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June 29, 2015

10 Recent Books about Faith and the Arts -- and a celebration of CIVA (all books mentioned 20% OFF)

CIVA-B2W-logo-600-300x300.jpgA few weeks ago we had a schedule conflict and couldn't make a trek to Grand Rapids, Michigan to the bi-annual CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts) conference.  Although we truly enjoyed being with local friends, pastors and lay delegates of a Central PA denominational gathering, we missed  being at the remarkable national meeting of CIVA. We need to publicly thank the leadership of CIVA and our stalwart supporter from Lancaster, PA,  Ned Bustard, for helping us get a display of books there, sans Beth & Byron, and for Mr. Bustard for representing us at the event.

books at CIVA.jpgSince we couldn't have dozens of tables, display racks, or take our boards and shelves to make a pop- up bookstore the way we do at some large events, we only sent a handful of titles and, still, the artists, art teachers, art historians, patrons, museum curators, critics and those who do ministry among and for artists all seemed glad to see our titles. We thank those who browsed and bought books from us -- it means a lot.  It reminds us of how important cultural creatives and those thinking about aesthetics have been to us in our work. We are grateful.


Over the years we have developed numerous lists of books or columns about our book-selling at IAM or CIVA or other gatherings where we've served serious artists and those interested in culture-making. Please see (and send to others, if you know anyone who'd appreciate it) lists of books about the interface of faith and thea arts here, here or here, or, just for instance, see my review of Beauty Given by Grace: The Bible Prints of Sadao Watanabe, here. Or our review of Art That Tells the Story edited and compiled by Chris Brewer, here.

seerveld set.jpgNot long ago I insisted  in a Hearts & Minds BookNotes column that last year's release of a multi-volume set by Calvin Seerveld was "the publishing event of the year."  His stunning and influential classic,redemptive art in society.jpgrainbows for fallen world.jpgRainbows for the Fallen World (Toronto Tuppence Press; $30.00), appears on nearly every list on the arts I do, so these newly compiled anthologies of essays, articles, scholarly pieces, sermons and sundry projects  -- like Normative Aesthetics or Redemptive Art in Society -- are important.  For what it's worth, I had the great privilege of being asked to pre-read and then write a blurb for Redemptive Art.  More important and knowledgeable critics have offered better endorsements, but since you are a Hearts & Minds fan, figure you might like to see part of this quote of mine, from the back of the book:

Can high quality, properly nuanceful, allusive theatre, sculpture, painting or song help heal the world? Can art expose injustices, bring comfort to the hurting, shake the idols of our age? These chapters are amazing pieces, a true gift for those wanting to go further along the journey towards "seeking the peace of the city." Wise leaders and faithful artists simply must read them.

Art in Action_thumb[2].jpgDr. Seerveld was at the CIVA conference this year, as were a fine array of other very important writers and supporters of artists. Nicholas Wolterstorff (who - I might shamelessly note - has a chapter in the book I edited called Serious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life) was there.  His book Art in Action: Toward a Christian Aesthetic (Eerdmans; $26.00) is a classic in this field, published by Eerdmans in 1980, the same year as Rainbows for the Fallen World.  I like to tell the story that I learned of both in a splendidly stimulating pair of reviews in Vanguard magazine that year, called "Cal on Nick, Nick on Cal." It was important for me to learn of these two Christian philosophers, understanding from their excellent academic work what people meant by the "integration of faith and scholarship" as well as the realization that even those within the same worldview community could disagree about how to go about doing "uniquely Christian scholarship" in a  particular field of the Lord.  Perhaps I took it a bit too much to heart, since are bookstore is very diverse, with "left right and center" viewpoints on offer, enhancing, we hope, principled discussions within each area of life, and each academic or vocation arena, as we ponder and discern what it truly looks like to "think Christianly" and live faithfully, in but not of the world. I thank God for Cal and for Nick, and to realize they were both at this historic CIVA conference and that we would not, was nearly painful. If you don't have Art in Action, you really should.

luci shaw picture.jpgAnother person we admire from a far was there, poet and author (and publishing hero) Luci Shaw. We stock her several volumes of lovely, thoughtful poetry, and her wonderful book about being a Breath lucy shaw nice cover.jpgChristian in the arts, Breath for the Bones: Art, Imagination and Spirit: Reflections on Creativity and Faith (Nelson; $13.99.) I recently skimmed it again, for the umpteenth time, alongside an old favorite, a classic by her best friend, the last Madeline L'Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (Waterbrook; $18.99.) I would tell those uninitiated to this genre - books about faith and the arts - to read Shaw before L'Engle, but anyone who keeps a library of a few books across the broad school curriculum -- campus ministers, say, or "faith in the work-world" geeks or just those who like to read very widely -- should have them both.

Luci's most recent book of prose is Adventure of Ascent: Field Notes from a Lifelong Journey (IVP; $15.00) which wonderfully surveys the landscape of her experience of aging. 

taylor and thumbs up.jpgfor the beauty of the church taylor.jpgOne of the great additions to this field was edited by David O. Taylor, and I really would have liked meeting and hear him at CIVA - Taylor gave the opening address, so, of course, we had a big stack of his edited volume For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts (Baker Books; $15.99.)  If you are somewhat new to this body of literature, I guarantee you that this will be a great on-ramp, a way into reading about the myriad blessings of beauty, the important issues and concerns, the joys of church-based art ministry.  Some of the contributors here are professional artists, a few write about aesthetics and the arts professionally (Jeremy Begbie, John Witvliet, Barbara Nicolosi) and some are just solid church folk interested in the field (Lauren Winner, Eugene Peterson, Andy Crouch.) There is a lovely foreword by Luci Shaw. This is great book, enjoyable and helpful.

faith + Vision.jpg

Faith+ Vision: Twenty-Five Years of Christians in the Visual Arts, edited by Cameron J. Anderson and Sandra Bowden with an Introduction by Nicholas Wolterstorff (Square Halo Books) $44.99

It was Square Halo Books, in fact, that partnered a few years ago with CIVA to create and publish a large coffee table book of contemporary Christians in the arts, to honor their 25th anniversary.  Modern, postmodern, classic, iconoclastic, heavy, playful, the work represented in Faith+ Vision: Twenty-Five Years of Christians in the Visual Arts, is broad, mature, and evocative.  The paintings and other visual art pieces shown are "suggestion-rich" and "allusive" as Seerveld might say, and we are honored to continue to stock it.  In fact, I was honored to get to do an endorsement on the back -- next to serious scholars in the field such as Ena Heller and Wayne Roosa and William Dyrness.  I wrote, very sincerely,

In word and image, the pages of this book record the glorious work of an organization dedicated to support the Christian artist. CIVA is a wonderful association and this book shows off the God-blessed glory of the their members' work in extraordinary fashion. Thank God for the gentle steadfastness of CIVA,. For those who compiled this excellent books.  And for Square Halo who publishes manna like this.

I so wish I knew how to get folks to buy this handsomely designed, inspiring showcase book. The artists deserve to be known, and this organization needs to be supported.  It really does make a great gift!

If you want really the "best of the best" standard lists of books, do see the links I offered above.  Or write to us, and I can customer make a list, just for you at whatever stage or level you want. The lists are not exhaustive, of course, and we have other titles on the shelves here at the shop, but they will serve as a reliable core curriculum. We have a lot of older "back list" titles at Hearts & Minds, and can get nearly anything in print, so do send us orders if you want. 

Now, I'd like to share with you a handful of newer titles, including some of what we showcased at our small showcase in Grand Rapids last month. These are others to celebrate.  All are 20% off -- do send us an order so we can keep doing this kind of work, promoting Christian scholarship and resources often not found in typical bookstores.  


creative church handbook.jpgCreative Church Handbook: Releasing the Power of the Arts in Your Congregation J. Scott McElroy (IVP) $20.00 This was one of our biggest sellers at the CIVA Bi-annual, and they honored Scott by arranging a book signing to celebrate it. This book has been years in the making; it includes a report of of various church groups that have robust arts ministries, and offers guidance drawn from them, stuff they've learned, insights they've gleaned along the way.  In this regard, Creative Church Handbook is both interesting/ inspiring - to hear these stories, learn of these ministries and outreaches - and practical/useful -- with the "take away" points so clear and actionable. Scott has been involved in conversations about faith and the arts for years, has written an earlier book (Finding Divine Inspiration) and this new, slightly over-sized work illustrates his keen ability to pay attention to what God is doing across the land.  It shows how to mobilize and manage artists and other creatives within your congregation and how to establish structures and parameters for arts ministry.  It includes good stuff on outreach and engagement with the local arts scene in your own community as well as how to wisely think about utilizing the arts in worship and sermons, even.  I'm particularly glad that the arts work of a local church near us here is included;  kudos to our neighbor DeAnne Roe for how McElroy described the work over at Living Word Community Church. This book is a must-have resource, highly recommended.

who's afraid of modern art.jpgWho's Afraid of Modern Art? Essays on Modern Art and Theology in Conversation Daniel A. Siedell (Cascade) $21.00 I'm not a fan of the bland cover, but this book is anything but bland, and the always interesting, often passionate Siedell has followed up his seminal God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art with a great new volume, a must-have for anyone wanting to stay current with the "state of the art" of recent conversations in this field. This fabulous, richly informed new collection of over 30 essays, is grouped into six major themes. Blurbs on the back include one by David Raskin, the influential (atheist) professor of Art History, Theory and Criticism at the Art Institute of Chicago. ("He asks important questions about art and belief, and helps me better understand my own passions.") and by Gregory Alan Thornbury, President of The King's College in New York City, who, after avery thoughtful summary, says "This is a landmark work, a signal of achievement in the field." As it says on the back cover, Who's Afraid of Modern Art? celebrates the surprising beauty of art that emerges from and embraces pain and suffering, if only we take the time to listen. Indeed, as Siedell reveals, a painting is much more than meets the eye."

Siedell's serious essays are arranged in these units: The Ear,  The Audience, The Art World, The Artist, The Art, and The Poetics of Modern Art.  Fantastic!

ReVisioning- Critical Methods of Seeing Christianity in the History of Art.jpgReVisioning: Critical Methods of Seeing Christianity in the History of Art edited by James Romaine and Linda Stratford (Cascade) $41.00 Mr. Romaine has been known in evangelical art circles for years, in part because of his role in Square Halo Books such as It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God, Objects of Grace: Conversations on Creativity and Faith, and The Art of Guy Chase. He is now Associate Professor of Art History and Chair of the Department of Art History at Nyack College. Mr. Romaine is the President of the Association of the Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art (ASCHA - who knew?) He recently helped edit the excellent collection of art history essays done in honor of Dr. John Walford, Art as Spiritual Perception (published by Crossway -- I named it as a Best Book of 2012, which you can find in this big list, here.)  Linda Stratford is an Associate Professor at Asbury College and a board member of ASCHA as well.  I name these important qualifications to assure you that this hefty book is very well done, a collection of exceptional scholars showing forth their work about the methods they use to do faith-informed, coherent art history.  To suggest that a book about methodologies within a sub- genre of a certain, technical field -- Christianly conceived analysis of art history -- is worth reading by non-specialists may sound like a stretch, but I think this stuff is very interesting for any adult learner and think it should be available in church libraries and among those who like to think deeply about these sorts of things.  Nearly all of us could benefit from fresh teaching about old stuff, and on one hand we could just consider this a refresher course, a good overview of all kinds of interesting matters.  More so, though,  we can learn much about our own self-awareness about our methods and tendencies and styles of how we engage culture and scholarship by dipping into these keen approaches to Christian engagement with culture. These grapple with how to think faithfully about how we do just that - how we approach this artifact or that painting or the accepted wisdom about this school of thought or that cultural movement - is very, very helpful.

The first batch of essays by world class scholars look at icons and iconography. The next handful of pieces look at methodological issues of reading theology in Renaissance and Baroque Art.  The third section looks at the historical-religious context of Nineteenth, Twentieth, and even a bit of Twenty-first century art.  The authors are from a diverse array of institutions, from The University of Chicago Divinity School to the Pratt Institute , from Duquesne University to several universities throughout the world.

Sanctifying Art- Inviting Conversation Between Artists, Theologians and the Church.jpgSanctifying Art: Inviting Conversation Between Artists, Theologians and the Church Deborah Sokolove (Cascade) $22.00  Cascade has an uneven, even peculiar, series, "affs/Art for Faith's Sake" that is worth knowing about, a series which includes books large and small, including some poetry volumes,  a biblical theology of dance, a splendid, mature work by Bill Dyrness  (Senses of the Soul: Art and the Visual in Christian Worship), a very nice devotional based on Emily Dickinson, the significant ReVisioning book on art history mentioned above, and, a bit oddly, a teaching preaching book by Will Willimon, among others. This is a solid, foundational one, and should be known widely.  As Robin Jenson (herself Professor of the History of Christian Art and Worship at Vanderbilt) says "Deborah Sokolove has given us a rare gift. She has articulated her belief in the value and purpose of art in language that is fresh, convincing, and - perhaps most of all - accessible to and respectful of the lay reader. This is obviously a work of love, and it is a great joy to read."  Many of the reviews and endorsements have been excellent, nearly urgent: Denise Domblkowski Hopkins says that the author "brilliantly accomplished what she set out to do - change the conversation between artists and the church...." and suggests that much is at stake here.  

The Virtues and Vices in the Arts- A Sourcebook .jpgThe Virtues and Vices in the Arts: A Sourcebook Shawn R. Tucker (Cascade) $33.00  I have not looked through this much, and wondered if it is mostly about the arts, or mostly about virtue, faith-formation and character. The seven deadly sins are known, perhaps the virtues less so, but this book brings all of them together and "for the first time, lays out their history in a collection of the most important philosophical, religious ,literary and art-historical works."  Is this mostly art history then? Literary criticism? Historical theology? Yes, yes, and yes. It is a massive anthology, putting, in the words of a professor from Bowdoin, "philosophical treatises into conversation with religious and literary compositions.  Even more interesting, he draws on key artistic works, paintings, and sculpture, allowing the reader to imagine other ways to think about ethical problems."

Seeing-the-Unseen-Church-Gallery-Handbook-800x600-300x225.jpgSeeing the Unseen: Launching and Managing a Church Gallery Sandra Bowden & Marianne Lettieri (CIVA) $30.00 This is another splendid, book which was launched at the 2015 CIVA event, and we are thrilled to have a few here at the shop. Sandra Bowden is, we might note, one of the most informed and respected art collectors in North America, herself a devout Christian and driving force within CIVA for decades. (Some of her own splendid collection is shown in a truly exceptional Square Halo Books coffee table art book, The Art of Sandra Bowden, edited by James Romaine; $49.99.)  Ms Lettieri is a mixed media artist, art instructor, and is currently in a residency at the Cubberley Artist Studios in Palo Alto, California.

This beautifully crafted new book is 10 x 7, spiral bound, and chock full of insight, vision, and lots of very practical advice.  Stepping into this world can be daunting - bad art is an embarrassment and we must resist cheap or unconsidered work, but we must also realize that the power and witness of even the most highly creative, exceptional work can be harmed by shoddy or unprofessional installations.  Anyone who is an artist could benefit from this; anyone who is interested in displaying real work by real artists should know this stuff, and anyone who is serious about doing a gallery, especially in a parish setting, simply must have it.  

Art of Helping Others- How Artists Can Serve God and Love the World .jpgThe Art of Helping Others: How Artists Can Serve God and Love the World Douglas C. Mann (IVP) $15.00  Mann is a songwriter and former music and publishing executive (not to mention an accomplished visual artist) and has done extensive mission work.  (He currently divides his times between  Colorado and the Ukraine.)  In this book Mann offers a memoir of his own "joy, pain, sacrifice and hope" which calls artists of all sorts, in fact, all followers of Jesus, actually, to lives of "creative incitement to the glory of God." Although this will inspire you to invite and network artists for activism and service, it will, more deeply, inspire all of us to live more generously, seeing the world in nuanced, colorful ways, and sharing that passionate vision with others. All of us, artists or not, can be encouraged by this author who, Ben Arment says, "has the hands of an artist and the heart of a pastor." Maybe we all need a little "creative incitement." 

Life After Art- What You Forgot About Life and Faith Since You Left the Art Room .jpgLife After Art: What You Forgot About Life and Faith Since You Left the Art Room Matt Appling (Moody) $13.99  We stock all the recent books in the recent imprint the "Moody Collective" which are written by younger adults, energetic volumes with an Millennial edge, deeply Christian but not pushy, well written and artful. So it makes perfect sense that the Collective would do a book about the creative passions that so many younger adults long for. (And others, too; recall that Doug Pagitt says we now live in "the inventive age.")  This nice volume is, interestingly, as cool as their others, but has an appeal to readers of any age.  The topic is a commonly discussed theme - how school and grown- up life seems to squeeze the playful creativity of childhood out of us - but I know of no other book that reflects on this from a Christian viewpoint.  I love the blurb on the back by Anne Jackson, who explains that "Matt takes readers on a journey to the art room to discover our purpose in life, which can be found in our God-given ability to create beauty for the world to see."  This is a book full of invitation, beauty, grace, and being set free to care about all this more.  I should have listed it in my list of books last months about leisure and play. Very nice.

Sense and Spirituality- The Arts and Spiritual Formation James McCullough.jpgSense and Spirituality: The Arts and Spiritual Formation James McCullough (Cascade) $18.00  McCullough has his PhD from the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at the University of St. Andrews so you know this is some serious, meaty stuff.  He has published articles on the music of Anton Bruckner as well as the art of Graham Sutherland and Makoto Fujimura.  This book attempts to explore some new grounds, not just deepening our faithful understanding of aesthetics, nor the general conversation about faith and the arts, or church ministry among artists. This work is hoping to advance our insights about "how the arts might actually advance spiritual formation in terms of the cumulative effect of religious experience and intentional practices."  It naturally offers more to the discussion between theological aesthetics and practical theology, but, more, it offers an analysis of artistic communication and how music, poetry, and painting can help us in our spiritual formation. Can our experience of the presence of God be animated by our appreciation of aesthetics and by our actual engagement with art?  As Wheaton art professor Matthew Milliner says in his back cover review, "McCullough deftly calls attention to the elephant in the elephant in the aesthetic seminar room: the way that art catalyzes spiritual growth." 

Van Gogh's Ghost Paintings- Art and Spiritual in Gethsemane.jpgVan Gogh's Ghost Paintings: Art and Spiritual in Gethsemane Cliff Edwards (Cascade Books) $16.00 Edwards is a fascinating author, having done books on Japanese haiku, and several previous books on the faith life of Van Gogh and his paintings.  I wish this had come out in time for CIVA; it arrived just after the conference, so here it sits, lovely, beckoning. Elizabeth King, a sculptor who won a Guggenheim Fellowship and a recipient of the Academy Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters says "This is a superb work. The author's fearless journey into the life of Van Gogh and the interiority of the writing take the readers herself into solitude, loneliness, labor, triumph, and sorrow.  It is a complex work... we treat with this book the very path Van Gogh himself hesitate3d on and wrestled with himself on: the seeming contradiction between the intellect and the spirit in art.  Obviously, the Dutch painter remains one with whom we resonate.  Even Henri Nouwen, who drew so tenderly from Van Gogh, has esteemed Mr. Edwards contributions to Van Gogh studies.




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June 24, 2015

Fools Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion by Os Guinness ON SALE NOW 20% OFF

fools talk.jpgThere is little doubt that for many, the new Os Guinness book, Fools Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion (InterVarsity Press; $22.00 - our cost, $17.60) is one of the most eagerly anticipated books of the year.  Dr. Guinness is one of the most elegant and eloquent speakers and writers I have ever encountered and many esteem him as one of best thinkers and most articulate spokespersons in our generation for informed, thoughtful faith that is Biblical,  culturally engaged and, well, persuasive. Guinness's global experience as a world traveler (he was born in China, lived in Switzerland, studied at Oxford, resides in the US and often participates in global confabs and international symposia) gives him a cosmopolitan air that is sophisticated and attractive and delicious for those of us who value a great communicator with profound material. Most importantly, he is a lucid and compelling advocate for historic, Biblical faith - not fundamentalist, not aligned with the Christian right (or left), not trendy or peculiar or particularly sectarian, but just solid, sensible and faithfully orthodox. He is an ideal personification of what Lewis called "mere Christianity" or what Stott described as "basic Christianity." 

Indian born, Cambridge-educated Ravi Zacharias, another internationally-known, elegant speaker and writer, says "Few thinkers rise to the level that Os does, even as he plumbs the depth of vital issues..."

James Sire says, of this new book

Fool's Talk is a direct exposition of the inner logic and rhetoric of persuasion, showing how hearers are moved from unbelief and doubt to conviction of the truth of the Christian faith. Guinness's focus is not only on the nature of effective argument but the character, ethics and faith of the apologist. Intellectually profound and immensely practical.  I loved the book. So will you.

Claremont professor Mary Poplin, whose own journey of faith (by way of Mother Teresa) is wonderfully told in Finding Calcutta and her own cultural assessment is offered in Is Reality Secular? describes the book nicely.  She writes, 

Os Guinness, in his characteristically clear and insightful style, helps us recover the art of persuasively making the case for the truth of Christianity. Fool's Talk uniquely suggests we use, not the eager-to-win argumentative styles of the twenty-first century, but the persuasive styles of the church fathers, Old Testament prophets, New Testament writers and Jesus himself as our models. The irresistible nature of their reasoning and Guinness's brilliance in explaining them is a sure guide for apologists and evangelists, which he wisely urges be one in the same.

To understand the significance of this remarkable work, you should know, too, that Guinness - unlike some who write books about evangelism and apologetics, understands beautifully that the gospel to which we invite seekers and the unchurched, is nothing short of the full-orbed Kingdom of God, the Lordship of Christ lived out in all of life, inspired by the Spirit, shaped by grace, for the sake of the world.  

the call.jpgHis book 1998 book The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life (Word; $17.99) is not only a personal favorite of mine, but has proven to be a watershed book, inspiring a renaissance in discussions about vocation and calling and a faith-based view of work across the Christian community.  I routinely cite lines from that great book, drawing on chapters such as "Everyone, Everywhere, in Everything" and "Locked Out and Staying There."

It was the one book I chose to review when I was asked to contribute to a book called Beside the Bible (edited by Dan Gibson, John Pattison, Jordan Green; IVP; $15.00) which was a collection of 100 reviews of 100 must-read books -- a great book itself, by the way.  My own personal debt as a reader to Guinness's books  - including his first, the out of print study of the 1960s counter-culture called The Dust of Death, which I often mention as seminal and life-changing for me -  is very significant, even if I do not live up to his impeccable intellectual work  or consistent intellectual faithfulness.  Further,  Os and his lovely wife have been friendly supporters of our bookstore and family, and their prayerful encouragement has been a blessing. I say this so that those who are not familiar with his large body of work or his status as a respected elder statesmen within evangelicalism, would consider buying some of his books. Or at least be inspired to follow along carefully as I describe his work.

Listen to this delightful half hour lecture to see what I mean. Please listen to the end -- it is very powerful and you'll surely appreciate it.

prophetic untimeliness.jpgtime for truth.jpgI have greatly admired other, smaller books of Guinness's like Time for Truth: Living Free in a World of Lies, Hype, and Spin and Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance both which emerge from his serious critique of churches - mostly evangelical ones whose leadership seem to have been largely shaped by managerial models, glamour and an obsession with metrics, thriving on techniques of marketing and light-weight seeker messages rather than conventional church models based on mature worship, robust explication of Scripture, and serious, nonpartisan, social witness.  (Although, to be clear, the razor-sharp critique in those books aimed at his fellow evangelicals could equally apply to more liberal churches that embody their own sorts of compromises and idols.)

renaissance os g.jpgHis passionate, uplifting book of last year, Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times (IVP; $16.00) eschews any religious plans to manipulate culture or force social transformation, insisting that even as we work hard to serve the common good, we do so only in God's ways, relying on Christ alone for cultural renewal, not our political power or social might. (This would be an excellent book to read, by the way, for those who have pondered the Oxford University Press volume To Change the World by James Davison Hunter. Such important and interesting work.)

On my short list of titles that are out of print that I long to see reissued is his brief and potent book about developing the Christian mind called Fit Bodies Fat Minds... Again, there, he calls us out for our sloppy thinking and cultural captivity; it seemed to me to be nearly a manifesto for our work as Christian booksellers.

Despite the somewhat negative tone of some of these broadsides, Os has been more than a curmudgeon lamenting churches with feeble visions of vocation or market-driven views of church growth, or postmodern trendiness. His critiques are usually gracious and most always wise, and doubtlessly on the top of my list of books with which thoughtful Christians of any tradition or church affiliation should grapple.  I can hardly overstate this, and wish many more readers would take them up and share their insights.

Global Public Square.jpgGuinness has given us other sorts of books as well, books sometimes on mainstream/secular publishers, books that bank on his reputation as a former scholar at Brookings Institution,  a Senior Fellow of the EastWest Institute in New York, his status as case for civ.jpga sociologist with a PhD earned under the eminent Peter Berger, media pundit (who did a stint with the BBC), founder of bi-partisan project designed to deepen American's appreciation for first amendment freedoms, advocating for structural reforms that promote pluralism, religious diversity and which enhance civility. His hard-hitting book Case for Civility was about much more than public manners but offered positive plans for enhancing better public discourse and stability in the public square. His pair of meaty books  A Free People's Suicide and The Global Public Square reflected, respectively, on the threats to religious freedom in North America, and globally.  Dr. Guinness has even addressed United Nations diplomats on this topic of religious freedom, inviting them to help "make the world safe for unspeakable.gifdiversity." A major book, Unspeakable: Facing Up to the Challenge of Evil, attempted to enter the conversation about theodicy, not so much to answer the big question of "why" but to offer a framework for thinking about large evils such as genocide or sexual trafficking.  It is a hugely under-utilized book, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Fools Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion is a book that has been nearly a life-time in the making.  Guinness tells us that he made a promise to himself, and to the Lord, that he would not write about evangelism or apologetics (the art of defending the faith and making a persuasive case for the truth claims of the Christian worldview) until he had significant experience doing so. I cannot judge, I really can't, but I have a sneaking suspicion that some who write Os photo.jpgbooks about evangelism have rarely actually led another to lasting faith and some who write about apologetics like to think about the logic of faith, but, again, may not have had much experience actually befriending skeptics and relating well to those who are hostile to Christian conviction. Although Guinness surely knows the benefit of scholars and thinkers and writers -- he cites philosophers and scholarly authors on every page! -- he is right that bookish guidance about doing this kind of work simply must be field tested and refined by real conversations, with real people, knowing real failures, sometimes through heartache and tears, even. The topic demands real pages written after years of experience and genuine concern. Guinness writes that he has waited 40 years to write this book. 

 Fools Talk is in a sense everything he learned about the topic from three larger than life influences and mentors: C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and Peter Berger (to whom the book is dedicated.) 

If this book was Guinness's guide to either one of these three giants of thoughtful and humane Christian apologetics it would be worth every penny.  That he draws on and in some ways brings together all three is remarkable, even extraordinary. I suspect you have not read a book like this, ever. 



Guinness, you may know, was on staff at Schaeffer's L'Abri in Switzerland, and remains a friend of the L'Abri movement.  It could be surmised that he may be one of a very small handful of none-family members who knew Schaeffer best. As was mentioned, Guinness earned his PhD at Oxford University in sociology on the esteemed Peter Berger, a renowned sociologist, author, and Lutheran lay leader. Again, he knows the man well. 

On occasion Guinness will share an anecdote about one of these three characters, sometimes telling a personal story of his own conversations with them.  He writes,

C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer and Peter Berger did not know each other, and they might not even have liked each other, and they might have heartily disagreed with what I have done with their ideas. But the creative clash of their three quite different ways of understanding has set off a nuclear explosion whose energy has fired by thinking. Indeed, I have worked for years in the light of their ideas, and my gratitude to each one of them is unfathomable. 

Indeed, he has worked for years in their light.  In the early 1980s Guinness tried his hand at a novel, a much-discussed, greatly appreciated story written as a creative set of memos from a spy working for the Enemy (think of a mash-up between John Le Carre and Screwtape) called The Gravedigger Files. This book brought a bit of Lewis, a bit of Schaeffer, and a lot of Peter Berger's "sociology of knowledge" approach to worldview studies, helping us - via this very creative genre - appreciate the cultural last christian on earth guinness.jpgassumptions in the late modern West and the need of the church to be newly faithful.  This was, if I might, the How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor [by James K.A. Smith] of the 1980s, prescient and profound, clever as it was.  Looking back, playfully, it could have almost been called "How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Peter Berger."  It was edited, expanded and re-issued in 2010 under the title The Last Christian On Earth: Uncovering the Enemy's Plot to Undermine the Church (Baker; $17.00.) We found it hard to describe and hard to sell, but it is - I'm not kidding! - a wonderfully thoughtful read, a bit of parable, a bit of cultural exegesis, a playful example of some of what Guinness explores in this new Fools Talk: the need to deeply understand the cultural forces that shape how people think and see and understand and live in this culture, and the need to use humor, satire, and "turning the tables" as a form of apologetics. In Gravedigger cum The Last Christian On Earth Guinness does just that.

Which brings us to the very substantial, weighty, examination of the art of persuasion found in this tour de force, Guinness's 270 page masterwork, inspired by images of the jester, the fool, and what the Apostle Paul called "the foolishness to Greeks."

fools talk.jpg

In the first few chapters, Guinness is again in his critical mode, exposing the significant failures of apologetics in our day.  Even in the introduction he offers an incisive exploration of the impact of digital technologies - many of us, almost subliminally are about self marketing in this age of tweets and selfies - and the doubled-edges of the sword that this is: people are increasingly open and in communication but yet are therefore increasingly wary, weary, even.  Who can deny the growing suspicions and cynicism many carry in part due to relentless 24/7 advertising and ubiquitous propaganda?  And who can deny that there is much cultural anger against the public face of Christianity, much self-inflicted by the harsher corners of the Christian community? And we all know that there are those who specialize in argument and so-called apologetics but whose loud polemics are simply an embarrassment in contrast to the beauty and grace and richness of the gospel.

Slow Church-Cover1.jpgSome BookNotes readers will recall our promotion of a book called Slow Church which critiqued the idols of efficiency, technique and speed, and I must say that I thought of that good work by Chris Smith and John Pattison as I followed Guinness's cultural criticisms. While Smith & Pattison made the case that church should be slowed down, more relational, patient, local, human-scale, Guinness makes parallel recommendations for how we bear witness to the truth of the gospel. We must slow it down, showing more patience, relating well to even our antagonistic conversation partners. We must be aware of the "devil's bait" of technique and methods, and resist any formulaic, pre-packaged, quick-fix answers. I suspect some of Os's emphasis on this comes from hanging around francis and edith b_w.jpgFrancis and Edith Schaeffer who were renowned for the great care and individualized pastoral and apologetic counsel offered in the context of welcoming hospitality that they would give to each and every person they encountered.  Guinness is adamant about this and while is seems so obvious that it hardly needs saying, it does need saying.  And he says it strongly, even denouncing the "imperialism of technique" and "McTheories."  

He puts it nicely, saying,

The good news of Jesus is the best news ever, God's foolishness that is God's Grand Reversal, which subverts the wisdom of the world to show true wisdom and display real power. Recovering the lost art of persuasion is urgent, timely, and supremely practical, but it is always an art and not a science, and it is not for cheap sales-people but for genuine lovers of Jesus and lovers of truth, beauty, and a knowledge that is more than facts and information. 

Way too many training sessions and books and workshops and manuals are provided - for those who even care enough to do such things these days - offering pat answers and tricky strategies for answering the expected questions that people have.  Guinness will have none of it, insisting that our friendships with seekers and skeptics must be honest, real, true, and that our replies to their views must be unique, thought-through, and always appropriate for the uniqueness of that particular person and his or her needs, issues, questions, at whatever stage they are on in their spiritual journey.

(An aside, which is more than as aside, I guess, as Guinness mentions it: there are those who no longer care about apologetics at all, and this is regrettable. Some seem to think there is something magically powerful about sheer proclamation, and do not emphasize explanation or argument; others have long come to disdain apologetics because they don't even think it is important to do evangelism. Sad but true. How glad I was, by the way, that at our local PC-USA Presbytery meeting this week there was a workshop on evangelism!)

Consequently, many of the chapters of Fools Talk are about helping us learn the art of what might be called, in this context, spiritual discernment. (I do not recall that Os uses that phrase, actually, but he advises us to size up the situation and gives us pointers for discerning the stage a person may be on in her journey.) Guinness invites to listen well, to ascertain the deepest issues driving the seeker, and learning the art of attending and responding well to these matters.

To help us, Guinness does some heavy lifting for us, reminding us of Biblical stories and explicit teaching about the duplicitous deviousness of the human heart. We surely must know that, apart from God, many are, frankly, not seekers. People are spiritually dubious, tentative at best. Folks hold presuppositions and idols and false hopes. (Lewis cleverly joked about his own religious disinterest as the absurdity of the "mouse stalking the cat.") Therefore, we must help people deconstruct their own reason for god.pngdeconstructions (one complex chapter is called "turning the tables") and with wit and kindness but sometimes also hard words spoken well, help skeptics doubt their doubts. (Timothy Keller writes about this clearly in his important and useful Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.) Guinness uses examples from Lewis, Schaeffer and Berger about doing just this -- it is thoughtful, provocative, and finally practical.  I love, for instance, his guidance about moving our discernment about the journey of our conversation partners from a meeting point to a pressure point to a danger point, where they are inevitably forced to wrestle with deep things about their deepest convictions and concerns, and realize the consequences of their ideas and beliefs, or lack thereof.

The Bible study Guinness does here is curiously intriguing. He draws some important truths from stories - including some that may be lesser known. (Occasionally I thought this was a bit tedious, and then - bam! - he'd offer a line of insight or a take-away point that I had not seen coming, or that I had never considered.) Not only does he draw on great Bible stories but he tells great stories from history.  In one section he may tell of a Greek battle or pivotal moment in the Roman Empire and documents the character formation or self-awareness of the ancient leaders and then he will recount the remarkable Christian conversions of serious thinkers such as W.H. Auden or Pascal;  on another page he will bring us into an illuminating episode of existential dilemmas from novels like The Plague or the literary reflections of Kierkegaard or Dostoevsky.  Or, he will tell about his own long journey home.

Guinness knows the best literature and writings of some of the smartest people in the Western world. I do not want to scare you away, but he cites episodes from the profound reflections of some of the most remarkable thinkers  -- often to illustrate why great thinkers have rejected the faith, and even if this is slow going for some readers, it is valuable, and you will be rewarded.  

Questions are important to Guinness and he commends to us the art and science of asking good questions, questions that are "spring loaded" with other questions. 

The human heart and mind must be approached wholistically, so doing proper apologetics is - and this is central to the book - not only about logic and reasons and evidences. Truth is known deeply, in ways that are more than merely intellectual, and we appeal to people with their deepest heart-level questions and fears and issues.  Thinkers must think well, but even thinking well is more than a matter of the brain. 

little manuel on knowing.jpg(visions of vocation.jpgYou may know how Steve Garber has ruminated on this, first in his significant Fabric of Faithfulness and again in the exceptional and profound Visions of Vocation; or how philosopher Esther Meeks has appropriated the work of Nobel Prize winning scientist Michael Polanyi in her Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People or her Little Manuel of Knowing or her massive Loving to Know: Covenantal Epistemology. Guinness does not reference Garber or Meeks, but he might have.)

He even suggests that many moderns have been educated in only the data-oriented left brain, and miss imagination, nuance, analogy, creativity and the like. So our persuasion dare not be reduced to winning intellectual arguments or merely refuting the claims of the atheists.

Guinness knows all this very well, and helps us appreciate the complexity of the apologetic task by quoting or retelling writers, artists, or philosophers who have penned their memoirs or philosophical reflections about their own rejection of faith, their own sense of knowing what they know, and what they came to trust or not trust.  We must understand how the human soul works, and listening in on the likes of Arthur Koestler or Schopenhauer or Nietzsche or Jung or Irtega y Gasset or Ronald Dworkin helps us, especially as Guinness gives us background and uses their quotes so effectively.  Guinness has done the heavy lifting for us, bringing us these reports from the greatest minds that have written about these things, and we would do well to ponder them carefully.  His framing them, explaining what we can learn from the nature of their unbelief is nothing short of brilliant. 

Of course, he tells more than the useful stories that expose the anatomy of unbelief.  He examines the thoughtful conversion narratives of great writes such as Augustine - you really have to know more of his story! - and C.E.M. Joad and Chesterton and Pascal and, of course, C.S. Lewis.  Whether you know these names or not, it is good, intriguing storytelling, offering great, witty lines.

Allow me to say this, however: you may, like me, regret that most of these citations and stories are from great intellectuals of the West, and the novels and plays he cites are decades old, at best.  I do not know if today's thinkers - young or old - care much about Plato or Milton, Yeats or Kafka, Ibsen or even Iris Murdoch or Agatha Christy.  I wish Os would cite contemporary films or more recent scholars or at least a few contemporary lyrics from indie rock artists or a stand up comedian or TV drama.  I know that Dorothy Sayers and her once-popular mysteries provide great illustrations and certainly most of us need schooled in the writings of Erasmus and Chesterton, say, but it is nearly ironic that in a book so insightful about attending to one's conversation partner, being a good listener and aware of the audience and her social location and cultural context, Guinness (and his editors?) seem unwilling to offer on-ramps to these significant, older authors. (Don't you hate it when an author says somebody "famously" says something and it is a person you've never heard of, saying something you've never heard of?)  Again, it is not bad that Guinness cites Lucretius rather than Ludicrous (your welcome for that wordplay there) or Alberto Giacometti rather than Paul Giamatti (again, your welcome) but it might have been a more reader-friendly book if only...

Rise of the Nones.jpgyou lost me paperback.jpgAnother major section of Fool's Talk comes in chapters that warn about the dangers of our own foibles, and the huge challenges they create in the minds of the unchurched, obstacle for our Christian advocacy.  Useful, must-read books like UnChristian (Gabe Lyons & David Kinnaman), You Lost Me (David Kinnaman) or James Emery White's The Rise of the Nones are excellent entries to these concerns, but Guinness, naturally, brings a deeper understanding and more profound response.  

For instance, in a chapter on hypocrisy ("Beware the Boomerang") he offers six steps to pursue in responding to charges of hypocrisy; this is truly valuable since such  accusations are common and, frankly, a legitimate critique of Christian faith -- but it is not simplistic. It is rich, good stuff.  Similarly, in a chapter called "The Art of Always Being Right?" Guinness explains the dangers of arrogance and pride and too much confidence in dogmatic, pat answers.  His approving citation of Albert Camus' brave intent, "To tell the truth without ceasing to be generous" is a good reminder. His call to "gentleness " and "respect" (see I Peter 3:15) is lovely, and his quoting St Augustine who was "honest facing up to the temptation of using words as power" is fabulous.  His stuff about asking good questions is brilliant.

Guinness observes, "...all too often the urge to win and to win at all costs breaks through in Christian speech, whether in showy exhibitionist rhetoric or ruthless steamrollering."  Ain't that so true?

He lifts up famous Christians who showed a better way, from ancients like Gregory of Nazianzus and Ambrose to Chesterton's decency in his famous debates with George Bernard Shaw, to the (contemporary) "humility and humor of Professor John Lennox of Oxford University in his recent debates with new atheists." Nice!

Again - to underscore the point of this book which is a guide to learning how to persuade, not just scold or proclaim or badger or win arguments about religion - Guinness in this chapter explores some of the parables of Jesus and how they were so remarkably able to unsettle and expose and invite the hearers to repentance and a realization of grace. He worries that in all our efforts to win debates (at least those of us who enter into religious conversations, having perhaps read books on how to argue well) we sometimes make a winning argument, taking the battle, so to speak, but losing the war, as it were. The goal of our conversations, he repeats, is not to win debates or look good in our sophisticated arguments, but to touch lives, inviting people to faith through grace. We want people to care about truth so they might come to trust the God who loves them so.  He writes,

The false art of always being right is a deadly trap for Christian advocates. Conversely, it is a high privilege to use the art of persuasion to bring people to where they know in their heart of hearts that they are wrong, that God's offer of grace is free. Little wonder that such a privilege and such an art can only be pursued with humility and with an overwhelming sense of God's grace to us, too. Again, the art of truth leads back to the incarnation, the cross and the Holy Spirit, and the life of faith continues as it began.

This reminder is the theme of the beautiful Epilogue, called "The Way of the Open Hand."  He explains that this symbol points us to

the positive side of apologetics that uses the highest strengths of human creativity in defense of truth. Expressing the love and compassion of Jesus, and using eloquence, creativity, imagination, humor and irony, open-hand apologetics has the task of helping pry open hearts and minds that, for a thousand reasons, have long grown resistant to God's great grace...

You will notice, in this good quote from the last page, that Os mentions the imagination, humor and irony.  These are actually explored in great detail - rather humorlessly, I might note - as Guinness teaches us from Peter Berger, who wrote (in the 1960s) profound work on what we might call the sociology and spirituality of humor.  The chapter called "spring loaded dynamics" is perhaps the most challenging in the book and yet may be the most important.  Here, Guinness's debt to Berger and Schaeffer and Lewis are evident, and it is nothing short of brilliant.  Yet, dense and brilliant as it is, it must be read in light of a previous chapter - one that has Berger's fingerprints all over it - called "Triggering the Signals."  

You may have heard the phrase (coined by Berger, I gather) "signals of transcendence." Lewis himself explained how this reality was key in his own conversion ("surprised by joy") and Os develops it clearly. 

Shifting from Lewis to Berger, he writes, 

Berger's rich discussion of other signals of transcendence are a goldmine for the Christian advocate. It covers such typical human experiences as hope, play, humor, order, and judgement. His discussion is fresh and invigorating, but we should see it as a brilliant rediscovery rather than as radically new, for this was a powerful theme in the early church.  In the third century, for example, Gregory of Nyssa built on the Greek notion of desire and developed it in a biblical direction.

Guinness is fantastic here, swiftly reminding us of Gregory's profound teaching, shifting to Augustine, noting that "the same understanding of desire blazes in St Augustine, fanned by his own experience of passionately searching for God" and then on to, for instance, the telling of the story of Le Chambon (the famous town in France that hid Jews from Nazism's reach) and how author Philip Hallie (Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed) was drawn to "how goodness happened there." 

Of course, when a seeker realizes that there must be some Giver if there are gifts, some Signaler if there are signals, some Meaning-giver if there is any meaning, he or she can still say "yes," "no" or "not long journey home.jpgyet" to the invitation to understand that Meaning-giver as the God of the Bible, incarnate in Jesus the Christ.  People may "fall on their knees or turn on their heels."  Like in his wonderfully rich book for seekers called The Long Journey Home: A Guide to Your Search for the Meaning of Life (WaterBrook; $18.99)  Guinness helps us chart the journey of our conversation partners, helping them do some ruthlessly honest self appraisal, realizing that signals of transcendence may not immediately draw skeptics to faith.  (That is why we need "spring loaded" dynamics, asking probing questions, and the tools of wit and irony and even the ploys of good drama to push and pull our friends to deeper questions and new plausibilities and finally new answers.)

You see, all of this is complex and serious, demanding that we unlearn and relearn how to persuade, not just win arguments or, worse, meanly moan about the atheists and unchurched and nones.  We need fresh, thoughtful evangelism, and that will mean learning this discerning art and taking up with fresh energy the call to be persuasive.  Of course we only do this in concert with the Holy Spirit of God, whose job it is to call and convert and transform.  Yet, we have our part to play.

And here is a large point: we may seem like fools to the watching world to press hard to give a fulsome witness to faith  - no matter how creatively and winsomely and passionately we argue. Are we willing to seem like "fools for Christ?" 

And is there some sense in which our foolishness is just what is needed? 

 Desiderius Erasmus,.jpgGuinness thinks that is exactly right and he has talked about this often in older lectures and has hinted at it in more than one book.  His chapter "The Way of the Third Fool" that clarifies what he means by being a fool, based on his astute reading of the notion of foolishness in the Bible, is very important, and I don't think I've seen anything like it anywhere.  You will have to ponder it a bit, but it is quite intriguing.  Just for instance, at one point, he draws on the notion of  a book by Desiderius Erasmus, published in Rotterdam in the early 1500s called The Praise of Folly. 

This is tricky business, though, and we need Guinness's good guidance to get it right, I think.  Of Erasmus's satirical project, he writes, 

Needless to say, not everyone understood Erasmus's point. On the one hand, some people failed to understand his fool-making style and interpreted him woodenly. One stolid reviewer, a fellow cleric, wrote that now that Erasmus had written his brilliant book The Praise of Folly, he should consider writing a second book, The Praise of Wisdom. Poor man. Earnest, wooden and literalistic, he had missed the point. Erasmus had written The Praise of Wisdom but he had written it upside down and inside out in order to be more persuasive to those who were resistant to being challenged. 

guinness lecturing.jpgOne of the things I appreciate about Fools Talk is how Guinness himself sometimes helps us from misunderstanding. In a section talking about the use of the arts to help us in this process of "turning the tables" and offering "spring loaded" questions, he tells of an artist who objected, wondering if this intentional nuancefulness was demeaning the arts themselves, recruiting them for some subversive task that had this apologetic goal. Os's response, although brief, is clear and helpful.  Throughout, just when things are piling up, quotes and ideas and points and theological polemics, he offers a story, an example, often from his own life.  From conversing with atheist philosopher A.J. Ayer during a train ride to his own experience pondering life's meaning when a possible brain tumor threatened his well being, Guinness brings this all home. He is a scholar and learned writer, but he is not a dry intellectual.  I learned years ago that he does not view that epithet as a compliment. 

Well.  Readers can tell this work comes from a life time of thinking and doing.

The wait was worth it. 

This is a book that combines great learning, passion for God's glory and Biblical truth, and a great array of experience with life, with friendships, with conversations with world-class thought leaders as well as with ordinary people, from militant atheists to disillusioned church goers, older and younger, well-educated and less so.  The writing is not simplistic, as this is no simple matter. Lives are at stake and while the destiny of each soul and the health of our post-Christian culture finally is in the hands of the God of heaven and Earth -- remember his previous book Renaissance -- we have to be attentive to serious matters in these serious times.  Dr. Guinness has thought hard, read widely, listened well, and is always the teacher, inviting us to consider things not only in a new light, but in a deeper hue.  I respect his work, and commend it to you. I especially recommend this brand new Fools Take: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion.


fools talk.jpgSo here I am, trying my best to describe this book, to pique your interest, but, perhaps I am not being persuasive.  What an irony!!  Please, please, forgive me for my lack of clarity or for not making this sound compelling.  I invite you to ponder your own needs and interests, and invite you to work through this book, perhaps with another.  I think it will be illuminating, helpful, and, for some, even if you may not agree with every bit, it will be a paradigm-shifting, transforming experience. 

Fools Talk is, in the words of Jerry Root (himself a Lewis scholar) "necessary and vitally important." 

Michael Ramsden of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics says it is "a remarkable book... I whole-heartedly recommend it." 

Or, if I may dare marshal evidence, our friend and professor of these very topics, William Edgar, writes, interestingly,

There is no doubt about it, Christian apologetics is having a renaissance. Oddly though, precious little of it addresses the art of persuasion. Who better to redress this lacuna than the preeminent apologist of our times, Os Guinness. Among the many virtues of Fool's Talk is the presentation of a robust Christian faith that is not predictable. Many people are so sure they know what Christians are going to say that they don't actually listen. Guinness keeps them off-balance, much in the way Jesus' parables caught his audiences off-guard. Faced with a plethora of modern challenges, from technology to globalization to political sales talk to moral relativism, we are tempted to develop a single, safe, reactionary method--ten steps to the punch line. Guinness does the opposite. Like G. K. Chesterton in an earlier age, Guinness reminds us that truth is quite unlikely, that is, dubious to unaided reason. He advocates a broad range of arguments, all of them imaginative, but all of them pointing to the surprising truth, the unpredictable love of God."



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June 20, 2015

15 Books about Christian Community

The Body Broken - Benson.jpgyour church is too small.jpgI hope you read my last post reflecting on the diversity of views within the broader church and the need to work for greater unity in Christ, showing grace to those with whom we may disagree.  The two main books I reviewed are a bit different in style and tone, but both are beautiful and important.

Regardless of  the degree of your own passion to know and relate well to Christians of other denominational traditions, worship styles, theological methods, cultural leanings, or ethical and political convictions, the fact of the matter is that many churches, or at least most of the ones I know, are themselves nearly ecumenical centers, not quite streams of living water.jpghotbeds of theological diversity, but more varied then most folks admit. To use Richard Foster's helpful image, some of us have been refreshed by more than one "stream" or type of Christianity.

I know this isn't commonly assumed, but think about it.  Even conventional, denominational churches have folks who have been informed by non-denominational traditions - - they've appreciated some TV preacher, they've read one of the ubiquitous evangelical authors, they attend a neighborhood Bible study led by moms from the local community church, their kids were involved in an interdenominational campus ministry like CCO or IVCF or Cru.  Those raised in United Methodist homes marry Lutherans and end up Episcopalian. Folks once fired up in a small charismatic Bible study have found a place in a quiet CM&A church; I know a few PCA pastors who are now wearing clericals, serving within the RCA. UCC congregations have former Catholics, and some Orthodox parishes are made up of former independent evangelicals, who were shaped by C.S. Lewis or Dr. Dobson as much as the Desert Fathers or Alexander Schmemann.  And, of course, many congregants read, for better or worse, religious news from the mainstream media, take in some Biblical archeology from The History Channel, and come to their own conclusions about this or that as they talk about the pastor's sermon over Sunday dinner.  Church people are not as uniform in their beliefs as we tend to assume, and there are different stages and ages and perspectives on faith within almost any normal church.

godviews.jpgSome tensions within our churches come from what one might say are worldview differences.  Jack Haberer years ago studied Presbyterian churches and learned that some members in the same congregation most valued creedal faithfulness, others vibrant worship, others still are glad if their church gives them opportunity for meaningful mission, etc. If you are a relational type and you have dear sisters and brothers, you may not mind a bad sermon.  If you are deeply involved in rewarding volunteer work with youth, say, and see vibrant youngsters maturing in faith, you may not care if you like the music in worship or not. That is, what people most want in a church, what they think most counts, emerges from deep assumptions. It may be helpful to explore what we most think of when we think of good faith or a good church to discover why what agitates one person isn't a big deal to another. That book was called GodViews: The Convictions That Drive Us and Divide Us (WJK; $20.00) and I think there is something to that.

Churches are not as diverse culturally or racially as they ought to be - I've shared resources about being more multi-ethnic over and over for years and years, and am grateful that publishers are helping us with insight and ideas -- but there is theological diversity in many churches.  Evangelical churches have folks sneaking off to read Diana Butler Bass or the late Marcus Borg and more theologically liberal parishes have members who have found renewed faith by reading Tim Keller or Nancy Pearcey. And everybody is reading (the Roman Catholic) Henri Nouwen or watching videos on spiritual formation by John Ortberg or Ruth Haley Barton who draw on monastic wisdom.  (This diversity can be destabilizing and troubling or it can be a resource for greater depth and charity, but that is a topic for another day.)

My point is that there are differences that we have to manage and the more we share our faith journeys the more honest we will have to be about this.  Further, of course, many churches are still in conflict over worship styles and local ministry plans or budgets, as the ethos of most every congregation is evolving, changing with new leadership and new times and new members. 

Even if a congregation's members mostly share a common faith orientation, they disagree about the details of running the church.  It seems there is often room for trouble,  conflict to be managed, hurts to be healed.  So we need not only graciousness about our theological differences, but reminders of our relational loyalties, learning to deepen our sense of belonging to one another.

The buzz word of our time, it seems to me, is community, and the longings which have put this word on everyone's lips are profound and will endure. From those of us who remember the shared community.jpgfriendships lost and lamented in The Big Chill or who came of age watching Thirty-Something or even Parenthood, we long for deep relationships, lasting loyalties, and meaningful friendships.  (Do you recall my BookNotes review of the recent Brazos Press book by Wesley Hill called Spiritual Friendship? It is so good!) We want to "do life together." We read the Bible and realize that Christian faith is communal, deeply relational. American individualism, we increasingly realize, is profoundly flawed and ultimately deadly.  The Triune God is relational, and we are wired for community. Wendell Berry is right when he talks about "membership" in the commonwealth. We are in this together.

Living with grace and honoring the diversity of personalities, theologies, politics and customs at the local church level may be the crucible for learning the habits of heart and (yes) practices that will help us be more ecumenical in the broader Christian community, too (not to mention more civil in the public square.)  Doing local church well, nourishing community and care in what some call "body life"  -- the life lived out together in the local body of Christ in the ways the New Testament mandates --  is urgent not just for the health of the local church, but is a school for relating well at the macro-level.  

I would like to think that those who pass the peace with brothers and sisters in worship, embodying practices of reconciliation, week by week, will be nicer people over time, and these folks will play well together at church board meetings and the like.  They've offered blessings to people, even people they may not like, in this ritual, after all, and we thereby learn to do this stuff, "practicing" in worship what it means to be a peacemaker, out in the world. I would like to think that then those folks who learn to be generous and gracious in the Christian congregation, learning attitudes and skills of community there,  will also be the kinds of people who refrain from virtual ugliness on the internet.  Yet, I know there are people - me? -who sometimes say things on line that they would never say in person, face-to-face. So the formation of habits that allow us to be in community in the local church, even being skilled peacemakers there, is not a magic bullet or the only way to deepen our ecumenical manners or our public civility. But it helps.  

imagining the kingdom cover.jpgdesiring-the-kingdom.jpg(For deeper explorations of this, by the way, how the rituals of Christian liturgy form us, please see James K.A. Smith's Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation and Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Baker; $22.99 each.) I can't tell -- although I've tried in these pages and elsewhere -- how very important these serious works are.)

So, yes, yes, talking about community is important. We have a large section of these kinds of resources in the shop (not to mention a whole shelf full of books designed to help small groups leaders nurture better small groups, which is a good step towards more Biblically-shaped, living together in community. Send us a note if you need help with your small group or a small group ministry in your church.) But "community" means much more then having a small group.

Here are 15 books on building community, working for unity in the local church, being the Body.

life together.jpgLife Together  Dietrich Bonhoeffer (HarperOne) $14.99  Bonhoeffer, you may know, wrote his PhD thesis on the nature of the church (perhaps inspired by an epiphany he had about the profound nature of ecclesiology while worshipping once on Palm Sunday in Rome.) His call to radical discipleship and loving service for the sake of the world is deeply interwoven with his views of the forming power of the local Christian church. This is, as the cover rightly proclaims, "The Classic Exploration of Christian Community."  Not many books have endorsing blurbs on the back by Richard Foster, Henri Nouwen, and The New York Times, so I hope you realize this is truly one of the great books of our time.  Serious, brief, powerful. It's a must-read that should be available in your church library and on your shelf.

living into community.jpgLiving into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us  Christian D. Pohl (Eerdmans) $20.00 A thoroughly captivating, fascinating, wise and important book for any educated reader.  It is in many ways beautiful, naming and exploring four essential practices that sustain a sense of community, and the obstacles of living into them in these days.  This is so good, there is really nothing quite like it in print, making it a must-have, must read book.  In a way is a follow up to Pohl's very important and equally wonderful work on hospitality, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Eerdmans; $21.00)  Yes!

Lessons in Belonging From a Church-Going Commitment Phobe.jpgLessons in Belonging: From a Church-Going Commitment Phobe Erin S. Lane (IVP) $16.00  I have raved about this book before, and think it should be high on the list of books you read about how the local church can be a place of deeper relationships and community. The author is a heck of a great writer -- young, a bit snarky, not exactly as colorful as Anne Lamott, say, but equally as funny, she is energetic and wonderfully able to craft very creative, entertaining sentences.  Her story -- as a hip, young woman, married to a young pastor -- follows her own ambivalence about commitment.  She calls herself a "commitment phobe" and although that sounds like some generational stereotype, the concerns are real for many of us -- introverts and skeptics and those who have been hurt or fear deeper friendships. This is a good, smart book about the ups and downs of belonging, even to a small, normal church, and I recommend it highly.  There is a great foreword by her friend and mentor, Quaker writer Parker Palmer.  Phyllis Tickle says "One of the clearest and certainly one of the most informing pictures I have seen to date of the generation of young adults who presently are shaping the twenty-first century church." 

disunity in christ.jpgDisunity in Christ:Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart Christena Cleveland (IVP) $16.00  I've given enthusiastic shout-outs about this before, in print, and at events, hoping that many will want to grapple with this great book.  It is not the only book about the things that divide us such as race and class and gender, but it is perhaps the best.  It is great because Ms Cleveland is Biblically-grounded, clear, and also because she is, interestingly, upbeat and even humorous. Heady, heavy, liberationist hermeneutics about class and gender may appeal to liberal academics, but most of us - whether we are in mainline churches or evangelical fellowships- need encouragement, challenge, inspiration, and useful guidance. Cleveland is an African American sociologist and teacher, and is well suited to help us navigate this provocative stuff, and she does it really well.  She tells good stories, offers keen insight, pushes us a bit, and invites God to guide us into deeper unity and mature diversity.  I love this author and her good book, and believe it will help us uncover hidden influences, allowing us to move in healthy directions, for God's glory.  Please, read this book!  You're sense of community can only be enhanced by exploring how even our conversational patterns can be off putting, and how learning some cross-cultural awareness can help. Cleveland is now the Director of the exceptional Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School.

A Fellowship of Differents- Showing the World God's Design for Life Together .jpgA Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God's Design for Life Together Scot McKnight (Zondervan) $19.99 Dr. McKnight is a major, evangelical, Bible scholar, one who has written detailed commentaries and academic work, as well has helpful books for on everything from fasting to praying the hours to the ethics of following Jesus to interpreting the Bible. We regularly promote his One.Life and (mostly positively) reviewed his important The Kingdom Conspiracy.  Here he is doing what he sometimes does - offers mature and informed scholarship in chatty, upbeat, funny and sensible ways, making it informative and inspiring. I like McKnight a lot and really appreciate his insistence in this book that our local congregations should be more diverse, less homogeneous, more gracious, a place where we learn to live together, witnessing to the world about the peace that passes understanding.  The title is a great one, eh?  In a few chapters, McKnight gets at this as well as any other book, and speaks bold truth, even hard truth, in ways that seem natural and do-able. Thanks be to God for this good brother and his generous vision of a diverse church and his explaining how the glories of the reign of God must be known and shown in the local church, where people flourish and grace is experienced and diversity is event, even as a deeper unity is celebrated and broken relationships are healed.  Yet, I must say, a few of these chapters - as good as they are - drift off into what I might call "basic Christian growth" offering (very) good insight for daily discipleship but seeming to be not terribly connected to the basic point of the book. I am not sure I agree with the blurb on the back by Derwin Gray ("This is the most important book you may ever read outside of the Bible") but it does indicate that it is exceptionally useful. Christena Cleveland says "Anyone who desires unity with all of God's people, not just the ones who are most like us, will be emboldened by this book." Let's hope!

Building Up One Another Gene Getz .jpgBuilding Up One Another Gene Getz (David C. Cook) $12.99  This little volume is a powerhouse of a paperback, a simple bit of Bible teaching by a fine evangelical leader (now consulting as the president of Center for Church Renewal.) This is a tremendous idea, each chapter a study of one of the many "one another" commands in the New Testament. He unpacks the meaning and offers simple suggestions for building up one another, serving one another, bearing with one another, even teaching on the seemingly mundane mandates like greeting one another. The study guide that is included is helpful, with some self-assessment questions, too. This will help us get beyond merely tolerating one another, but living into the truth of our being "members of one another."  Very practical, no-nonsense, practical.

The Compelling Community- Where God's Power Makes a Church Attractive.jpgThe Compelling Community: Where God's Power Makes a Church Attractive Mark Dever & Jamie Dunlop (Crossway) $15.99  This new book is a very solid, conservatively evangelical study of how the gospel itself is what transforms a church. It contrasts the often frenzied efforts to "create" community and resists any pre-packaged plan or manipulation to develop deeper relationships with their sense that the preaching of the gospel, and a church being shaped by the historic marks of the church, will, with proper vision casting and gospel-centered teaching, become a body of those who truly love one another and reach out with hospitality and care to others. Dever and Dunlop are leaders at the thriving Capitol Hill Baptist and their church is nicely well known for their tight-knit community. They provide "an alternative to running your church on the building blocks of specialization and segmentation." Designed mostly for church leaders -- there are excellent pieces about structural matters in the congregations ethos or schedule that mitigate against the teaching of each chapter --  this is a seriously Biblical call to authentic Christian community in the well-ordered, grace-based local congregation.

The Good and Beautiful Community- Following the Spirit, Extending Grace.jpgThe Good and Beautiful Community: Following the Spirit, Extending Grace, Demonstrating Love James Bryan Smith (IVP) $23.00  Oh, how I hope you know this trilogy of books - the Apprentice Series.  Dallas Willard says of them that they are "The best practice I have seen in Christian spiritual formation."  The first was The Good and Beautiful God followed by The Good and Beautiful Life.  This third one, with good Bible study, helpful and inspiring insights, and practical "Soul Training" exercises, is all about the local church, the community in which we find ourselves, those to whom we belong and are bound together for spiritual formation and whole-life discipleship.   Can we live out Galatians 5:6 - faith expressing itself through love? Can we create local faith communities that could honestly be called "good and beautiful"? One doesn't have to read these books in order (although it may help.) Lovely, good, true.

Lean on Me- Finding Intentional, Vulnerable, and Consistent Community.jpgLean on Me: Finding Intentional, Vulnerable, and Consistent Community Anne Marie Miller (Thomas Nelson) $15.99  I hope you know Miller, who wrote a the profoundly moving Permission to Speak Freely which is also about being vulnerable, real, gut-wrenchingly accepting within the local church. Here she tells her own story - itself worth reading - and draws helpful principles for renewal, committed, healing relationships. Upbeat, conversational, very interesting for those who appreciate such an honest, passionate voice.  This is a great read and would make a nice choice for a book club.

Community in the Inventive Age  Doug Pagitt (Abingdon) .jpgCommunity in the Inventive Age  Doug Pagitt (Abingdon) $16.99  I love the way this book does some clear-headed, basic, cultural assessment - showing how things have shifted from the Agrarian Age, the Industrial Age, the Information Age and what kinds of churches tended to emerge in those social settings - helping us understand some of the contours of our own "inventive" era.  He may or may not be fully right about this age of transition and how that means we must rethink leadership patterns and faith formation within the local congregation, but I assure  you it is interesting and important material. Some serious sociologists might take exception to his quickly summarized categories and some serious theologians will think he's a bit light-weight on stuff that matters most, but for a quick read to stir the pot, it is a very, very helpful manifesto.  If you like Len Sweet's early work, Phyllis Tickle's cultural analysis, if you've followed the Emergent conversations, you will appreciate this insight gleaned from Pagitt's own Solomon's Porch, a wholistic missional community in Minneapolis.  See also his Evangelism in the Inventive Age and Preaching in the Inventive Age.  Very candid and creative about new ways to do church, based less on "bounded sets" but relationships.

A Good Neighbor- Benedict's Guide to Community Robert Benson .jpgA Good Neighbor: Benedict's Guide to Community Robert Benson (Paraclete) $14.99  I raved about Robert Benson as a writer and inspired, down-to-Earth spiritual guide in the last BookNotes post, telling about his poignant book lamenting our denominational disunity, The Body Broken. Here, he offers a too brief, splendidly written, truly lovely meditation on meaningful connections -- in your small group, in your neighborhood, amongst your friends, and of course in your own local congregation, drawing on the ancient Rule of St Benedict of Nursia.  Most of us, he explains, are involved with many people, mostly all day long, but still feel disconnected, even lonely. As it says on the back A Good Neighbor "takes an intimate look at how others are defining, discovering, nurturing, and sustaining life and love right where you are. Facing the confusing contradictions of modern life head on, Benson shows what it means to live in our neighborhoods, work at our jobs, be family, and be friends, in ways that builds places of relationships, love, and mutual support."  I adore this gentle guide to Benedictine views of promises and belonging and service to and with one another;  what is interesting, and what sets this book apart somewhat from most others on this list, is that, in Benson's hands, this monastic vision drawn from the Rule is applied to ordinary life for ordinary folk, less about forming "a" community (at church, in a small group, in an intentional community household) but more about being open to deep friendships and a sense of belonging to one another in various spheres of life and in various locations. He talks about how people are "given" to us -- those who routinely cross our paths or are in some sort of relationship, gently giving a holy obligation to see each as a gift. What a lovely, lovely, book!

life together in christ.jpgLife Together in Christ: Experiencing Transformation in Community Ruth Haley Barton (IVP) $18.00  While this book is initially, mostly, about spiritual formation - learning to practice the classic disciplines, creating "sacred rhythms" in order to experience God's gentle transformation as we encounter the centering Spirit - it insists that this happens best when we are in community.  In many ways, Ruth has been one of our best guides into the inner life, in her great books In Search of Silence and Solitude and Sacred Rhythms and Deepening the Soul of Your Leadership. However, here  she brings these insights and invitations to a transformed life into the context of an intimate community, offering guidance for small groups who want to do this inner work together.  My, my, this is sweet, challenging, vital material, fabulous for any small group wanting to experience God, opening themselves to spiritual transformation together.

The Communal Imagination- Finding a Way to Share Life Together Mark Votava.jpgThe Communal Imagination: Finding a Way to Share Life Together Mark Votava (Urban Loft Publishers) $12.99 The author is part of a missional faith community in Tacoma Washington, living in incarnational ways that allow for a deep sense of place to emerge, and in this splendid, thorough work shows how the local church body can help us slow down, learn from our local region, and resist the hyper-mobile, individualistic culture, creating, instead, places where people can know and be known, love and be loved. Missional theologian Michael Frost says "Mark Votava's book is like a smooth stone in a churning is a sure and unwavering call to simplicity, presence, attentiveness, and collaboration. Read it slowly. It calls us to nothing less then a new way of being human." A visionary, important book from a small, indie press.

Community and Growth  Jean Vanier .jpgCommunity and Growth  Jean Vanier (Paulist Press) $22.95  I do not know if most ordinary church folks will want to wade through this thick and important work, but you should know it, and realize it is perhaps the best thing written in our time about deepening serious, intentional community.  You may know Jean Vanier as the gentle, French Canadian who started the L'Arche communities (that so attracted Henri Nouwen in the last years of his life) which forms community with persons with disabilities. Here, he draws on ancient monastic wisdom, psychological and spiritual insights, and invites us to give ourselves to one another in service and care. Anyone living in any sort of intentional community household must know this, and anyone longing for the deepest sort of communal experience will benefit.  This is a masterpiece.

The Intentional Christian Community Handbook.jpgThe Intentional Christian Community Handbook: For Idealists, Hypocrites, and Wannabe Disciples of Jesus David Janzen (Paraclete) $19.99  This is another book that simply has to be on this list -- it is really the only and very best book of its kind -- event though it has, admittedly, a pretty small market.  This is a wonderful guidebook for those who want to live together in intentional community, doing house-holding together, maybe drawing on new monastic insights, forming relationships shaped by common rules and practices. The foreword is by Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, which will give you a hint of its vision. Janzen (who graduated from Bethel College and studied at Harvard Divinity School)  has been part of significant intentional communities such as New Creation Fellowship and Reba Place Fellowship.  Whether you are interested in "living together in a world falling apart" or have any sort of housing ministry -- maybe a discipleship house, a Fellows community, a camping staff that live together, or a house or cell church -- this is going to be really useful.  There are tons of good stories, interviews, wise guidance and substantive input about being in intentional community and deeper levels of body life.



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June 17, 2015

TWO GREAT BOOKS ON SALE: The Body Broken (Benson) and Your Church is Too Small (Armstrong) and my ruminations on ecumenism.

book set up.jpgWe've been out selling books with several good groups, meeting new customers and old friends, jacked up on caffeine and adrenaline and a bit of Holy Spirited energy to serve God's people, even if it means packing boxes at 2 am, driving miles through heat or rain, lugging hundreds of heavy boxes up or down stairs and down hallways, setting up books with more theological diversity then most people ever see, anywhere.  From the classic marble and wood and stained glass of Lancaster Seminary (yes, it reminds us of Hogwarts) to the modern, sleek beauty of the new performing arts center at Messiah College, to other nice or not so nice spaces, we've brought out pop-up bookstore on the road, grateful for the trust groups put in us to offer our resources for their events. 

Nearly the first to arrive and always the last to leave these gatherings,  Beth and I have time to ponder the event as we tear down, debriefing what we've heard, sharing about the people we've chatted with,  reviewing the books that sold (or the ones that didn't, always a curious, depressing matter.) Each event is a blessing, even though we sometimes come away perplexed about the habits, customs and theologies of groups that aren't exactly our own.


Which reminds us of just how diverse the church is, how long and wide the figurative pews are with folks sitting here or there, scattered all over the place.  As passionate as we are about being ecumenical and serving the vast array of groups that we do, it isn't always pleasant, holding this diversity together.  From our local church to our on-line customer base to our conference friends, it is hard, knowing how broken the Body is.


Just a few weeks ago an esteemed congregation from the conservative, evangelical network called the Gospel Coalition had a meltdown with accusations of inappropriate, heavy-handed abuse of authority.  I have been sad to see a seemingly responsible, gospel-centered church so confused, but also have been troubled hearing the harsh judgements back and forth about this church. (Surely there is toxic stuff in other sorts of congregations; the ultra-conservative church culture of the Duggarts aren't the only breeding grounds for religious weirdness, and those who throw stones should be careful.)


And then the internet lit up a week ago up with the revelation that our friend, the famous Baptist evangelist and social action advocate Tony Campolo,  came out in favor of full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church.   Some of the mainline churches who we've served with our book displays - the Penn Central UCC had me do two workshops on "Reading as a Spiritual Discipline" for the sake of church renewal just a few days ago - have long settled this matter, with creative exegesis of Biblical texts and their convictions that (perhaps like the Jerusalem Council in Acts) the Spirit can guide us into new understandings of old rules. While some of our friends were rejoicing that Tony finally turned faithful on this, others were going ballistic.


That most evangelicals and Catholics disagreed with Dr. Campolo makes sense, but that some would say that because we disagree about exegesis of a few passages about this particular topic, Campolo is now "apostate" and "heretical" is troubling, and is, in my view, itself bad theology.  A dear friend barbed me with this accusation of "heretical" (we attend a PCUSA church) but that oddly didn't hurt, because I know the friend loves me, even if he is sloppy in his word choice. However, I am grieved at the hard stuff some have said about Tony. The historic creeds of the church say nothing about our detailed philosophies of how the Bible works, and nothing about contemporary, ethical issues (from war to sexuality, science to art, poverty to bio-ethics.) Not all viewpoints are equally consistent with Biblical truth or appropriate for the faithful, and it is never acceptable to disregard Scriptural teaching, but surely there are some issues on which we might agree to disagree, without breaking fellowship or using words like apostasy.  In Romans 14, Paul himself suggests there are "disputable matters" over which we can respect the conscience of brothers and sisters with whom we disagree. 

(Mennonites and other Biblical pacifists have long thought that other evangelicals and main line Protestants are Biblically unfaithful and theologically liberal for disregarding or explaining away what they see as crystal clear texts and Biblical teachings - that war and killing is worldly and a sin to which Christians are called to respond with Christ-like nonviolence - but they do not suggest that those with more traditional views are thereby heretics.  They do not break fellowship over the fact that others disagree with their literal views of these Bible texts, and I admire them in their generosity in this matter, even thinking it could be a model for other disagreements within the Body of Christ.)  


So, it may be a healthy spiritual practice to agree to disagree about some things, even things we hold dear (as do Biblical pacifists about Jesus's teaching about nonviolence, for instance.)

For instance, in a startling pastoral letter to his own famously charismatic Vineyard congregation, expanded and published into a book called Letter to My Congregation (David Crumm Media; $16.95), pastor Ken Wilson shared his own conviction that same sex relationships may best be considered within the local congregation in this way, as a Romans 14-type "disputable matter" not worthy of breaking fellowship over, and invites others at his Vineyard congregation to stay in conversation, in fellowship, even though he and his leadership have shifted in their pastoral position regarding full inclusion of gays, lesbians, and those who are transgendered.

Although my point in this rumination is to invite us to more civility in our discourse, greater tolerance with our conversation partners, even giving others "the benefit of the doubt" that they've done homework and made serious Biblical evaluation in whatever views they hold, it might be wise to generous spaciousness.jpgsuggest -- on this very topic of discussions about differences in theologies of inclusiveness in the church of GLTB believers -- the book I have mentioned before as the best I can recommend for deeper, more faithful, more generous conversations, called Generous Spaciousness: Responding to Gay Christians in the Church by Wendy Vander Wal-Gritter (Brazos Press; $16.99.) You can see my previous (brief) remarks about it here, when I named it one of the Best Books of 2014.


Beth and I were raised in fairly conventional mainline denominational churches. My small home church, where I was taught about salvation and Jesus and living right, was EUB, before merging with the Methodists in 1965, and Beth was raised Lutheran, learning early on about church history and liturgy, law and grace. And while she has some Anabaptist blood in her family background, I think I've got some in my veins.  Yet, I was shaped primarily by different sorts of evangelicals, charismatics,  teachers of conservatively, Reformed, systematic theology and worldviewish, Dutch neo-Calvinists who called themselves reformational as they promoted the Lordship of Christ over all of life.  Sure I did a stint, happily, at the progressive faith-based social action mission, the Thomas Merton Center in Pittsburgh, and knew the radical Berrigan brothers.  Jim Wallis of Sojourners was the first book signing we did in our store 30 some years ago, I think. 


streams of living water.jpgYou can see why I really, really love Richard Foster's mature and wise book about honoring the strengths of the diverse streams of spirituality that flow through the church, Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith (HarperOne; $15.00.) I resonant and value each of these "streams" and am glad for their renewing influences in my own life.  At heart, though, I am an evangelical,  deeply committed to the standard fundamentals of the faith, the first things of the gospel, perhaps a bit more then what Lewis called a "mere Christian."

I say all this to share my heart - broken, again - as I ponder the grand diversity within the Body of Christ and the sad ways in which so many in various churches or camps don't know or respect each other.  More liberal mainline folks mock evangelicals, and conservatives consider liberals beyond the pale. Terse rebukes and name-calling persists, while substantive and gracious ecumenical dialogue is rare. The antagonism on display in some quarters about Campolo is nothing new, but just newly reminded me of this, vicariously;  hanging out at our various book tables with differing groups this month reminds us of it more directly. We are usually deeply enriched by our ecumenical experiences, even if we are sometimes frustrated that this group seems to have these blinders, and those have those blinders. (Ahh, and they all expose my own!)  One person said to me that if our more conservative customers knew what we were doing with these mainline Lutherans or UCC folk, they'd worry, and I suppose that is true. And even though I understand the substantive matters that nearly necessitate the mistrust and broken fellowship among us, it makes me sad.

Yet, there is hope. At the liberal Lancaster Seminary two weeks ago, I felt the sadness of an Orthodox priest who could not share Eucharist with Catholics and Protestants in the group; I know that there is great longing for deeper inter-denominational awareness in some quarters.  The UCC planners of this event had as speakers a fiery Mennonite leader, a Pentecostal scholar, and a Dutch Reformed ecumenist (a relative of the famous theologian from the Free University  of Amsterdam, G.C. Berkouwer.) Next year, one of their keynotes speakers is a professor from Westminster Theological Seminary.  That mainliners invite such folk to their events is nearly miraculous and seems to me a signpost of the Kingdom!

At Baltimore's Saint Mary's Ecumenical Institute a few weeks ago (at an event I wrote about previously) Mike Gorman, a very reputable and important New Testament scholar, had responding to his paper on his new book Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation and Mission (Eerdmans; $28.00)  John Franke, who has written widely on the theology, has a little book on Barth, and on the culturally-savvy, missional church (he's a PCUSA Presbyterian) and Stephen Bauman, who works for World Relief, the hunger and relief agency of the National Association of Evangelicals, whose good book Possible: A Blueprint for Changing How We Change the World  is published by the typically evangelical Multnomah Books ($22.99.)  You see, there are robust conversations going on, with diverse conversation partners, doing the "iron sharpens iron" bit from Proverbs 27.  We are glad for these nice events.

Still, the ways in which we are quick to condemn and judge and critique - I am talking to myself, here, as well, I must admit - aren't always healthy or helpful.  A thoughtful pastor friend of mine (with whom I have great conversations, and disagree over much) was recently called "A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing" in the newspaper and although he laughed it off, I am sure such rebuke from the ill-informed must sting.  There are wolves in the church today (I am not naïve about the harmful effects of goofy theology and heterodox thinking and spiritually shallow leadership) but there are also a lot of good people doing their best to follow Jesus in sensible ways, informed by their best lights and the influences they've had. 

We all have much more in common in our faith then the things that divide us.  

The Body Broken - Benson.jpgSo heavy was my heart on these matters that yesterday I re-read, yet again, one of my favorite books, the utterly beautiful and truly lovely The Body Broken: Answering God's Call to Love One Another by Robert Benson (Waterbrook; $10.99.) I was wiping tears off my cheek yet again last night as I read of his own journey, his shift from Nazarene to Methodist to Episcopalian, and his wish for his many friends to know one another, to care for one another, to live into the unity Christ desires and prays for, knowing that what unites us is greater then what divides us.  

Benson (a really enjoyable author who has written some of my favorite books, on topics as unique as vacationing and baseball and landscaping and writing) is mostly known as a retreat leader, an author who writes about contemplative spirituality and books about prayer, Benedictine formation and the like. Consequently, he has spent time among many, many, different kind of Christians, and I related to his story a lot. A lot.  I suspect some BookNotes friends will too.

He writes,

Robert Benson.jpgI have been called to worship by praise choruses and gospel tunes, Wesley hymns and Latin chants. I have sung along with rock and roll quartets, cathedral choirs, and string ensembles.

I have entered the courts of praise when they were in dusty circles around a campfire, in tents with sawdust on the floor, in convention centers with big screens provided so that we could see what was going on up on the stage because it was so far away, in candlelit monastery chapels, in cathedrals in which you could hardly breathe for the weight of the history that is present there, and nearly everywhere in between.

I have stood shoulder to shoulder with charismatics, fundamentalist, evangelicals, Jesus freaks, mainstreamers, and all manner of liturgical folk. I have smelled incense, shaken a tambourine, genuflected before the altar, bowed as the cross is carried past in procession, and passed the peace. I have prayed through, prayed silently, prayed collects, prayed Psalms, and chanted night prayers. I have heard evangelists, preachers, ministers, deans, canons, bishops, superintendents, chaplains, lay ministers, and all others kinds of authorities as they stood in front of some portion of the faithful and sermonized.

I myself have been a special speaker, a keynote addresser, a guest testifier, a retreat leader, a lay reader. I have taught a Sunday school class, led a church school class, coordinated a Christian adult education hour, and lectured in a symposium.

Ha.  If only he mentioned speaking in tongues in a dorm room, or praying the psalms in a jail cell, or teaching the Bible at a political protest, or preaching the gospel during the set of a famous, druggy rock band, I'd have to say this list covers my life, too.

And like Benson, "I have studied just enough Church history to be dangerous."  And, like him, I resonate with his reminder - drawn from a passage from the second century (about 150 AD) First Apology of Justin the Martyr who clarified the heart of Christian worship. 

Benson the Dangerous Church Historian tells us a bit about that ancient letter, and shows how most of us still do these things today.  And then he says,

By and large, the pattern that Justin describes is the same pattern we follow today, whether we are aware of it or not. It is true from the Biltmore Holiness Temple to the First So-and-So Church on the corner to the Abbey of Gethsemani to the Winchester Cathedral and everywhere in between.

After explaining this simple secret of the few key things that all Christians do in worship, he concludes,

copticchristians.jpg - candle jpgWe are welcome to say that we do not like what this group does about this or that part of worship, but we need to be very careful about declaring that we know whether or not God likes it. It helps to remember that the worship is not for us anyway, it is for God. It behooves us to use caution when we start to tell others just what particular praises God will or will not inhabit. There is a scriptural evidence to suggest that God has gone for everything from dancing naked before the Lord to sacrificing lambs to speaking in tongues to blowing a ram's horn to going off to a mountain to pray alone.

I happen to be of the opinion at this point in my life that God would choose Bach over rock and roll, but who am I to say? Who are any of us to say what God loves to hear from those whom God loves?

These are not the best lines from the book, nor the most compelling insights. But I share them for a few reasons: it's sort of fun to see his list of worshiping styles and churchy lingo (is it Sunday school or adult ed? praying through or centering prayer? Ha!) But, this is important for Benson, ancient liturgy guy that he is.  What we do in worship together - in response to a God who loves us - isn't worth fighting about because God loves us so. And, frankly, none of us fully knows, really, what God really prefers. 

Did you get that last line of the quote?

"Who are any of us to say what God loves to hear from those whom God loves?"  That is a quintessential line from Benson, elegant, sensible, and, finally, jaw-dropping in its importance. God loves others.

brennanmanning.jpgBrennan Manning not surprisingly makes an appearance in this book, as does Henri Nouwen. (It is well worth the price of admission just to sit in with Robert and Henri laughing at a New York apartment, Henri-Nouwen-500x277-1433290729.jpgrealizing they were praying through the same book that same evening, watching as Henri hands Robert his plate of spaghetti, runs to his room to gather up the book in question, and read from it out loud. There is a story that is almost too amazing to believe - one about his friend Father Ed and a story of an old Irish priest - and there is a tender part with Robert telling about the suicide of his brother, and their relationship, strained and healed.  The telling about an annual Nashville Christmas party is sublime, although some will be offended, I suppose.  The evangelical guys who read the Mars Hill Review driving hours to Tennessee just to check in on him (and his initial misunderstanding the reason for their visit) is priceless.  The Body Broken: Answering God's Call to Love One Another is a remarkably enjoyable book, with great stories, told in very good, solid prose.

About this  evangelical crew's occasional visits -- driving several hours on the interstate to eat lunch with him -- Benson  ruminates, following up an earlier part of the chapter about the deepest core truths that Christians agree upon, and how this is enough to bring us together in spiritual friendship. He writes,

I have begun to consider their coming to see me as an act of prayer.  I asked them once if they were getting missionary points from their denomination for coming to visit an often-uncertain Episcopalian. They are not, of course; they have just decided that we belong to each other.

We are not bound together by dogma or doctrine or form or denomination. Indeed, if you lay down a list of the things that describe the ways we live our lives, and the ways that we live out our faith, it would be easy to make a case that we are too different to even be terribly tolerant of each other. Some would say that our core beliefs are not the same at all. Some would advise us to be careful around each other, that our use of such different words to describe our faith is a sign that we are not really brothers. Some would say that we certainly are not on the same pew or maybe even in the same building.

We are bound together because we are trying to learn to pray, because we are learning to listen for the voice of the One Who made us, and the One Who came among us and the One Who will lead us into all truth and eventually lead us home. We are bound together by our willingness to honor one another's witness to that voice in all that we do.

We are bound together because we have begun to realize that a part of our work as members of the Body of Christ is to honor one another's attempts to be faithful, recognizing our brotherhood even as we acknowledge our differences. We are bound to one another because of our core beliefs.

Benson, you may recall from other reviews I've done, or from reading some of his others books, used to work in the gospel music biz.  He once traveled with a pretty fundamentalist tribe, and he has shifted to a less dogmatic theological stance and a more liturgical church, embracing a mysterious, sacramental worldview. 

But still, he tells us, he is often invited to writer's conferences or prayer retreats among evangelicals.  He has to work, of course, and feels called to doing these gigs, but he writes about them in ways that those of us who do such work can appreciate. (He is not snarky, and often is surprised and delighted by the goodness of those hosting him, but it is work, after all, being away from home, being extroverted for a weekend, hanging with those whose styles and beliefs are grating.)  At one such event he tried to avoid the happy-clappy worship, slinking out to pray in private or stroll around the grounds in the moonlight.

However, on the last night of the event they "faked me out, though I do not think they intended to trick me." The workshop leaders all were on the front stage, so they had to be there, in front of everyone, during the exuberant praise.  You can imagine his discomfort.

For the next twenty minutes, the crowd sang and clapped together. I kept trying to find something to do with myself so that I would not look so lost that anyone would notice. After a while, I did what I had seen monks do, and that was to just close my eyes with my hands folded in my lap meditating my way to some distant place and trying for a beatific look on my face. After four or five days around so many other humans, what I needed most was silence, not more noise, even if it was of the joyful kind. So off I went, so to speak.

I should let him tell it, but you might guess: everyone rises, but he misses that, so is the only one blissed out, sitting down in front of the whole group.   Eventually, he opens his eyes, to his embarrassment.  And, then, this:

The other thing I noticed was that I was looking up into this sea of faces that were shining so brightly and so sweetly that I could hardly bear it. No wonder God likes these people, I thought to myself.

So I stood up.

Unlike most others, I kept my hands in my pockets;  but I stood up so I could be counted. I want to be in that number.

I get choked up reading that, and I think I know why.  Here, again, is the essential goodness of my long-distance hero, Robert Benson. He is a socially progressive, theologically liberal, liturgical Episcopalian who does not disdain evangelicals, is not spooked away by ordinary Christian folks like this.  He loves the people God loves, sees the best in others. He wants to be in that number.

My dear friends, I want to be in that number. I hope you do, too.  

There is serious Biblical and theological work to do on the issues that divide us, not least on the role of proper Biblical interpretation itself.  I know that.  But it is work we must do together, side by side sometimes, in a spirit of generous orthodoxy.  Benson doesn't care to think much about these hard theological topics, because he is a mystic, and sees through the window into the Mystery through that relational/experiential lens. But his warm and tender and profound insights about our essential unity and the spiritual maturity to be gracious and generous with others with whom we disagree, is simply the best place to start. He is just a bit light-hearted (remember what Chesterton said about not taking ourselves too seriously) and he is not too grumpy about others.

"It comes to me then," he writes. "It comes to me finally, irrevocably, utterly - I belong to them all, and they all belong to me. Anyone, anywhere, who says otherwise is as wrong as they can be, no matter how well intentioned or thoughtful they happen to be."

He gets a bit polemical, prophetic, even, as he calls us to hard work, living into this truth that we belong to each other.

We must seek out the things that we have in common and at the same time learn to honor the things that make us different. We must learn to take the things that we hold dear - our sense of community, our love for the scriptures,  our hunger for prayer, our capacity for worship - and work to make them wide enough and deep enough to include others rather than keep them at a distance. 

We must be willing to cultivate humility along with certainty, to practice tolerance along with devotion, to seek patience along with piety.

We must learn to seek the face of Christ in those who are different as readily as we do in the faces of those who are like us.

We must learn to love one another.

your church is too small.jpgYour Church Is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ's Mission is Vital to the Future of the Church  John H. Armstrong (Zondervan) $18.99 I want to give a shout out to this important book, as I have a few times before, because it is another way into this important conversation, with a different approach and tone then the lovely one by the elegant memoirist and spiritual writer, Mr. Benson.  This one is also clear as can be, touched with passion and some degree of personal testimony, but it is more clearly evangelical and more clearly theological in nature.  It makes a fine supplement to the memoir and storytelling of Benson, offering rigorous Biblical teaching and solid theological insight to underscore our work towards a generous orthodoxy. You can learn more about the author at his excellent ACT3 Network webpage.

John Armstrong, not unlike Benson, is very familiar with the right end of the pew. He has written other books about revival, was schooled in the profound theology that led to the Great Awakening -- Jonathan Edwards, Cotton Mather, Richard Baxter, Richard Sibbes, and the like.  He's a strong, conservative Calvinist, and a great, great Bible preacher.  (And like Benson, he's a baseball fanatic -- I love to tell how we once tried to convince me to sneak out of a theology conference to run up to a Baltimore Orioles game, since he had not been to their great ball park, Camden Yards.) 

Well, not only did Armstrong allow his playful desire for baseball lead him from the conference (he did come back, of course - he had to speak!) but his creative and open mind and pleasant nature eventually led him to fellowship with others outside his own narrow Calvinist circles. He became friends with Chicago area Roman Catholics, with Anglicans, Orthodox leaders, with authors as diverse as Tom Wright and others he formerly would have looked at with suspicion for not being straight and narrow enough. He now works a bit with the Catholic Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, doing research with old school natural law scholars, travels and speaks and networks others in this good project of expanding our vision of the church.

Your Church is Too Small is a Biblical and theological introduction to ecumenical thinking, a plea for ordinary folks - mostly evangelical Protestants, I suppose, given that is is published on Zondervan - to embrace a bigger view of the church.  That's the point of the title, of course, not that the church is about numbers, but about theological depth and breadth.  It is your view of the church that may be too small.  

If you don't get that, I'd say, he may be right, and this book might be a very helpful corrective.  If you do get it, then you know how urgent and rare such reliable works are, and you will want to own this, and to share it with others in your own faith community.

packer.jpgFor those that care about such things, John says that he was mostly inspired to do this book by a 1950s era piece by one of his early mentors, the impeccable J.I. Packer (who has a splendid, powerful, compelling foreword to the book.)  Dr. Packer, you may know if you follow this stuff, had his own generous orthodoxy rebuked in those years, as evangelicals in England tried to figure out their own relationship with the state church and others.  Conservative Calvinist that he was, he still opted for staying in fellowship with the broader communion.  As theological and mark of the christian.jpgecclesiastical moves continue to strain the worldwide communion of the Anglicans, and other denominations, his stance is a brave and  principled one, and I am glad that Packer so inspired Armstrong to take up this current work. And I am glad they both frame the loving exhibition of friendships of church folks as Francis Schaeffer once did in his must-read little volume The Mark of the Christian (IVP: $6.00) in terms of the mission of the church.  Our love for one another is, as Schaeffer reminds us, the "final apologetic." 

I'm also glad that John Armstrong quotes the 19th century Mercersburg theologian, Philip Schaeff, (who we were studying at the event in Lancaster) asserting bluntly that sectarianism is our enemy. 

And yet, Armstrong explains that he believes we should each think our own church is right. (Why would one want to be involved in a church that one thinks is mostly wrong?) But the problem is when we think our church is entirely right.  Such thinking, he says,  

...inflames our pride and promotes attitudes that oppose catholicity. We must resist the kind of intellectual certitude that will not allow for change and growth in one's own perspective and understanding.

John continues,

I defended sectarianism for decades. I instinctively knew in my heart that there were other Christians in other churches, but I had no place in my affections for Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, or even some (less conservative) Protestants. This is why the "conversion" moment I experienced was so life-giving.

Yes, that's partially it: his "conversion" to a more generous sort of ecumenical vision was "life-giving."

I think it is life-giving for anyone who learns to be more gracious, perhaps in the manner of Robert Benson. And it is life-giving for the churches themselves, as we learn from one another and enhance one another in healthy conversations.  Lastly, it is life-giving for the watching world, who Jesus himself said can only know that Christ is who He said He was insofar as Christians love one another. 

Re-read John 17 and buy the little Schaeffer book if you think I'm overstating it. This stuff matters!  It is why J.I. Packer himself writes of John Armstrong's Your Church is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ's Mission is Vital to the Future of the Church  "I hope this book will not be ignored but will have the influence it deserves. Aspects of North America's future -- aspects, indeed, of the honor and glory of Christ in this century  -- may well depend on whether or not it does."

The Body Broken - Benson.jpg

your church is too small.jpg



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June 9, 2015

Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller ON SALE NOW

cs lewis and his circle.jpgWhile reading through the wonderful, new collection of essays and talks given at the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society, C.S. Lewis and His Circle, edited by Roger White (Oxford University Press; $29.95), I was struck by the remarkably able thinkers and charming characters who gathered with or later stood on the shoulders of the Inklings and their tribe.  There are chapters - essays and memoirs --  by those who were friends of Lewis, or who are particularly engaged in Lewis studies, from Walter Hooper and George Sayer and Owen Barfield, to lesser known individuals such as the priest who married Lewis & Joy Davidman, or the recent scholar who unlocked new ways to understand Narnia, Michael Ward, and so many others. Are there such people who are known today, so well read and aware of the spirit of the age, exceptionally logical and rigorous in classic scholarship but also passionate about the heart, the imagination?

the fellowship - inklings.jpgAnother new book out just last week that we are proud to stock is by Philip & Carol Zaleski and looks at the literary lives of Lewis, Tolkien, Barfield, and Charles Williams and is simply called The Fellowship (FSG; $35.00). There may not be a particularly close-knit network of literary-minded, pint-drinking, famous Christian friends like there was with the Inklings and their fellowship but there may be those who deserve (almost anyway) to be compared to the Oxford don and his pals. 

Although for the Lewis mantel to be bestowed properly, the recipient would have to be a novelist and poet, of course, but in terms of eloquence, skilled apologetics and clarity of a Christian vision of life at the beginning of the 21st century, two (among others, I admit) prolific writers come to mind.  Both are exceptional, premier communicators and serious teachers.  Both stand in the tradition of  "mere Christianity" (although may be more rigorously evangelical then Lewis himself) and are generous, gracious, and yet gritty, realistic thinkers.

foolsTalk.jpgDr. Os Guinness, himself trained at Oxford (and an Irishman, like Lewis, who was, of course born in Belfast), owes much to Lewis, as he explains in his forthcoming book, Fool's Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion (IVP; $22.00.) Some of us have been waiting a lifetime for Os to do such a major work on Christian proclamation, apologetics and persuasion, knowing of his keen insight about and his deep desire for a culture of civility which permits a robust presentation of the gospel that can be persuasive to those who are informed by the secularizing forces of modernity.  That book will be released soon, and I will do a more thorough explanation of it in an upcoming BookNotes column. (We are taking pre-orders now, and would be happy to send it as soon as it arrives if you order now.) The wonderfully articulate, silver-haired Ravi Zacharias says Fool's Talk is a "landmark" book, and Guinness himself explains that he has been wanting to write this book for nearly 40 years, but was determined to wait until he felt he had adequately thought through the complexities of the issues involved, the nature of the secular mind, and had actually experienced doing evangelism and apologetics, with serious experience in engaging in conversations of consequences with those who were skeptics. Indeed, this is a book, drawing (in part) on Lewis himself, which will be considered not only magisterial, but important and lasting.  I can't wait to tell you more about it, soon.

A second author who quickly comes to mind when thinking about who the "C.S. Lewis of today" might be is Rev. Dr. Timothy Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.  Interestingly, the New York Times itself suggested tim-keller-head-shot-2011.jpgthis about Keller, upon the release of his 2008 book Reason for God: Believe in an Age of Skepticism (Riverhead; $16.00) and subsequent DVD curriculum by the same name.  That his work is published by the prestigious Riverhead, part of the Putnam Publishing Group, is itself impressive and indicates that Keller's work is taken seriously.  Even those who do not find themselves in his particular Reformed camp acknowledge that he is an incisive thinker, an effective preacher and sophisticated church leader, and a very engaging, thoughtful writer.

That his first book was about ministry to the poor (called Ministries of Mercy: The Call to the Jerichokeller postcard.jpg Road) and that he brings in to New York speakers such as N.T. Wright or co-authors books about the work world with business leaders such as Katherine Leary Alsdorf (Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God's Work) or has tackled the philosophical and pastoral questions about evil in Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering shows that he is a writer who is interested in real-world faith and whole-life discipleship. His big book about doing culturally-engaged church ministry is very good -- not perfect, of course, but maybe the best book of its kind that I know -- and you really should know it, especially if you are a congregational leader; it is called Center Church: Doing Balanced Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Counterfeit Gods is a potent critique of the idols of money, sex, and power, and Generous Justice is subtitled How God's Grace Makes Us Just.  You can see why I like this guy.

Preaching- Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism.jpgTimothy Keller's brand new book Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (Viking; $19.95) is a somewhat smaller, almost compact hardback -- in the shape and size of his best-selling Prodigal God, Encounters with Jesus, Generous Justice and Counterfeit Gods.  But do not be surprised -- it is a dense, serious book, packed with insight, mature writing, even demanding at times.  There is fascinating history, good theology and astute cultural analysis woven together inviting those of us who talk about the gospel to do it well and to be effective.  The endnotes are truly exceptional (and include what is nearly a full appendix or two with detailed suggestions for preaching plans and sermon prep, offered at the end in these extensive extra notes.)  The book is very important, and I think BookNotes readers will be wise to consider it.

Here is the first thing you should realize: although the book is entitled Preaching the subtitle explains much of the content (and in this it will dovetail nicely with the forthcoming  Os Guinness book on persuasion, which is heavy on analysis of the secular landscape and cultural habits of contemporary people.) In other words, the book is useful for many of us who want to understand our times, to be effective in our Christian witness, to be astute about the shape of our unfolding discipleship. 

how not to be secular.jpgIt might not surprise you to hear that some of this book draws on the truly landmark book A Secular Age by the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor.  Keller has been telling people about this book for quite some time, and, in fact, gave a very impressive endorsement for the back of James K.A. Smith's introduction to Taylor entitled How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Eerdmans; $16.00.)  Regarding Smith's book, Keller writes,

Charles Taylor's crucial book on our secular age is inaccessible for most people, including the church leaders who desperately need to learn from its insight. Jamie Smith's book is the solution to this problem. As a gateway into Taylor's thought, this volume (if read widely) could have a major impact on the level of theological leadership that our contemporary church is getting. It could also have a great effect on the quality of our communication and preaching. I highly recommend this book.

Preaching- Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism.jpgAnd so, in his own new book, Preaching, Keller has a chapter called "Preaching and the (Late) Modern Mind." It starts, curiously, with a quote by P.T. Forsyth's 1907 book called Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, which, Keller suggest, is still remarkably up to date. (I first learned of Forsyth, by the way, from Eugene Peterson, who remains a fan of his books on preaching and on prayer.)  Here's Keller: "By identifying one of the main narratives of modernity and laying out a way to deconstruct it from within, Forsyth was a pioneer and pathfinder."  Later in the chapter, Keller draws significantly on Taylor.  I would suggest that the few middle chapters (also "Preaching Christ to the Culture") are must-reads for anyone who is interested in the "Christ and culture" conversations, thinking faithfully about art or work or civil society, the missional vision, and the like.  If you found Smith's book - which we've promoted widely - to be a bit challenging, Keller's synopsis may be really useful for you.

And, just to show that this isn't just for heady intellectuals who read Charles Taylor or Jamie Smith, Keller quotes the nearly iconic song "Let It Go" from Frozen.  If you want to understand the narrative of the autonomous self that pervades even the children's songs of our age, you just have to read those pages. We all have to grapple with this stuff - the air we breath, the social context and location of our churches and those who listen to us preach and teach and speak.  If you not only want to see "between the lines" and just "below the surface" of our cultural moment and societal ethos, but want to know how to share some wise Christian counsel to re-shape the souls of those informed by the "hidden belief web of secularity," then this is going to be exceptionally helpful for you.  Which is to say, if you are any kind of Christian leader, teacher, writer, blogger, public thinker, politician, artist, media person, campus minister, youth leader, parent, Christian educator, spiritual director, or anyone with influence, you really should know this material and the moves it makes to help us speak well into the times.  Again, the subtitle is crucial: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism.

I started off with this -- you should buy this Keller book if you care about the times, if you want to be astute in your engagement with the world around you, if you want to understand your peers, co-workers, parishioners or the media pundits that influence public opinion. In my chapter in Serious Times: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life I preached on 1 Chronicles 12:32, about being "sons and daughters of Issachar" who "understood the times and knew what God's people should do."  This is a book about the times and how to speak wisely to those moderns who are shaped by the world in which they necessarily live. I think it is Issacharian.

But I could have started where Keller himself does, with his own apologetic for the book.  His first two short chapters - a good introduction and prologue - explain that the Bible itself uses the language of preaching, speaking, teaching, in rather broad ways.  That is, all of us are called to steward the language we use, and many of us are to speak wisely and well about the gospel as we inform others, in church, in small groups, or in our own circles of influence.  Of course, a book called Preaching is certainly aimed at those who preach sermons to those gathered for worship, but he explains that there are other "levels" of preaching that some of us do.

He writes,

Every Christian needs to understand the message of the Bible well enough to explain and apply it to other Christians and to his neighbors in informal and personal settings. [He calls this level 1.] But there are many ways to do the ministry of the Word at level 2 that take more preparation and presentation skills yet do not consist of delivering sermons (level 3.) Level 2 today may include writing, blogging, teaching classes and small groups, mentoring, moderating open discussion forums on issues of faith, and so on.

This book aims to be a resource for all those who communicate their Christian faith in any way, particularly at levels 2 and 3.

I don't mean to overstate this tangent, but I think his introductory framework is insightful.  He shows that there are various sorts of ways to proclaim the Word and that we will always require "a host of varied forms of Word ministry, the specific public ministry of preaching is irreplaceable." He quotes a the Australian theologian Peter Adam saying our church's gospel ministry should be "pulpit-centered, but not pulpit restricted."   Some of us may quibble about "pulpit-centered" but his point about the centrality of the Scriptures is certainly a needed one, as even our most sacramental church leaders are insisting.

Keller summarizes the interplay of various sorts of Bible reading groups and learning communities and teaching ministries:

So there are three levels of Word ministry, and they are all crucial and support one another. The public preaching of Christ in the Christian assembly (level 3) is a unique way that God speaks to and builds up people, and it sets up the more organic forms of Word ministry at levels 1 and 2. Likewise, the skilled and faithful communication at levels 1 and 2 prepares people to be receptive to preaching. This volume will speak to all those who are wrestling with how to communicate life-changing biblical truth to people at any level in an increasingly skeptical age. It will also serve as an introduction and foundation for working preachers and teachers in particular.

There are very important things in this short book that I wish every preacher, teacher, and communicator would consider.  I suspect it won't be as universally agreed upon as the good Dr. Keller will wish, but even if you don't agree fully with every conclusion, he is certainly right to hold up these major, major conversations.  Agree or not, this is splendid stuff for preachers to consider.

For instance, one chapter is called "Preaching the Gospel Every Time."  This does not mean that every sermon must have some Billy Graham -type altar call or be essentially evangelistic, but it does mean that Christ must be lifted up, that grace must be clear, that the sermon must resist "legalism" or "moralism" but must be clear about the good news.  He reminds us of the dangers of preaching even a sermon on Christ that misses the gospel, or a sermon on the core truths of the gospel without proclaiming Christ. Fascinating!  His insistence that the gospel is the core of the canonical message, that the whole narrative of the Bible coheres, is a major theme here, and oh how I wish preachers would review it regularly. 

"Preaching Christ From All of Scripture" is another related chapter and it will not surprise those who know that Keller studied at Westminster Theological Seminary in the 70s under the great Edmund unfolding mystery - clowney.jpgClowney. (Dr. Clowney's The Unfolding Mystery: Discovering Christ in the Old Testament (P&R; $12.99) is still a standard text in this movement.)  Regardless of genre, Keller explains, one must see how each part of the Bible points toward Christ in particular ways.  Also, through "every theme of the Bible" and in "every major image of the Bible." On and on, this succinct chapter shows how this works and is itself worth the price of the book for anyone who reads the Bible, and certainly for anyone who teaches the Bible.  There is some push back these days against this Christological hermeneutic, I realize, but, agree fully or not, this is sweet and fruitful stuff, I believe, and advice that most preachers, Sunday school teachers, youth leaders, camp counselors, campus ministers and Christian counselors of all sorts need to regularly recall.  It is, after all, the method Jesus used to set on fire the hearts of those walking with him in the lovely passage about walking on the road to Emmaus.

Despite this thoughtful and important Biblical content, I suppose one might say - if one is particularly well read in journals and books and blogs amongst certain circles - that this is increasingly commonplace and often said.  Well, I believe this Christo-centric, gospel-centered view is not expressed this well or this clearly or this urgently, and commend it even for those who are familiar with this classic approach. 

However, there is other teaching in this book that is nearly rare these days, and I am so grateful for Keller's contribution.  For instance, he has a chapter about "preaching to the heart" and as I am sure you would suppose, he is neither sentimental nor simplistic. He explains the importance of the affections, and invites us to preach and teach "affectionally." While we don't want to promote flat or dry preaching, of course, a preacher making clear his or her own heart-felt engagement with the truths of the text, for Keller, is not primarily about emotions.  He reminds us,

Teachers and preachers of the Bible are often so focused on preparing and presenting their content that they don't realize the degree to which people are not just listening to what they are saying but are also looking at who they are as they preach. People are examining motives without even being aware that they are doing it. They can sniff out if you are more concerned about looking good or sounding authoritative than you are about honoring God and loving them.

Get this: Keller proposes in Preaching that if preachers are overly concerned about their style and passion that "even people who are moved on one level by your performance will subconsciously resist it at another level, the same way many feel cynical at sentimental advertising even as they fight back tears."

So, please realize, much of the book is about "preaching to the heart" and "preaching from the heart."

It sometimes invites us to ponder our own faith formation, calling us to be - as in Nouwen's famous phrase, perhaps, "wounded healers."  How are we living out the Kingdom vision in our own lives? In what way have we ourselves struggled to resist the idols of our own hearts?  How are we living into Christ-likeness? He doesn't push hard, but implies this.  For instance, listen here as Keller suggests these themes, powerfully and provocatively:

Half this book is dedicated to preaching to the heart. You certainly understand by now that you cannot hope to do that unless you are consistently preaching from the heart. What you are calling people to experience you must be experiencing yourself. What the Holy Spirit is to do in the hearts of your listeners he will normally do first in and through you. You must be something like a clear glass through which people can see a broken but gospel-change soul in such a way that they want it for themselves.

Tim Keller insists that we must also preach and teach "imaginatively" (recall Lewis on this - rational and romantic, offering "reason and imagination.") Keller himself uses good illustrations from the history of great preachers, and from Biblical stories themselves as he unpacks this important component to our witness. He writes about preaching "wonderously" and draws on Tolkien's famous essay "On Fairy Stories."   I am sure you will enjoy this, and be challenged to live more wonderously, even as we proclaim the beauty and awe of God's character and work in the world.

Later, Keller offers very practical ideas for sermon preparation, and I found these portions to be really interesting and surprisingly helpful.  If you've been at this a long time, I suspect you'll appreciate it.  If you are a younger communicator or recently ordained preacher or new to the teaching ministry, these suggestions will save you time and energy and perhaps even embarrassment.  Preaching: Communicating Faith... offers wise counsel, good ideas not often found even in standard homiletics books.

We have more than a hundred books on homiletics at our shop and I've read a number of them. There is much to be said about this perennial problem, how to proclaim the gospel in clarity, bearing fruit, being faithful, standing "between two worlds" as John Stott put it. There are books about the role of preaching within a worship service, studies about various styles of communication. St. John Before jpgpreaching in the inventive age.jpg(I've just recently re-read Doug Pagitt's creative book on dialogical "sermons" called Preaching in the Inventive Age which offers a very different take then Keller, but is quite stimulating, audacious as it is. Keller understandably is critical of it and its predecessors such as The Roundtable Pulpit and the work of Lucy Rose.)There are many different perspectives and angles and trends, curious things to ponder and clever new approaches to consider and I learn and am forced to think as I read from various viewpoints.  I read old school stuff, lots of mainline/liberal textbooks, and try to dip in to dense tomes of communication theory, not to mention compilations of sermons, from Barbara Brown Taylor's several collections, to, for instance, Brian Walsh's powerful, must-read St. John Before Breakfast which are sermons (and liturgies) offered at the University of Toronto's campus ministry morning Eucharistic service called "Wine Before Breakfast." novel preaching.jpgfinally comes the poet.jpg Of course, Walt Brueggemann has several collections of sermons, and several books about preaching -- Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation may be his most popular -- and they are well worth reading.  We stock some interesting, practical ones such as Alyce McKenzie's Novel Preaching: Tips from Top Writers on Crafting Creative Sermons.  I really enjoy reading these kinds of resources -- even though I most create talks and essays and the lessons for a small Sunday school class I sometimes teach.

For what it is worth, Keller interacts with ancient, historical sources more than with more recent ones (and does so well, showing the preaching insights of Calvin or Melancthon, Stibbs, Whitefield, Edwards or Lloyd-Jones without too much of the contemporary ecumenical literature about homiletics, although he does a bit. Those familiar with David Buttrick or Fred Craddock or Eugene Lowry with be fascinated with his observations about mainline denominational approaches these days... as you might guess, he cites Thomas G. Long and his important volume The Witness of Preaching.

The bibliographic suggestions, citations, and endnotes in this book could provide a lifetime's worth of study, and, for those called to this work, is, again, worth the price of the book itself. Wow --I can't wait to more carefully work through these many suggestions and recommendations from Keller.

reading for preaching.jpgAnd, speaking of recommending resources -- I keep talking about the wonderful Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. anywhere there are preachers or teachers who allow me to say so as it is such a splendid, important, lovely, lovely book.  Oh my, how I wish folks would take it to heart.  I wish Keller would have cited it!

Since talking about faith -- and teaching and preaching -- is central to our gathered Christian communities, it strikes me as odd that we don't sell more of these kinds of books.  Heck, I am not ordained to the pulpit ministries, but find these books fabulously interesting and often quite useful.  That preachers and teachers and ministry leaders don't buy them much is just baffling.

Whether you regularly read this genre or not, why not pick up this one by Tim Keller? Give it a try and see if you don't enjoy a sustained study of the power of the Word and the call to teach and share the gospel in effective ways. No matter your own calling or role, I bet you'll learn a lot and be a better communicator and a more astute listener of sermons and Bible lessons, too.

And, of course, if you are a teacher or preacher, I really hope you consider this brief but potent work. It will be a good companion for you, I'm sure.
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May 29, 2015

Three books on Paul by Michael J. Gorman -- and more! (Or: the missional hermeneutics of "Becoming the Gospel") ON SALE NOW

It was a privilege to get to provide books at a recent lecture at the Ecumenical Institute at St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore. It is always good being with them as they blend academic rigor and faith-based hospitality and graciousness, all in a very diverse, ecumenical setting.

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michael gorman head shot.jpgBecoming the Gospel.jpgThe star of the evening was a friend and customer, the widely respected Biblical scholar and theologian, Dr. Michael J. Gorman.

We were gathered to celebrate Dr. Gorman's most recent book, Becoming the Gospel: Paul Participation, and Mission (Eerdmans; $28.00.) I've mentioned this book here at BookNotes before, but after hearing Mike lecture on it, explaining some of the backstory and his hopes for the book - -and hearing the other panelists respond, which was inspiring in equal measure -- I just had to promote his work again. It really is rich, good stuff!

Kudos, first, to the two respondents to Gorman's presentation on the book. First there was the joyful, thoughtful, missional theologian, Barth scholar, and Director of the Gospel and Our Culture Network, Dr. John R. Franke, who wrote, among other things, Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth (Abingdon; $17.99. ) Also responding to the lecture was the always energetic World Relief President Stephan Bauman, whose new possible.jpgmanifold witness franke.jpgbook on social change, Possible: A Blueprint for Changing How We Change the World (Multnomah; $22.99) was also a big part of the night. 

It would be like Mike and the E.I. (Ecumenical Institute) to have a culturally-engaged theologian and a global justice activist responding to his exegesis of the Apostle Paul.   What an evening it was!

To give you a further hint about Gorman, you should know that not only has he served St. Mary's and the E.I. (formerly as Dean, now as holder of the Raymond E. Brown Chair in Biblical Studies and Theology) but he has participated in national and international working  groups and forums within organizations such as the Society of Biblical Literature. He knows everybody in the field, and regularly brings world class leaders to the E.I. such as Eugene Peterson, Miroslov Volf,  Ellen Davis, Rowan Williams, James Dunn -- they have N.T. Wright coming yet again this November 18th, doing the 2015 Dunning Lecture (and another day of professional development, November 19th.)

Mike himself is known and respected widely. I was joking with a scholar in the room about how Mike's new book on Paul does not have a blurb on the back from world-famous N.T. Wright.  We made some friendly Tom Wright jokes, and he suggested that Gorman could blurb Wright, but didn't need that world-renowned scholar to endorse him.  Ha.  It is true, for the record, that Mike thanks Tom in the acknowledgements, along with other luminaries in New Testament studies, such as Richard Hays, Beverly Gavanta, Steve Fowl, Joel Green, and the like.  He is involved in lovely networks of collaboration and even has some further Hearts & Minds connections:  Mike is friends with Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, authors and scholars and activists whose work we regularly mention.   

If you don't know Gorman's books, you owe it to yourself to read a few.  It is curious to me that although he is so esteemed in the scholarly world and so many important scholars like and respect him, that his name hasn't become as well-known as it should be.  So, here ya go: if you don't want to wade through N.T. Wright's massive two-volume masterpiece on Paul, try these. They really are just as good and equally important.  I think Tom himself would agree, even if they quibble about some fine-tuned disagreements here and again.

So, Gorman is a wonderful guy and an important figure. As both Franke and Bauman acknowledged at this book release event, his work really is significant, and, importantly, generative and inspiring, worthy of study because it can help us live differently, more faithfully.


cruciformity.jpgThe first thing you should know about the exquisite Becoming the Gospel: Paul Participation, and Mission is that it stands (almost un-intentionally, as Mike explains it) as the third in a trilogy of books on St. Paul.  Mike has been studying and teaching and preaching on the great "apostle of the heart set free" since his PhD at Princeton in the 1980s.

His first major book on Paul, Cruciformity: Paul's Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Eerdmans; $38.00) came out in 2001 and remains an essential volume for anyone with a serious library on Pauline studies.  

That book with the evocative title threw down and explored Gorman's primary thesis, at once simple and yet one which could take a life-time to embrace and embody: Paul's own spirituality was based on his desire to experience the cross of Christ, to embrace a form of piety that is cross-shaped.

The first sentence of the book is from 1 Corinthians 2:2 -- "I decided to know nothing among you except Christ and him crucified."  Or, as Gorman shows with a quick grammar lesson, Paul's words are explanatory and urgent in the last phrase, which should be rendered  "...know nothing among you except Jesus Christ - that is, Jesus Christ crucified." This is Paul's extraordinary point, and Gorman helps us see it: Christ being crucified,  known as the suffering servant, He comes not to condemn but to die, and to thereby show us how to live. (Indeed, at the end of his own life, Peter writes in his letter a reminder that Christ's nonviolence in his arrest [which Peter, at the time, embarrassingly misunderstood, cutting off that soldiers ear] is an example of how we are to live!) Few scholarly books have as much vibrant piety and live-it-out-in-the-real-world wisdom. And few are, dare I say it, as revolutionary!

 I ought not oversimplify this 400+  page magisterial work, as it rigorously engages most major Pauline interpreters (past and present) but Cruciformity does come down to this, pondering why Paul so often used "the cross" as shorthand for a whole way of life, a spiritual ethos of discipleship that is counter-intuitive, glory by servanthood. This big book does offer ways into this cross-shaped way of life and reflects some of the missional energy of the popular-level Tom Wright (or more so) and offers some of the suggestions of Biblical nonviolence and peacemaking from those like Richard Hays. This is nearly a subversive spirituality, a revolutionary Paul. Gorman's anti-Empire readings were pioneering ( think of Chad Meyers on Mark or Walsh & Keesmaat on Colossians.) He is not Girardian or overly indebted to Walter Wink, but if you appreciate their insights you will value Gorman's work as well. This is a new perspective beyond what some call "the new perspective" on Paul. And it matters.

Listen to what Stephen Fowl says of it.

In an age when spirituality is often simply a mask for self-projection and self-assertion, Gorman's Paul reminds Christians that such vital matters as faith, hope, love, and power should be shaped by the story of the crucified and resurrected one rather than by our own whims and desires. This book is readable and timely, and it will enhance the lives of contemporary Christians.  

Cruciformity: Paul's Narrative Spirituality of the Cross includes some serious cultural critique, and invites us to ponder a "charismatic and prophetic" spirituality which is shaped by the ways of the Cross.  As M. Robert Mulholland of Asbury Theological Seminary writes, "Gorman... provides cogent arguments against some of the special-interest readings of Paul. This book has the potential to challenge both the academy and the church to a reconsideration of Paul that could revolutionize Pauline scholarship and transform the life of the church in the world." 

That, my friends, is one of the reasons we sell the books that we do, and it is why we request your support, buying books from us that, as Mulholland put it, can challenge the scholarly world and transform the life of the church, for the sake of the world.  Gorman is an ally in this bold project, and we commend his work to you.


Inhabiting the Cruciform God.jpgInhabiting the Cruciform God is the second in the trilogy, and I am afraid that the allusive cove art and the theological lingo in the subtitle might turn some people off.  But it shouldn't!  Again, Gorman is on to something big, here, and it makes sense.  If, as he argued in the earlier book, the cross is the heart of the gospel and shaped Paul's own sense of spirituality and mission, then - get this - it must not just be Paul's understanding of the way of Jesus but it is the very heart of God.  With a proper Trinitarian view of Christ (He is God, as the early creeds insist) then what we know from Jesus is a revelation of God's own self.  And so, if Jesus comes to give His life as a ransom for many, if he comes not to judge the world but to save it, if He is the grand lover, healer, restorer, crucified Lamb, redeeming King, then that must also be the attributes of God the Father and God the Spirit and constitutive of their holy way and work. The subtitle of Inhabiting the Cruciform God is dense, but even those of us not trained in theology can figure it out: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul's Narrative Soteriology. (Somebody joked at the EI forum that Tom Wright, known for long and thick books, "needs an editor." Ahem. What were they thinking up at Eerdmans when they cooked up this subtitle?)

Well, it is substantive, like the book.  And it does illustrate exactly what this slimmer volume (under 200 pages) is teaching us: God becomes Christ, Christ gives up his Divine privileges (a la Philippians 2 which Gorman calls "Paul's master story") to serve humankind and the creation itself. If this is true, Gorman writes,

then cruciformity is really theoformity, or, as the Christian tradition (especially in the East sometimes calls it) deification , divinization, or theosis. It is conformity to Christ, or holiness, understood as participation in the very life of God -- inhabiting the cruciform God. This conclusion is implicitly in Cruciformity but not fully developed there.


This is a fundamental category for understanding Paul - "participation." For Gorman, this theosis is a bit more than the classic Western construct of "union with Christ."  We get to join in to his life, death, resurrection, and live into the story of His redemption "for the life of the world" and this is linked to how we understand salvation and how we become what we are meant to be.  There is a fascinating paragraph early on in this book suggesting that Richard Hays saw that the study of Paul's soteriology needed to move in the direction of theosis, and suggested ways E.P. Sander's work could be helpful, and could be improved "by a careful study of participating motifs in patristic theology, particularly the thought of the Eastern Fathers."  Fascinating and worth pondering, even though my words here don't do it justice at all.

Again, for those of us who aren't used to this theological lingo, it could seem daunting. But it makes sense, it really does, and you will be blessed by a careful reading.  Gorman is an able teacher, delightfully ecumenical, deeply desiring to be faithful and helpful.  He writes,

For Paul, to be one with Christ is to be one with God; to be like Christ is to be like God; to be in Christ is to be in God. At the very least, this means that for Paul cruciformity - conformity to the crucified Christ - is really theoformity, or theosis. The argument of this book about these claims will also suggest that Paul's famous phrase "in Christ" is his shorthand for "in God/in Christ/in the Spirit." That is, his christocentricity is really an implicit Trinitarianism.

Okay, again, don't let the curious words scare you off.  This is rich stuff, with lots of explanatory footnotes and a few good suggestions for living all this out, showing the difference it makes for ordinary discipleship and congregational life.  Gorman is not interested in the arcane world of scholarship for its own sake, or nitpicking. He is showing us how if the insights of his first book about being cross shaped inform our very understanding of our oneness with God and our role in God's redemptive love. At times it brings to mind the rich poetry of old, doctrinally heavy but beautifully rendered hymns. Love Divine, indeed!

Here is how Frank Matera of Catholic University of America describes this potent book:

In this pioneering work Michael Gorman offers a fresh way to view Paul's understanding of justification and holiness. Cutting a new path through old territory, Gorman leads us to a vision of holiness and justification rooted in the transforming power of nonviolence and the cross. His work will provide pastors with new insights for preaching and scholars with new ways to address old questions.

Which leads us to the book we celebrated the other night at the lovely event in Baltimore, the book John Franke and Stephen Bouman joined in affirming, sharing their great belief in the significance of Dr. Gorman and especially of this, his crowning achievement in his energetic work on Paul.


Becoming the Gospel- Paul, Participation and Mission .jpgBecoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation and Mission is not only a great book on Paul, not only a creative and fruitful approach to understanding Paul's themes of spirituality, salvation, discipleship, living in the Kingdom, and a fine capstone to his logical progression about cruciformity and participation in God, but it is a major contribution to what we might call the missional conversation. This book, even more than the others, has Pauline zeal, a passion to reach the nations, a hope for social transformation via a renewed and Christ-like church.  Not unlike Gorman's friend Tom Wright, this is scholarship in service to the church, offered with a desire to see God's people be shaped by the things of God, the very gospel.

The ideas of the earlier books have really grown legs and here we see where it is all going.

As you can guess from the title, and as you can see from the trajectory from the other books, if we are joining with God in Christ, we are therefore agents of God's reconciliation, transformed people, for the sake of the reign of God, pointing towards, bearing witness to, the restoration of all things.  God is a missional God, and we are joining God by participating in God's work in all of life. We don't just think about or understand or desire God and the gospel, we are not even just shaped by it, but we become it. How Gorman comes to see that, and the implications of it, are truly remarkable and are spelled out in Becoming the Gospel.


This book is a fabulous tool to help us read Paul rightly. But it is also a case study of how to read the Bible, any of the Bible, really.  As Dean Flemming (author of Recovering the Full Mission of God: A Biblical Perspective on Being, Doing, and Telling, a book Mike mentioned in his own talk) says, "This book is a tour de force in missional hermeneutics." You know what a tour de force is, and that should make you take notice (we can't buy every good book that comes out, not even every good book I most heartily recommend. But the few that garner this kind of rave? You should really consider owning such respected works!)  Okay, it's awesome; got it. But what does he mean by "missional hermeneutics"?

The definition is hermeneutics pretty easy to grasp.  Doing it well is an art and a science and we need guides and a lot of help, being self-aware and intentional of our own approaches and biases, in community.  For some of us it will come rather naturally, for others, this is a real paradigm shift.

Hermeneutics is simply the philosophy of interpretation. (Here are some mostly reasonable guidelines about Biblical hermeneutics of a fairly conventional sort; it is curious, though, that they seem to presume these principles and methods are just givens, natural and right.) 

woman-reading-bible-op-800x533.jpgReading well and understanding and applying (any book, including Holy Scriptures) always happens from within a certain set of presuppositions, with assumptions, values, attitudes; this implicitly draws out what is seen and what isn't, what is considered important and what isn't, what is underscored and what is minimized, how we understand and make sense of theMisreading_Scripture_with_Western_Eyes_Removing_Cultural_Blinders_to_Better_Understand_the_Bible-74635.jpg words and sentences on the page, and - if one has a sensible hermeneutic - the way things fit together, the context of the text. But these "rules of the game" are themselves contested.  Everybody reads and interprets by some rules or working assumptions, and there are certain philosophical and theological presuppositions that are taken for granted, usually, that are operative and shape how we interpret. Nobody is objective, obviously, and everybody has a lens through which they make meaning of things, and they interpret, then, consciously or not, shaped by those habits of heart and believes and practices that color and shape us. 

(One interesting way to learn a bit about this would be to consider the fine book Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by E. Randolph Richards & Brandon J. O'Brien, published by IVP; $16.00.)

That is the art of hermeneutics, reflecting on the rules of reading, the way in which interpretation happens. It's not all that complicated, really, but it's a handy five dollar word; there are various "schools of thought" that shape different hermeneutics.  Gorman stands in the energetic tradition which interprets the texts in light of God's overall redemptive plan, God's own missional self-giving, the Big-Picture Story which ends in the redemption of God's people and the reconciliation of enemies and the restoration of all creation, and which calls forth our participation in that missio dei. The vocation of receiving God's gift of grace (in Christ) in ways that transform us into partners with God is central, and thereby shapes how we interpret the Bible itself.  Call it an active, missional hermeneutic, with a cross-shaped lens.


And, by the way, we do that dance together. The church -- past and present --  is the primary location for missional hermeneutics.  That is, we can't really explain to the world what the Bible means until we see what it means, living among us.  "Lookie here," we can then say, "this is what the coming Kingdom sort of looks like and here is then how we make sense of this story, this law, this poem, this text, this parable, this letter.  We're a pilot project of the new creation and joining us here enables us to see up close what it all means." We engage the world, to be sure, but the local community of place, standing with the global church and the communion of the saints, too, is the space to interpret the texts, together, in light of what we are becoming. This missional hermeneutic, it seems to me, favors the embodied and the communal. Church matters, even to help us understand the living Word.


paul icon.jpgThe big question, of course, is if this hermeneutic is the most faithful, fruitful, proper and wise lens through which to interpret the Bible. Oy vey! We need to ask the Bible itself how to interpret the Bible itself, and different hermeneutics will lead us to answer that almost circular question differently. Well, Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation and Mission offers a splendid way to read and makes sense of the Bible, including, and especially Paul.  On display here is indeed a missional interpretation, a hermeneutic that sees in the text the stuff that (or so Mike claims) is what is most truly intended, and most faithfully embodied now. His approach to Paul is true to Paul and wise for our own discipleship as we are shaped into missional communities in our own context.  Other readings may be less so, and this is the reason to know this book, to grasp his take on things, and to appreciate the "method in the madness" - that is, the "missional hermeneutic."  

 I'm no scholar, and certainly Gorman himself stands open to correction, but I think Chris Tilling (author of Paul's Divine Christology) is really right when he says that "Gorman writes in ways that resonate with the missional concerns of the gospel itself."


GAOCN.pngInterestingly, this fascinating book of New Testament theology gleaned from careful attention to Paul's own missional vision, is the latest volume in an on-going series (the general editor of which is the aforementioned John Franke) of books from the Gospel and Our Culture Network. That network helped popularize the (now faddish and woefully misunderstood) phrase "missional" (first brought to us by Darrell Guder, I've heard) and remains a helpful voice and service to the church.  Yes, Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation and Mission stands as a new volume in that important series.


Here is something you should know about the Gospel and Our Culture Network: it started years ago out of the vision and guidance of the late Lesslie Newbigin. Newbigin, as I hope you know, was a British missionary in India, whose influential work about the nature of cultures and the relationship of cultures and the gospel is still studied and carried on today. (Here is a very useful Newbigin website gathering together some of his work and here is a fantastic article about him and his views.)

newbigin.jpgEarly on in his work in India realized, obviously, as most missionaries do, that other cultures do things differently, and, as a guest to that foreign culture, he noticed so much that was different, even among the churches, and he wondered why.  Why does the Indian church think that, believe this, do those things, in those ways? Maybe with a bit of arrogance, he wondered why they couldn't see that their own cultural context was perhaps causing them to misunderstand some Biblical truths, to live in ways that were accommodated to their own South Asian world.  As he lived as part of the Indian church for decades and decades his orientation and worldview shifted, and his burning questions became focused on why does the West does things as we do? How has our modern, secularizing culture shaped (deformed?) our own understanding of the gospel itself? Are we accommodated to culture in ways we don't even see?

Certainly every culture has benign and delightful ways that can be used to proclaim and show forth the gospel. Missionaries are keen on contextualization, and we should consider how to do this well in our own postmodern, twenty-first century culture. Perhaps that is the more fun task, the endless, creative question of how to translate the gospel into our own culture, or subcultures, and live it out in faithful relevance. 

But, also -- and here we must not be naïve -- every culture has less than benign, maybe even harmful, assumptions and attitudes and beliefs and social arrangements and patterns and systems that distort our faith and our practices.  Every culture has good insights, surely, but in a fallen world, any society and every culture has idols and distorted ways of seeing and blindspots that are too often inadvertently smuggled in as baggage, sometimes becoming albatrosses around the necks of the churches in that land.  It's the old "be not conformed" bit from Romans 12: 1-2, of course: we are to live out in our bodies the spirituality of the new creation, but we must first have "renewed minds" that are "non-conformed" the the patterns of the surrounding culture.

gospel in a pluralist society.jpgfoolishness to the greeks - eerdmans.jpgPastor Newbigin asked, significantly, how the West, with its modernist influences (going back to the rationalism of the Enlightenment, at least) and its individualism and materialism and faith in progress and technology and the like have deformed our own understanding of and living of the gospel.  Newbigin's best-known books about these things are always in stock here at Hearts & Minds, published by Eerdmans:  Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, which is the one to start with, and The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, parts of which are on many people's "must read" lists. We try to keep the entire list of The Gospel and Our Culture Network books in stock here as well. (The next, by the way, will be released and we will have in November of 2015 by Darrell Guder, entitled Called to Witness.)

Mostly we keep these under church life - they ask the question of how our churches can be appropriately missional, aware of and savvy about the ways (good and bad) culture shapes church and ways of living in our culture effects how we think about the gospel itself.


We here at the shop will not only display Becoming the Gospel there, as part of that GAOC series, but also under Biblical studies, since it is a bit of superb New Testament work and should be read by Bible students, whether one is involved in the missional conversation on not. Granted there is a feisty bit of scholarly evaluation, and a missional hermeneutic, but it is, firstly, a book about Paul.

But, be warned: unlike some scholarly Biblical books (even conservatively orthodox ones) this one by Mike Gorman does have this stimulating, challenging, prophetic, missional perspective, and invites us not just to understand or believe the gospel, but to become it.  It is not glib about language of transformation. It painstakingly engages the texts of Paul and invites us slowly into them, to inhabit the story, to become the gospel, in order to further and participate in God's redemptive work in the world.  You'll find some surprising stuff here, I bet, and you will be wiser for it.

I hope you realize this is foundational stuff for us here at the bookstore. 


We sell books - about all areas of life (even leisure and recreation, as we wrote about in our last post) -- hopefully in the way of Christ, for sake of the world, for the glory of God.  We know to do this (by God's grace) because it is explained in the Book.  We are book people, but, supremely, we are people of The Book.  As much as we enjoy selling books about work and play, art and culture, politics and justice, health and wholeness, sex and marriage, science and technology, and so very much more, we cannot know what to think and do in this world without Christ, and we cannot know about Christ, who He is and what He did and what He calls us into, without the Book.  

bible spines.jpgWe are sad that we don't sell more books about the Bible, and apologize if we have ever given the impression that our bookstore is something other than a "Bible bookstore."  Of course we carry more than Bibles and have a dozens and dozens of categories other than Biblical studies.  But let us be clear: we are people of the Book.  Michael Gorman is a hero of ours, as it Tom Wright and Walt Brueggemann and  so many others who can bring Biblical teaching to life, showing how it shapes us, to be the missional Kingdom people He calls us to be.


apostle of the crucified lord.jpgPaul: Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters (Eerdmans) $44.00  Massive, comprehensive, important, useful as a major study.  It's view is moderate, ecumenical, engaged with the current literature, but in a way, classic. Jeffrey Siker of Loyola Marymount says succinctly, "This is the best textbook on Paul I have found."  Professor Siker notes that Gorman's ability to explain the backstory of each place to whom Paul was writing is very helpful, which is very important.

reading paul.jpgReading Paul (Cascade Books) $22.00 This is a small handbook, a lovely, useful introduction. Professor Richard Hays says it is a "splendid introduction to the Apostle Paul is the best book of its kind: concise, wise, insightful, thoroughly conversant with the best recent scholarship, yet thoroughly clear and readable."  That's an amazing endorsement! Some nice reflection questions at the end of each chapter, too.

reading revelation responsibly.jpgReading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation (Cascade Books) $25.00 This is a major contribution, and you really should own it. On one hand it is very accessible, almost introductory (making it great for congregational use, for small group Bible studies and book clubs) but also bringing some hefty missional concerns to the fore, reminding us also of the politics of redemption and the hope that should infuse us now as we trust in the final reign of God. Get that subtitle, eh? Wow. This is remarkable.

death of the messiah gorman.jpgThe Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of the Atonement  (Cascade Books) $33.00 This is a serious work, emerging originally from his prestigious Dunning Lectures at Saint Mary's Seminary. This brings Gorman's keen understanding of the missional impulse in Paul to bear on his reflections on the meaning of the cross, the subsequent ways of expressing the mysteries of the atonement. It strikes some as a ground-breaking work, and Gorman asks why there is no theory or model of the atonement called the "new covenant" model, since this understanding of the atonement is likely the earliest in the Christian tradition, going back to Jesus Himself. In ways that point towards his work on Paul, he ends this book making a case that in this re-disovery of the ancient model of covenant atonement we are invited to a "life of communal and individual participating in Jesus' faithful, loving, peacemaking death." There are amazing blurbs on the back, from Scot McKnight to Willard Swartley to Joel Green. Cherith Fee Nordling says the book "sounds the clarion call of the New Testament."  I like the endorsement from John E. Wright, of Point Loma University, who notes "Thanks to Michael Gorman for taking us beyond endless discussion of the 'how' of Christ's atonement to its visible end. Christ's atonement as manifest in the life of the church, for the sake of the world."

Elements of Biblical Exegesis (Revised and Expanded Edition).jpgElements of Biblical Exegesis (Revised and Expanded Edition) (Baker Academic) $21.99 This is a substantial handbook, a serious guide to how to read, interpret, and apply the Bible, passage by passage. Very thoughtfully done.  Exegesis is another one of those fancy words, but it is an essential one, and knowing about it is helpful. Beverly Gaventa (Professor of New Testament Exegesis at Princeton Theological Seminary) says, cleverly and properly that "No one ever became an exegete by reading a book on exegesis. The gift of Michael Gorman's book is that he knows that exegetes are born through practice, practice, practice, and more practice. And he invites his readers into just the practice they need, providing them with a rich array of helps along the way. Beginners and improvers alike will benefit..."  If you are a Bible student, this book is hard to beat.  If you teach the art of reading the Bible well to others, again, this book is hard to beat.  It is a hand-on guide that breaks the task down into seven distinct elements., and suggests exercises to enhance your abilities within each. For what it is worth, he has his reasons to think that the ESV (and the old RSV upon which it is based) is useful, but not as impeccable as the promoters suggest. Fascinating.



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May 25, 2015

The great, new "Leisure and Spirituality: Biblical, Historical and Contemporary Perspectives" -- and over 20 other somewhat related titles for your summer pleasure. ON SALE.

arcade-fire1111.jpg0122_james-taylor-haiti-concert_620.jpg"Summer's here, I'm for that, got my cold beer, got my straw hat," James Taylor once sang.

Or, more sardonically, Arcade Fire sings: 

Children, wake up.

Hold your mistake up

before they turn the summer into dust.

It seems this summer business -- optimistic with leisurely cold beer or with prophetic foreboding  (we are "turning every good thing to rust" the Arcade song "Wake Up" continues) -- is serious business. 

There is something about this recent holiday weekend's shift to summer that makes many of us buoyant.  We look forward to longer days, being outdoors more, a different rhythm, maybe even a vacation or two.

Don't we who are Christians owe it to ourselves -- to God, really -- to think seriously about all of life, including the straw hats of summer? (And is Arcade Fire right, that we have a tendency to turn everything to rust, even our time-off and our visions of vacations?) Shouldn't we wonder what leisure means and looks like from the perspective of faith and discipleship what is right about it, and maybe what is wrong?

Here are a handful of books that could help you have better fun this summer. Or, should I say, help you explore a spirituality of leisure, remind you of the human calling of play, or re-creation, of living into the joy of the Lord in our off hours, so you think about your leisure time -- and, consequently, experience your leisure time -- in an appropriate, Godly manner.  Plus, I've just listed some books that seem fun, restful, adventurous, helping us learn to pay attention.

John Piper calls himself (drawing significantly on C.S. Lewis) a "Christian hedonist."  That is, he develops a theologically robust vision to get us to enjoy joy, to search for pleasure, which (of course) comes from glorifying God in all we do. Lewis reminds us to put first things first, and that when we do, we get everything else, too.  On this, at least, brother Piper is right.

Two quick comments before the list: I write a lot at BookNotes about vocation and work, calling and careers. We have that bibliography by vocation link at our website. (And, yes, even the recent book I edited, Serious Dreams, invites recent college grads to relate faith and work in ways that are intentional and enduring.) Books about work and calling are important to us, as they are to you, our readership and customers.

In a way, thinking about leisure and play and rest is the flip side of all that.  We are glad for recent interest in thinking Christianly about work, but what about our leisure? What about rest and play and re-creation?

But it isn't always simple.  For many of us there is a joy at work and a diligence at play that ends up blending the boundaries between the two; those of us who work out of our homes or work on weekends are further confused about the distinctions between work and play and "time off."  (And, of course, many of us fool around a bit at work, making it lovely, and there is plenty of unpaid work to do around the house when we aren't at our places of employment, some of which is difficult.)

Secondly, as I will explain, the first book is magisterial, a great example of serious Christian scholarship, and a substantial work about the subject of leisure. I realize not everyone wants to "go there" so the rest of the books are more pleasurable, fun, even -- books less about leisure as such, but titles that piled up on my stack as I pondered creating this little list about recreation. But please don't skip the first one. It is, for those of us who are serious about developing a uniquely Christian take on all of life, reading widely to help us craft a coherently, faithful worldview, a God-send, vital, more valuable then you may realize. I very highly recommend it.

Leisure and Spirituality.jpgLeisure and Spirituality: Biblical, Historical and Contemporary Perspectives Paul Heintzman (Baker Academic) $24.99  Thank goodness for the great "engaging culture" series from Baker Academic, and for this long-awaited, just released new volume.  Heintzman has been on our radar screen for years having co-edited Christianity and Leisure: Issues in a Pluralistic Society (Dordt College Press) which includes papers done by Christians working in leisure studies, sports theory, recreational fields, sociologists and theologians exploring the integration of faith and this aspect of life and culture. He is a remarkable scholar, has been through Regent College in Vancouver, and has been teaching at the University of Ottawa.  As we learn in the book, he is not only a professor of leisure studies, and has not only done a major PhD project doing research into the spiritual benefits of leisure, but he is an avid outdoorsman - backpacker, paddler, and a leader in wilderness treks and thinking about experiential education .

As I have said, I think this book is nothing short of magisterial, and stands, at this point, as the definitive Christian book in the field.  There is simply nothing like it on the market, and it should appeal to any number of readers.

First, there are those among us who are studying this topic.  If you are in sociology or cultural studies or interested in this growing sub-field, it is a no-brainer: you should order Leisure and Spirituality today. 

Also, this book is important for you if you work at a camp, if you lead wilderness trips, if you do experiential education, if you work in recreational programs  in any way,  if you are interested in thinking about recreation in our culture -- perhaps you work in athletics, you are a coach or gym teacher or help others in these fields.  There are insights here that are important for medical caregivers, for those working in rehabilitation, in elder care, in therapy.  There are connections here, and Heintzman explores it usefully.

Further, allow me to suggest that if you are an educated reader -- a pastor, say, or a campus minister or blogger who writes about Christian worldview or cultural renewal -- this is a book for you.  

Let's face it, all of those who we intend to influence (pastors: your flocks!) have complicated relationships with their leisure time.  Early on in the book, Heintzman quotes J.I. Packer explaining that most of us in the West have two oddly conflicting views of leisure: we make an idol out of it, or we belittle it.  That is we are workaholics who rest too little or we are hedonists who live for pleasure and play.  (And, for those with economic means, it is sometimes both: work too hard, party too hard, you know.)

So, yeah, if you want to help people live good lives, opened up, multi-dimensional, happy and whole, and you are passionate about equipping people to imagine their lives seamlessly, then learning the vocabulary and wisdom of this book will help you help them.

And, of course, that leads me to most all of us, fans and friends of BookNotes. You want this for your own life, I gather -- books to help you think, to care, to put the pieces together of this mystery called whole life discipleship.  Hearing what this scholar has learned -- even learning to use terms correctly is helpful.  The vast research in this remarkable book will help us ask better questions, and  learn to discuss what we might mean as we use certain words. What is leisure, after all? What is rest? Recreation, play? Is there qualitative difference between, say, taking a hike, playing an outdoor game with others, or watching TV? Is one more restorative, more normative, life-giving than others? What is the role of exercise, should we be more intentional about hobbies, should we take up new tasks as we age? What is the role of quiet time, silence and solitude? What about celebration and partying?

Leisure and Spirituality.jpgThere are many great endorsements of this deliciously intellectual and important book.  Really, this is impressive!

Listen to Leland Ryken (author of a classic on this, Redeeming the Time: A Christian Approach to Work and Leisure

For the past quarter of a century, Paul Heintzman has been a leader in the field of Christian leisure theory. Leisure and Spirituality is the fruit of Heintzman's long career. And the most notable feature of the book is its thoroughness: all of the important topics are covered and the survey of scholarship is breathtaking. The book is a triumph of scholarship and a helpful guide to thinking Christianly about leisure."

Or, consider Robert Banks (whose book Redeeming the Routines is tremendous, by the way) who says,

 This is, quite simply, the most thorough and thoughtful book about the relationship between leisure and spirituality. It covers biblical, historical, theological, cultural, and practical terrain. I encourage you to read it in a leisurely and therefore more spiritual way. If you follow this book's suggestions you will be the better for it, as will your relationships, activities, and world.

I so respect Loren Wilkinson at Regent, who served as a friend and mentor to Heintzman,; if he recommends it, that carries a lot of weight. Do read this:

The things closest to us are often the hardest to see, understand, and talk about. In his Leisure and Spirituality Paul Heintzman does a masterful job of casting light on many of those crucial closest things: work, rest, leisure, time, body, and soul. The book itself is 'leisurely': the author does not hurry us through these hard topics, but becomes a thoughtful guide: through the confusions of our own time, the long history of different views of work and leisure, and--most important--the deep biblical sources for a life which lets us both be and do as thankful recipients of the gift of being. For scholars in leisure studies, this study is likely to become the most helpful and comprehensive resource for a long time to come.

After a more thorough reviews, Calvin College professor emeritus of sports sciences, Glen Van Andel summarizes,

With this book Dr. Heintzman has given the Christian community a wonderful gift that will transform our perspective on common elements of our daily lives: work, rest, and play.

I think Van Andel is right; books like this are a gift to the Christian community, and they have the potential to help us transform our perspective -- and experience -- of so much of our daily lives. We are happy to promote Leisure and Spirituality and hope many will consider it.

rest of life.jpgThe Rest of Our Life: Rest, Play, Eating, Studying, Sex from a Kingdom Perspective Ben Witherington III (Eerdmans) $18.00  I have mentioned this before, noting that this excellent United Methodist Biblical scholar has done (besides his major Biblical commentaries) a few small books on Kingdom living; that is, what the overall theme of living in the commonwealth of God, under the reign of Christ, means for daily living. He has a great one on the story of the Kingdom in the Bible and how we celebrate it within the church calendar, another on Kingdom worship, a great one on work, and now this.  A bit more then 150 pages, this is good Bible stuff, interesting ruminations, and a reminder about God's care for these everyday parts of life. 

R. Paul Stevens (author of Work Matters) says that Witherington "gives us bifocal lenses so we can look at life both close up, as it is now, and as it will become in the fullness of God's lovely reign This is an invigorating book, a delight to read."  That's a great quote, eh, about bifocal lenses?

We highly recommend the lovely essays found in The Rest of Our Life.

finding livelihood.jpgFinding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure Nancy J. Nordenson (Kalos Press) $14.95  I have given this a shout out already, and am working on a more substantial review for later, but I want to note two quick things here. Notice the title: it is not just a book on work, but on livelihood, which includes, in Nodenson's insightful vision, leisure.  

And, secondly, it is so wondrously, beautifully, elegantly written, it is a joy to read even a page or two, and I find it invites a leisurely pace. It is not a didactic study of a Christian view of work, but a lyrical rumination, more memoir and storytelling then overt instruction, on how to navigate "the tension between passion and need, between aspiration and limits, between the planned life and the given life."  

The wise and energetic and eloquent writer Leslie Leyland Fields (Nordenson has a fabulous chapter about comfort food and her family's  Swedish pancakes in the spectacular book Fields edited, The Spirit of  Food) says Nordenson Finding Livelihood "offers us real ways of finding astonishment and transcendence eve in the most stultifying jobs. This book is a revelation. It goes with me to my fishing camp."

  Receiving the Day- Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time.jpgReceiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time Dorothy Bass (Jossey Bass) $14.95  I just might re-read this this summer, and see if it still holds up as one of my favorite books. I will never forget the profound impact it had on me, the luminous prose, the nearly mystical vision of time and reality it offers.  More than a book about Sabbath -- although it catapulted (along with Marva Dawn's Keeping the Sabbath Holy) that conversation into the mainstream of Christian churches -- this invites us to experience all of time as a gift from God.  I suppose this is the point of the highly regarded and often cited Sabbath by Abraham Heschel, but this touched me even more deeply than that important book.  If you are feeling frantic or stressed, these reflections will be helpful, I'm sure. At work or at home, getting paid or not, on the clock or off, we are all bound by time, which, Bass shows, can be opened and stewarded as the gift of God that it is. One can't think about "leisure time" without first grappling with the notion of time. Very nicely done.

Rest of God- Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath.jpgThe Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath Mark Buchanan (Nelson) $14.99  There are so many good books on the practice of keeping sabbath, but I mention this one for a few reasons. It is really fun to read; Buchanan is a very find wordsmith. (The book is endorsed on the back by Lauren Winner and Philip Yancey, for what it is worth!) And, he starts with a good chapter on work, framing the call to rest by the call to work, which is helpful.  However, he not only does the conventional stuff about deepening our appreciation for God's creation, for joy and renewal, and such, but has chapters like on on play which commends "stopping just to waste time." Hooray!

sabbath allender.jpgSabbath  Dan Allender (Nelson) $12.99  I have often recommended this whole series of "Ancient Practices" books compiled and curated by Phyllis Tickle, each one by great authors reflecting on various ancient spiritual practices. I mention this one, among oodles of books on sabbath and sabbath keeping, because Dan Allender brings a particular insight to his study of sabbath.  He suggests here that the heart of Sabbath is not just to "stop" or rest, but to be re-created (a generative way to think about recreation, eh?) In other words, sabbath is designed for play.  I'd heartily recommend anything by Allander, but this seemed so relevant, I had to list it here.

Simplify- Ten Practices to Unclutter Your Soul .jpgSimplify: Ten Practices to Unclutter Your Soul Bill Hybels Tyndale/Momentum) $15.99  I know, I know, there are a dozen of these kinds of books inviting us to trim down our over-scheduled and overwhelmed lives. Perhaps you are exhausted, to frantic to do anything about your own out-of-control clutter and stress? Believe me, I relate. I like Hybels, trust him a lot, and have really enjoyed his other books.  Although this seems to be more about one's interior life, and simplifying one's own spirituality, I am sure it advises practices -- including play and rest -- that will help.  Shauna Niequist says of her famous father's book "I don't know who doesn't need this kind of rich thinking about what it means to live with focus and sanity and peace. I love these ideas." 

 Fringe Hours- Making Time for You .jpgThe Fringe Hours: Making Time for You  Jessica N. Turner (Revell) $14.99 You may know Turner from here popular lifestyle blog "The Mom Creative" where she documents her pursuit of "cultivating a life well crafted." Brigid Schultz, author of the New York Times bestseller Overwhelmed says that this book "is like one gigantic permission slip to carve out some space in your day for the things that give you joy and feed your soul."  

Shauna Niequist (whose wonderful devotional Savor would be a nice daily reader for your summer months) writes, 

I want to give The Fringe Hours to every woman in my life, because this is the conversation we're having over and over, at soccer practices and church and crammed between meetings. Jessica's practical style made me feel like another way is possible.

Abundant Simplicity- Discovering the Unhurried Rhythms of Grace.jpgAbundant Simplicity: Discovering the Unhurried Rhythms of Grace Jan Johnson (InterVarsity Press) $15.00  This wonderful, rich book is one to study carefully and enjoy reading devotionally -- it has a large, rave review on the back from Dallas Willard (the last line of which is "Do what she says") and another by Norvene Vest. I suppose any number of book on the inner life, slowing down, practicing the  presence, receiving grace in the ordinary, would enhance your summer leisure time.  But this is just such a lovely reflection on our relationship to time and energy and money, I had to list it.  Anyway, you've got to read chapter 8 nicely called "Putting the 'Free' in Free Time." Do I hear an "Amen"?

Like a Child- Restoring the Awe, Wonder, Joy and Resiliency of the Human Spirit .jpgLike a Child: Restoring the Awe, Wonder, Joy and Resiliency of the Human Spirit Rev. Timothy J. Mooney (Skylight Paths) $16.99  Mystic Richard Rohr says "This might be the most intelligent, inspiring and integrated book I have read on the subject. It will not give you cliches or glib answers, but genuine wisdom."  Sure, we all should "grow up" and mature into full adulthood.  But what if Jesus's own praise of spiritual childhood shapes our view of what maturity means, and what we tend to lose in our culture of modern speed and work and responsibility? Can we cultivate childlike ways of attention, self-awareness, joy and resilience? How might playfulness effect our daily discipleship and faith formation?  

John Buchanan, editor of The Christian Century, says "With a scholars careful eye and a pastor's heart... Mooney employs the insights of art, theology, literature, popular culture and his own winsome humanity to invite us to become the children Jesus meant us to be. This is an important book."  The author is an artist and Presbyterian pastor of an intentional faith community in urban Denver.

index.jpgThink Like a 5-Year Old- Reclaim Your Wonder and Create Great jpgThink Like a 5-Year Old: Reclaim Your Wonder and Create Great Things Len Wilson (Abingdon) $163.99 Wilson serves as the Creative Director of Peachtree, a large church in Atlanta, and has written several books on relating creativity and faith and how congregations can use "visual storytelling" more wisely.  Energetic and fun, this book suggests we can be "creative geniuses" and unleash wondrous creativity to help us live life to the fullest.

You will find here a fascinating blend of hip insight from modern marketers like Seth Godin and Steven Pressfield, thoughtful Christian insight from contemporary writers about the arts like Madeline L'Engle and Makoto Fujimura,  and some good gleanings from the latest research on the creative brian. Nice.

Free to Learn- Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play .jpgFree to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life Peter Gray (Basic Books) $16.99  What a stimulating book, by an author who is a research and professor in the Department of Psychology at Boston College. Gray is critical of compulsory schooling (think of the amazing work of John Taylor Gatto on that such as Dumbing us Down) but more importantly, it is about how children are wired to play, and how curiosity and joy and becoming emotionally resilient should be see as being part of the task of the child. This is "a brave, counterintuitive proposal for freeing our children..." and suggests that we must entrust children to steer their own learning and development.  We may not agree with all of his policy proposals or views of the systems of education we've devised, but his insights about the role of free play as the primary way children solve problems and learn is remarkable. It is not a leisurely book but for some parents it will remind them, at least, of the need for play and freedom and joy, for their kids and, perhaps, even for themselves.

Eyes Wide Open- Enjoying God in Everything Steve DeWitt.jpgEyes Wide Open: Enjoying God in Everything Steve DeWitt (Credo House) $14.99  Do you really enjoy something? Have a hobby or passion? We all enjoy so many things in this world, and DeWitt helps us hold that up to the light, think about it faithfully, and enter into a journey of discovering how to allow God to speak to us in the things we enjoy. "The outdoors, art, food, sports, sunsets, coffee, mountains or anything else?" Eyes Wide Open enriches these experiences by turning them toward their created purpose.  As it says on the back cover, "This is a book about our beautiful God who designed our craving for beauty to lead us back to Him." This is a tremendous book with solid theology and plenty of winsome guidance.  There are reflection questions for small groups, too. It would make a fun, fun book to do on summer evenings with some good friends  -- maybe over a good meal, dessert or wine and cheese.  Enjoy -- soli deo gloria. 

of games and god.jpgipod, youtube, wii play.jpgOf Games and God: A Christian Exploration of Video Games Kevin Schut (Brazos) $16.99  I know nothing about video games, I'll admit it, but I am confident that, without a doubt, this is the best book for Christians to reflect on the meaning and joy and goodness and downsides of this vastly popular form of entertainment. It is engaging, looks at the problems and promises of interactive entertainment, and is a very valuable resource for this long over-due conversation.  If you know gamers, they will enjoy this one, for sure.

Ipod, YouTube, Wii Play: Theological Engagement with Entertainment  D. Brent Laytham (Wipf & Stock) $19.00  Again, we've mentioned this before, but just have to list it here.  Here is what Jaimie Smith says of it:  "A generation of theologians has been worried about the deforming practices of the liberal state. What we really need to worry about are its games. The devil is in its bread and circuses. In this wise, accessible book Brent Laytham offers an engaged theological analysis of our entertainments and distractions, inviting us to follow Jesus with new intentionality.''  Or, if you want to be sure this is a fun read, how about this comment by Todd Johnson: 'Witty, wistful, and wickedly provocative."  

fragrance of god.jpgInheriting Paradise- Meditations on Gardening.jpgInheriting Paradise: Meditations on Gardening and The Fragrance of God Vigen Guroian (Eerdmans) $14.00 each  We promote these books routinely, and mention them from time to time here. What a fine time to suggest them again; they are lovely to read and great to own. Guroian is an Orthodox theologian and professor, but is also renowned for his spacious garden about which he is immensely knowledgeable and can truly wax eloquent -- perhaps you will recall his great talk on NPR.  Both of these books are exquisite, brief, profound; they are a delight to read, and you will be inspired.  Bill McKibben says of The Fragrance of God "Vigen Guroian's fine book is proof that Christians would do well to spend more time outdoors, in the one great megachurch that operates as a planet-scale museum of divine intent." Frederica Mathewes-Green says it is "Earthy in all the best senses." Yes, there are plants and dirt and flowers and bugs here, but also stories and spirituality.  What a great pair of books.

backpacking with the saints.jpgBackpacking with the Saints: WIlderness HIking as Spiritual Practice Beldon Lane (Oxford University Press) $24.95  I have written about this before, as well, but it seems prefect to mention it now.  Lane has written extraordinary, important book on the spirituality of land (see The Solace of Fierce Landscapes) and here narrates a series of hikes (to some world renowned places) linked to a particular spiritual writer, from Luther to Gandhi to Theresa of Lisueux.  I don't get away much, and certainly will not attempt these strenuous journeys out of the trailhead and towards a summit and back again (he has a spiritual author for each leg of the journey, so the book is arranged in these stages.) Still it is a book I can enjoy, vicariously.   

I really do like Barbara Brown Taylor's blurb, though, where she suggests at least being is some kind of outdoor setting to read this one:

The only problem with this remarkable book is that it cannot be read rightly from a comfortable chair. As Lane and the rest of the saints in these pages insist, what the soul most needs is not found in safe places but in wild ones, where the dangers are as real as the courage they call forth. So find a high rock, a far hill, or a patch of desert that scares you a little and let this book persuade you that you are exactly where you need to be.

She should know. Ms Taylor has written two books herself about "the geography of faith" and I have read parts of each more than twice:  An Altar in the World and Learning to Walk in the Dark. 

On the Water- A Fishing Memoir Guy de la Valdene.jpgOn the Water: A Fishing Memoir Guy de la Valdene (Lyons Press) $25.95  When I saw this handsome hardback had an endorsement by Carl Hiaasen, I thought it might be funny. Then I saw a blurb by -- get this! -- the author of Forrest Gump, Winston Groom, who says it is "a splendid and beautifully written insight into the vicissitudes of man and nature." I think we could all use some vicissitude, and this meditation on water and nature and fishing and growing older and (as it says on the back cover) "of the sporting life well lived" could be a lovely addition to your library.  The novelist Philip Caputo says of it "At a time when just about everything in America seems to be monetized, On the Water reminds us of values that don't carry dollar signs."  Another reviewer says it is a "mixture of memory and desire, of wit and wisdom, nothing less then a classic."

Downstream- Reflections on Brook Trout, Fly Fishing, and the Waters of Appalachia.jpgDownstream: Reflections on Brook Trout, Fly Fishing, and the Waters of Appalachia David L. O'Hara & Matthew Dickerson (Cascade Books) $18.00 This is another we are very proud to stock, and about which I have written before. Both of these authors are serious literary figures, professors and writers. (O'Hara has written in Books and Culture and Orion and Dickerson has published a number of books about fantasy literature, such as From Homer to Harry Potter on Brazos, and a pair of books on the environmental vision of both C.S. Lewis.) There is an afterward by Bill McKibben, blurbs on the back by Middlebury College author John Elder and a wonderful endorsement by Eugene Peterson. It is a memoir of their fishing the trout streams from New York down through Pennsylvania and into West Virginia and the Smokey Mountain headwaters of Tennessee. .  They quote the likes of Kathleen Dean Moore and Wendell Berry and try to pay attention to the fish and mountains they visit.  What an intelligent, beautiful read.

No Ordinary Game- Miraculous Moments in Backyards and Sandlots Kirk Westphal.jpgNo Ordinary Game: Miraculous Moments in Backyards and Sandlots Kirk Westphal (Down East Books) $16.95  I'm sure I'm not alone in loving books about small towns, and small town sports -- the charms writing about Little League and local soccer and pick-up games are many.  "Many of the sporting world's most profound achievements," the back cover of No Ordinary Game says, "are never recorded. They happen on sandlots, asphalt, and backyards. Stories of well-known athletes and teams abound in popular literature. What is missing is an exaltation of the moments that can happen to any of the rest of us -- and do."

I love that the publishers say this is "the grandstand for everyday miracles." It is a collection of poignant memories of games played without grandstands.

There are some very fun moments here, lovely reading, good stories. There is almost quiet substance in these reports from the home front,  gentle tales of good stuff done by ordinary folks, but this author has a better eye then most. (It doesn't hurt that his father is the famous Christian philosopher and Kirkegaerd scholar, Merald Westphal.) 

You will find here a young boy weighing baseball against illness, the teaching of dignity in games played. There is a chapter about a refugee family from despoiled East Africa playing soccer in a suburban American backyard. You may like the chapter telling of a group of college boys who are challenged to a game of basketball by the women's varsity team. You will smile hearing of Westphal's first home run, hit when he was thirty-three years old.  These are not ordinary games.

run home and take.jpgRun Home and Take a Bow: Stories of Life, Faith, and a Season with the Kansas City Royals  Ethan Bryan (Samzidat Publishing) $14.99 I have mentioned this before, but want to name it again for several reasons.  Ethan is a friend and customer, and we think a very fine writer.  The book is nicely crafted and very enjoyable to read; what a great thing for many of us to read a baseball book or two each summer! So, yeah, on a list about leisure time reading this summer, this has to be included.

The heart of the book is about going to a summer's worth of home games at the (then losing) Kansas City Royals stadium, and something the author observed, a lesson learned, a moral to the story, of each and every game he attended. He narrates some fun baseball, and some sad baseball (it was KC, after all) but it is much more than that -- the book is partially a memoir about Ethan's own sense of calling, his own love of sport, and his enduring desire to share his passion for the game with this daughters, and how that fits in to his own life of faith as a follower of Jesus.  Run Home and Take a Bow even mentions me -- Ethan suggests that reading books and having open minds (even about controversial authors)  is a good thing as it can help us see things from a different perspective, which is the point of one chapter as he and his daughters watch a game from different seats, getting a fresh perspective on the field and the unfolding game. This is an enjoyable book, with lovely lessons, and although it is mostly about baseball, it is really, finally, about other stuff as well.  Enjoy.

Going Driftless- Life Lessons from the Heartland for Unraveling Times.jpgGoing Driftless: Life Lessons from the Heartland for Unraveling Times Stephen J. Lyons (Globe Pequot Press) $16.95  I didn't know that there was this portion of the United States known as the Driftless -- the portion of the Upper Midwest covering parts of four states (Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota.) This journalist here reports on his journeys throughout this region, all near the upper Mississippi. (Mark Twain, Lyons reminds us, lamented that this part of the river isn't better known. The part below St. Louis, he said in a Chicago newspaper in 1886, "is the least interesting part."

There are at least three reasons some readers will enjoy this book. It's just a fun read -- a guy stomping around this region that was spared the glacial activity that leveled the rest of the midwest landscape. There is a bit of natural history, and while this writer isn't exactly Annie Dillard, there is nice writing, fascinating maps and photographs, and it makes for an enjoyable trip.

driftless map.jpgSecondly, there is something going on among the people and culture of the Driftless, and, at least as Lyons tells it, it has to do with populism and small town pride and localism and community renewal; that he cites Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry is no surprise. Tucked away in these hills and valleys are remarkable examples of small-scale farming and food co-ops and CSAs and close-knit communities who value their unique ways. If you are alarmed by the homogenization of the American Way of Life, these indie-minded folks may have something to teach us. There are nature preserves and organic famers and local markets and any number of 21st century manifestations of the 1970s back-to-nature movement that took hold these parts.  It is fascinating to see how they've endured, adapted or how a new generation is working out their creative spirits in this new era.

Thirdly, not only do you learn about the natural history of this curious bio-region and watershed, and not only do you learn about innovative ways to keep older aways alive but you meet the people doing so. The back cover promises that you will meet "seed savers, off-the-gridders, birders, famers, musicians, artists, and writer., all who share a common bond in a separate nation called the Driftless." From the founders of a Permaculture Center in Wisconsin called Dancing Waters to folks that organize land cooperatives in Minnesota to the spiritual master of a Zen monastery in Iowa,  to more than one indie bookstore owner, these are colorful characters, doing curious work, in interesting places. What fun to listen in on their stories, told by this natural-born storyteller.  

Crafting Calm- Projects and Practices for Creativity and Contemplation .jpgCrafting Calm: Projects and Practices for Creativity and Contemplation Maggie Oman Shannon (Viva Editions) $16.95 This is a fabulously interesting DIY book, with spiritual quotes and lovely sketches and tons of ways to "craft your way to inner peace." The author is a spiritual direction in the Unity Church, so there are some interfaith and new age touches, but it still is useful for more orthodox Christian believers, I'd say, who want to "knit love and hope into every stitch" and use handicrafts as a way to achieve serenity and good intentions. This really is a lovely book, and trust it could help increase the mindfulness of those doing these interesting craft projects as a fun and creative spiritual discipline.

bread & wine by s.n..jpgBread & Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table With Recipes Shauna Niequist (Zondervan) $19.99  I thought it would be a fine way to end this list with a book on food and fellowship -- we have a large section in the bookstore on the theology and spirituality of food and eating and have made lists of just those sorts of books. But for this leisurely list of fun summer reads that help us frame our sense of joy away from employment, this handsome book is one of our favorites. I hope you have some picnics and parties this season and I hope you have some time to read.  This is one you really will enjoy.  Part memoir, part theology of eating, part celebration of hospitality and friendship (and even part recipe book) Bread and Wine is an excellent, pleasant and important read.  Highly recommended.  Cheers!




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May 22, 2015

If You Feel Too Much: Thoughts on Things Found and Lost and Hoped For -- the new book by Jamie Tworkowski (of "To Write Love On Her Arms") ON SALE at BookNotes

If You Feel Too Much: Thoughts on Things Found and Lost and Hoped For Jamie Tworkowski (Tarcher) $16.95

if you feel too much.pngI don't remember the first time I heard Jamie speak and chatted with him -- I think it was at an underground hard music festival called Purple Door here in Central PA.  I know he spoke at a number of pretty cool places, sometimes gave brief talks at indie rock shows, hung out with bands like Anberlin, supported Invisible Children around freeing child soldiers in Africa, ran with friends who promoted nationally-known gatherings like Catalyst and Q, and has been to Jubilee in Pittsburgh more than once (including this past year.)  We have been impressed with his earnest, soft-spoken stories of caring for those who are hurting -- fringe kids, mostly, those considering suicide, cutters, the addicted or depressed or those in chronic pain or those who feel marginalized for whatever reason -- or those just feeling alone. As he became better known, he ended up telling his story even in the mainstream media, winning awards, getting on national TV.  One of his best friends is Donald Miller (of Blue Like Jazz fame; he even figures in to the new Miller book, Scary Close.) The San Diego band Switchfoot has written songs inspired by him. He himself became somewhat of a rock star.

TO WRITE LOVE image.jpgTWLONA DVD.jpgYou may not realize how popular he is or the extent of his remarkable ministry, To Write Love On Her Arms, but maybe this might be a clue: there is a Hollywood film made about him, called To Write To On Her Arms and you can rent it at Netflix or Redbox. Or buy it from us.

Maybe you've heard the story that catapulted him into this flurry of reaching out, storytelling, activism, bearing witness. A young woman who would cut herself in horrific acts of self-loathing reached out to jamie tworkowski.jpgJamie and his friends.  They would be there for her, they promised -- Renee was her name, and she struggled with addiction and depression and thoughts of suicide --  and they wanted Renee to know, above all, that she is beloved of God, and has friends in this world who will walk through life with her.  There was no literal writing "love" on her arms -- that is apocryphal -- but Renee moved in with this group of friends until they could get her into a treatment place.  It was a moving time for all of them, and Jamie's writing about it is poetic, passionate, raw.  If you've ever entered into the very deep pain of others like this, you know it is holy ground. They affirm her, take her to some concerts, stay with her, buying cigarettes and bathroom stuff, helping her hold on.  He writes,

She hands me her last razor blade, tells me it is the one she used to cut her arm and her last lines of cocaine five nights before. She's had it with her ever since, shares that tonight will be the hardest night and she shouldn't have it. I hold it carefully, thank her and know instantly that this moment, this gift, will stay with me. It hits me to wonder if this great feeling is what Christ knows when we surrender our broken hearts, when we trade death for life.

It may date the story a bit to know that Jamie posted something about it on MySpace. And it did what we now call "going viral."

The TWLOHA phrase took hold and in an odd blend of branding and hip marketing -- gotta love kids these days with their technology and organizational savvy -- and utterly sincere care for others, the movement took off.  As anyone who has heard him (and, more importantly, anyone who knows him well) can tell, Tworkowski is a man who loves others, who serves others, who comes through in his promises. His faith motivates him to be with those who are hurting, the mentally ill, the bullied, the losers.  His movement --  blogs, speaking engagements, a cool media presence, and his staff showing up at rock festivals and concerts and other curious venues -- has done much good in this world, person by person, reminding us all to love a bit more, to be aware of those who are hurting, to create safe places of inclusion and care and raw honesty.  He cares about mental health issues, about depression and suicide, but he writes for all of us, any of us, who want to think about identity and purpose and grace and life.

Even those who are skeptical of these hip neo-evangelicals and their idealistic nonprofits and start-ups and cool-sounding social initiatives have to admit: this is the real deal, offered without cynicism or irony or self-interest. The teams involved with To Write Love On Her Arms are living out Christ-centered, grace-driven faith over the long haul, despite knowing what they know about the world andvisions of vocation.jpg the horrible ways people suffer. Perhaps without realizing it, they've embodied some of the principles of Steve Garber's Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good, the rumination on how to mourn with the world, knowing how broken things are, and yet be responsible to do something about what we know and feel and care about. They want to (as Garber reflects upon) feel what God feels and respond in God's own ways, embodied, real, Christ-like, true. That this new Tworkowski book is called If You Feel Too Much is fascinating, isn't it? That it promises in the subtitle writings about what is "hoped for" is vital. I can't wait to continue through it myself.

if you feel cover.jpgIf You Feel Too Much: Thoughts on Things Found and Lost and Hoped For is brand new and I haven't read it straight through. I can say that the book is loosely built around previous blogs, earlier writings, edited and cut and pasted into a narrative that unfolds, pieces that can be read as stand alone chapters, but now cohere, nicely related.  I think it is a book that is very nicely done, useful, too, as a wonderful example not only of what one person can do, but, more, a glimpse into the heart of a person who has such obvious gifts of being present to others. If you read even a bit of Jamie Tworkowski you will discover a man who is self-aware, caring, able to step into the pain that other people feel and absorb some of it, even, offering hope and healing and goodness and beauty.  Taken together, these short essays weave together a picture of a good man, doing very good work (even amidst his own issues and losses and life story.) If You Feel Too Much is for the sad and hurting and hungry and searching, to be sure, but it is for all of us, modeling gently what it means to be fully alive, open to questions, on a mission for God, filled with the spirit of Christ Himself. It is a good book and it is for all of us.

The brief introduction is by Jon Foreman of Switchfoot. It is a beautifully-written, short tribute. It struck me as a beautiful way to start the book, with a simple story and a great line or two that you'll want to remember.

Scary Close- Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy.jpgThe longer foreword is by memoirist Donald Miller, and it is marvelous. (He retells the moving story from a chapter in his Scary Close of leaving a note in Tworkowski's shoe once when they were together.)

Noting that Tworkowski's fame hasn't changed him -- "He just keeps saying the same thing, softly, as though from some other planet: We need one another. There's no reason to judge. People are more fragile than you could possible imagine"  --  Miller talks about their friendship, and how Jamie treats him.

I now consider Jamie one of my closest friends. He's the one to call me when I say something unkind online. He reminds me people are hurting and we are supposed to be bigger than the Darwinian games that tempt us. And not only does he call me on my crap, but I call him when I'm hurting.

Miller observes,

Jamie is a mystery to me, I remember thinking. He doesn't so much tell a story as he is a story. He pours his heart into blogs and shares them with the world...  Can things as immeasurable as love, acceptance, grace, tolerance, and forgiveness create a better world? These aren't commodities measured in financial exchanges, after all...

You know, we review books here sometimes that are deep, maybe for those with specialized interests, including some serious theology and cultural studies that some may find a bit arcane. We promote some that are, in fact, somewhat demanding.  (Only we called the release of a six-volume set published by Dordt College Press by the Christian philosopher of aesthetics Calvin Seerveld "the publishing event of the year."

But sometimes we relish just clear, good writing about personal, raw stuff. It is why we like Bob Goff (of the great book Love Does) so much; even though he is a lawyer and human rights activist, traveling often to and writing from his beloved Uganda, his books and talks mostly just inspire people to love others. Clear, simple, basic, and the kind of thing we can all move towards: loving others more consistently, with more abandon, like Jesus says. This is what Tworkowski does, offering real hope by saying that we humans have the capacity to care for each other. We are wired by God for real relationships and we can let go of judgement and fear, to open ourselves to know and be known.  Yada, yada, you know, means to know and be known.

Listen to some of the other endorsements offering blurbs for this long-awaited book, including a great one by Bob Goff:

Jamie loves people unlike anyone I've ever met. He is also a humble guy and a faithful friend. He's the one who has offered to come on my darkest day, to cry with me, and on my best day to celebrate. His brand of love is one without judgement, boundaries, or pretense. This book gives you a wonderful glimpse at Jamie's beautiful heart. You're in for a treat.                                                                                       Bob Goff (author of Love Does.) 

Through poignant self-reflection and stories that pulse with a poetic rawness, Jamie invites us to be part of a bigger conversation. It's one that leads to community, connection, healing and incredible hope."                                                            Dr. Georgiana Smith, clinical psychologist

Here is what the founder and producer of the Van Warped Tour says:

When I first met Jamie, he struck me as someone on a mission. Through his sheer determination, he brought some difficult issues out of the shadows and helped so many people realize they were not alone. I believe this book will inspire others to do the same, to get help, and to chase their passion just as he has.

you'll need - from jamie T quote.jpg

Although he is a man on a mission, apparently in constant motion, serving others, thinking of new ways to share grace and goodness, writing and speaking, a year ago he took several months off embracing a rare sabbatical, in order to prayerfully discern some next steps, and to write this book so many told him he should write.  He says in the beginning that he has often wanted to write ("every time I walked into a bookstore, something in me ached to have a seat at the table") but a new, long-form book just wasn't happening. He says he felt like a sprinter doing a marathon.  Someone suggested a ghost writer, which he never considered (God bless him!)  JT is a person of his word, and sentences matter to him.

twloha-jamie typing.jpgHe tells us,

And so for years the idea sat, an awkward dream on some back burner. Awkward because there was no update, no progress. It took a while to warm up to the possibility that I could simply be myself, that I could write the way I write, about  the things I'm moved to write about. And then it took some more time to realize that perhaps my book was mostly written, that in the nine years since TWLOHA began, I had written thousands and thousands of words, words that I was proud of, words that had moved people. What would it look like to find the best of it, and to put it all in one place?

And so began a journey in reverse, to collect and to remember and to place things side by side. It turned out there were clues back at the beginning, in the days before the story that would change so many things. There were words starting to emerge a decade ago, when I was just a surfer selling t-shirts and board shorts.

I'm sure many fans, and many of us who write, will appreciate his saying this, too:

The truth is that part of me felt lost, feels lost. And it's hard to tell a story you don't like. So there was a subplot as I began that backwards journey, back through the last ten years. I'm trying to get back to someplace true, to someone I knew and liked a lot. I'm trying to make sense of my story, trying to make peace with it, perhaps so I can tell it, but more so I can smile. The ache is for a life that I believe in, and this book is brave in ways I hope to return to. I needed to g back, to read these words and retrace the steps, in order to move forward.

All of that brings us to you. I wonder where this finds you. I wonder what you've known and what you feel, what you've found and lost and hoped for. Perhaps there's still time, time for things to turn around, time for us to be surprised. Perhaps there's still a lot of beauty to be found here, and good people too.  People to love and people who will say we're not invisible.; Perhaps there's everything we need.

So if you feel as if you feel too much, well then you are not alone.

May these words fine you like a friend.

jamie twork at Jubilee.jpgHere is a great 20 minute video clip where you can watch Jamie's presentation at Jubilee 2015.  It is really good and I invite you to watch it.

We have If You Feel Too Much: Thoughts on Things Found and Lost and Hoped For by Jamie Tworkowski on sale, at 20% off. (It regularly sells for $16.95 but for BookNotes fans and our online customers we have it at $13.56.) It is a casebound hardback, sans dust jacket, so looks pretty sharp.  

We would be honored to sell it, happy to ship it to someone on your behalf, if that is what you want. As Tworkowski tells his story by way of this decade's worth of essays, short pieces, articles and blog posts, you will be moved to celebrate his honest efforts, his own struggle, and his deep care for this wounded world. It may remind you of things you, too, have lost or found, things you still hope for. Enjoy.

if you feel too much.png



20% off
order here
takes you to the secure Hearts & Minds order form page
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inquire here
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                                      Hearts & Minds 234 East Main Street  Dallastown, PA  17313     717-246-3333

May 20, 2015

A Great Gift for College-Bound High School Graduates -- An Encore Review: Make College Count: A Faithful Guide to Life + Learning by Derek Melleby ON SALE

I know you know what re-runs are.  

Or "encore performances" as they are sometimes called.  Sometimes, we are really glad to see one -- the first showing was so good that you want to see it again;  or, maybe, the "encore" allows folks to see something they missed previously.

With my celebration a few weeks ago of my new book designed for those young adults who are transitioning out of college or trade school, or finishing up graduate work, and taking up vocations in the work world (Serious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life published by Square Halo Books; at a special sale price here, $11.50) we have not forgotten that many readers give books to their high school graduates this season, too.  

Churches, youth ministries, private schools, moms and dads, godparents, confirmation sponsors, uncles and aunts, older sibs, even -- who doesn't want to honor the twelfth graders who survived senioritis and made it to graduation day?

My favorite book to give to high school grads who are going off to college is the fine book by Derek Melleby, Make College Count: A Faithful Guide to Life + Learning (Baker; $12.99.)  I've mentioned it a bunch of times over the last few years, but I don't think I've actually done a re-run. 

For a list of suggestions for those high school grads who are not going off to college, see here.

So, without further ado, with only minor editing, here is the "encore performance" of a review I wrote when this book released. Since I wrote this review a few years ago, I've only deepened my appreciate for Derek as a young leader, for the usefulness of his book, and for the impact it has made. The publisher has been happy to keep it in print, and it has developed a fantastic reputation. So it deserves this re-run of a review.  Enjoy.


It is always a joy to be standing around the church hallway and see some teens sauntering up the stairs to their Sunday school class.  Many medium-sized mainline churches don't have many youth, and it is a blessing that we have a good handful.  It was a joy this morning as I was sitting in the back of the sanctuary, noticing a few seniors, students that I have nearly watched grow up.  A few I played with in the nursery 15 years ago; my own youngest daughter's cohort will soon be graduating from high school.  Last year this time --- well, most every spring for the last dozen years or so, since my oldest was first active in youth group and I knew many of those kids with senioritis---I was in a serious funk about what might become of these older teens. 

These were kids I knew and cared about, mostly all heading off to some kind of higher education.  Would they get involved in some campus fellowship group when they went off to college?  Would they find themselves being followers of Christ in their new homes?  Would a local church reach out to them?  Would they develop good new friends that would wisely assist them in discerning the big questions about their future, their major, their callings and careers?  Would they, like most young adults in what developmentalists now call the critical years, take up the materialistic and secular values of the American way of life or would they choose God's Kingdom's ways --- upside down values of service and justice and a deeper purpose better than upward mobility?  Would they find a spouse that suits them well?  Oh, how we fret about these very young adults.


Of course, the fretting comes to a head for me when we pray over them (if we do at all) or recognize them in some churchly ceremony.  Does your church do something for students graduating from high school?  And does it sound something like God's radical call to them and a profound blessing upon them, or just a religious veneer over the same kind of stuff they hear at their mawkish high school commencements?  Do we commission them to a new phase of Kingdom living, with fear and trembling, or do we just sprinkle a little civil religion over the hope they'll be happy and successful?  I hope it is the former.  

That is, I hope our churches really inspire our young adults to take their faith seriously, and to move into the next stage of their lives with gusto, intentional discipleship, and a desire to have their lives count, really count.

This concern of what message we send to our graduates really comes to a head for me when we give them some sort of graduation gift.  We are asked this in the store each year, too -- what do we recommend?  In our experience some well-intended folks get students a plaque or pen or gifty type knick-knack. (A tie tac, you ask?  How do you ask a customer if they are out of their cottonpickin' minds?)  Most students find these remembrances pretty boring, I've heard, reinforcing their hunch that church is about as relevant to their lives as, well, their great grandma's gifts of a monogrammed hanky. 

Often, though, we try a offer something a bit better, so we give them a book, like a faux leather compilation of Bible promises, as if some 18 year old is just dying to do a concordance type study of every listing of every Bible verse around a certain theme.  Anxious about leaving home?  Wondering what major might make sense or what classes to choose?  Sad about leaving your bff from kindergarden?  I am not so sure they will turn to that handsome little pocket guide, even if they do deep down want to know what God might say to them.  I recall one kid trying to sell such a book back to us; you had to admire not only his ingenuity but his honesty.  "I just wouldn't use a book like that," he said.


And so, I am here to announce, as urgently and as plainly as I can, that we have found the best book to give to college-bound high-school seniors and graduates.  

Make College Count.jpgThose in the throes of that  "college transition" will enjoy this book which is substantive, interesting, important, and -- and this is important, too -- cool looking and fun. It is called Make College Count: A Faithful Guide to Life + Learning by Derek Melleby (Baker; $12.99 -- one sale here for $10.39.)  As Steve Garber (one who has studied, and studied with, college students as intentionally as anyone I know, most college professors included) writes of it,  "Make College Count is just right!  What Derek Melleby has done is find a way to come alongside someone on the way to college and offer guidance about things that matter most."  


There are several very nice books for college-bound students and they have useful stuff about getting along with room-mates, doing laundry, avoiding the college party scene.   A couple warn about the atheism of their secular professors.  They almost all admonish youngsters to not have sex, to stay in touch with mom, to study hard.  They are fine.  And they are almost all cleverly written and still mostly inane.  This 17 or 18 year old has just completed the first major phase of his or her educational life;  it feels (at that age, at that transition point) like one of the most important moments in their whole life, and they are off to one of the most challenging (and expensive) and life-changing, formative episodes of the rest of their life, and we give them a whimsical guide to doing laundry, and one last warning not to have sex?  This is the best God's people can do??  This is all we have to say?

Make-College-Count-Hardcover-218x300.jpgMr. Melleby, in Make College Count, thinks more foundationally; without seeming at all high-minded or overly serious, he winsomely invites students to think about, as Garber says, the things that matter most of all, and without sounding preachy.  There are seven questions that Melleby has discovered to be important for students to ask themselves, most usefully, before they get to State U, or at least early on in their college experience. 

Derek is increasingly known as a national leader on the psychology and spirituality of the college transition (he now directs an innovative Christian gap year program called OneLife) and he affirms the research that has shown that college is a time where emerging adults will become the person they most likely will be for the rest of their life.  How can they make the most of that time?  What might we ask them to consider, to set them in the right direction?  What are the things they should wrestle with a bit before they jump into the pace of the collegiate experience this fall?

Melleby is a fine and at times funny writer, and after each chapter, where he takes up one of the primal questions, he does an illuminating interview with a young woman or man who has recently been out of college.  He invites them to look back over their shoulder and tell their story, how their identity and sense of calling was shaped by their university years.  These are not composites -- they are real interviews. I actually know almost all of these students. Derek (I'm happy to disclose) is a very good friend and his campus ministry work where he met these students occurred at a campus near here.  I can say that nearly all of these students who are now young alum, have bought books from us, have shared some of their stories with Beth me, and we can vouch for their thoughtfulness and integrity.  The interviews in Make College Count are like little sidebars, and they are upbeat and very interesting.  And really helpful.

We are confident that this little book -- offering a way to discover a path to true success at college and beyond (as it says on the back cover) -- is the best thing we've seen like this in over 30 years of book selling.  There is simply no other book that asks these very basic sorts of fascinating questions and offers such solid counsel about such good stuff in such a brief, colorful, (and likely to be read) format.  

Here is a part of the table of contents:

What Kind of Person Do You Want to Become?  Following Jesus During the Critical Years

Why Are You Going to College?  Finding Your Place in the Story of God

What Do You Believe? Taking Ownership of Your Faith

Who Are You?  Securing your Identity in Christ

With Whom Shall You Surround Yourself?  Connecting with the Christian Community

How Will You Choose a Major? Putting Your Faith into Action

How Do You Want Your Life to Influence Others?  Leaving a Legacy

And, happily, he selected a few key books and websites that he suggests as "resources for the road ahead."  He names that great college conference that we help with, the CCOs annual Jubilee Conference, and, yes, he mentions Hearts & Minds BookNotes.  How cool is that?

Derek is an associate staff with the CCO and used to work with the great Walt Mueller at the Center for Parent and Youth Understanding.  He co-wrote (with Donald Optiz) my favorite book for collegelearning for the love of god.jpg students about taking their faith perspective into the classroom, Learning for the Love of God (a must-have resource for students, presuming a somewhat more intentional reader.) This illustrates the broadly evangelical perspective he holds, and the exceptionally thoughtful approach he brings -- all offered with an upbeat tone, alongside funny stories, great interviews, and the artful design of the small hardback.  This is a book you can give to any college-bound student with great confidence that it will be appreciated. 

You know the old story of Goldilocks' bears?  Some books for graduates are too this, some are too that; some too long, some too short, some too heady, some not heady enough.  I can hardly name any that are truly "just right."  Make College Count: A Faithful Guide to Life + Learning is the prime example, perfect in tone, fabulous in content, great in appearance and price.  We cannot recommend it any more highly; we think it will be used in the lives of emerging adults at this key transition point in their lives.

Here is a simple video clip of Derek talking about the book, noting some initial feedback he has gotten from young readers, explaining just what he was hoping he would accomplish by providing a resource like this.  It is low-key and a great illustration of Derek's clear, kind, and insightful style.  I hope you enjoy it.  And then I hope you buy a boat-load of the book.  From us, of course.  We told the publisher we would get behind this, and we look forward to promoting it anywhere we can.  Won't you help us?  It sure beats the tie tacs...

If this impresses you as it does us, if you are eager for the high school grads that you know who are heading off to college or trade school to have an opportunity to reflect on these basic matters -- who they want to be, what they feel called to do, with whom they will be involved and the like --  why not forward this review to whoever it is at your church who buys the gifts for the graduating seniors?  If you have a relative or friend heading off to college, buy the book yourself.  

Thanks for helping us spread the word.  We think it can make a difference.  We are glad for those that get the importance of this, honoring our grads in ways that are meaningful and have the possibility of really being helpful.  We are very glad for any orders you send our way -- but if you don't know any senior high kids heading off to college, just say a quick prayer for the next generation of the college-bound, their unique time in history, and the call for them to ponder deeply "the things that matter most."  




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

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

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

May 18, 2015

Two must-read books: Ghettoside (Jill Leovy) and Wanted (Chris Hoke) ON SALE at HEARTS & MINDS

just mercy.jpgMany BookNotes readers and Hearts & Minds customers know of my great, great appreciation for legal aid advocate Bryan Stevenson and his spectacular book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel & Grau; $28.00.) We named it one of the Best Books of 2014, offered links to interviews and TED talks, (bragged that he came out of Eastern University and that he spoke at Jubilee in Pittsburgh.) We've promoted it most places we've gone the last half a year, and sometimes have read out loud Desmond Tutu's endorsement exclaiming how thrilling the book was to read, and how important. Regarding the stories of flagrant legal injustices, often racially-tinged, that are so well told in Just Mercy and Mr. Stevenson's persistent and faithful advocacy, to achieve criminal justice for poor folks, the mentally impaired, children, even, Tutu declares what hangs in the balance: "Nothing less than the soul of a great nation." 

new jim crow.jpgMore readable, I think, than the definitive and compelling The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (The New Press; $19.95) Just Mercy stands alongside her work as a must read for anyone wanting to understand racial tensions, crime and punishment in our age.

You know we appreciate these two, as we've said it before.

Well, a few months ago the same prestigious publisher who released Just Mercy, Spiegel & Grau, released another stunning work, now surely another must-read book on similar, related themes. I didn't think it was possible, but this one is even more riveting and page-turning than Just Mercy. And it is a bit more complicated, with a bit more going on. But one thing that is clear:  there are racial dimensions to the large numbers of black men killed in American and it is astonishing we don't talk about it much.

GhettoSide: A True Story of Murder in America  Jill Leovy (Spiegel & Grau) $28.00

ghettoside big.jpgGhettoSide: A True Story of Murder in America was written over many years of detailed research by Jill Leovy, an award-winning reporter for the Los Angeles Times who certainly deserves acclaim and honor for her extra-ordinary work documenting how mostly black-on-black murders in Compton and other parts of South L.A. are investigated and prosecuted. I would suggest that if anyone wants to understand episodes such as the uprising in Ferguson MO or the riots in Baltimore, the recent national conversation about community policing, or, for that matter, if one wants to understand the real life work of criminal investigation and gritty urban police work (beyond Law and Order or Blue Bloods) this is the book to read.  In fact, if you like those popular police shows, you will love this book.

I've been wanting to tell our readers more about this incredible work for months, now (I had already described it briefly when it first came out) waiting both for my own ability to process it all and describe it with something approximating what it deserves, and for the best time to do so, in terms of current events and recent controversies.  I must admit that the tragedy in Baltimore - the murder of Freddy Gray, the riots, the arrests of the police officers, and the stressful rounds of comments and arguments on-line that followed, made me not so sure I wanted to share a review at that time. I didn't want to add to the noise, and I didn't want the book to be ignored or have BookNotes readers connect it too closely to those events. It is such a good read, such a valuable story, and I have been waiting for the right time to tell about it, but, now, can't wait any longer.  


Here is the short version of what this book is about. In great detail and prose that at times is nearly luminous, Ms. Leovy explains the horrors of inner city crime (most often gang related) and the subsequent police investigations and prosecution of the crimes. (Or, notably, the lack of such investigation and prosecution.) On the front of the book, in stark white letters on a striking black cover, it says "Someone is killed nearly every day in Los Angeles County, murders mostly unnoticed by the city at large - and likely to remain unsolved by the police. The killing of Bryant Tennelle seemed destined to share that fate, until the case was assigned to John Skaggs, a relentless detective of unusual gifts whose investigation reveals much about the epidemic of American homicide and how it can be stopped."

Yes, that is exactly what it is about, and -- whew! -- what a long, strange trip it is. Buckle your seat belts and get on board; this train is one you don't want to miss.

Ghettoside is set in the worst years of the violence in Compton, more than a decade ago, now, statistics about which are breathtakingly bad. I know a bit and have read a lot about urban issues, and I was riveted, knocked back at times, shocked by how bad the situation was.  With more deaths each week than in most of our modern wars, why aren't the crimes known and why aren't the perps tracked down and brought to justice? This is a huge, complex question.  The book maintains that "where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic."

In other words, the failure of mostly white police forces to prosecute gang violence (and coupled with para-militarized anti-drug campaigns and policing strategies that provoke more than protect) left a huge gap in urban centers.  Black on black violence, as it is sometimes described, occurred in the power vacuum left by the failures of adequate, effective policing and stable institutions of law and of order.

Of course there are huge, complicated and reasons for this vexing abdication of duty. Because this book is written like a true crime thriller, by an excellent journalist at the top of her craft, we learn about big policy matters by way of real stories, real people, real scenarios. As such the book is captivating, and compelling, leaving this reader in tears, sometimes in outrage, shaking his head, smacking his fist against the table, reaching for the tissues. 

And I was amazed by the unusual, fiercely dedicated John Skaggs. (More on him in a bit.)

So, so much is so very complicated in this real, fallen world. (Fallen may be the theological word we use to describe the distortion and dysfunctions wrought by sin; many of the characters in Ghettoside would use a different f-word, expressing the same awareness with unsanitized anguish.) From page to page we learn just how broken things are.


Just for instance, when a young boy has part of his head blown off by a drive by shooting - perhaps intentional, perhaps due to a mistaken identity - the scene must be secured by yellow police tape so that forensics scientists can do their work, gathering evidence, bone and blood and bullets. (You've seen CSI, no doubt.)  However, understandably, in crowded urban centers, aunts and mothers, siblings and lovers gather, sometimes before the police do, to mourn, to share tenderness and grief, and to express outrage. When such murders are nearly common-place rituals and means of mourning develop and outrage is severe, with anger often expressed against the law enforcers who seem to fail, and who most likely will not put much effort into solving this particular crime.  If police disrupt the communal grief, try to pull the mother off the body, try to secure the forensics integrity of the crime scene, they are seen as brutes. (And, according to Leovy's careful research and reporting, they sometimes are., but not always.) However, if the investigators are culturally sensitive or allow the body to be disturbed or removed, it is inevitable they will lose time and evidence. Homicide detectives even have a name for this routine problem of loved ones pulling the deceased away from the scene of the crime, forbidding police - who they do not trust - access, seemingly not aware that they are hindering whatever effort the police may want to expend gathering evidence. The police are harassed and threatened and the initial moments of the investigation are sometimes dangerous, bordering on pandemonium, with anguish and mistrust and more violence breaking out, understandably demoralizing the investigators who seem themselves as trying to help.  These investigators may be Latino or black, themselves, although they are often white, and the complexities of class and culture are pressing, even at the start of any given crime's investigation. And there were sometimes several a day in those years. Reading this was beyond sobering.

Prosecution of inner city gang-related or drug-related crime becomes problematic as well -- as we've seen on the TV shows, similar, too, to the Mob stories -- when eye-witnesses are resistant to speak to the police out of real fear of being targeted for revenge.  Again, this is complicated as many urban youth have been demeaned and even harmed by police, so when some investigators surely mean well, and cooperation with them would be in the interest of the neighborhood's safety, there is still mistrust, deep and profound and lasting.  Add to this the fear that the brutal enforcers of the harsh drug lords or uber-loyal gang members threaten the families of the witnesses in the most grotesque ways imaginable, the police investigation is exceedingly, overwhelmingly, difficult. Some rookie cops can't even imagine why good people won't cooperate. Others understand.

The first part of this moving work is called "The Plague" which is an overt reference to Camus' famous novel. (And I thought that the futility of The Myth of Sisyphus would have worked as well.)

But yet, the police soldier on, and Leovy tells -- with utter sympathy for the crisis of the neighborhoods, the urban downtrodden, the poor and fearful, the good, bad, and the ugly, the kids and the moms -- the story of the often valiant efforts of a few expert detectives to pursue justice.

And this is the heart of the story, good cops trying to do their jobs well, nearly against all odds. 

Like the Law and Order episodes there are two parts to every story. There is the true crime investigation (and oh, how Leovy captures the street cops, the homicide detectives, the chiefs and administrators struggling with policy and funding and management) and then there is the lawyering -- the courts, the public defenders, the judges, sentencing, prisons.  Although the book's focus is more on the former, there is a bit of the latter as well.


In what seems to me a passionately honest and yet generous eye, Leovy sees and tells the truth aboutjill leovy on TV.jpg all sides, the different facets and factors, the different people and their stories, their lives and their circumstances, colorful and poignant as they often are. She captures with vibrant prose the nature of inner city street life, the housing projects, the houses and lawns and alleys, the charm and goodness as well as the drugs and violence.  She understands inner city lifestyles, the people of many ethnicities that live in the many neighborhoods that make up South Los Angeles County, and with such good writing helps us feel like we understand the nuances and difference between this avenue and that block, between the Crips and the Bloods, the druggies and the preachers and social workers and prostitutes and more.  And yet, the book, set in Compton and about urban homicide, is a bigger story, finally about police work, the vocation of being a detective, and the "lucid social critique" she makes about it all.

Listen to the notable writer Martin Amis,

Jill Leovy writes with exceptional sharpness and tautness, and her pages glow and glitter with the found poetry of the street. This book will take an honored place on the shelf that includes David Simon's classic Homicide and Michelle Alexander's explosive study of mass incarceration, The New Jim Crow.

Or, listen to these amazing words of Michael Connelly,

Ghettoside is fantastic. It does what the best narrative nonfiction does: It transcends its subject by taking one person's journey and making it all our journeys. That's what makes this not just a gritty, heart-wrenching, and telling book, but an important one. From the patrol copy to the president, everyone needs to read this book.

So, yes, this is the kind of book we feel compelled to promote, and hope you will consider recommending it to your book club, or getting it for your own summer reading.


One reviewer said it was the bravest book bout race and crime he ever saw. I saw that comment before I started the book, and wasn't sure what it implied. You must read the book yourself to discern if it is true, but Dan Baum (author of Nine Lives) says it is "a thoroughly engrossing true-life policier full of vivid and sympathetic characters, but also the bravest book about race and crime I've ever read."

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America is an amazing book. I've suggested that it is important because of how it shows the pain and dignity of the urban poor, gang kids, addicts and street people as well as more ordinary folks trying to live normal lives in dense urban settings.  And it shows the pain and dignity of cops and detectives and all sorts of police workers; even if you don't like detective stories, this is a great read to show this side of this profession.  Many of us have opinions about race and crime and city strife and law enforcement - some expressed with great passion, even in posters and sloganeering on line - and it seems to me that our viewpoints ought to be shaped by this sort of reporting.  (Do you disagree?) Whether you see yourself as basically liberal or conservative on these kinds of things, whether you try to have understanding for the uprisings in the cities or whether you a revolted by the protests, and think we should just always support our officers in blue, I hope you will agree that we simply must know what really goes on, in the streets and in the precinct headquarters and the squad cars.  This book is the best I've read on this, the most important book on urban problems I've ever seen.


(Although grand policy questions aren't the primary topic, one learns about how the headquarters in certain precincts  in LA County were woefully underfunded, how dumb management foibles of this or that chief had huge impact on how crimes are investigated and adjudicated.  Not unlike Jonathan Kozol's blazing critique of what he calls "savage inequalities" (the way some school districts are well funded and others horribly underfunded and how these disparities are drawn around color lines) Ghettoside exposes some truly unjust institutional issues.  From funding to training to administration, inner city cops are working with great needs and woeful support and some of that is political. The decisions of Mayors and State and even Federal legislation have repercussions on the ground.  Savage inequalities, again.  Unbelievable that some police have (well, these days, tanks and grenade launchers) and these police in Watts don't even have paper and pencils!)


There is another reason why some BookNotes readers will want to pay attention to this moving, gripping book. There is a matter explored, almost as a sub-theme, examined on some pages quite directly, and sometimes nearly between the lines. There is, in Ghettoside, an inspiring exploration of how one or two effective detectives researched, investigated and doggedly pursued the best practices of their craft and wouldn't give up as they learned how to better serve with success.  I can count on one hand the number of well written books like this that explore what it means to see one's career as a calling, a vocation, and what it means to learn, over time, the best practices of a craft so they become almost supernaturally second nature. 

Detective John Skaggs is the primary hero here, not only for his diligence and integrity and passion, but because he learned what worked in his line of work, what little thing matters, what didn't. One can use that phrase - best practices - but it seems to be a rare few who have inhabited their jobs so intentionally, the have attended to the literal use of their bodies and minds and habits and time, have developed the "body memory" of what works, how to do daily stuff, making them outstanding in their fields. Skaggs is that kind of a person, and his own career's path -- trying to train others in how to do these herculean tasks with sensitivity and effectiveness, his mentoring another in the art of urban criminal investigations -- is itself a major part of this story. 


And, it raises the question: can those who are great at what they do (teachers or salespeople or doctors, say) rise up the organizational ladder in their careers to new positions of administration and there create new cultures in their own workplaces and institutions? Can a passionate and driven worker learn to work in other venues, in administration, say? (Can he or she retire and still be happy?) This complex story is one of urban hardships and bad guys and injustices and violence and the various ways police respond to solve and prosecute these crimes (or not) but it also reveals something to those of us who care about the Christian reformation of the workplace, and how to humanize and transform moribund and unhealthy institutions and professions. It helps us realize insight about learning a craft, about the long hours of becoming fluent in a field, and about how to accomplish something good in one's workplace.

We should applaud Ms. Leovy for her astute research doing this book - there is no doubt that she put herself in harm's way and through the emotional rigors of learning to care about inner city neighborhoods and the lives of people there.  And, she was brave to cover these stories of police failings (and also great police heroism and civic dedication) and the complicated struggles to reform inner city policing.  But I also want to note that she did more than ride along and report - which itself would have been heroic and notable. She studied this topic in the most profound ways, knowing the scholars of the field, the intellectually formative criminologist and she fairly explored the various schools of thought.  She has studied and agrees with "great intellectual prophets" like the late William J. Stuntz, who wrote that "Poor black neighborhoods see too little of the kinds of policing and criminal punishment that do the most good and too much of the kinds that do the most harm." I admired how she frames many of the riveting scenes and page-turning episodes by her obviously knowledgeable awareness of the bigger picture questions about institutions and cultures and social architecture and the different theories and approaches that are operative in the field.

Like Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy is hard and sad and yet inspiring and finally good. It is truly wonderfully written, fascinating, and as captivating as any good novel. It will let you know much about the nature of our world, help you realize more about the stuff we hear about in the newspapers, movies or hip hop songs. (There is, by the way, a film coming out later this summer about the late 80s hip hop group N.W. A. called Straight Outta Compton.)

Besides being helpful and informative and a quality literary experience, Ghettoside will inspire you, as ordinary people fight to create meaning in their hard lives, and as certain professional police officers see their work as vocations, and do what they must, within the constraints of what they can, to make this world a better place.  I was surprised by how much I grew to appreciate the thoughtful efforts of Skaggs and his best partners and compatriots for reform, showing his colleagues that these urban crimes must be pursued and could be prosecuted, and that that sort of enforcement brought more order and dignity to the dangerous neighborhoods then other more overt efforts at establishing control and order.  In this, it reminded me of the Christian insight of Gary Haugen, writing about global places of injustice and the need for good order in Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence (Oxford University Press; $18.95) and how that can be accomplished in fruitful, lasting ways.

Here is a good interview with her on the Daily Show. Check it out.

Wanted.jpgWanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders Chris Hoke (HarperOne) $25.99  I have already given an early shout out to this amazing book,  too, and, again, it deserves so much more. I hardly feel like I can do it justice as it is such a moving and rare work.

Hoke works with Tierra Nueva in the state of Washington, a deeply spiritual and anointed, one-of-a-kind wholistic Christian ministry started by Bob and Gracie Ekblad after they left their Latin American mission work where they were doing agricultural work, pressing for land reform, and standing up for human rights of peasants who were often persecuted by U.S. backed death squads and paramilitary police. Bob Ekblad has written two powerhouse books that we stock about his radical solidarity with the poor, Reading the Bible with the Damned and A New Christian Manifesto: Pledging Allegiance to the Kingdom of God, both published by Eerdmans ($22.00 and $20.00) and is also featured in one great chapter of Fred Bahnson's tremendous memoir of farming and spirituality called Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food & Faith (Simon & Schuster; $26.00) Ekblad is the founder of Tierra Nueva -- "new earth" of course -- where Chris  Hoke eventually finds a home.

Chris is a rabble rouser after Ekblad's own heart, a young subversive who is now a coffee roaster who employs former gang members and other folks hard up on their luck, a prison worker, friend of migrants, runaways, the troubled and the damned. In this high-octane, unforgettable book he tells touching stories of his work at Tierra Nueva, showing us an inclusive and gracious way of living the Christian faith with gospel integrity.  Some of our best writers about urban affairs have gushed over this moving work. 

Listen to Father Greg Boyle (author of the famous Tattoos on the Heart.)

Chris Hoke's fine book widens what needs to be widened in a world where some lives seem to matter less than others.  What he so eloquently articulates is the erasure of margins and the birth of a new inclusion - where the demonizing cease and the disposable are no longer tossed aside. It is a book which refines one's own heart to meet the brokenness of the other and discover your own. Exquisite mutuality.

chris hoke.jpgI am pretty sure most of us have rarely read anything like this. There is recent interest in prison life (Orange is the New Black, for instance) but this is the really, real deal.  It is beautiful, blazing, profane and grace-filled. It is tragic and good, beautiful and broken. It is a gripping book, full of stories, human and real, full of faith and prayer and love.  He calls these stories (some comic, some crazy, almost all deeply moving) "mystical portraiture" and the prose comes to us from someone who knows a bit about creative writing. (He has an MFA from the famed writing program at Seattle Pacific University.) But more than the beauty of these stories is their power to impact us. Wanted:  A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail...  is very different than the narrative nonfiction of Ghettoside, in style and religious perspective and setting, but I am glad I read them back to back. You might want to, too.  

Listen to what some others have said about the joy and impact that reading this might have.

Scott Cairns, the wonderful Orthodox poet, writes,

Chris Hoke is what I would call a Christ-follower. He follows the path that Jesus walked, eyes open, hands ready to help, heart ready to break. The result is life-changing -- for him, for those he serves, and for us if we have ears to hear.

Fr. Richard Rohr (of the Center for Action and Contemplation) says,

As a former jail chaplain myself, I have yet to find a book that is so well written, so honest, and so non-naïve - and yet compassionate - about the kind of world we live in! You will live in your own world with greater courage if you read this book.

Glynn Washington, the host and creator of NPR's Snap Judgement show has written,

When Chris first told a story on my show, it was so beautiful I wept. But I kept asking for more. This book proves what we believe at Snap - stories can lure you into places you've never imagined, and maybe even change your life.

And there you have it.  Books can inform, they can change us as we learn new stuff, learn to see things differently. If they are well written -- as are both Ghettoside and Wanted -- this transformative reading experience can even be enjoyable. We can be touched, in heart and mind, and we will be better for it. I think these two books deserve those sorts of promises, and I do not hesitate to offer that sort of expectation. I know what I learned, what I appreciated, what I felt and experienced as a reader going through them. We are happy to invite you to order them from us, hoping they can be influential for you, as well.

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