About June 2011

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

May 2011 is the previous archive.

July 2011 is the next archive.

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June 2011 Archives

June 2, 2011

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs

Lost-in-a-Book-750-200x145.jpgAny who are readers know of the experience when you just don't want a book to be over.  Either the characters are so interesting or the plot so compelling or the insight so helpful or the writing so utterly glorious that you just hate to turn that last page.  Closing the book is bittersweet in those cases, sometimes painfully so.  I know you know what I mean.

We here at the bookstore read books for a living although, like most people, we have to fight to make time for the books we really want to enjoy.  As many titles as I skim and peruse, preview or study, it is still rather rare to utterly, exquisitely enjoy a book.  It is a rare treat (even though there are many, many that I love and earnestly commend.)  I finished two such books the other day.  It was a bit sad on both counts, as I wanted more.  A lot more.  We are grateful for the authors, and I want to tell you about the two books that I am happy to say have been the best books of the year so far for me.  One was a serious study of reading, the other a memoir.  In this post I'll describe the first one, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs and will return in a day or so to review the spectacular paperback, Jesus, My Father, the CIA: A Memoir, of Sorts...by Ian Cron.

For obvious reasons I am very interested in books about books and books about reading.  Memoirs of readers and the books they've loved are a delight to me.  Books about why reading is important---as foundational to our effort at imaging God as history-makers and culture-shapers---are helpful as I try to promote the development of the Christian mind. It is a good part of our story and what we are about here at the shop.

 A few months ago I had the great opportunity to deliver some lectures (that ended up perhaps closer to sermons!) at Dallas Baptist University.  My friend there, professor David Naugle, printed up buttons with the line of Augustine---tolle legge, "pick up and read" ---as that was our theme for the weekend conference.  As I have done other places, I listed reasons for reading, noting that reading is a required spiritual discipline, and reminding students that the God of the Bible has been revealed to us in words.  Books matter.  Books make a difference.  They inform what we know and in some ways, how we know. Yada, yada, yada, literally.

But in all my exhortation--echoing the alarms about the erosion of habits of reading these days sounded by the excellent and very readable best-seller, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain (out in paperback next week)--I perhaps underestimated one of the great reasons for reading: pleasure.  My heart-felt call to take up the vocation of reading as Christians ended up a bit too much like scolding.  I do not retract my conviction that we are nearly irresponsible in our day and age if we do not attempt to be well read but I might have tempered my tone if I had remembered delight.

Enter Alan Jacobs and his new book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction9859899.jpg (Oxford University; $19.95) who eschews "must read" lists and the scolding approach of pharisees and elitists and the imperatives of the classic How to Read a Book (a book I often commend.)  He disapproves of How To Read a Book?  Why, the gentlemen Adler and Van Doren have been allies in our fight to get people to read more widely and carefully for decades--- and Jacobs disapproves?

He does, he does.  And what fun it is to learn why.

I do not have time and certainly not competency, to seriously review this splendid work.  I hope you'll trust me on this: this is a learned and interesting and informative book.  Jacobs---who teaches literature at Wheaton College, for crying out loud, and has been considered one of the finest essayists working today (Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant is his latest collection published by Eerdmans)---knows that the biggest draw, the biggest motivation, the biggest reason we should read in God's good world is because it brings us pleasure.  He wants to discover and re-learn the sorts of things that drew us to books in the first place.  Can you remember such things?

There is much more to his argument than "reading is fun" and he takes us along as he heads sideways and backwards, here and there, covering much in his meandering reflections. He tells stories of students who have lost their previous love of reading, having their passion for books nearly stamped out of them by teachers and papers and grades.  He tells of his own experience of the Kindle (a surprisingly wonderful thing for him) as he himself navigates the "shallows" and he ruminates on the time drawn away from books by blogging and his useful RSS feed.  So he does speculate a bit about this "distracted" age and commends the practices of solitude and silence that allow us to most deeply engage with the printed page.  But it is more than a jeremiad against "amusing ourselves to death" and I was delighted by it all.  He has good stories of his own childhood reading and cites a few poignant biographies of readers, touching something within me as I read, wishing to have more of those kind of experiences with books.

Jacobs appreciates Carr and The Shallows and he also quotes the other book I was pushing a few months ago at Dallas, Proust & The Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf.  But he certainly is not opposed to on-line reading.  He confesses to using the internet a whole lot, even to find quotes and obscure sources for this book (which is to say he's not only not a Luddite but an honest man as well.)  He studies medieval reports of reading (how "silent" reading developed) and he shares his opinions about how to generate greater enjoyment in that solitary world where we surround ourselves with a "cone of silence" and truly read, even in a buzzing coffee shop.

Do you want steps to take to be a better reader, a formula, a list, a how-to manual? You're not going to find it here.  Dr. Jacobs tells of the way many famous thinkers came to love books (Machiavelli famously dressed up, usually in costumes that matched the era or writers he was reading) and he is knowledgeable about the accumulated wisdom of how to be a better reader.  He cites Auden, naturally, and Kipling, and writers as diverse as C.S. Lewis and the lead singer for LCD Soundsystem; he writes of Chesterton and Ivan Illich and Francis Spufford's The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading.  This is a book-lovers delight and it offers nothing short of wisdom.  But it doesn't list steps or formulas.

AlanJacobsPC.JPGAgain, here is why: Professor J's main point is that we should read by Whim--we should read what we like. Reading is not akin to the insistence that we should "eat our broccoli."  Books can be exquisite and pleasurable and we can be formed to be hungry for the experiences they bring us.  Somewhat similarly, his little section on the root meaning of the word serendipity is wonderful.  Serendipity is a word we indie booksellers love because it plays into our approach to the craft of book display and sales: many people just happen upon books here at the shop that they just seem to think that they were meant to stumble upon; they, and we, believe that the right thing they most need at that time, by (providential) joyful serendipity, will find them.   You see when one is reading in order to check off a list, grabbing what they are supposed to (whether wading through certain works because they are "classics" listed on some professors Important List or because of the hegemony of the market and the big box bestsellers that shout "everybody is reading it") one often doesn't follow Whim.  Jacobs gets the phrase--reading by Whim--from a line by the poet Randall Jarrell who himself was astonished that some grand readers can re-read the same novel over and over.  They do so, of course, because they love it so.  Reading by whim--of course!

(And, yes, he needs to then ask questions about our desires, and what it is that we want to read.  Is this like giving a child permission to eat only candy?  Isn't some broccoli good for you?  Well obviously.  But hear him out on that, too, which he explores quite nicely.  He is a college professor, after all, and surely no slouch which will be very obvious.  His other big book on this is called A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love, published by the scholarly outfit Westview and sells for $34.00.  Not too shallow, that one! )

I cannot explain all the truly good sections of the pleasurable Pleasures of Reading; it seems to cover so much ground so seamlessly and I was hardly distracted at all in the hours spent with it.   It is one more wonderful example that nonfiction--and in some sections, quiet serious nonfiction---can be so enjoyable to read.  Social science and a bit about the history of literary criticism, ruminations about the good and the true and the beautiful, can, indeed, be joyfully written, insightful and wise, and themselves quite beautiful.  I think Jacobs is exemplary at this, drawing us in with almost sober, concise prose, telling light illustrations, offering a few dense footnotes and a bunch of funny ones (which you really mustn't skip, if I can scold a bit---you're gonna love 'em!) The heavy parts are supplemented with not a few witty lines--- "Good Lord, No!" he cries, when he discovers the book How To Read Literature Like a Professor.  

Or, read this passage, sweet and with a punch.

And there is something even more beautiful, perhaps, when we achieve this "eye-on-the-object look" not because we have found our vocation but because we have found our avocation---when the reason for our raptness is sheer and unmotivated delight.  This is what makes "readers" as opposed to "people who read."  To be lost in a book is genuinely addictive: someone who has had it a few times wants it again, and wants it enough, perhaps, to beg a friend to hide the damned BlackBerry for a couple of hours, please.
The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction is a book I truly found pleasure in and, true to form, I learned a lot, was inspired by much, changed my mind about some things, agreed with most, and just didn't want the book to stop.   It was less than 175 pages, but it was substantial.  And did I say it was fun?

Yes, fun.  And important, too--a bonus.   As one novelist wrote of it, it is "a gem of a book, filled with insight and wisdom, and the power to transform lives."  

Jay Parini, a renowned wordsmith himself, speaks of its appeal nicely,

As so many recent studies have suggested, the activity of reading itself is seriously threatened in this digital age. But Alan Jacobs -- bless him -- has an approach that will warm the hearts of serious readers and lead many prospective readers into the deeply satisfying swells of good prose. Reading should be a pleasure, and Jacobs shows us how to make sure we take delight in this work, which is not work at all. This is a witty and reader-friendly book, and it's one I would happily give to any potential reader, young or old.

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June 11, 2011

Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me: A Memoir...of sorts by Ian Morgan Cron

As you know from the last post, Alan Jacobs splendid, thoughtful, profound book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction got me thinking about my own calling to encourage reading.  I think it is fair to say that I promote books that are thoughtful and often inspiring and  I often make claims that a recommended book is well written and a delight to read.  We stock but don't often review serious books that are dry, or that are overly specialized in ways that ordinary readers would be bored.  There is a case for wading through demanding works, of course but here I often recommend those I think our faithful fans "ought" to read.

And yet, I was struck in reading Jacobs book---itself a bit demanding (it's not published by Oxford University Press for nothing!)---how I don't always tell about my true favorites, titles that have brought me not just insight and perspective, but great pleasure.

And so, a few that were real page-turners (as they say.  Are there books where one doesn't have to turn the pages?)  I've just recently read a few that I loved-loved-loved and are in the running for the best books I've read all year.  I'll tell you about more in a few days. 

My far, the most moving book I've encountered in ages was Jesus, My Father, the CIA, andjesus-my-father-the-cia-and-me.jpg Me: A Memoir of Sorts by Ian Morgan Cron (Nelson; $15.99. in paperback or $27.99 in unabridged audio CD with Cron reading it himself.)  In the penultimate chapter I was almost sobbing, big tears streaming down my face as I sat on a chair in the backyard, late at night, under the store's outdoor light.  Beth came out just then and I was strangely embarrassed (am I so jaded that I am ashamed to be moved by good writing and a tender tale?)  And yet I wanted it to be known: this is a book that got to me.  That second to last chapter---about the author's good efforts to trust the heroic steps towards freedom and courage in his own children after having chronicled his own dysfunctional past---is worth the price of the book.  (Do I say this because my own youngest daughter, who has been so brave with her own challenges, has just graduated from high-school, and his description of his children doing an amazing stunt got to me?  I suppose, but I challenge anybody to read that compelling chapter and not be impressed.)

So, Ian Cron, The Man.  He wrote an earlier book which a lot of our friends and fans really dug, Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim's Tale (NavPress; $14.99) which was a novel (of sorts) about an Episcopal priest who goes on retreat to learn about Saint Francis, and the new kind of church that emerges from his journey.  It is pretty amazing, got great, great reviews, was edgy and funny and pretty provocative.  Cron has spoken at the International Arts Movement events with Mako Fujimura and is known amongst those serious about cultural engagement, innovative ministry, incarnational work rooted in historic liturgy.  Did I say Cron is an Episcopal priest?  I'm usually quite quick to size up a book, but I swear the first weeks of displaying that book a few years back I thought it was a memoir; not fiction.  Maybe it is a bit autobiographical? 

Well, this new memoir (of sorts, he says) seems like a straight autobiography, and I suppose it is mostly true as far as he can recall.  That is what he says in the extraordinary opening. (What memoir is otherwise?)  And you know what?  This rings true to me because it is---like so many truly great memoirs such as Take This Bread (Sarah Miles) or Liar's Club (Mary Karr) or Coop (Michael Perry) or Salvation on Sand Mountain (Dennis Covington) or Million Miles in a Thousand Days (Donald Miller)--you can't make this stuff up.

I'm just telling you, you can hardly imagine a life like this.  It may read like a novel, and you care about the characters, who, in this case, is mostly Mr. Cron.

It isn't that complicated.  Cron's parents were wealthy Americans living in England in the early 60s, working in the film biz.  His dad discovered the first James Bond, they met classic stars, did glamorous stuff, lived the high life in the entertainment world before the cultural explosions of the 60s.  Years later---after severe alcoholism, abuse, family dysfunction driven by his fathers depression and unemployment and a significant level of  missing information---Cron realizes his father is also a CIA agent.  

Ian is raised, as he tells in some entertaining chapters that capture elementary and high school as well as anything I've read in a long while, in a very wealthy suburban town (Greenwich, Connecticut) but poorer than their neighbors.  His mother wears her old mink coats from their previous lives in London, Ian and his siblings seem like outcasts in the strict Catholic school.  He is a playful boy, eager, open to things of God (there is a scene which took my breath away and brought tears to my eyes of him doing a pretend Eucharist in the woods, with a fawn watching!)  But there is this  growing dark cloud rumbling in the family.  The pain is palpable, but this story is not depressing; Cron writes with vigor and a lot of humor.  I laughed out loud often---I'm telling you about a book that I truly enjoyed, after all. The writing is breezy and fun and funny.  

31859AD20E58E143C1540A_Large.jpgAnd so, the boy with the hunger for God gets swept into the heavy drinking scene with his high-school friends.  "There would soon be keg parties somewhere every night, late-night pool hopping at estates in the backcountry, blustery boasts about sexual conquests (most of which were lies), and the yearly ritual of being banned from country club golf courses for driving carts into water hazards  Most of us didn't have summer jobs, at least not full-times ones, since our parents underwrote our expenses.  It's a good thing Focus on the Family didn't know about us: James Dobson would've had an aneurysm."  I don't know much about Gossip Girls or The O.C. TV shows, but I thought his adolescence must have been like that; out of control rich kids with huge talent and good looks and way to much access to drugs and alcohol.   

And then, already experiencing dangerous blackouts (like when he drove his buddies to a Steve Miller Band concert and wrecked his car) he joined Young Life. ("It was dumber than I'd thought it would be. Despite my efforts to not look amused, the ridiculous stuff going on up front made me smile from time to time.  Id' forgotten the goodness of laughter when it wasn't tethered to cynicism.")   As you might guess, he finds a relationship with God, becomes a prodigal in college, and yet, again, ends up encountering the hound of heaven.  

He has as an epigram before one chapter a line from Alan Jones: "We cannot but tremble on the brink of surrender."  From college to marriage to ordination, through the years of counseling and his longing for some reconciliation with his father, to his own triumphant (my word, not his) experiences as a father himself, Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me shares episodes and insights, month by month, year by year, through grief and loss and hope and recovery, spiritual renewal and almost unbelievable epiphanies of God's love breaking through, bringing grace and goodness and new opportunities.

Cron is an excellent writer for this genre; it is not highbrow or deep, but it is clever and well crafted.  He uses words that sometimes pop onto the page; vital metaphors and previous lines reappear adding subtle layers of meaning and delighting the attentive reader.  The narrative keeps moving, keeps us turning those pages and shaking our head, eager to see what in the world could possible happen next.  Rowan Williams (The Archbishop of Canterbury, who doesn't show up on blurbs on too many books published by Nelson) notes that Cron "writes with astonishing energy and freshness; his metaphors stick fast in the imagination.  This is neither a simple memoir of hurt endured, nor a tidy story of reconciliation and resolution.  It is--rather like Augustine's Confessions--a testimony to the unfinished business of grace."  Exactly.

This memoir gets the thumbs up from a lot of good folk---from Richard Rohr to Craig Groeschel to Phyllis Tickle  ("Simply the best memoir I have read in years.")  Jeremy Begbie says it is "compelling writing of the highest order."  The learned Archbishop is right about that "unfinished grace" bit; nobodies memoir is ever quite done.  I was left gasping for more at the end.  I'm officially calling for a sequel.

107700.jpgOne of my all time favorite books is an intense, serious, long, literary memoir by James Carroll which won the prestigious American Book Award in 1996 entitled An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us (Mariner; $15.95.)  Carroll came of age in the early 60s in the high-rolling world of inside-the-Washington Beltway, attending family events with the likes of Robert McNamara and dating President Johnson's daughter.  His Irish Catholic mother expected him to become a priest.  His father, whom he adored, ended up being one of the top two or three people in the Pentagon, literally picking bombing targets in North Viet Nam.  In seminary, Carroll mets up with the likes of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and the nonviolent Catholic peace activists led by the Berrigan brothers. You can imagine the family conflict in those stressful years.  It is a tragic and eloquent book and there are numerous reasons why it touched me so--I still often recommend it.  I immediately thought of it as I started Ian Cron's book but I found Cron's Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me to be less intense, much funnier, and finally more inspiring.  Carroll's painful falling out with his father was over faith and politics and war;  Cron's father was a depressed drunk and we don't get to know him at all in the book.  His right wing politics were mostly kept to himself and his work for the Agency was well hidden.  (The scene of all these black-suited spooks showing up at his father's funeral, with notes saying that he was the greatest man I ever knew, notes saying he was my mentor, notes saying that he saved my life, remains poignant and mystifying to Cron.  True to spy fashion, I guess, the men wouldn't talk.  They even weirdly took back some of the flowers and wreaths they had brought to the viewing, as if even they were classified.)

Cron gets few answers about all this as his father ages and even less regarding the father's negligence.  In fact, mostly just this:

"I was trained to drink milk and then swish whiskey around my mouth before we went out for the night" my father continued.  "They said the milk would make the smell of the Scotch stick to my breath."

"What was the point?" I asked.

The Agency wanted people to think of me as the harmless, shallow American who drank too much. That way people wouldn't be as careful about what they said around me."  He  looked away.  "One day I became the person I was pretending to be."

My heart was pounding.  There was something I'd waited my entire life to hear him say, words that I was convinced could change everything, past, present, and future.

I could tell he knew what I was hoping for when his face darkened.  He fixed me with a gelid glaze. "That's what happened," he said, folding his arms across his chest.

As the episode unfolds a bit more, and the conversation ends, Cron says to his wife, "That was an explanation.  I was hoping for an apology."

Yet, as many resilient kids do, Cron figured out how to have some good times.  Before his high school drinking set in, he was a bit of a loner--odd, even. He tells about his experiences as an altar boy, his loyal British nanny, his eccentric boyhood.  I loved it, and related---these feelings are pretty universal, I'd guess.  When he swipes some road flares from his garage, taking them to a place in the woods where kids would hang out, he became a local hero.  I love the writing here; enjoy this excerpt:

Just when I thought the light from the phosphorus ziggurat couldn't get any brighter or bigger, it quadrupled in luminescence and size.  It became a five-foot standing wave of colors, pulsing white to red, vermilion to orange.  It burned temporary blind spots into our retinas, but we couldn't teak our eyes off the pillar of fire.  It was terrible and wondrous to behold.

Once we determined that the inferno wouldn't kill us in the short term, the now sizable mob inched toward it, as though tiptoeing toward a burning bush.  By now, the tower was roaring so bright that the coming night was a bright as the day.  When it hissed and spit sulfurous sparks , we jumped backward and shielded our eyes and then approached it again.  Thick columns of smoke pushed into our faces by the light winds made our noses and throats burn.

But the glory of what we had unleashed was too much for eleven-year-old boys to take in all at once.  Think of the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the crazy French archeologist takes the top off the ark of the covenant and looks inside, and his eyes bug out and he screams, It's beautiful!"  That was us, only our faces didn't melt off.  We were seized by ecstasy.  Johnny Gopnik was so enraptured that he kissed me full on the cheek.  He began dancing around the blinding fire, throwing his head back and screaming great whoops of joy.  Soon, Johnny's frenzied delirium infected the rest of us.  Twenty boys danced around the fire like heathen savages on a South Pacific Island, lit up on moonshine, while their little sisters looked on wide-eyed, sucking their thumbs.  It was a scene from Lord of the Flies, only innocent and precious.  None of us would ever be so beautifully eleven years old again.

195585_696829504_4052782_n.jpgGopnik was the class star, an insider cool kid who had teased and bullied Ian, the boy with the frumpy nanny and bad car and glamorous mother and weird name.  The way he sets up this episode, and then the few sentences following it are deeply touching to me, and will be to anybody who has longed to be accepted, who has gone to great lengths to find approval in the eyes of others.  I loved this portion and the book, and suspect anyone with a bit of nostalgia or self-awareness will too.  In fact, I was hooked from the start as he uses the device of decoding an old faded photograph (which is actually the cover of the book.) I know it may sound like a cliche, but it really works.  This is what memoir can do for us--it can put us in touch with our own longings and fears and joys, help us get a sense of our story.  Anyway, his youthful years are very well told.

As Cron gets older, as I've said, he drinks too much.  A kind Young Life friend, after the Steve Miller Band concert car-wreck fiasco, tries to speak truth to him, explaining how Ian becomes like his dad when he drinks.

I stopped breathing.  I stared at Tyler and he at me. A gust of January wind put its shoulder to the side of the barn and tried to push it down. Instead, it found a crack in a beam and settled for making it whistle. There was no other sound---until I bowed my head and cried.

There are acts of love so subtle and delicate that the sweep of their beauty goes unseen. I know of none more miraculous and brave than that of a seventeen-year-old boy coming to his friend's side to take his tear-soaked face to his breast.
Don't you just love reading words like that? Isn't it a joy knowing that as goodness happens amidst great pain and brokenness, that an experienced writer can craft sentences that draw us in, sharing his or her story with us, and thereby allowing us, too, to take courage.  We all need "acts of love, subtle and delicate."  We sometimes can get them from another's well-told story.  This is one of those, a rip-roaring rides through London and Connecticut, high-school and college, young parenthood and discerning the call to Christian ministry. glory amidst pain, helping us along our own way.  

"How can you tell,"  Father Cron asks near the end, "when you've crossed the meridian that divides hatred and forgiveness? Is it when the dirt path beneath your feet, frozen hard by winter's bitter wind, softens under the summer's grace Or is it when words you've worked so long to free stroll out of the prison of your heart without your help and to your amazement speak themselves?"  

In this vivid memoir, he tells us some of these very words, words of amazement that finally can be spoken.  The very last page is as good as that second to last chapter.  I cried again.  I can't wait for more.

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June 15, 2011

Four more books I absolutely loved: insight + beauty = a great reading experience

In the last post I explained all about one of my favorite books yet this year, Jesus, My Father, The CIA and Me: A Memoir...Of Sorts by Ian Morgan Cronan (Nelson; $15.99)  Skip back and see my rave review--I loved it! (And we have it on sale for BookNotes readers.)  I was eager to tell you about it anyway, but I've been writing just a bit about the pleasure books can bring---thanks Alan Jacobs!---and this one was a heckuva fun ride.

Here are a few more that I've read lately, books that I just didn't want to end. Each illustrate the quality of insight and well crafted writing that draws readers in and that serious book lovers will certainly appreciate and perhaps, as I did, find irresistible.  I hope you'll give 'em a try for your summer reading pleasures.

The Pastor Peterson.jpgThe Pastor: A Memoir Eugene Peterson (HarperOne) $25.95 in hardcover; $28.98 in unabridged audio CD.

 I've mentioned this much-discussed book before and it nearly goes without saying that we appreciate (adore?) Pastor Pete and his important contribution to spirituality, pastoral integrity, real-world grittiness, prophetic distance from the worst traits of what might be called the American Way of Life, and a solid Biblical-rootedness.

 One particularly cult-ish fundamentalist website that was telling their readers to avoid our recommendations once noted that I said that Peterson had an earthy spirituality.  Aghast! (As I read my Bible---from good creation to real fall to bodily incarnation to gritty discipleship until the real new Earth---that is the only kind that is faithful.)  But they thought I meant Earthly which they dumbly took to mean worldly, as if we intend to affirm a compromise with the sinful ways of this present order.  Which is why we need to read Eugene Peterson: he combats, in nearly every sentence and every story, any pious nonsense that is built more on sentimentality or neo-gnostic visions of flying away to heaven.  He is Reformed in the broadest sense, believes that God is with us here and now, and believes that the life of the Christ-follower will be a doxology to the Lord in all we do.  Which is to say, we glorify God best by being down-to-Earth and serving Christ in the daily grind.  For Peterson, though, as we find out in this long-awaiting memoir, he comes to this by way of his own callings, first in a Montana butcher shop and later as a frustrated academic, and finally in his most lasting vocation, that of being a small church pastor in a small town in the outskirts of Baltimore MD. 

The Pastor rings true to what we know of Peterson through his many books---A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, or one of my favorites, Where Your Treasure Is: Psalms That Move Us from Self to Community for instance, or his work on prayer (Answering God) and his five volume set for pastors on "vocational holiness."  And then there is the magisterial five book series called "conversations on spiritual theology" which are meaty, mature, to be savored and pondered.  Oh yes, he did that paraphrase of the Bible, too.  Anybody ever hear of The Message?  Here he tells how it came about, starting off in his church basement over coffee cups and his ordinary folk finally coming alive to grasp the Scriptures (it was Galatians, by the way, that he did first), the year spent in Pittsburgh Theological Seminary as a writer in residence, and so much more.

As in any good story about a person's reminiscences, he tells of his parents and his dearest relationships.  He write about meeting his wife, Jan, and their early marriage.  He notes the ups and downs of their first careers, her calling to be a pastor's wife, and their partnership in trying to forge a community that worshiped well, prayed and read Scripture, and let the life of God saturate their ordinary days.

This is a book for anyone who has been involved in church, anybody frustrated with how  churches---liberal or evangelical, higher or lower liturgically speaking, large or small---have been run in recent decades.  Peterson is nearly gruff in his insistence that we not forfeit quality for quantity as we are wont to do; he is all about staying true to the story as found in the text.  Learning how he grew so impassioned, how he matured as a writer, how he followed the Spirit's leading into such highly regarded work is good for anybody.  The writing is often glowing (in a plainspoken sort of way; he is never ostentatious, but it is well crafted and at times lyrical.)  There is little doubt that he is one of the most important Christian writers of the last 50 years, and his story was waiting to be told. 

Phil Yancey, in fact, said,

I've been nagging Eugene Peterson for years to write a memoir. In our clamorous, celebrity-driven, entertainment culture, his life and words convey a quiet whisper of sanity, authenticity, and, yes, holiness.

As I've said before, we are acquainted with Eugene and he is kind enough to say good things about us.  We are grateful for his business and grateful for his encouragement.  But even if you've hardly ever heard of him, haven't read any of his many books, and aren't drawn to reading about Christian leaders, we'd commend this whole-heartedly.  Loved it.  Didn't want it to end.  Learned a lot, took comfort from some portions, laughed out loud more than once.  It is a slow, pleasurable, thoughtful biography, one that is going to be considered by many as one of their favorite books of 2011. Here is a brief interview with him from Neue Magazine  Here is a podcast interview with him conducted by Christie Tennent of IAM.

87098037.JPGMaking Toast: A Family Story (Ecco Books) $12.99 The wonderful mind and great writing of Roger Rosenblatt came powerfully to our attention a decade or more ago when someone gave us an audio recording of a spectacular talk he did at Chautauqua Institute that ended memorably with people calling out their most treasured books from their childhood.  In a final scene of participatory art, the audience shouted out the most moving words.  It was a stunning talk, inspiring to this young bookseller, and I continue to watch his work over the years.  You may know him from the New York Times columns or his Emmy Award winning work with Jim Lehrer on PBS.  Wikipedia nicely compiled some of the accolades about him.

William Safire of the New York Times wrote that Roger Rosenblatt's work represents "some of the most profound and stylish writing in America today." Vanity Fair said that he "set new standards of thought and compassion" in journalism. The Chicago Tribune said that he turned "magazine journalism into an art form." The Philadelphia Inquirer cited his essays for "unparalleled elegance and wit." In its issue on "The Best" (January 2004), Town and Country named him the "finest essayist in the country." Kirkus Reviews noted, "He has excelled in nearly every literary form." UPI called him "a national treasure."

In 2007 his talented daughter, a doctor and mother of three children, died at age 38.  Rosenblatt and his wife moved back to the DC area to move in with their bereaved son-on-law to help raise their grandchildren.  His own grief and grandfathering story is told in last year's Making Toast: A Family Story.  Again, it is one of those books that I found myself longing to pick back up---couldn't wait for the end of the day (which doesn't come nearly early enough for me, here, often typing still at 2:00 am.)  Still, I grabbed it whenever I could, not wanting to bite off too much.  It was just so good, so touching, so intimate, so honest, and so very interesting.  He does have an interesting family.  And a great eye for details told well.  It was heartbreaking in quiet moments, but the writing was restrained.  It was, as I've suggested, a pleasurable reading experience, one I commend to you.  This YouTube interview doesn't do the book justice, but you can watch him for a few minutes.
Mr. Rosenblatt has sworn off any notion of God--it comes up from time to time--yet he is a decent and funny man, and he was a good father, a fine husband.  The extended family stuck together through the hard year after Amy's death, and the tales told of this upper middle class literary family rung true, even though it was not my world or my worldview. 

Did I say I could hardly put it down?  Did I say it was one of the best books I've read all year?  That I enjoyed it?   Kudos to Mr. R for his writerly ability--rooted surely in some deep and mature sense of the meaning of things, character and goodness and such---to mix great sadness and great joy, to share a story so universal, even in its particularity.  What a book.  If he asked me this year, about books that touched me deeply, that have meant something to my soul,  I would shout it out, as he invited listens to so many years ago.  Making Toast, I'd shout.  Make that toast!   

The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want cover.jpgThe Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise Garret Keizer (PublicAffairs) $27.95  Some authors are so elegant, so thoughtfully creative, so seemingly wise that they are able to write about any number of things.  Garret Keizer is one such writer, whose first book was a literate and thoughtful memoir of being a small town pastor (Dresser of Sycamore Trees: The Finding of a Ministry.)  He wrote a highly acclaimed book on caring for others simply entitled Help. I really respected one he did called The Enigma of Anger.  I guess he is a true humanist, in the best sense of the world, some sort of writerly renaissance man.  He obviously has a good heart and a fine ability to ponder some of the deepest things of our human days. 

In this newest one I was hooked on the first page.  He talks about how unwanted sound--and boy, there is a lot to learn about that!---is considered a weak issue.  It isn't as horrific as genocide or the plague of world hunger. 

Yet, if often hurts the weak, the oppressed and the poor, the infirm and the aged and the young.  Early one he tells some very frustrating stories---people who cannot sleep because of a neighbor's loud swimming pool pump, dangerously high decibels in children's toys, the hearing loss prevalent among returning soldiers.  These are hard to take, small injustices, yet are (if you will excuse the pun) quietly told.  Keizer builds a gentle a moving case, carefully.  

And, this book is instructional in a profound way.  Yes, we learn a lot about sound and decibel measurement and all manner of mayhem in our modern world, but we also come to realize that much of the noise is, in fact, a result of the other stuff we want.  Our industrialized, fast-paced, increasingly mechanized way of life necessarily steals our solitude.  The psychic toll is considerable.

And this splendid book helps us consider it.  (And consider aspects I swear I never would have thought of as long as I lived: did you know that some of the noise pollution effects the mating habits of certain species of birds?  And I don't have to tell you--you can see where this is going--that a decline in certain birds has other ecological implications whose consequences are significant.  Who knew?  And who cares??)

Well, Bill McKibben (God bless him) for one.  He says

Garret Keizer has, not for the first time, helped us look hard at something we thought we understood and see that instead it's rich, fascinating, full of political and moral and human implications.  I'd say that his argument goes off like an intellectual explosion, but perhaps better in this context to summon the image of a bell, struck once in the silence.  This is a book for our precise moment on Earth.

I love Naomi Klein's powerful observation, too.  She says, "Very few writers combine thoughtfulness and rage as satisfyingly as Garret Keizer."    Indeed.  It is, as Klein reminds us "a profound meditation on power---its painful absence and its flagrant abuse."  As one reviewer, himself a biographer of the witty Mark Twain, put it, Keizer has "disputatious moral eloquence" which places him in the line of Sinclair and Steinbeck.  Well, I don't know about that, but I agree that, as he continues, "noise if far from one more irritant of modern life.  It is a symptom of deeper threats to a healthy society: amoral power, a degraded political system, a collapse of spiritual consciousness.  This is a masterpiece of social reportage, and--wondrously, given all its burning indictments--of decency and affirmation."  (Ron Power, co-author of Flags of Our Fathers.)

So, The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want is a book that is quite satisfying.  I like a little fire, and "disputatious moral eloquence" from time to time.  And I like social history and  intriguing stories and well-placed episodes well told, illustrative examples of his point, alongside tons of interesting information.  Keizer is, as I said, a fine, fine author who has covered a lot of ground in his writing career.  This book is a masterpiece, the sort of thing to ponder, either in a noisy beach, or perhaps a secluded cabin.  Or carry it on the bus as you commute.  Wherever and in whatever condition you read it--probably not in true silence--you will be glad you did.  I'm not quite finished with it myself but I can tell, when it is over, I will be glad for his good gifts, hungry for more, and wondering out loud what in the world he will write about next.  For now, check out this Book TV talk about the book, then order it from us! 

41TkOylhziL._SL500_AA300_.jpgOld Testament Wisdom Literature: A Theological Introduction  Craig Bartholomew & Ryan O'Dowd (IVP Academic) $30.00  Okay, so my nerdiness is not on display for all to see.  Yes, yes, I sometimes can find a Biblical commentary, and in this case a fairly rigorous Biblical commentary, to be a pure delight.  I got choked up.  I used the first few pages in a talk I gave.  I've read the first 30 pages three times (and not because it was so confusing, but because it was so very wonderful.)  Look, I know thirty bucks is a lot of cash for a mere 30 pages.  But I mean this: the 5 page introduction is itself worth the price of the book.  I want to photocopy them and turn them into a booklet.  What joy to find such interesting reflections that will pay off in opening up a good chunk of the Scriptures!   

This is priceless stuff, wonderful insight about the nature of nature---the creation, the Bible calls it!---and our alienation (or at least distance) from it.  

They start out with a splendid, splendid excerpt of a C.S. Lewis book on medieval literature.  I cannot print the long quote here, but basically Lewis says we modern day folks simple cannot appreciate the terror felt by people during a dark night before the invention of lights.  Go out and stand for several hours in the deep late night dark, and then try to read ancient literature, Lewis suggests.  Well Bartholomew and O'Dowd counsel the same thing for anyone wanting to read the Biblical wisdom literature.  How can we possibly get the creation-based theology of Proverbs, that magnificent portion about God's sovereign rule of creatures at the end of Job, the exuberant praise of Psalm 104, say, if we don't walk around as fellow creatures in a God-drenched world? (Very close readers will pick up some of Calvin Seerveld's insights from Rainbows for the Fallen World here; yep, this is so, as Bartholomew studied under him.  O'Dowd studied with Cal's colleague Al Wolter's, author of Creation Regained.)   Walk around outside a bit, they say, and then come back and finish the book.  It's a good point, and they mean it.  Close. The. Book.  Go. Outside. Experience creation.  This is going to be a very cool commentary.

Well, it is beyond cool, it is at times nearly genius.  This should come as no surprise as Bartholomew is a very impressive and widely-published Bible scholar, especially in this genre (he has done very academic work in this field, in fact.)  And, he's quite the worldview guy, holding forth often in his career at Redeemer University in Ontario about Kuyper and the zeitgeist and postmodernity and all the rest (His co-authored book At the Crossroads is vastly under-appreciated.)  I love him!  Ryan O'Dowd is also a young genius (and I was delighted to hang out with him at bit at the Jubilee conference in Pittsburgh last February.)  He has a highly academic work on the Hebrew Wisdom literature published by the very prestigious Brill Publishing (in Europe) and he also has a degree in aerospace science.  (He now lectures in engineering at Cornell.  Dig that!)

So, these two gents are fine writers, attuned to how the whole unfolding Biblical drama can serve to place us in God's world: the redemptive work happening in and through Christ, as narrated by the Scriptures, understood firstly in their Middle Eastern context, can be our own narrative.  We can find our place in the world, thinking Christianly, as it were as that story becomes our story.  But, alas, to do this we need more than just a quick read through of the printed page.  We don't just want Bible information, we want Godly wisdom.  Job, Ecclesiastes, Psalms and Proverbs, properly understood, can make us wise; they can orient us in ways that allow us to take up our role in the story.  A good part of that--our living into the redemptive story of God-- is how we interact with the creation, God's ways of ordering it and how even our work in modern jobs and institutions can be a response to the wise ways structured into life as we know it.  Knowing about wisdom opens up whole vistas of understanding.

Jesus, as some are quick to say, is the very wisdom of God.  I'm grateful for the good chapter with that title in OTWL, and glad that Bartholomew & O'Dowd have a strong, Christo-centric reading; Old Testament Wisdom Literature does not traffic in moralism, in formulas, in cheap grace.  It is radical, multi-faceted, and, well, deeply wise.  It has received rave reviews from some of the finest Old Testament scholars of our day (like Bruce Waltke, Tremper Longman and John Goldingay.)  It is the best thing I've read on this topic.

If you are turned on by learning, if you want to know your Bible better, if you hunger for good writing, good thinking, faithful exegesis that always is applied in a storied way, helping equip you for faithful living in these days, this book could be a great companion for a few months or so.  Maybe, like me, you'll read and re-read, underline whole paragraphs, quote and share and celebrate this with anybody who will listen.  Old Testament Wisdom Literature: A Theological Introduction is a great book, Biblical scholarship at its finest.  And you'll appreciate it all the more if you do what it says: close the book and go outside for a spell.  The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom the text reminds us.  Consider God's awesome, fearful, creation, and our small place within it.  And then ponder who God is.  And then come back to the book as Bartholomew & O'Dowd guide you on the journey through some familiar (and some not so familiar, for many of us) Bible passages, opened up with extraordinary insight and contemporary relevance.  I've not finished this yet but I am sure I will name it as one of the best books of 2011.  Yay.

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June 22, 2011

A rich summer array of brand new books on spiritual formation.

My youngest daughter, Marissa, graduated from her charter cyber-school at a state-wide ceremony this weekend.  We had a lovely party in the backyard on Sunday and took her to the airport on Monday to arrive in time for her first early college class at Calvin College in Michigan.  From high school grad to college student in 48 hours.  I'm exhausted.

Our other daughter, a decade older, is for this week a retreatant at an ecumenical Benedictine monastery in Ann Arbor.  Her facebook announcement noted "a car, bus, train, plane. It feels like living in a Richard Scary book."  And then, "Stephanie is getting herself to a nunnery."  Shakespeare fans can laugh.

Thanks for your support of our family, your prayers for Marissa, and the lovely notes on facebook and twitter.  We're glad that our "family business" sometimes really does seem like an extended family, and we are grateful.  Please pray not only for us, but for other customers and friends who themselves continue to struggle, who have great needs, whose lives and circumstances are not as happy as ours are this weekend.

That Stephanie has some (academic) interest in monastic ways should not surprise us.  One of the great trends we noticed about a decade into our book-selling biz is that evangelical customers stopped complaining that we carried Thomas Merton; even conservative pastors were citing Henri Nouwan in their sermons and nearly all the reputable religious publishing houses were releasing books of spiritual formation, re-discovering the devotional classics, talking about sabbath and liturgical customs and contemplative disciplines.  Eventually, even the hipster crowd emerged with a real distinctive concern for embodied practices of faith, including practices that will aid in our intimate knowledge of God.  Postmoderns talked about ancient-future approaches, moving forward by looking backward.  

Many folks---including younger folks--- want to draw on the array of customs and disciplines that have enabled older saints to walk with God.  Not a few Protestants have published books with names like Cloister Talks: Learning From My Friends the Monks (by Jon Sweeney; Brazos Press; $14.99) or Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants by Dennis Okholm (Baker; $15.99)  One of the best introductory books I know about Benedict is, in fact, written by a Presbyterian.  See Ancient Paths: Discover Christian Formation by David Robinson (Paraclete Press; $16.99) which I reviewed several months back.

Richard Foster, of course, is one of the writers who has brought that heritage to the contemporary religious publishing world.  (Celebration of Discipline [HarperOne; $24.99] is surely one of the most important books of the last 50 years!)  And he has a new book coming in September, which looks to be very good---Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey into Meditative Prayer (to be published by IVP; $16.00.  You can pre-order it from us now if you'd like and we'll send it at a discounted price when it is released.)

And so, here are a few such books that have caught our attention here in recent weeks.  All of these are new this Spring and are titles that we most thoroughly recommend.  Perhaps you can commit to reading a few this summer.   Enjoy.

ProductImages.ashx.jpgThe Monastery of the Heart: An Invitation to a Meaningful Life Joan Chittister (BlueBridge) $19.95  Many of our readers will know this popular Benedictine author, one of the biggest selling spiritual writers in recent years.  Here, she offers an introduction to the Rule of Benedict as a lens for how to see all of life as an opportunity to reverence and joy. (She has written a very good book on this years ago called Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of Saint Benedict [Harper; $13.99] by the way, but the style and tone of this new hardback is so much different!)  It is written as lyrical poetry, a soothing and moving book, called by Phyllis Tickle "beautiful and welcoming" where she has "outdone even her own past work."  One reviewer says this is "like a holy distillation of all that Joan Chittister has written to date."  Lovely.

97229522.JPGSeeking Spiritual Intimacy: Journeying Deeper with Medieval Women of Faith  Glenn E. Myers, With a forward by James Houston (IVP) $15.00  I mentioned in my opening remarks that evangelical publishers are doing great work releasing high quality books about spiritual formation.  No one publisher releases more consistently good writing on the spiritual life than InterVarsity Press in their formatio line.  This richly detailed study is an example; an evangelical Protestant publisher has just given us the defining work of the Beguines, a network of Catholic faith communities in medieval Europe where women organized their world around one thing needed---simple life with Christ at the center.  A few of these women mystics have become well known among those learning about historic devotional writing (think of Mechthild of Magdeburg or Hildegard of Bingen.) The others discussed may not be known---how much do you know about 12th century Flemish women, after all?  Ha!   But before you think this is just too arcane, please know that this book not only presents fabulously interesting information but is created to be used devotionally.  There is a reflection exercise at the end of each chapter so you, too, can experience the great love of God that these valiant women knew.  These are odd times in our postmodern world, but perhaps is somewhat similar to the shifting ground under their feet as well.  Isn't it interesting that such ancient insight might be the most applicable wisdom for our own age?  Remarkable. Three cheers for IVP in bringing such rare insight to us, and making it so very, very helpful.

9781587680649.gifA Lever and a Place to Stand: The Contemplative Stance, The Active Prayer  Richard Rohr (HiddenSpring) $15.00  A few weeks ago I announced Fr. Rohr's very significant new book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Jossy Bass; $19.95.)  About that time, this little sleeper of a paperback was released and in many ways it is also a "holy distillation" of much of what Rohr has been about over the years.  These were lectures given (and if you have heard him or his recorded talks, you know he is a great communicator and vibrant speaker) at a center in London dedicated to offering seminars in Christian meditation (in the mystical tradition of silence as taught by John Main) and how that might equip us to be spiritual leaders for world peacemaking.  And so, this little volume invites us to ponder the relationship of the journey inward and the journey outward, the ways in which contemplation can ground us for our work in the world.  A Lever and a Place... is classic Rohr, exploring the inner texture of our deepest selves and God's call to commission us to be agents of peace and justice in the world.  

9780195378726.jpgA Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness, and Contemplation  Martin Laird (Oxford University Press) $18.95  You may know of Laird's Into the Silent Land, the much talked about and often recommend book that came out just a few years ago from this Catholic priest and professor at Villanova University here in Pennsylvania.  Rave reviews came from sources as unique as Rowan Williams and Christianity Today.  This brand new one seems to be a sequel or companion volume (with the same smallish chunky size that so nicely fits the hand) and is an elegant and beautifully written reflection on the need for silence in our lives.   It gets a bit heavy at points---drawing on the best of the contemplative tradition he calls for a spaciousness that accepts sound and silence and that rejects foundational dualisms. Whew.  If  you've read any of the accounts of the desert fathers or appreciate Russian Orthodox spirituality this might appeal to you.

001aef78_medium.jpegRavished By Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality  Belden C Lane (Oxford University Press) $29.95  I have been waiting for the strength, time, and emotional energy to read what I believe may become one of my favorite serious books of the year.  I haven't touched it yet, but want to commend it to you on the strength of the author's earlier books, the rave reviews of a few trusted friends who have it already, and this fine blurb on the back by William Dyrness (of Fuller Theological Seminary) who himself has several important books about the arts, beauty and aesthetics:

Belden Land has provided a contemporary spiritual theology perfectly suited to the restless longings of our consumer culture.  Rereading Calvin and Edwards, he finds neglected (and surprising) resources in the Reformed tradition for seeing creation as a rich and wild theatre of fulfilled desires.  In the process he teaches the reader to share creation's passionate and conflicted yearning for God, and to join its praise of God's     loveliness.

I appreciated this review by social ethicist Larry Rasmussen, too

Exemplary!  Christianity's ecological phase requires Earth-honoring retrieval and recasting of its deep traditions.  Lane brings to the task a good historian's unflinching honesty as well as the pilgrim's personal passion.  The result is Reformed spirituality transformed by its own strong sense of God's presence amid streams of earthly beauty across "landscapes of desire." A timely, ecumenical gift.

Professor Lane does indeed have personal passion.  And great experience to write a book like this---a number of his fans (many who are wilderness hikers and rock climbers) have long awaited this highly anticipated work.  His previous two books were about the relationship of landscape and spirituality; The Solace of Fierce Landscapes (Oxford University Press; $17.99) is, in fact, part outdoors hiking memoir and part study of the role of geography in the Bible.  From the desert fathers to holy mountains, he studies, prays, hikes, prays, does the whole outdoor adventure thing and writes about it thoughtfully.  His embodied, Earthly spirituality is beautiful and righteous (and at times as demanding as the fierce landscapes of which he writes.) 

So, he has a deep and lived appreciation of natural beauty, which drew him to prolific Reformed thinkers like Jonathan Edwards (yes, that Jonathan Edwards) who was as much as a naturalist as preacher, with a constant theme of beauty underlying his understanding of God.  And, he seems to draw quite a lot on Calvin who insisted that the very creation itself is the essential theater on which our lives unfolds.  Like I said, I'm working up the courage to work with this this summer.  I am sure I'm not alone to affirm the credos that beauty matters, and that authentic spirituality does not lead us away from this world.  Lane will help sear this into our lives, I am sure.  Ravished By Beauty is a very important work.

62809684_b.jpgThirsting for God: Spiritual Refreshment for the Sacred Journey  Gary Thomas (Harvest House) $13.99  Gary Thomas is one of those writers about whom I have pledged to read everything he writes.  And it isn't a burden as he has a light touch, a great sense of humor and that knack for illustration and analogy that the best teaching preachers have.  Gary is one of the finest evangelical writers about spirituality, I'd say, and this is a major reworking of an early book of his (then called Seeking the Face of God.)  This one expands on that book's introduction to the deeper spiritual classics, translating their insights and allowing ordinary contemporary folks to learn to appropriate their piety and wisdom.  It is hefty (over 300 pages) but wonderfully breezy, covers tons of good information, and never seems repetitive or tired.  It is more than a bargain for its immense value and we are positive it will be of great benefit to God's people.

I suspect you agree that much that passes for faith development these days is like "fast food."  There are fads, formulas and promises of experiencing God's presence but few such authors--despite the great packaging of their books--really deliver.  In Thirsting for God, Thomas guides us through the best writers of church history, showing us how they learned to know God more intimately and live out their discipleship more faithfully.   This is the faith passed down, the best-practices that have endured, the writers you ought to draw upon.  It is ecumenical in the best sense and draws on a wide range of solid (and often beautiful) writing.

Even as we reject formulas and cheap grace and overly sentimental evangelical faith, we can say also that books like this really do have to "meet people where they're at" and speak in ways that are helpful and understandable. (That John Ortberg has a rave endorsement on the back says something, eh?)  If you want to set meaningful goals for your spiritual life or overcome temptation or thrive in times that feel like the desert, there is help here.  I can't say enough about this wonderful book, and hope you will give it a try---get a few friends together and read through it together.  It will speak to your heart, shape your world in positive ways, and guide you into the next steps of an intentionally faithful life that slacks its thirst with the Triune God.  Please take a look at this great little video where he talks about the importance of the book which might help you understand why we like him so.  He says that he has written this mostly for two different groups of people---maybe you are in one of these groups.  Enjoy!

9780830835539.jpgInvitations from God: Accepting God's Offer to Rest, Weep, Forgive, Wait, Remember and More  Adele Ahlberg Calhoun (IVP) $15.00  Recall what I said about InterVarsity Press' imprint formatio?  This is another wonderful formatio release, a book that so beautifully illustrates the strengths of this great line of resources.  Ms Calhoun had written an earlier, large resource, The Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us (IVP; $18.00) which is about as useful and practical a guide to the spiritual life as we could possible recommend.  She has been a colleague and co-worker with one of our favorite writer in this genre (Ruth Haley Barton, whose Invitation to Solitude and Silence and Sacred Rhythms (IVP; $17.00 and $18.00) we have often mentioned here and are not to be missed!)  Calhoun is a certified spiritual director and a graduate of Gordon Conwell Seminary (her husband is a pastor in New England.) This new book is a good example of some of the best writing within contemporary faith formation.

I love Invitations from God because it circles around a variety of topics that mean a lot to me, and that I suppose mean a lot to you: rest, ego, embodiment, grief.  It is a helpful and even joyful book---I so enjoyed starting it a few nights back sitting outdoors under a string of lights set up for our daughter's graduation party.  So it isn't too heavy and certainly isn't a "downer" of a book; it is a pleasurable read.  As she says in the first page, there are a variety of invitations that come our way over our life and our response to them is what makes us who we are.  (There are invitations that do not come our way as well---from childhood on we are often excluded and sometimes neglected, disappointed and hurt.)  Ms Calhoun explores the invitations from God, invitations which call us to be more fully human, to own up to our brokenness, to be in touch with our deepest aches and longings and joys, to think through and act anew in ways that trust Christ's redeeming power to transform us.  

Adele is an astute observer of the human condition and she is a person who lives a real and active life.  No, those who are attentive to the more contemplative spiritual disciplines are not necessarily monastic nor are they usually disengaged from the struggles of middle class daily life.  Like her colleague Ruth Barton, Adele knows of the ups and downs of parenting, of being a spouse, of dealing with the family budget (and the extended families extended issues), the pleasures and anxieties of ordinary modern living.  She is as normal as you or I and therein lies the great goodness of this book.  

Through her good writing she is a conduit for God's own Spirit, which calls to us, invites us to rethink, to slow down, to attend to our hurts, to relax and reflect, to care, to give, to forgive.  Can we become people of mercy, people of joy, people of integrity?  If so, some of it will come because we've followed the sage advice as we see in this warm book.  Will we be able to shed tears, to lament, to protest?  Will we sense joy in the real world, reject our constant busyness?  Will we be able to identify and overcome the classic roadblocks that prevent us from moving forward?  (She is very helpful on this!)

The wonderful Invitations from God: Accepting God's Offer to... is honest in helping us work through this crazy world of idols and false promises.  She puts us in touch with our feelings and cares and guides us to a richer, fuller life.  I love these invitations and I love how she walks us through some tender ground. Nice cover, too, eh?  Very highly recommended.

0835478.jpgAbundant Simplicity: Discovering the Unhurried Rhythms of Grace Jan Johnson (IVP) $15.00  Once again, the IVP imprint formatio knocks another ball out of the park with this home-run of a book.  Just the cover art is worth the investment---wouldn't you and your house guests be blessed just to see this beautiful cover and the evocative subtitle?  Dallas Willard says "If live is what you want, you must free yourself from trivial entanglements."  Well, that is a journey that lasts a lifetime, no?  Jan Johnson has written clear and helpful books on other evangelical publishing houses but this is certainly her best yet.  Drawing on truly ecumenical sources---I love these rich footnotes and wise citations and quotes---she helps us say no to materialism, to the zeitgeist of bigger and bigger and bigger, more, more, more.  Her cultural antennae helps her discern the idols of the age, and her practical guidance is so helpful, thoughtfully drawn from St. Francis, George Fox, John Woolman, Thomas Kelly, Richard Foster, Ronald Sider (not to mention contemporary researchers about happiness and reporters about the nature of the North American way of life.)  Spiritual directors like Norven Vest have affirmed its usefulness, noting it's self-reflective style and piercing questions.  This is more than a call to a more simple lifestyle, but is an invitation to be grounded in ways that allow us to live good--truly good--lives.

Missionary educator Paul Borthwick nicely writes,

In a world where abundant has come to mean prosperity and simplicity is often equated with scarcity, Jan Johnson proposes an alternative. She introduces us to a biblical lifestyle of fullness--full in ways that only God can fill.  In our materialistic, over-scheduled, stress-filled world, we need to tame the monster called "more."  Abundant Simplicity is a monster-tamer.

6a010536b8214c970c014e892a0e5c970d-120wi.jpgA Spiritual Life: Perspectives from Poets, Prophets and Preachers edited by Allan Hugh Cole, Jr. (WJK) $20.00  This is a splendid collection, itself another "monster-tamer" as the Johnson one was described.  This collection includes often vivid (if sometimes a bit academic) writing about the interface of culture and spirituality, prayer and daily life, the prophetic witness against the foibles of our age and good insight from the pastoral work about the formation of souls.  The question its many authors are all getting at is this: "what makes a good spiritual life?"  And that (as I hope would be obvious) entails a lot more than simplistic formulas for prayer and Bible study.  

I appreciate the diversity of authors (their styles, ethnicities, perspectives, and vocations) and suggest that this mix of views and voices is just the thing you may enjoy, too.  Here you will  find some famous authors---liberal pastoral counselor Donald Capps and pop culture aficionado, Greg Garrett.  There are famous literary voices like Gail Godwin and congregational voices of not-famous mainline pastors.  I love the books of two pastor-authors, Michael Jinkins and Michael Lindvall, and was delighted to see they have creative contributions here.  On the topic of spiritual disciplines we all owe a debt to spirituality guide Marjorie Thompson---Soul Feast (WJK; $15.00) remains one of the top books of this genre--- and her chapter in this collection is very nicely done.  You will find the pastoral wisdom of United Methodist leader Will Willimon (actually, a fairly controversial piece critiquing the fad of "practice" language, a version of which appeared in The Christian Century) and the powerful insights of memoirist Lauren Winner, with a fine, fine essay on the making of pies.  Yum. 

Many of these pieces are quite specific.  Stephanie Paulsell, author of Honoring the Body, has a chapter "Reading St. Therese" and Princeton Seminary prof Richard Osmer writes of "Fantasy Literature and the Spiritual Life."  Not everyone may be drawn to the one by Kerry Egan on "Nursing, Eucharist, Psychosis, Metaphor" but I think it was brilliant.  There are nuns on reading poetry as a spiritual practice and a piece on chronic illness that is very important. This is the sort of book you can use for a long time, dipping in now and then as the topic strikes you...

I hope these sorts of essays will be useful for you.  I think Philip Yancey's endorsement of The Spiritual Life rings true for all of the above good books:

Don't look for a traditional approach to faith or a unified voice in this diverse collection.  You can, however, count on graceful prose and an honest, reflective search--and that, I found, was enough to make my own pilgrimage seem more authentic and less lonely.  
Alan Hugh Cole is Academic Dean and a professor of pastoral care at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and is a popular speaker and WJK author.  Kudos.

0425239640.01.LZZZZZZZ-e1301438148590.jpgPraying for Strangers: An Adventure of the Human Spirit  River Jordan (Berkley) $24.95  Okay, I'll admit that a few of these books may seem a bit daunting.  I know most BookNotes readers don't want silly formula books, and also are looking for books written well and that might actually enlarge the heart and stretch the mind.  But let's face it: some summer evenings we may not want to wade through serious historical theology or be confronted with the deepest condition of our hurting souls. 

Perhaps there is a book that combines some reflective insight about our spiritual formation that might, uh, be suitable as a beach read?  Look no further.  I'm not kidding: this is a memoir that reads like a novel, one of these popular and oh-so entertaining stories of somebody doing something for a year.  This is, in fact, about a novelist (whose two sons were going off to Iraq and Afghanistan) who resolves to pray for a stranger every single day for a year.  And it is the beginning of something amazing, truly amazing. It is a bit theologically confused at times; but it is really nice read nonetheless.  As memoirist Neil White (a stunning writer himself, author of In the Sanctuary of Outcasts) says of it "Praying for Strangers reminds us (through the power of this tiny, seemingly insignificant act) that we can never assume we know the vast universe that exists inside the person next to us--or the one we are yet to discover inside ourselves."   See this moving video clip of her telling about her resolution and the book.  You just may want to read it after seeing this!

Want to explore our weird, broken world?  Want some fascinating encouragement to pray?  Interested in human inter-connectedness, pathos and joy?  Want a bit of well-told inspiration that is a captivating read?  This, as one author puts it, "will bless you and alter the way you see those seemingly random people that God places daily in your path."   Listen to this line where Jordon reflects on one of the lessons learned in her experiment of faith: "Instead of discovering how much the world needed me, I discovered how much I needed the world."  Maybe reading this will help you with your next big resolution.  Pray, pray, pray. And love your neighbor.  Not a bad beach book, I'd say.  


sacred-rhythms-WP-small-now-available.jpgDVD  Sacred Rhythms: Spiritual Practices that Nourish Your Soul and Transform Your Life  Ruth Haley Barton (Zondervan) $31.99 (This includes a Participants Guide and the DVD.)  I've reviewed this before at the BookNotes blog, sharing how insightful and gracious her good teaching is.  This is simply the best media piece we know for teaching about spirituality.  We think it should be very highly recommended, made available in your church or group.  Here is a youtube trailer that nicely invites you to this project.  Hope you order it from us!

u91851vggcd.jpgDVD Convergence: Where Faith and Life Meet: Spiritual Practices: How to Meet God in the Everyday  Donald Miller hosts this very informal series of three conversations, person to person, each sitting on nice easy chairs.  Here, there is a charming dialogue with Lauren Winner author of  Mud-house Sabbath and fascinating storyteller and teacher about Jewish customs, Christian spiritual practices, and modern writings about spiritual formation.  Very nice.  (We stock about ten of these, by the way, although this is the one that is most obviously about spirituality as such.)  There are a few Scripture verses and discussion questions in the booklet that comes with the DVD so there are no additional books needed. Visit their website which offers more supplemental material as well.

51ivaHJlzSL._SL500_AA300_.jpgDVD  Q Studies Staying Grounded: Restoring the Ancient Practices  Five Sessions hosted by Gabe Lyon (Zondervan) $36.99 (Includes one Participants Guide/study book and DVD; additional Participants guides are needed for each person; $9.99.)  I've raved about these resources that come out of the Q conferences, sort of TED talks for the faith community.  In this new one you'll hear Phyllis TIckle on "Recovering the Ancient Practices", Andy Crouch insightfully reflecting on "From Purchases to Practices", Shane Hipps (who has a book on technology) pondering "The Spirituality of the Cell Phone" and environmentalist and medical doctor Matthew Sleeth powerfully reminding us of the significance of "Observing the Sabbath."  A fifth session walks participants through a conversation about a culture-shaping project which is in the book and debriefs it all.   Here is a promo video about the series (most of which are more about cultural and societal reformation) which shows the style and tone of these very cool videos...Highly recommended for all, but especially younger adults. 

41IfQbl0-mL._SL500_AA300_.jpgDVD  The Power of a Whisper: Hearing God, Having the Guts to Respond  Bill Hybells (Zondervan) $24.99  Four sessions.  Late last summer I read the hardback book from which this is taken and reviewed it at BookNotes, naming ways it so moved me.  I think this is solid, good stuff, and a topic most of us wonder about:  can we really hear God's voice?  How do we learn to discern how to be guided by God's promptings?  Hybells is an excellent communicator and a real master at teaching applicable truths in honest, sensible ways.  Very professionally done, very compelling. The Participant's Guide sells for $9.99   Here is a youtube clip promoting the DVD.  Check it out.

889590.gifDVD  The Divine Conspiracy: Jesus Master Class for Life  Dallas Willard with John Ortberg (Zondervan) $24.99  I can't tell you how many people name this book as one of the all time most important in their lives.  Richard Foster's fabulous forward is among the most exuberant raves in print!  Yet, not everyone---this writer included--quite get it.  I, and apparently many others, need some help. And while I respect and appreciate the jovial but no-nonsense philosophy prof Dr. Willard, having the up-beat and practical John Ortberg interview him, and work with him here is a stroke of genius.  Together their tag-team makes this DVD an exceptional resource, serious, meaningful, profound.  Six Sessions. Participant's Guide sells for $9.99  Want to see what I mean about this?  Watch this brief youtube clip.

2456.pngDVD  The Life You Always Wanted John Ortberg (Zondervan) $24.99  Six Sessions   I believe that this may be one of the top rentals in our DVD department here at the shop and folks who use it sometimes want to use it again and buy it for themselves.  While Ortberg calls the wonderful book from which the DVD is drawn "Willard for Dummies", it is essentially about the practice of the spiritual disciplines. And what a hands-on, zany show it is. Rev. Ortberg is a born teacher, using great stories and hands-on illustrations in his little class as the course unfolds.  You will learn about spiritual disciplines, helpful practices, and how God can transform us day by day---not by just "trying hard" but by wise training. Participant's Guide sells for $9.99  Highly recommended.  Get a feel for this wonderful, fun series by watching this brief promo.

resize.jpgDVD  God Is Closer Than You Think  John Ortberg (Zondervan) $24.99  Six Sessions  If the previous DVD class walked participants through classic spiritual disciplines--in upbeat and contemporary ways---this is an equally pleasant and very engaging study of how to find God in the ordinary moments of ordinary days.  How do we actually experience the presence of God?  Again, Ortberg is an excellent communicator, a good teacher, and presents important material in interesting and helpful ways. Participant's Guide sells for $9.99   A personal favorite!  Watch this trailer for this well done series. God is closer than you think!  Love it!   (By the way, I really liked the original cover art of the first edition of this book---google it and find the one that looks like an eye chart.  I guess our tastes were in the minority as they changed it shortly after the release.)

psalmist-product-bundle.jpgDVD The Psalmist's Cry: Scripts for Embracing Lament  Walter Brueggemann (House Studio) $39.99  Wow, is this amazing! And some of the amazement is that an affiliated of the Church of the Nazarene's are publishing UCC Bible scholar, brother Walt. This package includes a 5 session DVD and a very visually-exciting book---created, as other House Studio products (DVDs of Shane Claiborne (The Economy of Love) and Stanley Hauerwas (Sunday Asylum) for instance) with edgy, youthful verve.  In this footage, Brueggemann notes that we all live in a state of denial, covering up our pain and our cultural dislocation, and the Psalms that emerged out of the horror of exile truly offer us tools for naming our pain.  Failing to do so may literally result in losing the gospel itself, and these short, raw, dramatic pieces should generate deep thought and important conversation.  More books are available for $12.99. Is this about spiritual formation?  The last session is entitled "the juice of emancipation."  You tell me.  Whew.

thumb_17573.jpgDVD  When I Don't Desire God: How to Fight for Joy  John Piper  (Crossway) $29.99  I know that Piper may be a bit bombastic for some, but he is a pastor who cares deeply for his people's joy.  Of course, he teaches that we are most satisfied and delighted when we make much of God and are conformed to Christ--leaving everything for that pearl of great price.  But, yet, what if we don't really want to search for God?  What if we are stuck in apathy and don't desire a spiritual awakening? These 2 DVDs include straight up Bible preaching, six sessions, about a half hour each, by the famous Baptist teacher.  Maybe you don't think you'll love him.  But this is such important material that I'd beg you to consider it.

 Here is a sample of it; passionate and serious and important! (By the way, in this clip he is talking about fighting sin and temptation, using helpful distinctions between justification and sanctification.  Some of the messages are more obviously about joy, about fighting for the pleasures of God, and what to do as we remind ourselves of God's great glory in our dry times.  Don't let the heady excerpt or blunt topic scare you away!)

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New list about spiritual formation posted at the June Monthly Column

I sincerely hope you zip over to the monthly review column to browse the list that we just posted.  It starts off with some family announcements and expressions of gratitude for your care for our kids---Marissa is off to Calvin College and Steph is spending some time at a monastery this week.   Which led me quite naturally to naming some books about the recent interest in monastic life, the spiritual practices we can learn from those who have lived the contemplative life, and then other good books that have come out recently on spirituality.

There are some grand ones, and I described them in some detail. We think you will like reading about them.  I hope you might consider sending this on to others who might appreciate this sort of resource, those who are looking to find just the right book to ponder this summer.  It feels like a good time for some leisurely self-reflection and prayerfulness and I have this sense that some of these will be important for some of our tribe.  None of these are simplistic and all are quite new. 

I listed some DVD curriculum on spirituality as well.  These are not all new, but are suitable for small groups, summer Sunday school, or your own personal growth.  I offered links so you can see trailers or promos for each, which I think you'll enjoy perusing.

This list means a lot to us and I hope you find it helpful.  Here are just a few of the bookcovers of the titles we review.  Check out the full reviews here.   

We've got these all on sale over at the monthly column, too.  Use our certified secure website for credit card orders, or you may request that we just send you an invoice so you can pay later by check.  Hope we can get some of these splendid resources to you soon.  Thanks.



June 23, 2011

2 more small sweet books: new writings of Henri Nouwen

I was going to mention these two new books in my June column, the new bibliographic list about spirituality which I posted yesterday, but they didn't seem to fit the flow.  And I didn't want these to get lost in that long catalog.

I'll be brief.  Nouwen fans will be delighted, though, to know that the Henri Nouwen Society and his Legacy Trust in England have allowed the Upper Room publishers to release a piece, A Spirituality of Fundraising, which they used to promote (for free, as a monograph, back in the day.) It was hard to get and rumor of it was legendary.  That it is now widely available, handsomely designed and nicely produced is certainly great news.  More on that in a moment.

The Society and Trust have worked out a partnership with Upper Room to also release some other Nouwen writing, lifting things from his published and unpublished body of work.  A Spirituality of Caregiving is the first of this sort, not entirely new, but newly compiled and formatted --- including some previously unreleased work from his manuscript archives.  This is so, so exciting, and we are just thrilled to announce this here at BookNotes.

A_Spirituality_of_caregiving.pngThe Spirituality of Caregiving  Henri J. M. Nouwen (Upper Room Books) $12.00  Many of us who are older recall the amazement we felt when we read Henri's early work in the early 70s; With Open Hands, Out of Solitude, The Wounded Healer.  Oh, the wounded healer--did he actually coin that phrase?  I don't know.  This new, small volume is an exquisite gathering together of a handful of his other writings along these lines, words he had written about giving our lives to others, about caring for those in personal need, about loving those who are hurting.  Of course this must flow from the love of God, so he writes, "The more we touch the intimate love of God which creates, sustains, and guides us, the more we recognize the multitude of fruits that come forth from that love."

One of the fruits of this kind of love is learning to care, and taking up the vocation of caregiving. As it says on the back cover, "Nouwen delves deeply and honestly into the ambiguities of the caregiving experience---the gifts as well as the enormous physical, emotional, and spiritual challenges."

I am sure you know about Father Nouwen's move to be a member of the L'Arche Daybreak community, and the last ten years of his life lived with the mentally challanged.  He soon came to understand that faithful caring involved mutuality, a "mutual spiritual presence" and that as we grow to love others, we can experience inner healing, liberation, growth, transformation and the like.  Some of these insights, about the ups and downs of taking care of others (to put it more prosaically than he does) are found here, woven together nicely as a coherent, lovely little book. 

I can't say enough about this great resource, and we wouldn't be surprised if it is adopted for use in Stephen's Ministry classes, for deacons, nursing home staff, hospice workers, counselors of at risk-youth, and anyone working with the sick.  Perhaps you must live the 36-hour day of those living with a loved one with dementia. Perhaps you are caring for someone with chronic pain. And, I bet you know somebody who would be blessed to receive this handsome little book. 

9780835810449.jpgA Spirituality of Fundraising Henri J.M. Nouwen (Upper Room Books) $12.00  Like the previously mentioned one, this is one of the most handsome little volumes I've seen, with lovely pull quotes, b/w art, nice type, a fully lovely version of what was once a fairly plain booklet.  Like its companion, it includes Nouwen writings that few have ever seen before.  This is wonderful news, and its genesis is itself a bit of a grace.  The booklet was written up from a (serendipitously tape- recorded)  lecture Nouwen gave to a mission group he believed in.  He was fired up for the Kingdom of God and invite them to be bold in asking for money.   He knew it was nothing to be ashamed of, but an invitation for people to join together in God's work, a great opportunity, not a begrudging hassle.  And he knew it took not only convictions about the importance of the work, but vulnerability and trust.  This has been the key to any number of para-church ministries and a good reminder to those (like my friends at the CCO or IVCF) who have to raise their own salaries, or any number of non-profits who are always needing to raise additional funds.

Father Nouwen speaks great truth here, passionate words about God's mission, about giving, about trust, about generosity.  You may think (if you are not a fundraiser) that this book isn't for you, but since we all live in a world of economics and budgets, and we all give donations and steward our resources, it could be said that this little book is essential.  What an urgent topic and what a rare bit of deeply spiritual wisdom.

Church leaders especially need to know this, need to get these truths into their bones.  Money follows mission; donors are partners, not objects. Development is ministry, not only a tool of ministry.  Our esteem does not come from our success; we are to be people of gratitude, always.  I hope you help us spread the word about this great little treasure.  God's reign calls us to be givers.  And sometimes fundraisers.  This helps us understand it well.

I love this opening story from the preface of these two handsome books. 

Henri Nouwen sought the center of things.  Never content to observe life from the sidelines, his approach to new experiences and relationship was full throttle.  He looked at the world with the enthusiastic anticipation of a child, convinced that right in the midst of life he would find the God who loves us without conditions.  Helping us recognize this God in the very fabric of our lives was the enduring passion of Henri's life and ministry.
Thanks to Nouwen's old teaching and editorial assistant (while at Yale), and founder of the Weavings journal, John Mogabgab, we have this great new series now available as books, with more to come.   We are pleased to name them now, as additions to the list of the summer's best new books on spirituality.  Hooray!!

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June 28, 2011

A long, personal review of a short, personal book: Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction by Richard J. Mouw

41NIa29YruL._SL500_AA300_.jpgI'm sitting here at the keyboard, my heart beating faster than usual.  I've been jittery all day, excited to start this column, but lacking confidence.  This is a moment that I've been looking forward to---with excitement and a bit of anxiety---as I am about to tell you about a book that I believe is truly excellent, quite helpful, almost entirely interesting, and very, very important, especially for those who are involved in the sorts of efforts at faithful discipleship and public renewal that we write about here from time to time.   I believe it could be important for you and---if you care about these sorts of things---it is important to us, here, to Beth and I.  I want to tell you why.  This book shares some of who we are, what we are about, and how we've arrived at some of our deepest convictions, convictions that shape our inventory selection, what we write about, the story that is Hearts & Minds. This book is about an old hero of mine from another era, written by a hero of mine who is quite contemporary.  But I'm worried that some or our readers just won't be that interested; some just want a good deal on a book and are less interested in its story, let alone the story of why we sell it.   I am both eager and yet unsure if I have the capacity to do justice to this brilliant little book, explaining why it is important to us and why you should buy it.

I could almost write a book---and over the years, nearly have---about the run up to this, why my own faith journey was enhanced when I discovered the work and witness of  Abraham Kuyper, the larger than life Dutch pastor, theologian, scholar, activist, and Prime Minister of Holland who lived from the end of the 1800s into the early 1900s.  It may have been Kuyperabraham-kuyper.jpg who introduced the phrase worldview to contemporary evangelicals (see the hefty one-of-kind-book on the history of the phrase Worldview: The History of a Concept by David Naugle for the real scoop on that.) Kuyper's dense set of lectures given at Princeton in 1898 are still in print from Eerdmans, entitled Lectures on Calvinism, although it could easily be marketed as Serious Lectures on a Christian Worldview.  It was Kuyper who gave us that memorable line about the ascended Christ claiming "every square inch" of creation---"Mine!"--- a colorful call to missional action on every front of social and cultural life.  Here is a nice article on Kuyper by the aforementioned David Naugle--check it out (after you read this long post, of course!) 

From Kuyper's Dutch descendants I learned about a Christian association of radical farmers who thought about renewed ways of doing their agriculture and an alternative approach to labor organizing based on cooperation, not class struggle, and a uniquely Christian political witness--a political party Kuyper founded which in some ways influenced the important witness for good citizenship known as CPJ (The Center for Public Justice.)   A journal I sometimes write for called Comment, published by a Canadian think-tank, Cardus, has similar Kuyperian roots.  In some ways, the gang of young writers who put out the wonderfully fascinating e-zine catapult (published by *cino) stands in this same tradition.  I simply wouldn't be without the CPJ Capitol Commentary, Comment and catapult coming into my inbox each week.

Some of my all time favorite books---I could say Calvin Seerveld's book on creativity and daily aesthetics, Rainbows for the Fallen WorldTransforming Vision by Walsh & Middleton, Nicholas Wolterstorff's Until Justice and Peace Embrace or Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen's Gender and Grace---are written by folks who stand in the shadow of Father Abraham.  Those who study Reformed theology know that he wrote massive amounts of still-relevant theological work, and a beautify devotional (Near Unto God.)  He also was known as a lover of the common people and honored their daily lives of service and discipleship.  He rejected any philosophical movement that celebrated humankind's achievements devoid of God, so maybe we shouldn't call him a "renaissance man." (Although one good biography, by James McGoldrick, nicely calls him Abraham Kuyper: God's Renaissance Man.)  He certainly wasn't an Enlightenment guy (he realized that Rationalism alone was a dead-end and despised the brutalities of the French Revolution and its guillotines.)  He was something more than a revolutionary (he didn't need The Who to warn that the new boss is same as the old boss.) And although an ardent Calvinist, he wasn't just Reformed, if one means by that a Calvinistic theologian who didn't live out the culturally-shaping ethos of that theology. No, he was more. He was reformational.

Through the larger than life teaching of a brilliant boisterous philosophy professor I met inSteen.ICS.12-75.1 .jpg 1973 who for a while worked for the Pittsburgh-based campus ministry the CCO (Coalition for Christian Outreach), Dr. Peter J. Steen, a group of us involved on the fringes of the Jesus movement and the charismatic renewal sweeping mainline churches in the early 70s came to understand that God cared about all of life, that we are called to serve Christ's reign in everything we do, that we were made to help God run the world with purpose and integrity.  He was the first person I ever heard use the word "reformational" and when he first said "Kuyperian", I had no clue that it was a reference to this pious, intellectual, Dutch visionary---it wasn't a school of thought I had heard of in my Sunday School.  Kuyper was so important in his day as founder of a major university, a daily newspaper, and more, that he lectured at Princeton and as the Dutch Prime Minister even visited the White House, but who heard that in history class?  

Professor Steen taught us that Kuyper and his tribe insisted that part of this calling to take up our vocations in the world for Christ included (for at least for those of us in universities) the demand to think Christianly, to see our academic work in light of the Word of God that sustains the creation, to work for change within each college department. (This was parallel to the stuff the Marxists in the SDS and the radical feminists were saying, then, too, of course---taking your foundational principles and allowing them to color every academic discipline, since no area of scholarship is value-free or ideologically neutral.) We must ponder the warning "do not be taken captive" by secular theories (Colossians 2:8) but rather we must learn how to "take every theory captive" (2 Corinthians 10:5.)  Or, to use the language of Romans 12:1-2, we are not to be conformed to the ideas and ways of the fallen world order, but should have "renewed minds" so we can think as God would want, worshiping daily in the things we do in our bodies, illustrating for the watching world what God's ways for living really are. 

Steen--channeling Kuyper--dramatically insisted that the non-conformed but renewed minds of Romans 12:2 would give us new theories of wise science, new schools of thought for normative architecture, stewardly alternatives to the deadlock between free market vs state-influenced economics, Godly ways to nuancefully review contemporary films, insightful ideas about education, family life, play and more.   Neither culturally liberal or politically conservative, this reformational worldview allowed us to engage the culture with both prophetic denunciations and glad appreciation---"saying no and saying yes" so to speak. This demanded of us to evaluate the books and authors that were influential in our particular classrooms and careers with faith-based critical thinking (which both dismayed and delighted some of our teachers, not to mention our parents) and changed our prayers a bit, allowing us to dream of offering transforming initiatives that could emerge out of communities of shared discourse about the Bible and life.

We studied the Bible with Steen as Kuyper might have, believing it "as a grown up child of
img-article---carter-bailout-for-publishers-book-pile_221732747638.jpg God" and always with a view to how it was to be lived out in the biggest issues of our contemporary culture.  Other authors we read in those years, from other denominational traditions---as diverse as Harry Blamires, Francis & Edith Schaeffer, Pope Leo XXIII, John Howard Yoder, Reinold Niebuhr, Lesslie Newbigin, Thomas Kuhn, Michael Polanyi, Os Guinness---began to make sense.  I became a reader of the sort I am today in part because this campus minister named Steen name-dropped Abraham Kuyper and told stories about the consequences of the revival of which he was a part in long-ago Netherlands. 

Steen's role in the CCO in those years taught those of us who worked in that campus ministry organization to equip students to take their studies seriously---corum deo, before the face of God, as Kuyper would have put it---and, in significant ways, gave CCO and its evangelism and discipleship efforts a weight and vision and direction that was very different than other popular ministries on campus in those days.  The mainline church's often feeble United Campus Ministries and the fundamentalist Campus Crusade for Christ couldn't imagine the wide-as-life, wholistic vision of the Kingdom of God that Steen taught us, bringing orthodox Christian insights to bear on technology and science, arts and theater, politics and economics, education and psychology.  A special and overtly Christian perspective on work and sports and schooling and voting?  Biblically-based direction for principles and practices for renewing higher education, business, family life, and environmental care? Caring about what we now call 'fair trade', working to understand global poverty but seeking a "third way" between the answers provided by the secular left and the religious right, baptizing neither but offering inherently, consistently, deeply Christian insights?  No other groups of which I knew, in church or parachurch, was doing that.  Francis Schaeffer had books on art, environmentalism, and philosophy and we later learned that he was greatly influenced by a Dutch philosopher (Herman Dooyeweerd) who himself was a Kuyperian.

The CCO (to name just one organization of which I have been a part) has grown in its outreach to students and has come to be respected on many college campuses and churches in part because of its care for institutions---like colleges, churches and local businesses---in a way most para-church ministries do not.  This is, in part, a Kuyperian distinction, that CCO does student ministry but takes their context (the world of higher education and classes and careers) seriously. They partner with established organizations in the towns where there are colleges.  Learning from Steen about Kuyper's call to love all of God's creation, including organizations and institutions, and to take our callings into those places seriously influenced my life, and it was working with the CCO that influenced our dream to have a unique Christian bookstore that tried to resource folks for this kind of reformational living in every zone of culture.  We read to understand the Lordship of Christ over all of life, we sometimes say, intoning Kuyper's "every square inch!" motto.

It was from this Kuyper-influenced vision of "whole life discipleship" and the deepening of the Christian intellectual life that the legendary Jubilee conference was shaped, a story that I've told elsewhere. (Plan to go to Pittsburgh for this year's conference, February 17-19, 2012!  Richard Mouw will be there!)

This same Kuyperian worldview influenced books which were written by CCO staff (or former staff) over the years.  For instance, All of Life Redeemed and At Work and at Play were compiled by four CCO staff that J.I. Packer called "Pittsburgh's fab four." (Both are sadly now out of print.)  We still heartily recommend William Romanowski's Eyes Wide Open: Finding God in Popular Culture, Steve Garber's Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior, Sam Van Eman's On Earth As It Is In Advertising, Donald Opitz & Derek Melleby's Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness and the only academic book on collegiate student development from a Christian perspective, Student Affairs Reconsidered: A Christian View of the Profession and Its Contexts (edited by David Guthrie) were in one way or another influenced by the CCO's "reformational" effort to think faithfully about being "in but not of" a various sphere of daily living.  And these are just books written by those who have direct CCO connections---the listing of contemporary neo-Kuyperians grows monthly, so, who "get" the vision without citing the sources.  Two of the very best two books of the last several years---Culture Making by Andy Crouch (IVP) and The Next Chrisitans by Gabe Lyon (Doubleday)--- sure seem to have been influenced by these conversations on a neo-Calvinist take on cultural reformation. 

If I may say so, it was this gang---influenced by Dutch North American immigrant neo-Calvinists who had grown up hearing from their grandparents about Abraham Kuyper's influence in Holland generations before---that helped Hearts & Minds gain our vision of becoming a Christian bookstore that stocked books in nearly every area of life, books that are critical of the idols of the culture but also books that celebrate life and affirm common grace.  Our "books by vocation" bibliography developed (and will be updated soon, Lord willing) because of Steen and because of Kuyper.

So, we have the CCO to thank for teaching Beth and I this vision, Dr. Steen to thank for preaching to us about Kuyper, and now, once again, to Dr. Richard Mouw for, even this week as I read my early copy, helping me understand our journey.  I am thrilled to think again about the path we've been on, occasioned by reading this little gem of a book, a "short and personal" introduction to Kuyper.  If you care even a bit about our odd little business here--if you find yourself glad about these BookNotes reviews and our work (here in the shop or out on the road where we've met so many appreciative readers), if you, too, ponder the connections between historic, orthodox Christian faith and lasting cultural renewal--you may want to pick up this little paperback.  It will mean a lot to us and, we think, help our tribe increase.


Pete Steen had a few accomplices in his 70s and 80s perspective workshops, philosophy classes, Bible studies and reformational conferences, and one was a bookseller named Wesley Seerveld.  Wes would somehow get to Steen, or Steen would get to him, and they'd promote books among the students, faculty, pastors and congregations with whom they'd have contact.  My love of pushing books, doing up-front announcements at events, (maybe even overstating the culturally-formative influence of certain books---moi?) came to me as much from Wes as it did from Pete.  For the first time in my life, I saw intellectually credible Christian books and heard somebody say they were important to read. C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer and Lewis Smedes and James Skillen, Van Til and Goudzewaard and Rookmaaker.  That traveling bookseller, son of Dutch immigrants, showed us books on the relationship of faith and art, faith and history, faith and science, faith and film, faith and health care, faith and sports.  One of the books that Wes sold that truly impacted me in the mid-70s was a book with the intriguing title Political Evangelism, by a then-young evangelical/ neo-Calvinist I could relate to, one Richard Mouw.  I trusted Mouw because he obviously cared about inner city poverty, and racial injustice, about the Viet Nam war---concerns that I cared about; he desired Biblically-faithful thinking about civic life, seemed to posit a "third way" between the left and the right (or at least that is how I understood it.)  I had never read anything like it.  I've since read every book Mouw released, including an edited volume about hymns.  I love this guy.

Over the years, Dr. Mouw's books have increased his stature in my eyes, books that are clear, well-reasoned, pious, generous, and usually with a sense that he was offering plain old Christian common sense, but yet--somehow--really distinctive, special, insightful.  This wasn't warmed over liberal social gospel stuff, and it wasn't far out Christian right stuff. It wasn't like the anti-war writers like Stringfellow, Wallis, Hauerwas and Yoder or, later, the new monastics or emergents, although had been in discussions with them all.  Where was this guy coming from?


Mouw is now the President of the largest seminary in the world, and certainly the most multi-cultural one in North America, Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena.  He was previously a professor of political philosophy at Calvin College.  He has written my favorite introductory book on Reformed theology (Calvinism at the Las Vegas Airport) and one of the most necessary books for public discourse these days, a fine book on civility called Uncommon Decency and one of the great little books relating the new creation images of Isaiah to the final days of the New Jerusalem in Revelation (When the Kings Come Marching In.)  You have to love a guy ponders the meaning of the line from "This Is My Father's World" and names the book He Shines in All That's Fair.  He has a book on what evangelicals can learn from fundamentalists (which I adored) and another about what Christian scholars can learn from popular culture and those outside of the academy. A small collection of very short pieces is called Praying at Burger King (and most of those brief chapters are well worth discussing--somebody should do a study guide for it!)  Although it is out of print, The Lutheran publishing outfit Augsburg Fortress did a book of his that was perhaps one of my favorite books of the 1980s, Called to Holy Worldliness, part of a series about the role of the laity, and the title alone speaks volumes. 

Mouw has dialogued richly with Roman Catholic folks and Mormon scholars;  he is interested (as was Kuyper a century ago) in Christian-Muslim dialogue.  He often indicates that he has good friends in the Jewish community and amongst mainline Protestants.  In most of his books he quotes medieval mystics or mentions little books some nun gave him about the inner life.  He writes sometimes for Christian Century and for Christianity Today and, in the old days, for Sojourners.  He attends a PC(USA) congregation.  In the late 1970s and into the 80s he instigated conversations between the Reformed and the Mennonites, working out similarities and differences in ways to relate to the modern world, including important questions of war and peace. (He was one of the original planners for the famous 1973 Chicago Declaration of Social Concern developed by Ron Sider.) On one thing or another he sometimes seems to be pushing the envelope just a bit, but always with calm and grace and impeccable balance.  His writing is clear about who he is, where he is coming from, and yet is generous and open to others.  He is Kuyperian to his core yet delightfully ecumenical. Did I say I want to be like him when I grow up?

And, so, the big question: how does somebody get to be like this? Why aren't his books more popular?  Where in the world is Mouw coming from?

Well, anyone who has followed him---or knows anything about this Pete Steen mentor of mine that I mentioned---realizes at least part of the answer is simple: Abraham Kuyper.  This early 20th century Dutch theologian and statesman had a shaping influence on Mouw in the late 60s, as he explains in the opening pages of Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction (Eerdmans; $16.00.) 

In the late 60s I found myself immersed in the turmoil of secular university campus life.  It precipitated a crisis of faith for me, as I wrestled much with how I as a Christian should be dealing with some of the big issues being debated in American public life.  This was the time of the civil rights movement and the bitter debates about the legitimacy of the war in Viet Nam.

I felt ill prepared for these challenges as an evangelical Christian.  I had been raised in the kind of evangelical environment where the life of the mind was not held in high regard.  We were suspicious of "worldly learning."  I had made my way out of that kind of anti-intellectualism, but I still was not sure where to look for help in finding an alternative to the "other worldly" mentality of my younger years.  I had been told often that getting involved in "social action" was not the kind of thing God wanted from us.  One of the favorite lines I heard from preachers as a kid was that trying to improve things here on earth is like trying to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic...

Eager to distance myself from that mentality---especially given the pressures of the activist sixties---I explored other theological alternatives.  But it was a frustrating time for me spiritually and theologically.  I was not attracted to a liberal "social gospel" approach.  And while the social teachings of the Catholic tradition made some sense to me, I was not ready to travel the road to Rome.

It was during this time that I came upon Abraham Kuyper's Lectures on Calvinism, the Stone Lectures that he had delivered at Princeton Seminary during this 1898 visit to the United States.  In Kuyper's robust Calvinism I discovered what I had been looking for: a vision of active involvement in my public life that would allow me to steer my way between a privatized evangelicalism on the one hand and the liberal Protestant or Catholic approaches to public discipleship on the other.  I have attempted to walk this way ever since.

Well, this is somewhat my own story, if in less dramatic tones.  I, like Mouw, have easily gotten beyond the rejection of the "this world is not my home, I'm just a passing through" nonsense. (Again, learning of Kuypers insistence that Christ is returning to bring restoration and renewal to the creation has become a non-negotiable truth, deep in my bones, articulated well in the title of Kuyperian Al Wolter's book Creation Regained: The Biblical Basis for a Reformational Worldview.)
Further, I am not ashamed to be counted among those who are eager for social action---I don't find myself on the picket line as much as I used to, but try to remain active for several important causes and issues.  So, social action?  Sure. But what shape should our social action take?  And what is social action?  Isn't our public discipleship more than working for peace, justice, or racial reconciliation, more than advocacy for a few key issues?  What about daily work, chemistry, gender roles, congregational life, shopping habits?  Isn't almost all of life, social, after all?  What should our life in the world look like?  As the famous Francis Schaeffer--himself influenced by the Kuyperian vision---put it a popular book How Should We Then Live?  It is the same question Nancy Pearcy later helped Charles Colson ask in How Now Should We Live?  It is the question Jamie Smith has brilliantly explored in his major work Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Way of Life.

abraham_kuyper.jpgMouw is right.  Kuyper's sacred principles, explained in his voluminous writings, speeches, devotionals, sermons, and lectures---and, significantly, in the legacy of his Kuyperian tradition as his devotees gave equal vigor to thinking through the implications of a Christian world and life view for all areas of life---opened up a framework for a coherent way to think about cultural engagement, multi-faceted Christian living.  It isn't enough to say we must be missional, living for the Kingdom in the world.  What does that look like?  How do we know how to determine what cultural changes we should work for?  What, if any, are the principles for various societal institutions?  Of course we all want quality education and good government and strong families, but what does that really mean?  This goal of a life well lived that is whole and integrated---not fragmented or compartmentalized---and that moves towards cultural renewal, is significantly aided by the insights of Abraham Kuyper.  And in the hands of Mouw, Kuyper's seminal insights, his key ideas, his major points, all come to life for today.

Mouw calls this book personal because it it his take on Kuyper, and much of it is tells of how Mouw has tried to appropriate the work of this giant in our own setting.  (It is a huge and very interesting project. Think how edifying it would be to read of someone who might pay similar tribute to and bring into contemporary relevance the overall teachings of, say, William Wilberforce or Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Luther King.)  It doesn't matter if you are Presbyterian or not, if you care about serious thinking about "changing the world" this will help.

And, it is short.  Mouw explains,

I decided to make it short because I want to introduce some basics about Kuyper's thought for readers who may be curious enough about this nineteenth century Dutch leader to read a fairly concise introduction.  Kuyper has some enthusiastic devotees in the English-speaking world, and there are probably some how there who wonder what all the fuss is about, even though they may not be eager to know every detail.  This book is meant to satisfy that kind of curiosity....

He admits there is a scholarly renaissance about Kuyper these days (there is the Kuyper Center at Princeton, for instance) but this book is for those who may not want to study such scholarship.  Just getting familiar with a bit of Kuyper, through Mouw's teacherly introduction, may nudge some of us in the right direction.

Heaven knows we need some nudging.  All kinds of publishers and all kinds of websites and gatherings are nowadays celebrating the need for Christians to transform the culture.  A generic sort of Kuyperianism has won the day---few really want to be fundamentalist anymore, and it is evident that the mainline churches do not have the influence they once did. Who doesn't want to "engage the culture" or "make a difference?" We all know Jesus' dictum, "in but not of" the world.  Yet there is this paradox---many are studying culture, missional living, social engagement, but there seem to be less and less clarity about what we should be doing, how to engage culture, what kinds of social initiatives are most prudent and faithful.  That is, we need less convincing to be responsible in the world, and more teaching about what that actually might look like.                                                   
Kuyper's principles are not to be applied woodenly as if our postmodern, globalized world is the same as his was at the end of the 19th century.  And, as Mouw makes clear in a few powerful chapters, Kuyper was woefully mistaken about some things.  (Even in the important Stone Lectures he indicates he was a man of his time with embarrassing comments regarding peoples of Africa.)  But does the Kuyperian philosophy about social spheres, authority structures, principled pluralism and such offer us tools for faithful living in these days?  I believe more than ever that the answer is a resounding yes.

I will tell you more about this fine little book in the next post.  Mouw has it broken up into two major sections: Kuyper on Theology and Culture: An Overview and Kuyper for the Twenty-first Century.  I don't know which portion I enjoyed more, learning some basic facts about Kuyper's life, times, theological insights and important teachings or Mouw's telling of how some are renewing Kuyperian impulses and instincts for contemporary discipleship.  Both are very, very helpful.

For now, consider this one small portion, a brief example of why we think this book is so very helpful.  Kuyper is, Mouw says, doing some appropriate kind of imagining.  When asked if a particular Kuyperian theory of how social institutions should work together is taught in the Bible, Mouw admits that Kuyper, and his younger colleague Herman Bavinck, might have been more attentive to grounding their social theory in specific texts of the Bible.  But then Mouw says this, and it is both a good reason to appreciate Kuyper, and a fine reminder of what we really need from our Christian theologians, thinkers, authors.  (Which is not to just to merely create a system of arranging the facts of Scripture, but to allow them to guide what C.S. Lewis called our "baptized imaginations.")

Here's Mouw, admitting that Kuyper's keen call that the creation is ordered in a way that it demands a separation of social institutions, may be a bit over-reaching from what the Bible directly says.

Yes, there certainly are some leaps in all of that.  But at least two points have to be made in defense of what Kuyper and Bavinck are doing.  One is that they are engaged in the kind of intellectual activity that gives life to much good theological reflection.  This is the kind of thing that theologians---really good theologians--do.  They go beyond the explicit statements of Scripture to explore larger patterns of coherence that can shed light on the patterns and implications of what the Bible explicitly says.  That's precisely the kind of thing that happens when theologians write treatises on the Trinity, or when the spell out what they see as a biblically faithful understanding of the church.

The second point in defense of the Kuyperian view is that there is a "fit" of sorts between the actual biblical passages Kuyper and Bavinck allude to and the more speculative claims they make.  The Bible does address in very specific ways how God shapes and governs the creation.  What Kuyper and Bavinck are doing is to try to catch the spirit of those specific references in order to talk in more general terms and categories about how God structures and orders created life.

Kuyper indeed catches the spirit of what some Biblical texts say and then he draws  generative insights on how to best build a social architecture that allows for human flourishing, social justice, public righteousness, the widening of the common good.  Don't we all want that?   Are we not to be working for that?  Kuyper---as explained by Mouw---gives us some intellectual tools and some spiritual instincts on how to proceed in being true salt and light and leaven in a good but fallen world.

41NIa29YruL._SL500_AA300_.jpgIf Pete Steen, the flamboyant philosopher and visionary for a Kuyperian worldview within the CCO, were still alive, and if Wes Seerveld, were still hawking books like this, believe me, they'd be all over this.  I wonder if this book will change lives the way Mouw's first book so impacted my own?  Will there be a new movement of world-changers who are eagerly reformational, glorifying God by working for the inner transformation of each social sphere and every area of influence?   Having Richard Mouw expound on Abraham Kuyper, inviting us to "catch the spirit" of what some Bible texts says, and then run with them, surely will help!

My goodness, this is the sort of stuff that changed my life, that propelled me in to book-selling, and that, I believe, can help continue the work of a wide-as-life redemptive vision, modified Kuyperianism for our own day.  Whether you are Reformed or not, Calvinist or not, edgy or traditional, mainline or evangelical or Catholic, whether you've heard of Kuyper or not, this is good reading that will lead to good learning.  And, I believe, good living.

Here is what Jamie Smith--himself now a philosopher in Grand Rapids where Mouw once was--says about it:

This marvelous little book pulls off an astounding feat: though it is both compact and accessible, it also gives us the whole Kuyper.  Too often we get Kuyper in slices: folks gravitate to a 'side' of Kuyper, adopting his theology of culture but neglecting his emphasis on the church, or picking up common grace but neglecting antithesis.  [These are words, by the way, that Mouw nicely explains.]  But Mouw, with typical wit and warmth, introduces us to Kuyper in all his multifaceted richness.  A gift for the next generation.

If you are still with me, you may understand why I was a bit nervous.  I couldn't just tell you that Kuyper was a famous theologian that worked for a unique sort of social influence a century ago and that this book is a warm introduction to his views.  No, this is a central chapter in the Hearts & Mind story, and insofar as you read BookNotes, we wanted you to know why it matters to us.  More urgently---as we will explore in the next post---there is a distinct need today to get beyond the typical perspectives of both conservatives and progressives, and give some radical texture to a "third way" of thinking.  Kuyper has not only been influential in helping evangelicals get involved in "every square inch" serving Christ in the real world.  His views have helped forge a social perspective that is worth thinking about in the 21st century.  Mouw's book is not only inspiring, it can be substantive in helping us take next steps towards faithful action.  More on that, soon.

Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction
Richard Mouw (Eerdmans)
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June 30, 2011

Another long piece on a short and personal book: Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction by Richard J. Mouw (Eerdmans)

I know what some of you are thinking.  He's on the kick about Abraham Kuyper, again, saying we should serve God in all of life and how the CCO does campus ministry out of that broad, evangelical vision, and that local churches should be more intentional about nurturing in congregants practices about public discipleship, relating faith and work and civic life.  If we want to change the world in appropriate ways we should read widely and think faithfully. He's going to go on and on and on, like he did with the Rob Bell Love Wins reviews.  Is this review of this little book, Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction (Eerdmans; $16.00) going to take me a day or more to read?

Well, yes, this is a large part of the Hearts & Minds story, and discovering the way the 19th century revival in Holland led to cultural renewal and social restoration--the very architecture of society was transformed for greater human flourishing and justice for all--was not only eye-opening for me, but set us on a direction which has shaped the texture of our bookstore work.  We know this isn't for everyone, but we have reason to think our readers care.  I hope we're a little bit right.

Richard Mouw, a self-avowed Kuyperian (or neo-Calvinist as some put it, to capture the
kuyper cover.jpg reformational tone of the tradition and not only the teachings of the man) has done a short and personal overview of this great Dutch thinker, devotional writer, pastor, scholar, politician, and social reformer.  As we explained in the previous post, it seemed to be an opportunity for us to tell our story, or at least part of it, showing how Kuyperian themes have influenced our passion to sell books of the sort we do. We want to invite those who don't know much about Prime Minister Kuyper to treat themselves to a few hours of quick learning about him by picking up Richard Mouw's little book.  Come on along, it will be good for you.  You'll learn a bit in this review, I hope, and I certainly hope that you find it interesting enough to order the book.  You can see our discounted sale price below.   

We all should know something about the great heroes of the faith, of course, and we have a wide batch of biographies and compilations from church history here at the shop. We should learn from Saint Francis and William Wilberforce, read from Bonaventure to Bonhoeffer, study Julia of Norwich, Jonathan Edwards, Karl Barth and more.  We should read Blaise Pascal to, well, to Abraham Kuyper.  And Kuyper (because of his remarkable achievements, his deep balance of both piety and political action, and his extensive body of writing) is well, well worth knowing about.  So, yep, in the last post I used the new Mouw book about him as an excuse to tell our story, why learning about him helped us broaden our vision and deepen our principles.  We want to invite folks to pay attention to old Abe.  I believe his work is more important than many realize.

After the overview in the last post it remains for me now to tell a bit of what Dr. Mouw covers in this delightful, accessible introduction.  I noted that the subtitle indicates that it is personal, and it is.  Mouw is excellent at the shorter form and these chapters could stand alone in some cases, they are that clear and concise, each with a lovely illustrative story or clarifying analogy.  He tells stories of his own life, inspired by his reflecting and teaching this material for most of a lifetime.  Mouw is a good speaker and teacher and this intro walks us through what are, in some cases, some serious thickets, marking a path for us to understand and ponder Kuyper's philosophy, its strengths and weaknesses and its usefulness for us today.

Mouw doesn't overstate this fascinating bit of speculation, but he does have a few pages on what some have considered to be a unique and long-standing characteristic of the Dutch.  Scholars have noted that they love to make distinctions, to clarify and sort, to mark boundaries.  There are intellectual habits among this culture that "like to see things clearly."   Dr. Mouw quotes one scholar who notes that this could come from the many "dykes and dams" in Holland---"both as to our land and our mental life" as that writer put it.   A Scottish pastor who worked in Holland wrote that perhaps this is "wrought into their nature by many centuries of un-relaxing toil in making and holding that distinction between land and sea, which to them is a matter of life and death."

If there is a proclivity to make distinctions in the Netherlands, it may have rubbed off on  Kuyper, and it is seen in key portions of his work which are, in fact, about what he insists are God-given boundaries. It may be seen, too, in how so many of us neo-Calvinists continue to draw vast implications from the stories of God creating things "after their own kind" in Genesis.

It is essential if one is to understand Kuyper's theology of culture to realize that it is about boundary-markers and honoring God's intentions for various spheres to develop without undue influence from others. To put it bluntly, Kuyper has this sense that the created order works as it ought when no one big institution (most obviously, the government, but one might consider big business or the mass media, or in medieval Europe, the Catholic church) overly controls or influences us and our daily living.  Families, schools, art guilds, local businesses, sport teams, churches, social service clubs, and other voluntary associations should be encouraged to flourish unencumbered by other spheres.

Gordon Spykman was a Dutch-immigrant theologian and philosopher (the Kuyperian tradition values philosophy as well as theology, so there are a lot of vital philosophers who are distinctively neo-Calvinist---let Max Weber try to explain that!)  My friend (philosopher) Pete Steen introduced us to him back in the 70s and in one scholarly journal, Spykman wrote,

Each sphere has its own identity, its own unique task, its own God-given prerogatives.  On each God has conferred its own peculiar right of existence and reason for existence. 

The implications of this are vast, and in this book, Mouw explores some of them.  Obviously this means that the church or state ought not try to run anything other than, well, the church or the state.  (The state is a particular influential institution, though, as it does have a regulatory task, authorized by God to be somewhat involved in every sphere---think how the government must remove a child from an abusive home or should regulate the food industry or may do intrusive audits of businesses that are financially deceptive.  It isn't a violation of the task of the state when they tell you what side of the road to drive on, after all, and your pastor or employer isn't authorized to declare that.)  So Kuyper is for institutional diversity and this tends towards a localism, it seems to me,  inviting many social networks and institutions to develop freely. 

By the way, just as an indication of Kuyper's desire to be clear that the authority of the church shouldn't impose on the public square, when he ran for elected office he renounced his ordination.  His authority as magistrate shouldn't be confused with that of a pastor.  Something, huh?

Another implication (the focus of a few later chapters of the Mouw book, in fact) might be that if God has built into the creation the possibility of these various spheres to be developed---creativity and the arts, journalism and mass media, family life, business, science, education, politics, entertainment, governments local and national---then those who are are called into them are themselves "prophets, priests and kings" in those fields.  That is, there is no sacred-secular dualism that values, say, church life or theological theory over, say, business life and economic theory.  If God has ordained various spheres then surely God has called various people to serve in those spheres.  All who follow the Christ, then, are of equal value to God's reign and work in the world, not just missionaries or ministers.  (Speaking of which, why do some churches offer scholarships for some of their young people if they go to seminary, but not if they, say, go into engineering?  Kuyper might roll over in his grave, and he was himself a theologian and pastor!)

If Kuyper is right that all spheres have their own God-given limits and purposes, then it follows that each person in leadership in those fields are to obey and serve God in those fields, being a steward of the gifts and possibilities in that field.  This is the full blossoming of the "priesthood of all believers" for which the Protestant reformation was known.  With a Kuyperian emphasis on the spheres and their unique character and calling, there is a liberation of the laity to serve God in public life in normative ways, not only in the local congregation.  

(Can you see why a somewhat Kuyperian bookseller like myself thinks that Christian people need good books about their various careers and spheres?  Of course we "focus on the family" here but also the marketplace, the job site, the university, the doctors office, the boardroom, the bedroom.  We have books on everything because God created everything and sends us into every zone of life to glorify God by serving our neighbors there.  It is no wonder that Kuyper founded a university to work out the scholarship to equip people to serve like this.  It is the least we could do to start a bookstore!)

Another implication that Mouw studies early in Abraham Kuyper... is that this opened up, multi-faceted view of the God-created nature of social spheres gives us a large and useful tool to discern idolatry.  Idols are often corporate and cultural and lead to overblown spheres, squeezing out other sides of life.  For instance, statism is just one example, where, as in socialism, the state is given (or takes) too much authority to do too much.  Freudianism was an ideology that overstated the role of dysfunctional sexuality; Darwinism perhaps overstates the biological.  Technicism makes an idol out of the good gift of technology, and scientism reduces everything to that sphere.  Mouw's helpful chapter "When Spheres Shrink" shows Kuyper's prescient insight about the modern condition, and he says it better than I do here.

(By the way, C.S. Lewis had a similar take on this and I believe coined the phrase "nothing buttery" to mock those who say life is "nothing but..." this or that.  You know, love is nothing but hormones, a feeling for God is nothing but brain chemistry, ethics are nothing but social conventions. Each takes a legitimate insight about how a sphere of life works---hormones, neurons, social conventions) and says that is all there is.  Reductionism as idolatry.  Kuyper's books maybe taught it to him, who knows? Lewis read quite widely, you know.)

The-Transforming-Vision-9780877849735.jpgI hope you understand how I'm using this rhetorical device, adding "ism" to a word in order to illustrate how we turn a legitimate thing in God's good world that functions properly into an ideology that damages us and deforms our society.  Again, for instance, militarism is condemned repeated in the Bible as it turns military might into something to be trusted; an ideology of idolatry.  Economism is that tendency where in consumer capitalism, economic growth is seen as the engine by which everything runs and things that ought not be reduced to their financial side are seen that way.  I once heard Os Guinness talk about how he knew a person who literally told a friend how much she could have made if she were working while she was having a glass of wine with her friend, putting a "price" on the hour of fellowship.  The best treatment of this, succinct and powerful, can be found in chapter 9 of The Transforming Vision: Developing a Christian Worldview by Brian Walsh & RIchard Middleton (IVP; $16.00.)  I am pretty sure they get this worldviewish cultural criticism from the legacy of thinkers in the tradition of Kuyper and his social philosophy.  I think it is important for anyone who wants to be cultural wise and discerning in our confusing modern times.

Here is another example of how this helps us evaluate common practices and to discern if idolatry and muddled thinking are having consequences.  Neo-Calvinist philosopher (yep, another one) James K.A.  Smith in The Devil Reads Derrida and Other Essays (Eerdmans; $18.00) has a brilliant essay on why colleges ought not describe their students as customers or consumers and why education is not about consuming knowledge. (He wrote this piece, by the way, in the newspaper of the college where he is employed, since their admission department, like many throughout the country, had been using these terms in their literature.  A bit of a controversy ensued.  Just like in Kuyper's day---ha!) 

Using lingo that is appropriate in a business setting to refer to something that is decidedly not a business setting betrays a spirit of reductionistic idolatry, he maintains, and leads to a confusion of spheres.  Smith's Kuyperian roots enabled him to be prophetic in his critique of how we have too often adopted a consumerist model for education or, even, church life (as in church shopping or wanting to get something out of worship.)  To talk about customers and profits is fine in economic institutions (although, as we attempt to model, even business interactions with customers are more than mere financial transactions, and even the economic side of life must be approached as holy ground, with relational care.)  Schools or churches or non-profit organizations all have economic dimensions to be sure, but their essence is something else, and dare not be reduced to finances.  Read that chapter of Smith's book and you will learn much about the reformational heritage of prophetic discernment. Or, if you like the postmodern turn of a phrase, call it Kuyperian deconstruction.  It is something neo-Calvinists are often quite good at.

As you can see, this concern about idols and the proper function of different spheres (should a family be run like a platoon as in The Sound of Music?  Should a Bible study be a therapy group?  Should a church be run like a business?) is one thorny area and professor  Mouw's good descriptions of Kuyper and how his framework of soevereiniteit in eigen kring---loosely translated as "sphere sovereignty"---can help us know what to promote when seeking cultural reformation.

Saying a business or a government or a sports team or a church should be what it is called to be is a very, very valuable thing to say and if you have insight about this you will help break the impasses common in our tense times.  It amazes me how many political controversies seem stuck without adequate definition of who should do what, what things are supposed to be and what they are supposed to be doing. 

Again---just to make the point in a simple way---think of what a Little League or school footballlittle-league.jpg team is supposed to be about.  Playing, right?  Making money?  No.  Teaching values?  Well, it happens, but that isn't the point.  Making statements about community pride, with team spirit and boosters?  Well, I suppose that's fine, but, again, that doesn't trump the calling of sport itself, the (God-given) point: to have fun through playful recreation.  Should enhancing a school's reputation or the parents self-image but the point.  Duh. Should the business enterprise overly influence sporting events, as if sports is essentially a money-maker?  Or, to change the sphere, should economics guide the development of popular arts, making movies mostly to make money, funding recording acts only on the likelihood that they will sell?  Ahhh, where are the Dutch dams and dykes when we need em?

There is a quite practical side to thinking about the architecture of God's creation as a many-splendored diversity of institutions.  Besides helping us get a handle on what various institutions should be about, and helping us discern when there is idolatry and reductionism and dysfunction.  Such a robust social philosophy affirming the rights and limits of various institutions in the various spheres that make up society also gives us some way to gladly resist the fragmenting influences of our many callings and obligations.  How do we keep our head on straight when we wear so many hats?  How do we find an integrated wholeness when we affirm God's role in so many diverse callings into so many sides of life?  How do the various sides of our lives relate?  

 Mouw puts it like this, insisting on "a crucial point about the many-ness of reality, namely, the teaching set forth so clearly in the Apostle's affirmation of the supreme Lordship of Christ. The Son of God is the unifying and integrating One;  "in him all things hold together." Colossians 1:17.)

He continues,

This does not mean that the integration comes easily.  Contemporary life is very complex.  I struggle with that complexity all the time.  How do I tie together all of the varied roles that are so much part of my everyday life.  I am, among other things, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a teacher, an administrator, a church member, and one who needs rest and recreation.  How do I set my priorities among these many fragments.?

It's not easy.  But as a Christian I have to take these questions to the Lord.  I know that he holds it all together and that by seeing all of these things in the context of his integrating Lordship, I can continually sort things out.  I don't simply have to give in to the many-ness that has no ultimate coherence.

A quick aside: as I was thinking of writing this I was going to go on a tangent, which I then deleted, noting that so many family books, for mothers and fathers, suggest that their home-life is more important than their work lives.  (Especially for women.)  Or, sometimes, there are books on vocation and work that don't particularly honor our calling to home-making.  Few books get it right, helping us with our many-sided vocations.  I thought of parenting-is-your-highest-calling-eight-other-myths-leslie-leyland-fields-paperback-cover-art.jpgone brave Christian book that exposes this tension as unnecessary, a fine book mostly for mothers by Leslie Leyland Fields called Parenting is Your Highest Calling (And Eight Other Myths That Trap Us in Worry and Guilt) published by Waterbrook Press ($13.99.)  The book made sense (and was wonderfully written) and, as I said, it seemed to be an example that could fit in here, talking about balancing legitimate callings and offices and tasks, just like Mouw says. I was going to mention it, but then deleted it (trying to cut down the digressions, you know.)  And then I saw the comment posted on yesterday's column by who else but Ms Fields herself who (who knew?) reads BookNotes!  Was she reading my mind?  She commented that she read Kuyper in college and that his views have significantly shaped her work.  Ahhh, I shoulda seen that coming!  You see, this stuff matters and  can really make a difference.  That one of the wiser books on parenting these days is by a woman who is a Kuyperian---well, there you have it.  Thanks, Leslie!

Well, Mouw explores Kuyper's view of the state within this "many-ness" view which honors the unique significance of various social spheres.  I've already implied what people should know from their Bibles, that the state is not unlimited, but it does have Godly authority to meddle, if you will (that phrase implies illegitimacy, though, so it isn't adequate.)  It can obviously overstep its bounds---that is the concern of the U.S. Tea Party movement, specifically, and conservatism, generally, and they are right to be concerned. (One doesn't need to be a tea-party2.jpgKuyperian to get that!) 

Yet---if you will allow me to improvise on a generally Kuyperian note---it is wrong for conservatives to suggest that the government is somehow illicit to levy taxes.  It isn't "theft" as some conservative bloggers say.  "They" don't "take" our money.  Such common ways of putting it betray large and I believe unbiblical assumptions about the role of the state and the nature of taxes.  We are commanded in the Bible to pay them gladly.  (Apparently Brian McLaren said that last week at the Wild Goose Festival and within days the conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy reported it as if it was looney.  Kuyper-Calvinists, I'd think, would agree with McLaren.)  Of course we must have vibrant and vigilante public conversations about prudent and just tax policies and expenditures, but, in principle, we should affirm a limited government with serious duties.  It is one of the clearer points of a Christian social philosophy that the idea of the state is given to us as a gift from a good God; whether it should be large or small is really not the point, at least not at first, since different cultural contexts may demand different forms of governance.  To be somehow against the government seems, to Kuyperian ears, as near blasphemy, like saying one is against the family, or against the church, or against businesses.  Mr. Mouw is more diplomatic here than I am and doesn't step on toes...

Mouw is knowledgeable about this and he explains it better than I do.  I hope you care about your citizenship enough to want to think this through. Whether you currently hold conservative or progressive tendencies,  I believe this portion of Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction could help.

For those who want a more serious collection of essays about these complex theories, see thekuyperreview.jpg important first volume in the on-going series coming out of Princeton's Kuyper Center, The Kuyper Center Review: Volume One: Politics, Religion, and Sphere Sovereignty edited by Gordon Graham (Eerdmans; $24.00)

One important part of this that Mouw points out is that this approach (or something somewhat like it) has been explored in recent decades by those who are interested in mediating structures. (That would be Peter Berger, for instance, who Pete Steen was very excited about in the early 80s.)  Or, more recently, by those writing about civil society.  I hope you've heard of the book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam (Touchstone; $16.00.) which Mouw mentions. There you have an important view that assumes the legitimacy and social capitol gained by strong mediating structures, voluntary associations, civil institutions, and other groups that are somehow between the sole person in her family and the large institutions of government.  Putnam expresses wise concern about what happens to a society where these associations and mediating organizations aren't strong. (The title of the book comes from his research that even thought the sport of bowling was on the rise in the 1990s, commitment to bowling leagues was down; people aren't joining associations like they used to and our mediating structures are waning. Think of the decline of any number of organizations, from neighborhood groups, churches, the PTA to the local grange or service clubs or scouting organizations.  Hence, his title about the "collapse of community.")

By the way, Jon Chaplin has an excellent, serious chapter in the aforementioned Kuyper Center Review Volume One on this very topic of Kuyper and civil society.  Great!

These civil society institutions, mediating structures, and third places, are important (and when they are strong we do not need as intrusive of a government.)  This is important in the views of conservatives (they help us get away from an overbearing state) and for liberals (who love local, populist, organic groupings.)  Some who emphasize this are calling themselves communitarians.  An off shoot of that is the "crunchy con" movement, a blend of small-is-beautiful localism and resistance to consumerism from a socially conservative motivation.  All of these---from Peter Berger to Robert Putnam to Wendell Berry--can be appreciated and deeply valued if one has something akin to a Kuyperian view of how the state is important but limited. 

Kuyper loved supporting associations and groups and networks. Such an affinity is something many should support and helps us begin to imagine ways of thinking about social change and public life that isn't necessarily wedded to Republican or Democratic parties or programs.  Mouw isn't being cheap when he says that Kuyper's view really does open up a "third way" between the typical left and right, beyond liberals and conservatives.  I know I am hungry for such a perspective and ethos.  I long for somebody who knows how to develop a programmatic agenda for such a breath of fresh air in our culture wars.  It seems to me that the mostly neo-Calvinist Center for Public Justice (CPJ) is the finest civic organization that is working out of an Kuyperian view of social institutions and the high calling and limits of the State.  I don't agree with them on some things, but they still are the most extraordinary group of its kind.

Here is Mouw, in a very short chapter entitled "Placing Kuyper Politically."

It is difficult to read what Kuyper says about the proper functions of the state without trying to "place" him with reference to contemporary debates.  Given the kinds of things Kuyper said in his nineteenth-century context, where would he locate himself today on the "liberal" to "conservative" spectrum of views in the twenty-first century?

For many of us who take his views on political matters seriously, this is no question of idle speculation.  It is a question about us.  And the question--about Kuyper himself and about those of us who look to his views for contemporary guidance---is difficult to answer clearly.

The left-versus-right dilemma is not unique to Kuyperians.  It is a problem for many evangelicals these days.  We care about the poor.  We are often critical of the military actions taken by our governments.  We support environmentalist policies.  We oppose racism and gender discrimination.

But we often find ourselves aligning ourselves with concerns that get expressed on the right.  We worry about the sexual trends in our society.  We oppose abortion-on-demand.  We speak out against the naturalistic and secularist biases that often seem to rule the day in the media and the world of education.

Again, that is true for many evangelicals---Mennonites, Baptists, Pentecostals, Wesleyans---as well as friends in the Catholic community.  But for some of us, the Kuyperian view of the role of the state also figures into the way we se many of these topics.

One of the places Kuyper seems pretty unique is in his passionate concern for the poor and oppressed and how that shapes his proposals.  As I've implied, it doesn't seem that Kuyper advocated what today we would call a big government or the "welfare state" of the liberal Democrats. Yet, he realized that sometimes the government simply must do things that other spheres are failing to do; he realized that "let private charity take care of things" wasn't adequate or normative, given the institutional-structural-systematic realities of the way human societies work.

 Mouw has some spectacular quotes from Kuyper here, and he tells us about an importan9780932914873.jpgt book written in the end of the 19th century called Christianity and the Class Struggle (a speech Kuyper gave to the Christian Social Congress in 1891.)  He is clearly opposed to Marxism. But he also believes that the state has Bibically-given mandates and things to do, especially if other spheres in others sides of life fail and folks are oppressed.  This short Kuyper book is still available, recently given new striking cover art, under the title The Problem of Poverty; translated by CPJ's James Skillen (Dordt College Press; $10.00.) It is remarkable how such an old resource can be so very relevant.

There is enough in these pages of Mouw's overview indicating that Kuyper is generative for contemporary thinking about a Christian perspective on citizenship and the call to public justice and prudent statecraft.  Mouw is a good voice in this, although those on the far right may think he reads and appropriates Kuyper wrongly. (The thoughtful folks at the generally Catholic, free market-oriented Acton Institute will be hosting a Kuyper conference in the fall, I'm told, to illustrate their own reading of Kuyperian social theory about liberty, morality and markets.)  Mouw has thought this through for years and his informal take in this personal book is great for beginners.  Or those who want to wrestle with the possibility of refreshing alternatives and third ways.  As you can tell, I think it is important and we commend it to you and yours.

Another very important feature of Kuyper's thought was his dual emphasis on two seemingly contradictory Biblical themes.  Mouw is clear about it, but I'll try to highlight my sense of it.  Read Mouw on Kuyper, though, to get it right! 

Kuyper and his associates stressed the radical call to God's people to be distinctive, holy, faithful, and non-aligned with any sinful group or idolatrous ideology.  Kuyper referred to this as "the antithesis" realizing that there are two large camps in the world, those who bow the knee to the Lordship of Christ and all others; there is a struggle for human history between the Kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness.  This dire call to rigorous orthodoxy and social purity may rather naturally lead to a disengagement with the world and yields what some might call a "fighting fundamentalist" attitude.

However Kuyper equally talked about "common grace" which is to say that since all truth that is true is so because of God, and that God in mercy allows this dysfunctional old world to experience measures of goodness and hope, we can celebrate and affirm and cooperate with any signs of life that we come across.  This may rather naturally lead to an engagement with the world and yields what some might call an "accommodating liberal" attitude.

Dr. Mouw doesn't explore this in great depth, but it does seem to me that the call to holiness and resistance to sin coupled with a glad acceptance of the idea that goodness abides even in a fallen world, can create the exact sort of "in but not of" the world approach that Jesus prays for at the end of the gospel of John. (Do you recall that out of print book published by Augsburg-Fortress in the 80s by Richard Mouw that I mentioned in the last post entitled Called to Holy Worldliness?  Guess this is where that title comes from.)

unfashionable-making-difference-in-world-by-being-different-tullian-tchividjian-hardcover-cover-art.jpgTullian Tchividjian's excellent book Unfashionable: Making a Difference in the World by Being Different (Multnomah; $18.99) gets at this wonderfully, by the way, and it should come as know surprise that he cites Kuyper.  This is transformational stuff, not moderate balance or a mushy blend of liberal and conservative impulses.  This is a radical, robust, engaged way of thinking about our calling in the world (even if you never call it Kuyperian!)  Highly recommended!

Antithesis.  Common Grace.  In Mouw's explaining pages these words arem't arcane jargon but are tools of the trade, helpful shared vocabulary to help us navigate the good, the bad and the ugly.  I gather than many of our readers want to be more engaged in fruitful discernment and robust conversations about the things that matter most.  This will help, I'm sure.  If this really intrigues you, check this out: The Acton Institute has partnered with Kuyper College and they are embarking on a several year project of translating from the Dutch the three volume work of Kuyper on common grace, (De gemeene gratie.)  You can sign up for updates, even follow them on the Common Grace facebook page.

For a good bit of pondering on this matter of common grace (does God really like baseball, jazz music, a fine meal?) Rich Mouw's own wonderful, wonderful He Shines in All That's Fair: Culture and Common Grace (Eerdmans' $14.00) is a must.  I mentioned in the previous post and recommend it again, now.  Then, you might want to study the serious collection of articles about Bavinck and Kuyper and the legacy of their neo-Calvnist views of common grace found in the diverse anthology from the Princeton conferences, The Kuyper Center Review: Volume Two: Revelation and Common Grace edited by John Bowlin (Eerdmans; $36.00.)  It is a pretty amazing bit of historic scholarship with great contemporary significance.

Even as Mouw is helpful in explaining Kuyper's basic concepts and why they are useful as a way to talk about contemporary institutions, God's call to wholistic discipleship and the structure and tone of public witness, he also is helpful in exposing weaknesses of Kuyper and, when appropriate, how to update Kuyper for our postmodern age.

He starts out this second section of the book describing what the Roman Catholic church during the years of Vatican II called a season of aggiornamento, or updating.

Mouw is candid about some of Kuyper's faults and is eager in some cases to seriously reform his work.  This is nothing new within any tradition and even within Kuyper's own day one of his young colleagues was the very important Herman Bavinck, who himself often spoke with a less strident tone and a wider graciousness than Kuyper sometimes did.  He was a partner in Kuyper's large efforts but he refined and restated some of Kuyper's views.  Was the updating beginning even then?  Of course.

9781596380806m.jpgAnd, by the way, the conversation and re-appropriation continues even now as more conservative Reformed folks are rediscovering Bavinck.  A long-awaited, masterful biography of him has recently been published and has gotten rave reviews. See Herman Bavinck: Pastor, Churchman, Statesman, and Theologian by Ron Gleason (P&R; $29.99.)  Bavinck's hefty four-volume Reformed Dogmatics have been re-edited and re-issued by Baker Academic and a large one-volume abridgment edited by Kuyper scholar John Bolt is now available (Baker Academic; $59.99.)  It is "the supreme achievement of its kind" (J. I. Packer) and stands alongside Kuyper as essential Dutch Reformed scholarship. Some of our edgy emergent guys say that to go forward we need to go backwards; who hasn't heard the phrase "ancient-future" faith?  Maybe this is part of that, eh?

What are the key problems with Kuyper?  As I said in the previous post, he was ill informed about African peoples and Mouw names that sin for what it is.  Kuyper sometimes gets blamed for how some used the "sphere sovereignty" idea to create apartheid in the Dutch colonized South Africa.  Mouw, well known as an advocate of racial justice and human rights rightly condemns the failures of the Dutch Reformed for this.  However, he notes that Kuyper did not overtly support the formation of apartheid late in the 19th century and his speaking about South Africa was mostly limited to his support for the Boer liberation from the British.  (He despised British colonialism and yet admired the liberal Democratic Christian leader, Gladstone.)  Was Kuyper's support for nationalism among the Transvaal (against British colonialism) co-opted by those with unenlightened racial attitudes?  Here is a long and scholarly work by a substantive historian from the Vrjie University on this for those that want a detailed study of those years.

Mouw offers as a way towards aggiornamento, the importance of knowing and hearing the voices of black Kuyperians.  Reformed South Africans like Alan Boesak and H. Russell Botman are cited and we get to hear how they appropriated Kuyper in their own struggle for an indigenous, African, contextualized, Reformed theology.

One of the most interesting lectures I have heard on this was delivered by Wheaton Collegespirit_in_public_theology.jpg scholar Vincent Bacote, a North American black Kuyperian.  Bacote has written widely on Kuyper and it was no surprise to see Mouw cite him approvingly.  Bacote, by the way, also is keenly aware of Kuyper's work on the Holy Spirit, another contribution that Mouw notes.  Mouw knows many Pentecostals and thinks that somehow a renewed interest in that might enhance neo-Calvinism. (He cites Al Wolters, in fact, who says that as well.)   Could Kuyper offer clues to how a renewed awareness of the Holy Spirit and a renewed call to racial justice might combine?  What would Kuyper say about the Belhar Declaration.  I wish Mouw might have weighed in on that...

I will not belabor this, but Mouw is very, very good in the few pages where he invites us to think of new ways to talk about worldview.  Kuyper, as I mentioned in the last post, was a seminal author to have introduced North American's to the notion that Calvinism was more than a system of theological thought but was a robust way of being in the world.  The very phrase and much of the understanding of the world worldview has become associated with certain very conservative social movements and with very dogmatic ways of thinking and Mouw has suggested that Kuyperian neo-Calvinists might use the phrase world-viewing (as in beholding) in order to capture a more imaginative and dynamic vision of how our vision of life shapes our ways of living.

I am grateful for the influence this worldview perspective has had for my own spiritual and intellectual journey.  But I have to admit that some of the talk about worldview makes me a little nervous these days.  When I hear folks insist on the need for all of us to "have" a Christian worldview, I worry about the static picture that evokes.  It suggests that a worldview is something we can possess, a thing we can "own" or just "get."  That in turn gives the impression, I fear, that having a worldview means that we are equipped with a set of answers, or the capacity to generate those answers fairly easily, when we encounter important questions.  I don't like the "packaged" feel of all that.

after-worldview-j-matthew-bonzo-paperback-cover-art.jpgMouw isn't backing off the approach he learned from the Princeton Stone Lectures, Calvinism as a Life System, the earlier title of what is now known as Lectures on Calvinism (Eerdmans; $15.00.)  But it is delightful (and not surprising) that Mouw cites the Catholic thinker Joseph Pieper, who uses a Latin phrase from the ancient mystics: ubi amor, ibi oculus---roughly, "where there is love, there is seeing."  That he wants a more dynamic and embodied view of hosting questions in light of a Christian way of seeing is not surprising, either.  Friends of Mouw---some of them clearly in the neo-Calvinist and Kuyperian tradition--- called a conference about this, in fact, a few years ago and many of the chapters in the book that came from it explored these very things. I've noted it before and continue to think that much of it is fantastic.  If you want a good example of significant updating of insights cleaned from the reformational movement, see After Worldview edited by Matt Bonzo and Michael Stevens (Dordt College Press; $13.00.)  Mouw should have been at that event and, to be honest, if Pete Steen were alive, he would have been. It is a very thoughtful little book that would be a good follow-up to Mouw's "World-viewing" chapter here.

I do not have time to explore in detail the final chapters of Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction.  I'm sorry I've not been concise---I should take a lesson from Rich Mouw.  Yet, these last chapters are among the most stimulating in the book; I will be brief.

If you have followed Mouw's call to take Kuyper seriously about God's ordaining structure to social life, that institutions and various spheres of society really matter, and that each of us are called to live faithfully within those God-given arenas, then you will naturally see that the local church---a central but not the only institution of importance to God's work---has a job to worship, teach, offer sacraments and opportunities for deep community, so that God's people can be scattered into the various fields and areas of service in which they find themselves. Remember "sphere sovereignty"?  The church musn't (and, indeed, cannot) do everything.

Mouw takes up Kuyper's passion for the ordinary person and asks how pastors and congregational leaders can equip journalists, scientists, artists, business people, farmers and the like.  What is the relationship between the local church and the professional callings of lay people?  Can we expect the local church to really teach their members how to serve God as insurance salesmen, medical providers, researchers or home-makers?  What does the pastor know about these things? 

Kuyper was big on professional associations and believed that it was the duty of Christian disciples to organize with other brothers and sisters in public life.

The post-WW II Dutch immigrants to Canada and the United States naturally were surprised (or so Steen used to tell us) to realize that most North Americans had sold out to the spirit of individualism.  There were no Christian farmers associations, no serious Christian newspapers, no organizations to witness to Christ in political life, no alternatives to the secular labor unions---in public, Christian acted like they were no longer the body of Christ and aligned themselves with whatever political or cultural agencies they liked. 

So, often uneducated workers and lay people started a generations-long effort to provide ways in which Christian persons could unite within various professional spheres and could live a whole-life way of life.  Some of us may be sanguine about such plausibilities (although it does happen: the CLAC, the Christian Labor Union of Canada does excellent, just, collective bargaining based on uniquely Christian principles about the dignity of work and being non-adversarial. They are, as the Bible predicted, hated by others for their gentle witness in the economic realm; do watch the video clip about them.  The Christian Farmers Federation (again, a largely  Kuyperian organization) has been asked by provincial governments to draw up proposals for renewed agricultural policies.)  It was (among others) Dutch Protestants who organized groups decades ago like CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts) and the NACPA, the National Association of Christian Political Action, which eventually became CPJ.  Some of these same Dutch immigrants--Pete Steen among them, before he wandered into the orbit of the Pittsburgh campus ministry, the CCO---already influenced by the profound thinking within the reformational movement inspired by the philosophy department at the Vrije U. started a seriously rigorous grad school that offers Masters and PhD degress, Toronto's Institute for Christian Studies.  Anyway, Kuyper's vision of lifting up the role of the ordinary workers and faith-based associations for professionals in their careers and Mouw's reflections on how church leaders could help do that in our contemporary setting are very suggestive and very important.  He doesn't mention any of this unique organizations, but I wanted you to hear of them since Abraham would have been pleased. 

Beyond helping workers, Mouw shows other innovative ways we might use Kuyper's ideas in some innovative ways, ways that can bring justice and healing and hope.  For instance, he notes that an updated, reformed Kuyperianism would not presume a "Christendom" model.  It is not Constantinian.  He explains that well, and it is helpful.  A neo-Calvinist worldview would also invite (as Kuyper and Bavinck both did) interest in Islam and interfaith dialogue.  And it would affirm the arts, being strategic about ways to sponsor and assist those who are exercising their creative callings for the common good.  All of this would take great cultural patience, which is the title another short section of Mouw's book.

9780830833092.jpgI have often said that I love Dr. Mouw's book Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (IVP; $16.00.)  And I have often said that I love his chapter in that book "Abraham Kuyper, Meet Mother Teresa."  I was thrilled, then, to see that in Mouw's last chapter of this little Kuyper book he uses a quote and story from that chapter.  Yes, Mouw celebrates the impact that Kuyper's dramatic reminder that Christ claims "every square inch of creation" by crying "Mine!"  But he worries about triumphalism, about arrogance, about the loss of the servanthood spirit embodied best by the saint from Calcutta.  Such arrogance, Mouw writes, "can blind us to the need to go out and suffer in those many broken regions of creation where the homeless set up their crude sleeping shelters, where people grieve, and where the abused and the abandoned cry out in despair.  Jesus calls us to join him there, for those square inches---and those who inhabit them---belong to him, too."

Interestingly, Mouw cites in this last good chapter a piece by scholar Mark Noll who, in a Kuyper Lecture given to the Center for Public Justice, reminded the excited Kuyperians that Christ pointed "Mine" in a hand that was scarred. To follow Jesus, Dr. Noll  said, is to remember "the road to Calvary that the Lord Jesus took to win his place of command."   This isn't a "culture wars" mentality and it isn't about "taking over" any square inches for Christ. CPJ and Noll and Mouw and Kuyper all cite the teaching of Jesus about the wheat and the tares: we live in a time which calls for patience.  It is not ours to rip up or root out.  We are called to servanthood, to gentleness, to sacrifice.  

Mouw's final chapter is called "A Kuyperianism Under the Cross."

The great scholar, statesman, thinker, social reformer, Dr Abraham Kuyper himself, Mouw tells9780802866035.jpg us, reminds of this call to Christ-like suffering and service over and over, but most poignantly in his own death.  In his last dying moment he raised his hand and pointed to a crucifix.  It is a good ending to a good life and it is a fine ending to a lovely little book.  Mouw, as I said in the last post, is sensitive to matters of ordinary piety, is an intellectual and Christian leader but is also a simple man of God.  He loves his Savior and he speaks often of the central things of faith.  That Kuyper, too--who wrote the beloved devotional Near Unto God, you will recall--was in his death confident of the atoning work of his Lord is a sweet truth.  Social reformer, journalist, sociological critic, public intellectual, international diplomat, yes, yes.  But at the end, he pointed to Jesus and his cross.  This was a great man, indeed.

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