About July 2015

This page contains all entries posted to Hearts & Minds Books in July 2015. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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July 1, 2015

A Review: The Day Alternative Music Died by Adam Caress (ON SALE - 20% OFF)


I hope you read our BookNotes post from earlier this week - there was a lot there. I gave several links to previous BookNotes lists of books about the arts, mentioned how Square Halo Books stood in for us at CIVA, selling our books at their Biennial arts conference in Grand Rapids, and I celebrated some of the authors who have been important in the conversation about faith, art, aesthetics, creativity and the like.  From basic, introductory books like Art and the Bible by Francis Schaeffer, the very nice, if short, Art for God's Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts by Philip Ryken or Michael Card's call to creativity, Scribbling in the Sand: Christ and Creativity to larger, more demanding works by Calvin Seerveld, Nicholas Wolterstorff or Jeremy Begbie, we love promoting these remarkable books. 

I am not an artist, obviously, and not very artful, except maybe in the way I am creative with the customs of grammar and normal speech, sometimes a master of malapropisms, but I really have been blessed to read these kinds of authors, to overhear these conversations about the relationship of faith and art. I often tell folks that Rainbows for the Fallen World by Calvin Seerveld (Toronto Tuppence Press; $30.00) is one of my favorite books of all time.  There are many reasons why reading in this field is important, not the least of which is that we can all widen our understanding of the relationship of faith and life, worship and work, when we see others doing it in their own particular callings and vocations.  To read about artists grappling with Christian theories of creativity or aesthetics or the history of their mediums inspires me to want to do that in my own vocation and career -- think deeply and Biblically about the ideas and practices we embrace.  Further, since we all are influenced by the arts - certainly by those in the popular arts, such as music, film, video games, TV - it is good for us to learn a bit about it. Being reminded of our being made in God's image, and therefore natural-born storytellers, people who are creative, culture-makers (as the must-read Andy Crouch book Culture-Making puts it) in God's good creation is valuable.  Right? Such notions are life-transforming, for some.

Which is to say that even if you aren't a cultural creative, can't imagine yourself involved in arts ministry, and don't care much about art history, these books, or at least some of them, are good for you.  

Also, it is always our hope and prayer that these lists and bibliographies and the book reviews I do at BookNotes get, in God's providence, into the hands of those who most need them.  Maybe you can share yesterday's column with others who might care, artists, patrons, art majors,  art teachers, obviously, but also any church folks interested in these things.


On the heels of that ramble through past reviews, links to lists, and reviews of 10 recent books, I now want to tell you about just one book that I couldn't put down. It is quite new, and I really, really enjoyed it, and I'm sure some BookNotes fans will get a kick out of it.

The Day Alternative Music Died- Dylan, Zeppelin, Punk, Glam, .jpgThe Day Alternative Music Died: Dylan, Zeppelin, Punk, Glam, Alt, Majors, Indies, and the Struggle Between Art and Money for the Soul of Rock is wonderfully written by Adam Caress, published by indie outfit, New Troy Books ($16.99.)  It covers a lot of ground, dipping into a variety of sociological themes and artistic questions, but is, mostly (as you can gather from the subtitle) about the tension between art and commerce in rock music, and, particularly, how the descriptor "alternative music" developed, was co-opted, nearly ruined, reinvigorated, and co-opted again, and how out of the rubble of the vast take-over of hundreds of artist-friendly record labels by commercially-driven, mega-corporations, a new sort of indie scene has developed.  

Much of this story starts when Dylan went electric. And he explains why in a brilliant set up in the first dozen or so pages.


To make matters even more interesting, Caress shows how rock journalism rose in the late 1960s as a newly developing art form itself, as thoughtful and artistically informed writers like Lester Bangs, Robert Christgau, and Greil Marcus used classic critical methods - as one would in reviewing literature, theater, classical music, or jazz -- believing that some rock musicians had something to say, and their medium was, indeed, a new art form. (The first issue of Crawdaddy! was ten pages long and included one long review of Simon & Garfunkle's Sounds of Silence, written by a college student at Swarthmore; it was so impressive, Paul Simon called him in his dorm room to discuss it. Outlets like The Village Voice were doing serious evaluation of the profundity of rock music, creating a new community of a new kind of entertainment journalism and a new sophistication in popular music reviewing.)

Caress shows how, eventually, the premier outlet for such rock criticism, Rolling Stone, and later Spin, became tawdry and stupid, pushing a myth of "sex, drugs and rock and roll" to valorize materialism and fame. Caress is (rightfully) rough on these magazines and the eventual loss of serious rock criticism in their pages.  For instance, he documents how early Rolling Stone reviewers savaged Houses of the Holy by Led Zeppelin (for its bad lyrics, routine song structures, unremarkable musicianship, curtailed passion, middling artfulness) but decades later, in their big-selling books of the best albums ever, gave them five-star, "must have" status.  

He explains,   

Throughout the 1990s Rolling Stone's venerable influence helped legitimize a wholesale mythologizing of rock that was being actively cultivated by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a new spat of sycophantic "History of Rock and Roll" documentaries, and new myth-affirming TV franchises like VH1s Legends and Behind the Music. The combined effect of this myth-making apparatus would profoundly re-shape popular perceptions of rock's history. As the Legends series lumped The Clash and The Bee Gees into the same exalted category and Behind the Music presented John Lennon, R.E.M., Motley Crue, and Kiss as equally worthy subjects of serious documentary treatment, the tensions which had once existed between artistic and commercial assessments of rock music began to be blurred beyond recognition. Upstart publications like Spin magazine might have been expected to challenge the rock establishment's compromised criteria, but instead they exaggerated it.  When Spin revealed its first list of "The Greatest Albums of All Time" ultra-obscure but artistically respected albums like Tom Waits' Swordfishtrombones and The Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime were honored alongside commercially popular but artistically trivial albums like George Michael's Faith, begging the question: Under what criteria could all these albums be judged as "great"?

And that's a great question, isn't it?

Caress cites portions of album reviews to illustrate his point; it was embarrassing to read an allegedly independent rock critic raving about Bon Jovi's 1988 New Jersey, admitting without irony that what was best about it was its "sales potential." Other reviews are quoted, from journals once known as bastions of anti-commercial zeal and counter-cultural artistic standards, making (serious) reference to pleasing the record label's stockholders!  Rolling Stone had previously been so committed to a counter-cultural worldview and resistance to commercial label hype that they would (literally) write columns against the very ads that appeared in their own magazine.  They routinely bit the hands that fed them, Caress shows, and record labels put up with it.  There was in the early heady days of the rise of rock a shared assumption that art matters, that the worldview and visions of serious rock musicians put them in a category somewhat different then mere entertainers or peppy pop groups. Those who wrote their own songs, created their own arrangements, recorded in their own manner, wrote liner notes and crafted performance styles by their own aesthetic and political values were considered artists in ways that singers who just performed other people's songs as dictated by the record company's lust for singles and hits were not. And they were, at least in some outlets and venues, treated not as celebrities but as artists.

DylanElectric-Newport65.jpg1967-11-09 Rolling Stone v1n1 01.jpgIn the first issue of Rolling Stone - the one that had John Lennon in military garb, November 9, 1967 - Editor-in-Chief Jann Wenner (before he moved to New York and bought a Rolls Royce and hired a guy as Editor who was mostly known for doing swimsuit features) wrote,

We have begun a new publication reflecting what we see as the changes in rock and roll and the changes related to rock and roll. Because the trade papers have become so inaccurate and irrelevant, and because the fan magazines are an anachronism, fashioned in the mold of myth and nonsense, we hope we have something here for the artists and the industry, and every person who "believes in the magic that can set you free."

As Dylan went electric and influenced others, rock began to be taken seriously - in a way that, say Frank Sinatra or Chuck Berry or Elvis would never be -- and these new rock critics, and serious underground radio stations, spread this new way of thinking about the art of rock music, the inevitable eventually happened.  Perhaps is was the myth of Icarus, or "dumbing deviancy down" as one statesman put it years later. Or maybe there was something to that Robert Johnson story about selling one's soul down at the crossroads. 


Mr. Caress doesn't suggest those mythic options; he blames Led Zeppelin (and other social factors of the 70s) for what became sadly obvious: hard rock music became increasingly vapid, misogynist, formulaic, even as it because exceedingly commercially successful, with the painfully ironic confluence of rock and money -- lots of money. We know much of this story, and how it led to the necessary rise of punk rock in response, although I learned much from Caress's careful telling of this era, in many ways the "second wave" of serious artists in the rock scene.  


Punkers were of different ideological stripes, and different musical styles, even, and Caress parses the different kinds of punk and the varied impact of the Ramones, The Clash, The Sex Pistols, the anarchist or Marxist bands and the ugly nihilistic ones.  The rise of punk became important in many ways, perhaps most significantly for eventually influencing a new movement which became known as grunge, based in Seattle.

And here is where the book really drills down, offering fascinating explanations and stories and band histories, exploring the influences (social, economic, artistic and more) of that Seattle scene.


grunge poster.jpgIn a fabulously interesting description, Caress explains how rock tours in those years did not travel the many hours up from San Francisco to the Pacific Northwest so the isolated indie kids of Seattle didn't know - they just hadn't heard! - that there were tensions between punk artists and metal groups.  Perhaps in every other major city in the world there were two big scenes, driven by competing, niche-oriented radio stations (outside of hit-driven pop, of course) and the social architecture of distinctive networks, nurtured by indie record stores, local rock newspapers, clubs and local artists doing regional touring -- those who  favored metal and hated punk and those who were punks and hated glam rock.  In Seattle, apparently, kids listened to AC/DC and The Ramones; the indie record stores promoted Motley Crue and The Talking Heads.


Nirvana.jpgOut of that unusual mix emerged what became incredibly important for rock - a blended sound that was truly an alternative to the reigning radio paradigm and market trends and divergent sounds and fans. It wasn't punk and it wasn't metal, but anyone who has followed rock music in the last 25 years knows of Soundgarden and Mudhoney and Alice in Chains, the post-punk grunge of Kurt Cobain's Nirvana and eventually Pearl Jam. (Not to mention a hundred copycats and wannabees as record label execs learned of the new commercial appeal of flannel and angst and set up oodles of new groups, posed as the next Nirvana or Pearl Jam. Caress names names and it is a trip down the 1990s memory lane.)

As kids, you see, some of these rising Seattle artists listened to groups like Kiss, say, and didn't realize that the punkers thought that was stupid.  Out of this uninformed openness came a new sound, a hybrid, that developed organically in the otherwise lame music scene in the Pacific Northwest, with a bunch of indie alt bands, Nirvana breaking out, leading the way, and Pearl Jam soon to follow.  Legendary indie labels arose - Subpop comes to mind - and changed the face of rock music forever.

This was an era, you may recall, when there was terrible pop music on the air, boy bands galore, women singers known mostly as sexy dancers, groovy guys lip syncing fake British new wavers, mimicking what was a cool indie sound, dumbing it down, dumbing it down.  The first wave of kids coming of age after an unprecedented family breakdown added sadness and disillusionment to the Gen X mix. Huge record labels and high impact mainstream radio were promoting all manner of upbeat superstars.  (Things don't change, it seems -- in later chapters, Caress reports how big labels were pouring millions and millions into promoting one CD, a release by J-Lo, for example, but virtually nothing for her label-mates Wilco, who were dropped for not being blockbusters.) There were classic rock acts, still - Springsteen, of course, the ever present Rolling Stones, legacy tours of reunited oldsters. But the biggest selling album in history (up to that point) came from Seattle.  Welcome to Alternative Nation.

But the biggest band in the world then was one that also emerged from a curious, soggy place, offering a blend of post-punk and alt-rock experimentation -- the boys from Belfast, Ireland: U2.


alt nation kennedy.jpgI loved the part of The Day Alternative Music Died that developed the history of the rise of grunge and the use of "alternative" as a catch-all description for a certain ethos and genre. MTV started their important show 120 Minutes (1986 - 2000) and Alternative Nation hosted by VJ Kennedy. (Remember her?) Bands of many different sounds and styles and visions became known as alternative.  The Cure, Peter Gabriel, The Smashing Pumpkins, Bad Religion, Husker Du, Morrissey, even the Cranberries. R.E.M. became a darling of the critics and huge, huge sellers. (Even contemporary Christian bands started to take up unique stylings and edgier sounds that we called in those days "alternative" - and we still have their often amazing CDs in our shop.) The battle between commerce and art raged (as did the hostilities between fans of Kurt Cobain and those of Eddie Vedder, debating who had sold out, who was authentic.) But it was - given my own tastes then and now - Caress's study of U2 in those years that most captivated me.  


auchtung baby.jpgIt isn't a new story - their neo-punk beginnings, the rising popularity of Joshua Tree, the mixed critical acclaim of Rattle and Hum, the charges of losing their way, and their majestic re-invention into an artfully complex, indie-type alternative force with the release of the brilliant Achtung Baby and the hyper ironic, postmodern ZOOTV tour.  Caress gets it right, and frames their end of the century metamorphosis in light of the other musical options on offer those early years of the 1990s.

Even as the U2 story is unfolding, Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder are major players in these middle chapters of The Day Alternative Music Died. Even if you are less interested in how Seattle became "the new epicenter of the alternative nation" or are not interested in the backstory of Lollapalooza, say, or Pearl Jam's quixotic, principled campaign against Ticketmaster, this middle section of the book is still really interesting.  There are good stories, brief album reviews that flow from chapter to chapter, even as Caress's theme - the role of commerce and big business and how it affects artists - is never far from the details. 

pie chart about music labels.jpgIf you like learning about who hired whom to produce what, and how the funding and advertising and radio airplay and tour costs mattered, the rise and fall of record labels, and their executives, you will be more than intrigued. The conflicts between bands and their producers, their labels heads and the A&R guys -- not to mention the corporate bean-counters are the stuff of legend. Apparently, these tensions really are ever-present in the performing arts, and this book exposes it within the alt music scene - people who were supposed to know better - in a powerful, compelling (and entertaining) way.  More than a cautionary tale or a postmodern updating of Doctor Faustus, this amazing narrative helps us see the temptations of our times, the spirit of late modern capitalism which has the power to undo alternative forces and co-opt the most insistent artists and prophets among us.

And it's a blast, because all the while he is also telling us about everybody from Sonic Youth to Superchunk, Radiohead to Neko Case, Dave Grohl to Debbie Harry.

Even if this detailed coverage of the alternative music scene doesn't seem interesting to you -- lists of radio stations and rock critics and where they all stood on rising artists such as Black Flag or the Violent Femmes or Jane's Addiction or Elvis Costello or Metallica (and who were the most principled in their art, who was most willing to compromise for the sake of commercial appeal) -- I think this book will still win you over.  What these most often underground bands or songwriters meant, and what it all meant to our popular culture, is truly fascinating and, I think, important. How they seemed to be largely co-opted is important. This whole story of commerce and consumerism helps us see some of what we saw in the much-discussed documentary The Merchants of Cool. It's important.

Just for instance, here is Caress taking severe exception to Chuck Klosterman and his rock music appreciation memoir Fargo Rock City:

The problem with rock narratives in under-researched personal memoirs like Fargo Rock City is that they present a wildly inaccurate view of history, in this case downplaying the significance of the sea change that occurred when alternative music ousted glam rock as rock's popular torchbearer, thus obscuring the reasons that such a shift took place in the first place. There were real reasons that Nirvana refused to tour with Guns N' Roses in the early 90s; not least of which being the fact that the testosterone-fueled misogyny that GNR embodied was one of Kurt Cobain's least favorite qualities in anyone, let alone a rival rock band. There were real reasons that, in the wake of the early 90s alternative revolution, glam rock was largely relegated to seedier fringes of cultural respectability: professional wrestling, strip clubs, and other places where the misogyny inherent in the music fit the less enlightened, predominantly male atmosphere. And there were real reasons for alternative music's unprecedented burst of commercial success in the early 90s, which helped spur album sales to record heights and echoed rock's late 60s surge in popularity.


Adam Caress, by the way, is himself a follower of Christ and has good insights about the zeitgeist. Hisadam caress.jpg own appreciation of indie artists of integrity (those "with something to say") is evident.

Yet, this isn't a book about Christian faith and he does not attempt to offer faith-based perspective on the nature of art or the religious ground motives and cultural narratives that allow for this particular dilemma within Western art.  That is, he sort of implies or assumes that it is just a given that there is a dualism between those who do art - subversive, important, upsetting, even, and those who do not. Such views of art, and of commerce, are themselves rooted in certain (bohemian?) worldview assumptions, I suppose, and he does not make any attempt to discern where that comes from, or critique it at all.  It may not be germane to this particular project, but it might have been helpful to explore just a bit the genealogy of the ideas that pervade the book.  

andy-warhol-andy-warhol-pop-art-andy-warhol-pinturas-andy-warhol-prints-andy-warhol-obra-andy-warhol-cuadros-andy-warhol-marylin-andy-warhol-fotos-andy-warhol-imagenes-andy-warhol-images8.jpg(I recall being blown away once, decades ago, when I asked Calvin Seerveld about pop art like Andy Warhol, what the mass commercialization meant, where that was coming from and its import for contemporary culture. His answer seemed so tender and prophetic and insightful that I left the room and cried, moved and glad that somebody had such a profound understanding of the dangerous ideologies that pervade the discussions of faith and commerce, trendy subversive art and truly redemptive art.)

Caress not only knows rock history (he "knows his scene cold, writing with an informed insider's confidence" says literary critic Sven Birkerts, himself an amazing writer) he knows much about the contrasting philosophies of rock criticism. He takes us along wonderfully in a few key chapters in the second half of the book, starting with a study of mergers, acquisitions and the ultra-corporatization of music and how this lead to the "hyper-commercialization of rock" (think of the curious story of how Alanis Morissette was manufactured or the blip of Limp Bizkit.)


sex drugs cocoa.jpgIn a brilliant chapter that starts off with a close reading of Radiohead (from Okay Computer to Kid A) he shows how these significant artists were received and reviewed.  Caress calls this chapter "The End of Rock Criticism" and he takes on both Chuck Klosterman (and his fascinating low-brow book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs) and the heady postmodern critics such as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and his book Distinction: A Social Critique of Judgement of Taste and how that influenced Carl Wilson's popular book on Celine Dion (with the subtitle A Journey to the End of Taste.) Caress argues that these deconstructive critics overstate how class and gender and race influences us, thereby eroding any lasting principles or enduring values to art criticism. ("All art is fake" one says, while another writes of "authentic inauthenticity" and Wilson himself speaks of "a genuine fake.") This thoughtful chapter is one of the more demanding ones of the book and is, I think, brave and valuable. 

Caress helps us understand much with a blistering few paragraphs summarizing the rock music ethos of the early 2000s, where he exposes what some call "poptimists" and how 

...any artist or critic who makes either explicit or implicit claims to the transcendent aesthetic possibilities of art can be reflexively dismissed as 'pretentious' or 'elitist.' And thus, by marginalizing any and all appeals to artistic standards, poptimists severely weakened the place of traditional criticism, which had long functioned as one of Western society's few remaining bulwarks against the purely commercial domination of popular culture.

He continues,

In the end, the poptimists in the early 2000s resulted in a devaluation of the place of art and artists in society. And in their place, pop apologists were relentlessly endorsing commercially-driven, celebrity-centric pop culture as a valid substitute. In fact, during the first few years of the new millennium, poptimist revisionism was working in concert with both rock establishment mythology and corporate commercial marketing in order to marginalize the perceived importance of the unique creative visions of individual artists.

... influential cultural critics were busy spreading the "poptimist" belief in the value of commercial pop music and disparaging the "rockist" values of artistic substance and authenticity...

And, of course, the corporate music industry machine was spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year to convince the record-buying public that its commercial approximations of art had rendered individual creative visions obsolete. It was in this hostile environment that a fragile group of independent music labels and artists was coalescing into what would come to be known as the "indie" music scene. 


sufjanstevens.jpgWhich takes us to the final four chapters, a collection of several very important essays about the latest dilemmas in the digital age, the battle about Napster, the rise of yet another epoch of indie labels, the rise of self-publishing, Pitchfork reviews, live streaming, fan blogging, and so forth.  He refers to this as "the business of indie's golden era" and -- still -- must explore how "commerce strikes  back" with the rise of shows like American Idol and the american-idol-iphone_3.pngon-going "commercial marginalization of art."  Again, you may not agree with his assessment, but this is rich, very contemporary stuff, and I highly recommend it for those who ought to be thinking about the issues of the day. 

For just a glimpse into how Caress discerns this, again, in more recent times and from influential voices, he cites a significant New York Times piece on the major label promotions of major performers (Carrie Underwood, Britney Spears) as "the cure for the evils of today's music business." As if this corporate-driven, top-down paradigm for music creation doesn't erode the significance of artistically independent rock artists. 

Caress then dissects an NPR piece about American Idol (which, NPR's leading music critic Ann Powers says glowingly has "reshaped the American songbook.")

Power's choice of words -- by which songs were "sold," musical gifts were turned into "products," and performers were rewarded for their "entrepreneurship" -- was a telling indicator of the way mainstream music criticism was coming to use commercial terminology in order to assess artistic merit. 


The Day Alternative Music Died- Dylan, Zeppelin, Punk, Glam, .jpgIn The Day the Alternative Music Died...  Mr. Caress has offered us a very great service, not only surveying the crazy years of the rise and demise of rock and roll, but framing it in terms of the ping and pong of different movements and styles, all of which, in one way or another, were reacting to this fundamental tension between art and commerce, a tension which may be a symptomatic issue betraying bigger struggles -- perhaps a framework that contrasts ideologies of freedom vs control, contrasting visions between the lefty counter-culture and the established dominant culture, how movements working for cultural reformation and social change are often neutralized by the enticements of cultural accommodation. These assumed dualisms may be rooted in deeper perceptions about the nature of things. Ultimately, I think some of this comes because there are many who presume a large dichotomy between faith and reason -- I think of generative works like Iain McGilchrist's massive The Master and the Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World or an old favorite, that we still stock, The Secular Squeeze: Reclaiming Christian Depth in a Shallow World by John F. Alexander.

The Day Alternative Music Died is, as critic Sven Birkerts notes, "chillingly persuasive." And, I think, it will drive you to deeper questions, bigger questions, which is always the sign of a good book.

It is good for those who want a handle on the zeitgeist, the history of how we got to indie and maybe what it means to resist captivity to the powers that be. And it will push you not only to enjoy new music, or revisit old albums, but it will help you think about all manner of matters.

asylum.jpgFor anyone interested in rock music, you will love this book. You may not agree with his views of this band or that - and, man, does he name a lot! -- but you will learn new stuff, I'm sure, and love the ride, or at least most of it.  Mr. Caress takes his subject seriously, but isn't dry, and is obviously an enthusiastic fan, even a delightfully diverse one. He does a fabulous job looking at the art itself (and the personal struggles with popularity, commercial success, relationships with labels subpop.gifand rock critics) of significant rock artists. He takes us from Dylan on through the David Geffen "Asylum Records" years (and the rise of the likes of Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, Linda Ronstadt, CSN, The Band) to various schools of punk, the rise of the Seattle grunge sound and other offbeat, artsy movements within "alternative nation" and, near the end, finally exploring the future of the indie scene by documenting the rise of indie matador-600x400.pnglabels, advancing artists like Sufjan Stevens, Death Cab for Cutie, The National, Grizzly Bear, Arcade Fire, and more.


I have read a lot of books about the history of rock music, some of which have been a delight, and some which have been culturally illuminating.  This is one of the rare ones, bringing together a fan's love for the music and rock culture, and a bit of serious artistic and ideological excavating, digging between the lines, not only of the lyrics, but of the contracts, not just the rock propaganda, but its best critics, not just of the artists lives, but the labels and their shareholders and what it all may mean.

The subtitle "Dylan, Zeppelin, Punk, Glam, Alt, Majors, Indies, and the Struggle Between Art and Money for the Soul of Rock" gives you more than a hint of the story, but you have to read The Day the Alternative Music Died to see where he goes with it all, the story he tells, the insights learned along the way. 

Interestingly, it is not a pessimistic book, not even a jeremiad against the men in suits and their co-opting of alternative music, although there is some of that. Better, Caress ends with a rumination on the vocation of an artist, using religiously-rich language of calling.  He teaches music business at a Christian college (Montreat College, in North Carolina) so it is evident that he embraces this high view of the notion of vocation, and a rich appreciation for the role of the arts.  I might note that he is a person of hope. He knows God's concern for cultural renewal, desires Christ-like human flourishing, and he knows that signs of life - as Paste magazine sometimes puts it  - can break out all over, despite all odds.  We embrace common grace for the common good, Adam once heard Steve Garber say, in a powerful Garber sermon at Montreat. The story Caress tells here, painful and even disturbing as it sometimes is, is an example of that.  Common grace, indeed.



Allow me a heads-up, a quick observation, and  a very personal note. 

Firstly, this is not a book pitched to a religious readership, despite the author's employment at an institution with evangelical commitments.  Citing as he does many interviews with rock stars and counter-cultural critics, sober and otherwise, The Day Alternative Music Died, shall we say, is in need of one of those Parental Warning stickers Tipper Gore got slapped on the cover of vulgar albums so many years ago.

More interesting, I hope, is this comment:  Caress does not, unfortunately in my view, talk at all about contemporary Christian music, the artists, labels, festivals, journalism, or their own unique pop culture wars.jpgpredicaments in this arena.  Obviously, there was a group of artists whose art was supposed to mean something vital, who knowingly called themselves an alternative to the mainstream (and some were, in fact, fairly involved in the "alternative" scene, even in Seattle) and whose record labels were soon submerged in commercialization and crass materialism.  That story - hinted at in William Romanowski's highly respected Pop Culture Wars: Religion and the Role of Entertainment in American Life - is perhaps a book yet to be written, one which itself could be pretty sordid. 

pedro the lion.jpg(As Adam throws down literally hundreds of band names and record labels, some obscure, I kept waiting for a mention of Michael Roe and the 77s, or Bill77s.jpg77s all fall down.jpg Mallonee and VOL, SatelliteSky.jpgDavid Bazen and Pedro the Lion, Chagall Guevara, Mark tooth & nail.jpgHeard, or at least Christian alt-indie labels like Tooth & Nail Records.  Tooth & Nail, you may recall, did all sorts of creative stuff, from the shoegazers Starflyer 59 to hardcore bands like Project 86 and Norma Jean, offering a platform for the clever electronica of Joy Electric, not to mention some really weird, art-house indie folk -- the breathtaking creativity of Danielson, with his early Sufjan Stevens connections.)

I note this because, well, we here at Hearts & Minds sell this stuff. Some aficionados have said that we had among the best Christian music selection in the East Coast.  Music is, sadly, increasingly a sideline for us, but we are one of those bookstores that still carry CDs of all sorts, from classical to jazz (we recently got the latest Bill Carter & Presbybop CD, Jazz for the Earth. You should check it out!)  We just put the fantastic new bill m land & peoples shot.jpgIndigo Girls One Lost Day on the shelves this week; any day we'll have the wonderful Phil Madeira project, Mercyland 2: More Hymns for the Rest of Us. Hopefully, I'll soon review the latest Bill Mallonee masterpiece, Lands and Peoples (who actually writes about this complex business of music, faith, art and commerce.) We are happy that groups like Mumford and Sons, The Civil Wars, Need to Breathe and mewithoutyou and yes, all of Bruce Cockburn and U2 are still around, right there on our music display. 


45 single.jpgMy first real job was in a record store and my first serious creative writing project, turned in to Mr. Trimmer in high school English, was a piece about selling a country music 45 to a blue collar customer at the Platter Palace in Gettysburg, PA.  My bosses there in 1971 taught me about retail and commerce and a bit about record labels and industry payola. And here I am today, trying to figure out how to sell CDs, music that matters, not unlike books, in an era when it looks like indie book and music stores are too soon a thing of the past.  The day the alt music died?  My own personal crisis is less about the music dying than the music store dying. And the bookstore fading.  A vested commercial interest?  Oh yes, yes indeed.  Can passion and art and grand purpose survive hard economic realities? In my life, I am not optimistic, but I take some courage and hope from the stories of daring artists and indie labels and faithful fans described in Caress's splendid, splendid book.  And for that, for now, I am grateful.


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July 6, 2015

Jesus, Bread, and Chocolate: Crafting a Handmade Faith in a Mass-Market World by John J. Thompson (ON SALE 20% off)

jbc.jpgI'm on a roll here, friends, and this recent book that I want to tell you about is simply a delight, more than a delight, it is important, in a fresh, fun way, offering healthy, life-giving ways to be in God's world, developing good taste for real stuff, without being overly heavy or tedious.  It's rare that really important books can be so easy to read and entertaining, but I think this is exactly such a book. And it is even designed and produced with some extra nice features like deckled edge pages, French folded cover, and an embossed front, so we're happy to tell you about it.

I can't say enough about significant cultural critics like, say, Matthew Crawford (whose very handsome, hardback book The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming An Individual In Age of Distraction I briefly reviewed the week after Easter, here) who tell us about about craft and quality and working with one's hands. But The World Beyond Your Head is too philosophical for most ordinary readers, I'm afraid.  It offers coffee beans.jpgstanding stone coffee.jpgprofound social criticism, eloquent and artful discussions about mosaic coffee.jpgthe need for thinking about real skills for jobs that require exquisite experience and skill, and it is well worth reading through. It is the sort of excellent book that we love to recommend, but I'm aware that for many adult Sunday school classes, book groups, or people looking for a book to take on vacation, it may be a bit much.

Jesus, Bread, and Chocolate: Crafting a Handmade Faith in a Mass-Market World (Zondervan; $15.99 -- our BookNotes sale price = $12.79) by John J. Thompson, however, is a quicker, pleasant read, enjoyable, full of great stories, even inspiring ones that brought tears to my eyes more than once. It, too, is an important voice calling us to some humane values and life-giving habits that are vital in our  hyper-modern, digital age.  Thompson tells of his own story which itself is pretty interesting.

The subtitle of Jesus, Bread, and Chocolate says it well: it is about "crafting a handmade faith in a mass-market world." Thompson extols the rise of farmer's markets, teaches us how to make home-made bread (and support high quality bakeries), explores appreciating fine wine, celebrates excellent, ethically-sourced chocolate, ruminates on the fascination with micro-brews, good local coffee roasters (not Starbucks, since they routinely burn the beans, obscuring the real flavor), the goodness of well-produced music, and always authentic, deep relationships, even inviting us to consider slower, less formulaic ways of being church.  God cares about it all, he reminds us -- "There Is No Secular" shouts one chapter heading, and throughout every chapter you pick up Thompson's appreciation for the joy of living, a sense of the wonder of the ordinary, and a call to abundance even in a very messed up world and a less than ideal life.

Reading this reminded me of a lot of the friends I most admire including passionate coffee shop owner Greg at Standing Stone Coffee Company in Huntingdon, PA and Matt, an expert roaster at Mosaic Coffee Company in Shippensburg, PA and a most amazing Episcopalian friend (and occasional bookseller) Larry Bourgeois, considered by some to be a "Patron Saint of Espresso." (If you care about coffee shops and serious espresso, you've got to read that little story about him.) Places like The Saxifrage School in Pittsburgh are actually teaching all manner of DIY stuff, creating a community of like-minded co-teachers and co-learners. Steve and Mel Montgomery have stewarded well a small agricultural ministry in Ohio called Lamppost Farms. Even local friends at Wyndridge Farm here in Dallastown are doing excellent work "living crafty" as they develop unique apple ciders, hard cider, and now craft beers. You should visit them, or the legendary Dallastown Roburritos on Main Street for that matter, the next time you visit Hearts & Minds.

So, yes,  Jesus, Bread, Chocolate... is a perfect book to tell you about now.

You see, a week or so ago I did a reflection on books about the arts. Then, the most recent long BookNotes review was of a book that told the story of the rise of punk, grunge, alternative rock, and eventually the latest indie music scene, in order to highlight the tensions between music and money, art and commerce.  The Day Alternative Music Died by Adam Caress is great rock journalism that exposes how magazines like Rolling Stone fed the myth of what hard rock was becoming -- rowdy rock star celebrity lifestyles and how that eroded an earlier sense that contemporary music was, in fact, a serious art form, and that pop music journalism could also be serious art. I thought it was a fascinating - even prophetic - book that told the story of the history of rock through this interesting lens, rooted in an obvious moral center.

The Day Alternative Music Died- Dylan, Zeppelin, Punk, Glam, .jpgAs I was raving about that good book, it dawned on me, of course, that some people just aren't interested in the rise of rock and roll.  A book about Dylan and Zeppelin, Curt Cobain or U2, or the rise of indie labels like Asthmatic Kitty or artists like The Head and the Heart or Arcade Fire will bring reading pleasure to those who follow this stuff, but even though many BookNotes readers don't have time to invest in a book like this, I'd hope that many of us are interested in how big corporations and often unsavory performers have wielded an unhelpful influence over our popular culture.

The impact of late modern capitalism which shapes our wants and desires, and has caused us to see ourselves less as citizens but more as consumers, is powerful.  Caress's book and John J. Thompson's have this as a backstory, it seems to me, this big bit of the zeitgeist.  Any lasting discernment about the spirit of the age and how we should then live must include -- in the immortal phrase of the hot 1973 song by the O'Jays, "Money, money, money, monnn-eeeey." 

counterf gods 2.jpgeconomy-of-desire-christianity-and-capitalism-in-a-postmodern-world.jpg(I think Tim Keller's study of personal idolatry -- Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex and Power and the Only Hope That Matters -- is an excellent way to begin to think about this. Or consider Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire by William Cavanaugh, published by Eerdmans. The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World by Daniel M. Bell [part of a Baker Academic  series edited by James K.A. Smith] is a more sophisticated cultural study... )

I think most of us know that Jesus was pretty spot on when he said one cannot serve two masters: which will it be, God or money?

Not to overstate it, but this business - a background thesis of The Day Alternative Music Died -- also comes up in Jesus, Bread, and Chocolate, although gladly in ways that are convicting without being harsh, insightful without being pedantic.  Thompson is a natural storyteller, a trail guide showing us how he found more abundant life and deeper friendships and a more authentic way of living in the material world and he gently offers it it to us.  His writing is upbeat and generous and inviting, even though he can rant, and he sometimes does. And when he's on his soapbox, believe me, it's fun and he's right.

In one of the fabulous chapters about coffee, for instance, he says,

Coffee is my daily reminder that there is a major difference between cost and value. The industrial creed reinforces the idea that cheap is better and profit is king. While frugality is a positive habit to foster and it's good to save money when you can, when industrialism helps you save cash by making things cheaper, it's usually so you can and will buy more junk. The spiritual implications are profound. Cheap is often just cheap.

Recalling a simply beautiful story about the best cup of coffee he ever had -- freshly roasted and brewed while sitting in a remote hut with a Guatemalan peasant farmer while on a trip with Compassion International - he know that "the experience was priceless." 

Of course, we should care about where our products come from, what poorly paid workers or slaves have been abused along the way.

When economic principles shape the way we value human beings and form relationships, we rob ourselves, and our neighbors, of the sacredness of our humanity.  How often do we contribute to the exploitation of others by pursuing only our own personal gain? We turn community into a marketplace.

measuring more than money.jpgI suppose most of us understand the principles of ethically-sourced products, and why it could be argued that paying a bit more for lasting quality is better stewardship then merely buying cheap or mass produced stuff.  He explains this multi-faceted bottom line, resisting the reductionism of using merely financial metrics in determining what is best, even in our use of money. I don't know about you, but I need reminded of this almost every day when I am tempted to pay a little less for additive laden, industrial food as opposed to more healthy organics, say, or a cheap bit of fast food instead of something more nutritious that may take longer to prepare or cost more. 

He reminds us,

You can run anything through a formula to calculate what it really is worth. Start with the cost, and make sure to factor in as many costs as you can as opposed to just the obvious ones. What does it cost you in dollars? In time? In attention? Why does it cost the environment? Your community? Your neighbor? Then consider the value. What does the thing accomplish? How does it make life better for your neighbor? How does it affect your connection to others, to creation, to God? A fast-food cheeseburger might not cost me much money - but it does cost me something in terms of health. It does cost the environment something.

And, I might add - again, I assume you know this - that it is financially so much better to buy from a locally-owned, family business, when you can, since more of your dollar spent locally stays in the local community than if you give your dough to Walmart, Target or Applebee's with their out of state CEOs, tax loopholes, off shore accounts and such.  Even if the big corporation is relatively benign (and some do great work on instituting green policies and philanthropy, etc.) it is usually a more fruitful economic choice to keep money circulating within your own region, or within family-owned, smaller businesses with whom you have connections. (Uh huh!)

The Small-Mart Revolution.jpgAn aside: for more on this see, The Small-Mart Revolution: How Local Businesses Are Beating the Global Competition by Michael Shuman (Berrett-Koehler; $16.95) or his book on small town financing, a guide to "community resilience" called Local Dollars, Local Sense: How to Shift Your Money from Wall Street to Main Street and Achieve Real Prosperity (published by Chelsea Green Publishing; $17.95.) I'm eager to read the new paperback edition of the national bestseller, set in Bassett, Virginia,  Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local,  And Helped Save an American Town by Beth Macy (Back Bay Books; $17.00.)  Thompson doesn't talk about localism as such -- there is nary a Wendell Berry quote in the 250+ pages -- but you really can see how this fits in.

I love the way John Thompson helps us explore this sort of question about economics and justice and common sense in an upbeat way with lots of obvious stewardly logic and spiritual sensibilities.  Listen in:

It's like everything else, really.  Good furniture cost more but lasts longer and looks better. Carefully grown, harvested, roasted, ground, and brewed coffee costs more than the factory stuff, but boy, does it taste better. A painting costs more than a print or the same image that's available online for free. It takes more time to find good music to listen to than it does to just go with the cultural flow and listen to whatever is on the radio or watch whatever is showing at the local cinema. Vinyl LPs cost more than DCs. It takes time to cultivate a few close, intimate relationships with people as opposed to just shaking hands with a few dozen acquaintances on a Sunday morning. But sometimes - actually most of the time - the carefully crafted is worth far more to us than what it costs. It adds real value to our lives, not just a quick fix. It stays with us. It satisfies. It inspires us.

Something as simple as coffee can reveal much about how we assign value, but the implications run deeper than what is in our cups. The industrial temptation to go for the cheapest option, to ignore the ethical implications of our consumption, or to choose not to refine our palates in order to recognize excellence and purity when we taste it is an unfortunate missed opportunity at best. We risk drowning out the still small voice of God when we succumb to the noise of the marketplace and let is carry us away.

Wow, did you get that?

Do you think this is true?

Do you agree that we may have a spiritual obligation to refine our palates in order to recognize excellence?  

Did you even consider that you can "choose not to refine (your) palates..."?  And that such choices -- of inertia and lack of inspiration and attentiveness, mostly, I'd suppose -- can "risk drowning out the still small voice of God"?  Wouldn't this make for some good conversation in your church or small group or college fellowship?

Here is how he explains some of this in a section called "Civilization, Reformation, Discernment, and Beer" (which reveals some very nice history, by the way, about the brewing prowess of one Katy Luther, whose brews helped fund the Lutheran reformation.)

Individual tastes are fascinating, exciting, and frustrating things. My exploration of artisanal things has heightened my awareness of the power of taste - for good or ill - in many different aspects of human experience. Tastes can bring people together, or they can become splinters that keep people apart. Until we cultivate a taste for a thing, we will not seek it out, value it, or take it into ourselves. Once we cultivate a taste for "finer" things, however, we run the risk of becoming arrogant, self-important, and dismissive of people who haven't yet cultivated those same tastes. There are some tastes that matter - that are either inherently good or bad for the individual and the people surrounding him or her; other tastes don't' matter at all. Sometimes it's difficult to known which is which, and the necessary discernment can be impossible to master outside of the context of community. 

This is good, good stuff.  Ponder this paragraph from a section called "The Sacrament of Savoring" and tell me you don't agree.  And that you don't know of folks who need to be reading this book together:

created not made.jpgSome tastes are easy to acquire, while others require careful cultivation. Few children need much help to cultivate a taste for white break, sweets, pop music or cartoons. A love for whole grain bread, spinach, classical music, or good movies, however, require an intentional cultivation of taste. It is one of the saddest ironies of the fall of humankind, I believe, that the things we love most easily are often the worst things for our mental, spiritual, and physical health. The things that improve our health, sharpen our minds, enrich our faith, and embolden our service are often initially repulsive. Cultivating a taste for the good, the true, the beautiful is what mentors, pastors, teachers, gurus, and friends can encourage us to pursue, as we do the same for them.

Later, Mr. Thompson offers some clear-headed, basic reminders about how to cultivate better taste; he writes,

Cultivating good taste is a skill that tends to bleed from one area of life into other areas. As I spend time intentionally tasting new foods and talking with friends and experts about the flavors I might otherwise miss, my appreciation and desire for the good stuff only grow. Over the years I have noticed that as my discernment improves with regard to beer, coffee, and food, I also tend to become more aware of cheap teaching, weak ideas, poorly executed community, and shallow values. Then, on my better days, I actually find the strength to say no to those things.

It shouldn't surprise us that Thompson reminds us that we need community - friends and advisers - to deepen our faithfulness in this intentionally artisanally crafted way of being faithful in the world.  I stuck a stickie-note on this passage and have pondered it for my own life:

There's no silver bullet to subdue our taste for junk food, cheap beer, or plastic fellowship. If you want to have better taste, hang out with the people who have better taste. If you realize you need to be spiritually and emotionally nourished by fellow pilgrims, then find those pilgrims and spend time with them.  Lots of time.


But here's the thing: some of us don't have many friends, let alone friends who can enliven our passion for taking God's good world of color and taste and texture and economics seriously, let alone from the perspective of a mature, subtle, sane Christian worldview.

oscar wilde what you read quote.jpgWhich is - I'm not being glib, I believe this with all my heart - exactly why books of this nature are so important.  Books like this - those that push us toward maturity and thoughtfulness and being alive with God for the sake of the world, without being doctrinaire or weird - can, especially if read together with others, generate conversations and dreams and renewal about deepening our daily discipleship.  I've staked my life on this -- that books like this matter. They can be our allies, our guides, bread for the journey.  Reading interesting books together can make a difference in our lives, in our churches, in our world. 


lord of all pots and pans.jpg

Here is something you should know about this fascinating book: at every point Thompson moves from what he seems to be talking about -- the economics of coffee, say, or the joys of pure, dark chocolate, or his friend who gave up his commercial bakery because he felt he couldn't sustain doing it right without compromise, or another friend who is learning to be a high level sommelier -- and then does a nice and helpful spiritual analogy. He shifts from baking bread to Jesus being bread in the course of a few sentences. And don't even get him started on Jesus's first miracle with that wine-making thing.

I usually hate it when somebody does that: teaches us something about something in God's world, but then tacks on a spiritualized message, as if the content about the thing itself wasn't enough, but that a Christian reader needed a theological add-on, a homily to justify writing about whatever -- in this case, chocolate or bread or beer or gardening.  At first I wondered why Thompson did this - he calls us to an organic faith and almost mocks the cheesy piety of the evangelical subculture in which he was mostly raised.  He, of all people, understands the integrated sense of goodness in God's world, and invites us to enjoy craft beer because it is a good gift of God and invites us to enjoy buying organic food because it is better for us and our environment, and doesn't really need to "justify" his normative wisdom with little Bible lessons along the way. One would think he would refuse to do these little Bible lessons in a book about these material matters.

jesus-bread-and-chocolate-nashville-launch-party.jpgBut - having said that - it works, it really does. In the hands of a less wholistic and such deeply integrated writer, there would be this feel of bouncing back and forth between seemingly secular content - how bread is made, the history of coffee beans, the rise of indie music - and then stuff about the Bread of Life or Jesus or community.  It would feel like just spiritual icing on a cake, added on to sweeten us up. 

But for Thompson these things are so interwoven anyway that I believe this is not merely a ploy from the evangelical publisher to make the book acceptable to a conventionally pious audience (I wondered that at first, I admit) but is really who this author is.  He really does see that a good meal with dear friends is a signal of transcendence pointing us to the Eucharistic meal and he makes his case for it, without much glitz, just a wing and a prayer and it just sounds right.  He really does see that if we "taste" and see that the Lord is good, it should effect how we think about taste. So he preaches the Bible a bit.

Jesus, Bread, and Chocolate: Crafting a Handmade Faith is a book loaded with great insights about being blessed by contemporary Christian music and how to do worship and nurturing one's own spiritual life even as we are called to a missional lifestyle, especially for the needy.  But these vignettes of his own faith journey, leading him to work in an urban ministry or take up global missionary travel or stories of conflict resolution in his home church or his insights about this or that Bible story are not add-ons or perfunctory. They really do relate to what seems to be the major part of the book -- why crafting a slower, more artisanal lifestyle of intentional choices favoring the authentic rather than the mass-marketed is ultimately not only more healthy and more wondrous; such an anti-consumerist posture and attention to the aesthetic dimension is actually more faithful to the story of the Bible and the redemptive plan of God to bring abundance and shalom and restoration to the creation Christ has and is redeeming. 

for the life- letters to the exiles.jpgIn many ways, this is a great book to follow up the popular For the Life of the World DVDs that we have promoted so heartily over the last year.

Or, if you read Jesus Bread and Chocolate: Crafting a Handmade Faith in a flow package.jpgMass-Market World, and are wondering about how to incarnate this kind of lifestyle resisting cheap theology, shallow relationships and consumeristic desires, why not gather some friends over some good food or drink and watch the artful and fun and profound For the Life of the World curriculum?  There is a bit about gardening in there, a nice episode which includes how wine is made and what a good gift it is if we are attentive to it. It's a perfect follow-up.

I have long admired John J. Thompson, and although we've never met, I have enjoyed his band (The Wayside) and always wanted to attend the legendary Cornerstone Festival.  (Those going to Wild Goose may find jjt picture as a child small.jpghim there, maybe even speaking on a panel, as he has before.) We were jealous of his amazing True Tunes record store that specialized in mostly higher quality, indie Christian rock and became not only a concert venue and gathering place for Chicago-area Christian artists and music aficionados, but a record label and great music and culture magazine. He tells a bit in the book about the formation of this passion-driven, music-loving ministry/business venture and how it was decimated when bought out by a larger corporate concern (ahh, what a coda to true tunes logo.jpgAdam Caress's book, a postscript that could be called "the day alternative Christian music died.") I found it really interesting and very relevant.  I'm sure many will resonate with his struggles to forgive and reconfigure his life after his vocation was hindered and career was lost.

For anyone who has followed contemporary Christian music, especially its more artistic and serious manifestations, Jesus, Bread, and Chocolate is a must-read.  His good stories of a micro-brew in Nashville called The Black Abbey named after the reformation-era rise of brewing and his forays into the complicated history of bread-baking or chocolate-making, or his families struggles with the cost of buying organic and/or local fresh food (which isn't as expensive as one presumes, we learn) are peppered with references music.  He mentions lots of CCM and other cornestone fest.jpgartists I respect, from Mark Heard or the 77s, Rez Band or Kerry Livgren, Daniel Amos or The Call. He has a chapter or two about music and, for instance, speaks well of the recent trend of "house concerts" and smaller live shows.  In fact, the very first paragraph starts with a discussion with Americana legend Buddy Miller about "twang" and many of the glowing endorsements are from significant voices with the alt-Christian music world - from Tom Willet to Jon Trott, Doug Van Pelt to Dave Perkins, even Nick Purdy, the co-founder of Paste magazine.

I love the way thoughtful singer-songwriter and Bible teacher Michael Card puts it:

John Thompson has listened to the parable of his life and retold it in terms of coffee, chocolate, bread and beer. What could be more deliciously compelling? It is only in community, gathered around a table laid with God's flavorful fare, that we learn to listen to and appreciate our lives. Joh has taught us just how this can be done.

degarmo_key_straight_on_lpsized1.jpgIt is really touching how he tells how as an eccentric and troubled youth (while his family was on the run from a stalking, abusive father) somebody slipped him a DeGarmo & Key cassette, perhaps saving his life as he discovered a world of faith-based rock music) which he eventually got autographed during a meet and greet at a mall. He still has that signed cassette cover in his office where Eddie DeGarmo is now his boss at Capitol Music.

There are plenty of tender stories here, some about his own experiments with home brewing, home roasting, bread-baking.  But often they are about relationships, raising children, the graces of time spent together, making memories, with families and friends. I loved one sweet story where Thompson is given by his beloved grandfather a bottle of home-made wine to celebrate his birthday.

rhubarb wine.jpgGrandpa Holton came out to the deck with a bottle that had a faded handwritten label on it. "Happy twenty-first birthday to my first grandson!" he said. "I bottled this wine when you were a baby. I think it's time we open it." I remember the bottle well. Grandpa opened it and poured a small bit into the cups of all the adults, including mine and my new bride Michelle's. I'm not sure what rhubarb wine is supposed to taste like, but the flavor in my mouth was something like a cross between turpentine, lemon juice, and soap. "Some wines don't get better with age, I guess," my grandpa laughed.

I think that may have been the best drink I ever had. 

Awww.  I'll admit the story made tears run down my cheek.

Thompson explains that he has "run down many rabbit trails in my obsession with twang."  He says that readers will "get a feel for that as you read these stories and listen in on my conversations with coffee gurus, bakers, chocolate makers, brewers, and others I've encountered along the way."  And he does offers great interviews, sidebars, and an array of urban gardeners and foodies and artists and entrepreneurs who help us realize what this looks like in the day to day or ordinary living.

Along the way, Thompson warns us, "I'm losing my taste for the prepackaged, the mass-produced, and the canned. It's no longer enough to add water, microwave, stir, and eat. I want to know where things come from. I want to know how they affect me. I want to know how they were supposed to taste before the factories took over."  Maybe this will happen to you, to me, as we read.  Some of you are already adept at this, so you will appreciate it. For others, consider this an invitation with a warning, and nearly a promise. 

 I search obsessively for the good, the true, the beautiful in the grooves of an LP, the pages of a book, the frames of a film, and the conversations and prayers I share with a small group of pilgrims in our home. In these pages I'm going to do my best to ruin you for the cheap stuff. Ultimately it doesn't matter what kind of coffee you drink; it is the kind of faith you live, or the kind of faith you abandon, that can make all the difference in the world. 

John J. Thompson is very aware that this business is tricky, and that there's no perfect choice in these matters, no single PC agenda. This book isn't a new sort of legalism, certainly not a hip rulebook for being uber cool. And it isn't always black and white, good vs bad. He says, "I've noticed that most human endeavors fit somewhere on a continuum between the manufactured and the handmade, between plastic and flesh."

slow church.jpgThompson uses the word "industrial" as short hand for food and manufacturing systems that create what he calls "the sacraments of industrialism" values which favor mass production, cheap consistency, customization, measurability, efficiency, and such.   It is a critique that is offered quickly and clearly and practically and is similar to the more substantive study of this McDonaldization found in another one of my favorite books, The Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus by C. Christopher Smith & John Pattison (IVP; $16.00.) You can see my review of it here.

In response to this rationalistic, consumeristic, industrial worldview, the ethos of our age captured in what French Reformed thinker Jacques Ellul  called years ago "The Technological Society" many of us are "seeking out handmade things and communal experiences in ways that buck... years of one-way commercial "progress."  We "follow hints of this "crafted" approach to life and faith like they are breadcrumbs leading us deeper and deeper into an enchanted forest."  

Thompson admits, "It chills me to think of the toxic effect industrial fumes are having on our relationships, art, and imagination, and even on how we understand and interact with the designer of all this stuff.  Too many people are giving up on Jesus because of the corporate accent of his people."

Which is yet another reason some of us should read this book.

artisanal logo.jpgEven if it all sounds trendy and even elitist to you, there is a movement like this afoot, and one would nearly have to be culturally blind not to see it. What might Christian faith have to do with this growing sub-culture? What are the implications of it for faith and church life?  It may offer a window into something good or possibly redemptive in our society, and church folk, one would think, would at least want to understand it.

Thompson is savvy about this, too, and realizes  that this back to the local and handmade could be made into a fetish or co-opted, reduced to just a look or caricature. He reminds us that,

My artisanal spelunking, however, is showing me that we don't need to hand out suspenders and moustache grooming tools to our worship teams or replace all the lights in our churches with Edison bulbs in order to correct the unfortunate pall of industrialism has cast of the church.

For a funny spoof of all this, I can't help myself. You should check out this website, and the video advertising Artisanal Pencil Sharpening.

Do you recall a scene from Close Encounters of a Third Kind showing Richard Dreyfuss's characterization of Roy Neary, who, when he contemplated a mound of mashed potatoes, exclaimed "This means something! This is important!"?

Well, John Thompson cites that scene as he is sharing a cup of coffee with a friend, a cup made from beans he got from a farmer friend that he roasted himself.  His wife might be serving tea from her collection of teacups from all over the world, or they might be talking about Jesus while attending the South by Southwest festival in Austin. Life should have meaning, stuff matters; the daily is the window to God's goodness and grace, not to mention the wounded wonder of God's creation.  Roy Neary is right!

In a world of hardships and suffering, we might think it is trivial or a distraction to focus on the privileges of enjoying God's gifts of fresh coffee or spicy chocolate (or mashed potatoes, even.)  But Thompson makes a great case that, even knowing what we know about world hunger and the more pressing daily needs of many, this hand-crafted sensibility, learning DIY artisanal practices and ethical shopping and slower living and searching out deeper friendship with more earthy spirituality is all really important.  I think he is right. It is, after all, finally, a question of meaning. This stuff matters.

jesus bread.jpgI think Dostoevsky was wrong to say "beauty will save us" and Thompson would be wrong if he said micro-brews or indie publishing or local veggies or fine wine will save us.  But Jesus, Bread and Chocolate doesn't overstate the case. It invites us to a deeper, more comprehensive lifestyle of multi-faceted flourishing before the Lord, one that honors the non-economic, but very real God-given dimensions of the world, such as the aspects of products or experiences that we might call aesthetic, environmental, justice-related, relational, even.) This wholistic way of life is full of meaning, appropriately living as God's image-bearers in a world of wonder, one that at once celebrates the good, searches for the better, and honors the complexity of it all.  

Amy Hughes, a professor at Gordon College with a PhD in theology concurs. She says,

John Thompson melds memoir and experimentation, showing us how the basic stuff of life like food and music turn out to be not so basic after all, but instead are an avenue for renewed connection, joy, and faith. This books isn't just about "hipster" values; it's about grounding those of us who have felt disconnected from authenticity - and not just from where our coffee or tomatoes come from, but from the gospel. The good stuff takes more time, it costs us more. It's also messy and full of what Thompson calls "twang." Jesus, Bread, and Chocolate is about learning how to cultivate our tastes again for food and faith that connect us with flavor and mystery. 

She is absolutely right when she says that "this book is satisfying, but I must warn you: it will make you hungry... for the good stuff."

Enjoy this rather hand made video about the book.  Really nice.  Thanks for caring.

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July 9, 2015

PRE-ORDER "Go Set a Watchman: A Novel" by Harper Lee -- ON SALE 25% OFF


I'm glad so many folks "liked" our facebook page announcements of the previous BookNotes post, my review of Jesus, Bread, and Chocolate: Crafting a Handmade Faith in a Mass-Market World (Zondervan) by John J. Thompson. Maybe it was the mention of craft beer or the affirmation of farmer's markets or the picture I had of fresh, roasted coffee, but this book about living more faithfully with an "earthy spirituality" by supporting the best sorts of artisanal products really touched a nerve. Many, many of us want more connection with the items we experience.  We want more relational, authentic, indigenous, tasty faith and more meaningful, colorful lives.

Part of Thompson's book is a reminder that we who follow Christ should be about values such as goodness and beauty and truth and justice, aspects of stewardship that are other then financial. The Bible says we cannot live by "bread alone" by which Jesus surely means that there is more to a rich and righteous life then mere sustenance, material, money. There are rich multi-faceted dimensions of life in God's world -- aesthetics, just for instance -- and we should be (in Barbara Brown Taylor's wonderful phrase from her book The Preaching Life) "detectives of divinity" searching the world for God's hieroglyphics in all of life. I like that Cal Seerveld in his Rainbows for the Fallen World writes about God speaking through his creation (in his exploration of Psalm 19) and he uses the phrase "God's glossolalia."  God shows up in all things, which is a theme of Thompson's book, even as he shows God's call to a life which attends to craft, substance, mature taste and appreciation for the quality that can arise from the hand-made over the industrially manufactured and mass-marketed. 

So, yes, we are to seek out God's wisdom, embedded in God's world.  And we can do this, of course, by not just gazing into the lovely night sky or noticing green, green trees. We can find great beauty and goodness in culture.

Here is how Thompson puts it:

I search obsessively for the good, the true, the beautiful in the grooves of an LP, the pages of a book, the frames of a film, and the conversations and prayers I share with a small group of pilgrims in our home. In these pages I'm going to do my best to ruin you for the cheap stuff. Ultimately it doesn't matter what kind of coffee you drink; it is the kind of faith you live, or the kind of faith you abandon, that can make all the difference in the world. 

One place to search for the good and the true and the beautiful, as Thompson reminds us, is within the pages of a book.

There are many books we have in the shop about books, about why people of faith should be fluent in contemporary literature, how stories can help us in our own life journey. We'd love to suggest these to you, if you want -- books about writing, or books about the spiritual benefits of reading great literature, but here, now, I want to get to the point.

go set a watchman.jpgWe invite you to order from us the most talked about, highly-anticipated novel in many years, releasing this Tuesday, July 14, 2015. 


To Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (Harper) 288 pages; $27.99 -- our discounted, sale price = $21.00.

Surely To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the great books of our time. It is the riveting novel set in the deep south, published in 1960 by a woman we all know as Harper Lee. It is about a little girl known as Scout and Atticus Finch, the novel's lawyer who took up the legal defense of a black man unjustly accused. It won the Pulitzer Prize that year and was made into a brave movie a few years later. 

to kill a mockingbird cover.jpgI won't recount the full story here, but I suppose you have heard that after a near lifetime of self-chosen obscurity -- despite her first book being considered a true classic of world literature, and certainly one of the most beloved novels of the 20th century -- Ms Lee remains a recluse.  She apparently had no other book in the works. Hope as so many did for so many decades, there were no new novels coming from her home in Monroeville, Alabama. 

Early this year it was announced, however, that this summer would see a huge surprise, a publishing event unrivaled in our lifetime, the release of a heretofore unknown novel called To Set a Watchman. (Ahh, doesn't that stir your Biblical imagination with that allusion to Ezekiel 33?) It is, as you probably have heard, a sequel to the story of Scout, although it was actually written before Mockingbird. This long lost manuscript is now coming out, this Tuesday (July 14, 2015.) We will have it a day before the legally binding street date, and can send it out to mail order friends on Monday.

It would be our great pleasure to help you join this wide-spread cultural conversation -- about Scout and civil rights, about law and justice, about race relations, and, yes, about Harper Lee, art, and the joy and power of great stories.  You can be a "detective of divinity" and easily and pleasurably seek the good and the beautiful in this soon to be released novel. We would be grateful if you ordered it from us.

go set CD.jpgThe audio book by the way, is read/performed by Reese Witherspoon. It regularly sells for $34.99.  Our special 25% discount = $26.25. Offers 7 hours of listening pleasure!

There will be a very special and quite handsome slip-cased edition of both hardbacks available in late October, by the way. The two hardcover editions togeter in this Harper Lee Collection (To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman) will regularly sell for $55.00 (at 25% off our price will be $41.25.) You could pre-order that now, too, if you'd like.  Would make a nice Christmas present, eh?

Below is a fantastic 5-minute Today Show video feature about Harper Lee, the impact of To Kill a Mockingbird and the latest update on the forthcoming Go Set a Watchman release. Or click here.) It is very nicely done as Matt Lauer interviews Katie Couric and shows her own great video feature made about this publishing legend.  Enjoy.


Go Set a Watchman
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July 13, 2015

Celebrating indie and small press titles: 20+ Hard-to-Find but Great-to-Own Books (Or: another reason independent booksellers deserve your support.)


go set a watchman.jpgWhat a fascinating week in the publishing world, with the surprising release of a recently discovered, very old manuscript of Harper Lee, a follow up to To Kill a Mockingbird - which, we are just now hearing, includes a flash back of sorts, portraying the noble Atticus Finch as a racist.  We are grateful for those who pre-ordered Go Set a Watchman from us; we are still selling it at a 25% discount (please visit our secure order form page or call.) I read To Kill a Mockingbird over the last weekend and cannot put into words my admiration for Lee's exceptionally artful telling of a story that matters.

If some of this shows up in odd sizes or in bold, I apologize. The blog platform is acting up again tonight and I'm stymied. We have no IT guys, so, well, sorry. Thanks for your patience.


There were moments, naturally, that made me think of Wendell Berry (and his Port Williams membership stories) and other new agrarian writers. Also, something about it reminded me a bit of authors these days who are, as they say, "fiercely independent." Do you know Bill Kauffman, who calls himself a "front porch patriot" or Rod Dreher (and his suburb new book on Dante) who calls himself a "crunchy conservative"? There are books by liberal evangelicals and conservative radicals, pacifist pro-lifers, Pentecostal environmentalists, Calvinist poets, and joyous memoirs about death, and so much more that many publishers don't quite know what to do with.  There are plenty of truly good mansucripts about which publishers realize they can't make much profit, so they have to send their regrets to the hopeful author. There are so many fascinating authors who don't fit into conventional ideological boxes, who color outside the lines, so to speak, surprising us with stories or teachings that we hadn't considered previously.  Anyway, Atticus Finch in Mockingbird is such a decent a man that he defies political categorization. And that Scout: she's got indie stuck on her like white on rice.

Which brings me back to that book I reviewed last weekJesus, Bread, and Chocolate: Crafting a Handmade Faith in a Mass-Marketed World by John J. Thompson. I loved telling about that book, extolling the virtues of a less commercialized, aesthetically-aware, relational way of thinking about the things we buy, the experiences we take in, the stores we support.  Not everything must be artisanal, and not everything can be ethically sourced, but surely Thompson makes a good case in Jesus, Bread, Chocolate that buying the cheapest or mass marketed isn't always best. We should support the outliers sometimes, and appreciate the value of that which is a bit harder to find. Even the book I reviewed in the BookNotes post before that,The Day Alternative Music Died by Adam Caress explores this general topic, the tensions between art and commerce, between finding and speaking true truth in artful ways within the dominant culture that often reduces things to ease and popularity and profit .


I don't want to suggest that all big businesses are necessarily shallow and profiteering, that small is always beautiful, that chains or franchises are inherently bad, or that hand-made, maker culture is always best. I know some big chains that deserve our support and I bet you know some family-owned local businesses which are frankly not very good and not very helpful.


Which leads me to this: we actually love most big publishers and their ability to support their authors, publishing and marketing them widely so their books are known and available, bought and read. And we really like most mid-level ones that have resources and professionalism, but are still small enough to care about their authors and their partnerships with bookstores - we wouldn't be here without them.  I think, especially, of friends at InterVarsity Press, Baker Publishing Group and Eerdmans, who were very early supporters of our odd little bookstore here in Central PA and remain indispensable for our ministry. (IVP is one of the few publishers that I think I can say that we order nearly every single new book that they release.) 

I'm not sure the DIY approach -- self publishing, vanity presses, pay-to-publish schemes -- works best for serious authors, even in the changing world of book publishing and the new habits of book buying.  Further, I'm pessimistic about the take-over of the book marketplace by a few gigantic billion-dollar on-line outfits which is neither healthy nor sustainable for authors, readers, bookstores, literary culture, or the economy.  I know it sounds self-aggrandizing, but bookstores continue to matter, and the quirky, family-owned shops can offer an idiosyncratic selection (and tell you about them.)

We carry tons of best sellers and lots of books from the well-known, standard publishers, both general market ones and those that are Christian; Catholic and Protestant and otherwise.

But we also (unlike many stores these days, it seems) handle a lot of odd-ball presses, smaller publishers, academic presses, indie, micro-publishers and other harder-to-find releases. We are not a used bookstore, but we do like to hunt for specialized resources and have our share of indie presses represented.



storied leadership.jpgOne of my best friends (who I not only like, but trust immensely) is Keith Martel.  He works at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, PA, and with Brian Jensen, another pal from Geneva started their own micro-pub, The Falls City Press. Their first book, Storied Leadership: Foundations of Leadership from a Christian Perspective was co-authored by Martel & Jensen and came out a few months back, and, of course, we stock it. (I reviewed it here, and I do hope you read and consider it.) Keith wrote about the charm and value of small publishers in a great essay, here.  

Or, consider (as I'm sure you have) the wonderful niche publishing venture Square Halo Books, which, as you may know, specializes in releasing very classy and thoughtful books about the relationship of Christian faith and the art world. Founded by a lovely theologically trained couple, and managed out of a Lancaster row home by graphic designer Ned Bustard, they have maybe not made much money, but they've square Halo Books logo.jpgcontributed to the publishing world in significant ways. They step out of their artsy wheelhouse a bit, and have a Biblical studies volume or two (one by Alan Bauer called The Beginning, which includes woodcuts) and one called The End.) And, let's not forget -- hear ye, hear ye --  they released Serious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life, a collection of college graduation speeches, edited by yours truly.  If you are a Hearts & Minds fan and don't have my book yet, well... you can learn a bit more about it below.  I think Square Halo Books is a great example of a very impressive publishing house that has a limited number of books with a pretty clear focus, which they design and publish very well, as a labor of love.  I wish every bookstore in the land carried their titles.

One of the great recent publishing projects in recent years that we think you should know is one with our friend Ed Eubanks at the helm, Kalos Press. Although it has some connections to another indie project (Doulous Resources) it is a fabulous example of how a small, new Kalos logo - small website.pngpublisher can produce lovely, well written and highly regarded books. I have been exceptionally pleased with the first few books they've mid-wived, including the wonderful rural memoir The Exact Place by Margie Haack, and her follow-up collection of meditations and ruminations, God in the Kitchen Sink, as well as other well-written, very nice titles. Their latest release, which I have named a time or two, but still want to spend more time reviewing carefully is so good, so exquisitely written, so moving, wise and interesting that it simply must be explained well. I refer to Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure by Nancy J. Nordenson (Kalos Press; $14.99.) Please do come back and send orders our way, but you should visit their nice website just to read about their own hopes and dreams as a literary, thoughtfully Christian publisher. We want to stock all their books!

They are not alone. Small and independent publishing houses stand in a venerable tradition. Did you know that the small UCC publishing house called The Pilgrim Press was named because of their congregational heritage: on the Mayflower the pilgrims brought to the New World a printing press! 

Family owned businesses like ours can pretty much carry whatever books we want (as long as the publisher will work with us; some will not. Especially some of the new self-publishing outfits where authors sign contracts giving amazon exclusive wholesale dibs.) We really enjoy curating our selection, some of it rather customary, some of it very intentionally chosen and featured because, well, because we can. It's what we do.

We try to cater to our own best customers, of course, offering what they want, but we also carry whatever we most appreciate, including under-the-radar authors we respect, titles that we want to Byron & Beth.jpgpromote, even if the big chains refuse them.  Because we're small, we don't sell as many copies of anything as we would wish (sorry, indie-authors and struggling publishers) but we try. Like in a favorite old Bill Mallonee song, we "give it all we got, it's the way we play the game."  Beth and I may have a little less energy than we once did, but we can still be pretty nimble, curating and reviewing a diverse selection of titles we believe in or that we think deserves a hearing, drawing on large mainstream commercial publishing houses, mid-sized missional presses (driven by their principles, ideologies or values) and boutique publishers and solo authors in all their funky glory.

Here is a list of just a sampling of books that we stock that are all from micro-publishers, independent and/or small press houses.  There are mostly not self-published, but are vetted by smart, creative, acquisitions editors and worked on by serious, craft publishers.

Everlasting Is the Past- A Memoir  .jpgEverlasting Is the Past: A Memoir  Walter Wangerin, Jr. (Rabbit Room Press) $14.95  My, my, we are so glad to be able to tell about this small Nashville-based publishing venture (and their own little retail shop) which does, among other things, the fantasy novels of Christian musician and storyteller Andrew Peterson.  We were so glad when years ago they picked up the lovely little book about homemaking by Andi Ashworth, a staple here, called Real Love for Real Life: The Art and Work of Caring.) Now they've outdone themselves with the brand new release of this fabulous looking memoir by the great Lutheran writer, Walt Wangerin. Rev. Wangerin has won award after award and is known for fantasy, kids picture books, contemporary Biblical narrative, Bible studies, books on prayer and marriage and suffering. His serious bout with cancer made many pray hard for him and I wondered if he had another book in him.  This paperback with neat french folds is handsome and is a great example of what a small press can do when it works with commitments to excellence and beauty and substance.  Kudos. 

From Evolution to Eden- Making Sense of Early Genesis.jpgFrom Evolution to Eden: Making Sense of Early Genesis  Gregory Laughery & George Diepstra (destinee) $14.99 What a classy and very indie publisher, mostly designed to offer a platform for the extraordinary writing of Greg Laughery, who works at the Swiss L'Abri, and others in his orbit. Here he has been joined by George Diepstra, a scientist, to "rethink common assumptions about the nature of Genesis 1-3."  "What kind of text is this?", they ask. In a provocative and creative manner, Laughery and Diepstra take the Bible, theology and science seriously, arguing for the necessity of a dialogue between them and the worlds they represent. They insist that they are innovative, not reactionary.  Also from Destinee, see Ellis Potter's thoughtful 3 Theories of Everything and a few great books by Dick Keyes, and more.

The Joy of Missing Out- Finding Balance in a Wired World .jpgThe Joy of Missing Out: Finding Balance in a Wired World Christian Crook (New Society Publishers) $17.95  I was so excited to stock this for a couple of reasons: when we we first opened in the very early 1980s we stocked nearly everything from this 70-ish, counter-cultural publishing collective, an eco-oriented, lefty, press that did good stuff about justice, sustainability, homesteading, nonviolence, even alternative schooling.  What a blast to recently see a new author on NSP that we recognized from the Kuyperian Comment magazine, with endorsements from the likes of heady Wheaton College communications scholar Read Mercer Schuchardt or the popular evangelical blogger Hands Free Mama (who says this book is "a life-changer for anyone experiencing the pressure and disconnection of a fast-paced media-saturated culture.") I swear we thought we were the only evangelicals they knew this publishing venture. We respect these folks, like this author,  and think this is a great example of a mature, thoughtful, profoundly Christian book that most likely isn't sold in most religious bookstores. We've got it!  And as much time as most of us spend on line, it provides wise, thoughtful, and maybe life-saving insight.  She's no Luddite, but it is an eloquent, hard-hitting call to resist.

There's a Woman in the Pulpit- Christian Clergywomen Share .jpgThere's a Woman in the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments & The Healing Power of Humor edited by Rev. Martha Spong (Skylights Paths Publishing) $18.99 Skylight Paths is a great example of a trend of the last decades -- religious publishers that have developed that are neither subsidiaries of the big corporations nor explicitly sectarian.  That is, there have always been religious titles published within the larger, mainstream publishing world and there have always been evangelical or Catholic or denominationally-specific publishing houses. But a decade or so ago we started to see idiosyncratic presses, not owned by big publishers or denominations.  Skylight Paths is actually an ecumenical and inter-faith division of Jewish Lights, a major publisher of culturally relevant, upbeat and usually somewhat liberal or Reform Judaism. Skylight features tons of curious books -- children's picture books (for instance, those by Rabbi Sandi Sasso), books on the spirituality of knitting, say, or the virtues of civility, or books on contemplative spirituality or interfaith marriage. We stock most of them.  This recent one -- edited by a UCC pastor in Central Pennsylvania (who also directs the RevGalBLogPals blog) invited stories from female clergy, and the testimonials are poignant, sometimes very funny, occasionally tragic, and often just give a well-written window into the life of women in ministry.  Carol Howard Merritt wrote the fabulous, generous foreword.  Rev. Dr. Amy Butler (senior minister of Riverside Church in NYC) describes the chapters as "lyrical, grace-filled, brutally honest..."  I know of several of the contributors to this diverse volume, and have featured it at several book displays this Spring.  For now, we list it as a great illustration of the sorts of work offered by Skylight Paths, of Woodstock, Vermont.  

Slow Pilgrim- The Collected Poems.jpgSlow Pilgrim: The Collected Poems Scott Cairns (Paraclete Press) $39.00  Is Paraclete Press an "indie" publisher? They developed decades ago out of a spiritual renewal that emerged among an Episcopalian community out on Cape Cod, Massachusetts and now are a rather large, ecumenical, monastic community rooted in the Benedictine tradition -- our sales reps (all great readers) go by "Sister." As a publisher they are hugely significant, do exquisite work, and it is my sense that the role they play within religious publishing far exceeds their relatively small number of titles and employees.  We stock all of their books, including this recent one, a very handsome volume (with a beautiful cover) collecting the important work of this respected Orthodox poet.  The introduction is by Image journal editor Gregory Wolfe who writes that it is "An enormous gift not only to the literary community but also to all who feel themselves embarked on a pilgrimage through life." Kudos to the Sisters, and others, who bring work like this to us.  We stock nearly all of their books.

Burning Down the Fireproof Hotel.jpgBurning Down the Fireproof Hotel: An Invitation to the Beautiful Life Cary Campbell Umhau (Spacious) $12.95  Umhau is the founder and Creative Director of SPACIOUS, a movement that conspires to "turn strangers into neighbors" this this book emerges from her small ministry, not quite self published., and it is just wonderful.  Her energetic work and colorful writing has been featured in the Washington Post and The Huffington Post; this small press release chronicles her movement into this creative space, inviting others to takes rises, celebrating life and beauty.  Dan Allender says this well written book helps him "to see in the disruptive, the real, and the odd, the allure of what my heart wants most: elegant, wild grace. Take a ride with Cary and taste the goodness of how her words take you to Jesus."  Or, listen to this rowdy rock and roll singer, the Ashley Cleveland: "Thank God that he wooed Cary out of her safe house and sent her road tripping into a big, messy, meaningful life, setting open tables in concrete parks, letting in the world's sorrows and strangers, and finding her place among them."  

Every Square Inch- An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians Bruce Riley Ashford .jpgEvery Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians Bruce Riley Ashford (Lexham Press) $14.99  I sure thought this was a fully independent, small press, but I see on the back that it they have a partnership for some books published in concert with Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; they are actully owned by Logos Bible Software.   Be that as it may, not too many stores carry Lexham, but with the title drawing from the famous speech by one of our heros, Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper, we had to get this.  How does our faith impact our everyday lives? To what extend and how can we be involved in the reformation of society? Ashford is a Professor of Theology and Culture and a Provost at the seminary, and the editor of a book compiling the stories of Baptist missionaries and missiologists. A smallish hardback which is very handsomely designed, Every Square Inch will appeal to fans of Kuyper, Schaeffer,  C.S. Lewis, and Dorothy Sayers (about whom he has a small section.) We are proud to commend it, and congratulate Lexham/Logos for this entry to the world of non-digital, hard-cover, hold in the hand books.

wisdom & wonder_front.jpgindex.jpgScholarship: Two Convocation Addresses On University Life Abraham Kuyper (Christian's Library Press) $4.95  Oh, what a labor of love this project has been -- a team of scholars meticulously translating various works from the great Dutch reformer, dating back from the late 1800s or early 1900s. Although this has been somewhat funded by Kuyper College in Grand Rapids, the CLP offices are affiliated with the mostly Roman Catholic Acton Institute (who themselves translate early theological thinking from the late Medieval and Early Modern period, stuff on usury, banking, political rights, religious freedom, and such.) Don't you just love these creative publishing partnerships?  Not quite an academic press, but investing in the meaty work by an older, European theologian and cultural critic, CLP isn't going to get them easily into the chain stores or top-selling kiosks at the Christian Booksellers Association; it is nonetheless exceedingly important.  This little volume includes the famous "every square inch" line, first proclaimed in Kuyper's famous inauguration speech of the founding of the Free University of Amsterdam in 1889.  Christian's Library Press is currently working on the translation and release of a three volume series of Kuyper's on common grace.  The first intro to that is Wisdom and Wonder: Common Grace in the Arts and Sciences ($14.99) which remains our best selling title of this small publisher. Our friend Dr. Vincent Bacote wrote the introduction to this while Gabe Lyon & Jon Tyson penned the forward.

The Psalms of Israel Jones Ed Davis .jpgThe Psalms of Israel Jones Ed Davis (Vandalia Press) $16.99  This very imaginative, well-written novel won a Hackney Literary Award, and in a blurb by novelist Lee Abbott, it is affirmed "no least for the zillion writers and religious thinkers I find in it, among them Dickens, Melville, Jonathan Edwards, Increase Mather, Jimmy Swaggert, and Walker Percy. The plot is straight out of On the Road with the same moral risk and ambiguities and the prose is rich." What sane publisher does a novel that shouts on the back that it is about "secrets and snakes, rock and gospel, guilt and grace." And which is also a father/son story,  includes a weird cult, and a bit of rock and roll hell.  Vandalia Press is an imprint of West Virginia University Press and may not be purely independent, it is small and renowned.  Some great stories are being told by independent publishers that specialize in literature, and this is just one fun example.  And while university presses are another ball game altogether, some offer amazing books that are not adequately known or widely available.

cowboy year from a.jpgThe Cowboy Year: A Story of Dads and Guns Ethan D. Bryan (eLectio) $16.99  I hope you know that we love the several books of Ethan Bryan, and we've reviewed them all -- includes these by this very interesting small publisher, eLectio with the tag line "First Century Prcinples. A Twenty-first Century Approach."  I'm glad they released his Tales of the Taylor: Songs that Changed the World (a fantastic bit of reportage bout Ethan's social-justice oriented Christian music ministry, the places his beloved Taylor acoustic guitar has been, and the people who signed it), Catch and Release: Faith, Freedom and Knuckleballs (a great story about his wonderful, quixotic campaign to break records playing catch, raising money to fight modern day slavery), and Striking Out ALS: A Hero's Tale, a lovely Missouri story about a little league coach and legend of local baseball who was afflicted with Lou Gehrig's Disease. This new one deserves a better review, but it is about something akin to a dude ranch, and the author's trip with his dad -- J-Bar -- as they mosey on over to learn more about how he became a multi-state cowboy action shooting champion.  He weaves in everybody from Samwise Gamgee to Ray Kinsella to, yup, Roy Rogers. God bless eLectio for taking a chance on this artful, thoughtful writer who certainly entertains, even as he gently prod us into seeing with the heart, new possibilities, all with earnestness and joy. I don't know if a normal publisher would do a quiet book like this but I am glad for eLectio, and honored to stock Ethan's story of The Cowboy Year with his dad.

A+letter+to+my+congregation.jpgA Letter to My Congregation: An Evangelical Pastor's Path to Embracing People Who Are Gay, Lesbian and Transgender into the Company of Jesus Ken Wilson (Read the Spirit) $18.95 It would take an indie publisher to do a book like this, from an evangelical pastor of a church which is part of a charismatic association, writing, as he does, a pastoral epistle to his flock explaining why he has changed his mind about full inclusion of GLTB folks into their Vineyard Fellowship. (Not only does he works with the standard texts, but offers some reflections on what "both sides" agree upon, and brings up the "disputable matters" approach from the apostle Paul at the end of Romans.) Phyllis Tickles says it is "one of the most exquisite, painful, candid, brilliant pieces of contemporary Christian midrash that I have ever seen." But who would publish this -- it's just too evangelical for most mainline religious publishers, too risky for evangelical presses, a bit too local and unique for a national house. So, Read the Spirit stepped up. I wonder how many stores actually carry this?  We do.

St. John Before jpgSt. John Before Breakfast Brian Walsh and the Wine Before Breakfast Community (Books Before Breakfast) $18.00  I have reviewed this at length at BookNotes, celebrating that the early morning homilies and litanies of my friend Brian Walsh -- a CRC campus minister at the University of Toronto -- are available for a wider audience. Can walking through the gospel of John, in a free-verse, poetic style that is at once academically sound, pastorally wise, and culturally subversive really shape the imagination of a motley crew of folks gathered for prayer at a world class university? As the copy on the back of the very handsome volume asks "What happens when you allow the evocative narratives, symbols, and imagery of this gospel to direct your prayers, shape your liturgy and transform your life?" Hold on as you go along for the ride, reading over the shoulders of these folks wanting to see how the Word becomes flesh among them. I wonder if this community will publisher more books out of the U of T location?  We are delighted to be a US vendor for this one of a kind resource.

The World is On Fire- Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse.jpgThe World is On Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse Joni Tevis (Milkweed Editions) $16.00 Milkweek is a wonderfully brilliant and respected literary house whose books are mostly in the genre of what we sometimes call "nature writing." Luminous, reflective essays about our life in the world, from natural history to the spirituality of the mundane, Milkweed offers extraordinary titles that are not as known as they should be. In this case, Tevis does memoir and creative nonfiction, conjuring memories and insights about the meaning of stuff and the nature of our fears about the end of time. I like Amy Leach's exclamation that it is "A whale of a book, bringing us the most wonderful things from the ends of the earth."  The prestigious Kirkus Reviews suggested her essays brought to mind the likes of poets Gerard Manley Hopkins and Mary Oliver.


First Church of the Higher Elevations- Mountains, Prayer, and Presence.jpgFirst Church of the Higher Elevations: Mountains, Prayer, and Presence Peter Anderson (Conundrum Press) $14.99  Designer and book lover Caleb Seeling (whose work you may know from his design of the  first book by Makoto Fujimura, Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art and Culture) got out of Christian publishing a few years back, bought up an almost defunct small press that published Colorado poets, and started attracting his own quirky, classy manuscripts.  He released a fantastic novel about Bar-B Q, baseball, and race-relations (Thin Blue Smoke), my friend Ethan Bryant's first book, Run Home and Take a Bow: Stories of Life, Faith, and a Season with the Kansas City Royals, and a fabulously interesting collection of 50 movie reviews (written by a Brit) of films which are set in each of the 50 states of the union (Cinematic States: Stories We Tell, the American Dreamlife, and How to Understand Everything.) This is indie publishing for real, and as a bookstore we are thrilled to be able to stock some of his unique array of books. Who wouldn't want to browse through titles like this? Conundrum Press, by the way, is an imprint of Caleb's Samizdat Publishing Group.  What a blast!  This book is extraordinary, literary and spiritual, written by a Quaker (who studied at Earlham, of course) crafting contemplative essays set in his outdoor excursions.  On the back it suggests that Anderson "explores the scripture of place, the topography of memory, and the landscape of imagination."  Gregory Wolfe of the Image journal says it is "eclectically and profoundly American."  If you love mature reflections on outdoor adventure, Quaker spirituality with references to The Dharma Bums and Tom Merton's Waters of Silo and a few Bible texts, or the great American West --  Utah, Colorado and more -- this will be a book you will cherish. It is good to get to tell you about it.

How Then Should We Work- Discovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work .jpgHow Then Should We Work: Discovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work Hugh Whelchel (Westbow Press) $13.95  I wasn't sure if I should list this as Westbow has become a bit of a self publishing house, but it is more vetted than most, and with ties to a larger publisher can, in some ways, offer the best of both worlds to authors wanting to do their own thing.  Most of their books are probably not picked up by the chains or big stores. I was thrilled to review this excellent book when it first came out, honoring its solid theological and Biblical views, its pleasant and inspiring prose, and its helpful, foundational framework for thinking faithfully about the cultural mandate, the call to work, the meaning of vocation and call and the like.  If you want to "reweave shalom" in your workplace and desire a clear-headed Christian view, this author with a experience in the business world, the nonprofit sector and a former seminary President can help. It is, sadly, a bit rare, and we are glad to recommend it often.

when the lights go down.jpgI Just Need Time to Think.jpgWhen the Lights Go Down: Movie Review as Christian Practice Mark Eckel (Westbow Press) $19.95  Another selection we stock from Westbow, this one also deserves wider attention, and because of its rather indie status, it just may not be as known as other titles in this field of faith based film studies.  Yet, this is a really marvelous resource, written by a lively evangelical with solid theological chops and a positive, wise way about helping us all appreciate movies and thinking about them faithfully.  It includes interviews with film makers and other critics and he tells stories of his own use of film in his Ohio church. We also loved his I Just Need Time to Think: Reflective Study as a Christian Practice which is also published by Westbow Press ($13.99.) Highly recommended for college students, especially, but as he explains, all of us need a bit of time to just think about things; study is, in fact, a classic spiritual discipline.  I wish every Christian bookstore in the country carried this book!  We wish we took orders for it more often -- it is a helpful resource.

Deepening the Colors- Life Inside the Story of God .jpgDeepening the Colors: Life Inside the Story of God Syd Hilema (Dordt College Press) $14.00  I wasn't going to list academic press publishing houses, since they are not exactly indie -- most are owned by colleges or universities (or at least think tanks) even though some may really feel like small press outfits. When thinking of scholarly presses one must include the two oldest and most prestigious publishers in the world -- Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press -- which are anything but small. We stock many of their releases (a visit from our Oxford rep is a highlight of our season) but that's another list, I'm afraid. But then there are very small publishing houses run by very small colleges, and we are very eager to list such a publisher here.  Dordt College is a thoughtful liberal arts Christian college in Sioux Center, Iowa, and this fine book represents a nice example of the quality writing and neo-Calvinist/Kuyperian reformational worldview that they promote.  If any college takes seriously the call to "integrate faith and scholarship" I am sure Dordt is one which has worked thoughtfully to that.  This very nicely written book is ideal for young adults wanting to envision their own lives as part of the unfolding drama of God's work in the world, and Hilema helps us all learn to imagine our life in uniquely Christian categories, being informed by realities such as being made in the image of God, being called, and offers guidance on how we can learn to embrace and embody wisdom in God's world.  I love this book, and am glad for our small partnership with Dordt College Press. (You may recall their name from earlier BookNotes as I was very vigorous in telling about how significant it was that a year or so ago Dordt College Press released a six-volume set of the writings of Calvin Seerveld, which I called a "bona-fide publishing event." This is a great read, and we are glad we are liberty to stock it, to tell folks about it, and to help get the word out.  

Poetry Night at the Ballpark and Other Scenes from an Alternative America .jpgPoetry Night at the Ballpark and Other Scenes from an Alternative America (Writings: 1986 - 2014) Bill Kauffman (Front Porch Republic Books) $49.00  Well, if an icon of feisty American writing such as Edward Abbey says a writer is "inspiring and restorative" or someone as known as Gore Vidal raves, one would think his or her books would be picked up by the best houses and widely reviewed and easily found.  Alas, while I don't know the whole story, it seems that Bill Kauffman is just too odd. He is, as classic liberal Democrat George McGovern puts it "a conservative of the highest order" which is to say he isn't quite like the ones currently well known. Vidal calls him a "romantic reactionary."  You see, it's that whole bit about not coloring within the lines, offering a truly fresh voice, moving beyond tired ideological categories.  This is independent publishing at its finest, and it doesn't surprise me that Kauffman needs a special imprint just to find his audience. This is the first title of FPR books --  their logo is a rocking chair, inviting real conversation among neighbors -- and we are honored to stock it.  Tom Bissell says "Bill Kauffman is one of America's funniest and wisest writers. Not only can he make anarchism seem lovable, he forces you to reassess everything you believe about American politics and culture. He might even make you change your life."  Over 400 pages of short columns, book reviews, essays and previously published pieces, Poetry Night at the Ballpark is extraordinary, literally, and I will write more about it soon. For now, we are happy to see the formation of yet another fine book imprint, one that is a bit off the beaten path; we hope thoughtful book buyers can find it -- hopefully at a real store, maybe one with a porch, and an independent streak that may seem perplexing to those only used to the standard, predicable opinions of MSNBC or Fox News. 

life as worship.jpgLife as Worship John Kitchen (CLC Publications) $13.99  Again, what constitutes a truly indie press? What used to be known as the Christian Literature Crusade, headquartered here in Pennsylvania, is not really small -- they are an old-school, storied nonprofit publisher, doing evangelical global ministry and inner city work and publishing books on the "deeper life" for over 50 years. They emerged from the Keswick movement which began in England in 1875. CLC is still is not terribly well known outside a certain sort of reader, even though they have served us well by bringing authors such as Andrew Murray and Corrie Ten Boom and Watchman Nee to English publication. (Or, perhaps, releasing their lesser known works after larger houses published their most famous books.) They even have a chain of not-for-profit bookstores. We applaud their tenacity, continuing to release books to help ordinary folks grow in Christ.  This new one by a CM&A pastor with a Dmin from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School is one example - a study of the Psalms, but with a view of how these Psalms help us find ways to worship God in all we do, day by day. ("At the speed of life," he colorfully says.) The very title is useful (even if the cover art is a bit, uh, well...) We are happy to celebrate their good work, invite you to consider their many titles, and want to thank them not only for their energetic commitment to evangelical publishing, but for releasing a book like this. It is very highly recommended.

Serious Dreams cover.jpgSerious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life edited by Byron Borger (Square Halo Books) $12.99 Square Halo Books is a quintessential indie small press, uniquely their own and created with verve and excellence.  Family-owned by a delightful, theologically trained couple, with one hired employee -- Ned Bustard who has a day job as a graphic designer -- and just a handful of titles, Square Halo offers books mostly within the niche market topic of the interface of Christian faith and the arts.  We stock all of their books, and talk about them often -- their recent Bigger on the Inside: Christianity and Dr. Who (edited by Greg Thornbury and Bustard) has gotten great acclaim and we've shipped them to England, in fact.  I often suggest a few of their key backlist books (It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God and It Was Good: Making Music to the Glory of God) as true favorites, and must-have titles.  I was very grateful that Ned and his backers agreed to allow me to compile and edit this collection of graduation speeches, designed to send young adults into the world with a sense of purposed, grounded in visions of vocation, a sense of place and a sense of call.  We're glad that we've sold a nice amount of these, even if, having been published by a small indie press with one employee, nobody much outside of our circle of friends knows about it.  Ahh, the ups and downs of indie publishing.  We're glad it worked out this way; I was allowed to be very involved, it is so very handsomely produced, and we are delighted to celebrate it, honored to have it in their catalog of other wonderful titles.  You can read my enthusiastic description of the authors and chapters that I brought together in this -- and, if your inclined, send us an order.  You'll be supporting an eccentric bookstore and a top notch very small publisher and get yourself a book that many of your reading buddies mostly don't know about.  Happy reading!



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July 19, 2015

The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life by Vincent Bacote -- the guest speaker for the Hearts & Minds Fourth Annual Pittsburgh Summer Lecture

cpj logo.jpgIt was a great privilege to publish a special summer book list for the Center for Public Justice, the nonpartisan, always thoughtful, Washington DC-based, Christian political think-tank.  It was a diverse list and included something for almost anyone interested in considering the nature of our public life; it was written with the CPJ audience in mind, but I think most BookNotes readers would like browsing through it. (Click here, to see my 10 short reviews, but don't forget to come back!)

I like CPJ. Passionate about the unavoidable Biblical call to do justice, but working out of a somewhat different cultural and social approach than many other faith-based advocates in DC, CPJ's Capitol Commentary offers essays that are attempting to transcend the predictable ping-pong back and forth between liberals and conservatives, trying to frame things in fresh and new ways. The book list I compiled and annotated for that column tows no party line, and I hope it was interesting and helpful. 

I said they offer some new insights. Well, maybe not so new.  

A robust social theory has been articulated by many in church history, preceding the current fascination with donkeys and elephants.  From Augustine to Aquinas, Luther to Wesley, there have been robust, Biblically-shaped, and (sometimes) truly helpful theories about the implications of a Christian political vision.  (The recent Catholic document about, among other things, climate change, kuyper portrait.jpgstands in a line of often remarkable encyclicals, sometimes moving Catholic Social Teaching forward in very interesting ways.)  Although it is usually only in the background, CPJ draws somewhat on the Dutch theologian, journalist, and  statesman, Abraham Kuyper - founder of a unique political party in the early 1900s which catapulted him to Prime Minister of Holland.  His passion for social democracy, the poor and ignored, and a vibrant understanding of various kinds of institutions and honoring them through principled pluralism - religious liberty for all, protecting public space for a variety of views, so there could be feisty debate -- lead to a social architecture and form of Parliament (called proportional representation) that some thing very relevant in our era when we talk so much about election reform. And religious liberty. 

Kuyper is nearly a household world in some Presbyterian and Reformed traditions, and his theology and devotional books are still widely read. (His Lectures on Calvinism, first delivered at Princeton in 1898, remains a big seller!) His writings on common grace are being translated into English (the first in abraham kuyper bratt.jpga series being Wisdom and Wonder: Common Grace for the Arts and Sciences.) The recently retired President of the world's largest and most ethnically diverse seminary -- Richard Mouw, of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, himself a PC(USA) Presbyterian -- a year ago wrote a small introduction to why Kuyper matters (Abraham Kuyper: A Personal and Short Introduction) and Calvin College history professor James Bratt last year published the definitive book of the important man (Abraham Kuyper:Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat.)  Dordt College Press released a major collection of mostly academic essays in a reader called On Kuyper. And, of course, we have them.

The legacy of Abraham Kuyper has been helpful for people like CPJ who have for decades been thinking and writing and organizing for public justice in light of some of Kuyper's good of politics.jpgintellectual contributions, lessons learned by the Christian democratic traditions in Europe (and its misappropriation and failure in South Africa.)  Some of the neo-Calvinist insights about pluralism in civil society, the legal needs of voluntary associations, the significance of religious liberty, even as the State insures justice for all, are, in my view, important. CPJ's retired founder, James Skillen, explored much of this in his hefty 2014 book The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary introduction. I still get fired up by the street-level activism of Sojo or my friends at Evangelicals for Social Action, and I still read the heady and very thoughtful work coming from classic conservative sources such as First Things or the IRDBut CPJ brings a voice and emphasis that is valuable.

DR. VINCENT BACOTE - Speaker at the Fourth Annual Hearts & Minds Pittsburgh Summer Lecture

Bacote poster.jpgI think one of the great voices that have helped us think about all this stuff is Dr. Vincent E. Bacote, associate professor of Theology and the Director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College in Wheaton Illinois. I listed his new little book, The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life (Zondervan; $11.99) in that CPJ list which I mentioned above, and I want to tell you more about it now.  

And, not only do I want to commend this book to you, I want to invite you to purchase an autographed copy which we can get for you when we host Dr. Bacote at the Fourth Annual Hearts & Minds Pittsburgh Summer Lecture this coming Tuesday, July 21, 2015.

Each summer we sponsor a public event with our friends in the CCO in Pittsburgh that brings a renowned author who has written about public life, developing a gracious Christian vision of cultural renewal, an author who represents potent but accessible Christian scholarship. CCO in its early days came under the influence of a Dutch Kuyperian philosophy professor and evangelist which has shaped some of the vision and uniqueness of CCO as a campus ministry, seen, for instance, in the amazing Jubilee conference for collegiates. Partnering with them for a Summer gathering helps underscores their vision of wide-as-life redemption and an intentionally Christian contribution to social and cultural reformation.

And this year, Bacote's our man. 

political disciple- theology of public life.jpgIf you are anywhere near Eastern Ohio or Western Pennsylvania on Tuesday, July 21, 2015, we invite you to this free lecture, conversation, and reception for our guest author.  It is free and open to the public, held on the campus of Robert Morris University (out by the airport, if you know Allegheny County. We'll have a very large book display there, too.)

If you can't make it, but would like a signed copy of his book, just let us know to whom it should be inscribed, if you want it signed to a particular person.

Dr. Bacote is a great presenter, a fun and friendly guy with quite a story.  His new book is a lovely little paperback, and it would be a fine resource to use in an adult education class, a book club, small group, or, if you could start one, a Christian citizen's group that meets to explore political theology. Just under 100 pages, it is designed to be thoughtful but brief, interesting, and a guide to living out Christian faith in ordinary ways. 

The Political Disciple is, in fact, part of a new series of short books that I have mentioned before, called the "Ordinary Theology Series." So far, the series includes a book on a Christian view of medicine and scalpel and the cross.jpgThe Cities of Tomorrow and the City to Come- A Theology of Urban Life.jpgfaithful 2.jpgthe experience of surgery (The Scalpel and the Cross), one on new urbanism and a theology of urban life (The Cities of Tomorrow and the City of the Future), and an excellent one on sexuality called Faithful. And Vince's on citizenship, politics, and public life.  Taken together, these illustrate something very important to us here at the bookstore: we value resources like this, books that are not sentimental or merely inspirational, but not arcane and technical, either. They are about vital issues, illustrating how the gospel is relevant for al of life. They are stimulating but brief. I'm so glad for such guides to thinking about the real world and what it looks like to live before God  in God's world, in ways that are coherent, meaningful, and theologically-informed and which can bear fruit in cultural flourishing. 

spirit in public.jpgDr. Bacote has edited several other theological works and contributed chapters to many published volumes.  He made a tremendous contribution to Kuyper studies when he published his first book, The Spirit in Public Theology: Appropriating the Legacy of Abraham Kuyper (Wipf & Stock; $20.00.)  He is obviously a serious scholar and a formidable thinker. With this nice, new volume in the "Ordinary Theology Series" Bacote has shown how he can guide beginners into thinking faithfully about our civic lives, serving in the public square, and what it means to be a citizen of a particular place and State, even as we inhabit the Kingdom of God and are disciples of the King Jesus.

Is there a tension between the Kingship of Christ and our political duties? Can we find joy in the world (even though James says that "friendship with the world" is evil?)  What does it mean to be "in the world but not of it" and what implications are there for our political lives?  

Vincent-Bacote.pngBacote not only tells some fun stories about his own journey towards a nonpartisan, balanced (dare I say Kuyperian) political philosophy and about growing up in a typically Democrat African American home and how he felt realizing that many conventional White evangelicals saw things differently then his family did.  Realizing that followers of Jesus shouldn't just adopt whatever political persuasion they inherit from their family, He explains how chief Biblical themes and standard theological insights can shape and inform our public involvements.  

For instance, what political guidance can we glean from the notion that we are image bearers of God, created in the image of God? What might it mean that we are "children of Abraham" or "people of the covenant?"  Many of us  like to say that we are "followers of Jesus" but how does that identity inform our commitments to political parties or our governments? 

political disciple- theology of public life.jpgThis second chapter of The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life  - called "Identity and Allegiance" - is very nicely done, brief and not overly breathy.  The implications are radical and far-reaching, but, unlike some authors, he lays it out calmly and helps us make up our own minds about some of the ways this might be worked out.

The next chapter offers a fresh take on political responsibilities - he invites to a posture of "holiness" and he invites us to ponder how the role of the Holy Spirit and the formation of virtue might influence our civic lives.  Even more speaking about the Spirit, Bacote reminds us of our fundamental commitment to know God as a Trinity.  That is, he is exploring the Trinitarian implications for our discipleship, and, therefore, the Trinitarian implications of living with our neighbors, in society. This way to lean in to our public roles and involvement in various spheres of society is a true delight and very insightful. Simply put, Biblically and theologically solid, it will make you think, and hopefully improve your own tendencies and styles of speaking and working in the public square.  Bacote is a theologian and not trained as a political theorist, which, frankly, is good for a book like this. He is not only a teacher, but a public intellectual, offering deeply Christian insights for our life in the world, without getting needlessly drawn into technical debates about political science.

Many of who have been thinking about public discipleship and Christian views of politics will be glad for this introductory overview and Bacote's ruminations on a theology of civic life. In his last chapter - "Perseverance: Staying in the Game" he shines, with hopeful, eloquent, and important guidance on handling the complexities, frustrations, and set-backs in our efforts to bear witness to God's desire for human flourishing and public justice.  We must, he says, "face our distress" and he offers some basic reminders about the role of lament, even as we endure political calamities and social injustices.  True to form, Bacote is, again, reasonable and moderate in tone - he is not trying to manipulate readers to care more by shaming us or being "prophetic" by denouncing our pet idols.  He offers clear-headed, sober, and wise counsel, moving us into deeper commitments, despite political rancor, to enduring Christian citizenship.

In his chapter on the posture of holiness, after exploring a great point that spirituality makes us more human and caring about the world than less,  he reminds us,

Holiness is not supposed to be cloaked in the chambers of pious hearts but displayed in the public domains of home, school, culture, and politics. Because we continue to wait for the day that Christ sets all things in their proper order, we find the path of sanctification to be a challenge. Yet the Spirit bids us to listen to his voice and surrender to his power. If we heed this call and continue down the path of transformation, our private and public practice will produce more amazement than exasperation, and even our enemies will see that we act like those who are becoming human.

And, in a few very moving closing pages about the sacrifices and endure some of us may need as we bear witness to God's shalom in political life, he writes,

The great temptation many of us face today is to leave the mess of the public square and find another way to be faithful, a way that may be less costly though maybe less spiritually valuable. To yield to such a temptation is to develop amnesia about our first commandment and commission. Lament, humility, and a cruciform perspective help us stay with our task in the face of frustration. 

Buy The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life  (or any of the "Ordinary Theology" series) at our sale price.  If you want an autographed copy, let us know before Tuesday (7-21-2015) and to whom the book should be inscribed.  We will try to get Vince to sign some for us to send out when we get back to D-town.  Thanks!



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July 24, 2015


A life long love of learning poster.jpgI suppose it is due to my disposition as educator,  evangelist, and  salesman, but I can hardly listen to a lecture without thinking of books that the audience would appreciate, stuff that dovetails and supplements and enhances points that the speaker is making. 

Maybe I'm easily distractable, but often, when reading a book, or listening to a talk or sermon, little bells goes off in my brain - ooh, what about this book? People should know about that.  And how about that other one?  If the speaker wanted, she could have cited such and such, right there, and, maybe during the Q & A I will suggest another book or two, at least this chapter, that author. The little bells keeping going off, driving my impulse to excitedly call out that if you liked what the speaker said about that, you could follow it up with further study by reading this.  And don't forget about this other one, and...                                                                                                                           

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            A poster from a previous event, about life-long learning.

Bacote poster.jpgAnd so it was with the fine presentation delivered at the Fourth Annual Hearts & Minds Pittsburgh Summer Lecture( co-sponsored by the CCO) by Wheaton College prof, Dr. Vincent Bacote.  His talk was based on his new book, The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life (Zondervan; $11.99) and we were thrilled to see old friends and new customers there in Pittsburgh. We thank Dr. Bacote for his willingness to come to Pittsburgh and we certainly thank the CCO for their willingness to co-sponsor this author event with Hearts & Minds. Beth and I are always inspired by and grateful for their campus ministry staff who care so deeply about young adults and God's Kingdom and are so much fun as they live out gospel-centered, grace-filled faith, offered in service to others.

Here are a handful of books that crossed my mind as Vince Bacote lectured.  He raised so many points on public theology and civic engagement and offered so much to think about, you can't blame me for wanting to carry the conversation further.  During his talk I didn't blurt anything out, but I hope you enjoy these good book suggestions.

As always, you can order any of these by clicking on the ORDER link shown below that will take you to our secure website order form page.  Any book mentioned here we will offer to you for 20% off the regular retail price that we list.  We'll gladly deduct the discount and send the books right out.

your minds mission.jpgYour Mind's Mission  Greg Jao (InterVarsity Press) $5.00  In my formal introduction of Dr. Bacote, I read out loud a portion from a recently published short collection of essays by Richard Mouw called Called to the Life of the Mind: Some Advice for Evangelical  Scholars, published by Eerdmans. It was a good quote and set the stage for the importance of what Bacote was doing: going public with overtly Christian thinking about political life, showing how the work of a Christian scholar can help us all. I like that new Mouw book, especially for young scholars, but if I were recommending just one small book as an introduction to the whole project of reading well, thinking faithfully, using your mind for the mission of God, it would be this.  There is good,  good stuff about God's call, about a whole-life response to the gospel (including a sensitivity to issues of injustice and cultural diversity) and how thinking well can deepen our Christian discipleship. It is a must for those in college, although it is ideal for anyone, since we are all commanded to "love God with all your mind." 

 I have a very heart-felt  endorsement blurb on the back of Your Mind's Mission saying, among other things, that Greg Jao is a wonderful writer and that this quick read really does offer a guide to "honoring Christ as king in every career and calling, across every zone of life." I kept thinking that our Hearts & Minds Summer Lecture, and Dr. Bacote's talk about public discipleship and political responsibilities makes most sense if we first understand the call to "think Christianly" and to be critical thinkers about worldviews, ideologies, and ideas.  To live faithfully we must desire God's glory to be seen, and we must understand that that does not happen easily in a culture if we are not thinking well.  You really should read this little booklet.

Every Square Inch- An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians Bruce Riley Ashford .jpgEvery Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians Bruce Riley Ashford (Lexham Press) $14.99 If Abraham Kuyper is known for anything it is the one glorious line about Christ claiming "every square inch" of creation. No area of life is separate from his kingly reign or gracious rule. No aspect of creation is secular, religiously neutral, or of little regard since Christ is creator and redeemer of all things.  That "every square inch" line is found in a complex paragraph from Kuyper's inaugural address at the university he bravely founded, the Free University of Amsterdam (you can read that whole speech, and another, in Scholarship: Two Convocation Addresses on University Life.)  It's a little bit funny, but Bacote gave two lectures about or inspired by Kuyper and didn't use the ESI phrase once.  So, I thought, just for the record, I should list this book, with its title obvious swiped from Father Abraham. 

 The first chapter in Ashford's Every Square Inch is called "Competing Views of Theology and Culture" while the second fleshes out a general theology of culture, a view shaped by Kuyper that Bacote could have easily expounded. The third short chapter is on calling - such a still overlooked doctrine and yet so generative! -- and the fourth offers six case studies to help us see how this plays out in real life.  From there the book has chapters on various aspects of culture life (art, science, economics and the like) starting with a quick summary of how each sphere is created  by God (and declared "good") but is now distorted by sin and idols, and yet is being redeemed by Christ.  Chapter by chapter, the book looks at the arts (yes, even recommending Calvin Seerveld), the science, politics and the public square; there is a chapter called "Economics and Wealth" (with which I somewhat disagree), a good one on scholarship and education.  All have a few bullet point "action steps" with ideas for further pondering or application.  This is very nicely done compact sized hardback and would make a nice discussion resource or a good read for somebody that wants to dip in to a Christian perspective on a variety of topics and spheres.    

Restoring All Things- God's Audacious Plan to Change the World.jpgRestoring All Things: God's Audacious Plan to Change the World Through Everyday People Warren Cole Smith & John Stonestreet (Baker) $16.99  A healthy part of the background of Vince Bacote, as he describes in his small Political Disciple is that discovering the all-of-life-redeemed vision of Abraham Kuyper was like an oxygen mask for him, helping him realize the legitimacy of his love of everything from rock music to social action to his interest in biology and science.  Yes, Kuyper and the others of the Dutch revival( Herman Bavinck was perhaps the most substantive theologian of that era) taught so many of us, God is indeed at work bringing His redemption in Christ to "all things" (as it says in Colossians 1.) This Biblically orthodox emphasis on the cosmic scope of redemption is heard in many quarters these days, (for instance in the previously mentioned book) and this brand new book strikes me as a perfect example of a contemporary version of Kuyper and his agenda for bringing restoration and public justice to every aspect of life.  And, like Kuyper's revival, the agents of transformation were most often his "little people" - not the well off, not the famous or powerful. Ordinary common folks can make a difference, and can be animated by mature, thoughtful theology to respond to the call of God to embody faith in every corner of culture. And this is good news, isn't it?

In Restoring All Things, in the words of pundit and writer Eric Metaxas, "Stonestreet and Smith aim to restore some balance to the doom and gloom narrative by pointing to the stories that prove God is still at work today through people who are addressing the brokenness and taking the opportunities right in front of their noses."  This not only illustrates a broad, winsome, conservative worldview that imagines gracious social action in the 21st century, but tells us the stories of people actually living it.  Restoring All Things is positive, exciting, and even if one doesn't agree with all their specific policy proposals, no reader can be left uninspired to more intentionally engage the world around them, with deeds of mercy that bring hope.  Bacote would certainly appreciate their chapters on serving the poor, on a good economy, on the dignity of women, on educational reform, racial reconciliation, criminal justice, sexual sanity, caring for orphans, nurturing the arts, and more.  If anyone in the Lecture thought it was too abstract or wonders how to get on with it, this tells the stories, offers practical guidance, invites us to get busy. Nice.

Culture-Care-Makoto-Fujimura-300x300.jpgCulture Care Makoto Fujimura (Fujimura Institute) $25.00  We have been supportive of the famous abstract painter's written work since his first published essay in the Square Halo classic It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God. In the books by and about Mako there is this extraordinary insight that art is important, of course, and that the visual arts are naturally to be valued alongside other art forms (including film, poetry, music, literature the like) but, further, that artists must also find themselves alongside others stewarding their various talents for the sake of the common good. Such multi-faceted work by a variety of scholars, activists, volunteers, patrons, publishers and citizens for cultural renewal allows for multi-dimensional societal flourishing.  Bacote did not speak directly about how non-political gifts exercised in non-governmental spheres of influence and other avenues of culture-making effect our political lives, as such, but he would surely agree: we all must do our best to care for the streams that feed cultural renewal. (Which is to say, we need more than healthy churches and strong families and good government!) A healthy, just polis will be sustained by a robust civil society which is enhanced by a healthy cultural ecology.  We all have roles to play. Agreed?

Mako.pngMako in this handsomely produced paperback (with onion-skin dust jacket) brings his artist's eye to the broader duty to care for culture, to strengthen the common wealth and nurture our capacity for order and beauty, goodness and truth.  He is a good, good writer, and draws on fabulously interesting sources (from T.S. Eliot to Dallas Willard, from Roger Scruton to Dana Gioia, from Noam Chomsky to Wendell Berry, from J.R.R. Tolkien to Harper Lee.) This recent book published by the Fujimura Institute is a rare, wonderful treasure, a gift for us all and we encourage you to order it from us.  More than once in Bacote's lecture I wanted to say, "Wait, let's back up and think about what it means to be a caring steward of culture before we talk about civic life." This book can help us frame our conversation about renewing our societal institutions and advancing our political discipleship.

The Kuyper Center Review: New Essays in Reformed Theology and Public Life Volume 1 -5 (Eerdmans) 

Now we are talking Bacote's wheelhouse: these books are produced by the important Kuyper Center at Princeton Theological Seminary, until recently directed by John Bowlin. (Bowlin was also the Rimmer and Ruth de Vries Professor of Reformed Theology and Public Life at PTS.)  In these collections of academic papers, Kuyper scholars and others reflect on his robust and curious theological distinctions,  exploring the work of others who were allies in the renewal of public life in the Netherlands in the early 1900s, and how that applies to different aspects of contemporary life.  Bacote didn't dwell on these sorts of academic perspectives about what has come to be known as 20th century neo-Calvinism (not the "new" Calvinism/Puritanism of the Gospel Coalition and Southern Baptists, by the way)  but he could have.  For anyone wanting to read widely in the growing field of Kuyper studies, or who wants to understand the implications of Bavinck et al,  these volumes from Princeton Seminary are must-haves for your library. We had them all out at the Pittsburgh Summer Lecture, but they are a bit demanding.  Maybe you will find something intriguing.

kuyper center vol 1 .jpgThe Kuyper Center Review Volume One: Politics, Religion & Sphere Sovereignty Gordon Graham$24.00 Explorations by world-class scholars on Kuyper's views of the role and limits of the state, how religion impacts public life and the like. There is a truly excellent piece by Anglican ethicist Oliver O'Donovan, an excellent chapter by Kuyper biographer James Bratt, another very insightful contribution by former ICS political science professor, Jonathan Chaplin. And there are many more studies, from Kuyper on Islam to Kuyperian considerations of the welfare state. A great collection.

Kuyper Center Review vol 2.jpgThe Kuyper Center Review Volume Two: Revelation and Common Grace John Bowlin $36.00 Does the creation itself speak? What is the relationship of the Bible to general revelation? How did the Dutch reformational movement adjudicate common grace and the antithesis?  Can the Kuyperian emphasis on common grace lead to a sustainable vision of pluralism and toleration?  There is quite a lot on Herman Bavinck, too -- a must for anyone serious about further neo-Calvinist scholarship.

kuyper center review vol 3.jpgThe Kuyper Center Review Volume Three: Calvinism and Culture Gordon Graham $26.00 A fabulous, serious look at various Calvinist and neo-Calvinist views of art, literature, culture and more. It is an especially valuable volume for those of us interested in this on-going movement -- for instance, there is a back-and-forth discussion between Neal deRoo and Al Wolters ("Culture Regained?") and there is a fascinating piece by Jim Bratt about Kuyper and artist Piet Mondrian, and don't miss the excellent introduction to reformational approaches to architecture and urban planning.  You've got to read Jennifer Wang's piece on the "Eucharistic Poetics of Emily Dickinson" and the Dooyeweerdian take on American avante-garde music by Janet Danielson.

Kuyper Center Review Vol 4.jpgThe Kuyper Center Review Volume Four: Calvinism and Democracy John Bowlin $30.00  It is remarkable to realize how the Reformed tradition has considerably effected how we think about modern democracy. There are pieces here on Kuyper, on Bavinck,on constitutionalism, a remarkable piece by Jeffrey Stout on Kuyper's famous "class struggle" speech, and another offering comparisons with Bonhoeffer. Great for anyone interested in political history. Very thoughtful.

Kuhyper Center Review Vol 5.jpgThe Kuyper Center Review Volume Five: Church and Academy edited by Gordon Graham $24.00 Obviously, important research for churches near the university, and a must for Christians who work in higher education.  Many of these pieces are by scholars from Holland -- which is now a very secularized nation -- making this particularly relevant to anyone thinking about the meaning of distinctively Christian higher education.

black scholars in white.jpgBlack Scholars in White Space: New Vistas in African American Studies from the Christian Academy edited by Anthony Bradley (Pickwick Publications) $26.00  Dr. Bacote has a number of chapters in a number of books - and in my introduction of him I should have mentioned a few. This is one that is particularly significant, a moving chapter where he struggles with various understandings of race and the commonly used phrase "racial reconciliation." His chapter in this fascinating volume is called "Erasing Race: Racial Identity and Theological Anthropology." Bacote works with exceptionally thoughtful evangelical scholars, drawing on J. Cameron Carter's significant book, Race: A Theological Account, the sociological insights of George Yancy, and other race theorists, bringing them into conversation with theologians who have written on the imago dei such as Richard Middleton, Anthony Hoekema, and, yes, Kuyper and Bavinck.  As Bacote lectured with great humility and moderation about being responsible Christians in the public square, he naturally had to talk about race (how can we not?) and as an African American scholar he brought some helpful insights and sounded some good notes. This chapter by him is further example of his thoughtful  attention to these matters.  

new jim crow.jpgThe New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness Michelle Alexander (The New City Press) $19.95 Bacote did not mention criminal justice issues or the recent moves by our President to attempt to address crime and punishment.  But he could have, and probably should have.  I think it is this simple: I don't think one can meaningful engage in much serious debate about race and justice in our society in these times without knowing this book.  Unless you've read a lot of reviews and summaries, have watched her on-line, and have been informed well by those who know her work, I think you simply must work through this award-winning, much-discussed, ground-breaking book.  It has been called "an instant classic" and "stunning" and "profoundly necessary" and even "devastating" (by Forbes Magazine.

Not every sociological work of this sort becomes "the bible of a social movement" as one review put it, nor do most books get mentioned in a rock song.  Listen to the blazing, powerful song "The Rise of the Black Messiah" by the Indigo Girls on their new release One Lost Day and tell me you shouldn't read this book to see some of what their singing about. (Here is a fascinating video of their work recording and producing the song, with a bit of the back story explained by Amy Ray. The song title, by the way, comes from a memo by the FBI.) Here is a powerful live version

By the way, kudos to the Lower Susquehanna Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America who have invited every single parish to hold book discussion groups on this important text. 

just mercy_bryan.jpgJust Mercy Bryan Stevenson (Spiegal & Grau)$28.00 I've mentioned this often, here, insisting it is one of the most powerful books I've read in years.  (I also like that he has been likened to [the Mockingbird era] Atticus Finch.) Again, as Dr. Bacote carefully brought up matters of public controversy -the SCOTUS ruling about marriage equality, religious liberty, the latest state of race relations, from Ferguson to Baltimore and more, he reminded us that responsible citizenship is more than just voting or taking "stands" but must include being well informed and getting involved. This page-turner of an unforgettable book simply is a must-read to get the bigger picture of law and race and injustice, and how poverty, class, and other sad realities of our culture impact the very soul of our nation.

Wilderness of Mirrors.jpgA Wilderness of Mirrors: Trusting Again in a Cynical World Mark Meynell (Zondervan) $18.99  Through-out much of Bacote's lecture (and in good conversations afterwards) I kept thinking about how public action for the common good - from volunteerism to public policy advocacy to the act of voting - presumes a willingness to engage with fellow citizens for the good of the commonweal, but that those practices are less and less attractive for many because (among other things) we don't trust one another. We don't trust institutions, we don't trust our leaders, we hardly trust our neighbors.  We live in a cynical and jaded world, and even those not inclined to think about the big picture of human flourishing, public life, the common good (etc.) still have a general sort of proclivity to be cynical or suspicious.  This is a marvelous new book of cultural analysis, and, in a way, a fresh sort of apologetic, offering hope for a mistrusting world.  It says on the back that this is "the radical antidote to the poison of broken trust."  

The back cover continues,

In A Wilderness of Mirrors author Mark Meynell explores the roots of the discord and alienation that mark our society and outlines a gospel-based reason for hope. An astute social observer with a pastor's spiritual sensitivity, Meynel grounds his antidote on four foundational aspects of Christian faith: human nature, Jesus, the church, and the story of God's action in the world.

I think you'll have to read this through to see how he develops this plan to restore and strengthen the frayed fabric of our society, but I trust that you can see why it seems so apropos after Bacote's plea for great civic engagement.

A previous presenter for the Annual Hearts & Minds Pittsburgh Summer Lecture and admired friend Dr. William Edgar, has a wonderfully brilliant review on the inside saying Meynell's fresh apologetic confronts us with both miserable desolation and great joy.  And Steve Garber (author of Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good) says, 

With his richly wrought theological vision and uncanny honesty, he offers a way forward for all who wrestle with how to form a good life in this disorienting time in history, where the more we know, the more cynical we must become. Here we are offered a hard-won, deeply thoughtful reason to believe otherwise.

inventing a christian america.jpgInventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding Steven K. Green (Oxford University Press) $29.95  One of the astute contributions to the discussion following Bacote's lecture raised the question of civil religion; the questioner was himself an serious Reformed theologian who understands much about the nature of the Biblical covenant and the call of God's true covenant people, among (but never to be confused with) the nations.  Alas, we all know the way in which our own U.S. A. has a peculiar heritage of religious exceptionalism, which has too often led to an odd Christian nationalism. (Don't even get me started about the spiritually dangerous practice of flags in our worship spaces, but I digress.) 

Dr.  Bacote's  good friend Dr. John Fea (of Messiah College) has the must-read book about the religious roots of America's founding, entitled  Was American Founded as a Christian Nation?  which we have regularly promoted;  throughout the lecture, but especially after the comment about America's sense of covenant,  I  kept thinking of this very new work by one of the premier legal historians writing today. As Jon Butler (Professor Emeritus of American Studies at Yale University) writes, 

Steven Green's Inventing A Christian America is that rare book where scholarship and sensitivity can calm one of America's most volatile issues. Its breadth and fairness allow understanding and perspective to run ahead of simply inaccurate notions about America's 'Christian foundations.' The result is a marvelously readable account of the fascinating ways religious freedom actually emerged in America and uplifted nation and religion together.

Or, as John Fea himself writes on the back of this important book, "Inventing a Christian America is the most thorough critique of Christian nationalism available today....anyone interested in the subject must read this book."  I should have stood up and mentioned it!

uncommon decency.jpgUncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World Richard Mouw (VP) $16.00  I have written about this often before, but I still think of it at times like these. Not a day goes by that I don't wish to suggest it to others, or feel like I should re-read it, prayerfully allowing it to convict me of ways in which my own public etiquette may need to be refined with grace.  Anyway, Bacote's nice reflection on being truly Christian in the public square, offering a passionate reminder that we dare not sit on the sidelines of the struggle for public justice and social renewal,  as good as it was, didn't sound this theme directly. I wanted to stand up and remind folks that Vince surely doesn't want us to get involved in ugly discourse or adopt models that want to "take over" the public realm. (He did poke a bit of fun about how some internet debates can challenge our sanctification, gently advising us to be careful about our on line demeanor. ) Had I given a shout out to Christian civility in our public discourse, I'd have recommended this book, as politely as I can. 

On Campus.jpgOn Care for Our Common Home (Laudato Si) Pope Francis (U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops) $13.95  I was delighted that an old, old friend of mine, who himself now serves our commonwealth as a behind the scenes public servant , ended our Summer Lecture evening with a reminder of the deep thinking and profound public witness of the current Pope Francis.  I added a reminder of how what is known as Catholic Social Teaching has for centuries worked out a social theory with significant public policy implications; Pope Francis in this sense is continuing to advance a long-standing framework of public theology and exercising his prophetic task.  I think both liberal mainline Protestants and contemporary evangelicals have a great ally in this ancient, well-developed social and ethical tradition, including this new encyclical which speaks much on the ethics of climate change and the call to more intentional stewardship of God's creation.

By the way, as much publicity as this document has gotten regarding is embrace of the consensus about anthropogenic climate change - His Holiness has a degree in Chemistry, by the way, perhaps the first Pope trained in the sciences --  Laudato Si  includes much more then teaching about environmental issues. We were proud to have it on display at the Summer Lecture and wished I would have called the audience's attention to it.  So I'll tell ya now: you should buy and study this document.

And, lastly, dear readers, a reminder that Dr. Bacote's lecture was celebrating the release of his most recent paperback,  The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life, which is part of a new four volume "Ordinary Theology" series published by Zondervan, edited by New Testament scholar Gene E. Green.  Three cheers for this kind of simple, good stuff.
  Get 'em now, on sale, by clicking below.  Thanks.

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July 27, 2015

10 MOVING NOVELS TO READ (instead of or after) GO SET A WATCHMAN

I suppose you have been following at least some of the debates about the merits of the story and thego set a watchman.jpg ethics of the release of Go Set a Watchman. We hope you know we sell it at 25% off.  I weighed in a bit about the controversy at Facebook, and linked to a spectacular essay by Mako Fujimuro, which shows both his deeply Christian aesthetic thoughtfulness, and his wide literary fluency. (He links the two Harper Lee novels to two Blake poems!) 

If it is true that Ms Lee did not give full, knowing consent to the publication of this early work of hers, that is a gross injustice, although the publisher (HarperCollins) maintains that agreements and contracts were made with fully proper procedure.  Are they lying? I don't know.

Whether you want to read this earlier story - Scout is much older, and sees the racial attitudes of her beloved father Atticus Finch through more adult, and perhaps more jaded eyes - is, obviously, up to you; obviously. But I have found it a bit odd how vociferous some have been about it.  One Christian leader called it "trash" and hundreds have sworn that no revision of Saint Atticus could ever, ever be considered.  Some are terribly fearful that Lee's earlier story, if they read it, would ruin their love of To Kill a Mockingbird. Well, then.

couple-reading-books.jpgHere are some other novels you might want to enjoy, books that somehow might share somewhat of a tone or style or setting. I have heard such good things about Go Set a Watchman that it is on my stack to be read soon. (Beth and I both read To Kill a Mockingbird - for the first time! - just a week ago, and I'm still stunned by its beauty and goodness and the joy of being immersed in this funny, tragic, curious community in the deep South. I want to read more about these characters, even if it is somewhat lesser literature or a perplexing story.) But I can appreciate that some just aren't interested.

I am not suggesting that these on this list resemble either of Harper Lee's memorably works. I am really not suggesting they be read instead of hers, or alongside them, even.  They just sort of sprung to mind as I browsed our own fiction section wondering what else we might offer to those who aren't sold on Go Set...  So, just for fun, here are some titles that at least capture the slow cadence, the good writing, the sense of place, and the ethical vision of the best of mid-twentieth-century Southern fiction. And this doesn't even include any classics by those who were more or less contemporaries of Ms Lee, such as Walker Percy, Zora Neale Hurston, Robert Penn Warren, Steinbeck, Faulkner.

AND THESE TOO... By the way, I really enjoy very contemporary stuff, with that ironic tone, the screwy (post?) modern style, the anguished, religiously haunted world.  Jonathan Franzen, naturally. Jeffery Eugenides has provided hours of delight (both the amazing, epic Middlesex and The Marriage Plot, about recently graduated college students, their romance and writing projects.) I truly loved The Art of Fielding (also about college life, as well as baseball and Melville) and the much-discussed To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris (a crazy book about a sullen dentist and an oddball religious cult chasing him down with made up Bible verses.) I whizzed through the last two David Eggers because I could, and was moved by the writing and plots of Oprah recommended Wally Lamb (The Hour I First Believed and We Are Water both really pleased my middlebrow tastes, and have much to say, although they are a bit too vulgar.) Lots of people are talking about the quirky National Book Award finalist Station 11 by Emily St. John, which is now out in paperback, and I guess I should read that, although the plot doesn't appeal to me.  I haven't read Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch yet, but it won the Pulitzer and I have been waiting to find time for it, once I snag a hardback from the library.  And I've got to get to The Girl on the Train, which lots of people have recommended.  And I swear I'm going to read Life of Pi again one of these days.

And, although it is not zippy or contemporary, the best novel I have read all year is doubtlessly the exquisite All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Scribner; $27.00.) It is big and glorious and profound, set during World War II in Paris and Germany. Truly unforgettable and very highly recommended.

These books that follow are decidedly not like those. 

Again, I am not saying they are like Harper Lee (who is?) but I thought of them while reading comments by those who said they didn't want to read Go Set a Watchman or by those who did, and are now in a mood for more slow, kind, thoughtful Americana or other beautifully rendered important stories.  Maybe you could take these on an upcoming vacation or weekend camping trip. Or take a chair out back, after supper. I think any of these would be well worth your investment; I am familiar with each, but have myself not read them all. (Don't I wish!)  We would love to fill your order, if you are so inclined.  You can let us know what you think.


lila_robinson_f.jpgLila Marilynne Robinson (FSG) $26.00 Ms Robinson is certainly one of the most honored and prestigious writers of our time. Her Gilead is a must read - a Pulitzer Prize winning story of an older Protestant clergyman telling his story.  ("So serenely beautiful, and written in a prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it," said the Washington Post reviewer.) Home is the sequel, telling the story of another pastor, the friend of John Ames in Gilead. ("An anguished pastoral, a tableau of decency and compassion that is also an angry and devastating indictment of moral cowardice and unrepentant, unacknowledged sin... Beautiful."  (You can see why I list it now, in this conversation of Harper Lee and Atticus Finch and the like.) Lila is the most recent, still only in hardcover, and we've promoted it here in the shop, on line, and at church gatherings.  (Critic Pat MacEnulty of The Charlotte Observer notes that "When Marilynne Robinson writes a new book, it's an event.") In this poignant, quiet, moving tale we learn about Lila, who appears in Gilead as the rather mysterious wife of Pastor John Ames. She is from a hard background (that much we know) and her difficult, brave, curious life comes to us in full color in this third book set in Gilead, Iowa.  It was promised to be "a moving expression of the mysteries of existence" and "destined to become an American classic."  We invite you to order it from us, and we trust you will be blessed with hours of important, enjoyable reading. If you haven't read Giliad, or even Home, you don't have to read those first, but I suppose you should.

our souls at night.jpgOur Souls at Night Kent Haruf (Knopf) $24.00 Not too many books these days come with a major endorsement on the back from Ursula K. Le Guin, but her rave review is sumptuous. (She calls him "stunningly original" and suggests that "He talks quietly, intimately, yet with reserve, as one adult to another. He's careful to get the story right. And it is right, it's just right; it rings true."  Not bad, given that he talks about all manner of moral questions, perhaps even (in Le Guin's assessment) "an unspoken mysticism." When a writer of her caliber says some of his writing and topics are "unsurpassed by anything I know in contemporary fiction" you have to notice.

We discovered his first book set in Colorado, Plainsong, probably from Eugene Peterson who commended it years ago. (And the sequels, Eventide and Benediction whose very titles might rightly draw our attention to something important going on.)  A dear local pastor who reads widely suggested these others, too, and we've been pleased to stock them ever since. We are glad to have this new, small one, published posthumously. (Haruf died at age 71 in 2014.) Our Souls at Night is said to be "a spare yet eloquent, bittersweet yet inspiring story of a man and a woman who, in advanced age, come together to wrestle with the events of their lives and their hopes for the imminent future."  Set in Holt, Colorado (home to all of Haruf's inimitable fiction" it involves one Addie Moore and Louis Waters, widow and widower, and the pleasures and adventures of their old age set in this rugged landscape. 

A Place on Earth (WB).jpgA Place on Earth Wendell Berry (Counterpoint) $16.95  I assume most of our BookNotes readers know of our affection for Wendell Berry (his important essays as well as his fiction and poetry.) Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter are by far his most popular novels, although I often exclaim about The Memory of Old Jack, which I adored and introduced me to the wonders of the Port Williams membership.  I name this one, now, since one of the things that attract us to works like To Kill a Mockingbird is the developed sense of place -- especially that of a small town set in a rural region.  What sets A Place on Earth apart as a must-read for Berry fans is that "the central character is not a person but a place: Port Williams, Kentucky, the farm lands and forests that surround it and the Kentucky River that runs nearby. This is a region that Wendell Berry knows intimately, with both heart and mind, a region whose faults and virtues he has spent a lifetime learning."  Berry's first novel, by the way, came out in 1960, I believe, the same year as Mockingbird.

a world lost (WB).jpgA World Lost Wendell Berry (Counterpoint) $13.95  This is a short novel, opening in 1944 with nine-year-old Andy Catlett enjoying a blissful summer on his grandparents farm near Port William.   A brawl ensues, and Andy's uncle is murdered, a tragedy that Andy looks back upon years later wonders if he could have prevented. I name this because many feel this is an overlooked classic of Mr. Berry's (I have not read it yet) but also because of how this theme may resonate with those pondering the adult character Jean Louise (Scout) in Go Set a Watchman and her own looking back upon her complex father, Atticus Finch. Publisher's Weekly says of A World Lost "Berry shows us the psychic costs of misplaced family pride and social rigidity, and yet he also celebrates the benevolent blessing of familial love. This is simple, soul-satisfying storytelling, augmented by understated humor and quiet insight."  It was his fifth novel, was later expanded and re-issued, and is (as it says on the back) "a moving tale about the power of memory and lost time." Yes, this would be perfect to read right about now.

peace like a river (better).jpgPeace Like a River Leif Enger (Grove Press) $16.00 Last summer I wrote a long list of books out postmodern apologetics, gentle evangelism, and storytelling as a key to understanding (and reaching with the gospel) the contemporary generations. We had sponsored James K.A. Smith to lecture on his book explaining the philosophy of Charles Taylor --How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor - and noted how Jamie underscored Taylor's call to use fiction in our conversations about cultural engagement.  I am not the first to note that much contemporary fiction is far from "secular" and that some of the best New York Times bestsellers are, in fact, profoundly spiritual.  Lief Enger's beloved story is nearly a case study in such very contemporary religiously-shaped contemporary fiction. It received tons of great reviews -Newsday's reviewer, Dan Cryer, says, "What allows Peace Like a River to transcend any limitations of belief and genre is its broad, sagacious humanity... There is magic here, none more potent than Enger's prose."  The Denver Post review said "Once in a great while, a book comes along that has such wonderful characters and marvelous prose, that you read it as much for the pure joy it offers on every pages as to find out how it ends."  This is a book about ordinary life, but since it may lapse into "magical realism" -- the boy who is the main character has reason to believe in miracles - it isn't really like Harper Lee or Wendell Berry. But it is set in the mid-West, there is the huge question of whether love can overcome tragedy, and there is a (trumped up?) murder charge haunting an outlaw brother. And there is this question of miracles...  Peace Like a River is a fine, fine book, sure to please, one you will never forget.   Early reviews when it came out in 2001 started with superlatives - stunning, big-hearted, beautiful, dazzling, dangerous, compelling, "exceptionally heart-felt."  We would be delighted to have you order it from us.  Or maybe just get two, since you are surely going to want to share it.

still life (christa parrish).jpgStill Life: A Novel Christa Parrish (Nelson) $15.99  Decades ago there developed this sub-genre of "Christian fiction" by which most folks mean evangelical Christian writers penning somewhat inspirational stories, published by publishers aligned with the "Christian Booksellers Association."  These have been very popular, and roundly mocked, often for bad writing, bad covers, and shallow theology.  Many are historical fiction, most are romances, and, of course, we know that many are now Amish-themed.  (We have hosted one of the better writers of Amish stories, Beverly Lewis, here at the shop more than once.)  Well, think what you may about the reputation of "Christian fiction" the old stereotypes are less warranted these days, and there are some very nice novels by very gift writers, whose faith colors their stories in subtle and interesting ways.  Christina Parrish seems to be one of these kinds of writers (her Stones for Bread struck me first for the nice cover and some good reviews by sources I respect.) In this new one, the main character, Ada, we learn, we born into a fringe religious sect led by her father. Her lifelong habit of absolute obedience "was shattered when she fled the family compound to elope with photographer Julian Goetz."  There is another character - Katherine Walker, whose marriage is loveless. Tragic loss conspires to bring them together and they then come into relationship with an artistic young boy.  Still Life is a fairly complex work that explores toxic faith, merciful escape, and supernatural love.  There is a included a reading group guide as the publishers hope that book clubs, small Bible study groups, especially women's fellowship groups might enjoy talking about it together.

blue hole back home.jpgBlue Hole Back Home Joy Jordan-Lake (Cook) $13.99  This is another wonderful example of a profoundly Christian writer, doing an excellent novel on a CBA/evangelical publishing house.  Joy Jordan-Lake is an accomplished non-fiction writer, and we've commended her fine stuff before.  Besides her Masters degree from a seminary, she has a PhD in nineteenth-century American literature - which has obviously prepared her for thinking well about the nature of serious fiction.  But who knew she could pen such an interesting story?  Listen to this: Brett Lott, himself an acclaimed mainstream novelist says Jordon-Lake "has written a fine tale of racial conflict and healing, and done so with a fresh and engaging voice."  Or, better  -- and spot on for our purposes here - listen to the amazing publishing guru herself, The Ms. Phyllis Tickle: "Reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird, Blue Hole Back Home is a haunting story, lyrically told, about the death of innocence under a Southern sun."   

Set among a mangy pack of kids in 1979, the summer was "heavy not only with the humid Appalachian air, but also with the raw emotion brought on by a stranger in their midst. The new girl. The new girl with the deeply colored skin and the straight shiny hair and the father who prayed on a rug facing east each morning."

Down in the River Blacketter.jpgDown in the River Ryan Blacketter (Slant) $22.00 We have talked before, and continue to proudly stock each of the books in this important literary imprint curated by Image Journal editor Gregory Wolfe. (l loved their story involving -- among other spectacular things -- liberation theologians in Central America,  A Land Without Sin by Paula Huston.) I have not looked at this recent one much, but it seems to be right to list it here.  This is a dark, serious tale, set in the contemporary Pacific Northwest (the author is from Idaho) and resonant with important themes for those who want a moral center to their edgy fiction.  It is about grief and loss, religion and resistance, a brave story claiming to be about the deepest matters of the human heart.  Listen to these rave reviews, first from Marilynne Robinson (yes, Marilynne Robinson!):  "Blacketter has a marvelous eye for the emotional textures of the most commonplace experience, the kind that familiarity makes almost subliminal."  

Shann Ray (author of American Masculine) says,

Blacketter's prose is paired with the torque of a plot that lives and moves like an indomitable engine. This difficult and necessary story is inbreathed with a ferocity that leaves the reader shaken. In the end, through Blacketter's sure hand, we encounter a surprisingly intimate brush with our own desire for peace of soul, and in so doing, are drawn toward the ineffable mystery of how our contact with others inevitably carries with it a sense of infinity gravity.  

Or, as another reviewer, Pinckney Benedit  (Miracle Boy and Other Stories) tell us,

I can't remember when I've liked a character as much as I like young Lyle Rettew, or when I've cheered one on so hard despite the fact that he's clearly crazy and his quest is doomed. A thunderous debut, and the beginning of what will surely be a breathtaking career.

The Orchardist.jpgThe Orchardist Amanda Coplin (Harper Perennial) $15.99 Here is another book set in the Pacific Northwest, one which is known for "exquisitely described landscapes." (A review at O called it "a wise and great American novel" and Entertainment Weekly review said "There are echoes of John Steinbeck in this beautiful and haunting debut.") Set in the early 20th century, it is said to be both somber and majestic, and written with "dazzling craftsmanship."  The story's main character carefully stewards his fruit orchards, shows compassion to some young runaway (and very pregnant) women, and is led to the depth of soul-searching as he struggles to reconcile with his own past, and protect these teens.  I read in an interview how it took the author eight years to finish the manuscript, but despite all the permutations it went through, her vision remained true, and the characters strong.  I don't know why, but I wanted to share this one, here, now, for those still pondering the Harper Lee matter.  NPR said it was "A stunning accomplishment, hypnotic in its storytelling power, by turns lyrical and gritty, and filled with marvels." It has a nice paperback cover with deckled edges, surely a lovely book to have. 

to kill a mockingbird cover.jpgTo Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee (Harper Perennial) $14.95 That's only nine titles I've listed, you say?  Well, how about revisiting To Kill a Mockingbird? We've got a lovely paperback edition, and, really, if you haven't read it, or haven't read it as an adult, well... There's no need to say much. It is a truly great American classic, and once you get in to the cadence and language of the kids -- Scout and her older brother, Jem -- you'll have a blast and not want to leave their intriguing, playful, wonder-filled and at times scary Southern world.  And, just so you know, we have a few of the very interesting books about this classic, such as The Mockingbird Parables: Transforming Lives Through the Power of Story by Matt Litten (Nelson; $14.99.) To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the release of the book a few years ago  filmmaker Mary Murphy has interviewed dozens of prominent figures on how the book has impacted their lives. It's a great reminder of the power of this story. These interviews are compiled in Scout, Atticus, and Boo (Harper Perennial; $14.99) with a foreword from acclaimed writer Wally Lamb. Nice. And of course, there is the much-acclaimed I Am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee by Charles Shields.  Lots of great titles to keep us in that liminal Alabama space.



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