Self Help Books That Are Not Cheesy or Shallow

Those that follow this monthly book review column or who have browsed are old archives, or, for that matter, have looked at our new blog (you can subscribe to it, if you’d like, know that we tend to offer books that are, if not necessarily theological texts or academic treatises, are, well, not exactly in the category of self help. Odd, this was one of the largest and most debated book categories of the last quarter of the last century, and one hardly hears that phrase any more. Still, I am sure you get the idea–from the insightful to the silly, from Dr. Laura to Dr. Phil, from AA to Focus on the Family–basic, practical books to help people learn how to live more effectively is a large part of the book biz. The evangelical book world, especially, reflecting its anti-intellectualism and populist roots, has majored in these kind of formulaic self-help guides.

We have some ambivalence about that trend, although there are wonderful books that can truly help those who need some practical advise. Especially as our modernist culture has created forms of living together (or not living together, as the case may be), most folks don’t have the wisdom of elders to surround them. The scripts from the increasingly lurid TV dramas and the testimonials of the participants of the reality shows seem to be more formative than the gathered wisdom of the ages, passed down from parent to child, in extended families and helpful neighborhoods. There are serious books about these kinds of concerns and, although a bit different, the magisterial fourth volume in the set by David Wells about the eroding of truth and distinctive Christian practices amongst American evangelicals, especially, is to be released this month and will be well worth reading carefully. (The first three were called No Place for Truth; or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology, God in the Wastelands: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams, and Losing Our Virtue: Why The Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision.) The new one is called Above All Earthly Powers: Christ in a Postmodern World (Eerdmans; $25.00) will surely be one of the more talked about books of the year.

To begin this list, though, one more about the self help phenom. It is a title I am sure many will want to read. Check out The Gospel According to Oprah by Marcia N. Nelson (Westminster/John Knox; $14.95.) You may know of our fondness for this series of books published by this Presbyterian Publishing House—books like The Gospel According to the Simpsons, the classic The Gospel According to Peanuts, and David Dark’s brillant, brilliant, Gospel According to America (I blogged about that over at the blogsite last month.) This book just arrived and it will surely be appreciated by O’s many fans. I suspect it has a bit of critique, but this endorsing blurb may give you a feel for the author’s approach:

“Winfrey has taken a lot of flack over the years for hyping a therapeutic, eclectic, and consumerist spirituality though her media empire”¦Nelson helpfully balances that critical account with a respectful rendering of Winfrey’s pastoral gifts for listening, encouragement and exhortation. Gospel or not, The Church of O certainly has an impressive book of virtues”¦” And this from Phyllis Tickle, “You don’t have to be a fan of Oprah’s to be a fan of this work. This clear-eyed analysis of Oprah Winfrey as high priestess of America’s Judeo-Christian ethos celebrates Oprah’s virtues and her gifts to our society; but it never once lets us confuse the uses of cultural religion with those of communal allegiance and private devotion.” Could be fun, eh?

Having said all that—reminding readers that we encourage deep reflection and serious reading including sound literature on spiritual formation, critical social commentary and various kinds of theological works, old and new–we do want to highlight a couple of books that seem to fit the constellation of concerns that we might call personal growth. There are older classics, exceptionally popular ones, and exceptionally important ones. But here are a few new ones that have crossed our shelves. We hope you find it helpful to know of these wise guides. We are happy to encourage folks to use these kind of resources. Most of us need not only to dig deeply and thinking broadly, but, sometimes, need a little bit of a helping hand. The common sense and Biblical guidance in these practical books can come in, if you will excuse the pun, handy. Although we’ve got books on everything from how to forgive to communication skills in marriage; books on teaching children to care about missions to learning to steward your time or money, these that I share with you now are mostly about grief, coping with hard times, moving along those harder places in which we all find ourselves from time to time.

Healing Is A Choice Stephen Arterburn (Nelson) $22.99 Arterburn is a classic writer in this genre–he tells stories, including his own about a tragic and painful divorce, uses clear Biblical teaching and invites folks to take specific steps towards the goal of inner healing and renewed hope. If you ache, and want to get well, this book could be more useful than a dozen trips to the shrink. I could hardly put it down. You may know Arterburn from his very popular books in the Every Man’s Battle series. Those are still very important resources, and they issue new ones from time to time on related themes and topics. The subtitle of this one is Ten Decisions That Will Transform Your Life & Ten Lies That Can Prevent You From Making Them. Fascinating and helpful.

To Be Told: Know Your Story, Shape Your Future Dan B. Allender (Waterbrook) $19.99 I read everything this guy writes and his work is always, always rewarding. This new one is creating a bit of a buzz among folks interested in story, in helping to find meaning in our daily lives by way of tying our life’s story into the bigger Story of God’s work in the world.

Allander and his old college buddy Tremper Longman are among the most dynamic of duos these days; they’ve written a couple of very good books together. They just did a lovely little study series for married couples on InterVarsity Press—complete with DVD, various small group guides, and a nice book called The Intimate Mystery: Creating Strength and Beauty in Your Marriage ($15.00.) To Be Told, though, is a book about knowing your past story, those decisive concerns that shaped who you are, and how to live into and out of those narratives, into new, redeemed ones. The back cover says “God invites you to co-author your future. It starts with reading your past. This book presumes that God’s hand has been in your past and that you can move into your future in great confidence knowing how every chapter of you life–the hope and the heartache–can be part of becoming who you were meant to be. I don’t usually taut the latest study guide or workbook, but many who have used it have insisted that I tell people about how useful it is. Check out the companion workbook, too. By the way, a decade after his remarkably important book on sexual abuse, The Wounded Heart came out, Allander released a sequel, of sorts, although it can be appreciated by anyone, especially anyone who has had a rough past. It is called The Healing Path and it is structured around reflections on the loss and recovery of faith, hope, and love. They are marvelous chapters. Self-help literature simply would not be mocked or seen as hopelessly cheesy if this kind of book and this caliber of insight were more common.

How Rembrandt Reveals Your Beautiful, Imperfect Self: Life Lessons From the Master Roger Housden (Harmony Books) $20.00 Readers who look to the Hearts & Minds reviews for solid, Christian insight and resources that directly emerge from a coherent Christian world and life view may be surprised with this odd recommendation. Although most of our fellow travelers know that part of the joy of a mature Christian vision is the liberating freedom to read widely and take the best insights from various perspectives. With a tight and Biblically-taught mind and a heart well-formed by the things of Christ, we can be, as they say, open-minded. So, in that spirit, here is one to not only learn from, but utterly enjoy. What a great, great idea. Housden is the author who gave us the lovely books such as Ten Poems to Change Your Life–again, taken with a grain of salt, are very, very interesting and helpful in many ways. His knowledge of Rembrandt is significant, and his insight into the painting is nicely applied. This is a delight of a book, interesting, tender, helpful and a handsome volume to have.

Only Human: Christian Reflections on the Journey Toward Wholeness David Gushee (Jossey-Bass) $22.95 Okay, I digress a bit. This isn’t exactly a self-help book–ahh, the irony of putting a book with a forward by the gusty Stan Hauerwas into that category. Still, it is a reflection on what the publisher is calling the “Enduring Questions in Christian Life” and it attempts to take some significant theological study (in anthropology, our view of the person) and make it resonate for those seeking foundational truths about themselves. Questions like “What am I made of?” and “How do I become a good person?” become entryways for wonderful ponderings, nuanced teachings and, yes, practical guidance. If Lew Smedes were here, he’d have a blurb on the back, an eloquent and graceful one, I’m sure. This is a great book.

Ordinary Losses: Naming the Graces That Shape Us Elisa Stanford (Paraclete Press) $14.95 This beautiful little paperback is exquisite memoir. It is about common losses, stuff particularly that younger folk need to attend to. That makes it pretty unique, I think.

You know, if you follow my reviews over the years, that some of my all time books are memoirs. (The extraordinary story and beautifully composed memoir of a woman’s journey after her brother’s suicide, The Tender Land: A Family Love Story by Kathleen Finneran remains one of my all time favorite books; I was stunned and awkwardly breathy when the very kind Ms Finneran showed up in our shop one day a few months back to thank us for the rave review we wrote a few years ago.) Similarly, James Carroll’s riveting An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Tore Us Apart a Viet Nam era father/son story, is on my top few books ever list. And the “everybody who ever reads it can’t put it down” study of personal redemption amidst a season among Appalachian snake handlers told by gutsy writer and honest seeker, Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain is, again, still among my all time favorite books.) So, I have high standards for good memoirs.

Ordinary Losses is a gentle set of reflections–not as much of a full narrative as many bone fide memoirs—on the kinds of things that the author find sadness in. She is a good writer, a fine crafter of prose, and she is spiritually mature and deep, without being arcane or speculative. She is a reliable storyteller and, therefore, a reliable guide. Here is what Lauren Winner–hey, another memoirist who we adore, and whose work we go back to again and again–says in the preface:

Ordinary Losses is about the unspeakable absence we feel at the oddest times in the middle of a bright summer afternoon, when just for a moment the world feels like the saddest ting ever; or when we bounce a baby on our knee and are suddenly pierced through by the ending of our own childhood; or when we look down our street and around our town and know that we have no idea what pain and suffering go on inside the sweet brick houses that make up our neighborhood.

Writing like that cannot be used to endorse a book of fluff or mere prosaic self-help advice. Like Lauren’s insightful and nicely phrased preface, this book is a well-written journey into the kinds of losses, especially, that are experienced by those in their 20’s. Although just now in our 50’s and grieving the loss of parents, still, this gentle little collection of “ordinary losses” resonated with us deeply.

On Broken Legs: A Shattered Life, A Search for God, a Miracle That Met Me in a Cave in Assisi Wendy Zoba (NavPress) $16.99 This is a handsome and slim hardcover that tells more of the story of the pain and struggle faced by this extraordinary woman. Her other very good books, including a set of memoirs published by Tyndale, are loved by those who pick them up. She ought to be better known. If you are feeling melancholy, struggling with the aftermath of divorce (or want to hear how it feels from one going through it) this book could be a deep blessing. Rave, rave reviews come from sharp thinkers and good writers such as Lauren Winner, J.I. Packer, and Luci Shaw. If that trio doesn’t convince you”¦

Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in The Lost Language of Lament Michael Card (NavPress) $13.99 I reviewed this last month over at my blogsite. I was glad about what I wrote, and it was certainly apropos–my beloved father in law had just died. I will copy here what I wrote then about this wonderful work.

I hope you don’t mind me commenting on the funeral and the death in our family, one more time. The service today was notable for a couple of reasons, not the least of which, of course, was the stature of the deceased, my wife’s father, Harry H. Gross (1908-2005.)

But also, helpful and interesting to me (and I think I speak for my wife and family, too) was that the pastor, filling in for one who was away, ended up being a guy who was what they used to call a “son of the church.” That is, he grew up with Beth and her sister Debi in that church, saw Beth’s parents as spiritual mentors of sorts, knew their lives and congregation and town, well. His deep knowledge of and care for the situation meant that, even though he was highly liturgical as a well-trained contemporary Lutheran, he was authentic. He got choked up when talking about Harry, choked up when reading the Scriptures of grace, choked up when he assured us that Harry was in the New Jerusalem, choked up at the gravesite, for and with us all. He cared, he loved, his heart was in it, as they say. This is theological and pastoral ministry as it should be. Sad that it seems less common these days.

To wit: a book comment. In my regular review last month (over at the website column) I rave about the newly re-issued Rainbows for the Fallen World by H&M friend, Calvin Seerveld.

A newish book by long-time and thoughtful CCM singer-songwriter Michael Card, called A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament (NavPress; $13.99) starts off in the introduction saying that he got a card after 9-11 from Cal Seerveld, asking why it is that so many churches these days have “praise teams” but no one has “lament teams.” He invited Michael to write some suitable laments. Card also says that about that time he read the powerful, powerful, dense and rich book, The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann, which has as a major theme the (subversive) power of grief. A note from Seerveld, a book by Brueggemann, and Michael Card started writing. His new book is very, very good.*

In his very good forward, guest writer Eugene Peterson tells of someone that he didn’t even know offering “preacherish cliches” in response to Peterson crying during his role leading a funeral—the funeral of his own father! A well-intended person who should have known better said something really dumb to Peterson, as if grief, or displayed grief on the part of a pastor, was inappropriate, or that deeply felt hurt could be easily swept away by reciting a Christian truth.

And so, Eugene writes:

This is a magnificently conceived and executed book. Michael Card has saturated himself in the rhythms, music, and truth of our people-of-God ancestors and written a necessary book for all of us Christians (and there are many of us) who have lost touch with our native language of lament, this language that accepts suffering and our freely expressed suffering as the stuff that God uses for our salvation. At-homeness in the language of lament is necessary for expressing our companionship with our Lord as He accompanies us through the ‘valley of the shadow of death’…

Later, Peterson concludes,

So, learning the language of lament is not only necessary to restore Christian dignity to suffering and repentance and death, it is necessary to provide a Christian witness to a world that has no language for and is therefore oblivious to the glories of wilderness and cross.

Peterson is right, it seems to me. Many in our culture, including in our churches, have thin language for this hard work of bereavement, no sure framework to help make sense of it, certainly no sane way to way to construe it as “glory.” I am not sure I do. I know it hurts; I know the gospel is deeply true. And we shall cling to that. And, whenever we can, we shall tell people that Christian faith makes us more human, not less (to quote Charlie Peacock, in New Way To Be Human) fully able to grieve and hurt, and not disguise our pain in “preacherish cliches.” Therefore, we need help in learning anew to be real in our grief, to affirm the power of lament, and to deal with the dead. That is what we did today. As most of you know, it is hard work. Thanks for writers like Thomas Lynch (who I noted yesterday) and Michael Card who gives us wise and courageous words along the way.

*There are several other good books that have been released in the last year or two about lament, the Psalms of lament, and the theological and pastoral implications of lamentation. Seriously written and very important is Lament: Reclaiming Practices in Pulpit, Pew and Public Square edited by Princeton Seminary’s Sally Brown and Patrick D. Miller (Westminister/John Knox) $24.95. In our post-Tsunami and post-Katrina era, we simply must give voice to pain and brokenness. Maybe this scholarly resource will be helpful.