Columnists > Voices

The 51st book

I wouldn't subtract from our Top 50 list, so I'll invoke publisher's privilege

Issue: "Supreme warning," July 5, 2003

While editor-in-chief Marvin Olasky and culture editor Ed Veith focus your attention in this issue on the 50 books that, more than any others, will give you an insight into Western civilization, I'll ask you to focus on still two others: one that should be on the Olasky-Veith list but isn't, and another that hasn't been fully written yet.

The one that should be on the list, but isn't, is a hymnbook. That, of course, is also to suggest a question of a much more difficult order: Which hymnbook are we talking about?

In a broadly generic sense, to proffer any list of 50 books that have, more than any others, shaped us as a civilization, and then to leave out a hymnbook, is like reviewing dictionaries and never mentioning Webster. A hymnbook, at least over the last several centuries, is simply too central and too integral to how we have come to think as a people.

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But which one? Three hymnbooks have shaped the songs of my own heart. The first was Service Hymnal, a very vanilla collection offered about the middle of the last century by Hope Publishing Co. of Chicago. It was good enough to build "A Mighty Fortress" and "O For a Thousand Tongues" into the fiber of my being; trite enough to include some very forgettable gospel songs; and bad enough to encourage the pastor of my church (who was also my father) to censor with big sheets of thick gummed paper the worst and most theologically offensive hymns. I mention Service Hymnal mostly because it's a symbol of the pablum most Americans have been served in the name of hymnody.

From Service Hymnal, though, I was blessed to graduate during my high-school years to InterVarsity Press' wonderful Hymns. It was a slender little book, especially handy for singing at the table, which was our family's custom at both breakfast and dinner, every single day. I don't think there was a bad selection in that whole book, and it began to elevate my sense of what it meant to be biblically faithful and musically literate at the same time.

Then, in the 1960s, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church produced Trinity Hymnal-which multiplied by several times the number of similarly high-caliber hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs. We literally wore out dozens of copies of those books, still singing at mealtime twice every day, singing at church, singing at school chapel, singing in the choir, and whenever else we could find an opportunity. Trinity Hymnal's second edition in 1985 maintained that same great tradition of both nurturing the soul and lifting the spirit.

I am not of the school that argues that all hymns are good and all praise songs are bad. I do know though, if I were lost on a desert island, which collection I'd yearn for.

Then for the book that hasn't been fully written yet. In fact, somewhere in suburban Washington, D.C., this unfinished work is actually right now in process. It could be a barn-burner. Its main characters are involved in a plot so intriguing that last week they actually prompted a regular writer for WORLD to step aside from his work with us to get even more involved in what those characters are doing.

That, of course, was a disappointment to me and to our editorial team-and it deserves a bit of straightforward explanation. Joel Rosenberg is actually both people: WORLD's writer (until last week) and also the creator of this new suspense novel, due out on Oct. 21.

Mr. Rosenberg has researched and written WORLD's Flash Traffic page for the last two years, even while completing his first novel, The Last Jihad, and watching it find noteworthy commercial success. You read about that in a three-page story in WORLD last Dec. 21.

It didn't take book publishers long to notice that The Last Jihad had quickly topped the sales lists of Amazon.com and reached the top five at BarnesandNoble.com-and that Joel Rosenberg just might be hot property. That's why Publishers Weekly announced that Mr. Rosenberg had been awarded a handsome advance to produce a sequel to The Last Jihad which will be called The Last Days. And that, in turn, is why Mr. Rosenberg has told us that he really has to focus his creative juices on his new book and its promotion rather than on his Flash Traffic page in WORLD.

How could we disagree? Why wouldn't we want a WORLD writer to become a bestselling novelist? "Godspeed!" we assured him, biting our lip a bit and wiping away a regretful tear or two. Be watching this column in just a week or two for a special offer allowing you to get either or both of Mr. Rosenberg's books, through a special arrangement with WORLD, for a very good price. c

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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