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April 21, 2016

Give my book as a gift to college graduates or other young adults - "Serious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life" ON SALE NOW

Serious Dreams cover.jpgSerious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life  edited by Byron Borger (Square Halo Books) $13.95 

ON SALE:

1 - 4 = 10% off

5 or more = 20% off

If you are a new reader of BookNotes, you may not know this: I released a book a year ago, which I edited, called Serious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your LifeSome people had been encouraging me to write and publish, although creating these on-line BookNotes reviews and regularly dispatching them into the world is more than enough for me to do each week. But when I got inspired to put this book together - Beth and I cooked up the project ourselves, with encouragement from the team at Square Halo Books - I pulled it together between our conference book displays, road trips and speaking engagements, and the day to day work in the shop. Our good staff here kept 234 East Main Street humming along and I put myself to pulling together a book of short essays, discussion questions, and a big 'ol introduction by yours truly.

You can read all about Serious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life in a typically energetic BookNotes review here where we first announced and celebrated it last Spring.

Byron at podium at Geneva.jpgHere's the gist: two years ago I was asked to deliver a commencement speech to the graduate schools of a Christian college in Western Pennsylvania. They awarded me an honorary doctorate which embarrassed me and gave me a shot at pouring my heart out about the impact of higher education on a young Christian life, and how to move out into the world, integrating what was learned and how one will live in the world.  The talk went well and a number of people wanted the transcript of my speech inviting students into a life based on 1 Chronicles 12:32 -- becoming sons and daughters of Issachar who "understood the times and knew what God's people should do." My passionate call to the gathered young adults to be prepared to suffer for the sake of God's reign, to understand our cultural moment and context in order to their use careers and callings (and the legacy of their particular college education in that storied place) for the sake of the common good, to use the tools of having been taught to think deeply and love well seemed to resonate and I was happy that a few people wanted copies. 

One person said it sounded like a keynote speech from the collegiate-oriented Jubilee conference, which, of course, I took as a great compliment.

A few weeks later Beth and I were very deeply moved watching the commencement speech given by Claudia Beversluis, then the Provost at Calvin College - which drew on a poem by Wendell Berry and beautifully described her hopes that students will draw deeply on their four years at college to serve the world well. I realized that that beautiful, generative speech should be printed and widely read. (You can watch it here, starting at 1 hour in.) That very moment, with tears welling up in my eyes, I sensed God's prompting to find and edit and publish a handful of similarly inspiring speeches that we could make into a handsome little gift book for college graduates. 

As a bookseller and book lover and one who promotes the writings of others, I must say it was a very strange and glorious day when we unpacked the box, here at the shop as we usually do, but realized it was a case of my own little volume. Our staff treated it like the special moment it was, and we even got a cake to celebrate.  That was exactly one year ago.

My Serious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life is that book, firstly designed for college graduates, but also good for any twenty-something. This past year people have given it to any number of people in all walks of life. But it really was created for graduates entering the workforce or wondering what comes next as they move into the world as young adults.

And how nice it has been to autograph them, inviting readers to dream God's dreams as I get to personalize each one.

serious dreams copies fanned.jpgWe wanted the book to be short but nicely designed (and oh what fun it was working with Ned Bustard, a graphic designer who manages Square Halo Books, known for beautiful design touches in all their artful books) but with a touch of whimsy, inviting for younger readers.

Ideally, it would be given as a little gift by churches, mentors, parents, friends or campus ministry organizations that have cared about the student over the years. 

(If your church doesn't honor its college grads, you might take this up as an urgent project in the next week or so!)

 Serious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life is compact, nice to hold with a bit of a matte feel and paper with a slight creamy look. The occasional illustrations of leaves and acorns throughout allude to the cover art of mighty oak trees.  Okay, maybe that's hoping a bit much, but we do think that reading serious Christian reflections about the transition out of higher education and into the world of work and public service will help young adults find their way, see their life (their whole life, every square inch of it) as the theater of God's work.  There are heady tomes about linking the gospel to vocation and God's grace to missional visions of the Kingdom coming. There are self-help books Christian and otherwise helping people learn to become all they were meant to be. This little book is meaty and mercifully brief, beautifully written and yet down to Earth. We think there is nothing quite like it, making it a very good choice for young adult readers.

We just edited a second edition, correcting typos and computer glitches and switched around a few grammatical quandaries that worked well when the speeches were first given, live, but that we needed to improve a bit for the printed page. We tried to retain the energetic tone of the speeches, given live as they were to real audiences, but needed to tidy it up a bit to make it better as a book.  My own was a bit tricky to edit since, well, let's just say there was a lot to work on.  Ha.

I owe a real debt of thanks to the authors who presented the talks captured in this little book. I am very, very grateful for their generosity in allowing me to edit their pieces for publication.  I know personally almost every one of these authors/leaders and have studied all their work for years; in a way I have told some people that Serious Dreams is a Hearts & Minds primer. These are authors that mean a lot to me, and whose "visions of vocation" and whose own serious dreams shaped my own.  If you appreciate anything about our work here at the shop or the book displays we do at events or if you find our BookNotes reviews somehow helpful, I think you'll like reading this curated collection of chapters, whether you are a recent graduate or not.

I hate to sound pushy, but the little indie publishing house that did such a nice job creating this for us doesn't have much of a budget for publicity.  We've got no PR firms or agents or marketeers. I am counting on Hearts & Minds fans and friends to help us get the word out.  I'm asking you to consider buying a few of these and spreading the news. (Is there an indie bookstore in your community that might want to stock a few yet this Spring?)  I think you won't be disappointed, and I am confident that those young adults who read it will be shaped, perhaps decisively, to think and care more faithfully about their own lives, their dreams, their passions and their vocations.

Here are the titles of the chapters and the names of the great speakers who delivered them:

Live Well, Be True, Do Good an Introduction by Byron Borger

In this introduction I frame the messages in the book, and remind young adults that starting small and living locally with an attentive sense of place, is a fine, good thing. We actually don't have to change the world.  "Small things with great love" Mother Teresa once said. I have been deeply gratified to hear back from some readers who found this chapter particularly helpful, especially as they face less than inspiring circumstances. It's going to be all right...

What It's All About by Richard J. Mouw

Rich Mouw is a prolific author and hero to many who want to "think Christianly" and relate evangelical faith to public life in civil, fruitful ways. This nice chapter reminds young grads to remember that which they've learned in their college years and live it out in the real world, for the glory of Christ. It is basic, clear, and delightfully compelling. Mouw is a Kuyper scholar and past President of Fuller Theological Seminary and this is a very nice opening chapter. 

You Need Two Eyes by Nicholas Wolterstorff

Arguably one of the preeminent philosophers working in the world today, this very helpful chapter powerfully reminds us that we need both competence and compassion, Christian excellence in thinking well and the virtue of caring for the hurting. I have read this a dozen times and it still inspires me. One reader wrote and said this chapter alone was well worth the price of the book!

Rejoicing Your Community by Amy L. Sherman

Ms Sherman delivered this very upbeat and inspiring talk drawing upon insights from her excellent book Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good.  This chapter invites us to the many implications of Proverbs 11:10 which reminds us that faithfulness to God must be connected to service of the community, responding to the needs of the hurting world. Her longer book -- or even this great little chapter -- if taken seriously, could change how we think about our own work, and could truly transform our part of the world! 

The Memory in the Seed by Claudia Beversluis 

I noted that this was the speech, delivered at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI, that so moved Beth and I to compile this book and have this chapter be a centerpiece. (Talk about a bold idea - I can't believe we actually pulled it off!) Claudia's use of the Wendell Berry poem is itself beautiful, and the call to long-term, whole-life, culturally transforming discipleship is priceless.  The world needs you she said, and she is right. Do you believe it, really? Do the young adults you know believe it? How might they draw on the best visions of your past as you move with virtue and depth towards the future, God's future? What "hard earned" memories do we carry with us?

Common Grace for the Common Good by Steven Garber

I suppose you know that Garber is one of my good, good friends, and his two books (Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior and Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good) are among my own personal favorites. He is morally serious, always eloquent, drawing here profound connections between the Biblical use of the word covenant and the sorts of work and the kind of economy we want to envision in our times. And he cites Wendell Berry and U2.  This address was delivered at Covenant Theological Seminary in Saint Louis and although offered for those going into vocations in ministry, it is substantive and offers thoughtful words and big ideas for us all.

Three Cheers for Sons and Daughters of Issachar by Byron Borger

Here is the one where I preach about cultural relevance, personal transformation, the integration of faith and learning, the need for hearts aflame and a robust, coherent worldview, through thick and thin, bearing witness to God's ways in every area of life. I was so honored to speak about Geneva College's heritage of promoting the Kingship of Christ and how that can inspire ordinary folks to live out their faith in the rough and tumble of a post-Christian society.  And I tell about Mahalia Jackson singing to Martin Luther King, long before that great scene in Selma.  I hope you enjoy it.

The Three Roads and the Three Rs by John M. Perkins

I hope you know John Perkins, a Mississippi-born, evangelical, civil rights leader, racial reconciliation mentor, and social justice advocate who has earned a number of honorary doctorates even though he only has a third grade education.  Considered a true elder statesman by many of us, I thought early on that if I were doing a book like this, I wouldn't do it without Dr. Perkins involved. I was honored that he gave us his exceptional sermon delivered at  graduation ceremonies at Seattle Pacific University.  You may have heard or read in his many books about his vision of the 3 Rs but his "three roads" message was fully new and just fantastic. Right on -- we all need to be on those three roads:  Damascus, Emmaus and Jericho.

Launch Out, Land Well an Epilogue by Erica Young Reitz

The sermons offered in Serious Dreams are all exciting and stimulating, provocative and inspiring. I think the little discussion questions after each are helpful.  I framed the big picture, breathy messages of the book in my introduction with a more quiet call to live well in our own unique context, inviting readers to listen to their hearts and pay attention to small stuff.  I wanted one more piece in the book, though, an epilogue by a wise guide to help young adults make transitions well with some clear-headed, practical advice. Erica Young Reitz is a dear friend whose own book After College: Navigating Transitions, Relationships and Faith is coming out in August 2016. Erica has done college ministry with the CCO mentoring seniors, helping them "launch out" well.  We are very glad for this practical afterword. Her suggestions are good for those leaving college or, actually, for anyone in times of change or transition.  Thanks, Erica.

Serious Dreams Facebook Timeline banner.jpg

We would be delighted to have you support our work by ordering one of my Serious Dreams books. We think the pieces are strong, and the main chapters are written by Christian leaders who are certainly some of the most important women and men writing these days. (My own pieces excluded, that is, although I am proud of both of my chapters.) Without exception the chapters are nicely written and inspiring, each offering a vision of the Christian faith as a coherent world-and-life-view, calling forth a lifetime of robust, gracious discipleship. This proposes a faith that is a way of life that is strong enough to help young people not only thrive in their transition into post-college adulthood, but to come to desire that God uses them to impact the world, in big and small ways. I believe the title captures this bold idea well: we offer very serious dreams. For the rest of your life.

Might I ask you to share this with those who might have budgets or reasons to buy gifts for the young people in your church or fellowship? It sure would be cool to get to sign a stack of these, sending them out with love and big hope. Thank you very much.

Serious Dreams cover.jpg

BookNotes

SPECIAL
DISCOUNT
Serious Dreams:
Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life

(Square Halo Books) $13.99

10% off
OR
ORDER FIVE OR MORE
20% OFF


order here
takes you to the secure Hearts & Minds order form page
just tell us what you want

inquire here
if you have questions or need more information
just ask us what you want to know

                                      Hearts & Minds 234 East Main Street  Dallastown, PA  17313     717-246-3333







April 14, 2016

"Silence and Beauty" by Makoto Fujimura ON SALE NOW

We hope you enjoy this BookNotes review, and we hope you will considering ordering Silence and Beauty from us at our discounted price. The link to the Hearts & Minds bookstore order form shown below will take you to our secure order form page at our website.  We will confirm personally and ship promptly. Thank you very much.

Please see below for our special sale pricing on a pairing of Mako Fujimura's SIlence and Beauty and Shusaku Endo's SilenceWe will offer 10% off for either one bought individually but will offer 20% off if both are purchased together.

Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering Makoto Fujimura (InterVarsity Press) regularly $26.00.

Thirty five years ago when we were dreaming up the idea of our bookstore we were faced with the question of what sort of novels we would carry.  Inspirational fiction published by evangelical publishers where on the rise and they were often pretty schmaltzy. As we explained our vision of stocking books offering a wise and thoughtful Christian perspective in different career areas and academic disciplines - engineering, nursing, urban studies, sports, biology, politics, business, and the like - and resources for those working on the burning social issues of our time (racial justice, environmental stewardship, being consistently pro-life, fighting slavery and human trafficking and on and on) we had to ask ourselves: what do we do about the popularity of so-called Christian harlequins? In the days when inspiration fiction was pretty uniformly of poor quality, we wondered, what, really, is Christian fiction.  

We had read Calvin Seerveld's lively 1970s-era A Christian Critique of Art and Literature, Madeline L'Engle's Walking on Water, C.S. Lewis's On Stories, and the stimulating work of Leland Ryken and the young Luci Shaw.

And the answer was obvious: even though they may not sell well in church circles, we will stock best-selling general market books that have something artful about them and something to say -- we championed the work of Barbara Kingsolver from almost the beginning, for instance, and last year we were early fans of All The Light We Cannot See. And certainly we wanted to promote those writers who are people of faith but not in the evangelical sub-culture - from Walker Percy to Graham Greene to John Updike to Dorothy Sayers, Katherine Paterson to Susan Howatch, from books like Kristin Lavransdatter to The Memory of Old Jack to Buechner's Book of Bebb. The very first book we sold the very day we opened was Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.

silence old cover.jpgIt was in that stimulating era for Beth and me when we were learning so much about literature and book-selling - she loved Things Fall Apart having read Achebe in college although I still hadn't even read To Kill a Mockingbird - that we discovered what is certainly one of the great novels of the 20th century, the highly regarded, provocative, Silence by the Japanese Christian author Shusaku Endo. We had it on our shelves, I think, the day we opened, and have recommended it often to those who want a bracing, passionate, beautifully-rendered, historically-rich, religious story.

Richly multi-layered and complex, it is simple to summarize: it is about the persecution of Christians in late 17th century Japan, a brutally awful period of martyrdom in the enigmatic land of the brutal Shoguns and powerful emperors. It is not, I sometimes say, for the faint of heart. Shusaku Endo was awarded many prizes and is to this day Japan's most celebrated writer; he was on the short list for the Nobel Prize in literature.  In a way, his Silence is a perfect example of the sorts of novels we think our customers should care about.

Alongside our interest in fiction is our interest in books about a faith-based perspective on aesthetics and the arts. We are truly thrilled when we get to sell books at CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts) gatherings or other such event which nurture a Christian witness among artists and within the art scene.

makoto2.jpgThis is not the place to list titles for you of our large selection of books that attempt to relate faith and art, but I need to say that one of the best voices - an author, speaker and abstract painter of considerable renown - in the last decades is Mr. Makoto Fujimura, founder of IAM (the International Arts Movement/Culture Care) and author of several vital books in this field. His first published piece was a chapter in the altogether fabulous It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God published by Square Halo Books. His writing is eloquent and thoughtful, from his lovely (and beautifully designed) Refractions to the remarkable Square Halo Book release called Soliloquies showing how his work compares and contrasts with rare Georges Rouault pieces.  Mako, as he is endearingly called by his friends, contributed to a lavish art book we are honored to stock called Qua4tets, a collaboration with another painter, a writer, and a musician, culture care cover.jpgRefractions_coverE-380x570.jpgreflecting on T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. And he has a very moving chapter in a coffee table book about Japanese print-maker Sadao Wantanabe called Beauty Given By Grace.

In 2011 his illuminated gospels The Four Holy Gospels (ESV) were released to much acclaim, the first time that a Bible was hand illustrated with modern art. We stock the hardback version of this, too. (Watch a gorgeous and interesting 8 minute film about it, here.)

The handsomely crafted 2015 paperback, Culture Care, is Mako's recent manifesto for why Christians and other people of good faith should steward well the generative gifts that help culture flourish; it is impressive and important.  I've told customers that his Culture Care is a great book to follow up a showing of the spectacular For the Life of the World DVDs or to further explore the insights of Andy Crouch's wonderful Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling.


silence and beauty.jpgMr. Fujimura is a Japanese-American artist who came to Christian faith while studying as a National Scholar in Japan. Some of Mako's own story -- he worked with some very important Japanese artists, studied some of the best thinkers of the East, was met by thoughtful Christian people there -- is told nicely in his stunning, significant new book, richly designed (with a beautiful translucent dust jacket) by the book artisans at IVP, called Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering.

Mr. Fujimura's telling of his conversion to Christianity is interwoven with his journey to his parent's ancestral homeland to formally study (the first non-native to do so) a very old Japanese style of art-making called nihonga. You can read for yourself how art and beauty, Asian worldviews and Western, gospel grace and good people conspired to draw Mako into the Kingdom of Christ, but, as is no surprise, those who took his questions and seeking heart seriously also affirmed his great talent and dedication to becoming a serious nihonga artist. Curiously, he didn't use this complex style (which includes grinding precious metals into the paste-like paint - pulverization he calls it) in the traditional Japanese way, but, rather applied the intricate method to Western abstract impressionism.

bowl_makoto_fujimura.jpgAfter his study in Japan and conversion to Christian faith, Mako, who had studied in Pennsylvania at Bucknell University (from where, interestingly, his friend Tim Keller also graduated), practiced his craft, created increasingly popular and respected nihonga paintings, becoming known within the serious art scene in Manhattan. He was encouraged by patrons and reviewers and critics.  I met him in those years PTS_Poster_2015_0413Noon.jpgunder a small tent as he gave a powerful talk about faith and the arts at an edgy Christian rock festival in Lancaster; now he lectures before large, prominent crowds, has earned an honorary doctorate, and leads conversations about his work at some of the finest galleries in North America, Europe and Asia.

And -- get this -- recently Mako has served as a conversation partner and consultant for Martin Scorsese as the world-renowned film-maker was shooting his forthcoming movie based on Endo's classic novel.  Mako tells us that Scorsese has thought about making this film for over 30 years and intends it to be one of his "life works." 

As Mr. Fujimura explains in the brand new Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering, he traveled back to Nagasaki (the location of the novel) and to a place called Martyrs Hill; his discoveries and reflections there were soul-shaking.  As a traumatized survivor of Ground Zero on 9-11, Mako often writes about the power of art to confront injustice and to help us heal from social dislocation, hurt, grief. (Indeed, after 9-11 he helped create a public art space in lower Manhattan for just this purpose which he describes movingly in his first book, Refractions.) Civilians in Japan have been the targeted victims of two atomic bomb attacks (the steeple of the largest church in Japan was the targeted Ground Zero for the second nuclear attack, a few days after Hiroshima) so it may be that they have much to teach us about grief and loss and resilience. Can beauty and goodness overcome such evil? Does the pulverization of rich minerals into refracting color perhaps speak to those who have themselves felt crushed?

I will not try to explain the many strains of thinking in this extraordinary book, but can assure you that it deeply explores several profound issues, topics and themes.  Theodicy, as it is abstractly called, is certainly central.  As Mako notes that reading Silence was "an excruciating experience." He says that Endo produces "art of perseverance" and is a "novelist of pain." 

He continues,

I deal with uneasy questions in this book. Not all of them will be answered satisfactorily, but they do open up a larger set of questions about faith, betrayal, and the question of evil and suffering, which theologians call "theodicy."

In thinking about Mr. Endo's own physical pain and medical issues and his hospitalization while a student in France - alongside his existential and spiritual struggles - Fujimura compares him to Flannery O'Connor (who was pained with lupus.)  Mako makes this fascinating evaluation: 

As I pondered Endo's writings, it became clear to me over and over where Endo found his language: in the precision of the diagnostic terms of medicine and in the vulnerability of the experience of trauma. Endo must have experience the clear, concise communication of medical terms that transcends cultural and linguistic barriers, and he experienced trauma as a universal language that can connect cultures. Vulnerability and awareness of physical limitations lead to short, compressed, anguished expression in O'Connor's memorable, violent short stories, but reading Endo's work is like being tortured with slow drips of precise poison, but with a certain compassion...

silence endo new cover.jpgIt would be helpful to read Silence (recently re-issued in a colorful new cover, with a new foreword by Mr. Scorsese, most likely to tie in with the film which will come out late this year) as you read Mako's reflections in Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith...  There is a helpful chapter by chapter summary in an appendix in the back of Silence and Beauty.

It is at least good to know that at the heart of the historical reality that Endo is writing about in his compelling novel is the practice of forcing Christians - Portuguese missionaries and their Japanese converts - to stomp on and deface pictures of Christ (or Mary) essentially forcing apostasy and demoralizing their fellow believers. There are many of these fumi-e pictures on display yet today in Japan (also at Nagasaki), their edges worn and dirty from thousands of feet stomping them in acts of betrayal and desperation.

Endo seeing one of these antique fumi-e for the first time -- carrying the freight of past torture and repression and religious anguish -- moved him deeply and his subsequent writings galvanized him into a leader among the post-war intellectuals in Japan. (When Silence was released in Japan in 1966 it created remarkable controversy and Japan's minority Christian community was appalled by its graphic depictions; the similarities with the 1980's culture-war opposition to Mr. Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ is not missed by Fujimura.) 

Mako writes, powerfully,

In the worn-smooth face of fumi-e, and the disappearing face of Christ, Endo found resonance. He found perspective on his confounding question. Endo's writing does not answer the questions about suffering but it expresses empathy for those who cannot speak or write. Endo found his calling was to speak for them. In exploring the denial of faith, and faith that is hidden from the overwhelming pressure of culture, he opened up a path to probe the mystery of existence.

Silence and Beauty is not all about the hiddenness of God, the mysteries of pain, or the struggles with martyrdom and persecution - although, in the age of ISIS and the I Am N movement, this Japanese novel may be just what we need. Philip Yancey says as much in a brilliant, wonderfully lengthy opening foreword. (I have read Yancey's chapter twice and found it extraordinary both times.)

Neither is Silence and Beauty only a thoughtful engagement of Endo's Silence but it is more -- it shares Mako's own story of reflecting deeply on how art and beauty can help us (what is the word - cope?) with the world as it is. It about faith and creativity, about literature and art and God's goodness.

As Gregory Wolfe, editor of the prestigious religious literary journal, Image, writes, "Above all, Fujimura enables us to sense that grace can live - and inspire new life - even in the midst of suffering."

Or, as Thomas John Hastings, a research fellow of the Kagawa Archives and former theology professor at Tokyo Union Theological Seminary says, "...his layering of Ground Zero themes functions like a Rembrandt primer out of which a sublime beauty and grace emerges."

Beauty and grace.  Indeed.

silence and beauty.jpgThere is much about Japan and Japanese culture here - including what Mako calls "fumi-e culture" - and much about his own journey with "the ambiguous." Perhaps you, too, struggle with ambiguity, hiddenness, deep questions and considerable doubt. This book can help.  His chapter "The Redemption of Father Rodrigues" moves from The Silence to other great themes and is full of insight. His powerful penultimate chapter is "The Aroma: Towards an Antidote to Trauma."  What a phrase!

There is a centerpiece section inserted on glossy paper in Silence and Beauty nicely showing full color reproductions of several important paintings about which Mako writes. In a nod to "The Great Wave of Kanagawa" by Katsushika Hokusai (you've surely seen it and will recognize it as it is shown) he has a brilliant chapter called "Mission Beyond the Waves." The final paragraph, summarizing this complex journey towards appreciating the Japanese insights about beauty and silence, and silence and beauty, and silent beauty, is stunning. In those closing pages Mako offers lovely, mature, deeply spiritual hope that can benefit us all. 

In case I have suggested to you that this book is too arcane for most readers either intellectually (citing the likes of Kierkegaard and David Bentley Hart and numerous Japanese scholars and historians) or emotionally (with its description of jarring scenes of brutality and the darker themes of God's hiddenness) I want to invite you to reconsider. Yes, this is an intense book, but it is a beautiful book and a very engaging one. Mako cites J.R.R. Tolkien, which is always nice, and has a big section on Anne of Green Gables. He mentions Jane Eyre and even Star Wars.

Here is a beautifully filmed very short feature about Makoto's work and his new book. There are moments when I sense that Mako is struggling for words to put to this profound, terrifyingly beautiful project.  I hope you watch it -- it's very well done.

'Silence and Beauty' by Makoto Fujimura from InterVarsity Press on Vimeo.

From his red barn studio and Institute in Princeton to his recent position at the important Brehm Center at Fuller Theological Seminary, informed by his considerable knowledge of modern American artists (Rothko, Pollock) to his first hand experiences in the Japanese art world, from moving words about Japanese saints to courage gathered from Martin Luther King, Jr., this new book will bless you with an extravagant learning experience.  It will move you to consider deeply the role of the arts in our lives, and, more, the curiously generative relationship of silence and beauty, of mystery and faith, of pain and hope, of sin and redemption. Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering is very nicely made, majestic, grand -- a truly remarkable book, a book excellent for our times.  

It would be our great pleasure to send both books to you. 

Mako Fujimura's Silence and Beauty  AND  Shasako Endo's novel Silence.

HERE'S OUR OFFER: 

Buy either one at a 10% discount.

Silence and Beauty regularly $26.00 -- at 10% off, sale price = $23.40                                           Silence regularly $16.00 -- at 10% off, sale price = $14.40

 OR

Buy both together

20% off discount.

silence and beauty.jpg

silence endo new cover.jpg                            

Buy both together and save: package deal = $33.60


BookNotes

SPECIAL
DISCOUNT
ANY ITEM MENTIONED

10% off
OR

BUY BOTH
Silence and Beauty
and
Silence

20% off
order here
takes you to the secure Hearts & Minds order form page
just tell us what you want

inquire here
if you have questions or need more information
just ask us what you want to know

                                      Hearts & Minds 234 East Main Street  Dallastown, PA  17313     717-246-3333



April 10, 2016

FIVE RECENT BOOKS EXPLORING A SHIFT TO NEW SORTS OF FAITH and FIVE RECENT BOOKS OF THEOLOGY TO HELP ALONG THE WAY

Order any book mentioned, on sale, by clicking on the order form tab below. It takes you to our certified secure order form page at our Hearts & Minds bookstore's website.  Or, if you have questions, give us a shout at the "inquire" page.  Thanks for reading our BookNotes column and for your interest in reading widely.


Let me just get something off my chest, for starters, so you understand.


I know I am not alone in admitting that I have had, and continue to have, great concerns -- in today's parlance, issues  -- with the history, legacy, reputation, and behavior of what might generally be called "the church."  


Christianity as a religion has brought many, many great blessings to the world, even as some representatives of the church have done great, great evil. There's all manner of contemporary nastiness and rigid sorts of dogmatism and graceless legalism; we seem to know more about the unsavory stuff that happens in churches and denominations these days, and it often isn't pretty.  Only a fool would deny it. Throw in the unfortunate experience of many who find within the church a general lifelessness, an apathy about the world at large, and a lackluster practice of the faith's demands and, well, it's no wonder there are books like Lyons & Kinnaman's Unchristian that offers data about how unchurched younger adults report that the first things they think of when thinking about Christians are, well, not particularly good. 


Coming of age spiritual memoirs, testimonials of faith and doubt, have long been a staple of religious literature. I must restrain myself from a tangent here, but you know there are wonderfully-written books telling of writers who have been attracted to or departed faith. We have a lot of wonderful books in our memoir section here at the store;. They used to be more about coming to faith rather than the occasional story of leaving the fold; now it seems almost the other way around. 


once upon a time you had it all sorted out.jpgI have noticed in the last several years that there is a sub-genre of this kind of book and you surely know it too; I am referring to memoirs of former fundamentalists or evangelicals who have put pen to paper to tell of their growing disillusionment with the simple certainties of their youth, their frustrations with their old churches, books telling of faith journeys that end up perhaps still Christian (sometimes robustly so) but not quite of the sort they used to be. It really is a thing, nowadays.


Many of these books are good reads, offering illumination about the paths life can take, the choices people make, the deepest things that grab or bless or hurt or shape us.  Some are funny and entertaining (see Post Traumatic Church Syndrome: A Memoir of Humor and Healing by Reba Riley), some may be infuriating for those of us who don't quite understand why some are so turned off by a little messiness in the church. Some such stories of becoming de-churched are luminously written without any proscriptive intent (think of the stunning In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in an Unknown County by Kim Barnes) while others (think of Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans or Diana Butler Bass's very thoughtful Strength for the Journey: A Pilgrimage of Faith in Community) are as much about their own visions for what good church should be like, with their well-told personal story the vehicle for lament, advocacy and pleas for reform.


And so, again, what I need to get off my chest: I get it. I, too, have issues, big issues, with lots of stuff within the Christian community, among high church liturgical types and low church evangelicals, among mainline denominational denominations and charismatic/Pentecostal ones. Indeed, I've spent time protesting church complicity in injustice -- how many of you have been physically carted out of a church and how many of you have lost a beloved ministry job due to offering prophetic critique (or, have, while I'm airing my dirty laundry, been fired from a Family Christian bookstore for having a bit too much integrity?) Oh yes, I've got issues.


But yet, the other thing I need to say: I sometimes grow weary of the recent, hip negativity (what one friend has termed the "valorization of exile.") And what's with these big, broadly generic accusations about "Christians" (what Christians?) "the" church (which church?) I sometimes tire a bit of all the whining blogs and expose articles, earnest and beautifully written as many of them are. I am not so sure that venting all the youthful disillusionment with evangelicalism is all that helpful -- interesting as the memoirs may be and valid as many of the concerns are -- if they tend to make cynicism and being jaded more acceptable.  As Rob Bell says in his powerful "Resurrection" video, "It's easy to be cynical."


Maybe I'm still too much of a baby boomer thinking we can change the world, or a do-gooder who thinks if you're not part of the solution your part of the problem, but I want to note that I am sometimes surprised that evangelical young adults are surprised to learn the church is messed up. Sometimes I want to poke them in the chest and say who are you kidding: we all have some screws loose, no church is perfect, many of us have been wounded by harsh religion and your Captain Obvious story is getting old. Of course religion has been dysfunctional and of course we should be wary -- haven't you heard of the Crusades or the middle ages heresy hunting or the Salem Witch trials or Westboro Baptist? (For a good dose of healthy reality please pick up Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith edited by Mae Cannon, Lisa Sharon Harper, Troy Jackson and Soong-Chan Rah.) Surely you know that many evangelicals just a handful of decades ago stood by silently while blacks were lynched by good Sunday school teachers. You are surprised that the church is sometimes awful and even on a good day, pretty messed up?


Still, I like that old saw (attributed to Augustine and used often by Dorothy Day) about how of course we know the church is a whore. But she is still our mother.  And, I'd add, that means her members are still family to me.  So watch out who you're bitching about -- those fundies, liberals, wackos, Pharisees, evangelicals, emergents, missionals, mainliners, liturgicals, mystics, Pentecostals, Calvinists, Arminians, Catholics, postmodern, legalistic, old school, new light, whoever else you don't like these days -- they're my peeps, for better or worse.


And, anyway, for every goofball bad Christian and toxic church there are two good ones, devout, lovely folks, living out their faith in good and healthy ways, quiet, sober, kind.  So the outrage I see on line sometimes makes me wonder if the aggrieved post-Christian prophets just don't get out very much.  If they did, they'd know this is true. There's a lot of quiet beauty and gospel grace out there.


Maybe it would help if we all had a bit bigger, broader view of that abstraction: the church. I'd recommend reading my favorite book on ecumenism, Your Church is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ's Mission is Vital to the Future of the Church by John H. Armstrong and a few memoirs about ordinary church life, something like Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery by Richard Lischer or When "Spiritual But Not Religious" is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church by UCC pastor and very good writer, Lillian Daniel. Maybe Eugene Peterson's memoir,The Pastor.  And, although it plays to the disillusioned and jaded looking for a way out of conventional church, Nadia Bolz-Weber's Accidental Saints: Finding God in all the Wrong People made me weep with how ordinary her famously edgy church is in many, many ways -- good but broken folks trying to love each other as they worship God and follow Jesus, through good outreach and lots of failings, too.  Reading these stories of local church life gives me hope.


So, having said all that...


I will list 5 recent books that capture this trend, this movement, if you will, this genre of writing that often appears as memoirs of those moving away from older certainties and towards newer understandings and expressions of Christian faith. These are voices to hear, good books to read in part because they are indicative of something going on and because -- as a bookseller, I truly believe this -- they can be helpful as you consider your own faith journey, church involvements, loyalties and convictions, doubts and fears.  Are you at peace about your own religious experiences? Disillusioned or hopeful? Have you emotionally grappled with and resolved some of the hard stuff you've encountered in your own church experience? Has your faith community discouraged asking hard questions or sharing doubt or are they safe and supportive and gracious?  Are you on the cusp of new layers of insights -- listen to your life, Fred Buechner said decades ago --  and are you working through that in a local congregation? Do your questions about the Bible itself lead you to deeper study and good conversations?  Agree or not with any of these 5 books and authors, they are notable and they offer enjoyable, engaging reading and can be useful to stimulate your own self reflection.


Next, after those 5 recommendations, I will list 5 new books of theology that, if I may be so bold, might be helpful for those asking the big questions about the meaning of faith and what it might look like to (re)consider Christian faith for our time.


That is, if one of the trends we see in these memoirs and reflective studies is a disillusionment with old ways of getting the faith described and lived, then what might a better way be? These five theology books are, in fact, mostly conventional. We need an ancient-future view, you know, not just throwing the baby out with the bath water and all that, historic stuff explained afresh. I've said it before  -- a wise teacher in art school once told students wanting to do abstract modern art that "you have to know the rules before you break them."  So I might suggest these books of fairly classic theology or faith formation to those attracted to the artful memoirs of faith and doubt written by those seeking different kinds of church experience. Before serious, life-giving re-formulation can happen, we have to know the basics. If we are pushing away from old stuff, we have to know where we've been and what direction to head. I sometimes wonder if the authors of these sorts of contemporary books narrating a theological shift had these kinds of strong resources, and were part of faith communities reading this kind of meaty, good stuff together, how their lives and faith might have worked out differently?


If you are familiar with these sort of questions and concerns, then you know what I'm talking about and you will appreciate these books, I'm sure. But if none of this seems familiar to you and you aren't a part of these kinds of conversations at all, perhaps these few titles and authors might be useful to alert you to the pain some feel about their churches and the struggles some have with conventional expressions and formulations of a faith.  Welcome....


FIVE SPIRITUAL MEMOIRS OR REFLECTIONS ON NEW KINDS OF FAITH


Out of Sorts- Making Peace with an Evolving Faith.jpgOut of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith Sarah Bessey (Howard) $15.99  I very much liked Bessey's last book, Jesus Feminist and really appreciate her thoughtful, creative writing style. I think Jen Hatmaker is right when she says "Sarah Bessey manages to be poetic but accessible, prophetic but gentle, crazy smart but approachable, strong but gracious." She is in some ways a poster-child for this trend about moving beyond simple and dogmatic theological views and practices from her previous evangelical background. Like she says, her faith is evolving. In many ways, it is a lovely thing to behold.


Of this recent release Micah Boyett (author of Found) says, "Bessey writes with the fire of a preacher and the soul of a mother, critical thought without cynicism. This book is for all of us wonderers who long for Jesus and distrust easy answers."  See what I mean?


The very lovely writer Shauna Niequist mentions s "complicated dance with church and all its tentacles..." Check.  Brian Zahd (who himself has a book about his own out of sorts journey, self-published and not available to us) says that Bessey is sharing "her search for an authentic Christian faith -- a search that led her away from the church and then back home again."


Bessey's Out of Sorts is a beautiful book and the title and the subtitle itself evoke much of what it is about. Frank Viola says it is "honest, sober" and Pete Enns says it is "moving and real."  I highly recommend it and think it captures exactly what many, many, formerly evangelical young adults are thinking and feeling.  You should read it.


Night Driving- A Story of Faith in the Dark .jpgNight Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark Addie Zierman (Convergent Books) $14.99  I cannot wait to read this new one  -- I loved her very moving memoir, a quintessential example of this genre, called When We Were On Fire (which I reviewed at BookNotes and which Publishers Weekly named as one of the top five religious books of 2013.) Rachel Held Evans says, correctly, that Zierman is "a master storyteller" and, whewie, is she ever! She can turn a phrase and pull you into a scene. Having dipped in to just a few pages, I know it will be a great read. 


Here is the gist of this important new memoir: Zierman grew up with an emotionally-charged, fire-filled sort of faith that seemed so very real because one felt God's touch. But now, at age 30, she tells us, she feels nothing. "Just the darkness pressing in. Just the winter cold. Just a buzzing silence where God's voice used to be."  The organizational structure of this is a road trip -- she piles her two kids into the minivan and heads South in a last-ditch effort to find Light in the darkness. Each chapter is a different leg of the literal journey.


I love a good road trip and I love a memoir ruminating on finding faith, searching for lasting answers, meaning, hope. I think this fine writer, blogger, and speaker will deliver what I suspect is a beautifully-rendered sequel to her moving away from fundamentalism story told in When We Were on Fire. I think it is going to get a lot of attention. Enjoy.


.jpgThe Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our "Correct" Beliefs Peter Enns (HarperOne) $25.99  I sort of thought most people knew this by now, but apparently not: "having the right beliefs is not the same as having faith."  If one is going to ruminate on the relationship between right belief and right behavior and the good life, Enns is a good choice to lead us in pondering this. He is a top flight Old Testament scholar, and formerly taught at the exceptionally theologically conservative and doctrinally rigid Westminster Theological Seminary where he lost his job by asking questions about the doctrines of innerrency and how to handle responsible criticism of the discrepancies in ancient Biblical manuscripts that seemed out of line with their own heritage. Dr. Enns has written serious books about all that (Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament) and more popular level books about how to read the Scriptures well, such as The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. But through and behind his story of being fired for what some might think to be fairly moderate theological positions, there is this bigger question: what is the role of rational truth in Christian faith, and what is the role of orthodox doctrine? What does it mean to know? And what kind of trust (and in what?) does faith demand? The Sin of Certainty is a very readable collection of fairly short chapters with insights from Enns's own journey, his reflections on his own evolving views of the Bible and Reformed evangelicalism, and how these shifts have effected his own family, work, life, and church involvement.


Sarah Bessey says,


Enns is brilliant. This book is accessible, freeing, empowering, and beautiful. I underlined almost every page. I'm deeply thankful for Enns's work and his new book is right on time for many of us.


Brian McLaren says of The Sin of Certainty


If you're afraid that your theological questions and doubts disqualify you from being a person of faith, theologian Peter Enns has good news for you. Very good news. And it's a delightful read, too!


And there is a lot of Bible study here. Walter Brueggemann notes professor Enns's "puckish affirmation of the buoyant, sometimes outrageous, boundary-breaking capacity of biblical faith."


There are other resources for this journey -- I love books like Daniel Taylor's IVP release The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian and the Risk of Commitment or his novel, for that matter, published by Slant, called Death Comes for the Deconstructionist.  Enns is not alone in deconstructing certain reductionistic ways of knowing and promoting more faithful, storied ways of understanding God's authoritative revelation, and he explains how this debate about the roots of Western culture has been "festering for centuries."  Anyway, The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our "Correct" Beliefs -- puckish as it may be -- is an important new release, part behind the scenes personal story and part seminar on thinking about church, Bible, discipleship and true faith. Fascinating.


How-Jesus-Saves-the-World-from-Us.jpgHow Jesus Saves the World From Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity Morgan Guyton (Abingdon) $16.00  Okay, this is less of a memoir and more of a Biblical/theological church revitalization study, and the author (a United Methodist elder and campus minister) surely doesn't intend to merely bad-mouth the church, inviting doubt and celebrating exile from institutional religion. No, he's all in.  But his take is edgy and critical. And really interestingly written, in what Diana Butler Bass says is "Powerful. Provocative. And true..." She continues, "if you've been tempted to dump Christianity, give this book the chance to convert you to the possibility of a deeper life in and with God."  


Listen to the back cover, noting not only how good and needed this is, but how it seems to capture something of this tendency these days to be critical of the church, to seek antidotes for toxic behaviors and bad attitudes.


It says,


Christianity has always been about being saved. But what Christians need saving from most today is the toxic understandings and behaviors we ourselves have been practicing! We have become precisely that Jesus came to stop us from being.


This is a book for Christians who are troubled by what we've become and who want Jesus to save us from the toxic behaviors and attitudes we've embraced.


This book with the interesting title, How Jesus Saves the World From Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity, offers ways to more faithfully participate in God's redemptive work. It reminds us that "there are many reasons to lose hope about the state of our world and our church" but invites us to not give in or give up, but to rethink faith ("poetry not math"), worship (it's "not performance"), church ("temple, not program") and service ("solidarity, not sanctimony") and live afresh into lives that are about "communion, not correctness." 


I'm sure you can see ways in which some of these slogans perhaps need not be "either/or" and how in some places, some of Guyton's accusations in the hard-hitting How Jesus Saves the World... may seem ham-fisted. But, mostly, I suspect he's right and these antidotes are not only indicative of things the Spirit is saying to us these days, but of stuff we really need to ponder.  Guyton has seen young adults drift from faith for some of these very reasons; he's obvious familiar with the data shown in UnChristian and knows about the anguish and discomfort many feel with what they know about church. This is his response.


girl and the end of the world.jpgGirl at the End of the World: My Escape from Fundamentalism in Search of Faith with a Future  Elizabeth Esther (Convergent Books) $14.95  This book came out two years ago so is not brand new, but it is such a great and moving read and such a clear example of toxic faith from which she does indeed need to escape and be healed that I wanted to list it here. She tells a very moving tale about her upbringing -- secret family plans to be "rapture ready", abusive "child training" stuff, being forced to preach fire and brimstone on street-corners as a child -- that seems bizarre to most readers. Esther journeys through what can only be called PTSD and the realization that the authoritarian religion she knew was nearly cult-like, beyond the scope of most conservative evangelicals, for sure, and simply not healthy or true.


Sarah Mae, a fine writer of books for women, whose work we appreciate, says, 


Elizabeth shares with candor, wit, and near flawless writing about the religion she was so deeply hurt by. Her story is heartbreaking, yet redemptive, and we would all do well to pay attention to how religion without the love, grace, and truth of Jesus Christ is an empty and destructive force.


I greatly appreciate Rachel Held Evans evaluation:


What a story! Girl at the End of the World is witty, insightful, courageous, and compelling, the sort of book you plan to read in a week but finish in a day. Elizabeth Esther is a master storyteller who describes her journey out of fundamentalism with a powerful mix of tenderness and guts. With this debut, Esther sets herself apart as a remarkable writer and remarkable woman. This book is a gift, and I cannot commend it enough.


It isn't a foregone conclusion in Girl at the End... nor in any of these stories, that there will be anything like renewed faith or healing or hope. Thankfully, Elizabeth Esther does experience great grace and displays even good humor in her masterful prose. We see the cowering girl who finds great awareness of God's love and a more life-giving faith.  


FIVE NEW THEOLOGICAL RESOURCES


Pictures at a Theological Exhibition.jpgPictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of the Church's Worship, Witness and Wisdom Kevin J. Vanhoozer (IVP Academic) $20.00  I love the look of this, the format, the metaphor, which Vanhoozer creatively plumbs throughout.   It might become -- it just came so I can't say for sure -- my favorite theology book of the year. It sure looks meaty and fun, edifying and interesting.  


I'll let Marva Dawn say it:


I have always loved Pictures at an Exhibition, but the music and the art, and now that Vanhoozer has structured his theology book according to its promenade and galleries, I will remember his descriptions and clarifications that much better. He is a meticulous explainer, so his work in tis book is very unambiguous as he reckons with many issues such as the role of a pastor interpreting a text, the affective relation doctrine and worship, and debate about cognitive enhancement. Then there is the added prevention of his artistic sermons. Don't miss this display!

One has to appreciate a book that somebody like Cornelius Plantinga says is "deeply revealing" and is written "with enormous discernment and love."


Besides this walk through the exhibition hall, teaching about applied theology ("the church's worship, witness, wisdom") there are sermons interspersed as well.  This truly is a great plus.


Listen to Fred Sanders of Biola University:


Vanhoozer has a reputation for unveiling the big picture for us, but here he devotes his considerable critical powers to a series of small ones. For fans of his earlier work, there are characteristic delights and a few surprises--not least the interspersed sermons that answer the question, 'Yes, but will it preach?' Vanhoozer's playfulness, recursions, puns and layered allusions all pay off exceptionally well in these miniature studies. And readers who have heard that Vanhoozer's theology deserves attention but have wondered where to begin studying are well advised to start with these rich and accessible essays.


One reviewer -- knowing Vanhoozer's own interest in theatre and drama -- calls this book an artful picture/play.  Still, though, it is mature, faithful, seriously orthodox theology.  Oh if only seekers and skeptics and shallow preachers alike would commit to doing this kind of good reading. We could recover what Vanhoozer calls our "discarded imagination" and recovery a theological vision that serves the church, enhances the lives of the people of God.


Delivered from the Elements of the World.jpgDelivered from the Elements of the World: Atonement, Justification, Mission Peter J. Leithart (IVP Academic) $30.00  I have got to read this big book before selling books at an event with professor Leithart at a Mercersburg Theology conference in Lancaster later this Spring. It is mature and meaty, not unlike his many other serious books. He is the president of Theopolis Institute in Birmingham, Alabama and an adjunct senior fellow at New Saint Andrews College; perhaps you read him at First Things.  His is, by all accounts, brilliant, a serious Biblical scholar who is at once utterly orthodox and yet a bit unconventional, feisty and remarkable.


I can best recommend this to you, and assure you of its importance, by offering these three breathtakingly good endorsements by three very important scholars.  Few books get this kind of acclaim:


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."

--James K. A. Smith, professor of philosophy, Calvin College, editor, Comment magazine

"Among contemporary theologians, only Leithart has the biblical erudition, theological breadth and rhetorical power necessary for writing a book like this one. His Christian creativity and love for Jesus Christ jump off the page. As an account of atonement, this book is also an account of the entirety of Christian reality, and indeed of the reality of Israel as well, in light of pagan and secular cultures and in light of the church's own failures to live what Christ has given. At its heart is an urgent call for all Christians, living in the Spirit, to share the Eucharist together against every fleshly barrier and Spirit-less form of exclusion. Leithart's dazzling biblical and ecumenical manifesto merits the closest attention and engagement."

--Matthew Levering, Perry Family Foundation Professor of Theology, Mundelein Seminary

"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. Attending to the doctrines of the atonement and justification, he writes in the best tradition of apologetics, namely that of creative, orthodox, contextual theology."

--Craig Bartholomew, professor of philosophy and religion and theology, Redeemer University College

Core Christianity- Finding Yourself in God's Story.jpgCore Christianity: Finding Yourself in God's Story Michael Horton (Zondervan) $14.99  Okay, this is a different sort of book than the first two listed.  While Horton is a remarkable scholar, writer, journalist and radio host (see his White Horse Inn broadcast) himself and while he has written serious, mature books about the troubles of even the evangelical church for drifting from robust, serious theology, this book is not designed for heady thinkers and certainly not for the academy or scholars. It is simply what we believe and why it matters -- an intro to the study of God that leads to awe and wonder and clarity about grace and our response to it all. Horton shows his pastoral side here and tackles, as it says on the back cover "the essential and basic beliefs that all Christians share. In addition to unpacking these beliefs in a way that is easy to understand, Horton shows why they matter to our lives today.

Horton is J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary in California so comes at this as a stanch advocate of the Reformed tradition. Yet, on the back, non-reformed authors (such as Scot McKnight) offer good recommendations. Kelly Kapic says it affords readers a change to "learn from a master who is not afraid to put things simply and clearly."

Scattered throughout this book that is not much more than 175 pages are charts, interesting side-bars, definitions and a few pictures. It is strong on themes of the covenant, offers a Biblical sort of narrative theology approach and, as the subtitle illustrates, offers to show that solid thinking about Biblical doctrine should shape our own story, giving us meaning and direction, not merely intellectual certainty.  He's up to speed on contemporary issues, but, more urgently, he's old school, arranging historic views in sensible form, helping us know the basics of core Christianity. Nice.

The Dusty Ones bigger.jpgThe Dusty Ones: Why Wandering Deepens Your Faith A.J. Swoboda (Baker Books) $15.99  I named this as a spiritual formation sort of book to be read during Lent when it first came out a month ago.  I raved about A.J.'s A Glorious Dark noting that it is honest and raw, even, about our doubts and pains, the darkness that we know and that we attend to especially during the Holy Week rituals and the tridium. He's a fun and colorful writer and a good storyteller but he's also that kind of guy, naming real world stuff and inviting us to an authentic faith experience, even if at times (gloriously) dark.

I named this one as a broader sort of book, but similar. As you can tell, and as I explained, it picks up the theme of wandering, and what it means to wander well.  (I cannot help but note that the word sounds a bit like wondering -- curiously asking -- and then there's that song "I Wonder as I Wander.") So this is about being honest about deep stuff, about real questions, and about moving into those seasons and places when we are restless, doubtful or questioning.  The road may be "always bumpy" but Swoboda says it is "always worthwhile."

I wasn't sure this book fit my theme -- five books about disenchanted faith or evolving faith stories and five books of theology that might offer ballast and a framework for those who are seeking or evolving.  This is perhaps even an example of the former, not the later.  Yes, there are stories here, some about hard times, about restlessness, even a chapter called "Displacement." In a way, this very much represents the sorts of longings and rejection of easy answers expressed in books like Out of Sorts or Night Driving. 

However, The Dusty Ones is not telling of the awkwardness of bad faith or offering stories of shifting away from childhood certainties, it is a positive proposal for how questioning and wandering can be good. There is plenty of solid thinking here, good teaching about a Biblical vision and imagination, and theology of the sort that is formative and encouraging. It invites dusty journeys, honors those times when we feel lost, and doesn't back off of faith that is provocative. But at the end of the day, as they say, being dusty is to be close to Christ, to be like most Bible characters, to be on the road with a lived and lively faith. He looks at our idols our "invisible loves" (he's been reading Jamie Smith) and he invites us to walk, to go, to follow along that pilgrim way.

I like that the memoirist Seth Haines (recovering addict and author of the award-winning Coming Clean: A Story of Faith) says 

A.J. Swoboda is the kind of pastor, writer, and theologian today's church desperately needs. Capable and engaging, he has a bent toward vulnerability that is simply honest and beautifully human. And it's this human touch that makes The Dusty Ones a unique, well-rooted, and spiritually nourishing work. If you've experienced your own desert seasons or periods of wandering, this book is Swoboda's gift to you.

Can you see why I again recommend this, listing it here, in this list. Some of the first books lament the lack of room their legalistic churches gave for those who wander, or even wonder. The evolving shift away from fundamentalist paradigms the increasing jadedness about conventional religion is partially because such rigid faith systems can sometimes become unhealthy, covering up doubt and the "beautifully human" plight of our limits and foibles.  And those congregations that aren't fundamentalist, but still insist on wearing our "Sunday best" and protecting their status quo, can also implicitly discourage those who ask questions. If churches -- more liberal or more conservative -- used resources like this utterly Biblical, theologically fine book, God's children would be better served, people would flourish in faith development that is rigorous without being rigid, open-minded without being shallow, truthful without fostering pride, honest about being lost and earnest about being found. I'm a fan of this kind of serious faith formation, theology on the road, spiritual development for the heart and mind, situation smack in the questions of a hurting, wandering world.  This is highly recommended.

51% Christian- FInding Faith After Certainty .jpg51% Christian: Finding Faith After Certainty Mark Stenberg (Fortress Press) $16.99  Well, I'm not sure what to say about this -- it isn't everyone's cup of theological tea, I suppose. Stenberg is a founding pastor of two innovative, emerging churches, House of Mercy Church in St. Paul, Minnesota and Mercy Seat Lutheran Church in Northeast Minneapolis. This is a recent release from the "Theology of the People" series (edited by Tony Jones) and carries a very moving foreword by Nadia Bolz-Weber. So that might help you place it.

But, don't be fooled, thinking that its out-side-the-box, radical approach is too eccentric to be unhelpful. Stenberg may be iconoclastic and Russell Rathbun of House of Mercy may say he is "the funniest theologian I know" but this slight goofiness aside, this is a book grounded in pretty classic mainline Protestant formulations. It is laden with footnotes including one mentioning that Stenberg weeps -- every time he says -- that he reads Karl Barth on freedom. Now that, my friends, is commendation for a theological author, if you ask me: he doesn't say he believes Barth is right about everything, but he knows enough about him and cares enough about these deep things that the dense Swiss thinker makes him weep.  That's a guy worth reading.

Debbie Blue, author of two great collections of exquisitely edgy sermons and the extraordinary Consider the Birds says "Stenberg is a brilliant theologian. In 51% Christian he makes some of the most graceful and beautiful theology you could ever imagine extremely accessible without sacrificing depth and complexity."  Another reviewer says the author "takes you on a wild ride across theological terrain few are willing to enter."  Rathbun says he's funny, but he also says he's "the smartest theologian I know."

This guy knows his theological stuff, classic, contemporary, radical. He often quotes Dale Allison (a Girardian), draws on the genius systematic theology of James William McClendon, and happily appreciates the Canadian John Douglas Hall. And St. Thomas Aquinas and (naturally) Martin Luther. 

And, I might add, the book makes some pop culture allusions, from Lewis Black to Bruce Cockburn to Malcolm X.

Pastor Stenberg has chapters with titles like "De-Greekifying the Divine, or How to Quit Thinking About God" and "Why Your Theory of Atonement Sucks." I particularly liked "How the Cheatin' Heart of Modernity Double-Crossed the Doctrine of Revelation."

Okay, this isn't J.I. Packer or John Stott or Abraham Kuyper; it isn't even close to the previously mentioned authors named above, contemporary as they each are. But if we are inviting congregations or people to read serious-minded, practically-written, interesting theology that might make sense, moving away from nonessential dogmatism and heavy-handed, overly scholastic systematics, then this kind of neo-orthodox, very contemporary, provocative stuff should be part of that conversation. It seems to be helping some along the way, and even if it isn't fully conventional, it is asking good, good questions, inviting answers that can point us to faith that doesn't have to be cynically discarded or evolved out of with hurt and confusion. Let's wander and wonder together, finding Biblical faith after unhelpful commitments to wrong kinds of certainty. 


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April 5, 2016

Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk & True Flourishing by Andy Crouch ON SALE NOW

Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk & True Flourishing Andy Crouch (InterVarsity Press) $19.99  sale price $17.99

There are so many reasons that we recommend the latest Andy Crouch book, Strong and Weak that I hardly know where to begin. There have been a number of other reviews by people I trust, although, for my own quirky reasons, I haven't looked at anyone else's comments yet. I hear they are very good; I am sure, come year's end, S&W will be on many "best of 2016" lists.  We were so appreciative of Andy's other good work, and a lecture we heard about this project as he was working on it that we wanted to tell you about it as soon as we knew we could take orders for it; maybe you saw our advanced promo of it at BookNotes at the end of last year.

culture making.jpgAnd then, it arrived just in time for me to shout out about it on the big stage last February at the CCO's Jubilee conference.  It was delicious for us to have it right out of the gate, glad for the publisher's eagerness to have it known among those gathered in Pittsburgh.  Andy had spoken at Jubilee previously, and his talk there a few years ago on the goodness of God's creation and our "culture making" task to "make something of the world" is surely one of the great main stage talks at Jubilee.  You will enjoy the mastery of public speaking Andy shows, you will learn something, and be newly inspired to think about the large role faith can have in inspiring us to responsible action in the world as those who bear the creative image of God in the world.  I do think that his 2008 Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (IVP; $22.00) is one of the most significant books we've sold in our thirty-plus years of our own trying to help make something better of the world here in D-town. His Jubilee talk captures much of that book's insight and pleasing, reasonable energy.  WATCH IT HERE.

playing god.jpgPlaying God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (IVP; $25.00) was released in 2013. I sometimes say is the necessary follow-up to Culture Making. Insofar as we take up our callings to be creative in the world, paying attention to God's presence in the wider culture, nurturing postures of holy, healthy involvement as Culture Making commends, we will, sooner or later, come up against hard complexities that we can abbreviate by words like sin or corruption or, less negatively, perhaps, power. There It is: if we are serious about culture-making, we will have to grapple with what it means to exercise power properly, what it means to speak truth to power effectively, and what it means to pay attention to institutions, local and national and perhaps global and to what some call our "social architecture." The subtitle of Playing God is about "redeeming the gift of power" and that tips his hand considerably: power is not necessarily a bad thing, it can be exercised redemptively. Few Christian thinkers have thought adequately about helping us take up cultural influence in positions of power, even with the social architecture of institutions and mediating structures, in ways that might be called redemptive.  

Of course, taking up power is a vague phrase, and Crouch is exquisite in Playing God as he carefully explains what it may or may not mean, and exploring the different sorts of institutions and arenas where we might exercise power properly. Or where we might be seduced to betray Christ by exercising power unjustly; the book title itself does bear that ominous concern.  There are not many books like that one, and we have been promoting it since it came out, believing that it really is important. It is not only important, but it is so very thoughtfully written, with the right mix of astute theological awareness, good Biblical references, informed sociological analysis and tender (and at times powerful) storytelling from his own travels around the globe. Both Culture Making and Playing God are very good books.

S&W.jpgWhich takes us to the new, smaller - although still quite ambitious - lovely new work called Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk & True Flourishing. It is (or so it seems to me) somewhat of a sequel or coda to Playing God.  It continues to ask questions about power and authority, servanthood and embracing vulnerability by taking serious risks, learning how to avoid the grip of idols that can lock us into ways of living that are not free and flourishing, and ways of leading or exercising influence that are not generative or fruitful.  As you should gather from the title, it draws upon in important ways - I only know a handful of books that seriously do this -  Paul's claim in 2 Corinthians 12 about boasting in his weaknesses. What in the world does that mean?

Crouch's book is a must for anyone thinking about leadership or anyone who is hoping to take up responsible mission in their areas of influence. Work, home, church, civic life, campus? This book can help.

Click here for a nice, short video clip of Andy speaking about the book. 

This video captures Andy's smart prose, his remarkable insight, and the potent paradox this book explores.

However, as the subtitle suggests, Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk & True Flourishing is about full human flourishing, giving it a broader appeal than being about leadership as such. Yes, I recommend it to those wanting to be more responsible in "owning" their authority, their calling to exercise influence, for those who see themselves in positions of leadership, whether in the church or at work on within voluntary associations.

But I want to say that this book is wonderful for nearly anyone. If you are interested in reflecting on the very essence of the good life, if you are inclined to deepen your awareness of the nature of being in the very image of God, if you are willing to ponder some mysteries of the human condition and some curious angles on personal and societal flourishing, on personal growth and how that translates into wise and fruitful living in the world, this book will be one you will want to read and re-read. It is not simplistic, nor is it one of the nearly ubiquitous zippy pop treatments about getting stuff done or being happy; the first lines are these:

Two questions haunt every human life, and every human community. The first: What are we meant to be? The second: Why are we so far from what we're meant to be?

So, yes, this book is for anyone seeking a good and meaningful life that is profoundly shaped by the Biblical story and faithful answers to these essential, haunting questions.

andy tension.jpgI've said this before and I hope it intrigues you -- please don't allow this description to minimize its sophistication or profundity -- but much of Strong and Weak is an extended meditation on four ways of being, four combinations of authority and vulnerability.  It is, simply put, about a single paradox that generates a "fruitful tension" of "complexity and possibility." It is not simplistic, but it is fairly simple to explain.

Each of the four positions or postures explored and appraised can be seen in one of four quadrants of a four-square, 2x2 chart. And he has reprinted said 2x2 chart in every chapter, with a strong chapter on each quadrant.

I laughed out loud when I heard Barna leader David Kinnaman quip that "spreadsheets are my love language." I smiled similarly when Andy wrote "There is nothing I find quite as satisfying as a 2x2 chart at the right time."

He explains:

The 2x2 helps us grasp the nature of paradox. When used properly, the 2x2 can take two ideas we thought were opposed to one another and show how they complement each other.

The world is littered with false choices. The leadership writers Jim Collins and Scott Porras talk about "the tyranny of the OR and the genius of the AND."

You gotta love that, a reasonable, moderate fellow poking away at our either/or framework -- taking up "the genius of AND."  Consider how he does it, by exposing a less helpful mental model, contrasted with the more generative 2x2 four-square chart.

Imagine the standard continuum, a right to left linear line with one extreme on one side and another extreme on the other.  That's how we often think about things, isn't it? Contrast this with the four-quadrant 2x2 chart which transcends a simplistic this or that approach. As Crouch nicely says,

what we need is not a linear "or" but a two-dimensional "and" that presses us to see the surprising connections between two things we thought we had to choose between - and perhaps even to discover that to have the fullness of one actually requires that we have the fullness of the other.

Wow, what a quote that is!

He doesn't belabor this (it is not at all tedious) but explains it helpfully.  In his clarifying examples, he shows that it is often unhelpful having a mental model that puts two attributes on the left and right of a linear spectrum, in opposition. For instance, he invites us to consider good parenting; should we imagine a single-line spectrum with the qualities of firmness and warmth in utter opposition (on one end of the line, the authoritarian, boundary-setting, disciplinary parent on the far left pitted against, on the other side, a responsive, interactive parent full of warmth)? Should someone pondering what it means to be a good parent embrace one side of the spectrum or the other -- or some muddled middle half and half?  We are sometimes asked "where do you place yourself on the spectrum of..."

No.  Crouch continues with the parenting example, to help us see the point of the 2x2,

Firmness and warmth, it turns out, are not actually opposites. They can go together - in fact, they must go together for children to flourish. Their relationship is much better shown with a 2x2.

He puts one on a vertical line axis and the other crossing it on a horizontal line and shows it with a diagram.

Map firmness and warmth this way, and you quickly discover that either one, without the other, is poor parenting. Firmness without warmth - authoritarian parenting - leads eventually to rebellion. Warmth without firmness - indulgent parenting - leads eventually to spoiled, entitled brats.

In fact, there aren't just two ways to be a bad parent - there are three! The worst of all is parenting that is neither warm nor firm - absent parenting.

I so appreciate his helpful pages working this out in parenting, exposing the false choice and the way the four quadrants help us see the results of bad mental models.  The lower left quadrant is perhaps the worst as it has neither warmness nor firmness. Up and to the right is the quadrant that combines firmness and warmth.  In a way, that is the theme of Strong and Weak: up and to the right!

In fact, Crouch says this in this good introductory chapter. "Actually, the deepest questions of our lives is how to more further and further away from the quadrant III (absent) and more and more fully into quadrant I (kind.)" He says that this really "leads from a life that is not worth living to the life that really is life. And that, in a nutshell, is what this book is all about."  

Say it with me: up and to the right!

2x2 chart.jpgI suppose you see where this is going.  Plot authority and use of our power on an up-and-down vertical axis.  Cross it with the horizontal line marking vulnerability, risk, weakness.

Up and to the right? That's the revolutionary Pauline/Christ-like combo of high power and high weakness. Can you imagine the lower right quadrant: no power and much vulnerability: that is called being exploited and yields suffering.  Or, think of the upper left: high degrees of power but no risk or vulnerability: raw power is called tyranny; whether in an office or church or family or in the halls of government it leads to the sin of exploitation.  And that lower left one: that's what Crouch calls "withdrawal" and it could be characterized as low power and low vulnerability - those who live in this box take no meaningful risks since nothing is attempted and so there is little vulnerable in the safety of this room.  A cruise ship may be fine for a few days, but this lifestyle of seeming safety is something less than full human flourishing.  Authentic human flourishing is in that upper right quadrant, using God-given potential by taking risks to exercise meaningful authority, a paradoxical embrace of strength and weakness. Crouch doesn't often use the term "servant leadership" (or cite the fabulous and moving book by Dan Allender called Leading with a Limp) but I gather this is what he's talking about.  Up and to the right - high amounts of authority coupled with high degrees of vulnerability.

Here is a short video clip of Andy explaining with great clarity and eloquence the "paradox of flourishing" -- combining authority and vulnerability. Don't miss it.

It's counter-intuitive. A paradox, eh? 

Well, welcome to Christology 101.  There is something more profound going on here then the already keenly profound Pauline "boast in my weakness" thing. There is the grand insight of Chalcedon, crystallized in Phillipians: Christ is fully God and fully human. As a human, he truly suffered. His incarnation necessarily involved taking on limits and wounds and pain and - yes! - even death.  The historic creeds insist, Andy reminds us, that Christ "descended into hell."  What?

harrowing-of-hades-492x357.jpgIn a very moving chapter in S&W entitled "Descending to the Dead" Crouch tells of the Orthodox icon called "The Harrowing of Hell" that "shows Jesus, triumphant over death, grasping the arms of Adam and Even - in most versions of the icon they look rather startled - and lifting them out of their graves."  Crouch continues,

Whatever exactly took place on Holy Saturday, that most solemn of Sabbaths, the day itself is crucial to the full truth of Jesus' lordship as Good Friday and Easter Sunday. There is a gap - between Jesus' death and his resurrection....

After some beautiful writing that reveals how Mr. Crouch is nicely ecumenical and deeply rooted in the best spiritual thinking of the ancient Christian traditions, and after some psychologically profound comments about the fear of death, he comes back to descendit ad inferos. "The descent to the dead finds its way into the myths that shape our culture - and probably every culture" he notes, which leads to some fun nods to pop culture and ends up with a few serious lines about the exceptionally serious endings books of J.K. Rowlings Harry Potter series.  I suppose most will recall that the otherworldly version of the famous train station is named King's Cross. 

The most beloved children's books of our time - or perhaps any time - are unflinching in their understanding that true happy endings are won only a the greatest cost, and that no king is truly a king without a cross.

And so it goes, from Orthodox icons to smart children's literature, from anecdotes of respected Christian leaders illustrating vulnerability by their own transparent lifestyles to examples and laments of deep injustices - from the abuse of authority in the local church to horrific global matters such as sexual trafficking and child slavery.  Crouch is elegant in his prose, judicious in his stories, always clear, often moving, and occasionally delightfully understated.  This is not a loud or demanding book, it isn't packed with breathy calls to change the world or high-octane stories of ostentatious transformation. S&W is a rich, thoughtful, mature, and remarkably interesting guide to taking better steps towards deeper human and cultural flourishing.

There are, to be clear, four key chapters in the first half of the book,  each on the disorders and possibilities within each of the four quadrants in his nifty 2x2 chart.  He has lived with this stuff well and has much to say in chapters simply named after the four quadrants:

  • Flourishing
  • Suffering
  • Withdrawing
  • Exploiting

s & w Andy Crouch better.jpgThe second half of Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk & True Flourishing unpacks the process more, highlighting the journey "up and to the right." These rich chapters include the aforementioned ruminations on the descent to the dead which I commend to anyone wanting to understand the grand paradox of Christian living (and dying to self.) There is a very provocative chapter called "hidden vulnerabilities" that is about the perceptions other may have of us, about carrying our own vulnerabilities in secret, a chapter that is a must-read for those in leadership positions. Read it, also, for the spot-on description of doing a public speaking gig with brand new shoes on! Ha!)

Yes, of course, Crouch quotes the now famous "Daring Greatly" TED Talk by Brene Brown, but this is no cheap swiping of the current phrase de jour.  Andy has lived into this deeply spiritual and truly challenging path and he helps readers by inviting us to several disciplines and practices - from confession of sin to laughter, from fasting to learning via ropes courses, and some clear-headed, if radical, advice about giving up power and willingness to suffer. Throughout S&W, he offers lovely description of conversations he has had with others on their own struggles "up and to the right." From social justice activists in Central American war zones who work with the poor to seemingly wealthy entrepreneurs in their high-tech start-ups to fairly ordinary church folk dreaming up new initiatives in their parishes,  Crouch explains how the temptations and blessings of these four quadrants - three of them rooted in imbalances of power and weakness - are worked out in ordinary life,. He shows nicely how the move towards embracing vulnerability can lead to the proper exercise of power and can form within and among us the virtues of the good life. The life that is true life.

The invitation to deeper risk, greater embrace of our own vulnerabilities, of power embraced as part of Christ-like servanthood, is described more creatively and more carefully, more profoundly and probably more practically in Strong and Weak than in any other book I know. Crouch's four-quandary 2x2 chart inviting us "up and to the right" is golden, solid, helpful, brilliant, even. Maybe Crouch himself feels a bit vulnerable taking this risk of appearing simplistic or cute after his magisterial Playing God. I don't know. But I do know that I am grateful not only for this schema and the rubrics that he's developed to help us imagine and talk about all this, but for his candid sharing of his own stories, making the book really helpful. I am very grateful for this near-genius way of getting at true flourishing, the kind of life we are made for, both/and, not either/or. Can we be both powerful and vulnerable, have authority and yet serve others? Does the path "up and to the right" make sense, and is it do-able? Should we take this seriously?  Read it for yourself and see. I think it is transformational. 

andy_crouch_is_too_cool_for_school.jpgHere are two final observations about this fine book.

First, I suppose you know that Andy is a prominent evangelical thinker and highly regarded journalist/speaker; his platform is well deserved. He has more experience than most in the halls of power, having worked in elite ministry at Harvard and having served on Boards as internationally known at International Justice Mission. His wife has a prestigious PhD in science and teaches at an Ivy League school. Andy plays classical piano, and, well, he's a pretty sophisticated guy.  Even in this accessible work he draws on very serious scholarship (one may not realize this until one studies the end-notes which nicely comment on books such as the Cambridge University Press text The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology by Oliver O'Donovan or Victor Austin's significant  T & T Clark masterpiece Up With Authority or the very, very good We Answer to One Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God by David Koyzis.) Mr. Crouch is aware of large issues in our culture, including freighted matters of race and privilege and class and the abuse of power - the pages on healthy views of policing are very, very good and timely --- and I just don't want anyone to think this is light-weight stuff based on his little chart or that he hasn't done significant homework about the nuances and implications of this stimulating material. It is very nicely written, but every page reveals his fine, substantive thinking.

The second is this: Andy tells a few wonderful stories that show us that as scholarly and urbane and well-read as he may be, he, like most of us, lives in the ordinary world of raising teenagers, doing the dishes, getting along with extended family, paying bills and all the rest; he writes about going to a high school reunion, about college-age crushes, a pretty significant job failure, about his foibles as a public speaker, about coping with anxieties on a high ropes course, about dear, dear friends he has tragically lost to cancer. In that regard, he is like you and me, living day by day in the typical stuff of the real world.

Several times he tells poignantly of Angela, his own niece, who has a exceedingly severe handicapping condition, and the great joy and burden, the beauty and cost, of raising her well. At times I was moved to tears as he captured the stress and love within the extended family that has rallied in care for this beloved girl. In the hands of a lesser writer or an author of dubious character these revelations might feel maudlin or even tawdry. Like Henri Nouwen, though - I am thinking of Adam, his lovely book about his mentally-challenged friend Adam - Andy is frank and realistic and yet invites us to ask very hard question. Is Angela flourishing? Is her family? How does that work?

I certainly know (and you probably do, too) that this stuff -- taking risks, being vulnerable, serving the poor, giving up idols in order to exercise Christ-like cultural power for the common good -- "preaches" well. It really does sound great, doesn't it?  It's easy to say that we must give up control in order to embrace more authentic flourishing, daring greatly and all that. But, really?  What does that even look like in an ordinary life? And isn't such a vision a lot more distressing and costly then we usually admit? Do we with privilege sometimes romanticize the plight of the poor, the condition of those who bear burdens like Angela and her parents?  Andy does not romanticize this or think about only in the abstract; his tender stories about his niece and her family become nearly iconic in the book.  This is where the rubber hits the road, this offering of insight into the implications of being strong and weak, of being truly human, of a deeply Christian view of what it means to embrace a life of love. 

Which is to say the book is serious and clear, potent and charming, powerful and gentle.

Maybe I should draw up my own 2x2 chart, putting heady, serious, institutionally-savvy, theologically-rich, culturally relevant, mature, important content on one vertical line.  I'd put wonderfully-crafted, charming, moving, poignant, touching, story-telling on the other, crossing it over, making that four-box chart.  Some books are high on the content continuum but they score low on the writing line. Others have strong writing but must be placed low on the serious content axis. (Ahh, and then there's that lower left quadrant: bad content and bad writing. Yikes!) Andy Crouch and his three books, including the new Strong and Weak? They are up and to the right, high on strong content and created with well-crafted writing.  You should join him there.

Order Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk & True Flourishing by clicking on our order form link, below. It is certified secure for credit cards although we say there that we are also happy to send books and just enclose an invoice for you to pay by check later.  We are grateful for the opportunity to serve you.  Thanks.

s & w Andy Crouch better.jpg


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April 1, 2016

Renovate: Changing Who You Are By Loving Where You Are by Leonce B. Crump Jr. ON SALE NOW

To order any of the books mentioned at our BookNotes discount, you can use the link shown below which takes you to our secure website order form page. Or send us an "inquiry" for more information -- or call the shop.  We're open 10 -6 every weekday, until 8 on Friday evening, and 10 - 6 on Saturdays as well.  If you are ever in South Central Pennsylvania -- our place -- we would be delighted to welcome you.

Recently I had the great privilege of leading a two-hour workshop with a group of people doing church work, reflecting along with these leaders on the nature of long-haul, wholistic, hopeful, ministry. (Also speaking, doing remarkable Biblical study, was my good friend Don Optiz, a Presbyterian minister who serves as the chaplain at Messiah College; you may know his name as I often heartily recommend a book he co-wrote called Learning for the Love of God: A Student's Guide to Academic Faithfulness [Brazos; $14.99] which is my favorite book to press into the hands of college students.) We invited these folks doing outreach and disciple-making and educational ministry to ponder together what it means to do wise and fruitful work through their congregations or para-church ministries impacting the lives of others for the sake of the gospel.

I usually have much to say at times like this - imagine that! - and we had a nice Hearts & Minds pop-up book display, with titles about the nurturing of a Christian worldview and the Christian mind, resources for befriending and mentoring others, books about spirituality and living well in God's good world, from personal growth to coping with hard times, from leadership development to public justice stuff, from church life to civic involvements. I made an announcement featuring the importance of James K.A. Smith's new Brazos Press book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit and a handful of others.

In my workshop, though, I found myself just wanted to work with two books.  We had done some substantive Biblical stuff previously - think of the call to "seek the welfare of the city where God has sent you" vision of Jeremiah 29 - so I wanted to recommend to them, as I want to recommend to you, two recent titles, both which are fantastic.  Both would make great book club choices, with lots to discuss, and much to ponder. Both are accessible and not complicated to read and both will, as they say, rock your world. I will tell you about one of them, now, and will reflect more on the richness of Andy Crouch's Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Live, Risk and True Flourishing in the next BookNotes.  I ended my talk with these folks drawing on Crouch.

But first, I am thrilled to explain to you five things you can learn from this new book.

renovate a cover.jpgRenovate: Changing Who You Are By Loving Where You Are Leonce B. Crump Jr. (Multnomah) $14.99  I just love the first words in large type on the back cover of this, a teaser that immediately grabbed me and made me wonder if this book would be as unusual and profound as I expected: "God Is Not Wiping This World Away. He Is In the Midst of Renovating It."  And then, this: "Leonce Crump invites you to do what God did when He wanted to make a difference in the world. He moved in."

Rev. Crump doesn't unpack it much, but I suppose you know how the Hebrew Scriptures show the tabernacle - a portable, symbolic replica of God's creation house where God's glory dwells (Opitz in our workshop called creation "God's B&B.") And then, in John 1, tabernacle is famously turned into a verb. Eugene Peterson's memorably translation of John 1 is "God moved into the neighborhood."  Renovate: Changing Who You Are... is a book about God's restoration of creation, God's faithful commitment to the world God so loves, and as such, it gets at the Biblical vision of big hope for real renewal very, very nicely. It opens us to the Biblical story of creation-fall-redemption-restoration by way of underscoring the incarnation.  God came down, moved in, God got involved in an embodied way.  Among other things, the incarnate Christ modeled what Crump calls "the ministry of presence."

Rev. Leonce Crump is himself a remarkable person, a clear, upbeat, honest writer who tells great stories. He is obviously a lively speaker and good communicator and his leadership at Renovation Church in the urban core of Atlanta is hard-earned. He tells of several failed church positions, fizzled church plants, and struggles in small-town Kentucky and urbane Atlanta.  That he has found his stride in a growing urban church is palpable and he is eager to share his ups and downs, the hard realities learned and the great, great joy of helping his church folks learn to love their neighborhood, their town, and the various vocations within their community. His church people seem on fire for Jesus and commitment to the hard work of social transformation.

There is a lot of stuff going on in Renovate, but I'll highlight five very big take-aways from this very fine book -- besides the sheer pleasure and great inspiration of reading somebody who can teach and encourage us with the right stuff.  My quick summary cannot do it justice.  His own stories and Biblical references and explanations enrich his key points, and his light touch makes it a quick, enjoyable read. 

First, God cares about the world, and intends to salvage it, not destroy it, so Christ's death and resurrection, the grace of redemption, must be seen as both personal and social and creation-wide. The reign of God is "on Earth as it is in heaven." (Rev. Crump even cites Al Wolter's exegesis of 2 Peter 3 arguing that the elements of creation are not "destroyed" in the eschaton but "revealed", and that the fire of final judgement is not annihilation but "smelting" yielding the "total renewal of the world."  He cites the great book by Michael Williams Far as the Curse is Found: The Covenant Story of Redemption, reminding us,

The structure of the biblical drama has matching book covers... It moves from a creation story through a drama of sin and redemption to a consummation in a new and restored creation.

Surprised by Hope-b.jpgcreation regained.gifWhen we opened our store over 30 years ago and talked about this, some thought us odd.  But the literature on this nowadays is vast and stimulating. Drawing on the popularity of books as diverse as Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright or A New Heaven and New Earth by Richard Middleton or the "four story gospel" explained in The Next Christians by Gabe Lyon or Salvation is Creation Healed by Howard Snyder or Creation Regained by Al Wolters or Reconciling All Things by Chris Rice and Emmanuel Katongole or any number of books about wholistic ministry and social justice and racial reconciliation, the "all of life redeemed"  theme is one to whichnew heavens and new earth.jpg many evangelicals are waking up and many mainline folks are recalling from their own DNA: the gospel can transform lives and social structures; Christ is savior and King, the Bible offers personal solace and assurance of pardon but also narrates a grand story of who we are, where we are, what is wrong with the  world and what God is doing about it; that is, salvation isn't merely a life-insurance policy for life after death but offers a quality and caliber of life here and now, inviting us to make a difference in the broken-but-being-redeemed world. 

Which is to say, we need to do more than describe ministry as evangelism plus social action: we need a full-orbed, creation-wide, culturally-engaged vision of thinking and living faithfully in everything, everywhere. Christians are to be salt and light in the institutions of culture, agents of God's healing and hope in every zone or sphere or area of life, because the Bible rejects any dualism between the so-called sacred and secular, so everything counts. "Every square inch" Abraham Kuyper insisted, and it is cool to see a former New Orleans Saint football star and black, urban pastor, citing the old Dutch statesman (not to mention his 19th century associate, Herman Bavinck.) Pastor Crump nicely explains all this with as much righteous vigor and down to Earth clarity as any simple book I know -- brief, solid, vital. He admits in the beginning that he hopes this truth will be "disruptive" - that is, that you will be open to new insights, new vistas, new desires and passions, and new behaviors after deepening your awareness of the nature of God's purposes and plans.   As he puts it expressing his own hopes, "the right words at the right time equals real change."

The second key point - I read several whole pages out loud in my workshop the other day about this - is captured nicely by the great subtitle: "Changing Who You Are By Loving Where You Are."  Again, Crump wants to see us transformed, to be changed by his lively material (I like a book that pulls no punches, that invites us to take its content seriously, that offers us some expectations. This isn't presumptuous; it is, in my view, as it should be: Crump and other such authors put their sweat and tears into their work and into their writing so that it might make a atlanta_downtown map.gifdifference in how we live. Right?) And how do we really "change who you are"?  Crump is convinced: it is by "loving where you are."

Are you content?  Do you take simple pleasure in your daily comings and goings? Do you know the topography of your region, appreciate your town? Do you know the history of your place? Are you, as we say, "invested" in the communities you find yourself in?

Renovate brings together helpful stories and offers useful principles for church life, urban ministry, neighborhood flourishing, and public justice by offering some very good thinking about nurturing a sense of place. He cites cultural studies gurus like Richard Florida and nature writers like Barry Lopez and Rebecca Solnit. As I wrote in a playful, enthusiastic tweet I sent out when I first looked at an advance readers copy of this, it is notable and fun to see a hip and urbane black church planter quoting Wendell Berry.  It was less surprising to see him drawing on some of the Reformed theological insights about culture and place from Timothy Keller. I was glad, but not terribly surprised, to see Crump draw wisely on the mature thought of Martin Luther King, Jr.  But Wendell Berry? Thanks be to God.  So, yes, we need to care about the places we inhabit, learn to love our locales, and have sense of God's purposes within and for the local cultures and built environments and storied histories where we live.

Before moving on to the third major feature of this lively little book might I note that although Crump doesn't clutter up the book with too many academic references or too many footnotes (although he does have some great ones!) I wouldn't be surprised if he draws upon (without no home like place.jpgwhere mortals dwell.jpgquoting) the major books on the subject. Other theologically-informed writers have developed this topic with great depth.  Might I suggest the excellent No Home Like Place: A Christian Theology of Place by Leonard Hjalmarson (Urban Loft Publishers; $16.99) by or the magisterial Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today by Craig Bartholomew (Baker Academic; $32.00) or the powerful, detailed, complex, and extraordinary Beyond Homelessness: Christian Beyond Homelessness.jpgstaying is the new going.jpgFaith in a Culture of Displacement by Steven Bouma-Prediger & Brian Walsh, all which offer a more substantive, robust approach to Crump's theme. For a lighter, energetic, and truly wonderful book that is similar in many ways to Renovate, see Alan Brigg's Staying is the New Going: Choosing to Love Where God Places You by Alan Briggs (NavPress; $14.99) which we named as one of the best books of 2015.

Pastor Crump's good stories - including his learning about his beloved Atlanta, his willingness to listen and learn, his struggles with gentrification and racism and injustice - make this a gem of a book but these others offer extra layers of learning for those on the journey to think Christianly and care faithfully about place and what Crump calls "placemaking."

Another thing that we must grapple with if we are to truly love the places and people God has given for us to love has to do with a skewed sense (is this particularly American?) of the value of mobility.  From romanticizing wanderlust to the "grass is always greener" tendencies to our Promethean desires to transcend the limits of geography by being constantly on-line and virtual, we have a large problem. This is actually where Crump starts, and it captured my attention. He writes on page 2,

The obstacle standing in the way of our lives and our communities reflecting the glory of God is transience... the world we live in is one of almost limitless mobility. We can, physically and mentally, be almost anywhere in the world at any moment in time. This is a truly incredible time to be alive. But with all our advances in technology, I'm afraid something has been lost. Because of our now limitless mobility, the great majority of us have lost a sense of place that was inherent to previous generations. 

He continues,

It seems, at least from the perspective of most, having a sense of place is antithetical to the postmodern buffet of limitless options and unfettered mobility. In other words, wherever I am right now is the most important place in the world. And wherever I will be next will replace it. 

Part of what is wrong with this tendency is spelled out succinctly:

The bottom line is this: if I am only connected to a community to the extent that it can sustain me, we have a parasitic relationship, and I will siphon its resources without regard to its well-being. In an impersonal sense, it affects the culture of community. In a personal sense, it affects the people. 

Again, Pastor Crump wisely doesn't footnote every major contribution by those who are attentive to this quandary in modern life. He knows his stuff and is a pastor-scholar, it seems, so I suspect he knows these additional books, and you should too --  books that not only commend a sense of place but alert us to the obstacles that prevent of from living well, the wisdom of stability.jpgsocial forces that stack the deck in favor of transience.  I very highly recommend The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove -- which sports a lovely foreword by Kathleen Norris (Paraclete Press; $16.99.)  I really enjoyed a fascinating study of how the book (and recent movie) On the Road by Jack Kerouac shaped generations of American youth,  guiding us away from staying in place, from making commitments to ordinary life by romanticizing being on the road, valorizing a sense of cynical exile through some bohemian sense of moving away.  See The Road Trip That Changed the World: The Unlikely Theory That Will Change How You View Culture, the Church, and Importantly, Yourself by Mark Sayers (Moody; $14.99.)

To explore the impact of virtual and on-line experiences on social relationships see, for example, Sherry Turkle's Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Basic Books; $17.99.) This is a huge concern for many, actually -- the little pocket book by David Kinnaman and Jun Young (part of the Frames series), The Hyperlinked Life: Living with Wisdom in an Age of Information Overload (Zondervan; $7.99), documents that many younger adults, especially, actually feel they are too deeply involved in on-line stuff, and wish for ways out of the constant pressures of being artificially connected and perpetually distracted.

slow church.jpgBooks like Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus by C. Christopher Smith & John Pattison (IVP: $16.00) offer serious critiques of our efficiency driven, fast-past, hyper-mobile world, inviting us instead to stability and patience, resisting idols of productivity and success and "quantity over quality" all of which grow best in the fertile soil of an intentional, abiding sense of place.

I suppose it is fine to note that even I address this in my long introductory chapter in my own book for college graduates, Serious Dreams: Big Ideas for the Rest of Your Life (Square Halo Books; $13.99) where I question the curious linguistic trick where we often, in affirming someone's success, say "she really went far" as if staying home or living local is for losers. In that chapter I invite young adults to consider moving home without feeling ashamed, about resisting the lure to think that one must be some glitzy "world changer" by doing extraordinary things.

In Renovate: Changing... Mr. Crump reminds us that all followers of Christ are called and sent and that we should desire God's grace and glory to be known everywhere; that is achieved best, in Crump's view, mostly by "staying put" and by learning the contours of the contexts in which we form redemptive communities.  Yes, we are sent; yes, we are missional (a word Crump gladly does not use.) I do love the title of the similar book, though, Staying Is the New Going -- Pastor Leonce would agree!

Early on, Crump writes, "This book is about fleshing out this solution of permanence and developing a theology of place. At the same time this thread of sentness runs through everything that is said here. They are dependent on one another; you simply cannot have one without the other."  In other words, we learn to love our places because we are "sent."pastor-leonce-crump-renovate-340x160.jpg

The third big point of Renovate: Changing Who You Are By Loving Where You Are is both interesting and challenging (although he gives some nice suggestions about processing it and taking actionable steps.) Crump reminds us that we have to "go to school" to be educated by our place.  And every school, he reminds us, includes history lessons.  I appreciated that Crump came to understand that as much as he loved the idea of his living and doing ministry in Atlanta, and felt a growing love for the place, he didn't really know much about the history of the development of the neighborhoods, the institutions, the good and the bad of the region's past.  In my workshop the other day, inspired by Crump's honest admission about his needing to "go to school" to learn the history of his place of ministry, I invited the particpants in the room to ponder how much they know about the history of the town and place where they served. On a scale of 1 to 10, I asked, how much do you know about the place you live?

How about you?  How about me?

Hear what Crump writes, after noting how "every place has a history that has shaped and formed the demographics, the population density or lack thereof, and wealth/resource distribution. Every city has scars, left behind from years of calculated and sometimes cataclysmic decisions." He says,

I cannot stress enough that for you to truly transform a community; you have to understand how it came to be in the first place. So take a moment. Think about it. How well do you really know the place where you are? Can you narrate its story?  Can you place names and faces on the ideas and structures that presently govern its existence? Do you know why God needed to send you there?

Fourthly, there is something that follows from all of this: namely, that one must learn the culture and ethos of a place in order to communicate well, to contextualize the gospel in ways that are, to put it simply, spoken in the language of the people.

Of course, in many places, there are (increasingly so in North America) many languages spoken - metaphorically and literally!  So, to talk about "the culture" or "the language" of the locals is itself a bit specious, and it is a dubious proposition to name "the" language of a neighborhood, ethnic group, or generation.  Wealth, status, gender, race, professional association, age, family background and even personality type -- not to mention religious convictions -- are all influential in how people come to perceive the world, and even the most homogeneous neighborhoods or churches have those who are, say, deeply resilient and those that are terribly wounded; there are those who are old and young, men and women, locals and those who recently moved into your community, those who are liberal and those who are conservative and those who are something other.

leonce crump.jpgStill, Crump's point is very colorfully told and a good thing to ponder: are we connecting with the primary "language" spoken in our community?  Crump tells a great story of a season in his life when he was doing ministry in a small, almost entirely white, small town in Tennessee. He had to leave his sophisticated learning and multi-ethnic/New Orleans urbane tendencies aside in order to - as Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 9 - "be all things to all people." He tells about watching Country Music Television and the Blue Collar Comedy Tour (and quoting Larry the Cable Guy in a sermon on John 5!) The connection that eventually developed as he embraced the language of his new friends in his new town, he reports, was nothing less than communion. Pastor Leon asks us to do some thinking about our own sense of the language and ethos and cultural mores of our own context and invites us to some self-reflection, being honest about our own struggles, and what might be behind those struggles, regarding our own incarnation of the gospel in our own context. What you do with page 75 of this book could be of immense importance, I think, and I commend it to you.

Lastly, I will note one other take-away lesson to be learned by reading Renovate: Changing Who You Are By Loving Where You Are. It is very important, although not precisely central to his teaching about place as a key theological category and an essential missional strategy.  It is, simply, that as a black man Pastor Crump has had an inordinate amount of obstacles - stopped by cops more than his fair share, treated with suspicion or worse, called ugly names, etcetera, etcetera, sadly, etcetera - and that his commitment to advocating for racial justice is not only necessary in his own place of Atlanta, Georgia, but is most likely a necessary part of almost any ministry in almost any place these days. With a gospel-centered vision of reconciliation, and an obviously profound awareness of the depths of systemic injustice and institutional racism,  Rev. Crump is able to help us.  This will be important stuff to talk about with others, I think, and may be for some the hardest part of the book.  Go with Pastor Crump, though, walking towards the necessary implications of this embodied book: be glad that he moves us to deeper thinking about how racial prejudice and the tensions of working in racially diverse settings as well as our longings for (or lack of longings for) multi-ethnic ministry might be part of the story of our place and the story of God's work in our place.

renovate a cover.jpgThe last chapters of this nice book are obviously written out of a deep passion for justice and considerable experience in naming and working for Christian answers to what some call "America's original sin."  Especially in our post-Ferguson world, any book about learning to love our places, learning the history and language of our regions, and doing incarnational, embodied ministry framed by a vision of God's restoration a-coming simply must deal with race and racism. I am glad for this part of Renovate and this aspect of the ministry of Renovation Church, and it gives the book some considerable bite at the end.

That Leonce ends the book with a potent quote from Wendell Berry - from the Kentucky farmer's  own book on race called The Hidden Wound - is helpful.   This is not a concern only for those in the ghettos or big cities.  As Berry reminds us, and as Crump knows, resisting injustice and doing Christ-centered, gospel-based, ministries of Kingdom restoration must be local, must be embodied in place, and therefore, must deal with the perplexities, joys, and sorrows of how the down-to-Earth realities of skin color, economic status, and cultural norms can divide and harm us, each in their own ways in our own unique places.

There is a curious chapter in the middle of Renovate which I skipped the first time through. It is called an "intermission" and is a "round table discussion" conducted by Pastor Crump, chatting with some friends who he obviously loves dearly.  Included are a white pastor of a nearby church in East Atlanta, another gentleman who has lived in Atlanta for 15 years, and the increasingly high-profile hip hop artist (who is a member of Crump's church) Lecrae Moore. They talk about the new urban renewal movement, church life in a changing culture, and what it means to not just talk about cultural renewal, but, as Lecrae puts it, "actually stepping into it."  They talk about counting the cost of all this, carrying our wounds, and learning to pray for the peace of the city. They drop the names of some people that have influenced them (Van Til!) and one of the guys mentions Eugene Peterson and the need to slow down, to be patient, to - like a farmer - "take the long view."  

The transcript of this conversation in this one chapter isn't edited, and it feels like an informal conversation. It annoyed me a bit at first, but then it hit me: this is as it should be. Pastor Leonce is showing us the real deal, here, walking the talk, revealing something about his own life in his own space among his own community. We need to do this, too: gather with friends and talk about important stuff that matters, stuff that matters to you, to you and your place, here in God's redeemed house, Christ's own restored B&B.  Renovate: Changing Who You Are By Loving Where You Are can help.  I invite you to buy it from us, or your local bookshop (if you've got one) today.


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March 26, 2016

Reading After the Resurrection: finding big hope and so much more -- 17 books listed, all on sale at Hearts & Minds

A few years ago I did a BookNotes post suggesting that, in light of the vast implications of Easter, we should embark on what we might call a plan of "resurrectionary reading." That is, we embrace God's merciful grace, the victory of Christ over Death, the nearness of the Kingdom of God restoring all broken things, and assert that new creation realities are breaking into life -- all of life. If we are "new creations" in Christ, and the day in the Christian calendar set aside to Christ's resurrection reminds us of that newness breaking forth from the great news of the empty tomb -- think of the simple brilliance of N.T. Wright's last book called Simply Good News which explained why the gospel is good, and why it is news! -- then we should be somewhat intentional about thinking through the implications of resurrection for life.


Such a plan of discerning how to "sing a new song to the Lord" in light of the resurrection for all of life might be called resurrectionary reading.  Alas, the phrase never seemed to catch on, and even I forgot to use it again.


To wit: Beth and I and the team here at Hearts & Minds wish you Happy Easter, or Resurrection Day, as some wisely call it. And welcome to this installment of "resurrectionary reading."


More specifically, here are some books that are about the implications of the resurrection life, or on the topic of hope.  At the Sunday morning Jubilee talk I gave at that large conference a little more than a month ago I talked about Big Hope. That is, if the full vision of the future is as the Bible says -- true forgiveness, restoration, all of life redeemed, re(new)ed creation, the redemptive healing of the cosmos into the New City of Revelation 22 -- then we, indeed, should be pulled by that true future into a new way of life; our hope in the final goal and goodness of God's plan should compel us to live now as people of hope, people of the future, if you will. At the very least, we bear witness to, create signposts of, what we think life will be like someday. We anticipate, we wait, but that is done in hope.  Resurrection hope, I'd say, today.


Indeed, the New Testament (I Peter 3:15) tells us to "always be ready to give an account of the hope that lies within us." As I quipped to the Jubilee crowd, that really does presume that people are asking, doesn't it?  Why be ready to explain if nobody wonders, if nobody asks?  Our lives should be so full of hope -- this seems particularly counter-cultural in these cynical days -- that people should be curious, wondering what's gotten in to us.  Why in the world aren't we jaded and cynical, broken and forlorn?  Why, even in our sadnesses and griefs do others catch a glimpse of some profound tone, a confidence born of hope, underneath? Why does our hope manifest itself in such realism that we offer solidarity with the hurting and abused (even the Earth itself)? What does it look like to offer real, substantive, sturdy hope -- not sentimentalized or cheaply reduced to glib cheer -- to a needy, needy, world?


Here are a handful of books that might inspire us to be more confident in our being harbingers of hope. And maybe more articulate about our answers when people ask.  Always be ready, it says.  So here's some resurrectionary reading.


taking god seriously.jpgTaking God Seriously: Vital Things We Need to Know J.I. Packer (Crossway) $14.99 If we are going to be people of hope we must be people grounded in the gospel and serious about the historic Christian faith. This book is said to be a "plea for sober, modest, thoughtful and orthodox theology" and is very much designed as a much-needed adult catechesis.  I do not agree with Packer on everything, wouldn't ascribe the same sort of importance to each matter that he seems to, and I believe that in his mostly helpful analysis of the drift of the contemporary mainline churches he misses some things. He is a British Anglican, and writes about the lack of unity in the worldwide Anglican communion in part due to the bold moves of Canadian Anglican and US Episcopalians to affirm same sex marriages which he sees as a betrayal of Biblical fidelity; it is that complex rive that also inspired this book. But that particularity aside, Packer is helpful in clearly and rather carefully outlining the core commitments that are common to those that profess belief in Christ and includes, as he says, "vital things we need to know." In a good preface he laments that the church is losing strength and vitality for being undernourished -- which he suggests comes from shepherds not adequately feeding their flocks. Hence, this little book, clear, systematic, interesting.


From themes of the authority of Scripture to the importance of the unity of the Body of Christ, from reflections on repentance to the role of the Holy Spirit in renewal, from understanding baptism to a healthy, regular practice of the Lord's Supper, each chapter in Taking God Seriously invites us to serious formulations rooted in historic, conventional, orthodox faith. There are discussion questions at the end of each chapter.  Those of us that are not in denominations or faith traditions that are contentious will still learn much from this, and for those of us who are in troubled communions will -- even if we wouldn't put things quite like Packer does here -- benefit from this clear-eyed, warm-hearted, mature business of taking God and faith seriously. This is not a razzle-dazzle call to commitment, although Packer wants full-life dedication to the things of God. But it is, more, a careful, brief, exploration of what many feel are nearly non-negotiables of historic, creedal faith. This, to me, is a sign of hope for only in the life-giving resurrection of Christ can we have any plausible expectations that the faith can be renewed in our churches and that our theological confusions can be clarified and reformed and understood afresh. 


Surprised by Hope-b.jpgSurprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church N.T. Wright (HarperOne) $24.99  In case you are one of the few BookNotes readers who have not yet heard of this extraordinarily important book, allow me to commend it to you now. Tom Wright, as I assume you know, is one of the leading New Testament scholars of our time, and a curious fellow -- he is a former Bishop in the Anglican Church (yes, he is a Brit) who writes both popular level stuff for church folks and super scholarly works for the academic Biblical studies guild.  He is exceptionally prolific, a musician, tireless lecturer, an active churchman, and somewhat of a rock star in our circles. Some who are more progressive in their faith think he is way too conservative theologically and some strictly Reformed conservatives think his views of justification are suspicious, making him too liberal.  Gotta love it when both sides want to crucify you.  When we hosted him at Hearts & Minds we were deeply touched by the diversity of folks that came out to meet him, and we were -- as we expected -- dazzled by his eloquence, his scholarly clarity, and his evangelical zeal for the Kingdom of God. (The book about the Kingdom that he lectured from that day, How God Become King just came out in paperback, by the way. Yay!)


The hardback Surprised by Hope: Rethinking... is a major work, much discussed, and very thorough. There are moments when it is even a bit tedious, but he is being careful, detailed, covering all the options before making his compelling conclusions. I think it is perhaps the finest book on the significance of and daily implications of the bodily resurrection of Christ and the subsequent promise of new creation ever written. I simply know of no other book like it, and very few that even come close. Highly recommended.


The six-session DVD of the same title, by the way, is truly excellent and would be a perfect resource for an adult class or small group this season.  Agree or not with every detail of his view of "heaven, resurrection, and the mission of the church" I guarantee that you will be very, very impressed by the quality of the production.


Surprised by Scripture.jpgSurprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues N.T. Wright (HarperOne) $15.99  If resurrection reading might include reflecting on how Christ's death and resurrection vindicates his claim to be the true King of the world, and, therefore, how we as his followers should live, then this book could be a fine, fine guide and resource. Here, Wright weighs in on a variety of contemporary issues, offering Biblical insights on topics as diverse as art and science, the role of women, creation-care, and international peacemaking. These are all talks he was asked to give at conferences or seminars, apparently indicating an interesting in seeing how his fairly detailed theological vision plays out in real life, in our culture, today. Wright would be the first to admit that he is speaking into these spheres of influence not as an expert but as a pastor, a New Testament scholar, trained in history and a bit in theology. These are lively, upbeat, sometimes provocative and, for some, life-changing. How good to realize (surprising to some) that God cares about all of life and that thoughtful Christians can engage the arts and sciences and civic life.


I like the way Publishers Weekly puts it:


Pithy prose and compassionate and serious biblical interpretation. . . . To reveal some of Wright's conclusions would be like leaking cinematic spoilers; such is the inventive and surprising way that Wright brings the Bible to bear on current, and vexatious, affairs.


Reconciling All Things bigger.jpgReconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace, and Healing Emmanuel Katongole & Chris Rice (IVP) $17.00  I have often recommended the six books in the series called "Resources for Reconciliation" from the Duke Seminary Center for Reconciliation. This is the first one in that good series, authored by an African  church leader, scholar, and theological professor and a US civil rights activist and professor. If the gospel means anything it certainly means that we can be reconciled, in Christ, to God, self, others, the creation itself. Our alienation is healed, that which is broken can be bridged.


This is a wonderful manifesto-like call to see the Biblical basis for a transformational vision of reconciliation. Marva Dawn says it is "a critically important book and an incisive beginning to what promises to be a world-changing series. Christians have a unique vision to live the new creation of wholehearted community!" Do you believe people can forgive even the most horrific abuses? Can the most hostile enemies be made one? Can the power of Christ's victory do that? What amazing grace, what amazing love as the old hymn puts it. 






Living the Resurrection- The Risen Christ in Everyday Life.jpgLiving the Resurrection: The Risen Christ in Everyday Life Eugene Peterson (NavPress) $16.99  I so love this book, and can't believe it isn't better known. I have read it more than once; years ago I taught an adult ed class based on this book and we really appreciate it.  Here, Peterson gives wise and useful guidance towards how to live out the implications of the resurrection, by studying the post-resurrection stories in the gospels. I trust you know that Peterson does a close, literary reading of the Biblical texts, often tells stories -- not breathy dramatic ones, but those of homespun wisdom about ordinary life. And he writes so very well. As a long-time pastor and Biblical scholar and lover of great books and poetry, he is the sort of author I say to read anything he writes!  And this: is is short and solid and really, really good.


There are three long chapters in Living the Resurrection -- an opening one called "Resurrection Wonder" and a second called "Resurrection Meals" and the third which is called "Resurrection Friends."  Peterson says, "When the resurrection becomes the core reality of our spiritual formation, our dimmed eyes and dull souls are lifted to a place of continual renewal." Perhaps in reading this you'll discover anew what life is like when every day is resurrection day. Yes!



res life augsburger.jpgThe Resurrection Life: The Power of Jesus for Today Myron Augsburger (Evangel Publishing House) $12.99  What a great read, a fabulously written and very thoughtful invitation to explore the significance of the resurrection. Christ is alive -- we say that. His resurrection is a victory, somehow, not just over physical death but over evil forces and disorder.  Augsburger carefully studies much of what this means, and what it "looks like" in daily life. It is a very fine book, serious, but not dry. I like what Dr. Jay Kesler, President Emeritus of Taylor University wrote about this fine work: 


Myron Augsburger has written into the postmodern world the same argument and the same truth claims that the Apostle John wrote into the Greco-Roman world in his reflecting gospel. The audacious claim of the Christian gospel is validated by the actual physical resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and that resurrection power is transformational to all who truly believe that it is so. The Resurrection Life is not only powerfully written and illustrated, but also demonstrates half a century of the author's faithful global ministry.


I hope you know of Dr. Myron Augsburger who is an esteemed Mennonite scholar and evangelist, leader within higher education and inter-denominational church work. It seems he may not have done any books recently, but this "oldie" is one I really, really like.  The Resurrection Life is a rare and good book, highly recommended for your stimulating reading this season. 



This Changes Everything- Unleashing the Power of the Resurrection in Your Life.jpgThis Changes Everything: Unleashing the Power of the Resurrection in Your Life Ray Johnston (Biblica) $13.00  This is a book full of great messages, good guidance, basic Christian living stuff about applying the truth celebrated in our communal cry "He Is Risen!" and ordinary, daily life. Popular writer and hip church dude (at LifeChurch TV) Craig Groeschel says "The power of God in Ray Johnston's life is undeniable. In his book This Changes Everything Johnston shows us how Christ's resurrection power can transform our lives."

He starts the book with a great story of a married couple who were disappointed when the lavish honeymoon suite they check into for their first night of marital bliss was, well, a bit dumpy. They slept on a foldaway couch, lumpy and bumpy. The next day they realized what they thought was a closet door opened to the bridal suite bedroom -- lavished with roses and chocolate. All there, available for them, but not even used.

What a story -- and a good way to start this book about the often untapped power of the resurrection that is available but often not appropriated. For those wanting a rather simple guide to the personal aspects of the resurrection, this is a fine collection of practical messages.


The Awakening of Hope- Why We Practice a Common Faith.jpgThe Awakening of Hope: Why We Practice a Common Faith Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (Zondervan) $14.99 I know if you are a Hearts & Minds BookNotes reader or friend of the shop you know we have been raving this month about the brand new book by James K.A. Smith called You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit where  (among other things) Professor Smith calls us to pay more attention to church life, liturgy, worship, and other habit-forming practices that can re-index our hearts, even our longings and desires. We may not love what we think we do, and the way to unite "heart and mind and hands" in a unified lifestyle is to be engaged in local practices of a local church. In this book Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove describes the visions and practices of his own community of faith and the stuff they do to make the congregation a true faith community that is formative over the life and discipleship of the members.  This is historic, robust, solid stuff, brought with a bit of feisty missional energy by one who shares life with the poor, having been a partner in crime with "ordinary radical" Shane Claiborne (who wrote the foreword and appears in the accompanying DVD curriculum.)


The first chapter is called "Pictures of Hope" -- so good!

The rest of the book, then, explores (and invites us to embrace our own forms of) seven key practices of their faith lived out in intentional community, and what those practices look like in Rutba House, their little community in North Carolina.  Wilson-Hartgrove explains "Why we eat together", "Why we fast", "Why we make promises", "Why it matters where we live". "Why we live together", "Why we would rather die than kill", and "Why we share the good news." 


In a way, this book serves as a contemporary "new monastic" catechism -- but, again (think of James K.A.Smith and his arguement in You Are What You Love) this isn't just about teaching core truths and having readers agree with them, adopting some ancient-future, radical catechism. As it says on the back cover, "by communicating the hope that Christianity offers through the discipline of seven ancient practices you will learn what it means to build community among believers by nurturing a faith that leads to action."  Indeed, creation and fall, covenant and community, ethics and evangelism all matter, as we embody Easter hope. This is a really fascinating little book, and reading it may inspire you to gather some folks together and watch the DVDs, too.  Sounds resurrectionary!


Hopecasting.jpgHopecasting: Finding, Keeping and Sharing the Things Unseen Mark Oestreicher (IVP) $16.00  I raved about this remarkable book last year, suggesting -- maybe helpfully, maybe not -- that it was, in some ways, a perfect introduction to the work of Walter Brueggemann, who Oestreicher draws on a lot.  You may know that Brueggemann is known best for his studies of The Prophetic Imagination and The Hopeful Imagination. More recently, you should know his Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks.)  All of these are relevant in this "resurrectionary reading" mode -- offering profound hope, subversively profound hope.  In Hopecasting Mark O wonders "why some people are so full of hope while many of us struggle to get past the snooze alarm?"  Kenda Creasy Dean calls it "part memoir, part mentor, part prayer for the journey."  There is nothing cheap about this, though -- this is substantive, thick, sturdy hope. Gary Haugen (of IJM) says "Mark Oestreicher offers deep encouragement for those of us who have ever struggled to cultivate transformative hope in hard places." 


I like the Texan recording artist David Crowder's blurb on the back:


Oestreicher redefines hope, or, better yet, pulls us back to a workable set of postures for receiving hope. This book reminds us that hope is a beautiful gift, an influx of Jesus into our dark and dry souls.




Keeping Hope Alive For a Tomorrow We Cannot Control .jpgKeeping Hope Alive For a Tomorrow We Cannot Control Lewis Smedes (Thomas Nelson Publishers) $13.98  Smedes was an important figure in the life of one of my best friends who studied under him, and he was the very first person who I knew arranged a book in light of four themes -- creation, fall, redemption, restoration (see his Sex for Christians.)  He has written about ethics, about forgiveness, about union with Christ, about the ten commandments and about promises for ordinary people; I think I have read every book he published. He was a remarkable person and his teachings moved me deeply.  (As did his memoir My God and I: A Spiritual Memoir) that came out right after his untimely death in late 2002.)


This one is loaded with common sense and is exceptionally down to Earth, offering deeply Christian wisdom in nice prose that is not off-putting or odd. It is an old favorite of mine.  Keeping Hope Alive... shows how to "develop hope-building habits" and how to "discern false hope from true hope." He reminds us to trust God and guides us to access God's "hope-giving Spirit." Smedes explains his ideas about prioritizing your hopes (fascinating) and, of course, how to face the worst without loosing hope. In order words, it really is a very wise, pleasant, helpful guide to this amazing gift that can "fuel our dreams, lighten our spirits, and lift us out of despair." Highly recommended for anyone who likes good books, or who needs help maintaining Christian hope.



Curious Faith- Rediscovering Hope in the God of Possibility .jpgCurious Faith: Rediscovering Hope in the God of Possibility Logan Wolfram (David C. Cook) $17.99  This book is written especially to and for women, and in it Ms Wolfram chats as a friend, an honest friend, inviting readers to be open-minded, curious, eager to unfold more as life-long learners. Her own willingness to entertain the risks of hope, leaning into life in this particular way, came from the death of an unborn child which she describes in a raw first chapter. Can we be curious about how things might be -- enough to allow God to write our story? Can we long for more of God in ways that bring meaning and joy, not obsession or unhealthy religion? With endorsements from well-known, contemporary evangelical women writers such as Ann Voskamp and Emily Wierenga and Lysa TerKeurst, Curious Faith will appeal to many, I think.


I really liked the moving foreword by central Pennsylvania author Sarah Mae who assures us that


Logan is one of the most authentic, generous, faithful, open-the-door-wide-to-possibility souls I know. She is a gift, and her hard-fought wisdom words are a gift to us all.


Sarah continues, that, "mostly, she learned to curiously pursue the unfolding of hope." Now that's a resurrectionary phrase, isn't it?   Nice.



The Case for Hope- Looking Ahead with Confidence and Courage Lee Strobel .jpgThe Case for Hope: Looking Ahead with Confidence and Courage Lee Strobel (Zondervan) $14.99  I really like Lee Strobel and his brand of storytelling, testifying to the goodness of the gospel, and candid questioning -- he was a hardscrabble Chicago investigative reporter, after all -- has always made him a good, entertaining, and edifying read.  This small book is designed as a gift book -- some nice color ink inside, some handsome pages, but also with plenty of fabulous stories and very solid content. As it says on the back "Hope is the inextinguishable flicker God ignites in our souls...when we are surrounded by utter darkness."  So where do we find that kind of flicker? What is the reason for such a hope? Part encouragement, part apologetics, part 30-day journey journal, this compact hardback is a very nice book to give for those who don't read super heavy stuff or want something to inspire.








Renaissance -  Os Guinness.jpgRenaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times Os Guinness (IVP) $16.00  Although this book came out two years ago, it is needed now more than ever, and calls us to realize that "no matter how dark the times" we who believe the first things of the gospel must rely on God's own power to transform the culture around us. Is there hope for societal redemption and renewal?   Yes, we must take up efforts to reverse the inroads of secularization and respond well to our pluralizing world. And, yes (as it says on the back) "The Christian faith has transformed cultures and civilizations, demonstrating God's goodness, beauty, and truth through art and literature, science and medicine, philosophy and social justice." The explanation of this book continues,


Christians may yet change the world again -- if we answer the call to a new Christian renaissance that challenges the darkness with the hope of Christ.  So have courage. Take heart. And let a thousand flowers blooms!


I love the blurb on the back by Becky Pippert, a good friend of Os Guinness and his wife, (who, by the way, herself has written a wonderful book entitled Hope Has Its Reasons) who says,


"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."


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 I think that being taken up in the God-drenched experience of "all things new" means a lot of things. As I've recommended in this list we should ponder the realities of the resurrection itself, the implications of Christ's defeat of evil, the way in which God's grace and mercy and forgiveness sets us free, free to live in world made new. What does that mean, what does it look like? The other books on this list will help you be a person of resurrection, a person of hope.  If, that is -- and for younger readers, especially, this may be a big "if" -- if you don't fall for the understandable way out of jadedness and cynicism. Why are we in this "whatever" world of superficial distractions and hip irony? In this brilliant book -- may I suggest it rises to the level of sheer genius without you rolling your eyes in distrust? --  author Mark Meynell explains the implications of the breakdown in trust in many social spheres, and how that impacts us all.  Having been mislead by authorities and institutions, we are stuck in a deep malaise. It is good to have him walk us through this, getting a bit of distance from the "mirrors" and being given a gift of clearer sight.


The back cover isn't as eloquent as the book itself (and I am afraid I didn't speak of it adequately in my previous BookNotes review, although I did rave), but here is their explanation:


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.


Maynell is well suited for writing this book. He has lived in Europe and in Africa. His evangelical faith (mentored by John Stott) allows him to speak passionately about the basics of the gospel and about the contours of culture.  For instance, in one chapter he notes the "personal cost of mistrust" which he describes as alienation and finally loneliness. (He was a pastor, after all.) But in other chapters he is doing fine cultural criticism and incisive social critique.  His "hope for a broken world" chapters are solid and, yes, hopeful.  This is a very good book and I very highly recommend it. You will be invited into a better story than the damages caused by our dubious culture and a better story than many churches proclaim. He offers the richness of the gospel story -- which allows us, as he puts it, to "relish a true ending."  That's hope!


 The Justice Calling- Where Passion Meets Perseverance.jpgThe Justice Calling: Where Passion Meets Perseverance Bethany Hanke Hoang & Kristen Deeded Johnson (Brazos Press) $19.99  Maybe you saw our earlier reviews of this where we commended it as one of the best recent studies expressing the Biblical and theological basis for concern about social justice. Many resurrectionary Christians believe God is making all things new, and certainly that includes a public faith, a commitment tot he common good, a passion to work for the suffering and oppressed. This book says on the back, "Root your passion for justice in persevering hope."


Persevering hope. That's what I'm talking about here after Easter: how to keep on keeping on long after the cause de jour moves on, long after the initial energy drains, long after the good feelings of helping others gives way to a hard realism about how messy it all is, this changing the world business. That takes a deep and abiding "vision of vocation" as Steve Garber puts it, which, it seems, offers the virtue of steadfastness, maybe even hopefulness.


Dan Allender calls this a "glorious book" and that, too, is a good example of hopefulness, that such a book would garner such good praise. Lynne Hybels has written nicely about "the thread that stitches this whole book together: the possibility and promise of persevering hope."  Yes.



Thumbprint in the Clay- Divine Marks of Beauty, Order and Grace Luci Shaw.jpgThumbprint in the Clay: Divine Marks of Beauty, Order and Grace Luci Shaw (IVP Books) $17.00  One of these days I might do a BookNotes blog books about a genre of books I call "the spirituality of the ordinary." We have a lot, about seeing God's beauty, sensing God's presence, and experiencing daily life knowing that the Risen Christ is ever-present.


This sort of "down to Earth" faith that honors God's presence and power in the mundane is a real Easter theme, I think: after the resurrection, of course, Jesus went to the beach and had a breakfast of fish.  The hearts of the discouraged disciples "burned within them" while Jesus taught about himself from the Old Testament, but it wasn't until they blessed and broke bread that their eyes were opened to the His Divine presence among them.  And so, it seems to me a major aspect of post-Easter resurrectionary reading would be to learn the art of discerning God's hand in God's handiwork, what Luci Shaw calls "the thumbprint in the clay."  Call it practicing the presence of God or sanctifying the ordinary, I think we can benefit much from reading books about that.  This brand new one is beautifully written and full of wonder, as such a book should be, so I wanted to list it here as a sign of hope, a gift of shalom, a result of the realities of Easter.


I hope you know the wonderful writer, Luci Shaw, who has spent a lifetime working in publishing, offering many volumes of poems and good books of thoughtful prose. Her most recent nonfiction works have included books about aging and the spirituality of her own "ascent" (as she puts her own maturity in aging.) She is an artful and vital author and person we esteem and enjoy, and we hope you do to. She is one of the best.


This brand new release that came a few days ago is a rumination on God's own thumbprint found in all things.  It is, she says, "for me, a singular clue to human identity." God is, of course, the creative and ever-creating One.  The publicity about the book reminds us that "We reflect God's imprint most clearly, perhaps, in our own creating and appreciation for beauty. A longing for beauty is inherent to being human."  Is there some sense in which beauty is redemptive?


Novelist Brett Lott writes,


Luci Shaw is a treasure, and Thumbprints in the Clay shows us again precisely why: this book is wise beyond measure, the writing beautiful beyond compare, and its heart a reflection of the one true God... This is a beautiful, ruminative and necessary book.


Listen to Leslie Leyland Fields, herself a great writer (who works in the Alaskan fishing industry) as she colorfully commends this author and this new book:


Luci has thrown clay upon a wheel yet once more and fashioned it into a delightful vessel filled with my favorite drink: the ambrosia of art, faith, and creativity. Yes, I am besotted: but who can turn away from the poetry of a life lived so beautifully in service to God.


The Spirituality of Wine  Gisela H. jpgThe Spirituality of Wine  Gisela H. Kreglinger (Eerdmans) $24.00  I will write about this brand new book more, later, I am sure, but I mention it here as one example of how the new life offered by new creation/resurrectionary theology might shape our thinking of fairly ordinary things (in this case, eating and drinking, farming and marketing.) Kreglinger, a Lutheran born in Germany at her parent's vineyard that dates back to the 17th century, writes about wine and wine-making, about the blessings of good food and drink (and the dangers; there is a very good chapter about alcohol abuse.) She is both a farmer and vintner as well as a theologian and spiritual director. To explore the spirituality of wine she interview many serious vitners (in Europe and the US, from Bordeaux to Napa Valley.)


Although Kreglinger is a contemplative and deeply spiritual writer, this really is a book about wine -- in the Bible, in church, in culture, and on our own daily tables and special occasions.  It isn't every Christian book that has such great endorsements from such esteemed foodie writers as Alice Waters (owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley) who writes,


Gisela Kreglinger writes with good humor and real piety about the transformative power of good wine. This is a thoughtful, prayerful, wide-ranging book, reminding us on every page that spirituality and gastronomy are inextricably linked. I will not soon forget Kreglinger's theologically informed and deeply perceptive analysis of Babette's Feast, one of my favorite stories.


 wine quote.jpg

Alice Canlis of the famed Canlis Restaurant in Seattle says, beautifully,


I wept upon reading The Spirituality of Wine. Our restaurant has received Wine Spectator's Grand Award for twenty years, so how is it that I had only tasted the tip of this reality, only touched the knowledge of its gifts? Profound and potent, intertwined with practical and tangible application, this book has completely astonished me. Like an exquisite wine in a bottle, I've been transformed from within.


Now that sounds like "resurrectionary reading" to me -- potent, astonishing, transformative. Yes, yes, yes.  Happy resurrection folks!



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March 23, 2016

Five Views on The Church and Politics edited by Amy E. Black ON SALE NOW

the good wife season 1.jpgSee our order form link, below.  All books mentioned, 10% off.

Perhaps you have been taken in by the stories of law, politics and political campaigns in shows like The Good Wife or one of the best shows ever on TV, The West Wing, or even the comedy hit Veep. For a bunch of reasons, Beth and I have been really enjoying Madame Secretary. (How cool is it that the show features a major character who is, among other things, a religion professor and Aquinas scholar at the Army War College?) But despite these shows dramatizing the moral ambiguities of many social issues and underscoring the hardball maneuvering of campaigns - yeah, I'm thinking of you, Eli Gold -- nothing in fiction has prepared us for the stunning weirdness of this current election cycle. I've tried to avoid thinking about why so many of our fellow citizens (and, apparently, fellow Christians) are attracted to Donald Trump, and I've not shared the many thoughtful on-line opinion pieces about our current situation. Kudos those who are doing reasonable work on this, but I have hardly been able to bear it.

Strong and Weak- Embracing a Life of Love, Risk, and True Flourishing.jpgRather, I have taken an intentional step back, reviewing books that, if read  and discussed among us, could have significant, long-term, civic implications, books like Andy Crouch's wonderfully insightful Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk, & True Flourishing (IVP; $20.00) and James K.A. Smith's significant new work about how habit, liturgy and realigned desires can be shaped by Christian worship, for the sake of the world.

If you haven't, I hope you studied my two recent, long reviews of Smith's You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Brazos Press; $19.99) first here and then here.  The first, especially, is somewhat of a backstory, written in anticipation of the You are what You Love baker.jpgrelease of YAWYL; the second also included a bit more of my take on how Smith came this recent project and why I care so much about it, and then dove into a fuller review, chapter by chapter.  We've really appreciated that some have shared this review among their own friends and tried to generate some sales for us.  It is our joy to tell people about these kinds of books and hope that one of the things people desire, one of the habits that shape their wants (to use Smith's phrases) is spending money at places they believe in.

Anyway, it's good to recall that political life is part of a bigger cultural story, informed by the zeitgeist, and that our views and behaviors as citizens, as Crouch implies, and as Smith specifically shows, emerge from our deepest character, our virtues and habits and longings and the story we see ourselves to be a part of.  If we hope to re-calibrate our attitudes and practices in our civic life we must deepen our discipleship by allowing our hearts to be changed.  And that, my friends, happens best in church.  In YAWYL, church and worship are not alternatives to civic life, or a super-spiritual move of "world flight" Christianity disengaged from public concerns, but is a worldviewish radicalizing of us and our desires, in church and home, for the life of the world.  As we become more Christ-like and long for His Kingdom ways, then all of life will begin to be seen as inherently religious, with the possibility of Godly transformation, starting with our own convictions and lifestyles.  Including our understanding and involvement in politics as citizens.

I don't mean to be melodramatic, but it may be, therefore, that Smith's You Are What You Love and Crouch's Strong and Weak may be among the most important books to inform your politics that you'll read this year.

Of course, if our deep desires are for imagining God's Kingdom, and living coherent lives shaped by Biblically-informed visions and virtues, if our hearts are truly longing for God's glory to be seen more in our broken world, then we will necessarily want to develop some kind of uniquely Christian view of the common good, of public justice, and of the role of politics.  You will desire a "Christian mind" about what the best Christian traditions and writers have said about government, politics, the task of the state and the nature of responsible citizenship.

I have written a number of BookNotes columns for our bookstore blog over the years inviting us to think more faithfully and live more graciously in the public square, and I have named my favorite books on faith and politics. Read two of my columns with lists HERE and HERE.   There have been newer works on faith and politics released, but those lists are still useful and we'd be glad if you shared them.

power made (Sherratt).jpgOne book that just came in to our shop last week that ought to be mentioned as similar to those on those previous book lists is Power Made Perfect? Is There a Christian Politics for the Twenty-first Century? by Timothy Sherratt (Cascade Books; $18.00.) Blurbs on the back include a rave by a political mentor of mine, James Skillen, a wonderful endorsement by the always brilliant Gideon Strauss (Associate Professor of Worldview Studies at the Institute for Christian Studies) and remarks by Stephanie Summers, CEO of the Center for Public Justice, who says,

Here we have the resource many citizens have longed for...Christians who are tempted to give up on political engagement will be refreshed by the wise and practical counsel contained within.

I myself am looking forward to reading this, as I very much respect the author, a Professor of Political Science at Gordon College.

But there is another new one I must tell you about, and I am jazzed about it for several reasons, not least of which is that one of the shining parts of this multi-authored, back and forth volume, is the contribution by James K.A. Smith. Sometimes (well, quite often, actually) I wonder how some of these authors do it.  As Smith was writing the profound and beautiful YAWYL he was also writing a long and great chapter on Reformed views of Christian politics, and responding astutely to four other co-authors from other Christian traditions, replying to their own claim of what Christian politics looks like for a brand new volume.

Welcome to Five Views on The Church and Politics edited by Amy E. Black (Zondervan; $19.99.)

the church and pol z.jpgAt the risk of sounding like a political geek or a Jamie Smith groupie, I want to tell everyone about this multi-authored book about politics for reasons I will state below, but also because of Smith's very good role in the book. I am partial to Professor Smith's writing, his ecumenical flavor, his knowledge of the Dutch tradition of public theology (such as Bavinck and Kuyper and Dooyeweerd) and his great gift of being able to write about complex matters with incision and clarity and what seems like joy.

If you are a James K.A. Smith fan, you will want to read him in here.

As I read each essay in this new book, each one representing a different take on the relationship of church and politics, faith and government, and each of the five author's rebuttals of each other -- it is one of those "counterpoints" books -- I found myself appreciating Smith's pieces each time.  He is a remarkably well-read scholar and he is spot on in bringing just the right insight at just the right time.  I would guess that had this been a live debate, most of the other conversation partners might have been nervous being in counterpoint with him; in this, though, they all are exceptionally cordial and more than civil. This book was a model of pleasant, if at times pointed, discussion and a great learning experience. Each author obviously knows their theological tradition quite well.

black-cont.jpgThe five views represented in this volume were pulled together and helpfully introduced by Dr. Amy Black, herself a serious political scientist (with degrees from Claremont and MIT) who now teaches at Wheaton College and is widely published. Kudos to Ms Black, not only for creating such a helpful volume, but for her own writing in it -- not only is the introduction very well done, but the closing chapter ("Christian Witness in the Public Square") is practical and useful as she tries to draw on the best practices of these varying traditions and suggesting which strengths of each might be fruitful for our own growth and fidelity in the political sphere and public life.

The views represented here are arranged in a bit of a spectrum, I suppose, with some language borrowed from Richard Niebuhr's taxonomy in Christ and Culture. The five perspectives and traditions presented are:

  • Anabaptist (Separationist) by Thomas W. Heilke, Dean of Graduate Studies at the University of British Columbia
  • Lutheran (Paradoxical) by Robert Benne, formerly of Roanoke College in Roanoke, VA
  • Black Church (Prophetic) by Bruce L. Fields Theology prof of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL
  • Reformed (Transformationalist) by James K.A. Smith of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI
  • Roman Catholic (Synthetic) by J. Brian Benestad of Assumption College in Worcester, MA.

A feature of this book that should make it widely appealing for thoughtful church classes or book groups or even in colleges and seminaries is how it is shows how the views of the church and the basic ethos of each theological tradition shapes how they then tend to approach public life.  In many ways Five Views on The Church and Politics is as much about church and theology, adding to a needed ecumenical conversation between and among us church folk as it is on Christians as citizens or those active in political life.

The authors are not political scientists, it should be noted, which, I suppose, is both a strength -- making the book more widely interesting for any who care about the wider church, but may therefore be a little weak in terms of its goal of nurturing the Christian mind in politics as such. In fact, this approach, and even the book's title - am I over-thinking this? - points to this assumption; it is not just about varying views of statecraft or policy, but about how each faith tradition sees church life, and how church life relates to daily life and society.  Yes, each chapter does get around to thinking Christianly about politics as such, eventually, but the chapters are by design as much about theology as they are political science, and as much about church history as political history.

Five Views on The Church - Politics.jpgFive Views on The Church and Politics will thrill church history fans and will be a boon to any of us who long for greater ecumenical awareness and inter-denominational dialogue.  I think that all but the most focused politicos will find its broad themes -- how various church traditions have related to the world, to culture, to public life -- a great place to start (rather than digging too deeply into nuances of political theory as such which it mostly does not do.) For some of us we might wish for a bit more specificity about politics and the messiness of voting well, party involvement, policy proposals and such, but for most of us this big-picture view will bring us up to speed quite nicely.

Bring us up to speed?

Exactly.  You see, I suspect that most of us -- even the sharp and well-read fans of BookNotes -- are woefully unaware of the ways in which great Christian thinkers that have come before us have written and taught about Christian political life.  This is why I have offered lists like the ones mentioned above, or done extensive reviews of the very, very important historical overview of Christian thinking about the state, The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction written by James W. Skillen (Baker Academic; $24.00.)  Do check out my review of that, here.  Skillen helps us see -- through his own particular lens and opinions, of course -- the strengths and weaknesses of many great public thinkers who wrote about politics and justice down throughout history.  Who knew?

Listen to Amy Black in her introduction to Five Views of Church and Politics,

Not every theological tradition has a robust and distinctive set of teachings we might call a "political theology," but four in particular (Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, and Anabaptist) stand out for their enduring influence on conversations about church and state over many centuries. A fifth tradition, that of the Black Church, is specifically rooted in the United States and represents a distinctive theological perspective, not to mention forms of communal practice, that is too often discussed in isolation or simply ignored.

In telling about the rich and diverse views represented in this five-way conversation, Black notes that each tradition has developed and evolved.  "The endurance and adaptation of each of the traditions in this book, despite vastly changing political contexts, highlight their value for understanding present and future contexts, not just the past." 

What a good spectrum of views, and what a good way to learn about some of the strengths and weaknesses of these five enduring faith traditions.  As I said, it seems this book works well as a primer on inter-denominational/ecumenical discourse and the ups and downs of church history and differing theological impulses as much as a guide to thinking about modern citizenship. I commend such inter-denominational conversations to you.

I hope I'm wrong, but I doubt such conversations are going on in your town, let alone in your own congregation, so you need to read books like this once and again to remind you and yours of other members of the Body of Christ and how they think and speak out as they do, and why. Especially in this season when Christians are courted as a voting block and evangelicals are routinely cited in the news for supporting candidates who are pretty obviously not very Christian in tone or substance. What the heck is going on?  Well, part of what is going on is that good Christian people haven't read books like this.

In each chapter, the representative author first traces the historical developments of their own tradition, explaining some of the "foundational principles and theological distinctives." Eventually, they get to their tradition's view of government and its role in society. Some are, Dr. Black observes, "primarily optimistic, emphasizing the ways in which government promotes human flourishing and contributes to the common good" or they tend to be "pessimistic, focusing on the need for government to restrain the effects of sin."  Or, perhaps some are a mix of the two.

(I am reminded here -- although bringing it up here may seem a bit simplistic, and Black's book is not simplistic -- that Richard Mouw has written that when he used to debate his Mennonite friend John Howard Yoder, Yoder once said that Reformed and Presbyterian types said the world and public life was created but fallen, while Mennonites and other Anabaptists say created but fallen." Hmm.)

So. Of course, with these theological impulses or tendencies or postures made more forthright, they then explain what their tradition or church might say about how ordinary Christians should be involved in political life and the role of churches in addressing political questions. "Engagement with these questions", Black says, "helps outline the hallmarks of each perspective, but it focuses primarily on the theory animating each view."

In a helpful move, each chapter in Five Views on The Church and Politics ends with a case study, asking how that faith tradition might address the situation of domestic poverty.  How might their perspective address policy questions (if they do at all) about this?

And, of course, then there are the rebuttals - often mostly affirming what the diverse authors appreciate about each other and what they share in common.  I am not sure I am remembering correctly, but it seems to me that Professor Smith is the most pointed - gracious, always - but clear about differences. Perhaps it is because, in many ways, Smith's Reformed view may, in fact, stand apart in singular ways in insisting that the doctrine of creation yields a positive view of culture and subsequent institutions (such as government) and that therefore, God's redemption can be seen breaking into all areas of life, including politics. When his Kuyperian faith says "no dualism" it seems he really means it!

For instance, in one of Smith's critiques of another view, he insists, after a page lamenting violence shown centuries ago over disagreements and offering key appreciations for his interlocutor:

I continue to find Anabaptist principles of political engagement (or disengagement as the case may be) to be rather simplistic and naïve in their account of political life as an aspect of human culture. Or, to put it differently, it seems to me that Anabaptist stance vis a vis the political falls into the trap of treating political life and institutions as "givens," as a kind of black box that operates apart from our understanding of its emergence or inner workings. We just find ourselves thrown into the world, and there are political powers, authorities, structures, and systems that we have to deal with, and those political systems are taken to be simply synonymous with "the world" of, say, John 17:15 - the world that is under the control of "the evil one."

Behind this assessment of government and politics is a problematic theology of creation that seems to write off swaths of creation as not only fallen, but almost diabolical. There is a kind of all-or-nothing take on government and politics here that is problematic.

james smith shot from video.jpg(And, then, in a footnote, stemming from Smith's blunt accusation of unwarranted pessimism about the state, Smith avers, "Conversely Anabaptists are much more confident in the purity of the church than Reformed folks would ever be. Thus, when Heilke identifies "the 'good city' of political philosophy" simply with "the church," Reformed folks will express eschatological caution, emphasizing that 'the good city' is one we await (Rev. 21:2.)"

Later, in the same response, Smith says "While the Reformed position does not simply baptize the status quo, it is characterized by a hope for the possibility of political transformation rooted in a theology of creation and culture coupled with a conviction about the creation-wide scope of Christ's redemption - through still tempered by a deep sense of eschatological waiting."

I cite this not to underscore any particular animosity Smith may have against Mennonite brothers or sisters (close readers know my own personal appreciation for some Anabaptist thought and practice) but to clarify how clarifying this book at its best really is. Particularly in the rebuttal sections, where each author says what they don't agree with, brings to the fore some of the theological quandaries we must ponder. It is a good theological and spiritual exercise and very, very informative.

To be honest, there are times in this book when the debate might have been a bit more feisty.  I Jesus_for_President.jpgsort of wish the Anabaptist voice had a bit of the passion and prophetic edge of, say, Shane Claiborne's Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals (Zondervan; $16.99) and that the Roman Catholic scholar, alongside his good explanation of natural law, might have talked more energetically about the consistent life views of the US Bishops.  Indeed, it was Smith who noticed that Professor Benestad didn't talk at all about the historic reading of Pope Leo XIII's famous Rerum Novarum that has lead Roman Catholics to be generally supportive of labor and labor unions. Smith observes, politely, that Benestad offers a "selective" reading of Catholic Social Teaching.  And while Dr. Bruce Fields, the black theologian and professor, cited many great sources (such as Cheryl J. Sanders, Renita Weems, Cain Hope Felder, the essential J. Deotis Roberts, and Peter Paris) it would have been interesting to have this dialogue with somebody like a James Cone or Cornel West or someone more overtly connected to the historic civil rights movement. To put a better spin on my small frustration I can assure you that the book is exceedingly fair, civil, no-nonsense, studious and is hardly contentious at all.

Five Views on The Church and Politics is a fine introduction to key theological traditions, to trans-denominational conversations, and to various models and approaches to the big question of faith and culture, social change, politics and the common good.  But, again, I think it is best seen as a guide to understanding and appreciating differences among the church, and becoming more alert and wise and in some ways appreciative of each other.  We don't have to - the authors of this book would probably say we don't get to - make up our own rules or ideas about all this. We stand within a great (diverse) tradition and within the communion of saints; from within the big Body of Christ we can learn from each other and honor one another, even as we sometimes disagree with one another.  This book is, therefore, as much about ecclesiology, about church and theology as it is about government, legislation, policy or politics. But it is an example of mature conversation, an invitation to join in learning more and broadening our views.

Kemeny-Church-State-and-Public-Justice.JPGCompare and contrast this with another similar book I've often recommended, Church, State, and Public Justice: Five Views edited by P.C. Kemeny (IVP Academic; $20.00) which tends to be more about different Christian views of the state, how public justice is defined within different Christian schools of thought, and what sort of ways different traditions answer the question about how the government should (or shouldn't) work to bring about a just social order.  That book, too, offers five noted contributors who each offer a major chapter and then respond to the other four positions.  It seems a bit more eager to jump to the political science, but is, like Dr. Black's, delightfully broad and ecumenical. The five traditions represented in that book edited by Dr. Kemeny are a Roman Catholic perspective (written by a Roman Catholic political theorist, Clark Cochran), a Classical Separation perspective (written by a Southern Baptist attorney and liberal arts Dean from Baylor, Derek Davis), an Anabaptist perspective (written by Ron Sider, a Brethren scholar and political activist), a "Principled Pluralist" perspective (written by a Calvin College political science prof, political pollster, and board member of the Center for Public Justice, Corwin Smidt) and what seems to be a "realist"  social justice perspective, written by a mainline Protestant social ethicist and Washington DC-based United Methodist pastor, J. Philip Wogaman.) Church, State, and Public Justice: Five Views edited by Professor Kemeny, is deeper, a bit more heady, not primarily written by theologians but by politicos, and is therefore exceptionally useful for those serious about thinking about political questions, as such.  Perhaps it would be a good follow up to the broader, more theological approach taken in Black's Five Views on The Church and Politics. 

I like what Amy Black writes of her new Five Views on the Church and Politics collection, although it would serve to describe Kemeny's work as well:

We have focused on these differences to help readers think more deeply about the dynamics of Christian witness in the public sphere and consider alternative perspectives. But the purpose of this book is not to convince readers they must choose a side as if in the midst of a raging debate. Instead, we invite readers to compare and contrast central ideas and themes from each tradition to help them develop a more thoughtful, careful, and Christ-centered approach to politics and government.

And that is an urgent need.

Because if you think the characters and politics and campaigning in The Good Wife is outrageously flamboyant, welcome to US politics in real time circa 2016. We who follow Jesus simply must be discerning and thoughtful about how we can most faithfully respond.  But we don't have to reinvent the wheel, or fret that we are the first to face times such as these. God's people have been here before and people smarter then most of us have considered these things deeply. These books can help.


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March 15, 2016

REVIEW: YOU ARE WHAT YOU LOVE: THE SPIRITUAL POWER OF HABIT by James K.A. Smith (Brazos Press; $19.99) ON SALE now at HEARTS & MINDS - our price $17.99

YAWYL in a box.jpgThe new book by my friend Jamie Smith has arrived, and we couldn't be happier. The endorsements on the cover of the nice hardback are stellar. It is doubtlessly one of the best books of the year. Read on.


Please notice the handy order link at the bottom of this BookNotes column that takes you to our certified secure order form page.  We hope you value the reviews we offer and we trust that if you want to buy the books you will send the order our way.  Thank you, warmly.

I hope you enjoyed my long essay about what I called the backstory of James K.A. Smith's spectacular new book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, that we offered in a BookNotes post a week ago.  I named authors who have been significant for me, that influenced us to open Hearts & Minds, and for the development of the CCO's Jubilee conference I talk so much about.  Some of these, in fact, were also significant influences, friends, conversation partners, and teachers of James K.A. Smith. Every one of the books I mentioned is important to his project and I hope you paid attention.

Smith quote.jpgThat long rumination mostly went like this: influenced by Dutch neo-Calvinists -- old-time theologians and civic leaders like Herman Bavinck,  Abraham Kuyper and serious philosophers like Herman Dooyeweerd (and, to a lesser extent, Francis Schaeffer) --  The Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto influenced in the 1970s both Reformed and evangelical folks, including some of us in Pittsburgh who caught their "wide as life" vision of redemption, that understood salvation as "creation regained" and challenged the church's anti-intellectualism and cultural 3d-glasses-bw-570x383.jpglaziness. This shifted the tone of our faith conversations and our understanding of discipleship towards a more culturally engaged and wholistic vision, a transforming vision.  We started using the phrase world-and-life-view, shortened it to worldview and regularly explained how bad ideas (like the pagan Greek notion adopted from Plato by the early church of a big divide between the so-called secular and sacred and the subsequent general disregard for culture, work, the arts and sciences) could deform our discipleship and harm our witness in the world.                      3D glasses picture from FEVA Ministries

We resonated with the critique offer by Richard Neibuhr in his classic Christ and Culture and wechrist and culture niebuhr.jpg secular saint.jpgran with that taxonomy - dualists of the right were fundamentalists who despised culture; their faith often opposed Christian social concern, while more liberal dualists accommodated themselves to culture; the Reformed "Christ transforming culture" option gave us the most helpful posture: in but not of the world, eager to make a difference with holy relevance.  As a book by Richard Mouw put it in those years we were "called to holy worldliness" and as another by Robert Webber put it we were to be "secular saints."  Some of my very best friends in the CCO wrote a book (now long out of print) called, simply, All of Life Redeemed.

THE WORD WORLDVIEW

Alas - and it is a lot more complicated than I am putting it here, and more complicated than I described in that BookNotes - other folks started using the word worldview, too, sometimes hitching it to a far-right (dominionist) agenda, and usually using it to merely categorize the wrong ideas of others about the nature of the world.  The notion of a worldview was in some places reduced to mere ideas - good ones or bad ones - and some seemed to think that if we could only get people to believe the better ideas (dualism is wrong, God loves the creation, humans are made as God's image-bearers so we are called to vocations and work and history-making, Christ is Lord of all of life, Christians are to denounce the idols of the culture, the Kingdom of God is more than just the gathered church on Sundays) then they would be able to become true agents of God's Kingdom, culture-makers, ambassadors, restorers.  God's Kingdom could come if we just thought harder and better, usually by reading the right books and got our "worldview glasses" polished up correctly.  

naming the elephant 2nd.jpg(For the record, although beyond the scope of my overview of and run-up to Smith's new book, I think this telling is somewhat overstated.  Some odd-ball right-wing dominionists and some interested in evidentialist apologetics started using worldview language, but many who used it - from James Sire to Nancy Pearcey, Al Wolters to Sylvia Keesmaat, Mark Bertrand to NT Wright - mostly did not reduce the notion of a deeply held, often subconscious heart perspective, shaping how we "lean into life" as Sire put it,  to mere ideas. Suggesting this is, in my view, a small mis-step made by Andy Crouch in his splendid Culture Making and it is a trope in Smith (especially in Desiring the Kingdom) that ought to be clarified somewhere along the line. In recent years, James Sire attempted to clarify the notion of worldview as a concept in a book called  Naming the Elephant, which is worth reading. I've already cited in that previous BookNotes the collection about all this called After Worldview published by Dordt College Press. In any event, there is a huge difference between, say, James Olthius (and his 1985 Christian Scholars Review article "On Worldviews" citing Clifford Geertz and Michael Polanyi and Kierkegaard and David Tracy) and any number of far-right televangelists who started using the word promiscuously without much understanding of its best usage. But I digress. ) 

THE POSTMODERN TURN AWAY FROM RATIONALISM 

In that BookNotes the other day I not only explained the influence of the Dutch worldviewish authors from ICS that influenced CCO and Jubilee in the 70s and 80s but named a second sort of influence within some of those same circles (my circles, the friends and conversations that shaped the founding of Hearts & Minds.)  Call it worldview 2.0 or the second (postmodern) wave. I explained a few reasons why a new way of talking about worldview developed and a few books in which some like Brian Walsh and Jamie Smith made a bit of a postmodern turn and came to realize the limits of overemphasizing the role of thinking, the notion of the Christian mind being developed mostly by depositing new ideas into our brains. (The aforementioned, little-known book published a few years back by Dordt College Press, After Worldview, edited by Matt Bonzo and Michael Stevens, documents the papers presented at a logic of incarnation.jpgheavy conference - bracing, contested, important -- on this very matter and a whole academic book was edited in 2008 by Neal DeRoo and Brian Lightbody dedicated to Smith's views, The Logic of Incarnation: James K.A. Smith's Critique of Postmodern Religion.) Walsh, Midddleton and Smith were not the only ones in evangelicalism to write favorably of postmodernism, but they were pioneering and prescient. They started to write more about the role of the heart and the imaginative stories that conscript us into visions of the good life. Perhaps we should talk more about stories and visions, and less about worldviews and ideas.

Maybe, as Saint Augustine said, we are not primarily creatures who firstly think, but creatures who primarily love. The decisive question is not so much what we believe, but what we love.

As Smith puts it in the splendid preface to this new book: Jesus asks us "what do you want?"

I wrote that last BookNotes column so you can see, again, a bit of our backstory, our own journey, the ideas and visions that excite me and that inspired Beth and I to start our bookstore nearly 34 years ago.  And because I think some of that backstory and naming of titles illumines the great passion and urgency with which James K.A. Smith now writes, seen in books such as his good collections of pointed, shorter essays like The Devil Reads Derrida and Other Essays on the University, the Church, Politics, and the Arts and Discipleship in the Present Tense: Reflections on Faith and Culture, or his deep and exceptionally thoughtful Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (2009) and Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (2013), and the brand new, much-anticipated, very accessible You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit.

SO VERY NICELY WRITTEN, A TRUE PLEASURE TO READ

You are what You Love baker.jpgYou Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit is an amazingly rich book, and it explains Smith's thesis in many ways, using lots of analogies, illustrations, and teacherly examples. Throughout the book he switches the words around, rephrasing his basic points so often that one is not only learning these new ideas about the role of habits that shape our loves, but we are acquiring new ways to talk about these things, ways to describe our faith, our discipleship, our worldviews, and our worship with language that seem to now carry fuller, richer meaning. He talks about "curating your heart" and "calibrating your desire" and "refining your yearnings." He drops great little lines, over and over, such as "love is both a habit and hunger." He notes how liturgies "govern our rhythms" and asserts that "the church is the place where God invites us to renew our loves, reorient our desires, and retrain our appetites."

YAWYL is exceptionally quotable - I have more sentences underlined in my copy than not. I promise you, reading this book -- just over 200 pages - you get your money's worth!

Smith's writing at times just sparkles, and there are fabulously generative and sensible sentences like this, where he is summarizing some very good pages about the relationship of daily Christian life in the home and the story arc rehearsed in serious Christian worship among the gathered people of God:

When we situate our households in the wider household of God and extend the liturgies of worship to shape the ethos of our homes, we re-situate even the mundane. When we frame our workaday lives by the worship of Christ, then even the quotidian is charged with eternal significance. Our "thin" practices take on thicker significance when nested in a wider web of kingdom-oriented liturgies.

THE BOOK ACTUALLY WORKS -- INFORMING THE MIND, ENLARGING THE HEART. YES!

I am not trying to be cute, but I think this book works as an old-school text (we really do learn a lot) but also as an influence of this deeper, formative process - by immersing ourselves in this story, Smith's winsome, teacherly ways, his pop culture and literary examples, his love for church and worship, his creative use of phrases, his new rhetoric, we are ourselves transformed. Our affections are stirred and our hearts enlarged. We are carried into a better story, inspired to feel differently about church and worship, life and times. This truly is a book for hearts and minds.

Is this itself a contradiction, saying that a book can get to us like this? If Smith is saying that our worldviews, our practices of daily discipleship, our truest desires, are shaped more by rituals of worship and habits that are less didactic and more imaginative, can a non-fiction book about all that be effective and truly transformative? Maybe we need an interactive mime troupe or a play about this, at least, or maybe, if he's really right, we should just skip the book and attend Episcopal  liturgies each day, practicing worship rituals over and over.  Ha, that's part of the seeming irony of this, and a hint that, at times, Smith verges on overstating his insights.  Books about big ideas really can be formational and our whole-hearted engagement with them - maybe doing something like lectio divino, processing the content -- can be transforming. (Especially if it is read and processed together, in community.)  Smith doesn't disagree, of course, and says so in several clear pages in the first chapter. He is a professor and writer of non-fiction books, after all.

THE FIRST MAJOR PREMISE OF THE BOOK: A GAME-CHANGER

I should like to explain the overview of Professor Smith's project and describe a bit of how he says what he says.  You can be assured that You Are What You Love is a thrilling book to read, substantive and stimulating, but it is not so academically rigorous to be tedious or inaccessible.  It is much, much more than an abridged and simplified version of the admittedly complex Imagining the Kingdom and Desiring the Kingdom although I suppose that is one way to describe it: accessible summaries of the gist of those two exceptional works.  Educated, ordinary readers will find YAWYL a pleasurable read and will enjoy it with ease; I am sure many will be moved deeply by some of it. I am confident that its inviting, clear style will make it widely used and a game-changer for many.

NOT UNLIKE LEARNING RACISM, NOT UNLIKE SHEDDING ONE'S SKIN

I started my overview in the "Part One" review in last week's BookNotes by citing a memoir I recently read (highly, highly recommended, as well) written by Jim Grimsley, called How I Shed How I Shed My Skin.jpgMy Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood. Grimsley grew up in rural North Carolina, one of the students at one of the schools in the late 60s that were the first to become racially integrated. Without excessive flourish Grimsley described how he was born and bred to be a racist, by otherwise good people in his small, religious town. While most frowned on the public usage of the "n-word" (it was considered "course") and several of the Klansman his parents knew were disrespected for their excessive violence, he, nonetheless, was unknowingly conscripted into a culture of white supremacy.  The goal of his captivating memoir was to ponder how he, over time, "shed the skin" with which he was raised.  How does one's heart become taken with bigotry and how does one unlearn such disordered prejudices?   Although the book is not heavy-handed, it seemed to me a spot-on parallel to one of Mr. Smith's central arguments, namely, that we are not primarily or firstly "thinking things" and therefore, "thinking-thingism" (one of the very few clumsy phrases in the book) will not do if we desire to deepen our discipleship and live more consistently Christian lives.

Bad orientations/views/ ideas/practices (like Mr. Grimsley's racism) are absorbed and developed and embodied into bad habits largely not by overt or didactic teaching but via bad liturgies - civic rituals that form us and shape us.  Such (dis)ordering character (mis)formation must be countered by other sorts of better rituals and more powerful liturgies which embody and cultivate within us other sorts of habits of heart that will, in turn, shape and form our sense of what story we are a part of, re-indexing our desires in more wholesome ways.  Character and virtue and life's orientations are shaped pre-theoretically (a word we learned from ICS in the 70s, mind you), Smith insists, and this is exactly what Grimsley describes in his poignant memoir.

Grimsley tells of reciting children's playground doggerel, rhymes and rituals to determine who was "it" in a game of tag, that used the n-word -- thoughtless, but toxic nonetheless.  (Add to this the background wallpaper of overt racism in the Jim Crow south, separate but not equal, and one can easily see just how toxic such seemingly innocent childhood play could become.) As Mr. Grimsley narrates his own life, we see ourselves, if we have eyes to see, that common habits, small phrases, typical customs, rituals and games and stories and social forces shape us deeply, encoding in us ways of seeing and ways of being. It is brave of him to tell his own story, and it illustrates much of what Smith is getting at in the first portion of You Are What You Love.

So that is the major project of the first part of You Are What You Love. We may be overtly taught things as true but we might end up caring for what may even be the opposite when our desires are conscripted into another story; if our hearts are calibrated to the tunes of other value systems or ways of orienting ourselves to the world, we will learn to love those things, regardless of what we've been taught or even what we claim we believe. Our ways of being are influenced by how we come to see life - in Smith's explanation, what we come to desire - and our desires are usually caught, absorbed, breathed into the subconscious, snuck into our imaginations.

WHEN A BAD VISION OF HOME BETRAYS THE BIBLE VERSE DÉCOR

As Smith explains, in an example I myself have used for years, it matters little if one has plaques of Bible verses in one's home if the family assumes wrong things about itself or is oriented around an non-Christian vision of family, home, or life: if dad is a brute or mom is a social climber or the kids are considered mere mechanisms for the parents to re-live their own dreams of eternal youth. If the values of the American Dream (individualism, upward mobility) have captured the heart of the family in one bad way or another, slapping a few Bible verses around the fiefdom isn't going to sanctify it.  The same can be said about a business, a counseling center, an art gallery, a school, or a church.  Saying it is Christian, even loudly, doesn't make it so, and what is imagined is more formative then what is asserted.

AN EXAMPLE FROM ROCK CONCERT WORSHIP

Smith has analyzed things like this in helpful ways for quite some time and at the risk of redundancy allow me to point you to the excellent chapter written as an open letter to modern praise bands and worship leaders in his anthology Discipleship in the Present Tense where he wonders if the forms of modern entertainment (the rock concert) have subtly influenced how contemporary worship is structured and perceived and experienced. He is not opposing contemporary worship as such, but asking in pastoral ways what other baggage comes along uninvited when discipleship in the present age.jpgan (appropriate) structure/form from one arena (my pun intended) is inappropriately imported into another. That is, it is little wonder that those who grew up with "worship leaders" rocking out with lights and amps performing with cool affectations aping what they learned from rock stars for our consumption in worship experiences end up leaving a church if the musical stylings change or their favorite worship leader moves on. They've been taught - without any words but by the structures and forms and ethos and unspoken narratives, rituals, symbols - that worship is for me and an expression of my own heart and is to be taken in the same way I consume the experience of a big rock show. The "lessons" about what worship is and what it is about and how to participate have been "caught" no matter what is really taught.  Even if a pastor or church school teacher verbally instructs more nuanced and proper views of worship, the ritual of how worship is experienced trumps.  Smith's dear letter in that book is much clearer and better written than my quick summary here and I commend it. It's important for what it explores, but I mention it here as another example of the sorts of things that matter to him and that inspired YAWYL. We are not "brains on a stick" and our understandings of life usually are captured by stories and myths and values that are embedded in rituals, habit-forming liturgies.

So, from James Grimsley learning to shed his (racist) skin in his recent memoir to Smith's many helpful illustrations throughout this new book, we learn that rituals and habits matter, that most of what captures our heart and imagination and forms our deepest hungers and yearnings do not come from didactic teaching, but is picked up, caught, like the flu.  Stuff is in the air, and unless our disciple-making programs and faith formation groups and spiritual direction sessions are rooted in robust, intentional, thick rituals of Christian worship, it is most likely that those programs and groups and sessions will be merely messing around the edges of people's deepest lives. Their hearts will have already been captured by ways of seeing and serious dreams that were subconsciously absorbed from the secular liturgies in which they have participated.

Here is how Smith puts it, more eloquently and helpfully then my descriptions.  In talking about healthy, historic forms of worship in contrast to the ubiquitous seeker-sensitive services, he writes,

The problem, of course, is that these "forms" are not just neutral containers or discardable conduits for a message. As we've seen already, what are embraced as merely fresh forms are, in fact, practices that are already oriented to a certain telos, a tacit vision of the good life.  Indeed, I've tried to show that these cultural practices are liturgies in their own right precisely because they are oriented to a telos and are bent on shaping my loves and longings. The forms themselves are pedagogies of desire that teach us to construe and relate to the world in a loaded way. So when we distill the gospel message and embed it in the form of the mall, while we might think we are finding a fresh way for people to encounter Christ, in fact the very form of the practice is already loaded with a way of construing the world.

As he has explained in a previous chapter about the "liturgical" construction of the mall and the way a mere stroll through these "temples of consumerism" seduce and form us, he continues in his astute critique of mixing the subliminal messages of the mall and food court with church and worship,

The liturgy of the mall is a heart-level education in consumerism that construes everything as a commodity available to make me happy. When I encounter "Jesus" in such a liturgy, rather than encountering the living Lord of history, I am implicitly being taught that Jesus is one more commodity available to make me happy. And while I might want to add him to my shelf of stuff, we shouldn't confuse this appropriation with discipleship. 

BE AWARE. BE VIGILANTE. AND TELL A BETTER STORY THAT CAPTURES THE IMAGINATION

So, whether we are absorbing assumptions, which lead to disordered desires, from our habits of taking in secular liturgies, or absorbing those same bad assumptions by their being imported unwittingly by how we do church, we need to be vigilante. But we can't just suppose that this is a matter of offering intellectual critique of bad ideas and replacing them with better points or principles. We need character and worldview formation of the deepest sort which include must deconstructing the influence of our secular liturgies and being intentional about how our imaginations might be sanctified by more appropriate, truly Christian liturgies, in church and in all of life.

Yes, we need to be on guard, and discerning out the habit-forming, love-directing, heart-capturing impact of modern life.  But, mostly, we need to very wholistically and liturgically enter a better story.

There is really very little in print that opens all of this up so richly, and I want to suggest this book is nearly singular in its clarity and wisdom and importance.  But that isn't exactly right. At the very least, we should name a pair of other books that are in a similar ball park, by gifted authors who appreciate Smith's work, and who Smith surely would commend: the spectacular volume Reordered Love, Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness by David Naugle (Eerdmans; $18.00) and the beautifully-written reflection Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition & the Life of Faith by Jen Pollock Michel (IVP; $16.00.) If you liked those, you will love You Are... And if you are a Smith fan, you must know those two.

little prince.jpgJames Smith cites, more than once, a lovely bit of counsel from Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the author of The Little Prince that summarizes and captures much of the point. De Saint-Exupery writes,

If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

You see (as Jamie explains),

To be human is to animated and oriented by some vision of the good life, some picture of what we think counts as "flourishing." And we want that. We crave it. We desire it. This is why our most fundamental mode of orientation to the world is love. We are oriented by our longings, directed by our desires. We adopt ways of life that are indexed to such visions of the good life, not usually because we "think through" our options but rather because some picture captures our imagination.

WORSHIP RESTORES BY RE-STORYING US

And, for people of historic Christian faith, this "picture that captures our imagination" comes to us, most powerfully, in worship.  As he puts it in one clever section, "worship restor(i)es us."

Perhaps you can see why Smith dedicated this book to two of our most important writers and activists for worship renewal in our time, John Witvliet (founder of the highly regarded, exceptionally ecumenical, Calvin Institute on Christian Worship) and the late, great Robert Webber.  He calls Witvliet a co-conspirator, and of Webber Smith writes, 

ancient future faith.jpgancient-Christian worship.jpgRobert Webber's work had a significant impact on me at a crucial phase of my life, and in many ways I'm simply writing in his wake. This little book is a dingy bobbing along behind the ship of Webber's "ancient-future" corpus. If I can help a few people board the mother ship, my work here is done.

I did not know Webber well at all; I was with him on two occasions, including once at a long and leisurely dinner that lead to a serious late-night conversation. I was surprised how much this Wheaton College worship scholar knew about my own unique journey - central Pennsylvania EUB boy whose imagination was captured by Kuyper et al and yet kept a foot in both mainline Protestantism and progressive evangelicalism, had done a stint at the radical Thomas Merton Center, and passionate about campus ministry and the CCO's Jubilee conference. I was very grateful for our conversations.  I think I understand why Jamie Smith found Robert Webber's work so appealing and instructive for his own current project. Webber had a way of helping us "long for the endless immensity of the sea."

SO MUCH MORE TO LEARN, TO APPRECIATE

You Are What You Love helps call us to a profound and embodied whole-life discipleship grounded in a deep Christian worldview - all of life redeemed, all creation ablaze with the presence of God, all followers of Christ equally called to vocation in the world - and helps us realize that this sort of truly transforming vision must grow deep in our lives not just by reading books about it or taking in podcasts or classes about it (betraying our assumptions that we are primarily "thinking things") but, rather, our hearts and loves and desires must be converted and sanctified (indexed or curated, he might say) so that we are (re) oriented to the Christian story, not the American Dream. We need to appreciate "the spiritual power of habit" as the sub-title puts it and he explains how that happens, for ill (in the often very power secular liturgies) and sometimes for better (as we are shaped by thoughtful, intentionally crafted deep liturgies of historic Christian worship.)

Smith then does two major things in the remaining rich chapters.

WORSHIP AND HOW IT WORKS

First he writes wonderfully and wisely about worship. 

In Chapter 3 he offers an excellent overview of "historic worship for a postmodern age." It is excellent.

Then in chapter 4 - entitled "What Story Are You In? The Narrative Arc of Formative Christian Worship" - Smith offers what I take to be just about the best stuff I've ever read on worship.   I have almost every sentence of every paragraph underlined and thought of many friends (mostly professional clergy or others involved in church work) would love it.

If just some of our pastors and worship leaders across the denominations could articulate this stuff in the way Smith does, or would articulate it, I think more and more folks would hunger for worshiping well, and would more deeply appreciate renewed forms and styles and aspects of worship renewal.  (Heck, pastors, get your flocks yearning for more conversation and deeper appreciation of this stuff and they might free up more monies from the budget to send you to something like the annual Symposium on Worship of the Calvin Institute on Worship from which Smith has learned much of his insight about healthy, robust worship.) I respect so many pastors, including my own, and have been drawn to deeper worship by so many good liturgists, preachers, and worship leaders, that I do not want to be misunderstood. I am not trying to sound critical and certainly not cynical. But it is notable to me how little of this kind of stuff I have heard spoken out loud in our churches, in worship classes or adult forums.  I really wish pastors and elders and worship planners would read this book, at least chapters 4.

A CONUNDRUM, A PARADOX, AN IRONY: THINKING ABOUT THE PRE-THEORETICAL

Ahh, I know, I know: if you are tracking with this you will see that I am still somewhat tied to a "thinking thing" view, that if only pastors would read this book, adopt these ideas, learn to explain this perspective, things would change. Yep, there it is, a basic irony of this book - it is a book demanding to be read and discussed by thinkers and explained, even taught, in churches. The role of the mind in all of this (which Smith affirms clearly on pages 6 and 7) is a bit of a mystery, but dare not be minimized (even if Smith perhaps unwittingly nearly does so throughout the book.)

It is my own contention that rituals (in this case, the habits and practices of deep Christian worship) might have a more powerful effect upon us if we understands what they are supposed to do to us.  Not unlike other multi-faceted activities that are not primarily intellectual exercises -- eating, making love, watching movies, say -- by reading and learning about those those topics and understanding how they work in God's good work, those experiences can then be fully engaged with the whole self, experienced better if one is aware or has some insight about what is going on.  (We have a section in our bookstore called "books about books" for this very reason.) Perhaps it is a bit of a cycle -- we are shaped by the pre-theoretical power of habits and liturgies, but those can impact us more fruitfully when we understand something about them. (I never knew that "passing the peace" in church was more than a time to greet one's fellow pew-sitters with a hearty good morning, but was a freighted, liturgical act, a practice in hospitality and peacemaking. I hope that once I embraced a thicker account of what that part of the worship service was really about, what it was to be doing among us, that it could then make me a better peacemaker, and not just a guy who's cheery as a greeter.) I assume Smith agrees that learning about how this gut-level stuff works is key, since he wrote such an impassioned and informative book for us to think about.  Duh. Hearts and minds, after all; hearts and minds and bodies.

So, I believe it should be obvious that we can come to appreciate non-cognitive, pre-theoretical, imaginative influences and embrace their formative impact, even realizing they come to us most potently through ritual and story and habit-forming "liturgies" when we study and learn about it.  Again, this may be a tad ironic but it isn't contradictory. Of course we learn stuff by reading and thinking (it is what Smith is paid the big bucks to do, after all. ) His astute philosophical considerations (such as the embrace of a Dooyeweerdian view of worldview rooted in the human heart which set the stage for his embrace of the postmodern turn which rejected Cartesian dualism and the idol of autonomous rationalism) led him quite naturally to this realization that humans whom God has made as lovers are shaped also by -- perhaps he is correct to say primarily by -- dreams and visions, habits and rituals, rather than mere ideas deposited in the noggin. But that surely (surely!) doesn't diminish the need for intellectual development, for thinking, talking, arguing, discerning the truth of his claims here, and the ways we might teach them in our faith communities and reform our practices. Even if he is only somewhat correct, we've got work to do.

So, ironic or not, I say again: this chapter on the "narrative arc of formative worship" is splendid, some of the best writing I've ever encountered on worship, short and sweet, radical and wise, useful and commendable. We need to learn this stuff.  If your pastor or worship leaders don't say these kinds of things from time to time, buy them this book, ASAP. Start a book club, even if it is just on the worship chapter, ready by your own worship planners or pastors, for starters.  Implore them to explain this to the worshipers in your congregation. Help the ritual aspect of worshipful practices be more effective by helping the people of God understand.

AND THEN, LIVING IT OUT, DAY BY DAY BY DAY...

You are what You Love baker.jpgThe last three chapters of You Are What You Love are worth their weight in gold.

(What kind of metaphor is that, and why is "gold" so appealing to us? Ha! Maybe I should watch what I write, question what values are implicit even in how we talk, eh? Yeah, you can take that to the bank! Wink, wink.)

Seriously, one doesn't have to be a linguist to observe that words we use shape how we think about things. The aforementioned Jim Grimsley writes passionately about how he came to value "whiteness" over "blackness" by the constant way our vocabulary affirms one as good and clean and the other as bad and scary. I don't think Smith mentions the habits of speech and how they might subtly conscript us into ways of thinking and caring and acting.... one little piece of the puzzle he leaves unaddressed. (Although he has written a whole book somewhat about that, a heavy philosophy work published by Routledge called Speech and Theology.)

Chapter 5 of YAWYL is called "Guard Your Heart: Liturgies of the Home" and Chapter 6 is called "Teach Your Children Well: Learning By Heart."  Oh my, this is rich, good, stuff.  Jamie is transparent about his own life, a bit, at least, and credits his wife, Deanna, for helping shape their own family's desires and rhythms and home ethos, much of it learned at the kitchen table.  She has a big heart and a lot of skills in home economics, hospitality seems to come natural to them, and she slowly got Jamie interested in eating more wholesome food and appreciating the finer tastes of a more normative diet. 

This is shared in a lovely, helpful way, and he had already written nicely about his own need to change his diet, exercise and - of course - learn to want to do this. Knowing in his head proper stuff about food and nutrition, about health and stewardship, about global justice and sustainable agriculture, about feasting and fasting, wasn't enough: one cannot think one's way to new tastes. So his wife gets a whole lot of credit as helping guide the Smith household in Grand Rapids into new flavors, new tastes, new hungers, new lifestyles.

(Aside: you won't want to miss a couple of pages about Smith learning to care more deeply about these things, and, literally, reading a Wendell Berry book eating a bad hotdog in the stupid food court at the big box, cost-cutting, mega-store, Costco.  After making this rather humbling revelation he writes, "There are so many things wrong with that sentence I don't know where to begin." Kudos, Jamie, for sharing such a hilariously warped episode. "Reading Wendell Berry in Costco" is one of the great contemporary parables of our time, and a fabulous, fabulous few pages. It is fun and helps makes the point remarkably well.)

CULTURE-MAKERS, WORLD-CHANGERS, ORDINARY DISCIPLES IN LOVE WITH THE WORLD

james smith shot from video.jpgAs you might expect, as much as I loved the chapters on worship and agree with Smith's insistence that intentional consideration of the significance of church life and Christian worship is essential, I really loved these chapters about how we worship God in all of life, see Christ's redemption of all creation, and find ourselves in a story of the renewal of all creation.  His last chapter on making a life called "You Make What You Want: Vocational Liturgies"  almost made me cry.  Oh, how I long for this kind of thing to be better known, to be in the bones and on the lips of my fellow Christians and the church leaders we know.  Smith isn't saying stuff that is that different or unusual or rare, really, yet his way of phrasing things, his vision of inviting people into a deeper, more meaningful sort of Christian discipleship, seems to me - and I suspect it will to you, too - nearly revolutionary in its freshness, its appeal, its implications.  You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit is one of the most interesting, visionary, important books I've read in years.

For instance, in a section called "Tradition for Innovation" he offers remarkable and rare wisdom (that is neither conservative nor liberal, traditionalist nor progressive.) He is grateful that many younger evangelicals are beginning to affirm an "expansive sense of mission and a more holistic theology of creation that affirms not only the Great Commission but also the cultural mandate." But, on the other hand, he notes that evangelicalism continues to be a hotbed of almost unfettered religious innovation, ever confident of its ability to compete in the shifting marketplace of contemporary spirituality. 

His concern is succinct and incisive:

The entrepreneurial independence of evangelical spirituality (which is as old as the American colonies) leaves room for all kinds of congregational start-ups that need little if any institutional support. Catering to more specialized niches, these start-ups are not beholden to liturgical forms or institutional legacies. Indeed, many of them confidently announce their desire to "reinvent church."

These are, I want to suggest, competing trajectories. For we cannot hope to restore the world if we are constantly reinventing the church.

(An aside to those few who might care: does this conversation echo concerns of Nevin and Schaff of the 18th century Mercersburg Theology movement from German Reformed folks in Pennsylvania? That spiffy innovation and spirit of entrepreneurialism that marks passionate revivalism, while honorable for missional intensity, may be its own worst enemy?  And isn't this what Os Guinness predicted in his allegorical novel The Gravedigger File, now available as The Last Christian On Earth?)

Smith continues,

The cultural labor of restoration certainly requires imaginative innovation. Good culture-making requires that we imagine the world otherwise - which means seeing through the status-quo stories we're told and instead envisioning kingdom come. We need new energy, new strategies, new initiates, new organizations, even new institutions. If we hope to put the world to rights, we need to think differently and act differently and build institutions that foster such action.

BUT GET THIS: HOW DO WE KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO RESTORE?

But if our cultural work is going to be restorative - if it is going to put the world to rights - then we need imaginations that have absorbed a vision for how things ought to be. Our innovation and invention and creativity will need to be bathed in an eschatological vision of what the world is made for, what it's called to be - what the prophets often described as shalom. Innovation for justice and shalom requires that we be regularly immersed in the story of God reconciling all things to himself.

And that happens in worship, and not just any kind of worship. So we are back to the interplay and relationship of the local church and our public faith, good worship and the good life.

As Smith puts it here, we need to be immersed "in intentional, historic, liturgical forms that carry the Story in ways that sink into our bones and seep into our unconscious."

I cannot tell you how much I loved these last chapters of You Are What You Love, how I long to talk about them with others, to hear what you and your friends and fellowships make of it all.  This book is one I want to promote, want to encourage you to buy and study and talk about and - please Lord! - maybe it will make a difference in how we worship and how we live.

VERY APROPOS THESE DAYS, A NECESSARY BOOK FOR OUR TIME

It will be a truly great read for those who are interested in cultural engagement and social action but wonder what kind of people we need to be to take up those vocations with lasting faith.  In this regard, I might suggest it would appeal to those who were taken with the profoundity and eloquence of Steve Garber's Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior or Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good or the fine work of Andy Crouch or any number of recent books or websites or local action groups helping us get involved in social action.  If you were one of the many who viewed the Acton DVDs For the Life of the World, you really need to follow it up with a book just like this. If you appreciated Scot McNight's call to root our public theology and Kingdom language in the local church (Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church) you will really appreciate You Are What You Love.

FOR ORDINARY CLERGY TOO

However, more conventional pastors of more ordinary churches will find much about this that will remind them of why they do what they do, how the language and symbols and rituals of the gathering, worshiping body are so very, very important. (Does anybody recall the important work decades ago of John Westerhof? Or does anybody use Godly Play curriculum?  Or even appreciate the way some anti-hunger activists have rooted their local activism in the open celebration of the Lord's Supper? That is, I think those who work with most common place stuff that goes on in typical churches will find in YAWYL a solace and a proverbial shot in the arm. I hope it is read among young and old, evangelicals and mainliners, those drawn to simple church and those from more high liturgical traditions. There is something here for everyone. I mean that with all my heart.

At the end of this fascinating journey, Smith offers to us a lovely blessing and a closing short piece he calls "Benediction." It starts with the famous lines from T.S. Eliot's "Little Gidding" about how after our exploring we come back to where we started "and know the place for the first time."  He then offers a lengthy quote from Russian Orthodox priest and theologian Alexander Schmemann , who wrote a very rich work called For the Life of the World which inspired the great DVDs by the same name. There, Schmemann reminds us of the significance of the word "Amen."  It's quite profound.

 Smith's benediction?

"May you say 'Amen' to everything you love."


You are what You Love baker.jpg


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March 12, 2016

8 excellent books for Holy Week (5 for adults, 2 for children) -- ON SALE at big discount, while supplies last

candle_spirit.jpgI don't know about you, but for many of us, the week before Easter is a time within time, a holy and meaningful time; I try to spend more time in solitude, the Lenten practices (some of which I do not keep well if at all) of spiritual reading, prayer, fasting, and mid-week church services are intensified.  I hope you have a faith community that does a Maundy Thursday service, and that you take in Good Friday services. Experiencing in some way the flow and rhythm of Christ's final week seems essential to our own being well grounded in the passion of Christ, our servant King.

Here are six exceptional books for adults, and two more for younger children, that you might find useful to have for next week.

We have them at 30% off, now, unless we sell out. THIS OFFER EXPIRES MARCH 25, 2016.

We can fill orders promptly and have them to you within a few days.

A Glorious Dark- Finding Hope in the Tension Between Belief and Experience .jpgA Glorious Dark: Finding Hope in the Tension Between Belief and Experience A.J. Swoboda (Baker Books) $14.99 SALE PRICE $10.49

In our last BookNotes posted a few days ago I announced A.J. Swoboda's brand new book, The Dusty Ones: Why Wandering Deepens Your Faith, a beautifully-written and provocative study of exile and being in the desert and on the value of "wandering." In some ways, that new one is a bit connected to this one from last year which also sounds themes of the messiness of life, the difficulties of faith, questions about suffering and doubt and seeking God in the midst of our pain. The brilliance of this Glorious Dark book -- it would be fine to read anytime, as the questions are so universal and his Biblical insight so interesting and helpful -- is that it gets at these vital, urgent questions by way of a study of the last part of Holy week, what some call the triduum.

The title itself is wonderful, eh?  Here is what it says on the back cover:

On Thursday as they ate the Passover meal with Jesus, the disciples believed that the kingdom was coming and they were on the front end of a revolution. Then came the tragedy of Friday, and the silence of Saturday. THey ran. They doubted. They espaired. From their perspective, all was lost.

Yet, within the grave, God's power was still flowing like a mighty river beneath the ice of winter. And then there was Sunday morning.

undoing of death.jpgThe Undoing of Death Fleming Rutledge (Eerdmans) $22.00 OUR SALE PRICE $15.40

I have a well-used hardback copy of this that I read portions of every Lent, and upon which I meditate every Holy Week. A few pages here mean much to me, and Dr. Rutledge's use of ancient art to illuminate her collection of Holy Week sermons is remarkable. I very highly recommend this. The Undoing of Death is a very precious book, meaty, thoughtful, eloquent, surprising, important.  Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III (a former dean of the Washington National Cathedral) says of this sermon collection,

Here is passionate, unstinting, full-blooded preaching on the deepest mysteries of Christian faith. Fleming Rutledge doesn't hold back. She brings her formidable intellect and her wide reading to bear on saying what is nearly unsayable: God has overcome the world's darkness, and what happened on a hill outside of Jerusalem has made all the difference.

The Seven Last Words from the Cross Fleming Rutledge.jpgThe Seven Last Words from the Cross Fleming Rutledge (Eerdmans) $12.00 OUR SALE PRICE $8.40

You may recall that we got to met Rev. Dr. Rutledge this past fall and have been very, very impressed with her major, magisterial tome The Crucifixion. This smaller paperback is a lovely, thorough, solid rumination on each of Christ's last words and is both warmly devotional but filled with intellectual substance.  As Richard Lischer writes "Fleming Rutledge brings a profound knowledge of the atoning work of Christ to bear on a series of mediations for God's people. The result is a treasury of wisdom on the cross of Christ. I will continue to read this book." There is a recommended hymn after each meditation. 





between-midnight-and-dawn-a-literary-guide-to-prayer-for-lent-holy-week-and-eastertide-30.jpgBetween Midnight and Dawn: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide compiled by Sarah Arthur (Paraclete Press) $18.99 SALE PRICE $13.29

I gushed over this at the beginning of Lent (as we had her wonderfully literary volume for Advent, Light Upon Light, and the excellent anthology for Ordinary Time called At the Still Point.) In each of these Arthur (a graduate of Wheaton College and Duke Divinity School) collects wonderfully appropriate readings of poetry, short stories, novels, hymns and other literary treasures, compiling them into a prayer book/devotional. It invites us to experience the liturgical seasons in the company of poets and novelists from across the centuries (and across the globe.) Kathleen Norris also gushed: "What a delight, to find so extraordinary a collection!" And the late Phyllis Tickle (herself a poet) declared her literary guides "a thing of beauty!" Between Midnight and Dawn: A Literary Guide to Prayer... is a very handsomely designed paperback, a lovely, lovely book. We think it would make a much-appreciated gift, too -- especially for one who may warm to a re-envisioned sort of devotional.

Lent for Everyone- Luke, Year C- A Daily Devotional .jpgLent for Everyone: Luke (Year C) N.T. Wright (Westminster/John Knox) $16.00 OUR SALE PRICE $11.20

This daily devotional includes stirring reflections for Lent -- or anytime - on the lectionary texts for each day from one of the world's leading New Testament scholars and most important theological writers. This is a great, rather brief overview of the gospel story, walking with Jesus through Luke.  N.T. here uses his own translation of the Greek New Testament (that is now available in paperback under the title The Kingdom New Testament) which is itself very interesting and at times quite illuminating. He then offers a brief reflection and prayer and (as it says on the back cover) "helping readers ponder how the text is relevant to their own lives today. By the end of the book, readers will have been through the entirety of Luke, along with Psalm readings for each Sunday." Lent for Everyone: Luke includes seven devotionals for the week following Easter, as well, and they are good. Readers really get a lot of content.

This jam-packed little volume is a great study for Lent, of course, and very good for Holy Week, but -- I hope it is obvious -- it is a great resource for anyone studying the gospel of Luke, anytime, or anyone who wants to dip into Wright's accessible meditations for a few weeks to see what he's up to.

just-in-time-prayers-for-lent-and-holy-week.jpgPrayers for Lent and Holy Week David N. Mosser (Abingdon) $12.00 OUR SALE PRICE $8.40

Designed for those who plan worship services, I know some people use this series of books ("Just in Time") for any time they need litanies or prayers for their small groups or church meeting or even family devotions. Not a few people prefer to read prayers instead of devotionals or Bible reflections and this little paperback includes all manner of prayers (invocations, confessions, assurances of pardon, pastoral prayers, offertory prayers, benedictions and the like) for worship experiences all during Lent and Holy Week.  Very useful.











TWO HIGHLY RECOMMENDED CHILDREN'S BOOKS

The Garden The Curtain The Cross.jpgThe Garden, The Curtain and the Cross: The True Story of Why Jesus Died and Rose Again Carl Laferton, illustrated by Cataline Echeverrt (The Good Books Company) $14.99 OUR SALE PRICE $10.49

We are fond of much of the up-beat, contemporary, and theologically sound work of this evangelical publisher from the UK. You may recall that last December we raved about their Christmas book, The Christmas Promise, which emphasized Christ's Kingship in a way both playful and serious. In an energetic manner similar to that one, this new one tells the story of Easter starting with God's creation of a good world (the garden is not the Garden of Gethsemane, as you might presume in an Easter book, but the Garden of Eden) proceeding to show God's rescue plan for creation, as unfolded in the dramatic big story of redemption in the Bible.

Jesus' death is not explained in any unconventional way, except that it seems to remind us that it isn't an isolated part of the Bible or unrelated to God's promises and plan and love for all creation. There was once a very good world; we know it know as marred and hurtful; Christ died and rose to bring healing and shalom to his beloved planet. It's few pages about the temple and Christ's death causing the "keep out" curtain to be torn is extraordinary. A powerful, artfully rendered two page black and white spread about Jesus "taking" our sins is stunning, simply stunning. The focus on Christ is clear.  This is a very entertaining (even at moments, nearly zany), truly educational, and delightfully inviting book for young children.


he Story of Easter Mary Joslin illustrated by Alida Massari (Lion Press).jpgThe Story of Easter Mary Joslin illustrated by Alida Massari (Lion Press) $14.99 OUR SALE PRICE $10.49

We loved this gifted storyteller and Italian illustrator's beautiful work in Lion Press's The Story of Christmas and so appreciate how this similarly fine book -- with helpful text and beautiful, rich, pictures that evoke a Mediterranean or Middle Eastern feel -- walks us through the life of Jesus, leading up to his last week. With dignity and purpose, the book clarifies the Last Supper (with a beautiful scene of the "new commandment") and the betrayal and arrest, trial and death and resurrection of Jesus.

This wonderful The Story of Easter makes it clear that Christ's sacrifice was a cruel power play by the Empire's leaders, but that the point is Jesus's joyful coming alive again, ascending, and commissioning others to carry on his work of spreading His love. There is no discussion of penal substitution or why Christ predicted his own death, but the goodness, sorrow and joy of the story is palpable. Very, very nicely done.



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March 9, 2016

TEN NEW BOOKS YOU HAVE TO CHECK OUT on sale at Hearts & Minds / BookNotes

jkas-features3-bkr.jpgI hope you saw my long essay the other day about the importance of the forthcoming Jamie Smith book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Brazos Press; $19.99) at the previous BookNotes post. (All of my past blog posts are archived at our Hearts & Minds website.) A couple of folks said it was quite an education, and I enjoyed sharing, again, some of my own significant influences and some of my own favorite books and authors.  Trying to offer a bit of a backstory (my own or Smith's I can't quite say) that frames the new book was fun and meaningful for me, at least.  I do hope you considered it.  


Alas, I haven't gotten the real review of the book itself done yet, and I've learned You Are What You Love (can we call it YAWYL?) won't arrive for another week, so I'm going to sneak in a random, but no less important, shorter BookNotes list now.  Stay tuned for my eventual review of YAWYL and do check out that "part one" rumination about it if you haven't yet.  


In the mean time, it's usually quite invigorating being around here any given day at the Dallastown shop, realizing just how many great books keep coming and coming. There's lots of dumb stuff out there and plenty that is mediocre.  But, truly, there are wonderful reads and fine authors and helpful publishers; the book world and publishing industry really is a blessing to us all. I know I speak for all our staff here when I say that Beth and I are glad there are readers who care. I don't mean that only because your shopping with us keeps us afloat, tenuous as that project seems. It means that people care about words, about ideas, about being moved by the art of writing and the habit of reading.  That's good -- essential! -- for the health of our world, you know.


Some new and very good books that I shall list below just might scratch where you itch these days or they might make a good gift to somebody who you may know who needs some pleasurable and helpful resources this very week. Spread the word.


TEN NEW BOOKS THAT YOU SHOULD KNOW


Love Kindness- Discover the Power of a Forgotten Christian Virtue .jpgLove Kindness: Discover the Power of a Forgotten Christian Virtue Barry H. Corey (Tyndale) $15.99  When reading an advanced copy of Good Faith which I reviewed a week ago I noticed a footnote to this book that had not yet been released. Kinnaman and Lyons said very good things about it in that footnote and I made a mental note to be sure we had it on order.  It came not long ago and, as I expected, it is remarkable. And it has Micah 6:8 printed on the back -- the first verse I learned as a kid, my dad's favorite.  There are surprising blurbs on the back from David Wells, a serious-minded, no-nonsense and very careful thinker I great admire, a Distinguished Research Professor at Gordon Conwell, and a long, passionate endorsement by Miroslav Volf.  These are impressive signs. Alistair Begg calls Love Kindness "a thought-provoking, heart-stirring challenge to consider kindness as a barometer of a grace-shaped life."  I know some very kind people and admire them. You do too.  Maybe we need this book so we can be more like them.  The author, by the way, has a PhD in education from Boston College, was a Fulbright scholar and worked with the landless poor in Bangladesh. This looks really, really rich.


Letters to Jacob- Mostly About Prayer.jpgLetters to Jacob: Mostly About Prayer Fr. John-Julian (Paraclete Press) $7.99  This is a very, very small book and I intend to read it devotional here in the second half of Lent. Any title that alludes to Letters to Malcolm by C.S. Lewis, and says "ordinary mysticism" on the cover has to be good!  And I hear it really is.  Desmond Tutu has a rave on the front saying "Wise counsel for all on how to grow in that life of prayer and what pitfalls to avoid."

Fr. John-Julian is an Episcopal priest who is what they call "semi-enclosed" and has had a wide, wide array of jobs from camp director to TV actor to the dean of an experimental seminary and a social worker -- even a bookseller!  (If only he'd have logged some time in the circus.) His wide worldly experience, his service as a pastor, and now as an Oblate (Order of Julian of Norwich) gives him a rare place in which to describe contemplative prayer to those of us who are not quite so oriented to stillness and solitude and deeper prayerfulness.  It looks like an argument for the contemplative life, but also an invitation to it, written to a young, 21st century seeker.  Might even be a slightly deeper version of the lovely Nouwen book called Letters to Marc, which I also loved.  Nice.


Wholeheartedness- Busyness, Exhaustion, and Healing the Divided Self .jpgWholeheartedness: Busyness, Exhaustion, and Healing the Divided Self Chuck DeGroat (Eerdmans) $15.00 We discovered DeGroat a while back, appreciated by many for his helping to found the Newbigin House of Studies in San Francisco, but who is now a prof of pastoral care at the RCA's Western Theological Seminary in Holland Michigan and who also has a counseling practice. He wrote the wonderfully interesting and beautiful book called Leaving Egypt: Finding God in WIlderness Places and then a most helpful and very thoughtfulToughest People to Love: How to Understand, Lead, and Love the Difficult People in Your Life Including Yourself.  This new one looks remarkable -- just the footnotes alone show how wide of a reader DeGroat is, citing everybody from evangelical neuroscientist Curt Thompson to poet Mary Oliver, from David Letterman to Thomas Merton.


Wholeheartedness has a beautiful style about it, covers very impressive ground, helping us diagnose our unwholeness, awaken to wholeness, and then experience real wholeness.  It seems to me that this is a perfect example of a book that is designed for self-improvement, personal growth, but is mature, sophisticated, beautifully-crafted and nuanced.  Steve Brown raves on the back saying how "this came just in time to salvage this old cynical preacher from almost giving up on every finding healing in this busy world" and Ms Mica Boyett (herself a fabulously gifted writer and a bit of a mystic) says the book will "provoke and encourage and push you past the scarcity of anxiety and performance and into a fuller, more beautiful life of faith."  Not bad, eh?


Night Comes- Death, Imagination, and the Last Things.jpgNight Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things Dale C. Allison, Jr. (Eerdmans) $18.00  A very, very smart friend of mine, a world-travelled, small-church Presbyterian pastor who is remarkably well read, has confided in me that Dale Allison is one of the smartest and most amazing people he's ever met. Those of us that have heard him or worked with him know this is true: he is an eloquent and interesting writer, luminous at times, even. He has written major scholarly works, and a few probing, moving meditations, too (such as The Luminous Dusk: Finding God in the Deep Still Places.) Blurbs on the back of this new book include extravagant endorsements by John Burgess (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary), the deeply thoughtful Orthodox scholar and writer David Bentley Hart, and Thomas Long, the well known preacher and prof from Candler.  Allison definitely is respected among evangelicals, Orthodox, and more mainline denominational colleagues.


When Dale was 23 years old he almost died in a car accident and we are told that that terrifying experience dramatically changed his ideas about death and the hereafter. As it says on the back, "In Night Comes Allison wrestles with a number of difficult questions concerning last things -- such questions as what happens to us after we die? and why does death so often frighten us?  He is a first-rate Bible scholar and mystic, and here he engages not only biblical texts but the church fathers and mothers, rabbinic scholars, poets and scientists and philosophers.  This is the spiritual and theological guidebook of big questions for the well educated and curious. As Burgess puts it, "Extraordinarily thoughtful and deeply personal, Night Comes makes a profound witness to the ultimate mysteries -- and certainties -- of religious faith."


Colors of Goodbye- A Memoir of Holding On, Letting Go.jpgColors of Goodbye: A Memoir of Holding On, Letting Go, and Reclaiming Joy in the Wake of Loss September Vaudrey (Momentum) $15.99  Oh geesh, I got choked up just reading the inside cover.  This very handsome book is a beautifully written story of a Christian mom whose young adult daughter, Katie, an artist, died in a car accident at age 19. There are a number of very moving, even profound, memoirs of this sort and I sense that this is one of them. (That the evangelical publisher compared it to Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking is itself notable.) I read the excellently-drawn several pages of a foreword by Shauna Niequist (a writer who just keeps getting better and better herself) who has known September Vaudrey and her husband, and has admired her her mothering for years.  Now, we see how her life changed with this grievous loss.  "It's a story of love and tragedy in tandem; a deeply personal memoir from a life forever changed by one empty place" the promo stuff tells us. I don't usually like it when there are photos and artwork in books of this sort, but this is very handsomely designed. Kudos to Tyndale for releasing such a rich, meaningful, valuable story.  


Making All Things New- Inaugurated Eschatology for the Life of the Church.jpgMaking All Things New: Inaugurated Eschatology for the Life of the Church Benjamin L. Gladd & Matthew S. Harmon (with a hefty introductory chapter by G.K. Beale) (Baker Academic) $19.99  Wow --this just came and it is asking a very, very important question. If we believe -- as we've written about often, here, even in the last column which introduced the forthcoming James K.A. Smith book -- that God's Kingdom is in some ways now inaugurated, and that the "end times" of "all things new" and "creation restored" is breaking into history now in newness, well, how then shall we pastor? What should the shepherds to do prepare people for "now but not yet" sorts of lifestyles? 


As the respected Biblical scholar Michael Bird (of Ridley College in Australia) writes,


We stand in the middle of an old world dying and a new creation already born in our midst through Jesus Christ. How does this sense of living between the ages shape our conception of the church, pastoring, and ministry? In this book two young scholars, with the assistance of Greg Beale, show what it means to be end-times people. They offer some great theological reflections and practical advice on how to lead people who are waiting with patience and purpose for the day when God is all in all.


This book which surely deserves to be called remarkable just arrived today and I'm eager to see how (healthy) eschatology can permeate their views of ministry and what suggestions they might make at the intersection of (forgive the fancy-pants words) "ecclesiology and eschatology. Here is one odd-ball thing, though, that distresses me: they don't seem to cite Richard Middleton.  What?


The Dusty Ones bigger.jpgThe Dusty Ones: Why Wandering Deepens Your Faith A.J. Swoboda (Baker) $15.99  Last year about this time I read A.J.s A Glorious Dark which reflects profoundly on the triduum -- Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Through his own study and sharing of pain and doubt and darkness and trust, that book moved me deeply and I will re-read it this Holy Week I am sure.  (By the way, not only was Glorious Dark one of my favorite books of last year, he also co wrote the significant and commendable Evangelical Ecotheology.)


Now, in this brand new one with this great, allusive title -- The Dusty Ones -- Swoboda explores wandering, what it means to be a wandering people, why wilderness matters and how hardships of time in the desert might be formative for us. And what it means to "wander well."  On the back it says "If you're restless, doubtful, or questioning, you will emerge from this journey with the assurance that not all who wander are lost. There's hope and peace for all those who travel the winding path seeking to experience God in all his glory."  As the upbeat and feisty Jo Saxton puts it, "May we all have the courage to live as one of the dusty ones." 


One Dress. One Year. One Girl's Stand Against Human jpgOne Dress. One Year. One Girl's Stand Against Human Trafficking Bethany Winz with Susanna Foth Aughtmon (Baker) $12.99  Just earlier today I read of the awful slave  ships from Thailand that do much of the commercial fishing that sells shrimp to Kroger, Wal-Mart, Whole Foods and Red Lobster. President Obama last month signed a bill to ban all seafood caught with slave labor, which rocked the Thai fishing industry -- David Batstone at Not For Sale calls is a "major win against human trafficking."  But the slaves (many of whom are children according to an AP report) are sill on those ships. It is heartbreaking, evil, and solving global injustices is complex.  Just recall Gary Haugen's vital Oxford University Press book called Locust Effective: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence.  We need big, structural reforms and, obviously, a healthy establishment of the rule of law.


Enter Bethany Winz, who, as a sixteen year old (who is Bethany Winz.jpgnow in college at Trevecca Nazarene University), learned about some of this sort of stuff and just decided she had to do something. She tells us that she processes the world and what she learns by blogging and writing, and this fantastic new book emerged from her one-year experience of writing about a social experiment.  Bethany determined to wear the same black dress (that she made, by the way) every day for a year to focus attention on the lack of choices people in modern-day slavery face and to raise money to help end human trafficking.  It is fascinating to see what all happened to and through her in that year -- her blog really was popular and she's a fine young writer, so it makes great sense to know this is now out as a book.


Big, global issues must be faced with sophisticated policy and international advocacy. But they also have to be cared about deeply, and each of us can play some small part.  This is a beautiful, great example of one person doing what she can, where she is.


Jim Martin (Vice President for spiritual formation at IJM and author of The Just Church) writes,


Raw, witty, and unafraid, One Dress. One Year. is a primer on moving from passion to action that is courageously honest about the inevitable stops at disillusioned and disheartened along the way. This book is a must-read for any young person passionate about justice but unsure where to begin.


How to Be Here- A Guide to Creating a Life Worth Living .jpgHow to Be Here: A Guide to Creating a Life Worth Living Rob Bell (HarperOne) 25.99  Again, this is brand new and I haven't spent more than a few minutes browsing through it. I can tell you two things, at least: even though the advanced buzz on this has been that Rob is seeing his own calling these days (at least in this book project and round of public speaking) as oriented to those outside of the church, doing what some dumbly used to call a "crossover" book, he is still clearly writing as a pastor, a person of faith, a media figure who is drawing people into the story of Jesus as revealed in the Bible.  Agree or not with all that he does or says in this good goal getting folks to consider the Bible -- how is that working for you in your own life, I'd ask before getting ugly in condemning Bell for sounding less evangelical than he once did, by the way -- he does cite the Bible and Christian theologians in this volume. He has not lost his faith or gone "secular" (certainly, not: this is a guy who did a bar and rock venue tour doing a lecture called "Everything is Religious.") He cites St. Ephraim the Syrian and  Dorothy Sayers and Cornelius Plantinga  (yes, Engaging God's World!) and Charles Foster, all right next to Rumi the poet and Abraham Heschel the prophet, Elizabeth Gilbert  -- he loves, as he should, her recent book on creativity called Big Magic -- and the podcast comedian Pete Holmes, not to mention the fun band Jimmy Eats World, who I think he's quoted before. Who I know he's quoted before, but I remember stuff like that.


This is a book for ordinary folks about finding a life of meaning and perhaps destiny, about honing one's craft and getting good at stuff and being more open to being more connected to people God brings into your life. It's about being present, attentive, aware in a too busy life.  Like others in this hip, recent genre (designers and artists and cultural creatives as motivational speakers) he is known as a person who can help readers wake up to live "more inspired, vibrant, and complete lives."  As Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rogers writes, Rob Bell is "a great storyteller, easily making the most complex theories understandable and ideas more fascinating... "  I agree.


By the way, I recently re-read most of Jesus Wants to Save Christians and his little book on grief, Drops Like Stars and found them to be once again very, very powerful and well worth considering.  And, come on -- who doesn't like Velvet Elvis Okay, maybe not everybody, but it's under-rated, I think, not only fun, but an important little book.  I'm looking forward to this new one.


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  Okay, I announced this a week ago in a listing, not unlike this one, of brand new titles I wanted to tell you about but had not yet read.  I stayed glued to a chair or a bed or another chair for hours on end over the weekend and finished this in one huge gulp or two.  As I expected it blew me away and I now really want to tell you about it.


As I noted the other day, Covington is renowned for his American Book Award winner Salvation on Sand Mountain which included quite a bit about his own faith journey, a story of his reporting on, and then being befriended by, Appalachian snake handlers. He has a penchant for the hard and weird and violent, and this has apparently again drawn him to ask what could possible be among the hardest questions: how does religion help people hold on in times of war and genocide, violence and gross injustice? And, perhaps even harder, how does religion sometimes fuel such awfulness.  This is a not an astute, profound study such as Os Guinness's essential Unspeakable: Facing Up to the Challenge of Evil or Tom Wright's excellent, even inspiring, Evil and the Justice of God or a tirade like the eloquent War is A Force That Gives Us Meaning by the righteous former war correspondent Chris Hedges, let alone a testimony of good medical mission worker organized by peace-maker Jeremy Courtney (Preemptive Love) although I wish I could send all four to brother Dennis.


This book, though, with the allusive title Revelation -- or should he have used a similar word Apocalypse --  is more of a travelogue, a mystery, a memoir of a guy who is driven, haunted (and at times, nearly hunted) as he tries to unravel personal questions about contacts he has along the Syrian -Turkish border.  If you want to know what it is like doing journalistic investigation among refugees and revolutionaries, bribing border guards, hanging out with possible terrorists, fearing for one's safety -- in cabs driven by crazy Middle Eastern drivers or because of the proximity to bombs falling or because one is trying to understand members of what we now call ISIS -- this book is for you. 

I was hooked by the first amazing pages, by his foray into the violence of the drug cartels (and the grace of those who minister among them) in an intense chapter set in Juarez, Mexico., one of the deadliest places on Earth. (He had spent time among the death squads in El Salvador decades ago so this kind of danger and this kind of evil felt somewhat familiar to him.  


The book takes a turn to the Middle East, though, and he's off to Turkey, wondering around places (such as Antioch, that town where Christians were first called Christians, he notes) that I had to get out an atlas to look up.  What a story of intrigue, of passion, of great interest.  Did I say I couldn't put it down?

Through it all -- perhaps not unlike his foray into Pentecostal snake handling so well told in Sand Mountain -- Covington is searching to determine, to find, or re-find his own (lapsed? unconvinced?) faith.  He narrates other portions of his life (including his sad divorce from Vickie Covington, already hinted at in the beautifully done, dazzlingly raw co-written memoir, Cleaving: A Story of a Marriage) and their stint as church leaders doing well-drilling mission trips.


One episode doesn't leave me. In his excursions exploring religious violence he necessarily writes about his growing up in the racist south, in Birmingham, where a otherwise proper Methodist Sunday School teacher was a Klansman.  He tells of being on a bus in 1963 with other kids in the school band, and how a white classmate had her arm hanging out the window.  A black youth passing by cut her with a razor or knife, the news of which inspired the awful bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Wow.


As the book's emotional momentum seems to grow, Covington's travels and his research pushes him towards his final goal -- meeting with the parents of a US hostage being held  by ISIS terrorists (without it being made public) -- he makes his way to the parents home in Arizona, doubting if they would even trust him to speak with him. Other journalists have been kidnapped and then brutally beheaded; no one takes this stuff the least bit lightly. The US doesn't negotiate with terrorists.  He isn't even supposed to know about this situation and doesn't trust the guy he met who gave him a message. You know, you can hardly make this stuff up. It is grim and beautiful, what one reviewer called "a harrowing pleasure" by "one of the most honest and interesting human beings writing today."

 


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