-change operation.”
Epstein is skeptical but not cynical, passionate but not brash. From a Jewish background, he may not enjoy the fullness of God’s truth, but he perceives truths about humanity and marvels at the pride, self-righteousness, ignorance, or greed that clogs up our God-given common sense. Much as we do at WORLD, he enjoys his front-row seat at the circus and the opportunity to wryly observe everything from cell phone use to high-school reunions to underlining in a C.S. Lewis book.
And God continues to work on Epstein. In 2012 he acknowledged he had never read the Bible, so he was reading three chapters a day, with breakfast, and felt a small but real satisfaction: “These are my people being written about.” He said thus far it hadn’t changed him, but “as someone more and more impressed with the mysteries of life, and less and less impressed with science and human explanations of those mysteries, I find a certain comfort in reading the Bible, with its miracles, feats of endurance, and obedience to a higher power. Reading my daily portion, I like to think that I have not given up on God. More important, while reading it, I hope that God has not given up on me.”
Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin (translated by Lisa C. Hayden)
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood
Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler
From mysticism to marriage
By Susan Olasky, Sophia Lee, & Marvin Olasky
This is often the hardest category for judging, since tastes among WORLD members (and our staff) vary enormously. Some of you accept occasional obscenities and crudities; others do not. Our policy is not to recommend any work that has obscenities on every page, but we don’t ban books with occasional bad language that’s in keeping with characterization, even though we wish the author would have refrained. We’ll warn you what’s coming, and the decision is yours.
Such a warning is appropriate for the first novel on our shortlist, Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus (Oneworld), because it does include several sexual references and obscenities—and it includes almost everything else as well. Laurus is a long, sprawling novel, translated from the Russian by Lisa C. Hayden, and Russians are now awarding Laurus literary honors because, among other things, it challenges the materialist world of Stalin and Putin, and our own, too. The big novel’s main character, Arseny, born in 1440 in rural Russia, orphaned at a young age by the plague, and raised by his folk-healer grandfather, radiates otherworldliness: Bearing the weight of two dead souls, he begins a lifelong pilgrimage of redemption that brings him to a variety of Russian locales and eventually—suffering and meditating—all the way to Jerusalem and back.
Laurus emphasizes self-sacrifice rather than the self-realization that dominates much of today’s fiction, and it doesn’t portray humans as animals or machines: It’s set largely in medieval times when the distinction between Christianity and superstition was often unclear but everyone knew that humans have souls that never die. Set largely in the Middle Ages, that is, because—as one prophetic character says, time “is given to us by the grace of God so we will not get mixed up”—but in Laurus time is an illusion in which past, present, and future happen at once. The author and his translator deliberately mix up antiquated language, anachronisms, and contemporary jargon (plus some vulgarities), and readers need to be patient as they burrow into a worldview so intrinsically and pervasively seeped into the Russian soul that not even the Soviet religion could erase it.
Salt to the Sea (Philomel) by Ruta Sepetys is as straightforward as Laurus is convoluted. Set in 1945 as Germans are fleeing from the advancing Soviet armies, this novel based in solid historical research weaves the stories of four teenagers who are also fleeing from guilt and fear. Their stories clash and converge under a snowy sky and culminate aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that sank with the loss of 9,000 lives: It was the greatest (but still little-known) tragedy in maritime history.
Sepetys’ book is billed as young adult fiction, but she doesn’t gloss over the brutal realities that included desperate mothers tossing babies off decks and children being crushed. Her pace is intentionally swift and jarring, and some readers will feel as if they’re being hunted along with the characters. Sepetys writes with thrilling action and vivid images, and in so doing provides soul-gripping storytelling that thrusts readers into the shoes of once-nameless, faceless individuals buried in history.
Monica Wood’s The One-in-a-Million Boy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) also doesn’t dodge death, but its encounter is quiet and subtle. The main characters are a 104-year-old Lithuanian immigrant, a dead child, a guilt-ridden father, and a grief-stricken mother: Not exactly the ingredients for a heartwarming, triumphant story, but beauty grows out of these very sad beginnings. The boy has met the old woman, Ona, as part of a service project for the Boy Scouts: Her age, magic tricks, and attention draw him in, and she’s not put off by his endless lists, obsessive interest in Guinness World Records, and awkward mannerisms.
The father, Quinn, meets Ona when he decides to finish his son’s service project after the boy’s sudden death. Quinn is full of guilt that he failed his son: He was too often touring with his band, and he didn’t understand his awkward boy. Now he wants desperately to understand him, and Ona is a window into his son’s mind. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis writes, “In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out.” This book could be a meditation on that idea. The boy draws out Ona’s life story—and opens up her past to her. Quinn gets to know his son through Ona. Readers see Quinn through the admiring eyes of young members of a Christian band. Caution: A few obscenities that the novel would be better without, but Wood ends the book on a hopeful note, which doesn’t ignore the sadness of death, divorce, and dashed hopes.
Our novel of the year is Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl (Hogarth), a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. It opens with 29-year-old Kate still keeping house for her research-focused scientist-dad and her beautiful but shallow teenage sister. She’s ill-suited to her job as a teacher’s aide at a preschool, yet unmotivated to change occupation, living situation, or even the “meat mush” they eat every night for supper. One indication of her vinegary frame of mind is her bad language several times early in the book— but that stops when she changes.
The change begins after Kate’s father shocks her with a proposal: that she marry his Russian research assistant, whose visa is expiring, so the father’s research can go on. Blunt-talking Kate finds the idea repelling, but star researcher Pyotr sees the brain and heart beneath her armor. At first she scorns him and his Russian accent, but “it occurred to her suddenly that … inwardly he was formulating thoughts every bit as complicated and layered as her own. Well, OK, a glaringly obvious fact. But still, somehow, a surprise. She felt a kind of rearrangement taking place in her mind—a little adjustment of vision.”
And so love begins. Kate becomes willing to marry, on paper, to indulge her father, but Pyotr says marriage is “a covenant.” Tyler subtly shows us de-vinegaring: “When Pyotr was listening closely to someone his face took on a kind of peacefulness, Kate noticed. His forehead smoothed, and he grew completely still as he concentrated on the other person.” Kate starts listening to Pyotr as he starts caring for her. She looks through his drawers: “The meagerness and the … rectitude, was the word that came to her mind.” When Kate’s feminist-following sister accuses her of “backing down,” Kate says: “It’s like men and women are in two different countries! I’m not ‘backing down,’ as you call it; I’m letting him into my country. I’m giving him space in a place where we can both be ourselves. Lord have mercy.”
The Lord does have mercy. After a 2015-2016 in which marriage between a man and a woman took some hits, this affirmation of how two become one shows that a kiss is still a kiss, and the fundamentals still apply as time goes by. Anne Tyler subtly describes the wonder and pleasure of marriage when she has Pyotr, who had no family growing up, tell Kate about the time in high school he stayed at a classmate’s house: “I heard just the parents’ voices, not words. Parents sat together in the living room. Wife said, ‘Mumble mumble?’ Husband said, ‘Mumble.’ … You would maybe sit sometimes in this living room with me? You would say, ‘Mumble?’ And I would say, ‘Mumble mumble.” Kate finally says, “We could do that sometimes.” Pyotr says, “‘O-kay!’ He let out an enormous breath and started smiling.”
Previous Books of the Year
America in Retreat by Bret Stephens
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson
enGendered: God’s Gift of Gender Difference in Relationship by Sam A. Andreades
Mission at Nuremberg by Tim Townsend
The Tyranny of Experts by William Easterly
What’s Your Worldview by James N. Anderson
Escape from North Korea by Melanie Kirkpatrick
The Triumph of Christianity by Rodney Stark
God and Evolution edited by Jay Richards
Should Christians Embrace Evolution? edited by Norman C. Nevin
The Battle by Arthur C. Brooks
English Standard Version Study Bible
The Reason for God by Timothy Keller
Listen to Marvin Olasky discuss this year’s Books Issue on the June 14 edition of The World and Everything in It.