Since my first two reviews (the shorter intro here and the big column, here) of the new Rob Bell book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God (HarperOne) which we have on sale at an introductory price for just $20.00, there have been some fascinating responses. Of course there are gobs of blogs. I’ve weighed in a time or two at various internet sites, and continue to worry that Christian people, not unlike others, I guess, are sometimes not very skilled in analyzing things and making fair-minded cases for or against something. We mostly liked the book, even though it had weaknesses (properly emphasizing the nearness of God but not saying much about the holy transcendence of God; strongly proclaiming the mercy of God’s grace, but not much about repentance or judgement; telling good Bible stories, but not being very didactic about how God is or isn’t revealed by Scripture.) Still, the book is interesting and useful, and I don’t think it deserves to be attacked in the cyncial way some have done. And some who have criticized it have dipped into accusations about the authors motives or intentions, which I think is just plain wrong.
So, again, let’s play fair out there. And don’t go out alone. Reading clubs, book groups, Sunday school classes, and prayer partners are all good places to talk about provocative books — find somebody to read and talk with. Read for the Kingdom, by reading in community.
In this complex matter of what we talk about when we talk about God, (or, for that matter, what we talk about when we talk about Rob Bell) a lot of thoughts have crossed my feeble brain this week. We’ve got bookshelves jam-packed with titles about God and theology, and I can hardly read a blog or hear an opinion of somebody about Mr. Bell and his book without thinking of other titles that might also be interesting, somewhat enlightening, fruitful or fun.
You’re a book lover or you wouldn’t be following along here, so I know you’re gonna love this. Here’s a list of 15 titles that I grabbed off our shelves (most of them new) that for one reason on another, are worthy of a shout-out here in March of 2013, post-Bell’s new book. Whether you like Rob Bell or not, whether you’ve read What We Talk About… or not, here are some more to consider adding to your collection. I’ll share a few that are quite good, not terribly academic, and tell you why they matter in this conversation. In no particular order. You can order them at our Hearts & Minds bookstore website order form link below at a BookNotes sale of 20% off any books mentioned.
We’ve shown the regular retail price. We’ll knock off the 20% discount when we process your order. Enjoy!
A Force of Will: The Reshaping of Faith in a Year of Grief Mike Stavlund (Baker) $14.99 In his new book, Rob Bell makes (among other things) at least one clear-headed, simple case: huge and gross human suffering may cause us to re-think God. This is not controversial, and is a situation, leading to a quest for clarity about God which is older than Job. This new book is a ragged, honest journal kept by a missional church planting pastor whose 4 year old died. Nicholas Wolterstorff, whose own journal after the death of his son remains a quiet classic, writes of Savlund’s book that it is a “gripping, unflinchingly honest, beautifully-written model of how to live with grief in faith.” As Shane Claiborne says of it, “Mike talks about pain without trying to theologize it away…” This takes some re-thinking about the ways of God with humankind, and Bell is right to invite us to this conversation. There are, sadly, many books like this and some are exquisitely well done. People who have suffered and struggled like this have much to teach us. You should read several of these kinds of books, keeping your heart tender and your mind grappling — maybe read one of this sort of book every year if you can bear it. Start with this.
Snake Oil: The Art of Healing and Truth Telling Becca Stevens (Jericho Books) $21.99 This is the memoir of a gentle and deeply spiritual writer who has previously done poetic little books about her work with homeless and abused women in her shelter/community Thistle Farms. The Very Widely Read Phyllis Tickle says it is “one of the best reads I have had in a very long time. Stevens is a consummate storyteller…poignant, persuasive, witty, wise, and, ultimately, a passionate lover of God.” Mr. Bell doesn’t write about this much, but he hints at how God can bring inner healing, how Christ is alive in redemptive ways that, if we are brave and open, we can embrace all this, for our growth and restoration, in great hope. This story is an example of just that, wounded women finding new hope. Becca Stevens is a great writer, an Episcopal priest with a radical faith and mature social conscience and she’s got a truly amazing story. Many people have been waiting for this major book for quite a while. She helps us see God alive and well in the very nitty gritty, even the sensuous; how many books, after all, quote the Book of Common Prayer and includes recipes? I think this is the sort of faith journey Bell would like, and you will too. You will be encouraged with this narrative and you’ll want to share it with others.
Faith Interrupted: A Spiritual Journey Eric Lax (Knopf) $26.00 This is the sort of mature thing that anybody interested in learning about newer ways people are leaving or coming to faith, or thinking about God in smart, fresh ways, should know. It is very perceptive and a well-crafted memoir. Many spiritual memoirs these days are either slight, new agey and esoteric, or they are mostly evangelical (some wonderfully written, others less so.) Lax’s story is neither of these and it is, by all accounts, a remarkably written, prestigious book, pondering the biggest things in ways that are interesting and sad. It is published by one of the classiest of New York publishing houses, and carries endorsements from the likes of Elie Wiesel and Jack Miles. Some have called it “luminous” and while it is mostly about loss of faith and an unfinished story of doubt and trials, it glows and shimmers with beautiful sentences and profound ruminations. Karen Armstrong says it is “poignant, sensitive, a thoughtful memoir that illuminates the complexity of the phenomenon that we call faith and delineates its flow and ebb.” Mr. Lux, by the way, wrote an New York Times best-selling book on Woody Allen. Who else quotes Woody alongside Augustine, Aquinas, and Anselm? I’m surprised this book isn’t better known.
Sensible Shoes: A Story About the Spiritual Journey Sharon Garlough Brown (IVP/Crescendo) $18.00 In his new book, Rob Bell’s view of God is not a distant deity, let alone a distant one that is out to get you. God is near and gracious, alive, even in the hard times. In this amazing new book — a novel about Christian spirituality! — four very different women met up at a Catholic monastery, while attending a retreat there. They learn about spiritual disciplines and how we are formed in the ways of Jesus by these classic practices, but more, they learn to relate as honest friends on a journey together. Hannah, Meg, Mara, and Charissa are the four women whose lives and longings unfold in this well told story. It is a perfect introduction — or window into — the ways in which there is a deep hunger for authentic spirituality these days. Bell, of course, talks about this (as does Diana Butler Bass, whose exploration of spirituality outside conventional churches — Christianity After Religion — is now available in paperback!) and so if you want to explore more of where all this God-is-Near talk might lead, check out this grand, great story. Jana Riess, whose hilariously honest memoir, Flunking Sainthood is itself a great example of how to be honest and real about this stuff, writes that Sensible Shoes “provides a way for readers to vicariously dip into deep spiritual practices through the realistic struggles and joys of four women. Through emotionally resonant characters (it) encourages us to communicate with God in new ways, broadening our spiritual journey one step at a time.” Ms Brown, by the way, is a pastor and spiritual director in the Evangelical Covenant Church, with a M.Div from Princeton. Check out the book club resources at www.sensibleshoesclub.com and get some friends together.
No Argument for God: Going Beyond Reason in Conversations About Faith John Wilkinson (IVP) $15.00 Okay, get this. This guy works at a high-energy but pretty conservative evangelical mega-church church and teaches as an adjunct at Lancaster Bible College. Not usually the sort of context for deconstructing rationalism and pondering how (as Scot McKnight put it) “cock-sure confidence is both admirable and annoying.” You know that Rob Bell replies nicely to the new atheists a bit in his What We Talk About When We Talk About God and he exposes the shallowness of naturalistic materialism. But he also touts mystery and “weirdness” in everything from cell biology to black holes and string theory. Nice! So when Wilkinson says that the odd irrationality of faith is its greatest asset, because rationalism itself sets artificial limits on all that we know, well, it sounds a bit like Bell. Logic alone cannot make us believers, and I like how McKnight calls this “a wonderful post-apologetics apologetic for an authentic faith.” This is fascinating.
The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian and the Risk of Commitment Daniel Taylor (IVP) $15.00 I was more than perplexed when one well respected blogger applauded a review of Bell’s new book that took Bell to task for not offering enough certainty, and pulled the sophomoric tautology saying that Bell seems certain about his claim that much is uncertain. That little skewering is maybe good for scoring points in a bull session debate in the dorm after a couple of Red Bulls, but frankly is not all that helpful or important. This old book cuts through the foolishness, reflecting maturely and wisely about what we can know and what we can’t and how one knows the difference. There is a risk to faith, to commitment, and we are called to be “reflective” about it all. I love this, and think Taylor, who has continued to write great books, is right. Publisher’s Weekly called it “splendid” and poet Luci Shaw said “I recognize myself on every page.” Bash Bell if you must, but, regarding this aspect of his views at least, after you read this good book you’ll feel embarrassed for having done so.
Truth Speaks to Power: The Counter-cultural Nature of Scripture Walter Brueggemann (Westminster/John Knox) $17.00 What can I say. There is maybe no more influential Bible scholar in our time, and it is clear that this unnerving message of how the Bible is subversive — a counter-narrative to the powers that be — has been important to Bell. Here, the endlessly working Bruggemann looks at a few key Bible stories, and unpacks them to surprising effect, by doing a close, political reading he comes up with some very compelling insights. He invites readers (as the back cover puts it) “into this thick complexity of textual reading, where the authority of power is undermined in cunning and compelling ways. He insists that we are — as readers and interpreters — always contestants for truth.” Right on. I love his phrases such as when he asserts that the Bible presents “a sustained contestation” over truth. Whether Bell stands in this Brueggemann-esque tradition of prophetic imagination, but this is a good example of how it works.
If you don’t like Bell’s reading of the Bible, I dare you to grapple with a couple of these chapters and come to see how the Scriptures can be read in closer more imaginative ways that is often done. If you do appreciate the seriously faith-based approach that isn’t fundamentalist, again, you will appreciate the exciting vistas this lover of Scripture can open. This is a great book, quintessential B-mann.
Jesus the King: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God Timothy Keller (Riverhead Books) $16.00 The earlier title of this when it was in hardback was Kings Cross. It is now renamed and in a paperback that feels perfect in the hand. I suppose that Keller disapproves of Bell, and that I’d be on thin ice trying to link What We Think About… with the renowned pastor of Redeemer in NYC. But, no matter. If you like Bell and want to rethink God and life and faith, you simply have to be grounded in the story of Jesus. Bell himself says that clearly — Christ’s Kingdom coming as new creation is the narrative that captures our imaginations, no? So, ya want to follow in the way of Jesus, because His love wins? Do it. Study up. Learn to desire Christ’s reign, showing His grace. There are a dozen good books that came out in the last few years about the King and his cross. This is a straight-arrow, very well-written study of Mark and we recommend it to one and all.
Wonder Struck: Awaken to the Nearness of God Margaret Feinberg (Worthy) $14.99 In the new book, Mr. Bell makes a big deal in his idiosyncratic style
that God is awesome. The world is crazy-awesome, too. Maybe it does takes his paragraph long run-on poetic sentences with lots of spaces between the lines to give us space to get it, to even begin to get it — there is something sublime about the really real, and God surely is in this place! Okay. He nails it, and if somebody didn’t trot out the screwy accusation of pantheism, maybe he wasn’t capturing adequately the wondrous, radical way God is near (as the Bible tells us, upholding all things by His Word, which itself speaks to us.) And, sure enough, Bell has been accused of pantheism, even though he says he’s not falling for that age-old heresy. But, granted, he comes close — God is so near, so very, very close, all the day, everywhere. Is there anywhere, the Psalmist asks, where we can go where God is not? The very stuff of creation reveals God and God’s intentions to us — Calvin Seerveld in a meditation on Psalm 19 in the first chapter of Rainbows for the Fallen World calls it “God’s glossolalia.” So, Bell reminds us of how great the world is, and how God is near it all and why we should pay attention.
Do you really know that? My, my, if not, then you need this wonderful, evocative, beautiful book — at once chatty and majestic — by a woman who knows God intimately, loves the Scriptures (she “turns exegesis into an art” says Ed Stetzer), and is awestruck by God’s very holy presence. The first chapter is about the auraora borealis and hooked me the first time I read it. (I’ve read most of this book twice, now!) Margaret is filled with the Holy Spirit in ways that, it seems, have given her new eyes to see — really see — the wonder all around. Is this a book about being struck by the wonder of creation? Or the wonder of our Creator-God and beloved Redeemer? Yes! Yes to both! It is a moving book that will teach you how to know God and how to appreciate creation. It will get under your skin. (Bob Goff says “you can’t read this book and remain the same.”) The famous Jewish theologian, Bible scholar and peace activist, Abraham Heschel, once famously described his prayer by saying “I asked for wonder!” This popular writer, who has been through quite a lot, as she shares in this book full of stories from her own quite interesting life, has too. As Nancy Ortberg puts it, “Margaret recenters wonder at the heart of our relationship with God with seismic results. This book shook my soul awake and made it impossible for me to continue following a God of my own design.” Have you (as Feinberg puts it) “misplaced marvel”? Do you need God to wake you up? That is surely what is behind much of the attraction to What We Talk About When… This joyful read can help. By the way, there is a great 30-day guide in the back, too, which will help you process the material. And a soundtrack. Go, go Margaret!
Breaking Old Rhythms: Answering the Call of a Creative God Amena Brown (IVP/Crescendo) $15.00 Bell is edgy and hip but he isn’t just trying to be cool when he talks about God the creator as being active and creative. We are made in God’s own image so humans, too, are active, creative beings. (And, as he points out, we live in an visual era, where aesthetics and design and the environment matter.) This recent book by hip hop spoken word poet Amena Brown isn’t a treatise on the arts, let alone dance, but it does play with that image and metaphor. (Michael Gungor the singer-song writer and worship musician says “Amena Brown uses words to fill the soul like music.”) She clearly is a gifted wordsmith, a young woman of color, poet, speaker, and organizer. She explains to us in helpful ways that God is love, and that God’s love carries us beyond our rhythms into a fuller, more fulfilling life. But that is just the beginning — she invites us to dance, sing, clap, breathe, live. We can so this! As the exciting communicator and author Jo Saxton says — “Breaking Old Rhythms reminds us of God’s passion to rewrite the soundtracks of our lives with faithful, redemptive love. Warm, poignant and deeply soulful, Amena Brown invites us into her story, showing us how to let god and embrace God. Spoken word, indeed.” Hey, she has 25 songs listed in the back, too, that have helped her break old rhythms. For men or women who want to experience fresh ways of knowing God and living into God’s work in the world, this is a gem.
Four Views on Divine Providence edited by Stanley Gundry (Zondervan) $19.99 I am sure you are aware at how complex this topic is, and that while Bell didn’t exactly weigh in on this, it has to come up in any conversation about God, or what the Bible shows us about God. Is God sovereign? What does that mean? Are all things superintended by Divine Providence? Here are four very interesting positions, each offered and then critiqued by the other three contributors. Paul Kjoss Helseth believes that the Bible teaches that “God Causes All Things” and William Lane Craig believes that “God Directs All Things.” The third chapter is by Ron Highfield, and his position is that “God Controls by Liberating” and Gregory Boyd posits that “God Limits His Control.” These Counterpoints books by Zondervan (some other publishers do them, too) give us splendid ways to learn, to hear the various views and to wrestle with the rebuttals and critiques. This is like a seminary class, for a couple of bucks. Sure Bell has stirred the pot a bit. Ha, but his brief book, nice as it is, offers, on this topic, mostly kid’s stuff, though. This offers sustained and serious debate. Join in and try to determine what you believe. From election to theodicy to knowing how to pray and what to say during times of grief or discernment, this matters. Sure, there are deep mysteries here, but this book explores the sovereignty of God in important ways.
Three Free Sins: God’s Not Mad At You Steve Brown (Howard) $14.99 It is understandable, I guess, when some people accuse Rob Bell of being theologically liberal. Perhaps he is. But this fine book is written by a doctrinally conservative, impeccably evangelical Reformed elder statesman. He was a pastor for 25 years and is Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Reformed Theological Seminary. He’s written tons of books (and runs one crazy-wild, upbeat syndicated talk show called Steve Brown, Unlimited that proves that while he is doctrinally stuffy, he’s also open-minded, unflappable, and very engaging.) The subtitle of this says “The Reason We’re So Bad Is That We’re Trying So Hard to Be Good.” Let that sink in! (Any Lutheran readers out there? You get that, eh?) This book is funny, powerful, and although Bell is considered suspect when he says stuff like this, Brown rightfully gets a hearing because he is well grounded in very solid theology and has real gospel-centered pastoral concerns. I can’t say enough about this great book. If you don’t like Bell, please read it. If you do like Bell, please read it.
By Meaning: Science, Faith, and How We Make Sense of Things Alister McGrath (Westminster/John Knox) $17.00 Alister McGrath is one of the most respected and prolific theological writers of our time (and his new bio of C.S. Lewis, btw, is getting rave reviews!) His first PhD was in the sciences although he is now a teacher of theology at the prestigious King’s College in London. He has written widely in theology, cultural studies, apologetics, church history, spirituality, and science. This recent one is such a vital, useful work because he is asking something Rob Bell approaches — how do we seek, name, and construe meaning? What is the role of religion in a scientific/technological culture? What can we know, and what is God like, given what we know? Catholic scientist John Haught of Georgetown writes “McGrath provides a crisp, readable, and deeply personal witness to Christian faith in an age of science… Those who have been taken captive by the extravagant claims of Richard Dawkins will find here a fresh and reasonable alternative.” As you know, this is part of the urgency of Bell’s project and those “taken captive” are part of his intended audience. This goes deeper and could be even more helpful.
Science & Its Limits: The Natural Sciences in Christian Perspective Del Ratzsch (IVP) $18.00 As you hopefully recall, I mostly raved about how Rob Bell, in What We Talk About When We Talk About God, does a very enjoyable take-down of the contemporary gods of scientism, his invitation to realize that we live in a perplexing world that surely cannot be described solely in secular, scientific terms. Rejecting a faith/science conflict, but also rejecting reductionistic scientism, he nicely hints at what I can only call a philosophy of science. Okay, there, I said it. This is, in my opinion, the best introduction to that important topic, the philosophy of science. Alvin Plantinga, whose heavy weight Oxford University Press book on this topic (Where the Conflict Really Lies) says of this one that “Ratzsch is eminently successful.” Professor Ratzsch is also the author of The Battle for Beginnings: Why Neither Side is Winning the Creation-Evolution Debate (IVP.) If you were taken by Bell’s Everything Is Spiritual DVD and especially if you were struck by his exciting teaching about science and scientism, you have to go further. Read this.
Permission Granted (and other thoughts on living graciously among sinners and saints) Margot Starbuck (Baker) $14.99 You should know that I have a little fan-crush on this gal, and Beth and I have hosted her in Dallastown where she did a fabulous job speaking and reading from her first two books. She’s a feisty writer and at times exceptionally moving. (Her memoir The Girl In The Orange Dress is a must-read!) Starbuck a funny speaker, an insightful leader, and a hippy-ish leader-ish of the Presby-emergent sort. Or something like that. She is a grand wordsmith and can tell a story like nobody’s business. And she is passionate about serving Jesus in the guise of others. This new book tries to grant us permission to lighten up, to love everybody, to cross over and reach out and find ourselves with new friends who maybe aren’t in our little Christian circle. Her previous book accomplished this fantastically — we raved about Small Things With Great Love (IVP) and this more or less keeps going. And keeps us going. We don’t just love the poor and hurting and needy, we must reach out to those who are excluded and judged and despised. It is, as you can surmise, a book about grace. Holy-moley, this is powerful, energetic, enjoyable (and convicting.) We need these kinds of books that help us live into this vision of sharing God’s love with others, becoming the sort of people we know our Lord wants us to be, kind and good. We really need to know what graciousness looks like. Margot is a godsend with her tales and reports from the journey. Do I need to tell you that this is a good part of Rob Bell’s vision, that his book points us towards this? I really don’t know exactly what Rob believes and I don’t know what Margot would say about it, but if you are a fan of the kind of God Bell describes in What We Talk About… you will love this guidebook to taking steps towards living it out. If you are suspicious of some grand re-think of the attributes of God, why not just read this? See what happens. Learn to love others like Christ, reaching out to those excluded, showing mercy. God will be there, I promise. Margot is a sure guide. Maybe this is what we should talk about when we talk about God.
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