About April 2011

This page contains all entries posted to Hearts & Minds Books in April 2011. They are listed from oldest to newest.

March 2011 is the previous archive.

May 2011 is the next archive.

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

April 2011 Archives

April 4, 2011

Tolle Legge. Because books matter.

How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book?    
books.jpgHenry David Thoreau

When you sell a person a book you don't sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue---you sell him a whole new life.  Love and friendship and humor and ships at sea by night---there's all heaven and earth in a book, a real book, I mean.
Christopher Morely

...I myself was getting wild.  I wanted wildness, originality, genius, rapture, hope.  I wanted strength, not tea parties.   What I sought in books was a world whose surfaces, whose people and events and days lived, actually matched the exaltation of the interior life.  Those of us who read carried a secret around with us like martyrs a secret knowledge, a secret joy, a secret hope: There is a life worth living where history is still taking place; there are ideas worth dying for, and circumstances where courage is still prized.  This life could be found and joined, like the Resistance.  I kept this exhilarating faith alive in myself, concealed under my uniform shirt like an oblate's ribbon; I would not be parted from it.
Annie Dillard An American Childhood

The thoughtful reader surrounds himself with inducements to substance
Aldous Huxley

I don't know how Dallas Baptist University has done it (well, I have an idea and it has to do with the extraordinary professor there, Dr. David Naugle) but they nurture some of the most remarkable students and alums I have met.  I mentioned in my last post that I had been invited to address the annual Paideia Society and Honor's College conference there, speaking on the role of reading in the life of the believer, and the future of the book in our increasingly fast-paced/digital/virtual culture. I had the great privilege of taking my place behind previous speakers from other years, speakers and authors as prestigious in the thoughtful evangelical world as Nigel Cameron, Os Guinness, Steve Garber, James K.A. Smith.  They've had Polanyi scholar Esther Meeks and Mars Hill Audio founder Ken Myers and Citizens for Public Justice Director Gideon Strauss and Grammy-winner, music producer (and founder of ArtHouse) Charlie Peacock.  In a week or so, the college will host poet Luci Shaw.  I really was nervous speaking from the same podium as had eminent scholars such as historian George Marsden and world-class philosopher Alvin Plantinga.

Doc Naugle, mentor of philosophy students and friend of nearly everybody, hosted me well, and the students and alum of Paideia and of the Honors College (under the leadership of Dr. Philip Mitchell ) were very impressive. Since this was party an academic conference, serious papers were delivered on all sorts of obscure scholarly topics.  And they were excellent including some done by undergrads.  I took in papers comparing the way Aristotle is used in N.T. Wright's book on character (After You Believe) and Naugle's own Reordered Love, Reordered Lives and another on the role of fairy stores, and yet another on strategies for guidance counselors for responding to youth violence.  I learned much about Augustine's view of reading in one, and picked up the copy of one comparing Tolstoy and St. Luke.   There were papers on Dylan, another comparing Springsteen and Flannery O'Connor, and a few whose topics I didn't even understand. It was especially gratifying for me to see how God has been faithful in raising up young scholars---a few of the presenters are themselves now professors  at other schools in Texas, mentoring undergrads in the way that Naugle and others at DBU so shaped them.  To see how the vision for distinctively Christian scholarship can take hold and unfold as young scholars stay faithful to Christ in the academy is very exciting.  Talk about taking your faith into the work-world to be agents of influence in a difficult career area!

Our Hearts & Minds friends sometimes like to follow our work, so rather than announcing new books we've received here at the shop, I'll share just a bit about my time in Texas and hold up some related books for your consideration.  I've been pondering this reading stuff for years, you know, so was delighted to have such a friendly crowd to whom I could preach.  I do think I was pretty much preaching to the choir, but I carried on nonetheless.  I thank them for their patience and good humor.  And the tacos.

The title of the event was tolle lege, which, you should know, is the Latin phrase (perhaps a playground rhyme or jump-rope chant) that the hung-over Augustine heard in his garden one bright day.  He did, indeed, "pick up and read" and was famously converted after his eyes fell on the first book he found (a Bible.)  Dr. Naugle had buttons printed up with the line--"tolle lege: take  up and read" as a reminder of the importance of not only knowing Augustine but of, as folksinger Kate Campbell drawled in an evening concert, "Just pick it on up and read the thing, yall."  Right on, sister.

I often start my talks on this topic with an episode in a Chaim Potok novel where a Jewish boy and a Catholic kid watch a Hasidic ceremony where exuberant men dance with the Scriptures.  "Don't you dance with your book?" the Jewish boy asks his friend.  Do we dance with our Scriptures, our words, our books?  It is a good question.  I am afraid a few of us still do, but we are becoming a real minority.

What does it mean to dance with books in the digital age?  How can we promote a culture of bookishness?  This is not a problem only for intellectuals and it is not new, brought on by the dumbing down caused by the habits of skimming and scanning caused by our immersion in the distractions of Web 2.0.  (Ken Myers wrote years ago of a conversation he had with a friend who worked for NPR who had moved to ABC news.  He reported that his friend spoke almost wistfully of the conversations he routinely had back at NPR because the staff there read books and the busy workers at ABC largely did not.  Neil Postman's must-read Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business was written in the last century, about television, not twittering.)

 Allow me to refer you to a piece I wrote for Comment magazine a few years ago called "Learning to Love Good Books."  I wanted it said, if only in passing, that I do not quite buy the presupposition that there is a huge dichtomy and battle between the word and the image, between books and screens.  I had this passed out on Friday at the DBU event, too, because I did not want my passion for the printed page to lead us to needlessly dis God's good gift of image, screen, and internet.  Films and TV shows and video games are all valid and good things; they are different than books, and are at times needlessly played off against one another (as Postman does.)  To affirm the roles of music and movies is important.  We do not need to affirm the importance of reading by demeaning the fine arts of images, moving or otherwise. And certainly many of our most loyal book lovers, those who understand the tactile and aesthetic dimension of reading, do travel with a e-reading device.  As usual, things aren't quite either/or, are they?

The Dallas Baptist University Paideia conference models this as they usually have a concert experience alongside theirm.jpg academic papers and speeches and heady intellectual discussion.  I was nearly jumping out of my seat with joy anticipating the show put on by an occasional band called The New Agraians (their name a hat tip to the mid-twentieth century writing tradition of Southern populist literature.) I love all three of these folks as solo recording artists and hearing them do songs about the southland---capturing a sense of place and localism and specificity that is important for good writing---was an incredible treat.  Check out Pierce Pettis, Kate Campbell, and Tom Kimmel, who do some of the finest singer-songwriter stuff I've heard. There are some youtube clips of a bit of the show and you could check those out.  And start praying for them so they can get a New Agraians recording thing in the works!

Still, there is something slow and interior and formative about books, at least books that are taken seriously.  Unlike pixels where blocks of text can be eliminated in a moment, with the tap of keypad, where content has an "unbearable lightness of being" giving it the air of the ephemeral, there is something more weighty about a book in the hand.  Can blogs and reading on iphones carry the necessary gravitas that paper and ink can?  Can we take reading and learning seriously in our distracted age? What are the implications of 2 Timothy 4:13 for our own lives these days?  These are huge questions that I meandered through, and I invite you to think about them too.

For what it is worth, in three presentations I suggested that we should, indeed, "pick up and read."  Books matter, and I gave (at least) three reasons. 

Firstly, books matter because people matter.  Books have changed lives in large and small ways for centuries and if we love our neighbors we will want them to have experiences that can be transforming.  Great ideas and stories and teaching come packaged in books and it is our Christian duty to share them---hoping for the sorts of changes that we've seen down through redemptive history.  I shared about a dozen episodes of how somebody loved somebody else by sharing books and reading.  I told of Saint Patrick's ancient language work with the Celts and John Newton's conversion by reading The Imitation of Christ and his influence on Wesley--whose carriage was fitted with bookshelves!---and Williamolasky22.jpg Wilberforce to the spiritual renewal God gave Abraham Kuyper when a wise laywoman gave the liberal pastor The Heir of Radcliffe, a novel that changed his soul.  We know of the thoughtful conversations about the essence of story between Roman Catholic J.R.R. Tolkein and the atheist C.S. Lewis (and how his imagination was baptized by reading fairy tales by George MacDonald and how he found his way to Christ finally by studying The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton.)  We know Watergate bad guy bawled as he finished Lewis' Mere Christianity, finding Christ on his way to prison and how he later learned to think more structurally about prison reform and cultural renewal after reading Kuyper.  I told a few stories of the not-so-famous whose encounters with books made a difference in their lives. 

Can new technologies do that sort of things, transform lives?  Can we share books, pass on the wisdom of authors, invite people to read with us, to join a reading club, can we do the sort of bookish ministry that has changed others if we all read on line?  If we lose real texts and download whatever amazon has for your kindle? I don't know, but books matter because people matter and our human-scale, communal use of books is a pattern and habit we must encourage. 

189770_10150212292537166_62060382165_8989090_141697_s.jpgSecondly, I explained some different sorts of reading, appropriate for different sorts of texts.  I held up the little article that I wrote at TheHighCallings blog called "Style Matters" which celebrated not just the content of books, but their style, their art, their passion.  Content and style combine in the best authors and wise readers will allow themselves to be taken in by the experience.  Not only do different books, though, take different approaches, we need some different sorts of motivations for reading---to remind us, but also to share with others, to encourage and give a plea for others to see reading as a Christian duty.

I love doing presentations on this sort of thing and described reading as an act of worship, reading as an act of discipleship, reading as an act of spiritual formation, and reading as an act of contextualized mission.  How can we learn to read worshipfully?  To acquire content, as life-long learners?  To have that information form us, to read deeply and, as Peterson's book puts it, to "eat this book"?  And, in our post-modern culture, how can we read missionally, learning about our world, engaging the important books and authors and themes of the world?

In my third presentation I told some sad stories about those who do not seem to read much, whose faith appears shallow and lacks integration or coherence--significant folks in key occupations who have little desire to think and live as disciples in their given callings. How damaging to our Christian witness it can be when leaders teach such foolish things and act without regard for occupational integrity. How do we connect Sunday and Monday, and what principles and practices might facilitate a more robust community of discourse?  How has dualism crippled our Christian witness, especially in the public square?  Why do we seem to not be terribly aware of the implications of, say, Romans 12:1-2?  That is, what can we do to help people live lives of whole-life discipleship, thinking Christianly, taking up our vocations to be agents of God's reign in the world?

This Paideia Society group understood well the need for a uniquely Christian worldview that would generate
worldview-history-concept-david-k-naugle-paperback-cover-art.jpg distinctively faithful ideas about each and every thing in life.  Ideas about developing the "Christian mind" and the scandal of the lack of an evangelical mind was not knew to them--after all, their teacher literally wrote the book on the history and significance of the notion.  How books might call us to deeper thoughtfulness, to slow and careful--and bold and audacious--efforts for social reform in every zone of life, well, this was my big final push. We need bookish guides (booksellers, even?) to help the community of faith get the resources they need for personal and social transformation.  Do you have bookish mentors, guides, reliable sources?  I sure hope your bookish mentor isn't a faceless order-filler at some on-line place that cares little for your soul or God's work in your life.  This is too important, I suggested, to not have bookish relationships with people you trust.

I think we need small groups, intentional community, friends and mentors, colleagues who do life together, even in their thinking and studies (not unlike Wesley's culture-changing bands with their method of reading classics, or not unlike Wilberforce's Clapham group, friends for life who took up the cause of social reform together.) Such groups should read together, and encourage each other in developing a way of life guided by the best principles and practices.  If we believe that books matter one of the reasons will surely be that ideas matter.  Ideas grow legs and some take traction, making a difference in the world, for good or ill.  Readers become leaders and with the right sort of vision and institutional support, our books will shape us in ways that may allow us to be faithful in small and big things.  Perhaps we will, truly, make history.  Who doesn't want that in our time?  May God be pleased as we do good works for the common good, inspired, perhaps, by good habits of reading good books.

So, as I was spending time with folks in Texas I thought of books to share, some following up the list from the last post (The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to our Brians, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age and so forth) and some others only somewhat related.  Here are some more or less random suggestions to carry us further into this important topic.  In no particular order.  Enjoy.

Large.9781608993994.jpgGod and Gadgets: Following Jesus in a Technological Age  Brad Kellenberg (Cascade) $22.00  This author has been an engineer, a theology prof, and has written a wonderful book on postmodern evangelism.  This new work raises the huge question about our relationship to our stuff, especially the technological sorts of stuff of our hot-wired age. He's a bit of a Wittgenstein scholar, too, but don't let that scare you aware.  Very provocative and very important.

Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology Neiltechnopoly.jpg Postman (Penguin) $14.00  You most likely know--and should own--Amusing Our Self To Death, and this is in some ways a companion volume.  I love this book, a easily read overview of how submission to technique and the gods of efficiency have reduced us in many ways. He calls us to be "loving resistance fighters."  Is it to late to join the resistance?  Read this book and be inspired to make new choices with a new vision.  And, while your at it, his End of Education is a wonderful read, too.

The Technological World Picture and the Ethics of Responsibility: Struggles in the Ethics of Technology Egbert Schuurman (Dordt College Press) $9.00 I really want to promote this very important author---an important neo-Calvinist and engineering professor in Holland.  We have several of his other heavy books, including his magnum opus, Technology and the Future, recently re-issued.  Highly recommended for those seeking a serious, somewhat philosophical survey from a viewpoint that resists either demonizing nor making an idol of the good, but always distorted, gifts of technology.

Prophetically Incorrect: A Christian Introduction to MediaphpThumb_generated_thumbnailjpg.jpg Criticism  Robert Woods & Paul Patton (forward by Quentin Schultze) $19.99  You've got to look closely at the cover---the monitor screen has a picture of Jeremiah!  Yep, this includes some pretty serious prophetic imagination--with a rave review from Walter Brueggemann, it should!  With close readings of pop icons like Lady Gaga and serious Biblical vision, this offers us important guidance in learning the art of cultural criticism, with no glib answers or simplistic reactions. Excellent!

How to Read Slowly: Reading for Comprehension  James W. Sire (Waterbrook) $13.99  Everywhere I go, and DBU was no exception, I'm asked about speed reading.  I always suggest this slow antidote to the foolish idea---learning to read carefully and taking up the joys of truly appreciating "where the author is coming from" by an author who has very special gifts, seen in his classic worldview handbook, The Universe Next Door.  This shows how to be discerning about what is "between the lines" and invites a deeper appreciation of all we read, fiction, non-fiction, poetry and more.  Very nicely done, highly recommended.  After this, go for his weighter books like The Discipleship of the Mind and Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling.  By the way, his reflection on his changing understanding of what we mean by worldview and why it is important, Naming the Elephant, Sire jokingly calls "Naugle for Dummies" as it was inspired by DBU prof David Naugle.  How 'bout that?

eat-this-book.jpgEat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading  Eugene Peterson (Eerdmans) $16.95 At an epic post at the end of last year when I was naming the best books of 2010 we celebrate the completion of Peterson's profound five-volume set of spiritual theology.  Interestingly, this second volume, on the practice of meditative reading lectio divina, seems to be the most popular.  This is just a wonderful, wonderful, book, and we cannot recommend it enough.  By the way--DBU Paideia students---the quotes I read in my first talk from Peterson about pastors and novels, and how his own ministry was transformed by reading about Leopold Bloom in James Joyce's Ulysses, is from a chapter in Subversive Spirituality, a book of random essays, interviews, sermons and occasional pieces from Peterson.  There are several chapters in there where he writes about books, novels and his love of the written word.

caring_for_words.jpgCaring for Words in a Culture of Lies Marilyn Chandler McEntrye (Eerdmans) $18.00  This is a truly rewarding book, deserving of a slow and open-hearted reading. It is wonderfully writtten, really, but one must pay attention, taking in the serious prose.  McEntrye is a fine poet with a keen artistic vision and here she writes with depth and elegance.  At times passionate and heartfelt, she calls us to recapture a care for words, especially in our public conversations and civil discourse.  Like other life-sustaining resources, we are called to exercise stewardship and care. In this handsome paperback McEntyre gives us twelve "stewardship strategies" ranging from "love words" to "don't tolerate lies" to "stay in conversation" to "practice poetry" and "cherish silence."  She has a chapter on play and a chapter on prayer. And of course a chapter on reading well.  What a lyrical, wonderful, wise and extraordinary book.  Highly recommended.

Imagination in Place
  Wendell Berry (Counterpoint)imagination-in-place-wendell-berry-hardcover-cover-art.jpg $14.95  At my DBU talks I mentioned in passing Berry's Standing By Words (and recounted an episode from the novel Jayber Crowe.) This is a fantastic collection of essays united mostly around the theme of place---Berry discusses writers known for the keen sense of locality.  For Berry fans, a few will be expected---Wallace Stegner, Gary Snyder, Donald Hall, poet Hayden Carruth.  A few pieces are on large themes ("Against the Nihil of the Age" and "God, Science, and Imagination.") God has given us this great ability to use our imaginations, to conjure and suppose.  Berry's own stories and social imaginary are stellar.  His description of others he esteems are not only informed and helpful, but much needed.  Now out in paperback, this is a great example of a rare kind of literary criticism. 

Literature and Theology  Ralph C. Wood (Abingdon) $11.00  Don't let the small size and inexpensive price of this paperback fool you--it is one of the best in the excellent "Horizons in Theology" series.  Wood is renowned for a magnificent work on Flannery O'Connor and a very good book on Tolkien, amongst others.  He's a Texan, too, teaching both literature and theology at Baylor.  Here, he offers exceptional (and really fun) insights as he explores certain authors, even certain scenes in specific novels, highlighting the theological insight of, and power of, the stories.  You'll enjoy these very winsome analysis of O'Connor, Walker Percy, Tolkien, Eliot.  The piece about doubt and God's goodness in Lewis' Til We Have Faces is excellent.  And he has a chapter on the classic sci-fi book by Walter Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz.

sweetest.jpgThe Sweetest and the Meanest: Poems  Tom Kimmel (Point Clear Press) $15.00  One of the great parts of my trip to Dallas was hearing (and the privilege of hanging out and talking books with) three great Americana singer songer-writers in their own rite, playing under the name The New Agrarians.  Tom Kimmel is highly regarded as guitar player, tunesmith and lyricist, and he also has a wonderfully fun poetry volume. He read from it on occasion throughout the show, in that very southern accent, reading conversations between relatives about life and times, race and religion, in the new south.  This is fun, good stuff. almost like short stories.  Some will make you smile (I guarantee it) and a few might make ya cry.  Enjoy!

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop: A Memoir, A History  Lewis Buzbee (Greywolf Press) $14.00  For those who just love books and bookstores, this is a beautifully crafted small work, spending much time on the history of the book industry---yes, truly starting in antiquity.  Throughout, Buzbee tells of his own passion for books, his work in a bookstore, and his years as a publisher's sales rep (calling on booksellers, promoting forthcoming authors and titles.) What lovely fun--history, business, and the celebration of the reading life.

Mysteries of the Middle Ages And the Beginning of the Modern World  Thomas Cahill (Anchor) $22.00  This large paperback is a treasure to behold, with full-color reproductions and a breezy style that makes this compelling reading even for those who don't typically enjoy history.  In my book lectures I noted How The Irish Saved Civilization, the story of Patrick going to Ireland and creating a historic writing, reading, and book-loving culture.  This is another of Cahill's fine "Hinges of History" series.  I mention it here in part because I realize that I often (and passionately, for instance in my five part Rob Bell essays) blame monastic culture for helping to dig us into the ditch that suggests prayer is more important than more ordinary human activity or that missionary or priestly callings are higher than the vocations of commerce or farming or politics. That sacred-secular dualism stuff that blends neo-Platonism with gnosticism.  I realize I have only told half of the story, and this wonderfully affirms the other part---the high middle ages were a time of beautiful art, incredible architecture, expanding knowledge (including great love for manuscripts and codices, the forerunner of books.)  One reviewer called the book "intoxicating" and I suggest it now at least for how it illustrates the intellectual richness that foreshadowed the Renaissance.  For a more studious, and highly regarded work on the monastic culture, specifically, see the intellectual tour de force by Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God (Fordham University Press.) I'll also offer a fine shout-out to the latest John Piper, Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God which I really, really liked for many reasons.

besides-the-bible-large-cover.jpgBesides the Bible: 100 Books that Have, Should, or Will Create Creation Culture  Dan Gibson, Jordan Green, John Pattison et al (Biblica) $14.99  Despite the unwieldy and troublesome subtitle, this book is fabulous, so interesting, and really, really useful.  What fun, and how helpful!  These three guys are real readers (and their blog is spectacular for book lovers!)  Each have their own tastes and theological tendencies and they set out to name 100 key books that everybody should know about.  Alas, they drew in some others they respected and, if you follow BookNotes, you know that I was asked to contribute one review.  So did Donald Miller, Phyllis Tickle, William Young, Karen Spears Zacharias, Peter Rollins, Susan Isaacs, David Dark, Becky Garrison and several others.  Each review is brief, explaining why this book is a "must read."  You won't agree with them all, but that is half the fun.  And you know what, I love almost all of these and we stock most of 'em.  Are you desiring to read more, to be a bit better read, to slow down and take up a bookish life for a bit, but don't know where to start? This book itself is an inspiration and a very helpful guide for further study.  I'm proud to be a small part of it, and happy to highly recommend it to you once again.  Thanks for caring.
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April 7, 2011

The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford by Wendell Berry

In my last post, naming books about reading, our technological culture, media and so forth, I was happy to announce the paperback release of the fine bit of literary criticism (such a stodgy word for it) by Wendell Berry, Imagination in Place.  It was all I could do not to mention his brand new one, which is oh-so-similar, one that I am prepared to rave about.  I didn't want such an important revelation to get lost in that paragraph.

WB-WCW.jpgSo, now, a proper announcement.  Wendell Berry has a brand new book, and its first half, which I have read, is clear as a bell and as solid as Kentucky limestone.  It is truly fascinating, especially if you like Wendell talking about his own life as a writer, or if you like the poetry of William Carlos Williams.  It is called The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford (Counterpoint; $24.00.)

The title itself is revealing and significant.  Any high-school kid should at least know the name William Carlos Williams and those who have followed our blog know that we have promoted the wonderful essays on literature and character and social change by the Harvard professor, Robert Coles, and how Coles holds up Williams as a great writer who related literature to his day job, being a family doctor, in his urban setting.  You can see where this is going---imagination in place!  William Carlos Williams of Rutherford New Jersey?  Berry has the eyes to see (and apparently those schooled in mid-20th century poetry know this) that WCW was, in fact, an oddball of sorts: he wrote about common people in a real location, allowing his participation in the local neighborhood--his work, his friends, his neighbors, his church--to influence (indeed, to become to subject of) his extraordinary poems.  He was belittled for this by the hot shots, and this is, of course, a part of the story.  Berry took great inspiration in this (I wondered, to be honest, why William Carlos Williams wasn't in Imagination in Place as he seemed to exemplify that book's thesis. Now we know---Berry was doing a whole book on this same theme that structures Imagination in Place, using WCW as the great example.)

 I should say that it is only my lack of vocabulary that causes me to say Berry is "using" WCW as an "example."  Berry is more subtle than that, more nuanced and insightful and kind.  But, still, the Borger short-hand being what it is, I'd explain the book like this: he illustrates how a sense of place (in this case Rutherford and Paterson NJ) shaped and influenced and became fodder for the great work of this too often misunderstood poet and doctor, the fascinating William Carlos Willliams.  And how Berry himself does that in his own Kentucky homeland, drawing inspiration from Dr. Williams.

It hasn't directly come up yet in the book but it is obviously significant that both of these poets are bi-vocational.  Both Berry and Williams have other jobs, working with their hands, in farming and pediatrics, respectively. So not only does their place in a locale shape their poemsWilliamCarlosWilliams-150x150.jpg and stories, but their day jobs do, too.  (This is one of the matters explored by the aforementioned Robert Coles, in Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination and Handing One Another Along: Literature and Social Reflection and in his Lives We Carry With Us: Profiles of Moral Courage. Somewhere he tells of using William Carlos Williams in his own work teaching med students. Do any ag schools use Berry's poems or short stories, I wonder?  One can hope.)

And so, The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford is a book- length treatment, in short, wonderful chapters, of Berry's own appreciation and analysis of Williams, and his writing about his place.

Did you know that many of the most prominent professional poets of his generation moved to Europe, or at least traveled there much, reveling in their leaving.  In a related corner of the zeitgeist, it was said that the only poetry that matters was that of the city; Berry was seriously warned that his literary career would abort if he returned to Appalachia. This has been reported in other Berry books  how he himself was discouraged from moving back to Kentucky (see the chapter "My Friend Hayden" in Imagination in Place about the New Hampshire farmer-poet who was an example to Berry that one could be a successful writer and not live in the urbane and sophisticated circles of New York or New Haven.)   Well, leaving was the thing, and they mocked Williams for staying.  Berry explains it well, and it continues to be an important matter, and will continue to be so for many of us.  

Similarly, and perhaps of interest to some some BookNotes friends who work at colleges or in college ministry, Berry notes, without much judgment, that most college professors have, in fact, needed to leave their own regions and kin to take up careers in the modern college town, which has an effect on the kind of research and work they do.  He notes that most professional poets these days are hired at universities, and he writes,

Unless university poets are actually from some place in particular, and unless they have the good fortune to be employed somewhere near their homes, they tend to be careerists and migrants, without local knowledge or affections of loyalty, like their professional and specialist colleagues.  They are therefore under pressure to conform to, and they have no immediate reason to resist, the industrial order represented by their university.  They, like their critics, are inclined to think that the arts are under obligation to keep up with the times, and to conform to industrial values and advances in technology.  This is not a quarrel I wish to bring against anybody in particular, and I know there are reasons and also exceptions...What I am describing, however, is too easily possible in the modern universities.  The tendency is toward careerism, personal displacement, scientific reductionism, and technological determinism.  Williams saw this tendency, understood it, feared it, and resisted it.

wendellberry.gifOne of the ways he did this, of course, is he stayed put, did his work, wrote his stories and poems and essays, situated.  Berry puts it simply, " He lived, practiced medicine, and wrote his poems in the same place all his life.  He lived by the terms of a community involvement more constant, more intimate, and more urgent than any other notable poet of his day."   He continues, "He watched his neighbors and his patients, who often were the same people, with the keenest interest, affection, and amusement, and often enough with dismay."  (One hears echoes of Eugene Peterson, here, even how he learned to be a better pastor by reading about the ordinary people in novels.)

This is the kind of doctor and poet William Carlos Williams was, and the kind of poet and citizen Wendell Berry is.  And it is, apparently, more rare than you might think. (Come to think of it, I wish I had a doctor---let alone a poet---who watched me with "keen interest, affection, amusement" and, heck, I'd even take dismay.  I don't think our current doctor remembers my name and sure doesn't write any poems about me.  But that's another story.)

Berry writes,

William Carlos Williams "was a poet determinedly and conscientiously local. Some writers, comparatively few, have assumed the burden both of local subject matter and local stewardship, and some--most--do not. Thoreau did, Henry James did not; Faulkner did, Hemingway did not; Williams did, Elliot did not.  By noticing this I mean to imply no blame.  The difference is nonetheless significant, and it must be taken into account if we are to deal justly with William's poetry.  As Booker T. Washington counseled his own people to do, Williams cast down his bucket where he was.

larsen-lisa-poet-william-carlos-williams.jpgWell, I could say more.  There is a chapter called "The Problems of A Local Commitment" and another called "Local Adaptation."  And--you should know as you consider if this book will fully interest you--there are a dozen short chapters, each about an aspect of Williams' poetic styles.  There are chapters called "Line and Syntax" and "Measure" and "The Structure of Sounds."  I am not schooled in poetry at all and frankly am not as interested in it as you might suppose.  But this book is already important to me, a tutorial by a master poet with values I trust, using a fine and important writer as an example of these word-smithing details.  Consider this new book another Berry-esque essay about much that is wrong in our culture, or much that is right about his faithful, populist/agrarian vision, which I suppose it is.  But it is, also, a rare study of a particular poet, and a mini-course on poetry, what it is, how it works, and how it is situated, at least in American culture. (There is one fantastic chapter---I jumped ahead to read it---called "Williams and Elliot" that is really thought-provoking, especially showing how both poets concluded that their times were "wastelands.")  I think most of us could use the refresher course in poetics, and who better to teach us?   

Look.  I know some of my readers, like myself, value Berry's wonderful stories (Hannah Coulter may be an all time favorite novel of both Beth and me, as is Jayber Crowe.)  And, even more, I appreciate his social vision as worked out in his careful, studious essays.  The man did a sit-in to protest mountaintop removal at the Kentucky governor's office last month (at my facebook, I linked to a youtube interview with the tired protester, saying he should have done it years before.)  I am mostly drawn to his call to care for land, to reject government shenanigans, to live as God's steward of creation.  His wonderful essays on food have been brought together in a profound collection called Bringing It To The Table: On Farming and Food, mature writing that is just so relevant for all of us.  He attends a small country church, has been shaped by Methodist hymns and his King James Bible, and he makes tons of common sense, following the teachings of Jesus as best he can. Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community is a fabulous starting anthology, so I'm not always a quick to think about his poetry.

But this, this poetry, this is what sustains and shapes the man.  If you care about Berry, really, you should be interested in this book.  He tells us, movingly, I think, on the very last page, once again, what has been the theme of the book about this poet from North Jersey:

It has been so important because Williams' place was as marginal in its way as my own, and he devoted his life and art to it, not looking away or yearning toward some "better" place.  Of all the writers known to me, Williams dealt most directly and explicitly with the complex cultural necessity of an ongoing, lively connection between imagination in the highest sense and the ground underfoot.  Nobody had confronted more steadily the difficulties of such an effort in the face of the encroachments everywhere of industrial values, industrial exploitation, and the consequent loneliness of industrial individualism.  For half a century his example has been always near to my thoughts, his poems always
at hand.  I have taken from them an encouragement and a consolation that I have
needed and could not otherwise have found.

It may be a bit incongruous, but now seems a great time to celebrate two other recent and much-commented upon poetry volumes, by poets whose writings are not at all like Mr. Berry's.  One is rather unknown, released by an indie press started by a dear friend.  The other was just released by a very prestigious press after having garnered an important award.  I do not know the first poet, but the second is a long-time friend.

Both deserve huge accolades and we are happy to promote them.

9780984553129.jpgContingency Plans  David K. Wheeler (T.S. Poetry Press) $14.00  Wheeler has quite a gathering clan of fans and his work shows up at cool places like the Burnside Writer's Collective, TheHighCalling blog, and has been included in an important regional volume (The Pacific Northwest Reader, published by Harper/Delphinium.)  He blogs at davewritesright.blogspot.com and, as you'll discover, he is a fascinating fellow, a musician, essayist, and a very wonderful poet.  Contingency Plans is a great book at a great value---lots of solid poems, on all kinds of topics.  Poet Oliver de la Paz writes of it "These are poems of great spiritual crisis and consequence, where the dark night of the soul is a rugged rucksack shouldered by the poet.  But the wilderness resounds with the voice of a choir and the wearying road can always beckon you home."  How can you not want to read something described like that?  

Comedian and memoirist Susan Isaacs--whose book Angry Conversations With God you really should read---has observed that she is confounded by great poets (can you relate) since they use the same materials she does: words. About David's book she says,  "But where I've built a fort, he has erected a cathedral.  Wheeler has revealed "the space behind our ribs" and I must remove my sandals."  

Space doesn't permit me to cite a few of my favorites, but know that these are accessible, very interesting, fun, mysterious, and usually quite lovely.  There is a sense of Christian spirituality here but they are not usually overt and certainly not sectarian. For what it is worth, Wheeler was mentored by a guy I love, Jim Schmotzer, one of the great leaders in campus ministry from The Inn (at Bellingham, WA) and he nicely thanks in his acknowledgments a batch of indie-owned bookstores (and indie singer-songwriter and H&M pal, Justin McRoberts, for those that like to connect the connections dots.) Wheeler's a good guy, and his work indicates a maturity beyond his years. They could be read aloud on a variety of occasions, used as discussion starters in small groups or classes, or might inspire you in something like a daily quiet time.  The poet writes that "My hope is that my poetry serves as a temporary testament to how grace has made right what I have gotten wrong."  Not bad, believe me.

cloud-of-ink1.jpgCloud of Ink  L.S. Klatt (University Press of Iowa) $17.00  You may recall how I raved and raved about the odd-ball work of this Calvin College literature professor, the wondrously playful words and syllables, the artistically rich array of poems found in his first prestigious volume, Interloper (winner of the Juniper Prize for Poetry.)  About half of those are so over-the-top creative that folks just love 'em for the sheer joy of messing around with what words can do.  A few are very serious, one, in fact, somewhat about the death of my own father, killed in a tragic car wreck.  That one, or so it seemed to me, was poetically rich but very evident.

This new work, pulled together after being awarded the 2010 Iowa Poetry Prize, earning the exceptional privilege of being published by this high-end poetry publishing legend, has some of the same edge as his first mind-boggling work.  And, yet, this one feels a bit different.  There is some greater clarity, some light, lots of truth, I'm sure of it.  

Like Klatt's previous one, there is a great little bit in the back, noting some of his allusions andlew-klatt240.jpg inspiration, not unlike as in liner notes when a songwriter tells something about the meaning of a song. And what fun it is!  For instance, Klatt notes,  "Several of the titles in the book are modifications of lines from the journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson..." and offers hints such as "'Aeronautics' borrows a line from a letter of Herman Melville..." or "'Darwin's Mouth' refigures a story from Charles Darwin's autobiography..." and "'Lines of Motion' is suggested by Flannery O'Connor's reflections on her own work in Mystery and Manners."  'For Lack of a Better World,' Klatt tells us, is inspired by a painting of Joan Miro. You get the idea.

Despite these fabulous clues, the reader has to be warned: we must puzzle out the meaning, entering in to how the poet sees the world, and it takes some work.  Good art and slow reading is like that, of course, so I'm saying nothing new;  just some hint that this is not the easiest sort of book to work on, but perhaps is less cryptic than the first.

Am I being critical?  Not at all!  Lew is beloved amongst his students, esteemed amongst his colleagues, and remembered by many as a great campus minister, back when he served with the CCO in Pittsburgh much more than a decade ago. (No wonder he has a few lines about Pittsburgh icons, steel-workers, and Heinz ketchup!)  His poems have been published in some of the most classy lit journals around, and this is, I must underscore, serious stuff.  One prominent reviewer, Kazim Ali, said they are nearly "un-quotable" which is the highest compliment---they are "so tightly joined...of languages variously plainspoken ad wildly swooping."  Ali continues, "Klatt's seemingly spare and diffuse lyrics artfully assemble a complex and rich vision, generous in intention, provocative in enactment, ecstatic in spirit.  A wild and welcome collection of poems from an exciting and dynamic thinker."  Yes, indeed, Dr. Klatt is rich... generous... provocative...ecstatic.  I can vouch for that.  You can hear two Christian leaders, more thoughtful and learned than I, discuss his book at the Books & Culture podcast, here.  And, read this nice story from his college, including some good quotes about his work and some invaluable background.  Enjoy.  

I love these three very different books, Berry, Wheeler and Klatt.  I hope you consider buying them, maybe sharing them with those would might appreciate them.  Here are, for what it is worth, just a few more recently release poetry paperbacks we endorse.

0802827497.jpgIncarnality: The Collection Poems (with audio CD)  Rod Jellema (Eerdmans) $28.00  This is a nice new collection of the works of one of the great Christian poets of our time, professor emeritus at University of Maryland, and a CD tipped in the back of him reading. There are ample selections from his four earlier volumes, and some new material.   Barbara Brown Taylor wrote of a previous collection (A Slender Grace) "these poems find good news in the dark. Whether he sets us down in front of blind Willie Johnson playing the blues or asks us to spend a night on the bare floor of a church in Nicaragua, Rod Jellema teaches us to see what he sees---slender revelations flung toward us by the veiled but gracious God who means to lead us home."  This would make a spectacular gift for any poetry lover, any fan of Jellema, or for someone wanting to discover the joys of poetry anew.  Very well done.

lovely-raspberry-poems-aaron-belz-paperback-cover-art.jpgLovely, Raspberry  Aaron Belz (Persea Books) $15.00  I suppose this may not be the ultimate compliment but it matters to some of us: this is published by a serious and mainstream general market publishing house, with a huge endorsements by a giant in the field of contemporary poetry.  Belz is a thoughtful, Reformed evangelical, and is obviously taken seriously by the broader community of poets.  John Ashbery says joyously of this new one, "reading it is like dreaming of a summer vacation and then taking it" although the stern picture of the author on the inside makes me wonder what kind of vacation that would be. Which is to say these are upbeat, lovely, approachable, but not cavalier or light-weight.  Most of these were previously published in obscure and literary journals with hip and bohemian sounding names, only two of them I've even heard of: The New Pantagruel and The Washington Post.  There ya go.

nm-kindle-cover.jpgNeruda's Memoirs Maureen E. Doallas (T.S. Poetry Press)  $15.00  This is another fine work published by this indie press edited by L.L. Barkat.  This is not exactly about Pablo Neruda, nor is it a memoir.  Much of this is about the perplexing beauty of nature, how the author grieved the loss of her brother, and a heart-filled, lyrical take on life which transcends the ordinary. 

The volume is meaningfully arranged around four main sections, entitled Enter,  Listen, Exit, and Remember. A great collection by one whose work has been anthologized and well-reviewed.

Read her at writingwithoutpaper.blogspot.


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April 12, 2011

4 New Books on Spirituality, last year's Common Prayer book, and a great DVD by Ruth Haley Barton


I wonder how many are like me, starting off with high hopes and mature expectations and then, a week before Christmas, or Easter, are lamenting the lack of spiritual discipline, the fast-paced lifestyle, the hectic stuff that comes up day by day, eroding a sense of very deeply entering the liturgical cycles.  What happened to my Lenten devotions, my contemplative intentions, the self-reflection and study and silence and fasting?  As is usually the case, in Advent and Lent, it comes undone pretty quickly for our household. Where did the weeks go?

Here are six resources on spiritual formation that might jump-start your Lenten journey, get you back on track, revive your soul in these next weeks.  Taking just a few intentional hours to prepare for Holy week might be beneficial, you know, and a new book or DVD like this might offer the assist you need.  Or perhaps you know someone you could gift with a book---just a token of friendship, sharing the Lenten love.  

6a00d8341c65c453ef0147e04d3617970b-200wi.pngNaked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words  Brian McLaren (HarperOne) $25.99  I have to admit I went into this with my guard up.  I love Brian and yet realize that many think he has gone a bit too far in reconstructing "a new kind of Christianity." I disagreed somewhat with Scot McKnight, for instance, in his serious critique in Christianity Today a year ago of the previous McLaren book of that title although I do share McKnight's concerns. (Read Brian's reply, here, too.)  Still I am wary.  I hope that isn't an indication of a lack of generosity in my reading but just my evangelical scruples reminding us to not take lightly serious deviation from "mere Christianity" (as most of the church has understood it for most of church history.)  Some may roll their eyes at my theological concerns, while others have rolled me out the door for daring to suggest that we read widely and host tough questions.  

And so, with a small chip on my shoulder and a heart aflutter with anxiety, I started my early preview copy of Naked Spirituality.  And was absolutely hooked from the first page.  I loved reading it!  I read it carefully and with great interest, found it to be one of the most stimulating books on spiritual formation I have read in ages.  Mr. McLaren has a rare gift--a considerable and blessed gift--of speaking to those who have not been attracted to church, or to those who have drifted, or been "de-churched" by toxic congregations, or have big questions that they feel (rightly or wrongly) are not permitted in the religious groups they know. (He had a whole book, now divided into two smaller ones, which was essentially a letter and ongoing dialogue with an unchurched seeker he came to know, inviting her step by step, without propaganda or pushiness, to consider what she believed about deep things, about Christ and about the gospel.) McLaren speaks plainly, honestly, with gentle solidarity with those who are "spiritual but not religious."  He makes sense in ways that some of the more obtuse spiritual writers---from contemporary liberal mystics to old Puritan divines---simply don't.  I don't mean just to say he is easy to read and comprehend (although that isn't a bad thing in a book, of course.)  He speaks about life as most of us experience it, down to Earth and honest, candid about struggles and perplexities and disappointments.  He notes in the video promo clip above that this book is really close to his heart.  It shows.


I have never had much sympathy for that "spiritual but not religious" phrase (and here is a spectacular critique by Chris Smith of the Englwood Review of Naked Spirituality poking at McLaren's willingness to even consider the plausibility of spirituality without religion.  They suggest McLaren's postmodern sensibilities have been betrayed as this idea that one can have religious experience inside one's own head outside of and not connected to a gathered narrative tradition is pretty darn Modernist.)  

Still, there are those who see themselves as driven away from (or, at least, not attracted to) congregations of worship and they hunger still for guidance on how to pray.  They could go to some silly avatar from the latest new age trend or take up classic Eastern practices, and some do.  McLaren is generous about all that, seeing the good in many traditions and practices, but he is also a passionate Christian evangelist.  He wants to talk about the God of the Bible as revealed in Jesus the Christ, if in less dogmatic tones than some are used to.  This is a tremendous resource for these kinds of seekers, drawing on a bit of interfaith insight, rooted seriously in the gospels, clearly Christian and full of common sense clues to learning the art of a life with God.  And it's loaded with pastoral advice, simple instruction, helpful analogies, and tons of stories of Brian's own life.  I'm happy to announce that most of my fears were unfounded and this book does what it sets out to do.  And more.

His own stories are among the best parts.  He tells here in ways he hasn't before of the trauma of the years fighting his son's serious cancer. He mentions his former Pentecostal experiences (a very real thing for him--who knew?) and his disillusionment with some of that. He has a sweet story about a near-break-up with the woman he was engaged to (who took him back and indeed married him.)  Of course he tells of saving turtles.  He writes about some hurts he has received, some hurts he has caused.  These stories are honest and kind and good, presented well, coming across as a long conversation with a wise older brother. At every point they illustrate the life of a real and raw experience of God and the human responses we offer. 

What I initially found a bit odd, almost off-putting, and frankly which created some suspicions---I'm just not that drawn to overly mystical ambiguities and want things explained, if not nailed down---was the minimalist approach, and the very structure of the book: each unit is a lesson on prayerfulness by way of using just one word.  (Well, he gives you some alternate words in each section, too.) He has two chapters on each of these single words.  And you know what?  This ended up being very helpful, nearly brilliant.  Again, my suspicions were mostly melted, as Brian's kind style, clear teaching, and wise counsel were more than evident as the subtitle is explored, word by word, practice by practice.  The book is arranged well, develops very well, section by section, and I found myself wanting to share stories, insights, ideas with Beth as I read and pondered.  This is the sign of a good book for me, and I hope many BookNotes fans read it.  In the aftermath of last year's New Kind of Christianity and the recent hubbub around Rob Bell's Love Wins, many traditional evangelicals will be wary.  Fair enough.  But I think those who mistrust this (as I nearly did) should be open to its treasures. Give it a try and see for yourself.  It is going to be really helpful for many, and I count myself very glad to have read it.  I suspect I will come back to it often. 

I really appreciated and enjoyed how Naked Spirituality is arranged.  It does a sort of "faith development" thing, moving towards "seasons" of life and the different takes on our unfolding faith during each "season."  These ring very true for me, and I am sure they do for many of us.  McLaren is clear that these aren't fool-proof stages or lockstep phases that are set in stone.  And he is clear we cycle through these stages various times in our spiritual journey, so there is no need to get caught up in questioning this developmental framework, as if it is one unbroken upward evolution, which is not how he describes it.  (I can just hear it now, some lame critic who knows Brian studies Darwin and appreciates the complex beauties of evolutionary theory, trying to "nail him" by saying his faith perspective is essential evolutionary.  Well, not quite.)  I like his approach a lot, actually, and have been pondering it since I started the book.  I will offer a few brief criticisms later, but for now, I celebrate and affirm and commend the basic approach, design and advise offered here.

He suggests we go through four stages or levels or kinds of spiritual experience.  We can pray in each of these by using these key words that illustrate and give voice to our longings and needs at this stage.  Here's the overview.

Simplicity: The Season of Spiritual Awakening
His words in this first part are Here (as in God is here, I am here) Thanks (he explains the often used Hebrew word dayenu) and O, which he links to the word hallelujah.  His call to practice jubilation and to stand in awe is just beautiful! 

Complexity: The Season of Spiritual Strengthening
In this section the words that are used to facilitate our prayers are Sorry, Help, and Please.  The chapters on intercession ("Please") are wonderfully helpful, reminding us to be "stretcher bearers" bringing others to Jesus like those guys who ripped the roof off to get their friend to Jesus.

Perplexity: The Season of Spiritual Surviving
This is an intense section, and, again, very helpful, I'd think, for both beginners (who may have not realized that there is so much lament in the Bible and that doubt is not to be shunned) and for those of us who know in our gut that this is a good stage, but find it naturally unsettling.  Here are the words he uses to help us in this season:  When, No, and Why.  There are many good books on our struggles with hard times, dry times, the "dark night of the soul" and how to express our questions and anger at God.  This is as clear and helpful as any.

Harmony: The Season of Spiritual Deepening
Behold, Yes, and .... (that's dot, dot, dot) are the words here, and they are wonderful, even if a bit confusing, and surely inadequate (as McLaren would admit since the last two chapters are on silence, which he denotes by the ...)  In this section where he describes the deepening that is on the other side of perplexity,  McLaren explores the emergence of a meditative mind, faith beyond belief, and a deep and universal vocation of love.  The last chapter suggests that we may come full circle, in fact, with a new sense of naming the mystery.  Here he reminds us of the need to reject false tensions between "being" and "doing"---this is particularly important in his call to be social activists that are rooted in a truly spiritual life, and a spiritual life that, in fact, bears fruit of social and cultural engagement.   McLaren insists (without any discussion of the role of institutions and cultures, unfortunately) that the world changes as we are changed: "peace comes to the world as peace flows in our innermost being and out through us to others." 

McLaren draws on his friend Richard Rohr, here, whose Center for Action and Contemplation unites social reformers and contemplatives, helping deepen the tradition represented by voices such as Thomas Merton, Elizabeth O'Connor and Parker Palmer, each who have directly taught on how to be "contemplatives in a world of action" and have advised that social activists not try to challenge the evils of this world without attending to the deepest issues of our own sinful selves.  

This is a huge interest of mine, and I'm afraid I've not found my way into God's grace to adequately transform me here, yet.  I mentioned him a few posts ago, but David Naugle's Eerdman's release Reordered Love, Reordered Lives is a very helpful and balanced study of how our desires and loves can be formed by the ways of God. Excellent!  This is also the theme of the new Rick McKinley book, A Kingdom Called Desire: Confronted by the Love of a Risen King (Zondervan.) I long for a gospel-transformed life, for Christ's power and imputation of His character to become my own, seen in how life is lived out in daily grind of work and home as well as in the public square.  Those of us who speak a lot and work hard to inspire social change simply must be also attentive to our own inner lives lest we foist our own hurts and fears on our public work. 

McLaren is a friend and brother and ally here, and I appreciate his pointing us towards the mystery, sometimes following Jewish custom and referring to God as G-d (since  the God who is really there stands beyond any of our words or concepts, to be hallowed and not turned into an idol.)  But the final chapters were a bit too ethereal for me, and bit too individualistic, too I'd say; they are not naive, really, but a bit less gritty than the earlier chapters.  And, unlike most of the book, this portion was a bit less Christ-centered, or so it seemed to me. (He does do some nice work on several Psalms in this part though which was great.)  I suspect some evangelicals will find the poetic mystery stuff a bit untethered.  Others will adore this ending portion. The final afterward "The Sea to Which All Rivers Run"---which is about love---is both beautifully written, deeply true, and yet, I wished for more.  It makes reference to the Trinity, and in several complex sentences he makes it clear that this is not pantheistic (for those that are wary.)  He invites us to a "secret life of calm stillness." 

As we enter into the season of Holy Week, we would do well to ponder the unjust trial of Jesus, His betrayal, the wounds of Christ, the stations of the cross, the doctrines of justification, the mysteries of Holy Saturday--not to mention, then, the victory of Resurrection, the proof of God's redemptive work in the world.  There is more going on here in Christ's suffering and the vindication of God's Easter Kingdom than can be summarized by Brian's reminder, even though, it is a good reminder:  "And so it is that the last simple word is the best and the biggest, comprising and fulfilling all others.  Spirituality is love.  to hold nothing but naked love in your naked heart--not just the word, but the reality---always, for all, that is the sea toward which all rivers run."

Sure, many of us will want to enhance and under-gird Naked Spirituality--making it a bit less naked, I guess--- with a more impeccable orthodox theology and robust Cruciform discipleship, standing in the best traditions of "mere Christianity" and creedal truths, lived out together in a community of faith, a real neighborhood church.  But this guidebook to simple words for a not so simple spirituality is an incredible gift, a true asset to us, bread for the journey.    

SR-participants-guide-and-dvd_large.pngSacred Rhythms: Spiritual Practices that Nourish Your Soul and Transform Your Life  DVD  Ruth Haley Barton (Zondervan) $31.99 book and DVD study pack.  I've often said that Ruth Haley's books, esp Search for Solitude and Silence and Sacred Rhythms, are amongst my all time favorite books in their huge field of so many great titles.  Ruth is a friend, a great speaker, a lively and honest teacher, and one whose journey into contemplative spirituality has deepened and matured and widened over the years.  She is a guide I trust, a speaker we enjoy, and an author that we always recommend, any chance we can.  Those of you who have meet us where we have sold books at events, conferences, retreats or workshops know this is true.  We are fans.

At last, the energy, charm, pleasantness and vibrant teaching of Ruth is available on DVD.  The books are very good, but seeing her live is a real treat and we simply cannot say enough about this new curriculum.

It is based quite obviously on the book by this title, and includes six sessions.  The study guide0310889456.jpg is designed for the DVD and is a wonderful way to experience and incorporate these spiritual teachings into your life.  The study book is ideal for anyone to use, but I suppose it is mostly designed for small groups, classes, retreatants, or prayer circles.  I love this stuff, and couldn't be more pleased to recommend a DVD set.  It will expand Ruth's ministry, will invite many into this conversation, and will appeal to those longing to arrange their lives in ways that actually facilitates God's transforming work.

Ruth sometimes describes her project by saying this "links the disciplines of the Christian faith to the most compelling desires of the human soul."

Here are the session titles that are included on the DVD and study.

Desire: Longing for More in the Spiritual Life
Solitude and Silence: Creating Space for God
Lectio Divina: Encountering God in Scripture
Honoring the Body: Flesh-and-Blood Spirituality
The Examen: Bringing My Whole Self to God
A Rule of Life: Cultivating Your Own Sacred Rhythms

We are confident that this will have a significant impact on those who watch it.  Gather some friends together, share it with a Bible study group, watch it with your family.  Go it alone if you must, but this is really inspiring, very helpful, and a great, rare resource for exploring how to know God better, allowing the Spirit to shape your lives, all because we create space and time for God to do in us what only God can.  Nice!

Falling Upward.jpgFalling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life  Richard Rohr (Jossey Bass) $19.95  Rohr is a Franciscan and we have carried his books for as long as we've been in business.  He's written on Scripture study, or contemplative spirituality, or the social witness of the church, several fascinating books on men's issues, and, recently, the much-loved introduction to contemplative living called Everything Belongs and the popular Naked Now.  He's a mystic with his feet planted on the ground, a very contemporary Catholic who reads in interfaith circles.  His footnotes include some psycho-spiritual writers, from Jung to Sam Keen to Ken Wilber.  He's obviously fluent in the medieval mystics (St John of the Cross and the like.)  He's a writer you should know.

Here is the interesting thing about Falling Upward.  As the title implies, it is about failure, about brokenness, about failing.  Yet, for this good Franciscan, suffering is redemptive, being in touch with our sorrows and deepest selves is healing, and, well, helps makes us who we are.  That can sound cheesy and like a motivational speaker, or it can, in the right hands, be profoundly liberating.  Rohr works with this theme and applies it to aging.  The two halves of life are not exactly chronological---the younger years versus the older years---but alludes to the years of messing up and the years of deepening wisdom.  Like the Bible, brother R supposes that older folks can be elders.  They can become our mentors and guides.  There can be rituals and ways of affirming this, even.  However, for older folks to be deep and faithful guides, we must all realize the ways to see how our failings can be the foundations of our spiritual lives.  Fascinating.

beginners-grace-prayer-for-late-blooming-belivers-atheists-kate-braestrup-hardcover-cover-art.jpgBeginner's Grace: Bringing Prayer to Life  Kate Braestrup (Free Press) $25.00  We have said a few times that Kate Braestrup is almost as good as Barbara Brown Taylor, and is poised to become as beloved as an author as the extraordinarily gifted Ms Taylor. Whether I'm write about that, it does seem those that like BBT would like this author as well.  Kate's first book (Here If You Need Me) took our breath away as she wrote about the death of her first husband, amidst her own work as a forestry and police chaplain in the rugged Maine landscape.  Her second book, Marriage and Other Acts of Charity again offers wise council, fine insight, written as a memoir, reflecting on her remarriage and ongoing ministry among this rough population of forest rangers, cops and first responders.  

Braestup is ordained to this taxing, adventurous and seriously compassionate calling through the Unitarian-Universalists, so her theology is decidedly liberal.  She's a great story-teller--Phyllis Tickle, who raved about it, said it was "frank" which is a sturdy way of saying it.  And goodness, what stories she has--- Braestrup has been through so much, seen so much, that she has earned the right to be heard.  

This book was written largely out of her own struggles with prayer, and a fairly regular need to pray with those in very hard places---with parents whose child is lost in the woods, with mourning spouses after a drowning accident, with fellow EMTs or cops when one of their own is fallen in duty.  This book will make you cry and a few parts will make you laugh.  (Those of us who have been through great trauma will understand the story of Braestrup crying with a young woman whose husband's body was recovered from a frozen lake, who wanted to touch him one last time, and did so as they unzipped the body bag, only to then laughed through her horrific grief, blurting out that she never really liked that shirt her husband was wearing.)  Can tears be prayers?  Can laughter?  Can one learn to love God even if the words aren't right?  My, my, this is sweet, good stuff.

ThisSacredMoment-200x300.jpgThis Sacred Moment: Becoming Holy Right Where You Are  Albert Haase (IVP) $15.00 I have been so intrigued that InterVarsity Press, a solid, thoughtful, favorite evangelical publisher has been releasing more books by Catholic writers in the past decade, especially in their spirituality-focused imprint formatio.  This is a good thing, of course, and important.  I hate to show too many of my fussy evangelical cards (as I did in my admission of having some concerns about McLaren's theological shifts) but in a way, it is helpful to have books from the Catholic and monastic tradition considered, vetted and published by one of the most reliable and thoughtful evangelical publishers.  There is, within Catholic presses, not unlike liberal Protestant houses or fundamentalist and charismatic publishing firms, all manner of weirdness.  So helping get some of the very best spiritual formation stuff from Catholic retreat leaders that might be most useful for Protestant readers is quite helpful.  So kudos to IVP.  And kudos to whoever chose this title as it is delightful, sharp, nicely written, and realistic in our hope to find deeper intimacy with God. Haase is obviously a good guy and a fine writer.

"What does it mean to be a holy person," the back cover asks.  The answer might surprise you.  Father Haase tells us it is the ordinary stuff of life that is the crucible for increasing holiness.  "Any and every situation holds the grace for the transformation called holiness."  He invites us to imitate Christ and empty ourselves for the benefit of others. 

Besides the shout-out there to the classic Imitation of Christ you may hear shades of another influential classic Abandonment to Divine Providence (also published as Sacrament of the Present Moment.) Yep, this is basic stuff, and yet his guidance--and he offers concrete practices that helps us learn how to wisely discern what God might be calling us to in any given situation--allows us to take commonly accepted faithful ideas and helps us learn to live it.  I suppose it is fair to say that Haase writes as a Franciscan (that is, with simplicity and charity) and yet despite the short chapters and practical application stuff, it is significant and profound.  The discussion questions are great and could last a year; if you have a trusted spiritual companion, it would be ideal to work on them together.

Fr. Haase has been a missionary to China, hosts a weekly radio show, and has authored Coming Home to Your True Self and Living the Lord's Prayer.  Very instructive, encouraging, and a real blessing.

The last few pages are an appendix of nearly two dozen "summary principles" which are explored in short chapters through-out the book.  Here are just three:

God's call in the required duty or unmet meed of this present moment is an expression of God's will for me. Consequently, every moment is sacred.

All creation exists for Christ's glory.  Alienated creation comes back to harmony with God and is reconciled through Christ's self-emptying on the cross---his selfless openness and response to the present moment. This is God's will for the world.

The ego's obsession with self-concern, self-image, and self-gratification and self-preservation is the primary obstacle and hindrance to selfless openness to God's call in this sacred moment. 

common-prayer-liturgy-for-ordinary-radicals-shane-claiborne-hardcover-cover-art.jpgCommon Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals  Shane Claiborne,  Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove, Enuma Okoro  (Zondervan) $24.99  I discussed this remarkable resource at great length when it first came out early in Advent of last year, reviewing here it in BookNotes.  If you don't know about it, I hope you click back to our previous review, which explains it all pretty nicely.  In the winter months we have come to hear of a number of groups that are using it, and loving it. 

Now, in Lent, it dawns on me that I should suggest it again, as it is truly a great prayer book, with interesting sidebars, some nice woodcut touches, a ribbon marker and--obviously, most importantly---substantial prayers that are both historic and very contemporary, ancient and a bit future, with cadences of the older prayer books and yet designed, mostly, for folk who aren't quite use to the rhythms and disciplines of praying out loud from a common prayer book.  This is rich and good.  It would aid  your prayer life these important next days, I'm sure, and would make a very nice, lasting, gift.

Well, there they are.  Nearer the final leg of our Lenten journey, maybe these would prove helpful along the way.  We can send 'em out right away, of course.  Hope you appreciate the suggestions and the discounts.  It is our joy to offer these diverse kinds of resources.  Peace.

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April 17, 2011

Short books for a Holy Week.

Some (mostly) very brief books you may not know of, suggested for these next holy days.
See below to learn about our one week only discount on these, while we have them in stock...hope this is helpful.  Blessings on your Lenten  journey.

characters-passion-lessons-on-faith-trust-fulton-j-sheen-paperback-cover-art.jpgCharacters of the Passion  Fulton J. Sheen (Liguori) $9.95  Fulton Sheen was a prolific writer, a beloved Catholic leader, certainly one of the 20th centuries most well-known prelates.  He was an articulate radio and TV personality, the closest thing there was to a Catholic Billy Graham, thoughtful and compelling--maybe a bit of C.S. Lewis, even.  He was known as a persuasive speaker, a wise leader, and a great Bible expositor.  Here he explores the eternal drama of the cross by using the stories of those who were influential in the death of Jesus.  There is comfort and strength and goodness and hope here through brief but penetrating characterizations of those involved in the passion story---Peter, Judas, Pilate, Herod, Claudia and Herodias, Barabbas and the thieves.  94 pages.

The Passion of Christ  Veselin Kesich (St. Vladimir's SeminarySVSKESICH-05.jpg Press) $10.95  Dr. Kesich is Professor of New Testament and Greek at the famous Russian Orthodox seminary, St. Vladimir's, in New York.  This brief and profound study, first published nearly 50 years ago,  shows "how the authors of the passion narratives present a double perspective: that of the time of Jesus and that of their own time following the destruction of the Temple."  Within this historical context, the author addresses the questions of anti-Semitism and the family quarrels between Jews and Christians..."  Kesich reasserts (against some liberal scholarly opinion) the centrality of the cross, exploring the trial and the purpose of Christ's suffering.  An important scholarly voice, written in a concise and nearly devotional style. 92 pages.

The Scriptures, the Cross & The Power of God: Reflections for Holy Week  Tom Wright (WJK) $12.95  This is a very small, mass-market-sized paperback that is worth its weight in gold, as they say.  N.T. Wright is always worth reading, and here offers 9 short meditations, starting with Palm Sunday Mattins, throughout each day of the week (including two on Maundy Thursday, morning and evening), concluding in a marvelous Easter Vigil meditation and an Easter morning sermon. Very nicely done. 84 pages

christians at the cross.jpgChristians at the Cross: Finding Hope in the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus  N.T. Wright (The Word Among us Press) $10.95   I have written about this often, a book of Wright's that is not as well known as it ought to be.  These are a series of 8 sermons, delivered in a rural parish that had the distinction of being the site of a horrible colliery accident in 1951, a tragedy that marked the town deeply.  Miners died and the town, it's businesses and economy and community, grieved and struggled.  Later, the town was known for a bitter strike, and was eventually the last mining pit of this sort around---until it was closed by the government, leading to more crisis.  (You may have seen scenes of Easington in the movie Billy Elliott.) These are sermons--pastoral and prophetic--spoken into a setting of sadness, unemployment and loss.  79 pages

9780826405685.jpgStations of the Cross  Sara Maitland, with paintings by Chris Gollon (Continuum) $19.95  This is not a large sized coffee table book, just a hand-sized paperback, printed on heavy stock, to show off the evocative, striking--at times with an odd touch, although not quite like Salvador Dali--paintings of the stations. The paintings has been commissioned by this renowned, eccentric artist for St John on Bethnal Green, in the heart of London's East End.  Novelist and storyteller Sara Maitland was so moved by these vivid paintings that she did a series of first person narratives, making this an engaging, contemporary, and provocative Holy Week resource. Not for everyone, perhaps, but some will find this very, very helpful. 125 pages

Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgement
  Rowan Williams (Eerdmans) $15.00   This is a very profound and literate study of the trial of Christ by the eloquent and thoughtful Archbishop of Canterbury.  One need not approve of all of the Archbishop's leadership to appreciate his scholarly abilities, his notable writing, and the way he can unlock a scene from history and plumb from it personal and contemporary meaning.  In this book he explores literature, current events, questions of martyrdom, meditates on matters of freedom and tyranny...and more.  Well worth pondering. 141 pages.

51TOq+4h0TL._SL500_AA300_.jpgCross Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words  Stanley Hauerwas (Brazos) $14.99 hardback These are real sermons preached in one of those three hour Good Friday services and is one of the more interesting ones I've ever read.  (I've read a few, and even preached at a few!)  They were revised a bit (when an author thanks Alasdair MacIntyre, Sam Wells, Greg Jones and Paula Gilbert, Ellen Davis and Rodney Clapp you know it is serious stuff.)  There are stunning wood-block prints by the amazing Rick Beerhorst before each sermon in this handsome, hand-sized hardback and these are worth the price of the book themselves. 
108 pages.

It is Finished: Meditations on the Death of Jesus
  Darrell W. Johnson (Regent College Press) $14.95  Johnson is a much-admired professor at Regent in British Columbia and has a tremendous book on Revelation (Discipleship on the Edge) and another on the trinity and another on the Lord's Prayer.  Here he meditates on 6 key New Testament texts that explain the execution of Jesus and the mystery and majesty of the cross, exploring it from various angles.  To illustrate his perspective, know that he recommends scholars such as Gustav Aulen, Richard Bauckham, Henri Blocher, Martin Hengel,  Jurgen Moltmann, Leon Morris, Wright,  McGrath, his colleague J.I. Packer, and his friend John Stott.  Just what you'd expect from the thoughtful, solid folk at Regent!  I intend to read this this week, in fact---Johnson is very good.  95 pages.

Between Cross & Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday  Alan Lewis  (Eerdmans) $27.00  (This is now the paperback price, but we have one hardback [now out of print in hardcover] left for that price.)  I often recommend this, and most years we don't even sell one.  A few very discerning pastors who read seriously have told me that this is one of the best books they have ever read.  It is mature and meaty, long and not simplistic.  I want to call it a tour de force.  Most eloquent endorsements are from the likes of Colin Gunton, Daniel Migliore, and Douglas John Hall and Thomas Torrance.  The late Dr. Lewis was a prof at the Presbyterian (USA) Austin Theological Seminary and this was truly his life's work .477 pages.

FlemingRutledge.jpgThe Undoing of Death: Sermons for Holy Week and Easter  Fleming Rutledge (Eerdmans)9780802830210.jpg $18.00 I might as well list this one again this year as it is one of my favorite serious studies of the season--I say studies because it has an air of rigor about it, but each really is a sermon or homily preached by Rutledge and there are dozens here, compiled from more than 20 years of her preaching.  I've drawn from it often, cite it in classes or sermons I've done, and have enjoyed celebrating it with anybody who reads this sort of thing.  The author is moderate, eloquent, intellectual and literary, a beloved pastor of the energetic Grace Episcopal church in New York City.  There are a few photos in here, too---of bas relief, sculpting, ceramic art and frescoes, illustrating how our long tradition within the Christian church has understood this mighty topic.  Not a quick read, but richly rewarding and recommended.  May messages of this sort of sturdy orthodoxy flourish, moving God's people to think and live and die well.  360 pages.
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April 22, 2011

Tim Keller writes: "there is light and high beauty beyond evil..." (King's Cross)

In writing about the death of Jesus as described in the gospel of Mark, Timothy Keller writes in 6a00d83452063969e20147e2a462fb970b-250wi.jpgKing's Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus,  of a officiating Roman centurion, who confesses that Jesus was the Son of God, a claim that Keller rightly calls "momentous."   Keller notes how few understood Jesus' real identity; people had been asking and wondering.  "But the first person to get it,"  he says, "was the centurion who presided over his death."

This was even more unlikely because he was a Roman.  Every Roman coin of the time was inscribed "Tiberious Caesar, son of the divine Augustus."  The only person a loyal Roman would ever call "Son of God" was Caesar--but this man gave the title to Jesus.  And he was a hard character.  Centurions were not aristocrats who got military commissions; they were enlisted men who had risen through the ranks.  So this man had seen death, and had inflicted it, to a degree that you and I can hardly imagine.

Here was a hardened, brutal man.  Yet something had penetrated his spiritual darkness.  He became the first person to confess the identity of Jesus Christ.

There is a striking contrast between the centurion and everyone else around the cross.  The disciples--who had been taught by Jesus repeatedly and at length that this day would come---were completely confused and stymied.  The religious leaders had looked at the very deepest wisdom of God and rejected it.

What penetrated the centurion's darkness? How did he suddenly come into the light?  For thirty years years I have been thinking about this question, trying to figure out why it was the centurion who first understood who Jesus was.  Here's what I believe shone the light into his darkness: The centurion heard Jesus' cry, and saw how Jesus died.

In have only ever seen one person actually breathe his last breath.  I'll never forget that experience.  Very likely you, too, have been present for a death only once or twice, if at all.  But the centurion had seen many people die---and many of those by his own hand.  Yet even for him this death was unique.  He saw something about Jesus' death that was unlike any other.  The tenderness of Jesus, despite the terror, must have pierced right through his hardness.  The beauty of Jesus in his death must have flooded darkness with light.

After a few good pages, Keller writes,

By saying the centurion "heard his cry" Mark is pressing the story right up to your ear.  If you listen closely to that cry---my God, my God, why have you forsake me?---you can see the same beauty, the same tenderness.  If you see Jesus losing the infinite love of his Father out of his infinite love for you it will melt your hardness.  No matter who you are, it will open your eyes and shatter your darkness.  You will at long last be able to turn away from all those other things that are dominating your life, addicting you, drawing you away from God.  Jesus Christ's darkness can dispel and destroy your own, so that in the place of hardness and darkness and death we have tenderness and light and life.
The New York pastor ends this moving chapter with a story of his own thyroid cancer, a fantastic excerpt from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and a reminder that it is true, after all. 

Because of Jesus' death, evil is a passing thing---a shadow [as Sam saw in Lord of the Rings.]  There is light and high beauty forever beyond its reach because evil fell into the heart of Jesus.  The only darkness that could have destroyed us forever fell into his heart.  It didn't matter what happened in my surgery---it was going to be all right.  And it is going to be all right.

Note the shield on the character
on the right.  The centurion, of course.
And the skull at Christ's feet.
Death destroyed!


April 24, 2011

N.T. Wright: The Resurrection of Jesus---we implement His achievement...

One of the best books about the Christian faith, and the role of Jesus, his mission and
889083.jpg resurrection, is The Challenge of Jesus by N. T. Wright. (IVP)  It is not as tediously academic as his massive serious works, but it is more meaty than his lovely sermon collections or more basic books. We recommend all of his books, of course, but this is great.   InterVarsity Press took a few excerpts of it and published them as a little paperback called The Challenge of Easter.

Wright is quite clear: "What Jesus did was unique, climatic, and decisive." A good set of sturdy words to ponder this Easter day.

And then, he continues, with the "so what" question:

[this foundation]...does provide the pattern, the shape, the basis for a building to be constructed.  Our task is to implement Jesus' unique achievement.  We are like the musicians called to play and sing the unique and once-only-written musical score.  We don't have to write it again, but we have to play it.  Or, in the image Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 3, we are now in a position of young architects discovering a wonderful foundation already laid by a master architect and having to work out what sort of building was intended...

challenge-of-easter.jpgJust as in Genesis, so now in the new Genesis, the new creation, God breathes into human nostrils his own breath, and we become living stewards, looking after the garden, shaping God's world as his obedient image-bearers.  Paul, indeed, uses the image of the gardener alongside that of the builder in 1 Corinthian 3.  We are to implement Jesus' unique achievement.

This perspective should open the Gospels for us in a whole new way.  Everything that we read there tells us something about the foundation upon which we are called to build.  Everything, therefore, gives us hints about what sort of building it is to be.  Jesus was to Israel, so the church is to be for the world.

But, you say, the people we minister to, the people we work with in the laboratory or the fine arts department, the people who serve us in the grocery store or who work in the power station, are not first-century Jews.  How can we summon them as Jesus summoned his contemporaries? How can we challenge them in the same way?  What is the equivalent?  What is the key to help us to translate Jesus' message into our own?

The key is that humans are made in the image of God.  That is the equivalent, on the wider canvas, of Israel's unique position and vocation.  And bearing God's image is not just a fact, it is a vocation.  It means being called to reflect into the world the creative and redemptive love of God.  It means being made for relationship, for stewardship, for worship---or, to put it more vividly, for sex, gardening and God.

Human beings know in their bones that they are made for each other, made to look after and shape this world, made to worship the one in whose image they are made.  But like Israel with her vocation, we get it wrong.  We worship other gods and start to reflect their likeness instead.  We distort our vocation to stewardship into the will to power, treating God's world as either a gold mine or an ashtray.  And we distort our calling to beautiful, healing, creative many-sided human relationships into exploitation and abuse....

...Our task, as image-bearing, God-loving, Christ-shaped, Spirit-filled Christians following Christ and shaping our world, is to announce redemption to the world that has discovered its fallenness, to announce healing to the world that has discovered its brokenness, to proclaim love and trust to the world that knows only exploitation, fear, and suspicion.

Humans were made to reflect God's creative stewardship into the world.   Israel was made to bring God's rescuing love to bear upon the world.  Jesus came as the true Israel, the world's true light, and as the true image of the invisible God. He was the true Jew, the true human.  He has laid the foundation, and we must build upon it.  We are to be the bearers both of his redeeming love and of his creative stewardship: to celebrate it, to model it, to proclaim it, to dance it.

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April 26, 2011

Learning to love what God loves: Creation Care and Christian discipleship

It was a year ago that the momentous oil leak in the Gulf coast exploded onto the nationalbp_oil_slick_fire.jpg scene, with pictures and videos and news reports and prayer services and a stunning amount of day by day information.  I am sure you, too, would say it was hard not to be upset about it.   Like other similar, terrible days in our memory---the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Bhopal---I had so many mixed emotions as the disasters were reported and the damage become known.  This time, for me, I felt less righteous anger and more deep sadness.  Less a desire to rise up for social change and more paralyzed fear and hopelessness (not cynicism or apathy, really, just inertia.) Perhaps I yielded to what the ancients called the sin of sloth--not laziness, really, but an inability to trust God, to rouse one's self to faithfulness.  I wanted to write a bit about it---it is at least something I could do, alerting our friends, civic leaders, students, activists, prayer warriors, thought leaders, pastors and others who read our BookNotes blog, about resources for education and action.  Alas, I could not.  I've felt guilty for a year now and as the sad anniversary pictures---and the governments less than stellar enforcement, and BP's recalcitrance, well, I feel awful.  

Now the Japanese nuclear reactors are spilling their poison all over the seas, the wind carrying the low-level radiation who knows where.  There are the standard government cover- ups, the out-right lies, the technological optimists who naturally have a gizmo for every social sin.  And then there are the witless folks complaining about the media coverage, as if they know that radiation ain't that bad.  They are wrong.  Heaven help us.  

And this week, those taken with a similar spirit of technological optimism and cavalier attitudes about poison-sharing are minimizing a crisis here in our own beloved state of Pennsylvania.  Penn's Woods, it was once called, purchased fairly by Quaker William Penn.  Our backyard nuke plant, TMI, recently failed (another) safety test. One of our own PA Congressmen helped lead the charge in congress to weaken the Clean Water Act.  And the natural gas industry has discovered quick and easy ways to obtain the natural gas deposits by a controversial, short-cut popularly called fracking.  You most likely have heard of the documentary Gasland (some of it set in Pennsylvania) showing the dangers of this; the scene of fire coming out of the water spigot is enough to give anybody pause.  What in the heck are these guys thinking, supposing that such ground water pollution is acceptable?  Our new governor, elected in part by the Tea Party right, including beloved neighbors of mine, is giving these guys the green light, big, big time, drilling even in state game reserves.

That is, until the accident last week when a wellhead failure caused a blowout in Bradford County, spilling tainted water into farmlands and streams; most polluted was Towanda Creek, which runs directly into the mighty Susquehanna, which runs into the Chesapeake Bay.

As the spill in Northern Pennsylvania continues its toxic flow---relatively small, compared to20frack6.2_04-22-2011_KLHKJGT.jpg the large Gulf oil disaster---a bit of attention is now being given to the other unsavory practices of these slick natural gas guzzlers, like the controversial practice of dumping waste into rivers, a practice they supported until just months ago.  (Oh how I despise their dishonest bill boards all over the place, making them sound so clean and safe and nice!)  Even our not-very-green Republican administration this week has called on drillers to stop, as an Associated Press journalist put it, "using riverside treatment plants to get rid of the millions of barrels of ultra-salty, chemically tainted waste-water that gush from gas wells."

From today's local paper, an AP story that should have been on page 1, but of course was usurped by stupid stories about Easter egg hunts and such:

The water that flows from active wells is often contaminated with traces of chemicals injected into the wells during a drilling procedure called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which breaks up the shale and frees natural gas. The flowback water also brings back from underground such naturally existing contaminants as barium, strontium, and radium.
Worries about the contaminants took on added urgency after the Monongahela River, a western Pennsylvania waterway that serves as a major source of drinking water for Pittsburgh and communities to its south, became so salty in 2008 that people began complaining about the taste.

The Department of Environmental Protection responded by curtailing the amount of wastewater sent to plants on the Monongahela. It also wrote new rules barring wastewater treatment plants from accepting more drilling wastewater than already permitted unless they were capable of turning out effluent with salt levels that met drinking water standards.
Those rules, though, left most of the existing wastewater treatment plants alone, and between 15 and 27 continued to pump out millions of gallons of water that scientists said was still high in some pollutants.

Over the past year and a half, a handful of researchers, including Jeanne VanBriesen, a professor of civil engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, and Stanley States, director of water quality at the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, have been collecting evidence on an increase in bromide in rivers that were being used for gas wastewater disposal.
By itself, bromide is harmless, but when combined with the chlorine used to sanitize drinking water supplies, it can produce substances called trihalomethanes that have been linked in some studies to increased human cancer rates after years of exposure or consumption.

The industry has, until now, expressed mostly skepticism about any possible link between drilling waste and water quality problems.
When The Associated Press reported in January that some drinking water systems close to gas wastewater treatment plants had struggled to meet EPA standards for trihalomethanes, the article was written off by industry groups as irresponsible, as was a similar report by The New York Times in February that focused on the presence of radium in drilling waste.

You've seen Erin Brockovitch.  You surely know that tragedies like the BP oil leak do not happen in an ideological, political, or economic vacuum.  The Bible teaches that there are "principalities and powers" and it is also clear that we shape cultures based on our deepest idols.  We image either the true Creator God or we reflect other false ideologies, for better or for worse.  Environmental accidents are not just technological mishaps, but are injustices which occur amidst political decisions, business practices, worldview assumptions, ethical choices, philosophical ideas, leadership failures.  They are results of our way of life, based on our ultimate beliefs about things. Former Dutch Parliament member and Christian economist Dr. Bob Goudzwaard (and his co-authors) in Hope for Troubled Times: A New Vision for Confronting Global Crisis (Baker; $22.00) are surely right to link ideology and idolatry as we discern the inter-relatedness of the symptoms and the most root cause of social break-down. (Brian McLaren wisely and with great verve raises the same theme in Everything Must Change:207890248.jpg When the World's Biggest Problems and Jesus' Good News Collide (Nelson; $14.99) perhaps his most important book, where he shows how a fundamental change in our "framing narrative" would lead to new ways of grappling with the most pressing social concerns.) Granted, often things are not simplistic and there aren't usually simple "good guys and bad guys" wearing their own white or black hats. That is not to say that there are not good and bad guys sometimes; there surely are. And, sometimes they are one and the same.

(In the Pennsylvania case, interestingly, two active natural gas drillers, Range Resources, of Fort Worth, Texas, and Atlas Energy, now a subsidiary of Chevron, had gone to the government and told them that the fouling of streams cannot last and they recommended longer-term solutions. Good for them.  They propose shipping the waste to Ohio, which starts in mid-May, I believe. Sigh.)

All of which is to say, again and again, that as God's people, the church community must be aware of the issues of the day--a la the sons of Issachar of 1 Chronicles 12:23.  We must be vigilant to be agents of gospel transformation, and must be voices of justice, also for the land itself.  Older mainline liberal churches, under the influence of the mixed-bag of the social gospel tradition several generations ago, used to staff sophisticated social policy advocacy groups; these groups are less active and less influential these days, it seems.  (In our state, the state Council of Churches has a public policy specialist who does a great job on these things and we are grateful.)  Passionate and often younger evangelicals these days are on the front lines serving the poor, doing third world mission trips, calling for a wholistic faith lived out in action, but they have not been quite so active in engaging the complexities of public policy and structural reformation.  Which is why we regularly recommend books about culture and social transformation, titles that help us think broadly about our involvement in God's world, like the aforementioned Goudzwaard and McLaren.  (Think, too, of Andy Crouch's truly delightful and very helpful Culture Making or James Davison Hunter's much discussed To Change the World or Michael Slaughter's Change the World or Brian Walsh & Steven 62685367_b.jpgBouma-Predigar's Beyond Homelessness or, always, the thoughtful and local reflections of Wendell Berry---try his Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community for starters.  Just out this week is a very readable book which is getting a lot of attention by a former business executive and administrator of Sojourners, Christians and the Common Good: How Faith Intersects Public Life by Charles Gutenson; it is strong on Biblical stuff, progressive in its vision of economic justice, fair and balanced about a host of vexing issues.  It has hardly anything about the environmental crisis, though, which is a notable weakness for a primer of this sort.)  And we sometimes recommend books on politics and policy engagement, like this little list, which is at our "books by vocation" pages, or this bigger list, offered two years ago to a group of thoughtful lawyers and legal thinkers (scroll down to the second half for more political books.) These kinds of lists we hope are useful to inspire us to be salt and light in the world and we do commend them.
I am on a roll preaching to the choir, here, I suppose, and it should be evident that the Bible teaches what might be called a green theology--a strong emphasis of the doctrine of creation (what Calvin called "the theatre of God.")  At Easter we recall that Christ's bodily resurrection points to a new creation that certainly includes a renewed call to care for the Earth. N.T. Wright's Surprised By Hope gets61031601_b.jpg at this as do fine books like Albert Wolter's Creation Regained or Michael Witmer's very nice Heaven Is A Place On Earth. Stewardship and development of the potentials of a good (if fallen) creation are central to a Christian way of seeing life.  As we celebrate God's good creation, confess our sinful role in adding to the dysfunction of a fallen world, and affirm that only Christ can rescue us (we cannot do it ourselves) and that he does His restoring work on the cross, we realize that at the very heart of Christian theology is a serious, non-negotiable commitment to care for the world God has entrusted to us, the world that we messed up and that He has graciously saved.  Empowered by the Spirit, under the authority of the now ascended King, we are to humbly go about our business, in deeds of humility, reclaiming God's world from brokenness and despair (and yes, pollution and degradation.)  We are to re-claim that original cultural mandate, nicely summarized in Genesis 2:15, to tend and keep the garden.  Part of what it means to be human is to not only be a fellow-creature but to be a caretaker of it all.

The Hebrew word shamar, (to keep) that gives us our primordial human vocation is the same word that shows up often in Biblical blessings---as in, 'may the Lord watch and keep you, make His face to shine upon you, to give you peace'  That is, we are at least to protect, hopefully even bless and enhance, that which is in our keeping.  We are called to blessed creation care.  We are called to Christ-like service to our fellow-creatures, protecting, at least.  

So, here are some books about all this.  We have more.  Too many, actually, for a sensible business, since so few sell.  It breaks my heart to know that so few of these kinds of resources are well-known, most not on the shelves of church libraries or resource centers, not selling well at most Christian bookstores. Some fine green titles quickly go out of print since customers do not buy them from the stores, or the stores don't by them from the publishers.  (Some stores refuse to stock them, even, which is another sad story.)  We hope you understand our desire to be known as a place which desires to glorify God by making available these kinds of books, because we believe they do glorify God; creation care pleases Jesus, who obviously spoke often of plants and animals, and counseled us to "consider the lilies."  This is faithful, urgent, important stuff.  Thanks for caring.

It is my hunch that we will rarely care much about stuff we take little delight in.  We must pray that God shapes our desires and that we come to appreciate creation--it is God's handiwork, after all, and we dare not be cavalier about the things he made, sustains, and says is good.  Gee, you've read the end of Job, haven't you?  Or the long zoological Psalm 104?  Why don't the Biblical literalists talk about this? 

So a few nice books to enjoy, to deepen our delight, to remind us of the awesome wonder of a world.

soul-of-the-night-an-astronomical-pilgrimage.jpgThe Soul of the Night: An Astronomical Pilgrimage Chet Rayo (Cowley) $15.95  These elegant essays were first written in the 80s, reissued years later in a handsome paperback with wood cuts illustrating the wonderful prose by this seeker, mystic, scientist and storyteller.

The Wisdom of Wilderness: Experiencing the Healing Power of Nature  Gerald May (Harper) $13.99  Many love May's insightful, pastoral, psycho-spiritual books like Addiction and Grace.  Here (with a forward by Parker Palmer) the urbane psychiatrist lets us in on a passion of his life: solo wilderness camping, appreciating the beauty of nature, and a deep belief in the goodness of the journey into the wild.

Surprises Around the Bend: 50 Adventurous Walkers  edited by Richard Hasler  (Augsburg) $14.99  We've really enjoy this nice collection of excerpts of journals written by famous hikers, naming their joy, their insight, their motivation, their struggles and discoveries.  A spirituality of hiking?  Check out these neat stories by Francis of Assisi, John Bunyan, John Chapman (that would be Johnny Appleseed), John Muir, James Michener, Thomas Merton, Toyohiko Kagawa, Martin Luther King, Henry Thoreau, of course, and dozens more.  Even includes reflections by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa and C.S. Lewis.  Who knew they wrote about walking?  Take this in your day pack on your next adventure.

Summer: A Spiritual Biography of the Season  Edited by Gary Schmidt & Susan Felch (Skylight Paths) $18.99  I've written before about the four seasonal volumes that make up a handsome set as they include not only excerpts of great literature, a multi-ethnic global perspective, offering fine ecological insights, but these are books of wondrous beauty--in the subject about which they write, of course, but in the (often famous) writing itself.  I've listed the summer one, but all four are truly lovely, including poetry, short fiction, memoir, science writing, and selections of the world's sacred Scriptures.  Schmidt and Felch, by the way, teach in the English department of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.

All Creation Sings: The Voice of God in Nature  J. Ellsworth Kalas (Abingdon) $14.00
9781426707919.jpgRev. Kalas is renowned as basic Bible study leader, a prolific author of nice books used in adult ed classes or for basic Christian growth. He is the former President of Asbury Theological Seminary and is a fine writer.  Here he turns his attention to what the Bible says--and, wow, does it say a lot--about the way in which creation speaks God's voice. Consider this, among other things, an extended meditation on Psalm 19:1.  Or a reflection on the hymn "This Is My Father's World" from which the title is taken. It is a core Bible teaching that we don't hear much about.  Very nice, with good discussion questions making it very appropriate for a study group, Bible class, reading group or for adult Sunday school use.
Bridges, Paths and Waters; Dirt Sky and Mountains: A Portable Guided Retreat on Creation, Awe, Wonder, and Radical Amazement and Cairn-Space: Poems, Prayers, and Mindful Amblings about the Place We Set Aside for Meaning, Prayer, and the Sacramental Life in the New Monasticism  N. Thomas Johnson-Medland (Wipf & Stock) $17.00 & $20.00 respectively  We have come to know Tom as a customer and friend and we can tell you he is thoughtful, widely-read, a playful writer, and doing a fine job bringing healthy food to a United Methodist church camp.  He's got a bunch of degrees, a servant heart and a poet's pen.  These are great resources for anybody who wants a spiritual companion for their enjoyment of place and space in the great outdoors, especially if they are drawn to the poetic, mystical and provocative.

Water, Wind, Earth & Fire: The Christian Practice of Praying with the Elements  Christine Valters Paintner (Sorin Books) $14.95  I think I have written about this before, and noted that I am nervous about resources that give the impression that we can dabble in pantheism.  We are not the creator, the stuff of earth is not divine.  That said, this is a fine and innovative way to use the stuff of earth as avenues for, springboards into, and allies towards the spiritual journey, written by a gentle Benedictine sister and artist.  It may seem weird for some.  For the Psalmists who wrote lines like the ones saying God named the stars and the trees clap their hands, well, maybe it is us who are mistaken, thinking this is so unusual.  Beautiful!

Wild Thoughts from Wild Places  David Quammen  (Scribner) $14.00  Our best scientists have much to teach us, and this is science reporting combined with travel writing. Thrilling, fun, wonderfully written, these are essays about, well, kayaking on the Futaleufu River of southern Chile, black market parrots in eastern Indonesia, and urban coyotes. He's known for the popular Song of the Dodo and has won the National Magazine Award for science essays in Outside magazine.  Enjoy, learn, and be in awe!

American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau edited by Bill McKibben (Library of American) $40.00  I write about this spectacular collection from time to time, this massive, sturdy hardback with a ribbon marker that includes excerpts from just about everybody in the field: from Walt Whitman to Annie Dillard,  from Jonathan Schell to Michael Pollen, from E.B. White to Barry Lopez, from Terry Tempest Williams to Mary Oliver.  These are the essential writings that have tried to change how we see our place in the natural world.  How could you not want a handy place to read Barbara Kingsolver and John Muir and  Wendell Berry and (yes) P.T. Barnum?

High Tide in Tucson: Essays From Now or Never Barbara Kingsolver (Harper) $13.00  For my money this may be the best one-volume collection of essays about nature I've read---truly well crafted, challenging and so interesting.  I'm sure you know we adore most of her fiction, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a modern classic about homesteading and local eating.  This 1995 collection deserves continual acclaim and I can hardly find a better example of the sheer joy of sensible reading.  The back cover calls it "defiant, funny, and courageously honest."
A Weed By Any Other Name: The Virtues of a Messy Lawn, or: Learning to Love the Plants We Don't Plant  Nancy Gift (Beacon) $23.95  Okay, this is a green case for organic lawns and a warning about hazardous herbicides.  But it is also a fun and beautiful rumination on what I might say is the goodness of God's creation, found in the unseemly weed.  Love it!

tb-gard-w-god.jpgTo Garden With God  Christine Sine (Mustard Seed Associates) $16.00  My how I respect Tom and Christine Sine, who joyfully have networked folks for years, forming and sustaining communities that think missionally, practice spiritual disciplines, serve the poor, create faithful liturgies and---yep--garden like mad.  This emerges out of more than 15 years of gardening experience and offers practical advise, fascinating stories, and solid spiritual lessons about God's good creation.  This is a "must-read" on reviewer of green books wrote, laden with "profound Biblical insights about gardens and gardening..."  What a wonderful resource from trusted friends in Seattle.

Digging In: Tending to Life in Your Own Backyard  Robert Benson (Waterbook) $12.99 A few seasons ago I said that this was my favorite little book of the year---a truly lovely, wonderfully written, quiet little memoir of this writer telling about his lawn care---or, I should say, his garden care, since his garden took over his whole yard.  He loves his place, his local parish, his neighborhood.  Digging in tells us how it is done, with grace and dirt and prayer and work.  A writer's light touch makes this a treasure to read and ponder.

year-of-plenty.jpgYear of Plenty: One Suburban Family, Four Rules, and 365 Days of Homegrown Adventure in Pursuit of Christian Living  Craig Goodwin (Sparkhouse) $12.95  Before I ordered this I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder---hadn't the publisher known this has been done, a couple of times, by now.  Heck I raved about a book Beth and I loved, Plenty.  But from the minute it arrived, with a spectacularly beautiful cover and a moving endorsing blurb from Eugene Peterson, I was hooked.  Happily, the Goodwin fam has gotten some publicity (from NPR to The New York Times to the thehighcallingsblog) and this may be one of the sweetest new books of the spring.  Year of Plenty is well written with charm and insight; Goodwin is a Presbyterian pastor, a farmer's market manager and a fine educator and neighborhood organizer about preserving food, sustainable lifestyles and the like.  Most of all, he's a fun writer, a deeply spiritual leader who sees the connection between faith and food.

The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting in God 
edited by Leslie Leyland Feilds (Wipf & Stock) $20.00  I named this as one of the very best books of the year of 2010 and I again celebrate as a marvel of a book.  A few of the essays are as joyfully written as anything I've read, beautiful stuff about food, eating, creation and God's good grace. There is the famous excerpt about onions by Robert Farrar Capon's Supper of the Lamb, and Denise Frame Harlan's essay inspired by it.  Bon appetite!

Hunting for Hope: A Father's Journeys  (Beacon) $16.00  Only some of this is what might be called "nature writing" and those portions are not the only parts that inspire.  Sander's had an angry confrontation with a son while one a hiking trip---one that was supposed to help their relationship---and he realized his dark view of the world had hurt his son's world.  You may know Saunder's is an exceptional, dear, thoughtful writer and he tells of setting out to find sources of hope.  It has been called "rare" and "extraordinary" and "a small bright, arrowhead of a book" and is a beautiful example of the personal memoir with huge societal implications.  Take heart, parched souls!

The Gift of Creation: Images from Scripture and Earth edited by Norman Wirzba, photographs by Thomas Barnes  (Acclaim Press) $39.95  I have touted this beautiful coffee-table book before and couldn't help but list it here, again.  Barns is a stunning, color photographer, and his friend, Norman Wirzba, has compiled a series of top-shelf essays by theologians, Bible scholars and practitioners who offer solid exposition alongside these wonderful nature images.  Included are essays by Ellen Davis, Sylvia Keesmaat, Barbara Rossing, William Brown, Cal DeWitt and more.  There is a good afterward by Matthew Sleeth. What a handsome gift, lavish and good.

brucecockburn_youvenever.jpgAnd, for fun, consider this Bruce Cockburn song from his 2002 album You've Never Seen Everything,  "Don't Forget About Delight."  Not about the beauties of creation, only,  but a fine, slow, somewhat jazzy reminder...wonderfully cool violin, too.  And it ends in a prayer.

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough, New Planet   Bill McKibben (Griffin) $14.99 I cannot stress enough how important this book is, how readable--despite the horrific stuff he studies--and how helpful it is.  It is shocking, yes, and urgent.  Even as I write there is record-breaking flooding along the Mississippi; McKibben explains simply how carbon emissions change the amount of heat in the air, causing significantly changed weather patterns.  More hurricanes, floods, lightning, forest fires, droughts, and more can be traced to the increase in carbon emissions.  Knowing what the melting of the polar ice-caps does to the oceans is fascinating and acute.  Still, as passionate as it is, it is not despairing and it is not without it's moments of joy.
Earth: The Operators Manuel Richard B. Alley (Norton) $27.95  This very handsome and really interesting hardback (almost 500 pages) is the brand new companion volume to the upcoming PBS documentary on climate change and the benefits of renewable energy.  This has so much information--and so winsomely presented---it will surely convince those who are skeptical about these matters.  The author (a popular geology prof at Penn State and a member of the U.N. Climate Change Task Force) even addresses what some call "climate-gate" and the politicalization of science.  I wish this were a cheaper paperback, but it is important enough, and good enough, to be on the short list of books you should consider this season.  At least check it out of the library and watch the PBS show airing in April.

Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future Jeff Goodell (Mariner) $14.95  There are dozens and dozens of books about our polluted air and diminished quality of life.  If you were starting with a few, this may be one of the more urgent.  Jann Wenner endorsed it saying "Big Coal does for energy what Fast Food Nation did for the American meal."  At least.
The Heat is On: The Climate Crisis, the Cover-Up, The Prescription  Ross Gelbspan (Perseaus) $13.00  Fifteen years ago I saw Bill McKibben's quote "Until you've read this book, you're ill-equipped to think about the planet's future" and had to stock it.  Of course I'd add something like N.T. Wright's Surprised By Hope or Al Wolter's Creation Regained to get at the real future promised by Yahweh.  But McKibben's endorsement wasn't hyperbole and he is right.  A classic, still.

Fight Global Warming Now: The Handbook for Taking Action in Your Community  Bill McKibben (Holt) $13.00  I hope you know his 360 organization (find how why this number is so important in Eaarth.)  This is a book that came from his "step up" team, activists who want to instruct people on what is most important to do, what way to accomplish important goals at a local level, and how to jump-start volunteers with quick, ad-hoc actions that can offer persuasive political pressure.

Why We Disagree about Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity Mike Hulme (Cambridge University Press) $29.99  Published by the world's leading scholarly press, this deeply reflective and careful book is rich, very conversant in the natural sciences and the social sciences, in data and the philosophy of science.  With head and heart he evaluates the state of the discussion and offers rare balance and calm---dissenting from those who present the crisis in overly alarmist terms and those who are in denial.  He articulates the complex arguments in clear prose and offers a "third way" that is well worth considering.  Some say this is the most important book leading up to the infamous Copenhagen conference; there is no doubt he has been  involved in the research for decades and is one of the most informed scientific voices writing today.

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming  Naomi Oreskes & Erik Conway (Bloomsbury) $18.00 (The paperback edition due May 24, 2011.) This won any number of prestigious journalistic and book awards last year, making it a reliable (if admittedly one-sided) expose of how big money has influenced some scientists, as they "sell their soul" to support the unsupportable.  There are entire chapters on those who doubted the dangers of tobacco, and of second hand smoke, acid rain, the ozone hole, and especially global warming.  This book maintains that the science is settled and only those with vested interests---and they name names and show said vested interests---offer doubts and pseudo-science, to resist regulation and reform.  They lay tons of facts on the table to show, as one reviewer put it, "that a key group of figures in global warming denial earned their spurs in tobacco-industry funded attempts to discredit the links between smoking and cancer."  Do you remember the movie The Insider?  This stuff is real, folks...

(By the way, in recent weeks we have heard much about conservative evangelicals who perhaps properly express concern about Rob Bell's failing to mention much about God's holiness in his book Love Wins.  Yet, I must wonder about all those who seem so very interested in that essentail topic: have they not read Proverbs 6 or Isaiah 32:7 or Jeremiah 9:8 about public deception and God's holy hatred of injustice through lies?  Do they not think a holy God finds the sorts of stuff documented in this book to be an abomination? Why don't they blog on this, for God's sake? And while exploring that, why not throw in a post on how Hosea 4:3 relates to the Pennsylvania Towanda River spill, the lies about Three Mile Island or of the Deepwater tragedy?)

Something's Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal  Silas House (University of Kentucky Press) $19.95  This immoral method of blowing up mountains, leaving communities devastated, is well documented in this moving, powerful, urgent work. Wendell Berry recently said he should have done civil disobedience to stop this decades ago.  This injustice against the land and mountain people is a national disgrace. Visit Christians for the Mountains for more down-home info.
Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness: Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia  Erik Reese (Riverhead) $14.00  Glad this powerhouse of an up-close account of the rapacious coal industry is now out in paperback---read it and weep! It is hard to put down---earned a "starred review" from Publisher's Weekly.

Living Beyond the "End of the World": A Spirituality of Hope  Margaret Swedish (Orbis) $18.00  On the back of the cover they say this is "a chilling forecast of ecological catastrophe and an outline of the moral and spiritual resources we will need to survive."  Swedish is a seasoned activist, a Catholic advocate for solidarity with the oppressed of Central America.  Here, she wonders what sort of human beings must we become if we are going to embody hope in desperate times.  This is serious, heavy, and at times very moving.
Serve God Save the Planet: A Christian Call to Action  J. Matthew Sleeth (Zondervan) $14.99  This is especially recommended for being upbeat, interesting, fairly short, quiet easy to follow, with good discussion questions. Thoroughly evangelical, compelling, offering a lot of inspiring ideas.

9780830836246-crop-325x325.jpgGreen Revolution: Coming Together to Care for Creation Ben Lowe (IVP) $15.00  As a young man, Lowe ran for congress; he is passionate, thoughtful, wise, and already accomplished.  This recent work is the best book on this topic I've read all year-- engaging, serious, enjoyable, and full of great testimonies of folks (especially on evangelical colleges) who are doing so very much on this issues.  A cool forward by Shane Claiborne will enhance its appeal to fans of Shane's work and illustrates it's progressively evangelical vibe.  I can't say enough about this energetic new voice and this excellent introduction to creation care, local activism, stuff that can be done, and projects that cry out to be done.  Highly recommended.

Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for our Planet  Jonathan Merrit (Faith Words) $16.99  We met Jonathan at the CCO's Pittsburgh Jubilee conference this past year and he did a fine, fine job.  What a good thinker, connecting culturally-influential younger evangelicals with this solid concern about creation care.  He's very articulate, the book is balanced and yet passionate--has has been persuasive in his own Baptist circles and is increasingly sought out as a speaker, writer and preacher.  He is on one of the brand new (here is a description of the first four Q DVD Group Studies; I'll be writing about the 4 brand new ones soon!)  Keep any eye on this dude---he's an important leader and a dear guy who is nicely raising a ruckus in important places.

410TM6BQfmL.jpgChurch on Earth: Grounding Your Ministry in a Sense of Place  Jeff Wild & Peter Bakken $10.99 (Augsburg)  This small book (80 pages) deserves its own big review, but, for now, please note that it is really a lovely little paperback, easy to read, designed for congregations that want to attend to their local place.  Do you remember Wendell Berry's friend, Wes Jackson, who wrote the seminal Becoming Native To This Place?  Or David Orr, a master environmentalist, who advised people to learn about their own watershed, local trees, and such?  This is more than a call for local churches to be better stewards, not waste energy and to preach about creation-care.  It is about the local congregation, and it's facility, being a part of the local ecology, attending to and honoring the unique environmental joys and sorrows of its place.  There are fine discussion questions, inviting you to reflect on the particulars of your place, wondering how such a theological vision can be generative for "placed" ministry.

Our Father's World: Mobilizing the Church to Care for Creation
  Edward Brown (IVP)cover.jpg $15.00  Brown is a solid guy--he's even visited us here at the shop--with a heart not only for environmentalism, but for world missions and congregational renewal.  How audacious to think that ordinary churches can do more, that missional perspectives must include care for God's own handiwork.  One world-class Harvard scholar called it "beautiful and inspiring."  The discussion questions are really fantastic!

Tending to Eden: Environmental Stewardship for God's People  Scott Sabin (Judson) $18.00  There are a number of reasons why this fine work might be the best choice for a starter study; it really does have a fresh voice, provides good attention to global concerns, showing the connections between poverty and ecology.  I like the "step aside with" sections which are nice introductions to people you should know, inspiring vignettes about Robert Linthicum, Matthew Sleeth, Calvin DeWitt, JoAnne Lyon, Leroy Barbar, Rusty Pritchard, et al.
For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care  Steven Bouma-Prediger!!d7dSSgEGM~$(KGrHqV,!g0Ev1+0DB-oBME4nbczRw~~_32.JPG (Baker) $24.99 In recent years I am quick to say this is my favorite book on the subject; perhaps I should say the best semi-scholarly book.  It is truly a masterpiece---meaty, thoughtful, Biblically-wise and very, very important, for being both solid and reliable and, at times, a bit creative and fresh.  Perhaps a bit more than a typical book club or Sunday school class might want, but a "must-read" for leaders and anyone truly serious about the topic.  (By the way, this was updated significantly a year ago and we have just a few of the older ones at a bit better than half price.  Just ask when you order for the older version and get more than 50% off---$12.00.) SB-P is a science prof at Hope College and has done several other important books---one rigorous one called The Greening of Theology: The Ecological Models of Rosemary Radford Ruether, Joseph Stiller, and Jurgen Moltmann;  another was co-written by Brian Walsh called Beyond Homelessness--if you read BookNotes at all, you've heard of it.  For the Beauty..., though, is truly his life's work, and is a must for those wanting to be well- read on the topic.

Global Warming and the Risen Lord: Christian Discipleship and Climate Change Global_Warming_and_the_Risen_Lord-cover1.jpg  
Jim Ball (EEN)  $25.00  This book is a nice addition to any creation care library and might be the perfect book to give to one who is somehow suspect or thinks this socially concerned mission is somehow disconnected to our daily walk with Christ.  There are some handsome b/w photos here, wonderful stories, tons of great teaching.  Interestingly, much of this is just basic discipleship, Christian living 101 so to speak.  At most points it is connected to the environmental crisis and the vocation to be stewards of creation, but it really is very clearly about how care for these concerns is rooted in our daily discipleship.  There is a lot about social justice and concern for the poor, so the spirituality of creation care is very nicely established, situated in a wholistic vision of Kingdom living.  Ball did a great job on this very matter, and he's got the long-standing credentials to be doing this.  The print is also larger than with most books so it would be a fine study for those with older members or anyone who doesn't like tiny print.  Vibrant, fun, handsomely designed pages,  a bit challenging, wonderfully connecting basic Christian discipleship in the power of the Risen Lord and the opportunities of our times--this really is great!  My friend Rev. Mitch Hescox of the Evangelical Environmental Network (and editor of Creation Care magazine) has a nice afterward, too.  Christ is Risen Indeed!

A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith Based Decisions  Katharine 51695181.JPG  Hayhoe & Andrew Farley (Faith Words) $14.99  This is a prefect book for one who may not be convinced about the science behind the concerns about climate change.  These authors are solidly evangelical, and have brought their Biblical commitments to bear in a lovely and inspiring way. This is balanced, thoughtful, moderate and exceptionally fair, from an undeniably Christian perspective.  Very nicely done and very, very helpful.  This is a true sign of God's Spirit at work in the evangelical world.  Highly recommended.

Christianity, Climate Change and Sustainable Living  Nick Spencer, Robert White & Virginia Vroblesky (Hendrickson) $16.95   Wow, what a book! Spencer is a thoughtful and reliable theologian who runs a think tank on public theology (in the U.K.) while White is an esteemed science professor at Cambridge University---not too shabby, eh?  Ms. Vroblesky is the former National Coordinator of the esteemed evangelical creation care group A Rocha, a group we love, with a faith-based activist bent.  Good, good, stuff!  This is timely, balanced, helpful, and enjoyable, although not what I'd call introductory or simple.  A rave endorsement from Steven Bouma-Prediger and another from Bill McKibben illustrates that his is a book of much, much substance. One of the best.

Christians, the Care of Creation and Global Climate Change  edited by Lindy Scott (Wipf & Stock) $17.00  This is a bit of a rare book but I list it because it not only has a stellar cast of participants, evangelicals in the leadership of creation care work, but because it tells the story of how one particular college (Wheaton College, a fairly culturally conservative, evangelical place in the mid-West) reflected on being more green as an institution and what they did about it.  You can hear their President, here, deans, students, science professors, facilities operators.  What a vision, documenting two major conferences held at Wheaton.  McKibben calls it "a milestone."
9295603_11144336_200.jpgWalking Gently on the Earth: Making Faithful Choices About Food, Energy, Shelter and More Lisa Graham McMinn & Megan Anna Neff (IVP) $16.00  How can I get a whole lot of folks interested in this?  Please, please give this wonderful book a chance---it is hopeful and interesting and mature and wise.  And captivating.  It deserves a large readership, should be a best-seller.  Let me tell you why: it is honest, real, beautifully written, theologically clear and yet poetically inspiring and it is hopeful.   It has few easy answers, invites deeper conversation, is broad and profound and practical in the very best sense.  It is more than a "field guide" for faithful living (although in many ways it is) and it is more than tirade against pesticides and sweatshops.  It looks nicely and thoughtfully at alternative energy sources and wonders about how we should arrange our families, our lifestyles, our neighborhoods as we walk through an unjust world.  Ms Neff begins each chapter with a vignette that highlights her life in Africa while Mcminn explores the vast implications of Godly stewardship.  I have read a wonderful book by McMinn on sexuality and another on spirituality.  This is a gem, about beauty and goodness and justice and more.  Very provocative and much to ponder.

Here is what writer Ben Lowe says of Walking Gently on the Earth: "This is a book about change. And hope. Drawing on wisdom from cultures the world over, McMinn and Neff show us that the call to live well as part of God's creation is as urgent as it is ancient, and its faithful pursuit is as much an art as it is a science. By challenging how we see the world, they help us understand, in practical ways, that balance is a thing of beauty, and that celebration and stewardship go hand in hand."

Gospel-According-to-the-Earth-hc-c-198x300.jpgThe Gospel According to the Earth: Why The Good Book Is a Green Book  Matthew Sleeth (HarperOne) $22.99  Although this strikes me as a bit pricey for a hardback, it is handsome and sturdy and covers so very much stuff it is really a fine book to own.  There are oodles of quotes from all sorts of writers from church history, ecumenical and ancient voices we so badly need today.  Sleeth's first book (Serve God Save the Planet) was a quick and wonderful introduction to the environmental crisis and the call to faithful stewardship.  This one is a bit more broad, covering well topics such as a simpler lifestyle, very wise counsel about sabbath, the role of music in our lives, how to see creation anew by worshipping well from the Psalms, and much more.  Yes, there are good money-saving and stewardly tips but his keen insights are more than just handy ideas; this book can enhance your faith and stimulate your heart anew.  Eugene Peterson writes of it, "Matthew Sleeth is a significant convert in the growing company of Christians who bring intelligence, passion, a biblically-trained imagination and mature Christian witness to the care of creation."  Nice!

DVD Blessed Earth: Hope for Creation and Hope for Humanity Matthew Sleeth, MD  (Zondervan) $29.99 each  Dr. Sleeth has created a very lovely video teaching series, ideal for small groups or adult ed classes or prayer groups and the publisher Zondervan is again to be commended for bringing artistically rich and theologically substantive interactive video teaching tools to us.  Here, Sleeth tells (as he does in his books) of his journey from being a practicing medical doctor to a full time environmental activist and how his own personal faith has been strengthened and deepened by taking up his calling to teach others how to care for the earth.  He's a passionate speaker (connected with the moderately evangelical folks at Asbury Seminary) and it is good to see him live.
These two videos are both arranged with six episodes each. They are interesting, evocative, starting with ruminations one each day of creation, and moving towards living in ways that are green and faithful, serving the planet and serving the poor. I really enjoyed these and can't imagine a setting where there wouldn't be good and consequential conversations after viewing them.  If you can't find a group, use them yourself---you won't be disappointed.
Below, I've listed the episode titles for each of the two parts and embedded a video so you can see the promo for the series. Each episode is about 10 minutes or so.  Each comes packaged with a very cool guidebook packed with extra Bible verses, outlines, great discussion questions and application suggestions.  You can buy the guidebooks separately for $9.99 each.  They are very nicely done.  Here is a "trailer" for the DVDs.

Hope for Creation: Light, Water, Soil, Heavens, Animals, and Man
Hope for Humanity: Rest, Work, Give, Share, Teach, and Hope

Hope for Creation Film Series Trailer from Blessed Earth on Vimeo.

You can visit the website www.blessedearth.com for other sample clips and other resources, including podcasts from Sleeth and others. Come on back and order from us!

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April 27, 2011

I just did one of our occasional longer pieces that I list as a "monthly column"---a longer list of annotated titles around a theme, usually.  This month, I offered books in three categories around the theme of creation care.

I listed books about learning to delight in the goodness of creation.  (I suspect we won't be able to sustain stewardly creation care for long without deep appreciation for creation; duty and guilt and fear simply don't last.)  Next, I list some books that remind us of the crisis of the environment---mountaintop removal, climate change and such.  These are admittedly heavy and may stretch your capacity to hope.  Lastly, I describe some of our favorite faith-based books on creation care, the ethics of stewardship and such. Some of these are really, really great.

Here are just a few of the covers of a just a few of the books I describe.  There's a good discount, too,on all of the books and DVDs I mention.  There are a few links to some other resources, even a free Bruce Cockburn song for fun.  I hope you'll spend some time visiting our April review column, here,  found over at the "reviews" section of the website.  As always, thanks.  If you know anybody who cares about this stuff, forward it, if it seems right.






Here is a bit of an essay with which I started the column.  Hope you don't mind my candor...

It was a year ago that the momentous oil leak in the Gulf coast exploded onto the national
scene, with pictures and videos and news reports and prayer services and a stunning amount of day by day information.  I am sure you, too, would say it was hard not to be upset about it.  Like other similar, terrible days in our memory---the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Bhopal---I had so many mixed emotions as the disasters were reported and the damage become known.  This time, for me, I felt less righteous anger and more deep sadness.  Less a desire to rise up for social change and more paralyzed fear and hopelessness (not cynicism or apathy, really, just inertia.) Perhaps I yielded to what the ancients called the sin of sloth--not laziness, really, but an inability to trust God, to rouse one's self to faithfulness.  I wanted to write a bit about it---it is at least something I could do, alerting our friends, civic leaders, students, activists, prayer warriors, thought leaders, pastors and others who read our BookNotes blog, about resources for education and action.  Alas, I could not.  I've felt guilty for a year now and as the sad anniversary pictures---and the governments less than stellar enforcement, and BP's recalcitrance, well, I feel awful....

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April 30, 2011

Christ Alone: An Evangelical Response to Rob Bell's Love Wins by Michael E. Wittmer (Edenridge Press)

With the Time magazine cover last week, and a much-discussed radio discussion with
rob bell time.png British author Adrian Warnock (whose profound book on the resurrection, published by Crossway, Raised With Christ, I've mentioned before as an excellent, mature, rewarding study) Rob Bell seems to still be in the news.  What's that old saw about Mark Twain---he said that reports of his death have been exaggerated .  So too, the pronouncement that the Love Wins Bellapolooza contretemps are blowing over.  The book remains a big seller nation-wide, and regardless of what you think about that, it illustrates, I think, that folks are asking tough questions about traditional doctrine, and are eager to read about serious stuff, if it isn't too tedious.  Bell is a communicator that appeals to many (myself included) and his outreach is notable. So here is one more bit about it.  Yep, a new book in response.  Hold on a minute, though.  Gotta set it up in BookNotes fashion; we want you to understand the context of it, and of our selling it.  Fair enough?

Rob-Bell-250x200.jpgRob is usually a good communicator, and the book has presented something fairly unremarkable for many congregations in a way that has really caught on.  Mainline denominational advocates who have an approach or posture (what some call liberal or progressive) that is in some ways similar to Bell's should take a lesson; there is something about his style and candor and aesthetic that is attractive to younger Christians, especially.  Some think Bell is disingenuous in identifying himself as an evangelical but there is no doubt that he is a passionate follower of Jesus and wants to help others find a life of restoration and meaning by losing themselves in Christ's grace, finding themselves in His Kingdom.  He sure isn't boring.  And he is significantly attempting to be well grounded in the Biblical story.  Frankly, even though he is denounced as a heretic in many quarters---Franklin Graham said on national TV that Bell is a heretic---I'd rather folks read him than, say, the new Marcus Borg (Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Their Power) who really does say out loud all the stuff that people fear Bell believes, and it isn't that interesting, either. 

There is much to affirm in Bell's neo-evangelical view, and his pastoral passion for Christ and the announcement of the Kingdom, especially when compared to those who really are heterodox and really often quite boring and condescending.  Sometimes when customers and friends say that Bell is theologically out there, really liberal, not at all committed to historic Biblical faith, I realize they maybe have never really met anybody who really is all that.  Again, a favorite Mark Twain story: he was once asked if he believed in infant baptism.  "Believe in it?" he shrieked, "Hell, I've seen it."  Yes, friends, I've seen all manner of Christians and you have too. There are mainline liberals and ethnically Orthodox and mainline Protestants who are orthodox and there are Pentecostals and Quakers and progressives and emergents. There are mainline charismatics and all manner of Catholics. I know a few Pentecostal Anglicans and I know a few gay evangelicals.  Etc. There are a wide variety of convictions within the church universal and we can't too easily just rule out those who disagree with our understanding of doctrine. The church of Christ is made up of a lot of odd birds and I'm one of them!  If you appreciate our work at Hearts & Minds, maybe you are too.  But at least we aren't as unsound as those others over there. Ha.  We can resolve this tension by saying that some with less than sound beliefs aren't in the fold, but that is usually uncalled for, and just stupid in my view. You may not like your family, but in Christ, we are one, so you're stuck with the whole dysfunctional family of faith.

I am confident that good and mature and thoughtful Biblical doctrine is very important and I am also sure that the Bible does not condone us making stuff up as we go along.  Borg's new book is frustrating me on this very matter; with the arrogance that sometimes comes from white males of a certain age in the academy, he dismisses others of more traditional faith as "unenlightened" and seems to caricature orthodoxy as little more than unthinking fundamentalism. Sigh.  Still, even though we must contend for the faith once given, the Bible also does not authorize us to make our humanly construed formulations and systems and articulations into an idol.  This is as much of a problem with the highly orthodox as the exceptionally fluid.

In my long-winded BookNotes Love Wins essays I noted that some people nearly have an ideology of theology-ism.  Like any other "ism" (nationalism, racism, Marxism, capitalism, Darwinism ad nauseam) it takes a legitimate bit of insight and turns it into The Single Thing That Matters and that (limited) construal of truth becomes The Truth.  It is the mark of an idol.  One old mentor of mine used to say that in Christ, all "isms" become "wasms"--Christ has defeated the powers, you know, and will deconstruct every idolatrous system.  So, too, we can (with shades of Romans 1:22-23) elevate any thing or idea---science, say, or your particular theological system--and in so doing, we turned it into an idol. Some say we "absolutize" things when we turn them to idols.  It is a ten-dollar word, but I like it.  We must not make absolute any thing. Not even an idea, a theology or an opinion about God.  Only God is absolute.   

Theology Matters.jpgAgain, don't misunderstand.  I do think that theology matters, that doctrine is important to get as right as we can. But I also think that needs to be kept in perspective.  God cares as much about how I vote and shop and tell jokes and pray and eat and love my children as much as God cares about how I parse the questions of double predestination or understand the history of atonement theories; every area of life matters in God's Kingdom, and our doctrinal/theological statements are not privileged as all that really matters. God wants us to think deeply about our ideas about any and everything, not just our ideas about doctrine.  Sometimes it seems like some theological writer's give the discipline a bad reputation, arguing amongst themselves as if their ideas are soooooo important.   Christ asks us what we think of the poor, how we love our enemies, and what he think of pride or lust as often as he asks us what we think of the doctrine of hell.  "Who do you say that I am?" (Mark 8:29) seems an utterly core question, but few matters are as foundational as that. So I am not saying that our theology doesn't matter, I am only suggesting that other things matter too, and that all of it is to be kept in perspective.  Good doctrine alone isn't enough and proper articulation of orthodoxy can mask a terminal condition of the heart.  Anyway, in all things we "see through a glass darkly" and we should be humble even as we push for greater faithfulness in our convictions and discipleship.

So, what we think about things, theological and otherwise, really matters, but maybe not quite as much as some think. We should not be ideologues, politically or theologically. How sadly ironic that some use theological insight as a weapon to demean or damage others.  And we are called to hold our views with some degree of charity; we should think the best of others, even when doing any rebuking or correcting, may it always with love, building up the Body. 

Which brings me to this announcement that---I hope you understand---I am sincerely happy toChrist_Alone_195w.jpg make, even if it makes me a tad nervous.  We now have the first book that is a reply to Rob Bell's Love Wins and it is called Christ Alone: An Evangelical Response to Rob Bell's Love Wins (edenridge press; $12.00; 159pp.) Christ Alone is written with an admirable amount of clarity and a bit of charity, too.  It is fair-minded, affirms some of Bell's ministry and offers some positive accolades for parts of Love Wins.  The author, Michael Wittmer, is a seminary professor and is an acquaintance of Rob's from Grand Rapids, so he is well situated to write this.  He's not a fan, but he's not a hater, either.  He and Rob have met several times, have spent some time together, and, in fact, have talked about this very stuff.  So while I don't give it a full five stars for fairness and kindness---more on that in a moment---it certainly is a lot more even-keeled than most of the name-callers or those who suggest the book will lead you to hell.  Thank goodness for Wittmer's humor, too, even as he holds forth with classic, orthodox doctrine, and refutes many of Bells comments, page by page by page.  Can somebody really do this strong critique and keep it kind?  I think so. (Warnock, in the above hour-long radio show does that as well, as does the host of the show. They express great qualms about Bell's view of hell, but are never unpleasant about it.)

I say that I hope you understand that I am happy to promote this.  As I hope I've made plain, I do think that theological discourse is helpful. I've recommended in my past posts about Love Wins other books that are similar, or that hold to more traditional views.  A few are those 'point-counterpoint' type, too, that show a range of opinion.  We have been an ecumenical bookstore since our opening day, as we attempt to serve the full Body of Christ.  Admitting we are of different minds on many things is important.  I started off my first Rob Bell book with a nod to books like John Armstrong's 2010 Zondervan book Your Church is Too Small which invites (inspired by J.I. Packer) a broader view of the wide Body that makes up Christ's church.

If it happens in grace and kindness, robust debate can help us all learn.  Beth and I didn't get into this bookselling biz to sell Harlequin romances or the latest celebrity gossip books or even the religious best sellers.  We think that reading widely is a healthy thing and a vital step to increased ecumenicity.  It may take us out of our comfort zone a bit, but that is okay.  Let's hang in there with each other, and not take offense so quickly. Even as we push on towards the truth.  I'm glad for Rob Bell and his important work.  I enjoyed Love Wins both times I read it, and still recommend the Noomas and his other work.  And, now, though, also, I really recommend Wittmer's Christ Alone.  It is a slightly more polemical book than Bell's is, in part because it takes it's own views seriously.  He makes his case, uses analogies and teaching stories, and explains the different camps nicely, probing behind what may influence guys like Bell to construe things they way they do.  He isn't just denouncing and he isn't just opining. This is teacherly, pastoral, and smart.  And sometimes made me laugh right out loud.

Christ Alone is by the author of two previous books that I adore.  Serendipitously, I mentioned one of them in my first installment of my five-part Bell commentary last month, when I suggested that maybe reading a basic book about why theology matters would be a good thing.  Wittmer gets that exactly right in the one I suggested, his stellar book Don't Stop Don'tStopBelieving.jpgBelieving which is largely a challenge to missional and emergent types to not reduce Christian living to deeds, without creeds, as it were.  Belief, and the content of our belief, even systematized to some extent, is a vital and essential aspect of our faithful discipleship.  So I'm with him there.  His first book is another I often find myself recommending; it is a reader-friendly and lovely work on a Christian worldview, Heaven Is a Place on Earth,0310253071.01._SCMZZZZZZZ_.jpg Wittmer where he helpfully shows why "everything you do matters to God."  He walks readers through the Biblical story, from good creation to deforming fall to wholistic and multi-faceted redemption.  In this regard, he is close to Bell, who rejects a sacred-secular dualism and calls us into something like a realized eschatology.  It came as no surprise when Michael said that the "Here is the New There" chapter in Love Wins was his favorite.  I suggested in my reviews that one cannot understand Bell's approach to heaven and hell without getting his appreciation of new creation doctrines.  He obviously reads Brueggemann and Moltmann, Tom Wright and Brian Walsh.  Wittmer and Bell put this a bit differently---and in Christ Alone Michael nuances Bell's view of the incoming reign of God in a solid and helpful way, I think---but they do share much.  Which is why Wittmer is a good guy to reply to the weaknesses of Love Wins. 

The forward is written by Michael Horton, a Seriously Reformed scholar and a truly brilliant thinker whose books have been on mainline scholarly houses like Westminster/John Knox as well as more typically evangelical houses.   He has published more substantial books that many of us read in a lifetime. Horton teaches apologetics and theology at the conservative Westminster West where he holds the J. Gresham Machen chair.  Machen was a liberal Democrat and conservative Calvinist who got thrown out of Princeton Seminary and what we now the Presbyterian Church (USA) for his astute commitments to orthodoxy in the mid-twentieth century.  His book Christianity and Liberalism (Eerdmans; $15.00) is still a classic of sociological and theological critique exploring what is wrong with mainline Protestantism.  Horton is well-schooled in discerning the trajectory of ideas, the consequences of "new" thinking, the need for weighty consideration of orthodoxy and sound thinking, grounded in a classic high regard for the authority of Scripture. What a brainiac!  That he wrote the forward for this popular-level book is interesting, and you can read it here.  You can see that Horton thinks Christ Alone: An Evangelical Response... is fair and insightful and actually very important to read.  As he puts it,

Rob Bell gave us a wake-up call and Michael Wittmer has answered it...Offering more light than heat, Christ Alone appreciates the attractiveness of Bell's questions and conclusions..Avoiding caricature and personal attack, he carefully evaluates Bell's interpretations of Scripture.  It's not a careless diatribe against a book, but filled with pastoral wisdom for perennial questions.

Christ_Alone_195w.jpgI have read through all of this new book and I can say I truly benefited from it.  Most of it I think is pretty standard fare, so if you know orthodox views on standard theology, you will not be surprised.  Except you will be delighted, perhaps, by his zingers, his one-line take-home sentences, his powerful insistence that the Biblical vision is clear and non-negotiable and his clear way of making complicated stuff pretty clear and enjoyable.  He makes a lot of sense, so I think it would be useful to have, even if you are well-schooled in this stuff. We all need a brush-up on the basics and this is like sitting down for coffee with a really smart professor who is very willing to tutor you. It is fun being reminded of solid doctrine and it is edifying to hear good Bible teaching.

Most readers, though, are not terribly well schooled, so this is not just fun and edifying, it is urgent. Reading this thin volume is a great, great way to be brought up to speed on standard, evangelical doctrine.  His chapters are as clear as his topics, each a reply to a chapter in Bell's book:  Revelation, Heaven, Hell, Universalism, Sin, Cross and Resurrection, Jesus, God, Gospel.  Oh yes, and that first one, the one in which he joins Rob very nicely: Mystery. Good stuff.

I often say (sorry if you've heard it before) that there was an old modern-art school adage that painters had to "know the rules before you break them."  Great abstract artists rarely start just messing around; they study the forms, they do the nudes, they know the tradition, they master the skills. Then they take off, sometimes experimenting and sometimes weirdly, but those that  contribute and last know what they are doing.  I think in many ways this is a fantastic truth for any newfangled theologian.  This is not to say that some old rules may not need breaking.  There is so much surprising stuff in the Bible about new ways, new songs, new practices---you heard it said, the Master taught, but now I say to you... So, sure, some things get turned upside down when the Kingdom comes.  I get that.  The Pharisees and their legalistic self-righteousness were those most often in the path of Jesus' harshest words.  The Christian faith is not essentially conservative.  The best evangelicals, like John Stott, have reminded us of that.

Still, not all rules should be broken, and the tradition that has been handed down dare not be dismissed easily or wantonly.  So, at the very least, if you are an up-and-coming young theologian, ready to emerge, with upside-down-new-creation-breaking-in-hopes, well, please know what the heck you are doing.  The church is in such disarray that we don't need more noise, more odd-ball theories, more shallow sermonizing. Not all ruckuses are worthwhile (though some may be.)  Even if the Bell book "feels" right to you, don't be led by your own emotions, which may or may not be wise and appropriate.  At least know the rules well before you set out to discard them.

And so, we need to read a whole lot more than Christ Alone. (I mentioned John Stott.  His book The Incomparable Christ and The Cross of Christ are two musts for anyone who wants truly excellent, readable, reliable, and fresh theological reading. Both are published by InterVarsity Press and are modern-day classics!)  But Wittmer's Christ Alone is a very good start.  It has moments that made me truly happy to be learning stuff, people from church history, conversations about these exact things made by the edgy and passionate of their own day.  What a nice way to learn.  And because it is dialogue with Bell, in response to this mega-seller, it is a pretty painless way to dip your toes into the deeper waters of solid theological thinking.  I hope lots of people get it, pass it around, read it alongside of Love Wins. It is conversational and not difficult. He is not nasty, not at all.  See what you think. If you don't want to shell out (even at our BookNotes 20% off discount) you can read some excerpts here.

For what it is worth, with a grain of salt, I'll offer a bit of criticism, knowing that it would be best to say this directly to Mike, and to get his own response. I feel like I just shouldn't happily recommend it, but should (as I did repeatedly with Love Wins) offer a bit of feedback.  Despite my sincere appreciation for Mr. Wittmer, and despite his pleasant disposition, not to mention the really fun-loving team behind edenridge press, I think this book--despite its best intentions to not be snarky or unfair--seems, still, just a bit more harsh than it needs to be.  It isn't ever mean, but it isn't first date polite, either.

Five examples.

 1.  The title.  I think it implies that Bell would not agree; that is, that Bell thinks that salvation might happen through the ministrations of other saviors, that there are "many roads up the mountain." That is unfair, and muddies the waters.  Why start off on the wrong foot, with this lame insinuation?  Bell would agree that salvation is through Christ alone.  
2.  Early on, Wittmer takes Bell to task for picking obscure verses in one of his first chapters.  Bell notes that they seem to contradict standard evangelical dogmas---like the Pauline passage that says women are saved by bearing children.  Wittmer wonders why in the world Bell would pick such an odd verse to make his point, but it seems clear to me that that is his point.  There are a lot of wacky verses in the Bible that we must evaluate what they mean.  In this case, one thing is clear: it doesn't mean what it says.  Wittmer agrees that it doesn't mean that, but picks a fight with Rob on this, seeming to miss the whole methodology of those very pages he is accessing.  Bell is knowingly choosing a bunch of verses that just don't easily line up.  Admit it and move on.

3.  Wittmer seems to stoop, or so it seemed to me, to occasional nit-picking. Do nits really need picking?  For instance, he faults Bell for suggesting that it could be reasonably wondered what Jesus meant when he honored the faith of the friends of the paralyzed man who is lowered through a roof.  How does the faith of one's friends get you saved?  Wittmer oddly claims that the man apparently didn't resist so must have cooperated, so it was also his faith that Jesus was complimenting.  But, Mike, the dude was paralyzed!   Again, Bell is moslty correct, here: there are Bible stories where the narratives push us to an amazing grace than cannot be nailed down or squeezed into an evangelical plan of salvation.  So why pick on Bell for not getting the story quite right, when your alternative take is even more speculative?  Just admit he's got a point---some Bible stories don't tell the whole Story---and let it go.  You sound picayune when you criticize a guy over something which is a tad unclear and then offer a rather silly alternative.
4.  Extrapolating.  Wittmer makes a convincing case, as do others, that Bell often over-reaches, reading into Biblical passages some implications that just may not be there.  He extrapolates way too much--sometimes an idea "preaches well" but upon closer reflection, it is problematic. For instance, in the section of Love Wins when Bell says that Jesus can be found anywhere, even in rocks and such, because Paul (in 1 Corinthians 10:4) said Christ was the rock that Moses struck in Exodus to get water.  Yet, Wittmer then extrapolates a bit too much, saying that, because Rob claims that the cross shows us that "we are not alone" that he has a fully inadequate view of what the cross accomplishes.  If Rob reads too much into some passages (and I think it is pretty evident that he does) it may be that Wittmer reads a bit too much into many of Rob's statements.  To say, in this example, as Bell does, that the cross teaches us that "we are not alone" is true enough---does that necessarily mean that Bell conflates God's sustaining us and God's redeeming us?  Wittmer makes a very serious claim, consistently throughout Christ Alone, that the existentialism of Bell yields a wrong view of the human condition, a bad view of Christ, a less than adequate view of the cross, and a weak view of redemption; he is careful, but not particularly generous.  He builds a mighty case, but too often it seems to me to be drawn on the "worst case" reading of every passage, picking his statements apart for what is wrong, rather than cutting him slack.  He reads a theologically muddy or liberal view into many of Rob's claims even when that isn't necessary that they be understood that way.  I am not sure if a "hermeneutics of suspicion" isn't sometimes warranted, but in this case, Wittmer over-reaches at times to make Bell consistently perplexing. He isn't mean about it but he rarely gives Bell the benefit of the doubt.  It would have been a more helpful critique if he had.

5.  Wittmer, in a big ending that I had to ponder (one mark of a good book, eh?) says that, finally, Bell's version of the gospel is bland.  You'll have to buy the book to get that whole, dramatic section---it reminded me of the excellent and powerful call to epic living in the book and DVD Epic by John Eldridge (another author I have very, very mixed feelings about) expressing the nature of a good story, and showing that the gospel is that kind of grand story. (I love Eldridge's live DVD on that stuff!)  Wittmer reduces Bell's nuanced Christo-centric hope for "all things" being reconciled in the final healing of the cosmos to "limitless happy endings" and wonders how such boring news can ever invite us to a rich and compelling life.  He nearly insults Bell here, I'd suggest, as if Bell is knowingly offering some middle-of-the-road cliches that cannot draw forth great sacrifice or noble living.  But of course this is untrue: Bell's book is full of stories of pathos; he tells of being the kind of pastor who helps parishioners recover from rape by fundamentalist fathers, who calls people to serve the poor and sick, who organizes art shows that invite grand life-changing responses for God's glory, who call sinners to repent.  Wittmer knows that Bell's church invites people to a faith journey that is profound and serious and missional.  There is room for growth and doubt and renewed commitment there, they are serious about studying the Bible and entering grace-filled conversations and many folks have grown in what can only be called vibrant and robust discipleship.  The jab would make more sense if the fruit of Mars Hill's ministry was as boring as Wittmer says Bell's gospel is.
So I've got these mild caveats.  The book, as I've said, is really worth reading. Like the (more academic) back and forth books between John Piper and N.T. Wright on justification---I read them both and recommended them both---you can learn a lot by following a debate of this sort.  You can listen in on the conversation. And I guess that is what this book is, at its best-- a somewhat strained family reunion conversation.   One of the family members is out doing some dang fool stuff and Uncle Joe lets him have it.  He says it is for his own good, and some of us watching, well, we hope it works, but wish he was a little nicer.  But maybe the kid had it coming.

I would say that Mike accomplished quite a feat, sharing these profound and urgent concerns about Rob's book, and the understandable---and I think, legitimate---fear that he is leading people away from the authority of the Bible, or construing it in a way that isn't fully consistent and tenable. This is something worth talking about. Can you blame him for sounding the alarm?  Alarms usually don't work well if they aren't loud enough and even though Mike says he wants to give Rob his due, and still respects him, it is evident by the end of this short study that the perceived failings of Love Wins is no small matter; he ends up sounding pretty dire.  Mike is speaking for many by insisting that Love Wins is a deeply flawed book.  He tells you why.  If you don't mind the alarm gong, you will certainly learn something, and maybe want to shout back.

It's a strained family fight, y'all.  We can shout, but do it in love.  Michael Wittmer shows us, imperfectly, how to proceed.  Let's keep it going.  What do you think?  Do you have folks in your circles that care?  Why not start a duel (or dueling) book club?  Do twin book reports, stage your own debate.  Have fun. Play nice.  Learn something.

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Hearts & Minds 234 East Main Street  Dallastown, PA  17313     717-246-3333