I didn’t send out a BookNotes newsletter last week – thanks for noticing – because, well, I just didn’t want to add to the noise. We are all inundated with information. We are still working 12-hour days (more or less) six days a week and find it hard to keep up with the videos, Zoom meetings, news stories, Facebook posts, updates, calls to action, and articles I need to read. I’m sure many of our readers, customers, and friends are feeling it, too. It’s hard to read and write when one is anxious and exhausted.
So no big Corona Virus essay from me (other than the reminder to stay home the best you can. This is serious stuff and we love our neighbors well by minimizing contact, despite what our President has foolishly tweeted.)
We are, of course, closed for in-store business. Last week we were making mad dashes to the parking lot and doing curb-side deliveries, but we now believe that violates our Governor’s ruling about closing “non-life sustaining” businesses. We are now just doing mail order and some local deliveries. For now it is our hope to continue to ship stuff out daily, so send us a note or give us a call. We need the business, believe me… and maybe you need some books.
So let’s get to it. Here are a dozen or so new books (and one or two others I just have to mention.) I’ll try to keep it mostly brief, with hefty apologies to the good authors who deserve more extended reviews. These excellent titles are all of that deserving caliber of consideration and I could wax eloquent about them. If you order them, you’ll see for yourself…
As always, you can click on the link at the very bottom of this column to be taken directly to our secure order form page. Just tell us what you want and we’ll deduct the discount and take it from there. It is our pleasure to serve you in this way. All books are 20% off.
The Sound of Life’s Unspeakable Beauty Martin Schleske (Eerdmans) $24.99 Maybe once or twice a year I get an impassioned note from somebody in the book biz – a sales representative or editor that knows us – sending an early manuscript with a handwritten note insisting that this may be their favorite book in a long time, a stellar project, and they wanted me to be aware, etc. This is a true privilege and since it doesn’t happen often, I take such suggestions seriously. The Sound of Life’s Unspeakable Beauty came from a professional at Eerdmans saying mostly that it was just so beautiful, that it was gloriously exceptional and he was sure I’d appreciate it. The prose was beautiful and he promised that the publisher would be doing the book on high-quality glossy paper and two-color ink because the writing (and moody black and white photographs done by a respected German photographer) deserved such a weighty, handsome presentation.
That book is now in our hands and I suggested it to a very sharp customer and friend, a consultant and church leader, himself somewhat of an explorer and quite creative; you may know him because he is in the DVD series For the Life of the World. I knew he’d like this book but I didn’t know he’d call me twice in the next three days exclaiming how very, very moved he was, insisting this was one of the best books he’s ever read.
So, my guy at Eerdmans was right. The Sound of Life’s Unspeakable Beauty is beautiful and exceptional.
And, it is really interesting. Translated from the German (where it was a bestseller) The Sound… is written by a world-class luthier. That is, by a violin and guitar maker. It is a rumination on the art of crafting instruments, starting with picking the wood in the forest (and what a chapter that is where he listens to the trees!) but it is also about the glorious aesthetic dimension (my words, not his, exactly) that pervades all of life. (For those that like this notion, it is a insight explored by Calvin Seerveld, especially in his Rainbows for the Fallen World.) The Sound of Life’s Unspeakable Beauty is a book that helps us learn from this master craftsman how to attend to the deep beauty all around us.
Here is how the publisher describes it:
Are the sounds and signposts that direct us towards the meaning of life hidden? One of the greatest luthiers of our time reveals the secrets of his profession—and how each phase of handcrafting a violin can point us toward our calling, our true selves, and the overwhelming power and gentleness of God’s love.
When we are able to express the inexpressible, the unheard aspects of life, we become like a well-tuned instrument. As Schleske says, “In the final analysis, music is prayer cast into sound.”
Visual artist and writer Makoto Fujimura wrote a wonderful foreword, which is well worth savoring itself. Near the close of his few pages, Mako says,
So the words of this beautiful book do not just describe, explain, or share information; these words are, in themselves, part of the Sound, and I can hear it from the first paragraph. Then, after, the worlds begin to overlap with music; I wanted to savor every paragraph, as if I, too, am a tuner listening to the timbre.
Perhaps you know the book The World Beyond Your Head by philosopher/motorcycle repairman Matthew Crawford (who also wrote Shop Class as Soul Craft) where he interviews workers about the body-knowledge and insight about their jobs. I thought of that fine and profound work as I read my advanced copy of The Sound of Life’s Unspeakable Beauty and more so when the handsome hardback arrived and there was an blurb on the back from poet and essayist Marilyn McEntyre, saying,
Reading these richly evocative reflections, I found myself again and again ‘surprised by joy.’ And gratitude. I was reminded that when people live into their callings deeply and faithfully, they become beacons. Stories from Schleske’s work as a violinmaker, his knowledge of trees and music and even varnish, become heart-opening parables, not by preachment, but by the loving particularity with which he pays attention to the work he was given.
Keys to Bonhoeffer’s Haus: Exploring the World and Wisdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Laura M. Fabrycky (Fortress Press) $25.99 When I said that many of these wonderful, mostly brand new releases in this issue of BookNotes, deserve more extended reviews, Laura Fabrycky’s Keys to Bonhoeffer’s Haus is certainly one that should be honored with a very through discussion. It is, without a doubt, one of the best books so far in 2020 and I am confident will be on may “year’s best” lists when we get to year’s end. It is timely, beautiful, informative, and exceptionally profound. I loved it.
Timely? Did you know that this coming Maundy Thursday (April 9th) is the 75th anniversary of the martyrdom of the great German anti-Nazi leader, Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Much should be made of this and I hope many will be asking us for biographies of and books by Dietrich B this season. Keys to… isn’t precisely a biography as it is a memoir of an (American) woman who became a curator at the home – the haus – of Bonhoeffer in Berlin. It is a look into his world by way of being in his neighborhood and, literally, his house. In a way, this is an ideal window into the man and his role in history for those that don’t want to wade through a major, chronological biography.
Beautiful? Oh my, I should describe this with vivid and glowing words but cannot do this lovely book justice. Fabrycky is a very fine writer and has given us a book that is intelligent and eloquent and elegant and creative. That she is, in fact, a published poet doesn’t hurt. Those of us who enjoy memoir and creative nonfiction will enjoy these essays that are grounded in her own story, living in Berlin with her diplomat husband and young children, discovering this nearby house, being drawn to it time and time again, eventually learning to be a guide to the tours. We are enthralled as she increasingly feels at home reflecting on the story that is mid-twentieth century Germany, the complicity of the Church with Nazism, and the faithfulness of the underground Confessing Church movement. We learn much about the fidelity of this movement and this particular man who lived in the haus, but it is also (mostly?) the story of Laura’s learning, Laura’s own internalizing of the issues that pressed upon them in those hard years and what it may mean for our own faithfulness in our time, in any time. This makes for reflective writing and she is self-aware and artful in how she shares her story. It makes Keys to Bonhoeffer’s Haus a truly enjoyable and very stimulating reading experience.
I said it was informative. It certainly is because although it is a first-person narrative of the Fabrycky family in foreign service in Germany and Laura’s own coming to grips with what she was learning, she does share, in fact, what she was learning. So it is informative about big stuff – documents that she discovers, paintings, books, and a very clear report of her own study of the history of German culture – and it is informative about little things. For instance, there is a cigarette burn on the famous desk of Bonheoffer in his small bedroom. There is a clavichord there in the corner. (We know how much he loved music and many of us will recall that he commends singing as a body in his classic book Life Together.) She doesn’t just teach us that Bonhoeffer studied and valued music, she informs us about the clavichord. You really do learn a lot from this book, even if you’ve read Bonny’s own books and the standard bios about him.
Key’s To Bonhoeffer’s Haus: Exploring the World and Wisdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is, as I have said, timely, beautiful, and very informative. But it is the fourth trait that I mentioned – its profundity – that deserves critical conversation and I wish I had room to explore it more: the book is profound and wise and good as the author helps us learn to understand our own complicity in injustices and how we are implicated in the fallenness of our times; further, she deeply knows of the grace of the gospel which not only forgives but calls us all to take up – as her friend Steve Garber puts it – “visions of vocation” as we “weave together belief and behavior.” Or, as Bonhoeffer put it more tersely, as we die to self by taking up “the cost of discipleship.”
The book has been called “part biography, part travel memoir, and part call to action” and it is Fabrycky’s gentle, yet morally serious “call to action” that must be considered. She does not preach or cajole; she is not ideological, left or right. (I simply most note that, as Stephen Haynes explores in his book The Battle for Bonhoeffer: Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump [Eerdmans; $19.99] many Bonhoeffer scholars and fans and biographers are themselves deeply committed to right wing or left wing assumptions and ideologies.)
Ms. Fabrycky is not unbiased, of course (no one is) and she is interested in our civic responsibilities and our public witness, but not merely around this cause or that issue. It is rare, I think, in the way in which the author invites us to allow Bonhoeffer to inform us, to speak to us anew, but profoundly and radically, which is part of the value of this extraordinary book. Her moral imagination has been shaped by other important writers and thinkers, again, making this a book from which you will learn much and be called to much. (What do we do with what we know she asks – especially in an unforgettable reflection on the skilled engineers who improved the efficiencies of the death camps and, of course, her reminder of the famous line by Arendt about the banality of evil.) She knows a bit about our own troubled times and she knows some of what we might discover when we study the details of Bonhoeffer’s life. That is, to put it rather simplistically, this book helps us learn what we do today to be faithful to Bonhoeffer’s legacy. How might we be responsible in our own time in history as he was in his?
As Dr. Victorian Barnett (the general editor of the esteemed Bonhoeffer Works English translation project puts it) Laura Fabrycky “offers a profound and moving reflection on what history can teach us about living mindfully and faithfully.”
I like very much the way Anne Snyder – now the editor of Comment magazine – describes Keys to Bonhoeffer’s Haus:
With self-awareness, vulnerability, humility, and historical rigor, Fabrycky captains a journey that is as engrossing as it is instructive. While Bonhoeffer’s times are not our times, there are echoes worth attending to: his keys to a discernment of public consequence, our keys to private sanity and civic hope.
I could say more, but I do believe this remarkable new book is – at least — timely, beautiful, informative and profound. And that is saying a lot. You should order it today.
Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life W. David O. Taylor (Thomas Nelson) $24.99 I hope you know this vivid author who has written or edited several volumes on the relationship between Christian faith and the arts. He has a few pretty academic titles such as Glimpses of the New Creation: Worship and the Formative Power of the Arts (Eerdmans; $22.00) and The Theater of God’s Glory: Calvin, Creation and the Liturgical Arts (Eerdmans; $30.00.) I raved here at BookNotes several times about his important, co-edited volume Contemporary Art and the Church: A Conversation Between Two Worlds (IVP Academic; $30.00.) I often tell people that his For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts (Baker; $20.00) ought to be in the hands of every pastor and church leader; it’s a great collection of talks by the likes of Andy Crouch, Jeremy Begbie, Lauren Winner, Luci Shaw and Eugene Peterson. I do hope you at least know that one.
Which bring us to this brand new one, a stunning, fascinating, and very useful commentary on the Psalms (although, I use the word “commentary” a bit lightly.) Perhaps you will recall a beautifully done video that was making the rounds on-line a year or two ago that was a nicely filmed conversation between Bono and Eugene Peterson, all about the Psalms; Taylor was the guy who created that, which gives you a bit of a glimpse into the nature of this very cool book. It has a marvelous foreword by Eugene (maybe the last thing he wrote?) and an afterward by Bono.
(The book is dedicated to the two of them, which is just so great. I suppose you heard the story – Peterson told it to me, personally – that the first time the great rock star called him to talk, he didn’t take the call because he didn’t know who he was and wondered about that funny name. Who doesn’t take a personal call from Bono? Ha.)
Bono has long loved the Psalms and David Taylor captures this fabulous blend of Peterson’s pastoral wisdom about praying these ancient prayers and Bono’s edgy sense of performing them and drawing strengths from them and offers this upbeat stew in this great new book.
Open and Unafraid is like that, appreciated by a wide sort of readership – it has endorsements from some of the world’s leading Old Testament scholars such as Ellen Davis, Walter Brueggemann, and Bruce Waltke, but also from artists and poets like Mako Fujimura, John Michael Talbot, and Malcolm Guite, as well as from all sorts of church leaders, from Reuben Ezemadu (of the Movement for Africa Initiatives) to charismatic Anglican bishop Todd Hunter, to British Vicar Sam Wells to the African- American preacher and Dean of Duke Chapel, Luke Powery, to the contemporary praise and worship leader Matt Redman. No matter who you are or what your faith tradition, I’m sure you will get a lot out of this. It’s a great read!
For the record, let me be direct: I hope you notice that this is a broad and diverse array of folks who with one voice rave about the book, indicating that this really is a contemporary classic with very wide appeal. It takes the Biblical text (in this case poems, songs, prayers) seriously but invites us to live into them in life-sustaining, faithful ways. This is good, good stuff.
And, also for the record: I am always impressed when the extraordinary Calvin Seerveld endorses something. Just listen to this:
This David Taylor book is open and unafraid, because it breathes and sings the grace of God to anybody who reads it, as do the psalms themselves. Open and Unafraid is marinated in God’s psalms, so its testimony is honest and direct, personal and heart-warming, and both magisterial and humble. The learning underneath the writing is worn lightly, and the conversational tone is engaging, opening up the encyclopedic richness of the biblical psalms (also for governments to hear.) The appended questions and exercises for each chapter are truly fruitful and fun. This book has a complete vade mecum character.
Help My Unbelief: 20th Anniversary Edition Fleming Rutledge (Eerdmans) $25.99 I am sure you know of our fondness for the elegant Episcopal preacher, pastor, priest, and, increasingly, respected public intellectual, the Rev. Dr. Fleming Rutledge. We are not alone in having raved about her tour de force, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Eerdmans; $30.00) or her extraordinary, hefty collection of Advent sermons, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ (Eerdmans; $30.00) both which are essential volumes to own. I often say that her The Undoing of Death: Sermons for Holy Week and Easter (Eerdmans; $24.00) is one I read parts of every Holy Week season; I might suggest we need it now more than ever. She has a major book on Lord of the Rings called The Battle for Middle-earth: Tolkien’s Divine Design in “The Lord of the Rings”(Eerdmans; $24.00) which I know she loves and she has several collections of her theologically-rich and often rousing sermons.
This volume (which, as you can surmise, came out in its first edition two decades ago) is one of her anthologies of sermons that are collected to share a common theme. All of her work, in the words of Cornelius Plantinga, “shines with biblical intelligence and pastoral wisdom” but this volume is designed for those who need encouraged, who have doubts and fears and questions. As she puts it in the new preface, Help My Unbelief “speaks directly to the ‘faithful doubters’ and the ‘unbelieving believers’ of the church who wrestle with uncertainties…”
It is not a systematic book of apologetics, for which many of us will be glad. They are sermons, so they accomplish what many of the Q & A books about tough questions or arguments on the existence of God do not: they bring the Word of God fearlessly and beautifully (as Thomas Long put it.) “crackling with and stunning powers of expression”
Listen well to what the Christian Century says of it:
Among the many other blessings it brings, Rutledge’s book helps to restore our confidence that, both as a ministry and as a literary form, there is simply no substitute for good preaching. The need for such preaching is impossible to overstate. If we don’t have the good fortune to hear sermons like this very often, let us at least read them.
One of the curious things about Fleming is how widely she is being read these days. Mainline/liberal denominations claim her, despite her Barthian commitments to Jesus as true Word, and many evangelicals appreciate her. She speaks all over the world for those in various ministry contexts; she has even done a webinar with our friends at the CCO. While journals like The Christian Century rave about her, so does the conservative Baptist Southwestern Theological Journal, who has said of Help My Unbelief,
You will not be able to put this book down. Buy it, read it, and be refreshed in mind and Spirit.”
We would be delighted to get to send out any of Rev. Rutledge’s books as we stock them all. Don’t forget her two on the last words of Christ, the small paperback The Seven Last Words from the Cross ($13.00) and the handsome, compact hardback Three Hours: Sermons for Good Friday ($18.00.) The 20th Anniversary Edition of Help My Unbelief, now in a sturdy hardback, is certainly deserving, rewarding, and a great place to start. For those who are perhaps not inclined to watch preachers on Facebook in these days of quarantining, having some sermons at hand would certainly be wise.
Stories by Willimon William Willimon (Abingdon) $19.99 I still remember the first time I heard Willimon, years ago, at a local preaching workshop. Among other things, he told stories (some true, some embellished, perhaps some invented) and it was utterly, amazingly, captivating. Those that know his award-winning sermons, his lectures, or his lively books, know how he has this exceptional gift of being both a Southern-type storyteller (with down home yarns that will make you laugh out loud or fight back tears) and an learned scholar, able to teach complex theological truths with the help of illustration and teacherly tales. He has long kept alive the habit of finding stories that “will preach” and preach them, he does.
This Stories by Willimon volume is a great paperback – with a handsome cover that tellingly shows us an etching of the famous Biblical sower – that simply collects a whole bunch of Will’s stories. Some are from articles, some are from academic journals, some are extracted from his many books. Most were preached as parts of sermons or homilies.
The stories, tales, anecdotes, and fables are arranged with some coherence (although it would be fun even if they were thrown together haphazardly.) Part One includes stories under the rubric of “Sowers.” Next comes a bunch about “Seeds”, followed by stories of “Senses.” Part Four offers Willimon stories under the heading “Secrets.” Wow. Including the indexes (a useful Scriptural index and a themed index) Stories by Willimon is over 240 pages. It is a joy to dip in to and, I’d think, a valuable resource to own for teachers, preachers, and anyone communicating the gospel to others. Enjoy!
Your Story Matters: Finding, Writing, and Living the Truth of Your Life Leslie Leyland Fields (NavPress) $16.99 This just came and I’ve been looking forward to diving in. I think Leslie is such a very interesting person and such a talented writer we’d read almost anything she did. (That best-selling and esteemed novelist Brett Lott calls it “magical” and “essential” doesn’t hurt either, eh?) She came to our attention when she wrote the brave and truthful Parenting Is Your Highest Calling — And 8 Other Myths That Trap Us in Worry and Guilt (Waterbrook; $14.99) and then when she edited the absolutely exquisite The Spirit of Food: Thirty-Four Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God (Cascade; $32.00), one of my all-time favorite books, ever. Recently she edited The Wonder Years: 40 Women over 40 on Aging, Faith, Beauty, and Strength (Kregel; $15.99), which was put together very nicely and a number of our customers have really found help in her Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers: Finding Freedom from Hurt and Hate (Nelson; $15.99.)
We have gone on to follow all her books, including her popular book vividly describing her own work as a commercial fisherwoman off the coast of Alaska and a trip she took to interview fishermen on the sea of Galilee, called Crossing the Waters: Following Jesus Through the Storms, the Fish, the Doubt, and the Seas published by NavPress; $15.99.)
So, Leslie Leyland Fields is a great storyteller, and in her blog and elsewhere she has honed her craft as a writer, inviting us all to be aware of God’s presence in the mundane things of life, and to discern our own particular callings and vocations.
This book promises to do at least three things (besides surely being an entertaining and captivating read.) First, she reminds us that our lives unfold as a narrative; that is, we live out a story. And – I hope you see this coming – she shows that we can be aware that our lives find their meaning in the broader context of the “grander story of God.” That is, this book helps us understand our lives and tell about how we see God’s story enmeshed in our own. In this regard, I suspect it is something like a favorite of many Hearts & Minds customers, the great To Be Told: God Invites You To Coauthor Your Future by Dan Allender.
The third thing that Leslie Field’s Your Story Matters does – and this is what sets it apart and, I think, will make is really, really helpful for some of us – is that it is also a guide to being a good writer. In other words, this is, finally, a book about crafting a spiritual memoir.
I am eager to explore this and am sure many will enjoy it, whether we are actually writing a memoir or not. I looked at her bibliography and it includes a magnificent listing of superior spiritual memoirs (including a few that, I swear, we have stocked for years but few know about, such as Kathleen Finneran’s memoir of grief called The Tender Land, the gorgeously raw In the Wilderness by Kim Barnes, and our friend Margie Haack’s lovely story of growing up poor in Minnesota, The Exact Place) as well as some marvelous, better known books by memoirists such as Annie Dillard, Lauren Winner, Madeleine L’Engle, Thomas Lynch, Brennan Manning, Kathleen Norris, C.S. Lewis, Nora Gallagher, Nancy Mairs, Frederick Buechner, and so many more. I grinned and grinned when I saw this list.)
Catherine McNiel is a recent, young writer we like a lot, author of a great book about mothering called Long Days of Small Things and the recent best-seller, All Shall Be Well: Awakening to God’s Presence in His Messy, Abundant World.
Listen to what she says about Your Story Matters:
Whether you consider yourself a writer or are just beginning to find your story, I cannot imagine a more inviting mentor than Leslie Leyland Fields. The book you hold in your hands will take you on a journey. I’m convinced you’ll find your voice, and the tools to use it, along the way.
By the way, here is a delightful DVD compliment to this fascinating book. Your Story for His Glory: The Companion DVD to Your Story Matters (Navpress; $19.99.) This is an 8-week curriculum (anybody doing home-schooling for teens; maybe this will inspired the sorts of self-reflection and inspiration needed to take up the art of writing well.) The DVDs featured the upbeat and impassioned teaching by Leslie Fields and includes some special guests like Ann Voskamp and 20 other writers, some of whom you surely know. Best of all, it is set in her visually-striking Alaskan landscape, so it is entertaining and, dare I say, awe-inspiring on a number of levels. Very nicely done.
What the trailer here and you’ll see more about what the book does and how fun the DVD will be. We have it at 20% off, of course.
Living In An Icon: A Program for Growing Closer to Creation and to God Robert Gottfried & Fredrick Krueger (Church Publishing) $12.95 and Living in an Icon Facilitator Guide Jerry Cappell & Robert Gottfried; $8.95 I wasn’t going to make a lot of direct mentions of our CoVid crisis, but this really is a sweet idea, isn’t it? Since we must be practicing “social distancing” and even quarantining, many of us should consider making our way to the out of doors for a bit. This book can help us be a bit intentional about listening to lessons creation night offer; the Bible actually commands, that, you know. (One of my favorite and mysterious verses is in Job where God says (in Job 12:8) that the earth will teach us and to “listen to the fish.” Uh-huh. Maybe you saw the viral video of the pastor teaching about Jesus’ instructing us to pay attention to the birds why he was holding a duck. I’m not kidding when I suggest that that’s taking the Bible seriously.
So, “Finding God in Nature” is not a cliché or silly notion, but a Biblically instructed pathway to sensing God’s glory. I needn’t rehearse all this, now, but it is true. And, even before the novel virus, there have been bunches of books lamenting our disconnect with the created world. One of our biggest selling Lent books this season, by the way, from our previous Lenten list, has been Wild Hope: Stories for Lent from the Vanishing by Gayle Boss, with art from David Klein, published by Paraclete Press ($19.909.) These sorts of books are appealing for a reason, I think – most of us know the creation itself is groaning as it says in Romans 8. Maybe in these hard days, using the insights offered by Gottried and Krueger will be a blessing to your soul.
Again, to be clear, this recent book invites us not exactly to the practices and politics of stewardly care for creation, but guides us into actually experiencing awe and wonder and reverence and humility and such. Again, catch the beautiful, suggestive title and promising sub-title: Living In An Icon: A Program for Growing Closer to Creation and to God. Maybe you need this now.
The very nice Facilitator’s Guide is ideal for group use but could be adapted, now, perhaps, for your own solitary use. It has session plans and models, including a 21-week extended practice. This will give a boost to your spiritual disciplines, I’m sure. Dr. Gottfried, by the way, is the Director of the Center for Religion and the Environment at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee where he developed the center’s highly successful certificate program in Contemplation and the Care for Creation. Frederick Krueger has been active in ecumenical creation care work for years and as an Orthodox Christian co-founded (along with Orthodox theologian Vincent Rossi) the “Opening the Book of Nature” program upon which this book’s approach is based.
Engaging the World with Abraham Kuyper Michael R. Wagenman (Lexham) $12.99 The author of this lovely little paperback, who got his PhD at the University of Bristol, first came to my attention in his chapter in a very important anthology about Kuyper and the implications of a Kuyperian worldview called On Kuyper: A Collection of Readings on the Life, Work & Legacy of Abraham Kuyper, edited by Steve Bishop & John H. Kok (Dordt College Press; $36.00.) Wagenman is now the Christian Reformed Church chaplain at Western University (in London, Canada). He also teaches theology at Western and New Testament at Redeemer University College (Ancaster, Ontario.) I am so glad to remind you of this again (it isn’t terribly new) as it is such a fine introduction to how some of us tend to think about cultural engagement. It is the second in a handsome little series called “Lived Theology” and serves not only as a guide to thinking about our role in various spheres of culture in faithful, fruitful ways but it is, obviously, a great introduction to the life and thought and social vision of the famous Dutch theologian turned statesman and Prime Minister of Holland.
If you follow BookNotes carefully you know that this Dutch scholar, pastor, activist and politician (who became Prime Minister in the early part of the 20th century with a distinctively Christian political movement that honored pluralism for all) has been somewhat of an influence on us here. Our desire to create a Christian bookstore that carries books on the arts and sciences, on business and ecology, on sexuality and architecture, on prayer and politics, comes from this worldview-ish claim that Christ is redeeming “every square inch” of his good but fallen creation. For serious folks, James Bratt’s big volume Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Eerdmans; $43.50) is the classic biography of Kuyper the Dutch pastor, cultural activist, journalist, educator, and politician. For most of us – and I often beg people to read this little gem – Richard Mouw’s Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction (Eerdmans; $16.00) is the must-read introduction.The best introduction to the broader themes of this neo-Calvinist /reformational movement is the splendid hardback Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition: A Systematic Introduction by Craig Bartholomew (IVP Academic; $40.00.) I’m not very good at it, or slavishly loyal to this particular theological tradition, but I often tell folks that this explains a good part of what we are about here at the bookstore. And why we think reading widely and caring about the world is fundamentally religious activity. And, I suppose, why I am not always fully content with my zealous friends on the right or the left — always seeking some uniquely Christian embodiment of Biblical norms or principles, lived out with gusto “in the world but not of it.” But I digress.
Here is, now, another introduction, even more brief and perhaps accessible than Professor Mouw’s good one. Wagenman’s little book, Engaging the World with Abraham Kuyper, is not really a biography or introduction to Kuyper’s colorful life but is specifically a guide to how we might live “in but not of” the modern world, taking cues from Kuyper’s interesting theology and robust social theories.
If you are troubled by the far Christian right or the so-called Christian left, if you sometimes despair of finding a third way that somehow captures a Christ-like alternative to the culture wars without opting out of the vocation to live for the sake of the world, this introduction to Kuyperian public theology is accessible and generative. I don’t know if he is right about every detail of Kuyper’s thinking and I am pretty sure most of us don’t want to be dogmatic about legalistic asking “What would Father Abraham do?” (Although, geesh, in these days, it might not hurt.) This guide is a good window into creative options and a step towards a recovery of older ways of leaning into the issues of the day. Highly recommended.
By the way – just a little heads up. This June we will be raving about a really, really interesting and important book exploring Kuyper’s views of what is sometimes called in neo-Calvinist circles, ‘common grace’ by the aforementioned Richard J. Mouw. It will be called All That God Cares about: Common Grace and Divine Delight (Brazos Press; $21.99) and it is very much a sequel, or extension, of his previous (2002) book on common grace called He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace (Eerdmans; $15.50.) There are a few surprises in this forthcoming Mouw one, and we’ll be telling you more later this Spring. You can, of course, as always, PRE-ORDER it now. 20% OFF, too.
For now, why not prep yourself by buying a couple of books about Father Abraham? Engaging the World with Abraham Kuyper is a fine place to start. 20% off, too.
Defiant: What the Women of Exodus Teach Us About Freedom Kelley Nikondeha (Eerdmans) $17.99 We were blown away by the wit and wisdom and radical insight from Kelley Nikondeha shown in her first book Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World (Eerdmans; $16.99) where she shared her own cross-cultural and multi-ethnic family story – she married a man from Burundi, and lives much of the year in Africa, where they adopted two children – as an entry and context for doing Biblical and theology reflection about belonging. This move from experience to Scripture and back, writing fascinating personal narrative that leads to deepened insight into the Bible’s relevance – in that case about being adopted by God and accepted into God’s family and all the implications of that inclusive theology — characterizes this brand new one, too.
Indeed, Ms. Nikondeha starts Defiant with a multi-layered story about her mother, about women in the church of her girlhood, and about a somewhat odd and broken friend of the family (which scholars might call a marginalized woman) and how liberating it was to see her mother join hands and facilitate this woman’s new life of wholeness and freedom. Liberation, indeed!
Who doesn’t know that liberation is a major theme of Exodus (that shows up over and over in law and prophets, Hebrew prose and poetry, gospels and epistles!)
But did you know (surely you do, but I suspect most of us haven’t paid enough attention) that some of the key actors in the liberation drama played out in God’s Holy Word in Exodus are women.
As it says on the back cover:
If it weren’t for the women in the Exodus narrative, there would be no Moses, no crossing of the Red Sea, and no story of breaking the chains of slavery. On both sides of the Nile, women exhibited a subversive strength to defy Pharaoh and lead an entire people to freedom.
I trust you know about the work of the (civilly disobedient) midwives, of Jochebed, of Pharaoh’s daughter, of the brave young sister Miriam, and the older one who danced about the political victory years later. And, of course, Zipporah. Kelley is right to say “These women created the conditions for liberation over decades. They saved Moses and they taught him what liberation practices look like.”
Defiant: What the Women of Exodus Teach Us about Freedom is written, it seems, to and for women. But guys should read it, too, I am sure. These are women who are described in God’s Word and Nikondeha, a great storyteller and trained Bible scholar, is perfect to help us appreciate them.
Listen to what the very colorful and talented writer Sarah Bessy says in the foreword:
In Defiant, Kelley lays out a feast for us of the truth about biblical womanhood: the resistance, the strength, the civil disobedience, the collaboration, the truth-telling, the drumming, the wit, the holy liberated power of women who know their God…. I believe that this book has important work to do in the world – it could not be more timely, more relevant, more necessary for women to read and understand this story and our place within it.
There are ten great chapters in this wonderfully-written Biblical reflection and some really solid and fascinating footnotes. The author really knows her stuff, tells her own story well (and the stories of others she knows) and, mostly, introduces us, again, perhaps for the first time, to the liberating power of these Biblical sisters who lead us to freedom through practices such as disobedience, relinquishment, leveraged privilege, youthful zeal, mothering, solidarity, sacrament, neighborliness, and by “beating out the rhythms of liberation.” With chapters like each of these, you surely know someone who will resonate with these freedom stories and pregnant insights. The beautiful oil painting on the cover, by the way, is itself worth beholding. It is by Shelby McQuilkin. Order Defiant today.
Spiritual Conversations with Children: Listening to God Together Lacy Finn Borgo (IVP/formatio) $17.00 We just got this great-looking book into the shop and given the stress and hecticness here, I haven’t had time to study it much. But I can tell you three or four quick things at least: firstly, books in the formatio imprint or line of IVP are among the best resources on spirituality being published today. Without fail they are well written and thoughtful, Biblical and grounded yet relevant and upbeat. Some are a bit more mystical than others, but all are rooted in the broad stream of contemplative spirituality and transformational practices seeking to nurture people into the ways of Jesus. This new book — on listening for and to God with children! — is in that formatio line, so you should know we trust it. I’m sure it is theologically reliable and well written.
It is not surprising, then, that Richard Foster writes about it glowingly, mentioning its “gripping story and vivid metaphor.” If he recommends it, that give you a good hint, eh?
Secondly, I can tell you that this author is herself remarkable. Check out her bio, here:
Lacy Finn Borgo serves on the Renovaré US ministry team (that is the spirituality ministry founded by Richard Foster.) She holds a doctor of ministry degree in leadership and spiritual formation and a certificate in spiritual direction from Portland Seminary, where she also teaches classes on spiritual direction and spiritual formation. In addition to her practice with adults, she provides spiritual direction for children at a place called Haven House. a transitional housing facility for homeless families. Lacy also wrote some fabulous devotional / curriculum guides for children and families that we stock called Good Dirt. ($15.99 each.)
By the way, we’ve got all three:
- Good Dirt: Advent, Christmastide & Epiphany
- Good Dirt: Lent, Holy Week & Eastertide
- Good Dirt: Kingdomtide
Thirdly, I know from a quick skim and the footnotes that she is well schooled in the best thinking about spiritually and children, about play and Christ-centered inner transformation, about the Bible and intergenerational learning. That is, she cites Sofia Cavalletti and of course “Godly Play” founder Jerome Berryman. She cites David Csninos and Ivy Beckwith’s Children’s Ministry in the Way of Jesus (IVP; $20.00) and other recent works, like Catherine Stonehouse and Scottie May’s important Listening to Children on the Spiritual Journey (Baker; $24.00.) It went to press before it came out, but I’d love to know if she appreciates Elizabeth Caldwell’s brand new Wondering about the Bible with Children: Engaging a Child’s Curiosity about the Bible (Abingdon; $19.99.) Anyway, Lacy Borgo knows her stuff and — what will become obvious from even a minute with this book — she loves children, and trusts them. She knows what Jesus says about that and she seems to have taken it to heart.
Fourthly, this book isn’t primarily an academic treatise on faith formation in children or even about children’s ministry as such. It truly is just what the title promises: it is about listening for God’s voice, sensing God’s presence, becoming shaped by an encounter with God’s love, with kids. It is about being what she calls a “listening companion” with children and she offers some skills and suggestions on how to do that. In a way, this is about doing spiritual direction with children. We were delighted to have it come in to the store this week and we are sure it is going to be considered a major contribution to the literature in this field and a beloved resource for anyone who cares about the spiritual lives of our little ones.
The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success Ross Douthat (Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster) $27.00 I trust you know of Mr. Douthat, the outspoken and vibrant conservative columnist for the New York Times (and before that, senior editor of The Atlantic.) Douthat has written books such as Bad Religion (with the telling subtitle How We Became a Nation of Heretics (The Free Press; $17.00) where he critiques the less than adequate and often less than orthodox thinking prevalent in mainline liberal congregations, in high-energy evangelical churches, and in his own Roman Catholic world. The brilliant Alan Jacobs says of it, “Bad Religion is superb: sharply critical of the amazing variety of American religious pathologies, but fair; blunt in diagnosis, but just; telling a dark tale, but telling it hopefully. For those trying to understand the last half-century or more of American religion, and to strive for a better future, it is an indispensable book.”
Agree or not with Jacobs (or the Times assessment which called it a “lively convincing argument”) Douthat is, as a writer, as another reviewer put it, “probing and perceptive.” I think that is fair and a good description of this new one.
This new one, called The Decadent Society, is also a very well written analysis, so well-penned that the Wall Street Journal says it was written, “beautifully, with rare lyricism.”
The main case this book makes (in 250 erudite pages) is one that it seems the prophetic left and the conserving right might both agree upon: our modern world has been greedy and driven, eroding conventional values that might sustain a decent culture and this has causes a malaise; as Bruce Cockburn put it one of his popular songs, “The Candy Man’s Gone.” It was Marx, I suppose, who said that in late capitalism “everything solid melts into air.” That’s one way of putting it.
The left tends to decry the decadence of the opulent wealthy, of Trump and his type. The right, at least the older, classic sort, similarly warned against such worldly ways. It was the serious thinker Os Guinness who posited a “gravedigger” thesis, that we, relying upon our own skill and power, our technical prowess and marketing ingenuity. will suppose we no longer need God, hence, digging our own graves.
The Decadent Society, many BookNotes readers will be interested to know, has its roots in lectures given by Douthat at Regent College in Vancouver, BC several years back. That’s the place where any number of thoughtful, vital evangelicals work to form a unique learning community that isn’t exactly a seminary, but a life-giving Christian graduate school. (A few names you might know who have been involved there include James Houston, Paul Stevens, Marva Dawn, Eugene Peterson, Luci Shaw, and, for the last two years, Steve Garber. One of my favorite Walter Brueggemann books was first given as lectures there.)
And so, this is a remarkable thesis by Douthat, explored carefully and colorfully – it isn’t every book that cites sociologists and public intellectuals like Robert Bellah or Mark Lila or Thomas Piketty as well as pop culture icons like Back to the Future or Mad Men next to citations of classic literature, theology, and philosophy. I really like these kinds of intellectually stimulating works that are not dry and stuffy. I like that it moves deeply to the spiritual malaise we experience, including a symptom that he calls “sustainable decadence.”
“Beneath our social media frenzy and reality-television politics, the deeper reality is one of drift, repetition, and dead ends.” He notes that we live with disappointment and yet we fear catastrophe. This is very interesting stuff (and I have much pondering to do as I continue to read it and consider it) and so I do commend it for your consideration. It may sound pessimistic, but I think it may be very important for the living of these very days.
When Did We Start Forgetting God? The Root of the Evangelical Crisis and Hope for the Future Mark Galli (Tyndale) $16.99 I found this book to be very good and edifying reading, a fascinating reminder of so many things that make me still want to call myself an evangelical. I didn’t always concur with what I might call his pietism — not piety, which is good, of course, but overstating its role. More on that, later, pehaps. We are in confusing times these days, and few BookNotes readers will not know my own frustration – extreme at times – with how some conservative Christians (usually more fundamentalist than evangelical, despite what the media calls them) have so embraced our current President, despite his demonstrable lack of leadership wisdom and any sort of Godly ethic or Christian demeanor. This has given evangelicalism such a bad reputation it has evoked good conversations; I adored Richard Mouw’s must-read Restless Faith: Holding Evangelical Beliefs in a World of Contested Labels (Brazos; $19.99) and often have commended here the especially helpful collection of a variety of angles and voices on the question in Still Evangelical? Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning (IVP; $20.00) in which Mark Galli has a chapter.
However, this social and political crisis facing church members, and particular evangelical folk, is only one small part of the crisis Galli explores; in fact, that crisis is mostly a symptom of a deeper crisis. This is a deeper crisis that certainly faces all sorts of congregations and every theological tradition but Galli writes as an evangelical, mostly for evangelicals. (For many years he was the editor of the movement’s flagship journal, Christianity Today, or CT as it is popularly called.) Despite this specificity, we recommend it for one and all.
The title gives us the obvious big hint of what this is all about – and this is not unrelated to the “gravedigger thesis” popularized by Os Guinness that I alluded to above. Has the evangelical movement with its vast and often effective world-reaching mission agencies, its robust para-church organizations, its publishing empire, its prowess in marketing and media, its mega-churches and ministries and such become so successful that they no longer really need God? It’s a fair question.
I do not agree with some of this book (more on that in a moment.) I think Galli raises very good points – and we need to hear them. One way to explain his major theme is to use the often spoken, nearly clichéd sort of way of putting it: are are we so taken with doing the work of the Lord that we no longer care about the Lord Himself? That is, are we so dedicated (out of earnest and faithful zeal or, perhaps like the Pharisees of old, out of darker dysfunctions) to the mission of God that we have forgotten about God? That is his thesis; that despite good words and even good works, we are fooling ourselves if we think we know God well. I suspect he is sadly right and we need to hear his concern.
Here is what is also good about this. Galli explains how we got into this mess historically in a brief and readable overview of American, mostly evangelical, history, from the colonial era’s Great Awakening to the Second Great Awakening in the early 1800’s, pondering briefly the shift from Edwards to Whitefield to Wesley and their heirs, and, then in the next century to the revival at Cane Ridge onward to the crowd manipulation of Finney and on to the celebrity preachers of today.
Galli gets at this topic of our weak spirituality beautifully, not just assessing the past, but by inviting us to practices and disciplines and dispositions that would foster deeper intimacy with God. It makes very good sense and is indicative of much about the book to have the foreword by the important scholar and evangelical mystic, Richard Foster. Foster’s contribution is short but very impressive.
Another reason this book is useful is that it is not partisan (politically speaking.) He takes swipes at the way many in the church have accommodated themselves to the worldview and attitudes and habits and values of either the far right or the far left; he does not deny that faith informs our public lives or that we need to be outspoken agents of public justice, but he laments when we becomes firstly given to ideologies (of the left or the right.) But, again this is not the primary theme of the book; go to John Fea’s Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Eerdmans; $18.99) for that sort of study. Rather, Galli is wondering what is behind such secularizing accommodation; how did Bible believing Christians end up so far astray in so many ways? It is, he believes (get this!) our evangelical fascinating with transformation. This is really surprising and pretty darn interesting!
Since I am one who likes to say I’m somewhat informed by the broad scope of the teaching of Dutch Reformed neo-Calvinist Abraham Kuyper, who famously talked about “every square inch” of creation being claimed and transformed by Christ, I do not find Galli’s analysis of cultural critics like Newbigin or contemporary missional thinkers (like Christopher Wright) compelling. I don’t even agree with his assessment of Rauschenbusch and the so-called “social gospel’ although he is fair and reasonable about that. But that is for another review. I mention my disapproval of how he talks about social engagement and cultural reformation (wishing he’d grapple with the doctrine of the cultural mandate, for instance) even as I realize he is on to something.
Evangelical churches, like more mainline churches a generation or so ago, sans a full-orbed public theology, tend to think the local congregation must do everything – offer counseling, start schools, serve the poor, get involved as citizens, start gardens, amplify the arts, create businesses, even. Pastors these days are sometimes expected to be entrepreneurs. Galli is mostly right (and it is, actually, a Kuyperian insight): the church should do what the church is firstly called to, and allow God’s scattered people – both called and sent – to live Kingdom lives in all that they do. It sounds to me like Galli privileges the location and ministry of the local gathered church over ways and places to know God and experience God in service throughout the day in other spheres and callings, and I don’t think that is helpful or faithful. Is worship more spiritual than work? Is prayer more spiritual than politics? The Bible, I am sure, says no, our knowledge of God is dependent on our doing of justice, just for instance. (See Jeremiah 22:16 or, obviously, Isaiah 58.) Galli doesn’t seem to have a very well developed theology of the Kingdom of God, and, in fact, talks a bit about how some recent thinkers overestimate that theme.
It is my sense that often those who fail on the centrality of the theme of the Kingdom may not have an adequate view of creation itself. For Galli, at times, it seems like the telos of life is to be one with God. Which, of course, is not what the Bible says: our longed for ending is a restoration of all things, a re(new)ed creation. Yes, where God dwells, but it is substantive, with trees and animals and swords that are now plowshares, and other people, too, a new multi-ethnic humanity in the healed cosmos. This is the problem with both medieval mysticism and evangelical pietism: it is finally almost Gnostic. It is my conviction that one must never downplay creation in order to find God; God will not allow such disdain for his beloved handiwork. To love God one must love what God loves, it is as simple as that. Here’s what I’d say to Mr. Galli at this point: skip the beatific vision stuff and use the language the Bible itself uses: the Kingdom of God and the new.heavens and new Earth.
Still, he is right: the church, as church, should help us to worship well. And to do that we need God. It is no surprise he often cites the no-nonsense sobriety and non-sentimental gospel clarity of Eugene Peterson. We need God, not a feeling of God.
Mark Galli’s practical suggestions in this good book are remarkable. You have to read his section calling for pastors to declare a moratorium on sermon illustrations about themselves! He talks about Sabbath, he has a chapter about confession, he has a chapter called “Whatever Happened to Communion?”) He is a higher-church Anglican so he helps us realize the value in richer, thicker liturgy. (He doesn’t cite James K.A. Smith, which he should have (he has a whole section on shaping desire) but he writes about everybody from Thomas Aquinas to Hans Boersma to Julian of Norwich. Anybody that quotes St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s On Loving God deserves a hearing in my view anyway. In all of this he draws on great Christian writers and helpful congregational stories to help all of us re-focus our gaze on God, in Christ, through the Scriptures and sacraments. When Did We Start Forgetting God is, as Tish Harrison Warren concisely says, “Helpful, rich, and vital for any who care about the church.”
After an editorial in which CT editors called for President Trump’s impeachment, many conservative evangelicals, fundamentalists, rigorously “Truly Reformed”, and Pentecostals went wild in snarky protest. One well-educated leader said he might vote for Trump next time just out of spite against CT. A few people said the rag went downhill under Galli, who, I guess they thought, was not adequately evangelical: he held membership and ordination in the PC(USA) for years, he ended up slightly charismatic and then liturgical (having written a book for Paraclete Press called Beyond Smells and Bells: The Wonder and Power of Christian Liturgy ($16.95) and he even did an introduction on Eerdmans for evangelicals on the life and teaching of Karl Barth (Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals (Eerdmans; $18.00.)For many evangelical and fundamentalist elites, I guess, that’s way too liberal. Alas, he has done bunches of others books, too including dear ones on the person of Jesus and on the work of the Holy Spirit and on the attributes of God.
Well, here, Galli shows how all that comes together – he is interested in culture, in theology, in worship, in mission; he calls us to prayerfulness, to deep expressions of faith and to solid service to our neighbors and our world. He wants to recover our understanding of the gospel, surely. He wants to place evangelical renewal within the broader context of God’s on-going work throughout church history, of which he has a good grasp and teacherly style. But there is nothing more urgent or more central, he says, for the Christian person and for the institutional church, than putting God first. He insists we in the evangelical church – those who of all people make a big deal about knowing about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ – have a crisis and it is a God crisis. When Did We Start Forgetting God: The Root of the Evangelical Crisis and Hope for the Future isn’t perfect, but it will help, I am sure.
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