About March 2014

This page contains all entries posted to Hearts & Minds Books in March 2014. They are listed from oldest to newest.

February 2014 is the previous archive.

April 2014 is the next archive.

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

March 2014 Archives

March 5, 2014

Wonderful Books on Spiritual Formation -- Especially Good for Lent

Perhaps you are like me and sometimes have a hard time keeping up with a dailylent word.jpg devotional; maybe it just isn't your style.

Even if the list of Lenten devotionals and study resources that we shared in the last BookNotes didn't quite appeal to your reading style, I would bet you still hunger for more depth in your life.  Maybe you are a little jealous of those who seem to be able to use the church calendar as a seasonal reminder to re-focus and live in to discipleship in a deeper way.

Ruth Haley Barton starts her fabulous book Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation with an invitation to be in touch with our deepest longings, and to attend to those desires for "more." Not more stuff, of course, but more life, more love; a faith that is evident and meaningful and helpful for real life. She writes, "One of things that still surprises me this far along in life is how and when and with what power my longing stirs."  After some moving personal anecdotes, she suggests that we attend to these longings of our own soul.  

When was the last time you felt it - your own longing, that is? Your longing for love, your longing for God, your longing to live your life as it is meant to be live in God? When was the last time you felt a longing for healing and fundamental change growing within you?

Do not rush past this question; it may be the most important question you ever ask. But this is hard, I know. In religious circles we are much more accustomed to silencing our desire, distancing ourselves from it, because we are suspicious and afraid of its power.

Her next pages are brilliant in inviting us to name some of these deep longings of the soul, these very human questions. These can be explored any time, but many of our churches invite us to these things now, in this season.

Here I suggest some wonderful books on spiritual formation, a few that are well known and a few that may less recognizable, and few that are obvious and a few surprise recommendations. All of these are wonderfully done, my own (partial) "best of" list for ordinary folks wanting to think about what the theologians call sanctification and what some now call spiritual formation. Do you want renewal, revival, transformation, on-going growth, depth, holiness, even? Do you long to be (re)formed into the image of Christ? To want to deepen your interior life so the Spirit can do in and with you what God wills?

These books will help, I am sure of it. 

Also, if you mentor others, work in ministry, are a disciple-maker or spiritual friend, these are tools you should have at the ready to share with those who are hungry. If you want to give up something for Lent, give up buying something that would allow you to afford buying a few of these.  Give up something that sucks time away from time alone, reading, pondering, praying.

Maybe God might even be inviting you to give up some of your admittedly precious time and individualism; maybe you (really do) long for a small group, a safe community to explore your deepest desires for a better life. Why not call somebody, start a group, or a better group, even if only for Lent. It isn't weird to invite a friend or two to join you in reading a book together, you know.  Who knows, maybe you'll end up true soul friends, spiritual companions as you dive deeper into the way of Jesus.

Ccelebration of d.jpgelebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth Richard J. Foster (HarperOne) $25.99 I simply must start with this. This is a perennial best seller, a hugely significant book and, although a bit deep for real beginners to spiritual disciplines, it is still a true "must-read." But it on your bucket list, have an extra copy on hand to share, refer to it often. This is a true 20th century classic, guiding us to disciplines of depth and joy.  There are three major parts, explaining practices that he says are inward (working on our own inner lives), upward (such as praise and worship which are oriented towards God) and outward in service in the world.  Good stuff, an anecdote to superficiality, which he says in his famous first page, is "the curse of our times."

PPrayer- foster.jpgrayer: Finding the Heart's True Home Richard J. Foster (HarperOne) $24.99 This is one of my all-time favorite books, beautifully offering more than a dozen ways to pray. It is every bit as good, and every bit as helpful as the more famous Celebration of Discipline. He wisely guides us into deeper intercession, praise, confession and such, but also shows how to meditate, pray the ordinary, use our grief as prayers of lament, and offers a stunning chapter on "radical prayer" about bringing the needs for social change before God's throne, pleading and working for history-making cultural transformation. Wow.



Iinvitation to solitude and silence (black).jpgnvitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God's Transforming Presence  Ruth Haley Barton (IVP) $17.00  Ruth invites us to one of the most important spiritual practices one can imagine, one which is counter-cultural and for some of us, desperately important.  I might note that some may not think a book about silence would be very interesting, and this one is more than interesting, it is fascinating, fun, vital, and very much appreciated by those who read it.  Highly recommended.




Ssacred r.jpgacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation  Ruth Haley Barton (IVP) $17.00  I know we recommend this a lot, and you may know we've hosted Ruth here in the area - her gracious, clear depth and helpful approach is a rare gift, and it comes through in her books.  In many ways, this is the perfect book - perhaps not quite as deep or heady or mystical as some of the spiritual classics, but not light-weight or simplistic.  She is forthright calling us into a life-style of spiritual practices that create a deeper sense of Gods transforming power and she draws on the spiritual classics to help us make it happen. Highly recommended.



Ggod is closer than.pngod is Closer Than You Think John Ortberg (Zondervan) $18.99  I think Ortberg is one the great gifts to religious publishing, a deep thinker (he worked with the impressive Dallas Willard on his last book) but a fabulous, fun communicator. The DVD to this is excellent and great for small groups. The cover declares "This Can Be the Greatest Moment of Your Life Because This Moment Is the Place Where You Can Meet God." Okay, a bit over-wrought, but the plain-spoken guidance Reverend O offers on practicing the presence of Godgod is closer eye chart.jpg is rich and thoughtful and clear and profound. Is God maybe a bit like Waldo - hidden in plain view? You will learn much and laugh a bit along the way.  (By the way, the first edition of this had a fantastic cover design that looked like an eye chart; many didn't quite "get" it, and they gave it a more typical kind of look. It is the same book, though.)

Tlife you always.jpghe Life You Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People John Ortberg (Zondervan) $18.99 This is the first Ortberg book I read and the first DVD of his I viewed; loved them both! We recommend it often, noting that, as he says, it is "Dallas (Willard) for Dummies." Or, put another way, it is Richard Foster for beginners. Yes, it is a book about the classic spiritual disciplines, but he delightful shows how to weave them into an ordinary life, and how a spiritually attuned and God-centered life isn't odd or pasty, but full and good. I love that he says this isn't about your (so-called) "spiritual life" but about your life. This book can be life-changing and a nice window into how spiritual disciplines can enhance daily discipleship and gently transform real life, perfect for those who can't imagine themselves reading heavy monastic literature or experiencing the mysticism of the contemplatives.

Ggod in my everything.jpgod in My Everything: How An Ancient Rhythm Helps Busy People Enjoy God  Ken Shigematsu (Zondervan) $16.99  We have written about this before, and promoted it at several gatherings this fall - perhaps I over-emphasize the unique backstory, although that is interesting. The author was a driven and successful Japanese business man who ended up at the wonderful Regent College in British Columbia, studying theology. He ends up on a pilgrimage to Ireland which piques his interest in Celtic spirituality.  Yes, this could be considered a delightfully cross-cultural, multi-ethnic experience, but it is mostly just solid guidance on creating a life-giving rhythm to experience God in everyday moments. This guy knows our busyness and the challenges of living out faith in a secularized world. He helps us journey down this ancient pathway to learn to enjoy God and draw closer to Christ, day by day. An endorsement by Shane Claiborne indicates that it isn't disengaged religiosity, but a new take on older monastic insights. It will help you create your own rule of life, your own sense of how to walk out your own sense of calling and vocation, truly guided by God. There are wonderful questions for reflection, guidance for your own processing, and tremendous stories helping you apply it all.

SSpiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life Donald Whitney.jpgpiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life Donald Whitney (NavPress) $15.99 I think this book is an under-rated gem and should be widely known among us.  Whitney offers wise and practical counsel about spiritual disciplines and calls us to serious practice of stuff that leads to a deeper kind of discipleship and fuller awareness of God's glory and grace in our lives.  He is very fluent in the best of the Puritans - don't let that scare you with dumb biases about their harshness, as that is mostly untrue.  I sometimes say this is a book comparable to Foster's classic, but where Foster draws on medieval, monastic, and pietistic sources, Whitney uses thoughtful Puritan and Reformed sources. Highly recommended.


SSpiritualDisciplinesHandbook.jpgpiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us Adele Ahlberg Calhoun (IVP) $18.00 This is a majestic, amazingly useful, big handbook that tells you much of what you need to know - from the theological to the Biblical to the practical - about doing the many sorts of disciplines, practices, and experiences that put us into a posture of being encountered and changed by God. If you do any teaching on this, if you are any sort of a disciple-maker or spiritual friend this will be a go-to, often-used resource, chock-full of great information, insights, principles, and useful suggestions. Nice that it is endorsed so widely, from Ruth Haley Barton to Timothy Keller.


HHoly Available.jpgoly Available: What If Holiness Is About More Than What We Don't Do? Gary Thomas (Zondervan) $14.99 We recommend any of the many books of Gary Thomas who, perhaps akin to Ortberg, brings ancient, contemplative insights into very modern parlance.  He is greatly influenced by the deep spiritual classics (and has a great book introducing the classics to modern readers called Thirsting for God: Spiritual Refreshment for the Sacred Journey [Harvest House; $13.99.]) In Holy Available he shows his wide reading and deep debt to even the Orthodox tradition. (In fact, its original title was The Beautiful Fight which was a nod to an Orthodox phrase.) So he reads widely and knows this stuff well.

This one is actually one of my favorite books in this genre and reminds anyone who has been influenced by legalism or moralism that gospel transformation isn't mostly about "does and don'ts" but about a Christ-centered change from the inside out, making us more available to join God's holy work in the world. The grace that pardons also transforms, but this goes beyond merely "preaching the gospel to yourself" and standing firm against idols in one's life (as some guidebooks emphasize these days.) This is robust, deep, wide, delightfully so, and very practical as it helps us literally take on the ways of Christ in our mind, our eyes, our feet, our hands. He calls us to be a "God oasis in a God-forgetting world, and shows what winsome holiness can look like, and how to join the beautiful struggle.  By the way, if you think this sounds soft of Biblical obedience or just a tirade against moralism, please know that it is not: it really is about being transformed into the image of Christ.  Thomas has another book on this, too, that is all about how the virtues of Christ can be embedded into our own lives as our own character is transformed into Christ-likeness.  See his very important Glorious Pursuit: Pursuing the Virtues of Christ (NavPress; $14.99) which is one of the best books on that topic.  I am surprised we don't hear more about this kind of stuff - is being Christ-like beyond our reach? Thomas thinks not.

Tto-live-is-christ.jpgo Live Is Christ To Die Is Gain  Matt Chandler with Jared Wilson (Crossway) $17.99  I liked Chandler's previous book, The Explicit Gospel and this has a similar tone - solid, Reformed, mature, but yet casual, winsome, teacherly.  He explains things well, lapses into hipster jokes and allusions some times, but yet still maintains a certain gravitas about the material.  This is a set of sermons working through the wonderful book of Philippians. You will learn why Paul yearned for these folks, how he commended them, what it means to take up a way of living that puts Christ first (and to promote and even join Him in his cross of suffering.)  Chandler's friend Louie Giglio writes on the back "To know Jesus is the essence of life, and I love how Matt Chandler stirs up our affections for Him in To Live Is Christ, To Die is Gain. Matt's beautiful, practical, and straightforward unpacking of Philippians will nudge you toward maturity... and a more robust walk with the Savior. Get it, and dive in today."

Torganic_god.jpghe Organic God: Fall in Love with God All Over Again  Margaret Feinberg (Zondervan) $14.99 I think that Margaret is nearly a poster-child of a new kind of evangelical writing - she is young, hip, funny, passionate, mature but not at all stuffy or off-putting.  Publishers Weekly notes she is "a popular writer for culture-savvy evangelicals." In this book, she gives us an upbeat and very cool version of a classic sort of book: a study of the attributes of God. If you want to deepen your knowledge of God, it is wise to study God.  Knowing God by J. I. Packer or The Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer come to mind as older-school, heady classics. Here, Margaret invites wonder and a real encounter, an organic, natural encounter, with a big-hearted, beautiful, mysterious God.  This isn't odd or unusual, but it is fresh and inviting. Very nicely done.

We stock all of her other books, too, and several dynamic DVD video lessons by Margaret, too.  Give us a call if you want more info.

Tlife god blesses.jpghe Life God Blesses: Weathering the Storms of Life That Threaten the Soul  Gordon MacDonald (Nelson) $12.99  Gordon MacDonald is a very gifted communicator, a splendid and mature man of God, one who is able to bridge the best of old-school evangelical piety and missionary zeal and the very real needs of contemporary people. He has the ability to make even younger readers long for depth and maturity, for character and virtue, for an interior life that is solid and good. There are fabulous stories, great Bible stories re-told, and tons of good advice about going beneath the surface to a life-giving and substantial life that can only be called "blessed." I recommend any of his books -- for instance the very useful Ordering Your Private World or the very honest and raw Renewing Your Spiritual Passion, but I re-read this recently and was reminded at how very good it is. One widely read and respected friend of ours thinks it is his very best.

By the way, you've heard the old adage about not judging a book by it's cover?  Please.

Lluminous.jpguminous: Living the Presence and Power of Jesus  T. David Beck (IVP) $16.00  We named this as one of the books of the year a few months ago, and have heard nothing but good reports from those who purchased it from us. Beck is a pastor, a great storyteller, a solid Bible guy with a heart for the poor and oppressed (he has done considerable work in Haiti.) One reviewer put it well saying "David Beck writes with the head of a scholar and the heart of a pastor" making the book both thoughtfully well-written but also very useful for those of us needing some guidance.  I love how he arranges the book around the purposes of God, the presence of Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the call to harness this presence and power to peacemaking in the world.  A great book for Lenten reading.

Tholy longing.jpghe Holy Longing: The Search for Christian Spirituality Ronald Rolheiser (Image) $15.00  Finally, this contemporary classic is being released paperback!  I don't think this is one for beginners, but it is doubtlessly one of the best books on spiritual formation written in the last 25 years. (Some very conservative Catholics, I should note, have disagreed.)  Note the title's allusion to desire, to our restlessness; he starts with this, helping to define what spirituality is, including what we do with this restlessness. Many adore this book, and many of our best customers have read all of Father Rolheiser's several good books.  He has a wise take on spiritual disciplines, invites us into a deeper life and an encounter with our real selves (even our sexuality) and the crazy-making false gods we serve, without falling into needless mysticism or shallow psychobabble. Rolheiser is a powerful cultural critic, so understands how our faith must develop "in but not of" the social pressures around us.  Recommended for a slow, careful read, for those wanting to delve deeper into spirituality and inner transformation.

By the way, if you are a fan, you may have missed his small paperback release a few months ago called Prayer: Our Deepest Longing (Franciscan Media; $8.99.)

Twell-played-life-why-pleasing-god-doesnt-have-to-be-such-hard-work.jpghe Well Played Life: Why Pleasing God Doesn't Have to Be Such Hard Work  Leonard Sweet (Tyndale Momentum) $15.99 You know we carry every new book by this prolific author and regularly exclaim about his writerly strengths -  he offers more illustrations and analogies than anybody writing, can turn an illuminating, witty phrase as cleverly as anyone, he has the best footnotes in the business, and anyone familiar with Sweet is astounded by his wide reading, how he knows so much about so much, and, of course, about his passionate commitments to Christ and His church.  He's a postmodern and hot-wired media guru and yet maintains an utterly orthodox, solid theology. (Yikes -- he's written about being fluid and aquatic and may not like be called solid.) Regardless, we dig Sweet and you should check him out.

I will write more about this new one later, I'm sure, as I both greatly appreciate his call to play (even if maybe a little annoyed about how he seems to use "work" as a foil, as if we fail to embrace the gift of play because of recent teachings about vocation and work.) For now, though: this is a book about grace and freedom and child-like joy, and is (yes!) perfect for Lent. Lent is not (we must be reminded) about being gloomy, let alone about earning God's favor by our own sacrificial practices. Len Sweet wisely asks "Do you secretly think that the harder you work the more God is pleased with you?" Do you think that this very month, harboring guilt rather than celebrating graced? This "offers a new spiritual direction for enjoying (and being enjoyed by) God. You'll start to recognize that the things in your life that give God pleasure are the same things that give you the most joy - and that playing and rejoicing are core components of what makes God's face radiate with joy because of you."  Read The Well Played Life along with your Lenten fasting. I dare ya.

Nnot-who-i-imagined-surprised-by-a-loving-god.jpgot Who I Imagined: Surprised by a Loving God Margot Starbuck (Baker) $14.99  You know that Margot is one of our favorite contemporary writers, feisty and fun and radical and challenging.  She can weave words like nobody's business, and is witty and snarky and a great, great storyteller. Her last two books (Small Things With Great Love and Permission Granted) are about reaching out to those on the margins, about inclusive love and radical servanthood; I fancy her as a suburban mom with a dash of Dorothy Day.  Can one gal be part Tiny Fey and part Lauren Winner?  I don't know, maybe I'm trying too hard to conjure up a fun image of her. She is fascinating and truly worth reading -- I assure you that she is full of lively writing and mature depth.  

This book is brand new and is, quite simply, a moving treatise against legalism, a balm for those who have been burdened by guilt and religious fear. Wounded by or concerned about toxic faith? Wonder about the chronic fear so many children of God seem to endure?  Or maybe you harbor garden variety insecurities and doubts. The very fine writer Amy Julia Becker notes "If you are a good Christian who secretly worries that you aren't quite good enough for God's love, this book will confound you, delight you, and bring joy to your heart and soul."  A Lenten type read?  Why not?  It will, I promise, remind you of your true identity: beloved.

Ssabbath as resistance.jpgabbath As Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now Walter Brueggemann (WJK) $14.00 I suppose part of the appeal of this season of the liturgical calendar is the reminder to re-focus clearly on Christ and, in a sense, unhinging from the world -- the idols and dysfunctions and false seductions of the world, that is. In other words, it seems to me that authentic Lenten practices not only draw us to God, calling us to follow Christ, but necessarily leads to denouncing hurtful aspects of the society in which we live, disentangling ourselves as best we can from unhealthy ways of living. For those of who ponder these sorts of things, we've come to realize it is harder than it sounds.

Welcome here your ally, the always provocative, utterly Biblical, and often inspiring Old Testament scholar and servant of the church, Walt Brueggemann. In this accessible slim new book he names the consumerism and drivenness of our society as the sin that it is, and invites us to a revolutionary Sabbath way of life that can slowly undo the harm to ourselves, others and creation that our way of life has engendered. I intend to sit with this a bit this Lenten season, and although it will make me squirm, hope it will be a properly joyful kind of call to repentance.  Maybe you need just such a guide into inhabiting a Biblical worldview, and some of what that entails. This really is classic Brueggemann, and we can be glad he has put into writing these matters he has explicated so passionately before about liberation, freedom, and a richer new way of life offered in these ancient Bible stories.


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March 10, 2014

A few to add to the last list AND a new Dallas Willard: Living in Christ's Presence ON SALE

After sharing a list of 10 recommended Lenten books at BookNotes, I compiled another list of some of my favorite books about spiritual formation; books that help us practice spiritual disciplines and books that help us resist the world's seductions, replacing the dysfunctions of our lives with God's glorious (and often messy) work in us, granting us Christlikeness. The ones I listed are either true classics or personal favorites, and I am confident they will be useful resources in your spiritual journey.

Of course, even as I went through the grueling process  -- and, if you are a serious book lover, you can imagine just how grueling -- of narrowing down the list, I kept thinking of other books that fit in, that could be mentioned, that ought to be named.  Here I will give a quick shout out to just a few other titles that I really want to add to our conversations about this topic, and then I will tell you about a very, very precious new book, a posthumously published book by one of the great leaders of in this field, the late Dallas Willard.

 BOOKS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT AS BACKGROUND TO SPIRITUAL FORMATION

The Lliberating image.jpgiberating Image: The Imago Dei In Genesis 1 J. Richard Middleton (Brazos Press) $27.00  I suppose this isn't for everyone as it is serious, rather scholarly, and not a quick read.  Yet, for one wanting a mature and ground-breaking work of Biblical studies, this is one of the most important books I could recommend because it is about what it means to be made in the image of God (and how in Christ that scarred image is restored.) Let me briefly say why it is important in this conversation.

Much of the rhetoric that comes up in many recent books on spirituality revolves around the notion that in Christ we can reject our "false selves" and become our true selves. (See, for instance, David Brenner's small but useful The Gift of Being Yourself.) Yet, without a robust theology of the human person made to image God in God's creation, and a profound awareness of the cultural damage caused by humans misappropriating their high and holy calling to reflect the true King of the Universe as stewards, such emphasis on rediscovering our authentic selves can drift off into psycho-babble and fund a very un-Christ-like narcissism. 

This tension seems to even emerge between the lines on occasion in Richard Rohr's popular The Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self, just for example.  No one would fault Father Rohr for not being socially and culturally engaged (in fact, he founded a spiritual center https://cac.org/ specifically designed to explore the social implications of an active contemplative lifestyle. Like Thomas Merton, say, or Parker Palmer, Rohr stands in a tradition that is usually very intentional about making overt the nuanced interface of what some call "the journey inward and the journey outward" and draws on contemplative prayer to empower us to work for peace and justice.  But, still, there is this shift in books about the self that are worrying to some.) 

So, I am convinced that Middleton's sound and sophisticated treatment of the meaning of the imago dei and the implications of the Biblical call to reflect God's rule over a blessed, pregnant-with-possibility, but very damaged creation is a needed foundation for any development of fruitful and humane spirituality.  In my small BookNotes review when The Liberating Image came out in 2005, I noted that extraordinary Biblical scholars such as Walter Brueggemann have said that this may be the best book on this topic every written.  Here is what Patrick Miller, then of Princeton Theological Seminary wrote of it: "The book is probably the most comprehensive treatment of this topic in the English language and will be an automatic point of reference in the continuing effort to understand the human in the light of scripture." 

A book like this maybe wouldn't come to mind as essential for most who are entering spiritual direction or who are exploring the classic spiritual disciplines or who are teaching a new class on prayer or fasting. Which is why I felt compelled to mention it here, in this Lenten context. It really does offer a brilliant and needed perspective!

Rreordered love.jpgeordered Love Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness David Naugle (Eerdmans) $18.00  This marvelous and wise book really should be on any list about spirituality but even I who love it so will admit that we sometimes don't know where to shelve it in the shop; it isn't a typical book about spiritual practices, but is about, well, about being happy by being human (God's way!)

Professor Naugle has his PhD in philosophy and teaches at Dallas Baptist University and runs a wonderful student-oriented learning community there as well; he is one of the most thoughtful teachers I know, and one of the happiest, too. The heart of this book is on learning to love the right stuff, in the right way, and have our deepest desires shaped by the ways of God. In this is an ancient as the Hebrew prophets and draws on St. Augustine (and laid good groundwork for Jamie Smith in his magisterial Imagining the Kingdom and Desiring the Kingdom.)This necessarily draws on the same insights about being made to image God and to serve the creation (as explained in the cultural mandate of Genesis 1) as is so expertly explored by Middleton, as well. 

Naugle covers a lot of ground -- including a study of the historic "seven deadly sins" and what he calls "the expulsive power of a new affection." He cites many authors, from spiritual classics to contemporary scholars (and throws in some lyrics of his beloved Switchfoot, too.) He talks of a mended heart, new lives, and how that is part of God's restoration of all things.  In this he is a rare voice, placing spirituality and our interior lives in the broader context of God's creation regained.  It is a very useful resource, a truly good book. Publisher's Weekly said his discussion of virtues was particularly compelling "and his presentation breaths new life into this topic."

Listen to Steve Garber's comment about David Naugle: "...amazingly wise, incredibly well-read, he is always attentive to what matters most, and his book should find its way into hearts and minds, courses and colleges, far and wide."


THE SPIRITUAL CONVERSATIONS SERIES BY EUGENE PETERSONPeterson.jpg

Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology Eugene H.Eat This Book.gifChrist Plays in Ten Thousand Places.gif Peterson (Eerdmans) $17.00

Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading  Eugene H. Peterson (Eerdmans) $17.00

Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers  Eugene H. Peterson (Eerdmans) $17.00

The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways ThatThe Jesus Way.gif Jesus is the WayTell It Slant- A Conversation on the Language of Jesus.gif Practice Resurrection- A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ.gif Eugene H.peterson smiling.jpg Peterson (Eerdmans) $17.00

Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ   Eugene H. Peterson (Eerdmans) $17.00  

Well, well. This famous five-volume magnum opus of the prolific Presbyterian Pastor Peterson are, I believe, some of the finest books written in our generation, and among the best books we've sold in our 30-plus years of book-selling.  We've always promoted all of Gene's books, and we continue to respect him immensely for his no-nonsense and (literally) down to Earth approach to the basic stuff we need to know about being a sensible Christian.  He sometimes is beautiful as a writer, sometimes plainspoken and direct. He sometimes ruminates and reflects, drawing on classic theology and important literature (novels and poetry inform his work, the titles themselves often drawn from lines of poems -- for instance, Christ Plays... is from Gerard Manley Hopkins and Practice Resurrection is inspired by the famously revolutionary poem by Wendell Berry; the covers, by the way, are from Jewish painter Marc Chagall.)

As one decidedly not influenced by the fast-paced and hip, Peterson occasionally meanders into brusk cultural criticism, all the while wisely teaching folks to realize God's faithfulness and presence and God's wondrous call to be human beings. He knows that the meaning of life, and the essential characteristic of spiritual formation is an increased capacity to serve God in the day to day of ordinary life in the world; in each of these meaty books he points us to what ought to be well-known habits and practices among us. 

In each of these amazing volumes, Peterson takes up topics such as attending to God in creation and Scripture, learning to read the Bible well, learning to pray, (re)thinking things like leadership in the way that Jesus does, rooting ourselves deeply in the church, realizing the majesty of the work God is doing in quiet ways in our lives together.  All of his books are treasures, and these five, especially, conversations that they are, are to be read slowly, carefully. 

Although these can be read in any order, I do recommend them all, and I suppose you might read them sequentially. (I will admit that I myself am savoring them, and have not gotten to the last one yet myself. Like all true classics, though, we may take our time, and work with them over a lifetime.) Highly recommended for your personal library.  Send us a note if you want further detail about what each is about.

225 books.gif5 Books Every Christian Should Read A Guide to the Essential Spiritual Classics  edited by Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Phyllis Tickle, and RIchard Rohr (HarperOne) $18.99  This Renovare-produced book is so useful on so many levels and for many reasons.  Mostly, it is a fine set of reviews of (and excerpts of) spiritual classics and whether you are led to read the full primary sources or not, these are books you should know about. This allows a perfect "toe in the water" and educational tasting experience.  The title of this is good, but could be amended to at least read "books every Christian should know about." 

Besides having the good reviews of the best of the best of enduring spiritual and devotional classics,  this slightly over-sized book also offers numerous sidebars listing the "top ten" books recommended by many contemporary Christian leaders.  Those intriguing lists are themselves a delight and a helpful guide for those wanting to develop longer term reading lists.  This is my favorite guide into these kinds of books and very, very useful. 

The books I wrote about the other day are so, so helpful, and I believe will encourage and assist and even teach you new things about how to proceed in your walk with God and how to be more faithful in your times of solitude, in your prayers, in your spiritual practices that will help shape your soul.  Read Foster, read Haley Barton, read Rolheiser. Read John Ortberg and Gary Thomas.

But then read these other more foundational works, background, so to speak, that will help you frame your practice of the disciplines by these bigger themes, growing in this vital theological soil. They are deep and solid and will be fruit of wisdom and maturity.

DALLAS WILLARD

Living in Christ's Presence: Final Words On Heaven and the Kingdom of God  Dallas Willard (InterVarsity Press) $20.00

One simply cannot underestimate the role of the late Dallas Willard in the contemporary religiousDallas-Willard-Quotes-1.jpg landscape.  The first book he wrote was a wise and good work on discerning the will of God -- a common question among evangelicals and charismatics, at least -- which brought good sense and a non-sensational approach that we trusted. That book, after having been out of print for a few decades, was recently expanded and reissued as Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God (IVP; $17.00. and there is a DVD curriculum, too.) We are glad to recommend it -- it is deeply spiritual but yet very thoughtful and not weird. (Interesting that we have to qualify that, eh?) That Dallas was a philosophy professor at UCLA was striking --  how many evangelicals who write books of basic Christian growth have that as their day gig?

Little did we know back then that Willard would take his impeccable scholarly credentials and use his sharp mind to help folks explore the very meaning of discipleship, what it means to bespirit of the disciplines.gif transformed by Christ as we find ourselves united with Him in faith, and how to deepen our confidence in the ways of Christian transformation. His Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives came out in the late 80s, and remains a strong paperback seller to this day. (That he had a chapter on the role of the body in that early book is, come to think of it, remarkable.)

Dallas Willard's many books have been exceedingly well reviewed and his teaching and speaking and mentoring has influenced some of those who have been influential in recent years.  Willard befriended young emergent types and he shared speaking events with older-school church types. He's written with Eugene Peterson; he helped create the movement within evangelicalism that focused upon Christ-centered spiritual formation (think of the NavPress line once called "Spiritual Formation Books" or the excellent IVP line of formatio books.) He co-edited the spiritual formation-oriented NRSV Life WIth God Study Bible (HarperOne; $24.99 -paperback; $39.99 - leather) with Peterson, Walter Brueggemann and Richard Foster.  

Foster is perhaps better known among those who are drawn to monastic practices - it is hard to name a book more influential than Celebration of Discipline - but Foster himself has insisted that Willard is one of our most important spiritual writers.  Those that value Foster should read Willard; it is that simple.

I sometimes mention that I have never read a more interesting and complimentary preface to adivine-conspiracy.jpg book than the amazing one written by Richard Foster in his 1998 introduction to Willard's seminal The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (HarperOne; $24.99.) That  Mr. Foster places it as an enduring and important book, standing with other all- time great works from church history may be a bit of an overstatement, but it certainly indicates how important and rich and thoughtful that book is.

We are taking pre-orders, by the way, for a sequel of sorts, The Divine Conspiracy Continued... that is going to be released in June by HarperOne (regularly selling for $27.95 although our orders here will get the 20% discount.) It is being finished up posthumously by Gary Black, who wrote a very fine study of Willard that we carry called The Theology of Dallas Willard: Discovering Protoevangelical Faith (Wipf & Stock; $29.00)

For many of our customers, the somewhat more accessible Renovation of the Heart: Putting On the Character of Christ (Navpress; $16.99) is a better place to start. Also, the practical, devotionally oriented guidebook co-written by Jan Johnson, Renovation of the Heart in Daily Practice: Experiments in Spiritual Transformation (NavPress; $14.99) is a great supplemental tool to process the teaching. There is even a teen edition which we carry. These are life-changing resources, and we commend them to you.

I have read and re-read certain chapters of his feisty book on the failure of the church to make disciples with the great title The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus' Essential Teachings on Discipleship (HarperOne;GreatOmissionLg.jpg $23.99.) It is very, very important.   Listen to this line from the back cover: "Willard boldly challenges the thought that we can be Christians without being disciples, or call ourselves Christians without applying this understanding of life in the Kingdom of God to every aspect of life on earth. He calls on believers to restore what should be the heart of Christianity -- being active disciples of Jesus Christ. Willard shows us that in the school of life, we are apprentices of the Teacher whose brilliance encourages us to rise above traditional church understanding and embrace the true meaning of discipleship -- an active, concrete, 24/7 life with Jesus." This, in itself, is important to hear, but he isn't alone in saying it. His significance comes in the very concrete way he helps us understand our apprenticeship to the Teacher.  This is very, very useful stuff.

Although it may be his most philosophically minded, his rumination on what we can know, and what it means to know (and whether religious knowledge is of the same sort as other knowledge) is amazing. If you enjoy deeperknowing christ today.jpg stuff, you should ponder Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (HarperOne; $24.99)   His claim that reality simply isn't "secular" and therefore religious knowledge as a kind of knowing ought not be ruled out of the modern university (let alone be mistrusted in our own hearts) is splendidly provocative and important.

College prof Mary Poplin just released a large and significant (and well written) book inspired by Willard on this very matter entitled Is Reality Secular? Testing the Assumptions of Four Global Worldviews (IVP; $18.00)  Willard would approve of her desire to show the truthfulness, experienced in the real world, of real knowledge about real things, and you see his work in this book shaping hers.  It is a theme he draws on from time to time, but makes it most explicit here. It warrants a careful, slow reading.

This reveals something important about Willard, and it bears saying, even in this short overview: he not only believes that Christ's claims, as shown in the Bible are true, but because they are true, they are in a profound way, do-able.  The "dog in the fight" he has, here, is more than about epistemology, but it is about how people of faith live into and out of their convictions, and how authentic Christian discipleship can be, well, the best way to life.  As churches help people be free in Christ, a joyful and fruitful lifestyle emerges, and it is to that way of life, based on the really real, that will draw people to Christ who is "the way, the truth, the life." He is a philosopher, as we've noted, but it seems he is a pastor and an evangelist, too. May his tribe increase!

So, we hope you are familiar with the good work of the late Dallas Willard and esteem his contributions to public theology, discipleship, and how he has shaped our insights about spiritual transformation in our time.  He was, as I've said, a very important author. He isn't always simple to follow (although he is writing for an ordinary audience of lay people and church folk as well as those tasked with offering pastoral leadership.) Don't discount him as simple (again, mature thinkers like Foster and Peterson commend him) and don't think he's too philosophical. He's perfect for Hearts & Minds kind of readers!

WLiving In Christ.jpghich brings us to his brand new book, Living in Christ's Presence (IVP; $20.00) which was produced out of a conference held at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church with Willard and his good friend John Ortberg one year ago, just months before Willard's untimely death. 

The popular and upbeat Ortberg gave a few of the lectures at this gathering, so he has a few chapters in here.

Besides his own good chapters, Ortberg played another very important role at the event to help translate and unpack Willard for the audience.  After each Willard lecture, in fact, Ortberg interviewed him, asking him to repeat certain phrases and explain particularly dense sentences or his occasionally counter-intuitive insights.  Ortberg had shown his ability to insightfully do this in a previous DVD they did together and it is a great, great approach, a very good teaching device.

The chapters by Dallas Willard in the aptly named Living in Christ's Presence are truly great, but these conversations at the and of each are even better. They are sizable (not just a quickie line or two) and themselves are wonderful to read. Ortberg is a fine interlocutor and Willard is so good on his feet, extemporaneously reflecting upon Ortberg's probing, practical questions. They made an excellent team and this book is worth every dollar spent on it.

Willard is being a bit more conversational here than he sometimes was - these were talks, not formal book chapters - and having Ortberg conversing with him throughout makes this certainly one of his most accessible books and, therefore, perhaps one of his most important. We recommend it strongly.

Although he is now in heaven, his legacy will deepen, not only because of the ongoing importance and popularity of his earlier body of work, but because of this wonderful, wonderful living in DVD.jpgtitle.

By the way, there is a fine study guide in the back (very insightfully written by Gary W. Moon) making this an ideal resource for small groups, book clubs, or soul friends to do together.

Further, there is a great DVD, a companion to the book that show Willard and Ortberg live from the "Living in Christ's Presence" conference.  The package has two discs with seven hours of material, making it a great value.  It sells usually for $30.00 but with our 20% off we have it for $24.00.


You can get a glimpse of the DVD here.



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March 18, 2014

A LONGER LOOK AT THE NEW BOOK BY JAMES W. SKILLEN: THE GOOD OF POLITICS (20% off and a free book offer .)

"Natural disasters are not the only things shaking the earth."

This is the powerful, provocative first line of a brave new book by James W. Skillen called The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction (BakerAcademic; $22.99.)

I want to ramble around a rumination about it as it is a book that means a lot to me and I think will help you. It is important and I'll tell you a few of the reasons why.

In a review I wrote a month ago for my monthly "Politics & Prose" column in theevangelicals on pp issues.jpg Center for Public Justice's Capitol Commentary e-newsletter I extolled a remarkable new book that showcased civil discourse and fabulous Christian political discourse, a book compiled by Harold Heie, who has been on the board of CPJ. It is called Evangelicals on Public Policy Issues: Sustaining a Respectful Political Conversation and includes a foreword by Richard J. Mouw. Contributors include Amy Black, Paul Brink, David Gushee, Lisa Sharon Harper, Stephen Monsma, and Eric Teetsel (Abilene Christian University Press; $17.99.) 

I started that review by recalling the innovative and nearly legendary role of CPJ founder Jim Skillen and his consistently thoughtful, non-partisan, radically Christian perspective on civic life. Heie's book about encouraging respect and civility was dedicated to Jim, so Capitol Commentary was the perfect place to showcase it.  Most of the young evangelical thinkers who offered such solid insight in that book would say that they cut their own teeth as political philosophers and activists on the early work and tireless teaching of Jim Skillen.

As that book illustrates (and as I tried to argue in this Hearts & Minds column a few years ago) Skillen has helped many of us realize that Christian political action ought not be merely some evangelical lingo on top of the secular right like religious icing on a bad cake; similarly, it ought not be some religious lingo on top of the secular left, like icing on a bad cake.  That is, those of us who walk in the way of the Lord ought not be accommodated to any ideology that may not be consistent with Biblical religion.  All our God talk and Bible quoting won't redeem a political philosophy that is itself found wanting.  

As in any area of life we are called to be "a peculiar people" with renewed minds and a prophetic imagination that dares to suppose there can be other ways to think and live than the typical binary standoff between traditionalists and progressives, between conservatives and liberals, between right and left. Skillen, as much as any friend, mentor and leader, has consistently reminded me of that.

Agood of p .jpgnd so it is with exceptional gladness that we can here announce the publication of the brand new book by James Skillen, The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction (BakerAcademic; $22.99.) Although formally retired from leading CPJ, Dr. Skillen continues to think and work and write; I suspect there will be other books to come. For now, though, this feels like a magnum opus, a major work, stunning in its scope and rare in its discerning insight. The Good of Politics is as interesting and lucid as any book Skillen has released and offers a fresh articulation of the foundational vision of CPJ, the think-tank which is committed to finding uniquely Christian insights that illuminate true norms for governmental action. In various ways in this important book, Skillen helps us ponder what we mean by "public justice"  and the "common good" and ponders essential questions such as how the state - which is God's good gift to us, not a bad thing -- can use legitimate authority to help order our pluralistic political community.  He helps us examine who is responsible for what, and in what way political-legal power is unique among other sorts of legitimate exercises of cultural power.

The subtitle says it is "an introduction" but that isn't quite right. It is part of the stimulating and respected "engaging culture" series edited by William Dyrness and Robert K. Johnston, most of which are exceptional, important, and if not quite scholarly, certainly thoughtful and mature, more academic than most popular religious books. 

Eminent Princeton University professor Eric Gregory notes that it is an "accessible text by one of the most engaged Protestant political thinkers of his generation." 

As Kristen Deede Johnson (professor of Christian formation at Western Theological Seminary) says, Skillen "offers an invaluable resource for our political moment. Here we have Skillen's political vision at its best. Biblically rooted and generous in spirit he engages a staggering array of topics from the early church through today..."

Not exactly a primer.

IF YOU NEED AN INTRO

IHealing for a Broken World - Monsma.jpgf you or your group needs an introduction, see that list to which I linked above, perhaps starting with the fine Healing for a Broken World: Christian Perspectives on Public Policy by Steve Monsma (Crossway; $16.99.)

I am quite fond of Ron Sider's Just Politics: A Guide for Christian Engagement  (Baker; $20.00) for those that want "the next step up" and a thorough guide to the process of how to develop Biblically-grounded, fair-minded, seriously Christian policy insights. 



Achurch state and public justice.jpglthough it isn't simple, in that review I also highlighted the feisty discussion between five different Christian political scholars who have their own position on what it means to think faithfully about the role of the state and the character of Christian politics. That one is called Church, State and Public Justice: Five Views edited by P.C. Kemeny (IVP; $20.00.) I think it is very, very useful. (The voice in that book that is most akin to Jim Skillen's, by the way, is Corwin Smidt's, a political science prof and researcher from Calvin College.) The other contributors who argue back and forth include a consistent life Roman Catholic, a traditional Baptist church/state separationist approach, Ronald Sider offering a Mennonite view and United Methodist pastor and author J. Philip Wogaman representing mainline Protestant liberal realism. 

All of these authors, despite their differences, know and esteem Skillen, and would agree that his new book is a significant contribution to our on-going conversations about what our political responsibility really should look like.

WISE DISCERNMENT

Those that know Jim will agree that one of his major gifts is his ability to see thejames skillen photo.jpg underlying presumptions and ideological commitments behind and beneath the perspectives of other positions.  From the most vivid rant on talk radio to the most sophisticated case argued in First Things or The New Republic, from the scholarly articles in Foreign Affairs to the calls for action from Sojourners or Focus on the Family, Jim has an ability to understand where folks are coming from, honor the strengths and virtues of their efforts, and see into the implications of their arguments. This is an important gift, making him a very helpful writer and teacher.

Skillen shows this skill in the opening pages of The Good of Politics by showing that two seemingly divergent spokespersons on questions of faith, culture and politics may, in fact, actually have very similar assumptions about the nature of what government is, and what the state is tasked with, and what a political community is called to be.  That is, they may be two sides of the same bad coin, even if at first that seems counter-intuitive.

BEYOND RIGHT AND LEFT -  A THIRD WAY?

It is often said nearly as a slogan for many of us that we believe that a Biblical view should be a "third way" or a unique perspective from the standard leanings of the religious right or left.  For Skillen, this is not cheap sloganeering or mere rhetoric - his astute evaluations, based on a lifetime of serious study and mature discernment, really do help us see "beneath the surface" and "between the lines." His calling as a political philosopher and his impulses as a teacher and organizer, combine here to help readers - that's you and me! -- understand the state of current thinking about faith and politics, and what faithful perspective on civic life and statecraft might look like.  

There is so much written on blogs and magazines, and said (pro and con) about faith and politics that we really need this wise word cutting through the nonsense and the confused.  I am very, very glad for how Jim has helped me, and you will glad how this helps you.

A MAN OF THE SCRIPTURES 

Those that know Jim will also immediately recall that he is a man of the Scriptures; thatCovenant to keep.jpg he has studied the Bible all his life, and can converse with the best Biblical scholars, is rare gift for a political thinker, and his reformational passion for "Scripturally-directed thinking" shines, here.  His wonderful 2000 book A Covenant to Keep: Meditations on the Biblical Theme of Justice (CRC/Faith Alive; $12.99) was a devotional set of lovely and at times explosive Bible reflections, strong and clear. It is great -- very nice as a devotional and very helpful.  But the Scriptural study here in The Good of Politics here is deeper. A lot deeper.

The chapters in The Good of... that open up the full-orbed, covenantal, Biblical drama -- creation-fall-redemption-consummation -- are themselves worth the price of the book. If you have read some of the basic outlines of how the Bible holds together as a cohesive, unfolding story (Al Wolter's Creation Regained of course comes to mind, as does The Drama of Scripture by Craig Bartholomew & Michael Goheen or their abridged, hipper version The True Story of the Whole World; maybe you know the old four-volume set Promise & Deliverance by S.G.DeGraaf (translated by Evan Runner and republished in paperback editions recently) or the upbeat and creatively-written The Story of God, the Story of Us: Getting Lost and Found in the Bible by Sean Gladding) you will appreciate this material, and, I predict, you will be amazed at just how good it is. 

Skillen is a fascinating Bible teacher, and this isn't incidental to the book.  Throughout, though, he does have the interests of a political scientist in mind, so, for instance, he notes how God condescending to giving Israel a King in 1 Samuel 8 should not be understood as God being opposed to kings or government. He explores an often over-looked passage from Job 29 where the elder Job recalls the joy of serving as a public servant. His exegesis is lucid and compelling. The strength of this part, though, is the big picture.  He is adamant that God is disclosing God's own character and will as the Biblical story marches on and as history unfolds.

He reminds us that,

The Biblical story is not some kind of ancient background noise that fades away when the American story begins. The Biblical story catches up the whole of created reality, encompassing all that exists and all that humans will ever be and do. That is why if we are too look carefully at the meaning of Christian engagement in the political culture of our day, we must first find ourselves in the Biblical story.

Before Skillen explores what he would insist is a Biblically-attuned and radical, integral perspective on the nature, calling and limits of the state (compared and contrasted, of course, with other God-ordained spheres, institutions, and organizations -- a state is not a family or a business, he reminds us) he has to help us truly "find ourselves in the Biblical story" and to do that, he must - with great grace and care - evaluate a few competing views of this same matter, namely, how Biblical religion does or doesn't equip us to be engaged in culture and responsible in citizenship.  Most directly, he brings critique to the "two kingdoms" view (perhaps most often associated with Luther, but in recent years with a certain sort of conservative Calvinism represented by David VanDrunen) and the Biblical pacifism found in the important work of Richard Hays. (As one who is confused about the nuances of the former, and appreciative of the work of the later, I found both of these discussions to be very helpful. Skillen offers here very important contributions to the conversations among politically astute evangelicals.) 

Again, this great first half of the book is well worth the price of admission; it offers a profound and serious overview of how to properly stand in the flow of Biblical history and from within a rich and consistent Scriptural vision learn to see ourselves as God's vice regents, stewarding well the many gifts of the generative creation.  Those who are taken with the balanced and nuanced "structural pluralism" of CPJ should be familiar with this approach to the Bible and its fruitful use to shape our cultural engagement.

IS A NEGATIVE VIEW OF GOVERNMENT APPROPRIATE?

From this profound Christian worldview will flow a certain sort of awareness that politics is, as the title suggests, a good thing.  It is not the only thing, perhaps not even the most important thing, but it is Biblically misguided to think that the state is somehow only a negative after-thought from God after the world moved "East of Eden" some sort of "necessary evil." But yet, very few American citizens (not to mention Christians, event those who claim to be Biblical-literate) seem to glory in the goodness of a variegated, diversified and unfolding creation, replete with institutions such as God's good gift of the state.  Why is it that so many have a negative view of government? It is not just that there have been plenty of examples of oppressive regimes or bad states - despite so many bad marriages or car accidents, most people don't go around bad-mouth marriage or driving. Particularly in the US and particularly among conservative Christians the animosity about politics is passionate and nearly a matter of principle, or so it seems. Why is this?

This question is a major burden of the book, exploring the history of the development of various ideas of the state, exploring with great insight, the rise of the nation state, and the ways in which theologians responded.  Skillen's study of Augustine, of Aquinas, of Luther, of Althusias, his reminders of the social realities of the middle ages, of the early Reformation and into Puritan and colonial American society is illuminating. His dialogue with vital social thinkers - yes, the likes of Calvin and Hobbes --  is just wonderful.  Even those who have studied European history (not to mention the Ottoman Empire or even Chinese history) or who are well-versed in the history of theology, will find new insights here, solid new angles of vision, great quotes, good stories, important ways to connect the dots.

I cannot understate how engaging this well-researched part of the book is, nor howgood of p .jpg important.  Those who are fans of CPJ or who have instincts that are non-partisan or "third way" will appreciate this, of course, as knowing the history and development of our current malaise has long been a strength of our movement; indeed, CPJ has usually eschewed hot-button, issue-oriented crusades in favor of digging deeper and taking a longer-view, including the principled study of just what the good of politics is, and just what the goals (and limits) of statecraft should be. It is usually not helpful to rally around an issue or cause without understanding its connection to other issues, and to the historical development of the contexts of those issues.  Our fascination and tendency on taking Godly moral stands on this issue or that, this cause or that, has, effectively, distracted us from doing the background homework on the first things of how the gospel relates to culture and what government is to be in God's world, so we sometimes have advocated for moral concerns that are disconnected to fruitful policies that can be just and good in the public square.

As Skillen puts it,

the kind of citizenship Christians should exhibit, therefore, is the kind that can help to clarify the distinctive art of statecraft and help to strengthen the political community for the common good." 

And doing this takes some work. It takes thinking about what we mean by a political community, what government is and isn't, and what qualifies us as fellow citizens.

Realizing how and why we've failed to do this faithfully, how God's people have accommodated their thinking to unwise notions or pagan ideologies or powerful social forces is a major contribution to the astute Christian mind in these days, and Skillen's book helps us immeasurably.  Who knew that studying Machiavelli or Locke or John Rawls could be so important -- and so very interesting? And relevant! Who knew that knowing the genesis of ideas and how they grew certain kinds of legs and got certain kind of traction would be so helpful for our daily life of on-going citizenship?

Heady as some of this historical overview is, Skillen realizes that few folks immediately recognize the urgency of learning from this historical research. But he makes his case nonetheless:

For many, perhaps most, Christian in the United States today, the historical roots of their political attitudes and affections may lie well below the level of consciousness. They may not recognize the names of Locke, Calvin, Aquinas or Augustine. They may be unfamiliar with the traditions and secularizing trajectories of American civil religion. Many influences of American pragmatism and of modern humanist educators such as John Dewey may be so strong that American may not know the classical, Christian and even early modern roots of the American way of life.

HOW THEN SHALL WE DO POLITICS?

Lastly, The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introductioeinstein-on-politics.jpgn offers thoughtful argument about how people shaped by this Biblical understanding of the task of the state, a view that disentangles itself from ideologies of the right or left, of individualism and civil religion and recognizes the important, good, but limited role of government intervention for the sake of public justice (for all) might approach certain social spheres and the policy concerns that arise relating to and among those spheres.  The books serious third part starts with a wonderful reminder that all politics is perspectival and faith-like biases inevitably inform all policy debates.  This "viewpoint as standpoint" is a great chapter, and leads to discussion about what we mean by the common good, and what sort of engagement (for what kind of political community) we should seek.

In this part Skillen offers an audacious proposal for what is called "proportional representation" and makes a case - a case he has made since the 1970s - that this would enhance our republic's democracy.  Electoral reform may not be a "sexy" or seem as urgent as working on anti-poverty initiatives or fighting sexual trafficking. Yet, in Skillen's hands it is shown to be important and necessary.  You will be a better informed American if  you read this part, and, agree or not, will understand some of the ways in which our system is shaped by Enlightenment notions of individualism and such. He has a few important paragraphs about weaknesses in the US Constitution and his heart-felt desire to improve our beloved republic.

CITIZENSHIP AS A VOCATION

This is the stuff citizen's do, think about very foundational, but important matters, so that it might guide what we think, what we try to persuade our neighbors about, how we testify at local hearings, what we say to our representatives, and, of course, how we vote.  A reflection called "Citizenship as Vocation" is beautifully rendered and highly recommended and offers great inspiration after the weighty Biblical and historical portions of the book.

Then, as the book gets more specific, it includes chapters on family policy, marriage and education, and another on economics and the environment. A final chapter addresses briefly some international concerns and the possibilities of global cooperation in these times. These pieces are provocative and insightful, well developed although still rather introductory. Much more works needs to be done, mining this Skillen-esque approach, the wise insight based on the truth that God's disclosure of Christ's redemptive work comes in history as just policies are advanced in our complex world.   

We do not build the Kingdom of God on Earth, but our daily deeds and historical formation - what Andy Crouch has called our "culture making" and our "playing God" - point, like signposts, to the breaking in of God's eschaton into human history.  What we do matters, as actions of love for neighbor and nation, and as symbols of God's redeeming grace.  Yes, this book is profound: the state is part of this, our citizenship is part of this.  How we work for the common good is part of our discipleship, and points the watching world to the consummation of all things, where a just and whole creation, a (re)new(ed) Earth, a good city, will be our eternal home. 

 Buy this book to learn how to be a better citizen and you will end up being, I am sure of it, a better Christian.

seek justice art.jpg

FRIENDS AND INFLUENCES

Allow me to inform you of just a bit more. I want to tell you about some of the friends and conversation partners that helped influence Skillen's work over the years.

I love looking at the acknowledgments found in books, don't you?  They sometimes reveal the tender hearts and interesting life circumstances of authors, but, perhaps more importantly, it shows what other scholars they draw upon, who they view as colleagues or conversation partners, and sometimes helps us connect more dots about their perspective.  In the case of a book like The Good of Politics which is breaking some new ground for many readers, but which stands in a particular neo-Kuyperian/Reformed tradition, offering a voice and framework that is different than the more customary religious right or religious left, it may be helpful to name just a few significant friends that Skillen thanks. 

There are several women and men from around the world that he thanks, but I will just highlight five.

He thanks Stephen V. Monsma.  I already mentioned his very helpful, balancedpluralism and freedom.jpg, evangelical introduction called Healing for a Broken World (Crossway; $16.99.) For a detailed, semi-scholarly proposal of how religious freedom, also for organizations, should be a foundation of our civil society, see the very important book about religious toleration and institutional freedom called Pluralism and Freedom: Faith-Based Organizations in a Democratic Society (Rowman & Littlefield; $29.99.) I think it is wise and valuable and I commend it especially to those interested (or opinionated) about the recent rulings in Arizona about religious freedom and discrimination, for instance. He advances a view some have called "positive neutrality" which seems to me to be a way out of the frustrating impasse.

He thanks David Koyzis.  In my bibliography to which I linked above you will find hispolitical-visions-illusions-david-theodore-koyzis-paperback-cover-art.jpg breathtaking book Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (IVP; $24.00) showing that the political left wing and the political right win have similar Enlightenment roots.  If you tend to be a conservative and a person of faith, you might end up feeling a little squeamish about your ideological roots.  Alas, if you are a lefty, he'll put your heritage in the hot seat, too - remember that bloodbath called the French Revolution?  So, yeah, this book offends everyone and nobody comes out happy. I dare you to read it.  Skillen would concur.


He thanks Ron Sider  Ronald J. Sider is known as the premier evangelicaljust politics.jpg spokesperson for a Biblically-faithful social action agenda and he and his wife are long-time friends of Jim and Doreen's. That they bring their differing denominational and theological traditions to the table and remain good friends is a beautiful thing. Read Sider's Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (Nelson; $15.99) if you haven't (please!) and then move to the aforementioned Just Politics: A Guide for Christian Engagement (Baker; $19.99.) You will see some of Skillen's insights, I think, in this mature work of Sider. And we all are in Sider's debt for teaching us much about God's concern for the poor, for justice for the unborn and for environmental stewardship.

He thanks Bob Goudzewaard.  Goudzewaard was an early influence of mine, and hearing him several times - and chatting at a Jubilee conference in the late 70s - was very important. Professor Emeritus (Free University of Amsterdam) Goudzewaard is a Dutch economist whoHope for Troubled Times.jpg eventually became a Parliament member in Holland, a part of a Dutch Christian political party (with roots going back to Abraham Kuyper.) While his most important books are out of print you can read Capitalism and Progress on line as a PDF for free: go here and scroll down to Goudzewaard.

We are big fans of a serious study he co-wrote with Mark VanderVennen and David Van Heemst called Hope for Trouble Times: A New Vision of Confronting Global Crisis (Baker Academic; $22.00.) There is a great forward by Desmond Tutu.

He thanks Calvin Seerveld.  Cal Seerveld is the preeminent Christian philosopher of aesthetics, and is renowned for his Dooyeweerdian/Vollenhovian angle on Biblically-shaped scholarship, cultural discernment, and passionate social action. That he has been friends with Skillen for nearly a lifetime is fascinating, and that this aesthetic philosopher, Biblical scholar (andrainbows for fallen world.jpg liturgist and playwright and art historian) cares about public justice is to his great credit. That Skillen listens to him is a clue to Skillen's awareness that while politics and statecraft are important, lasting social reform comes through a simultaneous realization of norms -- this insistence on the multi-dimensional nature of God's world is everywhere true, and Skillen knows it.  We are citizens with political obligations and yet also creatures who need art (among other things --  it is a very multi-dimensional world.)  Seerveld's classic is Rainbows for the Fallen World (Toronto Tuppence; $30.00) and we are proud to offer it as a staple of our inventory here. We stock all of his many books.

You should also know that Dordt College Press in Iowa (Skillen has taught at Dordt, by the way, and his book on international politics is published by them) will soon release a six-volume set of "occasional and sundry" pieces by Calvin Seerveld.  Each book gathers together speeches, sermons, talks, essays, reviews, academic papers, and other articles into themed books - one on aesthetics, for instance, one on art history, one on Biblical studies. This is a true publishing event for those who have ears to hear. It is wonderful to mention three of these here at the tail end of my review of the new James Skillen political book. I will be reviewing them more carefully soon enough, but for now, I will tease you by mentioning these three of the books in this new series by Seerveld.

Cultural Problems in Western Society Calvin Seerveld (Dordt College Press) $17.00cultural problems Seerveld.jpg These eight chapters may seem to have emerged from an unusual setting - these were lectures delivered to labor unionists and artists in Europe (funded by the European Commission and the Evangelische Zendings Alliantie.) Seerveld here is helping artists and activists to think deeply about pluralism, multi-culturalism, confessional and ethnic diversity, xenophobia, and the importance of enriched cultural conversations about our life together in our troubled nations.   

Cultural Education & History Writing Calvin Seerveld (Dordt College Press) $23.00 This is a collection of lectures which is nothing short of spectacular, parsing aspects of the philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd, preaching to those trying to embody a reformational world and life view, essays and articles that offer profound critique and glorious hope about some of the deepest issues in our society. Former CPJ Director Gideon Strauss - Strauss who has worked against cruel injustice in his native South Africa -- writes one of the forewords, and I cried reading it, knowing how much this brother with such passions for global public justice values the scholarly work of this artful prophet.

Redemptive Art in Society Calvin Seerveld (Dordt College Press) $21.00  I am proudredemptive art in society.jpg to have offered a blurb for the back of this book, a wonderful collection of papers and talks (a few of which I've heard on tape) about the social implications of the arts, how justice can roll down as artists help gift their local places with "rainbows for a fallen world." I love this book, and realize  -- that is too mild a word: I think I mean so very deeply feel - why Skillen acknowledges a personal debt to Seerveld. I doubt if either of them will read this here, but I am happy to say that if I were to write a page of acknowledgments, they would both be listed as men who have meant much to me.  Thank you for allowing me to tell you about their books.


A final book offer: along with our 20% off discount offer, we'll send along a free (older) book that illustrates Skillen's views about the "structural pluralism."  While supplies last, we're happy to share a CPJ classic.  It's my thanks to you for reading all this, and placing an order.  We are grateful.


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March 20, 2014

See my review column discussing James Skillen's The Good of Politics at www.heartsandmindsbooks.com

For those who subscribe to BookNotes, I hope you didn't mind getting that long review in yourgood of p .jpg inbox yesterday.  (And if you don't subscribe, you can do so at the website.)

That new book which I celebrated and commended, The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical and Contemporary Introduction, by James W. Skillen (published by Baker Academic in their "engaging culture" series) is so thoughtful and important that it demanded a longer review.  And I didn't even get into all the details of this strong book.

I wanted you to be sure that you knew that every so often I publish a longer review or a bigger list over at the Hearts & Minds website, filed each month under "columns."  These more or less monthly columns give me an opportunity to explore a title or topic in greater detail.

Or at least that's how it's supposed to work.  Ha.

Many think my ordinary BookNotes are themselves a bit, uh, wordy.  

I know, I know. It violates all the marketing guidance, the social media rules, all the conventional wisdom about being short and sweet.  Still, I believe many of our best customers want content, and it is what we do, describing and selling books, not just showing them, or listing the data about them. Any faceless on-line place can do that.

We know that many who visit our website or subscribe to our free BookNotes blog are true friends of Hearts & Minds who see themselves as connected to our work and are quite eager to read along. You are readers and book-buyers, after all, and you want our input, for which we are appreciative beyond words. Your story intersects with our story here, in many ways, and we are grateful for that.  So we want to tell you about a lot of books, and we want to explain the settings and contexts of them and why we think you might want them. We are humbled that you trust us to do this.

If you missed it, here is the longer review of The Good of Politics, the new book by James W. Skillen.  Jim means a lot to me, the organization he founded (The Center for Public Justice) is even now run by people we love and respect.  His new book is learned and interesting and articulates some important ways forward beyond the typical left and right debates about faith and politics.  I'm a bit proud of the review and hope you will check it out.

It's not that long, really.

By the way, as you'll see, I name a few other books along the way, and highlight a few of the authors which have been conversation partners with Skillen.  Some are not surprising -- and a few may be.  For instance, it was very cool to get to write about some forthcoming books by the art historian and Christian philosopher of aesthetics, Calvin Seerveld.

Please check out the review.  Realize what Skillen is saying about the vision of civility and pluralism and a just legal order for which CPJ stands.  Consider the cover art which speaks volumes once you get his view of the good role of the state mediating other social spheres and institutions.  Join us in thinking deeply about these sorts of things, relating faith and public life in wise and helpful ways. Heaven knows, we need some better ideas in this arena.

The offer we make at the end -- every book mentioned is 20% off plus we're sending an older one along for free for anyone who orders, still stands.  Thanks for reading.

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March 25, 2014

Leonard Sweet's astonishing new book on sale: Giving Blood: A Fresh Paradigm for Preaching - 20% OFF

Giving Blood: A Fresh Paradigm for Preaching Leonard Sweet (Zondervan; $22.99.) Our BookNotes sale price, $18.35

I have a friend, an engineer and businessman, who writes plays, funny, funny youth dramas, and he is the most witty person I know.  One can hardly have a conversation with him (or a Bible study or committee meeting) without puns being blurted out. He thinks of them instinctively, and blurts them out shamelessly. He's a wonderfully creative guy, good to be around, clever and fun, but he is truly gifted, extraordinarily so.  One can't keep up, even though a few try.

LEONARD SWEET

Author Leonard Sweet is like that.  He can't help himself.  Is such a gift a joy or a burden?leonard sweet - hands on chair.jpg What is it like to be thinking nonstop, to be reading voraciously, to blurt out puns and plays on words, crafting sentences with alliterations, metaphors that are mixed, crossed and double-crossed, thinking up and writing down clever axioms, inventing acronyms, wanting to explore (and tell others about) word meanings, unlayering their genealogy with inherent meanings discovered? He exegetes images like no one I know; all of life is a learning opportunity to play in and pray about. I don't mean this to sound cheap, but he seems to think in slogans, and writes them down in books, more than one a year in recent years. He's a man on fire. 

Reading a book by Leonard Sweet is a jumpy-bumpy joy ride, a book experience unlike nearly any other. He can't write a boring book, although I suspect some editors have tried to get him to.  

I sometimes scan a page for good quotes, stuff to cite, to put in a journal, to crib for a review. I don't even bother underlining Sweet books anymore because one can (for different reasons each time) underline almost every paragraph -- this clever line, that stunning idea, that historical fact, this curious quote, that helpful mnemonic device. Some sentences are short, others are themselves paragraphs. 

How does he come up with this stuff? Like the cowboy show from years ago, I watch a sentence fly by, scratch my head wondering if that insight can even be true, does that even make sense, and say maybe even out loud, grinning with discovery and wonder, "Who is that masked man?" 

WORD PLAY AND CULTURAL INSIGHT

Sweet was one of the first Christian leaders in our era to understand and, more importantly, to popularize cultural studies (yes, his de/reconstructive word play has a Derridaian feel, although less obtuse, more sensible.)

He prophesied the rise of reality TV shows, taught Christian leaders to be interactive by telling us about e-bay before most of us could imagine the importance of the internet, and predicted the rise of both salsa dancing and salsa, the condiment (which, as he predicted, has overtaken ketchup as the condiment of choice in the USA. Think what that suggests for a moment and think about your next church supper!) 

His fascination with the participatory culture we are now swimming in led him eventually to write books that played with his call to be EPIC -- that is, experiential, participatory, image-based and communal.  His The Gospel According tosoulsalsa.jpg Starbucks (Waterbrook; $13.99) is a playful and helpful introduction to the tangible shifts in contemporary culture, and what the church might learn if we, too, are going to be effective vessels, bringing the epic good news to bear in ways that compute to postmodern people who appreciate the "experience economy."  Books like Aqua Church 2.0: Piloting Your Church in Today's Fluid Culture (Cook; $14.99) show us how to set out in these postmodern waters and SoulSalsa: 17 Surprising Steps for Godly Living in the 21st Century (Zondervan; $12.99) tells us how to live it out in our own lives.  I like both of those books a lot.

It is axiomatic for Sweet that God loves this world, that we are called to be culturally-savvy ambassadors, understanding the signs of the times, even this TGIF culture (ahh, in Sweet-speak that's Twitter, Google, iphone, and Facebook. See last year's Viral: How Social Networking is Poised for Revival [Waterbrook; $14.99] for an exploration.  I reviewed it briefly, here.) Even if is not our "native tongue" (as it is for Gen Xers and Millennials and today's children) our churches must, like good missionaries, be astute in the ethos and folkways and values and language and technologies and aesthetics of North American culture. As immigrants to this brave new world (unless your young) we weren't born here; we have to learn the language.

IN BUT NOT OF?

Some might (and I have) criticized Len for not adequately sounding the counter-cultural, "in but not of" theme of being "non-conformed" to the ways of the surrounding culture. (See the last few books by David Wells, such as his new and very moving God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-Love of Godunfasionable paperb.jpg Reorients Our World or his weighty jeremiad Above All Earthly Pow'rs: Christ in a Postmodern World, or, perhaps more lively and useful, Unfashionable: Making a Difference in the World by Being Different by Tullian Tchividjian for rebuking critique of those who bend over backwards to accommodate faith to the ways of the world.) Still, Sweet's basic intuition and his major theme and his insistent questions are, I believe, right on. God loves the world; why don't we? God entered the world in the incarnation; why don't we? God has placed us in this time and place; why don't we learn the language?  God in Christ makes us more human, not less; why don't we experience healthy, abundant life?

God sent into the world a real person, after all - God With Us - not a bloodless proposition, not even a "gospel-centered" one, and the Christian faith is more about real relationships restored in Christ then assenting to abstract truths, more about the person of Christ than a proposition about Christ. Consider the title of this important book Sweet wrote just a few years ago: What Matters Most: How We Got the Point but Missed the Person (Waterbrook; $15.99.) What a cry of the heart for many churches, content to, as he puts it, "wade in the shallows of belief (rather than) plunge into the depths of faith." 

Other recent books of Sweet's like I Am a Follower: The Way, Truth, and Life of Followingnudge.jpg Jesus (Nelson; $15.99), Jesus: A Theography (Nelson $19.99) and Jesus Manifesto: Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ (Nelson; $14.99) or Nudge: Awakening Each Other to the God Who's Already There (Cook; $19.99) show that he's no hipster wanting to dumb down orthodox faith for faddishly cool God-talk nor a historic liberal Protestant eroding a Biblical worldview with a critical lens on all things historic. He's a postmodern evangelical prophet inviting us back to robust faith and whole-life discipleship, embodying God's ways thoughtfully and creatively in the 21st century world (or, as he often says, preparing for the 22nd century world - kids being born today may well live into the 22nd century!)

Rev. Sweet is a United Methodist minister and professor, working both at Drew University and George Fox University (in their DMin program.) His energetic teaching, conference talks, and interactive workshops on doing ancient-future ministry in this hot-wired world are legendary and even those that are not fully convinced that his big-picture, scatter-shot, all-over-the-map visionary proposals are "doable" or wise, he is inspiring and provocative and a valuable voice for the church reforming.  Unless he really rubs you the wrong way - and he does frustrate some, as a presenter and as a writer, I suppose - he is, in my view, a wonder to behold. At his best he is a force of nature. You should hear him, meet him, if you have a chance, but certainly, you should read him.  He is one of the most prolific, interesting, and, I think, important writers of our generation.  As I often say, you will learn a lot about a lot by dipping in to any of his books.  The footnotes alone are worth the price of admission.

Sgiving blood.jpgweet's mother was a Pilgrim Holiness preacher (driven from a few of her churches because she insisted on wearing jewelry -- her wedding band, and because his father owned a TV.) In his new book, Giving Blood: A Fresh Paradigm for Preaching (Zondervan; $22.99) he tells that she would sometimes sigh in the course of hearing a passionless sermon that the preacher wasn't "leaving any blood on the pulpit." Sweet, who has written nicely about his Wesleyan heritage and his standing in the United Methodist church -- his tribe, as he puts it -- reads and quotes very widely.  He affectionately cites Spurgeon and Calvin, Fred Buechner and Sam Proctor, Barbara Brown Taylor and Rowan Williams. Like his mother, he is a soulful, passionate preacher, eager to draw people to radical faith.

He used to edit a popular homiletics journal (and started the first on-line open source preaching resource, wikiletics.com) and he regularly teaches preachers and liturgists about vibrant, culturally-contextualized, worship. This new book is about leaving blood on the pulpit. I don't know if his mother would recognize it, but there is affinity.  At heart he wants to give of himself to preach about the blood of the lamb. Postmodern, technology-obsessed, 21st century aficionado that he may be, he wants to preach the old, old story, the gospel story.  His is no Christ-less, bloodless faith and it necessarily gets messy.

Which leads me to the first thing to say about this amazing work. 

It is about the preachers blood and it is about the blood of Christ and, somewhat, about your blood and mine. It frustrates some and is a life-line for others, but, as he almost always does, he plays with a metaphor, works an image, shifts back and forth between multiple meanings.  In this case, he reports about up-to-date scientific blood research (yes, about cells andwall street bull.jpg transfusions and genetic codes and all the rest) and also reminds us of ancient mythic stories about blood and blood sacrifices. (His linking of the pagan Persian Mithras practices of being washed in the blood of the slit throat of a sacrificial bull and the bull markets of modern pagans on Wall Street took my breath away - wow, did he say that? You'll leave some blood on the tracks if you preach like that!) But just when your head is spinning with fascinating stuff about platelets and plasma he introduces and runs with teachings about blood in the Bible.

As I said, one could underline lines and lines of this fascinating book. It is learned and eloquent and jam-packed with ideas and inspiration. It is a slight irritation that an editor didn't reign in his ADD a bit - some pages hold five different ideas, it seems (and there are glaring non sequiturs that may work live, but are jarring on the page.) But, still, even these are often amazing and mostly helpful and sometimes very beautifully crafted. Like the design of the book itself, this is a solid and handsome work, well-designed and layered with information and story and vision. And, man, does he work the blood metaphor.

Sweet said it was the hardest book he has written, and it has taken him longer, much longer, than any of his others.  He's a gifted writer with a photographic memory, so I gather that writing hasn't been too difficult for him. (He's released nearly 50 titles, after all.) In this one, at least, he has followed the advice of sportswriter Red Smith (probably not Hemingway) who famously noted how easy it is to be a writer: "You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins and bleed."

Consequently, I do think Giving Blood is one of the essential Leonard Sweet books. 

Awell-played-life-why-pleasing-god-doesnt-have-to-be-such-hard-work.jpgs I noted in a BookNotes post a few weeks ago, I love his other new book, an energetic new paperback on play and grace and creativity, The Well-Played Life: Why Pleasing God Doesn't have to Be Such Hard Work (Tyndale Momentum; $15.99.) It is about the importance and freedom of play and how to live a more God-guided, creative, liberated life, of course, but more, a rumination on our "works-oriented culture" which fails to appreciate grace.  One doesn't "work" a piano, he tells us, one plays it.  Perhaps we shouldn't "work" on our marriages or at our jobs, but play at them.  It's a good metaphor, messing with the Protestant work ethic, and the book brings several important insights.  He covers a lot of ground in that book, some chapters long, some short, with (of course) lots of stories and lots of historical examples and illustrations to clarity the urgency of this particular crisis -- our workaholism, and what he calls our BMB Syndrome ("Behold Me Busy.") I finished it just recently and started to write about it, and then came Giving Blood.  

And any day now we're going to see the brand, brand new book about missional social action,  Me to We: God's New Social Gospel (Abingdon Press; $17.99.) Sweet, you're killing me. I can't keep up.

GOOD FOR EVERYONE - NOT JUST PREACHERS

Giving Blood: A Fresh Paradigm, though, is a major work. Trust me on this - it is a bit counter-intuitive, whichgiving blood bigger.jpg maybe any review of Sweet should be - but although it is about preaching, for preachers, it could be profitably read by anyone.  If you care about culture, about being a better communicator, if you care about how the Bible informs life (and worship) if you long for your church to be renewed, and if you happen to care about preaching (and what Christian doesn't?) this is a great book to have. I would be thrilled to know of lay people reading it together, or a study group with pastors and their people.  Sure, ministeriums, clergy colleague groups, and pastor's book clubs should read it. Give it to your own minister, with a smile and a dare.  But, again, preacher or not, whether you do public speaking or not - heck, whether you are a Christian or not - this is a great book to enjoy and I'm sure you will learn a lot about a lot.  Not the least of which is about the life-giving power of the blood of the crucified One.

If it means anything to you (and it will for many BookNotes readers) Sweet says his two favorite preachers are Frederick Buechner and Calvin Miller. (And, in a story so typical of Sweet the consummate story-teller, he tells how Calvin Miller's last sermon, beautifully delivered shortly before he died, he cited Frederick Buechner.)

POINTLESS?

And, if it means anything to you (and it should) Sweet insists that the modern worldview, with propositions and pages and points, created what many think of as the classic style of homiletics - pointed sermons, here of late the 3-point sermon. (I heard him joke years ago that in the postmodern age, sermons must be story laden, narrative and imagistic; "Sweet, your sermons are pointless," his wife quipped. Ha.) 

WHAT'S A NARRAPHOR?

In this book he has coined a new phrase (I think, by the way, that it was Sweet who introduced to church folks the phrase coined by a VISA exec, "glocal") and this one, too, may take a bit to catch on, but it is interesting: narraphor. That is a narrative about a metaphor.  (Or is it a metaphor based in a narrative?) He works that out, too -- wow!

His EPIC preaching style for the TGIF world (see above) demands a study of semiotics. This isn't dry or complicated, but he does walk us through some rocky roads, studying communication theory from Charles Sanders Pierce to Paul Ricoeur to George Lakoff.  Serious scholars will appreciate that he understands this stuff and, I hope, will be glad he popularizes it for ordinary preachers and speakers and teachers. Sweet is walking through some of the same thick brush as James K.A. Smith (talk about an important evangelically postmodern writer!) but with a different tone (he's funny and breezy and can't stop himself from the punditry.)

Maybe making up words like narraphor is a bit gimmicky for your no-nonsense tastes, and, as I've said, he annoys some readers.  But I implore you, get over it.  Give this a try.

DRAWING ON THE BEST

And he does spend much time, in almost every chapter, quoting the very best writers andbooks stacked (preaching).jpg practitioners of the art of preaching.  From the old guys (Aristotle, Aquinas, Calvin, Wesley, Spurgeon) to important homileticians like Fred Craddock, Tom Long,  Eugene Lowry, Howard Hendricks, Haddon Robinson and great preachers like Barbara Brown Taylor, Bryan Chappell, Tim Keller, Fleming Rutledge. He is in conversation with the African American tradition, emergent folks, Reformed teachers like Sidney Greidanus, mainline Protestant preaching teachers like Paul Scott Wilson and David Schafler, and appreciates the exquisite Dominican Simon Tugwell. What a delight to see C.S. Lewis' friend Austin Farrer show up, and how interesting when he disagrees with John Piper about the role of humor in the pulpit. How many books have interesting quotes from preachers as diverse as Jonathan Edwards and Thomas Troeger? How I wish more of our friends valued the work of Louie Giglio and Walter Brueggemann.

Most of this is not heavy or tedious -- he uses quotes well, and draws on amazing insights from throughout history. He is a splendid oral communicator, after all, and knows his way around good sentences and good storytelling.

POETS AND ARTISTS

As always, he draws on novelists, poets, journalists, artists. What fun to see a line from Nicos Kazantzakis and a quote from Luci Shaw, a line from a song by Keith Green and an interview with Brian Eno.  And, thank goodness, a citation from Annie Dillard's The Writing Life. And did I mention Dr. Seuss? He wisely quotes Dr. Seuss.

I hope my naming these wordsmiths isn't off-putting to you; it is an invitation to realize how much thought and work and blood and sweat Sweet has put into bringing this big book together. And how fun and interesting it is to read.

But be prepared.

YOU'LL SHED BLOOD TOO

Have you ever seen those automatic machines that shoot baseballs to batters.  You've seen the comic scenes in movies where it is set too fast, and the curve balls come flying, flying, flying at you, nonstop, dangerously so, faster and faster?  Yeah, this is like that.  You'll have given blood by the time you're through the first two chapters.

But, happily, this isn't that painful.  It is exciting, stimulating, enjoyable, even, sweet sitting by lamp.jpglearning so much, being guided through fascinating theories, told wonderful stories, learning big ideas and small details, getting good quotes and good illustrations.  I'm telling you, bloodied or not, you will get your money's worth entering the cage with Sweet.

GETS VERY PRACTICAL

Just so you know, although the early part of the book invites us to "making Narraphors EPIC" and offers "interactives" (application exercises) and explores how Scriptures must guide us in our deduction, induction, abduction, and transduction, the book soon gets very practical.  He uses cool lingo "bicameral preaching" and "organic architecture" but sometimes he is bluntly clear, as in the chapter called "Blood and Guts: Passion."  

The whole fourth part is about "going live" and looks at blood supply, blood transfusions, blood donors (which is congregational interplay) and examines sacramentality ("blood vessels") as well as insights and ideas about good delivery.

Near the end, he looks at what other authors might call the dangers or obstacles faced by preachers. In the section called "AB-" (get it?) he deals with negatives: blood clots ("preachers block"), blood feuds and blood baths (that's about handling criticism), blood hematoma -- a moving section about avoiding bruising our listeners. The chapter called "Blood Pressure" is about the nervous preacher and there is a fascinating piece cleverly called "blood doping and bad blood" which is about "false props and bad leads."  "Blood Poisoning" is about dealing with heresies.

"Red-Blooded Realties" looks at the preacher's humility and humanity, "Blood Ties" is subtitled "Learning from Peers and Relationships with Colleagues" and he even has a section on interpreting effect and response called "Blood Testing."

I challenge you to find a more creatively written book on the art of preaching, and it may even be the most thorough. I am surprised that most preachers don't continually hone their craft and homiletics books aren't big sellers (except as seminary textbooks.) Maybe if more were like this, they'd be more popular.

As I said before, it is so interesting, even those of us who just listen to sermons and are friends with preachers will enjoy it and benefit greatly.

Notice -- again --  that it offers insights about the gospel itself and insights about how to communicate in these times; it is a creative study of true faith in our image-based, google world.  How do we do church in a world like ours? How do we preach the Word faithfully and fruitfully? What do we want our preachers to be, to say and to do?

Sweet offers good stories of those who have grappled with the implications of the Kingdom and he offers stories of those who have preached it well.  His incarnational theology doesn't demand that he separate this into discreet sections -- reflections on the message and the messenger - but you can discern these two great themes: what is the gospel and how do we get it spoken well to the gathered people of God? How do we read the world and read the Word. He draws on John Stott a bit, who said preachers are "between two worlds."  

Of course, Sweet will step on a few toes, rattle a few cages, as they say, tweaking those with unhelpful theologies and unbiblical views and outdated customs and sloppy efforts, but he will also offer good courage to those who are eager to bring renewal and hope to their bloodless churches. Giving Blood will help you give blood.

I like the quote by Heather Murray Elkins, Professor of Worship, Preaching and the Arts at Drew University: "Label this book 'O Negative.' It is rare and urgently needed. Good for all types."

giving blood.jpg

 

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