It may seem a little incongruous this week, but I want to suggest some happy books. Fun, well-written, upbeat, and very inspiring.
I know that most of us are absorbed in the drama of this moment in our church season - reading the gospels, going to extra church services, focusing on Christ and his execution, longing for hope. We continue to recommend books from Rowan Williams' The Sign and the Sacrifice: The Meaning of the Cross and Resurrection (WJK; $15.00) to one by our UCC pastor friend Chris Rodkey, his lectionary-based Coloring Lent: An Adult Coloring Book for the Journey to Resurrection (Chalice Press; $12.99) an adult coloring book that includes some thoughtful and provocative meditations and great art.
These next days and following we really, really recommend A Glorious Dark: Finding Hope in the Tension Between Belief and Experience by A.J. Swoboda (Baker; $14.99) which is perfect to read on Holy Saturday. I've been pondering Into Your Hand: Confronting Good Friday by Walter Brueggemann (Cascade; $11.00) which were a set of sermons Walt preached at St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in Cincinnati one long Good Friday afternoon. We suggest classic books about the atonement, justification, Christ's suffering, and, of course, the Resurrection. I know many of us are in the thick of this hard stuff.
I know many of us are also deep in the thick of hard stuff happening in the world. We are faced with hard policy choices about the budget, the terrible gutting of environmental projects, some services to the poor being cut even as we plan to spend more on armaments. The ongoing brutality of the Assad regime breaks our heart and the bombing of Egyptian churches on Palm Sunday reminds us what we all know - these are painful times for many and God calls us to at least try to figure out how to be responsible citizens in the midst of the injustices. In an increasingly globalized world, we know even more than we used to, and Jesus calls us to be faithful and good neighbors, complex as things may be. As Robert Benson put it in his last book, swiping a good line, Punching Holes in the Dark: Living in the Light of the World.
Even debating what we should say and do, what policies we should promote, where to put our limited energies, is itself a matter that causes many of us great tension. May God help us as we talk together as church friends, citizens, neighbors about what should be done.
Hearts & Minds continues to attempt to be a resource center for faithful Christian thinking and living, from your own personal growth to church and congregational renewal to nurturing Christian citizenship that helps us work on issues of peace, justice, racial reconciliation, environmental stewardship, and the like. I will continue to attempt reviews about social concerns that we hope are helpful - as some say we did well a few weeks ago in our review of Rod Dreher's important The Benedict Option and in my assessment of what one friend has called Princeton Seminary's Kuyper/Keller-gate. (You can see my list of books by and about Abraham Kuyper and Timothy Keller, here.) Keller, by the way, spoke at that event last week mostly about the importance of Lesslie Newbigin, commending his profound little book Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture. We've promoted that for years, have included it in our displays at book tables for conferences for decades. Nice to hear Tim so astutely describe its importance to mainline denominational folks and conservative evangelicals alike.
BUT SOMETIMES INSIGHT COMES IN FUN PACKAGES
Mother Tongue: How Your Heritage Shapes Your Story Leonard Sweet (NavPress) $15.99 This remarkable book deserves a bigger review than I can give it here, but I can tell you this much: if you have liked any of Len Sweet's many books or are all curious about his colorful approach to faith and discipleship and congregational renewal, this book is one you simply have to read. He has described it as his most personal and he seems to be feeling a bit vulnerable about it all.
Sweet's the literary critic, you know, a flamboyant, handsome guy who is known for using screens and digital stuff, postmodern in some quirky Victorian way, a "post-modern pilgrim" as one of his books is called. His playful use of words is unsurpassed and his gift of weaving quotes from the most random sources into a coherent evangelistic message is legendary. Where did he come from? How in the world did somebody who wrote seminal works about semiotics -- okay, I'm trying to keep up, but I suppose he'll just roll his eyes at my pedestrian alliteration there -- and who danced the Soul Salsa (noting, cleverly that older folks will think of a condiment but younger folks will think of a dance!) harness this trend-mesitering into a call for radical church renewal? He offered remarkable insights about the coming waves of post-modernity in Soul Tsunami - waves, get it? - and he gave us stunning new metaphors for doing church. Aqua Church remains a must-read in my view, and hope you'll order it from us if you haven't read it yet. He has a clear-headed but really interesting book on using digital culture for renewal, perfectly called called Viral. Who tells Protestants that we should stop with our individualistic, modernist slogans like "Here I Stand" and replace them with "There We Go"? Who writes books about clever, contemporary preaching and authors books like his recent Bad Habits of Jesus? What kind of edgy, outlier is he?
Well, here's the thing: his mother was kicked out of her own denomination, the Primitive Methodist church (for whom she was a passionate preacher and evangelist) because she accepted and wore a wedding ring offered by her husband (Len's father) who was a more liberal sort of holiness guy, a mere Free Methodist. If he was a Marine Corp type of Methodist she must have been part of the Navy Seal commandos, fit and serious. They were both hardcore and - as Len says in the first chapter of this book mostly about his mother - not only was she removed from her church for wearing this tiny bit of forbidden jewelry, they later got kicked out of the Free Methodist congregation for having a black and white television (or what the preacher called a hell-a-vision.) So, this Christ and culture stuff runs deep in a kid who was forcibly removed from a Wednesday night prayer service. What should the church do about the world?
The lovely, exciting, well-written, and very moving Mother Tongue accomplishes at least two big things (and, for a Len Sweet book, this is underestimating it: there is always a whole bunch of stuff going on at once, and all of his books repay repeated readings!)
Firstly, it is somewhat of a biography or at least tribute to his colorful mother. There has been, he eventually tells us, some remorse shown from what is now the Wesleyan denomination about the mistreatment of Mabel Boggs Sweet, and she is now honored with a plaque somewhere. And, man, she deserves it, because this book is loaded with fascinating stories, good teaching, interesting stuff she taught and stood for. She was a Christian leader and she took her Godly role in pushing her sons into the ways of righteousness very, very seriously.
He tells us that they were Appalachian people, his father from the mountains in upstate New York , his mother from West Virginia, where they spent some of the summers. Len ended up living in Ohio (in what Len informs us is really a West Virginia city) and his mother lived with him there, although often returned to her West Virginia homeland. Do you know that road that memoirist J.D. Vance writes about, that well-worn road from Ohio rust belt towns back home to Appalachia, so regularly traveled in the mid to late 20th century? This road, or one like it, tells the Boggs-Sweet story, too, and Leonard and his brothers (one who is a Presbyterian pastor, by the way - what in the heck happened to him I often wondered) -- were raised as Appalachian kids. They ran free in forests and open lots and they came home to supper as mom yelled out the door. They were disciplined sternly and loved well and the Bible and the church and the work of advancing God's Kingdom played a central part of their self identity. Going to church camp and revivals and camp meetings were non-negotiable. His mother is a more legendary character than I can say and their upbringing is more interesting than I can tell and this book offers just glimpses. But the glimpses are wonderful to read.
The book is about his mother, after all, but he shares in vulnerable ways episodes that are revealing, shaping, formative. I like very much the method of this madness where Sweet names a particular item, a bit of material culture as the scholars call it, to illuminate the story of Mabel Boggs Sweet and her TV watching fundamentalist husband and the boys that didn't quite remind me of My Three Sons.
So, the chapters are given titles like this:
Ma's Wedding Ring, Dad's Hellevision
The Yellow-Painted Pot-Metal Boudoir Light
Glover's Mange Cure (yep, you read that right, mange cure.)
There are other chapters laden with Americana and old timey tales and what may be some exaggeration, but I bet not. These stories end up being parables that reveal the heart of this Godly woman, perhaps the sort of sturdy Christian disciple that we don't find much anymore. As Sweet says, "Mother didn't look for burning bushes. She was one."
But it's fun, too, just really nice storytelling. You won't want to miss one on his mother's prayer habits called "The Nautical Door." Be sure to read "Mounds, Mars Bars, and the County Home" and "The Doctor's Script."
As the fabulous writer Karen Swallow Prior says, "I found myself hanging on every word in this tenderly written and carefully crafted tribute..."
I said there are at least two big things going on here. Yes, Mother Tongue is a tribute to Leonard Sweet's mother and a window into his own formation; anyone wanting to know how Sweet himself has been shaped and why he tends to see things as he does, calling on churches to be creative in seeking renewal, more disciplined and committed, well this will help. But also, there is this broad call to us all to understand our roots, to know where we've come from and to wonder, as the cover puts asks, "How Our Heritage Shapes Our Story." (Sweet, you may recall, has a very interesting look at the heritage of the United Methodist Church called The Greatest Story Never Told: Revive Us Again (Abingdon; $18.99) that might wisely be read after Mother Tongue. Or, for the more stout and convicted that there should be some connection between ancient and future ways, see a book he edited, Postmodern and Wesleyan?: Exploring the Boundaries and Possibilities (Beacon Hill; $15.99.)
Of course we must always contextualize our faith, relate the "old, old story" to the realities of our own age. But how we do that is the big issue, isn't it? We can learn much from Mabel Bogg Sweet's sage teachings, but Len's own telling of the tale - what he has recalled and why he told it and why it is important to us - is a major contribution. This book says that "you will be challenged to steward your faith so that those who follow may likewise be rooted, established, and in pursuit of God's call on their own lives." That is, in listening in to Sweet tell his story we are invited to ponder our own. As we see how he frames his own upbringing and offers just a little insight on how this might effect him (and us) today, we learn to do the same. It is wise to attend to our own roots and places and background and heritage, so see how it might shape us today.
Isn't that one of the reasons we tell these tales of our loved ones, pass the faith stories on, as the Bible commands, from generation to generation? God, apparently, loves history. God obviously loves storytelling. I suspect strongly that God loves Mother Tongue.
Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels Laura Everett (Eerdmans) $22.99 I don't even bike and I was eager to see this; the book-lovin' folks at Eerdmans in bike-friendly Grand Rapids had assured us this was going to be a huge book this spring, that it would be very interesting, a lot of fun, and very well written.
Now that it is here, I can only say "Amen!" even though it isn't what I would call gospel-focused or evangelical. Well, it is loaded with evangelical zeal about the gospel of cycling. Everett is a pretty serious cyclist and urbanist. I enjoyed her descriptions of different sorts of cycling enthusiasts -- the hard-core fixed gear guys in Boston are called "Freds" - and cheered as she deepened her own commitments to ride more and ruminated on her life choices. The author is the Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches and tells us very little about her work or life outside of her transportation choices (I really wanted more!) but, my, my, does she tell us about her transportation.
As with any embedded study of a serious hobby or sub-culture, there's some amazing passion, insider baseball, and quirky writing about stuff that many of us wouldn't know was so darn interesting. From the inevitable sore bum to the dangers to the sexist hassles, Everett tells us more than you might first want to know about the history of bikes, the different weights and kinds, or how chains work, and, a bike enthusiast or not, on every page, you will be sighing and smiling, wanting more. Holy Spokes is a page-turner - believe it or not - and a very holy book.
I happen to think it would be holy even if it were written in mostly a secular approach; she gets how practices are formative, how a sense of place makes us better people, how it is a virtuous thing to know notice stuff, and to know a bit about the very ground on which you walk (or ride.) Her love for life and her honesty about her journey is so real (but never sentimental) that it is beautiful. The title of the book is not just a bit of cleverness. For Laura Everett, and many of the people she introduces us to in this memoir/reflection, her spokes really are holy.
And here is how she helps us get it: the book is, although a study of urban biking, of two-wheeled transportation, it is, as the subtitle says, a book about spirituality. Every chapter starts with an important quote from Brother Lawrence's enduring Practicing the Presence of God (or from a letter by or about him, one even from a sermon preached at his eulogy in 1666.) Everett has obviously worked with this classic spirituality book and it shows; in every chapter readers will learn how to apply the humble monk's insights about finding God in the ordinary. Her weaving through frantic traffic, getting "doored" in downtown Boston, or wondering what to wear in below freezing temps is a bit different than Lawrence's tales of peeling potatoes. But it works. Her urban spirituality is deeply shaped by this monastic rule, this daily practice, this ordinary spirituality.
The book's chapters, even though they've got that Brother Lawrence quote and includes his teaching, is, in fact, truly about biking. The chapter titles are based on various parts of her bike, with some sort of metaphor attached to each. Here are the names of the chapters and what insight she offers, just to give you a sense of how nifty this is:
Frame - Rule of Life
Wheels - Habit
Saddle - Endurance
Tires and Tubes - Border-Crossing
Lights - Visibility
Fork - Rest
Handlebars - Adaptation
Gears -- Pacing
Chain -- Embodiment
Helmet -- Particularity
Brakes - Limitations
You -- Joy
There are very handsome line drawings throughout - reminding me of an old classic monastic cookbook we used to have - showing off that part of the bike. This is going to bless cyclists and mere watchers, those who find God in the great outdoors and those of us who live this part of life vicariously through entertaining and wise books just like this. It is a beautiful book.
There is an appendix that shows a Blessings of the Bike service and, movingly, a litany for a Ghost Bike service, marking those killed on the roadways.
As Publishers Weekly put it, Holy Spokes is:
Fresh and delightful... With a window into cycling culture, Everett never loses her focus on her belief that commuting by bicycle can be a cosmic and soul-enriching good.
Or listen to William Lamar, who says of it:
For anyone who has longed to look at the beating heart of their city through the lens of faith, Laura Everett provides a winsome, two-wheeled tour.
My Utmost: A Devotional Memoir Macy Halford (Knopf) $26.95 This remarkable book has brought me much pleasure, has caused me to ponder--about my life, faith, Christian growth, and the curiosities of Oswald Chambers (author of My Utmost for His Highest, a staple here) who was a much more complicated and curious person than I ever, ever knew. Ms. Halford wonderfully tells the story of her own fascination with Chambers and his famous devotional. This would be good even if it were not so well written, but it just glows at times, making it a truly luminous, artful and sophisticated read. But more, there's this: Halford's memoir tells of her growing up in a fundamentalist Texas family, heading off to Barnard College, and landing a prestigious writing job in Manhattan at The New Yorker. Her taking inspiration from this old evangelical chestnut in the city that never sleeps, working with folks who (we can only imagine) never heard of any daily devotional, is quite a plot for a story, no?
There's a great chapter telling of an awkward meeting she attended in the city (mostly to appease her evangelically Baptist mother) with some other evangelical women who work "in Christian publishing"- some of it very conservative and very cheesy - which has a spot-on feel about how a thoughtful, less theologically dogmatic, maybe less pious, if still God-haunted, serious professional in the elite field of letters and literature relates to these other zealous, pleasant, mostly Southern women who so earnestly want to pray for her witness in her job among the pagans. ("Do you review Christian books in your job there?" they want to know.) Halford has very little in common with these women - her faith seems somehow different than theres, her expression of faith is certainly different, and her intellectual, social, and political convictions are much different - but then one of them quotes by memory a bit from Oswald Chambers. Another knows his work well, and Macy bonds immediately. How curious.
She is, admittedly, not where she once was, but continues to read this Godly devotional each day as she has since she was 15. She is alarmed when it becomes known that then-President Bush, waging an unpopular war in the Middle East and generally despised by the elite among whom she works, said that My Utmost for His Highest was his favorite book. (We've learned a bit about her life by this time, in the fashion of a good memoir, about her early days, her churchy memories, her baptism at church camp, the awkwardness of being an evangelical involved in a rather rowdy theater group where there was drinking and more.)
Eventually, she leaves her job at The New Yorker to work full time on her story, mostly working around the question of how it is that some are so deeply the writing of the late 1800s Scottish preacher. She moves to Paris, and, oh my, that's interesting.
I won't spoil too much, but besides the good writing, the story of a Christian woman finding her way in the work world, discerning her call to be a writer, the element of a subtly told faith journey, telling how a young adult comes to clarify her own faith, once she has moved beyond her fundamentalist past, there is much here to supplement other biographies of Chambers. The book is as much about him as it is about her. The allusive Oswald Chambers was a mystic, an artist, a preacher, a colorful writer, an eccentric thinker - influenced as he was by romanticism and in tune with Scottish characters like George MacDonald. Chambers died while serving as a chaplain among British soldiers in World War I in Northern Africa. His legacy lives on as one of the best-selling authors in all of history. That such a fascinating, artful, intellectually rigorous, missionary zealot is so popular among ordinary and often culturally conservative American evangelicals - some who would blanch if they knew of the artists he admired, the philosophy he read, the books he loved - is a wonderment.
That a very prominent, respected secular publishing house (Alfred Knopf) published this evangelical memoir about a young woman's study of Oswald Chambers, is also a wonderment. (How did that even happen?) It received a wonderful, insightful review in The New York Times just a week or so ago. And, I suspect that most Christian bookstores won't stock this, which, although perhaps ironic, is part of the sub-sub-text of this very book. How do Christian books make a difference in people's lives and how to those raised in the strict confines of a deep sub-culture learn to navigate the wider world? Mr. Chambers helped Marcy Halford, and now her story helps us all. What a book.
Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography --The Faith of a Boundary-Breaking Hero Michael Long & Chris Lamb (WJK) $ I don't have to say much about this; we all know who Jackie Robinson is, and we may also know that there haven't been quite enough voices really telling his remarkable story that well. This is the best book, I have reason to believe, that has yet been done about the great black player who also was an outspoken critic of racial segregation and early advocate for civil rights. He was a hero to many and he paid up, using his fame as a way to speak wisely about this hard, hard, stuff.
You may know that Michael Long - a central Pennsylvania religion prof near us at Elizabethtown College - has a real knack for drawing on primary sources to create biographies that are more than pop studies or overviews, but are rigorously informed by behind the scenes stuff that few have bothered to study. For instance, he did a biography of the Rev. Mr. Fred Rogers based mostly on his own letters and private correspondence called Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers. He has previously released an amazing collection of Jackie Robinson's letters called First Class Citizenship: The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson. (That was actually named one of the best books of the year by Publishers Weekly.)
Chris Lamb, by the way, is a professor of journalism so knows a thing or two about researching, writing, and telling a good story. And he's written about this, too, including Blackout: The Untold Story of jack Robinson's First Spring Training and Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball (which was called one of the best baseball books of all time by the Huffington Post.) That these too socially conscious sports fans have both written niche books about Jackie Robinson before makes them perfectly suited to create this, what should be considered the definitive book on the great man. The last page, telling about his funeral procession from Harlem (saying what songs the choir sang, and the old spiritual performed by the great Roberta Flack) into Brooklyn is the perfect ending to a great biography.
If you are a real fan, follow this insightful one up with another very good one that just came out, 42 Faith: The Rest of the Jackie Robinson Story written by Ed Henry (Thomas Nelson; $24.99.) It has a great cover, a nice hardback heft, and has gotten some good advanced buzz. The author is a lifetime baseball fan, and a world-class reporter. In fact, Henry has been the primary Fox News Reporter covering the White House throughout the Obama years. He has also served in the prestigious post of president of the White House Correspondents' Association from 2012-2013, after being elected in an unopposed election by his peers in the White House press corps. Prior to joining FNC, Henry was at CNN from 2004-2011, where he served as the network's senior White House correspondent. Henry began his career working for Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Jack Anderson.
The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place Andy Crouch (Baker Books) $13.99 Well, what can I briefly say about this brand new book by one of the most important writers in contemporary Christianity? You know how much I insist we should all read -- a couple of times! - his Culture Making, his reflection on power, Playing God, and his little, very wise book about human flourishing through embracing risk and strength, simply called Strong and Weak.
This fabulous new book, which starts with a foreword by Andy and Catherine's teenage daughter, Amy, is a reflection on the deeper meaning of life in these techy days. Yes, it offers some good advice for parents about making good choices and "reclaiming real life in a world of devices." There is stuff about family life and models for how to get kids on board, uniting around certain limits and practices and appropriate uses of technology. Although not as lengthy or dour as books like Amusing Ourselves To Death or The Shallows, this is one of those great books that meanders through a lot of great truth. There are chapters like "Shaping Space" and "The Deep End of the (Car) Pool" and "The Good New About Boredom." There is a chapter on embodiment (okay, it's about sex) and a lovely chapter called "Why Singing Matters" and a powerful one called "In Sickness and Health."
This is much, much more than a book about limiting screen time, as the beautiful writer Shauna Niequist says. Just listen to this:
To be honest, before I opened this book I expected to be challenged on the topic of screen time for my kids. I was, certainly. What I did not expect was to be offered a vision for family life and faith and character so compelling and inspiring that it made me weep, made me reconsider many aspects of our home, made me profoundly thankful for this beautiful and important book.
Another helpful bit of The Tech-Wise Family, besides its wise rumination on walking through ordinary days with a deeper sense of family living in a particular place with particular habits and postures, there is some brand new data presented with some fresh insights from the Barna Group. Sort of like their wonderful little Frames books, these considerable essays surround info-graphics and comment a bit on some of the latest data about technology, our habits, and our deepest longings as found by this useful research project.
Besides these helpful and interesting charts and colorful info-graphics there are occasional "Realty Checks" portions that give us an honest look through a real window into the Crouch household. He is a broad social thinker and good cultural critic and a wise theological voice - if often positive, inviting us to a pro-active approach of doing good stuff rather than merely avoiding the bad - so these little bits from the Crouch household brings it all down to where you and I live. This is just one more feature making this a very, very useful little book.
If you follow Mr. Crouch's work carefully you will know he's a thinker, a fine writer, musician, speaker, and - among other influences - has been informed by the Montana Catholic philosopher Dr. Albert Borgmann. Borgmann's work (somewhat influenced, perhaps, by his friendship with Presbyterian Eugene Peterson) has become very important to many of us, from his engagement with post-modernity, his worries about the way technology has shaped the quintessential American character, and how, to navigate this well, we need to discover attentive focal practices, as he calls them. (See the wonderful book about all that by called Living Into Focus: Choosing What Matters in an Age of Distractions by Art Boers. See also Professor Borgmann's most overtly Christian reflection on our technological age called Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology.)
Well, Andy has absorbed much of all of this and he himself says this in an afterward to The Tech-Wise Family where he notes the influence of "the life work of Albert Borgmann, especially his 1987 book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry."
But Andy then says this:
Dr. Borgmann's work is, entirely appropriately, far from light reading, so you may want to warm up with one book that influenced him and has delighted and directed our own family: Robert Farrar Capon's The Supper of the Lamb. Although published nearly fifty years ago, Capon's theological cookbook is still the ideal summons to something better than our technological shallows - in the kitchen and everywhere else. Bon appetit - and bon courage.
The Great Wall of China and the Salton Sea: Monuments, Missteps, and the Audacity of Ambition Russell Rathbun (Eerdmans) $21.99 I loved this book I'm going to re-read it. I described it briefly before here at BookNotes, but just have to suggest it again - in an allusive, odd-ball way, it offers much great wisdom in one helluva read. Here is what I said, suggesting it as a Lenten read, actually. Okay, maybe that was a stretch, and if I had time, I'd love to just write a whole new review, since I'm so taken with this book. But, for now, here ya go:
Oh, man-o-man, this deserves a longer review and I hope I can get back to this to tell you even more about how I liked it so. I've been pondering this since I lost a bit too much sleep staying up reading (you've heard that phrase "I couldn't put it down," right?) This is an odd book, about an odd topic, and it is hard to say if it is creative nonfiction, a memoir of sorts, a travelogue, a family history, or some crazy-eyed, made-up novel. I say this mostly because a book he wrote a decade ago, a kind of novel called Post Rapture Radio, was so genre bending and spectacular (don't get me started on how that wonderfully messed with my mind.) Since that dive into the deep end of the creative waters, Rathbun remains a pastor at the non-traditional House of Mercy (serving along side the excellent wordsmith and preacher herself, Debbie Blue) in Saint Paul, MN. That dear Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote a great introduction to this makes sense. She's a fine, rather non-conventional pastor of a church for the "accidental saints" and other assorted odd-ball, unchurched, so a soul-mate of RR, I suppose, and a great storyteller. So she gets him.
But more importantly, as Nadia says in the preface, and as Debbie Blue says on the back cover blurb (sharing space with, I can't not tell you, Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes) Russell Rathbun loves people, loves stories, loves that liminal place where story and words and history collide, even as he "hilariously unravels tales of our folly." Which is to say (stay with me here) this is a Lenten book for those who don't want a Lenten book. It is very enjoyable but, without being heavy handed, it is a study of the somewhat dark and twisted side of human foibles.
The plot line, such as it is, is simple: he criss-crosses across the globe visiting the legendary Salton Sea in Southern California's desert and the Great Wall of China, the only two man-made objects (or so he heard growing up) that one can see from outer space.
He then launches into some remarkable re-telling of Bible stories, not only the flooding narrative from Noah and Ark et. al., but also the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. I'm not spoiling much (you can read it in the subtitle) to say that at the end of the day, this entertaining romp through his travels trying to visit these wild, storied, places, ends up being a book about hubris. Or, as Bolz-Weber says, since there is "no purity in the world," it is about "the ambiguity of ambition."
Rathbun's reporting from China is riveting and his quick history of the rise of Chairman Mao and, importantly, his wife and the notorious Gang of Four is worth the price of the book. It tells you more about his fluency in pop culture to note that he also talks about the 1980s punk band of that name.
Years ago I read a book by one of my favorite writers, Dennis Covington, called Redneck Riviera which is about Covington trying to find out why his late father had some dumb deed to some swamp land in Florida. He was, apparently, ripped off and done wrong, and Covington decides to make it right, tracking down the Floridian long-ago deed dealers. Rathbun's search isn't quite that dramatic or dangerous and his story is more gentle and more haunting -- but there are similarities: why did his modest, farmer grandfather end up with a deed to some luxury lot on the edge of the Salton Sea? It doesn't make sense. What was going on there, and why did it end up to be so much of nothing? What sort of American dreams were shaping the development there and how did it go so wrong? I think his answers are different than Covington's and they are closer to home.
And besides that stuff about hubris and ambition and pride and our human condition, there's joy. As the stellar review in Publishers Weekly put it, it is "an explication of the mundane inside notions of the colossal or the grand, and a model of how to truly live and appreciate the world."
Morgan Meis, a writer who contributes to the New Yorker, says,
I want to read everything Russell Rathbun has written -- he's funny and honest and attuned to the tragic and absurd. His prose made me laugh out loud, and it has made me cry. I cannot recommend The Great Wall of China and the Salton Sea more highly.
The Very First Love Story: Adam, Even, and Us Bruce Feiler (Penguin Press) $28.00 I am sure I don't have to tell you who Feiler is or what a fun writer he is. He edits the "This Life" column for The New York Times and became famous for doing embedded sorts of creative nonfiction, such as the one where he joins the circus or the one about his journeys to the far East called Learning to Bow. His Council of Dads was a heart-warming, tear-jerking powerhouse - he was diagnosed with a terminal cancer and gathered a group of dads to promise to help raise his daughter after he was gone. His most famous, certainly among church folk, was Walking the Bible where he searched for his own long-lost Jewish faith by, literally, trekking around the Holy Land. The similar interfaith hike to hang out with Arabs, Jews, and ancient Christians in the Middle East called Abraham was remarkable, too. We highly recommend them all as just wonderful books to have and enjoy and from which to learn much.
This new one, full of wit and wisdom, is a study (if one can call this gregarious exploration a study) of the story of Adam and Eve; from there, he jumps in to the question of what this Biblical story has to do with modern love. Searching for intimacy, community, sex, family? He is the man. (His most recent book, The Secret of Happy Families was a witty compilation of the best wisdom that all the good self-help books about family life offer, so he's been working this wheelhouse for a while.) The advanced praise of the brand new The First Love Story comes from sources far and wide, and sharp scholars, pundits, writers, and thought-leaders have weighed in, saying our revealing this portrait is and how, in the words of James Martin, this project can make "a seemingly hidebound topic come alive and the oldest Bible stories seem fresh, inspiring, and even exciting."
And how about this for an extra feature: writer of Muslim-Christian relations, Resa Aslan says of The First Love Story, "Feiler's book forces even the most experienced of religious scholars to rethink our understanding of sacredness and profanity." Yes!
Love Lives Here: Finding What You Need in a World Telling You What You Want Maria Goff (Thomas Nelson) $17.99 I hate to pitch a book by a woman primarily in light of what her husband has done, but Bob Goff and Sweet Maria are such a couple, partners-in-crime, a pair -- dare I say, a pair of wild cards? Bob Goff is one of the most popular and well-loved speakers traveling around conferences and events, hosting folks at his own gigs (sometimes he and Maria bring crews of folks to their own getaway lodge along the coast in British Columbia, just because they want folks to meet other folks, genuine, relational, loving service, yes, but also a bit of strategic planning, what is dully called networking. The Goffs turn hospitality into a gracious gift, yes, but sometimes as Kingdom asset. So and so should know so and so as they really ought to partner in this project or that trip or this ministry. Without it seeming forced, these capers they tell us about (and other people tell about in their own books, famously Donald Miller in A Million Years in a Thousand Days) bring good stuff into the world, and always with a belly laugh. If you know Bob, you know he sincerely says "How cool is that?" probably every single day. His book, loaded with these stories, is simply called Love Does.
Well, it really does. But Bob doesn't do this cool stuff alone, and he is always clear about that. He tells of his wife's role in his life sometimes, but it is, after all, her story, and we are all so, so glad she has allowed us into her journey in this new book.
Maria is - shall we say - less extroverted than Bob, so this may not have come as naturally to her. But she is in on the capers, has stories to tell, travels of her own, mission projects, mentoring, surprising hardships and more. If one wants to know how "love does" in the Goff movement, read this. If you ever read yet another tweet from Bob from some war zone or ghetto or hard place where he is using his lawyering skills to help set policy in a developing country or his storytelling skills to encourage younger activists, or using his energies to create spaces of peace and justice in Africa, or fighting sexual trafficking in India, or starting another school, even in ISIS-occupied territory, well, just know you haven't heard the half of it. Until now - Maria's Love Lives Here really does tell the backstory, what goes down on the home front, and how she and her kids (now grown up) have been shaped by living with such a man. There wasn't much of a road map for this kind of lifestyle, and Maria as much as Bob helped create this family, it's stability and energy and ability to become a veritable tsunami of love around the world.
Okay, maybe that tsunami bit was a bit much. I admire Bob and Beth and I have so enjoyed being with Maria, if only briefly, -- a quieter, classy, leader, obviously a truly caring friend, a mentor, wife and mom. How can one step into this kind of blend of reaching out, serving, and being a social entrepreneur that makes a difference in far away places like Uganda or Northern Iraq, and show so much enthusiastic care for so many folks? There's even a story about Nepal. Who goes to Nepal?
However, this book is full of stories not just of the home-side backstory of Bob and his work - he negotiates business contracts sometimes at Disneyland -- it is an example of Maria's own kindness, her outreach and friendship with people far and wide. We could all be inspired to channel God's grace just a bit more clearly just by hearing how a person like Maria manages all this, and how - even though she is a bit of an introvert - she pours herself out for others. Love Lives Here is a blast to read, fun and interesting, but it will sneak up on you, slowly giving you courage to reach out and be more. Sure, God has put some famous people into their lives, young writers, ethical entrepreneurs, missionary leaders, rock musicians, artist types and they have had the ability to pull of some amazing projects. Most of us don't travel in those cool circles (or around the world.) Still, there is so much to learn, so much here to motivate us to be more hospitable and more caring, to turn our own houses into real homes.
I love what Shelly Giglio chief strategist for sixstepsrecords and co-founder, of thePassion Conferences, and fellow church planter of Passion City Church (and, let's admit it, wife of a famous evangelical husband, leader, author, co-founded of the huge Passion events.)
Love Lives Here is every bit as warm and kind as you'd expect from an author known to most of the world as Sweet Maria. If you love the feeling of gaining a new best friend, read this book. If you'd ever wondered how a life some may consider quiet can incrementally impact the world, read this book.
A famous writer who brings a great gift of honest spiritual stuff is Shauna Niequist, whose stories are told in books like her recent Perfect Over Present. (Another look at some hard stuff in life is her under-rated Bittersweet.) She writes about how Maria befriended her, how their relationship meant a lot. Listen to her:
In a moment in my life when I was desperately looking for direction, God used my friendship with Maria to rekindle in me a long-held vision for hospitality that I'd allowed to be obscured by far less important things. This beautiful book will do that same sacred work for so many people. Maria is an example to me--the kind of mother I aspire to be, the kind of gatherer of people I aspire to be. I'm so very thankful for this lovely book, and the heart and wisdom written on every page.
Twenty-Two: Letters to a Young Woman Searching for Meaning Allison Trowbridge (Thomas Nelson) $22.99 This very handsome hardback book is a set of letters by a vibrant young evangelical woman written to a fictional college woman named Tish who wants a mentor, wants to think about her college life but more, what comes next, and desires a thoughtful, informed, life. It offers great spiritual wisdom, is overtly Christian, but there's stuff about travel, about internships, about jobs, and relationships, about reading fiction, just all kinds of sharp advise. Endorsements on the back are from some fairly conventional folks, but also real visionaries and activists like Bob Goff. It is a celebration of life, a conversation with a friend, a guide to life especially for younger women. Brand new. Thoughtful but also just really, really lovely.
This would be ideal for any young adult woman, and may be a great gift for a college grad. Of course, our favorite book to give to a serious Christian transiting out of college is After College: Navigating Transitions, Relations and Faith by Erica Young Reitz and my own little collection of motivational and inspiration Kingdom speeches, Serious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life. But I'll tell you more about those later. For any "anytime" gift, a great read, and a way to walk alongside a thoughtful young woman in her 20s, Allison Trowbridge's Twenty-Two is a gem.
Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy Anne Lamott (Random House) $20.00 I wrote briefly about this the other day although I myself have shown great restraint in not reading this yet. It's sitting here calling out to me, and after Easter I'll so enjoy it, I'm sure. I hear she's doing a speaking tour to promote the book and if you intend to hear her, you could get the book now, and not wait in line at the author gig. Anyway, if you're an Annie fan, you'll love this further collection of well written, casual, remarkably-told stories and essays. She is not Marilyn Robinson in her writing style, but she is full of important substance, honest self-revelation, interesting glimpses of memoir and creative writing. She's blunt and funny and at times deeply moving. This is going to be one of the bigger books of the Spring, and we're happy to alert you to it, now. As you can get from the subtitle, the theme of the book is mercy.
"I'm not sure I even recognize the ever-presence of mercy anymore, the divine and human: the messy, crippled, transforming, heartbreaking, lovely, devastating presence of mercy. But I have come to believe that I am starving to death for it, and my world is too."
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