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Best in show?

Books | Houghton Mifflin makes some good choices in its annual series but leaves out a lot

Issue: "Surviving Syria," June 1, 2013

When I was a child in the third quarter of the 20th century, gatekeepers of all kinds called themselves objective, and for a time I believed them. Walter Cronkite ended his CBS newscast by saying, “And that’s the way it is.” The New York Times said it had “All the news that’s fit to print.” In high school I had big textbooks that informed me I would read within them World Literature, American History, or Biology. 

Halfway through the first quarter of the 21st century, such assumptions of objectivity are no longer fashionable, except among those who have items for sale that they hope to label “the best.” That’s why I decided to read much of Houghton Mifflin’s 2012 “the best” series. The annual volumes began in 1915 with The Best American Short Stories, expanded in 1986 with The Best American Essays, and grew fat from 1991 to 2006 by adding titles in Sports Writing, Mystery Stories, Science and Nature Writing, Travel Writing, Nonrequired Reading and Comics. 

Only two labels have failed to survive—The Best American Recipes and (aha) The Best American Spiritual Writing—so some customers still relish the idea that they’re buying “the best.” I’m skeptical. Some of “the best” essays were good—“Getting Schooled” taught the difficulty of public school teaching, “My Father/My Husband” showed the misery of Alzheimer’s, and “How Doctors Die” argued that physicians don’t want to spend their last days amid ventilators and tubes—but I’ve read ones just as good every week.

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Throughout the books, the almost-total absence of Christian perspectives was particularly striking. “The best” science and nature writing, of course, embodied evolutionary perspectives: “Scientists are currently debating whether we and octopuses evolved eyes separately or whether a common ancestor had the makings of the eye.” The volumes of sports writing and mysteries had the least propaganda. Nevertheless, here’s one recommendation: To read great sports writing, save your money and visit for free the SI Vault (sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault). There you’ll see some pieces by Thomas Lake, our interviewee in this issue (see “Providential perspective”).

In brief

Christopher White’s Come Follow Me (Thomas Lowe, 2013) clearly shows how we are to become disciples and organize churches. White emphasizes the importance of decentralization and the problems of hierarchy: Pastors should be shepherds and servants, not lords and CEOs. 

Eric Metaxas’ Seven Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness (Thomas Nelson, 2013) vividly profiles seven men who professed faith in Christ and are worth following. Erwin Lutzer’s The Cross in the Shadow of the Crescent (Harvest House, 2013) shows how the best defense against Islam is a Church that resists moral compromise: Sadly, consumerism and a watering down of the gospel message are frequent.

Craig Keener’s two-volume Miracles (Baker, 2011) takes us from New Testament accounts to miracle stories beyond antiquity and concludes that miracles then and now are indeed possible. Some writers have argued that the writing of the U.S. Constitution was semi-miraculous, but Gregg Frazer’s The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders (University Press of Kansas, 2012) builds a case that it was a logical outcome of the “theistic rationalism”—a hybrid of natural religion, Protestantism, and reason—that animated the thinking of many Founders. William Voegeli’s Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State (Encounter, 2010, 2012) shows how far we’ve moved from the Founders’ vision.

Ron Benrey’s The Day God Flipped My Switch (Greenbrier, 2013) describes one writer’s breakthrough concerning the Trinity. It didn’t make sense to him until he realized that a literary trinity helped to explain the real one in a way he could understand: Benrey the Author sits at his computer. Benrey the Character is the protagonist of the story, traveling within the world the Author created. Benrey the Narrator animates the characters and orchestrates what Benrey the Author wants done. (As with all analogies to a reality beyond our earthly comprehension, if this helps you, run with it, and if it doesn’t, drop it.) —M.O.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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