3 Exceptional Books — CS Lewis and the Arts (by Square Halo Books), Reading for Preaching (by Cornelius Plantinga) and Encounters with Jesus (by Timothy Keller) ON SALE

Come on, people, give me some empathy.  It is hard work writing with a degree of zest and conviction about the new books that keep coming. But here’s why I need your patience: each of these stellar books deserve full throttle, heavy-duty, really informative reviews.  I love these and want to pull out the stops to properly honor them. They are that good. 

And it ain’t gonna happen.

It is that time of year, and my carefully plotted hopes of doing hefty posts is falling apart as time and snow and late-in-the-year releases continue to conspire.

So, here ya go.  Three reviews of three excellent suggestions, in one big BookNotes blog.
CCS Lewis and the Arts.jpg.S. Lewis and the Arts: Creativity in the Shadowlands  edited by Rod Miller (Square Halo Books) $18.99 OUR SALE PRICE $17.09  I have started a longer review of this, and it would be great to tell you about each and every chapter.  That is what I did, after all, with the last spectacular Square Halo release — It Was Good: Making Music to the Glory of God edited by Ned Bustard.  You can see my shorter rave of that one here, or the longer review here.
This new Square Halo one is easy to explain, even though no curt description does it justice.  It is, as is pretty obvious, a collection of essays about the ways in which C.S. Lewis thought about the arts.  Just when you thought there couldn’t be any reason for another book about the Oxford don, this comes out and — righto — this is a must-have addition to the personal library for anyone seriously interested in all things Lewisy.  Of course, many of the contributing authors are fans, but not all are fully in agreement with Lewis’ take.  Most, however, are confident that the more typical approaches of relating faith and the arts have much to gain by learning from Lewis. We always have much to gain by learning from Lewis, so we commend this book to you.
A few of these intellectual essays just glow — I must admit I really liked the chapter by David Downing (who joked with me that some readers thought we weren’t allowed to critique Lewis, as if he has some inerrancy clause) and the excellent ones by Charlie Starr and Will Vaus. The great painter and multi-media artist (and former head of the excellent art department at Messiah College) Ted Prescott, wrote the forward and it, though brief, is excellent. But I think I liked Bruce Herman’s very human and humane piece the best.  He at once showed great familiarity with Lewis (and Gadamer and Steiner) and how their generous hermeneutics could transform contemporary art criticism and culture. This is not only a lovely, thoughtful essay, it offers a very important ideal and much hope for the state of the arts in our land.
A few of these are heady pieces, and I didn’t agree with all of them. (I’m not sure I even understood all of them.)  Many draw naturally on the famous Experiments in Criticism, and not a few cite Abolition of Man.  One whole chapter (by Scott Key) is on Perelandra. There is much here — from interviews with Lewis about Narnia to his ruminations on the Psalms, to his own autobiographical pieces.  A few lesser-known Lewis books or essays are plumbed and all in all working through this collection is a great way to deepen one’s understanding and appreciation for this most-famous Christian thinker.  A few chapters are really interesting about specific things (Peter Schakel on Lewis’ view of music and dance, for instance, or Don W. King drawing on his poetry  — a vitally important chapter, I think.) All are accessible, but a few are quite learned (go, Jerry Root!) 
You could easily give this book to nearly anyone who likes to read Lewis — it is new, and a bit rare.  Square Halo is an indie boutique publisher in Lancaster who specializes in books about the arts, so it isn’t well known.  It is therefore, sure to surprise and delight.  I predict if you give it, the recipient (if they follow Lewis literature) will be delighted and you will be thanked profusely.
You could also easily give this book to nearly anyone who likes to ponder the intersection of faith, aesthetics, cultural renewal and the arts. I would have wished from some interaction also with some of the exquisite and important aestheticians of today — I’m thinking Calvin Seerveld or Makoto Fujimura or Dan Siedell, for instance — but that’s another book, I guess. (Square Halo’s It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God comes to mind.)  For a book that does something no other book has done — exploring “creativity in the Shadowlands” — this is a great achievement.  As such, it is one of the more important books in Lewis studies in quite a while.  
Lastly, it is wonderfully designed, as are all of Square Halo releases.  The striking Ned Bustard artwork on the cover, Saint Jack (which appears again inside) is perfectly complemented with a great typeface on the cover, which wonderfully sets apart each chapter.  (One small design criticism: no where does it tell us who these authors are.  Does it matter?  I want to know, quite literally, where they are coming from!  Trust me, though: google ’em up, and you will be impressed.  This is one splendid collection of authors and this is an exquisitely respectable  volume.  As the very creative contemporary artist Mary McCleary writes, C.S. Lewis and the Arts is “a must read book for anyone who loves Lewis and loves the arts.” 
Rreading for preaching.jpgeading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists Cornelius Plantinga Jr. (Eerdmans) $14.00 OUR SALE PRICE $11.20  I have to admit that, despite the splendid and important great non-fiction religious works that have appeared in recent months — urgent works by authors which I have reviewed here at BookNotes such as Jamie Smith, N.T. Wright, Andy Crouch, Jim Belcher, Walter Brueggemann — this is the one that I have been most eager to see. I got all queasy in the tummy when it came, and when I finally broke free to start it, I literally got choked up.  If you are a book lover, you will understand; Plantinga’s opening introduction makes a wonderfully eloquent and interesting case for the power of good books. 

He features a lot of novels and poets, but he affirms the eloquence of historians and reporters and memorists. And he loves young adult fiction, too.  Oh my, oh my, oh my.  If you ever need reminded about why we care about these objects of paper and print, just read the first 8 pages of this great little book.

As you may know, Plantinga, has led Summer Seminars in Reading for Preaching at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids. With some help, I gather, from the prestigious and ecumenically-minded Calvin Center for Christian Worship, he has lead for years retreats with selected pastors who have read from a good list of books.  They gather to ask how these books can inform the preacher, and they are legendary.  I have a few friends that ha
ve been blessed to be involved, and Plantinga’s ability to reflect on why and how books matter to the preacher is apparently just amazing.
And it is clearly apparent in this new book, with wisdom and stories gleaned from his years of reading great books with good preachers.  His own storytelling is charming and wonderful, his economy of words exceptional, his vocabulary and insight and wisdom nearly stunning at times.  It seems this project — reading widely in fiction and creatively crafted nonfiction — really is the ticket. Man, this guy can write, and he walks us through all kinds of good literature. What joy this book brings!
You should know two big things about this powerful little volume.  Firstly, it is not mostly about how ministers can quote good books.  There is a fabulous chapter on this — how much of an excerpt dare one read out loud, how should one cite the quote, what sort of poems work in a typical sermon?  He tells fine and funny stories, gives good advice, and actually makes this pedestrian question really, really interesting.  But, as he says in the very first few pages of the preface, this is not the main reason a pastor should read widely.  
More significantly, reading good books shapes the character and vision and vocabulary of the reader. Such pleasurable, good reading helps a pastor — or any of us, if you get my drift about why we all should read this book  — gain greater empathy. It helps us learn how others narrate their lives, making sense of things, even hard things.  Reading fiction gives us texture and vocabulary and rhythms.  Reading the sorts of good writers he suggests gives can bring us wisdom and insight.  Plantinga offers many chapters, each on different sorts of things one can absorb from good authors, and the first is “tuning the preacher’s ear.”  He draws on good sermons, too — from preachers like Barbara Brown Taylor or Frederick Buechner (who he begs us not to try to imitate) which is an added little feature, hearing these lines from these famous preachers.
Look: if you have a preacher friend, give her this book.  If you’ve got a pastor, share this.  
But the second thing: this is not just for preachers, despite what the title says. If you like books at all, value good writing, enjoy fine novels or the occasional poem, if you take in the best memoirs and award winning journalists, you will love this.  Get it for your clergy friends, and get it for yourself.  If you are a reader or a writer, get this book.
(Further, if you sit through sermons, this is a great read.  It might help you understand what your preacher goes through, and it might help you hear the sermon better. I’m not making this up: reading an occasional book about preaching is like getting insider information from a banker — it can help you get what’s really going on when he or she stands up there. I’ve read a lot of homiletics texts, and this is certainly one of the best I’ve read.)
I might say more about it again — how can I not, this book has “Hearts & Minds” all over it! — but for now, allow me to assure you that it is well worth reading, and nearly any clergy person you know will like it.  Or should.  Buy this book for him or her, and enter “the conversation with storytellers, biographers, poets, and journalists.”  And then by one for yourself.
Here are some of the enjoyable blurbs on the back. I wish I could add my voice — this is a very special book. 

Richard Lischer
— author of Stations of the Heart and The End of Words
Plantinga’s Reading for Preaching represents the gift of a lifetime.
Plantinga has spent many years mapping great fiction, poetry, biography,
and journalism. In this book he shares that map with technologized,
digitalized, busy preachers who badly need what he has to offer. This is
not a guide to ‘pretty sermons,’ as Niebuhr called them, but to human,
deeply textured reflections. . . . I can’t imagine a preacher who will
not benefit from this gift.”

Walter Brueggemann
— author of The Prophetic Imagination and Truth Speaks to Power
matters are unmistakably clear in this book. First, Plantinga loves
words, phrases, sentences, and stories. He remembers them, relishes
them, and knows their durable power. Second, Plantinga cares about
ministers. He knows the burdens and wonders of ministry, and treats
preachers with deep respect. . . . Preachers will find in these pages a
colleague and fellow traveler who exudes courage and pathos and joy in
our common calling.”

Thomas G. Long
— author of The Witness of Preaching and What Shall We Say?
wit, wisdom, and a fresh supply of his own compelling prose, Cornelius
Plantinga invites us into the whitewater adventure of good reading. He
speaks directly to preachers, to those who bear the load of weekly
sermons and who wonder where they can find language that bristles with
energy and faithful imagination. But he also gathers in all Christians
who hunger for the old words of the faith — sin, hope, salvation,
providence — to come alive in the vibrant metaphors, rich stories, and
telling insights of great literature. This book is about delightful
reading, and it is itself a delight to read.”

Lillian Daniel
— author of When “Spiritual but Not Religious” Is Not Enough
don’t preachers read more? Preachers are writers who produce more
content each week than the average newspaper columnist. Why don’t we
ravenously read in order to feed the beast of each Sunday’s deadline?
The truth is that a million pressing callings invade the small space
that pastors reserve for reading. And so I give thanks for the deep
reading that Cornelius Plantinga has done over the years, and for this
gentle guide to words that are worth reading.”

John Ortberg
— author of If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat
once said we are to love God with all our mind — I know of no one who
does this better than Neal Plantinga. He seems to be incapable of
crafting an uninteresting or unedifying sentence. To be able to learn
from him how to stock a mind for greater preaching is beyond price.
Whatever this book costs, it’s not enough.

Eencounters with jesus.jpgncounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions  Timothy Keller (Dutton) $19.95 OUR SALE PRICE $15.96  Interestingly, this is the second brand new hardcover to be released by the famous New York Presbyterian preacher this season.  We were glad to feature — in NYC at the Redeemer Center for Faith and Work event — the good one that came out in October, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering.  What an amazingly thoughtful book that is!  This one was released about two weeks later mid November.
Encounters with Jesus is similar in size and shape to Keller’s other neat compact volumes like Counterfeit Gods, Generous Justice or The Prodigal God.  And it is every bit as good as those great ones, maybe better.  I have read three quarters of the chapters and have been very, very impressed.  It is certainly one that fans of Keller will want — Keller on Jesus — but I’d like to tell you just a bit about it, so you can consider giving it to others who may not be familiar with this sharp thinker and fine communicator.  It will make a fantastic gift, not too heavy, but full of substance. 
The first five chapters were first given as lectures at the Oxford Town Hall (yes, that Oxford) to an audience made up of a diverse, even skeptical crowd.  Each chapter is a Bible exposition of somebody from the gospel of John who met Jesus. These are astute studies — you can tell they were given as lectures — and they offer a seeker a perfect glimpse into the life-transforming encounters with the Nazarene.  Of course, each chapter builds as a series, as Keller walks through some of the biggest questions one can ask, some of the most important matters in life, and shows how Christ can provide what we so desperately need.  He is known (not unlike Lewis, or Schaeffer) for offering tough answers to tough questions, and he knows well the concerns of the modern sophisticate, the skeptic or those who are unclear or uncertain about the grace and gospel of God.  Any Christian will learn much and be inspired by these enjoyable chapters, but I believe they are firstly aimed at those who are not convinced of Biblical truth or who have not personally encountered the Christ.  The chapter titles, by the way, are inviting: “The Skeptical Student,” “The Insider and the Outcast,” “The Grieving Sisters.”  The chapter “The Wedding Party” is my favorite one in the book and parts of it are just brilliant — oh, if more preachers could proclaim essential gospel truths with such moral weight and intelligence. (What he observes by citing portions of the great DIckens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities, is fantastic.)
The second portion of the book includes five chapters which are also revised from talks Kellertim keller 12-10.jpg gave; this time, the lectures were offered month by month, at a breakfast meeting with thoughtful mid-town business people at the legendary Manhattan Club, where he was invited to hold forth.  Can you imagine?  Preacher and apologist that he is, he took to the second half of the book of John, working through themes and questions of utmost universality, and offering a compelling, upbeat, consistently Christian worldview.  Again, his chapters reflect the early versions that were spoken, and they are eloquent and moving. (How could they not be, as he walks us through the passionate episodes of Christ’s last meal, his time in the garden, and so forth.) The last chapter, though — a very good one  — is a bit curious.  He backs up and explores, in “The Courage of Mary”, the annunciation.  What a nice ending to a very useful little book. Perhaps you’d want to read it out loud this holiday season.
Below is an excerpt from the introduction is handsomely shown on the back cover.  Perhaps it will help you think of someone for whom you could buy this book.  It is that time of year, you know, when you are allowed — indeed, sometimes required – to give a little gift.  Maybe this will work.

There are plenty of other ideas we would consider valid, or noble, or even beautiful, that came solely from Christianity. Therefore, if you want to be sure you are developing sound, thoughtful answers to fundamental questions, you need at the very least to become acquainted with the teachings of Christianity.  The best way to do that is to see how Jesus explained himself and his purposes to people he met — and how their lives were changed by his answers to their questions.


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