Finding God in the Ordinary
For those who don't know about the CCO's annual Jubilee conference--an event for college students on developing a transformational Christian perspective in their college courses, careers and callings--go to their Web site and put the event on your calendar for February 2004. It is truly an extraordinary gathering, one in which Hearts & Minds is very much involved, and the flagship event of the Coalition for Christian Outreach. This month's book recommendations, as you will see, are listed to follow up on remarks I gave in a keynote address at Jubilee. I am sure the books will be helpful even for those who were not there.
Speaking in the huge Hilton Pittsburgh ballroom at Jubilee 2003 was one of the high points of my life. Fewer events mean more to me than this, and it is always the most anticipated book-selling event for our Hearts & Minds staff. We sell boxes and boxes of books to earnest young students and oldster Kingdom visionaries. CCO staff and pastors of cooperating churches browse through our display of books on every imaginable topic under the sun in God's good world. Basic books on thinking Christianly, practical titles relating the gospel to real-world work-a-day life as well as complex theological treatises are all available at this huge book display. Some CCO staff help students search for resources that will clarify a Christian worldview, develop a godly sense of purpose in their lives or get more serious about the habits of daily discipleship.
After my Friday night talk ("Navigating Fidelity in a Time of Exile"), it struck me that a few of my remarks may be worth exploring further here. (The most basic truths of the talk, indeed of the whole conference, should be well-known: we are to serve God in everything we do, especially our particular place in the Kingdom, our vocations and callings. We are to be non-conformed to the ways of this evil age, bringing a wholesome sense of God's reign to everything we do, honoring Christ and glorifying God through the empowerment of the Spirit. This works itself out in every zone of life and is applied urgently to the issues of the day -- from racial and gender justice to ecological stewardship; from thinking properly about war and peace to the ever-present ethical dilemmas presented by modern technology"Â¦)
I noted that this view leads to an understanding of God's presence in the ordinary, nearly a sacramental view of the humdrum of daily life. Perhaps that is not a usual way of expressing it. Here, then, are a few books which you might find helpful in extrapolating from my passionate proclamation that all of life is holy (based in part on Zechariah 14:20). May I encourage you to read deeply, pray hard, talk together intentionally -- doing so around these books could generate just the sort of conversations we need to deepen our faith and our faithfulness. I would suggest buying books like these for your church library or fellowship group. Don't let the energy of this event slip away without a commitment to further developing disciples who understand the blessings and obligations of this biblical way of seeing.
Seeing God in the Ordinary: A Theology of the Everyday by Michael Frost (Hendrickson, $12.95). This Australian college prof has given us a spectacular book illustrating how we can truly see and serve God in the so-called secular, mundane moments of daily life. By a creative examination of film, literature, and other aspects of contemporary culture, Frost argues for a robust faith that embraces human experience. It delightfully calls for a recovery of the role of the imagination and "the use of metaphor in a prose-flattened world."
I love the lengthy Brueggemann endorsement on the back cover saying that it is good for a "slow, delighted read." He continues, "who would have thought that Kafka, Keats and Harvey Keitel could show up together, but they do here. Frost has produced a probe of a world 'not yet holy' but being made so by the presence of God's holiness in the day-to-dayness of our lives."
Evangelical wordsmith Ken Gire (another H&M favorite) has written "This book helps us to hear God not so much in the whirlwind but in the still, small voice of the ordinary, everyday moments of our lives."
One chapter is entitled "Embracing Astonishment as a Spiritual Discipline." If my lengthy quote at Jubilee from Barbara Brown Taylor's The Preaching Life on discerning sacraments in our professional lives was at all suggestive, this fine chapter will remind us that the first step to honor God's holy presence in our lives is to stand in wide-eyed wonder. This book is highly recommended as a thoughtful and fun invitation to just that!
Penguins and Golden Calves: Icons and Idols in Antarctica and Other Unexpected Places by Madeleine L'Engle (Shaw, $14.99). Another wonderfully-written reflection on these themes has just been re-issued in a smaller, chunky hardback, handsome and lovely to hold. This book is important, I think, because it declares that daily life can be a joy -- indeed, a joyous search for the loving signs of God (Barbara Brown Taylor has said, also in A Preaching Life, that we can become "detectives of divinity"). These personal reflections chronicle L'Engles's own search for signs of the sacred, and her fans will want to follow her as she sees God's hand in everything from penguins (as a 75-year-old, she took an adventurous journey to Antarctica), to our bodies, from the glory of truth unfolded in good stories to the joys of God's love seen in family life.
Here's the skinny on the clever title -- it is a concept worth knowing. Apparently the brilliant G.K. Chesterton once quipped that everything in life is either an icon or an idol. That is, things point beyond themselves to God (like an icon) or in a manner which can only be called idolatrous, we allow the thing to be seen and construed only as itself, detached from its place in God's creation. Is this not an essential insight of a truly Christian understanding of, well, everything? Icon or idol.
Hang on tight when dear Madeleine reflects on how this insight works not only in the natural world -- seeing penguins, say -- but also in our understanding of Jesus, the Bible and the perplexing questions of heaven, hell, God's grace and saving love. It is good to lean in closely as this godly and kind woman offers her quiet reflections (even if you don't always agree with her exact treatment of any given topic).
This new edition, by the way, has a stellar forward by Leif Enger, the grand new author of a novel we have been touting all year, Peace Like a River. Therein, he shares his brief journey discerning what it means to be a Christian writer. As you may guess, L'Engle's work has been a blessing in his efforts. What a nice tribute!
Remember Creation: God's World of Wonder & Delight by Scott Hoezee (Eerdmans, $14.00). I reviewed this here with great vigor when I first read it. I adore this book! These are essentially sermons -- soul-inspiring messages on the glory of creation, the goodness and brokenness of God's world -- and why people of faith should care, deeply, about the natural world. What Pastor Hoezee says so well is that our attention to ecology is primarily a matter of honoring God, who receives praise from His handiwork. It has been called by Plantinga, "a sheer gift," by Bill McKibben, "a useful book"Â¦for helping us figure out as Christians how to regard creation," and by Publishers Weekly, a book "to cultivate a heart appreciative and thankful for the environment." That's it! A heart that is appreciative and thankful for stuff -- literally, stuff! What a crime that this resource is going out of print. Hearts & Minds has stockpiled plenty, though, since we think it not only a gem of an ecology book, but a precious and helpful resource in our journey towards a properly creational spirituality.
Being Human: The Nature of Spiritual Experience by Ranald Macaulay & Jerram Barrs (Solway, $9.99). A few people may have taken exception to my claim, based on Zechariah, that all of life is sacramental, holy, infused with glory. I grant that this can be misunderstood, leading a la Matthew Fox ( for those who track these things) to a pantheistic overstatement of God's imminence. Still, we dare not back away from saying things like, "The Earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof!" and "All things are Thy servants!" and "He is before all things and in Him all things hold together!" and, of course, "For God so loved the world..."! Biblical faith is surely Earthly-oriented, if properly understood.
Once we reject super-spiritual dualism and assert a more biblically-understood assumption of the human person and God's created order, we see that true spirituality makes us more human, more authentic, more rooted in the beauty (and horror and banality) of the real world. What, then, is spiritual experience? What does sanctification look like? What does it mean to follow Jesus' call to "deny self"? What is the role of the mind for a deeply religious person?
For years, we have tried to help answer these sorts of questions by recommending an exceptionally important, serious and dignified work of applied theology, Being Human. The good news is that we have now found a British edition (exact same book with a cooler cover) which sells for half the price of the current U.S. edition. So we now re-announce this book as a central aid for knowing what it means to be made in God's image, to embrace biblical spirituality and thereby understand our true personhood in a real world of goodness, beauty, ugliness and pain. We think that those, like CCO staff especially, who work with those willing to be foundational, not always looking for the quickest fix or the easiest answer, should use this book. Although it is not technically an academic title, is deeper than some, richly conceived and very nicely done. It is very, very important.
R. Paul Stevens teaches a course on the Theology of Daily Life at Regent College in British Columbia. He has worked on this stuff relentlessly over the years, producing several good books. A recent one, for instance, is called Seven Days of Faith: Every Day Alive With God (NavPress, $14.00). With a wonderful introduction by Eugene Peterson, Seven Days walks us through a week's worth of topics from work to rest, sex to justice, citizenship to worship. I cannot tell you how useful I think this book is. (If we are going to create a movement of Christians seeing life in this way and moving in this direction, we simply must use these kinds of resources in our disciple-making, formation and Christian education.)
I've written before about a volume Stevens co-edited, the unique and hefty Complete Book of Everyday Christianity (IVP, $28.00), which has hundreds of entries of astute and insightful theological commentary on topics such as celebration, work, menstruation, clothing, illness, laughter, technology, voting, sleep, childhood, waiting, shopping, etc. etc.
More scholarly is a very important contribution for those interested in these matters as it relates to developing the role of laypeople in what some call "marketplace" ministry, The Other Six Days: Vocation, Work, and Ministry in Biblical Perspective (Eerdmans, $25.00). Give it to your pastor if he or she is halfway serious about the role of the laity. It is a serious work, provocative and exciting.
Stevens has just released what we are told is a life-long passion of his -- a study of the ups and downs of the odd life of the trickster patriarch of ancient Israel, Jacob. Not surprisingly, knowing Stevens' perspective, he has entitled it Down-to-Earth Spirituality: Encountering God in the Ordinary, Boring Stuff of Life (IVP, $14.00). Despite the photo of a sink full of dirty dishes on the cover, it truly is a study of Genesis 25-50, and Stevens plumbs it with careful and detailed study. Still, his goal -- ah, what a goal! -- is to apply these narratives to our own lives, from conception to death. For those who have sometimes left these peculiar stories scratching their heads, or for those who long to see modern day application from biblical narrative, this book is truly extraordinary. J.I. Packer has called it "a thought-provoking, heart-searching excavation in the rich narrative mind of the second half of Genesis"Â¦" Dreamer, schemer, worker, entrepreneur, lover, father, Jacob embodies a multifaceted life of earthy passion and gritty spirituality. As the book jacket says, "Jacob meets God at home and at work, at meals and in sleep, in solitude and in relationships. From birth to death, through every passage of life, Jacob sees God in the routine details of his everyday experience."
All of the above meditations on the wonder of God's creation, the sacramental nature of God's real world, the holiness of daily life and the proper understanding of spirituality is (in one way or another) related to what we have come to term a "reformational worldview." Nearly every month or so, I reiterate our belief that Transforming Vision by Walsh & Middleton (IVP) and Creation Regained by Al Wolters (Eerdmans) are the key texts which explicate this life-changing perspective. More recently, we add as an essential read (especially for those in campus ministry, but truly for all) Engaging God's World by Cornelius Plantinga (Eerdmans). Written with all the deep yearning and profound wonder such a topic deserves, it is a treasure of a book, to be read and reread, shared and discussed. As those on a journey of life-long learning, this is an essential antidote to the dualism, secularization, accommodation and shallowness of so much of what passes for American faith. Every college student who names the name of Christ will benefit from it and it should be used widely.
All of these books push; some more knowingly than others, towards a certain take on life, a perspective best seen in our time by the extraordinary writings of one Calvin Seerveld. We have often recommended his highly-regarded work in aesthetics and the arts. In the Fields of the Lord: A Calvin Seerveld Reader (Toronto Tuppence Press, $29.99) is a collection of some of his best, previously unpublished work on a variety of topics. Here we see his flamboyant faith, his effervescent writing and breath-taking insight -- comin' at ya hard yet colorfully, sometimes straight up, sometimes in cryptic allusions like a real Hebrew prophet -- on matters as diverse as work, art, education and liturgical reform. If one wants to see daily life as "holy unto the Lord," one can find no better reminder or teacher than Cal Seerveld's Bible studies; his invitation/charge to college students to do their work as an offering to God is passionate and uncompromising, even as it is tempered by genuine care and kindliness.
The essays here on philosophy, although chewy to say the least, are important for any practicing scholar. Yes, there is plenty here on the arts, but who couldn't be edified by godly insight on God's expectations for our aesthetic obedience, on the significance of the arts, color, fashion or explanations on particular painters such as Diego Rivera. Seerveld's views on obscenity and censorship are very important, too, and could offer a helpful framework for contemporary discussions about vulgarity in contemporary music or R-rated movies.
In the Fields is over 400 pages, contains dozens of essays and columns and sermons and should be a life-long treasury of good, reformational worldviewish reading. It breathes maybe more clearly than any other book, the vision and themes and direction of what the Jubilee conference has aspired to be. I think it should be widely owned, often consulted and regularly used.
(A fun fact for those who attended Jubilee '03. The ever brilliant Christian labor educator Gideon Strauss -- whose workshop tape on business was great, by the way -- helped author the very good forward to this Seerveld collection. It is entitled "Bread and Not Stones: An Introduction to the Thought of Calvin Seerveld" and is itself a very helpful narrative illustrating the uniqueness and strengths of Dutch neo-Calvinism and the robust and gritty faith that gives rise to movements such as the Christian Labour Association of Canada (Strauss' employer), Toronto's Institute for Christian Studies (Seerveld's academic home for many years) and the Pittsburgh Jubilee conference, a place where young evangelical students and others have been privileged to hear these kinds of speakers for over two decades. Check out page 219 for a group photo, including not only Cal, but also a somewhat younger, bearded Gideon S. Ahhh, to be young again.
THIS JUST IN:
Eve's Revenge: Women and a Spirituality of the Body by Lilian Calles Barger (Brazos Press, $14.99). My, my, we could hardly have picked a better day to announce a very long-awaited new book that arrived in the UPS shipment just today. The book is Eve's Revenge and the author is Lilian Calles Barger. The publisher is the ever-interesting new company, Brazos. While I cannot review this now, know this: the full subtitle says much -- Women and a Spirituality of the Body. It is asking profound and important questions about how women's bodies are seen, socially constructed and used, and the ways in which a Christian approach to embodiment might provide understanding to the very relationship of physicality and God, holiness and health, and how the church can get beyond its own -- and our culture's -- tendency to be anti-body. This really could be a superb and helpful study, alongside the others listed, for those who are on the quest for a sacramental sense of the goodness of creation, God's presence in our lives -- every part of our lives -- and a way to live that truly gives supremacy to Christ in all things. A serious read, to be sure, but an example of the new sorts of approaches needed if our faith is to be fully biblical and fully effective in these days.