BASIC CHRISTIAN GROWTH
Although our store and BookNotes blog is known for promoting books about how the Christian faith interacts with culture, inviting friends to read widely, even suggesting Christian books about their careers and avocations, and even though we are passionate about providing books on many social and political issues (advancing what some might call a “public theology” concerned for the flourishing of the common good) one of the largest categories in our store is a genre one might call basic Christian growth.
In this section we have books for brand new Christians, for those exploring faith perhaps for the first time, and for those who have gone to church all of their lives, but want a deeper look or a fresh take. No one is too old or experienced to benefit from these guides to faithful living. Some of our all time favorite authors might be found in this genre – think of Frederick Buechner or Madeline L’Engle, Eugene Peterson or Brennan Manning; Barbara Brown Taylor or Jerry Bridges; these are theologically interesting, but not scholarly, academic writers. Their books are designed for ordinary people of faith to grow in their relationship with God and deepen their daily discipleship.
I want to tell you a bit about two very good books in this category. These two are so nicely done and the authors so well respected, that they should be popular. We know both authors, too, and want to honor their work and thank them for their support of indie stores like ours.
Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined by Jonathan Merritt (FaithWords) $20.00
HEARTS & MINDS DISCOUNTED PRICE $18.00
I have been eager to tell you about this book since I zoomed through an advanced copy; I am very fond of it. Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined just released this week and it will be, I am sure, one of the more popular books of its kind this year. Jonathan Merritt has written two other very good books (Green Like God and A Faith of Our Own) and he has become a significant voice in the recent rise of a younger generation of evangelical writers. (Brad Lomenick, president of Catalyst, says that Merritt “is fast becoming one of the most influential Christian writers today. He has a pulse on culture and a gift for communicating.” Rachel Held Evans says that he is “an incisive, winsome writer and one of the best storytellers I know.”) That JM has spoken at events such as Q and Catalyst and Jubilee and writes regularly for HuffPost, Patheos, God’s Politics and the like suggests he is a writer to whom we should pay attention.
Although in his work as a pundit he has been outspoken about social justice, about forging better postures for cultural engagement than the old-school culture wars, and has invited readers to think more carefully about the ways faith can be applied to public life, this new book goes back to basics. Why do we trust Jesus? How do we come to know God more deeply? How do we think and feel and embody God’s ways in a very broken world where our lives are often filled with debilitating sadnesses? What do we do when we’ve done all the right religious things and God still seems distant?
In a truly wonderful foreword, John Ortberg mentions a personality test that psychologists sometimes administer where it is commonly discovered that religious people give false answers, more so even than the nonreligious. The reason, it is suggested, is that “those inside a strong faith tradition tend to confuse our aspirations with our achievements.”
And, it seems, we sometimes don’t fess up to the messiness of our daily lives, at least not at church.
Ortberg does a wonderful job setting up the book, and reminds us that our faith — as explained so helpfully by Merritt — is a mix of “not the way it’s supposed to be” and glimmers of hope and glimpses of redemption. There is darkness and confusion alongside goodness and beauty in this life, and we need not pretend it is otherwise. We don’t have to fake our answers, suggest we have it more together than we do or exude more religious confidence then we have.
The Christian faith offers a true story, a helpful framework which is the best way to understand this mix. But I’m saying it inadequately: it isn’t just a framework or abstract story we are invited into, it is friendship with the person of Jesus the Christ. Here’s Ortberg, again, from the preface:
It is this Jesus, the real Jesus – with all his confusing majesty in the midst of the real world with all its confusing pain – who shows up on page after page of Jonathan’s book. We see Him in the silence of the desert and the beauty of the storm in the challenge of an impossible assignment and the euphoria of an answered prayer. And not just there. We see Him, though this book, in somebody’s life. Jonathan’s integrity and thoughtfulness and courage and vulnerability will be a salve to every reader. We meet Jonathan, as we meet Jesus, at the foot of the cross.
Jesus Is Better… has gotten a lot of on-line publicity in the last week as Christianity Today ran a very moving excerpt, one of the many poignant and self-revealing chapters when Jonathan tells of his own loneliness and foibles. It has been widely re-posted and re-tweeted.
There was an episode in Merritt’s life a few years back that caused him considerable public embarrassment when an old acquaintance tried to blackmail him (he was already a known author and journalist with a large internet following) regarding what might have been an illicit sexual encounter. It was horrifying to him, as you can imagine, to have personal junk aired without his consent and, as he tells in this chapter, he prayed to be spared. “I’m not ready for this” he cried out to God.
As he explains in the chapter “A Thread Called Grace” he was forced to share some intimate things about his life that would have not been his plan to publicly acknowledge. Yes, he has had some unwholesome desires. His being a survivor of sexual abuse and how he is coping with the complex feelings having been through such things is part of that. You can imagine. Yet, as Merritt wrote in a Washington Post column, picked up by Sojo, he chose to reveal more about this episode not to enhance sales of the books or as a cheap publicity stunt, but because it captures so very well the heart of the book: we can experience profound and healing grace; Jesus is indeed better than anything, His presence more than we might ever suppose. In our hardest times, God can be with and for us. When we are most frightened and alone, God is there. And this the beauty of God’s mercy, God’s tender care, God’s free offer of love. Indeed, as Merritt says, “all is grace.”
Jesus Is Better is a title, I’m afraid, that might turn a few sophisticated readers away. But I assure you, this isn’t simple inspirational fare, or cheerleading for a happy-clappy sort of revivalism. As I hope I’ve noted – citing Ortberg’s foreword and this hard revelation about sexual brokenness – this is not a cheap book, morally or literarily. He draws on very interesting authors, poets, mystics and offers very nice epigraphs before each allusive chapter title. He talks about real life, difficult stuff, and the stories (quite engagingly told) ring true.
Whether it is the story that made me shed tears (a young friend of his, a mother of two little ones, died of an odd infection, despite prayers for healing) or the episode of his own solidarity with those who sense God is silent and absent, or the fun story about the surprising common grace found at the nearly sacrilegious bar called Sister Louisa’s Church of the Living Room and Ping-Pong Emporium, a campy dive nestled in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, these tales take us into real life, honest probing, and the search for authentic spirituality in the world as we know it.
Happily, the book is exceptionally accessible, and nearly anyone who likes to read even a little will be drawn in. Jonathan Merritt narrates stories of his life, making them interesting and applicable – he’s the son of a Southern Baptist preacher, after all, and he knows how to bring it home, drawing out a good lesson from a good story.
For instance, he tells of going to Christ in the Desert monastery for a silent retreat. I felt like I was right there with him, sharing the anxiety of facing such a rigorous discipline. Merritt offered a honest report of how hard it was for him, and how hard it most likely is for most of us to enter into sustained silence. A very exciting chapter about a mission trip to Haiti (where he is ambushed and robbed twice in the same day!) will resonate with anyone who has done short term projects. I liked a chapter about being in Kathmandu, about finding God despite a sense of God’s absence (and the lessons learned from the children of poverty.) He’s a great storyteller and a fine Bible teacher, and weaves together Bible observations and his fairly colorful life. There were moments I thought of Bob Goff, and the holy capers he describes in Love Does – Jonathan has that spontaneous and adventurous disposition and ends up being in some very entertaining situations. It makes for a good read.
Yet, despite the high drama, some of the best chapters are quiet; they are gentle reflections on ordinary time. How does Jesus reveal Himself in the more quotidian? There is one chapter about the mystery of what Jonathan thought was a mystical encounter, God truly showing up, offering a gesture in the wind as Jonathan sang a rousing early morning hymn in his wooded backyard. Of course (of course) he tried to duplicate the experience many times after that, and, of course (of course) God cannot be summoned to perform tricks at our command. It is a candid and nicely honest report of this fairly simple story – sometimes we think we have had an encounter with the Divine, but we aren’t sure. Or, we are pretty sure, but we wonder why it vanishes so quickly. I’ve been there. I have read that chapter twice, smiling and nodding, glad for his faith and glad for his candor when it doesn’t work out as we might wish. It’s a funny world, eh?
“I remember the day the emptiness came,” Jonathan writes in the first page, in a chapter called “Holy Expectation.”
Unless you really don’t think about these things much, I suspect you, too, have sat in church, longing for greater spiritual connection. You’ve had times of emptiness. You’ve read a religious book or attended a small group Bible study or worked hard on a congregational renewal project and yet, yet, there is a sense that God is not much involved. You resonate, as Jonathan does, with the line he offers from Emily Dickinson,
They say that God is everywhere, and yet we always think of Him as somewhat of a recluse.
I think many of our readers will enjoy this book. I think the stories, and his sensible, upbeat Bible instruction, will be helpful. Be prepared to be surprised. Not only does he write so very nicely about finding God in the impossible, about encountering Jesus in waiting, even about Christ’s holy presence in tragedy, he does come back to church: yes, in a chapter called “Easter Remembrances” he encounters Jesus in church.
And, in a closing episode he moves way out of his comfort zone as Jonathan meets rather reluctantly with a small group of Pentecostally-inclined women who speak a “word of knowledge” over him. This prophecy ends up ringing true in the deepest parts of his soul: it was a vivid invitation to continue his journey.
As he looked back over his year, the year that became the fodder for this book, he writes,
I found moments of respite and enlightenment in Scripture, no longer read out of duty My eyes caught surprising glimpses of God in far off monasteries and my back porch. I saw Jesus flash in the eyes of orphans and touches refugees. In chance meetings with unlikely angles in unusual places, I stumbled across the One I craved. Now I realized He was there all along. He had just been waiting for an invitation to meet me on His own terms, rather than on mine.
The search for our boundless God has no beginning and no end. When we walk thorough one door of spiritual awakening, God opens another and beckons us come. He calls us not to a destination but to a life-long posture whereby we live aware, peering around every corner knowing that God may be waiting there.
Not Who I Imagined: Surprised by a Loving God Margot Starbuck (BakerBooks) $14.99
HEARTS & MINDS DISCOUNTED PRICE $11.99
If Jonathan Merritt’s vivid stories are sometimes exotic – travelogue reporting of his dramatic mission trips or a stay at a remote monastery or coming alongside friends in the grip of premature death and tragedy, yearning to encounter Christ in those places – those found in this recent book by Margot Starbuck are, well, less so.
However, her writing just glows and her stories of her daily grind, about her children, her tales of her own inner turmoil, her girlhood, people she knows, are of a truly remarkable caliber. She is a very good writer, one who I truly respect, not least for her fine work as a wordsmith. And her spunk.
You should know that we’ve had Margot to the bookstore to read from her work (her memoir Girl in the Orange Dress is extraordinary) and we believe her to be one of the most enjoyable writers doing these sorts of books these days. I like that she can be sassy, self-deprecatory, and her stories – a game of “your favorite heresy” played on New Year’s Eve, her little one’s trying to figure out the price of a high end sports care they spied (forty-two dollahs, her three year old suggests) – are offered with the witty turn of phrase, very interesting word choice and a perfect cadence. With a degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, Starbuck knows her proper Reformed theology; as a bit of an neo-hippy-chick, she’s free enough to speak her mind and allow for laughter and revel in just a little bit of weirdness. Without going gonzo, she still brings some zest to the page, and if you like energetic, quality writing, you simply most know her stuff.
For instance. She is known as a rather creative dresser (to put it delicately.) Her rant (a good one, too) of the shaming involved in the reality show What Not To Wear was stellar, just stellar. Her feisty resistance to the powers that want to shame and name her as unacceptable is admirable, gloriously so. “Be Who You Are” is the name of that chapter and the stories she tells, alongside situations like the inglorious watching of the aforementioned train wreck of a TV show, shout her message so clearly: “even if I’m not accepted, I’m still acceptable.” As she wryly notes, “A useful life-skill on so many levels.”
And though my own beleaguered insistence may very well spring from some unmet developmental need, or some narcissistic demand for attention, the outcome – choosing to silence messages that insist on my inherent unacceptability -really is the singular path to freedom from shame.
And this is may be the heart of the book: we are accepted, and can know that better as we think through the faces we have for God, the voice we hear when we think of God speaking to us.
Again, I was choked up by some of her stories, anecdotes of people who heard from overbearing parents that they are unlovable, and that God thinks so too. Tragic stories of people who can’t seem to realize that they are beloved, people of faith who still can’t quite imagine a God who is good or beautiful, let alone accepting. If we feel we are not good enough for God, if we think God somehow mostly wants to scold us, we are far from being grasped by the gospel. By citing provocative social psychology and a bit of fascinating neuro-science, and some pretty insightful folk from her own circle of friends and family, she weaves a thoughtful picture of how some of our earliest memories (of, literally, eyes and faces) become for us our truest images of God. As you come to realize, this can be damaging or healthy, by degrees, depending. Pondering it now can become healing.
As Margot’s subtitle puts it, we can be “surprised by a loving God.”
She has very well-crafted reflection questions at the end of each section to help process all of this. They are suitable for groups, if you are close, and certainly are great for personal use. They might be quite revealing as she asks us to name and reflect upon our own sense of the face of God.
This is not new territory for Margot, nor is it simple. As she has told in her own memoir about being adopted, and some subsequent family disasters, she is saddled with inner baggage, abandonment issues, a sense of not being worthy to be received. Her bit about not wanting to impose on others when she is a house guest was very funny, and very poignant, painfully so.) What does it feel like to sense one has not been well held, not lovable, not accepted? How has that registered in our neural pathways, in our very being? (She cites some amazing work in this, from the notable Dr. Frank Lake to the stunning Alice Miller, author of The Drama of the Gifted Child, whose work on early childhood issues remains urgent.)
Ms Starbuck is an amazing, gifted, energetic writer and a mature thinker. I suspect this book will touch deeply in profound places if you let it. Few of us are unscathed in this hard world, and all of us know those who carry within them toxic views of God that are not Biblical, and not healthy. They need to be surprised, or reminded, that God is “not who I imagined.” Starbuck’s book will be a God-send, a life-line, I am sure of it.
In fact, I not only recommend it to those who need a good reminder of the face of God, seen in an accepting and warm Jesus – grace is amazing, isn’t it? – but to those who work in counseling, pastoral care, or who are sometimes called upon to offer encouragement to others.
In this book she recounts episodes and share stories – for instance, one in which her six year old self oddly runs out into street busy with traffic – where people do weird stuff that maybe indicates something amiss in their interior lives. If you know the mysteries of human psychology, you surely know there is much to this – we carry trauma in our bodies, we have memories just below the range of consciousness, and our hurts have a way of wounding us in ways that manifest themselves when least expected. She is not a psychotherapist, but she has attended to these signs of something going on “below the surface” and her ruminations are helpful and wise. She makes it clear time and again that this “re-forming” of how we see and understand God is part of what God does in human lives. She is, I believe, a midwife of the Spirit, helping us bear new fruit in our lives, as we come to know God more appropriately and truthfully.
And the journey is a lot of fun. This book brings together some very serious concerns (what could be worse than toxic faith, a fear that we can never measure up to God’s approval, stories of those whose God is distant or angry) and yet is jam-packed full of great stories of a simple sort, cleverly told, punchy, catchy, and thought-provoking. Not Who I Imagined is a very good book, and it is well worth considering.
There are several major sections with several chapters under each heading. Her stories and ruminations and scientific dabbling fall under these categories and although some may dip in and out, reading what you may, they do follow a flow, a liturgy, it sees to me. Enter this grand healing story and follow along:
We’re Formed by Early Faces
We See Ourselves Through Other’s Eyes
We Mask Up to Cover Shame
We Give God a Face, We Encounter the Face that is True
We Receive God’s Gracious Face.
Their stories and guidance remind us that we are loved by a big, mysterious, good God, who is seen in the face of the Incarnate One, Jesus Himself.
This may be a surprise, and it will be better than you imagined.
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