***Don’t forget, if you are local, or know anyone local, that we are having an in-store “release party” and author appearance to celebrate the brand new book on Christian faith, climate change and earth-keeping stewardship called Caring for Creation by Mitch Hescox and Paul Douglas. Join us at 7:00 PM, September 29th here at the shop in Dallastown.
If you can’t attend but want a copy autographed by both authors, just let us know.
We hope you liked our little list of new titles of note in our last BookNotes. It isn’t every day we get significant new releases by important religious writers like Timothy Keller and Brian McLaren or books as grand in looking at religious tends (particularly showing how faith impacts civic and political life) such as the new book by legendary Newsweek writer Kenneth Woodward. What a fascinating list that was; I hope you saw it. I love sitting outdoors in the cool evenings in the fall reading with a light I drag out there – I hope you can find a good spot to do some extra reading this month. There’s some truly great books these days!
THE STRUGGLE TO FIND FAITHFUL, HELPFUL BOOKS ABOUT SPIRITUALITY AND KNOWING GOD MORE DEEPLY
We hope you know that we have tons of books about spiritual formation here at the shop and that we love introducing people to the kinds of spiritual writers who will help them in what some call “the journey inward and the journey upward.” Our spiritual formation into Kingdom citizens committed to Christ’s Kingship occurs in a manner of ways — certainly as we worship well with the gathered people of God, being attentive to how Christian worship invites us into the redemptive story of God. (See James K.A. Smith’s must-read “book of the year” You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit to explore this (the middle portion on worship is extraordinary.) Or, see Mike Cosper’s excellent The Rhythm of Grace: How the Church’s Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel as one accessible and interesting title which gets us thinking about this fruitfully.)
But, of course, we read books alone and in small groups, too. Some of us have spiritual directors or companions and some of us are called to walk alongside others offering spiritual guidance and encouragement. Books are tools in this side of life, too, and have long been used as the primary way to teach others to pray, seek God, and walk in the power of the Spirit. I hope you have some in your collection.
There are wonderful classics, however — as we sometimes say when folks write to us asking for assistance In selecting good titles — what is considered a “classic” and most useful depends on one’s own faith tradition and religious scruples. For some, Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline is the very best; for others, they may prefer Donald Whitney’s similarly arranged Spiritual Disciplines for Christian Growth which draws on more Puritan and Reformed writers (in contrast to Foster who draws on everybody within the broad stream of Christian spirituality, from Julian of Norwich to Thomas Merton to A.W. Tozer.)
Some think Richard Rohr is one of the best recent writers for inner formation – his book on contemplative prayer called Everything Belongs was very well received and his last book, What the Mystics Know, was a helpful overview of much classic thinking about spirituality and discovering our true selves. Rohr’s forthcoming one, The Divine Dance, is due out next week and is described below. Some find him too willing to adopt unbiblical Eastern sensibilities and thinkers like Jung or de Chardin to be fully trustworthy. So what is best for you in your own journey and what you’ll find most helpful in pointing you towards the Risen Christ may depend on what your used to and what you’re willing to read (with discernment, always, always, always.) We are happy to chat further if it would be helpful to have a bookseller “on call” for advice.
In the last month I heard two stories that bear repeating here.
One person went into a mainstream chain bookstore and wanted a book to help her know God better. A fairly average Christian, sincere but in a church that doesn’t teach much deep content, she was ill-prepared to wade through the neo-pagan and self-actualizing and hyper-prosperity stuff all on display side by side there in their classy shelves. From Course in Miracles to Pema Chodron to Creflo Dollar, she was simply overwhelmed. She knew that some folks (myself included) generally like Rob Bell, but Be Here Now didn’t seem to be much about God. She left confused since the sales associate there suggested something about witchcraft. I’m not making this up.
The other person went into a large mainstream evangelical Christian bookstore. She knew a bit more about religious writing and seemed to want something like she might see in the footnotes of Richard Foster – maybe Sacrament of the Present Moment or maybe Merton or Henri Nouwen or some sort of Ignatian spirituality. She knew Dallas Willard influenced Foster so she was eager to see his stuff. The store had no Roman Catholic writers and no Dallas Willard. She saw stacks and stacks of Beth Moore and Joyce Meyers and those little devotionals by Sarah Young. But nothing that seemed deep and thoughtful and mature and helpful for her. Even the books on prayer, apparently, seemed cheesy and formulaic. She did what many of us do in times like this, she turned to google and by some miracle found my BookNotes list of some good books on prayer for various levels and styles and tones. It seemed, she said, just what she needed.
So, anyway, I hope you find something good when you shop with us, and hope you are glad to support our little efforts here to provide a different curation of books than is found in more popular stores, a selection that’s deep and wide but not snooty or overly eccentric. We want to help ordinary folks and ordinary churches with a creative but faithful selection.
HERE ARE SIX NEW BOOKS ON SPIRITUAL FORMATION
Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God Rankin Wilbourne (Cook) $19.99 Oh my, every now and then a book comes along that I categorize as a “sleeper.” That is, few know the author, the publisher isn’t particularly renowned, the national press most likely isn’t going to do stories about it. But it is worth its weight in gold, ought to be known, is a true winner. We can only hope that Wilbourne’s new book gets noticed and used and stays in print long enough to become very well known. UwC is a book that does what we might think of as basic Christian growth, just solid teaching about the nature of God and how God works with and within us, but it is better than most such books. It offers clear-headed (and often very inspiring) advice, not terribly dressy or loud, just solid teaching, guidance, motivation, good stories, good quotes, well put. Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God answers big worldviewish kinds of questions – who am I? Why am I here? Where am I headed ? How can I become that which I want to be? Pastor Wilbourne is good on questions like “what is the gospel” and invites us into a way of thinking about Christian formation that is practical and wise.
On the back of the book it asks “Do you secretly wonder if there’s more to life… but feel stuck?” I can’t quite figure out if this marketing line is useful – it is obviously trying not to seem like a heady theology text or a mystical spirituality book: it’s practical, it is saying. Maybe it is just the way they think to market stuff at David C. Cook given their own understanding of the market for their often passionate, often upbeat, often young-adult oriented evangelical books. But I’m telling you, Union with Christ is more than a call to be passionate and change the world for God, more than a cheap promise that if you find God with enough enthusiasm, voila, everything will come alive. It may be perfect if you feel stuck, but it isn’t primarily about that.
No, this book reminds us that this formation stuff is a longer, slower process, and it is dependent on getting a few very foundational truths right. One of these classic truths – a favorite of John Calvin’s, by the way – is the notion of “union with Christ.” I was first introduced to this notion by a book also called Union with Christ that has been out of print but is now available again by the beloved Lewis Smedes. Others have written on it – you will see the next book I list is about this as well, which is curious. Wilbourne’s, though, is very, very special. He studied at Princeton Theolgoical Seminary and is not only well read but a great storyteller. It is a really, really good book and I commend it to you.
In fact, Tim Keller says “This is simply the best book for laypeople on this subject.”
Less succinct but equally compelling is this endorsement by John Ortberg who wrote a very nice forward:
I’m trying to remember the last time I was more excited about a new book or a new author. Rankin Wilbourne brings a remarkable flair for writing, and a great breadth and depth of learning, to the most important subject in the world: What is the true and sufficient destiny for human life?
Wow. Keller says it is the best book on the subject and Ortberg says he can’t recall when he was “more excited about a new book or new author.” It doesn’t get much better than that this season.
The author is artfully literary (with an epigram from Dante in the front) without being too highbrow, draws on pop culture, too, and tells some good stories. He’s theologically conventional and orthodox, which is to say, he isn’t off the rails or weird. Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God has this tone of urgency – it is important, important content – but is reasonable and lucid. It is helpful, trustworthy, interesting, insightful, and I am glad to have found it. It deserves to be well known. Kudos to Cook for the handsome hardback design and making this such a nice, good volume. It deserves to be taken seriously.
Closer Than Close: Awakening to the Freedom of Your Union with Christ Dave Hickman (Navpress) $14.99 It isn’t every week that we get two great books on the exact same topic (unless it is justice or marriage or prayer or… well, actually we often do get new books that are similar.) But never on this topic, as few are writing about it. Like Wilbourne, Rev. Hickman is well grounded in this doctrine that is woefully not explained as much as it should be in our churches. He is taken with how we are one with Christ and explores what that means, but, like Wilbourne, he has an extraordinary capacity to take big and even controversial theological matters and apply them to ordinary folks living ordinary lives. Like Wilbourne, Hickman is a pastor who is eager to help people overcome a gap in their lives.
The gap, it seems to me, includes a gap between Sunday and Monday, or, between faith and life. Hickman (as I’ve mentioned before when I announced this book a few weeks back) wants us to be able to live out faith with missional energy and whole-life Kingdom vision by appropriating what we most deeply believe and allowing the good news of the gospel to sustain our fidelity to the gospel, day by day by day.
The second gap, besides this big question of how to live out faith and advance God’s Kingdom in our ordinary lives is this more internal question: how do we really know God? How to we discover God’s grace in ways that allows us to have intimacy with God? We may not always do it, but at least we sort of know what it looks like to follow Jesus. But to know Him? To abide in Him? To be one with Him? There is a gap here between head and heart, it seems to me, or between heart and hands. We simply don’t always know what it really means to have a “relationship” with Jesus. And we too rarely explore that in light of a robust theology of the Trinity. Hickman really gets this stuff right, and Closer Than Close is a true gift, full of life and passion and insight. It take evangelical cliches about Jesus being in our hearts and explains what that does and doesn’t mean. And what to do with that awareness.
If God takes up residence in us, if we become a new creation in Him then we can live into that friendship with God. My CCO friend Phil Schiavoni often reminds us that John called himself “the one Jesus loved.” Can we see ourselves that way? Do we really realize we are beloved – also “the one Jesus loved”? And that He dwells with us as we are one with Him?
I bet most readers of BookNotes know we can’t earn or come to deserve our salvation, that God’s grace is gift, that all of life is, finally, a great gift. But yet, we find ourselves in these cycles of striving and trying to make our relationship with God “work.” We sing hymns or praise choruses that speak of this intimacy with God but it isn’t quite our own experience. We maybe are okay with that, or maybe we carry within us longing (or even shame) and wish for something better. I believe Dave Hickman’s book can help.
It is interesting to me that Fil Anderson wrote the forward to Closer… Fil himself “crashed and burned” in his own spiritual journey, a moving story he told with considerable rawness years ago in Running on Empty. He sees in Hickman a similar sort of insight learned the hard way. Anderson writes:
David’s scorching honesty and humble transparency ravished my heart and brought me to tears. Despite the severity of his physical and emotional struggles, what had most plagued him was his soul’s desperate search for what he’d already been given. Clearly, the greatest discovery of his life was when David woke up to the truth that he had been perfectly one with Christ since the day he gave his life to Christ.
In a way, this is a book about experiencing the love of God. It is about how to receive from God the deepest truth that God cares and that in Christ we have an unbreakable relationship. As Fil says, Anderson “writes as a man who has been ambushed and held captive by the consuming fire of God’s love. It is a love, David writes, “that crossed all boundaries not just to be close to you, but to be closer than close.”
Part one of this book is called “Divine Mystery” and part two is called “Divine Reality.” He draws on early church fathers, medieval mystics, deep theologians like Paul Tillich and popular spirituality writers such as Jean Vanier and Brennan Manning, not to mention many contemporary Biblical and theological scholars from across the theological spectrum. How I enjoyed seeing Meredith Kline and Abraham Kuyper sharing footnote space with Karl Rahner and John Murray. Anderson is the founder of Charlotte One, a network of churches, so he has a huge commitment to the local congregation; in fact, there is a chapter on the role of the local church in nurturing this kind of union with Christ. His MDiv is from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. Closer Than Closer: Awakening to the Freedom of Your Union with Christ is his first book although he has a fantastic chapter in a great and honest book called Inciting Incidents: 6 Stories of Fighting Disappointment in a Flawed World. He’s the real deal.
The Emergence of Evangelical Spirituality: The Age of Edwards, Newton, and Whitefield edited by Tom Schwanda (Paulist Press) $39.95 I hope you know Tom Schwanda; his previous book is beautifully entitled Soul Recreation which is a provocative and compelling argument that the staunch Puritans were – get this – more contemplative and mystical in their spirituality than many may realize. Seriously Reformed dogmatists draw on the exceptionally rigorous and exceedingly logical theological formulations and systematic schemes of major Puritan pastors and preachers but Schwanda shows that they have an often-missed mystical side to their deep piety. Schwanda (who teaches Christian Formation and Ministry at Wheaton College) is an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America; his PhD in historical theology is from Durham University in England. He is a remarkable individual and is doing very, very important work.
So it makes great sense for the prestigious “Classics of Western Spirituality” to recruit him to edit this long-awaited volume in 18th century evangelical piety. He knows this good material as well as anyone and has the eyes – might one say “the eyes of the heart” – to really see what is going on in their deep faith.
From the post-Wesleyan Anglican revivals in England (think of John Newton and William Wilberforce and poetic hymnists like Augustus Toplady and William Cowper) to the awakenings happening in the colonies – think Jonathan Edwards through the revolutionary war-era Whitefield – Schwanda pulls together a fantastic array of primary sources. Wisely, he includes letters and poems, diaries and hymns and other sources that aren’t necessarily formal theological writing or sermons (although there are plenty of sermons) and he includes men and women – Anne Steele, obviously, and Hannah Moore, among others. There is a great guide to each of the authors in the beginning, a useful resource itself. This book is a treasure trove of spiritual writing and will appeal to Reformed and Anglican fans as well as anyone drawn to mature, meaty Biblical piety. What a book! I so appreciated what Karen Swallow Prior (author of the wonderful book Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformed, Abolitionist) said of it:
In displaying the richness, variety, and deep texture of the evangelical movement’s beginnings, The Emergence of Evangelical Spirituality is as interesting and delightful as the age it examines… a gift to church history and evangelical scholarship.
After a fantastic overview of the good arrangement and organization of the book and a bit about the historical era by esteemed Notre Dame historian Mark A. Noll (which itself speaks volumes for the integrity of this work) there is a lengthy, meaty, and tremendously inspiring introduction by Professor Schwanda, again, almost worth the price of the book alone. The primary texts are then given, arranged by theme. He has readings on “New Life in Christ”, a chapter on the Holy Spirit, a section on the use of Scripture, and a great unit on varying spiritual practices (including some remarkable stuff on family prayer, the art of reading sermons, fasting, the Lord’s Supper, and more, from known authors like Francis Asbury and Jonathan Edwards but also by the likes of Anne Dutton and John Witherspoon, from his famous sermons preached at Princeton in May of 1776!) The next section is called “The Love of God” followed by stunning section on love for neighbor. I guess is obvious that most writers just don’t do it like that any more.
“The Classics of Western Spirituality” is a “library of great spiritual masters” (as they have branded themselves) and is overseen by a world-renowned interfaith editorial board. There are hundreds of volumes now, and we can get any of them. They have already released big volumes on the Pietist and evangelical traditions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with volumes dedicated to the Methodists John and Charles Wesley and German Pietists like Philip Jakob Spencer and August Hermann Francke. Some of this European stuff really did influence subsequent American spiritualities, and it seems to me that anyone wanting to delve more deeply into the roots of our contemporary religious scene (at least among Protestants, and certainly among evangelicals) would be wise to be familiar with some of this.
As Mark Noll says in the first paragraph of his good foreword:
To that general strand of Western Protestantism, Tom Schwanda has now added a wide-ranging sampling from individuals from the eighteenth-century Atlantic -wide British empire who, if they could not always see eye to eye among themselves, stood together as the recognized pioneers of a distinct form of modern spirituality.
These are “the recognized pioneers of a distinct form of modern spirituality.” As church historian Douglas Sweeney writes of Schwanda’s Emergence of Evangelical Spirituality volume, it “offers the best introduction to early Evangelical piety that has ever been produced – must reading for anyone interested in the history of Christianity.” We are thrilled to stock this, glad for Schwanda’s good work, and hope it is recognized as the treasure trove that it is.
PRE-ORDER NOW The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation Richard Rohr with Mike Morrell (Whittaker House) $23.99 Well. I have mentioned Richard Rohr often in these pages, and I greatly, greatly appreciate his deep desire to integrate a profound, deep spirituality with an active, even prophetic, public faith. I have read or listened to him for years – he was known early on as a leader in Catholic charismatic renewal, an early voice in the conversation about postmodernism, a long-standing activist for nonviolence, creation-care, and service to the poor. (He is a Franciscan, after all.)
His Center for Action and Contemplation attempts – imperfectly, obviously – to open up space to consider that huge question so eloquently asked by Thomas Merton and Parker Palmer and so many others: what does it mean to be actively contemplative, or, put differently, to be contemplatively active. Richard has a little book called A Lever and a Place to Stand (now reissued with the new, evocative title Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer) which potently tries to show us how a life of peace and justice activism must be sustained by prayer, and that a life of inner spirituality must give rise to active, even subversive faith against our broken, idolatrous, dangerous world. This is his thing – even though he has books on all kinds of stuff, including male spirituality, addictions, and aging.
Mike Morrell is an activist of sorts, involved in a range of progressive projects from The Buzz Seminar, The Wild Goose Festival, and is the Communications Director for the Integral Theology think tank. He writes on all kinds of stuff including the arts, social media, permaculture and more. He is, to use a phrase from Richard himself, a young wild man.
And this makes sense. Morrell is a former evangelical who discovered Rohr and it seems natural to have Mike working with Richard to work out a view of the Trinity that is at once orthodox and feisty, serious and joyful, mystical and practical, ancient and future. Brother Rohr has taught on the Trinity before and many have wished for him to clarify his views and help us all learn to join this dance. Morrell is a perfect conversation partner and surely helped Rohr make this book a bit edgy and cool and situated among the yearnings of those looking for some third way between conservative fundamentalism and wishy-washy spirituality unconnected to Biblical faith.
So if all this makes sense, given the new interests among progressives it is also important. Richard Rohr has been saying that The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation is his most important book ever. (Wow!) The book therefore deserves not only attention, but eager anticipation.
I have an advanced copy of The DIvine Dance and have only slowly begun to work with it. It is extraordinary, I will tell you that. I covers all kinds of stuff – “body-based knowing” and the role of metaphors and a beautiful bit called “suffering’s surprising sustenance.” As you might guess, it is a bit creative – drawing on quantum physics and the writings of Ken Wilber and accounts of early church debates. A beautiful forward is from William Paul Young, author of The Shack and Eve. There is the colorful and nearly playful connecting-the big-picture–dots we sometimes get form Rohr There is considerable Bible exegesis and lots of quotes from medieval saints and theologians and a few modern ones, too. He recommends Cynthia Bourgeault’s book on the trinity which is, shall we say, a bit odd and a bit unorthodox. So, yeah.
But here is what doesn’t make any sense, and which I am intrigued and excited about. The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation is published by Whitaker House, a publisher known for older school Pentecostal authors, deeper life pietism, and sometimes some pretty goofy charismatic authors. They publish much mature work — old books by Andrew Murray, say and so sometimes offer a few surprises — a nice edition of Athansius’s On the Incarnation or a novel by George MacDonald. They are not usually friendly to Catholic authors. There are some new editorial folks there, I have heard, and some read a bit more widely than perhaps their founders. Their tastes are expanding, I suppose, and the backstory of how this small and not-very-ecumenical publishing house acquired this new manuscript surely has something to do with friends and favors and new efforts to present to kinds of Christian literature to this corner of the religious world. If Whitaker House is turning over a new leaf this is certainly a dramatic way to do so. As ecumenical and open-minded as I tend to be, I am beyond perplexed by this move. The book seems eccentric and less than conventional. It doesn’t strike me as close to anything else in their entire catalogue. Publishing it at Whitaker House will be considered wildly brave or exceptionally foolish.
In any event, a new book on anything by Richard Rohr is, these days, nearly a publishing event. A book by him on the Trinity is remarkable. A new book on a small, Protestant fundamentalist/ Pentecostal outfit is more than remarkable, it is amazing! If Father Rohr’s Divine Dance was on HarperOne or a progressive publisher like Convergent or Jericho, or any number of liberal Catholic houses it wouldn’t be at all surprising. So what did Whitaker House see in this? What does Mike Morrell bring to the mix? How does this take on the Holy Trinity help us in these days and how will being on Whitaker House effect Richard Rohr’s footprint in the publishing world? Smarter people than I will have to say. I are sure that many of our customers will be eager to read it even though I refrain from saying anything much quite yet.
I will say this. Mike and Richard both knew the late Phyllis Tickle. Phyllis, you may recall, was a beloved Southern scholar of religion who became Episcopalian as a younger woman, was known and loved throughout the religious publishing world as an editor, writer, and vigorous cheerleader for authors and bookstores. You may recall that Phyllis’s last major book (besides a lovely book collection of poetry) was The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy is Shaping the Church. I mention this to suggest that this new book by Richard Rohr is another indication that Phyllis was on to something. We need good conversations on the Trinity and we need help in understanding the work of the Spirit. Our own transformation and our participation in God’s gracious redemptive work in the world is at stake.
There is a lot of mystery here, but a lot that is critical to get right. I for one, am eager to learn whatever I can, from wherever I can. The stakes are high, but Phyllis is right: from the church’s earliest days we have been baffled and (too often) fighting about the nuances of the nature of God and our engagement with the Divine. The brand new The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation (due out the first week of October) may be outside the box – in content and in the curious partnership with this smallish Western Pennsylvania publisher – I, for one, am looking forward to how this book will be received and how we can all grow in our discernment of God’s Triune presence. Maybe we really can join the dance.
Buy it today and we will send it out as soon as it releases next week.
Meeting God in Scripture: A Hands-On Guide to Lectio Divina Jan Johnston ( IVP) $17.00 This handsome new paperback just arrived and I’ve not yet used it – it isn’t a book to quickly skim but to work with, to explore, to sit with, to practice. There are 40 guided meditations nicely arranged, so obviously it is a book to use, to absorb, a resource for your own quiet time. As with some of her earlier work it is a beautiful blend of contemplative prayer and Bible study. The whole lectio process is explained well and she gives us these generative exercises and Scriptural meditations to find a richer encounter with God even as we reflect carefully on the Biblical text. Jan is a skilled and faithful interpreter of this ancient practice and a fine, fine writer. We have promoted her many other books (including the gorgeous When the Soul Listens and Abundant Simplicity: Discovering the Unhurried Rhythms of Grace.) Meeting God in Scripture is going to be a great asset for those just starting out with this contemplative practice or will be an addition to those who collect these kinds of Bible study resources.
Punching Holes in the Dark: Living in the Light of the World Robert Benson (Abingdon) $16.99 I have said often and will say again that I will read anything I can get my hands on by Robert Benson. If he wants to send me his grocery list or last will and testament, I’m all over it. He is a master of great sentences, an enjoyable writer who tells gentle stories about his life, honest tales of insight learned in the push and pull of the day to day.
A lifetime ago he was affiliated with the famous Southern Gospel and evangelical pop music scene – yes, he is from that Benson of Benson Music Company – and his family is legendary in one of the fundamentalist denominations from the South. He has since moved a bit left in the big pew that makes up the church and although delightfully ecumenical, Robert is a contemplative, a retreat leader, and an Episcopalian. He sometimes refers to Jesus as The One Who Came Among Us and God as The One Who Made Us, a verbal tic which ends up being quite endearing. His writing is not breathy or zealous; it always strikes me as calming, even when he is telling a story that moves from heartbreaking to hilarious, all on the same page.
Although he has written about baseball, the writing life, moving his elderly mother, Miss Peggy, into an assisted living facility, taking care of the landscaping of his yard (Digging In), other books which I’ve mentioned here include several about contemplative themes, about prayer (Living Prayer and In Constant Prayer) and more generally about the spiritual life (Between the Dreaming and the Coming True is stunningly beautiful.) He has books on Benedict, on the sadness of our brokenness within the Body of Christ, and a lovely book on the Eucharist. That he likes good food and movies and baseball and his lovely backyard and treats with dignity the poor and others in his own neighborhood reminds me that he is not a mystic holed away in a monastic community; he visits retreats (often as a public speaker, which gets him some good stories, too) but he truly is a pretty ordinary guy, living a life like some of us do. His lives out this contemplative, spiritual life in some pretty common place ways with some fairly down to Earth experiences and writes about friends and neighborhoods and church meetings and work and worries and family.
And yet, throughout his amusing stories and his tender tellings of family concerns – not all pretty, I might add – Mr. Benson brings a deeply sacramental view of life, a contemplative tone, a wisdom born from time spent in silence and in liturgical worship. Although, it is true: his description of his own foibles and insecurities even while at retreats remind me why I like this guy so much. I, too, often skip out during these “sharing” times from hell. I love that he says how much he loves people and has a few friends, but that he just likes them better when they aren’t around. Ha.
The theme of this latest book is clear from the title, Punching Holes in the Dark: Living in the Light of the World. He is working a bit from St. John’s gospel, with issues of light, of faith in the One Who Is Light (see what I did there?) and trusting that the Light is breaking into our lives and into society in redemptive ways – often through very broken people. It is almost a cliché these days, but think of that line from Leonard Cohen, “There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.” Consider Benson’s book a commentary on that evocative line.
He does like his literary quotes, although he uses them with discretion. A story from Jackson Brown shows up, a line from Mary Oliver, a quote from Annie Dillard, an epigram from Thomas Merton. That he draws on good lines from the Book of Common Prayer offers theological substance and genuine elegance. That the Frederick Buechner offers a glowing endorsement on the front (and Eugene Peterson is on the back) gives you a sense of how wonderful Punching Holes in the Dark really is. Buechner notes that Benson looks at his life “with candor and hope.” That the words “dark” and “light” are in the very title – and that it calls us to something (punching holes in the dark) gives us much to chew on.
Yes, this is a book about the spiritual life, but he doesn’t offer formulas or disciplines or practices. He tells his story of deepening his walk with the Light, he tells us of the goodness of God, he invites us to follow Jesus by loving others well. He is deep and humble and funny and wise, at least mostly wise. I like it that he’ll introduce a story saying “A year or so ago I inexplicably made the third or fourth dumbest move I ever made.” Maybe you too have made some dumb moves, but want a serene and candid storyteller to remind you of the Way. Maybe you need reminding that the Kingdom is coming, that it is, in fact, already here. This book will help you “let the Light of the World sneak in.” Thanks be to God.
Robert Benson is a graduate of and an adjunct faculty member of the Academy for Spiritual Formation and a member of the Friends of Silence and the Poor, an international ecumenical prayer community. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee.
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