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« In store author appearance this Saturday: Beverly Lewis, author of Amish novels | Main | Renewed social concern amongst evangelical publishers »

Thoughtful, interesting, important, serious work from evangelical publishers

Thanks to those who wished us well regarding our in-store author appearance of the New York Times mega-seller lovely lady, Beverly Lewis.  She's a constant on the Christian best seller lists and her most recent books have been about a topic close to her own life and heart: the Amish. I hope you read my last post as I danced around this matter of overtly religious evangelical fiction, from the bad rap it has gotten from more sophisticated literary types and how the cheesy covers have sometimes turned people off.  I celebrated Ms Lewis' good stories and tried to honor her for being a writer that folks have come to love.  I liked writing it, and looked forward to hosting her.  We were not disappointed.

We found her to be smart and very nice, and clearly with us in order to serve her fans, to meet and greet and listen and pose with people for pictures.  We had a wonderful time--the largest in-store gig we've ever done--and heard some truly extraordinary stories of people whose lives were touched by these popular stories of faith and integrity and doubt and romance, all set within the fascinating sub-cultural of the radical plain people.  Thanks to Beverly and her gang from Bethany House who helped us make this happen.  (We have a few that are autographed left over, by the way.  Let us know if your interested.)

I made a comment--I don't think I was being snide--- that some this recent phenomenon of "Christian fiction" was a marketing creation of conservative evangelical publishers and I think that is largely true (although, obviously, they couldn't have created such a genre if there were weren't talented writers and interested readers---again, something we are quick to celebrate.)  I also said that "Christian fiction" has improved in aesthetic quality and literary merit in recent years.  Even the book jacket design is better than the awful days of the mid-70s when this genre was just taking off.

We have often maintained that the substance and quality of non-fiction religious publishing has gotten better in the past decade or so, too.  Of course there has been weird stuff, old heresies in new garb, and yet, the silver lining there is that there is great openness to discuss important questions.  Mainline denominational presses have released conservative evangelical authors and publishers known for being pretty narrow in years gone by are doing fabulously interesting, winsome and faithful work.  We are glad about this hint or ecumenical discourse, as it vindicates our mantra about reading widely, with discernment. 

And so, in this post we will name--yea, celebrate--a few new books that are released by mainstream evangelical presses that are just a bit surprising, perhaps, faithful and interesting, provocative and thoughtful, faithful and good.  My sense is these sorts of titles may not have been released in another era of Christian publishing, at least not by these publishers, dominated as it was by the simple, inspirational, vapid or right-wing.  Three cheers for the CBA!  At least insofar as they release stuff like this.  What do you think?

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Out Live Your Life: You Were Meant to Make a Difference  Max Lucado (Nelson) $24.99  Max has always been an author we've promoted.  He is sentimental and yet has good substance, is a delightfully easy read, without being shallow or dumb.  A few are more meaty than others (and I railed about one of his that irked me a few years back, here.)  Still, Max has a touching style, a writerly approach that makes one feel and engage and be inspired.  Some are saying this is one of his best yet, and it is simply about this complicated matter of leaving a legacy, of the shift from success to significance, of doing something that will last.  Specifically, he is writing about fighting poverty, and undoing the injustice of the terrible hunger in our world.  Ladies and gentle, this is nothing short of a publishing event (complete with a teen edition, a youth version, and a DVD set.)  One hundred per cent of the author's royalties will go to benefit children and families through World Vision. (Follow how much the book generates by going to www.MaxLucado.com.)

Here is what Lucado says on the back cover: 

Dear Friend,

May I share a story that is very dear to my heart?

It's a story of hillbillies and simple folk, net casters and tax collectors.  A story of a movement that explored like a just-opened fire hydrant out of Jerusalem and spilled into the ends of the earth: into the streets of Paris, the districts of Rome, the ports of Athens, Istanbul, Shanghai, and Buenos Aires. A story so mighty, controversial, head spinning, and life changing that two millennia later we wonder: Might it happen again?
He continues,

Heaven knows we hope so.  These are devastating times: 175 billion people are desperately poor, one billion are hungry.  Lonely hearts indwell our neighborhoods and attend our schools. In the midst of it all, here we stand, you, me, and our one-of-a-kind lives.  We are given a choice...an opportunity to make a big difference during difficult time. What if we did? What if we rocked the world with hope?

Worth a try, don't you think?

Look, I bet you know that Ron Sider (famous for founding Evangelicals for Social Action and writing Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger) is a friend of ours and nearly a mentor; we have brought in Jim Wallis and push the radical stuff of Shane Claiborn.  The Whole in the Gospel by Richard Sterns was one of our biggest sellers this year and the start: Becoming a Good Samaritan was our biggest selling DVD curriculum piece.  We stock the classic memoirs of the likes of Dorothy Day and Francis of Assisi and have shelves of serious policy stuff about Christian political options.  Our world missions section includes detailed studies of ministry being done in Christ's name all over the globe.  But you know and I know that many folks don't want to wade through heavy stuff, dreary statistics, strategic studies of social change.  Some of the categories of books here where we are most well stocked are, sadly, pretty dusty; nobody buys such stuff. Sure, a few do (you know who you are) but many just don't have the capacity to read that deeply or seriously. 

I believe this new book could be a gateway to a more robust and mature missiology, and
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linking the readers of the usually sentimental and pastoral Max to the life-and-death call to bold social action.  If anybody can "prod the slumbering giant" of evangelicalism to care more about the poor, it may not be Tony Campolo or even Rick Warren, both who nicely wave that banner high (in the name of Jesus!)  It just might be Max Lucado

Here is a link to a little video where Max is in Africa talking about the number of child sponsorships that he hopes to achieve.  You won't believe their goal!

There are some funny stories in here, and some powerful testimony, and some good Bible reflections.  He has his purple pen going and he can write very moving paragraphs, beautiful and poignant and touching.  There is a good study guide in the back, so it is ideal for book clubs or Bible study groups.  It isn't hard, it is a fun read, and it is book that you will not regret sharing with others.  Who doesn't want their impact to count for the things God would want?
Why don't you buy a few and pass em around?  Nobody is beyond hope, Max reminds us, and we think he is right. 

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Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don't Have to Do  Phillip Carey (Brazos) $14.99  Let me explain why I've listed this tremendously rich and thoughtful and wonderfully written book on this little list.  The title, and especially the sub-title, and, I think, even the cover, seem to shout that this book is a useful little self-help guide, a "here's how to get your life together" practical guide to easy answers, the sort that offers formulas and false promises. These sorts make up a good chunk of religious publishing these days. You'd wouldn't be unfair or unkind to think this, especially if you are a tad cynical about the rosy view of the happy Christian life that these ubiquitous guides say.  You wouldn't be unfair, but you'd be wrong.  Very wrong.

This book is written by a gentleman that is, well, a genius.  There, that is out of the way.  Dr. Philip Cary is the seriously-respected, poised and polished scholar-in-residence of the Templeton Honors College at Eastern University, a philosophy prof and Christian leader whose own theological roots are planted deeply in the old soil of the ancient faith.  It is funny that this book seems to be pitched as a simple book of formulas or "practical" steps, but take careful notice.  The irony of the whole deal is seen in the sub-title: these are "10 practical things you don't have to do."  This is an anti-self-help book that takes historic and solid theology and uses that to counter the silliness--silliness that may become toxic---that is often found in popular level evangelicalism.  This is solid pastoral theology, inviting deeper and more mature thinking about the slogans and cliches we too often hear.  The publisher, Brazos, is renown for a stable of wise and radical authors, having released some of the best ecumenical religious books published in the last decade.  Yet, for those who may not know the rich liturgical heritage of Brazos, this just looks like a dozen other ordinary books of 10 steps to this or that.

Chris Hall, himself a colleague of Dr. Carey, now Chancellor of Eastern, and known professionally for his work in the patristics, raves about Good News for Anxious Christians.  He says,

Evangelicals worry about lots of things, including the state of our spiritual health.  Phil Cary is worried, too: worried that evangelicals are suffering needlessly because they have imbibed a consumerist spirituality that offers much but provides little. Phil's prescription for spiritual indigestion? A turning away from the self to the one who continually speaks a healing, saving word to us, Christ himself. This is, quite frankly, one of the best books I've read on the spiritual life over the past twenty-five years.
After Andy Crouch notes that he didn't necessarily agree with all the zingers in this book ("Yes! No! Whoa!") he says it is "graceful and liberating, it is a word of wisdom and hope that just might convince anxious Christians that the gospel really is better news than we've yet imagined." 

There is a lot of goofy teaching out there, and a lot of books that pass for "Christian psychology" or spiritual direction are well intended.  Cary shows that we don't have to jump through these hoops to be closer to God, and that spiritual techniques or new theology can just make us more anxious, more frustrated, over-whelmed and narcissistic.  With chapters titles like "You Don't Have to Hear God's Voice in Your Heart" to Why You Don't Have to "Let God Take Control" this is going subvert some shibboleths and invite some honest, sane, talk.  Want to know why "applying it to your life" is boring?    Check this out.
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Cary admits it is a stealth attempt at doing solid theology by subverting some of the current evangelical trendiness.  Like Andy Crouch, I'm not confident he's always right.  But as he skillfully unpacks the riches of traditional Christian spirituality, he teaches us much, not the least of which is how there are great books (like this one) that offer a different voice than what many think is the evangelical party line.  Very, very wise and very, very important.  Click here for a little one-minute message by Dr. Cary talking about a liberal arts education and the need for Christians to think well.  What an articulate piece---you'll see why we promote the book, just from getting that little last of his insight.


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The Gospel According to Jesus: A Faith that Restores All Things  Chris Seay (Nelson) $19.99  The last time we named Chris here was as we were touting his fun bit of reflection on the TV show Lost, which we thought was quite nicely done.  Well, the visual artist (who had icons of Hurley and Jack and Kate and others) shows up here, too, with some very imaginative full color illustrations of insights from Seay's creative reflections on the meaning of the message of Jesus.  When I first got this, I figured it might be like Brian McLaren's Secret Message of Jesus or Kingdom Come by Allen Mitsuo Wakabayahi, just two popular-level books that show how Jesus' own self-definition of his message ("the gospel") is the fact of the in-breaking of the reign of God into human history.  The gospel, according to Jesus, is always more than the message of forgiveness through his sacrificial and atoning death.  It is also that His victorious reign, to "defeat the works of the devil" in the provocative phrase from John, has been unleashed "on Earth as it is in Heaven."  Rebels should lay down their arms, for the rightful King has come back, and is starting His project in covenant faithfulness to bring salvation to His damaged world.  Indeed, his battle cry is "the Kingdom of God is at Hand!"  His first sermon (in Luke 4) announced His claims to bring the "Year of Jubilee."  One simply can't understand Jesus properly without a study of His Kingship and Kingdom.

So,  I ordered a lot of The Gospel According to Jesus because I think the theme of the
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Kingdom of God is misunderstood and underestimated, and I figured any bit of reflection on that could be helpful, especially given the great sub-title.  I liked Seay's Gospel According to The Matrix, The Gospel According to Tony Soprano, and the aforementioned Gospel According to Lost.  Now, the ultimate one: the real gospel according to the real Kingdom-bringer.  A decade or so ago within the evangelical publishing culture we just would not have found a book pitched like this---about the full gospel message of restoring brokenness through Divine grace seen in the theme of the Kingdom, illustrated with contemporary modern art, pitched alongside books on pop culture.

And here is what else makes this provocative pondering invitation to care about the reign and commonwealth and reconciliation wrought by Jesus a very important work.  The Barna Research Group was commissioned to conduct a survey to determine just what Christians did or didn't know about their faith, a survey which they unveil a bit of here.  As it says on the back cover, "84% according to this new Barna report, described within, are unfamiliar with the essential tenets of their faith, with a crippling misunderstanding of the word righteousness, and, in turn, the gospel of Jesus."

Yet another feature of this fascinating new study is the way it incorporates some sidebar interviews with others (Shane Claiborne, Alan Hirsch, Mark Batterson, and others.)  Younger authors tend to be more collaborative, and these printed interviews flow naturally within the body of the text, illuminating (or nuancing or refining) the points Seay is making.  Just what does it mean to be righteous?  What is justification according to Jesus?  How do we form community, bear fruit of shalom, become more generous, learn to fast and feast?  The answers to how to life faithfully and well is tied up, he suggests, with our answer to the call of Matthew 6:33---namely, to seek Christ's Kingdom and righteousness. 

There are deep and serious explorations about the nature of Christ's message, but many are so arcane or academic that they just aren't that useful.  There are little books about Jesus, but many have no mettle.  They are nearly books without a spine.

This is one you may or may not like.  It is a bit punchy, lots of stories, this unusual art stuff inside, and a radical invitation to grace, restoration, hope.

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The Pursuit of the Holy: A Divine Invitation  Simon Ponsonby (Cook) $14.99  I do not intend to suggest that David C. Cook used to be boring, but it is fair to say that they used to be mostly known for kiddie Sunday school stuff.  From little plastic swords to cheery curriculum, they didn't have the reputation, say, of an Eerdmans or a Fortress.  Well, Cook is still quite evangelical in their theological orientation but they have been releasing some truly remarkable books in the last year or so; we stock almost everything they do and are pleased to take them out to book shows and conferences.  Like other conservative Protestant publishers they are doing more sophisticated books, solid, faithful, still evangelical in tone and substance, but more interesting and willing to relate to a postmodern culture than we saw a few decades ago.
This book is just one example of the good stuff coming out of their Colorado Springs headquarters.  The author is pastor of theology at St. Aldates Church in Oxford, England, and ordained priest in the Church of England.  He is a passionate evangelist, so that informs his writing---wanting to communicate well to folks, being interesting (fiery we might even have said years ago) and quite clear.  He has a couple of serious degrees in theology, but isn't writing for the academic guild.  He is writing for folks like you and me.

Ponsonby starts the book noting that the Lord's famous command "Be holy as I am holy" is "the most extravagant--and audacious--invitation ever sent."  But can we do it?  That is the question of this book---is a holy life achievable for sinful Christians?

This serious book draws on diverse theological sources--again, it makes my point that there are creative and fresh winds blowing through evangelical publishing.  He quotes R.C. Sproul (how could you not cite The Holiness of God?) and then Jurgen Moltmann and Wolfgang Pannenberg.  He draws on old school Puritans (Owens, Edwards) and modern ones (Ferguson, Bridges.)  His bibliography includes Dutchies like Berkhof and Berkhouwer.  Of course, he quotes C.S. Lewis, and he naturally quotes Ryle, another must for this topic. He quotes P.T. Forsyth (a favorite of Eugene Peterson's by the way) and Thomas Cranmer's articles from the Book of Common Prayer.  I love citing all this (even though the wingspan of the authors isn't all that wide, really) to show that this is a broad thinker, a mature leader, writing helpful stuff that takes us a bit deeper into a serious aspect of our discipleship. And he's interesting!  Other than InterVarsity Press, I don't know who would have published such a substantive (but non-academic) book from the evangelical camp a few years back.  Kudos to Cook for doing it now.  Kudos too all kinds of publishers who can't be pigeon-holed and authors for offering their gifts for us all.  The world is a bit better because of it, and it makes us glad booksellers.

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2 Comments

Byron, my questions and pondering are literary/pastoral. (Perhaps a church will one day invent a "Pastor of Literature" position.) I'm in the midst of reading "Good News for Anxious Christians." There have been other books with the same perspective, but not as concisely and poignantly written.

Pastoral question: There have been many books published on "listening to God." Must one agree with Cary's warnings on "listening to God in the heart" 100% or could his warnings be read as well-needed correctives?

Literary question: What are some well-crafted/non-cheesy books that would disagree, either in whole or in part, with Dr. Cary's perspective? (He mentions Dallas Willard.)

Pondering: Could it be that the root problem with Christian guidance is not about the question of "hearing God," but about the question of the community. Guidance is usually spoken of individualistically. There are not many books written on the role of the community in decision making. Both Willard and Cary give little space to this. If you know of any books on community and decision-making I would love to read them.

Mike

Mike, THANKS for this great question. Good remarks for sure!

Would you please send me this inquiry at our email address at read@heartsandmindsbooks.com OR at the "inquiry" section of our website? It is hard to post complex answers to these good questions here. It would be really helpful to know just a bit about you and your faith tradition, your church or theological orientation, too, just so I know who I'm talking to. Don't want to say anything unhelpful because I don't know your setting...

To the question about Cary's warning: no, you don't have to agree with him 100% (I rarely agree 100% with any author!) You may have seen my own favorable review about the "whispers of God" book by Hybells a few weeks back.

And, YES, the question of communal discernment is truly a very helpful insight, I think. And that includes what I'd call communal wisdom; a variety of counselors offering reasonable input. AND, also, some communal process of prayerfully listening to promptings of the Spirit...there are a few recent books on this very process of congregational "listening" and spiritual discernment. This need not be overly mystical, but it dare not be utterly a matter of thinking logically in light of the Bible, as if God never prompts through the direct whisper of the Holy Spirit. So, yes, there are books about this. I can share more over at email where we have spell check and italics and whatnot. Let's stay in touch!