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July 26, 2014

Books to Follow-up James K.A. Smith lectures -- spiritual but not religious // the nones // desires // practices ON SALE at Hearts & Minds Books

For those who are curious, who had prayed or wondered, our third annual Hearts & Minds Pittsburgh Summer Lecture with James K. A. Smith went fabulously. He's such a deep and well-read philosopher, but has such a dynamic, passionate presence.  We had a great crowd, had the chance to greet (or miss greeting, as the case may be) old college friends, CCO staff alum, students we've met at Jubilee or OCBP, and an array of friends from the greater Western Pennsylvania world. Kudos to folks like Lisa Slayton and her team at Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation/Serving Leaders and friends at Geneva College for helping to promote our work.  And, of course, the CCO staff, old and brand new, had been gathering at Robert Morris University anyway, so they were out in force. What good folks they are! 

At the public event Jamie talked about his new book How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Eerdmans; $16.00.) Smith guided us into a heady conversation -- what do wehow not to be secular.jpg mean by the secular, are we in a secular age, and what does that even mean, and how can the heavy Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor help us? Nicely, though, he helped us along the way (yes, he quoted The Postal Service and Wallace's Infinite Jest and British novelist Julian Barnes.) His entry into all this was the recent conversation about the "nones" (that is, those who check "none" on the survey's asking for religious affiliation.) These folk, however, are often also those who claim to be "spiritual but not religious."  Oh my, this was an important stuff for anyone interested in cultural discourse, understanding the times, or who may be interested in the religious landscape, congregational health, evangelism, or a missional vision of relevant ministry in our postmodern contexts. Pastors? Elders? Evangelists? Artists? Journalists? Youth Workers? Christian teachers? College administrators? Parents?  Yes! Yes! Yes!

In the morning, Jamie had given one of the best talks I've heard in quite a while, pouring his teacherly heart out instructing CCO staff about the sorts of things he writescultural liturgies - both.jpg about in great detail in Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation and Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (both Baker Academic; $23.00 each.) If you want to understand what we're about here at Hearts & Minds and our own unique heritage and passions, these books certainly get at that well.  We were just thrilled to have him teach at CCO staff seminar, and glad that CCO is the sort of organization that wants to be shaped by this Calvin College prof.  We gave a little pitch for his work at the neo-Calvinist/Kuyperian journal of public theology, Comment magazine, too. I don't write for them anymore, but still promote their classy quarterly journal whenever I can.  So, again, thanks be to God.

I have a hunch that there are those who may appreciate our recommendations of these books by Smith but are either intimated by their intellectual heft, or the size and price. 

You know we understand that, and although these are important volumes, we are very (very)discipleship in the present tense.jpg eager to promote the best little collection of shorter pieces by Smith, some of them covering much of this ground -- reviews, essays, sermons, speeches, articles and the like.  I highly recommend Discipleship in the Present Tense: Reflections on Faith and Culture by James K. A. Smith (Calvin College Press; $14.00) as a great anthology and primer and companion for your own journey towards a deeper and more meaningful daily walk through the world. Although I love almost all of these many chapters, there are one or two that are literally worth the price of admission. 

If you are a preacher or teacher, by the way, you will get some mileage out of the introduction, which exegetes the ancient/future connections shown on the very cover of the book -- a new modern wing of an art museum built out of but refreshing the tradition of the older style. That'll preach!  And if you are a fan of books about cultural engagement and social reforms, you should know he has a very good chapter which explores the thesis and implications in the much-discussed Oxford University Press book, To Change the World by James Davison Hunter which takes him to task a bit.) And there is that chapter, an open letter to praise bands. So, yes! This is very good.

* * *

Here, then, are a few quite readable books that might relate to Smith's two lectures. If you don't have the aforementioned Smith volumes you should get them from us. (And if you take my advice here, but get them elsewhere, well, that's just wrong.)

Bbelief without borders.jpgelief Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious Linda A. Mercadante (Oxford University Press) $29.95 This is a very recent and notable book filled with real conversations, interviews and observations with some conclusions drawn from this primary source research.  Perhaps it was Diana Butler Bass in her controversial but very important Christianity After Religious: The End of the Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening who really best described this trend, and gave significant energy to wondering how to best do ministry among that cohort, in these times. Butler Bass offers a rave review to this scholarly volume: "For those who think that being 'spiritual but not religious' is intellectually vague," she writes, "it is time to think again.... Linda Mercadante explores the beliefs of the religiously unaffiliated regarding God, sin, community, the afterlife, and ethics and finds people living "between" the worlds of secularism and traditional faith."  

Phyllis Tickle -- ever the book woman! -- compares this to the award-winning Habits of the Heart by Robert Bellah, saying that it offers "a brilliant narrative introduction to the theology and belief systems of the "spiritual but not religious" among us. Highly accessible and rife with insightful commentary Belief Without Borders is far and away the richest study I have seen to date of the SBNR and is destined to become a classic in the field." These in-depth interviews and Mercadante's evaluation offers a much-needed contribution to both the role of belief in contemporary American culture but also to the ways and work of the local parish. I think this is important, and wish I could have showed it to the crowd gathered to hear Smith talk about Taylor (especially those who have reason to work particularly with this rising population.) It would have gone nicely with his great question, "How is it that we live in a culture that gives us both Elizabeth Gilbert and Richard Dawkins?"  Exactly.

Dr. Linda Mercadante is Professor of Historical Theology at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio and is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA.)

TRise of the Nones.jpghe Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated James Emery White (Baker Books) $15.99  I am a fan of James Emery White -- his two IVP books, Serious Times and Christ Among the Dragons are very good at pondering our moment with a grave awareness of our cultural ethos and ways to faithfully "engage the culture" with the newspaper in one hand, as they say, and the Scriptures in the other. His little (IVP) book A Mind for God  is one I often share, sometimes give as a gift, and  from which I sometimes read out loud in workshops and sermons. White is a solid evangelical, mega-church pastor, reads the times well, and is a lively, clear writer.  Although I haven't read it, I've been told his recent one The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity is also quite good, a sobering, basic cultural overview pitched to ordinary church leaders. 

Now, he has taken some of that passion to understand the times, and offers us a quick and easy overview of the "nones." Again: the single fastest-growing religious group of our time is those who check the box next to the word "none" on national surveys. In America, this is nearly 20% of the population.  And most churches are doing very little to reach them with the gospel.  And, it seems, what intentional effort we've made, has been not too fruitful.  (I applaud, by the way, those who have used You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church... and Rethinking Faith by David Kinnaman --  you know we brought him to Dallastown a few years ago to talk about that stellar book, and it is still very, very valuable, as is the DVD curriculum which we also sell. It is about young adults who have left the church, but who often still see themselves as Christian, or at least some kind of religious.)

This new Rise of the Nones book by James Emery White gives you the important definitions and data you need: exactly who are the unaffiliated? What caused this seismic shift in our culture? And it offers ways churches can more effectively reach these people, insights that are wise and reliable -- the sort of relevant orthodox vision I think many of our churches need to explore.

Here is church growth and church planting guru Ed Stetzer:

 "In an era of increasing complexity and religious apathy, James Emery White has written a book that is helpful, informative, challenging, and timely. Those who care about communicating the gospel in this complex culture and think the church must regroup and re-engage should read Rise of the Nones."  

TTeach us To Want.jpgeach us To Want: Longing, Ambition, & the Life of Faith Jen Pollock Michel (IVP/Crescendo/her-meneutics) $16.00  I stood up in front of CCO staff telling them how good this one was, glad that it so nicely dove-tailed with Smith's staff seminar lecture on Desiring the Kingdom. and was, further, just a moving, delight to read. In that lecture, of course, he insisted that we are not merely "brains on a stick" and a wholistic anthropology must lead us to pedagogy and methods of ministry that honor our deepest heart/gut desires. Worship (and worldview formation) shapes our longings, teaches us to love (but what?)  Of course, the secular liturgies and ideologies of the day do this, too, so our habits are often shaped less by the things of God, and more by the longings drawn out by the secularized forces and habits learned (at the mall, most obviously?) So Smith is all about desire, which he gets from Augustine, by the way.

This beautiful new book, almost written as a memoir, attends to this vital question of how we come to love the things we do, and the ways we do, and asks what we should do with our desires. As a woman, particiularly (but written for anyone) she asks big questions about her longings, her passions, her body, her vocation... it is marvelous, rich stuff.

The Gospel Coalition blogger Bethany Jenkins (who reads quite a lot, I happen to know) writes of it, "Seriously, one of the most beautiful nonfiction books I have ever read."   The very impressive writer Leslie Leyland Fields says, "I've been waiting for this book for a very long time." 

And Rebekah Lyons (who wrote the lovely Freefall to Fly) notes that "Through her own story of fear, loss, and God's goodness, Jen Pollock Michel stirs us to recover and reshape (these) desires in light of the kingdom of God."

Here is what the very fine wordsmith Mark Buchanan says of it:

Jen Pollock Michel fuses three things that make her book essential reading: deep insight, raw honesty and radiant prose. She's a terrific writer, an agile thinker and--if that were not enough--a fearless witness to her own heart's darkness and light. By inviting me deeply into the mess and beauty of her own story, she has given me courage to step into the mess and beauty of my own--and, with her, to meet afresh the One who awakens, names, purifies and meets all the desires of my heart.

Here is a short interview with Ms Michel, with some nice points about the book, and some good quotes. Check it out, and come back to us, please. 

By the way, IVP / Crescendo Books is an imprint of very thoughtful books by and mostly for women  -- every one so far has been a winner.  The her-meneutics imprint refers to the wonderful blog, for which Michel writes.  

Rreordered love.jpgeordered Love, Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness David K. Naugle (Eerdmans) $18.00 Well. This wonderful, rich, provocative, interesting, important book came out a few months before Smith's Desiring... and it covers (in somewhat different language and tone) some very similar material. It is clear they are both traveling in some similar circles, with similar influences and insights. Not only do they both allow their friends to use rather intimate nicknames -- James K.A. goes by Jamie, and Professor David goes by Davey -- they both have studied Dooyeweerd and other Dutch Reformed philosophers, have written about the notion of worldview, and both are excellent, excellent teachers. Davey spends a lot of time with undergrads and teaches a lot -- and has learned to take deep, mature, and important stuff and help convey it to ordinary, thoughtful folks. They both love Augustine (and both have epigrams from the 4th century Bishop in their books.) As John Witvliet of the Calvin Institute on Christian Worship notes, "Naugle's candid discussion of the disordered human condition is particularly crucial for explaining just how dramatic and transformative the gospel really is." 

I agree. In the hands of writers like Jamie and Davey, the old "our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee" line comes alive, is seen as a powerful counter to the confusions of our times, and the key to a multi-dimensional, relevant and radical Christian spirituality. Wow, this is great, great stuff. Anybody reading Smith should pick up Reordered Love, and anyone who has taken our advice on this -- we've raved about it before -- should follow up Naugle with a few of Smith's important works.  Do it! It is a "rightly ordered" choice that will help rid you of disorder.  I promise.

Ddangerous passions.jpgangerous Passions: Deadly Sins: Learning from the Psychology of Ancient Monks Dennis Okholm  (Brazos Press) $16.99  Smith, as I gather you now realize, makes a bit deal about the "loving" nature of the heart -- that we come to desire certain things, we love sometimes the wrong things, and we are transformed less by data and information then by images and seductive longings. I think this brilliant work fits right in!

Once again, Brazos Press gives us a remarkable, learned, thoughtful book that can help the church universal. Okholm, an evangelical with a PhD from Princeton, who teaches at Azusa Pacific and Fuller Theological Seminary, is a pastor at Holy Trinity Anglican, and a Benedictine oblate.  I love this ecumenical mash-up, and this book -- the subtitle says it nicely -- does what few books do well: bringing the ancient insights of the church Fathers and Mothers into dialogue with modern authors and our postmodern milieu.  This really is a book about how the ancients viewed the seven deadly sins, and it may be the most magisterial book on this topic yet. One reviewer has called it a "tour de force of early Christian monastic psychology and theology." Another says it is "wise, accessible...brims with insight...practical and profitable." 

Gary Moon writes of Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins,

Dennis Okholm reminds us of the classic nature of what is at the heart of humans -- a tendency to move away from the heart of God -- and the fact that some of the beset Christian psychologists lived before modern psychology was born.

Ssinning like a christian.jpginning Like a Christian: A New Look at the 7 Deadly Sins William Willimon (Abingdon) $14.99  I am a fan of former Bishop Will Willimon, who has an lovely elegance and profundity of his clear, literate sermons, and good, practical theology. He usually emphasize something that Jamie Smith did in his Hearts & Minds Lectures, namely, that the church has a very, very important role in forming the desires and habits and hopes and visions of the people of God. Spiritual formation happens mostly in church, in community, and (for better or worse) is shaped by the congregation's liturgy.  Worship -- directed towards the Triune God or directed towards false gods in the culture -- does something to us.  If we are called to be transformed as Romans 12:1-2 says (in our bodies, by the renewal of our minds, non-conformed to the culture, expressing worship in all of life) we must concern ourselves with not only proper and effective worship, but the insidious ways sin creeps in and idols take hold.  This is a matter of reflecting together about virtue and brokenness.

And so, reflecting on how we think about sin, how we are misinformed and misinformed by idols and the distortions of our virtues, really is something we must talk about.  Willimon, with his famous Duke U philosophy buddy Stanley Hauerwas, always has much to say about how embodied virtue in the way of Christ is shaped in community.  Here, he gives this fresh take on the propensity to sin, and what it means when Christians sin.  This updated edition is a really good resource -- as it says on the back, "penetrating observations will be welcomed by readers who are dissatisfied with shallow, feel-good Christianity (from the left or the right...)" It includes discussion questions.  If you thought that the serious Okholm one seemed a bit much, try this.

Ccounterf gods 2.jpgounterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power and the Only Hope That Matters Timothy Keller (Dutton) $15.00  This is not new, and yet it just cries out to be mentioned whenever we do cultural analysis about the things that most seduce us.  I have long recommended Richard Foster's powerful, thorough study of materialism, Freedom of Simplicity (HarperOne; $13.99) and his very useful, and nearly prescient book The Challenges of the Disciplined Life: Christian Reflections on Money, Sex & Power (HarperOne; $14.99.) This powerful little book by Keller -- who does ministry at the heart of the empire, near Wall Street and Broadway, I might add) -- is up to date, brief, and offers the centrality of sanctification through the cross and grace of Christ as the antidote to these misguided loves. Although Foster is one of my favorite writers, and he is wise in his cultural discernment and spiritual direction, Keller is a bit more philosophical and a bit more astute about the idolatrous lures of the age.  Highly recommended.

Ppracticing our f.jpgracticing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People (second edition) edited by Dorothy C. Bass (Jossey Bass) $19.95  When this first volume came out in the late 1990s I predicted that it would create an avalanche of new books and new ways of talking about the uniquely Christian things we do, practices, habits, ways of leaning into life with idiosyncratic stuff we do. I said it was prophetic, important, yada, yada, yada.  And I was partially correct: it was very well reviewed and a whole series of books spun off it it, offering uniquely Christian insights into living before God, with spiritually attuned ways of engaging our bodies, music, money, time, speaking, caring for children, and more.  We respect the ecumenical, mature, and lovely writing that is on offer in each of the "Practices of Faith Series." But this is the one that started it all, and we couldn't be happier to be reminded of it when Jamie cited it as an example of the "liturgical" ways of being in the world. Here is a considerable re-take on the language of spiritual disciplines, practices are communal and outwardly tangible.  There are chapters here on how to think about dying, sabbath, offering testimony, being hospitable, ways of doing "household economics" and more. The more general chapters (by Bass and Craig Dykstra) on thinking about practices, and, well, practicing them, are very generative and thoughtful.  

Some of our conversation with Smith touched on this question of how worship shapes us well (this is the heart of Imagining the Kingdom) but he was quick to invite us to realizing liturgies, practices, and habit-forming rituals are woven into the fabric of our daily life as discipleship in God's world.  This book helps open up that conversation considerably.  This includes suggestions for conversation and further reflection.

We also stock the teen version (co-written by some church teens) called Way to Live: Christian Practices for Teens (Upper Room $18.00) and the amazing, and under-utilized edition for hip, young adults, On Our Way: Christian Practices for Living a Whole Life (Upper Room $17.00.)

Dflow package.jpgVD For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles (Acton Institute) regular price $59.99 our sale price $35.00 

No, no, I'm not just slipping this in because we're on the FLOW bandwagon: this really does offer a way of being in the world that is somehow idiosyncratic, from thinking about work to family to art to law, and living into the wonder and mystery of it all. This is allusive and creative and fun, and although I've reviewed it extensively already, had to note that anyone reading Jamie Smith, or pondering the nature of uniquely Christian ways of life in the world, resisting disorderly affections and the distortions of idols, will surely find this insightful, provocative, and useful. Yes!

See my long BookNotes review of the For the Life of the World DVD HERE.  See the cool trailer, HERE.



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July 17, 2014

Join Us for the Third Annual Hearts & Minds Pittsburgh Summer Lecture - with James K.A. Smith July 22, 2014

James KA Smith poster.jpgIf you are friends with either Beth or I on Facebook, or a member of the Hearts & Minds Facebook group, or follow me on twitter, well, then, you know we are sponsoring a free public lecture with James K.A. Smith this Tuesday, July 22nd, in Pittsburgh. (See the poster below.)

Our very competent bookstore staff will of course keep the shop open while Beth and I sojourn West to be with our friends in the CCO campus ministry during one of their annual training events; we are even now pulling and packing boxes, lugging stuff up stairs and soon into our big van. We set up a pretty large book display there, and glad to share our curated wares with them.

Ahh, but what titles to take?

The CCO folks who do campus ministry are interested in almost everything, and they help college students relate evangelical Christian faith to the details of daily life. So we take theology and spiritual formation as well as books specifically about Christian engagement with art, film, music and culture. Of course we have books about higher education, that section onlearning for the love of god.jpg the tables anchored by the lovely little hardback Make College Count by Derek Melleby (Baker; $12.99) and Learning for the Love of God: A Guide for Students by Derek Melleby and Donald Opitz (Brazos Press; $14.99.) We will be with Steve Lutz, too, and of course will promote his great book for collegiates, King of the Campus (House Studio; $14.99.) We have a lot of books on how to help students gain a vision for their careers and callings, with titles on vocation and work, of course promoting Steve Garber's rich, eloquent Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good and the new paperback edition of Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God's Work by Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Aldsdorf (Dutton; $16.00.) 

We take books on developing the Christian mind and resources on sports, sex, and science. We have books on evangelism and books on prayer, books on politics and books on the arts, books on law and books on worship, books on food and books on nursing, teaching, and engineering.  CCO works hard to apply their robust and relevant vision of Christ's Lordship to issues like racial diversity or global poverty and, naturally, to ordinary things kids go through on campus like eating disorders or roommate problems, stuff about digital technology and even how best to use video games. Did you know there were really thoughtful Christian books about such things?  If you've followed us for long, I guess you do.

So, off we go to serve the staff of the CCO, selling books that they will use in their ministries at dozens of campuses in the Mid-Atlantic region and beyond.  

And then, in the middle of that, we and the CCO throw what I like to think of as a Hearts & Minds party. We underwrite a lecture series, and invite as many folks as can come to hear a famous author and a good time is had by all. (That's a party in my book -- right? And, as Andrew Bird puts it in one of his very cool songs, "there will be snacks!")

Which brings me to just one of the glimmers of insight into this year's Hearts & Minds lecture: Jamie Smith, who is a very serious philosopher, with scholarly books admired literally all over the world, who cares deeply not only about allowing his faith to be formative and controlling of his academic work, also cares about relating his scholarly research not only to the academy, but to the church and world. And he loves pop culture -- I'm sure he got the Andrew Bird "Tables and Chairs" reference. He is immersed in indie rock and contemporary cinema and the best modern novels. In fact, I have reason to think that in his Pittsburgh lecture this Tuesday he will site Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace and the upbeat, melancholy songs of Death Cab for Cutie.

(Just notice how he uses music lyrics in this beautiful, new piece in Comment.  Did I mention he edits Comment?)

I suspect that you, too, believe that God cares about all of life, that we not only may, but should, think seriously about all manner offor the life- letters to the exiles.jpg things in popular culture and, empowered by God's grace and Spirit, dive deep into the real world around us, messy as it is.  Almost like the Jewish exiles of old, we are called to help the flourishing of our world; we are called to know the world around us. That DVD we were promoting last week gets it right: For the Life of the World, indeed.  

Maybe that is why you are a customer of Hearts & Minds, you want to support a business trying to work this stuff out, and help you in your own faith journey.

So there is a lot to know, a lot to learn, new habits to embrace, and books can help us on our way.  I'm sure you believe that.

My own passion for this kind of missional Kingdom vision, that insists that all of life in God's ordered creation is spiritual and that true faith is lived out in the daily, mundane stuff of ordinary life (as well as in big and important gestures of being involved in whatever may be the burning issues of the day, taking up causes and involvements in social initiatives with winsome passion and gusto, giving ourselves away to the needs of the world) was formed in many ways by the CCO's ministry among students when I was in college in the early and mid- 1970s.  And then, more so, when Beth and I worked with them in the late 70s, helping in a small way to create that little conference now known as Jubilee.
For these important reasons, although we are not "from" Pittsburgh, we go back to the Three Rivers to co-host with the CCO a public event that tries to illustrate and underscore, celebrate and extend this heritage of proclaiming the good news that all of life is redeemed. For some of us, it is what (drawing on Al Wolter's influential Creation Regained, perhaps) we used to call a reformational worldview.  

And this year, James K.A.Smith is our man, and man, does he do it well.

jamie hand on chin.jpgAs I mentioned, Professor James K.A. Smith captures much about contemporary culture, and he is very much in tune with music and art and architecture and movies; he experiences and engages these artifacts from within his classic, historic, ecumenical, faith. He sometimes says he is Pentecostal -- he wrote one serious book about being a Pentecostal philosopher called Thinking in Tongues (Erdmans; $19.00) although he is also a member of the Christian Reformed Church (he teaches at their flagship Calvin College in Grand Rapids.) In most of his writing, though, one senses a deep loyalty to the grand apostolic tradition, to the communion of the saints in the one, big Body of Christ; in his book Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Baker; $22.99) he offers a phenomenology of worship that is resonant with many of the best liturgical thinkers these days, Anglicans, Lutherans, Roman Catholics and the Orthodox, even. I guess he is a lower case c catholic and a capital K Kuyperian. In all of his body of work he is giving a fascinating and generative account of this grand story and how it can shape our deepest desires, our life and times and how we "do life" together in this 21st century as only such a faith-based philosopher can.

The topic he will be addressing at the CCO/Hearts & Minds Pittsburgh Summer Lecture ishow not to be secular.jpg based on his very thoughtful recent book called How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Eerdmans; $16.00.) 

As you can see on the poster below, the title of his talk alludes to the much-discussed "nones" (those that checked "none of the above" in the religious category in the recent census and other surveys and polls.) Many people today in the West, especially younger adults, including many who have had some connection to the church, call themselves "spiritual but not religious."  Much ink has been spilt and every denomination is pondering what to do about this growing crowd.

Perhaps the first thing to say is that we all (still) long for transcendence. 

And Smith maintains that the massive Harvard University Press book by the eminent Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor (The Secular Age) helps us understand our times and those who might be caught in the Death Cab for Cutie/David Foster Wallace world, a world that although not overtly religious in any conventional sense, is still haunted; our longings are freighted, there are signals of some desire for transcendence nearly everywhere. We don't so much live in the land of the new atheists, and while every Christian publisher has released apologetic resources to counter them, Taylor and Smith believe this isn't quite the needed approach. Smith's own new book, How (Not) To Be Secular, is, to put it simply, a guide to the Taylor tome, which gives a better account of what is going on these days, even given the rise of the new atheists and their hostility to Christianity, and what it might mean for Christian witness. 

Smith's book draws us into Taylor insights, and then adds his own explanation not only of Taylor's insight, but what gospel-centered folks might do, what difference it all makes.

Tim Keller, the thoughtful pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York, says of Smith's book 

This volume (if read widely) could have a major impact on the level of theological leadership that our contemporary church is getting. It could also have a great effect on the quality of our communication and preaching.I highly recommend this book.

Here are a handful of resources to help you learn more about Jamie Smith and some of his many books.  I do hope that if you are anywhere near Pittsburgh this Tuesday, you'll join the party.  If not, watch these videos, order some books, and be with us in spirit.   Thanks!

  • Here is a broader, more general overview of Smith's work that I did as I promoted his wonderful collection of essays called Discipleship in the Present Tense: Reflections on Faith and Culture (Calvin College Press; $14.99.) I love that book.
  • Here is a splendid 3-minute intro to the project of these two books (there will be a third!)   After watching that, you can see several other short takes on other aspects of these important books, especially the second. Wow. You will want to watch them more than once.
  • Here is a short video about his lovely small paperback, Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition James K.A. Smith (Brazos; $14.99) Several years ago, Smith weighed in on the discussions and debates about what Time magazine called, drawing on a book title by this name, the phenomenon of the "young, restless and Reformed." Anyone observing the American religious landscape knows there has been a renewal of conservative Calvinistic theology, and many passionate young adults have their own heroes, authors, bloggers, church planters, many who are identifying themselves as seriously Reformed. Go to any evangelical conference and you'll see young folks talking about Jonathan Edwards and the Westminster Confession or the latest trend in PCA hymnody.   But it isn't always pretty.  Uh, yeah.
So, Jamie wrote this series of letters to a fictional young man and a young woman, which guides them through the strengths and weaknesses of this new interest in old Calvinism and frames their interest by the bigger question of their own spiritual growth and involvement in the broader church. Smith's fondness for Augustine comes up, here, again, and it is warm and inspiring. These letters are theologically informed, pastoral, interesting, and very, very helpful for anyone wanting to grow in their faith.  For those who care about these details, I tell folks that these letters draws the reader along, from Piper to Kuyper. I also tell customers that even if they are not young or not Calvinist, this has wisdom for which you will be grateful and glad. Letters... is a quiet little book that deserves a wide readership.
  • Here is a review I did of Smith's other very new book, Who's Afraid of Relativism: Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood, which is part of the very important "The Church in Postmodern Culture" series. Smith did the first book in that series, the popular Who's Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (Baker Academic; both $19.99.)  Learn about them here -- but come back and buy 'em from us. We stock the whole set, of course.  Thanks.

We have all these books at a BookNotes discount -- 20% OFF. 
Just use the link shown below, which will take you to our secure order form page. 
Or, come to Robert Morris University near Pittsburgh this Tuesday and join the party.

                                                       Thanks to Ned Bustard of World's End Images for the poster. He desires the Kingdom.
James KA Smith poster.jpg



20% off
order here
takes you to the secure Hearts & Minds order form page
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inquire here
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July 13, 2014

A balanced, helpful, reliable, brief guidebook - The Skeptic's Guide Series: "The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict" by Dale Hanson Bourke ON SALE

rockets.jpgThe outbreak of war between the Palestinians and Israel again these last days has been upsetting for all decent folks, and has caused many of us here in the States to discuss and debate the relative merits of the claims made by each side, highlighting the different injustices, the different fears, the different geo-politics, and trying to understand the leading ideological and religious motivations. It is sad to say that this outbreak is nothing new, and the history of this beautiful and violent part of the world is nothing if not complicated.

I spent a bit of time involved in several on-line conversations about it all. Not only did I get several different views, but I was reminded --  this time, painfully for me -- how deep the differences of perception are.somebody is wrong cartoon.jpg One man, from a Mediterranean country, would not allow me to blame the Palestinians for anything; it was all the Zionist's fault. Another friend of Jewish descent had an equally one-sided view. Neither would budge and although both were followers of Jesus, they seemed utterly disinterested as I tried to interject into the conversation His holy call to peacemaking. Like many these days, it seemed as if their faith didn't equip them for even having open minds or tender hearts, let alone unconventional solutions: their minds were made up, and the other guys were to blame.

In these kinds of discussions, my call for a third way, for being God's agents of transformation by maybe "thinking outside of the box" or using prudent, faith-based insights about wisdom and reconciliation, are hindered; sometimes people just don't care about Biblical visions and proposals, but sometimes, although I can usually preach that stuff in a way that sounds good in theory, I sometimes just don't know all the facts.  And in the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, the facts are, as I've said, complicated.

Not only was the need for having a reliable source for basic data pressed upon me again this week as I listened to the news of the death of youths, then the rocket attacks, and then found myself gaping at Christians who seemed not to care about nuance and fairness and balance, but I've found myself talking a bit about the needs for a just solution in this Middle Eastern trouble-spot as my own denomination's recent policies were in the news. The PC(USA) passed resolutions to selectively financially divest from three US-based companies who were involved in building equipment used by Israel in what our denominational voters concluded were unjust and inappropriate ways. Many didn't understand or agree with this vote, so the issue has come up. Other Christians, Jewish activists, and even non-religious organizations have either applauded or protested our vote. (You can read about the history of this evolving discussion here, or a report about the recent vote here, if you'd like.) A few leaders in our tribe even posted an open letter (signed by a few friends of mine) which called for social justice but also reminded those who care about justice for the Palestinians not to overstate the matter, thereby seeming to minimize Israel's great and very legitimate concerns. That letter, an attempt at balance and civility, resulted in the revoking of what some thought was a one-sided study piece. (You can read that letter here, and a critique of it.) So it has been an emotional few weeks talking about this stuff, with people I respect offering differing views, positions, and passions.  As I said to some friends the other day, I'm feeling kind of beat up.

I do not usually use BookNotes as a platform for expressing the details of my own policy views, and this post is not offered to you for that purpose, either.  Rather --  of course, of course -- I want to highlight a book or two to help you sort through the issues, to offer some direct answers to tough questions, that I found helpful to get "up to speed" on the basics.  

Our inventory of books here in the Dallastown bookstore about the Middle East, by the way, is pretty large and certainly diverse, so if you want more sophisticated, detailed, treatments just give us a call.  But if you need a quick read that is fair-minded, and up-to-date, allow me to recommend this.   It is a must-read for anybody who cares about this topic.

WE HAVE THESE AT 20% OFF and you can order them at the link below.

israeli-palestinian.jpghe Skeptic's Guide Series: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict  Dale Hanson Bourke (IVP) $13.00  First let me say that I've used other books in this "Skeptic Guide Series" and they are each excellently done. Bourke has traveled all over the world, is a first-class journalist, and while she has deep concerns about peace, justice, compassion, and other Christian virtues, her desire for fairly and clearly reporting the facts and explaining the background of the issues at hand are impeccable. I have admired her for the early books she released, and for her days as editor of the Today's Christian Woman. (Don't ask, but I used to read it, okay?) She's a darn good writer.

The format of these "Skeptic's Guides" is appealing as they are all published on paper that is just a bit heavier then usual, flexible and glossy, with full-color photos and just the right amount of helpful graphs, charts, and nice side-bars. The Q & A format is really helpful, and if you've ever said I wonder about... but maybe felt too dumb to ask, or didn't know which website to check for a reliable (and concise) answer, any of these, but especially the one about the Holy Land troubles will be a fabulous resource for you. 

Bourke has obviously read very widely in the field, has interviewed some key playersdale.jpg, and has done on-the-ground research.  That she firstly thanks the deeply respected Telos Group and their staff, including Todd Deatherage (renowned for balance and respect for all parties and for the trusting relationships they've developed with many important leaders on both sides of the Wall) I knew this was going to be a very rare, balanced book.

One reviewer (Mark Galli of Christianity Today) says she is "unmatched in giving an even-handed and readable account of controversial matters."

Bill Hybells, founder of the influential Willow Creek Church (which has been very socially involved in recent years, by the way) writes this great endorsement:

It's important to have civil discussions on difficult issues even when we disagree. I'm thankful for the hard work of Dale Hanson Bourke, who sifts through the thorniest issues--HIV/AIDS, global poverty, immigration, even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--to extract what we need to know not just to get along but to make meaningful change in the world. Her Skeptic's Guides have been important for our church, and I know they will be for your community as well.
It seems to me that although these short books are for those of us who need a quick primer, those who are already engaged in learning and advocacy will find them good resources as well. They are, as they say, "user-friendly" and great to use when preparing presentations, drafting letters, creating classes, or answering questions of whoever you got into a conversation with about these things.
global poverty.jpg
I previously read her early one in the "Skeptic's Guide Series" about global poverty -- what a great little guidebook it is, useful for anyone who cares about world hunger -- and her powerful one about the global aids crisis. (Order those from us, too!) I love the concise depth and balanced vision and informed background she is able to give to these complex topics in such a short, inexpensive, and colorful volume.

global aids crisis.jpgAnother source of anguish for some of us this week has been some of the controversies that came into the spotlight this week regarding the detention centers for children of immigrants in Arizona.  Several related issues have come up in the news, and have been debated on-line in the last few days.  Again, few of those with whom I was in lengthy debates (who had strong opinions, based on one news report, about Who Was To Blame for some of the sad situation and failing policies there) seemed to have much actual data about the very thing we were discussing. I sensed that my interlocutors didn't know much about the details or texture of the people or places involved, but, again, I didn't, really, either. Once more, I realized that my own passion -- not unlike a whole lot of people also posting on the web -- gets ahead of me, and I have deep feelings and opinions, but sometimes not a lot of facts.  Do you relate?  We need answers!

And, yep, it was Dale Hanson Bourke again to the rescue with her latest little book in theimmigration.jpg series called, simply, The Skeptic's Guide Series: Immigration (IVP; $13.00.)  I have been involved in one way or another in some immigration right's issues over the years, and have great appreciation for (may I say it again?) how darn complicated some of these policy matters are.  Still, at the very least, as people of faith (and others citizens) develop their opinions on things, besides a thoughtful, Biblically-informed worldview, we do need some basic facts. We need to know the terms being used in the field, and what reporters and solid activists mean by this or that. If you are like me, you will welcome this fine compendium of helpful definitions, a few easy-to-follow charts, a bit of historical background, and good answers, presented in a way which is fair-minded, thoughtful, concise and reliable.  

With the tragic news unfolding this very weekend -- in Gaza, the West Bank, the Golan Heights and other such places, and along the US Southern border, too -- we need to know some basic data. We need to know the meaning of the words used in the debates, who the various stakeholders are, and what is at stake for each side. I am very, very grateful for having read these books, and, today, as I finished The Skeptic's Guide Series: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, I realized that the maps and pictures and stories and history lessons and background pieces have reinvigorated my own interest and desire to be fair, balanced, informed and faithful.  Most of us want to be on the right side of history, standing up against injustices, adding our voices to the right.  But it sometimes isn't easy to know just what to do, and who is who in the great issues of the day.

If you, too, want to be brought "up to speed" on where the "West Bank" is, about what The Temple Mount and Dome is, questions about Hamas or the differences between the PLO and the Palestinian Authority, about how it is that Israel is a religious but democratic country, about the history of the infamous refugee camps, and about the contested terms used for the wall, the green-line, even of the term "occupied," I am sure Bourke's little book will serve you well.




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July 4, 2014

10 Books to Read About Restoring Civility -- ON SALE at Hearts & Minds' BookNotes

Those who spend much time on Facebook or watching TV news shows are surely aware of the hostility that continues nearly unabated in our often uncivil public debates. The Supreme Court decision about RFRA,  Hobby Lobby and the Hahn family's Mennonite wood business has generated so much nasty comment and ridiculous accusations that I found myself in painful, draining, conversations with folks less about the substance of the decisions but about the tone and style of our public discourse. I know that I've failed to be gracious in public debates and in my own writing at times, but am amazed at how mean-spirited some people are.

My friends on the left might be surprised when I say that some of their spokespeople tend to be as bad in the vitriol department as the notorious loud-mouths at Fox News.  Conservatives who have made a cottage industry documenting the ugliness of the left seem to be tone-deaf to how negative and aggressive they themselves sound.


While thoughtful voices and serious arguments worth considering are found in respectable journals that represent various stops on the political spectrum, too many people on Facebook or call-in shows just vent their spleens with inane bloviating. This grieves me.  I was reminded again this week how I resonated when I heard one blogger a few years ago saying he was going to be a "conscientious objector in the culture wars."

But yet, I'm not sure that is responsible, and hardly even possible unless one is completely disengaged.

Which reminds me of the last BookNotes post I did, highlighting the DVD series called For the Life of theflow package.jpg World: Letters to the Exiles.  Promoting the artful, big picture overview of patient, missional, "in but not of the world," whole-life discipleship and cultural engagement so graciously presented in that DVD is one good way to counter this ugly tendency.

FLOW (as some at the Acton Institute abbreviate For the Life of the World) offers a delightfully rich and thick view of culture and God's call to steward the various economies and spheres of life, in wonder and joy, with great concern for justice and order, but it refuses to traffic in alarmism or negativity. It is engaged, but nonpartisan. No one who watches even a few of those seven short film experiments will think we who follow Christ are called to anything other than a robust life in and for the world, including living into God's call to justice. Yet, I am hopeful that those who embrace this sort of perspective will be motivated to find alternatives to culture wars and winner-take-all, scorched-Earth political strategies. If, as FLOW suggests, we are inspired by the wonder and grace and goodness of the creation and the holiness of the good God who is disclosed in the story of redemption of the cosmos, few will be content to resort to the sort of shallow and dehumanizing name-calling that I've seen, even from pastors and theologians, this very week.

So, in addition to what I said earlier in the week, here's another good reason to work through this wonderful  FLOW DVD curriculum and the Field Guide: it presents a better way, an alternative to the really awful examples of ugly cultural engagement on offer too often, and a vision that is distinct from the Christian left or religious right, without at all opting for a tepid or overly pious disinterest in the things of Earth.  Isn't that what you long for, what you wish your own faith community could take up?

Having said all that -- my anguish this week about the mean-ness and incivility in our debating, and my hope that the vision offered by For the Life of the World can form among us a different posture and social alternative  --  allow me to offer just a few more resources to help us think about our civility and our commitments to things like our first freedoms as US citizens. (For our international readers I might note that I'm posting this on our celebration of Independence Day, the 4th of July.)

Most of these books I have suggested before, and reviewed them more thoroughly in somecivility poster (humorous).jpg cases.  If you are as burdened as I am about the caustic tones and bad arguments so prevalent these days, I trust you will appreciate this list. As with anything else, there are skills and attitudes to be learned, habits and values that under-gird skills of good thinking and fair debate and respectful discourse. We need to deepen the craft of clarifying one's views, thinking through the implications of one's convictions, and nurture the virtue and character of being the kind of person that respects others and even is willing to learn from those with whom one disagrees.  Call this, at least, open-mindedness and humility. Remember to be kind.  Stand up for others.  Love our enemies, including those you disapprove of.  We can learn to "speak the truth in love" and to disagree without being disagreeable.

Here are ten resources that we think will help. Maybe those who need them most won't buy them, but you can, and you can share their insight and contribute to a conversation about public manners, at least, and forms of civic life that enhance dialogue, freedom, and, as Parker Palmer puts it, "a politics worthy of the human spirit."

Uuncommon decency.jpgncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World Richard Mouw (IVP) $16.00  I have often said that this is one of my all-time favorite books, and it is a splendid little resource, thoughtful, informative, deeply theological and yet delightfully accessible. It has profound meat on the bones, and will help you be formed in the virtues demanded by the call to Christ-like cultural engagement. There are good and important insights here, and a wise, balanced framework for thinking about disagreements - religious, political, philosophical. I like Rich Mouw's impulse (shown in most of his many good books) to ponder other views by saying "on the other hand..." But there is also the chapter called "When There Is No Other Hand." This is not a schoolmarm scolding us about bad manners, promoting milk-toast moderation, but offers a robust public theology worked out with thoughtful etiquette and respect. This is so good!

Ssaving civility.jpgaving Civility: 52 Ways to Tame Rude, Crude & Attitude for a Polite Planet Sara Hacala (Skylight Paths) $16.99  Tasteless and tactless behavior is on the rise, so I thought I would list a book that is not rooted intentionally in a Christian perspective but is written by a consultant and speaker who works in business, schools, among non-profits and others who works in this field of resisting incivility. She goes beyond a superficial discussion of proper manners to new protocols and practices. As it says on the back cover, Hacala "taps the wisdom of ancient spiritual luminaries as well as the latest social science research" as she "presents civility as a mind-set that encompasses values and attitudes that help us embrace connections to others and help repair society." Fifty-two practical ways are suggested showing how to reverse the course of our current cultural tone.

Ii beg.jpg Beg to Differ: Navigating Difficult Conversations with Truth and Love Tim Muehlhoff (IVP) $15.00 This splendid book gets as practical as can be in what I think is an extraordinarily useful resource.  Most of us, I think, believe ourselves to be agreeable and pleasant. Yet, as the internet has reminded me this week, there are just terrible knee-jerk instincts that kick in during times of controversy and even leaders who should know better seem ill-prepared to handle conflict very well.  I am pretty conflict averse and realize that I've got much to learn.  How about you? I've read several books on arguing well, on civil disagreements, and on conflict management, and this is one of the best. It is informed by good psychology, solid theology, a fine attitude and good writing skills. Muehlhoff is a communications expert and brings good insights from Scripture and communication theory.  I think every church should have this available in the church library or resource room and every pastor or ministry leader should have one to loan out, since we all face conflict and need help learning how to do conflict well.

Ppeace cat.jpgeace Catalysts: Resolving Conflict in Our Families, Organizations and Communities  Rick Love (IVP) $15.00  I have mentioned Rick Love before, a courageous, Spirit-filled former missionary who, in his conversations and relationships with Muslims (including some very strict and even hostile ones) grew to not only love them, but to move increasingly to be interested in global peace-making, bridge-building, conflict-resolution and the like. This backstory has equipped him to learn remarkably well profound skills that we can now all learn about. This is a very good book on conflict and includes extraordinary stories of God's work as we attempt to be a peace with others. This is very impressive stuff.  Thanks be to God for this peace-maker who has had global experiences and invites us all to this great adventure, following Christ into the world.

Hhealing the heart of demo.jpgealing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit  Parker J. Palmer (Jossey-Bass) $24.95  I recall doing a review of this when it first came out a few years ago, sharing how very glad I was that this deep Quaker leader was able to bring his experience in building community, circles of conversation and heart-felt sharing to bear on how we could find ways for local conversation, civil society, and good, respectful debate, face to face, in our local communities. We are in an era (have we ever not been?) of deep divisions and here he gives us tools to take "we the people" seriously.  Palmer wrote a very early book called The Company of Strangers which was about civic life and the spirituality of our lives as citizens, so this is no new terrain for him.  I like this quote by Congressman John Lewis who writes, "We have been trying to bridge the great divides in this great country for a long time. In this book, Parker Palmer urges us to 'keep on walking, keep on talking' -- just as we did in the civil rights movement -- until we cross those bridges together." This is a dignified, practical book, wise and helpful.

Tcase for civ.jpghe Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends On It  Os Guinness  (HarperOne) $23.95 Few people in the culture wars - the secularized progressives or the sanctimonious right, those wanting a religiously-denuded "naked public square" or those wanting an enforced "sacred public square" -- are consistent with the genius of the First Amendment. Dr. Guinness is a respected sociologist, public thinker, and extraordinary communicator and here he brilliantly points us to a framework of "freedom for and freedom from" religion which is obviously rooted in the US Constitution and our Bill of Rights.  He passionately invites us to consider how to work this out, and reminds us of the sorts of structures that enhance what he calls a "cosmopolitan public square."  I think The Case for Civility is a hugely significant proposal about protecting public justice in our pluralistic society. Make it the next thing you read after Mouw's call to convicted civility.

Afps og.jpg Free People's Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future Os Guinness (IVP) $16.00  Although it isn't exactly a sequel to the important Case for Civility, here, again, Dr. Guinness, a Brit, holds up the genius of the US Founding Fathers and their vision of the Bill of Rights with exceptional aplomb and his legendary eloquence. Here he expounds on the virtues and habits of heart needed to sustain the American experience. I cannot tell you how important this is, although Guinness cites many who sounded similar warnings (Jefferson, de Tocqueville, Kennedy.) This is a fabulous study of the ideas of the Founding Fathers and an urgent call for Americans to ponder the nature of our democracy and what kind of people we want to be.  Even if one thinks that he doesn't comes down completely right on every page, this is none-the-less one of the most important books of this sort in recent times, exploring the nexus of religion, freedom, character and civility. If you are flying a little flag this Independence Day, reading this British celebration of the ideas behind - and the values and virtues needed to keep - our American freedoms will help you understand all that is at stake, and for what those original thirteen colonies were striving.  Fascinating!

TGlobal Public Square.jpghe Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity Os Guinness (IVP) $16.00  Folks are not only angry about the Supreme Court Decision about Hobby Lobby and the Mennonite business that sought an exemption from paying for what they consider to be profoundly dangerous abortion-causing birth control methods, many are debating the merits of the Presbyterian Church (USA) divestment from three corporations who do controversial projects in Israel, the debates about the Benghazi fiasco, the exchange of Gitmo prisoners for a US soldier who went AWOL in Afghanistan, the role of the US military around the world.  In others words, the vitriol is not only about domestic issues, but about foreign policy, often related to terrorism driven by radical Islam.  I don't need to dwell on the evils of ISIS or describe the horror of groups like Boko Haram and their enslavement of children in Nigeria or the persecution of the ancient Christian church in places like Syria to remind us of the significance of figuring out and promoting notions of religious freedom throughout the world. Good people can disagree about what US policy should be about all this, but there is a constellation of issues about religion in foreign affairs about which we must be aware.

I say all this just to once again highlight this book which I know Dr. Guinness feels very passionate. As well he should - he has traveled throughout the world, has seen great injustice first hand, and realizes that while big ideas and philosophical debate isn't the only answer to religiously-based injustices, a framework of affirming international religious freedom is a major part - and too often, and minimized part - of effective peace-building and international diplomacy.  There are heavier and more scholarly works on the role of faith in global diplomacy, and there are lurid documentations of the martyrdom of Christians at the hands of brutal forces of repression. The Global Public Square is better than most: thoughtful, engaging, important, passionate, and strikes a great tone for ordinary readers.  I cannot recommend it more highly. It is needed this very season, perhaps now more than ever and we would all be better global citizens if we spend some time with these pages.

Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times Os Guinness (IVP) $16.0renaissance os g.jpg0 While mentioning some older books of Os Guinness we are happy to announce his next book. We are taking PRE-ORDERS of this forthcoming book (due early August 2014) which is brief, passionate, thoughtful, and a book which invites morally-serious and thoughtful Christian engagement with the culture, refusing both shallow accommodation and postures of alarmist hostility. I have an advanced copy of this manuscript and I will read it over the 4th of July, reminding me of the hope of the gospel, how to keep "first things first" and ways to resist the cynicism of these times.  While Guinness' two most recent books (listed above) are very much about the ideas of America and the need for religious liberty, pluralism and civility, this one backs up to offer a grand vision of how to be salt and light and leaven in the broken world of idols and ideologues. It is handsome and powerful, perhaps akin to his small classic such as Time for Truth or in some ways, even his essential The Call. I believe it will be seen as a major contribution, readable, lucid, inspiring, and refreshing reminding us to serve "an audience of One" and live out faith without fear, trusting God and God alone for the results of social change.  Can there be a renaissance of goodness in our culture? Certainly, yes, if the church returns to clarity about the gospel.

LLuminous .jpguminous: Living in the Presence and Power of Jesus  T. David Beck (IVP) $16.00  I could list any number of great books about being shaped by the virtues of Christ - you saw our several recent reviews about new books by Dallas Willard, for instance, a master of promoting processes that help us experience the renovation of the heart. I wanted to highlight this book by Beck (that I reviewed at length here at BookNotes before) because although it is mostly a book about spiritual formation and how to be open to God's work in our lives, it reminds us of the power of the Holy Spirit, and the purposes of God to be about peace and reconciliation in the world.  Oh. if other books about prayer, spiritual renewal, and the power of the Spirit were aligned with the call to peacemaking.  (And, oh, if books about peace-making in the world were framed by the broader purposes of God in the world and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.) Yes, in a post about civility, reconciliation, religious freedom, social justice, and gracious practices of public engagement, this kind of book is part of our tool-kit. To learn to make a difference in the world, especially in areas of disagreement and serious argument and momentous current events, we need grounded in the ways of Christ, the power and purpose of the Spirit, reminded that God is at work bringing healing and hope and reconciliation to the world.

By the way, our friends at Q Ideas gathered together a few of their own best video clips of talks they've hosted on this. What an excellent collection of (fairly short) timely pieces on the theme "How Can We Get Along When We Disagree?" All are great, including the smart one by Gideon Strauss on "principled pluralism" who commends Richard Mouw's book listed above. After ordering a few books from us (below) click here an enjoy these valuable Q videos.



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June 28, 2014

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

DVD For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles Produced by Acton Institute (Gorilla Pictures) introductory price $45.00; our sale price $35.00

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

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

Well, no I don't.  

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Grabill is certainly one of the smartest guys around, and I was pleasantly happy to learn, one of the nicest; his joy in this project is palpable. Dr. Grabill is the main script writer of For the Life of the World and he excitedly assured me a half a year ago as the video trailer was being premiered at the Jubilee Professional gathering in Pittsburghfor the life - schmemann.jpg that, indeed, its title is stolen from the book For the Life of the World (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press; $11.95) penned by the famous Russian Orthodox scholar, Father Alexander Schmemann. I hope you know that book, a wonderful study of eucharist and that whole "Christ plays in ten-thousand places" perspective on the sacramental nature of reality. Look carefully and you'll see Schmemann's face silk-screened on a tee-shirt Evan is wearing at one point.  I think he's wearing it in the scene before the one with the Kuyper shirt.  What fun!

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


For now, For the Life of The World: Letters to the Exiles is selling for a introductory price of $45.00. At our BookNotes sale price, we have it at  $10.00 off, just $35.00.

This comes in great DVD package, creatively produced as we would expect. In this economical, thin cardboard case you get a nice overview of the sessions (written cleverly as a letter from Evan) and two versions of the disc -- regular DVD and Blue-ray Disc, so you can view it, or show it at your small group, fellowship, book club or Sunday school class whether you have a conventional or Blue-ray player.  There is also enclosed a link to a study group resource that allows your gang to be on-line together following each week and catching up on notes and study resources.  There you will find their new "field guide" resource which helps you process this in your small group. When you buy this, be sure to click on the "extras" link and find that Field Guide.

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

Soon, there will be posters to download and other resources to help you promote this in your own church or fellowship.

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

You can watch the promo trailer here:

Here is a great radio show about the FLOW project, which includes some audio excerpts of the films, and interviews with a few of the principles, including Dan Haseltine of Jars of Clay:


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June 24, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is just that simple. 

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

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


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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

catch and rele.jpg


Catch & Release:
Faith, Freedom, and Knuckleballs

20% off
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June 20, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here's why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As he puts it,

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

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

Here is how McLaren puts it in the preface:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Oh my. Let that endorsement sink in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black writes in the foreword,

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

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

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

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



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June 18, 2014

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

beautiful disaster big.jpg



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June 10, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is what Jamie Smith says of it:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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June 2, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

And how can our churches help us?

Can they become counter-cultural where it counts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A few details about the book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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