About June 2014

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

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June 2, 2014

Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison ON SALE

The power outage ruined my big ending.  The "Spirit on Tap" talk in a hotel lounge in Reading, PA, was extra fun due to the power failure - a talk by literal candlelight where I was hardly able to see the faces of the 75 folks who had braved the storm to come out for my lecture on religious trends discerned by looking at the publishing world.  I quipped that I never had to worry about my notes catching on fire before, but the little votive candles on the podium made this a real likelihood.  I wish I could say this was some spiritual metaphor - on fire! - but, uh, nope. My yellow legal table was singed by that tiny little flame.

Which is to say I couldn't read the quotes I wanted to.  Maybe being a bit more ex tempe was fine, and we did cover a lot of ground in that hour. Here's the short version of what I had hoped would become a compelling closing pitch, perhaps an epiphany of sorts. Bear with me, as it sets the stage for my telling you about this great new book, a book which I intended to hold up and promote, but the darkened venue made that pointless. 

One of the trends in our culture is the shift away from serious reading; Nicholas Carr is at least somewhat right in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains when he suggests that Google is making us stupid. Serious reading habits are being eroded in favor of faster, more shallow kinds of amusements, and the love of the printed page grows cooler each year.  Many of us report feeling unsettled, twitchy.  Our electronic devices and fast-paced lifestyles conspire to change not just our pace of life, but our character, our desires.  In fact, Jamie Smith argues in Desiring the Kingdom - one of the most important books of the decade, and surely one of the most discussed in our circles -- that our desires are shaped by the "secular liturgies" of rituals and habits in which we most passionately engage, day by day.  Booting up and logging on, taking in high speed internet, rapid rewards, fast food -- is there any debate that our world of hurry and velocity has kept us from reading well? It could be argued that it has kept us from living well.

And so, in that big ending, jettisoned at the last minute due to - how ironic is this? - a power outage, I was going to wax eloquent linking the slow but joyfully humane reading and writing habits of St. Patrick and the Irish (who "saved Western civilization" as the story goes) and the need for a new shift in the nature of our churches to counter the anti-reading (anti-human?) milieu which insists on defining goodness in terms of efficiency, quantity, speed, and numbers.  I increasingly believe that our efforts for increased literacy and love of books (not to mention the call to nurture the Christian mind and to think well for the sake of God's Kingdom) will falter if our main message is about our duty to learn, or even the joys of reading (as in the wonderful, wonderful book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs.) We must also get to the root of the problem and discern and resist the ideologies of the age which erode the plausibility of a life well lived, the ways of being that steal our time and energy and creativity, that turn us into consumers wanting more-more-more and then (since we are so burned out) needing to tune out, and veg-veg-veg.  It is little wonder fewer people are reading these days, even if they know the duty and delight. 

What is driving us to want this kind of hyper-life?

And how can our churches help us?

Can they become counter-cultural where it counts?

My big ending of that talk, after my plea for a renewed commitment to the life of the mind, reading well, taking up books and print and pages of prose and poetry, was going to be that we need congregations that help us slow down and value not only our interior lives, but our localities. To resist the high-tech glamorization of speed and hipster velocity, we need schooled in rhythms of grace, and what that looks like (literally) on the ground.  

We need a sense of discipleship that appreciates the prophetic social critic of the 70s who cried, "small is beautiful." We need courage to say no to "bigger is better" assumptions and the patience to see what better desires and habits will emerge among us.

We need to somehow learn to slow down and pay attention, caring for what is in front of our noses.  I believe learning to care for our local setting, our permaculture, our neighborhoods, our own inner longings and needs -- that is, slowing down and looking and listening and learning -- are prerequisites for not only a sane way of living, but for regaining a love of reading and the ability to be readers.  One can't love or pray or serve others well if we're too damn busy.  We can't read much, even if we want to, if our schedules are jam packed with shopping, blogging, managing our on-line accounts, and fretting about the functions of our devices, if we zoom to and fro between sports and work and home improvements and trips and fancy parties by the pool, and then home for a late night peek at facebook or worse.

If we are going to regain an unhurried life, a more sane sort of being attentive to what matters most (and recover the joys and benefits of the leisurely pace that good reading demands) we will need congregations that invite us to that way of life. We need churches that themselves have broken with the dominant vision of life in the Western world. Can we admit that sometimes the very structures and practices and attitudes of our churches actually encourage this same worldly culture of unreflective speed, dehumanizing efficiency and dis-integrating isolation? 

Those punchy descriptors are from C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison in theirSlow Church-Cover1.jpg stunning new book, Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus (IVP/Praxis; $16.00) which is without a doubt one of the best books of the year. Indeed, I'd say it is one of the best books on the nature of the local church I've ever read.  I have my top few of books about the local church -- Community of the King by Howard Snyder comes to mind -- and this is now surely one of them.

Slow Church took its title and working image from the growing worldwide movement known as "slow food" which emerged out of protests organized by local chefs, cafĂ© owners and food lovers in France when a MacDonalds fast food joint was opening in Paris in the late 1980s. By 1989 there was a "Slow Food Manifesto" and it has spread, inspiring food-lovers around the world to draw on local sources, fresh food, better eating, and more patient attention to the relationships that develop around meals.  It should not surprise us that followers of Jesus, who spent a lot of time eating and drinking, and whose most primary ritual (and vision of final hope) includes breaking bread and celebrating a feast, are interested in this new (old?) attentiveness to food. (See here for a BookNotes list of books about food and faith, here for a review I'm proud of on the exquisite The Spirit of Food.)

And so, inspired by the Slow Food movement - a counter to the stupidities of fast food, and the dangers of a culture that thrives on it - a Slow Church idea is slowly taking root.  This Slow Church book, almost a manifesto, but not quite so pushy, will eventually, Lord willing, be seen as a seminal contribution.  Like that resistance to the fast food culture lead by those feisty French protestors and the likes of Alice Waters, Robert Farrar Capon, or Dan Barber, Smith and Pattison are inviting us to rethink much of what we think we know about church.

slow church banner.jpg

A few details about the book.

First, it is wonderfully written.  I mean this in at least two ways.  The sentences are often beautiful.  They've work hard (slowly, perhaps) to craft a good book full of good word choices, clever phrases, good lines, interesting paragraphs.  For a book to become important, widely read, significantly valued, and somewhat enduring, it has to be well-done. Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus is more than just a critique of society's harsh values or a jeremiad against churches that seem to have sold out to our suburban values, full of complaints and warnings and finger-waggings.  No, this is both a cry of the heart - it has passion galore - and offers a finely-crafted, well-written, artful bit of writing.  The very fine writer Christine Pohl writes that it is "beautifully crafted."  Even the cover is nice, and we can be glad that these guys are as smart and literate as they are. It is, like a good book on food or wine or cooking, a pleasure to read. Also, though, it isn't just artful and interesting, it is arranged well. It flows from topic to topic, with a good balance of stories and teaching, cultural criticism and theology. They make their argument well, and the book moves along wonderfully.

(Both gentleman are book-lovers and read and write widely. Pattison is the only guy I know who has served on the prestigious critics circle for the National Book Award and Smith is editor of the Englewood Review of Books, a low-fi and very impressive journal of Christian book reviews. In many, many cases, if they are reviewing it, we have it. They do very, very good work.)

Not only is Slow Church a wonderful read, it is, as I've suggested, supremely important.  That it engages the very heart of our culture, that it reflects on the spirit of the age, that it truly attempts to do contextualized theology in the 24/7 postmodern world of speed, makes it very, very significant. Others have done this, critiquing, say, materialism and consumerism, or workaholism and our lack of rest.  Walter Brueggemann's recent set of astute Biblical studies, sermons collected in Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, just for instance, gets at this powerfully, and it is no surprise that they draw on his valuable insights.  Walt endorses the book, in fact, saying, 

This thoughtful, discerning book advocates "slow" in faith and in life - recognition that faith is a practice of relational fidelity that cannot be reduced to contractual or commodity transaction. The authors ponder and reflect on this summons with both pastoral sensitivity and missional passion, Readers eager for an evangelically paced life will pay close attention to this advocacy.

Walt's observation points to another important aspect of the book. It wonderfully reminds us that the problem with all this frenetic speed and bureaucracy isn't just that we get tired, so we just have to slow down a bit.  No, these authors realize that intertwined with our culture's commitments to this aggressive way of life is a whole way of seeing the human person, a way of thinking about our life's goals, a way of forming our social architecture. In other words, we have to consider not just how to slow down, but to re-envision our lives, our place in creation, our relationships. We have to learn to value something different then the franchise model.  We need to live into a Kingdom and commonwealth where people know each other and - yep - slow down so they can actually learn to love one another.

ISlow Church Badge.jpgn what ways have churches (mainline denominational or evangelical, mega or wee) bought into ways of doing business (awkward pun intended) that are informed by visions and practices of the corporate world? These guys are not the first to expose the problems with the MacDonaldization of the church or the McChurch franchises.  But this is the best by far, examining the roots of Western culture, the practices of our hectic society, and the values that connected to that kind of way of life. - and how these have infiltrated many churches, sometimes profoundly so. Yes, this is critical analysis of the big picture, but, gladly, it is very, very nicely written.  

I love the very structure of this book. The three sections (drawing on slow food notions, and social critics such as Wendell Berry) are entitled "Ethics" "Ecology" and "Economy."  I hope this excites you as it does me, that you are drawn to theological visions of a sustainable, humane, Christ-honoring sort of ministry that values attention to the sorts of things these section titles imply.


The wonderful chapters in the first part include ruminations on terroir (an invitation to "taste and see"), stability, which, they explain, includes a commitment to real people in real neighborhoods and places and patience.  Their stories of how patience enables us to enter into the pain and longings of others are wonderful, and this first portion offers a fabulously rich first course.


The second section ("Ecology") is strong, too, and offers several chapters on the nature of God's work in the world, helpful theological insights about reconciliation, and what it looks like to be a local body that sees and values and lives out such a vision. The missional church conversation has reminded us of God's reconciliation of all things, of the reign of God breaking into human history.  Church life is not about our own spiritual need and these three chapters have set the table well for great conversations about what a "slow" manifestation of missional ministry might entail.  As Norman Wirzba writes, Smith and Pattison "lead us into habits and practices that are essential if churches are to savor, mobilize and celebrate the gifts of God's goodness all around... Read it with friends and be prepared to discover the grit and the grace that make life together a foretaste of the Kingdom of God."


The third course of this wonderful meal is called "Economy."  The three chapter titles evoke much, and the content is extraordinary. We can all learn much from pondering their reflections in the chapters called "Abundance" "Gratitude" and "Hospitality."   Doesn't that sound rich, good, helpful? What church group wouldn't benefit from a low and careful study of these themes, and a bit of self-inventory about ways to move towards a more human scale and slower pace?


And, oh, that final chapter, "Dinner Conversation as a Model of Being Church."  As they note, the extraordinary thing about Slow Church is how ordinary it is.  This isn't another zippy plan or a sophisticated program. I don't even know if it is a "model" insofar as that in itself sounds like some blueprint, an industrial age metaphor with more weight then necessary.  This is an invitation to a common meal, a way of being human-scale and sensible and convivial.  It isn't that hard. They write, "We aren't asking people to be Super Christians, to move to a developing nation or to the inner city, or to give away all their money. What we're advocating is that we live more deeply into the ordinary patterns of our lives, considering and talking with others in our church about how and why we do the things we do."

Yes, they are feisty at times (inviting us to use the language of being subversive and transforming -"we are withdrawing our allegiance to a McDonaldized religion that wants to keep the life of faith segmented to Sunday morning services. In a world where God is at work reconciling all creation, everything matters: work, family, friends, place, rest, food, money, and above all, the body of Christ, because the church is the interpretive community through which we make sense of all other facets of life."

But I bet you, like me, need that kind of encouragement, that kind of reminder that God is at work among us -- a real presence, so to speak -- and that this invites us to reorient our whole lives to Christ's economy.  This is, grace upon grace, very good news!

And so, I invite you to get this book from us. I want to say that you should do it now, quickly, even.  Not because I'm in a hurry, really, but because the time feels right here in the early summer, to take up a good, slow read, and to savor the revolutionary ideas offered by Pattison and Smith. Our churches can be more sane, our lives can be healed, our ministries more authentic. We know fast food isn't all that good.  Let's take that intuition and help it guide us to re-think the local church. 

Slow Church is a godsend, a wonder, a must-read. Thank you to Chris Smith's Near Eastside urban neighborhood in Indianapolis and his Englewood Christian Church there, and to John Pattison's love of the rural spaces around Silverton, Oregon (and his Friends Church there in the Willamette River Valley.) We hear of both of these localities and congregations in the book and we realize this can be done!  This book is the real deal.  So come on, hurry up and buy this, and then slow down. Slow down together, in whatever place you inhabit, learning to cultivate community with trust and patience. 

And who knows, maybe you'll even find more time to read, too.  You'll be glad for that.

Slow Church-Cover1.jpg



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June 10, 2014

Mercersburg Theology, Worship Renewal, and Surprised by Scripture by N.T. Wright ALL BOOKS MENTIONED 20% OFF

We invite you to click on our inquiry or order form links at the bottom of this BookNotes post. We would be happy to answer any questions about these resources, or ship out any books you may need.  Any books mentioned are 20% off.  As always, we truly appreciate your support.  Thanks.  Byron & Beth Borger

Last week we had a good time selling books at a small academic conference on Mercersburg Theology hosted by Lancaster Theological Seminary. The event was sponsored by the Mercersburg Society, a group of scholars and pastors given to the study of 19th century theological leaders John Williamson Nevin and Philip Schaff.  These German-American Reformed leaders spoke and wrote widely in the years beforejohn w nevin (hart).jpg the Civil War, promoting what Nevin biographer D.G. Hart calls a "high church Calvinism" which argued for a liturgically and theological rich view of Eucharist and the church catholic.  Nevin studied under the famous Charles Hodge at Princeton, ended up in Pittsburgh for a while, and then to the German-Reformed Mercersburg Academy, not far from Gettsyburg, PA. Nevin later moved to Lancaster, first at the college now known as Franklin & Marshall; the tiles from some of the Mercersburg building are now in a building at Lancaster Seminary. Nevin and Schaeff opposed revivalism and sects and emotionally manipulative evangelism crusades, and insisted on a "mystical presence" in communion. Their critique of popular revivalism (and the appearance of being close to Rome) grew contentious and Philip Schaff was tried and found innocent of charges of heresy by his German Reformed denomination in 1845. The long and tumultuous debate was held in York, PA. 

The ecumenical gathering last week in Lancaster brought together a fun mix of mainline UCC and Lutheran pastors, a few older school Calvinists, a Dutch neo-Calvinist, a Ukrainian Orthodox priest, a few Catholics and Presbyterians.  A local Pentecostal philosopher and an ecumenically-minded Mennonite were active participants.  From sharing a Psalter as we sang Psalms with Father Tony Ugulnik (whose book about the Russian church and the theology of icons was very important to me during theeros and self e.jpg nuclear freeze campaign) to chatting with a prof from Westminster Theological Seminary, to hearing the always astute Dr. Lee C. Barrett, whose new book is called - get this! - Eros and Self-Emptying: The Intersections of Augustine and Kierkegaard; (Eerdmans; $48.00) the whole Mercersburg Theology conference was stimulating and in many ways deeply moving to me. 

I don't know if I am a "high church Calvinist" or not - I suppose I might admit that, not unlike fixed hour prayer or third world mission work, I like reading about it rather then doing it. I don't know what I believe about communion, either, really (although had some things clarified by Understanding Four Views on the Lord's Supper, a discussion between four different authors, edited by my friend John Armstongthat we may perfectly.jpg (Zondervan; $16.99) and had my heart wonderfully warmed by the lovely, little That We May Perfectly Love Thee by Robert Benson (Upper Room; $14.00.) The Mercersburg Society recommends What Happens in Holy Communion? by Michael Welker (Eerdmans; $24.00) and it is very through, and very ecumenically fair.

But I do know that I am an member of Christ's ecumenical church and find myself often wishing for more experiences of diversity within God's big tent. With a few (significant) caveats, I'd say this event at the UCC seminary was one of the most ecumenical gatherings I ever attended. Thanks be to God.

Which leads me to want to name a few books that seem to fit their theme. 

Hearts & Minds stocks the most popular inspirational best-sellers and books from all the recognizable publishers, but we have some harder to find resources, too. I won't describe here the books that are in print by Nevin and Schaff (although we've got 'em) or the growing body ofThe Mercersburg Theology and the Quest for Reformed Catholicity .jpg literature on Mercersburg.  Some do suggest that W. Bradford Littlejohn's book, The Mercersburg Theology and the Quest for Reformed Catholicity (Wipf & Stock; $24.99) may be the best place to begin for those that want to explore "Reformed Catholicity." This movement is, by the way, not as obscure as it may sound; some mainline folks who feel the drift away from core orthodoxies within their denominations see these 19th century Germans as a helpful corrective to 20th century goofiness, and not a few conservative Presbyterian and Reformed folk are discovering this mature way into a more liturgically rich, aesthetically nuanced and confessionally driven church experience.  As one person said, "everybody is going Mercersburg-crazy these days."

Well, be that as it may, here are a handful of other interesting titles that spring to mind.

Sspiritual theology.jpgpiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life Simon Chan (IVP) $24.00 

Lliturgical theology.jpgiturgical Theology: The Church as a Worshipping Community (IVP) $25.00

These two are nearly magisterial, amazing in depth and richness, balanced and solid, as beautiful as they are rare. Conservative and Reformed and a splendidly rigorous thinker, Dr. Chan none-the-less allows rational dogmatics to lead him to more mystical experience, and shows us the lived implications of a mature dogmatics. This is rare indeed.  In the second splendid volume (so germane to the Mercersburg project), he relates all of this for the community of faith, constituted by worship.  If anyone in more mainline denominational traditions wonder about the pop images of TV shallow evangelical piety, take a look at these. They will change your view of evangelicals, I'm confident, and more, spending the summer with these might helpfully impact the soul of any kind of serious reader.

Chan's brand new IVP book, by the way, is called Grass-Roots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up.  I am sure it is good.

Ddefining the church in our time.jpgefining the Church for Our Time: Origin and Structure, Variety and Viability Peter Schmiechen (Wipf & Stock) $17.00 Dr. Schmiechen is a beloved President Emeritus at Lancaster Theological Seminary, and I have long been a fan of his first book Christ the Reconciler: A Theology for Opposites, Differences, and Enemies (Eerdmans; $21.99) which we still happily sell, and is still as relevant as ever, as we struggle with conflict in the local church and the nation, and globally.  His book on various atonement theories (Saving Power: Theories of Atonement and Forms of the Church; Eerdmans; $39.99) shows him as smart, faithful, innovative and a fine example of inclusive, generously orthodox thinking. He has two recent books, and Defining the Church for Our Time formed the basis for the opening keynote talk at the Mercersburg Conference. I highly recommend it for anyone pondering the nature of the church and needing an innovative, contemporary multi-faceted ecclesiology.

I like Walter Brueggemann's astute observation, not only that Peter has been "in the matrix of dispute in his own church" but that Schmiechen

reflects on ways in which our pet notions have often reduced the gospel to manageable ideology, and the capacity and readiness of the gospel to take many forms, formulations, and practices. This is sober and realistic, but powerfully hopeful invitation to rethink the faithfulness of the church in its great diversity.

Peter Schmiechen's very readable 2012 release, Words Unspoken: An Invitation to Christian Faith (Wipf & Stock; $13.00) is really sweet, too. It is thoughtful and useful and I think very good to recommend not only for seekers or those re-evaluating their beliefs and church affiliation, but for any adult group wanting a fresh and thought-provoking reminder of key notions of Christian faith.  

Eevangelical_versus_liturgical_defying_a_dichotomy.jpegvangelical Versus Liturgical? Defying a Dichotomy Melanie C. Ross (Eerdmans) $17.00 Oh how I wish this had been released early last week - it came just a few days ago - as I'd have pushed my way to the Mercersburg podium to tell everyone about it. I cannot explain simply my big enthusiasm for this important new work. To put it as succinctly as possible, it is a semi-scholarly, very accessible, warm study of how evangelicals in the free church tradition have, in many cases, deepened and expanded their own worship practices, indicating a possible new rapprochement between mainline congregants and scholars who are high church liturgy lovers and those folk with a less complex sort of worship style. The subtitle helps us see why is so very special about this rare kind of approach.

The author is a professor at Yale Divinity School and knows well the best literature of the recent renaissance in liturgical studies - from Lutheran, Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican scholars such as Gordon Lathrop and Gail Ramshaw and Frank Senn, say, to Dom Gregory Dix, Aiden Kavanagh or even Marva Dawn. But, Professor Ross also knows the ways in which more conventionally conservative evangelical congregations have thought well about worship as new forms of contemporary liturgy have evolved from "seeker sensitive" blandness and mega-church performances. 

Ross knows all this about thoughtful evangelical churches not onlyMelanieRoss_lg_0.jpg because she herself was raised in a nondenominational setting, but because she obviously knows the good work of the likes of the wonderfully generative ancient-future Robert Webber, and the generous ecumenicity of evangelical worship scholars just as John Witvliet. Her awareness, though, is not just from her past, or her scholarship, but she has spent time visiting two particularly interesting evangelical church communities. Like an anthropologist doing ethnography, she visited and observed a vibrant congregation here in Central Pennsylvania (West Shore Evangelical Free) and also a multi-ethnic urban mission in Minnesota, Eastbrook Church. These two enlightening case studies offer texture and detail in her examination of how evangelicals gather and do worship these days.  

And, it gets better: Dr. Ross realizes that to truly understand the differences and similarities of highly liturgical and less formal kinds of worship practices, it will not do to just study how the Bible is use, say, or what printed or extemporaneous prayers are prayed, or how they offer communion or take up the offering. The meaning of these key acts have to be explored, and to do that, a open-minded but serious discussion of the authority of the Bible must be entertained. Which leads to questions of hermeneutics and, eventually, the theological questions about conversion, sanctification, spiritual formation and mission. Oh my, this is a huge matter, but (thank goodness) her reflections are succinct and fruitful. Volumes of work needs done on this, but her relatively brief chapters, while meaty enough, raise the major points of insight and disagreement.  What a book!  

I agree with Don Saliers, who refers to her "keen knowledge of ritual and liturgical studies" and calls it "wise and important" and then says it "is a major resource for anyone concerned about contrasts and convergences in worship practice."

Here is what Jamie Smith says of it:

This is a book that many of us have been waiting for. It is winsome without being wishy-washy; critical yet profoundly charitable. Above all it is both sharp and wise. Instead of the usual invitation for evangelicals to grow up and become 'liturgical,' Ross empowers free-church evangelicals to see the liturgical wisdom already implicit in their practices -- and presses liturgical theologians to appreciate the same. In doing so, she also invites evangelicals to become newly intentional about worship drawing from the deep wells of liturgical theology. This book is a win-win-win.

Amen! Preach it brother.  And thanks be to God.

I long for inter-denominational conversations that are inclusive of all streams of the river of renewal happening within the global body of Christ. Those skilled at ecumenical conversations within the more traditional large communions - those that struggled with Baptism, Eucharist and Mission in the 1980s, for instance, simple must grow more adept at including evangelicals, charismatics and others who have heretofore not participated much in these kinds of discussions. To get at ecumenicity by way of this wonderful case study of worship -- and to thereby help all of us realize that there need not be a hard dichotomy between ritual and freedom, between ancient tradition and modern experience, between mind and heart, between, as the book says, between evangelical and liturgical - is just wonderful.  I cannot recommend this new book more heartily.  Kudos to Dr. Ross and the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship who helped produce it.


Here are three groups of people who should read Evangelical Versus Liturgical?  

First, mainline denominational folks or those with traditionally high liturgical forms who may need to be reminded, in their own terms, what the church down the street really does and why they do it.  I am routinely surprised at the lack of awareness about, and sometimes animosity shown towards, nondenominational churches, among my liberal friends and this slim book really could go a long way to help ease these tensions, which (at least sometimes) come from caricature and misunderstanding.

Secondly, I so hope this book will be studied by evangelicals of all sorts, but especially pastors and preachers and those who nowadays are called worship leaders -- musicians, singers, church artists.  This covers more than what you might get from the good books by Matt Redman, Bob Kauflin, or the Passion Conference messages; it is a sympathetic exploration for rich and artful worship services, rooted in solid theology and ancient ideas. Defy the dichotomy, anyone? Please?

And, thirdly, theologians of all kinds.  Like the Mercersburg theology conference, this is a great, great example of a new and necessary conversation, made fresh and useful, as we ponder what has been fruitful and faithful in former thinking and what might be generative and good as we move into this new era.  Phyllis Tickle in her very interesting The Age of the Spirit (Baker; $) is suggestive in inviting us to new conversations - not rehashing, but revisiting, ancient theological quandaries (like that which contributed to the Great Schism.) Evangelical Versus Liturgical?: Defying a Dichotomy will help us all think fairly and helpfully, and it is a beautiful example of the kind of ecumenical writing that is needed in these days. 

Read a bit about the author (a Messiah College grad, by the way, with a PhD from Notre Dame) and her work, here.

Ccome and see.jpgome and See: Presbyterian Congregations Celebrating Weekly Communion Ronald P. Byars (Wipf & Stock) $19.00 I have not read this yet, but it looks just so very interesting (and so apropos for this post about the Mercersburg conference) that I had to mention it. You may know this author for his other books on Reformed worship and as a firm critic of what he considers to be shallow and unhelpful "contemporary" services. (I hope he reads the Melanie Ross!) Here, he has given us a book unlike any other of which I know: he studies Presbyterian congregations who have taken up weekly communion. He not only tells of these churches and their ups and downs, and how it has or hasn't worked for them in their local setting, but he explores their reasons, motivations, contextualized theologies and the spiritualities that emerge from this kind of liturgical practice. 

I can't wait to see what he says, and what he learned. It is also interesting that some of these parishes that made the transition were long-established ones while others were newer church developments.  I suspect he is mostly appreciative of these efforts, and will make a case that the congregations are better off for their Eucharistic experiences and bold liturgical fidelity -- even among younger folks with postmodern sensibilities. The Calvin Institute on Christian Worship Director John Witvliet wrote the Foreword. Should be good.

Iimagining the kingdom cover.jpgmagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works James K.A. Smith (Baker Academic) $22.99  I needn't do a serious review of this here, now -- BookNotes readers know how we are fans of Jamie Smith, that we heartily commend nearly all of his many books.  I can hardly say how much I value this book and how important I think it is.

(Did you hear that we are hosting him at our third annual Pittsburgh Summer Lecture, co-sponsored by the CCO out at Robert Morris University, near Pittsburgh, on July 22nd? Contact us if you want more information.)

There were, apparently, debates about various doctrines of worship in the Mercerburg hey-day, and we still have much to discuss about the nature of our liturgies.  I believe this could be one of those few "must-read" resources that helps us understand the nature of ritual, the formative power of liturgies, the Biblical counter-story that should be embodied in Christian worship and how it should rehearse that story -- and which "sanctifies perception" so that we can be in the world as God's Kingdom people. I do not know any more important voice in these conversations today than Jamie Smith.

Heady folks might dig that this could be called "a phenomenology of worship." Others might want to skip a few of the more philosophical pages, and camp out on his brilliant discussions about embodiment, ritual, the nature of our heart's desires, and how redeemed rituals can redirect our disordered loves, etc. etc. The opening chapter does a very succinct and helpful overview of the previous "cultural liturgies" volume, Desiring the Kingdom and while I highly recommend that, for our purposes in this list, one could start with Imagining...

Check out one of his recent lectures on this youtube video (taken from a conference in honor of Robert Webber sponsored by Trinity Evangelical School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA.) He is just fantastic here and reminds us how formation happens in the sacred space of sacramental worship -- which always, he observes, always ends with a sending. Do check it out and buy the books!

One dear friend, by the way -- himself a thoughtful artist, mature worship leader, and Christian publisher -- says Desiring the Kingdom "changed his life." When I asked him what he meant, he noted how it has changed his view of worship and his vision of liturgical renewal in his local parish. That's another reason we commend this book -- it really might rock your world for the better.

From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post Christian West Meets thefrom times square to timbuktu.jpg Non-Western Church  Wesley Granberg-Michaelson (Eerdmans) $20.00 One of the things lacking (in my humble estimation) at the Mercersburg gathering was any sustained and serious conversation about the multi-ethnic, post-colonial nature of the church.  One doesn't need (although it helps) to have all the seminal books of Philip Jenkins, Lamin Sanneh, Andrew Walls or Mark Noll, to know that we are now in an era when --for the first time in church history - there are more non-white than white Christians and the center of gravity for the church universal has crept South. It is simply a matter of data and demographics to say that the church isn't, technically, North American or Euro-centric or Western.

The book now to read on this stuff - whether you've read Jenkins or not - is this marvelous title, which we awarded one of our "Best Books of the Year" shout-outs last year. Wes Granberg-Michaelson, by the way, could have easily been at this conference, and a few of the participants knew him (I learned this, as folk commented on his book which I had displayed.) This work is wonderful, important, and, I think, very, very interesting. It does offer a bit of an overview of the global church phenomenon but also it is importantly asking how this reality effects us in the Northern hemisphere. 

Does the Western church have something to lose as we see more and more church leaders who have hard-to-pronounce names and darker skins and have come from faith communities that are different then our own? Further, and importantly, is there something to gain, something the God of the universe is doing among us? Granberg-Michaelson, himself an evangelical who works in a mainline church, and who has had good experience at the global church level, insists that the answer is yes. There are large changes and shifts and trends pressing upon  us now and this book will help guide us as we prepare for the changes that are already pressing.  

Have you heard the analogy of how the church these days is somewhat like an airport under construction - we have to keep the day by day stuff going even as we shift to the new plans and patterns. Wes doesn't say this, and his serious book is not a simple "how to" manual, but the illustration is apt. The book is not only theologically rich and culturally aware and truly fun and fascinating, full of stories and examples as it is; it is, I think, urgent. That some otherwise meaningful church discussions miss this topic will only haunt us if we do not turn around and pick up this thread of our times, and this piece of the postmodern/post-colonial puzzle.  

SSurprised by Scripture.jpgurprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues N.T. Wright (HarperOne) $24.99  Okay, I realize that the Mercersburg debates were mostly theological in nature, and such conversations draw on Scripture often only to prove this point or another.  Underneath all ecumenical conversations and near any healthy renewal of worship will be faithful and fruitful attention to the Bible.  Nobody illustrates this better in our day than Tom Wright and we can be very glad that he is as well known and as popular as he is. From personal conversation at our local family diner when he visited our shop here in Dallastown to the several times I've heard him live and watched him engage listeners (not to mention his many books) I want to affirm his insight, his authority, his grace and kindness - he is the real deal, and I believe we should pay attention to him.  This new book is a perfect reason why: it is applied faith, culturally-engaged and Biblically-grounded, showing how the Scriptures can fund the imagination and energy for surprising new social programs. (That the collection of talks and speeches is dedicated to the former director of the human genome project, now head of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, is illustrative.) 

In this great collection, Wright offers an wonderful anthology of talks hetomwright teaching, sleeves.jpg was asked to give on a variety of social topics. Of course, he is a pastor, Bishop, impressive historian and Bible scholar, and he often does nearly arcane talks on details of Jewish views of resurrection or Pauline images in his views of justification or whatnot. But here, he is talking about science, about the arts, about social justice, about faith in the academy, about climate change and the like. Many of these talks were first given in the US (although a few were delivered in his homeland) and they have a rousing feel - nothing like a keynote address at a big conference to allow a great combination of scholarship and fervor, contemporary analysis and good humor. In a way these are like sermons, but they are incidental and given to gatherings with specific interests.  

This may be one of his most important books. I know -- this is a bit odd toWright.jpg jpg say since his major life's work is in the multi-volume "Christian Origins and the Question of God" series. (The 800+page, two-volume, exceptionally rigorous one on Paul came out this fall.)

Yet, I think this inspiring new collection of talks moves us towards an answer to the "so what?" question that some of us sometimes ask.  I found myself sometimes asking it at the academic Mercersburg conference, even as I realized that there is a proper place for abstract, scholarly conversations that don't have immediate, obvious "application."

For how two good friends of Tom Wright's (Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh) seemed a bit pushy as respondents at an academic conference, asking himWalsh-Keesmaat.jpg hard questions about whether his scholarship would bear good fruit in the church's work for peace and justice, watch this video clip, or buy the book Jesus, Paul, and the People of God (IVP Academic; $24.00) which includes their "Outside A Small Circle of Friends" so-what cry as a chapter. This sort of honest discourse will keep us on our toes!

So, anyway, Wright's new Surprised By Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues does just this - invites us to take good and generative Bible scholarship, solid and mature faith (creedally and liturgically-expressed - he's an Anglican, after all) and apply this into the hurting, 21st century world as we know it.  Can we be shaped by the Biblical story in ways that help us find ourselves in the new creation story, bringing glimmers of heaven to earth, erecting signposts of the Kingdom, being missional and restorative in the very way we live our lives?  In Surprised by Scripture he surprises us with just how healthy and normal and right and good all this sounds - of course, of course, robust Biblical scholarship and orthodox views of the saving power of Christ should yield all manner of good stuff "in the world but not of it." We need not choose between personal faith and public renewal, between the church's worship and the church's mission, between evangelism and social justice.  

Perhaps if such a Biblically astute and liturgically rich worldview was on offer in the middle of the 19th century, some of the disastrous theological battles and church splits might have been avoided.  Perhaps Tom Wright would have been compelling to Nevin and Schaff as they sought out an alternative between Hodge and Finney. Perhaps the contemporary children of Mercersburg might pay close attention to Wright's redemptive trajectory of new creation social action; again, a theme that wasn't sounded out with much gusto at last week's gathering. Good worship simply must bear fruit of lived doxology and also of service, or it is simply a sham. 

I know my friends at Lancaster were hearing academic papers and responding to complex theological nuances. As I said, I was impressed and found myself enriched by it all.  Yet, there wasn't much talk about the missio dei.  There was nothing about work and vocation, little about the arts or the sciences, not even much about service, hardly any mention about racial justice or human rights, evangelism, or even concern for the environment, despite the familiarity with Gordon Lathrop's important book Holy Ground which argues for a liturgical cosmology.  A few times I wanted to shout "so what?" and, now, I can easily point anyone else who wonders about how to move from good thinking to good praxis to this very, very good new collection. 

Every chapter is worth studying, and taken together, will be a greatSurprised by Scripture.jpg resource for anyone wanting to make connections between worship and work, between church and world, between faith and culture, between prayer and politics.  It's a great book for a study club or book group -- touching down on a variety of pressing issues. 

To give you just a flavor, chapters include "Healing the Divide Between Science and Religion" and "Do We Need a Historical Adam?" which were both presented at the NYC BioLogos Foundation meetings. I loved the fantastic "Jesus is Coming -- Plant a Tree" talk. We so need insights such as are found in "Idolatry 2.0" --  and then there is "Apocalypse and the Beauty of God" (which was first preached at Harvard in their Memorial Chapel.) There are 12 solid chapters in all. I have not read yet the final one, "Becoming People of Hope" (presented in Belfast, by the way) as I am waiting for a special time when I may need such encouragement. 

Perhaps you may need these incisive chapters, too. They are all very stimulating, important, useful.  So what? you say, what do we do with such rich and innovative Biblical study? Be surprised, for starters, glad and eager to learn.  Surprised by Scripture is a great resource, bread for the journey.



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June 18, 2014

BOOKNOTES REVIEW: A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness by Marlena Graves ON SALE

In our last BookNotes post we described a handful of books about theology - inspired by an academic conference which we attended at Lancaster Theological Seminary on what is called Mercersburg theology (a 19th century, German-Reformed sort of "high church Calvinism") with papers on the ecumenical trajectory inherent in such thinking about the church and her mission.  We got to hang out with Orthodox and Catholic scholars, both conservative and more conventionally UCC pastors, and a few old school Presbyterians.  In that column I not only commended a few books about the church (Peter Schmiechen), embodied worship (James K.A. Smith), evangelical liturgySurprised by Scripture.jpg (Melanie Ross) and post-colonial ecumenism (Granberg-Michaelson.) I was particularly excited to commend the very useful new collection of speeches and sermons by N.T. Wright called Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (HarperOne; $24.99.) As we often do here at the bookstore's BookNotes blog, we offered these at 20% off.  Just click on the "order" link at the bottom of that review. 

I suggested that this new Tom Wright book shows how good Biblical scholarship should work - helping us in faithful ways to imagine our world as made and being redeemed by the triune God, known in the person of the cosmic King, Christ, Himself, whose life, death, resurrection and Spirit transforms and empowers us and is loose in the world.  As we live our lives out of this central Biblical story - the true story of the whole world (as the book by Craig Bartholomew and Mike Goheen put it) -- we can see new ways to help solve the world's pressing problems, and come up with creative, even surprising, initiatives to bring healing and hope to this beautiful, broken planet. 


I said that Wright gives us a way to answer the "so what?" question. What difference does our thinking and studying and debating make?  We should ask this of theology and worship and we can ask it of scholarship of all kind.  Of any of the books you are reading, it doesn't hurt to ask - does this bear fruit of goodness, or not?

And so, today I am glad to tell you about a book which also glowingly passes the "so what" test. In a day or so, then, I'll tell you about two similar ones, too; these are books that can impact your life, making a significant difference in your own faith and discipleship, enlarging your heart and inspiring you to a better vision of a better life.  I recommend these with great enthusiasm, rejoicing in their wisdom and goodness, and their practicality. 

Today, I want to introduce you to the work of my friend Marlena Proper-Graves, a woman with a passion for justice and a heart of hope, who has written a book about our interior lives, and how to practice the presence of God, even in our crazy, often hurtful, stressed out world.

A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness  Marlena Graves (Brazos Press) $15.99 - our sale price, $12.79. 

Ibeautiful disaster big.jpg have said on Facebook or twitter a while back, when we first saw some of her writing, that Marlena is a writer to watch.  She has a nice way with words, not splashy or unusual, but fine, clear, artful and sure-handed.  She is also a good storyteller, making her book nearly a memoir, with that narrative that makes you want to keep turning the pages.  Indeed, one reviewer called it "a rich blend of theology, devotional and memoir." 

Marlena is a good thinker (and it doesn't hurt that her husband and partner in crime is a philosophy professor) and a bit of a social critic, to boot. If a book is going to pass that "so what?" test, it's going to have to have some guts, the willingness to poke at sacred cows and offer a social vision that is relevant and redemptive for our complicated 21st century.  Graves brings it, fearlessly and wonderfully.

Rachel Held Evans (a popular and feisty writer herself) calls this "an extraordinary debut" written "in the tradition of the prophets..." I believe she is right on both counts, and A Beautiful Disaster will appeal to those who hunger for accessible ways to develop "a prophetic imagination" or who need reminders and insight about living with integrity in the world.  This is not idealized or romantic or personalized piety; it is the sort of book that is life-giving and a practical to living the faith in the real world. It is not overly cheery or simplistic.

Yet, I was drawn to Marlena's writing - and once we met at the Calvin College Festival of Faith & Writing, also to her as a person - not firstly because of her social concern or cultural relevance. I liked her because of her joy, her positive faith, the way she could couple those two striking words in the title, beautiful and disaster.  A lesser writer or less mature thinker might sound too chipper or sentimental or hopelessly out of touch with the real awfulness of the disasters of our lives (the "joy of the Lord" is our strength, don't you know?) But Ms. Graves strikes the good balance, honest about her own hard times and the brokenness of the world and yet the real hope and the power of the gospel.  Three cheers for this kind of balance -- honesty and hope, the prophetic and the pastoral.


She narrates her life of being raised in rural poverty and the complications of being anm-graves.jpg ethnic minority in her community with moving prose, but no sensationalism. In fact, despite a less than normal upbringing and some tragic episodes - are the dysfunctions of families with addiction and mental illness ever normal? Are any of us ever normal? - she writes without self-pity. She is candid about the times when life is dry, barren, cold and hard.

The motif of the book is wilderness: the first half is called "My Wilderness Life" and the second section is called "Wilderness Gifts."  And therein lies the beauty.

Marlena has been shaped and somewhat mentored by (and has spoken for) the Renovare movement (founded by Richard Foster) and has become fluent in the literature of the desert mothers and fathers, the monks and mystics, monastic spirituality and contemplative theology, Quakers and charismatics.  She quotes widely, but not obtrusively, nearly anyone who is significant in this movement, from Richard Foster, Dallas Willard and Emily Griffin, to James Bryan Smith and Jan Johnson. Also, she is fluent (and has obviously taken to heart, as her story reveals) the best of the classics such as Gregory of Nyssa, St. John of the Cross, Bernard of Clairvaux, Jean-Pierre de  Caussaud, Practicing the Presence of God, Carlos Carretto, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Richard Rohr.

Since she is developing a sort of contemporary desert theology, you can see why she draws on these monastic sorts of sources, reviving them for our own very contemporary use.  She is remarkable in her ability to do this, making this a wonderful resource for anyone reading in spiritual formation, seeking greater grace for centered living. I love books that cite cool contemporary writers (Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, by Karen Swallow Prior, say, or Tattoos of the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle) as well as classic evangelicals (Andrew Murray, John Stott.)  How many books cite Woody Allen and Frederick Buechner? Linkin Park and Miroslov Volf?  I'm telling ya, if you like good writing, informed by great writers and important  thinkers, this is a lovely, impressive, and truly insightful work.

And she does fine Bible reflection, too, retelling stories in helpful way.  As she explains, she read the Bible a lot, even as a child, and her love of Scriptures and her awareness of how to stand in the stories is a gift.

Allow me to say clearly how helpful this is for those wanting a spirituality of the ordinary, of finding God's presence amidst the turmoil of daily life and the injustices we ourselves face. (Not only did Graves grow up with some hardships, she's observed some harsh injustices, even within Christian organizations, and she names some of these travesties, telling us how she reacted.) She is brave, but yet down to Earth; she writes as a young woman, mother, youth leader at a church, and now active writer and blogger -- fairly ordinary, actually. She knows what you are going through. She guides readers towards the virtues of steadfastness and joy, bringing living water to the deserts of our lives. Listen to how Rachel Marie Stone (who wrote the fabulous Eat with Joy) describes A Beautiful Disaster:

Marlena Graves's gentle wisdom, pastoral tenderness, and graceful conviction strengthen my soul. Meditating on Scripture and the wisdom of the desert mothers and fathers, she offers a balm to the hurting and hope that our dry and weary times will, with God's help, bloom into something beautiful.

The forward to this good book is by John Ortberg (you may recall how I raved about his recent Zondervan book, Soul Keeping) and his daughter, Laura Ortberg Turner, bringing together two generations, two sorts of persons following Jesus, both who have experienced doubt and dryness. Their affirmation of Marlena as a trustworthy guide and good writer is really wonderful and should underscore that this is a fine, fine book, by a woman with a lot to say.

Let's hope this book sells well, not only because it brings balm to readers and helps us "find hope in the midst of brokenness" but so that she becomes well known. I bet Marlena Graves has more to say, and we should be prepared to listen.  Start with A Beautiful Disaster.

beautiful disaster big.jpg



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June 20, 2014

New Brian McLaren, New Dallas Willard: We Make the Road by Walking AND The Divine Conspiracy Continued ON SALE

We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation and Activation by Brian McLaren (Jericho Books) $25.00 - OUR SALE PRICE $20.00

The Divine Conspiracy Continued: Fulfilling God's Kingdom on Earth by Dallas Willard with Gary Black, Jr. (HarperOne) $25.99 - OUR SALE PRICE $20.79  

In our last post we raved about a lovely new book of spiritual reading, part memoir, part socialbeautiful disaster big.jpg critique, part guide to finding hope in hard times, A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Suffering by Marlena Graves (Brazos Press; $15.99.)  It is recommended because it is so very honest, as Marlena shares the story of her own hard times, and yet points us in clear and helpful ways, by teaching various Bible stories, how to find God's presence day by day, offering ways to experience Christ's grace, and ways to be empowered by the Holy Spirit. This book is rooted in the devotional classics (and throws in some fun pop culture references and contemporary writers as well.)  We are sure it will be a blessing to you or your group, so we heartily recommended it. She is a first-time author, although writes often for blogs and on-line journals, and we think deserves a wide readership.

Two books have come out this week that seem similar, in that they are about spiritual formation, both by well-known authors. They are a bit different in theology and tone, but we are very excited to tell you about them both.  We would be thrilled if you order either, or both, from us.  As is often the case here at BookNotes, we have them on sale, and you can order at the quick line found at the end of this piece.  (Funny how many people write asking how they can acquire these, apparently not realizing we are a real bookstore, trying to make a living selling these resources.)

Fwe make the road McL.jpgdivine conspiracy.jpgirst, I'll explain an innovative and engrossing, year-long devotional guide by Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation and Activation (Jericho Books; $25.00.)

Next, I'll describe the brand new sequel to the Dallas Willard classic The Divine Conspiracy, co-written during his recent illness by Gary Black and released posthumously after Dallas's untimely death a year ago called The Divine Conspiracy Continued: Fulfilling God's Kingdom on Earth (HarperOne; $25.99.) Although Dallas continued to hold to utterly orthodox, historically evangelical faith, and Brian has evolved into what might be called a progressive post-evangelical, the two men knew and, I gather, cared for each other.  Both were voracious readers, drew on ecumenical sources, and organize much of their work on inner transformation by way of talking about our union with Christ in the Kingdom of God. (Indeed, Dallas told me once that "the divine conspiracy" was to be heard as a synonym for the Kingdom of God, devoid of sexist overtones.) They are both very interested in facilitating conversations about the nature of deepened discipleship, faith of the heart and mind and hands and feet.

My life is richer because of them both. They both have a section in our esteemed authors wall in the shop.

McLaren and Willard agreed that alongside our own inner transformation there are dynamic impulses and trajectories of the proclamation of Christ as Lord that ripple outward into the public sphere.  From Brian's book on the Kingdom of God (The Secret Message of Jesus) to the very important Everything Must Change: When the World's Biggest Problems and Jesus' Good News Collide to the chapters on politics and economics in the new Dallas Willard volume, both men use their vast intellectual resources and their deep experiences of spiritual formation, to point people to socially-engaged, wholistic Kingdom visions and prophetic imaginations of cultural change. These two books, despite their differences (and there are significant differences) could be read in tandem, and could prove to be transformational, game-changing, even, maybe creating generative aha-moments that are decisive for you and your faith community. I am sure I will be challenged as I work through them more carefully over the next months, and I invite you to join me on the journey.  What joy to get to introduce you to these books by McLaren and Willard, friends along the way, agents of the Kingdom.  Man, I love my job!

I suppose I don't have to tell too many of our readers about the much-discussed books bbrian-mclaren-festival.jpgy Brian McLaren. Allow me to (again) clear the air a bit (or add some fog, as the case may be) since Brian is well-loved by many, and truly despised by some. (Others are pleasant and balanced; they like him, mostly, but find some of his current thinking a bit unorthodox. Such readers look for the good, and take everything with a discerning grain of salt. Fair enough?)

Brian is a friend and although I do not know him too well, whenever I have been with him, I have found him to be an extraordinary leader and a fine, thoughtful spokesperson for considered theological and Biblically-rooted faith. I have worked informally with him on a few small projects and my name even appears in Naked Spirituality: A Life With God in 12 Simple Words, a fine book of creative spiritual formation for seekers or beginners looking for a guide that is a tad unusual.  So I like him.

This big new book will illustrate much about his love of and insight about the Scriptures, echoing themes from hisstory wfoi.png great 2003 novel The Story We Find Ourselves In.  As it ends up, I don't agree with everything he always says, and I like some of his books more than others.  But - as is our custom here at Hearts & Minds - we believe in reading widely, perhaps (for those of us who are well grounded in the best of the Christian tradition and in a solid community of mature believers) especially reading stuff we may not be in full agreement with.  We can learn and grow by taking a pen to the page and working with a text -- no need to get all alarmist and upset, let alone nasty, because somebody puts something in a way you find unusual or wrong.  Read, pray, write, talk, read some more, be generous and discerning, taking in that which bears fruit and rejecting that which is a distraction to your growth in the Kingdom. So, even though some of my conservative friends (with whom I share many theological tenets) will disapprove, I think Brian's work with creative, inclusive theology and Biblical study is valuable, inspiring, and very much worth reading.  For those who are not likely to fret about whether he is conservative enough or how he has drifted from the conventional formulation of the fundamentals of faith, I think you will be pleasantly charmed into realizing that his lively and broadly evangelical faith is both inviting and healthy -- and maybe even contagious. 

Which I guess I say in order to say this: whether you see yourself as a stalwart evangelical and McLaren critic or whether you are happily of a more liberal theological persuasion, I think We Make the Road By Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation and Activation is going to be good for you, maybe even fun and interesting. 

Here's why.

Fwe make the road McL.jpgirstly, this is a big overview of all manner of Christian insights and practices, a guide to faithful discipleship in light of McLaren's progressive vision, in conversation with what he has called a "new kind of Christian" (which, frankly, is not that new.) It seems to me this view makes him, to be overly simplistic about it, perhaps the most liberal/ecumenical person when he is among his conservative evangelical friends and yet the most evangelically passionate when among his more liberal friends. (Show of hands if you've been there?!) As a former church planter and pastor of a non-denominational congregation who now worships at an Episcopalian parish (and who has traveled and listened well in the global south) he knows the breadth of church life - and that makes him a voice worth listening to. McLaren is passionate and upbeat and visionary, to be sure, making him fun and a bit feisty, but he isn't that unusual or odd. There are plenty of lengthy footnotes and good explorations of things we all should be considering, so this is a rich compendium and an example of ecumenical, generous, living faith.

In a way, this is both a greatest hits album and a perfect intro to why Brian (and the emergent/mainline convergence he represents) is such a widely-read and much-discussed author and leader. It is a safe and good way to grapple with big questions and hard stuff.  I think this is a good, good thing and hope you do too.

In this book he walks us through the church year (starting in September) with 52 readings, which can be read one chapter per week.  The book tends to follow an abbreviated church calendar, which is really good, but it is also a basic Bible overview.  What he draws out of various Scriptural passages is wonderful, wonderfully put, and very, very helpful - whether you know the Bible well, or if you are a beginning Bible reader. I have found everything I've read so far to be right on and quite lovely, even if some is standard fare.  For instance, he teaches us that the Genesis story helps us stand in awe and wonder of all creation; we are made in God's image so have dignity and worth, and all of life has meaning; the middle of the Hebrew Scriptures offers a robust conversation on the meaning of faith, with law and story, poets and mystics, kings and prophets, pointing us to God's promises of restoration and blessing; Christ's resurrection power gave the new disciples new energy and fearlessness to proclaim the Kingdom, Paul taught about renewed community and inclusion and a Christ-honoring missional agenda, with love trumping all.

So, yep, this really allows readers to re-orient themselves around the big, unfolding drama of Scripture as it builds from creation to covenant to crisis to Christ to final consummation.

Not only is this an evocative and well-written, year-long overview of the Biblical story with a keen sense of the biggest themes and the social implications of those acts in the drama, it has a certain, appealing writing style, a style that pervades most of Brian's books; it is semi-scholarly, informed by everything from quantum science to ancient near east history to postmodern literary theory to the nonviolent philosophy of Rene Girard, but yet is conversational, entertaining, moving, even. (He lapses into "first person" drama a few times, which is very neat, putting you right into the story.) Few authors can bring so much learning to the table, weave together so much interesting and curious stuff, and yet sound upbeat and hopeful. He trusts he readers, and he manages to help us along the way, bit by bit.

Certainly there are other books that may teach the Bible in a year that are more detailed and more thorough, but at least one big benefit of this is the fun (and important) dots that are connected, the good ideas that are brought into play, the storytelling and wordsmithing that seems to come so naturally to him.  Brian was an English professor at one point (and has good music tastes, too, citing Bruce Cockburn and other fine songwriters in other books) so unlike some theologians and Bible teachers and church leaders, he can write.  Heck, he can sing and some of this book seems to as well.

Further, as the title suggests, the faith journey we undertake in We Make the Road... is a bit unfinished - we have to do the walking. You know that old saw, sometimes made trivial on trinkets and wristbands, "Please be patient, God is not finished with me yet"? Well, it is true, after all, isn't it? We are growing, changing, our faith moves along. God is at work in us, and yet, in some profound way, we play our part, do our thing, taking responsibility for our own spiritual formation and how we choose to engage the world around us (including our churches, our neighborhoods, and our global connections.) We don't know what's ahead. For what it is worth, I do not think (for those aware of this sub-set of progressive theology) that Brian is a "process theology" guy and he doesn't sound quite like Teilhard de Chardin, just for instance.  But he does insist that we must cultivate our interior lives as we come to understand God's work better, and that this involves change, growth, openness to new ideas, and being guided by the Spirit into what might be new territories. God's work is unfolding and we are inviting to participate by being open to change.   

As he puts it,

... faith was never intended to be a destination, a status, a holding tank, or a warehouse. Instead, it was to be a road, a path, a way out of old and destructive patterns into new and creative ones. As a road or way, it is always extended into the future. If a spiritual community only points back to where it has been or if it only digs in its heels to where it is now, it is a dead end or parking lot, not a way.

I appreciate this call to walk the way of a living tradition, "cherishing and learning from the growing treasury of its past" as he put it. Yet, we can and must re-imagine what it means to live joyfully and responsibly, with verve and gusto, in these times, for these times. (There's that I Chronicles 12:32 again that I sometimes cite, eh?)  I wonder if the title (used first, he thinks by the great Mexican educator Paulo Freire) overstates things a bit - we don't really have to build an entirely new road, after all since we stand on the shoulders of others, always holding to the apostolic gospel message, even if our formulations evolve and change in each new era.

Here is how McLaren puts it in the preface:

(This) is a work of constructive theology - offering a positive, practical, open, faithful, improvable and fresh articulation of Christian faith suitable for people in our dynamic times. It is also a work of public and practical theology - theology that is worked out by 'normal' people in daily life.

McLaren is not suggesting that anything goes or that we make stuff up as we go along, willy-nilly. He knows that the task of doing constructive theology is rigorous, constrained (although he might choose that word) by the Biblical texts. In fact, in the introduction he has several pages and good footnotes exploring the role of catechesis -- he cites Luther's Small Catechism, notes Calvin's important work, and quotes Wesley's "Instructions for Children" written in 1745. McLaren is on to something when he writes that, early on,

catechesis was a subversive practice of movement building. It was a "people's seminary," transforming any room, campfire, or shady spot beneath a tree into a movement school. It equipped the oppressed and the oppressors to become partners and protagonists in their mutual liberation. 

Learning the faith anew today should feel like that: being enfolded into and shaped by a liberating movement. A God Movement, as "Cottonpatch" Clarence Jordan used to say.

It is no accident that Brian calls this quest a process of "reorientation and activation."  We don't just need a fresh version of the ideas of faith, reoriented opinions. For him -- as for the Bible itself - we are invited/commanded to be "doers of the Word." Faith without works is dead (to use the language of the Epistle of James and of Jesus, too) so we have some serious building to do, some repair work to offer this broken world.  No, we don't save the world ourselves - God's grace is abundant enough for that - but we have our stitches to weave. There is work to be done. We have to get active. This is a big theme of the book.

The biggest rhetorical theme, a theme that is sounded out in every section, implied on almostmcL quote.jpg every page, is that this is a resource for those seeking to live their lives in ways that can be called truly alive. We are invited to attentiveness and wonder, to be mindfully aware and child-like eager, vibrant with "abundant life" (John 10:10.)  The introduction of We Make the Road by Walking is entitled "Seeking Aliveness" and the four sections of the book are called "Alive in the Story of Creation," "Alive in the Adventure of Jesus," "Alive in Global Uprising," and (starting on Pentecost Sunday) "Alive in the Spirit of God."  Yes, this is a handbook to aliveness, abundance, adventure and more. Such an audacious vision could not be told in boring prose and such am organic message wouldn't ring true in the hands of a dull writer. So, gladly, this book is energetic and interesting and itself quite alive.

A final feature of this book, and it is not incidental, is how many discussion questions there are. This book can be read solo, of course, but Brian -- ever the pastor, educator, spiritual director and movement organizer -- hopes that it is to be read in community. It has abundant and carefully crafted reflection questions to help us engage the text not only at the end of each of the 52 chapters, but also offers what he calls "quarter queries" at the end of each of the four parts.  Written with sensitivity, McLaren hopes this is used within churches, maybe in interfaith groups, among skeptics, seekers, or those feeling exiled from a local congregation. There are a few appendices offering guidelines for good group dynamics, and a litany or two to use for those that want a more liturgical component to their times together.  

Those who buy We Make the Road by Walking get their money's worth, that's for sure.  As Phyllis Tickle writes, "This is one of the most remarkable documents in recent Christian writings... The result is as startling as it is beautiful."

Listen to Brian express his own hopes, shared at the end of his great introduction:

Right now I'm imagining a couple of each of you, gathered around a table filled with brimming glasses and plates of flavorful foods. You're all engaged in animated conversation, telling jokes, sharing stories about your experiences since you last gathered. Partway through your meal, someone says "The Living God is with us!" and everyone else responds "And with all creation!" And then someone begins to read.

So, it's a year-long, once-a-week overview of the Bible, offering a call to inner transformation and social action, to be read in groups, to enlist us to the Triune God's movement in the world, from a "new kind of Christian" progressive vision. It can be read alone, but it's better to be explored with a group, a fun, friendly group. That's the gist of the great new book by Brian McLaren, and (agree or not with every detail) it is really worth having and it's project is well worth taking up. I don't think I know of any other resource quite like it.  Enjoy!


Here is another amazing new summer book, a very,very profound work, most likely the last we'll hear from this dear departed saint. It is an honor to tell you about the latest and last book from Dallas Willard.

Tdivine conspiracy.jpghe Divine Conspiracy Continued: Fulfilling God's Kingdom on Earth Dallas Willard & Gary Black (HarperOne) $25.99  

You may know that the contemplative master Richard Foster wrote back in 1998 a most stunning introduction to the groundbreaking and still best-selling Dallas Willard work, The Divine Conspiracy ("the book I've been searching for my whole life.") That brief but potent intro is, I think, the most affirming foreword I've ever seen in a book. On the back of this brand new one Foster reminds us of that by saying, "I consider The Divine Conspiracy to be the most important book in the field of Christian spirituality in my lifetime. So I welcome the publication of The Divine Conspiracy Continued, which expands on and enriches the themes that moved us so deeply."  What more can I say? Wow.

I have written recently at BookNotes about two new Willard-esque John Ortberg books, one published by IVP that was co-written with Dallas (Living in Christ'sLiving In Christ.jpg Presence), and one in which he tells about things he learned from many meetings with Dallas (Soul-Keeping.) He too, has a stellar blurb on the back of The Divine Conspiracy Continued. The Presbyterian pastor Ortberg says, "I know of no more important voice on spiritual truth in our day than that of Dallas Willard. To be able to receive fresh words from him along with Gary Black Jr on the reality of the kingdom in our midst is a priceless gift."

Oh my. Let that endorsement sink in.

We've come to value Gary Black's work, and he was a natural choice to be the one to co-write this book with Dallas last year - he had done his dissertation on Willard, and has a very informative work called The Theology of Dallas Willard: Discovering Protoevangelical Faith (Wipf & Stock; $29.00.)

Adallas willard (suit).jpgs with McLaren, although in less colorful writing and less, shall we say, creative formulations, Willard has always been interested in how the cross and resurrection of Christ can transform our very selfhood, our personality, our habits and practices and then how that spills out into our social experiences and cultural influence. He has thought harder about this then most.

His fabulous early book The Spirit of thespirit of the disciplines.gif Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (HarperOne; $15.99) remains a must-read and offers a great introduction to his view of the sanctifying work of God in our lives. It even includes a chapter on the role of the body in spiritual formation.

It is interesting to me that even though many people write about "formation" these days, many of these books are merely devotional -- tender, creative, monastic, mystical, perhaps, but still just feel-good stimulation. Professor Willard offers us gentle wisdom and actual guidance about how our souls can, in fact, be changed. Christ's ways and His virtues and God's Kingdom's presence can be a reality in our lives -- perhaps his systematic thinking about this might be analogous to a Protestant Saint Ignatius. As Dr. Willard put it in another good resource, God can grant us "the renovation of the heart." (Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ; Navpress; $16.99)  Another book which can serve to introduce you to Willard's serious theories and remarkable applications of the gospel is in the aforementioned InterVarsity book (a lovely hardback and excellent video series, too) entitled Living in God's Presence (book, $20.00; DVD, $30.00.) That was created from the transcripts of talks and subsequent interviews and conversations with John Ortberg that were done at a conference. That, too, is an amazing book, moving us from "sin management" to a truly transformed life as we take up the way of Christ, day by day, moment by moment, made gladly more human, more ourselves, by Him, for Him.

This brand new follow-up to his masterpiece The Divine Conspiracy, The Divine Conspiracy Continued is co-authored by Gary Black and pitched both as a sequel to it and as an application volume, too. It seems to be aimed particularly at leaders (as it says on the back, "God's plan for leaders.") as the Kingdom principles in DC are clarified and enhanced for those who serve in public life. This, of course, means it is not just for clergy, or even those involved in para-church ministries. It is for anyone, almost, who longs for greater resources in the creation of a sensible and influential life; as the subtitle says, it is about "fulfilling God's Kingdom on Earth" and is therefore for any persons who long to live out their own sense of calling to vocations in the world.

dallas willard (red shirt).jpgWillard not only gifted us all by writing these weighty and influential handbooks to Christian growth and Kingdom living over the last 30 years, he was, in his day job, a professional philosopher (at the prestigious University of California.) He pondered well the nature of knowing, what we mean by the moral life, the integration of faith and learning, the role of reason, and what it might be to "redeem reason," the relationship between thinking and feeling, knowing and doing. He isn't writing here as a scholar, but his lifetime of teaching about such important matters has shaped him, and he thereby brings these valuable insights to bear upon the work of spiritual formation. 

There is, however, an interesting chapter on being a Christian intellectual, including some ofdivine conspiracy.jpgdivine-conspiracy.jpg his views about education, Christian and otherwise, which would be especially good for anyone working in the fields of education. Willard had a passion to equip and encourage well-placed, well-informed people of moral integrity who would be guided by the ways of Jesus and, say, the Sermon on the Mount; and he gave much of his life to serving those wanting direction and insight about living out faith in the modern world.  

From this beginning stages of planning, this was to be a co-authored project; together Black and Willard designed a book to help encourage the transformation of leaders who could "subvert human governance" (a phrase I wish he'd have explained a bit, but I gather he means that we are to be salt and light and leaven, bringing God's redemptive ways to society.)  Willard understood the nature of truth and true knowing, that belief has consequences, that ideas grow legs, and - to borrow McLaren's language, that we all sorely need "spiritual formation, reorientation, and activation."

Black writes in the foreword,

Dallas's greatest hopes, and mine, would be for men and women from every walk of life and every profession and vocation that serves our society - teachers, attorneys, physicians, pastors, accountants, tradespeople, and businesspeople alike - to read and discuss this book together.... Wherever leaders gather to discuss their visions and hopes for God's mission to our world.

Oh, BookNotes friends, you know how we need this kind of clear-headed, deep (but not arcane) guidance into how one can cooperate with God in the transformation of the human soul, how that actually leads to real improvement of life; we really do need help in walking in the ways in which we can become more committed to and effective for the coming commonwealth of God, in every sphere of culture. As Black notes, there are chapters here for business folk and physicians and other professionals - interesting for all of us, I'd say. By the way, I'd say this is valuable also for pastors or teachers or campus ministers who are called to mentor others in these professional fields. One good chapter is called "Leaders Who Follow the Shepherd" and it is very profound.

Not unlike the McLaren book, there is included an extensive discussion apparatus and reflection questions for each section. Not only are there some good questions to ponder or discuss, there are suggested experiences that one can enter into. The Divine Conspiracy Continued: Fulfilling God's Kingdom on Earth really is like a long workshop with Dallas, and it may be the last serious work we have from him.  

We cannot recommend this book more seriously, or commend it with such confidence that it is a very, very important book for our times. Thanks be to God for Dallas Willard, for his life, his teaching, and for his friend Gary Black who together wrote this extraordinary book. Buy it today.



20% off
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inquire here
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June 24, 2014

Catch & Release: Faith, Freedom, and Knuckleballs by Ethan D. Bryan ON SALE 20% off

Ccatch and rele.jpgatch and Release: Faith, Freedom and Knuckleballs Ethan K. Bryan (eLection Publishing) regularly $15.99 - our sale price $12.79

In the last few BookNotes I've introduced you to some pretty serious books - from old theology to new liturgy, from a good, young writer talking about hard times to a respected older writer talking about God's divine conspiracy. Soon I'm going to share an important list of books about some very heavy stuff, so for today I'm going to tell you about the feel-good book of the summer. 

Interestingly, fun as it is, it includes some data about, and reveals a huge heart to work against sexual trafficking and modern day slavery. I'm glad to say that even though it has a sub-theme about justice, it is about that quintessential American game, baseball, but, even more, about the simple joy of having a game of catch. Catch and Release: Faith, Freedom and Knuckleballs is truly delightful, an enjoyably nice read, and at times, even stirring. I'll admit, one touching chapter just slayed me and I closed the book, happy about the ending, but wishing for more. I loved this book about playing catch and trying to bring release to the captives.

I have previously reviewed Ethan's other two books about baseball. Run Home and Take a Bow (Samizdat; $14.99) isrun home and take.jpg about a summer full of going to Kansas City Royal games and what our intrepid author learned as he followed his team (read my rave review, here) and Striking Out ALS: A Hero's Tale (eLectio; $9.99) a moving, short account of a beloved coach and his struggle against Lou Gehrig's disease. Ethan is a great storyteller, earnest and kind.  He is a fine theological thinker, too, but doesn't often wear that on his sleeve; in these books, his love of the game, and those who play it (not to mention the fans, who he also loves) are his happy place.  And it will be yours, too, even if you aren't a true blue fan like Ethan.

Even though Ethan is a wholesome Missouri family man - I don't think he has a cynical bone in his body and he exudes joy and sincerity - he is passionate about a few things other than baseball, Dr. Pepper, and his beloved wife and two daughters. (I think that may be in the wrong order, but I'm not sure of that.)  He used to work in youth ministry and really loves kids, especially the less than popular teens, the goof-ups and loners and trouble-makers. He loves playing guitar and writing songs about freedom and God and hope. (And, yep, wrote a little book about that, too; tales cover.jpgTales of the Taylor: Songs That Changed the World  (eLectio; $9.99) tells about playing songs and getting signatures on the wooden body of his beautiful six-string Taylor at various little venues and gigs at which he has played. Did I mention that he's a born storyteller?) Ethan can't help himself - his whole life is a story, and nearly everybody that he meets ends up being a part of his grand adventure. He was doing Bob Goff before anybody read Love Does and realized his life was a storyline before Donald Miller explained how to live as if they are making your life into a movie in Thousand Miles in a Million Years. Mr. Bryan, a graduate of Truett Theological Seminary and man of many talents, loves to eat and play and talk and dream and now sees himself primarily as a writer. His life is a story and he loves to write about it.

Oh, and, by the way: he wants to end slavery.

It is just that simple. 

Like many younger evangelicals Bryan combines solid faith, sincere worship, with a broad vision of compassion, social change, and public justice. The issue of sexual trafficking appeared on his radar screen early on.

In fact, on the back cover of Catch and Release there is a tone that sounds like an old comic book plot, or the trailer from an action-hero movie.  It reads, "At the intersection of the fight to end human trafficking and a love of baseball stands one man." I bet you didn't know there was an intersection between the right to end human trafficking and a love of baseball.  But now you do. And you know who stands there: One Man. That would be your humble author, Missourian Ethan D. Bryan.


Years ago, in fact, he ordered from us the essential Not for Sale:nfs cover.jpg The Return of the Global Slave Trade and How We Can Fight It by David Batstone (HarperOne; $16.99.) He calls Batstone Dave the Abolitionist. (He calls me Byron the Bookseller, and it's hilarious to see that in print; thanks, Ethan the Namer.) Ethan ought to himself be called Ethan the Abolitionist, because he is always thinking about ways to generate interest in the anti-trafficking cause, always telling people about the need to rise up against great injustice, promoting organizations like the organization Not for Sale. His slightly Southern/mid-Western charm, his good humor, and his love of sports (and losing sports teams) makes him an ideal spokesperson for social justice issues -- seriously; we don't need more hard-core activists turning people off with uber-radical rhetoric or thinking they can't get involved since they don't understand the issues (or have time to commit to full-time activism themselves.) Using no tactics of shame or guilt, Ethan takes his children to events, gathers one dollar bills from kids, talks to PTOs and church suppers and at Little League games, and invites ordinary folks to care a bit more, to act on their own deepest concerns, and to pony up some dough to set slaves free.

I love the spat of books by ordinary people insisting that we alRefuse to Do Nothing.jpgl can make a difference - Refuse to Do Nothing: Finding Your Power to Abolish Modern-Day Slavery by Shayne Moore & Kimberly McOwen Yim (IVP; $15.00), for instance, is pitched as a guide for anyone, showing just what two soccer moms can do, and it is a great, great book, by two women I admire. You should order it from us. 

But Ethan doesn't live in a big city, doesn't have Bono on speed dial, he doesn't even have a very stable family budget and his book are on homespun indie presses. When Ethan Bryan says anybody can make a difference, truly ordinary readers will be inspired, empowered, even, as they say. When he tells you just a little about the horrific slavery going on in our world today - from sweat shops in Pakistan to brothels in San Diego to bonded servitude in central Africa - and how children are at risk, it is informative but not overwhelming and it is not harsh. It isn't harsh because he's having such a good time making a difference.


Yglove drawing.jpgou see, as Catch and Release explains, Ethan thinks the hard-boiled, grim world of production and consumerism and self-centeredness that fuels so many social injustices can be countered by an ethos of play. Yep, there it is. I told you it was simple. Ethan thinks -- and he could wax philosophical about this if he had to -- that grace and gratitude and community (virtues and realities that you can learn in games and simple play) can erode the awful values that drive our culture's dysfunctions. Greed and ugliness cannot be simply overcome by "Chicken Soup for the Soul" cheeriness, of course, but Bryan is on to something. From thewell-played-life-why-pleasing-god-doesnt-have-to-be-such-hard-work.jpg thoughtful and fun The Well-Played Life explored recently by Leonard Sweet to the sophisticated aesthetic theory of Calvin Seerveld found in Rainbows for the Fallen World we are reminded that play is part of what it means to be human and that leisurely recreation is vital for a healthy culture.  (We've got a whole section of books about a theology of sports, by the way, including some new ones.) And what better play is there than a "nobody loses" low-stress partnership called having a catch? He writes briefly and simply about it, but it is actually pretty profound stuff.


And so, here's the simple plot: Ethan decides to play catch with people all over the country - that's part of the story as he invites folks to the game, cooks up ways to pursue this immersion journalism experience, writing about the places he goes and the people he plays catch with. It is, perhaps surprisingly, a very engaging story as the tension mounts as he awaits correspondence back from the White House, gets kicked off a major league field, as he secures small victories and admits his disappointments after large set-backs. You will want to keep turning pages, reading about his developing friendship with some Major League players, his eagerness to pitch the ball with Rob Bell on a Southern California beach, his hanging out with fans and sports journalists and celebrities and a lot of kids. In most cases, the catch is part of a fund-raising effort for Not For Sale; everywhere he goes he is a good will ambassador, and an advocate for those whose voices aren't typically heard or considered.


You gotta love this: Ethan's plan is to declare himself a world record-breaking catch player and aligns himself with an on-line Guinness Book of World Records type outfit called Recordsetter which posts all kinds of crazy one-of-a kind records after videos documenting the exploits are sent in and validated. Besides the never-ending quest to find left-handed gloves for his partner players (three quarters through the book I was thinking "Dude, just buy one and keep it with all the others who carry around with you everywhere" Ethan also has to find volunteer videographers and time-keepers. These events must be documented now.

ethan catching on stage.jpgHere they are working on the record for "Most Throws and Catches While Players Are Standing On One Foot." 

These escapades -- excuses for good fun, and an opportunity to speak out against slavery, and maybe raise some cash -- usually work out well, although sometimes things backfire. Once he was playing with a Major Leaguer whose arm was worth, and probably insured for, uh, well, more than Ethan's entire assets. Suddenly, Ethan choked --  what if this star athlete did something dumb, sprained his finger or worse, and it would be Ethan's fault. A guy's career and a teams fortunes could plummet before his eyes! Goofing around with beginners or kids is one thing, but this? Major League catch? Yikes!

Once there was an epic effort made with a high school track team going for the longest game of catch played while tossing the ball while also running the mile - a stellar idea, you'd have to agree. Alas, the good folks at Recordsetting refused the video as the runners and catch-players were too far away from the cameraman; the guys doing that last long stretch while pitching back and forth to each other couldn't really be seen clearly enough. That would have been one for the record books, though, that's for sure. Rats.

Usually though, the odd-ball efforts -- a hilarious one about using the wrong handedness, another catching while holding one's breath, another with a number of nervous teens who had never played pitch and catch before -- were truly record setting and award winning. Except for one epic fail outside of a  big league stadium where some nationally known sportscasters and major league wives were involved, and he still failed to reach the goal of biggest game of catch; he was hoping for 1000 people to toss the ball. They got 53 recorded, including his own wife and children and the volunteer video guy. (Where's J.R. Briggs when you need him?)

So the book is endearing and funny, and you end up rooting forethan and a guy.jpg this screwy, knuckleball plan that takes Ethan on amazing highs (imagine getting correspondence from the White House, or getting to hang out with famed Christian ball player Mike Sweeney, or re-united with old high school English teachers who come out to applaud your writing and affirm your calling as a writer.) But there are a lot of disappointments, bitter ones, even, and Ethan doesn't really have to remind us what is at stake. His own career as a writer - following your own dream by daring greatly is a theme of the book as he longs for a way to use his writing for good.

More urgently, of course, there are the oppressed, the captives, the slaves, and he wants his efforts to be helpful, effective. "Rescue is coming" he promises them, but for every failed catch event, every fund-raising goal missed, every clever opportunity that didn't come to fruition, he knows, and we know, that the cause is diminished. These set-backs come to matter, and we care about his efforts.  Who wouldn't root for such a good plan to raise awareness and money, and who wouldn't want to know how it turns out?

Some very interesting stuff happens along the way in this campaign and his plan to write the book documenting his playing catch as a way to raise awareness about modern day slaver. Yes, he meets some famous players, notably Jeremy Affeldt who himself has written of his own major league careerto stir a movement.jpg and how he has leveraged his fame for the sake of fighting trafficking in To Stir a Movement: Life, Justice, and Major League Baseball and a few authors and sundry public figures. Mostly, these stories unfold in small ways, giving the book an exceptionally authentic feel.  Anyone who has worked in small fund raising efforts for some local team or club or to fight some disease knows how this works. 


It was my experience that reading the small-town, local nature of many chapters -- Watching the Minor Leagues in Arkansas!  Meeting Negro Baseball League radio announcers in Missouri! A teen church retreat in, uh, I don't even recall where, but nowhere you've heard of! -- are among the very best. This is how local activism plays out, usually, not in Manhattan or DC or in theethan and guys in blue.jpg national media, but in your own town with your own family and among your own neighbors and friends. If you're lucky, your tweets get re-tweeted a time or two. Maybe you get on the six o'clock local news for 60 seconds. Big time advocates of grand plans for renewal of culture take note: Ethan illustrates the principle explained at the end of Andy Crouch's excellent Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling where he talks about starting initiatives with just a few other folks. Catch and Release: Faith, Freedom and Knuckleballs is culture-making par excellance: local, fun, well-recorded in a book to share the story, and deadly serious.


There are a few curve balls in here, and I won't spoil it. (Yes, there is am actual knuckleball, too, another nice little side-story that comes up a time or two, tied together as a good writer will.) Some chapters of Catch and Release invite us to struggle with the wisdom of some commonly-held theological views, and he tells of his own convictions and questions, as well as his own joys and sorrows along the way. I admire his simple faith and insistence that we love everyone, accepting those who see things differently; I respect his persistence in his work offered in great hope for a Christ-like social order where it is easier to be good and where all are valued. He quotes Frederick Buechner, Henri Nouwen, Nelson Mandella, N.T. Wright, Harriet Tubman, and other important writers, but the book is breezy and, even when challenging, not threatening. It is, as I said, a feel good book, perfect for summer reading. You will root for this dreamer, be inspired by his involvement with an on-line community helping one another follow their dreams by reading Start: Punch Fear in the Face, Escape Average, Do Work That Matters (Jon Acuff's guide to fearlessly living into your greatest dreams and taking up one's calling, day-by-day, step-by-step) and how they show up to cheer him on. What a moment!

As you read you will cheer Ethan Bryan, too, and his good effort described in this fun book.  And, maybe - he'd be so pleased - just maybe you'll take some time to play and have fun, celebrating creativity and joy and re-creation. Maybe you'll even get out a glove and pitch a ball around. Heck, he'd be happy if you watched Field of Dreams or read Shoeless Joe. (Yes, he has written to W.P. Kinsella. Of course he has.) Who knows, maybe you or yours will even find your own way to start something cool, making the world a little better along the way. 

The book includes the author's email address, wannaplaycatch@gmail.com if you want to create some wacky way to set a record with Recordsetter and raise some money for NFS. Give it a shot; he's always looking for a catch.  Maybe he'll even give you a new moniker.  As Bob Goff might exclaim, "How cool is that?"

catch and rele.jpg


Catch & Release:
Faith, Freedom, and Knuckleballs

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order here
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June 28, 2014

DVD "For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles" ON SALE at BookNotes discounted price

DVD For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles Produced by Acton Institute (Gorilla Pictures) new DVD lower price $25.00; our sale price $20.00.  STUDY GUIDE regularly $9.99, our sale price; $7.99

Okay, I'm going to say this right up front. I know I get pretty enthused about a lot, and I promote books each week here that I say are fabulous. We get oodles of books in the store each week, and there are many I'd love to tell you about, some which I really, really like, even though I don't get to write about them. I can only tell you about a select few, so I usually pick the very best to describe at BookNotes, and I naturally gush about most of those. It's not insincere or complicated: I don't write about the mediocre ones. We stock most of the basic Christian bestsellers, and other things, too, but don't need to tell you about them, so we pick the very best to review and promote. So, yeah, we gush a lot here at BookNotes, since we're telling you about the cream of the crop.

I say that so that you don't roll your eyes and say "Borger's at it again, saying this one is a must-buy, gotta have, truly extraordinary resource  -- but he says that about everything."

Well, no I don't.  

But I am saying it today.  I really, really am.

Tflow package.jpghe DVD For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles is a must-buy, gotta have, truly extraordinary resource and I am going to rave and gush and do the happy hard-sell, because I really think this is something you should own, perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime product. In our 30-plus years here at the shop we've never seen anything like it.

Which is mostly a very large compliment.  And a little bit of a fair warning.

The newly released 7-part film series DVD For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles is smart and just a tad eccentric. Its film-making style is perhaps best described asflow evan_art.jpg seemingly inspired by the colorful genius of Wes Anderson; if you've seen clips from Moonrise Kingdom or The Grand Budapest Hotel you might know what I mean. Its aesthetic is hipster chic, colorful, nostalgic, touching, and at times self-conscious. "Let's rewind that," the narrator and star Evan Koons will say to no-one in particular, and they do, zanily rewinding the film to an earlier spot, which they pick up and replay, underscoring something that second time through.


For the Life of the World is stunningly beautiful in an upbeat, earnest-bohemian sort of way, endlessly fascinating, intellectually rich -- even deep; who cites long passages from Hans Von Balthasar and recites Gerard Manley Hopkins poems about Christ playing in ten thousand places and in the acknowledgements thanks Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck? (Those credits are in the au courant, cool, chalk-board font, too. Is there such a thing as bohemian Bavinck?)

This glorious set of seven short "exploration films" (about 15 - 20 minutes or so, each) arefor the life- letters to the exiles.jpg all set in this amazingly groovy house, jam-packed for no known reason with beautiful antiques, rummage sale stuff, 50's and 60's era memorabilia, old-fashion TVs and phones and goof-ball paraphernalia. One  tattooed hipster (sorry for the redundancy) biker guy -- The Stranger -- says in one droll scene, "I like your dolls."  Why Evan lives in a house with a display of dolls isn't asked and it doesn't matter.  I'm just telling you there is this vibe.  If you are young and hip, you most likely will love it, and if you are a cultural creative of any age your mouth will drop at how cool this is, unless you are jaded and cynical and then maybe you won't.  

If you are going to show this in a fairly white-bread, middle-class church setting, it is still fine and will be fun, but know it is a little artsy and youthful. The instrumental soundtrack was created for the project by the band Jars of Clay. Yes, the big "wedding scene" ending -- they explain a word which means "yet, but not yet" and are playing with how the church's worship and life in the world anticipates the final eschatology banquet -- is a lovely, lovely, lovely hipster dance with all those strung up little lights in the clearing in the woods, with mason jars and fresh flowers and guys with vests dancing with women with long skirts holding smiling babies while a cool indie folk band plays. Old and young share food and flowers and accordions and starlight. If heaven is even somewhat like that, you will want to be there, I'm just saying.

And so, there's that hip, gorgeously colorful aesthetic.

This film series is nothing if not entertaining. They play hockey, bake bread in an outdoor oven, mess around with compost, show children climbing magnificent trees, visit a neurology center to learn about brain studies, interview older folks about how they first fell in love, and show a major bit of beautiful footage about Makoto Fujimura in his art studio, ruminating on what it means to behold.

You can watch the promo trailer for it, shown below. You will be delighted, I hope, by the narrative approach, the use of metaphors, the cool music -- it isn't a talking head, dry intellectualism. It is emotional and creative.


The For the Life of the World DVD segments are nothing short of an introduction to big-picture Christian living, asking "what is our salvation for?"  It explores how a real-world life of daily Christian discipleship is enhanced and made practical by a vision of embodied, missional service in a world blessed and ordered and being redeemed by a covenant-keeping, gracious Triune God known best in the person of Jesus.

I would say this is the film for which some of us have been waiting for 40 years, playfully and artfully and wisely articulating the implications of a profoundly Christian view of life, for all of life. They do not use the word worldview anywhere in the film (even though it was made by Kuyperians in Grand Rapids) and while it is certainly informed by serious theological thinking and has important intellectual foundations, it isn't dry or abstract. (When it does get a little heavy, Evan gives us a knowing and urgent glance, instructing us to "pull up your pants, this might get a little weird.") 

Importantly, they take swipes at intellectual abstraction from time to time. One cannot be incarnational and missional -- seeing redemption truly as "for the life of the world" and believing that salvation leads to creation restored -- if one is merely abstract or theoretical. Hence the bread-making and wine-drinking and composting and a fabulous rant by Anthony Bradley on what a bore an overly managed hockey game becomes. Throughout, including the stunning 6th episode entitled "Wonder," there is plenty of room for mystery and wonder.

For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles is made up of 7 interesting sessions, each with a bit of a set-up, a dramatic center (sometimes acted out as a bit of a plot -- a stranger showing up, a trip to a school to learn about learning, a on-going sub-plot about clearing a woodsy lot, unloading a truckload of composting manure, and literally getting one's hands dirty) followed by further discussion, usually with the delightful scholar Stephen Grabill. It is playful and sometimes a bit mysterious, but these conversations are packed with profound wisdom, insightful, transformative, even.

Pgrabill.jpgrofessor Grabill has written detailed studies about reformation history and ethics -- as a scholar at the historically Roman Catholic Acton Institute he teaches about natural law, especially through the lens of 16th century Reformed theology -- and is perfectly cast in the films as the "go to" teacher who instructs our befuddled young star, the curious, passionate, aforementioned Evan Koons, who is longing to figure out the relevance of faith to his life and our world. 

Grabill is certainly one of the smartest guys around, and I was pleasantly happy to learn, one of the nicest; his joy in this project is palpable. Dr. Grabill is the main script writer of For the Life of the World and he excitedly assured me a half a year ago as the video trailer was being premiered at the Jubilee Professional gathering in Pittsburghfor the life - schmemann.jpg that, indeed, its title is stolen from the book For the Life of the World (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press; $18.00) penned by the famous Russian Orthodox scholar, Father Alexander Schmemann. I hope you know that book, a wonderful study of eucharist and that whole "Christ plays in ten-thousand places" perspective on the sacramental nature of reality. Look carefully and you'll see Schmemann's face silk-screened on a tee-shirt Evan is wearing at one point.  I think he's wearing it in the scene before the one with the Kuyper shirt.  What fun!

The tee-shirt hat tip to Schmemann isn't the only not so subtle homage. There's a hilarious scene in which the older professor Grabill takes young Evan aside, puts his arm around him, and with a nearly word-for-word replay of the famous "one word: plastics" scene from The Graduate -- with Evan looking as perplexed as Dustin Hoffman -- Grabill intones with deadly seriousness: "I want to say just one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening, Evan?  Oikonomia. There's a great future in oikonomia. Think about it. Will you think about it?"

Since the Acton Institute was once known mostly as a think-tank about market economics and the virtues that sustain social liberty, it shouldn't surprise us that the word for economics -- stewardship of the household, and of households -- comes up early on. Oikonomia is a Biblical word connoting the notion of a household being caringly stewarded. Creation is made up of networks of abundant economies, and we are invited to play our roles among them. As they draw on "faith and work" advocate Amy Sherman, who wrote the wonderful Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship and the Common Good (I laughed right out loud when they had this remarkable thinker and urban activist come out on the big sweet porch and interrupt the show to ask if anybody wanted lemonade) and black civil rights leader John Perkins (I smiled when Dwight sends along a VHS of Perkins) it becomes evident that this is no old-school Acton rant about the goodness of capitalism. They develop the notions of care-taking and stewarding God's abundance for the common good in remarkable, inspiring ways and both Sherman and Perkins challenge us to live out justice with generous, serving, love.


Their evocative social vision, for those that want to know, seems to draw on (without saying so) the "small is beautiful" Catholic social teaching that is known as subsidiarity and, perhaps more so, the Kuyperian notion of sphere sovereignty. Both are long-standing, well-developed social theories that basically insist that there are different spheres of life in God's world and no one sphere should override the values and principles which guide the others, and that we are called to enjoy and attend to the unique contours of each. Each social zone or arena or institution should do what it is designed to do, not unlike various musical instruments playing their separate parts in a symphony. A family is guided by self-giving love for one another, obviously, but love expresses itself differently in a business providing services or in politics adjudicating laws, or in art or in schooling or in science.

(This, by the way, just for instance, is why philosopher and college prof James K.A. Smith rails against calling students "consumers" in a brilliant chapter found in his book The Devil Wears Derrida and Other Essays...)

This insight may seem utterly routine, or, when described as a sophisticated social theory, maybe strikes you as utterly arcane. I assure that if you are part of a fairly ordinary congregation, evangelical or mainline denominational, conservative or progressive, my hunch is you've rarely heard a call to engage the world in terms quite like this. Early viewers of this have affirmed that it really helps them think about things in fresh and new ways. It is good, good stuff and I'm sure will get your group thinking and talking in fruitful ways.

FLOW ep2_1.jpgFor The Life of the World DVD doesn't even unpack all of this as much as I might wish, but it invites us to ponder how these various sides of our lives --these economies of God-- can develop as avenues of service. The section on work, reminding us in a fabulously visual way of our often hidden relationships with others in the supply chain of products we buy and use, is especially nice. The one about love in the family is creatively imagined and beautifully staged as a couple does a rustic, tender ballet to a lovely instrumental tune by Jars of Clay. Session by session, they develop an aspect of life and how God's good creation and the unfolding drama of the Bible's big story allows us to find meaning in that side of life. 

Tchinese lanterns.jpghe films do all this quite creatively -- there is the hockey scene when it becomes sadly necessary for a referee to intervene (alluding to the rule of law, but also the need for restraint from overbearing police) and there is a gardening scene when the gardener arranges and determines the placement of plants, but can't "make" them grow; we use our culture-making insight to arrange for a sustainable life and ordered culture, but can't manage it all by applying science or theology or rules.  Life is a gift, after all, and in all areas of life greater freedom to flourish is preferred rather then managerial bureaucracy or heavy-handed scripts. These guys aren't leftists or socially progressives, but they sure aren't "law and order" right-wingers, either. Their gentle, glad vision of human flourishing across all of culture -- valuing just politics and meaningful labor and family love and creative arts -- is so wonderfully rare these days that the film has no ideological feel to it at all. It is upbeat, invigorating, taking us to deeper insights and instincts about the postures we adopt in our service to the world. They aren't against the world (like the culture warriors) but they aren't advocating comfortable accommodation, either. They hold up patient, generational, faithful presence, working out an "in but not of" the world perspective. It isn't preachy, though.  Except, well, when it is.


And when it is, it is deeply moving, a highlight of the film. You see, at the end of eacletter-pen.jpgh episode Evan writes a letter -- he's sitting at his desk, pen in hand, writing on white lined notebook paper -- and he starts "Dear Everybody" and pens a moving epistle which summarizes in deeply spiritual tones the Biblical basis for the lesson of the day. At the end of each episode (except the last, which puzzles me) he walks out to the end of the sidewalk of the big funky house, puts his envelope in the mailbox, and puts up the little red flag. This really is a set of letters to us, reminders of a way of being in the world, and the vision of a wondrous, robust, lived faith for exiles.  They are thought-provoking and good.

This is the rhetorical theme of the films, after all, these oracles "to the exiles."  Evan wears his heart on his sleeve, inviting us to learn the truths he learns from Grabill, the wonderful "explorer" Dwight Gibson (of the exploration group) and their friends Amy Sherman, Anthony Bradley, John Perkins,mailbox flow.jpg Mako Fujimura and others. His letters point us to essential truths about how to live faithfully in exile -- each an extrapolation and refraction of Jeremiah 29 which they reference in the first fantastic episode -- and are signed, simply, "Yours, Evan."

As the credits roll at the very end after the last letter to us, we who are in exile, there is a powerful, slow original song, with a blazing electric guitar solo, Ghost in the Moon, created for the project by Jars of Clay. The whole thing is really exceptional.


The tag-line on the front of the DVD package says it all:  "7 episodes, 7 letters, 1 new perspective."

What is our salvation actually for? In a sin-wracked, idolatrous, increasingly de-centered and polarized culture, how do we take up the call to be "in the world but not of it" and how to we sustain a joyful missional perspective in all that we do? This new perspective, they say, "is an invitation to explore the scandalous and beautiful story of God's plan for the whole world."  These DVD pieces will help you and your group explore some of the most important things we can possibly talk about, without being heavy-handed or simplistic, and we highly recommend them.


For the Life of The World: Letters to the Exiles is selling for $25.00. At our BookNotes sale price, for now, at least, we have it at a great price, just $20.00.

This comes in great DVD package, creatively produced as we would expect. In this economical, thin cardboard case you get a nice overview of the sessions (written cleverly as a letter from Evan) and all the films on just one DVD disc. You can view it, or show it at your small group, fellowship, book club or Sunday school class with any ordinary DVD player.

FLOW Field Guide.jpgThere is also a tremendous "field guide" resource which helps you process this in your small group. It has Bible study matieral, full color bits with extra insight, discussion questions, even background hints to look for, like a guide to the visage of the people Evan has on his tee shirt each week.  I don't always recommend study guides, but in this case, it would be ideal for each participant to have one. At least get one, for sure! It sells for $9.99 and we have it at 20% off, just $7.99. It's a top quality resource and a real bargain.

For what it is worth, early feedback has been amazingly good, with folks showing it literally around the world. Apparently it's going to be on TV in Australia. Some church leaders who run very large and/or sophisticated small group ministries have raved about its usefulness, traditional churches. emergent communities, and those who do college and young adult groups have raved as well. The early buzz is fantastic, the vision life-changing, the conversations emerging from this very, very generative. It is the kind of thing we feel honored to be a part of.

People thanked in the ending credits for inspiring or helping them include serious, long-gone theologians and thinkers, but wonderful contemporary folks like Steve Garber, Andy Crouch and others from whom we, too, have drawn much inspiration.  If you like Hearts & Minds at all, if you value what we do or are drawn to the logic and ethos of our curation of books to review, I think you'll appreciate this a lot. Order it from us today.

You can watch the promo trailer here:  http://www.letterstotheexiles.com/

Here is a great radio show about the FLOW project, which includes some audio excerpts of the films, and interviews with a few of the principles, including Dan Haseltine of Jars of Clay: http://www.acton.org/media/audio/life-world-writing-letters-exiles



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