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April 17, 2014

One of two new James K.A. Smith books: Who's Afraid of Relativism: Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood ON SALE

I realize this is being sent out sometime between the night of Maundy Thursday and so-called Good Friday.  I feel like maybe I should offer a seasonal meditation or tell you about books about the cross.  

So, I tried to spin this glimpse into postmodern philosophy and the painful complexities of our contemporary quandaries, and Smith's wise response as some sort of cruciform rumination, and in away it is exactly that.

That wasn't working, so, no, I didn't quite go there, but want to send it out now anyway.  It feels urgent to me to post this now as there is another Smith book review coming soon.  Beth and I wish you a meaningful climax to your Lenten journey over these next days, and hope this book review is a blessing, not a distraction.

Not everyone who reads BookNotes may be interested in buying this new book in thewho's afraid of r.jpg acclaimed series "The Church and Postmodern Culture" by James K.A. Smith. Smith is the general editor in the series, and wrote the latest one, Who's Afraid of Relativism? Community, Contingency and Creaturehood (BakerAcademic; $19.99.) It is the eighth book in the series and although they are all relatively brief, and written for an educated but not necessarily scholarly audience, some have been a bit dense. They aren't for everyone. Understood. 

But James (Jamie) Smith is an author about whom you should know and this is an important, helpful series.

I offered an overview in BookNotes of some of his important and much-discussed work when I reviewed the great collection of popular level pieces found in Discipleship in the Present Tense (Calvin College Press; $14.00) that was released last fall.  We named it in our "Best Books of 2013" list.

Also, I'll tell you soon about another truly extraordinary book just released by Smith that, although a bit demanding, should have very broad appeal, a brand new book from Eerdmans which is a guide to the philosopher Charles Taylor. 

But first, you should be aware of the very new Who's Afraid of Relativism? It is, in many ways, a follow up to his must-read 2006 Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? that kicked off the "Church and Postmodern Culture" series.

Although he doesn't dwell on it (some may which he did) Smith starts this fresh analysis of relativism by bluntly criticizing J.P. Moreland, D.A. Carson, and even the former Pope, all who raised what he calls "the specter of relativism" -- an alleged "clear and present danger" -- in ways that are both inaccurate (as they traffic in caricatures and misrepresentations of primary texts) and, ironically, are, he says, theologically sloppy. (They hold to a view of truth that apparently fails to honor the very creatureliness of how God made us and the world.) These authors and other popular evangelicals are just wrong as they "bandy about" views of absolute truth and the dangers of relativism.

Ajamie arms crossed.jpgbout writing the book, Smith says that 

The orienting conviction is that if, even on a "popular" level, we are going to invoke philosophical concepts -- even if only as philosophical bogeyman -- we have some responsibility to make ourselves accountable to philosophy. So think of this little book as an exercise in philosophical accountability.

Again, he reminds us, 

If we want to take relativism seriously, we can't rail against a chimera of our own making, congratulating ourselves for having knocked down a straw man. To avoid this, I'm suggesting that we engage this pragmatist stream in Anglo-American philosophy as a serious articulation of "relativism." This will make us accountable to a body of literature and not let us get away with vague caricatures.

In other words, we have to know what we're talking about when we critique others, and we should make sure we truly have a theologically sound understanding about what we mean by truth and relativism.  

The main three philosophers Smith explores to help us know this stream of contemporary philosophy and to help us understand the nature of relativism are in the school of pragmatism ("postmodernism with an American accent"): Ludwig Wittgenstein (whose major work came out in 1953), Richard Roty (1979), and Robert Brandom (2000.) 

Roty is the one most often cited these days, it seems, when talking about anti-Christian views of truth.  Smith says he is "the whipping boy of middlebrow Christian intellectuals and analytic philosophers everywhere, the byword for everything that is wrong with postmodernism and academia. The Rorty scare is like the red menace, giving license to philosophical McCarthyism..." 

Roty, I learned, studied Wittgenstein, and Brandom studied under Rorty.

They are perfect case studies, and the three books Smith explicates are vital, classic texts of contemporary postmodernism.

And, by the way, he thinks that Christians should be concerned about their anti-Christian orientation. He is not going to suggest that their views are somehow safe or softly Christian.  No, not at all.

Just to be clear about his intent, though, allow me to quote him again:

As I've already hinted, I actually think there is something for us to learn from these philosophers -- that pragmatism can be a catalyst for Christians to remember theological convictions that we have forgotten in modernity.  Granted none of these pragmatists have any interest in defending orthodox Christianity; I won't pretend  otherwise. But I will suggest that taking them seriously might actually be an impetus for us to recover a more orthodox Christian faith -- a faith more catholic than the modernist faith of their evangelical despisers.

Jamie Smith puts the matter much better than I can, and he is a good guide and clear writer, even in this complicated material. I truly believe that it is worth buying this book for the first 37 pages, the introduction and first chapter. (Ahh, and the brief epilogue "How To Be A Conservative Relativist.")  

In the first section he makes his main argument that there is a difference between saying "anything goes" because "there is no truth" (the sorts of things Moreland and Carson routinely say about "the postmoderns") and allowing that our knowledge isfall of interpretation.jpg always "in relation" (i.e. relative) and contingent. This brilliant and -- it seems to me commonsensical -- line of thinking draws a bit on Smith's splendid first book, The Fall of Interpretation  (BakerAcademic; $25.00) which develops a "creational hermeneutic" and suggests, from Augustine, that all humans always "see through a glass darkly" due to our own God-given finitude. To deny the human act of interpretation (or to think it is a liability mostly from the fall) is to fail to understand our own creaturehood.  Such (Enlightenment-based?) calls for "Absolute Truth" that we can know with confidence sounds like hubris to my ears but also like a peculiar blend of gnosticism and idolatry.

Smith takes this up in the first chapter by exploring the concerns about relativism that are from exemplary scholars he otherwise respects, Christian intellectuals who can be good conversation partners, but who still fail to appreciate the insights gleaned from the pragmatists/relativists.  He discusses and critiques the work of brilliant sociologist Christian Smith and the heavy-weight philosopher Alvin Plantinga.  I suspect you know those two names, and the chapter in which Jamie disagrees with their thinking on this is exceptional.  I recommend reading it if you care at all about what we call a Christian worldview, about faithful thinking, about cultural engagement. Yes, it is a bit tedious for those of us not trained in philosophy, but it is worth working on.  

Alars.jpgnd here is what is also fun: for each chapter, Smith offers a film, and discusses it nicely, to compliment the issues raised in each chapter.  This is a great teaching device and does showcase some of the real-world implications of this rather obtuse stuff. The chapter "It Depends" reflects on the indie film starring Michelle Williams about a girl and her dog, Wendy and Lucy.  For his look at Wittgenstein's famous phrase "meaning is use" (in the chapter "Community as Context") Smith offers a review of the eccentric and thoroughly enjoyable Lars and the Real Girl.  Chapter three is brought into focus by the Academy Award-winning Crazy Heart and the songs sung in it by Jeff Bridges.  Philippe Claudell's very French film, I've Loved You So Long expresses more (pun icrazy heart poster.jpgntended) about Brandom's theory of expressivism in a chapter called "Reasons to Believe: Making Faith Explicit."

The provocative and important last chapter doesn't have a film to go with it (drats!) but it does have a star -- George Lindbeck, who coined the term "post-liberalism" and wrote the very significant The Nature of Doctrine (Westminster/John Knox; $30.00.) If you don't know much about the so-called Yale School, or Linbeck's work, this relatively short chapter is a great introduction.  Smith playfully calls his modest work "the long-lost prequel to Lindbeck's book." He hopes it can be received as "a philosophical springboard for understanding post-liberalism, which is, in many ways, an embodiment of the religious and theological implications of pragmatism." 

He also notes in a footnote that "I also see Who's Afraid of Relativism as providinimagining the kingdom cover.jpgg the philosophical framework to account for the relationship between worship and doctrine that I sketch out in my Cultural Liturgies project, Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom (both BakerAcademic; $22.95.)

In fact, this whole book is a great introduction -- Smith notes that it is not exhaustive, but merely a "foray" -- to so much intellectually rich content, stuff that educated people should know. I have not studied these philosophers previously at all, and never even heard of Brandom, but I know I will follow the broader cultural conversation better now that I've spent some time with Whose Afraid of... and can use more wisely words like "contingency" without embarrassment.  Much of this will be most useful for the academic and nearly every page will thrill the philosophy student, but some of it is very, very rewarding even for the general reader.

All of us can benefit from its key insight, summarized by Stanley Hauerwas, who writes on the back "Smith helps us see that Christian theologians have betrayed their best insights by being afraid of relativism. He helps us see that the challenge is not relativism itself but rather the epistemological concerns that produced relativism."

Who's Afraid of Relativism is, as Institute for Christian Studies professor Dr. Ronald Kuipers suggests, not just "a remarkable book" but "a beautiful risk." I suspect it will be criticized by some, even some who will not read it.  Still, a beautiful risk it is. If it can help us not only understand the times in which we live, but understand ourselves more appropriately -- as dependent and fallible creatures -- then God will be pleased, and God's people will be well served.  

It may be a risk for me as a bookseller to ask you to trust me on this (as I will again in the next post when I tell you about Smith's other brand new book, which is also very important.) But it is beautiful.  Thanks for reading this far, and thanks caring.

who's afraid of r.jpg



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April 14, 2014

Holy Week Reading: a few suggestions (ON SALE THIS WEEK ONLY)

I don't know about you, but I always make sure I have some time alone during Holy Week, especially on Friday and Saturday.  Even if it is just to ponder a few pages, read slowly, savored and considered with care, it is very important to me.  There are a few books that I pull out every year, and I'd love to tell you about them, briefly.  And a couple others that we have here now on sale.

We have them on sale for 25% off.
Sale prices good only until Saturday, April 19, 2014.
While supplies last.

Tundoing of death.pnghe Undoing of Death  Fleming Rutledge (Eerdmans) $22.00  sale price $16.50  We've recommended this stellar author before, and I often name this as one of my favorite Lenten books. Ms Rutledge was a parish priest in New York and is known for being an astute Episcopalian theologian and a very eloquent, profound preacher.  This is a sermon collection, drawn from over 25 years of her solid preaching, and ideal for dipping in to any time, but certainly this week.  Samuel T. Lloyd III the dean of Washington's National Cathedral says "Here is passionate, unstinting, full-blooded preaching on the deepest mysteries of the Christian faith...she brings her formidable intellect and her wide reading to bear in 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." This is a wondrous book, thoughtful, powerful, sure to reward repeated readings.

Tcross of christ.JPGhe Cross of Christ  John R.W. Stott (IVP) $26.00  sale price $19.50 I know there are many theories and theologies of the nature of the atonement and what happened at Calvary. I have on occasion reviewed books of various sorts, but I find myself drawn back to this eloquent, thoughtful, systematic yet moving study by the fine evangelical leader, one of the best of the 20th century, the late John Stott.  This hardback edition has a foreword by Alister McGrath and a study guide included.  Various sorts of authors have given ringing endorsements on the back, from emergent voice Tony Jones, who may not agree with some of it, but offers accolades ("Books like this stand the test of time") to social activist Shane Claiborne ("Grab this book and get ready to live real good and get beat up real bad. It is the story of our faith.") J.I. Packer notes that "John Stott rises grandly to the challenge of the greatest of all themes... This, more than any book he has written, is his masterpiece."  Evangelist Luis Palau says simple that it is "One of the outstanding books of all times."  

Bbetween cross and r.jpgetween Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday  Alan E. Lewis (Eerdmans) $28.00 sale price $21.00  I mention this every year this time, and remind people that there is such rare richness here it is well worth owning.  We've had it in the shop, but, to be honest, it is more serious then many of our local friends may want -- or, we've pressed it on them previously.  There isn't much written on this topic, but there needn't be, as this is now a contemporary classic. Douglas John Hall called it "splendid, lucid, and refreshingly original." Publishers Weekly wrote that it is "an original interpretation of a relatively unmined topic, a rare achievement in Christian theology." The Theology Today journal says "Few works of contemporary theology so wonderfully combine great learning, stylistic eloquence, and moving depth of insight." Listen to this amazing statement by the very important Thomas F. Torrance: "This is the most remarkable and moving book I have ever read."  Wow -- whether you wonder about the hiatus between Good Friday and Easter Sunday or not, this rumination on the death of Christ and the disciple's experience of the absence of God is, as Colin Gunton wrote about it, "a life-and-death concern."

Ffinal words.gifinal Words From the Cross  Adam Hamilton (Abingdon) $16.99  sale price $12.75  Most readers really appreciate the many popular books by this dynamic United Methodist pastor (including his brand new one published by HarperOne on how to read the Bible without being literalistic.)  I've listed this one on the famous seven last words earlier in the Lenten season, and it is very well done, creatively so, with a first person monologue in each chapter. A few readers have shared how much it has meant them. This is sweet, solid, provocative stuff; maybe it could be just right for the end of this week. 

cross shattered christ.jpgross Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words Stanley Hauerwas (Brazos Press) $14.99  sale price $11.25   I assume you know that Duke's professor Hauerwas is a feisty preacher, both plainspoken (at times) and very philosophical at others. He's a top notch philosopher and a passionate no-nonsense preacher.  He's written widely about what makes for good preaching -- attention to the text, obviously, and application to an idolatrous, violent world, and here is a tremendous example of good preaching, on stuff from the words of Jesus that we too often fail to study carefully.  He observes that "we are at once drawn to these words, yet we fear taking them in our hands."  A compact sized hardback with a some very striking wood cuts. As is so often the case, Brazos delivers a very artful little book.

Tkingdom and the cross.jpghe Kingdom and the Cross  James Bryan Smith (IVP formatio/Renovare) $8.00  sale price $6.00  I hope you know the impressive trilogy, The Good and Beautiful God, The Good and Beautiful Life, and The Good and Beautiful Community, all by James Bryan Smith, done in partnership with Richard Foster's Renovare ministry. This short book includes six reflective studies on the cross, on being an apprentice to Jesus, and how our own transformation points to the coming of the Kingdom of God. This is very, very nice, highly recommended for any time, but especially to ponder these next days.

Learning to Walk in the Dark
Barbara Brown Taylor (HarperOne) $24.99 sale price $18.75learning to walk in the dark.jpg 
I mentioned this brand new release in passing in my last BookNotes essay, and will review it later -- perhaps I will read it at the end of this week.  It isn't that long, and the topic, about a spirituality that works when times are hard and things are unclear --  "finding light in the dark" -- certainly feels right to read this time of year.  Shauna Niequist writes that it is "a gift to every person who's felt the darkness but not had the words to articulate it, which is to say it is for all of us. A truly beautiful book." Lauren Winner (who moved many of us so deeply in her book Still) says "Beautiful. Profound. Nourishing. I have needed to read this book for a long time." Perhaps you do too.

Here is a good interview that my friend Jonathan Merritt did recently with Barbara Brown Taylor about her new book. Check it out, and see there the BBT video as well.  After this week, we'll have this at our more regular BookNotes 20% discount... I hope to review it soon.



25% off
Sale ends April 19, 2014  
while supplies last

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 8, 2014

7 ways books can help us (and a sale on some great ones.)

A few folks expressed interest in the presentations we've done in the store lately (which they noticed on facebook or twitter) asking for me to share at least some of what I taught.

I have a few different talks I've been giving in recent years about the role of books in our lives, the value of reading, how those who follow Jesus are called to develop a "renewed mind" and a Christian perspective on their life and times.  Books obviously can play a huge part in Christian discipleship, especially as our world grows increasingly complex and older ways are being forgotten and/or challenged. Reading books - old ones and new ones - can be a discipline of spiritual formation and a sign of a healthy life and mature faithfulness.

The other night we had an upbeat gathering with friends from Shippensburg Universitybyron teaching in store.jpg and Juniata College; the next day we hosted a group from Eastern University and we had a lot of fun. Thanks to the students who came for this bookish field trip, and their good humor in putting up with my dumb jokes and melodramatic stories.  Your interest in "taking every thought captive" by learning to (re)think Christianly is an inspiration.  We tip our hats to you as you commit yourself to being life-long learners.  I hope we can stay in touch.

Here is a basic outline of what we shared with these energetic customers and friends and a few of the books I cited.  After mentioning the way the Jubilee conference in Pittsburgh so influenced us decades ago, I offered 7 points.

1.  Books can be our friends.  

I don't mean to suggest that curling up with a book is a substitute for real-world friends.  I suppose some introverts can use books as an excuse to not develop abiding friendships, but for many of us, despite good friends and family and extended community, there are times when an author gets what we are going through and givesThe Word- Black Writers Talk About the Transformative Power of Reading.jpg voice to our own predicaments better than anyone else.  I love to read out loud a powerful set of paragraphs, episodes of how books offered insight and solace to novelist Marita Golden. Those first few pages of The Word: Black Writers Talk About the Transformative Power of Reading and Writing (Broadway Books; $14.99) are worth the price of the book, eloquently naming reading experiences that were formative for her. I've used these pages in workshops many times, and my voice still quivers as she talks about reading The Beloved and how it made her brave to face suffering.  I asked students if this resonated with them, if this was true for them (a character in a novel understanding them better than anyone) and I saw many heads nodding.  Yes, books can be our friends. 

2.  Books can expand our horizons, offering windows into the lives of others. 

If we had time, I would have loved to have heard stories about this from our young friends. Interestingly, it has been shown in the research: readers tend to be more empathetic than non-readers.  Traits such as compassion can be nurtured and deepened by reading widely.  There is great truth in that well known cliché about walking a mile in another's shoes, and reading novels, history, poetry, and (I believe) especially memoirs, allows us to realize how others construe their lives.  I suggested that it is an act of loving our neighbors to want to be curious about them, desiring to understand what others go through. Books can really help us. Perhaps you are already compassionate and kind and observant enough to love others well.  Or, perhaps, like most of us, you need all the help you can get.  Tolle legge, I say.

I mentioned a few of my favorite memoirs that have helped illuminate the experience ofgirl in orange.gif somebody bringing insights I wouldn't have easily obtained otherwise. For instance, I recommended Margot Starbuck's moving story about adoption and loss and healing, The Girl in the Orange Dress: Searching for a Father Who Does Not Fail (IVP; $16.00.) Poet L.L. Barkett's first book, Stone Crossings: Finding Grace in Hard and Hidden Places (IVP; $15.00) is another moving memoir I revisit and commend for those needing to know about hosting hard times with redemptive imagination. What a moving experience it was to read about the lives of Mary Karr or Jeannette Walls or Kim Barnes.  Biographies of course can do this -- I hope you've read something on Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer, at least, and maybe a few missionary bios. I especially suggested that these white students read work written by people of color.  Of course therestone crossings.jpg are classics like The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Penguin Classics; $16.00) or Martin Luther King's first book, Stride Toward Freedom (Beacon; $14.00.) More recent decades have given us classics like The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride (Riverhead; $16.00) and Patricia Rayburn's My First White Friend: Confessions on Race, Love and Forgiveness (Penguin; $15.00) and dramatic faith stories like John Perkin's Let Justice Roll Down (Regal; $14.99.) I showed off our section that includes books about Latino studies, Asian-American and Native American writings.

Even this week I am enthralled by Cheryl Strayed's wonderful, searing novel about a family coping with cancer.  I recall not long ago Beth and I both reading a novel about some colorful characters in a nursing home which brought new insight.  And my horizon's have been significantly widened by the wonderful writing of Barbara Kingsolver.

By the way, although I didn't mention it in this presentation, whenever I've talked to clergy or Christian leaders lately, I insist they read the tremendous Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets and Journalists by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. (Eerdmans; $14.00.) I can't say enough about this wondrous book and how it shows how an intentionally wide reading plan for pastors can make them better preachers.  We first talked about it at BookNotes here and named it as one of the Best Books of 2013, here.

3.  Authors can be mentors.

I shared that I hoped these young people have found real-world mentors, people who can serve them as leaders, coaches, guides, counselors and pastors. The students came with older friends from the campus ministry CCO so I know they have trained Christian leaders "investing" in them, as they sometimes put it. However, even if you are blessed with an approachable pastor and a wise older friend or two, there are things in our lives that our leaders can't answer.  Books can present an amazing array of information, can model wisdom and faithfulness, can point us in the right direction.  Authors can be trail guides, accompanying us on the journey and we should draw on their riches generously.

I suggested that they find an good author or two, and pledge to read everything that author writes.  After a while, you may come to know that author well; some of us have been known to correspond with our literary mentors. (There's a fine line between legitimate conversation and, uh, stalking. Just saying.)  

For me, there are important authors whose words have come to mean the world to me -Peterson.jpg these include Marva Dawn and Eugene Peterson, Ruth Haley Barton and Lauren Winner, Os Guinness and Ron Sider, Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, Calvin Seerveld and Walter Brueggemann, Richard Mouw, Steve Garber, Richard Foster, and others. 

There are also authors I truly adore - I think of Barbara Brown Taylor (whose brand new Learning to Walk in the Dark [HarperOne; $24.99] just arrived today!) or Sarah Miles - who I don't particularly think of as mentors or friends even though I love their writing and appreciate their books.  There are a number of authors I read consistently, even if I find myselfdiscipleship in the present tense.jpg disagreeing with them more often then not.  That's okay, you know.

Funny, I didn't name most of these favorite authors of mine, but told about my personal appreciation for Ruth Haley Barton's books about the interior life and testified that in the last decade the work and friendship with Jamie Smith has been very, very important to me. I told them about a great way to dip in to his insights is in the anthology Discipleship in the Present Tense: Reflections on Faith and Culture (Calvin College Press; $14.00.)

4.  Books can inspire us to live with passion.

Of course (again, again) we can be inspired to live well by poets and journalists, by fiction and non-fiction. Who hasn't read the poems of Wendell Berry, or his Hannah Coulter (Shoemaker & Hoard; $14.95) or Jayber Crow (Counterpoint; $15.95) and not wanted a better marriage or a clearer sense of the past?  Oh, how I recall the first time I read Whitman's "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" or that line from Thoreau about leading lives of "quiet desperation."  I was deeply moved by all of John Piper's short biographies in his "Swans are Not Silent" series, but especially so by the volume that looked at John Newton, Charles Simeon and William Wilberforce as he documented their "invincible perseverance" in The Roots of Endurance (Crossway; $14.99) 

For my purposes with these students, I wanted to introduce them to vibrant evangelical authors who invite us to robust, rowdy discipleship, who embody the abundant life of John 10:10. That may be for me Walter Brueggemann or Leonard Sweet, but I gave theLove_Does_240_360_Book.625.cover_-196x300.jpg shout out to Bob Goff, who they know from Jubilee - I am such a fan of Love Does: Discover a Secretly Incredible Life (Nelson; $16.99), and hope you know that the DVD curriculum is available, a fine 5 week immersion in passion and joy and guts and winsome adventure. Many young adults appreciate the passionate approach of Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream by David Platt (Multnomah; $14.99) and Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God by Francis Chan (Cook; $15.99) or Don't Waste Your Life by the uber-passionate Baptist preacher, John Piper (Crossway; $13.99.) I suggested the solid collection of neo-Puritan sermons so passionately delivered over the years at the huge Passion Conferences - it is edited by Louie Giglio and called Passion: The Bright Light of Glory (Nelson; $15.99.) Because of his diligence in putting together these big worship festivals, I can hardly think of an evangelical leader who has been more influential in recent years.  For those who haven't caught the vision of the counter-cultural implications of serious faith, I'd recommend The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical by Shane ClaibornePASSION.jpg (Zondervan; $15.99) -- here's hoping it's popularity doesn't fade.  Donald Miller's story about making his life a story, A Million Miles in a Thousand Days: How I Learned to Live a Better Story,(Nelson; $15.99) is invaluable for those wanting to reconsider the trajectory of their lives.

Anyway, authors can inspire us, books can enlarge our hearts, we can be motivated, challenged and pushed into greater love and service. I hope you have somebody who kindly does what Hebrews 10:24 tells us to do - prod one another one to love and good deeds - but if not, you can easily let the printed page do that for you. I dared our guests to find an author who truly inspired them to live with abandon, passion and wild grace.

5.  Books can help guide us into a truly Christian worldview and "prophetic imagination."

I must admit that this is where I spent most of the time in the talk, reflecting on what we mean by a worldview, what distinctive Christian thinking and cultural engagement might be like, how not to be accommodated by the spirits of the age, and how to be "in but not of" the world as Jesus instructs. I do not doubt that many of us know quit a bit about our faith, we have agreed with many Biblical truths and try our best to live them; we can check off the proper religious ideas --  indeed, we might be able to check off the cornerstones of a comprehensive Christian worldview.  But intellectual assent to ideas, even ideas about the comprehensive nature of faith and God's redemptive plan for "every square inch' of creation, does not mean that our interpretation of life, our vision and imagination, and the lifestyles we embody are thereby reliably Christian.  

I have said this myself since I first learned the world weltanschauung in the 1970s and yet had a hunch that something was fishy among some who were obsessed with the notion of worldviews; I love the way Steve Garber got at it in his profound first book withdesiring-the-kingdom.jpg the great title and subtitle, Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Believe and Behavior (IVP; $17.00.) This critique of how we've described and taught worldviews has been a major concern advanced wonderfully by James K.A. Smith in his very important Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker; $22.99) which reminds us that our way of life embodied in the world reflects our deepest longings and desires, not just our intellectual notions.  The process of being "non-conformed to the ways of this world" and having a "renewed mind" and having our bodies be spiritual worship services - see Romans 12:1-2, once again - takes a lot of intentional work, not least of which is reflecting on the ideas of worldviews, spiritual practices, and the orientation of our way of life.  By the way, one of the little books that have helped with that recently (without exactly being a "worldview" book) is the fantastic Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential by N.T. Wright (HarperOne; $22.99.)  he shows there how immersing ourselves in the Psalms will effect our view of time, space, and matter.  Had I had time, I would have quoted some of that to our young guests, showing how being shaped by the liturgical cosmology of the Psalms will take us a good way into seeing the world as God wants us to.

Students who hang around the CCO hear a lot about worldview formation and not a few can recite the valuable chapters of the unfolding Biblical drama - creation, fall, redemption, restoration. Many of become familiar with understand the Bible well by using resources such as The True Story of the Whole World: Finding Your Place in the Biblical Drama by reformational philosophers and worldview scholars Michael Goheen & Craig Bartholomew (Faith Alive; $15.99.)  I'm glad for this.

But, to be honest, I chided them a bit for not actually studying the idea of worldview, knowing well what is really meant by that, and the amazing fruitfulness of being fluent in that discourse, astute in those conversations. What good does it do to chant "creation/fall/redemption" if our imaginations are not shaped by those truths? (Yes, that was an cryptic allusion to Jeremiah 7:4.)  I think if I had one wish for this generation of religious book buyers it would be that they would read more books about worldview.  We may have one of the largest selections of such books, and hardly anybody every buys them.

Here are a few I showed that I recommended to our guests:

CChristian Worldview - A Students Guide .jpghristian Worldview: A Students Guide Philip Graham Ryken (Crossway) $11.99  An expansion of a smaller booklet we also carry, this pocket sized book is worth its weight in gold. Short, insightful, smart and nicely written, it is very helpful. Highly recommended for a great start or a fresh reminder.

Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview Al Wolters (Eerdmans)$15.00  I cannot underestimate the significance of this book; if it is not cited in a book on this topic, I'd be surprised.  I told a few stories about it and it's good impact on those who have grasped it.  I also suggested that the chapter called "Structure & Direction" needs to be studied, profoundly. It's important.

Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian Worldview Brian Walsh & Richard Middleton (IVP) $18.00  I still say this is the best book on the subject -- it traces (briefly) an overview of Western culture, the history of dualism, the rise of the idols of our time.  It raises a beautiful call for college The-Transforming-Vision-9780877849735.jpgstudents to do their studies in community, as counter-cultural agents, dreaming how God's reign might impact their future careers. This is an amazing book, not to be missed.  I am sure you will learn something new, and be challenged in significant ways, no matter who you are. If you haven't looked at it in a while, get it out, dust it off. I'm convinced it is more needed now then ever.

Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Culture James K.A. Smith (Baker) $22.99  I don't think it is unfair to suggest that this is an expansion of themes that are hinted at in Transforming Vision. Smith studied under Walsh, and although he is now a professional philosopher of considerable fame, he owes much to TV.  This is, I've regularly said, one of the most important and influential books of our time.  I mean it.

6.  Books can help us understand and discern our callings.  

That we don't view our jobs as essential to the Kingdom work of God and that we sometimes aren't clear about the various callings and vocations to which we are called is, I suggested, an indication that we don't really "think Christianly" out of a Christian worldview - a strong view of vocation is at the heart of a Christian worldview, after all, and insofar as we rarely hear about work in our churches and Bible studies, we have failed to well integrate Sunday and Monday.  A dualism which divides the so-called sacred from the secular - in some churches overt, but most often covert - plagues us still, and few church folk buy books about science, art, education, engineering, math, teaching, eating, shopping, voting.  I take this as an indication that there isn't much interest in thinking about living out faith day by day and although I know some intuit their way into doing this with beauty and grace, and that some churches offer study groups or Sunday school classes, the commitment to think deeply about all this just isn't very evident.  I've been inviting people to this habit of integration of faith and learning around their jobs and careers for more than three decades and, to be honest, still don't see much evidence that God's people care about studying what it means to be faithful in every zone of life, including their work and careers. 

So, we start with Steve Garber's slogan, "vocation is integral, not incidental, to the mission dei."  We can use Al Wolters or Walsh & Middleton to open up the "cultural mandate" from Genesis 1:26-28. We help people learn what it means to respond to God's call, to take up work that is a blessing for the common good, as the realize their task to bear God's image opening up the creation's possibilities. 

Sadly, most people still don't show much interest, but I invited these students to read these kinds of books, knowing well, deep in their bones, the insights offered by these sorts of books.  If they've been to Jubilee, for instance, they've heard some of this, but I wanted to be clear why  it is so important that we study, read, and learn as much as we can about this most often missed central Biblical teaching.

Here are some of the books I held up.  I'm impressed that the bought some of these  -- yay!

Jjourney w taking.jpgourney Worth Taking: Finding Your Purpose in This World Charles Drew (Presbyterian & Reformed)  $12.99 This is a great price for a great book, not unlike Purpose Driven Life, perhaps, but better -- much better. This mature, thoughtful, energetic overview of our calling to explore our vocations is just tremendous.

Cculturemaking.jpgulture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling  Andy Crouch (IVP) $20.00  I know most readers of BookNotes know that I am fond of this book, and you won't be surprised that I named it as a "must read" for those interested in developing a fruitful vision of vocation.  If you still haven't caught on to why we like this, watch this 37- minute video of Andy's fantastic talk at Jubilee 2014.  Don't miss the end when he plays Bach, and talks about it. Praise the Lord for such good, good stuff.  Am I right?

Tthe call.jpghe Call: FInding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life  Os Guinness (Thomas Nelson) $17.99  This handsome paperback has great stories, is eloquently written, and remains one of my top three or four books, ever.  This book names so much of what we are about, and this approach has born such good fruit among those who embrace it, I cannot speak more highly about it.  Smart, deep, with short chapters and good discussion questions.

VVoV.jpgisions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good  Steve Garber (IVP) $16.00  Steve gives much respect to Os for influencing his own vision of vocation, but this book moves in such interesting directions -- asking how we can take up our love for the world, knowing it is so broken, without growing sour on our hopes to make a difference.  Can we resist stoicism? Cynicism? With these kinds of moving stories and bits of astute cultural observation and well drawn quotes from novels and films, this is truly one of the great books of our time.  I told about how we launched it at Jubilee, and pressed it hard into the hands of some of these students with us the other night.  I'm very, very glad to tell people about this.

Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship with Monday Work Tom Nelson (Crossway)$15.99  I've often said this is the best overall book on this for those starting out in the journey of relating faith and work. A few students who will soon graduate wanted this, and although some of the above books could be read first, this is a lovely little gem.  Highly recommended.

Eevery good e.jpgvery Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God's Work Timothy Keller & Katherine Leary Alsdorf (Dutton) $26.95  I told the students that this is the creme of the crop, the Cadillac of this whole genre -- it really is the best.  It is a shame the publisher insisted on making it so expensive (speaking of business ethics; Keller's people should have put their foot down on this!) Still, I wouldn't be without this masterpiece, and we take it nearly everywhere we go, hoping that serious readers will want to explore what it means to think redemptively and live well in the modern work-world.

7.  Books can be teachers to help us think Christianly about our studies. 

Although this final point was crafted to inspire these undergrads, the point might be considered by all of us.  Once we understand God's comprehensive plan for redeeming this fallen, idolatrous and dysfunctional world, and how those who are in Christ aretheory practice.jpg called to particular avenues of service for the common good, the question becomes burningly urgent: what does that look like? What does in mean, in terms of professional practices, stuff we do day by day, to be God's agents of reconciliation in the careers and callings which we consider holy vocations?   Are there books that can help us here?  You bet!

The student of C.S. Lewis who himself went on to write so well, Harry Blamires, famously insisted that there is no longer a "Christian mind."  Walsh & Middleton and others have asked what Christianblamires quote.jpg scholarship actually looks like, for a typical university students, taking her classes, reading her texts, writing her papers.  If we had more time with the students, I'd have explored this a bit more deeply.

This point isn't just for students, though.  We can press the questions into any career, yours and mine.  Does a health care provider need to rethink certain things she has learned about the body and pain and medicine? Does an engineer need to question the prevailing assumptions about the role of technology? What kind of lending practices will a Christian banker propose and what kind of discipline (or assignments, or tests, or grading styles) does a faithful school teacher administer? Does faith make an impact on lawyering; do religious commitments offer resources for being different in the world of retail or research? In what ways does a Christian whose calling is to work in programming think about digital culture? What about an actor, journalist, artist, factory worker?

A Christian worldview creates a high view of vocation; a high and holy view of vocationscience-research.png demands that we think Christianly, in light of Biblical and theological categories, learning well the way the world really works.  That is, I told the students, we must read the truths God embedded in the very creation itself, studying well the world, in light of the Word. (A verse in Isaiah suggests that a farmer learning the mundane but important ways of what seeds to plant when and where is actually a gift from the Lord. The farmer had to study the seeds and seasons, but it is still seen as knowledge that finally comes from God. Isn't it such with all true learning?)  The task of being salt and light and leaven in the postmodern world for all of us demands a certain commitment to what only can be called Christian scholarship. We think our bookstore can help you as we study our world, study our work, and imagine the details of an alternative way of serving in that arena. It means learning the history and development of a field and it also means learning the craft, the tools and practices of the trade, so to speak.  Christian reading prepares us for doing our jobs with excellence and a holy attentiveness.


I gave them two verses about the role of theories, inviting them to be critical thinkers as they engage the material taught in their college courses. Whether at an evangelical college, a church-related one where church teachings are hermetically sealed off away from the classroom, relegated to the chapel alone, or at a public university where the spirit of secularism predominates, followers of Jesus simply must work hard to reflect on what they learn and whether it is consistent with and coherent within a Christian worldview. 

Here are the two verses that invite us to this process of critical thinking, discernment, and re-engagement with the world of ideas, theories, thoughts, and constructs about what we do in this world.  I suspect it might get them in some trouble, but I challenged them to take up their current calling as students and to be active learners, serious, well read, even doing what we call "double study" (reading a Christian book alongside their required reading, to compare and contrast the views of their topic from a perspective based upon Biblical assumptions and one based on other faiths/ideologies.)

Colossians 2:8 

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy (that is) based on the traditions of men... 

Although often used in apologetics, I think this has profound application for every student, studying anything, anywhere. And for you in me, in the workplace, as we evaluate political pundits, as we laugh our way through the latest sitcom. There are underlying ideals and values and visions of life beneath and around, implicit in everything taught, in every practice, in every cultural tool, in the habits of our workplace. For starters, I told them not to be hoodwinked and not to buy everything their professors profess. Or what every allegedly Christian books says.

Nonetheless, there is little doubt, good books are our allies in our efforts to obey this text.

2 Corinthians 10:5

...take every theory captive for Christ... This, of course, authorizes students to learn much, to think critically, but to place ideas within a larger framework of God's own work in the world. If the previous text is a defensive warning, this one is, shall we say, more positive. There are tools to help us do this, and we sometimes need help from Christian philosophers, but we can indeed use the best thinking, learning much and applying ideas faithfully with discernment and imagination helping it build a comprehensive view.  Books can help us sharpen our minds and learn the art of doing what this verse commands. Let us know if you need books about your particular area of study.

Yyour minds mission.jpgour Mind's Mission  Greg Jao (IVP) $5.00  If you've followed our blog much you know that we are so proud to be mentioned in this little booklet. It packs a real wollop as they say, with every page jam-packed with worldview-rocking information, freshly worded challenges, radical cultural observation and delightful inspiration to read, to think, to grow -- all so we may serve God's ways better in the world of great need.  Missional?  How about a missional mind?  This is a Hearts & Minds manifesto if ever there was one!

Amind for g.jpg Mind for God  James Emory White (IVP) $13.00  Every now and then I pull this out and read a bit of his lovely reminder of why reading matters, and how reading together as a family is such a good thing, and why we need books as allies in our journey to think well for God. It is a pocket sized paperback and worth every penny -- well written, urgent, insightful. I love this lovely little gem. Get it for yourself if you like books about books or reading about learning. Or, get a few to give to those who a gentle reminder about the joy of learning, the call to nurture the Christian mind, and why our times call for thoughtful Christian engagement in the issues of the day.

II Just Need Time to Think.jpg Just Need Time to Think: Reflective Study as Christian Practice  Mark Eckel (Westbox) $13.95 I was happy to show these students this fine little collection of solid essays about the need to think well.  I love the subtitle, don't you? This inspires me a lot as it dips into the topic from many angles, offering short reminders of the call to use our minds, think well, be creative in our learning, and take the time to develop a mindset that is worthy of the name Christian.  I like Eckel, and appreciate these very nice pieces.

Learning for the Love of God: A Student's Guide to Academiclearning for the love of god.jpg Faithfulness Donald Opitz & Derek Melleby (Brazos) $14.99  This used to be called The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness and to this day is the one book I would say every college student who cares about faith should own. There is nothing like it.  If any of what I've written thus far intrigues you, get this. It is winsome, interesting, and very, very good. 

Engaging God's World: A Christian Vision of Learning and Living  Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. (Eerdmans) $16.00  I think this may be the most eloquent book yet written on the glories of being a Christian college student. Anyone interested in the big theme of God's redemptive work and why learning much is vital -- the basics of a Christian worldview -- will surely appreciate this lovely provocative book.

Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God John Piper (Crossway) $15.99  What a passionate, Biblical, and useful contribution to learning for the greater glory of God. There are some insights here that are very impressive.

The Mind of the Maker Dorothy L. Sayers (HarperOne) $13.99  What a lovely, thoughtful book with good ruminations on various theological themes, but always with a view of how understanding these core truths help us appreciate our own creative tasks. A lovely introduction by Madeleine L'Engle makes this a very nice edition.

Certainly there is much more we could say about the role of books and the power of the printed page.  I told some stories, read some excerpts, made some off-handed comments, got my tongue-tied and my "mix all talked up" a time or two.  But it is always a joy to get to tell folks about why books matter, how reading is important, and why a relationship with a real bookseller that you trust is an important asset. 

We hope this helps you recall your own favorite books, the things you value from reading, and -- maybe -- you'll want to pick up a few of these that we so heartily recommend.  We will deduct the 20% off of the regular prices shown. You can call us if you'd like, or just use our secure order form link shown below. We are grateful for your support.



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April 2, 2014

Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined by Jonathan Merritt ---and --- Not Who I Imagined by Margot Starbuck ON SALE


Although our store and BookNotes blog is known for promoting books about how the Christian faith interacts with culture, inviting friends to read widely, even suggesting Christian books about their careers and avocations, and even though we are passionate about providing books on many social and political issues (advancing what some might call a "public theology" concerned for the flourishing of the common good) one of the largest categories in our store is a genre one might call basic Christian growth.

In this section we have books for brand new Christians, for those exploring faith perhaps for the first time, and for those who have gone to church all of their lives, but want a deeper look or a fresh take.  No one is too old or experienced to benefit from these guides to faithful living. Some of our all time favorite authors might be found in this genre - think of Frederick Buechner or Madeline L'Engle, Eugene Peterson or Brennan Manning; Barbara Brown Taylor or Jerry Bridges; these are theologically interesting, but not scholarly, academic writers. Their books are designed for ordinary people of faith to grow in their relationship with God and deepen their daily discipleship.

I want to tell you a bit about two very good books in this category. These two are so nicely done and the authors so well respected, that they should be popular.  We know both authors, too, and want to honor their work and thank them for their support of indie stores like ours. 

Jjesus is better (bigger).jpgesus Is Better Than You Imagined by Jonathan Merritt (FaithWords) $20.00 


I have been eager to tell you about this book since I zoomed through an advanced copy; I am very fond of it. Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined just released this week and it will be, I am sure, one of the more popular books of its kind this year.  Jonathan Merritt has written two other very good books (Green Like God and A Faith of Our Own) and he has become a significant voice in the recent rise of a younger generation of evangelical writers. (Brad Lomenick, president of Catalyst, says that Merritt "is fast becoming one of the most influential Christian writers today. He has a pulse on culture and a gift for communicating." Rachel Held Evans says that he is "an incisive, winsome writer and one of the best storytellers I know.") That JM has spoken at events such as Q and Catalyst and Jubilee and writes regularly for HuffPost, Patheos, God's Politics and the like suggests he is a writer to whom we should pay attention.  

Although in his work as a pundit he has been outspoken about social justice, about forging better postures for cultural engagement than the old-school culture wars, and has invited readers to think more carefully about the ways faith can be applied to public life, this new book goes back to basics.  Why do we trust Jesus? How do we come to know God more deeply? How do we think and feel and embody God's ways in a very broken world where our lives are often filled with debilitating sadnesses?  What do we do when we've done all the right religious things and God still seems distant? 

In a truly wonderful foreword, John Ortberg mentions a personality test that psychologists sometimes administer where it is commonly discovered that religious people give false answers, more so even than the nonreligious. The reason, it is suggested, is that "those inside a strong faith tradition tend to confuse our aspirations with our achievements."

And, it seems, we sometimes don't fess up to the messiness of our daily lives, at least not at church.

Ortberg does a wonderful job setting up the book, and reminds us that our faith -- as explained so helpfully by Merritt -- is a mix of "not the way it's supposed to be" and glimmers of hope and glimpses of redemption. There is darkness and confusion alongside goodness and beauty in this life, and we need not pretend it is otherwise.  We don't have to fake our answers, suggest we have it more together than we do or exude more religious confidence then we have. 

The Christian faith offers a true story, a helpful framework which is the best way to understand this mix.  But I'm saying it inadequately: it isn't just a framework or abstract story we are invited into, it is friendship with the person of Jesus the Christ. Here's Ortberg, again, from the preface:

It is this Jesus, the real Jesus - with all his confusing majesty in the midst of the real world with all its confusing pain - who shows up on page after page of Jonathan's book. We see Him in the silence of the desert and the beauty of the storm in the challenge of an impossible assignment and the euphoria of an answered prayer. And not just there. We see Him, though this book, in somebody's life.  Jonathan's integrity and thoughtfulness and courage and vulnerability will be a salve to every reader. We meet Jonathan, as we meet Jesus, at the foot of the cross.

Jesus Is Better... has gotten a lot of on-line publicity in the last week as ChristianityJM in chair.jpg Today ran a very moving excerpt, one of the many poignant and self-revealing chapters when Jonathan tells of his own loneliness and foibles. It has been widely re-posted and re-tweeted.

There was an episode in Merritt's life a few years back that caused him considerable public embarrassment when an old acquaintance tried to blackmail him (he was already a known author and journalist with a large internet following) regarding what might have been an illicit sexual encounter.  It was horrifying to him, as you can imagine, to have personal junk aired without his consent and, as he tells in this chapter, he prayed to be spared.  "I'm not ready for this" he cried out to God. 

As he explains in the chapter "A Thread Called Grace" he was forced to share some intimate things about his life that would have not been his plan to publicly acknowledge. Yes, he has had some unwholesome desires.  His being a survivor of sexual abuse and how he is coping with the complex feelings having been through such things is part of that.  You can imagine. Yet, as Merritt wrote in a Washington Post column, picked up by Sojo, he chose to reveal more about this episode not to enhance sales of the books or as a cheap publicity stunt, but because it captures so very well the heart of the book: we can experience profound and healing grace; Jesus is indeed better than anything, His presence more than we might ever suppose. In our hardest times, God can be with and for us. When we are most frightened and alone, God is there. And this the beauty of God's mercy, God's tender care, God's free offer of love. Indeed, as Merritt says, "all is grace."

Jesus Is Better is a title, I'm afraid, that might turn a few sophisticated readers away.JM our greatest need poster.png  But I assure you, this isn't simple inspirational fare, or cheerleading for a happy-clappy sort of revivalism.  As I hope I've noted - citing Ortberg's foreword and this hard revelation about sexual brokenness - this is not a cheap book, morally or literarily. He draws on very interesting authors, poets, mystics and offers very nice epigraphs before each allusive chapter title. He talks about real life, difficult stuff, and the stories (quite engagingly told) ring true.  

Whether it is the story that made me shed tears (a young friend of his, a mother of two little ones, died of an odd infection, despite prayers for healing) or the episode of his own solidarity with those who sense God is silent and absent, or the fun story about the surprising common grace found at the nearly sacrilegious bar called Sister Louisa's Church of the Living Room and Ping-Pong Emporium, a campy dive nestled in Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward, these tales take us into real life, honest probing, and the search for authentic spirituality in the world as we know it. 

Happily, the book is exceptionally accessible, and nearly anyone who likes to read even a little will be drawn in. Jonathan Merritt narrates stories of his life, making them interesting and applicable - he's the son of a Southern Baptist preacher, after all, and he knows how to bring it home, drawing out a good lesson from a good story.

For instance, he tells of going to Christ in the Desert monastery for a silent retreat. I felt like I was right there with him, sharing the anxiety of facing such a rigorous discipline. Merritt offered a honest report of how hard it was for him, and how hard it most likely is for most of us to enter into sustained silence. A very exciting chapter about a mission trip to Haiti (where he is ambushed and robbed twice in the same day!) will resonate with anyone who has done short term projects. I liked a chapter about being in Kathmandu, about finding God despite a sense of God's absence (and the lessons learned from the children of poverty.) He's a great storyteller and a fine Bible teacher, and weaves together Bible observations and his fairly colorful life. There were moments I thought of Bob Goff, and the holy capers he describes in Love Does - Jonathan has that spontaneous and adventurous disposition and ends up being in some very entertaining situations. It makes for a good read. 

Yet, despite the high drama, some of the best chapters are quiet;  they are gentle reflections on ordinary time.  How does Jesus reveal Himself in the more quotidian? There is one chapter about the mystery of what Jonathan thought was a mystical encounter, God truly showing up, offering a gesture in the wind as Jonathan sang a rousing early morning hymn in his wooded backyard.  Of course (of course) he tried to duplicate the experience many times after that, and, of course (of course) God cannot be summoned to perform tricks at our command.  It is a candid and nicely honest report of this fairly simple story - sometimes we think we have had an encounter with the Divine, but we aren't sure. Or, we are pretty sure, but we wonder why it vanishes so quickly. I've been there. I have read that chapter twice, smiling and nodding, glad for his faith and glad for his candor when it doesn't work out as we might wish. It's a funny world, eh?

"I remember the day the emptiness came," Jonathan writes in the first page, in a chapter called "Holy Expectation."  

Unless you really don't think about these things much, I suspect you, too, have sat in church, longing for greater spiritual connection.  You've had times of emptiness. You've read a religious book or attended a small group Bible study or worked hard on a congregational renewal project and yet, yet, there is a sense that God is not much involved.  You resonate, as Jonathan does, with the line he offers from Emily Dickinson, 

They say that God is everywhere, and yet we always think of Him as somewhat of a recluse. 

I think many of our readers will enjoy this book. I think the stories, and his sensible,JM has given us.png upbeat Bible instruction, will be helpful.  Be prepared to be surprised. Not only does he write so very nicely about finding God in the impossible, about encountering Jesus in waiting, even about Christ's holy presence in tragedy, he does come back to church: yes, in a chapter called "Easter Remembrances" he encounters Jesus in church.

And, in a closing episode he moves way out of his comfort zone as Jonathan meets rather reluctantly with a small group of Pentecostally-inclined women who speak a "word of knowledge" over him. This prophecy ends up ringing true in the deepest parts of his soul: it was a vivid invitation to continue his journey.

As he looked back over his year, the year that became the fodder for this book, he writes,

I found moments of respite and enlightenment in Scripture, no longer read out of duty My eyes caught surprising glimpses of God in far off monasteries and my back porch. I saw Jesus flash in the eyes of orphans and touches refugees. In chance meetings with unlikely angles in unusual places, I stumbled across the One I craved. Now I realized He was there all along. He had just been waiting for an invitation to meet me on His own terms, rather than on mine. 

He continues,

The search for our boundless God has no beginning and no end. When we walk thorough one door of spiritual awakening, God opens another and beckons us come. He calls us not to a destination but to a life-long posture whereby we live aware, peering around every corner knowing that God may be waiting there.

Nnot who I Imagined.jpgot Who I Imagined: Surprised by a Loving God Margot Starbuck (BakerBooks) $14.99


If Jonathan Merritt's vivid stories are sometimes exotic - travelogue reporting of his dramatic mission trips or a stay at a remote monastery or coming alongside friends in the grip of premature death and tragedy, yearning to encounter Christ in those places - those found in this recent book by Margot Starbuck are, well, less so.  

However, her writing just glows and her stories of her daily grind, about her children, her tales of her own inner turmoil, her girlhood, people she knows, are of a truly remarkable caliber. She is a very good writer, one who I truly respect, not least for her fine work as a wordsmith. And her spunk.

You should know that we've had Margot to the bookstore to read from her work (her memoir Girl in the Orange Dress is extraordinary) and we believe her to be one of the most enjoyable writers doing these sorts of books these days. I like that she can be sassy, self-deprecatory, and her stories - a game of "your favorite heresy" played on New Year's Eve, her little one's trying to figure out the price of a high end sports care they spied (forty-two dollahs, her three year old suggests) - are offered with the witty turn of phrase, very interesting word choice and a perfect cadence.  With a degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, Starbuck knows her proper Reformed theology; as a bit of an neo-hippy-chick, she's free enough to speak her mind and allow for laughter and revel in just a little bit of weirdness.  Without going gonzo, she still brings some zest to the page, and if you like energetic, quality writing, you simply most know her stuff.

For instance. She is known as a rather creative dresser (to put it delicately.) Her rant (amargot pink.jpg good one, too) of the shaming involved in the reality show What Not To Wear was stellar, just stellar. Her feisty resistance to the powers that want to shame and name her as unacceptable is admirable, gloriously so. "Be Who You Are" is the name of that chapter and the stories she tells, alongside situations like the inglorious watching of the aforementioned train wreck of a TV show, shout her message so clearly: "even if I'm not accepted, I'm still acceptable."  As she wryly notes, "A useful life-skill on so many levels."

Starbuck continues,

And though my own beleaguered insistence may very well spring from some unmet developmental need, or some narcissistic demand for attention, the outcome - choosing to silence messages that insist on my inherent unacceptability -really is the singular path to freedom from shame.

And this is may be the heart of the book: we are accepted, and can know that better as we think through the faces we have for God, the voice we hear when we think of God speaking to us.  

Again, I was choked up by some of her stories, anecdotes of people who heard from overbearing parents that they are unlovable, and that God thinks so too. Tragic stories of people who can't seem to realize that they are beloved, people of faith who still can't quite imagine a God who is good or beautiful, let alone accepting.  If we feel we are not good enough for God, if we think God somehow mostly wants to scold us, we are far from being grasped by the gospel. By citing provocative social psychology and a bit of fascinating neuro-science, and some pretty insightful folk from her own circle of friends and family, she weaves a thoughtful picture of how some of our earliest memories (of, literally, eyes and faces) become for us our truest images of God. As you come to realize, this can be damaging or healthy, by degrees, depending. Pondering it now can become healing. 

As Margot's subtitle puts it, we can be "surprised by a loving God."

She has very well-crafted reflection questions at the end of each section to help process all of this. They are suitable for groups, if you are close, and certainly are great for personal use.  They might be quite revealing as she asks us to name and reflect upon our own sense of the face of God.

This is not new territory for Margot, nor is it simple. As she has told in her own memoirmay you know quote from margot.jpg about being adopted, and some subsequent family disasters, she is saddled with inner baggage, abandonment issues, a sense of not being worthy to be received. Her bit about not wanting to impose on others when she is a house guest was very funny, and very poignant, painfully so.) What does it feel like to sense one has not been well held, not lovable, not accepted? How has that registered in our neural pathways, in our very being? (She cites some amazing work in this, from the notable Dr. Frank Lake to the stunning Alice Miller, author of The Drama of the Gifted Child, whose work on early childhood issues remains urgent.)

Ms Starbuck is an amazing, gifted, energetic writer and a mature thinker. I suspect this book will touch deeply in profound places if you let it.  Few of us are unscathed in this hard world, and all of us know those who carry within them toxic views of God that are not Biblical, and not healthy. They need to be surprised, or reminded, that God is "not who I imagined." Starbuck's book will be a God-send, a life-line, I am sure of it.

In fact, I not only recommend it to those who need a good reminder of the face of God, seen in an accepting and warm Jesus - grace is amazing, isn't it? - but to those who work in counseling, pastoral care, or who are sometimes called upon to offer encouragement to others. 

In this book she recounts episodes and share stories - for instance, one in which her six year old self oddly runs out into street busy with traffic - where people do weird stuff that maybe indicates something amiss in their interior lives.  If you know the mysteries of human psychology, you surely know there is much to this - we carry trauma in our bodies, we have memories just below the range of consciousness, and our hurts have a way of wounding us in ways that manifest themselves when least expected.  She is not a psychotherapist, but she has attended to these signs of something going on "below the surface" and her ruminations are helpful and wise. She makes it clear time and again that this "re-forming" of how we see and understand God is part of what God does in human lives. She is, I believe, a midwife of the Spirit, helping us bear new fruit in our lives, as we come to know God more appropriately and truthfully.

And the journey is a lot of fun. This book brings together some very serious concerns (what could be worse than toxic faith, a fear that we can never measure up to God's approval, stories of those whose God is distant or angry) and yet is jam-packed full of great stories of a simple sort, cleverly told, punchy, catchy, and thought-provoking.  Not Who I Imagined is a very good book, and it is well worth considering. 

There are several major sections with several chapters under each heading. Her stories and ruminations and scientific dabbling fall under these categories and although some may dip in and out, reading what you may, they do follow a flow, a liturgy, it sees to me.  Enter this grand healing story and follow along:

We're Formed by Early Faces

We See Ourselves Through Other's Eyes

We Mask Up to Cover Shame

We Give God a Face, We Encounter the Face that is True

We Receive God's Gracious Face.

not-who-i-imagined-surprised-by-a-loving-god.jpgjesus is better (bigger).jpg

As we draw closer to Holy Week, these sorts of books can be very useful.

These two storied authors have given us great gifts in their work and we should not take lightly their willingness to be so vulnerable about their own lives.

Their stories and guidance remind us that we are loved by a big, mysterious, good God, who is seen in the face of the Incarnate One, Jesus Himself.

This may be a surprise, and it will be better than you imagined



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March 25, 2014

Leonard Sweet's astonishing new book on sale: Giving Blood: A Fresh Paradigm for Preaching - 20% OFF

Giving Blood: A Fresh Paradigm for Preaching Leonard Sweet (Zondervan; $22.99.) Our BookNotes sale price, $18.35

I have a friend, an engineer and businessman, who writes plays, funny, funny youth dramas, and he is the most witty person I know.  One can hardly have a conversation with him (or a Bible study or committee meeting) without puns being blurted out. He thinks of them instinctively, and blurts them out shamelessly. He's a wonderfully creative guy, good to be around, clever and fun, but he is truly gifted, extraordinarily so.  One can't keep up, even though a few try.


Author Leonard Sweet is like that.  He can't help himself.  Is such a gift a joy or a burden?leonard sweet - hands on chair.jpg What is it like to be thinking nonstop, to be reading voraciously, to blurt out puns and plays on words, crafting sentences with alliterations, metaphors that are mixed, crossed and double-crossed, thinking up and writing down clever axioms, inventing acronyms, wanting to explore (and tell others about) word meanings, unlayering their genealogy with inherent meanings discovered? He exegetes images like no one I know; all of life is a learning opportunity to play in and pray about. I don't mean this to sound cheap, but he seems to think in slogans, and writes them down in books, more than one a year in recent years. He's a man on fire. 

Reading a book by Leonard Sweet is a jumpy-bumpy joy ride, a book experience unlike nearly any other. He can't write a boring book, although I suspect some editors have tried to get him to.  

I sometimes scan a page for good quotes, stuff to cite, to put in a journal, to crib for a review. I don't even bother underlining Sweet books anymore because one can (for different reasons each time) underline almost every paragraph -- this clever line, that stunning idea, that historical fact, this curious quote, that helpful mnemonic device. Some sentences are short, others are themselves paragraphs. 

How does he come up with this stuff? Like the cowboy show from years ago, I watch a sentence fly by, scratch my head wondering if that insight can even be true, does that even make sense, and say maybe even out loud, grinning with discovery and wonder, "Who is that masked man?" 


Sweet was one of the first Christian leaders in our era to understand and, more importantly, to popularize cultural studies (yes, his de/reconstructive word play has a Derridaian feel, although less obtuse, more sensible.)

He prophesied the rise of reality TV shows, taught Christian leaders to be interactive by telling us about e-bay before most of us could imagine the importance of the internet, and predicted the rise of both salsa dancing and salsa, the condiment (which, as he predicted, has overtaken ketchup as the condiment of choice in the USA. Think what that suggests for a moment and think about your next church supper!) 

His fascination with the participatory culture we are now swimming in led him eventually to write books that played with his call to be EPIC -- that is, experiential, participatory, image-based and communal.  His The Gospel According tosoulsalsa.jpg Starbucks (Waterbrook; $13.99) is a playful and helpful introduction to the tangible shifts in contemporary culture, and what the church might learn if we, too, are going to be effective vessels, bringing the epic good news to bear in ways that compute to postmodern people who appreciate the "experience economy."  Books like Aqua Church 2.0: Piloting Your Church in Today's Fluid Culture (Cook; $14.99) show us how to set out in these postmodern waters and SoulSalsa: 17 Surprising Steps for Godly Living in the 21st Century (Zondervan; $12.99) tells us how to live it out in our own lives.  I like both of those books a lot.

It is axiomatic for Sweet that God loves this world, that we are called to be culturally-savvy ambassadors, understanding the signs of the times, even this TGIF culture (ahh, in Sweet-speak that's Twitter, Google, iphone, and Facebook. See last year's Viral: How Social Networking is Poised for Revival [Waterbrook; $14.99] for an exploration.  I reviewed it briefly, here.) Even if is not our "native tongue" (as it is for Gen Xers and Millennials and today's children) our churches must, like good missionaries, be astute in the ethos and folkways and values and language and technologies and aesthetics of North American culture. As immigrants to this brave new world (unless your young) we weren't born here; we have to learn the language.


Some might (and I have) criticized Len for not adequately sounding the counter-cultural, "in but not of" theme of being "non-conformed" to the ways of the surrounding culture. (See the last few books by David Wells, such as his new and very moving God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-Love of Godunfasionable paperb.jpg Reorients Our World or his weighty jeremiad Above All Earthly Pow'rs: Christ in a Postmodern World, or, perhaps more lively and useful, Unfashionable: Making a Difference in the World by Being Different by Tullian Tchividjian for rebuking critique of those who bend over backwards to accommodate faith to the ways of the world.) Still, Sweet's basic intuition and his major theme and his insistent questions are, I believe, right on. God loves the world; why don't we? God entered the world in the incarnation; why don't we? God has placed us in this time and place; why don't we learn the language?  God in Christ makes us more human, not less; why don't we experience healthy, abundant life?

God sent into the world a real person, after all - God With Us - not a bloodless proposition, not even a "gospel-centered" one, and the Christian faith is more about real relationships restored in Christ then assenting to abstract truths, more about the person of Christ than a proposition about Christ. Consider the title of this important book Sweet wrote just a few years ago: What Matters Most: How We Got the Point but Missed the Person (Waterbrook; $15.99.) What a cry of the heart for many churches, content to, as he puts it, "wade in the shallows of belief (rather than) plunge into the depths of faith." 

Other recent books of Sweet's like I Am a Follower: The Way, Truth, and Life of Followingnudge.jpg Jesus (Nelson; $15.99), Jesus: A Theography (Nelson $19.99) and Jesus Manifesto: Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ (Nelson; $14.99) or Nudge: Awakening Each Other to the God Who's Already There (Cook; $19.99) show that he's no hipster wanting to dumb down orthodox faith for faddishly cool God-talk nor a historic liberal Protestant eroding a Biblical worldview with a critical lens on all things historic. He's a postmodern evangelical prophet inviting us back to robust faith and whole-life discipleship, embodying God's ways thoughtfully and creatively in the 21st century world (or, as he often says, preparing for the 22nd century world - kids being born today may well live into the 22nd century!)

Rev. Sweet is a United Methodist minister and professor, working both at Drew University and George Fox University (in their DMin program.) His energetic teaching, conference talks, and interactive workshops on doing ancient-future ministry in this hot-wired world are legendary and even those that are not fully convinced that his big-picture, scatter-shot, all-over-the-map visionary proposals are "doable" or wise, he is inspiring and provocative and a valuable voice for the church reforming.  Unless he really rubs you the wrong way - and he does frustrate some, as a presenter and as a writer, I suppose - he is, in my view, a wonder to behold. At his best he is a force of nature. You should hear him, meet him, if you have a chance, but certainly, you should read him.  He is one of the most prolific, interesting, and, I think, important writers of our generation.  As I often say, you will learn a lot about a lot by dipping in to any of his books.  The footnotes alone are worth the price of admission.

Sgiving blood.jpgweet's mother was a Pilgrim Holiness preacher (driven from a few of her churches because she insisted on wearing jewelry -- her wedding band, and because his father owned a TV.) In his new book, Giving Blood: A Fresh Paradigm for Preaching (Zondervan; $22.99) he tells that she would sometimes sigh in the course of hearing a passionless sermon that the preacher wasn't "leaving any blood on the pulpit." Sweet, who has written nicely about his Wesleyan heritage and his standing in the United Methodist church -- his tribe, as he puts it -- reads and quotes very widely.  He affectionately cites Spurgeon and Calvin, Fred Buechner and Sam Proctor, Barbara Brown Taylor and Rowan Williams. Like his mother, he is a soulful, passionate preacher, eager to draw people to radical faith.

He used to edit a popular homiletics journal (and started the first on-line open source preaching resource, and he regularly teaches preachers and liturgists about vibrant, culturally-contextualized, worship. This new book is about leaving blood on the pulpit. I don't know if his mother would recognize it, but there is affinity.  At heart he wants to give of himself to preach about the blood of the lamb. Postmodern, technology-obsessed, 21st century aficionado that he may be, he wants to preach the old, old story, the gospel story.  His is no Christ-less, bloodless faith and it necessarily gets messy.

Which leads me to the first thing to say about this amazing work. 

It is about the preachers blood and it is about the blood of Christ and, somewhat, about your blood and mine. It frustrates some and is a life-line for others, but, as he almost always does, he plays with a metaphor, works an image, shifts back and forth between multiple meanings.  In this case, he reports about up-to-date scientific blood research (yes, about cells andwall street bull.jpg transfusions and genetic codes and all the rest) and also reminds us of ancient mythic stories about blood and blood sacrifices. (His linking of the pagan Persian Mithras practices of being washed in the blood of the slit throat of a sacrificial bull and the bull markets of modern pagans on Wall Street took my breath away - wow, did he say that? You'll leave some blood on the tracks if you preach like that!) But just when your head is spinning with fascinating stuff about platelets and plasma he introduces and runs with teachings about blood in the Bible.

As I said, one could underline lines and lines of this fascinating book. It is learned and eloquent and jam-packed with ideas and inspiration. It is a slight irritation that an editor didn't reign in his ADD a bit - some pages hold five different ideas, it seems (and there are glaring non sequiturs that may work live, but are jarring on the page.) But, still, even these are often amazing and mostly helpful and sometimes very beautifully crafted. Like the design of the book itself, this is a solid and handsome work, well-designed and layered with information and story and vision. And, man, does he work the blood metaphor.

Sweet said it was the hardest book he has written, and it has taken him longer, much longer, than any of his others.  He's a gifted writer with a photographic memory, so I gather that writing hasn't been too difficult for him. (He's released nearly 50 titles, after all.) In this one, at least, he has followed the advice of sportswriter Red Smith (probably not Hemingway) who famously noted how easy it is to be a writer: "You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins and bleed."

Consequently, I do think Giving Blood is one of the essential Leonard Sweet books. 

Awell-played-life-why-pleasing-god-doesnt-have-to-be-such-hard-work.jpgs I noted in a BookNotes post a few weeks ago, I love his other new book, an energetic new paperback on play and grace and creativity, The Well-Played Life: Why Pleasing God Doesn't have to Be Such Hard Work (Tyndale Momentum; $15.99.) It is about the importance and freedom of play and how to live a more God-guided, creative, liberated life, of course, but more, a rumination on our "works-oriented culture" which fails to appreciate grace.  One doesn't "work" a piano, he tells us, one plays it.  Perhaps we shouldn't "work" on our marriages or at our jobs, but play at them.  It's a good metaphor, messing with the Protestant work ethic, and the book brings several important insights.  He covers a lot of ground in that book, some chapters long, some short, with (of course) lots of stories and lots of historical examples and illustrations to clarity the urgency of this particular crisis -- our workaholism, and what he calls our BMB Syndrome ("Behold Me Busy.") I finished it just recently and started to write about it, and then came Giving Blood.  

And any day now we're going to see the brand, brand new book about missional social action,  Me to We: God's New Social Gospel (Abingdon Press; $17.99.) Sweet, you're killing me. I can't keep up.


Giving Blood: A Fresh Paradigm, though, is a major work. Trust me on this - it is a bit counter-intuitive, whichgiving blood bigger.jpg maybe any review of Sweet should be - but although it is about preaching, for preachers, it could be profitably read by anyone.  If you care about culture, about being a better communicator, if you care about how the Bible informs life (and worship) if you long for your church to be renewed, and if you happen to care about preaching (and what Christian doesn't?) this is a great book to have. I would be thrilled to know of lay people reading it together, or a study group with pastors and their people.  Sure, ministeriums, clergy colleague groups, and pastor's book clubs should read it. Give it to your own minister, with a smile and a dare.  But, again, preacher or not, whether you do public speaking or not - heck, whether you are a Christian or not - this is a great book to enjoy and I'm sure you will learn a lot about a lot.  Not the least of which is about the life-giving power of the blood of the crucified One.

If it means anything to you (and it will for many BookNotes readers) Sweet says his two favorite preachers are Frederick Buechner and Calvin Miller. (And, in a story so typical of Sweet the consummate story-teller, he tells how Calvin Miller's last sermon, beautifully delivered shortly before he died, he cited Frederick Buechner.)


And, if it means anything to you (and it should) Sweet insists that the modern worldview, with propositions and pages and points, created what many think of as the classic style of homiletics - pointed sermons, here of late the 3-point sermon. (I heard him joke years ago that in the postmodern age, sermons must be story laden, narrative and imagistic; "Sweet, your sermons are pointless," his wife quipped. Ha.) 


In this book he has coined a new phrase (I think, by the way, that it was Sweet who introduced to church folks the phrase coined by a VISA exec, "glocal") and this one, too, may take a bit to catch on, but it is interesting: narraphor. That is a narrative about a metaphor.  (Or is it a metaphor based in a narrative?) He works that out, too -- wow!

His EPIC preaching style for the TGIF world (see above) demands a study of semiotics. This isn't dry or complicated, but he does walk us through some rocky roads, studying communication theory from Charles Sanders Pierce to Paul Ricoeur to George Lakoff.  Serious scholars will appreciate that he understands this stuff and, I hope, will be glad he popularizes it for ordinary preachers and speakers and teachers. Sweet is walking through some of the same thick brush as James K.A. Smith (talk about an important evangelically postmodern writer!) but with a different tone (he's funny and breezy and can't stop himself from the punditry.)

Maybe making up words like narraphor is a bit gimmicky for your no-nonsense tastes, and, as I've said, he annoys some readers.  But I implore you, get over it.  Give this a try.


And he does spend much time, in almost every chapter, quoting the very best writers andbooks stacked (preaching).jpg practitioners of the art of preaching.  From the old guys (Aristotle, Aquinas, Calvin, Wesley, Spurgeon) to important homileticians like Fred Craddock, Tom Long,  Eugene Lowry, Howard Hendricks, Haddon Robinson and great preachers like Barbara Brown Taylor, Bryan Chappell, Tim Keller, Fleming Rutledge. He is in conversation with the African American tradition, emergent folks, Reformed teachers like Sidney Greidanus, mainline Protestant preaching teachers like Paul Scott Wilson and David Schafler, and appreciates the exquisite Dominican Simon Tugwell. What a delight to see C.S. Lewis' friend Austin Farrer show up, and how interesting when he disagrees with John Piper about the role of humor in the pulpit. How many books have interesting quotes from preachers as diverse as Jonathan Edwards and Thomas Troeger? How I wish more of our friends valued the work of Louie Giglio and Walter Brueggemann.

Most of this is not heavy or tedious -- he uses quotes well, and draws on amazing insights from throughout history. He is a splendid oral communicator, after all, and knows his way around good sentences and good storytelling.


As always, he draws on novelists, poets, journalists, artists. What fun to see a line from Nicos Kazantzakis and a quote from Luci Shaw, a line from a song by Keith Green and an interview with Brian Eno.  And, thank goodness, a citation from Annie Dillard's The Writing Life. And did I mention Dr. Seuss? He wisely quotes Dr. Seuss.

I hope my naming these wordsmiths isn't off-putting to you; it is an invitation to realize how much thought and work and blood and sweat Sweet has put into bringing this big book together. And how fun and interesting it is to read.

But be prepared.


Have you ever seen those automatic machines that shoot baseballs to batters.  You've seen the comic scenes in movies where it is set too fast, and the curve balls come flying, flying, flying at you, nonstop, dangerously so, faster and faster?  Yeah, this is like that.  You'll have given blood by the time you're through the first two chapters.

But, happily, this isn't that painful.  It is exciting, stimulating, enjoyable, even, sweet sitting by lamp.jpglearning so much, being guided through fascinating theories, told wonderful stories, learning big ideas and small details, getting good quotes and good illustrations.  I'm telling you, bloodied or not, you will get your money's worth entering the cage with Sweet.


Just so you know, although the early part of the book invites us to "making Narraphors EPIC" and offers "interactives" (application exercises) and explores how Scriptures must guide us in our deduction, induction, abduction, and transduction, the book soon gets very practical.  He uses cool lingo "bicameral preaching" and "organic architecture" but sometimes he is bluntly clear, as in the chapter called "Blood and Guts: Passion."  

The whole fourth part is about "going live" and looks at blood supply, blood transfusions, blood donors (which is congregational interplay) and examines sacramentality ("blood vessels") as well as insights and ideas about good delivery.

Near the end, he looks at what other authors might call the dangers or obstacles faced by preachers. In the section called "AB-" (get it?) he deals with negatives: blood clots ("preachers block"), blood feuds and blood baths (that's about handling criticism), blood hematoma -- a moving section about avoiding bruising our listeners. The chapter called "Blood Pressure" is about the nervous preacher and there is a fascinating piece cleverly called "blood doping and bad blood" which is about "false props and bad leads."  "Blood Poisoning" is about dealing with heresies.

"Red-Blooded Realties" looks at the preacher's humility and humanity, "Blood Ties" is subtitled "Learning from Peers and Relationships with Colleagues" and he even has a section on interpreting effect and response called "Blood Testing."

I challenge you to find a more creatively written book on the art of preaching, and it may even be the most thorough. I am surprised that most preachers don't continually hone their craft and homiletics books aren't big sellers (except as seminary textbooks.) Maybe if more were like this, they'd be more popular.

As I said before, it is so interesting, even those of us who just listen to sermons and are friends with preachers will enjoy it and benefit greatly.

Notice -- again --  that it offers insights about the gospel itself and insights about how to communicate in these times; it is a creative study of true faith in our image-based, google world.  How do we do church in a world like ours? How do we preach the Word faithfully and fruitfully? What do we want our preachers to be, to say and to do?

Sweet offers good stories of those who have grappled with the implications of the Kingdom and he offers stories of those who have preached it well.  His incarnational theology doesn't demand that he separate this into discreet sections -- reflections on the message and the messenger - but you can discern these two great themes: what is the gospel and how do we get it spoken well to the gathered people of God? How do we read the world and read the Word. He draws on John Stott a bit, who said preachers are "between two worlds."  

Of course, Sweet will step on a few toes, rattle a few cages, as they say, tweaking those with unhelpful theologies and unbiblical views and outdated customs and sloppy efforts, but he will also offer good courage to those who are eager to bring renewal and hope to their bloodless churches. Giving Blood will help you give blood.

I like the quote by Heather Murray Elkins, Professor of Worship, Preaching and the Arts at Drew University: "Label this book 'O Negative.' It is rare and urgently needed. Good for all types."

giving blood.jpg




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March 20, 2014

See my review column discussing James Skillen's The Good of Politics at

For those who subscribe to BookNotes, I hope you didn't mind getting that long review in yourgood of p .jpg inbox yesterday.  (And if you don't subscribe, you can do so at the website.)

That new book which I celebrated and commended, The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical and Contemporary Introduction, by James W. Skillen (published by Baker Academic in their "engaging culture" series) is so thoughtful and important that it demanded a longer review.  And I didn't even get into all the details of this strong book.

I wanted you to be sure that you knew that every so often I publish a longer review or a bigger list over at the Hearts & Minds website, filed each month under "columns."  These more or less monthly columns give me an opportunity to explore a title or topic in greater detail.

Or at least that's how it's supposed to work.  Ha.

Many think my ordinary BookNotes are themselves a bit, uh, wordy.  

I know, I know. It violates all the marketing guidance, the social media rules, all the conventional wisdom about being short and sweet.  Still, I believe many of our best customers want content, and it is what we do, describing and selling books, not just showing them, or listing the data about them. Any faceless on-line place can do that.

We know that many who visit our website or subscribe to our free BookNotes blog are true friends of Hearts & Minds who see themselves as connected to our work and are quite eager to read along. You are readers and book-buyers, after all, and you want our input, for which we are appreciative beyond words. Your story intersects with our story here, in many ways, and we are grateful for that.  So we want to tell you about a lot of books, and we want to explain the settings and contexts of them and why we think you might want them. We are humbled that you trust us to do this.

If you missed it, here is the longer review of The Good of Politics, the new book by James W. Skillen.  Jim means a lot to me, the organization he founded (The Center for Public Justice) is even now run by people we love and respect.  His new book is learned and interesting and articulates some important ways forward beyond the typical left and right debates about faith and politics.  I'm a bit proud of the review and hope you will check it out.

It's not that long, really.

By the way, as you'll see, I name a few other books along the way, and highlight a few of the authors which have been conversation partners with Skillen.  Some are not surprising -- and a few may be.  For instance, it was very cool to get to write about some forthcoming books by the art historian and Christian philosopher of aesthetics, Calvin Seerveld.

Please check out the review.  Realize what Skillen is saying about the vision of civility and pluralism and a just legal order for which CPJ stands.  Consider the cover art which speaks volumes once you get his view of the good role of the state mediating other social spheres and institutions.  Join us in thinking deeply about these sorts of things, relating faith and public life in wise and helpful ways. Heaven knows, we need some better ideas in this arena.

The offer we make at the end -- every book mentioned is 20% off plus we're sending an older one along for free for anyone who orders, still stands.  Thanks for reading.



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March 10, 2014

A few to add to the last list AND a new Dallas Willard: Living in Christ's Presence ON SALE

After sharing a list of 10 recommended Lenten books at BookNotes, I compiled another list of some of my favorite books about spiritual formation; books that help us practice spiritual disciplines and books that help us resist the world's seductions, replacing the dysfunctions of our lives with God's glorious (and often messy) work in us, granting us Christlikeness. The ones I listed are either true classics or personal favorites, and I am confident they will be useful resources in your spiritual journey.

Of course, even as I went through the grueling process  -- and, if you are a serious book lover, you can imagine just how grueling -- of narrowing down the list, I kept thinking of other books that fit in, that could be mentioned, that ought to be named.  Here I will give a quick shout out to just a few other titles that I really want to add to our conversations about this topic, and then I will tell you about a very, very precious new book, a posthumously published book by one of the great leaders of in this field, the late Dallas Willard.


The Lliberating image.jpgiberating Image: The Imago Dei In Genesis 1 J. Richard Middleton (Brazos Press) $27.00  I suppose this isn't for everyone as it is serious, rather scholarly, and not a quick read.  Yet, for one wanting a mature and ground-breaking work of Biblical studies, this is one of the most important books I could recommend because it is about what it means to be made in the image of God (and how in Christ that scarred image is restored.) Let me briefly say why it is important in this conversation.

Much of the rhetoric that comes up in many recent books on spirituality revolves around the notion that in Christ we can reject our "false selves" and become our true selves. (See, for instance, David Brenner's small but useful The Gift of Being Yourself.) Yet, without a robust theology of the human person made to image God in God's creation, and a profound awareness of the cultural damage caused by humans misappropriating their high and holy calling to reflect the true King of the Universe as stewards, such emphasis on rediscovering our authentic selves can drift off into psycho-babble and fund a very un-Christ-like narcissism. 

This tension seems to even emerge between the lines on occasion in Richard Rohr's popular The Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self, just for example.  No one would fault Father Rohr for not being socially and culturally engaged (in fact, he founded a spiritual center specifically designed to explore the social implications of an active contemplative lifestyle. Like Thomas Merton, say, or Parker Palmer, Rohr stands in a tradition that is usually very intentional about making overt the nuanced interface of what some call "the journey inward and the journey outward" and draws on contemplative prayer to empower us to work for peace and justice.  But, still, there is this shift in books about the self that are worrying to some.) 

So, I am convinced that Middleton's sound and sophisticated treatment of the meaning of the imago dei and the implications of the Biblical call to reflect God's rule over a blessed, pregnant-with-possibility, but very damaged creation is a needed foundation for any development of fruitful and humane spirituality.  In my small BookNotes review when The Liberating Image came out in 2005, I noted that extraordinary Biblical scholars such as Walter Brueggemann have said that this may be the best book on this topic every written.  Here is what Patrick Miller, then of Princeton Theological Seminary wrote of it: "The book is probably the most comprehensive treatment of this topic in the English language and will be an automatic point of reference in the continuing effort to understand the human in the light of scripture." 

A book like this maybe wouldn't come to mind as essential for most who are entering spiritual direction or who are exploring the classic spiritual disciplines or who are teaching a new class on prayer or fasting. Which is why I felt compelled to mention it here, in this Lenten context. It really does offer a brilliant and needed perspective!

Rreordered love.jpgeordered Love Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness David Naugle (Eerdmans) $18.00  This marvelous and wise book really should be on any list about spirituality but even I who love it so will admit that we sometimes don't know where to shelve it in the shop; it isn't a typical book about spiritual practices, but is about, well, about being happy by being human (God's way!)

Professor Naugle has his PhD in philosophy and teaches at Dallas Baptist University and runs a wonderful student-oriented learning community there as well; he is one of the most thoughtful teachers I know, and one of the happiest, too. The heart of this book is on learning to love the right stuff, in the right way, and have our deepest desires shaped by the ways of God. In this is an ancient as the Hebrew prophets and draws on St. Augustine (and laid good groundwork for Jamie Smith in his magisterial Imagining the Kingdom and Desiring the Kingdom.)This necessarily draws on the same insights about being made to image God and to serve the creation (as explained in the cultural mandate of Genesis 1) as is so expertly explored by Middleton, as well. 

Naugle covers a lot of ground -- including a study of the historic "seven deadly sins" and what he calls "the expulsive power of a new affection." He cites many authors, from spiritual classics to contemporary scholars (and throws in some lyrics of his beloved Switchfoot, too.) He talks of a mended heart, new lives, and how that is part of God's restoration of all things.  In this he is a rare voice, placing spirituality and our interior lives in the broader context of God's creation regained.  It is a very useful resource, a truly good book. Publisher's Weekly said his discussion of virtues was particularly compelling "and his presentation breaths new life into this topic."

Listen to Steve Garber's comment about David Naugle: "...amazingly wise, incredibly well-read, he is always attentive to what matters most, and his book should find its way into hearts and minds, courses and colleges, far and wide."


Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology Eugene H.Eat This Book.gifChrist Plays in Ten Thousand Places.gif Peterson (Eerdmans) $17.00

Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading  Eugene H. Peterson (Eerdmans) $17.00

Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers  Eugene H. Peterson (Eerdmans) $17.00

The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways ThatThe Jesus Way.gif Jesus is the WayTell It Slant- A Conversation on the Language of Jesus.gif Practice Resurrection- A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ.gif Eugene H.peterson smiling.jpg Peterson (Eerdmans) $17.00

Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ   Eugene H. Peterson (Eerdmans) $17.00  

Well, well. This famous five-volume magnum opus of the prolific Presbyterian Pastor Peterson are, I believe, some of the finest books written in our generation, and among the best books we've sold in our 30-plus years of book-selling.  We've always promoted all of Gene's books, and we continue to respect him immensely for his no-nonsense and (literally) down to Earth approach to the basic stuff we need to know about being a sensible Christian.  He sometimes is beautiful as a writer, sometimes plainspoken and direct. He sometimes ruminates and reflects, drawing on classic theology and important literature (novels and poetry inform his work, the titles themselves often drawn from lines of poems -- for instance, Christ Plays... is from Gerard Manley Hopkins and Practice Resurrection is inspired by the famously revolutionary poem by Wendell Berry; the covers, by the way, are from Jewish painter Marc Chagall.)

As one decidedly not influenced by the fast-paced and hip, Peterson occasionally meanders into brusk cultural criticism, all the while wisely teaching folks to realize God's faithfulness and presence and God's wondrous call to be human beings. He knows that the meaning of life, and the essential characteristic of spiritual formation is an increased capacity to serve God in the day to day of ordinary life in the world; in each of these meaty books he points us to what ought to be well-known habits and practices among us. 

In each of these amazing volumes, Peterson takes up topics such as attending to God in creation and Scripture, learning to read the Bible well, learning to pray, (re)thinking things like leadership in the way that Jesus does, rooting ourselves deeply in the church, realizing the majesty of the work God is doing in quiet ways in our lives together.  All of his books are treasures, and these five, especially, conversations that they are, are to be read slowly, carefully. 

Although these can be read in any order, I do recommend them all, and I suppose you might read them sequentially. (I will admit that I myself am savoring them, and have not gotten to the last one yet myself. Like all true classics, though, we may take our time, and work with them over a lifetime.) Highly recommended for your personal library.  Send us a note if you want further detail about what each is about.

225 books.gif5 Books Every Christian Should Read A Guide to the Essential Spiritual Classics  edited by Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Phyllis Tickle, and RIchard Rohr (HarperOne) $18.99  This Renovare-produced book is so useful on so many levels and for many reasons.  Mostly, it is a fine set of reviews of (and excerpts of) spiritual classics and whether you are led to read the full primary sources or not, these are books you should know about. This allows a perfect "toe in the water" and educational tasting experience.  The title of this is good, but could be amended to at least read "books every Christian should know about." 

Besides having the good reviews of the best of the best of enduring spiritual and devotional classics,  this slightly over-sized book also offers numerous sidebars listing the "top ten" books recommended by many contemporary Christian leaders.  Those intriguing lists are themselves a delight and a helpful guide for those wanting to develop longer term reading lists.  This is my favorite guide into these kinds of books and very, very useful. 

The books I wrote about the other day are so, so helpful, and I believe will encourage and assist and even teach you new things about how to proceed in your walk with God and how to be more faithful in your times of solitude, in your prayers, in your spiritual practices that will help shape your soul.  Read Foster, read Haley Barton, read Rolheiser. Read John Ortberg and Gary Thomas.

But then read these other more foundational works, background, so to speak, that will help you frame your practice of the disciplines by these bigger themes, growing in this vital theological soil. They are deep and solid and will be fruit of wisdom and maturity.


Living in Christ's Presence: Final Words On Heaven and the Kingdom of God  Dallas Willard (InterVarsity Press) $20.00

One simply cannot underestimate the role of the late Dallas Willard in the contemporary religiousDallas-Willard-Quotes-1.jpg landscape.  The first book he wrote was a wise and good work on discerning the will of God -- a common question among evangelicals and charismatics, at least -- which brought good sense and a non-sensational approach that we trusted. That book, after having been out of print for a few decades, was recently expanded and reissued as Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God (IVP; $17.00. and there is a DVD curriculum, too.) We are glad to recommend it -- it is deeply spiritual but yet very thoughtful and not weird. (Interesting that we have to qualify that, eh?) That Dallas was a philosophy professor at UCLA was striking --  how many evangelicals who write books of basic Christian growth have that as their day gig?

Little did we know back then that Willard would take his impeccable scholarly credentials and use his sharp mind to help folks explore the very meaning of discipleship, what it means to bespirit of the disciplines.gif transformed by Christ as we find ourselves united with Him in faith, and how to deepen our confidence in the ways of Christian transformation. His Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives came out in the late 80s, and remains a strong paperback seller to this day. (That he had a chapter on the role of the body in that early book is, come to think of it, remarkable.)

Dallas Willard's many books have been exceedingly well reviewed and his teaching and speaking and mentoring has influenced some of those who have been influential in recent years.  Willard befriended young emergent types and he shared speaking events with older-school church types. He's written with Eugene Peterson; he helped create the movement within evangelicalism that focused upon Christ-centered spiritual formation (think of the NavPress line once called "Spiritual Formation Books" or the excellent IVP line of formatio books.) He co-edited the spiritual formation-oriented NRSV Life WIth God Study Bible (HarperOne; $24.99 -paperback; $39.99 - leather) with Peterson, Walter Brueggemann and Richard Foster.  

Foster is perhaps better known among those who are drawn to monastic practices - it is hard to name a book more influential than Celebration of Discipline - but Foster himself has insisted that Willard is one of our most important spiritual writers.  Those that value Foster should read Willard; it is that simple.

I sometimes mention that I have never read a more interesting and complimentary preface to adivine-conspiracy.jpg book than the amazing one written by Richard Foster in his 1998 introduction to Willard's seminal The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (HarperOne; $24.99.) That  Mr. Foster places it as an enduring and important book, standing with other all- time great works from church history may be a bit of an overstatement, but it certainly indicates how important and rich and thoughtful that book is.

We are taking pre-orders, by the way, for a sequel of sorts, The Divine Conspiracy Continued... that is going to be released in June by HarperOne (regularly selling for $27.95 although our orders here will get the 20% discount.) It is being finished up posthumously by Gary Black, who wrote a very fine study of Willard that we carry called The Theology of Dallas Willard: Discovering Protoevangelical Faith (Wipf & Stock; $29.00)

For many of our customers, the somewhat more accessible Renovation of the Heart: Putting On the Character of Christ (Navpress; $16.99) is a better place to start. Also, the practical, devotionally oriented guidebook co-written by Jan Johnson, Renovation of the Heart in Daily Practice: Experiments in Spiritual Transformation (NavPress; $14.99) is a great supplemental tool to process the teaching. There is even a teen edition which we carry. These are life-changing resources, and we commend them to you.

I have read and re-read certain chapters of his feisty book on the failure of the church to make disciples with the great title The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus' Essential Teachings on Discipleship (HarperOne;GreatOmissionLg.jpg $23.99.) It is very, very important.   Listen to this line from the back cover: "Willard boldly challenges the thought that we can be Christians without being disciples, or call ourselves Christians without applying this understanding of life in the Kingdom of God to every aspect of life on earth. He calls on believers to restore what should be the heart of Christianity -- being active disciples of Jesus Christ. Willard shows us that in the school of life, we are apprentices of the Teacher whose brilliance encourages us to rise above traditional church understanding and embrace the true meaning of discipleship -- an active, concrete, 24/7 life with Jesus." This, in itself, is important to hear, but he isn't alone in saying it. His significance comes in the very concrete way he helps us understand our apprenticeship to the Teacher.  This is very, very useful stuff.

Although it may be his most philosophically minded, his rumination on what we can know, and what it means to know (and whether religious knowledge is of the same sort as other knowledge) is amazing. If you enjoy deeperknowing christ today.jpg stuff, you should ponder Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (HarperOne; $24.99)   His claim that reality simply isn't "secular" and therefore religious knowledge as a kind of knowing ought not be ruled out of the modern university (let alone be mistrusted in our own hearts) is splendidly provocative and important.

College prof Mary Poplin just released a large and significant (and well written) book inspired by Willard on this very matter entitled Is Reality Secular? Testing the Assumptions of Four Global Worldviews (IVP; $18.00)  Willard would approve of her desire to show the truthfulness, experienced in the real world, of real knowledge about real things, and you see his work in this book shaping hers.  It is a theme he draws on from time to time, but makes it most explicit here. It warrants a careful, slow reading.

This reveals something important about Willard, and it bears saying, even in this short overview: he not only believes that Christ's claims, as shown in the Bible are true, but because they are true, they are in a profound way, do-able.  The "dog in the fight" he has, here, is more than about epistemology, but it is about how people of faith live into and out of their convictions, and how authentic Christian discipleship can be, well, the best way to life.  As churches help people be free in Christ, a joyful and fruitful lifestyle emerges, and it is to that way of life, based on the really real, that will draw people to Christ who is "the way, the truth, the life." He is a philosopher, as we've noted, but it seems he is a pastor and an evangelist, too. May his tribe increase!

So, we hope you are familiar with the good work of the late Dallas Willard and esteem his contributions to public theology, discipleship, and how he has shaped our insights about spiritual transformation in our time.  He was, as I've said, a very important author. He isn't always simple to follow (although he is writing for an ordinary audience of lay people and church folk as well as those tasked with offering pastoral leadership.) Don't discount him as simple (again, mature thinkers like Foster and Peterson commend him) and don't think he's too philosophical. He's perfect for Hearts & Minds kind of readers!

WLiving In Christ.jpghich brings us to his brand new book, Living in Christ's Presence (IVP; $20.00) which was produced out of a conference held at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church with Willard and his good friend John Ortberg one year ago, just months before Willard's untimely death. 

The popular and upbeat Ortberg gave a few of the lectures at this gathering, so he has a few chapters in here.

Besides his own good chapters, Ortberg played another very important role at the event to help translate and unpack Willard for the audience.  After each Willard lecture, in fact, Ortberg interviewed him, asking him to repeat certain phrases and explain particularly dense sentences or his occasionally counter-intuitive insights.  Ortberg had shown his ability to insightfully do this in a previous DVD they did together and it is a great, great approach, a very good teaching device.

The chapters by Dallas Willard in the aptly named Living in Christ's Presence are truly great, but these conversations at the and of each are even better. They are sizable (not just a quickie line or two) and themselves are wonderful to read. Ortberg is a fine interlocutor and Willard is so good on his feet, extemporaneously reflecting upon Ortberg's probing, practical questions. They made an excellent team and this book is worth every dollar spent on it.

Willard is being a bit more conversational here than he sometimes was - these were talks, not formal book chapters - and having Ortberg conversing with him throughout makes this certainly one of his most accessible books and, therefore, perhaps one of his most important. We recommend it strongly.

Although he is now in heaven, his legacy will deepen, not only because of the ongoing importance and popularity of his earlier body of work, but because of this wonderful, wonderful living in DVD.jpgtitle.

By the way, there is a fine study guide in the back (very insightfully written by Gary W. Moon) making this an ideal resource for small groups, book clubs, or soul friends to do together.

Further, there is a great DVD, a companion to the book that show Willard and Ortberg live from the "Living in Christ's Presence" conference.  The package has two discs with seven hours of material, making it a great value.  It sells usually for $30.00 but with our 20% off we have it for $24.00.

You can get a glimpse of the DVD here.



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March 5, 2014

Wonderful Books on Spiritual Formation -- Especially Good for Lent

Perhaps you are like me and sometimes have a hard time keeping up with a dailylent word.jpg devotional; maybe it just isn't your style.

Even if the list of Lenten devotionals and study resources that we shared in the last BookNotes didn't quite appeal to your reading style, I would bet you still hunger for more depth in your life.  Maybe you are a little jealous of those who seem to be able to use the church calendar as a seasonal reminder to re-focus and live in to discipleship in a deeper way.

Ruth Haley Barton starts her fabulous book Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation with an invitation to be in touch with our deepest longings, and to attend to those desires for "more." Not more stuff, of course, but more life, more love; a faith that is evident and meaningful and helpful for real life. She writes, "One of things that still surprises me this far along in life is how and when and with what power my longing stirs."  After some moving personal anecdotes, she suggests that we attend to these longings of our own soul.  

When was the last time you felt it - your own longing, that is? Your longing for love, your longing for God, your longing to live your life as it is meant to be live in God? When was the last time you felt a longing for healing and fundamental change growing within you?

Do not rush past this question; it may be the most important question you ever ask. But this is hard, I know. In religious circles we are much more accustomed to silencing our desire, distancing ourselves from it, because we are suspicious and afraid of its power.

Her next pages are brilliant in inviting us to name some of these deep longings of the soul, these very human questions. These can be explored any time, but many of our churches invite us to these things now, in this season.

Here I suggest some wonderful books on spiritual formation, a few that are well known and a few that may less recognizable, and few that are obvious and a few surprise recommendations. All of these are wonderfully done, my own (partial) "best of" list for ordinary folks wanting to think about what the theologians call sanctification and what some now call spiritual formation. Do you want renewal, revival, transformation, on-going growth, depth, holiness, even? Do you long to be (re)formed into the image of Christ? To want to deepen your interior life so the Spirit can do in and with you what God wills?

These books will help, I am sure of it. 

Also, if you mentor others, work in ministry, are a disciple-maker or spiritual friend, these are tools you should have at the ready to share with those who are hungry. If you want to give up something for Lent, give up buying something that would allow you to afford buying a few of these.  Give up something that sucks time away from time alone, reading, pondering, praying.

Maybe God might even be inviting you to give up some of your admittedly precious time and individualism; maybe you (really do) long for a small group, a safe community to explore your deepest desires for a better life. Why not call somebody, start a group, or a better group, even if only for Lent. It isn't weird to invite a friend or two to join you in reading a book together, you know.  Who knows, maybe you'll end up true soul friends, spiritual companions as you dive deeper into the way of Jesus.

Ccelebration of d.jpgelebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth Richard J. Foster (HarperOne) $25.99 I simply must start with this. This is a perennial best seller, a hugely significant book and, although a bit deep for real beginners to spiritual disciplines, it is still a true "must-read." But it on your bucket list, have an extra copy on hand to share, refer to it often. This is a true 20th century classic, guiding us to disciplines of depth and joy.  There are three major parts, explaining practices that he says are inward (working on our own inner lives), upward (such as praise and worship which are oriented towards God) and outward in service in the world.  Good stuff, an anecdote to superficiality, which he says in his famous first page, is "the curse of our times."

PPrayer- foster.jpgrayer: Finding the Heart's True Home Richard J. Foster (HarperOne) $24.99 This is one of my all-time favorite books, beautifully offering more than a dozen ways to pray. It is every bit as good, and every bit as helpful as the more famous Celebration of Discipline. He wisely guides us into deeper intercession, praise, confession and such, but also shows how to meditate, pray the ordinary, use our grief as prayers of lament, and offers a stunning chapter on "radical prayer" about bringing the needs for social change before God's throne, pleading and working for history-making cultural transformation. Wow.

Iinvitation to solitude and silence (black).jpgnvitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God's Transforming Presence  Ruth Haley Barton (IVP) $17.00  Ruth invites us to one of the most important spiritual practices one can imagine, one which is counter-cultural and for some of us, desperately important.  I might note that some may not think a book about silence would be very interesting, and this one is more than interesting, it is fascinating, fun, vital, and very much appreciated by those who read it.  Highly recommended.

Ssacred r.jpgacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation  Ruth Haley Barton (IVP) $17.00  I know we recommend this a lot, and you may know we've hosted Ruth here in the area - her gracious, clear depth and helpful approach is a rare gift, and it comes through in her books.  In many ways, this is the perfect book - perhaps not quite as deep or heady or mystical as some of the spiritual classics, but not light-weight or simplistic.  She is forthright calling us into a life-style of spiritual practices that create a deeper sense of Gods transforming power and she draws on the spiritual classics to help us make it happen. Highly recommended.

Ggod is closer than.pngod is Closer Than You Think John Ortberg (Zondervan) $18.99  I think Ortberg is one the great gifts to religious publishing, a deep thinker (he worked with the impressive Dallas Willard on his last book) but a fabulous, fun communicator. The DVD to this is excellent and great for small groups. The cover declares "This Can Be the Greatest Moment of Your Life Because This Moment Is the Place Where You Can Meet God." Okay, a bit over-wrought, but the plain-spoken guidance Reverend O offers on practicing the presence of Godgod is closer eye chart.jpg is rich and thoughtful and clear and profound. Is God maybe a bit like Waldo - hidden in plain view? You will learn much and laugh a bit along the way.  (By the way, the first edition of this had a fantastic cover design that looked like an eye chart; many didn't quite "get" it, and they gave it a more typical kind of look. It is the same book, though.)

Tlife you always.jpghe Life You Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People John Ortberg (Zondervan) $18.99 This is the first Ortberg book I read and the first DVD of his I viewed; loved them both! We recommend it often, noting that, as he says, it is "Dallas (Willard) for Dummies." Or, put another way, it is Richard Foster for beginners. Yes, it is a book about the classic spiritual disciplines, but he delightful shows how to weave them into an ordinary life, and how a spiritually attuned and God-centered life isn't odd or pasty, but full and good. I love that he says this isn't about your (so-called) "spiritual life" but about your life. This book can be life-changing and a nice window into how spiritual disciplines can enhance daily discipleship and gently transform real life, perfect for those who can't imagine themselves reading heavy monastic literature or experiencing the mysticism of the contemplatives.

Ggod in my everything.jpgod in My Everything: How An Ancient Rhythm Helps Busy People Enjoy God  Ken Shigematsu (Zondervan) $16.99  We have written about this before, and promoted it at several gatherings this fall - perhaps I over-emphasize the unique backstory, although that is interesting. The author was a driven and successful Japanese business man who ended up at the wonderful Regent College in British Columbia, studying theology. He ends up on a pilgrimage to Ireland which piques his interest in Celtic spirituality.  Yes, this could be considered a delightfully cross-cultural, multi-ethnic experience, but it is mostly just solid guidance on creating a life-giving rhythm to experience God in everyday moments. This guy knows our busyness and the challenges of living out faith in a secularized world. He helps us journey down this ancient pathway to learn to enjoy God and draw closer to Christ, day by day. An endorsement by Shane Claiborne indicates that it isn't disengaged religiosity, but a new take on older monastic insights. It will help you create your own rule of life, your own sense of how to walk out your own sense of calling and vocation, truly guided by God. There are wonderful questions for reflection, guidance for your own processing, and tremendous stories helping you apply it all.

SSpiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life Donald Whitney.jpgpiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life Donald Whitney (NavPress) $15.99 I think this book is an under-rated gem and should be widely known among us.  Whitney offers wise and practical counsel about spiritual disciplines and calls us to serious practice of stuff that leads to a deeper kind of discipleship and fuller awareness of God's glory and grace in our lives.  He is very fluent in the best of the Puritans - don't let that scare you with dumb biases about their harshness, as that is mostly untrue.  I sometimes say this is a book comparable to Foster's classic, but where Foster draws on medieval, monastic, and pietistic sources, Whitney uses thoughtful Puritan and Reformed sources. Highly recommended.

SSpiritualDisciplinesHandbook.jpgpiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us Adele Ahlberg Calhoun (IVP) $18.00 This is a majestic, amazingly useful, big handbook that tells you much of what you need to know - from the theological to the Biblical to the practical - about doing the many sorts of disciplines, practices, and experiences that put us into a posture of being encountered and changed by God. If you do any teaching on this, if you are any sort of a disciple-maker or spiritual friend this will be a go-to, often-used resource, chock-full of great information, insights, principles, and useful suggestions. Nice that it is endorsed so widely, from Ruth Haley Barton to Timothy Keller.

HHoly Available.jpgoly Available: What If Holiness Is About More Than What We Don't Do? Gary Thomas (Zondervan) $14.99 We recommend any of the many books of Gary Thomas who, perhaps akin to Ortberg, brings ancient, contemplative insights into very modern parlance.  He is greatly influenced by the deep spiritual classics (and has a great book introducing the classics to modern readers called Thirsting for God: Spiritual Refreshment for the Sacred Journey [Harvest House; $13.99.]) In Holy Available he shows his wide reading and deep debt to even the Orthodox tradition. (In fact, its original title was The Beautiful Fight which was a nod to an Orthodox phrase.) So he reads widely and knows this stuff well.

This one is actually one of my favorite books in this genre and reminds anyone who has been influenced by legalism or moralism that gospel transformation isn't mostly about "does and don'ts" but about a Christ-centered change from the inside out, making us more available to join God's holy work in the world. The grace that pardons also transforms, but this goes beyond merely "preaching the gospel to yourself" and standing firm against idols in one's life (as some guidebooks emphasize these days.) This is robust, deep, wide, delightfully so, and very practical as it helps us literally take on the ways of Christ in our mind, our eyes, our feet, our hands. He calls us to be a "God oasis in a God-forgetting world, and shows what winsome holiness can look like, and how to join the beautiful struggle.  By the way, if you think this sounds soft of Biblical obedience or just a tirade against moralism, please know that it is not: it really is about being transformed into the image of Christ.  Thomas has another book on this, too, that is all about how the virtues of Christ can be embedded into our own lives as our own character is transformed into Christ-likeness.  See his very important Glorious Pursuit: Pursuing the Virtues of Christ (NavPress; $14.99) which is one of the best books on that topic.  I am surprised we don't hear more about this kind of stuff - is being Christ-like beyond our reach? Thomas thinks not.

Tto-live-is-christ.jpgo Live Is Christ To Die Is Gain  Matt Chandler with Jared Wilson (Crossway) $17.99  I liked Chandler's previous book, The Explicit Gospel and this has a similar tone - solid, Reformed, mature, but yet casual, winsome, teacherly.  He explains things well, lapses into hipster jokes and allusions some times, but yet still maintains a certain gravitas about the material.  This is a set of sermons working through the wonderful book of Philippians. You will learn why Paul yearned for these folks, how he commended them, what it means to take up a way of living that puts Christ first (and to promote and even join Him in his cross of suffering.)  Chandler's friend Louie Giglio writes on the back "To know Jesus is the essence of life, and I love how Matt Chandler stirs up our affections for Him in To Live Is Christ, To Die is Gain. Matt's beautiful, practical, and straightforward unpacking of Philippians will nudge you toward maturity... and a more robust walk with the Savior. Get it, and dive in today."

Torganic_god.jpghe Organic God: Fall in Love with God All Over Again  Margaret Feinberg (Zondervan) $14.99 I think that Margaret is nearly a poster-child of a new kind of evangelical writing - she is young, hip, funny, passionate, mature but not at all stuffy or off-putting.  Publishers Weekly notes she is "a popular writer for culture-savvy evangelicals." In this book, she gives us an upbeat and very cool version of a classic sort of book: a study of the attributes of God. If you want to deepen your knowledge of God, it is wise to study God.  Knowing God by J. I. Packer or The Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer come to mind as older-school, heady classics. Here, Margaret invites wonder and a real encounter, an organic, natural encounter, with a big-hearted, beautiful, mysterious God.  This isn't odd or unusual, but it is fresh and inviting. Very nicely done.

We stock all of her other books, too, and several dynamic DVD video lessons by Margaret, too.  Give us a call if you want more info.

Tlife god blesses.jpghe Life God Blesses: Weathering the Storms of Life That Threaten the Soul  Gordon MacDonald (Nelson) $12.99  Gordon MacDonald is a very gifted communicator, a splendid and mature man of God, one who is able to bridge the best of old-school evangelical piety and missionary zeal and the very real needs of contemporary people. He has the ability to make even younger readers long for depth and maturity, for character and virtue, for an interior life that is solid and good. There are fabulous stories, great Bible stories re-told, and tons of good advice about going beneath the surface to a life-giving and substantial life that can only be called "blessed." I recommend any of his books -- for instance the very useful Ordering Your Private World or the very honest and raw Renewing Your Spiritual Passion, but I re-read this recently and was reminded at how very good it is. One widely read and respected friend of ours thinks it is his very best.

By the way, you've heard the old adage about not judging a book by it's cover?  Please.

Lluminous.jpguminous: Living the Presence and Power of Jesus  T. David Beck (IVP) $16.00  We named this as one of the books of the year a few months ago, and have heard nothing but good reports from those who purchased it from us. Beck is a pastor, a great storyteller, a solid Bible guy with a heart for the poor and oppressed (he has done considerable work in Haiti.) One reviewer put it well saying "David Beck writes with the head of a scholar and the heart of a pastor" making the book both thoughtfully well-written but also very useful for those of us needing some guidance.  I love how he arranges the book around the purposes of God, the presence of Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the call to harness this presence and power to peacemaking in the world.  A great book for Lenten reading.

Tholy longing.jpghe Holy Longing: The Search for Christian Spirituality Ronald Rolheiser (Image) $15.00  Finally, this contemporary classic is being released paperback!  I don't think this is one for beginners, but it is doubtlessly one of the best books on spiritual formation written in the last 25 years. (Some very conservative Catholics, I should note, have disagreed.)  Note the title's allusion to desire, to our restlessness; he starts with this, helping to define what spirituality is, including what we do with this restlessness. Many adore this book, and many of our best customers have read all of Father Rolheiser's several good books.  He has a wise take on spiritual disciplines, invites us into a deeper life and an encounter with our real selves (even our sexuality) and the crazy-making false gods we serve, without falling into needless mysticism or shallow psychobabble. Rolheiser is a powerful cultural critic, so understands how our faith must develop "in but not of" the social pressures around us.  Recommended for a slow, careful read, for those wanting to delve deeper into spirituality and inner transformation.

By the way, if you are a fan, you may have missed his small paperback release a few months ago called Prayer: Our Deepest Longing (Franciscan Media; $8.99.)

Twell-played-life-why-pleasing-god-doesnt-have-to-be-such-hard-work.jpghe Well Played Life: Why Pleasing God Doesn't Have to Be Such Hard Work  Leonard Sweet (Tyndale Momentum) $15.99 You know we carry every new book by this prolific author and regularly exclaim about his writerly strengths -  he offers more illustrations and analogies than anybody writing, can turn an illuminating, witty phrase as cleverly as anyone, he has the best footnotes in the business, and anyone familiar with Sweet is astounded by his wide reading, how he knows so much about so much, and, of course, about his passionate commitments to Christ and His church.  He's a postmodern and hot-wired media guru and yet maintains an utterly orthodox, solid theology. (Yikes -- he's written about being fluid and aquatic and may not like be called solid.) Regardless, we dig Sweet and you should check him out.

I will write more about this new one later, I'm sure, as I both greatly appreciate his call to play (even if maybe a little annoyed about how he seems to use "work" as a foil, as if we fail to embrace the gift of play because of recent teachings about vocation and work.) For now, though: this is a book about grace and freedom and child-like joy, and is (yes!) perfect for Lent. Lent is not (we must be reminded) about being gloomy, let alone about earning God's favor by our own sacrificial practices. Len Sweet wisely asks "Do you secretly think that the harder you work the more God is pleased with you?" Do you think that this very month, harboring guilt rather than celebrating graced? This "offers a new spiritual direction for enjoying (and being enjoyed by) God. You'll start to recognize that the things in your life that give God pleasure are the same things that give you the most joy - and that playing and rejoicing are core components of what makes God's face radiate with joy because of you."  Read The Well Played Life along with your Lenten fasting. I dare ya.

Nnot-who-i-imagined-surprised-by-a-loving-god.jpgot Who I Imagined: Surprised by a Loving God Margot Starbuck (Baker) $14.99  You know that Margot is one of our favorite contemporary writers, feisty and fun and radical and challenging.  She can weave words like nobody's business, and is witty and snarky and a great, great storyteller. Her last two books (Small Things With Great Love and Permission Granted) are about reaching out to those on the margins, about inclusive love and radical servanthood; I fancy her as a suburban mom with a dash of Dorothy Day.  Can one gal be part Tiny Fey and part Lauren Winner?  I don't know, maybe I'm trying too hard to conjure up a fun image of her. She is fascinating and truly worth reading -- I assure you that she is full of lively writing and mature depth.  

This book is brand new and is, quite simply, a moving treatise against legalism, a balm for those who have been burdened by guilt and religious fear. Wounded by or concerned about toxic faith? Wonder about the chronic fear so many children of God seem to endure?  Or maybe you harbor garden variety insecurities and doubts. The very fine writer Amy Julia Becker notes "If you are a good Christian who secretly worries that you aren't quite good enough for God's love, this book will confound you, delight you, and bring joy to your heart and soul."  A Lenten type read?  Why not?  It will, I promise, remind you of your true identity: beloved.

Ssabbath as resistance.jpgabbath As Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now Walter Brueggemann (WJK) $14.00 I suppose part of the appeal of this season of the liturgical calendar is the reminder to re-focus clearly on Christ and, in a sense, unhinging from the world -- the idols and dysfunctions and false seductions of the world, that is. In other words, it seems to me that authentic Lenten practices not only draw us to God, calling us to follow Christ, but necessarily leads to denouncing hurtful aspects of the society in which we live, disentangling ourselves as best we can from unhealthy ways of living. For those of who ponder these sorts of things, we've come to realize it is harder than it sounds.

Welcome here your ally, the always provocative, utterly Biblical, and often inspiring Old Testament scholar and servant of the church, Walt Brueggemann. In this accessible slim new book he names the consumerism and drivenness of our society as the sin that it is, and invites us to a revolutionary Sabbath way of life that can slowly undo the harm to ourselves, others and creation that our way of life has engendered. I intend to sit with this a bit this Lenten season, and although it will make me squirm, hope it will be a properly joyful kind of call to repentance.  Maybe you need just such a guide into inhabiting a Biblical worldview, and some of what that entails. This really is classic Brueggemann, and we can be glad he has put into writing these matters he has explicated so passionately before about liberation, freedom, and a richer new way of life offered in these ancient Bible stories.



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February 28, 2014

10 Books for Lent - 2014

Yesterday's review was meaningful for me to write; I hope you read my remarks about the new Sara Miles book, City of God: Faith in the Streets.  Although it is a memoir about her experiences of mostly one Ash Wednesday, it raises profound and urgent questions about how the church will (or won't) adapt its liturgies and symbols and language to reach a "spiritual but not religious" or syncretistic, confused un- or de-churched population.  Sara loves her liturgy, loves her liberal Episcopal church, andcity of god.jpg loves her neighborhood.  Her assumption that it is that very geography, outside the walls of the sanctuary, that is the locus of the Kingdom of God is missional and more.  Those that follow our blog here know that these questions have circled around our own hearts and minds for decades. Her new City of God is, without her saying so, a reply to the early fifth century book you should also know about, Augustine's classic City of God. The question is real: where can we see God's redemptive work on Earth even as the cities of human hands are such as they are. What is the relationship between the church and the world? What can we say about God's will be unfolded in history? What does it mean that Jesus' Kingdom is coming? Her feisty and very contemporary memoir is pregnant with the most important questions we can ask, isn't it?

Another reviewer might have chosen to highlight views, anecdotes and practices in Sara's book that are perplexing, and different than St. Augustine's, and that would be fair enough. I choose to say what I admired about her book and why it is so very interesting and even valuable. I hope my comments drew you towards her story, her questions, her efforts, for you to ponder and to be provoked.  How do you effectively serve the poor and the refugee and the lonely? Do you draw on other ethnic and cultural traditions and strengths, as she so heartily does? And how does your own preferred style of liturgy and ritual and tradition contribute to faithful living in the world God loves?  Would you do church in public?

The questions about the role of liturgy as it shapes embodied practices are the questions steaming up from the streets there in Sara's Mission District neighborhood, but they are, in a different way and with considerably more theological and philosophical refinement, also emerging from James K.A. Smith and his grand, profound (and for some, game-changing) work in Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom (both Baker; $22.99 each.) To ask about embodied faith, a (re)new(ed) creation coming into being through the grace of the killed and resurrected One, to ponder the implications of what Jamie might call a neo-Calvinist or neo-Kuyperian worldview and way of life, leads us to, I believe, similar questions as are raised by Sara's good tale.  I know that some of our customers are reading Smith so hope they see the connection; other friends love Sara's other books, and wanted to commend Smith to them.  Anyway, I hope you found the Ash Wednesday story of City of God somewhat interesting. 

Such a wild and wooly adventure story maybe isn't for everyone, or isn't what everyLentIntro.png small group needs during this meditative time of Lent.

So here are a few excellent resources that follow a bit more conventional devotional structure. (See a previous year's list here.) We highly recommend using such books as companions for your spiritual reflections this time of year, and if this isn't your custom, to build this sort of quiet and intentional reading into your own schedule this time of year, we invite you to consider it.  These books will help, I'm sure.

                                                                                                                Thanks to Margaret Feinberg for her #LentChallenge

Ggod-for-us-rediscovering-the-meaning-of-lent-and-easter-7.jpgod for Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter  edited by Greg Pennoyer & Gregory Wolfe (Paraclete Press) $29.99  There is no doubt that this is the most eagerly awaited volume of this sort, with some customers praying for it (literally, I hope) for several years, now.  It is the fantastic, luxurious follow-up to the splendid and beloved devotional God With Us which is an Advent/Christmas volume. Here is what you should know about it: it was produced in cooperation with one of the most classy literary journals being published, the wonderful, rich, sophisticated, artful Image Journal. Image brings together serious writers, literary figures, and quarterly offers weighty essays, short stories, poetry, interviews with artists and musicians, and generally holds up a wonderfully crafted flag for the art/faith dialogue. It is less about the dialogue - what is a Christian view of aesthetics, how does faith impact literature and the like - but is an example of it. It is highly regarded.

Alas, when editors like this set out to do an Advent or Lenten devotional, it will be replete with Biblical reflections by artists and poets and it will be handsomely designed, with visual art and typography and color and all that makes a book truly a multi-faceted delight.  And this is it, as good or better than God With Us, God for Us shines with wonder, inviting us to savor the spiritual mood and themes of this season of the church calendar.   As they put it, "Lent is about nurturing a posture that holds all things lightly, that ensures that our passions are subject to us and not the other way around."

They insist that Lent is not "a time of vaguely spiritualized gloominess" and who better to help us realize the "bright sadness" of Lent than good poets and deep thinkers and those gifted with artful skills of offering rich and evocative meditations on the Bible?  

These fine daily reflections and prayers (and a few other pieces, too) are by Beth Bevis, Scott Cairns, Kathleen Norris, James Schaap, Luci Shaw, Richard Rohr, Ronald Rolheiser and Lauren Winner. What an absolutely great gathering of perspectives, from an a Orthodox poet to a Presbyterian contemplative, Catholic mystics, an Episcopalian priest and writer, a Dutch Reformed short story writer and a scholar of Victorian literature.  And dear, beloved Luci Shaw - oh how her work thrills us!  There is art and iconography aplenty, useful for lectio vizio, and delight.  

On the back cover it says "Lent and Easter reveal the God who is for us in all of life - for our liberation, for our healing, for our wholeness. Lent and Easter reminds us that even in death there can be found resurrection. 

This is a book to own, to give, to cherish.  Kudos to Paraclete Press and Image for this magnificent book and for the great honor of getting to sell it.  

HHe Set His Face to Jerusalem- A Lenten Study for Adults .jpge Set His Face to Jerusalem: A Lenten Study for Adults  Richard Wilke(Abingdon) $8.99  We heard Bishop Wilke years ago when he was passionately working and writing for renewal within the United Methodist church.  He has done Advent books, contributed to the popular Disciple Bible Study series, and is a strong, good leader. This is a fairly straight-on, obvious study (which is to say, it isn't trendy or odd) of Jesus' own journey to Jerusalem (announced so tersely in Luke 9:51.) There are seven chapters, one for each week in Lent and one for Holy Week and Easter. Each session includes a Scripture reference, a personal reading, questions for reflection, a closing prayer, and a focus for the week. The book can be used for personal devotions but is ideal for small groups wanting a no-nonsense study of the seasons main story.

Aworld worth saving.jpg World Worth Saving: Lenten Spiritual Practices for Action George Hovaness Donigian (Upper Room) $14.00  Perhaps you have been inspired by the memoirs of Sara Miles or others who have given themselves to organize their communities, to work for justice, to take stands in the name of the gospel for peace and human rights? Maybe you were inspired by the recent simulcasts of the Justice Conference or even attended Jubilee, the college conference that invites students into the good news of the gospel in ways that "transform everything."  If you are a bit reluctant to celebrate Lent through spiritual practices that are too internal, too quiet, too seemingly disengaged for the world of need, this guide is for you.  God believes the world is worth saving, and you can help!

This is a 6-week study for Lent and it will help you grow your prayer life. You learn to pray about the new, discern the needs of those around you, and it helps you see how you can respond with greater compassion.  Can you fast from apathy? Starve our guilt? Serve God by serving others? Refine our friendships?  This is a praxis-oriented spiritual guide, a rare blend of the journey inward and the journey outward. Each weekly session has great readings, and good reflection questions for personal pondering and good ones for your small group to discuss together.  It does give each reader some daily readings, too.  Very nicely done.

FForgiveness- A Lenten Study.jpgorgiveness: A Lenten Study Marjorie J. Thompson (Westminster/John Knox) $12.00  Many of us value Marj Thompson's Soul Feast as one of the best overviews and handbooks for developing a deeper spiritual life and as an excellent guide to enter into practices and disciplines for spiritual growth.  Along with Richard Foster, say, she is a hero in the genre, and highly respected across denominational lines. It has been a while since she has published, and this lovely little books is a real gift. There are six chapters and there is a fine six-part study guide.  She writes, "Forgiveness is the healing stream flowing out from the crucified Christ over a world that does not know how desperately it needs the healing." This is a fine study of this perennial topic and offers remarkably detailed insight and guidance about the bold love we need to forgive those who have hurt us. It uses Biblical teaching and real-life stories.

This really is so appropriate for the Lenten journey for almost all of us, although I suspect it will be well-used in other times and seasons as well.  This is theologically rich and pastorally sound, and very, very inspiring.

HHidden in Christ.jpgidden in Christ: Living as God's Beloved James Bryant Smith (IVP) $17.00  We just love the trilogy of "apprenticeship" books by Smith (The Good and Beautiful God, The Good and Beautiful Life, and The Good and Beautiful Community) and this amazing month of daily devotionals is a chunky hand-sized hardback.  This is very, very good; here's what the publisher says about it:  "In this unique introduction to the hidden life in Christ, James Bryan Smith walks readers through a thirty-day immersion in Colossians 3:1-17. Each of the thirty short chapters of this book bring out the main truth of just one word or phrase of this rich passage. You'll also find a very simple daily practice to take up, reflection questions and a guide for five weeks of group discussion. The only way to tell a story is to use words. May the words of Colossians 3 become a companion to you as God continues to write your story." You will benefit from using this, I assure you. 

Tkingdom and the cross.jpghe Kingdom and the Cross James Bryant Smith (IVP) $8.00. Speaking of Smith, by the way, last year we promoted this slim book, co-produced by Renovare, which prayerfully asks "why did Jesus have to die?" and offers good responses to the false narratives about the nature of God and our dumb ideas about religion. In six short meditations, this zooms in on Christ's work on the cross and what it all means about who God is and how we're to live as His people. It invites readers to see themselves as apprentices of Jesus and offers these reflections as crucial to help us live more faithfully into His Kingdom.

Mmaking crosses.jpgaking Crosses: A Creative Connection to God  Ellen Morris Prewitt (Paraclete) $17.99  Paraclete has published a number of books that invite a more interactive approach to prayer (for instance their Praying with the Body and their Praying in Color) and this is one of the more interesting interactive one's they done. It shows you how to take found and abandoned objects and turn them into crosses.  It is a lovely, even at times moving, exercise, and she offers step-by-step guidance.  She mentions the "discarded bits of brokenness" which become, as Sybil MacBeth notes, "physical ways to offer our own broken selves to God, who loves, redeems, and repairs us."

Wwho.pngho Is This Man: The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus  John Ortberg (Zondervan) $22.99 It is customary to think about Jesus during this liturgical cycle, and although we should always affix our eyes on Him, and keep always in our mind the work of the cross, now is certainly a time to ponder who He is, and what he has done.  I think this is one of the best recent books about Jesus for ordinary readers, especially for those that aren't familiar with heady theology or deep doctrine. In fact, this is ideal for seekers and skeptics, and has, despite its casual style and reportage of basic stuff, moved more than one mature reader to tears.  May we suggest you use this time of the year to share this basic book about Jesus with someone who may not warm up to a typical devotional. This one is well worth it, and I highly, highly recommend it.

Cchrist in conflict.jpghrist in Conflict: Lessons from Jesus and His Controversies John Stott (IVP)$16.00 I recommended this before, celebrating that the always reliable, thoughtful, solid early work of John Stott has been re-issued in this updated version.  This is a fabulous study of the trouble Christ caused, the questions he asked, the ruckus that followed him.  He invites us to ponder the meanings behind these controversies, and to see how he modeled a passion for truth and a life of grace.  This is a marvelous book and I think you'll come away knowing the gospel accounts better, and the Lord Himself better as well.  That's a big promise for a small book, but I am confident it will bear good fruit as you read Stott's accounts of these dramatic encounters.

Tcross of christ.JPGhe Cross of Christ John Stott (IVP) $26.00 By the way, one can not go wrong studying carefully this magisterial work which offers good accounts of mostly traditional understandings of the many sides of Christ's death and the saving power of the cross.  Stott is very clear, serious but accessible, and always appealing to both the heart and the mind. This is a meaty evangelical work, worth pondering for Lent and well beyond. There are other ways to understand the crucifixion, and we would be wise to reflect on many authors, from many cultures and with different insights. This a classic, even beautiful rendering of a core, historic approach.  If you don't have a book like this in your library, you should consider it.



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February 27, 2014

City of God: Faith in the Streets by Sara Miles ON SALE - 20% OFF

Tomorrow I will offer a list of very nice Lenten books. They are useful for one's own spiritual reading, for your small group, or adult ed class. We hope you will enjoy seeing them recommended. These are books about Jesus and/or our own response of undertaking spiritual disciplines which invite us into a season that many in the church have long found very meaningful, that intentional joining of our lives to Christ's as He moves towards the cross.  Look for that list coming soon.

First, though, I want to tell you about one of the most interesting books I've read in quite a while and it is perfect to read here as we approach Lent; as you'll see it is a memoir mostly about experiencing Ash Wednesday. It arrived into the shop a few weeks ago, but, because I know this writer is thoughtful and such a very good wordsmith (and would be writing about some fairly intense stuff that I would want to consider carefully) I wanted to hold it until I had time to savor, to appreciate, to ponder, and to grapple with it. 

Today I feel a little like Jacob after that long night of struggle, a bit banged-up myself, but blessed for the effort. I read the new book City of God: Faith in the Streets (Jericho Books; $20.00) by a truly fascinating person and gifted, remarkable writer, self-confessed Episcopalian "church nerd" Sara Miles. I have read her earlier books and spent a few days at an event with her a year ago. I respect her a lot, as a writer and as a follower of Christ.

Tcity of god.jpghe City of God: Faith in the Streets is mostly about celebrating in high church fashion the service of putting ashes on the forehead on Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent.) And doing it out on the streets, for one and all.

City of God: Faith in the Streets is an amazing book for several reasons. Firstly, it chronicles one day in Mile's life, a busy Ash Wednesday, and three Ash Wednesday services in which she was involved that day.

The book opens with preparations for an early morning liturgy in the church at which she works, the liturgically rich and eccentric St. Gregory's of Nyssa in San Francisco.  It ends with a late evening service, also at St. Gregory's. This is an Episcopal church that is experimental in liturgy and while expansive and broad in theology, claims to be well-rooted in the best of the Christian tradition. It wouldn't be confused with a formal Anglo-Catholic church, let alone an indie-evangelical congregation; many from other traditions find them nearly heretical even though they clearly see themselves as a herald of God's good news in Christ. 

It is ancient and future, weird and, apparently, full of wonder. It is a chanting, dancing, singing, liturgically-driven parish that serves the poor and hungry and crazyjesus-freak.jpg and needy within its progressive, urban neighborhood through ministries often led by Ms Miles; she tells about all this with great spunk, breath-taking detail and vivid writing in the second book she wrote after her conversion, called Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead (Jossey Bass; $21.95.) It is extraordinary for what it tells and for how gloriously it is told, her living out this radical faith in her Mission District setting.

You can read a brief excerpt here, but skip the cheesy amazon link, and come back to us, please.)

Her first religious book, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion (Ballentine; $16.00) put hertake this bread.jpg on the map of mainline denominational folks, earning accolades from The Christian Century and Sojourners and the like; Anne Lamott wrote that it "blew me away... I am going to foist this on every single hard-core left-wing religious nut I know."  Of course the emergent villagers came to know her, but, even some doctrinally-conservative evangelicals (like, for instance, PCA pastor Steve Brown on his Steve Brown Etc radio show) noticed her conversion narrative and have counted her as an ally for the gospel.  It isn't every day, after all, that a left-wing, atheist foodie is immediately touched by the living Christ, causing her to be baptized and join the church, precipitated by the unexpected receiving of communion at an open table.

As she puts it, "I came late to Christianity, knocked upside down by a mid-life conversion centered around eating a literal chunk of bread. I hadn't decided to profess an article of doctrine, but discovered a force blowing uncontrollably through the world." Get a short glimpse of her reading a brief summary of her intriguing and moving story, told so well in Take This Bread in a "This I Believe" piece on NPR.

Miles' story unfolds in those first two books -- her conversion, her learning about church history and theology and joining the church, her radical service to the poor, her zany antics of bringing ancient faith to her hurting neighbors, her admirable willingness to work with fundamentalists and others, her wife's secular Judaism and their caring relationship, her ups and downs within the ecumenical Body of Christ, and the specific Body of Christ known in tangible bread (and the bodies of the strangers, if you take Matthew 25 literally, which she does.) She has a good eye for the good line, is a bit snarky and funny at times, but often poignant and kind and occasional nearly luminous.  

Hsaramiles.jpger story is a surprisely wild one. Wilder, I think, than, say, Anne Lamotte, to whom I sometimes compare her. Her tatted up friend, writer and emergent Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber looks a bit more edgy (well, a lot more edgy) than Sara, but Sara's story is even more unexpected, curious and deeper, and her prose is more eloquent than the cool stuff in NBWs Pastix.  If you read Diana Butler Bass or Barbara Brown Taylor, or, better, if you read Dorothy Day, you will be attracted to this postmodern example of the work of the Risen Christ, bewildering as it may be for some readers. Strap on, folks, this isn't an easy ride, and it does get bumpy.  She certainly upsets conventional views of the devout life, but as Becky Garrison puts it, she is just "so dang Jesus-y."

The heart of the book centers around a particular narrative and holds to a certain theme. I will not do it justice so If you are inclined you really should buy the book, take in her story, and ponder it in your own heart. It would make for a lively book club read, that's for sure. 

Firstly, the obvious center to the story's plot is her planning and prepping and actuallysarah doing ashes.jpg offering an Ash Wednesday distribution of ashes in public.  She flashes back and forth to other services and of some people who, like her, were un-churched until they encountered thick, meaningful (mystical?) liturgical rituals that drew them to faith.  And she tells of the conversations she had with other local religious types (for instance, a transgressive punk rocker who is also a seminary trained deacon at his church) about this event. Can a distribution of ashes on this Holy Day to one and all in the public square be liturgically and theologically sound? Can it bear some fruit as witness?  Why do it, and what will people get out of it? This memoir includes some fabulous tellings of interesting episodes from her larger life and the life of her neighbors and friends and some very insightful reflections on the spirituality of it all. It is a tenderly told story, but laden with complex theological questions.

I think many readers will relate to different aspects of her work - the frustrations of trying help an indigent friend, trying to remain gracious in grid-locked traffic jams when there is the Lord's work to do, realizing the hypocrisies of preaching about love for others while not paying much attention to a grumpy neighbor, etcetera, etcetera. Her willingness to lay bear her own fears and foibles invites us to similar vulnerabilities, I think and that may be a good outcome of reading her work, too.

As one who has done public protest and liturgical reenactments in high traffic urban areas, I related to Miles' own conflicts about this very public act of Christian street theater. (She hopes nobody she knows from her neighborhood sees her, decked out in cassock and carrying a thurible, but then wonders if she is so reticent, why does she want to do this in public in the first place? Been there!)  

Miles and her comrades wonder if it is adequate to just take an "in-door" liturgy and do it outdoors, or might the (sacred) space of the secular plaza help define what might besarah and friend in cassocks.jpg done?  And how will the whole affair come loose (evolve or devolve?) as folks want in on it - children, immigrants, commuters coming up from the BART subway elevators, believers and others, too?  From where they set up a make-shift altar with a card table and after they have censed the area properly, she and another liturgist walk down the street, being invited in to local joints to offer ashes, compelled, blown by the Spirit into nail salons and Asian markets and burrito shops and, eventually, McDonalds where they gently used their thumbs to make the sign of the cross with the little jars of ashes they've brought.  It is a chapter I've read twice already and was thrilled each time to read about her grace and grit during this intensely joyful hour.

Why do people hunger for a symbol of their own mortality? (Granted the largely immigrant neighborhood may have been mostly Catholic and had familiarity with the ritual.) What does it mean to do this "ashes to ashes" ritual, and can this counter-intuitive human fascination with death actually become good news? Can a Christian ritual find substantive meaning when taken out of the grounding context of the bigger liturgy and church year? (One of her priest friends thinks not, that the "dust to dust" affirmation must yield to repentance, which must be done in the context of a proclamation of the gospel of Christ, which is to say, the whole kit-and-caboodle of the church year.) That is, they wonder if it is it even wise or sound to offer this ritual to the un-churched in this abbreviated out-of-the-sanctuary tableaux? As you might guess, Sara has few misgivings about it, and her impulse is to take risks to live out faith in ways that appeal to the people. ("The people" -- ha, wait til you read her line about that lefty phrase, as she passes a Socialist Workers Party bookstore.) This has now become somewhat of a trend, and she does have some slight concerns about differing motivations and expectations. Do "Ashes to Go" experiences just play into fast-food style consumerism, gutting the substance (and community) of thicker, slower liturgies?

My, my, this is important stuff, and her human and humane observations about it all are perhaps more theologically profound than any number of abstract and dry books offering proper teaching on the sacraments.  Her passion for the outsider, the excluded, the marginalized and the poor - and her real neighbors in this largely Chicano neighborhood - is palpable and her sense of being an oddball ambassador for an inclusive, mestizo church is amazing to behold. Scary, for some of us, to be sure, but amazing, still.

Think what you will of the soundness of this whole scene, the liberal Episcopalian ethos, her unashamed identity as a lesbian, her mystical bent of finding God in ritual, her penchant for liturgical chant and  ancient song, her openness to meaningful interfaith spiritual experiences, her affinity for liberation theology. It is a remarkable story, a beautifully-written book, and even if it makes you sputter, it is worth reading.   

I looked around at the members of the congregation, their faces smudged with ashes. The marks reminded me of the cross of sticky ointment a priest had sealed my forehead with at baptism, and the mark God put on the forehead of the fratricidal Cain to place him outside human judgement. We were all so messed up.

"The worst thing we can imagine is that we're made out of dirt and going to die," Paul said to me once. "But when we say it aloud, we discover the worst thing isn't the last thing. The last thing is forgiveness."

Iashes.jpgf you know little about Ash Wednesday and the custom of marking the sign of the cross on another's forehead with ashes (are they a reminder of our mortality or a call to repentance, or both?) or if you don't have much experience with creative urban outreach, this book will be an eye-opening and helpful introduction to some of our sisters and brothers who do this kind of stuff. You learn about liturgy and you learn about justice, and you learn about the relationship between the two.

If you fancy yourself an urban activist or peace and justice fan, I suspect you'll dig this, but be aware: her compassion for the poor and her insistence upon treating all with human dignity may end up sounding nearly conservative: like Dorothy Day or Desmond Tutu she bases her revolutionary politics on personal encounters with real people who are poor and upon basic apostolic truths of a Triune God who saves us through the person of Jesus the Christ who is made manifest in His church. I don't know that she cites it, but I'm reminded of Dorothy's famous line, "The church may be a whore, but she is still my mother."  

I don't know if Sara sees the church as her mother, as she is a woman not reared in the church and whose own heart beats for the fast and furious, smelly and secular, perplexing and political vibes of the real city in which she lives.  On this she is like Wendell Berry on steroids of urban concrete and glass, maybe a postmodern Jane Jacobs. 

Which brings us to the second important thing to say about City of God: Faith in the Streets. Yes, it is a narrative about one day in the life of a woman who offers Lenten ashes on the streets and loves the worship in her local church.  Got it.

But it is more profoundly a meditation on how Miles seems to have faith in the streets themselves. In a world created, blessed, sustained, and being redeemed by the Christ, there is no sacred/secular divide, no real split between the life of the church and the life of the world; she is utterly right to realize that the spiritual is not to be contrasted with the material, that faith is incarnated. She is way beyond "missional" and more akin to the Russian Orthodox view of a sacramental life (think of the wonderful, dense work of Alexander Schmemann such as For the Life of the World.) Although it is not her tradition, she wouldn't disagree with the Kuyperian slogan of God in Christ re-claiming "every square inch" of a good but fallen creation.

A theme of Miles' City of God: Faith in the Streets is how God is really at work in the world, and how this simple realization allows her to see her place - this particular neighborhood of this exact city - as, literally, the geography of the Kingdom coming, "on earth as it is in heaven." She might like the down-to-Earth concerns of new urbanist Eric Jacobsen who wrote a book we like, with a great preface by Eugene Peterson, called Sidewalks of the Kingdom (Brazos Press; $22.00.) And, as an aside, don't miss Jacobsen's spectacular and very important The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment (Baker Academic; $25.00.) The implications of a down-to-Earth, all-of-life-redeemed faith, and the Bible's insistence that it is this very world that God so loves, are vast and also minute; sidewalks of the Kingdom, indeed.

Miles isn't a systematic theologian and this is a memoir, not a textbook, so she doesn't get everything said that needs saying about all of this. For instance, she doesn't mention much about Augustine's "city of man" (in his famous book City of God to which she surely alludes) as an aspect of or a counterpoint to the "city of God." Her book surely isn't a thorough theological study of what we mean by "God's work in the world." 

But her impulse is right, her generous instincts helpful, as she names some signals of what some of us call "common grace."  Her assumptions about all of this -- since the Bible story moves from a garden to a city, real geography matters as a locus of the Kingdom of God -- are stated outright, occasionally, and are pervasive between the lines of this moving set of reminiscences. I think many of our readers will appreciate this, and it would make a wonderful study, even if one isn't particularly interested in Ash Wednesday or liberal Episcopalians who maybe make a fetish out of good ritual. City of God is about Ash Wednesday in the streets, about God's Kingdom coming in those streets, and what she means by that, and how she experiences it that is the heart of the book.

Here is how Phyllis Tickle's important endorsement reads:

Rarely, if ever, have I heard or read or experienced a more poignant or persuasive presentation of the city as metaphor and prototype for the Kingdom of God.  Mile's panorama is lived theology, and its result is a kind of holy magnificence.

I am smart enough not to quibble with Phyllis very often, but as good and beautiful as this blurb is, I think it is not quite right; I suspect Miles doesn't view her city as a metaphor for anything. Maybe it's a prototype, although even that implies it isn't the real thing. I believe Sara believes it is the real deal. Thy Kingdom Coming, right here, right now. 

Here is how the deep Catholic thinker James Alison writes about City of God:

Sara Miles gives us much more than a beautiful love song to her neighborhood... she offers us a glimpse of how living Christian faith can re-enchant the world.

Ponder these lines of endorsement:

Sara is so inspiring... Where most of us aim for the clouds, she's focused on the dirt and sweat and blood and struggle of this world and the presence here in it with us - which is, of course, the best news of all. (Rob Bell)

Gorgeously written, City of God takes Jesus from the walls of the church to the streets of the city, showing us that where two or three or more Anglicans or prostitutes or head-injured junkies or housewives are gathered, He is with us. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. (Nadia Bolz-Weber)

city of god.jpg

Although this book is a fascinating study of Ash Wednesday, and good to read now, early in Lent, it is, mostly, a memoir. Like her savior, the rabbi Jesus, Ms Miles tells stories. She comes at it all quite slant, bringing insight through a rip-roaring narrative, teaching and explaining and offering illumination, but mostly just showing us a glimpse into her daily life, set as it is within the ministry of this fascinating neighborhood and this fascinating parish. 

Read City of God: Faith in the Streets by Sara Miles to learn a bit, to be informed about important stuff, to raise questions about the very nature of Christian faith lived out in the real world, about how these sorts of Christian folk construe their faith and use their rituals to reach out and serve their neighbors; yes. 

Read it also if you want a glimpse into the life of a gritty multi-ethnic contemporary urban neighborhood and parish.

But read it more for the thrill of the story, as a great memoir, to enjoy colorful characters we meet, scenes so vivid we can find ourselves there, places she allows us to nearly see, tastes she describes so well we can almost savor them on our own tongues. It is an enjoyable read, I assure you.

I wished the book were longer. I didn't want it to be over.

Reading it now might help frame your Lenten journey, and it might help you ponder your own story, and your own place --  imagining it as, at least, a holy signpost of the coming City of God.



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