Wrap It Up! Books on faith still gladden hearts at Christmas

By Sam Hodges, Managing Editor and Mary Jacobs, Staff Writer…

Getting pleasantly lost in a bookstore isn’t easy to do anymore. Bookstores have continued to close as readers and publishers embrace online book sales, digital books and e-readers. The recent announcement by the United Methodist Publishing House that all Cokesbury stores will be shuttered by spring is screamingly emphatic evidence of the trend.

But, hey, it’s Christmas, and while the book business is changing, plenty of United Methodists and others will still be hoping to get books as a gift, in one form or another.


So here are some faith-based suggestions, drawn mostly from reviews, interviews and features that appeared in the Reporter this year:

Blogger Rachel Held Evans spent a year immersed in the teachings of the Bible as they relate to women, with the result being A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master” (Thomas Nelson, 321 pages, paperback). This funny, insightful journal shares the author’s discovery that “biblical womanhood” doesn’t exactly mirror the June Cleaver image that many evangelicals, like Ms. Evans, might uphold. A fun read with a serious message, this book is really about the authority of Scripture—what it means, and what it doesn’t.

With the New Year just around the corner, Christmas is a good time to present a friend or family member with a new devotional. Thankful: Practicing the Grace of Gratitude (Abingdon Press, 224 pages, paperback) by Karen Moore offers a simple, practical tool for cultivating a grateful heart in the year ahead. Each of the 52 weekly devotionals focuses on an area for expressing gratitude: for each new day, for simple pleasures, for adversity, for memories, music and miracles. Each daily reading includes a Bible verse, quote and thought-starter for personal prayer or journaling. For the animal lover in your life, there’s Paws to Reflect: 365 Devotions for the Animal Lover’s Soul (Abingdon, 374 pages, hardcover) by Devon O’Day and Kim McLean. Each day’s one-page devotion centers on a Bible verse and a story of a pet, farm animals or wildlife.

For a more streamlined approach to devotions, consider Anne Lamott’s newest offering, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers (Riverhead Books, 102 pages, hardcover). This short meditation on prayer will please anyone who loves her funny, perceptive and occasionally colorful writing and her offbeat take on living a life of faith.

If you’re looking for a volume to grace the coffee table, and to spend some rewarding time with, consider In the Footsteps of Jesus: a Chronicle of His Life and the Origins of Christianity (National Geographic, 377 pages, hardcover). Text is by Jean-Pierre Isbouts, author of The Biblical World. National Geographic has lavishly illustrated the book with photographs, maps and drawings.

The number of American Christians making short-term mission trips to Africa has soared in recent years. But their sincere efforts often fail to help and can actually be harmful, according to journalist Joe Donnelly, author of A Twist of Faith: An American Christian’s Quest to Help Orphans in Africa (Beacon Press, 200 pages, hardcover). Mr. Donnelly focuses on David Nixon, a North Carolinian whose ups and downs in working in Malawi left him “wary and chastened, though stubbornly hopeful,” said our reviewer, the Rev. Wes Magruder. Mr. Magruder, a former UM missionary to Cameroon, calls this book “masterful” and salutes its advocacy for promoting “sustainable small-scale farming and better education for children” rather than flashier projects.

The Rev. Deb Richardson-Moore’s unsentimental but ultimately inspiring memoir, The Weight of Mercy: A Novice Pastor on the City Streets (Monarch Books, 288 pages, paperback) tells of her shift from newspaper reporter to pastor of Triune Mercy Center, a nondenominational church in Greenville, S.C., focused on the homeless. The author describes how she gradually concluded that handouts alone weren’t helping her parishioners, leading to a new emphasis on drug treatment and other tough love responses.

The United Methodist episcopacy doesn’t exactly teem with provocateurs. One who came in swinging, and left the same way, is retired Bishop Will Willimon. His memoir Bishop: The Art of Questioning Authority by an Authority in Question (Abingdon, 200 pages, paperback) is full of barbs and anecdotes that elaborate his long-held view that United Methodism has, in many respects, lost its way. Example: “Our church is full of people who think of themselves as theological liberals but who are organizational reactionaries.” Bishop Willimon is as prolific as he is edgy, and he also produced a novel this year, Incorporation (Cascade, 266 pages, paperback), that satirizes the goings-on at a megachurch.

The Rev. Paul Nixon had a hit with his book I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church! He followed it up this year with We Refused to Lead a Dying Church! (The Pilgrim Press, 175 pages, paperback), which profiles 15 churches, eight of them United Methodist, that were on the ropes and found new life. “I wanted to show extreme comebacks so that one might conclude, ‘If it can happen there, it can happen in our church,’” Mr. Nixon said in an interview with the Reporter.

Who couldn’t benefit from a little forgiveness, received or extended? The Rev. Adam Hamilton packs a lot of deep thinking into his short book, Forgiveness: Finding Peace Through Letting Go (Abingdon, 142 pages, hardcover). Mr. Hamilton, senior pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., has a gift for applying solid Wesleyan theology to real-life struggles, making this a great book for personal or group study.

If you’re looking to give one of the classics, consider the new edition of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity (HarperOne, 328 pages, hardcover), issued for the 60th anniversary of the book which began as a series of radio talks on the BBC during World War II. The gift edition features a new foreword by Lewis’ stepson, Douglas Gresham, and excerpts from Lewis’ letters, which reveal his thinking as he worked on the book.

Two Perkins School of Theology professors offer practical advice in What Not to Say: Avoiding the Common Mistakes That Can Sink Your Sermon (Westminster John Knox Press, 160 pages, paperback) by John C. Holbert and Alyce M. McKenzie. They highlight common pitfalls in preaching—in particular, theological doom loops, such as: “Faith automatically brings happy endings, healings, job opportunities, restored relationships and so forth” or “Misfortunes come directly from God as punishments or teaching moments.”

Reporter columnist Missy Buchanan co-wrote a memoir of Lucimarian Roberts, the mother of Good Morning America co-host Robin Roberts. My Story, My Song: Reflections on Life and Faith (Upper Room Books, 144 pages, hardcover) shares Lucimarian’s memories: as the first in her family to attend college, as the wife of a Tuskegee Airman and as a mother who raised four children while living in 27 different cities. Through it all, faith kept her strong. Lucimarian passed away in August at age 88, just a few months after the book’s launch.

Some other books to keep in mind: The Rev. Rebekah Miles, a Perkins professor, speaks to the grieving through her short, personal book When the One You Love Is Gone (Abingdon, 112 pages, paperback). . . . The Rev. Ted Campbell, another Perkins professor, has brought out a new edition of his book Methodist Doctrine: The Essentials (Abingdon, 160 pages, paperback). . . . The Rev. Donald W. Haynes’ “Wesleyan Wisdom” columns are collected in the volume On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals (UMR Communications, paperback, 96 pages).

For General Conference 2012, the United Methodist Publishing House offered these “adaptive leadership” books: Jesus Insurgency: The Church Revolution from the Edge by Rudy Rasmus and Dottie Escobedo-Frank; Focus: The Real Challenges that Face the United Methodist Church by Lovett Weems; Lord, I Love the Church and We Need Help by Virginia Bassford; Back to Zero: The Search to Rediscover the Methodist Movement by Gil Rendle; and The Recovery of a Contagious Methodist Movement by George Hunter III.


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Bill Fentum, Former UMR Associate Editor

Bill Fentum

Bill Fentum was a dedicated employee of The United Methodist Reporter from 1985 to 2013, serving as the associate editor. Bill continues his work in journalism in a variety of positions as an independent journalist.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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