Embracing the Body (Tara Owens), This Is My Body (Ragan Sutterfield), Spiritual Friendship (Wesley Hill), and The World Beyond Your Head (Matthew Crawford) ON SALE

Christ is Risen! 

He is Risen Indeed!

Even low-brow evangelicals and hipster missional house church folk have been adopting this ancientthomas painting.jpg Orthodox call and response these days. I’m heartened by how many have signed off their emails this week with the creedal reminder, and hope this Eastertide season of the church shapes our imaginations and habits.  Nothing against the start of baseball season, of course (we have a Baltimore Sun sportswriter Dan Connolly coming in to the store next month to talk about the Orioles!), but there is something good about rooting ourselves in the ancient story.  At the change of each liturgical season I get out Bobby Gross’s great devotional Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God (IVP; $18.00) and re-read Lauren Winner’s spectacular introduction where she reflects on wanting to be more shaped by the church year than the customs of the American narrative and its secular feast days and calendar revolving around school seasons. What does it mean to be alive to the themes and insights about Jesus, season by season?

Certainly one of the great, great truths of this season is that Jesus rose from the dead.  So now is a goodMiracles.jpg time to think and maybe read about that. He did so in his body, the texts tell us, and I believe it — the modernist lack of imagination among the progressive intelligentsia notwithstanding. If only we could pass out the latest Eric Metaxas book, Miracles (Dutton; $27.95), like loaves and fishes for those hungry for an enchanted universe. 

(And, while I’m on this preamble digression, allow me this tangent: New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, perhaps the world’s leading scholar on first century ideas about resurrection has described how when he was trying to figure out if he was a Christian or not, he, of course, had to determine what he believed about this astounding claim that Jesus rose from the dead. To even entertain that, he had to first conclude if miracles – any kind of miracles – could even happen.  If not, then there was little point it trying to conjure up Easter faith.  So, he read C.S. Lewis’s classic little paperback, Miracles and that was a key step in the process.  Once he came to realize that miracles are plausible, then he could proceed to the matter at hand: if that miracle – the literal raising of Jesus from the tomb – had happened.  Which is why I commend not only the Lewis standard, but the new Metaxas book. Not only because we may all need a little inspiration to recall that Hamlet was right in his quip to Horatio — there is more to life then meets the naked eye — but so that we can stand seriously on this ancient Christian essential truth:  Christ is Risen indeed.)

Okay.  That said, I’d like to suggest some books that seem particularly germane this week as we see life in light of the Light of the world, who is now much more than light. He is, as in the famous Updike poem, “Seven Stanzas At Easter,” molecules reknit, the amino acids rekindled. (“Let us not mock God with metaphors” he writes. “Make no mistake: if He rose at all it was as His body…”) 

(John Calvin, you may have heard, was once asked if Jesus still sits at the right hand of the Father, as the Apostle Creed declares. His witty reply was that, most likely, He sometimes gets up and walks around. Which is to say, again, Updike is right. This is a real body, which Thomas touched and that reigns in Heaven, even now.)

Enough of me telling it slant, warming up.  Here are some books that are about the human body, since bodies matter.  Black ones, yes, yes, especially now, but that’s not the half of it.  All sorts of stuff matters, and, in Christ, we are like new Adams and Eves, alive in the world, gloriously human, gladly bound by gravity and grace. “This is our Father’s World” the old song says and despite the goofy lines in too many hymns (as documented in a few pages in Richard Middleton’s A New Heaven and A New Earth) the whole Earth does declare the glory of God.  And that includes – like it or not – our bodies, from tongues to toenails.  

We suggest these books because they are very good. I suggest them now because, well, it is Eastertide, and it seems right.

Embracing the Body- Finding God in Our Flesh and Bone.jpgEmbracing the Body: Finding God in Our Flesh and Bone Tara M. Owens (IVP/formation) $17.00  This is the third spectacular book published by IVP in the last few years on the nature of the human body, living in our own skins, pondering the deep relationship between our deepest interior lives and our bodies.  (We recommend their practical and very spiritually enriching The Life of the Body: Physical Well-Being and Spiritual Formation by Valerie Hess & Lane Arnold and the extraordinary, wonderfully-written What Your Body Knows About God: How We Are Designed to Connect, Serve, and Thrive by Rob Moll. I am sure Debra Hirsch’s soon to be released Redeeming Sex, although a bit more specific, will also wonderful explore the relationship between our bodies and our faith.) I’m glad the acquisition team there are finding these kinds of helpful titles, and releasing them so affordably. Kudos to IVP.

This new book by Tara M. Owens declares that “Our bodies teach us about God, and God communicates to us through our bodies. Our bodies are more good that we can possibly imagine them to be. And yet at times we may struggle with feelings of shame and guilt or even pride in regard to our bodies. What is God trying to do through our skin and bones?”

tara m. jpgTara Owens is a spiritual director, a gifted, artful person, if a failed poet (so she tells us, although she doesn’t blame her friends from the Image Journal Santa Fe Glen Workshop or her teacher Scott Cairnes) and a heck of a great writer. (I love somebody who cites the 21st century writer Christian Wiman and 2nd century poet, St. Symeon the New Theologian, C.S. Lewis and Rob Bell.) She edits an excellent, excellent spirituality journal, Conversations Journal, so gets to work with Gary Moon and David Benner and the likes of Richard Foster and Eugene Peterson and the late Dallas Willard. (By the way, do you recall that in Willard’s breakthrough 1988 book, The Spirit of the Disciplines, he had a chapter on the body!) Owens says her own “cranky patron saint” is the mystic Evelyn Underhill.  Besides her editing and writing, she is a part time instructor for the Benedictine Spiritual Formation Program at Benet Hill Monastery.  She is qualified to write an engaging, spiritually profound, mature and discerning book.

But why this, writing on the body?  She seems neither terribly broken nor distressed about her body (there are some powerful memoirs about eating disorders, say, or cutting, which get at the woundedness so many know.) She is deeply aware, though, and writes eloquently about these hard things that happen to and in our bodies, even though she comes at this less as a physiologist or psychologist, but as spiritual director. She know that our bodies are a central part of who we are, and that we can embody God’s glorious intentions only as we become comfortable with our bodies. Our spirituality is intimately tied to our physicality.

Part One of Embracing the Body is called “Body Reality” and the four chapters are:

Where Do Our Fears Come From?

How We Lost Our Bodies?

Broken Body, Broken Church

Dust to Dust

In Part Two, Ms. Owens uses her wise and pastoral insights to offer us ways to “face our fears.”  She offers really profound ways to frame these conversations and I am sure this is going to be immensely helpful for many.  I think it might be helpful to just list these chapters and what they cover:

Angel or Animal: Beyond False Dichotomies

Beauty of Beast: Living with an Unglorified Body

Touch or Temptation: Issues Around Sexuality

Desire or Destruction: Exploring Our Impulses

The third part of Embracing… includes five more great chapters, moving us towards a Kingdom vision,glory of our bodies poster.jpg how God’s people in the church -a Body! – might help us with better body images, and how Christ’s redemption may shape and heal our own distorted views and approaches.   As you might guess, I loved a chapter called “Sensing God’s Kingdom:  Encountering God’s Physical Creation” and highly recommend the chapter on sexuality.  (She cites the beautiful book by Lisa Graham McMann, which I often recommend, called Sexuality and Holy Longing: Embracing Intimacy in a Broken World.)  There are suggested exercises for reflection at the end of each chapter. 

Lauren Winner (whose brand new Wearing God I announced in our last post) says “This book is beautiful, learned and wise. It will make you think, and it will make you want to say ‘amen’ – and, more important, it will enable you to live as a body.”  Micah Boyett (author of Found) says “Tara M. Owens is a rare find among contemporary writers. Part theologian, part mystic, her insight is bod and rich, and her writing is fine-tuned… I will be meditating on this book for a long time to come.”

Enjoy this interview with Tara Owens, about her book, done by another astute blogger.

this is my body ragan s.jpgThis Is My Body: From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey into the True Meaning of Flesh, Spirit, and Deeper Faith Ragan Sutterfield (Convergent Books) $22.99  It isn’t every day that one sees a mature philosopher write a book about his own body (let alone a triumphant story of becoming an Ironman competitor.)  But this – this is smart, exceptionally well-written, captivating, a stimulating blend of memoir and reflection.  That Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove says it is a memoir “that threatens to up-end spiritual writing in the twenty-first century” is significant. This is, truly, an embodied sort of spirituality, a meditation about flesh and weight and sweat and tears and aches and pleasures.  

Sutterfield, by the way, wrote a small book that we mention as often as we can, the fantastic Cultivating Reality: How The Soil Might Save Us (Cascade; $16.00) which ponders the harm of industrial food systems, and offers a faithful glimpse of sustainable, soulful, agriculture. That he is indebted to Wendell Berry and the new agrarians is obvious, that he loves the land is evident.  That he is a great, solid writer is also evident.  He cites rich pieces of the New Yorker and knows good literature from the classic poets to the best theologians. He is studying to become an Episcopal priest.

In This Is My Body Sutterfield helps us think about our physical natures in ways that remind us that “God glories in the flesh.” Even on the back cover, he asks, “What if we had the same joy about our bodies” as God does?  Although there is plenty of spiritually-enlightening reflection and some good and challenging diagnosis of our cultural dysfunctions, it is, after all, a memoir. (Rodney Clapp, founder of Brazos Press, and himself author of Tortured Wonders: Christian Spirituality for People, Not Angels) says it is “unflinchingly honest.” This book is exactly that, and it is almost stunning to see anyone reflect on his own views of his own body with such candor. Each chapter tells of a season of his life, from a certain setting. (Including his time on a farm, which is pivotal.)   

Chapter by chapter, Sutterfield unfolds his story as he tells how he perceived and experienced his bodySutterfield-Ragan-210x300.jpg as a body, as he awakened to his body, to his own body in college. He became obese, and has chapters telling how his body was lonely, broken, fulfilled… you’ve been there, no doubt. Interspersed with these auto-biographical ruminations are episodes from his taking up Ironman training as a spiritual discipline.  I usually have little interest in reading about these kinds of hard exercise regimens or extreme sports stories (although we do have a book called Slowspoke about a guy riding a unicycle across the country) but found these parts very interesting. Beyond that, they were inspiring, and one more way into this conversation that God cares about this world, that there are, as Bruce Cockburn has sung, “rumours of glory” and that Christ’s own resurrection helps us know in the deepest sense, the promise of the redemption of all things, including our bodies.  Did I mention that one of Mr. Sutterfield’s chapters is called “My Resurrected Body”?  

I like that on the back cover it notes that Sutterfield “counts his success, though, not in his decreased clothing size, but in his increased understanding of how much God truly loves us and what it means to be stewards, not just of our souls, but of our skin and bones, too.” What a story!

Spiritual Friendship- Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian.jpgSpiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian Wesley Hill (Brazos Press) $14.99 This book deserves its own longer review, and I am afraid I cannot do it justice here. It is one of the most important books of our time, vital, important, rare, wise, exceptional.  It is exactly about our embodiedness, yes, even about the redemption of our sexuality.  It is beautifully written, exquisite at times, and more candid then one might expect in an evangelical Christian book.  We are proud to carry it, and eager to commend it to one and all.

The author is a very sharp, Anglican theologian (indeed, his just released his long-awaited scholarly book Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations and the Pauline Letters (Eerdmans; $26.00) which itself deserves much acclaim.) Mr. Hill, though, is perhaps better known as the author of Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality which was published by Zondervan ($14.99) a few years ago. There, he tells his story of being a thoughtful, evangelical and undeniably gay.  As one who holds to the traditional interpretations of the often-contested handful of texts about same sex behaviors, Wes is clear that he believes that he must, like other unmarried singles, remain sexually celibate. Washed and Waiting is the only book of its kind, a candid rumination by an out Christian who is gay and who is committed to sexual restraint, without muchwashed and waiting.jpg expectation of God re-orienting his own desires for same sex intimacy.  Some on the progressive side of things have lamented his prissy fidelity to heterosexual norms and some in the fundamentalist camps have wished for less candor from the brother.  (An unashamed gay Christian? Yikes!)  We believe that book to be a watershed and exceptionally helpful for those wanting a third way between the extremes.  Agree or not, it is, as they say, what it is: a testimonial witness of a very thoughtful, young evangelical leader ruminating on his body, on the redemption of all things, and his hope as he waits for the new earth.

In that significant book he notes that if one is committed to celibacy – no erotic, sexual activity – one certainly needs brothers and sisters along on the journey. Everyone needs companions, serious friends, those who can share life and times more deeply than even in more typical friendships. One needs (embodied) spiritual friendship, and Wes promised that this would be the topic of his next book.  Many of us – gay and straight – have awaited this next chapter of his story, and his theologically rich call to better, more profound views of friendship. I cannot tell you how glad I am that this is now available.

Here are four features of this great book which underscore why you should consider buying Spiritual Friendship, as soon as possible.

Firstly, we all know that one of the great themes of our time is the need for authentic community. Not a day goes by without an article crossing my desk – in cyberspace, that is, which may be part of the problem and some of the answer – about the fragmentation of our mobile culture, and why younger Christians, especially, are seeking community.  A gang of us moved into a big old house a few decades ago and christened ourselves “an intentional community” and it is beautiful to see that tribe now including houses and apartments throughout that neighborhood in the East End of Pittsburgh, with diverse and nearly intergenerational housing arrangements. (Apropos of not much, I might say it was a pretty depressed area when we moved in, and now there is a Whole Foods and Starbucks nearby.) So, yes, we long for a sense of place, for friends with whom we can do life, for churches to enhance our relationships, for community.  Wes moves beyond the rhetoric, it seems, and pushes us beyond grand talk of community to real friendships. (He’s very good on this in the video interview to which I link, below.)

As Richard Hays of Duke writes of Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church…

Courageous and thought provoking. This is a book that challenges all of us — whatever our sexual experience or longings may be — to think more truthfully about the meaning of love and the complex ways in which our communities either stifle or nurture it.

As Eve Tushnet (author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith) says, “Honest and poignant, Spiritual Friendship is like a conversation with a good friend who has learned much for books but more from loving and being loved by others.” 

Secondly — and this, too,  fits with my theme here of the redemption of our bodies, of God’s care aboutside_dr_wesley_hill.jpg physicality — I suspect this book, which I have only started, will talk about the value of human embrace, of touch.  Just this week in church a single friend mentioned to me that she and others she knows are “touched starved.” She was not hinting at anything illicit, of course, but only admitting that single people,  widows and widowers, and all sorts of folks need human touch. Let us even leave aside the question of whether we all need something erotic in our lives, sensual pleasures. There is no doubt that we all need touch.  I think that Hill writes about this, and enters these frank matters out of both his own personal experience (which he mentions in Washed and Waiting) and from his meticulous, rich, theological studies.

Thirdly, there is, in recent years, a large move to recover ancient theological sources. There is a lot of interest in the patristics, in early church leaders, in a new rapprochement between Catholics and Protestants and Orthodox. (Read the powerful, heady memoir by Thomas Oden called A Change of Heart for some of this story.)  Some of this comes from an awareness that much of the crisis of faith in our secularizing time has rattled down from the rise of rationalistic modernity and the Enlightenment. Many realize that it is beneficial to retrieve older sources — pre-modern, if you will — and that ancient guides could provide ballast for shallow evangelicals and liberal Protestants alike. Whether you are immediately interested in the presenting concerns of Mr. Hill, as a celibate gay Christian, or the question of friendship, you may find it helpful to see how early church or medieval teachings presented this notion of spiritual friendship.  Hill has recovered a large body of work about friendship — in fact, he has a fascinating epilogue which is an essay on his sources — making this book a major contribution to the growing literature on what Peter Leithart says is “a lost Christian tradition of committed spiritual friendship.”

Lastly, this book is a book-lovers dream. BookNotes readers may not know the works of St Aelred of Rievaulx (Spiritual Friendship written in 12th century England) or the early 20th century author Pavel Florensky.  More might know The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis or the many amazing lines in Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. (There is a footnote, by the way,  of a letter to Hill from Charles Marsh, about the spiritual friendship of Bonhoeffer and Bethge that fans will want to see.)  Henri Nouwen, of course, shows up, as well.  Besides other important theological voices from years ago, Hill quotes popular contemporary studies and recent author (yes, Dan Brennen, whose rare book about cross-gender friendships, Sacred Unions gets a much-deserved shout out.)  He notes that moving chapter on loneliness in Lauren Winner’s book Still, the lovely writings on love and romance by Diogenes Allen and novels like The Goldfinch or several by Chaim Potok.  Again, his essay which is a guided walk through all manner of recommended books, his own sources ancient and recent, is, for some of us, worth the price of the book.

Here is a remarkable half hour interview with Dr. Hill about his course on Christian friendship that he teaches at Trinity Evangelical School for Ministry. It is very, very good and I highly recommend it.

The World Beyond Your Head- On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction.jpgThe World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction Matthew B. Crawford (FSG) $26.00  I announced this notable book on this prestigious publisher in the last post, naming 12 of our favorite books that released last month.  I have only dipped in to this – the booksellers joy and frustration – but I have talked to one of our most astute customers, a serious and delightful reader, who assures me it is one of the better books of the year.  Crawford, as you surely know (since you read my post earlier this week – ahem!) wrote the much-discussed Shop Class as Soulcraft a few years ago.  His story in that rich and learned work, is fantastic. He grew weary of his abstract and seemingly pointless work as a scholar in a think-tank and found new joy and meaning in a motorcycle repair shop he opened.  As one well-schooled in the liberal arts (and still involved in the academy as a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies of Culture – run by James Davison Hunter) he can ponder the intricacies and nuances of cultural shifts with the best of them. (Ahh, but can other cultural critics fabricate components for custom motorcycles?) His call to re-instate shop class, for reasons both practical and soulful, is breathtaking.

Here, he moves further into this conversation that honors the work of our hands, literally.  Crawfordmatthew crawford.png extols practices and craft, he explains how the brain works (yes, neurology figures in to this new volume) and he invites us again to resist Gnosticism.  That is the theological heresy, of course, that devalued the physical world, hating the body as Plato did. (I still cringe when a congregation sings “I’ll Fly Away” with its non-biblical, Platonic stuff about this world of God’s being a “prison.”) Crawford, by focusing on our literal, embodied labor and skills, helps us heady types recall the places we live and the ways we work.

Here is what it says on the lovely flyleaf of this handsome hardback (well designed and manufactured and delivered by real hands, by the way.):

We often complain about our fractured mental lives and feel beset by outside forces that destroy our focus and disrupt our peace of mind. Any defense against this, Crawford argues, requires that we reckon with the way attention sculpts the self. He examines the intense concentration of ice hockey players and short-order cooks, the quasi-autistic behavior of gambling addicts, the familiar hassles of daily life, and the deep slow craftwork of building pipe organs. He shows that our current crisis of attention is only superficially the result of digital technology and becomes more comprehensible when understood as the culmination of certain assumptions at the root of Western culture that are profoundly at odds with human nature.

The World Beyond Your Head promises to make sense of an astonishing array of familiar phenomena, from “the frustrations of airport security to the rise of the hipster.” 

This glorious book is divided into two major sections: “Encountering Things” and “Other People.” It starts with an epigram by Vincent Van Gogh, who wrote, “The great thing is to gather new vigor in reality.”

Here is a very serious interview with this smart guy from a recent National Review. Wow.

For those of us who believe that Christ is Risen, there is, indeed, a really real reality. God’s Spirit can give us new vigor to enter it well.  Perhaps we can imagine, envision, inhabit and embody the new Easter creation by experiencing grace firstly in our bodies.  As down-to-Earth farmer/poet Wendell Berry put it, we must “practice resurrection.”  Maybe these books can help.



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