Of Reviewing Many Books There Is No End

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Of Reviewing Many Books There Is No End

Collin Hansen interviews Ivan Mesa about books


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Collin Hansen: Every year at The Gospel Coalition we review about 300 titles between our academic journal Themelios and our regular book reviews section. And the man behind that book reviews section is Ivan Mesa. He’s also the organizer behind our annual book awards. He coordinates between dozens of editors, and publishers, and writers, and judges to deliver this curated list of the year’s best titles. I dare say it is a labor of love for Ivan.

Well, in TGC’s Book Awards our judges use four criteria. A book might be good but not necessarily aligned with TGC’s priorities. But in our awards, we’re looking for these things, we want books that first, offer gospel-centered argument and application. Second, include faithful and foundational use of Scripture, both Old Testament and New Testament. Third, foster spiritual discernment of contemporary trials and trends, and fourth encourage efforts to unite and renew the church.

Well, for more on why TGC makes books such a high priority, the story behind this year’s awards and the reading culture at The Gospel Coalition, I’m joined by our books editor, Ivan Mesa. Ivan, thank you for joining me on The Gospel Coalition Podcast.

Ivan Mesa: Thanks for having me on.

Hansen: All right, Ivan, why does TGC do book awards?

Mesa: We just live in a day where we are blessed to have so many books that come out on a regular basis. So, in some ways, it’s the best and also the worst of times when it comes to book publishing. So, you don’t have to look far to look at a top bestseller lists, even Christian bestseller lists and be sort of discouraged when it comes to the theology being pumped out into kind of the mainstream publishing world. But we also live in very unique times and we’re very encouraged and blessed to have so many good, rich, faithful offerings when it comes to books. And so, I see our book awards as an opportunity to just express gratitude for the number of edifying good books that are released in every given year. We also assess like you mentioned that four-fold criteria, and we use that to look over what’s been published in our.. last year. And then thirdly, I guess, to promote these books for our readers, pastors that follow our website and our ministry, folks that are looking for good books to purchase for loved ones that are faithful that are edifying, that are helpful.

And so, all in all, it’s just a good way at the end of the year to kind of step back, look what’s been published and kind of express gratitude and promote books that we see as faithful to the gospel and edifying to God’s people.

Hansen: What does this process look like, Ivan? You’ve been doing this for a number of years now. It’s just a mammoth undertaking, one for which I’m extremely grateful to God for His gifting for you. So, tell us a little bit about when this process begins and what kind of thought and time is put into the awards.

Mesa: I guess it begins in earnest midway through the year, so June, July. We officially kick off the awards process by contacting publishers, making sure that we have judges in place for each category. So, we appoint editors that oversee each category. This year, I think we have about 11 categories. And there are three additional judges for each of those categories. And so, publishers then nominate a number of books. We’re also scouting for books that might align with those categories. But really, this process begins all the way at the beginning of the year. So, our book awards surveys the releases of the entire calendar year. So, from the very beginning of the year, January, we are reviewing, we’re publishing 12 book reviews per month. And even at that early point, we are assessing those books through a number of different reviewers that we work with, we are assessing what are the books that are coming out, what are the most helpful in different categories. But yeah, it’s basically a year-round process from beginning to end where we as a staff, and the judges that help be part of the process, figure out what are the top books in each of those categories.

Hansen: Ivan, how do you pick the categories? This year, we added two new ones, arts and culture, and Bible studies and devotional literature. How do you decide what’s going to be a category and what’s not going to be one for the awards?

Mesa: Well, you’re the boss. So, I kind of inherited some of these categories. I mean, we added a few this year, like you mentioned arts and culture and Bible study and devotional literature. But you tell me.

Hansen: Well, I mean, there’s no science to this, you’re ultimately just deciding between a number of different variables. Whether or not there’s gonna be enough books that fall into those categories to meet the criteria that we talked about there because you don’t wanna be completely overloaded in say the Christian Living section and then only award one book in that section. But then you have another one where maybe there were only two or three decent books in that category, all along. So, that’s a little bit of a difficulty for judging those. Plus, you wanna be able to expand the awards so that they’re properly descriptive, but not so far so that the entire process is worn down. And so that it doesn’t really mean much where everybody gets a participation trophy with the awards. So, not really a lot of science to that process, but a lot of art to it. And I’ve found that some categories have disappeared for a time. And then they’ve come back, like the Faith and Work category, we used to have, we don’t do that anymore because it just depends on the amount of books that have come out that year.

Arts and Culture, we didn’t do but then we brought back because we had some especially strong nominees this year. Bible studies and devotional literature was an area where especially the women on staff of our editorial team told us that we were really missing something in that category. So, even though it’s not an area that I personally or you I don’t think either Ivan, do a lot of that work in. Nevertheless, it’s one that’s very common and popular within our market, and one where we really offer a service to churches that are trying to choose between that literature.

Mesa: And I would say with children’s, I mean, we haven’t really covered that as in-depth over the years. But I guess in recent years, maybe… this is maybe biographical because of having little ones of my own, but I’m just really impressed with the offerings year to year that are just faithful, that are beautifully illustrated, that are strong with the use of Scripture. So, we’re just pleased to have that category and serve young parents, especially with picture books that are centered around the gospel.

Hansen: Yeah, big changes when we see market trends as well within the publishing industry. So, we see way more women writers writing in these categories with sort of these TGC criteria in mind. So, we have a lot of strong offerings there and like you said, as well, a lot more material when it comes to children’s literature. And not only children’s Bibles, but all kinds of different things, which actually is part of something The Gospel Coalition is helping to
work with Crossway on next year with the launch of our first book within our own children’s series which is written by Betsy Howard, who also oversees that initiative for us.

Well, we have some especially strong nominees, Ivan, this year for the category of evangelism and apologetics, including some works that TGC worked on. And the winner was Rebecca McLaughlin for Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion published by Crossway. What do you think stood out about that book with the judges?

Mesa: Well, yeah, it’s definitely a strong book that I’ve heard so many glowing reviews from across the board. And so, but you worked on that book in our partnership with Crossway. So, I’d love to hear you chat about it.

Hansen: Well, I do have to admit that there are some interesting dynamics at play with The Gospel Coalition doing book awards. One of them is that we are ourselves a publisher. We did not award any books this year to The Gospel Coalition, we produced some good ones, I think, especially in this category, but we didn’t award any of those. However, we did work very closely with Rebecca on this book. Ultimately, I mean, how would you explain it, Ivan, of why we chose to include these kinds of… like our own books that we worked on in these awards?

Mesa: Yeah, we don’t wanna fault authors that work with TGC or in some partnership that we have like with Crossway. And so, that’s why we just
lean heavily on our judges. And so, most of the judges are not staff members at TGC. And so, we are relying on their input to kind of assess this book in comparison with other books. And yeah, this year, this one stood out and yeah, we’re really glad.

Hansen: Well, Rebecca is an outstanding author. She’s written for us a long time at The Gospel Coalition. This book is a culmination of many years of work and reflection and study on her part.

I remember Ivan, you do acquisitions for us as well, and I worked on the excellent book Evangelism as Exiles this year, which easily could have been a winner, I think, in this category. But the moment I saw that manuscript, I mean, I called the publisher, and I said, “You guys need to be ready, this is going to be a great book.” And one of the things that’s been encouraging just about people’s response to the book has been that it didn’t hit with a huge splash at first. Came out at our conference earlier this year but Rebecca is a first-time author. And so, not with some sort of huge platform or anything. But then every month, it’s really picked up steam and that’s what you wanna see with a successful book is how people recommend it. And then it really grows in terms and becomes one of those must-reads for people who are following these kinds of books.

And I think the best book to be able to compare it to would be Tim Keller’s Reason for God. That’s such an iconic book that you hesitate to say that but really, Rebecca’s book compare as well to it, it’s 10 years newer. So, that brings some differences in terms of how the culture has changed in the last 10 years. And Rebecca being a woman and a woman who admits a struggle with same-sex attraction, though living faithfully within a marriage to a man and with children, gives her a certain level of experiential I guess authority that comes through in the book that makes it especially noteworthy, I think, to be able to share with friends who are skeptics. And so, it’s just really a privilege to be able to work on that book, and again, very excited that the judges concurred on that one. Like you said, we give our judges latitude there to be able to make those decisions and take it a little bit out of my hands when I’ve worked so closely on that book. The particular category that I see… oversee is the first time author category, which is always competitive. I don’t think I fully realized that until working on the book awards that many times people’s best book or only book is their first book.

It’s not always the case with authors, but it means that you have a lot of just really strong contenders in that category. This year’s award winner Kathryn Butler Between Life and Death a gospel-centered guide to end of life medical care, also published by Crossway. I think this book may surprise some people as the winner. Ivan, you also edit Butler for her writing for The Gospel Coalition. What would you describe? What would you say is special about her writing?

Mesa: Yeah, she’s a rare combination, I guess of her medical background and training, but also with a very keen and perceptive analysis of the Bible and what it teaches. I recall reading this book during a flight and I had a visceral reaction several times as I read the book, just because of dealing with end-of-life medical care. It’s a heavy, sobering topic. And it’s easy even for someone in the younger stage of life as I am to think that death is this kind of far removed reality, but all of us will die. And Butler just is able to bring her expertise, but also just an attentiveness to Scripture to deal with some of those most…the most agonizing times of life. And so, not only in this book but in all her writing, you see that beautiful wedding of those things and how she explores different topics.

Hansen: Just one more category that I’d like to talk about, one of the most popular for our readers that one related to pastoral ministry. And then I wanna talk a little bit more about other elements about reading in the new year and just some people to be able to learn from you, Ivan, in some of your own habits and practices. So, Harold Senkbeil’s, The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart published by Lexham Press. It really cuts against much of what you read today on pastoral ministry. Another example would be Stephen Witmer’s A Big Gospel in Small Places published by InterVarsity. Both of those, they tied as the winner for us in that pastoral ministry category. What caught the judges’ attention or at least your attention Ivan, particularly in Senkbeil’s book The Care of Souls?

Mesa: Yeah, I think we…there’s so many books that come out every single year, especially when it comes to ministry, and preaching and all that. But it is rare to have a book that really is the accumulation of decades. If I recall correctly it must be four or five decades of pastoral ministry that this…that Senkbeil kind of captures in this book. And so, there’s a gravitas, there’s a beauty that comes from kind of everyday prosaic faithfulness in ministry. And I think in this book specifically, there’s just a care for souls, really a care for people made in God’s image and a love for the sheep that are entrusted to a pastor’s care. And so, the author Senkbeil reflects on ministry, but specifically from the perspective of farming and caring for the land. His father was a farmer and that kind of angle comes out in the book, beautifully packaged by Lexham, in terms of the way the book is laid out with, you know, farm pictures and all that. But there’s that attentiveness to the world the way that people are that beautifully comes out in the book. And so, I just commend this book to pastors, to church leaders, even to everyday Christians. There’s a lot to learn from this book.

Hansen: Let’s hope, Ivan, that some book editors out there are listening to this podcast, I think they will be, we love them, there are very good friends out there. And I don’t know that it factored into the decision about the awards, but you mentioned that that book was simply beautifully produced. And we understand that that makes books more expensive, and there’s a lot of sensitivities around that. You mentioned farm pictures, I think a more, maybe an even more illustrative ways is to say illustrations, the sort of line drawings, which are just beautiful within that book. I do think the book probably could have been edited to be a little bit shorter. It was a little bit repetitive there but the presentation of the book, the hardcover design, the quality of the materials used in that book, it just made it feel weighty, which was a good match for somebody who had been doing this for so many different…so many decades. And so, that was a book that I looked forward to reading all year and I just finished it not very long ago. And so, just commend that to the book editors out there as you’re producing these beautiful works for us. And I think it makes sense, especially in a digital age, to produce some books that will have that kind of tactile experience for us as readers. I

just also wanna commend Witmer’s book Big Gospel in Small Places with InterVarsity, the tie in that category. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that our judges really went in this direction. It occurs to me Ivan, as I think about this year in the news, this is also the time of year when I’m putting together my top 10 theology stories of the year. And thinking about sort of what had happened that last year into this year with Willow Creek Community Church outside of Chicago. And one reason why we commend these kinds of books is because we’re very concerned by some of what we see out there. And one former member of Willow Creek wrote this year about their job search that there was a lot of talk about being a sort of business executive, being a sort of CEO within their job description.

This is a church coming off a really sort of harrowing leadership failure, and yet didn’t really seem to understand some of the underlying problems with their model of ministry, that sort of CEO model of ministry. It was very clear that theological education was not required for that person. A few references to Jesus or the gospel. So, you’re gonna get a very different picture of pastoral ministry from The Gospel Coalition and specifically from Senkbeil and from Witmer’s books this year. Well, Ivan one of the other things that you do, I don’t know how you balance these two things. You work on TGC social media, and we’re just awash in information, awash in the number of books being published, awash in social media. Every day, there’s something new that calls for our attention. But in this kind of world, what would you encourage the listeners here to understand the enduring value of reading?

Mesa: There’s a piece we published recently by Greg Bailey who works for Crossway and the piece is entitled “Why (More Than Ever Before) You Need to Read Deeply.” And so, in that piece, he really engages a book published 25 years ago. So, this is going back to the day of pagers, fax machines,
rewind that videotape from blockbuster kind of day. And so, in that piece, he reviews or engages that 25-year-old book. And it is incredibly prescient when you think about it, just a book that old speaks to our day. If these dynamics were true back then, imagine how much more so today. And so, I would say more than ever, we do desperately need to be able to practice the ability to read deeply. And so, I mean, foundationally, of course, this means engaging God and his Word. Probably not the time here to make a breaking announcement but we, in 2020, we are launching this Read the Bible campaign to encourage Christians to read more deeply of God’s Word and we need that to kind of recalibrate our souls to keep us from merely attacking or debating with one another and… or even weaponizing the Bible to kind of win points for our team.

But we also need books, and so books that help us to slow down, to reflect on life to think about what…how I should please the Lord and serve others and be faithful in my day. And so, books, I think are uniquely positioned to help us to kind of slow down, be deliberate, think about what ultimately matters. And I think it could serve us in our discipleship. And so, in that piece, Bailey talks about…he says, “What can feel like staying on top of things is really nothing but distraction from the best of things.” And so, as we move over into 2020, I think the challenge has just increased. And I think books play an indispensable role to just help us to focus on what really matters in life.

Hansen:  I’m glad you brought up Read the Bible, Ivan. You and I are the two who work most closely together on the books’ coverage at TGC and simply commend you for your excellent work in that. And maybe that makes you and me the most sensitive when it comes to the distractions from reading the book, God’s one scripture [inaudible] word to us. And I feel that myself, in that distraction there. But a lot of the other things that you work on, I mean, a lot of people don’t realize, Ivan, how many different things you do and how many things you’re behind.

But so many of the best articles this year about reading the Bible, especially from Peter Leithart, have been articles that you’ve acquired. And just one of the things that I love about you, and appreciate about you, and how do you read so much? You’ve got two little ones, you have another one imminently about to join us in the world, on the outside. How do you read so much and how do you read so effectively, even given all these distractions that we’ve been talking about, even very glorious distractions like our own wonderful children?

Mesa: Well, thanks for that word of encouragement. But like anyone else listening to this, I struggle with distraction, I struggle with seasons where I don’t wanna read. My wife can attest to that. But I think overall reading is just a discipline, maybe even an acquired taste, it takes time to develop. And so, the reader that I am now at 31 isn’t the reader that I was when I was 21, thank God or even as a new convert when I was 14 years old. And so, I guess in this season of life, I try to fit reading into the nooks and crannies of my life wherever I can. And so, I mean part of my job is to read, to read articles, to read reviews. And so, one way that I just try to kind of branch out is to listen to audiobooks, good audiobooks, fiction, fantasy novels, biographies. I just read…I listened to in recent months a biography, multiple biographies of Lyndon B. Johnson, and by Robert Caro and I devoured those. I mean these are multiple hours long, maybe 50 hours long, sometimes. And so, I just try to fit reading wherever I can at nighttime, in the morning, while doing errands. So, nothing inherently virtuous about reading these kinds of books, but I enjoy it. And it has been a delight for me as a Christian to read books and to expand beyond Christian books to just enjoy the offerings out there.

Hansen: Yeah, I know you well enough Ivan to be able to know that when I ask you about some of your favorite personal reads in the last year, I basically have to create a non-Robert Caro category to be able to cover those favorite reads. There’s anything else you wanna plug from your personal reads in this last year?

Mesa: Well, yeah, I guess a different book recommendation would be a commentary. So, Peter Leithart wrote a Chronicles commentary. I don’t always agree with Leithart, in fact, I often disagree with him when it comes to different theological issues, but I find him such a clear writer. And his attention to the text of Scripture is very edifying. So, I read his recent 1 & 2 Chronicles commentary. Now, those are two books of the Bible that according to one of our recent contributors, Andrew Wilson, he said, 2 Chronicles is one of the most underrated books in the entire Old Testament. And so, even for somebody who’s seminary-trained like I am, it was refreshing, really edifying to just spend several months, maybe three or four months working through those books of the Old Testament, and paying attention to the connections and how these two books fit into the larger matrix of the Bible. I guess another one would be Daniel Gordis. He wrote a book titled “Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn.” I know you Collin went to Israel a couple of years back. I had the privilege of going this past year for 10 days, and it was truly life-changing.

And so I read that book in anticipation of that trip. It’s a concise book, even though it’s 560 or so pages but when you think about the history of the Jews and the modern state of Israel, that book’s just kind of… was incredibly helpful for me as I prepared for that trip. And I commend that book to our listeners.

Hansen: Ivan we have a real sort of reading culture among our editors at TGC. It’s one of my favorite things about our staff. We’ve got editors producing books, we have editors reading books, we’re swapping book suggestions, it’s just a really, really fun time. And one of the things that we talk about all the time is that for our work, the fuel is ultimately God’s Word, our communion with God. And then books, reading kind of ahead of where things are going and behind, to understand the context of what’s happening and then people putting it into practice. One of the things that we talk about consistently is to not spend a lot of time on social media. That’s an absolute time drain and a distraction and a sort of attention suck away from much more edifying pursuits. It’s not to say that social media is never helpful, especially plug follow The Gospel Coalition. No, I mean, but people just get so sucked into that, they don’t realize how much they could be reading and how much more edifying that would be.

And to be clear, I think so much more entertaining that would be then simply watching the latest controversy scroll past on Twitter. Well, as we wrap up here, people can look forward to I know there’s an upcoming article where The Gospel Coalition editors share about their own personal reads. I’ll get to share some of mine in that article as well. But how can folks follow more of your work Ivan, as the books editor? What are some other ways that our listeners can really track with The Gospel Coalition’s books coverage?

Mesa: Yeah, well, you should definitely bookmark tgc.org/reviews. And on any one of our reviews, you’ll have a prompt to subscribe to our books newsletter. And so, that is a monthly newsletter that goes out that I oversee, and it has a collection of the reviews we publish in that prior month. And so, that’s a good practical way. There are so many books even in my position, I am not able to read every single book, but I like to know about different kinds of books, what’s out there, who are these books for? And so, our reviews coverage really is a way to encourage people to stay up to date with the latest offerings. And so, subscribe to the books newsletter, of course with the book award published is available and so look at that list as you think about Christmas, presents, recommendations for your own personal reading. Take a look at that list and buy a book or two.

Hansen:  Ivan Mesa, books editor at The Gospel Coalition, thank you for joining me on the podcast. And, again, it’s an honor and a privilege and a blessing for me Ivan, to be able to be a colleague of yours.

Mesa: Thanks Collin, same here.

Every year at The Gospel Coalition we review around 300 titles between our academic journal Themelios and our regular book reviews section. And the man behind that book review section is Ivan Mesa. He’s also the organizer behind our annual book awards. Ivan coordinates between dozens of editors and publishers and writers and judges to deliver this curated list of the year’s outstanding titles.

In TGC’s book awards our judges use four criteria. A book might be good, but not necessarily aligned with TGC’s priorities. But in our awards we’re looking for these things. We want books that:

  • offer gospel-centered argument and application;
  • include faithful and foundational use of Scripture, both Old Testament and New Testament;
  • foster spiritual discernment of contemporary trials and trends; and
  • encourage efforts to unite and renew the church.

For more on why TGC makes books such a high priority, the story behind this year’s awards, and the reading culture at TGC, I’m joined on The Gospel Coalition Podcast by our books editor, Ivan Mesa. 

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.

Current and Past Book Awards: