Because this is long, be sure to scroll down and read the whole thing. If your email or device crimps it, you may have to click “read more” to see it all, ending with the sale reminder (20% off) and order form link at the very bottom.
Earlier in the week I wrote, to begin PART ONE of this big list of favorite reads of 2019, “Between stupid Winter illnesses and out-of-store events and brand new or forthcoming books to read, our annual custom of announcing Hearts & Minds Best Books of the Year as been late in coming.”
That’s putting it mildly. Don’t ask what tied me up this week, but, for the record, this is slow, hard work, creating a list like this. I fret about What You Will Think and since our living depends on you sending us orders, I’m always tempted to pull my punches, as they say. I don’t even know what it means to literally pull a punch, and I can’t use the less violent metaphor of not showing my hand, because, well, friends, that’s exactly what I’m doing here, showing my hand, or at least some of the books I held in my hands this year. Few punches pulled, most of my cards on the table.
Here is PART TWO of the Hearts & Minds list of my favorite books, or books I felt I should honor, good titles or decent authors who contributed to making 2019 a good one for us and for book buyers and readers of all sorts. Thanks for caring about our work at Hearts & Minds and honoring us by reading this long, long epistle. Spread the word and send us some orders, please. Just use the link to the order form page at the end of the column. Happy reading!
Reminder: we show the regular retail price but will deduct our 20% OFF BookNotes discount when you place an order. Our order form page (see the bottom of the column) is certified secure.
A VITAL AND CONTEMPORARY STUDY OF SAINT AUGUSTINE – AND ONE OF THE VERY BEST BOOKS OF 2019
On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts James K.A. Smith (Brazos Press) $24.99 I will not belabor this, but refer you to my rave review which I wrote before the book came out in October. We pushed it at BookNotes as a pre-order and it became one of the top sellers for Hearts & Minds this year. And we are glad about that.
I suppose you know that I have often said Smith’s You Are What You Love was the Book of the Decade, which I announced several years ago. That book is a delightful, accessible, transformational book which in some ways summarizes the more substantial trilogy of volumes in what is called his “Cultural Liturgy” project. Those three are, in order, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, and Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology. That Jamie was working on an introduction to the deep Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor (How (Not) To Be Secular) and editing Comment magazine during the writing of those three big ones, and the summarizing You Are What You Love is remarkable. Oh and don’t forge — in those same years he released and we have promoted a lovely collection of shorter essays called Discipleship in the Present Tense: Reflections on Faith and Culture which gives further insight into where this remarkable college professor is coming from and where his “all of life redeemed”-neo-Kuyperian-worldview stuff is going.
Yes, yes, you should read all of these volumes – some of the most generative (and in some of our circles) the most discussed books of recent years. It is a bit surprising that he has become such a widely admire author and presenter, but it’s true. You really should know his stuff.
Jamie was a kid of a working class family who married young and was vibrantly Pentecostal. He eventually studied Dutch neo-Calvinism (and the philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd) at Toronto’s Institute for Christian Studies where he worked with scholars such as James Olthius, Al Wolters, Henk Hart, Calvin Seerveld, Brian Walsh, and others who have been important in my own life. And now he says what Wolters (and James Skillen, mentioned above) have all said: the all of life redeemed and “every square inch of creation” regained theological perspective of relevant Reformation teaching goes back to Augustine, the African bishop from the 3rd century. This On the Road with Augustine is a book bringing Saint Gus into the post-modern era that Smith was born to write. It brings together so much of what he’s worked on in a marvelously readable manner. It is doubtlessly one of the most important books of 2019 and certainly one of my favorites.
You can read many reviews of it on various on-line sites and see several good videos of the author describing it; you can see how I enticed people to order it in my own BookNotes remarks about it, HERE. But just know this: Augustine, like many in the late 20th century (most notably, Jack Kerouac, author the iconic ‘60s road trip book On the Road) thought that moving on would be the way to construe one’s new identity; to find oneself as we used to say. This is actually troubling in many ways (see Mark Sayer’s under-appreciated little book called The Road Trip That Changed the World: The Unlikely Theory That Will Change How You View Culture, the Church, And, Most Importantly, Yourself) and it is important to understand. Believe it or not, Smith is helping us understand this ethos by comparing it to Saint Augustine’s own travelogue and memoir about finding himself, published in serialized form between 397 and into 400 AD
Augustine, before his famous conversion, found himself in that same space—no-place but moving on, heading to various cities and jobs and hopes and dreams in Italy. He becomes, in Smith’s amazing prose and incredibly insightful observations and analysis, a hip 21st century social entrepreneur, an artist, a world-changer and culture maker, all the stuff so many energetic young adults today are yearning to become. But yet, can we truly find and sustain a lasting identity in these grandiose schemes? Will we always be restless tying this and that? Will we ever learn to live well, be wise, grow up?
I cried for myself as an old guy, and for my grown kids, and for my friend’s adult kids, and for Jamie’s kids as he wrote with such empathy about what it is like coming of age in this secular age, in these confusing times. And I rejoiced in how he used the life and teaching of this memorable church leader from centuries ago to illuminate our calling to be in friendship, to relate to mothers and fathers, to find work, to learn to protest, to be an intentional character in our own (God’s?) story. He has a chapter on freedom, a chapter on ambition, a chapter on sex. My, my, how he turns this “refugee spirituality” of Augustine into a contemporary guide on the quest to find (truly) yourself.
“Everybody’s got a restless heart,” Springsteen sings. Baby, we’re Born to Run. Jamie gets this. Saint Augustine gets this. And the God of the church Augustine helped to form is the One who call us home, to stop our striving, to be at rest.
To help us figure it out, this tension between our longing and love for escape and our need and desire to be at rest, Smith and his beloved wife head off on a journey following some of the footsteps of Augustine. They go on the road, literally, with Saint Augustine, so to speak, so they can report back and help us along our (restless) way. Much of this was written literally in places like Milan and Rome. He tells of Augustine’s best friends and much about his mother, Monica. (Smith’s vulnerable telling of his own sense of fatherlessness is remarkable in a chapter about Augustine’s absent father.)
There are some fabulously (and surprising) full color-art plates included, pictures of architecture and paintings and renderings they saw on their trip which become important to the story. What a multi-faceted, learned scholar Smith is, and what a helpful travel companion. What a philosopher he is, but what a friend. This book, like many of his others, is filled with stories of history and philosophy and theology and culture, but it is down to Earth and (as far as a philosopher writing about Camus and Cicero and Augustine and Sartre can be, explaining stuff about existentialism and modernist ennui and how those thinkers have been influential in the air we breath, whether we know it or not.)
On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real World Spirituality for Restless Hearts is accessible for most educated readers. Many good friends loved it and have encouraged me to tell others how great it is. I highly, highly recommend it. It is one of the very top books of 2019.
A GREAT REMINDER OF THE GOODNESS OF CREATION (AND THE GOODNESS OF GOD)
The Soul of Wine: Savoring the Goodness of God Gisela H. Kreglinger (IVP) $16.00 I’m not sure when I first read the poem “As Once The Winged Energy Of Delight” by Rainier Maria Rilke but I recall having it commended to us for meditation at, of all things, a Faith & Work conference at Redeemer PCA Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. I needn’t rehearse it here but it came to mind as I was reading the truly lovely little book by wine-maker theologian, Gisela Kreglinger. Rilke writes about wonder and awe, and although I doubt this is what he was thinking when inviting us to this poem, I remember the line “To work with Things in the indescribable relationship is not too hard for us” and a bit about how “the pattern grows more intricate and subtle.” Upon looking it up, I was astonished by the line that says to “Take your practiced powers and stretch them out” and thought that this is exactly what this book gives us an opportunity to watch, a craftsperson (a winemaker, in this case) taking her practiced powers, watching the patterns in intricate and subtle ways as she “works with Things” before God.
Okay, maybe I’m stretching. But the Bible teaches a sturdy and robust doctrine of creation — see some of the recent essays in the wonderful Creation and Doxology: The Beginning and End of God’s Good World edited by Todd Wilson (IVP Academic; $25.00) or Everyday Glory: The Revelation of God in All of Reality by Gerald McDermott (Baker Academic; $22.99) or the small but potent Theology of the Ordinary by Julie Canlis (Godspeed Press; $12.99) so working with the stuff of creation (indeed, allowing it to speak to us a la Psalm 19:1-4 or Job 12:8) is exactly what being human is all about. We are made in the image of a creator God and God places Adam and Eve in the garden. It is our culture-making vocation and task (to use Andy Crouch’s phrase from his book Culture Making) to make something of the raw stuff of creation. We “exercise dominion” by stewarding well the potential and possibilities of the wonderful stuff God has graciously put into the creation. We are to cultivate — eggs into omelettes, so to speak, and make something for the common good. It is the theological accounting for art and science, families and schools, businesses and governments, parties and rituals, policies and programs. And wine.
Ms Kreglinger gave a lovely account of her life as a girl growing up in a Lutheran home and vineyard, working in the winery, and realizing that God cared about it all especially when she realized that her own families grapes were used in the parish communion wine. Her discussion of a theology of wine and winemaking was solid and thorough in the much-acclaimed The Spirituality of Wine (Eerdmans; $24.00) I told folks about it gladly, as it was one of the one such books we knew about. When I heard this was coming out I wondered what else she could possibly say, and why we needed another book on a Christian view of wine.
And oh my, how glad I am for The Soul of Wine which helps us not just understand her theology and approach to wine (it’s lavish glory, its use, its abuse and more) as explained in that first big book, but this invites us to truly experience wine’s blessedness. And to explore precisely what the subtitle says — by savoring the goodness of creation and come to know something about the goodness of God. As singer-songwriter Sandra McCracken says on the back cover of it, The Soul of Wine “invites us to experience the abundance of God.”
I cannot here tell you all that this little book explores, but it is more than just a guide to the fermented fruit of the vine, although it does delightfully explain a lot that I enjoyed reading about. (And, by the way, a few important wine importers, a trained sommelier, and the author of the respected Wine Bible have all weighed in on this very informative resource. It even has a book discussion guide and a wine tasting guide making it ideal for small groups wanting to learn a bit about the nuances of this world-famous, ancient, complex beverage.) But there is more going on. She calls us to “convivial celebrations” and to learn about joy. She even has a small bit about sex, which, again, is pointing us in the direction of being attentive to the glory of our creaturliness, and the goodness of how God made the world to work. Her chapter called “making peace with wine and food” is wise and good.
Leave it to Andy Crouch to help us appreciate why this book deserves to be on our list of notable titles this season. Listen to what Andy writes:
I read The Soul of Wine with increasing delight and ever deeper emotion. This book offers wisdom not just about wine, but about our souls as well―about the joy, grief, and beauty that shape all of our stories, and that are so intertwined with the making of wine. It will help me drink more slowly and more meaningfully not just from my next glass of wine, but from life itself.
Isn’t that a beautiful comment about a book? Yes and Amen.
I like this observation, too, well-spoken by Kendall Vanderslice, who wrote the fabulous We Will Feast: Rethinking Dinner, Worship, and the Community of God, who says:
Kreglinger dispels the myth that wine appreciation requires a distinguished palate or an elite vocabulary. Rather she presents wine as a simple gift from God that, when stewarded well, offers a glimpse of creation as it is meant to be.
TWO GREAT BOOKS EXPLORING OUR SENSE OF PLACE AND BELONGING
Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much Ashley Hales (IVP) $16.00 I almost listed this in the last post in our category of spiritual formation; Holy in the Suburbs is, indeed, about the shape of our faith, the call to holiness, the formation of our discipleship. I could have gone there.
Alas, despite the part of the subtitle about “living faithfully” I think one of the great contributions of this book to said faithfulness is found in the insights this author has about the concrete details of our built environment and the habits and customs (and values and dispositions) that flow from them. I raved about the deep and profound literary study (in our last BookNotes) called The Absent Hand which offers a detailed rumination on landscapes – natural and human-built – that is full of gravitas and philosophy. Hales isn’t a literary critic or professional analyst; she strikes me more as a soccer mom. That is, she is fairly ordinary, a smart suburbanite who is astute enough to realize that studying the mores of one’s place and the habitats thereof really is an important prophetic task. To “understand the times and know what God’s people should do” (from 1 Chronicles 12:32) isn’t just a call to a big-picture sense of the zeitgeist, but, also, a study of the daily details beneath our feet.
I nearly raved about this book when it first came out and I suggested to many, and here at BookNotes, that it was the best Christian study yet of the phenomenon of suburbia. Plus, it is gloriously written, making it a wonderful read. It was one of my favorite books of 2019 and, I believe, one of the most under appreciated. So many church folks could benefit from this deeper (and eloquent) dive into learning the deeper things that arise (spiritually and theologically) as we discern the times and places of our homes and cul-de-sacs and Pinterest-documented days of commutes and shopping and entertaining. I was going to say cue Joni Mitchell’s album The Hissing of Summer Lawns but Finding Holy in the Suburbs is not at all cynical. No matter where you live, think you will enjoy it and appreciate it.
Here is the Table of Contents as Ms Hales takes us into “A Story to Find Home in the Geography of Nowhere.” Some chapter titles are nicely allusive, but it gives you a nice glimpse into what will await you or your group if you take this one up. There are discussions questions, too, so it’s perfect for a book club or Sunday school class or book club.
- Worshiping Granite Countertops: Consumerism
- When Your Worth Is Measured in Square Footage: Individualism
- Circling the Suburbs in My Minivan: Busyness
- Beyond the Gated Community: Safety
- Where the Sidewalk Ends: Repentance
- You’re Not a Barbie, You Belong: Belovedness
- This Isn’t Pinterest-Worthy Entertaining: Hospitality
- Open Hearts and Open Hands: Generosity
- The Opportunity of Cul-de-sacs: Vulnerability
- Paper Birds and Human Flourishing: Shalom
Not from Around Here: What Unites Us, What Divides Us, and How We Can Move Forward Brandon J. O’Brien (Moody Publishers) $13.99 I can’t say enough about this little book and am excited to once again remind you of it and to honor it was one of the very good books of this past year. I think any time Brandon O’Brien does a book, it is worthy of celebration as he is a really fine writer and wise practitioner of church leadership. (He is working with Tim Keller in New York City now, even though he has served small churches and wrote the quite useful Strategically Small Church.) He co-authored the spectacular Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible and, in another curious bit of expertise, wrote in 2018 Demanding Liberty: An Untold Story of American Religious Freedom which is a very impressive study of a colonial era, Connecticut pastor and leader, Isaac Backus, who wrote and contended for freedom of conscience and religious liberty in a culture that seemed to be heading either towards theocracy or secularism. Backus had a “third way” and it is clear that O’Brien gets the significance of this older wisdom.
Not from Around Here is a fun, easy-to-digest book that seems to combine these various interests of O’Brien: it is about the increasing divide in our polarized times between urban and rural worldviews. Yes, he is convinced that what another author calls “the big sort” is a real thing – we are dividing ourselves in part by our sensibilities and inclinations that are shaped by our tending to be small town or big city. (Ahhh, and what does me make of the aforementioned suburbs? You’ll have to read Not From Around Here yourself to see that bit.)
O’Brien grew up in rural Arkansas and has worked in small town churches, served in the quintessential suburbs of Chicago, and, as I noted, and he now is working in the global City-to-City urban church planting organization. And he has written about public civility, pluralism, tribalism and the blind spots of race and culture (in the misreading the Bible book), public life and citizenship (in the Backus book.) I don’t know if any other reviewers have noted this, but this new book really is bringing together much of his expertise. He’s a scholar of these things, but in this book, he is offering helpful cultural discernment and practical guidance for faithful “salt of the Earth” discipleship. If we are to be leaven in the loaf, we have to know something about how the loaf works and what kind of yeasty influence we can be. He helps us understand a major (and not adequately recognized) feature of our time. Again, namely, how we are self-selecting ourselves into tribes and sorting ourselves by preference and seeing others as the “bad guys” – the troubling influences of the culture.
You know how this works – urban and seemingly sophisticated higher-brow people blame the rednecks, flyover country, the bumpkins. Those “deplorables” of the rural sort, despise the “elites.” (I would say, although O’Brien doesn’t get into it, that this hatred is so strong that this is why many are willing to put up with the arrogance and weirdness of Donald Trump who claims to know so much about so much, when, in fact, he doesn’t read or study or have competence to lead with wisdom in any field. But they love him!)
O’Brien is a Christian pastor and historian and is working here more like a prophetic sociologist, a son of Issachar, helping us understand this feature of our times. Some of it is funny – he has amusing stories and great illustrations to realize how even how we think about the faith and our discipleship.
And, perhaps a bit counter-intuitive to my description here (forgive me) he also notes that “tidy categories may suit the media, but people are more complex up close.”
Listen to what it says on the back cover (which I cited in my earlier BookNotes review.) I love this:
News outlets, historians, and sociologists can (and do) tell us all about the statistics, but they don’t (and can’t) tell us about what it’s really like in a given place–how the squish of creek water between your toes or the crunch of autumn leaves on a city sidewalk shape your sense of normal and good and right. To understand that–to understand the people in the places–we need stories. We need to listen, get to know the nuance of people, and have empathy for their way of seeing things.
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. With the knack of a natural storyteller he shares what he learned about himself, faith, and the people who make up America on his own journey through it.
A LONG AWAITED SEQUEL by AWARD-WORTHY OS GUINNESS
Carpe Diem Redeemed: Seizing the Day, Discerning the Times Os Guinness (IVP) $20.00 You may know that I have said often that The Call: Purpose is one of my all time favorite books. There are chapters I have used in teaching and speaking and there are lines I’ve quoted, over and over. It’s eloquence, insight, and powerfully-rooted theological vision of God’s call to us all to serve the King everywhere and in everything offers a foundation and dynamism for anyone seeking purpose, meaning, a sense of vocation, and a direction to their seeking. Os is a pious and Godly man, a good thinker with an undergrad degree in philosophy from Oxford (and a PhD on the work of sociologist Peter Berger.) He travels and speaks and consults internationally and is a true global citizen; born in China, educated in Great Britain, Irish by descent, and living in the US (whose Founder’s ideas and ideals he would die for) Os is a friend to many and a much respected servant of the church. He sometimes says his own calling is to help explain the world to the church and to help explain the gospel to the cultured leaders of the world. He does so with integrity and considerable eloquence. His many books should be on your bookshelf.
Carpe Diem Redeemed came out in 2019 so it is obviously one I must name and that I want to honor. It isn’t simple, though, to explain, as it seems to have a complex thesis.
As I explained when I celebrated it earlier at BookNotes, Carpe Diem Redeemed insists that if we are to “seize the day” and make something of our lives, we as followers of Jesus must not merely mimic the way the world things about seizing the day. We aren’t Romantics wanting to merely tear pages out of the books and do our own things (as memorable as the famous Whtiman-esque scene citing O Captain My Captain in Dead Poets Society. We have to, as Guinness often says, “think it through.”
As we think it through, Biblically, Christianly, one of the big questions that face anyone wanting to make the most of their time is this: what is time? What time is it? How do we “discern the times?” And so, to “redeem” our quest to seize the day, we simply must be attentive to what it means to be timely.
Guinness is asking perennial questions, and, curiously, he is one of the few asking such things these days. He wants us to be relevant and faithful in our day – of course! But we dare not be so “relevant” that we risk being irrelevant because, well, we’ve failed to develop what he calls a “prophetic untimeliness.”
Os cites so many remarkable writers who have spoken good lines about time. (The first several pages are nothing but citations from all sorts of philosophers, poets, comedians, novelists, and business leaders and that is almost worth the price of the book for these collected quips and quotes.)
For instance, the poet Octavio Paz (in The Light of India) has said,
I believe that the reformation of our civilization must begin with a reflection on time.
Years ago Guinness had a little book worked with the old adage warning that “whoever sups with the devil should have a very long spoon.” (That book, Dining with the Devil had the subtitle “the mega-church flirts with modernity” and warned about our over-reliance or technology and marketing and data, becoming successful not by reliance on the gospel but by manipulation and efficiency. And so, we use, but must hold at some distance the forces and trends and artifacts of our fast-paced, technolopy culture.
And that is how best to redeem our quest to live out our callings, to find purpose and meaning, to make the most of things: by discerning the times, and being what some call intentional. We are not to merely be energetic entrepreneurs and eager culture makers making whatever we want in whatever way we want, but we are called to be salt and light and leaven, doing our best to serve God’s purposes with the gifts and talents and capacities God has given us, the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way. We are to be in but not of the world, after all. Even our view of time must be, somehow, counter-cultural. We must resist, as Os says in the second chapter, the hot-wired ethos of “Survival of the Fastest.”
I want to nominated Carpe Diem Redeemed as one of the most badly needed and perhaps least likely to be heeded books of our time. It is notable, well-crafted, thoughtful, rich, and learned. Is he fully right about every detail? Do the words inspire with vision and joy as they so famously did in The Call. Perhaps not. But it is certainly one of the best books of 2019, and we commend it for your consideration.
AN AWARD WINNING AUTHOR BRINGS HIS HOT DISCERNMENT OF THE TIMES TO OUR MILLENNIUM WITH BOTH BAD AND GOOD
Rings of Fire: Walking in Faith Through a Volcanic Future Leonard Sweet (NavPress) $17.99 Okay, this isn’t the thickest book I’ve lugged around this year – that would be Figuring by Maria Popova of the Brain Pickings blog fam a book about science and art that Len Sweet would like, I’m sure. But Rings of Fire was one of the thickest that isn’t designed for scholars or textbooks. And it reads like a dream, as you zoom through pages and pages of facts and data and theories and explanations. As I might have exclaimed in our first BookNotes review of this (which came out in November) – Len is back! This is the most invigorating, learned, stimulating, frustrating, upbeat, prophetic, weird and wonderful tome he has done since his late 1990s Soul Tsunami.
Sweet is my favorite trend-meister and futurologist, although as a historian, he looks both back and forwards. And his day job – when he’s not reading widely and writing books about how the church can face the future with grace and truth and style and guts –is mentoring students who study this stuff. He is legendary as a communicator and as a mentor and teacher. He loves equipping young, rising pastors and church leaders to not just be away of the ethos of the times and the trends of the future, but to enter into the habits and dispositions of those who see stuff in society and know what to make of it. He was one of the first church leaders that told us that the wave of technology would make TV more interactive. Soon, you could “vote people of the island” and shows the The Voice became a New Thing. He called it EPIC (experiential, participatory, image-based, and communal) and in books like Aquachurch and SoulSalsa and Carpe Manana and The Gospel According to Starbucks he gave advice for how churches can understand the times and perhaps embody a more faithful style – a playful dance, he’d say, rather than “working at it” – of cultural engagement.
He’s done a dozen or more other books lately, many which are quite nice. (From Tablets to Tables is just out in paperback, which is a nice corrective of his fascination with the digital, reminding us that real food and real friends with real stories is important. Len has talked about community and artifacts and analogue and being green for as long as he has been writing, making him a bit of a contradiction at first glance. He’s a futurist who loves the 1800s and a postmodernist who calls us to sit down and eat meals together.
Like him or not, Leonard Sweet is one of the North American churches most lively and prolific and punchy evangelical voices and you should know his work. Especially his big work where his broad knowledge and deep footnoting really shines. Rings of Fire is a spectacular, major release where he explores in sweeping fashion a half a dozen “hot zones” and about a dozen “hot topics” which should call forth a “hot church” equipped to walk through fire in this volcanic culture. Rings of Fire: Walking in Faith Through a Volcanic Future and deserves to be highlighted as a notable book of 2019.
THE BOOK SOME OF US HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR FOR DECADES
If Jesus is Lord: Loving Our Enemies in an Age of Violence Ronald J. Sider (Baker Academic) $24.99 I have often said that I got the bug of book reviewing when Sojourners magazine paid me $30 to do a short review of a book that was one of the best books I read in the late 1970s, Ron Sider’s Christ and Violence. I’m sure today I’d have other things to say about it, but I must even now say it is a compelling and important book. Sider, as you may know, was known for the seminal (and still in print and still very highly recommended) Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. His evangelical bone fides are impeccable; his commitment to standard gospel theology and Christ-centered Bible reading is second to none. He loves church history, takes a fair-minded view of reading widely and listening to his critics, and believes in forging a vision where faith is decisive in people’s lives and behaviors because Jesus is Lord. As an Anabaptist – that faith tradition made up of the likes of Mennonites and Brethren – he believes in the local church as essential, simple living, service to others, and, yep, Jesus-commanded non-violence. For this Christ-centered set of denominations, being in the military is considered sinful.
That Ron is a (gracious) Christian pacifist is vital to know about him, and that he wants to be consistent on that Godly sort of love for all, means he has been known for being “consistently pro-life.” He opposes killing the elderly, the prisoners, the enemies, endangered species, and, yes, the unborn. There are precious few who care about both the unborn in the womb and the enemy on the battlefield; he favors helping those in crisis pregnancies and keeping the poor from starving; he speaks about against those who would take away medical care for the sick and he speaks out against torture and pollution and sexism; he laments broken families and encourages both charity and justice in our ministry among the needy and hurting. Sider (now retired professor from Palmer Theological Seminary and founder of Evangelicals for Social Action) deserves our respect for his own efforts to be Biblically obedient, Christ-honoring, and ethically consistent.
Some liberals don’t appreciate his standard evangelical ethics about sex and the dignity of unborn life and many conservatives hate that he critiques unregulated capitalism and the military industrial complex and preaches about God’s love for creation and against pollution and racism. And war, all war.
As Stanley Hauerwas writes in the powerful preface to this powerful recent book, “Ron Sider has always defied categories.” When one is mocked by both sides, it seems one might be worth listening to.
I agree with Walter Brueggemann who has said “our long-term debt to Sider is deep and beyond calculation.” Amen to that.
And so, If Jesus is Lord, published by Baker Academic in July of 2019, didn’t get much publicity or acclaim when it came out, but I believe it is one of the most important books of the year, if not of the decade. It is, in a way, one of Ron’s great legacies, a life’s-work, a magnum opus.
One of the great insights in the little Christ and Violence that deepened my own pacifist commitments so many decades ago was how Sider rooted Biblical nonviolence not merely in Jesus’s own direct commands to love enemies or the Pauline injunction to do good to enemies (although that should be enough) but more; something theologically deeper: he underscores how non-violent, indeed, self-suffering love for others, is at the very heart of the gospel. Jesus took on the evil of the world on the cross and while we were yet God’s enemies he allowed us to kill him (Romans 5:10), thereby saving the world. God’s own work of reconciliation as seen in the atoning work of the cross reveals most of what we need to know about the attributes of God. The holy God of the Bible uses a towel and basin, a cross and a crown of thorns, to extend mercy to his own enemies; it is God’s preferred method. We are called to be agents of that same message and method of reconciliation. Yes, Jesus said, “blessed are the peacemakers.” Yes, he said to love even our enemies. But the sturdy ethics from Sider emerge from something even more profound: his view is rooted in the very character of God who shows us how the universe really works when He is King: the cross reveals it all.
And so, that theme was pivotal for me, and it emerges agin in this book – rooting the new call to peacemaking not just in the prophets saying to beat swords into ploughshares or Jesus’s command to love enemies or Paul’s call to do good to those who persecute us or even Peter’s direct reminder that Jesus left us an example in the garden when he didn’t fight back, but in the atonement, in the cross, in the gracious goodness of the Triune God’s forgiveness.
And many of us have been waiting for decades to have Ron flesh it out in a systematic, Biblical way. To connect his anti-war and anti-violence work for reconciliation in the Lordship of Jesus Christ, Servant King of an Upside Kingdom.
Sider has been making major contributions to an evangelical sort of nonviolent activism consistently over many decades. (He has also, by the way, written on living simply, on evangelism, on consistently Biblical faithfulness, or service to the poor; he edited a volume of diverse views on economics, and wrote a fantastic book called Just Politics on citizenship and politics.)
In 1982 he co-wrote a major work on being faithful in the nuclear age that offered Biblical foundation for many of those of us involved in the nuclear freeze and disarmament movement. He did a book on being consistently pro-life. In recent years he invited us to learn about how nonviolent direct action might work (and that since the just war theory has always said that violence must be a last resort, he called on more traditional just war theorist to consider tying these other peaceful methods before blessing wars too quickly. Just war advocate Richard Mouw wrote a good foreword to that conceding that Sider was making a very good point.) A few years ago he wrote Nonviolent Action, a book – loved by some and contested by others – insisting that the early church condemned all killing. (See his The Early Church on Killing which shows that early followers of Jesus did not join the military and disapproved of abortion as it was practiced in those Greo-Roman centuries.)
But now, finally, in the Year of our Lord 2019, Ron Sider has written this 240-page book, replete with footnotes and scholarly citations, making his comprehensive case for the Biblical call to evangelical nonviolence. It is not the only book to read on Christian peacemaking or Biblical nonviolence. But it is the definitive work by Dr. Sider and certainly one of the great contributions to this topic in our lifetime.
Gabriel Siguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition has said it is “the most insightful and persuasive treatise for Christian peacemaking” and Scot McKnight says “I have been reading Sider for forty years and this is his best case yet.” Jim Wallis says of Sider’s explication, “for both individuals and society, it is one of the strongest I have seen.”
Miroslav Volf says about Sider’s claim that Jesus taught his followers that we ought not to kill that, after reading this “you will be able to reject this claim as unworkable in the real world, but you will not be able to dispute it. A compelling and challenging volume.”
If Jesus Is Lord: Loving Our Enemies is serious, but readable, hefty, but not tedious or over-done. It looks at the Bible, of course, and church history and theology and culture and politics. Through it all, though, it has this mood, this earnest love for God who is revealed in the person of Jesus. In fact, one reader said “No one tackles the tough issues like Ron Sider. This book helped me draw closer to Jesus.”
Well, lots of others tackle tough issues. But few do so with as much plain devotion to the Bible and to the person of Jesus. For that you simply must be grateful. Finally agree or not with the call to resist all war as worldly and sinful or not, this studious book will help you focus on the Scriptures and the age-old creedal affirmation that Jesus is Lord. Any book that helps us with that with as much vigor and determination as this one does deserves all sorts of awards.
If Jesus is Lord: Loving Our Enemies in an Age of Violence is a gift to the church, a call to faithfulness, and a very, very, important volume. Highly recommended.
FAVORITE MEMOIRS READ THIS YEAR
Some of you know this is one of my favorite genres, and it seems Beth and I always have a memoir or two on the bed stand. Some of these stories are so wild and well-written they are more fun than novels! (And, occasionally, I find myself saying that if a novelist tried to pull this off, we’d think it was implausible. Truth actually is, sometimes, stranger than fiction.) And so, a few of the favorite autobiographies that I read this year.
Consumed by Hate, Redeemed by Love: How a Violent Klansman Became a Champion of Racial Reconciliation Thomas A. Tarrants (Thomas Nelson) $24.99 I hope you recall our earlier comments about this as it is an edge-of-your-seat sort of page-turner, nominated for “best book” from the ECPA this year. (Those announcements will be made later this year.) We have had the pleasure of knowing Tom Tarrants and, to be honest, can hardly believe this vividly told story.
Consumed by Hate tells about Tom’s evil involvement, in the 1960s, with the KKK and worse. He went to jail for terrorism as he attempted to bomb the home of Jewish folks; his partner in crime died in the police shootout and he himself was very seriously wounded. The backstory of his ideological commitments – what today we might call the alt-right – is told plainly and one is still left pondering how someone gets to radicalized. Still the story moves on and the following chapters are even more dramatic!
Tarrants remarkably escaped from prison and was later apprehended (he was on the infamous FBI “Most Wanted” list.) While in prison (again) he became, slowly but surely, a transformed man, converted by Christ to the ways of the Lord Jesus. This is amazing stuff about amazing grace and left me in tears.
Through Prison Fellowship and other strategic leaders investing in him as a growing Christian prisoner, he was miraculously pardoned by the governor of the state and eventually released. Tom continued to study and minister to others as he took up the call to Christian ministry – co-pastoring a bi-racial, urban church, no less! Years later, the well-educated and utterly transformed Tarrants became the director of the C.S. Lewis Institute in Washington DC.
My prosaic and bare-bones outline doesn’t do justice to the suspense and power of this remarkable story as told in Consumed by Hate, Redeemed By Love. When authors as gifted as John Grisham rave about it, as he has, you know it’s good. This was one of those books I read this year almost in one long sitting – I couldn’t put it down! Thank God for the mercy of Jesus, and thank God for the conversion of this woefully misguided, truly awful person, redeemed and transformed by love. He has done good work in the subsequent years and it was hard for him to tell this story. We’re glad he did.
Furnishing Eternity: A Father, a Son, a Coffin, and a Measure of Life David Giffels (Scribner) $16.00 Again, I’m listing this as a 2019 release because it came out in paperback this year. I had written a bit about it last year because the topic was so striking, I loved the hardback cover, and the blurbs were extraordinary. I skimmed it and recommended it – obviously it was very well written and a curious topic.
Now that I’ve read every word in earnest – many of the sections more than once! – I must say this is one of my favorite memoirs ever! What a book! It ranks up there with Lit, Cherry, Taste This Bread, Educated, Too Close to the Falls, and other such well written and fascinating memoirs. You may recall the story: the author is a young, edgy English teacher at a community college in Akron, Ohio and is also quite the diligent word-worker, inspired and apprenticed by his dad, a truly excellent craftsman. As he is grieving the loss of his mother, and the loss of a good friend, Giffels decided to build a coffin with and for his dad. This is the story of that year making that coffin.
It sounds a bit morbid, but it isn’t, really. The two are close, the family is extended, the poignant and wacky episodes worthy of some cross between some rustbelt version of This Is Us and Modern Family. Furnishing Eternity: A Father, a Son… is funny and sad and includes some rock and roll, and a lot about wood and sawdust. It is clever and whimsical and poignant and, indeed, about life and death, loss and love. I love the play on words in that last phrase of the subtitle, “the measure of a life.” As any woodworker knows, measuring figures into this story a lot.
As I’ve said, David Giffels is a rock music fanatic, so I really liked those portions, too. His rustbelt sensibilities and love for his own crummy town is pretty darn awesome to behold. I simply adored this book, realize what a great writer the author is, and I am sure I will read it yet again. I hope you do, too. Enjoy!
Congratulations, Who Are You Again? A Memoir and The World’s Largest Man: A Memoir Harrison Scott Key (Harper) $15.99 each Okay, these are not new books. But they are new to us, an author we never considered until a friend from down South named Jimbo told us about them. And I would say zooming through them were the most joyful, fabulous, fun-filled reading experiences of the year. I couldn’t stop giggling and guffawing and being astounded at the turn of a phrase or a miraculously remarkable sentence construction or the wildly odd storyline and character revelations of the self-deprecating author (that I so understood — embarrassing as it is to say so.) This was everything I wanted in a summer read – funny, honest, intelligent, a bit of cussing, much pathos, a little sex, ominous failure, sincere faith – he’s a Southern Presbyterian — and, curiously, did I mention really, really funny? Kay has won the prestigious James Thurber Prize (for literary-style humor for egg-heads, I guess,) So there’s that.
One can hardly say easily what these books are about, but here’s the quick version: in Congratulations the author ruminates on his life and his sense of calling to be a writer. He sets out to write a book, a good and famous and award winning, important book. (Why not?) He believes this is his God-given dream, a vocation and more. (He actually has some helpful stuff to teach us about all this, when one has a passion or a dream or a sense of call that borders on obsession.) Key is quite literate and smart and not too successful as he and his wife start a family in a hip Southern college town.
As it ends up – spoiler alert – the book he ends up writing is not the failed novel he intended but a memoir about his father, a legendary hunter and woodsman, a redneck sexist who didn’t seem to appreciate the sissified readin’ and writin’ of his youngest son who didn’t like to kill things and like to hug. There it is: Harrison Scott Key finally figures out what to write about, gets in done to some glowing reviews even if he fully blew the pre-interview with NPR’s Terry Gross. (Anyone who has hopes and dreams as an author has got to read this and will cringe through much of it. Trust me on this.) His cross country book tour was part Hunter Thompson, maybe, and not too successful and the writing about it was stunning. And some of what happens next? Well, again, you can’t make this stuff up.
And so, The World’s Largest Man is, in fact, that book that he tells about writing in Congratulations, Who Are You Again? It came out in 2015 and Keys was somewhat famous, for a bit, even if it never quite became the great American anything. I really enjoyed reading Congratulations first as he told so much about the process of dreaming up this sense of calling, becoming a writer, and finally landing on a memoir about growing up with his colorful (to say the least) hunter father. World’s Largest takes us deep into the woods and it isn’t always pleasant, although it’s funny as hell. What a story.
Here is what the publisher explains it; come on, read this:
Harrison Scott Key was born in Memphis, but he grew up in Mississippi, among pious Bible-reading women and men who either shot things or got women pregnant. At the center of his world was his larger-than-life father–a hunter, a fighter, a football coach, “a man better suited to living in a remote frontier wilderness of the nineteenth century than contemporary America, with all its progressive ideas and paved roads and lack of armed duels. He was a great man, and he taught me many things: how to fight and work and cheat, and how to pray to Jesus about it, how to kill things with guns and knives and, if necessary, with hammers.”
Harrison, with his love of books and excessive interest in hugging, couldn’t have been less like Pop, and when it became clear that he was not able to kill anything very well or otherwise make his father happy, he resolved to become everything his father was not: an actor, a Presbyterian, and a doctor of philosophy. But when it was time to settle down and start a family of his own, Harrison started to view his father in a new light and realized–for better and for worse–just how much he was like the strange man who made him.
Neither Beth nor I can conclude surely which to read first nor can we conclude which we liked better. Buy ‘em both, read ‘em both.
Heavy: An American Memoir Kiese Laymon (Scribner) $16.00 This is a book that blew me away and although I read it in hardcover,and gave it a shout-out here at BookNotes before, the paperback recently came out, so it is now less costly. It is a book you should know about — it won the Andrew Carnegie Medal and was a Kirkus finalist, so has been widely lauded. Still, it is not for everyone and many traditionally conservative Christian readers will be put off by the barrage of foul language. Christian faith is actually a part of this story, as it often is for people of color in the deep south, it seems. That is, Laymon is not the militant atheist that Ta-Nehisi Coates is. But, like Coates, he was abused within his family and scorned by the mainstream white culture. And like Coates, he can name these tragedies and writes like a dream.
Perhaps I shouldn’t draw those mental connections; Heavy is not the same kind of story (or the same sort of writing) as Mr. Coates’ elegant memoirs, The Beautiful Struggle and Between the World and Me. But it is a very passionate, gritty memoir set firmly in the black culture (including poverty and racism and obsessions with race and status.) It focuses most poignantly on the author’s body, his sexuality and longings, his obsession with weight and weight loss. It includes a lot about his mother, his southern mother. It isn’t a conventional “rags to riches” story, although Kiese Laymon does move North and eventually gets a job as a college professor. Now he is back in Mississippi, speaking as a very contemporary black feminist writer in the land of Faulkner.
The review in O, The Oprah Magazine called it “raw” and “cathartic” and likened it to Pittsburgh’s John Edgar Wideman as Laymon “defiantly exposes the ‘aches and changes’ of growing up black.” The book was captivating for me (and I have read a fair number of memoirs by people of color) and stands out as one I will think about for a long time to come. Any of us who want to understand black families, the hardship faced including hardship from the police. His mother is intellectual and violent (like Coates’s Baltimore father) and he tells much about his parents, about broken families, about sexuality, about youth, about depression. It is a major and very vulnerable story about being a writer, about telling the truth and about being black in America.
As Roxanne Gay writes about it,
Oh my god. Heavy is astonishing. Difficult. Intense. Layered. Wow. Just wow.
Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty, and Peace Christie Purifoy (Zondervan) $18.99 I keep coming back to this, dipping in, thinking about it, looking for a passage I liked or that was so well written, that I surely have to names this as one of our favorite reads of the year. Further, as we said when I announced this last summer, it was (as I put it at BookNotes) “one of the great joys of recent months to have gotten the chance to finally meet Pennsylvania author Christie Purifoy, a memoirist and essayist of the finest quality, who can turn a phrase like nobody’s business.” We were with her at the lovely book launch party in Lancaster of our mutual friend Shawn Smucker, a novelist of some note.
We want to honor this distinguished book and figure I should just share what I wrote at BookNotes before. You should buy this book and spread the word — it’s surely a Best Book of 2019.
A few years ago Christie Purifoy wrote a lovely book about her spacious, old farmhouse “in four seasons” (Roots & Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons) and it was quite good. But this Placemaker book is extraordinary, delightful, compelling, enjoyable on many levels. The other evening at a book event she read movingly from a section about fermentation (you know, sauerkraut, kombucha, making pickles, even.) The Earth’s processes of death and decay, entropy, chaos and the like became a window for reflecting on our desires for control, for reigning in the chaos. She frets about these things as we do, but she also tends orchards and writes glowingly about trees. Creation and Fall and Redemption swirl together in her gorgeous reflective prose and a book about place becomes a vision for living into God’s healing ways, on Earth as it is in Heaven.
Beth and I can’t say enough about our new friend Christie and her husband; we are eager to encourage you to buy this very handsomely made book — it has deckled pages, French folded covers, a slightly textured paperback cover with some tactile beauty — and to enjoy her reflections on home and gardening and beauty and life. Even amidst the ruins. What a book! The author has dirt under her fingernails, by the way. Oh, and a PhD in literature from the University of Chicago.
Kudos to Christie for working her craft and writing this lovely volume and to Zondervan for publishing it with beauty and charm. Cheers!
Separated by the Border: A Birth Mother, a Foster Mother, and a Migrant Child’s 3,000-Mile Journey Gena Thomas (IVP) $16.00 I cannot quite put my finger on all that moved me about this memoir although the awful policies of the Trump administration – children in cages, children deported without parents and parents deported without their babies and on and on – was in the air as I was reading this. That the publisher saw the urgency of this narrative and wanted to put a human face on it all is a major contribution. This book, I believe, should be in every bookstore and library in the country as it is just so very, very timely. And as harrowing as it may be, it’s a great read, a moving tale, a stunning and audacious journey that shows, at least, as the publisher reminds us in the description, “the power of motherly love.”
Here is the basic explanation of the remarkable story:
Thomas tells the story of five-year-old Julia, whose harrowing journey with her mother from Honduras to the U.S. took her from cargo trailer to detention center to foster care. Weaving together the stories of birth mother and foster mother, this work shows the human face of the immigrant and refugee, the challenges of the immigration and foster care systems, and the tenacious power of motherly love.
There is more to this book that an expose of the “challenges” of the immigration system, as it does explore the need for foster care parenting, and the blessings and struggles of offering one’s love for others in this poignant and sometimes painful way. And it shows how this author risked so much to re-united the separated mother and child. Oh my, what a holy adventure! What a story!
I think you can see why I found this story so compelling and wanted to name it here among the Best Books of 2019 when you read these endorsements written by authors I trust:
“Welcoming strangers is dangerous. All sorts of things might happen: it might radically alter your understanding of the world, change your politics, or your relationships. It will certainly affect your relationship with God. Gena Thomas’s book is testament to the wonderfully transforming power of hospitality. I recommend her story to you as a daring and dangerous read.”–Krish Kandiah, founding director of Home for Good, author of God Is Stranger
“When headlines and public policy debates filter down to the story of one mother, one child, and one US citizen willing to walk through the process, our focus changes from the macro to the micro. A story of grief, pain, politics, faith, endurance, laughter, separation, and reunification, this steps us out of the policy debate and into the individual experience. I wholeheartedly recommend Gena Thomas as a voice that has walked through real, sacrificial relationships using her Christian faith as a guide for each step of the process. If we want to understand how the policies and politics of the immigration debate impact real people, this is the place to start. This is a humanizing story that takes us beyond the talking points.”–Alexandra Kuykendall, author of Loving My Actual Neighbor, cofounder of The Open Door Sisterhood
“I adore this book! It is a shattering read about the journey asylum seekers take to reach our border only to have their children taken from them. Thomas’s book details the living hell Lupe, Julia, and Carlos experienced and how her family became part of the story. It rips out our stony hearts, giving us the opportunity to receive the fleshy heart of Jesus, the opportunity to receive grace. We endanger our souls and imperil the soul of our nation if we dare ignore this masterfully written account, the plight of immigrants, and our responsibility in all of it.”–Marlena Graves, author of A Beautiful Disaster
As Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, author of There Goes the Neighborhood, says of Separated by the Border,
In one powerful book Gena Thomas shares the trauma, hope, and love that is the migration of men, women, and children in today’s world. Wrapped around her own experience as a foster parent, Thomas helps us understand why one flees their home country, even though they want to return. It is truly a remarkable book.”
Love Anyway: A Journey from Hope to Despair and Back in a World That’s Scary as Hell Jeremy Courtney (Thomas Nelson) $17.00 This was one of the most eagerly anticipated books for those of us who loved his stellar Preemptive Love about doing medical missions with children among Muslims, Jews and Christians in war-torn Iraq. Jeremy has many followers and friends and many of us were eager to read this one.
As you may know if you know that first unforgettable book (Preemptive Love) his non-profit organization Preemptive Love did pediatric heart surgeries in Iraq which has the largest amount of children born with defective hearts anywhere in the world, most likely from the nuclear tipped, uranium-enhanced weapons the United States used in the first Gulf War.
How did this Christian NGO helping the impoverished turn into a medical mission that drew in interfaith coalitions and became a cross-cultural project of reconciliation—dare I say, a post-9-11, Middle Eastern, anti-war movement – in this dangerous part of the world? Some of that is documented in Preemptive Love but the fuller backstory is now explained in riveting storytelling in Love Anyway. You can read my review HERE and perhaps you’ll see why I found this telling of Jeremy’s brave work to be so compelling. As I explain, Love Anyway is a harrowing story about Jeremy and his wife’s deepening their belief in the power of love and understanding and how this lead them to different sorts of networks and ministries from Iraq to Syria. It gets hard, the writing is tense, the story powerfully told. It is one of the few books this year that I read straight through hardly without a break; what a page-turner! You should read it.
There’s lots of good stuff on the internets about this organization and a good short film that came out about the time of the book. Maybe you could have a book group and do a fundraiser. I can hardly think of a more urgent need.
Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others Barbara Brown Taylor (HarperOne) $25.99 Some may not think of Barbara Brown Taylors story about teaching world religions as a memoir. It isn’t her whole life story, but like her other marvelously written, crisp, honest volumes of wonderful prose, she is – although weighing in on questions of the role of faith and convictions and believe and world religions – mostly telling here of her time as a teacher. If she has written about her calling into the ministry (The Preaching Life) and her sense of frustration and a pained exit from parish work (Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith) this is the first major book where she describes her second calling, that of a college professor. It is, as Mirabai Starr say, “Among the finest memoirs I have ever read of the life of a teacher.”
Yes, Barbara Brown Taylor is a fairly open-minded, typical Episcopalian priest, nurtured in the deep ways of the Anglican sacramental worldview and of the convictions of the Book of Common Prayer and the revolutions of liberal theology in the middle of the 20th century when she was coming of age. It isn’t surprising that she is drawn to the mysteries of world religions and that she has come to be passionate about teaching, as a liberal Christian, the joys of learning about other faiths. At the heart of her teaching is not cheap knowledge about other faiths and certainly not cheap spiritual appropriation, but fostering “holy envy” (a phrase she swiped from a Lutheran Bishop in Sweden who said it is healthy to admire and even envy certain virtues of other faiths. This seems common sense to me, and nothing unorthodox. Of course we admire the Buddhists attentiveness or radical Muslim’s or Hasidic Jews dedication to their sacred food and prayer regimes. I’m nowhere near Amish, but surely there is good to be found in their expression of faith, right? There is nothing wrong with Protestants admiring the sense of mystery nearly unnamed in higher church Catholics and nothing wrong with liberal UCC folk admiring the warm-hearted piety of old school Methodists. We needn’t compare truth claims or adopt a cheesy universalism to truly admire and learn from other faiths. Okay?
But, oh my, how to do that, wisely and tenderly and fruitfully? And how does one do that when, as is the case in Ms Taylor’s situation, the students are mostly Southern Bible-belt fundamentalists.
I will never forget the scene in which Barbara has taken her college students to a (respectful, demur) visit to a worship experience of a non-Christian religion. One of the students, an earnest, traditional fundamentalist Christian, has to leave the room and she departs deeply weeping for the lost souls she is watching as they worship their false gods. How does Ms Taylor respond? As a good pastor and as a good teacher, I believe. The book is loaded with these remarkable moments.
The review journal Booklist gave Holy Envy a starred review, saying:
Taylor nudges her students away from spiritual appropriation and comparison, moving instead toward challenging discernment of their own faith and the faith of others. Taylor, like the best faith leaders, is a great storyteller. Highly recommended.
I reviewed this at BookNotes when it first came out and I have thought about it all year. She is a gorgeous writer and I’d read anything she wrote and even though my own faith convictions might be different than hers, I admire her writing and so, so appreciate her journey.
Here is some of what the publisher has written in describing it; I hope you can see why I call it one of my favorite books of the year:
Barbara Brown Taylor continues her spiritual journey begun in Leaving Church of finding out what the world looks like after taking off her clergy collar. In Holy Envy, she contemplates the myriad ways other people and traditions encounter the Transcendent, both by digging deeper into those traditions herself and by seeing them through her students’ eyes as she sets off with them on field trips to monasteries, temples, and mosques.
Troubled and inspired by what she learns, Taylor returns to her own tradition for guidance, finding new meaning in old teachings that have too often been used to exclude religious strangers instead of embracing the divine challenges they present. Re-imagining some central stories from the religion she knows best, she takes heart in how often God chooses outsiders to teach insiders how out-of-bounds God really is.
Throughout Holy Envy, Taylor weaves together stories from the classroom with reflections on how her own spiritual journey has been complicated and renewed by connecting with people of other traditions–even those whose truths are quite different from hers. The one constant in her odyssey is the sense that God is the one calling her to disown her version of God–a change that ultimately enriches her faith in other human beings and in God.
Miracles and Other Reasonable Things: A Story Of Unlearning and Relarning God Sarah Bessey (Howard Books) $26.00 When customers, friends, and the back cover blurbs align in insisting a book is one of the best ever, it is a must for me to review. Miracles… claims to be quite a story and yet I put off getting to it, thinking I’d like it, but it wouldn’t be extraordinary.
Granted, we love her first lively book Jesus Feminist (although nothing new, we’ve been selling books about evangelical feminism since we opened in the early 1980s) and I really appreciated Bessey’s first memoir, Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith about her own changing faith (not unlike, say, the story of her dear friend, the late Rachel Held Evans) as she narrates her journey out of the Word of Faith Pentecostal faith of her girlhood. Nearly everyone’s faith shifts and matures, deepens or softens, but her journey was particularly striking (she’s a great writer and, well, she really was in some super strict, bodaciously unconventional stuff, at least for most Christians, making her shift particularly dramatic.) Making room for change and doubt and open-mindedness is a big deal for some traditions so Sarah blogs and speaks and writes about this stuff at no little cost to her, I’m sure. We are grateful for her candor and grace.
These writers doing books about being raised in shaming, strict, and sensationally religious families who are now being set free to be more normal and balanced in their expression of faith, allowing doubt and honesty, reasonable worship and non-fanatical public opinions, is quite the genre these days. I like them, really, even if that isn’t exactly my own experience. It’s close enough, though, to resonate. Out of Sorts really is a fine phrase to describe how many of us describe our religious sense these days, eh?
And so, Miracles and Other Things is plowing that same field again. She starts off with a preface so earnest about taking our hands and loving us as readers, carrying our own stories with her as she does her work. I get it – she is a beloved public speaker and she gets emails and letters and people stay late into the night at conferences saying (among other things) You too? She connects, truly connects, with so many (often disenfranchised) mostly young woman of faith and she invites them to rise up. It sounds a bit breathy – and for those who don’t have this experience of being excluded or misunderstood, her earnestness may impress or maybe just annoy a bit. But she is a rock star, with the book endorsed by the usual cast of characters such as good writers like Jen Hatmaker, Shauna Niequist, Glennon Doyle, and others on a journey away from fundamentalism like Mike McHargue and Peter Enns and Jonathan Martin, who calls it a “trail blazing, bush-burning book.” Happily, mainline denomination folks rave, too – Kate Bowler (of Duke, and the must-read, best-seller Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I Believed) and yep, Barbara Brown Taylor.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes,
“Sarah Bessey is a writer of remarkable gifts. Beyond her ability to make a breath-taking sentence, and to tell the truth about the dying and rising of faith, she can tell a story as if she is whispering it straight into your heart. She is, by her own definition, a dangerous woman, with wisdom to spare about learning to love the broken miracles God offers us once we’re honest about where it hurts.”–Barbara Brown Taylor, author of Learning to Walk in the Dark
So there you have it: Saint Barbara BT herself affirms what any of us who have read Bessey already knows. She’s a great writer and an honest, important leader.
But wait: we thought she had left her Pentecostal Word of Faith stuff. What’s this about miracles?
You see, this is not the book that Sarah intended to write. She tells us that she pounded out another huge manuscript, amidst grief from miscarriages and then several births, and a hard, hard labor and a dad that was dying, and that book was not what she finally wanted to write. What she did was tell this much more honest story. It is a story of her evolving faith, and – this is harrowing, to say the least – an awful car accident that nearly killed her, causing immense pain and chronic issues that got worse as the months of recovery wore on.
She writes honestly about this and I am sure those of us who have been in serious accidents (I have) or who have had loved ones in serious accidents (we have) will be deeply moved by her story and the pain of her recovery. But even as she can hardly walk, get this: she gets a bone fide invitation to be on a team of charismatic Christians (old friends) to celebrate a Jubilee with the Pope.
As a woman whose family economic status is such that she hardly even dreams of international travel, let alone a trip to Rome, she is both ecstatic and, understandably, unsure. Although pleasantly ecumenical, she has deep principles that oppose the patriarchy and hierarchy and abuses of the Catholic Church. (She wrote a book called Jesus Feminist, she wonders if they recall!) Like many of us who long for a greater congeniality within the Body of Christ, she mourns that they have a closed communion table and she could attend as a guest of honor but still be barred and banned from receiving the sacraments. And, more bluntly, she is not sure she can make the trip – once-in-a-lifetime gift that it is – due to her physical disabilities.
I will not tell you the rest, but know that this story of pain and loss and travel and mission and ministry and love and family is truly miraculous. It is a wonderfully fun read, compelling, engaging, well written, and inspiring. One doesn’t have to have her same experiences to find the book pulling you in as you yourself experience the Spirit as she herself does.
As Shauna Niequist says in the preface, Miracles and Other Reasonable Things is:
A grown-up, clear-eyed story of faith, told with so much soul and laughter and grit and elegance and plainspoken truth that it leaps off the page, straight into your heart. What a gift.
The Galapagos Islands: A Spiritual Journey Brian D. McLaren (Fortress Press) $16.99 I was thrilled the minute I heard about this marvelous idea, a new series of faith-based travelogues called “On Location” kicked off by the very fine writer Brian McLaren. Those that follow Brian know that he wrote a set of novels (now recently re-issued by Fortress, by the way) in which Darwin’s work and a visit to Galapagos figures into the story. McLaren loves the outdoors, loves his reptiles and tortoises, so, yep, he’s the man for this job. And what a good, good job he did.
I am sure I will never travel to South American, let alone to these Ecuadorian islands, but I do love travel books. Memoirs about adventures are a way to live those adventures and when a writer is bringing spiritual and theological insight along the way, what joy. That this is a spiritual pilgrimage, in many way, to one of the world’s most known and fragile ecosystems is itself a great gift and, yet, is fraught with concern.
I enjoyed this compact paperback and even though I’ve met Brian several times and consider him an acquaintance, I felt like I got to know him better. He writes about his son’s cancer just a bit, he is frustrated when he misses cell-phone connection to talk with his wife, and he reports on some talks he gave after he came home, talks that sounded truly interesting and important. I really liked catching up with him, even if it was when he was far, far away, keeping a diary for us all to enjoy.
Child of the Dream: A Memoir of 1963 Sharon Robinson (Scholastic Press) $16.99 I read fewer YA novels this year than I sometimes do (and when I think of so many good ones, I wonder what I was thinking!) I want to sneak this one in here, which I read at the start of the new year, as an exceptionally strong, truly notable book of 2019. Although written as a youth book, many, many of us will enjoy it. Sharon Robinson turned 13 the night beforeGeorge Wallace declared on national television ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever’ in his inauguration for governor of Alabama. Can you imagine? This book will help as it is written from the viewpoint of a child. I highly recommend it.
Child of the Dream is, obviously, a story of a young woman and her coming of age in 1963, a remarkable year by any account. The book is heart-warming but honest, vivid, even, and, as Andrea Davis Pinkney (of Martin Rising: Requiem for a King) wrote about it: it is a “deeply personal portrait of her childhood during one of the most pivotal moments in America’s history.” Pinkney continues, “She lets us walk in her shoes so that together we experience how it feels to see a dream on the horizon — and to reach for it.”
Do you realize who Sharon Robinson is? She is the daughter of famous baseball play, number 42 himself, Jackie Robinson. It’s why Jason Reynolds writes that this book tells of her own understanding of her place in the fight for civil rights. Reynolds says “This is a home run, not just for her, but for us all.” Exactly!
Listen to Christopher Paul Curtis (Newbery Award-winning author of the National Book Award finalist, The Journey of Little Charlie, who has this delightful, fabulous endorsement:
Sharon Robinson has pulled off an impressive trifecta: She has given us priceless, behind-the-scenes access to perhaps the most tumultuous year in modern American history; she has written a touching, compelling, coming-of-age story; and she tops the whole enterprise off with a tribute to her upbringing by an exceptional pair of African Americans, her parents, Rachel and Jackie Robinson.
This is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession Cameron Dezen Hammon (Lookout Books) $17.95 A friend who knows this author alerted me to this book before it came out and when if finally was released I knew I had to take the recommendation of my writer friend seriously; she is creative and thoughtful and she assured me I’d be captivated by the prose and the stunning story. Indeed, I was mesmerized by the first page, drawn in to a gripping story about, well, as the subtitle says, religious and romantic obsession. What up-front worship leader is having sexy texts from a lover in the middle of a set? What church leader entertains sorrow and doubts and regrets and anger has no place to share them? What evangelical Christian working for mega-churches and hipster outreaches finds her very body assaulted even as she is attempting to serve them by playing Godly, passionate music?
Apparently – it breaks my heart to say this – Cameron Dezen Hammon is not the only one who has experienced distress and sexism, religious confusion and artistic and theological difficulties within the leadership of modern evangelicalism. (See my review a week or so ago of The#MeToo Reckoning by Ruth Everhart for a study of mostly mainline Protestant congregations to be reminded of the pervasive cover-ups of sexual misbehaviors within faith communities.) Ms. Hammon does not name the (famous?) pastors of the well-known “gospel-centered” churches in which she experienced gross patriarchy and serious injustice, but it doesn’t matter; we can imagine.
Still, this memoir is not all expose and lament. It is, as the foreword says, “a valuable look at the social structures of evangelical Christianity” but it is also about the author’s own deep desire for God, for connection. While not a typical spiritual memoir, it truly is just that. Ms. Hammon, like nearly every mystic in church history, sees some convergence between romantic love and religious faith, between sexuality and spirituality. Desire? Ecstasy? Love? Belonging? Are we seeking romance and intimacy and home, or faith and forgiveness and heaven? Or both. Maybe faith indeed leads us home, into authentic community and real love, here on Earth. Perhaps grace offers eternal things that show up in the mundane. If so, Ms Hammon is a seeker for that reality, and her beautiful raw story will be a guide for many. This is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession made me sad but it one of the most memorable, striking reads this year.
I find it hard to say just how deeply this good writing moved me, how curious I was and how engaged as a reader; I suspect not everyone will be as generous or caring as I was; it is not for everyone. Jessica Wilbanks (memoirist and author of When I Spoke In Tongues) says of This Is My Body that it is “Unflinchingly honest and searingly lyrical.” She is right – it is “a song of a book.”
Cameron Hammon’s own conversion story from a New York Jew-ish punker is compelling and will resonate with any who came to a lively faith within a para-church organization or house church situation. Her struggle as a musician and artist will resonate with many who feel like the church has not used their gifts well. Anyone who has left upbeat evangelical or Pentecostal faith to find a more nuanced spirituality will understand the mixed feelings of her journey. This memoir will be important to many, an edgy and artful telling of a story that many others are writing these day. It is, in my view, one of the more remarkable and startling examples of these kinds of faith deconstructions and journeys out of popular evangelicalism.
And yet, through all of this, one of the biggest aspects of the story of This is My Body is the marriage one, the romantic longings and her relationship with her husband. How does one evolve spiritually and religiously (especially when one’s work and paycheck are dependent on the church) when one is married? How does one grow or change as an individual when one’s spouse is on his own faith journey? How does one think about sexuality and intimacy in marriage when talking about spiritual intimacy and singing about Love is how one makes one’s living? How does a shift away from fundamentalism towards doubting faith and re-embracing feminism effect a marriage? That is a major part of this tale. Remember, the book is called This Is My Body.
Lacy Johnson (author of an award winning collection of essays called The Reckonings and a previous, harrowing memoir of her own abuse by a boyfriend) says:
There is a deep and insatiable longing at the center of Cameron Dezen Hannon’s spellbinding debut memoir: to love and be loved with honesty and abandon, to follow a spiritual path toward clarity and truth.
Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth Sarah Smarsh (Scribner) $17.00 This was another book that just came out in paperback that I read earlier this year in hardback. It was, interestingly, one of the “One Community Reads” selections this fall for many towns here in central PA. One recent customer understandably connected it to Hillbilly Elegy and Nickel and Dimed. Smarsh is a gifted writer and amazing storyteller – and what a story she has to tell of her extended family in the heartland. Set among poor, rural folk in Kansas, she tells of parents and grandparents, using a device that some find endearing: the book is an extended letter to her unborn child. In the hands of a lesser writer it might have been smarmy or sentimental, but this telling is full of regret and longing and pride and chutzpah; she does come from colorful, sturdy, resilient, if at times troubled stock.
Ms. Smarsh can be wickedly funny and tender but I see her also as a biting social critic. She is relentless in talking – appropriately and insightfully – about wealth and privilege and power and poverty. This isn’t a “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” sort of story a la Hillbilly Elegy; it is, perhaps, closer to Nickel and Dimed with its critique of the culture’s misunderstandings of the working poor – especially farmers, ranchers, the rural mid-Westerners who work hard under hot sun and freezing cold, usually white, too often poor. There’s a bit about agriculture policy and big business although she’s not quite a Wendell Berry agrarian.
For what it’s worth, the parts of her story about going to college as a not very cultured or even well-educated farm girl – her elementary school and school days are unbelievable! – is very, very telling. Any BookNotes readers who work in higher education ought to be aware of the huge gaps and obstacles facing many rural and small town first-generation collegiates; this story could help you understand this sort of privation. Read Heartland: Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest County on Earth
In so many ways, for so many reasons, this well written tale was one of my favorite books of 2019.
To Stop a Warlord: My Story of Justice, Grace, and the Fight for Peace Shannon Sedgwick Davis (Spiegel & Grau) $27.00 You may recall this publishers name as they are the wonderful imprint that brought Just Mercy to the world, the book by Bryan Stevenson. (If you haven’t read that Award Winner, you simply must!) So I’ve been wanting to publically acknowledge them for their cutting edge work and for bringing yet another intriguing, well-written, and honorable book about social change to the literary reading public. We are honored to get to carry books like this and we are delighted to honorably mention it here and now.
Alas, I’m not sure what to think about this amazing memoir. It is the story of a woman, a mom and a lawyer, who, as I’ve said at BookNotes before, was a leader in an NGO doing good charitable work in Africa. She is a person of action, a person motivated by faith, a Christian worker in hard places who has worked with our friends at International Justice Mission (IJM.) She is now the CEO of Bridgeway Foundation which is “dedicated to stopping mass atrocities.” She is an Advisory Council member of The Elders, the group of global statesman founded by Nelson Mandela. You could profitable read any account of her efforts and be challenged and stimulated.
But this? Oh my. Here’s the gist – just read what Adam Grant (author of Orginals and Give and Take, that we also recommend, btw) wrote in then New York Times review.
How far would you go to stop a murderous Ugandan warlord who had turned thousands of children into soldiers? As the head of a human rights foundation, Shannon Sedgwick Davis did something unprecedented: She hired private military contractors to train an army to stop him. This is an extraordinary memoir by an extraordinary leader–it’s impossible to read without feeling moved to do more to help those with less.
Okay, do I need to say more? She “hired private military contractors to train an army” to stop the evil Ugandan warlord. Jospeh Kony.
You can’t make this stuff up. To Stop a Warlord is wonderfully written and well paced so is one of those books you can hardly put down. It is driven by deep compassion, I think, and what Blake Mycoskie (her friend from Toms Shoes) calls her “relentless determination, motherly protective instinct, and steadfast courage.”
Look: To Stop a Warlord has rave reviews and lovely endorsements on the back from Betty Bigombe (and leader at the World Bank who was the chief mediator in peace negotiations with the Lord’s Resistance Army in the late ‘90s and into the early 2000s) as well as from the U.S. Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Ambassador Henry Crumpton. Former President Jimmy Carter offers his endorsement calling is a “remarkable” book. Archbishop Desmond Tutu says it is “compelling and inspiring.”
Will this help us all, as these endorsements all say, beautifully move us all to take action for the vulnerable? Most of us aren’t on philanthropic boards and few of us have any clue about these sorts of global details. But, whew, this is unprecedented work, and “an unforgettable journey on an unexpected path to peace.”
It is without a doubt one of the most memorable books of 2019.
THREE WONDERFUL EXAMPLES OF A BIGGER or BETTER FRAMEWORK FOR THE GENRE OF BASIC CHRISTIAN LIVING
…And Yet, Undaunted: Embraced by the Goodness of God in the Chaos of Life Paula Rinehart & Connally Gilliam (NavPress) $15.99 This was one of my favorite books this year in part because of the fine wisdom and down to Earth sisterly sort of advice these women offer. Paula Rinehart has been speaking and writing on woman’s issues for decades and we have stocked other books of hers over the years. We always felt they were just a cut above some of the other sort of standard fare advice and inspiration for the religious marketplace. Connally Gilliam is younger and also works in outreach and disciple-making with the para-church group, The Navigators. She is know for what I’m told is an excellent book for those that read books in the field of being an unmarried Christian woman. That is called Revelation of a Single Woman: Loving the Life I Didn’t Expect. Again, better than many, well written, and thoughtful.
But this: it’s fabulous; very smart, engaging, helpful. But the biggest reason I was so taken with this, why we promote it and think it is so very unique and worthy of our Best of accolades is because of the structure. Hear me out.
You may know that there has been a bit of a shift in the frame of understanding of faith and discipleship in recent years. Some trace it to Dutch neo-Calvinists like Kuyper, popularized by authors like Al Wolter’s Creation Regained, others to NT Wright, but many are using language informed by two chief ideas. First that we live out our lives in light of a story – what some use to call a “worldview” but is now seen as more imaginative and towards a telos, or end – and that, secondly, that story of ours ought to be shaped by the Biblical story. Calling the Bible (and our life informed by it) a story is heard in titles like The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story or God’s Story, Our Story, or The Story of God, The Story of Us. It’s a good trend to see the Bible as something other than a repository of doctrine or a bunch of disconnected episodes. There is a redemptive storyline to the Bible and the only way to read God’s Word well is to see that Big Picture. And the only way to follow Jesus as agents of His Kingdom is to see our lives unfolding as part of His ongoing mission to complete the redemptive plot.
Enter Rinehart and Gilliam, who have given us one of the best basic Christian living sort of resources that frame our own lives in light of the four major themes of the plot of Scripture, the “acts” of the drama, so to speak. From Al Wolters on, many have seen the key highpoints of the sacred play to be the act of creation, the radical fall into sin and rebellion and dysfunction, the decisive promise and accomplishment of redemption, and the future hope of “all things renewed.” Creation/fall/redemption/restoration is the large theme of our Jubilee conference out in Pittsburgh that each February invites college students to “live a better story” by entering into that cosmic drama. Rinehart and Gilliam tell that story in the four units of their book. They allow the big picture of God’s Biblical drama to inform how we understand our daily lives, our personal hurts and fears, and how to learn to trust not just that God is good, but that God is up to something good: the fulfillment of His promises to renew and restore the cosmos. Our daily lives find health and hope by placing ourselves between the creation and the new creation, the garden and the city.
It is implied and suggested and spoken and explained that we are good, part of God’s very good creation, but we are hurting, not as we were meant to be because of our complicity in this fallen and distorted world. Christ has brought us back to life and redeemed, in principle, His beloved creation, but yet the hopeful end is not yet seen. We walk by faith, into the newness of life, realizing that the Kingdom is already but not yet. Lot’s of big picture Scripture studies say that these days and lots of theology books assume it. But precious few books about the oddness of our lives, the broken things, the pain and the failures and the foibles invite us to this Larger Story of hope for a renewed Earth. And Yet, Undaunted gets it just right, and this is a rare gift indeed.
There are folks that will not read Transforming Vision (Walsh & Middleton) or Creation Regained (Al Wolters) or Surprised by Hope (Tom Wright) or Heaven is a Place on Earth (Michael Witmer) or Not Home Yet: How the Renewal of the Earth Fits Into God’s Plan for the World (Ian Smith.) That Kingdom vision stuff would take them a long way towards deeper more faithful and sustainable discipleship, I am sure, but few people read these overarching narratives about our narrative.
But tons of people want a simple book that helps them learn how to believe in God, to follow Jesus, to care about spiritual things, to make better choices, to cope and flourish. Who doesn’t want a life of deeper meaning and guidance on finding God in our hard times?
Again, this is a genre of book – short chapters, conversational, wise, warm women writers – which are huge in most Christian bookstores. It just seems to be a nice and easy to read book about living the life of faith. And so it is.
But, hold on, this gets at the creation-fall-redemption-restoration worldview story and helps us frame all of our lives and all of our sorrows (and all of our successes and joys as well) within the context of this big, true, Story of God.
And here is how they do it — and this little bit of literary genius makes it award winning itself: they translate the words “creation”-“fall”-“redemption” and “restoration” into phrases that I think were coined by the super smart worldviewish teacher (of the Clapham Institute in Annapolis, MD) Mike Metzger, namely,
- What Ought to Be ((Creation)
- What Is (Fall)
- What Can Be (Redemption)
- What Will Be (Restoration)
The chapters are almost devotional in nature, with lots of Bible-based encouragement to live into this “ought-is-can-and-will be” framework. This slant, this take, this narrative, this Story is how to get the Biblical worldview into your bones and into your imagination. As Bruce Hindmarsh of Regent College in British Columbia notes,
This book exposes our longings for a better world and then points us forward to the way things can and will be redeemed by Jesus Christ. Because of that, we can live realistically and joyfully – even undaunted – in this beautiful but broken world. Sharing openly about their own lives, Paula and Connally invite us to do the same and live not our best life not, but our real life now.
That is why I want to celebrate this book and insist it is one of the best books of 2019. It quietly pushes us in the right direction, against goofy theologies and unhelpful ideas and unwise promises and super spiritual tones that are subtle but present in so much Christian literature. This helps give us vocabulary and categories to be realistic and joyful, to explain what’s wrong and what’s right, to discern the times and live well within them.
As Cherie Harder of The Trinity Forum writes about it,
This wise, beautiful book will undoubtedly serve as a guide and friend through the dark valleys of life, a balm and a spur to those weighed down with regret, disappointment, and unmet longing. And Yet, Undaunted shows the possibilities of finding courage and joy in your life story, by pointing at the Larger Story– what ought to be, what is, what can be, and what will be–and the ways in which Love himself unites the plot and pervades each scene.
Listen to Vaneetha Rendall Risner (The Scars That Have Shaped Me) who says:
Connally and Paula’s writing makes my heart ache–ache for the way things ought to be and ache for the way things will, one day, be–all while dignifying the longing, disappointment, and suffering wrapped up in the now. I am so grateful for these two women: for their wisdom, honesty, and call to hopeful courage. This book will faithfully point you to Jesus as you are drawn in to engage with the deep longings and questions rumbling inside your heart.
Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of AND in an Either-Or World Jen Polllock Michel (IVP) $16.00 Funny how covers that don’t appeal to me keep me from what might be really good books. Thank goodness I had the good sense to refuse my instinct to boycott this dull, jumbled up cover because it is a great, great, artfully rich and beautiful book. I knew it would be because this author’s two previous books Teach us To Want and Keeping Place are among the best books of the last few years. She’s a great writer, a born storyteller, and a fine thinker.
As one reviewer warned, “Don’t confuse this as a call for the mushy middle…” As Russ Ramsey (himself a thoughtful pastor and great wordsmith and author) says in the foreword,
Studied rightly, theology should lead to awe and wonder. To that end, my friend Jen Pollock Michel has given us a gift.
Perhaps, like me, you are drawn to books that people who like and respect recommend. (Uhhh, I hope so! Ha.) On the back of Surprised by Paradox we have rave reviews by Karen Swallow Prior, Emily Freeman, Tish Harrison Warren, and Marlena Graves. That’s enough to warrant an award right there!
The mysteries and paradoxes Michel explores in upbeat and nicely crafted chapters are Incarnation, Kingdom, Grace, and Lament. This isn’t exactly the creation-fall-redemption-restoration meta-narrative that so nicely shapes And Yet Undaunted but it is close. There is good stuff in here about wonder and goodness; there is hard stuff about brokenness and injustice; her insights about the Kingdom include good ruminations on this already/not yet mystery (and well as the upside down “blessed are” passages of Jesus. (You’ve got to read a chapter called “The High Treason of Hallelujah.”
And so, this book, too, offers what we might think of as a guide to basic Christian living, an ordinary sort of spirituality book that helps us with common stuff of faith and life. But yet, it is such a cut above the typical – graciously written, wisely construed, profoundly approached, with great questions for reflection and discussion that are really good. I mean, when a book is dedicated to “Jonas McAnn and the pastors like him” who are found “preaching the truth and trying not to miss the wonder” you’ve got to take notice.
(That is, if you know who Jonas McAnn is. He is, of course, the fictional preacher in a novel we highly acclaimed and awarded a few years back, Love Big, Be Well by Winn Collier. You see – she is using a literary character even in her dedication. How cool is that? This book deserves an award for the cleverness of the dedication page – I’ve never seen that before!)
Truly, in a world filled with ambiguity and confusion on one hand and overly dogmatic, strict and reductionistic views of truth on the other, it is lovely (indeed, it is necessary) to have voices of beauty and mystery that call us beyond binary black and white to the complexity of paradox. As it says on the back cover (which I am sure I cited in my earlier BookNotes review when this first came out)
Jesus invites us to abandon the polarities of either and or to embrace the difficult, wondrous dissonance of and.
I’m not sure I’m good at that. Maybe you aren’t either. That’s why we need this book. Thanks Jen Pollock Michel and thanks, IVP Books! Hooray.
Sacred Endurance: Finding Grace and Strength for a Lasting Faith Trillia J. Newbell (IVP) $16.00 We hope you know Ms. Newbell as a great children’s writer. Her book about multi-ethnic reconciliation in the context of God’s faithfulness to the redemption of the creation, God’s Very Good Idea, is such a favorite because it helps children (and parents) to appreciate the “creation-fall-redemption-restoration” four chapter gospel that we talked about above, and it is passionate about diversity and multi-ethnic ministry from a gospel-centered perspective. She has written other good stuff and I trust her, also as a black woman, for offering a certain slant of insight that many of us might miss.
And so, when she did a book on endurance — on keeping on keeping on, as we used to say (or running the race as the Apostle Paul puts it) — I was interested. But I wasn’t sure this was going to be extraordinary. There are lots of books about hanging in there. Although it is about other stuff as well, I find Visions of Vocation by Steve Garber very hard to top (which makes much of loving the very messy and hurting world in the same manner that God does, and not growing cynical or jaded in that journey.) It is a live question: how do we keep on loving well, serving, being faithful until the end? How about that line from the Eugene Peterson book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction? Nurturing a long haul sort of faith is needed now more than ever.
And so I turned to Trillia Newbell’s book, realizing there were great blurbs on the back from people of color I respect, like Bryan Loritts and Christiana Edmondson.(I do hope you know the podcast she helps with, Truth’s Table.) And I realized that Ms. Newbell has so much insight and frames this question so wholistically that it stands not only as a good example of faithful Christian guidance on the topic (endurance) but as an example of how to do a thoughtful, substantive, faithful sort of Christian self help book. This is “basic Christian living” 101 and more. I’m excited to name it as a great book in this genre.
You see, while it offers standard fare advice — good advice! — about turning to Jesus and being faithful, and trust in God and the like, it offers this advice in ways that are framed by the bigger story of God using suffering and God redeeming the ordinariness of our days. There is no breathy promises but no let-it-all-hang out and revel in the rawness, either. She’s honest, but she wants to help people grow in their maturity. She is equipping us to think well and live well. We are called to a race and she wants us to finish it well.
And she covers content that some basic Christian living books miss. For instance, she has a chapter about the role of the mind, and she talks about enduring in society. (Yes, questions of race and racism are part of basic Christian living!) She calls us to do life with others in community and insists (as my friend Alan Noble who wrote Disruptive Witness says of it) that we can be faithful “without denying or downplaying the reality of suffering and evil we face in this life.”
I was heartened that my instinct that this is framed by a bigger picture and better story when I saw this review by Paul David Tripp (author of the popular devotional, New Morning Mercies) who writes this. Notice the second line — he new it was going to be different, “deeply wise.”
“This is the best book on endurance I have ever read. As I began, I knew this book was going to be different–Trillia Newbell has given us something that is deeply wise, practical at every turn, and laden with illuminating illustrations. Again and again she points us to Jesus and reminds us each time that the hope for our endurance is not found in our faithfulness but rather made possible because of his. You don’t have to dread the race ahead; you can look at the road ahead with anticipation and hope. This book will tell you why.”
There are lots of great little books to help ordinary Christians learn about their faith, grow deeper in their spiritual formation, get the gospel in their bones in a way that helps them deepen their discipleship. But many are laden with less than stellar writing or overpromising or cheap sentimentality. We tip our hat to Trillia for offering good counsel and fresh encouragement that is sold and good and true, even for those who are struggling on this leg of the journey.
VITAL BOOKS ABOUT MISSIOLOGY AND MISSIONS
Although it isn’t a hugely popular section of our store, we are proud to keep old and new titles on global missions packed into our shelves in that important category. Good publishers continue release volumes in this robust conversation about the nature of mission and the ways Christ’s church can be expanded around the globe. Of course, with the majority of Christians now living in the “two thirds” world, mostly in the global South, those who train Western missionaries have considerable re-thinking to do. Those in mainline churches and those in evangelical traditions are all doing vibrant work in producing scholarship to equip those doing engaged in missionary endeavors. Here are just three we want to honorably mention this year.
Global Arts and Christian Witness: Exegeting Culture, Translating the Message, and Communicating Christ Roberta R. King (Baker Academic) $26.99 Scott Sunquist and Amos Yong are among the sharpest missiologist in North America and they are the senior editors of an on-going series called “Mission in the Global Community” published by Baker Academic. If you are interested in this high level, academic work in missiology, you should order them all from us. This is the latest and is a notable example of the interesting sort of cutting edge work done at the interface of anthropology and linguists and culture studies and gospel presentations.
Before I explain that one, I must say this: IVP Academic has a similar and equally scholarly and truly fascinating line of edgy missiology volumes in their “Missiological Engagements” series. And Roberta R. King (along with William Dyrness) have edited a companion volume to Global Arts and Christian Witness that has appeared on this IVP Academic series. That one is called The Arts as Witness in Multifaith Contexts edited by Robert King & William Dyrness (IVP Academic; $35.00.)
Here is what the publisher says about this amazing, breath-taking collection of essays from all over the world:
In search of holistic Christian witness, missionaries have increasingly sought to take into account all the dimensions of people’s cultural and religious lives—including their songs, dances, dramatic performances, storytelling, and visual arts.
Missiologists, educators, and practitioners are cultivating new approaches for integrating the arts into mission praxis and celebrating creativity within local communities. And in an increasingly globalized and divided world, peacemaking must incorporate the use of artistic expressions to create understanding among peoples of diverse faiths. As Christians in all nations encounter members of other religions, how do they witness among these neighbors while respecting their distinct traditions?
The Arts as Witness is a primary source sort of first-hand collection by missiologists and artists. There are chapters with titles like these:
“God Moves in a Mysterious Way: Christian Church Music in Multifaith Liberia, West Africa, in the Face of Crisis and Challenge” (by Ruth M. Stone) and “Sounds, Languages, and Rhythms: Hybridized Popular Music and Christian-National Identity Formation in Malaysia, Thailand, and Cambodia” (by Sooi Ling Tan) or “Art as Dialogue: Exploring Sonically Aware Spaces for Interreligious Encounters” (by Ruth Illman.) This stuff is a far cry from the caricatures of missionaries in novels like The Poisonwood Bible, say. These are evangelical missionaries and musciologists, doing stuff that ends up in chapters like this: “Simba Nguruma“: The Labor of Christian Song in Polycultural, Multifaith Kenya” as told by (Jean Ngoya Kidula. Okay?
Man, this is fascinating, whether it is a ground-breaking chapter by Dyrness on the poetic faith of Zapatistas in Mexico or how contemporary art can critiques neocolonialism (in the chapter “Wild, Wild China by Joyce Yu-Jean Lee.) These are just so amazing, collecting pieces that “speak of the power of art in making peace, contextualizing theology, and aiding in the evangelization of peoples.”
But, whaaat? Is this too much, too specific, too much arcane detail? I understand. Which is why we also are honoring Global Arts and Christian Witness: Exegeting Culture, Translating the Message, and Communicating Christ. It is also meaty and substantial but perhaps more foundational.
In this one, as you can see from the title, it does, in fact, explore how artists are part of this global missions movement. Needless to say (as we often do) art needs no justification in God’s good world, so artists don’t “need” to be evangelistic or missionary-minded. In fact, good artists informed by wise, Christianly conceived aesthetics, would say art is to be allusive and imaginative and, well, artful, so doesn’t “have a message” in any prosaic sense. (Otherwise, it isn’t art, after all, but more akin to propaganda.)
But yet, for some few artists, they are called to hook their artistic gifts to global missionary efforts, and when they do it is spectacularly interesting, and often fruitful. Global Arts and Christian Witness (complete with full color plates and photographs) is an up-to-the moment report from the field by this good thinker about how artists can be part of the global work of sharing the good news of God’s Kingdom.
Dr. Roberta King is a professor of communication and ethnomusicology in the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. She is a great scholar and activist and writer.
Here is what hip hop activist and Christian scholar Daniel White Hodge (whose book Homeland Insecurity: A Hip Hop Missiology for the Post-Civil Rights Culture we’ve award as notable book last year) says:
It has been said that music is a universal language, but its meaning is not. King has given us an in-depth analysis adding to the ethno-musicological lexicon in great detail. In a world where everyone has some type of favorite music, King’s astute inquiry gives us a better glimpse into the complexity of music from around the world. Very much worth the read!”
Discipling in a Multicultural World Ajith Fernando (Crossway) $19.99 This book is remarkably complex and multi-faceted, covering so much. I want to celebrate it and award it and promote it here, even if I realize too few really want to study up on this detail. But it is a detail we increasingly need to learn and this is pioneering and wise. Fernando is an amazing Sri Lankan leader (and has served the global Youth for Christ movement for years.) I would trust any book he wrote about anything (such as his must-read The Call to Joy & Pain: Embracing Suffering in Your Ministry or his inspiring NIV Application Commentary on Acts.)
Here he is insisting that our multicultural world needs countercultural disciplers. Hmmm. Let that sink in.
Of course, this presumes – and I suppose some of our readers here, if you are still with me, may not resonate with this assumption – that new believers need to be mentored, guided, that we all need spiritual guides, directors, coaches, pastors. That we are to “make disciples” suggests that some of us, at least, should be learning how to “disciple” others into the ways of Christ-honoring discipleship. Whether that is a process of catechism or spiritual direction or Bible study, we simply must help shape and care for and guide and led those who under our watch come to want to follow Jesus. Healthy evangelism always must lead to follow-up and a process of mentoring new believers.
And so, if this is true – and it obviously is – how does this “discipling” happen in the ever-more-common cross-cultural situations. Global missionaries have to think about this and missiologists are endlessly hoping to find the answer to a fruitful “contextualized” way to relate Christ and culture. But anyone in almost any town in North America, now, must take up this discussion. We all must wonder how to be sensitive to cultural and ethnic concerns as we make disciples.
Ajith Fernando’s great, provocative, fascinating book asks how we do spiritual guidance, mentoring, teaching, and leading (what he calls discipling, for short) in contexts such as among those from cultures that are oriented around honor and shame; what about honoring family commitments, if the family is of another religion (or no religion as such?) What about dealing with persecution. This is a practical guide to disciple-making as we help others grow into faithful followers of Christ within their own social and religious contexts. Some of these stories may be set in South Asia, but you will learn much from them and it just may keep you from harming those from other cultures you are befriending even now.
On Mission Together: Integrating Missions Into the Local Church Richard Noble (Falls City Press) $14.99 There are a small handful of books about how local missions committees or missions advocates or other leaders (pastors, but not just ministers) can navigate the admittedly complicated context of the local congregation and its needs and make clear the need for an emphasis on mission. And even for those mission-minded churches (like those famously documented in Tom Telford’s wonderful Today’s All Star Missions Churches) or those only wanting to be, On Mission Together by Rich Noble is just what you need!
As the globally recognized leader Peter Kuzmic writes in the remarkable foreword, it is written in what Billy Graham once called “the spirit of Lausanne.” That is, in the spirit and wholistic ethos of the famous Lausanne missionary conferences and statements that guided the best of a generation or more of thoughtful, contextualized, evangelical missionaries leaders. Kuzmic rightly says it is “almost comprehensive, well-organized, Manual for Missions” and that it almost burns with the beloved heart and vision and passion of Richard Noble for helping churches deepen their commitment to the Great Commission.
We want to celebrate and honor this book as notable because there is so very little like it out there. That may not sound rather prosaic, but it is said with gusto and joy: we rarely get to say that there is precious little in a field or genre, and this book deserves this big accolade. Our Mission Together is both a primer and a handbook, a guide and a big set of thoughtful suggestions, helping any given local church become more adept at educating about, supporting, and sending global missionaries. It is “a clear and concise guidebook for any church wanting to make global missions extend beyond an annual offering or a Minute for Missions.” Ya know?
Three big cheers for this classy, boutique Western Pennsylvania publisher and for Richard Noble, a well-known and widely-respected Christian Missionary Alliance missions mobilizer. He is the founder and director of the Center for Missional Engagement and deserves to be heard.
A BEAUTIFUL, QUIET GEM
Faithful Friendships: Embracing Diversity in Christian Community Dana Robert (Eerdmans) $19.00 I’m not sure what first alerted me that this would be a quiet gem, a great little book, perhaps too unsung, but important and wonderful. Perhaps it was the sub-title, or the fact that a foreword was offered by Christine Pohl, who wrote the seminal, essential Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition and Living Into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us and Friendships at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission. If Pohl says something is important, we should listen.
I realized early on by reading Ms Pohl’s good foreword that this is, indeed, a book about friendship. I thought maybe the word “friendship” in the title was just useful for an image, but that it was mostly about community, about church. And it is, I suppose. But Dana Robert’s is working deeply here – even though the book isn’t academic or arcane – in the questions of virtue and relationships and character. What kind of people are we in our communities of faith? What kind of relationships form us? That is, what kind of friends do we have?
We don’t know whether to put this book under our section about racism and multi-ethnic ministry because it is about cross-cultural diversity. But is is also about diversity within the church, so we surely should shelf it in our section about community, next to ecclesiology. But, you know what? It also is a book, as Pohl reminds us, about friendship. So it goes under friendship, over in the self-help sort of personal growth section. I almost listed in in that category in the PART ONE of BookNotes Best of 210-9.
Faithful Friendships came out of lectures given at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Virginia, a lively and wonderful place. The ideas were first shaped by a series of talks she gave at Baylor’s Truett Theological Seminary. Currently, she teaches World Christianity and History of Mission (and is the director of the Center for Global Christianity at Boston University.) So she gets around – Baptist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic. (And Pohl, who studied at L’Abri, with Francis Schaeffer, teaches at Asbury, a fine United Methodist institution.)
Isn’t it nice that such ecumenical voices have so much to tell us, to teach us about Jesus and his tender call to care for others? This book is deeply Christian, rooted in the gospels, and yet if full of contemporary stories, examples and illustrations of lasting friendships and cross-cultural initiatives. You can see more of why we love it, and why I insist on honoring it here as a lovely release from 2019 by hearing these other important figures who commend it:
“Dana Robert has been that rare combination of renowned scholar and committed church mission leader. In this book, Dr. Robert does a marvelous job of reclaiming the practice of friendship as essential to Christian ethics and church life. I’ve just returned from a bruising at the United Methodist General Conference, full of talk of division and schism. I’m thinking, ‘Dana Robert’s guidance and wisdom, just when we need it. What a gift.'” Will Wiilimon, Accidential Preacher
“What a remarkable–and unusual–book Dana Robert has given us! Though esteemed as a scholar of church history and mission, she has ranged far beyond academic categories to explore the deepest human needs and to reflect on the models of friendship she has seen in Christian communities. This is not a sentimental book; her copious illustrations depict Christian commitment across boundaries, often in peril. Preachers and church leaders of all stripes will value the way she has woven biblical and theological insights together with her own warmhearted message. Dana Robert is herself a friend in the church’s need.” Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion
“Refusing to be torn apart by wars, revolutions, and systemic injustice and oppression, the individuals in Faithful Friendships manifest their faith and humanity in noble acts of friendship that defies the boundaries of race, nationality, class, religion, and culture. An inspiring read.” Xi Lian, Duke Divinity School
SURPRISING, POWERFUL, HONEST, HEART-BROKEN: A CRY FROM THE MAINLINE CHURCH, IMPORTANT FOR US ALL
Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the Us Lenny Duncan (Fortress Press) $16.99 I wasn’t sure how to honor this hot love letter of a book that came out this summer. It is, as the subtitle reveals, a book mostly for mainline Lutherans. The ELCA is said to be one of the whitest denominations in the US, but it is, I’d say, a stand in for most mainline denominations. I know a number of clergy of color in our own Lutheran Synod and have only had the briefest of conversations with some about how they navigate their own embodiment within their mostly white region and mostly white congregations. Some are, as you’d expect, more outspoken about racial justice issues, while others perhaps do not feel called to that particular ministry or do not want the burden of hosting that conversation. Maybe they are content, maybe not.
I used to sell books as one of the only white people at an all African American conference for black men and women – clergy and congregants – in my own PC(USA) denomination. Like the ELCA, we’ve made all sorts of statements and public commitments to ethnic diversity and racial justice. Our mainline denominational publishers have done radical books and our leaders have issued declarations. But only as I was privileged to be an insider to the conversations within the safe spaces of the black Presbyterian caucus, so to speak, did I realize that despite the right messages (sometimes) from leadership, people of color have huge barriers and frustrations within largely white organizations, even those that say they are mostly progressive on these issues. As I started to read Rev. Lenny (the Lutheran) Duncan’s Dear Church I could almost hear my black Presbyterian brothers and sisters from years ago. This stuff is talked about in public a bit more these days, but the issues of race and class have not gone away.
(That Duncan add passion for inclusion of those other than cis-gender folk would make it controversial in some black churches, of course and in this, he does not speak for all people of color, or course.)
In his love letter to the ELCA, Duncan offers the church a “new vision for the future.” I’m not so sure what is so “new” about fighting white supremacy, misogyny, nationalism, homophobia, and economic injustice. He stands with immigrants and the LGBTQ+ community and while we don’t do it very well, the call to do so isn’t new, certainly not from this publisher. But in all this heart-felt anguish and hope, Duncan calls us to consider deeply and forthrightly just how willing we are to truly and faithfully enter that struggle for the long haul.
The writing in Dear Church is shall we say, a bit colorful and Rev. Duncan is (perhaps at first glance) a surprising character to lead the church of Luther to a new reformation. Lenny Duncan is, as he says, “the unlikeliest of pastors.” He was formerly homeless, he drifted all around the country. He was very seriously un-churched. Incarcerated. So he has some of that rough past experience and brings some history and struggle and hardship to his work as pastor at Jehu’s Table in the heart of Brooklyn. This radical social and spiritual transformation isn’t uncommon among Pentecostal and evangelical church leaders, but it is more rare in the more middle American mainline churches. Ya know? This story almost sounds, well, Biblical in proportion.
I agree (perhaps in a slightly different way than Duncan means it) when he says that the problems with the declining membership church facing shifting demographics and shrinking congregations “are not sociological, but theological.” Right on; in fact, I wish he’d have explored that more.
In this heart-felt open letter to the mainline church, Reverend Lenny Duncan calls us all to renewal, to revival. He invites us to rise up in God’s Spirit – yes, in terms of a radical vision of a fully open and inclusive church and a wholistic mission that subverts the idols and ideologies of the day, and of status quo congregations, but it is a spiritual renewal about which he writes. This really does mean turning to God and getting serious about our discipleship in the way of Jesus and His counter-cultural movement. He’s right about that, you know, and he brings this challenge with lots of energy and color and spicy storytelling. It’s worth reading, and it has a lot of integrity.
Even if you disagree with Duncan’s progressive sort of theology and his liberationist hermeneutic and lefty sort of politics, you should agree that this feisty read is better than the passionate (manicured) voices calling us to a safe sort of mega-churchy pseudo-revolution. I’m tired of hip and breathy evangelical voices calling us to cool zeal and making a difference and changing the world, when, frankly, they don’t even touch the big issues of structural and systematic idolatry in our society; they’ve co-opted the language of revolution but don’t really mean it. Dear Church means it. Rev. Duncan may not have every analysis fully right – read it and conclude for yourself – but he is pointing us in the right direction, calling us out, inviting us to be serious about faith and action, and to not give up on God’s work in the mainline churches. His diagnosis is severe and his proposals are radical.
I don’t know how my BookNotes fans will take this, but here are how some in his own beloved ELCA have responded:
Rev. Lenny Duncan is a voice calling in the wilderness. I am deeply grateful for the comfort and the discomfort his book brought me. I dare you to read this book, church. I dare you to be open to the repentance it calls for, to the grace it manifests, to the pain it witnesses to. I dare you to be changed by the truth in its pages. I dare you to not look away. It’s time.
Marrying stunning, reverberant personal stories with little-known Lutheran history, Duncan makes readers laugh out loud in grim recognition. His critiques of our beloved church strike a tender spot in the heart, not because they are harsh, but because they are true.
The Reverend Lenny Duncan writes with a searing message urgently rooted in true love. His deep commitment to speak the truth to his white siblings in the church reads as a desperately clarion call. Dear Church isn’t just a good idea for a book study–the grace-filled ferocity that overwhelms its pages reminds one of early writings from the Latin American base communities that formed liberation theology as we know it today. Duncan has written a necessary addition to the corpus of Christian writings in the twenty-first century. We ignore his plea at our own peril.”
FAVORITE BOOKS and DVDs ABOUT THE BIBLE
I love reading books about the Bible and do my fair share of informal Bible teaching, here and there. There seems to be a rising tide of fresh, new Bible scholars these days and we saw remarkably important books by authors like Nijay K. Gupta and Brant Pitre and Michael Bird and Douglas Campbell, all who are writing on Paul, perhaps in conversation with leaders in the field like Michael Gorman, who published this year Participating in Christ: Explorations in Paul’s Theology and Spirituality (Baker Academic; $30.00.)
There has been quite an interest in Paul studies this year, and we’re excited. One important and interesting one that we announced at BookNotes last winter was Preaching Romans: Four Perspectives edited by Scot McKnight & Jospeh Modica (Eerdmans; $20.00.) It offers four different “takes” or approaches to the famous epistle and then suggests how preachers should proclaims the message of Romans. There are not only essays about the four different approaches, but sample sermons.
Some of the esteemed scholars and preachers who are included in this good resource are Michael Gorman, Fleming Rutledge, Michael Bird, Douglas Campbell, Richard Hays, Tara Beth Leach, William Willimon and others, all indicative of one of the four interpretive perspectives
This is a really interesting, very useful, and I think inspiring volume and recommend it for anyone interested in Bible study, in Paul, or in preaching. Kudos!
Later in the year, Scot McKnight himself did a freshly conceived but careful commentary on Romans entitled Reading Romans Backwards: A Gospel of Peace in the Midst of Empire (Baylor University Press; $29.99 — no discount available on this one; sorry.) It, of course, emphasizes the ecclesiological context and implications and has gotten very good reviews. It is a notable volume, for sure, but if you’re going there, stay tuned (below) to see me once again rave about the astounding and energetic Romans Disarmed.
Although it has a very different style and approach, I have to admit I enjoyed much of the little paperback by John Piper called Why I Love the Apostle Paul: 30 Reasons (Crossway; $14.99.) I spend a lot of my own time in the Old Testament, so it’s good to hear him say “Besides Jesus, no one has kept me from despair, or taken me deeper into the mysteries of the gospel, than the apostle Paul.)
Zondervan’s useful “Story of God Bible Commentaries” (edited by Scot McKnight & Tremper Longman) saw several new volumes this year (for instance, Joshua by Lissa Wray Beal and Acts by Dean Pinter.) They’ve added more to the excellent paperback “Biblical Theology for Life” series – see Nicholas Perrin’s Biblical Theology of Life: The Kingdom of God.
Zondervan made a real mark in 2019 as they released two different video curriculums by N.T. Wright and Michael Bird and a major, major textbook This is amazing — what riches we have to use among our churches and small groups and Bible studies and fellowship groups. First, last winter, there was the upbeat and fabulous “live from the Holy land” 8-session DVD The New Testament You Never Knew Video Study: Exploring the Context, Purpose, and Meaning of the Story of God ($39.99, or $51.99 for a DVD/Participant’s Guide combo package.) It’s perfect for almost any group that wants solid teaching that is accesible and clear.
Then, in the fall, they released Wright and Bird’s massive (992 page) text The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians (Zondervan Academic; $59.99) that surely deserves the acclaim it has been getting. It is superb; perhaps the best volume of its kind! There is a large companion workbook, too, The New Testament in Its World Workbook, that can be bought to go through this big text which is useful as a study resource; the workbook regularly for $22.99. We are real fans of this fabulous, serious contribution to New Testament studies.
The matching DVD set of The New Testament in Its World Video Lectures offers 37-lesson seminary level video lectures and shows them as good professors not just in the classroom but, again, live in the holy land. As you can imagine, given how lovely and helpful actually hearing N.T. Wright is (and Bird is pretty great as a speaker, too) this hefty set of lectures is highly recommended for those wanting a deeper study. It is, I’d say, almost unprecedented and, although seminary level, could be made available for somebody at almost any church. The 37 lessons on four DVD discs sells for $49.99.
The release of this major book (not to mention the workbook and the DVDs) is simply momentous, what we truly might call a publishing event.
“The big, bold theological interpretation of the New Testament that N. T. Wright has been building, piece by piece, in monographs and commentaries over the years now appears here in an accessible, single-volume New Testament introduction.” –Dr. Matthew V. Novenson, senior lecturer in New Testament and Christian Origins, University of Edinburgh, Scotland
So, a very special shout out to Zondervan thanking them for their role in bringing this new N.T. Wright teaching to us all.
A month ago I described at BookNotes two new Walter Brueggemann books written for a popular audience. First there was the short but delightfully useful From Judgment to Hope: A Study on the Prophets (WJK; $14.00) which I highly recommend. Also released in October was An On-going Imagination: A Conversation About Scripture, Faith, and the Thickness of Relationships (WJK; $18.00.) It is a fabulous transcript of the honest conversations between Clover Beal and Walt over a period of months together. It’s a must for any Brueggemann fans.
Something that delighted many with joy and surprise, even, was the Brueggemann book that WJK released last January — A Glad Obedience: Why and What We Sing (WJK; $18.00.) As we explained at BookNotes, it includes a number of studies on the role of music and hymns in our lives by way of studying a handful of typically mainline Protestant hymns, followed by a handful of chapters studying various Psalms that were firstly sung. It was so useful that it was given a foreword by the head of the wonderful and widely respected Calvin Institute on Christian Worship, John Witvliet.
Tremper Longman released a major work to through his hat into the ring of the genre of books that help us understand the hard and complicated stuff of the Bible in his Confronting Old Testament Controversies: Pressing Questions about Evolution, Sexuality, History, and Violence (IVP; $19.99.) He is as trustworthy as they come, it seems to me, so this deserves attention and appreciation.
I’ll admit that I really, really enjoyed and I learned a lot from Pete Enn’s witty and mostly helpful How the Bible Actually Works: In Which I Explain How an Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers–And Why That’s Good News (HarperOne; $26.99.) It doesn’t answer all the questions of a faithful hermeneutic, and revels in the loose ends a bit too much for my taste, but it’s a really good read. It deserves a very honorable mention. I know some think he’s gone way too ambiguous about the perspicuity and authority of the Word of God but I don’t think that is fair. He’s just trying to help us, as he says, see how the literature we’ve been given in our Sacred texts actually works.
It isn’t easy to pull off faithfully, but I adored The Old Testament in Seven Sentences: A Small Introduction to a Vast Topic by the impeccable Christopher J.H. Wright (IVP Academic; $16.00.) I co-taught an overview of the Old Testament course at our church and read a lot of Hebrew Scripture stuff this past fall. This little volume was really good. Also released in 2019 was The New Testament in Seven Sentences: A Small Introduction to a Vast Topic by the very astute Wheaton prof, Gary M Burge (IVP Academic; $16.00) As always, InterVarsity Press has this knack to create good books that are thoughtful and informed without being overly academic. They do lots of books for the “thoughtful layperson” alongside their extraordinary scholarly imprint. IVP Academic. (These two are, by the, in their “IVP Academic” imprint which I guess they suppose will allow them be adopted as college-level introductory texts. I suppose, but they aren’t nearly as scholarly as many in that academic imprint, so don’t let that scare you away. These make great books for any reader.
I think IVP Academic did the most consistently interesting Biblical studies and other academic output this year (see HERE for their Fall 2019 catalog, which is much more than Biblical and theological books and includes rigorously scholarly work as well as less technical volumes but that are still fairly academic; we stock many of these, of course, and can get them all.) See HERE for the interactive Baker Academic Fall 2019 catalog to see their remarkable listing of serious scholarship as well as the less formal but fairly academic listings as well.)
I hope you notice the 2019 IVP releases in their great “Week in the Life of…” series, such as A Week in the Life of Rome by James Papandrea, A Week in the Life of a Greco-Roman Woman by Holly Beers, or A Week in the Life of a Slave by New Testament scholar John Byron. These tremendous little books appeal to those who want an easy read (part fiction, part non-fiction, actualy) that puts us right into the social context of the New Testament. Congratulations to them for offering this kind of good work.
God’s Sabbath With Creation: Vocations Fulfilled, the Glory Unveiled James Skillen (Wipf & Stock) $35.00 I sadly suspect that you may not have heard of this stellar 2019 release (unless you saw my shout out about it at BookNotes) nor its fine author, Dr. James Skillen. Skillen often works in the higher scholarly levels of political philosophy and is respected in a circle of political thinkers in the line of the Dutch Christian statesman Abraham Kuyper (and even more specifically, among those who studied legal theory or social philosophy in the tradition of Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd, like, say, David Koyzis, Jonathan Chaplin, Paul Marshall, John Witte, Elaine Botha, Bob Goudzwaard, James K.A. Smith, Stanely Carlson-Thies, Robert and Jessica Joustra, Matthew Kaemingk, Richard Mouw, and even Nicholas Wolterstorff. ) And yet, Skillen’s passionate, deeply thoughtful, generative scholarship isn’t as known as it might be. His 2014 The Good of Politics A Biblical, Historical, And Contemporary Introduction is still a must read for our times as it offers a positive theological articulation of Godly statecraft and the legitimate role of government, offering a foundation for the civic organization he founded decades ago, Citizens for Public Justice. It’s an organization we value and look to for a way out of the tired stalemates. So Skillen has done as much well-balanced thinking about Biblically-informed statecraft and citizenship and a deeply religious public faith than almost anybody I know.
So, therefore, when Skillen offers this first major collection of writings since his retirement from CPJ, Christians interested in redeeming the vocation of citizenship and politics amidst the clanging gongs of the religious right and the Christian left, we should listen. But, know this: God’s Sabbath for Creation showcases Jim’s love for Scripture and his deep awareness of important themes in the Bible. He draws on sources as profound as Meredith Kline and Karl Barth and Jorgen Moltmann and Abraham Kuyper, on Biblical scholars from Walter Brueggemann to Craig Bartholomew to Raymond Van Leuween.
God’s Sabbath for Creation has intriguing chapters, rich Biblical insights, new ideas, wild dreams, good hopes rooted in the Bible’s own story and its description of the creations purposes and the fulfillment of those purposes. It is one of the unsung books of the year by one of the unsung heroes of our time. It is not commonplace and at times it is challenging; as I think I noted in my previous review at BookNotes there is meaty Biblical exposition here, coupled with astute political theory and social analysis. But mostly Bible. It is truly extraordinary and one of the urgent tracts for our time, inviting us to image God’s redemption of His world in Christ and what it means to enter into the ultimate Sabbath of the healing, restoring, reign of God.
The God Who Sees: Immigrants, the Bible, and the Journey to Belong Karen Gonzalez (Herald Press) $16.99 We have occasionally shared that this author met an acquisitions editor for Herald Press at our store and while we were trying not to eavesdrop, they signed the contract for this very book. (And then, naturally, I sold her some books on immigration issues.) But while that is lovely and fun, the attention for this book must be turned upon Ms Gonzalez, who is a great storyteller, a great Bible teacher, and an immigration advocate who has been there. We have joked (as we often do with these kinds of books) that need to keep on under immigration issues, but also under the study of Bible characters, even though, it is also a memoir. And what a riveting story she has of seeking safety in another land. As it says on the back, “Here is a gripping journey of loss, alienation, and belonging.”
In picking this up again this week it dawns on me that I want to name it as a notable book and personal favorite this year, but that I want to suggest that it is award-winning in the Biblical studies category. Yes, she is one of the few Christian writers about immigration issues who herself if an immigrant, and yes, she tells a lot of her poignant story, making this a heckuva a great read. But alongside the personal narrative and the natural advocacy, there is, at the heart of the book, a study of characters in Scripture who have fled their homelands. Seen though the lens of migration,Ms. Gonzalez studies Hagar and Joesph, Ruth and, yes, Jesus.
There is, as many of us have come to realize in recent decades, a lot in the Bible about how to be welcoming to strangers and to have gracious policies about immigrants. And there are narratives of refugees and those who are our “intrepid heros of the faith who cross borders and seek refuge.”
Kudos to Herald Press for doing these fine kinds of books that are a bit genre-bending but ultimately very, very helpful. Good Scripture study and inspiring Biblical reflection should be mixed with real life narrative and should lead to real life social change. Karen Gonzalez gest this, and The God Who Sees tells her own story, and how it opened up her insight into God’s Word. I love the cover, too. Highly recommended.
BIBLICAL STUDIES BOOK OF THE YEAR
Romans Disarmed: Doing Justice/Resisting Empire Sylvia Keesmaat & Brian Walsh (Brazos Press) $26.99 There is no doubt in my mind that the most interesting and, I believe, the most important book of Biblical studies this year is Romans Disarmed: Doing Justice/Resisting Empire. In fact, I think it was my very favorite nonfiction read of 2019; certainly it was the most provocative and intellectually stimulating. You can study my lengthy explanation of it at our BookNotes review HERE, but you may want to know a few quick things, now: this is one of these rare books that is lively and culturally engaged with side trips into racial justice and creation care and urban poverty even as it diligently (if creatively) grapples with the exegesis and interpretation and meaning and application of the Biblical text.
Years ago when thinking about Colossians with their friend N.T. Wright, they came up with the idea of an “anti-commentary” (which became 2004’s Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire; IVP Academic; $28.00.) It is a commentary; not quite line by line, but almost page by page. It is a commentary that points us to why we read the ancient Scripture in the first place and how in the world we interpret it well and live it out: it’s a “so what” sort of practical application reflection, read in light of and forged by their ministry making the world a better place. It’s not really an “anti-commentary” but a Biblical commentary as they are meant to be done with life and passion and color and controversy. That is, it isn’t about arcane history and syntax and word meanings in some abstract dogmatic sense, but it is about communities of fait (then and now) that are transformed by the story of God unfolding as they encounter the living Word. There is a lot of background scholarship and a lot of very contemporary cultural analysis and vivid, radical application. I bet it will offend you but I bet that it will bless you even more.
Their explanations of first century Roman life and how Paul’s pastoral letter would have been received and discussed and applied is spectacular. Their storytelling puts you into the culture of the day and even if it is a bit speculative (despite pages of studious footnotes) it makes the old book come alive. Their insistence that we strip the layers of accrued theological jargon from the letter and allow it to call us today into a Romans-like faith community that brought together rich and poor, the sexually conventional and those less so, slavers and those trafficked, Jews and Gentiles, is stunningly powerful, unlocking a revolutionary sort of application that is truly transformational. That is, it can be, if you are willing to be open to a new reading and consider that it may be a faithful, fruitful reading. And find some others to discuss it with and pledge to allow God to guide you towards experimenting with living it out, Romans style.
Sylvia is a creative and immensely talented Bible scholar and professor (whose work is cited by scholars like Richard Hays and others who write about echoes of the Old Testament found in the New, which she wrote about in her own PhD thesis under N.T. Wright decades ago.) Brian is an activist and campus pastor and prolific writer, having released books that are personal favorites of mine such as Transforming Vision, Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be, Subversive Christianity, Beyond Homelessness, Kicking at the Darkness, St. John Before Breakfast and Habakkuk Before Breakfast. (Many of these, quite intentionally, I suspect, are co-written with others.) Brian and Sylvia steward a permaculture-based farm while experimenting with sustainable agriculture and hospitable homesteading, even as he does campus ministry at the University of Toronto and works with several social justice organizations in the city.
Perhaps it is their faithful, generous praxis (as the scholars like to put it) that gives rise to their deep insights about the social location and anti-Empire themes in Romans or maybe it is their years of close attention to the Scripture that pushed them towards increasingly radical forms of counter-cultural lifestyles; perhaps a bit of both. In any case, Romans Disarmed just shimmers with passion for Word and world, for the Pauline epistle and the powers that deform our own world, for Romans and for modern resistance. In all its complicated, ambitious glory the hefty, provocative Romans Disarmed is akin to their wonderful and much-debated Colossians Remixed. I believe it is one of the most important contributions to Biblical studies in quite a while and certainly my favorite and most pondered book of 2019.
BRIAN WALSH & SYLVIA KEESMAAT TO SPEAK AT HEARTS & MINDS MARCH 23, 2020
You can learn more soon at our Hearts & Minds Facebook page but we are pleased to announce that Sylvia and Brian are coming to Hearts & Minds to present some of their ideas from Romans Disarmed. It is a great, great honor to have these two authors with us. It will be a generous and stimulating conversation, we’re sure…
Please join us here at the shop in Dallastown on March 23, a Monday night, at 7:00 pm.
BEST CONTRIBUTION TO CHRISTIAN LITERARY CRITICISM
When Poets Pray Marilyn McEntyre (Eerdmans) $19.99 How can I not name this as a favorite this year, an award-deserving contribution to not only faith-based perspectives on literature, but, more, showing how ordinary readers can come to appreciate poetry more. Of course poetry does not need to be prayerful or prayed for people of religious faith to appreciate it – that would fly against all we stand for her, suggesting some cheap baptizing of so called “secular” work with some splash of the sacred. No. But still, this is a creative and generative experiment, a playful and maybe helpful suggestion of what it might be like to use these poems in this manner, to help us attend to them, and to allow them to point us to God and God’s graceful care for the world around us. This is not an essential use of poetry, but it is appropriate
Marilyn McEntyre knows all this, of course, and meanders her way into explaining (beautifully, in pages I’ve read out loud more than once in programs and preaching this year) how words matter, how God can use language and literature. So. Here is Ms McEntyre’s earnest treatment of a handful of poems (most of which were most likely not firstly written as prayers, although perhaps some were) and how we might pray them. What a great way to deepen our appreciation of some of these poets and their poems – a few which you may know, a few which you, like me, may not. And what a creative way to use God’s good gift of words and language and poetry to deepen our prayer life. When Poets Pray is very nicely done by an author we very much respect. It made bookselling in 2019 that much more special.
Reading Buechner: Exploring the Work of a Master Memoirist, Novelist, Theologian, and Preacher Jeffrey Munroe (IVP) $18.00 If we were being creative and playful and I had the energy to come up with clever-sounding award names, I’d award this something like “The Best Book Which Does Something We’ve Been Waiting For The Longest” or the “Finally, Somebody Did This in 2019” Book Award. In other words, we are thrilled to see this released into the marketplace and hope you, too, appreciate its wonderful significance.
There have been some fine compilations of Mr. Buechner’s various works; the daily devotional called Listening To Your Life is still a sturdy and fine suggestion and there is a great compilation of his eloquent sermons (Secrets in the Dark) but heretofore the only introduction to his work is the quite serviceable and wise (and pricey) hardback The Book of Buechner: A Journey Through His Writings by Dale Cooper (WJK; $30.00.) I don’t think there has yet to be a really good and accessible guide to his life and work for beginners, including – as the subtitle suggests, his memoirs, his novels, his theological work, and his preaching. Reading Buechner: Exploring the Work of a Master Memoirist, Novelist, Theologian, and Preacher by Jeffrey Munroe is that book. Hoooray.
There are four good chapters under the first memoir section, exploring, in order, Buechner’s famous and beloved The Sacred Journey, Now and Then, Telling Secrets, and The Eyes of the Heart. Part II looks at Godric and Son of Laughter (but oddly, no Brenden.) Part III explores Wishful Thinking and Peculiar Treasures while the three chapters in Part IV are Telling the Truth: Tears with Great Laughter and Secrets in the Dark: The Wonder of Words, followed by a nice closing chapter called “Reading Buechner Today.” There is a fine epilogue and a good appendix offering an annotated bibliography. Kudos to Jeffrey Monroe (who is ordained in the RCA denomination) and who is the Vice President at Western Theological Seminary where he also teaches writing.
There’s a very nice foreword to Reading Buechner by artist Makoto Fujimura, too, which makes this all the more special. Even the warm cover seems just right. Thanks to all who played a part getting this book to us. What a gift.
A BOOK I MUST AWARD – BUT IN WHAT CATEGORY?
Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church James E. Beitler (IVP Academic) $25.00 Okay, I’ve already said that I don’t know what to do with this amazingly interesting, brilliantly conceived, one-of-a-kind book. Kudos to IVP for bringing such stimulating and thoughtful books to us, even if, as I suspect, many stores just won’t carry it. I hope that is not the case, as this book deserves to be widely read, seriously considered, discussed and somehow applied. Although it isn’t a book that is easily “applied” even though it is chock-full of wisdom, full of insights, and oh so very, very needed. Rhetoric? Yes, yes, you know: how do we “speak the truth in love” as the Epistle commands? How do we speak in a way that is relevant and timely and gracious and clear and profound and good and stimulating and… well, you get the picture. How we speak, persuade, honor the image of God in others, denounce evil and highlight beauty and goodness – whether we are in ordinary, everyday conversations or whether we are novelists or essayists, bloggers or preachers, we simply have to think harder about how to learn to be wise and compelling. Form follows function, I think somebody said so we should know that how we speak is as important as what we say. Seasoned Speech helps us explore that in amazingly healthy, thoughtful, good ways. And that’s half the fun!
As I said in my previous review in BookNotes when this came out last Spring (even then I intuited it was genius and hoped it was as good as it looked) the title itself draws from Colossians 4: 6 where Paul wrote “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.” In this sense, it stands somewhat with that great book from a few years ago Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion by Os Guinness, even if that works a bit with satire as a element of faithful communication in presenting compelling Christian truth in a skeptical, post-Christian world. Beitler brings a different approach and it is nothing short of award winning.
As you perhaps can see from the cover, what this author is doing in this grand and thoughtful work, is exploring different (faithful) rhetorical styles as evidenced by several different public intellectuals, faithful Christians who have made their mark before the watching world.
Seasoned Speech used as case studies the rhetorical and communication stylings of C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Desmond Tutu, and Marilyn Robinson. What a great idea for a book, and what a splendid array of thinkers, writers, and communicators to help us grapple with how to have seasoned speech in different complicated settings.
I am sure we don’t have to explain to BookNotes fans that Lewis was the BBC apologist an intellectual Oxford don and a children’s storyteller. whose Mere Christianity explained faith as intellectually sound and a “myth which is also a fact,” His friend Dorothy Sayers was a playwright who said “The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination.” Bonhoeffer – wow. But you know he mostly talked about Jesus in his humility. And Tutu – helped bring down apartheid by talking about justice and our interconnectedness, not unlike the great MLK, I’d say. Robinson is as Beitler notes, a complex figure, doing very intellectually profound essays in places like The New Yorker (and collection in heady volumes published by serious houses) as well as her more popular Pulitzer Prize winning novels like Gilead. Reminds me of Mr. Lewis in a way – Christian apologist, novelist, and essayist.
How does it all get said, by writers, dramatists, activists, public speakers and introverted authors? Can we speak truth, salty and seasoned with grace, even if we are denouncing public stupidity and great evil? Can we be winsome and strong, prophetic and persuasive? What can we learn from these great public saints of the 20th century?
This is truly one of the Best Books of 2019, notable and persuasive and, even though I fear it won’t be adequately studied, very, very important.
BOOK I MOST HATED TO LOVE / LOVED TO HATE
Shameless: A Sexual Reformation Nadia Bolz-Weber (Convergence) $25.00 Some years I use this playful heading to highlight a book I have very conflicted feelings about but which deserves to be named as a major book of the year. This captivating book surely fits that category and I know I’ll annoy both conservatives and progressives by saying I both truly loved and yet somewhat disapproved of this very moving, very tender, often right and sometimes troubling book. I couldn’t put it down, found myself cheering much of it, and was deeply moved by the reading experience and the great empathy and compassion it strives to engender. And that is true – Nadia is a caring pastor and advocate for those who don’t fit the mold – her own story, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint and the story of the church she founded (House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver) called Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People are books I truly love. We’ve been to the church more than once, and was significantly blessed by the communal experience, the singing, the interesting Lutheran liturgy offered in a serious if campy aesthetic and the very good preaching. You may not like her cussing or her bohemian ethos, but it just made me weep to see so many who would be excluded and made to feel unwelcome in so many places so obviously safe and loved and called together around the gospel in that place. Fans or haters – and this author has plenty of both – I hope you’ll respect me naming this 2019 book in public. Although I found some parts unhelpful and inadequate, I mostly loved this amazingly written, very raw and touching exploration of a new sexual ethic, free of shame and joyful about the goodness of God’s gift of erotic pleasures.
I am mostly with her in a call for a new sexual reformation, for a rejection of shame and embarrassment and an obsession with what some evangelicals call “purity.” We could use an honest admission that the Bible is less than perfectly clear about some things (including “purity”, the codes about which Jesus regularly dissed.) We need some pastoral encouragement for coping with the fact that many people are wounded around issues of sexuality (often by the church) and many are just different enough in their own funky inclinations and affections that we simply can’t just shame everyone and insist on legalistic compliance with attitudes and rules that are more Victorian than Biblical. I’m with Nadia that the church hasn’t had a robust doctrine of creation, or the body, or awe and beauty, and we haven’t taken the longings and relationships of younger adults as seriously as we might, either. For these and many more reasons, Shameless was a hard but important book for me to read.
Nadia’s stories are beautifully told and her empathy is inspiring. I think I’d read almost anything of hers because she is such an entertaining writer. (By the way: we stock her first, lesser-known book Salvation on the Small Screen: 24 Hours of Christian Television, so there ya go.)
Her extreme minimalism about all sexual ethics – basically do no harm – has been critiqued by those who cared enough to engage Bolz-Weber’s work seriously (see Wesley Hill’s fair response HERE for one good example) which illustrates some of my frustration with her shoddy thinking about it all. But as a caring storyteller and really good, colorful writer, as an earnest friend of the marginalized, and a pastor working for full inclusion in the church of those some might label deviants, she nearly wins the day, making reading Shameless a moving and poignant experience and unlike anything I’ve ever read. I don’t like it, fully, but I’ll never forget it.
ANY BOOK MENTIONED
this takes you to the secure Hearts & Minds order form page
just tell us what you want
if you have questions or need more information
just ask us what you want to know
Hearts & Minds 234 East Main Street Dallastown PA 17313