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September 28, 2015

The remarkable new book "Servants and Fools" (Arthur Boers) and 5 Other Short Reviews of Recent books on Leadership or Pastoring (and a whole lot more.) ALL ON SALE - 20% OFF

When I hear high powered leaders talking about all they accomplish (or get others to accomplish) I sometimes think of that old Emily Dickinson poem - I'm nobody!  So I was struck when Dr. Curt Thompson, in his splendid work The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves (reviewed here) reminded us that we are all leaders, or can become leaders, in our own way, in our own places. We need not be (to use Ms. Dickinson's image) "public like a frog -- to tell one's name the livelong day" but we can be co-creators with God, helping craft our days and touch the world around us. I deeply believe this.  And because I so firmly believe that we are made in the image of a creative, working God,  we are culture-makers -- at our very essence. (See Andy Crouch's must-read Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling and Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power for very helpful explorations and reflections on this. These InterVarsity Press classics are Hearts & Minds essentials!) 

Besides, apart from this conviction about the nature of who we are and who we can become as image bearers and culture-makers, we've repeatedly seen how books and reading can transform ordinary people, giving them refocused vision and new competencies, deep confidence and joyous commitment.  Nobody is a nobody! And, as the saying goes, readers are leaders.

Even though many of us believe what the Bible says about the "priesthood of all believers" and enjoy pondering what it means to be "salt" or "leaven" or "light" in the world just as Jesus said, we still are sometimes cynical about the field of leadership.  There are so many prideful, power-hunger, stubborn leaders, aren't there?  And sometimes religious leaders just seem to take on the worldly ways of Wall Street or whatever trends are popular on the management bestseller list adopting the worst traits of the society around us.  

So let's think about leadership - no need to avoid the subject or assume the worst, as if all the books on developing leadership skills are from the Donald Trump School of Taking Charge.  A lot of them really are thoughtful and helpful.

We have bunches of books about leadership and it would be fun to hear what you have found most helpful.  I have a few friends who read these sorts of books religiously (no pun intended) and we are always refining our go-to titles and the ones we most recommend.

Henri Nouwen's little reflection on the temptation of leadership (really, the temptation of any of us) called In The Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership still remains a good seller for us.  Do you know it?  It is a bit counter-intuitive, but we really like Dan Allender's Leading with A Limp -- what an interesting, liberating book!  With the Pope's visit fresh on our minds, you may want to consider 2013's Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads: Lessons from the First Jesuit Pope by Chris Lowney.  Lowney wrote a really interesting and very helpful study a few years back called Heroic Leadership: Practices from a 450-Year Old Company That Changed the World.

For now, though, here are just a few very new ones that are worth knowing about.

storied leadership.jpgStoried Leadership: Foundations of Leadership from a Christian Perspective Keith Martel & Brian Jensen (Falls City Press) $18.00 Okay, this one isn't brand new, and we promoted it when it first released early last spring.  But I wanted to start off with it as it is a very good, truly delightful, brief survey of what some call "the Biblical meta-narrative" and how that big picture of the unfolding plot lines of the Bible can and should shape our views of reality. Without using the word "worldview" this offers a foundational Christian view of life, out of which can come a Christian view of society and subsequent social imaginaries.  And yes, out of all that can bubble up a coherently Christian view of what leadership is and what it looks like.  The chapters are short, the writing crisp, the insights profound.   I think it is a really good entree into thinking faithfully and learning new ways to practice faith and leadership in the real world.  We recommend it for students, for those new to this topic, and I am sure that experienced leaders will be glad to review it, being struck by notions such as "Kingdom Collaboration" and (with a nod to Steve Garber) "Proximate Leadership."

And that is just the first half.

The second part of Storied Leadership includes a good handful of specific skills or habits that good leaders will embrace. From learning to manage expectations to daring to be "disarmingly honest" to working through conflict with a vision of restoration, mentoring others to networking to learning the rhythms of rest, the second half of this fine, small book will help you dig in and start doing new stuff, making a difference right where you are.  I love it.  You should buy a few, ready to hand them out to up and coming folks you may be guiding or leading.

By the way, this is the first book from a very small, indie press that Martel and his wife started out of their Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, home.  Look for a new book from them launching mid October called Unleashing Opportunity: Why Escaping Poverty Requires a Shared Vision of Justice, a passionate and well written study of domestic poverty, the scandal of check-cashing scams and unjust lending practices, and how to help overcome the problems of the poor. It is co-authored by the CEO of the Center for Public Justice, Stephanie Summers, the always-eloquent Washington Post op-ed columnist Michael Gerson, and Katie Thompson of the on-line journal and movement Shared Justice. I have read the manuscript and am very, very eager to sell it, once it releases in a few short weeks.

Servants and Fools- A Biblical Theology of Leadership.jpgServants and Fools: A Biblical Theology of Leadership Arthur Boers (Abingdon) $19.99 There aren't many, but maybe a small handful of good books that deconstruct the standard-fare, worldly ways of thinking about leadership, books that move away from power and maneuvering, or technique and control, or benign use of communication skills.  In contrast, there are many books offering to Christians standard fare management stuff with a gloss of religiosity on top, books full of promises about success and influence.  Some are for Christians serving in the work-world, and some are for pastors or church leaders.  Some have even adopted the once-revolutionary phrase "servant leadership" and have tweaked that to be about crass power or manipulation and the metrics of efficiency.  For pastors trying to see more clearly the pretenses and dangers of this, and to discern a more pastoral view of their work, Eugene Peterson has of course been the most significant voice. His quartet of books on "vocational holiness" (at least Under the Unpredictable Plant and Working the Angles) are essential. As in most of his books, he gently but directly exposes how the ways and means of following Christ and leading a God-centered life is quite counter to the ways and means of typical North American life.

One of Eugene Peterson's (somewhat) younger friends and allies has Arthur Boers, a long-time Mennonite pastor who was recently ordained as an Anglican priest.  I have read several of Boer's books (most recently the very generative study blending the critical insights about technology from the Catholic philosopher Albert Borgman and classic spiritual formation practices to come up with a brilliant book called Living Into Focus: Choosing What Matters in an Age of Distraction.) Boer has written on conflict resolution and spirituality and daily discipleship for decades, and is now a professor at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto.  This brand new book opens with a fabulously fascinating foreword by Pastor Peterson where he says "this is by far the best treatment that I have ever come across on this much-discussed feature of church life in changing times."  And nicely assures us, too, that "Arthur is both generous and discerning, having lived deeply and well what he is writing for us."

Another passionate prophet against Christian writers accommodating themselves to the customs and assumptions of North American leadership gurus is Marva Dawn (who has also co-written with Peterson.) She says of Boers (not surprisingly, since, although Lutheran, Marva has been influenced by the Mennonite and Anabaptist tradition) "Arthur Boers punctures all pretensions, unveils delightful discoveries, and exhibits perceptive insights. Servants and Fools is the most potent book on Christian leadership!"

Even Will Willimon, who himself has written extensively on leadership says "Arthur Boers has written the book we have sorely needed, a book that is destined to become the main text in my seminary courses in church leadership. Boers underscores the joyful peculiarity of Christian leadership. His book is unique: a biblically-based, christologically-grounded defense of leadership in the name of Christ."

So there's that going on.

By which I mean this isn't a lovely meditation or an encouraging handbook of how to get stuff done. This is serious, upsetting, challenging - and joyfully peculiar - study of power and leadership in the Bible and in Jesus, especially.  

Boers has been working on this for years, and his wide reading and study is evident.  His own work draws much upon those situated on the margins, although the Harvard Business School scholars show up sometimes, too. (As do a few good lyrics from a few good songs of Bruce Cockburn!)

arthur-boers_0.jpgYou see, Boers is aware that much of the Bible, carefully read, is a critique of worldly power. (Just for instance, he cites Daniel Berrigan's poetic and powerful commentary on Kings who notes "David dies intemperate, transfusing his venom into the veins of his son."  Of course he cites Walter Brueggemann, including his article "The Prophetic Leadership: Engagement in Counter Imagination" and much more. That most leading characters in the Bible are fraught with moral ambiguity should be better known and acknowledged among us, especially by those who swipe episodes out of context to give us a "Biblical" view of leadership success. It shouldn't take one shaped by the faith of the Mennonites (but maybe it does) to remind us how uniformly badly the Biblical kings are described, and how Jesus brings us an "upside down kingdom." This book powerfully explore the meaning of Biblical service and sacrifice, reversing much of what we think leadership is about. He isn't the first to say this, of course (think Jacques Ellul or William Stringfellow, just for starters) but Boer brings a lot together in fresh ways, making this a truly remarkable, hard-hitting work.

The first part of this mature book is called "Christians and Contemporary Leadership Fascinations." You can see why Peterson commends it. The second part is "Reflecting Biblically on Leadership" and is the heart of the book - there is lots of close reading and provocative interpretation, well worth spending time with, whether you are particularly interested in leadership or not. In the important third section of four chapters, Boers offers "Constructive Suggestions toward a Contemporary Theology of Leadership."  I jumped ahead to the last chapter where he provocatively asks if we "want to be in that number" and if that means extolling "heroes or saints"?   You can guess his important answer.

Servants and Fools: A Biblical Theology of Leadership really is a remarkable study, drawing on significant Biblical scholarship, Jewish and Christian, classic and contemporary, and he writes with both prophetic fire and a bit of wit.  (One chapter title on Jesus playfully alludes to Peterson's most famous book, which was drawing on Nietzsche: "A Long Rebuke in the Same Direction.") 

David Gill, Professor of Workplace Theology and Business Ethics at Gordon-Conwell says "Servants and Fools is brilliant and essential.... I can't imagine ever teaching another class on leadership without assigning and discussing this book."

H3 Leadership- Be Humble, Stay Hungry, Always Hustle.jpgH3 Leadership: Be Humble, Stay Hungry, Always Hustle Brad Lomenick (Thomas Nelson) $24.99  Well, this could be, at first glance, an example of some of what Art Boers finds so troubling, a rather glitzy and upbeat view of leadership, with language of going on a noble quest, pushing boundaries, being passionate and such, but not related to the Bible much, let alone the subversive and counter-cultural ways of Jesus. It is marketed, as is his legendary Catalyst conferences, with whiz and bang -- I love the cool, striking hardback design sans cover.  

So, hmm. I was inclined to be skeptical.  

As with his last book (The Catalyst Leader: 8 Essentials for Becoming a Change Maker) Lomenick won me over with his raw honesty, his serious experience, and his clear passion for teaching us what he has learned in ways that are exciting, clear, and actionable.  I appreciated that he started H3 with his own story of nearly burning out, needing to take a break, of being hungry for something different -- something more -- in his life.  (Ahh, if only we all had the opportunities and freedom to take a sabbatical and come up with big plans!)

Lomenick had developed quite a team of young and creative leaders in his Catalyst movement, and that in itself speaks volume -- he had friends and associates and teammates and could create an exit strategy knowing good folks were in line to carry on the work he had poured his life in to. His time of discontent proved fruitful, and he eventually found himself pondering these three mantras, around these three words: humble, hungry, hustle.  

And he had to start with one of the big ones: identity.  Most leaders, he tells us, are mission focused and eager to get things done.  Such driven people can soon forget who they themselves are (and their projects or organizations become "ships without a captain" running like ghost ships.) His world and style are very different then my own, but I was deeply, deeply moved by this portion, and it drew me in.

Under each of his three major mantras he listed the most important habits that embody and deepen those traits.  He ended up with twenty key habits and they "reestablished for me my core leadership foundation. These are habits that will provide the practical playbook for the next thirty years of my leadership journey. Ironically, these are habits that all great leaders have in common."

I like books that find patterns in things, that see how these characteristics work together to form traits and habits. Of course, I am mostly drawn to the sort Boer wrote, more philosophical and foundational, but when I find a more application and real-time guidebook, I sometimes can get very excited. This book not only examines and explores the key habits, but he challenges us to do something to make these things work for us.  He is passionate about passing on this information, and on almost every page you can feel it.  Don't read this book of you want an armchair rumination or abstract treatise.  Do read it if you want some Good to Great author Jim Collins says on the back cover "There is no better path to social improvement then deploying legions of exceptional leaders into the teeth of our most-pressing problems."  

The other endorsements on the back of H3 Leadership are pretty remarkable, all glowing tributes about Lomenick and his work, offered by some of the most recognizable names in this field.  Blake Mycoski (TOMS Shoes), Seth Godin, Jim Collins, John Maxwell, Dave Ramsey, TV guy Mark Burnett.  Broadcast journalist, producer and philanthropist Soledad O'Brien says "H3 Leadership makes a case for every leader, at every level," in ways that will "make leadership better and last longer."  As you can tell, these are not pastors or churchy types, but social entrepreneurs and cultural creatives and people doing good work which is not ministry as such.

I am a fan of Brad Lomenick's first book, and I am sure I will be a fan of this one. But here's the thing: it doesn't do anything at all what Art Boers does in Servants and Fools.  Read them in tandem, I'd say.

Wisdom In Leadership- The How and Why of Leading the People You Serve .jpgWisdom In Leadership: The How and Why of Leading the People You Serve Craig Hamilton (Matthias Media) $24.99  In our effort to curate a selection here that brings fresh and sometimes harder-to-find books to the shelves, we discovered this new work from an evangelical Australian publisher.  We have appreciated their clarity about outreach and creating fun resources that are contemporary and doctrinally solid. As a publishing venture they are all about the first things of the gospel, and, if I might, could call them a "gospel-centered" ministry.  Their practical books are intense with a robust blend of usable guidance while pointing readers to the cross of Calvary and the finished work Christ accomplished in his death and resurrection.  So I was eager to see what kind of a book they'd create.

I have not worked much with this yet, but I'll say this much: although it is almost 500 pages, the type is not small, so it is nicely usable, and maybe not as daunting as it appears.

Secondly, it does not engage - positively or negatively - with much contemporary leadership scholarship. It cites Patrick Lencioni and Bill Hybells and John Kotter's Leading Change a time or two, but it simply isn't that kind of a book.  Wisdom in Leadership covers tons of topics and much ground --  there are 78 short chapters!  A handful of the chapters (maybe a fifth of them) will be of particular interest to those who are tasked with leading teams. It is clearly written for folks in the church.

And I mostly like this promo paragraph, which drew me to it in the beginning:

It often seems like there's a choice to be made for those engaged in Christian ministry: to be a Bible-and-theology person or a leadership and management person. You either read books by John Stott or you read books by John Maxwell.  Craig Hamilton definitely saw himself as a Bible and theology person. In fact, he still does.

But he also noticed that when groups of people get together in God's world they function in certain predictable ways that he could learn from and harness for their benefit and for the flourishing of the world around.

Hamilton does seem to have a discerning and working knowledge of the sociology of people, how change and transformation happens, and how secular management principles can be redeemed from their "godless, faithless pragmatism." He has obviously considered this carefully and with a desire to be faithful.  In Wisdom in Leadership he seems to apply these learnings to doing ministry in the church or para-church, whether one is a pastor, paid staff member, or volunteer.  It looks sane and practical and wise. It is theologically-inspired, conventionally evangelical and tilting Reformed, I gather. I know some of our readers will appreciate it a lot.

The Imperfect Pastor- Discovering Joy in Our Limitations.jpgThe Imperfect Pastor: Discovering Joy in Our Limitations Through a Daily Apprenticeship with Jesus Zack Eswine (Crossway) $16.99  This brand book on being a pastor just came yesterday and while it is not about leadership, generally, it certainly seems to fit this little list now, so I have to announce it. Heck, I don't think it would matter what this list was, I'd want to name this now: he is a really, really good writer, and we should read whatever he has to say.

You may recall his last big book called Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry as a Human Being which Jerram Barrs said "is one of the finest books on being a pastor written in this generation."

I liked Ray Ortlund's lovely endorsement, that goes like this:

C.S. Lewis wrote that friendship is born when one man says to another, 'What! You too? I thought that no one but myself...' Many pastors will find a new friend in this remarkable book. To everyone who wants to serve the Lord with a heart set free from pretense, I commend Sensing Jesus.

Well, The Imperfect Pastor: Discovering Joy in Our Limitations... which examines not just our humanness, but our brokenness -- "limitations" as the subtitle discreetly puts it -- seems almost like a sequel.  What he starts in Sensing he brings to fuller flower in Imperfect.  My, my, this is good, rich, honest stuff.

Ken Shigematsu (who wrote the fabulous spiritual formation book God in My Everything) says "This is simply the best book on pastoral ministry I have ever read."

Mark Galli, Editor-in-Chief of Christianity Today says of Eswine,

No one today shows more insight into the perils and joys of everyday ministry in the local church -- a refreshingly honest and beautifully written meditation.

One of the best books of cultural criticism I've seen this year is A Wilderness of Mirrors: Trusting Again in a Cynical World (which I raved about a few months ago, noting that it is mostly about cynicism in our "whatever" culture.) He writes,

I wish I'd read this book twenty-five years ago when I first began to consider pastoral ministry. The ground Zack covers is vital for novices and senior pastors alike.

I am not a pastor and I am not even sure I can be called a typical leader; I don't really do ministry as I am a shop keeper and businessman. But I intend to read this and I am sure I will savor it. It invites us to a deeper walk with Jesus, to a realization of our needs and limits, and a desire to allow Christ to apprentice us into His ways, even though difficulties.

Wendy Der says his personal stories of his own ups and downs will "challenge and encourage anyone who seeks to minister in the name of Jesus."  

By the way, you gotta love a book that alongside Mary Oliver and Gerard Manley Hopkins cites Charles Spurgeon and Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry and Richard Baxter, Acedia and Me by Kathleen Norris and No Little People by Francis Schaeffer.  Kudos, Zack for not only bringing an honest, human and humane approach to pastoral leadership, but for making it so darn interesting.

cowboy year.jpgThe Cowboy Year Ethan D. Bryan (Electio Publishing) $16.99  I mentioned something about curating an interesting selection here at our bookstore?  Well, I wanted to offer a bit of a curve-ball here in this list, a surprising one.  This father-and-son memoir is not, at first blush, about leadership.  Or is it?

You may know Ethan Bryan's books as I have touted them here before. I adored his Run Home and Take a Bow about going to a season's worth of Kansas City Royals baseball games, often with his young daughters.  His Catch and Release is a well told story about playing games of catch (sometimes with the famous, sometimes with the hapless -- he almost came here to have a game of catch in a bookstore! ) in order to raise money to release captives of child slavery and sexual trafficking, giving funds to the abolitionist organization Not for Sale.  He is a sports fan, a wholesome family man, a musician and creative worship leader and one who practices his craft of writing, doing his art, telling his stories, giving his life away to others.  He got himself fired from at least one church job, so I don't know if he's much of a leader.

He did travel around doing free concerts for social justice and got people to sign his guitar, and wrote a book about it, a lovely, inspiring, low-key Tales of the Taylor. Who does stuff like that but one who has some curious leadership DNA coursing through his veins?  Maybe what Professor Boers would call a "servant and a fool" perhaps? Indeed.

And a Biblical fool testifies, creatively, and in so doing, invites people -- as Donald Miller and Bob Goff have famously put it -- "to tell a better story."  And in storytelling, conjuring up episodes of his own life and putting them on paper, Ethan Bryan gets readers inspired to make something different of their own lives. If that isn't a form of culture-making, of servant leadership, I don't know what is.

And so, this newish book, a book I announced a while ago, but never really promoted adequately.

You see, Ethan never shot a gun more than a time or two in his life.  He's a progressive sort of Baptist, earnest, peaceful, kind. And his dad, who in this book he calls J-Bar, is a multi-state cowboy action shooting champion.

What is a multi-state cowboy action champion, you ask?

Well, Ethan, too, wants to find that out. He felt compelled to take a risk and try something completely new (as he puts it) and joined his father in this thing -- apparently it is a thing, at least out West -- of competing in a cowboy re-enacting contest which, yes, involved shooting.  And buying Stetson hats.

Bryan writes, "Competing under the alias "Fret Maverick," I was introduced to a slice of Americana I would have never known otherwise. The Cowboy Year is a quirky and beautiful, Midwest-set, father-and-son memoir." 

But ultimately, he tells us, "The Cowboy Year is a story about having the courage to tell new stories."

Ethan is widely read and uses a lot of good quotes to lead off his chapters.  One, called "changing lead dogs" (there's a leadership principle in there somewhere, I'm sure) he quotes the famous Gary Paulsen and his beloved book about the "fine madness of running the Iditarod" who wrote "I do not hold the record for the person coming to disaster soonest in the Iditarod. But I rank close."

Things do go wrong in this book, in these games, and in these new sorts of conversations he is having with his father and his cowboy subculture. It isn't easy, always, and it isn't all sweet kinship.  There are conversations about handguns and domestic violence and global injustice. It is funny and serious and ends up being quite a stirring narration.  It is about facing fears, about making new friends (which, Ethan says, wisely, "matters immensely.") It is about forming relationships as a way of getting around sticky political differences.

In one moving scene, Bryan recounts hearing the mother of one of the children killed in a now famous mass shooting tragedy.  He recalls the beauty of her transcending culture wars rhetoric and "sides" of the gun control debate by inviting people to be in real relationship with friends, neighbors, strangers, children. It was deeply moving, jarring, even, in a book about different kind of firearms, making old fashioned ammunition, and doing dude ranch kinds of cowpoke things. You see, Ethan is a justice activist and a baseball fanatic, but dressing up in cowboy gear and shooting wasn't his culture, wasn't his comfort zone. But he forged into new arenas, and made new friends, and realized the power of risk, the power of relationship, the power of story.

That, too, is a good part of leadership. Who knew?

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September 25, 2015

6 New Books -- Recent titles to cheer and renew and bless and inspire. 20% OFF at Hearts & Minds

A number of people appreciated my last post where I mentioned feeling tired and a bit melancholy.  I mentioned that sometimes we read heavy, demanding stuff, or things that are provocative and challenging; reading with discernment is a high calling, but hard work.  Sometimes, though, I like books that aren't fluffy or simplistic, but that are still upbeat and hopeful and energetic and not difficult to enjoy.  I named some (including one that was about lament, because sometimes when we feel discontented, that's a holy nudge toward subversive prophecy, which begins with lamentation and outrage. So, yeah, even my cheery list included some serious ones. Sue me?)

So, here's part two -- another short list of books that are substantive but not weighty, inspiring and fun but not shallow.  A good list of "mid-level" sorts of reading from which many of us would benefit, even if our diet more usually tends towards the heavy, or the silly.

And all of these, unintentionally, are all by or about women.  But most are for anyone, male or female, young or old. You can order 'em at 20% off the prices shown by clicking the order form link below.  That takes you to our secure order form page. Or give us a call.  Thanks.

Without further ado, 6 new books that struck me as "just what the doctor ordered" for me this week. 

Every Little Thing- Making a World of DIfference Right Where You Are.jpgEvery Little Thing: Making a World of Difference Right Where You Are Deidra Riggs (Baker) $13.99 Deidra is a woman I respect immensely, for her pleasant demeanor and her professional advocacy for bloggers writing about faith and the work-world at where she serves as managing editor. It's a big and impressive job, and one of the great things is that she invites her team to encourage younger writers, guiding them into finding their voice, saying their piece, making a difference in ways big and small.  Usually small.  Which is the theme of this eager-anticipated and very inspiring book -- with Deidra's guidance and encouragement, you can realize that you are a world-changer.  Do you ever think that you should get involved in something, or you should take a stand, or follow a sense of God's leading to stretch you capacities to serve?  Do you ever wonder how to know what to do to be faithful to these promptings? Do you ever give up before you even try?  

Dierda Riggs headshot.jpgThe three parts of this brand new book are "Knowing Yourself,"  "Following God's Leading," and "Taking the Next Step."  It is commonplace to hear that "the gospel must be lived" but Riggs reminds us of it yet again with vigor and grace and a curious blend of being audacious and reasonable. I loved Ann Voskamp's lovely forward -- it is very well written as she tells a story or two, and then shares a line that Deidra once spoke to her: "We get to be terrified, so God gets to be glorified."  So, dear readers, cheer up, get ready to shift out of your comfort zone, maybe even be terrified, and yet learn to be okay with that.  I for one am going to devour this upbeat book, and look forward to getting to know the author's story, and I reconsider my own. How 'bout you?

Where Jesus Prayed- Illuminating the Lord's Prayer in the Holy Land.jpgWhere Jesus Prayed: Illuminating the Lord's Prayer in the Holy Land Danielle Shroyer; color photographs by Carter Rose (Paraclete Press) $16.99 The monastic sisters in the religious community who run Paraclete Press are very excited about this, and assured me I'd love it. I think they are right -- just glancing through it I notice that it does indeed have some good insights about praying the Lord's prayer. Maybe you, like me, have read a number of solid books on this, but, like me, never tire of being drawn into this pivotal and important aspect of our Lord's teaching.  But not only is this beautifully written and obviously insightful, it is juxtaposed with photos and stories of being in the Holy Land.  The author had gone on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and she had one goal: "to enjoy God, fully present to the presence of the Holy." The back cover explains that she was "tired of her own wordy prayers and theological thoughts as a pastor, she wanted her prayers to be quiet listening rather then incessant speaking. When the Lord's Prayer came to mind in the midst of her silence, she welcomed the words of Jesus as the only words she needed."  This book is the fruition of her discipline of only praying this prayer as she traveled.  Immersed in a sense of place, she felt the prayer coming to life in new and unexpected ways.

Shroyer wrote a book years ago - one of the first to be identified then as "emergent" -- called The Boundary Breaking God: An Unfolding Story of Hope and Promise. She is a graduate of Baylor and of Princeton Theological Seminary and is a Theologian-in-Residence at Journey Church in Dallas, Texas.

Jamie Clark-Soles, a New Testament professor at Perkins, says of When Jesus Prayed

As someone who regularly leads immersion trips to the Holy Land, I am familiar with the best resources available. Shroyer's book now tops the list. She presents unexpected, new ways of viewing the places, and she centers it entirely around a conversation with Jesus. Highly recommended!

For the Love- Fighting for Grace in a World of Impossible Standards.jpgFor the Love: Fighting for Grace in a World of Impossible Standards Jen Hatmaker (Thomas Nelson) $22.99  I spent an evening with this a week ago and laughed right out loud.  I loved Hatmaker's book 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess -- an honest, upbeat, but serious story of living on less -- but wasn't sure a major hardback release about life being "lovely and fun and courageous and kind" was going to work.  And I loved it.  I guess it is written for women (yes, come to think of it, given that there's a chapter including a wife's view of sex --"have fun and stuff" --  and in one chapter she quotes Gwyneth Paltrow from Elle magazine, I guess it is written for women.)

The author turned 40 and this liberating rumination (which is pitched as a "raucous ride to freedom for modern women") followed. It is fearless, candid, offering a way to be creative in life, be faithful to faith but not overly churchy, and shows how to break free of guilt and shame by dismantling the "unattainable Pinterest life."  She reminds us to "release the burden of always being right" and help us seek a life that is "mostly good."  A hero of mine, the late Lewis Smedes, wrote a book years ago called A Pretty Good Person and I thought of it often as I read this more edgy, girly, Jen Hatmaker TV show.jpgcall to let go of judgements and be freed up to live in grace.  Any book that reminds me of Smedes, and that makes me laugh, is well worth it. Kudos, Jen. 

By the way, she has a TV show, now My Big Family Renovation, which has apparently catapulted For the Love to the New York Times best seller list.  And we have it in stock, right here.  Fun.

Seven Women And The Secret of Their Greatness.jpgSeven Women And The Secret of Their Greatness  Eric Metaxas (Thomas Nelson) $24.99  I hope you know Metaxas's Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness which was a tremendously written, very informative, and truly inspiring study of seven very different men.  (How many books put Jackie Robinson, Nelson Mandela, and George Washington in the same league? The Bonhoeffer chapter is nearly worth the price of that one, and of course he does Wilberforce.)

Here, in this very new one, Metaxas turns his exceptional writing style on the task of telling us about seven women -- again, fairly diverse, over time and sensibility. We have very informative, entertaining chapters on Joan of Arc, Susanna Wesley, Hannah More, Saint Maria of Paris, Corrie ten Boom, Rosa Parks, and Mother Teresa.  Again, this is a diverse grouping, but he shows their faith and character and help us see, so vividly, how  they stood against the times, and how we might to.

(I have to say that right before the book came out Metaxas tweeted a list of women who were in the book and it was a hoax -- an odd mix of goofball women, some with questionable ethics and less then admirable legacies, and some with far-left politics, which Eric most likely wouldn't have included. I don't know if everybody got the joke, but it made me smile all day!)

Karen Swallow Prior, a writer who loves great books (as evidenced in her marvelous memoir Booked and who has written Fierce Convictions, the definitive book on British abolitionist and poet Hannah More) says,

In writing about these seven singular, extraordinary women, Eric Metaxas does honor to all women. I finished Seven Women feeling more blessed and encouraged in simply being a woman than ever before. The accomplishments of these women -- from across time and circumstances -- have indelibly shaped the world we know today. Their stories will educate, encourage, and inspire every reader. This may be the best book you read this year.

Come Rain or Come Shine- A Mitford Novel.jpgCome Rain or Come Shine: A Mitford Novel Jan Karon (Putnam) $27.95  This may have one of the nicest covers of the year, and I'm drawn to it even though I'll admit I haven't read any of the others.  There, I said it.  But great thinkers that I admire have appreciated them -- Lauren Winner's Girl Meets God memoir tells of her own conversion to Christian faith in part by reading about Mitford! -- and, more importantly, customers and staff and friends really enjoy them.  I suppose you know all about Father Tim -- last heard of in Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good. 

There is apparently a wedding in Come Rain or Come Shine. Maybe it is Father Tim's adopted son, Dooley Kavanagh, first seen in At Home in Mitford, so many books ago.  Dooley has now graduated from vet school and has opened his own animal clinic.  I gather the wedding will be simple, complete with a potluck in the mucked out barn. The worship bulletin is even shown, fully realistic, in color, and it shows the liturgy and the Bible texts. So, yeah, it's Dooley and Lace Harper.

People magazine called this a "vividly imagined world" and sometimes this is just what we need.  It's going to be a big seller, I'm sure -- and for good reason.  Nice!

Maya Angelou- The Complete Poetry.jpgMaya Angelou: The Complete Poetry Maya Angelou (Random House) $30.00  This is one of the more handsome one-volume complete poetry editions we've seen -- just a little bit bigger than some, but with lots of white space on the page. The titles are in deep blue ink on cream colored paper -- complete with deckled edges on the pages. The woman who wrote that she is "phenomenal" is just that. This is a very handsome volume, with over 300 pages.  Just holding it brings me joy, and reminds me of her distinguished career in letters.  There are some famous ones, too -- if you are old enough you will recall her "On the Pulse of Morning" a tribute at the inauguration of President Clinton and the never published before poem "Amazement Waits" that she did for the 2008 Olympic Games.  She died in 2014.

Go Set a Watchman.jpgAnd, speaking of significant women authors, we are still eager to sell Go Set a Watchman, by the extraordinary storyteller Harper Lee.  Beth zipped through it the week it released and really, truly loved it.  Just a day ago we got a long email from a customer who was exceedingly skeptical, but bought it from us on Beth's recommendation.  His note said that he experienced something he hadn't in quite a while -- the compulsion to keep reading, that made him stay up most of the night, simply unable to put the story down. I don't know if it counts as a refreshingly inspiring book of the sort I've listed here, but, ya know, you could do worse on a hard day.  And Paul's note meant the world to us, reminding us of the great value of good books.  That helps keep the discouragement at bay, too.  Thanks, ya'all.



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September 19, 2015


Evangelical publishers - well, most publishers, I suppose (except those that specialize in current affairs or academic research) offer a lot of books on helping readers improve their lives. Do this, try that;  de-clutter, set goals, take steps, slow down, hurry up. Many are fine, although perhaps not as deeply transformational as they might be. Sincere authors want to help us and good publishers know that these books sell - so we often recommend them. If you ever have any particular concerns or questions or needs, I hope you inquiry of us. There are plenty of very practical books about nearly any imaginable topic.

Especially if one doesn't read a lot, or is mentoring a person who doesn't read a lot, sometimes a basic self-helpy sort of book will work best.  Just this week we got one in by Jay Payleitner called What If God Wrote Your Bucket List: 52 Things You Don't Want to Miss which looks fantastic,  and the ever-popular Max Lucado just released his practical application of study of the Biblical hope of a promised land, called Glory Days: Living Your Promised Land Life Now. The paperback edition of his You'll Get Through This: Hope and Help for Your Turbulent Times remains a good seller, too.  A very creative and thoughtful young writer, Emily Freeman (who last year wrote A Million Little Ways: Uncover the Art You Were Made to Live) just released Simply Tuesday: Small-Moment Living in a Fast-Moving World which seems to be a lot of fun, very interesting, and really helpful for those wanting a reminder about the most important things in a well-lived life.

soul of shame.jpgAnd then, in a different league, there is the exceedingly significant The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves by Curt Thompson, which I reviewed here last week.  I was honored that the writer, himself a practicing psychiatrist with expertise in neuroscience, re-tweeted my BookNotes review and that a number of friends and customers ordered it from us. Even as we sometimes read or use with others the lighter, more inspirational sorts of books, we ought to dig deep, learn to be more self-aware, and have wise guides like Dr. Thompson to walk us through what really keeps us from healthy relationships and deep joy and robust visions of vocation. Sometimes we do have to work on some heavy stuff with some substantial books. The Soul of Shame is one of the most important books of the year, one of those that is better than any number of trendy or motivational manifestos.

But reading it myself, while facing some serious personal challenges - not the least of which is a hurting back and a lack of sleep, wearing me down - not only made me eager for a less ashamed and shaming way of grace-filled living, but also got me wondering about other books to read that are not quite so demanding which might be able to cheer me up.

Are you like that, needing a diverse reading list and a balanced diet? I read theology and works about deeper spiritual disciplines and lots of contemporary cultural and social criticism.  Some of the novels I read are a bit ponderous -- I'll say again how good the massive All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is, by the way, Nazis and all.  So, then, you may understand why I went on a search this week looking for books to help out those of us who are entering the fall a bit worn or weary -- nothing too intense, but not cheesy.  I call them mid-level titles (not too easy, not too hard.) Maybe these listed below and on sale now will be both encouraging and inspirational, but more mature then the most simple self-help sort.  

Need some good cheer, know somebody that wants to dig deep, but not toooo much so? Do you struggle with the weight of things in your life, maybe even acedia, and even though you sometimes read heady, meaty stuff, sometimes you just want a substantive book written with a lighter touch?  Here are 7 mid-level books [well, one is pretty somber, and another is will be seen as very significant as it is written by a well known scholar of religion] that I have read, or am in the middle of, which might be just what you need now.

We show the regular retail price, but will deduct the BookNotes 20% off when you click below.


renew your life.jpgRenew Your Life: Discovering the Wellspring of God's Energy Kai Mark Nilsen (IVP/formatio) $16.00 Maybe discovering this book last week was what gave me the idea for this post: it is written precisely for those who are exhausted or longing to find a source of refreshment.  The subtitle talks about God's energy!  This is just what I needed! Rev. Nilsen is on the board of Renovare (hence, the rather contemplative tone of this gentle guide to renewed spirituality.) He has been a pastor at Peace Lutheran Church in Gahanna, Ohio, and is a certified pastoral coach for the ELCA.  Chris Hall says he is a "wise, insightful, empathetic guide for weary wanderers."  Nathan Foster's quote most invited me into this here in the start of autumn, when he suggested that "many will find this work gives way to a new beginning - a genesis of sorts."  Yes, isn't this what some of us need now, guidance in turning over a new leaf, recalling how things work in God's Kingdom? Some assistance towards a fresh start? 

One Lutheran pastor in Iowa wrote that the release of Renew Your Life comes to us in "perfect time for a digitally connected yet detached world."  He says "it's a must-read for busy people who are chasing, but not catching, the wind."  Yep.  There's that.

I won't give too much away, but Renew Your Life: Discovering the Wellspring of God's Energy  draws much from the generative teachings of Genesis 1. It is a slim, lovely book offering life-giving practices that can point us toward spiritual renewal, time tested and hard earned by the author who went through his own season of discontent. The foreword is by James Bryan Smith and there is a really interesting conversation and reflection guide, making it ideal for personal processing, or for a small support group or spiritual direction study.  Very highly recommended.


Praying the Bible Whitney .jpgPraying the Bible  Donald Whitney (Crossway) $13.99  Obviously, it should be well known that one standard tool to combat listlessness or weariness or anxiety is reading the Bible. And I not only commend reading the Bible, but reading books about reading the Bible.  Really: what joy to learn more about the Bible! This new book, despite having the word Bible in the title, is actually a book about prayer.  It is simple, and written in wise, plainspoken prose.  Dr. Whitney invites us to admit that often we are bored by our praying, mostly because we pray about the same old things in the same old way.  This isn't unusual or wrong, so Whitney reminds us not to blame ourselves.  The Holy Spirit residing within us is drawing us to desire God, to want to talk to God more, to trust that God is seeking us out and that we may pray our heart's desires to HIm.  However, when it is "same old/same old" it isn't our fault, but the problem is in our method.  

Having bad prayer times, though, while not utterly tragic, is troublesome.  If we are bored, and bore others, in our praying, imagine how God feels.  So, we need some help -- not to pray about more dramatic things or with more vigor, but using a better technique. It is, as the title proclaims, the ancient practice of praying the Bible.  He doesn't call it lectio devina, but it nearly is, quite simply, using the Word of God to stimulate our own imaginative sentences, which we offer back to God as prayer. He explains it very well.

Whitney is a bit of a Puritan and is a strong, Reformed teacher. His wonderful book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, if you know it, may come to mind when thinking about this method of praying. In that book he describes seventeen different methods of meditating on the Word!  If any of those struck you as helpful, I suppose you will not need to be persuaded of the value of this small book. He mostly recommend using (and certainly starting with) the Psalms, and he walks us through good, better, and best ways to appropriate the printed page into our verbal prayers. Bryan Chappell says that Whitney's book explaining this approach "relieves boredom and unleashes spiritual power." Trillia Newbell (who wrote United: Captured by God's Vision for Diversity, by the way) says:

I prayed through Psalm 23 with tears streaming down my face, asking myself, why have I not done this before? Don't give up on prayer! Praying the Bible will help transform your prayer life.


Rewilding the Way.jpgRewilding the Way: Break Free to Follow an Untamed God Todd Wynward (Herald Press) $15.99 I have been eager to tell you about this book, but had to read more of it, to be sure it was all I had hoped.  And it is!  This is the story of a Mennonite couple - he, a wilderness guide who has spent more than a thousand nights outdoors - who started a very innovative wilderness-based public charter school in around Taos, New Mexico, smack in the middle of the beauty of the Sangra De Christo Mountains.  Wynward's call to "rewild" our understanding of the Christian faith is provocative, challenging, and - for many of us, I'm sure - will be a fresh reminder of the wild call to a joyful and prophetic lifestyle.

He does some great Bible study in Rewilding the Way, although it is upbeat and playful, even, as he pushes us to see that Christian faith is less about certitude and dogma and more about entering into God's grace and living as loving agents of the restoration of all things promised in the Biblical story. He knows some of the original languages, and he offers some refreshing insights. His wanting to be "wild" certainly pushes us to be creative and fun and energetic (he's an outdoors educator, after all, and has worked at camps and in wilderness mission, so you get the picture!) I don't fully trust, and certainly don't resonate with, many of the hipster post-evangelicals these days telling us to be wild and raw and free and crazy, written, too often, I suspect, from the safety of their coffee shop and little house church full of their best friends. Some talk about being "wild" but have little serious insight about what that entails.

But Wynward rescues dying refugees in the dangerous desert, aligns himself with Christians doing civil disobedience in the face of what they believe is a repressive Empire, and gives away stuff he doesn't need, in joyful response to the Biblical vision of abundance and agape and radical mercy.  He makes a wondrous adventure out of experiential education and studies stuff like watersheds and bio-regions and the local repercussions of climate change.  You want to be wild at heart? This rejection of the culture's assumptions of the "good life" and what is plausible as new creation opportunities as we follow the Jesus Way into the wildernesses, is a great, great resource to stimulate your imagination.  I dare ya.

For some of us, we can recall the first time we read Dorothy Day or heard the stories of Oscar Romero or really took seriously the words of John Perkins. Maybe it came from early articles in 1970's era Sojourners or maybe it came recently from the Irresistible Revolution or the Common Prayer prayer book by Shane Claiborne and his joyful crew of urban activists. I haven't felt the upbeat energy of that wholistic and joyful vision of radical social change in quite a while (even though I read the new monastics and other such books routinely.) This book just offered some truly exciting stuff and it helped these tired bones to enjoy these pages.  Todd Wynward has brought together some remarkable characters, friends and mentors of his, has read and engaged some fabulous authors, and helps us all learn from those who are "recovering from affluenza and restoring a humble place in the community of creation."

Endorsements for Rewilding the Way include Chad Meyers, Mark Scandrette, Nancy Sleeth, Bill McKibben and (former Dallastownian) Rick Ufford-Chase. New Mexican Franciscan Richard Rohr -- whose center in Albuquerque brings together contemplation and activism -- shows up, as you might guess. The back cover says Wynward seeks "the feral foundations of Scripture." You gotta love a phrase like that. Especially written by guy who lives in a yurt.

Brian McLaren says "I read a lot of good books. But seldom have I read a book that inspired me as much as Rewilding the Way. It is important, meaningful - and so beautifully written." 

I'm not as much of an outdoors guy as I sort of wish, and whether you really are or not, I think Todd Wynward's new book, with its great images and metaphors (and beautiful, provocative cover design) is a joy.  I recommend this, and offer kudos to Herald Press for doing such daring work. The middle portion of the book, by the way, offers succinct ideas, "Seven Paths to Wilding Your Way" which makes it practical (if challenging) and do-able.

I'm not gonna lie: Beth and I are not going to very fully take up the watershed discipleship that he describes here, but I was energized by the stories, inspired by his honest struggles, and cheered by the reminder of what it really looks like to affirm our proper place in God's good creation as we fight to protect the great outdoors.  Three cheers for this feral book!


Wild in the Hollows.jpgWild in the Hollows: On Chasing Desire & Finding the Broken Way Home Amber C. Haines (Revell) $16.99 I could write pages about this luminous, creative writing project, this memoir of a woman who, we are told, is "haunted by God."  I believe her. She has here narrated her young life, and some pretty exceptional ups and downs, and some that are more common than we are usually willing to admit.  As Emily Freeman asks, "How can a woman with a story so different from my own be telling my story, too? Amber Haines has found a way...this captivating book stunned me speechless." 

Rebekah Lyons (whose own wonderful memoir Freefall to Fly I've been thinking of re-reading) says that "Wild in the Hollow captivated me from the first page. Amber's brave story invites us to explore our own broken places as she beckons us to wholeness and healing."

You see, this is the very creatively written tale (someone called it "windswept") of a southern born, rural woman who went off the rails in her teen years, deeply involved in drugs, alcohol and sexual encounters that were regrettable. Oh my, how she bravely tells of her journey out of her Bible-believing, fundamentalist culture, and yet, how God remained faithful, always somehow romancing her. What a glimpse into this sort of hard, small town life for an adolescent! And how poignant is her rumination on her journey away from God. There are other more literary and quite profound memoirs about the journey away from faith (the memoir of Kim Barnes, In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in an Unknown Country still haunts me, years later, and I often think of Addie Ziermans' When We Were on Fire.) But this particularly poetic rendering of it all is also unlike any memoir I've read. Nish Weiseth, who wrote Speak: How Your Story Can Change the World, says "Amber Haines is a once-in-a-generation voice" and even if that is an overstatement, it illustrates the artful significance of this book.

Haines works with images of home, extended family, the journey away from the true self and the rediscovery of who one is meant to be - homecoming!

 I loved Sarah Bessey's comment in her own rave review:

This book made me feel homesick and at home all at the same time. Only Amber could so beautifully and rightly write into the parts of our human experience that usually defy words.

Well, maybe Ms. Haines isn't the only author to be able to do this, but the superlatives point us to something: this book is well written, captivating, and one which could bring you fresh hope and help you ponder your own life as it intersects with the story of a God who makes himself known in the broken places. Haines has gone through renewal and revival, sin and separation; she has made dumb choices and valiant ones and life has thrown her some hard, hard stuff.  She almost always writes well - a bit too poetically purple on some pages - and I was heartened in every chapter by how she could explain her story and her relationships and her longings and her hope with such color and candor. 

There is stuff in Wild in the Hollow about sex and infidelity and abortion; she tells of her heart -- her experience of isolation and disappointment and hollowness, Christian renewal and spiritual realities and sparkling joy. She writes of romance and marriage and financial struggles and the young adult journey of not only finding an authentic faith but an authentic faith community and church. The parts about a lively gang of friends who served one another, ate lavish, loud meals together, had each other's backs, touched me very deeply. Amber and her husband have lost babies and she has delivered a number (four energetic boys!) which she tells us about. I suppose younger married women may be the main audience of this creative nonfiction project, but, again, I am energized and made glad by those who can be so very honest about their lives, their ups and downs, fears and pains and hopes and dreams. I loved this book. 

Wild in the Hollow is a memoir and a creatively told story, so it is richly entertaining. By the end, Amber does beckon us to a broad and grace-filled Kingdom vision. With closing chapters like "Hope of the Exiled" and "Whole in the Sick Places" and "Siblings in the Wild Yard" she invokes Eden restored, even now, amidst the brokenness of this fallen world.  She is a true sister with a good voice, and whose vision of faith and community among the outcasts will push you onward and give you courage.  Enjoy!


The Year Without A Purchase- One Family's Quest to Stop Shopping and Start Connecting .jpgThe Year Without A Purchase: One Family's Quest to Stop Shopping and Start Connecting Scott Dannemiller (Westminster/John Knox) $16.00 Sometimes it doesn't hurt to let go of some of your anxieties and stress by laughing a lot. I've really, really enjoyed in recent years a few of the memoirs about people wanting to eat local, or simplifying their life, stories of a year of gardening or raising chickens or eating better.  I love memoirs and was eager to read this new one, but I had no idea how blasted funny it is. It was one of my favorite reads this summer.

I won't tell you much, other than to say that this high-powered and professionally-driven couple went on a short term Presbyterian mission trip and through that discerned a call to spend a year in poverty-stricken village in Guatemala as a Presbyterian missionary doing low-key development projects.  We learn that after that impactful year they then came home, convinced that their lives would forever be connected to the poor families they worked with in Central America, that their own lifestyles would be guided by a mission statement illustrating their priorities of service and embracing a Christ-like economics.  A mission statement that they had artfully commissioned and expensively framed on the handsome walls of their new suburban home.  Perhaps you can see where this is going.

A couple of kids later, they realized they had drifted considerably from their passion for justice not to mention their values about simple living, generosity and solidarity with the needy.  Without much religious intensity, they decided to enter into this plan - a contest, even? - to not buy anything other than food and truly necessary items for a full year.

There is an earnest desire to be faithful to Jesus, and there is a little Bible lesson either starting or concluding each chapter, but this isn't spiritually deep stuff.  The Dannemiller's don't seem to be overly pious evangelicals, just pretty ordinary mainline church peeps, doing something just a little bit crazy.  Or really crazy, come to think of it.  And the writing is hilarious. 

You will love the funny bit about whether they should or shouldn't tell their kids about this year without buying stuff.  The chapter about making a gift for a childhood birthday party is fantastic.  (Man, you have to buy a lot of stuff when you have kids!) The marital conversations are funny (perhaps they could sell some of these as scripts to Modern Family. Mrs. D does not cut him much slack, I might note, and their maintaining their wedded bliss is another part of this journey which was great.) I roared out loud, laughing about his using his daughter's girlish travel bag when his stylish (and masculine) luggage broke; I loved how he admitted forgetting his socks on a trip, after his wife had specifically reminded him.  No, he couldn't run out to a Target near the hotel and buy more.

These really are interesting stories, but this is less Thoreau and more Dave Berry,  part Bill Bryson and maybe a bit of Anne Lamott thrown in for good measure. There is tender stuff here, poignant and important, even.  The profundity of what is really going on in resisting materialism --  think of the great stories in the Advent Conspiracy video curriculum that we promote each year, for instance --  is just so important, but it is shared in The Year Without A Purchase with such zany joy and so little self-righteousness that it just sneaks up on you, until you realize that you, too, can lighten up, figuratively and literally.  I want to be more generous, funnier, happier, even as we experiment with new models of faithfulness. Humorists can help us see how to navigate hard times by not taking ourselves so serious.  Chesterton even said that, but I don't think Dannemiller is the sort to quote a stuffy Brit.  He's too busy making some home-made alternative to a much-needed item for his kids or himself.  Or coming up with new ways to have devotions as a family, or spend good time really connecting. This book was a great, pleasant gift to me, and maybe it will be to you, too.  Enjoy!


Prophetic Lament- Call for Justice in Troubled Times.jpgProphetic Lament: Call for Justice in Troubled Times Soong-Chan Rah (IVP) $17.00  Sometimes, when one is a bit discouraged, tired of carrying the weight of the world, and wanting to read something inspiring and motivational, what might be really doing on is something described in a fine book by Bill Hybells called "holy discontent."  That is, God is stirring up something in your heart beyond the tiredness that comes from stress and lack of sleep, but is actually a burden which could lead to deeper cares and concerns. That is, rather than avoid or cover up our dissatisfactions, we might hear in them a holy calling.  And so, I invite you to this powerful, challenging, passionate book. There are other books on lament that have come out in recent years -- some, fairly detailed works of eye-opening Biblical scholarship, others poetic and poignant.  This, though, is not just about how the American church tends to avoid lament and how it is an essential component of Biblical faith -- it is a guide into what it means to lament well and why it matters.  I think it will be on our short list of the very best books of 2015.

Soong-Chan Rah is a professor (of evangelism) at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago.  He has written important works about the global church, about racial and ethnic diversity (Many Colors) and recently collaborated on the extraordinary lament project called Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith, which we have commended at BookNotes before.

In Prophetic Lament Rah offers us a profound way to name our pains and anxieties, and to move towards repentance and change, and he does this by taking us into a close reading of the book of Lamentations.  He draws on the best commentaries, and the footnotes are well-informed and fascinating.  This reading of the canonical text of Lamentations - written after exile and the destruction of Jerusalem, of course - is a much needed corrective to evangelical (and American?) triumphalism, exceptionalism and views of faith that are glib and unrelated to the world of woe we all inhabit. Who knew that this harsh and often un-read Biblical book could be so relevant and vibrant?

Hear this great endorsement by Native theologian and George Fox Seminary prof, Randy Woodley:

Rah gifts the church not only with his caring prophetic voice but also his pastoral calling, which helps us to grieve the sins of society and those of the church. This book is timely and reaches very deep theologically, emotionally, and spiritually.

As Christena Cleveland writes,

Soong-Chan Rah leads us beyond a shallow understanding of peace as the absence of conflict and a one-sided understanding of sin that fails to acknowledge the suffering of the victim. In doing so, he prophetically calls us to examine the work of reconciliation between those who live under suffering and those who live in prosperity.

Brenda Salter McNeil -- a delightful woman of color and evangelist who works for IVCF -- was asked to write the foreword to Rah's book when they were both in Ferguson doing anti-racism work, including a fair share of heart-broken lament.  Her few pages are powerful and important, and it is lovely to she her in print again, setting up this volume.

Prophetic Lament is the first in a new series of books called Resonate, where scholars will attempt to write less for their academic guild but for a more popular audience, and which offer Biblical resources for cultural renewal.  "Each contributor to Resonate seeks to bear witness to Jesus Christ, the living Word of God, through the written Word in and through his or her own life story and the broader cultural context." The Executive Editor of the Resonate series is Dr. Paul Louis Metzger, the extraordinary professor of Christian theology and theology of culture at Multnomah Biblical Seminary and director of "New Wine, New Wineskins" the Institute for the Theology of Culture at Multnomah University.


Grounded.pngGrounded: Finding God in the World - A Spiritual Revolution Diana Butler Bass (HarperOne) $26.99  NOT YET RELEASED available October  6, 2015 Perhaps this is the sort of book you most need right now - a delightful combination of social research, progressive theology, beautiful science writing, personal storytelling, and practical guidance to finding God's presence in the ordinary stuff of Earth. We are taking pre-orders for this as it isn't released yet, although we will be able to ship it early in October. In my own weariness and in my own search for a book that isn't too heavy but not too light, that is serious but not ponderous, this looks like almost a perfect fit.  It will be discussed a lot, I am sure, in the months to come, and I hope you read it so you can join in the conversations, but mostly I hope it will touch you now, deeply, where you need to sense God's presence, despite all.

As Shauna Niequist writes of it

I've long respected Diana Butler Bass for her intelligent approach to the religious conversation, and never more so than in the pages of this book. Grounded made me love this beautiful world more deeply, and made Gods' presence more visible everywhere I looked.

I, too, respect and enjoy Diana.  Some have found her outspoken liberal views a bit off-putting; her frustrations with evangelicals and fundamentalists are often evident. Her scholarly reputation as a sociologist and historian of American religion -- especially of spiritual awakenings -- is solid, even if some quibble with her crunching and interpreting of the contemporary data. Her last book, Christianity After Religion is a major rumination about how the mainline churches might respond to the decline in church membership and how we might appreciate the much-discussed shift of the number of folks who describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious" and "nones."  Agree fully or not with her assessment of the culture, or her own journey away from the evangelicalism of her earlier days, Diana Butler Bass is a very important figure, a smart and charming writer, and her books should be on your list. From the stories of rather ordinary, often small, neighborhood churches colorfully told in Christianity for the Rest of Us to her unique book on church history (fascinating!) called A People's History of Christianity and on into Christianity After Religion, she is on a journey to listen to the religious concerns of contemporary people, to understand, and to equip us to cope with large religious changes happening in our lifetime.

I've read the first 125 pages of this forthcoming volume, and have enjoyed it immensely. (I will write more about it later, as it deserves a more careful and serious review and I have some criticisms -- imagine!) I was truly taken in by Part One which includes three long chapters of marvelously written, insightful, and stimulating reflections on Dirt, Water, and Sky. Yes and yes! In this regard, Grounded stands with many other books about "practicing the presence of God" and discovering a spirituality of the mundane, books such as  An Altar in the World or The Luminous Web by Barbara Brown Taylor or Being Home by Gunilla Norris or the many writings of John Philip Newell, the popular Celtic Benedictine or some of the religious comments of Wendell Berry or Wes Jackson. It reminds us a bit of the less overtly mystical but wonder-full writings such as those of Aldo Leopald (she cites Sand County Almanac) or the best parts of Annie Dillard.

You may recall the mystic Julian of Norwich reporting about God showing her small truths in visions "no bigger than a hazelnut."  This ancient mystic realization animates Grounded even if it is presented as a new postmodern revolution, away from conceiving God as a distant, heavenly King to a nearby, tender Presence.

where is god quote from DBB.jpgThe title and subtitle of this book are perfectly chosen: this is truly down-to-Earth theology, and insofar as it reminds us that God is imminent, near, close (if not exactly in all things; Bass early on reminds us that she is not a pantheist!) and that our spiritual practices can develop with an attentiveness to the ecological realities of this dappled creation (yes, she cites Gerard Manley Hopkins and Mary Oliver) then I believe it is going to enrich and bless and deepen the lives of many. She is inviting us to new habits, a word she reminds us is akin to "habitat" and "inhabit." This is a spirituality of home, of neighborhood, of the commons.

Does this capture the views of enough people to call it a spiritual revolution, what's really happening now?  Unlike more devotional books, Bass inspires us even as she offers her scholarship, documenting trends and shifts and explaining the prevalence of contemporary longings for this kind of ecological faith.  She offers statistics alongside anecdotes, and narrates her own deeply spiritual journey through stories of farmers markets and praying through the beauty of beaches and parks. (I got choked up imagining my friend kissing the beach as she sensed Divine wonder there with the waves splashing on her Capris.) Her chapter describing her walks along the Potomac River are splendid. Few spiritually-oriented books draw so robustly on science and environmental studies as does Grounded and although Bass is clearly situated in the (progressive wing) of the Episcopal Church, the book should be read by all manner of Christian folks, and may appeal to those outside of the Christian tradition. (She talks about non-Christian faiths a lot.)

There is afoot a broad, spiritual revolution, she insists, and, again, those who are spiritual but not connected much to religious institutions are not only to be welcomed, but their insights are to be appreciated. In this she is radically Protestant, it seems: we don't need priests or church-run ceremonies to mediate the goodness of the Divine for us and God can bid us outside the walls of the church. Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit I think the Latin has it.

As a fairly conventional Presbyterian evangelical, myself, you might realize that I worry about the trajectory of all of this: will it lead to a "spirituality of the ordinary" consistent with the great tradition of what the church has taught about the character of God and the centrality of the person and work of Jesus the Christ, bodily incarnated and bodily resurrected? (I'm on the N.T. Wright side of his big debate with the late Marcus Borg, you know, nicely documented in the point/counterpoint book The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions a decade ago, and while I've read plenty of Matthew Fox, and appreciate his "creation-based spirituality" I understand those who dismissed him for moving beyond orthodoxy and syncretisms.) That Diana draws on Borg and Fox isn't necessarily troubling, as she also cites more traditional theological voices, including some evangelicals whose missional sensibilities allow them to embrace the localities of their neighborhoods and serve the common good well.

Does being grounded in soil, which is sacramental, and in watersheds, which are essential for sustainable life, and even in sky (the air that we breathe seems a lot like Spirit, after all) -- does all of this necessarily lead us away from evangelical faith? I think not, although for the author of this thoughtful book, it seems to. She sees this post-Christian shift and at some points celebrates it, but, she also says "it breaks (her) heart."  Although I have not quite experienced the same stops along the journey as Diana has, I was very moved to read about her "third conversion" in the aftermath of 9-11. It is no surprise, I suppose, that she ends with a nod to process theology, and that the contemporary theologian she seems to cite the most is Sally McFague whose most famous book is about the metaphor of the world being the very "body of God."

I hope you know that the books I review at BookNotes and that we sell at Hearts & Minds are selected for the sake of serving serious readers, and that we often suggest books that we realize are theologically diverse, maybe even controversial for some readers.  We encourage reading widely, enjoying the great gifts of those who write well and thoughtfully, being readers who are happy to appreciate good and important writers who stretch us a bit.  Diana Butler Bass writes the kinds of books we're happy to promote, and even if I have questions and comments scribbled on many a page, it is, surely, a book that is energizing and enjoyable and useful. I am glad it is in my hands now, and that we can ship it to you soon.

Listen to these lovely endorsements:

I've been grateful for Bass's razor-sharp mind, but upon finishing Grounded, I found myself in love with her mystical heart and gorgeous storytelling. We need to believe that God is with us, in dirt and water and our suffering and homes and neighborhoods. God is definitely in this book. (Glennon Doyle Melton, author of Carry On, Warrior)

Grounded is a wise and beautiful book. It is, in fact and in places, almost an anthem to the sacred unity of the physical and the spiritual in the formation of human faith and in the maturation of the human soul. (Phyllis Tickle, author of The Great Emergence)

An absolutely gorgeously written book about real faith in the real world. (James Martin, SJ, author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage)

Well, dear readers, there are some ideas to help energize your heart or mind, or both, and seven books to consider.  I've selected books that are neither saturnine nor simplistic, but the kind of resources I trust will help you if you need, as I do sometimes, a pleasant read that is informative and stimulating, inviting and encouraging.  Buy one or two of these and give yourself the gift of the time to read them.

Ponder a bit, chat with some friends, maybe over some wine and tasty cheese.  Enjoy these pleasant days in early fall. Thank you for caring about books and reading. It is good to know that we have friends who are quixotic enough to believe, in this day and age, that books still matter, that reading can be an act of spiritual renewal. 



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September 14, 2015

A MUST-READ NEW BOOK: The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves by Dr. Curt Thompson (IVP) ON SALE 20% OFF

The book I'd like to tell you about in this BookNotes is going to be discussed for years to come.  I am confident that it will appear on many "Best of 2014" lists; I know it will be on ours.  I've had an advanced copy of the manuscript and have been working with is - not just as I sometimes do, reading it in order to review it, in order to know for whom it might be profitable, letting folks know why we think it is a useful resource, but I have been reading it truly for myself, and have found myself deeply moved by it.  It is often the case that of the many, many books we stock and the many we truly appreciate, the ones that I end up writing about here are the ones that most captivated me, that mean the most to me, that I not only want to list, but for which I want to be an evangelist  The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves by Dr. Curt Thompson (IVP; $22.00) is one of these. Read on.

You can, of course, order this from us at our discounted price ($17.60) by clicking on the order form links shown at the end of this review. Our website order form page is certified secure.

soul of shame.jpgCurt Thompson is a friend, an experienced psychiatrist with a fascination with neuroscience, and an author we appreciate and thoroughly trust. His first book, published in 2015, was Anatomy of a Soul: Surprising Connections Between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices That Can Transform Your Life and Relationships (SaltRiver; $15.99.)

It is evident that Thompson has been shaped -- deeply, decisively shaped -- by the generative insight that the Bible teaches that God created a good creation, and intended that humans would have a calling to work with God - sub-creators as Lewis and Tolkien put it, stewards and vice-regents, tasked with developing the potentials of the creation, as so significantly described in books like Al Wolter's Creation Regained or Andy Crouch's Culture Making: Regaining our Creative Gift.

That is, Thompson gets -- as the subtitle to this new book suggests -- the narrative nature of the Scriptures;  he isn't a mere Bible "proof-texter" but has immersed himself in the plot-line of God's work as revealed in the Bible, the story which is an unfolding drama, starting with a fecund, blessed creation, telling us what Newbigin called "true story of the whole world," a story that moves into a tragedy of rebellion and brokenness that clarifies the realities of human sin and dysfunction, and that offers salvation in Christ which includes "substantial healing" in all of life, and the promise of a new, restored creation.  Yes the whole creation is groaning, and yes, still, we who are made in the image of God are key players in this God-drenched reality of a world gone wrong, yet to be renewed.  Salvation not only means "creation restored" but God's saving power calls into being a people gathered in community to be agents of that transformation, despite all we know East of Eden. These are our times, this is our story. 

Not only does Thompson know well the science of neuro-biology (like Anatomy of a Soul this new one is laden with helpful details -- even a few drawings -- about brain studies) but he also knows both the broadest contours and the details of the Biblical story.  The chapters in The Soul of Shame dedicated to exploring shame in the primal Genesis account are brilliant!  For those that want good Biblical reflection, the book is worth having just for his fresh insights and exegesis.  It is nice to see a scientist so fluent in the Scriptures.

It is a key insight in The Soul of Shame that for evil to win the day, to bring ruination to God's good creation, it must disrupt the humans, those called to "tend and keep" and develop the garden. It is a central point of Thompson's book that our human wiring, literally our brains and chemicals and instincts,  causing us to want to be known ("naked and unashamed") has been re-configured in ways that enhance our proclivities to be ashamed. He makes this clear, blending Biblical exegesis and theological wisdom and brain science and psychological insight -- and with this fascinating blend, he really helps readers understand our human condition in fresh ways. He explains it, over and over, deepening our awareness of how human alienation and brokenness can be understood through the lens of shame, with an assist from neuroscience.

Thompson notes that in the Bible 

We read of a God of intention, a God who has begun a story with a particular intended outcome. It is a story that has direction and meaning given to it by the storyteller. But in this same story there are other voices, and we are interested in one voice in particular. A voice of evil who has a very different intention than God does. Its intention is to twist and sully the story of joy and creativity that God is working so hard to tell. 

And then, he offers this significant statement:

And I suggest that evil's maleficent intent is wielded no more forcefully (yet subtly as part of it's the vulnerability of nakedness is the antithesis of shame. We are maximally creative when we are simultaneously maximally vulnerable and intimately connected, and evil knows this. To twist goodness into the seven deadliest versions of its opposite, shame in necessary and effective, and its virulence explicitly exploits our vulnerability.

Please understand: this is not mere psychobabble or a slippery distortion of conventional religion by a modern-day shrink. Even the magisterial 16th century systematic theologian John Calvin, trained in the left-brain logic of law, insisted that self-awareness is essential for religious faith.  "We cannot," as Thompson puts it, citing Calvin, "expect to know God fully if we are not willing to know ourselves, for one depends on the other." Ahh, but here is a rub: as we know from Genesis, "hiding is the natural response to shame." 

curt thompson.jpgGranted, the good Doctor - perhaps even stroking his beard carefully, while making gentle eye contact - may let loose phrases like "the interpersonal neurobiological matrix" and note that, like shame, "vulnerability is understood to be an artifact of the human condition", but I believe (especially after having read through to the very end of this remarkable work) that these insights from a psychiatrist and neuroscientist is just what we need to help us see the exceptional relevance of Biblical truth for daily living.

In Thompson's hands, Bible verses come alive, the over-arching redemptive drama makes palpable sense and frames our experience, and God's well-ordered structure of creation - the human brain! - is demystified so we can actually learn to manage what seem like instincts or default reactions.

Thompson knows the best literature in this field and summarizes much for us, explaining succinctly some relevant research, to underscore his theological claims about the nature of human development and how we are to live, in relationships.

For instance, in a sub-section called "Joy and the Integrated Mind" he reminds us that,

In the last twenty years, research spearheaded by the work of psychologist Allan Schore and others persuasively suggests that of all the primary tasks of the infant, there is none more crucial than the pursuit, acquisitions and establishment of joyful, securely attached relationships....  There has been much gained with Schore's work because it uses the horsepower of the data acquired from attachment research to educate us about the role of joy in the formation of an integrated mind.

Thompson continues, summarizing research by Jim Wilder whose work "highlights the place of joy in our development across the life cycle, and its role as a relationally supported state that leads to human flourishing."  Again, Thompson brings this data to us all, with succinct insight, framed by theological insights. 

I share this small bit about attachment theory and the role of joy to illustrate that Thompson has done an extensive amount of study -- of course, as a psychiatrist he has done a lot of post-graduate work and is also an MD -- so, as they say, he "knows his stuff."  But, significantly, Curt has a gift of being able to not only translate this for those of us who are not scholars in the field, but he can frame it in light of over-arching Biblical insights. You will love his chapter on joy and attachment and benefit from realizing how such joy is contingent on human connection. (And, of course you can see where this is going, since shame makes us hide, keeps us from deep connection, wrecks havoc on relationships and is thereby a joy killer. That fates and furies align against us, the consequences of our shame.) This is all quite fantastic and exceptionally profound -- you really will be inspired to want to know more.

It is good to be reminded of how we long to be noticed, to be known, to be accepted. The Soul of Shame documents this essentially theological claim by citing social science research, and it is very compelling. Thompson notes a scholar named Carol Dweck, for instance, who points to "another rendition of this in the anticipated voice of "Well Done!" in the wake of having worked hard at a task, even if the goal you wanted to reach has not been realized.

"And who doesn't," Thompson then asks, "want to hear that throughout his or her lifetime?"

But there is the crux.  We hide because we are ashamed.  We are people who know guilt and we know shame (his explanation of the difference is helpful) and we have been shamed, shamed by parents and school and culture.  It is hard to hear and believe others who say "well done" when we have sabotaged our own ability to be appreciated by hiding, self-protecting, covering up. Deep joy comes from relationships, but our shamed inauthenticity erodes the very trust that is needed for healthy relationships.

Weird, huh?

Makes sense, though, doesn't it?  

In a paradoxical insight, essential to understand, Thompson shows that we can only combat shame with vulnerability. (He happily gives props to Brene Brown for her important research, popularized in TED talks and the best-seller Daring Greatly and the brand new Rising Strong.  Not only has she documented and popularized the phenomenon of vulnerability and its value, but has warned how much energy we burn to avoid it. Dr. Thompson agrees.)

In one of the many riveting case studies in The Soul of Shame, Thompson tells of Carla (who had had an affair, but didn't want to talk about it with her psychiatrist to whom she had come for sleep medication, let alone to her husband.)  Thompson notes that for Carla -- and for us,

The idea of vulnerability brings with it both the hope of liberation and the terror of possible abject rejection. For those of us who see it as a weakness, it may be helpful - as it was for Carla - to be reminded of the story we believe we are living in.

Although we may now be discovering its helpfulness, historically [being weak, being vulnerable] has remained unrelated to any ultimate understanding without our larger story as human beings.  But the biblical narrative tells a different story. One so different, in fact, that in seeing the place of vulnerability in the pages of the Bible we cannot help but be amazed at its place and purpose.

He teases us with the provocative notion that God was vulnerable (in the sense that God was open to wounding, to pain, to rejection, to death!) 

And then he summarizes:

Like shame, recent sociological research about the place and function of vulnerability affirms what the biblical narrative has for over four millennia been telling us about humans and God. 

Dr. Thompson moves quickly to a profound rumination on the nature and significance of the Trinity.  After a beautiful paragraph showing the glorious, intertwined, self-giving, dance of the persons of the Trinity, in whose loving presence "shame has no oxygen to breathe," he offers great hope.

This imaged Trinitarian relationship is where all healing begins for followers of Jesus. And for Carla and countless others like her, this relationship invited her into the beginning of vulnerability and the end of her shame. Needless to say, none of this was easy. Fortunately, she discovered that God knows exactly what that is like.

anatomy of a soul.jpgYou see, so much of this profound book is about knowing your own situation, your own self and about knowing what is needed to be known by others. Thompson covered some of that wonderfully in The Anatomy of the Soul and now he explores even further how being known is related to openness, to necessarily being vulnerable. 

But how can we do the impossible - be more vulnerable so we can be truly known - when shame tells us, over and over, in ways large and small, that we are not worthy, we are failures, we are guilty, we are pointless or perverted?   When our very brains encode that?

Thompson asks,

What practical steps do we take to address the mind-body state of shame, given that it so thoroughly infects and disintegrates every functional domain of the mind? How do we confront it, given that it is highly resistant to efforts that are often limited to changing what we think rationally?

Can we learn - as Carla and her husband learned - to practice "the very thing that intuitively we are prone to avoid?"

Much of The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories...  is designed to answer that very question, showing how to heal shame by finding nurturing communities, communities that literally can help (to put it in my layman's phrase: "re-wire our brain waves.") Thompson's stories here are worth the price of the book, showing how families and friends and churches can move towards being better healing communities by creating within our relationships and even our institutions a culture of vulnerability.  

In an unexpected and nearly brilliant proposal, he argues for how curiosity becomes a part of the healing journey.  He walks us through ways to facilitate learning about these things, even hosting what he calls "creation conversations."  He warns that we dare not take these steps cavalierly and there must be "careful consideration about the way shame will be flushed out and disregarded."

Again, we are not prone to these kinds of transparent conversations and we are tempted to be ashamed of being vulnerable, naming our sins and weaknesses, our fears and failures.  In this book, Curt doesn't make many connections with the legendary raw and gracious ethos of AA, but is seemed somewhat similar. 

We hardly need reminded, but The Soul of Shame is clear: this is radical, counter-cultural, hard stuff.  In a section about how shame can be healed within various institutions and vocations, and pondering the potential of education and schooling to help us root out our shame by adopting a way of knowing that is less confident, that doesn't insist on easy answers, he riffs on how learning itself can be a "declaration of vulnerability."

To admit in our culture that we do not have our lives neatly packaged and wrapped, that we are a mess, that we need help from someone else is tantamount to blasphemy. To admit that we do not know something, are not good at something, to have made a mistake - to be vulnerably known - is not one of our best skill sets. 

There are books on shame that suggest that being "gospel-centered" is the answer, and while I am sure they are right, some seem overly simplistic to me.  We are told to "preach the gospel to ourselves" and to remember that we are worthy because Christ has declared us so. If we repeat that, recall that, embrace that, our toxic feelings will be replaced by the pleasures and delight of God.  Meditation on Christ's work on the cross will transform our attitudes and remind us that we are loved, these books insist.

curt thompson 2.jpgThompson would not disagree. His psychiatric practice and his perspective on his science is decidedly Christ-centered and grace-based. Yet, this book is more profound than the others, or so it seems to me, because of his training in brain studies, in how he so naturally teaches us about brain stems and neurotransmitters, and how he understand how "the shearing effect of shame" works its way into our very bodies and reinforces our habits and practices. This is no gnostic exercise in disembodied religious abstractions, but works with the only reality we've got: real bodies, with real brains, and real neurobiology. With these diagnostic tools Thompson offers us theologically sound but practical resources for moving forward towards hope and healing.  This book is not the fad called "neuro-linguistic programming" as some call it, but it is working a somewhat similar territory. Thompson writes about our posture of "emotional dysregulation and relational disintegration under the guidance of shame" and helps us learn what to do about it.

Another contribution that Thompson makes in The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves is a fascinating (and nearly unprecedented) chapter on healing shame through our vocations.  Few self-help type books about interpersonal psychology and relationships take the work-world seriously, and fewer still do informed by a theologically mature perspective of vocation and calling. 

That Thompson is one of the speakers at the annual Center for Faith and Work conference at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York this coming November is perhaps a good testimony of his own very integrated worldview, and how this has led him to ponder these things about how vocation and work can be impacted by shame, and can be a renewing space to offer help and hope.

Such a willingness to understand how shame can "ruin the creative possibility of every vocational endeavor by tainting the relationships those endeavors rest upon" truly could, if intentionally explored and applied, as you can imagine, lead to better work-places and teams and spill out into not only healthier workers, but a more reliable economy, greater human flourishing. This really is important stuff!

"When we resist the disintegration customary of the soul of shame, one byproduct is that we establish space for enhanced creativity," Thompson explains.

He explains that when the mind is more integrated, it is less distressed.  And, obviously, we have more energy, and could be less adverse to taking risks. Thompson's "model for vocational community" is generative and provocative.  He shows how shame leads to inappropriate comparisons (different gifts are seen to be better or worse.) I am sure all but the absolutely solitary worker realizes how anxiety and stress in the work place erodes our performance and I am sure this chapter is going to be helpful to get many thinking more about shame in the work world.

As followers of Jesus, it is imperative that we routinely do things that help us remember not only which story we are a part of but that our story is reflected by our being part of a community.   As Thompson explores the implications of a famous passage from 1 Corinthians, he notes how "Paul turns the tables on shame" and values all members of the community, each with a role (especially the weaker!)

"This is no less true," he insists, "in the context of running a hardware store or a multinational corporation than it is in the church." To create and sustain vibrant and productive work teams we simply must explore the impact of toxic shame and push it back through acts of generosity, vulnerability, grace.  Suggesting a path (not a formula or checklist) he talks about "the way of love."  

All that we do -- parenting, pastoring, farming, playing basketball, carpentry, police work, structural engineering -- is done in response to love and shame competing for our attention, wrestling for authority over our memory, emotion, sensations and behaviors.

In the last few BookNotes I've highlighted some tremendous, interesting and helpful books about the work-world. I've reviewed Beth Macy's captivating Factory Man (documenting a heroic fight of a fourth generation executive of a legendary furniture-making company to keep his plants open) and highlighted Invisibles by David Zweig (which tells about behind the scenes workers who are captured more by their sense of craft and work-world integrity than the lure of fame or status) and reflected upon the beauty of Finding Livelihood, a lyrical meditation by Nancy Nordenson on work, meaning, life, including life in a disappointing, broken world. Interestingly, I found myself thinking of those books in light of this good work of Dr. Curt Thompson, including this final chapter about healing shame through our vocations. I think he is on to something important here, something that many authors hint at, but few explore deeply.  

Thompson voices the call to "renewing our vocational mind" and he surely agrees that we need a uniquely Christian perspective, informed by Biblical insights from which come vocational practices that are coherent within a broader Christian worldview. That's my schtick here, of course. But he spends little time rehearsing that, really; rather, he explores the neuroscience of the mind, wonders what functional parts of the prefrontal cortex are most germane to the Biblical call to have a "renewed mind."

He subsequently offers a refreshing take on leadership - that process of "enabling with intention" - and (again, importantly) how shame will resist this kind of servant leadership, these healing initiatives designed to create a renewed and refreshed vocational mind.

The Soul of Shame is clear, a bit demanding, but full of stories and case studies and hints for further application. These stories will move you, I am sure. It may poke a bit, perhaps it will be emotionally taxing for you. (Ahh, if so, you need this book.  Thompson has, as Gayle Beebe has noted, "the heart of a pastor and the training of a surgeon.") There is a study guide in the back, as well, which is helpful for anyone processing this material and, of course, making it ideal for book groups or classes.    

In a lovely, compelling final page, Curt reminds us that processing this, rebuking shame, and learning how vulnerable relationships can help us, is good.  Yes, this is important work, healing and hopeful, and he tells us that he himself is on the journey. He, too, has to resist shame, and does so with hopeful vulnerability.  He assures us, "Despite how hard the work can sometimes feel, it is worth it. Its worth it to know the liberation of retelling my story so very differently from the way shame would have it be told."

soul of shame.jpg



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September 3, 2015

Invisibles: Celebrating the Unsung Heroes of the Workplace (David Zweig) AND Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure (Nancy Nordenson) ON SALE

As we are heading into the Labor Day weekend, some of us will have some time off. Restaurant workers, preachers, many health care providers, law enforcement personnel, those who work in the media, and those in retail may have to work extra hours this weekend to commemorate the significance of their labor.  And those of us whose wages are on the lower end can't afford to decline any overtime we might be offered. 

Some people romanticize bookstore work, but our staff could quickly tell you about the difficulties here day by day. We are looking to hire a new staff member here and find it hard to even know what to call the opening. "Sales associate" sounds so antiseptic but I'm allergic to trendy monikers like "dream weaver." Whatever we call the multi-tasking team here that keeps this ship afloat - Kimberlee, Amy, Patti, Robin, and Diana, the mail-out queen that wraps your packages so carefully - Beth and I are grateful beyond words. I know some of you are too, knowing that their love for books, people, and God's Kingdom conspires to serve you well.  Their work is worth much more than they are paid. While we don't do this bookstore ministry for the acclaim, we are grateful for and to those customers and fans that notice. Thank you for caring about our work and for being a part of our story here.  

Writers and readers and the booksellers that bring them together, yes, but there are so many more who are involved. We are grateful for publishers, printers, bookkeepers, sales reps and marketers, truck drivers who transport the cartons of books, the critics and reviewers and those who tweet and blog, those who tell others about good books they love.  But also thank God for the manufacturing plants that make the paper  -- who manufactures the ink, and where, I wonder? who made the conveyor belts and loading docks at the distribution centers? who wrote the ad that caught your attention or the back cover copy? We daily praise God for the gifts of the artists that designed the books covers, even if we debate the wisdom of their aesthetic choices sometimes.  Thank God for it all, this wild, beautiful, life-changing business of books. We celebrate the many, many good writers whose work grace our shelves, but you - the readers! - are what it is finally all about. Without you buying the books, the whole process falls like a house of cards.

Which reminds us -- we all should thank our elementary teachers or parents who taught us to read in the first place, and those other teachers and mentors who inspired us to want to remain readers and life-long learners.  

So, thanks be for all who play their part in this exciting story.


You probably know that I've compiled a number of lists of good books about the work-world, and have written essays about why church leaders should attend to the callings and careers of the congregants.

I invite you to read or review this good list, or this post (where I have a James Taylor video and talk about Tim Keller's important book.)  The prices may have changed a bit since I first listed them (some books that were hardback are now maybe available in paperback, say.) Still, maybe you could share it with somebody who might find it helpful.

Today, I want to tell you about two more recent books, although a few others may come up in passing. It's my job, ya know. 

invisibles.jpgInvisibles: Celebrating the Unsung Heroes of the Workplace by David Zweig (Portfolio) $16.00 our sale price = $12.80

The behind the scenes complexity of the writing, manufacturing and distribution and selling of books, and the various folks and institutions that contribute to our book industry that I mentioned above reminds me of a book I'm reading, Invisibles: Celebrating the Unsung Heroes of the Workplace by David Zweig. It is well written and really fascinating, and it would be a great book to read on the heels of Beth Macy's Factory Man that I reviewed in our last post.  Those called "invisibles," in Zweig's study, are those who work with exceptional excellence, behind the scenes, and are meticulous. They savor responsibility but are ambivalent about recognition.

Invisibles are, for Zweig -- who starting thinking about all this during his stint as fact-checker for The Atlantic  -- not the same as the also interesting and worthy folks who are merely unsung, the hard-working and under-valued cogs in the machine, those that work hard at their daily grind. Rather, these folks are often passionate, creative, influential, and at the top of their field, even though hardly anyone knows who they are (unless they mess up. In the fact-checking world, the only time one is known is if a slip-up is made and one's professional status is inversely related to one's being known.)

He has fascinating chapters on guys who work in recording studios - his opening riff on one of the most famous opening drum-beats in all of rock and rock and the recording engineer that achieved that sound was an instant hook for this baby boomer - and on the full-time guy whose job it is to keep the rare Steinway at the Pittsburgh Symphony's Heinz Hall in tune.  He looks at the skills and the psychology and the impact of professionals whose job it is, in many ways, to disappear.  Think not of the famous, much-appreciated heart surgeon, but the anesthesiologist.  There's a chapter on a significant United Nations translator whose name you do not know but who participated in forging treaties you have, the guitar tech for Radiohead who you might have seen lurking in the wings of an arena show, and a great chapter on the guy who designs directional signs for airports. (Wow, who knew how very detailed that is, from the font selections to the shape of the signage, color and all sorts of other variables that help us navigate these large built environments.)  Architectural work comes up, of course, since it is obvious that as we inhabit spaces, we feel differently in different places - you may know that great book The Poetics of Space and somebody worked hard to design and create and build the details of those spaces. 

Douglas Rushkoff says that 'This will change the way you see the world and, hopefully, your place in it." 

As the Kirkus Reviews put it, "In Zweig's fascinating world, the limelight doesn't hold a candle to the satisfaction of hard work well done."

Adam Grant, who wrote a tremendous book on leadership called Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success (which is itself very much worth reading), really gets what this book brings to us, where it points, and why it can be so helpful.  He says it is "an excellent book" and then notes that,

Invisibles "is a clarion call to work as a craft: for generously sharing knowledge without hogging credit and prizing meaningful work above public recognition.

This correlates well with Grant's own research about being a "giver" and about generosity in the workplace. It is nearly an expression of what some of us call "servant leadership."   

Jean Twenge, a brilliant sociologist and cultural critic (she wrote The Narcissism Epidemic) says of it,

Invisibles is a one-book cultural revolution, fighting the current cultural tide toward narcissistic self-promotion with the truth that real satisfaction is often silent.

And here is the bigger thing about this book, which was hinted at in each of these endorsements: those who eschew fame and glory but give themselves to mindful, quality work have found a way to not just be successful at work but to craft a meaningful life; their temperaments or values or posture have allowed them to find a way of being in the world that is wise and good and often beautiful.  As the Los Angeles Times puts it, these folks, "have cracked the code for a meaningful life."

Not unlike the next book I will describe, Invisibles: Celebrating the Unsung Heroes of the Workplace is not just a fascinating book about the jobs some people have, or even about how they pursue their work with diligence and expertise, but it a book about finding meaning and purpose. I'm glad for those that can enjoy their jobs, sung or unsung, but, more, who can point us towards new ways of thinking about our lives and how we measure success. 

finding livelihood.jpgFinding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure Nancy J. Nordenson (Kalos Press) $14.95 our sale price = $11.96

I have extolled this book in several previous posts and have briefly described it before at here at BookNotes. I am very enthusiastic about it, and of its publisher, Kalos, and want to be a champion of it because it is a truly, truly extraordinary book. The raves have been from important writers (Image editor, Gregory Wolfe, poet and writer Luci Shaw, Brett Lott, Leslie Leyland Fields, Marcus Goodyear of The High Calling blog.) Finding Livelihood is not at all common, it is beyond uncommon. It is not just good. It is nothing short of extraordinary and I doubt if you have ever read a book quite like it. It is wise, thoughtful, literary, poetic, full of stories - stories that are often exceptionally mundane but made exceptionally meaningful by Nancy Nordenson's extraordinary prose.

My own writing abilities, I am afraid, cannot rise to the quality that this luminous book deserves. I will tell you just a few things to pique your interest.

Firstly, as I have suggested, Nordenson is a great writer. She can weave sentences and paragraphs in creative ways that are pure joy to read if you enjoy the beauty of words well chosen and stories well told.  She tells us - warns us? - early on that the book has a lyric style, a nonlinear structure.  It includes "white space, metaphor, and slant-angle perspective."

"It is a way of exploring, not a way of explaining," she states. "Lyric structure bypasses the default problem-solving logic of self-help books and the chronologic reportage of memoir to more closely mimic the nature of a complex issue that can't be resolved in ten easy steps but can be seen and understood in new ways when explored from multiple directions. Lyric style finds clues and layers them or braids them together."

I said to Beth as I was reading some of this out loud that some of it brings to mind a collection of very short stories. There is this thread, this episode, this situation, this scene or smell or memory and, sometimes almost suddenly, it is over, and Nordenson moves on to another page.  Ahh, but pay attention: that anecdote or story or image just may reappear, bringing a glorious "a-ha" moment - so that is why she was telling us so much about the airplane, that is why the giving blood episode was so important. Now I get the resonance of inventions, Bach's two-part ones and more. Only a writer who has practiced her craft and a seasoned storyteller and wide-eyed thinker can pull this stuff off.  Her prose, and the construction of the book itself, is masterful.

"On yellowed college-ruled paper, in bright blue ink and the kind of loop-de-loop handwriting that betrays an earnestness just short of maturity, are pages of notes I took long ago from a professor's talk on career advice..."  The advice she recalls is good, and it loop-de-loops around itself -- questions about calling and money, worry and study, discovery and self-awareness, labor and leisure -- but I cite this sentence because I loved the observation (and her candor) about her handwriting and how it betrayed "an earnestness just short of maturity." 

Every page has stuff like that -- phrases and insights that make you catch your breath and smile.

And, yes, her youthful imaginations of finding a career (not to mention some of the odd jobs she's actually had) loop around and back again. There's some great work-related storytelling -- she was a teen fashion model for a local department story years ago and her telling is wonderful. This book itself was started, however, oddly, when her husband unexpectedly lost his own job, so un and underemployment is part of the journey as well. In one perceptive, serious aside she notes, powerfully,

I've heard it said that people do what they do because they can't think of alternative, but viable alternatives are hard to come by. Winds of recession or depression have been blowing through these streets, and no mark of Passover exemption has been made on my doorpost.

As a writer and storyteller, Nordenson really can set the stage, and a lot of this book (as she promised) offers exploration, not explaining. It isn't exactly memoir, but I hate to call it essay, as her chapters mostly do not sound polemical. Perhaps it is called literary essay.

I live under the roar of airplanes. A flight path to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport extends in a trajectory overhead. More often than not, the planes are on their final descent. A 757, DC9, or Boeing Airbus flying over my backyard passes northwest to southeast in the time it takes for me to say "I wonder where they've been." Looking up I can see a plane's underbelly, flat and smooth like a shark's. I can see its strand of windows and the logo on the fuselage or wing. I can see the plane's nose, where in the cockpit the pilot lowers and steers the body of aluminum and plastic, slicing through the sky. Then it's gone, toward the runway only minutes ahead. The engine rumble lingers, like the thunder that travels through space long after lightning flashes.

I don't know if it was the line about the plane being gone in the "time it takes me to say..." or the bit about the plane's underbelly being "flat and smooth like a shark's." Or that great sadness about the engine rumbling "like thunder that travels through space long after lightning flashes" but I was moved by this passage.

And I was struck by the non-sequitur that followed.

"It is Holy Week."

And, to spoil just a little of the fun, it was not exactly a non-sequitur, although it took a few pages to figure it out.

Holy Week edges toward Good Friday, and at the grocery store down the street the food was heaped in glorious display: asparagus, broccoli, celery red delicious and granny smith apples, potatoes for scalloping and mashing, hams, and turkeys. My grocery list stated needs, but how I long for something more than necessity to seduce me. Hot cross buns and marshmallow chicks; white lilies and fuchsia azaleas; cinnamon and cloves. Someone has placed mounds of green, yellow, and blue plastic grass along the inside of the deli counter with two pastel-dyed eggs in every third mound, perhaps the woman who sliced the smoked turkey for me, thin for sandwiches. 

I notice that she wants something "more than necessity to seduce me" and that she notices someone who has done ("invisible"?) work. Perhaps it was the woman who sliced the smoked turkey who had placed the plastic grass in the deli case?

So it goes in this lyric, luminous work, mostly about work, but also about something "more than necessity."

Nancy_Nordenson_9230ag-210.jpgNordenson herself works hard, with a notable amount of stress, as a freelance medical writer. I learned more about her job then I would have imagined wanting to know, and found myself talking with Beth late at night about her medical research writing projects and the complexities of her craft. (She tells which keys are worn on her keypad, and how her muscle memory allows her to continue to type, even though she is confused when she tries to look for the nonexistent letters on the most-used keys. She tells how at some medical conferences the microphones have to be exceedingly fine-tuned as every syllable, number, and decimal is essential to transcribe perfectly. )

Her work involves meeting with medical researchers, learning the arcane work they do, and helping write case studies for use in medical education. One riff on who gets the credit in documentation -- "First Author, et Al., Ad Infinitum" the chapter is called - -brings to mind Zweig's Invisibles and Grant's Give and Take, but is much more lyrical. She reports one small episode as part of a longer exploration of credit and acclaim that I not only enjoyed, but found captivating:

A tag sewn on the inside lining of a favorite summer handbag bears a name printed in indelible ink: "Romana Z~", the R like scissors, the Z like a rippled thread. Romana, a woman I've never met, sewed this backpack-type handbag of green and gold wheat-print cotton with an indigo denim cord that I bought on the sidewalk at Bleecker and Carmine in Greenwich Village on a sunny September day. Wendy Luker sold me the bag. She and I talked for a while as I fingered fabrics and tested shoulder straps. She told me she started Wendyloo Handbags as a recovery effort after the strain of graduate school. She intentionally gives honor and dignity to women who work for her as seamstresses by having each one sign the bags she sews. Thus, Romana's name is signed on my bag.  

Where she goes with this is deeply moving, and the chapter is a great one. It meanders through her own work, her observations of how different sort of scholars and professionals treat others, offering some notice to the invisibles all around us, and to those who perhaps do not want to be noticed due to their own tragic past or mental illness. 

Ms. Nordenson writes within the Roman Catholic tradition, I gather, and this seems to influence her work in two lovely ways. Firstly, she is a religious contemplative, or so it seems, and there is a prayerfulness to this volume, a spirituality that pervades her longings for good work well done.  There are other nordenson quote.pngbooks that are direct about this matter of finding God in the work-world, books that offer clues to spiritual formation for and in the marketplace, thinking Christianly about vocation and call, developing a Christian viewpoint, even, but this is less obvious than that. She does want life to be more seamless, not just to find paid work but to sense a call, to discover meaning in our days. Livelihood.  She does ruminate quite a bit on Josef Pieper's classic Leisure: The Basis of Culture (and in a simple reminder of its post-World War II context helped me understand it more than I had.) Her point in all of this is profound, but not evangelistic on the face of it; Why is Pieper's message so urgent?  She answers her own question in italics: To be human.

Besides this spirituality of being fully human, an Earthy spirituality, if you will, and the subsequent human and humane view of culture, work, and leisure, her use of a way of thinking and arguing that seems particularly Catholic is sometimes used: like Aquinas in the Summa she has a few chapters that are making arguments pro and con, for and against a proposition at hand. (And, yes, she does cite Aquinas, and Aristotle, so there.) Of course, she is a creative contemplative and a poetic writer, so even in these bullet-pointed lists, there is elegance and eloquence. But in a few chapters, at least, she makes her quandary known and argues it through: for instance, is it or is it not proper to think about money when discerning a calling? 

So, between stories and parables and reflections and ruminations, this fine book does cover some points, which should be helpful for those who feel that, otherwise, such a memoir might be pointless. Yes or no, she thinks it though, how about this, or maybe it is that. She isn't terribly conclusive, but she does bring some solid stuff, inviting us to ponder it deeply.

But then, quick as can be, she's back to her lyrical prose.

"I have recently read the most beautiful phrase: a beholding that ascends," she exclaims.  It comes from Pavel Florensky, a late nineteenth century Russian scientist and ordained Orthodox priest. I love her succinct aside about him:

Florensky's dream was to be a monk, but rather than have him waste his scientific training, his bishop refused to give him the required blessing. Instead of a life of monastic contemplation, he reported for daily duty as head of research at a plastics plant and to university lecture halls where he taught physics and engineering wearing his cassock, cross, and priest's cap while under the watchful eye of the Kremlin authorities.

Fr. Florensky the scientist and engineer and physics professor "ended up on a train to a Siberian gulag, where he died four years later, but not before he wrote those words - a beholding that ascends."

I cannot quote the whole page here, but she writes beautifully and profoundly in attempting this beholding in her own work as medical writer. And she wonders what it may mean to be wholehearted, paying attention (to receive, to pay attention, to wait.)

I am placing blank index cards and a pad of paper alongside my work, in the cracks between the journals articles on blood gone wrong, PowerPoint slides on hepatitis, and meeting notes on bone cancer.  For seconds or minutes, I am stopping the words that are usually in my head during a workday - faster, harder, better, longer - and practicing writing about something other than disease. Practicing building bridges with words from seen to unseen and back again. Practicing seeing bridges already here. Practicing crossing the bridges found.

every good e.jpgwork a kingdom p.jpgThere is more to tell about Finding Livelihood but I suspect you already are attracted to it, or perhaps not.

I will quickly admit that it is not the same sort of books as the must-read, essential works that I most often recommend, books such as those on that previously mentioned list, including, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God's Work by Tim Keller & Katherine Leary Aldorf (Dutton), Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work by Tom Nelson (Crossway), Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor by Ben Witherington (Eerdmans), God at Work: Living Every Day with Purpose by Ken Costa (Alpha), Work Matters: Lessons from Scripture by R. Paul god at work by Ken Costa.jpgStevens and  his majestic The Other Six Days: Vocation, Work, and Ministry in Biblical Perspective (both published by Eerdmans) or The Gospel at Work: How Working for King Jesus Gives Purpose and Meaning to Our Jobs by Sebastian Traeger & Greg Gilbert (Zondervan.) Ms. Nordenson cites Miroslav Volf's important book about a theology of work based on charisms, Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work (Wipf & Stock.)

An aside: she is not referring to these good books, I really don't think she is, but I do find it glorious that in one chapter she laments that few books can help with a certain aspect of her quest and writes,

Go to the library or bookstore, and find the books that comprise the literature of work. Steer clear of the books shelved in the business or self-help sections, the books with the gleaming covers that shout in forceful red or authoritative blue, with tips on how to manage your time, get promoted, or dress for success, their pages decorated with bullet points, diagrams, and action boxes. Find the books with paintings or drawings on their covers and on the shelves designated for art or nature or philosophy, theology, spirituality or literature. No bullet points punctuate their pages, nor do they lend themselves to PowerPoint presentations.
Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure perhaps presumes some basic awareness of the faith and work conversations and the high calling we have to serve God in all of life including our vocations and careers and jobs. But it isn't didactic about the dignity of work or the need to be agents of God's transforming vision.  Rather, it just dances around with us through it all, and shows us how this all works for her, and how it doesn't.  And, to be clear, it is as much about finding a way of life, a view of work and rest, of failure and success, of meaning and insight.  She draws on Simone Weil, she quotes George MacDonald, she helps us appropriate Jean-Pierre de Caussade's Sacrament of the Present Moment, and does a wonderful meditation on Ezekiel's question about the bones and her son's experience with some seriously broken bones. Is there a hope born of brokenness?

You see, this is something important about this book: without hitting us hard over the head with it, she does attend to, she honors, the brokenness.  Her husband painfully lost his job before the end of the first chapter, you'll recall.  She doesn't romanticize or glorify this quest to find a spirituality of vocation.

In fact, if I may cut to a chase - not the only chase as there is so much going on in Finding Livelihood - she has on some occasions summarized the book as a critique or deconstruction of the famous Frederick Buechner quote about finding our vocation "where our great gladness and the world's great needs meet."  She is eloquent and nuanced about it all, but let's face it: for many of us, on many days, at least, work does not offer us much gladness nor does it help the world all that much.  Mr. Buechner's beloved line?  Maybe meh.

In a final word she thanks us for reading her book and then sends us off with "a challenge and a benediction."  The challenge includes this:

Consider your own experiences of work, no matter whether your work falls short of or far exceeds where you thought you'd go in this life. You are at once worker, witness, and narrator, protagonist and minor character. Write your experiences. Aim for twenty stories, images, or people that fill a place of permanency in your memory. Fill a notebook, a stock of index cards, or an electronic file. Scribble in the margins your longings and disappointments, your passion and needs your aspirations and limits, the tension of your planned life and your given life.

She wants us to take a "long contemplative look."




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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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, 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

Jesus Cow.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.

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"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.

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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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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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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.


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...


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.


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.

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