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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. He got her to literally write with a marker "love" on her arms, so whenever she got the razor blade near her skin she'd see and remember that somebody loves her. 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.  She is loved, and needed to write it on her arms. 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



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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."  




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takes you to the secure Hearts & Minds order form page
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inquire here
if you have questions or need more information
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                                      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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May 14, 2015

"C.S. Lewis's List" and Other Recent and Important Books on C.S. Lewis

In an adult Sunday School class I'm teaching at my church, I've been sharing the background, life and work of a handful of mostly recent "Christian authors everyone should know."  From writers like Henri Nouwen and Richard Foster to Bible scholars (Brueggemann, N.T. Wright) to eloquent memoirists such as Barbara Brown Taylor, I've highlighted some of the important, interesting, charming, and often-cited religious writers of our day.  Obviously (do I need to say it?) I did a week on C.S. Lewis. 

lewis and lion.jpg

mere - nice hardback.jpgI mentioned to one friend the other day that Lewis seems to be in the background for many of us; esteemed, valued, loved, even. We've read Narnia so often, given Mere Christianity away to thoughtful seekers (maybe even springing for the very elegant, classy hardback), pondered his creative fiction (how many times have you read The Screwtape Letters? The Great Divorce?) and enjoyed his quirky correspondence such as that found in Letters to an American Woman.  We've read the requisite biographies (Geroge Sayer's Jack is a must; The Narnian by Alan Jacobs continues to get rave reviews and I'm embarrassed that I haven't yet read it.) Probably we've read several of the many, many studies about his views, such as the must-read Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C.S. Lewis by David Downing or The Taste for the Other by ethicist Gilbert MeilaenderBut, I admitted, I go through long stretches without talking or thinking about Lewis much (and we go weeks without selling a single Lewis volume here in the store!) I said that I may not be alone, but that I think I take his work for granted.

And then, I'll revisit something, have to answer a question, look something up, or read a good Lewis line in another book, and I'm reminded exactly why he is so beloved, and why there is such an ongoing interest in the great Oxford don.  I'm once again surprised by Jack, surprised by Joy.

CS Lewis Reluctant Disciple DVD.jpgHere are some newer works that I may not have yet announced or that I want to mention again. Not long ago we highlighted the lovely DVD curriculum on Lewis narrated by Os Guinness called C.S. Lewis: Reluctant Disciple: Faith, Reason, and the Power of the Gospel  (Discovery House; regular price, $19.99) and the recently released annotated Wade Edition of The Pilgrim's Regress (Eerdmans; regularly $25.00.) Good Lewisian workdiscussing Mere Christianity DVD Metaxas.jpg continues to come out -- and we can't wait for the Devin Brown DVD study Discussing Mere Christianity [Zondervan; regularly $49.99] which has the very engaging Eric Metaxas as a host, to release later next month. (We've waited for decades for just such a resource, so when it arrives we will be almost incredulous.  Finally!  More on that, soon.)

Okay, I can't wait: here is a bit of how the publisher explains it:

Host Eric Metaxas and a variety of Christian leaders (e.g. N.T. Wright, Tim Keller, Lauren Winner, Devin Brown, Paul McCusker, Douglas Gresham) help us understand the timeless message of C.S. Lewis in fresh ways for a new generation.

The $49.99 DVD package comes with one Participant's Guide, by the way, and additional study books for each participant are available for $8.99.

We ARE taking PRE-ORDERS at our BookNotes 20% off.  Just let us know, by clicking on the "order" link below. Or keep an eye out here for more information next month. 

For now, though, you should know about these, which are also on sale.

The C.S. Lewis List- The Ten Books That Influenced Him jpgC.S. Lewis's List: The Ten Books That Influenced Him Most edited by David Werther and Susan Werther (Bloomsbury) $24.95  This fantastic, interesting, and learned book is the sort that makes me think "why didn't someone do this sooner?"  And, it makes me say, with a hint of pride, that we had a tiny role in this: the book compiles papers given at a conference - 10 scholars talking about the 10 books that influenced Lewis in 10 different lectures about said books - and we provided the books to sell at the event, held in Madison Wisconsin a few years ago.  What a thrill to display classic books such as Phantastes by Lewis's beloved George MacDonaldChesterton's The Everlasting Man, Virgil's The Aeneid or The Descent into Hell by Charles Williams.  There are other remarkable literary works and books that Lewis himself says influenced him, and each are discussed, from poems by Wordsworth and George Herbert to mystical writings by Rudolph Otto to the eloquence of Boswell's Johnson biography. And more.

At one point, about the time Lewis went to Cambridge, he was considered the mostly widely read man in the Western world.  Why not take his word for things, and read those that he found most impactful? As Wayne Martindale (author of Beyond the Shadowlands) writes, 

If Lewis has taken you on journeys of discovery, you will rejoice to know more about the books that carried his imagination to new horizons. The ten contributors to this collection are like experienced tour guides who show us what to look for when we arrive at these places so enrichingly traversed by Lewis. 

Contemporary authors who contribute to this volume include some very good names you should know. Chris Armstrong (who, by the way, directs "Opus: The Art of Work" at Wheaton College), Adam Barkman of Redeemer University College in Ontario, Don King of Montreat College (who has written on Lewis's poetry and has a forthcoming book on Joy Davidman), the energetic  classicist Louis Markos (of Houston Baptist University), Holly Ortway, Mary Ritter, Charles Taliaferro and others. The honor of crafting the foreword was given to David Downing from here in Central Pennsylvania.  Many deep thinkers and those who are well read will obviously love this.  I think for many of us, who frankly aren't very well schooled in the Western classics, this would be a nice way to be informed about some important books and how they have been understood, at least by Lewis.  Kudos one and all.

c s lewis- A Life.jpgC.S. Lewis: A Life -- Eccentric Genius. Reluctant Prophet Alister McGrath (Tyndale) $24.95   I have extolled the value of this remarkable, recent biography before but just had to give it another shout out here. It may be the definitive biography now and although it became known for some new insights about the dating of Lewis's own conversion, and some new light on a few other topics, it ought to be known not ony because it adds a small bit of new information but for how it so interestingly weaves together so very much. McGrath is ideal for writing this - a former atheist himself, one who has taught at Oxford himself, one who has done magisterial biographies already, almost as a hobby, he once told me.  Important, lively endorsements grace the back from Timothy Keller, N.T. Wright, Alan Jacobs, Lyle Dorsett, Michael Ward.  It is very highly recommended.

The Intellectual World of C.S. jpgThe Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis Alister McGrath (John Wiley/Blackwell) $32.95  This is only a somewhat smaller book than the previously mentioned, major biography, but it is weighty, mature, and exceptionally useful for understanding the man in light of his philosophical context and intellectual milieu. Some have gone so far as to say it "should be on everyone's reading list, whether that of the research scholar of general reader."  Michael Ward notes that it is "thoughtful and thought-provoking" and that "these essays help to set C.S. Lewis's writing in its broader context." There are topics and ideas explore here that it seems no one else has tackled and it may be that it is distinctive, unlike any previous study. I'm sure that some of this comes from Dr. McGrath's deep professional awareness of historical theology and his insights about the flow of ideas and what some call "social location" but I also suspect that some of it may have been material that just didn't fit into the flow of the already brimming biography. Consider it a heady companion volume.

If I Had Lunch with C.S. Lewis- Exploring the Ideas of C.S. Lewis on the Meaning of jpgIf I Had Lunch with C.S. Lewis: Exploring the Ideas of C.S. Lewis on the Meaning of Life Alister McGrath (Tyndale) $17.99 If the big hardback is McGrath's fabulous, meticulous biography, and the Blackwell paperback is a more academic study of Lewis's intellectual world, this is the one that showcases McGrath's vast knowledge of Lewis and which shares it in a creative, winsome, enjoyably storied way. What a fun idea -- imagining a series of lunchtime chats with Jack himself.  It isn't overly speculative, though, as McGrath so carefully draws on Lewis's work; it is playful in imagining a semester's worth of weekly meetings, supposing what it would be like to chat and learn from him, but it isn't exceedingly fanciful. Each week the lunch date covers certain specific topics --  among other things, the importance of stories, the art of apologetics, the nature of education, Lewis's views of hope and heaven, friendship, even a week all about Aslan. This hand-sized hardback is a true delight and you are sure to learn about Lewis, and from Lewis. It would make a nice gift, too, perhaps for a younger person who hasn't been adequately introduced to the charming gentleman from Belfast.

The Romantic Rationalist- God, Life, and Imagination in the World of C.S. jpgThe Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis edited by John Piper and David Mathis (Crossway) $17.99  In the class I mentioned, I drew fruitfully on a few of these great essays; I really appreciate the way these capture these two large themes in Lewis's life and work: imagination and reason. Some know Lewis as a storyteller and fantasy writer, a poet and author of books about friendship, love, suffering.  Most, though, I suspect, think of him as a scholar, a thinker, one schooled in rational argument, heady apologetics.  Could we have misjudged him (and, well, the entire project of the West, pitting head and heart, romance and reason, thinking and loving against one another?)

Piper notes that

Lewis came to Christ on the converging paths of romanticism and rationalism. And as a Christian, he became a master thinker and master (lover.) This is who he was, and this is what he knew. And so this is how he did his evangelism. He bent every romantic effort and every rational effort to help people see what he had seen - the glory of Jesus Christ, the goal of all his longings, and the solid ground of all his thoughts.

Besides the two compilers, there are very good chapters are by Philip Ryken, Douglas Wilson, Kevin Vanhoozer, Randy Alcorn.  Not all agree with Lewis on everything, by the way, so that's interesting, too.  And Randy Alcorn offers a bit of an examination of in an extra appendix about Lewis and heaven, wondering if his influences were truly Biblical, or more influenced by some kind of neo-Platonism.

CS Lewis and the Arts.jpgC.S. Lewis and the Arts: Creativity in the Shadowlands edited by Rod Miller (Square Halo Books) $18.99  This is another I've mentioned before -- I did a lengthy description when it first came out --  but think it deserves an extra word here. There is nothing like it in print, and it is very handsomely created.  There is an original Ned Bustard linograph ("Saint Jack") reproduced inside and a crisp typeface for the chapter titles and sub-headings. I really like the stuff Square Halo Books produces (as you may guess, since they did my own Serious Dreams, which does, in fact, cite C.S. Lewis more then once, but I digress.) More importantly, there are original essays here, thoughtful, interesting, important, even, for those who want to understand Dr. Lewis and for those interested in the arts and the creative life.  Some of these contributors are top-tier Lewisians (David Downing, Don King, Jerry Root, Peter Schakel) and the forward is by the important contemporary artist, retired recently from the excellent art department at Messiah College, Theodore Prescott. What a fine, fine book!  It should be better known among us and I'm happy to include it here in this list of relatively recent books about St. Jack.

plain to the inward eye.jpgPlain to the Inward Eye: Selected Essays on C.S. Lewis Don W. King (Abilene Christian University Press) $25.99 Another lesser-known book that deserves to be on the shelves of any Lewis fan, this remarkable collection gathers together a lifetime of critical thinking about Lewis and his concerns by one of the great Lewis men of our age.  Don King has been a professor of English at Montreat College since 1974 and, significantly, has edited the prestigious Christian Scholar's Review since 1999. He has contributed articles on Lewis's poetry to significant books about Lewis, even being drafted to contribute to certain enclopedia entries; further, he has authored several full books on Lewis and on Joy Davidman. But this collection of pieces is his best yet for general Lewis readers. 

Bruce Edwards writes that

Don King is a superb and engaging researcher and writer, and stands as the leading expert on either side of the Atlantic on the poetry of Lewis... He has a careful editorial eye... contextualizing intelligence... and is an exemplary Lewis scholar. 

There is spectacularly interesting stuff in Plain to the Inward Eye -- "Narnia and the Seven Deadly Sins", Lewis's poetry compared with others, reviews of important books about Lewis,  explorations of the core values Lewis gleaned from Dante, Chaucer, Yeats. There is a chapter comparing how Lewis wrote about the devil with how Milton did so. There is one on the erotic love poetry of Joy Davidman, another on Lewis' use of "the door" as a metaphor.  Wonderful, curious, informed, this is a great way to learn about Lewis, and useful for those who want to know more, and a must for aficionados. A great anthology by a very impressive critic.

Bedeviled- Lewis, Tolkien and the Shadow of Evil .jpgBedeviled: Lewis, Tolkien and the Shadow of Evil Colin Duriez (IVP) $17.00  For some, Colin Duriez is the most significant scholar of the Inklings and is known for being a commentator on the extended version film DVDs of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In this new book -- which I suspect will be widely discussed and significantly reviewed in all the right places - Duriez explores how the battle between good and evil (in the seen and unseen worlds) is understood by Lewis and Tolkien and how their views work their ways into their own writings. How did the Inklings respond to the great tragedies of their time? (Lewis, by the way, we should recall, by the way, saw horrific action in World World I and was seriously wounded in the front.) As it says on the back cover of this new paperback "In these pages we turn also to the way of goodness and the promise of a far country as we explore a the way out of the shadow of evil."

Listen to what Bruce Edwards (author of Not a Tame Lion) says:

Nobody knows more about the respective canons of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien or their collaborative friendship then Colin Duriez, and he puts his erudition to work in this new volume that explores and elucidates the shadow of evil in their respective literary work. Those looking for contemporary insights into the source and problem of evil need look no further than Bedeviled.

Or, hear Monika Hilder of Trinity Western University:

Duriez captures how Lewis and Tolkien meet darkness head-on and show blow-by-blow how technocracy, egotism, disillusionment and loss of faith (the world, the flesh, the devil) are overcome by the love of God. This important book celebrates strong hope over and against the dire forces of darkness that beset us. Together, Lewis, Tolkien and Duriez raise the victory flag with high courage, wisdom and joy.

Called- My Journey to C.S. Lewis's House and Back jpgCalled: My Journey to C.S. Lewis's House and Back Again Ryan Pemberton (Leafwood) $14.99  This is a fun and fabulous new book which is hard to explain. Well, maybe it isn't. It's about a young guy -- who tells us early on that he never imagined himself, not in a million years, studying theology, let alone in England, at Oxford. Long story short, this memoir is Pemberton's telling of his discerning his sense of a calling, his leaving a career in marketing, his tragi-comic roller coaster ride to Oxford.  One reviewer likened it a bit to Donald Miller of Blue Like Jazz fame, although perhaps they meant his Million Miles one. In prose that has been called "beautiful and heart wrenching" and "a breath of fresh air for the generations raised to equate divine calling with radical adventure" Pemberton tells his tale, even if it isn't a radical adventure.  For a few of us, though, this really is an amazing adventure, as Pemberton meets Walter Hooper, ends up working as a docent/tour guide at The Kilns, Lewis's world-famous and beloved homestead. Who gets to house-sit the Lewis home? Called to the Kilns? You've got to be kidding me!  I bet this will be a great read.



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May 10, 2015

Introducing a great new series: ORDINARY THEOLOGY edited by Gene Green -- four small volumes, each very good! ON SALE

The Cities of Tomorrow and the City to Come: A Theology of Urban Life Noah J. Toly

The Scalpel and the Cross: A Theology of Surgery Gene L. Green

The Political Disciples: A Theology of Public Life Vincent E. Bacote 

Faithful: A Theology of Sex Beth Felker Jones 

Serious Dreams cover.jpgOne of the themes of each of the speeches collected in my new book, Serious Dreams, is that God cares about all of life, and that we can discern a sense of holy vocation in our callings and careers.  We are to steward our vocations for the sake of the world. Any legitimate work can be an avenue to serve God and help the common good -- a Christian view of work is for the butcher, baker, and candlestick-the call.jpgmaker, we sometimes joke. Or, as Os Guinness puts it in his classic, must-read work The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life (Nelson; $17.99) God's redemptive work is for "everyone, everywhere, in everything."  I think it may have been Tom Sine who coined the phrase "whole life discipleship" and it is one the campus ministry CCO uses routinely.  It is no surprise that those who talk about Christ's saving work as "the restoration of creation" and the fruit of the gospel as not just the forgiveness of sinners, but as the flourishing of culture with a vision of "creation regained" would create a student conference such as Jubilee. 

jon tyson at jubilee.jpgTo get a great, great sense of this vision of faith, this perspective informed by a the whole story of God, watch this great talk by Jon Tyson from Jubilee 2015. I was simply thrilled, even moved to tears, as I rejoiced that so many young evangelical leaders and authors like Jon Tyson (from Trinity Grace in NYC and author of Rumors of God) is so clear about this stuff, and how these 3000 students at the conference in Pittsburgh were hearing this message of all of life redeemed and the deep meaning of human cultural involvement.  I do hope you can bookmark this and watch it, soon (and don't miss the ending where he talks specifically about the church!) This Jubilee talk is illustrative of the work of the CCO and is one of the reasons I dedicated my little book to CCO staff, for not just bringing students to Jubilee, but for teaching and modelling and helping students experience the shalom of God, leading them into Jubilee visions of vocation, year by year.

 As I say in the introduction to Serious Dreams (which you can read here)

We have to be life-long learners, deepening our insight and fidelity to our callings, our jobs, our places and relationships. Whether we are called to the high-power corporate world in a cool urbane setting or a less prestigious job in a small town, we have to do the work, learning day by day. These speeches will be good reminders of the bigger picture, even serving as provocative commissionings to see your life as part of the Biblical story of the all-of-life-redeemed Kingdom coming. All of these speeches invite you to fresh thinking and renewed commitments to joining God in your careers and callings...

But yet, the dualisms that separate faith from life, callings from careers, and that suggest a gulf between Sunday and Monday, between worship and work,  between faith and public life, still remain.  There is a gap between religion and life, prayer and politics, and it is pervasive.

Beth and I have had the joy of selling books at four very different sorts of religious education events the last two weeks, and have so appreciated the interest and support shown to us by conference organizers and participants. These kinds of off-site events are part of our work, and we value serving various sorts of Christians and setting up displays in diverse corners of God's Kingdom.  One thing that comes up every time we sells books, though, almost anywhere, is how perplexed people are that we carry "secular " books or that we display books on topics that at first blush are not overtly religious -- technology, art, schooling, science, globalism. Not that folks object -- most are delighted -- but even folks that seem to know us express a bit of surprise. Or they say things like "well, I can't have my church budget pay for that since it isn't religious" or "I'll buy this, but I can't tell my congregation that I'm reading it" or, even flatly, "I never expected to see that in a Christian bookstore."  Again, these comments aren't spoken as criticisms and they aren't usually about anything all that controversial. But people say things that betray their confusion about the scope of God's work, that all of life is being redeemed, that Christ is Lord of all zones of life, that the art of Christian reading includes reading about all of creation and culture. There remains a sense, even from otherwise progressive church staff or Biblically-informed leaders, that there is some divide between what is seen as religious reading and what is considered lesser or even secular topics. 

flow package.jpgnew heavens and new earth.jpgI was glad, therefore, that at one event recently we sold some of the delightful For the Life of the World DVD (Gorilla Productions; $25.00) that artfully illustrates a creation-wide vision of redemption and reminds us of our calling as exiles in this good but fallen world. 

And, I was glad for the chance to highlight Richard Middleton's exceptional, rich book of Biblical studies, A New Heaven and Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker Academic; $26.99.)  

It was good to highlight the exceptionally rigorous but important book by Jamie Smith How (Not) to Be Secular (Eerdmans; $16.00) about the heady Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor and his uber-important work The Secular Age and the road to character.jpghow not to be secular.jpgstunning, deeply rewarding new book by pundit David Brooks The Road to Character (Random House; $28.00) which combines perceptive cultural analysis and nifty reportage as well as hints of his own journey towards more explicit theological awareness.  I note that these two books by Smith and Brooks include astute observations about the texture of our times, and help people of faith understand our culture and embody faith in daily discipleship that makes sense.  Again, if God is redeeming all of life, and we are to take up our vocation to be Christ's agents of restoration and hope in the world, these sorts of books (that are certainly not pietistic or devotional in any conventional sense) are profoundly useful for Christian discipleship.

Serious Dreams cover.jpgMy own speech in my chapter in the Serious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life in fact, includes some reflections on a passage in 1 Chronicles that mentions "sons of Issachar."  I invite young women and men to have the same reputation as those whose legacy was to "understand the times and know what God's people should do." We really are invited to think about every sphere of life and to be willing to serve, to even suffer, for the sake of cultural flourishing.

Which brings me to four little books I am delighted to tell you about, that I fear may not be taken seriously in the religious book world, but certainly ought to be known among us. I want to kick up my heels in celebration, and praise God for this exact kind of work.  These brand new books are fantastic, short, profound, and very, very useful for this project of nurturing embodied daily discipleship, relating faith and various aspects of ordinary life. They are the first four in a set called the "Ordinary Discipleship Series" edited by Wheaton College theology professor Gene L. Green.  Kudos to those who cooked up the idea and to Zondervan for daring to publish these kinds of books that seem to cross the boundaries of scholarly theological studies and what some might call "Christian living" categories.  

(A little aside; I can't help myself:  John Ortberg's fantastic book on the spiritual disciplines, The Life You Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People  (Zondervan; $15.99) just came out, finally, in paperback. I mention it here because Ortberg, a Presbyterian pastor, writes how odd it is when people ask about your "spiritual life." He wonders what they even mean - what part of one's life isn't related to one's spiritual life, after all? He thinks it is better to just ask about one's life, not one's "spiritual" life.  This is in a book, remember, about spiritual disciplines, by an author who recently wrote a book about what he learned from Dallas Willard called Soul Keeping (Zondervan; $22.99.)  These are not written quite like Barbara Brown Taylor's exquisite An Altar in the World: The Geography of Faith (HarperOne; $14.99) but make a similar point. We experience God and work out the implications of our commitments to Christ in our human lives in the real world. Once we understand who God is and that we live in God's world, saved by grace through faith, we can find great insight about the nature of daily life. That's just the way it works, living as we do in the real world, sustained by Christ.  We desperately need a spirituality of the ordinary.  As Steve Garber reminds us in his chapter in my Serious Dreams volume, we live in a "covenantal cosmos."  So yes, cheers for John Ortberg's efforts to teach spirituality in a way that makes sense to ordinary people and for ordinary life, living in a burning bush world sustained by Christ Himself.)


Which brings us to this question of just how we related Christian thinking to various spheres of life, different aspects of our lived experiences.  Gene Green's "Ordinary Theology" series provides brief studies of four areas of life, and each one is fabulously interesting, quite helpful.  Each one starts with a story from the author's life and then offers Biblical and theological reflections which help inform or shape our understanding and involvement in the particular area of life being examined.  Much more can be said about each of these areas, of course, but for a primer (each is about 80 - 100 pages) each one takes us a long way into Christian perspective and how to integrate faith and thinking, for the sake of whole-life discipleship. 

Each one of these sells for $11.99.  We have them each on sale here at BookNotes for 20% off ($9.60) but will offer a bigger savings if you buy all four - just $8.00 each! 

I do recommend ordering all four at this extra discount, since you'll not only want to read them all, but you may want to share this one or that one, to different friends.

The Cities of Tomorrow and the City to Come- A Theology of Urban Life.jpgThe Cities of Tomorrow and the City to Come: A Theology of Urban Life Noah J. Toly (Zondervan) $11.99   This is a must-read for nearly all of us, I'd say (and I live in a small town!) Knowing about new urbanism, thinking about our spaces and built environment, and wondering how to be faithful as we consider the trends towards urbanization are urgent. This whole area (not just urban ministry, as urgent as that is, but what might be called urban sociology, thinking about design, planning and the like) is increasingly important and even church folks are starting to think about the role of things like zoning, or buying local, or how farmer's market's and art galleries enhance neighborhoods.  Missional churches are intentional about their locations and the nature of what makes towns flourish and the uniqueness of their own places.  This all can be very exciting stuff, and this book is fabulous  - what an example of all this we are talking about, relating faith to social location, being attentive to our environment, relating faith the public life.  I am perplexed why Toly (who is an experienced professor who guides undergrads in an urban living semester as they consider how to inhabit our spaces) doesn't cite the wonderful The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment  or even Sidewalks of the Kingdom both by Eric O. Jacobsen, which are very nice introductions to these themes as well.  Otherwise, Toly's bibliography is fabulous, his writing is passionate, and the opening story,  about a well-known urbanist who asked why he, as a scholar in this field, wanted to "think Christianly" since we wasn't, technically a theologian, is worth the price of the book.  He ends with a lovely prayer for the city from the Book of Common Prayer. This is very highly recommended and should be discussed in churches wanting to be intentional about their own mission to seek the peace of the city.

scalpel and the cross.jpgThe Scalpel and the Cross: A Theology of Surgery Gene L. Green (Zondervan) $11.99 Wow, what a book!  This is "lived theology" emerging directly from the authors own experience.  Geen is a Biblical scholar and professional theologian who, in fact, had to undergo serious heart surgery. Schooled as he is in the integration of theology and life, he searched in vain for a book on the theology of surgery. (There are hardly any good books for doctors, as such, on redemptive views of medicine, by the way, and I often advise docs to read the good body of literature on Christian views of nursing, at least.) Green's narrative about his emotional journey reflecting on his own faith and how it did or didn't equip him and his family for going under the knife, and his search for theological writings on the subject make for a riveting read. Am I weird for being on the edge of my seat as this scholar tells about the history of medicine, what story shaped the rise of surgery, and how he was researching all of this as not only a "theologian of the ordinary" but as a patient.  Again, more could be said, I'm sure, and the task for surgeons themselves to write Christianly about their work, is urgent. But, for now, this little volume is a significant contribution to Christian views of health care, medicine, and the art of doctoring, especially in serious matters of organ transplants, life-and-death procedures, and the complex matters of the economics of health care in a poverty-stricken world.  I would love to hear Green's view of the provocative book (co-written by a pediatrician and poet) called Reclaiming the Body: Christians and the Faithful use of Modern Medicine by Joel Schuman and Brian Volck (Brazos; $22.00.) Kudos to Dr. Green for putting together this whole series and for his own passion for relating Bible teaching and Christian theology to all of life.

political disciple- theology of public life.jpgThe Political Disciples: A Theology of Public Life Vincent E. Bacote (Zondervan) $11.99  Dr. Bacote is one of the great scholars of our time, a fun and upbeat African American professor who has written widely about Dutch statesman Abraham Kuyper, so is ideally suited for this broad conversation about political theology.  Bacote is not a political scientist, but, in keeping with this series, is adept at taking his theological training and relating it to the topic at hand: faith and public life.  The book is not on government, per se, or even citizenship, and he notes that we perhaps would benefit from a broader view of our civic responsibilities in the public realm.  Much of this book tells of Vince's own journey as an evangelical come to his own in the midst of the perplexing rise of the fundamentalist religious right; coming from an African American home, he leaned Democratic; as an evangelical reading Francis Schaeffer he became about being pro-life.  His early formation within evangelical circles warned him about social involvement and other "worldly" pursuits, but yet it was Falwell and Robertson who called people of evangelical faith into the public sphere in the 80s and 90s.  My, my, what an interesting, curious journey, one that mirrors the twists and turns taken by many of us, and which have been writ large in the American religious and political landscapes in our time. 

Dr. Bacote walks us through essential Biblical and theological teaching that could guide us towards a more robust, lasting, non-partisan and faithful public theology, helps us think about social change in more fruitful ways, and shares - with hints of Kuyper for those with ears to hear - how we might approach the pluralism of our culture, even around contentious issues like abortion and marriage equality.  He talks helpfully about the cultural mandate, about our responsibility and the joy of serving Christ's Lordship in civil life.  Much more could be said (and Vince himself has, for instance in his wonderful book called The Spirit In Public Theology: Appropriating the Legacy of Abraham Kuyper.)  He is the Director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College. 

Dr. Vincent Bacote will, by the way, be the 2015 speaker for the annual Hearts & Minds Summer Lecture in Pittsburgh this coming July.  More on that later.

faithful- a theology of sex.jpgFaithful: A Theology of Sex Beth Felker Jones (Zondervan) $11.99 (Zondervan) $11.99  Well, this is a topic about which there has been much written.  For all the dualisms that separate body and soul, Biblical faith and daily matters, Christians of all sorts of written widely about sex.  And there is a lot that is very, very good.  Yet, it would be a conspicuous if a series like this on "ordinary" life failed to address this essential aspect of our daily living.  What could be said, in just 100 pages?  Very, very much, as it ends up.  Again, the strength of this little series is that it is bringing theological experts into the conversations, allowing their expertise to inform the topics. Welker has a PhD from Duke and is an associate professor of theology and here sketches a theology of sexuality "that demonstrates that sex is not about legalistic morals with no basis in reality but rather about the God who is faithful to us."  By grounding gender and sexuality in the realities of God's own creative process in and intent for the world  --and the broad drama of the Biblical story, creation/fall/redemption - we can frame our understandings and navigate our difficulties in ways that are better than mere moralism.  "What if sex is about God and who God is and God's intentions for the good creation," she asks.  Jones is not the first to do this, but perhaps this short contribution is one of the best, insisting that sexuality is created good, distorted and fallen, but being redeemed and restored.  She is a rigorous scholar - the footnotes themselves are a fascinating survey of writers and thinkers throughout church history, as well as contemporary social critics who offer good nuggets of insight.  This reminds us of the very essence of this whole series of "ordinary theology" that there is deep significance of the body and the created realities in which we live out our faith.  



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May 7, 2015

I posted the Introduction to "Serious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life"

I hope this isn't annoying or redundant, but some folks only occasionally check in to the updates of the BookNotes blog at our website, but may not check the longer "columns" that I post from time to time.  I wanted to tell a few stories about how we cooked up the idea for my new book, share how we curated, selected, and edited them, and thank people involved -- mostly Ned Bustard of Square Halo Books and my wife and partner in this project, Beth.  It wasn't exactly a review of the book, which I had already done at BookNotes, but offered a bit about the writing process that I thought you might enjoy. So I did that as an extended column, posting it there, rather than as BookNotes blog post.

More importantly, I put the whole introduction to the book there as well.  With our compliments, you can enjoy that. 

Just click here to get over to the "columns" section of the website to see the Introduction to Serious Dreams.

Sorry if you already knew that; those who subscribe got it into their in-box already, but wanted to be sure that those just checking the BookNotes blog didn't miss those ruminations posted over there. And, better, the free copy of the introduction.

As I admit, I hope it gives you a flavor of the project and inspires you to get some of these and put them into the hands of adults you may know, and especially anyone graduating from college, grad school, seminary, or trade school this season.  May they follow God's dreams, learning to live well, do good, be true.

serious dreams copies fanned.jpg


Serious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life

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April 26, 2015

ANNOUNCING MY NEW BOOK: Serious Dreams, edited by Byron Borger - ON SALE Now


Serious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life (Square Halo Books)  $12.99

There are phrases that keep coming to mind, as I sit here, fingers poised over the keyboard, phrases that we all know that should guide decent conversation in the polite ways of appropriate humility.  One ought not "toot your own horn" or "pat yourself on the back", let alone "sing your own praises." 

I don't know quite how to get around this, though, as today, this is exactly my job.

Serious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life, the book that some of you have heard I've beenSerious Dreams cover.jpg working on this past year, was just released by the publisher this week. Obviously, we just had to tell you!

Given that it was pretty much my idea -- yep, it's my little baby -- and given that the publisher is a respected but small, indie press without a huge reach into the marketplace, and, given, too, that it was rushed to publication quickly, as I hoped, without much of a marketing plan, I guess it is evident that it is my job to let you know about it now.  

Did I say this really is my baby? That Beth and I have been significantly involved with Square Halo Books to get this thing out their doors? That I think it is pretty amazing, even if it sounds impolite for me to say so? I'm blushing a bit, but I'm so excited to tell you all about it.

If ever there was a time when our dear BookNotes readers and Hearts & Minds fan base needs to know about something (something that they most likely won't hear about anywhere else) this is it.  So forgive me as I review my own work.  It's a little weird, I know, but bear with me:  despite obvious bias and self-interest, I really do think you will want to know about this.  Dare I say you need to know about this?

And that we need your help in spreading the news about this book for young adults, recent college grads, especially, inspiring them to live well, taking up serious dreams of God's Kingdom coming.

Old_Main.jpgThe shortest version of the backstory is that I was given the great privilege of delivering the commencement address for the Graduate School and Adult Learners at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, last spring.  It was a thrilling event for Beth and me; associates there offered great support, the trustees awarded me an honorary doctorate,  and even some out of state friends arrived to help celebrate.  In that speech I talked a bit about the unique heritage of this Reformed Presbyterian college, its good legacy, their current conversations about the integration of faith and learning for the common good, and the future for recent grads, helping themByron at podium with flags.jpgByron at podium at Geneva.jpg imagine the complex tasks of stepping into their vocations in the world, for the life of the world. I preached on a few favorite passages, told a few stories, and cried out to God and the gathered community, hoping that these talented young adults would help advance Christ's Kingdom, especially in their various careers, jobs, workplaces.  It got a pretty good response, for which I was humbled and grateful. A number of people asked if I might print it up, and we considered briefly doing a little booklet to share with those who had wanted to read it. Borger getting a free doctorate was quite the news for a bit -- ha, ha - and we wanted to honor those who wanted to read my remarks.

calvincommencement.jpgA week or so later, I watched the commencement address at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, one delivered by then-Provost Dr. Claudia Beverslius, who built her marvelous speech around a beloved Wendell Berry poem, a funeral poem, actually.  Mr. Berry has visited their campus on more than one occasion and it was more than appropriate to use his work, it was genius.  With tears running down my cheeks in front of the live streaming video on Beth's computer, I commented that that was a speech that deserved to be widely read.

And so I set out to find other friends of mine or authors I respected who had given graduation speeches for evangelical Christian colleges, speeches I could acquire easily, that had not been published in a book before, and that cohered around a common theme - taking up what Steve Garber calls "visions of vocation" and living out the implications of the gospel of the Kingdom in all of life, for the life of the world.  Not a few speeches these days use the language of calling, finding purpose and meaning, making a difference, but I did not want any that were merely inspirational, without Biblical substance to inform the meaning of these grand rhetorical calls, and I wanted reflections that did not overstate the call to be radical, as if we are all called only to be revolutionaries changing the world, with unrealistic bluster. I wanted balance, substance, and talks that were beautifully crafted, well done, words that would last, bread for the journey as young adults make their way into the marketplace.

They didn't need to be in the same theological tradition, exactly, but I wanted them to hold together, offering a certain sort of worldview and embodied practices, in the world, but not of it, for the sake of God's glory and our neighbors good. And I found some great ones.

Serious Dreams Facebook Timeline banner.jpgSerious Dreams: Big Ideas... includes seven great messages and they all translate well from the spoken word format to the printed page. (I will write a bit about the adventure of editing these manuscripts, and why we left most of the talks mostly unedited, soon.) I think this small. compact sized book is not only a great gift for a graduating college young adult, but for anyone wanting to be reminded of the big picture of our call to follow Christ in all areas  of life, living missionally for the reign of God, even in our work and careers.

I begin the book with a long, opening introduction that, we think, helps frame the ideas of the speeches.  I admit that I like the breathy rhetoric of these upbeat messages, designed to inspire young professionals to enter the worlds of work and see their future destinations as venues for the redeeming work of God. I like the approach expressed in some of them, how our own life stories make most sense in light of God's redemptive Story.  My own speech in the book is pretty breathy and earnest about such things, maybe a bit fiery, even.  But much of my introduction is a gentle reminder not to take these motivational sermons to mean that we have to "go far" or "make something of ourselves" as "world changers" or that we have to do big things to "transform the culture."  No -- we can start small, live locally, be faithful even in baby steps as we live into this story, gain a sense of place, learn our craft, earn the right to be heard. 

Serious Dreams cover.jpgIn that introductory chapter, I mention authors like Wendell Berry and Eugene Peterson who remind us to find God in the down-to-Earth and mundane, even the rural and seemingly insignificant. Granted, some may be called to pretty glitzy careers in high-rise offices exploring remarkable careers, but most of us are not. I cite books like Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove's The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture.  Although most of the speakers do suggest it,  I wanted to be clear: young adults transitioning out of college need both a big, transforming vision and a whole lot of patience; we need to be eager to make a difference in the culture, yes, but we also need good friends, a faithful church, good art, healthy food, helpful stores, enriching hobbies, maybe a bookseller friend or two, living slowly into what I explain as "common graces for the common good." It is good to be involved in normal life, establishing sacred rhythms and living well, in ways that are not particularly extraordinary.  

I do not want to scare you away, but I also say in this framing introduction that we must also be prepared to suffer. I mention Henri Nouwen's good phrase, saying we can be "wounded healers" and tell an Anne Lamotte story about hard times.  I note that Nicholas Wolterstorff's spectacular speech is about having "two eyes" - one to see what needs to be done, a technical eye for skills and competence and excellence, and the other with which to shed tears.  I think this is liberating, good stuff, and it helps readers realize that although most of these speeches are motivational and encouraging, we do have to be prepared for the hardships of this life.  I say it better in the book, but wanted you to know some of the themes of my opening chapter.  It is called "Live Well, Do Good, Be True."

rich mouw.jpgRichard Mouw's is the first real chapter. He a master of the short speech (in fact, he has a book of very short speeches published by Eerdmans that he compiled during his years at President of Fuller Theological Seminary, called Praying at Burger King. It's great!) This commencement address, entitled "What It's All About" was given last year near us here at Messiah College. It is a bit longer than those short ones, but it is concise and powerful.  He starts with a splendid joke, talks about the significance of having been a collegiate learner, and reminds these soon-to-be-graduates of the importance of uniquely Christian scholarship, encouraging them to keep their minds sharp, and too look for ways to honor Christ even in the life of the mind.  He tells a few moving stories about the clarity we need about the first things of the gospel, about the courage that is needed to live out faith in our complicated world. He ends with a rousing Bible reading; it is an inspiring ending of a very good chapter. I must say it is a real honor to have Rich in this little book; he is one of our favorite writers and thinkers these days and it's a great lead chapter. His latest book, by the way, is a lovely little volume about some of these same themes and is entitled Called to the Life of the Mind.

nick wolterstorff.jpgMouw's old friend, himself a renowned political philosopher and renowned scholar, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Professor Emeritus at Yale, has one of the most brilliantly conceived pieces in the book. Nick explains as a philosopher can, the nuances of what good Christian thinking entails, and he, like Mouw, extols the good learning skills acquired in (Christian) higher education, reminding the young adults to continue to think well,  calling them to challenge the ways things are, probing the deeper meaning of things they encounter, even in their future workplaces and institutions.  But the heart of his talk comes from story about an obstetrician who once advised health care providers among those who experience the death of a newborn to have "two eyes - one to watch the IV, the other to weep with the bereaved parents."  And from there, Wolterstorff asks what it would mean for businesspeople or teachers or lawyers or engineers or workers in any career to have two eyes, seeing competence and compassion, skill-sets and excellence as well as the ability to weep with those who weep.  In fact, he suggested, if one is attuned to the suffering in any given arena of life, it is more likely that one will want to use her skills to bring reform and change in their profession so that those who are hurting might see justice. (And, conversely, even if a young professional is truly skilled, without the eye that sheds tears, she may not realize what might be wrong in the place she works, and her skill becomes mere technical competence, not Christian service.)  Over and over, the famed professor shows that we need two eyes. That is, he explains with great clarity and beautifully crisp sentences why we need "head and heart" - two eyes.  It is an amazing speech and well worth pondering, even worth the price of the book for us all.

amy sherman.jpgThe third chapter is another brilliant contribution, a concise and clear sermon on one passage of the Bible that will open up new vistas of understanding, create hope and energy for seeing one's life and work as a ministry for the common good, in the public square.  Dr. Amy Sherman delivered this talk called "Rejoicing Your Community" (inspired by Proverbs 11:10) at Malone University in Ohio, and, again, I would be glad to give this speech to anyone wanting to deepen their understanding of what we mean by stewarding one's career in ways that serve others.  Few have thought very explicitly about this, let alone heard akingdom calling.gif whole talk about it, but the text which Dr. Sherman explores says that the whole city will rejoice when "the righteous prosper." Rather than producing resentment (which would be understandable, the have-nots frustrated with the haves, so to speak) those who perhaps are not prospering will be gladly rejoicing if God's righteous ones are successful in ways that cause the healthy flourishing for all. That is, the city rejoices because, precisely, the tsaddiqim are not in it for themselves.  Their prosperity apparently is a blessing to others, and develops because of, and is bound up with, the good of the city in which they live.  

Her examples and questions about how to leverage one's professional skills and passions for the common good is exactly the kind of speech (she lifts up as examples a few Malone alum who are doing good work) I wanted to find for this little volume, and we are glad Amy graced us with her good manuscript. For those wanting a fuller explication of this good idea, do see her significant Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (InterVarsity Press.)

claudia.jpgThe next chapter is the one I have mentioned by Dr. Claudia Berversluis, the one that draws on a poem by Wendell Berry, "The Memory in the Seed."  Not only does she artfully use his insight about the relationship of the past to the future -  seeds have been planted in the stuff learned at college, in the reading and learning in the classroom and in other places and ways, too - and they will be paid forward into the future.  Perhaps it is because I have a daughter at Calvin College, and have very dear friends who work there, but this wonderful talk was the one that inspired me to do this book, and it is a very, very, good address.  I have read it a dozen times, now, and do not tire of its inspiration, feeling her care for the graduating students and her hopeful confidence in the scope and broad vision of God's Kingdom coming, even in hard times. I commend it to you, I really do.

visions of vocation.jpggarber in front of church.jpgI perhaps don't need to say too much about the fifth chapter other than to say it is an elegant rendering by Steve Garber, a dear friend and respected leader, especially on issues of the relationship of faith and work. Again, when I felt led to do this project, I knew I would insist on having his work represented; a book like this just had to have him in it, and we are grateful for his eager support.  You may know his good efforts through his Washington Institute on Faith, Vocation and Culture. Perhaps you will recall his extraordinary book about living in the post-college years,  Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior, which was a much-discussed book a few years back, and still very, very worth of your attention. I hope you know his newer, award- winning book Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good. In this talk - which was delivered  last year to the graduating class of seminarians at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri - Steve explores the notion that covenant could be an essential insight to understanding the nature of the world God has made, which he calls, sounding almost  like Francis Schaeffer, a "covenantal cosmos."  Garber brings Wendell Berry into the conversation, mentions his own work consulting with large corporations and nonprofit ministries to help explore the way a covenantal understanding of knowing the world could bring healing and hope and hints of reformation in these troubled times.  By using words like mutuality and responsibility, Steve models an allusive and profound language, and invites his listeners to learn how to speak about solid Biblical truths in ways that that unchurched and unfamiliar might understand and be drawn towards.

byron in front of bookshelf.jpgMy chapter -- Byron K. Borger of Hearts & Minds, for the record -- follows Steve's and if his is the most profound in the book, mine is perhaps the liveliest.  As I will explain elsewhere, it was tricky cutting a bit out that perhaps worked in the live setting, but seemed less compelling as read on the printed page.  In the original speech I made a number of comments about the college itself, and a former teacher there (Dr. Peter J. Steen) and I took some of those lines out, trimming the wordy text down to a more manageable contribution. (Mine is still the longest in the book -- "two speeches for the price of one" one wit quipped. Imagine!) I suppose you know I can get a bit flamboyant at times, and I hope the passion in this talk shines through. Even if I countered it a bit with the calm reminders in the introduction to live small and local, I do share some pretty big ideas in this bold chapter.  

I wear my heart on my sleeve, there, friends, and I hope you enjoy hearing me share this visionary stuff that I believe with all my being.  My message is called "Three Cheers for Sons and Daughters of Issachar" which alludes to the reputation of the group mentioned in 1 Chronicles 12:32 - who "understood the times and knew what God's people should do."  Oh, if we had more sons and daughters of Issachar, who read the world and read the Word with faithful clarity and big-hearted passion, becoming wise leaders for change, ambassadors of the Kingdom coming, life-long learners willing to critique the culture and offer winsome solutions. Maybe this chapter will stimulate someone some-where to live more robustly for Christ's ways, prepared even to suffer for His sake, like Issacharians.  I'd be eager to hear what you think.

johnperkins.jpgThe last commencement speech in the book was given by the famous civil rights leader Dr. John M. Perkins, who preached up a storm at Seattle Pacific University's graduation ceremony a few years ago.  We really wanted to have Dr. Perkins included as he has been a real hero to many of us, and we have crossed paths many a time over the years, most notably at the big Jubilee conference in Pittsburgh. Many of the students affiliated with the CCO who attend Jubilee may know him, and those that do not, certainly should.  He is a prolific author and vibrant leader for evangelical faith that is deeply committed to racial reconciliation, social justice, and leadership development, especially among those who are hurting and marginalized. Perkins and his ministry offers a model of radical, prophetic welcoming justice.jpgimagination and gospel-centered, evangelical faith. 

This wholistic, but evangelical piety comes out nicely in his speech here, inviting us all to be on "three roads" with Jesus.  He tells about the Damascus Road (where Paul was transformed by a saving relationship with Christ), the Emmaus Road (where one walks with Christ, nurturing a spiritual friendship with Him, learning of His ways in the Scriptures) and the Jericho Road - the road of service.   Of course, he naturally goes into this "three rs" as well, as a strategy for effective change on that Jericho Road, but the heart of this passionate call to action is based on these three roads.  It seemed like a lively enough speech to put at the end of Serious Dreams and it reads well, as a good sermon in the black tradition should.

erica y r.jpgErica Young Reitz offers a great afterward, an epilogue, really, and it is an integral part of the book. Erica is one of the best campus ministers I know, working for the CCO through a church in State College, PA (home of Penn State.) Year after year she has paid special attention to her young friends who were college seniors, walking with them through that year of transition, and then doing some teaching and services around the post-college experience. (She has done a workshop on this at the Jubilee conference, too, for seniors, to great acclaim.)  Erica has a book coming out next year, tentatively titled Life After College  (on InterVarsity Press) which tells of her work and offers practical guidance for Christian discipleship in the post-college years, so it is fantastic to have her included here. (The only other book like this, by the way, which we heartily recommend, is by Richard Lamb, called Following Jesus in the "Real World.")  Erica's Young Reitz's words at the end of this book gives it a bit more of a practical feel, offering clear guidance that is down to earth and helpful.  I trust, also, that it will whet your appetite for her full book when it releases perhaps a year from now.

So, there it is, my description of the book I compiled and edited and now get to sell, before anywhere else. 

I hope you realize that as odd as it is to be tooting my own horn, I am so, so eager to get this little volume launched into the world.  We think it is so inspiring, and the authors each of such quality, that you may just want to have it, even if you graduated from college years ago, or perhaps never went to college. The talks are highly motivational, yet, well, serious; the insights, although concise and accessible, are really pretty profound -- not the kind of stuff you hear every day. These are learned and smart folks, so the writing is good.  As I describe below, it is a handsome, compact volume, with some very nice touches (including a brief reflective question or two at the end of each chapter to help readers process the content.)  I'd be grateful and honored if you picked it up from us.

Even if you do want one for yourself -- and I hope you do -- please do think of this as a great gift for any young adults who have graduated in recent years. 

Although these fine speeches were given at Christian colleges the primary intended audience includes anyone who has recently graduated from any kind of school who may appreciate the encouragement and guidance.  Perhaps you'd be so kind as to suggest that your church buy a batch so they can honor their college graduates, inviting them to dream Serious Dreams.

serious dreams copies fanned.jpg 


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April 23, 2015

NEW BOOKS, Helping Us Move to Maturity -- on sale 20% OFF

I hope you enjoyed the review I did last week of the latest memoir of the feisty and increasingly skilled writer, Rachel Held Evans. Searching for Sunday told of her frustrations with her experiences of conservative evangelical faith and her embrace of a more sacramental, open-minded sort of mainline denominational church experience. Our bookstore searching for sunday.jpghas always worked hard at showing books from various viewpoints and theological traditions, and while there seems to be an abundance these days of well-written memoirs and theological reformulations that tend to move away from historic orthodox views, there are - it is helpful to know - many who are moving (shall we say) the other way, too. (None that are as beautifully written as Rachel's though, or as dynamically passionate as Pastrix by Nadia Bolz Weber, say.)

There is an exodus from some mainline denominational churches which are often fuzzy about historic creeds and many of these disillusioned, hurting pilgrims are finding homes in more conventional, traditionalist churches, evangelical, Catholic or Orthodox. (Frederica Mathewes-Green, who has a brand new introduction to Orthodoxy, by the way, is a stellar writer from a decade or more ago who wrote Facing East, a memoir of becoming Orthodox which is beautifully rendered, and a very compelling faith journey; Rosaria Butterfield wrote seriously of her conversion to conservative Reformed faith after years as a postmodern literary critic, religious skeptic, and lesbian, in her memoir The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert.  Thomas Oden's big autobiography, A Change of Heart, about which I have exclaimed before, although not lyrical or elegantly composed, is a brilliant story of a leading theological liberal who discerned a fatal trajectory in his life and work and returned to ancient, multi-cultural sources, becoming in the process an expert in ancient North African Christianity and thoughtful evangelical pressing the church towards clarity about the first things of the gospel.)

Anyway, I resonated with much of Rachel's very contemporary, fabulously-written and tender book, and commend it. If you know of anyone who, like she, has gone through religious disillusionment and needs to find an orientation to faith that is less harshly dogmatic and more gracious, her story of refusing to give up on church will be an aid. If you are evangelical and concerned about those drawn to other sorts of faith experiences, I think it is a good window into the journey of many these days and will be an interesting read.  Here is another review that I thought was helpful on this very matter written wonderfully by Katelyn Beaty of Christianity Today.

So, on we go; we keep reading, keep learning, enjoying books and finding good conversations around the creative sentences and poignant pages found in these blocks of paper and print. I have often said that it is wise to work through classic works and maybe even some dry tomes, but I do hope you find pleasure in your learning, reading stuff that is enjoyable, stimulating, good to hold in your hands and hearts. Books matter, and reading a lot is a good thing. It is a joy to serve you by alerting you to books and titles, authors and ideas.

Here are some new ones that I won't take time to describe in detail. Almost without me realizing it at first, these are mostly all about deepening faith, maturing, being wiser and better informed, able to take up Christians ways of being in the world. I hope you notice the ecumenical diversity - we sure do stock books from a variety of publishers!  Maybe something here will strike you enough to order it from us.  We'd be grateful.

pray like a goumet.jpgPray Like a Gourmet: Creative Ways to Feed Your Soul David Brazzeal (Paraclete) $18.99  Brazzeal lies in France ("where he enjoys warm baguettes from the boulangerie and fresh cheese from the marche.) I gather he's a character -the back cover says "whether writing poetry, creating guerrilla labyrinths, or electro-meditative music, his work is inspired by the organic fusion that exists between the spiritual and the creative." Here, he offers bunches of ways to "pray like a gourmet" by drawing on all things foodie, imagining prayer like a find French meal, a flow of courses, one as good as the next, creative recipes, infusing all your senses, enticing you to return for more. 

One fantastic endorsement is from Graham Kerr, of the old Galloping Gourmet TV show - he is now a strong Christian! - which would make you want to read it immediately. The widely read and ever gracious Phyllis Tickle says it is the "gentlest, most readable, kindest guide to prayer one could ever hope to explore."  I love how she puts it: "Reading through its storied pages, one goes from "'I never thought of that' to 'I could do that' to 'I want to do that' and back again."  Now that is a nice endorsement for a book on prayer, isn't it? And, there's all that fun French food stuff.  Done in lovely full color art it is delightfully designed, offers creative insight and is a grand book, another in the "Active Prayer Series" published by this ecumenical, contemplative publisher. Beautiful, intriguing, wondrous.

FindingLivelihood-ag4-330.jpgFinding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure  Nancy J. Nodrenson (Kalos Press) $14.95  Kalos Press is known for being a classy, literary house that does thoughtful and beautifully crafted books of essays and memoirs. (God In The Sink: Essays from Toad Hall by our friend Margie Haack was their last release, one of our "Best of 2014" award-winners.) This brand new book is nothing short of spectacular, and I will surely review it more thoroughly, soon. I believe it is fair to say that Nancy Nordenson is a writer to watch and that this book should be considered a major, significant work. She has written in places as diverse as the Harvard Divinity Bulletin and Comment magazine.

This lovely book is about a lot of things, but mostly, about a spirituality of work.  It takes the "faith and work" conversation in new directions, drilling deeper, offering ruminations on the nature of good work, on measuring our significance, or discerning God's call.  I'll write more later, but it is extraordinary and I highly recommend it.

Here is what it says on the back cover: "At once a shrewd challenge of Buechner's assertion that "the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet" and also a lyrical journey to the place where labor and love meet, Finding Livelihood explores the tensions between the planned life and the given, between desire and need, between aspirations and limits."  Oh my, isn't that beautiful and intriguing and good? Don't you long for good writing and mature thinking like this? You will be hearing more about this, for sure.

jesus outside the lines.jpgJesus Outside the Lines: A Way Forward for Those Who Are Tired of Taking Sides  Scott Sauls (Tyndale) $15.99  Perhaps the largest theme in the new book by Rachel Held Evans, that I reviewed last time, is her frustration with those who bring culture wars approaches from the so-called religious right to evangelical faith. She, and many of her fellow-travelers, have tired of that approach, and for good reason. Yet, some think, I suppose, that many progressives -- writing with such passion about what is wrong with fundamentalism -- themselves damage the church by fueling the fires of dissension. Are the religious progressives just the flip side of religious fundamentalists?  I don't know quite what to think myself, since I have such allies on various places in the Body of Christ, and have worked for reform myself, sometimes with a bit too much self-righteous zeal. I tired of it all, a long for healing and hope. Or at least civility... 

Scott Sauls brings a voice of relief, a rare view, indeed. That there is a foreword by Gabe Lyons isn't surprising -- Gabe has long made a case for a generous but robust evangelicalism that engages the culture without ideology or anger. Tim Keller offers a front-cover blurb, calling it "a refreshing look at discipleship in our late modern times."  That Keller observes the cultural location -- "late modern" times -- is not insignificant, of course, and is a clue that this book carries a degree of social sophistication. I think it is a very good book.

Yet, what Sauls offers is pretty basic: the gospel of God's grace, an invitation to color outside the lines a bit, redemptively.  For those on either side who are weary of "us vs them" we need not be polarized but can find truth and beauty, grace and goodness, by more closing following the patterns of Jesus Himself.  This book will not erase differences, or even animosities, I'm afraid. But it might offer us a way forward -- away from harshness, caricatures, and stereotypes, if only it is read and taken to heart. I know I need to be reminded of this call to civility and Christian charity, and I suspect you might too. Sauls serves as the senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, but previously served as a lead and preaching pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan.  My friend Bethany Jenkins (director of the Gospel Coalition's "Every Square Inch" project writes,

The "conform or else" mentality of our late modern culture is disheartening, lamentable, and transgressive to human flourishing. Yet the root of the problem isn't "out there" in our culture, but "in here" in our hearts. In Jesus Outside the Lines, Scott Sauls is authentic and vulnerable as he wisely and gently reminds us of our brokenness and shows us how the power and beauty of the gospel can heal us, from the inside out.

Listen to the eloquent reminder from Steve Garber,

Scott Sauls invites everyone everywhere into an honest conversation about the things that matter most -- and therefore at the same time are the most tender and contentious for us. But he does so as a friend... agreeing to disagree where we must, but with love and respect, with listening and friendship. In our polarizing world, where the more we know about each other means the less we care for each other, Scott's vision is a gift for those who care about the common good.

from here to maturity.jpgFrom Here to Maturity: Overcoming the Juvenilization of American Christianity Thomas Bergler (Eerdmans) $20.00  I displayed a big stack of these at two different gatherings of church leaders, recently, and nobody bought any, which discourage me more than I can say.  I suppose the subtitle is perplexing to some, and maybe they thought - if they had heard of it at all - that it was mostly about youth ministry, as was his first one, The Juvenilization of American Christianity. That book is one which you should know about, as it won a number of awards last year, and got rave reviews in both Christian Century and Christianity Today.  That  first book argued that the historical rise of the specialty of youth ministry in the latter half of the twentieth century (for all its value) created new norms, customs, expectations, within American Christianity (mostly Protestantism) that were, well, juvenile. It is a dense and sophisticated diagnosis, and its acclaim was well deserved.

This new book, From Here to Maturity... is equally serious, but is Bergler's guide to help both individuals and church groups to move on from juvenilization, to grow spiritually, and grow towards spiritual maturity. This book explains what maturity is, why it is desirable and attainable, and how to reach it. Of course, maturity happens in community, and the ethos of our church or parachurch may or may not be congenial toward members growing up in the Lord.  Some of this is based on research done in real congregations, by the way, and he has helpful appendices listing questions used in observing congregational cultures, and some observed characteristics of youth ministries that build maturity.  Church leaders: you should know this stuff, and I am sure From Here to Maturity will help remind you of your own high calling and the best practices to ponder and enact.

godly play volume 8.jpggodly play all eight.jpgThe Complete Guide to Godly Play Volume 8 Jerome W. Berryman (Living the Good News) $29.95  We have sold these unique resources since they first came out, and while this "Montessori" approach to Christian education is beloved by those who use it, it takes a serious and spiritually profound commitment to trust the Spirit's leading in drawing children to the Biblical text and playfully/prayerfully allowing them to imagine its meaning. You may know that the various books cover various seasons, or themes; this new one includes 15 new presentations. The back cover tells us "it also includes a wealth of capstone insights gleaned from decades of research and practice, as well as an appendix summarizing the foundational literature and describing the entirety of the Godly Play spiral curriculum as it exits today."

As one reviewer notes, "Forty years of Jerome Berryman's thought and wisdom are reflected in this long-awaited Volume 8, the capstone..."  It certainly fills in some gaps, offers some helpful introductions, and, we believe, will deepen learners of any age in their relationship with Jesus.  We carry the other books by Berryman, and some new narrative booklets to be used with Godly Play storytelling.

Becoming the Gospel.jpgBecoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission Michael J. Gorman (Eerdmans) $28.00 I don't often write about heavy theology texts or mature works of Biblical studies. I'm not particularly qualified for these deep waters, but I do know that - see above! - we must deepen our maturity as we grapple with God's Word and form communities of faith in the way of following Jesus.  Occasionally, a book of Biblical studies arises that even if it is seriously written, deserves to be widely known, widely read, and should be well considered.  Becoming the Gospel is that kind of book.  I'll admit, gladly, that Mike is a friend, and a customer here, and that I have heard him lecture on this very topic.  Dr. Gorman has several other books - some rather academic, on Paul (Apostle of the Crucified Lord, Cruciformity and Inhabiting the Cruciform God which are in many ways companions to this new work), a lovely book called Reading Revelation Responsibility and a recent one offering a "(not so) new" model of the atonement, The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant. Among other things, Mike holds the Raymond E. Brown Chair in Biblical Studies and Theology at St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore, MD. 

One can learn a lot by noting who authors acknowledge and thank. When one thanks Tom Wright, Beverly Gavanta, Michael Barram, and Richard Hays (among others) for reading parts of the manuscript and offering feedback, well, you realize you are in the top ranks of New Testament work. One reviewer says "Gorman has written another superb and groundbreaking study."  Another calls him "one of the leading Pauline scholars of our age."  Maybe the best way to express how important this new volume is, and the acclaim it is already receiving, is to cite this endorsements from the back cover by Dean Flemming:

This book is a tour de force in missional hermeneutics. With clear exegesis and fresh theological insights, Gorman uncovers Paul's rich and comprehensive understanding of the mission of God. The book's central thesis, that Paul expected all Christians not only to believe the gospel, but to become the gospel, and thus to further the gospel, is completely convincing. Yet this study also packs a powerful contemporary message, challenging Christian communities to hear Paul's invitation to become the gospel, in word and deed, where they live.

The God We Worship- An Exploration of Liturgical Theology.jpgThe God We Worship: An Exploration of Liturgical Theology Nicholas Wolterstorff (Eerdmans) $20.00  Speaking of reading widely and deeply, and growing into creative, but orthodox, lively but sensible, whole-life, culturally-engaged discipleship, there is hardly a better person to give us philosophical foundations for our deepest Christian convictions than the estimable scholar Nicholas Wolterstorff.  He is the Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale University and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. (And, he has a chapter in the book I edited, to be announced soon, called Serious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life, maybe the most popular-level book Nick has ever found himself in!)

This new book, which I am working through carefully myself, were first given as the esteemed Kantzer Lectures in Revealed Theology, which are essentially evangelical equivalent of the prestigious Gifford Lectures (established in 1885 in Scotland, and still delivered and published annually. Wolterstorff has a book of those lectures, as well.) The first chapter here is introductory, "The Project: Liturgical Theology" and Wolterstorff brings his thoughtful eye to what we even mean by this phrase. This quickly alerts us that this is not a simple book of zippy steps for better - whatever that may mean - worship services. Nor is it a book about why we should conjure up more passion for an awesome God, although, I suppose I should say that the author certainly would think we need "better worship" and greater passion for God's attributes. But this book is deeper then that, and, consequently, surely more lasting.

Cornelius Plantinga notes that Wolterstorff "writes on Christian worship with enormous expertise...This book is a flood of light. It has all of the Wolterstorff marks, including brilliant clarity and powerful illumination of the subject."

Other back cover blurbs come from the esteemed classical and church musician Jeremy Begbie (who, like Nick, has written widely on aesthetics) and John D. Witvliet, of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.  Witvliet says it is "a rare kind of book that can simultaneously challenge common assumptions about theological method, make bold theological claims about the character of God, correct readings of significant theologians in the history of the church, and inspire deeper liturgical spirituality of wonder, expectation, and hope."  Wow.

There are many lectures of Dr. Wolterstorff on line: here is his first lecture from the Kantzer Lectures which should inspire you to get this book!  It's about an hour, well-spent.

backpacking with the saints.jpgBackpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as a Spiritual Practice Belden Lane (Oxford University Press) $24.95  Oh my, my outdoor experiential education friends, this is one of the ones we've been waiting for. We still need more really good, theologically sound books on "finding God in nature" and on the spirituality of the great outdoors. Those who read in this field know that Lane has himself been nearly a patron saint, with his excellent and lyrical Solace of Fierce Landscapes and another on geography and land metaphors in American spiritual formation, Landscapes of the Sacred. He has another heady one that we've really appreciated, Ravished By Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality.

I mostly want to rave about this great book, too, which, like Solace of Fierce Landscapes, is part travel narrative and part spiritual memoir and part theology of hiking. You should know that although each chapter looks great - I won't read it until I get to sit outside, later in the season, maybe on a pile of rocks down by the Susquehanna River, if I'm lucky -- but it is structured around his engagement with others who have written about faith and the outdoors; they are not all Christians, let alone Biblically-sound spiritual guides. Yet, as you surely know, we can learn much even from the misguided and odd balls (maybe we can learn especially from them!) There are chapters here on classic people from the heart of the Christian tradition such as Therese of Liseux, Thomas Traherne and Martin Luther, but there are also chapters on Gandhi and Rumi and Teilhard de Chardin. It may be jarring for some to read about the Anglican verse of the British Thomas Traherne in one chapter and the Buddhism of Thich Nhat Hanh and the eclectic Lutheran mysticism of statesman Dag Hammarskjold in the same book, but there you go: Lane is a wild man in more ways than one. In fact, the first two chapters are under a unit called "The Power of Wilderness and the Reading of Dangerous Texts."

What looks particularly interesting about Backpacking with the Saints is how Lane tells about each particular author while climbing or hiking in one specific place, with chapters grouped around different legs of the journey. (In this regard, it reminded me of the classic Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster with his grouping of "Inward Disciplines" "Upward Disciplines" and "Corporate Disciplines."  Foster is himself a hiker, by the way, and wrote a book with his son Nathan about climbing the fourteeners in Colorado, so here's hoping somebody gets Richard to review this book!)

With Lane's complex but clearly organized format we get cool chapters such as "Venturing Out: The Irish Wilderness and Columba of Iona" or "Solitude: Bell Mountain Wilderness and Soren Kierkegaard" or "Failure: Mt. Whitney and Martin Luther." The last chapters, by the way, are in the "fourth leg" of the journey, a grouping of entries on "returning home with gifts." I can't wait to get to the last chapter, "Holy Folly: Aravaipa Canyon and Thomas Merton."  This may not be your cup of tea, but if it is, you are going to love it!

road to character.jpgThe Road to Character David Brooks (Random House) $28.00 I simply don't understand the lurid animosity on the left against Mr. Brooks, and the nasty stuff written about him on blogs comments is inexplicable. He is, I am aware, a moderate conservative, and the tea party right thinks he is soft while the left increasingly is strident even about moderates.  Maybe it is a case in point about the urgent need of this extraordinary book, in fact: we are a nation full of folks who are deeply flawed, and as we grapple with this we could become more noble people.  I think Brooks is a clear and interesting writer, even though he is quite thoughtful and a bit sophisticated.  His two books about the sociology of place and class -- Bobos in Paradise and On Paradise Drive are among my all-time favorite reads, and the best-selling The Social Animal is very, very important, especially for any of us who care about the workings of the unconscious mind, our interior lives, and how people change.  As the San Francisco Chronicle put it, "Brooks's considerable achievement comes in his ability to elevate the unseen aspects of private experience into a vigorous and challenging conversation about what we all share."

This new one is, simply (ha!) about character formation.  Brooks has written this book during, he admits, a period of soul searching, which gives it a certain humility, but also urgency; it is not a distant, academic bit of social criticism. Brooks has read, interviewed, and consulted widely, and the stories here are truly inspiring. 

That he thanks Tim Keller for helping to shepherd him through some of this has caused some to speculate if he is moving towards some sort of Christian conversion. (He writes about Augustine and sin and even a bit about grace in this book, for crying out loud!) The Road to Character looks at a wide array of people, colorfully and caringly described, who were, in many ways, great individuals, but who had deep flaws. He looks at the remarkable Bayard Rustin (a gay socialist who was very, very influential in the life of Martin Luther King) and Dorothy Day (the spiritually traditional Catholic convert who worked for radical social change with the likes of Thomas Merton and the Berrigan brothers), President Eisenhower and a host of writers, politicos, business leaders and others who served well in their professional careers but struggled to - as Steve Garber put it in the subtitle to Fabric of Faithfulness - "weave together belief and behavior."  I don't know for sure, but I have reason to believe that Mr. Brooks has read Garber's substantive book. 

I won't put too much emphasis on this, but the Road to Character starts with a bit of a survey of the stuff that is often said in college commencement speeches. That my soon to be released new book (Serious Dreams) is a collection of college graduation speeches designed to offer vision and inspiration for young adults to take up their vocations in the world, for the sake of the common good, is, well, perhaps an example that not all such speeches are inane, offering advice about listening to the self, or focusing on one's own bliss or suggesting other sorts of self-centeredness.  How we've shifted from the virtues of humility and service to self-aggrandizement and a theology of Self is a complex and important story, and he tells it with his characteristic blend of social science, a bit of history and a dash of good wit.

Please listen to this wonderful "On Point" radio interview with David Brooks here. He not only holds up examples of those whose character has been shown to be virtuous, but echos material in the book about how we got away from this as a culture. (Surprise, he does not blame the lenient 60s and the boomers.) I bet you'll be as intrigued as Beth and I were as we listened to this amazing stuff about faith and formation and character and theology on NPR, and you'll want to form a smart book club to discuss this splendid new volume.

Believe AND Think, Act, Believe.jpgBelieve: Living the Story of the Bible to Become Like Jesus Randy Frazee, editor  (Zondervan) $24.99

Think, Act, Believe Like Jesus: Becoming a New Person in Christ  Randy Frazee (Zondervan) $15.99

If some of the above titles remind us of the need to "grow up" in Christ, to seek creative and energetic ways to deepen our knowledge and maturity in faith, and to read widely in order to discern the contours of faithful discipleship in our age, then I think it is helpful to name these two books designed, mostly, it seems, for new believers. Since so very few churches have "catechism" for adults, and we all can benefit from knowing a bit about what we believe, and why we believe it, and how such beliefs can transform us into the people God wants us to be, it might be wise to see this pair of books as helpful resources for anyone doing adult education, Christian formation, Sunday school, or the mentoring of others, new believers or not.

Believe me, I think you could use these in fruitful ways, if not in a full class of seekers or new church members or young Christians, but in one-on-one mentoring, spiritual formation sessions, or "disciple-making." Maybe you could use it to inspire your own curriculum plans, or draw on it, bit by bit. Use it as a resource for your own teaching, or share it with somebody who you think maybe would appreciate a guide to being grounded in the basics.

Here's the deal with how they are arranged.

Believe- Living the Story of the Bible.jpgBelieve: Living the Story of the Bible is not exactly an abridged NIV Bible, but it is almost entirely Scripture, in a Bible-sized hardback, with the passages and texts arranged around three major themes. These themes are offered under the headlines Think, Act, Do Each has a subtitle that explains what they mean by Think, Act, Be:  "What Do I Believe?" and "What Should I Do?" and "Who Am I Becoming?"  Each chapter within each of the three sections has a "key idea" and a "key verse" but then mostly is just long passages of the Bible, annotated in italics with some basic context stuff, or single verses offered.  I've perused many of these annotations, what they say to frame the passages, and these brief connective, explanatory comments are clear, evangelical, helpfully designed for assisting people to see the truthfulness of these portions of the unfolding Story of God.

Think / What Do I Believe?  This section includes 10 chapters about God, salvation, the Bible, the church, humanity, compassion, service, and more. 

Act / What Should I Do?  This offers Scripture readings on worship, prayer, surrender, spiritual gifts, sharing one's faith, stewardship of money and time,  and other basic Christian practices.

The Be / Who Am I Becoming?  The last portion is a 10 chapter study of the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, self-control, hope, patience, kindness/goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, humility) offering Bible portions from Old and New Testaments.

There are 30 chapters to this, and there is a nice, basic 30-session study guide in the back, offering a few helpful questions for readers to ponder or for groups to discuss.  I should be clear that although there is this handy format and organized structure and some apparatus naming key verses and offering annotations, this really is mostly Bible. It says on the back "It's one thing to know the story of the Bible. It's another thing to live it."  Believe really is grounded in carefully selected Scripture, offering a unique spiritual growth experience that takes participants on this journey of thinking, doing, and becoming more Christ-like in character.  I am sure you could quibble or refine his rubric here, but Frazee is helping if offering us ten key beliefs, tend key practices, and ten key virtues. This is an amazing resource.

think act believe like jesus.jpgThink, Act, Believe Like Jesus: Becoming a New Person in Christ is a companion to Believe and is arranged in the same three units, adding a fourth called "Transformation" which presents more good information exploring how inner transformation happens and the benefits of deepening one's own journey towards Christ-likeness. It covers lots of ground, but remains accessible and clear -- useful stuff. For those that care about such things, Frazee and his co-writer Robert Noland draw on profound insights from philosopher Dallas Willard (of course!) especially the valuable V.I.M. approach explored in Willard's important Renovation of the Heart. (V.I.M. stands for Vision, Intent and Means.) These last few chapters on the "think-act-be" revolution" is really, really helpful for those who don't have much an intentional strategy about Christian growth, and it is well worth considering his insight about the relationship of believing and belonging, and the essential connection between doing and growing. It is my experience that few churches (or even para-church groups who are on the front lines of mentoring and discipling eager learners) have much of a strategy to guide life-giving teaching in discipleship.  This can help.

This paperback book is laden with good stuff, contains solid Biblical teaching about all manner of basic, sensible, Christian practices, written with lively, evangelical passion.  Here's what it says on the back cover:

In Think, Act, Be Like Jesus bestselling author and pastor Randy Frazee helps you grasp the vision of the Christian life and get started on the journey of discipleship.

In thirty short chapters, Frazee unpacks the ten key beliefs, ten key practices, and ten key virtues that help disciples to think, act, and be more like Jesus Christ. As he unfolds the revolutionary dream of Jesus, he shows how our lives fit into the big picture of what God is doing in the world.

I know, dear friends, that some of you don't like formulaic approaches or numbered points or too much simple appeals to Bible verses to guide you towards the deeper waters of faith.  Okay, read the mystics and postmodern theologies and ponder the transformational potential of ritual or find God in popular culture or missional service; I do, or try to. Use Brian McLaren's extraordinary We Make the Road By Walking as an essential guide for progressive spiritual movement into this world of personal change and communal growth and social change. I've recommended it often as a year-long story- journey through the Bible in ways that are designed to be transformational.  

But I am also convinced that without revisiting the basic, historically-grounded, classic matters, offered in Think, Act, Be Like Jesus we become unmoored and disheveled.  Our programs of spiritual direction become vague conversations about discerning one's own inner voice without much concrete guidance in formulating reliable application to process and integrate Biblical wisdom into our own transformation.

Thomas Bergler is right in his examination of how youth ministry visions and practices, and a pop culture of immediacy and sensation has caused us all to drift away from solid, good stuff.  His aforementioned Eerdmans book, From Here to Maturity might be best to start you thinking deeply about how transforming spiritual growth can be seen in your faith community.  Think, Act, Believe Like Jesus unpacks so much, in such readable, usable nuggets, that I think it would be a valuable resource for anyone wanting to know how to lead others into maturity in Christ, even if it is a tad basic for some tastes. If your church doesn't offer you this kind of stuff, take charge of your own faith journey, work through this, and see where it all leads. 



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April 14, 2015

Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans AND Hopecasting by Mark Oestreicher - ON SALE

evolving in monkey town.jpgI remember reading and reviewing the memoir Evolving in Monkey Town, Rachel Held Evan's first book about growing up fundamentalist in the same town that gave us the  infamous Scopes trial. Dayton, Tennessee is locked forever in the American popular imagination as the site of the showdown between conservative religion and modern science and although the trial was in a previous century, Held used its defining impact as a springboard into her own feisty revolt against an anti-science sort of faith that is still too prevalent on the American religious landscape.

As I was reading it, years ago, I, myself, had been on the fringes of a battle here in our community, when a stupid lawsuit by the ACLU took an even stupider school board from Dover PA to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, over the school's legitimate (in my view) debate regarding Darwin's ideology about evolution happening by chance alone, and the philosophy of science that is inextricably connected to it. Could they mention that there were other views?  Darwin's great grandson was one of the several who sat in on the "Scopes 2" trial -- which lasted exactly 40 days and 40 nights ("Not by design," the judge quipped as the final official words of the trial.) Between the ill-informed creationism of many of the school board members and the militant secularism of some who opposed them, I was, it seemed, at odds with nearly everyone. It wasn't easy trying to get both camps to understand the other. Few seemed to want to grapple with the serious philosophical questions underlying the trial (as have been raised, say, in the brilliant Oxford University Press book by world-class philosopher Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies) let alone the more nuanced questions of philosophical pluralism in education policy.  

I remember this because Rachel's memoir put me in a world that I might not have otherwise known - again, she did, in fact, grow up monkey-town, and went to the college named after the lawyer in the famous Scopes trial, William Jennings Bryan.  That is, you see, one of the reasons we so often recommend memoirs as they can be a window into the lives and views of others.

And this is one of the great reasons not only to know the writing of Ms Evans, but of her brand new book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church (Nelson; $16.99.)

Rachel, too, wants various sides of debates and different sorts of faith traditions to understand one another, and although she has left her fundamentalism behind, with not a small amount of gusto, she remains an ally to any of us who want to bridge cultural divides, who long to nourish greater awareness and empathy of those who are different then ourselves. In her new book she says, in a very moving scene recalling her baptism, that there is no real escaping our past. This is who she is, one who was baptized into the body of Christ in a particular way, in a particular place, by a particular group of people.  Gladly, she does not disdain them. faith unraveleled.jpg

That fine first book of hers, in part about evolution, recently re-issued and retitled as Faith Unraveled: How a Girl Who Knew All The Answers Learned to Ask Questions (Nelson; $15.99) reminded me when I read it of some things I knew, and explained a lot I didn't, having not grown up in that world.  As a good memoir can,  it allowed me to enter into another's story. I appreciated much about the book, mostly, and, I think, said something to the effect that Rachel was a writer to watch.  Not only had she - quintessentially, perhaps - evolved out of fundamentalism and embraced a more open-minded, less dogmatic evangelical faith that wasn't tied to the Christian Right,  she was increasingly sharing her journey for all to see. 

She was a born storyteller and reporter, writing dispatches from the front, allowing us to listen in as she ranted and raved and ruminated on her increasingly important blog.  I think I was right to say then that she was a good writer and it is obvious now that she became a force to reckon with.  She was building a head of steam, on line and on the speaking circuit, coming on strong. Her Rachel Held Evans blog now has a global and dedicated following and she is loved and her work respected, despite the occasional crankiness and controversy that shows up on social media discussions.  

year of biblical womanhood.jpgHer second book was The Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband 'Master' (Nelson; $16.99) and was very entertainingly written, modeled after the sort of experiential memoir done of A.J. Jacobs.  This, again, showed her passion and resolve to leave behind a fundamentalism (and a Biblical hermeneutic) that is unhelpful and unsustainable. In that often hilarious book she attempts to actually do each and every thing the Bible commands of women, which leads her to do all manner of odd things, as commanded (at some point) in Scripture. Again, I mostly complimented this at BookNotes and highlighted it many places where we went, and appreciated her raising very legitimate questions about gender and Biblical interpretation in the delightful style of a comic memoir. You may take exception to this or that point or opinion of Rachel Held Evans but there is no doubt that she is a significant voice, an important writer, and an author whose work you should know.

searching for sunday.jpgEvans' brand new book, Searching  for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church is the triumphant third installment of these memoiristic tales of her faith journey. And it is without a doubt her best yet. It is stunningly exquisite, remarkable in its tender prose, good storytelling, and mature, ecumenical insight.  She offers her ruminations about the broader Christian church in a way that immediately resonated with Beth and I; Evans is positioned to see contemporary faith from a variety of healthy angles, from her ultra- conservative past to her progressive sensibilities, now. 

Evans journey is perhaps writ large, but she shares some similarities with other popular authors these days. Barbara Brown Taylor, for instance, who is perhaps the most famous Episcopalian writer of our generation, was nurtured in Christ in an evangelical campus ministry setting (as she briefly describes in her wonderful memoir The Preaching Life.) Nadia Bolz- Weber, who was raised in the strict Southern world of the Churches of Christ is now a tatted up, emerging Lutheran pastor. But more than these other women writers, Evans speaks of ecumenical and mainline denominational church life through the lens of her earlier experiences as a good-hearted fundamentalist.

It isn't every book that talks endearingly about AWANA and cites the Russian Orthodox theologian, the late Alexander Schmemann,  glowing about his brilliant book For the Life of the World.  It isn't every author that recalls (in a passage that for some reason brought tears to my eyes) her own childhood baptism with her sister - and the deviled eggs they made for her afterword, because somebody knew they were her favorites - and beautiful prayers from the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer.  My ecumenical heart is warmed by writers who cite Tim Keller and Brian McLaren and Robert Webber and Robert Farrar Capon and Rachel Marie Stone and G.K. Chesterton. 

rachel held evans photo.pngRachel Held Evan was born and baptized into the Southern fundamentalist church,  grew disillusioned, and yet - as her subtitle here says - has spent her years "loving, leaving, and finding" the church.  Like many of the recent faith memoirs of writers of her generation she has had her frustrations with the church, but sure couldn't shake Jesus. "Christ-haunted" is the term Flannery O'Connor used for the American South, and it is surely a common expression used by many described in (for instance) the important work of David Kinnaman and his research on young adults who have left church. (See Kinnaman's You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving... and RethinkingFaith [Baker; $17.99] for a remarkably interesting study of this.)  Ms. Evans has became one of the small handful of younger, post-evangelical writers who helped reshape the conversation about the nature of gospel truth and emerging forms of experiencing faith and living out relevant discipleship. 

And, get this: she seems tired of the too-easy position of those who "love Jesus but not the church." In Searching for Sunday she shows a remarkable, wise, andwe long for our churches to be safe.jpg healthy love for the Body of Christ, for the local church, and for the ordinary stuff that gets done in the daily life of faith.  It isn't exactly the same as When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church (Jericho Books; $16.00) by UCC pastor Lillian Daniel -- which really is a tribute to the small, ordinary, local parish -- but I still cannot tell you how grateful I am for this fine work, this voice from the margins, aware of so much wrong with so many expressions of faith, and yet willing to tell us in such beautiful prose and revealing stories, why the church still matters.  And that it can still change our lives.  This is ecumenical, serious faith, expressed with wonder and grace and captivating prose.

Despite the lovely prose and the brave celebration of the local church, however, this book isn't all joy on the journey. This search is not a walk in the park.  Rachel - as we know from her previous books and blog - can be satirical, fierce, prophetic, even. She wears her heart on her sleeve.  And her shifting understanding of faith has not come easy.  After a passage describing attending services at her evangelical church, admitting that she resented the uplifted arms and how easily faith has seemed to come to some of her fellow-worshippers (even some who have suffered and been tested more than she) she fumes. 

Then she writes,

My husband of five years, Dan, stands beside me, steady as a pier to a drifting boat. Once we are home, we will crawl into bed together - both of us still dressed in our church clothes, but with our shoes kicked off - and he will listen as I mumble through my litany of grievances: the political jab during the announcements, the talk of hell, the simplistic interpretation of a complicated text, the violent and masculine theology, the seemingly shared assumption that the end times are upon us because we just elected a Democratic president with a foreign-sounding name. I glom onto these offenses, not because they are particularly grievous or even real, but because they give me reasons to hate going to church besides my own ugly doubt. They give me someone else to blame. Maybe it's time to call it quits, we will say. Maybe let's give it one more week.

There are recovery programs for people grieving the loss of a parent, a sibling, a spouse. You can buy books on how to cope with the death of a beloved pet or work through the anguish of a miscarriage. We speak openly with one another about the bereavement that can accompany a layoff, a move, a diagnosis, or a dream deferred. But no one really teaches you how to grieve the loss of your faith. You're on your own for that.

There is some anguishing stuff in here.  In one chapter she tells of the story of J.R. Briggs (whose book about the shame of ministry failure, Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure is a must-read!) That chapter starts with an epigram from Ian Morgan Cron, who has said "All ministry begins at the ragged edges of your own failure."

I was glad, also, to see her cite the indie folk-singer Gregory Alan Isakov, and his line "I threw stones at the stars, but the whole sky fell."  In that line is a whole story, of course, and Rachel using it says much about the price she has paid to find her place.  

Ian Cron offers a blurb on the back, too, by the way, and he is always worth listening to.

Of Searching for Sunday he writes, If you're done with church, or simply on the verge of throwing in the towel, then please, please, please, read this book. It is brave, wry, and exquisitely penned meditation from someone who knows precisely how you feel.

But this book is not just for those who are anguished about the church, angry prodigals or doubters. For anyone looking for a good read, there is such joy in taking in the spiritual memoir and reflections of a thoughtful sister who has seen a lot, considered much, learned some, and written about it nicely. Perhaps it takes one who has not been raised in the more liturgical churches to uncover some of the strengths of that tradition, but she does this well. Of course she thanks her friend  Diana Butler Bass and cites Barbara Brown Taylor and Lauren Winner. She draws on United Methodist leader William Willimon and the Lutheran Book of Worship.

Evans here tells of her insights about the church and the Christian life by telling of her journey towards a more liturgical and mainline sort of Protestant faith. Even though she opens with a quote from the current Pope.

Here is the key to the book: Searching for Sunday is arranged as a set of ruminations on what RomanRachel Held Evans picture of communion.jpg Catholics call the seven sacraments. (When I first heard this I wondered, although didn't think it was likely, that Rachel had become Catholic.) These seven parts, each with several chapters, of sacramental reflections are rich and give the book a structure which is more than just a random collection of her latest thoughts. It is a mature, developed, and highly insightful flow of what might be called spiritual theology.  She is doing helpful good work here, besides offering us an entertaining third installment of her ongoing series of memoirs. As she unfolds some of her story - their stint away from church, sleeping in on Sunday, watching Meet the Press and reading the paper ("one New York Times crossword puzzle away from liberal nirvana") and their eventual return, somewhat sobered - she also tells us what she has learned about the seven sacraments. 

She describes her approach like this:

I am telling my church story in seven sections, through the imagery of baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick, and marriage. These are the seven sacraments named by Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, but one need not consider them the church's only sacraments. I could easily write about the sacrament of pilgrimage, the sacrament of foot washing, the sacrament of the Word, the sacrament of making chicken casseroles, or any number of outward signs of inward grace. My aim in employing these seven sacraments is not theological or ecclesiological, but rather literary. They are the tent pegs anchoring my little tabernacle of a story to the ground. I chose them because they have something of a universal quality, for even in churches that are not expressly sacramental,  the truths of the sacrament are generally shared.

She illustrates what she means with this bullet list:

The church tells us we are loved (baptism). The church tells us we are broken (confession). The church tells us we are commissioned (holy orders). The church feeds us (communion). The church welcomes us (confirmation). The church anoints us (anointing of the sick). The church unites us (marriage).

As you might guess, she ends up turning over some similar ground that others have plowed, most obviously, here, Barbara Brown Taylor (Leaving Church, An Altar in the World, Learning to Walk in the Dark) and Lauren Winner (Still.)  That is not to say Evans is derivative, not at all. Like these other exceptional women writers, Held Evans uses the images and metaphors and insights about sacramentalism and invites us to see deep truths embedded not only in church teaching and congregational life, but in the created order itself.

At times the writing is luminous, helping us glimpse the the most profound realities of God's glory seen in what we experience, in what Robert Johnston has recently called in a book called God's Wider Presence.  As Evans says in her forward, she is not just writing about the search for church, but resurrection. 

It's about all the strange ways God brings dead things back to life again. It's about giving up and starting over again. It's about why, even on days when I suspect all this talk about Jesus and resurrection and life everlasting is a bunch of bunk designed to coddle us through an essentially meaningless existence, I should still like to be buried with my feet racing the rising sun.

I hope you like this book, and I hope you appreciate Rachel Held Evans as good writer, an honest seeker who refuses to succumb to cheap cynicism or bitterness, who sees resurrection hope in places like Becca Steven's community for former prostitutes and addicts called Thistle Farms or Sara Miles' work with the urban poor.  She knows that the body of Christ includes (and at its best draws on the insights and practices of) Mennonites and Anglicans and Free Methodists and free range folk of all kinds, from emerging house churches to third world base communities to non-denom Pentecostals to mega-church evangelicals.  And she knows our stories are not over until they are over.  She herself is proof of this; lost and found, left and returned. From Monkey Town to the Canterbury Trail.

I certainly do not think that this book is only, or even mostly, for the discouraged or alienated. Many of us who are fairly ordinary Christians, more or less glad to be where we are, aware of other churches but not obsessed with ecumenicity, glad to ponder how grace and goodness might spill over and make all of life a sacrament, will benefit from this, too.  We commend it to you, seeker, skeptic, or spiritual leader. It would make a fantastic book club title or something to take on a quiet day away. You will most likely not agree with it all; I did not agree with it all. But that isn't the point with a book like this, made of ruminations, memories, stories, reflections.
like it or not, RHE banner.jpg Her last chapters are about the mystery of marriage, especially as it is seen as a metaphor for the church. These are clever and precious pages; read this little part:

We married before Pinterest, so there were no photo booths or mason jars or mustaches-on-sticks at the reception. Back in those days, the photographer just lined everybody in front of the church like it was a firing range and took the shot. We didn't even think to pose inside a vintage mirror frame or sit on a rusty pickup truck. But even though we started out young and poor and Republican, our marriage has been a happy one, and has made the meandering journey in and out of church a less lonely one for sure.

Then, in writing about her marriage, and their bristling about strict gender roles and some unhelpful marriage books they read, she notes, nicely:

What Dan and I found within just a few months of living together is that marriage isn't about sticking to a script; it's about making a life together. It's not a choreographed cha-cha, it's an intimate slow dance. It isn't a formula, it's a mystery. Few of the Christian marriage books prepared us for the actual adventure of marriage, which involves improvisation, compromise, and learning as you go.

She tells of the church customs that put crowns upon the heads of the married couples in their wedding ceremony (and, once again, cites Alexander Schmemenn.) And then, she reminds us beautifully not only of a spirituality of family life, but, I suppose, what is the point of the whole searching for Sunday thing, the ultimate truth of the book:

Dan and I have been married for eleven years now. Sometimes our marriage looks like the kingdom. Sometimes it does not. Sometimes we wear our crowns with decorum and grace. Sometimes we fight to snatch them off each other's heads. But what makes our marriage holy, what makes it "set apart" and sacramental, isn't the marriage certificate filed away in the basement or the degree to which we follow a list of rules and roles, it's the way God shows up in those everyday moments - loading the dishwasher, sharing a joke, hosting a meal, enduring an illness, working through a disagreement - and gives us a chance to notice, to pay attention to the divine. It's the way the God of resurrection makes all things new. searching for sunday.jpg

Learn about Rachel's coming of age and beginning to chafe at rigid fundamentalism in her book set in "Monkey town" USA, now called Faith Unraveled. Join her in the hilarious year-long romp trying to learn how to read the Bible well described in The Year of Biblical Womanhood. Both are really good. 

But this, this is nearly a masterpiece, her finest book yet, including great insights, caring, artful writing, and poignant, powerful storytelling. Rachel Held Evans is one of our notable young writers, and an author you should know.  Who knows, maybe you, too, need a gentle push to start over, reconsider your faith, to broaden your attentiveness to God's presence and work in the world, in the sacramental stuff of life, and, yes, in a local church.

Join her in Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding not only the church, but, perhaps, resurrection itself.

I suppose I should end my review right there.  But - you know how this works for me - there are several other titles that come to mind, that I'd love to mention.  For some reason, I just want to mention this one, now, as it somehow feels like a companion sort of book. They are very different in tone and topic, but here ya go.  It, too, is very, very good, and my quick announcement of it doesn't do it justice.
hopecasting-header.png hopecasting cover.jpgHopecasting: Finding, Keeping and Sharing the Things Unseen Mark Oestreicher (IVP) $16.00  Oh my, this book (with a nice foreword by Scot McKnight) deserves a long, weighty review.  "Why is it that some people are full of hope," the author asks, "while many of us struggle to get past the snooze alarm?" 

And isn't that a curious thing, how some people (I'm thinking of Rachel Held Evans, even) are resilient and are able to find fresh hope, while others grow hardened and stale and discouraged? What is hope, anyway, and how does one find it? How can we announce it to others, share it with the broken world? You know I loved (loved!) N.T. Wright's must-read, heavy-weight book Surprised By Hope. Perhaps you, too, will be drawn to a book called Hopecasting.

Well, this isn't just a simple study of the elusive quality of hopefulness in some people (although that in itself makes it worth reading) but it is a deep and profound and fabulous study of what hope is, loaded with good Bible study, and lots of illustrative stories. Princeton scholar and youth specialist Kenda Creasy Dean notes that it is "part memoir, part mentor, part prayer for the journey."

The genius recording artist David Crowder says "Oestreicher redefines hope, or better yet, pulls us back to a workable set of postures for receiving hope. This book reminds us that hope is a beautiful gift, an influx of Jesus into our dark and dry souls."  No lesser a hopester than IJM founder Gary Haugen has raved about it, noting that Hopecasting is "an invitation into active, faithful confidence in the goodness of God." (Gary, by the way, has seen some of the most gruesome stuff on the planet, walking through the corpses of Rwanda and now fighting brothels and child slavery throughout the world. If he, of all people,  says this is "deep encouragement for those of us who have ever struggled to cultivate transformative hope in hard places" then you can trust it. 

walt talking.jpghope within history.jpgmarko o.jpgFor what it is worth, if I were doing a bigger review, I'd further commend  Marko, as he is called (get it? Mark O.) for giving us a very nice introduction, without exactly saying so, to the work of Walter Brueggemann. Marko even joked that he considered calling this Brueggemann for Dummies and it does capture much of that for which Walt is known. Upon doing research for this book, Marko the gifted storyteller and upbeat youth worker, discovered Brueggemann, and holed himself up with two of my own favorite books, the greatly under-rated volumes of Walt's, Hope Within History and the sequel to The Prophetic Imagination called, simply, The Hopeful Imagination.

That Mr. Oestreicher channels some of the allusive, deep, Biblical vision makes of those two books makes this delightful, story-filled  book a true gift to God's people.

There are very interesting and practical reflection questions after each chapter (he calls them the "Hope Toolbox" -- something WB would not have done, by the way) that will be very, very helpful for those wanting to process this good material. The 10 chapters move us from an awareness of Biblical themes of exile and their resonance today, towards being honest with ourselves and God, even in lament, on towards an authentic encounter with Christ as "the hope bringer." Those paying attention to important discussions about faith formation and the transformation of desire will appreciate the penultimate chapter -- ""Hopes Dance Partner: Transformed Longings" which leads to the last great about how hope becomes hope-casting. (And, yes, if you must know, Moltmann makes a brief appearance.)  This is good, good, hardy stuff.

Jim Belcher is right, I think, when he says: "Read this book. Your life may never be the same again." Kudos to all involved.

hopecasting cover.jpgsearching for sunday.jpg



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April 9, 2015

Embracing the Body (Tara Owens), This Is My Body (Ragan Sutterfield), Spiritual Friendship (Wesley Hill), and The World Beyond Your Head (Matthew Crawford) ON SALE

Christ is Risen! 

He is Risen Indeed!

Even low-brow evangelicals and hipster missional house church folk have been adopting this ancientthomas painting.jpg Orthodox call and response these days. I'm heartened by how many have signed off their emails this week with the creedal reminder, and hope this Eastertide season of the church shapes our imaginations and habits.  Nothing against the start of baseball season, of course (we have a Baltimore Sun sportswriter Dan Connolly coming in to the store next month to talk about the Orioles!), but there is something good about rooting ourselves in the ancient story.  At the change of each liturgical season I get out Bobby Gross's great devotional Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God (IVP; $18.00) and re-read Lauren Winner's spectacular introduction where she reflects on wanting to be more shaped by the church year than the customs of the American narrative and its secular feast days and calendar revolving around school seasons. What does it mean to be alive to the themes and insights about Jesus, season by season?

Certainly one of the great, great truths of this season is that Jesus rose from the dead.  So now is a goodMiracles.jpg time to think and maybe read about that. He did so in his body, the texts tell us, and I believe it -- the modernist lack of imagination among the progressive intelligentsia notwithstanding. If only we could pass out the latest Eric Metaxas book, Miracles (Dutton; $27.95), like loaves and fishes for those hungry for an enchanted universe. 

(And, while I'm on this preamble digression, allow me this tangent: New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, perhaps the world's leading scholar on first century ideas about resurrection has described how when he was trying to figure out if he was a Christian or not, he, of course, had to determine what he believed about this astounding claim that Jesus rose from the dead. To even entertain that, he had to first conclude if miracles - any kind of miracles - could even happen.  If not, then there was little point it trying to conjure up Easter faith.  So, he read C.S. Lewis's classic little paperback, Miracles and that was a key step in the process.  Once he came to realize that miracles are plausible, then he could proceed to the matter at hand: if that miracle - the literal raising of Jesus from the tomb - had happened.  Which is why I commend not only the Lewis standard, but the new Metaxas book. Not only because we may all need a little inspiration to recall that Hamlet was right in his quip to Horatio -- there is more to life then meets the naked eye -- but so that we can stand seriously on this ancient Christian essential truth:  Christ is Risen indeed.)

Okay.  That said, I'd like to suggest some books that seem particularly germane this week as we see life in light of the Light of the world, who is now much more than light. He is, as in the famous Updike poem, "Seven Stanzas At Easter," molecules reknit, the amino acids rekindled. ("Let us not mock God with metaphors" he writes. "Make no mistake: if He rose at all it was as His body...") 

(John Calvin, you may have heard, was once asked if Jesus still sits at the right hand of the Father, as the Apostle Creed declares. His witty reply was that, most likely, He sometimes gets up and walks around. Which is to say, again, Updike is right. This is a real body, which Thomas touched and that reigns in Heaven, even now.)

Enough of me telling it slant, warming up.  Here are some books that are about the human body, since bodies matter.  Black ones, yes, yes, especially now, but that's not the half of it.  All sorts of stuff matters, and, in Christ, we are like new Adams and Eves, alive in the world, gloriously human, gladly bound by gravity and grace. "This is our Father's World" the old song says and despite the goofy lines in too many hymns (as documented in a few pages in Richard Middleton's A New Heaven and A New Earth) the whole Earth does declare the glory of God.  And that includes - like it or not - our bodies, from tongues to toenails.  

We suggest these books because they are very good. I suggest them now because, well, it is Eastertide, and it seems right.

Embracing the Body- Finding God in Our Flesh and Bone.jpgEmbracing the Body: Finding God in Our Flesh and Bone Tara M. Owens (IVP/formation) $17.00  This is the third spectacular book published by IVP in the last few years on the nature of the human body, living in our own skins, pondering the deep relationship between our deepest interior lives and our bodies.  (We recommend their practical and very spiritually enriching The Life of the Body: Physical Well-Being and Spiritual Formation by Valerie Hess & Lane Arnold and the extraordinary, wonderfully-written What Your Body Knows About God: How We Are Designed to Connect, Serve, and Thrive by Rob Moll. I am sure Debra Hirsch's soon to be released Redeeming Sex, although a bit more specific, will also wonderful explore the relationship between our bodies and our faith.) I'm glad the acquisition team there are finding these kinds of helpful titles, and releasing them so affordably. Kudos to IVP.

This new book by Tara M. Owens declares that "Our bodies teach us about God, and God communicates to us through our bodies. Our bodies are more good that we can possibly imagine them to be. And yet at times we may struggle with feelings of shame and guilt or even pride in regard to our bodies. What is God trying to do through our skin and bones?"

tara m. jpgTara Owens is a spiritual director, a gifted, artful person, if a failed poet (so she tells us, although she doesn't blame her friends from the Image Journal Santa Fe Glen Workshop or her teacher Scott Cairnes) and a heck of a great writer. (I love somebody who cites the 21st century writer Christian Wiman and 2nd century poet, St. Symeon the New Theologian, C.S. Lewis and Rob Bell.) She edits an excellent, excellent spirituality journal, Conversations Journal, so gets to work with Gary Moon and David Benner and the likes of Richard Foster and Eugene Peterson and the late Dallas Willard. (By the way, do you recall that in Willard's breakthrough 1988 book, The Spirit of the Disciplines, he had a chapter on the body!) Owens says her own "cranky patron saint" is the mystic Evelyn Underhill.  Besides her editing and writing, she is a part time instructor for the Benedictine Spiritual Formation Program at Benet Hill Monastery.  She is qualified to write an engaging, spiritually profound, mature and discerning book.

But why this, writing on the body?  She seems neither terribly broken nor distressed about her body (there are some powerful memoirs about eating disorders, say, or cutting, which get at the woundedness so many know.) She is deeply aware, though, and writes eloquently about these hard things that happen to and in our bodies, even though she comes at this less as a physiologist or psychologist, but as spiritual director. She know that our bodies are a central part of who we are, and that we can embody God's glorious intentions only as we become comfortable with our bodies. Our spirituality is intimately tied to our physicality.

Part One of Embracing the Body is called "Body Reality" and the four chapters are:

Where Do Our Fears Come From?

How We Lost Our Bodies?

Broken Body, Broken Church

Dust to Dust

In Part Two, Ms. Owens uses her wise and pastoral insights to offer us ways to "face our fears."  She offers really profound ways to frame these conversations and I am sure this is going to be immensely helpful for many.  I think it might be helpful to just list these chapters and what they cover:

Angel or Animal: Beyond False Dichotomies

Beauty of Beast: Living with an Unglorified Body

Touch or Temptation: Issues Around Sexuality

Desire or Destruction: Exploring Our Impulses

The third part of Embracing... includes five more great chapters, moving us towards a Kingdom vision,glory of our bodies poster.jpg how God's people in the church -a Body! - might help us with better body images, and how Christ's redemption may shape and heal our own distorted views and approaches.   As you might guess, I loved a chapter called "Sensing God's Kingdom:  Encountering God's Physical Creation" and highly recommend the chapter on sexuality.  (She cites the beautiful book by Lisa Graham McMann, which I often recommend, called Sexuality and Holy Longing: Embracing Intimacy in a Broken World.)  There are suggested exercises for reflection at the end of each chapter. 

Lauren Winner (whose brand new Wearing God I announced in our last post) says "This book is beautiful, learned and wise. It will make you think, and it will make you want to say 'amen' - and, more important, it will enable you to live as a body."  Micah Boyett (author of Found) says "Tara M. Owens is a rare find among contemporary writers. Part theologian, part mystic, her insight is bod and rich, and her writing is fine-tuned... I will be meditating on this book for a long time to come."

Enjoy this interview with Tara Owens, about her book, done by another astute blogger.

this is my body ragan s.jpgThis Is My Body: From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey into the True Meaning of Flesh, Spirit, and Deeper Faith Ragan Sutterfield (Convergent Books) $22.99  It isn't every day that one sees a mature philosopher write a book about his own body (let alone a triumphant story of becoming an Ironman competitor.)  But this - this is smart, exceptionally well-written, captivating, a stimulating blend of memoir and reflection.  That Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove says it is a memoir "that threatens to up-end spiritual writing in the twenty-first century" is significant. This is, truly, an embodied sort of spirituality, a meditation about flesh and weight and sweat and tears and aches and pleasures.  

Sutterfield, by the way, wrote a small book that we mention as often as we can, the fantastic Cultivating Reality: How The Soil Might Save Us (Cascade; $16.00) which ponders the harm of industrial food systems, and offers a faithful glimpse of sustainable, soulful, agriculture. That he is indebted to Wendell Berry and the new agrarians is obvious, that he loves the land is evident.  That he is a great, solid writer is also evident.  He cites rich pieces of the New Yorker and knows good literature from the classic poets to the best theologians. He is studying to become an Episcopal priest.

In This Is My Body Sutterfield helps us think about our physical natures in ways that remind us that "God glories in the flesh." Even on the back cover, he asks, "What if we had the same joy about our bodies" as God does?  Although there is plenty of spiritually-enlightening reflection and some good and challenging diagnosis of our cultural dysfunctions, it is, after all, a memoir. (Rodney Clapp, founder of Brazos Press, and himself author of Tortured Wonders: Christian Spirituality for People, Not Angels) says it is "unflinchingly honest." This book is exactly that, and it is almost stunning to see anyone reflect on his own views of his own body with such candor. Each chapter tells of a season of his life, from a certain setting. (Including his time on a farm, which is pivotal.)   

Chapter by chapter, Sutterfield unfolds his story as he tells how he perceived and experienced his bodySutterfield-Ragan-210x300.jpg as a body, as he awakened to his body, to his own body in college. He became obese, and has chapters telling how his body was lonely, broken, fulfilled... you've been there, no doubt. Interspersed with these auto-biographical ruminations are episodes from his taking up Ironman training as a spiritual discipline.  I usually have little interest in reading about these kinds of hard exercise regimens or extreme sports stories (although we do have a book called Slowspoke about a guy riding a unicycle across the country) but found these parts very interesting. Beyond that, they were inspiring, and one more way into this conversation that God cares about this world, that there are, as Bruce Cockburn has sung, "rumours of glory" and that Christ's own resurrection helps us know in the deepest sense, the promise of the redemption of all things, including our bodies.  Did I mention that one of Mr. Sutterfield's chapters is called "My Resurrected Body"?  

I like that on the back cover it notes that Sutterfield "counts his success, though, not in his decreased clothing size, but in his increased understanding of how much God truly loves us and what it means to be stewards, not just of our souls, but of our skin and bones, too." What a story!

Spiritual Friendship- Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian.jpgSpiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian Wesley Hill (Brazos Press) $14.99 This book deserves its own longer review, and I am afraid I cannot do it justice here. It is one of the most important books of our time, vital, important, rare, wise, exceptional.  It is exactly about our embodiedness, yes, even about the redemption of our sexuality.  It is beautifully written, exquisite at times, and more candid then one might expect in an evangelical Christian book.  We are proud to carry it, and eager to commend it to one and all.

The author is a very sharp, Anglican theologian (indeed, his just released his long-awaited scholarly book Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations and the Pauline Letters (Eerdmans; $26.00) which itself deserves much acclaim.) Mr. Hill, though, is perhaps better known as the author of Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality which was published by Zondervan ($14.99) a few years ago. There, he tells his story of being a thoughtful, evangelical and undeniably gay.  As one who holds to the traditional interpretations of the often-contested handful of texts about same sex behaviors, Wes is clear that he believes that he must, like other unmarried singles, remain sexually celibate. Washed and Waiting is the only book of its kind, a candid rumination by an out Christian who is gay and who is committed to sexual restraint, without muchwashed and waiting.jpg expectation of God re-orienting his own desires for same sex intimacy.  Some on the progressive side of things have lamented his prissy fidelity to heterosexual norms and some in the fundamentalist camps have wished for less candor from the brother.  (An unashamed gay Christian? Yikes!)  We believe that book to be a watershed and exceptionally helpful for those wanting a third way between the extremes.  Agree or not, it is, as they say, what it is: a testimonial witness of a very thoughtful, young evangelical leader ruminating on his body, on the redemption of all things, and his hope as he waits for the new earth.

In that significant book he notes that if one is committed to celibacy - no erotic, sexual activity - one certainly needs brothers and sisters along on the journey. Everyone needs companions, serious friends, those who can share life and times more deeply than even in more typical friendships. One needs (embodied) spiritual friendship, and Wes promised that this would be the topic of his next book.  Many of us - gay and straight - have awaited this next chapter of his story, and his theologically rich call to better, more profound views of friendship. I cannot tell you how glad I am that this is now available.

Here are four features of this great book which underscore why you should consider buying Spiritual Friendship, as soon as possible.

Firstly, we all know that one of the great themes of our time is the need for authentic community. Not a day goes by without an article crossing my desk - in cyberspace, that is, which may be part of the problem and some of the answer - about the fragmentation of our mobile culture, and why younger Christians, especially, are seeking community.  A gang of us moved into a big old house a few decades ago and christened ourselves "an intentional community" and it is beautiful to see that tribe now including houses and apartments throughout that neighborhood in the East End of Pittsburgh, with diverse and nearly intergenerational housing arrangements. (Apropos of not much, I might say it was a pretty depressed area when we moved in, and now there is a Whole Foods and Starbucks nearby.) So, yes, we long for a sense of place, for friends with whom we can do life, for churches to enhance our relationships, for community.  Wes moves beyond the rhetoric, it seems, and pushes us beyond grand talk of community to real friendships. (He's very good on this in the video interview to which I link, below.)

As Richard Hays of Duke writes of Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church...

Courageous and thought provoking. This is a book that challenges all of us -- whatever our sexual experience or longings may be -- to think more truthfully about the meaning of love and the complex ways in which our communities either stifle or nurture it.

As Eve Tushnet (author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith) says, "Honest and poignant, Spiritual Friendship is like a conversation with a good friend who has learned much for books but more from loving and being loved by others." 

Secondly -- and this, too,  fits with my theme here of the redemption of our bodies, of God's care aboutside_dr_wesley_hill.jpg physicality -- I suspect this book, which I have only started, will talk about the value of human embrace, of touch.  Just this week in church a single friend mentioned to me that she and others she knows are "touched starved." She was not hinting at anything illicit, of course, but only admitting that single people,  widows and widowers, and all sorts of folks need human touch. Let us even leave aside the question of whether we all need something erotic in our lives, sensual pleasures. There is no doubt that we all need touch.  I think that Hill writes about this, and enters these frank matters out of both his own personal experience (which he mentions in Washed and Waiting) and from his meticulous, rich, theological studies.

Thirdly, there is, in recent years, a large move to recover ancient theological sources. There is a lot of interest in the patristics, in early church leaders, in a new rapprochement between Catholics and Protestants and Orthodox. (Read the powerful, heady memoir by Thomas Oden called A Change of Heart for some of this story.)  Some of this comes from an awareness that much of the crisis of faith in our secularizing time has rattled down from the rise of rationalistic modernity and the Enlightenment. Many realize that it is beneficial to retrieve older sources -- pre-modern, if you will -- and that ancient guides could provide ballast for shallow evangelicals and liberal Protestants alike. Whether you are immediately interested in the presenting concerns of Mr. Hill, as a celibate gay Christian, or the question of friendship, you may find it helpful to see how early church or medieval teachings presented this notion of spiritual friendship.  Hill has recovered a large body of work about friendship -- in fact, he has a fascinating epilogue which is an essay on his sources -- making this book a major contribution to the growing literature on what Peter Leithart says is "a lost Christian tradition of committed spiritual friendship."

Lastly, this book is a book-lovers dream. BookNotes readers may not know the works of St Aelred of Rievaulx (Spiritual Friendship written in 12th century England) or the early 20th century author Pavel Florensky.  More might know The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis or the many amazing lines in Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. (There is a footnote, by the way,  of a letter to Hill from Charles Marsh, about the spiritual friendship of Bonhoeffer and Bethge that fans will want to see.)  Henri Nouwen, of course, shows up, as well.  Besides other important theological voices from years ago, Hill quotes popular contemporary studies and recent author (yes, Dan Brennen, whose rare book about cross-gender friendships, Sacred Unions gets a much-deserved shout out.)  He notes that moving chapter on loneliness in Lauren Winner's book Still, the lovely writings on love and romance by Diogenes Allen and novels like The Goldfinch or several by Chaim Potok.  Again, his essay which is a guided walk through all manner of recommended books, his own sources ancient and recent, is, for some of us, worth the price of the book.

Here is a remarkable half hour interview with Dr. Hill about his course on Christian friendship that he teaches at Trinity Evangelical School for Ministry. It is very, very good and I highly recommend it.

The World Beyond Your Head- On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction.jpgThe World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction Matthew B. Crawford (FSG) $26.00  I announced this notable book on this prestigious publisher in the last post, naming 12 of our favorite books that released last month.  I have only dipped in to this - the booksellers joy and frustration - but I have talked to one of our most astute customers, a serious and delightful reader, who assures me it is one of the better books of the year.  Crawford, as you surely know (since you read my post earlier this week - ahem!) wrote the much-discussed Shop Class as Soulcraft a few years ago.  His story in that rich and learned work, is fantastic. He grew weary of his abstract and seemingly pointless work as a scholar in a think-tank and found new joy and meaning in a motorcycle repair shop he opened.  As one well-schooled in the liberal arts (and still involved in the academy as a senior fellow at the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Studies of Culture - run by James Davison Hunter) he can ponder the intricacies and nuances of cultural shifts with the best of them. (Ahh, but can other cultural critics fabricate components for custom motorcycles?) His call to re-instate shop class, for reasons both practical and soulful, is breathtaking.

Here, he moves further into this conversation that honors the work of our hands, literally.  Crawfordmatthew crawford.png extols practices and craft, he explains how the brain works (yes, neurology figures in to this new volume) and he invites us again to resist Gnosticism.  That is the theological heresy, of course, that devalued the physical world, hating the body as Plato did. (I still cringe when a congregation sings "I'll Fly Away" with its non-biblical, Platonic stuff about this world of God's being a "prison.") Crawford, by focusing on our literal, embodied labor and skills, helps us heady types recall the places we live and the ways we work.

Here is what it says on the lovely flyleaf of this handsome hardback (well designed and manufactured and delivered by real hands, by the way.):

We often complain about our fractured mental lives and feel beset by outside forces that destroy our focus and disrupt our peace of mind. Any defense against this, Crawford argues, requires that we reckon with the way attention sculpts the self. He examines the intense concentration of ice hockey players and short-order cooks, the quasi-autistic behavior of gambling addicts, the familiar hassles of daily life, and the deep slow craftwork of building pipe organs. He shows that our current crisis of attention is only superficially the result of digital technology and becomes more comprehensible when understood as the culmination of certain assumptions at the root of Western culture that are profoundly at odds with human nature.

The World Beyond Your Head promises to make sense of an astonishing array of familiar phenomena, from "the frustrations of airport security to the rise of the hipster." 

This glorious book is divided into two major sections: "Encountering Things" and "Other People." It starts with an epigram by Vincent Van Gogh, who wrote, "The great thing is to gather new vigor in reality."

Here is a very serious interview with this smart guy from a recent National Review. Wow.

For those of us who believe that Christ is Risen, there is, indeed, a really real reality. God's Spirit can give us new vigor to enter it well.  Perhaps we can imagine, envision, inhabit and embody the new Easter creation by experiencing grace firstly in our bodies.  As down-to-Earth farmer/poet Wendell Berry put it, we must "practice resurrection."  Maybe these books can help.



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