So many great books have been released in the last week or so, and I’m sad I can’t tell you about them all. Recently we’ve been eager to read the eagerly awaited Mary Karr’s Art of Memoir, delighted to get When Girls Became Lions, a lovely new sports novel by Valerie Gin & Jo Kadlecek about the impact of Title IX and women’s friendships, glad to have the important new study of the history of contemporary evangelicalism in America, Awakening the Evangelical Mind: An Intellectual History of the Neo-Evangelical Movement by Owen Strachan. In between thinking of how I want to review all of these, I’ve dipped in to the new collection of love poems by Mary Oliver, Felicity.
We get a lot of books in that are really good, even if not useful for everyone; we are proud to announce the significant new Mark Noll volume on Oxford University Press, In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life 1492 – 1783. And, the latest in the “Church and Postmodern Culture” series edited by James K.A. Smith, From Nature to Creation: A Christian Vision for Understanding and Loving Our World by Norman Wirzba, which is extraordinary. I’ve been pondering the latest work by Eastern University philosophy professor, R.J. Snell, whose rare volume is called Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire.
These all are on a growing short list for my consideration of the best books of 2015, so I’ve got some serious reading to do in the weeks ahead. You too? I know you’re eager to read and learn more but have time for only the most important and/or lovely and good. I wouldn’t mention these if I didn’t think you’d want to consider them, even without further ado.
There are three, though, that are brand, brand new, three that I have deep affinity for and even some connection to, that I must describe for you.
Knowing what I do about many of our readers and customers, I suspect you will appreciate them greatly, and may want to get them right away. I will try not to go on and on analyzing them in detail, but will try my best to assure you that you will be glad to know about these books. Maybe you’ll want to order them from us at our discounted prices for BookNotes friends, maybe to read with others, or to give to someone who just has to have this kind of energetic resource. Read on, please!
Unleashing Opportunity: Why Escaping Poverty Requires A Shared Vision of Justice Michael Gerson, Stephanie Summers & Katie Thompson (Falls City Press) $11.99 I mentioned this in passing a bit ago, before it came out, knowing it was going to be released soon by our good friends at Falls City. A day or so ago the Center for Public Justice announced the launch of this book that they co-published and nicely told their members that we had it. We’re glad for those that rushed orders to us! In just under 125 pages these three authors have created a book unlike any I’ve read — and I’ve read a lot in the sociology of poverty, the need for social justice, a Christian response, and ways to be involved in alleviating poverty. It really is an exceptional little contribution, and therefore quite important.
It might be said that the book has one overarching theme or subtext: to overcome the injustices of income inequalities and opportunity disadvantages – that is, poverty – the government cannot be expected to do everything, since politics cannot solve every human problem, but it can be expected to do some things. Unleashing Opportunity invites us to “a shared vision of justice” by exploring how private sector volunteerism, compassionate assistance, and faith based ministry (and all of civil society and its mediating institutions) can be enhanced by good government and, conversely, how thoughtful, moderate, pro-active, just government can enhance the on-the-ground realities that families, neighborhoods, schools, businesses and courts need to be sure that justice is done and that they can flourish as mediating agencies, serving locally and effectively.
This really is the wheelhouse of CPJ; neither religious right nor secular left, they believe the Bible teaches a high regard for good government, but their vision also insists that most of life’s problems cannot be fully solved by government alone. In this book they flesh out with very concrete studies how poverty can be pushed back and opportunities enhanced by a wise and well-ordered partnership between government and private sector institutions. It is nonpartisan and powerfully clear, reminding us of the need for a thicker more detailed account of social institutions, including the state, and refreshing ways to consider how individuals, families, and churches can play a part in overcoming poverty in our communities.
The three experienced authors explore how this works out in five key areas that must be enhanced if the growing opportunity gap is to be decreased and all children are given a fair shake: it looks at early childhood services, foster care, juvenile justice, the graduation gap, and the exotic, but breathtaking problem of predatory lending.
Unleashing Opportunities is arranged in a thoughtful and helpful way. Their analysis in each of the five chapters includes discovering a bit about the magnitude of the particular problem being explored, framing the issues with enduring principles and theological insight, and engaging the issues with concrete facts, case studies, and real-life stories, some of them quite dramatic and full of inspiring hope.
The combo of discover, frame, and engage – data, theology, and stories – makes this really, really useful.
In each section, they directly ask how notions of being made in God’s image, the idea that God’s world includes structures and systems, and questions of how to live wisely, might influence our engagement with this arena of concern. With this lovely, accessible bit of theological reflection — image, structures, wisdom — they make the compelling case that government must play a vital role and that we as citizens simply must affirm strong, involved government (as the Bible teaches, regarding the task of the state – see Psalm 72, just for instance!)
But these writers equally make the case that the kind of government involvement needed is not some big-time, welfare state solution of passing out checks to the poor, merely offering more and more entitlements to consumers of government services. Rather, they explore how wise, detailed legislation and regulations, tax credits, institutional partnerships and discreet funding of specific projects can shore up the best civil society stuff happening in towns and schools and churches and agencies. (It is no surprise that CPJ released, on the same day as the launch of Unleashing Opportunity about overcoming poverty a book co-authored by their associate Stanley Carlson-Thies, along with Stephen Monsma, called Free To Serve on protecting the religious liberty of faith-based social service organizations using their model of structural pluralism. I commented on it in our last BookNotes blog.)
This is a very particular sort of approach of addressing domestic poverty, neither liberal nor conservative, really, an approach which breaks with the dead-end radical individualism of the right and the socialism of the left. I sometimes call CPJ a “third way” beyond the left and right, and trust that this helps illustrate not only the bridge-building, refreshing characteristics of the innovations found in this little book, but also its exceptional significance.
Listen to what Katelyn Beaty, the editor of Christianity Today, says, which clarifies some of the background agenda of this little volume:
In a time when our political system seems ill-equipped to address perpetual injustice, this book recaptures a Christian case for politics. Whether or not you hold political office, you are a political person, and God intends for you to pursue justice in all spheres of life. This book will provide you with a clear, compassionate, and hopeful vision for doing so.
Without attempting to sound breathy or exceedingly passionate about social justice, it quietly and reasonably reminds us of our calling to be good stewards of the privileges of citizenship that we have, and ways we can affirm wise civic initiatives for the common good.
I appreciate what Art Simon, the legendary Lutheran pastor who founded Bread for the World (the Christian citizen’s advocacy group that organizes anti-hunger advocacy), says about Unleashing Opportunity:
It’s a gem. With uncommon wisdom, Unleashing Opportunity pinpoints five aspects of inequality that cry out for a compassionate response. It shows how personal involvement can change lives and promote public justice – a compelling invitation for believers to help narrow our truly alarming and dehumanizing opportunity gap.
Kudos to these fine authors for offering us nearly a handbook of good citizenship and involvement, at least in the area of fighting poverty and providing lasting and sustainable solutions to the sadness and struggles that so many of our neighbors face in these hard times.
Perhaps in reading it you will be motivated to learn more about how better foster care regulations might help restrain sexual trafficking; you might be motivated to volunteer by becoming a youth advocate in the juvenile justice system to assure that some kids don’t get lost in the harshness of the system; perhaps you will be inspired to get your church involved in after-school programming like the Pittsburgh one Presbyterian pastor Dave Carver helps lead and about which Katie Thompson tells us. Perhaps you will be moved to think about these things when you talk about the poor. Maybe some of this will even inspire you to get involved in your local school board, or the foster care agencies, or to even consider how to be involved in helping those stuck in incredible debt from scandalous lending schemes.
Importantly, it will help you be informed about some of these things when you consider the policy proposals of the various candidates for public office. And who doesn’t need some wise guidance from trustworthy authorities with experience in compassionate service?
None of the proposals for escaping poverty and shoring up our fractured social/civic architecture are too complicated, but they are not simplistic, either. None are that sexy or dramatic; they are down to earth and need to be lived out locally. This book is an invitation to move from rhetoric to responsible action, a guide to how our struggling mediating structures and civil institutions need support, from ordinary folks, local leaders, church groups, and, yes, from government. It invites you to embrace and share and advocate for this winsome, workable, balanced vision of public justice and care for our needy neighbors.
I love that this book itself is framed by an exceptionally clear and moving foreword by Richard Mouw, himself a respected political theorist, and a strong, evangelical voice in public theology. His lovely overview of God’s desire for human flourishing in a well-ordered society and creative culture, and how politics figures into this redemptive view of God’s work in the world, is inspiring and a beautiful addition to the meat and potatoes of this useful book. “Politics,” he writes, “as we are reminded in these pages, is not everything.” But, he continues, “God created us as social beings with a mandate to serve the common good through many different kind of services and vocations…. We need – we desperately need! – the kind of wisdom that is made available to us in these pages.”
Kudos to Mike Gerson, Steph Summers and Katie Thompson for their collaboration in bringing us this wisdom for being a good neighbor, a good citizen, a faithful Christian.
Gerson is a nationally syndicated columnist, author, and former staff member of the White House. Summers is CEO of the Center for Public Justice (and former staff member of the CCO, the campus ministry organization we so love where we grew to respect her immensely. Katie Thompson holds a dual degree from Gordon College in political science and creative writing and is perfectly suited for her work as editor of SharedJustice.org, an online publication for twenty-and-thirty somethings published by CPJ.
Garden City: Work, Rest, and the Art of Being Human John Mark Comer (Zondervan) $19.99 I am still pondering this fun and upbeat book, wondering how to explain my joy in discovering it. I nearly want to shout about it from the rooftops! It just may be, for a variety of reasons, the new go-to starter book when wanting to read about (well, as the subtitle puts it) work, rest, and the art of being human. Comer is chatty and funny and a little bit sarcastic and full of clever stories and analogies, making this a perfect read for younger folks who don’t want to wade through dense religious lingo, with small type and big words. It is inviting and interesting and vivid and amazingly right on.
I am not saying Comer has “dumbed down” the whole-life vision of “creation regained” and “all of life redeemed” that we so often write about here. This new book is smart – really smart. It is just that he writes in a style that seems a bit influenced by any number of cool young communicators who use a hip and colloquial style. He seems in a bit in style somewhat like Rob Bell – even the two color graphics on some pages, the broad white spaces, the super-sized font on a few pages with reverse color printing, the minimalist cover sans dust jacket – just like early editions of Velvet Elvis, etc. Before realizing how very good the content is, this book is just looks pretty freaking cool.
And, the content is really great.
Or, as he might say,
You. Get. The. Picture.
The page numbers have 0 in front of them. Whatever; it’s cool.
Really, this well informed book is seriously researched and draws deeply on other vital writers such as Dallas Willard, N.T. Wright, Richard Middleton, Tim Keller, Walter Brueggemann, Abraham Joshua Heschel — all of whom he thanks in the fun acknowledgement pages. Comer writes, “I doubt I ever had an original thought. My goal is just to spread your work as wide as I can. Hopefully, I make you proud.”
Well, we need good popularizers of Al Wolters and Andy Crouch and Ben Witherington and Chris Wright and Miroslov Volf. And John Mark Comer captures them well, offering his take of Richard Middleton on the imago dei or summarizing Tim Keller on work or Preston Sprenkle on Biblical nonviolence or Parker Palmer on calling. The important trade journal Publishers Weekly wrote of his writing style in his previous book (Loveology), “his writing is informal and infectious, growing on the reader as the topics get more intimate.” But his energetic, cleverly conversational writing is informed by the best stuff being written these days and he is passionate about educating others, helping us really get the implications – the book feels light and fun yet somehow urgent.
In the footnotes, even, Comer is playful and explanatory, sometimes exclaiming – with double exclamation points!! – that you really have to read this or that book or article. He reveals in one note that Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy is “one of my top three favorite books of all time” and of Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope he says “This is hands down the best book on eschatology I’ve ever read. In fact, one of the best books on anything I’ve ever read. Go read it!!” He also has a footnote (following a very famous movie line) noting “That was my mandatory Princess Bride” quote.” Ha.
This fabulous, fun book does offer the overview of the Bible that starts in a garden and ends in a city, so the title is evocative and apropos. This broad overview of the unfolding drama of a coherent Biblical story is so, so important, so this is good.
But more, Garden City by John Mark Comer explores the meaning of our human lives on the way to that renewed Earth. Our work matters, he insists. And so does our rest, our play, our eating and sleeping. Our ordinary life can have great meaning because there is no dualism between the so-called sacred and secular (I love those pages where he says we must “go to war with sacred/secular ideology — because it essentially compartmentalizes God.”) Man, this is the stuff I preach about often, and when I do, the response is often very interesting – people love hearing that their mundane lives matters to God. Serious Christian folks sometimes feel guilty over some disconnect between faith and work, or faith and leisure, and we still sometimes wonder if God cares about the ordinary stuff of daily life. This is one of the best surveys of a whole-life spirituality I’ve seen, and I am so, so glad for it. You will be too! It is liberating and compelling and very, very helpful. And righteous. Dude, it really is!!
Listen to this very important observation by visionary Skye Jethani (author of Futureville) and what he writes of Comer’s Garden City:
There is an awakening happening in the Western church. We are rediscovering that God’s mission includes all of creation, not just church work, and he intends for us to be flourishing people, not just religious disciples. John Mark Comer’s book continues this awakening with accessible insight into forgotten biblical truths about the importance of our identity as women and men created in God’s image, the value of our vocations in the world, and a ravishing vision of the beautiful future we are building with God today. Everyone who reads this book will see themselves, their work, and their world with new eyes.
And here is Scott McKnight, offering an excellent recommendation:
In Garden City John Mark Comer takes the reader on a journey— from creation to the final heavenly city. But the journey is designed to let each of us see where we are to find ourselves in God’s good plan to partner with us in the redemption of all creation. Smack-dab in the middle of this set of ideas is Comer’s excellent sketch of work, a sketch I find both pastorally mature and an exhortation to each of us to know that all we do has value before God. There is in Garden City an intoxication with the Bible’s biggest and life-changing ideas.
Yes, yes, yes – “an intoxication with the Bible’s biggest and most life-changing ideas” indeed. I hope you consider ordering it from us right away.
75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories Behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music and Film Terry Glaspey (Baker Books) $29.99 What a great, lovely, interesting, and inspiring book this is. We are thrilled to tell you about it.
If you have any curiosity at all about art, literature, film, or music and the true stories behind the great masterpieces of the world, this informative and beautiful book will provide hours and hours of wonderful reading. It is going to be a fabulous gift for gift-giving this holiday season, but you should buy it now so you can read it before gifting it this December. I’m not exaggerating – it is a marvelous idea, and wonderfully written. It is not tedious or overly complex, but it offers enough serious background and interpretation of the art and the artist to appeal to a very wide variety of reader. Hooray!
Some of the greatest artists of all time have taken their inspiration from their Christian faith and exploring how so many great masterworks emerged from artists of deep faith and Christian conviction is the starting point for these delightfully informative explorations.
Mr. Glaspey has written several books on faith formation, reading the Bible, a short biography of C.S. Lewis (Not at Tame Lion) and a book on reading great classics, and he works in the publishing industry. In our own work we have crossed paths a time or two, and I’ve read his other books; I respect him a lot as I say in my own blurb that appears in the book:
Terry Glaspey seems to know a bit about everything and a lot about the things that matter most. I would read anything he wrote, but this unique volume surpassed my great expectations. If you enjoy pondering the connections between faith, art, culture, and daily discipleship, you will adore this. 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know is itself a masterpiece. Who else can tell you about a painting by Caravaggio, a novel by Jane Austen, and live album by Johnny Cash all in the same book? Thanks be to God for Glaspey’s clear faith, informed knowledge, and winsome writing that can help us glean spiritual insight in cultural projects from Dante to Dylan, from Rembrandt to the Tree of Life.
I was hooked on this idea from the minute I heard of it, knowing it was a great idea, and that Glaspey could pull it off. But I was really hooked when I realized he was including contemporary rock albums such as a trilogy by Larry Norman, Bruce Cockburn’s Dancing in the Dragon Jaws, and The Joshua Tree by U2. And – yay! — contemporary novels such as Frederick Buechner’s Godric and the short stories of Flannery O’Connor. The most recent pieces described are from 2011. I hope you know the painter and the filmmaker described in those final pages!
75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know starts with early Christian art in the Roman catacombs and then tells us of the amazing story of The Book of Kells and moves on through the Middle Ages (including some stunning cathedrals that are beautifully described) and the obvious selections of that productive era as it lead towards the Renaissance (The Divine Comedy, Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon, van Eyck, Durer, Bosch, Michelangelo’s famous work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and so many more.) Interestingly, he includes a little song from the early 1500’s “A Mighty Fortress Is our God.”
Several of these are pieces I didn’t know at all, or well, and a few are not my favorites. (He gives some advice about this in a good introduction, by the way, and invites us to work a bit at this since the artists themselves, of course, worked very hard. His good guidance and curation are helpful for those of us not well schooled in art history.) Even if you don’t know them well, these pictures and descriptions are mostly all very moving and, of course, are truly important works. Glaspey’s descriptions are very, very helpful and you will be glad to be inspired by it all.
The listing is arranged chronologically, so one gets to read about Donne, Herbert, the famous St Teresa in Ecstasy sculpture by Bernini next to Rembrandt’s famous Return of the Prodigal Son. Or, much later, a review of Death Comes for the Archbishop (Willa Cather), a 1928 film about Joan of Arc by Theodore Dreyer, and Head of Christ by George Rouault in order. Fascinating.
There is found here exquisite but teacherly descriptions of stained glass, classical music, poetry, a few plays, films and jazz albums. To read 70’s-era pieces such as a European symphony Henryk Gorecki, a folkie album by Canadian Bruce Cockburn, a novel by U.S. Southerner Walker Percy next to a Japanese painting of The Last Supper by Sadao Watanabe (1981) was remarkably moving for me. 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know really is a very great book.
Here is what Jeff Crosby – an astute music lover and great book man himself — says of it:
New York Times columnist David Brooks has written that when “you experience great art, you widen your repertoire of emotions.” If Brooks is right (and I believe he is) then Terry Glaspey has given us a profound resource for expanding our repertoire through the works he introduces and reflects on wisely, deeply, and artfully in this book. Feast on the sights, sounds, and words covered here as Glaspey does what few could with such elegance: dwell on centuries of art, architecture, poetry, books, music, and film created to the glory of God and in doing so, open a well of appreciation – and emotion – in the hearts and minds of his readers.
Popular women’s author and Proverbs 31 Ministries President Lysa TerKeurst says what many of us will want to say:
What a treasure to see how God has used the talents of his people to express their faith and his glory through music, literature, architecture, and more. I loved seeing threads of God’s goodness woven throughout each unique story. Thank you, Terry, for your passion to bring these masterpieces to our attention and into our hearts.
I hope you are as thrilled as we are to be able to offer such a handsomely produced, spiritually-enriching, educational book that is a joy to own at such a reasonable price. It’s a treasure, to be sure, and Lysa TerKeurst is right: we should thank Terry Glaspey and Baker Books for doing such a fine project for us to enjoy.
See and enjoy an array of other hearty and artfully written endorsements, here. And then — please — come back and order it from us, at our BookNotes discount.
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