Holiday Devotionals, New Books & the Smell of Sawdust

I know this special December column should include a number of seasonal cyberspace ho-ho-ho's, but I'm going to keep it (relatively) simple. A holiday devotional suggestion or two, a coupla parenting titles, a marvelous new art book and my personal recommendation for a great gift for any evangelicals--or those who aren't--on your list.

Readers of this monthly article know my insistence that The Advent of Justice is the absolute best Advent devotional in print. Seriously biblical, reformationally radical, inexpensive, it's incredible for meaningful reflections during the Season. Written by Walsh, Middleton, Kysmaat and old Pittsburgh bud Mark VanderVennan, it is published by Dordt College Press ($4.95). Not stocked in most stores, get 'em by the stack and give 'em out. It will bless others and be an asset to the coming of the Kingdom.

A new, handsome handbook, Wonderful Counselor, is for all you late starters--just a fortnight's worth of Christmas meditations. Very nicely written by Larry Libby and Steve Halliday (Waterbrook, $12.95), it includes creative dialogues with biblical characters and shorter meditations. For fans of Max Lucado, it evokes warm awareness of God's love, includes great examples and contemporary stories; solid, yet doesn't stretch too much.

Another strikingly handsome small hardback is the latest offering from well-loved pensman Walter Wangerin. In the Days of the Angels: Stories and Carols for Christmas (Waterbrook, $13.95) is a new devotional which includes a few pieces from his former Advent book, The Manger is Empty. My, my this is wonderful stuff. (If you've never read through his odd stories in the classic Ragman, don't hesitate. Order that one, too!)

There are other truly wonderful books for Advent reading--from the deeply contemplative to the lighthearted. Do let us know if we can be of help finding just the right one for you. Remember, as I've often said, this is a season when it is perhaps the most easy to share books, give gifts and encourage reflective reading. Who doesn't want a meaningful holiday season? Maybe your student who rarely shows interest in attending a Bible study group might come to an investigation of what the Bible really says about Christmas. Let us pull out the stops this next month and talk about Christ's incarnation as that for which our culture so longs.

Although not a holiday title, a great gift for parents is Nurturing a Child's Soul by Timothy Jones (Word, $16.99.) A stunning dust jacket of the face of a child being held draws you to the essential humanity of this book: caring and nurturing our children into virtuous Kingdom citizens. The writer of the marvelously helpful guide to contemplation, Soul Feast, has given it rave reviews, noting that it combines both accessible wisdom about spiritual formation and astute cultural awareness. Put this alongside some of the other truly significant parenting books which have come out recently---Marva Dawn's radical Is It a Lost Cause: Having the Heart of God for the Church's Children or former Jubilee speaker John Seel's fantastic Parenting Without Perfection: Being A Kingdom Influence in a Toxic World. Seel's cool cover--a skateboard kid, looking both tough and inviting--speaks accurately of the book's tough-minded approach. Rejecting the too-common Christianese and formulaic answers, he draws on the likes of Os Guinness and cultural critics to offer parents an approach which is realistic for our fallen world, yet visionary and principled. One of the best books of its kind I've seen!

For any artists on your Christmas gift-giving list--or any that you know!--a brand new book has just pulled itself onto my "must read" list. A sharp, Lancaster-based graphic artist complained that several of the books on a Christian perspective of the arts covered similar ground (and didn't go far enough in pushing towards concrete guidance). Sure, several great books explain how God cares about the arts, has given us rainbows for the fallen world, expects us to be appreciative and supportive of the creative souls in our midst. Christian art should be nuanced and not propaganda, etc. etc. etc.

But my friend Ned Bustard wanted the Next Step: out of such a worldviewish framework, how do artists work to the glory of God? And so he commissioned some of the heavyweights of the field to explain how to actually pursue artistic endeavors in a philosophically coherent way. It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God (Square Halo Press, $17.99) has a forward by Sandra Bowden, the current President of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA), and includes proposals by significant painters, songwriters, dancers, writers and sculptors. Building on the foundations of other books which explore the validity of the Christian's calling to and involvement in the arts, this collection invites artists--and all of us who are wise enough to know the importance of listening in on this sort of conversation--to the next step of making art from a Christian perspective. Ned calls his new publishing venture "Square Halo Press," which is an iconographic reference in art history to a living saint. Indeed, this is a collection of the work of living saints and we all should applaud and support their courage, vision and good work for the Kingdom.


"It is a great, great book!" That's what I'm telling everyone who cares about the nature of evangelicalism or ecumenism as I insist that they read Richard Mouw's brand new The Smell of Sawdust: What Evangelicals Can Learn from Their Fundamentalist Heritage (Zondervan $14.99). Mouw is as Dutch Kuyperian as one can get, although his personal roots are in the revivalism of tent meetings, soul-searing testimonies and radio preachers. As one who has spent his life promoting a more intellectually-sound and socially-concerned evangelicalism--he's friends and fellow-travelers with everyone from Mark Noll and George Marsden to Ron Sider and Jim Wallis--Mouw has concluded that we progressive neo-evangelicals really ought to be more aware and appreciative of not only our evangelical roots of solid theology, a strong sense of global mission and passionate "first-contact" evangelism, but even the feisty fundamentalism from which it emerged. We should take in the sounds and smells of the tent-meetings and gospel songs of the sawdust trail and reflect on the strengths of our revivalist heritage. (Town-to-town traveling evangelists used to literally put down sawdust inside their revival tents, which soon became an image synonymous with fire-breathing fundamentalism.)

Not many authors want to say much good about strict fundamentalists of any sort these days. Granted, Mouw stresses, there was and is much wrong with the fundamentalist movement. And he hits these foibles and dangers head on. But--despite an overemphasis on soul salvation (to the exclusion of efforts to bring redemptive reformation to culture and society), an overemphasis on hard dispensational categories (that now even Dallas Seminary is moderating) and an often shallow and mean-spirited anti-Catholicism--Mouw makes a careful and solid case that, at the root of things, the fundamentalists were actually right about quite a lot. In our efforts to present a more favorable face--especially in the worlds of higher learning--to conservative Protestant dogma, we ought to be careful not to let the strengths of our heritage and the passions that sustained it slip away.

This fine book could be wisely used by the young (and cynical?) who are no longer connected to the camp meetings and Bible preachers of the sawdust trail. Or to fairly recent converts who are clueless about the roots of Christianity Today, missionary conferences, the "Four Spiritual Laws" or the King James-only tradition. It could be used with Boomers who grew up amidst the tabernacles, revivals and gospel tracts and who need a reminder of how that odd tradition did, indeed, nurture our "first love." ( I imagine there are quite a few who have long since left their fundy background, considering it more toxic than helpful, for whom this fair-minded and gracious study will be a balm of healing.) Further, it could be given to ecumenical mainliners, Catholics and Jews who are perplexed by evangelicals and their love/hate conflicted relationship with their own heritage. Mouw is a master at inter-religious dialogue and this book, although often narrative in style, could be a perfect text for clarifying mutual agreements and disagreements within various faith communities.

At every point--whether describing the legitimacy of a high regard for Israel or the cultural reasons for fundamentalism's mistrust of modernity--Mouw is nothing if not reasonable, careful and oh-so-balanced. Few writers I know can be as sandblastingly critical and still clear about his own loyalties and loves. (Come to think of it, Ron Sider may be the only other name that comes to mind with that gift of being a part of a loyal opposition, critical yet appreciative of his own tradition.) As Mouw says, he is able to so deeply affirm evangelicals, despite our goofy eccentricities and flaws, because, after all, he is one of us!

Mouw is now President of Fuller Seminary, itself a formerly fundamentalist Bible school that real fundamentalists now believe has sold out to liberalized ecumenicalism; he knows what he's writing about! He regularly appears and works with various para-church coalitions, think tanks and task forces. He is deeply engaged in the wider body of Christ and knows well the distrust others have toward those of us with more traditionally evangelical theology and the hurt our hard-line approach has too often caused. He also knows how to stand firmly and appreciatively within that tradition, appropriating the good and rejecting the silly or worse. It is a discernment we would all do well to learn and model.

The Small of Sawdust may be a three-fold gift to readers. It will clearly model a balanced and kind assessment of religious differences, an increasing necessity in a postmodern context. Secondly, it will teach those who need a quick and easy history of 20th century Protestant traditions (an immense need, I think, within CCO circles). And--Lord willing!--it will contribute to rekindling the passions of the sawdust trail, where lost sinners walk forward to dedicate their lives to live out of that grace given to sinners through Christ the Lord. Such Bible-believing, revivalist passion is not a bad thing, Mouw maintains, and--if the creation-wide implications of such simple faith are drawn out and nuanced thoughtfully--our blood-bought, soul-salvation fundamentals could, indeed, change the world.

It is my hope that as the CCO moves, as it should, carefully into greater ecumenical relationships, working as we do with mainline denominations, secular institutions of higher learning, diverse sorts of Roman Catholics and other non-evangelicals, we will use this book to remind us of who we are, where we've been, and, with Mouw's blend of firmness and flexibility, where we need to go. As he puts it, it is healthy for evangelicals to keep smelling the sawdust.