Great Reading: Picks for Spring

In our recent workshop at the April CCO staff seminar, Derek Melleby and I made the case that reading--and more specifically, encouraging others to read by organizing reading groups, book clubs, and one-or-one study sessions--may be one of the long-lasting influences we can have over people's lives. Those of us committed to making a difference through ministry can certainly use all the support and allies we can get. Who better than good authors, wise scholars and those who have put down in black and white the ideas we are trying to promote?

For those engaged in disciple-making (or those concerned about our own discipleship and growth), we need good books which can serve as tools in our toolkit. It is our passion to help people find noteworthy authors and, with discernment, learn to use these authors in good and meaningful discussions. In that workshop, I recommended Mortimer Adler's exceptional How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading (Touchstone, $15.00). I wish I would have promoted it even more, as it is truly an essential aid. Published in 1940, it remains a standard read for any well-educated person.

One need not be as extreme as the new Crossway author Arthur Hunt, who makes the case that our lack of reading indicates a vast-approaching paganism (The Vanishing Word: The Veneration of Visual Imagery in the Postmodern World), to be concerned about how our culture fails to encourage reading. Even if Hunt overstates the danger in his sprawling historical study, the threat is real. We, as Harry Blamires said a generation ago, have lost "the Christian mind."

A few months ago, I noted a serious new book published by our good friends at Brazos Press, Reading Is Believing: The Christian Faith Through Literature and Film by David Cunningham ($18.99). It deserves mention again now, since it is a wonderful illustration of why Christians (and others) might find good and deep theological insight in novels. It makes the above argument--that we should read more--by just showing how to tease out good insight from good books. A more far-reaching guide (again, one I routinely promote) is Terry Glaspy's very helpful Book Lover's Guide to Great Reading: A Guided Tour of Classic & Contemporary Literature (IVP, $11.00). For anyone needing a bit of a map to the journey into good reading, Terry highlights important books (by century), both fiction and non-fiction. Dip into it and be inspired to, as the Spirit said to Augustine, "Take Up and Read." I find it helpful to know there are books about books, and I like to occasionally remind you of their usefulness.

We can't get any better reminder of all this than the wonderful (wonderful!) article by Steve Garber which appears on the January/February cover of Prison Fellowship's BreakPoint: Worldview. Called "Good Books, Bad Books: Windows into the Human Heart," I cannot commend it more highly. I have been wanting people to know of Steve's extraordinary lecture, which is available on tape from the Jonathan Edwards Institute, since I heard him deliver it at their annual summer conference in Annapolis last July. (Please go to and search their tape archives, not only for Steve's talk, but also for the other splendid presentations--trust me, you won't regret it!)


And so, to this month's column. It has been a while since I listed a bunch of random titles, not reviewing, really, but just offering--tempting, some would say--hints and glimpses of recent releases. So many new books have come out recently that, rather than describe any one or two in detail, I will give a shout out to a bunch. Here's our pick 'o the spring.

The Story We Find Ourselves In: Further Adventures of a New Kind of Christian by Brian McLaren (Jossey-Bass, $21.95). Many readers will know that the fictional account that McLaren told in A New Kind of Christian was one of the most talked-about Christian books published in the last few years. Whether he was chastised for being "too postmodern" or touted as the prince of postmodern faith and its new emerging voices, it surely caught people's attention. Here, the story continues, and I am sure that this "tale of spiritual renewal and relevance for today's confusing and divisive world" is a fun read. The blurbs on the back are from the amazing Len Sweet (who really does read all the books he raves about), Dan Kimball (whose The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations I should have mentioned when I was writing about the emerging village books a few months ago), Sally Morganthaler and Dieter Zander. Each of these authors loves this stuff--Sally M. says "McLaren's narrative is bonfire faith: a warm, spacious history of God where wonder and logic dance freely together. Superb." Any author who thanks the likes of Wendell Berry poetry and N.T. Wright's Bible study, cites Ishmael and Dallas Willard, well--you know he's going to mix all that together into quite a story. It just may be the story our restless world is looking for.

Practicing Resurrection: A Memoir of Work, Doubt, Discernment, and Moments of Grace by Nora Gallagher (Knopf, $23.00). Many who liked Anne Lamott's much-acclaimed and widely read Traveling Mercies have found Gallagher a fitting companion. Her wonderfully-written Things Seen and Unseen has been described (all right, by me, I mean) as "Anne Lamott meets Kathleen Norris." This new memoir continues the journey she chronicled in Things Seen.... This is a strong and loving antidote to pop psychology and shallow piety. Annie Dillard has called it "stunning." Bill McKibben says ""¦one of the finest things I've read in a very long time." For any of us who long for greater clarity as we discern our vocations, or who just love a good love story, well told. Highly recommended.

By Wolloway Brook: Exploring the Landscape of Prayer by Cindy Crosby (Paraclete, $17.95). What a handsome, chunky-sized small hardback! What a fine publisher Paraclete is increasingly becoming! This book is on my "can't wait" list, partially because of my esteem for Ms. Crosby (whose book about grief, Waiting for Morning: Hearing God's Voice in the Darkness I thought to be very good), but even more because this topic is hugely important and vastly under-appreciated. In what Wendell Berry or Wes Jackson has called "a sense of place," Crosby asks how her geography--the midwest prairie grasslands--informs her prayer life. That Paul Gruchow, author of the very important and lovely The Necessity of Empty Places, wrote the forward is itself a very good sign. The notion of a contemplative encounter with nature is nearly a cliché, yet few evangelicals (especially) really read much like this. Perhaps people just do it and don't need to read about it; still, it would seem to me (not unlike the nature of God or popular culture or sex) that if people really do do it, they would like reading about it. So I have a hunch that even though we all think about meeting God outdoors, it is a very under-developed aspect of our spirituality. In our effort (often described in this column) to forge evangelical faith that is engaged with the world around us, what can be more useful that finding connection with creation?

Luci Shaw--a great poet who pays attention to nature herself--has reviewed this saying, "Crosby is one who listens and looks, and because she is paying such close attention to the landscape of Creation, she is led inevitably in responding to the Creator and entering intimate communications with him. Such awareness and response is a gift we can all participate in with deep gratitude." For lovers of ecology, science, spirituality and memoir, this book is a treasure to behold!

Food & Faith: Justice, Joy and Daily Bread edited and compiled by Michael Schut (Living the Good News, $14.95). This is a reasonably-priced paperback book as lovely as I have seen this season! What a great collection of essays and articles from authors such as Wendell Berry, Thomas Moore, John Robbins, and (of course) M.F.K. Fisher. Although it can be read by itself, it is a follow-up to the wonderfully done previous volume, Simpler Living, Compassionate Life, also produced by Mr. Schut. These are ecumenical projects done in the hope of having resources for more normative lifestyles, for small group use around themes of sustainable living and--with the excellent study guides and resource appendices, etc.--it is sure to be a helpful tool for anyone wanting to grow in greater fidelity in an world of poverty and affluenza. Please note, though, that in this collection, justice and joy are both key words in our use and celebration of the gift of daily bread. Food and faith, indeed, taken in justice, with joy. Highly, highly recommended.

The Dance of Hope: Finding Ourselves in the Rhythm of God's Great Story by William Frey (Waterbrook, $12.99). When a sales representative from this evangelical publisher visited our store, she exclaimed that this book "had Hearts & Minds name written all over it!" We hope it is true that our customers appreciate a perspective that is well-written, thoughtful (without being unnecessarily abstract or intellectual) and--if a bit creative--finally offering a solid, gospel-drenched worldview. The author went from being a bishop in the Episcopal Church to a Dean of Trinity School of Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. This is a wonderfully attractive exploration of what hope is, how hope can give us confidence in daily life and Christian ministry. Happily, Bishop Frey roots our hope in the biblical story, so this book is not only an inspiring read for those who hunger for hope, but a great recollection of the role of the unfolding biblical drama in our lives. It will help you find your story in God's story, and that surely is worth the admission to the dance hall!

Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement Archbishop by Rowan Williams (Morehouse, $15.95). Many of this prolific theologian's works are being reissued, and he has several new ones. Which to mention?

As the new Archbishop of Canterbury, he is a world-watched, leading witness for the faith. Here, he offers insight about our contemporary culture and why it is hard to handle certain concepts and images. In what ways has a modern world (and the postmodern culture that is supplanting old-school modernism) prevented us from certain human possibilities? Williams argues that we have let go of a number of crucial imaginative patters ("icons"). From thinking about childhood, remorse, community, a proper view of the self--these are all key areas where a formerly accepted vocabulary is now largely lost. How are we to regain a language of the soul in this secularized hyper-culture? Williams takes his usual gift for writing about the ordinary and opens it up, showing us how it can carry us into the mystery of God incarnate. A thoughtful and important contribution from an important writer.

By the way, Rowan Williams also has a delightful little meditation book out on Russian iconography--not to be confused with study which uses the word icon as a metaphor. His other new one really is on icons! And, as I have said here before, his remarkable, brief memoir of being across the street from the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001--Writing in the Dust--is one of the better books to have come out of that national tragedy.

Blessed are the Cynical: How Original Sin Can Make America a Better Place by Mark Ellingsen (Brazos, $23.99). Okay, let's say it again: we live in a fallen world. Or, as the Puritans put it, "in Adam's fall, we sinned all." I don't think Ellingsen used that little ditty in this important new book, but his sense that Americans are way too optimistic permeates this very thoughtful reflection on how we could all use a dose of sin. Well, not more sin, really, but more awareness of sin. This is the sort of Christian realism (Gabe Fackre from Andover Newton says on the back jacket) that, without which, we "invite disaster."

Max Stackhouse, from Princeton, notes that "Ellingsen has neatly summarized in this readable volume some of the most profound Christian insights into the realities of human nature." Many social thinkers, cultural critics, politicos and scholars have held forth on this matter for most of the modern era. Now, a plainspoken text calls us back to a sober sense of our flawed humanity and how this truthfulness about the human condition could have unavoidable repercussions in politics, the family, education and the like. In a society that seems daily more self-absorbed--where we have lost the warning of older books such as The Culture of Narcissism--Blessed are the Cynical just might prove very helpful. (But then again, to take the author's suggestion to heart, maybe it won't. Drat.)

Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History by Lesslie Newbigin (Eerdmans, $15.00). Yes, you read that right--a new Newbigin book! Hearts & Minds customers know that we have put very high regard on the former Bishop of the Church of India and rave about important books such as his The Gospel in a Pluralist Society and Foolishness to the Greeks. Here we have various lectures from his lifetime of work, published for the first time. The first few were delivered in Bangalore in 1941 when Newbigin was only 32 years old! Later lectures include his early reflections on missions, his hope that the gospel would offer "a missionary encounter with the modern Western culture" and, significantly, his important pair of lectures--on gospel and culture--before the WCC just before his death.

This is a fine introduction to this very important churchman for those who have not worked through any of his books. Fans will want to have it, visiting and revisiting this elder statesman of the church of Jesus Christ, as he poured out his good life and fertile mind to make the good news known better. Prophetic, insightful and dear.


I would like to tout three new books that are part of a new series. They are lovely hardcovers, regular-sized and attractive. More importantly, they are thoughtful, wise and caringly written by mainstream, ecumenical religious writers, tackling a subject which has too often been considered the domain of simple-minded self-help gurus or authoritarian fundamentalists. Whether or not this assessment is true (happily, the publishing world is much, much more diverse that that!), it certainly feels that way to many book-buyers, especially those in mainline churches.

And so we are glad to announce that Jossey-Bass has introduced a new group of titles in a set called the "Families and Faith Series." Solidly Christian, biblically-informed, but not necessarily aligned with the typical conservative Christian mindset, these are rich resources to be considered by anyone who wants a fresh perspective based on insightful research and mature reflection. Let me briefly tell you about them.

Sacred Stories of Ordinary Families: Living the Faith in Daily Life by Diana Garland (Jossey-Bass, $19.95). With a nice forward by the always-elegant Dorothy Bass, this is nearly a collection of stories. And thereby it says loudly and clearly that our stories matter. Faith is something we do, but we do that which our stories guide us to do. For strong, faith-filled families, we need time spent together, tradition-making time, time to embody the practices that will illustrate the vibrant way faith shapes our lives and relationships. The author cites many great and diverse works (you can tell when an author is so delightfully widely read), but one which is especially germane is a little paperback from InterVarsity Press that makes the same case. See Eileen Silva Kindig's Remember the Time? The Power and Promise of Family Storytelling. Garland is the author of Family Ministry: A Comprehensive Guide (IVP). Very, very good.

The Power of God at Home: Nurturing Our Children in Love & Grace by J. Bradley Wigger (Jossey-Bass, $19.95). Again, a lovely hardcover, pleasant to hold and full of good sense and godly wisdom. With endorsements from the likes of Marian Wright Edelman and sociologist Robert Wuthnow, you know this isn't your typical shallow-end stuff. Still, it is highly engaging, clear and compelling, offering ideas for how parents can instruct their kids in the ways of faith development. Like other books in the Jossey-Bass orbit, it reminds us that faith is shaped in practices and habits that embody lifestyles and the daily, little choices, construed into meaning out of a uniquely faith-infused worldview. Practical and very helpful, the author is the Director of the Center for Congregations and Family Life at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary.

Seasons of a Family's Life: Cultivating the Contemplative Spirit at Home by Wendy Wright (Jossey Bass, 19.95). This special book is my favorite of the initial three in this "Family & Faith" series. Wright is clearly indebted to the contemplative tradition and attempts to bring this prayerfulness to bear in the daily life of the home. Again, Jossey-Bass seems able to get just the right author to do just the right forward--here, Robert Benson offers a fabulous entry to the larger work. For those of us who struggle to find spiritual meaning in everyday family experiences, Wright shows us just how to open up the contemplative disciplines previously known by nuns and monks. As James Wind from the Alban Institute puts it, "As she probes the dish-washing, carpooling, diaper-changing, curfew-setting reality of everyday life, she guides us to sacred ground." Along with her previous work, Sacred Dwelling (now published by the quirky Forest of Peace publishing ministry), Wright has made a gentle and beautiful contribution to the experience of God in family life.

A few of these chapters had their genesis in various journals and magazines; several were in Weavings. For those who know that publication, they will immediately know the caliber, sweetness and maturity of the writing.

Two little gems that ought not to be missed:

Augsburg-Fortress has been publishing little paperbacks, summaries of serious works, or excerpts. Two important contributions to this "Facets" series include two very different works, both which we love. Go figure.

On Christian Liberty by Martin Luther (Fortress, $6.00). The classic little exploration of justification by faith which changed the man and exploded medieval Europe. Pray that God would grant us a fresh appreciation for these old, old truths and that we could learn to speak them well.

Jesus and Nonviolence by Walter Wink (Fortress, $6.00). Much can and should be said about Wink's various books. Some are truly great, some are very interesting, a few rather troubling. Here, he offers one of the clearest and most compelling arguments that I've read for what biblical nonviolence might look like. With the controversy over recent U.S. military policies, and with Baghdad still smoldering as I write, this may be a timely gift from our Prince of Peace. Read it if you are seeking a biblical basis for peacemaking. If you do not embrace Jesus' call to love enemies, read it and see what you think.

We are one of the few stores that routinely carries Ron Sider's important little book, Christ and Violence, which I reviewed in Sojourners over 20 years ago. It has been reprinted and we are eager to let people know about its clarity, evangelical fervor and powerful plea for living the lifestyle of the cross, even in matters of war-thinking, justice-doing and peacemaking. Ron's careful exegesis and clarity coupled with Wink's book serving as a precis to his important three-volume work on the "principalities and powers," these should be in every church library as a resource for developing a helpful and faithful social ethic.