Life Among the Lutherans: selling books at a Synod Assembly

From our first days nearly 28 years ago, Beth & I were eager to represent books from a diversity of publishers, religious and general market.  One aspect of that diversity is our interest in books published by mainline denominational publishers (Augsburg/Fortress, Westminster/John Knox, Pilgrim Press, Church Publishing, Chalice, Abingdon, Upper Room, and the like or British publishers like SCM or Canterbury) as well as Catholic and Orthodox presses.  Of course, our favorites are the progressive evangelicals like InterVarsity Press (IVP), Baker/Brazos or Eerdmans, and even more traditionalist evangelical houses (like Zondervan and Nelson) are putting out some of most interesting religious publishing today.  Old friends at places like Presbyterian & Reformed and Dordt College Press have released some personal favorites, and then there are the indie presses, folk that do this one book or that series, odd-ball children’s books or hard-to-find stuff.  Do you know SkyLight Paths? Wipf & Stock? Regent College Press? Jossey-Bass? Faith Alive? Religious publishing is more interesting these days, I think, than at any time in our memory.

Who knows what is going to sell when we do our big displays, custom selected for particular gatherings?  The last few days we met some old friends and a lot of new ones when we served the Lower Susquehanna Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  Beth was raised Lutheran and it was sweet to see a Gettsyburg College booth and to chat with an old classmate, now a Lutheran pastor, from her old church, as well as the pastor serving that parish, now.  Local church camps, social service ministries, justice advocacy groups, mission groups, all had nice displays alongside our temporary bookstore installation.  Thanks to those who said so many nice things to us at the Synod assembly. Not a few said that they appreciated our diversity, selling books geared to Lutheran congregational life, of course, but showing other interesting things as well.

Life-Among-the-Lutherans1-194x300.jpgBest sellers?  Naturally, Garrison Keillor’s Life Among the Lutherans (Augsburg; $23.99) was a big hit, perhaps our best seller there.  If you have enjoyed his Lake Woebegon novels or the Lutheran stories from the radio show, you’ll love this.  It is great writing, very, very funny, and often remarkably insightful—the gospel in through the back door of this uncommonly graced storytelling.  We hear this is coming in paperback soon, but we have some hardcovers now, at the blog special discount price.  What a fun book to take on vacation!

I mentioned unusual publishers.  We stock a few different books about pray shawl ministry, and they were appreciated.  A number of churches do this, a knitting ministry, prayerfully making shawls and other such items to be used in ministries of mercy and healing.  I’m glad we had a selection on hand, and hope they will touch lives, mediating God’s love to the sick and sad.

And, we sold some memoirs.  I love reading this genre, learning about and from the telling of410aRJ0oBOL._SL500_AA300_.jpg other’s lives.  Anne Lamott, Nora Gallagher, Sarah Miles, Barbara Brown Taylor, stories of growing up in the faith, missionary stories, memoirs of nature writing and stories of marriage and stories of grief. Paul Farmer and Edwidge Dandicat on Haiti.  Three Cups of Tea and his newer one, too. The striking, new conversion narrative (Rage Against God) by Peter Hitchens, the brother of  world-famous, outspoken atheist Christopher.

 The extraordinary writer Walter Wangerin, Jr. is well known in ELCA circles (of course we took Ragman and Miz Lil and some were surprised to see them still.) His last two are powerful; Father and Son: Finding Freedom (Zondervan; $19.99) and his recent, poignant, Letters from the Land of Cancer (Zondervan; $16.99) were appreciated. This one seemed to be handled with care, knowing the sacred power of these letters about his serious illness.

6a00e54ef51d76883401287716ec17970c-200wi.jpgI kept telling those who were browsing that Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in This World: A Geography of Faith (Harper; $14.99), now out in paperback, is one of my favorite books in recent years.  Her usual elegance, her insight, her great attention to the writing craft, bring this book of memoir and reflection to us with the end result being a book of lovely, enjoyable reading, and remarkable theological insight.  God shows up everywhere–every moment can be a sacramental one, and we must practice attentive spirituality, day by day, in the ordinary stuff of life.  I love this theme, and it is surely one of the best books about the embodied nature of life in God’s good world.

bonhoeffer-by-eric-metaxas.jpgNot sure if it was a “best seller” but we did sell several of the magisterial, new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas (Nelson; $29.99.)  There is little doubt that this is the Bonhoeffer book of our time, perhaps the best yet done.  It is, like Eric’s great book on Wilberforce (Amazing Grace) both historically detailed, powerfully written, interesting and insightful.  That is, he gets the details right, presents them in a vibrant and compelling way, and, without any preachy moralism, tells the tale in a way that makes you care, that helps us see that this matters.  It is a hefty book, but it is not the kind that people buy but never finish.  It is one of the great books of 2010!  Yay for Lutherans who still care about their man and his famous ministry of resistance, bearing the full cost of discipleship.

There was a lot to look at, and little time for most shoppers—they had their complicated denominational business to attend to, of course. For fun, if anyone might find it interesting, here are a few titles we wished we could have talked about more, alerted folks about.  Call it, books I wish we would have sold, or titles that somehow didn’t get noticed.  Like orphaned children, every time we come home from these large gigs we find these small stacks of books that were missed.  Oh, if only somebody would have found a home for these wayward texts.

On Christian Liberty  Martin Luther  (Fortress) $9.99  This “Facet” edition is a small 
544652.jpg paperback, recently re-type-set with a cool cover, offering the timeless, classic Lutheran teaching about the freedom we have i
n Christ.  For the Christian, Luther insists, this freedom includes not only liberty from sin and death, but the opportunity to serve one’s neighbor.  Every follower of Jesus can benefit from dipping into the older books, and this simple, little volume, is a great way to be reminded not only of the treasures of the past, but to clarify the first things of the gospel.   His “open letter to Pope Leo X” is included in the back, and is worth reading itself.

9780802865281.jpgWe Have Seen His Glory: A Vision of Kingdom Worship  Ben Witherington III (Eerdmans) $16.00  I have promoted this elsewhere and think it is an important little book where he “teases some minds into agtive thought about what worship should look like if we really believe that God’s Kingdom is coming…It’s time for us to explore a more biblical and Kingdom-oriented vision of worship.”  Lutherans in central PA like Gordon Lathrop’s important triology (Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology , Holy People: A Liturgical Ecclesiology, and Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology) and this Weslyan author brings similiar concerns to bear: if God’s reign, celebrated by some churches in “Kingdomtide” is a real fact of our history–a liturgical cosmology in Lathrop’s rich phrase—how might that effect our worship?  And how might our worship shape our lives?  This is another volume in the on-going “liturgical Studies Series” of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, one of the most important ministries in North America.   We stock all of the books they’ve commissioned.  Lutherans, like most mainline groups these days, care about worship.  This book could expand our conversation about renewal.

For All God’s Worth: True Worship and the Calling of the Church N.T. Wright (Eerdmans) $13.00  I’ve mentioned this before, and find it so acessible, so wise, so stimulating.  The first half of the book is about the worth of the God we worship while the second half is about caring the worship of God into the world, imaging God in all we do.  I would have thought all of N.T. Wright’s good books would have been purchased, and it was odd to be at such a large gathering where he wasn’t being discussed much.  This older paperback is a sleeper, a great little book that I wished we could have foisted on everyone.

9780835810128.jpgLike Breath and Water: Praying With Africa Ciona D. Rouse (Upper Room) $18.00  Like many mainline denominations, the Lutherans have some historic and solid connections with sister congregations and synods in Africa.  Many of us care deeply about that troubled continent, and the world is paying attention, perhaps now more than ever, about the hope and horrors there.  This full color paperback is packed full of stunning photographs–are they almost like icons?—to turn the heart and imagination to prayer.  Can we see God there?  Can we be touched by the need, and driven to prayer?  What a beautiful book!   Ciona Rouse is a Nashville-based African-American who has done some innovative work on African-influenced liturgies, books on spiritual formation, and is a photographer and poet.  Check out

madeforgoodness.jpgMade for Goodness and Why This Makes a Difference  Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu
desmond-tutu-001.jpg (HarperOne) $25.99  I don’t know why this big stack of bright, purple hardbacks didn’t fly off the shelf.  Maybe if the Desmond’s big smile were on the cover, or if the back jacket photo of his beautiful daughter–also an Episcopalian priest—were shown, readers would be drawn in to this wonderful collection of stories and reflections.  Famous father and daughter make a powerful case, less in Biblical terms, using common language and pitched to the non-churched as well as Christ-followers, that we are created to live a certain way.  Goodness matters.  This is no dry text about situation ethics and no screed about taking a stand, although, having read it, I want to be more ethical and take a clearer stand.  Anyone can choose to cultivate compassion.  We can find a path of hope.  I would supplement a book like this, naturally, with a strong study of Jesus and the authority of Scripture, to illustrate just what Christian goodness is.  But for what it is designed to do, it is a masterpiece.  A nice blurb on the back form Bono, too, where he (once again) says that Tutu is his “boss.”  Gotta love that.

0470431024.jpgConnecting Like Jesus: Practices for Healing, Teaching, and Preaching  Tony Campolo and Mary Albert Darling (Jossey-Bass) $21.95  No matter where we are displaying books, we usually take the last book the two of the did together, The God of Intimacy and Action, which is a spectacular, rich, solid survey of how the inner journey of contemplative spirituality is related to evangelism and justice work.  Here, in a brand new volume, this dynamic duo team up to offer a book about (how to say this without it sounding boring?) communication skills.  That is, how can contemplative spirituality (and other devotional practices) make us into more expert communicators, doing good work in sharing the gospel, teaching, preaching, speaking, organizing.  I am convinced that one of the reasons smaller mainline churches are often lackluster is that the leaders are simply not skilled at good communication.  One needn’t be a spiffy, blow-dried tele-evangelist or a cool Willow Creek dude in pressed casual khaki to know that image and style and communication and passion are vital to those that want to be effective in impacting others.  Dull and inept communicators turn people off, and the church has too long tolerated boring preachers and teachers.  This is a very practical (and yet really interesting) collection of tools and ideas that will help you be more effective in leadership, in public speaking, in getting the job done well.  How can we communicate more faithfully?  What is the relationship between soul care and public ministry?  How can we care for people–even the tender, inner stuff of their souls–even in ministries of teaching and preaching?  What an interesting book showing the various sides of ministry. Highly recommended, especially for those in traditional churches who are weary of the media-driven and often shallow versions of ministry but who may need to improve their ability to “connect” with listeners.  This is serious and solid, and will push you to be faithful and fruitful, spiritually-rich and effective in shari
ng the gospel.

images100318.gifYour Church Is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission is Vital for the Future of the Church  John Armstrong (Zondervan) $19.99  I have been taking this book with a mis-leading title around to church leadership events, telling everyone I can that I think it is important (and pointing out the very clear and properly urgent sub-title.)  I’ve been working on a longer review that will appear here soon, although it is not an easy book to describe well.  The short version is this: Armstrong was once a very strict and separatist Baptist, a gifted communicator with several books, including some on publishers that do mostly Puritan theology.  Yet, his natural good-natured personality and intellectual curiosity kept him reading widely and relating to others outside his own circle.

 This new book is partly John’s own story of growing into a heart-felt ecumenicity and a Biblical and theological call to a rich, evangelical view of the Body of Christ.  With a moving and solid forward by evangelical,  Anglican J. I. Packer, John has given us a large gift, born of his own pain and struggles, friendships lost and friendship gained, as he explores the meaning of the “missional church” in these postmodern times.  Mainline denominations have had a consistent, if thin, vision of ecumenical work, so leaders and readers in mainline circles may not feel they need to read a book like this.  For reasons I’ll explain in my longer review later, I think they are sadly mistaken, and need, more than ever, to root their ecumenical views (and practices, such as they are) in a robust Biblical ecclesiolgy.  As groups like the ECLA are torn at their seams by recent controversial positions, we all need a reminder of what we are called to be as Gods people, how we can find solidarity beyond denominational boundaries, even amidst tensions; it is understandable in hard times to focus on our own issues and concerns. Still, as Your Church Is Too Small reminds us, too often, our view of the church is too small.  We must rediscover and live into an active expression of being a global and faithful Body of Christ, ambassadors for His reign of shalom, witnessing to the reconciliation He has wrought.  A book on the church, on being ecumenical, told by a recovering separatist?  With blurbs by a Roman Catholic, an Orthodox priest, and an evangelical on the back, this is a ground-breaking book! I wish I could have told my new Lutheran friends about it.  It is a book we all need.  We hope it is widely discussed.

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One thought on “Life Among the Lutherans: selling books at a Synod Assembly

  1. Finished the Metaxas book on Bonhoeffer! It did help me become more clear on some of the history that went over my head when I read the Bethge biography on Bonhoeffer years ago.
    One thing I’m wondering: what might have happened if Bonhoeffer had been able to visit with Ghandi? could there have been a different shape to the resistance and the conspiracy?
    One “kick in the pants” is: many Jesus followers, including me, are rather tame and adverse to risk. We admire Jesus (and disciples like Bonhoeffer). Yet admiring Jesus and following Christ as Master are two different things. What does it take to move from “admiring Jesus” to “following Jesus”? Peace, Tim

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