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July 27, 2016

A Woman's Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World by Kathelyn Beaty ON SALE NOW

In the last few BookNotes I've alerted you to new, important books about public justice, a wholistic gospel of radical reconciliation applied to the most burning issues of the day, a punchy set of reflections and liturgies around the Old Testament book of Habakkuk, and some heavy stuff about how to live out uncompromised faith in the late modern world of choice and change and increasingly secularization. A long review about two new books about the arts rounded out a flurry of what I take to be a truly stellar season of extraordinary books.

These are themes that are central to our work here.  Justice, Bible study, historical and cultural analysis,  and an attention to books about aesthetics and the arts.

I do hope you've read and shared those columns, helping us get the word out to churches and book clubs, study groups and classes. These books are simply too good to read solo.  Get some friends, a cold drink or two, and turn some pages.

(And, please, if I might: I recently was in a professionally looking, pleasant Christian bookstore in another town, and they seemed not to have any of these books. I suppose  you know that many of the large and most influential Christian bookstores chains just don't promote these kind of serious, important, thoughtful books.  For them to get the sales they deserve, caring  readers concerned about the state of religious publishing must share the reviews, support those stores that do carry these sorts of authors, helping them become known and their work discussed.  We sometimes forget what our best friends and customers tell us, that the selection we curate here at Hearts & Minds is a bit unusual and that many bookstores just don't  sell this stuff. Interestingly, few weeks back, Beth and I were in one of the nation's most iconic, wonderful, old, indie bookstores and, surprisingly, their religion section was pretty bad.  We hate to pat ourselves on the back, but if you like what you see here, spread the word, and send us some orders!)

And now, I'm thrilled to tell you about a book that is one of the very best of the summer, one of the very best of the year, that we have long awaited, one that is on another theme that we are known for, a topic about which we have almost too many books: a Christian view of calling and career, vocation and work.  However, it has a particular slant, a certain way into the conversation, that makes it nearly exceptional.

A-Womans-Place.jpgAllow us to tell you about A Woman's Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World by Kathelyn Beaty (Howard Books; $22.99.)

As you can tell, it is indeed about the integration of faith and daily work, informed by a solid and generative view of vocation. The primary audience of readers, I suppose, is women, as it is a book about the life of women in our culture, and the need for women to take up places in every zone of life and society; there is here much wise insight to be found and oodles of stories of Godly women doing good stuff and the struggles they uniquely face, but, over and over, I kept thinking that men and women should read this; that is, it is not only a book for women. Endorsers on the back - folks I really respect like Karen Swallow Prior and Dave Blanchard and Ed Stetzer  and John Stackhouse and Tom Nelson - all insist it is for men and women and that, in the words of Presbyterian pastor Scott Sauls, "it will have a profound influence on women and men alike."

Actually, that Scott Sauls blurb actually says that he "prays that it will have a profound influence on women and men alike."  We echo that prayer, as this is a matter of real urgency.  I pray that this book  becomes  known. I sincerely pray it finds a wide readership within various denominations, various life stages, and among those with different callings into different stations in the world.  We all need to hear the winsome but profound message of this finely crafted book.

In fact, the last chapter of A Woman's Place is called "Where Do We Go From Here: How All of Us Can Equip Women for Work."  It is must reading for anyone involved in faith/work conversations or marketplace ministries, but is also useful for those within higher education -- she has a section for those who work at colleges or universities (she herself learned about good mentoring from helpful leaders at Calvin College.) There is a section for "bosses" and a section for church leaders offering them advice in a portion called "What All Churches Can Do." But I'm ahead of myself. 

I will not rehearse here as I have often that our own bookstore was developed in part to equip Christian people to serve God in their work and callings, and that we have books that offer faith-based insight about what some call "public theology" or "Christian perspectives" in science, business, writing, parenting, art, law, engineering, teaching, architecture, journalism, and more. But these categories of books are woefully under-appreciated; Ms. Beaty's lovely call to serve God well in every area of life and her documentation of the growing faith and work movement, citing organizations and ministries (some which we have resourced) will be a fun reminder, a fresh call to engage, another piece adding up to some tipping point where churches become known for equipping members to take up a missional vision of work in the marketplace.  Insofar as this really is part of our faithful response to the gospel, and insofar as we've neglected to really promote conversations and thinking about work-world discipleship, we simply must repent.  This is not incidental or a curious tangent for the few, but central to our living out our faith, moving from Sunday to Monday, relating worship and work.

Beaty tells of good folks who are doing this well and, since it is a book about women's roles and unique obstacles to doing this these days, naturally, she tells the stories of women.  She has interviewed dozens of women, led focus groups, researched ladies doing Kingdom work all over the country. Part of the benefit of A Woman's Place are the occasional two-page inserts, each telling the stories of this woman here or that one there,  a teacher, a CEO of a fair trade import company, a stay at home mom, a filmmaker, a social science researcher, a YA novelist, a Native woman who started a leadership training organization, and more.

WnKwSiur.jpgMs. Beaty is a great reporter and writer (she is, by the way, the first woman and youngest ever Senior Editor of the globally-respected Christianity Today) so she has the writerly skill to artfully bring these mini-stories to life. They will be inspiring for anyone, I'd think, revealing how folks discern a call, move towards doing good stuff, and overcome (or at least cope with) hardships along the way. I loved these sidebar case studies of real women, although, truth be told, she tells even more stories on almost every other page.  A Woman's Place, which is mature and thoughtful theologically with a fair amount of Biblical study and great quotes from very interesting sources, is just loaded with real-world examples and helpful case studies. In that regard, its tone and balance and style is nearly pitch perfect.  I can't imagine anyone not liking it.

The stories and illustrations give real life heft to the urgency not only of visions of vocation and the call to be salt and light in careers and callings, but to the unique ways in which women must rise to these opportunities.  There is a great chapter drawing on the best seller Leaning In called "Why  'Leaning In' is Good - But Not Enough."  Her survey  chapter "Women Have Always Worked" is very good,  surprisingly informative, and truly interesting.  Her chapter on ambition is excellent, and, although designed uniquely for women, I think it is useful for most of us. (Beaty wrote the forward to the wonderful memoir by Jen Pollock Michel, Teach Us To Want, a full book on women and ambition and it, too, is fabulously rich, insightful and rewarding for male readers! Gladly, Jen Michel makes a good appearance here as Beaty tells her story and offers a few quotes from her book.)  Also happily, Beaty cites the lovely little "Frames" book by Kate Harris, Wonder Woman: Navigating the Challenges of Motherhood, an eloquent and sharp women who has, as part of that navigation, learned to embrace constraints.

This is brilliant stuff, and nearly revolutionary, for men and women. What does it mean to be human, to be aware of our creaturliness, by nature bound by space and time; limited?  We cannot do it all, and men and women fail to attend to their limits at their own peril. (By the way, Mandy Smith is a female pastor and writer I greatly admire  who wrote The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry, a book for pastors about honoring our God-given constraints. It is beautiful, honest, sobering, and nearly stunning in both its raw honesty and liberating grace. Zac Eskwine does a similarly good job ruminating on this topic in The Imperfect Pastor: Discovering Joy In Our Limitations through a Daily Apprenticeship with Jesus but his book is flawed by the assumption that the pastor/readers are male.)

Again, Beaty is wise, drawing on healthy, often colorful writers.  As a good writer herself - please note the rare Oxford commas in the subtitle on the book cover! - she knows how to pull a good quote and use it helpfully.  Her own writing is substantive but full of wit, maybe just a step away from playful snark a time or two.  It is not silly or edgy, but she does wisely use film and pop culture and helpful cultural allusions even as she draws on excellent theologians and serious scholars.

I mentioned that this book will be enjoyed by folks in different stages of life will find it beneficial.  I cannot emphasize this enough.

 Kara Powell, youth ministry specialist and professor at Fuller Theological Seminary says:

Women in all life stages will benefit from Katelyn Beaty's holistic and positive theology of work, whether that work is carpools or corporate board meetings - or both. 

In my favorite and most eloquent book about vocation and calling, The Call: Finding and Fulfilling Your Life's Purpose by Os Guinness, the famous author notes that the gospel so decisively transforms us and sends us as salt and light and leaven into the world so that we have disciples of Jesus serving in every zone of life and culture. As one chapter succinctly titles puts it, "Everyone, Everywhere, in Everything."

gender and grace.jpgI learned decades ago from a book that Beaty does not cite, but I am sure she has read and absorbed, (Gender and Grace: Love Work and Parenting in a Changing World  by Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen) that in the generative Genesis  creation narrative which offers the charter for full humanness, dignity, creativity, work, rest, and relationships, we learn that humans are made together in the image of God offers all of this equally to women and men.  Some misread Genesis 1:26-28 as if it teaches that men are to work ("have dominion") and women are to raise families ("be fruitful and multiply.") Of course, as Van Leeuwen explained as powerfully as anyone, this is dead wrong. Men are to be engaged in family life (and it is not normative for males to be missing from the raising of boys and girls)and women are to be engaged in social life (and it is not normative for women to be missing from the running of corporations and governments.)  Together we of different genders image God. The Genesis cultural mandate - create families and run the world as culture-makers! - is  given to all. It is a hurt family that is devoid of men and it is a damaged culture that is devoid of women's leadership in social, business, educational, or political institutions.

And so, Beaty helps us think about healthy families and healthy workplaces and healthy steps towards cultural renewal, especially drawing out the gifts and strengths of women for home and the wider world both.

As the always interesting John Ortberg puts it: 

Work is an essential part of being made in God's image, and women are essential image bearers. Katelyn Beaty's A Woman's Place brings reflection on Scripture and an informed mind to help answer the question implied by the title - a woman's place is to be an agent of shalom working with dignity and strength in all the spheres of God's redemptive plan for a flourishing creation.

I mentioned that I couldn't imagine anyone not like this excellent book.  From those interested in the doctrines of calling and vocation to those involved in work-place ministry, those equipping believers to integrate faith and the quotidian things we do day by day to anyone interested in the role of women in church and world, this is a grand, delightful, thoughtful work.

But I must admit, there are some who will disapprove.

Beaty tackles head on, with succinct rebuttal and considerable grace, the wrong-headed views of Wayne Grudem, John Piper, and Owen Strachen of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, who insist that the Bible's ideal is that married women are to stay at home and not enter the work-world. Given the usual high level of scholarship exhibited by these sorts of conservative leaders, it is bold of this evangelical woman to refute them. 

She is blunt:

Calling work masculine and relationships and networking feminine, as Mary Kassian has, threatens to keep women from knowing the good and holy purposes of work, whether inside the home or outside of it.  Ultimately, such teachings keep women from understanding a crucial part of bearing God's image.

I will let readers discover how she handles basic Biblical matters (although she does draw on part-time Inkling, mystery writer and Oxford grad Dorothy Sayers, who wrote incisively and enduringly on work, and a small book called Are Women Human which we still stock!) The book is not primarily engaged in the work of Scriptural exegesis, but there is cogent and helpful Bible teaching.

Importantly (once again, possibly drawing somewhat on early work of Van Leeuwen) Kathelyn Beaty looks at the social history of things, as well.  She observes that:

The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood was founded in 1991 expressly to counter feminism's influence in the evangelical church. But maybe it's not the Feminist Revolution of the 1960s and '70s that has undermined the family unity. Maybe it's the Industrial Revolution." 

What follows, then, is a brief but very helpful overview of an important bit of analysis with which we should all be familiar.  You will learn a bit about the history of the division of labor, the rise of jobs away from the home, be inspired by her interesting observations, and be able to put these profound theological questions in a bigger context. It may stretch some readers out of their customary assumptions, but for many, it will be a sure delight.

I like how Amy Sherman - author of the must-read Kingdom Calling:Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (not to mention a fabulous chapter in Serious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life) - who describes not only the importance of Beaty's invitation for women to think about vocation and calling in this fresh way, but how she is able to address those who are hindrances to women.  She suggests that A Woman's Place offers good answers and ways to move forward.

It give us:

Incisive commentary on cultural mores that have been overlaid on biblical texts should help the Christian community to pry off those faulty 'how it is' assumptions and free us to explore the reforms needed to get to 'how it ought to be.'

This is yet another reason we think this is one of the finest books of the year. It will help rekindle visions and hopes and dreams for many of us, it will remind us of glorious opportunities and some obstacles that, with faith and hope, we can overcome. It is a pleasant book to enjoy even if at times a challenging one. And it will help us get to 'how it ought to be.'

And who among us wouldn't  be more sane if we take Beaty's advice about shifting our language away from "balancing" home and work and church to the languages of "integration" of various aspects of our one seamless life? Of course this is often, in our culture, particularly stressful for women, especially if there are young children in the home.  Beaty is aware of this, of course, and offers  creative ways to think about these complex lifestyle questions.

On the last pages of A Woman's Place  Beaty tells again of Rev. Tom Nelson, a pastor we admire whose book Work Matters: Moving from Sunday Worship to Monday Work she described earlier. She helps us draw inspiration from the shifts in Nelson's church.

Beaty writes:

After a major theological shift around the eternal value of work, Tom noticed that Christ Community Church's "cultural icons and cultural language" began to shift. They began commissioning different individuals and different vocations, and they began using prayers to honor and bless labor. One of their regular benedictions - the prayer of blessing over worshippers at the end of a service - is Psalm 90:17:


May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us;

Establish the work of our hands for us -

Yes, establish the words of our hands.

God made us rulers over the works of his hands. As we go about our work he is mindful of us; he cares for us (Ps. 8). When we recover this vision for all Christians, I imagine that more and more women will find God's favor resting upon them.

This is the sort of lovely and truthful and faithful stories and implicit suggestions made within A Woman's Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World.  It is not just for women, and although it may mostly be read by individual women or their book clubs and reading circles - certainly it would make a great gift to young adult women, maybe a recent college grad --  it will be informative for older church leaders and anyone wanting to be reminded about gender justice, opportunities for both women and men to serve the coming of God's Kingdom, or for those who want to advance the growing conversation around the meaning of vocation and calling. We couldn't be happier with this wonderful new book, and hope you consider reading it. Do help us spread the word.  Sadly, this one wasn't in that other shop I visited the other day, and I doubt it is as widely available as it ought to be.

Let's go, Hearts & Minds friends: this is one of the best books of the year. Send us your orders today!





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July 14, 2016

Join us for the Fifth Annual Hearts & Minds Pittsburgh Summer Lecture featuring Lisa Sharon Harper -- author of "The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right"

You are warmly invited to spend an evening with nationally-known author and Hearts & MindsFifth Annual Pittsburgh Summer Lecture.jpg friend Lisa Sharon Harper at our Fifth Annual Hearts & Minds Pittsburgh Summer Lecture, Tuesday evening, July 26th starting at 7:00.

We will host this public lecture, conversation and author reception at Robert Morris University, in their lovely Sewall Center - they are located in Moon Township, right off the main drag there, out near the Pittsburgh airport.  We are thrilled to have Lisa presenting on themes from her book The Very Good Gospel: How Everything That Is Wrong Can Be Made Right (recently released by Waterbrook Press; $19.99; on sale for 20% OFF; $15.99.)

There is no charge to attend, we'll have some snacks, a time for her to autograph books, maybe even a few other surprises along the way.

If you know anyone in Eastern Ohio or Northern West Virginia, or anywhere in Western Pennsylvania we hope you will share this invitation with them.

Or, if you want an autographed book but cannot join us, you can let us know and we'll get one for you.

Beth and I view this as a way to say thank you to our many Western Pennsylvania-area customers and our friends there; in a way it is a Hearts & Minds party, with friends from churches, the CCO, camps and conference centers, denominational folk, nonprofits and para-church ministries, regional seminaries and schools, Christian radio, and friends in the publishing world, joining up to hang out a bit, shop at a huge book display we'll have set up, and meet an author we truly esteem.

It really would mean a lot to see y'all.  And you'll love hearing Lisa Sharon Harper.

A portion of our bookstore business is mail order and while we aren't as faceless as some on-line providers, we still long to truly greet our supporters. At this summer lecture series we've connected face-to-face with some of our mail order customers who we've never actually met. What joy!

Some of our business involves doing off-site events -- Wee Kirk, Presby stuff, APCE staff, college talks, UCC clergy gatherings, Lutheran Synods -- and, again, we value seeing our "on the road" supporters. We cherish our diverse and ecumenical friendships, customers from throughout the area.




The Very Good Gospel.jpg


Most of our friends know that we used to live in what was then a gritty East Liberty neighborhood and worked in Pittsburgh - Beth for a while in the CCO home office and in a residential home for persons with special needs, I with the Thomas Merton Center, in a Christian bookstore in Monroeville, and on staff at a Presbyterian church in McKeesport, just outside of the 'burgh. We were born and raised in Central PA and have lived here now for going on 35 years, but our time in the Steel City was formative.

When we started underwriting this annual Pittsburgh event part of our dream was to honor a theological truth we learned through CCO, through an itinerant Christian philosopher and Abraham Kuyper scholar with whom we studied named Pete Steen, and from friends who had studied with Francis & Edith Schaeffer: God cares about all of life, about every sphere of life; it is this world Christ is redeeming, and therefore we need to "take every thought captive" (2 Corinthians 10:5) in order to not only "think Christianly" but to live faithfully, working out with redemptive practices the implications of God's gift of salvation for every zone of culture. The life of the mind and the project of cultural renewal are part and parcel of any mature vision of Christian spirituality.  Sometimes we called it "whole life discipleship."  According to Colossians 1, the old song is wrong: the "things of earth" do not "grow strangely dim" but are illuminated, made more important and lovely as they are being redeemed by their rightful King. As Colossians 1:18 puts it, Christ is to be preeminent in "all things."

But, we've learned, that not everyone has learned to think about "all things" -- or even most things -- as the servants of the Lord Psalm 119 says they are.  From rocks to rockets, from city streets to science labs to laws to recipes to films to all manner to technological gizmos, the Bible says "all things are they servants, Lord." What in the world does that mean?  It seems to me we need Christian thinkers to help us learn to think like the writers of the Bible did.

So our years in Western Pennsylvania were significant, raising life long questions for me, even as they are farther away in the rear view mirror these days. It is one of the reasons we enjoy hosting an author appearance with a lecture like this every summer (at the same time our friends at the CCO are having their own staff training gathering there at Robert Morris University.) It honors our past and celebrates what we are trying to do by curating the sort of book selection we do.

We do hope you can join us, or at least help us spread the word.

Also in those years, significantly, we learned from the CCO about the importance of racial reconciliation; even in the 1970s they regularly featured conversations about what was later called "diversity" by the culture at large. The leader of the CCO in those years (Robert Long) had done urban ministry in Harlem and introduced us to radical followers of Jesus like Bill Milliken - who is still showing God's love for urban kids as a nationally-known advocate for educational reform in high-risk schools. (For the few that recall that name from late 60s Western PA you John-Perkins.jpgmay enjoy knowing that Tim Keller's Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC hosted him not long ago at an event where we were selling books -- it was such fun to re-connect with him, talking with Milliken about Bob Long and Reid Carpenter and Mon Valley urban Young Life guys and reformational thinkers like Pete Steen.) In those years CCO introduced us to black leaders such as Bill Panell, Tom Skinner, Barbara Williams-Skinner, Carl Ellis, Elwood Ellis, John Perkins (whose connections in PIttsburgh even figures nicely in one of the biographies about him.)

The awful state of race and urban justice in our land -- from Alton Sterling, Philado Castile and the snipers who killed Dallas police officers to the systemic disorder of mass incarceration documented so powerfully in Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption -- is something we've been talking about, and selling books about, for decades.  It is, sadly, as pressing now as ever in my memory.

martin luther dates.jpgI recall a quote by Martin Luther that I used often in our Pittsburgh years - Lutheran scholars might tell me if it is apocryphal. He is said to have said something about relating the gospel to "the burning issues of the day" or, in another version, "where the battle most rages" and that to fail to do so is to fail the gospel itself. 

Christ is Lord, the gospel of grace is true good news of a Kingdom breaking into human history; if Christianity offers a message of salvation coming via incarnation, then we must, we simply must, relate God's grace and the teachings of Jesus not just to human hearts but to human hurts, not just to abstract spiritual things but to real life in the real world, including debates about politics, economics, structures and systems, ideas and initiatives. Social concerns and cultural engagement are not incidental or tangential to the work of the church but are its end-point: we proclaim God's redeeming work in the cross of Christ and with Holy Spirited resurrection power we bear witness to the substantial healing and surprising hope seen as we erect signposts pointing to God's renewed creation. Evangelism is a recruitment effort for the rightful King's epic rescue project and we invite people to experience God's mercy and enjoy eternal life, which starts now, as we take up citizenship in His Kingdom, "on Earth as it is in Heaven."

This is why we do the annual summer lectureship, to remind those of us who have been talking and living out these things for decades that it is true, and that it matters, even if sometimes our own churches don't always proclaim such a down-to-Earth, fully Biblical, Kingdom vision.  As C.S. Lewis reminded us, we sometimes settle for lesser visions, content with other stuff, mere mudpies.

We must learn to live "in the world but not of it" as it says near the end of the Gospel of John.  As the famous fourth century African bishop put it, we live in the tension of inhabiting both the city of man and the city of God. 

I like what Calvin Seerveld wrote in Rainbows for the Fallen World, his dense book about aesthetics, when he said "culture is not optional."  That is, we can't decide not to "engage culture" because it is something we always do as humans made in the image of the creator God -- one way or another. Even the monks and the Amish, in their rejection of culture, are, in their own way, being social creatures and interacting in some manner with the world. We are all always either serving the true God in ways that are coherent and proper or we are serving some kinds of idols, living disordered lives, "worldly" and tainted by idols. This is the only world we've got, and live in it we must, for better or worse. The question is how our understanding of the gospel informs us, transforms us, and what that means for our daily living, our insight about the world, and the nature of faithful lifestyles in the deformed society in which God has placed us. 

As that Pete Steen character used to ask, do we assume a dualism between the so-called sacred churchy and spiritual parts of life and the secular, seemingly profane parts of life? If so, we are "functional atheists" living mostly as if God didn't really matter much in the rough and tumble of the real world of daily life. If Jesus is Lord, we are to be His ambassadors in all of life, being impossible people.jpgsalt and light and leaven, as Jesus Himself put it.  We are to seek first God's reign, Christ's Kingdom, His glory.  There is much wrong with the world to which we must say "no!" (Perhaps you recall the long review I did recently of the challenging new book by Os Guinness called Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization; he helps us think this through in necessarily serious ways.) And there is much good, or course, to which we may say "yes!"

We need discernment, insight, wisdom for, as the old hymn puts it, "the living of these days."

To do this, or so it seems to us, we need books.

Please allow me to write that line again.

To do all this, we simply must be readers. We need books and helpful booksellers.

Reading for the Common Good.jpgAs C. Christopher Smith argues in Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish books can be transforming for us as we slow down, think about important things, take in new ideas, allowing the cadences and insights to shape us as we form bonds that reading together can create.
(Read a short piece Chris just published in Sojo making a lovely case for reading and talking together. Yes!)

I know you reading this realize that good readers become the best leaders. Heaven calls us to think well, care deeply, get involved. Reading matters, and meeting authors of good books is a very special treat. It is one reason why organizations like the CCO hold their big Jubilee conference, so good content from wise leaders can be passed on, face to face.  We hope you agree.

The Christian church has long seen books as tools for discipleship - of course the solas and the new catechisms of the Protestant reformation were promoted by the newly invented printing press; Luther himself nearly became a celebrity for his prolific writings, distributed widely by the antecedents of pamphleteers and Christian literacy campaigns and modern day religious booksellers. Methodist John Wesley's "method" was to form reading groups, of course, small bands of folks reading and talking and praying together. This gave rise to groups of readers such as the ones formed by William Wilberforce in their efforts to reform morals and stop slavery in eighteenth century England. Did you know that US pilgrims brought a printing press along on the Mayflower as they set out to create a culture in the new world?  Books are important for anyone wanting to make a difference, anyone seeking to love their neighbors and engage culture well.

Serious Dreams cover.jpgThe authors in my own little collection of essays for young adults, Serious Dreams: Big Ideas for the Rest of Your Life say this over and over: we need a Christian mind, we need to take up our vocations with intentional consideration; African American leader John Perkins in his chapter congratulated college graduates for learning to develop their personal libraries -- this from a man who only went to third grade! My own chapter, delivered to graduates of the graduate programs at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, PA, drew on I Chronicles 12:32 which mentions those who "understood the times and knew what God's people should do."  Oh how we need books today, to inform and guide issachar poster.pngand provoke us to deep conversations about "what God's people should do."

And so we offer books for world changers, Kingdom of God citizens, I Chronicles 12:32 people, dreamers of dreams. We describe important titles to make us think, authors to help us along the way, resources to enlarge the heart and stimulate the mind, to help us relate Sunday worship and Monday work, as we sometimes say.  Books to help us relate prayer and politics. 

When we get a chance to honor authors by bringing our customers and friends into live conversation with them, we feel like we're doing our good part of our job.  Or, conversely put, when we bless our customers by giving them a chance to meet a real, live, nationally-known author, we think we're doing a good part of our job.

We love selling books, but there is something pretty wonderful about introducing our customers to those who write the books.

lisa head shot real.jpgLisa Sharon Harper is one of those authors we want our friends to meet.

She is, in the language of 1 Chronicles 12:32, a "daughter of Issachar."

Lisa has co-written two books, one with a point/counter-point approach, done in collaboration with a conservative political thinker and OP pastor, D.C. Innes (Left, Right & Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics, recently revised and re-issued by Elevate Books) and the powerful, multi-authored Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith on which, by the way, I have a long endorsing blurb. It was nicely published by Zondervan.  We will have them both there the night of the 26th.

The Very Good Gospel.jpgHer brand new book, which I've mentioned before, is The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right (Waterbrook; $19.99.) We have it at at special sale price, too -- 20% off, making it just $15.99.

list sharon harper talking.jpgLisa Sharon Harper is the sort of author who writes with a fire in her bones, a deep desire to tell her story, a passion to get us to think, to raise questions and point a way forward.  As a black woman who now works for our old friends at Sojourners - Jim Wallis did the first author appearance we ever did, I think, offering a talk at our store for 25 people in the early 1980s - she has a lot to say about "the burning issues of the day." She has a remarkable amount of experience -- she has organized in Ferguson and preached at national racial justice events these past months; she has prayed on the streets with environmental activists and she has gone on pilgrimage along the infamous "Trail of Tears." She believes deeply that God's grace shown in Christ Jesus is the key to the mysteries of human life, from the most personal poignant matters to the most complex public affairs, and that the gospel offers the truest vision of hope for a very broken world. 

The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right is a splendid book, easy to read, full of stories as well as profound analysis of the way the gospel relates to the world in which we live. At some parts it is simply glorious.

Given that Ms. Harper is known for speaking about racial justice and being an advocate for the poor and marginalized, it is a delight to hear so much here about her own inner life, her struggles and personal faith journey.

She talks about her girlhood, her joys and fears and sadnesses (she went to an almost all-white school, so there are the not-uncommon experiences of being teased, concerns about her hair, her skin tone, etc. etc. etc.) Lisa bravely shares how Christ befriended her and yet how she struggled - she writes about her anxieties about weight and some subsequent eating disorders and about coping with the anguish of a broken home. She is vulnerable, sharing her longing to be deeply loved and truly accepted. I was moved to tears at one point as she tells of praying for healing, of her inner anguishing and how she learned to increasingly trust the God who loves her so, who wants her. Issues of shame circle around and around, it seems, and even though she is a national leader for a progressive sort of social action, her deeply felt, evangelical faith is, time and again, her balm in Gilead. Citing Psalm 139 and Jeremiah 1:5, she writes, "The whole of our lives is a journey to return home."  Oh, if we all felt such homecoming assurance that we are the beloved of God with a place at Christ's table.

Near the end of the book she is led in nearly miraculous ways to minister to a dying friend, to share in a ritual of grieving with others in their time of bereavement.  When Lisa talks about God's real presence and leading in daily life, about the way Christ's gospel is the basis for renewal and hope, she isn't just spouting a cheap social gospel or trendy liberation theology. She walks with the God who loves her, she serves the King who claims her, and she brings a candor and clarity about how hard it is to live into these promises of God's presence and peace. She beautifully reminds us that we can experience the occasional miracle and know the in-breaking of spiritual renewal.

lisa praying on the street.jpgHarper is admittedly a professional organizer, equipping church folks to be more intentionally involved in matters of peace and justice, environmental stewardship and multi-ethnic ministry, but The Very Good Gospel is more than a handbook to social change. It is a testimony of one woman's journey, a story of God's healing, of the Spirit's presence and power, even as it guides us into confrontation with the principalities and powers.  This is full gospel ministry!

very good gospel partial cover .jpgLisa's book is largely arranged in two major sections.

The first part is her systematic telling of the overview of the Biblical story, drawing much on Genesis 1 - 3, talking about a good, good creation, blessed and well-ordered with God's shalom, managed by humans made in God's image; a torn and vandalized shalom, cursed by the fall, and a promise of redemption, offered in mercy and hope by a covenant making God.  Some of us talk about the "chapters" of the unfolding drama of redemption, naming them creation/fall/redemption/restoration, and she does this with close attention to the Biblical text.  She does this with lively and fresh language.  She highlights the gift of shalom and the gospel of reconciliation.

In a great foreword, Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes,

Lisa Sharon Harper has written a bracing, generative exposition of the elemental narrative of gospel faith. She has done so by sharing the sequence of the "very good" of creation, "the wreckage of the fall," and the "very good" of the gospel of reconciliation and restoration.

There are lovely reflection questions at the end of each of the chapters in Very Good Gospel, making it an ideal book for small groups or adult Bible classes or campus ministry studies. She asks us to enter the story of creation, marveling in the wonders of God's good world, be honest about our sin and brokenness, and embrace the deepest questions Jesus himself asked.  She asks us to ponder how we have said "yes" to God's invitation, to consider the resurrection, to do an exercise to help us experience the gift of living water.  I do hope this book is taken up by small groups and classes - it is well worth talking about.

These opening chapters - taking us from a good garden to a new City -- provide the strong and essential framework for the rest of the book which works out some of the implications of God's plan for restoration and healing in every area of life.

Very-Good-Gospel-720x470.jpgAs the book unfolds, Lisa wisely and insightfully offers ways to apply the goodness of this grand narrative and the gospel to the complexities of modern life. Each chapter draws on the image of restoring shalom, of embracing and living into God's work of reconciliation.  For instance, there is a chapter called "Shalom with Self: Shame and Freedom" and another on shalom between genders. 

Her study of Paul's writing on women is insightful, a moderate sort of Biblical feminism; she draws on Carolyn Custis James and her recent book Malestrom  who "marvels at Paul's conversion and its impact on how he engaged with women. She points out," Lisa tells us, "that not only did Paul's conversion catapult him across ethnic barriers into ministry with gentiles, but also across gender barriers into equal partnership with women."

In a powerful section called "Restoring Ezer" she tells us:

All the way back to the days of slavery in America, every women in my mother's direct line of ancestry suffered sexual violence. This include me. My great aunt died in the woods after being raped by her uncle. My third great grandmother, the last adult slave in our family, bore seventeen children by five "husbands." Family lore says her husbands kept dying or being sold away. It also is possible that she was forced to breed children on a plantation in South Carolina. She herself was half-white, likely the product of a rape. Most of the women in our family suffered in silence, and some suffered again when they raised their voices to name their perpetrators. Fathers, cousins, even sisters and pastors minimized the pain and chastised the crushed ones for disturbing the peace.

Later, when she talks about God's empowerment after she rejected her evangelical leaders forbidding her to teach (because she was a woman) and God's healing when she attended to her own sexual molestation, most readers will want to cheer! It is always good to see folks move away from toxic faith towards empowerment and health.  This is an honest book, but one with much gladness as the gospel of Christ over and over offers transformation, new chances, fresh starts, real hope.


There is a good chapter on shalom restored in our relationship with the Earth. It is very, very good.

There is a chapter about shalom restored among broken families, there is a powerful chapter on race. As I might say regarding the other chapters, these are worth the price of the whole book - well worth reading carefully and talking about together.


In yet another she shows Christian principles for creating international policies that could enhance national security and global peace. Her views on Godly governance and principles for good citizenship are themselves very helpful  these days; her telling of being on a learning tour to the Balkan war zones and visiting the Nazi death camps is moving although most of this chapter is Bible study without venturing much about policy.

Her chapter on how to be witnesses to this kind of Biblical vision of peace is generative for anyone wondering about how to do full-orbed evangelism in these modern days.  Her stories of public justice work done faithfully by local churches are inspiring, helping us relate word and deeds.  Again, the discussion questions are useful.

Lisa Sharon Harper's final chapter on death and dying offers a wonderful, moving close to this grand telling of God's work in the world and the Spirit's presence in our most tender, deepest moments. But, again, even here, she doesn't miss the public and social consequences of thinking about life and death.  Her linking the "small deaths" of change - letting go of death-dealing ways and "choosing life" is extraordinary.

fix our eyes on jesus.jpgMs Harper's reminder to turn to Jesus (she cites Hebrews 12:1-2) and the need to embrace a humility that leads to repentance and  renewed trust in God - as risky as it may feel--is beautiful.  For some of us, we can "hear" this evangelical truth and spiritual counsel because she has shown us how relevant and real it all is. These are no pious bromides or cliches, offered abstractly away from the context of our raw world of injustice and idols. Lisa brings together the best of  social justice thinking, lots of Biblical exegesis and theological reflection, and classic spiritual formation practices to bring us to this very place where we choose life.  We have genuine hope because alienation and brokenness and separation does not win. Christ reigns and this is very good news indeed.

Her closing words, after another fine set of reflection questions to help us ponder and process all these inspiring words and challenging insights, are these:

There is a way back to shalom. It is the way of God, demonstrated through the person of Jesus and made possible through his death and resurrection.

This is the good news. This is the very good gospel.

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To show that we are not alone in thinking this to be a very wonderful book, please read these very impressive endorsements by some very impressive leaders.

Lisa Sharon Harper has presented the gospel, the good news, as it was meant to be whole and complete. Our world has compromised so many elements of the good news that we are left with a divided gospel. We need to recover the whole Christian gospel, the wholeness of the church, the wholeness of relationships. Lisa has unleashed the whole-ism of shalom. Her application of the good news for America, for our culture, in the world, reminds us that God is bigger than our problems. My wish is that Christians and non-Christians alike read this book. 

Dr. John Perkins, co-founder of the Christian Community Development Association, founder of the John   and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation in Jackson, Mississippi, and author of many books, including Let Justice Roll Down

One can scan across the landscape of the church and not find a better articulator of the essence of the gospel in the twenty-first century. Lisa Sharon Harper follows a rich tradition of reformers and iconoclast theological practitioners who deeply love the gospel and God's people. She has made it her life's project to challenge lethargic and cynical people to live love and practice justice. Our world is richer and more vibrant because of her compassionate and strong voice. 

Reverend Dr. Otis Moss III, senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ and author of Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World 

Lisa Sharon Harper is so smart and interesting she s a wonderful leader. I respect her immensely and am passionate about the message of this book. 

Jen Hatmaker, speaker and best-selling author of  7 and For the Love

Part mountaineer, part miner, Lisa Sharon Harper has somehow ascended the mountain of Scripture to survey its entirety while also digging deep into its core to extract raw truth of immense implication and conviction. Lisa s revealing stories, scriptural depth, and prophetic voice make The Very Good Gospel a very good read one you won t want to miss. 

David Drury, chief of staff for the Wesleyan Church World Headquarters and author of nine books including Transforming Presence

In a world that has legitimate reasons to question the possibility of a good God, Lisa Sharon Harper reminds us what is in fact not only good but beautiful about the God who loves us more than we want to be loved. Her winsome words wash over the reader with gentleness, while simultaneously striking out with a fierce love that is corrective and healing. "The Very Good Gospel "is more than just a social activist s field guide; it is a road map to a better world one marked by faith, hope, and love.

Christopher L. Heuertz, author, activist, and founding partner of Gravity: A Center for Contemplative Activism"

To speak of the gospel as good news, it has to be good news for the oppressed, the impoverished, the brokenhearted. To embody God s shalom is to embrace and restore the image of God in all humanity no matter who or where they are. Chapter by chapter Lisa Sharon Harper builds the case for reading, understanding, and living the gospel as the life-giving, freedom-bringing, shalom-infused reality it really is. There are new, exciting voices coming from a new, younger generation of evangelicals, and they are turning the traditional meaning of that word around. Lisa Sharon Harper is such a voice and well worth hearing. 

Allan Boesak, South African human-rights activist and the Desmond Tutu Chair of Peace, Justice, and Reconciliation Studies at Christian Theological Seminary

Lisa Sharon Harper writes in a fresh and personal way, combining rich theology with deep experience working with contemporary issues to inspire us not to settle for a thin gospel but a thick gospel the fullness of the good news of God s reconciliation and shalom that touches all aspects of life. "The Very Good Gospel "is for all of us struggling with how the good news of Jesus should impact not just our own lives but also speak to the injustices in our world. This book brings all the threads together and weaves a glorious picture of God s redemptive work in creation. 

Ken Wytsma, President of Kilns College, author of Pursuing Justice and Create vs. Copy

The Very Good Gospel big.jpg




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July 6, 2016

Habakkuk Before Breakfast: Liturgy, Lament, and Hope by Brian Walsh and the Wine Before Breakfast Community (and ten others listed.) ON SALE NOW

Habakkuk Before Breakfast: Liturgy, Lament, and Hope by Brian J. Walsh and the Wine Before Breakfast community (Books Before Breakfast) $14.00

How should I begin this review of a book we are so excited to tell you about?

brian walsh.jpgThe-Transforming-Vision-9780877849735.jpgBeyond Homelessness.jpgShould I tell you about the author, my friend Brian J. Walsh, a former professor at Toronto's Institute for Christian Studies and now CRC campus minister at the University of Toronto, who has co-written a handful of books that have been among my all time favorites? Should I remind you of some of his other titles such as the earnestly recommended The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian Worldview and Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age or the extraordinary, hefty and wide-ranging social and Biblical analysis called Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement released in 2008 and as germane as ever, and many others, including the really, really interesting Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire? I treasure his books and maybe you do to. (Whew, I could work up a head of steam just listing his important books!)  Walsh's work has been provocative, stimulating, important. I should be able to sell any book he wrote, because he's that kind of author. I could start there.

St John Before big.jpgOr, should I tell you about the context of this project, the Wine Before Breakfast community, a weekly, early-morning group of students and others gathering around a creatively-curated liturgy and Eucharist in the heart of the University of Toronto?  Want to know about that -- young adults doing creative liturgy, campus ministry, folks worshiping together  before 7:30 am? Who does that?  That ought to draw you to this book, wanting to learn about these kinds of practices for renewal. 

Brian and his comrades put together a year or so ago a previous book of reflections, litanies, homilies and prayers, walking through the gospel of John that also came out of their morning WBB Eucharists called Saint John Before Breakfast. That's a way to start, saying this new one is like that one, that a lot of folks loved. Most reviews of sequels tell about the first one, and, man, that John Before Breakfast was something.

Maybe, I thought, I'd start off the review with a little meditation on the role of prophets. This new one is, after all, essentially a six week journey through the book of the Bible called Habakkuk, one of the more minor of the minor prophets.  Of course, they are called that not let justice roll graphic.jpgbecause of their meager message - au contraire - but because they are short. Jewish readers call all of them together The Book of the Twelve.  I could start off talking about how studying Amos in college rocked my world, how seeing verses like Micah 6:8 drawn in early 70s calligraphy spoke to me, about how just last week I got to introduce young Christians to Isaiah 58. I'd say how years ago Walter Brueggemann's Prophetic Imagination became so vital for so many of us., Walsh, too. I like that line from Malcolm Boyd, saying that often in church groups we study the prophets but we wouldn't know one if one sat down next to us. He's right, I'm afraid, about our general lack of prophetic discernment, but he's mostly wrong that we study the prophets. I could start there.

But I have to start with the cover.  It may be the first thing you notice.

It looks a little hand-drawn, doesn't it - actually, not quite the classy and professional cover design look one expects from serious books these days.  New York book designer Chipp Kidd wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole, unless maybe it was considered an ironic look, a sketchy booze bottle for some noir novel, done old school.

But this isn't ironic. And I've grown to love it.

The cover choice speaks volume about this book and the community that gave rise to it.

habakkuk before.jpgThe cover of Habakkuk Before Breakfast shows a portion of a painting done by a First Nations artist who hung around the University of Toronto Wine Before Breakfast community, to whom the book is dedicated.  Gregory "Iggy" Spoon died as the sermons and prayers and liturgies and reflections that became this book were being prepared and experienced.  I recall reading a message from Brian about their pain and lament and anguish upon Iggy's unexpected death in March 2015. Iggy's death impacted their community (as did a few other deaths and tragedies that season) and Brian and the WBB community honored him as they mourned their loss.  As the Hebrew prophet three millennia ago railed about a pious religious establishment that seemed to have little room for humility and care for the outsider, Iggy stood in their midst as a suffering brother, with gifts and goodness and insight and pain, like anyone, but with a past that seemed to make evident, I gather, much that is wrong with a formal religion that doesn't understand hospitality, inclusion, or justice. Mostly, I guess, he was a beloved friend.

The painting Iggy made for them ended up on the altar as they celebrated communion, and, week by week as Iggy was in the hospital, someone in the community would receive the elements on his behalf: "The body of Christ, broken for Iggy." "The blood of Christ, shed for our brother Iggy."  

Brian continues:

Iggy's WBB painting.jpgHe had seen some pretty bad times in his life. And for some reason he kind of adopted Wine Before Breakfast as part of his extended community. Iggy would sometimes show up at the back of the chapel, or sometimes he'd be downstairs waiting for us when we came from worship to breakfast. And Iggy was a very fine artist. One day he showed me a picture that he was making for the community. A bottle of wine, a chalice, a loaf of bread, some fruit, an open book, a music staff with the name of our community written on it, and ... a butterfly, a symbol of transformation. This was his gift to the community. But it wasn't finished yet. He didn't know what to write on the bottle. What vintage of wine? Or might he put the time and place of our services? Or might he (reaching into his satchel for the bottle) put "Kelly's" on the bottle? Kelly's is the cheapest and most potent wine that homeless folks drink. "I don't know, should we put Kelly's on that bottle?" Iggy asked. Yes, I replied. That's exactly what should go on that bottle. If Wine Before Breakfast is about anything then surely we should be about taking such a terrible wine, a wine of such heartbreak and sorrow, and asking Jesus to make that a holy wine, a sacramental wine, the wine of the new covenant in his blood.

And so, the cover; the odd-shaped Kelly's wine bottle poured into a broken chalice.  In a way, it is precious just to own such a book, not mass produced, with no focus groups determining the viability of the cover art. This, my friends, is the real deal. This is a book that can help Jesus transform the terrible drink of "heartbreak and sorrow" into holy wine.

The book is great. It is arranged quite nicely.  You'll want to spend time with it, pondering deeply its often heavy message, maybe even with a group, it isn't complicated or too long or dense.

It really is a glimpse into the weekly Wine Before Breakfast worship services held at the University of Toronto at 7:22 AM; the book reproduces some of the insight and pathos and beauty of that small community, and it not only has the brilliant and passionate reflections and homilies (not all by Walsh) but the prayers of the people and the prayers after communion and such; in this sense, it is very much like their much-appreciated first book, Saint John Before Breakfast. Besides good exegesis and powerful preaching, it is a glimpse into a worshiping body, mostly young adults, graduate students, professors and friends, and some who, I think, feel disenfranchised from the conventional church. There's a lot written about that, but this is a ministry doing something about it.

Habakkuk Before Breakfast: Liturgy, Lament, and Hope is laid out on the page in such as way that it seems just a bit cleaner and clearer (with each section clearly designated) that their previous John one. Another difference, I think, is how interestingly it explains their music choices.  Deb Whalen-Blaize is the music director and her section in each chapter is nearly brilliant as she allows us in to her thought process and discernment about what music--pop, folk, rock, alongside Taize and standard hymns - they use to underscore and develop the theme of the service.  It is a really, really good portion of each chapter and hearing her so maturely interact with the Biblical content and Brian's pastoral leadership to find just the right songs is very impressive.

Each chapter is a fully collaborative project, and although different people take turns doing different parts (except Whalen-Blaize who does the music portion each time) they are all mature, consistently thoughtful, raw, real, as they share their particular portions of the Wine Before Breakfast Eucharist.

Each chapter opens with a long reflection from Walsh which was, in fact, sent out to the core members of the community before the service. It invites them - through his own spiritual discernment, as he's own dwelt with the Biblical text, informed, too, by things that were happening in their lives - to be prayerful and intentional about what is going to happen as they gather at their next fellowship meeting/worship service/Eucharist/communal breakfast. Hey, ya gotta love a group that has to have a "Bread Guild."

I think this practice of sending out a communication prior to the service is one that some churches or fellowship groups might borrow, offering a pre-service reflection, a warm-up to the service.  Walsh is powerful and poignant and his emailed epistles are themselves well worth pondering.  In each case, they really do set the stage for the communal reading of the chapter from Habakkuk they are about to encounter.

Here is how Brian describes this piece:

This is sort of a spiritual priming of the pump; a beginning reflection on the biblical text that invites the community both into the world of the text and to a worship shaped by the text.

It is after that opening reflection that Deb Whalen-Blaize works her magic. Having her write about false starts and final choices, inspired by a careful reading of the Biblical portion, is like watching a great chef cook up a fancy meal.  She tells us what songs worked, what lyrics she appreciated and why she chose them. For instance, she draws on Springsteen (what else but "My City in Ruins" when reading about the horror of a destroyed Jerusalem and the violence of Empire) and Leonard Cohen and the lovely "Falling Slowly" by Glen Hansard and Marketa. 

An old blues song or two make an appearance, even an outtake of Van Morrison wailing out "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" which surely worked well alongside great hymns and praise choruses.  Okay, not too many praise choruses.  But you've got to give props to a worship planner that uses Joe Pug and "It Is Well With My Soul" and "My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less..."  or Counting Crows and "Be Thou My Vision." Naturally, Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" suggested itself for reading  Habakkuk 2. In fact, her reflection on the classic Dylan song is itself marvelous. (She is obviously a lover of all kinds of music, and her sophisticate and gift for picking stuff is a blessing. I wonder if her style of doing lyrical criticism was itself informed by Brian, who has always used music in his lectures and sermons. Heck, he wrote a whole book about it, Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination which some people read just to see his brilliant interplay of lyrics and Bible, even if one doesn't love Cockburn as he does.)  Anyway, Deb Whalen-Blaize is doing good work to keep this thing lively and poignant.

I mentioned how good her bit on "All Along the Watchtower" was. Very astute. Brian's pre-service reflection that week - "Standing on the Watchtower... With Habakkuk, Dylan, and Hendrix" is fantastic, as he reflects on Hendrix's re-tooling of Dylan's acoustic bit of apocalyptic fervor, even as he deftly relates Habakkuk 2 and Isaiah 21. The dude knows his rock music, and he knows his Bible - a lot better than most.

In his sermon, then, he goes farther, reflecting on Paul's use of Habakkuk in Romans. For those who follow New Testament studies, you'll realize that Walsh's quips and poetic lines in his homily that week are, in fact, informed by very serious study of the varying interpretations of what is meant by God's righteousness, and what it means that the just live by faith.  It's a hugely significant connection, and it's good. 

Anyway, as he says:

"All I got is a red guitar,

Three chords and the truth.

All I got is a red guitar,

The rest is up to you." 

So adds Bono to Dylan's' "All Along the Watchtower."
All I've got is an ancient text,

That has the ring of truth.

All I've got is an ancient text,

The rest is up to you.

Or, perhaps, the rest is up to us.

Here we are, three weeks  into Habakkuk, 

up to our necks in it seems.

Here we are, deep into the burden that this prophet saw.

And seeing through his eyes has had some terrible resonances...

He continues, after having named some of the unexpected hard stuff that has come up in the culture and world,

So we have taken our stand with Habakkuk on the watchtower.

We have resolved to not talk falsely,

to tell the truth,

and to put our complaint in the only place where it might get 

a response:

at the very throne of God.

Walsh and students.jpgAnd so it goes from each of the members of the community who preached and prayed, sang and read, honest, raw, free-verse homilies befitting the sort of oracles they are pondering there together and the sober setting in which they find themselves. These are not academic lectures or preacherly pronouncements from a big elevated pulpit, they are punchy, poetic, but right to the heart, in gritty, common language. It is rare to hear this blunt, Bible talk, offering lament and outrage and zeal for justice, honest about pain and confusion. It's what we need.

Week by week, they gathered in the cold (and dark) of winter and go through this somewhat similar habit-forming liturgy. A reflection, a reading of the text. Music, prayers, responses, bread and wine, more music.  The prayers and poems and reflective litanies in response to the homily each time are very, very good.  

These responsive litanies and powerful prayers in HBB are not designed or offered here just for you to use -- it's not that kind of a book -- although I am sure you could be inspire to craft your own informed by their process.  And some really could be swiped - they are that good!  (You can see some of the creative liturgies they've done in other settings, here. They invite you to use them with due acknowledgment, so no "swiping" is necessary.)

A few readers may wonder if this Wine Before Breakfast community is adequately orthodox, with proper emphasis on proper doctrine.  Maybe not, I don't know those details, although, let me assure you, they are committed to being shaped by the Word, in this case, the good news of the gospel of Habbakkuk, who is scary and hard and weird and somehow God's truth.  For what it is worth, here is a wonderful reflection Brian offered after being surprised for a party celebrating his 20th anniversary of doing ministry in that setting.  (They sure do like to party, and, in that regard, they are like their Master, who had a reputation for such things, you know...)

The subtitle of Habakkuk Before Breakfast, though, you will recall, is "Liturgy, Lament, and Hope."

As in other Biblical studies Walsh has done -- say, his marvelous book co-written with his wife, Sylvia Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed or the densely succinct set of Advent devotionals co-written with three other colleagues, The Advent of Justice, or the spectacularly interesting Bible monologues in Beyond Homelessness (a high-point of the book for many) -- Walsh Is very, very committed to the authority of the Bible as the very Word of God.  But the life-giving revelation comes alive in community, and that is why he wasn't kidding when he said, that third week, riffing on that Bono quip, that "the rest is up to us."  We must grapple with the text, with understanding it, with hearing it, with living with it, and with living its gospel out in our own places. 

These litanies and prayers and liturgical forms are not incidental, by the way, they are key to framing the gathering community before God, in the Spirit, as they hear God's Word in the text.  Some of us may wish they'd just be done with the responsive readings and litanies and prayers, no matter how heart-felt and filled with yearning they may be; just get to the good Bible teaching, man!  No, this won't do.  These are curated short worship experiences, gatherings around the Word and sacrament, in an edgy sort of blend of contemporary and ancient worship. The Word of the Lord in Habakkuk comes to us in this real world context, and we are privileged to listen in on the preparation and the prayers and the homilies and their hopes of living into the text.  The Bible study is amazing, but it's not the only piece.

(I wish there was a closing section of each -- what in the heck did they talk about over muffins? How was the message received? In the next one, I hope they add just a little bit more to bring us into the lived community after the prayers and the songs and the Word.)

Here are the six chapter titles: of Habakkuk Before Breakfast.

habakkuk before.jpg1. Violence and Destruction: How Long?

2. Of Fish Hooks, Judgement, and Watchtowers

3. The Righteous Live by Faith, But Wealth is Treacherous

4. Idols, Glory, and Silence

5. Drinking Songs and Remembering

6. The Liberating Yet.

You just have to read these for yourselves, but just a quick few shout outs to alert you that this is pretty creative stuff, no matter who was speaking, praying, preaching. 

WEEK ONE  Here they make use of Tennyson's awesome poem "In Memoriam" which is perfect for the start of a New Year. One section of this sermon, by the way, explains a bit of what to expect, asking, "Habakkuk in Epiphany?"  Walsh had shared earlier how he had this holy hunch that this was the book the community needed for this upcoming season, and  about his risky decision to use it as they journeyed through the Toronto winter heading towards Lent.  Speaking of the "no holds barred spiritual honesty" of the "rich covenantal tradition" of the prophets, Walsh wrote, earlier,

Is there a particular text we need to hear? A word from God that might be calling us? A biblical author who will lead us more deeply in our ongoing wrestling match with God? Is there a certain place that seems to be an entry into the Story for us at this time? A biblical book that might serve to shape our imaginations, give voice to our longings, resonate with our lament, and engender hope in the midst of it all? 

So in the first full chapter (their first chapter back after Christmas holiday) he explains the violence and judgement in the texts they are about to gather around.  Whew. The prayers and litanies are perfect.

WEEK TWO:  Heads up: Walsh does something with the "fishers of men" line from Jesus.  I don't know if he's right, and I've not heard anybody say this before, but he linked it to the prophet and a typical use of fishhooks in judgement.  Check that out, but don't get distracted.  This is quintessential Walsh, explaining how Habakkuk is crying out in protest to God.  He draws on a WBB singer-songwriter friend, Martyn Joseph, and a song called "Not a Good Time for God" as well as "Apres Moi" by the powerful Regina Spektor. Wow.

WEEK THREE: I've already noted his use of Paul; it is brief but potent.  Here he draws us toward the deepest thing of all --  faith, God's faithfulness, our faithfulness.  Trust God, he says.  Wealth is treacherous, after all, and we know what is coming.... Heavy, good stuff, highlighted beautifully by the description of the music choices.

WEEK FOUR: This is wonderful, again, offering  solid exegesis and moving, creative reading of the Biblical passage, bringing together sharp observations about idols, economic growth, empire, and the need for a subversive imagination to stand firm against such corrupt ways.  That transforming vision is still on the horizon, though, and he preaches:

Glory replaces shame.

Intimate knowing replaces objectified control.

Silence overtakes the cacophony of empire.

WEEK FIVE: I don't want to spoil it, but they use a song by Bill Mallonee and VOL, and it involves drinking. As does the Biblical text. Walsh is honest, here, blunt, even. Who couldn't use a stiff one after all this stuff from the throne of God taking on the horrors of the world and our own need to lament and repent?   His take on drinking songs and what sort of memory comes from them is brilliant, although I'll admit I don't really know about that. But it sure sounded right. I doubt if you'd hear this kind of stuff in your local Presbyterian or Methodist church these days...

WEEK SIX: A young woman in the community preaches this week and brings it, naming her own inner sin even as she protests the violence and injustice of the world. I had to fight back tears, and you might too. And what does Habakkuk tell them to do?  This you've got to see. Again, the prayers and songs and litanies, and a closing pray by Philip Newell is very helpful.

This book is a gift to us all, and it is a fundraiser for the work Brian does there at the U of T. I hope you consider getting it.  

Just to remind you how urgent and important this is -- this community is, as I said, the real deal -- you may want to know that the launch party in Toronto to celebrate this book happened a day or so after the Pulse Nightclub murders.  Brian said he didn't intend to preach that night, but it seemed that, even before the book party that evening, they needed to pray and weep and think together. There are hurting students in their community, LGBTQ friends, naturally.  So in some ways, pastor Brian summarized the book and the things they experienced together in their series on Habakkuk. Here is a link to that sermon, preached just a few weeks ago and published in their Empire Remixed website. 

Here is what N.T. Wright says about the new book:

Habakkuk Before Breakfast is like no other book on the prophet. That's because it is, itself, prophecy -- and poetry, and preaching, and prayer, and liturgy, and lament, and a dozen other things melded together into a powerful, and powerfully disturbing book. A book to shake us up and make us realize that God's loving justice is the only firm ground on which anyone -- or any society -- can stand.

I like the blurb on the back by Karen Pascal, the Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society & Legacy Trust. (Nouwen lived in Toronto, you may recall.) She writes:

Habakkuk Before Breakfast will both disarm you and make you thirsty with its honesty. It will meet you, refine you, and call you onward. A deep sense of community is woven into the pages of this genuine collaboration of the prophets and poets of the Wine Before Breakfast community. As a reader, you are engaged not just by the ideas but by the community. As they stand on the wall and wait, this book offers us a relentless wrestling with God who is ultimately and forever faithful.

And, listen to this, from Mark Wallace of the Christian Reformed Church:

Once again, the Wine Before Breakfast community invites us to join them at their table of gathered worship. These liturgies, written in the language of longing and lament, in the voices of this community, call us to engage with the works of Habakkuk, and with the prophets and poets of our time. These words, forged in shared experience, in joy and pain, call us to join in the radical resistance of sitting and eating in the midst of a bewildering age. Be warned, this is not comfort food, yet you will be longing for more.


St John Before big.jpgSt. John Before Breakfast Brian J. Walsh and the Wine Before Breakfast community (Books Before Breakfast) $18.00  I mentioned this several times above -- I did a larger review when it first came out. What a great idea, sharing these Biblical studies and homilies and liturgies with us all.  By the way, this was to be a fund-raiser for them, so if you buy 'em from us, we'll have to order more from them (no publisher or distributor.) Get it?  If you want to support this kind of indie book publishing and serious Biblical study in a real community of young adults, this is a book you should purchase. Plus, it's darn good stuff, studying John in a way that will blow you away.

subversive 2nd.jpgSubversive Christianity: Imaging God in a Dangerous Time (2nd edition)  Brian J. Walsh (Wipf & Stock) $17.00  I've mentioned this often, and really hope you'd consider it. I've read these essays/sermons/talks/chapters over and over during the last decade and they are sustaining, powerful, significant. After The Transforming Vision but before Truth Is Stranger, as I recall, Walsh gave some of these talks furthering this worldviewish critique of modernity, capitalism, the idols and ideologies of economic growth, scientism, technocism, all bearing fruit in technologies of war and environmental abuse. How can we learn to name these things? What does it mean to image God in modern day Babylon? How does our dis-ease and confusion about our culture effect our faith?  What would it take to have faith truly be subversive of the idols of the dominant culture?  This is a power-house of a book, with a new chapter added a couple of years ago when it was re-issued. A must-read!

colossians remixed.jpgColossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire Brian J. Walsh & Sylvia C. Keesmaat (IVP Academic) $24.00  I've mentioned this above, indicating it shows mature Scriptural scholarship applied in exceptionally serious ways. I thought I should list it here. This really is an audacious, brilliant bit of work, with more than one viewpoint offered as a conversation occurs on the meaning of the text and as they bring the early church experiences to us in creative storytelling and powerful cultural analysis. This is solid Biblical exegesis, a specific book studied not only in it's own context, but within it's own place in the unfolding redemptive plan revealed in Scripture. They see echos of the Old in this letter of Paul's and they see within the struggles of these early Christ-followers hints of how we can live out our faith today. Endorsements include rave reviews from Tom Wright, Marva Dawn, Andrew Lincoln, Walt Brueggemann, Frank Thielman and other top notch Biblical scholars. And some bookseller guy from Dallastown who's stuck in there raving among the big names.  I still love this book and highly recommend it -- hold on to your hat, though. Colossians Remixed will challenge how you read the Bible, how you think about discipleship and church, and how you see the world.  

Prophetic Lament- Call for Justice in Troubled Times.jpgProphetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times Soong-Chan Rah (IVP) $17.00  I have mentioned this often; it is a lively and moving commentary on the Old Testament book of Lamentations.  If you resonate with Habakkuk's call to big picture stuff, global concerns, justice and our corporate brokenness, this could be really useful. If you like the way Walsh weave lament into his sermons about justice and hope, then you will realize the value in this sort of prophetic imagination, shaped by the Word and by modern day injustices. We need books like this, for sure. 

Reality,  Grief, Hope- Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks.jpgReality, Grief, Hope  Walter Brueggemann (WJK) $15.00  This is, in many ways, the book decades in the making, a simple and passionate follow up to The Prophetic Imagination. Like Walsh, Brueggemann highlights lament, drawing on the prophets own denunciation of ancient Israel, calling a remnant community to stand in covenantal fidelity, seeing thinks as God does, even if it puts us at odds with church and state.  Brueggemann does really help us see that what happened in 587 BCE is somehow generative for us now, after 9-11 and with the collapse of so many ways of doing things.  This is a great little book.

Saving the Bible From Ourselves Learning to Read and Live the Bible Well.jpgSaving the Bible From Ourselves: Learning to Read and Live the Bible Well Glenn R. Paauw (IVP) $18.00  I am quite taken with this and can't wait to really dive in.  Each chapter explains a posture or tendency that we have to make the Bible harder than it needs to be, or more confusing, or readings that are prone to cause us to miss the meaning of the text.  For each error, Paauw gives an alternative approach, fresh ways to save the Bible -- not because the Bible needs saving, but because we've learned bad habits of reading it wrongly.  I get it. This is good, good stuff. Endorsements on the back from Walter Brueggemann He calls it "puckish" but series. Another endorsement rings out from Mark Noll.

free for all rediscovering the bible.pngFree for All: Rediscovering the Bible in Community Tim Condor & Daniel Rhodes (Baker) $16.99  This was a splendid, generative book that came out of the "emergent village" imprint a number of years ago. It's out of print but we have a few left. I know Walsh liked it -- it's main point being that we must unleash the Scriptures among us, allow us all to share our thoughts, and struggle hard for a fair and communal reflection on the meaning of it all.  I think this is a strong resource, for those who understand that we need a communal reading and interpretation of Scripture and for those who have been hurt by more didactic and authoritarian teaching.  It seemed right to name it here. It had been rigorously endorsed with nice blurbs from Walsh, Will Willimon, Stanley Hauerwas, Phylllis TIckle, and John Franke.

called tocommunity EN.jpgCalled to Community: The Life Jesus Wants for His People  edited by Charles Moore (Plough Publishing) $18.00 This is a stunning new anthology of beauitful excerpts of books, essays, articles, Bible studies and sermons on the themes of community. This is a 52-week study, a great resource for anyone needing more insight about living together amidst our own foibles and the culture's pressures. Hear from Bonhoeffer and Dorothy Day, Jean Vanier and John Perkins, Joan Chittister and Richard Foster, Henri Nouwen, Betty O'Connor, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Andy Crouch, Gerhard Lohfink, C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, and others.  So glad to see Plough publishing again. This is a treasure-chest!

slow church.jpgSlow Church Study Guide.jpgSlow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus  C Christopher Smith & John Pattison (VIP) $17.00  I have said over and over that this is one of the most significant books on the church I've read in decades. It brings a Walsh-like critique to the idols and ideologies of growth and status and efficiency and invites us to slow down, build community, learn patience and through God's grace, gather a human-scale sort of missional energy for our own neighborhoods. Learning a sense of place, having an eye for injustice, but enjoying the good things in our areas is all part of what it means to be followers of Jesus in a slower church. There's a good study guide for it, now, too.  

Subversive Jesus Craig Greenfield.jpgSubversive Jesus: An Adventure in Justice, Mercy & Faithfulness in a Broken World Craig Greenfield (Zondervan) $15.99  I wasn't sure this was going to be all that profound  -- the word "subversive" is over-used and not every hip book about doing cool justice work is that good -- until an old CCO friend told me they knew this guy and assured me he was doing great work, and that we'd love his forthcoming book. And, wow, what a book -- I could hardly put it down. It is conversational but mature, and he is obviously involved in doing inspiring work. And Greenfield has some fun, too. His antics protesting cruise ship injustices by getting a group to dress like pirates was hilarious -- sort of a cross between Shane Claiborne and Bob Goff. (And they didn't just act up once, but entered into longer-term relationships with third world workers on these ships who are terribly abused. Who knew?)

His years of experience in Cambodian, his journey to serve the poorest of the poor, and how that mission involvement effected his own faith development was beautiful. When Jesus's teaching of love for enemies struck him, he and his wife baked cookies for local drug dealers (and none of them showed up -- our gestures of faithfulness don't always "work.") This is an upbeat, adventurous book, although the story of him getting cancer was grueling. If you like Walsh and this kind of lived out, joyful sort of mission in the, this will be a good read.  Great work, Zondervan, for offering this inspiring, healthy story about learning to weep at injustice, and do something about it. I hope they keep doing books like this, and I hope we keep hearing from Craig Greenfield.

habakkuk before.jpg




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July 2, 2016

A Reflection on Patriotism and a review of "If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Powers of American Liberty" (by Eric Metaxas) and five more ALL ON - SALE 20% OFF

Please see the link to our secure website order form page, shown below. We love doing these ruminations on books and making our suggested lists of important titles, but, of course, we make our living selling the books. Thanks for your consideration.  Happy book buying, and happy reading! 

betsy-ross.jpgFor this Fourth of July holiday weekend, I want to tell you about a book that I very much enjoyed, one that I can say even deeply moved me. There are layers of complicated backstory around the topic of the book that I mostly won't go into, but you should know that I found this book to be a surprisingly gripping read for me.

I like the author's previous writing, enjoy reading about history, but have an allergy to books about patriotism. I've reviewed books on the endlessly interesting history of the Founding Fathers here at BookNotes before, and enjoy telling people about this genre about civic life, the common good, public faith and the ideas and virtues that have given shape to our North American culture, and our United States, particularly.

Oh how I love the kind of patriotism that cares about a land and a place and a country, honoring one's own heritage and history - the good and the bad - without necessarily demeaning others. These lines written by Lloyd Stone after WW I, sung to the achingly gorgeous tune of Finlandia always choke me up:

            This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine;
this is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country's skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.


I may not be in the majority, I am aware, although I know I am not alone, to say I worry about over-stated patriotism, both the cheap kind where people with flag-themed beer cozies think they are being honorable yelling slogans about American being Number One or the kind that insists we must be strong in military might and global influence as if we are an Empire that measures worth in sheer fire power.

I was raised in a very patriotic home - my family has lost loved ones in wars. The three older men I care about most (my father, my brother, and my father-in-law) all served in the military, proudly, as officers. (See, I have this reflex to say that because in my experience to say one is critical of unadulterated patriotism will surely be criticized, as if I don't care about vets. I don't know anyone who "blames America first" or fits the description of an "America hater" but so many right wing talk show hosts and conservative pundits tar us all with that inaccurate accusation. It offends me. Do you know what I mean?)

So, in part because of my own father's wisdom as a good conservative, I came to believe that too much misguided and uncritical patriotism is inappropriate, foolhardy, even, especially for Christians.  To use the language of Saint Augustine, perhaps channeled afresh through Davey Naugle's beautiful Reordered Love, Reordered Lives or James K.A. Smith's must-read You Are What You Love, it is distorted affection and perhaps idolatrous to love a government too much, or in the wrong way. We should give all things their due and love the right things to a proper degree, and each thing properly; love of state isn't a bad thing, and the Bible calls us to honor the proper authorities. In a good world, at least, it would be disordered not to love your land and government, somewhat, somehow.

The mindless saying "My Country Right or Wrong" suggesting that one dare not criticize one's own land was not promoted in my Christian home, but it was in the air everywhere in the late 60s and 70s when I was coming of age and thinking about politics, citizenship and the role of protest (in the Bible and in contemporary society.)  Large matters of public policy (the Viet Nam war, the nuclear arms race, America's role in propping up corrupt regimes from the Philippines to Iran to nearly every oppressive banana republic in Central America) were being debated.  I cannot tell you how many times I was told I should move to communist Russia for daring to say that my beloved land was doing evil in the Third world, or that we had issues like race and poverty and justice for migrant workers or corporate shysters polluting our air and water without consequence to deal with here at home.  Those stupid replies to legitimate social criticism still weigh heavy on my heart, decades later.

unclesam-god-229x300.jpgCivil religion became the phrase scholars used to explain the nearly religious way faith in one's own government, with no tolerance for critique, functions. Again, think of James K.A. Smith's analysis of "cultural liturgies" in You Are What You Love. Hand over heart pledges of allegiance and using Bible language of heaven ("alabaster cities gleam, untouched by human tears") to describe any temporal nation should give us pause. It is dangerous to allow the faith of the church to be used as window dressing for the secular state.

I shouldn't have to remind you that this kind of story of our own country as called and exceptional and somehow nearer to God than others is commonplace, but for Biblical people, unacceptable.  Biblical scholars and some brave pastors use the analysis of civil religion as they draw upon the Old Testament prophets who offered solemn rebuke to ancient Israel when the injustices of the land were legitimized by implying God was on their side, no matter what. "The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord" they would chant, and Jeremiah, for one, would insist that even God's covenant people couldn't get away with murder by claiming to be exceptional.  Every nation will be judged by the sovereign of history, and no nation should be loved inordinately; patriotic sentiment or national loyalty ought never to allow us to overlook injustices or a lack of public righteousness. We must be careful that care for our nation doesn't turn into the idol of nationalism. Pride still goeth before a fall.

In Jeremiah 22 the prophet extolled a former king for doing justice and taking the side of the oppressed and hurting; liberal justice advocacy for the powerless caused it to be "well" with him and indicated authentic spirituality ("for is that not what it means to know me, says the Lord" v.16.)

Jeremiah confronts the King.jpgThen the prophet bluntly condemned the new king for building a fancy palace without paying fair wages, for living high on the hog and thinking his legitimacy was based on his profitable international business dealings (see v. 14-15a, although the NIV misses the market aspect of it, "competing in Cedar.") Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, take note! It isn't the point of this column to document the vast amount of Biblical material that calls us to be critical of our own beloved land and to resist civil religion, but it is important to at least recall the dangers of quasi-religious, overly sentimental and uncritical faith in one's own country, or its founding mythologies, a sin that is as old as Sodom and Gomorrah (see Isaiah 1: 10-17 or Ezekiel 16:49 to see how the prophets used the economic injustice in those cities as emblematic of the sins of Israel) and as recent as any belligerent political debate where U-S-A, U-S-A becomes a chant for greatness, without proper humility.

I say all of this on the fourth of July, to tell you that I am not one who generally likes the "God Bless America" cantatas or other red-white-and-blue celebrations that seem to me to smack of civil religion.  I detest "my country right or wrong" thinking and I believe, generally speaking, we have too much patriotism, or at least too much that isn't critically engaged in the realities of both the true goodness and evident evil of our blessed but broken land.

If You Can Keep It.jpgAnd, then, yet -- surprise -- to say this: I loved Eric Metaxas's new book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Powers of American Liberty (Viking; $26.00; 20% off sale price = $20.80.)  Mr. Metaxas is a born storyteller, a great communicator, and a fine writer. I was worried about this book, to be honest (see the aforementioned fear of civil religion and my concern as a Biblical person that no one nation should be honored with religious-sounding absolutes which closes off an possibility of critique and repentance.)

But, despite a few small quibbles, I loved it. And I commend it to those who, like me, maybe wouldn't be apt to pick it up.  Really, you should send us an order for this book - it's a great read, even if you want to push back on some points. It's a great time to read such a book.

I suppose many of you don't resonate with my concerns about misguided patriotism.

eric with book.jpgYou might be quite likely to buy this book and we would be delighted if you ordered it from us. I don't have to convince you that Eric is an amazingly sharp guy, a talk show host and pundit who seems to bring the wit and depth (well, almost) of a William F. Buckley and the gritty evangelical faith of Chuck Colson, and the interest in talking to intellectuals and thought-leaders about big questions as might, say, Os Guinness or Nancy Pearcey. Eric is a gifted writer, a funny, funny, guy, and agree or not with all of his views (or like his jokes) expressed on his daily radio show, he is an author I suspect you appreciate.

amazing grace metaxas.jpgIf you read even somewhat in conservative evangelical circles, you know his wonderfully-written and fascinating Bonhoeffer biography (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy) and his best-selling book about William Wilberforce, Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery from which they made the must-see, very moving film of the same title.

I hope you bonhoeffer.jpgknow his great pair of recent paperbacks, Seven Men: Seven Women And The Secret of Their Greatness.jpgseven men.jpgThe Secret of Their Greatness and Seven Women: The Secret of Their Greatness. He has a real knack for getting important things said by way of telling the tales of historical figures.  Without being didactic about it, he allows pretty conservative values and political tendencies to bubble up naturally as he tells us about this courageous freedom fighter or that justice advocate or that culturally-important poet or leader, telling us about folks from Jackie Robinson to Hannah More, from Mother Theresa to Eric Lidell. If you've read his books, you know he's got a knack for this and that his books are enjoyable and informative.

If You Can Keep It.jpgIt is the readers who might not want to read Eric Metaxas, or who aren't drawn to read about the Founding Fathers, that I want to persuade to consider giving If You Can Keep It a try.  It is a fast-paced book, serious but not dense, and, as I've said, I enjoyed it very, very much. Like reading David McCullough's 1776 or watching the TV adaptation of John Adams, it properly shamed me a bit, making me ask myself why I am reluctant to be clear about my appreciation of American ideals and the principles at the heart of the Republic. There really was a lot in here that I learned and a lot that made me feel some things pretty deeply.  I hope you'll appreciate my remarks about it; they are heart felt, and writing this out is better for me than grilling hot dogs on this national day of honoring a brilliant revolution.


If you've read the books on civility and the public square by Os Guinness (most notably A Free People's Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future) one of the central teachings of If You Can Keep It will be familiar. Guinness has made explicit the three-fold flow of traits that are central to keeping America vibrant and healthy.

There is the constitutional assertion of freedom of and from religion that is a building block to American culture. Religion, Metaxas reminds us, channeling Guinness's own reading of the framers and founders, must not be coerced. Only a freely chosen faith can be sustainable and profound enough to guide and inform and bolster civil goodness in the public square. So religious liberty was a huge matter, freedom of conscience, for everyone, regardless of conviction. Ahh, but how does one maintain such religious liberty? Only a truly religious people can step up and live out such religious freedom (again: a coerced faith or state church or civil religion simply won't do.) So there is this significant interplay between freedom of and from forced religion and a robust, lived faith that offers a solid grounding for public virtue.

And, as he makes clear, virtue is needed.  Otherwise, things fall apart.

This is, by the way, one of the great insights in de Tocqueville, the mid-nineteenth century Frenchman who wrote his amazing memoir of his journey to and impressions of America, called Democracy in America. He wondered, a century after the great colonial revolution, how the States were faring, what made America what it was. He famously found a deep religiosity at the heart of the culture, everywhere he went. He concluded that "liberty cannot be established without morality nor without faith."

Ponder it a minute: if we are free to do what we want but we are not moral people, then, inevitably, everyone will, in fact, do what they want -- for themselves, probably, disregarding the common good.  The founders were seriously well-read in moral philosophy, and somewhat in theology, and were deeply aware (more than any of our contemporary public leaders) of a realistic perception about the nature of the human person. The human condition is, among other things, that we are sinful, disordered, often selfish, and such an insight must inform how we think about social arrangements and our view of power and the rule of law and political theory and the like. (Yes, too, the famous "checks and balances.") This is heavy stuff and the brilliant leaders of the Constitutional Convention (sometimes called the Federal Convention) in the summer of 1787 were serious thinkers, debating well this kind of thing. I suppose you know of The Federalist Papers, written the following year, just for an example of the depth of their discourse, which Metaxas cites on occasion.

So the question looms: what makes people want to be good, or at least good citizens, thinking of the commonwealth over their own individual needs and wishes? Great sacrifice for the commons comes from people who have a moral compass pointing them to care about others, and, it seems almost empirically obvious, that this most naturally happens when people are guided by a religious faith that teaches the golden rule and the like.

golden triangle.pngSo there you have it, for starters, the bold claim that the Founding Fathers presumed a certain sort of worldview, if you will, and at least three things that they wrote about endlessly, but never quite so directly as when Guinness or Metaxas spells it out as the "golden triangle."

Freedom Requires Virtue

Virtue Requires Faith

Faith Requires Freedom

Metaxas notes that in recent years, this idea of the significance of faith and religious liberty for our public life is virtually unheard, at least in intellectual circles, and when it is, it is often dismissed if not mocked. The religious freedoms for mediating institutions and faith-based associations are woefully neglected (although Metaxas doesn't write about contemporary policy or court rulings much regarding this up-to-the-week topic.) Regarding his own education (his degree is from Yale) and the lack of awareness of the interplay of this necessary golden triangle of freedom, virtue, and faith, he writes, "Virtually no one seemed to understand what the founders had taken for granted as the secret center of their novel idea of self-government..."

Or as we might say today, the "secret sauce."

Metaxas continues,

If America was indeed a country created not because of ethnic or tribal boundaries but instead because a people had come to believe - and therefore embody - as a set of ideas, how could America be said to exist if almost no one anymore knew what those ideas were? If these ideas had essentially evaporated from our national consciousness for forty years or more, weren't we unwittingly but unavoidable becoming Americans in name only...

If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Powers of American Liberty draws easy-to-understand images, is chock full of illustrations and stories and episodes, offers primary source excerpts from speeches and letters, providing good summaries, (if a bit too sweeping at times) and gives mostly very solid insights about the nature of the ideas behind the Constitutional Convention and the framing of our founding documents. His point is that these genius thinkers - Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Adams, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, and the others - despite faults great and small - came up with a truly new and previously untried experiment in self-government. This was a remarkably new idea, and they were deeply committed to this new set of ideas, itself a remarkably new notion.


As a matter of small detail, a number of these great thinkers who were deputies at the convention did not sign the Constitution; Jefferson, whose influence was significant, was in France. Some of the gentleman, such as George Mason, and the interestingly named Catholic from Baltimore, Luther Martin, refused to sign on principle. Some awaiting a "Bill of Rights." Some had just gone home or fell ill.

Seeds that were sown through the centuries were taken up from the Greeks and Romans, through the Magna Carta, the Enlightenment, the Protestant reformation and the British revolutions, but no-where on the planet, ever, did anyone every come up with such audacious claims, and make such a bold and daring move to create a Republic such as ours.

I know this is often said, but it is nearly breathtaking to read of it again, and in Metaxas's hands, the radical and daring nature of this project (less, it seems, the Declaration of Independence, itself amazing, and the revolt from the King, dramatic as that was, but more so the new ideas to create a new form of government, rejecting monarchs or kings out of a whole new paradigm, so to speak) is utterly exciting. This book should be used in high school civics classes and study groups from sea to shining sea!

I could quote page after inspiring page of Metaxas writing about this stuff, but if you are a history buff, I don't have to tell you -- these eighteenth century revolutionaries were brilliant and eloquent, and even the small bits of their writings offered here are fabulous to read and ponder.  I appreciate how Metaxas not only quotes them liberally but gives background and color, as a fine storyteller and popularizer should. 

I appreciate how he surveys how old-timers have written about these assertions; his long and important chapter on the brilliance of the best Longfellow poem (on Paul Revere) and how it was written for deep social purposes on the eve of the Civil War, drawing on a sense of unity and the common good from the Revolutionary era, was tremendous!


He has a chapter called "Venerating Our Heroes" which I thought was fabulous - I didn't know much about Nathan Hale, that's for sure.  I would want to add a few other heroes that Eric might not, but his vision (or is it a strategy?) to keep virtue alive by telling the stories of virtuous leaders, is so, so necessary. (It is, by the way, the project behind his Seven Men and Seven Women books, each showing the "secret to their greatness" as a heroic sort of courage and integrity.) There is a lot to think about in this chapter, and it strikes me as urgent in our age of anti-heroes and sex-driven consumerism. (When will we grow tired of Kim Kardashians' boobs or Beyoncé's butt? And how bad has it gotten when even fundamentalist spokespeople like Jerry Falwell, Jr. happily pose giving a thumbs-up in front of Donald Trump and his framed Playboy cover?)

How to Survive The Apocalypse- Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the end of the World .jpgFor a more sophisticated treatment of the role of anti-heroes as an indication of the gloomy secularized times, by the way, see the book I've been raving about in the previous BookNotes posts, How To Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World by political theorist Robert Joustra and film critic Alissa Wilkinson (Eerdmans; $16.00.) The point, again, is that Metaxas reminds us in that good chapter about the role of virtue in leaders, and the need to tell the stories of heroism, a practice that has fallen on hard times (amidst the coming zombie apocalypse and whatnot.)

He reminds us that,

self-government entails far more than obeying laws. Tocqueville refers to something he calls the "habits of the heart" and the "mores" of the American people. He says that it is these things that are really at the center of keeping our republic. Going to church and obeying laws are important, but there are other things that also deserve to be mentioned and examined as central to keeping our freedoms...  we need to keep in mind that all of these things reinforce one another. We cannot pretend that one or another of these alone is sufficient. They are all part of a larger mind-set.

And so, he looks at the notion of the heroic in general, and the specific practice of venerating heroes.  Again, I think of Smith's "cultural liturgies" project, thinking about the formative influence of cultural practices; who and how we honor the heroic is fascinating, and Metaxas invites us to think about that, from storytelling to parades, from  public statues to how history is taught.

(And, yes, he addresses fairly, if not with quite enough gusto for my tastes, the important matter of hagiography, and of how to be honest about the large failings of past heroes. He is blunt about that, saying, "of course it is true that people can venerate heroes so much that they overlook important flaws" and he mentions, as examples, JFK, St. Patrick, and of course (given his expertise and passion for telling the tales of the abolitionists) the terrible irony that some of the framers were themselves slave holders.

In any case, in latter decades we have swung so far in the other direction that venerating heroes, which used to be part of our common vocabulary, is no longer a language we speak or really understand. But this has served to undermine the very idea of greatness and the idea of the heroic, which is deeply destructive to any culture but especially to a free society like ours, where aspiring to be like the heroes who have gone before us is a large part of what makes citizens want to behave admirably. Denigrating heroes, or simply failing to venerate them, has a cynical and toxic effect on the young generation, and we have now had fifty years in which we have neglected this "habit of the heart" so vital to our free way of life.

I think he is on to something, don't you?


Metaxas further illustrates how moderns have treated these things more generally -- our views of liberty and such -- sometimes with illustrations so vividly weird that one doesn't know whether to laugh or cry, as when Joy Behar, one of the hosts of ABC's The View suggested after 9-11 that we should resist the Taliban by dropping blow-up sex dolls and Pamela Anderson videos over Afghanistan.  Yep, that's it - notice: freedom is most fundamentally understood as freedom from restraints of any sort, and, in the contemporary hyper-modern culture, that is most understood as freedom from sexual restraint. Eric notes, "It was a classically Freudian idea of the problem at the center of human life, and as far as she was concerned, that was what our American freedom existed to wipe out.

He continues:

This suggestion that raining pornography and sex toys might pointedly express American freedom was an important and bracing moment in television history, because the divide between the founder's view of "liberty" and the current misunderstanding of it had never before been more perfectly contrasted. But what happened in the centuries since the ideas based on Montesquieu and Locke and Jesus had devolved into what amounted to an airdropped "kiss off" to the medieval coelacanths in their Afghani caves? During previous wars we might have thought to drop Bibles or copies of our Constitution because we knew that these contained the ideological dynamite to free those cultures of their oppressive bindings.


It is very interesting and helpful that Metaxas has good pages exploring this, what he calls the "liberal" misunderstanding of freedom.  We should pay heed of this somewhat philosophical question. But it is to his credit that he then also has pages looking at what he terms a "conservative" misunderstanding of freedom, where he is hard on the neo-con hopes that capitalism and economic growth will naturally bring about renewal and liberty and justice for all. The free market, he notes, "delivers what people want" and in that sense it is amoral, or at least deeply connected to what the people stand for, shaped by the values and desires of the culture.

Listen to him on this:

Gekko-the-Great-cvr-2-300.jpgNeither in voting nor in finance is pure self-interest always in the best interest of the nation. You may recall Michael Douglas's character's infamous statement in the movie Wall Street. With his slick-back hair, Gordon Gekko declared, "Greed is good." In fact it is not. It's not only not good, it is evil. But it is not only evil and morally wrong, it will in the end lead to the debasement and destruction of the free market, just as naked and selfish self interest in voting will lead to the debasement and destruction of democratic government.

Metaxas is clear about the problems with the typical liberal and typical conservative tendencies and errors - and the "golden triangle" comes to the rescue.  You see, the government cannot force us to be good. As people made in God's image with certain inherent dignity, we must have freedom, but for freedom to be sustained, to allow a culture that is healthy and a government "for" the people -- the common good, as Catholics tend to say --  we need good people, who will put common concerns above their own greed. And so we need religion to underscore morality, but we cannot have authentic religion without religious freedom.  It really is an endless, inter-related triangle.

What this supposes is that we may not be able to sustain our ordered sense of liberty, our structures for democratic freedom, for being a republic, given our current greeds and ideologies and markets. (Decades ago, Francis Schaeffer, a popularizer of intellectual history and a wide-as-life worldview of Christ's care for every square inch of His world, predicted that by the early twenty-first century people may become so committed to their own "personal peace and affluence" that they will permit a national security state, accepting too much law and order to protect their own suburban pleasures. Wow!)


So, can we sustain our forms of government, our freedoms?   Can we keep it?

As you may know, there is a historical conversation from which the book gets its title. 

In that summer of 1787, when those most brilliant men met to devise a new constitution - cited for centuries later, by leaders from Lincoln to Martin Luther King (who called it "a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir") to idealistic reformers all over the globe - they understood that "American would not flourish without great help from all Americans."  We must take up that "promissory note" and be good Americans.

That is the key take-away from the book.

"Future Americans depend on present-day Americans doing their duty in this," Metaxas writes, wisely.

(By the way, this was part of my approach in a recent Op Ed piece in our local York Sunday News paper criticizing a local knucklehead school board member making gross anti-Muslim comments and harassing a church that was reaching out in kindness to Muslim neighbors here in Dallastown. It was anti-American, I said, to be so ugly about fellow citizens' deepest beliefs, as if religious freedom is not for all or as if the common courtesy of wishing another well is somehow bad. I implied, sincerely, that this GOP delegate was a bad conservative and a bad American.)

Can we sustain the insight and virtue and freedoms dreamed about by the framers and founders? Can we be good stewards of these ideas and practices that have been handed down over time?

So do you know about the brief conversation between Benjamin Franklin and a Mrs. Powell, as recorded by Dr. James McHenry, a delegate from Maryland, the last day of the long, long convention in Philadelphia?  Metaxas tells it well:

Benjamin Franklin was 81 that summer, described by Metaxas as "the oldest delegate, the eminence grise who for his part in those hallowed proceedings came to be known as the "sage of the Constitution." Franklin had by that time lived in Philadelphia sixty four years since arriving there in 1723, aged seventeen, so for all we know, he knew this now mythical and otherwise forgotten Mrs. Powell, who has come to stand for all of American since that day when she spoke to Franklin in a tone that seemed to bespeak some degree of familiarity.

According to McHenry, Mrs. Powell put her question to Franklin direction: "Well, doctor," she asked him, "what have we got? A republic or a monarch?"

Franklin, who was rarely short of words or wit, shot back: "A republic, madam - if you can keep it."

eric pink shirt.jpgKeeping American constitutional freedoms, through careful attention to sustainable structures of freedom of religion and a robust, common-good sort of public morality, bolstered by sincere, lively faith, is not the only thing Metaxas writes about in If You Can Keep It. It is a good, good start, and worth reading this summer even if you know a bit about the Constitution and have interest in questions of public justice and religious freedom and the like. (And it is important to read if you tend not to read much along those lines - this is a lesson in patriotism unlike the simplistic and jingoistic stuff that sometimes passes for civic lessons and may inspire some of the jaded among us to take up this work of forging a healthy view of citizenship.)

Again, I was struck by how vital all this feels while reading Metaxas's energetic writing -- even when he overstates a few things. (He waxes eloquent noting how many good things have come from the United States, listing inspirational stuff from the invention of baseball and basketball to jazz to the invention of the computer and the internet, saying these things were made possible by "that one document written in that hot room in Philadelphia over the course of one hundred days  -- that promise to the future of the world." Okay, so he makes the point with some purple passages. Let it go - he's mostly right on most of this, and it is good to be reminded.)


Some readers may find a few chapters to seem incidental, but I hope not, as I believe they are fully integral. There is a chapter, for instance, on George Whitefield. I thought I knew a bit about him, but this was a spectacularly interesting chapter. There are major historical biographies of the great evangelist, but for most of us, this will give us a helpful picture of his immense popularity in the colonies, and his unique friendship with Ben Franklin (even though they differed considerably on religious matters.)

george whitefield 1714 - 1771.jpgWhitefield could speak out loud, outdoors of course, to up to 30,000 people -- ever the science guy, Ben Franklin measured it out.  That up to 80% of the population of the colonies in the mid-1700s had heard him preach is extraordinary.  His sermons were published on the front page of the Pennsylvania Gazette. He was, in fact, what today we would call a major celebrity. Metaxas may be overstating things (I don't know) but he insists that in many ways, Whitefield was one of the most important persons in the whole founding of America.  He almost single-handedly spurred a great religious awakening (begun, of course, by the preaching of Jonathan Edwards a decade earlier) - creating fertile ground upon which the new ideas of self-government and self-restraint for the sake of the common good could flourish.

Whitefield's own story, from poverty to Oxford, and his consequential concern for the poor and the underclass (hence his unconventional outdoor preaching) created an social ethos later called by historians democratization; that is, there was a populist sort of leveling - all people of all classes and stations are equally loved as created by God, all are equally guilty before God and all are equally redeemed by God in Christ.  All had access to the throne-room of the God of the universe, only a prayer away. He loved the native peoples, preached to black settlements, and was respected by the rich and poor, the powerful and the weak, the learned and the unschooled.  The vivid revival preaching and renewal of faith promoted by the Wesleys shaped the gifted Mr. Whitefield and his own tireless travels and inspired speaking informed the North American continent in ways no one had previously, ever.


There is a chapter in If You Can... that is ever and always important, one that helped clarify things for me, called "The Importance of Moral Leaders."  He tells of a particular speech given by George Washington on March 16, 1783 in the middle of a very dramatic part of the war. I was moved by Metaxas's telling of it, what he calls "Washington's Finest Hour."

Washington, part way through the speech, "reached into his waistcoat pocket and pulled out a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles. He had been using them for some time, but never in front of his officers, so the gesture must have taken them aback. And then came the famous line: 'Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind.'"

With these words, the mood of the room changed dramatically. There is no question that many of the angry, battle-hardened officers had been softened and moved by his speech, but now, seeing their noble leader in this unprecedented moment of weakness, they were undone. As Washington read the congressman's letter, many of them actually wept.

The longer speech of Washington is filled with value-laden words, words Metaxas suggests we do not hear much anymore, "sacred honor" and "dignity" and "glory" and such.  I am not so sure that we do not hear them - they are perhaps tossed around too often or too brazenly to mean much. But I appreciate his concern, that we too often affirm leaders who are pragmatists, or who seem to have know-how and skills, but are short of deep virtue, both public and private. We need leaders of integrity, and we need to be people who care about virtue and goodness and integrity.

Metaxas writes, "One of the most fragile parts of our fragile system of ordered liberties is the necessity of a basic trust between the people and their leaders."

I recommend this chapter for careful consideration this election season. Methinks even Mr. Metaxas and those he has on his radio show would benefit from a good re-read. Can he make everybody read a chapter of his own book before their interview?  Maybe not.

Metaxas deepens his good argument for leaders being those who can "make goodness fashionable" by drawing on familiar ground for him, the wonderful and complex story of William Wilberforce.  This section is thrilling and beautifully compelling.  I am sure you will value it - and perhaps it will draw you to read or re-read his earlier work on the great British parliamentarian who fought to not only abolish the slave trade but to create a larger culture where "morals and manners" were reformed.


Perhaps the thorniest chapter of the book is called "The Almost Chosen People" (a line from Lincoln) on "American exceptionalism" which Mr. Metaxas admits is "rightly controversial."   Interestingly, it seems that the phrase itself comes from that nineteenth century Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, in his landmark book.

Metaxas is clear that American exceptionalism "should have nothing to do with excesses of nationalistic chest-beating and jingoistic hubris." ("We may take some real comfort," he suggests, "in knowing it was in its first appearance a foreigner's cold-eyed analysis and subsequent wonderment at this country, when she was young.")

I believe this stuff is complicated and it is a chapter with which I take exception, as it isn't exceptional enough. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

I would suggest you read it, perhaps even with a group, and think this through for yourself. What a salon or coffee conversation you could have on any of these chapters, but especially this one. (Maybe over some tea, in honor the Brits, or some French wine, in honor of de Tocqueville.)

john-winthrops-quotes-7.jpgFrom the summer of 1630 when a fleet of ships, including the Arbella, set sail from England, we have the story of John Winthrop and the "shining city upon a hill" sermon. Metaxas says that Winthrop (the man chosen to be the new Massachusetts Bay Colony governor) "was making clear to them that what they were about to do was a tremendous burden, that they bore a responsibility to all other peoples then living and to history - and to the future."

They were not just, in Metaxas's telling,

merely running from religious persecution, which was considerable...but this trip was not merely about finding a place where they might live their lives in peace. For them, living their lives in peace meant they would have the opportunity to fulfill their responsibility to do something important for God. They understood that freedom was not merely the freedom to be left alone; it was the freedom to do what was right. Freedom was a gift from God and they must use it for his purposes.

Metaxas insists,

This idea of freedom as something to be used in the service of others is at the very heart of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures; through Winthrop and the Puritans of Massachusetts it became an important idea at the heart of the American project in the seventeenth century and in the centuries after.

I think this book, and even this chapter, is balanced and fair.  Mostly. I wish he would have questioned the too common misuse of the Bible's references and promises to the covenant people of ancient Israel applying them to any secular nation-state or people group. That's a hermeneutical matter for those who study the Bible, but utterly germane when talking about God's blessings upon any nation.

In this chapter of If You Can... there are lines that are grossly overstated, inexplicably failing to omit the dark side of how the pilgrims and Puritans acted, the mistreatment of indigenous peoples (perhaps in those years not as bad as some think, and not nearly as evil as the great genocides committed by the Spanish in Central and South America.) Metaxas is a scholar of the abolitionist movement and outspoken about contemporary slavery today, so he is not disinterested in the evils of injustice and racism, even those perpetrated in those colonials years. To not name them, though, in the appropriate passages in this chapter when he is talking about "the idea of living for others - of showing them a new way of living - that was at the heart of America" is either disingenuous or incredibly naïve. Either way, it's bad.

statue of liberty.jpgI love that throughout the book (even on the cover) Metaxas is genuinely taken with the spirit of Lady Liberty.  He talks about the great statue, and quotes at length the beautifully powerful poem by the famous Emma Lazarus ("The New Colossus.") For a strong conservative pundit, he is surprisingly critical of those who are disinterested in the plight of the immigrant and he waxes eloquent on the goodness of our general openness to immigrants in our past. He tells of his own family's rigorous journey from Greece, and has emmas-poem.jpgobvious reasons to be sympathetic to the cause of immigration. Yet, in his framing of this, as he offers a positive spin on those who are anti-immigration, implying they aren't that unreasonable or uncaring. I scribbled in the margins, "One would wish. His naiveté is breathtaking." He then says "Very few are foolish enough to say that we don't want immigrants at all. They are widely considered to be our strength."  I wrote in the margins, "I wish!"

I suppose I should appreciate his optimism, but it struck me as almost willfully in denial about the harshness of some our fellow citizen's attitudes these days. I know one person who said "I think it's about time they took that statue down." So, there's that.

I wondered who was fact-checking this portion, for instance when he says that America has been "by a wide margin the most generous nation in the wrong  Paris_Tuileries_Garden_Facepalm_statue.jpgworld." That statement is, as I thought nearly everyone who studies such things knows, not so.  If measured in terms of the percentage of our GNP going to foreign aid, the United States is woefully low, with all sorts of countries offering a much more generous portion of oda-chart.pngtheir GDP to elevate world hunger and the like.  Yes, many Americans are generous, and because we are wealthy, even a meager gift is a lot. I suppose it is true that we are first in line to send medicine and the like, but, again, this factoid about our generosity is glaringly wrong - we, as a nation, when talking about foreign aid other than military aid - are woefully not generous. And often, our foreign aid is tied to demands for policies which we craft, often coercing capitulation (perhaps through the IMF, say, serving our business interests.) Again, is Metaxas just ill-informed about these things? Is he not a member of the citizens anti-hunger group Bread for the World or has he never seen those charts listing our relative status compared to others, or hasn't he read Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger which documents this so carefully?  One would think his editors, at least, would have caught that.

Still, as I've said repeatedly, this is a fine book with remarkably interesting stories, and much to ponder. There is stuff in here that I bet you've never heard.  For instance, if you haven't read Metaxas' children's story Squanto: A squanto-560x595-560x595.jpgFriend of Pilgrims you most likely don't know his nearly unbelievable story.  He was called Squanto but also Tisquantum.  He had been captured by Englishmen with evil intent in or around 1608, and taken to England.  He became a Christian and years later returned to his native homeland in what we now call New England and served as an interpreter; he played a major role in the famous Thanksgiving drama of the pilgrims of the Mayflower being taught to survive when he walked out of the woods to greet them in the spring of 1621.

Squanto helped the Pilgrims establish a peace with the local Native Americans that lasted fifty years, a stunning accomplishment considering the troubles the settlers would have with native tribes in the centuries following. Sadly, Squanto died not long after this, but Bradford wrote that Squanto "desired the Governor to pray for him...Squanto even bequeathed his possessions to the Pilgrims "as remembrances of his love."

"It is virtually impossible for us to fully appreciate today," Metaxas observes, how innovative the creating of this was, this drafting of the Constitution, and how nearly it came to falling through. The men who struggled that long summer to write it were themselves in deep disagreement and it is nearly miraculous that they came to an agreement. (Alexander Hamilton, for instance, believed the President and senators should be chosen for life, just as Supreme Court justices are appointed for life.) From the remarkable Articles of Confederation (written in six months near us here in York, PA, by the way) to the ratification process, to the breathtaking drama of these brilliant thinkers confined to Philadelphia then tasked with hammering out this brave new document (including debates and compromises about slavery and slave holding states) Metaxas describes it in such an interesting way, and helps us see why it matters so much.

lincoln.jpgThe whole book is not exclusively about the founding fathers, as he spends considerably time with Lincoln, including excerpting some of a speech given to the New Jersey State Senate that is brilliantly worded, expressing "Lincoln's own sense of history and his place in it." He ponders what Lincoln meant by that evocative phrase "the mystic chords of memory."  He wonders how we can reform our own sense of God's ways for our land, and how we might appropriately and effectively share that with the world.

He critiques the contested idea of "Manifest Destiny" and he insists we have much work to be done. He often mentions the sin of slavery - sounding like Lincoln, at times, himself, struggling to help us see how we must become the sorts of citizens and faithful people who love our land and resist its greatest injustices and threats.

As I said, I am not one who usually appreciates books calling us to be more patriotic, to love America more, to get all cozy with what is often cheap sentiment or theologically dangerous civil religion.  And this one, like others in that genre, has its blind spots and misstatements.  But it is generous, it is interesting and enjoyable, it is mostly balanced. Importantly it reflects on the meaning of love, of love of country, of the virtues of knowing what is good to love. If You Can Keep It invites us to not love our land "in exclusion to the goodness in other things." He warns against making our goodness a false idol which, he says, is actually a posture which "hates real goodness."

He continues,

If we are loving what is properly good and true and beautiful, we are ordering our affections against tribalism and jingoism; we are ordering our affections so that they are in line with God's affections, because the selfishness of tribalism and nationalism are the very enemies of what God loves.

Wow, to overstate our own goodness can be idolatry! And to fail to honor the goodness of Canada or Congo, Belgium or Bangladash, is "hating real goodness"? I think that is what he means. Once we learn to love and honor global public square os 10 - 8.jpgand value and work for the good, true good, we will obviously care about our land, but we will love the good elsewhere, as well.  As those who are committed to the habits of heart of a democracy, we should be well-placed and well-equipped to be good global citizens.  It is, in fact, a deep truth behind his friend Os Guinness's book applying these American principles of religious toleration and deep pluralism to the global scale in a book called The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity. This illustrates a healthy way in which ideas and ideals from America's own revolution can inform and shape ideas about how we can make peace in the complex global world of the twentyfirst century. It's worth reading!  And Metaxas would agree, I'm sure.

If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Powers of American Liberty proposes a sort of patriotism that seems right to me, and If You Can Keep It is a book inviting us to live into that properly ordered, modest virtue of loving our nation well.

It isn't perfect and most readers will find something to ponder, maybe something to contest. But I do think it is a very good read, and hope you consider it, for a book group, a study class, to send as a gift to someone who might need a bit of civic education, or to ponder yourself in this increasingly contested political season.  Agree or not with all of Eric's conclusions, I still think it is a good book, worthy of your twenty bucks. We're happy to suggest it; add one from the following list, below, and you'll be set for some holiday fire-works that matter.  

If You Can Keep It.jpg


Was-America-Founded-as-a-Christian-Nation.jpgWas America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction

John Fea (Westminster/John Knox) $30.00 I have previously reviewed this highly regarded and significantly awarded book and mention it from time to time here at BookNotes.  I cannot say more clearly that this is a must-read for all of us, at any time, but surely now when there is much public conversation about this very topic. It would be a great supplement to Metaxas who is more storyteller and American evangelist than trained historian. (By the way, Metaxas is not making a claim that America is "a Christian country" the way some do, at least not in his book about the virtues of American patriotism and the centrality of religious freedom, If You Can Keep It. I do not mean to suggest Fea's book is an alternative approach, as the two books have two different intentions.)

Dr. Fea has poured over countless primary source documents, has spent his time at Mt. Vernon (where he has been a scholar in residence) and has created a balanced and thoughtful book - "with a calm and analytical clarity and profound knowledge" one reviewer said - that claries much about the complex matter of religion and the founding fathers. This is a conscientious and informed book, and his case studies of the faith and religious practices of seven key founding fathers is the best stuff I've ever seen on the topic.

American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion- Reassessing .jpgAmerican Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea John D. Wilsey (IVP Academic) $22.00 This is a major, recent work by a professor of history at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary who has written widely on the evangelical critique of the notion of a "Christian America." There are numerous raves reviews by serious historians and public intellectuals, such as this from Robert Tracy McKenzie, a Wheaton College professor (and author of the excellent The First Thanksgiving) who says, "Any thinking Christian who aspires to patriotism without idolatry would benefit from reading this fine work."

I noted that I had some issues with Metaxas's rendering of this topic in the fascinating chapter in If You Can Keep It. This would be a more scholarly, detailed study of the topic, and I commend it to you.

babel-and-beast.jpgBetween Babel and the Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective Peter J. Leithart (Cascade Books) $24.00 This is a stunning bit of heavy scholarship and a powerful polemic in the publisher's "Theopolitical Visions" series. Listen to James K.A. Smith, who writes,

When I read a critique of the heresy of 'Americanism' from someone who nonetheless 'loves America,' I take notice: this is not the usual predictable boilerplate. In this important book, Leithart brings his usual verve, erudition, and nuance to bear on one of the central idolatries of our age."

Or listen to Princeton professor Eric Gregory:

Between Babel and Beast offers a bracing critique of American political history and a pastoral call for repentance from imperial 'Americanism.' But Leithart's distinctive analysis provides a more complex--and potentially more constructive--biblical perspective on international politics than can be found in the many ecclesial critics of empire. This crisply argued and highly readable companion to Defending Constantine confirms that Leithart is one of the most interesting voices in theology today.

god of liberty.jpgGod Of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution Thomas S. Kidd (Basic Books) $26.95 We only have one of these gems left in hardback and aficionados of the topic will want in their collection. Kidd is a well respected historian and a Senior Fellow at an institute at Baylor University. The blurbs and reviews on this volume are remarkable - impeccable scholars such as Rodney Stark and Wilfred McClay, George Marsden and Mark Noll each offer fabulous endorsements.  Peter Lillback (a popular author who writes about George Washington) says God of Liberty offers "an important critique of the mainstream interpretations of the American Revolution...the surprising partnership of devout believers and deistic doubters to secure America's victory makes for fascinating reading."

The Christian Century's review noted,

One of the many virtues of this book is that Kidd is a careful and judicious historian... He points out--correctly--the errors of both present-day secularists on the left, who insist that the founders barred religious voices from political discourse, and the church-state separation deniers on the right. The lesson of American history is that although church and state are institutionally separate, morality and freedom are seldom at odds and that, in fact, they are mutually reinforcing."

forgive us.jpgForgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith edited by Elise Mae Cannon, Lisa Sharon Harper,Troy Jackson, Soong-Chan Rah (Zondervan) $22.99

I do not think that Mr. Metaxas is unaware of the gross history of how even church-leaders authorized and legitimized exceptional evil in our nation's history.  The mistreatment of Native peoples, blacks, immigrants and more are well documented and simply essential to understand. Of course, he was not writing a history of our nation, so it wasn't in his purview to talk about the massacre of Indian peoples in the 1800s in the West or the abuse of Asian railway workers and the like. But he was naming the goodness of our land, even arguing for an exceptional calling, so it needed to be address.

I understand that some think we have over-emphasized these injustices, and that wallowing in past social sin erodes legitimate national pride and keeps us from "moving on." I protest. It is a weakness in Eric's book that he didn't name more of these egregious sins (although he named some, and occasionally reminded us that we should never minimize our nation's faults and failings.) This book is a counter-weight to cheap patriotism, a necessary reminder of the sad stuff of our history and no celebration is legitimate without attending adequately to this need for pubic confession and serous repentance. I applaud these brave authors and this evangelical publisher for giving us this resource to know and lament these tragic moments and awful patterns of our past.

As Metaxas says, without vital virtue, the republic is doomed.  Without repentance of these affronts to God and neighbor and the earth itself, it could be argued our virtue is wanting. This book is a must-read.




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June 27, 2016

"Teaching Beauty" (Square Halo Books) and "Modern Art and the Life of Culture" (IVP) -- two new books on the arts. ON SALE at Hearts & Minds

Please feel free to order these from us -- we will deduct a complimentary 10% off discount on any item mentioned -- by using our secure order form page.  Just click on the link at the bottom. Happy reading.

What a season it has been for excellent, important, passionate interesting books.  

A BookNotes post I did a week ago reviewed four (and mentioned more) very new books about public justice, an example of the shift these days where evangelical Christian thinkers and activists are doing some of the best books about living out faith in a broken and needy world. Look at that post and see if something tugs at your heart -- they are important resources for your journey. And let's affirm those publishers for doing these kinds of books, by making sure they are shared and promoted.

impossible people.jpgIn our last Hearts & Minds post I described (for those who may not know) Os Guinness, a writer that I think is simply a "must read" - serious, mature, elegant and eloquent - who brings warning and insight and analysis and hope about our changing times.  I described a few of the books he did the last few years, and described as best I could the brand new Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization. It is published by InterVarsity Press (regularly priced at $20.00, but on sale from us for our BookNotes freinds.)

Since it is so important, and timely, here's quick review of my review, for those that didn't get to it:

After explaining how important Os has been to me personally, and how I admire his many books, I noted that those who know the book (or even know about the book) by James K.A. Smith entitled How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor will find Guinness's Impossible People an inspiring read. Smith guides us through the dense word of world-class philosopher Charles Taylor to understand not so much what is lost in our secular age, but what has been added, a new way of being in the world and different ways of determining meaning. It is the same Taylor-esque lens, by the way, through which Robert Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson interpret the dystopian, end-of-the-world (or after-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it) shows so popular these days, from the Walking Dead to Game of Thrones to Mad Men, in their extraordinary book How to Survive the Apocalypse.

Without citing Taylor, or even Smith, let alone zombies or sci-fi cylons, Guinness teaches us much about the forces of modernity, the pressure points and stresses -- sometime intellectual/ ideological, but always material, including technologies, trends, customs, social arrangements, shopping patterns, laws, mores, media, entertainment, attitudes and postures, all which form habits that become what De Tocqueville called "habits of the heart." If we think debating atheists or fighting rulings in the courts is the primary way to recovery greater good for our fraying society, if we think that faith is primarily lived out as a culture war, then we are fooling ourselves.  Guinness gives us quite a bit more than Sociology 101, but this new book could serve as an overview of why mere anti-atheist apologetics or why mere "cultural engagement" or why just doing "social justice" work isn't enough, although he is fully committed to each of those aspects of faithful discipleship and has spoken articulately about them all. Obviously, the truth of historic, orthodox faith must be nurtured in our churches as the Word of God is proclaimed with authority and relevance.  As he so beautifully wrote in Renaissance (a companion volume to Impossible People) we can be people of hope as we do God's work in God's ways and learn to trust that Christ's Kingdom comes less through our cultural machinations but through the mysterious work of the Spirit.

In this, Os -- although terse in his rebuke of thoroughly revisionist Christian writers, pastors and church leaders who have severed ties with historic, classic orthodoxy -- is hopeful and properly ecumenical. Many in various denominations and faith traditions are united in broad hope for church revitalization of the sort that leads by God's grace to authentic cultural renewal and he is gladly appreciative of Christians of various persuasions and denominations who desire to live boldly for Christ.

Still, we have to be more savvy about how not to capitulate to the ways of living swallowing us up, almost without notice, by the forces of modernity and late modern capitalism. We have to be on guard that our enjoyment of choice and change in our shopping or on-line entertainment, for instance, doesn't somehow color historic theological truths and spiritual practices, as if we are just shopping for beliefs that suit our wishes that day. (The customer is always right, you know, and how does thinking of ourselves continually as "consumers" effect our self image and our tendencies even as we think about our religion?) Inevitably, though,  resistant as we may be, our imaginations are often too-easily captured by the ways of the world, which is why Romans 12:1-2 calls for radical non-conformity and the renewal of the mind, lived out in our real-world bodies; life as worship. Without directly linking his call in Impossible People to these texts, it is essentially a guide for living out their thrilling vision. If you count those two verses among your favorite, you need this book.  If you don't know those two pivotal verses, perhaps you really need this book!

Again, it is interesting to compare Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization  and how it pushes us (with a different style and approach) to take seriously what Jamie Smith teaches in his cultural liturgies project (the serious, meaty Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom and the much-discussed, nicely done You Are What You Love.) If you are reading James K.A. Smith, I think you'd benefit from Dr. Os Guinness. If you intend to read Guinness, you will surely want to add in some Jamie Smith. 

Once we learn, or reconsider the urgency of resisting cultural accommodation, even gaining guidance on how to more spiritually discern the impact of the principalities and powers -- Guinness cautiously draws on the work of Walter Wink (Naming the Powers, Unmasking the Powers, Engaging the Powers) to remind us of what is at stake in resisting evil's thrust -- we will have to double down in humble submission to the ways of God, learn to be people of trust and obedience, of prayer and spiritual strength.  We simply must be clear about the first things of the gospel.  We must become more Christ-like and courageous, humble but principled, working hard to become people who are so deeply committed that we become the impossible ones of the book's title. We will be the sort who are unable to be bought off, not concerned with fashion or status, power or privilege. We cannot be beaten down -- "unclubbable" is an old fashioned word the vivid writer George Orwell used to describe those who live with such firm resolve.  Guinness's insights are truly striking, his knowledge tremendous, his concerns important, his writing exceptional, and his new book, even when it is stern, is a blessing. It is one of the most important titles of the year.

Sorry to repeat some of what I said last time. I summarized that last BookNotes post here because I'm told some people missed it last week, and I certainly would be sad if you didn't consider it - I worked hard to explain it all, earnestly trying to let folks know that Guinness's book is an important work. I do hope you read my review, long as it was.

But I also review it now because it in some ways sets the table, or offers some sort of framework, for the exceptional importance of the two books I want to tell you about now.

Oh my, this is going to be fun.

Modern Art and the Life of a Culture- The Religious Impulses of Modernism.jpgteaching beauty.jpg

One is a long, serious, study, admittedly not for everyone, but truly a major contribution to the development of a Christian view of modern history - art history, to be precise.  It is called Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism by Jonathan Anderson & William Dyrness (IVP Academic; $24.00) and I hope you enjoy my remarks about it; I am sure you will see the connections to the big picture overview of modernity that Dr. Guinness sketches for us.  I will describe it for you shortly.

The other brand new book is relatively short (159 pages) published from a small set of talks that were given at a conference reflecting on how teachers (in Christian schools) can be more wise and faithful in teaching the fine arts. I loved reading this and am convinced it should be read beyond the obvious audience of teachers. Teaching Beauty: A Vision for Music & Art in Christian Education was edited by G. Tyler Fischer & Ned Bustard (Square Halo Books; $24.99) and is a wonderfully enjoyable book, a book that almost anyone can appreciate and which many will want to discuss, debate, and pass on to anyone who has any influence over the education of our children (including, I'd think, parents and youth workers.) It is not well known, but I hope we can change that -- it deserves to be known!

The two books are both excellent in their own way, yet both very different. It seems right to mention them together. 

teaching beauty.jpgTeaching Beauty: A Vision for Music & Art in Christian Education edited by G. Tyler Fischer & Ned Bustard (Square Halo Books) $24.99 

Like all of the best books, there is a bit of a story behind Teaching Beauty For what it is worth, these chapters were delivered live in March of 2010 - a few have a lively, chatty tone, while a few were more formal academic papers, complete with great footnotes - at a small conference hosted by the Veritas Academy, a classical Christian school in Lancaster PA. The event from which these chapters were drawn was called The Veritas Academy Fine Arts Symposium and they are great for anyone who likes to think about serious Christian cultural engagement, who enjoys books about the arts, or who likes to hear about renewal happening in educational reforms. I found myself wanting to underline sentence after sentence (and found myself provoked to think, too - why did this or that section annoy me so?) so that I didn't want to put it down, chapter by chapter drawing me on, reading it almost in two straight sittings. It is an ideal book for many of us as it isn't too academic or weighty (although it certainly isn't light-weight) nor too extensive, although one surely gets one's money's worth with 11 chapters and a handful of useful appendices.  The chapters are quite motivational and none are too long. Published by a small, craft publisher who cares deeply about all of this, I hope you'd appreciate the indie feel and purchase it soon.  Who knows, maybe there is somebody you could bless by giving it away once you've read it.

Some of the contributors to Teaching Beauty are educators themselves and they are all well-schooled in history, philosophy, theology, the flow of ideas, the importance of virtue, and the way the gospel invites us to a nearly sacramental worldview.  Classical educators are nothing if not really smart. What a great gathering of women and men this was with slightly differing views, but in agreement that the Earth is the Lord's and we can take delight in its bounty. To a person, they value the arts as God's good gift for God's good world, and several cite one of my all-time favorite books, Rainbows for a Fallen World, a study of aesthetics by Calvin Seerveld.

After a very fine introductory chapter opening with a line from Dante, written by Veritas Academy Headmaster Ty Fischer ("Art as a Guide to the Sacred") the next two chapters of Teaching Beauty are spectacular - kudos to Square Halo for bringing these essays to us. And what a treat it all is.

The first chapter is by Ken Myers. Maybe you know Ken Myers who offers the subscription mars hill audio logo.jpgaudio magazine called The Mars Hill Audio Journal. If you read Ken's pieces that sometimes appear at his fabulous website, or listen to his ruminations with his guests - the show is produced like a set of NPR features, although a bit more intellectual than most - you will know he is very, very interested in the same concerns Os Guinness raises in the above mentioned Impossible People book; that is, how do the forms and styles and habits of a modern consumer society influence our social imaginaries? What does it mean to be "in the world but not of it" as we consider the subtle influences of our 21st century society and up-the-the-minute zeitgeist we breath in?  Ken Myers knows well the work of Jamie Smith - not just his introduction to Charles Taylor (again, named above), but his vibrant You Are What You Love and "cultural liturgies" project  - so many of our customers will love that about him. He appreciates the localism of Wendell Berry; again, this is thoughtful, wise, interesting stuff that I would think many of our customers would enjoy.

Myers is very concerned about how a tradition of practices is transmitted, and how the power of that is eroded in a self-centered (de-centered?) modern culture.  So, his chapter on "Sustaining a Fine Arts Education in a Consumer Society" is astute and very, very important. How can we teach youngsters to submit to a way of learning and a body of wisdom that has come before if they are cut off from all notions of the past, and from any mediating structures that help them experience such embeddedness?  His story tracing who studied under who - starting with an influential high school music teacher he met in his own youth all the way back to Bach!! - was thrilling, and made his point well.

Such a hard-hitting critique of consumerism isn't what one often hears on the conservative side of evangelicalism, although his profound analysis of capitalism's dangers aren't the sort usually spoken by most social justice advocates, either. You see, Myers does much more than lament our materialism, our shopping, as such. He's exploring what Marx meant when he said that "everything solid melts into air" and what Guinness exposes when he explores the impact of choice and change upon traditions and values. Ken Myers's overview of how to inform and develop a desire for the good and the beautiful and how doing so is a counter-cultural  practice (given our disinterest in history and our fast-paced embrace of the moment) is brilliant. It is important, I'd say, not just for art and music educators, but for all of us, living as we do in these times. It certainly sets the table well for the feast of papers that follows.  

Myers isn't too heady, but he is intellectually stimulating. His (brief) critique of Kant's influence in the high-Enlightenment era - causing us to now think of aesthetics in purely subjective terms - is essential for this whole project and is a painless way to get up to speed on this topic. But he (like Guinness, and one of Guinness's intellectual mentors, Peter Berger) knows that merely analyzing the influence of bad ideas isn't an adequate way to analysis our current malaise (in culture, or in arts education, generally.)  Myers not only exposes relativism (from Kant) but how social experience influences us less consciously. He goes after consumerism, like this:

The consumer worldview perceives the world as raw material, not a sacred trust requiring sacrificial stewardship. The consumer worldview regards culture as a series of autonomously selected commodities, not a valuable inheritance. The consumer worldview is an orientation toward creation and toward culture that promotes the modern ideal of the sovereign self.

To see culture as an inheritance which we must steward and contribute to is very different, and offers a different starting point to think about enjoyment of the arts and music, and certainly to think about arts education. Art is not fundamentally about self-expression, a view of the artistic endeavor tied up with Enlightenment views of the autonomous self, and which usually sees emotive expression as a counter to the elevation of reason in the philosophy of Rationalism. 

Myers (like several other authors in the book) does a little philosophical archeology here, but he shows just how important it is by drawing on Christian Smith's important study of what older teens believe these days, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (popularized in Kenda Creasy Dean's Oxford University Press hardback, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church.) Smith and Dean tell us about how older teens, even those involved in churches, are so thoroughly modern, with little language to talk about truth or goodness or beauty (or even God, for that matter.) Our faith communities have, almost across the board of denominations, their research shows, failed our youth by not successfully transmitting to them giving strong foundations for thinking about and talking about faith and life. The erosion of generation to generation traditions is painfully obvious, and it matters.

It is an arrogant assumption to think that history doesn't matter, that old stuff can't be right, the boundaries offered by Biblical truth represses kids, that classic formulations are hindrances to self expression, as if that is the key to the happy, good life. Cue Frank Sinatra's "I Did It My Way" or his pal Sammy Davis Jr's "I Gotta Be Me" right about here, or for that matters, John Lennon's rocking "Whatever Gets You Through the Night" or any number of hits playing on the radio this very week.

But this is the way young adults have developed their view of God and culture and purpose and meaning, drifting feebly because for whatever reasons, even good churches haven't been able to give them strong words to convey a vision of God and the good life other than what Smith calls "moralistic therapeutic deism" or strong enough practices to deeply shape the desires of their hearts.

Ken Myers moves from a succinct but profound critique of secularizing modernity to a vivid Christian vision where creation is a gratuitous epiphany, and submission to the real leads us away from individualism and gnosticism and shallow, feel-good religiosity; his great chapter in Teaching Beauty shows how learning the very forms and structures and ways of ordering life inspired by music and art can enliven us as humans and, of course, deepen us as Christians.

Ken's reading is wide and sophisticated and his comments so blessedly well-informed that it is almost worth the price of the book to read this one chapter. He moves adeptly from the Canadian philosopher George Grant to Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, from Reformed theologian Peter Leithart to the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, from the Orthodox historian Jaroslav Pelikan to Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart, from the lively cultural historian Jackson Lears to the dense, dense, Colin Gunton.

Here Myers cites and tells about Josef Pieper, to help us get at a way of seeing, even a way of knowing, that is deeply human and more than rationalistic. (That he has had Esther Meek and Steve Garber on his audio journal talking about this covenantal way of knowing and appreciates the work of philosopher of science Michael Polanyi doesn't hurt, either. He's so good at this...)

The Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper has a little book of essays called Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation, in which he observes that "to contemplate means first of all to see - and not to think." This kind of seeing is receptive and open, not just accurate; as practiced by artists, it is not unlike the tradition of contemplative prayer, and is thus another link between worship and the arts.

Despite this amazingly rich way of thinking about knowing and seeing and the task of the artist, I have to say, for what it is worth, that Ken may not be as resistant to the influences of modernity as he thinks he is, and his assumptions about aesthetics might be refined, made more deeply Christian, by adopting the ways in which authors like Calvin Seerveld and Nicholas Wolterstorff, have critiqued the conventional notion of beauty.

(Okay, I'm on a roll, so might I Seerveld books screen Shot 2014-04-11 at 20.42.30.pngsuggest, if you are seriously thinking and teaching about all this -- like every author in this book, that is --  you should at least read some of the key pieces in Calvin Seerveld's Normative Aesthetics [Dordt College Press; $21.00.]) I would read Ken Myers regardless, but besides his seemingly unreformed adaptation of "beauty" as a norm for the arts, there is something that some might call elitist hovering around all this.  I guess the classical schools educators might think this a cheap shot, and I don't mean it as such.

Such anti-modern assumptions, and the talk about the virtue of "the beautiful" leading to elitist (or, at least, high-culture) approaches, are, in my view, a nearly fatal flaw of the entire classical education movement, no matter how fastidious they are about Reformed theology and proper doctrine; they are too religiously loyal to (pagan) Greek thought -- the essays here (many of which share this assumption about the value of "the good, the true and the beautiful" as a faithful umbrella under which to do the Lord's work) are anti-modernist, happily, but seem nonplussed by their own accommodation to sources and ways of thinking that are, in others ways, perhaps also anti-Biblical.

For instance, I think there is much value in John Mason Hodge's piece ("Beauty in Music: Inspiration and Excellence") and commend it to you. I would be glad for anyone saying this sort of thing in any school, Christian or otherwise, as it is so remarkably thoughtful and interesting and important, to raise the stakes of why we should think about music in our culture. Further he is not only a respected scholar but is an experienced symphonic conductor and an esteemed classical musician. Having said that, I still fretted about his drawing on Plato as much as he did, affirming Greek notions of order and harmony - where is that in the Bible, really? - and drawing on peculiar thinkers like Pythagoras and "the music of the spheres." There's nothing wrong with studying "The Greek Muses" although it is odd that an evangelical would cite Exodus 31:2 in perfunctory passing, but spend much more energy singing the praises of Calloipe, Clio, Erato, Euterpe and the other offspring of the evil Zeus. What's going on here? Why does he simply assert the necessity of "unity and diversity" in any good art piece? I actually really like where Hodges ended up with his chapter - writing about a sacramental worldview and the purpose of music (even if I disapprove of his wanting to "relate" matter and spirit, a huge concession to pagan thought which ought to be denounced.)  Read with critical discernment, this stuff is stimulating and well worth pondering.

(And, an important aside: as we think about the very commonly assumed distinctions between high and low culture, I'd suggest a careful study of the groundbreaking, historically informed and deeply insightful Pop Culture Wars: Religion and the Role of Entertainment in American Life by William D. Romanowski of Calvin College [Wipf & Stock; $45.00.])

Ken Myers himself isn't involved in the "classical education" movement, and says so, and it is to their credit that this group of classical school teachers brought him to Lancaster to kick off their days of reflection.  Still, he's got this fascinating (and not unimportant) interest in how the harmony and orderedness of art and music reflects the nature of God, a line of thinking that has been rejected by many reformational philosophers of aesthetics. 

For instance, Myers's cites David Bentley Hart, writing beautifully about the infinite love experienced by the members of the Trinity.  Myers writes,

Hart goes on to suggest that the relationships among the members of the Trinity are not only beautiful, they are beautiful in a way that has analogies with our experience of music.... If Hart is right, then the presence of music in our worship and in our lives is witness to a deep reality of difference and unity in Creation, which itself has its sources in the inner life of the Triune God.

I'm not sure seeing art as pointing us to the attributes of God, rather than the creation itself, is the most faithful way to think about the human calling of doing art or the point of experiencing it.  But that's an in-house debate about aesthetic theory and I suppose above my own pay grade.  But the practical upshot, for Myers is right on: 

Art provides us with ways of perceiving reality aright, although not all art does this, or does it well.  And not all of us have allowed our imaginations to be disciplined to encourage that perception. 

And that is a major theme of this great little Square Halo book.  In almost all of the essays we have ideas about how schooling can discipline us to perceive reality aright, of how to help shape desire, bending it towards the good, hints of how education can inform and inspire and transform us, how our dispositions can be reformed (what Jamie Smith calls "the recalibration of the heart") so that we have new tastes, not just more data, more wisdom, not just more information.  Indeed, one great chapter is on the "aesthetics of classical education" by Stephen Richard Turley is called "Redeeming the Senses." Dr. Turley is a teacher of Theology, Greek, and Rhetoric at Tall Oaks Classical School in Delaware and a professor of Fine Arts at Eastern University. Wow.

So here is what I think: even if I don't quite appreciate all of the classical fetish with Greco-Roman ways (even when they dress it up with Calvin and Chesterton and quote The Abolition of Man and their Patron Saint Dorothy Sayers and her trivium and love for Latin) and even though I think they are woefully wrong in not adequately seeing "common grace" in the popular culture of rock and pop and rap, they are mostly right in insisting that there is much, much work to be done in thinking faithfully about serious arts education In our schools; they are right in grounding that project not in Romantic self-expression, but in submitting to good traditions and virtuous insights of the past.  I cannot say how glad I am that this Veritas Symposium's reflections are now available for all of us, maybe especially those of us not connected to the classical schooling movement, who might otherwise not get to read this kind of stuff very often. As I regularly say, agree or not with every sentence, I heartily commend this book.

The blessedness of this (radical?) way of thinking about good art and teaching it well (and how different it is from more commonly used approaches by too hip art teachers trying their best, untrained in aesthetics, or even art history, as they are) was illustrated in a story told in Gene Edward Veith's fantastic chapter (another chapter that, even if I quibble a tiny bit, was worth reading twice!)

Veith tells of a Lutheran school in Casper Wyoming where five years olds were being shown and taught about great art. (Of course, most art programs just give little ones paste and crayons and allow them to mess around, which is lovely and fun and valuable in many ways, but a far cry from serious arts education.)  During a field trip to the local art museum, the children were appalled by the museum's children's exhibit, that - in some goofy effort to make art appealing to kids - had the Mona Lisa with a cowboy hat. The Lutheran kids were indignant. "She wasn't a cowgirl!" they exclaimed to the docent. "She was painted by Leonard da Vinci during the Renaissance!"

Veith continued,

Throughout the tour, the children were picking up the styles and genres they were seeing: "That's impressionism!" "Look at that landscape!"

The docent was astonished at the level of artistic sophistication she saw in these five-year olds. She concluded that since she was not that conversant with art history, being a product of progressive education, some of these little kids knew more about art than she did.


square Halo Books logo.jpgThe manager of Square Halo Books, Ned Bustard, has a chapter in here that is fantastic. With a lighter, clever tone, Ned reminded the conference participants that as they help children and youth come to a deeper appreciate of art and music in God's world, it could lead to trouble; that is, it is hard to make a living as an artist in our culture, and if even a few respond to a holy sense of vocation, being called into the world of the arts, they must be prepared to be perceived as not as serious as those with more "useful" careers. It is legendary how the arts are viewed as a waste (professionally speaking a least) and yet, Bustard playfully twists that a bit, asking if maybe it is so: there really is a gratuitous, wastefulness to art - it doesn't do - anything, really.  He draws on Seerveld and tells about interviews with artists and quotes those who have written in books he has edited such as It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God and It Was Good: Making Music to the Glory of God.  Who knew that Ned started out as a business major and that Francis Schaeffer (Art and the Bible) and Madeline L'Engle (Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art) "saved not just my art, but also my soul. Art and the Bible gave me a theology that made room for art and Walking on Water filled that room near to bursting."  Indeed, there are many wastes we cherish.

I love how Ned weaves together his personal story, his friendship with art historian James Romaine and tells how he has strolled through museums (with his children in tow) with esteemed artists such as Ed Knippers or Mako Fujimura. And, how he cites N.T. Wright, from Simply Christian,

The arts are not pretty but irrelevant bits around the border of reality. There are highways into the center of a reality that cannot be glimpsed, let alone grasped, any other way. The present world is good, but broken and in any case incomplete; art of all kinds enables us to understand that paradox in its many dimensions.

Ned's chapter not only makes a delightful case for "knowing beauty" and "art and the kingdom" but he shares the "poetic underpinnings" of their own homeschooling efforts, bringing an awareness of aesthetics and the arts to their own educational work. (Ned, you should know, has recently created for Veritas Press a major art curriculum for children, which we will be reviewing more thoroughly soon.) You will love his call to "put beauty into practice" and his honest report of how he and Leslie did the best they could with the resources they had. Taking time to pursue these things sometimes seems (again) less productive, but after reading this chapter, you, too, will want to evaluate how you can deepen your experience with the aesthetic dimension of daily life, and how you can allow art to play a more intentional part of your life. His practical pointers will make the task seem approachable, and fun.

Bustard's isn't the only practical chapter, even if all are framed by a very thoughtful vision of deeper things.  I loved Karen Mulder's broad and brilliant chapter, "Balancing Binaries: Teaching Appreciation in the Visual Arts"  which named many authors and books indicating her remarkably fluent familiarity with the best of Christian considerations, Catholic, Protestant, evangelical and beyond. Her visionary manifesto was practical in that it invited us to continue the conversation, join professional associations, find a cohort, and nurture others wisely to deepen the general movement of serious Christians in the real world of arts. My hat is off to her!  David Erb, whose own Master's was from the Westminster College Choir at Princeton,and whose PhD is in Choral Conducting from the University of Wisconsin, is now involved in the choral community in a university town, has a piece called "Sing with Understanding, Play Skillfully: Musical Literacy for All the Saints."  Speaking of practical, there's a useful appendix called "How to Hire a Fine Arts Teacher" (one pointer: have him or her make a pledge to be friends with the math teacher) and a set of charts offering curricular objectives for various ages.  What a great little resource for or parents or teachers or church educators.

But, again, I hope I am clear in saying this is not just a book for those working in classical Christian schools, or even for those who are working in Christian schools. In fact, it's not even just for those who are in schools.  Parents, choir-directors, church school teachers, Christian ed professionals all will all be informed and aided in their efforts to think well about shaping the lives of those God has given them to influence.  Anybody who wants to learn more - maybe not having been schooled in aesthetics all (which, as they document, maybe include even art teachers and many with MFA degrees! - will benefit from listening in to these thinkers and educators about how to teach music and art within a context of learning to love goodness, truth, and beauty.

I truly respect Ken Meyers, and am so excited to see his chapter here. I mentioned that I read Gene Veith's chapter twice, and it is great. I loved Ned's chapter - a lot, actually - and I have admired Karen Mulder for years and her piece is exceptionally helpful, a great primer.

I think, though, the chapter that thrilled me most was by Theodore Prescott, a legendary artist and art educator, the former head of the excellent art department at nearby Messiah College.  Ted became a Christian as a college age student and a very young artist.  He has thought as deeply as almost anyone I know about aesthetics and creativity and art and beauty, but he has done so as a working artist and a college teacher and mentor.  He has been a significant leader of CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts) and has produced much good art, good scholarship, and born fruit  in releasing many serious young artists and art teachers into the world.  I have enjoyed hearing him speak on occasion and respect him immensely.

His chapter cuts to the chase: "Jerusalem, Athens, and the Education of Young Artists."  I hope you get his allusion to the early church leader, Tertullian, who, even then, pondered deeply the relationship between the Judeo-Christian community (Jerusalem) and the pagan centers of thought, power, and culture (Athens.) This is the question for those of us in mainline denominational circles who seem easily accommodated to the ways of the status quo society in which they are so established. It is the question for the emerging church folks, who seem quite eager to accommodate themselves (albeit missionally) to the hip trends of the postmodern counterculture. It is also the question for the classical educators who seem so unashamed to root their thinking so uncritically in the school of Athens.

But that is my own sense of why Ted's piece is important - it invites us to ask how to navigate all these complex waters. His presentation at the conference must have been inspiring; the chapter isn't all that philosophical and not at all pedantic. Ted is a deeply Christian educator and offers great, mature insight from years of experience helping church kids learn to think more deeply about their calling into the vocation of the arts.  It is as concise a manifesto for developing a Christian view of the arts as I've seen, and it is a marvelous, deep, joy to be able to commend it to you.

The last, short, chapter of Teaching Beauty: A Vision for Music and Art in Christian Education is plain and remarkable and needs to be read and discussed. Matthew L. Clark is a woodcutter and printmaker and his chapter is called "Art and Charity."  It is a very helpful call to be more generous in our appreciation of art and artists (especially modern art.)  He even uses the Bible word "submission" as a principle which contrasts with what some literary authors have called the cynical "hermeneutic of suspicion."  Matt is a very good musician and a very talent artist himself; I value his contribution here and the Symposium and the book editors for arranging it. This consideration is a good way to end, on a note not of criticism or concern, or even of zealous cultural transformation, but simply on openness and kindness. 

It is charitable to believe the best about someone and something they have made until you have reasons to believe otherwise. Some artwork is difficult and perhaps it is not immediately accessible. That should not be an insurmountable barrier to appreciation. Many good things are, at first, inaccessible to us. It takes time to develop a taste and to understand why a thing is held in such high regard by so many. It may turn out that many people are simply wrong. Of course, it may turn out that your initial reaction is the one that needs reconsideration. 

teaching beauty.jpgThere is more here. There is a document offered as an appendix which they have called the Lancaster Declaration on Classical Christian Education and the Arts. That their small central Pennsylvania symposium in 2010 drafted this statement may not strike you as all that important, or interesting.  (What even is classical education, you  may be asking?) But I want to sound my bookseller's/educator's note again: this is a very rich and stimulating, generative document, curious as it may be. It would be a fun thing to talk about if you are an art or music major in college (or if you are a campus minister serving students in art or music educational programs.) It would be a fabulous to talk about it with friends over coffee. Pastors, youth leaders, anyone wanting to influence others to think about the good, the true, and the beautiful, need to (re)visit these themes from time to time, and this Declaration offers it succinctly. This  bold set of assertion and guidelines for practices would be a great resource to use to generate on-going conversation in your family, fellowship, or church community.  And certainly, if you are connected to a religious school, it is simply a must.

Thanks be to God for these dedicated folks who put these papers together and called this gathering. Thanks be to God for Square Halo, for investing their own finances in order to publish a limited number of this great little book, Teaching Beauty: A Vision for Music and Art in Christian Education.  Order it today!

Modern Art and the Life of a Culture- The Religious Impulses of Modernism.jpgModern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism by Jonathan Anderson & William Dyrness (IVP Academic; $24.00) is nothing short of magisterial, a work years in the making, and I am thrilled to tell you about it, even if I realize not everyone will buy it.

Interestingly, there is a connection to the aforementioned Os Guinness. Modern Art and the Life...  begins with a fabulous, fabulous chapter in tribute to Dr. Hans Rookmaaker, a person who I believe was a friend of Os Guinness. Rookmaaker was a Dutch art historian (who came to Christian faith in a Nazi concentration camp, by the way, led to salvation by a fellow prisoner, a Dutch philosopher.) His impact at L'Abri and elsewhere -- offering lectures on American blues and jazz, knowing much about modern art, offering the reformational philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd to other scholars -- is legendary. His small book Art Needs No Justification is in print again, and is a vital example of his impact among aspiring  Christian artists at the end of the 20th century. Professor Rookmaaker had a certain pessimistic view of the Enlightenment and consequently a certain critique of modernity (drawing significantly from Abraham Kuyper, who was seriously opposed to the French Revolution) and it informed his particular interpretation of our the story of the West that retains much, much insight.

Grounded in that profound, critical assessment of the eroding forces of the Enlightenment, and the intellectual idolatry pervasive to secular rationalism -- think only for yourself said Kant, smash the infamous (Christian church), said Voltaire, tip your hat to no man, Whitman later modern art and the death -original .jpgpreached -- Rookmaaker then told the story about his own love for the arts, even the very contemporary arts of his mid-twentieth century world. His book Modern Art and the Death of a Culture remains a very important work for many, many of my peers and heroes. I do recall, before understanding much of it (and understanding how much of it was misunderstood!) a college pal startling me by throwing it across the room. (You know who you are!)  Alas, it ends up that Rookmaaker was a cultural and intellectual genius and a tireless encourager to those who wanted to "engage culture" before that was a phrase, but he failed in some critical points in his analysis of the spirit of much modern art. 

See the difference in the title, his, and the new one? This newly released Modern Art and the Life of a Culture changes one word and it means by that to offer a fully different interpretive approach, shaped by a very different story and different sorts of research that has been done in the nearly fifty years since Rookmaaker first wrote. Bill Dyrness means no disrespect; he studied under Rookmaaker, in fact, and loved the man.  But this is a book that needed to be written, in part so that a new generation of thoughtful Christian artists could grapple with the stuff Rookmaaker brought to us, and so that all of us could move past his errors or mis-readings.

To spell it out in detail would take me longer than you most likely would have patience for, here, but the oversimplified version is that Rookmaaker, as much as he loved modern art, jazz, and more, thought that contemporary art forms in the spirit of modernism were, perhaps trickling down from Romanticism, which reacted to Rationalism, basically were portraying a world bereft of meaning. He was understandably pessimistic about the "line of despair" as Schaeffer put it. Were the painters such as Bacon and the traumatized scream that was on the cover portraying wisely (through tears, even as his friend Francis Schaeffer put it) the loss of meaning in our existential time of crisis? Or were they evangelizing for that world, promoting a worldview that was nihilistic and ultimately harmful? Was it coincidence that a number of modern artists (Jackson Pollack?) took their own lives? How did atonal John Cage fit into that world?  Does art reflect or shape culture? Is it fruitful to even explore the "ideas" or "message" of a painting or sculpture?

H. R. Rookmaaker wasn't simplistically against modern art -- it would be almost intentionally dishonest for anyone to say that -- nor did he reduce art to merely conduits of ideas, but he exposed what he thought was the ethos of that world, the spirit of the times, captured in full color by Rothko and Dali and Warhol and Kandinsky and Hopper and Picasso.

art as spiritual perception.jpgart hisitory revisted seerveld.jpgFor the record, one should know a bit about the assumptions and methodologies of Rookmaaker's approach, the orbit in which he traveled, and the legacy of some of his students. There is a very impressive example of such found in the spectacular, lavish anthology, Art as Spiritual Perception: Essays in Honor of E. John Walford, edited by James Romaine, with a foreword by Hans Rookmaaker's active, art historian daughter, Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker (Crossway; $40.00, which I reviewed here.) For a similarly impressive approach, drawing on similar Dutch philosophical roots, see this breathtaking collection of art history essays and articles by art and the christian mind.jpgCalvin Seerveld, Art History Revisited (Dordt College Press; $20.00, which I announced, here.)

For a more accessible introduction to the life and work of Rookmaaker himself, see Art and the Christian Mind: The Life and Work of H.R. Rookmaaker by Laurel Gasque (Crossway; $16.99.)

We, by the  way, have several of the major hardbacks in the Complete Works of Hans Rookmaaker left in stock. Write to us if you want to know more!

Despite the value of his evaluative approach, despite his prophetic warning about the loss of meaning amidst a secularizing modernity -- is this were Guinness gets some of his fire for his cultural critique? -- maybe something else is going on, and maybe Mr. Rookmaaker's art historical method lead him somewhat astray.  I think that many in this important world of Christian art historians, and those of us who read them, and the artists who take courage and inspiration from them will agree, it is time for a major reconsideration.

 As Nicholas Wolterstorff puts it,

This is a book we have needed for a long time. The standard story of modern art is that it is the art of secularism and pervaded by nihilism. Anderson and Dyrness tell a very different story. Only those who refuse to read it can ever again think of modern art in the old way.

god in the gallery.jpgwho's afraid of modern art.jpgI await better reviews by those more qualified than myself; there have been other scholars and faith-based artists working on this for years, so I know there are others who will be taking this book very seriously. Dan Siedell has written importantly on this theme, offering his own critique of Rookmaaker and his heirs. See his very important God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art (Baker; $25.00) and his 2015 collection of essays Who's Afraid of Modern Art? (Cascade; $23.00.) Siedell wrote an afterword to Modern Art and the Life of a Culture called "So What?" which I actually read right away. Nicely done!

I am glad for much of the tone and approach of this book, as much as I've gleaned so far, at least. As associate professor of faith and culture at Trinity International University Taylor Worley says this is "more than a response to the original, Modern Art and the Life of a Culture is an invaluable companion to Rookmaaker." It pushes back, yes, but it builds upon the major contribution that controversial 1970 volume made. 

I also like that while Dyrness is a theologian and philosopher of culture (he has written widely in the arts) his co-author Jonathan Anderson is a practicing artist. 

The introduction called "Religion and the Discourse of Modernism." is remarkably interesting -- a philosophically astute overview of many of the things many of us care deeply about currently -- secularity and modernity, meaning and the common good, cultural engagement and more. Excellent. 

The next major chapter is worth the price of the book to get a bit of the Rookmaaker bio, a survey of his most famous book and its strengths and weaknesses. I think anyone interested in the faith and art conversation these days needs to read it, and I am glad for their balance and grace throughout.

The rest of the book traces the history of modern art in the following chapters, under the rubric of "geographies, histories and encounters."  And there are encounters aplenty - even full color artwork:

Chapter 3 - France, Britain and the Sacramental Image 

Chapter 4 - Germany, Holland and Northern Romantic Theology 

Chapter 5 - Russian Icons, Dada Liturgies and Rumors of Nihilism 

Chapter 6 - North America and the Expressive Image

Chapter 7 - North America in the Age of Mass-Media

Modern Art and the Life of a Culture- The Religious Impulses of Modernism.jpgThis is a book that should be taken seriously. Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism is the first major release in highly anticipated new series by IVP Academic, "Studies in Theology and the Arts.

Their advisory board is a who's who in this field, with the likes of Jeremy Begbie, Nic Wolterstorff, Linda Stratford, Judith Wolfe, Makoto Fujimura, Ben Quash and others.

The second volume is due in the Fall of 2016, entitled The Faithful Artist by Cameron J. Anderson, the current President of CIVA.  You can pre-order it from us, also, of course, at a discounted price.  Just use the secure order form link below.




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June 20, 2016

NEW OS GUINNESS: Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization ON SALE NOW

Please feel free to use our secure order form page.  The link at the bottom of this BookNotes post will take you there.  We will deduct the discount and confirm everything promptly and quite personally. Thank you.


public faith in action.jpgreturn to justice.jpgI hope you saw the last BookNotes piece - a ramble through some of my memories of the old (and unbiblical) dichotomy between social action and evangelism, or, more generally, about the importance of justice within the Christian faith, those who had affirmed that, and those who had not.  Scot McKnight in The Kingdom Conspiracy (Brazos Press; $19.99) refers to these differing camps as today's "pleated pants" crowd and the "skinny jeans" tribe; I'm not so sure such an assessment is fully accurate now, although such a clever description of two sorts of tendencies sure captures much about my own experiences decades ago, even if we all wore bell-bottoms. After hinting a bit at some of my own travels through various groups and movements, rejecting the prevalent split between those who cared about Christ but not much about the world and those who cared about the world but not Christ, I reported with gusto that in recent decades evangelicals have certainly taken up the full-orbed Kingdom call, becoming advocates for social change and the common good. In that sense, it was a very exciting post.

I said that these new books served also as good illustrations of the truth that evangelical publishers are leading the way with the best books about social issues and public justice.  I thought it was a good post and the books worth reading.

If you don't see yourself as evangelical, but you care about the social implications of the gospel, I am positive you will value these new books. Really -- they are very good.  If you are a theologically serious evangelical, you, too, will find these books compelling in many ways, I'm sure of it.  Agree or not about the details of policy, the Biblical call to do justice and to work for the common good -- loving mercy, doing justice, walking humbly with God who died to save His own good but ravaged world -- is unavoidable, and those four or five books will help us all grapple with Biblical faithfulness in a needy world. They are on sale, and we hope you'd consider sending us an order; it really is something we are passionate about.

A few people, I might note, unsubscribed from receiving BookNotes after that one went out, although I suppose I don't know why.  In any event, if you want to deepen your awareness of ways to think about social justice and public advocacy, you should order a book or two from that list.  I especially hope that younger evangelicals will stock up on this meaty stuff; it allows you to avoid the wasted time and energy that many of us lost decades ago as this shift was in the making.  And if McKnight is right, that there is a new version of this old split still operative nowadays, it may be that these kinds of books will be just what we need.  Praise the Lord that there are publishers and authors and bookstores helping guide young activists with good resources like these.  


dust of death old cover.jpgI have told the story before about reading in the mid-1970's a (now out of print) early book by Os Guinness, The Dust of Death. It critiqued both the established technocratic culture of the West and also the East-facing, hippy counterculture of the left and then offered a "third way" of serving God in all of life with robust cultural engagement shaped by deeper Biblical truth. Hearing this stuff changed my life and in a way, my life's trajectory.

 I discovered Francis and Edith Schaeffer (with whom Os had worked) and other rising evangelical intellectuals (from Richard Mouw to Calvin Seerveld to Ronald Sider to Bob Goudzewaard) and realized that there were thoughtful Christian books that informed and challenged and guided us towards thinking about our social moment and offered an astute analysis of the way of life needed to countered the ethos of the time.  Os Guinness was indispensable in those years, and os .jpgover the last four decades he has done seminal, stimulating, beautifully-written, challenging, books that combine Biblical faith and sociological analysis with glorious erudition that have created for him not only a huge following of fans (folks like me who would read any book he wrote on any topic) but also a major group of people who read him seriously, if critically, wanting to spend adequate time grappling with his mature observations. Agree or not, they know he is a major contributor to religious and cultural discourse in our day and know they should have read his work.

I say all this for at least two specific reasons. 

Firstly, you should know that Os Guinness is one of the most important writers in my life, and one of the speakers and authors I consider to be a watershed leader; that is, he helped stem the tide of evangelical shallowness and goofiness, and helped catapult more than a handful of young scholars and pundits to integrate faith into all of life, to think Christianly, and to take up their callings in the world in serious ways.

the-call-by-os-guinness.jpgI still think his book The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life (W Publishing Group; $17.99) is a must, must-read! In all of his books he has made me think, driven me to ponder and to prayer, and is an important figure for our work here.

Secondly, besides his influence as thought leader and long-distance mentor to many of my best friends, Guinness is respected throughout the world as a speaker and teacher, having been led by God into conversations with significant organizations in Western Europe, in China, and within the think-tank world of Washington DC.  Sometimes, when he tells a story of speaking at a banquet with communist leaders in his beloved China (he was born there) or at a strategic think tank in Geneva or Brussels or Oxford or Stanford, I am deeply moved, that God in His providence has allowed for Guinness to be in world-class conversations about the unfolding 21st century with some of the most impressive people in the world. You see, it isn't just a handful of friends here that have discovered the importance of his books; he is internationally known and very widely respected.

I have highlighted many of Guinness's other books before - here is a good overview.

free peoples suicide os 10-8.jpgglobal public square os 10 - 8.jpgIn just the last few years Os did two books on religious freedom - one, A Free People's Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future (IVP; $17.00) reminding us of the importance of working on first amendment protections of freedom for and from religion in the United States and another on the urgent (if gargantuan) task of creating space for religious freedoms globally entitled The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity. (IVP; $17.00.) Both are very interesting and recommended. To understand his broader, structural plan for this kind of civility in US culture, offering evaluations of various "schools of thought" or models of working out the structures of a pluralistic society, see his under-appreciated The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends on It (published by HarperOne; $23.99.)

foolsTalk.jpgLast year Mr. Guinness released an award-winning hardback on the lost art of civil persuasion called Fools Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion (IVP; $22.00) which we are very keen on. (Here is my long review of it.) Perhaps you can see the flow and connections of these books, a bit: Os is passionately committed to the principles and structures that allow for religious freedom for all (including those who practice no religion: it's freedom for and freedom from as well.)

But as an evangelical, he knows the importance of sharing the good news in a manner which is honest and free of coercion, so he both argues for religious diversity and toleration and he invites us to then learn how to more persuasively talk with each other about the first principles of the faith. He doesn't want to be pushy or coerce but can't settle with a "live and let live" approach, either, as if our differences don't make a difference, or as if the message of salvation in Christ wasn't of ultimate concern. If we truly believe something to be right and true we should want to share and persuade others about it.  We fight for the freedom for all to believe as they must, but he also wants to learn to speak effectively with and to any and all and whosoever will.

Guinness has, perhaps more than anyone I have ever known, interacted with some of the world's leading philosophers (Bertrand Russell, A.J. Ayers!) and statesmen from several continents. He has talked with leaders in the US Congress and he has worked for the BBC and the Brookings Institution.  From Marxist activists to the biggest captains of industry to ordinary folks who show up at his lectures, he has learned to speak deeply with women and men of substance, all who, like all sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, have hurts in their hearts and search for significance, meaning, joy. He embodies well his mentor Francis Schaeffer's insistence on "honest answers for honest questions."

Fool's Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion is a book like no other as it takes seriously not only evangelical expectations of sharing faith unashamedly but also studies well the culture in which seekers find themselves.  It is a must-read for anyone who realizes the limits of preaching at people or merely asserting Christian truth claims (let alone bullying or unpleasant debating) but who wants to communicate with wit and passion in order to persuade others to think deeply and consider the truths of the Christian message. Again, within the large shelf of books about evangelism or apologetics or communication, it is a rare, brilliant contribution.

Renaissance -  Os Guinness.jpgIn the middle of these books about the dangers of our times and the desire to speak wisely into the quandaries of our age, Guinness wrote a powerful book called Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times (published by IVP; $16.00.) It was a grand little book, eloquent and passionate and true.  Os's classic theology and deep spirituality came to the fore in that handsome book as he soberly assessed the complex and seeming insurmountable drift in our age towards secularization and social fragmentation.  With the church too often mired in cultural accommodation or trendy programs to remain viable, things could indeed look bleak.  In Renaissance Guinness reminded us - almost in contrast to books like To Change the World or the other popular "cultural engagement" literature and social transformation blogs and think tanks and conferences - that if social change is to take root, it will be because we have cried out to God and Christ is honored through the historic way: churches proclaim Christ as Lord, we wait on the Spirit to work, and we serve with sacrificial commitment to love God and neighbor as we seek renewal and revival.

This approach is absolutely not a step back from his life-time work of intellectual engagement and cultural analysis, but it did shift our attention to the essential truths of Biblical faith: we pick up our crosses and serve the best we can, and let the results to God.  Spiritual and congregational revitalization, social change, cultural renewal, all are gifts from the Sovereign King of the Universe which cannot be fabricated. Renaissance was sobering yet hopeful as he told stories from throughout history of how the gospel itself can transform lives and cultures and societies.

impossible people.jpgGuinness' brand new release, Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization (IVP; $20.00) is a hefty sequel to Renaissance, extraordinary, and vital. The last chapter of Renaissance was called "Our Golden Age Is Ahead" and it was a beautiful illustration of Christian hope. Impossible People, however, will sober us to appreciate what it may take for us to realize that dream of God's whole-life renaissance breaking into history in our time. Courage and struggle, indeed.

Although it is a stunning survey of the contours of the culture of the late modern world,  the fundamental point so concisely and powerfully explored in Impossible People is that those who are called by God - the church of Jesus Christ, regardless of denomination or theological bias - are to be faithful, no matter what the cost, and that the hope of any cultural renewal in this era of increasing change and choice and secularization and biotechnology and so forth resides most in the ability of Christians to stand apart of the crowd, discern what fidelity looks like, and live in ways that are true to the authority of Christ.  He talks about needing to speak a clear "no" and a hopeful "yes." It is no cliche for him (as the fate of civilizations lie in the balance) but he insists we must be more intense in our study and more courageous to live out being "in but not of" the world, not in the abstract, but in little, practical, daily ways, even.  I have rarely read a book with such urgency, insisting that the erosion of Biblically-sane views and ways of living (whether from graying mainline liberals or hip, emergent faith communities, or grand evangelical mega-churches) must be reversed. In his view there is way to much cultural accommodation, to much re-configuring classic faith tenets, and way too much sloppy, theological fuzziness.  Although I may differ or want to clarify where I see such problems and how serious the consequences of each are, nuancing the critique in different ways,  I must say I most basically agree with his passion and concern.

As Guinness says repeatedly, there is a price to be paid for those who assert Biblical authority in any age, but it is particularly complex and demanding in an age renowned for creating a "crisis of authority" where nobody gets to assert anything as truly true, since nobody has authority (and there is no true truth to speak, anyway.)  Christians in the past (think of the early church in the age of the brutalities of the Roman Empire) have through God's grace risen to the occasion to both consider deeply the forces of the culture aligned against them and the ways in which Biblical faithfulness would drive them to resist and reform.  They paid a price.  Can we do it again?

Are we like Benedictine reformer Peter Damian (c 1007 - 1073) that Dante had in the highest circle of paradise? He was called an impossible man. St. Peter Damian was "criticized in his time for being fanatical and negative but in fact he was "passionate about the church's 'welfare of souls' and about faithfulness to Jesus and the truth of the gospel."  Guinness continues,

Yet it was these positive passions that made him sever and unsparing in his denunciation of all forms of corruption and immorality, and in attacking them he could not be swayed by either obstacles or opposition.  

Ever the master of the pithy quote and always informed by great thinkers of the past, reading this book will be a treat for anyone who loves to learn and who likes an informed overview of some of the greatest issues faced by some of the greatest writers ever - on this journey he quotes Hildegarde of Bingen and Karl Marx and Henry Kissinger and Nicholas Berdyaev and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and of course the likes of T.S. Eliot, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and so many more.  Anyone who loves good books -- I mean really good books -- will treasure this.

Guinness knows his Nietzsche and cites him more often and with more insight than any other Christian author I know.  One need not be a philosopher, though, to appreciate the profundity of his wrestling with the spirit of the great prophet and nihilist. To say Guinness is widely read is an understatement, and to say that he is a joy to learn from - whether you fully agree with his assessments or his conclusions -- is nearly to state the obvious.  Just over 200 pages, this new hardcover is not daunting, although it is serious. With his many points and sub-points it may seem nearly Byzantine, but with some close attention, it becomes clear that it is arranged with the expertise of a master craftsman.  You will not get bogged down as you might by a 500 page tome of detailed scholarship, although underlining and bullet pointing while reading will reward readers with greater comprehension. It will take some commitment to read it carefully, perhaps to journal while studying. It is well worth it.

I would never want to trivialize Guinness' work but I might say, sort of playfully, that this is almost a greatest hits album, with some new tracks and bonus material.  Much of this he has said before - in chapters here, in talks there, in other books, even. (I never tire of his telling how a dear foreign missionary misunderstood an entire talk he gave at Lausanne in the Philippines because she misheard his critique of modernity, thinking he was talking about maternity.  I never tire of his reports of communist leaders asking him off the record about the viability of the Christian worldview to sustain new ideas in their post-Mao era. And I always value hearing a new Winston Churchill quote - has he ever done a book without a fun story of the colorful Churchill?  I laughed right out loud learning about his proclivity to nap and his advice to sit, or better, lie down, whenever possible.)

Even if you've read nearly every Guinness book and essay and heard him lecture, you will learn much new as he outlines the forces of modernity (not maternity) and highlights chief threats, key consequences, top obstacles and the like. It is simply amazing stuff.

Some of the ideas and descriptions in Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle... have appeared in early essays and books, which does not imply it is re-treading old stuff, but that it is the maturing of his thought and an indication of his continued passion. He's not giving up or moving on, but still saying things that really matter. He has brought up some of this in brief books like Time for Truth and Unriddling the Times or the ever-relevant Dining with the Devil: The Megachurch Movement Flirts with Modernity. (Order it from us today!) His Screwtape-like spy novel - first called The Gravedigger File, now expanded and re-titled The Last Christian On Earth -- was an early creative attempt to popularize the significant cultural critique found in the pages of Peter Berger, and I highly recommend it.  Beth and I have heard Os offer brilliant and eloquent lectures on these themes, noting how both "the history of ideas" and "the sociology of knowledge" combine to help us understand our times and live faithfully "in but not of" the world of late modern capitalism and what some call hyper-modernity.  

And this is the theme of the new book - what are we to think and do in an age when there are forces causing the West to cut itself off from its obvious Christian roots, leading us  (dangerously) into what he calls a "cut flower civilization." That is, we still live with a general sense of goodness and beauty and ordered liberty and law and meaning and a desire for justice and a reason to fight evil, but the philosophical basis for that is no longer valued, and will soon no longer exist. How long can the (still lovely) cut flowers live and offer goodness and beauty once they are torn from the soil and their roots cut off?  As he put it once before, we are living off of a shadow of the real thing, perhaps soon a shadow of a shadow. Time is running out.

Although threats to cut ourselves off from our religio-cultural roots come from radical Islam and from progressive secularists, the biggest threat of all is more important, in part because it is less understood and more easily ignored.

As Guinness puts it in the very first paragraph of Impossible People, he worries that we have (mostly unknowingly) caved to the new dark ages that are fast coming and our shameless laxity and compromise has grave consequences.  He writes,

... whether through the general  seductions and distortions of advanced modernity, the tempting thinking behind the sexual revolution, or a failure to understand the significance of the hour and appreciate the implacable hostility of some of the forces against us - and so blunting our witness and betraying the lordship of and authority of Jesus.

Os is a careful and caring person, an astute observer, a man who likes a good joke and a good glass of wine; he is neither fanatical or impossible, in the negative sense. I do not think he is a Jeremiah, although, in this book - it's been building in recent years, I think - he is sometimes shrill.  I take it that his urgency comes from his reading of the times, his frustrations with how few seem to care about the condition of the world, or how many seem to care but are unable or unwilling to think through the implications of living as truthful, principled people.

We are not very well-schooled in deep cultural criticism, it seems, so it must be frustrating for him (as it is for us here at the shop, I'll admit) to find those who refuse to take seriously the philosophical and cultural impact on our very way of seeing, imagining, construing and living in the world, not taking seriously the increasingly pluralizing world where nothing is true, or (as Marx put it) "everything that is solid melts into air."  Sure, some Christians rise up to protest this or that affront to faith, we are riled by that hot button issue or this social concern, right or left, depending. We are concerned about pornography or post rebuttles on Facebook against those who mock Christians. Why haven't Christians (and especially evangelicals who claim such passion for "winning the world for Christ" and standing for piety and holiness) been more intentional about discerning the deeper and more corrosive ways that modernity has influenced us? How have social and ideological trends left us with a "yawning vacuum, hollowed out..."

What does Os mean by this?

impossible people.jpgJust think of how we've absolutized "choice" in our hyper-consumeristic world -- literally assumed now in nearly every area of life, embedded in our social imagination by the habit of having so many cereals and soaps and TV channels to choose from -- and how that subtly shapes our understanding of "church shopping"  or even conversion and spiritual formation, as if theology is just a whim to be selected based on personal preference.  Just think of how advertising and branding has over-inflated truth claims, and how that erodes trust and builds cynicism - even as our church growth plans and ghost writing and cheesy Christian sub-culture have too often played into that very superficial and finally untruthful way of talking about things.  We wonder why people are cynical about institutions when they are tutored in that habit of heart by the anti-hero stories they absorb on Netflex -- made more consumable and influential, in fact, now that people watch Netflix on their pocket phones. With our 24/7 news cycles we learn about the troubles of the world all the time; how can we not be jaded? Or even think of how our proper Christian worldview thinking (and the multi-cultural schooling from the culture at large) has properly led us to appreciate the "social construction of reality" and how we must work hard to understand the perspectives of others but how that same insight can be taken too far to bolster a view that there is no truth whatsoever and that everything - from what constitutes a family to what constitutes a church to what constitutes a just government or a true religion - is just up for grabs.  Or not even up for grabs, in this "whatever" world.  Could it be, too, that our daily experience of the speed of our computers or our on-line shopping habits using cell phones and our mediated experiences of choice and change have helped us experience life --  "see" and "know" what we think we see and know -- in this new way almost subconsciously? It is sort of obvious that our souls are in trouble more these days, say, lacking the virtue of patience, since we are used to high-speed internet and "do" waiting differently than anyone before us in all of history; that is, our very understanding and experience of time is mediated by our habits with gadgets so we don't have a clue about what is going on in so many Bible texts that call us to wait.  As James K.A. Smith has said in his extraordinary You Are What You Love, we must learn to ask what tools we use do to us.

This is not new ground for Os but this is an excellent and deepening and passionate study of it all, explaining how we got into our accommodating coziness with the forces of modernity. He helps us be critical about our own patterns and concerns -- have we been distracted by fighting smaller battles, failing to look at the deepest and most root causes of our cultural malaise, our deforming ideologies and idols and how they have influenced us unawares? Might we deserve the rebuke Jesus gave to the Pharisees who "strained out the gnat but swallowed the camel?"  Do we even know what that means?

One fascinating case study of this may be how some of us have insisted on doing intellectual battle with the new atheists, publishing books of apologetics, rebuttal, setting up debates and such.  Guinness clearly does not oppose that, but he is brilliant in his chapter on atheism - some of it will be of interest to those who read him more fully on this in Fool's Talk - but he is very quick to explain that modernism as a set of ideas (given full voice by the loudly hostile new atheists) is not the same as the subtle influence of cultural ethos modernity, which may be more damaging in the long run.  One is a set of ideas, which must be debated and countered, but the other is more subtle and more comprehensive, sucking us all into a post-Christian zeitgeist and practices and pattern of cultural assumptions. In this regard, it could be that debating atheism with the few loud critics of faith is not the primary or most foundational matter at hand. Maybe literally (re)thinking through the role of computers in our lives, say, or how we approach time or speed or sex or food or money or suffering or work might be more fruitful for lasting cultural reformation.

In a powerful illustration, he compares the legendary example the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, stopping the leak, and a more devastating and difficult task to stop the force of a mudslide. With a mudslide, there is no silver bullet, nothing one person can do alone, no easy answer, and thinking otherwise is itself a capitulation to the forces of expertise and bureaucracy and power.  Modernity itself actually teaches us to think like that - find the fast fix, the technical solution - and our secular age in late modernity has so captured our imaginations that we even think of reformation and revival in terms like this with quick, easy, church growth plans, or political advocacy, as if a new program or outreach or website or policy could stop the mudslide.


In this study of the intellectual and material and cultural influences of the modern era, Impossible People would be a very good read alongside James K.A. Smith's essential overview of the dense The Secular Age by Charles Taylor. (I have told some who are not terribly familiar with this kind of serious how not to be secular.jpgphilosophical work that if Smith's intro to reading Charles Taylor -- called How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Eerdmans; $16.00) -- is a bit much, there is one brilliant chapter which summarizes Taylor in Tim Keller's small book called Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (Viking; $19.95) insisting as he does that familiarity with Taylor is crucial for relevant teaching and preaching a proclamation to those living at the heart of our modern age.)  At any rate, Taylor's thesis about the seemingly disenchanted era in which we live - the quandary of finding meaning and purpose within the still-God-haunted post Christian secular age - runs in some ways parallel to Guinness's, and reading Guinness (while serious and sophisticated) will be an easier and more engaging experience for many than Taylor or even Smith. 

If you've read either of those and are familiar with Taylor you will surely want to pick up Impossible People.  If you have not, this is a great way into that broad conversation about our secular age, what it is and isn't, and what we might do about it. Not only does Guinness go out of his way to explain what he means by words like pluralizing or routinization or postmodernism or globalization, he offers overt Bible teaching, a closing prayer after each chapter, and reflection questions along the way, making it less arcane and more obviously helpful for most Christian readers. If you have read this sort of stuff, I think you will value Guinness and learn more, or learn to think more knowingly about what it means to be more deeply Christian in this world. Again, even if you have only heard of those books - Charles Taylor or Jamie Smith or Tim Keller's adaption - this new one by Guinness might be a great start, even though he curiously doesn't site Taylor or Smith at all. 

Just to be clear, allow me this long quote:

Let me be clear. If modernity is a deadly challenge to the church, it is not a frontal challenge in the way the hostile ideologies are. The new atheists, for example, are like the communists earlier. They are implacably opposed to the Christian faith and make no bones about their opposition to the Christian faith and their exclusion of Christians. (In the much-quoted words of the Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin, "we cannot allow a Divine foot in the door.") "No faith wanted here" they say in effect, separating out people of faith as Nazi guards did certain Jews on their arrival at Auschwizt-Birkenau.

That crude, open kind of opposition is certainly the sort of challenge posed by certain modernists such as the new atheists, but it is not the challenge of modernity. After all, there is a vital difference between secularism (as a personal philosophy), seperationism (as a legal and political policy advocating strict   religion and public life) and secularization (as a process that is part and parcel of modernization. These three terms are commonly confused and while they overlap in having the same end result, they are entirely different ways to getting there, and the differences are crucial. The first is a philosophy, the second a political philosophy and the third is a process.

Guinness continues, importantly,

Modernism as a philosophy may oppose faith outright but modernity does not. Its damage is not through opposition but through seduction and distortion. It doesn't say, for example, "No faith allowed here" but "No faith is needed here." Contrary to Jesus and the Torah, modernity claims that man can now live "by bread alone," or rather by science, technology, management, and marketing alone. Secularists do not want God, whereas the secularized have no need of God, and that is only one of the many seductions and distortions of modernity.

After these kinds of astute explanations of terms and illustrations of how our secularizing age has eroded the influence of the Christian faith in the West - and will, increasingly, in the modernizing world, which, he predicts, could follow Europe and the US in leaving behind the principles and truths and values derived from a Jewish and Christian past - Os tells clarifying stories and offers prayers and Biblical reflection to put into focus the task at hand.  In this, it is quintessential Os, incisive social and cultural critique and inspiring Biblical preacher.  His take on Scriptural stories - contrasting the "Samuel moment" and the "Moses moment" in the powerful Epilogue - are themselves worth the price of the book. 

I mentioned that Dr. Guinness has spoken and written widely about these forces and trends and influences and challenges - each listed nicely, outlined, explained in orderly fashion - for most of his career.  Indeed, this brings his prophetic "no" and his plea for a classic, theological "yes" to the fore in a way that is nearly a capstone.

But I also said that besides being a greatest hits review, there are new insights (fresh as this year's news, vital as ever) and some brand new material.


Guinness has raised this before at least in passing more than once, but he has a great section looking at the role of generations in the Bible and how that might inform our too-casual acceptance of "generational" thinking. Are all born in the baby boom really all alike? Besides the obvious fact that millennials have all been raised post 9-11 and with digital gizmos, are they, as a generation, easily generalized? Os thinks this is sociologically sloppy and on most days, I agree with him.  It's in a chapter well worth pondering as a larger piece of his case of how we've bought into the current ethos uncritically, absorbing language which shapes understandings and drives us to practices (even in the church, with Gen X congregations or tween worship services and the like.) Os is brilliant at exposing the history of philosophical ideas and showing the social forces that have aligned to cause certain sociological shifts, and then pokes at our easy Christian accommodation to these popularly accepted trends.  Again, he doesn't cite Charles Taylor's previous work on "social imaginaries" but he could have. And his study of "generational" stereotypes is important in it's own right, but also another great case study of our cultural captivity.

There is one topic I've not heard him speak about before and it is very important to him in this book.  Readers will have to judge if he is right, but it is an exceptionally vital contribution, if he is correct.


He has two chapters in Impossible People on what is sometimes called spiritual warfare.  If we are to be Biblical people, fully using Scripture as our framing narrative and guide to thinking about all life and times then we cannot allow our embarrassment of how some within the church have trivialized or been oddly spooky about demons and evil spirits to cause us to ignore the possibility that there are, indeed, spiritual forces and demonic influences.  In this he draws significantly - although with valuable criticism, I think - of the late Walter Wink.  I only know of one other book that takes his study of principalities and powers seriously, and that is Marva Dawn's remarkable, appreciative, but critical engagement with Wink (in her Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God)   Guinness notices certain Biblical stories and teachings and cites Oxford-trained theologians of this topic such as Derek Prince.  

osguinness-feature-med.jpgHis study of "three tools" to discern and engage the advanced modern world, include a wise exploration of the weapons of spiritual warfare.   His rumination on assumptions about power, prayer, humility, doing God's work in Christ's own ways (he is not a pacifist, I am sure, but takes seriously the call to love even enemies and be gracious to all by following the way of the cross) are rich.  In a way, this part especially feels like a companion to Renaissance, reminding us that even in our cultural analysis and discernment about the pressures and seductions of modernity as a way of being in the world, we must always be prayerful and spiritually-aware.  (In fact, our assumption that there aren't demons and powers is itself an indication of our odd modern ways -- what other culture in the history of the world is so ignorant, indeed prides itself in its ignorance, about the invisible and mysterious aspects of reality?)

 Is Guinness correct to hint that there are demonic forces behind the intractable influence of modernity? Is he correct in suggesting that evils like the horrors of Hiroshima are indications of demonic idols in the land? Do the current culture wars and their painfully nasty spirit indicate some ugly evil spirits in high places that are doing their dark work?  He is not too explicit and he is not sanguine about this; his line of thought, though, is genuine and generative.  What do you make of it? It could be a fruitful conversation to have. Or are we too locked into what Max Weber called our "iron cage" and what the Bible refers to as "brass heavens."

Another thing that must be mentioned: Os is relentless - as he always has been --  about the dangerous of revisionist views of the Bible, inadequate views of the core teachings as presented in the creeds and councils of the historic church.  In Impossible People...  he is more bluntly outspoken than ever, or so it seems to me. In this regard he is resolute in offering rebuke. (Could it be that his own experience of seeing doctrinal laxity and corruption in his local denominational judicatory has been influential? It surely is more than that, and he has long been critical of fuzzy emergent or post-evangelical leaders who seem to abandon conventional theology and views of truth, not to mention his regular admonishment of sloppy liberalism within mainline Protestant traditions.)

Still, I am less sure that most mainline churches are so theologically bankrupt and that there is not still much value in a "big tent" approach to the broader church, liberal, mainline, evangelical , fundamentalist, Pentecostal, Catholic and Orthodox, global and local than this book seems to accept.  Os seems to believe that the mainline Protestant churches have decisively reneged on historic orthodoxy and that those committed to greater marriage rights for GLTB folks are necessarily shallow and scandalous in their disconnection from historic Biblical views.  I am less sure of that, and wished he has been more characteristically generous with his non-evangelical and revisionist brothers and sisters, some of whom would not see themselves as unfaithful as Os implies. This may not be the place to explore how blunt and confident one needs to be in denouncing the extremes of Biblical infidelity, and how best to more civilly describe and engage the motivations and intentions of those with whom we disagree, but I will note that I was disappointed by the tone of a few paragraphs here. It is understandable, and certainly is a cri de coeur, but anguishing to read nonetheless. I sincerely hope that those with whom he takes exception in this call to be unstoppably faithful, uncompromising people, will not disregard his call to truth and fidelity in these complicated times, even though he is simplistic in his assessment of their positions.

And so, like any book written by anyone, most readers should be careful to think critically, even as we are open to the insight of the author.  I suspect you will be offended by something in this book, and you will be deeply glad for much. You will scratch your head and perhaps commit to really think things through a bit more on your own, teasing out the implications for your family and community and church. You will learn much about history, philosophy, culture, sociology and the state of our current world from Guinness. Life-long learners simply must have it, and will be grateful for the vast amount of information, profoundly framed and urgently expressed.

But you will also be challenged, exhorted to be the sort of person who pleases God among all else -- to live before Guinness's famously put "Audience of One." Will Christ someday say "found faithful"?  This phrase means very much to Os, and it was a tender revelation to hear of it, not maudlin, but nonetheless exceptionally moving. I will let you read it yourself and discover it's meaning for him, but it is remarkable. May we all have such gumption and devotion, perhaps learned during times of great difficulty, perhaps learned through cultural analysis like the bulk of this book, or directly from the relentless teaching of the Old and New Testaments.  I am sure this book will help.  It is important.  As Guinness reminds us, after a moving meditation on the "show me your glory" theme, and how it must be our own urgent prayer,

"Only those who know God in unmistakable reality can stand the test of the reality of the world in our day."

os quote - hope.png


impossible people.jpgI read and write with a view of telling others about books they might enjoy, from which they would benefit. I, with Guinness, am deeply interested in the texture of Christian fidelity in this compromising age of change and choice and relativism.  So I think of other ways to connect the dots, other resources, other ways into the deepest conversations that matter the most. Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization is surely one of the most important books of the year, one of the most anticipated books of the summer. I hope you order it at our discounted price, using the secure link below.

But, also, think of these, all 10% off the shown price:

Renaissance -  Os Guinness.jpgRenaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times Os Guinness (IVP) $16.00  I described this book above; it is hopeful and inspiring volume which is a prelude to the new Impossible People. Read it before or after, but read it, please. A wonder, a true gift. Listen to what Becky Pippert says:

"This is a profound, realistic and hopeful book that reminds us that even in the darkest times the power of the gospel can change the world....Guinness calls for renewal: in our confidence in God, in the power of the gospel and in the great truths of Scripture, even as we engage with the world around us. No other writer I know offers such a rich background of astute cultural analysis combined with a deep understanding of history. I finished this book feeling a deep sense of hope, which was fortified by his powerful prayers at the end of each chapter. If we heed the wisdom in this marvelous book, we could well become effective agents for Christ for such a time as this."

DVD The Problem of Evil - Os.jpgDVD The Problem of Evil: Why Do Bad Things Happen? Os Guinness (Discovery House) $19.99 I have said here, as many, many have before me, that Guinness is a brilliant communicator, a masterful speaker and a wonderful preacher. Here is a chance to spend time with him as he passionately and carefully tries to offer us tools for understanding the nature of evil, respond to the intellectual demands upon us when faced with great suffering, and learn how to offer profound, Biblical answers to this nearly insurmountable human issue, mysterious but essential for anyone wanting to live an examined life.  These six sessions are informal but nonetheless eloquent, inspired by his major paperback book Unspeakable: Facing Up to the Problem of Evil (HarperOne; $14.99) written after his speaking in New York on Wall Street right after 9-11.  This offers mature insight, all kinds of thoughtful reflections, and is fabulous for personal learning and certainly great for small groups or classes.

how not to be secular.jpgHow (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor James K.A. Smith (Eerdmans) $16.00  I have reviewed at BookNotes this at great length when it first came out and continue to mention this from time to time (including above.) We were so impressed, we sponsored Smith to lecture on it two years ago at our annual Pittsburgh Summer Lecture, and although it is dense, Smith is always a lively writer; this an important, significant work for anyone wanting to get inside the head of those raised in these times. Seriously.  Taylor, and Smith's take on Taylor, compliment Guinness's large sociological insights and overtly evangelical virtues.

A Wilderness of Mirrors- Trusting Again in a Cynical World.jpgA Wilderness of Mirrors: Trusting Again in a Cynical World  Mark Meynell (Zondervan) $18.99  This is an amazingly rich, thoughtful, interesting book by a young writer that deserves your attention. I've mentioned it before and it came to mind while reading Guinness. Here is how reviewer described it: 

In A Wilderness of Mirrors Mark Meynell explores the roots of the discord and alienation that mark our society, but he also outlines a gospel-based reason for hope. An astute social observer with a pastor s spiritual sensitivity, Meynell grounds his antidote on four bedrocks of the Christian faith: human nature, Jesus, the church, and the story of God's action in the world. Ultimately hopeful, A Wilderness of Mirrors calls Christians to rediscover the radical implications of Jesus s life and message for a disillusioned world, a world more than ever in need of his trustworthy goodness.

The Fractured Republic- Renewing America's Social Contract.jpgThe Fractured Republic: Renewing America's Social Contract in an Age of Individualism Yuval Levin (Basic Books) $27.50  I hope that you have seen this reviewed and cited on the internet or in significant journals -- I cannot wait to read this yet this summer as it has been promoted across the political spectrum as substantive and thoughtful. Left-leaning Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind) says "this is the book American most needs in 2016" and Paul Ryan says "Yuval Levin is one of the most insightful and original thinkers of our time." Weaknesses? Strengths? Partisanship? We are dangerously fragmented in this "age of individualism" which is to say Guinness's call to radically rethink our embeddedness in the ways of modernity are played out here. George Packer says of his humane and good writing that "His work gives the sense that our future needn't be as grimly divided and dysfunctional as the present seems." Don't skip Guinness's bigger picture for this, but this will make even that much more sense once you've gotten Guinness's work in view.

 Christian Practical Wisdom- What It Is, Why It Matters .jpgChristian Practical Wisdom: What It Is, Why It Matters Dorothy Bass et al (Eerdmans) $30.00  You may be surprised to see this listed here, but I think their semi-scholarly study of the role of wisdom in modern life will resonate with those interested in Guinness's theme that our battle is not only against the ideas of modernism but the patterns of modernity. Here, they resist the abstraction of the modern world -- the very way we've been taught to think about knowing -- and restore insights about living wisely.  Many of their grand, serious essays are about "the modern world" and how embodying daily practices discerning in light of spiritual truths from the Bible can offer restored and redemptive counter-voices to the way things are. As I've explained before, these pieces are written beautifully by astute theological educators from mainline circles and I think it is generative in inviting us to (as Mary Boys says of it) "ponder deeply and live with great intentionality..."

How to Survive The Apocalypse- Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the end of the World .jpgHow to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World Robert Joustra & Alissa Wilkinson (Eerdmans) $16.00  Okay, maybe you want to follow up Guinness's nearly magisterial overview of secularization, the forces of modernity, and the call to live faithfully within but sometimes against the culture, discerningly and bravely.  Want to follow Christ even in the details of life, like, say, your entertainment?  Do you watch The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones or House of Cards? Did you like the Academy Award winning Her? As I have said before, these two brilliant young social critics offer half of their remarkable book as an introduction to Charles Taylor (and yes, they draw on James K.A. Smith.) The second half wonders how we can be impossible people, if you will -- resolute as followers of King Jesus, people of grace and wisdom, caring about the common good -- even as the culture is awash in apocalyptic pessimism and anti-heroes. As they say in the first paragraph: "The world is going to hell. Just turn on the television -- no, not the news. Flip over to the prestige dramas and sci-fi epics and political dramas." But why? And how then shall we live?  Read Guinness, please. But read this, too. It is serious and seriously fun.

Good Faith- Being a Christian When Society Thinks You're Irrelevant and Extreme.jpgGood Faith: Being a Christian When Society Thinks You're Irrelevant and Extreme David Kinnaman & Gabe Lyons (Baker Books) $19.99  I have announced this previously and mentioned it often. It seems perfect to list here, as a read for those who aren't up to the big story stuff as Guinness walks us through the rise of modernity and the forces of liquid modernity as it is sometimes now called. His call to be uncompromising and diligent in our faithfulness is powerful and sophisticated but it is a bit heady. This quite readable book follows on similar tracks, inviting us to know the research (developed by the respected Barna Group) and consider how to respond to the increasing hostility about faith from the progressive secularist movement and others who, it seems, are more and more convinced that faith is just irrelevant, at best, and extremist dangerous, at worst. Guinness's book is more profound -- Gabe Lyon's himself has a rave blurb on Impossible People -- but this "cuts to the chase" as they say. It speaks (as  human rights activist Christine Caine puts it) "prophetically to the church by diagnosing our condition and prescribing a course of powerful treatment." Those with conventional Christian views or connections to churches are no longer part of the majority of the West. How we live out "good faith" in our generation will make a huge difference for the future of America. It is "an accessible guide" as one sharp reviewer put it.  Again, agree or not with all their assumptions and conclusions, it is a very helpful, practical, useful resource to learn from and to talk about.




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June 16, 2016

FOUR BRAND NEW BOOKS ON EVANGELICAL SOCIAL ACTION (and some personal ruminations and remembrances on a long-held concern.) ALL ON SALE NOW

The four new books I am about to tell you about are each excellent, truly worthy of your support, and so very interesting and helpful, but I want to accomplish two things in these reviews.  

First, of course, I want to alert you to these brand new titles, to affirm these publishers and authors, and to - yes - actually have you consider using these books in some kind of way.  Obviously, I hope you consider buying and reading them for yourself. (That would be buying them from us, that is: shame on you if you read my recommendations and go elsewhere!)  Maybe you could help get these books into wider circles. From a church library or small group to an Adult Ed forum or a campus ministry project, these books are useful as educational resources and we would be thrilled to be able to sell some to you or your group.

Just use the links to our secure order form page found at the end of this newsletter.


When we opened our bookstore we distinguished ourselves as a rare Christian bookstore that emphasized social justice topics, authors involved in faith-based social concern; we dreamed of making a living resourcing those who were making a difference and inspiring many to get involved in activisms of various sorts, from urban renewal to global peacemaking, from criminal justice reform to legislative concerns around poverty, hunger, and agriculture.  To be honest, we really don't sell many of those kinds of books and over the years it has raised a number of eyebrows, and cost us a number of customers. 

Which leads to the second thing I want to underscore here once again, a point I've made a lot in the last fifteen years or so.  I don't know if other Christian bookstores carry much social justice stuff (I've heard that they do not) or if the books I'm highlighting are found at the mainstream chains or ABA indie shops (again, I gather that they mostly are not.) But there is no doubt that evangelical Christian publishers are leading the way in releasing powerful, useful, insightful books for activists - academic books, semi-scholarly, serious ones, and popular handbooks for beginners.  The four books listed below that have been released in the last week or so are Exhibit A to show that evangelicals are much more interested in social justice than ever before.  These are some of the best books on this topic I've seen in years.

Justice Calling Where Passion Meets P.jpgSlow Kingdom Coming- Practices for Doing Justice, Loving Mercy and Walking Humbly.jpg(I hope you saw my shout outs in the previous post about the must-read The Justice Calling by Bethany Hanke Hoang & Kristen Deede Johnson (Brazos Press) and the beautifully-written spiritual guide Slow Kingdom Coming: Practices for Doing Justice, Loving Mercy, and Walking Humbly in the World by Kent Annan (IVP) which are both further indications of the prevalence and quality of these kinds of gospel-centered, Biblically-grounded resources.)

(And I hope you recall that we are promoting Lisa Sharon The Very Good Gospel.jpgHarper's fine introduction to the social implications of gospel reconciliation in her marvelous, new The Very Good Gospel, published by the evangelical publishing house Waterbrook; $19.99. Did you see our review of it a few weeks back, and recall that we're hosting her out in Pittsburgh on July 26th? More on that later, but, again, it illustrates my point.)


I became aware of religious-based social activists while a high school kid - one of the trials of the radical Berrigan brothers was in nearby Harrisburg (for the record, a nutty trumped-up case cooked up by J. Edgar, alleging that these pacifist priests were going to kidnap Henry Kissinger and plant bombs in the Pentagon, a claim so ludicrous that even other hard line prosecutors and public policy hawks had to distance themselves from the show.) I met a few radical priests myself, read gay Episcopal poet Malcolm Boyd and the erudite William Sloan Coffin, got involved with Caesar Chavez's campaign for justice for farmworkers, and found that I was often very, very lonely.  By and large, many mainline denominational books I came across (a Harvey Cox book that looked like Sgt. Pepper, as I recall) were religiously weird, or arcane, but the more overtly Christ-centered, gospel-based authors and ministries had very little interest in social change. I sometimes characterize those days in my life as hanging around with people who wanted to change the world, but didn't care about salvation through Jesus and hanging around with people who loved Jesus but didn't care on whit about the world. I hardly knew anybody who really wanted to do both.

Most people, I suppose, were just sort of nothing, socially and politically speaking, though, and the status quo reigned supreme. These were the days when Catholic Bishops would literally bless the bombs heading to civilian targets in Viet Nam and Billy Graham would naively hang out with Richard Nixon, but it wasn't terribly pushy and it wasn't a thing; it just was.  This was before the creation of the Religious Right - an overtly Christian (and, in some circles, very well-intended) effort to link a Biblical worldview to public life, which ended up supporting crass right wing politics; before that it was just sort of a given that church folks would mostly be conservative but un-involved, or, in reaction, would be into the "social gospel" which, in my experience, was a sincere but not particularly Biblical blend of lefty ideals and counter-cultural  goofiness.   At one earnest church retreat about changing the world we took "communion" with Pepsi because, as the ad slogan back then went, we'd "come alive." Or was it Coke and that hillside "I want to teach the world to sing" thing? Whatever.

Apathetic conservatism propping up the status quo or radical weirdness dis-connected to the first things of the gospel?  Even as a teen I knew this was fishy, but I didn't quite know why.

(And then, for me at least, I would catch hints of a more integral, faith-based, gospel-centered, church-related movement coming from the Black churches and the civil rights movement down South and the writings of Dr. King and his associates. It would be years until I'd read up and eventually even met folks in that tradition.)


In November 1973, I came to later learn, there was an era-defining weekend conference held at an inner-city YMCA in Chicago that came up with the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern.  Convened in part by the distinguished Carl F.H. Henry, people who later became friends and mentors - Richard Mouw, John Perkins, Bill Pannell, Ron Sider, Wes Granberg-Michaelson, the founders of The Other Side magazine and, of course, The Post American (that later was renamed Sojourners) were all  there, playing a part.  By the mid-70s Beth was visiting Koinonia, the famously inter-racial communal farm founded by Clarence Jordan in Americus, Georgia, I was wondering why I hadn't heard more of this robust, evangelical vision for wholistic Kingdom ministry, and recruiting people for Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA) and the anti-hunger citizen's lobby, Bread for the World (BFW) and the early version of what is now the Center for Public Justice (CPJ) then called the National Association for Christian Political Action founded by Jim Skillen.  

moral minority.jpgSome of this story (and so much more), by the way, is told in historian David Swartz's Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (University of Pennsylvania Press; we have the expensive hardback on sale for the paperback price = $24.95.) One of my dearest friends from Pittsburgh was one of the folks he interviewed for first-hand recollections.

The wonderful relief organization World Vision was getting to be better known and we had their President Stanley Mooneyham - he had written What Do You Say to a Hungry World? [now long out of print, but important in those years] - at one of our Pittsburgh CCO conferences, the precursor of Jubilee.  At the first Jubilee conference we hosted Senator Mark Hatfield, a rare anti-war Republican and vibrantly Christ-centered evangelical.  Because of my interest in some of this kind of stuff one friend seriously wondered if I was possessed by a demon which she named "the spirit of politics."  That's how anti-social concern some of my friends in my college fellowship group were, fearing evil in a matter as benign as raising money for the hungry.

Soon enough, I'd be wondering that myself, though, as it seemed like Screwtape himself was behind the 1980s rise of religious involvement in society as former evangelists known for preaching the gospel and the blood of Christ like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson began to twist the message to fit their nearly bizarre far right agenda, spewing all kinds of toxic stuff on the body politic in the name of Jesus. Do you recall Robertson raising money for military helicopters (the Boland Amendment make it illegal for the US government to do so directly) which sprayed death on civilians in Guatemala and Nicaragua?  Do you recall when Falwell said Dutch Reformed theologian Alan Boesak was a communist as he fought for the end of apartheid amidst savage mass murders in South Africa?  Do you recall the Nightline show when Falwell said Jim Wallis didn't really believe in the gospel?  (I do, and I debated him personally about it later that week!)  

Almost out of nowhere Falwell et al ranted against homosexuality and secular humanism - school prayer became an issue, as did abortion.  (Those of us on the front lines of crisis pregnancy work  -- I was at the first National Right to Life Conference, and help start a Birthright crisis pregnancy center at our college in 1973 and served our local CPC in the 80s and 90s -- found the harshness of the fundamentalists, new to the cause, counterproductive and more than a little annoying.) The evangelical  ministry of gospel-based leaders like Ron Sider saying we should affirm a mildly liberal view of economic reform  inspired by the Bible's teachings or John Perkins saying we needed to address racism as a sin, not just a social problem, were drowned out by sinfully stupid things being said in the national media by Pat Robertson and others of his ilk. (I'll never forget a David Brooks column in The New York Times lamenting that Falwell and his food fighting style was often selected by the media as a voice of evangelicalism. Brooks wondered why they never contacted somebody like John Stott.)

Yet, in a matter of a few decades, the Christian Right seemed to fizzle, the Moral Majority collapsed, some leaders (like Ed Dodson) emerged sobered, and young adult evangelicals increasingly identified themselves as caring about peace and justice, creation-care and race relations.  Shane Claiborn was published by Zondervan, quoting my old acquaintance Phil Berrigan and the Catholic Worker, Dorothy Day. How did this happen? Why and when was the tipping point?  It used to be rare to find Bible-based, grace-filled, evangelical books on social justice and most publishers in the CBA world were reluctant to release much about public justice that wasn't linked to some super-star preacher or some far right agenda. (Although they'd publish Ollie North in hardcover!)

Now, even the most theologically traditional evangelical publishers - Multnomah, Tyndale, Moody, Cook, NavPress, Waterbook, Crossway, Kregal, Zondervan, Nelson, IVP, Baker - all do inspiring books about fighting sexual trafficking, about creation-care, about racial reconciliation, about God's passion for the poor, about orphan justice, mass incarceration, and more; a few even dare to publish books on Biblical pacifism, the kind of thing formerly only available from the Mennonites (or the publishers of the Catholic Left.) On almost any social topic, evangelical publishers in recent years have done more (and, in most cases, better) books than mainline denominational publishers have. While there isn't an evangelical consensus on policy -- there are brilliant conservative scholars, moderate, Biblical, fair-minded, and there are feisty and passionate leaders who tilt left --  but most evangelicals are desiring to be faithful, relevant, and compassionate in the world, not ideological or fighting the culture wars. (Most true evangelicals, let us be clear, do not favor Donald Trump.) This broader worldview which embraces concern for the common good is, I believe, one of the great shifts of recent years, and certainly one of the top two or three religious publishing trends in our lifetime, that social awareness and concern for the poor, for racial justice, fair trade, human rights and the like, are on the agenda, even if we don't always agree on how to pursue those goals.

When and how and why did this happen?

One of the fabulously interesting (and, I think, really important) books I am about to list tries to answer this very question, or at least paint a backstory of how it began to happen, in my lifetime. When did this shift happen, and why?  All four of the titles we're listing are indicative of this large shift and are great examples of the best social justice stuff coming out of thoughtful evangelical publishing houses today.

I think we can thank the pioneering work by Ron Sider and John Perkins and Jim Skillen and John Stott and even Francis Schaeffer, and, after his time in prison, Chuck Colson, names you most likely know (especially if you follow BookNotes.)  And, we should thank Gary Haugen. (Read on to find out why.)

 Anyway, in the words of the Dylan song I used to play at youth group so many decades ago, "the times, they are a-changin'."  Thanks be to God.

return to justice.jpgReturn to Justice: Six Movements That Reignited Our Contemporary Evangelical Conscious Soong-Chan Rah & Gary Vanderpol (Brazos) $19.99 sale price = $17.99  As I've said, the resurgence of interest in social justice among evangelicals - even among organizations such as Cru or at flagship evangelicals seminaries like Gordon-Conwell  or at megachurches like Willow Creek or Saddle Back - is one of the grand shifts of faith (and within religious publishing) in our lifetime. Beyond the religious right and left, there is now an increasingly mainstream acceptance of Bible-based teaching about justice among those with a high regard for orthodox readings of the Bible, who feel called to share their faith, hoping to see others come to a personal, saving faith, and who express their spirituality often in deeply personal ways. (I myself am doing two workshops on Biblical justice for evangelical groups in the next few weeks!)  

Those who follow these things like to note that the earliest roots of the American evangelicalism were socially progressive. Finney preached against slavery, many evangelical colleges were quick to admit women, preachers like D.L. Moody cared deeply about the human suffering in the urban slums; of course, William Wilberforce (whose story is so wonderfully told in the must-see film Amazing Grace based on Eric Metaxas' book of that title) was part of a very wholistic movement of social and cultural renewal affiliated with the Methodist revival in England in the late 1700s.  So, evangelism and social concern, orthodox theological pietism and politics are actually old bedfellows, oddly eroded by the retreat from society with the rise of fundamentalism in the early 1900s, the middle class status quo liberal Protestantism in the middle of the 20th century  and then again by right wing political fundamentalism in the late 20th century.   Now, it seems evangelicalism is recovering its storied history. Hence the "reignited" in the subtitle here.

In Return to Justice, six key movements are described that have been influential in setting the stage for rising generations of young evangelicals and their return to wholistic, justice-oriented Christian social concern. 

I have not adequately studied Return... so am not sure which issues and personalities to which the authors attribute the most weight, but it seems as if it is doing good, rich, history from earlier decades, those which set the stage and built momentum. For sheer impact,  I vote for Gary Haugen, whose breathtaking story and valiant work exposing the horrific problem of child slavery and sexual trafficking in the late 1990s was one of the big, tide-turning influences that not only caught the attention of idealistic youth but also transcended partisanship.  Right or left-wing views didn't seem to matter much in the pitches given all over the land by Gary and his staff of the International Justice Mission (IJM.)  Who doesn't oppose sexual trafficking?

I believe that the current passion for social reform and the ethos of making a difference owes much to the tireless, funny, passionate, storytelling of Baptist preacher Tony Campolo, traveling around the country for decades, sowing seeds among those who are now middle-aged evangelical leaders. (Campolo ran for Congress in the mid 1970s as an anti-war, pro-justice, consistently pro-life Democrat.)

Agree or not with all of Tony's flamboyant one-liners on issues, one cannot miss that he is an almost-old-school evangelist, inviting people to accept God's grace through faith in the death and resurrection of Christ; his call to radical discipleship and socially-engaged commitment always emerges from his invitation to be embraced by the love of God shown in the gospel of Christ. (Interestingly, in two different co-authored books - Adventures in Missing the Point with his friend Brian McLaren and Red Letter Christians with his now famous former student Shane Claiborne - Tony is the more traditional of the two, sounding concerns when their views seem to verge on drifting away from evangelical truisms.)  I write all this to note that Rah and Vanderpol do not give much attention to Campolo as a seminal figure in this shift that is coming to fruition before our eyes.  Interesting.

Other folks have been at it a long time - John Perkins telling his story of being beat by racist cops and still promoting racial reconciliation, say, or World Vision promoting child sponsorship - but by the new millennium, momentum seemed to accumulate, some tipping point was reached, perhaps when Compassion International starting going to the major evangelical Christian rock festivals like Creation.  The impact of hearing first-hand accounts of the needs of starving children offered place after place, year after year, accumulated, and high school kids grew up knowing something about global development issues.  Liberation theologians were debating complex nuances in nomenclature in mainline seminaries but evangelicals were organizing massive fund-raising campaigns among youth, and their WWJD bracelets reminded them to think about the needy. Old conferences for evangelical young adults like CCO's Jubilee and IVCF's Urbana, and more recently, the Passion Conference, have naturally integrated social concerns into their display areas and messages; this simply wouldn't have happened without controversy 30 or 40 years ago.

So, Return to Justice really is helpful, giving us a glimpse of the Spirit's work in the generation that informed the resurgence within the last decades, and documenting how some of this extraordinary shift has happened, and how lasting education can happen around these key issues.

Besides a fantastic introduction and a solid and hopeful conclusion, here is an overview of this marvelous book:

In Part 1 ("Justice Is Personal and Relational") they explore the power of personal story by looking at John Perkins and the Christian Community Development Association and the power of personal connection by exploring child sponsorship as a window into global poverty.

Part 2 is called "Justice Is Public and Prophetic" and this explores World Vision's work of prophetic advocacy and Sojourner's as a prophetic voice for those on the margins.

In Part 3, "Justice Confronts Power in Community", Rah and Vanderpol explore African American evangelicals and what true racial reconciliation needs to be; it draws on narratives about Bill Pannell and Tom Skinner (and the historic, tense Urbana 70 conference) and Carl Ellis and Clarence Hillard and others who pressed these issues in the 1970s within mostly white evangelical organizations, paving the way for ongoing conversations even this very season. The last chapter explores Rene Padilla's and Samuel Escobar's influence and the "The Fraternidad Teologica Latinoamericana. (Oh, what an honor it was once when Rene Padilla visited our Dallastown store!) Can power be shared in the 2/3's world? How has our global Christian world changed in our lifetime and how might that influence the experiences of rising generations? Soong-Chan Rah has an entire book on this (The Next Evangelicalism) and he knows his stuff.

Here are some of the rave reviews Return to Justice has gotten.  

I know Rah and VanderPol personally and highly respect them and cherish that they have done an excellent job in articulating the history of the return of justice to the evangelical church. I am blessed we can participate in that return as we find ourselves at a wonderful crossroads. I wish that the church community worldwide could read this book, particularly those who are a part of this new multicultural church planting and post-racial generation.

--John M. Perkins, founder, John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation; author of Leadership Revolution

The resurgence of concern for justice emerges from deep wells in the evangelical tradition, and the story needs to be told--and in fact has now been told in Return to Justice.

--Scot McKnight, Northern Seminary, author The Kingdom Conspiracy 

Return to Justice tells the story of an evangelical history that must not be forgotten. This book examines several influential evangelical movements that have shaped our understanding of service, compassion, and justice, including contributions from the African American and Latino evangelical communities. It provides valuable insights that both inspire individual growth and compel us toward an authentic return to God's heart for justice.

--Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon, author of Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World

This carefully researched book shines a spotlight on modern evangelical movements that expound the gospel message as a mandate for social justice as well as eternal salvation. While the authors' recommendation of these groups includes some critique of their aims and actions, they want other evangelicals to realize how thoroughly evangelical the activities of John Perkins, World Vision, the Fraternidad Teológica Latinoamericana, and other groups have been. They make a persuasive case.

--Mark Noll, historian, author of Turning Points


advocating for (better).jpgAdvocating for Justice: An Evangelical Vision for Transforming Systems and Structures Stephen Offutt, F. David Bronkema, Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, Robb Davis, Gregg Okesson (Baker Academic) $22.99  sale price = $20.69 Well, again, that a book like this even exists - with such a blunt title and such serious content -- and is promoted as a major release from an evangelical publishing house is further indication that something is afoot in our times.  That Stephan Bauman (President of World Relief and author of the inspiring Possible about how we can make a difference in the world) calls it "a watershed book" is perhaps another way of noting how important it is.  Wow.

Yet, this is a hard-hitting critique, and a needed one, I'm afraid.  It is suggesting that despite all the talk about justice and the great move of social concern that seems to be prevalent in our evangelical churches -- and, our mainline ones, too, I'd say - we really are pretty unaware of how the world really works, who has power and how power does or doesn't serve the common good.  Advocating for Justice is a book that is pushing us to complete the journey from a empathy and charity to a broader social vision to a uniquely Christian advocacy for institutional change.

Miriam Adeney (former missionary and now of Seattle Pacific University) writes of it,

This stellar book asserts that evangelicals are anemic with regard to structural evil. We don't know how to think about power, so we settle for strategies that are too simple. Yet we are animated by the God who both creates and conquers the powers. Clear, orderly, theoretically rich, theologically vibrant, and full of examples, this book is a must-read.

These authors themselves are another fine illustration of the maturing of the mind and cultural sophistication within evangelicalism, not to mention the ecumenical flavoring of many within theologically evangelical institutions.  For instance, in this collaborative effort, one author has a PhD from Boston University but teaches development studies at Asbury, an evangelical Christian college. Another has a PhD from Yale and teaches at the Baptist-related Eastern University. Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy has a degree from Weston (a Jesuit school of theology) and works as an evangelical church outreach organizer with Bread for the World, the ecumenical anti-hunger citizen lobby group.  One author is an elected official - yay! - and Gregg Okesson (himself with a PhD from the University of Leeds) is dean of the E. Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism at Asbury Theological Seminary.  

What does it mean to truly be advocates for lasting social change? What are Biblically-informed and theologically substantive views of power and institutions?  For many of us, Ron Sider's must-read Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger is still one of the best books on all this, but this takes these concerns about structural readjustment to a new, thoughtful, and necessary level.  It isn't about politics exclusively, although there are some great case studies about the details of funding debates on things such as AIDS/HIV research or immigration reform,  but it is trying to help us understand longer-term structural change, lasting institutional reform, and being advocates, as citizens and in other spheres where we can do more than "come alongside" the marginalized, but learn effective advocacy practices.  This isn't the final word on all of this, I'm sure, but it is an essential, nearly stunning, next step. Kudos. 

public faith in action.jpgPublic Faith in Action: How to Think Carefully, Engage Wisely, and Vote with Integrity Miroslav Volf & Ryan McAnnally-Linz (Brazos Press) $21.00 sale price = $18.90  I can hardly contain my enthusiasm for this and hesitated listing it along with these others for fear it would get lost in the list. This is a book that deserves to be very, very widely read and discussed, and is needed during this election cycle so very badly. Not only because we need to counter a thoughtlessness and knee-jerk response from various quarters, but also because this not only affirms a careful and wise approach, but because in it's graciousness about prudential judgements about which we can disagree it is -- as James K.A. Smith observes -- "an anti-dote to polarization."

And we can't get enough of that right now, can we?

If the first book I listed above (Return to Justice) offers some historical background and some fairly contemporary case studies of those recovering an evangelical commitment to public justice and the second (Advocating for Justice) is a serious study of how power works and why we need to think carefully about structures and institutions as we advocate for social transformation on behalf of the poor, then Public Faith in Action is a handbook to living this out in this exact time. It is a guide to being a better informed citizen, guided by integrity and fidelity to our best principles.  It is, as Ron Sider himself says,

A concise, readable, theologically-informed guide for Christian political engagement, this book deftly integrates relevant biblical principles and contemporary data, summarized the key issues at stake, and points to important additional reading. An excellent contribution to the rapidly growing body of work on how Christina can engage politics in a faith way. 

I sort of wish this wasn't a hardback, as it ought to be promoted widely and used in classes and study groups, especially this summer and fall.  It isn't just a quickie manual, as it is profound -- what else would you expect from the likes of Volf, a theological scholar from Croatia, now at Yale (both teaching theology and directing the esteemed Yale Center on Faith & Culture) who is respected around the world? His Exclusion and Embrace was voted by Christianity Today as one of the best 100 religious books of the 20th century.  (And I have a blurb on the cover of his very impressive A Public Faith; just saying.)

Listen to these impressive endorsements from advanced reviews of Public Faith in Action:

The question isn't whether you'll live out a public faith but how. In this wise, measured, and refreshingly concrete discussion, Volf and McAnnally-Linz encourage Christians to be active, thoughtful contributors to the 'life together' that is society. The book is unapologetically convicted, but it makes room for the global realities that demand different responses and creates space for Christians to come to different prudential conclusions. Here is an antidote to polarization.

--James K. A. Smith, Calvin College; author of You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit; editor of Comment magazine

Miroslav Volf and Ryan McAnnally-Linz's volume achieves its aims: opening up a series of serious questions that are a matter of public debate in a pluralistic society, while exhorting Christians to responsibly explore the answers through the lens of faith.

--Stephanie Summers, CEO, Center for Public Justice

The world needs our active Christian faith more now, perhaps, than ever. Public Faith in Action provides a deeply thoughtful model for how we as Christians might work out our faith for the glory of God and the flourishing of communities and people. One needn't agree with every application here in order to be instructed, challenged, and inspired by this call to commitment, conviction, and character as we strive to serve a suffering world faithfully and well.

--Karen Swallow Prior, author of Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More--Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist

vegangelical.jpgVegangelical: How Caring for Animals Can Shape Your Faith Sarah Withrow King (Zondervan) $16.99 sale price = $15.29  Sarah King starts off this short book telling about her growing up with good family devotions, becoming born again, the purity ring she wore as a younger Christian girl, and her wholesome recollections of being raised in a Godly, evangelical Christian family. She's been a vegan for years, has been an animal rights activist as an evangelical (talking about Christ with her colleagues in PETA) and now offers this, her second book on the topic -- published by perhaps the quintessential evangelical publisher. Do I really need to say "I rest my case" regarding the shifts within evangelical publishing?

animals are not ours.jpgI list this book (alongside her other recent, somewhat more scholarly one, Animals Are Not Ours (No Really They Are Not): An Evangelical Animal Liberation Theology) published by Cascade; $25.00; sale price = $22.50) not only because it is truly fascinating and important, but because it does indeed, again, illustrate the point that there is something remarkable happening when the theologically traditionalist evangelicals at this storied, mostly conservative publishing house thinks they can publish a book on why Bible-believing Christians should consider becoming totally vegan.

I am not at this point myself, by the way, and I must admit I wish Sarah would have gone the route of just protesting the abuses of factory farms and proclaiming an ethic which insists on treating all creatures with dignity and care -- with what Joel Salatin in his new book calls "the marvelous pigness of pigs." I think more folks would have given her a hearing. 

But she will have none of my wish to tone down her convictions: she critiques (kindly, in footnotes) much of the rapidly-growing evangelical creation-care literature for how it misses or confuses what she says in a key aspect of Biblical and theological creational ethics: radical animal welfare.  This book really is one-of-a-kind; few, if any, of the other such books on this topic are as accessible or so particularly evangelical in tone about this blind spot in our thinking and practices.

We here at the shop have a large selection on animal welfare -- one Christian woman was so struck by seeing our selection she broke down in tears, realizing she was not alone in her passions.  But, really, this is ground-breaking as it offers such grace-filled, Bible-based, evangelical insights with wit and without compromise.  Agree or not, you have to appreciate a book like that.  

So, let's be clear. Nope, her children do not drink milk and have never been to a McDonalds (obviously.) She doesn't go to the zoo. She agrees with C.S. Lewis that animal testing (vivisection) is cruel and wrong.  She doesn't wear leather and she's trying to live as fully by her principles as she can.  But, delightfully and surprisingly to some, she is not angry or judgmental or trivial. She is playful, deeply Christian, and invites us to consider a whole lot of stuff that we really ought to consider so that we honor God and live in ways that are consistent with the best practices of new life in Christ.  There are good study questions to ponder and it would be fascinating to discuss together (if your group can hold in tension a lot of disagreements and perhaps painful conflict about it.) Both books really are commendable, and I'm happy to tell you about them.

I love these blurbs about Sarah and her book -- especially the first by a guy who isn't even a consistent vegetarian, let alone vegan. Listen up:

I love animals. I also love eating them. This book isn't a self-righteous rant. It's a provocative, funny, spiritual manifesto about how precious life is. It's easy to forget that God's original plan was to hang out with a couple of naked vegetarians in a garden. Our McDonalds-and-Chipotle-loving fast-food world has come a long way from the ole Garden of Eden. Sarah's book is an invitation to step back and consider how God really intended for us to relate to all these wonderful creatures. -- Shane Claiborne (backsliding vegetarian)

A significant introduction to the important but too-long neglected topic of a solidly Christian approach to the (mis)treatment of animals. One need not agree with every argument to realize this book presents an urgent challenge that biblical Christians dare no longer ignore. King's chilling stories, extensive statistics, and probing biblical arguments offer a great place to begin. -- Ronald J. Sider

And, please, consider these wonderful assessments by two sharp, Godly women I admire greatly:

Sarah King's book about how to love Jesus and love animals was overwhelming. Overwhelmingly fun - with her quick wit and accessible writing style. Overwhelmingly challenging - in that she suggests some ideas I honestly don't know how to integrate into my own evangelical practice and spiritual life. And overwhelmingly good - she asks critical questions the 21st century evangelical church has yet to wrestle with and entertain. May Vegangelical be a guide for us who choose to follow Jesus and seek to honor and love His creation and the human-animal relationships that are a part of it. -- Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon, , author of Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World

An articulate, sincere introduction to Bible-based social and environmental justice, opening the conversation to how God forms us through our interactions with the created world. A must-read for protectors of all creatures, great and small. -- Nancy Sleeth, , co-founder of Blessed Earth




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June 14, 2016

Home Again, Home Again, BIG BLOW OUT SALE -- 5 DAYS ONLY --

It has been a while since our last post and that has been both intentional and by necessity.  We wanted to allow time for everyone to see that last review of Chris Smith's spectacular new book Reading for Reading for the Common Good.jpgthe Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish - I asked you to re-send my reflections, and almost begged you to buy the book.  If you haven't yet read that review I hope you do as it shared much of dearest things to our hearts (the role of reading, learning, Kingdom vision and missional outreach) and explained why Reading for...  is such a great book to enjoy and from which to gain missional energy and vision and quite a bit of helpful insight.  I don't mind featuring a quintessentially Hearts & Minds-ish column for a while, hoping many read it.  I think it's one you should save and send, discuss and hopefully act upon.  That is, buy the book!

But, also, we've been out on the road at a string of complicated set-ups, traveling to three out-of-town locations to create three different displays (and doing workshops at two of the events.)  Beth and I have relied on the kindness of others to help lug some heavy boxes after midnight and some hard-working staff back at the store to order and compile, box and re-box, carry and stack, lug and load, box after box after box.  And don't even ask about our spooky encounter with bad brakes in the big green van heading North on Route 15.  We are grateful for God's protection and rejoiced when we at last pulled into Dallastown in the middle of a very late night.


So, here's a bit of a tribute to those trips - we're told people like to hear this kind of summary of some of the places we go and the books we sell here and there. Setting things out on display tables with our crates and shelves in special pop-up book rooms does remind us of some of our favorite books to promote, or special books that some groups need.

Ergo, here we go: a FIVE DAY SALE, ANY BOOK MENTIONED, 30% OFF while supplies last.  This sale expires at end of day Sunday, June 19. 2016.


ELCA.jpgOur first big set-up last week was with our good friends at the Lower Susquehanna Synod of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.)  This is the denomination in which Beth grew up and her home church has produced a number of active lay delegates, folks doing dedicated social service, and a few ministers of Word and Sacrament and it is fabulous to see old friends.  We respect so much of what they do and the space to set up at Messiah College is grand.  It took four of us 12 hours to do the big display (just to give you a sense of how much and how good we try to make it.)  It was a good event - they did their denominational business, worshiped well - ah, our local Lutherans know how to worship well - and there was a good spirit in the place, busy as they were.  They don't push books much at their event, so not many particular titles sold well.  I don't do any stand-up book announcements (I know, they don't know what their missing) so sales are sort of smattered all over the room, from spiritual formation to congregational revitalization, from memoirs and light-hearted stuff to a few books of Biblical and theological studies, social concern and children's books.  We even sold a silly board book Dancing With Jesus which (features a host of miraculous moves) and includes dance steps.

One book they did announce, though, is for a project they call One Synod One Book - yep, they attempt to get every parish on board reading together.  How cool is that? In past seasons they've used the lovely God in a Bag of Groceries and the important The New Jim Crow; last season they read the new edition of Shane Claiborne's Irresistible Revolution. Although the Synod invites folks to buy them at a discount from us, we suspect most parishes either don't do the program or they get the books elsewhere. Still, it is exciting to think of even a handful of churches with reading groups and book clubs, learning to deepen their love for God, their hunger for justice, through talking together around the printed page.  I wonder if your own church might take a lesson from their good idea?

Telling Tales About Jesus- An Introduction to the New Testament Gospels .jpgAt the Synod gathering they announced next season's One Synod One Book selection, a meaty study of the gospels, Telling Tales About Jesus: An Introduction to the New Testament Gospels by Warren Carter (Fortress Press; $39.00.)  We sold a good handful at the event, and hope that others will buy multiple copies soon.  It's a fascinating introduction to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, bringing together contemporary critical scholarship and a high regard for the power of the Jesus stories for daily life and discipleship and for faith communities in their mission in the world.  His explanation of much about the nature of the political background of the Roman Empire is informative and his showing the different purposes of the four different accounts is helpful.

We've got plenty here, still, so if you are interested, right now is a time to order it at this extra 30% discount.  When this sale ends, we will continue to sell it to ELCA book groups at 20% off, but for the next few days we offer this extra BookNotes savings.

October 31, 1517- Martin Luther and the Day That Changed the World.jpgThe biggest seller at the Lutheran gathering was, not surprisingly, October 31, 1517: Martin Luther and the Day That Changed the World by Martin E. Marty (Paraclete; $19.99.) Dr. Marty is one of the preeminent Christian writers and leaders of the last 50 years so a new book by him is a treat and a treasure. He's a Lutheran, so a new Martin Marty book was perfect to feature - it was greatly appreciated (by those who saw it, at least.) With the upcoming celebration of the 500th anniversary of the eve of the Protestant reformation, this is a great first salvo of what I suspect will be a big topic in religious publishing this year.  I thought it was fantastic, and funny, even, that a Jesuit (James Martin) wrote the forward.  Another Catholic has a blurb on the back and Richard Mouw (a Presbyterian) offers a lovely endorsement.  I have to admit not everybody understood my comments about the curiosity of Catholics endorsing this book; perhaps our Protestant churches, for better or worse, don't know much about what happened in October 1517.  Yikes!

Anotated Luther.jpgAn important Lutheran scholar, Timothy Wengert (who has his own book on Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses) has been doing a major project, leading a team doing annotated editions - big, expensive, glorious, hardbacks with Fortress Press - of the complete works of Martin Luther.  We didn't sell any of those (even though we were told a Fortress Press editor was around who might have pushed them, but I gather never visited the large book room, a great disappointment.)

But what we really hoped we would have sold were the brilliant paperbacks, oversized, handsomely done, excerpts of the big annotated hardback texts.  We had four of Luther's must-read volumes in these good translations with lots of helpful study notes and annotations in the big margins: The Freedom of the Christian, Treatise on Good Works, The Bondage of the Will, and The Larger Catechism. We commend these classics of the Protestant reformation, these brilliant writings from this legendary Christian leader. The annotations help and the handsome feel of these study editions makes these really nice to have and useful for groups.

These regularly sell for just $14.99 each but we have them on sale, now, at 30% OFF - until June 16, 2016. There will be more released in this series.

Freedom of a Christian.jpgtreatise on good works.jpg

bondage of the will.jpg

large catechims of Dr. Martin jpg


Mercer2.jpgWe boxed up these books at the end after midnight in the muggy, soft rain, and struggled to stay awake heading home.  Early the next morning we repacked and selected a different array of titles to set up - again, lugging in during a crazy downpour - at Lancaster Theological Seminary at their annual Mercersburg Society Conference.

Now is not the time to explain all of the fascinating fascination with the "mediating theologians" of 19th century Germany and how they influenced the likes of Pennsylvania German Reformed folks like Nevin and Schaff - who taught at Mercersburg, PA, before they moved their seminary to what lancaster theo.jpgbecame the now-Ivy League Franklin & Marshall, and the beautiful, small, UCC seminary across the street.  Suffice it to say that these "high Eucharistic Calvinists" are of interest to UCC friends seeking substantive theological discourse and renewal within their own denomination, and that there is a growing interest within conservative PCA (Presbyterian Church of America) folks. To have Dr. Annette Aubert from Westminster Theological Seminary lecturing about her sophisticated, scholarly book, The German Roots of Nineteenth-Century The German Roots of Nineteenth Century Aubery.jpgAmerican Theology (Oxford University Press; $78.00) at an admittedly pluralistic/liberal seminary like Lancaster, with rigorous conversations with Barthians (and, for instance, Church History professor Dr Anne Thayer, with her PhD from Harvard -- and a degree in science! --who edited Christ, Creeds and Life and Dr. Lee Barrett, who wrote a book comparing Kierkegaard and Augustine, Eros and Self-Emptying) was tremendous. You should pick up on sale, now, his great, contemporary translation of the Heidelberg Catechism, published by Pilgrim Press; it is usually $9.99 but on sale it is only $6.99, until Sunday, or as long as we have some left.

You can read my ruminations about and book ideas from last year's Mercersburg Society conference here.  My daughter Stephanie and I were delighted to again serve this feisty, fun, interesting academic conference.  To be invited to do three workshops about books was a real honor that I did not take lightly.  And what a joy to again be with the Right Reverend Dr. Nathan Baxter (former dean of the National Cathedral) and other ecumenical participants.  Kudos to Mercersburg Society President Dr. Carol Lytch for hosting such a curious and (let us pray) consequential event.

he Mercersburg Theology and the Quest for Reformed Catholicity.jpgIf you want to come up to speed about this revival of Mercersburg theology, we invite you to buy The Mercersburg Theology and the Quest for Reformed Catholicity by Brad Littlejohn (Pickwick Publications; $25.00) Brad is a young and brilliant participant who has served as general editor of a set of Nevin and Schaeff's stuff in an ongoing study series published by Wipf & Stock.  Brad's own book may be the best intro to this of which we know -- substantive and important. Get it now at 30% OFF, while supplies last, until June 19, 2016.

We have every  major book we could find about Mercersburg, although we have now on sale a few of the big Mercersburg Society study volumes in extra quantities so we can sell them now at 30% OFF, too. (Yes, why supplies last, up until Sunday.)

Consider these:

  • The Mystical Presence: The Doctrine of the Reformed Church on the Lord's Supper by John Williamson Nevin, edited by Linden J. DeBie ($44.00)
  • Coena Mystica: Debating Reformed Eucharistic Theology John Williamson Nevin & Charles Hodge edited by Linden J. DeBie ($29.00)
  • The Incarnate Word: Selected Writings on Christology John Williamson Nevin edited by William B. Evans ($34.00)

Mystical Presence.jpgCoena Mystica.jpgThe Incarnate Word.jpg

We were thrilled to finally get to meet and hear Peter J. Leithart, a rock star of sorts in some neo-Reformed circles. (See his very cool Theopolis Institute for Biblical, Liturgical, & Cultural Studies HERE.) As was no surprise for those that knew his work, even his blogged column at First Things, Leithart was provocative, thoughtful, learned, eloquent, and kind.  He has studied Mercersburg stuff well, even as his he stands on different ground to appropriate it than the UCC and RCA folk there at the Society gathering.

Dr. Leithart has written bunches of books - from Deep Comedy to a small biography of Jane Austin, from a collection of wedding sermons to his justly famous Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom and several Bible commentaries.  We stock them all, and offer them even now at 30% OFF, this week only.

Might we most heartily suggest these two, though, all offered this week at our 30% OFF sale:

Traces of the Trinity- Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience.jpgTraces of the Trinity: Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience (Brazos Press) $20.00   This is brilliant, nothing quite like it in print. I love books about the spirituality of the ordinary, and believe strongly that reading about the doctrine of creation -- the reality of God's good world, here and now, as a created order upheld by God's own Word -- is vital.  This is neither a straight, typical study of the Trinity, although you will learn about that anew, nor a standard affirmation of God's presence in the daily, although it gets at that "creation regained" worldview and the nearness of God in the world quite nicely. But it is more.. It does just what is says in the title. 

Listen to what the brilliant John Frame writes:

This is the most delightful book I have read in a long time. One of its delights is its clear, gracefully written prose, which easily engages the reader. The book presents a cogent case for a highly significant point: the whole created world images the divine Trinity. Leithart argues this thesis comprehensively, demonstrating that the divine perichoresis--the mutual indwelling of the three persons of the Trinity--is reflected in every area of human life, including perception, thought, language, sex, time, space, music, and imagination. Leithart's argument has the potential, therefore, to bring major change to our study of all these areas of reality, and thus to all the ways we live in the world."

Delivered from the Elements of the World.jpgDelivered from the Elements of the World: Atonement, Justification, Mission (InterVarsity Press) $30.00  This is his latest and perhaps his most significant yet. If you buy serious theology books at all, this is one to add to your collection. And if you don't, it is one that may still fascinate you.

I simply can't improve upon the learned consideration of James K.A. Smith, who calls it "monumental" and writes:

When you read Peter Leithart, you suddenly realize how timid most Christian theologians are, tepidly offering us a few 'insights' to edify our comfort with the status quo. Leithart is like a lightning strike from a more ancient, more courageous Christian past, his flaming pen fueled by biblical acuity and scholarly rigor. In this book, he does it again? Here is the City of God written afresh for our age, asking a question you didn't know to ask but now can't avoid: Why is the cross the center of human history? Couldn't God have found another way? Leithart's answer -- this book -- is a monumental achievement.

 Matthew Levering of Mundelein Seminary offers a rave analysis, and then says,

Leithart's dazzling biblical and ecumenical manifesto merits the closest attention and engagement.


Reformational philosopher and theologian Craig Bartholomew says,

Peter Leithart is one of our best and most creative theologians. In this wide-ranging book Leithart shows that doctrine is not some abstract entity disconnected from contemporary life but is in fact deeply relevant and pregnant with social and political insights. Leithart is biblically, theologically and culturally literate -- a rare combination -- and thus able to produce the sort of work we so badly need today.


The next leg of our Hearts & Minds book-selling road trip was to the lovely Susquehanna University - where I bumped into a sharp grad student from Taylor University who heard me speak at their leadership conference last February -- to serve the Penn Central Conference of the United Church of Christ at their annual gathering.  They are a fun and pleasant group, their convention more leisurely then some, with good workshops and book announcements and time to browse.  It's a lot of work setting up these huge displays, and to be welcomed with such care is lovely.  It was funny, too, seeing some clergy there who had been at Mercersburg event the day before, from an academic conference with papers mostly about the 19th century to the progressive ethos of this small denomination who says "God is Still Speaking..."

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We thought you might like to see a few of the titles we sold well there, random stuff that we promoted at my workshops, or things that - frankly - we didn't sell so well and have an abundance of now, overstock in the retail lingo.  We offer these now at 30% OFF, while supplies last.  As we've said above, this sale lasts through the end of day June 19, 2016.

Strong and Weak- Embracing a Life of Love, Risk, and True Flourishing.jpgStrong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing Andy Crouch (IVP) $20.00  Once again, this is a must-read, exceptionally well-done book, a personal favorite and one I am committed to promoting.  It seems easy enough to explain -- the four quadrant balance of vulnerability and power, and the need to understand how we can be strong and weak, culturally influential by taking meaningful risk in the world. But it doesn't seem to grab most people, and it's harder to sell then it should be. I have even said I'd give people their money back if they don't think this is wise and thoughtful and good and important.

At the UCC event I even played this video clip to illustrate how articulate Andy is and how interesting and important his book is.  Please, get this now, on sale, as it is surely one of the best books of the year.  By the way, the theme for the Penn Central UCC tribe this year is "risking the new." So there ya go.

[And, as an aside, some of you will be glad to know that in my workshop on reading, I suggested that for many of us the most "new" thing we could do would be to read old books.  I cited C.S. Lewis, naturally, even though I don't fully agree with his formula of reading two old books for every new one. It was fun poking around that whole business a bit, using phrases like "chronological snobbery" and "ancient future." My Mercersburg Society friends -- at least one who was friends with Karl Barth so many decades ago -- would have been proud.]

You Are What You Love- The Spiritual Power of Habit.jpgYou Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit James K.A. Smith (Brazos) $19.99 Yes, once again, I said this is the Book of the Year, incredibly important, potent, needed. I don't know who needs this more, independent, evangelical community churches with their general distaste for sophisticated liturgy and seeker-sensitive piety or stodgy but often theologically fuzzy mainline churches.  Across the spectrum, I hear no one saying this sort of stuff with such power and clarity and conviction and urgency.  This is a readable and practical version of his heavier, serious works, Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom. You need this book, and I urge you to get a few. I'm not kidding.

Watch this great talk he gave at Bioloa University for an example of the stuff he's talking about.  You want the book, then, for sure!

slow church.jpgSlow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus  C. Christopher Smith (IVP) $17.00  Needless to say, I promoted Smith's Reading for the Common Good but to do so had to set up the story with his previous, remarkable, very good 2015 book, Slow Church.  I'm thrilled to offer it now, at this deep discount. Hey, talk about risking something new: how about reading a book calling us away from speed, efficiency, success, growth?  How about this counter-cultural call to pay attention to our place, to care for community, for taking the notions of the "slow food movement" and applying them to church life, living out congregational life and mission in slower, more authentic, more Christ-like ways?  What an amazing book, now with a study guide.  We'll do the discount even on that if you want.

at-the-still-point-a-literary-guide-to-prayer-in-ordinary-time-26.jpgAt the Still Point: A Literary Guide to Prayer in Ordinary Time compiled by Sarah Arthur (Paraclete) $17.99  We sold a nice number of her earlier works by this thoughtful Wheaton College grad -- Between Midnight and Dawn was her literary prayer book for Lent and Holy Week and her Light Upon Light is her literary guide to prayer for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany.  This one, At the Still Point, like the others, brings together all sorts of poets, writers, and literary works, but this one arranged for daily devotional reading during the long weeks of what some churches call ordinary time. It has beautiful endorsing blurbs by Leland Ryken and Kathleen Norris. (Pretty great, eh?)  You should get this now, while we have some left at this bargain price.  Kudos to Paraclete Press for doing such handsome volumes.

Revelation- A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World .jpgRevelation: A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World Dennis Covington (Little Brown) $26.00  I can't tell you how moving this book was, full of spunk and adventure and pathos and brilliant sentences and haunting episodes. I trust you know his 1995 American Book Award winner, Salvation on Sand Mountain, to this day one of the most unforgettable books I've ever read. What a great writer, her exploring through first hand memoir how violence and faith and hope and goodness can flourish, even as he wanders around war zones, crossing borders in the Middle East, and bringing back reports that are harrowing and humane and, hinting at hope.

As Ron Rash writes, "In his newest book, Dennis Covington addresses questions of doubt, faith, and belief with the same uncondescending and unflinching manner as in Salvation on Sand Mountain, but his scope is larger now, venturing into some of the world's most brutal places in a search for faith, and hope. Revelation is a marvel."

 Christian Practical Wisdom- What It Is, Why It Matters .jpgChristian Practical Wisdom: What It Is, Why It Matters Dorothy C. Bass, Kathleen A. Cahalan, Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, James R. Nieman, Christian B. Scharen (Eerdmans) $30.00  Wow, what a book, what an amazing contribution to the conversation about practices and uniquely Christian lifestyles, ways of being in the world. This focuses on wisdom, and, as the subtitle promises, "what it is and why it matters."  This is well worth every dollar, with over 300 pages in what Stephanie Paulsell (of Harvard Divinity School) calls "A beautifully written and much needed exploration of Christian practical wisdom." This asks what (in the words of reviewer Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung of Calvin College) "dancing, imagining, and collaboration have to do with 'gaining a heart of wisdom' in what Charles Taylor calls 'our secular age'? This creative and compelling case for Christian practical wisdom practices what it preaches. The authors "show" and "tell" how a more holistic kind of knowing -- beyond academic expertise -- is essential to an authentic and living theology."   This collaborative work by five distinguished scholars of Christian education invite us to really understand why wisdom matters and how we can renew an interest in it, in the academy and in our churches. As esteemed Christian educator Mary Boys says, "This substantive and beautifully composed book deserves to be read slowly, allowing the authors insights to take root and germinate."  Want to ponder deeply and live well?  This is a very impressive book.

The Way of Love- Recovering the Heart of Christianity .gifWay of Love: Recovering the Heart of Christianity  Norman Wirzba (HarperOne) $25.99  I was surprised this didn't sell well - it's Norman Wirzba, people, theological voice of the land and place, friend of Wendell Berry, author of lovely radical books like Keeping the Sabbath and Making Peace with the Land and, recently, the brilliant From Nature to Creation. A book by a localist, a mainline theologian (he teaches at Duke) on love, and on how love is truly the heart of the Christian faith. Mainline folks who have generally been less hung up on proper doctrine have had this as their mantra, and this articulates it as well as anything, with good theological insight. I have before quoted this blurb by Eugene Peterson:

 Love is one of the most hackneyed and trivialized words in our language. Wirzba wants to rescue this essential word from the dust bin of the everyday and restore it to usefulness. Connecting love and the hope of heaven, he provides a most satisfying and convincing conclusion.

 Buy it today at our limited time 30% off deal and live with it for the summer. You won't regret it.

.jpgThe Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our "Correct" Beliefs Peter Enns (HarperOne) $25.99 Well, just the hard-hitting title is enough to make you ponder, eh?  I've met Enns a time or two and enjoyed him a lot, and have appreciated his previous books. So, I enjoyed plugging this, with a tiny bit of trepidation and some personal pathos, I'll admit, as Enns is on a journey away from his creedal emphasis (he taught at Westminster Theological Seminary which subscribes rigorously to the details of the Westminster Confession) to a view that has earned kudos from writers and leaders such as Brian MClaren, Rachel Held Evans, and Richard Rohr all who have knowingly crossed conventional theological boundaries. Still, I think he is mostly right -- many seriously Reformed thinkers have rejected as inconsistent with the best of Christian thinking the scholasticism behind Westminster -- and his story of doubt and a painful exit from his previous faith community to a new home in more mainline circles is not tragic, but it is hard, and a bit worrisome. This is all indicative of much going on in evangelicalism and what some call post-evangelicalism in our time. It's a worthwhile book in its own right; it is also valuable as an important glimpse into a recent movement.

Becoming Wise- An Inquiry Into the Mystery and Art of Living .jpgBecoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Mystery and Art of Living Krista Tippett (Penguin Press) $28.00 This was naturally of interest among our mainline friends, and we are happy to commend it to you here. This beautifully written book emerges from Tippett's acclaimed NPR show, "On Meaning" and expresses much she has learned from these many years of interviewing deep, good people.

This isn't just a collection of Ms Tippett's fabulous interviews (although that in itself would be great) but this is her reflection upon all she learned and pieced together from the remarkable people she interviewed over the years. She arranges the book somewhat as a memoir, dipping into her own childhood, but comes back to five main themes: words, the body, love, faith, and hope.  

Becoming Wise is surely a beautiful, gentle, grand book.

Grace in Practice- A Theology of Everyday Life .jpgGrace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life Paul F. M. Zahl (Eerdmans) $18.00 This is an older book that we really appreciate, and sometimes  we bring to events where folks need a thoughtful, grace-filled theological vision for their ordinary lives. He looks at grace in every zone of life, from family life to international affairs, from one's deepest faith convictions to public and social concerns. The great Peter Gomes, chaplain at Harvard, had a blurb on the back  -- who called the book itself an "act of grace" -- as did Ligon Duncan III, who called Rev. Zahl  "a formidable scholar, an admired colleague, and a courageous churchman." This is a passionate, witty, important work, and we are glad to have a few copies left. Does the word theology maybe scare people away? It shouldn't -- this is just wonderful reading!  By the way, we have this at a lesser expensive price to begin with (it now sells for $23.00, I believe) so with our 30% OFF deal, it's quite affordable.

Paul Debate (Baylor U).jpgThe Paul Debate: Critical Questions for Understanding the Apostle  N.T. Wright (Baylor University Press) $34.95  I'll admit I didn't succeed in convincing folks to take this (perhaps because of it's salty price - I still think it is brilliant and very useful.  We're willing to sell them at this good discount to get a few into reader's hand -- it is the best deal for new copies you will find anywhere. I don't like putting it like this, but some say that Tom is too conservative for most  liberals and too liberal for most conservatives, which means all camps should read him. At any rate, this clearly organized book summarizes 5 key issues in Pauline studies and clarifies where he stands, in response to the questions of critics and recent reviewers. Yes, it's Wright's clear response to these chief questions, but it is equally a wonderful overview of the current discussion about the New Testament. You could read a chapter a day for a week and quickly accomplish nearly a semester's worth of a fine course on Paul. Fantastic.

Justice Calling Where Passion Meets P.jpgThe Justice Calling: Where Passion Meets Perseverance Bethany Hoang & Kristen Deede Johnson (Brazos Press) $19.99  Once again, Brazos Press gives us a truly remarkable book, nicely bound, with great writing, rooted in solid Biblical commitments, but with relevant, urgent vision. This introduction to the Bible's story of justice and its exploration of how we can be people who persevere with hope is perhaps the best thing I've seen on the subject. There are a lot of good books like this and this one surely deserves to be widely read. We're sad it didn't sell better among our mainline friends -- perhaps they don't know the stellar work of IJM with whom these women work. It is a groundbreaking book in some ways, and we'll gladly sell it here on sale now just to move a few out the door. If you know anyone interested in the way God desires justice or how we can be people who respond to God's call to do justice, don't hesitate getting this as a great resource.  Kudos to Brazos and the wonderful, gifted, passionate authors.

Slow Kingdom Coming- Practices for Doing Justice, Loving Mercy and Walking Humbly.jpgSlow Kingdom Coming: Practices for Doing Justice, Loving Mercy and Walking Humbly in the World Kent Annan (IVP) $16.00  I hope you may recall our telling of two other books by Kent over the years (Following Jesus Through the Eye of the Needle and After Shock, both set in amidst his hard and redemptive work in Haiti.  This book steps back a bit to look at the deep stuff underneath the activism -- "truthfully and beautifully rendered"as one review put it. What kind of people do we need to be to take up God's suffering in the world, to take up the work of serving the hurting, to take up the Micah 6:8 challenge, to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with God.  If his other books have been, in a way, about mercy and justice, this one is about walking with God. What does that look like? What kind of practices allow us to be loving and kind? Can our spirituality form in us a "long obedience in the same direction" so we can sustain our passions and cares?  This would make an excellent follow up to the above mentioned one by Bethany Hoang and Kristen Deede Johnson, or, a great prelude to it. It's a gem, a holy book about a holy project. Highly recommended.

Executing Grace.jpgExecuting Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It's Killing Us Shane Claiborne (HarperOne) $17.99  This is hot off the press and I so wish I could have promoted it more at these events. Books sometimes take some time to become known and few even knew this was coming.  We were taking pre-orders a month ago, and we thank those who bought it early.  For the next few days we will again offer this at a deep 30% discount - what a tender, careful, important book.  Shane told me how hard he worked on this, how much research and conversation and heartbreak went into it, and I think it is a very readable, valuable resource.  Please order it today!

How to Survive The Apocalypse- Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the end of the World .jpgHow to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World Robert Joustra & Alissa Wilkinson (Eerdmans) $16.00 My super smart friends at the Mercersburg Society conference snapped this up, realizing it drew on the seminal work of Charles Taylor, using his secularization theory as a lens through which to view pop culture stuff from The Walking Dead to Mad Men, Game of Thrones to House of Cards. How do we live in hope when the cultural malaise in our times is deepened by stories of dread?  What a brilliant, serious, interesting work -- I hope you saw my short review of it previously.  This is amazing, rich, mature. Get it cheaper than usual, now, before the end times hit.  You snooze, you lose.

Reality,  Grief, Hope- Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks.jpgReality,  Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks Walter Brueggemann (Westminster John Knox) $15.00  Walt Brueggemann sells a bit at these sorts of events, and we take his stuff anywhere we take Biblical studies.  This is one of Brueggy's books published last year and we feature it often. His newer one is the short and helpful Chosen? Reading the Bible Amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (WJK; $14.00) but as the Reality Grief Hope one is a sequel to his 1980s classic The Prophetic Imagination we really think it is important.  I think his call to lament and grieve as a prelude to subversive hope is nothing short of a necessity in our time.  If your pastor hasn't read this yet, buy it for him or her immediately. And get one for yourself, too. By the way, folks love his Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No the Culture of Now (WJK; $14.00) and it very readable. Yay.

silence and beauty.jpgSilence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering Makoto Fujimura (IVP) $26.00  I have reviewed this at great length here at BookNotes before and hoped it would catch the attention of those seeing the big stack at our three different book displays. Yes, we took it to each, and proudly explained that we know Mako and have heard him talk about this book, his friendship with Martin Scorsese who is making a film -- has been wanting to for over 30 years -- of the Japanese novel Silence about which this book is an extended meditation. As it says on the beautiful back cover, in koan-like cadence,

In this world of pain and suffering,

God often seems silent. 

But light is yet present in the darkness. 

And silence speaks with hidden beauty and truth.

Talking the Walk- Let the Language of Theology Live Again.jpgTalking the Walk: Let the Language of Theology Live Again Marva Dawn (Marva Dawn) $26.99  The local Lutherans brought Marva in to speak to them early this past Spring and we were delighted to connect with her again, if only briefly.  (She is one of the great, great Christian writers of our time, and we are so honored that she once went out of our way to visit our bookstore in Dallastown!)  This is a nearly unknown book of hers, originally published by Brazos, in a handsome hardback. It offers short mentions on various theological terms and why they are important for our faith and practice, in our lives and in our congregations.  What a great book!  Marva is one of the short list of authors that I will read anything she writes.  This is one I bet you didn't know about, eh?  Get it from us, on sale, while supplies last.

songs of jesus.jpgThe Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms Timothy Keller & Kathy Keller (Viking) $19.95  I would hope that most BookNotes fans know that we esteemed the exceptionally intelligent Presbyterian church leader from NYC, and appreciate his no-nonsense, thoughtful, but always applicable Bible teaching. In this often tender year-long devotional, he and his wife ruminate on the Psalms, known as the Bible's songbook (and a prayerbook Jesus surely would have known and used.) Two decades ago Keller began reading the entire Book of Psalms every month and these insights are drawn from his accumulated years of study (and, with important input from his wife who herself uses the Psalms, including during times battling a chronic illness.) Mainline parishioners often don't buy as many serious books as do those in more evangelical churches its seems, but folks always like to hear about a good devotional. It was nice to be able to share these with those seeking a way into the practice of daily quiet time and Bible reading.

Jesus Freak- Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead  .jpgJesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead  Sara Miles (Jossey-Bass) $21.95  As you might guess, the edgy and beautiful writer Sara Miles - she is coming to the Welcome Table, an O and A congregation near Lancaster Seminary in late July - is popular among mainline folks these days. Her remarkable story, stunningly told in Take This Bread, of her conversion to Christ after receiving communion for the first time and her subsequent desire to start a food pantry in the sacred space of her San Fran Episcopal church, is well worth reading whether you agree with her opinions or not. This sequel to that book is oddly named, has a less than appealing cover, and is hardback, so it doesn't sell as well, but I'll tell you it is every bit as powerful and moving and inspiring as her first one.  It is, doubtlessly, one of the most stimulating books I've read in years, and we were eager to promote it at our recent gigs.  Alas, it languishes. Why o why?  Folks, read this book!  Again, agree or not with all of her radically inclusive theology and lefty politics, it is a very moving memoir and a delirious call to action in the world of hurt and need.  If you like Anne Lamott or Nadia Bolz-Weber, you should read Sarah Miles.

Read these reviews to hear of how movingly it is written:

"Sara Miles is amazing, a wild, unique, funny Christian who puts her lack-of-money where her mouth is, which is in loving Jesus and taking care of God's children. I love her work."
--Anne Lamott

"One of the most inspiring books I've ever read."
--Rob Bell

"When Jesus calls, Sara Miles follows him into the beautiful and messy diversity of human life, where people long to be fed, healed, and forgiven, and discovers the vibrancy of Christian faith that often eludes the institutional church. If this is what it means to be a 'Jesus freak, ' sign me up!"
--Diana Butler Bass

"This is a love story unabashedly, a love story between one woman and Jesus. It is also the toughest, tenderest, most textured, poignant, and substantial love story I have ever read."
--Phyllis Tickle

"Sara Miles writes gorgeous prose . . . She's way too wound up for toned-down liberals, and way too out-of-the-shrink-wrap for straight-laced conservatives, and she calls both of them to a new vantage point. She has actually experienced something, and Someone, and by hearing her story, you start to catch what she's caught: which includes a sense of being caught, and caught up, and fed, and empowered to feed others. A beautiful, joyful, raucous, reverent book."
--Brian McLaren

"Oh, what a wonderful book! Its exciting and dynamic Christianity would have put me completely to shame were it not for the glowing warm-heartedness with which Sara encourages us into the faith life, the Church, of the future. Instead of shaming us it offers us a witness at once solid and tantalizing of what it is to be hooked into the Gospel."
--James Alison, Catholic priest and theologian

Accidental Saints- Finding God in All the Wrong People.jpgAccidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People Nadia Bolz-Weber (Convergent Books)$23.00  Oh my, what a book.  Again, like Sara Mile's three books, Nadia is a popular voice that is edgy and radical and all about God's grace, being inclusive and caring and creative in reaching out to and within a carnivalesque, postmodern world. I suppose you've heard of her tatted up sleeves and chest, shown well on the cover of her memoir Pastrix, and her colorful cussing, which makes for a really interesting read(Hey, she's in the tribe of Martin Luther, so don't start on the cussing bit.) This second book is better than her first, sharing much about her church (House of All Sinners and Saints), her passion for the lost and marginalized, and how her goofy congregation navigated all manner of surprising changes in their church plant.  They were okay, naturally, with the trannys and addicts and underground hipsters who they hoped to reach, folks similar to their own style from their own scene. When fairly white-bread, middle age guys in slacks from the suburbs began to show up, it challenged them profoundly.  How ironic -- they had to stretch themselves around God's grace to be welcoming to those people, so not like themselves. Can we do the same, show grace to those we would rather avoid? Ha - what a book!  Thank you, Nadia, for your honesty and color.  Why not buy this for your next book club - and hold on!  You will be surprised by its sheer beauty and admittedly provocative stories.

Live Like You Give a Damn! Join the Changemaking Celebration.jpgLive Like You Give a Damn: Join the Changemaking Celebration Tom Sine (Cascade Books) $24.00  I have mentioned this before and I can hardly express how many heros and leaders I admit have endorsed it -- pages and pages of celebrations for this feisty book collecting great stories of young social entrepreneurs who are making a difference. In some ways this is a long-time sequel to his famous Mustard Seed Conspiracy or the great The New Conspirators, but this time showing how even those outside the churches can teach us much. This lifts up a new generation (and in some ways new kinds) of activists and invites us to join God in Christ as He is "bringing heaven to Earth." Can we allow the Spirit to ignite our imaginations? Can we be innovative in solving today's pressing problems? This is good stuff.  We are glad to offer it now at this discounted price, just this week. It's a winner, written by a friend and conversation partner, so do check it out, please!

The Spirituality of Wine  Gisela H. jpgThe Spirituality of Wine Gisela H. Kreglinger (Eerdmans) $24.00  This is another book I was so happy to tell about, a book to promote among foodies and wine connoisseurs, but also to theologians, sustainable agriculture workers, Bible teachers and more. This is a thorough, lovely book which carefully explores the connection between Sunday worship and Monday work, between field and faith, that studies wine in the Bible and in the vineyard. The author works in a family vineyard which goes back hundreds of years (in Germany) and has given us here a book unlike any now in print.

The story and theology behind this book makes great sense, and it is endorsed by all kinds of readers. I suggested in one of my workshop that it has as delightfully diverse a bunch of endorsers as I rarely see on a book. Raves come from Alice Waters (famous food and sustainability activist, cookbook writers, and founder of Chez Panisse in Berkeley) and heady theologian from Tubingen, Jurgen Moltmann. Add a blurb from Carol Petrini, founder of the international Slow Food Movement and a lovely forward by Presbyterian Eugene Peterson, and you can see what I mean.  What a great book!  Buy it now on sale, while supplies last.




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June 2, 2016

Hearts & Minds BookNotes review: Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish ON SALE




ONE WEEK ONLY (offer expires June 10, 2016) 

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Okay, sports fans, get excited, because this is going to be like a world class championship game, right here.

Get ready to rock, dudes, this is going to be one world tour arena show, right here, right now.

This review is your Great White Whale, your big game trophy, the movie you've been waiting for.

To use an over-used metaphor in book reviewing, this a sumptuous report of a five star meal.

I really mean it.

This. Is. The. One. 

I'm talking about Reading for the Common Good:  How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish by C. Christopher Smith (IVP - regularly $16.00.)  And I'm talking about why you should buy two and get a third one free.  We have to get this book out there.

Look, I even know that good friends have already said that I should have written this book.  While I appreciate the vote of confidence, I am quite sure that C. Christopher Smith is certainly the best man in all of America to write a book like this, and the time couldn't be better.  Although I have said repeatedly that James K.A. Smith's You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit is the Book of the Year, this one sort of dovetails with it.  I now have to seriously consider adjusting that assessment.  Can I award them both -- Smith and Smith?

Reading for the Common Good.jpgReading for the Common Good is the book I've been waiting for.

For like 40 years.

And, yes, other than the one I already did called Serious Dreams, this really is the book I might have tried to write.  But I am so glad I didn't as Smith 2 - that's C. Christopher Smith of the Englewood Review of Books in Indianapolis - did the job marvelously. It is a book you simply must buy, and book you will really appreciate and I'd say you should probably buy a bunch.

Maybe you've heard the story of how Beth and I used to work in campus ministry out near Pittsburgh in the late 1970s, before Hearts & Minds, before Dallastown, before BookNotes.  We learned about the world of thoughtful Christian literature as we used books to learn about the real relevance of Christian faith, how a Biblically-based view of all of life being redeemed could guide us into relating, as we sometimes said it, the Bible and life, connecting Sunday worship and Monday work, prayer and politics.  A whole new world opened up as we read widely, talked about big ideas gleaned from good books.  We read old books - C.S. Lewis insisted that we do - and new brand new stuff.  We read novels (although not enough) and theology, spirituality and public affairs. Christ and culture, as they say.  

Literally - was it this way for you? - reading those kinds of books changed my life.  As I wrote in a column about the power of books a few years ago, page by page, authors invited us to see the world differently, to live differently.  Sometimes lightening bolt type epiphanies came on a certain page or from a certain chapter; more often it just crept up on you, small changes in perspective, new imaginations, different desires, transformed habits as we learned to live into the new creations the Bible said we were.

I hope it is for you as it was for us: we read in community.  We read with other friends, with book sellers and reviewers, within networks of friends at church, colleagues in ministry, idealistic kids almost as young as we were and older ones, teachers, mentors, pastors, parents.  

We have been told that we here at the bookstore serve that purpose for some of you and what a honor it is. Reading BookNotes maybe puts you more knowingly in the great tradition, the great conversation. By being aware of and sometimes engaging with good authors and good books, and talking about them together, we increasingly broaden our horizons.  Books, we often say, can enlarge our hearts and deepen our discipleship.

It is why nearly any good book on spiritual formation and almost every book on leadership reminds us to be readers.  

One of the chapters that helped me really appreciate this notion that reading is a spiritual discipline and an act of faithful discipleship came in Richard Foster's now classic, nearly seminal contemporary work of ancient spirituality, The Celebration of Discipline where he explains in chapter 5 that reading carefully is a tool not unlike prayer and worship and meditation and service, gifts from God to help us grow. 

I still treasure and recommend books like Discipleship of the Mind and Habits of Mind by James Sire or the lovely, compact A Mind for God by James Emery White - his stories of reading are so inspiring and I've re-read it several times. As a grand opening gift the day we opened 33 years ago we passed out the potent little book by John Stott called Your Mind Matters -- still in print, and still timely. When Eerdmans released in the late 1990s a collection of miscellaneous essays by Eugene Peterson called Subversive Spirituality, I nearly memorized certain stories about how reading novels was important to him, and his own advocacy for Christians reading broadly. His 2009 book Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading is an extended meditation on slow, meditative reading, mostly about reading the Bible deeply, but is a must for any loyalists to the printed page.

It is a tad dense for some, but we love the brilliant Oxford University Press title The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by the splendid Alan Jacobs. For deeper thinkers, I sometimes tell about The Love of Learning and the Love of God by Jean LeClercq, a study of learning and reading within medieval monastic culture.  Nurturing the heart and mind by being in a community of bookish discourse is nothing new; I sometimes joke (maybe by reminding listeners about the book reading regimen of Charles Wesley and his Methodists or the impact of books on the likes of world-changers like William Wilberforce) that Oprah didn't invent the idea of book clubs. Ha. In our bookstore we have a whole section of "books about books" and we gladly offer resources about the ups and downs of a bookish life.

If you are a pastor and you've heard me at any number of clergy events where I've given talks about books I have probably tried to press you into buying Reading for Preaching by Cornelius Plantinga. It is one of my all time favorite books about books, with the great title The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists. Although it is preachers, firstly, anyone who teaches or is a public speaker will appreciate it, showing as it does how books can influence our moral imagination, our rhetoric and vocabulary and cadence and more. I have sometimes sold it paired with another all-time favorite, the truly wondrous, insightful, oddly powerful Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, a writer I very greatly admire. 

I am not the first and certainly not the most knowledgeable or eloquent to say that books matter and that the art of slow reading and even "caring for words" is of huge importance not only for personal health and maturity but for the culture at large. McEntyre makes the case rather allusively, with great charm.  Smith brings his gifts of cultural analysis and helps us understand the times.  Please not the subtitle on the new Chris Smith book -- the end-goal isn't just personal enrichment or reading for personal pleasure, but for human flourishing. 

 Anyone who has heard me in workshops on all this know I often draw on Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business and Nicholas Carr's must-read The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, both which bring a sober warning about what happens when we allow our fast paced e-culture of zip zip zip to erode our commitments to real reading, to reading a lot and reading well.

Our enthusiasm for learning and growing, for using books as tools for spiritual growth and public discipleship, for book clubs and book conversations and book budgets and church libraries are all under threat.  We need reminded - often and urgently - that books matter and that our culture is not as friendly to reading well as it perhaps once was.

And we have found our prophet, we have found a voice, we've got the book that can help us consider and reconsider why all this matters. 

I'm obviously talking about Mr. Smith and his brand new Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish published by IVP.


This new book by my friend Chris Smith is a wonder, and he gets it just about pitch perfect, bringing a passionate love of books, telling some tender tales of his own love of reading, explaining why it matters, how it has worked out in his life and his own church and its presence in their neighborhood. (For what it is worth, unlike Chris, I was not particularly bitten by the book-loving bug as a youth. We went to the library often, but I wasn't as keen on reading as being outside playing with my pals.)

Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help... reminds us why books matter, and Smith uses some great devices, on-ramps to the conversation, so to speak, that will thrill the true book lover, and will convince those who are less passionate about their love of reading. He even helps us understand a bit about the obstacles facing us these days, although that isn't his main focus. He knows it isn't easy, but he knows what is at stake. Unlike Postman and Carr, say, he doesn't mostly moan about how little people read these days or how much time we spend on the internet; Chris spends a lot of time on the internet. He mostly invites us into a better story. Pun intended.


chris smith smiling.jpgFor instance, unlike nearly any other book about Christian learning and reading, Smith invites us to read with and for our neighbors.  That is, this is decidedly a missional book; "read for the Kingdom" I used to exclaim at youth conferences or events like Jubilee and Smith and his gang really do so.  Smith takes us beyond sloganeering and walks us through the complex matter of being attentive to our locale, our communities, our world, and explains how books help us do that. (The chapter called "Hope for Our Interconnected Creation" is just splendid!)  The subtitle about public flourishing is no mere add on, but is at the heart of Smith's project.  He tells us about his own urban congregation and how reading and talking and learning together as a faith community within their own neighborhood has helped them bear witness to God's work in their city, among their friends. (Some of this includes literacy classes, God bless 'em.) Reading rightly can truly be an act of mission, and this book explains that better than anything I've ever seen. Bar none, this book helps us appreciate a missional approach to books.

I hate to sound prideful by even bringing it up, but for those who wonder, I am positive, quite literally, that I could not have said it better myself. Smith has a gift, and he's done so much as a missional reader, a church leader, an applied theologian, a down-in-the-trenches practitioner, albeit always with a few books under his arm. My hat is off to him and his family and his community.  Yours should be too!

In fact, this marvelously-written book is all about being attentive.  Novels and poets and any serious work of literature when carefully engaged slows us down and helps us attend to the details and nuances of the writing, and almost unknowingly schools us in paying attention, of thinking in terms of story, of plots and nuances, of seeing our own role as agents within a story.  Smith explains the quiet impact of books on our "social imaginary" and how good readers become more humanly engaged in the world around them. Maybe they even gather some skills at self-awareness, seeing how they see, perhaps.  Books can do that. 


slow church.jpgDo you recall our BookNotes review of Smith's co-authored first IVP release, Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus? It has an incisive social critique, looking at the dangers of doing church within a superficial culture that erodes quality for the sake of quantity and speed and efficiency.  Think of the dangers of fast food, and, as an alternative, the famous slow food movement with its values of authentic and local ingredients, care, community, scale.  In a way, that book was Smith and Pattison's cry against the McDonaldization of the church. 

In some significant ways, Reading for the Common Good is a sequel, a how-to, next-steps kind of book.  Do you want to "cultivate community in the patient ways of Jesus" that counteracts the toxic influences of fast-paced, hot-wired, disembodied lifestyles?  Read.  Read slowly. Read together. Read with a view of how what you are reading impacts your world. Read about your world.  I think that Chris and John wouldn't have written Slow Church, or at least it wouldn't have had such wise depth, if they themselves weren't readers. (Did you know that they worked together several years ago with a third guy to release a book called Besides the Bible which included 100 book reviews of books most often suggested "besides the Bible, of course." I even had a chapter in there, a huge privilege to get to describe one key title. That book was one indication of Chris's gift of being a bibliographer and curator of book lists.) Reading is key to being alive and well in this crazy culture, and is a marker of church health. It can make a difference, as these gents showed.  Books matter.

Think this is idealist?  Don't believe me?


Smith told us a bit in Slow Church but he tells us even more in Reading for the Common Good about his Englewood neighborhood in the Near Eastside of Indianapolis, and he explains how his church started a little bookstore, a book review journal, and how very small groups of folks grapple with books together.  He obviously loves the decent, lovely writing of "sense of place" authors like Scott Russell Sanders (who has a blurb on the back), Wendell Berry, Norman Wirzba, and Parker Palmer; he is very fluent in the new urbanism conversation and his bibliography in the back offers all kinds of great suggestions for those wanting to deepen their own awareness of this strain of nonfiction literature.  From fun fiction (including science fiction) and poetry to astute social analysis and cultural studies, Smith guides us through books that can help us see and care anew. His breadth of reading and depth of understanding amazes me.

But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself, explaining that Reading... is truly about civic flourishing, guiding us towards books that might help us understand even the politics and economics of our neighborhoods and towns; I'm getting ahead of myself when I say this truly about missional reading. It is the moral center and passionate vision of the book (notice the map on the cover) but it isn't where Smith begins.


Quite properly, Smith reminds us that before we read for the Kingdom, read with our neighbors, read about our communities, enjoy books that will broaden our understanding of our place in God's world and God's story of redemption, before all that we must be the church. His Anabaptistism gives him particular theological resources to strengthen his analysis of the local church as alternative community, but all of us should agree that the local church needs strengthened, that we cannot give ourselves to innovative, social entrepreneurship within our region if our own worshiping and spiritual formation practices are thin or ill-conceived.  (This, by the way, is a great strength of the other Smith's You Are What You Love, which ends up "every square inch" comprehensive in scope - we serve Christ as Lord in all of life - but is mostly about renewing the worship practices of the local congregation, realizing that good liturgy is transforming in ways that form us for service in the world.)  For both Smith's the local congregation is of supreme importance.

Chris Smith's Reading for the Common Good starts with a must-read, tremendous and energetic introduction called "The Local Church as Learning Organization" drawing on the insights of Peter Senge.  It is sound and insightful in how it describes the context and foibles of local faith communities, how to understand the culture of an organization. It is thrilling to hear how his own church sees itself as based upon good relationships, relationships forged around engagement with Scripture.  The act of reading - primarily the Bible! - forms us in new kinds of relationships and gives us practice in the art of conversation (including the skills of civil discussion, dialogue, and disagreement.)  Books help in significant ways, and these few pages are worth the price of the book.

Wonderfully, in that introduction, Smith lists a few ways books help us learn, Christianly, even. He uses a line from Parker Palmer's To Know as We Are Known (that has been influential for other writers, perhaps most notably for many of us, our friend Steve Garber, seen in his mature and thoughtful Fabric of Faithfulness.) Smith says,

Reading carefully and attentively is an essential part of a journey into knowledge that is rooted in love. "[A] knowledge that springs from love," notes Parker Palmer, "will implicate us in the web of life; it will wrap the knower and the known in compassion, in a bond of awesome responsibility as well as transforming joy; it will call us to involvement, mutuality, accountability."


I love that he reminds us how books can help give shape and direction to our impulse to get involved, the "just do something" reflex.  Yes, we need to care about the issues of the day, and the needs of our community, and, as he notes, "to ignore this reflex is to be hardhearted."  But, "we must be attentive not only to what is to be done but also to how and why the work gets done."

That is, to be church, and to be faithfully missional, means knowing what the heck we are to do once we show up. Books - and the very habits of heart that reading and discussing them nurtures - help us discern, help us learn to discern.  In a way, Smith is saying that reading helps us become motivated to action, but only the wide and studious reader will have deep wisdom to know what to do and how to do it.  Ahh, yes, books become conduits of wisdom.

Anyway, this opening chapter is worth its weight in gold, and I hope you read it, talk about it, wonder with your own church family how you can be more intentional about learning, about the ethos within your community, as learners, as readers. Is your congregation and your circle of friends interested in books and reading?

The upbeat foreword by Scot McKnight nearly made me cry as he told of being at a party with church members, and they chatted with enthusiasm about the books they were reading. In what order should we read Marilyn Robinson's three related novels? What do you make of the differences in the faith/science conversation between authors such as Francis Collins and Michael Behe? How can our congregations embody Godly unity within diversity if we all read the same thing? What if we don't read much at all, or have little common vocabulary about what books are important? 

McKnight says,

Our unity at Church of the Redeemer is of the Spirit and in Christ through the Father's deep grace, but at work in that unity is a fellowship of shared ideas and beliefs and associations and joys and images and metaphors because we read similar books and talk about them with one another.

I do not have this kind of experience in my life, and certainly not in my own fairly large church.  Do you? Do you hunger for that, long for that, wish for conversation partners and shared assumptions about faith and the Bible, nurtured in part because of shared familiarity with the same sort of authors, the same formative influences?  If so, Chris Smith's Reading for the Common Good is for you.


It starts, as I've noted, with the local church understood as a learning community.  There is an amazing chapter called "Reading and Our Congregational Identity" where Smith explores this more deeply, with wonderful insights.  In it, he uses a bit of a case study, drawing significantly on a book called Reading in Community where theology profs Stephen Fowl and Gregory Jones explore the process of reading a Bible passage (and allowing the text to read us, as it is sometimes said.)

After this rigorous study of how we engage the Biblical text, Chris uses the insights of Fowl and Jones to guide us to a process of reading other books, also in community, for the sake of the world.  

He reminds us,

Once again, contemporary poetry and fiction can she needed light on the times in which we live, often helping us to see connections in ways that narrow, siloed genres of nonfiction - politics, economics, and the like - cannot.

I should emphasis that we need to be ever attentive to why we are reading and not just what we are reading. Our end it not to make a successful life for ourselves and our family or to navigate the turbulent waters of our times successfully. Rather, our end is to understand our times in order that our church communities might be able to live faithfully in them.

Reading is essential for the work of understanding our identity as churches that are seeking to embody Christ in our places. And our identity is interwoven with our vocation, and reading likewise is essential for discerning and maturing in our vocation...


Which is exactly the topic of his next good chapter, "Discerning Our Call." It offers new insight (and believe me, I've read a number of books on this topic-- calling, vocation, work.)  He again suggests we orchestrate much of this process of reading and discerning in the local congregation and delightfully cites authors as diverse as Dorothy Day and James K.A. Smith, quoting from Parker Palmer's Let Your Life Speak to Thomas Merton's classic No Man Is An Island. I have written before about using books to help young adults think faithfully about their own vocations (have I mentioned Serious Dreams? Ha.) More could be said, but Smith's chapter here is right on. It will be profitable, maybe provocative, for you.  

If you want to be renewed in your own intellectual journey, need a reminder of the joys of learning and the value of reading, this new book should certainly be on the top of your list. What a wonderful, delightful, stimulating read this is, reminding us that books can change lives, and that reading together can change communities. Aren't you just thrilled to be reminded of that, to have a book not only to convince you, but that you can share with others. I think some of you will want to be evangelists of the book, sharing this one, to help others renew their own commitments to reading. As I've noted, his commitment to localism and a sense of his own place, has informed his reading so this is - if I may inelegantly use the phrase, "pay off." The ripple effect is going to be seen, I just know it.  


Walter Brueggemann weighs in on the book, saying, nicely, that it is "a fresh, rich and quite unfamiliar proposal concerning human renewal and church regeneration."  That someone who gets around as much as Walt (and who reads as much, fiction, social science, Biblical studies, history) it is fascinating that he suggests this proposal is not only "fresh" but "quite unfamiliar."  Wow. Is he right?  I don't know any book quite like this, come to think of it.

Maybe some of us have been saying this for years, but, yet, in Smith's hands, this invitation and his almost programmatic agenda does, indeed, seem new.  Listen to the uber-creative Ken Wystma (founder of The Justice Conference) when he states that Reading for the Common Good a paradigm-altering book and one that is sure to enrich and inspire as we seek to find meaningful ways to think about and engage our communities, cities, and the world.

Karen Swallow Prior (who wrote a tremendous memoir-by-way-of-book-reviews called Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me) assures us that Reading for the Common Good will motivate "anyone who cares one whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."  Let us pray that it is so.  Won't you please order some today?  I'm serious!

 I simply cannot say enough about this fresh take on an old practice: reading widely and well so that we might be equipped to be better people, better Christians, within better churches, for the sake of the world.  It is the best case I've ever seen for why we need to promote books in our congregations, why books are important for robust and lively faith lived out in the culture, locally and down to earth.

Reading for... will surely appeal to serious book lovers but also those who maybe are more practically-minded, wanting just to get on with things.  It will be of use to those who want to be thoughtful about forging a faithful sort of life in the world, and will be inspiring to those who aren't that worried about such things, but just love reading novels and short stories.  From heady theology, Bible study, and cultural philosophy (yes, he cites Charles Taylor) to crazy fiction and memoir, kids books and fantasy, Chris Smith reads really widely and he has stories of how he and his comrades have together been shaped by talking about these books.  For the most astute reader to those still young in learning how and what to read this book is a winner. It brings together "two interwoven threads: learning and action."

It helps us read for the Kingdom.


And, it ends where it begins, in the local congregation. In a lovely chapter called "Becoming a Reading Congregation" he takes on the questions of how to make this happen within your own church. He talks about Godly Play as one method of Christian education (do you know Jerome Berryman's Montessori-influenced work, inviting children to slow, meditative engagement with Bible stories?) He talks about ways we read throughout our shared lives, he advises on how to curate book lists and how to more effectively promote reading (even slow reading in our "accelerated age.") His Slow Church is part of the background here, but his book-lovin' ways and his wide familiarity with authors of note on display here is just wonderful to see. And so, so valuable.  I hope you agree.


(One criticism here, which I have to get off my chest. Chris and I have talked about this, and I would rail with greater might about it if I didn't love the book and the author so much:  there is a positive passing reference to Amazon, which I find reprehensible since they are corporate bullies, are under investigation for anti-trust violations and tax fraud, are well known for abusing their workers, remain one of the larger porno dealers in the land, and by selling below cost with little regard for the common good they have damaged our civil society, the health of our mainstreets, and, some think, our book buying habits in ways that a localist like Smith surely knows. To order under-priced books from them is flatly an act of huge compromise with a dysfunctional and unstewardly economy. For a book about economic faithfulness learned by reading good books curated by a trusted community to not distance itself from their amoral algorithms and well-documented injustices is ironic, if not shocking.  Did not the good editors at his publisher even note this? I suspect not, which is terribly disappointing.  Further, that there is very little discussion about finding and supporting good bookstores as partners in forming a reading culture in our families and churches and neighborhood organizations is unfortunate.)

Despite this oddity, and with my self-righteous opposition duly noted, Reading for the Common Good: How Books  -- not bought from Amazon, I'll add -- Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish will be, if bought and read and discussed and shared, the most important missional church book in years. It is visionary and practical, fun and serious, attentive to our virtue and formation as well as our social imagination and worldview. Smith helps us realize how books can help us in the journey inward and the journey outward, so to speak. Smith himself is obviously interested in beauty and justice, in delights and hard service. It surely is one of the best books that is most dear to me, one of the most interesting and valuable that I've read in my entire life.


Let me say that again, more simply: Reading for the Common Good is one of the best books I've ever read.

So I'm pulling out the stops here, charging you with all the muster I can, to buy this book.  I have tons of other books to tell you about yet this year, but I'm saying it now: if you only buy one more book this year, let it be this one.


Or, better: take us up on our buy two get one free offer.  Three's a perfect number to make stuff happen (says Andy Crouch at the end of Culture Making as he's  prompting us to take fresh steps to "recover our creative calling" by getting busy thinking and doing something new.) Buy a couple of these and give 'em away. Sow seeds that will help us be better readers, more fluent in the best books for missional living. For the glory and reputation of God who cares so much about the life of the world, read Reading for the Common Good and share it widely. 


A closing reminder: although I tend mostly to review non fiction books at BookNotes, and Chris is himself a very well-read reviewer of good non-fiction works - and what an education we get just by paying attention to the books he cites here. He is a fan and connoisseur of good novels. In a great chapter where he draws on Charles Taylor explaining what "social imaginaries" are and how these worldviewish assumptions work, he draws nicely on Madeline L'Engle, a little known novel called Flatland, and then, in a splendid few pages, explores "Reading and the Social Imagination." His quick name-dropping foray into novels from across the centuries and across the world is, again, nearly worth the price of the book, as he tells us how this or that author can help us.  But where does it all lead, these references to everything from Oliver Twist and Uncle Toms Cabin to the Hunger Games trilogy, from Shusaku Endo's Silence and Geraldine Brooks Caleb's Crossing to the poetry of John O'Donohue and Robert Frost?

That chapter ends with a section called "The Transformative Power of Conversation." That is an important phrase, and it carries a deeply help assumption for Smith and his Englewood Christian Church. Reading good books will enhance your own commitments to the conversational arts.  Readers, it ends up, don't just become leaders. They become listeners. They become more empathetic. They become better people. And maybe there is a key to changing the world, to Christ-honoring missional living.


Reading for the Common Good.jpg

Reading for the Common Good
C. Christopher Smith




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May 28, 2016

12 Recent Novels for your Summer Pleasure -- ON SALE NOW at Hearts & Minds

byron reading book als.jpgIf Memorial Day is seen as the start of summer, why not get in the mood by thinking about what novels you might read this summer? Yes, plural.  Everybody ought to enjoy good fiction, and summer months are a great time for many of us to enjoy some stories and even some poetry.  I'm going to soon read a George Saunder's collection of short stories -- or so I tell myself today, but I have to finish the spectacular Tartt masterpiece The Goldfinch, not to mention the amazing memoir Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty  -- and we're awaiting the forthcoming Wendell Berry poems (A Small Porch: Sabbath Poems 2014releasing in a few weeks.  How about you?

This isn't a list of best books or must reads or all time fiction favorites, just some I grabbed off our shelf that I thought would be fun to tell you about.  A few are fairly literary, a few less sophisticated, all fine choices, some very popular, some rather indie.  Want some other novel, old or new? We can easily get almost anything that is in print, so do let us help you have a good stack of summer reads and beach books for these longer and hopefully slower days, designed, it seems, for getting immersed in enjoyable reading, page by page by page.

The order form links below will take you to our secure order form page. Happy reading!

The High Mountains of Portugal.jpgThe High Mountains of Portugal Yann Martel (Spiegel & Grau) $27.00  At first I couldn't put this down, then it rather perplexed me, and then I was utterly captivated, and even a month later I can't stop thinking about it. This is by the famous author of Life of Pi and it is essentially three inter-related stories, pitched (on the back) as A Quest, A Ghost Story, and A Mesmerizing Tale of Love and Loss. The three sections are captioned in the book as Homeless, Homeward, Home -- itself intriguing, eh? The middle part is way weird, but not what I'd call ghostly; just magical realism, if you will.  A guy walks backwards, there's a search for an ancient crucifix from a disgraced missionary, learned about from a previously ignored diary found in a museum, there is a sad death, there is a simian, and the end offers a remarkable, homecoming resolution. Amazing.

Smoke Dan Vyleta .jpgSmoke Dan Vyleta (Doubleday) $27.95  I was glad our library had this as soon as it released this last week as it sounds to me like one of the most inventive novels in recent memory. The author is an esteemed historian and novelist and the advance word on this has been fabulous. (One reviewer says it is "one of the most original and enthralling books I have read in a long, long time.")  The plot seems complex -- I just started it last night -- but the premise is fantastical and intriguing: smoke arises from the bodies of people when they think bad thoughts; their inner lives of greed and lust and envy become known by all.  (The idea from this, by the way, came from one specific sentence in a lesser known Charles Dickens novel who pondered what such a world would be like.)

Part Victorian morality tale, part Potter-esque fantasy writing, perhaps informed by the likes of provocative Philip Pullman, Smoke was described by Publisher's Weekly as "a fiercely inventive novel." 

That review continues,

Vyvlet's bold concept and compelling blend of history and fantasy offer a provocative reflection on the nature of evil, power, belief, and love. Dickensian in its imaginative scope and atmosphere.

Obviously, a question emerges about whether the pollution of the common (second hand?) smoke effects others. Can sin be contagious? (Can virtue? But I digress.) What becomes of those raised in a  social environment that is, shall we say, smokey?  Is this something like the impact of soma in Huxley?

Here's another part, I think.  What happens when some -- the upper classes, of course -- are able to go to school to learn out to adapt, to control their excreting of smoke?  Can such persons start to look down their proverbial noses at others whose sins are more noticed? Is this, finally, a study of class, or is it a study of the making of Pharisees?  Why not order this from us today?

the secret chord.jpgThe Secret Chord: A Novel Geraldine Brooks (Viking) $27.95  What a solid book to hold in your hands, in the back yard or at your outdoor coffee-shop or, in my wife's scenario, before bed. She loved this artful and provocative re-telling of the David story, beautifully wrought and insightful -- "unvarnished" the publisher says --  from the admittedly imagined view of Nathan.  You should know the Pulitzer Prize-winning Brooks at least from her People of the Book, which we also loved.

Of course, in dealing with a fictionalization from the Bible, the author is not going to please everyone. There is plenty on display here about David's sensuality, his violence, even. (One reviewer somewhere used the phrase "alpha male personality.") I am sure the talented Ms Brooks means no disrespect to her source materials. Like other tales of this ancient era think of The Red Tent, set in an even earlier period) there is much to learn, and great artists can help. It's a novel, though, keep in mind. And apparently, a very thoughtful and entertaining one at that.

When Girls Became Lions.jpgWhen Girls Became Lions: A Novel  Valerie J. Gin & Jo Kadlecek (Gin/Kadlecek) $14.99  "The memory of a strong woman is a sanctuary..."  This is how the story, set circa 1893, begins, in this self-published novel by a legendary and beloved soccer coach and a renowned writer of nonfiction and memoir.  This is a story about soccer, about women's sports, specifically about the impact of Title IX legislation had on one mid-western town.  

Here is a description from the back cover: 

It's 1983. Teacher Bailey Crawford and a bunch of rag tag girls are about to make history as their school's first, and only, state champions. But few in town care; they're only girls, after all. It's not until twenty-five years later in 2008 when new coach Reynalda Wallace discovers their story, and recognition for the champs finally arrives. In the process, Rey learns how much of her own life--past and present--is bound to those first athletes whose struggle she never knew existed. Until now.

The rave reviews of this book have come from men and women, sports analysis, coaches, professors, young people and not a few famous leaders (such as the President of Tuskegee University, women head coaches, women in the Olympic Hall of Fame, and more.)

Listen to this rave  from Les Norman, former Jr. Olympic Gold Medalist, MLB outfielder, TV analyst and syndicated sports radio host.  Authors Val & Jo were recently interviewed on his show, Breakin' the Norm  He says,

As an AVID sports fan and voracious reader, I search for compelling stories that will both move my heart and have the potential to change the world.  I found those very things in When Girls Became Lions!  I laughed, cried, grew angry at injustice, and cheered with joy. This is not only a book about the champion spirit that lies within female athletes, but the athlete in general . . .

Jo & Val have given the highest honor to the trailblazers of Title IX, to those of us who've been honored & blessed to wear an athletic uniform, and to athletes, coaches and parents of either gender who live out their passion by giving with all their heart. When Girls Became Lions brings about a triumph of the human spirit and resolve, and is now one of my favorite books of all time!!  I highly recommend it for both female and male athletes alike!"  

Check out the trailer for their book, here, and then come on back and send us an order.

The_Chimera_Sequence_Elliott_Garber-copy-200x300.jpgThe Chimera Sequence Elliott Garber (Osprey Press) $15.99  I have been wanting to read this since I first heard about it from the proud papa of Elliott Garber, none other than Steve Garber, author of Hearts & Minds favs, Fabric of Faithfulness and Visions of Vocation.  As you know from reading Steve, he is passionate about equipping folks to think about faith relating to all of life (including work, career, and our duties in the world) and that he, himself, uses novels to help open up conversations with consequence about life and times. I cannot think of a time I've heard Steve lecture or preach where he hasn't cited stories, books, music, or films, and he and his librarian wife, Meg, raised their children around the very best books and films. I say all this to give you background and confidence that Elliott's book emerges from a mature and thoughtful place.

And oh, what a place it is. Young Garber has been on active duty as a military officer who serves as a veterinarian. He has lived and worked with large animals in India, Egypt, Mozambique, and Italy (and traveled to over 50 other countries, including a recent deployment Iraq.) It is this global experience that informs this thriller -- an action-packed work of science-fiction (or is it?)

Here is how the back cover explains it:

The story starts as Cole McBride makes a chilling discover while investigating a mysterious disease causing the death of endangered mountain gorillas in war-torn central Africa. When a humanitarian aid hospital nearby diagnoses a disturbingly similar human case, the former Special Forces veterinarian knows he must figure out how to stop this outbreak from spreading -- before it blows up into a global pandemic.

And that, apparently, is just the beginning. The story moves from a massive cargo ship moving out of Sudan's largest port which carries something headed for the Persian Gulf. A Lebanese restaurant owner in DC is involved, there is a plot worthy of House of Cards about an unpopular President and, well, you can imagine.

If you like thrillers based on real scientific research (well, at least the part about animal-spread diseases), this will be a winner for you.  Maria Goodavage, herself a New York Times author of Soldier Dogs and Top Dogs, says, "I couldn't put down Garber's engaging, rapid-paced, action-packed thriller."

Here is a great endorsement from James Rollins, author of the Sigma Force Novel, The 6th Extinction.

Elliott Garber's debut thriller The Chimera Sequence has everything I love in a novel:  great characters, a thrill ride of an adventure, and a looming global menace.  But best of all, the story hooked me from the first intriguing page to the last illuminating line. I can't wait to see what this guy writes next!

And, get this amazing quote, the sort any first-time novelist would be proud of:

"Not since Jurassic Park has a science thriller of this magnitude been written..."   Wow.

That's from Dr. Marty Becker who you may know as "America's Veterinarian" and a respected, best-selling author.

I don't know much about Ebola, and even less about Zika and their subsequent public health policies. We do quite a bit about the science and politics of Lyme and other tick-born diseases, which are only getting worse as they infect our geography and bodies and as the standard medical establishment refuses to keep up with vital research.  You know that this stuff could keep you up at night, and maybe it should. Perhaps The Chimera Sequence and its fiction of global menace is merely something exciting to read for those who love that kind of an adrenaline-packed reading experience. Or maybe it is more, something we really should be thinking about, imagining, talking about.  Kudos to Mr. Garber for releasing this important first novel, illustrating his own interest in eco-systems, public health, and helping us think about some of the biggest problems of our world.  All in the form of a high-energy thriller.

This Is Why I Came Mary Rakow .jpgThis Is Why I Came Mary Rakow (Counterpoint) $24.00  I am, as I often am, taken with a book just by reading a review of it.  Such was the case,  I suppose, here. I hope to spend some slow hours with this later this summer, but we ordered it forthwith as soon as I read a remarkable book review of it in The Christian Century (here) by the always impressive Rev. Lawrence Wood.  Here is how that review begins:

A  woman comes for confession, her first in 30 years. Anxiously she fingers a hand-stitched notebook filled with her own version of Bible stories, driven by her reimaginings of biblical characters. We never learn exactly why she has written these fragments, although themes emerge--uneasy family relationships, physical disabilities, mental illness. Perhaps the woman's own story shapes them. The stories are told slant, very slant, so the reader feels their gravity. But they truly engage the scriptures. They are luminous, numinous.

Her name is Bernadette. Like the visionary saint who saw the biblical Mary in Lourdes, France, in 1858, this Bernadette too is something of a cipher as she provides a link to the sacred. She does needlework like her namesake, shares the same infirmities, and wonders if she's going mad. She herself may be a saint--barely.

Mary Rakow's novel is just barely a novel. But in 62 brief chapters she manages to make familiar characters strange and fresh. They migrate from the Old Testament to the New, from the Bible to contemporary life, with the suggestion that they themselves may be authors...

So, the main character has a hand-stitched notebook full of Bible stories. (Does this seem like the famed collection found in Winesburg Ohio?)

Perhaps like that story, Wood suggests that That's Why I Came is "miraculous" as in it "the lines between sacred history and contemporary life might be wonderfully blurred." 

Later in the review he notes that these rambling pieces written by the novel's main character (Bernadette)  are both fragmentary and complex; the writing of the novel itself tends to the poetic.  It is, at times, raw and perhaps disturbing.  This is, I should note, on a serious, literary publishing house (perhaps best known for publishing the novels of Wendell Berry.)  Rev. Wood continues,

A lesser writer would have made this book a satire. Rakow, a theologian who studied at Harvard Divinity School and Boston College, instead has written with great love and deep faith, raising issues latent in the original text. Like Bernadette, Rakow seems to be sitting in church, hoping to find peace again.

The Abbey- A Story of Discovery James Martin.jpgThe Abbey: A Story of Discovery James Martin SJ (HarperOne) $24.99  It is great to see this popular nonfiction author -- who has written about Jesus, about humor (Between Heaven and Mirth), about the Jesuits, and more -- trying his hand at fiction, and, wow, has it been successful. This is a major book this season, lots of buzz -- one person likened it to Screwtape Letters (although another suggested The Shack.) It is notable for how it handles religious searching, grief, spirituality. (And it is, by the way, set in Pennsylvania.) The Abbey is getting lovely reviews.  Imagine having these authors blurb your book on the back -- Ron Hansen, Kathleen Norris, Richard Rohr, Joyce Rupp.  It has gotten many endorsements like this, from memoirist and poet Mary Karr:

With trademark wit, wisdom, and elegant prose, James Martin has written a powerfully moving novel about (among other things) how an unbeliever can journey from suffering into spiritual practice. How it happens in an eyeblink. Another triumph from one of our best scribblers working like a master in a new form.

The Nightingale- A Novel Kristin Hannah.jpgThe Nightingale: A Novel Kristin Hannah (St. Marin's Press) $27.99  The other day one of our staff paired this in a display with my favorite novel of recent years, All The Light You Cannot See. Not sure why, really, but the lovely, gold-embossed cover, is a rich and luscious one, and it calls out to be held. This is a serious, thick, and weighty novel, and it has been exclaimed about since it came out. Of course, it was displayed next to All the Light... because, it, too, is set in World War II -- France in 1939 to be exact.  As the description of it begins, "In love we find out who we want to be. In war we find out who we are."  This is an epic tale (Kristin Hannah is known for big and moving works of historical fiction) set in wartime France but about the divergent paths of two sisters. It is the sort of book that reviews claim to read in one sitting (although, at over 400 pages, I can hardly imagine.) I am sure at times it is harrowing, and it is said to be historically illuminating.

There are endorsements on the back from Lisa See (of popular best-seller Snow Flower) and Christina Baker Kline (author of the immensely popular and satisfying Orphan Train.) I appreciated this from Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants,

A beautifully written and richly evocative examination of life, love, and the ravages of war, and the different ways people react to unthinkable situations?not to mention the terrible and mounting toll of keeping secrets. This powerhouse of a story is equally packed with action and emotion, and is sure to be another major hit.

Thirteen Reasons Why.jpgThirteen Reasons Why Jay Asher (Razor Bill) $10.99  This is a powerful YA novel that an adult friend recently recommended.  We knew of its immense popularity, hear the author on NPR, maybe, and knew of its significance.

Neither Beth nor I have read this yet -- not sure if I am up for it, although I think I will. The plot is simple: a young girl named Hannah Baker took her life and left audio tapes behind, each for one of the 13 people who he saw as complicit in his death.  (You can listen to the "actual" Hannah Baker Tapes at a youtube site made to go along with the book.)  The book explores how these accusations and reports of petty cruelty effected Hannah, and how learning of this effected her friend Lay Jensen.

The reviews have been mostly stellar.

"Eerie, beautiful, and devastating" said the Chicago Tribune. "It will leave you with chills," said Amber Gibson on All Things Considered.  Words such as "shattering" and "anguishing" are understandably used by readers to describe it and yet it is also life-affirming and beautiful; the respected Kirkus called it "brilliant and mesmerizing."  It is known not only for the story, but for it's moving prose. Thirteen Reasons has been named on many "best book" lists and garnered many awards.  One line that most drew me in was the description by the wonderful YA novelist Sherman Alexi, who called it, "A mystery, eulogy, and ceremony."

For what it is worth, some have suggested it isn't realistic, that it does a disservice by not adequately exploring issues of adolescent mental health. 

Two Steps Forward- A Story of Persevering in Hope.jpgTwo Steps Forward: A Story of Persevering in Hope Sharon Garlough Brown (IVP) $18.00  I have mentioned this before and it seemed right to name it again.  Although it stands alone, it is a sequel to the popular Sensible Shoes, a novel which explores the emerging friendships of a group of women who meet at a spiritual retreat and agree to check back in with each other after their experiences with a spiritual director. Partly a story of women's friendship, partly a set of stories of how faith helps us navigate live's pains and challenges, and partially an observant report of what it is like having a wise spiritual director, this is a book that seems to be part novel and part spiritual guidebook. It is a story about what it means to be made in God's image, discern wisdom, find grace, and what it looks like to grow into greater Christlikeness.

Both Sensible Shoes and Two Steps Forward center around Meg, a widow and recent empty nester, Chrissa, a conscientious graduate student (and, in the second -- spoiler -- an unexpected pregnancy), Hannah, a pastor, now on sabbatical, and Mara, a wife and mother who longs for her difficult family life to improve.

Sister Eve and the Blue Nun- A Divine Private Detective Agency Mystery.jpgSister Eve and the Blue Nun: A Divine Private Detective Agency Mystery Lynne Hinton (Nelson) $15.99  I don't read mysteries, so don't know which are better than others. There is this whole thing of clerical sleuths -- think of Father Brown, at least.  Hinton is a long-respected author in the world of inspirational fiction and is a New York Times best-selling author. This is just out, the third in a popular series -- the first two were Sister Eve Private Eye and The Case of the Sin City Sister.  In each, I gather, the good sister's gifts for detective work might be seen as a calling, or a temptation. Eh? In this new one, it is set up like this: "After a murder at the monastery, Sister Eve may need a miracle if she is to prove a dear friend isn't a cold-blooded killer." 

The "Blue Nun" bit figures in because the poisoned victim was Dr. Kelly Middlesworth, a researcher on the life and ministry of the 17th century revered "Blue Nun."  A set of irreplaceable historic documents have disappeared before they could even be examined.  

Oh, did I mention that Sister Eve rides a motorcycle? So there's that, too. Ha.

Lord of the World Robert Hugh Benson (Christian Classics).jpgLord of the World Robert Hugh Benson (Christian Classics) $15.95 I am embarrassed to say I have never heard of this novel, although I've learned a bit about the famous author and the significance of the tale.

Written in 1907, we are told in an introduction to this new edition that,

Lord of the World claims to be the first modern dystopia, preceding the more famous ones, Huxley's Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell's 1984 (1949). For academics, Lord of the World has always been a scholarly footnote of the Catholic literary renaissance that saw so many British intellectuals and artists like Benson convert to the Catholic faith in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

But here is something even more interesting; very interesting, indeed. It has been made known that Pope Francis has reported that this novel has significantly influenced his own thinking.  Mark Bosco explains:

In a homily in November 2013, the Pope referred to Lord of the World when he warned about the dark side of globalization. Offering the term "beautiful globalization" as an expression through which national identity and traditions are preserved, he warned that this phenomenon can become the more sinister "globalization of hegemonic uniformity" that is found in Benson's novel -- a uniformity of secular thought born out of human vanity and worldliness.

Get this:

In January 2015, as part of the Pope's in-flight interview from Manila to Rome, he referred to the "ideological colonization" of international family-planning agencies and national governments that impose population control as a condition of development aid. Asked what he meant by the term, Pope Francis told the plane full of reporters, "There is a book, excuse me but I'll make a commercial... it is a book that, at that time, the writer had seen this drama of ideological colonization, and wrote that book. It is called Lord of the World. The author is Benson... I advise you to read it. Reading it, you'll understand well what I mean by ideological colonization ...

I really enjoyed reading Bosco's complete introduction to this just today. There is also a "theological reflection" essay and a bit about Benson's conversion. This stuff helps, explaining why it is important. (And this cover gives it a bit more gravitas than the "Doomsday Classics" edition from Dover.) This intro is fascinating as it explores the rise of science fiction and dystopian, apocalyptic genre. (Just last night I was reading the recent Eerdmans release How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World by Robert Joustra and Alisa Wilkinson. Ooo-boy.) 

Apparently, Lord of the World by Robert Hugh Benson really is important, and apparently, it's a rip-roaring read. It is said not only to be quite well-crafted but "a prophetic novel that anticipates and dramatically renders the spiritual and cultural crisis of the twenty-first century."

Listen to the Tolkien scholar, Joseph Pearce, who commends this new edition:

Benson's dystopic novel is more sinister than the simple hedonism of Huxley's dystopia and more subtle than the sheer brutality of Orwell's. I welcome Ave Maria Press's new edition of this classic and prophetic work.




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