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
, 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
$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
. 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.