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September 1, 2015

TWO REVIEWS: Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local - and Helped Save an American Town (Beth Macy) - AND - The Jesus Cow: A Novel (Michael Perry)


Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local - and Helped Save an American Town by Beth Macy (Back Bay Books) $17.00  our sale price = $13.60

The Jesus Cow: A Novel by Michael Perry (HarperOne)  $25.99  our sale price  = $20.79

I have been reading some truly captivating and thought-provoking books lately that I am just itching to tell you about. Two that I will tell you about now provided hours of delightful reading for me, some of the best I've had this summer.

Both are well written and colorful. One is serious nonfiction, the other a rather playful and deceptively simple novel; both were compelling and entertaining.

Factory Man- How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local - and Helped Save an American Town,.jpgThe first is Beth Macy's Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local - and Helped Save an American Town, a civic-minded, decent, wide-ranging study of Southern furniture manufacturing and the way one "factory man" with sawdust in his veins, fought to resist Chinese imports after a decade of plant closings in Appalachian southern Virginia and North Carolina, while the other carries the goofy title The Jesus Cow, the first novel by a memoirist and essayist Beth and I both adore, Michael Perry. You may know him from his nonfiction, small town storytelling such as Population 485, Truck, Coop, and Visiting Tom all set in his native Wisconsin

The first is careful, journalistic storytelling, building background, telling the multi-generational tale, is very well footnoted, as a good expose will be, and truly important.

The second is a funny novel, good-hearted and well written and truly wonderful if you like farm jokes, religious satire, and small town intrigue, set out just beyond the new off-ramp by the interstate.

From Factory Man's setting of small town Southern Virginia (including the lives of the poor, the working class, as well as the Plantation-culture millionaires) to the Northern Wisconsin farmland around the fictional town of Swivel, Wisconsin, these two books complement one another somehow.

Okay, maybe that's just in my imagination, but I still want to tell you about them both together, mostly because I read them back to back, but also because, well, I just want to. 

Perry's first book, Population 485, about being an EMT, was full of wit and kindness and struck some of us like a workingman's Garrison Keillor, telling colorful stories about "meeting your neighbors one siren at a time." It was clear in that first book that he was a good wordsmith, a smart essayist, combining rural cleverness and subtle (well, not always subtle) social criticism.  Maybe he's like a Gen X Wendell Berry, who works with cows instead of tobacco and whose politics are all grange-hall and county fair localist, with a few more colorful characters then you'd find in Port Williams, KY, even if it was a real place. Perry's non-fiction books make it clear that if he showed up in the Factory Man scene, if he ever stepped foot in a Henry County sawmill or middle-brow bedroom suite plant in Bassett or Galax, Virginia, he'd be in his element for sure, handling tools and conveyor belts, despite his nasally Northern accent.  

From his essays and memoirs we know that Perry likes him some solid, literary rock, so he might even like it that Beth Macy uses as an epigram in Factory Man a song about plant closings by Americana roots singer-songwriter James McMurty, son of popular Western novelist lonesome Larry McMurtry.

So, they are two very different books, about two different times and places, one of eye-opening, investigative journalism, and one true in a sense that only good novels can be true. Although I feared losing fingers when I worked in a saw mill for a bit one summer, and even now live in a small town culture that is to some extent gutted of an earlier industrial influence (the huge garage across our back ally that burned to the ground last winter had been years ago a tobacco drying shed for the legendary cigar making industry in these parts) and some of our own relatives are small town dairy farmers, I must say that both books introduced to me, perhaps again through fresh eyes, new insights about the ways and means of small town America.

Beth_Macy.jpgBoth books are exquisite in detail and while Jesus Cow is obviously light fiction, Factory Man is straight narrative nonfiction, with Macy, an award-winning journalist (herself the daughter of a rugged and eventually disemployed factory man from Ohio) telling the story of her research of the family dynasty that created the furniture making empire that became the world's largest manufacturer of wooden bedroom suites (and more!) Her story starts with an ancestor who was on an early Mayflower era ship, but starts in earnest in the early 20th century as the small town of Bassett, formerly Horsepasture, Virginia. The story traces how Bassett is developed into a company town, from the rise of the Bassett family sawmill by the Smith River that exploited the need for railroad ties and turned into a major industrial powerhouse in the first half of the 20th century, really hitting its stride during the Lets Make a Deal post-war baby boom housing boom. 

Factory Man's epic story ends approaching the middle of our current decade and the fourth generation of the Bassett dynasty, as John D. Bassett III, who Macy calls JBIII, travels again and again to China to investigate mile-long factory plants and spanking new warehouses underwritten by commie-capitalist incentives to under-price their exports, and then to the shiny, marbled floors in Washington DC to lobby for, and eventually win a major lawsuit about international imports, China's "most favored nation" trade status, GATT treaties and what is called "dumping." I have to say that at the end of the lengthy book I wanted still more - the story was that good!

Both authors, Macy & Perry, are stellar writers, excellent at their craft. Macy is breathtaking in her accumulation of data and anecdotes, and her ability to frame the episodes by a larger, culturally-significant narrative, which is, in a tongue-in-cheek way, what is also going on in the Jesus Cow novel and the antics of the farmer whose latest calf is birthed with a plain-as-day picture of Jesus on its hide.  The plot thickens as his friend convinces him there is money to be made from the religious pilgrims that will inevitably flock to see the Jesus Cow, and as a small town developer with Big Dreams for Progress sees his own profits and influence at risk, the aforementioned tongue-in-cheek culturally-significant narrative becomes, well, as plain as the icon on the cow.  It is much, much more complicated, especially in the real life story, but much of these stories are, to cut to the chase, about Mammon.

Macy is a mostly a straight-forward news reporter, a fine and engaging writer, investigating this angle, that side story, exploring questions of race and class and poverty and profiling big-wig characters who are larger than life, even as she interviews the aging African-American "help" of these barons of business, also talking with retired secretaries and sales reps and competitors and small town mayors and hardware store owners and the like, to get a very multi-layered and big picture story of big business in small towns. From the black chauffeur drivers of the corporate owners to participants of back-room, cost-cutting deals of the plant managers, from players at the annual national trade shows to attorneys at white shoe law firms working on NAFTA laws, Macy unearths more than you can imagine. She makes it all so incredibly interesting, and, to her credit, regularly gives voice to the marginalized with honest, gripping detail.  

As Kirkus Reviews wrote of Macy and her book,

The author's brightly written, richly detailed narrative not only illuminates globalization and the issues of offshoring, but succeeds brilliantly in conveying the human costs borne by low-income people displaced from a way of life... A masterly feat of reporting.

The raves about Factory Man seem unending, and Macy is likened to the best nonfiction storytellers of our day, such as Michael Lewis, Katherine Boo, and Tracy Kidder. Ms. Macy has an obviously big heart for these concerns, and has been reporting on Appalachia for twenty-five years. Factory Man itself was years in the making, and readers will admire her tenacity.  She tells of her own brave investigations (hours and hours of meetings, traveling far and wide to do even off the record conversations, sometimes discouraged by cancelled interviews - one CEO put her off for a whole year before he'd consented to be interviewed --  enduring hundreds of phone calls, trips all over the globe) and it makes for a gripping page-turner.  

There is much to learn from this complicated story. I cannot do justice to the epic story here, but want to offer five take-aways, reasons BookNotes friends and faith-based communities ought to read Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local - and Helped Save an American Town. Maybe noting these themes will persuade you or your book group to discuss and ponder.

IT'S FUN AND GOOD TO READ ABOUT A REAL PLACE - GET LOST IN SMALL TOWN FACTORY LIFE

The first is simple: this is a great read! It is a great thing to lose oneself in another world sometimes, and this is one heckuva world. With the racism of antebellum and Jim Crow South (there are more blacks in the mills and factories of Virginian than in North Carolina, say, because there were more slaves in Virginia and the legacy endures) and the class tensions under it all, this reads like some mash up of Harper Lee and Norma Rae. I think the telling is illuminating and tender - I dare you not to be moved by some of the regret that pervades some of the episodes - and spending some days in these small towns among these older timers is good. You could get lost in this place. I am sure you'll be entertained -- it has been optioned for a film, by the way -- and you will also learn and feel much about small town life.

WE NEED TO REFLECT ON WORK-WORLD ISSUES AND COMPLEX BUSINESS DRAMA

Secondly, this is, after all, a book about the work-world, about business and what is sometimes called globalization. We all need to know more about how some of the modern economy works, and (if I may say so) with the election debate season upon us, I am glad I've learned something more about jobs and factories, imports and exports, politics and economics, and who current arrangements affect.  I am glad Macy brings the voices of the unemployed and those who lived to see their factories chained shut, and in some cases destroyed, but this is also a book about entrepreneurs, about investors and banks and business. (If you have been in a furniture store, you will know the names that come up, and you'll enjoy hearing backstories about the salesmen, the incentives and commissions and mark-ups of everybody from Broyhill and Bassett to Ethan Allan.)

I'm sure it comes as no surprise to you that we don't make much on book sales - how much dough can one take in on a fifteen buck book offered at discount? - but I was nonetheless captured by the stories of these products being developed, the marketers going to big, fancy trade shows, the work of sales reps calling on retail outlets, and the actually work of selling stuff on the sales floor, the fears of losing sales due to competition, fair and unfair.  Although this is mostly about the Boards and owners of the manufactures, it is finally about selling stuff, so I was eager to learn how other industries do that. This book made me think about my own work, and I think it could be helpful for you, too.

WHAT SHOULD WE DO ABOUT CHEAP LABOR IMPORTS?

And, of course, the largest, looming backstory of this saga is the way importers, using low cost labor and off shore benefits (no Chinese EPA sniffing at the glue they use, just for one tiny example), can sell below typical costs, literally putting the local manufacturers out of business. Some of these Chinese, Indonesian, or Vietnamese factories didn't even care if they made money at first, they just wanted market share - driving out the little (or even not so little) guys stateside.  It isn't an exact parallel, but I thought about Amazon and Cokesbury and Borders and our own fight to stay afloat on every single page.

I was disappointed that Macy - despite her obviously good heart and fair-mindedness, wanting to get all angles of the story right - never reflects upon the obvious questions about what we might call "fair trade" or "ethical sourcing." That is, she shows how third world nations are able to cut costs by using cheap labor, and by avoiding environmental care, but rarely exposes what that looks like in terms of the global slave trade, oppression and violence against workers, and environmental degradation in Asia or Latin America. Her discussions about the costs and/or benefits of global trade were framed mostly in terms of economics and jobs, what floats the most boats and the like.  I would have wished for a clearer awareness of the human and ecological costs of bad business practices in places like China.

(By the way, speaking of changing economies and competition, fair or not, between regions? Factory Man discusses just a bit the legendary and important craft of furniture making centered, before WW II at least, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Through easy availability to local hardwood, finagling supply chains, and industrial innovation in the factories allowing for production geared towards  a mass market, the center of American furniture-making moved South, leaving tens of thousands of old school, higher-end, skilled furniture-makers in GR increasingly frustrated and eventually jobless.  What goes around comes around, apparently.)

I will note shortly that, without much of a stretch, humorist Michael Perry is getting at a similar sort of concern about sustainability, local work, the meaning of development and progress, even how faith does or doesn't underwrite such small town concerns.  Hold on.

ENHANCING THE FAITH AND WORK CONVERSATION

There has been a discovery in the last few years - thanks be to God! - about how Christian folk should be taking their sense of calling and vocation, and hopefully their Christ-like compassion and ethics, into the workaday world.  We here at Hearts & Minds have been (if we can be so proud) cheerleaders for this high calling of faith in the workplace, perhaps one of the only theological bookstores in the country with a specialty of helping congregants serve God in their secular callings and worldly careers. (I'll try not to overdo my rehearsing of this, that we stock books about Christian perspectives on math and science, film and art, engineering and medicine, education and business, counseling and politics, helping the people of God relate Sunday and Monday, worship and work, etcetera, etcetera.) However, it seems that many of our best books about faith lived out in the marketplace are for professionals, and are a bit abstract about "thinking Christianly" (which I maintain, obviously, is essential) without offering adequate guidance about practices on the ground, facing up to the real world of factory floors, shops and cubicles, supply-chains and spreadsheets, layoffs and plant closures.  

Do any of the many books on a Christian view of work that we so admire and promote, really push us become agents of change within the institutions where we are employed?  To become even whistle-blowers, perhaps?  Factory Man documents some pretty ugly racism, sexism, even sexual harassment on the job. There are many nuanced ethical quandaries facing workers and although a few of the factory-family leaders in these several towns attended church somewhat (Baptist and Methodist, Macy tells us) nobody seems to bring much leavening faith to bear on the ethics of the workday, let alone offer prophetic spiritual wisdom about the globalization crisis facing the larger market. I do not think that Macy was "tone deaf" to this, just failing to report about their spiritual lives, I rather suspect that the Bassetts and the Vaughns and the others were mostly just crass capitalists and nominal church folk without an interest in, let alone stomach for, taking faith to the factory floor or board room.

So that's reason number four: with all our talk about faith in the work-world, we need to know well the real quandaries of real workers in this globalized market economy. Factory Man puts you there, in the grimy details of building, profiting, losing, and in some small way, regaining productivity in ways that respond (for better or worse, well or poorly) to God's call for people to make something of the world, and to be busy with the work of our hands.  This book can really help those of us who talk about this stuff get real - like Studs Terkel's revealing collection of interviews, Working, did decades ago, or like the more philosophical The Pleasures and Sorrow of Work by Alan De Botton did just a few years ago.

GLOBALIZATION AND POLITICS

Fifth, (but don't fear the G-word): globalization.  This fascinating book not only helps us understand small town, industrialized American folk, oozing a sense of history and place, and helps us understand the workplaces and work-world of many (owners and employees, investors and managers) but it also offers a fascinating glimpse into international trade, the WTO, the myriad ways in which the new "flat" world (extolled in almost idolatrous enthusiasm by Thomas Friedman) affects us all. (Buy a new chest of drawers or rocking chair or kitchen counter, lately, by any chance?) Further - and this is so valuable -- there is a helpful glimpse of how politics fits into all this. The (supposedly) nonpartisan appointees of The U.S. International Trade Commission and the U.S. Department of Commerce play significant roles in setting policy, and in the very exciting last portion of the book, their role becomes at least a little more evident.

And there's stuff like this: one of the Bassett family dynasty left the furniture industry to get involved in politics: doncha think having one of their own as governor, and then State Senator, helped just a bit? You'll read exactly how it did! Is this good, or bad, or a bit of both?  Ends up one of these politicos got the feds to invest in Norfolk as a harbor port, and as the expansion of the industrial shipping methods known as container vessels developed, ships could arrive and depart from Virginia, not only Baltimore, Philadelphia or New York City.  This is a small but telling part of the narrative arch of Factory Man, made more notable because Macy's first chapter tells of some enterprising Bassetts who convinced the fledgling Norfolk and Western Railway to change the route of the railway, in ways that obviously were essential for the success of their business.  Don't let anybody tell you that most business tycoons don't like government involvement in their industries. They thrive on it!

This is truly entertaining stuff - especially if you like a little history and a little sociology - but it importantly reminds us (by just telling the story of how the sausage is made, so to speak) of very significant stuff.  Except for exceptionally ideological libertarians, nobody eschews "the government" being involved in business and economics.  Roman Catholic "small is beautiful" subsidiarity teaching, and Dutch Reformed Abraham Kuyper's "sphere sovereignty" notions are just two different theological models for how to discern what and how government might be involved in the economic sphere for the common good, but there it is: this book brings any abstract talk you'll hear during election debates about restraining government's role in things down to reality.  I know some of the Republicans say our economy tends towards socialism, but this is nearly silly. Most big business players lobby very hard for government involvement - which may or may not be a bad thing, as this book makes clear. So there's reason number five.  Who knew that learning a bit more about politics and economics could be so much fun?

AN INSPIRING EXAMPLE OF GRIT AND RESOLVE TO GET SOMETHING IMPORTANT ACCOMPLISHED

Okay, a sixth reason to get this lovely, informative, epic book.  Through the first two thirds of Factory Man you've learned so much about so much, you'll be itching to look up small towns in North Carolina on Google Maps, maybe even going to the library to find obscure historical society reports from Depression era Virginia. But there's more, a lot more, captured in that pretty nifty subtitle of this book, How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local -and Helped Save an American Town.

The good-old-boy JBIII is no saint - that become clear on page one of chapter one.  And he taunts and bellows and exhorts Ms Macy in ways that might have made a more timid author back away. (And, man, can Bassett, and all these genteel good old boys trash talk!) But she, and you, will grow to admire him, even if his rather exotic plan about suing over an obscure portion of the WTO treaty is quixotic, and even if, at the end of the day, it doesn't really save a town, let alone an industry.

This is legendary David vs Goliath stuff, and the plot of what could be a great movie.  There's drama as we learn how industrial espionage happens, including the work of a Taiwanese spy, even as dramatic trips are made on "the dusty road to Dalian" in Northern China, nearly to the Korean border, searching for a certain factory that is making a certain knockoff of a Vaughn Bassette bedroom suite. (Which was itself a contested knockoff of a competitor's bedroom suite, which was itself a knockoff, or at least a copy, of a classic Victorian era design produced by a high-end French outfit, but let's not quibble.) It is clear that "nobody is watching the back room of the new global store" and JBIII is going to do something about it.

Not exactly a good guy/bad guy drama, the controversial John D. Bassett III is surely on a noble pursuit, wanting late in life to leave a good legacy, to care for one's duties to place and culture and the people of a plant.  JBIII knew the workers, after all, to his credit, and he cared about the design, and - multi-millionaire that he was - had the means to do something dramatic about it. This story of grit and resolve for what we might think of as a justice issue, and for civic flourishing, not just winning a scrappy business competition, is inspiring in a way my friend Steve Garber, in a very good chapter in Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good, calls "proximate justice."  Who doesn't love a come-back story, a (relatively) little guy with an inglorious past, stepping up and doing right by his people?  Of course it isn't perfect and it doesn't solve the economic complexities of global trade. But it is a step.  Watching this man character in Macy's Factory Man is inspiring, even if it is "proximate justice." It is a feisty, fun, story, and you'll be rooting (along with the folks in the factory, their families, and those who live in the region) for him to succeed.

I really loved the interview with author Beth Macy that is included in the back of the paperback edition.  Regarding her affectionate and complicated friendship with Bassett III, she says,

What he pulled off was big, bold, and counterintuitive. He'd orchestrated the filing of what was then the largest antidumping petition against the People Republic of China - and won. And he'd done it from tiny Galax, Virginia, in a town better known for bluegrass and barbeque. The tale sounded fascinating from the moment I first heard about it, but like all stories, the deeper you dig, the more complicated and layered it gets.

WATCH THIS GREAT 4-MINUTE VIDEO EXPLAINING THE BOOK, MACY'S PASSION FOR THE PEOPLE EFFECTED BY FACTORY CLOSINGS, AND HER FRIENDSHIP WITH THE MAIN CHARACTER.

Factory Man: Paperback Release Video from Tom Landon on Vimeo.

 

The Jesus Cow: A Novel by Michael Perry (HarperOne) $25.99 our 20% off sale price  = $20.79

Jesus Cow.jpgThis fun new novel is, as I've already noted, set in a small Northern town, following the antics of Harley Jackson and his pal Billy who help each other out, doing farm chores, fixing their old trucks, sorting out their vexing theological quandaries (good Lutherans that I am imagining they once were) and determining the possibilities of finding true love. (Apparently this was before FarmersOnly.com, or maybe Swivel, Wisconsin doesn't have good internet connection up yet.)

As I've said, Beth and I are unashamed Michael Perry fans, for his earnest but significant insight about rural life and small town people and their foibles and virtues, and for the way in which there is an intelligent and informed moral background, it seems, to his often very funny ruminations. So when we heard he had a new comic novel out, we both grabbed it, Beth finishing it first, and me taking it up not long after.  We each had our favorite parts, thought this or that was incredibly funny or less so, and our choice determinations of what was plausible or over the top in this tale about life, love, faith, miracles, money, and beefers.



Perry's characterizations are a hoot.  The main guy is Harley Jackson, sometimes accompanied by his hefty, blue-collar, philosophy-talking friend, Billy. (Whose recommendations and ruminations end up sounding a lot like stolen lines from the likes of Waylon Jennings.) There is Carolyn Sawchuck, a published academic who lost her university job due to unclear office politics (as a postmodern radical ecologist she ends up scamming locals with a fraudulent oil recycling project) and a greasy developer who listens to endless motivational tapes in his (about to be repossessed) Hummer - think maybe the failing lawyer in Better Call Saul, although I doubt that Klute is Jewish, or that smart. (He rails against those who are not "do-ers" and in one screed against the pedestrian town council says their low-level bureaucracy "gums up the gears of greatness.") There is the free-loving, motorcycle mama who's handy with a chainsaw that steals Harley Jackson's heart for a bit.  And the devout Catholic who runs her Daddy's junkyard and winches broken-down vehicles from her tow-truck and quietly prays each morning at the struggling church and starts a food pantry for the people hit hard by the latest downturn of the economy. From episodes of in-house squabbles at the fire department (a thermal imager comes into the story) to the lovely scenes of farm chores, to what felt to me as very real blue-collar/single male foibles and longings, especially in their wanting to ask a woman out on a date, all of the descriptions were entertaining and the folks were endearing and, in an admittedly slightly caricatured sort of way, believable. 

michael perry.jpgAnd in walks the big time Hollywood big shot, the press agent that convinces Harley to sign the contracts to forfeit his rights to handle the showings of the Jesus Cow. ("You want to represent a calf?" Harley exclaims to the talent management executive, who explains to him how licensing and monetization work.) This is where the story goes over the top, but with just enough mentions of other real-life occasions of Marian visitations or holy grails being discovered or miraculous possibilities apparent in some renowned liminal place to keep it (almost) believable. Sure, this is a spoof of the big time marketing schemes and religious-paloozas, and surely is poking hard at evangelical revivalism and televangelists (and perhaps Catholic showboating shenanigans, too) but below the obvious satire, there is interesting stuff going on: witness the many plainspoken theological ponderings of Harley and Billy as they watch the glitzy carnival spectacle. As the money and fame keeps growing and growing  they wonder, wisely, if they've made the right decision in exploiting this small-time miracle that they once tried to literally cover up with shoe polish. 

At one point, Harley recalls the piety of his mother:

Harley wondered what his mother would have made of that calf out there. Jesus Christ had been her reason for living. And yet for all her devotion to Him, and to His Father, and their Holy Spirit, and to Sunday-morning meeting, to hymns and vespers, to prayer at every turn, hers was a quiet faith, uncomfortable with show or emotion. Silently she read her Bible every morning, silently she bowed her head over each meal throughout the day, silently she ended the day on her knees in prayer beside her bed, Harley's father kneeling at the opposite side of the mattress, their very marriage bed bookend by worship. His mother's creed - religion wise and otherwise - was pretty much: Let's not make a scene.

Harley has imbibed this quiet style, if not the Biblical faith that guided it. Once, when he asked Billy over their Foaming Viking beers about the meaning of life, Billy suggested, "Low overhead."

"Yep, pretty much, thought Harley."

So it doesn't surprise us, when the cow Tina Turner gives birth to the calf with the miraculous hide bearing the likeness of Jesus, that Harley's first response was "Well, that's trouble."

Once, when Harley was telling his lady friend, in a tender and honest conversation about his religious upbringing and why he doesn't really pray much anymore, he explains how Billy taught him about the word theodicy, but his girlfriend thought he said odyssey.  Such is the pillow talk in this clever satire.  

In one scene, Harley is trying to sluice out if there really are miracles, and if this particular bovine manifestation is one.  And why so many pilgrims are flocking to his farm, convinced it is indeed a life-giving, faith-energizing sign from God.

"You'd think with my background - shoot, I was raised on the Bible, I know it verse and chorus and can still name a fair number of the bit players--you'd think the face on that steer would make me wonder some, but I don't see it as anything more than a furry coincidence."

"And right you are," said Billy, waving his rapidly emptying beer in the direction of the crowds filing through the barn. "What you have there is people assigning meaning to coincidence. Forcing theology into place between nature and chance. There is a mighty gap between the known and the unknown, and a lot of folks use theology to spackle the gap."

"Did you just say 'spackle the gap'?

If these guys lived a little further south in, in Milwaukee, say, or over in Saint Paul, I'd swear they could pass for Click and Clack from Radio Cartalk.

The big, hilarious, and finally very moving ending of this tender story is one I can't even begin to explain - it includes a wild ride into the bogs, and that thermal imager from the fire company, but I can't say more.

I think I can suggest that one of the primary themes in this entertaining yarn is a theme common to many of Perry's essays, and common to the good folk of Bassett, Virginia, too: how can we find greater dignity in ordinary life, especially ordinary life that isn't dependent mostly on high sensations from TV or shopping malls, but is decent and glad for daily bread, received as gift from a benevolent God (even after hours and hours of grinding, hard work.) And how can we maintain this classic, rural outlook in the face of modern progress boring down full speed ahead?  That is, in many ways, a major theme of The Jesus Cow - especially as a fancy-pants developer is exposed as a pseudo-hero and the radical environmentalist is seen as less then helpful, all showing us that true progress must be measured in something other than dollars and cents or abstract ideas. 

From the all too real anguish of plant closings in the once industrialized South documented so well in Factory Man to the false dreams of the Clover Blossom Estates housing development in Swivel, and the fiasco of the Jesus Cow show itself in Perry's over-the-top novel, much of what is promised as progress is not. And, in this fallen world, hard times, unlike the Woody Guthrie song, are in fact, going to come again some more. How do we endure? What is real heroism in a small, struggling town? In your life and mine? How does our own hubris - spiritual or entrepreneurial - deform our best efforts at being the salt of the earth?

Factory Town and The Jesus Cow each in its own entertaining way, introduces us to rich examples of the forlorn human condition, good and bad, silly and sad, wise and foolish, up against forces bigger than ourselves. There are sinners and saints, in real-life Bassett and Galax in southwestern Virginia and in funny, fictional Swivel, Wisconsin. Or, we could say, as surely Harley learned in his Lutheran catechism class, if he were paying attention while eating his cheese curds, simul iustus et peccator -- sinners and saints at the same time. These two books were really great reads, and, amongst much, much else, reminded me, at least, of that.


Factory Man- How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local - and Helped Save an American Town,.jpg

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August 30, 2015

10 Brand New Books (on the shelves at Hearts & Minds) Quickly Described -- ON SALE 20% OFF

Even folks who come in our shop every week or so are sometimes surprised to see so many new titles.  We don't have tons of room, and we're nothing at all like a mega-store or big box place and we don't usually order giant stacks of the same item.  But if you look closely there are new books on the shelves nearly every single day. The new sales associate position we've advertised (we're seeking an all around bookseller and retail worker who feels called to this mission) will be putting these kinds of books on the shelf, and will have the joy of showing them off to customers and friends.

For those who can't get here - that's most of the readers of BookNotes, obviously - it's my delight to tell you about interesting titles we have gotten in this week.  You can order them all at 20% off (we show the regular retail price, but will deduct the bargain for you, of course.) Just click on the links shown at the bottom of this column. Our order form page is certfied secure so you can leave credit digits safely, or, as we explain, you can just ask for an invoice and we'll send a bill along with the package.

Some regular BookNotes reviews are longer; I love telling about important works that I'm convinced are worthy of your consideration.  Today, I'm trying to be at least a little bit more brief, just alerting you to the features of these new titles. These books all deserve more attention than a shout out like this.  Kudos to the publishers and, of course, the authors.

broken restoring trust between the sacred and secular.jpgBroken: Restoring Trust Between the Sacred and the Secular Greg Fromholz (Abingdon) $16.99 There are layers and layers of things going on in this feisty, creative book although the umbrella rubric is trust.  Trust between overly strict Christian folks and their disapproval of pop culture, and, yes, of overly secularized unchurched folks who are convinced the church is out to get them.  But more than a passionate, artful, interesting call to overcome the growing disconnect - if not fully caused, at least made more intense - between religious folks that seem to want to play it safe, avoid risk, and keep the faith compartmentalized and out of deep engagement with the complexities of the modern world.  Fromholz is an Irish video director and an interactive iPad book app (Liberate Eden.) He was friends with the late chaplain for U2 (Jack Heaslip) who gave the book a happy endorsement before he passed and other smart folks in the contemporary Christian music world (Martin Smith of delirious, Chris Llewellyn of the Rend Collective.) Blurbs here are vibrant and very positive - from the Anglican Archbishop of Dublin to Shane Claiborne, who says he has a gift for uniting people in "subversive friendships." Fromholz is obviously a colorful character citing edgy films and The White album and Richard Mouw on Abraham Kuyper and Tom Waits and Ray Bradbury and Eugene Peterson and Keith Green. 

Q founder Gabe Lyon declares that Broken: Restoring the Trust Between the Sacred and the Secular is "A must read for anyone called to work for cultural renewal."  Which is to say, maybe most of our BookNotes subscribers.

Counterfeit Christianity- The Persistence of Errors in the Church Roger Olson.jpgCounterfeit Christianity: The Persistence of Errors in the Church Roger Olson (Abingdon) $19.99 Those that follow our BookNotes blog know that I believe the false division of life into "sacred and secular" (with roots in pagan Greek philosophers like Plato, not the Bible, and seen most grossly in the weirdness of Gnosticism) is one of the enduring heresies in 2000 years of church history. There has been much conversation about this in recent decades and the above book by Greg Fromholz is one such call to a restoration of the full-orbed, creation-based faith - "for the life of the world" as the popular DVD puts it. Nonetheless, for what it is worth, I also think that if we are going to pioneer and sustain a fully relevant 21st century faith that rejects sacred/secular dualism and regains a fully Biblical vision of creation regained, we will also have to be on guard about other slippery slopes that draw us into off-based theologies, oddball thinking and goofy formulations of faith that, even if advanced by well intended, serious seminarians or cynically adopted by hurting ex-evangelicals, are not going to sustain healthy, lasting, mere Christianity. 

And so, from time to time, we should revisit the great theological debates of the past and ask if the distorted teachings that were once vigorously rejected by the broad, historic, community of faith are not threatening to plague us again. Obviously, we dare not be ungracious or closed-minded, and we certainly, surely, ought not to make matters that are not essential into divisive core teachings, as if we have to rigorously fight every little thing we disagree about.  Still, we must understand "the persistence of errors" and work for "recognizable ecumenical orthodoxy."  Counterfeit Christianity is, as any book on this topic, informed by the author's own understanding of theological orthodoxy and not everyone will fully agree with his take on these ancient debates and theological clarification, or his assessments of this or that contemporary writer, movement, or religious trend in today's church. There are 10 chapters here, the first two foundational ("Why Study Heresy" and "What Is Orthodoxy?") and then 8 on some specific wrong views of God and faith as they first arose and were evaluated, and how they may still be around today. 

Two quick reminders: not all dumb thinking is ruinous, and not all theological error is heretical. True heresy about fundamental things, though, is dangerous and can undermine our faith and our churches and our work in the world. Each chapter of Counterfeit... has questions for individual or group study. Some of the early councils of the Church lasted years; you could certainly take a few weeks to bone up on similar matters.  Dr. Olsen teaches theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University. 

There is also a DVD curriculum for this. It is five episodes.  DVD + Participants Guide $39.99

chosen.jpgChosen? Reading the Bible Amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Walter Brueggemann (WJK) $14.00 My life was significantly impacted when Dr. Peter J. Steen, a Dutch neo-Calvinist philosophy professor (who I mention in my chapter in Serious Dreams:  Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life) gave to me in the mid-1970s Walter Brueggemann's excellent book of Biblical scholarship, The Land.  It was years later that I came to appreciate his Prophetic Imagination and came to know him and his passionate, insightful, broad teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Perhaps like you, you'd read Walt on almost anything, even if you may not completely agree (or even understand) all of his eloquent, nuanced, generative prose.  And, perhaps like me, you, too, have been waiting for this book for a long, long time.  In some ways, it is a brief follow-up to The Land, written for small group use, offered in light of the very tragic current events in the Middle East. 

I suppose I don't have to tell you that Brueggemann tilts left in his politics (recall his life-long immersion in the prophetic ethics of the post-exilic prophets and that shouldn't be a surprise) and he is, naturally, very aware of the horrors inflicted upon the Palestinian people by a militarized and hard-right Israeli policy. He says repeatedly that Israel is under great duress and although some readers will want him to say this more often so while the book isn't glib about the legitimate security concerns of the Jewish homeland, some will see the book as too pro-Palestinian.

Rabbi Michael Lerner (editor of Tikkun and author of Embracing Israel/Palestine: A Strategy for Middle East Peace writes, " Brueggemann has done a great service to the Jewish people and to all who rely on the Hebrew Bible as a guide to life by demonstrating in this book that there is no straight line between these ancient hoy texts and the oppression of the Palestinian people by an expansionist Zionist government in modern Israel."  Rabbi Lerner isn't the only Jewish leader who has endorsed this thoughtful study.

That Israel is "God's chosen people" is both a promise and a problem, he says, and the book offers ways to think through the way in which the Biblical texts and the theological traditions have understood this, and what implication it has for the land and politics of the Holy Land today.  

There are four chapters, addressing the main questions people have regarding what the Bible says about this ongoing debate. A question-and-answer section in conversation with Brueggemann at the end supplements the main chapters (and could be itself a fifth week in an adult class or Bible study group. It is richly spoken and very interesting.) I Chosen? Reading the Bible...  in one sitting - the print is large and includes only 59 pages of real text. The remaining 20 pages offer a glossary, a helpful class study guide, and a guideline document that had been created by the PC(USA) for respectful dialogue that may be helpful if your group is heated.  

I (Still) Believe- Leading Bible Scholars Share.jpgI (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories and Scholarship edited by John Byron & Joel Lohr (Zondervan) $24.99  Wow, does this ever look fascinating.  I suppose most BookNotes readers are aware that in the 20th century the story: there grew a huge divide between highly critical scholarship of the Bible which was developed in increasingly specialized academic circles, often subverting traditional faith of ordinary Christians who went off to mainline denominational seminaries or studied religion or Bible at liberal arts schools or state universities.  In reaction, more traditionally minded, evangelical scholars increased their own robust scholarship, digging deep in the academic guilds, doing PhDs often in scholarly programs that were sometimes hostile to their own traditional positions.  (Just think of something fairly simple - were there two or three writers of Isaiah, or just one?  Are the opening chapters of Genesis to be read literally or literarily? Did the miracles really happen, or where they gussied up a bit by subsequent (re)writers of the scrolls and oral traditions that became the Bible as we now have it?  And, significantly, are the accounts of Jesus's bodily resurrection really reliable and therefore true?)  

Fortunately, in my view, in the last few decades a younger generation of scholars in both camps have learned from one another.  Some liberal divinity schools have thoughtful and well-trained evangelicals on staff, and some evangelical scholars share much with their critical, and sometimes ideologically unusually colleagues in the Society for Biblical Literature.  Some evangelicals do remarkable scholarly work to bolster conventional views (think of D.A. Carson) and some have embraced more critical methods themselves (think of Peter Enns.) And many who find themselves in more mainline seminaries give often beautifully accounts of their innovative projects.  Anyway, times now seem different then they did when there was this pretty strict modernist vs conservative battle for the Bible going on.

I suppose one doesn't need to know much more about this century-old dilemma to appreciate why this book is so very, very exciting to see.  This amazing paperback collects the testimonials of 18 different Bible scholars, each masterfully and poignantly telling their stories, explaining their work, and sharing their own faith journey.  Is serious academic study of the Bible a threat to real faith? How do scholars in liberal or mainline institutions relate their own personal piety to their academic work?

Most of the contributors here are standout significant scholars in their fields, and for some, this is the first time they've publicly shared their own Christian testimony in this way.  Here is what the description of I (Still) Believe promises:

Reflecting on their own experiences at the intersection of faith and serious academic study of the Bible, the essays are uncontrived. The stories are real. And the complexities and struggles they hold are laid bare.

Included are Richard Bauckham, Walter Brueggemann, Ellen Davis, James Dunn, Gordon Fee, Beverly Roberts Gaventa, John Goldingay, Donald Hagner, Morna Hooker, Edith Humphrey, Andrew Lincoln, Scot McKnight, J. Ramsey Michaels, Patrick Miller, Walter Moberly, Katharine Doob Sakenfield, Phyllis Trible, and Bruce Waltke. 

As David deSilva of Ashland Theological Seminary says of I (Still) Believe,

A very important and salutary book for all who struggle holding the critical study of Scripture and a commitment to the apostolic faith together. These 'heavy hitters' in biblical studies, share how faith has been a driving force in their scholarship and how their scholarship has been formative for their faith and practice.

longing for paris header.jpgLonging for Paris: One Woman's Search for Joy, Beauty, and Adventure - Right Where She Is Sarah Mae (Tyndale/Momentum) $15.99 Sarah Mae co-authored a good book on mothering that came out about a year ago called Desperate and we recently realized she was nearly a neighbor (she lives over in Lancaster County.) We were so impressed with an early reading copy of this new book that we hope to have her do an author event here someday soon! For now, you should know about how delightful a book Longing for Paris is.  On the back cover it says it is "for anyone who has ever daydreamed of another life..." Although it is written mostly for women, I enjoyed it a lot. I'm hoping people pick it up.

Longing for Paris: One Woman's Search... is an antidote to the old (and quite common) "grass-is-greener" syndrome which can be truly debilitating - how many people can't find contentment because of their idealized wishes about being someplace else, or somebody else. Mae adds some helpful, light cultural criticism here, examining the way we are often encouraged to be "romantic" and dream about places like Paris.  We ache for something more than our mundane day-to-day lives and we dream of adventure and escape. (How about that Woody Allen book, Midnight in Paris? eh? She talks about it.) The glorious city of Lights is known for breath-taking beauty, inspiring art, exquisite food, philosophy, social change, charm, romance.  Who doesn't long for such rich, good, meaningful things?

I think this book is a light-hearted and artfully accessible exploration of the same sorts of things explored by philosophers like James K.A. Smith (Desiring the Kingdom) and David Naugle (Reordered Loves, Reordered Lives) and the memoir Teach Us to Want: Longing Ambition and the Life of Faith by Jen Pollock Michel. Longing for Paris by Sarah Mae is a lovely book that examines our desires, the longing of our hearts, and wonders how we can not only be content in our daily and often pedestrian lives, but also how to imbued them with art and beauty in ways that, well, don't entail an expensive once in a lifetime trip to Europe. (At the end of each chapter she gives some charming suggestions of things to do, making this a real guidebook to a more artful, local, contented, involved life.) Of course there is nothing wrong with going to Paris.  But for most of us, we can't afford that, and most likely never will.  More importantly, we all need deep joy "right where you are."  Sarah Mae--who has experienced significant heartbreak and personal struggle (you'll have to read the book yourself for this poignant drama and story of redemption) - shows us how.  And she adds some great quotes along the way, including from Leif Enger's novel Peace Like a River. I enjoyed this book. Maybe it will help you, too.

Anne of Green Gables, My Daughter, and Me.jpgAnne of Green Gables, My Daughter, and Me: What My Favorite Book Taught Me Ab out Grace, Belonging, and the Orphan in Us All Lorilee Craker (Tyndale/ Momentum) $15.99 This is a beautiful memoir that unfolds a bit of the author's story -- yes, dealing with being an "orphan" and stuff around adoption - interspersed with lovely exploration of the insights and meaning of the beloved L.M. Montgomery Anne of Green Gables novel published in the very early 1900s. Craker is a really good writer. Shauna Niequist says she "writes with both lightness and depth, and I found myself taken by all three stories -her's, Phoebe's, Anne's. The beauty of her storytelling and the tenderness of the events she describes makes this a thoroughly rich reading experience."

Our pal and great writer Margot Starbuck wrote one of the best adoption-related memoirs ever (The Girl in the Orange Dress) and I was glad to see that she endorsed it. Margot says "In this artful tapestry, Lorilee Cracker - consummate wordsmith - gifts readers with a beautifully woven journey into the human heart. For her tender vulnerability, creative insight, and beautiful sentences, I highly recommend Cracker's moving memoir."

I appreciate that Elisa Morgan, whose memoir was pretty amazing, given her own hare story, says

We are all enamored by the plight of orphans and gobble up their tales in the wide world of literature. Perhaps we see ourselves - our fears of abandonment and creases of inadequacy - in their stories. Gently and with honest vulnerability, Lorilee Craker weaves the universal discoveries of orphan Anne into her own very personal story of being an orphan of adopting one. Open the cover. Turn the pages. You'll come out the other end glad for the read and deepened by the journey.

Gaining By Losing- Why the Future Belongs to Churches That Send .jpgGaining By Losing: Why the Future Belongs to Churches That Send J.D. Greear (Zondervan) $19.99 This looks similar to any number of recent books on being a missional church, "outwardly focused" congregational health, and how a vision of Kingdom service is the key to vibrant, revitalized church.  It is about being a "disciple-making church" and reminds us that being "gospel centered" is the ground from which our proclamation of grace and service must grow. Unlike most missional books (that explore "staying" and witnessing amidst secularized North American culture) this new hardback book invites us to re-capture (or develop, if it not in your congregation's DNA) a mission of global church planting and deepening our missionary agenda as a sending church. This is a major point and it is clear that Greear's church (Summit Church Raleigh-Durham, NC) has learned the art of "sending" and therefore many of the chief leaders, workers, (and givers!) of his congregation leave - on purpose, of course!  Gaining By Losing will surely deepen our trust in God if we dismiss our best folks, and it could reignite a deeper desire to be faithful, risky, even in counter-intuitive ways.  It is on my "read soon" list, and for those of you who are in congregational leadership positions, it maybe should be on yours, too. 

Thom Rainer is a writer who has done good work himself on congregational health, and he has researched and consulted with hundreds of churches, so his endorsement means a lot.

Thom Rainer says, 

Wow! I just finished reading Gaining By Losing. I rarely finish a book and feel like it took my breath away. This book by J.D. Greer is nothing short of incredible. It's just that powerful.

The Holy Spirit Stanley Hauerwas & William Willimon .jpgThe Holy Spirit Stanley Hauerwas & William Willimon (Abingdon) $13.99 Holy smokes, it has been a while since Hauerwas & Willimon have collaborated like this. Just this year a 20th anniversary edition of Resident Aliens was released which reminded many of how important this duo have been, not only in their more academic works, but in these small guides to lively Christian living. I was really thrilled to learn this was coming, and glad we just got it in.

There are only four chapters here and I'm sure it would make a profitable study for groups or classes. (Oddly, there is no study guide or reflection questions.) The first chapter is called "The Trinity" (and includes, happily, a picture of the famous Andrei Rublev icon.) The next chapters are "Pentecost: The Birth of the Church", "Holiness: Life in the Spirit" and "Last Things." Just under 100 pages, with fairly large type and some handsome pull quotes, this is a fine little paperback.

 As Luke Powery (Dean of the Chapel at Duke Divinity School) colorfully notes,

When these two longtime theologian-friends and disciples of Jesus gather in a room to write, you can be sure that you will hear a sound of a rushing mighty wind, feel the heat of holy fire, and be ignited by dynamite on the page as you read. This is literary bread from heaven fed to you by anointed servants of the Holy Spirit. Take, eat, and be filled with the Spirit of Christ.

Post Traumatic Church Syndrome- A Memoir of Humor and Healing Reba Riley.jpgPost Traumatic Church Syndrome: A Memoir of Humor and Healing Reba Riley (Howard) $24.99 There aren't too many Christian books that hold a bright endorsement from Elizabeth Gilbert, who writes that it is "hilarious, courageous, provocative, profound."  She continues, "If the Pray in Eat, Pray, Love had a gutsy, wise, funny little sister who'd never been to India, it would be Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome."

Here's the deal: Reba Riley was some kind of evangelical poster child, apparently, and, I suppose for understandable reasons given her branch of fundy faith and a devastating chronic illness, she concludes she should explore other faiths and their particular practices. There is some planning, some tongue in cheek exploration as she prepares for a project of immersion journalism - always a good time, if you ask me -- and some genuine searching for answers, at least a la A.J. Jacobs, say. On her 29th birthday Riley decides to try out "30 religions before 30.)

Devout practitioners will be horrified, naturally, by any sense that one can "try out" a religion in such a perfunctory, quick way, but as a fun story that at least approximates a spiritual search, and a playful way to recover from some post traumatic church stress, this adventure could be a great read. You may recall that I loved the (admittedly flawed, for similar reasons) Man Seeks God book by the amazing Eric Weiner (who also wrote The Geography of Bliss, and has another coming late this fall, The Geography of Genius, but I digress.) If Post Traumatic Church Syndrome's adventure is even close to that, I'm going to enjoy it a lot.  That Riley was once an evangelical, and that this is being co- published simultaneously by two religious presses (Howard and Chalice) may make it more significant for some of us then Weiner or Jacobs.

Here is some of what is promised in bullet points on the dust jacket:  Ms. Riley was interrogated by Amish grandmothers about her sex life, she danced the disco in a Buddhist temple, went to church in virtual reality, a move theater, a drive-in bar and a basement, fasted for 30 days, washed her lady parts in a mosque bathroom, was audited by Scientologists, learned to meditate with an urban monk, sucked mud in a sweat lodge and snuck into Yom Kippur with a fake grandpa in tow. 

As A.J. Jacobs writes "whatever your beliefs or lack thereof... you should read this moving, funny, thoughtful book."  Another gentle writer says it is "an audacious rampage through religious sensibility" and yet another says it is "beautifully written, exceedingly funny and refreshingly honest."  You know you are curious, eh?

Rising Strong- The Reckoning, the Ruble, the Revolution Brene Brown.jpgRising Strong: The Reckoning, the Ruble, the Revolution Brene Brown (Spiegel & Grau) $27.00 One of the biggest best-sellers of the last few years was the astounding Dare Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Parent and Lead by the social psychologist, research professor and TED talk guru. (Brown's 2010 Tedx Houston talk "The Power of Vulnerability" is one of the top five most-watched Ted talks worldwide!)  As with many TED talkers, Brene Brown has a remarkable ability to combine science and storyteller, her scholarship offered in truly interesting, motivational presentations. She is also the CEO of The Daring Way, an organization that brings her work on vulnerability, courage, shame, and worthiness to organizations, schools, business, communities, families.  Her study of this topic helped lead her back to Christian faith, which makes her even more interesting as a renowned public intellectual. Rising Strong is the eagerly-anticipated follow up to Daring Greatly which, in turn, developed from her work such as The Gifts of Imperfection and I Thought It Was Just Me.

I love the R words in the subtitle -- The Recovery, The Rumble, The Revolution --  but this line explains better just what she means: "If we are brave enough, often enough, we will fall. This is a book about what it takes to get back up."

Brown continues, in large, lovely type on the back cover,

The irony is that we attempt to disown our difficult stories to appear more whole or more acceptable, but our wholeness - even our wholeheartedness - actually depends on the integration of all of our experiences including the falls.


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August 24, 2015

One Thousand Wells: How An Audacious Goal Taught Me to Love the World Instead of Save It by Jena Lee Nardella ON SALE NOW

one thousand wells cover.jpgOne Thousand Wells: How An Audacious Goal Taught Me to Love the World Instead of Save It by Jena Lee Nardella (Howard) $24.00  Our sale price $19.00

This is the audacious story by a young woman who helped start the organization Blood: Water Mission.

There have been a good batch of books in the last year or so testifying to God's concern for the poor, explaining about the Biblical basis for justice advocacy and how we can most effectively address the great issues of  global poverty, systemic violence, economic development.  That there is a brand new, (once again) updated and newly edited edition of the truly seminal book on Biblically-based social concern, first published in the 1970s, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving From Affluence to Generosity by Ronald J. Sider (Thomas Nelson; $15.99) is further indication that people still care about this stuff. If you haven't read Rich Christians, I can't recommend it enough; it is one of the most significant books I've ever read by an author I trust immensely and who has become an esteemed friend and mentor. I am glad for this new revision.

rich christians new cover.jpgAlongside other recent books like Stephan Bauman's fabulously energetic and visionary call to enter this fray with creativity and hope, Possible: A Blueprint for Changing How We Change the World (Waterbrook; $22.99) or the free-market-based solutions proposed in For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty edited by Anne Bradley and Art Lindsley (Zondervan; $21.99) and last year's exceptionally important and much-discussed Locust Effect: Why Ending Poverty Requires the End of Violence by IJM founder Gary Haugen & Victor Boutros (Oxford University Press; $18.95) or the fabulous new 12-session Bible study curriculum from the IJM Institute, God of Justice by Abraham George & Nikki A. Toyama-Szeto (InterVarsity Press; $16.00) possible.jpgand their must-have, multi-issue resource edited by Mae Cannon, Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World (InterVarsity Press; $22.00) you can readily take up a crash course on faith-based social concerns, or create a shelf in your library or resource room. We have long hoped that we could help those wanting to learn how to think Biblically and live more faithfully as they embrace these aspects of discipleship. Certainly these books will remind you, and give you great awareness and zeal to support those who are called to work full time on these kinds of global concerns. I don't know about you, but I need these kinds of voices in my life, and am inspired to deeper prayer and care and lifestyle adjustments by learning always trying to learn a bit more about world missions and global concerns.

In my many years of teaching about these topics in churches, leading workshops and seminars on social concerns and global peace and justice issues, and in all the reading I've done about individuals and organizations doing good relief and development and justice work, Jana Lee Nardella's story is truly one of the most engaging. I enjoyed it as much as any book I've read in blood-water.jpgquite a while. Her voice, her writing, her story, her organization - Blood: Water Mission, co-founded by the rock band Jars of Clay, are all so very interesting, and bring to the fore aspects of this work that are captivating to read about, deeply moving at times, informative and good and helpful.  I really hope you consider buying it, that your church library might offer it, that book clubs might take it up.

I'll explain more about it, below, but first, two helpful points about the strengths of this new author and her book.

First, One Thousand Wells has built into its own narrative approach a major theme, which is applicable to nearly anyone, or at least anyone who may have hopes and dreams, goals or projects: how to discern one's calling and learn to take actionable steps, dreaming big but moving forward in realistic ways that have integrity, step by step by step.  Sure, Jena Lee's story is particularly audacious and her adventures dramatic enough to warrant a book about them, but the lessons between the lines about her own discernment about her life, her relationships, her goals and efforts and spiritual development through it all, are sure to be an encouragement to anyone wanting to move forward in their own life goals.  As I read I kept thinking of people - mostly college age students, I suppose, or the post-college folks who are reading my Serious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life (Square Halo Books; $12.95) just for instance - who would be encouraged in their own day-to-day struggles to craft a well-lived and purposeful life. That a 60 year old bookseller in a less than thriving, small-town retail shop would learn something about endurance and find a measure of renewed hope from this story about the formation of a development organization in Africa is telling, and a good indication of why so many will like the book.

"My awareness of others would one day define my calling," she writes in a chapter called 'She Breaths the Air and Flies Away.'  The chapter title is a line from one of the lovely early songs of Jars-of-Clay-2.jpgjars live.jpgJars of Clay, a CD which meant very much to her as a young teen. That they show up as the key partners in this story is a blessed bit of providence, and a joy to read about, especially for those of us who have been fans and fanatics about performing artists.  Imagine if out of nowhere you ended up being invited to work with the musicians of your favorite band, or, say, the stars of your favorite TV show.

The point, though, is that Jena tells this story, in part, at least, through the lens of calling. Few books that offer memoirist ruminations on growing up, or that tell heroic stories of people who do good stuff, frame their stories with this important rhetoric of vocation and call.  She does and that makes it a stronger, and more useful book.

A second feature of One Thousand Wells: How An Audacious Goal Taught Me to Love the World Instead of Save It that will be compelling to many, and certainly many of our dearest customers, is suggested by the questions about sustaining a love for the world in the important sub-title, a theme of the book about which Nardella ruminates more than once.  She cites her current pastor, author/activist/ Episcopal priest Becca Stevens, naming this notion, but it is also fabric of f.jpgstraight from her mentor Steve Garber, who gets at the question of sustaining care over a lifetime in his first book about young adult faith development (Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior) and explicitly teaches us about it in his more recent Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good.(Both nicely published by IVP; $17.00/$16.00 respectively.) That is, can we know the world in all its brokenness and still love it? Can we avoid utopianism and idealism, on the one hand, and paralyzing cynicism on the other?  As we enter in to the pain of others can we still be people who truly love and show God's grace? There are many who set out to "save" the world (or "solve" a visions of vocation.jpgproblem for a friend or loved one, for that matter) but it is a harder, deeper, and more lasting goal to learn to love it. (Ahh, she even cites Thomas Merton on this, bringing his eloquent touch.) Nardella's  subtitle indicates that she and her team (the Jars guys have also been influenced by Garber) have created an organization that is particularly thoughtful, rare, honest. She shows how she is getting at things (bit by bit, as their learning deepened, as Garber and the important Board and books she surrounded herself with shaped her) with what I found to be a uniquely profound perspective. The opening epigram in the front is a good quote by Wendell Berry about our duty to share hope.   I am sure other good organizations have similar backstories and have struggled hard to be guided by a particular ethos or set of guiding principles, but Blood:Water Mission seems particularly good on this.

And, happily, as Donald Miller says in his helpful forward, it is a great story.

It is commonly said these days, but it's worth hearing Miller at the outset:

We are each telling a story with our lives. And sometimes I think God is asking us if the stories we're telling are good ones. Not all of us will devote ourselves to Africa, nor should we.  But we all must find a suspense question that will drive us. We must start with the knowledge that life itself will end, and that by living our stories we are setting the compasses of the people around us through example. And Jena's is an example that will inspire you to go out and live a great story.

Okay, so One Thousand Wells is well written, inspiring, and offers helpful insight about discerning one's vocation and taking steps to trust God as we move forward, even facing set-backs and confusion. It invites us to this endless calling to integrate head and heard and hands, to have our desires shaped so that we might sustain care about the world in ways that are neither idealistic or sentimental or trendy, but authentic and lasting, incarnating real love for real people in the real world.

One Thousand Wells: How An Audacious Goal Taught Me to Love the World Instead of Save It  starts with Jena Lee telling about her girlhood, and I found myself utterly intrigued in this, even wiping back tears sometimes. (I'm a father of three young adults, including two girls, and I re-lived episodes of our own lives as I listened in to Jena talking about her joys and sorrows, her loneliness and emerging identity in girlhood, middle school and beyond.) She tells about childhood friends she had, music she listened to, involvements at church, her experiences in the insular evangelical subculture. And a particularly moving section about her going off to camp. There is a dramatic episode (doing a wilderness assent with a supportive crew) that comes back to her a time or two later in life, and one of these early chapters tells of a very significant memory encountering a homeless man, indicating her sensitive soul, even as a child, as she truly cared for those who were wounded or excluded.

I don't want to overstate this, but I think this volume would be a helpful read for anyone in children's or youth ministry as these early chapters give us glimpses into how faith development works.  Of course any memoir of childhood faith could be illuminating, but Jena's self-awareness, and her emergence from a timid and sensitive child to a leader (getting youth at her church to volunteer at a local soup kitchen, for instance) is truly fascinating. How does this happen? Even the portion of the book about her college years illustrates a (perhaps more common-place than we realize?) blend of feet of clay and remarkable spiritual maturity, the fears and eccentricities of a youth/young adult and the bold leadership she mustered. Those in youth or campus ministry may sometimes be tempted to view people as either socially awkward losers or born leaders; Jena's story may show a more realistic scenario. Of course, she certainly had a lot going for her - her family plays a significant and tender role through-out the book (including a wonderful scene where her dad takes her out to dinner fearing she is becoming to absorbed in her Blood:Water work, and firmly counsels her to start dating, and playfully gives her a year to do so.)

Exactly like Steve Garber's research on marks of sustainable, robust faith (explained in his Fabric of Faithfulness) shows, Jena developed in her college-age years a deep commitment to seeking religious truth, she nurtured and was nurtured by a community of serious friends, and she had mentors. (Three cheers for Dr. Julia Stronks, who shook lose some funds from the political science department at Whitworth College and sent Jena to an AIDS conference which was life-changing! Would that every college student had a professor/adviser like Stronks, who helped Jena transition from a science nursing major to her sweeter spot of political science, and served as a steadfast ally and coach.)

BWMposter11x17.jpgBlood:Water Mission, as you may know, faced some early struggles because it intended to address two major public health crisis's in Africa, AIDS/HIV and the desperate need for clean water. You may also recall how sadly controversial it was just a decade or so ago for many in the evangelical world to reach out to persons who were HIV-positive. Nardella reflects on this a bit, in fact, in a small section that is very important. For her, hearing a (heterosexual, by the way) HIV-positive man speak - putting a face on this person - was, again, life-changing.

Jena explores her encounter with this gentleman named Bill and the moral complexities of listening well and humanely.


Early on, when I would hear a story about HIV, I felt like a voyeur peering into secrets I should not know. Then I realized how healing listening can be. These are stories of vulnerability and horror.  Many times they are also stories of deep gratitude, told by Lazaruses who were counted for dead but have been given a second or fifth or twelfth chance at life. Cradling someone's testimony of HIV is a sacred responsibility. I try not to break it as I receive it and carry it with me. And each story I hear reminds me of Bill.

And so, she takes up the vocation of listening well.  She comes to care and tells us about it without sounding super-spiritual or sensational. (Some breathy writers these days seem as if they want to carry a prophet's mantel and they call us with such passion and colorful wordsmithing that their summons feels forced, evoking guilt or awe, perhaps, but not an invitation to reasonably participate ourselves.) This author is telling her story, not shaming us, or even preaching to us.  She is allowing us to listen in as she discerns more about her own next steps.

buechner quote.jpgIsn't this the way it often works as we learn to pay attention to our lives, listening to our hearts, discovering a bit about our deepest passions and the world's great needs. (Yes, yes, think of that famous Fred Buechner quote right about now; Nardella reflects on it with greater insight that most who cite it.) And, again, she is exploring this in light of conversations she recounts where Garber asks her "What do you truly care about?"

She tells us about this quintessential Garber conversation thread,

"We have entered the Culture of Whatever," Garber, continued. "Ironically, the more we know, the less we care. This info-glut age can make us dangerously numb." I scribbled the words down in my journal. "That's why we need to know what people care about and start caring about those things, too. The greatest challenge is to attach yourself to the cares of the world and still keep going. To know the world and still love it."

When she talked about a phone conversation shortly after the campus lecture, describing a long, silent pause, I knew she was telling the truth.  Steve is attentive and caring, but not always verbose, and is comfortable with silence at times.

And then the big moment, a moment that stands in my mind as a key episode in Garber's already influential life. It is a surprise in the book, and I hate to spoil it for you, although I cheered when I came to that paragraph, even though I've heard the story more than once.

In God's providence Garber had been just talking with the guys in Jars of Clay  about their growing desire to leverage their fame (although they didn't have much fortune) for the sake of others and be responsible in their cultural moment when they had some pop influence. They Jars-of-Clay in Africa.jpgwere drawn to Africa, and felt called to speak up about the AIDS crisis there.  They didn't want to be a typical Christian rock band, but were serious artists attempting to offer their aesthetically rich songs into the mainstream world (even though their fan base remained mostly those engaged in the contemporary Christian music science, where they mostly played, from church camps to Christian colleges to huge outdoor festivals. They were clearly in another league than many CCM pop stars, but there they were, hoping not only to share their music with a wider world, but to press their evangelical fans to better perspectives and postures regarding social concern and a broader worldview.  

Jena answers Garber's question about what she cares most about with her reply about the African AIDS crisis and her desire to give voice to the marginalized and overlooked.  

Seemingly out of nowhere he asks if she has ever heard of the group Jars of Clay.  And it is then her turn to go silent on the phone. What? Why would he ask that random question about her biggest life-line, the one band that she most loved, her musical heroes whose nuanced and artful songs seemed to really get her?  Whaaat?

There are chapters and chapters here about how it then developed, but from that moment on, the rest was, as they say, history.

Or, as John Steinbeck put it in East of Eden, in a quote she uses,

A kind of light spread out from her. And everything changed color. And the world opened out.

The world opened out. And this is just the first portion of the book.

There are a few really good things that stand out in the excellent next parts of the story of One Thousand Wells. Jena offers them a proposal, and then another (the band calls it her "manifesto") and they take her on, even before she's finished college. She learns a lot about starting a non-profit.  In fact, again I note, she has to navigate her involvement in this extraordinary calling while she is still a college student. She struggles with some hard life choices -- where to live, her personal finances, figuring out how to work as a very young woman in this often high-powered profession. (A story about wearing a flowing floral skirt and flip flops to a White House function to meet the President was hilarious and, for the record, I'm not buying the West Coast/Rocky Mountain cultural excuse! Ha!) And there's some  funny/awkward stuff like being the only girl on a tour bus with a traveling rock band.  I laughed right out loud in a part about late night shenanigans after the Jars shows, including something apparently called Karaoke Sharking. (Elton John! Neil Diamond!) 

She has some relational ups and downs, and there's some painful drama with the band and the touring crew as she jams press conferences about AIDS and clean water and Africa into their sound checks and music industry VIP meet-and-greet sessions, and seems frustrated with the realities of their primary calling as a rock band, not full-time social entrepreneurs. There is an explosive encounter with the tour bus driver, who had it with "this Blood:Water crap!") There is a very poignant scene in which band spokesperson Dan Hasseltine fails to make a much-needed fund-raising ask during a concert - he is a sensitive soul himself and couldn't bring himself to seem exploitative or manipulative) leaving her holding empty fund-raising buckets and tragic images of her desperate African friends. (The band certainly were committed to telling the stories of Africa, but had not actually seen the crisis up close, yet.) Learning forbearance and patience and prayer and more, her adventure expands as they get into the rhythm of figuring out how to make Blood:Water's dream of digging one thousand wells a reality.  

Through it all Lee Nardella tells about a soul mate who she hopes to be involved with romantically - she's never had a serious boyfriend - and how the personal and the political, and the artistic and the social weave together. It doesn't work out, but they become good friends, and his insight about justice issues and public health and third world solidarity offers much. And, yes, there eventually is a wonderfully successful love story that unfolds, too, as the young Ms Lee becomes Mrs. Nardella.  Unless you're not romantic at all, I'm sure you'll love this delightful telling of her discovery of a life mate, and then - with Garber using a famous Hauerwas quote, they get married, and wonder "what love requires." It is not sappy at all, and I could have used even a bit more about all that. How do young people who have seen war and starvation and sexual violence and horror of all sorts become trusting and intimate and whole? And what does love require for a globe-traveling, talented, young couple like them?  

one thousand wells.pngVery, very significantly, at the core of the book's seriousness, Jena Lee (not yet married) and Jars of Clay developed what might be called a philosophy of ministry, an ethos or vision for their audacious global plans. Their tone, principles and practices were to be in part shaped by an insightful board convened with Garber's help, and in part shaped by the significant work of Gustavo Gutierrez (a South American liberation theologian who wrote about "the preferential option for the poor") and medical doctor Paul Farmer whose work in Haiti was gaining fame - perhaps you know the mountains beyond mountains.jpgwonderful, award-winning book about him written by Tracer Kidder called Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World.)  Dwight Gibson, one of the principles in the much-celebrated For the Life of the World DVD, recently told me about one lively board session in those early years where he was serving with Jars and Jena and the conversations were so rich and moving that he missed an important international plane flight to continue talking late into the night! Every upstart ministry should have such thoughtful, wise, "conversations of consequence" going on around them, asking important questions, pushing beyond easy answers or pragmatic moves or dramatic gestures to discern best practices informed by serious considerations of the deepest matters.

The guys in Jars had "hired" Jena and she moved into a basement room at the Haseltine's small Nashville home. She was tasked with starting their effort to combine the two huge public health concerns - clean blood, clean water - and sent her on a learning trip to Africa (she put the travel expenses on her credit card, which, I suspect, may have been her parents credit card at that point; she was maybe 21 years old!)

Jena Lee cropped-photo1.jpg

After much research and networking she had found a few indigenous agencies doing health, sanitation and hygiene education in rural Kenyan and another in Rwanda. Each had a vision for sustainable health education, including frank addressing of the issues of AIDS and water. Well digging was becoming important as a strategy for many development groups, but they realized wells and water collection devices were successful only after empowering local folks to use and maintain them properly. (Clean water isn't effective, after all,  if it is then contaminated by animal or human feces and wells dug by outsiders are often left in ill-repair as local folks are unaware of the proper maintenance.)

BWMbanner_250x250.jpgSuch are the huge obstacles of development goals in rural Africa, and too, too often well intended social service agencies (especially those inspired by conservative religious groups, it seems) left villages with costly unintended consequences after a flash-in-the-pan service trip or mission project.  Western paternalism and quick-fix techniques is legendary, and Nardella's best friend, Joel, an early champion of the Mission, helped her develop a keen sense of only proceeding with projects that are locally-owned, managed by national groups, which develop organically out of trusting relationships.  Jars of Clay and their Blood:Water Mission was going to partner with community health educators (mostly made up of African women) and fund projects run by African leaders they would trust. (I took a long time to get where they are now, but you can learn about some of these healthy partnerships at their website, here.)

We went over our plans for the month, pulling up notes that outlined questions we wanted to answer. We were on a mission to learn how to apply our values to actual projects in Africa. We believed the best way to learn would be to see what other organizations were already doing and ask them questions. What was working? Where are the gaps? What would you change if you were to start over today?  We still had to raise the money for the wells, but we wanted to lay the groundwork for the 1000 Wells Project in the expectation that it would take off at some point. Unlike many large organizations that could work only with well-established African partners, Blood:Water could reach the smaller, fledgling organizations and help them soar.

Joel makes Jena promise that she will not make promises to her new friends in Africa. Too many false promises have been made by well-intended Western mission groups and development agencies. From the UN to US tele-evangelists to secular celebrities, promises for funds or assistance have been routinely made and routinely broken, and half-baked plans have left hundreds if not thousands of uncompleted or backfired projects throughout the developing world. We learn about a few of these in Nardella's book, although others have explored these things in more scholarly detail. In A Thousand Wells we get on-the-ground narrative, we hear about bad plans, good plans gone haywire, and Jena's hope to do right by the people she wants to work alongside. We hear of Jena's honest, tearful speech given to a small group of Kenyan village women saying she would make no promises other than to be their friend, to tell their stories back in North America.

The stories are told, funds are raised and you will cheer, you will praise God, you will keep turning the pages for the stuff you'll read about here. 

And then.

What did Donald Miller say about the need for suspense in a really good story, about struggle and pain and conflict?  

Man, it hits, and the book takes on a new, tragic twist. I have never been to Africa, let alone been involved in hygiene education or well drilling in villages like Lwala, Kenya, or in done AIDS education in rural Rwanda, or the tragedy of a too-dry dam in Marsabit (in what is said to be "the end of Africa, but looks like the end of the world.") I don't usually like photographs in books like this, but the ones here are candid and helpful. But what they don't show are the broken hearts that come after significant betrayals and violations of trust. 

Jena, Joel, and the boys in the band and their board -- including some very wise folks, including renowned medical experts -- were not unaware about the cultures of shame or the habits of corruption common in many African lands, but there were still shocked to realize that their beloved ministry partners in African had done hurtful and illegal things.

Relationships had to be severed (and the descriptions of their efforts for honest admission of guilt and possible reconciliation must have been gut-wrenching for her to write.) New layers of financial accountability and due diligence had to be constructed, but, again, much of this book is about relationships and partnership, not systems and bureaucracy. My own heart pounded as I read through these sections, vexed by how it all played out for them in this dangerous season of their work. Jars and Jena and the Blood:Water Mission staff had to come clean with their generous donors about the complexities of partnering with indigenous groups. I won't spoil the intrigue or struggles but the realism portrayed here is both moving and informative and thereby instructive. I'm reminded of the relational brokenness and mistrust we all experience, in one way or another, here in our own patches of the not-yet-realized beloved community. Yes, I am confident that this story is in many ways a universal one (granted, writ large over African skies and rock music venues) that we can all relate to.  Sadly. 

Which takes Jena and Dan and Charlie and Matthew and Stephen back to Garber.  Jena shares another rich conversation with Garber about how to live into hope, realizing we are all called to embrace this messy world, incarnating the love of God as Christ Himself had.  There is a chapter in Visions of Vocation where Garber uses a clunky but significant phrase that he seems to have coined: "proximate justice." That is, we can't give up our efforts for a just world just because we don't achieve everything we would wish. In a fallen and conflicted cosmos, peeling back a small piece of the darkness, healing what bit of the torn fabric that we can, is truly better than nothing. The Biblical tradition at its most profound takes seriously the doctrines of a very good creation, a debilitating, radical fall, and a now-but-not-yet redemption where goodness and beauty and shalom are promised, if not fully seen. This isn't quite the same as hard-nosed realism, but is, better, a vision of hopefulness. Learning to live with proximate justice is a wise lesson for us all, and Jena's telling of this part of her story is wise beyond her years.

jena and lwala well.jpg

"I know now," she writes, "that courage is less about driving through war zones in northern Uganda and more about choosing to believe in a good God in the midst of a nearly blinding brokenness."

So slowly by slowly [an African phrase she learned], we build hospital wings, though HIV and cholera still persist. Brick by brick, we bring ten thousand liters of water, even though one hundred thousand are needed. Each day, we wage the long defeat.

Ho! Jena is alluding to Tolkien, a phrase of his used by the aforementioned Dr. Paul Farmer.  And, too, it brings to mind Frederick Buechner again, indicating that she has read him carefully, not just swiped the popular line about gladness and calling.  She knows that there is a long, even magnificent defeat and that "the God of heaven knits these small pieces together into something beautiful."  Which, by the way, is a phrase from a Jars of Clay song.  World-traveled, well-read, social entrepreneur that she is, she's still a fan of the band.

there is hope.jpg


one thousand wells cover.jpg


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August 19, 2015

A RAMBLING CODA TO MY LAST POST ON THREE CREATIVE THEOLOGY BOOKS: More suggestions for interesting ways into theological study ALL ON SALE

Fieldwork in Theology- Exploring the Social Context of God's Work.jpgI hope you appreciated our last post, even if the books I reviewed were fairly scholarly works of somewhat unusual theology. Christopher Scharen's new contribution to the on-going "The Church in Postmodern Culture" series (edited by James K.A. Smith) is a study of philosophers and social science theorists that inform his interest in spiritual ethnography and a theology of fieldwork that yields deep understanding of the human condition and the work of God in the world.  Timothy Luke Johnson wrote a dense but moving reflection about how being comprised of skin and bone informs the theology we do; The Revelatory Body is less a theology of the body and more an embodied theology. I also was glad to The Revelatory Body- Theology as Inductive Art.jpgannounce Darryl Guder's new work in the "Gospel and our Culture Network" series, Called to Witness: Doing Missional Theology which moves from a Theology of Mission to Missional Theology.  All three of these reviewed books presume that something about our setting, our context, our very creatureliness matters, even for the methodology of doing theology. That's a heady notion, but these writers tease it out in their work, and we wanted to be sure you knew we had these sorts of resources.  These are examples of creative, applied theology for serious thinkers who want to learn, but we trust will yield fruit in deeper faith and wiser Christian living.

Called to Witness- Doing Missional Theology.jpgBut that got me thinking, not just about the value of those books but also of the large theology section we have here at the shop. From liberal to conservative, historic to contemporary, Puritan to Pentecostal, Girardian to Barthian to neo-Calvinist, from the Nicene Fathers to Aquinas and Luther and Edwards, from Walter Wink to R.C. Sproul to Gabe Fackre to Rowan Williams, we really do have a wild range of stuff, older and newer, reliable and experimental, written by women and men of many denominations.

I was serious, too, when I offered to suggest some basic primers on theology for those who have not read any serious text that systematically explores the basic doctrines of the faith. Unless you are the type that crosses her fingers when reciting the creeds (or don't use any creeds at all) you really should have a basic, standard, introduction to doctrine on your shelves.  Give a shout if we can help and we'll help find one good for you.

But, as I say, this got me pondering what else I coulda, shoulda, woulda listed in that already-lengthy reflection of those brand new theology books.

The Pastor as Theo GH & TW.jpgThe Pastor as Public Theologian.jpgAnd, if the two fabulous ones I led off with - The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision by Kevin Vanhoozer & Owen Strachan and The Pastor-Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision by Gerald Hiestand & Todd Wilson -- are even partially right in insisting on the importance for Christian churches of theological discourse (as they both surely are) many of our congregations have some catching up to do.  Some of our pastors may have some catching-up to do, if they have not exercised their theological muscles much since seminary classes. Maybe you should gift them with one of these books as a way to share your appreciation for this part of their call.

In a way, I was hinting at this also at the end of the BookNotes list a week ago where I tried to sell theDiscussing Mere DVD.jpg Discussing Mere Christianity DVD curriculum. I can hardly think of a church that wouldn't benefit from using a study like that, affirming what we most merely believe and why. 

Learning matters, and theology matters.  As a book lover, I'm sure you agree.

Anyway, here's a rather rambling coda to that intentional and careful post about modern theological studies, naming some random stuff that for one reason or another, came to mind after I hit send. Enjoy.

And send us an order if you can.  Click on the link below and we'll take care of your order with a prayer and a smile.

I COULD HAVE STARTED WITH SOMETHING DIALOGICAL, CLASSY, SOLID

Exploring Christology & Atonement.jpgExploring Christology & Atonement: Conversations with John McLeod Campbell, H.R. Mackintosh, and T.F. Torrance Andrew Purves (IVP Academic) $30.00  Purvis is a hero of many mainline and evangelical Presbyterians who have studied under him at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, or who have read his wonderful, pastoral works such as The Crucifixion of Ministry and The Resurrection of Ministry. His specialty, as somewhat of a Scottish Barthian, I suppose, is historical theology, and in this book - which has been called "groundbreaking" and a "fine feast"  -- Andrew explores how some very heavy-weight, incredibly important Scottish theologians of an earlier (but still modern) era wrote about these essential topics, Christ and his cross.  I think if one is fairly conservative on these matters, you will be stretched and blessed to walk into these profound topics (the Trinity, the nature of atonement, justification and such) in conversation with these older theologians from the British Isles, with Purves as your guide.  And if you are not inclined to appreciate classic formulations, I dare you to not enjoy this fascinating guide into these old thinkers.

The raves are notable, mostly from mainline denominational locations.  Michael Jinkins of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary says (in a stunning assertion) "Arguably no other theologians have provided more profound insights into the life and work of Christ and the nature of the atonement..." and David Fergusson of University of Edinburgh calls the scholars under consideration "illustrious" noting that their work as explained and appropriated by Purvis serves "both as a corrective to some distortions within the Reformed tradition and also as a recovery of key Scriptural and ecumenical insights." Leanne Van Dyk, now President of Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia, affirms the significance of this dialogical method - three Scottish theologians in conversation with each other, adjudicated by a Pittsburgh Presbyterian -- and then says,

Even more, Purvis makes vividly clear the urgency and gift of theology for the sake of the church. Readers will encounter in this book a vision of deep faithfulness to the gospel. A fine feast, indeed.

I COULD HAVE SUGGESTED A BRAND NEW BOOK BY ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS THEOLOGIANS WORKING TODAY

The Work of Theology .jpgThe Work of Theology Stanley Hauerwas (Eerdmans) $28.00  I suppose I don't have to explain how extraordinarily important Hauerwas is; he has written academic monographs, scholarly works and popular screeds, his colorful seminars and sermons have inspired many (and turned off some, too.) His wide reading and fluency in philosophy and exceedingly fertile mind makes him truly an exceptional scholar. Library Journal wrote that "it is hard to imagine any living theologian more celebrated than Hauerwas" and The Christian Century says that the church needs him, because "His theology is courageous, challenging, and a source of hope when many ecclesial leaders seem to be despairing." Commonweal writes, "Hauerwas has achieved singular preeminence among theologians in the United States and as a public intellectual...any new book bearing his name is noteworthy."  I should remind you that he has written a fascinating memoir Hannah's Child: A Theologians Memoir. In this new book he revisits and restates many of his earliest concerns. He thinks he and his work have been mischaracterized and misunderstood and here he wants to use "practical reason" to offer theological reflection and a bit of clarification.

In a way, The Work of Theology is the kind of book we have not seen from him in a while, and it may become the "go to" introduction to his impressive output.  Some of his essays seem so very interesting and valuable - "How I Think I Learned to Think Theologically" and "How to Do or Not Do Protestant Ethics" and "How to Write a Theological Sentence" are musts - and don't miss "How to Be Theologically Funny."  The last chapter is "How (Not) to Retire Theologically."  Can you see this isn't a simply "how to" guide, but a more foundational survey of learning to think theologically, not a "greatest hits" album, but certainly a summarizing, clarifying, foundational collection.  One chapter tries to offer ideas about how the Holy Spirit works, another studies the role of irony.  I think one taking up the calling of being a "Pastor-Theologian" will be interested in "The 'How' of Theology and the Ministry."  For what it is worth, there's a long final chapter  - again, getting at this question of whether people "get" him or not or have read him properly - which is his response to the recently published Hauerwas: A (Very) Critical Introduction which was written by Nicholas Healy. That is a very illuminating piece, the chapter I read first. Maybe you could too.

I COULD HAVE STARTED WITH THESE TWO VERY SMALL BUT WONDERFUL INTRODUCTIONS

Theology- A Very Short Introduction David F. jpgTheology: A Very Short Introduction David F. Ford (Oxford University Press) $11.95  I hope you know the gigantic series by Oxford University that asks esteemed experts in given fields to write pocket-sized, serious-minded guides to their topic.  There are hundreds of them on nearly any imaginable topic, it seems.  (The one on spirituality, by the way, is very thoughtful and worth owning.) Ford is a fine, serious writer and has done major theological works, and a few rich, mature guides for ordinary Christians wanting to learn how to reflect upon their faith and lives. He's a great choice for this ecumenical study, and it is just a fabulous guide into the field, what theology is, why it matters, and the contours of its terrain, the character of those with theological expertise.  Of course, one of the matters at stake in theological debates is what "counts" for theological knowledge, the role of experience and what we consider to be the most reliable authority.  This is fair and thoughtful, and good little volume.

A Little Book for New Theologians.jpgA Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology Kelly M. Kapic (IVP Academic) $8.00 If the above-mentioned Ford is a high church, British Anglican, Kapic - whose PhD is from the King's College at the University of London) is a conservative, Reformed scholar.  He is one of the great thinkers within evangelical scholarship and a much-respected teacher and mentor.  This is a wonderful primer to the task, about the "why and how" of doing this kind of reading.  As Sinclair Ferguson writes, "To study with Kelly Kapic must be serious fun... an ideal start kit for beginning theology student and an affection-refresher for those who have been longer on the way."  Hmmm - this little meditation on how to do theological thinking can "refresh" one's "affection."  Don't you want to try it and see if it is true?


I COULD HAVE MENTIONED SOMETHING THAT IS VERY ENERGETIC, PROVOCATIVE AND ICONOCLASTIC

The Divine Magician Peter Rollins .jpgThe Divine Magician: The Disappearance of Religion and the Discovery of Faith Peter Rollins (Howard/Simon & Schuster) $14.99  I am not immediately drawn to books which claim to be "a bold and subversive vision of faith on the front line of theological innovation" but I know that many people, including some friends that I respect and like, find sustenance from the writings of Rollins. (His first is called How (Not) To Speak of God, a recent one is called The Idolatry of God.) He is a widely sought-after storyteller and public speaker that integrates live song and liturgy, poetry and preaching, performance art and sonic landscapes into his programs as he deconstructs standard notions of abstract dogma and reasonable faith, pushing participants to, as one book title puts it, Insurrection, where "to believe is human, to doubt, divine.) I want to like his iconoclastic protest and prophecy but I admit to not even understanding many of his obtuse books. I suppose it just isn't my cup of disco. Here is what it says on the back: "By approaching Christianity as a type of magic trick, firebrand Peter Rollins presents an understanding of faith that is both unorthodox and challenging." I appreciate that he argues for a deeply material faith which finds meaning not simply in a set of beliefs but in a passionate commitment to the world.  Is it "incendiary" as he suggests?  Does it "offer hope for those seeking a depth and density in life?"  Try it and see. Join with others to read, pray and talk, study and search.  Maybe he's on to something.  This much is true: we need deep consideration of these important matters, and if thoughtful folks together work through these kinds of edgy resources it can help clarify what they do and don't believe, and how to proceed.  It ain't magic, but the process can be wondrous.

MAYBE I SHOULD HAVE SOUNDED THE ECUMENICAL CALL TO INTRAMURAL CONVERSATION

Journeys of Faith- Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Anglicanism  Robert L. jpgJourneys of Faith: Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Anglicanism General Editor Robert L. Plummer (Zondervan) $18.99  I am a big fan of those "five views" or "four perspectives" books where different sorts of Christian thinkers offer a chapter in contrast with three or four others.  By the end of the book, you get a handful of perspectives, and each of the others critiques of each other.  It can make your head spin, and we've got 'em on everything from whether we should take Adam literally in the Genesis narrative to what we think about the Providence of God to varying views of the authority of the Bible.  From Eucharist to Baptism to the end times to the nature of spiritual maturity, these lively debate-oriented volumes are informative and make fine resources for anyone wanting to cover a handful of views of any given topic.  This one is fabulous - not enough, but a great start! - and explores people and their switching to new theological positions.  We have the testimonials of those moving from evangelical to Catholic, from Catholic to Reformed; one contributor has become Anglican, another entered the Eastern Orthodox Church. Each chapter has their logic of each writer, followed by respective respondent. 

Bryan Litfin of Moody Bible Institute writes on the back "If you have ever wondered, 'Why in the world would someone become that type of Christian?' this book provides the answer."  Timothy George says it is "ecumenism at its best" and Mark Noll writes that "For a subject that regularly generates considerable heat, this is a book full of the best kind of light."  The foreword is by Scot McKnight and he notes how we can be reawakened to the "reality of how many are responding to stories of migration from evangelicalism."  Fascinating, heart-felt, with considerable discussion of what approach is best. 

In a Quest of a Vital Protestant Center- An Ecumenical Evangelical Perspective.jpgIn a Quest of a Vital Protestant Center: An Ecumenical Evangelical Perspective George Demetrion (Wipf & Stock) $36.00  I have to admit I am really struck by books that draw on diverse theological views and with almost every book I always start with a study of the footnotes, and sometime unfairly, judge the author by her citations, who she or he draws upon or is in discussion with.  When, as here, I see insightful use of Puritan scholar and Reformed Anglican pastor J.I. Packer and UCC Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann, I am excited and sing praise to God.  It is so sad that in non-evangelical, non-Calvinist circles so few know the wise work of Packer; similarly, it is sad many evangelicals do not read the Brueggemann.  I love the ecumenism and the healthy model of how to be in respectful, hopeful conversation with writers such as Douglas Hall, Richard Lints, Stanley Grenz, Os Guinness, Nancy Murphy.  I loved a long review written by a UCC pastor pal of mine, Chris Anderson, in The New Mercersburg Review, noting that 

Superficial categories in music have not allowed Bob Dylan to join one of his heroes, Hank Williams Sr., in the Country Music Hall of Fame. George Demetrion has broken down similar walls in theology by bringing together a wise diversity of theologians in this book.  Bravo.

AND DOES ANY OF THIS REALLY COUNT AS REALLY REAL KNOWING, ANYWAY?

knowing christ today.jpgKnowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge Dallas Willard (HarperOne) $15.99  I hope you have read some of the late Dallas Willard - his two newest, published after his death, include The Divine Conspiracy Continued (now out in paperback) and the amiable, very valuable book on apologetics called The Allure of Gentleness.) His work about inner transformation is mature and, if taken seriously, life-changing and transformational. (I like, by the way, what is almost an "intro to Willard" written by his good friend, John Ortberg called Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part, which is also available in a DVD curriculum.)

Anyway, much of the best discipleship/formation stuff presumes some of this more theoretical stuff, explored here in succinct and weighty chapters, including the question of whether faith equals knowledge. Why does God call us to know?  His work here is rich and not just intellectually stimulating, it is fruitful and wise and beneficial. The late philosophy professor and spiritual guide offers good words about learning, about true knowledge, about spiritual growth, about how to communicate with those who do not embrace Christ, and even a powerful final chapter about the role of pastors as teachers (pastor-theologians?) Is there a split or dichotomy between "facts and values" and between "science and faith" (just for instance)? Is all truth God's truth? Does the Bible reveal to us things that are deeply true and what does it mean to be sure?  What do we mean when we say something is spiritually true? Can we trust this stuff that our faith calls us to?  My, my, this is a topic, approached with applied theological insight, content that frankly too few of us get to, and which may hinder us until we do.

I SURELY SHOULD HAVE LISTED SOME GOOD STUDY GUIDES FOR BASIC CHRISTIAN THEOLOGICAL AWARENESS IN ORDINARY CHURCHES LIKE THIS SERIES BY ALISTER McGRATH

If you want to delve into theology just a bit, getting your toes wet in a brief, accessible read that is properly described as useful for both "study and devotion" by one of the smartest guys walking on the planet these days, no less, you should know about this "Hearts of the Christian Faith" series by Alister E. McGrath. Professor McGrath is Professor of Theology, Mission, and Education and Head of the Centre for Theology, Religion, and Culture at King's College, London.  His most recent book is a pair of significant, lively works on C.S. Lewis although he has created major academic textbooks for theology and church history and more.   These handy sized paperbacks are each about 115 pages, nicely done, and would be great for personal reading, to use in small groups or Adult Education classes.  Each has 5 chapters. It is a shame that they don't have discussion questions.

The Living God: A Guide for Study and Devotion   Alister E. McGrath (WJK) $16.00

Jesus Christ: A Guide for Study and Devotion   Alister E. McGrath (WJK) $16.00

The Spirit of Grace: A Guide for Study and Devotion Alister E. McGrath (WJK) $16.00

Faith and Creeds: A Guide for Study and Devotion   Alister E. McGrath (WJK) $16.00

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A FINAL SUGGESTION: COMPARE AND CONTRAST, WATCH OUT FOR BLIND SPOTS, AND MODEL BOTH/AND AS DOES THIS HELPFUL BOOK  EXPLORING "THE EXPLICIT GOSPEL"

explicit-gospel.pngThe Explicit Gospel Matt Chandler with Jared Wilson (Crossway) $14.99  Oh my, I wish I had time and energy to explain the many fine features of this wise and inspiring book.  It speaks to matters that are I think are among the most urgent of our time, and even if Chandler and Wilson don't get everything exactly as I might wish, they come pretty close.  There is more (much more) to talk about than in this book, but this book gets at something that will useful for many Hearts & Minds readers, I think. And it is mostly a generous and fair-minded polemic, which is nice to see these days.

Even if their Gospel Coaltion/Acts 29 Reformed passion isn't your own faith tradition, and you don't resonate with this inter-mural debate within conservative evangelical Reformed-ish folks, I think their case study will prove helpful for everyone from mainline folks to emerging post-evangelicals to Biblical students of varying traditions.

Here's the short version.

Some folks tend to approach the gospel informed by intellectual concepts drawn from what is called systematic theology: you know, basic Christian ideas like the nature of God, human sin, forgiveness and grace, Jesus and the cross. These concepts help us realize the great need we have for grace, and helps assure us of God's character, Christ redeeming work, and an assurance of salvation.  This is the way many people (liberal or conservative) tend to approach faith, by way of appropriating what they think the Bible says about these more-or-less random topics.  If we get the right formulation to these profound questions, we can make a case for Christ, and see the glory of the gospel.  God loves us, Jesus died for us, we can be forgiven and called into new life. You know.

Another way that is increasingly used to make the gospel explicit  is not to start with these systematic categories of doctrine, but to read the Bible (and draw theology from it) as it comes to us, that is, as a story. Narrative theology starts not with the "Romans road" of St. Paul, but with the meaning of the human vocation based on the goodness of creation, but then realizes the tragedy of our brokenness and alienation, sees God's overtures in history - promises, laws, judges, kings, wars, laments, poems, prophets, hopes, dreams, promises, again --  and eventually gets to the plot point of what Lewis and Tolkien called a eucatastrophe, a good tragedy, understood as a major act in the play, the redemption wrought by Christ's incarnation, work, death, and resurrection as the plot continues towards a final reconciling of all things and promised restoration of a renewed creation.  Is this grand story (Frederick Buechner once asked) best understood as a classic comedy, a fairy tale, or a tragedy?  Maybe all three, but the point is that Chandler explains the strength of this narrative approach about the story of creation/fall/redemption/restoration which is less systematic, but informed by the very contours and plot of the Bible itself.  

The first ways helps us at least realize our own personal salvation, and the good news is applied to our own salvation by faith alone, through Christ alone. It doesn't talk about the Kingdom of God much, but at least it brings home the essence of faith in Jesus and God's grace.  The second way, also Christ-centered, sees the gospel best understood as the outgrowth of the dramatic unfolding story of Israel as told in the drama of Scripture, and applied to the cosmos itself, as the Bible itself describes it, albeit in a curious plot and complex, multi-generational drama.  If the first is a bit personalistic, the other may be a bit social and corporate. The first certainly invites evangelism while the second says "all of life redeemed" so authorizes cultural engagement.  In the view of Pastor Chandler, something is gained in each telling of the story, each way to make the gospel explicit.  And something is lost a bit if we overemphasize one approach to the exclusion of the other.

This is not exactly the same ground as the conflict of the previous century that set up evangelical revivalism and conservative faith as a response to a liberalized social gospel and the subsequent dead-end binary of words versus deeds, evangelism versus social action.  No, because in the telling of Chandler, both ways of telling the story -- via systematic theology or via Biblical theology --  can be utterly orthodox and fully Biblical and genuinely helpful, so these offer two ways of being true to the texts and the best theological traditions, not a liberal versus conservative debate.

The Explicit Gospel does seems to offer a way of seeing the task of theology (helping us understand and express the gospel) and significance of getting it right.  I like how he offers the strengths (and weaknesses) of each particular perspective, warns about the blinds spots of each emphasis and honors the good intentions of each.  

Maybe this doesn't make sense to you, but it really seems to me to be one of the more helpful theological conversations going on these days.  I might wish for a resolution just a little different then this Texas pastor offers, but this is nonetheless a good resource to get your own thinking going, and to shape the conversation in your own church, parish, or fellowship group.  Kudos.

 

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August 18, 2015

Reading/Living Theology in Fresh Ways -- Fieldwork in Theology (Scharen), The Revelatory Body (Johnson), and Called to Witness: Doing Missional Theology (Guder) ON SALE

adult reading.jpgMany books about books, guides to being a better reader offering the joys of being a life-long learner, advise you to sometimes read something a bit heavy for your typical style, stretching a bit, or taking up a topic or subject about which you don't usually read.  I've really enjoyed books about oddball stuff I wouldn't usually think I'd have much interest in and I've found great value in reading about topics that aren't (as the phrase goes these days) in my wheelhouse. 

Have you?

Theology is one of those genres that many simply avoid. A few of us geeks like to speculate and a few realize that healthy knowledge of doctrine is an asset to lively Christian living. But most of us avoid the T-word as we suspect there will be arcane and overly systematized textbooks about deep topics that maybe don't seem to matter much.  (And if one has been through seminary there may be good reason for a bit of cynical resistance to being a life-long reader of theology, not unlike the way some lit majors, after years of being immersed in researching competing literary theories end up not reading novels much anymore.) I get it. But, still, maybe you should take up a good book of theology from time to time, a serious one, even, just to regain a love for learning.

THREE VERY INTERESTING THEOLOGY EXPERIMENTS

In this post I'd like to highlight two rather unusual titles that do theology is some interesting ways, but that I think are very, very important and readable for those willing to work a bit, and a third that is innovative, but not unusual.  If you perhaps are tired of conventional theology tomes, maybe one of these reviews will convince you to give it another try.

(If you've never, ever read an introduction to basic Christian theology, send me an email and we can suggestion some solid primers.)

If you sometimes read these kinds of books, though, and care about the theological formation of Christian pastors, teachers, leaders (not to mention the hoi polloi of the people of God) you will be excited to hear about these three.

I'll tell you all about one, a little bit about the second, and make a quick announcement about the third. I'm still a bit banged up from my back injury, so bear with me...

BUT BEFORE ALL THAT: TWO OTHERS

Before all that, a quick shout out to two really important new books with almost identical titles and very similar concerns.  I am suggesting in this post that any and all of us should read some theology, and that the books I'm going to tell you about have some interest and relevance for those of us who are not pastors or preachers. But I also want to note that a reminder to read theology is especially germane for pastors, who surprisingly do not tend to read much theology, if surveys about such things are to be trusted, and that there are two new releases which say why. I have not studied either, and can only mention them in a cursory fashion, but mention them I must.  Oddly, these make the case that pastors should function as working theologians in their congregations, and, so these books, describing well this vision, might be useful to congregants as well as pastors.  So for pastors and those who care about the role of pastors, consider these two:

The Pastor as Public Theologian.jpgThe Pastor as Public Theologian: Recovering a Lost Vision  Kevin Vanhoozer & Owen Strachan (Baker Academic) $19.99  Baker continues to be known as an important academic publisher, and this handsome hardback should get very wide distribution. Vanhoozer has written many books of thoughtful, evangelical theology, including extraordinary stuff on hermeneutics, reading the Bible, and the nature of knowing what we know as we enter into the drama of Scripture unfolding. His co-writer, Owen Strachan, has recently done a thoughtful book on the legacy of Chuck Colson, a fine example of an evangelical who worked in prison ministry, thought deeply about culture, and worked to bring God's reform to theories of criminology, even, and the ways in which incarceration happens. These two are a great pair to write about the need to regain this lost vision, making it, as Timothy Keller writes, "an important book" and as Eugene Peterson puts it, "an urgent book."  We sold a few of these the day it came out in part because I did a simple Facebook post, noting it carried endorsements from Peterson and Keller.  I also think it is notable that a very fine writer, and small-church pastor, Jason Byassee (who also writes for the Christian Century) has a good and clever blurb on the back, as does, not surprisingly, Will Willimon.

You can tell from the title that this book explores and invites us to reclaim the significant matter of having a pastor as a "resident theologian" and why the intellectual chops of the pastor and preacher matters so much to the life of the typical congregation. Byassee says the book helps bring together "the vital parish and the learned pastor." The phrase "public theologian" in the title conjures up notions of a "public intellectual" (one whose scholarship  is philosophically rigorous but aimed at matters of the common good and made accessible to thoughtful folk in the public square.) I am not sure, but I suspect that Vanhoozer & Strachan in this book do not mostly mean that the pastor should be an Christian intellectual or theologian for the community at large - writing public-minded op-eds for the paper, speechifying an the local university, or doing particularly heady sermons (although those may not be far from the calling of some Christian leaders) but uses the term "public" to suggest that the pastor's theological chops are exercised not merely in his or her study or behind the scenes, but brings theological categories and ideas overtly into the mix of daily life in the parish. In this sense the pastoral and prophetic task of the church pastor-theologian is public, although I might wish for a less broad title if the thrust of Vanhoozer's book is for the pastor to be a theologian in the public spaces of the local church, not the really public public. One of the ways this book does approach the "public square" is that it maintains that pastors should help their congregants reflect theologically on their own life in the world - from medical ethics to political concerns to the texture and values of their work-worlds and other social responsibilities. In this sense, the people of God are scattered as Kingdom agents in all corners of society, and if pastors are doing intellectually rich theology that is pregnant with public possibilities, they are serving their flock, who then, in turn, influence the public.  I think this is going to be a great book, hopefully enduring, and am glad it is being touted.

The Pastor as Theo GH & TW.jpgThe Pastor as Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision  Gerald Hiestand & Todd Wilson (Zondervan) $18.99 This is new book that sounds these same themes, and is a smaller paperback.  I am pretty sure that it, too, is worth its weight in gold, and I am glad to suggest it as well as the one by the more famous Vanhoozer. (Mr. Vanhoozer, by the way, offers a lengthy and lovely endorsement on the back of this one saying it could "move institutional mountains and raise, if not the dead, then at least defunct concepts - like the pastor-theologian.") Other significant thinkers endorse it, such as Richard Mouw, Peter Leithart (who notes that it is "ambitious ") and the esteemed church historian, Timothy George, who wrote a very good foreword.

Again, whether you are a pastor or not, understanding this older vision of the role of pastors as theological voices amongst the people, is good reading for all of us. If you are not a clergy-person, maybe you should give it to your own pastor, who I bet would actually love to be able to talk to somebody about these visions of vocational holiness.  

 I adore this colorful endorsing blurb from Jamie Smith, who writes of it,

If you're looking for canaries in the church's coal mines, consider our seminaries and divinity schools. In some cases, the seminary has simply become one more outpost of the academy, hijacked by the ideals of the research university, almost allergic to pastoral formation. In other cases, the seminary is reduced to a management seminar where the pastorate is confused with technique. The Pastor-Theologian is an antidote to both, a vision for ecclesial theology and a theological ecclesia. We need this book because we need pastor-theologians.

THREE EXAMPLES OF EXCITING THEOLOGICAL EXPERIMENTS

Fieldwork in Theology- Exploring the Social Context of God's Work.jpgeconomy of desire.jpgwho's afraid smith.jpgliturgy as a way of life.jpgFieldwork in Theology: Exploring the Social Context of God's Work in the World Christian Scharen (Baker Academic) $19.99

This brand new book is the 9th in "The Church and Postmodern Culture" series edited by James K.A. Smith. We stock them all, and I've read most of them carefully, from Smith's most recent study of relativism to Benson's serious book on liturgics and the arts, to a very important one on economics and desire. Some are directly about postmodern theorists (Smith, John D. Caputo, and Merold Westphal did the honors) while others are more about the condition of post-modernity. I think Carl Raschke's one called GloboChrist is stuck with a rather goofy title, but its exploration of the Great Commission in a globalized world is impressive. We look forward to the one coming by Norman Wirzba later this fall.)

Jamie Smith raves about this brand new one in his enthusiastic introduction, explaining that it nicely fulfills his original hope for the series, which brings very high-brow French and Continental philosophers into helpful conversation with North American church life.  The subtitle of Smith's lead-off first volume (Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church) gets at this quite nicely.  And this is exactly what Christian Scharen does, making it great for church leaders of all sorts, but also, in so doing becomes a perfect example of the sort of book I mentioned in my led; you can enter a world you may not know much about and in a handful of hours, come to learn quite a lot about a lot.

I suspect most of you, like me, don't know much about Pierre Bourdieu, one of the great fathers of the field of contemporary sociology (let alone his influences, interlocutors, and critics.) But what an opportunity to practice using your critical thinking skills, what a fresh way to bone up on some profound stuff.  Dr. Scharen is a fine guide through some thick intellectual forests, and he helps us - if I can abruptly switch metaphors - and does much of the heaviest lifting for us.  Fieldwork in Theology is an exceptionally stimulating book and even though it argues for a new way of doing theology (and, consequently, although he doesn't say enough about it, seminary education) it introduces us not only to tons of sociologists and European scholars and urgent, contemporary intellectual history,  it offers us helpful reminders of what it means to think creatively and fruitfully on God's work in the world. 

As Miroslav Volf says "If you are interested in learning to read 'the world' and discern how God is at work in it, this simple book by one of today's finest practical-theologians is an excellent place to start."  (Aside: I love Miroslav, but, uh, his use of the word "simple" sure does illustrate the notion of contingency. One man's simple is pretty darn complex for most others. Just saying.)

Allow me to explain something about Scharen and a great feature or two of his fabulous new book. And four different sorts of Hearts & Minds friends who should consider it.

broken hallelujahs.jpgFirst, I know that Scharen loves rock and roll.  He's written two previous books on music (One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God and Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters to Those Seeking God.) Even though this book guides us into the work of scholars as complex and prosaic as Bourdieu, Gaston Bachelard, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and a dude named Loic Wacquant (and his notion of "carnal sociology") Scharen starts each chapter with an album review or description of a song or live performance. I wasn't anticipating this, so it was a great delight.

For instance, in a prelude to the meaty of the first chapter ("Fieldwork in Theology: Waking Up to the World God Loves") Scharen shows how John Legend, Common, and the Roots and their re-appropriate of the soul song "Wake Up, Everybody" helps us appreciate the theories and project of Pierre Bourdieu. In a really powerful page or two Scharen invites us to think about how Bad by U2 (a song one step closer why u2 matters.jpgabout heroin addiction) helps us appreciate notions of empathy in the non-Cartesian philosophy of science of Gaston Bachelard whose work profoundly effected Bourdieu (not to mention other French luminaries such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and the American historian of science, Thomas Kuhn!)  Scharen, who has written a whole book about U2 is nice to bring this pop song and its passion to the notion of "epistemological breaks" which is a key focus for that chapter.  And, man, when he gets to Merleau-Ponty (and his significant work on the phenomenology of embodied perception) who is explored in light of Esperanza Spalding and his "Freedom Jazz Dance" it all gets really, really interesting! Being awake to the world comes to the fore again, by the way, in the next chapter - a study called "Practical Logic: Bourdieu and the Social Art of Improvisation"  -- when Scharen opens with a study of Arcade Fire.  Since I'm on a roll here, I'll steal the final surprise, and tell that Lauryn Hill comes alive in the final chapter, with her "Black Rage (Sketch)" piece which kicks off  the sociological insights of Loic Wacquant, who was, we learn, "Bourdieu's most famous and most productive student."

The only other Christian scholar who is so good at using these kinds of evocative songs and artists for pretty important theological ends is my pal Brian Walsh, and there are shades of his insights in some of this, it seems. (I say this to assure you that Scharen is credible and astute about his readings of these artists and he truly sees the pretty deep connections; it is not a ploy to make the tough philosophical sledding a bit lighter, although I'd take a soundtrack like that even if it wasn't that integrally connected. These songs make for a rich and exciting learning experience, and helped me connect the heavy theory of these mostly Continental philosophers and their abstract ideas with the down-to-Earth stuff these songs are about.

But here is what I suppose you should know most of all: Scharen is not only a music buff with good impulses about engaging postmodern thought, he's a sociologist, a practitioner who has learned to be good at his craft. Scharen's title about "field work" is to be taken pretty literally. He takes great pains to talk about the ways in which theology is situated, contextualized, and embodied, and should not be merely abstract. Some seminaries are allowing "field work" and the sociological practice of empathetic ethnography is increasingly seen as a way to learn how to discern God's work among a people;  social science skills (such as good listening, asking good questions, being attentive to the patterns of embodied practices, understanding indigenous customs and habits of a locale) can serve the localist theologian and pastor.  Indeed, Scharen, inspired by historic Biblical doctrines such as creation, common grace, people being made in the image of God, the incarnation of Christ and more -- he's a Lutheran so I guess we should gesture towards the gospel of grace -- we should care about these skills of the social sciences, a care about their discoveries.

We've seen several good ethnographies lately of religious groups, research projects pursued by scholars trained as cultural anthropologists who "go native" --  but not in wild foreign jungles, but at places in typical American towns with names like First Presbyterian or Second Baptist or Christ evangelical vs - Melanie Ross.jpgLutheran or St. Somebody Episcopalian or Such and Such Community Church. He tells us about some in this book. (One recent one, by the way, which we've raved about, compares and contrasts and draws together much insight about worship by studying (through involvement with) the liturgical practices of a Central Pennsylvania Evangelical Free Church and a more conventionally-styled, high-church Episcopalian one. See Liturgical and Evangelical Versus Liturgical? Defying a Dichotomy by Messiah College grad and Harvard Divinity School prof, Melanie Ross, published earlier this year by Eerdmans; $17.00.)

Dr. Scharen has done this kind of work himself. Faith as a Way of Life: A Vision for Pastoral Leadership is his published account of his (Yale funded) conversations over a period of time with Christian persons in a variety of faith as a way of life.jpgsocial arenas (taking up their callings as artists, citizens, home-makers, workers, and consumers of leisure time activities) and what he learned as he carefully listened to these folks as they narrated how their local church did or didn't equip them to think about their fidelity to the gospel in these sides of life. So he has some history and expertise as a researcher and practitioner.

Further, he has brought together others who study this field. It may not be a huge seller here in an ordinary bookstore, but we can hope: we love stocking resources like this.  He edited a large volume of academic papers about this explorations in ecc and ethno.jpgvery topic, called Explorations in Eccelsiology and Ethnography (Eerdmans; $40.00.)

He currently serves as Vice President of Applied Research at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York.  His own introduction to the field of sociology came from one of the great public intellectuals and social theorist of our time, Robert Bellah, to whom the book is dedicated.

So here are four kinds of readers who should order this book from us:

  1. If you are a curious thinker, wanting a good book to stretch your mind, engage some important scholarship, eager to learn a bit about something new, in this case, a considered and deeply theological framework for thinking about field work as a way to do theology. As do the other books in this "Church and Postmodern Culture" series, Fieldwork in Theology offers a rigorous but relatively brief introductory "French lessons for the church" and we'd all be better off if some of us knew this stuff. Life-long learner with a big curiosity, fan of Smith's series, or just wanting to stimulate the old grey matter, this book will be rewarding for you, I'm almost sure of it.
  2. If you are a seminary executive or professor or involved in developing theological education, this book is simply a must-read. A. Must. Read. That's obvious.  But even if you are a not a seminary-related person not that interested in the future of theological education, or even that interested in theology at all, this may be useful for you. Especially if you are looking for ways out of the impasse between traditional theological methods and truths of a conservative sort and the way in which many modernist/liberal theological schools of thought and edgy thinkers get way out on a limb that doesn't bear much fruit -- this really does offer a third way, based on alternative understandings of what it means to know, to learn, to formulate theological insight.  Theology as lived practice, informed by the best postmodern and continental thinkers, and studied in embodied, empathetic ways among the very people God loves, well, this "fieldwork" approach might be a game-changer for some, evangelical or progressive.   Dr. Pete Ward is a Durham University professor (a "Fellow of Ecclesiology and Ethnography" - itself quite a thing, those crazy Brits!) and he claims that "Christian Scharen marks a turning point in practical theology." So, there's that going for it.
  3. If you are a sociology professor or serious college major, and want a theologically-informed Christian engagement with some of the key thinkers of the field, and you've mastered the classic Sociology Through the Eyes of Faith (Tony Campolo & David Fraser) and maybe Vern Poythress' Redeeming Sociology, and of course a Peter Berger book or two, then this will be a significant read for you. Of course, Scharen brings in classic thinkers in the field such as Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Bellah and others. It is a book about theology and philosophy, but the sociologists he cites most are passionate about the socially construed context and lived contexts - habitus you guys call it - of socialized people in our contemporary global village. In other words, if you are hoping to honor God by thinking well about the religious uses of the social sciences, this book will stretch you into fruitful intellectual work. In fact, if you care about the integration of faith and learning among any of the liberal arts, this book should be on your list.
  4. If you happen to be doing any field work of your own, this book which offers a philosophy of methodology is a must. In most fields, we proceed at our own cost if we fail to spend time looking at the a priori methodology that necessarily informs and colors our research. (Kuhn and Polanyi, at least, taught us that much!) That is, we have to look at our looking, study our tools; a proper philosophy/theology of method is critical, in the natural sciences, the social sciences, and in the doing of theology.  FIeldwork in Theology: Explore the Social Context of God's Work in the World shows you how it's done. After a ton of critical theory and exploration of the impact of these significant scholarly influences, Scharen tells the tales. From descriptions of the ethnography Scharen's man Pierre Bourdieu did among Algerian peasants to stories of Wacquant's work among boxers in the gyms of the Chicago ghetto of Woodlawn (and "the diffusion of hyper-incarceration" he discovered) to Natalie Wigg-Stevenson's professional work deeply engaging a Christian education program in a Nashville Baptist church (and "the particular bodily dimensions of belonging" which enabled her to deeper, more wholistic ethnography) these are nearly case studies, signposts, bearing witness to new ways to do science, with care and compassion and hopes of truly learning more about the human condition

Fieldwork in Theology- Exploring the Social Context of God's Work.jpgThe Epilogue of Fieldwork in Theology teaches us about "Understanding as a Spiritual Exercise" and it is nearly worth the price of the book. The entire book is well organized and offers clear introductions to what is going to be explored in every chapter, and so this ending piece, too, starts with some useful review and some helpful take-aways.   Just like ethnographers and social scientists have to learn the art of their craft (observing, interviewing, and the like) we all can deepen our skills of faithful understanding. It will entail, Scharen reminds us with gravity worthy of the topic, "forgetfulness of self and conversion to others." These sorts of spiritual gifts and fruits will be sorely needed, it seems to me, if we are to embrace, empowered by the grace of the gospel itself, the concern of Bourdieu's most famous book: The Weight of the World.

Scharen reminds us of what he's been doing in Fieldwork and why:

The church needs to look outward and ask challenging questions of how God is at work loving the world and how we can get involve. To do so, I've argued, leaders need the capacity to understand what is going on and how to think about how God is involved in the world.  This book offers an introduction to a major social scientist under whose mentoring I learned to look with discipline and understanding. That discipline and understanding surely could be gained in a variety of ways.  Here I have offered it through the mode of fieldwork drawn from Pierre Bourdieu. We've been able to understand his approach more deeply by attending to formative influences on his development... 

He ends with a bit about Bourdieu counseling interviewers in field work to be comfortable with silence, to take time to really listen, as people eventually testify about their deepest concerns. 

"Here," Scharen writes, 

in the holy moments of deep silence, listening to another find words for the experiences of his or her life - lovely or horrible or more likely some mixture of both - the whole practice of research is subsumed by our participating in listening as God does, the God who bends near to hear our cries.

TThe Revelatory Body- Theology as Inductive Art.jpghe Revelatory Body: Theology as Inductive Art Luke Timothy Johnson (Eerdmans) $25.00  I started this very sturdy hardback the other day and was nearly stunned by how dense and yet rewarding a careful parsing of each section was. Slowing I've been pondering it, a heavy theology text interlaced with personal story and at times passionate argument. (His study of Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body is fascinating!) The blurbs on the back - from esteemed thinkers such as feminist Elizabeth Johnson of Fordham, Amy Plantinga Pauw of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and the always eloquent Walter Brueggemann - caught me up in great expectation.  The major point by this rigorous Catholic thinker is that theology is more an inductive art then a process of mere deduction. Hmmm, think about that.  Interestingly, Johnson -- a relatively conservative New Testament scholar by training -- insists that all theology (and all Biblical study and all determination of what is true and good) must start in our lived bodies. In a way, this is pretty self-evident: we cannot see or hear or know or feel without eyes or ears or brains or nerve endings.  And, as the aforementioned James K.A. Smith often says, in mocking Descartes, we are not just "brains on a stick." We are full-bodied, multi-dimensional creatures, in a good but fallen creation, and to know God and God's revelation, we must somehow engage such truth with our selves. What else can we do? This is theologically thick and rich, and the consequences are more vast than you may realize.  He will tell you about some of them.

Ms Pauw - who has written about Jonathan Edwards, by the way - says it is a winsome book which "invites readers to ponder the work of the living God in common experiences of bodily life. Here is biblical and theological reflection that discovers the revelatory in the ordinary."  This is true, as Johnson ruminates on all sorts of stuff - pain, pleasure, play, being exceptional at things, going to work, sex. But this is not a "practicing the presence of God" guide to seeing God in the beauty of daily life: rather, it is a theology text, at turns philosophical, Biblical, academic, and scholarly.

Yet, I like that Walt Brueggemann notes that The Revelatory Body: Theology as Inductive Art

exhibits Johnson's deep learning, the largeness of his spirit, and the generosity of this theological sensibility... To write such a book requires a lifetime of awareness, to great benefit of readers.

Professor Luke Timothy Johnson says that "Scripture points to the human body and lived experience as the preeminent arena of God's continuing revelation in the world." Theologians must be willing to "risk engaging actual human situations - as opposed to abstract conceptualizations of those situations.  He is not the first to lament "disembodied theology of the body" (although the phrase is worth remembering) and certainly not the first to ponder what we really mean when we talk about the spirit and the body.   He draws on scholars and philosophers as academics do, most of them not those I'd know well. Marcel, Rahner, Mircea Eliade, even Marshall McLuhan.

Dr. Johnson teaches at Candler Theological Seminary (at Emory University in Atlanta) and notes that a simple premise underlies his convictions in this work:

Authentic faith is more than a matter of right belief; it is the response of human beings in trust and obedience to the one whom Scripture designates as the Living God, in contrast to dead idols that are constructed by humans as projections of their own desires. The Living God of whom Scripture speaks both creates the world at every moment and challenges the ways in which human freedom tends toward the distortion of creation - and indeed of the Creator. Among the idols that authentic faith must resist are the idols of human thought concerning God. Living faith remains aware that the most subtle and sophisticated of all idolatries might actually be the one constructed by theologians who claim to know and understand God.

Called to Witness- Doing Missional Theology.jpgCalled to Witness: Doing Missional Theology Darrell L. Guder (Eerdmans) $25.00  I suppose you can see that this very significant work -- the latest in the Newbigin inspired "Gospel and Our Culture Network" series -- has some considerable sympathies for the sorts of things discussed in both the Christian Scharen Fieldwork book and the Timothy Luke Johnson Body one.  But neither of those spend much time directly explaining the details of God's mission in the world.  (Scharen more than Johnson, I'd say.) Those two are about methodology -- how we can discern the redemptive work of God among the people, or in one's own body.  And both admit that this is done in the church, together, for the life of the world, so they both could be characterized as gently missional.

But here, here we have what some have been waiting for: Guder himself (seminal in perhaps coining the must-discussed, and over-used word) explaining how to do theology as part of the missional project.  The blurbs on the back, here, are indicative of the early-Newbigin Network influence: George Hunsberger, Wilbert Shenk, Dana Roberts, even Craig Barnes, the President of Princeton chimes in affirming that this is a must read for anyone who is using missional lingo and strategies and techniques for church outreach. If Bosch were alive, his name would be on there, I'm sure.

Many of those colorful books that fill up to overflowing our "missional church" shelf here at the shop are very impressive. A few are a bit simplistic but most are meaty, big, relevant, long on cultural analysis and Biblical teaching.  But few do theology as such

Here we have, by the author Hunsberger calls "the grand master of missional theology" the theological thinking that undergirds the movement.  Or should, at least. In just 200 pages!  

The first chapter is "From Mission and Theology to Missional Theology" and he takes off from there.  We get to join him in studies of the missio dei, the nature of mission after Christendom (of course), the Christological formation of missional living, the church as a missional community, and more.  There is discussion about the "Nicene Marks" of a "Post-Christendom Church" and insights and proposals about the authority and interpretation of Scripture. He writes about leadership, about "integrating theological formation for apostolic vocation" and ends with a bit on ecumenism. 

Dr. John R.Franke, senior editor of the "Gospel and Our Culture" series of which this is a part -- designed to "foster the missional encounter with the gospel with North American culture" -- says many good things about Professor Guder and that "this volume will stand as one of his greatest contributions."  I think it looks excellent, and so glad it has arrived.

Fieldwork in Theology- Exploring the Social Context of God's Work.jpg

The Revelatory Body- Theology as Inductive Art.jpg

Called to Witness- Doing Missional Theology.jpg









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August 12, 2015

Three tremendous new items (two books and a DVD) about C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Joy Davidman: ON SALE

Thanks to those who have prayed for us during my recovery from a stupid back injury; your nice wishes and prayers mean a lot.  Although befuddled by some strong pain meds, I have, in my bed rest, been able to scrunch myself into a position to read, and although I'll try to be brief - you're welcome - I am eager to announce a few important new resources for those who are fans of C.S. Lewis & Co.  Even if you are not fans, you should know about these three new and very significant items.  We need some summer biz on this end, too, so order 'em now, even if you don't have time to read or watch until the Autumn.  For our BookNotes readers, everything is 20% off, too.  Cheerio.

Yet One More Spring: A Critical Study of Joy Davidman Don W. King (Eerdmans) $32.00//$25.60

DVD  Discussing Mere Christianity: Exploring the History, Meaning & Relevance of C.S. Lewis's Greatest Book  Devin Brown, hosted by Eric Metaxas (Zondervan) $49.99//$39.99

A Hobbit A Wardrobe and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914 - 1918 Joseph Loconte (Nelson) $24.99//$19.99

Yet One More Spring- A Critical Study of Joy Davidman .jpgYet One More Spring: A Critical Study of Joy Davidman Don W. King (Eerdmans) $32.00 our discounted price $25.60

This long-awaited book just arrived yesterday, just in time to make this little list, but I have not studied it yet.  I do know three things for sure: Montreat College professor Don King is a wonderful, learned, generous thinker and author and is very well respected in Lewis studies.  He has the critical edition of Lewis's complete poems and he edited the remarkable collection of letters by Lewis's wife, Joy Davidman, Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman. I don't know of anyone more suited to a thoughtful study of Lewis's colorful, American formerly Jewish wife whose death stung Lewis so he wrote a book on grief under a pen name.

Secondly, we are told that this is the first comprehensive study of this gifted, but largely overlooked American writer.  Even Douglas Gresham, Joy's son, agrees:  "Don King has long been fascinated and intrigued by my mother's writing... an amazing portrait of a complex, extremely intelligent, deeply emotional, strong and courageous, yet emotionally fragile woman creeps out of the pages of this book."

a naked tree.jpgThirdly, there was not long ago a recently unearthed set of love sonnets written by Davidman to C.S. Lewis, and this is a "pioneering discussion" which (according to Michael Ward, of Planet Narnia and The Narnia Code fame) "is causing a major reassessment of her literary - and possibly her personal reputation."

This looks to be a great read, described by one reviewer as "Part anthology, part biography, part literary analysis."  Yet One More Spring caused Diana Pavlac Glyer (author of the wonderful book The Company They Keep about the friendship between Lewis and Tolkien) to say "I was intrigued, enlightened, and at times frankly astonished by what I discovered in these pages.... Challenging. Satisfying. And long, long, overdue."


Discussing Mere DVD.jpgDVD  Discussing Mere Christianity: Exploring the History, Meaning & Relevance of C.S. Lewis's Greatest Book  Devin Brown, hosted by Eric Metaxas (Zondervan) $49.99 our discounted price $39.99

The impressive Devin Brown (Professor of English at Asbury University, and friend of H&M, I might add) is a great thinker, and, more importantly for this project, a great communicator and teacher.  Not only is he a Lewis (and Tolkien) expert, but he knows how ordinary folks, churched or not, need to grapple with big ideas made accessible.

We have for decades wished for a useful video curriculum serving as an upbeat introduction to this beloved, but sometimes, dense British masterpiece, and having a good guide, who knows the material well, and is skilled at writing about it makes a huge difference. Brown is a former Scholar-in-Residence at the Kilns (Lewis's Oxford home) and he has written a number of excellent books on Lewis, and he is also a teacher himself, making this a perfect resource.  That it is interestingly hosted by the jovial Lewis buff, Eric Metaxas, gives these video studies a professional, congenial tone.  Fabulous invited guests share solid insights and fun anecdotes, helping us appreciate and enjoy the relevance of this best-selling book from a century ago. Featured are N.T. Wright, Tim Keller, Lauren Winner, Devin Brown, Paul McCusker, Douglas Gresham, all who "help us understand the timeless message of C.S. Lewis in fresh ways for a new generation."  Kudos to all involved.

There are eight sessions here, following the main arguments of Mere Christianity.  Here are the titles of the sessions. 

  1. Our Sense of Right and Wrong
  2. What's Behind Our Sense of Right and Wrong
  3. The Rival Conceptions of God
  4. Free Will and the Shocking Alternative
  5. Christian Behavior and the Great Sin of Pride
  6. The Christian Virtue of Hope
  7. God in Three Persons
  8. Counting the Cost   

mere hardback.jpgmere new paperback cover.jpgThis follows Lewis's exquisite logic and draws on his elegant prose. It offers solid, smart argument and holds up some of his very best analogies and illustrations, of which there are many.  

One copy of the must-have study book, created by Dr. Brown, is included in the package shown above (more are available for each participant if your using it in a class or small group) and it includes further video notes, discussion questions, individual activities and personal study suggestions for each session.  It is very, very good and highly recommended.                                                       Two new covers, paperback,hardback.

A quick closing remark about this book, and one thought about why using it in your church or group is important: at our blog here we review a  diversity of books, mostly Christian, although we define that pretty broadly.  It's a fact that we have brothers and sisters who are theologically progressive, liberal, Evangelical or conservative,  some customers who are spiritually mature and inquisitive, others who are churchy but not very interested in deeper things. Some folks like to learn and others need a little help - and this can offer that help! We know Greek Orthodox believers, Catholics of all sorts, Anabaptists, free church fundamentalists and the truly, truly Reformed. There are -- as Tom Sine once put it -- emergents and missionals, multi-ethnics and monastics.   From United Methodists to United Church of Christ, from Church of God  members of both sorts to Lutherans of various Synods, Presbys to Pentecostals, Congregationalists to Episcopalians, there is a very wide array of folks within Christ's big church.

I would hope that a basic sort of Creed from the earliest of days would unite us, although not everybody these days even believes the ancient formulations.  Perhaps this - mere Christianity - is a help.  Does your church hold to this much, at least?  Can we be, in whatever tone or accent we each bring, mere Christians? I think this is a good start to help us know what we believe (at least) and why we believe it (or at least some of the reasons why) and how to offer this good news to a skeptical, confused, but hungry world.  It will do the Church good to become re-familiarized with Clive Staples Lewis and his now-classic BBC radio talks which became the book Mere Christianity.  We've been waiting for this resource. Let us pray that many use it, and many are equipped to know and live in the deep, profound truths of mere Christian faith.  

Here is a four minute "trailer" introducing you to this thoughtful, charming study. 


A Hobbit A Wardrobe and a Great War- .jpgA Hobbit A Wardrobe and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914 - 1918 Joseph Loconte (Thomas Nelson) $24.99 our sale price $19.99 

We have a large selection in the shop of Lewisy/Tolkien/Inklings related books ---I'm glad we've promoted, and glad some customers of ours even have hosted an on-line reading group of Philip & Carol Zaleski's The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, one of the most important books in this field in many a year. But, sometimes I wonder what else can possibly be said.  I did a small review of a few recent Lewis-related books this past spring, and was very happy about that list, but this recent one was not released then.  And oh my, it should have been on that list, and it definitely offers some new considerations of what fueled the extraordinary work of these two scholars, and frames the themes of their writing in some interesting, helpful ways. A Hobbit A Wardrobe and a Great War is a very good read, and a major contribution to the field.

Professor Loconte (who teaches History at the Kings College in New York) is an excellent writer, intelligent, serious, mature, and his command of the history and philosophy of the ethos of the era in which Lewis and Tolkien came of age is prodigious. His writing, while sober, is insightful and at times exceptionally powerful. (His 2012 book about those who are religious seekers in this age of doubt -- The Searchers - was eloquent and at times profound.)

His fan and friend Eric Metaxas raves about this new one saying,

Loconte's book is rendered with typical passion, erudition, and élan; and his explanation of how the tragedy of the Great War warped the moral landscape of the past century is an utterly vital contribution to our understand of where we are today.

The opening introduction and first major chapter of this learned book, whether you care about Hobbits or Narnians, Mordor or Perelandra, or not, is worth every nickel of the price of the book. This study of how the secularized myth of progress, ever-growing technological and economic achievement, supposedly spurring even the natural upward improvement of human nature (and the formative role of Herbert Spenser, Darwinism, eugenics, the social gospel, and other ideological and social trends, and new inventions to fund that myth) shaped the early part of the 20th century is succinct, compelling, and important. (Is he really describing the visions and values and habits of heart from over a century ago, or is he ruminating on stuff I read from thought leaders, uh, last week?)

This early salvo is rich and important, and if one doesn't have an awareness of and discernment about this (idolatrous and disastrous) meta-narrative of our times, it is must reading. That Mr. Laconte shows the horror of World War I - reading a few stats and stories on the first pages made the hair rise on my arm, and nearly brought tears to my eyes, so brutal was that devastation - and how it influenced Lewis and Tolkien who both fought in the trenches and saw grotesque things no human should have to face, is a very helpful way into the story.  But even leaving the men who eventually became friends and legendary storytellers out of it, these first chapters are essential for those who care about our own times, and how we got here.  Metaxas's endorsement is spot on.

Laconte reminds us that "All this self-generated progress, this mastery of nature, was occurring without the help of religion."  

Indeed,

For many Europeans and Americans, Christianity seemed irrelevant to the insights ad blessings of the new technologies... Thus, it was not only technological innovations that were emboldening the believers in progress. Scientists and social thinkers were also transforming the way Europeans and Americans viewed even human nature and the cosmos.

Reformers of this era - even the eugenicists - were committed to improving human nature and thought what they were doing was virtuous. (Sounds familiar, from last weeks news, huh?)  Laconte distills a consensus among many scholars when he writes, "The conceit of the intellectual elites of the day was that science, and the technology it underwrites, could solve the most intractable of human problems."

As I said, this study of the cultural backdrop of the Great War, and how it then influenced our favorite fantasy writers, could nearly be writing about the mood of many today.  Am I wrong to recall a headline I saw in my inbox today about bio-engineering, or a review I read last week about the hit BBC Orphan Black or a letter I got back from my Congressman yesterday about his resistance to labeling GMO foods? GivenPlanned Parenthood and Monsanto and drones over Pakistan, Locante's dour analysis of the pre-War ethos and tendencies and visions might be helpful in assessing our own times.

Again, as Locante reminds us, the thought leaders and many theologians and preachers believed not just in the blessings of better technology, but a whole scientistic worldview that promised the improvement of society, the ending of truly bad wars, even a maturity of the human condition, of human nature itself!

Tolkien and Lewis encounter the horrific progeny of this thinking - in the trenches and barbed wire and mortars of the Great War - and it gave them great pause about human potentiality. On the one hand the characters in their novels possess a great nobility: creatures endowed with a unique capacity for virtue, courage, and love. Indeed, a vital theme throughout is the sacred worth of the individual soul: in Middle earth and in Narnia, every life is of immense consequence. On the other hand, their characters are deeply flawed individuals, capable of great evil, and in desperate need of divine grace to overcome their predicament. Both authors thus reflect the historic Christian tradition: human nature is a tragic mix of nobility and wretchedness.

Although with a different tone and making a few different connections, Loconte  does what Brian Walsh and J. Richard Middleton did in the middle portions of their classic book on worldview, The Transforming Vision and especially in the opening of their book on postmodernity, Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be by heading to the World's Fair exalted in London in 1851 with the "promise of the Crystal Palace."  This remarkable tribute to the hopes of progress rooted in Enlightenment rationalism driven by the technological innovation of the Industrial Revolution was even then perspicuous for offering a religious-like worship of the gods of progress.  Loconte tell us that the Crystal Palace was an

enormous glass and cast-iron monument built to house the Great Exhibition...it was the largest glass structure in the world and a symbol of Victorian England's cultural triumphs, spread across ten miles of floor space, and grouped into four main categories: raw materials, machinery, manufacturers, and fine arts. Of the fifteen thousand contributors, Britain claimed half the display space. Queen Victoria declared the opening day of the fair "the greatest day in our history."

Locante, by the way, shows how both Tolkien and Lewis were uncomfortable with this technological take-over of their pastoral British countryside and these glitzy promises of more, more, more.  The ecological overtones of their fantasy (and their letters) makes clear they disapproved of the encroachment of technological life into rural England, and their concerns about a culture's loss of traditions and faith and sense of reality due to the over-reliance of technology.  Others such as Matthew Dickerson have written at length about this (see his semi-scholarly but fascinating Narnia and the Fields of Abol and Ants, Elves, and Eriador) but Laconte succinctly underscores how our Inklings "lampoon the growth of technologies and bureaucracies at the expense of human freedom."

(It is refreshing, by the way, to see an esteemed social and political conservative like Joe Laconte note approvingly of this insight - less thoughtful conservatives have mocked "hippies and tree-huggers" for seeing these concerns in Tolkien and Lewis, as if it is silly to suggest ecological sensibilities were important to these authors or as if these sensibilities themselves are somehow unimportant or only of interest to the far left. "Lewis viewed nature as an intrinsic part of human life," Loconte writes. "This is why the Narnia novels give such a prominent role to its animals." Good for him for saying so.)

More to the point of the argument that Laconte is making, with the help of a wonderfully close reading of the vast work of these two writers, however, is that the Great War and its demonic devastation changed everything for the West. Its horror was ghastly and almost beyond belief, and its impact huge, on life and limb, on property and land, on political systems and governance, and, importantly, on ideas and beliefs and attitudes and faiths.  The way the war left the optimism of the myth of progress in its dark wake is essential to understand.

Like no other force in history, the First World War permanently altered the political and cultural landscape of Europe, America, and the West. In the judgement of more than one historian, the war became "the axis on which the modern world turned." Literary critic Roger Sale has called the conflict "the single event most responsible for shaping the modern idea that heroism is dead." For a generation of men and women, it brought the end of innocence - and the end of faith. 

Loconte looks at "the merciless machinery of war" and helps us realize - without any didactic extrapolation to current wars or faith in military lasers, drones and other vile gizmos - "this was the most terrifying result of The Myth of Progress: it inspired great advances in military technology, but failed to advance any new theories of warfare to address the consequences of this technology to the battlefield.

What an illusion it all was, exposed as hollow by the savagery of total, technological war shook the ground, literally and metaphorically, under the feet of much of the world.

"The early apostles of The Myth of Progress believed they had overcome the problems of the industrial society. More than that, they imagined that they had solved the riddle of human existence."  Right. And even after subsequent Gulags and Holocausts, Genocides and ghastly modern moments like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, some continue to say this.

These are my ruminations, of course, inspired by the first few chapters of this remarkable and very interesting book. This is important stuff, and Laconte shows how Lewis and Tolkien understood much about the prevailing cultural zeitgeist, as we say nowadays.

lewis and tolk.jpgBut Locante's main task in A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and a Great War is to prove his case by drawing on the men themselves (their friendship, their mutual aid, their influence over each other, spiritually and literarily and professionally) and the stories themselves, on Bilbo and Caspian and N.I.C.E.   Moving deftly from relevant European military and political history to mid-twentieth-century philosophy and theology to the children's stories and fantasy novels, this is a bio of Tolkien and Lewis unlike any other.

Although the chapters are not exclusively dedicated to any one work, the chapter titles are familiar: "The Last Battle", "In a Hole in the Ground There Lived a Hobbit" "The Lion, the Witch, and the War" and on he goes. Chapter Five is called "The Land of Shadow" while Chapter Six is "That Hideous Strength."  I loved his conclusion, aptly entitled "The Return of the King."

Laconte, like his writerly heroes, and the fictional characters they've created, is not a pacifist.  He teaches a bit in American Foreign Policy and I suppose he is a realist in these things, as they say. As one trying to follow the way of Jesus and other Biblical mandates about peacemaking and nonviolence, I will admit I did not agree with some of the conclusions of this otherwise fine work, particularly around the question of violence and the nature of the tragic, and the ethics of war-fighting. I do agree, however, with Laconte's read on how these authors realize in their imagined worlds, that we must live "in the world as we find it" as one chapter section calls it.

That is, 

Central to the experience [in the war] was an encounter with the presence of evil: the deep corruption of the human heart that makes it capable of hunting down and destroying millions of lives in a remorseless war of attrition.

Is this struggle with evil - even in the way we resist evil - at the heart of the lessons of Gandalf and Frodo.  Gandolf explains

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,

One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness

 bind them,

In the land of Mordor where the shadows lie.

I am not sure if Mr. Laconte, and most other Lewis and Tolkien devotees, have taken this grand drama and its profound warning adequately to heart.  Have any of us?  We need grace and resurrection power to resist evil, I am sure, and although there are battles galore in Middle Earth and Narnia (and there will be "wars and rumors of wars" here East of Eden) I still wonder about those who valorize bravery inspired by pagan Greeks and warriors and killers. I am confident that this great study of the ethics and social visions of these enduring post-WWI fantasies will bring us much closer to the way of the Cross, but without even deeper, deeper magic, and a willingness to critique the unholy injustices of war, I am afraid we will fall short of the way of the Lamb.

I do agree, though, that Loconte's writing is inspiring and good. I value his social criticism and I enjoyed his obviously very astute fluency in Tolkien and all things through the Wardrobe.  I love how he inspires us,

In the end, the creators of Narnia and Middle-earth offer a vision of human life that is at once terrifying and sublime. They insist that every soul is caught up in an epic story of sacrifice and courage and clashing armies: the Return of the King.... This King, who brings strength and healing in his hands, will make everything sad come untrue.

Here is a one minute advert for the book -- very nicely done!  Check it out.



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August 9, 2015

Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God by Lauren Winner ON SALE 20% OFF

I hope you enjoyed reading my last BookNotes post offering my picks for the best books on faith formation that have been recently published.  Just reading about those seven titles, I hope, was somehow inspiring.  We should be glad for these kinds of books that help us get to the heart of basic Christian discipleship and being transformed into the sorts of image bearers of God that honors Christ as Lord and is generative for our own growth in holy humanness.  Such personal renewal certainly spills over into our daily lives, our churches and families and workplaces, inviting new possibilities for cultural flourishing and social healing. I think each of those books offered something indispensable and hope you consider them for a book club, study group or Sunday school class, although they are each ideal for your own personal reading.  Tolle legge, ya'all.

Wearing God.jpgWearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God by Lauren Winner (HarperOne; $24.99//our BookNotes sale price, $19.99) deserves to be on that list, even if it came out earlier in the year. I had mentioned it briefly here when it first released, but have been waiting to revisit it. In fact, I am so very fond of this erudite, delightful, learned, and edifying book that I wanted to tell you about it now in a review dedicated to nothing else. It is more than an afterthought or addendum to the last post, but surely is one of the best books of this genre all year! I am confident Wearing God will be on our "Best of 2015" list five or so months from now, in part because it drew me into Scripture and made me think and, yes, entertained me as it did so.

I'm sure you are not surprised to know that I think highly of the writing of Lauren Winner. 

We have been champions of her books, from her amazingly interesting and very moving coming to faith memoir Girl Meets God to her brief but exceptionally useful discussion of Jewish practices Christian people should consider, Mudhouse Sabbath (there is a brand new study edition coming out any day from Paraclete, by the way) to her must-read book on the meaning of chastity, Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity, and her haunting, candid memoir of grief, divorce, searching but not finding God, and a quiet renewal of modest faith after a season of feeling away from God called Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis.  Beth and I and our staff have been glad to host her at the shop more than once. Her good, intelligent writing, a charming style of essay rooted in memoir, allows her to reveal much about herself (warts and all, as they say in that unflattering phrase) while bringing much insight about Christian theology, congregational life, social history, and a spirituality rooted in the broad, ecumenical, liturgical tradition into which she was baptized as a convert from Judaism. 

As a bright and quirky young scholar (she knows so much about so many things and is a voracious reader of fiction and nonfiction, now a prof at Duke Divinity School) she brings an informed, historical eye to many of her ruminations, making her a wonderful author to enjoy. (She calls herself a "bookworm who can happily get lost for a few days on a research trail.") She knows much, has struggled with much, and yet writes so very, very well, without condescension or sentimentality or overwrought zeal. 

I ought not try to compare her work to other popular writers that are also appreciated by some of her fans, but I'll suggest that she is not as zesty or funny as Anne Lamott, nor as intellectually feisty as Phyllis Tickle, and she does not curse like Nadia Bolz-Webber (and her tattoos are less spacious, shall we say), and although she can be elegant, lyrical and even luminous in her prose vocabulary, she's not quite as restrained as Kathleen Norris, although some have likened her style to Nora Gallagher. Her own faith journey towards Jesus came from devout Judaism, through a particularly thoughtful community of evangelicals, not from lefty atheism into liberal Episcopalianism like Sarah Miles, say, but one can appreciate their similarities in discovering a robust liturgical worldview.  Nobody should bear the burden of being compared to Barbara Brown Taylor, but Lauren is good enough as a writer for me to at least suggest it. By naming this handful of contemporary Christian women writers who serve in mainline churches, and placing Ms Winner within their constellation, I think you get the picture.  She is a very accomplished writer and both helpful and entertaining.  She has written for Books & Culture, Christianity Today, and The Christian Century so you can imagine that we like her ecumenical appeal.

LaurenWinner.jpgAll of the previously mentioned books (which I've reviewed at BookNotes) share her memoirist styling -- all tell much about her life and her spiritual discoveries emerge from her story.  Is this maybe called "creative nonfiction"? There is more to her life that could be told, I am sure, but the point is that those books are very impressionistic, her reflections revealed as she narrates portions of her life and faith journey. I value that a lot, and enjoy those books because of that engaging, slice-of-life style.  Anyone that can show us how to find God in our ordinary days by bearing witness to what they have discovered along the way can be helpful, sometimes as much as didactic theological or Biblical teaching or straightforward spiritual guidance.

Although Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God carries some of this trademark style, it seems to me it is a bit less memoir and a bit more explanatory of Biblical and theological teachings then any of her other books.  It is still a real blast to read - I so enjoyed it and couldn't put it down! - and I commend it for its very lovely style and delightful turns of phrase and images and word choices. It is well-written and enjoyable for the tales she tells, but there is more direct substance here than ever before.

The back story to this book is, though, rooted in her own narrative, and the book begins that way. She tells us about a fresh discovery (like being shot by "Cupid's Arrow" she even says) made on the heels of the spiritual dryness documented in Still... of wanting to know God more deeply by discovering God's revelation in the Bible.  She has always valued the Biblical text, participated in faith communities that scripture reading.jpgloved the Bible, but had not been deeply engaged in Bible study the way she was, say, in her fascination with church history texts or ancient diaries, or her use of prayer books and hymnals.  I am sure I am not the only one who can relate to finding great solace and spiritual encouragement in spiritual authors, theologians, cultural critics, novelists and poets, and understand when she admitted that she found the Bible a bit boring.  Happily, she starts the book with an admission to a new obsession, a true eagerness to study and attend to the Bible in all its unique and strange glory.  Unlike any other literature, she assures us, it "overflows endlessly."  

Winner tells us that her "newfound wakefulness" to the Scriptures coincided with a discovery that her images of God were rather old and perhaps a mixed bag of usefulness and error. 

...and it led me on a search: what pictures, what images and metaphors, does the Bible give us for who God is, and what ways of being with God might those pictures invite? 

Well, I suppose you can see where that is going.  

Ms Winner is correct to warn us that,

repetition of familiar images can have [a negative, dulling] effect. The words become placeholders, and I can speak them so inattentively that I let them obscure the reality whose place they hold. I repeat them, I restrict my prayer to that small cupful of images, and I wind up insensible to them.

"A small cupful of images."  Wow!

She obviously holds no brief against familiar images. She precedes this warning of certain images growing stale from over-use with a lovely reminder of how common images can come alive in a particular community of faith, exactly because they are regularly used and practiced.

Through repetition and association, these few images can become even richer: there was once a time when I didn't have many thoughts or feelings about God as great physician, but now I have prayed to that God with Carolanne, whose husband is pinned down by Parkinson's, and Belle, who so much wants to keep this pregnancy, and Albert, who is dogged by depression, and because those prayers, and the fears and hopes and miracles and disappointments they carry, God-as-physician seems a richer image than I first understood.

But get this:

Unlike my church, with its four favored metaphors, the Bible offers hundreds of images of God - images the church has paid a great deal of attention to in earlier centuries, although many are largely overlooked now. Drunkard. Beekeeper. Homeless man. Tree. "Shepherd" and "light" are perfectly wonderful images, but in fixing on them - in fixing on any three or four primary metaphors for God - we have truncated our relationship with the divine, and we have cut ourselves off from the more voluble and variable witness of scriptures, which depict God as clothing. As fire. As comedian. Sleeper. Water. Dog.

There are, as I suppose you know, a good number of books like this, exploring the odd and rarer images of God in the Bible, and while it is obviously good to explore these often overlooked self-disclosures of God - using the unconventional images, fresh metaphors, Biblical idioms that may startle and annoy, even - some of the other books that do this are either way too scholarly and dry or they seem to be driven by a spirit of mistrust about the main teachings of the Bible, an attitude of deconstruction, wanting to undo conventional truths, replacing orthodox insights with oddball and eccentric notions.

I do not think Lauren is doing this - going out on a shaky limb creating a new kind of faith that is disconnected from classic, historic convictions of the ages.  Yes, she draws on some very unusual images from the Bible and she explores how some rather mystical sisters and brothers of earlier centuries drew on these images, but she isn't making this up as she goes along, nor is she undercutting traditionally beloved images (although I think it is proper to say that given the multitude of images, some might refine or color how we understand the others as we hold in tension competing metaphors or similes.) That is, one can still call God Father even after one discovers God as Laboring Woman.  God can reveal God's own self by way of Bread and by way of Laughter and by way of King. Wearing God invites us to experience God anew by offering Winner's own creative reflection on the way God meets us, seen through the lens of a bit of her own story and how she came to discover and appreciate these lesser-known or appreciated images.  This process is primarily an imaginative, attentive, spiritually alert reading of the Holy Scriptures.  

I learned much from every chapter, I really did. I was a bit surprised that Winner didn't realize some of these metaphors or similes are in the Book, and will be eager to know if this is new material for you, dear reader.  New for you or not, however, I am sure you will experience at least some of what I did.

Firstly, I enjoyed a new appreciation for the details of the Biblical texts she proclaimed  (Ahh, her Jewish background gives her fluency in Hebrew and the Midrash of the old rabbis, too, so she brings a learned and historically informed view to her playfully close reading of the passages under consideration.) 

Secondly, I suspect that you, like I, will be surprised to discover that many in church history have appropriated these less then common Biblical images and idioms for God.  She weaves from the Biblical text to a medieval prayer book to a story of a contemporary church she visited or prayer meeting or class in the local women's prison where these images are known and used and back to a line from Augustine or Julian or Spurgeon.  

julian of n.jpgjohn calvin.jpgHer knowledge of saints and mystics and theologians is extraordinary: from the exegesis of John Calvin to the hymns of Ephrem the Syrian, from Ambrose of Milan to Catherine of Sienna, from Aelred of Rievaulx to Julian of Norwich, she cites them all. Of course Hildegarde of Bingen shows up, but so does John Flavel. In fact, there are little sidebars and boxed quotes from many ancient and contemporary writers - from John Donne to Birgitta of Sweden, Emily Dickinson to Gordon Fee, the Book of Common Prayer to Norman Wirzba - and these are themselves extra ruminations on the points she is making.

And there are stories galore, many from her own life; her aforementioned work in a women's prison is shared more than once, as is a narrative about going to a prayer/protest at an immigration detention center; her passion for racial and social justice in this era of mass incarceration is nearly fiery - God bless her, as I suspect this isn't her natural love language, as they say. I was deeply touched by a few of the anecdotes that pertained to each new image, as touched by the stories as by the creative Bible interpretation, and found her social/political concerns very compelling.

I was choked up more than once, in fact.  She writes about women's vocalizations during childbirth in a beautiful, sensuous, graphic chapter about labor (she even quotes famous hippy midwife Ina Mae Gaskin!) and links that to God's own groans in Isaiah 42 - a powerful study as evocative as anything Brueggemann has written.  God being vulnerable is not a new idea - she reminds us of Placher's book The Vulnerable God and quotes a passionate paragraph from Ellen Davis and moves from the passion of Christ's death to an earthy reminder of his very human birth, but it is very moving in her telling. Her section about nursing, too, is excellent, and surprised me with some sensitive reminders of how some women feel who are unable to nurse their little ones at their breasts.  (And yes, she brings up Numbers 11.) So God is a birthing mother, maybe a labor coach/midwife, and a nursing mom, too.  I can't imagine any woman who wouldn't find this interesting, and I think most men should, too.

In the chapter from which the title of the book is drawn, Winner writes some wonderful stuff about clothing. We comport ourselves differently when we wear different outfits and it is really fun hearing her talk about her different "styles" and go-to garments. She does some Bible study on "clothing" oneself in Christ (Galatians 3) while sitting in the women's clothing section of a Raleigh department store - what an idea, what a great few pages that was! - and she offers, of course, some history and sociology of fashion.  (Again, she reads very widely, and has an eye for the fascinating historical factoid or the significance of social trends and shifts through the ages.) But the piece in this chapter that got to me was a story of Stephanie Paulsell (from a beautiful Christian Century essay) where she told a friend that she was too depressed, from a miscarriage, to pray. Her friend sent her a dress that she herself had worn while praying intentionally for a year, writing to her that the outfit had so many prayers in it, Paulsen could just wear it as an act of prayerfulness. I don't quite know why, but I cried and cried when I read that.  God revealed as clothing is a tremendously rich notion, well backed up with Bible stories, and a must-read for anyone interested in creative prayer, maturing in Christ, or, of course, clothing and fashion.

The chapter on smell - yes, aroma in the Bible - is also truly fascinating. I can't even begin...  Of course Lauren knows something about the history of smell, and how other senses are privileged in the West and cites writers who think about that. This was fabulous stuff, with some obvious, and some not so obvious applications.

And then there is a chapter called "Bread and Vine" which should appeal to anyone with an interest in the recent flurry of books about the intersection of faith and food, the spirituality of eating. (And, man, was I glad for the quote from Lutheran liturgical theologian Gail Ramshaw, in Winner's section about Eucharistic bread, about being done with the dumb little manufactured communion wafers that don't look or taste like anything!)  This luscious rumination on bread, mostly, and wine, moves widely from vineyards to Winner's own kitchen to Southern cookbooks, racial diversity, the thirteenth-century Saxon mystic Mechthild and her visions, and the Biblical call to be intoxicated with love for Christ.  It's a great chapter.

Her chapter on laughter is quite good, although not funny. There are some very good insights about the harsher Psalms, where God appears to laugh not pleasantly with others but at them. (Aside: it made me think of two Bruce Cockburn songs, "Laughter" from an early album Further Adventures of... and the wonderful "Listen for the Laugh" on Dart to the Heart.)

The chapter called "Flame" is wonderfully written and moves from the predictable use of fire as ardor for God to the more dangerous vision of God as fire, a bit on Pentecost, and the question about whether the fire predicted for the end is destructive or restorative.  She moves in some very interesting directions while pondering flame and fire during Holy Week, and finally gets to talking about the role of prayer and spiritual disciplines.  She declares that,

I do not want to instrumentalize prayer. Prayer, finally, is not productive, and it is not a means to an end. And yet, I know from my own halting two decades of prayer - of on-again, off-again prayer, of prayer that I consistent and prayer that is sporadic - that it is precisely contemplation that is turning me into a person with the capacity to attend to God and to God's world.  

She continues, in a question that is most likely your own, as it is mine,

How can I become a person who pays enough attention that I might notice something and then act in response? Prayer, lectio divina, reading the same passage of the Bible again and again and trying to notice what God has for me to notice; siting in silence; walking in silence; repeating the psalms over and over - these habits might teach me how to pay attention. 

Wearing God ends with two short chapters, one a bit heady about the "poverty of expression" which reminds us of the limits of language. (With shades of her previous work, Still, Lauren reminds us of the Deus absconditus of Isaiah 45, "the God who hides.")  I was riveted by this, but didn't find it adequate, despite it being pretty meaty stuff.  (She draws on the thoughtful book The Wound of Knowledge by Rowan Williams, Denys Turner and Beldon Lane, if that is useful to know, and ends with the prayer of Paul in Romans  --"how unsearchable are his judgements!")

The other short chapter, though, was gut-wrenching and passionate. It is called "A Short Note from the Women's Prison" which starts "There is a chapter missing from this book." I do not want to give away too much, but it is a candid, even raw, reminder of one of the less happy and useful images of God in the Bible, and a reminder of how many women who are incarcerated have been sexually abused.  This chapter is important, a bit disturbing, and I am grateful for Lauren's struggle with these texts of terror, as they are sometimes called. 

Although there is much Bible study in this book, and even more church history, drawing on monks and mystics, and teaching us about how others have construed these various images of God and God's divine presence in the ordinary stuff of life - smell, laughter, nursing mother, clothing and more - this is, still, a Lauren Winner reflection. She tells us about her own life a bit, and starts with a fascinating admission of being a little uncomfortable with the notion of God as friend. May we call ourselves friends with God?  In what way does that image frame our day to day - what "shows up" when we see life through that lens?  That first introductory chapter "The God Who Runs After Your Friendship" is lovely and important.  

Lauren notes,

Because I hope the book will help you sit down with God in a place the two of you have never visited before, each chapter concludes with a prayer. The final aim of this book is not to persuade you to stop thinking about God as your shepherd and start thinking about God as a cardigan sweater or One who weeps.  The aim, rather, is to provoke your curiosity, and to inspire your imagination, and to invite you farther into your friendship with God.

Wearing God.jpg


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August 2, 2015

ON SALE: The 7 Best New Books for Faith Formation for the Summer of 2015

We've so enjoyed recent conversations with customers and doing our mail order shipments these last weeks, with so many good books to talk about, books about the arts, the history of alternative music, even on about living more authentically in a mass marketed culture by learning about bread, coffee, chocolate, and beer. We've promoted books about the renewal of culture and the reformation of society, titles to help as we forge a faithful presence in the world, for our neighbor's good and for God's glory, books about theologians like Abraham Kuyper and by activists like Bryan Stevenson, books on civic life by our Pittsburgh Summer Lecture speaker, Vincent Bacote, and - in a flurry of delicious book discussion last week - the debut of Harper Lee's first novel, Go Set a Watchman, which led to another list I made of interesting novels of similar tone and insight.  What joy to know that people still get excited about books, and what a privilege to be able to suggest resources for today's readers.  We're grateful for those who send orders our way or who forward our reviews around to their friends, church-members or family.

For this post I would like to list what I have concluded are the top 7 books on spiritual formation that have been released this season.  I'm stretching the phrase "this summer" just a bit, since a few of these released in the Spring, but they are each reaching their audience mostly here in the summer of 2015.  I review a lot of these kinds of books and there are some great ones that are about growing as a Christian that are easy and upbeat and motivational, but these - for those who are serious about allowing God's grace to transform their souls - are the very best I've seen this season.

Divided- When the Head and Heart Don't Agree.jpgDivided: When the Head and Heart Don't Agree Bill Delvaux (Refraction/Nelson) $14.99  I don't always know what to do with books like this.  It is part of a series with whimsical covers that don't capture their intensity or substantive wisdom.  Like many contemporary religious books these days they are casual, upbeat, but honest to the point of being raw. These kind of new religious books include lots of intense storytelling and honest advice for growing Christians. Many are written by people in congregations or parachurch organizations that are pressing hard after God, earnest and passionate, eager to see what it looks like to actually be formed in the ways of Christ, and follow Him into the struggles of the daily.  Some in more conventional congregations may be put off by the intense language about Christian growth, and those with a more flowery spirituality may not appreciate the messiness and vulnerability.  Anyway, there are a lot of these kinds of invitations to deeper Christian living that I like.  The ones in this series of books are all about discipleship, starting with a very solid guide to being a follower of Jesus (by Richard Parrot) called The Reluctant Journey and another by Ginny Owens (the blind Christian pop singer whose beautiful music you may know) entitled Transcending Mysteries: Who Is God and What Does He Want From Us?  A new one in this "Refraction" series just came out with the intriguing title Spent Matches: Igniting the Signal Fire for the Spiritually Dissatisfied by Roy Moran - it looks very dynamic and motivational, but realistic about those who are spiritually hurting.  (The next in the series will be called Slow to Judge: Sometimes It's Okay to Listen.) 

The one I'm listing here, as a key book for being formed in deeper Christian discipleship this summer, is a captivating, honest look at what happens when we pretend, when we act like we're more spiritual then we are.  Or, as the subtitle puts it, when our head and our heart don't agree.  We have all heard the line about what a great distance there is between the head and the heart, reminding us of the near universal problem of saying we understand something, even as we fail to do it.  I know this is a huge problem for me, although I suspect most of us struggle, in small and big ways, with this whole application bit, doing what we know.   Failing to live in to and embody the wisdom we claim to know is a particular problem for those of us who read a lot, who teach or preach, who seem to be articulate about theology or casting vision for mission and service.  So this book will help us bridge the gap between what we say we know and what we really do.

Perhaps more profound than a call to just live what we believe, do what we claim to be right, this is a story about overcoming the split between our statements about God and our experience of God and is a book which reminds us to be honest about the complexities and anguish of all that.  Delvaux (who graduated from Duke, by the way, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) writes that "I saw clearly for the first time the deep divide in me. But what made it even more disturbing was this: I had no idea what to do about it."  

In this sense, Divided is a call to resist hypocrisy and to bravely be real about our foibles and fears, sans masks, and it reminds me of books like Abbas Child by Brennan Manning or some of the remarkable work on shame authored by Dan Allender.  Maybe it is a bit like the recent reflections on the search for the true self (think of Richard Rohr) or even some of what is so appreciated in the writing by John Eldridge.  Delvaux knows that God's grace can set us free to be who were are, and to become who we are meant to be. Like Brennan Manning and the others, he's a great storyteller, too, and seems to hold back little, being transparent about his own divided life.

The book is arranged in three parts. We start "Viewing the Divide" (where he fearlessly invites us to "survey the wreckage") and then we start "Tackling the Divide" - the subtitle of that section includes "Three Terrains to Navigate." (This part includes chapters on Surfacing, Listening, and Telling.) Thirdly comes "Closing the Divide: What the Journey Feels Like" in which he reports and warns us about The Descent and The Ascent.  

There are thought-provoking questions for spiritual conversation and reflection making this a good book to work through with a soul friend.  There are prayers offered for each stage of your spiritual journey (although be prepared, they are not eloquent stained glassed ones, but gritty and candid.)  He quotes lots of interesting sources, from Augustine, Dostoevsky, Tolkien and the like to Christian psychiatrist Curt Thompson (author of a book about neurobiology called Anatomy of the Soul) and any number of fascinating movie quotes. Divided: When the Head and Heart Don't Agree is not an entryway to contemplative monasticism nor does it speak in grandiose terms about the experience of spiritual bliss as one sits in solitude before God.  Rather, it is a candid bit of evangelical teaching, helping us see that God's acceptance of us in Christ can be transforming, and that we can, in the words of Scotty Smith, "see and voice our own stories of disintegration and respond to the Father who pursues and welcomes, heals and liberates broken people just like me." Smith continues about Delvaux and his book by saying "I am so grateful for my friend's life and his insight into the ways of the heart and the riches of God's grace."  And that is where spiritual formation must begin: our own heart and God's good grace.

Prayer- Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God.jpgPrayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God Timothy Keller (Dutton) $26.95  We announced this when it first came out last winter -- admittedly, tt is not really a Summer release, but it seems it is just now hitting its stride, and not a few folks are just now asking about it. We have been glad for such a serious-minded, clear-headed, Biblically-sound study written by such a reliable and thoughtful Presbyterian voice.  Keller is certainly one of the very few who could be compared to C.S. Lewis today, with a prodigious output of well written books, books that are informed by older classics and contemporary literature.  Keller, a Manhattan pastor, is a bit of a social critic and an artful communicator, using imagination and reason to persuade many that a gospel-centered life is the only viable alternative to the secularist quandaries.  So, it is good to see him writing about something as intimate and awe-some as prayer.   The first two chapters are offered under a section called "Desiring Prayer" (its necessity and greatness) and the next several are on "Understanding Prayer" (what it is and what it is not - encountering and conversing with God!) while the third section is called "Learning Prayer."   Part Four offers guidance on "Deepening Prayer" and is very, very good, rich, almost mystical spirituality.  Part Five includes four practical chapters: "Awe: Praising His Glory", "Intimacy: Finding His Grace", "Struggle: Asking for Help" and "Practice: Daily Prayer."  There is a useful appendix and an annotated reading list, heavy on the Puritans and other meaty writers, and anyone building a library of books on prayer will find that alone very, very valuable. 

Keller's Prayer is a well-organized, intellectually stimulating but ultimately practical book, full of very important wisdom.  Agree or not with all of it, he is a master at presenting solid, orthodox counsel about the most urgent matters, from reordering our loves to knowing God's character to opening ourselves to the "unimaginable things God has for us."   Prayer is, Keller reminds us "the way we finally treat God as God."  Wow.  You should find some quiet time here in your summer schedule and work through this very valuable book.

Spirituality of Gratitude- The Unexpected Blessings of Thankfulness.jpgSpirituality of Gratitude: The Unexpected Blessings of Thankfulness Joshua Choonmin Kang (formation/IVP) $16.00  Besides having such a very lovely cover, and the author having written popular books extolled by Richard Foster (Deep-Rooted in Christ and Scripture by Heart) I wanted to read this book because I know I needed it.  I have skimmed a few books on this topic and know two or three things, at least: I am not as grateful as I ought to be, and the happy "stop and smell the roses" reminders don't cut it. I feel desperate sometimes, about my own life and our business and the world in which we live, and can even stupidly resent those whose lives seem to be rosier then my own.  No superficial reminder to count one's blessings will do.  In a fallen and broken world, with our own hurt and demands, how do we nurture the spiritual graces to be people of gratitude?  If it "springs up from within" as Kang says, how does that happen?   I need a book that is less a self-help manual or an upbeat call to positivity and more like classic spiritual formation.  Rev. Kang brings it, in a nice blend of Bible reflection, searingly honest ruminations from his own life, and, yes, a bit of upbeat reminders to stop and enjoy the little things.  Because he has written candidly about his own desperate times, and his own struggles, when he gets to the simple reminders about the simple stuff, he has earned the right to say such things, because he made it clear this isn't simple or cliched or formulaic.

So, there it is, a feature that sets this book a part.  He wrote it during a very dark time in his life, and he starts with some very moving ruminations on some surprising sources of grace.  Part One, in fact, includes short reflections on the grace of endurance, descending, isolation, humility and even brokenness.  As a Korean pastor, he draws from time to time on ancient wisdom from Asian culture, and there is this very profound wisdom tradition going on in his illustrations: he talks about old trees and dying seeds and a Korean novel that shows that true beauty comes from an ache of the heart.  In each short chapter he draws on fascinating sources, including Asian folk takes or spiritual writers, but most are still Western -- his Bible exegesis flows into discussions of Karl Menninger or Rollo May, underscored with a poem by Emily Dickinson or a reflection from Henri Nouwen or a scene from Pilgrim's Progress. The chapters in Spirituality of Gratitude are essentially short readings or homilies helping us nurture the art of thankfulness.  "Gratitude heals us and holds us, tethering us to one another," he writes.  Gratitude "offers us joy and strength." 

This book includes 52 chapters which can be read in a weekly Sabbath or as a daily devotional. It really does emerge from the author's own hard times, and his own realization that learning gratitude was something he needed to keep himself from sliding downward into bitterness.  

What is so very interesting (and helpful to me personally, as I said) is how some of the chapters are quite intense, and lay a profound foundation of what a life-with-God is like, especially in a world marred by pain and struggle.  He looks at how to be thankful even for hardships and although he is not glib, some of it is challenging, exhorting us to find the grace of gratitude.  I've meditated on some of his good lines, and I trust his wisdom.  But yet, some of this is just lovely, pleasant stuff -- how to appreciate good books, to appreciate God's glory seen in creation, thoughtful admonitions to slow down, to pay attention, to be glad for simple pleasures. He has a slight sense of humor.  I like  both his grit and the grace and appreciate his frank and at times common sense clarity about small things. Emilie Griffin says it is "a powerful invitation to wonder, beauty, and the mysterious grace of God." 

The Cultivated Life- From Ceaseless Striving to Receiving Joy.jpgThe Cultivated Life: From Ceaseless Striving to Receiving Joy Susan S. Phillips (formation/IVP) $17.00  This is one of the lead titles from InterVarsity Press this season, and, as such, it deserves to be read. They offer consistently good books and their formation line includes some of the premier writers about formation these days - and this is one of the very best of their summer list.  Susan Phillips has a PhD from U.C. Berkeley in sociology, is a director of the wonderful New College of Berkeley (New College is an affiliate of the Graduate Theological Union) and is involved in First Presbyterian there. She has taught courses on spiritual formation at Regent College in Vancouver, at Fuller Theological Seminary and at San Francisco Theological Seminary, so she has much experience in helping others move deeper into a life of spiritual sanity. Philips has written a previous book on spiritual direction, published by Morehouse, called Candlelight: Illuminating the Art of Spiritual Direction which is excellent and often recommended. I am confident that this new one will be considered one of the best books of the year, certainly within the genre of books about spirituality. The Cultivated Life is excellent, mature, inspiring and very helpful.  It really deserves to be well known and widely read.

Eugene Peterson has a glowing, glowing foreword which itself is quite substantial.  Peterson, as you may know, does not care for the frivolous or trendy, and relies on older sources, literary and spiritual classics, and affirms those who are profound thinkers, good writers, with down-to-Earth sensibilities as they invite people into Kingdom living. Peterson writes, "This is a book written specifically for those of us who are... developing an imagination for living the Christian faith with insight and skill in and for a society that is disconnected from the biblical revelation and the Jesus incarnation."  He is setting up an introduction to her book by noting that she writes about the "circus" of our cultural landscape, and how our own lives must be cultivate in ways different then, counter to these crazy times.  Her introduction, drawing on T.S. Eliot, stories of the Dalit/untouchable class in India, and a study of what she calls circus culture is called "Leaving the Circus" and it is really, really good.  She contrasts the circus, by the way, with a "garden" which connotes lush abundance, joy, and rest; a very evocative metaphor, for sure. 

Her first chapter, then, is called The Way of Cultivation and she offers "holy mixed metaphors" as we learn "the way" of the spiritual life.  Although it is not academic or complex, she has a short Bible study to illuminate the way narratives inform us.  This is good stuff!  There are some nice reflection questions, too, making this a very useful resource.  

Here are the titles of the provocative, insightful, and well-written chapters:

Finding and Receiving Refreshments

Listening as a Way of Receiving Cultivation

Stopping

Sabbath Keeping

Cultivating Attention

Praying with Scripture

Cultivating Attachment

Spiritual Direction

Rooted and Grounded by Friendship

Practicing Friendship

Bearing Fruit and Enriching the Soil

Living Toward Completion

Space and time does not allow me to explain the richness of all of this guidance found in this 250 page paperback  - I myself am reading it slowly, savoring and reflecting on it, so I'm not finished with it myself.  There is a good Appendix, too, by the way, offer "Guidelines" for many of the core practices (Contemplative Listening, Lectio Divina, Sabbath Living, finding a spiritual director, etc.) which is very helpful. The Cultivated Life: From Ceaseless Striving to Receiving Joy really is a rich, thoughtful resource.

Mark Labberton writes,

Susan Phillips can write this book because she lives it. For three decades and more, I have observed the choices she makes to cultivate life and this has been the hallmark of her story. This book is a deep and magnanimous invitation to live in such a way that the flourishing for which we are made can become our experience.


Phyllis Tickle- Essential Spiritual Writings.jpgPhyllis Tickle: Essential Spiritual Writings Selected with an Introduction by Jon M. Sweeny (Orbis) $22.00   Orbis Books, the storied publishing arm of the Maryknoll Fathers and Mothers, have a quite large series of books, bearing uniform covers, called their "Modern Spiritual Masters Series."  We are glad to stock them all as they each offer excellent introductions to the author being celebrated and they curate some of the best writings of this person, arranging them with helpful comments along the way.  In most of them, and certainly in this brand new one inducting Phyllis Tickle into their series, they offer some of the quintessential pieces by the spiritual writers, but also some which are lesser known.  These readers offer excellent introductions to very important figures, excerpting primary source material, framing the essays or excerpts in teacherly ways.  Any that I've dipped in to have been very well arranged, informative, and rewarding. Although they tip towards the liberal/activist Catholic stream of faith, the series is surprisingly varied.  From the essential writings of Oscar Romero to Gustavo Gutierrez, from Daniel Berrigan to Joan Chittister, the liberationist concerns of the Maryknolls are evident.  But many of these anthologies are of writers who are less public in their social ethics and stand in the more contemplative tradition (from the solid Orthodox leader Metropolitan Anthony to Anthony de Mello to Evelyn Underhill, just for instance.)  This large series includes older, classic spiritual writers (St. Therese of Lisieux, Thomas Merton, Bede Griffiths) and others who not known as monastics, but wrote lively mystical materials (Rufus Jones, Edith Stein, Howard Thurman.)  I could go on and on about the lovely volumes of spiritual writers such as Henri Nouwen, Clarence Jordon, Flannery O'Connor, Jean Vanier) and giants such as Chesterton and Tolstoy, and others such as Thoreau, Muir, Gandhi.

I note all this to show that this collection of works by Phyllis Tickle is one that is not a minor tribute or a one-off volume, but a well-deserved and major addition to an esteemed series.  Sweeney did an extraordinary job editing all this, collecting it, introducing the pieces; his astute insights about her life, her faith journey, and her body of work, is just what is needed to help us understand the significance of this splendid, feisty, enjoyable, and thought-provoking contemporary writer.  He knows her stuff so well that he can even weigh in on the meaning of this poem or that, or introduce a long out-of-print essay by explaining its original poignancy.  He highlights a number of Phyllis's older pieces (making this simply a must-have volume for her recent fans) and lifts good excerpts from both her lesser-known volumes and her most popular books, including her books on prayer and her recent studies of the emergent movement.  I really like Phyllis as a person, and I enjoy and value her as a writer.  Anyone who appreciates the diversity of religious publishing houses and curious writing projects that developed in the last decades of the last century and into the new millennium owes much to her for her efforts (most notably within Publisher's Weekly as the first religious editor/reviewer in that important organ of the industry.) She has been kind to us, and we have been stimulated by her work. We have promoted the book released a year or so ago in her honor, Phyllis Tickle: Evangelist of the Future published by Paraclete Press.  She's a fine wordsmith, an provocative thinker, and a deeply spiritual woman.

This new paperback anthology, Phyllis Tickle: Essential Spiritual Writings will help keep you thinking, bring joy to your heart as you see how she has ruminated on her own life, from a farm in Tennessee to the world's most prestigious locations, from broad-minded interfaith discussions to her current involvement in an evangelical "Acts 29" congregation, and you will learn about essential practices such as silence, prayer, ecumenicity, generosity, curiosity, and more.

I enjoy Barbara Brown Taylor's tribute to her found on the back of the books.  And I agree.  

Phyllis Tickle brings so many gifts to the table that it is sometimes hard to believe there is only one heartbeat behind them all. She is a seer, a scholar, a spiritual guide, a literary and cultural savant, a walking encyclopedia, and a mentor to more people than there are seconds in the day. Above all, she is a faithful lover of God and all to whom that love relates her. Reading her is second best to knowing her, but read her you must.

Sacred Sense- Discovering the Wonder of God's Word and World.jpgSacred Sense: Discovering the Wonder of God's Word and World William Brown (Eerdmans) $22.00  I wasn't sure if I should list this on a book about Christian formation, since many customers seem to want books about prayer, quiet time, solitude, spiritual disciplines and the like, at least on a list about inner spiritual growth.  Surely, this is a list mostly about resources for our interior lives, so I appreciate the emphasis.  Yet, it is true that Christian spirituality is always at its best rooted in the Bible, and our formation in the ways of Christ are shaped by our knowledge of God's ways revealed to us in the Scriptures.  This book, then, is a fabulous guide for just such a project, although, again, it may not seem so at first. It is not about lectio divina or exercises about "praying the Scriptures."  It is, rather, a handful of long and at times demanding Bible studies about the topic of awe. About wonder. Dr. Brown is a renowned Old Testament scholar who has written several very important books on the wisdom literature, and, even the relationship of the wisdom literature in the Bible and modern science. (See his impressive Oxford University Press hardback, Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder.)    

Here, though, he is not doing super-scholarly exegesis, but more playful and wide-ranging meditations, essays on wonder in various Biblical texts.  Sacred Sense: Discovering the Wonder of God's Word and World is a collection of Bible reflections, by a seminary prof and Old Testament scholar, coupled with meditations on the glory of being alive, and how God is present in it all.

Frances Taylor Gench of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Virginia says,

Scripture, for Bill Brown, is a living word and source of transforming wonder. In this breathtaking volume he guides readers through an expansive biblical landscape ranging from creation to new creation and evoking a sense of wonder about God, the world, and our humanity. This is one of those rare books that gladden the heart, mind, and imagination.

Other rave reviews come from Ellen Davis of Duke Divinity School ("eye-opening and occasionally jaw-dropping") and Walter Brueggemann, and even the memoirist and nature writer, Terry Tempest Williams. 

But listen to what Steven Bouma-Prediger of Hope College says,

Erudite and down-to-earth, serious and funny, full of deep insights written in sparkling prose, William Brown's Sacred Sense is a timely exploration of wonder in the Bible and in the world. Indeed, these insightful meditations on seventeen biblical texts - from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22 - cultivate an appetite for wonder. May this excellent book find a multitude of readers.

You see why I list this as a great resource for transformational Christian formation, even for developing one's personal spirituality? As Bouma-Prediger puts it, this book can "cultivate an appetite for wonder."  If this book can help you be more mature in Biblical interpretation, helping you develop an eye for God's great work and how that can lead us to wonder, and if that Biblical worldview helps you see wonder all around, well... yes!

Joy in the Journey- Finding Abundance in the Shadow of Death.jpgJoy in the Journey: Finding Abundance in the Shadow of Death Steve & Sharol Hayner (IVP) $16.00  Where to begin to explain the significance of this handsome, small hardback, and why it matters?  How does the memoir of a dying saint, one known for signing his emails "joyfully" help us all?  I admit I've met the late Steve Hayner a time or two and care deeply about some of the organizations he has served (including InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and, in the last years of his life, Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, where he served as President.) But whether you had the great privilege of knowing this extraordinary, joyful Christian leader or not, and whether you are particularly interested in a memoir of death and dying or not, let me tell you: this is a book about faith formation, about daily discipleship, about learning to live well as a Christ-follower in families, organizations, among friends scattered; it is about faith and hope and trust and goodness. and, yes, joy in the journey.

As a nationally known evangelical para-church leader who later served as an administrator at a Christian university, became an ordained pastor (serving for a while a mostly black church) who surprisingly became a professor at a mainline denominational seminary, where he eventually became President, the story of Hayner's life and ministry is itself a noteworthy one.  (I wish I knew more about his move to Columbia, where he became colleagues with the likes of Elizabeth Johnson, Marcia Riggs, or Walt Brueggemann.) As Mark Labberton writes in his must-read, exceptionally moving introduction, Hayner mentored many individuals over the years, staying in close touch, involved in life-giving friendships with many, even as he served in demanding positions on the Boards of Fuller Theological Seminary, World Vision, and the anti-trafficking organization, the International Justice Mission.  His wholistic view of faith - embracing growth in theology, spirituality, multi-ethnic ministry, social concerns and public justice work, was exemplary, and he helped other live into that vision.  "He wanted," in just one of the beautiful phrases in Labberton's piece, drawn from The Message paraphrase of Psalm 31:8, "others...to have the room to breathe fully human lives, made in the image of God."

To be clear, this book is made up mostly of personal reports and spiritual journaling from a public diary Steve and his wife Sharol kept on the CaringBridge website, chronicling their faith journey as Steve was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer over Easter weekend of 2014 until his death, in his mid-60s, on January 31, 2015.  There is included of a bit of contextual medical background, offered before most entries, and a handful of sidebars by other folks, letters they wrote to Steve or Sharol, or observations offers along the way.  The entries unfold like a fast-moving tragedy, but yet -- and this is why this is such a very good book to read -- Steve and Sharol both have an ability to ruminate on their lives in ways that reveal their spiritual disciplines and dispositions, framing their hardships by the very things they believed most deeply; they share their own reflections upon Bible verses or passage or Psalms that helped them, and they are honest about their prayers and hopes and struggles.

These entries are excruciatingly intimate at times, and exceptionally admirable. They are not idealized or over-spiritualized, but they are grounded so well in a well-lived faith. I know -- and the diary entries reveal -- that they are ordinary people, in many ways like any of us. (Steve himself wrote how grumpy and petty he was with his grandchildren during what he knew would be their last Christmas together, a mundane admission that nearly brought me to tears with the disappointing ordinariness of it.)  Still, I have never read anything so wonderful about approaching death with joy and trust.  As Steve signs off near the very end, noting that he is under hospice care, then, he still looks forward to living into joy.  

After Steve's death there was, of course, a large outpouring of support, and the memorial service was a tribute to the resurrection power only Christ can bring. The entries in this epilogue are from his family, mostly, and remind us all of the beauty of a life well lived, of the quiet habits of a man committed to God's reign, who served the church and the world, and who had mature and lovely relationships with family and friends.  Joy in the Journey: Finding Abundance in the Shadow of Death is a tear-jerker, to be sure, but I cannot commend it to you enough.

As good as these diary-type entries are, listening in to the real-time reflections of a couple struggling with tragic illness, the evils of cancer, the quandaries of medical care, their professional obligations and their extended family, their marriage, their prayer lives, and eventually Steve's death, I want to also note that the two introductions that open the volume are themselves worth the price of the book. 

Mark Labberton was influenced profoundly by Hayner as an undergrad as Steve was his campus minister.  Their lives unfolded similarly, and Steve continue to be a mentor and friend to Labberton (even as Mark, arguably, became more famous as an author and the President of Fuller, one of the worlds largest and most diverse seminaries.) They remained life-long friends, so much so that Mark could report about Steve's deepest desires - and how he understood that joy was deeply connected to "that wide place of God's grace."  Labberton honors Steve well in this reflection and it is nothing short of stunning. Oh, how I wish for all of us to have friends, friends like Labberton was to Steve, able to tell about his strengths, his gifts, his faithfulness.  From Mark's tribute you can see how well he knew Steve and Sharol, and his testimony is inspiring. But - ahh, here it is - Labberton could only report all this stuff about Steve because Steve was that kind of friend to him.  To realize the power and blessing of life-long friendship seen in that preface is a gentle but clear reminder to us all: who do have in this life that shares our faith journey and knows us so well?

Another person that was one of Steve's best friends was the African American leader Alex Gee.  It was Gee who invited Steve to become his associate pastor, in part, because he wanted Steve to understand the emotional toll of being a minority leader, not only so he could more experientially understand cross cultural ministry, but so that Steve could more deeply understand what his friend Alex - a black man who often spoke and ministered in largely white settings - goes through in such complicated situations. Steve said yes to this surprising arrangement, which illustrates much about Steve's adventuresome faithfulness, but also how loyal he was to his friends and co-workers in gospel ministry.
This and a few other anecdotes from Gee really are helpful in helping us care about Hayner and his wife, before we even start the first page of their diaries.

Again, this short foreword by Gee, about Steve, is exceptionally inspiring, and I think it makes this book an even greater resource for your own spiritual formation.  Don't you want to be the kind of person about which these things could be said of you? Don't we often make fresh commitments to new sorts of spiritual practices or goals or hopes for ourselves as we look at others whom we admire? ("Follow my example as I follow Christ," the apostle Paul said more than once!) So, in this book, Hayner's own diary tells the story, but these two introductory pieces serving as brief tributes, the testimonials offered by Labberton and Gee, will inspire you to want serve well, living with authenticity and joy. 

As Gee writes, wisely - putting into words exactly why I am listing this as one of the best books to read this for faith formation,

After walking with Steve in his final months, I am considering where his life challenges mine. Where is God calling me to invest my time and energy? I'm asking what and who I need in life in order to face death with hope, joy, and confidence.  What changes do I need to make today in order to finish well? As you journey with Steve and Sharol in the following pages, how will you answer these questions?



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July 27, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These books that follow are decidedly not like those. 

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

TEN BOOKS. TWENTY PERCENT OFF.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Shann Ray (author of American Masculine) says,

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

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

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

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

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


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July 24, 2015

FOLLOW UP WITH A GOOD SALE -- A HANDFUL OF HELPFUL BOOKS WHICH CAME TO MIND WHILE LISTENING TO THE LECTURE BY DR. VINCENT BACOTE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The back cover continues,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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