About April 2014

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

March 2014 is the previous archive.

May 2014 is the next archive.

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

April 2014 Archives

April 2, 2014

Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined by Jonathan Merritt ---and --- Not Who I Imagined by Margot Starbuck ON SALE


Although our store and BookNotes blog is known for promoting books about how the Christian faith interacts with culture, inviting friends to read widely, even suggesting Christian books about their careers and avocations, and even though we are passionate about providing books on many social and political issues (advancing what some might call a "public theology" concerned for the flourishing of the common good) one of the largest categories in our store is a genre one might call basic Christian growth.

In this section we have books for brand new Christians, for those exploring faith perhaps for the first time, and for those who have gone to church all of their lives, but want a deeper look or a fresh take.  No one is too old or experienced to benefit from these guides to faithful living. Some of our all time favorite authors might be found in this genre - think of Frederick Buechner or Madeline L'Engle, Eugene Peterson or Brennan Manning; Barbara Brown Taylor or Jerry Bridges; these are theologically interesting, but not scholarly, academic writers. Their books are designed for ordinary people of faith to grow in their relationship with God and deepen their daily discipleship.

I want to tell you a bit about two very good books in this category. These two are so nicely done and the authors so well respected, that they should be popular.  We know both authors, too, and want to honor their work and thank them for their support of indie stores like ours. 

Jjesus is better (bigger).jpgesus Is Better Than You Imagined by Jonathan Merritt (FaithWords) $20.00 


I have been eager to tell you about this book since I zoomed through an advanced copy; I am very fond of it. Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined just released this week and it will be, I am sure, one of the more popular books of its kind this year.  Jonathan Merritt has written two other very good books (Green Like God and A Faith of Our Own) and he has become a significant voice in the recent rise of a younger generation of evangelical writers. (Brad Lomenick, president of Catalyst, says that Merritt "is fast becoming one of the most influential Christian writers today. He has a pulse on culture and a gift for communicating." Rachel Held Evans says that he is "an incisive, winsome writer and one of the best storytellers I know.") That JM has spoken at events such as Q and Catalyst and Jubilee and writes regularly for HuffPost, Patheos, God's Politics and the like suggests he is a writer to whom we should pay attention.  

Although in his work as a pundit he has been outspoken about social justice, about forging better postures for cultural engagement than the old-school culture wars, and has invited readers to think more carefully about the ways faith can be applied to public life, this new book goes back to basics.  Why do we trust Jesus? How do we come to know God more deeply? How do we think and feel and embody God's ways in a very broken world where our lives are often filled with debilitating sadnesses?  What do we do when we've done all the right religious things and God still seems distant? 

In a truly wonderful foreword, John Ortberg mentions a personality test that psychologists sometimes administer where it is commonly discovered that religious people give false answers, more so even than the nonreligious. The reason, it is suggested, is that "those inside a strong faith tradition tend to confuse our aspirations with our achievements."

And, it seems, we sometimes don't fess up to the messiness of our daily lives, at least not at church.

Ortberg does a wonderful job setting up the book, and reminds us that our faith -- as explained so helpfully by Merritt -- is a mix of "not the way it's supposed to be" and glimmers of hope and glimpses of redemption. There is darkness and confusion alongside goodness and beauty in this life, and we need not pretend it is otherwise.  We don't have to fake our answers, suggest we have it more together than we do or exude more religious confidence then we have. 

The Christian faith offers a true story, a helpful framework which is the best way to understand this mix.  But I'm saying it inadequately: it isn't just a framework or abstract story we are invited into, it is friendship with the person of Jesus the Christ. Here's Ortberg, again, from the preface:

It is this Jesus, the real Jesus - with all his confusing majesty in the midst of the real world with all its confusing pain - who shows up on page after page of Jonathan's book. We see Him in the silence of the desert and the beauty of the storm in the challenge of an impossible assignment and the euphoria of an answered prayer. And not just there. We see Him, though this book, in somebody's life.  Jonathan's integrity and thoughtfulness and courage and vulnerability will be a salve to every reader. We meet Jonathan, as we meet Jesus, at the foot of the cross.

Jesus Is Better... has gotten a lot of on-line publicity in the last week as ChristianityJM in chair.jpg Today ran a very moving excerpt, one of the many poignant and self-revealing chapters when Jonathan tells of his own loneliness and foibles. It has been widely re-posted and re-tweeted.

There was an episode in Merritt's life a few years back that caused him considerable public embarrassment when an old acquaintance tried to blackmail him (he was already a known author and journalist with a large internet following) regarding what might have been an illicit sexual encounter.  It was horrifying to him, as you can imagine, to have personal junk aired without his consent and, as he tells in this chapter, he prayed to be spared.  "I'm not ready for this" he cried out to God. 

As he explains in the chapter "A Thread Called Grace" he was forced to share some intimate things about his life that would have not been his plan to publicly acknowledge. Yes, he has had some unwholesome desires.  His being a survivor of sexual abuse and how he is coping with the complex feelings having been through such things is part of that.  You can imagine. Yet, as Merritt wrote in a Washington Post column, picked up by Sojo, he chose to reveal more about this episode not to enhance sales of the books or as a cheap publicity stunt, but because it captures so very well the heart of the book: we can experience profound and healing grace; Jesus is indeed better than anything, His presence more than we might ever suppose. In our hardest times, God can be with and for us. When we are most frightened and alone, God is there. And this the beauty of God's mercy, God's tender care, God's free offer of love. Indeed, as Merritt says, "all is grace."

Jesus Is Better is a title, I'm afraid, that might turn a few sophisticated readers away.JM our greatest need poster.png  But I assure you, this isn't simple inspirational fare, or cheerleading for a happy-clappy sort of revivalism.  As I hope I've noted - citing Ortberg's foreword and this hard revelation about sexual brokenness - this is not a cheap book, morally or literarily. He draws on very interesting authors, poets, mystics and offers very nice epigraphs before each allusive chapter title. He talks about real life, difficult stuff, and the stories (quite engagingly told) ring true.  

Whether it is the story that made me shed tears (a young friend of his, a mother of two little ones, died of an odd infection, despite prayers for healing) or the episode of his own solidarity with those who sense God is silent and absent, or the fun story about the surprising common grace found at the nearly sacrilegious bar called Sister Louisa's Church of the Living Room and Ping-Pong Emporium, a campy dive nestled in Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward, these tales take us into real life, honest probing, and the search for authentic spirituality in the world as we know it. 

Happily, the book is exceptionally accessible, and nearly anyone who likes to read even a little will be drawn in. Jonathan Merritt narrates stories of his life, making them interesting and applicable - he's the son of a Southern Baptist preacher, after all, and he knows how to bring it home, drawing out a good lesson from a good story.

For instance, he tells of going to Christ in the Desert monastery for a silent retreat. I felt like I was right there with him, sharing the anxiety of facing such a rigorous discipline. Merritt offered a honest report of how hard it was for him, and how hard it most likely is for most of us to enter into sustained silence. A very exciting chapter about a mission trip to Haiti (where he is ambushed and robbed twice in the same day!) will resonate with anyone who has done short term projects. I liked a chapter about being in Kathmandu, about finding God despite a sense of God's absence (and the lessons learned from the children of poverty.) He's a great storyteller and a fine Bible teacher, and weaves together Bible observations and his fairly colorful life. There were moments I thought of Bob Goff, and the holy capers he describes in Love Does - Jonathan has that spontaneous and adventurous disposition and ends up being in some very entertaining situations. It makes for a good read. 

Yet, despite the high drama, some of the best chapters are quiet;  they are gentle reflections on ordinary time.  How does Jesus reveal Himself in the more quotidian? There is one chapter about the mystery of what Jonathan thought was a mystical encounter, God truly showing up, offering a gesture in the wind as Jonathan sang a rousing early morning hymn in his wooded backyard.  Of course (of course) he tried to duplicate the experience many times after that, and, of course (of course) God cannot be summoned to perform tricks at our command.  It is a candid and nicely honest report of this fairly simple story - sometimes we think we have had an encounter with the Divine, but we aren't sure. Or, we are pretty sure, but we wonder why it vanishes so quickly. I've been there. I have read that chapter twice, smiling and nodding, glad for his faith and glad for his candor when it doesn't work out as we might wish. It's a funny world, eh?

"I remember the day the emptiness came," Jonathan writes in the first page, in a chapter called "Holy Expectation."  

Unless you really don't think about these things much, I suspect you, too, have sat in church, longing for greater spiritual connection.  You've had times of emptiness. You've read a religious book or attended a small group Bible study or worked hard on a congregational renewal project and yet, yet, there is a sense that God is not much involved.  You resonate, as Jonathan does, with the line he offers from Emily Dickinson, 

They say that God is everywhere, and yet we always think of Him as somewhat of a recluse. 

I think many of our readers will enjoy this book. I think the stories, and his sensible,JM has given us.png upbeat Bible instruction, will be helpful.  Be prepared to be surprised. Not only does he write so very nicely about finding God in the impossible, about encountering Jesus in waiting, even about Christ's holy presence in tragedy, he does come back to church: yes, in a chapter called "Easter Remembrances" he encounters Jesus in church.

And, in a closing episode he moves way out of his comfort zone as Jonathan meets rather reluctantly with a small group of Pentecostally-inclined women who speak a "word of knowledge" over him. This prophecy ends up ringing true in the deepest parts of his soul: it was a vivid invitation to continue his journey.

As he looked back over his year, the year that became the fodder for this book, he writes,

I found moments of respite and enlightenment in Scripture, no longer read out of duty My eyes caught surprising glimpses of God in far off monasteries and my back porch. I saw Jesus flash in the eyes of orphans and touches refugees. In chance meetings with unlikely angles in unusual places, I stumbled across the One I craved. Now I realized He was there all along. He had just been waiting for an invitation to meet me on His own terms, rather than on mine. 

He continues,

The search for our boundless God has no beginning and no end. When we walk thorough one door of spiritual awakening, God opens another and beckons us come. He calls us not to a destination but to a life-long posture whereby we live aware, peering around every corner knowing that God may be waiting there.

Nnot who I Imagined.jpgot Who I Imagined: Surprised by a Loving God Margot Starbuck (BakerBooks) $14.99


If Jonathan Merritt's vivid stories are sometimes exotic - travelogue reporting of his dramatic mission trips or a stay at a remote monastery or coming alongside friends in the grip of premature death and tragedy, yearning to encounter Christ in those places - those found in this recent book by Margot Starbuck are, well, less so.  

However, her writing just glows and her stories of her daily grind, about her children, her tales of her own inner turmoil, her girlhood, people she knows, are of a truly remarkable caliber. She is a very good writer, one who I truly respect, not least for her fine work as a wordsmith. And her spunk.

You should know that we've had Margot to the bookstore to read from her work (her memoir Girl in the Orange Dress is extraordinary) and we believe her to be one of the most enjoyable writers doing these sorts of books these days. I like that she can be sassy, self-deprecatory, and her stories - a game of "your favorite heresy" played on New Year's Eve, her little one's trying to figure out the price of a high end sports care they spied (forty-two dollahs, her three year old suggests) - are offered with the witty turn of phrase, very interesting word choice and a perfect cadence.  With a degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, Starbuck knows her proper Reformed theology; as a bit of an neo-hippy-chick, she's free enough to speak her mind and allow for laughter and revel in just a little bit of weirdness.  Without going gonzo, she still brings some zest to the page, and if you like energetic, quality writing, you simply most know her stuff.

For instance. She is known as a rather creative dresser (to put it delicately.) Her rant (amargot pink.jpg good one, too) of the shaming involved in the reality show What Not To Wear was stellar, just stellar. Her feisty resistance to the powers that want to shame and name her as unacceptable is admirable, gloriously so. "Be Who You Are" is the name of that chapter and the stories she tells, alongside situations like the inglorious watching of the aforementioned train wreck of a TV show, shout her message so clearly: "even if I'm not accepted, I'm still acceptable."  As she wryly notes, "A useful life-skill on so many levels."

Starbuck continues,

And though my own beleaguered insistence may very well spring from some unmet developmental need, or some narcissistic demand for attention, the outcome - choosing to silence messages that insist on my inherent unacceptability -really is the singular path to freedom from shame.

And this is may be the heart of the book: we are accepted, and can know that better as we think through the faces we have for God, the voice we hear when we think of God speaking to us.  

Again, I was choked up by some of her stories, anecdotes of people who heard from overbearing parents that they are unlovable, and that God thinks so too. Tragic stories of people who can't seem to realize that they are beloved, people of faith who still can't quite imagine a God who is good or beautiful, let alone accepting.  If we feel we are not good enough for God, if we think God somehow mostly wants to scold us, we are far from being grasped by the gospel. By citing provocative social psychology and a bit of fascinating neuro-science, and some pretty insightful folk from her own circle of friends and family, she weaves a thoughtful picture of how some of our earliest memories (of, literally, eyes and faces) become for us our truest images of God. As you come to realize, this can be damaging or healthy, by degrees, depending. Pondering it now can become healing. 

As Margot's subtitle puts it, we can be "surprised by a loving God."

She has very well-crafted reflection questions at the end of each section to help process all of this. They are suitable for groups, if you are close, and certainly are great for personal use.  They might be quite revealing as she asks us to name and reflect upon our own sense of the face of God.

This is not new territory for Margot, nor is it simple. As she has told in her own memoirmay you know quote from margot.jpg about being adopted, and some subsequent family disasters, she is saddled with inner baggage, abandonment issues, a sense of not being worthy to be received. Her bit about not wanting to impose on others when she is a house guest was very funny, and very poignant, painfully so.) What does it feel like to sense one has not been well held, not lovable, not accepted? How has that registered in our neural pathways, in our very being? (She cites some amazing work in this, from the notable Dr. Frank Lake to the stunning Alice Miller, author of The Drama of the Gifted Child, whose work on early childhood issues remains urgent.)

Ms Starbuck is an amazing, gifted, energetic writer and a mature thinker. I suspect this book will touch deeply in profound places if you let it.  Few of us are unscathed in this hard world, and all of us know those who carry within them toxic views of God that are not Biblical, and not healthy. They need to be surprised, or reminded, that God is "not who I imagined." Starbuck's book will be a God-send, a life-line, I am sure of it.

In fact, I not only recommend it to those who need a good reminder of the face of God, seen in an accepting and warm Jesus - grace is amazing, isn't it? - but to those who work in counseling, pastoral care, or who are sometimes called upon to offer encouragement to others. 

In this book she recounts episodes and share stories - for instance, one in which her six year old self oddly runs out into street busy with traffic - where people do weird stuff that maybe indicates something amiss in their interior lives.  If you know the mysteries of human psychology, you surely know there is much to this - we carry trauma in our bodies, we have memories just below the range of consciousness, and our hurts have a way of wounding us in ways that manifest themselves when least expected.  She is not a psychotherapist, but she has attended to these signs of something going on "below the surface" and her ruminations are helpful and wise. She makes it clear time and again that this "re-forming" of how we see and understand God is part of what God does in human lives. She is, I believe, a midwife of the Spirit, helping us bear new fruit in our lives, as we come to know God more appropriately and truthfully.

And the journey is a lot of fun. This book brings together some very serious concerns (what could be worse than toxic faith, a fear that we can never measure up to God's approval, stories of those whose God is distant or angry) and yet is jam-packed full of great stories of a simple sort, cleverly told, punchy, catchy, and thought-provoking.  Not Who I Imagined is a very good book, and it is well worth considering. 

There are several major sections with several chapters under each heading. Her stories and ruminations and scientific dabbling fall under these categories and although some may dip in and out, reading what you may, they do follow a flow, a liturgy, it sees to me.  Enter this grand healing story and follow along:

We're Formed by Early Faces

We See Ourselves Through Other's Eyes

We Mask Up to Cover Shame

We Give God a Face, We Encounter the Face that is True

We Receive God's Gracious Face.

not-who-i-imagined-surprised-by-a-loving-god.jpgjesus is better (bigger).jpg

As we draw closer to Holy Week, these sorts of books can be very useful.

These two storied authors have given us great gifts in their work and we should not take lightly their willingness to be so vulnerable about their own lives.

Their stories and guidance remind us that we are loved by a big, mysterious, good God, who is seen in the face of the Incarnate One, Jesus Himself.

This may be a surprise, and it will be better than you imagined



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April 8, 2014

7 ways books can help us (and a sale on some great ones.)

A few folks expressed interest in the presentations we've done in the store lately (which they noticed on facebook or twitter) asking for me to share at least some of what I taught.

I have a few different talks I've been giving in recent years about the role of books in our lives, the value of reading, how those who follow Jesus are called to develop a "renewed mind" and a Christian perspective on their life and times.  Books obviously can play a huge part in Christian discipleship, especially as our world grows increasingly complex and older ways are being forgotten and/or challenged. Reading books - old ones and new ones - can be a discipline of spiritual formation and a sign of a healthy life and mature faithfulness.

The other night we had an upbeat gathering with friends from Shippensburg Universitybyron teaching in store.jpg and Juniata College; the next day we hosted a group from Eastern University and we had a lot of fun. Thanks to the students who came for this bookish field trip, and their good humor in putting up with my dumb jokes and melodramatic stories.  Your interest in "taking every thought captive" by learning to (re)think Christianly is an inspiration.  We tip our hats to you as you commit yourself to being life-long learners.  I hope we can stay in touch.

Here is a basic outline of what we shared with these energetic customers and friends and a few of the books I cited.  After mentioning the way the Jubilee conference in Pittsburgh so influenced us decades ago, I offered 7 points.

1.  Books can be our friends.  

I don't mean to suggest that curling up with a book is a substitute for real-world friends.  I suppose some introverts can use books as an excuse to not develop abiding friendships, but for many of us, despite good friends and family and extended community, there are times when an author gets what we are going through and givesThe Word- Black Writers Talk About the Transformative Power of Reading.jpg voice to our own predicaments better than anyone else.  I love to read out loud a powerful set of paragraphs, episodes of how books offered insight and solace to novelist Marita Golden. Those first few pages of The Word: Black Writers Talk About the Transformative Power of Reading and Writing (Broadway Books; $14.99) are worth the price of the book, eloquently naming reading experiences that were formative for her. I've used these pages in workshops many times, and my voice still quivers as she talks about reading The Beloved and how it made her brave to face suffering.  I asked students if this resonated with them, if this was true for them (a character in a novel understanding them better than anyone) and I saw many heads nodding.  Yes, books can be our friends. 

2.  Books can expand our horizons, offering windows into the lives of others. 

If we had time, I would have loved to have heard stories about this from our young friends. Interestingly, it has been shown in the research: readers tend to be more empathetic than non-readers.  Traits such as compassion can be nurtured and deepened by reading widely.  There is great truth in that well known cliché about walking a mile in another's shoes, and reading novels, history, poetry, and (I believe) especially memoirs, allows us to realize how others construe their lives.  I suggested that it is an act of loving our neighbors to want to be curious about them, desiring to understand what others go through. Books can really help us. Perhaps you are already compassionate and kind and observant enough to love others well.  Or, perhaps, like most of us, you need all the help you can get.  Tolle legge, I say.

I mentioned a few of my favorite memoirs that have helped illuminate the experience ofgirl in orange.gif somebody bringing insights I wouldn't have easily obtained otherwise. For instance, I recommended Margot Starbuck's moving story about adoption and loss and healing, The Girl in the Orange Dress: Searching for a Father Who Does Not Fail (IVP; $16.00.) Poet L.L. Barkett's first book, Stone Crossings: Finding Grace in Hard and Hidden Places (IVP; $15.00) is another moving memoir I revisit and commend for those needing to know about hosting hard times with redemptive imagination. What a moving experience it was to read about the lives of Mary Karr or Jeannette Walls or Kim Barnes.  Biographies of course can do this -- I hope you've read something on Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer, at least, and maybe a few missionary bios. I especially suggested that these white students read work written by people of color.  Of course therestone crossings.jpg are classics like The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Penguin Classics; $16.00) or Martin Luther King's first book, Stride Toward Freedom (Beacon; $14.00.) More recent decades have given us classics like The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride (Riverhead; $16.00) and Patricia Rayburn's My First White Friend: Confessions on Race, Love and Forgiveness (Penguin; $15.00) and dramatic faith stories like John Perkin's Let Justice Roll Down (Regal; $14.99.) I showed off our section that includes books about Latino studies, Asian-American and Native American writings.

Even this week I am enthralled by Cheryl Strayed's wonderful, searing novel about a family coping with cancer.  I recall not long ago Beth and I both reading a novel about some colorful characters in a nursing home which brought new insight.  And my horizon's have been significantly widened by the wonderful writing of Barbara Kingsolver.

By the way, although I didn't mention it in this presentation, whenever I've talked to clergy or Christian leaders lately, I insist they read the tremendous Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets and Journalists by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. (Eerdmans; $14.00.) I can't say enough about this wondrous book and how it shows how an intentionally wide reading plan for pastors can make them better preachers.  We first talked about it at BookNotes here and named it as one of the Best Books of 2013, here.

3.  Authors can be mentors.

I shared that I hoped these young people have found real-world mentors, people who can serve them as leaders, coaches, guides, counselors and pastors. The students came with older friends from the campus ministry CCO so I know they have trained Christian leaders "investing" in them, as they sometimes put it. However, even if you are blessed with an approachable pastor and a wise older friend or two, there are things in our lives that our leaders can't answer.  Books can present an amazing array of information, can model wisdom and faithfulness, can point us in the right direction.  Authors can be trail guides, accompanying us on the journey and we should draw on their riches generously.

I suggested that they find an good author or two, and pledge to read everything that author writes.  After a while, you may come to know that author well; some of us have been known to correspond with our literary mentors. (There's a fine line between legitimate conversation and, uh, stalking. Just saying.)  

For me, there are important authors whose words have come to mean the world to me -Peterson.jpg these include Marva Dawn and Eugene Peterson, Ruth Haley Barton and Lauren Winner, Os Guinness and Ron Sider, Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, Calvin Seerveld and Walter Brueggemann, Richard Mouw, Steve Garber, Richard Foster, and others. 

There are also authors I truly adore - I think of Barbara Brown Taylor (whose brand new Learning to Walk in the Dark [HarperOne; $24.99] just arrived today!) or Sarah Miles - who I don't particularly think of as mentors or friends even though I love their writing and appreciate their books.  There are a number of authors I read consistently, even if I find myselfdiscipleship in the present tense.jpg disagreeing with them more often then not.  That's okay, you know.

Funny, I didn't name most of these favorite authors of mine, but told about my personal appreciation for Ruth Haley Barton's books about the interior life and testified that in the last decade the work and friendship with Jamie Smith has been very, very important to me. I told them about a great way to dip in to his insights is in the anthology Discipleship in the Present Tense: Reflections on Faith and Culture (Calvin College Press; $14.00.)

4.  Books can inspire us to live with passion.

Of course (again, again) we can be inspired to live well by poets and journalists, by fiction and non-fiction. Who hasn't read the poems of Wendell Berry, or his Hannah Coulter (Shoemaker & Hoard; $14.95) or Jayber Crow (Counterpoint; $15.95) and not wanted a better marriage or a clearer sense of the past?  Oh, how I recall the first time I read Whitman's "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" or that line from Thoreau about leading lives of "quiet desperation."  I was deeply moved by all of John Piper's short biographies in his "Swans are Not Silent" series, but especially so by the volume that looked at John Newton, Charles Simeon and William Wilberforce as he documented their "invincible perseverance" in The Roots of Endurance (Crossway; $14.99) 

For my purposes with these students, I wanted to introduce them to vibrant evangelical authors who invite us to robust, rowdy discipleship, who embody the abundant life of John 10:10. That may be for me Walter Brueggemann or Leonard Sweet, but I gave theLove_Does_240_360_Book.625.cover_-196x300.jpg shout out to Bob Goff, who they know from Jubilee - I am such a fan of Love Does: Discover a Secretly Incredible Life (Nelson; $16.99), and hope you know that the DVD curriculum is available, a fine 5 week immersion in passion and joy and guts and winsome adventure. Many young adults appreciate the passionate approach of Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream by David Platt (Multnomah; $14.99) and Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God by Francis Chan (Cook; $15.99) or Don't Waste Your Life by the uber-passionate Baptist preacher, John Piper (Crossway; $13.99.) I suggested the solid collection of neo-Puritan sermons so passionately delivered over the years at the huge Passion Conferences - it is edited by Louie Giglio and called Passion: The Bright Light of Glory (Nelson; $15.99.) Because of his diligence in putting together these big worship festivals, I can hardly think of an evangelical leader who has been more influential in recent years.  For those who haven't caught the vision of the counter-cultural implications of serious faith, I'd recommend The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical by Shane ClaibornePASSION.jpg (Zondervan; $15.99) -- here's hoping it's popularity doesn't fade.  Donald Miller's story about making his life a story, A Million Miles in a Thousand Days: How I Learned to Live a Better Story,(Nelson; $15.99) is invaluable for those wanting to reconsider the trajectory of their lives.

Anyway, authors can inspire us, books can enlarge our hearts, we can be motivated, challenged and pushed into greater love and service. I hope you have somebody who kindly does what Hebrews 10:24 tells us to do - prod one another one to love and good deeds - but if not, you can easily let the printed page do that for you. I dared our guests to find an author who truly inspired them to live with abandon, passion and wild grace.

5.  Books can help guide us into a truly Christian worldview and "prophetic imagination."

I must admit that this is where I spent most of the time in the talk, reflecting on what we mean by a worldview, what distinctive Christian thinking and cultural engagement might be like, how not to be accommodated by the spirits of the age, and how to be "in but not of" the world as Jesus instructs. I do not doubt that many of us know quit a bit about our faith, we have agreed with many Biblical truths and try our best to live them; we can check off the proper religious ideas --  indeed, we might be able to check off the cornerstones of a comprehensive Christian worldview.  But intellectual assent to ideas, even ideas about the comprehensive nature of faith and God's redemptive plan for "every square inch' of creation, does not mean that our interpretation of life, our vision and imagination, and the lifestyles we embody are thereby reliably Christian.  

I have said this myself since I first learned the world weltanschauung in the 1970s and yet had a hunch that something was fishy among some who were obsessed with the notion of worldviews; I love the way Steve Garber got at it in his profound first book withdesiring-the-kingdom.jpg the great title and subtitle, Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Believe and Behavior (IVP; $17.00.) This critique of how we've described and taught worldviews has been a major concern advanced wonderfully by James K.A. Smith in his very important Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker; $22.99) which reminds us that our way of life embodied in the world reflects our deepest longings and desires, not just our intellectual notions.  The process of being "non-conformed to the ways of this world" and having a "renewed mind" and having our bodies be spiritual worship services - see Romans 12:1-2, once again - takes a lot of intentional work, not least of which is reflecting on the ideas of worldviews, spiritual practices, and the orientation of our way of life.  By the way, one of the little books that have helped with that recently (without exactly being a "worldview" book) is the fantastic Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential by N.T. Wright (HarperOne; $22.99.)  he shows there how immersing ourselves in the Psalms will effect our view of time, space, and matter.  Had I had time, I would have quoted some of that to our young guests, showing how being shaped by the liturgical cosmology of the Psalms will take us a good way into seeing the world as God wants us to.

Students who hang around the CCO hear a lot about worldview formation and not a few can recite the valuable chapters of the unfolding Biblical drama - creation, fall, redemption, restoration. Many of become familiar with understand the Bible well by using resources such as The True Story of the Whole World: Finding Your Place in the Biblical Drama by reformational philosophers and worldview scholars Michael Goheen & Craig Bartholomew (Faith Alive; $15.99.)  I'm glad for this.

But, to be honest, I chided them a bit for not actually studying the idea of worldview, knowing well what is really meant by that, and the amazing fruitfulness of being fluent in that discourse, astute in those conversations. What good does it do to chant "creation/fall/redemption" if our imaginations are not shaped by those truths? (Yes, that was an cryptic allusion to Jeremiah 7:4.)  I think if I had one wish for this generation of religious book buyers it would be that they would read more books about worldview.  We may have one of the largest selections of such books, and hardly anybody every buys them.

Here are a few I showed that I recommended to our guests:

CChristian Worldview - A Students Guide .jpghristian Worldview: A Students Guide Philip Graham Ryken (Crossway) $11.99  An expansion of a smaller booklet we also carry, this pocket sized book is worth its weight in gold. Short, insightful, smart and nicely written, it is very helpful. Highly recommended for a great start or a fresh reminder.

Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview Al Wolters (Eerdmans)$15.00  I cannot underestimate the significance of this book; if it is not cited in a book on this topic, I'd be surprised.  I told a few stories about it and it's good impact on those who have grasped it.  I also suggested that the chapter called "Structure & Direction" needs to be studied, profoundly. It's important.

Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian Worldview Brian Walsh & Richard Middleton (IVP) $18.00  I still say this is the best book on the subject -- it traces (briefly) an overview of Western culture, the history of dualism, the rise of the idols of our time.  It raises a beautiful call for college The-Transforming-Vision-9780877849735.jpgstudents to do their studies in community, as counter-cultural agents, dreaming how God's reign might impact their future careers. This is an amazing book, not to be missed.  I am sure you will learn something new, and be challenged in significant ways, no matter who you are. If you haven't looked at it in a while, get it out, dust it off. I'm convinced it is more needed now then ever.

Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Culture James K.A. Smith (Baker) $22.99  I don't think it is unfair to suggest that this is an expansion of themes that are hinted at in Transforming Vision. Smith studied under Walsh, and although he is now a professional philosopher of considerable fame, he owes much to TV.  This is, I've regularly said, one of the most important and influential books of our time.  I mean it.

6.  Books can help us understand and discern our callings.  

That we don't view our jobs as essential to the Kingdom work of God and that we sometimes aren't clear about the various callings and vocations to which we are called is, I suggested, an indication that we don't really "think Christianly" out of a Christian worldview - a strong view of vocation is at the heart of a Christian worldview, after all, and insofar as we rarely hear about work in our churches and Bible studies, we have failed to well integrate Sunday and Monday.  A dualism which divides the so-called sacred from the secular - in some churches overt, but most often covert - plagues us still, and few church folk buy books about science, art, education, engineering, math, teaching, eating, shopping, voting.  I take this as an indication that there isn't much interest in thinking about living out faith day by day and although I know some intuit their way into doing this with beauty and grace, and that some churches offer study groups or Sunday school classes, the commitment to think deeply about all this just isn't very evident.  I've been inviting people to this habit of integration of faith and learning around their jobs and careers for more than three decades and, to be honest, still don't see much evidence that God's people care about studying what it means to be faithful in every zone of life, including their work and careers. 

So, we start with Steve Garber's slogan, "vocation is integral, not incidental, to the mission dei."  We can use Al Wolters or Walsh & Middleton to open up the "cultural mandate" from Genesis 1:26-28. We help people learn what it means to respond to God's call, to take up work that is a blessing for the common good, as the realize their task to bear God's image opening up the creation's possibilities. 

Sadly, most people still don't show much interest, but I invited these students to read these kinds of books, knowing well, deep in their bones, the insights offered by these sorts of books.  If they've been to Jubilee, for instance, they've heard some of this, but I wanted to be clear why  it is so important that we study, read, and learn as much as we can about this most often missed central Biblical teaching.

Here are some of the books I held up.  I'm impressed that the bought some of these  -- yay!

Jjourney w taking.jpgourney Worth Taking: Finding Your Purpose in This World Charles Drew (Presbyterian & Reformed)  $12.99 This is a great price for a great book, not unlike Purpose Driven Life, perhaps, but better -- much better. This mature, thoughtful, energetic overview of our calling to explore our vocations is just tremendous.

Cculturemaking.jpgulture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling  Andy Crouch (IVP) $20.00  I know most readers of BookNotes know that I am fond of this book, and you won't be surprised that I named it as a "must read" for those interested in developing a fruitful vision of vocation.  If you still haven't caught on to why we like this, watch this 37- minute video of Andy's fantastic talk at Jubilee 2014.  Don't miss the end when he plays Bach, and talks about it. Praise the Lord for such good, good stuff.  Am I right?

Tthe call.jpghe Call: FInding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life  Os Guinness (Thomas Nelson) $17.99  This handsome paperback has great stories, is eloquently written, and remains one of my top three or four books, ever.  This book names so much of what we are about, and this approach has born such good fruit among those who embrace it, I cannot speak more highly about it.  Smart, deep, with short chapters and good discussion questions.

VVoV.jpgisions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good  Steve Garber (IVP) $16.00  Steve gives much respect to Os for influencing his own vision of vocation, but this book moves in such interesting directions -- asking how we can take up our love for the world, knowing it is so broken, without growing sour on our hopes to make a difference.  Can we resist stoicism? Cynicism? With these kinds of moving stories and bits of astute cultural observation and well drawn quotes from novels and films, this is truly one of the great books of our time.  I told about how we launched it at Jubilee, and pressed it hard into the hands of some of these students with us the other night.  I'm very, very glad to tell people about this.

Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship with Monday Work Tom Nelson (Crossway)$15.99  I've often said this is the best overall book on this for those starting out in the journey of relating faith and work. A few students who will soon graduate wanted this, and although some of the above books could be read first, this is a lovely little gem.  Highly recommended.

Eevery good e.jpgvery Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God's Work Timothy Keller & Katherine Leary Alsdorf (Dutton) $26.95  I told the students that this is the creme of the crop, the Cadillac of this whole genre -- it really is the best.  It is a shame the publisher insisted on making it so expensive (speaking of business ethics; Keller's people should have put their foot down on this!) Still, I wouldn't be without this masterpiece, and we take it nearly everywhere we go, hoping that serious readers will want to explore what it means to think redemptively and live well in the modern work-world.

7.  Books can be teachers to help us think Christianly about our studies. 

Although this final point was crafted to inspire these undergrads, the point might be considered by all of us.  Once we understand God's comprehensive plan for redeeming this fallen, idolatrous and dysfunctional world, and how those who are in Christ aretheory practice.jpg called to particular avenues of service for the common good, the question becomes burningly urgent: what does that look like? What does in mean, in terms of professional practices, stuff we do day by day, to be God's agents of reconciliation in the careers and callings which we consider holy vocations?   Are there books that can help us here?  You bet!

The student of C.S. Lewis who himself went on to write so well, Harry Blamires, famously insisted that there is no longer a "Christian mind."  Walsh & Middleton and others have asked what Christianblamires quote.jpg scholarship actually looks like, for a typical university students, taking her classes, reading her texts, writing her papers.  If we had more time with the students, I'd have explored this a bit more deeply.

This point isn't just for students, though.  We can press the questions into any career, yours and mine.  Does a health care provider need to rethink certain things she has learned about the body and pain and medicine? Does an engineer need to question the prevailing assumptions about the role of technology? What kind of lending practices will a Christian banker propose and what kind of discipline (or assignments, or tests, or grading styles) does a faithful school teacher administer? Does faith make an impact on lawyering; do religious commitments offer resources for being different in the world of retail or research? In what ways does a Christian whose calling is to work in programming think about digital culture? What about an actor, journalist, artist, factory worker?

A Christian worldview creates a high view of vocation; a high and holy view of vocationscience-research.png demands that we think Christianly, in light of Biblical and theological categories, learning well the way the world really works.  That is, I told the students, we must read the truths God embedded in the very creation itself, studying well the world, in light of the Word. (A verse in Isaiah suggests that a farmer learning the mundane but important ways of what seeds to plant when and where is actually a gift from the Lord. The farmer had to study the seeds and seasons, but it is still seen as knowledge that finally comes from God. Isn't it such with all true learning?)  The task of being salt and light and leaven in the postmodern world for all of us demands a certain commitment to what only can be called Christian scholarship. We think our bookstore can help you as we study our world, study our work, and imagine the details of an alternative way of serving in that arena. It means learning the history and development of a field and it also means learning the craft, the tools and practices of the trade, so to speak.  Christian reading prepares us for doing our jobs with excellence and a holy attentiveness.


I gave them two verses about the role of theories, inviting them to be critical thinkers as they engage the material taught in their college courses. Whether at an evangelical college, a church-related one where church teachings are hermetically sealed off away from the classroom, relegated to the chapel alone, or at a public university where the spirit of secularism predominates, followers of Jesus simply must work hard to reflect on what they learn and whether it is consistent with and coherent within a Christian worldview. 

Here are the two verses that invite us to this process of critical thinking, discernment, and re-engagement with the world of ideas, theories, thoughts, and constructs about what we do in this world.  I suspect it might get them in some trouble, but I challenged them to take up their current calling as students and to be active learners, serious, well read, even doing what we call "double study" (reading a Christian book alongside their required reading, to compare and contrast the views of their topic from a perspective based upon Biblical assumptions and one based on other faiths/ideologies.)

Colossians 2:8 

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy (that is) based on the traditions of men... 

Although often used in apologetics, I think this has profound application for every student, studying anything, anywhere. And for you in me, in the workplace, as we evaluate political pundits, as we laugh our way through the latest sitcom. There are underlying ideals and values and visions of life beneath and around, implicit in everything taught, in every practice, in every cultural tool, in the habits of our workplace. For starters, I told them not to be hoodwinked and not to buy everything their professors profess. Or what every allegedly Christian books says.

Nonetheless, there is little doubt, good books are our allies in our efforts to obey this text.

2 Corinthians 10:5

...take every theory captive for Christ... This, of course, authorizes students to learn much, to think critically, but to place ideas within a larger framework of God's own work in the world. If the previous text is a defensive warning, this one is, shall we say, more positive. There are tools to help us do this, and we sometimes need help from Christian philosophers, but we can indeed use the best thinking, learning much and applying ideas faithfully with discernment and imagination helping it build a comprehensive view.  Books can help us sharpen our minds and learn the art of doing what this verse commands. Let us know if you need books about your particular area of study.

Yyour minds mission.jpgour Mind's Mission  Greg Jao (IVP) $5.00  If you've followed our blog much you know that we are so proud to be mentioned in this little booklet. It packs a real wollop as they say, with every page jam-packed with worldview-rocking information, freshly worded challenges, radical cultural observation and delightful inspiration to read, to think, to grow -- all so we may serve God's ways better in the world of great need.  Missional?  How about a missional mind?  This is a Hearts & Minds manifesto if ever there was one!

Amind for g.jpg Mind for God  James Emory White (IVP) $13.00  Every now and then I pull this out and read a bit of his lovely reminder of why reading matters, and how reading together as a family is such a good thing, and why we need books as allies in our journey to think well for God. It is a pocket sized paperback and worth every penny -- well written, urgent, insightful. I love this lovely little gem. Get it for yourself if you like books about books or reading about learning. Or, get a few to give to those who a gentle reminder about the joy of learning, the call to nurture the Christian mind, and why our times call for thoughtful Christian engagement in the issues of the day.

II Just Need Time to Think.jpg Just Need Time to Think: Reflective Study as Christian Practice  Mark Eckel (Westbox) $13.95 I was happy to show these students this fine little collection of solid essays about the need to think well.  I love the subtitle, don't you? This inspires me a lot as it dips into the topic from many angles, offering short reminders of the call to use our minds, think well, be creative in our learning, and take the time to develop a mindset that is worthy of the name Christian.  I like Eckel, and appreciate these very nice pieces.

Learning for the Love of God: A Student's Guide to Academiclearning for the love of god.jpg Faithfulness Donald Opitz & Derek Melleby (Brazos) $14.99  This used to be called The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness and to this day is the one book I would say every college student who cares about faith should own. There is nothing like it.  If any of what I've written thus far intrigues you, get this. It is winsome, interesting, and very, very good. 

Engaging God's World: A Christian Vision of Learning and Living  Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. (Eerdmans) $16.00  I think this may be the most eloquent book yet written on the glories of being a Christian college student. Anyone interested in the big theme of God's redemptive work and why learning much is vital -- the basics of a Christian worldview -- will surely appreciate this lovely provocative book.

Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God John Piper (Crossway) $15.99  What a passionate, Biblical, and useful contribution to learning for the greater glory of God. There are some insights here that are very impressive.

The Mind of the Maker Dorothy L. Sayers (HarperOne) $13.99  What a lovely, thoughtful book with good ruminations on various theological themes, but always with a view of how understanding these core truths help us appreciate our own creative tasks. A lovely introduction by Madeleine L'Engle makes this a very nice edition.

Certainly there is much more we could say about the role of books and the power of the printed page.  I told some stories, read some excerpts, made some off-handed comments, got my tongue-tied and my "mix all talked up" a time or two.  But it is always a joy to get to tell folks about why books matter, how reading is important, and why a relationship with a real bookseller that you trust is an important asset. 

We hope this helps you recall your own favorite books, the things you value from reading, and -- maybe -- you'll want to pick up a few of these that we so heartily recommend.  We will deduct the 20% off of the regular prices shown. You can call us if you'd like, or just use our secure order form link shown below. We are grateful for your support.



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April 14, 2014

Holy Week Reading: a few suggestions (ON SALE THIS WEEK ONLY)

I don't know about you, but I always make sure I have some time alone during Holy Week, especially on Friday and Saturday.  Even if it is just to ponder a few pages, read slowly, savored and considered with care, it is very important to me.  There are a few books that I pull out every year, and I'd love to tell you about them, briefly.  And a couple others that we have here now on sale.

We have them on sale for 25% off.
Sale prices good only until Saturday, April 19, 2014.
While supplies last.

Tundoing of death.pnghe Undoing of Death  Fleming Rutledge (Eerdmans) $22.00  sale price $16.50  We've recommended this stellar author before, and I often name this as one of my favorite Lenten books. Ms Rutledge was a parish priest in New York and is known for being an astute Episcopalian theologian and a very eloquent, profound preacher.  This is a sermon collection, drawn from over 25 years of her solid preaching, and ideal for dipping in to any time, but certainly this week.  Samuel T. Lloyd III the dean of Washington's National Cathedral says "Here is passionate, unstinting, full-blooded preaching on the deepest mysteries of the Christian faith...she brings her formidable intellect and her wide reading to bear in saying what is nearly unsayable: God has overcome the world's darkness, and what happened on a hill outside of Jerusalem has made all the difference." This is a wondrous book, thoughtful, powerful, sure to reward repeated readings.

Tcross of christ.JPGhe Cross of Christ  John R.W. Stott (IVP) $26.00  sale price $19.50 I know there are many theories and theologies of the nature of the atonement and what happened at Calvary. I have on occasion reviewed books of various sorts, but I find myself drawn back to this eloquent, thoughtful, systematic yet moving study by the fine evangelical leader, one of the best of the 20th century, the late John Stott.  This hardback edition has a foreword by Alister McGrath and a study guide included.  Various sorts of authors have given ringing endorsements on the back, from emergent voice Tony Jones, who may not agree with some of it, but offers accolades ("Books like this stand the test of time") to social activist Shane Claiborne ("Grab this book and get ready to live real good and get beat up real bad. It is the story of our faith.") J.I. Packer notes that "John Stott rises grandly to the challenge of the greatest of all themes... This, more than any book he has written, is his masterpiece."  Evangelist Luis Palau says simple that it is "One of the outstanding books of all times."  

Bbetween cross and r.jpgetween Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday  Alan E. Lewis (Eerdmans) $28.00 sale price $21.00  I mention this every year this time, and remind people that there is such rare richness here it is well worth owning.  We've had it in the shop, but, to be honest, it is more serious then many of our local friends may want -- or, we've pressed it on them previously.  There isn't much written on this topic, but there needn't be, as this is now a contemporary classic. Douglas John Hall called it "splendid, lucid, and refreshingly original." Publishers Weekly wrote that it is "an original interpretation of a relatively unmined topic, a rare achievement in Christian theology." The Theology Today journal says "Few works of contemporary theology so wonderfully combine great learning, stylistic eloquence, and moving depth of insight." Listen to this amazing statement by the very important Thomas F. Torrance: "This is the most remarkable and moving book I have ever read."  Wow -- whether you wonder about the hiatus between Good Friday and Easter Sunday or not, this rumination on the death of Christ and the disciple's experience of the absence of God is, as Colin Gunton wrote about it, "a life-and-death concern."

Ffinal words.gifinal Words From the Cross  Adam Hamilton (Abingdon) $16.99  sale price $12.75  Most readers really appreciate the many popular books by this dynamic United Methodist pastor (including his brand new one published by HarperOne on how to read the Bible without being literalistic.)  I've listed this one on the famous seven last words earlier in the Lenten season, and it is very well done, creatively so, with a first person monologue in each chapter. A few readers have shared how much it has meant them. This is sweet, solid, provocative stuff; maybe it could be just right for the end of this week. 

cross shattered christ.jpgross Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words Stanley Hauerwas (Brazos Press) $14.99  sale price $11.25   I assume you know that Duke's professor Hauerwas is a feisty preacher, both plainspoken (at times) and very philosophical at others. He's a top notch philosopher and a passionate no-nonsense preacher.  He's written widely about what makes for good preaching -- attention to the text, obviously, and application to an idolatrous, violent world, and here is a tremendous example of good preaching, on stuff from the words of Jesus that we too often fail to study carefully.  He observes that "we are at once drawn to these words, yet we fear taking them in our hands."  A compact sized hardback with a some very striking wood cuts. As is so often the case, Brazos delivers a very artful little book.

Tkingdom and the cross.jpghe Kingdom and the Cross  James Bryan Smith (IVP formatio/Renovare) $8.00  sale price $6.00  I hope you know the impressive trilogy, The Good and Beautiful God, The Good and Beautiful Life, and The Good and Beautiful Community, all by James Bryan Smith, done in partnership with Richard Foster's Renovare ministry. This short book includes six reflective studies on the cross, on being an apprentice to Jesus, and how our own transformation points to the coming of the Kingdom of God. This is very, very nice, highly recommended for any time, but especially to ponder these next days.

Learning to Walk in the Dark
Barbara Brown Taylor (HarperOne) $24.99 sale price $18.75learning to walk in the dark.jpg 
I mentioned this brand new release in passing in my last BookNotes essay, and will review it later -- perhaps I will read it at the end of this week.  It isn't that long, and the topic, about a spirituality that works when times are hard and things are unclear --  "finding light in the dark" -- certainly feels right to read this time of year.  Shauna Niequist writes that it is "a gift to every person who's felt the darkness but not had the words to articulate it, which is to say it is for all of us. A truly beautiful book." Lauren Winner (who moved many of us so deeply in her book Still) says "Beautiful. Profound. Nourishing. I have needed to read this book for a long time." Perhaps you do too.

Here is a good interview that my friend Jonathan Merritt did recently with Barbara Brown Taylor about her new book. Check it out, and see there the BBT video as well.  After this week, we'll have this at our more regular BookNotes 20% discount... I hope to review it soon.



25% off
Sale ends April 19, 2014  
while supplies last

takes you to the secure Hearts & Minds order form page
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inquire here
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April 17, 2014

One of two new James K.A. Smith books: Who's Afraid of Relativism: Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood ON SALE

I realize this is being sent out sometime between the night of Maundy Thursday and so-called Good Friday.  I feel like maybe I should offer a seasonal meditation or tell you about books about the cross.  

So, I tried to spin this glimpse into postmodern philosophy and the painful complexities of our contemporary quandaries, and Smith's wise response as some sort of cruciform rumination, and in away it is exactly that.

That wasn't working, so, no, I didn't quite go there, but want to send it out now anyway.  It feels urgent to me to post this now as there is another Smith book review coming soon.  Beth and I wish you a meaningful climax to your Lenten journey over these next days, and hope this book review is a blessing, not a distraction.

Not everyone who reads BookNotes may be interested in buying this new book in thewho's afraid of r.jpg acclaimed series "The Church and Postmodern Culture" by James K.A. Smith. Smith is the general editor in the series, and wrote the latest one, Who's Afraid of Relativism? Community, Contingency and Creaturehood (BakerAcademic; $19.99.) It is the eighth book in the series and although they are all relatively brief, and written for an educated but not necessarily scholarly audience, some have been a bit dense. They aren't for everyone. Understood. 

But James (Jamie) Smith is an author about whom you should know and this is an important, helpful series.

I offered an overview in BookNotes of some of his important and much-discussed work when I reviewed the great collection of popular level pieces found in Discipleship in the Present Tense (Calvin College Press; $14.00) that was released last fall.  We named it in our "Best Books of 2013" list.

Also, I'll tell you soon about another truly extraordinary book just released by Smith that, although a bit demanding, should have very broad appeal, a brand new book from Eerdmans which is a guide to the philosopher Charles Taylor. 

But first, you should be aware of the very new Who's Afraid of Relativism? It is, in many ways, a follow up to his must-read 2006 Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? that kicked off the "Church and Postmodern Culture" series.

Although he doesn't dwell on it (some may which he did) Smith starts this fresh analysis of relativism by bluntly criticizing J.P. Moreland, D.A. Carson, and even the former Pope, all who raised what he calls "the specter of relativism" -- an alleged "clear and present danger" -- in ways that are both inaccurate (as they traffic in caricatures and misrepresentations of primary texts) and, ironically, are, he says, theologically sloppy. (They hold to a view of truth that apparently fails to honor the very creatureliness of how God made us and the world.) These authors and other popular evangelicals are just wrong as they "bandy about" views of absolute truth and the dangers of relativism.

Ajamie arms crossed.jpgbout writing the book, Smith says that 

The orienting conviction is that if, even on a "popular" level, we are going to invoke philosophical concepts -- even if only as philosophical bogeyman -- we have some responsibility to make ourselves accountable to philosophy. So think of this little book as an exercise in philosophical accountability.

Again, he reminds us, 

If we want to take relativism seriously, we can't rail against a chimera of our own making, congratulating ourselves for having knocked down a straw man. To avoid this, I'm suggesting that we engage this pragmatist stream in Anglo-American philosophy as a serious articulation of "relativism." This will make us accountable to a body of literature and not let us get away with vague caricatures.

In other words, we have to know what we're talking about when we critique others, and we should make sure we truly have a theologically sound understanding about what we mean by truth and relativism.  

The main three philosophers Smith explores to help us know this stream of contemporary philosophy and to help us understand the nature of relativism are in the school of pragmatism ("postmodernism with an American accent"): Ludwig Wittgenstein (whose major work came out in 1953), Richard Rorty (1979), and Robert Brandom (2000.) 

Rorty is the one most often cited these days, it seems, when talking about anti-Christian views of truth.  Smith says he is "the whipping boy of middlebrow Christian intellectuals and analytic philosophers everywhere, the byword for everything that is wrong with postmodernism and academia. The Rorty scare is like the red menace, giving license to philosophical McCarthyism..." 

Rorty, I learned, studied Wittgenstein, and Brandom studied under Rorty.

They are perfect case studies, and the three books Smith explicates are vital, classic texts of contemporary postmodernism.

And, by the way, he thinks that Christians should be concerned about their anti-Christian orientation. He is not going to suggest that their views are somehow safe or softly Christian.  No, not at all.

Just to be clear about his intent, though, allow me to quote him again:

As I've already hinted, I actually think there is something for us to learn from these philosophers -- that pragmatism can be a catalyst for Christians to remember theological convictions that we have forgotten in modernity.  Granted none of these pragmatists have any interest in defending orthodox Christianity; I won't pretend  otherwise. But I will suggest that taking them seriously might actually be an impetus for us to recover a more orthodox Christian faith -- a faith more catholic than the modernist faith of their evangelical despisers.

Jamie Smith puts the matter much better than I can, and he is a good guide and clear writer, even in this complicated material. I truly believe that it is worth buying this book for the first 37 pages, the introduction and first chapter. (Ahh, and the brief epilogue "How To Be A Conservative Relativist.")  

In the first section he makes his main argument that there is a difference between saying "anything goes" because "there is no truth" (the sorts of things Moreland and Carson routinely say about "the postmoderns") and allowing that our knowledge isfall of interpretation.jpg always "in relation" (i.e. relative) and contingent. This brilliant and -- it seems to me commonsensical -- line of thinking draws a bit on Smith's splendid first book, The Fall of Interpretation  (BakerAcademic; $25.00) which develops a "creational hermeneutic" and suggests, from Augustine, that all humans always "see through a glass darkly" due to our own God-given finitude. To deny the human act of interpretation (or to think it is a liability mostly from the fall) is to fail to understand our own creaturehood.  Such (Enlightenment-based?) calls for "Absolute Truth" that we can know with confidence sounds like hubris to my ears but also like a peculiar blend of gnosticism and idolatry.

Smith takes this up in the first chapter by exploring the concerns about relativism that are from exemplary scholars he otherwise respects, Christian intellectuals who can be good conversation partners, but who still fail to appreciate the insights gleaned from the pragmatists/relativists.  He discusses and critiques the work of brilliant sociologisti Christian Smith and the heavy-weight philosopher Alvin Plantinga.  I suspect you know those two names, and the chapter in which Jamie disagrees with their thinking on this is exceptional.  I recommend reading it if you care at all about what we call a Christian worldview, about faithful thinking, about cultural engagement. Yes, it is a bit tedious for those of us not trained in philosophy, but it is worth working on.  

Alars.jpgnd here is what is also fun: for each chapter, Smith offers a film, and discusses it nicely, to compliment the issues raised in each chapter.  This is a great teaching device and does showcase some of the real-world implications of this rather obtuse stuff. The chapter "It Depends" reflects on the indie film starring Michelle Williams about a girl and her dog, Wendy and Lucy.  For his look at Wittgenstein's famous phrase "meaning is use" (in the chapter "Community as Context") Smith offers a review of the eccentric and thoroughly enjoyable Lars and the Real Girl.  Chapter three is brought into focus by the Academy Award-winning Crazy Heart and the songs sung in it by Jeff Bridges.  Philippe Claudell's very French film, I've Loved You So Long expresses more (pun icrazy heart poster.jpgntended) about Brandom's theory of expressivism in a chapter called "Reasons to Believe: Making Faith Explicit."

The provocative and important last chapter doesn't have a film to go with it (drats!) but it does have a star -- George Lindbeck, who coined the term "post-liberalism" and wrote the very significant The Nature of Doctrine (Westminster/John Knox; $30.00.) If you don't know much about the so-called Yale School, or Lindbeck's work, this relatively short chapter is a great introduction.  Smith playfully calls his modest work "the long-lost prequel to Lindbeck's book." He hopes it can be received as "a philosophical springboard for understanding post-liberalism, which is, in many ways, an embodiment of the religious and theological implications of pragmatism." 

He also notes in a footnote that "I also see Who's Afraid of Relativism as providinimagining the kingdom cover.jpgg the philosophical framework to account for the relationship between worship and doctrine that I sketch out in my Cultural Liturgies project, Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom (both BakerAcademic; $22.95.)

In fact, this whole book is a great introduction -- Smith notes that it is not exhaustive, but merely a "foray" -- to so much intellectually rich content, stuff that educated people should know. I have not studied these philosophers previously at all, and never even heard of Brandom, but I know I will follow the broader cultural conversation better now that I've spent some time with Whose Afraid of... and can use more wisely words like "contingency" without embarrassment.  Much of this will be most useful for the academic and nearly every page will thrill the philosophy student, but some of it is very, very rewarding even for the general reader.

All of us can benefit from its key insight, summarized by Stanley Hauerwas, who writes on the back "Smith helps us see that Christian theologians have betrayed their best insights by being afraid of relativism. He helps us see that the challenge is not relativism itself but rather the epistemological concerns that produced relativism."

Who's Afraid of Relativism is, as Institute for Christian Studies professor Dr. Ronald Kuipers suggests, not just "a remarkable book" but "a beautiful risk." I suspect it will be criticized by some, even some who will not read it.  Still, a beautiful risk it is. If it can help us not only understand the times in which we live, but understand ourselves more appropriately -- as dependent and fallible creatures -- then God will be pleased, and God's people will be well served.  

It may be a risk for me as a bookseller to ask you to trust me on this (as I will again in the next post when I tell you about Smith's other brand new book, which is also very important.) But it is beautiful.  Thanks for reading this far, and thanks caring.

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April 19, 2014

How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James K.A. Smith

How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James K.A. Smith (Eerdmans; $16.00) 20% OFF  SALE PRICE $12.80

I suppose it was a long time ago that I became familiar with books that I came to realize were very important, Peter Berger's Social Construction of Reality,The Sacred Canopy and The Homeless Mind. Dutch Reformed philosopher and campus worker Peter J. Steen, then traveling throughout Western Pennsylvania, insisted that Berger's notions of "plausibility structures" were helpful not only for Christian apologetics, but to understand how worldviews become ways of life, and how those ways of life turned into what could even be imaginable. "Ideas grow legs" we used to say. One didn't need to know Walter Brueggeman's generative The Prophetic Imagination to realize how even in the Bible, social contexts - like, say, the exile - might shape how we lived with socially construed constraints.  And what it might take to have the imagination to see otherwise.

Years later, I heard somewhere that Bible scholar N.T. Wright said that before he could fully embrace the Christian faith, he had to grapple with the question of the resurrection.  Of course, behind that is a bigger matter: can miracles happen? Do we live in a closed, mechanistic universe, or an enchanted Narnia? Can death ever be undone?  To discuss if Jesus rose from the grave seemed insubstantial, if not actually pointless, if, really, we live in a closed, materialistic universe where nothing of the sort ever, ever happens.  Interestingly, Tom turned to the logic and imagination of another Brit, one C.S. Lewis and his book Miracles to determine if something like resurrection could even be on the table. Once that was concluded - yes, we live in a cosmos, not just a universe, creation, not nature,  and such extraordinary things could, plausibly happen, (Lewis puts it much more elegantly) - then Wright could proceed to wonder if this first-century Rabbi did predict his own death and vindicate his claims by walking out of his tomb.

Maybe I've had a bit too much espresso, but it seems I'm already a bit off track,how not to be secular.jpg bringing in my Dooyeweerdian mentor, the Boston University sociologist, Brueggeman's biblical imagination and Wright's appreciation for Lewis' Miracles.  Except for Peter Berger, none of these are cited in James K.A. Smith's new How (Not) to Be Secular (Eerdmans; $16.00) the brilliant, learned, tour de force of a teacherly guide to one of the most brilliant, notable, scholarly books of our lifetime, Charles Taylor's big bad boy,The Secular Age, published in 2007 by Harvard University Press. (We stock this large handsome hardback and it regularly sells for $50.00 although we would certainly honor the 20% off discount announced here.)

And I've already blundered a bit as Wright's study of Lewis prior to engaging the question of whether the resurrection is plausible isn't exactly what Berger means, let alone what Taylor means, by a "plausibility structure." But it comes close, I hope, and is a way to help introduce this complicated project, Smith on Taylor on the lack of plausibility for orthodox Christian believe in our hyper-modern, secular age.

For Taylor, it is not that there are or are not more people who go to church these daysmodern social Imaginaries.jpg, or who see themselves as spiritual or not. It is not about the rise of the new atheists, although their backstory is part of the situation. It is about the rise of new beliefs that supplanted previous views of the self grounded in older pre-modern worldviews (or, as Smith prefers, "social imaginaries," a phrase he gets from Taylor's very nice Duke University Press book Modern Social Imaginaries.)

Rather, the narrative approach offered by Taylor, accentuated by Smith, is not primarily one of what we no longer believe, although that is how major secularization theories tell the tale, and is also the presumption of the new atheists. Smith explains how Taylor calls these "stories of subtraction" -- ways of describing the secularization of the West which feature the modern world "growing up" and maturing, leaving behind older ways, subtracting things from our vision -- "shucking the detritus of belief" as Smith colorfully puts it -- as we evolve out of religious faith.  In this way of telling it, nearly a celebration of the subtraction of belief, Smith explains that "religion and belief withered with scientific exorcism of superstition."

This is not the most insightful or helpful way to understand our times.

Importantly, again, this isn't about the "data" of who no longer goes to church or how common-place spirituality may be or even if elite institutions are hostile to conventional faith or not. "On Taylor's account, the force of subtraction stories is as much in their narrative power as in their ability to give account of the data."  In A Secular Age Taylor is largely offering a counter-narrative, a different story of our times. It is a story that needs to be told in this particular way.

Smith notes that Taylor "is persistently asking and re-asking various permutations" of these kinds of questions:

Ha secular age.jpgow did we move from a condition where, in Christendom, people lived naively within a theistic construal, to one in which we all shunt between two stances, in which everyone's construal shows up as such; and in which, moreover, unbelief has become for many the major default option? 

Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say,1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this is not only easy, but even inescapable?

As Smith reminds us, 

these questions are not concerned with what people believe as with what is believable. The difference between our modern, "secular" age and past ages is not necessarily the catalog of available beliefs but rather the default assumptions about what is believable. It is this way of framing the questions that leads to Taylor's unique definition of "the secular."

Which is to say this is a book about the notion of plausibility structures.  And since disbelief is in the air, even those who believe see it now as a personal choice, their own expression of their own sense of self; what they are "into." How we believe, those of us who do, is different these days. This is an extraordinary insight, and it pays us to ponder it well. 

This is why, as we shall see, such an astute apologist and sophisticated church planter as Timothy Keller thinks that reading Smith on Taylor "could have a great effect on the quality of our communication and preaching."

Ahh, I love connections between books as pieces of a puzzle start to fit together.  It issources of the self .jpg notable that Taylor wrote a stunning book in 1989 (which of course we carry) called Sources of the Self (Harvard University Press.) I think I was first alerted to its significance by Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio, who is almost always ahead of the curve in discussing the deepest things that shape our way of being in the world. In A Secular Age, Taylor offers a major new contribution to this conversation, by coining a phrase, "the buffered self." Smith explains it well, and utilizes this view of the insulated sense of one's "interior" mind. Taylor contrasts this with the ancient and medieval views where the self is open and vulnerable to the enchanted "outside" world, and therefore susceptible to grace, unlike the plausibility experienced by those with a secularized buffered self.  (He calls this sort of self and self-awareness "porous.")

Page 45-46 of How (Not) to Be Secular which summarizes this is worth the price of the whole book.

Smith writes,

On Taylor's account, these aren't just idle metaphysical speculations; these shifts in the social imaginary of the West make an impact on how we imagine ourselves - how we imagine "we." The "buffered" individual becomes sedimented in a social imaginary, not just part of some social "theory." What emerges, then, is "a new self-understanding of our social existence, one which gave an unprecedented primacy to the individual." It's how we functionally imagine ourselves - it's the picture of our place in the world that we assume without asking. It's exactly the picture we take for granted.

Smith then explains how Taylor describes this shift, in which society comes to be seen as a collection of individuals, as "the great disembedding." As Smith wryly notes, "we can only make sense of this claim about disembedding if we appreciate the embedding that it's dissing, so to speak."

This disembedded, buffered, individualist view of the self seeps into our social imaginary - into the very way we imagine the world, well before we ever think reflectively about it. We absorb it with our mother's milk, so to speak to the extent that it's very difficult for us to imagine the world otherwise.

(An aside, but a good one: you may recall that I recently reviewed the new release bgood of politics.jpgy CPJ founder, James Skillen, The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction. Skillen goes to great lengths to explore the ways in which social contract theory developed -- from these very changes in our view of the self -- and moves forward to the extraordinary significance of John Locke and social thinkers like John Stewart Mills and even the contemporary political philosopher John Rawls.  If you think this stuff doesn't matter, think of the controversies raging this season around things like the Hobby Lobby case before the Supreme Court. Skillen's book about the history and development of our views of governments, offered so we might be more active and wise citizens in our pluralistic culture, owes much to these very sorts of insights so profoundly explored by Taylor and so ably explained by Smith.)

Smith is a master at explaining Taylor on this -- and so many other fascinating details, all loaded with new ways of thinking about the nature of our times and how people experience themselves in our current context.  He has worked through Taylor's book with undergrads (granted, some very smart ones from Calvin College) and his "book about a book" has emerged from several years of teaching it.

In fact, Mr. Smith has been talking to a lot of people about this book.  After meeting pundit and author David Brooks at the Q conference in DC a year ago (read the great transcript, here) he was quoted in one of Brooks' The New York Times columns; that a Calvin College professor would get to talk about such a world-class philosopher in a Times column read around the world is pretty nifty, and those of us who knew Jamie were proud and glad for The New York Times link to Comment magazine. Brooks starts his piece admitting it is mostly a book report.  You can read it here.

So it is important. Complex, but important.  And Smith helps us get it.

This "buffered self" in contrast to a "porous self" is just one example of how Taylor offers what Smith calls "a lexicon of cultural analysis and understanding" and thinks that some of his unique terms and phrases could be introduced ("as helpful shorthand") into our common vocabularies - "including the vocabularies of engaged practitioners."  He says this can be "a wake-up call to the church" and even gives hints on how we might "cultivate resistance" to the ways of the world. (You will understand Smith's much-discussed, two-volume "cultural liturgies" project -- Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom even better if you read this, I am sure!) 

Taylor helps us see into our times, and gives us words and concepts by which we can more deeply realize what's going on.  And that matters to many of us, should matter to the church, and I am confident will be helpful for many friends of Hearts & Minds.

So, this is all very timely, especially for those of us who care about the common good, human flourishing, or, to put a more zealous spin on it, who want to make a difference in the world being fruitful salt and light and leaven, agents of reconciliation, useful to God for Christ's redemptive purposes in the world. Knowing our missional context, especially in the West, is vital, and if you've even whispered that M word, you simply must know why this volume and its window into the world, is so very, very important.

Smith, you see, as I explained in the last BookNotes post reviewing his other new book, is a neo-Calvinist, catholic, postmodern philosopher, and, as such, he (among many other things) is interested not only in explaining this extraordinary account of secularization offered by Taylor in hisjamie close up from CT.jpg acclaimed, magisterial book, but also is very interested in how Christian contributions to the common good might renew things like our social architecture. (See this great piece written when he took over the editorship of Comment magazine if you'd like to hear a bit more about what that sort of public theology sounds like, and this great little piece on institutions. They are both worth reading!) In other words, Jamie, as his friends call him, wants to help build signposts pointing to the new Jerusalem, he wants to see God's Kingdom come "on Earth as it is in Heaven." He's a Kuyperian, after all, and we all know what Kuyper said about Christ claiming "every square inch" of His own creation. We all know what Lewis said about Jesus being the Rightful King, returning to claim His contested territory. We all know about the Death of Narnian Winter working backwards due to the Deeper Magic. We know the apostolic call to be ambassadors for Christ. We've recently heard the Maundy Thursday mandate to serve others.

Yes, yes, we want a Christo-centric sense of social and cultural transformation.  From Kuyper's polemic to Lewis' fiction to the reforms of Wilberforce or Martin Luther King, just for example, we are inspired to care about the creation, to bear witness to the Kingdom coming, to serve God in this world, messy as it is.

As I commonly say as I try to sell books on this or that topic, to be effective in our lifetime we must be "sons and daughters of Issachar" (I Chronicles 12:32) who have an understanding of the times, even as they "know what God's people should do."

And that is exactly what philosopher Charles Taylor helps us do. Understand the times.

And that is exactly why Jamie Smith - himself a much-published, serious scholar - wants us to understand Taylor well. This is not just a specialized study for those in the philosophy guilds. This is a matter of realizing the "unintended consequences of the reformation" as one important author put it recently, and how our modern age has shaped us to inhabit the world the way we do.

Hhow not to be secular.jpgow (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor is a very serious, often quite readable, and sometimes even entertaining guide to Taylor's heady magnum opus. The great gift of this, the brilliance of even the idea, is truly wonderful -- amazing, when you think of it. Just imagine if a faithful, helpful Christian leader wrote an explanatory, critical conversation with and introduction to some of the other major works of our time shortly after they were written. How good it would have been if, a few years after The Origin of the Species or Das Kapital or Civilization and Its Discontents such an orthodox interpreter would have helped people of faith understand and appreciate (and critique) these seminal works.

But even this way of commending Smith isn't quite right as it is Professor Taylor who is the robust Christian (he is Roman Catholic) who has given us (if Smith and so many others are to be believed) one of the most astute and insightful accounts of the quandary of our modern times yet written. He is the master guide. A Secular Age is the illustrative, major study and critical analysis of the eclipses and shifts and intellectual and social and culture history of the West and its worldviews -- or, as Taylor and Smith put it "imaginaries." How (Not) to Be Secular is Smith's guidebook to the guidebook.

I could never review in these pages the nearly 1000-page tome that is A Secular Age (not least because I have not read more than a chapter of it, back when I was in some embarrassingly idealistic mood.) I am not sure I can even review Smith's slim book very well.  

But I know this: Taylor is very, very important, and I understand him a bit better now having read Smith.  And (okay, I admit it) I've skimmed through a few of Smith's more dense pages and disregarded a few of the charts (sorry, Jamie.)  Give me props, though, for wanting to understand some of the heady stuff so badly that I've read some of it more than once. I've taken notes. And I have read carefully every single footnote, and each of the helpful definitions in the glossary. I even had a book-marker there so I could quickly turn to the definitions; in the preface we are advised to pay attention to this dictionary. Smith nicely has those words bolded in his text, words that have particular and sometimes idiosyncratic meaning for him and Taylor. If you are not used to reading philosophical texts, you will be glad for this glossary and other teacherly additions to this book.

And then there is the music and the discussion of modern novels. I do not think that Smith's use of literature, indie pop music, and the occasional film is merely to make the bignational at calvin purple.jpg ideas more palatable, or merely as illustration, as if he puts in a cool quote to reach the kids. (Or, for that matter, as he said to me recently, the dads (ahem) who like the indie-scene songs that their kids listen to.) No, Smith truly likes serious novels and cool songs; he took in The National show at Calvin College just a few days ago, after all!  And, as I suspect most BookNotes readers realize, much of our best contemporary popular art (literature, film, music) is very aware of the very situation that this book illumines. We are, to harken back to an older novelist, Flannery O'Connor, Christ-haunted -- "fraught" as Smith puts it (despite "the areligious, de-transcendentalized universes created by Ian McEwan or Jonathan Franzen.") 

In an age when immanence has been squeezed upon us, we still long for meaning. The deep complexities of this Taylor explains as "the nova effect" and you'll have to read Smith to appreciate it. Artists and poets give voice to the ennui that most of us know: they feel it. Smith's brilliant third chapter is, indeed, called "The Malaise of Immanence: The Feel of the Secular Age."

And so, I am hooked by the first great pages of this handbook to reading Taylor.  Smith starts by explaining why we've got this angst, our cultural hauntedness, and how said scholarly Canadian philosopher helps us name it. But first, he frames the matter -postal service album.jpg offering ways into this conversation - by explaining the novelist Julian Barnes (yay) and contrasting two very different readings of David Foster Wallace. Early on he names a few important musicians, such as The Postal Service and describes a Radiohead concert he experienced. (He also offers an allusion to The Garden State on the first page!) This is really interesting and very helpful.

"Could we imagine," Smith asks, "an existential map of our secular age that would actually help us to locate ourselves and give us a feel for where we are?"  

He is right that such a map must include artists.  As my friend Steve Garber used to say, artists "always get there first."

Smith persuades us that we ought not trust those who offer certain kinds of maps (he means the fundamentalists, both the secular and religious ones.) "Their maps are just flat, and we feel like they're hiding something. We feel like there are whole regions of our experience they've never set foot upon-- as if they claim to have mapped Manhattan because they've visited Madison Square Garden. Who's going to buy that map?"

He writes really well in this section. Listen to this:

Both of these sorts of maps are blunt instruments. They are road atlases that merely show us well-worn thoroughfares, the streets and interstates of our late modern commerce. They do nothing to map the existential wilderness of the present - those bewildering places in which we are beset by an existential vertigo. These neat and tidy color-coded road atlases are of no help when we find ourselves disoriented in a secular age, haunted by doubt or belief, by predawn fears of ghosts in the machine. These road atlases of believe versus disbelief, religion versus secularism, faith versus reason, provide maps that are much neater and tidier than the spaces in which we find ourselves. They give us a world of geometric precision that doesn't map onto the world of our lived experience where these matters are much fuzzier, much more intertwined - where "the secular" and "the religious" haunt each other in a mutual dance of displacement and decentering.

Rather than a ham-fisted road atlas, what we need to get our bearings is a detailed topographic map of our secular age - a relief map attuned to the uneven terrain whose contour lines help us find ourselves in the wilderness of our doubts, and even the wilderness of our belief. An existential relief map would give us a feel for this ground that sometimes seems to be shifting beneath our feet. 

Such a map, he says, 

has room to acknowledge those hauntings of transcendence that sometimes sneak up on us in our otherwise mundane disenchantment. At the same time, such a contoured existential cartograph should also help us feel the suffocating immanence that characterizes late modern existence, even for "believers."

Charles Taylor's A Secular Age is a book which provides that kind of a full-bodied map.

I am an unabashed and unapologetic advocate for the importance and originality of Taylor's project. I think A Secular Age is an insightful and incisive account of our globalized, cosmopolitan, pluralist present. Anyone who apprehends the sweep and force of Taylor's argument will get a sense that he's been reading our postmodern mail. His account of our "cross pressured" situation - suspended between the malaise of immanence and the memory of transcendence - names and explains vague rumblings in the background of our experience for which we lack words.

Whether or not you have, as Smith puts it, "absorbed mental maps from Death Cab for Cutie and David Foster Wallace" this book is a great resource for you as you try to understand our times.

I do not mean to suggest that this is a book of apologetical tricks (there is a small section called "How Apologetics Diminishes Christianity" and Smith makes it clear that those foundationalist apologists offering defenses and evidences have given up the game by making arguments on the playing field of those who have eroded the plausibility of faith.) The book is about gaining a big picture analysis and a vocabulary to talk about our the our disenchanted, decentered times, but there are bits that just seem so helpful, practical to realize.

A bit random, perhaps, but ponder this quote - keeping in mind all that is implied by "immanence" and "transcendence" and open vs closed (minded?) frames/ imaginaries:

Taylor is most interested in considering (and contesting) the "spin of closure which is hegemonic in the Academy." This is the spin that is dominant amongst intellectuals and elites who would actually see the "open" take on the immanent frame as "spin" and see their own "closed" take as just the way things are. For these secular "fundamentalists," we might say, to construe the immanent frame as closed is to just see it as it really is, whereas construing it as "open" is a mode of wishful thinking. In effect they say: we "closed" framers are just facing up to facts of the case; it's the "open" framers who are interpreting the world as if  it could be open. The immanent frame is really closed even if some persist in construing it as open. For those adherents of the closed reading, it's not a reading."

It reminded me of the part of Presbyterian urban church planter Tim Keller's excellent book (if somewhat unhelpfully titled) Reason for God when he invites skeptical readers to doubt their doubts, which he suggests are all based on "a leap of faith." 

Tim Keller, importantly, says of How (Not) to Be Secular, "I highly recommend this book." 

And here Keller says why he thinks it is so valuable:

Charles Taylor's crucial book on our secular age is inaccessible for most people, including the church leaders who desperately need to learn from its insight. Jamie Smith's book is the solution to the problem. As a gateway into Taylor's thought, this volume (if read widely) could have a major impact on the level of theological leadership that our contemporary church is getting. It could also have a great effect on the quality of our communication and preaching.

Here another reviewer (T.M. Luhrmann of Stanford) exclaims about it:

This is a brilliant, beautifully written book on the dilemma of faith in a modern secular age. It introduced the reader to the material in Taylor's dense book, of course, but it does more. It invites the reader on a journey through the experience of the spirit in different centuries, and how our conceptions of mind and person shape belief in ways far more intimate than we usually imagine. How (Not) to Be Secular is a gem.

Rjamie hand up.jpgather than a systematic review - I am beyond my pay grade, here, I admit - allow me to offer a few impressions of How (Not) to Be... by way of citing just a few bits I found intriguing, or that I thought might be alluring to you.  I agree with Keller: Christian leaders should know some of this stuff.  And Smith is a great, vibrant teacher, guiding us through it.

And I really love how the preface and long introduction invite all kinds of readers to the table - believers or skeptics, anyone who senses some confusion, some loss, something haunted about their lives and our culture. I hope that you find this interesting, or maybe can think of somebody for whom it could be a great gift. 

Smith explains why - it is good to be reminded of this, I think - a study of the medieval world and the large reform movements from the Renaissance to the Protestant Reformation and more are

like the underground river of our secular age....these developments in the late Middle Ages unfurled possibilities that wouldn't come to fruition until later in the twentieth century. So Taylor's foray into this foggy past (for most of us) is not an arcane detour; it's the family history we need to make sense of the 1960's - the decade we've never left. As Rusty Reno quipped recently, it's always 1968 somewhere. And Taylor suggests we won't understand 1968 - or 2018 - without some chronological archaeology that takes us back to 1518.

And, again, Taylor explains and explores three different sorts of the use of the word secularization (and why the standard secularization theories are so very inadequate --shades, I think, of Peter Berger, again, it seems.)

As an astute academic I suppose that Smith would not often recommend the overview offered by Francis Schaeffer in his popular-level study of the rise and fall of Western civilization How Should We Then Live:The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture? Still, for non-scholars reading along still (God bless you, my fellow commoners!) I think it is worth noting that there is at least some general sort of overlap here. 

Schaeffer, as I trust you know, wrote his own summary of the flow of ideas andhow should we .jpg genealogy of philosophies that worked themselves out from the early medieval world, the renaissance, the Enlightenment, the rise of science, into the industrial ages and some of the faith-based reform movements such as those fighting dehumanization in the Wilberforce-era England and the US civil rights movement. Schaeffer, with his affinity for the counter-culture kids, warned against cold technology and faceless bureaucracy and seemed to understand the ennui of our secularized times -- he had read Camus, after all. He looked at modern art and what it often seemed to cry out against (he was very good friends with Dutch art historian Hans Rookmaaker.) 

Schaeffer and his L'Abri community warned against an evangelical renewal that didn't take seriously a concern for ideas, culture, social action and the real experiences of real people.  I don't quite know if his railing against a sacred/secular dualism - the "upper story" vs the "lower story" as he put it - has much to do with what Taylor describes as the loss of meaning when immanence is idolized (that is, the ordinary, "this-worldly" stuff of nature) and transcendence eclipsed.  But I thought of Schaeffer when I saw the chapter in Smith with the subtitle "the Secular as Modern Accomplishment." And I thought of Schaeffer - misunderstood and co-opted, eventually by the Christian right, I realize - when I read Smith explaining what the preeminent Taylor calls "exclusive humanism." Schaeffer talked about that, too, albeit in a less exhaustive and nuanced way.

Listen to Smith and how he opens the important chapter in How (Not) to Be... "The Religious Path to Exclusive Humanism: From Deism to Atheism" as he writes,

How, in a relatively short period of time, did we go from a world where belief in God was the default assumption to our secular age in which belief in God seems, to many, unbelievable? This brave new world is not just the old world with the God-supplement lopped off; it's not just the world that is left when we subtract the supernatural. A secular world where we have permission, even encouragement, to not believe in God is an accomplishment, not merely a remainder. Our secular age is the product of creative new options, an entire reconfiguration of meaning.

So it's not enough to ask how we got permission to stop believing in God; we need to also inquire about what emerged to replace such belief. Because it's not that our secular age is an age of disbelief; it's an age of believing otherwise. We can't tolerate living in a world without meaning. So if the transcendence that previously gave significance to the world is lost, we need a new account of meaning - a new "imaginary" that enables us to imagine a meaningful life within this now self-sufficient universe of gas and fire. That "replacement" imaginary is what Taylor calls "exclusive humanism" and his quarry is still to discern just how exclusive humanism became a "live option" in modernity, resisting typical subtraction stories that posit (and here Smith quotes Taylor) 'once religious and metaphysical beliefs fall away, we are left with ordinary human desires, and these are the basis of our modern humanism.'"

Again, "modern exclusive humanism is just the natural telos of human life. We are released to be the exclusive humanists we were meant to be when we escape the traps of superstition and the yoke of transcendence. On such tellings of the story, exclusive humanism is "natural." But Taylor's point in part 2 of A Secular Age is to show that we had to learn how to be exclusively humanist; it is a second nature, not a first.

Which leads Smith to explain Taylor's hugely important notions of "enclosure and immanentization: relocating significance." I cannot even paraphrase this important portion, but he has a very important question to ask of many evangelicals who are recently reacting to "dualism" and focusing on "this worldly" mission and cultural engagement.  It is really interesting and I think quite important.

And - to circle back to the start of this digression - it sounds a lot like Francis Schaeffer, although much more academic. There, I said it.

I know, this is risky - some think Schaeffer light-weight and misguided and others still find him obtuse and heady. I trust that readers of BookNotes and those who follow our Hearts & Minds columns will know that we value Schaeffer's popularization of philosophy, how he realized the importance of the Romantics, and the counter-culture's attraction to modern art. He listened to early rock music - Sergeant Pepper and Dylan - and hosted showings of nihilistic Fellini films when places like Wheaton College werewho's afraid of r.jpg still debating the propriety of screening The Sound of Music! I think that Smith may be playing a Schaeffer-esque role here for our generation, not just for the philosophically astute who naturally know to pay attention to his work (including his other brand new book, Who's Afraid of Relativism? which studies the likes of Wittegenstein and Rorty and is pitched to postmodern church folk, missional and emerging villages) but for all of us.  

We need to know what is going on in our world, how we got here, and be reminded to reflect on how we think and feel within it, and, if possible, about it.  We are facing - as Taylor insists, and Smith underscores - "cross pressures."  "We moderns," Smith suggests, "are not entirely comfortable with modernity."  The "modern moral order" leaves us with a generalized sense "that with the eclipse of the transcendent, something may have been lost." It is this lack, loss, and emptiness that - in and by the absence of transcendence - press on the immanence of exclusive humanism, yielding what Taylor calls 'the malaises of immanence.'"

This sounds like Schaeffer to me, and any number of other important and lively cultural critics. Geesh, I think, of the very, very important pair of books The Transforming Vision and Truth Is Stranger Then It Used to Be, by Brian Walsh & Richard Middleton. Smith cut his teeth on these books (he studied under Walsh and with Middleton at Toronto's Institute for Christian Studies where he got his Master's) and the hints of this fundamental critique of the roots of Western culture in those works (even as they were hinted at by Schaeffer) come to fuller fruition here.  Much fuller.

Which I mention so that some readers will nod their heads and say to themselves that this does indeed sound familiar and is urgent, vital stuff.  Not just because Jamie quotes the sadness of a Fleet Foxes songs (playing in the coffee-shop even as he was writing about the sadnesses of our age) but because this is part of a broader conversation and analysis that has been going on for decades. Roman Catholics and mainline denominational folks have had some influences akin to this as well (although less so, due to profound cultural accommodation of the sort Niebuhr predicted and the likes of Hauerwas even now critique) but I name Walsh and Middleton and Francis Schaeffer to call to mind this broad discussion for those wanting to be sons and daughters of Issachar.

It may be that some of this has been said before. It certainly is also the case that those I trust most as guides and mentors and scholars and prophets have insisted that Charles Taylor is extraordinary. My own dipping in assures me of that, but it also makes abundantly clear that I need some help - a bit more than Cliff Notes, but something like a companion to walk me through it all. I need a teacher and a guide.

Smith is that teacher, How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor is that guide.  It is not simple, but it is worthwhile, a veritable class in the history of Western civilization and an example of profoundly Christian scholarship. 

This is very important material -- ending with a lovely and perfect allusion to Eliot's The Waste Land and a hope for spiritual and cultural renewal, especially among the young. We here at Hearts & Minds are very glad to commend it to you.

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April 27, 2014

Oil and Honey: The Education of An Unlikely Activist Bill McKibben (Times Books) $26.00 - 20% OFF

Oil and Honey: The Education of An Unlikely Activist Bill McKibben (Times Books) $26.00

20% OFF  BookNotes discount = $20.80 (reviewed by Hearts & Minds Bookstore owner Byron K. Borger.)

Ioilandhoneybookpage.jpg have long appreciated the books of Bill McKibben, from his haunting first one, the award-winning End of Nature through his Eerdmans release The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job and the Scale of Creation, his lovely hiking stories and nature writing prose, and his increasingly passionate books about global warming (Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet) and how to live with climate change. He is literate and kind and although not a farmer, brings to mind quite naturally the writing of his agrarian friends Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson. It isn't every writer whose essays gets an anthology, but there is the great collection,The Bill McKibben Reader.  I've often recommended his lovely and inspiring book Hope, Human and Wild: Stories of Living Lightly on the Earth. McKibben's new book called Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist (Times Books; $26.00) is spectacular and I recommend it heartily for several reasons. 

Per usual, a bit of background, if you will indulge me. I want you to know why I feel so strongly about this book, and why it should be on your list, to be read as soon as possible.

In the early 1980s the eloquent, thoughtfully passionate writer Jonathan Schell did a series of pieces in the New Yorker called The Fate of the Earth which then was expanded into an exceptionally respected and prestigious book of the same title. It speculated on the horrific implications of the nuclear arms race and the vast consequences such as "global winter" if such modern hydrogen bombs were ever detonated. Those of us who were already involved in faith-based, anti-nuclear weapons work took odd inspiration from this awful book; like the classic Hiroshima by John Hershey (written in 1946) it was, we felt, an honest wake-up call and offered some vindication of why we saw ourselves as watchers on the walls like in Ezekiel 37, crying out warnings of real danger and God's disapproval. Ragtag groups like ours in Pittsburgh were doing Bible studies with the likes of Philip Berrigan and doing research for Sojourners who led the way in the witness against the building of weapons of mass destruction and policies that promised a manufactured Apocalypse. I found myself often talking with those who worked in the military industrial complex as well as those who had been active in marches with Dr. King a decade or so previous.

Mainline protestant church groups - most notably the United Methodists and the Presbyterians - followed the leadership of the Roman Catholic bishops who had very publicly condemned the sin of building and intending to use weapons that would violate the historic just war theories. Those within the long-standing peace tradition of the Mennonites, Brethren and Quakers and their ministries such as "Every Church a Peace Church" took heart. Our resistance topeacemaking-offering-02-300x201.jpg bloated military budgets and neutron bombs and evil policies of intending the mass murder of civilians started to catch on. Faith and peacemaking was in the news; we traveled, we studied, we protested and prayed and lobbied. We cited Jesus and Paul, Polycarp and Francis, Bonhoeffer and John Paul, Dorothy Day and Oscar Romaro, Ron Sider and Billy Graham (who eventually condemned the use of the nukes.) It was nearly all consuming and it wasn't fun or pleasant.  

But as the arms race grew and wars seemed to crop up on every continent and the nation went into debt to fund our increasingly expensive weaponry, the wider culture debated these things, and churches dug deeper into their Bibles. "Do not serve gods of metal," Leviticus warned, and advanced weapons systems such as the horse drawn chariot - invented by the Assyrians - were forbidden from use by God's people.  A friend of mine researched Micah 1:13 and some word plays about the city of Lachish, where such dehumanizing weapons were stored and we pondered what it meant that God said that this was "the beginning of sin for you." We came to understand the famous verse "be still and know that I am God" as a call to cease striving for military superiority (look it up!) and took seriously the command to "beat swords into plowshares."  

We didn't need Brueggemann's Prophetic Imagination (although it helped) to realize that sometimes our faith leads us to shed subversive tears. There was so much goodness to which we could say "yes" in this life (new babies coming into our lives, for instance) but sometimes it is important also to say "no." We read Martin Luther King and studied Gandhi and experimented in campaigns of civil disobedience. I fell in love with Romans 12:1-2, inviting us with our very bodies to resist the ways of the world, and to thereby discover a spirituality of daily discipleship that was culturally engaged, used our minds, and yes noticeably nonconformist. 

I say all this to note three things about Bill McKibben and his new book about being "an unlikely activist."


Bill McKibben's first book, The End of Nature, was likened upon its release inend of-nature.jpg 1996 to Schell's earlier Fate of the Earth. It, however, did not incite a national movement of urgency to reverse our carbon output, the toxins in the air and water, or the dangers of what came to be known as climate change. The polar ice caps are melting, sea levels continue to rise, drought and dangerously bad weather is unusually routine now, all over the world, year after year. McKibben was a helpful voice in 1996, a prophet among us, but we did not heed his plea. (He was not alone, of course: here is a long BookNotes bibliography I did a few years ago showing a healthy number of good books on faith-based creation care and Biblical stewardship.)

We should have paid as much attention to him then as we did, say, to Pennsylvania writer Rachel Carson, whose 1962 classic Silent Spring catapulted us to resist the corporations who were recklessly dumping DDT into our food chain in the mid-60s. Mr. McKibben's new Oil and Honey has some updated facts and very compelling information about why we simply must reduce our carbon emissions and the radical, consumerist lifestyles that fail the Biblical call to good stewardship, although it is not a sustained explanation of the crisis (as is his must-read book with the oddly spelled title, Eaarth.) But it is perhaps a more exciting and inviting way into the topic as it is loaded with stories and passion and risk and hope and drama. We should listen to McKibben, as we did with Carson and Schell, and this is an excellent place to start. 

McKibben's "unlikely" leadership in the work against environmental pollution and climate change has given him the gravitas and the issue generates the urgency that seemed to animate many of us in the anti-war and 70s anti-nuclear power movements -- cue Jackson Browne's powerful song "Before the Deluge" (or the sad new version by Eliza Gilkyson) -- and it is obvious the the book is urgent and morally serious.


Secondly, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist tells the story of McKibben starting a last ditch effort of nonviolent civil disobedience to galvanize resistance to the development of Tar Sands dirty oil in Canada and the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline which would obviously hook us more deeply into high-polluting fossil fuel technologies. (For those few readers who will recall, Dutch Reformed, neo-Calvinist friends in Canada in the Committee for Justice & Liberty (CJL) led by the late Gerald Vandezande, made similar arguments about Biblical stewardship, First Nation's rights, and unhelpful views of progress against the proposed MacKenzie Valley Pipeline, leading to a moratorium in 1976.) 

Although it is actually only half of the book - the "oil" part, I suppose one could say - it is riveting. You will be on the edge of your seat reading McKibben's telling about dreaming up this scheme, the letter sent out by a dozen environmental leaders calling for direct action at the White House, forming solidarity groups, explaining "why we can't wait" (to borrow ano-tar-sands-dirty-oil.jpg title of the book Martin Luther King wrote after his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" argument for Gandhian nonviolent resistance campaigns as a viable form of social change.) There simply has not been such a grass roots outcry on environmental issues in decades, if ever, and it is exciting to see if it will unfold, with McKibben consulting with national leaders, grass roots folk, kids with social media savvy. As you may know, it developed much more quickly than he ever expected. With good humor and gusto, he tells of the protests, the police, the scary first days in jail, the waves of new protesters who arrived in DC day after day after day and their (short) jail stays, logistics of all sorts, and the subsequent (fascinating) media work. (Some of this is quite entertaining, like his telling of being on Colbert.) And then there was the not surprising but still shocking push back from the oil industry, TransCanada, and others, the millions of dollars spent in favor of the pipeline, the lobbyists hired, the blatant and dishonest disregard for facts --- the book is eye-opening here, too. This is not new, of course (some congressmen like John Boehner have taken over $2 million from big energy. See Dirty Energy Money for the ugly truth about who takes what from these super-rich, stop-at-nothing corporations.)  Visit 350.org here.

Anyone who wonders what it is like being a national organizer in a David vs Goliath kind of battle, a grass roots idealist, what these sorts of public protests are like or the particular story of the weeks of daily anti-Keystone arrests at the White House that summer, will find Oil and Honey illuminating. What a fascinating tale of these ordinary folks, mostly politically liberal, trying to pressure Obama against all odds to live up to his environmental campaign promises (Obama has not been very good on environment policies, as I suppose you know and maintains a cozy relationship with big banks and big oil.) 

McKibben's story is told wonderfully, and I felt things, anxious things deep in my bones as I read, emotions I thought I had put to rest decades ago, about my feeble and short-lived involvement with those doing civil disobedience to expose the dangers of the arms race. If you have been involved in any large scale campaigns - pro-life protesting, anti-war activism, working on civil rights, fighting sexual trafficking, anti-porn picketing - you will love his good-humored and in some cased very candid glimpses behind the scenes.  It felt very real to me, the fear, the self-doubt, the nervous jokes, the hope, the danger, the concerns about public image and effectiveness, the sense of doing something important and necessary and good, despite the consequences. Oil and Honey is a year-long memoir, more than embedded journalism, but advocacy written as social history, a primer on grassroots social change from the inside.

I love the tone of this book. McKibben is a person of faith, is fairly realistic about whatBill_McKibben.jpg might be accomplished by these public witnesses and stints of civil disobedience, is not unaware of criticisms and the temptations that accompany this sort of work, and he reports generously on a broad swath of the movement - from Sierra Club leaders to Native American activists to Nebraska ranchers worried about the aquifers, to brave but aging World War II veterans who were arrested with signs around their necks saying "WWII Vets: Handle With Care." When he wrote about how he hoped people would dress up nicely to be arrested (this is serious and dignified business, he insists, as did King before him) and how exciting but also draining it was to train people in nonviolence and peaceful protest, and how darn hot and claustrophobic the paddy wagons can be, and how painful those plastic cuffs can be, I knew I wanted to keep reading. Parts reminded me of the must-read classic about the Montgomery bus boycott, Kings famous first book Stride Toward Freedom.  (Here is a letter McKibben and Wendell Berry had written a year or so previous, in calling for civil disobedience at a coal fired plant in DC. It is instructive to read what they say.) You very well may want to keep reading, too, even if this sort of thing is very foreign to you. Believe me, it was foreign to the mild-mannered Methodist college teacher and outdoorsman from Vermont as well. 


Thirdly, I introduce McKibben's work and O&H by recalling the dramatic years of often anguishing resistance to nuclear holocaust (not to mention the stupidity and deceit experienced close up during the crisis of TMI) because there is a splendid feature of the book - a second story that McKibben tells alongside the narrative of the protests and lobbying against the Keystone Pipeline - that is beautiful, lovely, fascinating and enjoyable to read.

Thillside.jpghis second, overlapping narrative is not only fun to read, but brings into important clarity a huge, huge matter for any of us who are involved as public figures, who travel, teach, try to shape public opinion, whether we are social activists or armchair pundits. It is an issue I fretted about years ago during the height of the cold war, and still do to some extent. The issue is how to stay (for lack of a better word) normal in the face of a pressing historical crisis. Unless one is called to extraordinary sacrifice in these serious times, most of us have kids to play with, gardens to keep, laundry to do. We shop, send facebook updates to friends, we watch movies, we coach Little League, we go to music lessons with our kids (or for ourselves, if we are brave in mid-life.) We have birthday parties and funerals and church and work and important arguments about college football or major league baseball. There are lawns to mow and cars and pets and loved ones to care for.

How does one carry the weight of the world - from the horrors of sexual trafficking to the data about race and mass incarcerations, say, to our outrage about the evils done by other superpowers, or the awareness of species extinction and the likelihood of harsher weather coming and higher prices for food in years to come - and still live with joy? You know the Bruce Cockburn lyric, "the trouble with normal is it always gets worse"?  How does one not go crazy or grow weary in a world likes ours where things often do get worse?

Of course, the most foundational answer is spiritual; my friend Tyler Wigg-Stevensonworld is not ours to save.jpg wrote the most important book on this matter for social activists (or anyone who cares and grieves much about the world) entitled, importantly, The World is Not Ours To Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good. Ruth Haley Barton has a very helpful book for ministry leaders facing burn out and compassion fatigue called Restoring the Soul of Your Leadership, and Peter Greer (of the micro-financing organization, Hope International) has a helpful study, now out in paperback, called The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good which is admirable. Of course, Richard Rohr has several books on the inter-relationship between contemplation and activism -- an older one (A Lever and a Place to Stand) was just recently re-issued as Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer. We stock books from Orthodox peacemaker Jim Forest, and his old friend Thomas Merton, to Presbyterian pastor Howard Fiend, Jr. and Quaker Parker Palmer, to contemporary evangelicals like Margaret Feinberg and Shauna Niequist, we are invited to not grow weary, to see God's hand in ordinary daily life, to experience the Divine in ways that bring wonder and awe and keep us attentive. I think of one of the most helpful books of this sort that I read last year, Luminous: Living in the Presence and Power of Jesus, by David Beck who brings together the purposes, presence, power, and peace of the Holy Spirit as we put ourselves at God's disposal.

Bill McKibben believes many of these things, I am sure. But the other part of the new book - the "honey part" of Oil and Honey - reminds us of another way to bring a sense of normalcy to our lives (hang in here with me, now.) Believe it or not, this other part of the book isn't about prayer or meditation or reading good literature. It is a story about beekeeping.


Yep, to stay grounded amidst lives of missional service or social action or vocational obsessions or passionate advocacy, we need daily practices that somehow keep us involved in local habits, in regional economics, in sustainable living within our own places. You surely know Wendell Berry on this. Scott Russell Sanders has made a beautiful career out of writing well about place (see the excellent anthology of his called Earth Works: Selected Essays.) Many contemporary theological writers and scholars - you can insert Jamie Smith's name here, now - have insisted that our faith be embodied, incarnational, lived out in concrete practices and not abstract ideals. As IBeyond Homelessness.jpg often suggest, the demanding Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in an Age of Displacement by Brian Walsh and Steven Bouma-Prediger is a must-read on this. How we live locally as home-makers matters, perhaps more than we know. And Bill McKibben knows this wonderfully and his writing about Vermont is very, very nice.

You know the old saw "be the change you want to see in the world." This saying calls us to live lives of integrity, to have some movement towards consistency, integrity, to actually practice what we preach. In a subtle way, that's part of what this book is about.  McKibben seems not to be the sort of guy who is a born national leader, not  an out-and-about kind of guy who loves travel and living large. He believes in local and sustainable agriculture, after all. He writes about "helping the neighbors in the sugar bush all afternoon, hauling sap and watching it boil" after "skiing in the woods for a couple of hours." With his dog, no less. He's clearly no ambitious, big-time politician.

So it was no surprise (but still good to hear) that McKibben's struggled with the sanity of flying all over the world, guzzling gas, eating mass-produced morning meals from  breakfast bars at discount hotel chains, this life he took up traveling to lead 350.org.  And yet, even though he realizes the significance of this big move to organize a movement - it is way past the time for doing more than changing light bulbs, as he puts it - he still loves his local mountains, is greatly informed by his sense of place, the texture of a life lived modestly. He admits how he missed his family, neighbors, (even the ones "the next valley over") and his beloved, mostly rural state, and he writes about it poignantly. It was telling and very rewarding to read of Bill's own longings, his emotional sacrifices, his sense of the tensions, living, as he was, through a season of extreme travel, crazy schedules, serious disconnection and perhaps even hypocrisy, given his convictions about localism. But, through-out he tried to keep a connection to in his home places. (One of the more moving portions of the book was his telling of good neighborliness as people mucked out one another's homes and businesses after the devastation of Hurricane Irene in 2011, right after their DC civil disobedience campaign concluded.) 


Wbees.jpghich takes us to his friendship with one Kirk Webster, the good neighbor and beekeeper who is a main character in the book. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed these parts. McKibben tells of apiaries and bee trays and queen bees and honey markets with simple, clear prose that somehow drew me right in. That he himself is allergic to bee stings and, as he discovered during his stint doing civil disobedience against the XL Pipeline, is not particularly brave, attracted me all the more.

Yes, there is a profound connection between our large public policy matters and the local practices that fuel them. And, as we used to say, the personal is the political. It is increasingly understood that we must stay grounded with friends and family and be involved in local economics of reasonable scale even when we cannot stop our involvement in the fast-paced globalized economy. This helps us take up a posture of being, well, "in but not of" the networks, principalities and powers of secularized globalization.  It helps us stay normal.

Who doesn't realize the particular pleasures and benefits of supporting small, family-owned businesses, artisan coffee roasters, micro-brews, farmer's markets, thehoney.jpg joys of dipping in to real, good honey? 

Aaah, I hope you have heard about the evils of how we allow grocers to import Chinese honey that is so poorly regulated that some was stored in barrels that previously stored toxic chemicals! You most likely know that the health benefits of non-local honey is so much less then the amazing benefits of honey from bees who pollinated local fields. This is yet another case study of the brokenness of our industrialized mass agriculture system (selling cheap nutritionally pointless honey imported from far away is costly, dangerous and nutritionally stupid) that has been so well-documented elsewhere.Kirk W honey.jpg

As you might guess, the portions of Oil and Honey that tell about the bees is less didactic and polemical (even though it surely could have lapsed into a screed, as I nearly did above.) These portions are not a reprieve from the narrative of environmental protests, actually - climate change is a large and looming threat to bees and beekeepers and good honey production -  but some of those portions sing with a different sort of joy and tell a very different story then the calls from the White House and the travels to Greenland and the realizations of the dirty tricks of the big oil lobby. Still, the book brings together the global and the local in very striking ways - a literary call and response, perhaps, or a sensible reminder of a two-legged walk? These portions aren't expose, they are testimony; bee-man Kirk is a local hero, his bees and beekeeping a wonder, and McKibben's involvement in it (in his timid, over-suited in protective gear, fumbling kind of way) making for a really great read.  

And, so, I invite you to read Bill McKibben, and especially to pick up this new, energetic and enjoyable memoir of a year in his life - protesting and learning about bee keeping. You haven't seen a book like this before, I bet.

Some of this tells of admittedly exotic travels, high-profile, and often dramatic activities (who gets to call a meeting with the White House, get arrested with Wendell Berry, attend parties with a team of entrepreneurial young adults designing websites and using social media to change the world, or talk theology with writers and rock stars?) But some of Oil and Honey: The Education of An Unlikely Activist is very down to Earth (insofar as beekeeping can be down to Earth.) You'll hear how Kirk built his new barn, Kirk's intuitions about weather and weeding, and you'll learn some amazing stuff about bees -- I just read a few pages out loud to Beth this evening because it was so amazing! And you'll hear about how democracy works in rural Vermont, with the town moilandhoneybookpage.jpgeetings and all. 

O&H is a great report, exploring two ways of responding to global concerns, two lifestyle choices, in a way - feisty protest or homespun farming. It offers two different examples of being a mentor, leader, the kind of person who leaves a legacy. McKibben with his writing, organizing, and working with emerging leaders in 360.org (and now, the divestment movement in higher education) is obviously mentoring a new generation of grass-roots civic organizers. But so is the stay-at-home agrarian Vermont beekeeper. Mr. Webster, you see, is taking interns, teaching others his innovations in beekeeping, forming the sensibilities and skills of others who will carry on this necessary movement of renewing small-scale farming practices in the 21st century.

And, curiously, if not fully in ways that are completely satisfying, Mr. McKibben brings together these two paths, the political and the personal, his famous public life and his more normal, local life.  Indirectly, this is a take-away from the book, what literary types call a sub-text.

How might we, I wonder, in our own callings and careers, citizenship and concerns, live faithfully, "lightly on the Earth" as his earlier book Hope Human and Wild puts it, and nurture lifestyles and practices and ways of being that are helpful, not hurtful, to our world and our neighbors and ourselves? What does it look like to care about "soil and sacraments" (as the title of Fred Bahnson's wonderful book puts it?) Can churches become more parish-like, witnessing to and joining God's work in their own place, their own neighborhoods? Can we have big dreams of reforming the social architecture and common life of our culture even while we have some sense of being a faithful presencemckibben home.jpg in our own ordinary homes and neighborhoods?  

Read Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist for one man's extraordinary wisdom, insight, and story doing just this, weaving together the fabric of global politics and local lifestyle. Maybe many of us should be a bit more active in civic life and the politics of the common good. And I suppose we could all learn something from the bees, and appreciate the ways of Kirk the beekeeper. Regardless of where you see yourself in all of this, I think you will enjoy reading it, even if you don't agree with McKibben's assumptions or approaches (and even if you are scared of bees.)  O&H is a really fine read and would be great to discuss with others.  


Get ready to see my next post coming soon where I'll list and briefly describe five more books that I believe are essential for those of us wanting serious conversations that explore how to live well in God's good but hurting world.  I promise you that those books are very, very good, inspiring, useful, well-written and important.  In the meantime, I'm going to go put a big dash of locally grown honey in a good cup of organic, fairly traded tea, imported from far away. I'm going to drink it with a smile and a hope that this isn't hypocrisy -- importing tea -- but steps towards helpful awareness of life as it was meant to be. 



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April 28, 2014

9 More Books about Sustainable Living, Good Eating, Local Churches and Living Gently on the Land ON SALE

Yesterday I shared a bit about why I found the new book by Bill McKibben to be so veryoilandhoneybookpage.jpg moving and importantOil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist spoke to me because I've done some of the organizing and civil disobedience actions he described and his effort to stay normal - in a manner of speaking - and joyful in his own family and place remains one of the largest challenges for many of us who attempt to make a difference in the world. Although much of the book is about McKibben's dramatic efforts starting up 350.org and helping to organize the civil disobedience campaigns at the White House to protest the Keystone Pipeline project and its connection to the very dirty Tar Sands oils in Canada, some of it is about Kirk Webster, beekeeper extraordinaire and his efforts to keep a modest beekeeping and chemical-free honey business in Vermont.   Yep, it's a book about protests and beekeeping. Oil and honey, get it?  It's not every day a book-seller gets to say that.

I promised a list of other suggestions, a handful of useful books that will help inspire us to live local, to be present within our own economies of scale, aware of what some might call a watershed or bioregion. These 9 that I chose for your consideration aren't technical or heavy, but wonderful calls to a way of life that is sustainable, stewardly, sensible and good. If you want more overtly theological works on the Biblical mandate to care for creation and a Christian philosophy of earth-keeping and such, see this BookNotes column from a few years ago. I put my heart into that one, too.  

Ssoil and sacrament.jpgoil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith Fred Bahnson (Simon & Schuster) $26.00  We've mentioned this before and I lauded it without spending too much time immersed in its amazing, captivating stories. Bahnson starts the book admitting his obsession and frustrations with a community garden he oversaw for a North Caroline United Methodist church.  He's a farmer, all right, and very clearly called to steward the land and produce food, local good food for folks, especially the poor and those without easy access to home-grown stuff.  As Rhoda Janzen wrote, "Bahnson had me at the hairy vetch and crimson clover. He bumped me off the couch and into the garden even before I could finish the book." (That Bill McKibben himself says it "is profoundly, beautifully down to earth, which is almost certainly where we all need to spend more time on a planet in crisis" is pretty great, too.)  Bahnson leaves the Anathoth Community Garden and ends up going on a bunch of visits to other such faith-based gardening and farming projects where he does the whole "embedded journalism" thing.  He gets to know the monks or Methodists or Pentecostals who run the farms, he prays with them, hears their stories, helps them do the dirt.  

Every one of these thrilling chapters are great, from his learning about the liturgy of the hours and growing mushrooms at a monastery in NC to hanging out at Adamah Farm (a Jewish agricultural community) in NY to the time he spent with one of my heroes, Bob Ekblad at Tierra Neuva in Burlington, WA.  Ekblad, by the way, is an amazing guy who has lived for years among peasants in Central America working on new ways to farm that prevents soil erosions, and organizing against the big landholders there, finding himself up against injustices of the grossest sort.  Part liberation theologian, part evangelical missionary with a heart for the poor, he learned much there, and risked his life for the social transformation projects in which he was involved. But he eventually grew disillusioned, realizing that to change farming there needs to be a change in the farmers, a spiritual change, and he ends up - it is a great story - having an extraordinary encounter with the Holy Spirit among Pentecostals. 

Tierra Nueva now works forming community among the disadvantaged, the poor and imprisoned and marginalized, operates a respected fair trade coffee roasting business (run by a form meth dealer, now a colorful and street-wise follower of Jesus) helping broken people find inner healing, prayerful lives, and groundedness literally in the land of their region through their small farming plots. Bahnson's chapter of being with these folks, being prayed for there and his time with this motley multi-ethnic crew of sociafred b farmer.jpgl justice-minded, Pentecostal farmers is nothing short of astonishing.

The whole book is pretty astonishing, really. Who knew about these wonderful projects?  I already want a sequel following up the stories of each, or maybe finding other such intentional communities. You will love reading Soil and Sacrament -- there is heartache here, some extraordinary miracles (yes, I cried tears of joy when I heard the good news about Bahnson's friend Pharaoh) and the lovely, wise insights that come from watching over the shoulder of a person on a profound spiritual quest. It is interesting that even Parker Palmer writes about his experience reading it, how it encouraged him, that he now "sees new ways to put my beliefs into action."  By the way, Palmer says, notably, to "shelve this next to Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, and Kathleen Norris" (yes!) and declares that this beautifully written memoir is "about new life - for ourselves, our descendants, and the earth on which we all depend"  Yes, it is.  But it also about one man's spiritual journey, his own process of discerning his own vocation and how that effects his soul, his soil, and his family. Very, very, highly recommended. 

Mmaking peace with the land.jpgaking Peace with the Land: God's Call to Reconcile with Creation  Fred Bahnson & Norman Wirzba (IVP) $16.00  We have talked before about the wonderful series published by IVP in cooperation with the Duke Center for Reconciliation.  They've done books about reconciliation among enemies, in gangs, during mission trips, between races. Each fabulous book is co-written by a scholar and practitioner, although in this case, I'm not sure which is which.  Wirzba is a professor, mostly, I guess, and Bahnson really is a farmer, but both have dirt under their fingernails and both have published important and solid books.  This series reminds us that God is reconciling all things in heaven and earth and in this one, it gets as down to Earth as possible.  

What wonderful, beautiful, Biblical theology this is. Walter Brueggemann (whose book The Land was very important to me in the late 70s and remains a must-read for anyone interested in Biblical theology) says that it is "a compelling summons to food repentance,., Their accessible, accessible, anecdotal style adds force to the critical bite of their invitation toward life-giving, life-sustaining food."  The always eloquent Barbara Brown Taylor "I cannot think of another book on making peace with the earth that does so much in so few pages - grounding its case with theological care...telling stories that make the book difficult to put down."  With chapters like "Food, Table, Communion" and "Reconciliation Through Eating" and "Bread for the Whole Body of Christ" this is not your typical book on creation care - this is a book on farming and food, on eating and fellowship, on joy and justice.

I so wish we could sell more of this handsome little paperback -- it is very, very thoughtful. There's a great study guide in the back, so you could use it for an adult study, a book club, or a Sunday school class. You could eat together, too!

By the way, if you want a big list I did at BookNotes a few years ago of books about food, feasting and a theology of eating, click here.  Of course, Bahnson and Wirzba are included there.

BBlessingTheHandsThatFeedUs.jpglessing the Hands That Feed Us: What Eating Closer to Home Can Teach Us About Food, Community, and Our Place on Earth  Vicki Robin (Viking) $26.95  I know I gush about a lot of books here (why bother telling you about dumb ones?) but this one deserves a five star rating, too.  I was utterly struck by the wonderful preface by Frances Moore Lappe and Anna Lappe, whose books have lead the way in sustainable agriculture, re-thinking food systems and the causes of hunger for over 30 years. They rave about this, and justly so.  For instance, in the first paragraph of their preface, they write

"Vicki Robin takes the world personally and, because of that, passionately engages in questioning assumptions and searching for new ways of seeing the world that suggest new ways of being. And in this way, we see ourselves in her. Being this way in the world isn't always comfortable. It means finding yourself at cross purposes with the powers that be or at odds with the received wisdom, but Vicki's writing, and this beautiful new book, allows us to experience the joy of a lifelong practice of asking questions."

After some very good pages well worth pondering they again celebrate the book, saying "in this important work, Vicki expresses this uplifting understanding of what it means to be human and our sense that food is a powerful avenue for engagement in a healthier and happier future." Later, she calls this movement one of "eyes wide open hope."

Whether expressed in Hindu farmers in India saving seeds, Muslim farmers in Niger turning back the desert, or Christian farmers in the United States practicing biblically-inspired Creation Care, the revolutionary power of food is its capacity to upend a life-destroying belief system that's brought us power-concentrating corporatism.

Dear readers and BookNotes friends: whether you lean conservative or liberal in your social and political life, this vision of "relational eating" that offers new understandings of the market and civic structures is bound to be helpful.  It will give you courage to question and courage to live into certain sorts of newness of life. And that is a good thing, eh?

Ms Robin - whose book Your Money or Your Life became a best seller, invited people to rethink their debt and consumerism and find a spiritually rich and meaningful life by living on less - is a good writer,  and she certainly understands the downsides of the globalized economy (she has learned well from the likes of the Lappes.) Her experiment here is truly interesting and informative; it is not only a fine read, but a very incisive critique of unhelpful ways we do agriculture, food, farming and eating these days.

Vicki Robin is not a farmer, and this isn't a book about growing one's own food, although she has a nice garden. Rather, it is about buying local, eating regionally, and (as the subtitle puts it) eating closer to home. Such eating adventures have been done before, and written about before, but this was a social experiment of eating nothing but food that could be grown or caught within a 10 mile radius - mostly from a neighbor's half-acre farm on Whidbey Island, in the Puget Sound. Could a person survive without access to that cornucopia called the grocery store, she asks? These kinds of books are fun to read and inspiring (even though you know you are not called to duplicate their exact experiment.) I loved and reviewed Plenty by Alisa Smith and J. B. Mackinnon which was a year on a 100-mile diet, and often recommended the wonderfulYear of Plenty by Craig Goodwin, the fun Presbyterian pastor's study of a similar year of living sustainably in the suburbs.) But this is a truly major contribution by one of the significant thought leaders of age, who has dreamed and imagined and dared to take bold steps to a more healthy, whole, and responsible life.  After her fame from the book on money she got cancer and took some time away from the public.  As she says in the beginning of Blessing the Hands, this experiment had a large impact on her recovery. She writes, "In 2010 I undertook an experiment that turned out to be one of the greatest adventures of my life. It was so small at the start, but it eventually grew - and blew me wide open."

Ms Robin hoped this "sustainability as an extreme sport" effort would help bring her closer to a life of integrity. (Perhaps she should take up bees, like the guy in the McKibben book. Ha.)  She is certainly right that "transforming our relationship with food and the hands that feed us transforms so much else."  "I invite you," she continues, "to sit down at this banquet of stories and new ideas and nibble and graze and chew and digest and see how it all goes down. I invite you to simply enjoy yourself. If you find things you want to try, do so in a spirit of curiosity and good cheer. At the end of each chapter, a section called "Now It's Your Turn" offers some action steps that, once you've read the whole book, you can come back to and try out.

sustainble living books by vicki robin.jpg

Between the chapters, by the way, there are some wonderful recipes using regional ingredients (developed by some creative chefs on the island, I gather.) She promises that "there is something for everyone to savor - the gourmet, the activist, the lover of good tales. Bon appetite!"  Who wouldn't enjoy a book like that?

If you want to localize your life, eat better, and get to know those who grow local food, no matter where you live, this book is actionable, practical, and loaded (and I mean loaded) with ideas, project, proposals, plans and possibilities. Mr. McKibben says "Vickie Robin has helped millions of Americans reshape their lives in sound and beautiful ways, but this may be her most important project yet - and crucial for our tired planet, too." The distinguished professor of Environmental Studies at Oberlin, David Orr says "Vicki Robin is a national treasure." 

Listen to this helpful quote by Michael Shuman, who wrote the important Local Dollars, Local Sense: How to Move Your Money from Wall Street to Main Street and Achieve Real Prosperity 

Vicki Robin is modeling a self-reliant lifestyle that can end the violence of our industrial food system exacts against our health, our communities, our ecosystems. It serves as a compelling manifesto of localization. An engaging delightfully enjoyable read."

Cchurch on earth.jpghurch on Earth: Grounding Your Ministry in a Sense of Place Jeff Wild & Peter Bakken (Augsburg) $10.99 Wanted to name this little book as it is ideal for a small study group, congregational leaders, or anyone wanting a quick reminder and helpful guide to bringing a sense of place and a green spirituality to their local congregation.  I have liked many in this large series of small books published by the ELCA and although there is a bit Lutheran lingo, almost all of them are appropriate for any readers.  Certainly this one is good for anyone, and it is so concise and yet helpful, we wanted to make sure you knew of it.  May I recommend it, not because it is a major contribution or a massive new tome, but because it is excellent in what it intends - namely, to help think about ministry in a localized way, to take some of the "sense of place" conversation and apply it to congregational identity, and ways to help green Biblical eco-theology can inform the details of how churches do stuff in their own particularities.  In this regard, it is a wonderful resource and very highly recommended.

Hhealing god's earth- rural.jpgealing God's Earth: Rural Community in the Context of Urban Civilization S. Roy Kaufman (Wipf & Stock) $31.00 There simply are not many books on this topic, and this is nearly a tour de force.  A slightly over-sized paperback, this is a thorough, generative, and very significant study written by an experience Mennonite pastor who has served churches in Iowa, Illinois, Saskatchewan and South Dakota. (The short foreword is by L. Shannon Jung who has written widely about food and land issues, and contextualized rural theology.)

I am not positive about the statistics, but I believe it is true that most congregations in America are still rather small, and most are not in big cities. Yes, there is a trend towards mega-churches in mega-cities, big churches in suburbs, hip churches in groovy places. I wonder how this particular trend and a bias in the literature (both academic and popular) discourages and hinders those who want to be missional and responsible in their own small towns and rural regions? Pastor Kaufman suggests that the forces of urban structures have helped dismantle rural communities, and this is no neutral progress. Although this is mostly a sustained Biblical study, questions of rural job loss, environmental issues, the farms crises and questions of what community can look like in the country hover over and around the book. Healing God's Earth offers more viable Biblical-theological thinking contextualized for rural life and ministry than any book I know. We have a few others -- older classics like the collection Rural Ministry edited by L. Shannon Jung -- that address the sociological issues facing rural communities with eroding infrastructure, aging populations, etc. etc. But this recent work is helpful because it reads the Bible through the lenses of the rural church.  If you happen to know of any rural church leaders who might need this, do let them know. We are very glad to stock it and hope the word gets out about it. 

Lliving the good life on God's good Earth.jpgiving the Good Life On God's Good Earth edited by David Koetje (Faith Alive) $11.50  We love showing this slim volume as it is an ideal primer on what it means to take up a Christian lifestyle rooted in stewardship, justice, and sustainability in the very way we live, the energy we use, the plants we grow and so forth. Published by the Christian Reformed Church, this collection of 10 short pieces is theologically well ground in a redemptive worldview and yet offers very detailed ideas to ponder, each with good discussion questions. Authors include Steve Bouma-Prediger, Janel Curry, Kenneth Piers and many other profs (many in departments such as geography, biology, consumer sciences, environmental studies and the like, and most from Calvin College, although teachers at Baylor and Hope and Kings and Gustavus Adolphus College are also represented.) A great foreword by Ronald Sider facetiously asks, "What were they thinking? Why would a team of Christian scholars collaborate on a book that dares to give practical advice on what we should eat, what clothes we should wear, and even what kind of house we should live in." He clarifies, though, reminding us that "the gospel that we are to bring to the world embraces all of life. It not only calls sinners to receive Jesus as the Savior, it also calls them to acknowledge him as Lord of all creation... this book shows the fruit of deep and careful reflection on what Jesus' call to discipleship really means for the way we live our everyday lives on God's good earth."

WWalking Gently On the Earth- Making Faithful Choices.jpgalking Gently On the Earth: Making Faithful Choices About Food, Energy, Shelter and More Lisa Graham McMinn & Megan Anna Neff (IVP) $16.00  Oh my, I was excited when I first promoted this a few years ago. What a practical, important topic, and there isn't much published that is orthodox and yet richly theological but that gets so very practical.  This is perfect for anyone wanting to go deeper than the above mentioned studied allows.  Space does not allow me to review it thoroughly here, now, but you should know how much we love this book.  McMinn, by the way, is a beautifully and gifted writer (she has written a book on sexuality that is wonderful, and another wise and lovely one called The Contented Soul.

Neff has an MDiv from Princeton and at the time they wrote this she was living in Malawi and Ghana. Here's a brilliant aspect of this good work: it is written by a suburban, middle-class theologian and professor (McMinn teaches sociology at George Fox University in Oregon)  and her conversation partner, who brings a third world perspective.  Here is how the back cover puts it, "Neff begins each chapter with a prelude that highlights her experience living in Africa, helping us glean the wisdom of another culture and reminding us of the interconnectedness of everything on the earth."   This really will give you and your group or family much to ponder, and will be an happy invitation to bring (as Sider said above) the Lordship of Christ to bear on all aspects of life.  From our connection to bad farming practices and slave labor to finding alternative energy sources and using our consumer power, this really does give us new windows to the world, new ideas to engage, and faithful reminders of how to live wisely and joyfully in ways that honor God and love our neighbors well.

Sslow church.jpglow Church: Cultivating in the Patient Way of Jesus C. Christopher Smith & John Pattison (IVP/Praxis) $16.00  Not Yet Released - due June 2014  I rarely review books before they arrive -- I'm a bit of a slow-poke myself, you know. I have only read one chapter of this from a little pre-release pamphlet, but I have heard about the conversations happening around this as it has been stewing for a while. Not unlike the metaphor of "slow food" that has so inspired them, this invites us to patience, careful attention to detail, and a resistance to all things commercialized, fast-paced, glamorous, mass-produced, commodified, fragmented, abstract or disembodied. Or speedy. They hate that.

They wonder wisely if church has become modeled after fast food -- fast church, perhaps? Franchise faith? To be Biblically faithful, spiritually significant and a bit counter-cultural to the zeitgeist in these days will require of us new habits, a sense of place, a resistance to "one-size fits all" models and a risky willingness to be authentic, small, even.  We must believe that God wants us to be His people; church is very, very important; central to the coming of the Kingdom.  But we don't "build" that quickly.  In trust, we can slow down and listen well to be a more intentional community -- a slow church. This is a book unlike any you have read. As Scot McKnight says of it, "One of the freshest alternatives to church life as it is today,. Buy this, but don't read it fast. Read it slow."

I know these authors. Smith is involved in the Englewood Christian Church community in Indianapolis and editor of the truly wonderful Englewood Review of Books) and Pattison is the managing editor of Conspire magazine (founded by Shane Claiborne and his Simple Way gang) and was formerly an editor of the Burnside Writers Collective. John co-edited the collection of book reviews of 100 recommended books Besides the Bible in which yours truly has a humble little chapter. (And he's the only guy I know who is also a member of the National Book Critics Circle.) I assure you of my trust in them and their decent lives to bear witness to their integrity, their sensible, modest visions, and how very, very sure I am that a mention of their book is essential in this particular list. They rather cleverly offer their vision of a slow church as a long friendly meal in three courses (with several chapters under each) -- ethics, ecology, and economy.  Dinner table conversation is one of their best metaphors as a way of being church. You can pre-order this book from us here at the discounted price. We will be re-announcing it as soon as we can -- but we ain't gonna rush -- as soon as it is really available for sale, perhaps the end of May. 

Tnew parish.jpghe New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens & Dwight Friesen  (IVP/Praxis)  $17.00  I want to say this clearly: this is an important book and this brief review does not begin to do it justice; perhaps I will discuss it again, soon. It certainly deserves sustained attention. Len Sweet, for instance, says "All paths to the future of the church must pass through this book." Brian McLaren says that it is "one of the most important books on the church, Christian identity and mission that I've read in a decade." Phyllis Tickle says "Hands down, one of the most sensible and simultaneously exhilarating books I've read in a very long time."  Even Brueggy has weighed in, saying it is "teeming with fresh ideas and rich energy for the future of the church..."  I respect and trust the authors, and it is, I am sure, one of the more important books on the missional church conversation we've seen this year. 

Those of you who distrust some of the hipster voices with the cool conferences that are just so, so edgy in the missional micro-brew milieus, don't roll you eyes at these guys even if they are cooler than most of us. You should pay attention to their good work and this good book.

Happily, although these authors are very smart, their new book is not heady or abstract; indeed, it is a bit messy, as Dan Allender notes:

Sparks, Soerens and Friesen are potters whose artistry has required them to immerse themselves in all that is broken, dirty, and beautiful about the church and envision a new parish life that offers us all a taste of the banquet of reconciling love.

If you are used to the language of "parish" (as most in the mainline are, even if we don't quite experience our churches or neighborhoods this way) this is more than what you might expect. It is not merely about reaching out to the neighbors near our church building or caring more about our local "sidewalks of the Kingdom" (as new urbanist Eric Jacobsen says in his great book by that name.) The New Parish really is a proposal, almost a manifesto, at once practical and yet visionary, allusive and generative -- not a new big plan or even a model. It is a new social imaginary, a better and deeper way to think about what church is and what the missional vision of the people of God might be. And it encourages local, collaboration in ways that are fresh and important.

At the very least, it will get you out and about in your neighborhood, curious about and inspired to pay attention to what's going on there. It has some exercises to help you do that, and as the weather warms a bit, it will be great to try to do what they suggest in this little experiment.

It does bring the "sense of place" perspective into the missional conversation, and asks us to re-vision not only what we mean by the local church, and what we mean by the local Kingdom mission, but how that might work out in more authentic relationships as churches overlap, cooperate, and view themselves as bearing witness to common concerns - the work of God in the world - in their common places. Few books about local church life so wisely draw on the work done on community by sociologists like John McKnight and Peter Block (kudos for that!) Few point us to "the theology of the built environment" (Timothy Gorringe) or "where mortals dwell" (Craig Bartholomew) or explore practices of "locavesting" (Amy Cortese.) Like I said, these guys are smart. And they are serious about re-popularizing the language of parishes.

How this good stuff about collaboration and presence (they cite Heifetz on adaptive leadership, if that gives you a clue of their depth and seriousness) and emerging networks actually works out within mainline denominational churches, say, in small towns or big ones, or among young evangelicals who are interested in fresh expressions of the local worshiping body, remains to be seen. This is more than a call to "new monasticism" and more than another reiteration of the missional vision (although they cite Hirsh, Frost, Roxburgh, Newbigin, Guder and the like.)

Visit their "Parish Collective" website which they hope will be helpful for many faith communities to connect and share their efforts.

The New Parish is about roots and place, service and care, third places and new creation, ecumenism and unity. Much more needs to be said but please order this if you have any interest in the local congregation being a community of wounded healers, offering themselves for the common good in their local "commons." They've got good conversation starters at the end of each chapter, reflection questions and helpful experiential education suggestions to help readers process this material and prayerfully embrace new networks and structures and communal projects. My, may, these guy are pushing to us really take this up, literally step by step around your block offering what they call "presence in a post-everything future." Nice.



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