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What do you get John Calvin for his 500th birthday?

Since he’s obviously not available for a party or gifts, how about reading a book about him or buying one for a friend?

A spate of new volumes on Calvin has been appearing in a kind of predestined flurry. A great first choice, to get to know the man in his context, is Herman Selderhuis’s John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life (IVP Academic, 2009). Insightful and sympathetic, it makes Calvin profoundly human and wonderfully interesting.

To broaden and deepen your knowledge of the famous man, turn to some fine older studies: T.H.L. Parker’s profound John Calvin: A Biography (Westminster John Knox, reprinted 2007); William J. Bouw-sma’s rather psychologized John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait (Oxford University Press); and Alister E. McGrath’s excellent and expansive A Life of John Calvin: A Study of the Shaping of Western Culture (Wiley-Blackwell).

Another short, helpful, and accessible introduction is a collection of four lectures delivered by Robert Reymond and packaged as John Calvin: His Life and Influence (Christian Focus). It is better than John Piper’s John Calvin and His Passion for the Majesty of God (Crossway), which is only a reprint from a chapter in Piper’s earlier work, The Legacy of Sovereign Joy (Crossway).

Sometimes it is helpful to overhear the conversations of a bunch of folks who reflect together like old friends. Such happens in John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, Doxology (Reformation Trust), a diverse and slightly repetitive (but very readable) volume edited by Burk Parsons.

Of course, if you really want to know Calvin, his own words are still the best introduction. Although he wrote hundreds of letters and dozens of organizational manuals for churches, Calvin believed his only two publications of lasting significance were his exegetical sermons (collected as his commentaries) and his interpretive handbook, Institutes of the Christian Religion. This latter work, especially in its McNeill-Battles edition (Westminster John Knox), is far more readable than many fear, and digging into it would most honor the great one on his birthday. And if you need a handbook to the handbook, Charles Partee has recently summarized its contents in The Theology of John Calvin (Westminster John Knox). 

Hot Off the Presses . . .

Just released by Faith Alive Christian Resources, our denominational publisher, is Christopher Meehan’s Pursued by God: The Amazing Life and Lasting Influence of John Calvin. Starting a bit hesitantly (not much data on Calvin’s early life, a little speculative), the book catches its stride by the third of 11 chapters and builds with energy and flourish through the rest of Calvin’s life. An epilogue reflection on “Calvinism for the Twenty-First Century” is a journal article that detracts from, rather than adds to the book. Regardless, this book is eminently readable and interesting, it is a great first glance or profitable refresher on the man and his times.


Welcome to the Welcome Wagon

by The Welcome Wagon
reviewed by Robert N. Hosack

For those awaiting Sufjan Stevens’s new release, here’s the next best thing. Recorded, produced, and arranged by the indie star, The Welcome Wagon is Brooklyn-based Presbyterian pastor Thomas Vito Aiuto and his wife, Monique. Their debut of folk-gospel duets is laden with Stevens’s orchestral flourishes. The duo’s quirky repertoire reflects a rich history of sacred song traditions, drawing from 19th-century psalters and hymnals, while also offering pop-music covers from The Velvet Underground and The Smiths. The kitschy CD package’s artwork celebrates the Sunday sing-along. Unabashedly Christian—a joyful noise indeed! (Asthmatic Kitty Records)

Up the Yangtze

reviewed by Ron VandenBurg

The largest concrete dam in the world—China’s new Three Gorges Dam—stretches more than one mile across the Yangtze River and produces 18,000 megawatts of electricity. To make way, more than one million people living on the river’s banks will have to move to higher ground. Aboard a “farewell cruise” for Westerners, a peasant girl, Yu Shui, struggles to earn wages as her family hovel gets swallowed by the expanding river. Her coworker, Chen Bo Yu, embraces modern China’s plans and looks forward to his own future personal wealth. Through their experiences, Chinese-Canadian documentary director Yung Chang helps us get a glimpse of contemporary China. (Zeitgeist Films)

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor

by Brad Gooch
reviewed by Robert N. Hosack

For fans of O’Connor’s macabre, comic, “Christ-haunted” fiction, Brad Gooch provides the first major definitive biography of her since she died of lupus in 1964 at age 39. Drawing on a recently unsealed cache of correspondence and an impressive array of interviews, Gooch meticulously mines these materials, contributing further to O’Connor studies—what he terms “a one-woman academic industry.” The biography offers no real revelations but does excel in giving glimpses into and connecting her fiction to her real-life Southern, Irish Catholic roots. (Little, Brown)

Fiction Family

by Fiction Family
reviewed by Elizabeth Gonzalez

Multi-talented frontmen Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek and Jon Foreman of Switchfoot joined forces to form Fiction Family, a throwback to acoustic rock. While neither deserted his original band, they began exchanging tracks depending on who was on tour. This duo’s musical maturity and skill are evident. The peppy “When She’s Near” opens the album, sounding like the soundtrack for a relaxing summer’s day. “Out of Order” lilts through the singer’s questions about life priorities. Solid music and lyrics make Fiction Family ring with truth. (Ato Records)

The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith

by Timothy Keller
reviewed by Sonya VanderVeen Feddema

Keller’s exploration of the parable of the prodigal son—he prefers to call it “the parable of the two lost sons”—reveals the essentials of the gospel for seekers and Christians alike. Portraying the Lord as the “God of Great Expenditure,” Keller’s astute analysis shows that “Jesus is redefining everything we thought we knew about connecting to God.” In his final chapter, “The Feast of the Father,” he compellingly spells out the implications the glorious gospel has for those who accept it. (Dutton)

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