About September 2010

This page contains all entries posted to Hearts & Minds Books in September 2010. They are listed from oldest to newest.

August 2010 is the previous archive.

October 2010 is the next archive.

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

September 2010 Archives

September 4, 2010

The end of summer blues and two great books about spiritual formation: The Power of a Whisper and Spiritual Rhythm

monet-wheatstacks-end-of-summer.jpg
                                                                                                   Claude Monet:  End of Summer
I suppose I am not the only one who is sad that summer is done; everybody I know is a bit manic about how the time has flown by.  For me this happens at every August's end, and I am sure it is related to piles of regret, legitimate wishes for more time away, time wasted, as well as some deeper melancholy that I can't quite name.  It is clear to me, though, that I long for two somewhat related things, and that these things always come to my awareness this time of year: greater connection to God and greater connection to creation. 

This time of year many of us want to squeeze in a bit more outdoor time---one more hike, one more visit to a local park, a bit of yard work, or harvesting produce; we go to the shore or the lake or the garden, and wish for just a bit more time. The beauty of the days makes me think about not only being outdoors, but reading about creation; maybe not going into the wilderness on a canoe, but reading about those that have.  I wonder if others are like that.

So, soon enough, I'll tell you about a remarkable book or two that are sure to thrill those who like the genre of nature writing.

But first, and most urgent, some titles that have helped me---or at least reminded me---of this deep need for a more lively experience of God. 

I'll highlight a handful of new or important ones over at the monthly column, soon, but first, two that I most thoroughly enjoyed, and that we want to commend to you.

whisper_360.pngThe Whisper of God: Hearing God. Having the Guts to Respond.  Bill Hybels (Zondervan) $22.99  I know, I know, some of us read Thomas Merton or work at the deep tradition of centering prayer, and may suppose this chatty collection of stories by a mega-church big shot is a bit light-weight.  Or, we understand the need for very solid doctrine and clear explanations of foundational truths, and we fret that the Willow Creek leader may be a bit too CEO-ish for our orthodox tastes, failing at being adequately clear about the whole truth.

Well, let me say this: I don't care where you are on the theological spectrum or what sort of reading habits you have, or what your concerns are about mega-churches, these stories will inspire you, impact you, maybe change your attitude about Willow and Mr. Hybels, and may---just may---remind you that God is alive and well, and wants to be in communication with you.  What you think of Willow Creek is less important that what you think of God and God's activity in your life.  Does God whisper to you?  Do you dare say so?  Are you experienced at hearing?  How do you respond? 

Some have said that this is Hybels' best book yet, and he himself says in the preface that some of this stuff he has been waiting for decades to write.  He didn't want to seem flakey or immature or unwise, so he let this idea--that God whispers stuff to us through holy hunches and quiet leadings--percolate for half a life-time until he felt he had something true to say about it all.

I challenge anyone to read this and not be moved.  He shares enjoyable and often riveting  story after story of those who felt God's gentle guidance to do things, to say things, to stop saying things, to change course, to pick up a task or calling or career.  His own life is replete with these, and it is my sense that he does not overstate the way in which the Spirit guides us.  His own raw honesty about this---often set in times of great conflict or pain or loss or stress---is very helpful for any of us that are feeling the end of summer blues, anxieties about up-coming schedules, going through complicated times, or who need to know of God's presence in the ordinary days of life.  It was a very good book for me to read this season and it may be for you.

 I was encouraged by a few the stunning stories that shout "holy smokes, can you believe that?" but I am even more encouraged that most of the stories Hybels tells are made of fairly ordinary stuff and show God's promptings into pretty standard actions.  Like being nicer to your wife.  Be helpful to that person being insulted in an airport.  Give a bit more money to that charity.  Let your daughter stay out later than your fatherly instincts permit. Tell a friend that you are concerned about his attitude.  Read that book. Take a day off and go have fun.  

There are several sections describing various ways God speaks which Hybels outlines (through the Bible, naturally, through friends, internal promptings, etc.)   He is helpful about he processes of discernment and is not glib about "hearing" The Voice.  (He gives some practical advise, too, on how to discern if it is not God's whisper; "filters" he uses.)  Great storyteller that he is, he shows how this way of listening (and faithful listening, of course, means doing what one is told) played out for him in various sides of life.  His section about parenting is truly touching, and his admissions about his struggles at parenting two different sorts of children---and learning to hear God's guidance about showing grace and trust---was reassuring and helpful.  Since I am also reading his daughter Shauna Niequist's wonderfully written Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way (Zondervan; $16.99, but on sale for $12.97) it is fun hearing about her as a child. Yes, this parenting section was a bit challenging, but also quite helpful.

The extraordinary ending chapters are about hearing "Whispers That Change the World" and revisit themes that are important at Willow Creek---themes of social change, service of the poor, standing for justice, racial reconciliation, global friendships.   I challenge any church who has interests in these callings of social concern to read his story of deepening care (and action) and not admire the solid work and prophetic witness of this gang of folks.  Some mainline denominational folk, in fact, who pride themselves of their concern for this arena, could learn a bit about social innovation, I'd think.  I loved the whole book, but I kept wanting to tell others about this section, in part because so many don't understand the significant social outreach, anti-poverty work, advocacy for immigrants and ethnic diversity that Willow Creek has engaged in.  Yes, it is influenced by Hybel's experiences in Africa (even as a teen, when he wondered through the slums of Cairo) and other places, but it mostly rooted in his holy engagement with the Bible and the Spirit.  Again, The Power of a Whisper shows the way ministry and leadership and daily discipleship--even in ways that lead to controversial social positions---can be influenced by the promptings of the Spirit, informed and shaped and moved along by our attentiveness to God's voice in our lives.  This is great, great stuff, and I hope many read it, and "have the guts to respond."

Is this rocket science?  Is it deep medieval mysticism?  Is it complicated or weird or risky?  Well, this book does not make it sound that way at all. It did not strike me as breathy or over-stated or dramatic at all.  Still, I wonder, sometimes, if those of us who are rather ordinary Christians---Protestant, Catholic, evangelical, Anglican, whatever---live as if God is silent, and the world is more or less "secular" except for the doctrines and dogma we hold and the ethics and worship rituals we practice.  This easy-to-read and very inspiring book will show us a better way.  With stories and examples and clear-headed conversational teaching, this delightful guide will remind you that God does want to speak to you.  And that we can live not only with the idea of God as creator and savior, but as the One who is in relationship with us, and speaks and allows us to experience holy guidance, step by step, whisper by whisper.

Of course, there are other books on this topic, some deeper, some more complex, somebill_hybels.jpg perhaps more theologically mature.  I will soon publish a list over at the monthly column, highlighting more.  Hybels himself is not new to this inner life stuff---his popular book Too Busy Not To Pray: Slowing Down to Be With God (IVP; $15.00) is excellent and you may know that he had hired Ruth Haley Barton (whose books we often cite here) for a season at Willow to train folks in spiritual direction.  The Power of a Whisper, though, is the one that drew me in, reminded me of very basic stuff, helped me recall great truths, and touched me noticeably.  It is engaging, interesting, inspiring and very helpful, if you are open.  Are you?

Here is a short youtube clip about the book.  Check it out and them come on back...I've got to tell you about another perfect book to read now, as summer moves to fall.

spiritual-rhythm.jpgSpiritual Rhythm: Being With Jesus Every Season of Your Soul  Mark Buchanan (Zondervan) $17.99  I have raved before about this author, and Beth and I have both suggested that he is the exact sort of author we enjoy telling folks about.  Why?  Well, there is something good about his style, it is writerly, creative, full of nuance and care and the fruit of the hard work of good craft.  And yet, it is in no way cryptic or weird or overly-complex.  Some excellent writers are so poetic, you know, that it is tiring to read their allusive prose.  Buchanan is a fine wordsmith, a good writer, and makes the reading experience a delight.  And yet, he is a preacher at heart, so he is leading us into applicable truths and into our own teachable moments. 

Buchanan struck me in his earliest books, Your God Is Too Safe  and The Holy Wild.  But he really got me in his very well designed and nicely written book on the sabbath, The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath.  Starting with a Christian view of work, he then shifted to a view of rest and from there, to entering the very rest of God.  You know that as an author he has done his research--he cites the likes of Abraham Heschel---but yet it isn't ponderous or needlessly deep.  It is one of my favorite books on this matter of sabbath and rest and renewal.

And yet, I remain too often weary and too rarely overjoyed by the "rest of God."  I know I am not alone.  I think that Mr. Buchanan understands, and is committed to helping his readers enter that rest, appreciate that Presence, live into the abundance of a sane friendship with Christ, day by day.  The book after The Rest of God was about citing God in the ordinary, a beloved theme around here (we have an entire section of the "spirituality of the ordinary" in our contemplative living section.)  That book was nicely entitled Hidden in Plain Sight.

But now, here is his new one, and perhaps his best yet.  Spiritual Rhythm is not necessarily about the literal seasons, but he uses the time-honored metaphor of "seasons of the soul."  For each season, he shows differing ways we experience God, live into our discipleship, encounter God's presence, and ways to enhance our spirituality in those unique times.

I like this for--oh, let me count the ways!  There are oodles of reasons for appreciating this approach, but one should be obvious: a life of discipleship is always and everywhere rooted in the realities of our life in time.  That is, there are ups and downs, seasons and eras, phases and stages.  Whether these are times that are shaped by certain emotions---grief, obviously, or the joy of approaching an upcoming wedding or the anxieties  of a new job---or a phase in life (being a twenty-something or hitting the upper end of mid-life, say) there simply are social and physical realities that necessarily impact how we live out our faith.  I don't know about other world religions, but Christian faith is always embodied, down-to-Earth, real.  So we've got these "seasons" both literally and figuratively.

Buchanan shows us how each stage of life, each season, can be an opportunity for experiencing God in some new way.  To say that the book invites you to deepen your relationship with God in all times is to miss the edge and insight of this particular book.  The author literally helps us attend to our feelings and experiences in these different times of life and helps us see how they can uniquely move us to encounter God in fresh ways.    It includes tons of Bible reflection, side-bars which are experiences to ponder, some good guide-lines for nurturing the art of discernment during your particular season of life.

I suppose this is nothing new to those who are well read in the spiritual classics.  Jesus Himself said to "abide" in Him, so this move to resist busyness, to arrange our lives for spiritual transformation, this embrace of what Ruth Haley Barton has called Sacred Rhythms, is sage counsel.  What I like most besides the pleasant and at times arresting prose, is the way Buchanan helps us "respond to the weather of the heart" (as it says on the dust jacket) "whether we are flourishing and fruitful, stark and dismal, or cool and windy." In comparing spiritual changes to the seasons of the year, Mark shows us what to expect from each season and how embracing those rhythms allows our spiritual lives to prosper.

We hear a lot about sustainability these days; this is good.  We've had books on sustainable agriculture and energy use and stewardly economics since the day we opened nearly 30 years ago.  But what about sustainable spirituality? And is Buchanan right that a key is seasonality?  Can our faith go the distance, through thick and thin, winter's blast and summer's heat and the good delights of any season?  I've admitted my own melancholy these days.  I suspect that nearly everyone---if they are alive to the world and pay attention to these terrible days in our culture---may share some anguish at times.  And, some joy and goodness.  How does God show up in each of these emotional states?  How can the various times of our lives be avenues of connecting to the Holy?  How can we find greater guidance and grace no matter the season of your soul?  Spiritual Rhythm: Being With Jesus Every Season of Your Soul will help.  It will be enlightening as you learn new ways to have your faith practices and spirituality in sync with the era of your life, and it will be helpful to press you to experience more of what God's Kingdom can be as you abide in Christ.  He explains what is good, or what the dangers, joys or pitfalls of each season might be. 

There is a bountiful harvest of insights here, more content than you can use in a week or so.markbuchanan.jpg  Savor this for a season, maybe for a year.  I think if you buy it now, you will not regret it.  He reminds us that you  "may want to zigzag through it, going first to the season that most intrigues you, because you are in it, or because you wish you were."

 Mark writes, in the introduction, after wryly calling Jesus the "Man for All Seasons"

Eternity hides beneath the guise of each season's beauty. That beauty is eternity's slight of hand, the trick it uses to bedazzle and bewilder us, to take our hearts' longing appear and disappear right before our very eyes.  You think you crave the summer of '69, or whatever summer you were young and in love. But that summer was only a dress rehearsal for what your heart really wants: heaven.

Heaven whispers in the burden God lays on us.  The everlasting flits beneath earth's swiftly fading beauty.  God sets eternity in our hearts, and it tells us not to despair of the burden.  It warns us not to be overcaptivated by the beauty. For though we want the burden lifted and the beauty prolonged, God has an infinitely better idea: that the Man for All Seasons would walk with us in season and out....
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September 7, 2010

A few recent books on spirituality

In the blog post from the end of the summer I lamented the passage of summer, how times seems to speed past, and how I get a bit frustrated with my life during this season.  I don't know about you, but I hunger for more time apart to focus on my relationship with God, I long for great union with Christ.  Like the new Bill Hybels book I reviewed, The Whisper of God, I want to be open to discerning what the Spirit is saying, "and have the guts to respond" as he puts it.  I noted that great new book by Mark Buchanan--a great writer if you haven't read any of his stuff--called Spiritual Rhythm: Being with Jesus Every Season of Your Soul.  It is very nice how he highlights different "seasons" (figuratively speaking) although nearer the end, he offers some standard insights, nicely communicated, about spiritual disciplines that can sustain one through any and all seasons.  So please see that early September blog if you didn't.

I promised, then, a list of other new books on contemplative practices, recent resources that might serve as companions for your journey.  Here, then, are a few; not exhaustive, not all we stock.  Please free free to call or use the "inquire" page at the website if you have any question about these, or other similar titles.  We really do value conversations with our friends and fans and look forward to serving you further---perhaps with some other resources for the journey.  We hope you might even find these lists worthy of passing along, sharing with others.  So often we hear that customers appreciate reading short reviews and learning what books are interesting and worthy these days.  Thanks.

_240_360_Book_205_cover.jpgMystically Wired: Exploring New Realms in Prayer  Ken Wilson (Nelson) $17.99  I list this one first because I've been wanting to say more about it other than my brief announcement when we first got it in a few months back.  Wilson is an amazing guy, a deep and thoughtful writer, rooted in broad evangelicalism of a charismatic sort; he is a pastor of the Vineyard Church in Ann Arbor.  Yet, he is no stereotypical Pentecostal; he has written bracingly about the need to resist the Christian right, has powerfully critiqued establishment religion as we know it (see his splendid, provocative, and very well done Jesus Brand Spirituality: He Wants His Religion Back)  In this handsome new hardback, Wilson spends some considerable time using his considerable interests in the sciences to describe what happens to the brain when people pray.  Neurological research during religious practices, worship, meditation and the like has long been done by mainstream and secular clinicians.  I don't know, though, of any books so robustly Christian and so energetic about understanding the details of how to enter a state of prayerfulness by understanding the human "wiring" of the brain.  This is such a fascinating work that we have to commend it.  But it isn't just me---Phyllis Tickle says (get this) "Hands down, this is the best book on prayer that I have ever read."  Folks, even if dear Phyllis is wrong by a long-shot, you may know she is one of the most widely Christian leaders alive.  My friend York Moore---a passionate speaker and leader on evangelism---says "I was routinely blown away by the intuitive genius of Ken's view and application of prayer.  Page after page, thinking I knew what was next, I was surprised with fresh insight and unique perspectives on connecting with God."  Others have raved---folks as different as Todd Hunter, Scot McKnight, Brian McLaren.  Please do check it out.  I'm going to read it again, more slowly this time.

You may recall that we gave a good review to a stellar book more generally about neurology and Christian living, a fine book written by a psychiatrist (and trusted friend) Dr. Curt Thompson called Anatomy of a Soul, which deserves another shout-out in this context.  A bit more broad, written with more attention to the details of brain science, with applications beyond prayer, the two books make nice companions. These are great, great books if you like the phrase "hearts and minds."  Wilson helps us understand that that is just what God intended all along.

Product5283_Photo1.jpgAncient Paths: Discover Christian Formation the Benedictine Way  David Robinson (Paraclete) $16.99  Yes, I know there are a hundred recent books drawing on Benedict. And I know I've promoted the beautifully simple recent work (The Good Life and The Good Neighbor both also published by Paraclete) by Robert Benson, by saying they were the best, clear, lovely, simple way into Benedictine spirituality.  Well, this is level two---not exactly for true beginners, but it is the best serious introduction I've yet read.  Man, this Presbyterian guy knows his stuff.  The chapter on the ways in which the young monk from 5th century Nursia changed the world is worth the whole price of the volume, and it is exciting stuff.  Faith well lived, deeply and in community, really does transform ideas and behaviors and can impact culture and history.

 For anyone interested in this classic path for growing a Christian community--and this is central, for spiritual formation is not done alone!---Ancient Paths is a tremendous guide.  It is well written, practical, interesting, and not the least sentimental or breathy or "touchy feely."  This is sensible, solid stuff, life-changing insights that are down-to-Earth (quite literally; you know Benedict's dictum about working and praying!)  Robinson has spent over 20 years visiting a Benedictine monastery, and, as a Protestant pastor, has some special gifts to be able to share his experiences with those not particularly fluent in the monastic traditions.  The is a fabulous 12-week study guide, too, making it ideal for small groups, spiritual friendship meetings, or to study with others.  There are application points along the way, too, designed to help ordinary folks take small steps towards incorporating these sturdy practices into their daily discipleship. It is ideal for congregational use, too, or for anyone interested not only about Benedictine approaches, but for anyone wanting to grow in faith and Christian living.  Dennis Okholm, of Azusa Pacific University, who wrote the also-fantastic (and cleverly titled) Monk Habits for Everyday People says, "Eminently practical applications for any person interested in being re-molded into the image of God." Very nicely done.

Pilgrimage of a Soul: Contemplative Spirituality for the Active Life  Phileena HeuertzPilgrimage of a soul.jpg (Likewise/IVP) $15.00  Earlier this summer I got to do a small workshop on the Biblical basis for and the spirituality that helps fund, a life-long commitment to social justice.  Some of the books that relate faith formation and justice work are near classics (like, say, The Active Life by Parker Palmer, drawing on the deeper Contemplation in a World of Action, by Thomas Merton.)  One of my favorites, for its fun and practical style, is the gem by Tony Campolo and Mary Darling called The God of Intimacy & Action.  This new one by Phileena Heuertz stands in the tradition of those books that struggle to bring together the "journey inward and journey outward" and it, too, may someday be considered a watershed and seminal offering.

 Some of this raw and poignant meditation is a memoir, telling of her spiritual journey, her call to serve the poor, and a great section on her 33-day pilgrimage down the El Camino de Santiago. (There are a lot of books on this ancient Christian practice these days, by the way---we have probably 8 or so here in the shop, including the very useful The Way is Made By Walking by Canadian Mennonite pastor Arthur Boers, and the very recent volume in the "Ancient Practices" series, one called The Sacred Journey by Charles Foster )  Besides Heuertz' work with the amazing Word Made Flesh (her husband's book about that extraordinary global work is called Simple Spirituality: Learning to See God in a Broken World) she has dug deeply into the important authors and directors in the contemplative tradition. Her work in global missions and "downward mobility" to serve is guided by her inner life of deep spirituality.  As one with ecumenical interests who has learned much from Catholic mystics, I am just floored (and so happy) that a solid evangelical publisher like IVP has an author so fluent in the writings of not only Henri Nouwen, but John Mains, Thomas Keating, Macrina Wiederkehr, Cynthia Bourgeault, Tilden Edwards, and obviously the important work of Ronald Rolheiser.  From the important feminist theology of Carol Lakey Hess to the liberation themes of Jon Sobrino, to the self-awareness gleaned by books from the likes of David Benner,  Heuertz has worked the literary field and picked the best fruits to bring to the table of this fine book.  There is also poetry, moving charcoal sketches drawn by an artist friend, and great and honest reflections on how to keep God's sustaining presence alive in your life.   With endorsements from Franciscan Richard Rohr to Baptist Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, you should know that this book is being seen as a true gift, an amazing story, a reliable guidebook for the contemplative activist.

Whole Life Transformation: Becoming the Change Your Church Needs  Keith Meyer (IVP) $20.00  This is the kind of book that many, many should find helpful.  It is anecdotal as he shares his story of near burn-out, and as he shows how he slowly found himself needing to9780830835300.jpg enter counseling, embrace the 12-step sort of recovery movement, and weave all of this into his daily work as an evangelical pastor.  While the back cover says "transforming the church by transforming the pastor" I believe this book has wider application for anyone hungering for a saner pace of life, a deeper awareness of how our driven and competitive spirits can be dysfunctional (even when it is done as "church work") and is eager to learn how to rearrange one's habits.  This is a book of honesty and straight-talk, and will appeal to those who know they are hurting, know the church is often broken, and want to truly become transformed by Christ to be like Christ.  His friend and mentor Dallas Willard has written a good forward, and in many ways, this is a case study of what can do to heal an exhausted pastor, renew an earnest leader, and transform a community---bit by bit---as spiritual transformation became the heart of the ethos of the congregation.  Do you long for God to redeem and reform your character?  Your family?  Your daily habits?  Do you think that your own local church could benefit if some folks truly learned to name our sins and allow Christ to heal us?  This is an easy-to-read book that will stimulate some good thinking and may be an avenue for the very transformation you or your church is seeking.  More programs and bigger budgets are not the answer.  Meyer came to learn that, nearly the hard way.  Read his story and rejoice.

Embracing the Call to Spiritual Depth: Gifts for Contemplative Living  Tilden Edwards (Paulist Press) $16.95  Most folks who read deeply in the contemplative literature of the later part of the 20th century know of this pioneer in the reawakening of spirituality.  Edwards founded the ecumenical Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation and his early books, written as a young, African-American Episcopal priest,  are considered nearly classic.  It has been a while, I think, since he has graced us with new insights, and this pondering reflection is standard meditative stuff.  Some might think it less Christ-centered than it could be, and some may not appreciate the ways in which he integrates psychology, depth awareness, and Eastern insights, with gospel foundations to offer up a gentle and mature catholic spirituality.  Still, for those serious in studying this vast field, this new book is surely important.

The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See  Richard Rohr (Crossroad) $19.95  I mentioned earlier the desire to relate inner spirituality and outward activism, that we need to (to put it differently) mesh politics and prayer.  From Practicing the Presence of God to finding God in the ordinary (oh how I love those splendid chapters in my favorite book on prayer, Richard Foster's fine Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home) we can move to social activismrichard_rohr.jpg that is enhanced and underscored and part and parcel of a truly spiritual life. Of course it is not pantheism to suggest that God shows up everywhere, that the creation is alive in pointing us to the Divine, and that Christ is truly in and around us. Anyone setting out to "change the world" that does not do so for God's glory and in Christ's ways will be doomed to burnout and trouble.  I noted, in my comments above about the great new book by Phileena Heuertz, that it seems that Richard Rohr has influenced her a bit.  You may know his very popular and important book on just these things, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer which, true to Rohr's love of St. Francis, shows how prayer and service and action relate.  I liked that book a lot and while not brand new, is a fairly recent contribution to the field of experiential spirituality being lived out with "radical grace" in the contemporary world.  Fr. Rohr helps direct a Center about these very things, The Center for Action & Contemplation, which is one interesting place; it might stretch some conservative evangelicals, I'd guess, but it is worth visiting.

I say all this to get to a mention of Rohr's newest, a (nearly interfaith) invitation to reflect on how mystics experience life and see God in all things.  I hesitate, though, and I hesitate about hesitating.  Some friends who I respect absolutely love this book.  A few others that I trust remind me that it is, at the end of the day, an approach that seems to disregard essential truths of Christian theology; it is romantic, nearly goofy in its exegesis at times, a bit too tied to psychological lingo (resisting the ego and such) and fails to offer a robust spirituality based on Christ's redemptive power over sin.  Well, if one has a rather meager or vague or overly-psychological view of sin, then one's view of redemption is going to get gushy and less than substantial.  Where authors like Eugene Peterson or Dallas Willard come to mind as those who insist on a Biblically-informed sort of meaty spirituality, The Naked Now seems to bring other insights to the table, and has the subsequent strengths and weaknesses of a liberal Catholic, nearly non-orthodox orientation. I am not saying dear Father Rohr is un-Biblical (that will be for you to decide, fair reader.)  There is nothing wrong, on the face of it, to cite non-Christian sources for wisdom.  I do suggest that this book is not evidently rooted in standard Christian understandings of conversion or sanctification or particularly consistent with an historic view of the work of Christ.  Of course, Rohr--as the vibrant Bible teacher he is--cites the Bible a lot and includes tons of Scripture reflection.  Does that make it fruitful for those seeking a responsible, authentic, mystical experience of the true God?  I'm less sure of this than some of his other books, but it is nothing new, really.  For one who wants a good example of this exact mystical tradition--with its strengths and weaknesses---give this a try.  Let us know what you think.

9780809146475.jpgExplorations in Spirituality: History, Theology, and Social Practice  Philip F. Sheldrake (Paulist Press) $22.95  Well, I've raised the hackles of some friends, I suppose, by offering a small bit of critique to brother Rohr, an author I generally like, and a leader I respect.  Others surely think I've not hit him hard enough, and there will be websites glowing that Hearts & Minds has embraced paganism.  So be it.  Most of our customers and friends appreciate our attempt to be balanced, to share concerns in friendly ways, and to point you towards important books (where we, or you, agree with all of them or not.)  But this does open a can of worms, doesn't it?  What do we mean by spirituality?  How has that over-used phrase entered into our vocabulary so, when the grand traditions are so unknown.  We stock books of medieval mystics and Greek and Russian spiritual masters, and yet they don't sell much.  So we need to know a bit more about this whole field. 

Mr. Sheldrake,educated at Oxford, and professor at University of Durham, is renowned for his historical overviews of spiritual formation.  (Indeed, he has been the president of the International Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality, and has served as editor for the New Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality.) His small volume in the Blackwell "Brief History" series (A Brief History of Spirituality) is excellent.  While someone like Richard Foster (with his compilations of primary source stuff like Devotional Classics and Spiritual Classics) is an evangelist for the inner life, a cheerleader and teacher and pastor, helping others gain appreciation and access to a lived life with Christ, it seems that Sheldrake is the preeminent historian of the field.  He may be one of the best to walk us through the ages, explaining the currents and movements and figures and traditions. 

So, his Explorations in Spirituality really is a grand and magnificent overview of recent thinking, gathering together various essays and articles and surveys of what has been going on in this field for the last few decades.  While not an overview of all of church history**, it is an exploration of what is being published, how spirituality courses interact with theology and history, and ways the contemporary understandings of place (cities and buildings, even) have come to influence how we think about God's presence in ordinary life.  This is not for everyone, but to hear a serious scholar weigh in with a meaty collection, this could be very useful for some.  Interesting!

**for two very good overviews, both written within the last few years and relatively recent, see the spectacular, gorgeous, and well-written Brazos Introduction to Christian Spirituality edited by Evan Howard (Brazos; $34.95) or the great, ecumenical, collection of primary source writings, God Seekers: Twenty Centuries of Christian Spiritualities edited by Richard Schmidt (Eerdmans; $22.00)

image_thumb.pngLife in the Spirit: Spiritual Formation in Theological Perspective  Jeffrey Greenman & George Kalantzis (IVP) $25.00  For a semi-scholarly treatment of the field of spirituality, and how theological themes do or don't interact with recent concerns in spiritual direction, this is the best resource we've yet seen.  I cannot say enough about how thrilling it is to see a mature and open-minded and yet firmly evangelical theology interacting with things that are so common within those retreat centers and renewal ministries that are talking about spiritual disciplines and the inner journey. (There are chapters, for instance, like Bruce Hindmarsh comparing Catholic and evangelical devotional practices,  Kelly Kapic on holiness in John Owen that is very interesting and apropos, a good piece by Dallas Willard, and chapters on centering prayer, hymns, and Chris Hall on "lectio devina"---what is really going on, there, and how might serious theological voices help?)

My, my, this collection of essays is rich, and I wish every pastor and formation leader would have it on his or her desk.  And I wish every theologian (or those interested in reading the systematic doctrine stuff) would read these pieces, showing how historic doctrinal concerns can shape and mold those who are seeking for deeper relationship with God and living life out of deeply formative spiritual encounters.  Kudos to those at Wheaton College who put together the gathering that provided these stimulating essays, and kudos to IVP for daring to publish them.  Will theologians truly care about spirituality?  Will practitioners and directors of the contemplative life truly care about theology?  Will ordinary Christian readers care about either?  Well, except for our brave and eccentric readers here at BookNotes and a few other oddball places, the answer may not be rousingly affirmative.  Still, we celebrate this book, seriously recommend it, hope that some of the chapters (at least) are copied and studied and cited and used. Three cheers for Life in the Spirit.  No, make that six cheers---three from buyers of theology books, three from buyers of devotional works.  Six cheers for Greenman and Kalantzis, ecumenical thinkers helping us make sure our prayer stations and pilgrimages and labyrinths and meditation centers and journaling exercises and liturgical experiments and our readings of the likes of the books we've mentioned above, are all well grounded, well rooted, and Biblically faithful.

Here is a link to show you the table of contents, and some recommendations of the book, from folks more serious than I.  If you are struck, as we are, of it's significance, do come back and order it below.  We have a discount, and hope you find it helpful.  Thanks. 

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September 9, 2010

Check out the list over at the monthly "review" column: diverse books on spiritual formation

Many months---I can't say every month---I do a longer list, a bigger essay, or some more substantive reviews than the blog posts permit.  Check out the September bibliography where I review and annotate a handful of new books on spirituality.  It's a good, diverse, list, something for everyone.  May you experience God's presence and know Christ's peace in these warm days of waning summer. 

Here are a just a few covers of a few of the ones I tell about.  See the whole list here.  Check out the good discount too.


9780830835300.jpg_240_360_Book_205_cover.jpg9780809146475.jpgPhyllis Tickle said Mystically Wired was "hands down" the best book on prayer she ever read!  And she prays more than most mortals, and reads more, too, 

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You can see our description of these, and others, over at the monthly review column.  Let us know what  you think by offering a comment...








































































Life in the Spirit is an anthology of a batch of wise and thoughtful papers delivered at an important conference at Wheaton on the interface of theology and spirituality.  Over at my review, I rave.  Very important!

This book shown on the right is one of the most lovely, informed, and helpful books about Benedictine spirituality I've ever read.  Written by a sensible Presbyterian pastor, too.  Very, very nice.

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September 11, 2010

A few more books on prayer and spirituality

I suppose I felt I was being too long-winded, but there really were a few other titles I wanted to put on that big list over at the September review column.  These are truly wonderful books, and it isn't that I forgot them, or didn't want to share them.  In many ways, I quite sincerely believe these deserve there own good shout-out here, and hope you like reading about them.

The Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World  Paul Miller (NavPress) $14.99
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I hope you know Miller's previous book, Love Walked Among Us, which is a wonderful study of the life and ways of Jesus, passionate and practical.  Many have been moved by books written by his father and mother and anyone who has heard Paul Miller speak (he does a popular workshop on Jesus, and a PrayerLife Seminar) knows he is a man of joy and seriousness, who desires to help folks understand God and live in grace.  I could say so much about his vision, his work, his books, but just know that this is refreshing, clear, helpful and a personal favorite.  A few who have bought it report that it is life-changing.  At his website he says it was written for "badly praying Christians."  Yup.

Reformed scholar J. I. Packer says it is "warmly recommended" for being "honest, realistic, mature, wise, deep."  Don't give up on your prayer practices, says Steve Brown, "at least not until you read this book!"  I agree.  One of the best.

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The Yoke of Jesus: A School for the Soul in Solitude Addison Hodges Hart (Eerdmans) $14.00  This is one of those books that drew me in because of the serene cover (the electronic reproduction to the left doesn't do it justice) and the nice feel of the small shape and good design.  And, I'll admit, I found his previous work, Knowing Darkness: On Skepticism, Melancholy, Friendship and God a moving, intellectually enriching, warm and thoughtful meditation.  The author is a Catholic priest and college chaplain, writes sometimes for Touchstone,  and knows how to write clearly, without sentiment or pushiness, without a trace of condescension. This new book is simply about knowing God, carving out time for solitude, how monastic practices can help us, and how to become fluent in the deeper vocabulary of the spiritual life even as we spend our days in ordinary, contemporary lifestyles.   As the wise John Armstrong (ACT 3) writes, "We live in an age when dogma and loving God are too easily separated.  Hart believes the Christian's goal is the knowledge and love of God, but dogma is necessary to provide the signposts along the road."  Clear-headed, no?  Yes, we need stillness of soul, and yes, we need gentle but solid reminders to continue the journey.  This is a lovely, wise, little book.  Highly recommended.

With Grateful Hearts: Spiritual Reflections for Everyday Living  (Twenty-Third Publications) $12.95  Some who are drawn to contemporary Catholic formation writers,  perhaps with a progressive tilt and gentle, poetic style, may enjoy this devotional drawn from some of the best of this stream of spirituality.  I may not agree with every line, but these are mostly rich and enjoyable and caring and kind and often moving meditations.   Here, you can dip into best-selling authors such as Joyce Rupp, Basil Pennington, Macrina Wiederkehr, Melanie Svoboda, Mitch Finley, Amy Welborn, and more.  There are prayers and devotions for Advent, Lent, Ordinary Time and some "special days" that are of particular interest to Roman Catholics.  Most of these are drawn from a bigger work entitled Living Faith.

Opening to God: Lectio Devina and Life as Prayer David Benner (IVP) $17.00  This missed
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the aforementioned list because I wasn't sure if it would arrive in time.  Hip, hip, hooray,  because we got it early---it just arrived yesterday so is brand spanking new.  I recommend it without hesitation (I've studied all three of his recent and very worthwhile trilogy, Surrender to Love, The Gift of Being Yourself and Desiring the Will of God, which signals a beautiful, ecumenical wisdom shaping evangelicalism these days.)  As a psychologist and spiritual director and theological scholar, Benner knows his stuff.  Further, the advanced rave reviews from all quarters---from Margaret Guenther to Tony Jones, from Trevor Hudson to Peter Scazzero---has made this an anticipated work, promising deep and good advice about prayer of all sorts, but particularly, this notion of finding God as we ruminate and ponder the Biblical text as a key for living all of life as a prayer.  Can we do sacred reading of other texts, as well?  Of course.  Read on...

40-Day Journey With... Henry French, editor (Augsburg Books) $12.99  These useful devotionals include a quote from the author, a Bible text and prayer, and serve as a fabulous intro to or study with the chosen author.  I've dipped in to several, and commend them.  There are more than a dozen, and you can select to read from Parker Palmer, Martin Luther, Joan Chittister, Maya Angelou, Kathleen Norris, Howard Thurman, Julian of Norwich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Madeleine L'Engle,  and more.
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We will extend the special savings offered at the previous posts as well...hope this helps. We are glad for your interest.

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September 14, 2010

Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam by Akbar Ahmed

I am sure that most of our readers share my anguish over the cultural anger and inter-faith hostilities these days.  From wacky Quran burnings to the ugly protests near Ground Zero to the jabs at those concerned about extremist forms of Islam, as if outrage about terrorism inspired by off-the-chart evil forms of religion is somehow in bad taste, the cultural wars are blazing.  I've not commented much, although you know we have all sorts of books on Islam, on justly speaking in public, and on civility (I'll do a post on that when the updated edition of Rich Mouw's wonderful Uncommon Decency arrives, soon.)

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For now, though, I am nearly done a truly remarkable book, a long sprawling story that is as complex as the topic: can modern day Islam be American, and can America be hospitable to its Islamic citizens?  Journey Into America: The Challenge of Islam (Brookings Insitution Press; $29.95) by Muslim anthropologist and well-loved American University professor, Dr. Akbar Ahmed is a journey across the United States, somewhat like a 21st century de Tocqueville, with a particular emphasis on the variety of Muslim communities and their values and civic attitudes.  However, before he can get to this big question--one, finally, about cultural and civic pluralism---Ahmed must lay out his methodology, which has a lot to do with telling the story of America, her founding vision(s), the way in which immigrant cultures have or haven't accommodated themselves to the American ways.  How, then, given the variety of narratives about what it means to be an American, and these different social experiences of other minorities to live in America, do recent Islamic immigrants relate to those narratives? 

In other words, he does a lot of storytelling, from the high percentage of Muslim slaves that were brought here in the early centuries, the brutal and gross treatment of the native populations, the high-minded, but complicated visions of the pilgrims and, later, the Puritans.  Naturally, he pays attention to what I call the W's.  Witherspoon, Winslow, Winthrop, and, of course, Roger Williams.  Williams is Ahmed's kind of American, one who made peace with the locals, made room for all, and sought freedom and full separation of church and state.

In fact, part of the research methodology of Dr. A and his A-team (he seems like a fun enough guy that I can joke) is that they would ask Muslims their reaction to a documentary they had made about Plymouth Rock.  Oh, how civil religion, patriotism, multiply narrations of our history (can anybody say Howard Zinn?) and what Jefferson termed "America's original sin" (slavery and racism) are "seen" and interpreted differently by different groupings of people.  Worldviews matter, I've been saying here since the day we opened our bookstore, and this notion of an interpretive lenses that shapes our understandings come seriously in to play in any anthropology, but surely, it is not even below the proverbial surface when black Muslims, or recent Arab immigrants are asked about the founding spirit of America.  Whew.  Even the wise and widely-traveled Ahmed and his crack team of helpers were shocked at some of what they heard and saw and experienced, especially as the ancient stories are told in ways that are exclusive and ideological.

There are whole chapters on the different permiatations of Islam within the African American community---an important bit of information that goes deeper and wider than the peculiar Mr. Farrakhan or the drama of Malcom X.  There is stuff about how immigrant Muslims view the more lenient African American Muslims (even those who have rejected as unorthodox the Nation of Islam.)  There are chapters about the relationship of Muslims and Jews in America.  (Mr. Ahmed has traveled a bit doing inter-faith dialogues with the grieving parents of Daniel Perl, the Jewish journalist who was brutally be-headed by radicals in the very town Ahmed grew up in.) The questions about how more moderate Muslims relate to the power-hungry radicals that are around were powerful---the episode in Omaha was chilling, as pro-jihadist extremists who had driven out of their mosque a moderate imam, bully the others and sidetrack the meetings.  Yes, this is on-the-ground sociology, research on the fly, with these guys following their anthropologist-instincts and finding their way into the most amazing conversations.  Did you know there are conversations between Muslim and Mormons in Utah?  Have you ever imagined what converts to Islam go through?  Do you know Dave Egger's story of Mr. Zeitoun, jailed and abused unjustly during the Katrina tragedy?  Did you know there are mosques in Las Vegas?  Did you know there are over 60,000 Bosnian Muslims in St. Louis?  And, of course, Dearborn, Michigan, is the largest Islamic center in the US.  The team visited over 75 cities over nearly a year, so there is plenty to tell.

Ahmed is not taking us on a circus road-trip, though, seeking out the oddballs.  He meets with prestigious leaders, tells the inspiring stories of tons of interesting people and many are well
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spoken and insightful. Well, not all, though, since some (if I do say so) interviewees make fools of themselves. (Some of the claims of the more radical African American Muslims are particularly eccentric, and it reminds me of how deeply alienated some fellow-citizens are.)  His fieldwork includes visiting and spending time with the most amazing people, of various faiths, from the elegant Joanne Herring, the woman who funded "Mr. Wilson's War" against the Russians in Afghanistan to Joel Olsteen's church to the two Muslim members of the U.S. Congress to white supremacists and their predatory vision of what we must do to keep American pure

It will come as no surprise that this prominent author (he is also the first Distinguished Chair of Middle East and Islamic Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy and was a high commissioner to the United Kingdom from Pakistan) has drawn the accolades of many.  The book has endorsements from scholars as different as Tony Blankley from the Heritage Foundation and Eboo Patel, the founder of Interfaith Your Core.  Such a book, even one that is over 500 pages, cannot possible ask all the right questions and although he and his team logged countless months in this fieldwork, there are voices and perspectives they missed.  Still, I have thoroughly enjoyed it, it has made me think, it has made me wish to be in greater contact with folks outside of my own religious and cultural community, and it has reminded me that it is a very, very good question, namely, what does it mean to be an American?  And can the story of American be told and construed in such a way that it upholds a dream not of a melting pot, but a beautiful mosaic or crazy quilt.  Principled pluralism is what the old Dutch religious leader and politico Abraham Kuyper called it.  Journey into America takes us back in history and offers a glimpse into the future.  It is worth twice to the price to learn this stuff, and well worth the hours invested in reading through this lively, provocative work.

Journey into America is asking profound questions for us all, but it is mostly a study of Muslims.  (Indeed, it is the most comprehensive study to date of the American Muslim community.)  He takes long and leisurely side-tracks and tries to understand not only the American Islamic traditions and faith communities, but how other Americans (especially whites, of course) are reacting to their new Muslim neighbors.  This is an unprecedented exploration, in many ways, a follow up on his highly acclaimed 2007 release of a similar "listening trip" and research project in the Middle East.  (That one was called Journey Into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization, also published by Brookings.)  A documentary film has been made of their journey, exploring the nature of the Muslim communities in America and, more so, the very nature of the American identity.  Watch for it later this fall.

***

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Although I intended to just tell you about this one book, I have to add a coda.  A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor is a remarkable collection edited by Miroslav Volf, Ghazi bin Muhammand and Melissa Yarrington (Eerdmans; $14.00.)  It isn't every theological symposium whose published edition gets a foreward by Tony Blair. This is cutting-edge global dialogue.

Here is what is written on the back cover:

You may have heard the background to this: in late 2007 Muslim leaders from around the world together issued in the pages of the New York Times an open letter to Christians inviting cooperation as a step towards peace.  That letter, "A Common Word between Us and You," acknowledged real differences between the two faiths but nonetheless contended that "righteousness and good works" should be the only areas in which they compete.  The 138 signatories included over a dozen grand muftis, an ayatollah, and a Jordanian prince, and the document was widely considered a groundbreaking step...

That original letter and a collaborative Christian response---"Loving God and Neighbor Together"---both appear in this remarkable volume. Building on those original momentous documents, A Common Word further includes subsequent commentary and dialogue between Muslims and Christian scholars addressing critical and frequently asked questions.  All in all, this eventful book encapsulates a brave and encouraging move toward harmony and accord between two world religions so often seen to be at odds.

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September 15, 2010

In store author appearance this Saturday: Beverly Lewis, author of Amish novels

Most people like it, I think, when a novel has been well-researched to get the local landmarks right.  One of my best friends lived for a while in Arizona, and assured me he could take me to an exact tree so well described in one of Tony Hillerman's Jim Chee Navajo mystery novels.  Although Wendell Berry made up the town of Port Williams, the map in Hannah Coulter sure makes you think it is real.  Better, his solid descriptions of the topography and road names and farm buildings allow the reader to inhabit this place, knowing it is so very real.

Beverly Lewis is a beloved leader in what has come to be termed "Christian fiction" which, of
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course, is a product category of the evangelical sub-culture which our store serves.  Yes, yes, the novels of Victor Hugo and Flannery O'Connor--heck, even the Canterbury Tales--are Christian fiction but nowadays, this has come to mean inspirational stories published by evangelical publishers, written for religious readers, where the faith and devotion of the characters comes to particular focus.  Some of this religiously-overt storytelling has been of poor quality (artistically and theologically) and has justly gotten a bad rap from sophisticated critics.  However, we ought not be too quick to dismiss it all as sentimental silliness; some is quite fine.  And, it has always been our joy to celebrate good stories being read.  (These days, I'm usually glad if people are reading anything at all, and glad that there are those who are hooked on books, even if it ain't the Pulitzer stuff. Ms Lewis has sold literally millions of books, won awards and is truly a best-selling author.)  So-called Christian fiction these days is, it seems, a mixed bag, but, in fact, some of the releases coming out of publishers like Zondervan, Waterbrook, Cook, Nelson and (recently) Abingdon, are really very nicely done.  So we're happy.

Bethany House has always been one of the leaders of this sort of historical inspirational fiction and while we cringe, still, at some of the cheesy romance-type covers, they have always done some very good work.  Do you recall how in the '80s they were releasing abridged editions of the remarkable novels of George MacDonald?  Those stories of faith and doubt inspired even C.S. Lewis, so we are glad for the editors at Bethany who have brought to the mainstream talented evangelical writers who can tell a good yarn, teach us a few things, and help us feel the stuff we feel when we are engaged by a well told tale. 

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As you can see from the headline above, we are hosting an author book signing reception with Beverly Lewis, one of the mega-selling giants in this field of Christian fiction.  Although she has all kinds of stories, from kids books to cookbooks, her specialty lately has been Amish stories, in part, because it runs deep in her own family's story.  Her own grandmother and her story was the inspiration for Lewis' popular series that began with The Shunning.  And, she has endeavored to get the details right, including the landmarks in Lancaster County.  In a recent interview about her brand new "Rose Trilogy" (the first book, The Thorn, released last week) she said how eager she was to show some of her publicists and tour managers the very spots she describes. A few years ago she was privileged to move in with an Amish family for several months to learn about the Plain life; few writers are able to get those details right as she can.  I think the authenticity of the terrain and culture of the Amish that she captures is one of the features of her books that has allowed them to become best-sellers.  Mrs. Lewis knows what she's talking about, even though the details are just the setting and context for the human dramas of faith and integrity and romance that are the heart of her books.  We are tickled to get a chance to meet her and glad she will be chatting with folks in our community here.

In the last few years, every publisher, it seems, has done something Amish-related.  (Put a "bonnet on it" and it will sell, some cynically say.) There are reasons for this, I suppose, and I should like to note two:  As our culture becomes increasingly harsh, electronic, fast-past, materialistic, and dislocated from a sense of place, the radical Anabaptist traditional of the Amish offers an alternative vision. Literary fascination with "the simple life" has been a staple of the American search for meaning (think of Thoreau) and stories about those who are befriended by the Amish have been popular for years. (Do you recall Sue Bender's wonderful rumination Plain and Simple that came out in 1989?  It is still in print! Rosanna of the Amish--set in Mifflin County just north of us here in Pennsylvania--- a favorite of my mother, and still considered a classic, was published in 1940.  Or, think of the movie The Witness with the oh-so-young Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis. The very first cook-book we ever sold when we opened nearly 30 years ago, I think,  was a popular Amish one.)  The more modern our culture becomes, and the more we feel the fall-out of our high-strung suburban ways, it seems the more some of us, at least, long for even hints of new ways to live.  Even if we reject their rejection of electricity and zippers, say, our imaginations can be stretched as we consider how to find a more sustainable, peaceful, and sane way of arranging our lives.   

Secondly, the tragic murder of some Amish schoolgirls near here a few years ago catapulted their quiet community into international fame when the bereaved parents offered forgiveness to the killer.  There has been a moving Hallmark movie (that was not particularly accurate, and offensive to some) made of the incident, drawn rather loosely from what is by far the best book
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on the subject, Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, written by our friend Donald Kraybill, and his co-authors Stephen Nolt and David L. Zercher-Weaver.  How these folk who try to follow Jesus in loving even their enemies could extend grace to this disturbed murderer is truly amazing, and ever since the Nickle Mines tragedy, there has been a renewed interest in Amish fiction.  I don't think anyone is knowingly exploiting the tragedy nor the plain ways of the Amish, but there has been a plethora of titles released, fiction and non. And we have a lot of them, and are eager to serve those who are interested in this painful, but illuminating story.

(An interesting aside: a buddy of mine is a minister and an EMT.  He lives very near the scene of the murder and had some connections to the family of the shooter.  He was on the scene in moments, and as the days unfolded, he learned quite a lot. Some was quite ugly---the numerous press helicopters wouldn't move out of the way for the emergency hospital helicopters--but some things were just weirdly amusing.  Of course the grieving Amish did not want to talk to the press; as you surely know, they don't care about such things.  Yet, Oprah's pushy people kept insisting to speak with them, cameras and mic at the ready.  My friend shooed them away.  They insisted.  Finally, they begged him to tell the Amish parents that it was Oprah's producers, Oprah, you know!  When he confidently told them that they didn't know who that was, they were dumbfounded.  Is there anybody in the land who doesn't know about Oprah?  Apparently there are.) 

Beverly Lewis' The Shunning was the first Amish novel that Bethany (or any other evangelical press)
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released, and Wanda Brunstetter, Cindy Woodsmall, Beth Wiseman, and the others are all in her debt.  Her new novel, The Thorn, continues to explore questions of Amish culture and faith, and the poignant questions of how sub-cultures and immigrants and outsiders relate.  Anybody remember the wonderful Chaim Potok novel about Hasidic Jews, The Chosen (or nearly any of his others, for that matter.)  Or a little play called Romeo & Juliette?  This is classic, heavy, tender, serious, relevant stuff.  Sure most of these novels tend to be light romances or soap opera suspense. Thank goodness that Beverly Lewis can introduce us to these large themes, raise questions about faith and romance and identity and choice and loyalty, all set within an easy-to-read, enjoyable, popular-level fiction.

I mentioned the very important work Amish Grace by Kraybill, Nolt, and Zercher-Weaver.  The three have teamed up for a second book, very much a follow-up to and continuation of their first one.  It just came, and we are so excited.

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It is called The Amish Way: Patient Faith in a Perilous World (Jossey Bass; $24.95.)  Kraybill may be the premier scholar of the Amish--he is a sociologist by trade, and Anabaptist himself, and his academic studies of the Amish, Hutterites, Old Order Mennonites, and other such groups are mostly published by Johns Hopkins University Press.  Here, the three amigos of Amish Grace offer their wise insights and writing gifts to offer what I think will soon be considered the definitive and classic book for ordinary readers on Amish faith and life.  There are personal stories, here, solid history, remarkable testimony, solid anthropological expertise and---as Dorothy Bass puts it in one review---it is "beautifully written...the authors' appreciative and nuanced portrait helps us understand the Amish way of life---and challenges us to reflect on our own."  We couldn't agree more, and celebrate this brand new, helpful, accurate, and provocative study.  Kudos to the authors, for bringing this witness to us all.  Kudos to the publisher, daring to share this book which isn't so much about the high drama of the shooting, and therefore less spicy.  We trust it will be very well received.

By the way, guess whose blurb graces the back cover, first in a list of many? Ja--as we say here in Pennsylvania Dutch-land---Beverly Lewis!  She gets the final word:  "The Amish Way is enlightening, practical, and well-researched.  A wonderful read!"

Know anybody that would like an autographed copy of any of the many Beverly Lewis novels?  Just send us an order by Saturday morning and we can get it autographed for you. Want to think even more deeply about the call of the radical Anabaptists, the virtues of "patient faith in a perilous world?"  The Amish Way is a gem, a great, good read.  Highly recommended.

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September 20, 2010

Thoughtful, interesting, important, serious work from evangelical publishers

Thanks to those who wished us well regarding our in-store author appearance of the New York Times mega-seller lovely lady, Beverly Lewis.  She's a constant on the Christian best seller lists and her most recent books have been about a topic close to her own life and heart: the Amish. I hope you read my last post as I danced around this matter of overtly religious evangelical fiction, from the bad rap it has gotten from more sophisticated literary types and how the cheesy covers have sometimes turned people off.  I celebrated Ms Lewis' good stories and tried to honor her for being a writer that folks have come to love.  I liked writing it, and looked forward to hosting her.  We were not disappointed.

We found her to be smart and very nice, and clearly with us in order to serve her fans, to meet and greet and listen and pose with people for pictures.  We had a wonderful time--the largest in-store gig we've ever done--and heard some truly extraordinary stories of people whose lives were touched by these popular stories of faith and integrity and doubt and romance, all set within the fascinating sub-cultural of the radical plain people.  Thanks to Beverly and her gang from Bethany House who helped us make this happen.  (We have a few that are autographed left over, by the way.  Let us know if your interested.)

I made a comment--I don't think I was being snide--- that some this recent phenomenon of "Christian fiction" was a marketing creation of conservative evangelical publishers and I think that is largely true (although, obviously, they couldn't have created such a genre if there were weren't talented writers and interested readers---again, something we are quick to celebrate.)  I also said that "Christian fiction" has improved in aesthetic quality and literary merit in recent years.  Even the book jacket design is better than the awful days of the mid-70s when this genre was just taking off.

We have often maintained that the substance and quality of non-fiction religious publishing has gotten better in the past decade or so, too.  Of course there has been weird stuff, old heresies in new garb, and yet, the silver lining there is that there is great openness to discuss important questions.  Mainline denominational presses have released conservative evangelical authors and publishers known for being pretty narrow in years gone by are doing fabulously interesting, winsome and faithful work.  We are glad about this hint or ecumenical discourse, as it vindicates our mantra about reading widely, with discernment. 

And so, in this post we will name--yea, celebrate--a few new books that are released by mainstream evangelical presses that are just a bit surprising, perhaps, faithful and interesting, provocative and thoughtful, faithful and good.  My sense is these sorts of titles may not have been released in another era of Christian publishing, at least not by these publishers, dominated as it was by the simple, inspirational, vapid or right-wing.  Three cheers for the CBA!  At least insofar as they release stuff like this.  What do you think?

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Out Live Your Life: You Were Meant to Make a Difference  Max Lucado (Nelson) $24.99  Max has always been an author we've promoted.  He is sentimental and yet has good substance, is a delightfully easy read, without being shallow or dumb.  A few are more meaty than others (and I railed about one of his that irked me a few years back, here.)  Still, Max has a touching style, a writerly approach that makes one feel and engage and be inspired.  Some are saying this is one of his best yet, and it is simply about this complicated matter of leaving a legacy, of the shift from success to significance, of doing something that will last.  Specifically, he is writing about fighting poverty, and undoing the injustice of the terrible hunger in our world.  Ladies and gentle, this is nothing short of a publishing event (complete with a teen edition, a youth version, and a DVD set.)  One hundred per cent of the author's royalties will go to benefit children and families through World Vision. (Follow how much the book generates by going to www.MaxLucado.com.)

Here is what Lucado says on the back cover: 

Dear Friend,

May I share a story that is very dear to my heart?

It's a story of hillbillies and simple folk, net casters and tax collectors.  A story of a movement that explored like a just-opened fire hydrant out of Jerusalem and spilled into the ends of the earth: into the streets of Paris, the districts of Rome, the ports of Athens, Istanbul, Shanghai, and Buenos Aires. A story so mighty, controversial, head spinning, and life changing that two millennia later we wonder: Might it happen again?
He continues,

Heaven knows we hope so.  These are devastating times: 175 billion people are desperately poor, one billion are hungry.  Lonely hearts indwell our neighborhoods and attend our schools. In the midst of it all, here we stand, you, me, and our one-of-a-kind lives.  We are given a choice...an opportunity to make a big difference during difficult time. What if we did? What if we rocked the world with hope?

Worth a try, don't you think?

Look, I bet you know that Ron Sider (famous for founding Evangelicals for Social Action and writing Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger) is a friend of ours and nearly a mentor; we have brought in Jim Wallis and push the radical stuff of Shane Claiborn.  The Whole in the Gospel by Richard Sterns was one of our biggest sellers this year and the start: Becoming a Good Samaritan was our biggest selling DVD curriculum piece.  We stock the classic memoirs of the likes of Dorothy Day and Francis of Assisi and have shelves of serious policy stuff about Christian political options.  Our world missions section includes detailed studies of ministry being done in Christ's name all over the globe.  But you know and I know that many folks don't want to wade through heavy stuff, dreary statistics, strategic studies of social change.  Some of the categories of books here where we are most well stocked are, sadly, pretty dusty; nobody buys such stuff. Sure, a few do (you know who you are) but many just don't have the capacity to read that deeply or seriously. 

I believe this new book could be a gateway to a more robust and mature missiology, and
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linking the readers of the usually sentimental and pastoral Max to the life-and-death call to bold social action.  If anybody can "prod the slumbering giant" of evangelicalism to care more about the poor, it may not be Tony Campolo or even Rick Warren, both who nicely wave that banner high (in the name of Jesus!)  It just might be Max Lucado

Here is a link to a little video where Max is in Africa talking about the number of child sponsorships that he hopes to achieve.  You won't believe their goal!

There are some funny stories in here, and some powerful testimony, and some good Bible reflections.  He has his purple pen going and he can write very moving paragraphs, beautiful and poignant and touching.  There is a good study guide in the back, so it is ideal for book clubs or Bible study groups.  It isn't hard, it is a fun read, and it is book that you will not regret sharing with others.  Who doesn't want their impact to count for the things God would want?
Why don't you buy a few and pass em around?  Nobody is beyond hope, Max reminds us, and we think he is right. 

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Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don't Have to Do  Phillip Carey (Brazos) $14.99  Let me explain why I've listed this tremendously rich and thoughtful and wonderfully written book on this little list.  The title, and especially the sub-title, and, I think, even the cover, seem to shout that this book is a useful little self-help guide, a "here's how to get your life together" practical guide to easy answers, the sort that offers formulas and false promises. These sorts make up a good chunk of religious publishing these days. You'd wouldn't be unfair or unkind to think this, especially if you are a tad cynical about the rosy view of the happy Christian life that these ubiquitous guides say.  You wouldn't be unfair, but you'd be wrong.  Very wrong.

This book is written by a gentleman that is, well, a genius.  There, that is out of the way.  Dr. Philip Cary is the seriously-respected, poised and polished scholar-in-residence of the Templeton Honors College at Eastern University, a philosophy prof and Christian leader whose own theological roots are planted deeply in the old soil of the ancient faith.  It is funny that this book seems to be pitched as a simple book of formulas or "practical" steps, but take careful notice.  The irony of the whole deal is seen in the sub-title: these are "10 practical things you don't have to do."  This is an anti-self-help book that takes historic and solid theology and uses that to counter the silliness--silliness that may become toxic---that is often found in popular level evangelicalism.  This is solid pastoral theology, inviting deeper and more mature thinking about the slogans and cliches we too often hear.  The publisher, Brazos, is renown for a stable of wise and radical authors, having released some of the best ecumenical religious books published in the last decade.  Yet, for those who may not know the rich liturgical heritage of Brazos, this just looks like a dozen other ordinary books of 10 steps to this or that.

Chris Hall, himself a colleague of Dr. Carey, now Chancellor of Eastern, and known professionally for his work in the patristics, raves about Good News for Anxious Christians.  He says,

Evangelicals worry about lots of things, including the state of our spiritual health.  Phil Cary is worried, too: worried that evangelicals are suffering needlessly because they have imbibed a consumerist spirituality that offers much but provides little. Phil's prescription for spiritual indigestion? A turning away from the self to the one who continually speaks a healing, saving word to us, Christ himself. This is, quite frankly, one of the best books I've read on the spiritual life over the past twenty-five years.
After Andy Crouch notes that he didn't necessarily agree with all the zingers in this book ("Yes! No! Whoa!") he says it is "graceful and liberating, it is a word of wisdom and hope that just might convince anxious Christians that the gospel really is better news than we've yet imagined." 

There is a lot of goofy teaching out there, and a lot of books that pass for "Christian psychology" or spiritual direction are well intended.  Cary shows that we don't have to jump through these hoops to be closer to God, and that spiritual techniques or new theology can just make us more anxious, more frustrated, over-whelmed and narcissistic.  With chapters titles like "You Don't Have to Hear God's Voice in Your Heart" to Why You Don't Have to "Let God Take Control" this is going subvert some shibboleths and invite some honest, sane, talk.  Want to know why "applying it to your life" is boring?    Check this out.
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Cary admits it is a stealth attempt at doing solid theology by subverting some of the current evangelical trendiness.  Like Andy Crouch, I'm not confident he's always right.  But as he skillfully unpacks the riches of traditional Christian spirituality, he teaches us much, not the least of which is how there are great books (like this one) that offer a different voice than what many think is the evangelical party line.  Very, very wise and very, very important.  Click here for a little one-minute message by Dr. Cary talking about a liberal arts education and the need for Christians to think well.  What an articulate piece---you'll see why we promote the book, just from getting that little last of his insight.


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The Gospel According to Jesus: A Faith that Restores All Things  Chris Seay (Nelson) $19.99  The last time we named Chris here was as we were touting his fun bit of reflection on the TV show Lost, which we thought was quite nicely done.  Well, the visual artist (who had icons of Hurley and Jack and Kate and others) shows up here, too, with some very imaginative full color illustrations of insights from Seay's creative reflections on the meaning of the message of Jesus.  When I first got this, I figured it might be like Brian McLaren's Secret Message of Jesus or Kingdom Come by Allen Mitsuo Wakabayahi, just two popular-level books that show how Jesus' own self-definition of his message ("the gospel") is the fact of the in-breaking of the reign of God into human history.  The gospel, according to Jesus, is always more than the message of forgiveness through his sacrificial and atoning death.  It is also that His victorious reign, to "defeat the works of the devil" in the provocative phrase from John, has been unleashed "on Earth as it is in Heaven."  Rebels should lay down their arms, for the rightful King has come back, and is starting His project in covenant faithfulness to bring salvation to His damaged world.  Indeed, his battle cry is "the Kingdom of God is at Hand!"  His first sermon (in Luke 4) announced His claims to bring the "Year of Jubilee."  One simply can't understand Jesus properly without a study of His Kingship and Kingdom.

So,  I ordered a lot of The Gospel According to Jesus because I think the theme of the
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Kingdom of God is misunderstood and underestimated, and I figured any bit of reflection on that could be helpful, especially given the great sub-title.  I liked Seay's Gospel According to The Matrix, The Gospel According to Tony Soprano, and the aforementioned Gospel According to Lost.  Now, the ultimate one: the real gospel according to the real Kingdom-bringer.  A decade or so ago within the evangelical publishing culture we just would not have found a book pitched like this---about the full gospel message of restoring brokenness through Divine grace seen in the theme of the Kingdom, illustrated with contemporary modern art, pitched alongside books on pop culture.

And here is what else makes this provocative pondering invitation to care about the reign and commonwealth and reconciliation wrought by Jesus a very important work.  The Barna Research Group was commissioned to conduct a survey to determine just what Christians did or didn't know about their faith, a survey which they unveil a bit of here.  As it says on the back cover, "84% according to this new Barna report, described within, are unfamiliar with the essential tenets of their faith, with a crippling misunderstanding of the word righteousness, and, in turn, the gospel of Jesus."

Yet another feature of this fascinating new study is the way it incorporates some sidebar interviews with others (Shane Claiborne, Alan Hirsch, Mark Batterson, and others.)  Younger authors tend to be more collaborative, and these printed interviews flow naturally within the body of the text, illuminating (or nuancing or refining) the points Seay is making.  Just what does it mean to be righteous?  What is justification according to Jesus?  How do we form community, bear fruit of shalom, become more generous, learn to fast and feast?  The answers to how to life faithfully and well is tied up, he suggests, with our answer to the call of Matthew 6:33---namely, to seek Christ's Kingdom and righteousness. 

There are deep and serious explorations about the nature of Christ's message, but many are so arcane or academic that they just aren't that useful.  There are little books about Jesus, but many have no mettle.  They are nearly books without a spine.

This is one you may or may not like.  It is a bit punchy, lots of stories, this unusual art stuff inside, and a radical invitation to grace, restoration, hope.

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The Pursuit of the Holy: A Divine Invitation  Simon Ponsonby (Cook) $14.99  I do not intend to suggest that David C. Cook used to be boring, but it is fair to say that they used to be mostly known for kiddie Sunday school stuff.  From little plastic swords to cheery curriculum, they didn't have the reputation, say, of an Eerdmans or a Fortress.  Well, Cook is still quite evangelical in their theological orientation but they have been releasing some truly remarkable books in the last year or so; we stock almost everything they do and are pleased to take them out to book shows and conferences.  Like other conservative Protestant publishers they are doing more sophisticated books, solid, faithful, still evangelical in tone and substance, but more interesting and willing to relate to a postmodern culture than we saw a few decades ago.
This book is just one example of the good stuff coming out of their Colorado Springs headquarters.  The author is pastor of theology at St. Aldates Church in Oxford, England, and ordained priest in the Church of England.  He is a passionate evangelist, so that informs his writing---wanting to communicate well to folks, being interesting (fiery we might even have said years ago) and quite clear.  He has a couple of serious degrees in theology, but isn't writing for the academic guild.  He is writing for folks like you and me.

Ponsonby starts the book noting that the Lord's famous command "Be holy as I am holy" is "the most extravagant--and audacious--invitation ever sent."  But can we do it?  That is the question of this book---is a holy life achievable for sinful Christians?

This serious book draws on diverse theological sources--again, it makes my point that there are creative and fresh winds blowing through evangelical publishing.  He quotes R.C. Sproul (how could you not cite The Holiness of God?) and then Jurgen Moltmann and Wolfgang Pannenberg.  He draws on old school Puritans (Owens, Edwards) and modern ones (Ferguson, Bridges.)  His bibliography includes Dutchies like Berkhof and Berkhouwer.  Of course, he quotes C.S. Lewis, and he naturally quotes Ryle, another must for this topic. He quotes P.T. Forsyth (a favorite of Eugene Peterson's by the way) and Thomas Cranmer's articles from the Book of Common Prayer.  I love citing all this (even though the wingspan of the authors isn't all that wide, really) to show that this is a broad thinker, a mature leader, writing helpful stuff that takes us a bit deeper into a serious aspect of our discipleship. And he's interesting!  Other than InterVarsity Press, I don't know who would have published such a substantive (but non-academic) book from the evangelical camp a few years back.  Kudos to Cook for doing it now.  Kudos too all kinds of publishers who can't be pigeon-holed and authors for offering their gifts for us all.  The world is a bit better because of it, and it makes us glad booksellers.

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September 23, 2010

Renewed social concern amongst evangelical publishers

The other day I did a post highlighting a few great new books released by publishers that used to be known for, well, being a bit staid, overly conservative, maybe even boring.  Or, in my view, scandalously weird for those who name the name of Christ.  Do you remember when Zondervan released the stupid book about the failed millionaire who did that high-end car, The Delorean?  Or when Ollie North lied to Congress about his role in murdering innocent children in Nicaragua and they did a book of his?  A dear relative of mine saw the bloody clothes of one of the Contra massacres and yet the CBA touted Mr. North as a hero.  All I could do in those years was pray for grace and cherish a handmade cross given to me by a friend who witnessed first hand another U.S.-backed massacre, the infamous murders at the funeral of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador.  That evangelical publishers were complicit in this sort of social sin still saddens me.

Yet, times have changed, and the Spirit of God has drawn many evangelicals to repent of crass militarism and to live out love of neighbor with huge numbers of mission trips, service projects, and new cross-cultural friendship with folks of other races and classes. Good conversations about creation-care, micro-financing, fair-trade practices and the like are increasingly common-place.  Evangelical publishing houses and magazines are doing the best work about this---accessible, warm-hearted, Christ-centered, and life-changing. I noted the new Max Lucado book in my last post, about leaving a legacy in our concern for the needy. It is very nice. It took him 25 years of writing to say this with such gusto, but there it is.  The time's they are a-changin...


And so, here are a few great books on these themes published by evangelical presses who may not have released books like this even a decade or so ago.  Some did, a bit, but there is a new movement that is clear and passionate about justice, for God's glory, because the Bible says so. These books are inspiring and challenging, and helpful (unlike the many deep and arcane post-colonial theologians publishing scholarly stuff in the academic houses. Liberal theologians pride themselves in their progressive political views, but I'm not so sure they motivate many people to action with their lack of clear Biblical foundations or piety.) Maybe you are part of a group that appreciates these kinds of resources.  Maybe you should order some and pass 'em around.  Not only will they give you a new appreciation for this very wholistic, evangelical spirit, but will push you to take steps beyond your comfort zone, learning more, and doing something.  Hope you like this list.  There's more, too.  Call us if you'd like.

Humanitarian Jesus: Social Justice and the Cross Christian Buckley & Ryan Dobson
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(Moody) $14.99  This is a great, great book for those evangelicals who are wanting to link public action to Christ-honoring faith and who are eager to explore the relationship and boundaries of evangelism and social concern.  About half the book is comprised of chatty, helpful interviews with seasoned activists like Ron Sider, David Batstone, Tony Campolo and Gary Haugen and many more.  As you might guess, the opening essays are based upon solid, conservative theology (while the interviews are much more diverse and surprising and fun.)  I applaud their desire to insist that Jesus-centered ministry must include humanitarian social concern, but I think that their occasional use of the phrase "the social gospel" is a bit misguided, since most people know that that was a specific, theologically inadequate, tradition of the early 1900s.  These guys want to affirm the social dimensions of the gospel, but they are anything but "the social gospel."  Right on. Very valuable.



Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing
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Church Soong-Chan Rah (Moody) $14.99  Kudos to Moody Press for this very important book by one of the most important younger leaders/sholars within the evangelical church.  You may know Soong-Chan's previous, exceptional IVP book The Next Evangelicalism which put him on the map as an author to know.  As one reviewer put it, Rah writes out of "experiential knowledge and with anthropological precision."   This fine and mature work allows us to seek ways to honor the presence of God in different cultures.  Excellent and very highly recommended.



Jump Into a Life of Further and Higher
  Efrem Smith (Cook) $14.99  I don't know how David C. Cook got the rights to publish this hot young writer, but this is even more exciting than his
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previous book about raising up young urban leaders, or his very cool Hip Hop Church.  He is himself a young, African American leader and a brother to know about. This brand new one is a basic book of daily discipleship, I suppose, inviting us to faith and obedience, taking "leaps of faith" and such.  It works the "jumping" theme nicely, inviting us to jump into the topic he explores in each chapter.  And they are fascinating, inspiring, story-filled chapters.  Jump into them, indeed--- he draws on Martin Luther King, Jr (for instance) and invites us to a life of liberation. This is socially engaged spirituality, faith lived out in the pain of a needy world, eager to know God and jump into the fray to be used by God.  Efrem is an amazing, fun, creative writer, a superintendent in the Evangelical Covenant Church, who accepted Christ as a young man in a United Methodist Church. He's a graduate of St. John's University,  Luther Seminary, and lives in the Bay area of California, so the man gets around.  Check him out!

Zealous Love: A Practical Guide to Social Justice Mike and Danae Yankoski (Zondervan)
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$16.95  I've recommended this before, exclaiming how very nice it is, the full color graphics on glossy paper, the hip design, the user-friendly information, the guide to next steps in standing for justice in so many areas.  From fighting trafficking to supporting refugees, from dealing with hunger to being faithful in creation-care, this is the best guide we know.  There are some that are more brief.  There are some that are more complex. This strikes a great balance, offering insight, inspiration and facts for action, options for involvement.  Zondervan is perhaps the leading publisher on social justice stuff---sorry Orbis-, but it is true--and we can praise God that they remain theologically sound, evangelical, and solidly Biblical.  This is just one example of the kinds of resources we need if we are going to be found faithful by the Christ who calls us to serve.  And that is the point, not "pc" treatises but an action manual for those willing to learn and do something.

Contributors in Zealous Love include the always upbeat international lawyer dude, Bob Goff, punchy preacher Francis Chan, eco-theologian Matthew Sleeth, small farmer, but uber-writer, Wendell Berry, Ed & Susan Brown (who visited our shop last month), the truly admirable Marva Dawn, even the merry anarchist himself, the Shanster C. (By the way, Mike Yankoski is an author who wrote his memoir of living as a homeless person, Under the Overpass, published by Multnomah Press, another conservative evangelical house that has done some very good stuff.)

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Why Jesus Crossed the Road Bruce Main (Tyndale) $13.99  Tyndale is a pretty typical popular-level, religious publisher, doing Focus on the Family self-help books, Left Behind novels, lots of nice devotionals, testimonial books, and some of the early books by serious Reformed thinker, R.C. Sproul.  And they do my beloved Life Application Study Bible in the NLT.  So, what a mixed bag they are---representing mainstream evangelical concerns quite nicely, some more to my liking than others, but nothing too odd and nothing terribly exciting (with a few notable exceptions.)  And, yet, they have recently done some truly amazing books that press us to action and care and bold new ways to imagine our faith.  Bruce Main is one of the most savvy urban activists in America---living on the hard streets of inner city Camden---and he is a fabulous writer.  Here, he asks a nitty-gritty question---what is with "the other side" to which Jesus often traveled?  The long sub-title puts it like this: Learning To Follow the Unconventional Travel Itinerary of a First-Century Carpenter and His Ragtag Group of Friends as They Hop Fences, Cross Borders, and Generally Go Where Most People Don't.  Want to grapple with the truths about oppression?  Want to see what Jesus might have us do? Want solid gospel study that will show you something new, without having to wade through the deconstructive controversy of Crossan et al?  This is one heckuva book, serious, interesting and compelling, drawing on his stunning life experiences, his splendid storytelling abilities, his insights gleaned from the likes of Volf and Woltersdorff and Elie Wiesel.  You won't be disappointed, and may want to join the journey.

Love Mercy: A Mother & Daughter's Journey from the American Dream to the Kingdom of God Lisa Samson & Ty Samson (Zondervan) $14.99  We are glad when gifted writers do
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good projects (like go to Africa to minister to those devastated by the AIDS crisis) and are able to tell their story well.  This is even better than you could imagine because not only because Lisa is a wordsmith and novelist, but because (as the subtitle says) this is a mother-daughter story.  This trip, they figured, would be them ministering to others, missional, merciful, giving.  As you might guess, they were devastated, touched, and ministered to.  Offering two unique perspectives, they tell their story, recount many episodes, describe the people they met along the way.  As they put it on the back

Smiles in a place of aching sadness.  Marcy in a place of heart-wrenching poverty. Two people transformed by God in ways and places they never expected, discovering that even in a land riddled with heartache, Christ's love and redemption are ablaze.

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Twenty-Piece Shuffle: Why the Poor and Rich Need Each Other Greg Paul (Cook) $13.99  Here is David C. Cook again, from their evangelical headquarters in Colorado Springs, offering us one of the most gripping books I've read in years.  This is urban ministry, urban tales, a no-nonsense and yet very poetic report from the harsh streets of Toronto.  Rave reviews from  Publishers Weekly ("honest and well-written from page one") to Shane Claiborne to Brian Walsh, this is a serious and valuable study of how we all long for home, and have "addictions to numb a troubled spirit."  Paul really believes we can all learn from each other, the rich and the impoverished, and everyone in between.  His early book God in the Alley is excellent as well---firstly published by Waterbrook/Shaw.  How 'bout that?

Plunge 2 Poverty: An Intensive Poverty Simulation Experience  Jimmy & Janet Dorrell (New Hope) $14.99  I fist came across these folks when I realized Jimmy wrote the book Trolls & Truth which emerged from his mission doing a church plant under a bridge for homeless folks.  He is the director of Mission Waco and the publisher is affiliated with a women's missionary movement of the Southern Baptist Convention.  The Dorrell's have trained more than 6,000 students over the last 20 years, helping them learn about poverty, racism, ethnocentrism, and all the other heavy stuff that comes up when we move from a culture of affluence towards the poor.  Very, very useful. How 'bout them radical Southern Baptists?  Yay.

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DVD Justice for the Poor: Love God. Serve People. Change the World. Jim Wallis (Zondervan) $24.95  Okay, if this "don't beat all" as we used to say.  Jim Wallis, head of Sojourners, a leader for a lifetime of evangelically-oriented ecumenical social action and peace and justice advocacy, doing justice curriculum published by Zondervan!  Holy smoke, I can hardly believe it, and we are grateful.  It doesn't matter if you think Wallis gets it fully right on every iota of policy, or if his shift to ecumenical generalities disqualifies him as a bone fide evangelical, as some have suggested.  Regardless, this is solid, interesting, helpful teaching, and any congregation or small group that uses it will be driven to reconsider their values and practices, making room for faith-based activism in what might be called "God's Politics."  Neither left nor right, he says, we are invited to move the conversation to higher ground, rooting it in the classic views of the church, as taught in the Scriptures.  Check it out.  And be glad that this is being distributed by a major, conservative publishing house.  Many stores didn't order it, I'm told (you know what Glen Beck said about Wallis, after all) so the mom-and-pop bookstores may not have joined in the revival for justice happening slowly in Grand Rapids and other centers of evangelical publishing.  But we have 'em.  I hope you order it from us. A Participants Guide is also available ($9.95.)  Buy the shrink-wrapped pack of one DVD and one Participant's Guide book for just $31.95.

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September 27, 2010

Mobilizing Hope: Faith Inspired Activism for a Post-Civil Rights Generation

In the last few posts I've named a few good books about the recent rise in social justice advocacy among evangelicals.  I have not even scratched the surface of the many passionate, Christ-centered testimonials that illustrate this trend.  Theologically conservative, Spirit-led and Christ-centered folk who are not schooled in liberation theology or social gospel stuff are coming to a revived interest in making a difference in the world, loving our hurting neighbors, being truly "doers of the Word" in areas of creation care, racial justice, wholistic missionary work, fighting poverty, sexual trafficking and such. They are insightful, creative, and clear, sharing stories from the trenches of social service.  Several of the books I told you about are good in their own right (I wouldn't have commended them if I didn't believe that) but I listed them also to show the breadth of the CBA publishers that have been willing to go out of the evangelical comfort zone and publish these striking voices for justice.  Praise God.

InterVarsity Press (IVP) has always been just about our favorite publisher, and for the almost 30 years that we've been at this, they have released books on creation care, global economics, being involved in racial reconciliation and such. (Not to mention the arts, science, sexuality, business, psychology, film, medicine, philosophy, but I digress.)  Few publishers have been as consistently sound theologically, wonderfully releasing beautiful books about spiritual formation and evangelism and Bible study, and also showing forth the implications of a Christian worldview for daily life in the world. The influence of  late 20th century giants in the evangelical tradition, like John Stott and Francis Schaeffer, largely remainds, and that gladdens me. From stuff about simple lifestyle to resources for global ministries to some very good books on urban ministry, IVP has earned the right to be considered the best publisher for reliable evangelical resources on these themes.  Some of their books that help us imagine socio-economic faithfulness in these days are deeply thoughtful and provocative (think of Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire by Walsh & Keesmat, one of the most significant contributions to Biblical studies in our lifetime) or have offered decisive information around a particular cause (Gary Haugen's IJM, and his books The Good News About Injustice and Just Courage, put fighting sexual trafficking on the map.)  Their newly published book by Lisa Graham McMinn & Megan Neff, Walking Gently on the Earth, may be the most eloquent and insightful reflection on sustainable lifestyles yet done.  Yep, IVP is simply the best.

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Perhaps the book that best captures the new generation's interest in social activism comes from IVP and was just released this month.  Mobilizing Hope: Faith-Inspired Activism for a Post-Civil Rights Generation by Adam Taylor tells the story of this young activist, his community organizing, his politicking, his work overseas (fighting AIDS in Zambia) and his journey to a fellowship at the White House.

Taylor has this widespread experience, including a teaching assistant at the Kennedy School at Harvard, and a stint as the political director of Sojourners.  Whether you would agree with all the details of their policy convictions, there is no doubt that this riveting book is interesting, striking and very important. 

It is important because, as I've said, it illustrates and is a symbol of a major trend within recent evangelicalism.  The edgy
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  Likewise imprint of IVP (and this is a Likewise title) promotes authors who are young, aggressive in their God-centered love for the hurting, and their willingness to live radical lives of missional fidelity; the very existence of this cool line of books is itself a bell-weather, showing the grit and guts and great writing chops of this younger generation. Every new Likewise book is worth knowing about, and this is a great example of what they are about. 


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Mobilizing Hope is important also, as I've already suggested, not just because Adam is a guy whose given his life to some important causes, and has understood his discipleship in ways that led him to acts of service and outreach and protest.  Other Likewise authors document this move towards service and action, but this is somehow a different caliber of work, even for the excellent Likewise posse.  Young Mr Taylor has earned the right to write because he not only has given his life to social change ministry, but because he truly knows what he's talking about.  Jim Wallis of Sojourners first connected with him when he was a student at Harvard and, as Wallis reports in the preface, saw that this was an exceptional young man.  ("More than any young leader I've met, Adam Taylor exemplifies the best of the next generation of Christian activists.")  Not only has he worked in urban housing in NYC and in Africa and on the Jubilee debt relief campaign, he has done important projects for the Carr Center on Human Rights Policy.  He founded his own mission, Global Justice.  As I said, he was received into a Fellows Program in the White House.  Oh, and did I say he is an associate pastor of a Baptist church? This guy is smart and savvy and effective.  Adam Taylor rocks.

Lastly, this new book is important because it is a younger voice.  Some of us have been at this for a while, planning meetings, organizing prayer services, going to protests, writing letters to our congressman, pushing our friends who are most interested in disembodied spirituality or a-political Bible study to connect words and deeds in new ways.  We've planned big events, we've done petitions, we've boycotted and educated, prayed and fasted, argued and learned. We've promoted the Wilberforce movie, we've paid our dues to Bread for the World, we've passed out Sider's Rich Christians and John Perkins books and tried to generate interest among our friends and families.  Yes, some of us have done these things, and continue to get our churches more aware and involved.

Yet, Taylor knows that we are in a "post civil rights" era.  Marching with King is not an option anymore, and the justice movement for which he was a "drum major" is gone, at best a convoluted shadow of its former glory.  I think this is a wonderful review of some of that ethos and perspective and how King can be appropriated in a new day.  The particular line of Dr. King that Taylor uses as a bit of a theme is this:

This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists...the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority.

Could the church be that "nonconforming minority"?  Could your circle be that "dedicated circle"?  This inspiring book show how justice can expand as a new movement of activists evolves, as younger leaders offer their unique insight and gifts and styles. 

Older or younger, activist or not, Mobilizing Hope is a good book on part of what it means to
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live out Romans 12:1-2, and how our public square can be enhanced as we learn from social change activists who offer new vision, serious hope, gospel values, and strategies that are, perhaps, innovative and surprising.  He has a chapter on "civic discipleship" and that is a very, very fresh notion.  There is more packed into this--a "strategy manual" Wallis calls it---than you can imagine.  Want greater steps for involvement?  Want to learn some new steps towards civic faithfulness?  Want to be a faith-based activist? Want a contemporary theology and spirituality---where hope is the oxygen---to under-gird your thoughts of the common good?  This is the book to read.

Here is a brief story at the One website with Adam talking about this book.
Here are some great endorsements if your not convinced.



Mobilizing Hope Adam Taylor (IVP) regularly $18.00 sale price $15.00

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September 29, 2010

The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God

Yesterday was the funeral of the last remaining sibling of my father.  Aunt Grace was a character in more ways than should be recounted here, and we loved her.  At the memorial service, I learned of others that loved her and loved her well.  For a chunk of her life she was a cook for a large fraternity at Penn State University, and other "frat house" cooks were there too.  It didn't surprise me that the preacher spoke dearly of Grace (and of saving grace!) and used eating images.  "If there is a kitchen in heaven, she is there now...." and "Grammy and she are probably whipping up something even now."  It was a God-glorifying and happy testimony, and I was struck by how touched we were all by that.

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Aunt Gracie did jams and jellies, too, even picking the blueberries and grapes to use.  At the end of the service, everyone got to take a glass jar of (lovingly) home-make jelly. 

The sentimental story-telling about her cooking wasn't deep, but upon reflection, it is very, very profound.  Nobody explained much about the way the Bible teaches that feasting is a primary image for the new creation, or how food so often plays a role in so many Biblical stories; it is all true, though.  Nobody needed to be preached to about the theology of creation, the goodness of God in giving us such rich gifts to delight in (such as good food) since we all knew it.  We knew it from Aunt Grace, and we knew it from the stories about Aunt Grace.  And we knew it from the down-home "funeral food" that volunteers served in the small basement at Snow Shoe United Methodist Church.

Yes, we knew.  But many do not.  There is an evil movement around that wants us to be religious in a way that is disconnected to this world---it was a heresy raging in the first century, which is why Paul wrote of the goodness of creation and God's love for "things" in the first chapter of Colossians, and why the letter of 1 Timothy 4 seriously warns against those who dare to warn us about food and sex and such (saying that such deceptive prudery is "taught by demons.")   "This is our Father's world" the old hymn wisely says, and anybody who doesn't like it much, is preaching a false gospel.  God made the world, Jesus died for it, and at His glorious return, He will renew the "things" of this creation, as the line in the old carols puts it, "far as the curse is found."  I think what the simple folk at the funeral parlor knew is something that we could deepen and delight in all the more.  A theology of cooking, eating, food.  Yes!

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The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God edited by Leslie Leyland Fields (Wipf & Stock; $30.00) is only the latest in a batch of recent books integrating faith and food, eating and prayer, spiritual hunger and physical hunger.  Food and Faith: Justice, Joy and Daily Bread edited by Michael Schut has been our favorite anthology and I've written glowingly about it before; with a useful study guide in the back, it is great for groups.  I contributed a bibliographic chapter in the slim, but wonderful, Eat Well, published by the remarkable folks at *cino in their Road Map Series.  Lutheran anti-hunger activist L. Shannon Jung has done some very good books, most recently, Hunger and Happiness: Feeding the Hungry, Nurturing Our Souls.  Several years ago Brazos Press inaugurated a series on daily faithfulness in everyday practices with a fine one called Good Eating, by animal theology author, Stephen Webb. What beautiful and important books these are.  I hope you consider buying 'em:  if we can't come up (of all things) with a theology and spirituality of food, eating, hunger, and agriculture, then something is really wrong.   The One known as the "Bread of Life" is the creator/sustainer/redeemer of "all things" so physicality, material, stuff, matters. Food matters.  Amen?

Leslie Leyland Fields is the author of several other books (including a very provocative and well-written one on parenting that we love.)  She teaches in the Master of Fine Arts Program at Seattle Pacific University and anyone who follows writing, literature and the arts within intentionally Christian circles knows their excellent reputation.  Which is to say Ms Fields is really wise about good writing and is well connected. (Think, for starters, of the great writers who publish in Image.)  I won't make a joke about her "good taste" but---wow!---did she ever pull together some of the best faith-based writers around.  This book is nothing short of spectacular.

I had already read a few of the chapters---beloved excerpts from Wendell Berry, Robert Farrar Capon, Lauren Winner, Andre Dubus---and knew from the caliber of those chapters that this was going to be an instant classic in the genre.  Throw in the remarkable writing of well-known poet Luci Shaw, the eloquent medical writer Brian Volck,  Southern novelist Vinita Hampton Wright, and the very, very important creation-affirming Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemmann (from his essential book For the Life of the World) and one immediately knows that this may be one of the finest collections of essays I've ever seen.  What authors.  What rich topics.  What important and helpful ideas.

And to think this top-shelf anthology of good writers includes recipes!  Tanya Berry's Green Beans?   A recipe from Luci Shaw's mother?  A jambalaya recipe from Mercy Chefs, who worked feeding victims of Hurricane Katrina?  A soul-food recipe for cornbread?  Tuscan Pizza?  A spicy tomato soup recipe after a chapter called "Late October Tomatoes"? How to make Cilantro Citrus Hollandaise by one of the most renowned chefs in the world? A sweet raisin challah from the famed magnolia bakery in NYC?  I'm using the question marks to ask: isn't this just too much?  How cool is all this, really!

The day The Spirit of Food shipment arrived, Beth and I sat on our couch while I read what may be the best chapter in the whole marvelous book.  I admit it is by a good friend, whose writing abilities leave me with my big mouth draping open.  Denise Frame Harlan has given us a piece (I admit to having seen some of it previously) that narrates her own story of learning to cook.  But oh, what an interesting story it is---from a grandmother who made great pies for the likes of 1930s-era bad guy John Dillinger, to her own living at a college-student discipleship house and needing to cook for others, to a euphoric epiphany as a teacher got choked up reading about the goodness of God who gave us such a beautiful world which includes onions, from the classic Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon.  Denise tells of rushing out after class to buy and devour this profound theological cookbook, and how her own view of creation's joys and God's goodness expanded.

 I cannot tell you how beautifully she tells of it.  I can tell you I was fighting back tears to get
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through the pages as Beth and I were, again, stunned by the insight, word-smithing, beauty, and goodness of Denise's spectacular chapter.  I rarely say stuff like this with such confidence:  it is worth the expensive price of this book just for that one chapter, which will be read and re-read, copied and shared, for years.  That she tells the story of her growing cooking skills and the simultaneous growth in a mature, sacramental theology, and her rich (though simple) aesthetic life, makes this truly one of the best examples of "embodied spirituality" I've ever read.  And the recipes she offers?  Well, you tell me.  Read her chapter and you'll trust her so, you'll just have to try the them.

Astonished at how good the writers are, here, and how much we were moved by Ms Harlan's great piece, we just stared at each other for a bit.  And then, I knew we'd both want to read another good friend's contribution, an original piece by the editor of the aforementioned *cino book, Eat Well, Kirstin Vander Giessen-Rietsma.

 Again, I was stuck by the clear-headed thoughts, the good prose, the profound honesty and wise insight.  Vander Giessen-Rietsma writes regularly for the on-line 'zine, catapult, and I always read whatever she does, and it is often very, very good. (If you are a friend, you may have had me forward stuff of hers into your in-box.  And you meant to thank me, didn't you?)

"Choice Cuisine" is a meditation based on her own frugal background, her deep sense of the call to redemptive practices in the world, and the struggle to be just and good, generous and gracious, even in food choices.  She re-counts having a great meal, and great conversation, with Dr. Vincent Harding, renowned and energetic Afro-American scholar and civil rights historian, who talked with she and her husband Rob, late into the night, offering good advice about love and community and grace.  She writes tenderly of making a meal of pork--fully aware of the troubles with factory farms---that was given to her by her father.  This isn't a lecture on the troubles with agribusiness or the brokenness of the global food systems, even though it is informed by a profound awareness of the hard and sometimes painful choices with which we are faced.    Of cooking with her dad, with whom she has heated conversations about politics and current affairs she writes,

...faced with the task of collaborating on a menu, our taste buds fall into lockstep over portabella fries and creme brulee, grilled zucchini and phyllo pastries. To share and prepare recipes, to stand around the grill in the summer, to witness his delight when I try his newest creation---I know my love for my father finds its best home in these things, in spite of our differences in other areas of life, like politics and pork loins. And as imperfect as my practice may be, love is the thing, the only thing.

Some poets published in prestigious journals have essays here; there are excellent pieces
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about hunger and poverty and feasting and fasting.  There is a touching reflection on receiving (or needing to abstain) from communion due to Celiac disease called "A Blessing for the Rice Cracker."  There is a very interesting chapter, "My (Self-Righteous) Food Stamp Fast" by respected Christian journalist LaVonne Neff, and a very moving piece on anorexia by Suzanne Wolfe which goes from her grandfather's garden and George Herbert's poem 'Love III.'  I note all this to try to assure you that the writing is suburb, the writers are vital, the topics diverse enough to make this a useful resource and a delightful anthology to dip in to nearly anytime.  Any time you aren't cooking or eating, that is.

A year or so ago we tried to promote a memoir by a Christian author who wrote mostly about food.  Patti Kirk went on to pen the blue-ribbon Confessions of an Amateur Believer, but her first, Starting From Scratch: Memoirs of a Wandering Cook is excerpted here.  The chapter is called "Wild Fruit" and she writes beautifully about picking berries and making jam.  It is more eloquent and intellectually satisfying then the short testimonials we hard at the funeral for Aunt Grace.  Still, I read this and her words remind me of the goodness reported by those friends of my aunt and the testimony of her jelly.  This helps me praise God, and gives me great delight, even if she overstates a bit.  

Gathering and preserving wild fruit, for me, is to share, in the most elemental way, in what it means to be human, made in the image of God, guardians of earth and sea and sky, male an female, alive.  God's creation---the berries themselves, the creatures that I share them with, the shade, the minute breeze I wouldn't have noticed if I were not picking berries---humbles me in comparison to my own, however heavenly the smell that wafts through the house as my elderberry jelly cooks down in its pan.  To participate in the created world in this way, and to give the little jars of sweetness to people I love, seems to me the greatest blessing I can expect in this world or the next.

Of the many rave reviews, by authors more astute than I, I'll share this one, by novelist Brett Lott.  He is right to write,

The most important act of community we can observe is the breaking of bread--the communion of the saints--and I can think of no more moving book that illustrates this integral element of the believer's life than The Spirit of Food. Leslie Leyland Fields has put together a gift as warm and fragrant as the fresh-baked loaves of bread she herself writes of, and I have been nourished by it.

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