About September 2013

This page contains all entries posted to Hearts & Minds Books in September 2013. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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September 4, 2013

The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential by N.T. Wright - ON SALE at Hearts & Minds BookNotes

What makes a great book?  Book-lovers, teachers and critics offer many aphorisms about classics but most agree: a book, to be truly great, has to at least be exceptionally enjoyable to read, even as it offers something wise or good or new  -- inspiration, information, a new way to see. Great content well delivered.


I case for the psalms.jpgkept thinking this as I was reading the brand new book by N.T. Wright, The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential (HarperOne; $22.99 - our 20% off SALE PRICE = $18.40) because I concluded early on that it was a truly great book. It is the best book I've read on the Psalms and it is the best book of Biblical studies I've read all year. I was immediately taken by the strong balance of personal reflection and scholarly insight, Wright's own candid concerns and his remarkably learned explanations.  He noted that he is not an Old Testament scholar, but his insight was nonetheless world-class.


And, again, it was written in a way that was such a joy to read.  I even liked the rather small, compact-size and the squat hardback feel in the hand.  


So, yes, it is a great book.


As soon as I was finished, I started reading it again (something I rarely do.) I am part-way through my second read and cannot contain my enthusiasm.  I think it is a great book, and believe that it should be widely read.  I hope you agree and buy one or more today.


The Case for Psalms does teach new things (at least for me, and I suspect nearly any reader, even those who are fluent in Biblical studies.) Wright explains contexts and settings, a bit here and there about the development of the use of the Psalms, and certainly many New Testament connections -- wow, does he connect the dots!  His Biblical knowledge is prodigious, and his insight about how the canonical  story of redemption fits together is impressive.  But to say it "teaches" doesn't quite capture the experience of reading this -- it draws the reader in, allowing us to not just intellectually grasp some new ideas about how the Psalms work, but it invites us into them, and challenges us to inhabit them.  We come away with new knowledge, yes, but also with a glad joy of having been with these amazing texts, almost shuddering as if on holy ground, in ways that deepen our faith and discipleship.


And this is exactly what Wright says the Psalms do to (for?) us.  They are, after all (he never fails to remind us) poems and songs, and they were first (and still) recited, chanted, sung. He tells us of how our brain's right hemisphere works, and the powerful, life-altering capacity of poetry and of singing.  Although he is a historian and Biblical scholar, he knows that these texts are not just to be exegeted and properly understood.  They form litanies and are to color our imagination (indeed, with shades of James K.A. Smith, they can shape our desires!)  My own reading of this book allowed me to experience this very worldview-shaping, imagination-enhancing, faith-deepening, almost tactile encounter with the texts; they made me long for things, fresh and good things for me and my family, my community and God's aching world. This is Biblical study, par excellance.


It is Rev. Wright's worry that many Christians (especially evangelical Protestants and thosetom.jpg.display.jpg whose churches are most growing) don't read the Psalms much, let alone use the Psalter in worship and prayer, either in liturgical, corporate worship or in private devotions.  As a cradle Anglican, it has been his practice to uses the Psalms in Morning and Evening Prayer and in weekly corporate worship.  Further, he has been drawn to chanting and song (he is a musician himself after all -- did you know he majored in trombone in college, and met his lovely wife in a singing group?)  So this comes up from time to time, not as scolding, but as a bit of sage advice.  We would do well, in our personal lives and in our congregations, to avail ourselves of these means of grace that come at us in poem, image, dramatic lines, and songs.


By the way, I wrote a very long BookNotes piece last spring explaining why we so appreciate Tom Wright and highlighting most of his books (and some others, too.) You can see that here.


The only other person who I have found to be so compelling in extolling the value of the Psalms for shaping our memory and vision is Calvin Seerveld, who first taught me to love Psalm 19.  Oh, and Walter Brueggemann, especially in a set of three talks he gave on Psalms and the City at Pine Street Presbyterian in Harrisburg, tapes of which I nearly wore out.


Wright is not heavy handed in his "case for the Psalms." But do listen to his concern about contemporary praise songs and the worshipers who mostly use them:


The enormously popular "worship songs," some of which use phrases from the Psalms here and there but most of which do not, have largely displaced, for thousands of regular and enthusiastic worshipers, the steady rhythm and deep soul-searching of the Psalms themselves. This, I believe, is a great impoverishment.


By all means, write new songs. Each generation must do that. But to neglect the church's original hymnbook is, to put it bluntly, crazy. There are many ways of singing and praying the Psalms; there are styles to suit all tastes. That, indeed, is part of their enduring charm. I hope that one of the effects of this little book will be to stimulate and encourage those who lead worship in many different settings to think and pray about how to reintegrate the church's ancient prayer book into the regular and ordinary life of their fellowships.

And also this, which is a tad off subject, but vital and well-put:


As with all thoughtful Christian worship, there is a humility about this approach. Good liturgy, whether formal or informal, ought never be simply a corporate emoting session, however "Christian," but a fresh and awed attempt to inhabit the great unceasing liturgy that is going on all the time in the heavenly realms. (That's what those great chapters, Revelation 4 and 5 are about.) The Psalms offer us a way of joining in a chorus of praise and prayer that has been going on for millennia and across all cultures.


TRANSFORMING

Apsalms.jpggain, it is important to realize that this isn't just an Anglican fetish, wanting us all to --cheerio, chaps -- start a boys choir doing highly stylized cathedral services.  No, Wright the Biblical scholar knows how these pieces of Scripture are designed, and how they have been used, and how they are situated within the broader history of redemption, and how the Newer Testament uses them, so he knows that they are to be transformative.  This is, in fact, the very heart of his message: regular praying and singing of the Psalms changes "the way we understand some of the deepest elements of who we are, or rather, who, where, when, and what we are... (The Psalms) do this in order that we may be changed, transformed, so that we look at the world, one another, and ourselves in a radically different way, which we believe to be God's way." 


He doesn't say as much as he might have, but it is clear he is working with what some might call a wholistic or non-Enlightenment epistemology -- that is, we don't just "know" data in our heads, as individual selves.  As he writes at one point of what the Psalms will reveal to us, he notes that we will come to understand. But then, he suggests, "it will be an understanding that grows out of a deeper and richer kind of knowing -- something that brings together imagination, insight and love." 


WORLDVIEW

Yes, Wright talks about worldview, as he does in almost all his books, in fresh and generative and vital ways. (I often point out the hefty and important first portion of the first big book of the five-volume Christian Origins series which is all about worldviews, and that it draws upon, and is dedicated to, Brian Walsh. Yet another reason why you should buy Walsh & Middleton's Transforming Vision: Developing a Christian Worldview; it influenced much of Wright, and you can see it again, in this new volume.)


PRAY AND LIVE

The introduction to The Case for the Psalms says all this, and it assured me that this was tocase for the psalms.jpg be a very good book, stimulating, learned, and yet focused on arousing and shaping one's faith-life. It starts saying it is "a personal plea" but also gets right down to business, explaining some cool scholarly details.  (Did you know that the Psalms are among the oldest poems in the world? Did you know that for a while, during the second Temple, the Levites were paid to do the singing? Did you know that Roman Catholic Bibles which draw on the Vulgate, have a slightly different numbering system for the Psalms, because they combine a few Psalms, and separate others, so the beloved shepherd Psalm is not the 23rd?) The lovely introduction struck a great balance of personal rumination and solid teaching, devotional tenderness and serious challenge, making for a very admirable start.


The second big chapter -- "Pray and Live" --  serves, in some ways, as an overview of the whole book, and points us towards what is to come.  That chapter alone is well worth the price of the book. Besides noting Bruce Cockburn (and Schubert)  in passing, he explains how important the Psalms are in the New Testament, not least (as he says) in the life of Jesus. Wright's moving us beyond a rather simple proof-texting of Christological connections towards a broader, deeper way in which the Psalms are Christ-centered is, again, well worth the admission price.  This is very important hermeneutical concern, and found it extremely instructive.


To whet your appetite, read this small excerpt:


The Psalms are enormously important in the New Testament, as a glance at any list of biblical  quotations and allusion in the New Testament will reveal. Jesus himself quoted and referred to the Psalms in the manner of someone who had been accustomed to praying and pondering them from his earliest days. Paul referred to several psalms and wove them in quite a sophisticated way into his remarkable theology. But behind those explicit references there stands, I believe, an entire world in which Jewish people were singing and praying the Psalms day by day and month by month, allowing them to mold their character, to shape their worldviews, to frame their reading of the rest of scripture, (not least) to fuel and resource the active lives there were leading and the burning hopes that kept them trusting their God, the world's creator, even when everything seemed bleak and barren. 


For which whichever bit of the Old Testament we take, in fact, it is always worth asking, "How would devout Jews in the late first century BC have heard, read, sung, and prayed this?" This is particularly true of the Psalms. We cannot be sure which Jews studied which scriptures in what way, but we are on safe ground in saying that they used the Psalms as their basic prayer book. That was the world in which Jesus grew up. 


As in all of Wright's books, he is good at summarizing a complex and important thesis: that Jesus, as a first century Jew, understood his own Kingdom mission in light of the covenantal promises of Yahweh given to the Jewish people. There were succinct  paragraphs I want to underline, post-it notes stuck here and there. 


JESUS SHAPED BY THE PSALMS

Wright makes it abundantly clear that Jesus' own identity and mission were shaped, then, by the Psalms, and if we are Christ's followers, and hope to embody any sort of faithful Kingdom lifestyle in the Way of Jesus, we should allow ourselves and our communities to also be shaped by the intentional reading and praying of these same Hebrew poems.  They will -- as Eugene Peterson so helpfully put it (by quoting Nietzsche) in his fabulous book on the Psalms of Ascent -- forge us towards "a long obedience in the same direction" and help us with our "discipleship in an instant society."  Peterson, who has been an advocate for ritual use of the Psalms for a long, long time, would surely appreciate Wright's emphasis here on the formational influence of these texts.


The next three chapters are the heart of the book, and they are amazingly astute, drawing specifically on all kinds of Psalms, on various texts, and explaining for us how to best understand them.  But this is not an orderly march through them, one by one.  No, Wright suggests and has on offer three major themes, themes that will give us broader and more robust faith, shaping us, again, at the deepest levels of our imaginations and worldviews.


TIME, SPACE, MATTER

The Psalms, he says, "invites their singers, as they alway have, to live at the crossroads of time, space, and matter. "  (There is a chapter of his fantastic Simply Jesus, by the way, that puts these three in relation to Jesus himself that is quite good.)


By that, he means that we learn to inhabit time -- thinking of our past and certainly our future -- as God's time, in His hands. This requires Biblically-shaped memory and Biblically-shaped imagination.  This book helps you think about that, and it is enriching, good, more important than you may realize.  What time is it, after all?


Similarly, we embrace space in new ways when we realize who God is and how God is reigning over all creation.  There are complicated matters here --  about Temple and bodies, about Zion and ideology, about prayer and politics, and land and justice, about God's claims and history's wreckage of those who abused these claims.  It can get sticky, and this explanation if as helpful as any I read.  The way the geography and the city is seen in the Psalms, and especially how there is a trajectory from Zion onward, is vital to appropriate in clear-headed, Christ-like ways, and Wright's insight here is, again, partially intellectual, but more than that.  It is an invitation to live into this space of holy concern. Wow.


And, lastly, the Psalms effect even our understanding of matter.  There are so many beautiful nature Psalms, as they say -- we should not say nature, but "creation," I believe, as it connotes its lively relationship with the Creator.  And what a lively relationship it is! 


I have read a lot of devotional literature on creation, finding God in the outdoors and such, not to mention books about the stewardly duties of creation-care.  You know we have a huge environmental studies section in the shop. Wright's The Case for the Psalms inspired me as much as any; it was not heavy-handed about climate change or the ethics of energy use or other controversies of the day. It just called us to worship a God who delights in animals and trees, to use in our liturgy the green poetry found in the Psalms where even the trees clap their hands in praise. (Have you read Psalm 104 lately and all the creatures God so loves?) 


Over and over, Wright allows the Psalms to speak and get at the biggest truths:


So, as with time and space, we are invited to stand at the intersection of the original created matter and the matter of new creation, the original matter that reveals God's power and glory and the new creation that will be flooded,  saturated, with God's presence and glory. 


And then he says this: 


And we do not stand there as mere observers. We, being ourselves part of that extraordinary picture, fine our own stories within the larger narrative of creation -- our own small but significant stories of wine and bread, of work and rest, of death and new life, and through it all, of praise.


Nice, eh?


Dr. Wright reminds us, again and again:

Matter matters; it matters so much that God becomes human and in the resurrection launches that transformed matter, that immortal physicality, to which (I have been suggesting) the Psalms already point forward.


CELEBRATION AND...

There is much celebration in this part of the book, and much to get excited about.  For instance, few authors help us appreciate the goodness of judgement -- where God vindicates the poor and his trampled creation (think of Romans 8) giving us much to hope for.


There are emotions in the Psalms and this is an emotional books. There is the goodness of God, yet, the fear of the Lord; there is the wonder of a complex creation, and the cries of lament; and there is the happy gladness that is ours when we are trained in seeing God's faithful promises as good gift, hinted at in the very orderly structure of the creation itself, but there is death and decay and weirdness.  My, my, this is rich, good, relevant stuff.  


The final two shorter chapters are "At Home in the Psalms" (which offers some guidance and encouragement to start the discipline of using the Psalter in its entirety) and autobiographical, "My Life With the Psalms."  Both pick up, quite directly, this theme that the daily use of the Psalms is a rich and helpful spiritual practice. 


In the final afterward he merely narrates his own journey through his favorite Psalms, how hebonhoeffer quote.png has used some, how he has prayed others, how he has found others to be pointers to God's will in his own life. His story about his own father's death just a few years ago -- something we talked a little bit about when he visited with us here at the shop last year -- brought tears to my eyes, and I finally just let is wash, as I cried tears of joy for a scholar/pastor/brother of this sort.  There are few heady scholars in the academy who would be so vulnerable and simple as to share these nearly common-place insights.  This lovely and tender closing offered a very nice and instructive ending to a life-changing, great book. Thanks be to God.

 


A few other resources on the Psalms, also on sale:



TMessage-of-the-Psalms-Brueggemann-Walter-9780806621203.jpghe Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary  Walter Brueggemann (Augsburg) $18.00 A modern class where the passionate, dense scholar explains the Psalms as those of orientation, disorientation and re-orientation.  Remarkable.


By the way, we have a pretty edgy three session DVD curriculum, too, which interviews Walt on the Psalms of Lament. It is called The Psalmist's Cry: Scripts for Embracing Lament DVD with Walter Brueggemann (House Studio) $39.99





TPS-190x285.jpghe Psalms as Christian Worship: A Historical Commentary  Bruce Waltke and James Houston (Eerdmans) $28.00  A magisterial volume (almost 650 pages) blends a verse-by-verse exposition of select psalms with a history of their interpretation in the church from  the time of the apostles to the present.  Learned, thoughtful, mature by two esteemed evangelical scholars.






Hhurting with god.jpgurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms Glenn Pemberton (ACU Press) $19.99 When this book (which Brueggemann calls "a masterful study of the Lament Psalms") came out we named it one of the books of the year!  It offers solid Biblical and historical scholarship, passionate pastoral concerns, and honest, raw, insight.  Also includes some concrete proposals on how to use these psalms in the church's worship.





1150images1.jpg50: Finding Your Story in the Psalms  Kevin Adams (Square Inch / Faith Alive) $14.99 There are many lovely devotionals based on the Psalms and this is a wonderful, provocative, moving, work.  Lavish blurbs on the back from Haddon Robinson, James K.A. Smith, and Cornelius Plantinga, which speaks to the books elegant and insightful vision.  Remarkable.






Ppsalms for all seasons.jpgsalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship  Martin Tel, Joyce Borger, John D. Witvliet  (Calvin Institute of Christian Worship / Brazos) $30.00  There are other hymnal-like hardback song books that put the entire Psalter to common tunes, and this is doubtlessly the best.  This is an amazing, comprehensive resource, offering an stunning array of indexes so they are easily used in planning worship. It includes musical settings useful for morning or evening devotions as well as responsorial settings for all the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary and other good features. This is a true treasure trove, a must-have resource, which we are proud to promote.





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September 11, 2013

Discipleship in the Present Tense: Reflections on Faith and Culture by James K.A. Smith (Calvin College Press) ON SALE

In what some might call "an embarrassment of riches" I have been enjoying three books in the last few weeks by three of my favorite non-fiction authors. I will soon tell you about the new Os Guinness (The Global Public Square) and in our most recent BookNotes post I raved about the splendid and important The Case for the Psalms by N.T. Wright. (He recently wrote to us, saying that he very much liked the tag-line that was in a HarperOne ad: "What Would Jesus Sing?"  Indeed.)  And  -- hooray! -- the much-anticipated follow-up to Andy Crouch's excellent Culture Making, entitled Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power arrived just today from IVP!  So, we've got Guinness, Wright, Crouch and the new Jamie Smith book about which I will tell you now.  Forgive me if I am a bit exuberant this month - you can call me pushy if you want: it's my job to convince you to buy these extraordinary volumes from us (at the BookNotes 20% off, of course.) And, like last week's review of The Case for the Psalms, this week I can assure you without hesitation that this brand new book by James K.A. Smith is fantastic and one you will want. It is both informative and fun to read; you will enjoy turning the well-written pages which are full of great turns of phrases and fine vocabulary and you will -- I guarantee it -- be challenged with good, new content that will help you live your life more thoughtfully in a way that I suspect you truly want.

Ddiscipleship in the present tense.jpgiscipleship in the Present Tense: Reflections on Faith and Culture by James K.A. Smith (regularly  $14.00 but on sale here at 20% off; $11.20) is published by a small academic publishing venture, The Calvin College Press.  We have all the other books in their small backlist catalog, but this new James Smith collection is without a doubt the most important book they've yet done.  The author is one that Hearts & Minds fans should know. He is considered to be one of the premier Christian public intellectuals of our time.  His stunning, and very widely discussed Imagining the Kingdom and Desiring the Kingdom are perhaps his "break out" books that catapulted him to a wider audience, but he has been writing about culture, philosophy, science, faith, hermeneutics, Pentecostalism, the common good, and other topics at the interface of faith, scholarship, and culture, for more two decades and has a slew of books to show for it. 

Indeed, his first major book - The Fall of Interpretation: The Philosophical Foundationsfall of I.jpg for a Creational Hermeneutic - was a major contribution in the hey-dey of evangelical conversations a decade or so ago around postmodernism (and it was happily expanded and reissued last year by Baker Academic.)  That Smith studied Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven with scholars at Toronto's Institute for Christian Studies (ICS) and had his cultural discernment honed there by the likes of Brian Walsh, James Olthius, and Calvin Seerveld and Al Wolters comes through in that early book, making the case (in Augustinian terms) that human limitation and perspective (what common folk might call bias) is not bad, a part of the fall, but a natural, good part of God's intended creational make-up of how humans see and make meaning. There is no raw data but always interpretation.  This is hugely significant when we talk about interpreting of the Bible, about relativism, about truth and tradition and so forth. 

Anyway, he's a post-moderndevil reads d.jpg philosopher who reads culture and theology, continues to call himself a Pentecostal (and likes NASCAR and Canadian hockey alongside his high-brow literature and fine wine.)  His first collection of short pieces was published by Eerdmans in 2009 and is a tremendous anthology with essays on what Calvinists can learn from Pentecostals, on why he doesn't particularly like the Christian left, on why colleges should not refer to students as customers, and other fascinating ruminations on church, politics, education, and the arts. That one is called The Devil Reads Derrida and Other Essays... and we highly recommend it.  Although all of it is smart, most of it is not about French philosophy. 

This new Calvin College Press anthology, Discipleship in the Present Tense is not unlike that first collection but it is, I believe, even more interesting, a bit more varied, and arranged in a more coherent, helpful fashion.  Jamie (as his friends call him) writes fabulous introductions to each of four sections, and those one-pagers are themselves wonderfully interesting and inspirational, a great window into how Smith thinks, and how the book can help us.  Really, his explanations before each section show that the book's delightfully diverse pieces (from essays to book reviews, sermons, letters, interviews) carry out his agenda of embodying radical discipleship in all of life, shaped, as we always are, by the habits of the heart, including the formative rituals and litanies that honor the things we most desire and love.  For most of us, the most durable litanies that have shaped us are those of the (secularized, idolatrous) American Way of Life and our earnest Christian faith is too often added on to or held within forms and ways of living that have already been decisively shaped by the idols of the age.  How to break with these distorted ways of living, embedded as we are in particular cultures, trained in certain habits, driven by certain desires? How can our faith be lived out with integrity and distinction, bearing fruit, even? As this year's heavy Imagining the Kingdom argues, building on the thesis of Desiring the Kingdom, it has something to do, not least, with worship.

NOT SO MUCH WORLDVIEW...,

It was his intellectual mentors at ICS who first introduced me to the language of worldview in the mid-1970s and helped many of us examine the "roots of Western culture" (Dooyeweerd) and "capitalism and progress" (Goudzewaard) and took us a bit beyond the good work Francis Schaeffer was doing in those years, inspired by some of this same Dutch tradition.  Not a day goes by that I don't think of The Transfoming Vision by Walsh & Middleton or Creation Regained by Al Wolters, who were at ICS in those years.

It is now common to bring critical theological evaluations to late Western capitalism or the ideologies of 18th century Enlightenment views of progress or the habits of 20th century consumerism and the Empire that enforces such dysfunctions. We have good Christian writers engaging-culture-christianity-today-international-paperback-cover-art.jpghelping us evaluate the day to day practices of how we use technology, video games and, say, suburban shopping malls or the ways in which we farm and shop and eat, or ways in which we think about the arts and entertainment.  To talk about a "transforming vision" of subverting the empire by seeking Spirit-led newness in our ways of thinking and doing (guided by reordered loves and prophetic imagination) is not unfamiliar these days. Yep, though all these developments and conversations and new evangelical postures, Smith has been a major voice - and an ecumenical one, too, as he emphasizes the global and catholic trajectory of all this reformational energy for robust cultural engagement.

But, as much as he stands in a Dutch neo-Calvinist tradition that has taught us all about the integration of faith and learning in light of the presuppositions of our worldviews (he teaches at Calvin College, in the department where names like Wolterstorff and Mouw and Runner and Plantinga still echo) he does not use the w-word (worldview, or even weltanschauung) all that much. 

The grand Kingdom project of Professor Smith's recent books moves us away from idea of worldviews asdesiring-the-kingdom.jpg static and intellectual, towards the language of story and something like the "sociology of knowledge." Such an approach emphasizes social forces, daily practices, knowing that the plausibility of any sorts of reforming efforts are themselves somewhat determined by the culture and the institutions we inhabit. (Read his fabulous piece "We Believe in Institutions" in the recent Comment for a beautiful example of some of what he means.)  Do you know the series published by Jossey Bass by mainline denominational authors on uniquely Christian ways of doing various things in life, launched by the anthology Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People edited by Dorothy Bass?  Mr. Smith thinks along those lines, with a neo-Calvinist / Kuyperian accent, with a large concern about culture, on steroids.  Anyway, embodiment within institutions matter, as we move from worldview to way of life by way of worship. Got it? Yeah, I know: who thinks like this?  Smith and company do, and you need his books! 

Which is a very long way of saying that this book of short essays are all of a sort: moving us to think more clearly and talk more helpfully about what it means to live out a radical sort of discipleship in the here and now, embodied, daily, mundane, even, always worshipful, joyfully sober, in the world but not of it.  

I can name on the fingers of two hands the number of people I know well who care to - and has the intellectual chops to - really consider what it means to be faithful in every single area of life. Who view it a joy to ruminate on what grateful obedience looks like in the very texture of our daily lifestyles -- in everything! Who are knowingly working out their salvation in ways that could be called Christianly idiosyncratic. And he is one of them, one of the best, or so it seems to me.

So many of us -- most Hearts & Minds readers, I'm sure -- who reject dualism and embrace an embodied faith in the midst of a good but fallen creation, wanting to press the claims of the Kingship of Christ in all spheres and aspect of life and society intuit (often well) what redemption looks like.  Smith does more than intuit and speculate, he thinks hard and well in jamie smith at desk.jpginformed and interdisciplinary ways - with feet on the ground, it seems - day by day, about what Kingdom discipleship in this day and age and in this North American society actually should be like.

And Smith does this in his writing and speaking with wit and whimsy, without much pride, without overstating his principles (well, maybe a little) and usually with admirable civility.  He's no saint - those that follow him on twitter know he can scrapple in the fast-paced world of cyberspace.  He's a scholar with scholar's passions and a reformer with Pentecostal zeal.  Which makes him a really fascinating (and dare I say entertaining) scholar to follow. 

Which brings us to the book.

Discipleship in the Present Tense has an artsy photograph on the cover which Smith discusses in the opening piece.  (True confession: I didn't care for the cover that much until I read his description of it.)  It works very well - as he notes - to illuminate his whole project, and certainly the theme of the first few essays.  The cover photo shows a modern rooftop of what we learn is a famous recent addition to the classy Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. There is the older, more classically designed wing of the original building in the immediate background.  In an informative and interesting explanation he tells about the architectural details of both the older and newer designs. (He also shares that he first wanted to major in architecture, which is why, I guess, he has such a good command of the specialized languagediscipleship in the present tense.jpg of buildings and cityscapes and is often eloquent on new urbanism and the like.)  Although he tells it with a remarkable poignancy, you get the point: one can keep the old building in a stuffy traditionalism and make the new part just like it, or we can tear it down in a revolutionary project of replacement -- away with the old, in with the new!-- or, as the photo and his exegesis of it explains, we can do both, building on the old, in fresh new ways.  Yes, yes, this is it!  Smith calls us to be faithful to the great tradition of apostolic faith as passed down (Jude 3) but insists that we embody it faithfully in innovative, contemporary patterns.  You have heard this before, I hope, but to explore it in this first chapter is immensely rewarding, and he gets it just right.   If you are an old-school traditionalist or a partisan of the emerging, you may especially need this radical reminder and I'd invite you to pray and ponder this good introduction.  After all, we all know so well what Marx said about "everything solid melting into air."  Old or new? Both are co-opted and lead to trouble.  How about old and new?  Smith says it elegantly and more precisely than I, so we commend it to you.  The rest of the book can be read as an extended conversation on this first chapter, illustrated by the cover art itself.

STORYLINES

As I said, Discipleship in the Present Tense is arranged in four sections.  The first is called "Storylines" and includes pieces about his own faith tradition, his broad and ecumenical thinking, always done "in Reformed accents." (He tells his own Reformed people that some of their best insights are like "buried treasures" which must be re-discovered. A few of these pieces may, he admits, seem a bit in-house, written as they were for the CRC denominational magazine The Banner, for the think-tank Cardus in the amazing magazine he edits, Comment, The Reformed Journal and Perspectives or for Reformed Worship. (Ahh, he is so good in this part, with shades of Richard Mouw, it seems to me, insisting that to be most catholic, we must be clear about where we are from. Particularity is always a good thing for Smith, as well it should be.)  Whether you, dear reader, are Reformed or Presbyterian-ish or not, these are thrilling pieces.  The first essay which includes a litany of stirring examples of creational renewal, Christ's redemption of all things glimpsed in moments of human flourishing through culture actions that go "along the grain of creation" is enough to bring tears to one's eyes.  Who knew God's great salvation was so very down to earth? Wow, I love this stuff.   

Other pieces in this chapter are not just wonderful reminders of a wholistic, Kingdom vision, they offer exceptionally important points to consider.  Is it really correct to say "all of life is worship"? How do we talk about worship more typically understood when one has an all-of-life-is-worship worldview?  What does the Bible verse about being a "peculiar people" really mean? In what ways do rituals shape us?  One chapter was a speech given to commemorate an anniversary of a Christian day school "Learning (by) Stories" and it is thrilling to read -- one of the best in the book!  Smith is a good public speaker and this keynote address had insight and energy and kind words and righteous zeal - all while teaching about education, learning, knowing, and the role of stories. You've got to read it!  As with several of these chapters I raised my hands in praise as I read this, and thought to myself that it was well worth the price of the book just for this. 

BOOKS AND CULTURE

The next section, simple called "Books and Culture" (perhaps a nod the the splendid literary journal edited by John Wilson, whose blurb graces the back cover) includes three long book reviews.  Again, these are so teacherly and wise - they explain the lay of the land of the basic arguments of the book under examination and its context, the broader conversations going on about the book in question.  As a really good book review can do, you come away understanding a lot about the book being reviewed and about other stuff, too. It may make you want to read the book itself, but even if not, you are now equipped to discuss it a bit.   Smith offers his important critical evaluations of To Change the World by James Davison Hunter, in a piece that first appeared in The Other Journal called "How (Not) to Change the World.  He is blistering in his critique of D.A. Carson's Christ and Culture Revisited - you've got to read this, especially if you are a conservative evangelical who is a fan of DA -- and he is (properly) harsh about large misunderstandings and unfair judgements in the fascinating bit of cultural exploration in Hipster Christianity by Brett McCracken.

BRUSHSTROKES AND LINEBREAKS

The third section is called "Brushstrokes and Linebreaks" and these are essays and reviews of painters and poets. I had read a few of these in Comment, I believe, and wasn't sure I'd enjoy giving them another reading, and two of these, especially, were very, very nice.  Even if you don't typically buy poetry volumes, having an astute reader tell you about what can be appreciated therein is truly quite nice.  Also in this section is another "worth the price of the book" essay, a good (if a bit critical) of William A. Dyrness' Poetic Theology.  That is a serious, vital book, and Smith does him justice, ruminating on his good arguments and concerns.  Dyrness is important, and it is amazing to watch Smith in dialogue with him.  Anyone working out a Christian aesthetic theory or artful practice would be wise to pay attention.

LINES OF SIGHT

Fourthly, the last 80 or so pages are gathered under the heading called "Lines of Sight." After a fascinating description of a "site lab" at a Grand Rapids art school, Smith writes, "You might think of this section as site-specific. They are occasioned by specific issues and challenges, and often by specific invitations and questions, but call for analysis and reflection that transcends their situation. Sometimes these include from-the-hip responses to current events or above-the-fold urgencies - which is also why sometimes such writing is brief, compressed, dashed off to interject in the moment."

These last pieces are mostly fun and often feisty, sometimes argumentative (as when he takes exception to a Lauren Winner piece) and always offering value beyond the original location.  These include a lovely, lovely letter to young parents (your children will break your heart, and you will be overjoyed, still, in gratitude for the experience of such love), a kindly bit of concern written as an open letter to contemporary "worship leaders" (worth the price of the book if you've got a loud rock band preforming worship songs at your church or fellowship) and a forward which he had written for an academic book on faith and sports.  His perspective about what we hope for - on the occasion of responding on-line to reviews of Rob Bell on hell - surprised me a bit, but was fully sensible.  Yes, if all of life is to be shaped by Scripture, even what we hope for should be tempered by divine revelation.  In each of these "site specific" pieces, Smith is a bit curious, offering a gatfly's bit of provocation or empathy.  It's part of what he does, and it is good to see these short pieces alongside the more carefully developed ones.

INTERVIEWS

Lastly, there are two good interviews with him.  John Wilson suggests that readers start there, and then dip in at will.  Not bad advice; Wilson writes that the two interviews are "real conversations, not perfunctory Q&As."

Because the book has been published by a small, indie press, it may not find readers asjames k a smith at Regent.jpg quickly as his other popular books have.  Friends, this is where we come in: do share this review, or tell others about it.  Read Discipleship in the Present Tense with others, buy some for gifts, start a study group, suggest it at your book club. Even though Smith has a large following, this book is under the radar, and it would be cool (and of Kingdom service) if we helped spread the word.

There is no doubt that Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom are a bit intimidating to some. Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucoult to Church, while timely, is a bit much for some. Thinking in Tongues has a small market, those who care about his claim to being a Pentecostal philosopher (may their tribe increase!)  His forthcoming introduction, due in May 2014, to reading Charles Taylor, How (Not) To Be Secular, will be fabulous, and so helpful, but, again, a bit much for most of us.  I am a huge, huge fan of Letters to a Young Calvinist and often say it is wise and helpful even if one is neither young nor a Calvinist, but it is pastoral and basic about faith development and under-appreciated.

So, Discipleship in the Present Tense just may be the book to introduce people to this important public intellectual. The endorsements on the back of it are by upbeat scholars like Crystal Downing of Messiah College and hip young culture makers like Jonathan Merritt and Gabe Lyons. There is a sweet and elegant endorsement from Calvin College English prof Debra Reinstra; Dale Brown of the Frederick Buechner Institute says "The pungent stories told here... provide an invaluable resource for those interested in finding a way forward that sparkle with integrity and hard-won faith."   There is a fabulous rave from a former National Director of the Vineyard USA. That's a wide range of recommendations!

 My favorite philosopher, David Naugle, says, 

I have learned much over the years from James K.A. Smith.  I have learned much from these fine essays of his. Every one of them contained many helpful insights.  Smith is a pundit, prophet, provocateur, and public intellectual. All these attributes are rolled up together in these fine essays. 

Allow me to make one final pitch, a homely, practical one.  Many of us find it hard to find much time for heavy, sustained reading of long nonfiction works.  Short essays and stand-alone chapters are perfect to dip into when you have a few minutes, waiting for an appointment, between laundry loads, to read out-loud over dinner, on the subway, in the bathroom.  (There, I said it.) Maybe you aren't able in this season of life to work through bigger volumes.  This is one you can handle, and you will be glad you did.  It's very vocabulary and its wonderful line of vision will remind you of God's goodness, and how we can be salt and light in a good but hurting world. Won't you help us get this book known? Order some today, please.  We will join you in being grateful for public intellectuals, deep thinkers who serve God's people, even we who need these sorts of short primers.  

Short chapters on big themes by a Reformed Pentecostal philosopher who likes hockey and fine architecture. and blue-collar poetry.  What's not to like?

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September 18, 2013

Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power by Andy Crouch (InterVarsity Press) ON SALE

Hplaying god.jpgow do I describe one of the very best books of the year? How do I tell about a book (in a way that invites you to buy it from us) that is so very rich, journeys into so many fields of study, is oh so wonderfully, wonderfully written?  Words nearly fail me.  The brand new book by Andy Crouch, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (IVP; $25.00 - on sale for 20% off; $20.00) is very, very good, and - a credit to its remarkable breadth and glorious detail -  is a bit hard to adequately explain.

Mr. Crouch is a good thinker and has thought about this topic  -- the nature of power -- long and well, so his insight is profound and well-developed. He has thought of almost everything, and looks at his topic from many facets.  Like a shining jewel (if I may use an metaphor that is often used undeservedly) the book shimmers, reflecting this insight and that, from this angle and that, with beauty and texture and solidity.  It is a study of power and, significantly, as the subtitle insists, how God can use His image-bearers to bring redemption to the dangers and sadnesses of power abused.  I hope you will believe me when I say (and if you ponder it a moment you will see) that it is not just for CEOs or politicians or influential leaders.  It is for all of us.

POWER AS PART OF A GOOD CREATION GONE WRONG

First, a main point: power is a gift.  Crouch can say this because (as he explains in an excellent few chapters) it is part of the created order.  A robust and sturdy theology of creation and the cultural mandate to "make something of the world" that teems and swarms with potential is necessary for a full understanding of our call to culture-making, in which the use of power finds its home.  Although the gift  and vocation to take up our offices in cultural authority by exhibiting our human instincts for creativity and influence is the burden of his previous book, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, just now out in paperback (IVP; $20.00 ) he revisits this Biblical theme with as much clarity and good sense as I've ever seen. 

There are no breathy shout-outs to Abraham Kuyper or Al Wolters and his generative book Creation Regained; surprisingly, he doesn't footnote James K.A. Smith even once; nor does he cite the new and excellent God's Good World: Reclaiming the Doctrine of Creation by Jonathan R. Wilson.  I'm a cheerleader and networker and get passionate about all this, so would have noted that his friend Gabe Lyon (in The Next Christians) has expressed wonderfully how the "next generation" of young adult Christians increasingly understand that the Bible presents a four-chapter story that starts with creation, moving through the cosmic and serious fall, graciously receiving Christ's death-and-resurrection that brings redemption, to the final hope of a restored creation.  He doesn't even cite N.T. Wright's books (although he does cite an article) who taught us to be "surprised by hope."

TO CHANGE THE WORLD

He does, in a serious footnote, mention an important few chapters in the Oxford University Press book, To Change the World by James Davison Hunter.  The body of Crouch's text, though, is not laden with pull quotes from the usual suspects.  It is his own mature reflections, carefully developed, wondrously shown, informative and interesting.

Playing God does emerge from these sorts of authors and conversations, and his audacious claim that power is a good gift grounded in the possibilities built into the blessed creation itself and to be gladly taken up by people for the sake of human flourishing is clearly supported by the best of popular-level conversation these days amongst evangelicals, especially.  Who doesn't want to change the world?  What religious author these days doesn't at some point talk about transformation?  We are way past the "this world is not my home, I'm just a-passing through" nonsense of the pietistic "Christ against culture" which bred apathy about social concerns among many fundamentalists. Fundamentalists themselves, of course, have loudly moved away from such disinterest in social reform, seen clearly in the divisive rise and demise of the Moral Majority. 

But yet there is little consensus among church folk about the proper way to engage culture, work for social transformation;  it seems to me that some of the negative reactions to the religious right, even among their own disillusioned leaders, have taken us back to this basic question: can power be exercised well?  Can Christ-followers use power faithfully?  Are there avenues of culture-making, and using power well that are not particularly political?  That is part of the focus of Hunter's work and his call to mere "faithful presence" (unlike the populist agitating organized by both the religious right and the religious left.) All of these kinds of questions (and more) simply must wrestle with the question of the nature and just use of power. 

And so, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power has much, much to commend it that is so very needed in cultural conversations among those wanting to transform the world as well as those who are in retreat, given the noxious results of the culture warring of previous decades.  

For those who have read the aforementioned Al Wolters (for instance) it will come as no real surprise to hear that power is (like all things, according to the Biblical story) created good, terribly fallen, and being restored to normative use, redirected by Christ to serve human flourishing and the common good by people who are avenues of God's grace and mercy.  

However sensible it sounds to some of us -- made good, messed up, now being renewed in Christ -- Andy is not sure that most people have this basic set of worldview assumptions.  Again, without using the language of worldview, he reminds us that creation and its structures and potentials is good,  things in it (such as power) are distorted by fallen ideologies and is in principle being redeemed - and he goes to pains to make his case.  

POWER AS GIFT

The first unit of the book is entitled "The Gift of Power."  These are beautiful chapters and, in aAndy-Crouch.jpg style and pattern which he manifests throughout the book, he mixes fairly serious sociology, feet-on-the-ground storytelling, and very insightful Biblical reflections, not to mention examples from his own personal experiences. Crouch is, I suppose, a journalist by trade (not to mention an accomplished pianist which explains some excellent music-related illustrations and ruminations, from Bach to Shostakovich, to contemporary worship bands) so there is much good reportage of interesting and poignant episodes illustrating good uses of power from around the world.  Like the delightful stories and impressive examples that appeared in Culture Making, he tells of famous artists and social innovators (he draws on the biography of Steve Jobs a lot), of CEOs and politicians, but also home-makers and local businesses like his favorite mechanic. This makes the book, even the more abstract portions, very accessible, always showing the practicality of his insights about power.

His theory of power as creational good but always distorted by idolatry and misuse, opens up layers and layers of meaning, new angles of consideration, and will disavow us of many wrong notions and unhelpful postures.  He combats our cynicism as well as our fear of power. He connects this in a brilliant chapter to Jesus being made in God's own image and how, in Him -- we are icons!  It will invite us to realize that as God's own agents in the world, bearing the image of the triune God of power, we have great potential to accomplish much.  And it is right that others bear authority and use power as well.  The whole thing is enlightening and so very fascinating.  The rave reviews from many impressive reviews are sound the same tone: it is a one-of-kind-book that is thoughtful and a delight to read. This is, simply, the best treatment of the subject I have ever seen. 

IDOLS AND INJUSTICE

And yet.  We know, and he knows better than most of us, that this is not simple.  Saying that power is a gift (even as we pay homage to how it is abused) just isn't enough. In a fallen world, power is abused and abusive; it is hurtful and tragic.  Andy has spent hundreds of hours volunteering around the world in places where power is abused, where privilege and status and wealth align to form systems and institutions and structure of great injustice.  With potent, focused Biblical study (get Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ronald Sider for a more sweeping study of all the Bible says about structural evil and systemic injustice or Just Courage or the other books by Andy's friend from International Justice Mission, Gary Haugen) Crouch shows how idolatry and injustice are often related, nearly two sides of the same bad coin. He commends the recent little Tim Keller book, Counterfeit Gods, on idolatry, which is very good, but Andy brings unusual insight.  His chapters which study this, ruminating and exploring and pondering, holding each nuance and facet up to the light, are increasingly rewarding, with each chapter bringing greater clarity to the conundrum of the nature of brokenness in a modern world. We come to feel the horror of the title, the consequence of the ploy named in the title: playing god. As one reviewer wrote, reading it left "idol shards everywhere in its path..."

IJM

Some of this is painful to read.  Mr. Crouch is not only a huge fan and trustee of the justly famous IJM, he has been with them and with development organizations such as World Vision, in places like India, working with them to expose modern day slavery, child sex trafficking, the cultures of dysfunction where police are bribed and human rights conventions are flaunted.  These descriptions are not meant to be sensational and, again, he is not breathy or brash.  The writing is calm and clear and the prose, while crafted with consideration and care, cannot help but be poignant and moving -- powerful.  Crouch's insistence that power is a good gift and that image bearers can make something of the world that is good for all and which increases human flourishing, never, ever wavers.  In most chapters -- including the excellent chapters in the first unit -- he fearlessly takes us to the horrors of injustice and the awful implications of idolatry, but the book is not depressing.  There is joy amidst the hard stuff, as we are given glimpses of power being used well, unfair advantage examined, reconciliation and restoration actually happening.  If you are a sensitive soul who bears the weight of the world already on your shoulders, and don't like books that are too heavy, do not fear.  Despite the ever-present concern of our prideful "playing god" with our power grabs and games, the book really is hopeful.  The good, the bad, the ugly are tempered by testimony of the ways of God, the good gifts of the Lord seen in the many creative initiatives humans take to do good in the world.  And for every bad and ugly thing he has seen, there are good and glorious things to which he introduces us as well.  From the cultural power to make good wine to ways to deconstruct gender privilege on to powerful stories of multi-ethnic prayer services, he makes us smile and be glad in every chapter.  What a journey!

FORCE? VIOLENCE?

Space does not permit a detailed evaluation of his many side-trips. One urgent topic should be noted: he explores well the terrain of conversation well-known among those who are called to peacemaking and to the work of conflict resolution. (And who of us isn't, after all?)  He describes the nuances of difference between force, coercion, and violence, and examines the benefits and sorrows of each, in different situations.  His brief ruminations on Iraq and Afghanistan are truly insightful, offered mostly in passing, but wise and illuminating.  My, my, how I hope many will study this book line by line, carefully studying this part, especially, taking in his theologically sound perspective and notable balance. (Ideological hawks and Biblical pacifists alike may find fault, although - let it be so! - both may nod their heads in agreement at times, glad for his good words on their behalf.  He offers something better than the indecision of waffling -- on the one hand, but on the other hand -- but blends good insights from rich conversations between Augustinians and Anabaptists which have gone on for centuries.  Even now, as the world again ponders questions of war, this is very, very important material. It isn't a large section, but it is good to get us thinking.

INSTITUTIONS

A very, very helpful part of Playing God is Crouch's remarkable emphasis on institutions.  I have in previous posts noted the wonderful column by James K.A. Smith in a recent Comment, "We Believe in Institutions" and while Smith is more colorful than Crouch, his piece would be good to read alongside the vital third part of this book. (I am sure that Smith will review it soon in Comment, so watch for that, as I am sure it will be excellent.) Using power redemptively and fruitfully, Crouch insists, will entail "thinking institutionally" (he applauds the stylishly written book by that name by Hugh Heclo.) He makes much of the "generation to generation" rhetoric of Scripture and suggests that it takes three generations to accomplish lasting cultural contributions embodied in sturdy institutional forms.

Sorry to sound like a broken record but, again: this is notable stuff; really, really good, and rather rare.  I don't know of any other book that ruminates on this so carefully, sanely, and helpfully.  He gives a nod in a good footnote to the good work of Victor Lee Austin's Up With Authority but for my money, Playing God is so much better!

PROTEST? REFORM? 

I do admit to wanting a bit more, here, though.  Crouch usefully draws on "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" but doesn't explore the role of prophets and whistle blowers very much.  Is outside-the-system protest most often a squandering of social capital, as he seems to suggest? How much patience ought we to have as we press for reforms and prudent changes as we serve as salt and leaven?  Citing King seemed to even work against his argument, as the famous letter pressed against moderation and patience and complicity -- the letter was not written to nasty racists but integrationist-oriented pastors who argued for slow reform.  I know Andy does not minimize social sin (and he has particular passions about the sins of race and the lure of privilege.) But as good as this section was - and I've never read anything this interesting and wise and helpful - I hope those discussing it will press further along and deeper in.  Nothing would please him more, I'm sure, if culture-makers use their human power in good ways to undo the bonds of oppression, even if it rocks the boat.  He seems to think, although doesn't dwell on it, that some who rise to denounce injustice or who opt out of the systems of brokenness, are not so much resisting the principalities and powers, but are merely opting out. Calls for radical change most often should account for the fact that our world is sustained by institutions, and social change, therefore, must be long-lasting, structural, cultural, and institutional.  He makes the point (interestingly) by talking a lot about football.  

So we shouldn't opt out or mouth off in knee-jerks of cheap protest against The Man. Still, I know, and he does, too, I'm sure, those who have adopted a "Christ-against-culture" stance as a strategy to change the world.  They exercise the power of weakness, the moral force that emerges from those in solidarity with those in the margins. They are Franciscan "fools for Christ" and they are Catholic Workers serving with the homeless and dying. They are in jail for acts of civil disobedience and for acting up in ways that Old Testament prophets often did - not to influence legislation, really, or make minor reforms, but to dramatize the call to public repentance and shake up our captive social imaginations. Crouch is not tone deaf to this more anarchistic movement within the church and he surely respects the likes of Dorothy Day or Shane Claiborne. But it seems that he is inviting us to a different sort of lifestyle than resistance, but using power as culture makers, neither opting out or railing against... 

It is a vision we all need to more deeply understand and rehearse and embody and it should make for very important conversations about things that really matter.

In doing so, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power seems to hint at a more faithful way that is "in but not of" the world of institutions, bureaucracies, and agencies of power. Some may be called to form new monastic communities away from the centers of Empire, but more of us exercise our insight, authority, and power in the midst of more traditional jobs, with vocations to professions and guilds and associations.  We may live in small towns, work in middle class careers, attend fairly ordinary churches. We discover ways to make a difference, using gifts and power, tempered by love, graced by God's own desires for restoration and wholeness, here and there, as we can.  Radical, missional, reformational, or common-place, mundane, mainline disciple, this is a book for you!   

FORGIVE YOUR INSTITUTION

One of the ways he offers this vision of ordinary dispatches of redeemed power within fairly common social establishments and modern institutions - which reminds me of the famous phrase by Dorothy Soelle, about "revolutionary patience" - is in a simple line he shares from a friend of his who is a CEO of a large nonprofit.  This acquaintance suggested that those who are the best trustees of institutions are those who have forgiven them.  One early reader told me how this phrase struck him, and I looked for it as I read.  Indeed, when I got to that line, it caught me dead in my tracks.  What does that mean? How does one do that? Why would one do that? What organizations and institutions have I forgiven? Which institutional systems and cultures have I help create that need forgiving?  How is naming sin and dysfunction liberating and redeeming? (And whenis it mere discontent and narcissistic?) How can we be agents of change, with love in our hearts, resisting the inertia of harsh bureaucracies without revolting (or being revolting?) Can we be stewards of our institutional influence, by being profoundly aware of their brokenness and, in forgiveness, serve them nonetheless? 

Can, as one section puts it, power be tamed?

SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES

Interestingly, the book ends with a rumination on spiritual disciplines.  I saw this in the table of contents and (sorry) nearly shrugged it off.  A bit trendy, I thought, perhaps a way to end the book in a way that preaches well, with an oh-so-popular nod to contemplative practices and such.  Oh my, how jaded of me.  These short chapters were brilliant, very insightful, helpfully challenging.  His teaching about the Older Testament legislation about gleaning and Jubilee and Sabbath point us to institutional structures that create space for God.  Leaders who exercise power (not to mention those of us with more common house-hold ways of exercising power) simply must pay attention to their interior lives and the cultures their spirits create.  As with other sections, I have pages noted to quote for you - alas, there are too many good lines, too many fine paragraphs, too many instructive analogies and illustrations.  You really are going to have to get this yourself.  You, too, will think it ends well.

DOING DISHES

Even in those final chapters, Andy follows his custom of offering solid Biblical teaching, helpful ociological insight, good storytelling, and some candid personal testimony.  His own story of doing dishes (often at the last minute before he departs for a trip) in service to his household rang so true, I laughed and sighed right out loud.  You too, Andy?  We are a funny bunch, aren't we, those of us with middle class values and some degree of privilege and opportunities to travel and speak and make culture in public ways.  We may think it all through, preach and speak and join task forces and committees to accomplish much, but at the end of the day (sometimes, the end of a very long day) we have to do the dishes.  Such chores can be perceived as a dumb add on, a begrudging duty, even, maybe obliged out of odd and cranky motives. Or, it can be an authentic expression of culture-making service, power used by gifting others for the sake of long-lasting flourishing, within institutions (in this case, a family in a neighborhood and a network of friends and guests who have shared meals in a home.) His description of the warm suds and the need to do dishes before heading out the door to speak was a gift for me, and will be for many of you, I'm sure.  Yes, Playing God is informed by serious scholarship, and covers all manner of global concerns, social and culture analysis, theological depth, and hopeful stories from the front-lines of the world's harsh injustices. It makes a radical case that the Biblical story gives us an account of the good and the bad and the glory of power, and this is essential to understand.  But it ends up, often, in places like this - homely, small, local. It is a book for us all.

POWER ABUSED IS HURTFUL (AND YOU'VE FELT, I'M SURE)

You have most likely experienced frustration, perhaps agony or worse, at the hands of power gone awry.  If you've been in the court system, if you've been in hospitals or schools, chances are you've been hurt by stupid bureaucracies and have seen hard-hearted power mongers, "lording it over others" as Jesus put it in Mark 10.  I know we have in our family and not a day goes by that I do not lament sorrowful things I have seen with my own eyes.  It is no wonder many of us are jaded or cynical or to damaged to care much more.  We have seen what this damned world has to offer.  We hunger for God, we cry out for redemption, we long for meaning, but sometimes - especially those of us on the grayer side - lose our zeal for social reformation, for cultural engagement, for public justice. This book is for you.

I know this book will help the rising generation, the entrepreneurs and movers and shakers that are taking up their callings with youthful idealism and righteous zeal. It will offer the intellectual tools to get the job done right.  I pray that many younger culture-formers buy this book.  I pray that you learn from Andy's deep well of thoughtful consideration, that your worked is framed by his vision, your attitudes informed by his wise work.  If you have young friends who see themselves as responsible global citizens or Christian activists or interested in the common good, I hope you get them this book.  It is a must. 

But it is also for those of us who grow tired of doing good, who ponder if things can ever change, who are less "surprised by hope" than we ought to be. For those of us who chip away at this and that, reacting to what we see on the news, too tired to care or too unschooled to know much what to do.  We, too, are culture-makers, and whether we are called to be whistle blowers and prophetic agents of bold change or whether we are embodying slow, careful, relationships within tired institutions, we all can be servant leaders, gifting the world with wise exercise of the kind of power God has given us to use.  Playing God warns us of what not to do, but more, its subtitle rings out: it shows us how the risen Christ is Redeeming the Gift of Power.

What does that look like, redeemed power, exercised carefully within culture? What kind of exercise of power can we offer?  What habits of heart and spiritual practices will equip us to be faithful in our use of power (and in our reaction to the power of others?) Can we, as Crouch puts it, live into a way of life that shares "disciplined power"?

THE DISCIPLINE OF STUDY: READING TO HELP GET IT RIGHT

One such spiritual practice is the discipline of study.  We have to understand well the way power is seen in the Bible and how it is arranged in our culture.  We have to know and appreciate better  what we're gifted with, what we're up against, what directions we should point the institutions in which we live and move and have our being. We have to unlearn some stuff, battle some instincts and postures that do not serve us well.

 It would do the gracefulness of the writing and the subtly of the ideas of this fine book to say it is about "understanding power from within a distinctively Christian framework" but for some of us, this is how to say what it offers.  We will not be able to grapple with privilege and idols and learn to serve, repent and celebrate, share and use power well without this foundational approach.  Playing God is an essential book for thoughtful Christians, a true gift, a must-read.  I am thankful that God has graced Andy Crouch with the power of words, with the gift of gab, with the ability to report and to ruminate. Perhaps it is enough to say this: this book will help you understand our world and be God's image bearers with Christ-like fruitfulness.  We commend it to you as it is surely one of the most important books we've seen in years.

Kudos to InterVarsity Press for the sturdy hardback, the colorful flyleaves, handsome typesetting and the nice production of this important work. It is a very handsomely produced book.

playing god.jpg.

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September 24, 2013

Helpful new books for ministry leaders, church revitalization, congregational life ON SALE

Churches, like schools, are back in swing and even though our last several passionate posts were about eloquent and profound culture-making books by the likes of James K.A. Smith, Andy Crouch, Os Guinness, and a new worldview shaping book by N.T. Wright --- not to mention that huge bibliography on calling, work and vocation --- we do love telling about more prosaic and practical tools for the church leaders toolkit. If you want a book on church revitalization, spiritual renewal, church conflict, small groups, Christian education, youth ministry, or preaching, sacraments and worship, we most likely have it (or can order it easily.)  Here is a quick, random sampling of some new books for enhancing congregational life that we recommend. Many, are, actually, very interesting and truly quite inspiring.


Trelational pastor.jpghe Relational Pastor: Sharing in Christ By Sharing Ourselves  Andrew Root (IVP) $18.00  Another excellent resource in the Praxis line, this is a book that (sorry, friends) I think many a minister needs. It certainly should be obvious that relationship skills are an essential aspect of effective ministry (and some, well... you know.) But this is more than "relational intelligence" but a mature and interesting rumination on the motivations and textures of various relationships, and what we mean by "relational" ministry. Rev. Landon Whitsitt (hip youngish author of The Open Source Church) said to me that he thought it was one of the best books for pastors he's ever read. More than one reviewer comments on the "robust theology of pastoral ministry" that Root offers, and how he helps us realize how relationships can reveal the present Christ.  Very thoughtful, provocative, insightful.



Rresilient ministry.jpgesilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving  Bob Burns, Tasha Chapman and Donald Guthrie (IVP) $17.00  It isn't brand new and I have reviewed it before, but simply must list this again -- this documents, from extensive research, what it takes to have fruitful ministry over the long haul. Pastors can and should thrive and effective ministry must be resilient (cuz it ain't easy out there, folks.) There are moving stories about strength and success in ministry, about overcoming hardships, about keeping wise and healthy boundaries (and maintaining strong family lives with recreation and rest.) I have often noted how it documents that multi-cultural intelligence is a factor shown to ensure ministry resilience. The best thing I've read of this sort, by far --  if your pastor doesn't have it, why not give it as a gift?



CCalled-to-Stay-Breakey.jpgalled to Stay: An Uncompromising Mission to Save Your Church  Caleb Breakey (Harvest House) $11.99  I have heard already this fall some folks say they are giving up on their local church, moving on, dropping out; this book may help folks like that gain new resolve to be gracious and helpful instead of giving up on their local congregation.  Called to Stay, however helpful it would be for anyone who is disillusioned or "church-hopping" is more specifically about younger adults -- millennials -- leaving the church and what brave and good work could happen if they committed to stay.  Breakey is himself young (but has the good sense to cite Life Together alongside the contemporary research by Stetzer, Rainer, et al.)  Most folks, even the older and the contented, need an occasional reminder of the role of Christ's church and the importance of the local congregation. And if you know jaded younger Christians, this could be a life-saver.  Check it out, please!



Ssee, know & serve.jpgee, Know & Serve The People Within Your Reach Thomas Bandy (Abingdon) $19.99  Bandy made quite a splash a decade or so ago with a bunch of books shaking up his United Methodist associates (and others) insisting we get busy with vibrant, relevant and transformational ministry in local congregations.  This is the most important work he has done in years, and it is a motivating and practical guide for moving the local church outside itself. As Paul Borden says "Highly effective congregations know their communities well.  But most congregations are abysmally ignorant of their communities and are therefore ineffective..."  This will help,I am sure -- with ideas about demographic research to hospitality opportunities to various models, options, and strategies.  If those who need it will only pick up and read.  Maybe you could share it within your congregation. A great cover, too.



Tmissional quest.jpghe Missional Quest: Becoming a Church of the Long Run  Lance Ford & Brad Brisco (IVP) $17.00 This bears the imprint of both Praxis and Forge and that should almost be "enough said" to show it's theological quality and practical usability. That it bears rave, rave reviews from Alan Hirsch, Reggie McNeal, Dave Ferguson, and Ed Stetzer  should clearly put it on the map as a helpful contribution to missional outreach.  A real guide to getting every member on board, for "everyday Christians to be on everyday mission." A strong Kingdom vision, based in the local church, for the life of the world.  Each chapter ends with exercises and discussion assignments called "Steps on the Quest."





77 creative models.jpg Creative Models for Community Ministry  Joy F. Skjegstad (Judson) $16.99  Wow. Every church should have this around to spark new imagination, realize options, consider how best to take up new ministries.  Joy is a seasoned church-based community organizer and understands "mercy ministry" and other classic sorts of social services. She has written some very helpful and specialized  books on this stuff for the Alban Institute and here she takes the best models she's seen and describes ways to do service, volunteerism and advocacy in the community (and how to fund them.)  There is nothing like this in print -- very, very useful.







SSTIR.jpgTIR: Spiritual Transformation in Relationships  Mindy Caliguire (Zondervan) $16.99  If you are like me and eschew books whose titles are drawn from acronyms, please (please) give this cleverly-titled work a chance.  I love this new book by a very fine author of spiritual formation titles.  In clear and upbeat prose it offers a fresh approach to inner formation -- an approach that I'd say is a "must read" for ministry leaders.  It seems that the backstory of this vision includes the serious self-reflection that Willow Creek went through as they examined their "one size fits all" small group discipleship programs.  Caliguire helped them uncover the notion of faith unfolding, developing along three distinct and sequential stages -- and the need for different sorts of relationships to support growth through those different seasons. STIR describes  those stages (learning, journeying and following together) and hows how relationships form the essential context for maturity of the soul.  John Ortberg has a very compelling foreword, saying that the author ha;s "discovered how real people learn deep wisdom and bring healing to their minds and hearts and wills." Wow, this is very impressive and very nicely done.



Ddiscovering the other.jpgiscovering the Other: Asset-Based Approaches for Building Community Together Cameron Harder (Alban Institute) $18.00  Just last week a local Lutheran pastor exclaimed to me how much he liked this book, finding it very, very useful.  It is thoughtful and refreshing but is simple to explain: it "integrates two soul mates: Appreciative Inquiry and Asset Mapping."  As Rob Voyle (director of the Clergy Leadership Institute) writes, this includes "a foundation of theological reflection which provides a life-giving gospel way for congregation to be agents of transformation in their communities."  Harder not only offers a robust Trinitarian theology, but he applies this (and the detailed practices of AI and Asset Mapping) within rural and small town settings.  (Hence, the rave review from Shannon Jung, renowned professor of town and country ministries at Saint Paul School of Theology in KC.) It's ecumenically cool, too, I think, that the back has a great blurb from a Christian & Missionary Alliance denominational exec, too.

 


Iimaging the small church willis.jpgmagining the Small Church: Celebrating a Simpler Path  Steve Willis (Alban Institute) $17.00  We are glad for the on-going publishing program of the Alban Institute and value their important contribution to research-based, theologically centrist, helpful books that are usually wonderfully written and exceptionally practical. This is written by a great storyteller, inviting us into an alternative world not guided by the "bigger, faster, snazzier" ethos of the modern world but to a slower, less auspicious culture.  This book does not intend to "fix" the small church or mourn its limitations, but affirms that there is much good about the quirky, human-scale small church.  Willis has pastored both Presbyterian(USA) and UCC congregations.  He now pastors in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia.





Ooverflow.jpgverflow: Increase Worship Attendance & Bear More Fruit  Lovett H. Weems Jr. & Tom Berlin (Abingdon) $13.99  I assume you know from our regular posts and the sorts of things we recommend that we do not necessarily think that "church growth" is a faithful measure of Biblical fidelity in the world.  We think churches need help nurturing the vocation of folks in the world, and, of course, think most parishes need deeper conversations about the whole missional thing.  However, when an esteemed and moderate mainline theologian (Weems is Distinguished Professor of Church Leadership and Director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary) offers a practical book on increasing worship attendance, helping us learn to improve it so that our congregations bear more fruit, then I think it is worth reading.  Of course our congregations exist in order to glorify God and to serve God's purposes in the world. This book is thoughtful and has a bit of a "workbook" feel so could be very useful to study together for those congregations seeking revitalization.  Highly recommended.



Ddevote yourself.jpgevote Yourself to the Public Reading of Scripture: The Transforming Power of the Well-Spoken Word with DVD  Jeffrey Arthurs (Kregal Academic) $19.99  I heard an esteemed professor of homiletics not long ago and by far the most moving part of the message was the astoundingly clear, dramatic (but not over-done) reading of the Bible text.  You most likely have been there -- after such a powerful, well-rehearsed and appropriate reading one could just say "The Word of the Lord: thanks be to God" and go home. As one reviewer says of this handy resource "God created the universes with the power of his spoken word and continues to refashion lives where his Word is heard today. Jeffrey Arthurs serves the church well by showing us why and how to read God's powerful words." It is excellently done, eminently helpful.  It includes a DVD with tutorials.  I am glad for this important help and am sure that if you use it with others in your congregation, your worship life will deepen and mature with beauty and power.



FFeasting Worship Companion Year A 1.jpgeasting on the Word Worship Companion: Liturgies for Year A Volume 1 with Companion CD-ROM edited by Kimberly Bracken Long (WJK) $35.00  You should know the spectacularly rich, varied, and extensive multi-volumed Feasting on the Word preaching commentaries that follow the Revised Standard Lectionary. (There are four large, hardback volumes for preaching the lections of each church year.) Last year (Year C) saw the release of the first pair of these new, related, liturgical aids, drawing on the same insights and authors as the commentaries, offering calls to worship, confessions, prayers and collects and the like. The Worship Companion uses a rich and eloquent rhetoric but is yet creatively contemporary.  It is ideal for most mainline congregations, lovely and mature.  Year A, Volume 1 offers worship resources from Advent Through Pentecost.  Volume 2 from Pentecost on will be released in 2014.



Tworship sourcebook 2nd ed.jpghe Worship Sourcebook Second Edition with Companion CD-ROM  compiled by the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship (Baker Books) $44.99  I hope you know the extraordinary interdenominational work of the Calvin Institute.  I have not heard of anyone who uses this who does not love it, finding it exceptionally helpful. This sturdy and handsome, thick hardback contains -- as it says on the back cover, "over 2,500 prayers, litanies and spoken texts for every element of worship service held throughout the seasons of the church year.  It has teaching notes (to offer guidance in planning each element of the service) and thought-provoking perspectives on the meaning and purpose of worship to help  stimulate discussion and reflection among worship planners.  The CD-ROM contains the entire text of the book for easy cutting and pasting into bulletins, PowerPoint slides, etc.  This new edition includes revised liturgies and additional prayers for challenging situations facing today's church."  I know one person who had the first edition and had to have this new updated one.  If you don't have it, it could be very useful for anyone that uses any sorts of litanies or written prayers, etc.  (And if you don't, well, may I suggest learning about the somewhat more liturgical tradition of the historic church by getting this volume as an occasional resource, at least.)



Aceltic liturgy for every season.jpg Celtic Liturgy for Every Season  Elizabeth Lovett Grover (Infinity) $11.45  We are very grateful that this multi-talented author (who earned a degree in Russian from Duke!) befriended us, allowing us to learn of her lovely little book of new celtic liturgies for many different occasions.  She became interested in Celtic spirituality while traveling with Philip Newell to the holy island of Iona. Some of these are thematic (sound, wind, light, peace) and some are specific, innovative services for different seasons of the church year.  Elizabeth explains that she is a cradle Episcopalian who started writing prayers while on staff at Church of the Redeemer. 115 pages.






AAbingdon Theological Companion To Preaching A.jpgbingdon Theological Companion to the Lectionary Year: Preaching Year A  edited by Paul Scott Wilson (Abingdon) $28.99  I sometimes jokingly call this the "poor pastor's Feasting on the Word" which, I know, isn't quite fair.  It is very comprehensive and arranged similarly, but in just one paperback volume (making it an excellent value.)  Each week provides several different angles of vision on each lectionary text.  One can read a good scholar or  working pastor offering textual comment for the lessons of the week offering a theme sentence, a key theological question, a pastoral need, ethical implications and gospel implications. Wilson is Professor of Homiletics at Emmanuel College of the University of Toronto and surely one of the most respect teachers of preaching in North America.  I like him a lot.

This edition, of course, starts with the first Sunday of Advent 2013 and goes into next year.  We have the current one (Year C) as well.



Tgood funeral.jpghe Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care Thomas Long and Thomas Lynch (WJK) $25.00  We already sold a few of these from announcing it at the Hearts & Minds facebook group; one good friend linked an article from Christian Century. This is surely one of the best books of the year, eagerly anticipated and, well, simply stunning.  As you should know, Mr. Lynch is a poet and undertaker (his award-winning The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade and Bodies in Motion and at Rest: On Metaphor and Mortality are among my all time favorite books; his memoir about traveling to Ireland and his poems and short stories are pretty amazing too!) And then there is the prolific Dr. Long, a great communicator and spokesperson for thoughtful, mainline denominational congregational life.  His acclaimed Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral is one of the best books on doing funerals ever done and a best seller for us!)  Well, here, the dynamic duo joins their insight and energy and wit and it is spectacular -- a book as much for the grieving (or soon to be grieving, which is, yes, all of us) as the professional clergy, caregivers and funeral planners.  As Lillian Daniel writes, "In the rough terrain of death and loss, I can think of no more trusted advisors than Thomas Long and Thomas Lynch. This book can be read as wise preparation for the losses we all will inevitably experience. It is a gift to those who grieve and to those who care for those who grieve."  You have been to some dumb and awkward funerals and you have hopefully been to some that are wondrous, beautiful, weighty, and real. This good book helps answer the controversial question" What makes a funeral good?"



Ddwell.jpgwelling: Helping Kids Find a Place in God's Story  Jessie Schut (Faith Alive) $5.99 We named this as one of the "Best Books of 2012" last year, explaining that it is simple, brief, comprehensive, wise, winsome and useful.  It was designed to help volunteer teachers use the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) Dwell curriculum, but I assured readers that it only mentions this in passing a time or two. I think every Sunday School of any sort should have a few of these around as it offers guidance and sane help for nearly any problem, question, or spiritual need that arises in the church's ministry with children. From multiple intelligences to special needs, from praying with children to involving parents, this offers wonderful insight, helping explained, with care and great love for God's children. Very nice, meeting a need I bet your church has.  We have tons of kids books, children's Bibles and can advise on all kinds of curriculum questions.  Drop us a line if we can be of service.



Yyouth min- what's gone wrong.jpgouth Ministry: What's Gone Wrong and How To Get It Right David Olshine (Abingdon) $18.99  This book was, as they say, "30 years in the making" as the author is a long-term youth worker, a leader beloved by almost everyone in the field. He is the Director of Youth Ministry, Family and Culture at Columbia Internaitonal University in Columbia SC and the author of oodles of books and even more oodles of articles. He is the co-founder of Youth Ministry Coaches and in this book it seems that he is sharing all the basics, updating and refreshing anyone who cares about youth culture, teen ministry, congregational life and healthy mission among and with our youth. Chap Clark notes that "this book brings together the best of what David as taught and led for years." Duffy Robbins writes in a very moving forward that even though we will continue to make mistakes -- as they obviously did in their earliest days, before their really was much of an art or science to this emerging field of youth ministry -- "this book will help cultivate cool heads, steady hands, and strong hearts so that the next generation of youth workers is prepared for a lifetime of fruitful ministry."  If you have kids in your church, if you are a parent, teacher, or friend of teeangers, get this book.   We have tons of othres, but this is a great starter, a good overview with just the right balance of theory, theology, inspiration, fun and great strategics and objectives.  Highly recommended.

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September 29, 2013

HALF PRICE SALE + A FREE (HARDBACK) BOOK OFFER -- Earth: The Operators' Manual by Richard B. Alley AND Green Revolution: Coming Together to Care for Creation by Ben Lowe

HALF PRICE SALE + A FREE BOOK  


THIS SALE IS GOOD FOR FIVE DAYS ONLY.

EXPIRES on SATURDAY OCTOBER 5th 2013.


BUY EITHER (OR BOTH) AT HALF PRICE

Earth: A User's Manuel  Richard B. Alley (Norton) $27.95 // sale price $13.99

Green Revolution: Coming Together to Care for Creation  Ben Lowe (IVP) $15.00// sale price $7.50


AND GET A FREE HARDBACK BOOclimate for change.jpgK


A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts and Faith-Based Decisions Katharine Hayhoe (FaithWords)  Usually $19.99 in hardback -- absolutely free. Excellent!


While supplies last.


All other books mentioned are offered at the BookNotes discount of 20% off.






THE GREEN BOAT

Near the beginning of the exceptional, and very moving, gentle book The Green Boat: Revivinggreen boat.jpg Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture by Kansas psychologist Mary Pipher (Riverhead; $16.00) she tells of attending a lecture on global warming.  It was during a season of great anxiety and exhaustion and fear and stress for her -- and most of us in this changing world were we are increasingly isolated and dislocated from traditions and ways of life that might enhance social cohesion and build hope as we face climate change and other seemingly intractable problems.  The informative lecture, though, was so gloomy and the world famous presenter so dour and hopeless that she and her husband felt even more immobilized and distressed.  


This experience of feeling helpless motivated her to ponder the denial and confusion we experience about our huge global problems. She beautifully and humanely writes about what many of us feel. "We experience our own grief," she writes, "but also the pain of the earth and of people suffering all over the world."  


She explores her observation of a process we go through, a cycle from trauma (her friend says many of us have "mid-traumatic stress syndrome") to denial to awareness and action which can lead to what she calls resilient coping.  In an earlier book she wrote about not being a very good Buddhist (she was raised Methodist) but she does end the book with some wise pointers towards a deepening sense of transcendence as we work together with friends and neighbors to resist the pressures of the modern age, working to made a difference. Even as she works for environmental justice, she tells of "savoring the world we've got" and her own beautiful writing attests to her love of her own beautiful back yard.


We have greatly appreciated Mary Pipher's work (and loved selling books for her once years ago at our local hospital where she impressed us thoroughly.) She has written eloquently about the changing emotional terrain of the aging (Another Country), about resettling refugees (The Middle of Everywhere), about writing (Writing to Change the World), on how to be a good counselor (Letters to a Young Therapist), not to mention her world-famous book about teen girls (Reviving Ophelia) and the wonderful Shelter of Each Other about rebuilding our families and our social fabric. Her new Green Boat book is no different -- she is a clear and caring writer, humane and decent, reflecting well on her small-town, mid-Western populism, even as she offers profound insight about some of the most important matters of our time.   Nature writer turned anti-global warming activist Bill McKibben -- himself an old-school Methodist -- writes that Piper "knows why we avoid and deny the truth and she knows how we can heal ourselves and our communities even as we try to heal the earth.  This book is a deep and true gift."  


It has been a gift to me. The Green Boat served me as did a book by Joanna Macy decades ago as Iworld is not ours to save.jpg struggled with finding balance and hope and emotional stability amidst a campaign to alert the nation about the dangers of nuclear weapons. How can one study and speak and work and live with such apocalyptic horror without being drained by psychic numbing or the drift into jaded cynicism?  She reminds us that "action is an antidote to despair" and hints at spiritual resources to sustain us.  Although written differently, and to a different audience, it arises from the same need as the excellent and immensely gratifying The World Is Not Ours To Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good by evangelically-minded anti-nuclear activist Tyler Wigg-Stevenson (IVP; $16.00.)


(In the second strong half of The Green Boat, by the way, Ms Pipher -- a clinical psychologist but also wife and caring grandmother --  tells of joining with her neighbors and friends throughout Kansas to resist the planned XL Pipeline, forming a coalition to prevent its dangerous intrusion in their state and protesting our culture's over-dependency on fossil fuels.) It is always inspiring to read stories of exemplary citizen action and agree or not with her campaign, the telling of this tale of the renewal of grass roots democratic action is a blessed tonic.  I really, really recommend this lovely, wise book which helps us reflect on our inner lives as we care about the world around us.)


DR. RICHARD B. ALLEY

Wearth.jpgell, for the record, the climate change expert mentioned in the new Mary Pipher book was clearly not Richard B. Alley, climatologist and Professor of Geoscience at Penn State University.  I heard Dr. Allen at the Faith for Thought conference yesterday, an almost annual conference organized by faculty and the campus ministry team of Calvary Baptist church, this year hosted at Grace Lutheran (ELCA) in State College. And, man, was he a hoot.  His most recent book, Earth: The Operators' Manual (Norton; $27.95) is the companion volume to the PBS documentary and it is wide-ranging, upbeat, and fantastic.


Space does not permit a full explanation of Richard Alley's prestige and credentials -- the dude has a glacier named after him and he helped the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) win the Nobel Peace Prize, for crying out loud.  He has worked for oil companies, self-identifies as one whose political inclinations tilt right, has hiked and camped recreationally all over the world (with his beloved family of wife and two daughters), is a huge fan of Abraham Lincoln (who helped start the US Academy of Science, wanting the government to be informed by good science, and who held several patents for his own inventions. Lincoln was the only US President to have patents and Allen, who is a cheerleader for engineers and inventors, digs that.) Dr. Alley is a truly fascinating fellow and very cool guy.  And way smarter than your average guy.

Dr. Alley was trained in geology and is in the top tier of researchers in the world in the science of
richard alley + flowers.jpg climate change.  His passionate talk at Grace Lutheran was peppered with slides of his research facilities in Greenland and in Antarctica (my goodness, those penguins are cute!) His philosophy of science which comes through in the book is reasonable, down-to-earth,  pragmatic, and humble.  He is not an ideologue.  His Christian faith is also humble and succinct: his church still teaches the Golden Rule, he said, which was an evident motivation for much of his work. (The book ends with significant proposals for solving our energy crisis, mostly for the sake of the poor and starving and the growing populations, a theme which also came out in his talk at Faith for Thought.)


The lecture giving the scientific data about the dangers of global warming which Mary Pipher described in The Green Boat left her feeling guilty, dis-empowered and unmotivated.  By contrast, Allen's enthusiastic and entertaining presentation at Faith for Thought was motivating, stimulating, and drove me to revisit his hefty book.  I had mentioned it here at BookNotes when it first came out and what I said then I now affirm, even more so: Earth: The Operators' Manual is a great blend of heavy science and upbeat anecdote. His travels around the globe, his narration of how they do experiments, his fabulously interesting bits of history and relevant episodes keep the book moving, keep even the untrained reader interested. I don't know anything about CO2 levels or how they measure ancient ice or what the charts about changes in ocean temperature mean.  Or at last I didn't until I read this  wildly informative masterpiece.


Alley is reluctant to give grandiose policy proposals.  He is a scientist and excellent teacher, not an activist or politico. (He none the less gets hate mail, seriously ugly emails that are ignorant and tragic.) Yet, he ends Earth with some general suggestions.


In the last chapter he writes,


If I were to stop right there, I would be happier, but my high school writing teachers would probably not be happy.  This is the point where, in a proper narrative, I would reveal the grand conclusion, point the path to the future, and lead the grand and glorious charge to a brighter tomorrow.


Fat chance.


My impression is that when we scientists try to recommend policy, we have no more insight than anyone else.  Asking me what to do runs the risk that someone might believe me because I have expertise in limited, somewhat-related areas. I am a geologist-turned-glaciologist-and-climatologist who took a lot of classes about Earth and enough physics and chemistry and biology and metallurgical engineering to support my interest in the planet, who has roamed the planet reading the history of climate written in ice and trying to understand the ice well enough to learn what it does to landscapes and sea levels.  Having me choose between cap-and-trade or taxes or business as usual, or nuclear or wind or sun or sequestration or geo-engineering, is akin to having a U.S. Senator use a universal stage to measure the c-axis fabric of a polar ice core -- you are better off getting a real expert than you are pretending that someone else can do the job.


Yet, I do have some insights that may be valuable, and I am sensitive enough to the instructions of my high school teachers that I feel I owe you a little more insight on a few of the issues. If someone put a gun to my head and forced me to make recommendations, they would grow out of the following points.

Ya gotta love a world class scientist and clever guy like that.  There may be a teensy bit of false reluctance there, but he is humble and generous and down-to-Earth.  He does know his stuff, so he is right: we should listen to his practical points.  Anybody who wants to contribute to the conversations about climate change in the urgent upcoming years, should read this book. With experts and leaders like this, we may not respond with despair and sorrow as Mary Pipher did as she entered this conversation.  Alley is no Pollyanna, but he does seem to be a man of good humor and of good hope.  

Earth: The Operators' Manual is not an overtly religious book; as a PBS-related title it is rich in social history and good science and is inspiring in a humanistic way.  But think about it: the very idea that there is an "operators' manual" -- that there is truth to be learned and that there is a prudent way to go -- this is stuff that leads not to despair but to wisdom and hope.  Good scientists who are also upbeat, passionate teachers and reliable, entertaining writers like Alley can help us.  


LISA SHARON HARPER

Two other plenary speakers at Faith for Thought -- besides the other great breakout sessions -- were Lisa Sharon Harper and Ben Lowe. Lisa, who used to work for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and helped found NY Faith & Justice, and now works at Sojourners, is a good friend and a great speaker.  She talked about the shalom God created as described in Genesis, and moved us through a


evangelical does not equal.jpg realization of the way our sin and rebellion has caused brokenness -- that things are now "not the way it is supposed to be."  Lisa's first amazing book is called Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican... or Democrat (New Press; $24.95) and the accolades she has gotten (especially in a spectacular forward by John Perkins) indicated that she was a writer who deserved our full attention. Ms Harper's second was co-authored with World magazine writer, the conservative D.C. Innes, Left, Right and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media; $24.95.)  This back-and-forth dialogue book is a splendid way to think through various issues of social policy, and a great study resource for groups who may not all agree on whether it is most faithful to tilt to the right or the left.  Her call to embody God's story, to be people of hope, was a great way to start the conference.


(In many ways, these two books are foundational to the more general project of Christian perspectives on social action for the common good which then informs faith-based environmental concern.  They are both very, very good, but not exclusively about creation-care.)


BEN LOWE

Tben lowe's green r.jpghe closing talk was by another good, good guy, a friend (who has been to Jubilee more than once) Wheaton College grad and recent founder of the Young Evangelicals Climate Action, Mr. Ben Lowe. I have recently re-read most of his fabulous book Green Revolution: Coming Together to Care for Creation (IVP; $15.00) and again am convinced that it is one of the finest books on the topic.  It is handsomely designed, relatively inexpensive, and loaded with great content, solid theology, helpful Bible references, very insightful advise about deepening one's resolve and action, and tons of great, great stories. 


Many of the sidebars and interludes are written by staff or students at various colleges, showing how evangelical students and institutions are taking the lead in working for environmental stewardship.  From Calvin College's Plaster Creek restoration project to Messiah College's Earthkeepers to descriptions of Peter Harris and the founding of A Rocha to a glimpse into "Christians for the Mountains" who are righting mountaintop removal, these testimonials offer great, great glimpses of what can be done, of what this "revolution" looks like, inspiring readers to be more involved.  I love this book and can't say enough about it -- why don't you get one for your church library, or to pass on to somebody who might care.


If you work in college ministry or have young adult groups in your church (as some of the BookNotes readers do) please know that this book is a fabulous one to use with young adults.   Very highly recommended. Buy 'em during the half price sale, this week only!


Kudos to Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light, GreenFaith, Evangelical Environmental Network, and other good groups who helped out, sharing information on everything from sustainable agricultural, divestment discussion, theological matters, and other important aspects of this movement.  As you may guess, we had tables and tables worth of many books on the calling to be thoughtful, developing a Christian mind to various sub topics --  science, food and eating, farming and land us, to more general things on Christian discipleship, reading Scripture, and of course resources for spiritual formation.  As always, we love selling books at events like this and invite you all to stay in touch.  Thanks to those who read books, who buy books.  Without you, we'd have no ministry here.


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