I was pondering a bit today about gift-giving this time of year, and how appropriate books are to give. The Christmas gift-giving season sees a spike in book sales and it seems that the happy holidays are great times to give books. Often, though, we find stuff like how to crochet an outfit for your pet or books about your friends favorite sports team or rock star. Cookbooks and jokebooks and colorful books about making your own party favors and (for the more serious set) books of history and current affairs are popular.
But what about now, holy week, and the next phase of the liturgical calendar, that of Eastertide? Lent certainly seems a bit more somber of a season, and even as we move through pondering the passion, ending up in joyful celebration, there is this intensity to it all. Death. Life.
I could be wrong, but it sees the festival celebrating the risen Lord isn’t quiet as mixed up with the sorts of sentimental stuff that we love in December —going home for the holidays, and kissing under the mistletoe, and getting ready for some New Year’s party. For those who practice Easter, except for those confounding egg hunts, it is pretty clear what it is about. Christ died. Christ lives. And, as Eugene Peterson might put it, we get it on it.
So what books can we give this time of year? Well, it may be too late for a Lenten devotional (but one never knows; somebody may really appreciate reading this week about fasting and sadness and lament and passion; there is a reason many people appreciate Good Friday services, as it gives an opportunity to name our pain, to know that God, too, suffers.)
Here are a couple that are, if not forthrightly Lenten, and not celebratory, exactly, either, just are lovely good books for serious, enjoyable reading in this time after Winter but not yet Spring, this time of the end of Lent and the start of something else.
Leaving Egypt: Finding God in the Wilderness Places Chuck DeGroat (Square Inch/Faith Alive) $14.99 This book is special for a variety of reasons. The “alligator-skin” suitcase feels neat, with a bit of texture, and the black and white picture of the suitcase before each chapter is a visual reminder as one moves through the pages that we really are on a journey, a journey away, a journey home. It is handsome and a nicely made paperback.
More importantly, it is wonderfully written. It is not arcane or academic, but the author is obviously quite a scholar. But not only is it profoundly insightful about the human condition and what it takes to find deep change, it is–without a trace of being smarmy–very practical. It is loaded with stories, some truly horrible, each that show the journey of a person stuck in Egypt-land, addicted, enslaved, fearful, oppressed. Besides it being informed and thoughtful, well-written and full of stories, the author has a light touch (and a realistic one.) This great book can be of immense benefit for anyone who is on a journey towards wholeness, seeking a break from the past, needing liberated from the Pharaohs that holds us back. It wisely and winsomely and realistically points us to God’s promised land.
I like this smart guy’s Reformed worldview—-he explains well how that which we are often enslaved by is, in fact, a good impulse, or a wonderful part of God’s good creation. He draws on Cornelius Plantinga’s Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, for instance, to expose the way sin works and to talk about how the gospel can counter our idols. And he is clearly experienced in sharing grace, in rejecting legalism, in calling out toxic faith views and habits and institutions.
It is interesting that DeGroat has taught a class for decades at Reformed Theological Seminary (in Orlando, Florida) and is also a therapist (hence the tons of stories that he lovingly shares.) He quotes Gerald May and Parker Palmer along with the Heidelberg Catechism and John Calvin. I love a book with great quotes and fasincating footnotes and this has ’em, from Walsh & Keesmaat (Colossians Remixed) to Michael Gorman to Kenneth Bailey. He makes good use of many medieval mystics and of contemporary psychologists like Paul David Tripp and Dan Allender. I love that a book can quote Puritan John Flavel and modern novelist Toni Morrison, Tim Keller and Walt Brueggemann.
If this were a longer review, I’d quote most of the fabulous introduction where DeGroat explains how he got the idea for this book—that the journey out of Egypt is, in fact, the story of all of us—from studying with British theologian Alister McGrath.
This time of year, with the Holy Week resonance with Jewish Passover, especially, we certainly can realize that this God-inspired, God-empowered, God-mandated move from captivity to freedom, is the essential journey of the Christian life. As Steve Brown writes of it, “If you’re trapped in “Egypt” and know there should be something far better, this book will change your life. With profound biblical and theological insight, Chuck DeGroat has written a ‘travel guide’ for human and flawed travelers who want to be free.” We highly recommend it.
Still: A Mid-Faith Crisis Lauren F. Winner (HarperOne) $24.99 I gave this a brief, positive review when it first came out—my wife had zoomed through our advanced copy and was deeply touched by it, taken with its artful literary style, and the realistic story of loss and confusion and loneliness. I had read parts, found it very moving, wondrously written, and a bit sad. In that review I noted that Harper even had a Lenten reading guide available for download for those that wanted to read it’s melancholy chapters bit by bit during Lent.
I want to suggest it again. I know there are many people who are depressed. Many people who have failed to live up to their best Christian ideals, many who suffer with disillusionment and even despair. I think this book will help because it is honest about that stuff, well written, raw, real. Lauren is one of the best in doing contemporary memoir and here she tells of her dark night of the soul after she left her husband. Out of confidentiality or respect, I guess, she doesn’t say much about the nature or failure of the marriage, but she does write about her inner life in the wake of that sorrow. More, though, it is about something that happens to many of us, regardless of how we’ve fouled up or how badly life’s hurts have hit us: we grow distant from God. We think God has grown distant from us. Our faith may or may not carry us through. To use Chuck DeGroat’s powerful analogy, we want to go back to Egypt. Ms Winner has done a spectacular job writing a restrained, insightful, pathos-filled story of this part of her life, this leg of her journey. Some of the writing is luminous, poetic, and at times it is plain. She writes about the biggest matters, and always places her quest amidst the details—antidepressants cause her to put on weight; she wants to come across as a spiritual mentor and helpful older friend to some students, but loses her keys, so they have to rescue her; she fines great grace in going to a pie eating thing at her church; she goes to her mother’s grave and sings hymns that her mother loved, but the Episcopal priest didn’t allow them to be sung as the funeral liturgy.
I am sure that many will find Still to be thrilling to read, taking in the clever
lines and interesting word choices, the flow of the paragraphs. Others will appreciate her candid discussions about her own spiritual practices, about prayer, about her journey through doubt and anguish. It seems like a good time to share it, now, in this week when we ponder Jesus’ own sense of being forsaken.
New Collected Poems Wendell Berry (Counterpoint) $30.00 Any collection of Berry’s work is a cause for celebration, and this “new” collection of previous work is the most comprehensive volume done yet. It is a big, handsome hardback with, as you can see, a great brownish design and a beautiful hawk on the cover–and, the photo on the back is new, for what it is worth. There is one new poem, (“The Country of Deja Vu”), a short little piece about reprinting his old work, which seems kind of funny.
Included, then, in this anthology are all the poems found in these earlier books: The Broken Ground (1964), Findings (1969), Openings (1968), Farming: A Hand Book (1970), The Country of Marriage (1973), Clearing (1977), A Part (1980), The Wheel (1982), Entries (1984), Given (2005), Leavings (2010.) As you may notice, a few poetry volumes are missing (the gift book Window Poems, for instance or Timbered Choir) but all the others are here. There is an odd note indicating that a few might have been excised by Mr. Berry, but I can’t tell which poems are missing. Surely, most are there in these 489 pages. It is the first time such a large, complete volume has been compiled.
Many prestigious literary voices have honored Mr. Berry’s work, and many have explained why he is so important. He himself has written about poetry (I adored the one he wrote about William Carols Williams of Rutherford. And, of course, he is respected for his novels and essays which seamlessly explore his agrarian vision. A few months back, I told you about a recent collection of essays about him, a brilliant analysis called The Human Vision of Wendell Berry edited by Mark Mitchell and Nathan Schlueter, published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.) I hope you know just how esteemed he is. He was recently awarded the National Humanities Medal. Here is a bit from The New York Times Book Review,
Wendell Berry’s poetry is a validation of his decision…to give up the literary life in New York and seek a deeper bond with his ancestral home, a hillside farm in Henry County, Kentucky, on the Ohio River. His straightforward search for a life connected to the soil, for marriage as a sacrament and family life, affirms a style that is resonant with the authentic…He can be said to have returned American poetry to a Wordsworthian clarity of purpose.
Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son Anne Lamott (Riverhead) $26.95 Well, not sure what this has to do with Lent, or Easter-time, exactly, but it is a new book that ought to be in some book lover’s Easter basket. If you want to give a gift that will be a good read, a fun and funny and troubling and inspiring book, the new one from this beloved zany writer—colorful is putting it mildly—could be just the ticket. I know this isn’t for everyone. She uses some language. Her theology is, uh, eccentric. A few hardened secularists might find her too daffy in her love for Jesus. Some conservative sisters and brothers will find her open-minded liberality just a bit much. And the whole premise is about an unplanned pregnancy and a young couple that isn’t married. Yet, she talks about her church, she talks about her fears and hopes, she talks about her foibles, she talks about her incredible love for her son, Sam, his girlfriend who he got pregnant, and the wonderful little boy that came to be. And the whole shebang, the extended family, the new relatives, the ups and downs, etc. etc.
Just as the addicted, bohemian, world-famous novelist was in the process of becoming a Christian, years ago (narrated so wonderfully in Traveling Mercies) Lamott wrote a memoir about raising her young son, Sam. That great book was called, cleverly, Operating Instructions. Well, that Sam is mostly grown up. (By the way, I mentioned in my previous post, that he had made a small appearance in Mark Yaconelli’s book Contemplative Youth Ministry because Mark had been the youth worker at Saint Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, where Anne and Sam attended.)
Yes, this is a full on memoir, a year’s worth of ruminations, day by day, as the late teenage pregnancy turns Sam and Amy into a young mom and dad of a baby named Jax, who comes into their lives and hearts like a storm, bringing a houseful of extended family, friends, trouble and grace. Yes, there is trouble, and yes there is grace. And adventures. What a funny, creative, crazy, new tale—one some her her fans hadn’t quite expected. If you like her loopy style and her liberal politics and her big, big heart, you’ll dig this. Sam himself has co-written a bit, and his voice is in there, too. He isn’t always happy. Nobody is. But there it is.
So maybe this is an Easter story, after all. Despite broken, hard,
situations, love wins. Grace extended, goodness happens, and, in God’s mercy, there can be
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