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Bill's Books: Bill Reimer gives us some of his top picks of 2017

(Photo: Sue Careless)

Bill Reimer is the manager, and has been for many years, of Regent College Bookstore, one of North America’s largest surviving theological bookstores. He attends St. John’s Vancouver.

How to Think

Alan Jacobs 

Penguin Random House, 2017

Alan Jacobs is the foremost Christian “public intellectual” in North America today, even if he disavowed being so in a widely circulated 2016 New Yorker article.  With the publication of How to Think, endorsements by the commentator David Brooks, and strong sales in the general book market, Jacobs demonstrates that he is at least a major Christian thinker as he discusses “what it means to think well.” Jacobs concerns himself with second level thinking rather than intuitive, “off the cuff” thinking. He is concerned with the art of thinking rather than the science of thinking (which has been popularized of late). Jacobs asks probing questions about the present political context and suggests that segments of the population are invested in not knowing or thinking about certain subjects in order to have the “pleasure” of a shared social consensus, particularly in the on-line world. Jacobs calls us to see our interlocutors as neighbours rather than the “repugnant other.”  Without “forbearance” the social fabric is torn. Concerning the topic of self-examination, Jacobs cautions against digging up “the roots every morning” but instead, following another sage, “Be brief, be blunt, be gone.” Thinking hard requires a certain “muddling along,” being flexible and open to change and yet, following Chesterton, seeing the object of an open mind to be able to “shut again on something solid.”    



Your Heart Is the Size of Your Fist

Martina Scholtens 

Brindle & Glass, 2017

Any attender at St. John’s Vancouver would sooner or later notice a young family of six regularly file in and sit near the front on Sunday morning at 11. Your Heart takes the reader into the life of the mother of this family. From 2005-2015 she ministered as a family physician to refugees whose lives had so often been traumatized by the fist of warfare and unimaginable suffering. Scholtens recounts her story of growing up in an insular Christian Reformed community in BC, how she began university as an English major, but then took a “guided drift” into medicine with no inkling that her vocational love would be for the health and welfare of refugees. In this book we are introduced to, say, a tiny Bedouin woman patient who had grown up in a Syrian desert, or a man from a remote South Asian village with a rare congenital condition, or a Somali man whose arm had been ripped off by an explosive and who now wept at the possibility of a prosthesis. She proves herself adept as an interpreter of other cultures and adjusts her practices to the often-Muslim beliefs of her patients. The Christian reader is grateful for a believer such as Scholtens who puts her faith into practice on the front-line of a global disaster and in doing so reminds us of the commandment to love our neighbour.             


Heretics and Believers:

A History of the English Reformation

Peter Marshall.

Yale University Press, 2017

Peter Marshall's Heretics and Believers is a vivid account of the English Reformation by one of the most able historians writing on this subject today.  His book integrates and responds to the latest scholarship, but does not get mired in these debates.  Instead, it furnishes a readable and beautiful narrative that will both inform and delight.  Moreover, as a practicing Catholic, Marshall writes with an insider's knowledge and sympathy about the reform and rupture of the Christian faith during this transformative period. The accent is placed on the importance of religious belief for all parties rather than simply viewing reform as a guise for the machinations of the state. The Reformation “was a flowering of late medieval developments, seeded and germinated in the political, cultural and religious soil of the decades around 1500.” There is a warm Christian faith on evidence throughout the book and especially in the postscript. Mark Noll has labelled the book “a treasure.” Marshall has also this year published 1517: Martin Luther and the Invention of the Reformation. For those who want a briefer treatment of the subject, one can consult Marshall’s The Reformation: A Very Short Introduction.  



Awaiting the King: Reforming Public

James K.A. Smith

Baker Academic, 2017 

The opening quote signals a new emphasis by Smith in this, the third and final volume of his Cultural Liturgies project: “Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the Kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body.” This marks a definite swerve in Smith’s thinking with respect to the cultural stance of the Church. Rejecting both “activism and quietism,” Smith desires to be a “resident alien and invested in the state” with a new appreciation of the thought of Augustine as well as our contemporary Anglican theologian, Oliver O’Donovan. As human beings we are created for a common life that is shaped by the polis but in turn we continue to shape this same society or “social architecture.” Today our liberal society continues to be “cratered by the Gospel,” which allows for the hope that a missional Church can continue to bend our political institutions in the direction of the “coming kingdom of love.” In the midst of this dynamic, Smith injects the caution that the state itself is shaped by culture, has a set of its own “liturgies,” and demands the allegiance of the individual Christian. But still, the Church is called to assume a stance that remains within the fray and on the path of pilgrimage. In this we are called to enact the liturgies of the Church “in a way that sinks into our imagination” and is for goodness’ sake rather than merely instrumental. Smith’s is a stimulating work of political theology that hopefully more than a few communities of believers will be able to use imaginatively in the messiness of their own places. 


Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine

Anne Applebaum Signal

Penguin Random, 2017 

Many Canadians, including myself, have roots in Ukraine. I possess a clutch of family letters from that horrific period in Stalinist Russia that has come to be known as the Holdomor – the conflated Ukrainian words for “hunger” and “extermination.” In the early 1930s the Soviet Politburo made a series of political decisions that increased famine conditions in the Ukrainian countryside. Applebaum recounts how collectivization crippled agriculture while at the same time thousands of churches were closed, further rending the fabric of Ukrainian society. By 1932 teams of government agents were seizing all foodstuffs from the countryside and carrying out a policy of mass starvation that was intended to destroy a sense of Ukrainian nationalism.  The actual experience of mass starvation is almost indescribable. Civility was left behind. Thousands were executed for stealing even small amounts while many more were imprisoned for ten-year sentences that often ended in death. Reportage of the Holdomor was obstructed by the Soviets and even censored in the West--as with the case of the very brave young Welsh reporter, Gareth Jones, as well as the young Malcolm Muggeridge, whose pro-Soviet sympathies were shattered by the reality of starvation in the countryside. Less known is the reporting by the Canadian Rhea Clyman. In all, at least five million died of starvation in the Soviet Union during the period from 1931-1934, with at least three million victims in Ukraine itself. Applebaum has made good use of those archives that have opened up since 1991 and has ably extended this story of mass murder, which is under-studied and under-recounted to this day.         


God’ Wisdom for Navigating Life:

A Year of Daily Devotion for

Navigating Life

Timothy and Kathy Keller

Viking, 2017


Daily wisdom and prayers from the Book of Proverbs, written by a wise couple.  The Kellers have also co-authored  The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms (2015) and The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God (2013). Billy Graham has said of Tim Keller’s ministry in New York City that it “is leading a generation of seekers and skeptics toward belief in God.”   TAP

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