Hip Christian Books

As I look back on the pile of books I read in 2013, a number of them seem to fall into a new genre.  “Christian hip,” I’ll call it.  Move over John Stott, Chuck Colson, and Max Lucado.  These books circle around faith matters in a decidedly non-traditional way.  Many of the authors came out of a strict evangelical or fundamentalist background, and they write about their spiritual detours in a loose, memoir-type style with a few obligatory bad words sprinkled in.

Two publishers have devoted an entire line of books to this new genre: Jericho Books by Hachette/Faith Words and Convergent Books by Crown/Penguin/Random House.  (In this day of corporate mergers, publishers have multiple names, like royalty.)  I usually give their books the exercise machine test.  If they hold my interest for thirty minutes on an exercise bike or elliptical machine, I’ll read them more carefully later.  The following passed that test.

Losing Your Faith, Finding Your SoulLosing Your Faith, Finding Your Soul by David Robert Anderson was the most rewarding discovery, and I marked it up heavily.  An Episcopal minister in Connecticut, Anderson has been on a journey toward an honest faith that may rattle some evangelicals but comfort many others.  His well-researched book includes some lovely stories and juicy quotes, such as, “The comedian Cathy Ladman was not far wrong when she remarked, ‘All religions are the same: religion is basically guilt with different holidays.’”

Invisible GirlsThe Invisible Girls by Sarah Thebarge ranks as my personal favorite in this genre.  At age 27, Sarah Thebarge had life in her pocket, with a boyfriend, an Ivy League degree, and a good job.  Breast cancer, a cross-country move, and a painful breakup changed all that, and yet her own travails are not the main focus of the book—a family of Somali refugees is.  What happens next in her beautifully told story proves the truth of Jesus’ statement that we find our lives by giving them away.

Strangers at My DoorSpeaking of giving away your life, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove makes that a career.  Along with Shane Claiborne, he founded the New Monastic movement.  He and his wife Leah live in a Christian community that opens its door wide to any straggler.  What would happen if we took literally Jesus’ command to “Give to everyone who asks”?  Strangers at My Door gives the answer, in a way that inspires the reader toward hospitality rather than guilt.

When We Were on FireAddie Zierman’s When We Were on Fire is a model of the raised-Christian-then-left-the-church-and-maybe-the-faith-then-warily-climbed-back memoir.  She pulls it off, and Publishers Weekly just named her book as one of the top five religious books of 2013.  Here’s a sample: “Some of us searched longer than others, but in the end we faded out.  We were looking for Jesus.  Instead we found programs, guilt, and awkward small talk. We found fog machines and Five-Simple-Steps-to-Spiritual-Growth and fill-in-the-blank Bible studies.  So we started sleeping in on Sunday mornings.  We went to the farmers market and bought good things straight from the earth.  We drank our morning coffee at small café tables outside, and people walked by with their dogs at a slow, Sunday-morning pace.  It felt more like rest to us than those chaotic church mornings, when we moved through the loud small talk of the church foyer and felt invisible.”

PastrixPastrix, by Nadia Bolz-Weber, covers similar terrain on steroids.  Tattooed like a motorcycle mama, potty-mouthed, an in-your-face standup comic, Nadia surprised everyone—especially herself—by becoming a Lutheran minister and founding a church, The House for All Sinners and Saints, in my home city of Denver.  Her style may be off-putting to some, but underneath she writes with passion about a contentful faith.  I think of her as a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

Some of these books center on a particular issue.  Sober Mercies, by Heather Kopp, gives a harrowing account of a committed Christian, herself an author and married to a Christian publishing executive, who has a secret life as an alcoholic.  Torn, by Justin Lee, brings both poignancy and compassion to the church’s ongoing conversation about homosexuality.  Mixed-Up Love, by Jon Sweeney and Michal Woll, tells what happens when a kid from a blue-blood evangelical family becomes Catholic and marries a Reconstructionist rabbi.  Holly Burkhalter’s Good God, Lousy World & Me explores the age-old question of a loving God and a world of evil through the lens of the International Justice Mission, an organization that responds to evil not by philosophizing but by advocacy and activism.

Other books give a kind of apologetic for the church.  In When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough, Lillian Daniel makes a strong case for faith not being a solitary undertaking.  Rob Strong, who lives in Massachusetts, “the least churched state in the USA,” tries in The Big Guy Upstairs to explain faith to those who would not understand Christian lingo.

What Do We Talk About...And just so you know I haven’t been paid by publishers to hawk their books, I’ll say that not all “Christian hip” books keep me reading.  I couldn’t make it through Rob Bell’s Love Wins because I found the staccato, one-sentence paragraphs grating.  The syntax got in the way of the content; I felt more like I was reading a catalog than a book.  (However, I found Rob Bell’s latest, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, refreshing and stimulating.)  For the same reason, I couldn’t relate to a couple of books by Jay Bakker, son of Jim and Tammy Faye.  My hipster tolerance has its limits.

UnapologeticOne last mention: A bright literary light in the U.K., Francis Spufford, caused a stir with Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense.  Great Britain is much further down the post-Christian path than the U.S., and Spufford makes his points by appealing to life experiences rather than theological ideas.  To almost everyone’s surprise, he ends up fairly orthodox—though with a lot of bad words thrown in.  That seems to be the essential ingredient in hipsterism.

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17 Responses to Hip Christian Books

  1. Bert says:

    I’m not sure Spufford is trying to be “hip.” One of his main points is you are going to be seen as an oddity in Europe if you go to church. He does a brilliant job at expressing how the message of Christianity makes sense while so much of our culture doesn’t.

  2. Ana G. Patel says:

    Some of these books center on a particular issue. Sober Mercies , by Heather Kopp, gives a harrowing account of a committed Christian, herself an author and married to a Christian publishing executive, who has a secret life as an alcoholic. Torn , by Justin Lee, brings both poignancy and compassion to the church’s ongoing conversation about homosexuality. Mixed-Up Love , by Jon Sweeney and Michal Woll, tells what happens when a kid from a blue-blood evangelical family becomes Catholic and marries a Reconstructionist rabbi. Holly Burkhalter’s Good God, Lousy World & Me explores the age-old question of a loving God and a world of evil through the lens of the International Justice Mission, an organization that responds to evil not by philosophizing but by advocacy and activism.

  3. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove says:

    Honored to be counted in this number, though my kids we argue w/ “hip.” Grateful, as ever, for your writing and generosity.

  4. Kathy Michael says:

    Define hip, please. Bad language a necessity? To prove one can “identify” with others who use those words? Condescending. Whatever.I’m looking forward to reading The Question that Never Gets Answered, which will be delivered to my ipad in a couple of days.

  5. Beverly Turnbo says:

    Your book “Grace Notes” has been my constant companion since my husband died five years ago. Through your words and the Lord’s grace, you have encouraged, comforted, stimulated and inspired me to walk this path of grief with anticipation and hope. I agree with Billy Graham’s quote: there is no one author that I admire and appreciate more than you.

  6. Greg Denholm says:

    That’s very funny. Seriously, I laughed!

    I’m currently re-reading Unapologetic on the strength of your recommendation (I bought and read it earlier in the year). Wow, Spufford packs a punch. He is a welcome change from the trite, triumphalistic formulas for happiness, success and comfort that too often pass for Christian teaching. He debunks the common explanations for suffering, which, though well-intentioned, are actually quite useless (particularly for people who are suffering). He strikes a good balance, bringing real intellectual substance to the task of defending Christianity while recognising science’s natural limitations in illuminating truth. He exposes the arrogance of atheism brilliantly.

    I do think he is a little arrogant himself in asserting that evolution is definitely the method used by God in creation. I am not saying he is wrong; I am just questioning the confidence with which he makes that assertion. I think he overstates the popularity of evolution over a literal understanding of Genesis 1-3; I would call it at around 50-50.

    I kind of want to agree with his conclusions on homosexual acts, but can’t see a way to accomplish that with intellectual integrity. I won’t say any more on that because I don’t want to set off a firestorm on your blog.

    A final comment on his language, while trying not to tut-tut. For me, one of the skills of writing is to convey emotion without resorting to expletives, so he loses a few points there. I wonder how he squares his language with his conscience, given that he must be aware of the Bible’s exhortations to clean speech? Perhaps there is a reason for it in addition to his anger: it may be a strategy to get the book—a defence of Christianity—onto secular bookshelves.

    Overall, an absorbing and thought-provoking read.

  7. Greg Denholm says:

    What does it mean if you fall off the machine while reading the book?

    It means you just got a “hip injury.”

  8. Ann Voskamp says:

    Very helpful.
    Thank you, friend…

  9. Elizabeth Manneh says:

    Thank you so much for these book reviews. I always like to have a few books in mind to move on to, so I will check these out.

  10. Cally Renee' D.G. says:

    Thanks for the list. Actually, will attempt the 1st recommendation. Don’t know if writers/readers take offense on suggestions, but can you attempt the dryness of reformed theologians? My thought I am forced to reading boring scientific journals every day if i like them i will chew on them for almost two years, if i think they are boring still need to submit to a boss that wants me to present to a whole scientific congregation, looking like a fool and still submit. In Christian circles the greatest of all sins i have found is the inability to submit and still think that they are godly b/c they can avoid the things they hate. I actually hate my job, but also submit to the possibility that God simply wants me there, submission to being ‘bored’ is a great attribute, it helps those of a low life to respect those of a great life (suppose put you in that category as I love your writing w/ Paul Brand…often pondered his closeness to his wife?…but that is for God to understand). As a child i forced myself to read the whole jot and tittle of a book even if i thought it was boring, as an adult i realized God used that to help me submit to authority, even the boring parts to the bible it was submission. From a female fearful writer, can’t even get past the outline of my work (7yrs of HARD Work w/out one 1st author)…i’m ok with that….i’m so afraid my work will 1)not be reproducible, 2)may be used on children 30 yrs from now (20 yrs..after patent is done and the results of inappropriateness, 3)God will rebuke me for not being a strong enough christian in a culture that will never surrender to a King until his return. I usually default to the passage, that “we need more time to save those whom don’t believe Lord”, cally’s prayer. Still pray for the woman whom chose to lie to a congregation for 2yrs. That is the oddest of all sins…like your friend Rich whom no longer believes b/c he didn’t hear God’s voice, my husband doesn’t hear God’s voice, when you hear the spiritual realm all the time you don’t want it, meaning there are those of us whom long for God’s return every day w/ a glorious party for seeing those whom we work with bow to the only King! and yet i weep for in my heart i am unsure if they will every understand the love of God in this life and/or the next…hell is my eternal question to my savior even if he doesn’t allow me that pondering in heaven.
    God’s Speed!

    Cally, it’s hard for me to piece together everything you’re saying here. I admire what you call “submission,” a form of discipline that gives you perseverance without a lot of immediate reward. Our culture needs much more of that! On the other hand, I hear a burden in your words, and hope that you can experience the joy and freedom of knowing God’s grace and love for you. Christians can have a kind of wild side, I think, one that comes from confidence and trust that the things that matter most have already been settled. May you sense that in 2014. And, by the way, Paul and Margaret Brand had one of the finest partnerships I know of. She’s a remarkable woman, living in the Seattle area at age 95. They point the way for me and many others. As for writing, you might appreciate the book “The Courage to Write.” It’s a scary process, as I know all too well.

  11. vicki anderholt says:

    Thank you so much for the reviews!~ They are so helpful! Of course I agree that another Yancey book would be even better! Please keep writing ! Your way with words and Faith is astonishing and wonderful! I love every single one of your books, and as I mentioned in Centennial when I spoke with you, I have 3 sets of all your books in the making…….one for each of my daughters. (Charlotte, Samantha and Tori). I can’t wait to give them to them one of these days!
    Merry Christmas! Hope you aren’t too cold and snowed in out there in Colorado! Here in LA its warm and sunny….lol. You and your wife are always welcome here if you are in LA…I would love to give you a tour of the rescue bunnies and then have a nice theological conversation over starbucks! Yum and wonderful! :)

  12. Mary Wall Freeme says:

    Thank you for the amazing reviews Philip – I find your gift with words so……. I do not have a word that expresses the delight and …….. that cause me to want to buy all the books reviewed, simply because of your gift to bring life to words.

  13. Addie Zierman says:

    Thanks so much for the mention here, Philip. I’m so honored.

  14. Vicki Lynn Black says:

    Thank you for the reading suggestions, Philip. I always regret the sense of failure and guilt when, having been excited about a new book, it fails to hold my interest past the first chapter. I think I might be able to relate to finding “programs, guilt and awkward small talk” as well as relative invisibility in the church foyer. Glad to have discovered your website, through facebook, via Bruce Otto. I have always regretted not having attended your Sunday School class in 1986 when we lived in Chicago.

    Vicki Lynn

  15. Zach Wriston says:

    I do not think you need to worry about accusations of receiving payment to hawk books, your reviews are far too late for Christmas shipping dates. I do thank you for your reviews and will mix a couple into my reading line up for next year. Merry Christmas.

  16. Linnea Larsen says:

    I find this trend very encouraging as I can relate to the words of some of these authors and find myself less interested in traditional messages. I seek Jesus, not any man’s understanding or definition of Him. Thank you for the suggestions. Your spirit is generous.

  17. pamela wood says:

    Thanks so much for the suggestions (and not!!). I was wondering what I was going to read next! Of course, I would prefer if there was a new Philip Yancey book to read. Yes, I already read your latest the day it came out on the Kindle.

    GOD Bless

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