A few recent books on spirituality

In the blog post from the end of the summer I lamented the passage of summer, how times seems to speed past, and how I get a bit frustrated with my life during this season.  I don’t know about you, but I hunger for more time apart to focus on my relationship with God, I long for great union with Christ.  Like the new Bill Hybels book I reviewed, The Whisper of God, I want to be open to discerning what the Spirit is saying, “and have the guts to respond” as he puts it.  I noted that great new book by Mark Buchanan–a great writer if you haven’t read any of his stuff–called Spiritual Rhythm: Being with Jesus Every Season of Your Soul.  It is very nice how he highlights different “seasons” (figuratively speaking) although nearer the end, he offers some standard insights, nicely communicated, about spiritual disciplines that can sustain one through any and all seasons.  So please see that early September blog if you didn’t.

I promised, then, a list of other new books on contemplative practices, recent resources that might serve as companions for your journey.  Here, then, are a few; not exhaustive, not all we stock.  Please free free to call or use the “inquire” page at the website if you have any question about these, or other similar titles.  We really do value conversations with our friends and fans and look forward to serving you further—perhaps with some other resources for the journey.  We hope you might even find these lists worthy of passing along, sharing with others.  So often we hear that customers appreciate reading short reviews and learning what books are interesting and worthy these days.  Thanks.

_240_360_Book_205_cover.jpgMystically Wired: Exploring New Realms in Prayer  Ken Wilson (Nelson) $17.99  I list this one first because I’ve been wanting to say more about it other than my brief announcement when we first got it in a few months back.  Wilson is an amazing guy, a deep and thoughtful writer, rooted in broad evangelicalism of a charismatic sort; he is a pastor of the Vineyard Church in Ann Arbor.  Yet, he is no stereotypical Pentecostal; he has written bracingly about the need to resist the Christian right, has powerfully critiqued establishment religion as we know it (see his splendid, provocative, and very well done Jesus Brand Spirituality: He Wants His Religion Back)  In this handsome new hardback, Wilson spends some considerable time using his considerable interests in the sciences to describe what happens to the brain when people pray.  Neurological research during religious practices, worship, meditation and the like has long been done by mainstream and secular clinicians.  I don’t know, though, of any books so robustly Christian and so energetic about understanding the details of how to enter a state of prayerfulness by understanding the human “wiring” of the brain.  This is such a fascinating work that we have to commend it.  But it isn’t just me—Phyllis Tickle says (get this) “Hands down, this is the best book on prayer that I have ever read.”  Folks, even if dear Phyllis is wrong by a long-shot, you may know she is one of the most widely Christian leaders alive.  My friend York Moore—a passionate speaker and leader on evangelism—says “I was routinely blown away by the intuitive genius of Ken’s view and application of prayer.  Page after page, thinking I knew what was next, I was surprised with fresh insight and unique perspectives on connecting with God.”  Others have raved—folks as different as Todd Hunter, Scot McKnight, Brian McLaren.  Please do check it out.  I’m going to read it again, more slowly this time.

You may recall that we gave a good review to a stellar book more generally about neurology and Christian living, a fine book written by a psychiatrist (and trusted friend) Dr. Curt Thompson called Anatomy of a Soul, which deserves another shout-out in this context.  A bit more broad, written with more attention to the details of brain science, with applications beyond prayer, the two books make nice companions. These are great, great books if you like the phrase “hearts and minds.”  Wilson helps us understand that that is just what God intended all along.

Product5283_Photo1.jpgAncient Paths: Discover Christian Formation the Benedictine Way  David Robinson (Paraclete) $16.99  Yes, I know there are a hundred recent books drawing on Benedict. And I know I’ve promoted the beautifully simple recent work (The Good Life and The Good Neighbor both also published by Paraclete) by Robert Benson, by saying they were the best, clear, lovely, simple way into Benedictine spirituality.  Well, this is level two—not exactly for true beginners, but it is the best serious introduction I’ve yet read.  Man, this Presbyterian guy knows his stuff.  The chapter on the ways in which the young monk from 5th century Nursia changed the world is worth the whole price of the volume, and it is exciting stuff.  Faith well lived, deeply and in community, really does transform ideas and behaviors and can impact culture and history.

 For anyone interested in this classic path for growing a Christian community–and this is central, for spiritual formation is not done alone!—Ancient Paths is a tremendous guide.  It is well written, practical, interesting, and not the least sentimental or breathy or “touchy feely.”  This is sensible, solid stuff, life-changing insights that are down-to-Earth (quite literally; you know Benedict’s dictum about working and praying!)  Robinson has spent over 20 years visiting a Benedictine monastery, and, as a Protestant pastor, has some special gifts to be able to share his experiences with those not particularly fluent in the monastic traditions.  The is a fabulous 12-week study guide, too, making it ideal for small groups, spiritual friendship meetings, or to study with others.  There are application points along the way, too, designed to help ordinary folks take small steps towards incorporating these sturdy practices into their daily discipleship. It is ideal for congregational use, too, or for anyone interested not only about Benedictine approaches, but for anyone wanting to grow in faith and Christian living.  Dennis Okholm, of Azusa Pacific University, who wrote the also-fantastic (and cleverly titled) Monk Habits for Everyday People says, “Eminently practical applications for any person interested in being re-molded into the image of God.” Very nicely done.

Pilgrimage of a Soul: Contemplative Spirituality for the Active Life  Phileena HeuertzPilgrimage of a soul.jpg (Likewise/IVP) $15.00  Earlier this summer I got to do a small workshop on the Biblical basis for and the spirituality that helps fund, a life-long commitment to social justice.  Some of the books that relate faith formation and justice work are near classics (like, say, The Active Life by Parker Palmer, drawing on the deeper < i>Contemplation in a World of Action, by Thomas Merton.)  One of my favorites, for its fun and practical style, is the gem by Tony Campolo and Mary Darling called The God of Intimacy & Action.  This new one by Phileena Heuertz stands in the tradition of those books that struggle to bring together the “journey inward and journey outward” and it, too, may someday be considered a watershed and seminal offering.

 Some of this raw and poignant meditation is a memoir, telling of her spiritual journey, her call to serve the poor, and a great section on her 33-day pilgrimage down the El Camino de Santiago. (There are a lot of books on this ancient Christian practice these days, by the way—we have probably 8 or so here in the shop, including the very useful The Way is Made By Walking by Canadian Mennonite pastor Arthur Boers, and the very recent volume in the “Ancient Practices” series, one called The Sacred Journey by Charles Foster )  Besides Heuertz’ work with the amazing Word Made Flesh (her husband’s book about that extraordinary global work is called Simple Spirituality: Learning to See God in a Broken World) she has dug deeply into the important authors and directors in the contemplative tradition. Her work in global missions and “downward mobility” to serve is guided by her inner life of deep spirituality.  As one with ecumenical interests who has learned much from Catholic mystics, I am just floored (and so happy) that a solid evangelical publisher like IVP has an author so fluent in the writings of not only Henri Nouwen, but John Mains, Thomas Keating, Macrina Wiederkehr, Cynthia Bourgeault, Tilden Edwards, and obviously the important work of Ronald Rolheiser.  From the important feminist theology of Carol Lakey Hess to the liberation themes of Jon Sobrino, to the self-awareness gleaned by books from the likes of David Benner,  Heuertz has worked the literary field and picked the best fruits to bring to the table of this fine book.  There is also poetry, moving charcoal sketches drawn by an artist friend, and great and honest reflections on how to keep God’s sustaining presence alive in your life.   With endorsements from Franciscan Richard Rohr to Baptist Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, you should know that this book is being seen as a true gift, an amazing story, a reliable guidebook for the contemplative activist.

Whole Life Transformation: Becoming the Change Your Church Needs  Keith Meyer (IVP) $20.00  This is the kind of book that many, many should find helpful.  It is anecdotal as he shares his story of near burn-out, and as he shows how he slowly found himself needing to9780830835300.jpg enter counseling, embrace the 12-step sort of recovery movement, and weave all of this into his daily work as an evangelical pastor.  While the back cover says “transforming the church by transforming the pastor” I believe this book has wider application for anyone hungering for a saner pace of life, a deeper awareness of how our driven and competitive spirits can be dysfunctional (even when it is done as “church work”) and is eager to learn how to rearrange one’s habits.  This is a book of honesty and straight-talk, and will appeal to those who know they are hurting, know the church is often broken, and want to truly become transformed by Christ to be like Christ.  His friend and mentor Dallas Willard has written a good forward, and in many ways, this is a case study of what can do to heal an exhausted pastor, renew an earnest leader, and transform a community—bit by bit—as spiritual transformation became the heart of the ethos of the congregation.  Do you long for God to redeem and reform your character?  Your family?  Your daily habits?  Do you think that your own local church could benefit if some folks truly learned to name our sins and allow Christ to heal us?  This is an easy-to-read book that will stimulate some good thinking and may be an avenue for the very transformation you or your church is seeking.  More programs and bigger budgets are not the answer.  Meyer came to learn that, nearly the hard way.  Read his story and rejoice.

Embracing the Call to Spiritual Depth: Gifts for Contemplative Living  Tilden Edwards (Paulist Press) $16.95  Most folks who read deeply in the contemplative literature of the later part of the 20th century know of this pioneer in the reawakening of spirituality.  Edwards founded the ecumenical Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation and his early books, written as a young, African-American Episcopal priest,  are considered nearly classic.  It has been a while, I think, since he has graced us with new insights, and this pondering reflection is standard meditative stuff.  Some might think it less Christ-centered than it could be, and some may not appreciate the ways in which he integrates psychology, depth awareness, and Eastern insights, with gospel foundations to offer up a gentle and mature catholic spirituality.  Still, for those serious in studying this vast field, this new book is surely important.

The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See  Richard Rohr (Crossroad) $19.95  I mentioned earlier the desire to relate inner spirituality and outward activism, that we need to (to put it differently) mesh politics and prayer.  From Practicing the Presence of God to finding God in the ordinary (oh how I love those splendid chapters in my favorite book on prayer, Richard Foster’s fine Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home) we can move to social activismrichard_rohr.jpg that is enhanced and underscored and part and parcel of a truly spiritual life. Of course it is not pantheism to suggest that God shows up everywhere, that the creation is alive in pointing us to the Divine, and that Christ is truly in and around us. Anyone setting out to “change the world” that does not do so for God’s glory and in Christ’s ways will be doomed to burnout and trouble.  I noted, in my comments above about the great new book by Phileena Heuertz, that it seems that Richard Rohr has influenced her a bit.  You may know his very popular and important book on just these things, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer which, true to Rohr’s love of St. Francis, shows how prayer and service and action relate.  I liked that book a lot and while not brand new, is a fairly recent contribution to the field of experiential spirituality being lived out with “radical grace” in the contemporary world.  Fr. Rohr helps direct a Center about these very things, The Center for Action & Contemplation, which is one interesting place; it might stretch some conservative evangelicals, I’d guess, but it is worth visiting.

I say all this to get to a mention of Rohr’s newest, a (nearly interfaith) invitation to reflect on how mystics experience life and see God in all things.  I hesitate, though, and I hesitate about hesitating.  Some friends who I respect absolutely love this book.  A few others that I trust remind me that it is, at the end of the day, an approach that seems to disregard essential truths of Christian theology; it is romantic, nearly goofy in its exegesis at times, a bit too tied to psychological lingo (resisting the ego and such) and fails
to offer a robust spirituality based on Christ’s redemptive power over sin.  Well, if one has a rather meager or vague or overly-psychological view of sin, then one’s view of redemption is going to get gushy and less than substantial.  Where authors like Eugene Peterson or Dallas Willard come to mind as those who insist on a Biblically-informed sort of meaty spirituality, The Naked Now seems to bring other insights to the table, and has the subsequent strengths and weaknesses of a liberal Catholic, nearly non-orthodox orientation. I am not saying dear Father Rohr is un-Biblical (that will be for you to decide, fair reader.)  There is nothing wrong, on the face of it, to cite non-Christian sources for wisdom.  I do suggest that this book is not evidently rooted in standard Christian understandings of conversion or sanctification or particularly consistent with an historic view of the work of Christ.  Of course, Rohr–as the vibrant Bible teacher he is–cites the Bible a lot and includes tons of Scripture reflection.  Does that make it fruitful for those seeking a responsible, authentic, mystical experience of the true God?  I’m less sure of this than some of his other books, but it is nothing new, really.  For one who wants a good example of this exact mystical tradition–with its strengths and weaknesses—give this a try.  Let us know what you think.

9780809146475.jpgExplorations in Spirituality: History, Theology, and Social Practice  Philip F. Sheldrake (Paulist Press) $22.95  Well, I’ve raised the hackles of some friends, I suppose, by offering a small bit of critique to brother Rohr, an author I generally like, and a leader I respect.  Others surely think I’ve not hit him hard enough, and there will be websites glowing that Hearts & Minds has embraced paganism.  So be it.  Most of our customers and friends appreciate our attempt to be balanced, to share concerns in friendly ways, and to point you towards important books (where we, or you, agree with all of them or not.)  But this does open a can of worms, doesn’t it?  What do we mean by spirituality?  How has that over-used phrase entered into our vocabulary so, when the grand traditions are so unknown.  We stock books of medieval mystics and Greek and Russian spiritual masters, and yet they don’t sell much.  So we need to know a bit more about this whole field. 

Mr. Sheldrake,educated at Oxford, and professor at University of Durham, is renowned for his historical overviews of spiritual formation.  (Indeed, he has been the president of the International Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality, and has served as editor for the New Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality.) His small volume in the Blackwell “Brief History” series (A Brief History of Spirituality) is excellent.  While someone like Richard Foster (with his compilations of primary source stuff like Devotional Classics and Spiritual Classics) is an evangelist for the inner life, a cheerleader and teacher and pastor, helping others gain appreciation and access to a lived life with Christ, it seems that Sheldrake is the preeminent historian of the field.  He may be one of the best to walk us through the ages, explaining the currents and movements and figures and traditions. 

So, his Explorations in Spirituality really is a grand and magnificent overview of recent thinking, gathering together various essays and articles and surveys of what has been going on in this field for the last few decades.  While not an overview of all of church history**, it is an exploration of what is being published, how spirituality courses interact with theology and history, and ways the contemporary understandings of place (cities and buildings, even) have come to influence how we think about God’s presence in ordinary life.  This is not for everyone, but to hear a serious scholar weigh in with a meaty collection, this could be very useful for some.  Interesting!

**for two very good overviews, both written within the last few years and relatively recent, see the spectacular, gorgeous, and well-written Brazos Introduction to Christian Spirituality edited by Evan Howard (Brazos; $34.95) or the great, ecumenical, collection of primary source writings, God Seekers: Twenty Centuries of Christian Spiritualities edited by Richard Schmidt (Eerdmans; $22.00)

image_thumb.pngLife in the Spirit: Spiritual Formation in Theological Perspective  Jeffrey Greenman & George Kalantzis (IVP) $25.00  For a semi-scholarly treatment of the field of spirituality, and how theological themes do or don’t interact with recent concerns in spiritual direction, this is the best resource we’ve yet seen.  I cannot say enough about how thrilling it is to see a mature and open-minded and yet firmly evangelical theology interacting with things that are so common within those retreat centers and renewal ministries that are talking about spiritual disciplines and the inner journey. (There are chapters, for instance, like Bruce Hindmarsh comparing Catholic and evangelical devotional practices,  Kelly Kapic on holiness in John Owen that is very interesting and apropos, a good piece by Dallas Willard, and chapters on centering prayer, hymns, and Chris Hall on “lectio devina”—what is really going on, there, and how might serious theological voices help?)

My, my, this collection of essays is rich, and I wish every pastor and formation leader would have it on his or her desk.  And I wish every theologian (or those interested in reading the systematic doctrine stuff) would read these pieces, showing how historic doctrinal concerns can shape and mold those who are seeking for deeper relationship with God and living life out of deeply formative spiritual encounters.  Kudos to those at Wheaton College who put together the gathering that provided these stimulating essays, and kudos to IVP for daring to publish them.  Will theologians truly care about spirituality?  Will practitioners and directors of the contemplative life truly care about theology?  Will ordinary Christian readers care about either?  Well, except for our brave and eccentric readers here at BookNotes and a few other oddball places, the answer may not be rousingly affirmative.  Still, we celebrate this book, seriously recommend it, hope that some of the chapters (at least) are copied and studied and cited and used. Three cheers for Life in the Spirit.  No, make that six cheers—three from buyers of theology books, three from buyers of devotional works.  Six cheers for Greenman and Kalantzis, ecumenical thinkers helping us make sure our prayer stations and pilgrimages and labyrinths and meditation centers and journaling exercises and liturgical experiments and our readings of the likes of the books we’ve mentioned above, are all well grounded, well rooted, and Biblically faithful.

Here is a link to show you the table of contents, and some recommendations of the book, from folks more serious than I.  If you are struck, as we are, of it’s significance, do come back and order it below.  We have a discount, and hope you find it helpful.  Thanks. 

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