About July 2008

This page contains all entries posted to Hearts & Minds Books in July 2008. They are listed from oldest to newest.

June 2008 is the previous archive.

August 2008 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

July 2008 Archives

July 1, 2008

Who Gets to Narrate the World? by Robert Webber

I want to wax rhapsodic in giving a big old salt-water shout-out to my new friends at this year's Ocean City Beach Project, an intentional living/learning community across the street from the Ocean City NJ Presbyterian Church, sponsored as a leadership development and discipleship summer experience for college students sponsored by the Coalition for Christian Outreach (CCO.)  OCBP brings together a gang of collegians who read books together, attend several three hour lectures a week, learn Bible study skills and prayerfully consider how to offer their gifts and abilities for God's work on campus, in churches, and of course in the world.  I and my daughter, Marissa and her friend Natalie, had the great privilege to hang out with the '08 OCBP crew, and had the chance to deliver some lectures, lead some discussions, show a film, talk about Christ's reign and explain why book-buying is a good habit for serious Christians who care about such stuff. And I didn't get a sunburn in the hot south Jersey seashore.

My main presentations were on the development of a Christian worldview prepping them on their reading, especially, Derek Melleby and Donald Opitz's excellent The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness (Brazos; $13.99), a book that is ideal for that setting, mature and yet light, serious and joyful. (Please, if you know any college students, make sure they know about this one-of-a-kind resource!)  To invite students to meet God as clearly in their academic work as they might in a church service, to explore the relationship between faith and cultural engagement, to invite radical commitment to Christ's ways, even in science, sports or sexualtiy, to think through a Biblically-grounded view of citizenship and politics, well, it is all very exciting.   (Why is it that middle age folk like most of my peers are nearly dull to the radical implications for this large vision of making a difference in God's hurting world?)  Derek and Don's book helps students explore their sense of calling, their studies, their future work, and I gave a broad a hopefully exiting foundation and framework for thinking about this perspective of whole-life discipleship, this Kingdom vision, this reformational worldview out of which the CCO approaches their work with students and college staff.  We spent considerable time diagnosing the problems of a half-baked and legalistic or rationalistic faith, as we hoped to learn to discern ways to avoid, even as we keep ourselves well rooted in the historic Christian orthodoxies applied in fresh and formative ways.  I even got to tell them a bit about Abraham Kuyper!

As a very small part of one of my talks, I showed this provocative youtube clip of Brian McLaren, called "Domesticated Jesus." (Time didn't permit a showing of "Rethink Everything" or "The Societal Machine" two other good clips in this series of brief DeepShift presentations.)  This first great clip laments the increasingly troubled view of faith, the disconnect, the way Christ is domesticated and distracts us from the purposes of God.  This is a view where we do not submit to the grand story of the gospel, but rather, have Jesus as a "hood ornament" on the car we are already driving to our own destination.  Seeing Jesus as a mere accessory to our own autonomy seemed to be a helpful image for these students, and I invite you to ponder this short clip, too, and wonder about how we might rethink the faith in meaningful ways that can equip us to live in the ways of Christ in the contemporary world.  Notice Brian suggests we've lost the plot of the gospel message, we've somehow gotten confused about the Story.

To counter this kind of loss of story, and to offer a reliably Biblical foundation for this "everything must change" rethink,  I cited one of the most amazing books I've read in a while, a really fast-paced book packed with amazing information and really fantastic inspiration.  In a season of tremendous books that help us recapture the whole vision of God's work---these students watched N.T. Wright on the Colbert Report the week before talking about Surprised by Hope and were quite taken with his insistence on the notion that the final end of the Story is re-creation of creation, a healing of the planet and a reunion of heaven & earth---the new book, the last, by the late Robert Webber, is a must read.  It is called Who Narrates the
who gets to narrate the world.jpg World? Contending for the Christian Story in an Age of Rivals (IVP; $15) and it argues that if Christians do not recapture the full story of a creation restored, other faiths or ideologies (think of radical Islam) will win the hearts and minds of the world's peoples, capturing their institutions and cultures.  Insofar as Islam presents an all encompassing vision, a coherent way of life and vision of history, they do, indeed, intend to narrate the meaning of life for the 21st century.  And, insofar as Christianity is presented as merely private, personalized and sentimental, spiritual and churchy, we will fail at the Kingdom call to disciple the nations.  If we do not narrate the meaning of life as purposeful and the nature of history as a response to God's sovereign unfolding of His rule, if we do not hold out a hope for the restoration of all things and the reality of the Kingdom, we will see other worldviews and ideological rivals to the God of the Bible win the day.  (For more about the excellent AEF statement that gave rise to this book, visit their website here.)

We unpacked Colossians 1 a bit, one of my favorite passages for decades, now, and of course, Romans 12:1-2. I showed a portion of the edgy and hard-hitting critique of hyper-reality and consumerism, The Trouble With Paris (a book and DVD curriculum I raved about in a post a few weeks back.)  We explored the implications of being "in but not of the world" and how other Christian traditions---liberal Protestantism's accommodation to culture and radical fundamentalism's world-flight avoidance of culture---fail at that mandated approach of Jesus.  Ahh, and then there is the cultural resistance of the new monastics and Shane Claiborne, who suggest it isn't proper to truly engage the institutions of power, and want to only elect Jesus for President.  Weeeee, what a great conversation that was: what does Shane and friends think of Christian citizenship action for the poor, like, say, the lobbying efforts of Bread for the World, or the Kuyperian vision of redemptive engagement within institutions as expressed by the Center for Public Justice?  Does the Colossians insistence that Christ made the powers and that they "hold together" in him, and that they are for him, mean that somehow we can be "in but not of" a traditional political party?  Can Walsh & Keesmaat's Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire help us here?

The very ecumenical and balanced Robert Webber has seen it all, and tells in great prose and astute lectures just how the church has and hasn't walked that faithful balanced of "in not of" the culture over the long years of church history.  His explanation of how we have sold out due to our unhelpful synthesis with pagan dualism, how we've yet maintain some efforts to be redemptive within non-Christian contexts, how the Enlightenment befuddled us so, how the modern era present new opportunities, all of this is really insightful.  I wish Who Gets to Narrate the World? would have been an assigned reading, too, for OCBP, as it frames their passionate desire for relevant and faithful Kingdom discipleship with a good historical perspective, and offers hope for serious, global renewal as we relearn the proper Biblical narrative.  That is, as in the McLaren clip, we learn to regain the plot and story.  For Mr. Webber, rather than the "creation-fall-redemption-consummation" flow I taught, it is simply "creation-incarnation-recreation."  God is honored in all things, through creation and incarnation, the cosmos is reckoned redeemable, and Christ is seen as Savior of the whole world, the one who restores the Kingdom "on Earth as it is in Heaven" thereby giving hope within history.

I cannot recommend Who Gets to Narrate the World? enough. I wish I would have cited it more in my talks at OCBP because it really does offer a fabulous foundation for the development of a viable Christian worldview, and offers a helpful bit of insight about how we have gone wrong, and how we might, in God's grace, regain a fuller appreciation for the whole counsel of God, and present a view of faith that is compelling, coherent, and consistent.  Such a narration of the story of our lives is just what we need if Christ is going to be more than a bobble head doll hood ornament.


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July 4, 2008

Ain't My America by Bill Kauffman

I've been wanting to write more about this guy since I've discovered him---hat tip to Calebain't my america.jpg Stegall---a year or so ago.  Bill Kauffman's new one is called Ain't My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism (Metropolitian Books; $25.)  As the title implies, it tells the tale of the a movement and tradition, a longstanding tradition, that most of us simply haven't heard of.  In what few American history classes we've had and in the typical civics lessons we've learned, and even in the somewhat sophisticated PBS current affairs shows we watch, we are lead to believe that conservatives are hawks and liberals are doves. The cultural picture, nearly iconic, of the free-lovin' 60s counter-cultural peaceniks opposing the gray-suited businessmen of the military-minded technocracy only reinforces this simplistic and often wrong-headed perspective.  From the earliest days of our country, there were true patriots---some of the Founding Fathers, for crying out loud, who warned against foreign entanglements; today  there is serious debate and voices against the Bush administrations Iraqi war have been raging on the political right.  Conservatives have a notable history, if one can take note of it, of being against foreign wars.  Bill Kauffman, one who finds his joyful stand on his own small town front porch as he supports his local soft ball team and cares conservatively for the historic preservation of his upstate New York region, helps us take very detailed note.  Who knew?

Two other books of his that I've read, and thoroughly enjoyed, were full of historical arcana, interesting detail, and little known facts about middle American protesters against greed, big business and the ideologies of "bigger is better" progress;  the stories Kauffman tells are not about Wobblies, red diaper babies or 60s love children, let alone modern day lefties sympathetic to Chomsky or Obama.  No, these are rural folks, often, populists and isolationists who care about their traditional values in ways that neo-con "family values" advocates seem not to have a clue.  (His powerful and sad chapter about how the military damages families is important and yet would probably earn him scowls from Dr. Dobson for not being pro-Pentagon.)  He takes us on a ride across the decades, from Herbert Hoover to Wendell Berry, from James Madison to Mark Hatfield, and on to dozens of  (almost all unheard of) governors, pundits, poets, congressmen, and preachers who throughout our history have spoken up loudly against war and an expanding American empire.  Occasionally, he tells of liberal, if politically Democrat, leaders such as George McGovern, who had great sympathies for his upper mid-Western folk traditions, who at heart held the most agrarian of visions, and seemed a wholesome blend of liberal pacifistic politics rooted in old-school Americana values.  His admiration for these leaders and their "outside the beltway" integrity, is sincere and very well informed.

As Kauffman colorfully writes about this colorful array of peacenik farmers and social justice cranks who wrote poetry and stood against Bigness of all sorts, I'm struck by how different classical old-school conservative attitudes and values and principles are from what passes  as "conservative" nowadays on the political right.  It would be very helpful for our political discourse these days to remind ourselves that neo-conservatism with it's idolatry of the free market as the answer to all social concerns, is a far cry from the profound writers of the classical "paleo" cons or the older Whigs.  (Think, say, of the difference between George Bush and, say, Russell Kirk;  the difference between The Weekly Standard's "war-fighting Republican" Bill Kristol and anti-imperialists like Senator Robert Taft.)

These older brand of conservatives, unlike the subsidized bigwig neo-con think tanks, stand in the feisty patriotic linage of Daniel Webster and Benjamin Rush, of the Anti-Federalists of 1787, the critics of the War of 1812, the Mexican war, the Spanish-American War, the Louisiana Purchase, even, and worried about expanding our military reaches (opposing our violent involvements in places like the Philippines or Puerto Rico.)  Many of them, out of budgetary conservatism, opposed increased monies for wars like in Viet Nam (did you know there were conservatives who opposed the hawks who, in the early escalation of that war, recall, were Democrats!)  They opposed the Hawkish motivation for going to the moon, in part, because of the increased centralization of power, the bureaucratic mess, the militarization of technology and the reduction of human scale economies that occur in such modern schemes.  Was Lewis Mumford and his ilk a conservative or a liberal? (It was conservatives, Kauffman reminds us, that opposed the horrible social dislocation caused by the grand Inter-State Highway system, first promoted as a roadway for the Defense of the nation, and the equally bad social dislocation caused by urban renewal, all Big bad schemes of the utopian  left.)  Kauffman draws on deep sources, sorrowful of the loss of place, the derision of smallness, and highlights writers as interesting as G.K. Chesteron and the closing speech of President George Washington.

Ain't My America is detailed American history, sort of the flip side of Howard Zinn's colorful revisionist approach from the lefty side, which gives account of the poor and marginalized (the must-read A People's History of America. Wow, it would be great to have Zinn & Kauffman on a panel together, since they both are presenting a dissenting historiography.) I had little idea that there were such men and poets as these in our grand American past.  One can be sorry for the brutality of Kit Carson;  we can lament the carnage of Gettysburg and Bull Run;  we can hang our head in shame at the bombings orchestrated by McNamara and Bush I.  But we can be proud of true patriots and good Americans and caring voices who dared to insist that wars of aggression and the politics of expansion and the ideology of growth are not healthy for families and our towns and our country.  Voices like Henry Blake Fuller and William Vaughn Moody and Moorfield Storey, names I had never heard, present a richer, fuller, and, it seems to me on this day, more truly American vision.  Kauffman  presents these writers and poets and pundits and politicos in all their quirky glory.

Look Homeward America.jpgKaufmann's other books I've mentioned in these pages before, and are less systematic history.  Look Homeward America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists is a collection of vignettes, great stories of various small town folk who resist the secular left and religious right, who seem to live their lives in ways that call forth alternative, "third way" dreams and values. (In that volume he tells of Dorothy Day and contemporary novelist Carolyn Chute; of "American Gothic" painter Grant Wood and President Millard Fillmore.)  I loved those stories, each historically rich and well written.  For sheer enjoyment, I loved his tremendous, inspiring  memoir,  Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette: A Mostly Affectionate Account of a Small Town's Fight to Survive, an example of somebody who "went far" to make something of himself, as the odd metaphors go, and eventually came home to his small town to root for the minor league ball team, the Muckdogs.  That one was truly wonderful, a tremendous memoir which is a must-read for those who appreciate James Howard Kunstler, say, or the rural novels of Wendell Berry.  He's long-winded, which, in this setting, for those with ears to hear, is a good 'ol compliment.  Sit back with some sweet tea or a cold beer and let this storyteller teach you some important civic lessons.  Let him tell you the long, noble history of antiwar conservatism and middle-American Anti-Imperialism.

Anti War Radio has a fascinating interview with him here.  Enjoy. 


July 12, 2008

GloboChrist: The Great Commission Takes a Postmodern Turn by Carl Raschke

                                                                                                                            

GLOBO.jpg WHOSE AFRAID.jpg WHAT WOULD JE DE.jpg
    
We have enjoyed promoting the "Church and the Postmodern Culture" series of books edited and pulled together by James K. A. Smith (whose wonderful article in Christianity Today about the blending of his Pentecostal and Calvinist traditions, Teaching a Calvinist To Dance, just thrilled me in its simple ecumenical clarity and good sense--hey, what do you expect from a bookstore called Hearts AND Minds?)  Jamie is a serious post-modern scholar, also involved in the Radical Orthodoxy movement, as well.  Whew.

The first small book in this series was his own brilliant Whose Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to Church, which I very highly recommend.  The second was John Cuputo's feisty (and very Christ centered) reaction to the Christian right cleverly called What Would Jesus Deconstruct?  Both of these are published by Baker Academic ($17.99.)

truth is stranger.jpgAs brief and interesting as these are, I still most often recommend Truth is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age by Brian Walsh & Richard Middleton (IVP: $18--new cover, too!)  Its overview of the socio-economic idolatries of modernity/ hyper-modernity and its ideology of modernism, and the subsequent culture of post-modernity and and the philosophy of post-modernism, and then the extraordinary Biblical study which forms the core of the book, makes it still my favorite book on this topic.  It is the one I look to see if other Christian thinkers cite.  Dr. Crystal Downing's How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith: Questioning Truth in Language, Philosophy and Art (IVP; $18) is an excellent and quite positive overview and not only very enjoyable, but very clear.  Several customers have told me that Postmodernism 101: A First Course for the Curious Christian by Heath White (Baker; $17.99) is also one of the clearest for beginners so that, too, would make an excellent introduction if you haven't read any of the above.

The new, third one in the "Church and the Postmodern Culture" is so far the most intellectually challenging of the three, and the most seriously insistence that postmodern perspectives are essential for faithful Christian outreach in our age.  GloboChrist: The Great Commission Takes a Postmodern Turn by Carl Raschke (Baker Academic; $17.99) is spectacularly fluent in the whole postmodern field, written with blunt Lutheran instincts, sort of a Bonhoeffer meets Kierkegaard interacting with Philip Jenkins and Lamin Sanneh and maybe Vinoth Ramachandra.  He is remarkably fluent in Islamic scholarship, too, and draws on resources about globalization that are wide and surprising.  He is deadly serious, of course, but ya gotta love a book that talks about globopomo.

Read a PDF of the introduction here.  And then come back to order from us!

Rev. Raschke (PhD, Harvard University) is an author to contend with and he surprises us often with his unique insights.  He has written a lot, and in his earlier contribution to the conversations about the postmodern turn is called The Next Reformation: Why Evangelicals Must Embrace Postmodernity (Baker; $22.)  You can see his really serious philosophical fluency by checking out this very arcane debate about Gilles Deleuze and other contemporary theorists.  Philosophy majors really ought to be paying attention to some of this important stuff although I admit it loses me...It is a blog site that brings together a variety of important theologians discussing this heady stuff.

For those who follow these things, you may want to know that Raschke has an appendix which includes a hard-hitting response to some anti-pomo critics, and a critical review of one of Brian McLaren's books (Generous Orthodoxy) which will hopefully generate some generous conversation within, at least, the emergent village. 

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July 16, 2008

What I'm reading for fun...

JG71~Gauguin-s-Chair-with-Books-and-Candle-Posters.jpgI've had a bit of writer's block these days, but not "reader's block"...I've got a dozen books that I'm in the middle of or have recently finished.  Besides the Big and Important ones that I announce here--scroll back over the last week if you don't recall--- and some that I am prayerfully reading devotionally, there are smaller, eccentric little volumes that keep me up and smiling late lately, bringing much interest and joy. Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert (Penguin; $15.00) is surely one of the most well-written and delightfully fascinating books I've read in a while (despite, or it is partially because of, her esoteric spirituality and frank descriptions of her libido.)  As you may know, since you mostly likely have talked to somebody who has been insisting you read it, EPL is the well-realized memoir of a respected fiction writer who, after a heartbreaking divorce, spends four months in Italy mostly eating, four months in an ashram in India, and then four months in Bali.  Sensuous and funny passages tell of her year long journey to discover important things about herself and life in the universe.  Please don't misunderstand, thinking this is written out of evangelical piety, as it isn't.  There is a lovely Anne Lamott quote on the front, but this is beyond her ways, even.  I still found it to be one of the best and most enjoyable books I've read this year!   I'd like this woman as a friend, or even a writing mentor, and can't wait for the sequel in '09...

Lost in the Museum: Buried Treasures and the Stories They Tell by Nancy Moses (AltaMira; $22.95) is a fun history book, inspired by the stuff in the back rooms of museums, artifacts that aren't seen by the general public.  It recounts the stories of the difficulties of curating museums, and preserving the vast amount of stuff;  the author's first-hand experiences (she was the former director of the Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia) are gloriously shared so we can all be "insiders" who know what is really going on behind the well lit cases.  Who knew how it all works, and how much untold/unshown stuff there is?  And how much of it is Really Cool.  Excursions to see John Audubon's birds (at the Academy of Natural Sciences), to weirdo glowing Blaschka sea animals at the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, in a story about a biology/art interface) to John Brown's pike (!) held at the Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum in Philly and to pessaries (look it up!) at the famous morbid Mutter Medical Museum are just a few of the chapters here. This is an eccentric and rather random way to learn, but the back-rooms-at-the-museum structure ties the stories together.

I've been reading through a more serious history, too, with one chapter to go, written by a stellar and renowned conservative social thinker, Allan Carlson.  Carlson directs the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, and has given us a brilliant bit of social history called The  "American Way":  Family and Community in the Shaping of the American Identity (ISI Books; $15.)  What important stuff to know.   I had no idea that there were protests against German-American's using hypens in their ethnic designations in the early 1900s (indeed, the Democratic Party declared in their 1916 convention that it was "the supreme issue of our day" and the nature of national unity created a near civil war.  Who knew (but the radical feminists who despise it) that the New Deal of Roosevelt had such a traditional view of women working at home. (Maternalists fought for anti-industry child labor laws will feminists and unionists opposed such decent proposals.)  The chapter on the famous Luce publishing empire was fascinating--I had no idea that Paul Tillich or Neihbur or John Courtney Murray or Evelyn Waugh had written for them.  He started Sports Illustrated because of his vision of how American's should care about baseball and several suburban living magazines because of his hope that this would strengthen the wholesome family  (ahhh--how wrong he was, eh?)   How the American Dream was portrayed during the Cold War years is insightfully told in the next chapter as the argument unfolds that much bolder measures of cultural reformation are needed if we are going to create a society that is community and family-friendly.

The Almost True Story of Ryan Fisher.jpgStill, this summer season is a time for even lighter fare, and I've started a novel called The Almost True Story of Ryan Fisher by Rob Stennett (Zondervan; $12.99.)  It is about a self-assured real estate agent who discovers a Christian business directory and places an ad complete with a Jesus fish, thinking he can, by pretending to be an evangelical, make a mint.  As the back cover puts it, "While watching a news special late one night, he sees evangelical Christians raising their hands in worship.  It's like they're begging for affordable but classy starter homes."  How many books published in the CBA world have a Kurt Vonnegut epigram in the front?
I think this is going to be very, very funny.

 The Almost True Story of Ryan Fisher is the second sort of edgy, funny and ironic bit of pomo fiction that Zondervan has released, the other being My Name Is Russel Fink by Michael Snyder, which is the story of a twenty-something copier salesman who lives with his mom, dates an actress, hates his job, and has a clairvoyant basset hound named Sonny that is murdered. Christian fiction ain't what it used to be, I can tell ya that...

Stories, either rich and lovely memoirs, history (either told specifically around certain artifacts or told grandly around broad social themes) or novels, are, it is often said, what makes us tick.  We love stories, we read the Bible as a Story, we allow our lives to unfold as stories.  Even newer books on evangelism are about story theology and inviting folks into the Story of God.  Even jokes can illustrate how we all love a good story.  And then there's movies, the chief medium for storytelling in our time.

into the dark.jpgWhich brings me to a very great summer read, a fun and well written book of stories, which, to be honest, deserves to be announced as a BookNotes Really Important Book.  Craig Detweiler has just released a substantial and refreshing new book on movies entitled Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century (Baker Academic; $18.99.)  It is in the fabulous series about which we've raved here before, a series called "cultural exegesis."    It is a very enjoyable book, very smart and, as much as I hate to break my lite summer tone here, is truly a very helpful contribution to our formation of the Christian mind, and a Christian assessment of the current contemporary context. (Preachers, pastors, teachers, parents, are you listening?)  He has, as the subtitle says, chosen arguably the most important films of our times and grouped them around themes, allowing God to speak in even the fiercest and funniest.  His methodology included studying the IMDb, the Internet Movie Database, to select the most influential contemporary films.

Detweiler dissects 45 films, from Little Miss Sunshine to Million Dollar Baby, from Shrek and The Incredibles to Big Fish and V for Vendetta.  Some of the biggest sections explore issues of identity (in Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), community (in films like Crash and Talk to Her) and hstory (Finding Neverland and Spirited Away.)  His insights are nearly brilliant at times and a wide array of Christian film critics and Hollywood workers have raved about it. Although he is deeply theological (his PhD is from Fuller) he is very open-minded and positive about the common grace of these popular and influential stories.

Dick Staub, host of the fabulous The Kindlings Muse, author of the wonderful The Culturally Savvy Christian, writes about Craig and his new book,

Soak a brain in billions of digital bytes of filmic splendor and an equal amount of dynamic theology, awaken it to the 'sudden and miraculous grace' available at the intersection of faith and film, and you've got Craig Detweiler's tour de force.  A brilliant, timely, and useful piece of work...
So, summer is a time to rent some movies, think and talk about them, maybe read some books about film, stories, or leisure.  Craig Detweiler's bit of "reel revelation" is a great addition to any library on the interface of film and faith, and a very mature guide to your movie viewing enjoyment.

And, lastly, speaking again of enjoyment this summer: check out Jesus Laughed: The 
Jesus Laughed.jpg Redemptive Power of Humor Robert Darden (Abingdon; $16.00.) I know I've written too much in this post and can only hope somebody has scrolled down here to the bottom and will see this.  This is a winner---one of the only books about the theology of humor (there are a few, I hope you know) that is, uh, actually funny.  Robert Darden is the Senior Editor of The Wittenburg Door, if that gives you a clue.  Come on, people, how cool is this? 

Tell me that you're going to mail one to the grumpiest person you know and I'll give you an extra discount. Heee,heeee.  Subversive humor. Mirth abounds, in all kinds of stories.  Enjoy.

The painting above is Paul Gauguin's Chair With Books and Candle by Vincent Van Gogh, painted in 1888.  I don't use a candle, unless I have to.

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July 19, 2008

More Reading for the fun of it...

reading book.jpgOne or two folks said they enjoyed my random little fun list from the last post, naming some titles I'm just enjoying---not the heavy and incredibly important stuff that I've mentioned recently, urgent and wise work like Brian Walsh & Steven Bouma-Prediger's Beyond Homelessness, say, or the new Gary Haugen, Just Courage or Who Gets to Narrate the World by Robert Webber.  You know from former posts how seriously I believe we need to be reading these kinds of books.  It doesn't take much to encourage me to digress, though, so here are a few more miscellaneous suggestions that came to mind, books that are around our bedside, beside the couch, on the picnic table, even though it is too hot to read until late at night when I take a lamp out just to read outdoors.

I hope you've heard of Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture (St. Martin's; $25.00.) Daniel Radosh is a "secular liberal" who writes for GQ and The New Yorker and suchlike, who enters the conservative Christian subculture and writes well about it in ways that are unpredictable, funny and fun.  Some of it is very well-rendered, much of it spot on, and occasionally is surprisingly moving.  Even when he doesn't get it fully right, it is a good glimpse into the lives of many Americans, many of us, and is a joy-ride of a good story.  As A.J. Jacobs (author of The Know It All and the fabulous The Year of Living Biblically) puts it, "Everyone should read this book--with the possible exception of Stephen Baldwin [see page 143.]"  It would be perfect if you loved, as we did, the "outsiders" exploration of Christian rock,  Body Piercing Saved My Life: by Andrew Beaujon.  Great book!

life in body.JPGOne lesser known book which we are very proud to offer is Life in Body  put out by the House of Mercy (Cathedral Hill Press; $15.00.)  I hope you know the extraordinary voice--literally and writerly--of hipster emergent pastor Debbie Blue.  She sounds like Anne Lamott, but more so, and has a poet's sensibility, even in her spoken word delivery. (Here is a brilliant, brillant talk she gave at Houghton College on flesh.) The wildly creative faith community House of Mercy--which I first heard of at the very end of one of my all time favorite memoirs, The Jesus Sound Explosion by Mark Curtis Anderson (University of Georgia Press; $29.95)---has a little artsy publishing venture (along with a rockabilly recording studio.  Go figure.)  You may know of Russell Rathburn, who wrote the much-discussed, incredibly weird apocalyptic, comedic tragic novel Post Rapture Radio: Lost Writings From the Failed Revolution (Jossey Bass; $12.95.)  He's a pastor there, if it helps you get the picture. 

Ms Blue's stunning Sensual Orthodoxy (Cathedral Hill; $13.95) was her first book and it is insightful and beautiful and important, about embodiment, creation, humanness, goodness and such.  (A very literate and kind UCC pastor friend told me about her, having heard her read at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, and opined that evangelicalism is in fine hands if she is any indication of the up and coming leaders and writers.)  Brazos Press published her next eloquent and provocative one, From Stone to Living Word: Letting the Bible Live Again ($16.99) which should be getting much more attention.  Life in Body seems to have her imprint upon it, although only one chapter is her own;  this is a marvelous collection of essays, memoir, Bible study and poetry, all around the theme of body image, the journey of our human experiences from birth to death.  Ragged and lovely, scary and moving, this is a "lit mag" kind of collection, hardly known, and exceptionally rewarding.  My daughter once gave me a collection of essays of writers from Minnesota and I was surprised at how good these common folk were, this odd admixture of upper mid-West rural populism, creativity and localism.  Upper mid-west writers rock and this book is a witness. 

I've been taken with the look and feel of the paperback memoir Virgin Time: In Search of the Contemplative Life by Patrician Hempl (North Point Press; $14.00) who is another writer from St. Paul, and have had it in my room for over a year, I think.  I read the first page this week and was instantly hooked, just thrilled by the giftedness of the writing. Wow.  I don't expect it to be as full of whimsy and pluck as Eat, Pray, Love but it surely is going to be a journey worth taking. 

animal, vegetable, miracle.jpgI actually haven't finished Animal Vegetable Miracle: A Year of Food Life yet, and I hope to pick that back up;  the paperback has a nice textured cover and a good interview with Barbara Kingsolver.  I've been saying I'm going to read her early novel Animal Dreams this summer, and I hope I can get to it.  Do you know her earliest fiction, before Poisonwood Bible?  I think Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven are among our all time favs--tremendously enjoyable.  I was glad to see Brian and Steve (in Beyond Homelessness) cite her essays from Small Wonders too.  It was our old pal and former worker Gordon Carpenter who first turned us on to her;  he and his fam lived near Tucson AZ so naturally became fans. Her first non-fiction collection was High Tide at Tucson and that, too, makes for great summer reading, enjoyable, smart and inspiring.

Want a fun book to have around to dip into whenever you're between novels or wanting to remind yourself (or others) about the power of fiction and creative writing?   Dale Brown has gifted us all with another fabulous collection of interviews (as he did years ago with Of Fiction and Faith) called Conversations with American Writers: The Doubt, the Faith, the In-Between (Eerdmans) $18.00.  It isn't the kind of book that chain Christian bookstores are likely to promote;  it probably is not seen as essential reading in theological bookstores, either (although we echo Eugene Peterson's oft-quoted comments about the importance of preachers reading fiction.)  Yet, this is remarkable, and we hope you can tell folks about it!  Here are conversations with David James Duncan, Ernest Gaines, Ron Hansen, Lee Smith, Jan Karon and others.  These are writers whose work wrestle with the sacred and Brown has listened well, reporting from this community of thoughtful storytellers who (whether they identify themselves as Christians or not) raise important questions about meaning, doubt and how art can sustain faith, even in unexpected ways.  Kudos to Dale Brown, former director of the famed Calvin Festival and now head of the Buechner Institute at King College in TN.

Speaking of Frederick Buechner, I suspect you know his three clever little books of short pieces, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who's Who, Wishful Thinkers: A Seeker's ABC, and Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter's Dictionary have been combined, a few new entries added (to make 365), and released in a chunky one-a-day one volume book called Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC's of Faith (Harper; $20.95.) I grabbed one from the shop last week and thought I'd start reading it a bit each day (I admit I've never read through all three, fully.)  Getting in a Buechner mindset will be helpful as we just got the brand new
yellow leaves.jpg release The Yellow Leaves: A Miscellany (Westminster/John Knox; $17.95.) You may recall, or have heard (I wouldn't have know!) that the line is taken from a Shakespeare sonnet, #73.  The book is a rare collection, various "leaves" left--fiction pieces, remixes and previously unreleased bits, a little memoir and some essay.  A must have for fans, and a nice intro for browsing if one is only a bit aware of his varied stylings.

I haven't started it, except for the afterward that starts out riffing on the popularity of "Bad to the Bone" by George Thorogood (which was even used in the Sponge Bob movie), but I've been eyeing up the latest collection of essays by one of the most literate guys on the planet, Alan Jacobs.  His latest is called Original Sin: A Cultural History (HarperOne; $24.95.)   It has garnered rave reviews from the likes of Buechner;  you have to love a Wheaton College prof who gets this said about his work  (by Alan Wolfe of Boston College): "I do not believe in original sin. I do believe in Alan Jacobs.  He is one of the smartest and wittiest writers around on matters involving religion and Original Sin is a gem"

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July 23, 2008

The New Conspirators: Creating the Future One Mustard Seed at at Time

New Conspirators.jpgOkay, everybody, take a long deep breath.  Hold it a bit.  Now go to the Hearts & Minds website page which is our monthly review column.  The June column is my telling of the work and seed-
sowing writing over the years of Tom Sine and his incredible importance.  His latest, The New Conspirators, is one I'm pretty jazzed about, and want to offer you this hefty review. Perhaps you might share it with someone who you think might find it helpful or interesting.  Thanks.

The deep breath together, by the way, is kind of a joke---a playful nod to a definition of conspiracy: "to breath together."  And, maybe an admission that my monthly columns are a bit longer than my blogs.  Take a deep breath.

And, if you are convinced that this would be a worthy addition to your library, or you want to have it to share with others, or consider for a reading group, you can order it here for $5 off.



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July 25, 2008

Fun summer music

Last week I posted a few times about various titles my wife and I are enjoying--history, humor, novels, memoir, alongside the important stuff we promote for more direct learning and serious Christian worldview formation.  I cited a few rare ones and a few fun ones that are kinda under the radar. And, I'm thinking I am going to read Truck: A Love Story by Michael Perry (Harper; $13.99) again, since he is a spectacular writer, and maybe something about outdoorsy stuff, hiking or wilderness, although I often get that bug in the early fall.  More great books keep coming into the shop each day, some that are exquisite and very richly written like Souls in the Hands of a Tender God: Stories of the Search for Home and Healing on the Streets by Craig Rennebohm (Beacon; $23.95) which is a very tender portrait of the mentally ill (and a passionate call for justice and grace.)  And there is the really interesting and fun romp pulling out the themes of faith and struggle, guilt and redemption, justice and hope,  through every one of the Boss' albums, The Gospelgospel according the bruce springsteen.JPG According to Bruce Springsteen: Rock and Redemption from Asbury Park to Magic by Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz (Westminster/John Knox; $16.95.)  Any Bruce fan has to get this one, as does anyone who wants ways into conversations about faith, values and popular culture    Late last night I started a brand new novel set in rural Appalachia, Dogwood, by Chris Fabry (Tyndale; $12.99.) It starts off with a pair of epigrams, one from Isak Dinesen and another by my man Jackson Browne so I had to see what this guy's up to.

Still, any quickie posts about fun stuff this summer would have to list a couple of odd albums, naming some of our soundtrack these days. You've read before that I listen to Indelible Grace a lot, and a month or so ago I did long reviews of some very rare recordings--if you haven't visited the May column at the website, please do.  Now, though,   I'd love to tell you briefly about some a few tha yo might not hear about otherwise.  CDs lay around our house almost as much as books, although my kids mostly use ipods.  I'm not so old school that I insist on vinyl, but I do love my CDs and their artwork and liner notes; I hate the idea of "downloading" a "song" without the full context.  Why not invest in a a couple of CDs before they start to disappear?  The lyrics and artwork and liner notes on these are nice, too.

So, here are a few unusual ones we are recommending these days.

spring summer.jpgSpring/Summer  Jon Foreman  (Credential) $13.99  I love Switchfoot, and have a bunch of reasons to respect them, not the least of which is the powerful, thoughtful, allusive, rowdy, moving rock music. Their frontman, Jon Foreman, recently recorded a set of four very acoustic, nearly unplugged, solo sets, each for one season of the year. (They are not all that much about that season, but apparently a chronicle of his life's journey over a year.)  The first pair, Fall and Winter, came out a while back, and the second set is now available.  I'll tell ya what: a few of these jangling, whiny solo pieces are absolutely beautiful;  I keep hitting replay on a few of the songs while driving around in the car.  His setting of the 23rd Psalm is alone worth the price of the album (and has Sarah Mason singing, which is stunning in its understated alt-country simplicity.)  Foreman and his pals do a great song that incorporates the Lord's Prayer ("Your Love is Strong"), full of angst and bohemian sighs and longing and hope.  These two sets of short double albums have some great guitar work and his cool vocals, stuff from his own seasons of life, a few pretty overtly praise songs, a bit of pain, some sweetness, deep faith and some odd-ball hip arrangements (the Sufjan effect, I'd call it, what with the horns and hammer dulcimer and Eastern European tempos) that really, really work.  I love this, especially, now, Spring and Summer.   Highly recommended.

in the name of love.jpgIn The Name of Love: Africa Celebrates U2 various (Shout) $18.99 Okay, I'm a sucker for cover versions of stuff, and even bought the CCM cover disc of u2 songs a few years ago, knowing I'd only love few tracks of it.  (I've got a wonderful recording of all Bruce Cockburn songs by Steve Bell, My Dinner With Bruce, which is pretty darn cool.  Nanci Griffith did a whole album of covers that I like, I've raved to friends about The Band cover album--imagine Death Cab doing The Band!--and I one of my all time favorite albums is the Mark Heard tribute and we love the soundtrack to I Am Sam which has some wonderful version of Beatles songs, but I digress.)  But this, this is something else indeed.  This is a collection of well known, mostly recent, U2 songs done by 10 different African pop bands, produced as a fund raiser for The Global Fund.  A few have a fairly typically Western rock feel, versions pretty faithful to the original, just sung with a way cool accent and the bold bass lines that Graceland introduced to the pop music scene here.  Others are in native tongues, if still done in a pretty rock style, even though there are some unusual instruments being used.  (Nothing is quite like, say, Ladysmith Black Mombazo, really, if you wondered.)  Bands include the famous Sierra Leon Refugee Allstars, the Soweto Gospel Choir,  Waldemar Bastos, Les Nubians, Anglique Kidjo, Vieux Farka Toure, Cheikh Lo, and others...Wow.

This is fun, fun, fun, and at times really moving.  I won't lie to you: one song made me shed a tear or two, too.  Rolling Stone is right to say, that, as a tribute to Bono's work for Africa,  it is a "rootsy thank-you, not a world-music cheesefest."  Still, it is a nice way into the world music scene alongside all those cool Patamayo recordings we sell. 

deconstruction.jpgDeconstruction Justin McRoberts (Justin McRoberts) $12.95  Oh, man, I am so glad I got to know this guy a bit, as we've sold a few of his albums in the shop before, and is pretty highly regarded in the younger singer-songwriter circuit;  he's also done some cool stuff with Young Life camps, and is a hit on the Christian college coffeehouse circuit.  Having heard him do a live show this past fall, and watching him lead worship at a college ministry event, I was amazingly taken, even more so as I got to know a bit about he and his wife and their urban ministry work in San Fran.  He's ordered some books from us and I realize he is a deep thinker, a serious activist, a fun and funny guy, and an artist of considerable depth.  (Who else has written a song inspired by writer Jonathan Kozol?)  Songs like "A Hope Deferred" and "America and the Soul" give a hint that this is an album with more than typical religious clichés.  Here, he does his thoughtful acoustic singer-songwriter stuff, with a voice that won't quit, deep and melodious, rough and gritty, soulful at times, almost booming like Bono (and that is not a cheap comparison.) Most of Justin's songs belie a deep seriousness about faith and doubt and struggle and art and excellence; a few could be used in particularly creative worship services.  (The lyrics to the song somebody judged or turned away by church, also about taking communion, "On the Night You Were Betrayed", just blew me away and I am sure it could be played in worship or in conversational settings to great benefit, for those who have the guts.)  Justin covers one of my favorite Patti Griffin songs, too, "When it Don't Come Easy" and does so with a great vibe and a very strong vocal performance.  We have a batch of these CDs to sell here in the store, and I'd love for you to know about him.  Buy Deconstruction now, and you won't regret it--and you'll be supporting  indie music, too.  Check out his really cool website (but come on back to H&M.) Thanks!

utlimate vivaldi.jpgUltimate Vivaldi: The Essential Masterpieces  (Decca) $18.00 Okay folks, check this out: five discs.  There are Wind Concertos, Cello Concertos, Guitar Concertos, Four Seasons and the Gloria and more.  Performances by the likes of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and conductors as esteemed as Iona Brown.  Here's the deal:  Decca has done these five volume sets for just $18.00 and they've released 5-disc sets of "ultimate" essentials for all the greats: Mozart, Chopin, Bach, Beethoven, Tchychovski, Handel, Rachmaninoff...which should I open next?  I can't afford 'em all, but a few are, well, almost essential.  Having picnics or garden parties or sleep-overs this summer?  Wanting a chill-out mood for reading?  Hey, these tunes aren't called Masterpieces for nothing.

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July 7, 2008

Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement

In my enthusiastic announcement at the BookNotes blog this June I confidently stated thatbeyond homelessness.jpg Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement by Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian J. Walsh (Eerdmans; $24.00) will be the Book of the Year.  Perhaps I was a bit rash, since so many truly great titles have subsequently been released  (I admit I'm writing this postdating it, in the fall since I didn't get to this review earlier.)  Still, I insist that this book is one of the most important in ages, a thrilling, if demanding, read, and a great example of the wonderful kinds of books that are being written these days.  This book is deeply, profoundly Christian, radically faithful, and wondrously interdisciplinary.  There are a few trouble spots and a few annoying tics, but my criticism, which I will raise eventually, should not keep you from taking it seriously.  I again announce that I suspect it will be named as the Hearts & Minds book of the year.

There are lots of fine books, many good ones this year, and we are grateful to be in the business of recommending many.  Every now and then, though, one comes along that stands out, and although it may not be for everyone, we truly try to promote it widely.  We are often told that customers appreciate this, since some of the best religious books are not sold in typical bookstores.   I say this from time to time, I know, but I couldn't be more sincere or more urgent: for serious Christians, those who care about how God's Word impacts and shapes our thinking and living, who desire an integrated worldview that can propel us towards distinctive cultural engagement, who wants to learn more about the nature of our times---Jesus told us to read the signs, recall---Beyond Homelessness is a must.  Yes, a true must-read.    As Marva Dawn puts it in her very enthusiastic recommendation, "Broadly researched and splendidly written, this book is essential reading for anyone who wants truly to comprehend and mend our culture."  Amen.

The book was written in community and deserves to be read in community.  I hope you are able to find a conversation partner (at least) or a small group to work through it together.  That may not be easy for some of us, although perhaps one can inspire somebody to join in the work.  You may need to give it away, literally putting it into the hands of those who need such a jolt. 

Authors Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian Walsh are serious about co-authorship: their collaboration is an intentional practice which itself is rooted in their convictions and habits as members of communities, networks, organizations and churches.  That they lament the breakdown of community is not merely an academic topic of study for them, but an existential crisis that they feel; they carry the pain of our dislocating culture, this way of life that disconnects us from things that matter, this dis-ease of our times. They have long shown solidarity (literally) with those who feel this most acutely, the poor, and the thoughtfully aware students.  The so-called losers and the prophets. And yet, they live in such a way as to witness against the ideologies and currents of individualism of free market modernity.  There is much joy in a fallen world and their embrace of (and subsequent study of and writing about) the sorrows and injustices of our world has lead them to creative lifestyles of sustainability and caring, which engender a fascinating kind of happiness.  They are involved in care for creation, and care for the poor and care for their loved ones.  They've made tough decisions about how to do life, what to buy, how to raise their children, what to focus their scholarly careers upon, what kinds of homes and homelives to nurture. (When Brian's wife Sylvia was lecturing about consumerism a few years ago and mentioned in passing that their children had never been to a McDonald's, but were planning to go to a birthday party of a friend at one,  participants gasped!  Ha!)  Their personal dispositions and experiences of discipleship are informed by their deep sadness about the horrors of life, as well as their study of the same.  And, yet, as in the Wendell Berry poem, The Mad Farmer's Liberation Front Manifesto, they "practice resurrection."  And do they ever!

(By the way, as a nifty aside: the two small and long out of print paperbacks that had the Mad Farmer's poems in them have just been re-issued in an oversized edition (imagine a nice children's picture book) complete with wood cuts, some additional poems, including some by others writing about the Mad Farmer, and an bit of introductory stuff.  The new The Mad Farmer Poems is published by Counterpoint.  It sells for $25.)  

Which is to say, they don't have any personalistic narrow faith, that want to shake things up a bit,  they aren't perfect, and they know it, but they live boldly by God's grace.  They try to live what they write about; their serious and at times complex theoretical work emerges from their own contexts, their activism, ministry, teaching and relationships within their local communities, their ordinary lives of playing, resting, recycling, gardening, writing, feasting, speaking and teaching.  And, they have fun doing it.  And do they ever!

Not long ago Brian showed me some pictures of students from his University of Toronto campus ministry who came out to Russet House Farm (an educational sustainable farm where he and his wife, Bible scholar Sylvia Keesmaat and their children share life with a handful of other homesteading Christian friends and assorted friendly beasts.)  Half of the group spent some time as Sylvia taught on the Biblical theme of bread while the other part of the group learned the homemaking art of bread-making.  As those engaged in the Bible study worked, they were aroused by the sensual aroma of the fresh baking bread as it wafted into their room.  Of course they then changed places so all got to handle the Bread of the Word and the bread for their tummies.  For a hint of the kind of substantive, politically charged and highly relevant (and invigorating) study of Scripture they did, see Sylvia's great chapter called "Gardening in the Empire" in the small "road map" anthology Eat Well published by *cino.  Or her amazing chapter in the Advent devotional, Advent of Justice (Dordt College Press.)  Or her brief manifesto for how her approach and style of Biblical research can offer the best insights of serious study and engagement with the latest trends in Biblical studies for the faithful living of God's people.

Walsh has written some of my all time favorite books and although this new one is his most demanding, it is a natural follow up to his developing body of work such as Transforming Vision (with Richard Middletown) Truth is Stranger Than It Used to Be, (also with Richard Middleton)  Subversive Christianity: Imaging God in a Dangerous Time and Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (with Sylvia Keesmaat.)   Most of these were co-written, and they each illustrate this rare blend of serious Biblical study, diligent cultural awareness, prophet denunciation of idols and social injustices, and, yes, great joy.

Bouma-Prediger, who teaches at Hope College in Holland MI, is also a great example of a scholar with activist leanings, a passionate and involved Christian leader.  He has previously written an academic survey on ecological theological concerns among some of the leading theologians of our time, The Greening of Theology, and the vital For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian View of Creation Care (part of the Engaging Culture series of Baker) and has done serious work edited the works of Lutheran scholar Joseph Sittler.  For the Beauty... is the most significant, thoughtful, and theologically insightful (innovative while avoiding the weird pantheism and other heresies of other academic theologians) book on the subject and we recommend it heartily.  Again, his research has been rooted in his activism and his own commitment to place.  He is (as Ron Sider called for in his excellent Christian Scholars Review article) a faithful scholar/activist.

And so, the new Beyond Homelessness book has integrity.  The authors know what they are talking about, they are experienced writers, speakers, cultural critics who live out of a beautiful confidence in the abundance of God's good creation and the goodness of God's abundance love.  They live with others, for Christ, in what their often-cited Canadian rock singer Bruce Cockburn has called, "a world of wonders."

But what in the world is this wondrous book really about? To say the authors have integrity and are great scholars and committed activists isn't enough.  It is tricky to easily summarize (in part because this book is truly breaking new ground and covers so very much territory.)  Let me explain.

Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement makes a complex argument, or a set of interlocking arguments, about literal homelessness---as jarringly incongruous as an iceberg in the Caribbean, as one inner city worker put it---and the economic and social ideologies that help cause and  enforce it.  These portions of the book include first hand accounts of their friendships with homeless folks, relief workers, refugees, undocumented immigrants,  rescue mission staff and urban renewal activists.  (Brian spent the better part of a year as a "theologian in residence" at an innovative homeless shelter in Toronto where many of these friendships developed, although both he and Steve have traveled throughout the world and have been involved in ministries of education,  advocacy and mercy for years.)  There are scholarly insights, and lots of academic footnotes, citing government documents, briefs and scholarly research on the problems of the urban underclass  (and, importantly, not just the heart-wrenching struggles of the urban poor, but also vital recommendations and advocacy on housing policy. A few years back Brian was asked to give testimony at a hearing about the relationship of culture, worldview, homes and house policies in New Zealand, so he's been writing on this for a while, too.)  This bit of writing is interesting and important for us to know, I am sure, and they blend together careful illustrations,  fabulous storytelling and astute  policy analysis with Biblical reflections, in a way that is truly rare.  Their gifts and diligence is extraordinary, their commitment to "read the world and read the Word" is exemplary, and the result is a book which is nothing short of spectacular. 

(I suspect that some will find their rhetoric about justice, and their take on the policy questions, a bit too close for comfort, sounding, as they do at times, like Amos or Jeremiah.  Still, I'd observe that even in their most hard hitting explication of Biblical mandates about justice and social re-orientation, they are graceful;  they know we do not build God's Kingdom and all our protest and advocacy are just signposts point the way of the coming shalom of the eschaton.)

They are serious critics of free market economics and ideologies of growth, as well, and some will flinch at this.   Agree or not with their social democratic and lefty worldview, their case, and their writing, is formidable.  I believe one will be blessed to read it, and it deserves to be discussed, debated, refuted or refined.  They would be happy to have critics expose their ideological missteps or their unhelpful proposals.  They would love to discuss, as faithful followers of Christ, how best to related Word and world.  So do read this, even if you have your doubts about their bold project. And be glad, at least, as their example of a natural integration of spirituality and scholarship, of their own stories and their discernment about the story of our times, is inspiring, even if you don't agree with all of their methods or conclusions.  If you share their concern about the world, have a heart for understanding the social context(s) of the poor, and desire to live into these question guided by the Story of God, then this book will be a helpful ally.


Their full analysis hinges on a large claim they make, a meme they've been following for a decade or more, namely, that God desires us to find a sense of home; God's redemptive gift in Christ is, in many ways, best described (as in the U2 song) "a sort of homecoming."  As Shane Claiborne says about the book, it is "a daring explanation of one of the most primitive longings in all of us---home.)  Even though God is moving to restore us to our places of belonging---inclusive communities, safe families, the creation itself---the socio economic forces of our times are working against that. 

Shane is so right.  It is a daring exploration!  It is a daring exploration in a least three ways I will mention. Firstly, Bouma-Prediger & Walsh explore this theme of homecoming in Scripture better than anyone to date.  From creative personal monologues between most chapters (these could be nicely compiled into a little devotional book just themselves and would be considered brilliant) to their more systematic exploration of the flow of the Biblical narrative and its implications, they unpack this material with an energy, a confidence and a clarity that is as inspirational as enlightening.  In an era when evangelical pietism is slowly emerging from its dualistic narrowness, they push hard and demand nothing but the fullest Biblical perspective.  As the notion of a public theology and a wholistic discipleship is getting traction in the evangelical world, they push us farther, not just reciting the rejection of the sacred/secular dualism that they so clearly critique in the earlier books.   In fact,  they tweak the grand telling of the Biblical meta-narrative of creation/fall/redemption into homemaking/exile/homecoming, or, similarly, being placed/ displaced/restored to place (or, yet again, we could put it saying that we find ourselves with God in a garden turned wilderness which is moving towards a promised gardened city.) 

They do this with spectacular  Biblical study--how do they come up with this stuff, if not by spending hours and hours "in the Word" as we evangelicals say!  They draw insightfully on scholars as diverse as Walter Brueggemann, N.T. Wright, Christine Pohl, Langdon Gilkey and Mirslov Volf and yet going beyond them in significant ways.  There is in this work a unique theological breadth that is refreshing and when they shift in to high philosophical gear, as they do from time to time (what is a home? a family?  Do necessary psychological boundaries enforce exclusion?  How has postmodernity facilitated a nomadic way of life that erodes identity?  how do we know any of this?) they really show their academic chops; both are top-flight philosophy students and popularizers.  Footnotes and fascinating citations fly: James Olthius, David Tracy, Peter Berger, Merold Westphold, John Caputo, Jacques Derrida, Zygmunt Bauman, Albert Borgmann, Edward Said.  Whew, this is a rich feast for those of us who don't have time to read quite so much in philosophy or social ethics, a helpful and invigorating introduction to the state of contemporary thinking.

If you don't know these names, don't worry.  These two guys are born teachers and while they don't intend to "dumb it down" they usually avoid the abstraction and attitude that sometimes hinders scholarly writing done for the academic guild.  That is, they are servants of us, the readers, bringing us along, even through some strange waters.  They chase a few rabbit holes that go deep, but they usually explain why;  we get that they are not showing off or being obscurantists, but that they really believe that knowing this stuff is important.  It is a part of their task, part of our calling, to be responsible agents in our 21st century exile.  How do we get "home from nowhere" (as new urbanist author James Howard Kunstler puts it?)  They are helpful guides, and you will learn a lot--a lot that is important--- from their vast knowledge.

Secondly, besides their Biblical, theological and philosophical depth, Bouma-Prediger & Walsh shine as sharp (and sometimes very entertaining) cultural critics.  This---on the heels of Walsh's Colossians Remixed---may be one of the most daring and bold bits of Christian cultural analysis I've seen.  (And, yes, I read a lot of Christian authors on this, from the new Tom Beaudoin to the new David Wells, from Stan Hauerwas to Bob Goudzewaard,  from Rita Brock to the recent Pope.)  Their deep cultural criticism, too, is playfully and helpfully culturally engaged.  This goes way beyond an obligatory Douglas Coupland quote or Matrix allusion, or Radiohead line, more than a common reflection on the postmodern turn.  They are savvy to pop culture but also do remarkable discernment of social realities and they've named some qualities of our culture that seem nothing short of original. 

For instance.  they cite the pathos of angst-ridden alternative music world, offering glimpses into the significance of the current theme of being lost, of homelessness, of the possibility (or impossibility) of finding home.  I heard Brian once play a recording of a live Tori Amos rendition of the always moving Somewhere Over the Rainbow where she tellingly dropped off the last phrase into inaudible longing, deconstructing the promises of hopeful homecoming.  From this awareness of this sort of postmodern anxiety and placelessness (think of the sterile and yet tacky exurbs as explored in The Geography of Nowhere) they move back to the hyper-modern social forces---choice, change, individualism, mobility, hot-wired virtual reality, capitalistic consumerism, globalization---and show how ideologies of placenessness and lifestyles of social mobility and disdain for the local, create an ethos of postmodern exile for many.  (Just when the going gets tough, exploring the philosophical roots of this current cultural state,  they tell of a movie or novel---In The Air is a story about a rich business traveler trying to get his millionth frequent flyer mile aware before the airline collapses who literally has no real home. This, by the way, form the same novelist who gave us the college age cult classic Thumbsucker.)  Wendell Berry helps bear some of the load, but it really isn't that difficult to get: people don't care about their places much anymore and we move around leaving a trail of unfulfilling friendship beyind, even as we re-decorate our new places from the standard stuff at Pottery Barn.  We just don't care much about our places.   And this may be, in part, as James Howard Kunstler colorfully argues in Geography of Nowhere and Home From Nowhere because our late modern built environments are so poorly constructed and spiritually degrading that we do not have a credible human habitat that is worth caring much about.)  And so, we have a culture where folks are no longer citizens, but consumers, and even as consumers, we feel dis-placed, ill-at-ease, uncommitted, and apathetic, hyped and sold a bill of upbeat goods.  This anxiety creates increasingly inhumane lifestyles---the guy who lives in the air makes for a good novel, but it is a brutalizing way to live, to have a house but no home... To care about the causes of urban poverty and the structures of injustice that hurt the poor, we must also give attention to the broader themes of homelessness as a metaphor.  Their linking these things is amazing, provocative, and worthy of much consideration.  I hope this creates many important conversations among cultural critics and social theorists, among social activists and those who work with the upper middle class.  There is plenty of brokenness everywhere, and while the details may differ (the harsh realities of the urban homeless, the rural migrant, or the despairing yuppie, their problems (and solutions) may be inter-related.

Urban activist Shane Claiborne gets at this on the back cover:
 
Whether we are in the lonely suburbs or the lonely slums, whether we are cultural refugees or undocumented immigrants, here is good news.  In these pages is a call to community, to live deeper, to discover that if we have the eyes to see and the imaginations to dream it, there is another world at hand where every alien and orphan and estranged executive has a home and a family, for there is a kinship that runs deeper than culture or class or biology or nation.  There is a family born from a Creator who breathes life into the very dirt, a God who tabernacles with a nomadic groups of slaves looking for a land of promise, a Savior who enters the world as a refugee in the middle of genocide, a homeless rabbi who is leading us home. 

I've suggested that Walsh & Bouma-Prediger are notable for at least three reasons.  First, I affirmed their Biblical-theological-philosophical depth, which I cannot overstate.  Next, I celebrated their stunning, original insight relating the metaphor of pomo homelessness and angst with literal homelessness and economic injustice.  

Thirdly, in Beyond Homelessness these authors frame much of our dislocation from culture and home and place (figuratively and literally) by our disregard for the creation itself.  This should not be surprising that they emphasis this; as far back as the seminal The Transforming Vision, Walsh rooted a Christian worldview in not only the doctrine of the far scope of Christ's redemption, but in the primordial story of the creation itself, and creation theology has been a central aspect in all of his books.  Bouma-Prediger, of course, is, by profession, a professor of environmental sciences and religion (I have already said, but will again, that For the Beauty of the Earth is a truly excellent book, one of the top books of its kind!  Steven, by the way, has a really wonderful, creative, interesting and inspiring talk/presentation called God the Homemaker and Recycler: A Biblical Case for a Green God in the think audio magazine from our good friends at the  Work Research Foundation, now known as Cardus.)  This is a great part of the book, heady, important, and pregnant with implications, as it must be.  From Aldo Leopald to Wendell Berry, from David Orr to Bill McKibben (who offers a lovely and important endorsement on the cover) the environmental insights from the best writers of our time are gathered to address the ecological crisis that looms large.  Yet, this is not another simple call to responsible evangelical creation care, nor an alarmist cry against climate change.  It is an exploration and discernment of a crisis of worldview, of our very understanding of our selves and our place on Earth.  They do this very thoroughly, in very helpful ways.

Note, for instance, their citation of this thick quote from Norman Wirzba, scholar of rural life at Duke Divinity School, and author of Living the Sabbath,

The eclipse of divine transcendence, once understood to be he source of and goal of the world, created a hole that would be filled by humans beings who now positioned themselves as the center or source of meaning and value.  No longer microcosms of the creation, people are the autonomous beings who, in an expression of rational freedom, chart and direct the fate of themselves and the world.  Again, the history of this development toward autonomy is complex.  But what emerges is a self  cut off from the world of which it is a part and a world shorn of all remnants of final causality. 

Or, as they summarize, "Having banished or pacified God, we have enthroned ourselves at the center of things...with ourselves at the center and the world a machine, nature gets reduced to the status of an object---merely an object to be used, and, if necessary, abused."  A few sentences later, they continue, "It is not surprising, then, that the eclipse of agrarian life, the predominance of technology, the abstract character of modern life, and the perceived irrelevance of God have also contributed to our inability to understand ourselves as God-wrought creatures and the world as divinely crafted and lovingly sustained creation."

A bit less prosaically, they quote mystic Thomas Berry, who says that are deaf and dumb, "Our scientific inquiries into the natural world," he argues, "have produced a certain atrophy in our human responses," so that, "we cannot speak" to the forms of existence around us.  "Emotionally we cannot get out of our confinement," he continues, "nor can we let the outer world flow into our own beings."  Therefore, "we cannot hear the voices of the world around us or its tragic despoilment and ongoing destructions."  

Yet again, they explore this theme, quoting a character in Barbara Kingsolver's novel Animal Dreams, "To people who think of themselves as God's houseguests, American enterprise must seem arrogant beyond belief.  Or stupid.  A nation of amnesiacs, proceeding as if there were no other day but today."  They add, "If you believe we are "permanent houseguest" as the Bible affirms we are, "sleeping on God's coach," as Kingsolver puts it, then you can only agree with this assessment and share the anger and sadness it contains."

This sprawling, complex, exciting, stimulating, challenging book is truly interesting, a great book for those who enjoy good books.  It will make you think, you will learn new things, there will be authors cited (in the text and the footnotes) and musicians quoted (Bruce Cockburn, obviously, is very insightfully used.)  I really hope that many will take it seriously.  And, once again,  the occasional chapters which are Biblical monologues are themselves worth the price of the book---you've got to read them to appreciate these creative glimpses into the Biblical story.

For full disclosure, I should note a few minor concerns.  I wish at times that the critique of conservative economics was argued with a touch more generosity, recalling that some good people, people who care deeply about these things,  just disagree about the nature of poverty, economics, and the best sorts of proposals that will help ensure a stewardly economy.  I would think that perhaps even noting their awareness that there are some very sharp thinkers (and very seasoned urban activists) who do not share their left-wing critique of the idols of growth, and the notions and values of the neo-conservatives.  One need not be an acolyte for the Bush administration, or a groupie of the Acton Institute to raise legitimate questions about how best to improve the economy, how to propose Biblically-informed ways to enhance urban renewal initiatives, and ways around the commonly known dead-ends of the welfare state.  I do not mean they should be less strident, (with 35,000,000 living below the poverty line in the US alone, according to Ron Sider's very helpful and recently updated Just Generosity, they should be strident!)  but perhaps a bit more interaction with those who would be their critics would have made for a strong (if admittedly, longer) book..

Also, at times, I think they drift into academic lingo that would be better suited for a philosophy text.  I understand that they are fluent in the discourse of the academy and they both understand the value of thinking through the deepest things.  Above, I noted that this is, in fact, a strength of the book, the way they can guide us through amazingly diverse and complex theorists.  Occasionally, though, they lapse into jargon.  (I understand the usefulness of using "priveleges" or "legitimizes" as verbs, and the potent bite that carries, even if it is a bit odd to some ears.  But I sure don't want to hear anything about "praxis" when I'm reading about homemaking; that just ain't right. ) Still, a few times they just can't help themselves and if I didn't know better I'd think they were just a bit too geeky. Hmmm? Anybody who knowingly cites Bono, though, can't possibly be that highbrow.  So join me in skipping a couple paragraphs every once in a while.  (Another full disclosure: I studied all the footnotes, so maybe I'm the geeky one.)  If the book seems a bit dense, it is only on occasion.  And some will relish these little tangents into the ether. 

Lastly, I think the book would be helped if there were a bit of a discussion/experience/action guide for steps "beyond homelessness."  Both of these scholars are engaged in mentoring others, and living lives of joyful if subversive socio-political reform.  Their stories are compelling, but a few ideas about next steps and living into this home-coming sojourn would help typical readers at least think about how to form communities of resistance to the alienating forces of the displacing culture.  We need stories, examples, directions and suggestions of  how to build lives of daily discipleship on the journey home. (One good example of this is the work of Tom & Christine Sine, whose Mustard Seed Associates connects folks working at these themes from around the world;  Tom tells tons of stories in his The New Conspirators: Creating the Future One Mustard Seed at a Time.)  Maybe Walsh & Bouma-Prediger (or their students) could create an action-oriented accompanying website with pictures of bread-making guides, discussion stuff for the book, and appropriate projects. (BW does blog at the EmpireRemixed site, and I linked to Russett House above.)  Or a brief list of "next books" to read, rather than the monstrously long bibliography of academic texts.  I suspect that these guys figure that local readers can talk amongst themselves and prayerfully discern the Spirit's leading.  Perhaps so.  This huge book is so broad, though, that just a little more help in processing it all would have been appreciated

I do not want to end on this note of small criticism, as my minor concerns are way outweighed by the conspicious strengths, those I listed, and more.  Perhaps it is best to give them the last word:

Walter Brueggemann has argued that "the key pathology of our time, which seduces us all, is the reduction of the imagination so that we are too numbed, satiated and co-opted to do serious imaginative work."  There is something about life in urban homogeneity that strips us of imagination.  There is something about being anonymous consumers that leaves us unable to imagine life otherwise.  And there is something about all of this that renders us numb, as emotionally disconnected from our own placelessness as we are from the homelessness of others.

Hope requires liberated imaginations....

At the heart of the Christian gospel is the message that we are all homeless, but that there is a home in which our yearning hearts can and will find rest.  That home is creation redeemed and transfigured a place of grace that is inhabited by an indwelling God of unfathomable love.  The Christian gospel, in other words, is a grand story or redemptive homecoming that is at the same time grateful homemaking.