It has long been our custom to suggest gift giving — especially something like a book, which makes the perfect size and shape and price range for a special gifting in the middle of the holiday week. It isn’t mostly because we’ve got books to sell, although there’s that, but because we love the slow and mournful longing of Advent followed by the lavish celebration of the Incarnation. For years we’ve been encouraging Epiphany gift giving, too. It’s the feast in the church calendar when the Wise guys gave gifts to the baby king, after all.
So, if you want to give a book to somebody this season, or to hint at a New Year’s resolution for more learning and more reading in 2020, here are some ideas.
Send us an order and we’ll ship it out right away. We gift wrap for free, too, if you ask, we can mail something to your recipient with a little note tucked in. There’s a place at the website order form for you to tell us that if you’d like. We have shown the regular retail price but will take 20% off those prices when you place an order.
Happy reading, and happy gift giving.
Please, don’t write to tell us you wished we had released this sooner. We just couldn’t, but here’s some unique book ideas for now. It’s never a bad time to share books.
FOR THOSE WHO LOVE READING ABOUT FOOD AND WINE
The Soul of Wine: Savoring the Goodness of God Gisela H. Kreglinger (IVP) $16.00 This is one of those wonderful compact sized hardbacks, a less heady, more accesible, and more inspiring version of her fabulous Eerdman’s book, The Spirituality of Wine. This new one is great book for anyone who appreciates fine wine, or those who want a deeply Christian entre to the fermented fruit of the vine (reminding us and evoking a robust theology of creation, the goodness of God’s world and God’s good gifts, in both joy and grief.) Blurbs on the back include raves from Andy Crouch and Sandra McCracken and even Karen MacNeil (author of The Wine Bible.) There’s a wine-tasting guide and book club guide, too. This makes a perfect New Year’s Eve gift, too.
Tasting Grace: Discovering the Power of Food to Connect Us to God, One Another, and Ourselves Melissa d’Arabian (Waterbrook) $21.99 We have a large section of books about food and farming here in the shop and I’ve written before about many of our lovely favorites (and that doesn’t even mention cookbooks, from last year’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat to the old standby More-With-Less Cookbook.) Some are so, so good, mature and deep and well written. From the Episcopal theologian and food writer Robert Capon’s classic, Supper of the Lamb, to the extraordinary anthology The Spirit of Food: Thirty-Four Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God (edited by Leslie Leyland Fields — one of my favorite writers) we love telling people about these sorts of books. Tasting Grace is a new one by a writer that we did not know. She is apparently a bit of a celebrity chef, television host and the winner of The Next Food Network Star season five. She wrote two down-to-Earth books called Ten Dollar Dinners and Supermarket Healthy, illustrating her own passion for family meals and common food to nourish body and soul. Anyway, she has now offered this overtly Christian reflection, telling her own story, speaking with wisdom and goodness and grace. She’s seen a lot — from food addictions to the whole TV thing, so this helps us learn about life along with her, reminding us of delight and stewardship, about hospitality and comfort, about creation and redemption. She invites us to “lean into God” and find God in the ingredients, even as we worship only Him.
Here is what the great Norman Wirzba says of it:
If you thought eating food was little more than ingesting some calories as cheaply and conveniently as possible, think again. In Tasting Grace, d’Arabian invites us to take a personal journey into the deep meaning of eating and to discover the power of food to illuminate and heal life. This book will help you taste food and savor life in ways you may not have thought possible.”—Norman Wirzba, author of Food and Faith
FOR WRITERS, ARTISTS, CREATIVES, or THOSE WHO LOVE THE ARTS
When Poets Pray Marilyn McEntyre (Eerdmans) $19.99 Oh my my, this is a tremendous book, a must for poetry lovers and a helpful guide for those who maybe aren’t drawn to poems. (Or conversely, since it is also a book about praying, it might appeal to those who like prayer books.) Marilyn McEntyre, both a literate critic and a poet herself, imagines what it might be like if certain poems were, in fact, prayers. Or, at least, if we used them as such. What a great idea — a bit of literary insight, a creative reading of good poems, and a fresh way to enhance one’s prayer life. We recommend Ms. McEntyre regularly, including her must-read Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, the lovely word-oriented devotional called Word by Word, and the almost self-helpy handbook called Make a List: How a Simple Practice Can Change Our Lives and Open Our Hearts. These books are just a touch allusive and creative but not at all odd or eccentric, making them suitable to share with almost anyone. You’ll see When Poets Pray on our “Best Books of 2019” list soon… order one today!
The Courage to See: Daily Inspiration from Great Literature Greg Garrett & Sabrina Fountain (WJK) $20.00This is such a great idea, a lit-based daily devo. They aren’t the first to do this, but The Courage to See may be the best yet. It features inspiring words from Maya Angelou, Jane Austen, James Baldwin, Annie Dillard, C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling, Zadie Smith, and more. Garrett has written memoir (Crossing Myself) and theological studies of various pop culture projects (The Gospel in Hollywood) and teaches English at Baylor. Fountain is a write on art and culture. Nicely done.
The Grace of Les Miserables Matt Rawle (Abingdon) $16.99 This is not super heavy but is a lovely, useful, starter guide to this great conversation — how does Christian theology show up in great literature, in this case, the enduring novel by Victor Hugo. Rawle has done other such books (a nice one on To Kill at Mockingbird and one on Scrooge and Charles Dickens. They each are available also as a six-session DVD for small group use. What fun. (Yes, you can have a small group or Adult Ed forum on the DVD The Grace of Les Miserables and you can purchase a Leader’s Guide to utilize it.) The book, though, is fun to read on its own, in six good chapters covering grace, justice, poverty, revolution, love, and hope. Perhaps you should give it to someone now and they might consider it as a Lenten study. Nice!
The Reading Life: The Joy of Seeing New Worlds Through Other’s Eyes C.S. Lewis (HarperCollins) $19.99 A perfect hand sized shape in a classy hardback offering insights from Lewis on reading, literature and the meaning of the literary experience. Lewis reminds us, literature can “heal the wound”… and in reading great literature we expand our vision. Lewis writes, about taking up good books:
I see with myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here… I transcend myself; and am never more myself when I do.
Sister Wendy’s 100 Best-loved Paintings Sister Wendy Beckett (SPCK) 35.00 Wow, what a book, a smallish coffee table book that has lovely reproductions of Sister Wendy’s most beloved and most often described artworks. She was putting the final touches on this one-of-a-kind anthology when she died in December 2018. The result is (as it says on the back cover): “this enthralling collection of 100 famous and lesser-known masterpieces of Western art, ranging from the sixth century to the present.” This is beautifully produced and, as British broadcaster Peter Stafford puts it, it is “a fitting tribute to the unique Sister Wendy. Prepare yourself to be surprised.”
Sister Wendy was known for often insightful and always delightful interpretations of art history trends, and readings of specific paintings. When she tells you what to look for, what this or that most likely meant, what the artist him or herself was considering in the years he or she did the painting, you just know you’ve got so much more to use to enjoy and appreciate the painting. She brings what Seerveld calls “rainbows for the fallen world” by using her discerning eye and her deep commentaries. If you know anybody who likes the visual arts, or is eager to reflect on spiritual themes within the art, this handsome book is the best. It’s 9.5 x 0.8 x 11 inches and about 225 pages, so it is substantial but not overwhelming
Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making Andrew Peterson (B+H Publishing) $16.99 This handsome paperback was award one of the coveted Books of the Year awards from Christianity Today and we heartily concur. Peterson is a smart, thoughtful, singer-songwriter (his Behold the Lamb of God is a great Advent/Christian concept album.) In recent years he is well known for his role in the Rabbit Room community and publishing venture in Nashville. He released a wonderful, witty, fantasy series called the Wingfeather Saga. (We still have some of the paperbacks of On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness and North! Or Be Eaten which will be coming out in hardcover editions in March 2020.) If you know any writers, storytellers, artists, or cultural creatives, this set of essays would be a wonderful blessing for them. What a line for an aesthetic manifesto — “adorning the dark.” Order one or two today and share generously.
No Avatars Allowed: Theological Reflections on Video Games Joshua Wise (Church Publishing) $18.95 Do you recall the review I gave this in BookNotes earlier this fall? There are hardly any books bringing together sharp, serious theology and gaming, and this is a valuable resource for anybody wanting to be intentional about their enjoyment of the gaming culture. Video games, the author (a professor of theology at Villanova, Saint Jospeh’s University, and Rosemont College, and founder of the “No Avatars Allowed” podcast) takes seriously “the idea that video games can challenge us to think more deeply about our reality, faith, and community.” The blurb on the back is by the insightful Kevin Schut (professor of Media + Communication and Game Development at Trinity Western University and author of Of Games and God.) The foreword is by Father Benjamin Gildas, a friend and popular podcaster who serves as a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania.
Cinematic Faith: A Christian Perspective on Movies and Meaning Years William D. Romanowski (Baker Academic) $ 22.99 Years in the making, we are very, very glad to remind you of a recent book by professor Romanowski of Calvin University in Grand Rapids. As an old college friend of the author, I am drawn to his work (and have read it twice, actually) but, I must say, even if he wasn’t a pal of Hearts & Minds, we’d be insisting this is very important and would be recommending it earnestly. For anyone who likes going to the movies or can’t wait for the next NetFlex DVD to show up (please don’t tell me you watch films on your little phone!) or streams movies often, this big book will be an education and a joy. It isn’t preachy and it isn’t simplistic but it isn’t overly academic. If you love movies, you need this book. It will help you understand the art of film and more.
After a long-winded ramble through a whole bunch of our backstory and stuff we’ve been promoting this year, in the BookNotes where I introduced this book I got around to explaining Bill’s other important books, which finally, half way down the column, led me to announce and explain the importance of Cinematic Faith. You can read that here if you’d like — I mention other books in this “faith and film” genre and suggest what is distinctive about Romanowki’s contribution. Check it out here, then come back and order one or two. We’ll send ’em right out.
THESE THREE ARE PERENNIAL CLASSICS IN OUR MOST-RECOMMENDED LIST:
It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God edited by Ned Bustard (Square Halo Books) $24.99
It Was Good: Making Music to the Glory of God edited by Ned Bustard (Square Halo Books) $24.99 It Was Good: Performing Arts to the Glory of God edited by Ned Bustard (Square Halo Books) $19.99
Give any or all of these three old chestnuts: we recommend them regularly, highlighting them as great, great collections of essays and exceptionally special for those wanting to think well and faithfully about the interface of their life of faith and their work in the arts. They are astute and interesting, and look really, really good, too. Seriously recommended. with great joy.
FOR THOSE WHO LOVE MEMOIR & BIOGRAPHY
Exactly As You Are: The Life and Faith of Mister Rogers Shea Tuttle (Eerdmans) $23.99 There is so much written, now, about Mister Rogers and we are grateful; he was a complex figure, important (and, in case you didn’t hear it yet, a Presbyterian minister.) This recent release is a delightful, serious, insightful biography, warmly written and (as Publishers Weekly put it) explored with “a keen sense of the deeply religious forces” behind “the classic TV show and its widely lauded creator.” One of the very best biographies of Roger’s yet, by a woman affiliated with the notable “Lived Theology” project at University of Virginia. She holds an MDiv from Chandler at Emory. Great!
Miracles and Other Reasonable Things: A Story of Unlearning and Relearning God Sarah Bessey (Howard Books) $26.00 What a great writer Sarah is — you may know her previous books (Jesus Feminist and Out of Sorts.) There is a foreword to this new one by Shauna Niequist and great blurbs on the back by Jen Hatmaker, Kate Bowler, Peter Enns, and the exquisite writer Barbara Brown Taylor. Miracles… tells a bit of her journey away from conventional, conservative, fundamentalism and towards a different sort of evolving faith, but then the whole thing takes a painful twist as she experiences an serious car accident, suffering with chronic pain and the like. And then, surprisingly, an extraordinary miracle of healing and what that means for her. There is so much going on here, it is hard to summarized. The narrative is filled with theological thinking but is rooted in her own story. She is a compelling writer, a beautiful writer, a fun and funny writer. Jonathan Martin (whose Prototype on Jesus is superb) says Miracles and Other Reasonable Things is “trailblazing and bush-burning.” I am grateful for her story and how she talks about sickness, hope, healing, and the like.
Consumed by Hate, Redeemed by Love: How a Violent Klansman Became a Champion of Racial Reconciliation Thomas Tarrants (Thomas Nelson) $24.99 This stunning story hardly needs the front-cover blurb by hair-raising, edge-of-your-seat author John Grisham who calls it “riveting” and a truly “remarkable memoir” since the very subtitle speaks volumes. But, for what it is worth, Grisham — who has seen his share of wild stuff and imagines even more — is spot on. This page-turner of a story is beyond remarkable, it is the sign of a miracle. Those of us who have had the pleasure of knowing Tom (he was the Director for many good years of the DC-area C.S. Lewis Institute) could hardly believe it when stories of his past came out. Humble, gentle, kind, impeccably orthodox in faith and behavior, Tom is a beautiful, generous friend and brother. As this book shows, it has not always been this way.
Tom was the sort of domestic terrorist who thought the KKK too mild. As an Alabama-based far-right activist he made bombs, terrorized people of color and Jewish families, was arrested after a shootout with the police (that included awful fatalities) and, later, escaped from prison, landing on the FBI’s “most wanted” list. You will have to read Consumed by Hate for yourself to learn how he was “redeemed by love” and how — miracle upon miracle — he was graciously released from prison as a Governor commuted his life sentence.
After years in prison paying for his many crimes, and after a sincere and remarkable transformation into a Christian leader, Tom co-pastored an inter-racial, urban church, became friends with and co-authored a book with John Perkins. Needless to say, with the rise of the alt-right and virulent racism and xenophobia now on the rise, we need to understand how extreme ideology can become cult-like and violent. In these rancorous times, we need stories helping us see how all this works.
I love Russell Moore’s blurb, saying it is “a riveting narrative” and…
This is the path from burning crosses to the cross of Christ himself, from raging hate to amazing grace.
Burden: A Preacher, a Klansman, and a True Story of Redemption in the Modern South Courtney Hartgrove (Convergent) $26.00 Perhaps you’ve seen the powerful trailer about the film version of this that is coming out in March. (Watch the trailer here.) Or, maybe, you saw my brief review last week in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Okay, maybe you didn’t, but I raved about it. Or maybe you saw my previous BookNotes review raving about what a well-written, honest, captivating story this was, months ago. It’s a story you’ll never forget. Read my BookNotes review here and then com back and order it quickly. This is one true story they will be talking about…
Accidental Preacher: A Memoir Will Willimon (Eerdmans) $24.99 If you’ve been around the broader Christian world at all in the last 40 years you probably know Will Willimon, renowned scholar, preacher, pastor, former Chaplain of the Duke chapel, United Methodist Bishop, and very, very prolific writer. For years people have been bugging him to write down more of his own life stories, to draft a memoir, to tell about his life as he has seen it. We’ve been waiting for this, a fabulous book to crown the career (at least this part of it, since he ain’t dead yet) of this curious, brave, witty, Southern preacher. The endorsements are themselves a hoot — Lillian Daniels (a UCC preacher) says “If I believed in bishops, I’d want one like Will Willimon — flawed, fearless, and wickedly funny.” Richard Lischer (a Lutheran) says, “If Mark Twain had been a Methodist, his name would have been Will Willimon.) I like that the African American preacher and scholar now at Duke University Chapel, Luke Powery, says “Bishop Willimon is a Jesus-loving, story-telling, truth-talking, laugh-generating gift from God for the church.”
This is a literary gem, an honest and holy revelation about vocation.
How to Burn a Goat: Farming With the Philosophers Scott H. Moore (Baylor University Press) $34.00 Okay, this isn’t exactly a memoir, but a collection of first hand, personal essays. I think of Farmer Moore as sort of a more brainy and professional Michael Perry, after all, besides working his farm, he’s a college prof. How to Burn… is a bit pricy although it is very well bound, nicely designed trim hardback. And it’s worth every penny, as it is amazingly eloquent, if plain-spoken, and a nearly brilliant set of farming essays that are intelligent, but not academic. Yes, Moore is a philosophy professor and on occasion brings in a theory of Wittgenstein or discusses the relationship of Plato and pigs. But it includes a lot of his own story, plenty of entertaining and even inspiring stories from his farm, and is less “philosophical” than the subtitle suggests. Texas pastor Kyle Childress is right to say it is a fun book — I so enjoyed it and read parts out loud to Beth. Listen to this great quote from Childress:
What a fun book! A self-described ‘inexperienced philosopher hobby farmer,’ Moore writes about chasing guinea fowl, the virtues of mules, the vices of geese, the sounds heard on a farm, or why it is important to watch grass grow, mixed with quotations by everyone from Wendell Berry to Wittgenstein all in a clean prose style reminiscent of E. B. White. Moore had me laughing out loud and then pondering his wisdom the rest of the day.
The Galapagos Island: A Spiritual Journey Brian McLaren (Fortress) $16.99 You could give this to any number of folks — anyone who reads McLaren, of course, will want this book which is a new genre for him — very much a memoir. A travel memoir, to be exact, reflecting on his journey to the famous islands. You may recall that the study of these famous South American islands (that figured into the research of Charles Darwin) figured into one of Brian’s earlier novels (A New Kind of Christian) but this report is for real. You get to travel with McLaren on what could be called “a spiritual pilgrimage to one of the world’s most fragile ecosystems.” So, gift it to anyone who likes reading about pilgrimages, or anyone interesest in either the interface of faith and science, or who is curious about ecological studies. This is part of a new series called “On Location” and carries blurbs on the back by Barbara Brown Taylor, Mike (Science Mike) McHargue, and Bill McKibben. Wow.
SPEAKING OF SCIENCE…
Science & Faith: Student Questions Explored edited by Hannah Eagleson (Hendrickson) $14.95 This little paperback deserves much applause and I’m sure you could give it to anyone interested in the basics of a serious explorations of the faith/science conversation these days. Created by the Emerging Scholars Network (a ministry of the Graduate Student and Faculty ministry of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship) it offers thoughtful essays by rising young scholars and is a great tool for conversations; there is a very useful discussion guide, with questions at the end of each chapter. The emerging scholars here are experts in the fields of aeronautics, molecular biology, chemistry, physics, philosophy of science and more.
Leslie Wickman wrote the foreword; she is the Executive Director of the American Science Association and a Professor of Engineering. Kudos to Hannah Eagleson, too, for managing this project and doing the compilation work. She’s an old customer of Hearts & Minds who, we suspect, had her own commitments to and explorations of academic discipleship deepened when she visited here often as a central Pennsylvania undergrad student. We’d be thrilled to have folks buy this from us and celebrate this good work.
Fearfully and Wonderfully: The Marvel of Bearing God’s Image updated and combined edition Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey (IVP) $25.00 Perhaps you recall our announcement of this late last summer, a marvelous hardback combining newly edited versions of Fearfully and Wonderfully and its sequel, In His Image. Here the world famous hand surgeon and the talented and wise Christian writer combine to offer a uniquely Christian look at the glorious of the human body. Each chapter is on a part of the human body — blood, skin, eyeballs, brain, bones, etc — which opens up conversations about the richness of life, the role of community, the value of pain and more. The blurb on the back includes a lovely endorsement by Shane Claiborne and another by the famous former Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop. There’s a study guide, too, done by one of our very own customers here in Dallastown. Give it to anyone interested in medicine, physical therapy, science, the body, athleticism, or the structures of God’s creation. It’s a great, great read.
ESSAYS and POEMS ON DEATH AND MORE…
The Depositions: New and Selected Essays on Being and Ceasing to Be Thomas Lynch (Norton) $27.95 We were so glad, earlier this year, to see the long-awaiting release of a new collection of essays by undertaker and poet and essayist Thomas Lynch, Whence and Whither: On Lives and Living (WJK; $18.00.) It was marvelous and I know book lovers and Thomas Lynch fans were delighted by it. It’s a paperback with a striking cover and deckled pages and makes a nice inexpensive gift.
The hardback The Depositions was just released late this fall and, as you can tell from the subtitle, is mostly an anthology of previously published pieces (including from his brilliant, essential The Undertaking and Bodies at Motion and at Rest.) But there is some new stuff, too. Yes!
The brand new collection has a rave review on the back by Billy Collins. Phillip Lopate says “Lynch is one of my favorite living essayists. His mordant humor and openness to grace and mystery are a tonic.”
As the Boston Globe review wrote, Lynch is able to take us inside the palpable business of blood, tears, and the final verse of life in a manner that is almost shocking in the relief it delivers.
FOR ONE’S DEVOTIONAL LIFE
Captivating Grace: 365 Devotions for the Reformed Thinker compiled by Susan Hill, with a foreword by Scott Sauls (Zondervan) $19.99 What a beautiful book, a solid cloth/embossed hardback with sturdy paper, offering a daily devotional full of thoughts and prayers and reflections from the likes of Luther, Calvin, Beza, Zwingli, Turretin, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon and more… It is nicely arranged in five units, with devotionals themed in each section by the historic five “Solas” of the Reformation era — Christ alone, Faith alone, Grace alone, the Scriptures alone, and for the Glory of God alone.
Piercing Heaven: Prayers of the Puritans edited by Robert Elmer (Lexham Press) $23.99 As it says on the back promotional paper insert, “For the Puritans, prayer was neither casual nor dull. Their prayers were passionate affairs, from earnestly pleading for mercy to joyful praise. These rich expressions of deep Christian faith are shining examples…” And indeed they are.
For those who are familiar with the very popular Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions (Banner of Truth; $17.00) it is clear that the Puritans illustrated a combination of warm piety and careful intellect. Piercing Heaven is a classy (embossed) hardback sans dust jacket and it is adapted around topical headings. Kudos to the publishers.
A Month of Sundays: Thirty-One Days of Wrestling with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John Eugene Peterson (Waterbrook) $16.99 This is a never-before published collection of thirty one reflections on the gospel — a compact sized hardback, perfect for a monthlong journey into the life of Jesus — were first preached by Peterson in his role as pastor of Christ our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland. These are not necessarily cozy, inspiring devotionals that offer cheap inspiration but are solid explorations of the “big ideas, hard choices, and intimate conversations” that help you wrestle along side Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Live in Grace, Walk in Love: A 365-Day Journey Bob Goff (Thomas Nelson) $16.99 This is a bargain price for this great, solid hardback. As we’ve described it at BookNotes before, it is a year’s worth of all new inspiring stories from Bob’s one-of-a-kind, dream-big, love does, kinda of life. The publisher says it offers “unexpected, thought-provoking teaching that will prepare Christians for the days ahead.” Yes, that’s true. But Bob would want you to live big and love well right now. There’s interesting Bible reflection here and tons of Goffian shenanigans, holy capers, stories of loving everybody always, offered with a whimsical nod and a gracious prayer. You could give this out to almost anybody as it is fun, humane, upbeat, and incredibly interesting. Yes!
FOR THOSE WHO APPRECIATE CULTURAL STUDIES AND ENGAGEMENT
Rings of Fire: Walking in Faith Through a Volcanic Future Leonard Sweet (NavPress) $17.99 I hope you have somebody in your circle of friends and loved ones or church members who are fans of Leonard Sweet. A futurist by trade, a United Methodist gadfly and instigator of studies and projects and leadership initiatives, Sweet is one of the most widely read, brilliant thinkers I’ve ever come across. He maps out trends and concerns of the future as it relates to the church, now, and invites us — insists! — that to be faithful we have to allow God’s Kingdom which is coming to pull us into the future. He calls us to less handwringing and more action, more stimulating (prophetic) critique and less simple accommodation. As I often say, he is witty, creative, delights in wordplay (and all kind of play, a theme that shows up in his many books) so he’s a hoot to read. Even his (copious) footnotes are an education in itself. This book is worth twice the price.
Rings of Fire captured my full attention in the first sentence, describing the island in the Pacific Northwest (Orca Island) which is, as part of the Pacific basin called the “Ring of Fire.” He talks about fault lines, tremors, and lava, working that as a metaphor easily into his forecast of our hot culture. The whole world is a global Ring of Fire.
The book is arranged in sections he calls “hot zones” and “hot topics” and “hot church” and throughout he has “hot takes” which are excursions into even more specific (“global refugees and migrants”, “acid baths of irony”, “identity crises galore”, and more. The “hot topics” cover so much — from sexuality, gender formation, suicide culture, race relations, scientism, ecological stuff, and more. He has clever names for most of these chapters and he dives deep, if only for a chapter or two. Between the big hot zones and the specific hot topics, it at times feels a bit disorganized and fragmented. Maybe that is as it should be as things are heating up and we’re getting a bit frantic, with “fires” smoldering everywhere. There are “eruptive and disruptive” blowing all around us. This may be Len’s most sweeping book since his seminal Soul Tsunami.
Not From Around Here: What Unites Us, What Divides Us, and How We Can Move Forward Brandon O’Brien (Moody Press) $13.99 We’ve recommended books by this author before. He’s a curious fellow, brilliant, really, working now for Redeemer’s City to City with Tim Keller, but having written a book for small congregations which we like and another on a religious liberty advocate from during the colonial era Demanding Liberty: An Untold Story of American Religious Freedom and co-authored a near classic called Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. He thinks widely about a lot and is Biblically informed, theologically reliable, and yet seems open to new ideas and is always learning. So when we heard about this new book, I couldn’t wait. It is not only about the fragmented nature of our polarized society, but, most foundationally, about the divide between rural and urban folks. We have these tidy categories, or at least it seems the media often presents tidy categories, but, as he says “people are more complex up close.”
So, Not From Around Here is trying to see what it’s really like in a given place — “how the squish of creek water between your toes or the crunch of autumn leave on a city sidewalk shape yours sense of what’s normal and write and good.” This is a hugely important and generative, if provocative, thesis, that these bodily sensations are part of how our places shape us to experience life in certain ways. This will appeal to those who have paid attention to James K.A. Smith’s “Cultural Liturgies” project, I’d think, or even books like Strong and Weak by Andy Crouch that remind us of bodily postures as we lean into life. To be agents of God’s reconciliation, O’Brien says, we need to listen to the stories of people that emerge from their places. We need to “get to know the nuance of people and have empathy for their way of seeing.”
As it says on the back cover, “Brandon O’Brien is, in many ways, a man torn between places. Raised in the rural South, educated in the suburbs, and now living and doing ministry in Manhattan, he’s seen these places, and their complexity, up close.”
Working in the Presence of God: Spiritual Practices for Everyday Work Denise Daniels & Shannon Vandewarker (Hendrickson) $24.95 I suppose this isn’t exactly cultural criticism, but it does move us into the culture at large, helping us think about faith and vocations, the common good and the ways unbiblical dualism has kept us from thinking well about work and finances. These women work well in corporate America and while there has been a generous batch of books released in recent years on marketplace ministry and Christian fidelity in the work world, few have been as insightful as this, and even fewer have been written by women. My, my, you could give this to anyone interested in this faith and work movement, about whole-life spirituality, about how spiritual disciplines (sabbath, lament, solitude) can be useful in formation for our work-world service.
There are important endorsements on the back from important voices in this movement such as Richard Mouw and Katherine Leary Alsdorf and Tom Nelson and Jeff Hanaan and Lisa Slayton and Steve Garber. These are authors we admire and some of our favorite people so if these leaders also endorse this book, you can trust us that it’s a good one.
The Seamless Life: A Tapestry of Love and Learning, Worship and Work Steven Garber (IVP) $20.00 If you saw the big celebration we did about this brand new book at BookNotes a week or so ago you’ll know it is one of the most amazing books we’ve discussed this year. It is a lovely collection of short essays on a variety of topics related by the deep desire of the author to live a coherent life, one that hangs together, with seamlessness. From church life to work, from global justice to family matters, from reading novels to speaking with corporate leaders about the meaning of just profits, Steve reminds us it is all worship, that it all matters. It should be obvious, but in this distracted consumerist age it may not be, that we hunger for meaning and purpose; the live well This book ponders these things without silliness or cheesy zeal; his struggle for a seamless life is hard-earned and has integrity. These elegant essays are accompanied by photos of Steve’s travels, giving this a “report from the road” sort of feel. (And he has seen some remarkable stuff, making this in its own quiet way, a real page-turner.) It is a hand-sized hardback, with textured paper dust jacket, and makes a truly beautiful little gift. I find it hard to express how much this book means to me, and Beth and I would be pleased if you ordered some to share during this holiday season.
For what it is worth, some who ordered it promptly last week have now lined up to (re)order more. That’s the sign of a very special book.
The Library Book Susan Orlean (Simon & Schuster) $16.99 I had heard such good things about this remarkably written, meticulously researched study of the largest library fire in the US (April 29th,1986) but for some reason waited until it recently came out in paperback to pick it up. What was I thinking — it took my breath away on the first page and didn’t let up; it has been a constant pleasure to read, page by page. It is, without a doubt, one of the most captivating and well written books — heartbreaking and exciting, edge-of-your-seat, stuff as she investigates the arson accusations, the impact of the fire, and the remarkable civic spirit of the librarians.
Anyone who loves books, anyone who appreciates libraries, anybody who appreciates creative non-fiction — part memoir, part investigative/immersion journalism — will love The Library Book. This elegant report is a book somebody you know will love. The opening pages about the author’s memories of going to the library as a girl with her mother is gloriously poignant. Reviewers have called it “soul-expanding” and “mesmerizing” and “spellbinding.” Here are what a few of the many, rave reviews have said:
–Dave Eggers, author of The Circle and The Monk of Mokha
–Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times
–David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon and The Lost City of Z
–Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City, In the Garden of Beasts, and Dead Wake
FOR THOSE INTERESTED ON WORLD MISSIONS
On Mission Together: Integrating Missions Into the Local Church Richard Noble, with a foreword by Peter Kuzmic (Falls City Press) $14.99 A very, very good friend out in Beaver Falls, PA (home of Geneva College) started a few years ago what he affectionately called a “micro-press.” (Sort of like micro-brew, I guess; small, local, tasty; indeed, Falls City is classy, thoughtful, unique — a boutique shop doing important little books that deserve a hearing. This is there latest and you should know about it.
The author of this book, Rich Noble, himself a friend of Geneva College and other important para-church ministries in Western Pennsylvania, has been leading “missional engagement” as a consultant for churches for years. He is especially known within his own Christian Missionary Alliance circles. So this book is very nicely published but you might not know about — it’s one of those “under the radar” titles. We are thrilled to get to amplify Noble’s good work, and introduce you to his helpful book. Come to think of it, there is no other book that we’d recommend as highly on this topic as this one; On Mission Together is savvy, practical, useful, creative, motivating, designed for anyone on a local church mission committee, a planning team for a missions conference, a mission pastor or anyone wishing for their local congregation to be more supportive of those on the global front lines of fulfilling the Great Commission. Our local faith communities (“from massive suburban churches to small rural parishes”) are central to the project of bearing witness to the expanding Kingdom of God and this book is a concise guidebook full of great ideas to mobilize your own worshipping body.
In On Mission Together there are 9 good chapters and half a dozen appendices, making this a go-to resource for anyone interested in developing their mission engagement.
The End of Hunger: Renewed Hope for Feeding the World edited by Jenny Eaton Dyer and Cathleen Falsani (IVP) $17.00 I raved about this earlier this fall and wanted to recommend it again, now. I guess it may not be the most common gift idea for seasonal gift giving but you know there are folks in your circles who are (or ought to be) very keen on learning about global justice. What missions committee doesn’t at least pay some attention to global development and world-wide poverty and starvation. As I said before, this truly is one of the best resources we’ve get seen — very engaging, lots of stories, plenty of big picture analysis and lots of concrete steps for taking up action on a special aspects of global hunger. This is a great little book and we highly recommend it.
ON THE SOCIOLOGY OF MEETINGS, LANDSCAPES, AND PLACE
The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters Priya Parker (Riverhead Books) $28.00 What an amazing book this is, released this fall on the significant, storied publishing imprint. This is a book that is hard to describe but will be of interest to those who plan meetings, do programming, teach informal classes, whether in the work-world, the nonprofit sector, or, I’d say, in the local church or para-church. It is charming, fascinating, full of insight about the meaning of encounters, of gathering. What happens in meetings and how do the arrangement of the room matter? How does the mood and tone affect the participants? Why settle for lackluster and unproductive meetings? Why gather in ways that aren’t memorable (or even meaningful)? Parker is not a scold and although she is astute in her critique of many status quo kind of practices, she is upbeat and stimulating.
As it says on the flyleaf:
Drawing on her expertise as a facilitator of high-[power gatherings around the world, Parker takes us inside events of all kinds to show what works, what doesn’t, and why. She investigates a wide array of gatherings — conferences, meetings, a courtroom, a flash-mob party, an Arab-Israeli summer camp — and explains how simple, specific, changes can invigorate any group experience.
I bet you know somebody in experiential education or group facilitation or Christian ministry that would get a real kick out of this book that has been described as “both journey and guide” that is full of “exciting ideas and real-world application.” Whether you are hosting a backyard barbecue or a professional conference, you won’t think of your next meeting in quite the same way, I guarantee it.
The Absent Hand: Reimagining Our American Landscape Susan Lessard (Counterpoint) $26.00 You will see this shortly in our list of my favorite books of 2019. It is intellectually rich, beautifully written, elegant at time, fierce, heady, yet full of insight as she longs for what we miss when we lose natural landscapes. Lessard, who was a staff writer for decades at the New Yorker studies remarkable places (including the “geography of nowhere” in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and the nearly sacred, civic space in Gettysburg) Part Annie Dillard, part Howard Kunstler, part Witold Rybczynski (who, by the way, called it “Whitman-esque”) this is a book I savored.
Here is what the New York Times Book Review wrote:
Half memoir, half cri de coeur, Lessard’s lambent, thoughtful, exquisitely written collection of interconnected essays dissects–as an art historian would a picture, a literary critic a text, a medical examiner a cadaver–a diverse swath of America, from Gettysburg and the King of Prussia Mall in Pennsylvania to Truth or Consequences, N.M.; from the seat of an airplane, 30,000-odd feet above Alaska, to the stoops and sidewalks of Brooklyn during the 1990s; from Georgetown, in Washington, where the author used to live, to Youngstown, Ohio…
FOR THOSE WANTING TO TURN OVER A NEW LEAF THIS NEW YEAR
The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry John Mark Comer (Waterbrook) $23.99 I did a long, breathy review of this earlier this fall and the book quickly became one of our best selling titles of the year. John Mark Comer is fun and cool, the design is hip and youthful, but the content — riffing on a line from Dallas Willard — is perennial, good for anyone who wants to deepen their spiritual lives by slowing down, learning to be mindful, and create transforming space to know God more intimately, so to be remade into the image of Christ. Fun and clever as this is, reading The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry becomes a great way into conversations about spirituality, lifestyles, pace of life, serenity, repentance, discipleship. He writes movingly about Christ’s (easy) yoke. About being an apprentice of the true Lord who shows us what it means to be human. Comer’s Garden City is about vocation and calling, work and rest. It is about being made in God’s image and you can see this new one as a natural follow up, focusing less on the call to work, and more on the call to rest. There is a great foreword by John Ortberg, who calls Ruthless Elimination… a “prophetic word for our time.” It is clearly pitched to young adult readers, but this old guy turning 65 this week thinks it is one of the books of the year!
Rhythms of Renewal: Trading Stress and Anxiety for a Life of Peace and Purpose Rebekah Lyons (Zondervan) $24.99 Perhaps this is a bit of a theme (see the JMC book above) as we tire of our fast-paced, hot-wired lifestyles. Like Comer, Rebekah Lyons isn’t just inviting us to be more healthy, avoid stress and burnout, being more calm and present. Although, heavens, we need help with that. For her, though, the “rhythms of renewal” are gateways to deeper, more wholesome and sustainable spirituality. Comer admits that as the pastor of a large, multi-site church, and a global conversation partner around theme of social and cultural engagement, he has an unusual amount of stress. And in the past has struggled with depression and anxiety. This is Rebekah’s story, too — her anxiety and panic attacks are vivid and she is honest about how, even as a leader in the Q movement (her husband is Gabe, founder of Q) she is often debilitated by the stress of her callings. There are lovely blurbs on this book — clearly written in a woman’s voice — by the likes of Bob Goff, John Townsend, and Lysa Terkeurst.
The four major sections of Rhythms of Renewal are Rest, Restore, Connects, and Create. This is not your mother’s book on Christian living, but is, still, reliably solid as a guide to healthy Christian discipleship.
The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place Andy Crouch (Baker) $15.99 This is not new, but if you don’t know it, or haven’t given it, it ought to be on your own radar screen (to use an older technological image.) There are lots of books that have come out in recent years documenting the dangers of over-doing digital technologies and there are plenty of books for parents of teens or youth, helping offer guidance and prudence, strength and insight, about how to use technology well.
I won’t bore you with my views of the nuances of all of this but will just say as plainly and clearly as I can that this is still the best book on the topic and one that everyone should read, whether you are a parent or not. It is moving, thoughtful, wise, big-hearted, and plenty practical. I know you know that we really, really wish folks would read Andy’s three other books, Culture Making, Playing God, and the more recent Strong and Weak. We are fans. Don’t miss this one which brings a good framework and wise approach to this urgent matter.
FOR SOMEONE INTERESTED IN BIBLICAL STUDIES
The Old Testament in Seven Sentences: A Small Introduction to a Vast Topic Christopher Wright (IVP) $16.00 There are plenty of books which offer fine, even fabulous overviews of the Old Testament and its coherent story. This one (in part because of the clever and succinct seven sentences approach) is fantastic. Chris Wright is one of the great Old Testament scholars of our time and an important leader in wholistic ministry (working out of the Langham Trust in the UK.) The publisher says about it:
It’s easy to see the Old Testament as confusing, out of date, or irrelevant. Using seven key sentences drawn straight from the Old Testament, Christopher J. H. Wright fits the pieces together, shows us the coherent whole, and points us toward Jesus. This short survey shows God’s faithfulness and love for his people and illuminates how the Old Testament Scriptures prepared for the identity and mission of Jesus.
The New Testament in Seven Sentences: A Small Introduction to a Vast Topic Gary Burge (IVP) $16.00 A great companion to the one above, this, too, is a clever way to do a fabulous overview of the key plot and teachings of the entire New Testament. I like Burge a lot (and value his insight into the cultural backgrounds and contexts of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament.)
Here is how the publisher describes this one:
“To understand the breadth of the gospel’s message, we need to perceive the full tapestry of Scripture. Using seven key sentences from the New Testament, Gary M. Burge demonstrates how the themes of fulfillment, kingdom, cross, grace, covenant, spirit, and completion set a theological rhythm for our faith, outlining the broader pattern of Scripture that illustrates what God has done–and is bringing to fulfillment–in Christ.”
The Liturgy of Creation: Understanding Calendars in Old Testament Context Michael Lefebvre (IVP Academic) $30.00 At first, I wasn’t sure I should list this as it isn’t a very typical kind of gift, although written for those outside the academic guild, it is dense. The two (…Seven Sentences ones) that I listed above would be fun for almost anyone — beginners or not — and the one below (Romans Disarmed) is something I’m just telling everyone about, like it or not. It’s that impressive and important. This, though, may be an acquired taste for those interested in Genesis 1. The Liturgy of Creation is a serious, almost tedious study of something that may seem arcane — liturgical calendars in the ancient near East and time (and holidays!) in the Bible? This is not the place to explain in detail why this is important, but Old Testament scholars will immediately realize this is vital stuff. This book is nothing short of a gold mind of rare treasures, stuff that will pay off, earning readers knowledge and insight if they pay attention. It explores the rich (meta/poetic) style of creation narratives, brings in temple language and theories of history and time, and ties it together with other teachings on calendars in the Hebrew Scriptures. As the publisher explains, Lefebvre argues that “dates were added to Old Testament narratives not as journalistic details but to teach sacred rhythms of labor and worship.” Old Testament heavyweight John C. Collins has a brilliant, enticing foreword.
As Carmen Imes, an Old Testament professor writes:
His reassessment of Genesis 1 moves beyond the stalemate in the creation debates without recourse to extrabiblical or scientific arguments. His thesis grows organically from a close reading of the biblical text. LeFebvre shows himself to be a master teacher with pastoral sensitivity, able to patiently explain what he has so carefully studied. This book will change the way I teach the Torah. I can’t wait to share it with my students!
Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire/Demanding Justice Sylvia Keesmaat & Brian Walsh (Brazos Press) $26.99 Well. I reviewed this audacious book at great length at a major BookNotes announcement about it when it first came out and said then that I’m sure it will be on our “Best Books of 2019” of the year award. It is a detailed, creative, imaginative, hard-hitting, insistent study of epistle of Paul to the Romans and insists that the bigger point and context was for Paul to encourage church unity as a witness to the coming upside-down Kingdom of Christ which was explicitly anti-Imperial. That is, this is a reading of the famous book of the Bible, a letter, really, that has been dis-armed or maybe newly weaponized for the nonviolent struggle for peace, justice, reconciliation, ecological sanity and full inclusion of all people in the open table of God’s own. Yes, the authors argue (convincingly, I believe) that Romans has been misconstrued as an abstract theological lesson and that reading has been used to bully people, shutting down the impulse of hospitality that is at the heart of the epistle itself. So the letter — or, more precisely, our interpretations and applications — needs to be disarmed. And they show us exactly how, but experiencing the letter as it first might have been experience, calling us to be the sort of justice-seeking community that grieves with the hurting and welcomes the marginalized, as the book of Romans tells us to.
This over 400 page volume (with a chapter which is essentially a fictionalized novella set among characters in the house church in Rome) may jokingly be called an “anti-commentary” because it is almost a new genre. Some said that about their rather similar Colossians Remix, released in 2014, too, for the way it wove together old context and contemporary stories and socio-political analysis. (And, heavy as this gets sometimes, intellectually and rhetorically, there is plenty here about the lives of Walsh and Keesmaat, their watershed discipleship at their organic farm, and their deep connections to urban folk in inner city Toronto and college students at Brian’s Wine Before Breakfast community and their friendships with many other more traditional church folks might shy away from (at best) — unhoused street folks, oppressed indigenous people, LGTBQ friends.) Directly inspired by the text of Romans, they teach us much about the dysfunctions and injustices or our day, the idols of progress and the violence of late modern capitalism and the inequities due to white privilege and the like. This is an amazing book which will be seen as groundbreaking if disturbing to some. If you give this as a gift, or invite your small group to study it, be prepared for lots of honest conversation. Whew.
“Keesmaat and Walsh write into the headwinds of Trumpism, deepening social disparity, ecological crisis, and endless war. Building on recent scholarship, this brilliant study engages the original audience, who labored under the shadow of empire, in a way that brings its message to life for similarly struggling North American Christians. The result is a fresh and committed reading by two of our generation’s best interpreters of Word and world.” — Ched Myers, Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries
The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy Timothy Keller (Viking) $20.00 Another one of these compact sized hardbacks that make a nice little gift. And, seriously, this is fascinating. Not only is Keller always clear and thoughtful and widely read, this is recent and provocative. It’s about the prophet Jonah, of course, and that’s always a blast, ending as it does under the unpredictable plant, as Eugene Peterson put it. Here, Keller makes a creative move and connects Jonah to the parable of the Prodigal Son. Nice!
FOR THOSE WHO ARE INTERESTED IN PRAYER AND SPIRITUALITY
The Lord’s Prayer: A Guide to Praying to Our Father Wesley Hill (Lexham Press) $15.99 This is a very small, compact-sized guide that is more meaty and generative and useful than some books twice the size. Hill is a New Testament scholar and a dear man and a clear (but never stuffy) writer. He’s created a very solid, useful book.
There is a blurb on the back by Fleming Rutledge, another by New Testament scholar Matthew Levering. Marianne Meye Thompson says it is “a book worth savoring.” This little book, as Rev. Rutledge says, “will enrich a reader’s life immeasurably.” A small book in a matching formate to last year’s popular Apostles Creed by Ben Myers. Highly recommended.
May It Be So: Forty Days with the Lord’s Prayer Justin McRoberts & Scott Erickson (Waterbrook) $16.99 This will make a great gift for a special someone, but, admittedly, may not be for everyone. Justin McRoberts is a recording artist, writer, retreat leader who brings raw truth and hard-hitting insight about our longings for a better discipleship and Scott Erickson is an edgy sort of artists and graphic designer. So May It Be So has a very contemporary, design forward feel, with graphic art (with a silkscreen sort of appearance.) In fact, the hip art pieces are invitation to ponder — they are remarkably allusive and evocative, designed to help us enter into a more meditative and curiously thoughtful space, and Justin’s meditations are perfect supplements. These two guys are convinced that humans long for connections, for prayer, for a deeper sort of spirituality that may seem just beyond our reach. Good books on the theology of prayer are important, but they are not enough. We need prompts and on-ramps and stories so we can not sure think about praying, but actually do it.
This is a companion to their award winning, much-celebrated (and equally visual and provocative) Prayer: Forty Days of Practice. You could give ’em both and your recipient would be overjoyed.
Not sure? Listed to these good folks:
“Justin and Scott have compiled the most beautiful anthology of prayers and images, interwoven with suggestions for contemplation and spiritual practices. I’ve been using these words and pictures in my own devotional life for a couple of years. They have refreshed and renewed me. This book is a gift.”
–Michael Frost, author of Surprise the World and Keep Christianity Weird
“McRoberts and Erickson are flip artists: they take what is commonly assumed or known and flip it in unexpected ways, all for the sake of greater authenticity and deeper wisdom. Their book Prayer surprises, interrupts, explodes, confronts, and inspires. I encourage you to take up their invitation for Forty Days of Practice.”
–Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary”
“In my home we have a special shelf where we keep sacred things of beauty. On the shelf are a few icons, seashells, the Book of Common Prayer, and this book, Prayer. Each person in my family–from children to adults–sits in quiet wonder as they flip these pages. This meditative and practical book brings together prayer, practices, and visual art to provide a feast for the soul. McRoberts and Erickson have created something beautiful, thoughtful, and mesmerizing.”
–Tish Harrison Warren, priest in the Anglican Church in North America and author of Liturgy of the Ordinary
This Life That Is Ours: Motherhood as a Spiritual Practice Lauren Burdette (Upper Room Books) $12.99 What mom wouldn’t like a small, compact, meditatively written book about the spirituality of mothering? This is reflective, lovely, moving, even… a great gift. Lauren is part of a wonderful, small Presbyterian church we know in Pittsburgh — missional, visionary, yet deeply rooted in ancient spiritual practices. In this context she reflected on her own calling as a new mother, and how these habits of doing her daily mothering stuff were, in fact, shaping her, and have the potential to shape other moms, in profound ways.
This is really well written, poetic and inviting, warm and thoughtful. It is brief, and very honest about the swirling vortex of diapers and feedings and sleepless nights. In this new world, she observes, one’s identity can be in flux. And she assures us that God wants to meet us where we are.
An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation, and Liberation Martin Laird (Oxford University Press) $18.95 Again, a small hardback that is somehow weighty, serious, but yet a perfect shape in the hand to take on retreat or to a quiet chair. This is one that truly gets to be described as “beautifully written” combining scholarly awareness of the deepest mystical tradition and warm and enticing stories of his own life as a conetmpatlive and spiritual director.
As Rowan Williams says on the back cover, “Laird’s writings on this subject is simply in a different league of seriousness from most other books on ‘spiritual’ practice.” Sarah Coakley of Cambridge calls it “a new, modern classic.” This is the third in a uniform series, all quite nice, following Into the Silent Land and A Sunlit Absence. They are all gorgeous, compact, very sophisticated books that deserve multiple readings; an investment for a lifetime.
The Great Conversation: Nature and the Care of the Soul Belden Lane (Oxford University Press) $29.95 I hesitate to call this spirituality, proper — it is actually written as memoir, as most of it is in the first person as Lane — who has written similar books like Backpacking with the Saints — tells of his extraordinary adventures finding God in creation. (And they are extraordinary, spiritually, yes, but just in terms of the places he visits and tells about, literally all over the globe. Wow.) James Martin, S.J. calls The Great Conversation “luminous” and Presbyterian spiritual life professor Elizabeth Liebert says it is “scholarship born of passion, love, and commitment to the continuing existence and well-being of fellow creatures.” He is a good writer, he is passionate, and his experiments in relating to the world around us as he hikes and attends are really fabulously interesting.
Lane realized long ago that he is implicated in the crisis of the planet and he knows that God’s good creation — or so the Bible and the mystics say — can speak to us. (See Psalm 19:1-4 or the command in Job 12:7-10 if you don’t believe him.) So in prose that is beautiful and haunting he tells of his journey to cherish and commune with fellow creatures. I understand that some of us (myself included, actually) will fret that this verges on pantheism; yet, a Franciscan priest says, “as a Franciscan, i can say that this is pure Gospel.” The Great Conversation is a heady and unforgettable story of a theologian and mystic learning to listen to creation, even as he uses books by great contemplatives to help him along the way. Just like he did with Backpacking with the Saints (combining one saint’s work with one hike) he here uses one particular book from a spiritual writer with one episode of relating well to a fellow creature. From talking to a beloved tree to standing in awe by a river to being aware of God’s voice in specific birds or wind, in wildfire or stars, in deserts or canyons, The Great Conversation is stunning. Somebody you know will really love it (even if others may think it a bit much.) We’re happy to stock all his books, and commend this one to be read with discernment to anyone who loves the great outdoors and longs to live into the vision of a lively creation we can really know.
Don’t forget, as we said at the beginning, we’ve shown the regular retail prices, but we will deduct 20% OFF any book mentioned. As we always say, our order form page is easy to use — just click on the link at the bottom which takes you to our secure order form page at the Hearts & Minds website. You can safely enter your credit card information and we’ll be sure to reply promptly and confirm all the details. As we say there, you can choose your shipping method (USPS is cheaper than UPS for smaller packages) and you can ask us to just send a bill if you’d like. Easy.
Now, back to this list…
FOR FANS OF JAMIE SMITH, THOSE WANTING A CONTEMPORARY LOOK AT ANCIENT FAITH OR FOR THOUGHTFUL, SPIRITUAL SEEKERS
On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real World Spirituality for Restless Hearts James K.A. Smith (Brazos Press) $24.99 Okay, hear me out: this is one of the most important, and best, and most discussed serious Christian books of 2019. It’ll be on the top of our “Best of” awards list in a week or two. You should buy two to give away, and one for yourself (duh) if you haven’t yet. We are glad so many Hearts & Minds customers have ordered it this fall, and we hope to continue to promote it almost anywhere we go. It is just one of those books that discriminating buyers of religious books should get.
Yes, it’s a bit deep. Smith is a philosopher, after all. He has written books that are appreciative of postmodernity (see the heavy Live Theory on Jacques Derrida and the must-read, introductory-level Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism) and the always contested, situated nature of knowing (see The Fall of Interpretation and, more recently, Who’s Afraid of Relativism about what pragmatic philosophers call “contingency.”) Smith’s most popular philosophically-minded book is a heady introduction to the nearly impenetrable Harvard University Press book, The Secular Age by Charles Taylor. (That is called How (Not) To Be Secular and is an introduction to Taylor’s work and is important, if still a bit demanding.) His important “Cultural Liturgies” trilogy have been essential for many of us and we rejoice that those big three (Desiring the Kingdom, Imagining the Kingdom, and Awaiting the King) have been summarized in the popular You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit which I have touted as the “Book of the Decade.” Smith is a friend of Hearts & Minds and we have been influenced by him, and his own teachers.
Smith is a professor at Calvin University in Grand Rapids and studied previously at the neo-Calvinist Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, so has been influenced by that big stream of Christian cultural engagement that is the line of the Dutch theological and civic leader Abraham Kuyper. All of this, though, goes back (Al Wolters used to say this regularly) to the fourth century African convert and church Bishop, Saint. Augustine. His massive City of God is seminal for social and political thought in the West and his Confessions remains a classic in Western literature, often called the first memoir. Baptized by Ambrose after a walk on the wild side, his legacy is hard to underestimate. Yet few of us know much about him.
It is this self-aware reflection on Augustine’s own interior life and his “on the road” search for identity that Smith plumbs in On the Road with Saint Augustine. As Smith explains, many of the most important contemporary philosophers — Heidegger, Camus, Sartre, just for instance — studied and lectured and wrote on Augustine. In a way, Smith says that the bohemian and “on the road” counterculture (think Kerorouc and Ginsberg and Dylan, even) which was informed by the existentialists of the mid-twentieth century is almost directly connected to the road trips of the ancient searching thinker who Smith calls “the patron saint of restless hearts.” Man, he knows how to connect the dots, joyfully.
There are prestigious and important blurbs on the back of this book, indicating that it is being taken seriously. (It’s not just me saying this!) What popular religious book carries raves from the likes of poet Christian Wiman and NPR interviewer Krista Tippet and Jesuit writer James Martin and one of the Avett Brothers band, yes, the philosopher Charles Taylor?
There are chapters on mothers and justice and sex and identity and friendship and death and conversion and more. His opening chapter “orientation” in this field guide is so helpful as he explains how Augustine is, truly, our contemporary. Smith expresses the zeitgeist in chapters like “Heart on the Run” (about “how to hit the road”) and “A Refugee Spirituality (about “how to live between…”
The heart of the book, as I’ve explained before at a previous description at BookNotes, is really this next section called “Detours on the Way to Myself” where he explores the meaning of freedom and ambition and enlightenment and other themes about authenticity and community and homecoming. There is stuff about “how to believe” and “how to hope” and what it means to aspire or connect and protest and hope. It is rare, I think, to have such a wise guidebook that is also so philosophical, drawing on history and telling about the lives of figures as diverse as Albert Camus and Leslie Jamison and books and films and pop music from Don Quixote to the movies of Wes Anderson the the haunting songs of The Postal Service. That he is able to move so effortlessly between what feels like an upbeat, illuminated philosophy class and a quiet moment of spiritual direction and a rowdy conversation over drinks after hours is one of the glories of this book. For those willing to work through a few of the dense parts, there’s plenty of fun reading and lots of deep, profound Christian truth.
One of the reasons the book is so lively is that throughout there are narratives of the journey (ironically, an on-the-road pilgrimage, perhaps –ironic because the classic road trip is to get away, the opposition of a pilgrimage) that Smith and his wife made retracing some of the steps of Augustine. Dehanna figures into the book quite a bit. In an interview, Smith tells of how surprising it was to be there:
There’s something visceral about walking those worn stones of Ostia, seeing the mix of paganism and politics in Rome, feeling the light on the Mediterranean, that overcomes the distance between not only the fourth century and the 21st century but also the gap between the printed page and your own imagination. Augustine became less abstract, and more human.
There are great stories of their trip and some inserts of art and images and those are very nice, enhancing the book with the pieces he discusses. There are even some cool, free postcards (for your own journey on the road) that we can share for free, while supplies last. It’s a handsome, well-designed book that will help anyone open to thinking deeply about finding themselves.
Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion Rebecca mcLaughlin (Crossway) $24.99 If you want to give a gift for someone who wouldn’t resonate with Smith’s rambling, complex, beautiful guide through our search for identity and roots and hope by way of studying a third century seeker, maybe a more straight-away gift would be appreciated. Confronting Christianity admits that those who advocate and live out the Christian faith simply must cope with a few key, legitimate, important questions. Some of these are general questions being asked by secularists (“Aren’t we better off without Religion” and “Doesn’t Religion Cause Violence?” and the questions about religion and science) and others are questions specifically about the Christian religion — does the Bible condone slavery?, isn’t Christianity homophobic?, how can you say there is only one way?, and the like. These sort of collections of honest answers to hard questions are plentiful, but this one is very smart and fair-minded. It won a Christianity Today Best Book award a few weeks ago and has endorsements by the likes of Oxford University mathematics professor John Lennox and Harvard University epidemiologist Tyler Vanderweele. MIT prof Ian Hutchinson calls is “deep and caring” and “not an easy stroll through imagined virtual reality but an adventurous rocky pathway through true and abundant life.”
Confronting is written by woman with a PhD in Renaissance literature from Cambridge and a theology degree from Oak Hill, also in the UK. She has worked for Veritas Forum and is cofounder of Vocable Communications. Very impressive. It’s got a great cover, too, with 12 die-cut circles on the cover.
FOR THOSE INTERESTED IN THE ENNEAGRAM
We have numerous good books on this ancient, and newly popular, personality profile. We have often said that The Road Back To You by Ian Cron & Susan Stabile is among our favorites. Richard Rohr’s is big and impressive, Chris Huertz’s The Sacred Enneagram: Finding Your Unique Path to Spiritual Growth is really good and has a workbook, now. There are others, of course.
But, whew, if you want to gift somebody with a nice little book that explores their own unique Enneagram number, well, get a load of this. What a great idea!
We just got in this set of nine small hardbacks, one on each of the Enneagram types, each with a different foreword by a person who identifies as that E profile. These numbered guides are written by Beth McCord (“Your Enneagram Coach”) and are published by Thomas Nelson. They regularly sell for $14.99 each and you can order any of them individually. If you buy the whole set we’ll bump up our BookNotes discount of 20% off to 30% off. How’s that?
Enneagram Type 1 Enneagram Type 2 Enneagram Type 3 Enneagram Type 4 Enneagram Type 5 Enneagram Type 6 Enneagram Type 7 Enneagram Type 8 Enneagram Type 9
Beth McCord (Thomas Nelson Publisher) $14.99 each. Note the extra discount (30% off) if you buy the whole set of nine books.
TWO NEW BOOKS ON MARRIAGE
Modern Kinship: A Queer Guide to Christian Marriage David & Constantino Khalaf (WJK) $16.00 I love the story about Mark Twain’s reply when he was asked if he believed in infant baptism. “Believe in it?”, he retorted, “Why, I’ve seen it.” Whether you “believe in” marriage equality or not, you most likely have seen it. You may have gay people you care about who are married. Why not wish them well and offer them some faith-based insight about the complexities of navigating their admittedly unusual marriage situation? This is the only overtly Christian book for gay folks (men or women) talking candidly about a Christian marriage. Most often, for obvious reasons, queer folks who are churched are involved in mainline or progressive sorts of congregations, but not always; in any case, this is no fundamentalist scold. The couple who wrote the book together themselves have to navigate their different religious backgrounds; one spouse was rooted in a more traditionalist mainline church tradition while the other was non-denominationally evangelical. I have to admit I read a lot of books about marriage (including memoirs of marriage) and I found this hard to put down.
We hope Modern Kinship blesses those who may find it difficult to locate reliable resources that might help them in their own context and ethos. I recommend it to straight couples, too, by the way; most of us need all the help we can get. Somehow the struggles and fears and joys of gay couples working out their faith and marriage in a counter-cultural way (perhaps too religious for many of their LGTBQ friends and too gay for their straight churches) just might offer some insight for others, as well.
The Meaning of Marriage: A Couple’s Devotional – a Year of Daily Devotions Timothy & Kathy Keller (Viking) $20.00 I have said that, with a few qualifications, I think Tim & Kathy Keller’s 2011 release, The Meaning of Marriage, is one of the better books on a theology of marriage I’ve ever read. It is interesting, Biblical, culturally aware, and quite thoughtful. We are happy to promote all of Keller’s many books (including the other two devotionals that he wrote with his wife, The Songs of Jesus, on the Psalms, and God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life on Proverbs) and were so very glad to see this gifty looking small daily devotional of 365 readings to supplement their Meaning of Marriage.
This is a small sized hardback, lavish in a subdued sort of pastel way, with a nice ribbon marker, making it a great shower gift or a New Year’s gift for your spouse. Good, meaty stuff, gospel-based and often profound. This is a very nice book.
FOR FANS OF CS LEWIS & THE INKLINGS
Pursuing an Earthy Spirituality: C. S. Lewis and Incarnational Faith Gary S. Selby (IVP Academic) $22.00 I don’t need to say much about this. You know, I hope, that Lewis wrote much about the joy of human pleasures and the goodness of creation. He wrote the forward to a famous edition of Saint Athanasius’s On the Incarnation. His vision of the cosmic nature of sin and salvation makes his fiction so earthy. Without much bluster, he calmly reminded us in so many ways that gnosticism is not Christian. So, if spirituality is “earthy” what, then, does that mean? What does it look like? Can the old Oxford don help us with a “down to Earth” holy worldliness? Can we live out of an incarnational worldview? What in this world is “Earthy spirituality”? This is a suburb book for anyone wanting to think more deeply about spiritual formation and whole-life discipleship, but it is a gem for anyone who likes drawing on Mr. Lewis. A great book, highly recommended.
Becoming C.S. Lewis: A Biography of Young Jack Lewis (1898 – 1918) Harry Lee Poe (Crossway) $22.00 With the slightly textured dust jacked, the old fashioned photo and the wallpaper-like flyleaves, this book itself is so handsome it almost feels vintage. It is what is says, a biography of Lewis’s youth. It is the first part of what will be a massive and major three part biography. So far, it is off to a conspicuous start — some reviewers insist this is a must-read and more than one has observed that there is material in here that has not been explored in any previous Lewis biography.
When important Lewis scholars like Don King says it “breaks new ground” and Lyle Dorsett says it is “filled with glimpses… that cannot be found in any other biography” and Colin Duriez says it “stands out” you know this is a major contribution to the field. Fans will savor Becoming C.S. Lewis, we’re told, and I suspect they are right. Is there somebody you could give it to this Christmas? Remember: for Lewis, Christmastime surely was 12 days long.
Choosing Community: Action, Faith, and Joy in the Works of Dorothy Sayers Christine Colon (IVP) $16.00 Released under the auspices of the Marion Wade Center at Wheaton College, this is one of the most accesible and important new books on Inkling Dorothy Sayers yet done. Colon is a professor of English and a scholar of the Victorian Literary tradition and a sharp. popular instructor. Choosing Community was initially presented as part of the prestigious Hansen Lectureship series and it was very positively received. There is a lot here on the Lord Peter Whimsey detective novels so this could make a great gift for anybody who enjoys that mystery genre or that knows of Sayers’ literary work. (For instance, her significant work translating Dante.) The book cites unpublished letters of Sayers and works well with her religious drama and theatrical work, too. Nearly everyone who specializes in this field seems to shout “bravo” to Colon for her meticulous research, her good writing, and the urgently necessary vision of a broad and caring sort of beautifully orthodox faith.
By the way, for those who follow such things, the previous Hansen lectures were put out in a book that we celebrated at BookNotes, Timothy Larsen’s incisive George MacDonald in the Age of Miracles: Incarnation, Doubt, and Reenchantment (IVP; $18.00.) Know any George MacDonald fans out there?
Speaking of George MacDonald and Lewis’s appreciation of him, allow me to reprint my review of a book that we had shared a month ago at a BookNotes column about kid’s books:
The Light Princess George MacDonald with illustrations by Ned Bustard (Rabbit Room Press) $18.00 Those who have followed Hearts & Minds for decades know that we used to feature lots of the great novels — children’s and Victorian adult novels — of the brilliant writer, orator, preacher, and artiste, George MacDonald, may of which are now out of print. Many know of how C.S. Lewis even edited an anthology of his favorite MacDonald quotes. Sadly, many editions of many MacDonald books have been dropped by legitimate publishers and few stellar editions of his volumes are readily available. We are so, so glad that the classy and fun Rabbit Room crew of Rabbit Room Press released a new edition of the fairy story The Light Princess.
This really is an exquisite edition, with a blue leather-over-board creation very much like their lush Every Moment Holy prayer book. Bustard’s art is, I believe, a style of relief printmaking. As Ned put it in an interview about his work Every Moment Holy, “The pieces were made using linoleum so they are called linocuts (in the same way that if they were made using wood they’d be called woodcuts.)”
Jennifer Trafton wrote an excellent foreword for which we can be grateful — what a gift to be reminded of the former renown of the Scottish author who has been so esteemed by everyone from Mark Twain to James Barrie to Maurice Sendak to Madeleine L’Engle, and how nice to have this story framed by this good background introduction.
Head Rabbity author and singer-songwriter Andrew Peterson did a fabulous afterword to this edition of The Light Princess. He writes about being “Gobsmacked” and reminds us of the Tolkien-Lewis-MacDonald-esque vision of true myths. Peterson writes,
MacDonald’s “The Light Princess” reminds us that the world is an unsettling place, and mystery clouds the corners of our days.That means strange and terrible things are bound to happen, whooshing in from the dark periphery without warning… But mystery also means that grace and light can come whooshing in, too, so you might as well keep an eye out.”
Kudos to all at Rabbit Room Books for doing this lovely edition of this great old tale. But we offer special hat tips to Mr. Bustard for his playful linographs, his titling characters, and his other design work on the volume, making it a most handsome, almost exquisite, edition.
In the foreword, Trafton writes about Bustard and what his art contributes to the book:
Artist Ned Bustard has paid homage to all the multilayered themes and resonances in MacDonald’s writing by threading visual symbols throughout the illustrations like little Easter eggs for you to discover. Some are images drawn from centuries of Christian iconography — seashells, dolphin, anchor, bread, wine, and more. He’s also hidden objects and elements from some of MacDonald’s other fantasy stories, such as The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess and Curdie, “The Golden Key,” and Lilith. To those of you who’ve read these other stories: look carefully! Do you spot the allusions?
FOR THOSE INTERESTED IN CIVIC LIFE AND CONTEMPORARY POLITICS
The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump Peter Wehner (HarperOne) $25.99 As we’ve shown at BookNotes, there are a bunch of books on civility, or finding common ground, but on also being principled and integrally Christian in our citizenship lives. You may know that Wehner worked in the Reagan administration has been a major voice in thoughtful Republican and conservative circles and because of his deep involvement with the Right is now outspoken about the vulgar and immoral ways of the current administration. He is frustrated about his own movement’s lack of coherent, abiding principles but he is also alarmed — as we all should be –about the fraying body politic, about culture wars and anger and fragmentation. He believe that politics can be a noble calling but that this has been corrupted, not least by Donald Trump.
The back cover of this remarkable book has blurbs by the likes of Mona Charen (a colleague of his at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center) and Mark Noll ( the esteemed evangelical historian) and public intellectual and writer Jon Meacham and a great, helpful endorsement by James K.A. Smith. David Axelrod calls him “a literary Paul Revere, shining a light on the causes of the withering polarization that has seized our democracy.”
Them: Why We Hate Each Other– And How to Heal Ben Sasse (St. Martin’s Press) $17.99 We had reviewed this at BookNotes when it was still only in hardback and it has just recently come out in paperback (with a new preface from the author.) I think Mr. Sasse is a better thinker and writer than he is a Senator, but, no matter what you think of his voting record, he argues here that our crisis is deeper than partisan politics. He writes about the epidemic of loneliness and a path forward that is rooted in paying attention to place. In fact rootedness is a theme of the book. NPR says even if you disagree with his ideas, this book is well worth reading and we agree.
As the National Review notes:
Them is an attempt to diagnose and repair what has led us to this moment of spittle-flecked rage… a step toward healing a hurting nation.
Contempt: A Memoir of the Clinton Investigation Ken Starr (Sentinel) $28.00 It seems that if one is following the ups and downs of the current impeachment controversy, it would be helpful and certainly interesting to compare it with the other memorable impeachment from a few administrations back. As you should know, Ken Starr, a conservative, Christian, kindly, constitutional law scholar, a thoughtful law professor and attorney (who, by the way, was under consideration for a nomination for the Supreme Court) was given the unsavory and complicated task of investigating financial shenanigans (of which people were indicted and went to jail) in which both President Clinton and the First Lady were deeply involved. There was legal stuff, grand juries, investigations, subpoenas, lawsuits, and, eventually pretty obvious contempt from the First Lady and, then, perjury from the President of the United States. The President’s own Attorney General (Janet Reno) commissioned Mr. Starr to lead the team doing the investigation into the President’s financial craziness that became known as the Whitewater scandal. As Starr says (and I have good reason to believe him) he did this a bit reluctantly, but out of civic duty as a public servant, knowing it would delay his own career goals and perhaps bring anxiety to his family; that is, it was not his great desire to become known for this. (Little did he know that he would soon have to have armed security guards, as would his young adult children when they went off to college, and that he would get pulled into years and years worth of complicated, controversial, even tragic work.)
It was in those years in the Arkansas investigation that the President perjured himself about a sex scandal in his home state (regarding an affair with Paula Jones) and the Attorney General wanted Starr — against his own best wishes and intuitions — to investigate that. The Clinton’s response was legendary. And then the Monica Lewinksy thing happened. Again, against his own wishes (as he explains in Contempt) Starr was assigned that investigation and the resultant obstruction of justice proceedings. Unsavory as Mr. Clinton’s sexual involvement was with his younger intern was — in the contemporary #metoo era this would have been seen in much harsher light, I am sure — it wasn’t until further perjury and obstruction and misuse of power came up that Starr pressed that part of the case. As Contempt shows, such grand jury investigations and hearings and procedures are byzantine and slow. (Oh, how this sheds light on the Trump hearings and eventual impeachment processes.) These things take time, and, in that case, the President clearly was in the wrong, legally. What the House and Senate would do with the final report was not Starr’s call, and he reports that he instructed the House to not release the un-redacted, salacious report to the public. (He asked Congress to not share the most embarrassing details, out of respect for the Presidents dignity and marriage. House leaders, famously, in an exceptionally rare and hurtful move, posted it unredacted on line within hours. Of course, Starr took the heat and was for a while the most hated man in America.) Even though the writing is straight-forward and not particularly artful, it was a page-turner, revealing all that goes in to holding public officials accountable under the rule of law. As Starr says often, and we must say today, no one is above the law.
Regardless of what you think you know about Mr. Starr’s work or the Clinton Whitewater case and the subsequent impeachment hearings, Contempt is riveting, what one reviewer called a “firecracker” of a book. After two decades of silence he finally tells his side of the story and the first-person account of the day to day tedium and flare-ups of high drama that became the legal warfare in DC. Our own current partisan polarization has something to do with these events, I am sure, and think it is a timely read for this very month.
Michael Wolfe, author of Fire and Fury says that,
Now, as we try to navigate another president’s epochal confrontation with the law and the Constitution, Starr is a national treasure.
Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus Jim Wallis (HarperOne) $25.99 I’ve heard a few conservative-leaning persons suggest that they know what Wallis thinks, don’t need the book, and that may mostly be so. He’s written books like God’s Politics and continues to edit the lefty, social justice rag, Sojo. But I’m not sure I get the ambivalence to this: each chapter is about a question Jesus asked and the implications such holy questioning might have on our body politic. Yes, it is an anti-Trump manifesto, but more, it is an insistence that we take Jesus seriously. He does admit that good people can disagree in good faith and he does not say that one cannot support Trump and be a sincere disciple. But if he leans towards those convictions, he tries to be civil and play fair, and he does continue to tell stories and make applications from the gospel texts. There are level-headed folks offering endorsing blurbs, from Senator Chris Coons to Princeton professor Eddie Glaude to Fuller Theological Seminary president, Mark Labberton.
When I reviewed this earlier at BookNotes I said I agreed with Brittany Packnett (of Campaign Zero) who wrote:
“For far too long, we’ve ceded the power and person of Jesus to political movements with no ambitions toward His radical love. Reclaiming Jesus is not only our responsibility, it is necessary now more than ever. This is a book for all God’s people.”
Can I Get a Witness: Thirteen Peacemakers, Community Builders, and Agitators for Faith and Justice edited by Charles Marsh, Shea Tuttle, and Daniel Rhodes (Eerdmans) $26.00 Do you recall the review I did of this earlier this fall? This isn’t about statecraft and government, as such, but it is about public life, about Christians whose faith motivated them to be involved in matters of civic life, public justice, social concerns. My, my, what a great book, created out of the “Project on Lived Theology” at University of Virginia. There are fabulous theologians and public leaders (Soong-Chan Rah, Daniel Rhodes, Becca Stevens, David Dark, and more) teaching us very much about Cesar Chavez, Howard Thurman, Dorothy Day, Mahalia Jackson, Richard Twiss, and others. This book is mature and thoughtful, profound, even. Can we work towards the transformation of American culture through better religious convictions? Can those with helpful beliefs be inspired to live them out in public life by learning about these others that did so in other places and times? Of course. This is a sturdy, serious book and could be shared with anyone who loves history, biographies, or wants to explore the depths of wholistic, radical faith. Highly recommended.
The Possibility of America: How the Gospel Can Mend our God-Blessed, God-Forsake Land David Dark (Westminster John Knox) $17.00 One of the most stimulating, thoughtful, remarkably-written, and provocative books I’ve read about the state of our times and the state of our union in these times is The Possibility of America: How the Gospel Can Mend our God-Blessed, God-Forsake Land written by my friend David Dark.
David is a lover of words, a lover of truth, a lover of what some call common grace – gladly thanking God for the signs of life that pop up in even a secularized culture, offered up even by those who seem not to be religious. (Ahh, there’s an interesting idea: is anybody really not religious? Don’t we all live by and for something? That’s the theme of Dark’s fabulous book called Life’s Too Short To Pretend You’re Not Religious [IVP; $18.00.] What a fascinating book!)
Discerning the signs of life or signals of transcendence in common grace gifts of popular culture is the theme of his only slightly dated first book Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, the Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons (Brazos; $20.00.) He has for many years been helping us understand how to understand the culture, how to see the good and the bad, the sacred and the profane. (Or, should I say, the sacred in the profane. And vice versa.)
In a way, this new one about America is a continuation of that project, finding how deeply wise and transformative insights show up in the best of our American dream, from our politics to our classic landscapes, our shaping documents to our best literature and song. I joked to somebody in the shop that he should have called this Everyday American Apocalypse.
The Possibility of America: How the Gospel Can Mend our God-Blessed, God-Forsake Land is actually a considerable re-working and expanded edition of his 2005 book, The Gospel According to America: A Meditation on a Christ-haunted, God-blessed Idea. It is, for those who are familiar with that stimulating, much-discussed book, different enough that it demanded a new title; it is not just a “revised” edition. There’s so much new content in The Possibility of America that it earned a new title; not only is there considerable re-working and new content, the overall tone is a bit different. Understandably.
It seems to me that the very title indicates a change in the panic level of professor Dark, mirroring the anxiety many of us feel in these contested, Trumpian times. It was a bit easier (not that much, really, for those paying attention, but a bit) to see “the gospel” within America a decade ago. As the subtitle of that first book put it, we were in a “Christ-haunted” land. Now, with a vain sex offender known for his rude impetuousness and shameless dishonesty in our highest office, supported loudly by religious leaders who take pictures of themselves with him with photos of Playboy on the nearby wall, who say firmly, as Jerry Falwell, Jr. did, that he does not take his political cues from Jesus, who have actually affirmed inhumane treatment of immigrant families — tearing children from their parents – we are in, shall we say, a different position then we were before. These are awful times for the US of A, and it seems that anyone in touch with the Bible and the current political ethos simply has to wish things were otherwise.
Enter David Dark, who once was a bit less outraged and a bit less consumed by the dark antics of our leaders, and who has deepened his long standing passion for Biblical justice and relating prophetic truth to current realities.
Relating faith to popular culture and current events, by the way, is not new to him. In a weighty introduction called “Notes on the New Seriousness” he talks nicely about his father, a father for whom “the Bible was always in the back of his mind.” He tells us:
In his lifelong enthusiasm for candor, fair play, and the well-chosen word, freewheeling Bible study as a space in which everything could be talked about (war, celebrity, R-rated films, a living wage) was among my father’s favorite jams. Karl Barth’s dictum concerning life lived with a Bible in one hand and The New York Times in the other was an imperative he took up with glee.
He continues on about lessons learn from his father in this regard; I’m sure many of us envy being raised by a parent who, “as a conversation partner, treated words with an amused affection and reverence… “ Who offered a vibe of “conscience and candor.”
Dark describes his father, a lawyer, as one who understood how we fool ourselves, how we can use our virtue signaling for power, how we “can create or undo the impression of order and control through our use of language.” (Did his father read Derrida, or maybe just Amos and Jeremiah?) Dark talks about “disturbing the fixed scripts of the powerful.” And that “reverence and obsession are to one another near allied.” “For better or worse,” David says, “I am a child of his obsessions.”
No wonder he wrote a fascinating, stimulating book a few years ago called The Sacredness of Questioning Everything (Zondervan; $15.99.) (I might add, although it doesn’t add much, that I am honored to have a back-cover blurb on that one, sharing endorsement space with the late Eugene Peterson, who notes that Dark finds Jesus in surprising places and “he is also a reliable lie detector. And there isn’t a dull sentence in the book.”)
Dark is not only obsessed with lie detecting, with principles and words and “of who said what and how generalizing statements hide specific atrocities.” He is also obsessed – although it seems to come naturally to him – to say things in creative ways, putting side by side words that are not often combined, phrases that raise the eyebrow, that sometimes are jarring, sometimes amusing. (His sneaky little dropping of pop culture allusions, lines from rap songs or phrases from criticism or novels may go unnoticed by most – how many such “Easter eggs” did I miss, I wonder?) Which is just to say he’s a good, colorful, playful, if at times intense writer.
For instance, in that same serious introduction he describes his role as a teacher as the common good of attempted truthfulness. The paragraph-long explication of that sacred space is nearly worth the price of the book. “It could be the most insanely presumptuous task undertaken by any member of our species,” he writes. “I actually attempt to help people with their own thinking.”
I sit in classrooms with women and men in prisons and college campuses, and, together, we make assertions, put questions to one another, tell stories, read poems aloud, and wonder of our own words. They write sentences, I write sentences next to their sentences. And we get a conversation going somehow. We attempt truthfulness together. For some students, I sometimes have the feeling that this might be the first time someone’s calmly and respectfully urged them to think twice.
And, teacher that he is, obsessed with weighing in, he writes, furiously at times, hoping to help us think twice. Perhaps we need to see more clearly the shape we’re in, in this “God-forsaken” land. Or, perhaps, perhaps, we need to see the “possibility.” This book is his love letter to us all, even if it is more troubled and troubling than his first go at it in The Gospel According to America more than a decade ago.
The Possibility of America, as you can tell from the title, is still not without hope. Dark believes in the resurrection of Jesus, after all, and he loves our land. He loves our land passionately, concretely, especially as many Southerners do. Although his writing is at times dense and loaded with metaphor and allusion, he is not, finally, an abstract writer. He’s a deep and colorful thinker, but his writing is full of specificity, of place and details, of vim and vigor, as we used to say, salt and vinegar, maybe even fire and brimstone. And empathy and love and the occasional dose of self-deprecation and honest humility. He speaks his mind, tells stories, explores American writers and singers and films, and helps us see what kind of deep patriotic wells we might draw from in order to become more Christ-like and more earnest in our civic lives. In this, he seems to be nearly a postmodern, 21st century Will Campbell. Campbell, you might know, was a wordsmithy himself, published a theological journal, was a bit cantankerous, a Southern Baptist preacher who was a civil rights activist (the only white person at the founding of the SCLC) and yet friends with several Klansman. (“Jesus died for bigots, too,” he famously said.) It comes as no surprise that Dark cites Campbell’s classic memoir Brother to a Dragonfly.
Did I mention he draws on great America literature? Oh my, he starts with James Baldwin, and June Jordon, a hefty sign of where this might be going. He quotes public intellectuals, from Lincoln to Thoreau, from Octavia Butler to Wendell Berry. He loves American lit, and explains Faulkner (a lot of Faulkner), Cormac McCarthy, Melville (and more Melville), Whitman, on to contemporaries Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Dick, Ursula Le Guin, and Toni Morrison, among others. Who else these days recalls the televised conversation about poetry (and the detached judgment of analysis) between howling Allen Ginsburg and mumbling straight-man William F. Buckley?
If you know David (or read his Everyday Apocalypse) you know he’s going to cite Bob Dylan, and he does. Alongside Patti Smith, Chance the Rapper, and the lovely young alt-folkie Julien Baker.
David is a very creative writer and some may find him an acquired taste. This is a grand compliment – I regularly say it about two authors I adore, Calvin Seerveld and Daniel Berrigan (and, I suppose, James Joyce, although I haven’t acquired a taste for that kind of weirdness, yet.) It is interesting that David is a student of (saying a “fan of” would trivialize the matter) the poet, priest, and prophet, the late Daniel Berrigan. He thinks like him, it seems to me; he sounds like him.
Berrigan (for those who weren’t taught it in school) was until his death last year a radical Catholic priest known for speaking truth to power by way of symbolic gestures of civil disobedience, disrupting state events, exposing the ludicrous idolatry of nuclear weapons (among other shameful atrocities, from torture to abortion to our neglect of the ill.) His poetry and Biblical commentary were held in great esteem among a rag-tag group of followers, many who joined him in non-violent civil disobedience and symbolic actions to dramatize the Bible’s call to repent from social injustice, such as throwing their blood on the pillars of the Pentagon, or chaining the doors shut of multi-national corporations profiteering from cluster bombs which knowingly target little children.
Importantly, they knew Martin Luther King and American resistors such as Howard Thurman and AJ Muste, were mentored by Thomas Merton, befriended by Dorothy Day. These are American icons that Dark is attuned to and to bring their witness into conversations with Faulkner and Stanley Kubric and Americana folk music and Star Trek and The Twilight Zone and rapper Kenrick Lamar is nearly genius; it’s a gumbo mix of high octane social theory, old school American literature, pop culture, and Biblical study yielding a prophetic public theology that could (please God!) lead us closer to Beloved Community.
FOR THOSE INTERESTED IN THEOLOGY
That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, & Universal Salvation David Bentley Hart (Yale University Press) $26.00 I may be one of the only half-way aware observers of contemporary theological conversations who doesn’t care much about this book, for whatever reason I can’t quite say, but for what it is worth, I can’t recall a bone fide book of serious academic theology that has been so hotly contested and greatly appreciated and widely reviewed. Hart is a good writer, except for when he’s showing off, drawing attention to his imposing vocabulary. HIs ideas are serious as you would expect from someone called “the most eminent living anglophone theologian” and his writing has been called “exacting” and “perspicuous.” The sensible, super smart Robert Louis Wilken says it is “original and lively.” Hart is Orthodox, used to write for First Things, and is discussed by the likes of John Milbank. Know anybody who wants to join the fun? We’re sitting on a small stack here.
The Cross Before Me: Reimagining the Way to the Good Life Rankin Wilbourne & Brian Gregor (Cook) $22.99 Although this is tackling a meaty and nearly un-utterable mystery — the Cross of Christ — it is a topic that is endlessly open to new insights and always vital. For the Apostle Paul, it seems the like “the cross” is shorthand for the saving work of Christ, his suffering, his atonement, his resurrection power, the cosmic scope in his redeeming work, and the reality of the church as a sign of the Kingdom coming. Whew. Can all of that — that is, the cross — help our life flourish? Help us find meaning and even joy? Does understanding more about salvation help us find the way to what Jesus called “the abundant life”? Wilbourne and Gregor think so, although, like Jesus and Paul, they define “glory” in an upside down way. This is not a self help book, let alone a guide to “success” but it helps redefine the good life “as we learn to delight in losing ourselves to embrace the life-giving weakness of the cross.”
Wilbourne’s previous book was Union with Christ. About it, Tim Keller said it was “simply the best book for laypeople on the subject.” John Ortberg weighed in about that one, saying:
I’m trying to remember the last time I was more excited about a new book or a new author.
Evangelicals: Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be edited by Mark Noll, David Begginton & George Marsden (Eerdmans) $29.99 I would very much like to review this in greater detail once I spend more time with the many interesting chapters by so many remarkable scholars. Allow me to say that it is the opinion of many who read advanced copies, and my own hunch, that this will be known as the definitive study of this lively and diverse and important sub-culture on the conservative end of the theological spectrum. That many of us identify as some sort of evangelical (in distinction from harsh and often not too cultural savvy fundamentalism on one hand and an often bland and unbiblical sort of theological liberalism on the other) makes this that much more important. (For a really readable and lively collection by a group of concerned evangelicals about whether or not that phrase is worth holding on to, re-captured from the far right political folks who use it, see Still Evangelical?: Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning edited a year ago by Mark Labberton (published by IVP; $16.00.) I gave it a good review at BookNotes last winter.)
So, the next level up for those reading in this field is surely this remarkable 325+ page anthology. Historian Grant Wacker (who wrote an important, recent biography of Billy Graham, by the way) says it may be the benchmark book. Heath Carter (reminding us that this debate has been around for decades and have intensified in the wake of Donald Trump’s election) says those looking to get their bearings in this bewildering topic should “start here” — in part because Evangelicals is a brand new book that “sheds welcome light on a subject that too often generates only heat.” Join voices younger and older, from various social locations, each different sorts of Christian scholars with affection for the term, evangelical, but as diverse as Kristin Du Mez and D.G. Hart, Timothy Keller and Amanda Porterfield, Jemar Tisby and Molly Worthen, Thomas Kidd and Mark Noll, and more.
Engaging the World with Abraham Kuyper Michael Wagenman (Lexham) $12.99 Readers of our BookNotes newsletter may have noticed that we often recommend authors who are somehow connected to the heritage of the fascinating, unstoppable, pious leader of a cultural renewal in Holland at the turn of the 20th century, Abraham Kuyper. We’ve highlighted books that explain the broadest Kuyperian tradition (Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition by Craig Bartholomew is magisterial) and Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction by RichMouw that offers a great, but brief introduction to the robust thinker, leader, who eventually became Prime Minister. We’ve offered collections of articles about Kuyper and, of course James Bratt’s definitive biography published by Eerdmans, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat .
But yet, I’ve wished for an even more basic book that highlights just a bit about the man and his theology, and a bit about the unique Kuyperian approach to culture and renewed social spheres. How might his thought guide us today — especially if we are disillusioned (or, as a matter of principle, opposed) to the first principles of the so called left and right? That is, if we are wanting to be somehow uniquely loyal to Christ in our civic lives, what insights might Kuyper bring us. This little book offers just that sort os exploration of what Kuyper meant (and what we might learn from) by insisting that Christ is Lord over “every square inch” of his beloved creation. Engaging the World with Abraham Kuyper illustrates nicely just why so many folks are learning to appreciate this “neither left nor right” alternative approach and are yearning to explore fresh ways the gospel can permeate all aspects of society.
Live the Questions: How Searching Shapes Our Convictions and Commitments Jeffrey F. Keuss (IVP) $17.00 Admittedly, this isn’t precisely theology. It’s not academic or scholarly, But the author teaches undergrads in Christian ministry, theology, and culture at Seattle Pacific University, so I wanted to list it here. I read a book years ago that Keuss wrote about pop music (Your Neighbor’s Hymnal) and know he’s a good writer and a creative thinker. I am very, very impressed with this vital book about questions in Scripture.
I suspect you know folks who want to be more thoughtful in their faith and they may call this “theology” when it is just fairly normal thoughtfulness, nurturing an informed and self-aware worldview. Call it what you want, Live the Questions is raising great (theology-like) questions and inviting us — using the famous Rilke quote — to not just sit around pondering big questions, but to live into them, to experience the struggle and pain as well as the goodness and joy of discovery. Lively Biblical faith is not about settling on tired certainties, anyway, but (as a review of it by Walter Brueggemann put it) “on ongoing, deep, and unflinching travel into deeper wonderment and open-ended trust.” Now there’s a theological claim, eh?
Tod Bolsinger (a bone fide theologian) says of Live the Questions,
If you are ready for a more authentic faith and a more meaningful life, then Professor Keuss is the right guide and his good is a good tool.
Give Live the Questions: How Searching Shapes Our Convictions and Commitments to anyone who is open to delving deeper, who wants to learn to ask better questions about ourselves, about God, and our world. As the author himself says:
Life is best shaped by good practices that build good habits for human flourishing, and asking good questions is one such habit, one that’s often overlooked.’
There are eight key chapters, each exploring a certain sort of question — about identity, about shame, about justice and evil, about loss, about community, and more. The author has been a mentor to many college age students and many older adults esteem him greatly. For instance, the evangelical elder statesman John Perkins writes:
Over the years, I have had so many questions of God. How long will injustice go on? Where is God in our pain? But my friend Jeff Keuss says that we make our spiritual journey through wrestling with the questions, not just getting easy answers. This book will help you live the questions. If you ask good questions on your knees in prayer listening to God, then God will speak to you. And within his body of the church, together we can transform the world.”
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